Sunday, March 27, 2011


Basilica di Superga
Italy posed the biggest language barrier of my travels thus far. Though I've traveled through many non-English speaking countries, my experiences usually involve hostels filled with English speakers. This time, staying with a family in the northwestern region of Piedmont, I would be alone in my linguistic limitations.

On the train from Switzerland I studied my sister’s phrasebook. In those few hours I memorized key verbs, phrases and conjugation rules. To want. To eat. To sleep. To be. Those four verbs seemed to cover everything I would need in the next week.

We stumbled into the small townhouse my sister once called home laden with hiking backpacks and shoulder bags. I was too worn down from crowded trains and hostels to be overwhelmed by the crowd of family still celebrating the Christmas holiday. I simply stood there watching until from the blur of dark-haired strangers ran a small woman with a firm jaw and flashing eyes.

”Emily!” She embraced my sister, simultaneously scolding her for having been gone so long. Then she saw me.

Mia sorella.” My sister.

Ha fame?” Is she hungry?

I knew that word. “Si,” I replied. Ho fame.”

Rosa, her movements purposeful and exact, quickly assembled an array of food at a small table away from the familial festivities. As I ate, she watched, her arms crossed in satisfaction. She eats so much, she told my sister. Perhaps. My appetite wasn’t extraordinarily large that week but my gratitude was. I had been away from home for months and it felt good to be mothered.

So when I came down with wet hair in the morning I hardly minded when sent back upstairs with a blow dryer before being allowed out of the house. And when marched from piazza to piazza to church to piazza through Torino, I was again a little girl with tired legs mutely taking in cultural experiences beyond my comprehension.

Rosa talked in Italian, gestured and smiled. I understood, I thought. Each piazza had something magnificent that had occurred in its past. Each church had been the sight of revelations, miracles and saintly endeavors. Everything, I knew for sure, was bella. Beautiful.

Later, alone with my sister in our room, I learned what Rosa had really said. As we entered each piazza she declared her fervent desire to live in that particular square. She’d point to an especially attractive locale. Upon leaving each piazza she recanted, unable to fathom leaving her small home and neighbors in Rivalta di Torino. Que bella.

As the evening wore on Giammario started setting up a row of tables covered with vibrant red cloths. Rosa stirred pots while Giammario brought in wood for the fire. I learned how to use a salad spinner. The rhythm of their domesticity was a soothing respite from my arrhythmic life.  


While I stood at the back door, watching the sun pulled ever lower over the distant Italian Alps, friends and family trickled in through the front. Every day in Rosa’s home ends with a host guests sitting down to a long slow meal of simple dishes and small, decadent desserts.

As we sat down to eat (entrees first, salad later) I endeavored to practice my Italian. A tiny dictionary, tucked into my lap, coupled with hours reading Italian children books had worked wonders for my lexicon. Nevertheless, there were only so many things I could say about farm animals and trains. I lapsed into silence. Listening was enough.

Later, I sat at the piano. I had no music but I played what I remembered. When I ran out of pieces I improvised, letting the low, soft melody tumble down over the steady harmonic chords of my left hand. 

Rosa came in the room and stood listening, speaking quietly to my sister. I caught a few words but I didn’t really understand. Or did I? Once I stopped listening for the words and started catching the rise and fall of Rosa’s voice, her frequent gestures and expressive face, I understood quite a lot.

She sighed, as she frequently did, and rested a hand heavily on my sister’s shoulder. Had part of her been missing in the eight years that had passed? Together, one fair, one dark, one thin, one a little rounder, they looked complete.

Que bella.

Palazzina di Caccia di Stupinigi

1 comment: