The Day I Met The Old Italy

As an A to B type person, I've never really understood metaphors. When Mrs. Curran - my ninth grade teacher - told the class that Moby Dick was a metaphor for America, I didn't get it.  So naturally, when I met the Old Italy, I wasn't quick to understand. Truth be told, I didn't understand until last week, five years later.

Five years ago, I was walking through one of Lunigiana's beautiful old stone villages. It was at the high end of its small valley, at an altitude that made life tough in the best of times. The delight of these villages is that the more you walk through them, and the more you know, then the more you see. You see stone carvings whose sophistication progresses through the centuries. You notice that kitchen gardens are tucked in the warmest corner, facing south, next to the wood shed, which, in logical turn, is a step from the back door. There's the stone face above the window to ward off evil. There's damage from the 1920 earthquake. The curious little door in the barn is not for people, but to quickly remove the hay pitchforked down from the hayloft inside. The animal stall is below the living quarters to keep the owners above warmer.  Each old village will illuminate the next.

This village had about eighty houses and six or eight streets. There were only two cars parked at the entrance, and one was foreign. I had seen only a couple of houses restored as second homes; the village was mine to explore. As I walked along, I had seen no people, but then ahead I saw her on a bench. She was an older woman, but not decrepit. She had on a dress that seemed better than you'd expect in this place, at this time of day. She held her head a little askew. As I approached, I made sure my steps were noisy, and I gave my big hearty foreign 'Buon Giorno'. Although I've been coming to Italy for 30 years, I've stopped imagining that I'll ever fit in, so I try to announce forthrightly that I'm foreign, and I'm friendly.

The symbolism of the next few sentences are what took me five years to figure out. She said, in dialect-accented Italian,   'Please talk to me, there's no one here.'  I answered,  'I'm an American.'  She paused and answered,  'I am blind, and there is no one to talk to here.' We exchanged a few sentences about the beautiful day, and the beautiful village, but it only seemed to agitate her. She wasn't accustomed to foreigners and couldn't understand me well. She turned her head away, and I said good-bye.

That's the conversation that has bugged me for five years. This poor lonesome woman was likely the last of her family, and almost the last in her village. Here was the end of an intricate mountain culture, nominally revered, but abandoned by the modern world. Now she's so alone that she can only appeal to a random foreign traveller, a traveller who is seeking the Old Italy, the Italy of stone houses, and cucina povera, and kitchen gardens. I was looking for the Italy of families bound together in a village, living with ancient values, free from the ambitious striving of the modern world.  I encountered the Old Italy I sought that day, and we could not communicate.

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Written by Martha