So there is no misunderstanding, this blog isn't just another ex-pat site full of information and miscellaneous advice (unless you consider learning through my mistakes and observations a type of advice). My vision for this blog is to let people in on the truth of what it means to live in this crazy and lovable country. If you want to continue glorifying and romanticizing Italy, then some of what I have to say may be hard for you to hear. Consider yourself warned.
Wednesday, June 22, 2011
These Italian Shoes Are Made For Walkin'
There is almost nothing that makes me feel more like an American... no, like a New Yorker... than going for a walk in Italy. I lived in New York City for ten years and during that time walking was a mode of transportation, a way to get from point A to point B. I'm sure I'm not the only New Yorker to develop a kind of personalized walking technique. Mine involved long strides, always looking at least ten feet ahead to allow for maneuvering time, efficient use of crosswalks, keeping to the right of the sidewalk in heavy pedestrian traffic, and using Broadway's diagonal trajectory as a kind of worm hole through Manhattan space-time. The rules of NYC pedestrian etiquette are many and unspoken, which is why to an Italian tourist, suddenly thrown into the swarm of millions of seasoned city walkers all at once, I know that it comes across as chaotic and stressful. But I guarantee that there is an order and a beauty to it. An order and a beauty that that same Italian tourist will interrupt when he stops at the top of the subway stairs to get his bearings, or when he slows down to look up at the skyscrapers, or when he holds hands with his family of four, forming an impossible-to-pass human chain. You see, he is not walking.... He is going for a passeggiata.
Passeggiata translates literally to “a walk”. But culturally it's so much more than that. It's a social event, it's a date, it's a way to relax. It is, most importantly, NOT just a way to get from here to there. Allow me to explain. On a summer night, after dinner, people may go for a passeggiata. If they live in a small town that means they'll stroll through the town piazza, chat with neighbors, get some ice cream, stop on a bench to look at the stars. If they live in a city it means they'll people watch in the windy streets, enjoy the music of street performers, buy watermelon from a vendor, relax on the steps of a fountain. Sure they may stop at a pub for a drink or decide to get some tiramisù at a sidewalk cafè, but that is all part of the passeggiata.
A passeggiata can also be a hike through the woods or a day spent exploring nearby towns. It can be for exercise, to kill time before a movie, or to help you digest a big meal. It can be a solitary, meditative moment, a romantic date, or a group excursion with friends. There are no rules for the passeggiata save for one: there is almost NEVER a clear cut route or destination. And that is the very part that I struggle with.
In New York I was a walker. I would regularly link together various errands, creating a strategic and efficient connect-the-dots of streets and avenues. I might glance in shop windows as I passed, but for the most part I was focused on my next goal and on getting there as quickly as possible. If I was going to the pharmacy, I was going to the pharmacy. If I was going to the park, I was going to the park. What I passed on the way was of little importance, partly because New York City “landscapes” tend to be repetitive and lacking in what I consider pause-worthy wow factor, but mostly I think because the “goal habit” is hard to break.
Either this is just how I'm programmed or living in New York City for ten years has really taken its toll, but it turns out that I now have no idea how to go for a simple pleasure stroll. I need a destination and I need it bad. Often on my husband's day off he will propose going for a passeggiata somewhere and I truly wish that I could muster more enthusiasm for something that I know he enjoys so much. But tragically, the idea of wandering for the sake of wandering does not stimulate us in similar ways.
The difference between walking and passeggiare is evident not only in our perspective on nature walks, but also in the way we walk through the city streets. I'll never forget the first time I showed my husband my Manhattan walk, the walk that I had been forced to stifle for months. I released myself into it, like a strong dog finally being let off her leash, and when after several moments I finally turned to see his reaction I found him about twenty meters behind me, bewildered and running to catch up. I immediately slowed back down and have gradually been losing that walk ever since. It's just not feasible in a country of passaggiata-ers.
Ultimately my question is this: Is it an Italian vs. American difference or is it a world vs. Jessica difference? I find it hard to imagine that I'm the only one and am inclined to believe that this must come from having grown up in the instant-gratification-seeking, summer-blockbuster-watching, reading-the-last-page-of-a-book-first (I don't actually do that) turn of the millenium American culture. It's a journey vs. destination way of living life. It's the difference between working to live and living to work. And when I think about it like that I obviously choose the former.
It's now officially summer which is prime passeggiata season. Down in Rome the evening street fairs along the river and under Castel Sant'Angelo will be in full swing every night while all of the small towns in our area will start having their own individual weekend festivals, complete with truffle tastings, fried pizza, and group dances at sunset. Outside our house the temperature will be mild in the early evening when the jittery silhouettes of bats start swooping low in the sky and the subtle scent of jasmine hangs on every breeze. When my husband suggests that we go for a passeggiata, maybe get some ice cream, I will have to overcome that old familiar feeling that without a point B there's no reason to walk away from point A, because by now I should realize that I'm always so happy when I do.