My Experiences in Italy:
Letter Home #1

September 11, 1997

Dear Mom, John and Phoebe,

I have been here in Italy for less than a week and a half, yet I feel like I've lived through a wide range of new experiences already. It definitely seems to be the beginning of an eye-opening, boundary-stretching, perspective-changing four months. Before I left, the few associations with Italy in my mind were rather stereotypical: Hopefully my perceptions of the Italian culture and country will become more complete and realistic (as accurate as some of my expectations may have been), rounding out into three-dimensional form.

Let me tell you about Parma and my experiences here so far. This city of 170,000 people is unlike any American one I have ever seen. First of all, the actual infrastructure seems to be quite different than the typical city, as this one is brimming with preserved history, with its center section blocked off from automobiles. In the smack dab middle of Parma is Via Cavour, a relatively narrow street with only pedestrians, bicycles riders and moped riders. The street is level with the sidewalks, yet they are distinguished by their different materials; the center is constructed of square cobblestones, while the sides are smooth gray stone. Along these sides are many elegant shops, showing their chic wares in the shiny window displays: shoes, furniture, jewelry, lingerie, clothing, bread, books and more. "Saldi," say some signs posted in windows, advertising sales designed to entice consumers into the small stores.

Above the shops are additional levels where people live -- stories of tall windows, many with slated shutters. The colors of the buildings complement each other with their radiating stucco in tones of delicious salmon, butter, saffron, almond and peach; these hues glow golden in the afternoon sunlight. The architecture obviously has history, as I see beautiful (and sometimes ornate) designs along the corners and over doorways. Three-dimensional reliefs and angels don the sides of some buildings, giving life to inanimate constructs.

Many young Parmesans walk Via Cavour, creating an energetic arena of socialization -- an urban valley of men and women, boys and girls, friends and lovers, groups and individuals -- to talk, meet, show off and scope. Here in Parma, I feel surrounded by style. As I watch the people around me, I am particularly struck by their lack of casualness (usually), their careful attention to appearances, and their evident image-consciousness. From what I had heard and read while in the United States, I was expecting style here -- a style one or two notches above American urban centers in terms of formality. I brought a wardrobe that luckily makes me feel comfortable here, with plenty of skirts and dresses, as well as nice shirts and sweaters. It's true that most women I see are wearing skirts or dresses (even while riding bicycles and mopeds), yet many more than I had expected wear pants, most in some tight, fitted form. Albeit older women dress from formally than I'm used to at home, I was surprised to see much of the younger crowd in the latest styles, at the forefront of contemporary fashion. These looks include revealing outfits that display bare tummies, legs and arms. Most men I see are wearing belted slacks or jeans, with wrinkle-free, collared, button-up shirts, some with jackets and/or ties.

I have been very aware of shoes here, always conscious of peoples feet. Italian shoes strike me as extremely elegant and proportionally balanced and shaped. The shoes I've seen have had characteristics that cover a wide range: leather, black, shiny, smooth, tan, platform, nutty-brown, suede, toe-baring, thin-strapped, wooden-soled, tailored, white, narrow, pointy-toed, clothes-matching, booted, high-heeled, laced, Mary Jane, Multi-colored, flat, buckled, feminine, masculine, stiletto, professional, and most distinctly Italian. Being surrounded by such style has made me very conscious of my own clothing choices (which is quite a contrast to my attitude when I am in the U.S.). I want to blend in, to assimilate into Italian culture, to understand the mentality here and to not look like a foreigner. But sometimes that is difficult. Yes, it is an exciting excuse to dress up more fashionably and formally than usual, but it is also a real change for me. As Wallis Wilde-Menozzi writes in Mother Tongue, her book about Parma,

"It is a complicated city of masks and narcissistic poses, of caustic undermining irony, sophistication, Epicurean appetites, and earthy realism.... conformity is a long black rope of indeterminate strength tying most people down."

While I can certainly relate to these observations, seeing the truth in them, I am also a little unsure about the meaning, curious to understand more about Parma's ways. How long has the city been filled with such elegance, and how exactly does it relate to conformity? How is this mindset passed from generation to generation?

Mrs. Wilde-Menozzi has lived here for 14 years, possibly giving her time to glean a true comprehension of the culture around her. I looked up her name in the local phone book and easily found her husband's name and phone number; I called her, and we talked, setting up a date to meet and talk! I'll get to ask her questions this very week. This exchange is an example of the accessibility of true personal relations in Parma. While over 170,000 Parmasans live within the city limits, there seems to be a web of familiar connections, recognition of faces and names between those who spend their time here.

Family is an important part of Italian life and culture. I already feel like I have an established role in the Pusateri household, my temporary host family whom I really love. Comprised of a married couple and their 4-year old daughter, we live in an apartment on Borgo S. Giordani, in the center of the city (only about a 5-minute walk from Via Cavour and just a little longer to the Piazza Garibaldi -- a true gathering place). Raimondo is the father and husband, a teacher at a nearby art school, as well as an artistic "stand" designer, hiring himself out freelance. He is short and balding, wearing glasses, age 46 or so, with a round belly and a caring heart. He speaks with many gestures and is totally enthusiastic to help me with anything I need. Luisa is Raimondo's wife who does not have a job outside the home; she is younger than him, in her early 30's. She is very beautiful and a lot of fun, and I feel comfortable around her. They have a daughter named Michela who is a riot, constantly talking, shouting, singing, smiling and laughing, full of energy and life. I wish I could communicate more with her -- sometimes she'll come up to me and start jabbering away, 90 miles an hour, not quite able to fathom my lack of linguistic understanding. She has taught me a number of words though. We watch Italian cartoons together, teaching each other vocabulary in inglese e italiano.

My language comprehension has improved dramatically since I first got here. On the airplane ride from Chicago to Milan, I remember having a slight panic attack as the pilot announced that we were only twenty minutes away from landing. It finally started to sink in that I would truly be immersed in a new reality and that I had no knowledge of their language. I kicked myself for not having learned more over the summer, and I flipped through my traveler's books of Italian phrases and useful words. I attempted to cram the basics into my memory before having to face the airport scene: "Non parlo italiano." "Per favore." "Grazie." "Dove sono I servizi?" "Quanto costa?"

The airport experience was easier than I had expected since it required few interactive dialogues. It wasn't until I met Raimondo, Luisa and Michela that my communication fears really manifested. As I sat in the back seat of their little car (which is quite an experience in itself, let me tell you), I felt like I was underwater with a bunch of fish who felt totally comfortable talking to each other in the form of bubbles. I wasn't able to understand anything they said, or to communicate my thoughts to them.

My first few days in Parma were full of learning, as the immersion forced me to acquire the basics. Sitting around the table in la cucina, both Luisa and I constantly looked up words in our translation dictionaries in order to help each other understand the fundamental ideas we needed to articulate. While I couldn't even come close to forming sentences (let alone grammatically correct ones), I quickly retained some essential nouns and expressions, as well as a number of verbs that I usually used in the infinitive form.

Raimondo speaks Italian very quickly, all his words running together like a long musical piece without any pauses. Yet he also uses so many gestures, acting out his words like a mime on stage, that it helps me to understand what he's trying to express. He also takes advantage of a translation technology I had never seen before, built into their television. Remote control in hand, Raimondo can spell out any Italian word, and the program will then pop an English Dutch, Spanish or French translation up onto the screen.

The TV is located on the counter of the kitchen, next to the sink, facing the table. It is constantly on, even through meals; thus it's easy to tap into the translation program. About 90% of the time I spend with my family is in the kitchen, usually sitting around the table. Raimondo e Luisa are both wonderful chefs, making all sorts of delizioso foods. What flavors! The first night here they fed me Parmesan cheese and Prosciutto ham (of course, since that's what Parma is known for). The tastes were exquisite in a rich and deep way, the textures were delicate and hearty at the same time. And speaking of amazing foods, the gelato (ice cream) here is divine, tasting to me like a substance of heaven. You can see people all over the city carrying around their gelato, shaped like large flowers balanced on cones, with layers of smooth petals, in shiny flavors of crema, nutella, cioccolato, fràgola, bacio and more. The first time I tasted it was down near the Baptistry, out in the warm sunlight of the square. As I took a bite of my velvety nutella gelato, my spoon felt refreshingly icy cold against my tongue. With each bite I tasted ecstasy, the nutty sweetness slipping across my lips and down my throat in comforting richness. It was at that time that I discovered why, no matter what time of the day you are there, Parma’s center streets are always filled with gelato-licking consumers.

It was in that same center area of Parma where I first entered the city's famous Baptistery and cathedral last Thursday, September 4th. Like the sweetness of gelato, the Baptistery can be compared to a giant "noble's cake offered for consumption by the eyes of the people" (Wilde-Menozzi, p.11), five stories of pink marble in an octagonal shape. Begun in the late 12th century, the inside is a jaw-dropping spectacle of 3-D reliefs and colorful frescoes. I definitely want to go back to examine it further.

The cathedral is very close to the Baptistery, next door, both forming two of the four sides to the Piazza Duomo in front of them. I had no idea what to expect before walking into the religious building, but I was blown away. The ornate details and grandiosity of the inside were unlike anything I had ever laid eyes upon, the ceiling and walls covered in painted figures. I sat in the back on a wooden bench for an hour, simply observing the spectacle in front of me and jotting down my thoughts. It was practically silent; all I could hear were the squeaky footsteps of shoe soles against smooth ancient marble. The temperature was much more fresco than the afternoon sun outside; the marble floor and stone columns seemed to retain a refreshing, solemn coolness.

I noticed that a number of the silently entering spectators made the motions of crossing themselves as they walked inside. I realized I didn't know much about that motion with the hands (touching shoulders, heart and head) -- its origin or meaning. What role does religion, Catholicism especially, play in the lives of Italians? Of Parmesans? These questions, as well as many others, bubbled up as I sat there in contemplation: What do these colorful figures on the walls and ceiling represent to a Catholic? How long did it take to create this place? Who paid for it, and how did they feel justified spending that much money? How does this church look and feel different now than when it was first completed? What is the size of my body, warm with life and blood, in relation to the enormous, still, cool space inside this cathedral? How many Parmesans are Catholic, and what is the percentage of practicing Catholics? What if all the painted gods and goddesses could come to life and make noise, speaking and moving around? What have they seen within these wall for the centuries they've been here?

Many more questions emerged as I sat there and felt very grateful for the chance to see such a beautiful sacred place, only minutes away from my home, by foot. It made me realize the difference between Parma's history and the American history I'm used to seeing (or not seeing, more accurately). The next few months will be a time full of opportunities, I am hoping, for me to gain a deeper understanding of historical development and the influence of one's past roots, either in the sense of individual (familial) or the identity of your country and/or hometown (culturally).

Today I had a fascinating discussion with Raimondo and Luisa about the Catholic view of creation, of Italy's history and its representation in art, of Christopher Columbus' journeys, and of the Greek influence on Rome. It wasn't until after the full heat of the talking, after the stimulating exchange of ideas, that I realized it all been in Italian. And I had been able to understand it! Sure, I missed a number of words and didn't add as much to the dialogue as I would have liked, but it was extremely satisfying to be able to communicate at that level. Especially when I look back to my frustration with Italiano only a week ago! I feel much more comfortable speaking the language now than when I first arrived. Through the struggle for comprehension in my family and my daily interactions with other people of Parma, I've learned many useful words and grasped a fuller knowledge of the linguistic structure. After three days of language classes at the University campus, I now am able to conjugate the verbs (only in present tense though), use articles, have better pronunciation and use a larger vocabulary.

If only I had more time, you'd be able to read about so many more stories about my experiences here. You'll have to wait for the next letter -- or until I can tell you in person! I will recount my visit to a nearby castle, my night at a discoteca with a group of Italian and American friends; I will tell you about the nearby park, where I attended a young film director's debut showing/acting performance, about the city's bus system, and about the piano concert I heard one night from my room's open skylight. I will tell you about the elaborate feast I had a the Fiore home, the differences in drinking water here, the pleasures of jogging in the historic Parco Ducale, and the brave way I introduced myself to Milan's rugby team. I will tell you about a fascinating writing seminar my group had with Tom Manley, my daily routine of walking through an open marketplace in the morning, and my new passion for farfalle pasta. I have so much to share with you!

Mi piace Parma! I hope you're all doing well in Ashland. È tutto per ora, ma ti scriverò presto.

Saluti affettuosi,

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