On sunny Saturday mornings like these I’m reminded of Rome.
I remember sitting in a café in Prati, crumbs of shortbread cookie caught in my sweater, an Italian newspaper sprawled across the bar. I remember the simplicity of such intentionality, rooting myself in a place to observe. Sometimes I’d bring my notebook and write. Mostly I sat and watched, eavesdropping to practice my Italian.
That café had quotes from Voltaire and the movie Shrek covering the walls. I liked the one about going home. I can’t remember to whom it was attributed, but I know I wrote it down somewhere.
I collect quotes. My planner is covered with Post Its; a Spanish proverb: How beautiful to do nothing, and then rest afterwards; Neruda’s “Keeping Quiet”; and Derek Walcott’s “Love After Love”: Sit. Feast on your life. They serve as small reminders to live purposefully.
Italy has taught me many things about how to live with purpose. It unlocked something in me that was light, easy and inspired.
Passing Giambologna’s The Rape of the Sabine Women in Piazza della Signoria in Florence, I sensed the hard-crusted grit of self-loathing dissolving and a vast, comforting spaciousness taking its place. Running along the Arno in the late afternoon as the sun cast soft shadows across the gently rippling water, I was struck by the novel idea that I might be part of something much grander than myself and my thoughts. This realization came gradually but with great conviction. It catalyzed a seismic shift in my worldview and fundamentally transformed my understanding of meaning and beauty.
I returned to Italy three years later, this time to Rome. I wasn’t surprised to feel the same lightness of being stepping off the plane at Fiumicino airport. Walking to baggage claim passing expressive Italians gesticulating wildly to each another, I remember smiling and saying to myself: I’m Home. At the baggage claim, I thought I might levitate off the floor in bliss.
In Italy I naturally fall into a routine that embodies Walcott’s admonishment to feast on life. It’s a place where things pulse with aliveness, where seemingly ordinary places take on an extraordinary quality: That little café in Prati is a sanctuary punctuated by the sounds of the espresso machine and smooth jazz. Quiet walks through Parco Doria Pamphili serve as a pilgrimage to the heart through the backdoor of towering oak trees and little kids hand-feeding swans. Runs through Vatican City curling along the backside of the city wall pondering the thousands of years of history that lie embedded in those stones become an act of devotion.
And then, of course, there’s eating. Italians love to eat. They eat well and with care. A cappuccino and cornetto for breakfast. A large lunch with soup and salads and beans and bread and a few slices of meat and a half-glass of wine. A nap. A walk. An aperitif with a handful of nuts and some cheese and salame. Conversation that rolls straight into dinner and nightcaps
Perhaps my most prized gift from Italy’s many teachings has been learning how to eat. I learned how to make a soffritto and how to toss pasta. I learned how to sit at a table when there was still work to be done and take a break to savor. I learned how to good it feels to be a hedonist from a culture that revers the act of eating.
When longing hits me on sunny Saturday afternoons, I remember coda alla vaccinara, impossibly tender bits of oxtail swimming in an unctuous tomato sauce. I remember a plate of bright green favas tangling with sharp pecorino romano. I remember fluffy focaccia with grapes and rosemary, rigatoni with pesto alle Genovese, abbacchio alla cacciatora. I remember, and I am satiated.