Civita Stands / Civita è

While rules and directions tend to be vague in Italian culture, Americans prefer handbooks, product manuals, and time tables. We like to research our vacations with countless guides, on-line ratings, and advice from our friends on where to go and what to see, planning each moment months in advance before we leave our homes.

Watching this week’s influx of American tourists invade Civita’s bloodstream has reminded me of how deliciously removed I’ve been from all that until now. My first six weeks of English blackout were an important gift: I spoke primarily Italian and was able to detach from the world of Seattle in order to focus on my work here. Even listening to the European tourists was a learning experience, since visitors spoke mostly Italian or German, which I also speak.

On Sunday night, when Gaia exclaimed with disappointment, “What happened to your Italian?! Why are you speaking English?” it became apparent that I had unwittingly emerged from the purity of my Italian immersion. So true, too, that the percentage of American tourists has greatly increased over the past week.

Contrasted with the Italian chatter I’ve heard since August, the American commentary tends to grate because I know everything that they’re saying; for instance, when someone uses the word, “cute,” to describe Civita, I cringe. (Italians use much richer language: bello, tranquillo, meraviglioso, paradiso…)

As a self-appointed ambassador of the U.S., I dislike seeing how many Americans come here without preparing to speak even simple requests in Italian. They rarely venture further than their travel guides, which seem to provide an invisible bubble of assurance of well-managed fun. When things go awry, they appear virtually paralyzed without instruction from an authoritative source — very different from most Europeans who prefer blurry lines and will explore anything anywhere (including my hanging laundry.)

I heard one group fervently complain about a server not accommodating their lack of Italian language skills without displaying a hint of embarrassment –or acknowledgement– of the fact that they were actually the foreigners. As they kvteched about better experiences in other countries, I realized that they are the type who will never have an authentic experience when they travel, no matter where they visit. They continually seek to bring their home town with them everywhere; they have enough means to feel entitled –and perhaps are so uncomfortable with their own shortcomings– that they will not deign to bend.

As I considered these behaviors, I thought back to Tony’s favorite line, “Nature IS,” which absolutely fits Civita. Nature is neither good nor evil; it just IS. In the same light, Civita is; Civita stands.

The finality of that statement hints at the imperious immovability which is not so much defiant as it is purely strong, eternal. Civita has withstood earthquakes, floods, landslides, wars, time, and extreme weather. If it can manage to shrug off these awesome forces, it should be a signal that we may need to bend to this experience rather than expect Civita to submit to our control.

Civita does attempt to defy us at every turn –and in different ways– to see if we’ll resist or fail her tests. She tries to deter us with the topography of the initial climb, where we find ourselves sweaty and gasping for air. She presents herself as a town of seemingly locked doors and private gardens — the facade of a “cute ghost town,” as one tourist remarked.

Unable to completely tune out their endless commentary, I’m tempted to correct statements like, “Guess we’ll turn around; there’s nothing here,” or, “That piazza would be nicer if they’d fix it up, but I guess nobody lives here anymore. Wanna get a bottle of olive oil before we leave?” Then, I realize that these people aren’t so terrible; they just didn’t qualify for the next round.

Compared to the tourists who don’t dare to venture down the bend past my rock without say-so, Jerry’s courage in crawling through a tunnel to discover a 2,500-year-old Etruscan oubliette where a Civitonici once hid from the Nazis seems an evermore rare example of an open, yet self-guided person. When others bring so little sense of adventure –or self-reliance– with them, no wonder they leave Civita somewhat perplexed or disappointed.

Admittedly, living here is what really changes one’s experience, and Civita erects such illusive roadblocks that the average tourist cannot fathom hauling her cookies all the way uphill to stay longer than an afternoon.

There it is again: Civita stands.

We often confuse bending to great powers –Nature, Love, Civita– with weakness or surrender, but it is in bending that we actually discover our own strength. Only by approaching new places with a sense of curiosity, flexibility, and openness can one gain access to greater depths that may not initially reveal themselves.

The more rigid we are, the more we insist that people speak our language rather than trying to learn theirs, the more that we desire familiar food or products from back home, and the more we hesitate from exploring unmarked paths, the farther removed we become from the possibility of exploring the world and each other. We might be able to say that we’ve been there physically, but with that approach, we can never really know places, people, our even ourselves very well.

When I count how many of Civita’s seemingly closed doors have opened for me, how many locked gardens into which I’ve found entry, and how many fests that I’ve witnessed in our piazza, the more positive I am that the answer rests in learning to close our mouths and open our hearts, minds, and senses. This takes time, patience, and the humility –and strength– to bend to the experience.

Civita stands, indeed. Of course, it takes a little research to know that.

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One thought on “Civita Stands / Civita è

  1. This reminds me of the “amusing” situation I often find myself in when traveling–other tourists (or sometimes locals) asking me for directions. London, Paris, San Francisco, it doesn’t matter–at some point a random stranger asks me for directions. I often shrug the experience off, but when I think about it–the fundemental thing is that when I travel I work very hard at immersing myself in the daily experience. I want to belong to that place as much as I can, even though it’s for a short week. Then, when I’m in that tube station, reading a book while I wait for the train–that American tourist with his nose in a guidebook is asking me if I know the route to Waterloo station, and I’m always amused at the facial expression when they get their answer in a North American accent.

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