An American in Italy: Living Like a Local

Posted on January 20, 2019 by Grace Minton

I first went to Italy in 2012, and I immediately fell in love with the country. And, I will be honest: I first fell in love with Italy for a lot of the cliché reasons. I had heard that the food would be amazing, and I can attest that it was truly scrumptious. Eating gelato fourteen times in four days would seem ridiculous anywhere else, but it somehow felt acceptable and right in Italy. People advised me that Italians are passionate people. I also found that out almost immediately when I arrived there. I believe that I heard the popular phrase “mamma mia” within moments of crossing the border. Prior to arriving in Italy, I had only heard this phrase used in movies where Italian people are portrayed as caricatures instead of three-dimensional beings with complex thoughts and personalities. So, in my mind, I assumed that the phrase was something Americans associated with Italian culture, but something that no Italian would ever actually say aloud.

I also witnessed passion in the way locals communicated with one another. Much of the world is concerned that we are losing the ability to make eye contact, but Italians had no trouble looking each other in the eye. Rather, they seemed to relish the chance to get up close and personal with strangers and friends alike. Hand gestures, shouting, and a lack of personal space all occur frequently and regularly in Italian conversation. When I first witnessed this, I said a quick prayer that the two men debating (with a whopping centimeter of personal space between them) had brushed their teeth that morning. I have always been one to worry and be concerned about dental hygiene; and being in Italy was no different. After saying a quick “Hail Mary” that both men used an appropriate amount of Crest that morning, I began to wonder if their passion from the argument might spill over into a physical altercation. The idea kind of excited me, but our local guide quickly assured us that the men were simply discussing what kind of pasta to have for lunch. I felt relieved, but also excited that the men cared so vehemently about their meals. What a strange and beautiful culture to behold!

Porto Potenza Picena: the small town in Italy where I spent three months of my life.

There were countless other things to love and appreciate on my first visit to Italy. And, I felt a strong pull to come back to this beautiful and complex country. So, this past summer, I had the opportunity to spend three months living with a host family in Italy. The family lived in a small town (or perhaps, it might more aptly be described as a village) called Porto Potenza Picena. This town was located on the Adriatic Sea, and it was a very sleepy and quiet place-vastly different than what I had experienced on previous trips to Rome, Venice, Florence, and other major cities throughout the country. I went with the intention of helping the family improve their spoken and written English, while also getting to experience the Italian culture in a genuine and unique way. I was tired of always being a tourist, and I wanted to have an experience that opened my mind and heart to what regular, everyday life is actually like for local Italians.

Me with a few members of my host family. Vito is driving the boat, while I am sitting with Bianca and Nina.

I loved every person in my host family for vastly different reasons, but I really connected most strongly and deeply with Arianna, the host mother. Arianna is a 40-year old, mother of three with beautiful energy and a wonderful spirit. She began learning English around eight years ago. And, although she is not truly fluent, she is very able to communicate with English speakers and convey meanings or complex ideas using her second language. I loved listening to her speak in Italian because she spoke with a lyricism and sort of musicality in her voice. Somehow, that translated over to her English speaking, too.

of Arianna, her three children, and me. We took a day trip together, enjoyed gelato (of course), and admired the view below.

Arianna had a way of phrasing things that I found refreshing and delightful.  When English speakers communicate about complex ideas like “life,” they would most likely leave out articles like “the.” But, Arianna would regularly say things like: “The life is beautiful” and “the love is so important.” I admired her willingness to speak with her children in English. She was not afraid to make mistakes or show her humanness to them. She would always ask me to correct her if she made a grammatical error or said something that was incorrect. And, although my purpose being there was to help her (and the rest of the family improve her English), I found it challenging to correct her because she spoke with such passion and charisma. But, I corrected her when she confused “remind” and “remember” or when she mistakenly used an incorrect verb tense or could not find the word she was looking for in her mind.

Morning biking.

Arianna was also fun to be around because she had a childlike energy about her. She loved eating gelato, and she knew that it was my favorite food of all time, so she sometimes indulged us all by taking us to a nearby gelateria for dinner. This thrilled her children because (honestly) what kid does not like eating dessert for dinner? But, it was even more beautiful to witness how much joy it gave her.

And, despite eating loads of gelato, pasta, and other goodies, Arianna was always someone who prided herself on her physique. She was the mother of three, but still was in amazing shape. I can sometimes feel annoyed or bothered when people talk about their bodies or body image too much. But, I actually enjoyed listening Arianna talk about her body and her relationship with it. She told me that she had gained some weight since having her children. But, she would never fail to mention that her life partner had also put on weight, had more kilograms to lose than she did, and that he had not given birth to a single child. She was charmingly competitive about it. When her partner, Vito, would correct her English or tell her something she could improve upon, Arianna would remind him that he had a good brain, but she had a good, strong body.

All of us on a boat outing.

I will never forget Arianna, the way she viewed life, her philosophies on love, and her opinions about the world. She believed that people were innately good. She believed in chasing love, so she always advised me to run alongside my fiancé to make our relationship thrive and progress.

She was an amazing and happy Italian woman with a lot to give. I will carry her influence with me for the rest of my life. And, I will always think that “the life is beautiful” whenever I eat gelato for dinner, feel proud of my body, receive love from a child, or find joy in life’s simple pleasures. And, to add to that, if I ever need to refuel my tank, I know that she is always simply a phone call, message, or visit away.