Italy is an antiquated country – transactions are mostly dealt with in cash, you are consistently confronted with ancient ruins at every veining turn, decay saturates the landscape as paint peels, concrete crumbles and someone, somewhere, is standing before a piece of art executed centuries, if not millennia, before. Its bureaucracy struggles to adapt, its politics make the same mistakes over and over again, and its society is in a constant tug-of-war between honoring the past and embracing the future.
And, if you observe the local society, you will quickly find that even the people seem to be predominately of an older generation. As my young American friend, living in Rome for a college semester stated recently, “I’ve never seen so many old people in my life!”
Statistics show the Italians come in 10th for life expectancy, with the average individual living until they are 82.2 years old. Compare that to the US which ranks 53rd with the average person living until they are 79. While these 3.2 years seem nominal and 79 appears to be worthy of a “long life”, I’d care to ask someone who has recently lost a loved one what they wouldn’t do for 3.2 more years with that person. I digress.
In Italy, the old patter about the streets, shuffling through corridors, moving slowly over stones they have trailed for decades. The meat shop, the pharmacy, the coffee bar all offer them a sense of home. They move steadily, taking long breaks upon benches in the squares. Often times blocking a space built for two people across the sidewalk as you attempt to pass, hopefully, gracefully around them. They glance about at seemingly nothing and I presume, to them, everything. Italy is their world. Italy is their home. Any casual observer will notice the amount of older people coursing through the country.
Those who take a closer look will find a very touching cultural normality that is particularly Italian. I’ve taken note of these sightings – small, white and gray haired individuals maneuvering through the Eternal City, covered in muted dresses and suits – a monochromatic testament to the longevity of the country. They carry bags in their hands or slung upon their walkers, hold umbrellas on sunny days, cautious for whatever may come.
The most endearing moments I’ve observed are the younger generations offering an arm to their dearly beloved older relation. Italians shows great care for those they love and it is none more apparent than in this multi-generational activity I’ve been honored to witness across the Eternal City. A moment of affection, a gesture of kindness often absent (as I have observed) in other spaces across the globe. While Americans can be lovely and respectful to our elderly, we could do better.
Yesterday, as I awaited my train, a young man in his mid-twenties drew closer to the platform with his grandfather hanging upon his arm – the old man’s feet shuffled, his eyes stayed straight ahead – a destination of only a few feet but probably a marathon away. The young man sat his grandfather down upon a crowded bench and leaned down to whisper something to him. At the conclusion of their short conversation, he gently kissed his cheek and knelt down and took his hand, glancing about for the arriving train. My heart jumped into my throat, my thoughts abandoned any current troubles I may be facing. I could not look away from behind a pair of dark sunglasses. In such a swift moment, observing the care of one generation towards another, my worldview adapted further.
Italy has taught me that those who sacrificed, educated and supported the young from infancy to adulthood are now the ones needing support. The young will inherit the earth, and we are attempting, or should be attempting, to preserve the world in which these people created for us.
Bearing witness to this exchange brought me to think of my own grandfather who I love dearly and think about every day I am in the country of his birth. I am reminded how the actions of one simple individual can define a legacy.
My grandfather Giuseppe (Joe, or Big Joe if you’re familiar) arrived in America a severely poor immigrant. His father, Francesco had been living in San Francisco for ten years prior to his arrival in an attempt to offer his wife and children a bit of stability upon their entrance into the United States. Papa Francesco took up the profession of a shoe shiner, owning a small shop on the Eastern side of San Francisco’s gorgeous bay front. Francesco made a meager living yet always, to a fault, offered what he had to friends and strangers – something I have heard was a source of contention between him and my great-grandmother, Carmella. “Stop giving away our money!” was a phrase often uttered between Francesco and Carmella.
When my grandfather Joe arrived to the US, he suffered from polio, learning English from his nurses during a year long stay in a hospital in the East Bay. He went into the family business shining shoes at the marina for five cents. He then met my grandmother, welcomed four children, the oldest my mother and worked sometimes three jobs at a time to feed, clothe and pay their bills. He is one of the most honored individuals in the Bay Area’s Italian-American society and I am insanely proud to be within his bloodline. He is the best example I know of prosperity and work ethic. Today, he resides in the bourgeoisie Berkeley hills in a four-story grand home with his partner Fran, who after my grandmother’s death, has become a lovely addition to our family.
What these few small encounters have accomplished is to offer insight into my personal world view and the various manner in which a culture honors their heritage.
This morning, as I went to take a coffee before returning to my garden for the day’s work, I saw a man of perhaps 80-years-old, sitting in front of his flat – perched in the casual manner only the Italians can execute. The sun tipped his floppy fisherman’s cap, the breeze fluttered his newspaper and the pencil in his wrinkled hand rattled slightly with his seniority. The man, whom I have come to know as Mimmo, likes to rest under the Lazio sun, greeting those who pass by, striking up a conversation about who he knows, how long he has lived under the shadow of the Vatican wall and his once beloved profession (a lawyer). Before we could get into any of it, I asked his plans for the day. He smiled and said in half English, half Italian (something I am getting slightly used to), “My son and grandson are arriving. We are to go to Puglia for some days. But I know they are trying to trick me!” I asked what they were attempting to conceal from him. He responded, “Before we go they want me to go to the doctor for my knee. They force me.” At this time, Mimmo makes a face of disgust but I am willing to bet, underneath the wrinkled face, twisted into resentment, is the security of knowing that those he once supported, are now supporting him.
As I said my goodbyes and bid well wishes on his travels, Mimmo smiled and then shook his head, “They are very sneaky! They think I am old!”