Wednesday, August 27, 2008

La Pausa: Reflections on my semester in Italy

[Beautiful Piazza Italia, where I often went to write, take in the view, and think about sheep]

This week marks the second anniversary of the beginning of my time in Italy. That may sound a bit dramatic (okay, I guess it is a little dramatic), but I continue to be influenced by the things I did and saw and learned while living abroad for four months. Especially now that I am starting my first "big girl" job, going back to school for my masters, and working part-time retail, I need to remember those lessons learned in the quiet of train rides and chilly nights in my apartment. I wrote this essay in November of 2006, around the time I started to prepare myself mentally to leave my little hilltop hamlet of Perugia.

When I first arrived in Italy, the Italian culture presented a great many difficulties. For instance: how Italian women could so effortlessly climb the steep hills of Perugia in stilettos while I stumbled along in flats, or the fact that my washing machine took three hours to complete a cycle—and why, for that matter, the appliance was located in my kitchen. I gawked at Italian lovers who passionately kissed in the Piazza, shivered at the thought of a cold winter in my centuries-old apartment with only six alloted hours of heat per day, and struggled to understand how the Italian word for “flower” could be a masculine noun. After nearly a whole semester here in this foreign land of romance, cappuccino, and fine leather, these difficulties have become a part of my cultural understanding, part of the brilliant beauty of Italy, part of my college experience. But the greatest of these mysteries, the one that continues to challenge me, and the one that I still struggle to comprehend, is la pausa.

At precisely one o’clock--the only time Italians are ever on time, mind you--I stop picking up wireless from the business across the street, it’s next to impossible to find a panino for lunch, and the bright orange APM buses are overcrowded with teenagers coming home from school. Everyone hurries home from work to eat pranza, traditionally the largest meal of the day in Italy, with their families and to take a nap before heading back to work. It is as if life stands still until three or four o’clock when everyone resumes their positions, albeit the schoolchildren, who stay at home unless they’re involved in sports or music. Italians refuse to be conquered by their work, or to let it completely define them.

If there’s one thing the Italians know, it’s how to live well. They savor every bite and every flavor of a meal and rest on the Sabbath, even extending it to Monday in some cases. They’re not stingy with affection—they kiss friends, family, even new acquaintances (and not the silly air kisses; they literally kiss each cheek!), know when to spend extravagantly and when to save, treat themselves to
gelato not because they’ve lost a boyfriend or need a pick-me-up, but just because, and take their time strolling down the corso or mingling in the piazza.

And so I found myself feeling, quite frankly, displaced. Not because of the language barrier, or my ancient apartment, but because I, the activity junkie, had been transplanted to the land of Cone Lickers. Yes, Cone Lickers. That’s the term Donald Miller used in
Through Painted Deserts to describe the vacationers at a ranch where he worked one summer. And even though I’m technically the “vacationer” here, I have found myself surrounded by them.

I arrived in Italy expecting mile-a-minute fun and constant activity. I was determined to suck every ounce of excitement and experience I could out of these three and a half months in Europe. Despite the warning of my much wiser sorority sister, Sarah, that my study abroad experience would likely be slow at times, I insisted that I was going to learn Italian, travel the entire European continent, and get involved in ministry all over Italy. In spite of my weekend travels to far-off places, the weeks here are slow, allowing me a chance to catch my breath.

In fact, the Italian way of catching one’s breath was a cultural nuance I learned something about even before arriving in Italy. While working as a youth director in a rural area outside of Richmond this summer, I had the opportunity to attend a forum on youth ministry with seven visiting Italian Baptist pastors. On the last morning of the conference, I rushed up to Sergio, one of the pastors, to ask for his contact information. Forgetting that he hadn’t spoken English in twenty years, I excitedly blabbed about something to him. Putting a hand on my shoulder, he said in his thick Napoli accent “Chelsea, you are wonderful. But take a breath!”

I’ve been learning a lot about sheep here. Not just because they dot the Umbrian countryside that surrounds this little hill I’ve come to call a temporary home, but because I’ve been reading a book about the twenty-third Psalm. You know, “The Lord is my Shepherd, I shall not want”? Apparently sheep are really stupid. In order to rest, every obstacle must be cleared for them: danger, hunger, thirst. They literally need a shepherd, or they cannot sleep. That’s a little how I’ve felt here: like my Shepherd had to clear every obstacle—friendships, activities, work—and bring me to the green pastures of Perugia. He has had to make me lie down in them, for I am so utterly unable to be still on my own. It’s a constant struggle even here. Sometimes I just feel unable to rest while everyone around me goes on licking their gelato cones. I’ve wanted so much to soak up the Italian culture, and yet, in stubbornness, I’ve rejected the most central part of it again and again by persisting in my quest for constant activity. But slowly, I am learning the value of slowing down and the necessity of rest. Little by little, I am learning the rhythm of pause.

No matter where life takes me from here, I shall always remember the green hills that surround this cozy little Medieval city, for they will always remind me of the way life is meant to be lived. Whenever I think of them, I’ll remember to be careful with myself, to take time to linger over a meal, to enjoy beauty and ponder truth. I’ll recall the wise lesson learned from my Italian friends: that a life lived well isn’t so much characterized by busyness or productivity, but by the intentional savoring of each day. I’ll always be thankful for this time in Italy, my very own
la pausa.

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