Learning How to See Italy Through the Eyes of Italians

08/17/2010 11:04 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

I admit it; I visited Italy for completely selfish reasons. I was deep in the middle of a search that I was hoping would connect me with my family and help me understand the heritage they brought with them when they emigrated. I was exhausted of The Sopranos and Jersey Shore telling me where I came from. My master plan was allow the beauty of the Eternal City to show me who I was... I would find this among the ancient architecture and cobble-stoned streets.

When I arrived in Italy, with my guidebooks, and my list of must-see activities, I fully expected an active jaunt through the streets, but that idea was put to rest at my very first sight. At the coliseum, among the ruins of ancient Rome, I found a bench in the shadow of Domus Aurea. I perched for a second; just enough to balance my bag on my knee, and at this movement, my body fell into a relaxed lull. I put my camera and guidebook away, leaned back in relaxation, and opened my eyes beyond the to-dos to what was around me: places, not check marks. Among the shards of former palaces, an elderly woman, hunched over a plastic bag, reached in and dispersed bread crumbs for a crowd of mangled, skinny cats. Later, at the Trevi Fountain, I leaned against the cold benches and was hypnotized instantly by children running back and forth across the piazza, their hands sticky with gelato, not unlike my own. At the Vatican, which is not technically in Rome, I witnessed faith through eager art students, clutching notebooks and pencils, pouring over smooth details in headless marble statues. While they worshiped at the gods of inspiration, I sat.

That night at my tiny yellow hotel on the Porta Maggiore, a wrought iron chair became my solace through a night of illness. And when the sun came up, I clutched some thick red cough drops, and walked across the street to a café. At this little bar, adorned with cookies of all shapes, I ordered an espresso, placed my money down on the counter, and spent the good part of an hour just sitting with all the other Italians.

My favorite place to sit, though, was the Spanish Steps. The whole Piazza di Spagna just called to me, begging for me. I climbed to the very top, and took a seat overlooking the piazza. Below me, young lovers drowned in each other's lips, and beside them, families cracked open canvas bags of lunches made out of creamy balls of cheese and crusty breads. I was in love. I couldn't move. I wanted to take in every ounce of humanity this little square had to give. The children, the lovers, the elderly, everyone here was part of Italy, they made Italy. If I wanted to understand my heritage better, well, here it was, all laid out, like the lunch the idyllic family ate on the Spanish Steps. These random people scooting around town had connected the dots.

First, and most obviously, Italians have amazing respect for the arts. They revere their landmarks and worship their books. They've developed an entire culture around what they've learned from their ancestors, and take with them the ideals to care for these remnants. They teach it to their children. They make it cool to be old.

Something I can relate with ... Italians tend to be loud people when they speak because they want you to understand. They're not shouting, they're enthusiastic. They're enthusiastic about the left turn you must make to arrive at the best espresso bar in the city. They're downright ecstatic when explaining where their bottle of wine came from. This every day enthusiasm leads to being, well, loud.

Italians are communal people. How else do you explain the espresso bar? Why else would there be so many fountains and so many piazzas? If Italians did not want to meet each other, little cherub-like men with hearty laughs would never serve gelato in open-air eateries.

Italians are patient. Not their most obvious trait, but you don't endure years of prayer with bare knees on marble floors without some sort of patience. I learned patience best through the chocolate brown eyes of the front desk boy at my little yellow hotel, watching calmly as I stubbornly insisted on dragging my own belongings up the three floors to my room.

I came to Rome prepared with research and geography, but the Eternal City quickly taught me to let it go. In its people I saw the real mask of Italy, the real essence of being Italian, my own heritage. And by pausing for a few moments to rest, I saw that I could proudly claim those as a few traits of my own.


Italy Heritage