04/21/2014 01:36 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Downsizing in Italy

A woman who has been living in Florence for many, many years told me that 'Americans must learn to down-size in order to be happy here.'

I keep trying to downsize, and it keeps being quite impossible. I notice it most prominently, of course, when I am on the move and trying to pack my stuff up once again. My collection, even though I swear my days of acquisition have passed, keeps growing. I do have the memories and, therefore, keep trying to convince myself that I don't need the 'stuff' to remind myself of these days. However, my humanity seems to get in the way and I yield to temptation somehow once I have convinced myself I need that blouse or purse or book or whatever...

Every time I must move to a new city and/or to a new apartment, I am distressed at how difficult it is to organize myself and my belongings. I have not yet figured out how to travel lightly, although I have sent suitcases and bags of excess back to friends to keep for me, thinking I will then have an easier time of making myself more portable. However, I still keep getting surprised at the complexity of each move, and by the physical strain of it all.

I have just left Rome, happily. Rome is an absolutely gorgeous, vibrant, exciting city, and I loved seeing so many of the multitude of treasures that live there. However, I found that the wealth of the treasures, whether they be ancient ruins or churches or museums or piazzas or whatever, sometimes overwhelmed me, and I realized I would not ever have the time or inclination to explore it fully. I learned a lot about Rome, including the bus and metro systems, and I also learned that it takes a lot of work, a lot of time, and a lot of planning and a lot of energy to get from one place to another; now a different scene is just what I need, so I did enjoy a few days in the country before heading back to my beloved Florence, a city that is, for me, much more manageable than Rome is.

Rome is big. I have heard that the population is about 3 to 4 million people, and the influx of tourists (getting more evident each day recently) and students only increases the chaos and the crowds. Thus, Rome suffers the normal maladies of big-city life, including traffic and noise and inherent un-manageability. Added to all of these are the layers of Italian history and Italian bureaucracy and Italian culture that only compound each issue; strikes by public employees (and most people in Italy, I have learned, do work for the government, either local or provincial or national) are commonplace - one recent day there was a transit strike, stopping all methods of public transportation for most of a whole day and inconveniencing absolutely everyone (and, for what benefit, I wonder???). In addition, electricity 'interruptions', scheduled and non-scheduled, happen often. The day I left Rome, an interruption was scheduled for my apartment building, prompting me to leave before 9 am to avoid having to walk down the stairs in the dark with my suitcase!

The beauty of Rome is awe-inspiring, and on every corner, in every piazza, around every neighborhood are true wonders of gorgeous architecture, obelisks, fountains and balconies.


Juxtaposed with this eye-thrilling scenery is, often, graffiti, trash, dirt or other 'broken-ness'. Benches are often in a state of disrepair, sidewalks have potholes or loose and dangerous stones, and most buildings could use a good cleaning!!! Also, beggars of all genders, ages and conditions are everywhere - at each tourist attraction, at each corner, at each train station (and often on each train). Families of beggars fascinate me, and I have seen young, young children making music, looking cute and asking for money on the trains; apparently they are being trained young to join the family business (which, according to the locals, often involves stealing as well as begging)! One of my friends noticed that, usually, these begging children are pretty beautifully attired, and I have since been noticing the truth of her observation.

Anyhow, so today I am really thinking of down-sizing, and how I can do it better. I do realize that I have already been forced to accommodate 'smaller', that my 'new normal' can be sort of tiny. The elevators here, rare and welcome, are often really small and require a bit of maniupulation if you have suitcases or other people with you. In my Rome apartment, the elevator required you to: open the heavy mesh door, open the two inside doors, go in, close the heavy mesh door, close the two inside doors, press the button for the floor you want, turn around to ride to your floor so you could repeat the whole process to exit on the other side when you arrived. Amazing!

One challenging accommodation for me involves the bathrooms and the showers here. Some of the bathrooms and some of the apartment showers are really really really small, and I just don't like them or feel comfortable in them. However, if I want to get clean, I just have make the best of the situation, I guess, especially since getting in and out of the small bathtubs is much more challenging, actually.

Washing machines are also pretty tiny, especially since i am used to the 'extra large capacity' option. Running a load of laundry does take some planning, therefore, and happens just about every day - not, I have discovered, a fatal problem.

And the supermarket (supermercato)... again, in the Boston area I am used to the 'bigger is better' mentality, and stores seem to want to outdo each other in size. Here, with limited space available, especially in the cities, the markets are often tucked in between other stores or restaurants or residences, and they are pretty small; amazingly, they do seem to carry everything I really need, though. The best food shopping, though, is always found at the farmers' markets, where the fruits and vegetables and fish and spices and bread and all is just the best. Supermarkets in Italy are really good for bottled water and other necessities and to fill in until the next farmers' market.

And cars and trucks -- some of the small vehicles here look like overgrown toys to me. Even a VW Beetle is a pretty large car over here. The funniest vehicles are the one-person ones, and these can be cars or even garbage trucks. Since parking is so challenging and limited in the cities, cars have to be pretty small to fit into any kind of a parking space (whether real or in the middle of the street!), and the some of the roads are so windy and narrow that they have to be small to fit in the lane.

In another category, the Italian work day is also pretty abbreviated; offices, banks, stores, pharmacies and all often close for about three hours every afternoon for a lunch break. While some banks, stores and pharmacies do re-open from about 4 for a few hours, I have heard that, often, many offices don't re-open at all.

I wonder if my expectations and requirements are becoming down-sized after all, and in quite a natural, gradual and painless (usually) way. I know that I am aware of the need to be flexible in so many ways, none of them easy. I can either complain about what is lacking or come to terms with the options; after all, I did choose to be here, so I don't think I have the right to whine.