“Buon giorno” is what you hear from everyone all over the town.
We went to La Vittorio for dinner and Alphonso, the owner, boomed “Buon giorno!” as if greeting someone lost at sea. I had never met him before. From behind the bar he pulled out three glasses and poured prosecco, and toasted our arrival. I suspected it would be easy to get used to this.
The night prior to that dinner, a couple of years ago, before the pandemic shut the world down, we had stepped directly into the week before Christmas in Italy. Christmas is a big deal here. We went to a cantina a few doors down the street and saw the presepi, the nativity tableaus created for the holiday. The town holds a competition for the best presepi, and you can cast a vote. The first we saw featured figures smiling, another a small town with glowing lights. Then, at a local restaurant, we saw one with a scene in a village that teemed with life. It had all these lifelike townspeople clustered together for a festive feast, the detail in the faces uncanny.
Guardia Sanframondi is a two-hour drive southeast from Rome, past meadows alive with herds of sheep and pharmaceutical manufacturing plants with towering silos and farms. As we approached, I saw the hill looming to the side, and all the houses laid out in tiers higher and higher. We started up the road, twisting right, then left, until we entered the town and approached our new house. Immediately, I felt I exited the present and entered the past.
The next morning, in the cafe over breakfast, I was introduced to Gabriele, the butcher, and Ada, the cafe owner. Ada asked if I could speak Italian and I spouted off, staccato. “Grazie.” “Buona sera.” “Neapolitan.” “Pizza rustica.” My audience smiled in approval. It felt like a standing ovation for passing a test. The American testing his tongue at Italian.
Everywhere in Italy people greet each other with “buon giorno.” Almost everyone here looks at you either directly or sideways, sometimes casting a suspicious glance, as if wondering who you are, what you’re doing here, and the nature of your intentions.
When I returned to the house, I wrote for an hour or so. Always doing this in the kitchen, in the morning with the sunlight coming through the window near the stove. I might read for a spell. About all I read was Italian history, all about Dante, Michelangelo, St. Francis of Assisi, Italian architecture.
At night, after dinner, we headed uphill in the dark and cold, the street lanterns aglow with amber light. We may pass others, but we may also see no one. At night, even more than during the day, the town looks like a fairy tale. At one point I realized I had definitely gone off the grid. Let’s start with the difference in views. From our apartment in Forest Hills, New York, you see mainly the two other 24-floor buildings in our complex. To the right you can see Queens Boulevard, all eight lanes of it, plus cars, buses and trucks streaming along, and stores. To the left you see Yellowstone Boulevard, an office building, the occasional Long Island Railroad train shooting by. You get the general idea.
Ah, but Guardia . . .well, the views here are a different story. You’re looking out from a hillside, so mainly you’re looking down, at the vineyards and the olive trees and narrow roads curling and swooping, and the houses here and there with the chimneys spouting smoke, and your vision can go for miles, until you reach the mountains beyond. We face south on one side and get the sun pouring into our rooms almost all afternoon, and right now dusk is approaching. It’s the day after Christmas, and the clouds are streaked with pink and the sun drops behind the ranges so far off. That, my friends, is what you call a view. It’s sky and hillside and farmland and more stars glittering at night than I’ve seen in years.
I’ve gone native here, full-tilt, full-frontal Italian. I keep admiring the views from the house, the vineyards in the valley, and the mountains beyond. For moments I achieve something close to la dolce vita.
I drink wine with lunch and then slip into a nap on the winter afternoons, occupying an alternative universe. In a town carved out of the hillside and made from stone — stone buildings, walls, pathways, and stucco walls and red tile terra cotta roofs, that’s how it is here in this hill town in the Apennines, so far off the grid.
They have the internet here of course, and satellite TV. But strangers greet each other, including newcomers. Everything is molto simpatico. They bring you a cornetto and cappuccino in a café and you say “grazie” and they say “prego” and you stay at your table as long as you want and nobody expects you to pay until you stand and go to the register at the counter. Everyone looks at you as you approach and pass, curious and quizzical, the unasked questions being who are you and why are you here and where are your people from. I made more eye contact in a week in Italy than I do in a year in New York City.
My grasp of the Italian language remains limited, my pronunciation suspect. Obviously I greet everyone with “buon giorno,” “ciao” and later in the day “buona sera” and bid goodbye with “arrivederci” – well, that’s a cakewalk. Any American can master that. Sometimes I point at myself and say “Americano” with a shrug, as if my attempts at Italian are doomed to be hopeless. “Grazie” issues forth effortlessly from my tongue. My strategy is that you can never go wrong saying thank you, even if, as is sometimes the case, no one has done anything for you.
The other night, my wife Elvira and I went to a bar and sipped some prosecco while the TV played some drama. Neither of us wanted to listen to a drama. So I mustered all my nerve, went over to the waiter and pointed at the TV. “Per favore. Musica?” And immediately he switched to a music channel. For that moment, I felt triumphant, even vaguely continental, a global citizen at last.
So it’s a word here and a word there, plus a phrase or two. A favorite expression of mine is “Piaceri,” or “pleased to meet you.” Often I cock my head and bow slightly to give the term an extra courtly flavor. In navigating the streets, I also occasionally come out with “permesso” and “scusi.” I like “scusi” because again I figure you can never go wrong apologizing a lot, mainly because I so often in life have had to apologize anyway, and as a result I’ve gotten quite good at it.
In all the dialogue with Italians, it’s imperative to introduce myself. Originally I would identify myself as “Bob.”
“Bob?” they would say.
“Bob?” they would repeat, pronouncing it differently.
We might go back and forth like that another two or three times. It could have gone on forever, the name Bob clearly alien to the Italian ear. Finally I relented. One day I introduced myself as “Roberto,” a rebranding.
“Ah, Roberto!” they said.
“Roberto!” they declaimed with open arms, now ready to embrace me and kiss me on both cheeks. And so henceforth and forever more, I shall be known as Roberto.
When my Italian fails me, I resort to pantomime. I press my lips together, pushing my mouth up, to show I’m interested or impressed or intrigued. It’s a useful tack.
You should never, in my opinion, say the word “ciao” glumly. It just kind of kills the whole concept. I’m especially big on saying hello. Everything starts with hello. Nothing can happen between people without hello. No friendships, no marriages, no understandings. Almost everyone greets me back.
Almost everyone is quick to say “si,” and sometimes repeat the word rapid fire. Someone will say something and the other person will say “si, si, si.” Sometimes someone will machine-gun the word “si” five times. What could be lovelier than to say the word “yes” so easily and so often? It’s life lived in the affirmative. It’s Italians saying yes to being alive. It brings to mind the end of the novel Ulysses, where Joyce has Molly Bloom saying “yes, yes, yes,” on and on.
The real joy here is that Italian spoken is a melody, poetry, especially the names. The names of the people and places, the Luigis and Milennas and the piazzas and palazzos and pasticcerias. It’s “molto bene” and “bellissima!” Sometimes I whisper “ah,” as an exclamation or even a gasp. I’m demonstrating surprise and registering delight. Everyone seems to understand “ah”. It would be a challenge to misunderstand it. And so I pull it out as needed.
In future trips back to Guardia, I’ll teach myself more Italian. I’ll list handy words and phrases, listen to Italian television and radio, force myself through conversations. With time I’ll expand my vocabulary, piece together sentences, and possibly – repeat: possibly – develop a certain fluency.
Piano, piano, as they say.
I suddenly remembered a recurring dream I’ve had over the years. I’m in a room and it’s all white stucco and the wall has a window and the walls are thick and the sun is streaming in. And for all these years, maybe decades now, I’ve savored the image, it’s given me peace, even though I had no idea what it meant. It just felt idyllic, a glimpse of Heaven, and now I realize it’s here, it’s right here in Guardia Sanframondi. The window I saw in my dream is the window on the top floor of our house. The dream showed me what was meant to be. In my sleep, everything was foretold.