Living vicariously: Italy
Happy Monday, friends! How was your weekend?? Mine has been filled with work, and this week is looking like more of the same. No stress here, though, I've got rockstars filling in and taking us on a little vacation from the norm.
Kicking off an awesome week is my pal, Tara!! She's sharing all the loveliness that is ITALY here with us. She is soaking up "la bella vita" with her three adorables (look that scarf-donning cutie!) and super hubs...and doing it all with amazing style. Watch this...Here's Tara.
A little over three years ago, my husband and I had the lucky opportunity move to Italy. We’ve had the time of our lives here, but we return to the US in one short month. We’ll bring many new things home with us, the most special of which is our family. Just the two of us made the flight over, but five of us will fly home; our fun twin sons are nearly three years old and our sweet daughter is eight months. We’ll also bring lots of other things—Italian home furnishings, new recipes, and many, many bottles of wine. The best things we’ll bring with us, though, are intangibles. We’ve truly been inspired by the way our Italian neighbors live, and I’d like to share three lessons that they’ve taught me in the hopes that—even without living here—they may inspire you, too.
Lesson One: People and relationships are the center of life.
Family and friends take precedence over other obligations in my corner of Italy. I’ve observed this primary value play out in so many different ways during our time here; at the mom and pop store a couple of doors down from us (and in most of the other stores), they close the store for a day if there’s a family event going on without worrying about losing business. All around town, shopkeepers know their customers because they talk to us (more than small talk, too). And the people waiting in line while we chat? They don’t huff, they don’t puff, they don’t shift from foot to foot, impatient to pay and anxious to get out. They just wait, and sometimes they join in the conversation. When I’m walking down the street, I’m constantly stopped by people who want to coo over my children and ask me all about them. My three kids under the age of three aren’t a “handful.” They’re a blessing. We all walk away smiling. It’s a way of life here…people connect. Families and friends share meals together, lingering over the food and wine and water, and they talk. Again, even strangers who are dining in a restaurant with us will smile and share small pieces of conversation. It’s absolutely lovely.
In today’s world, there’s so much to do, and we all have various responsibilities. But we have really benefited from the pace of life here, which I think comes from the value that Italians place on people. I know that we won’t be able to replicate the exact same atmosphere everywhere we live, but I do know that we will try to remember the good that comes from putting people—not money, not things, not other obligations—first. I’ll take with me a readiness to say no to superfluous responsibilities that don’t help me honor my family, my friends, and even the strangers I meet along the way in life.
Lesson two: Look good, feel good.
We moved here when I was very pregnant with twins. I was big. My feet were swollen. What did I see when I walked out onto the street? Women (and men!) who were put together, top to bottom. No one was wearing flip flops. No one was wearing yoga pants. I was intimidated. Really, NO ONE was wearing yoga pants or flip flops. Ever. And I noticed quickly that if I did wear them, people gave me a sideways glance.
The Italians who walk around my city center just seem to have this innate sense of style, and they are lovely to behold. And here I was hugely pregnant, and then a new mom of twins. You could say that initially I felt a bit resentful that in order to go out and about I had to get dressed, do my hair, and put on make-up or risk having people give me the sideways glance. But I quickly realized that the days I did get myself together, I felt much better about myself. And so I did it more often—almost every day. When I spent 15-20 minutes putting myself together physically, I felt more together mentally and emotionally. I found the time to make myself look nice during the most harried and sleep-deprived time of my life, the time when I was most susceptible to not showering and wearing stretchy pants every single day. Now I’m so thankful to the folks who would have given me a sideways glance, because it taught me that taking some time for myself could completely shape the rest of my day (and my week, month, life!). Fake it ‘til you make it, perhaps?
When I get dressed, I feel like I have it together. When I feel like I have it together, I’m more likely to do the things that actually put my life on a positive trajectory. I’m more likely to actually get my life together! It’s crazy, but if I have a cute outfit on, my hair looks presentable, and lipstick has touched my lips on that day, I’ll want to feel even better, so I’ll exercise the next morning. I’ll prioritize eating well, and I’ll keep exercising. Then I’ll have more patience with my children, I’ll get more done if I have any ongoing projects for work, and so on. Of course, not every day goes by smoothly just because I’m wearing make-up, but I’m far more likely to get into a funky mood when I’m wearing yoga pants and dirty hair. The funky mood benefits no one—not me, not my kids, not my husband. When I look good, chances are I’ll feel good, and so too will the people around me.
Lesson Three: Simplicity is best, especially when it comes to food.
My Italian neighbors embrace simplicity in life, to great effect. Their clothes are simple (if exquisitely made) but beautiful. Their vacations are simple—spend time in nature, whether it’s in the mountains or at the sea, eat well, and relax. Coffee is simple—small, strong, sometimes with milk. No decaf-soy-nonfat frappuccinos for them. Their food is simple but oh-so-delicious. Simplicity is where joy is found.
I love all of these mini-lessons, but I can say with certainty that my life and my family’s life have been changed forever by the Italian culture of food. Even before we moved here, I tried to eat well and make food from scratch using whole foods, but life here has added much to my knowledge base of how to shop for, prepare, and eat really delicious, simple food.
In my weekly visits to our fresh market (almost every Italian town has one—once or twice a week, sometimes more, merchants set up tents to sell fresh fruit and veggies, cheeses, and fish, and often lots of other things), I became friends with the owner whose fruit and veggie stand I frequented. I would go to the market with an idea of what I wanted, and she would tell me if a certain fruit or veg was good or not that week, and often she’d suggest another fruit or vegetable (usually vegetable ) that I ought to try. And then she’d tell me how to cook it and what to serve with it. As I go through the list of new produce I’ve tried in my head, I feel pretty confident saying that 90% of the new veggies.
I’ve tried have been cooked (using a couple of different methods, for differing periods of time) with olive oil, salt, and pepper. And they’ve all been delicious. From the fishmonger? I’ve bought a whole octopus, boiled it in water with celery and carrots, then made a salad out of it with potatoes, olive oil, and salt. Unexpectedly delectable. I’ve learned to make a pasticcio (what we think of as lasagna, although there are about 50 different variations up here and honestly don’t resemble American lasagnas) from fresh noodles, a cream sauce (quickly made from butter, flour, and milk), and a sautéed vegetable like spinach, mushrooms, or radicchio. Mouthwatering.
The two great commonalities of these examples? 1) They are simple—seriously. These meals don’t take a ton of time to prepare, and they’re usually right around five ingredients (plus salt and pepper). Further, they don’t require advanced cooking skills. The more often I began to cook this way, the faster and easier it becomes. Win! 2) The ingredients are in season. I know cooking in season is becoming much more popular in the US (thank goodness!), but I’ve really learned to eat seasonally here because it’s all that is available. Markets certainly don’t carry foods that aren’t right in season (I can’t even get strawberries right now—they’re only available mid-late spring, then they’re gone!), and most supermarkets don’t either. Some out-of-season foods are available frozen or canned, of course, but it’s typically not the way Italians eat, and for good reason. Foods in season taste best! My meal repertoire and our palates have grown significantly because we focus on eating what’s available.
And speaking of in season…I’ve learned how to leverage what is in season to make cooking simple food delicious (and still varied) year round. Tomatoes aren’t in season all year round, even in Italy. But in August, five kilos (that’s over 11 pounds!) of San Marzanos (to me, one of the most delicious types of tomato) costs five Euro ($7-8). The bounty is just amazing, and it inspired me to start learning how to put away foods. When you have really delicious summer produce that you’ve canned yourself (and you know what’s in it—or not—from no salt to a piece of basil to no BPA in your canning materials), it makes it far easier to make an incredibly simple, flavorful dish in the winter, even when you’re tired of squash and potatoes.
Ahhh….Italian food. I’m going to miss it. But I’ve learned that by eating in season (and by canning some foods that are so abundant and delicious in season so I can also use them out of season), it’s really quite easy to cook nourishing, wholesome foods for my family. Using simple recipes that feature few high-quality ingredients, Italians find beauty in their food. They’ve inspired me to do
the same, wherever we live.
I’m looking forward to living these lessons as we move back the USA and in the coming years, and I’ve been lucky to learn them in bella Italia. But I’m sure many of you already knew what became clear to me here. Tell me—what are your tips for making these lessons a reality in your daily lives?
What do you think, friends? Is this not the fabulous life?? XO, MJ (and Tara)