What Americans Can Learn From Italians About The Good Life — Part 1

A panorama of Guardiagrele in Abruzzo, Italy shows green rolling hills and mountains.
A panorama of Guardiagrele in Abruzzo, Italy shows green rolling hills and mountains.
The panorama of mountains and hills as seen from the center of Guardiagrele in Abruzzo, Italy. (Photo by Judith Valente)

Today starts what I hope to turn into an occasional series of reflections on what I’ve learned over several extended stays in Italy from my relatives and friends about living “la dolce vita,” the good life. It all begins with community …

My friend Pierino wakes early, bids his wife goodbye, and heads to the Piazza Santa Maria Maggiore. There, he meets men he has known since childhood. They grab an espresso or caffé macchiato in one of the nearby bars and stand in the piazza for hours. Talking.

They discuss the condition of the streets in Guardiagrele, their town of about 10,000 people in the Abruzzo region of Italy. They share news of family members who have emigrated to America, and dissect the latest twist in Italy’s serpentine national politics.

If you spend any amount of time in Italy, one of the first things you notice is how much talking goes on. Italians are talking in piazzas, on park benches, at work sites, in front of churches, even in doctors’ offices. And it isn’t mainly on cell phones. It’s in person. Here, conversations spill out from sidewalk cafes and bars and the open windows of families sharing a meal at home.

Italians are known for their fine art, exquisite sculpture and architecture, high fashion and famous cuisine. They have also raised the practice of conversation to the level of high art. In an age of increased cocooning, where you don’t have to leave your room to buy groceries, see a film, or even play a card game, Italians still want to be out and about — seeing and being seen.

Mother Teresa once famous described “the great American illness,” not as cancer, heart disease, diabetes, or even obesity. She said it is loneliness. For Italians, getting out, engaging in conversations is a way of forming community, of building a bulwark against isolation.

Italians have long had a greater life expectancy than Americans: 82.5 years compared to our 78.6 years.

In contrast to other advanced countries, America’s life expectancy is declining. High rates of suicide, alcoholism and drug addiction are partly to blame. In Italy, having national health insurance, as well as a Mediterranean diet, are key factors in Italians’ longevity. I can’t help but think that having a strong sense of community, a feeling that you matter and aren’t alone, also gives people a powerful reason to forge on.

Meet another of my friends, Franco. Franco is a widower who lives in my grandmother’s birthplace of Cassino. At 83, he is in remarkably good shape. He still cooks pasta daily and can bolt up the three flights of stairs to his apartment. He walks 15 minutes each way every morning to meet his buddies at the Caffé Palace, the espresso bar Franco jokingly refers to as his “office.” That’s another thing about Italy. People don’t just talk, they also walk.

On one of our recent stays, my husband contracted a bad case of bronchitis. He had to go to a doctor’s office every day for five days to get a shot from a nurse (injections in lieu of pills are still common here). I noticed that some of the same people were in the doctor’s waiting room every day. They weren’t all coming because they had to. Some were there for the conversation. They treated the doctor’s office as though it was another community center.

(By the way, even as a non-Italian citizen, my husband paid nothing for these health visits, thanks to Italy’s national health insurance).

Getting out and talking isn’t limited to the elderly. On Saturday nights in Cassino, you can hardly walk through the piazza in front of the Catholic Church because of the crowd of teens milling about there. Doing what? Talking.

Sunday evenings families stroll along Via San Nicola or Corso della Repubblica. It’s a time to window shop. Mostly, though, it’s a time to people watch, and catch up with neighbors, relatives and friends.

St. Benedict, the founder of western monasticism, started out living as a hermit in a cave. He eventually concluded community provided a saner way to live. It is probably one of the reasons men and women living in monasteries generally live to a very old age.

To be sure, Italy is experiencing challenges. It is now faced with welcoming a rapid influx of refugees from other countries — most of a different religion, race and culture. Italians are being challenged to expand their idea of community. My hope is that their traditionally warm, welcoming, generous and gregarious spirit will prevail over the fear of the unknown being fueled by some of the country’s worst politicians.

This week, can we reflect on where we find community? How are we helping to build it? Do we climb out of our comfort zones to engage with others? Is there someone in our community who might need us to extend a welcoming hand?

Written by

Author of 4 spirituality books & 2 poetry collections. Award-winning reporter for Wall Street Journal, PBS-TV, Washington Post & 2 IL public radio stations.

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