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The Backbone of our Country: Gli Anziani

But once settling off my honeymoon phase, I saw Italy for being a different type of land: the land of gli anziani!

My first few times stepping foot in the Boot, like for most, was an immediate love-affair. Italy – from the land of Pasta to the land of Gian Lorenzo Bernini, there are not only two sides of her coin to fall head over heels, but an infinite number of treasures in between. Eventually, I committed to this long distance relationship and officially made Rome my new home. It started in my first few early mornings, or if i’m being honest, months, as I would aimlessly wander the streets of my new city, just as the sun and the greater portion of Rome’s people began to slowly rise and come alive once more.

Certainly I thought I would be the only one out at this hour but to my surprise, I was never alone. Each new street I ventured down or corner I turned, I saw an elderly man or woman, either linked arm in arm or da solo, leisurely beginning the day, slowly, steadily, confidently, step by step. Every morning I noticed more and more. I became fascinated with the population so precious and vital, without knowing how to say more than “buongiorno.” The honeymoon phase of my previous trips began to alter course: I saw Italy through a different lens: to me Italy had now also become the land of the elderly, gli anziani

Embedded here in Italian culture is a strong sense of respect given and dignity reciprocated from the nation’s anziani population, an observation undoubtedly seen from a first timer’s trip to a life-long spent here. The elderly are not on the outskirts (not even close!) rather front and center, directly in the middle. They are the soul of Italy that unceasingly enhances the country’s richness and authenticity. From nonno and nonna, to our neighbors and close companions, from street corner to piazza, one bar to the next. The elderly are pillars of this society, they are everywhere; they are the ones we see love, admire, embrace, and most importantly, can learn from. 

Listen more, speak less

As I tried to dig up the courage to speak my newly acquired Italian vocabulary and frustrated over my inability to find the words, an Italian friend of mine, ironically, said to me “soprattutto parla con gli anziani, fatti raccontare cose!” or “above all speak with the elderly. Make them tell you things.” From the glassiness of their eyes to the delicacy of their hands, between the two I saw the stories that needed to be told. So, I did just that, or tried to, piano, piano, afterall! Each morning my adrenaline would invite me out of bed and there I was at 6:45 am slowly finding my way to a spot where I could sit without a time limit. The very few people I was brave enough to introduce myself to were the anziani, and in the beginning, I didn’t say a word, nor did I need to quite frankly. 

I learned the art of slowness and observation; the value of listening more and speaking less. So I listened and listened and listened some more. Let the older, and frankly wiser, do the talking. But when it was my time to talk, I asked questions. There is a mastery of storytelling the elderly have that deserves to be shared and heard, and the transmission of stories shape both giver and receiver. There are stories about life, love, hardship and then there was that of Salvatore: he reminisced, describing his first visit to America where he met and fell in love with a beautiful Girl. They drove all through Detroit together. He told me his story with nostalgia, sweetness, and laughter. For him I became that person to share his sweet youthful memories with, someone who took the time to listen; listening is a form of care. 


The art of aging 

But age cannot define them, and doesn’t define them. Maybe the most cliche saying in the world yet it holds true: age is just a number. To learn the art of aging is a lifelong task the elderly have seemingly-so-effortlessly achieved. Age is not scary or fearful, but rather fully embraced. First, of course, there is the physical, exterior, la bella figura, that hardly goes unnoticed. The elderly who we surround ourselves with were influencers before influencing was even coined — the ones who are some of the best dressed in town. But we must never forget the mental side, too. I became aware of this rather quickly, and that is this: the mind is strong, powerful, and steady, and if you learn to control it, you can be very happy, too. I was told this by an elderly man by the name of Franco, a widower who lived in the same neighborhood for nearly 80 years. What started out as admiration quickly turned into friendship. He would catch my eye as I would pass him daily on my morning walk, the smell of coffee guiding the way through his cobblestone streets of Trastevere. 

One morning we were chatting as he stood with his hands behind his back, one wrist wrapped by the fingers of the other hand with a slight lean forward, a rather iconic stance for many of the men around here. I quickly complained how hot it was this early in the day, not being able to get enough of my cappuccino freddo. He looked at me, chuckled and said “Gabriela! — the city is caldissima , but I remind myself each day I sit out in this sun that it’s all in the mind.” He continued “I say to myself: Franco, it’s not so hot, maybe it is even perfect… Everything you do is in your mind!”  With the sincerest smile I may have ever seen he says, “Just like age, my body may be different, but life isn’t short if you don’t think of it that way.”


The act of routine

If nothing at all, it all boils down to the act of routine, from a morning passeggiata, to the evening game on TV, pasta for lunch at 1:00 pm sharp, jumping from one outdoor market to the next, carrello della spesa (supermarket cart) always rolling behind. The elderly find passion, joy, and love in their daily activities, even the most simple. A favorite of mine is “prendo il giornale.” Firmly gripped in hand or tucked snuggly in a back pocket, the thick black-inked packet is always in arm’s reach. Read once, twice, even three times per day — evidently, there is something to be learned. Of course it is not just about reading, but learning, socializing, concentrating, sharing, and informing. The newspaper is a ritual, a symbol of their lives. There is a lovely couple who I see every time I venture around my neighborhood. My local barman tells me that this couple walks 25 minutes from the bordering neighborhood, every morning without fail, for their morning breakfast and reading side by side, passing pages left to right, in a perfect circular motion, every so often pausing for a small bite or sip. 

Italy’s senior citizens are very social in nature, not necessarily because they have to pass the time; there are many other things they do love and practice daily. Some like to venture to centro anziani to meet friends, play bocce or dance, some to the salon or afternoon gelato. But when they spend time at home, family is a part of the equation. For my grandmother, her day wasn’t over until she had one guest, whether it be a family, friend, or stranger. To her everyone was part of her extended family, sitting at her kitchen table experiencing the warm hospitality she always delivered. When I was younger I always wondered how she still had the energy to entertain the way she did, a full spread on the table or freshly made afternoon coffee and merenda. My fondest memory of her is her reply: “It’s important to find what you love, whether it’s someone or something, and once you find it do it every day. It is your life, it is your routine.”