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The Italian Story Teller

How Italians’ natural gift for storytelling enriches our connection to life, food, and people in Italy.

I consider myself lucky to have grown up in a particularly creative household. My grandfather was a poet, my dad is a painter, my oldest brother is also a painter and cartoonist, and the rest of us either write, paint or play instruments as a hobby. We grew up in a house covered in art and with a strong impulse to express ourselves in some creative form, but mostly, we were encouraged to tell stories. No matter the expressions we chose, we were taught from a very early age that stories and storytelling are the best ways to understand the world we live in, ourselves, and others.

In a way, I think that’s what helped me feel so quickly at ease when I arrived in Italy 6 months ago. It’s as if my childhood in Uruguay was a preamble to my Roman future: the art covering every square centimeter, the history carved in the walls, and the food always reminiscent of something (or someone) important in our lives. Stories are everywhere in Italy: both in everything you see and, as I quickly realized, also in places hidden to the naked eye.

In just over a season I´ve been living here, I’ve traveled through the country, from Venice to Leuca, appreciating the wonders of Italy. I rapidly got the memo that each region has its own identity with traditions and clear food-related “rules”, and those are some of the things that make Italy such an incredible place to discover. However, I also found something that Italians everywhere seem to have in common that brought me back to my artistic upbringing. It’s something that isn’t easily sensed unless you pay attention: Italians are masterful storytellers. 

My first real encounter with an Italian was with Flaminia, a cousin I didn’t even know I had when I moved here. She invited me to get some coffee and on the second text she added, “And we´ll save some time so I can tell you everything about my favorite story: the one about our hotel in Isola del Giglio.” Wait. What? We haven’t even met each other and you’re going to open up to me like that? For someone who considers personal stories almost sacred — and who, despite my own family’s love of storytelling, comes from a country that has yet to discover the advantages of being vulnerable —, this made me realize that she considered this a priority, a necessity. If not, how could we possibly get along without knowing who each of us is? 

That afternoon we walked around the historic centre of Rome getting to know each other. I was in awe of her story but also of the way she was telling it. It came so naturally to her to unfold layer after layer while her whole body, especially her hands, moved as if they were dancing to a hidden soundtrack for each situation. At that point, I realized this particular way of telling stories was a new artistic expression I hadn’t been introduced to yet, so in every encounter since, I´ve been trying to look further into it. 

A few months later, my husband and I planned our first vacation to Puglia. We had heard, read, and watched so many things about this region that we thought we were ready for this trip. But then we got to our B&B in Porto Cesareo and found Daniella and Dino, our hosts, who quickly began telling us the story of their house and how they got into the hosting business. “When I was younger I used to clean bathrooms at nightclubs. I remember very clearly telling myself while I scrubbed toilets that this wasn’t going to be what I will do for the rest of my life. I always knew I was going to host people at my place and make them fall in love with Salento.” And so, after grappling with life for a while, he finally did. 

Throughout the rest of our stay, I realized that Dino’s story wasn’t the only one being told. Every time we woke up to have Daniella´s royal breakfast, she would spend a considerable amount of time sharing the story of that day´s dolce or formaggio — formaggio Leccese, of course. We heard her story every morning for a week, intrigued by the way that something so motionless like a piece of cheese could actually be a pandora box of stories. She navigated through every detail about the recipe, then the ingredients, and later how each bite made her feel. She would show details of the cheese with her hands as if showing precious jewelry and point her eyes straight to mine to check if she was being as clear as she was intending. And by the way, she said every word so passionately that, before even tasting anything, I could feel the same things she did too. 

Daniella and Dino´s stories showed up seamlessly, but they made our stay a 360-degree trip for the senses and provided us with a whole new layer of experience in Puglia. To this day, it was her detailed storytelling and unwavering commitment to helping us internalize the Leccese identity that struck me deeply and stayed with me more than anything. 

The final leg of that trip was in Valle d`Itria in a B&B close to Monopoli. We were welcomed by Carla and Marco, a young couple who had recently opened their newly restored Trulli. While we sat under an olive tree shadow overlooking the incredible work they had done, I couldn’t believe the place where we had landed, and I also couldn’t wait for what I was pretty sure would come next. While Ulisse, their dog, ran around the olive trees and the smell of freshly brewed espresso slowly approached, Marco sat with us with clear eagerness to tell us how everything came to be.

He told us the stories about the olives and fruit harvest around the hotel, and how neither of them was living in Italy when Marco proposed to go back to the place he grew up and start from scratch. Carla, who was pregnant at the time, could not entirely see Marco’s vision since she hadn’t grown up in Puglia but trusted his instinct that life there would be amazing. They spent 6 months looking for the right trullo until they fell in love with one and started a tedious and bureaucratic restoration process. There were a few pandemic battles in the middle and the imminent challenge of a baby on the way, but despite everything, you could sense by his tone of voice that they are the biggest fans of their own journey. That day, we had a million plans for our first afternoon in northern Puglia, but the fascination with which he told the story made staying under the olive tree listening to him the best plan of all.

I could go on reliving these situations that seem to repeat in a non-monotonous way. I could talk about the hairdresser’s life in the film industry in Miami and later settling again in Rome. Or about Vincenzo, my neighbor, a restaurant manager from Naples who opened a small trattoria by the end of the lockdown. Vincenzo is an open book and each time I say “Buongiorno, Vincenzo!”  it’s as that’s his cue to start reciting a new chapter. He lays his elbow on the truck that’s been parked in the same spot on our street since we got here, then holds his cigarette with the other hand, and starts story-dancing his way through Neapolitan tales. I feel so lucky.

Whether it’s conscious or not, I found that Italians are naturals at telling stories and they do so in a way that makes something seamingly uneventful, the best way to spend your time. As it happens in the Italian culinary world where they make the best dishes in the world with a handful of ingredients, they are able to take a few moments and make them fable.

This new and heartwarming expression of storytelling made all the difference to me.  This is what made Italy — and Rome — my home. Thanks to these stories, I don’t just see the ruins, frescoes, bridges, pastas, dolci, and hand gestures. Now I´m aware of all these tangibles, but also understand the joys and struggles that make them. I´m aware of the shape of a trullo but also the sweat behind each layer. I´m aware of the ingredients of every delicious meal but I also know there is more to explore in every piece of cheese and loaf of bread. I think I get Italy, and Italy gets me, and I can’t wait to hear all the stories I possibly can.

Stories are gifts that bring people closer, connect us deeply, and make us more human. That´s why I think Italians´ stories are so precious: they give you a chance to belong and are the ultimate path towards understanding the magical wonders of the Italian gioia di vivere.