Thursday, February 7, 2013

A Day in the Life: Reciprocity in an Umbrian Hill Town

I had a remarkable couple of days last week. Not because anything particularly huge or important happened to me, but because of a series of events that, while normal to the people who live in Allerona, were, once I thought about them, really quite remarkable when seen through a stranger’s eyes.

It started last Thursday. I had to go to the hospital in Orvieto for a routine doctor’s visit. But let me preface that by saying that lately, going to Orvieto—or rather, getting to Orvieto, is anything but routine for me. Since October, I've not driven farther than Allerona Scalo, about 7 kilometers from our house. I am without an Italian driver’s license, and though my US license has not expired, I can no longer drive legally in Italy. 
This would totally be me if I get stopped again
by the carabinieri. Image courtesy of
Upon establishing residency in Italy, I had one year to get my Italian driver’s license. I still haven’t done it, and I can’t squeak by anymore. The process of studying for and getting my license, not to mention my case of winter cabin fever that’s the stuff of Edgar Allan Poe, are the subjects of another blog post, which I will write. After I've passed the Italian driver’s test. Which I will do. Soon.

But back to my story. I had to get to Orvieto Hospital for an 11 am appointment. I asked my mother-in-law, Franca, to ask my sister-in-law, Anarita (they live on separate floors of the same house) if by chance, she had Thursday off and if so, did she by chance need to go to Orvieto?

It turns out that Anarita did have the day off, and did want to go grocery shopping in Orvieto. Perfect. She and Franca could drop me at the hospital, do their shopping and come back to get me.

Since it’s difficult for me to get to Orvieto, I decided to take advantage of the free ride and make a hair appointment as well. My hair would take hours to color and highlight, but Diana, Paolo’s cousin, would pick me up from the salon in the late afternoon, since she had to go to Orvieto anyway. Everything was falling into place nicely.

Oh, and my baby? No worries. Margarita, our morning babysitter, would stay late until Franca and Anarita passed by our house, after they’d dropped me at the salon. They’d pick up Naomi and take her to Franca’s where she’d stay until I could come get her after my hair was done.

Your Italian family will take you where you need to go.
Image courtesy of
The plan seemed golden, and started off well. I exited the elevator at the hospital to find Franca and Anarita waiting at the bar (yes, our hospital has a bar, but it’s a coffee bar) to take me up to my salon in Orvieto Centro. Except I couldn't reach Diana to reconfirm that she’d pick me up at the salon. I called her mother, Graziella (they live on separate floors of the same house—are you sensing a pattern here?), and she told me that Diana had been unexpectedly called into work and could not pick me up at the salon.

I kept my appointment, as Anarita assured me they’d find some way and someone to pick me up. Paolo called me around 2 pm from Franca’s, where he’d gone for lunch, to say that his brother-in-law Giancarlo (Anarita’s husband) would come get me. When should he leave for the 20 minute trip to Orvieto? I asked the hairdresser, and we agreed that I’d be done by 3:15 or 3:20 at the latest. Except that at 3:05, it was clear that we’d need more time for my hair. I called Anarita’s house, but Giancarlo had just left for Orvieto. Damn, I thought, he’s going to be annoyed at having to wait.

Just don't complain about the method
of transportation.
3:20 came and went, as did 3:30, 3:40 and its cousins. Finally, at 4 pm, as I was paying my bill, my phone rang. It was Cecilia, Anarita and Giancarlo’s oldest daughter (and Paolo’s niece and Franca’s granddaughter). Oh no, I thought. They’re waiting in the car and wondering where the hell I am. But no. Instead, Giancarlo had called his home, because he didn’t have my number, to tell his wife, Anarita, to call me to tell me that he was parked in front of a church a hundred yards or so from the salon. Since Anarita couldn't find my phone number, she had Cecilia call to tell me this. I trotted to Giancarlo’s waiting car and upon entering, apologized repeatedly. No worries; he didn't mind waiting.

The next morning, Friday, I had to go to the doctor’s office. On this day, there were six people in the waiting room ahead of me, including Antonella, Paolo’s mother’s first cousin, who lives in the house next to Franca and is married to Peppe, who is a longtime friend and coworker of Paolo’s.  Antonella’s father is Zio Mario, the 96 year-old “little” brother of Franca’s father and Paolo’s grandfather, our beloved Nonno Gino. You still with me?

Antonella had arrived early and was the first one in and out of Marco’s office. She was going to the grocer in town; did I need anything? Trash bags, I said. I was in urgent need of trash bags.

Meanwhile, Paolo’s cousin Diana sent me a text that she was going to stop by the house around 9 am to show me photos from her recent vacation. I texted her back that I wouldn't be there at 9, because I was waiting to see the doctor. She texted back, asking if, since I was at the doctor’s anyway, I would get prescriptions for her Nonna Rosina (who is the mother of Graziella). No problem, I texted her, but which ones did she need? No reply. Finally, as it was close to my turn to go in, I phoned Graziella. She needs all of them, Graziella said, “especially the one for depression!”

They will come clean your house.
Nonna Rosina is 94. She has dressed in black since her husband died decades ago. She never leaves the house except to hang laundry out on the front terrace. She won’t hold Naomi because country lore is that old people’s breath is bad for babies. Seriously? Antidepressants? I have to wonder how those are working out for her…

By the time Antonella returned with my garbage bags and change, I’d forgotten that I’d asked her to buy them for me. Finally it was my turn to see Marco, and I got the prescriptions I needed, plus a stack for Diana’s Nonna Rosina.  (We do have the equivalent of HIPPA laws in Italy, but I guess Marco figures I have little need for high blood pressure and diabetes meds, or anti-depressants.)

Carmine, the pharmacist next door to the doctor, filled some prescriptions and had to order others to be delivered later that afternoon. I had a few euros with me, which covered the cost of mine, but I didn't have the €10 needed to pay for Rosina’s. No problem, said Carmine, pay me later. He also told me to remind Franca that some of her prescriptions would be in that afternoon.

They will babysit your children.
I took the prescriptions to Graziella, who pulled €10 out of her purse to pay me. Not me, I said, you need to pay Carmine. But she didn't want to walk all the way up to the town piazza, where the pharmacy is located, as it was a cold day and a steep climb from her house.  Franca has to go anyway, I told her, just tell her to pay him €10 and give her the money later. Problem solved. Oh, and yes, Graziella would come to my house later that afternoon to babysit, because Franca was not available for her regular afternoon Naomi-care.

Like I said, just a normal couple of days in Allerona. For as much as I’m already well aware of—and indebted to—my new family’s willingness to help one another, I’m still blown away by it from time to time. No one thinks that doing for others is a big deal, or an imposition. They know that when the time comes, others will do for them, too. It’s a way of life and a way of thinking that I hadn't had much experience with prior to moving to Italy. Maybe that was partly my own fault, but I think it has more to do with cultural difference than inherent selfishness. 

They'll even let you adopt their cool nonno...
It’s easy to get fed up with the pettiness and banality of life in a small Italian town, especially if you haven't driven more than 7 kilometers out of town in four months. So it’s a very good thing for this straniera that normal, ordinary, remarkable days like these happen to me every so often. 


  1. Sometimes I think families in America (at least in modern, metropolitan America) are like little isolated islands where the parents are beyond exhausted with the relentless demands and the kids are bored/lonely/spoiled. We could so benefit from a shift to more interdependence, a la Allerona. On the other hand, I do value my privacy, and I really wouldn't want my MIL or SIL in my underwear drawer. Something in between, though, sounds lovely.

    Wonderful blog! I hope things are going better, economically, for your family and Italy as a whole. I look forward to more posts as time allows. And a recent picture of Naomi wouldn't be amiss, either. :-)

  2. Stephanie - I'll see what I can do about a new picture of Naomi. ;)
    And you hit the nail on the "free" help here comes at the price of some of our privacy. But at the end of the day, the trade-off is worth it, even if I do bristle at the invasion from time to time.
    Thanks for reading and commenting!