I once lived in a little mountain village in Italy and my closest neighbor was Angelina, a woman in her 80s.
On a particularly cold March evening when the wind began to howl, I heard a knock on the door. It was Angelina holding a heavy, warm blanket. She winked as she placed it in my arms. On my first Sunday, as the village began to smell of simmering garlic, I once again heard a faint knock knock at the door. In her hands Angelina held a jug of olive oil. There was only one problem with these acts of generosity: Angelina doesn’t speak a lick of English and my Italian was very limited.
My comfort level in the village grew as I began to settle in to the local routine. I had met the bartender, the one man in the village who spoke perfect English. He told me when the vegetable truck came, when to get fresh bread, and what hours the butcher was open. I began to go out for the evening stroll, and learned over the days to shorten, ‘Buona Sera’ to the way the locals said it, simply, ‘Sera’ as they passed one another on the cobbled streets.
With a bag of fresh vegetables in hand one day, I passed the door to Angelina’s home. She swung the door open just after I passed, called out, and motioned to invite me in. She made believe like she was holding a tea cup and sipping a hot drink. We both had a good laugh when she realized that the word espresso was one that I could understand. I went inside for espresso which her husband, in brown wool pants held up by suspenders, made expertly. He took a tiny silver spoon and mixed in exactly the right amount of sugar to counter the bitterness of the espresso. To this day, it is the best espresso to have passed my lips.
During this time spent in Italy, I was working on my Italian every day. Yet my hours of studying yielded less than 60 seconds of results in Angelina’s living room. We covered the weather in broken sentences, how I liked the village. I had a nifty little electronic translator in my pocket, and when I needed a word, I could consult the machine for an answer. I forget what we were attempting to discuss, but at one point, I was trying to say a word in Italian and wasn’t being understood. Thinking I was butchering the pronunciation, I got up from the couch and showed the little machine to Angelina for help. As she looked down at the machine without recognition coming to her face, I realized she couldn’t read.
We moved on to family photographs. She showed me photos of her husband in the navy. Of her children riding bicycles in the laneway outside her front door, and of her numerous grandchildren riding the same bicycles in the same laneway. Her walls were covered in these photographs. At this point, I had few adjectives in my repertoire to use to describe my pleasure in seeing these photos, but I used them all liberally.
Over the next few weeks Angelina taught me things about her way of life. When she saw me hanging laundry in the afternoon she shook her finger at me, suggesting that my laundry wouldn’t be dry by sun down. She was right – it wasn’t – and I had to bring damp laundry back into the house. A couple days later when we were both hanging laundry at 9am as the sun peaked over the mountain, a smile engulfed her whole face. I never was faced with damp laundry at the end of the day again.
Looking back now, I wish I had gone to the vegetable truck with Angelina. I wish I had spent an afternoon watching her cook in her kitchen. But at the time, I didn’t want to invade her private space. That single espresso was the only time I spent in her home, although we spent lots of time gesturing from one balcony to the next.
I wonder how it is possible to have such feelings of warmth for someone I’ve never properly spoken with. While living in this village was lovely for so many reasons, one of the most memorable was learning that communication can take many forms, and my mother was right when she told me about the power of a smile.
When I left the village, Angelina called out to me from the balcony. I couldn’t understand every word but I got the gist: next time I returned, she expected me to have improved my Italian.