When spending a few days recently in the hill city of Orvieto, Italy I enjoyed an experience that transported me into another culture, and another time, in a way that tourist travel rarely does.
Orvieto is an ancient city that is built on a hill. The ancient town is surrounded by stone walls that were built by the Etruscians. The huge Duomo, gorgeous in its majesty, is in the center of town. It is Gothic design, started around 900 years BC. The town is busy, full of people walking the cobblestone streets and living modern life as only can be done in a city over a thousand years old.
My goal was to walk to the edge of the city, through the oldest parts, so that I could see the equally ancient San Giorneli church. After seeing the still-bright frescos in the church, I wandered outside to stand on the top of the wall and look over the valley. The sun was bright and warm, even for a mid-November day.
My steps took me to a small plaza which jutted out over the hillside. As I approached, I saw a bench at the far most area, and made my way over, hoping to score a brief respite. However, there were three elderly women already sitting on the bench. They were clearly in the middle of an afternoon walk and had stopped to relax in the sun as they chatted.
They watched me draw closer, and when I realized that there was no room on the bench for me I moved to one side, far enough away to not intrude on their conversation. However, they motioned me to come closer, and made it clear through smiles and gestures that I was welcome to join them on the bench. I gratefully sunk down, my knees happy, and settled in.
What transpired next was a treat. The women began to talk in rapid Italian and when they saw that I did not understand what was being said they began to speak around, over and through me. Their Italian became more intimate, staccato, and passionate. It was obvious that they were discussing the news of the village, and providing their opinions about the people around them.
The woman on the left of me began to tell a long story, with the other women occasionally putting in a sound of approval, dismay or surprise. This story was clearly more gossipy and juicy than the earlier stories. I found myself nodding my head in unison with the other women as the story unfolded, even though I had no idea what was being said. Instead of understanding the words, I felt the story and heard the emotions behind the words. The women didn’t seem to mind that I was joining in, rather they made eye contact with me and bobbed their heads in unison.
I heard a few Italian words that are universal: man, woman, familigia, bambino.
In the same way that I might watch an opera in Italian and still understand the story, I knew that this was a drama of magnificent proportions. The sound of the story rose with intensity, and then would drop to almost a whisper. I followed each dip and peak in my mind, creating facts of my own to fill in the gaps from my missing Italian.
Suddenly, there was silence. The last sentence had apparently been so surprising, so shocking to the other women that there was nothing that they could say or do in response. After what only can be rightfully called “a pregnant pause” the woman on my right exclaimed loudly “Mamma Mia!”
After a few more seconds of silence, the head bobbing began anew, with murmurs of dismay (and perhaps some pleasure at the drama of the story). They looked at me knowingly, seeming to ask if I agreed that this was a shocking story. I smiled in response and nodded my head, acting for all the world as if I had a full understanding of the facts.
The women continued to talk; perhaps they discussed a solution to the problem, or a way that they could encourage a more positive outcome to the situation. The tone now was sympathetic, loving. One woman put her arm around the storyteller, offering a physical reminder that she was there to lean on. I made eye contact with her as well, and her soft brown eyes told me that she understood that I was giving her support.
We sat in silence for a few minutes, contemplating the pains and pleasures of life. The sun slowly sunk on the horizon, casting shadows on the plaza and causing the birds to sing wildly. The warmth of the sun was retreating, and I was suddenly aware of the hard, cold stone of the bench.
I knew that it was time for me to go, although I hated to part with my new friends. The women cheerfully waved me on a few minutes later, with calls of “Ciao!” Their smiles warmed me as I made my way down the hill. I felt as if I had participated in their conversation and shared in their emotions. We were one in our fears and concerns for that tiny bambino. We were one as women.
At home that same conversation would have taken place over the phone, or perhaps over coffee at the local Starbucks. I would have commiserated with a friend over her concerns about a child or grandchild, and offered her support through my words and smiles. The shared love would have been the same as that given on a hill so many miles and cultures apart.
Older women around the world know that it is their responsibility to watch out for the younger women, and particularly for the babies, and to comment on the changing times. We mark our culture, communities, and lives by stories, whether they are told at the dinner table or on the gossip bench. We mark our human-ness by the connections that we make with others.