“Just breathe,” he says as he gestures around the coffee shop in pure Italian fashion – as if to say “Look around at where we are, what is there to stress about?” I was interviewing a local expat for an article in International Living, and we were talking about that moment that most foreigners have to face when they arrive in Italy: that moment where nothing is working right, and no one seems to really care to do anything to fix it, or it isn’t their job to fix it, or fortheloveofGod, you just put cheese on your seafood pasta and now you’ve pissed off the entire waitstaff and the cook is sneering at you from the kitchen and no one told you that vacationing would be so difficult sometimes. Then there’s us, the ones that call Florence home, the ones that have absolutely made all the mistakes you are making but we did them a long time ago and now have gotten the hang of it. So we look at you struggling and gently tell you to calm down because – is this thing that big of a deal? If you’re walking around Italy, most of the time, that glitch in your Tourist Itinerary 2018 may just lead you to an even better experience than you had originally planned.
So we teach those that visit to breathe as we learned to – to take deep breaths of this country and culture and listen instead of speak. Use the lungs to fill your senses with the food and the wines. Take just a moment – but savor that moment to stop your day and have a chat with a friend over an espresso. If things don’t go right, there’s always tomorrow. If something is closed, we’ll wait for it to open. If the mail gets lost, well, we learn to mail important things through FedEx and just send prayers to the others. In the meantime, now that our schedule opened up, let’s get a pizza across the street and a glass of champagne and enjoy the afternoon. These days happen – and this is why I learned to breathe.
Yes, Italians sometimes get upset when things go wrong – it isn’t all calm over here by any means. Start talking about politics right and they’ll talk your ear off (about theirs and yours, mind you).To see real anger, walk into any government office and if you’re there long enough (you certainly will be if you actually have to get something done), you’ll see screaming Italians with voices bellowing, finger pointing and (with Florentines at least) yelling swears that still surprise me when they come out of little old ladies.
What people don’t understand, is to get someone to that point here, they’ve probably already had a week’s worth of commuting from one office to another with false or confusing information (God forbid if they had to use the buses en route), and someone just told them that they’ll have to wait until after the lunch break.
So now, there’s an angry Italian storm brewing in their veins and, just like an espresso, their brew time is precisely 20-30 seconds if you get them to the boiling point – so you better get your story straight fast and brace for scalding hot rage when they have finally had enough. But, that is mostly only in extreme instances where someone has been pushed to their limit, so let’s get back to the point:
I, too, learned to breathe since I’ve been here. I’ve learned to make schedules extremely vague and know that maybe the day I had planned won’t be what actually takes place. I’m ok with that, and most of the time, I embrace it – because there are moments in every day to discover someone or something, to have that conversation. I breathe when I purposefully get lost on a walk with Stitch only to find an abandoned park filled with overgrown grass and bright purple flowers under silver-green olive trees, and I take even more time to watch the sunset and fill up on water from the fountain. This is living in Italy. I breathe because if I do, I can take in more around me, I can understand this world a bit better, and I destress while I do it.
But I still hold my breath every time I wake up to the news in the morning.
“Just breathe,” many say to me as I launch into another issue where a human isn’t being treated correctly – because all of this – the immigration, refugees, the LGBT, the women’s rights, the police aggression, healthcare, Islamaphobia, religious wars, bombings, shootings, oil wars, barbed-wire borders, they all have to do with sad humans, upset humans, young humans, old humans, humans with different languages, humans with pain that they can’t get rid of, pain that they don’t know what to do with. I can’t breathe when there are sad humans. I have traveled and I have spoken, and I have read and, most importantly, I have listened. These voices echo in my head day by day – so loudly that I can’t breathe, so loudly it seems that they swarm into my lungs and I can feel their desperation, and their frustration, and all of a sudden I’m out of breath with them, because in some ways, I am one of them. We’re all gasping for air.
Just breathe – they say. Take time to be happy. Stop worrying, stop complaining. You can’t handle dealing with this every day. You can’t handle the stress. I just told you I breathe. I told you I stopped and smelled the purple flowers and I obediently sip my cappuccino and I smile when I’m happy – because I am sometimes and this beautiful country makes me breathe – and so I do, but then some days, what happens in the world knocks the wind out of me, and suddenly life isn’t on the same path that it was yesterday because someone that isn’t even paying attention to their actions changed the path of my life, my husbands life, with a signature. I’m suffocating again.
I don’t want to handle any of this. I don’t want to spend my days reading lawsuits and government-issued policies, pouring over more than most of the politicians probably have read. I don’t want to have to hold my breath while I read facebook comments spewing words that come gargling from froth-corrupted lungs of propaganda from both sides. I don’t want these thoughts to be my every morning, every evening, every pause between deep gasping breaths of fresh air that I try and take in between the billowing clouds of pain and sadness of the world.
But if we all just use all of our energy to scream LALALA to drown out the hate and the blame and the suffering and the cries for help – just so we can breathe easy through our privilege lives that don’t physically touch these issues, then what will we do when we run out of air and no one can scream for us – the ones just yearning to breathe free.