But There Is Nothing Here!

To anyone planning a trip to Italy, I highly recommend that you do just the opposite: Do NOT plan it.

Trip Italy
Photo: Paolo d'Andrea, Unsplash.

To anyone planning a trip to Italy, I highly recommend that you do just the opposite: Do NOT plan it.

Whenever I am in Italy I have a penchant for staying in tiny towns. Inevitably, after seeing me for several days, because I also stay at least a month in each place, a shopkeeper, a barista, or some other local resident will ask me two questions, in this order: Da dove vieni? (Where do you come from?) and Perché stai qui? (Why are you staying here?). After I respond, my interlocutor will always then say: Ma qui non c’è niente! (But there is nothing here!). trip Italy

It is an interesting comment. Obviously they are here, as is their shop or their bar or their house. Inevitably there will be also a bakery and most likely a post office, a bank or at least an ATM, a school if they are lucky, one or more churches without fail, agricultural fields, forests probably not too far off, and so on. So, in other words, there is in fact always plenty of ‘here’ here, or ‘there’ there, as Gertrude Stein might have observed.

Nevertheless, Italians who live in small towns — typically up in the mountains or out in the country, less so on the coast, but sometimes there also — are puzzled by my decision to choose their little village as my place of residence for an extended period. As a writer I am fairly self contained: as long as I have a bed, a shower, a kitchen, a washing machine and access to the internet, I have everything I need. Or, in other words, a place that has those things has plenty of ‘there’ there.

For tourists, I imagine that their definition of ‘thereness’ would be quite different. While I appreciate interesting and unique features of a town — great nature walks or architecture for example — they are not essential. Or to put it another way, every town has interesting and unique nature walks and architecture, simply by definition, but I suppose not everyone would see it that way, given the remarkable variety of landscapes and townscapes that are on offer in Italy.

One way to think about places is to use a simple equation: place = space + meaning. Well, space is everywhere, and meaning comes not only from the material characteristics that give a place its form: hills, valleys and plains; rivers, trees and fields; streets, railroads and buildings; humans and other animals… but also of course from our particular engagements with and valorization of them.

For some reason, I have a fascination with hardware stores, ferramente in Italian, and can happily spend an hour or so browsing in one, especially in the countryside where I am sure to find implements that are foreign to me, being by birth and breeding a denizen of city and suburb. But even the things I am familiar with, paint brushes for example (I have been a house painter off and on throughout my life), come in strange new forms I have never seen before in the United States. Forgive me, but one of my first and most memorable experiences of Rome was the discovery of a round paintbrush in a hardware store in some neighborhood somewhere in that fantastic city, not an artist’s brush mind you, but a large one meant for painting houses or perhaps also for large outdoor applications, such as a mural.

So I have no problem whatsoever arriving in some small town in the middle of nowhere, far away from features that a tourist would typically look for — a spectacular cathedral, some kind of nightlife, lots of restaurants, some other places of amusement and divertimento — and be completely happy there for a month or more.

I take so much fulfillment in my daily trip to the bakery, the grocery store, and the bar. If there is a fresh pasta shop, a farmer’s market, a particular local feature — a special hill or beach — I consider it a bonus. Sometimes a local will take me to a special place that has acquired its meaning through history or legend — a place where something happened or is supposed to have happened, maybe real or apocryphal, but it doesn’t matter because meaning is meaning, and it does not necessarily have to be connected to some kind of material reality.

I have passed through places that I found off putting. There was something about their vibe, something in their design or the energy of the inhabitants, some element of the arena or the performances within it, that rubbed me the wrong way. And so I left there after just a few minutes, maybe a morning, having decided that I did not like it. But I know that if I had stayed, I would have eventually come to understand the beauty of the place. I would have found the places that worked for me, that allowed me to create or find meaning: il forno that I liked, il bar, il negozio, that fulfilled my needs.

There is a phenomenon that is described by a simple phrase: beautiful place, ugly people. All too often it is unfairly applied, because quite often one can find beautiful places that also have beautiful people, in other words, places that are beautiful materially and whose inhabitants share that beauty because they connect to it and benefit from it. But I find another formulation more interesting: ugly place, beautiful people. This I find to be more common and much more appreciated. Somehow, people who have overcome the adversity and challenges that their physical environment impose shine more brightly with a beauty that is harder to find in places that are more blessed by nature.

To anyone planning a trip to Italy, I highly recommend that you do just the opposite: Do NOT plan it. Just arrive at the airport or train station and follow your instincts about what to do and where to go. In this way you will have a real adventure, and having to make do with what you find, where you find it, you will create the beauty that you are seeking, wherever you are.

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