August 22, 2003
So, I had a bit of an epiphany the other day.
I had to go to the doctor’s to have him take a look at my hand which, truth be told, has been hurting me for months now, but as the mother of a toddler I am no longer allowed to indulge in luxuries such as timely medical attention or peeing in complete privacy. Anyway, I headed off to the doctor’s...no, wait. I’m skipping a step. To make a long story short, our family doctor has his olive grove bordering on our olive grove above Capodacqua, so he spends lots of time talking This Year’s Harvest with my father-in-law Ugo when they run into each other out there (often, it seems, since my doctor appears to visit patients a total of two hours a day). Unfortunately, whenever I stop by Dr. Bensi’s office with some minor complaint or prescription to renew, he invariably settles himself down for a nice satisfying chat about fertilizer and pruning techniques. This used to be a bit of a problem, since I have something to confess. We all have our dirty little secrets and this is mine: I don’t really know all that much about the daily workings of our farm, Brigolante, my home for the past ten years. I often have guests at our agriturismo ask me things like how many pigs we have in the barn, and I look them straight in the eye and respond: four females, two males, and 14 piglets. I’m lying. I don’t have the faintest idea of how many animals are in the barn, what is planted in the north field and the running market price of barley. In fact, the last time I was in the barn was Christmas eve 1997, which began with an emergency 1 a.m. porcine birth, and faded out to a touching scene of me, attired in a cocktail dress and black pumps holding a slop bucket in each hand filled with squirmy, slippery newborn piglets while my husband, in suit and tie, whacked at the glowing new mother with a broomstick to get her to lie down and nurse, both of us cursing our neighbors Peppe and Gentile with all our linguistic creativity for having invited my in-laws over for a late game of cards.
Back to the doctor story. For about the first eight years I lived here, I would no sooner step into Dr. Bensi’s office before he would whip off his glasses, lean back in his chair, and bark, "Is Ugo spraying his trees this year?" and I would stare at my shoes in shame and mumble something under my breath about how I really wasn't sure and the rest of our interview would be terse and stilted and I was starting to worry that I was receiving substandard medical care because of this whole olive thing. However, being the kind of gal that takes a bull by the horns (after almost a decade of mortification) I now arm myself with knowledge before my doctor visits. Or, I always mean to, but seem to forget until 3 minutes before I’m supposed to leave for the appointment, which results in much frantic driving in my 4x4 from field to field searching for my father-in-law in blind panic, until I come upon wherever he is tilling, and pick my way across clumps of freshly plowed dirt in heels and a clean skirt until I’m within shouting distance and screaming over the noise of the tractor, "How’s the olive harvest this year?" which, what with the engine roar and Ugo’s encroaching deafness, inevitably leads to a vaudeville-esque routine of him yelling back, "No, thanks, I don’t want a beer!" and me replying, "No, the OLIVE HARVEST THIS YEAR!" and him looking at me quizzically, "Yeah, the sky sure is clear" until I finally mime for him to shut off the damn tractor and repeat myself, at which point he really looks disconcerted, because, as I have already established, I’m not exactly in the habit of talking crops with Ugo. Then his face clears and with a look of comprehension he yells (my father-in-law yells even when there is no farm equipment to compete with), "Tell the Doc there isn’t a damn thing to pick this year!" and I take off at a lumbering sprint back towards the idling car.
So, the other day I marched confidently into my doctor’s office and deployed a preemptive strike before the good Doc even got out "Buon Giorno". "Doc," I said, "Ugo says there isn’t a damn thing to pick this year" at which point Dr. Bensi yanked off his glasses, tossed them on the desk, and leaned back in his seat with the air of a man vindicated. This segued into a 15 minute conversation with me doing lots of nodding sagely and um-hmming and desperately trying to convey the image of someone who has the least opinion of whether or not this year will be worse than the harvest of ’83, if plowing or leaving meadow is wiser with this kind of heat, and if old Mario’s team of pickers skim off the top. Having successfully navigated these rocky waters, we were able to move on to talk of my hand. (Any of you still with me here will remember that this is how the whole thing started.) While the doctor was printing out the forms for an x-ray and specialist visit (which you then have to take to the hospital and wait in line to book an appointment, then come back for the appointment, then come back for the results of the appointment, then go back to your family doctor for follow-up, because Italy is many things, my friends, but user friendly ain’t one of them) I made some crack about starting with the minor ailments of advanced age and Dr. Bensi immediately replied, "No, you’re only 32." I automatically opened my mouth to correct him because, Lord knows, I’m only 31, before I realized with a bit of a shock that, in fact, I am 32.
Now, I’m not one of those people who really cares all that much about aging...no existential crisis or leaving my husband or anything for my 30th birthday (though there has been a noticeable proliferation of face creams in the bathroom over the past couple of years, because if it’s a battle against time I’ll go down fighting). As the great James Taylor said: The secret to life is enjoying the passing of time. Of course, his brain was completely fried on acid and we all know how he screwed things up with Carly, so as a mentor he’s a dubious choice at best. Anyway, I am usually one of those people who takes successive birthdays with aplomb. But I suddenly had that recurring vision of myself sitting across the desk from a balding man in a white coat staring gravely at his hands intoning, "Ma’am, I’m sorry but you only have 55 years left to live" except all of the sudden he was intoning 54 and I felt a year had been shaved off my life. It was clearly time to regroup, reflect, reevaluate my priorities.
As soon as I left the doctor’s I immediately ate a big Magnum Double Caramel ice cream bar, because with only 54 years left why bother dieting? Then, I resolved to catch up with my son’s baby book. I am one of those masochistic freaks of nature allegedly keeping a baby book. I say allegedly because I haven’t actually touched the thing for six months, which doesn’t seem like much time until you consider that he’s only two, so that’s roughly a quarter of his life left undocumented. Anyway, I feel it’s important to have something to page through sixteen years from now during the drive over to the police station with my husband, who has been dragged out of bed along with me by a 2 a.m. call from headquarters requesting that we come collect our son who has been picked up for drag racing/underage drinking/smoking reefer behind the school. It will remind me what a beautiful miracle he is and keep me from throttling him on sight when we get there.
But what this feeling of evanescent mortality really got me reflecting upon was the difference in how age/aging are perceived in Italy as compared to the States, and how the US is fundamentally much more of a youth oriented culture. This is actually a theme I have occasion to contemplate every three months when my college alumnus magazine arrives in the mail. There are good and bad things about having attended a top university (besides, of course, just another prestigious bumper sticker for your parents to add to their collection. My father claims that he keeps so many in clear view as an explanation to the world in general as to why at his advanced age he still can’t afford anything better than a beat up ’91 Mazda minivan with cracked windshield and left rear fender held on by duct tape): the good thing is that you meet all these highly intelligent, motivated overachievers. The bad thing is that you meet all these intelligent, motivated overachievers, so as I peruse the alumna news section of the magazine I get to say to myself, "Why look, there’s Mary Jo! What’s she up to these days? Oh, Supreme Court justice, mother of six, Olympic archer. And here’s Billy Bob...hmmm Nobel prize winner last year, adopted 12 Brazilian street children, recently sold an investment property for six million" by which time I am turning the bathroom upside down searching for a razor blades and lamenting loudly to my husband about how I am a worthless piece of dog doo wasting my life away. Just for kicks, I’m tempted to write in, "Rebecca, who busted her a** to graduate with honors in Political Science/International Relations, now lives on a farm in the middle of nowhere, where she spends her days crashing her computer and fishing legos out of the toilet and lists among her hobbies stain removal and butchering of the Italian Language." That’d make ‘em green.
What I’m getting at is that many of my contemporaries are quite far down the path of career and family and financial stability in the States, and this is accepted as just and good. Consider, however, that in Italy the average age of a college graduate is 27.8 years, after having studied for an average of 7, according to the August 7 issue of Panorama magazine. This means that in the US a graduate enters the labor market at least five years before her Italian counterpart (though, to clarify, many Italian degrees are the equivalent of US graduate degrees, such as law and medicine). Once out, Italian graduates face an incredibly stiff labor market...roughly half of all unemployed Italians are under 25; 1 in 3 people under 25 are unemployed according to Paul Ginsborg.
There are numerous complicated reasons behind the lengthy stays at universities and youth unemployment, but the point I’m trying to make here is that most of our thirty something friends and acquaintances here in Umbria are only just finishing school and beginning their first jobs, not working on second homes and retirement packages. It’s a little bit of a chicken and egg question, but this later start into career seems to have affected expectations for young people in general. In the US, by thirty you are expected to have your act together, or at least go into massive credit card debt to cultivate this image.
There is no such pressure here in Umbria. Thirty is considered just about right here for kids to start moving out of the family home, getting married, starting a career. There is no sense of failure, or even showing up late to the game, to be pulling in your first paycheck at 31, and the youngest small business owners I know are...me and my superhusband, who founded his own company last year at the age of 34 after waiting for four years. The wisdom was for him to start up something in his name at 35, since clients don’t really trust anyone too young. He stuck it out until 34, and then decided to roll his dice. (I’m not counting here the numerous friends we have who have entered into their historic family-run business, which is by far the most common model in Umbria.) This later blooming is accepted on a political level as well. A law passed in 2000 offered cheap government financing for "young entrepreneurs." The first version of the law defined a young entrepreneur as up to 25 years of age, the next version up to 30...to make a long story short, the definition for "young entrepreneur" is now until 40. 40?!? I know American kids who have retired at 40 (okay, I don’t actually know any, but stories circulate).
On the flip side, Italians seem much more comfortable with growing old. There is so much pussyfooting around the word "old" in the US. No one is old anymore. They’re older, or elderly. In Italy, old people are just old and make no bones about it. At a certain point, middle age women who routinely dye their hair a strange shade of copper, dress in tight jeans and stilettos overnight morph into bowed little old ladies wearing Queen Mother shoes, who garden in wool tweed skirts and take bus trips to places like San Giovanni Rotondo or Lourdes. It happened to my mother-in-law (okay, she’s never worn jeans, but you get my meaning). My grandmother in Chicago at almost 80 still dresses in velour track pants, blindingly white tennies, power walks the mall each morning, and would probably be offended to hear herself referred to as elderly. Her big source of pride is that they still ask for ID for the Tuesday retiree discount at Dominick’s Supermarket.
So I’ve come to the conclusion that your life as an adult is brief here in Umbria, Italy. You don’t grow up until after 40, and suddenly by sixty you’re primary concern is playing bocce and ballroom dancing. I’m happy to find that I am still in the flower of my youth here, quite precocious on a professional level, really. And, in moments of alumnus rag self-doubt, I comfort myself with the thought that thirty years from now Mary Jo, Billy Bob, and their kin will be dead of stress related cardiac disorders while I will be here in the Bel Paese, dressed in a support stockings and kerchief boarding a coach for La Verna.
* The above article was written by Rebecca Winke, an American living on a farm in Umbria, Italy (view the Brigolante holiday apartments here). This piece was first published on the excellent SlowTrav site.
* Article copyright ©2003 Rebecca Winke.