It’s a small world

~a column by Colleen O’Brien

I’ve been in Italy seven days and can get neither my phone nor my computer to work, so I am writing – hand-writing – this column.

It has been 39 years since I hand-wrote a column. It is almost as if I don’t know how to think, the process of hand-writing is so foreign to me now after all these years.

My hostess is happy for me that I can get no news via my phone or my computer; she believes that my nearly non-stop following of the political news the past three years in the States has ruined my sense of humor and my perspective on life. She thinks I’m gloomy.

This interesting woman once lived in Jefferson for a decade or so and “LOVED” it (she was speaking in capital letters with the “love” word). Now she lives in Italy, according to her a country more corrupt politically than the U.S. has yet become but still, a good place to be.
“So, we live our lives,” she said. “We plant our flowers and vegetables, take care of our peach and nectarine trees, prune the olive trees and cut the wood for our stoves, mind the bureaucracy as much as we must…and just live our lives.”

I’m sure there are many people in the U.S. who do the same – ignore politics because they feel the corruption is beyond anything they can do anything about.

The red tape in Italy is longer, wider and stickier than the red tape in American bureaucracy. It is not said outright, but there are hints (or gaps in conversation) that make me think that paying the local bureaucrats has happened in their lives here. In the U.S., ordinary people, as far as I know, do not have to pay off the garbage collectors or county clerks if they’re getting permits to build a house or put up a fence. Maybe influential fellows like presidents do, but I don’t know anyone of my income who does.

In southwest Tuscany, in the little hill town of Paganico, 961 folks live in their 13th-century village on the top of a hill surrounded by walls that house a bank, a caffé house/bar, a school, small businesses, a frescoed church, homes and apartments, a piazza and one pizza joint, lots of trees and flowers and charming if difficult-to-walk-on narrow cobblestone streets.

Being away from the U.S. at Christmas for the first time in my life is interesting; at least with this couple, because of how and where they live in their adopted country. They have no TV.

Because it’s difficult to get help in a timely manner, they have learned to install kitchens, bathrooms, electricity, wood-burning stoves, roofs, floors, windows – jack and jill of all trades – and grow things, save bees by planting the strawberry tree that bumble bees love, rescue baby lambs lost from the neighbor’s herd, instruct the other neighbor how to grow organic olive trees, teach the whole farming neighborhood how to grow corn for people, not just for pigs (my hostess learned about sweet corn during her decade in Jefferson). They are busy all the time and eat at least four times a day.

They spend plenty of time online, but it’s time looking up the how-to’s of new endeavors – how to cook fava beans or figure out how to make a cheap wood-burning stove strong and efficient. They know the politics of the world, including their own, but life in the moment, mindful and meditative, is how they prevent the chilling news of the worst of human behavior from impeding their calm and fruitful lives.

My hostess did tell me about the march against a right-wing politician that she and her friends were intent upon – a protest in Grosseto near where she lives, or one in Rome, about two hours away, which wound up with 40,000 people. With no flags and no signs, no yelling but lots of singing, the protestors (called sardines because they pack so many of themselves into the plazas of Italian towns) marched in the rain, a sea of umbrellas all that the media could take photos of, singing an Italian resistance song from 19th-century Italian women protesting the harsh conditions of working the rice fields of Italy: “Bella, ciao, ciao, ciao”; anti-fascist partisans on the march again.

The fellow they sang against, Matteo Salvini, is a blustery far-right, strong-man politician with quite a following in the province of Emilia-Romana (Rome). He is the one who wanted the ship’s captain jailed: but Captain Carola Raketa, who picked drowning refugees out of the Mediterranean, has most of the country on her side. The populists are not afraid of the refugees, my host said, “coming to eat their pizza.” They are humanitarian in their thinking and would like their elected leaders to be the same.

It is similar to the feelings about migration in the western hemisphere – the people of the U.S. who are not afraid of Latin Americans at our borders versus the people who believe what they are told by politicians about opportunistic folks coming to rob and rape us.

It is a small world, after all.

Colleen as tourist met the pastor of the Church of San Michele Arcangelo in Paganico, Italy, while investigating his chapel. Don Roberto invited her and her hosts to the evening’s chorale, seen in this photo. Three-hundred people listened, sang, clapped and rocked out to world-acclaimed singers, Vocal Blue Trains (gospel-rock-pop-jazz), from Florence, Italy, for two hours. As a visitor to the ancient Catholic chiesa, O’Brien was awed by the voices of the Blue Trains, the acoustics of the 13th-century building, and the size of the crowd in the little town of fewer than a thousand.
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