Alisa Bowman is usually busy sharing marriage-saving advice on her award-winning blog Project Happily Ever After. But in a recent post, the author of the forthcoming book Project: Happily Ever After: Saving Your Marriage When the Fairytale Falters
shared the story of how she got in touch with her Inner Italian on a stay in Tuscany with her girlfriend Deb Gordon. We loved it so much we asked her to share with SimpleItaly readers.
What Italy Taught Me About Happiness
While in Montepluciano in Southern Tuscany, I stayed at a wonderful, old villa. It was there where I met Daniel (Dan-yel-luh, and not Dan-yuhl), who served me breakfast and dinner most of the days of my stay.
Each morning he greeted me with an exuberant smile, as if he’d been waiting all night just to see me. He reminded me of a Labrador Retriever puppy, wagging his happy tail at every turn.
One day I couldn’t help but ask, “Daniel, are you always this happy?”
He put a finger to his lips, shifted his body weight to one side, and thought deeply for a moment. Then he said, “I’m not sure what you mean.”
“You always seem so joyful. You seem happy and content all the time. You joyfully pour wine into a glass. You joyfully bring dirty dishes back to the kitchen. Is joy your nature?”
He said that it was, but he said it with an incredulous look on his face, as if he assumed that joy was the nature of all beings and that it was odd for me to think that his personal joy was anything beyond ordinary.
And maybe, in Italy—in the land of 1,000 sensual delights—it’s not out of the ordinary. Perhaps, in Italy, people like Daniel are a dime a dozen.
Here in America, though, people like Daniel are downright rare. The Daniels in this country are bordering on extinction.
So naturally I was taken with Daniel, so taken that I fantasized about winning the lottery so I could transplant Daniel to Pennsylvania where he would become my butler. (You so thought I was going to write secret Italian lover instead of butler didn’t you?)
That way Daniel could greet me every morning when his joy filled buongiorno.
But then, Deb, my travel companion, asked, “Do you really think Daniel would ever want to live in Pennsylvania when he could live here in Tuscany instead?”
Indeed, Daniel lives in a world where he is surrounded by beauty. In Italy, creating and admiring beauty is a national pastime. The wine is beautiful. The people are beautiful. The handbags are beautiful. The countryside is beautiful. So is the architecture.
Italians are known for their olive oil, wine, Pecorino cheese (among many other varieties), and handmade pasta.
Americans are known for Ho Hos, Doritos, and spray cheese.
Italians live in homes and cities that date that back thousands of years and are works of art in and of themselves.
Americans live in sub divisions.
If I transplanted Daniel to Pennsylvania, I would suck all of the joy right out of the man.
Still, during my 9 days in Italy, I searched for a way to take a little Daniel back home with me. I made a study of the cultural differences between Italians and Americans, trying to figure out if there was something other than the landscape and setting that made Daniel so happy.
This is what I concluded.
Eating can and should be a sensual experience. I took a cooking class while in Italy. The chef encouraged me to dip my entire index finger into a bottle of olive oil and then suck the oil off my finger. He watched me as I did so, and he clapped and said “ah-ha-ah!” when a post-orgasmic smile and blush took over my face.
Then he proceeded to show me how to make red sauce. The sauce started with an entire head of minced garlic and about a cup and a half or so of olive oil.
With that much olive oil in any dish, your lips and tongue get lubed in such a way that you can’t help but have sex with your food.
But Italian eating is sensual for reasons that go beyond the olive oil. In Italy, food and beverages are works of art. The ingredients are local and they are fresh and they are grown, raised and handled with love. You eat a bite of Italian cheese drizzled with Italian honey and you close your eyes, you put your hand to your heart, and you make all sorts of grunting sounds that you once thought you would only ever make while inside a bedroom.
You eat some American Velveeta and the only grunting sounds you’ll ever make will be a result of the stomachache you experience later in the day.
One experience brings joy. The other brings pain and sadness.
Which would you rather have? I already know my answer.
Italians don’t go on diets. I’m fairly certain that things like Diet Coke, low-fat and low-carb packaged foods, and margarine are confiscated at the border.
I don’t know precisely how most Italians stay relatively thin. Maybe the happiness somehow increases their metabolisms. Maybe they eat smaller portions. I’m not sure. I didn’t see a single Italian out running or power walking, so I don’t believe they are consciously exercising off the calories, either. (The roads where I was staying had no shoulder, were narrow and were populated by speeding, aggressive motorists to such a degree that my friend and I joked, “What do Italians do when they want to commit suicide? They go for a walk.”)
Whatever the Italians do to prevent obesity, I apparently wasn’t doing it. I gained 6.5 pounds while I was there. But I’m not unhappy about that.
There is only one moment, and that moment is now. While in Italy, our GPS broke and, as a result, we spent a lot of time driving aimlessly around the Italian countryside and stopping at various gas stations and asking for directions. (More about that experience tomorrow). There are many peculiarities about Italian filling stations. One of them is that every single filling station has an espresso bar. The other is that you cannot get the espresso “to go” as they don’t have to-go cups. Rather, you sit inside and you drink your espresso out of a real espresso cup. Then you get back in your car and you go.
This is even true at the airport.
From what I could tell, the “to go” container does not exist in Italy.
And this is probably because, in Italy, people do not walk while they drink espresso. They do not drive while they drink it, and I’m somewhat sure they don’t talk while they drink it, either. They do not multitask it. They single task it.
They single task eating, too. I did not see a single Italian reading or talking on their cell phones while eating. When my friend Deb pulled out her iPad at a restaurant so she could jot down a few notes about the experience, the waiter (who’d already become quite friendly with us) gave the iPad a dirty look and then put his fingers to his throat and then flicked them away.
So this morning, I single tasked eating a hardboiled egg. Let me tell you: it was the best tasting egg I’ve ever had. I did not cook it any differently than usual. I just ate it differently than I usually do.
Sex is not just for the bedroom. Everything about Italy is sensual, including the language. To speak in Italian, you must do things with your tongue that, honestly, get me hot and bothered just writing about. When I returned home, I found myself speaking English differently. My English words sound the same, but I’m speaking more slowly and I’m using my lips and my tongue differently. I’m savoring the sound and the sensation of the words.
And I’m doing the same with other experiences. It’s supposed to rain 6 inches today. When I walked out into the rain, though, I didn’t think, “Darn, I’m getting wet.” No, I savored the experience.
It may be true that Pennsylvania is no Tuscany, but that doesn’t mean I can’t still allow every experience—every taste, smell, sound and sight—to make love to my being.
And if I continue to allow these delights to have their way with me, I might continue to feel happy and joyful no matter where I find myself.
Next, Alisa’s traveling companion Deb Gordon writes on Italy and Friendship.