The act of making friends with someone from another culture, in another country, while learning their language, is completely different from making friends with people from one’s own country, with people who share a common language.
In Italy, my friendships usually started at one of the many pasticcerie, ristoranti, or shops Donald and I frequented. In time I’d learn bits and pieces about people, but because of my lack of language skill, I had little real knowledge of their lives or their interests, political views, values, community standing or economic situation. I made friends with Italians based on little more that whether or not I liked them and felt that they liked me, whether or not I thought they were friendly and kind. Because of my poor language skill, it was important that I felt a “connection.”
In the States, I met most of my friends at college, in the workplace, in my neighborhoods, or through other friends. I was drawn to these friends because of common interests, similar political views and shared values. Most often we enjoyed similar economic circumstances, not to mention some sort of chemistry or connection.
In the U.S. it was unlikely that I would make friends with someone who was blatantly sexist, homophobic or racist, someone who held vastly differing political views or someone with little to no shared interests or similar economic conditions. That resulted in most of my friends and I being rather alike.
But, in Italy, that manner of making friends and knowing one another wasn’t even possible. With little exception, I had no idea about my Italian friends political views, their economic status, or their deeply held values. In fact, when making friends in Italy, none of those things even occurred to me. Nor did they matter. I simply liked the person or people. It was an experience that I found completely freeing, exhilarating, in fact.
As expected, my friendships with Italians developed slowly. It was as if these friendships were being uncovered, which made sense. After all, as my ability to speak the language grew, my ability to develop deeper friendships strengthened as well. Only time passing told me about the views my Italian friends held. And,, when that happened we were already friends, having shared experiences and a level of trust and enjoyment of one another. So, if I found, as I occasionally did, that one of my friends had vastly differing views from mine, I was inclined to be more open, more accepting of their differences, more kind.
Donald and I made friends with Stefania and Francesco when they owned the bookstore, Liberia Massoni, in central Lucca. At first, we knew little about one another, but we clearly liked one another. Our friendship grew slowly. We learned they were from Ravenna, the city known for mosaics, in the Northern region of Emilia-Romagna. On multiple occasions, we dined together, scouted Tuscany’s fine ristoranti, and on occasion traveled with them to their Ravenna home, where we met Francesco’s 90-year-old mamma, explored the city and took in the amazing collection of the town’s mosaics.
Eventually the couple moved back to Ravenna and some years later Donald and I decided to visit them. We spent four days with the couple. The four of us watched our friend Dianne (from Portland) compete in the World’s Championship Dragon Boat Races; we visited Faenza, the ceramics capital of Italy; we once again explored the beautiful mosaics of the city; and, we went to the tiny country of San Marino – it was the 46th country I had visited, allowing me to place another check mark on my bucket list. But mostly we talked, about our lives, our families and our hopes for the future.
On our last night in Ravenna the four of us went to Passatelli, a ‘tipico’ Ravenna restaurant, named after the flourless pasta found only in the region Emilia-Romagna.
We raised our glasses in a salute to family and friendship. “Cin cin,” we avowed, using the Italian salutation that always amused me, as it sounded more Chinese than italiano.
“Cin cin,” we repeated countless times.
The pair filled us in on the goings-on of their daughter Ida, who, at the time, was in love and attending university in Milan; Donald and I caught our friends up to date on the adventures of i nostri nipoti (our grandchildren) and let them know that, finally the State of Oregon had recognized same-sex marriage. “We are legal, once again,” I said.
“Complimenti,” they both said, followed by another, “Cin cin,” unaware that a month later the United States Federal Government would also legally recognize our marriage.
We left the restaurant shortly before midnight and began a lingering walk back to our hotel. It was a warm night and, with the stone street lit by the moon, a very romantic one. Stefania and Francesco walked ahead of us. They were holding hands. I looked at my watch. It was just past midnight, which meant it was Stefania’s birthday. I nudged Donald and the two of us began to sing Happy Birthday. Stefania and Francesco stopped, turned around and smiled. We kept singing. As we reached, in perfect harmony, the final stanza, Stefania started clapping and when we finished, said, “Ancora.”
So, we sant the song in Italian.
“Tanti auguri a te; tanti auguri a te…”
“Ancora,” she said still clapping.
We then sang the one song we had sung dozens of times to our grandkids and the only other song we actually sang well, I’ve Been Working on the Road. When we finished she clapped again and asked, “One more?”
“We only know Christmas carols,” I said.
“Cantiamo,” she yelled out enthusiastically.
Without another word, the four of us grabbed one another’s hands and sang “I’m Dreaming of a White Christmas.” For a moment, under the moonlit sky, it had seemed like Christmas.
That night, I laid in bed thinking of our friendship with Stefania and Francesco – I know that both Donald and I feel real love for them – and once again, I was struck by how my quest to learn the blessed Italian language had brought me so much more joy and love than I ever imagined. Learn Italian, make friends, and fall in love!