Wednesday, 16 February 2011, Lunigiana, Italy
There is a sweet, gentle, short-sleeved linen smell to well-groomed elderly European men, particularly in a village where age is honorably earned, and in no way a social affliction punishable by isolation. So much of Italian culture is its seniors, the storytellers that keep Italy alive with folklore and a bubbling ideology simmering in an iron cauldron beneath a weatherworn mantle. They are active in their lives, and the lives of all other villagers, a lifetime of engaged bodies living in every way possible, undetectable decline that is the twilight of years occurring gently, naturally, and peacefully.
Toil is in the blood, each day one of not- necessarily systematic doingness, the very doingness that embraces beingness, keeping glints of youth’s hope alive and well. Never in my life have I seen a society of body and soul in unison. Never does one exist exclusive of the other. Engaged are the facial muscles, each one linked to a particularly passionate trigger. In essence, without the musculo-facial system, there would be stories failing to carry on, loves never expressed, and warnings falling on deaf ears. For an Italian, in every way possible, there is so much more to life than words can ever suggest. Life is lived with every pore, expressed in every digit, squeezed through the eyes and lips, and given back to the Earth after a long and complete life. Perhaps not worthy of a Bestseller, but certainly fullness, richness to the end of your days. You don’t grow old miserably here, nor do you do so quickly or without grace. You are never alone, nor ashamed of no longer being what you once had been. In fact, you are still that one, underneath lines and sun spots, dignified as ever, as you groom, maintain, chop wood, carry water, make, do, go, see, love, bitch… until you perish into the collective history of a well-preserved library of European lives well-lived.
I am sitting in a bar on Wednesday morning with a less than satisfying caffe latte, but only because I meant to order a latte macchiato, but forgot to mention the macchiato part. At the five-week mark, I am beyond the coffee honeymoon stage and am therefore able to distinguish between qualities of bar coffee. What would happen in The Slow Life, were espresso to become contraband? How slow would slow become? Perhaps the childhood fable about the tortoise and the hare is more prophetic than the average children’s folk tale, perhaps slow and steady does indeed win the race. For a person in his seventies in Italy is barely considered a senior, his lifestyle a continuum of the turning wheel, a fully engaged body and soul, and a face that is manifest destiny. It is not so rare for one outlive a century, and I theorize that long life is attainable with a life of purpose, no matter how grand or sweet, for without purpose, without meaning, we are all simply waiting to die. A peasant’s country’s legacy is the dignity of self-sustaining independence. Everyone is a part of the wheel, each one significant in the chain of survival. Paolo, the cheese man, has a life paved with primordial knowledge of cheese as the art, the craft, and the staple. A piece of history is each and every bite in this country, as is each citizen at any age. Slow life is not sedentary life, but is steady life, and it wins the race. Isn’t it a big win that each of your days count for something, and that you are loved and respected and embraced at any age?
Convenience is a wolf in sheep’s clothing, its very nature to assist us in creating our own death. Fast food. An electric can opener. Escalators. Saving time and energy means wasting life, where a task could have otherwise engaged one. What quality of life is all this providing, and it is all worth it when we grow old with nowhere to put our hands, or our passions, if we have any left. The elderly in Italy are both the watchmen and the ambassadors for the village, preservers of history, and tellers of tales. They are in bars, at the open air markets, grocery shopping, gossiping on street corners, playing cards, sweeping stoops, giving the eye to a passer-by, working in fields, hanging laundry, shelling chestnuts, and drying porcini mushrooms. Daily life keeps them vital. Having survived such a rich and treacherous history and passing stories along keeps the eye glint ignited. I have yet to encounter a mobility scooter, walker, excessive weight, nor a clothes dryer. On every balcony are clothes drying racks and out every window hang last night’s bed linens. Age-old wisdom extols the virtues of fresh air for the laundry and for the little quandaries of daily life that the breeze never fails to carry away.