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Letters to Home: An Italian Life Worth Living

November 18, 2011

Kelsey Brown
Letters to Home: An Italian Life Worth Living

Hello, Claremont! I hope you haven’t forgotten about me while I've been studying abroad in Milan, Italy. In case you have, or in case you’re a freshman, or if you never knew me at all, I’m Kelsey. As a Forum regular since freshman year, I feel like I have been expected (by friends and editors - hey Heath!) to write an insightful article about my abroad experience. At first I thought this would be an easy task. I was expecting to have the most indulgent four months of my life, and if Elizabeth Gilbert can write about that, then so can I. Except, as time went on, and I read the blog posts of my fellow classmates in far away locations, I got self-conscious.


I wasn’t sure what I would have to offer because I am fully aware that studying in Italy is considered to be kind of a cop out. Milan is a city filled with fashion models and business men in tailored suits. In comparison to the rest of Italy, Milan isn’t that pretty, but the people definitely are. Women saunter through cobblestone streets in their stilettos, with the breathtaking Duomo in the background. Beautiful men driving Vespas resemble advertisements in fashion magazines. The produce at the supermarket is always fresh and every Italian friend’s family seems to own a vineyard. You are always offered a bottle and are often invited to go visit. Basically, I feel I'm on the most luxurious vacation I have ever had. My apartment has marble floors. I eat Brie cheese for an afternoon snack. I really only have merit to complain about the occasional stench of body odor that is characteristic of some fellow metro riders. Needless to say, I don’t have a rough life here in Milan.


In fact, Italy isn’t really all that different from the U.S. There is a McDonald’s down the street, the teenagers are loud, and you’re not cool unless you have an iPhone. But surprisingly enough, this similarity between cultures has taught me quite a lot. Maybe it’s the fact that I can identify with their lifestyle that makes me more aware of the nuances. I find that many of the things they do in Italy are the same things we do in the U.S., Italians just do them a little bit differently. Their McDonald’s has a café inside, their iPhone plans cost an arm and a leg, and the teenagers – well they’re still just teenagers. But it is the small differences that have taught me so much.


On another note, it came to my attention that the hot topic here on theForum, in regards to studying abroad, was weight gain. Do I even have to explain why that is extremely pertinent to my experience studying in Italy? But, as another writer pointed out, maybe watching our weight isn’t the most important thing in life. Heck, it might not be important at all. But then I prompt the question: what is?


To answer such a question, I thought of trying to describe the things I’ve learned from Italian culture. It is without a doubt that Italians know how to appreciate the small and grand indulgences that life offers (if you want to see for yourself, celebrate your birthday in Italy). But to be honest, this whole experience has moved me - and I still feel like I am completely immersed in it. Come back in a year to ask me what the most important thing I learned in Italy was, because right now I’d probably just say “everything!” After three months, I still have the same “everything in Italy is perfect” kind of admiration. My honeymooner’s eyes have prevented me from being able to fully articulate an accurate description of the colorful attitude that Italians have towards life. All I can say is that Italians just get it. Obviously that is not an adequate explanation. Fortunately, I know of someone who can paint the picture a little more clearly: Roberto Saviano.


Saviano is an Italian writer who published a book, “Gomorrah” (which has since been made into a movie),

detailing the inner-workings of the Camorra, a powerful mafia organization from Naples. As you can imagine, taking on the Italian mafia is no breezy feat. Saviano now lives in a secret location and will have round-the-clock police protection for the rest of his life. But none of this is really why he came to mind when I decided to wonder about what is most important in life. Rather, I was reminded of a YouTube video I saw of Saviano talking about “10 cose per cui vale la pena vivere,” or, “10 things that make life worth living.” From my perspective, Saviano’s list embodies what Italians consider to be most essential. Here is what he shared:

(the translations are of the intended message and are not word-for-word)

1) La mozzarella di bufala aversana. The buffalo mozzarella of Aversana.

2) Billy Evans che suona Love Theme from Spartacus. Billy Evans playing the Love Theme from Spartacus.

3) Portare la persona che più ami sulla tomba di Raffaello Sanzio e leggerle l'iscrizione latina che molti ignorano. To take the person you love most to the tomb of Raphael to read the Latin inscriptions that most ignore.

4) Il gol di Maradona del 2 a 0 contro l'Inghilterra ai mondiali del Mexico '86. Maradona's goal to make the score 2-0 against England during the 1986 World Cup in Mexico.

5) L'Iliade. The Iliad. (It is almost over-the-top how obsessed Italians are with their classical history. As Erica Bellman, who also studied in Italy, puts it “Our Harry Potter is to their Illiad.”)

6) Bob Marley che canta "Redemption Song" ascoltato nelle cuffie mentre passeggi libero. (I can't discern if he's saying "Bob Marley singing 'Redemption Song' while listening to his headphones and walking freely" or "Walking freely while listening to Bob Marley singing 'Redemption Song' through your headphones" – some things just get lost in translation. Story of my life in the last three months.)

7) Tuffarsi ma nel profondo, dove il mare è mare. To dive in the deep, where the sea is the sea.

8) Sognare di tornare a casa dopo che sei stato costretto a star via molto, molto tempo. The dream of returning home after having been away for a long period of time.

9) Fare l'amore. To make love. 10) Dopo una giornata in cui hanno raccolto firme contro di te aprire il computer e trovare una mail di mio fratello che dice: "Sono fiero di te." After a day when the whole world is against you, to open your computer to find an e-mail from my brother that says, "I am proud of you."


Maybe I haven’t done anything during my time studying abroad that is going to change the world, but living in Italy has certainly changed me. I cannot provide you with deep insight into the events of the world today. Half of me wishes I could. But instead, I have been given a different kind of insight – the ability to understand myself. Okay, not completely, but unquestionably better than before. In terms of exploring the self, Italian culture has inspired me in a profound way. If nothing else, I will bring with me back to Claremont an awareness and an appreciation for the important things in my life. My list is not the same as Saviano’s. I’m sure yours is different, too. But if you ask an Italian, the important thing is that you have a list. That you take the crucial moments to recognize the things that make your life worth living. On behalf of my wonderful Italy, I encourage you to take the time while you’re walking to class, going for a run, or falling asleep to think about what makes your own life worth living. You don’t have to be in Italy to appreciate everything that is wonderful. L'amore da Italia, la vita è bella!


(All photos included in this article were taken by the author.)

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