It was time to meet my host family in the Villa Rossa, the main building on campus. My roommate Kate and I sat among a mix of American students and Italian adults in a large lecture room, and I couldn’t help but look from face to face and wonder who would be my host. The process was nerve-wracking. The program director would call the names of the students and their family, one at a time, and they would meet at the front of the room in front of everybody else. When it was our turn, the adorable woman who stood up to meet us caused an “awww” to arise from the group in the room.
Maria Pia, our hostess, is 85 years old and four-and-a-half feet tall and has short gray hair. Though slightly hunched over, she moves well. She met us at the front of the room, shook our hands and we embarked on our way to our new home.
We arrived at our street and followed her into our first floor apartment, then into the room that Kate and I share. It’s a large room with a window overlooking the street and is equipped with two beds, desks and closets.
We also have our own bathroom with a shower that you can barely turn around in. The rest of the apartment is tastefully furnished, with a kitchen overlooking a small courtyard. We also met Maria Pia’s husband Aldo. He asked that we call he and his wife Nonno and Nonna, or grandpa and grandma. They own a small dog and a cat as well.
Nonno and Nonna do not speak any English. This worried Kate and I at first, but we’ve been able to manage so far with hand gestures, butchered Italian and a language dictionary. Luckily, the first night, Nonno’s cousin who speaks a little English came to dinner and was able to do some translating.
During that dinner, we discovered that Nonna’s food is simple but fantastic. She served us potato-stuffed ravioli with tomato sauce. They were so delicious that Kate and I had second helpings. Then we realized that the ravioli was only the first course. Nonna brought out dish after dish containing chicken with lemon and herbs, fried potatoes, salad and cherry ice cream. By the end we were staving her off with “Basta! Basta cosi!” (Translation: Enough! I’m full!) Although Kate and I drank water, Nonno had at least 5 glasses of wine. He encouraged us to try it too, saying something along the lines of “Water is poison! How can you drink it?”
Even though we don’t speak the same language, I’ve been able to get a sense of Nonna and Nonno’s characters. Nonno always seems contented and peaceful, and he has a good sense of humor. He’s constantly making jokes even though I don’t understand them most of the time. The dog, Bianca, follows him around the house and sleeps beside him while he watches TV, and he starts off every meal with “Buon appetito!” Nonna, meanwhile, is a force. She speaks quickly and is supreme ruler of her household. One time the dog was barking too much, and she shocked Kate and I by hitting it with an umbrella to quiet it. At the same time, she is the definition of motherly. She’s always asking if we’re eating enough and whether we’re comfortable, and she accommodates every need.
We were warned that Italians don’t have any sense of privacy, so much so that the word doesn’t even exist in Italian. Nonna follows this mold. She tidies up our room while we are out, straightening up our belongings and making our beds. Rather than this being an invasion of privacy, however, I see it as a thoughtful act that speaks to the strong emphasis on family in this culture. There are no barriers or secrets. Only affection and intimacy.
While I’ve only known them three days, I can already tell that I will grow to love my Italian family.