very August, my husband and I travel to his hometown in Calabria for vacation. No month brings Italian families closer than August. Those who moved to the city often go back home.
Since I grew up in bustling Miami, Calabria is always a treat. The food is great, the beaches are nice, and I always find something interesting in the ways and rhythms of small town life.
My husband’s town can’t have more than 6,000 people, which means that everyone knows everyone else, if not by name at least by face. Though summer tends to bring home locals who have immigrated north, the paesani are still not used to seeing a foreign face.
So happens when they spot an unfamiliar face? They stare.
First I thought it had something to do with gender. After all, a female face in a town where there’s an apparent shortage of women (or women don’t leave the house), can ruffle feathers. Or so I thought.
But no. The women stop and stare too.
So many aspects of small-town life can suddenly seem strange.
Take walking around the corner from my husband’s family home to the local shopping “mall.” First, walking is apparently an oddity to locals. People live around the corner from where they shop still feel the need to drive. That means the stores need a big parking lot.
If you walk (five minutes), you get looked at. Not only that, but the cars come up close to you. What do they do? Stare, of course.
I felt uneasy at times. What if someone kidnapped me? (Not so far fetched if you consider that Calabria was fertile ground for kidnappings). But the worry passed. Now I just laugh it off. It’s a bit like being on “The Truman Show.” You are the entertainment.
Then there’s the matter of staying fit. I knew I’d be in Calabria for a longish stretch (which meant big family meals) and wanted to take time out to run (I run and work out in Rome). But I hadn’t seen many runners, let alone women runners.
I could run along the lungomare, the town’s seafront strip. But what to do about the staring? Running and being stared at didn’t seem very inviting. I decided to check out the gym, which was conveniently located near the same group of stores where I had breakfast each morning.
So I walked there in my gym clothes. A bad choice. On the escalator, I heard the women in front of me making comments about my workout attire in dialect – unaware that after a decade I understand it quite well.
True, I could have changed at the gym, but why add another step? Didn’t it make more sense to get there ready to go? Saving time isn’t rocket science. But there are other considerations. Secretly, I think Italian girls actually like strutting into gyms wearing slutty stilettos so that everyone can get an eyeful before the workout.
The gym, I was soon told, was open only three days a week and only in the afternoons. These were their new “summer hours.” Classic.
Once inside, I found only… men. Not one woman. Worse, the receptionist was nowhere to be found. Finally, someone pointed out the owner, who was outside training with one of the men. For split second, I contemplated just going home. But no, I approached him. I was on vacation, I told him, could I possible come in and work out occasionally, paying for each workout session, but be on my own?
“Chi ti ha mandato?” he immediately asked. Who sent you?
Being in paese means that your business is everyone’s business.
I told him and he smiled. His name was Domenico and he set me up on double treadmill. We both hopped on and he enthusiastically explained how it worked and that two people could run on it at once.
I smiled half-heartedly. Did that mean that someone, anyone, could hop on it in the middle of my “run”? I asked him.
Suddenly he understood. Not to worry, said. If anyone jumped on with me, he’d kick them off.
I still hadn’t started running when Domenico started asking questions. Where was I from? Miami.
Ah, he said, in September the gym would have new workout regime, “molto Miami style.”
I was leaving at the end of August, I explained. Several minutes passed and Domenico was still there, talking.
In the end, I opted for running along the beachside — in the evening. I was the only person there.