Getting through everyday challenges, Italian-Style!

Psychologists have found that certain errors in thinking lead to the kind of stress that can ruin our emotional and physical health. Everyone faces challenges, and sometimes it takes a few tries before we conquer them. A rigid reaction to our challenges, such as believing that problems are permanent (will last forever); pervasive (will affect all the other areas of our life); and personal (it must certainly your fault), lead to the kind of  boxed-in thinking that makes us feel helplessness and stressed out. Stress, I might add, causes reactions in the body that put our health at risk.  A bit of italianita’ anyone?: Try approaching your predicaments with confidence and creativity, and your struggles will lose the power to defeat you.

The late Alberto Sordi, the last survivor of the golden era of Italian cinema, once said in an interview, that Italians—more than anyone else in the world—live by the arte d’arrangiarsi, the art of getting by. The very expression of this concept, which includes the word “art”, connotes the use of creativity in dealing with the kind of bumps in the road we all face on a daily basis. When some people run up against a wall they either bang their heads against it or turn away and refuse to deal with it until stress consumes them. Sometimes they get ill as a result. The Italian arte d’arrangiarsi , implies the option of choosing from any number of trouble-shooting solutions, limited only by the imagination.   In other words, it is assumed that there is never just one solution to a particular problem, but there is always some solution to every problem.  That is where  confidence comes in. The action you ultimately take to solve your problem ,should be the one most likely to keep  your  dolce vita, intact.  Italians don’t get trapped in “all-or-nothing”, thinking.  No situation is either all black or all white.

The Italian culture  is the antithesis of stimulus-response equations, and behavior modification charts. Italians simply do not believe that life is –nor should it be –linear. The next time you face a challenge, listen to the vastness of your own  creativity. Write down all possible solutions on a piece of paper—no matter how offbeat they may seem. Trust that your inner voice will lead you to the right solution. Then select the idea that will help you maintain inner tranquility.  If your first solution doesn’t work as you had hoped,  just go back, select another, and start again; nothing lost.

Sordi once told a journalist that in all of his career — ultimately one that spanned seven decades —the only concept he ever really tried to portray  was the extraordinary capacity of Italians, to rise up above any kind of tragedy, big or small.  “And if no one is there to give us orders”, he said, “ better still. Ci arriangiamo di piu’, we will get by even better.”

Believe in your heart that you have it in you to find solutions that will help you get by everyday, too. No matter what you face.

(Adapted from an article I wrote for The Italian Tribune).  I invite you to share (via email, twitter, etc)  if you love these articles (see buttons below). I also encourage you to press “like” to let me know what you might like for future themes. If you haven’t already read it, you might also revive your passion for Italian with  Living la Dolce Vita: Bring the Passion, Laughter, and Serenity of Italy into Your Daily Life  . Mille grazie!

When in Rome….forget the monuments, go for the lifestyle

(photo by Mauro Scaffardi)

Rome is one of those places that never loses its thrill, no matter how many times one attends a papal audience on St. Peter’s Square, or tries to count the number of holes where the metal bars supporting the marble façade of Hadrian’s Temple used to be, or feels the rhythm of street musicians, artists and mimes along the pulsing Piazza Navona.

While technically you could spend a lifetime re-examining its sundry ancient ruins, churches or museums, with nary a ho-hum, you will never achieve true intimacy with Roma (i.e., amor spelled backwards) if your goal doesn’t exceed checking off famous landmarks on an American-style “to-see” list. An intimacy with this ancient city—as with any relationship—requires that you move to the next level by absorbing the lifestyle of its people.

The route to cultural comprehension through lifestyle, however, can often be confusing for the outsider who wouldn’t dream of coming home without a snapshot of Michelangelo’s Pieta as proof of a vacation well-spent. But here are five ways you can make your next trip to Rome more meaningful, and help you to view your newfound amor with a fresh perspective. If only all relationships were this simple!

1. Go to Rome’s periphery, where there are more natives and fewer foreigners. Right outside of Rome, for instance, are the Roman hills, the Castelli Romani and other quaint towns like Ariccia. Take a short train ride to a place like this and begin by visiting the local store at the train station. Go in and order a cafe and sip it slowly as you watch locals come in and out. Cashiers or the barista who makes your coffee, are most happy to engage in a conversation about their town, and tell you what places are worth frequenting for dinner, a gelato, shopping or for a nice passeggiata (stroll).

2. When you visit a typical tourist landmark, try to look beyond what everyone else is hovering around. I recently visited a beautiful church called Santa Maria in Trastevere. Although this was not one of Rome’s four major basilicas, there were still quite a few foreigners clustering about the most obvious points of interest—such as the magnificent gilded altar, the ancient tomb pieces embedded into the walls and the geometric mosaic tiled floors.

Instead of trying to get up close to a tour guide to get the scoop, or rushing over to what I knew must be a famous tomb or relic, I opted to center myself by taking a seat letting my eyes wander about absorbing every detail within visual range. To my left, stood a life sized statue of San Antonio, covered by and standing in a pile of little folded pieces of note paper upon which Italians leave their prayers, their requests or their expressions of gratitude. What a treasure, I thought, as I took out a piece of paper, and added mine to the collection.

3. Become a regular. Whether a coffee bar along the Tiber, an out of the way osteria or even a pharmacy that you visit for your daily needs, find a place that is far enough off the beaten track to be a local spot, yet close enough to your hotel so that you are able to visit often—and have the opportunity to become friendly with the owner or other “regulars” so you can learn through comments, gestures and daily habits what really makes Rome’s culture tick.

4. Ask a local instead of consulting a travel guide. Recently, while sitting at an outdoor cafe across from the Pantheon, it just happened that a retired Roman philosophy professor sat reading the paper next to me. Before long he began explaining how contemporary Romans react to the ancient architectural treasures, which they see every day—an insight no travel book in the world could have revealed with such authenticity.

5. Engage in local customs. Forget shops designed to attract tourists and opt for shopping for everything from flowers to ceramics at the open-air market at Campo dei Fiori. Instead of using the hotel gym, head to one of Rome’s many squares or the path that borders the long Tiber River for that evening passeggiata. Notice how people interact, walk, and the detail with which they dress. Make sure you stop and rest (and observe) every once in a while on a strategically positioned public bench, where you might even make a friend or a family of friends with whom you may even feel comfortable enough to exchange e-mail addresses. I have made some enduring and valuable Italian friendships in just this way.

There is no better way to know Rome than to gain a deeper insight into the lives of her people. The late Luigi Barzini, one of Italy’s most beloved journalists, once referred to Italy as a mosaic of relationships. That is your tip as to how you can get to know her best.

(Adapted from an article I wrote for The Chicago Tribune Sunday Travel Section). Please feel free to leave you comments, share via email or twitter with your friends,  or subscribe so that you can get my posts delivered to your email. Mille grazie for following my blog!

Why you should always PAUSE for an “arcobaleno” (rainbow)

When I am in Italy I notice how the tran tran of daily life conveys a certain grace in its simplicity. Mountains are first turned into molehills before they are forgotten completely, usually in time for the next meal.  In the land of Popes and sinners life is definitely NOT about slinking by, but about grasping the full sweetness of every experience, even the ones that pain as much as they pleasure. Italian daily life is neither momentous nor remarkable on the surface; yet plunging into its deeper layers is a culture that celebrates the ordinary by raising it up to the extraordinary. Italians approach marinara sauce as passionately as they do romantic interludes.  Their archival memory of battle, political ruthlessness, economic hardship, domination and destruction, have shaped a society that  bounces back from defeat with an even deeper understanding of how important it is to sing, paint, cook and fare l’amore while you can—and that means right up to one’s last breath.

I once asked a number of my Italian friends: “What do you most want out of life?”  This, in a country where a national poll reported that the most beautiful words to Italians are amore, mamma, pace and liberta’: love, mom, peace, and liberty—in that order.   Initially, they were puzzled I should even ask such a question—after all, isn’t life itself its own premio?  To summarize some very long–winded responses (after all, this is Italy, no?), they confided that what really made life worth living was being able to savor the simple pleasures they’ve always enjoyed —una sfogliatella; a playful flirtation; the laughter of un bambino.

Living a “dolce vita” existence is like the  difference between a cellophane-wrapped slice of American versus a richly textured wedge of Parmigiano-Reggiano. It is the difference between caramel-colored cola, and ruby red Vino Nobile. It is the difference between a succession of harried business meetings, and pulling the plug on Time by disobeying the clock.

Pierluigi, a normally reserved university professor, once morphed into Peter Pan at the sight of a rainbow. He left his running car stopped in the middle of road–the urgency of the matter left him no time to pull over, thus creating a major ingorgo, traffic jam–in order to jump out and hoist himself up a nearby pole to get a better view of the celestial arc of color. Still, you got the impression that the ensuing chaos—-clacson, horn-beeping, gesticulations (some obscene), and raised voices— were more an expected ritual than a sentiment of true ire. As if there existed an unspoken agreement among Italians everywhere that a rainbow sighting certamente takes precedence over a smooth commute to work. Behind the ability to stop and notice God’s treasures is a general belief that everything works out in the end (e.g., that traffic will eventually get back to running smoothly) whether you stop to smell the roses (or notice a rainbow) or not. How would you rather live your days?

(Adapted from an article I wrote for The Italian Tribune). If you love this article as much as I loved writing it, please share it with everyone you know , using one of the share buttons below. I am grateful to all of my readers. Mille grazie e a presto!

Amicizia (Friendship) –Don’t over-think it; Just LIVE it!

While Italians love to lure each other into profound debates over politics, wine, or the best recipe for marinara sauce; we generally steer clear of overanalyzing our friendships. Some things are just meant to be lived, not dissected. Researchers agree that over- examining yourself or others can lead to negativity and depression.  Perseverating on human flaws just serves to magnify them—and that makes us feel worse! Let’s face it: If we want to live the dolce vita, there are times when we need to stop thinking, and simply go with the flow.

In 1920 Gordon Allport , one of the most influential psychologists in American history, traveled across Europe to Vienna for a chance to make the acquaintance of his hero , the renowned father of psychoanalysis, Sigmund Freud. As a young man fresh out of graduate school, the awestruck Allport was understandably nervous. In fact, he could barely speak when he finally came face to face with Dr. Freud. Searching for something to say just to fill the awkward silence, Allport began recounting the story about a little boy he observed sitting next to him on the train. The boy was afraid to get dirty, and his mother made him even more anxious. Freud just listened, studied Allport carefully, and then finally replied: “And was that little boy you?”

No, the boy was definitely NOT him, but an exasperated  (and somewhat irritated) Allport realized in that moment, that sometimes” in-depth” psychology , in its attempt to analyze more than what meets the eye— can totally miss the mark. Similarly, when it comes to interacting with friends, a little intentional “shallowness” can go a long way.

Consider the difference between the following conversations:

 Mary to her friend: Jane, I’ve been meaning to bring this up to you for some time now. Ever since I lost my job you’ve been kind of insensitive, and that hurts my feelings. Like the tone of your voice  when I ask you if there are any openings at your office. You seem like it is a burden to even have to inquire for me . I thought our friendship was stronger than that. If it’s going to be like this I really don’t know if we should continue to get together.

Versus:

 Mary to her friend:   Hi Jane, wanna go for a walk? It’s such a beautiful day!   Oh, by the way, thanks again for keeping an eye out for me about job openings in your office. I really appreciate it.

(End of story—sans the drama).

It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out which dynamic helps both parties reap the joy –rather than feel the weight –of amicizia.  As one Italian saying goes:   Chi cerca un amico senza difetti, resta senza amici, S(h)e who looks for a friend without flaws, ends up with no friends.

Instead of perseverating on small irritations, or looking for hidden meaning behind a friend’s word or action, concentrate on the enormous treasure of  just being together!  Refrain from  overanalyzing, and you will have loyal amici for life.

(Adapted from an article I wrote for The Italian Tribune) If you get inspiration from my blog and want to keep it going, please press “follow” and tell your friends about it, too. Hope you will tune in or stream in to my radio show every Monday morning from 7-8AM on 88.7FM or wnhu.net . Mille grazie!

“Il Presente”–Stay in the “Now” for a Lighter Heart

Meditation, prayer, and reflection, have the power to transform emotional suffering into strength and deeper meaning, according to Dr. Valerio Albisetti, author of Come attraversare la sofferenza.” None of us can expect to travel through life without experiencing loss, disappointment, confusion, or hurt. The roadblock most of us face, however, is our inability to stop thinking about past negativity, long enough to enjoy the peace and joy that come from fully focusing on the present moment. If you are absorbed in reading these words, for example; notice how your mind has temporarily blocked out your troubles.

Three decades after her passing, I still cherish the memory of a certain snowy-haired sage, who with her deep turquoise sguardo, spontaneous laughter, and unassuming wisdom, maintained her inner serenity by tending to just one moment at a time.  Libera was no stranger to hardship; but neither past tragedy nor future worries were allowed to overshadow her experience of NOW. Buddhists call this phenomenon “detachment,” which they define as the ability to “let go” and allow life to change as it will, without trying to control events or wish we could change them.  Sounds easy, but it takes practice to keep your awareness on the moment at hand. The amazing thing is, a present- moment focus really will lighten your emotional load.

I can still hear the echo of Libera’s hearty dialect as she relished the pitter-patter of  beans dancing under the faucet in her colander: “ Lava buono ‘a scarola! (wash that escarole well! )”

   I reminded her that even during the Roman Empire, the typical workday ended after six hours—and with a public bath at that. She  invited me to imagine the bucket in which I was to wash the greens as my fancy Roman bath, since that was about as close to it as I was going to get. Then came a roar of laughter, over seemingly little more than a moment celebrated to the hilt. Marinella and Rosamaria were right next to me, fully absorbed in their own moment of kneading bread dough.  Nicola whistled through his moment of tapping what remained of last season’s vino.  Antonella dressed the pomodori precisely and with satisfaction. Luciano carried in more chairs in case anyone else dropped by. Moment after moment of hearts getting lighter, and  thoughts  breaking free of sadness, worry, anger, or fear.  These were joyful moments of just being. Moments of peace.  Moments equivalent to the more formal tools of prayer, meditation, and reflection.

This week, I urge you to start with just 10-minute sessions of  practicing how to yield to the present moment. Focus only on what you are doing AS YOU DO IT. If washing your car, really feel the water temperature in the sudsy bucket, and the texture of the sponge. Inhale the fragrance of the detergent. Think of nothing else but right now. Discover how, at the nexus of each fully- lived moment, awaits an inner peace that heals suffering.

Let me know if you love this post, by pressing “like” or subscribe–and passing it on to your friends. Now you also will be able to tune in or stream in to my radio show “The Art of Living Well” 88.7FM or wnhu.net  from 7-8AM each Monday morning. mille grazie!

How to be an irresistible “uomo italiano”

Marcello Mastroianni

Gentiluomini, if you feel you’ve lost the finesse that makes the ladies swoon, you might consider developing your inner Italian maschio; that chivalrous personality that ignites our passions and makes our hearts flutter. Viva la cultura italiana where men make no apology for their masculinity, and gallant gestures are laced with gentleness, respect, and civility.

      In a land where the juxtaposition of opposites makes complete sense, the Italian male may strut about with head held high, dark wavy hair tousled about invitingly, and a form fitting designer suit, tailored to a tee. Then the leather shoulder purse from which he pulls forth his cell phone to call mamma, which, paradoxically makes him even more maschile—for this unabashed display of tenderness.

         Famed photographer Andrea Blanch, who once interviewed Italian men on the subject of love, concluded that for American women there are three stages to falling for an Italian man: “The first is being swept away. The second is learning the awful truth. And the third is saying “To hell with it”.  The Italian man’s irresistibility comes from his overt celebration of amore.

      Somewhat an extreme example is the infamous playboy Giacomo Casanova (1725-98). This Venetian author, adventurer, gambler, prisoner, soldier and more— had the art of seduction down to a science. Never mind his colorful background, forever teetering on the border of high society and common disrepute: What really had women falling all over him was his flawless ability to make his date feel playful, sexy, and proud to be a woman!  Of course his biggest flaw was his infidelity; and that was no small thing.

So how can you develop the positive qualities of the uomo italiano and avoid the stereotypes that give others a bad name? Here are some tips from your Bel Paese brothers.

  • Always Be A Gentleman. Italian men still hold car doors open for their woman, pull their chairs out at restaurants, offer their jackets when it is chilly outside, and their arm for a passeggiata. Despite what you think, women still love to feel protected, respected, and cared for.
  • Pay Attention to How You Look.  While you don’t have to go as far as to wear a “man purse” you can certainly adopt other habits that Italian men hold dear—impeccable hygiene, and neat, fashionable clothing. One or two well-made suits can offer a multitude of different outfits when you mix and match. Think quality, not quantity, and then pay attention to detail Are your shoes scuffed? Does the tail of your shirt hang out in the back? No, e poi no!
  • Put Your Amore on a Pedestal. Listen to any Italian love ballad and you’ll get the idea. Look into her eyes and convey a love that needs no words. Tell her how bellissima she is, and how much she means to your life. Honesty, of course, above all.

If you follow these guidelines they can work their magic for you, too!

 (adapted from an article I wrote for The Italian Tribune). If you love this post, let me know but selecting “like”, or “follow/subscribe”–and as always, please tell your friends. Mille grazie.

Ciao Bella! (Feminine beauty, Italian-style)

Sophia Loren

What is an enchantress? An irresistibly fascinating woman, who exudes sensual, physical, emotional, and intellectual beauty—qualities that Italian women have been associated with for centuries. Who doesn’t aspire to look like, love like, become like the Italian Enchantress (Calm down Gentlemen, I’ll get to you in tomorrow’s post!)? Italy’s ancient Latin culture has always encouraged the fairer sex to devote guilt-free time to their inner and outer well-being.  Even before the Roman Empire, a long soak in a thermal bath was considered as necessary to a woman’s psyche as beautiful clothes were for her social confidence.  Amiche mie, don’t wait for permission to dedicate a bit of time each day to your inner and outer bellezza.  You are worth it!

The archetypal Italian woman is easily recognizable for her strength, beauty and intelligence; whether adorned in Versace, riding on a Vespa through Florence, or absorbing the sun’s warmth on her hands in the grain fields of Benevento. Most people envision the Italian Enchantress as a beautiful seductress, like Gina Lollobrigida, Sophia Loren, or Monica Bellucci. But in a Roman coliseum of all possible attributes responsible for the Italian woman’s allure, to think only of her obvious physical beauty is far too limiting. Her more important traits include her intellectual strides, her common sense savvy, her earthy self-possession, her gravitational pull towards self-indulgence, her spontaneous creativity, her generous affection, her purposeful self-dignity, and her ageless spirit. And of course on top of all of that–and this is no small thing to the amori in her life—The Italian Enchantress can also cook! What more what can I say?

In a national survey I once conducted entitled: “Attitudes Towards Italian Americans”, “beautiful women” was a descriptor that  often came to mind when people thought of Italian culture. But our Italian sorelle are not the only women privy to the secrets of la bellezza femminile. We are, after all of the same sangue, no? The only difference is that the courage to express our feminine gifts may have dwindled through disuse, to a mere ancestral trace memory; while Bel Paese women have historically claimed their right to nurture themselves without apology or constraint. Move over Sophia, here we come.

Ladies, your homework this week is to revive your inner and outer feminine beauty. One idea is to gather a few girlfriends together, and exchange tips for taking care of hair, body, wardrobe, face, home, intellect, and personal and spiritual strength—all traits that are important to the femininity of Italian women. Another idea is to start a  book club to read about the lives of fully actualized Italian Enchantresses; from Italy’s classic cinema beauties to extraordinary women of substance such as Rita Levi-Montalcini (Nobel prizewinner), Maria Montessori (innovative educator), Artemesia Gentileschi (Renaissance painter), Elsa Schiaparelli (inventor of the shoulder pad), Mariuccia Mandelli (Krizia designer line), Oriana Fallaci (esteemed outspoken journalist), Veronica De Laurentiis (author and actress turned activist) and many others.

If you make personal development a priority, you will experience an unveiling of the inner Italian Enchantress in YOU.

(from an article I wrote for The Italian Tribune). If you love this article, let me know by pressing “like”, “subscribe”–and as always please send the link to this blog to your friends. Mille Grazie.