Post #4: Una Settimana in Luserna San Giovanni

We arrived in Luserna on a Saturday night. On Sundays, the town practically shuts down. Few of the many restaurants and markets are open for business. The ones that are operate under a modified schedule, open for only a few hours. Considering our empty fridge and equally empty stomachs, this was a concerning discovery for our first morning here. Luckily, one small cafe was open. We stumbled upon it accidentally on our first of many strolls through our new neighborhood.  It was hidden by a building that was hidden by another building on side street that could have easily been mistaken as a driveway had it not been for a small faded sign that indicated otherwise. I delivered my well-rehearsed line “Io no parlo Italiano” to the waitress. She pointed inside the restaurant then outside while simultaneously asking “Interno o fuori?”  We opted for fuori, and took our seats at a table outside in the sun.

Despite our language barriers, we ordered our first Italian coffees and sat there like  sponges, absorbing every detail of the world around us. Two dogs trotted along the L-shaped patio, stopping by each customer for a quick back rub before moving along to the next. When new people arrived they were always greeted by name. Marveling at the friendly exchanges between the people at their tables, I sipped my espresso and processed an unfamiliar combination of emotions. I became overwhelmed with the idea that, yes, we were in Italy.  And, yes, these people were my new neighbors. It was with these realizations that I became eager to learn every detail of my new surroundings. That was exactly what I set out to do on my first week in Italy…

Given its small size, familiarizing myself with the geography of Luserna San Giovanni was not a challenging endeavor. It is organized in my mind as having two sections, Downtown Luserna and Luserna Alta. We live in the latter. From Torre Pellice, you first arrive at the downtown portion. Here you find countless shops, newsstands, playgrounds, and markets scattered throughout a square mile of area. To get to Luserna Alta from there, you must pass through a rotary (rotaries are everywhere!), cross over the Torre Pellice River, and continue up a steep winding road. Alta means “tall” in Italian, and, very fittingly, Luserna Alta is situated at the top of this tall hill.  To get to our apartment, we take a left around the hilltop rotary and follow the narrow cobblestone path to the church. From there, a right and two lefts down residential streets bring us home.

With its collection of small family-owned shops, Luserna Alta is similar to its downtown counterpart. However, it is undeniably smaller, quieter, and older. (This is not to say that downtown Luserna is a modern-day bustling metropolis, but comparatively speaking…) The church and its beautiful bell tower are exquisitely preserved artifacts of the 1600s. The church serves as the epicenter to the surrounding piazzas. Walking around town feels like walking through a picture in a world history textbook.

The majority of Luserna’s residents are a lot like its buildings… old. There are little elderly people everywhere, sweeping imaginary particles from the streets in front of their homes, riding mopeds to the market, and congregating on benches to keep watch on the town. It’s safe to say that between being American and being under the age of 85, Kevin and I do not blend in.

In an attempt to learn more about Luserna, I introduced myself to nearly everyone I met: the town butcher, market owners, coffee shop employees, bank tellers, bartenders, elderly neighbors, and restaurant managers. I met a Giuseppe, Immelda, Bruna, Daniella, Livio, Fabrizzio, Maria, Ginetta, Mariana, Gigi, and more Paolos and Marcos than there are Johns and Matthews back in the states. Being such a small town, tourism is not a component of the culture here and, as such, few of the people we’ve met speak any English. Nevertheless, everyone is incredibly friendly and welcoming and they seem utterly delighted to see us when we stop in for a cup of coffee or groceries. I am grateful that Gabriela, Andrea, and the little girl in the pink backpack were just the first of many wonderful people we would meet here.

As expected, the culture is very different than it is back home. The most interesting adjustment has been the daily routine. Breakfast, colazione, is not an important meal for most Italians. An IHOP would go out of business in a day seeing as most people opt for an espresso, and maybe a croissant or salami sandwich in the morning. Lunch, pranzo, is usually a three course meal consisting of pasta, beef, salad, and, of course, wine. These meals are always followed with una caffe. Except for the restaurants that serve lunch, all other shops close down from about 12:30 to 3:00 on a daily basis. They reopen for a few hours in the afternoon, and then the crowds head to cocktail hour and finish up their day with a late dinner, la cena.

Like Americans, the Italians love their coffee. Caffe bars can be found on nearly every corner of every street (think Dunkin Donuts on Route 1 near Boston). Despite the prevalence of coffee houses, I have yet to see a drive-thru coffee stop or even a travel mug for a regular cup-o-joe. I suppose it’s because drinking coffee, like everything else here, is a social event. What fun is it to drink a coffee on the go when you can drink it in the company of friends? Since there is no such thing as being in a hurry in Italy, what’s a ten minute chat with some pals over a caffeinated beverage? Most people stand at the bar to drink their orders, chatting with someone they inevitably know that happens to be in the same spot doing the same thing. The standard coffee options are caffe, caffe con latte, or cappuccino, each costing about 1 Euro. The espresso options are served in little doll-sized teacups and I find it endlessly amusing to watch big (at least by Italian standards), burly loggers stop in to sip from such dainty and delicate dishware. Pinkies up!

In brief, an adequate description of the day-to-day routine here is: talk, eat, drink, and repeat. Work is occasionally added into the mix. As evidenced by the prevalence of Centurians in my neighborhood, this seems like to healthy way of life. I can’t imagine that the extended life expectancy of Luserna’s residents is attributable to diet seeing as they eat pasta like carbo-loading ultramarathoners. Maybe it’s the wine. Or, more likely, it’s their relaxed approach to life. The mathematician in me wonders, what’s the correlation between stress level and longevity? I will get back to you on that one, but I’m guessing there’s a strong association.

In addition to studying the culture of Luserna, I dedicated a large portion of my time this week to learning Italian. I always carried my Italian-English Dictionary and a composition notebook to which I added new words and phrases throughout the day. This notebook, offers much amusement to my self-appointed Italian mentor, an older woman who owns a coffee bar in downtown Luserna. I met her my second day here when I stopped in for gelato. She seemed to find my lack of Italian endearing and since then, has taken it upon herself to spend time talking with me on each subsequent visit. She doesn’t speak English, but she says that listening to her language is the best way to learn it. So, she talks and I listen. Sure enough, I understand more every day.

It wasn’t until my third visit with my cappuccino-making Italian teacher that she caught a glimpse of my notebook. She had just introduced me to her son-in-law, and I flipped to its “Family Members” page to find the Italian translation for the relationship. (It’s genero for future reference).  She asked to see the book, and, slightly embarrassed, I handed it over. She was impressed as she flipped through the pages, reading several words aloud to her fellow baristas and customers. They complimented me enthusiastically on my efforts, but all I could imagine was a red sign above my head flashing the Italian word for “geek”. Every day since then, she’s asked if there is anything new in my notebook. And, I always reply “Tutti i giorni, a poco a poco”.

To celebrate the closing of our first week in Italy, Kevin and I headed to the pizza place at the Luserna Alta rotary for dinner. It was our second time there in three day’s time and the owner greeted us warmly. We surveyed the menu and placed our order confidently in Italian. Just like on our previous visit, our dinner came with two beers. This time, however, we were given a brand of beer taken from the back fridge instead of the one by the register. There was a sparkle in the owner’s eye as he handed us the cans and spoke excitedly (in Italian, of course) about the Birra. It took some effort on his part before we were able to understand what he was trying to say. Mainly, these were the good beers, reserved for his favorite customers. Once Kevin and I made this translation, we were delighted. Not only had we made a successful translation, but we were also deemed worthy of special beer! We were gleaming with pride as we paid for our pizza and wished our friends good night.

On our way home, pizza box in hand, we reflected on how far we’d come in a week’s time. It seemed like years had passed since our first colazione at the tucked-away trattoria. In only seven days, we learned our way around Luserna, and were receiving customized greetings “Ciao, Sarah” and “Buon Giorno, Kevin” from various shopkeepers and residents of Luserna. Once back at the apartment, we gushed that we were becoming a part of the community. We poured ourselves a glass of vino bianco (1 Euro for a whole bottle!), and happily recounted our tales of progress.

It was then, at the height of our overconfidence, that we opened our box of pizza to find that what we thought we had ordered and what we had actually ordered were two different things entirely. With one glimpse at our dinner, we were brought back to reality. Yes, we have come a long way. But, we clearly have a long way to go.

From our experiences this week up to and including our pizza topping miscommunication, I’ve come up with the following words of wisdom: Just when you think you are getting the hang of it, you find out you ordered sausage and french fries on your pizza. Buon Appetito!

Cobblestone Street Luserna Alta
The Hill Leading up to Luserna Alta
Walking Along Torre Pellice River in Luserna
Another River Shot
Little Huts by the River
Old Walkway by Our House
Since the streets are so narrow, you have to use mirrors while driving to look out for oncoming cars.
The Chiesa in Luserna
The Church's Clock Tower
One of the many Gelato spots we've visited!


  1. Beautiful blog entry, Sarah...it really gave me a wonderful glimpse into your life in Luserna and wow, it's beautiful! Love you, Mom

  2. What a great writer you are! You give such a wonderful picture of the culture and it's people.. I just love the pictures.... you'll have to take one of your "mentor"! love you too! Cathy

  3. I translated the quote to your mentor 'Tutti i giorni, a poco a poco”.....
    "every day, little by little! "

    That is great Sarah!

  4. Beautiful photographs. Luserna is very beautiful. I was there in 2007, and was delighted. Greetings from Argentina.