You know you are settled into a new place when daily occurrences warrant being called ‘typical’. Here, there is the 7:00 airing of Who Wants to be A Millionaire. The howl of the neighbor’s Beagle following the drone of a passing car. The way the sun passes through the dining room on its way behind the mountain. The inevitability that, upon entering or leaving the apartment building, I’d cross paths with Giovanni. Giovanni, the vibrant old man, the “master-gardener of this estabishment”, the generous grape-giver… my friend. That is why, two Saturday’s ago, it was no surprise when, on my way out the door I met him in the stairwell.
I was carrying five bags of recycling from our second story apartment to the streetside bins around the block. Coming out the door to our apartment, I heard someone whistling a happy tune. The notes bounced off the granite steps, echoing upward and outward from the basement. When I descended the final flight, I nearly collided with the jubilant Giovanni. He wore his trademark smile and held a basket full of tomatoes and greens. With my arms clenched awkwardly around three too many bags of plastic bottles, the conversation was shorter than usual, but fulfilling nevertheless.
He told me about his day’s work in the garden, and how much he loves being outside. He talked about the changing weather, the chilly mornings and warm afternoons that are characteristic of the area. Then, as usual, he asked about Kevin’s progress with learning Italian. This goes back to one of our first conversations…
Kevin and I were headed to our car and we met Giovanni in the street. With a friendly wave, our welcoming neighbor launched into a stream of greetings, began talking about Luserna, and asked us our thoughts on our new home. I only understood a fraction of the man’s words, but was able to formulate a somewhat relevant response. Giovanni smiled adoringly, but not at my fragmented statement. He must have noticed Kevin’s expression during our exchange, a facial contortion signaling his being overwhelmingly confused. To his credit, had I not spoken to Giovanni several times already, I would have felt the same way. Giovanni smiled in my direction as if he and I had shared a secret. Kevin acknowledged that he “No capisco”. We all laughed, and Giovanni gave Kevin a reassuring pat on the back that he would learn Italian soon enough.
Back to our entry-way meeting, nearly two months later…
Giovanni asked “Tuo marito impara Italiano?” and I assured him yes, he’s getting better every day! And we both laughed, after which he reminded me to keep working with him. This segment of our daily interactions could have been scripted. It is probably the closest I’ve come to sharing an inside joke with any of my Italian speaking friends.
After a few more minutes of conversation, Giovanni set down his basket and helped me out the door. “Ci vediamo domani”, he offered before closing the door behind me. But what neither of us knew is that we wouldn’t be seeing each other tomorrow. Giovanni passed away that night.
Giovanni was old, and had lived a healthy, happy life. He had even told me that! But these facts didn’t soften my sadness and surprise when I learned he was gone. Our conversation from Saturday illuminated the fact that life is a delicate entity. Someone can be here in one moment, and gone the next. The enormity of that realization pummeled me, as it always does when I learn of someone’s passing.
I felt somewhat guilty that I was so upset by his death. There were surely others that would be more directly affected by the news. This wasn’t about me. Who was I but a transplanted American in this little Italian town? But then I reasoned that the degree of someone’s influence on your life is irrelevant in their death. My sadness was not a product of some selfishness generating from within me, but it was a testament to Giovanni’s kindhearted nature. Afterall, he, like the church bell chiming at 5:45 for the evening mass, was one of the predictable pieces of my daily life that made the apartment feel like home.
The following Wednesday, I attended his funeral. And with more people in the church than I thought lived in the entire town, it was clear that Giovanni had the same affect on all those he met as he did on me, his non-Italian speaking neighbor. During the eulogy, I did not understand what the priest said about Giovanni’s life. I was standing at the back of the church, and what little Italian I may have been able to translate was absorbed from his voice by the swelling crowd seated in front of me. If I were to guess, he probably spoke about Giovanni’s generosity and how the lovable old man was an indelible fixture in this community. How Giovanni was always the first to help a stranger in need and to visit our ailing neighbor who lives downstairs. He most likely testified that Giovanni was gracious for life and family, and surrounded everyone he knew with love.
Following the ceremony, I walked the two blocks back to my apartment. I thought about the time Giovanni and I shared talking in the stairwell, the garden, and the street in front of our apartment. He had even fixed our water heater on one of the many occasions it had stopped functioning properly. In all of those cases, Giovanni had awarded me his undivided attention. No matter where he was headed, he always stopped to say hello. And it wasn’t just the “Hey! How are you?” that I customarily offer to acquaintances that I’m walking past too quickly to even hear their reply. He genuinely cared about how my day was going. He was visibly excited to talk to me.
I am ashamed to admit that, before coming to Italy, I sometimes dreaded running into people when I was shopping for groceries or walking the dog. In the circumstances that I did, I often hurried through the customary verbal exchanges. But why was I in such a hurry? If I was worried about wasting time, then I had it all wrong. One minute spent rushing is the waste, not the three minutes it takes to live in the moment and show someone you actually care. I just think of how in less than five minutes a day over the course of two months, I developed a meaningful relationship with Giovanni. And we don't even speak the same language! I learned about his family, his interests. I looked forward to talking with him, and appreciated that he looked forward to talking with me. It’s something simple really, but yet, I hadn’t noticed before. It’s what made our seemingly inconsequential interactions into something more. Something that I will miss.
So, in memory of Giovanni and in the hopes that I will someday be as vibrant, warm, and welcoming as he was, I have decided to take my “life is about the little things” philosophy to the next level. Next time I ask someone “How are you?” I will ask it because I care to know and wait for them to answer. Next time, I will be truly present for the walk to the car from the grocery store. Instead of thinking about how I will pack my groceries into the backseat or which route home I can take to minimize the number of lights, I will admire the color of the leaves in the trees at the perimeter of the parking lot. Because the fact is, I do care about establishing and developing relationships. I do appreciate the little things in life like the smell of autumn and the smile of a friend. It’s just that for whatever reason, I get caught up in things that seem more important and I forget to notice all of the wonderful things along the way.