Sia Con La Tua Gente

Last night when I was trying to decide which top to wear out (I went with a sort of batwing v-neck sort of a thing, which didn’t even matter because I spent most of the night wrapped up in cardies and jackets and scarves and my new hat anyway) when my beautiful friend Giulia, who just got back to Wellington from surprise emergency neurological surgery in Italy, texted me to ask if I wanted to come over for dinner Sunday (e.g. today) for polenta and a roast. Like she even has to ask. She and her partner live just up the road from me and I have gained a lot of very happy and delicious weight since she got home.

I didn’t make it out of bed until 10:30 this morning and then there was a situation with the vacuum cleaner and then I accidentally went the wrong way on my own street so it was a while before I got there, but I was so so glad when I finally did—Alessia and Iacopo were already there and Filippo was just finishing up the polenta when Rosie came in and the table was set and the fire was on and we all sat down at the table and ate and drank and chatted and laughed and it was just amazing and gorgeous and satisfying in every possible way.

I have a lot of pretty amazing people in my life, but this group is something special to me. Even though I have a very Italian name (and, some would argue, a very Italian ass, a very Italian nose, very Italian hair, and a very Italian habit of being almost completely unable to talk with my mouth unless I can also talk with my hands) I have never really identified as such because I feel almost completely American, culturally speaking. I grew up speaking only English in a city where most people speak Spanish as a first language and never knew any other Italians other than my family in New York—and of them, everyone except my dad was born in the States so they’re Italian-American anyway. That culture is a little more like what you see on The Sopranos (without the gangland violence and extortion, I’m happy to report) than what you see in A Room With A View. I took a couple of semesters of Italian in college fifteen years ago and I’ve been to Italy three times now but always as a tourist—I don’t know any of whatever family I have left over there, and in fact don’t know much about those relatives at all, as in I would not be able to tell you their names or where they live or anything at all, I wouldn’t even have the first idea of how to find them.

So all the Italians I know here, of whom Giulia is the ringleader and the social director, are the first ones I ever knew. They all tell me that they love living the New Zealand lifestyle and never want to live in Italy again, which has resulted in many conversations about the differences between visiting Italy as a tourist and actually living there. They all speak great English and many of them have Kiwi partners and are bringing up completely bilingual children here, but it’s still a pretty tight group of Italians and I can count on seeing someone I know at the Italian Caffe pretty much every time I go in there. I’ve really been enjoying dipping my toes in that community the last years, and not just because the food is good—although trust me, the food is really good. I like thinking about the ways that culture has shaped certain parts of my family and how it’s shaped me too and the ways I do and don’t fit in with it. Speaking Italian (as I have been all day—my housemate just popped her head in to say hello and I was all “Ciao bella! Come stai?”) still makes me feel a little heartbroken but I’m proud to be able to understand about 80 percent of the conversation most of the time anyway.

All this is just to say that today I spent some really good time with some really good people today. I ate and drank three things I hardly ever eat or drink unless I’m with this crew: meat, wine, and coffee (yum!). I sat next to Giulia at lunch and got to spend some good time talking with Rosie. I pet several cats and got to sit in front of a lovely fire. We talked about neurology, The Reader, the place of art and story in everyday life, how to make flourless chocolate cake, how to make cantuccini, New Zealand residency vs. New Zealand citizenship, building boats, the Italian Embassy in town, cleaning corn on the cob out of beards, Wellington’s high suicide rate, the futility of trying to find a good place to dance in this city, being unemployed vs. working too much, iPhones and the nerds who love them, and a bunch of other things, switching back and forth between both languages, kissing on both cheeks when we said goodbye for the evening. I came home in a pretty fantastic mood.

I’m about to get into (my very cold) bed as soon as I finish writing this paragraph–which means I should really be getting my sheets out of the dryer and my hot water bottle ready to go—but what I’ve been thinking about all afternoon and all evening is this: whatever you’re doing and wherever you are, be with your people. Eat everything they make for you even if you don’t normally eat it, speak whatever language works best even if you don’t totally understand every word, get lost leaving your own house even when you’re only walking up the hill anyway, but just be with your people, as much as you can for as long as you can, everywhere in the world you can find them. Nothing is more important, nothing nothing nothing. If you’ve lost your people or they’ve lost you, then I hope you get some new ones, soon, and that they’re half as good as those I have in my life, in all the cities and countries and hemispheres, in every corner of my ridiculous, sentimental, patched-up, half-Italian-half-American-half-Kiwi-half-everything else, still hopeful, always grateful heart.


  1. Che bello! Mi fa piacere che tu abbia questi amici, bella.

  2. I’m Jewish and have always had a yearning to be Italian. I know one is a religion and the other is a nationality, but they seem very similar in ways like family, food and a penchant for celebrating life on a daily basis. You all have a much more established and recognized mob too.

  3. “Be with your people.”

    Amen, sister.

  4. Kim, for what it’s worth, my father was Italian and agnostic but always wanted to be Jewish.

    I feel like you’re much more Italian than I am, Chiara. You speak the language, you *look* Italian, you know actual Italians. There are times when I’m melancholy because I’m so nothing, ethnically and culturally and nationally – I’m not really Canadian, I’m not really American, and God only knows I’m not Australian. Or Italian-American, for that matter, even though it’s the biggest single fraction of my ethnicity.

    I guess I’m a world citizen? Or at least a Western world citizen? We can be world citizens together, if you’d like.

  5. O, bella, that last paragraph. I’ve been lonely and tired and mourning the end-of-grad-school departure of close friends lately, and all I can say is that those words shake me in a good way – sentimental, patched-up, half-Italian, and everything-else. You’re so right, and it’s so time to throw open the doors and start cooking and inviting people into the house again. (Resorting to the Italian way of solving all problems with good food, of course.)

    I miss you, and I’m glad that you’re back with your people.

  6. Chiara – you bring joy to my heart with your words.

    Love you! xxx