Not long after Jenny returned from an extended visit with her family in Florida, she admitted that she had missed the “sounds of Italy.”
Sounds? I found that curious. It’s undeniable that Italy is a feast for the sense … the feel of omnipresent history, the excitement of driving the Amalfi Coast. Tourists traverse oceans to see Italy’s sights, the grand canal in Venice, the David in Florence or the forums of ancient Rome. They cross continents to taste hand-rolled pasta, homemade gelato or to dip warm Tuscan bread into fresh, unfiltered olive oil.
For me, the smell of Italy is distinct. From the moment I get off the plane, there is something familiar in the air. It’s not a perfumed odor like that of a department store and it’s not the smell of clean air. It’s something in between.
It’s an old smell, one that I imagine Caesar experienced when returning from far-off wars. It’s an amalgamation of scents: the rain on hot pavement, a dash of car exhaust, a touch of pastries baking, espresso brewing. There is a slight saltiness to the air, not aggressive like Fort Lauderdale, but something more subtle. It doesn’t have a pure quality, like the crisp air of the Alps, but warmer, thicker and oddly more comforting, like the smell of your mother’s kitchen.
Jenny said she had missed all of Italy’s sensations, but none more than the sounds:
The chatter of people at outdoor cafes and restaurants, the clink of their wine glasses, the clank of silverware and the swooshing of steam for cappuccino.
She missed the buzz of people at passeggiata, walking and talking; their footfalls on cobblestone streets, the ding of the bicycle bells and the ring of those in the cathedral’s campanile.
There are jarring sounds, to be sure. The harsh, early-morning din of street sweepers and refuse men dumping last night’s wine bottles onto hollow metal truckbeds. There are the sounds of people on the move – cars and buses and trains – and there are the sounds of people at work – opening shops, sweeping entryways, delivering goods. In Como, there are the maritime sounds of boat horns, sea planes and small waves lapping the shore.
She marveled at the cacophony of flying friends, the cooing of the pigeons, the songs of the birds.
And melody is everywhere in Italy, but the music isn’t always rap or rock. Street musicians are as likely to play a harp or a violin as a guitar. Marching bands celebrate national holidays and from an odd window or two one can hear opera, celebrating the national obsession.
Of course, many of these sounds aren’t unique to Italy. The rings of phones and doorbells may differ from those in the states and the ambulance siren is distinctly different. But those sounds are indisputably recognizable for what they are. Clinking wine glasses sound the same anywhere and pigeons don’t coo in Italian. So what’s at the core of Jenny’s remarks?
It’s not as if she is a tourist seeking different sensations. She was returning home, and, she said, “There’s no place like home.” After living here for seven years, her senses are as much Italian as American. With the wisdom of that experience, she said, “Perhaps Italy connects you to your surroundings better than other places. It heightens the senses.”