This isn’t exactly an Italian phenomenon, but it was brought to mind during our friend Gisela’s visit last week when she said to me, “This is the first time I’ve visited Orvieto and not seen the Duomo.” I’m talking about what happens when the magical becomes commonplace.
There was an ad for (I believe) a dandruff shampoo a couple of years ago whose tag line was: “You never get a second chance to make a first impression.” How well I remember my first view of the Duomo and how magnificent I thought it was. It still is magnificent, of course, but that dazzle….that dropped jaw….that sense of awe is not there. I had to go to the Piazza del Duomo the other day to buy a present, and I have to admit that my eyes did open just a little wider when I turned the corner and saw the wonderful façade. But they didn’t open nearly as wide as they did the first time I saw it.
When I first started visiting Orvieto, I never ate breakfast in the hotel. I wanted to have my coffee in the piazza so I could see the town in action: shopkeepers cleaning the streets in front of their stores with soap and water; the town’s elders sitting on the benches rehashing the same topic they had extensively discussed the previous day; the tour groups marching through, following the person with the umbrella or stuffed toy on a pole or whatever else the guide held up in hopes of keeping the group together so they could all get back on the bus in time to make lunch in Assisi; the older women with their shopping bags over the arms, pushing their grandchildren’s strollers down the street; the women without strollers stopping to goo-goo at every baby who passed by; and packs of kids — wearing the same ubiquitous schoolbook-filled backpacks as kids in the US — on their way to or from school. I thought it was heaven.
I remember the day — could have been on my 4th or 5th visit — when I noticed that all the women had the same plastic shopping bags over their arms. I followed them back to their source and found the weekly market in an adjacent piazza. It turned out that I had never stayed in Orvieto on a Thursday or Saturday, so had never seen it before. I felt like I had walked onto movie set, surrounded by at least 50 stands selling all of that season’s fruits and vegetables, flowers of every color, rotisserie chicken or duck, all the usual varieties of pecorino cheese, glistening fresh fish and salted cod, nuts and dried fruits, kitchen utensils, handbags, men’s and women’s clothes, shoes, sheets and towels, bolts of material…..you name it and they were selling it. My favorite was the truck that opened out into a complete drug store, with everything from nail polish remover to paper towels. The market was only open in the morning, so by 1:00, all the stands had turned back into trucks and vans with their merchandise safely stored inside, and were leaving town. From then on, I planned my vacations so the stays in Orvieto always included a Thursday or Saturday.
And now that I live here? I almost always have coffee in the apartment and hardly ever go to the market except to get flowers.
How many times of seeing something gorgeous does it take before you’re jaded? For instance, I consider the area south of Siena called the Val d’Orcia to be THE #1 most beautiful place I’ve ever seen in the Spring. I’ve been lucky enough to visit it for most Springs in the past 16 years, and it still takes my breath away. However, at most, I only see it 2 or 3 times each Spring. Our friend Daria lives there, and though I know she thinks it’s pretty darn beautiful, I’m betting that when she drives out of her town in the morning, she’s concentrating on what she has to do that day for her restaurant and not the drop-dead gorgeous view in front of her. If I see the Val d’Orcia in its springtime green 3 times per year for the next 25 years – will I still be oooh-ing and aaah-ing as obnoxiously as I tend to do now?
I meet tourists all the time who are just staying in Orvieto for a few days between their visits to Rome and Florence. I constantly find that they’d done more in 2 days than I’ve done in the past 4 years when it comes to taking advantage of the sites that are within walking distance of our apartment.
I do the same thing in the US. We have some world-class museums near us that I’ve never visited. I’ve met people from Europe who’ve made special trips just to see them. And these are places that I’d find fascinating if they were in Bologna or Rome….yet I haven’t taken the time to go 5 miles from my home.
As I said – this taking things for granted is not a new – nor an Italian – phenomenon; it’s just human nature. But hearing Gisela mention the Duomo focused my attention on how familiarity does take that original magic out of what now makes you feel so comfortable. And maybe that’s the bottom line. Perhaps I’m too harsh thinking that familiarity = jaded. It’s probably more accurate to say that familiarity = comfortable. At least that’s the word I’m going to use…..because I’d hate to have to consider myself jaded.