What is it about snow mountains that gets me so?
I am blessed to be teaching a Study Abroad in Verona, Italy for a few weeks this summer. Each morning, before the clouds set in over them as the day goes on, I have a wonderfully clear, unobstructed view of the panorama of the snow-covered Dolomite mountains in the distance as the backdrop out my entire window wall. As I sit at my computer working, I just look up and there they are. A wall of Italian hills and mountains.
When I first arrived and looked out the window, it looked like exactly what you’d expect an Italian scenery to look like: gentle rolling green hills dotted with occasional villas, the swift-moving Adige River running right there below me, red clay tiled roofs (it’s required) and neat rows of vegetation that clearly must be vineyards. (This is one of the most popular wine-growing regions in Italy, with the winery we visited last week having over 1200 vineyards in its cooperative, alone).
This scene of rolling hills and vineyards and red-tiled roofs was charming enough. But even moreso when I awoke the next morning and saw the mountains right where I had looked the day before and without my realizing it, they had been covered by clouds. It just looked like the green mountains ended naturally. Turns out there was an entirely different, much richer scene behind them: The snow-covered Dolomites!
Seeing the mountains helped with adjusting to the idea that I sort of never get over when I’m in Europe that apartments are the rule and houses are the exception. Seeing houses in most European cities is a rarity. For the most part, virtually everyone lives in an apartment. Coming from the US, it takes getting used to to process that. We think of apartments so differently. Unless, maybe, you live in New York. Since many of the immigrants who populated New York came from Europe, it doesn’t surprise me that the concept carried over to these shores. But, when we think of life in the US, we generally think of houses rather than apartments. Even though I have been to Europe and even lived here for weeks at a time, I didn’t realize how much that was in my head until I felt a distinct sense of unease as I walked along the street my first day and finally realized I was waiting to see houses in order to get a sense of judging where I was and being grounded and in my own element. I finally realized that I wasn’t going to get that. All there were going to be were apartments. Much to my surprise, I had to do a mental readjustment and put that in my head with all I understood it would mean. The good news is that virtually every apartment has a balcony and virtually every balcony has flower pots hanging on the railing. It made me miss my own garden even more. What a delight it was to find a few days later that the windy rainstorm had left little pieces of the overhanging plants and flowers all over the street. I picked them up, brought them home, bought some dirt and a planter and voila! I felt more at home with my little pieced-together garden! :-)
I believe there is a reason that cafes do well in this part of the world. In recent months I’ve read a few articles saying that they are trying to get us to that point in the US with there being a move to have us enjoy sitting at cafes and enjoying a coffee house experience. But, I think we’re working with different realities than the cafe/coffee house societies. I think that aside from the difference in the way societies view time, family, relationships, food, and other things in different parts of the world, there is also the issue of apartment living. In my view (and I realize I’m saying this as someone who has grown up with a house being the ‘norm’ and only having occasionally lived in apartments), if you live in an apartment, you’re more likely to not mind going out to a cafe and hanging out. Most cafes here don’t mind, and, in fact, expect you to stay for long periods of time without buying anything more than your cup of coffee. They even post signs saying “Aperto.” It’s the same sign for parking your car in parking lots. I get the hanging out. At home, in my spacious house and grounds, with my gardens and hot tub and the gardening, hobbies and general piddling I can do, it wouldn’t bother me to stay home for a few days. Here, I go out every day. Just to get out of my apartment. Of course, because they are more used to apartment living and they are surrounded by their familiar things, they may not feel the same way. But, I certainly think there is an element of that somewhere in that mix. I walk at least 10,000 steps every day, and sometimes do it all at home, without going out. Here, I do it outside, even, as has been the case for the past two days, it is rainy and cool and all I have is a shawl. I could have used the long apartment hall corridors. But, I wanted to get out.
The snow mountains, however, help. Just looking at them has always given me a sense of peace while at the same time being totally awesome and overwhelming. I thought I would go into apoplexy the first time I flew over the Rockies, then landed and saw Mount Rainier, Shasta and Hood. It was even more intense when I took a gondola ride up the mountains in Switzerland and as we came through the clouds, saw the Swiss Alps and the Matterhorn. O M G I thought I’d have a heart attack. I was nearly completely undone. On my desk at work I keep a photo we took there at the top of the mountains (who pays attention to the warnings in the camera instructions about the temperature below which you can’t take a camera? Turns out, we should. Our Nikon never worked after that.). In the other side of the double frame is a photo of my toes on the railing of a cruise ship as I relaxed looking out at the intensely blue and beautiful Carribbean water. For me, obth of the photos are about the enormity of nature, how insignificant we are in comparison, our existence here on earth, the vastness of the world we live in and how absolutely awesome God is.
Staring at the snow-covered Dolomites as I sip a nice cup of tea and glance over at the 15 beautiful new hearts that I managed to find in a tiny shop on a side street that I wandered into, I’m sure, in the cosmic scheme of things, just to find them to add to my collection, I am about as comfortable as I can be in a strange place where few speak my language and the customs, and even the food we think we know, are all so different.
When I asked my students what the one thing is they noticed about how different it is here, I knew precisely what the answer would be—and I was right. The people don’t speak to you on the street. Coming from Georgia, that is very strange for them. I guess even though I grew up in DC, since I’ve been in the south for 33 years, it’s strange for me too. You don’t realize how much it means until you don’t have it. It is very strange not to speak to folks you pass by on the street, or have them speak to you or to smile or even acknowledge you in any way. Italians are perfectly fine with it, apparently.
It is also strange to order my favorite Italian dessert, Tiramisu, and have it come with peaches and a sort of runny pudding and totally soggy coffee-soaked ladyfingers. Peaches?! In Tiramisu?!! Soggy rather than firm?! Turns out for them, what makes a Tiramisu is not the Amaretto and coffee flavoring, as much as the pudding and ladyfingers, so it can be anything and they call it Tiramisu the server said. It’s also strange realizing that true Italian salad dressing is not what we call Italian dressing but instead the server sitting on your table a bottle of vinegar and a bottle of extra virgin olive oil. Period. I haven’t even seen salad dressing, as we know it, in the grocery store, where we’re used to row upon row of choices.
I still haven’t figured out what they expect you to do with that basket of slices of Italian bread they serve at every meal without them serving any butter with it. Hmmmm…. :-)
I promise you, I am NOT one of those people who goes to visit other countries and gets pissed off because they do not speak English or act, dress, eat, etc. the way we do. It’s just that enjoying it for what it is doesn’t mean I can’t note the differences. Like, better make sure you have your shopping done by Saturday, because unlike the US, stores are closed here on Sunday. :-)
So, the mountains, the tea, the hearts, all become a comfort in adjusting to being in such a different place that, even if you enjoy it, is so different.