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Are you Comfortable?

When I first planned a trip Italy, I imagined extreme comfort. Beautiful, rustic interiors, cushy beds and cozy draperies, the warmth of wood beams (and warm weather)...and of course, the comfort of incredible regional food. For the last eight days, I visited my cousins in their hill town south of Rome- the place my great-grandfather left behind for America. Having stayed once before, I had a sense of what the experience would be like. And while Italians in this region very much subscribe to certain American ideas of comfort, there are a number of differences.

(Photos by me, Dana Saylor- edited by Danscape)

Comfort is hard to define, though it has been attempted a great deal. How long you are able to sit in a chair, are you too warm or cold, and how much do you feel embraced by a place or a group of people? These are aspects of comfort from the physical to the emotional, and all are important to consider. The castles I visited gave me a window onto the mind of the 14th-century architect and interior designer, while I also encountered a number of super-modern places.

(Photos by me, Dana Saylor- edited by Danscape)

Witold Rybczynski, the writer of "Home: A Short History of an Idea" among many other books, critiqued contemporary architectural/interior design in 1986:

"Austerity, both visual and tactile, has replaced delight. What started as an endeavor to rationalize and simplify has become a wrong-headed crusade; not, as is often claimed, a response to a changing world, but an attempt to change the way we live. It is a rupture not because it does away with period styles, not because it eliminates ornament, and not because it stresses technology, but because it attacks the very idea of comfort itself. That is why people look to the past. Their nostalgia is not the result of an interest in archaeology, like some Victorian revivals, nor of a sympathy for a particular period, like Jeffersonian classicism. Nor is it a rejection of technology. People appreciate the benefits of central heating and electric lighting, but the rooms of a Colonial country home or of a Georgian mansion---which had neither---continue to attract them, for they provide a measure of something that is absent from the modern interior. People turn to the past because they are looking for something that they do not find in the present---comfort and well-being."

The homes I encountered in my ancestral hometown, were almost exclusively built in the 20th century; the older stone structures in the historic center having been left long ago. They stand as symbols of past poverty and suffering, especially during the privations of the second World War. Now, my relatives live in sparkling clean, gleaming marble-floored, tiled homes that have large dining spaces, efficient kitchens and modern bathrooms. Often, they are all on one floor, but not always. Balconies abound to take advantage of the weather, to use for drying clothes and peering out at the doings of the neighborhood. Thick walls and deep overhangs help hold in the cool, humid air and keep out the sun. Going from glorious, warm fall day to an indoor lunch around 2pm required a sweater for the temperature change. Few thick carpets or heavy curtains are present in these homes, which have an emphasis on cleanliness, order, and space.

When I've stayed in apartments in the historic neighborhoods of Rome and Napoli, they were far more rustic and had the expected cushiony furniture, rugs, draperies and wood beams. Floors were hardwood with carpets, and kitchens were also small but modern.

Why the difference? Younger people are inhabiting old buildings in the center of the cities, while smaller towns outside city outskirts have older populations. Young people don't have a memory of the hardest economic times in Italy, and thus the old buildings don't represent past troubles to them.

Floors-so-clean-you-can-eat-off-them have their downsides: they tend to be very cold and sterile- yet this is offset by the incredible warmth of the people who inhabit the homes. My family there welcomed me with open arms in a way I never expected, especially upon my second return. The generosity and openness of my cousins has touched me, and reminded me of the risk they took in welcoming me in the first place. A straniera Americana was in their midst, and yet they made a point to make me feel at home, comfortable.

One cousin gave up her room, and made me coffee each morning, and along with my aunt, cooked up incredibly delicious and simple local cuisine every afternoon. The other toured me around, showing me local history and beautiful architectural sights. Walking into the old town for una passiagiata in the early evening, I'd stumble upon other relatives who greeted me with kindness and familiarity. I couldn't possibly get lost because the town is small, but also the streets all loop back to the central piazza. There is great comfort in familiarity and certainty. Italians are masters of it.

Finally, there is the concept of intellectual comfort. Visiting another country, and learning their language, is humbling. It is easy to speak the language you know, and to participate in familiar customs. But when you begin to try to live another way, and speak with people in the language THEY know, you both gain and lose comfort. Each day you might make yourself look foolish, and do something that is odd to a local (like when I cut up my pasta with a knife), but the reward of conversation, and the embrace of familiarity, is worth it.

"Get comfortable with being uncomfortable." - Edreys Wajed, 2016

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