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'There's no privacy setting': swapping the big city for a small town in Italy

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'There's no privacy setting': swapping the big city for a small town in Italy
What's it like being the only newcomer in the village? Photo: alexsalcedo/Depositphotos
15:49 CET+01:00
It's not easy always easy to live in a place where everyone knows your name. Daniela Piteo, who moved from Toronto to a small town in Campania, describes the struggles and rewards of trading in her anonymity.

The German vernacular, it seems, captures entire feelings the way no other language can – Backpfeifengesicht, a face in need of a slap, is a term that comes to mind when I walk through town because I can feel everyone staring me down. I don’t think there is a word for gawking at foreigners in German, but it wouldn’t serve me well since I live in Italy.

Staring, I think, may be a uniquely Italian thing. They seem to glare openly, obviously and without any hint of discretion. Being watched, even with friendly eyes, is an unnerving sensation, especially when you’ve come from a place where going unnoticed is the norm.

Two years ago, my son and I packed our bags and moved from Toronto to a small town in the foothills of Monte Taburno. We were 7,000 kilometres away from home, but the cultural shift was so dramatic the distance could have been measured in light years.


Monte Taburno. Photo: DepositPhotos

There was no eye contact in Toronto, no small talk and on the rare occasion there was, it felt awkward and uncomfortable. Early life lessons taught us to be wary of strangers, to avoid them, and living in a large city allowed us to do exactly that – ignore everyone. By moving to a town with a population less than that of one square kilometre in Toronto, I traded anonymity for hyper-identifiability.

The obscurity of being a stranger in a small town only lasts long enough for word to spread, and the word – who you are, where you came from and why you are here – travels fast. It didn’t take long for gawking to turn into queries: "A chi appartieni?" Who do you belong to? 

This question felt like an affront to my independence. I wanted to yell, “I belong to no one,” but thankfully my temper didn’t get the better of me and I realized the question is about genealogy and not dependency.

I wasn’t just a stranger in their town, but an outsider amongst a community of families. Borillo, Ielardi, De Corso, Iacocca were all names that would hear from store to store and bar to bar, names that have been repeating over and over for two centuries, perhaps more. When I was asked to whom I belonged, the answer was meant to explain how I fit into the tightly woven fabric of this community.

My own clan had left Italy shortly after I was born and those that now remain are few. When I decided to return, I thought I could discreetly forge a new life and quietly slip into a daily routine, just like I did when I moved into my two-bedroom Toronto apartment.

I knew there would be some curious glances, even a few long glares, but I never imagined such blunt inquisition from strangers. No one was curious about me in neither small-town nor big-city Canada, so this stream of attention felt invasive and impertinent.

READ ALSO: The 15 absolute worst things about living in Italy


Photo: DepositPhotos

I worried that I wouldn’t be able to adapt to this new culture. My own family had bets on how long I would last back on the farm, with my aunt underestimating me at three months and my father being a little more generous with an entire year.

City life has been proven to be depressing – it can be faceless and unforgiving, aspects that I don’t miss. I vividly recall the day I lost my job: I fought back the tears as long as I could, but eventually I broke down and quietly wept on public transport. The commuters turned their back to me, probably just assuming I was some manic on the brink of a nervous collapse.

Small-town life, on the other hand, has no privacy setting. Your vices and predilections become almost impossible to hide, fodder for people who live “una vita piatta” or a boring life, as a friend from town explained.

But this small town isn’t just a collective of overtly curious inhabitants; its citizens are often kind and helpful, as I was reminded by the proverbial kindness of a stranger while driving the dark, winding country roads one October night.

A new friend had invited me to her home to celebrate the Festa del Rosario, a religious celebration that involves lighting bonfires throughout the entire town – the fire representing the guiding light the Madonna provides devout followers during time of darkness. I had never been to Rosaria’s house and was navigating uncharted territory, literally, as her home address is not searchable in Google Maps. Even with the small town ablaze, I could not find my way in the dark. 

READ ALSO: 'The lessons we've learned from 10 years running a business in rural Italy'


Photo: Ashley Bartner/La Tavola Marche

I had stopped outside a home, hoping it was hers, only to be greeted by a man I had never seen before. I explained to the old man where I was attempting to go. He stared at me, then raised his index finger and said, “Wait here.” He emerged from his house with his car keys and told me to follow him.

It would be wrong to assume what his thoughts were that evening, but if I had to venture a guess, he likely surmised that with my limited command of the Italian language it would be easier to take me to my destination rather than attempt to verbally map it out.

I was a stranger, who interrupted his evening – he may have been in the middle of dinner, or enjoying an aperitivo, but he abandoned the comfort of his home and showed me the way. The distance wasn’t great, but the gesture was.

I’d be lying if I said in two years I’ve become completely acclimatised to rural southern Italy. There are some things my Canadian sensibilities can’t ignore – toddlers in the front seat; a man driving his Fiat while single-handedly steadying an 8-foot ladder from the driver side window; dramatic and very public lovers’ quarrels, just to name a few. And I’d be a bigger liar if I merely labelled Toronto as a soul-crushing and detached city. I love both places for entirely different reasons – Massey Hall and Ethiopian restaurants; Bar Mazzini and torrone.

But as for truths, there will be no crying alone in the piazza.

Daniela Piteo is a Canadian living in rural Campania. In Canada, she worked as a journalist in Toronto and the Niagara region; in Italy she teaches English and blogs at Oxford Comma.

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