34 years and 34 pounds ago.. Le dolce vita

by Mary Helen Darah

One of many life lessons learned from living with the Corsetti family; time with family is everything.

Recently I was asked to speak at the Sylvania Area Rotary. I made the error of saying something in the mother tongue of a fellow Rotarian originally from Italy. Two weeks later, I found myself standing before a room of professionals talking about my experiences while in Italy, a topic that was anything but professional. To put things in perspective, the week before, an orthopedic surgeon did a live mock demo of a knee replacement. In comparison my first PowerPoint slide showed a photo of me 30 plus years and pounds ago in a jumpsuit I could not nor want to be in today (public bathrooms are at a premium in Italy-do the math). At some point during my self proclaimed “fluffy travel speech” I realized something. The life lessons I learned in my beloved Italia were not all “fluff” and not only permanently impacted me but produced a domino affect in others to live the “dolce vita.”
My first trip to Europe was with my parents. While in Rome I met some students my age working at our hotel. I was asked if I would like to go to their family’s home for Easter dinner. During dinner I was asked in broken English how I felt when the entire room was speaking in Italian and I could not understand or join in the conversation. I was hoping to say that I felt frustrated and frankly stupid, in Italian, for not knowing their language. Instead I told the entire roomful of Romans that I was an a$$hole. Miraculously, they offered me a place to stay if I ever returned to Rome. I did return, which began a life-long friendship.
I learned many things as a 5’10ish (heavy on the ish) blonde living in a two-bedroom flat outside of Rome. I quickly realized that not only were the majority of males height challenged but so were the counter tops and furniture. I had to do the splits to be at a level to see my reflection in a mirror and felt like a primate hunched over the sink while doing dishes. The living room doubled as my bedroom and being a woman who has never been on a pantyhose chart or a growth chart, it was not surprising that my feet hung over the couch that served as my bed.

Lesson number one: Size does not matter. A six-person family not only survived but thrived in that small space packed with love. Truly, less is more. Having roughly 30” of space to hang my clothes was actually freeing. Even though I had a limited space for clothing and “stuff,” I had limitless space for adventure.
Lesson number two: Learning is enhanced with the right motivation. Having the basics of conversational Spanish under my belt when arriving in Italy, many were surprised at how quickly I was able to be understood. When you have men coming up and putting their arm around you saying, “questa e la mia donna” (this is my woman), you become a fast learner. I also learned to “parla con le tue mani” (talk with your hands). You speak Italian with your hands more than with your mouth. I once tried to convey to a gentleman that something was ‘similar’ and made what I thought was the appropriate hand gestures. His eyes lit up and became VERY excited. I decided to keep my hands in my pockets until I became more proficient.
Lesson number three: If you can survive taking three prepubescent girls solo to a different country, you can survive anything. I took my girls to Rome in 2004. Once again, it was a beautiful experience to have my children meet my beloved Corsetti family. Little did I know how much I needed that trip. A few years later, I was diagnosed with breast cancer. Getting out of your comfort zone helps you survive and being a survivor gives you the courage to keep getting out of your comfort zone. Climbing up the interior of the claustrophobic St. Peter’s dome in the heat of summer behind a German woman who possessed the largest behind I had ever seen, prepared me for the catastrophic, cramped situations I would endure through my cancer journey. Sadly, the lessons from traveling and being a survivor can be lost once you get back into your routine or morph back into a woman with hair and eyelashes. DON’T LOSE THE LESSONS. I often have to remind myself that I am the woman who got on a bus outside of Rome as the only American and apparently the only person who believed in using deodorant in 101 degrees. I am THAT tough.
I truly believe that it is often your actions and not your words that stick with your kids. My middle child taught in a hut (sans toilet and running water) in Kenya and my youngest studied abroad at Griffith University in the Gold Coast of Australia. More adventures await them. Having global experiences has made me a better person and writer. You need life experiences to write. Closer to home, I get the privilege of sharing my community’s good news and relaying tales of ordinary people doing extraordinary things. Traveling has also made me realize that no matter where you go, there are people in need. It has intensified my desire to make a difference in my own backyard and beyond.

Basking in the glow of a 34-year friendship with Amazio Corsetti.