Belonging is really important to us, although we’ve never been joiners in any traditional sense. We never had a desire to be Italian, even though we joke about our quest to become “true Italians.” That, of course, could never happen. Nor do we intend to become naturalized citizens even though we could. However, what we’ve always wanted from this journey is the chance to dig deeply into the real life experiences of another culture. We wanted to go so far in, that we’re changed at the core of who we are. Becoming and belonging takes years, if not decades to happen naturally. After years of personal investment, conversation and shared experiences, we begin to really “belong” somewhere. Italy is like that for us. Our lives have become delicately interlaced with the lives of others, in ways we don’t really understand—yet it matters.
A sense of belonging doesn’t require major events, special invitations, attending a gala, or really anything large scale at all. Instead, it’s a phenomenon that creeps up on us when we least expect it. It’s ordinary. When we’re simply doing what we do in the course of our everyday life, things happen that alter our perception of how and where we belong, even who we’ve become.
Here’s a real life example: a few days ago I went into Florence for a much needed haircut. One of those ordinary places where real life happens is in the sedia di barbiere, barber chair. You never know what you’ll end up talking about with a barber!
When my original Fiesole barber Lino finally retired, I checked out every barber shop in the country towns nearby, and a few on the north side of Florence. Finally, I settled on Gabriele’s place, a shop he runs with one other barber, Piero. They’re always friendly and give a great haircut for 15 euro. You can’t beat that. In fact, they’re so skilled, I took my friend Drew there in June. It was his first Italian haircut. I couldn’t resist snapping a few pics. Piero was the star barber. In the mirror, you can even see the calendar pin-up—still a cultural norm in Italy in places where guys hang out (barber shops, mechanic’s garages . . . you get the picture). But Gabriele and Piero don’t want to offend anyone, so they’ve added a peekable post-it modesty shield. Now that’s thoughtful!
Last Friday at 11:30, I was the one and only customer, and Gabrielle and Piero were glad to see me. Without wasting any time, Piero began his “Edward Scissorhands” routine on my out-of-control locks, while Gabriele leaned against the counter in the 2 foot space between me and the mirror. He wanted to talk about hurricane Irene and the tremendous force of the winds. And talk we did—a bit of a challenge for me to keep up with the two of them, but somehow it worked.
After a mere 15 minutes, my look had been suitably transformed. I walked to the front of the shop with Gabrielle to pay. Since no one ever tips, I handed him the exact amount. Then curiously, he reached into the back of the cash drawer as if to give me change. He pulled out a blue plastic case with something gold inside and handed it to me—a little regalo, gift. He smiled broadly as I pulled the gold colored key-chain out of its case. Emblazoned letters read: Linea Uomo by Gabriele, Gabe’s Men’s Line. I offered a heartfelt molto grazie and expressions of gratitude for the bell’regalo. Carefully I returned the key-chain back in its blue plastic cover. Satisfied and feeling good, I stepped out onto the street with 3 things I didn’t have earlier that morning: a fresh haircut, a new key-chain, and most importantly, another real Italian experience. Gabriele’s gift was an unexpected gesture of friendship, costing nearly nothing, but with value beyond measure. It was a sure sign that a sense of “belonging” continues to quietly grow here, in the midst of our daily routines.