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Smoke and Soccer/Fumo e Calcio

Sometimes the easiest way around something you don't like is through.

Who doesn't love a nice, lazy Saturday? I'm talking about the kind of Saturday that allows you to enjoy the weekend's arrival. A Saturday with no- or low-maintenance plans. The kind of day that doesn't start with an alarm and allows you to rest. The answer? No one.

We all enjoy days like that. And as much as I've enjoyed my past life of getting up early on Saturdays to go on day trips through Tuscany with my language school, that part of my life is in the past. One can only go to Pisa so many times. (I do go back to Siena every once in a while to pay homage to the place that gave me my language certifications.)

This past Friday, I had gotten to the questura (a type of police station) at 5:45 a.m. to pick up the elusive permesso di soggiorno (permit to stay) ID card, so I was in need of one of those types of Saturdays. After such a long and intense day, I went to bed early that evening. When Saturday came around, I woke up recharged and refreshed.

I had tentative plans later on, so while I was waiting for those to get firmed up, I decided to shower and get out (rather than linger and spend too much time in the time suck of social media). Walking through San Frediano, I decided against getting a coffee and pastry--the Italian breakfast is perhaps too much of an engrained habit at this point--and got as far as the piazza across the street from my apartment.

I filled up my water bottle at the fountain that dispenses fresh, cold acqua naturale (still) or acqua frizzante (carbonated) and turned to watch the kids on the enclosed soccer field behind me. I'm not sure there is a more accurate, real snippet of Italian life than the soccer field. Tourists who come to Italy put up videos of Italians drinking in the piazzas or taking their passeggiata (a long walk) on social media, and although those are also accurate, I like the more chaotic, passionate, and energetic vibe of a soccer game.

Maybe it takes me back to my teenage years at ASM. Every lunch hour, all of my male friends would be out playing soccer and I remember sitting on a certain bench with my girlfriends. The players' maneuvering and management of the sport fascinated me.

Sit on this bench and enjoy the game, something inside me said. So, I did.

Within two minutes, I had to get up because the person sitting on the bench next to me started smoking. It was blowing in my general direction a bit too much. There aren't many things that I find tolerable yet intolerable, but smoking is one of them. I clocked an empty bench in the sun on the other side of the field, so I went over there instead. Soon enough, I got lost in the game in progress.

Watching the kids, I realized how much I love that Italians treat each game (even if they are only playing at recess) like it is a championship-level competition. I admire the intensity with which they run toward the ball, often knocking someone over who then writhes in pain. Ten-year-olds bring the same level of bossiness as professional coaches. It's also a great place to hear the less pristine, everyday vocabulary because kids are unfiltered (not to be crude, but I heard minchia and cazzo, references to female and male genitalia, multiple times, as one does here). One of my favorite words that is more like a sound is aaoooh! to get someone's attention. The hand gestures and swear words are in full force. Kids scream in each others' faces by hurling insults at their own teammates so that they get it together or involve those on the opposing team. Then, they return to business as usual when the game is over.

A man's voice interrupted my concentration and cultural observations. "Posso?" (May I?)

He wanted to sit next to me on the bench. "Certo," (of course) I said.

Five seconds later, wouldn't you know...he lights a cigarette. And I wasn't moving again.

Breathe it in, Stefanie. Accept it. It's part of life here.

I have often said that smoking is much more prevalent in Italy than it is in the U.S. It turns out that is incorrect (and when I'm wrong, I say I'm wrong) -- stats show that 23.7% of Italians smoke versus 21.8% of Americans. I'm sure it feels so much more popular here due to the sheer difference in size between countries. After all, you can really spread out 21.8% of Americans!

I didn't like it, but I accepted it. I say, "That's Italy for you" maybe 50 times per day about a wide variety of things because it allows your brain to breathe (even if your lungs can't in the moment). Then again, that part of the culture here has always been "Italy" to me; as a teenager, I remember coming home after a night out with friends and smelling smoke in my fingernails, hair, and on my clothes, despite being a non-smoker.

Smoke makes me reflect on the fact that Italy can change and improve. Although we lived here in the late 90s, in 2005 they banned smoking in public places, which made everyone else safer and decreased the number of smokers by about 2%.

See, Italy? Are you listening? Change IS possible, even if you're stuck in your ways--you've done it before! Can we please take that energy to the questura? (I digress, the permesso story is for a different day.)

I've also learned that anything I don't like about the country is usually balanced out by a beautiful moment around the corner.

At the end of the first group’s game, some older kids started playing and invited the younger kids to play since they didn’t have enough players, which I enjoyed witnessing. The inclusion was enough to make my heart swell! Since I arrived in the middle of the first game, I couldn’t be sure that’s how it actually played out—maybe some of the older players were actually some of the youngsters’ older brothers—but that’s my story and I’m sticking to it.

It allowed me to reflect on how welcoming Italians are, how the love of soccer is basically in their DNA from the womb, and how valuable it is to make someone feel included.

So, why shouldn’t I also welcome the person sitting next to me? Maybe I could just…let it go and enjoy the moment.

When people ask me why I want to live in Italy, I have many methods of answering that question. I've rattled off the big stuff--the beautiful surroundings, the people, the food, the culture, and the lifestyle. I've talked about the changes I've experienced over the past year and a half--the fact that I feel healthier in my body, I am much more confident, that diving into the language so intensely has transformed the way I see the world, and what it was like to hear my parents say that they've "never seen a happier Stefanie" over the holidays.

But really, some of the reasons boil down to the "smoke and soccer" of it all--the small bits of culture that can make a big difference in your life. The things that will not only test how well you know the country and its people, but how you react to them. The things you have to choose to suffer through and accept, or the things you realize you'll never know "well," no matter how hard you try (you'll always be beating your head against the wall).

There are many parts of Italian culture that go in the "smoke and soccer" category -- bureaucracy. The postal system. Driving. Why Italians dress for the season, not for the temperature. The fact that (almost) nothing is efficient, except for their train system. The concept of standing in a line.

It's something I've accepted about being here long-term; taking on a foreign country that isn't your home country is very much like being in love. You love the whole entity and learn to deal with the intricacies that aren't necessarily your favorite. You learn to overlook them.

At the end of the day? I can learn to love soccer. Smoke? Not so much.


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