Stigmatized in Assisi

January 30, 2008
By
A family of five wandered through the ancient Umbrian hill town, starkly American with their dark shades, wet handkerchiefs and Chaco sandals. Sweating profusely in the afternoon heat, their faces cherry red and shirts dripping, they relied on the natural spring water spigots scattered throughout the winding cobbled streets. Natives recognized them as tourists; their sleek black Mercedes instantly signaled that they were outsiders. The driver struggled to maneuver through streets made long ago, certainly before the invention of automobiles, or even horse and buggy. But, curiously the people inside did not fit the appearance of what the car’s status symbol represents in Italy. Not elegant, sophisticated women wearing high heels and Prada or Gucci or Valentino, oversized handbags on their graceful shoulders. Not men in sharp Armani suits and handmade Italian leather shoes. No, those gazing into the car concluded that this was a family of awkward, sweaty, jet lagged travelers eager to explore what was foreign and exotic in their eyes.

And so, their first day in Assisi, the family wandered and searched, taking in the contrasting hues between the luscious green countryside and glowing terra cotta walls. Eventually they found their way to the Basilica di San Francisco, the Basilica of St. Francis, as all roads led to this holy site. They expectantly entered the church and with astounded gazes their eyes poured over ancient biblical frescoes from Italian, German, and French masters. Spending time on only the third level, they marveled at the scenes portraying St. Francis’ life, which had many parallels to the life of Christ. They listened to the audio guides, fascinated by the rich stories and symbolism portrayed in the various images. Absorbed in this learning they started to feel their stomachs aching after a couple hours and realized they had forgotten about lunch. They decided to search for a place to eat before becoming ravenous. Certain members of the family did not do well on low blood sugar, and they all were aware of it.

Beginning their venture, the mother, Karen, took the lead, her hunger driving her search. Clearly from Scandinavian descent, she was not good with handling the heat and wore a wet handkerchief around her neck to help with this sensitivity. But she was determined, and so the search continued. Too late the family noticed streets once crowded with people had become deserted and empty. Only a few stragglers were about, their slow gait conveying that they were in no hurry. Time seemed to have stopped in place, the heat smothering all movement. And yet the family struggled on. Karen had smelled succulent wafts of food and was resolved to find the source. Her three daughters and husband had no choice but to follow.

Finally they reached their destination. Stumbling into a café well after lunchtime, they were seated with some irritation. “Don’t they realize that it’s almost siesta time?” the cameriere, the waiter, wondered. Gruffly handing them menus, he strutted away leaving the family to struggle with the translations. Besides how was he supposed to help? He had never bothered to learn English, why would he? He planned on working in his family owned restaurant in Assisi his entire life, there was no need to learn another ugly sounding and useless language. After several minutes he returned to take the family’s orders. Obviously foreigners, they attempted communication in broken Italian using a hand held dictionary. The cameriere became annoyed, thinking about what a disgrace this family was doing to the beautiful language of Italy. “Why do all Americans expect everyone to speak English for them? Why can’t they at least learn some phrases with the correct pronunciation?” At any rate, with some sarcastic amusement he watched their faces as they struggled with unknown words and took their order.

Returning after what seemed an eternity to the travelers he carried an abundant, scintillating display of flavor gracefully arranged on a platter. Fresh homemade pasta with rich marinara, sprinkles of basil adorning the crown of the plate. An Insalata di Mista, organic local greens, juicy tomatoes, crisp carrots, refreshing cucumbers and sweet yellow corn. Warm bread straight from the oven, its crust crispy and its tantalizing insides melting in one’s mouth. Castelluccio lentils decorated with seasonal herbs, prepared quickly yet delivering such fine flavor. Satisfying wholesome spelt cooked with fresh vegetables and herbs, flavored with spicy roasted garlic. He smugly presented each tourist with their meal and smirked at their abundant “Grazie, grazie!” (thank you, thank you). With a simply “prego” he sauntered away to take another party’s order.

While the family was enjoying the meal, they discussed their previous adventures of the day, primarily taking place in St. Francis’s Basilica. The father, Rob, an old geezer with a rolling gait and eye for aesthetic detail, was particularly mesmerized by the scenes of St. Francis preaching to the birds. Gesturing with hands he thoughtfully stated “It really is amazing how such a fresco could look so lifelike and retain its vibrant colors so well over so many centuries.”

Kirsten, the oldest of the sisters, her rich mahogany hair adding sophistication to her already mature insights, responded stating that she too enjoyed this fresco, but found the portrayal of Francis receiving the stigmata to be even more intriguing. Her scientific mind had room for the mysterious and unknown but she still had trouble understanding the symbolism of such an event. “It’s such an interesting idea, showing one’s connection with Jesus through the crucifixion. St. Francis was so committed to human justice taking the vow of poverty, that his work was in many ways equal to that of Jesus. But, saying that you got wounds in your hands, feet and side from some heavenly source is kind of far fetched.”

Even the twins who rarely held similar opinions, in fact most of the time they purposefully held the opposite stances on issues, agreed. Natasha, the brunette of the two, mischievously commented that she also found such an idea curious. “I don’t believe he got the stigmata, but I mean it’s kind of a cool idea, you know? Like having something pierce you from heaven is pretty sweet. Wouldn’t that really hurt?!” “Tash! Don’t be silly.” The blonde twin, Sophia, in some ways the “princess” of the family, was skeptical of such an occurrence. “I guess this is coming from someone whose not sure she believes in God, but I wonder if there’s some medical condition that would explain this. I mean it’s really not possible for some force to come down and pierce the hands of a man. It just isn’t.”

Karen responded with “You never know. God has done some pretty amazing things. And besides, regardless of whether the stigmata was real or not we still have his story. Turning away from his extravagant lifestyle to walk around with only the clothes on his back. Founding an order devoted to taking Jesus’ lessons literally and taking care of the animals and environment with a life of simplicity.” The family was deep in conversation talking about such engrossing matters but did not notice the tables around them were slowly emptying, until they were the last ones chewing in the entire restaurant. Irked, the waiter tried to calm himself, before returning to the table to ask how they were doing and if they needed anything. Still unaware of their intrusion, the Americans continued to chat quite animatedly.

Now not only their cameriere was exasperated. The entire Italian family working in the restaurant were feeling taken advantage of. The aging mother, a muscular woman with tawny wrinkled skin and wispy black hair, was always one for action. She decided she would take matters into her own hands. Yes, she realized she didn’t speak any English but, there were other ways of communicating. She would just have to gesture to the family that they had to leave. But arriving at the table, she became so enraged that she couldn’t communicate. The elderly father was attempting to use a fork to cut his meat! No knife, as was the custom in Assisi and the rest of Italia. She just could not tolerate such behavior, so she slammed a meat knife under his nose onto the table. Startled the father jumped in his chair before thanking the woman and taking the knife in his hand. The rest of the family chuckled, taunting Rob for his bad manners. Rob blushed, his ears and cheeks turning red, while remaining calm. But still the family did not catch the clue that they had overstayed their welcome.

At last the family finished their meal, their bellies comfortably full. The cameriere was overjoyed, he could finally go take his siesta! He briskly delivered their bill, waiting for a credit card. Slowly it dawned on him- the family wanted dessert. The family wanted dessert! This was obviously their first day in Assisi. Otherwise they would know everything closes in the afternoon, time stops because of the heat. The young and old alike take naps, businesses close and everything pauses for a couple hours. Carefully controlling his outrage the cameriere delivered their fresh fruit sundae, his voice shaking with anger. The tourists did not notice, they were too busy enjoying their fruit.

Finally they were done and the entire wait staff escorted them out of the restaurant. Realizing everyone else had left they understood why their waiter may have been less than friendly. This was the family’s first lesson in the way of life in Assisi. Quality time was valued more than efficiency or earning money. The family learned to respect this after adjusting their mindset, noting the cultural differences between Roma, the intense capital, and Assisi a small peaceful Umbrian hill town.





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