Walking Where the Water Walks

Piazza San Nicola, Badolato

Piazza San Nicola, Badolato

Here in the village we have several extremely steep hills, including one that leads up to the grocery store and another down to P’s aunt’s house. Unavoidable, really. When it rains, I mean really downpours as it tends to do throughout the winter, the hills become like oil slicks. In fact, they literally become oil slicks each fall when those at the top wash out their containers for the new olive oil and throw the discarded water down the hill. Fun times!

I learned quickly that certain shoes are to be worn when it’s raining and others aren’t, depending not on their water-resistance but on their soles. Traction is key. And then I was let in on a little secret of village life by P:

Cammina dove cammina l’acqua: Walk where the water walks.

So simple and yet so profound. Like so much of what I’ve found here in Calabria.

On each hill, a stream of water flows down one side preventing that area from forming slippery green moss — yes, just like rolling stones! Ergo walking where the water walks allows you to gain the most traction.

It makes sense once you think about it, of course, but that’s a funny thing about moving into a new culture, language, and way of life: you find yourself having to think about a lot of things you’d never even considered before. I didn’t realize just how much cultural knowledge we absorb simply by living somewhere until I moved here and discovered how little I knew. Calabria absolutely has its own rhythm, and getting in touch with it has required me to leave a lot of what I thought I knew across the pond and to learn some basics all over again.

For example, in America one might easily learn the correct way to order and pay for a coffee at Starbucks or the technique of getting in and out of a warehouse-type store in 15 minutes flat. These bits of knowledge are totally useless to me now.

On the other hand, over here, the ability to identify different kinds of winds can mean the difference between clean sheets at the end of the day and laundry spotted with ash from Mount Etna or sand from Africa. Knowing when and how to prune olive trees can mean the difference between enjoying your own olive oil year-round and having to hang your head in shame and buy it from the neighbors.

Most people who were raised here just seem to *know* about the wind and pruning olive trees; indeed, these bits of knowledge are so ingrained they don’t even seem like things  “to know” to them. And yes, this can make a newcomer feel quite stupid sometimes.

Learning the basics as an adult is a uniquely humbling experience.

Corso Umberto I, Badolato

Corso Umberto I, Badolato

I’m someone who has a natural aversion to being told what to do, so moving here has forced me to learn to trust tried and true ways when the situation calls for it. If you know anything about me, you probably know I love the idea of taking the road less traveled and making a path, but moving here has also reinforced in me an equally important concept:

Don’t reinvent the wheel.

While forging our own paths in life is admirable and even desirable, we must also remember there is always something we can learn from someone else who has been in a similar situation and who has learned certain lessons so we don’t have to — someone who is willing to share that knowledge without an expectation of anything in return. Sometimes it’s as basic as the best time to go buy bread in the morning or the best way to clean a copper pot, but the instruction can go much, much deeper if we allow it.

For those of us who pride ourselves on being independent, though, this can be an extremely difficult lesson to learn. I’m still not entirely comfortable asking for help, but I’m getting better at recognizing when I need it before I get a to a breaking point — yet another gift I have given myself by moving here, where I was forced to accept that sometimes there was simply no alternative to asking for help.

To be sure, separating out the useful, vital, wheel-inventing advice from our own ways can be tough, and it’s a uniquely individual process. Sometimes we just have to slide down that hill on our bums and learn lessons for ourselves. And that’s OK too, so long as we’re consciously doing it for our own reasons and not simply being stubborn in the face of perfectly prudent advice and experience.

But we should always pay close attention so we don’t miss those times when we should not only ask for but also accept advice, walk where the water walks, literally go with the flow, and let others show us the way. There’s just no reason to make life harder than it already is by ignoring help out of pride, stubbornness, or sheer stupidity. Choosing to not reinvent the wheel also leaves us with more emotional and physical room to explore and devote time to what is truly important to us — and to live more simply and with purpose.

23 Beans of Wisdom to “Walking Where the Water Walks”
  1. 04.12.2011

    Moving to a different country is not always a piece cake. I had my share of confusions when I moved to the US.

  2. connie

    Hi Michelle:
    Love this one too, but then again I love all the stories and lessons you share with all of us about changing your life, your experiences at Badolato. And love those pictures so very much. Thanks for beig you, grazie assai bella.


  3. Nell

    With age comes Wisdom, with living in Italy accept the tried and true tradtions, that is why they work and have for a millieum!

  4. 04.12.2011

    I’m always interested in how people do things. Despite living in a hilly place, I’ve never heard of this practical saying. I love how it transcends itself and becomes advice on how to live your life. Very cool.

  5. 04.12.2011

    Haha, the Italians certainly have a way of making the most mundane topics (like laundry) interesting. Their way of life is so tied into the earth that it makes America look like a (shiny) metal monster. Cooking for them (and for you) means going into your backyard and picking your olive trees, not going to your the chain grocery store in your town. Aaah, to live in Italy! When I visited I was blown away by the vivacity of the people; they wanted to talk to one another in the geletarias or by the fountains and enjoy life– they did not seem as encompassed by work as we Americans are.

  6. Carlo

    Love to follow your posts, and I love the new introspective and centered direction you are giving to your blog. Hugs Carlo

  7. 04.13.2011

    Usually when you travel you are experiencing photo tourism, you see just different pictures and it is hard to truly feel them. But when you stay little bit longer somewhere, you revels real habits, relations among people and charm of environment.

  8. Gil

    Thanks for another great post about life in a new place and all of the beautiful pictures! I guess my brother and I got the idea of always walking through the puddles from our Italian ancestors up in the hills surrounding Naples.

  9. 04.13.2011

    I’ve often thought that moving to another country means learning to be comfortable with being uncomfortable. “Common sense” is culture-specific and there are so many new things to learn when in a new culture.

  10. 04.13.2011

    What a lovely thought provoking post. I know I am too independent for my own good at times, I should follow your advice.

  11. 04.13.2011

    This simple and purposeful way of living seems to be the normal way of life in rural Italy. Long may it last, a lovely post Michelle.

  12. 04.13.2011

    Ah, the Saharan laundry. I know it well, unfortunately!

    It’s strange how certain wisdoms do just infiltrate our consciousness without realising. Having been brought up in the countryside in the UK, there are some things that seem very natural to me here in Calabria. However, there are, of course, other things that are utterly alien. Learning about those things is one of the parts that I love most about being here in Italy. (And sometimes the part I hate the most as well – but that’s only when I’m feeling cranky hehe.)

  13. You know, when I am in Italy, my older relatives do treat me like a child. And in so many ways I am. My vocabulary, my knowledge of their customs, my brazen ways (compared to the way they were taught, my goodness, I travel alone, drive cars, etc, etc…)

    Maybe if i actually lived there I would feel worse about being an almost 60 year old child.. 🙂

  14. This is a great post. I love the simplicity of “walk where the water walks”.

    And I love that you admit to having a natural aversion to being told what to do, yet you really are open to the ways of those who have gone before you…LOL

    Sometimes you just need to put aside your own “better way” and listen more patiently to others, especially elders, who have been doing it likely forever.

    It’s a lesson I’m pretty sure I still need to learn. 🙁

  15. 04.14.2011

    Beautiful post Michelle–The part about asking for advice really resonates with me. I was brought up to be independent, and that’s gotta be balanced out or we cut ourselves off from the great community that’s out there to share such wisdom–another reason to be grateful and expand our horizons! Grazie for the constant inspiration–Susan

  16. 04.16.2011

    That’s a huge difference between American culture and other Asian or European cultures. We pride ourselves on our independence because of our history, but we also forget the loving ties of huge extended families and having a network that’s not for professional reasons. However, I do think there is a culture like that in America when it comes to things beyond home or survival tasks. The mentee-mentor relationship within business, school, and organizational areas is something that a lot of Americans rely on – just ask any sorority sister. So I think that every facet of human interaction can be found in different places depending on the area.

  17. 04.17.2011

    Lyrical post… I find it hard to take advice too. Thanks Michelle!

  18. casalba

    Lovely post. Just the title alone could be a line of a poem. (Alliterative too.)

  19. 04.20.2011

    Hi Michelle,

    Great post. The idea of keeping an open mind and learning from others is a key element in leading a fulfilling life (in simple terms, there’s no value in being stubborn all the time!).

    Vince from Scordo.com

  20. 04.21.2011

    Very nice post Michelle. Independence is fine, but sometimes taking advice from those more traveled is prudent.

  21. michelle

    Thanks so much to all who have read and commented; accepting help and advice is something I still struggle with, and it’s comforting to know I’m not alone in that 🙂

  22. 05.02.2011

    That’s so clever. I remember people were never short of “isms” and snippets of wisdom when I lived in Florence.

    Always something to learn indeed 🙂

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