Given the year we’ve gone through, a book like "The Italian Art of Living: Your Passport to Hope, Happiness and Your Personal Renaissance" is just what we need.
Taking inspiration from the ‘Italian art of living,’ the book’s author, Dawn Mattera, shows us that “we have the power to create a happy and meaningful life no matter what the circumstances are.”
The circumstances may seem too dire at the moment for that, and the widespread feeling of discouragement and frustration doesn’t help either.
Yet, you can always choose your attitude; and, a positive and loving attitude can make a difference for those around you. Isn’t that a good enough reason to at least try? It’s a shift in perspective that can make wonders, Dawn says.
“My favorite movie is Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life,” Dawn told me during our interview. “The main character discovers that we might not find the cure for cancer, build grand cities, or become rich and famous. However, we can make a difference for the people around us. Just think of the impact we could make if each of us did a small part to brighten our corner of the world. Like snowflakes, they’d add up to a blizzard of hope!”
This viewpoint is what inspired Dawn to sit down and write “The Italian Art of Living;” we in turn were inspired to find out more and learn how her Italian heritage and several trips to Italy over the course of 22 years taught her about resilience, compassion, and positivity.
- Can you talk briefly about your Italian heritage/your connection to Italy?
My grandparents immigrated to America in the 1920’s and settled in a “Little Italy” neighborhood in Providence, Rhode Island. I grew up across the street from them, so they were an integral part of our everyday lives…including the famous Sunday dinners. They wove the Italian traditions into their new lives as proud Americans.
In 2001, I went to Italy for the first time. Meeting my family there and experiencing the culture and beauty of the Bel Paese fanned the flames of pride and passion for my heritage. It was also a wake-up call because no one of my generation stayed in touch with our relatives in Italy. I didn’t want to lose that important connection to our roots. Since my family on Ischia speaks primarily German as a second language, that meant someone in the USA needed to learn Italian. I nominated myself!
In 2003, I lived in Florence, Italy, to attend a school for the language. Keep in mind that I was in my 40s at that point! Since then, I’ve been to Italy 22 times, became an Italian language teacher, and helped my partner find his family near Orvieto.
At first, Italy captures your attention; then, it captures your heart!
- What inspired you to write this book?
When people talk about our world today, most of them say that they are discouraged and anxious about the future. Further, they think that they can’t do anything about it.
Even before the pandemic, I wanted people to recognize that we have the power to create a happy and meaningful life no matter what the circumstances. Once COVID hijacked the world, a message of hope and encouragement was more important than ever.
What has helped me through the trials of life—now and pre-pandemic—were the life lessons I learned from my parents and grandparents, and through my experiences in Italy. I’m certain that these keys to the “Italian Art of Living” could help others, no matter what their ethnicity.
- How has Italy and Italians taught you to be hopeful, compassionate, and positive?
Before my first trip to Italy, my Uncle Johnny told me, “Their generosity will change you.” He was right. From our family treating us like royalty to the store owners who wrapped up trinkets as if they were the Hope Diamond, Italians demonstrate the art of giving.
We can see the spirit of compassion with the Neapolitan tradition of caffe’ sospeso, and a variation of that with weekly lunches from a pizzeria in Florence. During the 2020 pandemic, Giuseppe Moscati’s century-old custom of helping our neighbors was revived: baskets on the sidewalks of Naples were filled with non-perishable items and had signs that read, “Those who can, put something in; those who can't, help yourself."
- What aspects of Italians' attitude to life do you admire the most?
In our fast-paced world, we are wise to follow the Italians’ lead about priorities: it’s important to always keep our families, friends and faith in the forefront of our minds and to have our love for them guide our actions. Life is not just about meeting deadlines and certainly not about electronic devices! It’s about creating a rich experience that fills our souls by spending time with people we love.
Along with—or, maybe because of—those priorities, Italians exude a bella figura (closest figurative translation would be a “good impression”). This prompts us to act and look our best because we’re representatives of our families. The bella figura includes being polite, kind and respectful…something our society needs more than ever.
- What can Italians teach us about resilience?
I think of my grandparents and their siblings who came to America: they had one suitcase and very little money, but a strong spirit of perseverance. Instead of letting the obstacles deter them, they accepted the challenges with a mindset of, “Oh, yeah? Try me!”
More recently, when COVID paralyzed the world, many Americans were hoarding hand sanitizer and bath tissue. Meanwhile, the Italians were singing from their balconies and projecting movies on the sides of buildings. That attitude of reaching out to each other—even if it’s two meters away—speaks volumes about the Italian spirit of community, and that we rise above challenges by coming together.
- Your introduction is titled 'La dolce vita is possible'....many may argue that considering the state of the world and what we've gone through this year, there's nothing sweet about life at the moment. How then is la dolce vita possible?
My favorite Italian proverb is “Finchè c’è vita, c’è speranza” (As long as there is life, there is hope).
Yes, we have all experienced great losses and we’ve witnessed chaos and despair. However, we’ve also seen many acts of generosity and kindness. So, we have a choice: we can either focus on the horrible sadness or on the sparks of love.
This isn’t about being naïve versus being a realist. It’s about choosing where to direct our energy. If I’m constantly complaining about how bad everything is, I will start to see only doom and gloom. If I look for positive occurrences, my life won’t be perfect, but it will be happy.
Taking that a step further, who will other people rather be with? If I’m a gloomy Guido, no one will want to be with me…and that will only confirm my dreary outlook on life. If you smile (sometimes through the tears), people will be drawn to you…and that will confirm your optimism about life.
- Anything you'd like to add?
We can triumph over trials and move forward with hope. We just have to take the next best step, and take it NOW! For those of us in the “second act” of life, know that it’s never too late and you’re never too old to make a difference.
“Life goes on…” - Joe Mattera (my father)
“…it’s up to us to make it extraordinary.” - Dawn Mattera