I woke up late on our first Sunday in Rionero, slightly hungover from the drinks Francesca had mixed for us the night before. We had let ourselves go a little wild on our first Saturday night out, and now I was regretting it. The skies were a hazy gray, the kind that made it look cold before you even set foot outside. I hadn’t been prepared for the frigid winter wind before we arrived. I had chosen to apply for my dual citizenship in southern Italy, thinking it would be a more temperate climate, but I hadn’t understood the effect of the altitude, with Rionero perched on the side of a 2000-meter-high spent volcano. While it wasn’t as snowy as Colorado, the humidity made it feel much colder.
That first Sunday morning, my phone pinged with a couple of text messages. First from Maria, “Buona Domenica!”, and then the same message from my colleague Silvestro who ran a cooking school in Puglia, a few hours south of us, where I took visitors every year. I texted him back, “Che cosa significa?” In the US I had been told enjoy the weekend, or have a nice holiday, but never anything remotely close to Good Sunday. Was it a religious wish or something else? I hesitated to return the greeting without understanding what I was wishing someone.
In Italy, Silvestro explained, Sunday is a day reserved for family. Nobody works who doesn’t absolutely have to, and they spend the day with relatives, often in large groups. Families—usually multigenerational—gather for a long Sunday lunch that goes on for hours. I’d seen this firsthand many times during my trips to Italy but didn’t fully understand how important the tradition was to Italians.
We had no family in Rionero, and everything was closed for the day, so unfortunately, we had nothing to do. It was too cold to venture out for even a short walk, so we hunkered down in the apartment frustrated we didn’t have something fun to do for the day. We had recently purchased a small beach house in Puerto Rico, where David still had family, so we spent that first Sunday meticulously sketching out the rooms and figuring out what furniture would be needed, even though the place was so small there was really no need to do this. We were just bored, and this helped us pass the time, but it was a nondescript day, ending with meatloaf for dinner while watching a show on Netflix. Would every Sunday be like this, I wondered? Would we be outsiders, without family, with nothing to do while everyone else exchanged their Buona Domenica greetings and gathered for Sunday lunch with their families?
On our second Sunday in Rionero, when Maria and Silvestro sent a wish for Buona Domenica, I responded, “Buona Domenica!” trying to sound upbeat even though I dreaded facing another boring Sunday. To fill some time, we decided to venture out to the market. I had always enjoyed grocery shopping, so saw this as a fun outing rather than a chore. We walked first up the hill to the closer smaller mercato—Maria had joked she liked to shop there because it was downhill to carry her groceries home—but they were closed. We walked the opposite way through town to the larger Ete supermarket, the store Maria had taken us to on our first day, but when we arrived, the sign said they were only open until 1:00 on Sundays and they had already closed for the day.
Frustrated, we hiked back up the hill to our apartment empty handed and plopped down on the couch to watch TV. We didn’t move from the couch for hours, streaming show after show. We never turn on the TV at home during the day, but we were bored and trying to fill time. Why did I have such a need to be doing something on these Sundays when the whole point for Italians was not to do anything other than spend the day with family? I knew I was behaving like a stereotypical American, always on the go and unable to relax, but it felt like not doing anything each Sunday was wasting a day of our time in Italy each week.
We were in Bologna in the north on our third Sunday in Italy. Having seen most of the tourist sights on Friday and Saturday, we ventured beyond the bustling centro storico to a large park on the edge of the city, where we found families sprawled on blankets, enjoying a picnic while the kids played in the grass. Our pace slowed a bit, and we sat in the park for some time, doing nothing. Although I couldn’t quite figure it out at the time, this Sunday felt different from the last two. It was less about us doing something, and more about il dolce di far niente, the sweetness of doing nothing. Italians are very good at this; Americans are not. We didn’t have our own family in Italy to spend the day with, so instead we ordered a coffee from the barista in the park and sat on a bench for almost an hour watching the Italian families in the park.
On the fourth Sunday, we were back in Rionero. I filled our two Mokas—the large one for David and the small one for me—and waited for the hissing to stop to pour our coffees. We sat on the couch and lazily sipped coffee while scanning the news on our phones. We had been in Italy for a month already and had yet to drive up to the lakes that sit in the crater of the spent volcano. We were still looking for something to do with our Sunday, and although it was a cloudy, drizzly sort of day, we decided to not let that deter us.
It was only a 15-minute drive up the hill from our apartment to Laghi di Monticchio, and we parked on the road between the two lakes. The larger lake had a steep grade up from the lake, and there was no path to walk around it, but the smaller one had a walking trail that circled the lake. We began walking around the loop, then took a detour to see the abandoned abbey that sits up behind the lake, eventually connecting again to the lake trail.
We were surprised to see so many people out, despite the somewhat dreary weather. I was used to seeing people out exercising on a Sunday in a park in the Denver, headphones on, gazing down, driven to complete their work out and get home to watch football or get some work around the house done. But this was different. These were large groups of families, dressed casually, not in workout attire, and strolling arm in arm slowly along the path while they chatted. They seemed to have no schedule or agenda other than enjoying each other’s company. The entire place felt serene and peaceful.
By the time we made it all the way around the lake and back down to where our car was parked, we were hungry. It was winter still, so many of the restaurants around the lake hadn’t yet opened for the season, but we found one small place open for lunch. There were a couple of tables with people inside, but nobody yet seated outside, so after greeting the owner, “Buona Domenica,” we took a seat at one of the outside tables. He had no sooner set the table for us when the light drizzle began to turn to rain, and we retreated to a small table in the back corner of the restaurant. He smiled at us as if to say, I knew you wouldn’t last long outside in this weather.
I was struggling with my Italian—something that regularly frustrated me. I couldn’t find the words to say exactly what I wanted to him, that this was a lovely day despite the weather, and I didn’t fully understand his response. But I had shared my mission so many times that at least this rolled off my tongue effortlessly when he asked where we were from and why we were here. He smiled when he learned I was hoping to get my dual citizenship.
Over the next two hours we enjoyed a traditional Sunday lunch—grilled bread with olive oil and oregano; orecchiette with mushrooms, tomatoes, and arugula; grilled pork drizzled with a spicy, chile-infused olive oil; and a large salad of lettuce and arugula, dressed with olive oil, vinegar, Parmigiano Reggiano cheese, salt, and pepper. We sipped on Aperol spritzes while we savored our food.
Throughout the meal, soft music was playing what sounded like covers of recent pop songs, and it reminded me of my dad playing Herb Albert and the Tijuana Brass in our living room on Sundays after church and brunch. Both David and I loved the music. Feeling a little looser after a drink, I approached the owner and asked, “Che cosa questa musica? Una stazione del radio?” I thought if it was a radio station playing, we could find it on our car radio or at home in our apartment.
“No, non è il radio,” he said. “Questo è un playlist—Bossa Nova su Spotify.”
“Ah, ci piace molto, grazie mille,” I said while paying our bill. We would end up playing this station on Spotify in our car for the remainder or our time in Italy, thinking fondly of him each time it came on.
Three weeks later, after our Sunday morning coffee, we drove out to the lake again. We had no agenda for the day—we just wanted to see the lake one last time before heading home to Colorado in just a couple of weeks and hoped to enjoy our Sunday lunch with some other Italian families.
We walked more slowly around the lake this time, noticing how the trees and wildflowers had all blossomed since we were here a few weeks prior, and snapped a few photos. After our walk, intent on enjoying a long, leisurely Sunday lunch, we headed right to the restaurant where we had dined previously. The day was beautiful—sunny and warm for this time of year in this region. “Buona Domenica,” I greeted the owner, asking if we could have an outside table this time.
“Si, fa bello oggi,” he said, and we agreed the weather was much better today than our last visit. Our table had views across the lake to the Abbey and we sat down, in no rush, and waited to order. This Sunday was La Festa di San Giuseppe, the religious holiday honoring Joseph, the earthly father of Jesus. Italians celebrate Father’s Day on this same day, and as the other tables filled with families, we sipped on our wine and watched the kids running around while their mothers tried to snap photos of them with their fathers.
We had nearly the same lunch as we had had the last time we were here—partly because the menu was limited, but also partly because it was just that good. And again, the music was perfect for the day—a jazzy, blues mix that we both loved. My Italian had improved significantly over the past few weeks because I had made myself speak Italian wherever we had gone. I felt more confident and asked the owner if this was another Spotify playlist. He smiled. “No, è il mio,” he said. Again I told him how much we were enjoying it, while David tried to make note of the songs playing so that he could recreate the owner’s personal playlist.
We enjoyed our Sunday afternoon with the other Italians, the way the Italians do, with no agenda to do anything other than share a wonderful meal eaten very slowly over several hours with a loved one. I didn’t really want to leave, feeling like I finally grasped how sweet it could be to have no agenda for the day. As we said goodbye to the owner, I promised him we would return one day. “Grazie per tutto. Ci vediamo un altro anno.”
“Buona Domenica,” he replied, and we walked very slowly, arm in arm, to our car.