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It sure feels good being useless

Updated: Nov 18, 2019


The front yard of my Italian family's house in Piancastagnaio. Catch a glimpse of Roger the schnauzer in the center.

I usually feel guilty about doing nothing. It seems like doing nothing (i.e. watching TV, reading a book, lying down on my bed and scrolling through Instagram) should have an allotted time during the day: Like, an hour before bed, or for 30 minutes after lunch — before getting back to Productivity.


Last weekend, I had no choice but to do absolutely nothing for 48 hours, and I gotta say, it was blissful.


Before I explain why, I have to introduce my Italian family.


FUA has a special program in which you can sign up to be matched with a local family, who you're supposed to see once a week or so to improve your Italian and see how a real Florentine family lives, breaking down stereotypes and forming valuable relationships along the way.


My family of four — plus Roger Federer, a smelly black schnauzer named after the Swiss tennis player, and Pilu, the finest and largest cat I have ever had the pleasure of meeting — lives in a city just two train stops away called Sesto Fiorentino.


There's the sweet 13-year-old Giorgia, who loves makeup, crafts, and spontaneously performing the dances to the latest TikTok videos. Her older sister, Sara, is 16, good at everything in school, and I'm sure destined to do something very awesome in the world.


Rafaello is their father. He loves the Red Hot Chili Peppers, every movie ever made, and, most of all, American football, so he was thrilled to learn that I come from the same city as the Dallas Cowboys.


The mother, Federica, loves her family so much. You can see it in the way she hugs and kisses her daughters, you can taste it in the way she cooks, and you can hear it in the way she bosses everyone around with a smile, even if you can't speak Italian.


As you can imagine, it has been a sincere delight to get to know them over the last couple of months, which have flown by way too fast. So when they invited me to spend an entire weekend with them at Federica's parents' old house in Piancastagnaio, a tiny town on Monte Amiata in the province of Siena, I accepted right away.


I'd met them three times before that weekend in a series of heartwarming and somewhat confusing dinners. The first time, I got to know Rafaello and Federica at a restaurant in Florence. The second, I went over to their house for pumpkin pasta and got acquainted with Sara and the pets.


The next time I went over, the whole gang was in town: Giorgia had gotten back from her class trip to France, so I met her for the first time, as well as two other Italian families they'd invited to dinner. Thank goodness for these people's expressive hand gestures and impassioned volume, which helped me understand about 15 percent of what was said that night.


As I understood it, Sara and two other girls her age wanted to go to a nightclub on Halloween, and they wanted a later-than-usual curfew. Their parents didn't love this idea.


"Lalalala DISCOTECA lalala ALCOOL lalalala NO," I discerned from their electrifying medley of Italian arguments.


"Lalalala MAMA! Lalalala BASTA!" the frenzy continued as I, a fly on the wall, ate chicken-liver toast, darting my eyes from exasperated teenager to fed-up adult and wondering what the outcome of this fervent debate would be.


"Sara, do you like paella?" one of the dads asked me during a lull in the battle.


"Yes," I answered.


And then it was back to the chorus.


Ultimately, they reached a compromise: The teens were allowed to go to the club and would be picked up by one of the parents at midnight. My inner 16-year-old raised her fist in the air victoriously.


The teens went off to Sara's and Giorgia's room to chatter about their big night out as the adults and I ate cookies with dessert wine. That's what Federica popped the big question:


"Sara, would you like to come with us next weekend to the mountain?"


"Yes, please! What do you guys do when you're there?" I asked.


"Mostly eat, sleep, and take walks."


I was sold.


A week later, we drove up a dirt path to the house in Piancastagnaio. The air was crisp, the leaves on the trees were the prettiest range of autumnal oranges and reds and browns I've ever seen, and the sky was... sobbing. And it never stopped.


Well, that meant that we could do two out of three planned activities: eat and sleep. My specialties.


For 48 hours, the six of us (including Roger) barely left the living room of that adorable cushion-filled house. I found myself being utterly useless and totally loving it, getting up only when it was time to eat or pee — or when my butt hurt from being in one type of chair for too long. If I had bothered wearing my Fitbit, it wouldn't even have given me a step count; it would have just said, "Are you still alive?"


It felt like Christmas break at home in Dallas, where I don't do much but enjoy the comfort of being with my family in my rattiest sweatshirts and most ridiculous pajama pants.


I can't decide who was the most amusing character of the weekend. It was either Giorgia, who, bless her, is learning both French and English in school right now, and was really trying her best to practice English with me. I wouldn't hear from her directly for a couple of hours, and then she'd turn to me purposefully and say slowly in her delightfully thick Italian accent, "Sara, do you like this song?"


"I do!" I'd answer. "Do you like Ed Sheeran?"


"Oui," she'd say. This happened at least 15 times.


Or maybe it was Rafaello. Besides gathering sticks and planks of wood to put into the old-school fireplace and furnace with great joy and dedication (so much that Federica had to tell him to stop because the house was getting Florida-level toasty), he was straight-up chilling.


He watched everything on TV from Italian news to NFL games to Grey's Anatomy with such impressive stillness that I'd forget he was in the room — until he'd test out the new English phrases he learned onscreen. The room would be completely quiet and then he'd chime in,


"Madison Square Garden."


"Boos and cheers."


"I mean it."


Meanwhile, I read, played cards with Sara and Giorgia, and occasionally wandered into the kitchen to see what Federica was cooking. She introduced me to insalata di nervetti, a vinegary salad made with chewy beef cartilage and pickly vegetables, and showed me how to make castagnaccio, a dense chestnut-flour cake with raisins, pine nuts, and rosemary that's in every Tuscan bakery this time of year.


And despite all the English and French we spoke, I did learn some new Italian words.


The most commonly used phrases were, "Piove?" and "Piove..." ("Is it raining? and "Sigh...It's raining..."


There was also "cattivo!" which means "bad," mostly in reference to Roger's chewing on everything.


And I'm finally getting the hang of "to sing, singer, and song," which is "cantare, cantante, e canzone."


When I wasn't sorting through these new words in my mind, I was thinking about how lucky I was to be a part of this family for two whole days, from the moment they crawled downstairs for coffee in the morning to the moment they kissed goodnight.


Before I knew it, it was Sunday afternoon and time to drive back. Sara, Giorgia, and I took turns playing DJ, which led to me creating a "canzoni Italiane" playlist on Spotify with all of the songs they played for me.


I guess we did do stuff after all. We learned, we laughed, and we enjoyed each other's company. We just did it in indoors, in seated positions, while wearing pajamas.


That's definitely not nothing.

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