Thresholds and Affogato, per favore.**

“Dimmi, Deanna”

“Abbrogato, per favore.”

Silvano’s smile told me I had once again said it wrong.  Dammit.  For some reason I just couldn’t get it right.  Seriously?  Why was I having such a hard time with this word?  I had been in Italy for two weeks. Early into my journey I was introduced to the sweet beauty of espresso with a scoop of vanilla gelato in it.  It was divine, as I was told. But I couldn’t order it right to save my life.  Silvano (our local barista at Cafe de Italia, affectionately known as “Jake”) was forgiving.  He worked with me one more time:

“Affogato, Deanna…  AF-FO-GA-TO.  Affogato, con crema.”

He spoke it slowly, pronouncing every syllable.  He really didn’t need to help me.  By now he knew what I wanted.  But he was patient.  And continued to try.  I had messed up this order many times.  The first time, though, was probably the most memorable

“Affrogato, per favore.”

Yes, I had just ordered an afro-cat.  Nice.

As I’ve learned, there is a bit of a mystery when ordering food or drinks in a new country with a new language.  I am never quite sure I have ordered correctly until the item arrives and I assess whether the result matches the intent.  In larger cities like Florence (where I started this Italy adventure), there is a safety net.  Many, many waiters, waitresses, and store owners speak English.  They expect tourists to speak to them in English and they are prepared.  In Florence, it felt safe to try out a few Italian phrases here and there, always knowing I could default to English quickly.

In Cagli, though, (a small medieval town in the La Marche region) very few residents speak any English at all.  This is why the Gonzaga Communication and Leadership Masters Program comes here.  Full cultural immersion.  You have to speak Italian or you will get no where.

I wasn’t quite prepared for what it would feel like to be dropped into Cagli, Italy.  I am an ethnographer.  I spend a significant amount of my professional time walking into cultures that are not my own and trying to learn about them and understand them. Walking into a new country, and especially into Cagli, should have been a playground for me.  During my first couple of days in Florence, it was.  I found myself embracing the challenge, speaking as much Italian as I could and trying to soak up what I did not know.  My favorite phrase soon became:  “Come si dice [add word here] in Italiano?”  (“How do you say….. in Italian?).  It was fairly easy.  And fun.

And yet, from the moment the bus began winding us out of the safety net of Florence, everything changed.  Stumbling off the bus and up the road that lead into what was to be my home for a month, I couldn’t help but notice the quiet.  A stark contrast from the streets of Florence, the only movement (besides our group) as we entered Cagli came from the racing swallows circling a huge cylindrical stone structure I came to learn was called the Torrione (the tower) –the recognized symbol of the small town.   Aside from the swallows’ high-pitched calls, the town was lifeless.  Pausa.  Rest time. 1-4 pm every day.  Everything shuts down.  Everything.

Our group began splitting off, each subgroup walking to individual apartments.  I was sent to the Eurbolista’s apartment.  I got lost.  Finally, I found myself where I was supposed to be. I stood, in the threshold of a huge wooden door, hoping someone would emerge and give me the keys.

As I stood at the door of the Eurbolista’s store, I felt a bit like Alice in Wonderland after shrinking and peering upward at the door that had just become larger than life.  This door was significant.  It was over 10 feet tall, wooden, and heavy.  I would soon come to know that there are many, many doors like this in Cagli.  Some even have door knockers that are bigger than my torso. They are heavy.  Aged.  You cannot help but notice walking through them.  Crossing the threshold is somewhat of an event.

If I asked you to describe the front door to your house, could you?  I would guess you could give me a general description, but as for details, could you tell me what the wood or glass or fiber glass feels like?  Do you notice walking through it?  Probably not.  Why?  Because you walk through that door every day.  Walking through is not an end in and of itself.  It is simply the way to get to an end.  The threshold is not the event, it is the way to get to the event.

It is a rare moment when I have been placed in a learning situation in which crossing a threshold is an event in and of itself.  It is a rare moment where the world hands me a door so significant that moving through it is monumental.  Arriving in Cagli felt like one of those moments.  I will be honest, as we walked through the lifeless town beneath the screeching swallows, I was nervous.  When I got to my apartment and no one was there, I was a bit afraid.  I stood in the threshold, covered in sweat after the steamy walk up the hill, with my 8-year old daughter, two heavy backpacks and two roller bags– waiting.  Nothing.  Was I at the right place?  Now what?  I pulled out my little Italian cell phone and started trying to figure out how to dial the director of the program (using the international phone was even a challenge and I fumbled with it for what felt like a very long time, wondering what I had gotten us into).

All of a sudden the shutters attached to the upper window in the inner courtyard flew open with a slam and a woman stuck her head out and started speaking very quickly.  Her voice was kind, but I could not understand a SINGLE word she said.  She flurried about at the window for a moment and then disappeared, reappearing below at her doorway with a young man who I assumed was her son.  For the next 20 minutes, Emma Grace and I were swept up in a whirlwind of instructions, all in Italian, about things in our apartment.  There was a lot of pointing.  Here’s how we were told to use the washing machine:

[point to round button] “buzz, buzz…. ”

[point to second round button] “whirl…. whirl…. ”

[point to light] “blink, blink…. ”

[point to place where clothes go] “swoosh, swoosh.”

We were concerned the first time we ran the washer a couple of days later.   Because somewhere in those instructions there was a point to something knob or button and a “no” and we could not remember the “no” button or knob.

After Patrizia and Simone left, I looked at Emma Grace.  In silence, we just stared at each other, in the oppressingly humid apartment.

“Oh dear,” I muttered.

“Wow,” she replied, her eyes wide and voice wavering.

Being a stranger in an unknown place is scary.  Trying to navigate that space is even scarier.  And as for learning something new or completing an academic project?  On the hierarchy of needs, on that humid day standing at the threshold hoping I wouldn’t mess up any instructions, the need to learn or produce something academic came somewhere after the zebra-hair throw rug (translation: it wasn’t anywhere on my radar).  And yet the next morning, these students were to be in the classroom, ready to learn.

On that next morning, I took Emma Grace to a small cafe.  I managed to order myself an espresso (I ordered that because it was the only thing I felt confident in ordering– “caffe, per favore”).  Emma Grace said she wanted a hot chocolate.  Oh dear.

“Dimmi…” said the woman behind the counter, which means “tell me.”

(Of note, after a few days, I got quite tired of the familiar “dimmi” greeting… I wanted to scream “Do you have any idea how badly I want to tell you?????  I can’t!).

“Ciocolato caldo, per favore.”

She didn’t look all that confused.  Good, I think I did it right.

Now, let me back up and share that it took me a good 10 minutes to get to the ordering point.  I was operating under the assumption that I had to stand in line, as I would at my local Starbucks.  I realized after many people just jumped in at any point on the counter and started ordering that lines were not necessarily straight here in Italy.  In fact, they weren’t necessarily lines at all.  After I placed my order, the woman behind the counter caught my eye:


I knew latte meant milk.  No, I didn’t want any milk.  Nice of her to offer, though.

“No grazie.”

A couple of minutes later, the woman behind the counter brought us our drinks.  Emma Grace got hot chocolate.  LITERALLY.  Hot melted chocolate.  After all, that is what I ordered.  And I told her no milk.  I got what I asked for.


There is a vulnerability in standing at the threshold of a new learning experience, stripped of any of the comforts of home or the constants that are familiar.  We were left without internet, air conditioning, phone service, and 24-7 grocery stores.  Connecting with anyone outside of Cagli was extremely difficult.  Connecting with people in Cagli felt impossible given the language barrier.  As a teacher, I always try to remind myself what it feels like to be a new learner. But honestly, I rarely encounter a situation in which I am truly a new learner.  I rarely stand at the threshold of doors I have not passed through.  And then I got to Cagli.

During my frst two weeks in Cagli, I walked through as much fear, anxiety, and vulnerability as I have felt in a long time.  Everything felt new.  And most everything felt like a challenge.  I did not know how to navigate the vegetable and fruit section of the grocery store.  Shoe and clothes sizes were different.  Things were measured in liters and kilometers, not pounds and miles.  Street names were etched on the upper stones of buildings, not on traditional green signs on the side of the road.  I did not know how to find the school where I was to work or the apartments of the other faculty and students.  The 10 Italian phrases I knew were useful for about 10 seconds of any conversation and then I was left, hoping and praying the person I was talking with would not ask me anything else. I wasn’t sure how to get seated at a restaurant.  I could order red or white wine (made sure I knew how to do that) but as for anything else…. I was left helpless.  Menus were not in English and local restaurant owners rarely had translations so the process of ordering required a phrasebook, a dictionary, and sometimes a leap of faith.  The entire process felt like a late night, badly-filmed, B-rated reality television show– a huge game where I was the poor, unknowing star trying to figure out where I was and what I was doing– providing hours and hours of entertainment for all to watch.  I kept expecting a crew of cameras to emerge from behind one of the buildings to tell me that the show was over and time was up, thanking me profusely for being such a good test case for their “Dropped In” series.  I joke, but it was not a comfortable experience.

Being a new learner is difficult.  Painful at times.  Frustrating.  Fortunately, the people of Cagli were extremely patient.  Gracious even.  They ushered me through, gently allowing me to fail and to stumble and to make a bit of a fool of myself.  They were teachers to me, in their hospitality and willingness to help.  They were not dismissive or protective.  And they could have been– I didn’t speak their language.  Actually, at times I butchered their language.  I would be gone in a month.  They could have approached me with a “tick, tock the game is locked and no body else can play”  attitude.  But they did not exclude me at all.  On the contrary, they were welcoming and kind.

The magic keyhole in Rome is an architectural wonder.  During our first free weekend of the Cagli adventure, we traveled to Rome and went to the magic keyhole.  It is a small keyhole in a very large door just outside of the botanical gardens.  It is miles away from St. Peter’s Bascilica and there is no direct way to get to St. Peter’s from the keyhole.  But when you peer through the keyhole, you see a beautifully framed, direct path to St. Peters, and the dome appears to be close enough stroll to without effort. The path to what some consider one of the holiest places in Italy was–for a moment as I peered into the keyhole–clear and easy and straight.  A path to the divine, some might say.  But only through the magic keyhole.  That straight, clear, easy path was (in actuality) nonexistent.  Magic.

By the middle of the second week in Cagli, we scheduled a “Matteo night.”  Matteo is a hair stylist, Cagli born and bred, who has found fame in places like London, Milan, and Rome.  For our program, he schedules a night to color or cut the hair of any in the program who come to the party.  About twelve of us signed up.  When we got there, there was some trepidation.  I decided I would go first and I was going to get a haircut.  I figured that I rarely had the opportunity to have my hair cut by a stylistic king (yes, that’s how folks from the past had built him up) so I jumped in the chair.  Matteo said “what should we do?” I responded– “you decide.  I trust you.”  An hour and 6 inches shorter, I had a new style.  Mid-way through the cut, as the floor was getting more and more covered with my hair, a couple of students caught my eye and gestured [Italian style– we had just learned about Italian nonverbal gestures that day in class] that I had some nerve.  Actually, the gesture involves holding two upward facing cupped hands next to each other and moving them up and down.  You’ve got nerve is the rated-G translation.  Yes, cutting 6 inches off my hair did take some…. well, you know…

I did not get the haircut for any metaphorical reason.  I got a haircut because it seemed like a fun thing to do.  But looking back, it seemed to be emblematic.  By definition, as I walked through the doors of Cagli that felt larger than life, I had to be willing to change.  To shed the old.  To be open to the other side, even without knowing what that other side would bring.  To let go of expectations.  To fail.  To be courageous.  To grow some… well, you know…

I never want to forget those moments during those first two weeks in Cagli when I was a new learner.  When I had no idea how to navigate or what to say or when to do almost everything.  When the simple phrase “dimmi” caused great consternation because I did not feel capable of responding. Remembering what it feels like to stand in the threshold of a monumental door for the first time seems important. Remembering the vulnerability of being a true novice seems significant.

During my first two weeks in Cagli, I peered through the keyhole–stretching and straining– to see a path.  And it often felt that the moment the path appeared, something would happen and it would as quickly disappear, leaving me once again feeling a bit helpless.  There was no straight path through and towards learning other than the one I conjured up to make myself feel more comfortable and in control.  The path did not exist.  What did exist, though, were those people who happened to be standing with me during that moment when life placed me in the threshold of a monumental door.  With them, I learned to live in vulnerability and courage in a primal, embodied way.  I learned to walk side by side with fear and trust, welcoming both into my nonexistent path.  I learned to relish being in the threshold, without always looking for what was beyond.  I learned that when the door is larger than life, so too is the possibility for transformation.  And I learned that transformation is not easy.  But is learning (true learning) ever easy?

Dimmi, world.
Affogato, per favore.

Indeed… divine.

**decicated to GU in Cagli community

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