How an Italian Nonna’s Simple Mantra Changed My Life
Two words of encouragement shifted how I view a happy life.
Those in the later years of their lives have what most of us don’t — a lifetime of experience. So we look to our elders for secrets on life’s biggest questions. What will make me happy? How can I avoid regret? Am I making a mistake?
Sometimes we may willingly ask for guidance. Other times, wisdom is offered unsolicited and more often unwanted. That’s when the most impactful advice usually comes; when we need it, but don’t want it. It was in one of those unwanted moments I heard a simple phrase that forever changed how I approach my life.
In 2019, I spent two months living with my boyfriend’s grandparents in their hometown of Polla, Italy. Polla is a virtually unknown paesino, small town, nestled in the mountains of Italy’s Campania region. The total population is less than 6,000. In this town, the locals speak a dialect as close to Italian as Portuguese is to Spanish. That is, not very close. To many northern Italians, the language spoken in Polla is incomprehensible. To me, an American with the Italian language skills of a five-year-old, it was simply impossible.
At the time, my boyfriend Salvatore worked in the city of Salerno. He was out of the house 10 hours a day, at least five days a week. Meanwhile, my only responsibility was to learn Italian. I had two weekly lessons with a neighbor who was studying languages. She was great, but our sessions together were brief. The rest of the time, I locked myself in my room with an Italian grammar textbook. There I both studied, cried, and had what I would label an existential crisis.
Hiding away was admittedly not the healthiest or most effective way to learn Italian, but I was emotionally spiraling. I questioned daily why I left my comfortable life in California to end up in a town where I knew nothing and no one. I drowned in self-pity. The longer I wallowed, the worse I felt, the more I wallowed, and so on. The vicious cycle was in full swing.
But every day, at around 1 pm, I would hear a knock on my door followed by, “Vieni, vieni. Il pranzo è pronto.” — “Come, come. Lunch is ready.” Every day, Salvatore’s Nonna cooked us lunch. Every day, I would eat beside her and her husband, who was almost entirely deaf after a lifetime of operating loud machinery. Most of the time, we ate in silence, but every so often we tried to communicate.
Each time I attempted to speak Italian, I would stumble over my words, flush with embarrassment, and give up. Each time she would look at me with patience and offer the encouragement, “piano piano”, a phrase that literally translates to slowly, slowly or little by little.
I would come to learn this mantra is common in Italy’s south. It can be used for cooking — little by little the sauce will develop the perfect flavor. It can be used for travel — slowly but surely you will arrive at your final destination. It can be used for condolences — over time your grief will subside.
My American mindset was greatly challenged by the concept of doing anything slow. Growing up in America, life was a constant competition. A competition to be the best in sports. A battle to be the best in school. A challenge to get the best grades, go to the best college, land the best internship, and get the best job. My objective was always to go higher, faster, higher, faster.
The idea of going slower to live better was a foreign concept. So much that hearing the phrase piano piano inexplicably bothered me. I didn’t want to learn Italian slowly; I wanted to master it efficiently like the people who claim they reached fluency in three months.
But after years of reflection, I began to see the value in slowing down. Whether we like it or not, everything worthwhile in life requires both time and consistency. Overnight success has been sold to us endlessly, but it is ultimately a lie.
Don’t believe me? Here are the words of people much more qualified to talk about success:
“If you really look closely most overnight success took a long time.” -Steve Jobs
“I start early and I stay late, day after day, year after year, it took me 17 years and 114 days to become an overnight success.” -Lionel Messi
We need to stop buying into the idea that results should come fast and easy. We need to stop feeling inadequate when setbacks, frustrations, and daily distractions inevitably delay our progress. Life goes fast, but the years are long. We have time to honor the journey.
Taking things slower is not only useful in the context of achieving long-term goals, but it is also crucial to enjoying the everyday. Living slow means appreciating where you are in the present moment and allowing space for rest. Grab a coffee with friends and put your phone on silent. Eat your lunch at the table and then return to your desk. Take a thirty-minute exercise break because you deserve it. When we approach life slower, we consequently make it sweeter.
The words piano piano are a powerful reminder to put one foot in front of the other, move forward little by little, and savor the ordinary moments required for growth. Try as we may, we will never be able to outrun the pain that accompanies progress. We must lean into the discomfort, and trust that we are slowly headed in the right direction.
In a busy world, we have the choice to keep running, to stand still, or to step forward with intention. An Italian nonna told me to choose the last.
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