Sanelli
Sanelli

I’m reminded that I was not born in Seattle by just about every conversation I have with someone who was. 

Almost immediately I feel “East Coast.” More to the point, East Coast Italian, different in attitude, tone and temperament in ways I didn’t fully understand when I was younger. 

After years of trying to clarify this feeling, I still find it difficult to explain why Italians communicate the way they do, especially to people unaccustomed to passionate debate as a way to, you know, bond. And instead of lessening, the challenge only increases.

I think this is because I weigh my words more carefully now, so as not to offend, since that’s what I learned to do as soon as I started to make friends here, weigh my words. Carefully. So as not to offend.

More difficult to explain are the emotional effects of this kind of quieter, less animated way of conversing. I just don’t feel like I am being as honest.

The first time I had dinner at my in-law’s table, I was afraid to open my mouth. I had no idea how to speak so softly about things I read in the newspaper. I was used to waves of personal opinion rippling through even deeper waves of expressive reaction. And my husband’s family seemed to be content in the shoals of current events.

Jokingly, I like to remind my Seattle friends, “I’m not stressed, I’m excited! There’s a difference. I’ll have plenty of time to ‘mellow out’ when I’m dead.”

I long for conversations with more heat and hand waving. The dinner table in my childhood home was a competitive place. Everyone talked at once, interrupted each other, said things someone took offense to on purpose. 

What fun!

And, of course, there is the matter of volume. Our neighbors, the McKenzies, complained about how loud we were, especially on holidays when the uncles played poker, the aunts fought over food prep, and everyone got drunk on homemade wine.

I recently told a friend of mine that Seattle has no regulations limiting how many “likes” a person can squeeze into a sentence, or how many unused Lime Bikes can line our sidewalks, but just how loud we can speak or how close to someone we can stand feels absolutely strict. 

And she told me that she thinks Italians are just more “in touch” with their feelings. So I said I bet my husband might say we are overly so. As in, I make myself crazy. Like say, we’re having friends over for dinner and I remark to him that maybe we should have bought white wine as well as red.

“Mary Lou, there’s plenty of wine, don’t make yourself crazy,” he’ll say, and there is a moment. Then two. Before he throws on his coat and goes for white. 

The other day I walked to the aquarium because I just finished reading “The Soul of An Octopus.” Except it wasn’t the octopus I wound up studying. It was a group of Italians. 

And yes, indeed, I heard them, before I saw them, if that is what you are thinking.

But if there are intentional coincidences, and most days I trust there are, I believe this one occurred to remind me of a huge part of my personality I neglect now that I (try to) live by a different code of ethics. Or what I jokingly call (but only to East Coast friends) BIDAN: Bring it down a notch. 

If the desire to be in the company of your biological tribe is one of the most overwhelming of human connections, I was reminded of where my features, qualities and personality traits originate.

Watching the group talk and touch and embrace each other freely, I had never felt more distant from the city in which I reside. I could see why I do things like wave my hands around a certain way and touch people when we chat because this is how communication has always been done. 

I felt an urge to run up to them and say, “I am Italian, too!” Thankfully I stopped myself.  Then I followed them into the undersea dome. I wanted to hug them. With my whole body. This is another mid-life change that’s come over me. When I want to do something, my longing doesn’t seem to come from a single driven place inside my head. It overwhelms my every muscle. Even my nerve endings seem to want what they want. Presto!

I think this has always been a part of my nature; it’s just more pronounced now. I wanted to hold on to this family with such a strong intensity that, when I couldn’t, I walked past them feeling deprived, devastated, lost.

So I call my friend Vicki, who was born in Seattle. She has no idea why I am calling, and I don’t bother to say, but as soon as I hear her voice, I am grounded. And it strikes me that talking, talking — however fast, cool, or impassioned — is always the best way to deal with complicated emotions when humble longings fall flat.

Mary Lou Sanelli is an author, speaker and dance teacher who lives in Seattle. She has published three works of nonfiction and her forthcoming novel, “The Star Struck Dance Studio (of Yucca Springs)” will be published in September(Chatwin Books). For more information about her and her work, visit www.marylousanelli.com.