I am exploring what it means to live La Dolce Vita, the sweet life Italian-style. This week I want to talk to you about cultivating family and friendships.

Let’s start with family.

La Famiglia
What does family mean to you? To me it means warmth, love, security, belonging, connectedness.

I was fortunate to have two parents who loved each other very much and stayed married their whole lives. I also have two brothers and two sisters and we all get along very well. I also have an extended network of cousins who are like my best friends, and many aunts and uncles. Both of my parents, my Italian father and Irish mother, had many brothers and sisters. So our family was very large.

Family is very important to Italians. My Irish side would say the same. There is nothing we wouldn’t do for family.

That’s not to say we haven’t had our moments where we disagreed or put our foot in our mouths getting into each other’s business. But you have to learn to let things go. At the end of the day, your family will always be there for you. You can’t stay angry forever at the sister who ruined your hairbrush or borrowed your dress without asking, or dented your car, or yelled at your kid. When you are close, there will naturally be times when you get in each other’s way.

Italians understand the nature of human imperfection. No one is always right. No one can always make the right choices. Being an adult means accepting weaknesses in other people and loving them anyway. Sometimes you have to let things slide. None of us are perfect and should be able to be ourselves in front of our family.

There will be differences of opinion. You won’t always agree on politics or religion, or how to raise your children. You should be able to freely express your views in front of your family without being ridiculed — well maybe joked with a little — but not condemned for thinking differently. I’ve seen my family arguing and yelling one minute and then laughing and joking the next. Even as a child if I got yelled at for doing something wrong, it was all forgotten the next minute. Forgiveness is a big part of Italian family life.

Accepting each other for who we are is another big thing. I may have been the quirky sister who was always dancing in a recital or performing in plays or singing in the choir. But my family was always in the audience cheering me on. And that one year that I wanted to play softball and was terrible at it, there was my family in the bleachers taking pictures and clapping for me.

Children are a big part of family life in Italy. And the dinner table was the center of our home. Every Thursday was spaghetti night and the whole family would gather together. My mother was Irish but she cooked the most amazing Italian food. We were always allowed to bring friends home for supper, and one week my little cousin brought her friend to dinner. They were still grade school age. She had so much fun that Thursday because she told us at home she wasn’t allowed to talk at the dinner table. Her father was very strict and thought they should eat dinner in silence. After she went home, my mother said, “That’s just wrong. At the dinner table is where you learn what your kids do all day.” My mother never pried us for information, she would just let us all talk at dinner, and we freely spilled out everything that happened at school or what we did with our friends that day. And our parents listened. Some of my happiest moments were lived around our dinner table. Just one of the many reasons we should cook and eat at home often.

Even though we have spread out into our own homes, in my family you can always pick up the phone and ask a favor, or get a babysitter, or ask advice, or tell your news. We gather for birthdays and holidays or just for the hell of it. We have traditions and we pass them on to the next generation. It’s a circle that cannot be broken.

I understand that not everyone grew up with an idyllic family like I had. For those people I encourage you to make your own family out the people you care about and who care about you. This leads me to my next topic: friends.

We have friends for different periods of our lives. We have our school chums, our college sisters, our work friends, our friends back home. Some friends come in and out of our lives. Some stay for the long haul.

Do you have friends that you miss talking to? Wouldn’t you be excited if they picked up the phone and called you out of the blue? Why don’t you be that friend? Who can you call today just to catch up and make their day?

There are some things that you can tell friends that you would never tell your sister or your spouse. Friends play a different role. That’s why we have to maintain our friendships. They connect us to our past. We got into trouble with these people. We went to proms and dances and on bad double dates. We played games and talked about boys. We probably tried beer or strawberry wine with them when we were too young to do so. (I distinctly remember trying pear schnapps in my best friend’s basement and wondering how adults could drink that stuff.) We learned how to apply makeup. We stood for them in their wedding. We held their newborns. We laughed, we cried, we complained about school. We shared heartbreaks and cigarettes. Give her a call. (I know exactly who I’m calling when I’m finished with this blog post. I’m talking about you, Miss Pear Schnapps!)

We also have to make time for new friends. You’ll probably move away from your hometown and meet new people. As we get older we get busier and have less time to hang out and giggle with the girls. Make time, even if you have to schedule it as you would an appointment.

What does friendship mean to you? Italians know that we all need social interaction. From time to time we need someone to confide in, someone to listen to us. And we must be willing to be a good listener for them too. You’ll outgrow some of your friends from your younger days. It’s natural. There will be friends that last forever and friends who last for a period of time. Be open to meeting new people for each stage of your life.

Friends can be your family away from home. Have you ever lived in another city and not been able to get back home for a holiday? Your friends can be your own little family. Some people don’t have a lot of family. But they can make their own with their best friends. This past Thanksgiving I enjoyed dinner at the home of my good friends and met five new ones. We had a great evening together. And it helped me get through only being able to talk to my family over FaceTime.

How do you make friends? Take the first step. Sometimes people are too shy to make the first move. Invite someone to lunch or for coffee and see what happens. See if you have similar interests and sensibilities? When you find friends, keep up with it. Give and take. That’s the way it works. Be supportive. Be willing to listen. Be willing to share of yourself too. Ask for advice. And when you are asked for advice, give it honestly and respectfully. Friends tell each other the hard truth. But they also lift you up. And if you have friends who don’t, weed out the ones who don’t support you or don’t offer anything in return.

Be tolerant. Be forgiving. Just like with your family.

Be rich in family and friends and you will find la dolce vita.

Tell me about your family and friends. Are they crazy? Are they fun? Do you miss them? Did you call them? Let me know in the comments below.

Click here to read the entire La Dolce Vita Series.