I am a card-carrying member of Luna e L’Altra, one of the network of membership associations that are important for social connection, support and human flourishing in the mental health system in Trieste. I wish I could have spent more time there on this trip, but the good news is that my membership lasts for a year, and I will be back in September.
When I first visited L’Una earlier this month, I arrived shortly after lunch. I was delighted to see Guilia there; the woman I met at the hospital my first week. She was looking quite happy and had her hair straightened.
I was invited into the main gathering room (there is that sense of accoglienza again!) and they brought me some ragu pasta. A few of the women hovered — likely I am a bit of a strange site, this tall American woman who is struggling to speak Italian. One woman sat down next to me – she was il cuoco (the cook) that day. I loved her ragu and we were able to start a conversation about cooking. It was so tasty and satisfying and I asked her for her recipe. She was delighted to oblige. I wrote down the ingredients, which became another lesson in learning more Italian words: cipolla, aglio, carota, pomodoro, macinata di marzo. At one point, my new friend, the cook, leaned into my ear and said to me in English “I am divorced.” She said she had had an abusive husband. I told her I was sorry to hear that. She said, for all the years she had cooked for her husband, “non ho mai ricevuto complimenti.” I never received compliments. I cannot stop thinking about that.
We talked more about this. She said that he is remarried and lives in her house. For some reason, she had to move out. She told me that for eight months she has been coming to Luna and she cooks the mid-day meal on Tuesdays. Clearly, this is a source of pride for her.
There was another young woman there who sat patiently while we discussed the food. I asked her name – Beatrice (and she is allowing me to share her real name). She spoke English and began to share her story. She lives in a very small town, San Leonardo, about 30-40 K away from Udine. It is a small town with only 100 people – and during the course of the conversation, it was clear that she felt quite isolated there. (In fact, for her to come into Trieste, it takes her close to two hours – one way — to travel by car, train and foot.) I learned that she is 25 years old. She is adopted and lives with her parents. She loves having a reason to come into Trieste (and believe me I understand. I love this city and I traveled 30 hours to get here!)
I could sense how hard it would be for a young woman to live with her parents in a village of 100 people. She would like to move to Trieste but has to find a better job. Currently she only has a part time job and she needs to take a course to gain the skills to get a better job. This is her plan. She said, “I have to make this change now, because I am 25, and I don’t want to be in this same position when I am 30.”
I asked her if she wanted to take a walk for a coffee, but she had an appointment. We agreed to meet the following week. So, more about the amazing story of Beatrice in a future blog.
Earlier this week I returned to L’Una and again felt the warmth of a place that is accepting to women of all ages, all circumstances, all walks of life. I was encouraged by a woman who had lived in Trieste for over twenty years, but was originally from South Korea, to keep pressing on with my Italian. Guilia was there again, as was my friend, the cook. This Tuesday, she had made a frittata with leeks, peppers and parmesan cheese.
On this particular day, a local bookbinder, Romana, had been invited in to teach the women how to make paper crafts – gift bags, book marks and cards. I sat there for about 90 minutes, soaking in the sense of peace in the room. The table became strewn with scissors, ribbon, two-sided tape and scraps of paper. Romana, exhibited great patience. One woman was there with her assistance worker who helped her make her gift bag.
It was clear to me that this association was very important to all the woman. They had a place to go that was safe and welcoming. L’ Una e L’Altra is part of a network of associations and social cooperatives in the Trieste mental health system that provide important connection points for users. The purpose of L’Una e L’Altra is to “engage in mutual support programs aimed at promoting women’s health and gender culture.” Where social cooperatives are involved in providing meaningful work and vocational opportunities, the associations are communities of interest that provide a place to gather with people who share common interests and who can find a place to grow, to develop their voice, to practice leadership.
I have in my possession a packet from an open house that was organized this past January, where each of the social cooperatives and associations presented their purpose, the number of participants, along with information about the number of staff or volunteers that are associated.
For example, some of the associations available to join include:
- Polisportiva Fuoric’entro whose aim is, through sporting activities such as hiking, basketball and games, to achieve “salute sociale” or social health.
- Comunita di San Martino al Campo, who, since 1970, has focused in areas that are disadvantaged in the city through three functions: accoglienza (welcoming) for those who are immigrants, homeless, strangers in the city; prevention services for young people who are falling behind academically, or struggling with adolescence; and support services to families, people leaving the criminal justice system. I had the opportunity last December to visit the homeless shelter this association hosts near the train station in Trieste and I recall the image of a volunteer (one of 200) ironing sheets for the guest.
- Associazione Familiari Sofferenti Psichici – founded in 1988, this association is a place of support for users and families of loved ones experiencing mental illness. It also works through various community institutions to reduce prejudice, promote social re-integration, advocate for borsa lavoro (work grants) and assisted living.
Other associations revolve around community gardening, wellness, physical health, music, art, bonsai and the like. Because the way the systems are funded in Trieste, there appears to be no philanthropic involvement in supporting these associations. These organizations must compete for government funding, thus encouraging the involvement of the users in making the case for continuation.
Where would these women go if L’Una did not exist? There are approximately 100 active members. Social isolation is the enemy of good mental and physical health. These associations provide an abbracio (a hug) back into community.