If I am honest, I must admit that I have some trepidation about what awaits me in the month ahead. I have returned to Trieste now for the fourth time since my first visit in July 2017. I have ensconced myself in an apartment, bought my groceries, purchased my bus pass and explored my little neighborhood in the città vecchia (old city). I am here on my own dime. I could use this spot as a launching pad to explore Italy, Slovenia, Austria – -all sorts of places that are easily accessible by train. (And I will do a little of that before I leave). However, instead, I have signed up to be a volunteer anywhere in the community where I can learn more about how the system of community care operates under the auspices of the Dipartimento di Salute Mentale.
I have been studying Italian since last May, in preparation. There is nothing more humbling that to be reduced from the articulate, opinionated person I am to an American who is struggling to speak in the present tense, searching desperately for the correct verb. (The verb andare, which means “to go” is conjugated in the first person as io vado, as in “Io vado al ristorante.” Imperfect verbs are a beast!) So, I am living this existential life in the present tense – there is no future and no past, as far as I am concerned — and praying (truly) that this sensation that I have rocks in my mouth will dissipate soon.
I have been assigned to a community nonprofit, Luna e L’Altra, which is described as an organization which serves women. Yesterday, I met the woman who heads the organization, Tea Giorgi, who, demonstrating, the accoglienza I so admire, took time out of her Saturday to spend a couple hours introducing me to the città vecchia (she lives here too). She showed me the ATM, introduced me to people in the local library, and pointed out good places for coffee or food which are not too expensive! We went to the small outdoor market, and as I observed the custom here, I noticed that one does not grab and bag and start picking out what to buy. Instead, you tell the attendant what you want, and she will bag your fruits and vegetables. So glad I saw that demonstrated!
So why am I here?
I am here to challenge all my senses in order to be open to a different way to see people. At a meeting two weeks ago, I was asked, “why would anything that happens in Trieste be relevant to what happens in Los Angeles?” It was a fair question. I’m not sure I provided the best answer at that moment.
But here is my answer after thinking about this more: It is not about the city we are in. It is not about the laws or the culture or the politics that set the context for how people living with mental illness are treated. I am drawn to the “sameness” of the human condition, no matter where we live on earth. I give credit to Dr. Jonathan Sherin, the head of the LA County Department of Mental Health, who has eloquently reduced this to a simple meme, “all people want someplace to live, someone to love, and something to do.” With respect to how we care for our friends, families and those who, by virtue of their mental illness and poverty, are relegated to anonymity in our society, America has something to learn from Trieste. I have 28 more days to get closer to understanding what I can bring home with me.