Hands down, the best lunch I’ve enjoyed in Trieste this month was prepared today by three beautiful women at the San Giovanni Microarea. I was privileged to enjoy a lunch of handmade pizza (three types, including one with a topping of caramelized onions and radicchio zuccherini, typical of this region), salad and a Colombo Pasquale (Easter) cake with gelato spooned into the middle. I dined along with neighbors who came to the Microarea to enjoy pranza (the mid-day meal) with others; a routine that happens three times a week.
This is the third Microarea I’ve visited in my several trips to Trieste. My guide today was Cristina Brandolin, a Nursing Coordinator with the Health Care Agency, and she was gracious to give me the better part of her day to allow me to be more fully immersed into this important program that helps so many people in Trieste maintain their independence and mitigate trips into the hospital or institutional living. There are 13 Microareas throughout Trieste, and each is unique, defined by the particular needs of the community it serves and the leader that holds everything together.
Today I met Ester Olivo, who has led this particular Microarea for the last six years. She is a nurse, by background, and is a woman who exudes warmth and embraces color. The environment, a flat on the ground floor of an apartment building, is immediately welcoming and come se dice “joyful?” Gioioso. Using the Meyers-Briggs assessment, she would be the personification of an extrovert. She loves everyone equally, authentically and doesn’t hold anything back.
Approximately 2,200 people live within the boundaries of this Microarea, and of that number, about 1,600 have been defined by the city as having needs. On any given day, between 60 and 70 people will connect with the Microarea, either by stopping by for some help, being visited in their home, or coming for lunch or a class. A Microarea is created in an area where there is a greater concentration of public housing, and other social-economic indicators of need, such as poverty, unemployment and lack of education. It is Ester’s job to be cognizant of the health and related needs of these 1,600 people and to work her magic with other local agencies, the city of Trieste, the housing department, community volunteers, her small cadre of social cooperative workers and any other resources she can muster to be a problem-solver for the neighborhood. She is the only full-time staff person for this area.
Today’s experience revolved around the pranza – lunch offered three times a week, and cooked by volunteers or part-time workers who connected with a social cooperative. The moment we walked in, I could smell the garlic and I knew something good was in our future.
In Trieste I am learning that there is therapeutic significance to a shared meal. What happens at a meal? There is preparation: it must be planned and prepared. As a cook myself, I appreciate all the work that leads up to the food being placed on the table. As we met the team in the kitchen today, they were scrambling because the stove was not working (the electricity had gone out) so Plan B was to make pizza from scratch in the oven. (It was my lucky day!)
Tables have to be set, complete with tablecloths, and everyone is invited to sit. Those who prepared the food are attentive to everyone else and eat last. There is conversation – a key component to reversing the downward slide into social isolation, which is a concern I’ve heard over and over from staff who work in the community mental health centers and in the Microareas.
One man, I noticed, sat by himself for about an hour before lunch. He had two canes and it was difficult to maneuver, but he was there for lunch and when it was time to make his way to the table, he did so without responding to offers of help. He was a little miffed that there was crunchy pizza today as he was missing quite a few teeth, and I believe he would’ve preferred pasta, but he made it work. I asked Ester afterwards, “what will happen to him when he loses his mobility?” She was adamant. In Italian she said, “we want to avoid him moving into a casa di riposo (a rest home). He will lose his independence. For him, we want to avoid the institution.” If he did not show up for this lunch, they would contact him.
Ester offered another interesting aspect of the Microarea that helps to maintain a sense of stability for people in this neighborhood. In addition to its physical presence in the neighborhood, she feels that the predictability of the schedule and the routines can draw people out of their homes. For example, she schedules two excursions each week – a short one on Monday and a longer one on Tuesday afternoon. It might be a walk to the park, or a bus ride to the seashore. She also offers a beacon of hope for people, no matter what they are going through. “You have to give people an expectation that things can improve,” she said.
Trieste has a disproportionate share of people over the age of 65 (25 percent of the population) so there is a clear need to provide support to people growing older in their homes. However, in the four hours I spent in the Microarea today, I met people ranging in age from their 20’s to 80’s. All of life’s challenges were presented today. One volunteer lost her 35-year old son to cancer just two years ago and helps the Microarea because it gives her a sense of purpose and connection. A 68-year old woman brought her 86-year old mother in for a visit on their way to the doctor. Another young woman who has been subjected to sexual exploitation and substance abuse popped in for a quick lunch. One of the team of cooks, an immigrant who lived in Trieste for over 15 years without leaving her house or learning Italian, finally came out of her home last year after the tragic passing of her fourth child, an infant. Another man, with a Mohawk and spate of tattoos came in to visit Ester and asked to have his picture taken.
As I sat there today and watched the whirlwind of activity that encircled Ester – a woman with an indomitable spirit and magnetic force that attracts people into her orbit – I turned to her and said, “you are the mayor of this neighborhood!” Its hard to imagine how the people I meet today would fare without this place of accoglienza that welcomes all.