The Nonna I Never Had


After I walked the boys to school today, I headed toward a different neighborhood for my morning walk. I wanted to take a path along the water’s edge. I took a detour to avoid a muddy construction zone. That’s when I ventured into an alley where an old woman was having a smoke.

She could have easily passed me and said nothing. I’ve noticed a lot of Europeans don’t greet strangers in passing the way Americans do. Sometimes I say, “Bok!” and wave just to see if people return my hellos. So far, almost every “Bok!” has gotten a friendly reply. I think I just smiled at the woman in the alley, but something made her catch up to me and start talking.

We quickly established that she didn’t know English, and it wasn’t Croatian she was speaking. She was Italian, and she looked incredulous to hear I didn’t know any Italiano. Maybe she could sense I have some Italian in my blood. I could make out enough to know she was asking my name. Then she began to sing it: “Tan-yah, oh, Tan-ee-ah!” Bella something-or-other, she sang and smoked. By this time, she had looped her arm in mine and was leading me down the street.

A white-haired man on a bicycle stopped to talk to her. I could tell he was asking who I was and probably why the heck she was serenading me. “Americano.” No Italiano. Something or other. He had no time for that. “No English,” he said as he rode off.


The old woman was not deterred. She asked me more questions. She belted out more songs. She pointed toward her side door and asked me to come and sit down at her kitchen table with the rose tablecloth that matched her vase of roses.

italian woman house 2

Part of me wondered what the heck I was doing sitting down in a stranger’s house when I couldn’t even understand her. But I was so entertained, I couldn’t say no. She seemed harmless and lonely. She was the Italian nonna I never had. She made me laugh.

She said her name and it was something close to Maria, maybe Mariska, I couldn’t really be sure. Her house looked like what I would imagine my distant Italian relatives’ homes would look like, with Catholic figurines within arm’s reach.

When her phone rang, she gestured for me to stay while she went in the other room to answer it. I snapped some pictures of the room while she was gone.

Italian womans house

When she returned, she sat down and sang some more until I sang with her.

I think she was going to get up and start making food then. She probably would have let me stay all day. But my Americano impulses didn’t have all day to stay. I felt a little guilty, like a party guest leaving too soon, as I inched out of my seat toward the door. We hugged like old friends before we parted. I felt like I should have kissed her on both cheeks, but I didn’t.

“Grazie,” I said as I began to walk away, “Thank you!”

“Very much!” she called from the door, in the most coherent English she had said yet. “Ciao!”

Then she followed me again, looped her arm in mine and walked me to the crossroads, where we said goodbye once more.


60 thoughts on “The Nonna I Never Had

  1. I love how you are seizing​ every moment. Hope to visit and experience a drop of what you already have. Miss my dear friend. Wishing you many more great experiences during this adventure.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. My Croatian friend says this nonna was singing to me in Croatian in the song in the video. “Very popular old school song,” my friend says: “Many years be happy, be happy, be happy, many years live long, long…”


  3. Great story, southern Europeans are usually like that, especially Italians 🙂 In the North it is a different story tough


  4. Love these sorts of strories where complete strangers make a random connection. And you wonder what other times one person sat on the same bench at a train station with your distant cousin you grew up playing T-Ball with and never spoke a word. Strange small world connections like that.


  5. I love this! It is these tiny instances that draw up a larger picture. It paints the life of a wanderer. There is good out there in the world. We just need to see it. I’m so glad you met her. It seems to have left you with a lasting memory. 🙂


  6. Interesting story – it kept me held till end. I must say she was really a sweet lady and your story proves my point too – that strangers are not always bad. At times they teaches you so many good lessons in life.


  7. That is some experience. You find kindness in strangers sometimes – more than you will from known folks. Glad you had this experience !


  8. This made me smile. We Greeks are very much like Italians and I can picture this taking place in any small village in Greece too. So heartwarming isn’t it?


  9. Such a fun experience! I love that language doesn’t have to be a barrier to kindness and making friends.


  10. Overall a captivating story. However, I am back from a recent trip to Europe, And I had a different kind of experience. Almost everyone passing by smiled and said hello!! maybe the culture is changing


  11. It seems like the two of you really connected. I’ve found myself instantly relating to strangers and I always wonder “why did that just happen”. One encounter was with a woman that was 101 years old. We were at Wendy’s and she talked and talked about everything. I saw her at least once a week at random places for about a month and then I didn’t see her any more. I always say she was around to give me advice because I always ran into her whenever I was trying to make a decision about something.


  12. Aww that is lovely! Things like that just never happen in the UK and if they did it would be very strange. I wish people were more like this, you can never have too many friends


    1. I told my husband the other day that I wanted to meet another old lady to sing to me. Grandmas are great, even if they’re not my grandma.


  13. Honestly the majority of the Italians I have met are incredibly nice. I would have loved to meet this old lady. Sounds like an amazing woman!


  14. What an awesome story! I absolutely love that she just invited you into your home and you went with her. Here in the state, I feel like if you smile at someone in the grocery store line, they are automatically taken aback and don’t know what to do with you haha

    Michelle | She’s Not So Basic


  15. Idk anyone who speaks croatian. Nonetheless, older people can be so sweet by making an effort to speak.


  16. What a beautiful story. I love that you took a chance and chatted with her. Older people are sweethearts and they’re not even trying to be.


  17. Oh my gosh, I love her too! I married into an Italian family so I understand some of the things they speak to me but they all speak english too so that helps. They have a translation app called iTranslate or something similar!


    1. I love Google Translate. I even pulled it out with this Nonna, but she didn’t really care for technology. She was a sweetheart in any language.


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