Read my latest travel essay on W Dish.
Nonna means grandma and nonno means grandpa in Italian. Three very special nonnas (and one nonno) came into my life during travels to Lisbon, Buenos Aires, and Sicily, all of which had profoundly lasting impressions on me.
I met my Lisbon nonna (or, avó in Portuguese) on my last day in the city. I was shooting a show in Lisbon and was walking around the Bairro Alto and Chiado districts to get some beauty shots when I approached the sweetest nonna on her front porch to say hi. A simple “olá” later and she gestured to my cameraperson and I towards her porch, which led to a stunning rooftop patio. The view of Lisbon from her rooftop ended up being the best view of the city that we had seen on the entire trip. While my cameraperson was capturing the scenery, I sat down with my lovely Lisbon nonna and had a full conversation... in Portuguese. Even though I don't speak the language at all, I somehow filled in the gaps with my rarely used French and casual Spanish and understood her heartwarming stories of her grandchildren who live all around the world and how proud she was of each of them. It was a totally unexpected moment and one that I will remember always when I think back to my trip to Portugal.
My burgeoning circle of nonnas expanded when I traveled to Buenos Aires. I was sitting at a public sidewalk table at the Feria de Mataderos Market sharing a large thermos of maté with some friends when the most adorable couple, Angela and Antonio, sat down next to us and so we welcomed them to come join in on our maté action. Angela and Antonio, who spoke beautiful English, shared an incredible story of how they had met and fallen in love over 50 years ago in Italy before immigrating to Argentina. My heart still tingles thinking of it. I’m such a sap.
Then, there was my Sicilian nonna to complete the trifecta. This experience happened in the middle of a roadtrip around the Italian island in the quaint town of S. Stefano di Camastra, known for its gorgeous ceramics. Since my friend and I had just a few days to conquer all of Sicily, we had planned on only making a quick restroom pit stop in tiny S. Stefano di Camastra, but the beauty of the ceramics were too alluring and we ended up hopping from shop to shop, meeting a charming and hilarious nonna/shop-owner who insisted that we follow her down the street to her artist’s workshop to meet her daughter and see more of the family’s treasured handicrafts. What ensued was a feast for the eyes.
I feel very lucky to have met these amazing nonnas on my trips and I highly recommend that for a moment you put your phone, or itinerary, down to do the same.
Here are 5 reasons why you need to meet a nonna (or nonno) on your next trip:
1) A local’s perspective. They know the city inside and out and can offer advice and perks not offered in dated travel books. It’s the best insider's point of view.
2) Nonnas are badass. They've seen the city through unbelievable ups and downs and gone through s**t you could never imagine and they’re there to give you a first person recount about it all. Sometimes, the tales can be utterly romantic- a real life Romeo and Juliet like my sweet Buenos Aires nonni.
3) One-of-a-kind souvenirs. You can go to hundreds of museums (which you should) but you'll probably forget most of them by the time you get back and you won't be able bring an original piece home with you. What you won't forget and will remember fondly is the time you spent actually watching original art being made and being able to take a piece of it home with you. Shout out to my Sicilian nonna. So next time you’re shopping, become buddies with the shopkeeper, he or she may dig out a rare piece from the backroom just for you.
4) You bring back stories to tell and create unforgettable memories. By creating a personal connection, you have many more interesting stories to tell your friends back home than, “So one morning, I went to this really pretty beach…” and let’s be honest telling and listening to stories of visiting tourist sites can be kind of boring. But that one time you sat with a sweet nonna on her rooftop patio in Lisbon as the sun was setting will stay with you forever.
5) You make a new bff. Not only have you made someone feel cherished by recognizing his or her existence and companionship, you’ve walked away with a new friend. In general, when you let your social guard down and meet new unexpected people, you unlock truly special moments, but meeting a nonna? Ah well, a nonna is just next level.