The Italians at the Aquarium by Mary Lou Sanelli

Thursday, August 01, 2019 4:37 PM | Debbi Lester (Administrator)

I’m reminded that I was not born in Seattle by just about every conversation I have with someone who was. Almost immediately I feel “East Coast.” More to the point, East Coast Italian, different in tone and temperament in ways I didn’t fully understand when I was younger.  

After years of trying to clarify this feeling, I still find it difficult to explain why Italians communicate the way we do, especially to people unaccustomed to passionate debate as a way to, oh, I suppose the best word to use is, bond.  

The first time I had dinner at my in-law’s table, I was afraid to open my mouth. I had no idea how to speak so softly about things I read in the newspaper. Used to waves of personal opinion rippling through even deeper waves of expressive reaction, I was shocked to sit with people, intoxicated people, who seemed to be content in the shoals of current events. 

I long for conversations with more heat and hand waving. The dinner table in my childhood home was a competitive place. Everyone talked at once, interrupted each other, said things someone took offense to on purpose.  

What fun! 

The other day I walked to the aquarium because I just finished reading “The Soul of An Octopus.” I tell you this because it wasn’t the octopus I wound up studying. It was a group of Italians.

And yes, I heard them, before I saw them. If that is what you are thinking. 

But if there are intentional coincidences, and most days I trust there are, I believe this one occurred to remind me of a huge part of my personality I neglect now that I (try to) live by a more-Seattle code of ethics. Or what I jokingly call (but only to East Coast friends) BIDAN: Bring it down a notch.


If the desire to be in the company of your biological tribe is one of the most overwhelming of human connections, I was reminded of where my qualities originate. Watching the group talk and touch and embrace each other freely, I had never felt more distant from the city in which I reside. I felt an urge to run up to them and say, “I am Italian, too!” 


Thankfully I stopped myself. 


I followed them into the undersea dome. I wanted to hug them. I wanted to hold on to this family with such a strong intensity that, when I couldn’t, I walked past them feeling deprived, devastated, deflated. 

So I called my friend Vicki who was born in Seattle. She had no idea why I was calling, and I didn’t bother to say, but as soon as I heard her voice, I felt grounded.

And it strikes me that talking, talking—however fast, drawn-out, cool, or impassioned—is still the best way to deal with complicated emotions when basic longings fall flat.

Mary Lou Sanelli

Mary Lou Sanelli has published seven collections of poetry, three works of non-fiction, and her forthcoming novel, “The Star Struck Dance Studio (of Yucca Springs),” is to be published in September, 2019 (Chatwin Books). For more information about her and her work, visit

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