There are people who create things in this world, and then people who just take, or just criticize, or just simply exist. I’m not just talking about the artists, the writers, the inventors, the people who think creatively; although they are certainly an obvious example. The ones that I really don’t understand are the ones that just exist.
I’m talking about even people who create little moments, who go out of their way to strike up a random conversation that might brighten someone’s day, throw in a compliment where one isn’t strictly needed, who will say something silly and sweet just on the chance that it will make you laugh. They want to talk to you not as a means to an end, but to genuinely go back and forth, get at the truth, really see you, and maybe say the thing that nobody says but you need to hear.
These seem like really obvious things, things that all of us would do now and again, when the right situation arises. But from my experience, to most people, doing these things simply don’t ever occur to them. They wait to be on the receiving end of these moments, or they’re just cynical about them all, or maybe they’ve just never experienced them themselves.
The person I want to be creates these things, truly connects, is sincere in the right moments, and people can trust that sincerity. I want a compliment from my lips to really mean something, not just be a way to pass another second. Even if I never create anything material (which I hope I do as well), I want to create this.
I think I found what I was looking for; or at least I hope I did — inspiration. I was getting to one of those points that I reach periodically, where I don’t know what interests me any more, I don’t know what I care about let alone what I am passionate about. It had nothing to do with where I was physically or recent changes in my life, it had to do with where I was inside my head. It’s hard to explain. I felt like I was at a crossroads mentally, completely separate from the concrete things in life.
But then I found it. A trip back to a place that used to be home opened my eyes in all kinds of ways. I had an idea of the kind of experience I thought would help me find my way, and then somehow the universe presented it to me in one of those rare moments that make me kind of think there must be some kind of order to this madness.
I guess what it boils down to is that I met someone. Someone capable of love, sincere, honest, open. Gorgeous to look at, but one of those people who’s so interesting and funny and nice to talk to that you forget what they look like anyway. Someone who actually listened and payed attention to the little details. Someone who really just needed a friend, which is exactly what I’m trying to learn to be better at. Someone who made me laugh and smile more than I have in a long time.
Before I went back to Spain, I wrote a note to myself that I needed to aim higher. I was disillusioned by the last person I was seeing, and the things I had maybe settled for in the name of “experience.” So I wanted to give myself time and aim higher on my own terms; someone who would really be there even if we were never really serious. I wanted the kind of person who would walk down to the beach with me at midnight for no reason at all, and there he was. I saw the movie “Valentine’s Day” last week and found myself strangely only interested in the storylines that stayed platonic, that were about what it meant to be a good friend or even just a kind acquaintance; that too told me something about what I need right now. I was feeling disillusioned with intelligence or culture snobs and I found someone who was intellectual in the right sort of way — interested in ideas and the possibility of becoming better. Someone who was excited to tell me about the book he was re-reading to help learn Spanish, and it turned out it was the Little Prince.
So now even though I’m back now, many cities away, I’m walking around as if I were a woman in love because meeting him even briefly restored my faith in something I had started to doubt, that there are truly good people, ones like him, out there. There are other puzzle pieces that match the things I’m looking for and needing. There are ways forward. Even though I’m sitting here alone again, my heart feels full and my head is swimming with ideas.
And this feeling is like a butterfly wing in my hand; I don’t want to try to hold it too tightly or it will turn to dust, dissolve right before my eyes. I have to float around it lightly, this inspiration, and maybe keep a certain distance from some of the things I used to live, my “everyday,” for just a little while, so I can try to cement some of these ideas swimming around my head without crushing them. Wow too many mixed metaphors. I have to try not to over-think those either.
I dreamt of Vermont, of skiing and boots crunching in snow, a real serious cold in the air, but the hot chocolate warming you up, even the cheap watery stuff that tastes like ice-skating as a kid, when I was still waist-height, out of some big metal tureen.
Why are we always wanting to be somewhere else?
Maybe I’ve had the dreams because it’s cold here now, snow flurries all day yesterday even though it’s mid-March, but they don’t know how to heat things properly here so the chill is always there, under your skin. It’s actually warmer to go outside, bundled up, and work up your own warm by walking around, window shopping, treating yourself to a cappuccino.
My friend Marco says that nobody is ever content with where they are from, and by that logic maybe we’re never really content with where we are. I don’t really agree, it’s just people like us that aren’t content; there are plenty who are fine never moving far away from home, who are already looking to buy their own place in their early twenties. I just don’t understand people like that, I don’t think I’ll ever be one.
I dreamt of homemade donuts from the farm, when we drive all the way up to Brewster past the horse farms to get them, still hot, with the cinnamon sugar getting all over your hands.
Today I wanted to just be totally American, jeans and a hooded sweatshirt, nice and comfy, pancakes for breakfast and teaching my new British and Italian friends what the hell s’mores are. There’s one place I’ve found in the city where I can get maple syrup, but I don’t think you can get marshmallows anywhere. It’s those little things that add up, and add up to you missing home.
Someone asked me the other day if I’m proud to be American, and I’m not really, I’ve never been that flag-waving type, I just wasn’t raised that way. But I’m not in that cliched phase of the America-hating ex-pat either. Maybe I was the last time I was living in Europe, during the Bush years, when a lot of us liberals were quite cynical, and it was fashionable.
Now things are different, not that our problems have been solved, but even if I complain now that not much seems to have changed, Marco tells me we just have to give him more time. I see Italian teenagers who wrote “yes we can” on their back-packs. People always ask me who I voted for last time around, when I tell them where I’m from. All these things make me smile in a funny sort of way, because it’s strange how things change, in the world and also in us. Things are a little bit different now, and I can notice that there are some things Europe does better, but there are some things America does better too. It’s nice to be able to see both sides, and not have to choose. But not being so starry-eyed, or black-and-white, this time in Europe, those little things that do bother me here make me miss home much more. Overt racism, stereotyping of different nationalities and even just people from different parts of Italy. My British friends like to make fun of how politically correct we Americans can be, but then sometimes all that just doesn’t look so bad. And I want to be here and there at the same time.
Yesterday was the first day since I’ve been here that the sun really came out, we got our first taste of spring and the many months ahead. When I first arrived, mid-January, it seemed as though there were a perennial cloud that hung over Milan, enveloping it, that wet kind of cold that really gets under your skin. I got to know the insides of places well, because after any walk of distance you just needed to get inside, rest your legs, warm your hands. People coming through doorways had that winter look on their faces, flustered, and then quickly relieved, trying to put themselves back together.
Then little by little the sun came out, peeking around buildings in long, visible rays. Even when it’s cold here, the sun is so strong, so bright. But yesterday the temperature crept up, winter coats came unbuttoned, and the sun was warm enough that you could really feel its kiss on your face. Everyone stopped just hurrying to where they were going and old stone steps became seats, crossing a piazza became a passeggiata, not just a brush through the wind.
Free from the mindset of where to take cover next, my eyes opened in a different way to this city that I am now tentatively calling “home.” Just a few blocks, down crooked streets, from the main cathedral is a little hole in the wall place with a whole lot of history here: Luini’s. They’re known for bringing panzarotti to Milan, a fried inside-out pizza, sort of like a mini calzone, a perfect lunch on a sunny day. As I made my way there, two lines were snaking out the door and down the street in both directions, and even just waiting there in the sunshine, the street full of people chatting and the scent of fresh-made pizza, torturous to a hungry girl, it was heaven. I would have waited twice as long, with no complaint. The result: worth waiting for. At 2.50, you’ve got to love it when some of the best things in life cost so little as well. (If you wish there were a picture, I’m afraid I ate it all too fast. Maybe next time…)
Some people stayed huddled around the shop eating, resting their soda cans on window sills, but I made my way back to the Duomo steps to take in the sun and watch the world go by. This is really my favorite thing to do. In general, but particularly here. Getting a chance to stop and look at the people that go by, what they’re wearing, the ones in a hurry and the ones taking all the time in the world, groups of young friends and couples on holiday, new parents exhausted by their role by thrilled in their sort of second childhood: experiencing the thrill of it all again through their kids, delighted just by chasing a pigeon a few steps or carrying a balloon.
The day was just a tease, and today it’s back to a cold haze over the city. But it was enough to remind me of what’s to come, and that this is all a strange and lovely dream.
Or, ok, when you’re just going to visit.
Alright, you’ve caught me out: he’s my favorite writer and I love to read just about anything he put on paper. I only wanted to weigh down my suitcases coming out here with three books total, and this was one of them. He actually lived for many years in Europe, in Sicily and Ischia as well as Switzerland and beyond, so he knows the land and its people quite well, and reading his descriptions and encounters makes you wish for an older time, simpler perhaps — but then many parts of Italy are still this way, nuns walking down blistering sidewalks, old buildings with creaky windows opening up to age-old vistas. So it’s the perfect fit, really. His experiences are never picture perfect, but he spins everything into something so beautiful you cherish even the mistakes and mishaps. If you like his writing, also check out his book of letters, “Too Brief a Treat.” There are many that cover his travels and all the places he lived with even more candor and humor.
It’s about Americans in Paris, but I really liked this book for its insights into the things that come up when you cross any two cultures, step outside your own world, and end up feeling farther away from but also closer to it. Seems kind of chick-lit-y but I’ve found this to have a lot of depth; it’s one of few books I’ve read several times. There was a movie made of it a few years back with Kate Hudson and Naomi Watts, it’s quite stylish and worth seeing, but not as good as the book (are they ever?) in my humble opinion.
If you’ve seen it, I probably don’t need to say more. Years after watching it, so many scenes still stick in my memory, the quintessential cliches of “Italian life,” but many of them true in some way. And well, every time you see a nice old boat here in Italy (picture taken this weekend in Lake Como), you might be reminded of a certain climatic scene… Such a modern classic.
Under the Tuscan Sun
Ok, it’s cheesy as all get out, idealistic, wishful thinking. But as I’ve said, everyone who comes to Italy does it for love. Just don’t dance in a fountain here like that one nutty character does. Those things are seriously dirty in reality. And if you live in an old building, you will relate to this film in so many more ways than you could anticipate…
La Dolce Vita, 8 1/2
I’ve written about my love for Fellini films before, these two being my favorites. La Dolce Vita is so quintessentially Italian that it’s sort of chicken/egg whether this film captures that 1960s style or helped create it. Anouck Aimee’s character in the film is my favorite, though it’s a small role: she plays this gorgeous aloof aristocrat with black sequins and huge Wayfarer sunglasses, the height of sophistication and mystery. Love.
Anything else you suggest I check out? Do you like to read or see specific films before a trip to help you frame your experiences? Do you like to set expectations and a mood beforehand, or do you prefer the experience of travel all on its own?
They tell us not to do things that we will – or may – regret, but what does that ever mean, in practice? Isn’t it suspect in general, all the advice that older and wiser people try to give us with the benefit of their hindsight?
A and J were telling me that, at my age, I shouldn’t be looking for anything serious, anything real, I shouldn’t have any criteria or checklist or even an expectation of “honorable intentions,” whatever those are at twenty-three. Not that I’m a checklist kind of person anyway when it comes to dating, but I do try to hang on to some standards, basic as they may be.
And though this was their advice, it is not at all what they were doing at this age themselves: one was being proposed to, and the other met the person they would eventually marry. So perhaps it is what they wish they would have done, to not have spun into the mistakes or crooked paths they ended up on, looking backwards – but when you’re actually at this age, coming from the other side forward, it’s not how you see things at all. I would be lying to myself if I tried to live and decide things based on their perspective now, even if they are right about what I should do. Even if it never goes anywhere, I’d still prefer to find the kind of boy now who might actually care what my favorite song was, who might one day surprise me with my favorite dessert. Tiny inconsequential things, but a lot more than most people are willing to offer. The tiny things that make even something that isn’t serious worthwhile.
You can never know what you’ll regret anyway, beforehand. You can only think it through and try to speculate honestly, weigh the options, think critically. But regret is something you can only feel after the fact, usually based on some factor you couldn’t even have seen coming.
I never thought about advice much, because it’s something we all love to give, even if we know it’s taken with a grain of salt or a laugh or an implied “in my humble opinion…” But I suppose the older I get, the more experience I have on my own, and the more I question others’ scraps of advice, I realize more and more that as adults nobody has the answers anymore. It’s not like when we were kids, when there were so many people we could look to, to tell us yes or no, with 100% certainty. We all have our own perspectives now, from our experience or our wisdom, but there really isn’t any more certainty. We take things with a whole lot more grains of salt, and maybe we learn to hold our own tongues with our advice. But even advice ignored comes from a place of love, of reaching out, of trying to be honest and expose a little bit of our lives that we wish we had done differently. So you smile, accept it politely, and then still try to figure it out for yourself.