Category Archives: crossing cultures

inspired.

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.

being an american in italy

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.

springtime is a tease

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.

label whore

I’m a little bit of a label whore here in Italy. Surrounded by great beauty, design, and style, when you come to Italy you want to adopt a little bit of it yourself, those classic Italian brands and tastes. Even if it’s nothing to do with your personality, you walk into the main department store here, La Rinascente, and find yourself wanting leopard print lingerie and Missoni zigzag stripes; wildly colorful Pucci prints and just wildlife Roberto Cavalli; Gucci, Prada, Fendi logos, even though everyone here carries the French little Louis Vuittons. You want to spritz a little Acqua di Parma on your wrist while you eat your gelato.

Have I lost you? I can’t explain it myself. Something about the Italian lust for beauty and design gets under your skin here, you just want in, any way that you can. Of course that doesn’t mean I can afford any of it – but there are little tricks. Go to Missoni Home, and you can wear your zigzags at home, in towel form, for eight euros, enough to make your eyes happy anyway. I can peruse the D&G underwear shop, though I haven’t committed to anything there yet. The only real frivolity I’ve gotten is a little Fendi medallion necklace, thirty euros. I have a reason for this one though.

Fendi has a special little place in my heart, particularly Silvia Fendi, its current accessories designer. A while back I read a profile of her in some Spanish magazine, without knowing much about her before, and a quote has stuck with me ever since: to paraphrase, “you need to learn the rules so you can break them.” It’s not a particularly new or unique sentiment, but for some reason this time when I read it, the message sunk in to me… that especially for women, doing what’s expected and what you’re told to do is not necessarily – or usually, for that matter – what’s right or best for you. Or what’s best for the world in general. The world needs more people doing what they’re passionate about, even if it’s impractical, not more people following the rules to the tee.

Don’t ask what the world needs. Ask what makes you come alive, and go do it. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive. –Howard Thurman

So even though I bought it for the label, twirling that little golden disc between my fingers reminds me of all that, to go beyond what I know I can do and go for what I want to; not to wait until I think I’m sure, because few people are ever really sure when they make big steps forward. The design of the necklace itself has four little green hearts that add up to a clover, to remind me that love is luck and luck is love. This is why I don’t really mind being a little label whore, because it’s all about finding a personal meaning in the ubiquitous design. And there’s something nice about investing in the quality, even down to the pristine little bags and ribbons your tiny purchase comes packaged in. The frivolous things, and the little things, unnecessary but maybe they make you smile. Maybe they remind you that quality of life matters, even in the tiny details where you can find it and afford it. And maybe it reminds you to live the life that you want, not just the life that makes sense. Thirty-eight euros isn’t too steep for all that.

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Is this post shallow or deep? I can’t even tell anymore. Feel free to roll your eyes, agree or disagree, and leave me a comment.

there’s only one reason people come to italy: love.

Last Saturday I was invited to my first ever dinner party as a pseudo-adult. A friend from my teacher training course, who is from the UK originally but married an Italian and has been here a few years, invited me and another student, J, over for some great authentic Italian food, special Carnevale pastries that snowed powdered sugar everywhere, and three bottles of wine: white, red, and prosecco. Got to love it.  It was good company, good conversation, and their two little kids poking their heads out again and again, not wanting to go to bed. I can still remember being that little kid, but this was my first time on the other side. Is that a milestone of some kind?

It has occurred to me that perhaps my friend, A, invited us two specifically because she wants to set me up with J, who just happens to be tall, dark and handsome, with a lovely London accent. At the (very late) end of the night, noting my general distrust of the tram system in this city, she told him, “take good care of her getting home.” I think A would love to live vicariously a little bit through a course romance, and all the gossip that would ensue. But J has also got 11 years on me, and I really don’t think he could be less interested, as anything more than a friend. Especially because we learned something new about him.

It started with simple questions about an Italian ex-girlfriend he had mentioned a couple of times, who started him learning Italian, which is why he came here, even now after they’ve split up. Playfully nosy, we wanted to know how long they had been together, how long ago it all was. “Actually, she was my ex-wife…” he began finally, and as soon as the words came out, my heart silently broke. Hang on, I wasn’t that attached to the idea of us working on our lesson plans together, over breakfast. It’s not that at all. It was the despondence with which he said it, shedding a different light on what we assumed was just a reserved English nature. His reluctance to put that label on himself, divorced, since we’ve known him for weeks before he ever shared this much, and even now, with only two of us. Since then we haven’t mentioned it, assuming it’s privileged information not to be tossed around to our other friends, over cappuccinos at the coffee bar. When I heard the words I instantly cursed my own nosiness; this is why they say that curiosity killed the cat. Of course he didn’t have to volunteer the information if he didn’t want to, but even so, divorce is a topic you should hardly even tiptoe up to uninvited. And it certainly made those 11 years seem like 20.

Because it must be hard for him, living in Italy now, where he must “see” her everywhere, around every corner. Because I may not be divorced, or married, or engaged, or even anywhere near that, but I do know that feeling. You find out sooner or later, everyone comes here for the same reason. I’m loath to tell anyone, and I’ve avoided mentioning it to my friends here yet, because I know it’s totally irrational and crazy. Because it was only someone I saw briefly, and it was years ago now, and maybe he doesn’t even remember me. But even though I try not to, I still think about him all the time. And I’m not usually this obsessive, I don’t want to be, I don’t dare mention it out loud, I just can’t help it. I remember his scattered pieces of advice to me, and my mind always goes directly to them, applying them to current problems. I see little kids here fidgeting on escalators, saying big Italian words like zucchini in their tiny little voices, and I wonder what he was like as a child. And that’s just not normal.

The persistence of these thoughts, even though I know they’re insane, it has to mean something doesn’t it? Isn’t that love, the kind our grandparents’ generation had, writing letters across wars for years, even if there were no response? Keeping the hope alive anyway. Even so, I don’t tell people this. Because it is totally crazy.

Don’t get me wrong, I didn’t come to look for him. If I go to Florence, there’s a chance I might run into him, but it’s not something I’d plan on. I’m not quite that bad. But even so isn’t he part of the reason I’m here, doing this? Not just that he made me fall in love with the Italian personality, friendly and chatty and bright, but I was also so impressed with what he had chosen to do, something that really helps people, such a contrast to all my esoteric academic pursuits at the time. And here I am, having changed pace, to something that can legitimately help people. I didn’t realize it at the time, but it must be at least part his influence.

I’ve talked about masks, how we’re all slowly getting to know each other here on my course. And this is one of the things that’s coming out, little by little, each person’s love, whomever or whatever it might be, that brought them here. The story’s always the same.

connectivity

The kind words of others were what reassured me that this was the right thing for me, and not insane after all. Their excitement for me. In the last day before I left, my aunt came over to visit, and I got phone calls from my uncle and all my closest cousins, wishing me well. A small gesture, since we’re in contact fairly frequently anyway, but it meant everything to me at such a vulnerable time.

So to answer my own question, I guess sometimes even when we’re adults, we don’t know what’s best for us, we just rely on others’ input. Nothing inside of me could have ever known all on my own whether it was right or not. But I really appreciate all the people who came out for me when I truly needed them.

Now that I’m here, the friends that I’m making, sometimes unexpectedly, are making all the difference. Most of the other teacher trainees on my course are much older than me, and the one girl my own age I didn’t immediately connect with. But there’s something sort of special about going out for pizza and a few bottles of wine with friends ranging in age from 23 to 61, and all getting along, and having a ton to talk about. We share something abstract in common, those of us drawn to this kind of international life, helping people in our small way, and helping ourselves to live whatever it is that we consider ‘the good life’ here. There’s something special in a new friend who’s married with kids inviting me over for a dinner party as if I were actually an adult, and the fact that we gossip as if we were both still in high school. All of these new friends are planning to stay in Milan for a while, so it’s no longer really an individual adventure, but a combined one, all of us coming from our different perspectives, for our different reasons.

Lastly the students we are teaching really help – seeing how nice they are, and how they can really like you and relate to you, and how they truly want to be there makes it feel worthwhile. Even though for them it’s a free course, putting up with a whole bunch of teachers still in training, all haphazard and flawed. Because teaching can be about theory and method and content all you want, but it’s also essentially about people, connecting, interacting. Like most things in my life right at this minute seem to be.

who is that masked (wo)man?

I was thinking about this picture after coming across it, the simple black mask, the connotations that come along with it from our films and literature, the mix of androgyny and femininity in that classic black shape, eyes shining through. The simultaneous hiding and posing of a very famous face in particular.

I was wondering what it all meant, very liberal-arts-college-art-history-style, and then I realized it’s almost Carnevale here in Italy. Martedi Grasso (Mardi Gras) is on February 16th, so in some larger cities the festivities leading up to it are already starting now. The biggest one is in Venice, whose elaborate Carnevale masks are a well-known art form in themselves, at least here in Italy. I’ve always wanted to see Carnevale for myself, and since I’m fairly close, maybe this is the year to do it. It’s meant to be as crowded and crazy as New Year’s at Times Square though. I asked an Italian friend and he shook his head, “I wouldn’t, it’s insane.”

I was drawn in to this picture, and to the idea of Carnevale, and maybe I’ve always been unconsciously drawn to these types of ideas, and masked figures. I wrote my college thesis, for my BA in Spanish Literature, on Don Juan, which probably reveals a little too much about my priorities in life. In the original tale, he turns peoples lives upside down with just a mask, a lie, a half-truth. He is the classic masked character, using disguises both literal and linguistic to deceive, get his own way, and get into all kinds of trouble. Many have followed after; a favorite of mine was the film “Don Juan de Marco,” but there are also those silly Zorro films, the Lone Ranger, even Amelie. That scene when Romeo and Juliette first meet. Something about this connects not just with me, but clearly with many people. But why?

Maybe masks are important to all of us, even though we live in a society that values honesty and transparency so highly – maybe that just heightens our fascination with obscuring some things, at least at certain times.

I’ve met some people here recently who keep a bit of a mask up – maybe they don’t even realize they do it, we’re too busy with our course most of the time to really get to know each other very well. They’re not deliberately secretive, but rather not easily forthcoming about their lives, their pasts, who they are. But something obscured, even casually, just makes us want to know it all the more. We assume there’s some big story there, something worth knowing, hiding in the shadows of the things left unsaid. It’s the basis, rightly or wrongly, of the whole “feminine mystique” thing, leaving something to the imagination.

Yet there’s something that seems so fun about literally covering our faces, those things we usually have represent us so directly to the world. Just two bright eyes peeking out of the black, it seems like a secret in itself. Maybe it’s the idea of playing the part of having something to hide, a bandit in disguise, but just for fun, harmless at the end of the night when the mask comes back off.