Category Archives: drinks & conversation

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.

on advice

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. 

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.

benvenutto a italia

The other day I commented on another blog that I should post my own shameless name-dropping post sometime soon. I should say things like that more often, because somehow the stars aligned to make sure it would happen: on Saturday I ran into two Italian celebrities. Actually they’re the only two Italian celebrities I even know of, to be able to recognize in the first place, so I’m not sure what the chances of that happening are. I know of the actress Monica Belucci as well, but I’ve never seen any of her movies and I probably wouldn’t recognize her in person anyway. It’s sort of like if you went to Colombia and ran into Shakira. Except the funny thing is, since only about two of my friends actually know who this Italian band is, I can’t really impress anyone with this story. But I’ll certainly tell it anyway.

It was the first day since I’ve been here that it was actually almost sunny, so I was enjoying the day walking around the fancy designer shops on Via della Spiga, a street filled with women in fur coats and people literally lining up down the block to get into stores like Louis Vuitton and Hogan. But I was just window-shopping, people-watching,  going in places when I got cold, and building up an appetite. So I made my way to a little “bar” on la Piazza di San Babila (I haven’t completely figured it out yet, but apparently a “bar” here isn’t really a bar, it’s sort of a café, informal restaurant and they often do a happy hour with a big spread of appetizers) and got a seat outside in one of these little tents they do with blaring heat lamps overhead.

While sipping my Coca Cola (the American champagne) I noticed someone standing at the coffee bar looking particularly stylish, with Wayfarers and a skinny black overcoat. He and three friends sat at the table directly across from me and – wait, I know one of those faces. Holy ****. It is, isn’t it? How do these things happen to me?! Is nobody else seeing what I’m seeing, or are we all just being polite? Our eyes met, but I’m not sure if my recognition was obvious – I spent the rest of my lunch trying not to stare, but let me tell you for when this situation inevitably comes up in your own life, it’s very hard not to when someone is in your direct natural line of sight, and they are famous. Luckily I had panino crumbs all over my coat to distract me, and I ran over ways to say “Excuse me, I don’t want to bother you but…” in Italian without the words just being thinly veiled Spanish (my own personal language which I dub Italianish).

Finally I paid my check, got myself together, and did what any other self-respecting, mature, adult, non-teenybopper person would do in this situation: err, I went over and asked for an autograph. They asked where I was from, and I think the implicit question was how does some girl from New York who barely speaks Italian know who we are? The short version is that I had an Italian friend in Barcelona who listened to them, and I started to, and spent basically an entire summer listening to them on repeat. Intelligent me would have tried to relay this information, but I just smiled a lot, thanked them a lot, and collected my autographs, complete with my Italianized name. Apparently I was not the only one who recognized them, but I was the only one shameless enough to approach (this is one term I do know in Italian, senza vergogna), because a few other girls asked for a picture with them and so on. I think it only takes one person acknowledging the obvious, and I’m fine with that person being me. Not a bad way to be welcomed to Italy.

So what? There is no point to this story. Only that, while I’m not really someone who believes in signs, it’s hard not to see something like this as a good one. Seeing as how things are really tough right now, it’s hard not to interpret this as some message that I am meant to be here, that things will be ok, I just have to keep going one step at a time. That I’m on the right path, even if I’m not sure what that is, or where it’s going. There’s a line in one of their songs that I always quite liked which goes: prometto a me stesso la felicita senza limiti, gustare tutto quello che da… (roughly translated: I promise myself happiness, without limits, to enjoy everything that comes my way…) It’s the idea that making yourself happy, without limits, is worth doing things that don’t seem rational or prudent or sure at the time. If we only do things that are sure, we walk around ourselves in circles. Isn’t that why I’m here in the first place?

[Video and more name-dropping after the jump.] Continue reading

just briefly: tipsy at 7pm after happy hour

A couple of classmates and our teacher went to an English Pub in Milan after a long day... you know, for that authentic Italian experience...

I hate that: when a social situation you anticipated doesn’t go the way you planned. I hated seeing M, our teacher (meta-teacher, really) sitting there, coat still on, eyes roaming to the football on tv, barely talking, only there because it was “work.” I mean it’s nice that he came out at all as a friendly gesture, but I hate feigned affection, anything that isn’t genuine. I worry enough about how true friends are anyway. I hate it now when social situations feel awkward. Maybe because I was that shy link in the chain for so long, it makes me uncomfortable to see others acting that way; and I often can’t understand why people are still shy as adults since I have changed so much. I’ve felt I had to to function in the adult world. It’s funny how much I’ve changed, and I only notice in moments like this, when I can’t look back clearly.

Tommy told me, years ago now, that I was a little bit quiet when we went out with his friends, and I did always really have to make an effort to try to talk to them. Now there would still be the language barrier, losing me for long stretches of the conversation, but I think my natural inclination would be to be chatty with them, try to find things out, to try to be humorous or fun in any way, since sarcasm never works for me in a second language. Yet, as I’ve been discovering in different ways, again and again, being stripped of the comfort of that normal personality trait can actually make functioning easier. It makes it easier for my instinct to be getting involved rather than on the sidelines. Well I hope so anyway. I think so.

Yet the further I get away from shyness, do I sometimes feel like I’m losing something of myself? Particularly because with my new pseudo-confident, optimistic, at times bubbly self, I still don’t like to show my vulnerabilities to people. So they assume that I don’t need their help and support. But really I’m desperate for it. Any time I have to pretend everything’s fine and calm seas, if I have to put on a fake smile, any discomfort or sadness inside of me bubbles up. I barely make it until I’m alone again before tearing up. The highs and lows all at once, involuntary. I think this is the kind of vulnerability, living right on the surface, that we all try to avoid, but we also want.

cocktail hour

The best part of my day is definitely cocktail hour. Don’t worry, I’m not on the fast track to AA. Our own personal “cocktail hour” is when, after a long day of work, my mom and I flock to the kitchen, where she shakes a martini or pours scotch on the rocks, and I make myself a cup of tea (or two). While we figure out what to make for dinner we gossip, sometimes work on the crossword puzzle together (she knows the answers I don’t, and vice versa), laugh a lot, and without fail have our nightly date with Chris Matthews, watching him shout at his guests and rolling our eyes at Pat Buchanan (they say not to discuss politics, religion or money in polite company or blogs, but oh well). I think my cat must somehow recognize that she’s “one of the girls,” because she’ll often join us, jump up to sit on a stool at the table with us. She knows this is where she’ll find us and just wants to hang out too, even though she starts to fall asleep sitting up within minutes, her eyes drooping closed. The value is just in being there, even though it’s nothing exciting, and it happens every day.

It’s something we’ve been doing for years now: when I was in high school, at home during college breaks, and now visiting for the holidays and to figure out what-to-do-with-my-life. A simple little daily ritual, nothing to write home about, but the kind of thing you don’t know what you’d do without. Unwinding together, someone you’re sure understands you despite all your differences of temperament and personality, an ongoing conversation over days or weeks. Routine, and the simple act of connecting, is something that keeps us sane. All too often we don’t realize that, we take it for granted until we lose it — even if it’s pursuing something worthwhile and good — but this time I’m not, I know just how much I’ll miss the other pea in the pod. I don’t mind being a mamma’s girl, because she’s my inspiration in so many ways. I know how much I’ll feel like the world is upside down for a while, until I adjust. I know all about the uncertainty, that feels like the floor dropping out from under you, that I can anticipate in the coming weeks, but I also know that it comes with higher highs. That’s how it is, when you’re shaken out of your normal, and you feel everything in more of an extreme.

But what on earth am I going to do without cocktail hour?

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Do you have your own bonding ritual with family? A daily routine that helps you stay sane? I would love to know that I’m not just completely overly sentimental.