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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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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