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.


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.


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.

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.

The benefits of having no self esteem

So I have this friend, and one of the mainstays of our conversations is my social ineptitude. He enjoys pointing out all the times when I’m being needy, or acting out of a total lack of self-confidence or –esteem. I guess I’m not big on yes-men type friends. It’s partly just our bizarre sense of humor, but also mostly true. Although I know I have good qualities and skills, my general outlook is usually to expect being disappointed. And yes, sometimes be “clingy.” And yes, make fun of myself to ironically try to ingratiate myself with others.

But the funny thing is, I don’t think even most self-confident people would be able to do what I’m doing now.

So far Milan is in turn great and terrifying and awkward, but even the terrifying and awkward moments are great in their own special way. I find ways to make a fool of myself daily, getting crumbs all over myself and/or the table in front of me, saying words that make absolutely no sense and/or are just Spanish with an Italian accent, trying to talk coherently in any language after climbing 5 flights of stairs, or climbing just 5 stairs but with heavy bags. Sometimes I don’t make any sense because after those stairs I’m talking to a real estate agent with some kind of eye problem so he’s never looking directly at me, so even the words I know fly out the window. If I’m talking to an attractive waiter, for example, my incoherence triples.

Every day is like my very own episode of Mr. Bean.

I’m trying to get to a point though: because I already feel ridiculous and awkward most of the time, I can put myself into situations that other people would probably avoid, and miss out on. I have no problem traveling alone, eating in a restaurant alone, or moving to a different country where I don’t know anyone, because how much more ridiculous could I feel, really? Being the youngest person in my course by far, and trying to teach adults even though I sound like I’m 12 and am physically incapable of projecting my voice hasn’t fazed me so far like it probably should.

I think what I’ve learned is that if you get far enough out of your comfort zone overall, the little scary things come easier, and you have a mysterious confidence from out of left field. My new classmates actually seem to think I have it together (but they haven’t seen my try to ask for a table, just for one). It’s probably why I’ve always been better at dealing with an actual problem, and worse at dealing with that normal life stuff. A total contradiction, but that’s what shows it’s real.