“It is not necessarily at home that we best encounter our true selves. The furniture insists that we cannot change because it does not; the domestic setting keeps us tethered to the person we are in ordinary life, who may not be who we essentially are.”
― Alain de Botton, The Art of Travel
I’m taking the last few days to put together this final post.
At home, conventions define or frame us a certain way. For example, I’m a librarian, I’m 57, a wife, a mom…. People assume things about us from their encounters with us in the past, and those assumptions turn into expectations to which we unconsciously adhere. When I’m alone in a new country and culture, where no one knows me, I can step outside the frame, color outside the lines to discover new parts of myself.
The Italians are metaphorical thinkers. They seem so much more in touch with daily pleasures, details, and joys. They live at a slower pace and seem to appreciate more what really matters: to live in questo momento, which they are often saying.
Most of all I feel young and a little in love with everyone: young, old, male, female. It doesn’t matter. It’s as if my feelings are fountains.
Wednesday: Stasera I’m having cena with Marina, the Russian video artist, and piccola Sara, the other Sara from the Czech Republic in my current class. At any rate, I ran into her last night on my walk and invited her to our dinner at La Pentolaccia, my favorite restaurant here tonight. Montepulciano reminds me of Langley because everyone walks everywhere, and you’re always running into people you know. For example, tonight I went for a walk when it cooled down a bit at 5:30 pm. First I ran into Giovanna, the caretaker of Politian Apartments. I made the mistake, initially, in speaking pretty good Italian to her, so she assumes I’m fluent. But tonight, as we walked down the Corso, I realized there was a real difference! Not only were we communicating well in Italian (she will not speak any English), but it wasn’t just the usual: I went here, I ate here, I would like… type of chat I usually engage in. We talked about which months were her favorite here and how I want to return in the spring. Then she told me she had a funny dream that she ended up sleeping in the living area of my apartment! She wondered, why am I here? And looked at the view and was embarrassed! I understood her, and we laughed. THIS is what I’ve been wanting: to have a real exchange and not the boring “how do you do” exchanges, although those are fun, too. I never tire of calling out: “Buon giornata o Buona serata!” when I leave people here. I had some of that talking with Alberto, but it was combined with performance anxiety and not the same in a classroom setting.
Next I went to Centofiori, the libreria (bookstore, NOT library) at the end of the town just outside the walls. I had an extended conversation with the proprietor and ended up buying a new, small novel (romanza– doesn’t mean romance but fiction) that he thought would not be molto difficile, and then I ended up getting the Elena Ferrate novel I’ve read in English, but in Italian: I giorni dell’abbandono (they don’t capitalize each word in their titles) and Novecento by Alessandro Baricco. I have no idea what it’s about, but now that I’m learning a new mode, congiuntivo, which has to do with opinions or things that are not definitive, I hope I will be able to read Italian better. As Richard reminds me, it’s the easiest of the four main language acquisition skills: reading then understanding then speaking then writing, although I would reverse the last two. Speaking is definitely the most difficult for me because I don’t have time to check and plan, as I do when writing. I have to improvise, and I feel as if I’m in the spotlight. I think another reason it’s difficult for me is because I’m not used to thinking before I speak, even in English! I also have the unfortunate tendency to get at least one of the letters in my words mixed up. And I always have the feeling that I want to say more than I can.
After my conversation with the bookshop owner, I was walking back up the Corso, and the man I always see sitting outside his negozio called out to me to slow down, that I was on vacation and didn’t need to walk so fast.
Più tardi: As I was walking back down to meet my new friends for dinner, I saw the same man sitting outside his shop. Since it’s so hot, all the shop keepers sit outside and chiachierarano with each other or smoke. I had on my long dress and exaggerated a happy, relaxed stroll, and he laughed and said that was much better. And coming back from class today, he stopped and asked me if I was a student at Il Sasso, that he notices me walking by every day. I told him tomorrow was my last day, that I was going to Rome Saturday. He shook my hand and said to tell Rome hi for him because he’s from Rome.
Elizabeth Gilbert, author of Eat, Pray, Love, says that women traveling over 50 have the advantage of being invisible. Thankfully, we are not invisible in Italy. Men here appreciate all women and don’t ignore those of us who are older. They are charming, in general.
La cena era molto divertente! I love the Czech Sara. She’s working on her fifth language: Czech, French, English, Norwegian, and now Italian. What I need to remember also is that Marina and Sara both have weekly private Italian lessons at home, and they still struggle learning the language. I must keep up my studies at Freestyle back in Austin. Of course, dinner was all in English. It’s so funny to hear Sara swear with an English accent. Both Marina and Sara say the best way to learn a new language is to marry someone who speaks it! When Sara gave me a compliment, and I gently pushed it aside, she said, “You can’t take a compliment, can you?” and we laughed. I feel as if she already knows me. We both get mistaken for being Jewish.
I think one of the reasons it’s so easy to become friends with people here is that by attending Il Sasso, we already have something major in common. We love the Italian language, country, culture, food, wine, art, history, people enough to want to spend time and effort learning to speak the language. And people who set out alone, as the three of us have, tend to share a sense of adventure and independence. It reminds me of making friends with Lisa and Bridget during the two weeks at the Spoleto Writers conference in 1999 (we are still friends) and our friends at St. John’s: Doug Gosnell (RIP), Liz Breckinridge, and Mary Charlotte. Maybe it’s that we want to learn and find learning fun. Because we are en vacanze, we are senza stresso (without stress). I am just so happy here as I am on Whidbey, but here I have a new language and culture to absorb. Even walking down the street, I try to practice Italian sentences in my mind. I will miss that.
I also feel so much younger here. I’m so conscious at home of how much “older” I am than the other teachers at my school, when I constantly don’t get their pop culture references, when I don’t “binge watch” the same shows or know the “latest.” Here, none of that matters. I’m not confined to the frame.
At Caffe Poliziano, Vincenzo returned from il Sud for his vacanza. His face fell when he heard that Sandra and Kurt had already left. Still, we joke every morning. Today he ran out of arancia marmelatta, and so made me a nuovo cappuccino: cappuccino di Sara with caramelle instead. It was delicious. He also played me a song over the sound system called “Sara” by Vindetti. I asked Alberto if he knew it, and he started singing it. It has nella primavera (in the springtime) in the lyrics.
I love all three of my teachers, so I wrote them thank you notes. I gave Eleanora and Costanza fragrant soap from the shop across the street. Everyone was so warm and friendly in saying goodbye. A group of us went to lunch at Trattoria del Cagnano. Then Czech Sara and I took the bus to the pool. It’s as if we had the whole pool to ourselves. I feel as if she’s the Czech that complements my Slovak. She’s twenty years younger, but age makes no difference here. Over here women wear bikinis even if they’re overweight and over sixty. Perché no?
Tonight dinner at Pentolaccia. When Marina didn’t want to go, Sara and I independently asked two different women: Liz and Nancy, both from the US who are taking classes at Il Sasso this week.
Piu tardi: We had a wonderful “la ultima cena.” (When we said that in class, Alberto mimed the crucifixion). We sat at a lovely table outside, and thankfully the seats are benches because Marina showed up after all, and Liz brought her friend Lisa, and then Henrietta sat for awhile on her way to the opera, and then Ira, the fellow from New York, joined us just to visit. And the lovely Zoe was with us. Every time Cristiana came out to our table, she feigned surprise, and we laughed that our table had grown! When we were walking to the jazz club afterwards, we even ran into Kathryn. We took in the lovely view, but the jazz band was on break, so we went for a final gelato and said goodbye to that other Vincenzo and to each other.
“If it is true that love is the pursuit in another of qualities we lack in ourselves, then in our love of someone from another culture, one ambition may be to weld ourselves more closely to values missing from our own culture.”
― Alain de Botton, The Art of Travel
One last full circle story. One month ago, when I met Vance and Laura in Roma, I bemoaned that my taxi driver from the airport couldn’t understand a word I said in Italian! Yesterday, and again this morning, I had an extended conversation in Italian with my taxi driver, and he said: parli italiano bene! I do think my accent is better. I love to roll my R’s when I say: vorrei!
And now for the grand finale of photos!