I had been wallowing in a blue-stay-in-your-bathrobe-all-day-and-eat-frosted-flakes-directly-out-of-the-box-for-dinner-writer’s-block-funk (you all know what delicate temperaments we literary types have) for the past few weeks, but got summarily booted out of it this morning after receiving a wonderfully funny and generous email complimenting me on Rebecca’s View. Inspired, buoyed, (guilt-ridden), I sat right down and thumped another one out. So this is dedicated to Sheila L., and all the other kind folks who have enjoyed reading what I have to say and have taken the time to let me know over the past few months. I do it for you. And for that fat check that Pauline sends me every week.
I got a letter from the United States Ambassador to Italy the other day.
Now I know that what I am about to reveal may cause shock and consternation amongst my readers, but the sad truth is, despite my carefully cultivated image of jet-set refinement, cutting edge culture, and general Glamour Queenliness, I rarely get personal mail from Popes, monarchs, presidents or even diplomats. So it was not without a slight frisson of excitement and trembling hand that I opened my embossed envelope. (After a quick reality check. This can’t have anything to do with my taxes, right? No. Okay.)
Inside I discovered an invitation to a cocktail reception at Villa Taverna, the US Ambassador’s residence in Rome. My initial reaction was one I assume most people would share in similar circumstances, “My God,” I thought, “How did they know my address? The CIA must have a file on me.” Upon closer examination of my invitation I found that the reception was being held in honor of the president of the university I attended as an undergraduate. The realization slowly dawned that I had been tracked down by force far more insidious, omniscient, nefarious even, than Central Intelligence. Alumni Fundraising.
But heck, invites including a long, detailed explanation of how to pass the security check in your chauffeur driven car don’t come along every day. Strangely, no instructions on how to get to the place by city bus, which had been my plan until my train to Rome got there so late that I had to break down and grab a cab. When I told the driver my address, he went about ten meters before slamming on the brakes and turning to face me. “That can’t be right, lady,” he said. I asked him why, and he told me that I had recited the address of Villa Taverna. “Exactly,” I said. “Well, that’s the US Ambassador’s residence!” I told him I was an invited guest, at which point he gave me a long up and down and kind of grimaced. In that split second I was reminded of one of the great truths of Italy. Even displaced elderly Sicilian cabbies in Rome who pick you up in the pitch black outside the Termini train station know when you are underdressed for State functions. Unfortunately, I also told him that I was running extremely late, which meant that he managed to gun it across the city in a manner which had me making a mental note to check on my life insurance policy benefits when I got home (and I am no pansy driver myself) while never taking his eyes off me in his rearview mirror. I was apparently the closest thing he had had to a VIP fare in the past twenty years.
To make a long story short, I decided to attend (to much eye rolling on the part of my husband – he was just jealous because his name wasn’t on the invitation). The hook was not meeting the current university president, who wasn’t even at the university when I was there. Had he been, I quite seriously doubt I would have been invited to honor him in Rome, as the few times I ever met his predecessor it was usually while doing things like chaining myself to his office door in an attempt (vain, as it turned out) to persuade the university to divest from South Africa. You know, symbolic gestures which tend to keep you off subsequent cocktail party guest lists for quite awhile. The hook was not even the Ambassador who, as a personal friend of Bushes (father and son), prominent Republican Party activist, and shopping center real estate development magnate, effectively embodies all I abhor. The real hook was the chance to glimpse into Villa Taverna, a beautiful historic residence once owned by the Catholic Church surrounded by the largest private park (something like four hectares) in Rome, a swimming pool built for JFK’s visit in the 60’s, a movie theatre donated by the American Picture Academy, and lots and lots of security people.
It was lovely. The residence is beautiful, the gardens are enormous (though it was quite dark, so I didn’t get to see much of them), the butlers have the US seal engraved on the buttons of their jackets. It was also strange. It has been a long time since I have been to an all-American social function (the SlowTrav GTG this summer doesn’t count, because no one inspected my person for weapons) and I forgot how gosh-darn friendly most Americans are.
Not that Umbrians are not friendly folks. They are largely kind, good hearted people. They are also extremely reserved and reticent at first meeting. A roomful of Umbrians in a social setting will spend the entire evening speaking to their spouses, or, in a pinch, people they have known since grade school. I don’t think that in ten years in Umbria I have ever had an Umbrian walk up to me and introduce himself cold. The few times I have done so have been near disasters. Remember when Michelle Pfieffer crosses the room to talk to Daniel Day-Lewis in Age of Innocence and the scandal it caused? Well, it’s kind of like that. Luckily, as a foreigner I am excused myriad quirks, like actually showing up to pick up my photos after thirty minutes at the half-hour photo developing place.
I often dog my husband about this in the car driving home from yet another party where I spend the evening talking to him, his friends from the third grade, and their wives. “Why, why?” I wail. “Why does no one want to meet anyone new here? Why don’t you want to make friends?” He looks at me quizzically and invariably answers, “Well, because I already have friends. I don’t need any more.” Dynamic guy.
On the other hand, get a roomful of American strangers together for an evening, and the shaky common ground of a shared alma mater becomes the instant foundations of lightning fast hand-pumping, name memorization, and business card exchanging all round. It was almost too much for me. I must have introduced myself to a hundred people in the space of an hour. It was kind of funny, really. Each guest, to a person, held out their hand and regretfully admitted that their Italian was not that good. To which I replied that neither is mine; I am American. “Oh, but you look so Italian!” they all said. Now, I can hardly show my face in an Italian shop without the proprietor immediately excusing his English or, even more often, addressing me in passable German. No Italian mistakes me for a countrywoman.
Americans can also be disarmingly informal. In Italy, you generally know who the important people are, even if you don’t know who they are. There is a certain aura of power which surrounds them, even if their origins are as humble as, well, Berlusconi’s. And the Umbrians, especially in the area where I live around Assisi and Perugia, are extremely formally mannered people. I have know people for years here socially, and we still give each other the Lei, which is a formal, third person address. I have girlfriends who give their mother-in-laws the Lei. That is equivalent to the Victorian practice of spouses calling each other Mr. and Mrs. Smith in bed.
Imagine my surprise to find that the man who had grabbed my hand, shook it hard, introduced himself as “Mel Sembler” and quickly segued into a long discourse on the merits of Nancy Reagan’s anti-drug campaign work, turned out to be the Ambassador. To be honest, I was kind of disappointed in our diplomatic representative to Italy. I had envisioned a Kofi Annan sort of figure, and instead found a man who, as a response to my question regarding his diplomatic career before Italy, proudly boomed, “Hey, I’m no diplomat! I’m a businessman!” Oh, dear.
I also discovered that I was making small talk with the current university president only after my answer to his question, “Did you enjoy your years as an undergraduate at the university?” (I replied that my memories of those years had grown especially fond once I had paid off my student loans) was greeted with an uncomfortable pause. Until the president’s wife came to my rescue with her raucous barking laugh, grabbed my elbow, and gave me a little squeeze, which signaled to the rest of the group that a little bit of edgy sarcasm was acceptable. Bless her.
I was then saved again by the ambassador’s wife, who broke the long embarrassed silence which followed her husband inquiring as to what I do (apparently running a service sector business rather than paving over acres of perfectly good farm and wood land, over lighting it so much that it can be seen from space, and plonking down a Discount Warehouse which runs the local small business owners into the ground by illegally employing desperate immigrant workers who mop for five bucks a day under the table is not something one admits to while sipping sparkling water at the Ambassador’s residence) by asking me a series of sincere questions regarding my business, feigning real interest in the answers, and finishing the conversation by asking for a business card. Right. Like the Ambassador and his wife are going to bed down on the farm the next time they come through town with their security entourage. But I appreciated the effort. Now she, my friends, was a real diplomat.
Unfortunately, as it turned out, I didn’t have any cards with me because, in anticipation of a security inspection on my purse, I had done a last minute switch to the only bag I own which did not smell of peanut butter crackers and contain a small fleet of Hot Wheels, two sippy cups, emergency wipes, and the latest in Teletubby literature. It also did not contain any business cards.
As soon as the speeches started, I slowly backed my way out of the room and started opening random doors on the first floor. I didn’t have the balls to go upstairs. I figured someone was bound to be watching on a security camera somewhere and would get around to arresting me sooner or later. I discovered a series of lovely rooms downstairs, full of donated art (some of it atrocious, to be honest) and valuable antiques. The only time the building has been vacated by the Americans since the early thirties when it was bought by the US government was during the second world war. The withdrawing Americans entrusted the estate to the Knights of Malta, who converted it to a hospital for the duration of the war, and painted a large red cross on the roof to deter bombing by Allied and Axis forces. The US reclaimed it after the war in perfect condition.
There was also a large collection of Republican knick-knacks about (framed letters signed by Reagan, for example) which got me thinking. There must be two storage rooms somewhere on the compound, one which contains the Republican relics and one the Democratic. That way when the administration switches over, the Reagan correspondence gets boxed up and the snapshots of Carter trotted out. It’s just kind of amusing, when you consider it.
I stumbled upon the dining room at a certain point, set for about twenty who were apparently staying to dinner. My husband had expressed surprise at an invitation to a cocktail party at the strange hour of 6:30 to 8:00. I told him that it wasn’t that the party ended at eight, it was that I wasn’t important enough to be asked to stick around to eat.
The thought crossed my mind that if I were Nikita, I would have a vial of poison hidden in the heel of my boot and would summarily dispose of quite a few members of the higher diplomatic corps in one fell swoop. As it were, I took a quick gander at the menu and china (with US seal, what else?) before being politely directed to the ladies room by a mirrored sunglasses clad gentleman who appeared out of nowhere.
All in all, an experience that I will certainly bore my great grandchildren with its recounting 60 years from now. As I got back on the train home (at 8:10, at the exact moment that the real VIPs were sitting down to smoked duck breast antipasto), I did the unimaginable. I called my husband on my cell phone, and quickly brought all movement in the rows of seats surrounding me to a standstill by loudly beginning to recount my evening at the US Ambassador’s residence.
Tragically, my glory was short-lived, as my husband cut me off laughing, “Quit bragging to the rest of the people on the train, you loser. You can tell me when you get home.” And then he hung up on me.
The man apparently doesn’t know that I am now a personal friend of Mel Sembler’s.
Okay, okay, pipe down. I know I promised part two of Bedford Falls, but something else happened in the meantime.
I often get asked what the main difference is between living in Italy and living in the States, and I usually respond by saying that it’s not so much the contrast between Old World and New, but between living in a small town as opposed to a big city. Sure, it’s a cop out answer, but it’s also a pretty inane question, so I think I deserve a break.
Everyone has a code word. That special word that signals to the outside world that just one more straw and the camel’s back will not only be broken, but his legs will fall off and he will be diagnosed with a degenerative muscular disorder and pinkeye.
On the fifteenth of this month I celebrated 10 years of living in Italy. Time has flown, time has crawled, time has changed me. In the decade and a half I have known her, Italy has given me many gifts and has been vital in forming the person I have become. How can I ever thank her?
Italy made me beautiful
Pauline was clear about the ground rules for the essays. No swearing. So of course I’m going to push the envelope by immediately composing an incisive academic thesis examining the etymological and sociological implications of taboo verbiage in occidental culture, ‘cause that’s just the kind of gal I am.
So, I had a bit of an epiphany the other day.
I had to go to the doctor’s to have him take a look at my hand which, truth be told, has been hurting me for months now, but as the mother of a toddler I am no longer allowed to indulge in luxuries such as timely medical attention or peeing in complete privacy. Anyway, I headed off to the doctor’s…no, wait. I’m skipping a step. To make a long story short, our family doctor has his olive grove bordering on our olive grove above Capodacqua, so he spends lots of time talking This Year’s Harvest with my father-in-law Ugo when they run into each other out there (often, it seems, since my doctor appears to visit patients a total of two hours a day). Unfortunately, whenever I stop by Dr. Bensi’s office with some minor complaint or prescription to renew, he invariably settles himself down for a nice satisfying chat about fertilizer and pruning techniques. This used to be a bit of a problem, since I have something to confess. We all have our dirty little secrets and this is mine: I don’t really know all that much about the daily workings of our farm, Brigolante, my home for the past ten years. I often have guests at our agriturismo ask me things like how many pigs we have in the barn, and I look them straight in the eye and respond: four females, two males, and 14 piglets. I’m lying. I don’t have the faintest idea of how many animals are in the barn, what is planted in the north field and the running market price of barley. In fact, the last time I was in the barn was Christmas eve 1997, which began with an emergency 1 a.m. porcine birth, and faded out to a touching scene of me, attired in a cocktail dress and black pumps holding a slop bucket in each hand filled with squirmy, slippery newborn piglets while my husband, in suit and tie, whacked at the glowing new mother with a broomstick to get her to lie down and nurse, both of us cursing our neighbors Peppe and Gentile with all our linguistic creativity for having invited my in-laws over for a late game of cards.
Back to the doctor story. For about the first eight years I lived here, I would no sooner step into Dr. Bensi’s office before he would whip off his glasses, lean back in his chair, and bark, “Is Ugo spraying his trees this year?” and I would stare at my shoes in shame and mumble something under my breath about how I really wasn’t sure and the rest of our interview would be terse and stilted and I was starting to worry that I was receiving substandard medical care because of this whole olive thing. However, being the kind of gal that takes a bull by the horns (after almost a decade of mortification) I now arm myself with knowledge before my doctor visits. Or, I always mean to, but seem to forget until 3 minutes before I’m supposed to leave for the appointment, which results in much frantic driving in my 4×4 from field to field searching for my father-in-law in blind panic, until I come upon wherever he is tilling, and pick my way across clumps of freshly plowed dirt in heels and a clean skirt until I’m within shouting distance and screaming over the noise of the tractor, “How’s the olive harvest this year?” which, what with the engine roar and Ugo’s encroaching deafness, inevitably leads to a vaudeville-esque routine of him yelling back, “No, thanks, I don’t want a beer!” and me replying, “No, the OLIVE HARVEST THIS YEAR!” and him looking at me quizzically, “Yeah, the sky sure is clear” until I finally mime for him to shut off the damn tractor and repeat myself, at which point he really looks disconcerted, because, as I have already established, I’m not exactly in the habit of talking crops with Ugo. Then his face clears and with a look of comprehension he yells (my father-in-law yells even when there is no farm equipment to compete with), “Tell the Doc there isn’t a damn thing to pick this year!” and I take off at a lumbering sprint back towards the idling car.
So, the other day I marched confidently into my doctor’s office and deployed a preemptive strike before the good Doc even got out “Buon Giorno”. “Doc,” I said, “Ugo says there isn’t a damn thing to pick this year” at which point Dr. Bensi yanked off his glasses, tossed them on the desk, and leaned back in his seat with the air of a man vindicated. This segued into a 15 minute conversation with me doing lots of nodding sagely and um-hmming and desperately trying to convey the image of someone who has the least opinion of whether or not this year will be worse than the harvest of ’83, if plowing or leaving meadow is wiser with this kind of heat, and if old Mario’s team of pickers skim off the top. Having successfully navigated these rocky waters, we were able to move on to talk of my hand. (Any of you still with me here will remember that this is how the whole thing started.) While the doctor was printing out the forms for an x-ray and specialist visit (which you then have to take to the hospital and wait in line to book an appointment, then come back for the appointment, then come back for the results of the appointment, then go back to your family doctor for follow-up, because Italy is many things, my friends, but user friendly ain’t one of them) I made some crack about starting with the minor ailments of advanced age and Dr. Bensi immediately replied, “No, you’re only 32.” I automatically opened my mouth to correct him because, Lord knows, I’m only 31, before I realized with a bit of a shock that, in fact, I am 32.
Now, I’m not one of those people who really cares all that much about aging…no existential crisis or leaving my husband or anything for my 30th birthday (though there has been a noticeable proliferation of face creams in the bathroom over the past couple of years, because if it’s a battle against time I’ll go down fighting). As the great James Taylor said: The secret to life is enjoying the passing of time. Of course, his brain was completely fried on acid and we all know how he screwed things up with Carly, so as a mentor he’s a dubious choice at best. Anyway, I am usually one of those people who takes successive birthdays with aplomb. But I suddenly had that recurring vision of myself sitting across the desk from a balding man in a white coat staring gravely at his hands intoning, “Ma’am, I’m sorry but you only have 55 years left to live” except all of the sudden he was intoning 54 and I felt a year had been shaved off my life. It was clearly time to regroup, reflect, reevaluate my priorities.
As soon as I left the doctor’s I immediately ate a big Magnum Double Caramel ice cream bar, because with only 54 years left why bother dieting? Then, I resolved to catch up with my son’s baby book. I am one of those masochistic freaks of nature allegedly keeping a baby book. I say allegedly because I haven’t actually touched the thing for six months, which doesn’t seem like much time until you consider that he’s only two, so that’s roughly a quarter of his life left undocumented. Anyway, I feel it’s important to have something to page through sixteen years from now during the drive over to the police station with my husband, who has been dragged out of bed along with me by a 2 a.m. call from headquarters requesting that we come collect our son who has been picked up for drag racing/underage drinking/smoking reefer behind the school. It will remind me what a beautiful miracle he is and keep me from throttling him on sight when we get there.
But what this feeling of evanescent mortality really got me reflecting upon was the difference in how age/aging are perceived in Italy as compared to the States, and how the US is fundamentally much more of a youth oriented culture. This is actually a theme I have occasion to contemplate every three months when my college alumnus magazine arrives in the mail. There are good and bad things about having attended a top university (besides, of course, just another prestigious bumper sticker for your parents to add to their collection. My father claims that he keeps so many in clear view as an explanation to the world in general as to why at his advanced age he still can’t afford anything better than a beat up ’91 Mazda minivan with cracked windshield and left rear fender held on by duct tape): the good thing is that you meet all these highly intelligent, motivated overachievers. The bad thing is that you meet all these intelligent, motivated overachievers, so as I peruse the alumna news section of the magazine I get to say to myself, “Why look, there’s Mary Jo! What’s she up to these days? Oh, Supreme Court justice, mother of six, Olympic archer. And here’s Billy Bob…hmmm Nobel prize winner last year, adopted 12 Brazilian street children, recently sold an investment property for six million” by which time I am turning the bathroom upside down searching for a razor blades and lamenting loudly to my husband about how I am a worthless piece of dog doo wasting my life away. Just for kicks, I’m tempted to write in, “Rebecca, who busted her a** to graduate with honors in Political Science/International Relations, now lives on a farm in the middle of nowhere, where she spends her days crashing her computer and fishing legos out of the toilet and lists among her hobbies stain removal and butchering of the Italian Language.” That’d make ‘em green.
What I’m getting at is that many of my contemporaries are quite far down the path of career and family and financial stability in the States, and this is accepted as just and good. Consider, however, that in Italy the average age of a college graduate is 27.8 years, after having studied for an average of 7, according to the August 7 issue of Panorama magazine. This means that in the US a graduate enters the labor market at least five years before her Italian counterpart (though, to clarify, many Italian degrees are the equivalent of US graduate degrees, such as law and medicine). Once out, Italian graduates face an incredibly stiff labor market…roughly half of all unemployed Italians are under 25; 1 in 3 people under 25 are unemployed according to Paul Ginsborg. There are numerous complicated reasons behind the lengthy stays at universities and youth unemployment, but the point I’m trying to make here is that most of our thirty something friends and acquaintances here in Umbria are only just finishing school and beginning their first jobs, not working on second homes and retirement packages. It’s a little bit of a chicken and egg question, but this later start into career seems to have affected expectations for young people in general. In the US, by thirty you are expected to have your act together, or at least go into massive credit card debt to cultivate this image. There is no such pressure here in Umbria. Thirty is considered just about right here for kids to start moving out of the family home, getting married, starting a career. There is no sense of failure, or even showing up late to the game, to be pulling in your first paycheck at 31, and the youngest small business owners I know are…me and my superhusband, who founded his own company last year at the age of 34 after waiting for four years. The wisdom was for him to start up something in his name at 35, since clients don’t really trust anyone too young. He stuck it out until 34, and then decided to roll his dice. (I’m not counting here the numerous friends we have who have entered into their historic family-run business, which is by far the most common model in Umbria.) This later blooming is accepted on a political level as well. A law passed in 2000 offered cheap government financing for “young entrepreneurs.” The first version of the law defined a young entrepreneur as up to 25 years of age, the next version up to 30…to make a long story short, the definition for “young entrepreneur” is now until 40. 40?!? I know American kids who have retired at 40 (okay, I don’t actually know any, but stories circulate).
On the flip side, Italians seem much more comfortable with growing old. There is so much pussyfooting around the word “old” in the US. No one is old anymore. They’re older, or elderly. In Italy, old people are just old and make no bones about it. At a certain point, middle age women who routinely dye their hair a strange shade of copper, dress in tight jeans and stilettos overnight morph into bowed little old ladies wearing Queen Mother shoes, who garden in wool tweed skirts and take bus trips to places like San Giovanni Rotondo or Lourdes. It happened to my mother-in-law (okay, she’s never worn jeans, but you get my meaning). My grandmother in Chicago at almost 80 still dresses in velour track pants, blindingly white tennies, power walks the mall each morning, and would probably be offended to hear herself referred to as elderly. Her big source of pride is that they still ask for ID for the Tuesday retiree discount at Dominick’s Supermarket.
So I’ve come to the conclusion that your life as an adult is brief here in Umbria, Italy. You don’t grow up until after 40, and suddenly by sixty you’re primary concern is playing bocce and ballroom dancing. I’m happy to find that I am still in the flower of my youth here, quite precocious on a professional level, really. And, in moments of alumnus rag self-doubt, I comfort myself with the thought that thirty years from now Mary Jo, Billy Bob, and their kin will be dead of stress related cardiac disorders while I will be here in the Bel Paese, dressed in a support stockings and kerchief boarding a coach for La Verna.
All this reminds me of a story relating to my husband, who, though undoubtedly Italian (who else would pack olive oil for vacation?) is not what you’d call a flashy dresser. Or, I should say, he has all the necessary elements, but doesn’t really have the knack for putting them together correctly. I am considering adopting a Geranimals system.
It was 1987 and I was a fresh faced, excited (extremely naive and unprepared) high school exchange student hot off the plane from Chicago. I had arrived at the Rome airport, had my luggage arrive five hours later on the next flight from NY (tragically, a running theme in my life), and had to somehow get to the Termini station, buy a ticket for Assisi, and meet my host family. I spoke no Italian. I carried no guidebook. I had arranged for no one to meet me to help me through this. (When I say naive and unprepared, what I’m trying to convey is a level of stupidity too embarrassing to dwell upon.) I was extremely jetlagged and overwhelmed by five hours in Rome airport. I set off.
Now, I’m the last person to criticize guidebooks – any author deserves some credit for taking a stab at a task so momentous – but certainly they all have their strengths and weaknesses. Some seem to be museum-opening-time-challenged, others couldn’t recognize a decent hotel if they stubbed their toe on its doorstep.