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I Can't Go To Italy
There is no possibility on earth that I can go to Italy with my husband in the fall. I am too firmly rooted in my California life to pick up and fly across a continent, though he promises me we will have a fine adventure. "I can't tell you exactly what will happen, but something will. And it will all be new and interesting."
I explain to him patiently that Italy is irrelevant to the center of my life, which—as he knows—is my mother's endless dying. I can't be across the world when she dies.
Joe points out that my mother has been dying for an extremely long time, more than five years. We are moving along ourselves—if we want to travel, the time for us is now. To each of my arguments he offers a solution. My sister will be here to look after my mother. Our daughters are grown and independent; perhaps one or all three of them can come and visit us in Italy. The cat? We will hire someone to feed him. My writing? I can do my work in Italy as well as here; we'll take along my laptop computer. He points out the many virtues of this opportunity for him to teach a group of students in Florence for next year's fall term. "We'll have three months in Tuscany, with an apartment provided and my regular salary to live on. How else could we ever afford to live in Italy for three months! I think we should definitely do this," he says. "It's our chance."
The next day I go to my mother's bedside at the nursing home, where she lies paralyzed and on a feeding tube. I ask her what she thinks about my going to Italy for three months.
"You can't wait for me, I could live to be a hundred. Go and do what you have to do. I'll just be here. And if something happens ... don't come back."
"Meaning if I die, don't come back."
Even with her permission, I am resistant. Do I really want to leave my friends, my comfortable life, my familiar surroundings? Do I want to leave my kitchen appliances, my computer, my down comforter?
Each evening at dinner, as the deadline for Joe's decision approaches, he and I debate at the kitchen table, he using words like "adventure" and "travel" and "new things to think about" while I counter with "comfort, obligations, our life here." Who will water the plants? Who will take care of the house? I remind him of the scene in Virginia Woolf's To The Lighthouse, where—after the mother dies and the family abandons the summer house—the place is invaded by the elements, by wind and rain, by rats and mice, and goes to ruin. Joe seems incredulous that I am worried about the grass in the yard, and a few scraggly houseplants. The problem is, he's not a worrier. He doesn't have my highly developed skill of being able to imagine catastrophes.
In secret I invent private, infantile arguments I can't bring myself to say to his face: "I'll just be a tag-along teacher's wife. I'll be a third wheel. You and the Italian teacher will be a team, and I'll have nothing to do. The students won't be interested in me; you'll be too busy to pay attention to me. I'll be bored." Bored in Italy? I'd have to be in a coma, I assure myself. One day I am talking to the clerk at the Post Office and remark: "I may have to go to Italy for three months." He replies: "My heart is breaking for you. You really have my sympathy." He hands me a roll of stamps. "Could I come and carry your bags?"
"Okay," I tell my husband at dinnertime one night. "Okay, I'll go to Italy." My tone of voice suggests I have been coerced, have no choice, that I must give in, go to this foreign country and possibly lose my mind there, maybe even my life.
"Good," Joe says cheerfully. "I'll tell the Director of the Study-Abroad Program that we accept the offer." He gets up from his chair and kisses the top of my head. "Thank you," he adds.
With the trip still months away, I begin making my "Trip List". Errands to do, items to take, bills to pay in advance, things to be sure not to forget. I will have to interview candidates to feed my cat. I will have to ask my doctor for medicines for every possible disease. (I check the Merck Manual and begin to make lists of what diseases might befall us in Italy.) I will have to buy walking shoes, reinforced and padded, to prepare for the cobblestones of Florence. I will have to get travelers' checks, put my checking account in order, exchange dollars for lire. I start looking through my wardrobe and find it totally lacking. I do not own one article of clothing I could take on a trip. I am exhausted already.
In the meantime, Joe gets busy improving his Italian.
"Buona sera, signora," says the tape player at breakfast. "Dov'è il gabinetto? Quanto costa un biglietto turistico? Vorrei una birra."
"Don't you want to practice?" Joe asks me.
"And learn to talk like a two year old? No thank you. Arrivederci. Ciao."CHAPTER 2
I'm Going To Italy
As with any major shock in life, the kind you first refuse, then resist, then deny, eventually you must take it in and make a space for it.
I am going to Italy in September, and that is that.
What will I do there? I don't know yet. I hold in my mind, as a kind of mantra, what Joe said to me: "I can't tell you exactly what will happen, but something will."
Taking this trip will be a matter of faith. What is the game children play in school to help them learn to trust others? They fall backwards and let others catch them. So I must fall backwards into the arms of Italy and hope to be embraced and treated gently. Still, should the arms of Italy be slightly askew when I land, I have to make some preparations for my being dropped there for three months.
Will I go to the famous museums? Of course, but not too many. Will I go to the great churches? Of course, but not every day. Like a newborn, I will discover life and language at my own pace in this new world.
For the last year or two, my three daughters have communicated with me daily from their various places in the world by e-mail. If I can continue to connect to them from Italy, I will be happy. However, no computer expert to whom I turn for advice seems quite sure how this will work or if it will work; I am cautioned by everyone that Italy is famous for how nothing works as expected. The Italian phone lines are different, equipment from the USA may not recognize Italian dial tones. But slowly I put together a plan: I buy a modem, a voltage regulator, an Italian phone jack, plug adapters, surge protectors, even a portable printer. I subscribe to an internet server that promises a connection in Florence but cautions me: there are no guarantees. The moment of truth will come the day I try to log on.
I begin to hear from friends who learn of my travel plans: one will give me the address of a woman she knew in Rome thirty years ago and who now lives in Florence in a 500 year old farmhouse. Another will put me in touch with a professor at the University of Florence. I might look into the Jewish Community Center, or the American Church.
The more I do in preparation, the more confident I feel. My spirit is lighter, my heart happier. When I find a neighbor boy to feed my cat and discover that they actually enjoy each other's company, I am filled with relief and pleasure.
I attack my desk with zeal: I pay $200 in advance to every service I can think of: the phone company, the gas and electric companies, the water department, the Department of Motor Vehicles, the car and home owners' insurance company, the gardener, even the plumber—in case a pipe bursts. I pay estimated taxes up to the next century, it seems. I arrange for my sister to take care of our mail. I plot to use up all my perishable food before we leave.
My blood is up. An adventure lies ahead. At my time of life, this is no small matter!CHAPTER 3
Today, Nicoletta, the Italian teacher who will be co-teaching with Joe, is holding a reception for the "Semester in Florence" students at her home, a mixer where they will get to know one another better and choose roommates for the stay in Italy. Nicoletta and Joe have interviewed and accepted thirty-eight students for the trip; each one has been told of the rigors of travel and warned of the culture shock with which they will be faced. A special admonition is made about the quantity of wine that is available in Italy—and how everyone is counting on their good sense in dealing with it.
The course of study is settled: Joe will teach Humanities and History, Nicoletta will teach Italian language. That Nicoletta resembles Sophia Loren is of no small interest to me, though Joe has protested he hadn't noticed. Nicoletta has an easy laugh, a happy nature; I can tell at once that she is counting the moments till she is in Italy. She was born in Rome and is anxious to demonstrate its beauties and glories to the students. I admire her energy, her large dark eyes, and sensual Italian mouth. (Well, it is a good thing I have decided to go along, isn't it?) Her husband, an American, is a handsome, cheery fellow, and is busy setting out refreshments for the students when we arrive. He won't be with us on the trip—he has his business to attend to at home.
The students arrive one by one—Joe has prepared me for some of them: Marta, the cabaret singer who wears great dangling music-note earrings; Robin, the boy with the silver stud in the middle of his tongue; Rosanna, the tall blonde young woman who is a hairdresser and has offered to bring her scissors to Italy in order to serve as official haircutter for the students. There will be thirty-two young women going, and only six men. (Or are they girls and boys? For the most part, they are in their early twenties—except for Mrs. Pedrini, the seventy-two year old student.)
Even as I am wondering who of these young women will want to room with a seventy-two year old, the woman in question enters Nicoletta's front door. With short dark hair and elegantly applied makeup, Mrs. Pedrini sails in wearing a glittery skirt and backless lucite high heels. A silver beret perches on her head. She is carrying a basket full of colored wool pompoms, and sets out at once distributing them to all of us—students and teachers alike. She says we must attach them to our suitcases—since then they will be easier to identify at the airport. She is all bounce, energy and good will.
Many of the students are from Hispanic backgrounds. They think their knowledge of Spanish will make it simple to use the Italian language. Also, since Italy is the home of the Pope, their families are thrilled for them to have this opportunity. Most students will be getting financial aid and loans from the college to make this trip.
Nicoletta makes her prepared announcements—that everyone should pack warm pajamas since the heat is not turned on in Italy—legally—till November 1st. That we should all bring towels, since they are not provided in the apartments. That we must remember we will have no TVs, no VCRs, no microwaves, and no luxuries. That living in Italy is expensive. That we will all have to learn to get around the city by bus, learn to use the currency, to buy food, and to live among Italians. The buildings are very old, that those in "centro" generally have no elevators. Some of the apartments may be four or five flights up. "It may be tough at first," Nicoletta tells us all. "But be flexible and creative. And remember, this is only for three months, it isn't your Life."
I suffer a little pang of terror at that moment. It seems to me it will be my life. What if we get a tenth floor walkup, without a shower, with beds made of concrete? My knees feel weak—what if we end up living in a dungeon?
But Mrs. Pedrini is passing around a tray of pizza slices, and presses us each to take a piece.
"Molto delizioso!" she says as the scent of basil and oregano swirl through the air. She urges us to breathe in—deeply—the aroma of Italy.
"I'm already packed!" she assures us all. "I can't wait to set foot in Bella Italia!"CHAPTER 4
A Flat Full Of Sun
E-Mail from Centro Linguistico Italiano Dante Alighieri:
Signora, herewith we give you the address of your apartment, which is Via Visconti Venosta, 66, 50136 Firenze, ITALIA
This flat that we have reserved for you and the Professor is very nice it is on the fourth floor and is composed of: two bedrooms, one with two beds (for married couple), and a smaller room with just one bed. This small room is with a terrace, there is also an other terrace on the kitchen overlooking the Arno River, from where you can see Florentine hills. Then a big kitchen with washing machine, a bathroom with shower and bath, and very spacious living room. There is also a roof terrace from which you can really see all Florence and Fiesole. I repeat that the apt is really nice, maybe one of the biggest that we have, there is a lift, but the flat is not close to school. It is 45 minute nice walking along the river, but there is also a good bus no. 14 which in 10/15 minutes takes you to the centre. It's a flat full of sun, and in a very nice residential area, with a lot of good shops, an alimentari and supermarket, not far from a swimming pool and near a big green area. IT HAS A PHONE PLUG TOO—for e-mail connection. If you want to find the street on a normal map, it is difficult but follow the river towards the right side, and it is after the last bridge, Ponte Verrazzano, and the area is called Bellariva. We look forward to meeting you and the Professor and to welcome you to Italy.CHAPTER 5
We fly to Rome on TWA Flight 80l, shortly after TWA Flight 800 to Paris blows up in mid-air just outside New York and 230 people are lost in the ocean. I have brought along my laptop computer, and entertain myself with Tripeaks, Golf, Tetris, Free Cell and Tut's Tomb until my battery blinks a warning and quits. Joe is continuing to study Italian verbs, having the ability to concentrate in situations where I can barely stay in my seat. My friend Jenijoy said to me before we left, "Let's see if your fairy tale marriage can survive a trip like this. Three months with no one to talk to but your husband!"
It's true that—even as we cross the mighty ocean—all my safety nets are being removed: my family (not counting Joe, who is, in fact, not even my blood relative), my language, my environment, and all my appliances that run on 120 volts. Mrs.Pedrini was kind enough to pass out to everyone a lire-equivalent list, with 1,500 lire to the dollar being the base of her calculations. Just imagining that a ten dollar item will cost 15,000 lire makes my heart skip a beat. I have already packed away in my carry-on luggage my brown leather American-money wallet, with its green bills, and taken out my pink cloth Italian-money wallet (with Velcro closures), full of pastel-colored lire. The 1,000 lire note has a kind looking older woman on one side, and on the other a sweet family scene of a boy and girl doing homework at a table in a room with blue and pink wallpaper. The 5,000 lire note shows a foppish curly-haired man on one side and what seems to be the statue of a woman in the woods, singing an operatic aria, on the other. The 10,000 lire note offers a Napoleon-look-alike on one side, and a state building on the other. I have two more bills to examine: the 50000 lire note displays a handsome Errol Flynn type on one side and a warrior on a rearing horse on the back. Finally, the 100,000 lire note (I feel I am holding gold bouillon now) shows a man and a woman touching hands, with the added face of "Caravaggio" (labeled) on one side, and an elegantly arranged bowl of fruit in a woven basket on the other. This bank note alone, according to Mrs. Pedrini, is worth $66.66.
Excerpted from BOTTICELLI BLUE SKIES AN AMERICAN IN FLORENCE by MERRILL JOAN GERBER. Copyright © 2002 Merrill Joan Gerber. Excerpted by permission of Dzanc Books.
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