If you're the kind of person who enjoys thrilling to my dulcet tones and poorly accented Italian, you can also listen to this here:
“Mi dica,” the woman in the panaficio says to me. She juts her chin for emphasis. “Tell me.”
Mi dica. Tell me. It’s what the salespeople who spend their workaday lives behind counters say here, or what they say to you once they recognize you. When you’re a stranger, they just say hello.
“Salve,” they say. They say, “Buon giorno”; they say, “Buena sera.” Sometimes they cut it to the quick and say merely, ”Sera.” But once they know you, they jut their chins at you and say, “Mi dica.”
Tell you what, exactly? Tell you that I’ve lost my keening need for a cheeseburger but I’ve still not lost my hot desire for brunch? Tell you that I retain my fear of acciuga, those hairy little fish we call anchovy, despite having eaten and enjoyed them? That the Sicilian strawberries seduce me anew every day? That I’ve had to recalibrate everything I thought I knew about zucchini? That I forget what it’s like to get delivery?
That I’ve seen the olive trees and the pinetta, the only green when I first arrived, lose themselves in the hills’ aggressively verdant growth? That the smell of the jasmine here will cut a bitch? That nowhere should poppies and lilies be wildflowers. That every time I see those poppies, fat and wide as a longshoreman’s fist, blooming beside the railroad tracks or dotting the center of some landscape of urban sublime, that it breaks my heart open just a little bit?
Tell you that the ceilings are high here, that the walls are thick, that the doors are medieval? That even while here, I’m grieving this loss of space, of air, of time? That though I’m here for another three weeks, I’ve already begun a slow adieu to the view of blue sea and green mountains and creamsicle buildings? And yet when I’m stressed—and it happens even in this paradise, I get stressed, I feel stress, anxiety will clutch my heart in its knobby grip and it will squeeze—I long for the city, the anonymous bustle of busy people with places to go and people to see and none of them me? Tell you that Gotham hangs like a chimera, some hideously beautiful thing I love and loathe, want and reject, miss and forget, in equal, if impassioned, portions?
Tell you that I dream in Italian and I don’t understand it?
The ladies behind the counter don’t want to hear any of this. And even if they did, I couldn’t tell them. Capisco abbastanza bene, ma non parlo bene—I understand well enough, but I don’t speak well. Which is, of course, a lie. I don’t understand. It’s true that I latch onto more language than I used to. I can grab verbs and nouns out of sibilant streams of syntax. I can pluck out these words, like pomegranate seeds, but they they’re not enough to nourish me. I’m usually left wanting.
I have much to tell and yet I’ve held it close, as if in the telling it’ll lose its glamour. Or if in the telling, I’ll come to understand it. I’m not sure I want the pellucid truth. I’m finding the charm in the fuzzily experienced, and I’m finding less value in the entirely anatomized known. In choosing not to write, in opting not to tell, I’m choosing to prolong this experience of living in a world whose language I don’t understand. Being a person whose identity is so very tied up in being very clever, in being terribly witty, in negotiating every moment in a relentless torrent of words, this existence where I can neither understand nor express myself is freeing. (Sometimes writing is a terrible burden; sometimes writing is just another word for alienation.)
I could, I suppose, tell that I’ve moved from terror to freedom. There is that. Though I suppose that metaphorical movement would get lost in translation, as so much does.
I have, in the past three months, fallen in love. I can say this: I fell in love with Italy. I think it happened, as it so often does, somewhere in Tuscany. I was on a train going to visit the only female friends I’ve made here—two expats with names so closely matched that only one consonant separates them—and somewhere on that train between Camogli and Grossetto, fields of flowers and sheep and mountains and cypress spinning past me like a hackneyed rom-com montage—I exhaled and fell in love. Spring in Italy is hard to resist. After a while, it wears a cynic down. You stand in the center of a thousand-year-old olive tree split by lightening, its trunk lacy with age. You walk through Rome and you feel the improbable anachronistic weight of centuries piled upon themselves. You find yourself eating langoustines and sucking their little crustacean heads with gusto. You realize you’re in love. It happens.
As also so often happens, I have fallen in love with an Italian. And of this, the less said the better. He is, I will tell you, extraordinary, unexpected and dusted gently with magic. He speaks English, and though my language throws him regularly, we can talk. I tell him; he tells me. Sometimes it happens beyond language, which is interesting and too valuable to tell.
Mi dica. Una focaccia, per favore. Anche una brioche. Va bene. Grazie mille.
What else is there to tell? Everything, and nothing. Waves crash. A dog barks. My Italian lover asks how I am feeling. The smallest questions can have the biggest answers.