Thursday, December 11, 2008

What James Joyce and I have in common (in case you were wondering)

Dear Readers,

The heading quote from this blog may lead you to think I have delusions of grandeur, that I--gasp!--put myself on par with Joyce. Please do not think that--I am but a humble scribe. However, like Joyce, I am an exile.

I have had what I can only call the yearning for exile since I was in high school, if not earlier, when I first read Joyce in Mrs. Ferency's (god bless her!) English class: Dubliners and A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. These books deeply impressed me, and I kept coming back to them in the years that followed. Joyce haunted my undergraduate years, eventually leading me to Dublin to study, and Ulysses became the subject of my Masters' Thesis. So he and I have, you could say, a history together.

He was Irish to the bone; all his fiction is set in Ireland, though he himself left it, never to return, at a young age. So when you consider Joyce, you have to consider exile. What does it truly mean to be in exile? For him it seems to have been necessary, painful, rich with possibilities, yet debilitating--in short, full of paradox. The above quote from Portrait shows all the teenage Joyce's bravado, yet it holds a key: silence, exile, cunning. Three words that crystallize his intellectual rebellion, that name his tools for survival, that map his future, that proclaim him free. The thing is, he was never really free from who he was--the nature of rebellion requiring connection always to the thing one rebels from.

And so, I cannot help but draw parallels between his life and my own--as it has turned out, spurred on by my own youthful rebellions, my moving ever-larger distances from my home, my having to always cope with exile in various forms: physical, emotional, psychological. I think I am more restless, though, than Joyce ever was, and not as cunning, and in some ways not silent enough.

When you leave the place where you are from, everything shifts, like tectonic plates deep under the earth's crust. No matter your personal comfort level, you are never on as firm a ground as your native soil. Depending on where you go, you are in varying degrees out of your element. For example, a Westerner who lands in the chaos of Old Delhi is probably in a larger degree out of his element than say, a Westerner who goes to London. But the point is is that you are out of your element. This can be a good thing, an exciting, even exhilarating thing. I often feel this.

But at times it's like wearing clothes that just don't quite fit properly--the geographical equivalent of flood pants or a visible panty-line. There are built-in frustrations at not knowing how everything works, at not picking up on all the cultural clues, at having to jettison some of your expectations and tailor your hopes and dreams. (Example: I always dreamed of having a spacious Craftsman's bungalow, wide tree-shaded lawn and all that; now I live like a monk in a cell). Then, at some point, there is a ripening awareness of the reality of the place you are in as opposed to the place that existed in your imagination before you got there. Naturally, there are as many ways of reacting to all of this as there are individual characters. Joyce reacted by recreating in his mind an Ireland so true and vivid that when it spilled out onto the page it seemed as if he had never left, that he had remained in the thick of it. He seemed untouched.

I, however, find it difficult not to be affected by my surroundings and to shake the feeling that I will always be an outsider looking in. In this blog, you, Dear Readers, will see that my observations are at times colored by rancor, by amusement, by amazement, by profound frustration, maybe even by passion--by whatever mood possesses me and by whatever boon or bane Italy bestows upon me.



Thursday, September 18, 2008

The "Under the Tuscan Sun" syndrome

Dear Readers,

When you live in Italy, especially in Tuscany, sooner or later you confront what I call the "Under the Tuscan Sun" syndrome. This affliction is characterized by the conviction that moving to Italy will be one long sex-food-designer shopping-restore-a-country-villa-fest, that living here will provide the necessary doses of la dolce vita to solve all your problems. Especially women seem to think that they can avoid menopause, an irksome ex-husband, or spoiled over-achieving children by a romp in the bel paese.

What a bunch of unadulterated crap.

Now I realize that I may be about to alienate a potential reading public, but I am here to tell you, dear Readers, that life in Italy isn't all Prada and porcini. Without a doubt, Italy seduces. And life can be good here, of course, damn good at times--but there is a reality that most tourists, zealots, and fanatics never experience. I know that people don't want to hear bad things about this sunny peninsula (Italians, above all, are ostriches in this regard)--it would be like discovering that Mother Theresa kicked her dog, or that Martha Stewart picks her nose and then proceeds to make maple pecan brownies without washing her hands. We all want to believe that Italy is paradiso--some kind of mediterranean, metaphysical Disneyworld, with no entrance fee, great food, and where everyone is tan and sports fabulous sunglasses.

It is my hope, discerning Readers, that I can open a window for you that gives you a glimpse of the "real" Italy. At least the Italy experienced by an average expatriate, a working mother of two.

First, we must do away with our ideas of "Tuscany", as implied by its ubiquitous use as a marketing tool. The word "Tuscany" has become as overused, abused and meaningless as the word "love". Tuscany, for many, conjures up images of long rows of cypress trees punctuating gently rolling golden hillsides, graceful umbrella pines shouldering up against picturesque, crumbling old hill towns, tumblerfuls of chianti next to platters of thick slices of toasted country bread brushed with green olive oil, etc. etc. Well, this can be Tuscany, just as "love" can mean, well, love. And this, of course, is what the marketers count on....

But, I ask, what is Tuscan about my mother's Ypsilanti apartment complex, ambitiously called "Tuscan Creek"?!! Not a cypress in sight there, my friends! Or American restaurant menus that list things such as "Tuscan Chicken Penne Pasta"?!! (You will never, I mean never see a chicken-and-pasta combo in Italy, god forbid). I've seen Tuscan sheet sets, Tuscan room paint, Tuscan cookware, Tuscan toilet brushes and Tuscan windshield wiper blades (ok, I made those last two up--but believe me, they are in the development stages somewhere).

So, dear Readers, disabuse yourselves of any previous notions of what Tuscany is, of what Florence is, and listen to me. I'll give you the real story.

"Under the Tuscan Sun" my ass.



Tuesday, September 16, 2008

The Rientro

Dear Readers,

Florence roared to life at the beginning of September, the August vacations having ended. The viali swarmed anew with slaloming mopeds, cars choked the lanes, horns blaring in that impatient Italian way, and orange buses flung themselves down the narrow streets of the centro storico like marauding Greeks storming Troy. After the eerie--yet delicious--quiet of the ghost town Florence becomes in August, the change was jarring. This great Italian collective roar is what heralds the rientro--the return, the re-entering, the restarting of "real" life after the hedonistic lazy days of August, wherein it is too hot to even think of working or accomplishing anything. In fact, if you are so unfortunate as to be left in the city during this month (it feels like being one of the few survivors on a barren Earth after a nuclear holocaust, alla Twilight Zone), you find that you can't get anything done: forget yoga, forget doctor's appointments, forget applying for a mortgage, and pray you have enough food to last until September.

I have always preferred Autumn to the other seasons, and even as a kid suffered through summers that always seemed unbearably long. September has always meant new life and a new beginning to me, primarily because of school (which I loved). So the characteristically dramatic way Italians have of welcoming (or begrudging, depending how you look at it) September rather appeals to me. All the news programs talk about the rientro, as if it were some amazingly noteworthy cultural phenomenon (well, perhaps, it is). Now is the time to get down to business, buy school supplies, see what "serious" books have come out (not that Italians like to read serious books), check the theatre schedules, sign up for judo. Suddenly the phone is ringing with mothers wanting play dates with my kids, all the shops are open, a government office concluded a matter with me suspended since July, my yoga studio is open. Even the miserable humidity and cannibalistic mosquitoes have abated, high-tailing it out of here on the hind legs of summer.

I have, then, in the spirit of the rientro, begun these letters to you, dear Readers.

My best regards,