Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Lotuses bloom in mud: a meditation on an expat dream disfigured

Dear Readers,

We modern-day expats are fortunate in that we move around by choice: chasing job opportunities, new lifestyles (ugh--that word), even love. We are not typically motivated--like so many of our ancestors were--by hunger or persecution. In a way, I think this makes us a rarefied and spoiled bunch. We can look at things with the objectivity and aloofness of someone who has a lifeboat at the ready, should the ship sink. We always have, more or less, the luxury of leaving.

Of course, the expat experience doesn't exist in a vacuum. We bring to it suitcases carefully packed with expectations and the sum of our prior experiences, our beliefs and prejudices, our longings and most secret regrets. We bring to this Old World, to these unstruck continents, to these chaotic foreign cities, those cherished heirlooms of our innermost selves--and we hold them close, safeguarding them to the point we are sometimes able to ignore the changes being wrought upon us by new surroundings.

In many ways, this blog is my way of writing around something that happened to me after I got here (the second time, that is--I moved here in 2000, left for a year in 2005, moved back in 2006); it has often served as the pressure-valve to darker emotions.  As someone who is almost pathologically reserved when it comes to intimate details, I have long questioned the wisdom of personal revelation, vacillating between rationales like "no one gives a ripe fig," "you'll come across like a guileless fool," and the deep-seated aversion to seeing my own guts spilled across the cold, unforgiving pavement. But, simply put, I need to write about this. I need to emancipate this fragile little caged bird I've been protecting--for good or ill.

But before I write about the thing that happened to me, you need to know what I've been carrying around in my suitcase. A simple wish, really: I've always wanted to be part of a (reasonably) large and (reasonably) loving family. Sort of like the Brady Bunch but more ethnic--that is, with better food and more spirited banter and hand gestures--or the charismatic Vermas in Monsoon Wedding. My own childhood spooled itself out beneath perpetually stormy skies--family life was turbulent, fractured, alienating, torrentially painful at times and--in the end--a kind of abyss it took me years to climb out of.

Wedding day...
So when I married into my husband's family here in Italy--this big, rambunctious group of diehard Tuscans--I felt that at last I was to have my hearts' desire, that I would be included, accepted, perhaps even enfolded by these people. I took it for granted that this would be so, because that's what I granted them: automatic acceptance. My enthusiasm was such that I threw myself happily into family life here in Florence, the long shored-up affection pouring from me in abundance even though I had little in common with these people who for the most part eschew things such as higher education, worldliness, and anything resembling an intellectual pursuit. I made headlong, sincere efforts to converse and banter and get to know them better in my then-rudimentary Italian; I wanted to know their histories; I took joy in their children, my nieces and nephews; and I hoped, little by little, to insinuate myself into the tight weave of their deeply-rooted lives, not realizing at the time how very difficult this is to do among certain provincially-minded Italians. My efforts notwithstanding, I never really became part of the inner circle--I couldn't get into that space the others all enjoyed and I remained always at arms' length.

After that interlude in the States which had been fraught with stresses and health problems, we decided to come back to Florence, the main factor in the decision-making process being family. Actually, my Italian husband was against the idea, and it was me--with that dog-eared old dream I still carried around like a worn photograph--who cast the die. I was to head out with the kids alone and Paolo would join us two months later. We were to live with my mother- and father-in-law in their house while their granny unit at the back of the courtyard was nearing completion. My son would go to the local scuola materna, thus easing some of the pressure on a worn-down mum.

I remember our plane nearing Florence, and at the familiar sight of terra-cotta-roofed houses and lovely, green, undulating hills, I felt a deep sense of coming home. I felt very surely that this was where I was meant to be, and that having a big loving family around them was a gift I was giving my children. I was suffused with happiness.

...under optimistic skies.
Do wedding days have any other kind?
On a Sunday about three weeks later, I was getting the children ready for a big family reunion in Luco di Mugello, to celebrate the 97th birthday of my mother-in-law's mother, Nonna Anita. It was to be a huge luncheon, prepared by an army of capable aunts, at the splendid Casa D'Erci, and the kids were looking forward to seeing all their cousins and roaming the nearby woods. My MIL had been in the habit of spending every weekend up there with her elderly mother, so she wasn't around that Sunday morning, but was making party preparations with the rest of the Mugello clan. Gaetano, my exceedingly rustic father-in-law, fresh from Mass, walked into the salotto and when he saw me with the kids, beamed, spread his arms wide, and came towards me saying how beautiful I looked. I braced myself, a bit uncomfortably, for a bear hug from the FIL--for he's a great hulking ox of a man and averse to bathing (thankfully, however, this being church-goin' day he'd had his ritual weekly bath the night before)--but smiled back and said "thank you."

As he got close to me, his arms encircled me forcefully and my own arms were pinned to my sides. He squeezed me like a python and pressed his groin into mine. He fumbled at my breast and squeezed it with rude urgency. The breath evaporated in my lungs. My brain crystallized into a rigid ice of incomprehension. Over his shoulder, I could see two sweet little faces looking up at me. The indignant scream froze in my throat and nothing came out. I felt a clumsy hand grope roughly between my legs, and then two crude paws squeezed my ass. I managed to extricate myself from the panting brute's vile embrace, all the while my eyes locked with those of my children, who mercifully only saw the innocence of grandfather hugging mommy. I do not know whether it lasted merely one monstrous moment or had been a hell-bound eternity--I couldn't say because I had been instantly plunged into a sea of hurt and I was floundering below the surface where images and sounds are distorted. The only solid, real thing I could reach out and cling to in that moment of drowning was my children: in as calm a voice as I could muster, I told them we were going upstairs to Zia Patrizia's house to wait for the others to go to the party, took them by the hands, grabbed my purse, and stumbled out of there, vibrating with shock.

All of life is a foreign country
--Jack Kerouac

There was the telephone call to my husband and his own shock and deep pain. There was the MIL dismissing her husband's behavior as that of a bambinone (an overgrown child), explaining that he'd frequently pawed fellow female parishioners over the years on the old pilgrimages to Lourdes. There was the lack of any real female solidarity from my three sisters-in-law, only a kind of brief, strained sympathy. There was the brother-in-law--the family buffoon known as lo Zini--who had nothing but shockingly malevolent looks for me, even in church. There was my visit to the police, where I learned that nothing would likely happen to the bastard should I press charges. My Gibraltar of a husband was an ocean and half a continent away, I had no friends or family of my own for support; I was truly and utterly a straniero--a stranger in a strange land. I slept in the locked house--the nonni unit having been hastily occupied--in a locked bedroom with the children, a baseball bat at my side.

Though there was consternation of a kind among these people there was no sense of outrage--a deeper understanding of the evil was oddly missing. Since I had no troops to shore up my weakened defenses, I decided to charge the stronghold of their indifference and face them in a tribunal of my own design: I called a family meeting, demanding especially the presence of the mincing MIL, who'd metaphorically buried her head in the sand. I proceeded to tell all in graphic detail exactly how and where their father/husband had groped me (during which the FIL--who was drunk--smirked like a prankster child called before a chastising teacher), and I was similarly explicit in the description of my feelings over such reprehensible behavior. The FIL, with roguish candor, claimed the devil made him do it (notwithstanding his recent presence at Mass), and that, moreover, his regular priest-confessor had given him the green light on approaching women for sexual purposes as long as the woman was amenable to the idea--"approach" apparently being synonymous with lunge and "amenable" applying even to family members who'd sooner eat hot coals than be groped by such a pathetic, repugnant pervert. I announced that, though I had been to the police, my decision not to press charges was for the sake of the family, and certainly not for any sympathy I felt towards him. Then I looked him dead straight in the eye and said that if he ever so much as even tries to shake my hand, I'd call the cops on him--and that I couldn't be held responsible for what my Louisville Slugger would do that sparse conglomeration of underachieving cells called his brain.

My husband and I navigated Scylla and Charybdis: the decision to stay or go, thorny financial concerns, and the innocent expectations of our little ones. My dream of Italy--that gossamer conceit--lie around me in an ash heap. And phoenixes, I learned, don't necessarily rise from ashes--instead, decisions are made in fraught circumstances and life then creaks forward on shaky wheels. In the end, we didn't choose the life boat: we decided to stay, to make the best of things, to ignore the ugliness if possible, and get on with our lives. Slowly the mess congealed--the rest of the family went on as before, relating to each other as they have for eons, the FIL merely a child who got caught being naughty. The incident was never spoken of.

The wound I'd suffered, however, was stealthy--it deepened. I'd thought that I was still, however tenuously and awkwardly, a part of this family and that my status as the one who'd been wronged would ensure some basic empathy from the others. I struggled to maintain a rapport with them within the sweep of my unease and the FIL's proximity. But in the years since, the family closed ranks, gathering as they always do around their own crackling campfire, leaving me on the cold, dim periphery. They didn't know what to make of me, I suppose, so they ignored me.

I've asked myself if Gaetano would have done what he did to one of my Italian sisters-in-law, and the answer, in my mind, is a disquieting no. They've always been protected by something I didn't have: an accustomed earth, a common culture, a shared past--they grew up together and their families know each other's families. They are knitted together by a tensile yarn of complex social controls--the Italian mortal fear of making a brutta figura being paramount. I was the vulnerable one: the foreigner with no family, whose husband was absent, the stranger whose antecedents lay in some trans-oceanic North American obscurity. Being the classic unseen "Other," I provided a handy moral blind spot. This realization--that I simply didn't count the way I'd took it for granted I counted--was the most profoundly painful thing of all. How I longed to assert my existence and my worth in the coinage of the only currency these people valued: I, too, am somebody's daughter, somebody's sister, somebody's mother, somebody's wife!

I am hardly the poster child of expat perfection. It's a complex drama, this cross-cultural intermarried life, and there've been times when I've flubbed my lines, missed cues, or even stomped offstage in high-handed diva fashion. But though my reactions to my mutable Latin surroundings have the inevitable tincture of forthright American, university-educated, city-bred self-regard, my mind's windows (a few creaky hinges notwithstanding) have always been thrown open wide to the possibility of a changed perspective. I had accepted this family at face value, and it was their collective coldness that threw me because until then I hadn't realized how much I'd been yearning for their warmth.

Live on, survive, for the earth gives forth wonders.
It may swallow your heart, but the wonders keep on coming.
You stand before them bareheaded, shriven.
What is expected of you is attention
--Salman Rushdie

Photo by Sistak, source: flickr
In many of the best stories, no matter what misfortunes befall the protagonist, there is redemption of a kind in the end. Redemption is one of those grand words used mostly in terms of release from the consequences of sin, but it also means the freeing of oneself from what distresses or harms, the clearing of debts or obligations. It offers hope for a new beginning.

Expecting others to redeem one's childhood, to make up for its darkness and its losses, to fulfill the desire which lies slumbering deep in one's marrow is, of course, asking the Herculean. And expecting people who are mired in a kind of primitive tribal ignorance to be anything other than what they are is like asking the Pope to embrace Elton John. Though my choice to move to Italy (twice) encompassed many factors, I cannot deny the influence of my most secret longing self, who tripped the wire of subsequent action.

But like the lotus, joy has a way of sprouting in unlikely places and under seemingly inauspicious conditions. Despite the difficulties of these past years, many fine things have taken root in my life, and I find that my own small family--this beloved little motley foursome of eccentrics and vagabonds--provides all the warmth I'll ever need. Love is a great redeemer.

And maybe a kind of redemption is possible through writing. If that's the case, then this is my burning of the fields after a bad harvest in order to lay ground for a better one.

Sometimes the things we carry around with us for so long, the things we hold dear, turn out to have crumbled into useless dust--immaterial ghosts, ectoplasms of the Id, wisps of smoke in biting winter air. They dissolve their insubstantial forms, the forms we gave such credence to, and are gone. Just gone. And in their place is left a void, an emptiness that either waits to be filled with substance and meaning or that will grow darkly in diameter, slowly consuming the soul's square footage. To be honest, I've probably lost some space to bitterness. But that part of me which has always marveled at diversity, at the world's manifold loveliness, and at the complexity of human experience, is intact. There is plenty of space in my soul for that.