Friday, March 22, 2013

Tight apron strings or tight economy?

scene from Fellini's Amarcord

Dear Readers,

According to a September 2012 article in the Guardian:

Nearly one third of adult Italians (31%) live with their parents
More than 60% of young adults (18-29 year-olds) live with their parents
Among 30-44 year-olds, over 25% live with their parents
Of those Italians who don't live with their parents, 54% said they lived within short walking distance of their parents

Culture, necessity--or a bit of both? Is la mamma a saviour or a sucker?

What do you think?


Friday, March 15, 2013

This mortal coil: another tale from the 'hood

There have been times when this neighborhood of mine has frayed this old heart and brought me to the brink of an unfathomable well of sorrow, begging me to drink of its chill waters. I am talking about the stories: the sad stories of its inhabitants, the sad stories that are everywhere--not only here--but in all places should you care to listen, to perceive, to imagine what others carry inside, in those places deeper than marrow or bone.

I find the stories of the elderly especially poignant, for these are people of a generation upon which therapy, self-help books, talk shows, anti-depressants and such have no purchase. When they've opened the musty, dank, hidden chambers of their hearts to me I've felt a great swell of honor and awe wash through me like storm-tossed waves. And I've felt a grief so strong it nearly buckled my knees.

I have related or alluded to some of these stories before: the sadistic tale of Mr. Rabbit, for instance; the elfin lady known as Maria "La Sarda" whose husband used to beat her; the Medusa-haired lesbian whose lover died suddenly and tragically and who lost her mind afterwards. Another old signora of the neighborhood, Renata, once confided in me her bitter regret at having children: her husband was utterly cruel to her and, exhausted and depleted physically and emotionally, she would rock her newborn child in her arms and pace the house all night, praying her baby wouldn't cry and awaken the wrath of her husband.

Today, by chance, while on the way to the shops, I heard another story. Roberta is the daughter of a very close neighbor, Lisetta, who died a year ago at 70-something and whom everyone considered (usually good-naturedly but not always) an odd bird. She told me that her mother suffered from terrible depression, marked by severe insomnia, for more than 50 years. This poor woman--who used to sit in the garden in summertime, swathed from the top of her head to the tips of her fingers against the onslaught of mosquitos, and cluck banalities at my children--underwent a long period of debilitating electro-shock therapy from which, in the end, she was rendered unconscious. In her last years she took meds that wreaked havoc on her body, a body that was still harboring a secret which had clearly metastasized and was consuming her. After three sleepless, torturous nights, not long before her death, Lisetta confessed to her daughter that she and her sisters had been systematically abused by their older brother when they were young, and that as a child she was mortally afraid of falling asleep at night, lest her abuser insinuate himself into her bed. The shocking confession, spat out like poison in the shadowy hours of deep night, provided the poor woman but a mere sliver of deliverance, hacked as it was from the stake of a lifetime of expanding pain driven through her heart. It was, too--this sudden awareness of the source of her mother's suffering and the reason she couldn't be a fully functioning parent ("my father was my mother")--but cold comfort for Roberta.

Up to now Roberta and I have only ever exchanged superficial, neighborly pleasantries, but she told me all this--with wet eyes and hands trembling--after I had shared my own story (which I'd told her smack on via Faentina, in fulsome daylight, tears running down my cheeks and all--gone native in a big way), and after she had embraced me on the street and kissed me and invited me in for coffee. She told me over tiny flowered cups of hot, strong, sweet Italian coffee, in the snug dining room of her old house with its corner chimney spent and filled with cold, gray ash. I don't know what strange, alien impulse made me tell her my story, truth be told; it's not at all like me. And I don't know what made me accept her invitation; I had hesitated, feeling already small and spent. But I suspect that in spite of myself, and in spite of my being an inadvertent inhabitant of this neighborhood--or rather, because of it--this was one of the things that Italy was insisting I learn.

And it occurs to me that this swapping of stories, this laying bare of pain like taut tendons under the surgeon's knife, regardless of reserve or shame: this is the nature of empathy. The action of empathy. It cannot be a static thing, nor something abstract. You have to enter into it. Condividere. You have to let it cut you to the quick.

And yes, though I've listened to their tales and watched the denizens of my patch of Florence come and go, I have been guilty at times of reducing them to characters in a film starring me. I've held myself aloof and have been a reluctant player in the drama of their own lives. As I walked on from Roberta's, across the little bridge over the Mugnone and down along the path next to the low wall above the rushing water, the sun glowing warmly and the air on my face deliciously cool, I thought: it's not enough to merely acknowledge that each human being holds within her, like a hidden spring, an astounding, wondrous, fearsome and forbidding potential for joy and suffering alike, nor is it enough to merely write about it.

You have to go inside her house and sit for a spell.

Monday, March 11, 2013

Bring it on, Stendhal

Dear Readers,

Thank you for your continued readership, in these the waning days of Letters from Florence. My mind orbits around U.S. immigration documents and the wrapping up of the Italian phase of four peripatetic humans much like the earth turns around the sun: imperceptibly yet ploddingly relentless. It also, inevitably, circles around memories good and not-so-good, and--apparently unlike the grim majority of Italian politicians--looks to the future.

How does one wrap up 12 years of a life abroad, uprooting children to boot? One just rolls up one's sleeves and does it, I imagine.

I am sad to say that the Bürgermeister will get my house, even though he already has a largish home, another rental property, access to a beach house and two other dismal nuggets of real estate here on this benighted patch of my in-laws' earth. No, I am not happy about this. I wanted one of my young nephews to buy our cozy little casa--perhaps Daniele, who's nearly 30, with a fiancée and a decent job, who still sleeps in the upper bunk in the cramped room he shares with his younger brother and sister. But none of the younger generation stepped forward, nor did their parents for them. As often seems to happen in Italy, the incumbent old dude with the wheelbarrow full of money and his fingers in all kinds of crostata holds sway and youth is elbowed aside, forced to sleep precariously on the narrow twin bed of opportunity.

I'm also thinking about my next blogging enterprise, other writing projects, and the ways in which I might continue my own dogged brand of cultural contemplation in the land of my birth, with these rather bemused Midwestern eyes that have for a time gazed upon the enchanting and confounding Italian landscape.

My room with a view
Speaking of landscapes and gazing, my bedroom overlooks a nun's convent (their cells, actually), a fact which has proven absolutely worthless in terms of inspiring me to anything resembling saintly behavior. My kitchen window, on the other hand, overlooks that part of the FIL's garden which he apparently regards as his plein air pissoir. Now that I've always found very inspiring--it's why I write this blog, after all.

But I wonder: to what heights of repulsion and wonder will America inspire me?

Will I be afflicted by a kind of reverse Stendhal syndrome, where instead of swooning over Botticelli's nymphs I'll faint dead away at seeing the People of Walmart in the--ahem--flesh?

Well, it being America and all, there's probably a pill for that.