A few things are certain around this time of year at our house: we’re planning Eleanor’s birthday (October 31). There’s chatter about candy and costumes. And one or more of us are sick. Like, appreciably ill.
Since we moved to Florence, we also find ourselves navigating the liminal space between the twin concepts of “Italy” and “Halloween.” There’s an uneasy rapport between the two. I suspect that there’s more Halloweening per capita in Florence than in any other Italian city, simply due to the presence of thousands of American residents. A strange form of trick-or-treating has taken root in a few business centers in town. Many Italian children dress up in costumes around this time of year – costumes that are strictly reserved for Carnival everywhere else in the country – just to frolic in the park. I covered Halloween in Italy in depth five years ago in this piece, fresh in our first year and full of observations, together with this follow-up piece, which details what happened to me on Ognissanti 2016 (November 1) health-wise, and what wisdom I took from that day.
October has been a tale of medical woe at our house. (Thank goodness that attendant health insurance claim shenanigans did not form any portion of this burden.) We al had a crap cold at the start of the month. Then Eleanor suffered a diffuse and indeterminate sport injury, most likely when she fell on her back in the park while learning to rollerskate, which caused missed school and x-rays, and resulted in much crying. Then Vic and I came down with a second chest cold, which turned into bronchitis for Vic and a sinus infection and bronchitis for me, as is my body’s custom. My aunt the OBGYN swears that there is no way on God’s green earth that post-partum health includes shifting and infected sinuses, but I got nothing else to go on here, and I get them almost annually since I had Victor in 2011. Jason has powered through this past week that Victor and I were home, but it seems now, on the very eve of her seventh birthday, we’re losing Eleanor to the Crud and the party so meticulously planned for tomorrow to “festage” (festaggiare) her in the twilit garden, now has an approximately 50% chance of happening. To an old hand, or bored child, this might not be such a big deal, but for Eleanor, who lives for this stuff, it is an appalling conclusion indeed to two months of literally X-ing off the days on the calendar until her birthday and talking about it nonstop. She is trying very hard to rally. I am trying to be realistic. We’ll make the call tomorrow morning and let everyone know if the party is to be postponed to some less festive weekend. She asked me to bake the birthday cupcakes anyway, so I did. Our neighbors in the building will all be receiving a cupcake care package if the party is postponed for a week.
As for my part, I’m on the mend, and Vic is too, and in some strange way it was actually really nice to hang out with him this past week in the apartment, sharing the nebulizer, comparing symptoms, taking lots of medicine in various ways, and sleeping in the apartment’s designated sick bay together.
Anyway, if any of you have any direct lines to the Goddess of Birthdays and Festages, please send up a petition on behalf of one Eleanor Houston, age 6, that she might be well to host her seventh birthday party tomorrow afternoon in the garden of Gonzaga-in-Florence.
What might ghosts return to earth to tell their living family members? Every heart, in every culture, has wondered this.
Lucky they, who breathe and walk yet on the earth, who feel the rain, see the sun rise and set, the moon hanging brightly in an autumn sky. Lucky they who yet knit their stories, who meet and marry, who suffer sleepless nights with newborns and older children, the ghosts sigh, returning when the veil becomes thin, six times a year in tradition. With an eye to the calendar I am reminded that Samhain draws nigh. Our daughter’s birthday, born at twilight of Samhain, a child who shares an affinity with the tender and the unseen, who can imagine a scene, a voice, as nimbly as though a spirit had whispered it all into her ear, whole and of a piece.
I stepped out of the Certosa one night last autumn and beheld a clear sky with pink tufts over the horizon. “Il cielo è affrescato!” the Italians cried when they saw the canvas unrolled across the heavens over the hills. An invisible hand had indeed frescoed the sky in wet plaster and delicate tints. So wet, so rainy, so cold had the day been, that the clear sky alone was enough of a reward. Even the rags of sky in their shades of blue and grey were enough. But the pink above it spoke of a greater generosity, something wholly unexpected, and which hours before seemed impossible.
The veil lifts and, when it does, wisdom is communicated without words. A feeling, an impulse, a moment of clarity. Benevolent ghosts love us and yearn only to help us. I welcome the ghosts whose memories lurk in my blood, move me to write, to uncover, to know. In imagining, I set the record straight. In loving them, I give them life. And thus revived and renewed, those sweet spirits lay me a banquet of dreams and love, imagination and bravery, where I dine every evening, on this side of the veil.
There are so many things that we don’t know. Past, present, future. What does it mean to not know? How often have you said, I don’t know? What is your excesive not-knowing quotient compared to last year? Are you comfortable not knowing? Is the time and space to not know an abstract privilege? If you have time and space to not know, you have fewer exigencies pressing down on you to know something immediately.
The wise one knows that she does not know. She possesses some idea of the vast uncharted expanse of her un-knowledge. We cannot label it ignorance, because she is aware of it. It sails around at the corners of her dreams, rounding the cape, from time to time anchoring tantalizingly in some dark, deep harbor. Merchants have been known to row up to land in their dinghies with wares to trade and sell, knowledge from near and far: an enameled fact, the amber and bitter gall of past disasters, the tightly wound silk of precious dreams, waiting for the right day to unfurl and flutter in the wind.
Every morning she rises, knowing that she doesn’t know. Sometimes she reviews the handful of things she has learned, perhaps long ago. Or they might be facts or bits she picked up as recently as yesterday.
This I know.
That I know.
Always on Square One, every day Square One, in a world we wake up in and every day must decipher anew, must untangle past messages to make sense of nonsense.
This she knows: every day is a new Square One. This is not a bad thing. Square One is a precious gift. And yet. And yet. As a merchant of knowledge, she yearns to fill her warehouse, stuff it with goods and imports and local harvests, even as she knows there is no warehouse that can possibly hold it all. Still, she sorts her stock. She values, she sells, she barters what she can for other knowledge that she lacks.
Knowing that she does not know is her greatest treasure of knowledge. It keeps her curious, questioning, confirming, asking, watching, observing. Not knowing is a gift; coming into knowledge is a literal revelation, an epiphany so grand that she would never forgo it, the sheer pleasure of coming into knowledge that illuminates, even were the ship to sail back out from the harbor again to crest the high seas. She keeps her warehouse modest. You can find it on Square One.
In 2002 I made a solo trip to Oaxaca for a week, around the holiday of El Día de los Muertos. As we are once more entering the season when the veil between this world and the next thins and lifts, I excerpt here a portion of my travelogue.
Mexico is on the make! I understand that they need an extra peso here and there, but every service-sector person conveniently forgets to give you change, until you ask them and feel very gringo about it all. Ah, a dollar here, a dollar there.
Memorable exchanges, hilarious for their wiliness:
The Market at Mitla
Me: I love this beaded bracelet. I’ll give you 40 pesos for it.
Seller: Okay, great.
(I give her a 50 peso bill.) I am sorry, I don’t have anything smaller.
Seller: I don’t have change. You can you pick out a crappy string bracelet with one bead on it for 10 pesos.
The Bookstore at Monte Alban
Me: I am ready to pay.
Bookstore man: Okay. That’s…. 110 pesos.
Me: (I give him 120 in notes.)
Bookstore man (handing me a receipt): Gracias for your ten pesos. I really appreciate it.
A Stop on the Tour of the Valley of Oaxaca
Alberto the Tour Guide: Okay, you all need to give me 30 pesos for, uh, fees to see this really big tree.
(Everyone in the group gives Alberto and his coworker Omar 30 pesos. But we do not see anyone collect it anywhere)
Dutch girls (grumbling): They told us that it only cost 3 pesos to see the big tree.
(Moments later, we see our tour guides Alberto and Omar exiting an ice cream shop with about 90 pesos worth of Nestle nutty cones and ice cream bars.)
Tonight I am going to the beach in the town of Pochutla – the renowned beach is called Mazunte. Oaxacans claim I misplanned my trip to miss the best part of their holiday, but I will return for November 1 and 2 when festivities are still afoot. I am sick of being hot and sweaty, and prefer to sweat if and where water is available for swimming. I don’t mind icy water but I do hate sweat-crust. Today I think I contracted heat exhaustion (this happened last year in Brazil). It seems to always happen on the third day of exposure, being a shock to the system to go from Seattle’s cool clouds to hot Latin sun. Small swirly sparkles started sucking up the air around my head and I retired to the rooftop of the hostel in Oaxaca to sleep on a chaise. No cold countries speak Spanish! Except for Spain, for whom my affection is well documented. But Mexico, in spite of their cultural failure to make change for minor purchases (as well as charging spurious fees), is coming in a close second. Why haven’t I traveled here more? And when can I come back?
Our apartment in Florence has four enormous curtained windows that face south, east, and west. White linen panels with fine needlework cover the single casement panes. They provide privacy from the upstairs and downstairs windows, and even blocks of fine needlework run in parallel vertical lines down each length, perfect rectangles stacked one atop the other. Held in place by tension rods that inevitably pop out if someone (for example, a small child) pulls on them, I removed the panels in the west-facing window because they’d popped out one time too many. I was afraid we would break the rod or tear the starched panels. Francesca is very proud of her palazzo and keeps an eye out for any damage or impending risk to her property. The panels are from another time, when live-in housekeepers in perfectly tied aprons would hand wash and clear-starch the lengths of cloth, drying them in the loggia on the top floors where the even taller windows open to admit abundant sun and light and breeze. Our bare kitchen windows face north, up and toward the monumental windows of the loggia where Claudio keeps his art studio. Large sails of canvas hung on grommets billow on the outside of the windows. I can’t see his art or sculpture from the kitchen, but the leaves of his thriving ficus plants in their window pots flutter in the air on temperate days.
White sheer curtains, five dollars each, purchased from Ikea, hung from an unfinished wooden rod and matching brackets in the front window of the Wallingford house. They snagged and snared and attracted a herd of dust bunnies at their hem, but I loved them so. I left them in the house when I moved to Capitol Hill. They were practically rags by then anyway.
The Capitol Hill apartment had five windows that all faced south and west, down to First Hill and over to Queen Anne, hung with expensive custom double-drop cloth louvers that could be adjusted from the top or bottom, depending on the season and low slant of the sun. It is the case that a great quantity of low-slant sun shines in Seattle, and blinds that merely rise from the bottom could never rise to the occasion. The light in that apartment was heavenly, and the forty coats or so of paint on the walls, applied over a hundred years or more, changed from light peach to deep tangerine depending on the subtlety of the sun’s rays. In the bedroom I bought white sheers again, with velvet panels in midnight blue, to block the late afternoon and evening sun that stuffed the room with heat. It was a cruel irony that black mold destroyed all my shoes in the closet one winter. Pick one: damp cave or sweltering heat. The velvet panels made indigo puddles on the natural berber carpet and were effective. The room remained cool as a shoebox in my final summer there.
Vinyl curtains hung from the sole windows in the economy motels that my family stayed in when we made our routine, epic American road trips, stopping in Chattanooga, Savannah, Pensacola, Kansas City, Cheyenne. We only ever took one room. My parents got one bed, my brothers the other, and I slept on the floor, beneath the undulating plastic curtain that smelled of mildew and unsuccessful attempts to disinfect or remove said mildew. The curtains often were stamped with a faux French pattern or chevrons in tones of peach and orange. It’s really their cheap perfume I remember most. I close my eyes and can smell the mildew that grows from years of hanging above an economy air conditioner that rattles and wheezes throughout the night.
We’ve all been down with a family cold since last weekend. (Our canary Eleanor tested negative for Covid, so we are not concerned about that. Plus the numbers in Italy and in Tuscany are very low.) Thoughts must turn to cheerier things. When life gives you lemons, make lemonade. Lemons three ways…
The waxy skin wins it. A bowl of lemons always looks like a perfect still life painted by a Dutch master. Years ago, when I lived in Wallingford and had blue and white crockery bowls in the kitchen of my rental house, I would buy bags of lemons at the QFC on Forty-Fifth Street and dump them into the bowl where they cheered me through the short winter days like a dozen perfect yellow suns. Lemons as a bouquet, and cheaper too, I thought, always scraping bottom then.
In Spain throughout the winter and spring I ordered té manzanillo dozens of times before I realized it was chamomile tea. Oh the joys of unknown words that mask the familiar. In every bar in the old town of Santiago they served té manzanillo in the same thick white teacup with a saucer, the tag hanging lazily over the rim, a thin slice of lemon clinging to the saucer’s rim. How the Spanish loved tea in their lemon! To brighten it, my English friends told me, even though every English friend I ever had in Europe back then took their builder’s tea with a generous plug of fresh whole milk and a spoonful of sugar. I squeezed my lemon dutifully into the cup of manzanillo. It was confusing because manzanilla was also a kind of fortified wine that came in a wooden cask in the basement bar that I frequented in the old town with that rogue Coco. I sipped té manzanillo on those endless grey days when the woollen clouds hugged the over-the-top Baroque steeples of the cathedral. When I discovered that it was chamomile I liked it less, and these days I can’t stand the dusty gutterings. Even a fresh lemon slice fails to sufficiently brighten that slice of mouldering attic for my palate.
If you ever feel like you could never tire of lemons (I raise my hand), head to Sorrento, where the poor fruit is fetishized beyond all reason. Lemons on tea towels, ceramic spoon holders, festooning plates and garlanding trivets and wreaths, tall narrow bottles of limoncello creating their miniature cityscape in every tourist shop. Ceramic lemons, wooden lemons, lemon lemons. They roll through the town squares, collect under benches, hang like Christmas ornaments from the ubiquitous, richly leaved trees. The citizens of Sorrento live for lemons with nary a pucker.
If you’ve had a bad experience with limoncello in your life (that is to say, have you been a student), I invite you to try the limoncello of Sorrento, where it is served in a diminutive frosted glass, the bottle crusted with ice from the freezer. Tip the elixir into your modest cup. Don’t be offended by the small portion. The punch more than makes up for the size: astringent, sunny, positively Roman. Your jaw tenses, expecting to hit a seed or two. But no. It’s just solar energy and citrus goodness, summer and heat captured and chilled, warming your innards with its Mediterranean imprint. The bottle, now slowly defrosting, has been generously left on your table, should you wish to have another, or another. One wonders if Cicero kept limoncello to his recipe on his southern estate, deep in an ice grotto of his own design. One hopes so.
Footnote: Manzanilla is a dry white wine made from palomino grapes, aged under a layer of yeast called veil de flor. Wow. So wasted on a teenaged me. Sorry manzanilla.
I walk past the Pescaia di Santa Rosa each day along the sidewalks that follow both sides of the riverbank. It points like an arrow southwest to San Frediano in Cestello in the Oltrarno, northeast past Ognissanti (pictured above with its bell tower). The weir is rocklike but not a rock. Its solid span of concrete crosses the river Arno like a grey shelf, the cascade of water creating vertical spines of foam.
How the forthright and simple pescaia in Italian becomes a weir in English seems a trickery of language to me. I can imagine Roman soldiers casting for trout on a pescaia. I cannot imagine who might have been running around England looking for a weir to fish from.
Salmon weirs are a thing in Seattle, minor workarounds for the great dams and locks of the Cascade basin; the sloughing fish struggle up the ladders. In ye olde days wer meant to dam up. Weir looks like it is missing a d, seeking that long-lost friend so that it can become weird. I wonder if weird derives from weir. Something that is dammed up, strange, not flowing freely. That’s weird. (Never mind. Wyrd, a contemporaneous word, means destiny, but came to mean unearthly sometime during the reign of Victoria when the well-heeled were quite given to holding séances at home.) But I digress.
Centuries ago some monks built the weir to support their woollen mill, in an age when sheared Florentine brocade was the very height of comfort and fashion. Those mill wheels did not turn themselves, however, and the abbot applied to the city priors to alter the course of the river for the purpose of powering their mills, making possible their livelihood while enriching their coffers. The city fathers were shrewd and quickly saw how much more valuable the river as a resource could be, in the service of enterprise rather than, say, the sand harvesters upstream at Ponte San Niccolò, or the fishermen who plied the current with nets thrown from their flat-bottomed punts to pull in piles of glistening tench. They gave the abbot permission to reroute the flow of the the city’s very artery, as though splicing an aorta, to funnel the energy elsewhere. Away it went. The woollen mill was shut down, one assumes, sometime during the Industrial Revolution, if Italy had one that was contemporary with those of the UK and US. But the weir remains, a vestigial creative solution.
In the summer the Arno dries to a near trickle and the weir transforms into an urban beach with sunbathers in various states of indulgent undress, couples and singles and clutches of impossibly beautiful teenage girls with long, straight hair. Fishermen cast directly off the concrete bar. The sun is direct and hot – too hot for me to be tempted by that flat iron. At dark, city ghosts slide in to tag the walls with bright, indecipherable graffiti.
Come winter the river veers unruly and the weir disappears under the rush of brown water, foam, driftwood, trash, bobbing soccer balls. The sky steel grey and hung with low clouds, It is hard to remember what the beach on the weir looked like.
Anthony Bourdain’s last public picture was take on the weir, a few days before he died by suicide in Strasbourg that summer three years ago. I sometimes feel I sense his ghost, smiling into the sun, his eyes twinkling, greying curls aloft in the breeze. Something twitches every time I walk by those stairs on the south side of the river. No reservations, I hear him say. I felt like I knew the man. It still makes me so sad we lost him before his time.
I love the Pescaia Santa Rosa – the St. Rose Weir. It keeps me anchored to place, year round, through every season, as the Arno connects Florence to the seasons, its umbilical to the Mediterranean Sea. The pescaia is the lens through which I check the river. Days I don’t see it, I feel I have missed something.
It’s hard to access routine healthcare – or most healthcare – in the US. Looking for great healthcare? Better have be over 65, in the military medical system, or so impoverished you probably live in a healthcare desert. Or you could be fantastically rich so that none of the regular rules and limitations apply to you in daily life anyway.
Going on Year 6 here in Italy, and while I won’t claim that our experience with Italian healthcare has been perfect (opaque bureaucracy, difficulty getting clear answers about enrolling in healthcare on an annual basis), I sleep easier every night knowing that a healthcare crisis in the family, heaven forbid one should occur, will neither sink or bankrupt our family. I’m an eyewitness to the fact that a universal healthcare system holds down all costs in the market, because no market exists for a $5,000.00 routine diagnostic MRI. Even purported outlandish costs that Italians decry rarely top a few hundred euros. We pay a small annual out of pocket expense, and nominal – nominal – co-pays, along the lines of €25 for an x-ray, €75 for a thorough blood panel (I’ve done both this year).
An excellent piece that ran in the LA Times five years ago about an American who had a major healthcare crisis in France (similar system to Italian healthcare) still sticks in my mind. The man’s total bill was €1300 and included heart surgery, a hospital stay, and weeks of residential occupational therapy. Even if the dark cloud of a health calamity were to roll over our little family this year, the cost would form the least of our worries. When health is fragile, survival odds do not improve by running laps in a maze of healthcare, filling out personal data forms at every turn. Americans know this. It really sucks. But it’s been so long since we’ve experienced it any other way, if ever, that the extent of our imagination lags far behind our moral indignation. Compounded by the fact that modern (maybe even historic) American culture breeds anxiety (for which adults are medicated), ADD, ADHD, and hyperactivity (for which children are medicated), to the point that American dogs are on doggie Prozac (more on that in a later post), and America is in a perfect storm.
Anxiety and unrest at every turn. Insomnia. Fill out the form: name, DOB, residential address, are you the principal policy holder or a dependent? Symptoms go unreported and undiagnosed for months or years until illness has progressed too far to be meaningfully treated. (I’ve discussed this phenomenon in this space in my piece on PTAHSSS – Post-Traumatic American Healthcare System Survivor Syndrome.) The spectre of looming medical bills is just too much for any family individual to calmly confront. It’s the main reason so many Americans work, work, work to make more money. How much? We don’t know, but given the uncontrolled and unmitigated disasters that lurk in virtually every life intersection, it had better be a lot, then a whole lot, then you know what? Double that. I have so many examples of this from my personal life, and am grateful that we survived them all, but the American healthcare system’s odds were not on our side. The house always wins, and the quarterly profits of health insurance providers get paraded about without so much as a peep from the population. This is not right. It is not fair. It is certainly unhealthy.
About fifteen or twenty years ago, the Sackler family knew that people would not complain if their symptoms were addressed. Hell, people will thank you for helping them. Their pharmaceutical laboratories came up with a slow-release opioid. Not opium, not morphine, but Oxycontin – all the better for its pilly portability. And profitable thanks to the addictions that take root in the body and mind when a person suffers pain from which there is no escape. The Sacklers became so wealthy from this clever bit of marketing in a blue-ocean market of “pain management” that they remain effectively immune from legal action to this day.
In American, it is hard to obtain the reliable treatment of the causes of disease. If you’re lucky you might get the symptoms addressed. This is particularly true for women, the working class, working poor, and anyone of color. into this scene enters the handmaiden of opioid addiction – the American pain clinic. In 2014 The New Yorkerran a superb essay by Rachel Aviv on pain management and pain clinics in the U.S. I had firsthand experience of this in Oklahoma when we lived there the last time, and can attest that those doctors handed out Lortabs like they were candy corn at the second-grade Halloween party. I dated a man in the nineties who used to drop them from his jeans pockets like jellybeans. By the time we left Oklahoma in 2016, I had a cupboard of hydrocodone that I didn’t know what to do with. I was never going to take it all. I don’t even know why I filled the scrips, except that I was given a scrip to fill, so I filled it. We dropped all the expired pills off at a pharmacy before we left. I vaguely remember Oklahoma was on a list of states that prescribed the most opioids per capita a few years ago. It was tough to find a good GP in the state. My memories consist of physicians browsing WebMD in the examination room and patriarchal obgyns. My nurse midwives were good, minus one who often brought Jesus into my prenatal appointments. One very young, kind surgeon saved my life in 2009, and for him I’m forever grateful. But he was an exception. I had a great doctor once for about two months, a woman originally from Pakistan, but she moved to New York.
To my point. In America, it’s so difficult first, to access healthcare, second, to budget for it, and third, to even know how much it costs, that the cultural current carries people to seek out accessible solutions. Easily obtained prescription opioids became one of those solutions for about a decade, until people started to notice how many people were addicted, transitioning to heroin, overdosing, and dying. It’s funny how American news coverage of the opioid abuse epidemic almost never mentioned how American this whole problem is. Show me another country that is having an opioid epidemic.
Well, you know what, why don’t we just legalize marijuana.That should solve quite a few problems, and the tax receipts are mad robust! Legalization has swept America in the last five years or so. Jason said I wouldn’t even recognize the place for the grand Weedtown it’s become. (I haven’t been back since 2018.) I’m all for legalization and recreational use, but I also believe that people should be able to access the healthcare – including the mental healthcare – that they need, rather than reaching to medicate and soothe themselves with a less-than-ideal remedy, given the struggle they’re experiencing. America, the birthplace of AA and the home of the temperance movement. Show me another country that is having a wave of legislation to legalize marijuana. Don’t get me wrong – people should be able to recreationally use whatever they want to put in their bodies – but if they’re putting those things into their bodies because they are seeking relief from pain, anxiety, or depression, then we have a problem. It’s not going to work out very well.
The US FDA classifies drugs based on the American economy and culture of healthcare. Alcohol is practically a pillar of the economy; it’s going nowhere. Ditto caffeine. Nicotine started getting the boot about twenty-five years ago when the social cost of tobacco-related disease was acknowledged and Big Tobacco got taken to the cleaners. American culture, on many levels, knows that its healthcare system and culture are dysfunctional, so in comes a different set of rules about marijuana. Recent studies about the effectiveness of MDMA on post-traumatic stress patients will likely rewrite those rules. And mescaline and psilocybin will soon be in the pipeline in the Universal Church of LSD and similar organizations as we attempt to address our fractured communities and collective sense of fragmentation and dissociation by gathering together to trip and bond in a safe space. I think it will happen. I will love to see Justice Alito’s face when he is forced to come down on the side of the Universal Church of LSD in the name of religious rights. War on Drugs, pah. It’s all politics.
I’ve recently written about the endemic anxiety in American culture, and how the American social contract forces us to accept a very high level of external anxiety (thanks to availability/affordability of housing, education, healthcare, childcare, retirement, and stability in general.) American culture ties people in knots without access to medical care because it’s blocked, and any fool knows that a stressed body and mind becomes a sick body and mind. Humans have not evolved to live like this. It’s not sustainable.
Unfortunately, Americans learn to mistrust a for-profit medical system, and few trust doctors. Maybe every now and again one finds a good one, at the right time, like I did, to scrape out my burst appendix. But physicians, inaccessible and harried, often work behind layers and layers of front-office administrative bureaucracy. The American culture that encourages self-diagnosis and treatment in an anxiety-addled environment is part of what brought us to a pretty pass with the pandemic. Ivermectin, why not? Ten years ago it was off-scrip opioids, five years ago it was legalized weed. The fearful and unsupported say that vaccines don’t work, the government is trying to microchip you, it’s a ruse, trust no one. The spurious snake oil salesman of the American 19th century comes to mind. Snake oil is sold where a profit is possible. No profit? Good information? Oh. No snake oil sold.
Solutions in America run downhill like water: where there is an obstacle, the water will simply change course, and everyone will praise the problem-solvers. (See: bulletproof backpacks; solar tents for homeless people; other ridiculous solutions to an otherwise solvable problem) I wish – always – that it wasn’t a peculiar ingenuity of the American system to create an impossible maze of reality, then gaslight its citizens into blaming themselves when “things don’t work out.” Or people die. Like 700,00 people from coronavirus, or 841,00 people from overdoses since 1999 (CDC). I wish America had universal healthcare so that basic needs could be met, and the water wouldn’t have to run around obstacles to find other solutions downstream that simply don’t constitute a sensible response to an identifiable problem.
Maybe next time I’ll talk about why America can’t inaugurate universal healthcare for all. Yet.
A clear confession: I miss my past lives in Spanish and in French. I have talked about this before in this space, in You say pieno, I say completo, The Sprachcaffè, and in The periphery of fluency. I spent significant time in both languages and their various cultures from 1983 to 2008, and was happy to reach the proficiency that I did. It all started by doing well at the statewide academic bowl in Oklahoma in the eighties and taking home top place for Spanish and English as a student. I remember recounting silly gossip in French in 1996 to a friend who was much more fluent than I was mere months before being astonished on the London Tube by my improvement. I remember confusing Argentines in 2001 with my allegedly accentless Spanish. I remember being so tired and half-bored in Spain in 2005 that my Spanish flowed forth effortlessly.
I accept now that I was born with a knack, as are others with gifts for art, music, and math. This knack makes my life here in Italy and in Italian possible. I accept that these past lives of mine have been rolled into Italian, creating a life in Italy that is more natural and more fluent for me. But it is like taking flour and making a cake. I have baked a language cake.
Do you still have the flour?
Kind of, but it is now inside the cake. You cannot get the flour back out. The flour is transformed forever.
The flour has been transformed and made integral within the context of the cake. I have Spanish harina and French farine. I balance tippingly between the Germanic and Romance branches of the Indo-European language tree.
My vowels are pure, a e i o u. I roll my R where many anglophones struggle with the tongue’s fillip. I have moments of natural communication, relaxed and calm, in Italian. I also have many moments where I feel neither relaxed nor calm, but I kind of crave that feeling. I like to think of it as a festival in increments of thirty seconds to five minutes. I credit the dominant expression wanderlust gene for the natural thrill-seeking of what the hell is this person talking about? or what’s my word to use here for possibly versus eventually?
Yet the faux amis trip me. Why is the first-person dative personal pronoun mi in Italian and me in Spanish? Mi piace. Me gusta. What happened with the possessive pronouns? La mia mamma. Mi madre. La mia amica. But also, in Spanish, amiga mia. Mi amiga! My brain has turned into a cold pronoun salad. La loro casa – their house – in Italian. Or is it casa loro? I have heard both. (Have I?) Their in Italian doesn’t even change any ending to match the gender of the noun, and by the way, it is the same word for parrot in Spanish. One can only assume it was their parrot. Some third-party parrot on a pirate ship comes to mind. Thank goodness we don’t have to say il loro loro. Spanish, su casa, his/her/their house. Makes sense in French – leur maison – but I don’t know why it drives me noci in Italian.
Or another favorite, salire. In Spanish, salir, an indispensable verb meaning to go out, but in Italian, salire means to go up! As in, to ascend a stair. Yo salgo. I’m going out! (Spanish) Io salgo. I’m going upstairs! (Italian). One wonders what would happen if one went upstairs for a bit of entertainment. Brothels come to mind…
The rules I once took as sterling for Spanish reveal themselves to be mere language habits, calcified and codified. They are no more rules than a collective grammar contract, recycling the same words wherever the words may flow. This is my struggle in Italy: all the words are very familiar, but how do the Italians use them? I am like a woodworker presented with a tray of jeweler’s implements or a pannier of surgical tools. I see the analogs, but need to hear and see it employed properly so I know. Italian makes perfect sense to me (except for all the parts that make no sense) once I hear them, but I have to hear them in order for it to click. How surprised was I to learn I could just say escoba for broom (escopa in Italian) and that all the tener/venir verbs are near perfect equivalents (tengo/vengo, tiene/viene) until I trip on tengono/vengono, and valiò / valgò la pena.
It was worth it. Vale la pena is something that Spaniards say constantly, but almost never in the preterite (the past tense, or what Italians call the passato remoto in Spanish). It’s all worth it in the present. Everything. But in Italian, the past efforts merit equal recognition. No hay remedio. It can’t be helped. I am still seeking the Italian equivalent for this Spanish expression of resignation, palms upturned. Perhaps everything is worth it or without remedy in Spanish for some deeply subsumed psychological reason.
Latin intrudes from time to time through Italian. Quanto prima. As soon as possible, but apparently this is used only in Tuscany. I can still decipher a funerary lapidary with decent skill. The cases and declensions jostle around my upstairs. Io salgo.Gallia est omnis divisa in partes tres. Snips of Catullus. Oh Procras! Latin likes the preterite just fine, and willed it to Spanish, but Italian insists on the passato remoto. Just like their friends in France – the Roman Gallia. I’m always amused that to be in the preterite is fu in Italian and fut French. Eff you. What’s the matter with fui/fuiste/fue? Oh, a Hispanic tic? But I miss it so. I really do. I might miss yo fui the very most. Lo que fue era …
Haeccity. I recently learned this one hundred dollar English word. From the Latin haec, this, as in hic/haec/hoc. You can use it to mean suchness, or quiddity. (Kokomama or sonomama in Japanese, which I picked up from an Osho book about Zen philosophy that I read in the bath earlier this year.) I wonder why it is not hiccity or hoccity? Pooh Bear might know – it sounds like a song of his. Maybe it is the same reason that this in is Italian is almost always the feminine la, as in la cosa. We lose the noun but the article remains. When the vestigial article la is substituted out for a demonstrative pronoun haec, the gender sticks.
And this is just the Romance percorso. I run these circuits all the time. Some days less than others. The hamster wheel exhausts me. I yearn for binary quid pro quo equivalency learning. How it was in Spanish from 1983 to 1993. The hilarity of Galicia and the soaked granite streets of Santiago. The narratives I lived in France that continue to pique and amuse. Working in the immigration assistance program of Catholic Charities as non-native speaker of Spanish. But those days are behind me. Perhaps my hamster wheel exhaustion is the universe’s smirking payback for my greedy language learning as a youth. Or is it some form of arcane understanding, never mind the exhaustion?
For example, Jason and I were two steps behind a couple of ragazzi from the liceo across the street from our kids’ school. Who knows what they were talking about, but the one very tall boy in large white trainers exclaimed, Follia! Crazy!
Except the way he said it, it had about thirty L’s in it. Follllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllia. I appreciated its Latin provenance, a word I knew well from French the folie, so something I could quickly grip. I told Jason, laughing, that is going to be my new exclamation. What? Follia? He’d heard it too. We were both laughing now, each of us pulling one of our children along the sidewalk. You can say that, if you want to sound like a seventeen-year-old Italian boy, he added. But it brings me comfort to claim a recycled familiar word in a useful and amusing way.
In some future century, I believe that medicine and science will learn how closely language and emotion are connected, mapped in the grey matter of the human brain. This is why boring classes or audio files will never ever stick. Please don’t ask anyone in our home what we think of Rosetta Stone. This is why younger years are perfect for language mapping: all the feelings are right there and immediately accessible, for better or for blushingly worse. The more you feel, or laugh, or are shocked or in love, or offended or angry, when you learn a new word or phrase in a foreign language, the easier it is to remember it later when you might find the right occasion to use it. Without feelings there can be no heartfelt language. Without language our emotions are limited to the confines of nonverbal expression. I knew when we moved to Italy five years ago that I would have to start creating, at my advanced age, a new reference library of feelings, memories, and emotions in Italian. Again, tough to do when we are in English at home, but the daylight hours offer plenty of time to explore and observe, sense and participate.
Do you still have the flour?
Kind of, but it is now inside the cake. You cannot get the flour back out. The flour is transformed forever.