Update from Italy: The Relative Theory of Fitting In

Totally belong here. Move along.
Photo by Amit Gaur on Unsplash

I have some further thoughts on fitting in that have occurred to me since my previous two posts.

Fitting in is a relative concept, based on the feeling of being accepted or not accepted by a specific group or even a person. So the further and further one might proceed into any given social group, whether by birth or by choice, there will inevitably occur instances where specific groups or people do not accept another person into their in-group. Anyone can be an outsider at any given time if a specific group or person does not accept them: the usual signs include welcoming them, speaking with them, listening to them, and offering patience and friendship. Indeed, many people on this planet may feel like outsiders in any given number of social settings when, to others who feel even less welcomed or befriended, they may seem like members of an in-group. This often happens in situations arising from houses of worship or in any school. People who seem to be clearly on the inside and in the in-group (to newer arrivals) can, for different reasons, feel like excluded members who need only make one misstep or for once speak their mind plainly to be more ejected from the community.

I often felt this way in the place where I grew up, and to which I returned as an adult. Common assumption (I sensed) held that I was content there in O*******a, back by choice, and that my presence and return represented, somehow, a tacit endorsement of the culture and popularly held opinion. I felt that I always had to be careful, watch what I said, not enter into unnecessary disputes, or reveal myself to be in any way critical of a host culture which rarely felt like a home culture to me, and less and less so as the years went on.

When I was a child, the home culture was represented by new homes, oil money, clean wide streets, bikes and roller skates, immaculate schools built on the crest of a Big Energy economy, new arrivals who moved in for the good jobs like my family did, and locals who’d been there longer, happy to see some sort of Ship Come In. But as a teenager and an adult, this veneer of wealth and contentedness gave way to a deeper understanding of the social mores that drove the culture, and I was shocked. I learned to keep quiet. The more I saw and the more I realized, the more I choked on all the things I could not say, and everything I wished I didn’t have to hear or see. This is no way to live. I began to feel clogged and choked in many ways, and found my outlet in far-flung travel where I might put down my defenses and struggle with some other culture’s sins and foibles in a language not my own. But I would be hard-pressed to enumerate even a handful of situations in which I appeared to be an outsider in my culture of origin. (I set aside for the moment the separate phenomenon of feeling like an outsider, keeping with the Theory of Belonging relativity here.)

There were few people floating around in O******a who were obvious outsiders in that culture, and they really, really stood out. I often found them and befriended them, believing their outer (and inner) experience to be a legitimate reflection of my deeply felt, publicly repressed inner experience. A dear friend also from that place commented to me a few years ago, Monica, do you notice you were friends with all the gays and minorities in O******a? As a child and a teen my choices may not have been obvious to me, but I was always on the lookout for the wittiest, smartest company I could find, and no one in the in-groups had much humor or insight to offer me, or if they made a joke or what they believed to be a humorous comment, it ran along the lines of corny dad humor from a person who perhaps had never met with Insight or shaken hands with Irony.

And if a person somehow persists to gain the ranks of a perceived in-group, the fact that there are others on the outside looking in – watching – can also be a very isolating experience. Indeed, the leadership cadre in O******a believed themselves to be public servants, sacrificing their desires to lead the state toward what they believe to be the Common Good, never mind the lack of meaningful debate or discourse. In a very real way being a leader can be isolating. The one person in a job description in a large organization, with specialized knowledge and target sign hung around one’s neck, feels quite alone, both in what they know and in what they wish they did not know. (My heart goes out to Karine Jean-Pierre, the new White House press secretary, Exhibit A.)

Another dear friend, a like-minded refugee from Corporate America, hilariously called this rare phenomenon The Lone Wolf Club. When a lone wolf spots another lone wolf, even the knowledge that another lone wolf lopes through the woods and on the prairie can be a comfort. A fellow lone wolf (total stranger, a flight attendant) spotted me by myself once in the Houston airport, ages ago, sitting in a departure lounge, and sat with me (“Lone wolf too, huh?”). This sensitive and heartfelt conversation with a stranger was so poignant that I cried on the airplane. I believe that I met and married a fellow Lone Wolf, to a great extent, and now we have two lone wolf pups whom we are teaching the ways of this invisible Lone Wolf culture, with sensitivity, insight, flexibility, and humor.

All this to say, in the general relativity of belonging: no one feels like they completely belong anywhere. Even the person who presides or presided over a huge perceived in-group (Kim Jong-un, or Trump, or in fact almost every head of state) feels like they don’t belong, unaccompanied there on their pinnacle. Queen Victoria comes to mind. (I recently binged all six seasons of Victoria and learned a great deal about her and Albert’s psychology.) A president of a university. A dean. A CEO, or a chairperson. The antidote to feeling at loose ends, a lone wolf without a harbor, is to look around and notice, who in this area feels like they do not fit in? And reach out to them with whatever welcome or friendship you can, because if you’re orbiting an in-group, to whatever extent, and you notice someone who is not in any sort of orbit, the action will in fact build a sense of belonging.

This is probably why I have worked in immigration and global mobility my entire professional career, and how I became terribly bored with any work that did not address these questions. Even in O******a, supporting undocumented immigrants was a way to use whatever in-group status I had to help someone who was clearly not belonging to the host culture. Even in corporate America, using my privilege for a greater good to bring others in and to help them brought me comfort. (I am thinking of the seasonal not-for-profit immigration assistance pop-up I covertly ran in 2002 using the copy-room copier on the ground floor, and the custodian from Colombia who used to bring me homemade lunch for listening to her teary complaints about how it was to go from being a high school chemistry teacher to a janitor.)

Feel like you don’t belong? Look around and see who belongs less, and talk to them. Seems to address many challenges with one simple action. Gonna remember this next time an Italian barista or commessa snarks out in my presence. Also will think about the ways in which they might feel like they don’t belong in general in their daily lives. You probably belong more than you think, and almost everyone else often has this sensation of not belonging. It all depends on, I suppose, are you watching the people, or are the people watching you?

Update from Italy: More Thoughts About Fitting In (Or Not)

Photo by José Martín Ramírez Carrasco on Unsplash

I have been feeling some remorse over that silly post yesterday about light versus dark hair. I don’t think it represents my best cross-cultural analysis and response. Fatigue sets in tuning the finer points of life abroad after six years. I often joke that our family of four is on an ultra-advanced, post-doctoral study abroad program, in local schools, working with Italians, living and eating locally.

I grew up moving around a lot in the American midwest, which contributed to my tendency to long for newness and discomfort. I came to love the breathtaking challenge that barreled my way, year after year, school after school. I don’t know what I’d do if I were somewhere that offered a consistent and transparent experience, a place where everyone knew me and I knew everyone, and their dirty laundry too, and they knew mine.

From a very young age I knew that there is no fitting in, no making people accept you, whatever that means, without some serious trade-offs – trade-offs that are not always possible. What is possible is observing and understanding, making strategic inroads to ensure safety and a sense of community. But fitting in? Looking around at my new classmates every time we moved, I was moved to admit that, for various reasons, they didn’t feel like they “fit in” at any of the schools I attended. Perhaps fitting in lives on the horizon of every mind as a place where we like everyone and they like us and we’re never worried and we always understand what is going on. But where and when does that happen?

With years I also came to understand that fitting in, so much as it is feasible, points to a type of flexibility and resilience. There is room for a sense humor and bemusement, akin to watching an ant farm take itself very, very seriously, that can take the rub off most days. Never mind the cultural gatekeepers, regardless what they think about their own culture, and the invisible structure they uphold. Do they want you in? Will they let you in? Will they keep you out? To whom is access denied? Does this gate-keeping affect daily life – can you work, date, marry, parent, vacation, ride public transportation, jog through town or ride a bike, open a bank account or get your hair cut? What does it mean for an anglo woman who worries she doesn’t fit in when plenty of clearer cases exist at close remove of people who are struggling to fit in. To belong.

I lived for decades in a culture where I appeared to pass as local, and the cultural gatekeepers wished to aggressively assume I was one of their own. But I was not. In that place, I looked like I belonged, but the collective aggression and ignorance on so many points was exhausting. The racist or sexist comments that were shared with me for years sotto voce or aloud in confidence, sure of my agreement, never failed to leave me with a cold ice ball in my hollow stomach, even in triple-digit summer days. But I could not change my appearance or history with that place, and the people who belonged to that place could not believe that I felt I did not belong, and actively resisted the cultural recruitment that jarred my values of learning, open-mindedness, curiosity, and trust. Every day felt like Villanelle returning to Pinner for that village festival on the show Killing Eve (Season 3, Episode 5). I felt bad I did not want to fit in, and I certainly did not wish to outwardly offend anyone, lest they shoot me or worse. My family didn’t fit in either, not in that place, so there was certainly no pressure from home to conform (in this, and in many other respects, I am not like Villanelle).

Amusing side note: blonde hair in that culture inherently signified belonging, and my blonde friends and I endeavored to make our blonde hair even blonder, as though to shore up our collective membership in the dominant culture. Further side note: on the maternal side of my family, Finnish heritage makes for many babied with flaxen hair and transparent skin, and blonde-haired kids (pumpulipat) were trotted out for oohs and ahhs as their scalp struggled to raise the invisible filaments that passed for hair. The inevitable darkening of hair come adolescence represented an outward adieu to childish innocence, and was acknowledged with frequent frustration and a commitment to punitively spraying those darkening locks Sun-InTM by the pool.

What does it mean to pass or fit in as an anglo person in European culture? Perhaps my hair looks lighter, my face a bit rounder than those of the adorable fox-faced Italian women who flit around here in Tuscany. But I’m anglo, and my heritage is European. My forebears lived in Europe before each side emigrated to America, starting in the late seventeenth century and as recently as the late nineteenth century. I have no challenge even close to what a person with Asian or African heritage encounters in Europe. My discomfort arises mostly from how I feel in a given situation, when a barista or a comessa mouths off about a group of people to whom I belong (Americans in Europe) even as I yearn to distance myself from these collective assumptions of what such individuals are like, employing observation, insight, and humor whenever and wherever possible. Another fun fact about Florence in particular: I don’t even think Florentines feel like they fit in. They’re famous for not interacting with one another, and not only for barely tolerating one another, but for actively nursing a certain dislike. This is bound to happen in the least economically-mobile city in the world. Perhaps Florentines too dream of a city where they fit in. Perhaps all residents of European extraction would do well to imagine how the city is experienced for non-Europeans.

Maybe I don’t get to decide if I fit in or not. Perhaps the question skews more, do I belong here? And I think that that’s a question that a person can decide for themselves, cultural gatekeepers be damned. Do I feel at home here? Do I belong here? I think I do. I have many friends and a community here, as do my husband and children, in our shared and individual lives. My history with the place has accrued and with it brought understanding. I feel an affection toward the culture, and on days when I’m not annoyed by the stray local comment, am bemused by how things work – or fail to work – in Florence. Florence is a feast for the senses on any given day, and an inspirational garden for artists and writers of all stripes. The food and wine are excellent, and living in Tuscany, these items are all within arm’s reach, at pretty much Km0.

I can’t edit my personal history to accommodate my adult choices. I grew up in America, in a monolingual family, with parents who spoke English. I was educated in schools in America with English as the sole language of instruction with the exception of the thousands of hours of language courses I took. I don’t think I’ll ever fit in here, but I think I can always choose to belong, aided by observation, bemusement, and insight. I feel genuine affection for beautiful Florence and awkward Florentines, as much for their frustrated comments as for the kindness they’ve shown me.

So, no, I am probably not going to dye my hair dark. (I do still think that wearing a dark wig around town could be very funny and might produce some inspirational moments.) I’ll just monitor my psycho-cultural flexibility. I will try to remember that my accent or fumbling for words are not something to be ashamed of, but rather a superpower of charm – consider how much I love an accent in English. My bemusement and close observation draw me each day nearer to Italy and Florence and Florentines in sincere affection. I hope they sense that, because I belong here.

Update from Italy: Fitting In, Or Not

Currently close to this, and yes I do love it.
Maybe my idea of blondness should be unpacked in another essay
Photo by Tim Mossholder on Unsplash

We moved to Florence six years ago as a family. Our children, then 1 and 5, are now 7 and almost 11. We are happy. They are thriving. Life is good. It stops me cold to do the math and realize that we have now not owned our house in the US for as long as we owned it. The bungalow had its drawbacks (micro-climates among rooms, bouncy loud floors, chaotic corner lot) but damn, that house was pretty. Large and made to entertain. Pretty as a jewel box and needed no renovation. The pool in the back garden wasn’t deep enough to withstand the Oklahoma heat, and while it looked fetching, stepping in between June and August (when one might most want to step into a pool) felt like stepping into a puddle of warm pee. I miss the Caffeination Station we set up in the pantry, though, and the the bright blooms that called out all season long in trees and on vines.

We’ve settled into a relative comfort level, we four Americans, here in Florence. In many ways it has been easy for us, for reasons of our backgrounds and thanks to Florence in particular. All the characteristics of Florence I eschewed as a student traveller (too much English, too many tourists, too international) now form much of the structure that provides shape to our days, and resilience to our local network. Sure, it was fun to get myself to the end of the train line in some nowhere province in Spain or Mexico or Brazil a town on the coast with two bars and one restaurant, just to test myself, but that’s no place to arrive with children, much less raise a family. I value Florence’s international flavor, the large network of expats and immigrants, the fact that I don’t stand out too much here as a non-Italian. Visitors can get by with soft English and a smattering of Italian politesse. Florence is accustomed to international visitors, and has been so since approximately 1200 CE. People pass through, exchange custom, buy some things, move on. Maybe invest, buy a property, start a business or join an existing business. These have all been activities in town for over 800 years. So Florence is accustomed to international faces and voices.

Mostly.

An insular edge still exists. The tourist hoards, when the numbers increase to the dizzying maximum, supersede the city’s maximum capacity. Tempers flare, nerves fray, particular in centro. Notwithstanding my comfort level with the local culture and my ability to almost always glide through Italian situations (so long as they don’t involve the polizia, the questura, or some other frightful Italian official), I find myself from time to time on the listening end of Florentine jeremiads.

Questi turisti …

Troppi turisti ….

Ordering an espresso, the baristi on Santo Spirito last week had an earful to say about the turisti tremendi. Paying at H&M, which is a place I try to avoid anyway, and the comessa will look at me and say, parli italiano? do you speak Italian? They’re usually trying to figure out if I need a pitch for a loyalty card or some such, but it still grates. One time a barista leaned down into my face and said “un ayyy—oo—-roh” as though I were deaf. Yes, I get it, the espresso costs a euro, please go eat a breath mint.

I’ve been here awhile. I want to pass. I will never pass. I am fun-size, which is fine, but my aspect is unmistakably Northern European. Baltic. Blue eyes, pale skin. A not at all Italian nose. Blonde hair that I’ve been keeping long because I’m lazy and it’s easier and cheaper. This last feature has become a point of discussion lately.

An American friend who has also lived here for years and who has some Italian heritage looks the part, even as her Italian is close to mine in proficiency. She has a thick black ponytail and dark eyes. She eyed my hair a few months ago over a prosecco under the arcades of Piazza della Repubblica. I bet, she said, sipping her prosecco, that if you had dark hair you’d have an easier time. I began to consider it. I’ve never gone artificially darker before. But my natural color is darker than my current collection of highlights and shades.

I ran the idea past two other Italian female friends. They were shocked. We love your hair! Your hair is beautiful! they cried. Do you want to go dark? Yes, I responded, if locals don’t immediately assume I stepped into town from a cruise ship in the port of Livorno or Pisa. But do you like your hair? they pressed. Yes, I said. I do. Then don’t change it because of some barista! they protested. Some guy who said something! What you need, they continued in good humor, is to work on your snappy retorts in Italian.

For example: You’re right, tourists are terrible. Or, this business is very rude! Or, You’re making a figura di merda here with a small crowd of cosidetto turisti (so-called tourist) who are trying to give you money, especially after what the years since Covid have been like for global economies dependent on tourism. This last one gets a little in the weeds for me, and given my anxiety about speaking up in public to a local audience in one of my non-native languages, I am inclined to say nothing, and go scribble frustrated thoughts in my journal instead. (I had a few seminal experiences in Spain at the Iberia desk, and in France at the préfecture or the CTS office in Strasbourg, that contributed to my language anxiety in these situations, but that is another topic for another day.)

I took these comments back to my friend with the thick black ponytail. Okay, she said. What about henna, or a wig? Henna would last for months, she said. But could be a cheap possibility, with the added benefit of DIY. She continued, there’s a wig shop close to my house but I think they sell mostly to chemo patients. I said that that would be some very bad karma indeed, to buy a dark wig from a chemo shop because I wanted to see if it made a difference in how I was treated (and not always at that) in town by Italians.

Later I ran all this information by Jason, whose physical aspect translates very well to Florentine culture: mussed graying hair, button down shirt, glasses, right size, nice shoes. Do you really think darker hair will make a difference? he asked. Go to a different bar. Laugh at the baristi who are busy making those comments about tourists as a bunch of non-Italians are in their bar. I think it might make a difference, I said. I don’t, Jason replied. Dark hair won’t make you look Italian. You’ll just look kind of Eastern European, which might be worse for general treatment by local businesses.

Eastern European. I sat with that for awhile. The wig started seeming like a better and better idea. I am reminded of some panicked months in the seventh grade when I was convinced that I just wanted to look like everyone else, I did not want to stand out, I wanted to just swim in the slipstream of that most local of cultures – an American middle school. That phase was brief and circumscribed – I do not long to fail to stand out as I did at 12. I like a little sprezzatura, I dress with humor, I like vintage attire, I will ride my bike through town in a dress. I splurge on arty Italian eyeglass frames every few years.

I realized maybe I needed to better define my perceived problem and measurable goals and started perusing Untools. Maybe look into an Italian language tutor who is sassy and local and teaching at my level. Maybe go pester my Italian friends some more to practice with me and call me on the phone to impersonate customer service reps from Vodaphone and make me talk. Maybe this whole question of dark hair is covering up some other questions about fitting in, or not.

Maybe a darker hue offers more frequent peace around town in Italy.
Photo by Dan Gold on Unsplash

Shakespeare Report: King John

Photo by Birmingham Museums Trust on Unsplash

Shakespeare’s King John (1596) is a marvel, like stepping through a fun house mirror into a play where the villain of Robin Hood is shown in his own self-interested light. Its morose politics and lack of a clear hero or antagonist makes it a difficult, post-modern piece in many ways, and indeed, it fell out of favor since 1800, being rarely put on for almost two hundred years. But every perspective has its day, and King John is enjoying a bit of an uptick as people living in the twenty-first century find much in its verses that resonates with their current circumstances.

It was a challenge to find a production of King John to follow with the text, so I returned to the 2020 recording of The Show Must Go Online, which has proven a lovely resource for interpreting and aiding in my understanding in mid-list and backlist Shakespeare plays. (Ever since The Comedy of Errors debacle, I am resolved to never again attempt a play without a visual to attend the audio, and to never simply read it, unless I tell myself it is for the sheer grace of the poetry, and making no attempt to track characters or plot in any way.) Amusingly, the king’s very long death scene that finishes the play survives in fragment as the first evidence of Shakespeare in cinema. (In the clip, the young King Henry III is played by a young actress, famous in her day, Dora Senior, and the set looks like Hearst Castle. Watch it here for some real drama in the style of the Lumière Brothers. But I digress.)

Much of the action centers on battles in France and royal succession. I learned a lot about how much of France was possessed by England in the thirteenth century, not just from the play but from my side research. No wonder the French and the English have had a two-thousand-year sibling rivalry. It is said that the play offers a rather modern allegory for relations between the UK and Europe, what with King John pugnaciously arguing with the Austrian Duke, the Papal Legate, and his French counterpart.

Shakespeare wrote King John in the same year that his son, Hamnet, died of an indeterminate illness, and the thin blade of parental grief slices through the scenes of Constance, mother of Prince Arthur, King John’s nephew and claimant to the throne. If you’re guessing that the English king wants his annoying young nephews dead, preferably murdered, and quickly, by a loyal subject under cover of night – well, you’d be right. That’s not quite how it happened in the play, but the run-up that makes us think it will end this way is a nice bit of plot, or complot, if you will.

Death, death, O amiable, lovely death,
Thou odoriferous stench, sound rottenness,
Arise forth from the couch of lasting night,
Thou hate and terror to prosperity,
And I will kiss thy detestable bones
And put my eyeballs in thy vaulty brows,
And ring these fingers with thy household worms,
And stop this gap of breath with fulsome dust,
And be a carrion monster like thyself.
Come, grin on me, and I will think thou smil’st,
And buss thee as thy wife. Misery’s love,
O, come to me!
– Constance, Act 3, Scene 4

I hear it also in The Merchant of Venice and the lamentations of Shylock for having lost his daughter, and his daughter’s sober assessment of the situation from the other side – her side:

Farewell, and if my fortune be not crossed,
I have a father, you a daughter, lost.
– Jessica , Act 2, Scene 5

Her father echoes her desperation shortly after in his exchange with Tubal:

And I know not what’s spent in the search! Why, thou
loss upon loss! The thief gone with so much, and so
much to find the thief, and no satisfaction, no
revenge, nor no ill luck stirring but what lights a’ my
shoulders, no sighs but a’ my breathing, no tears but
a’ my shedding.
– Shylock, Act 3, Scene 1

By coincidence I am now reading Maggie O’Farrell’s Hamnet, two years late after having special-ordered it in Italy and giving it to Jason to read first. You want to read this? he asked me incredulously. This is the saddest book of all time. Do you know what this book is about? (In fact, in 2020 I was in no mood to pile on sadness, frustration and loss, so I left it on the shelf for the right moment to return to it.) The author imagines Hamnet’s death in Stratford while his father is away working in London. It’s a poetic imagining of how things might have happened, pinned on just a few historic facts. The rest left to a colorful imagination and filling in blanks – Hamnet dies of the Plague, but his twin sister Judith survives it, and their elder sister Susanna is spared. The writing is pleasant, but no more sparkling than the better pieces I’ve critiqued in writing groups. More props to Maggie for having an idea and sticking to it until she sold the book.

It has become a Shakespearean parlor game (one I endorse) to identify traces of the Bard’s life in his art, and the death of Hamnet, his only son and bright star, gets frequent mention, starting in 1596 with King John, and also with Hamlet (1599). There exists no nobler cause of art than to sublimate grief. I think Shakespeare pretty clearly used his own experiences to inform his writing.

O, if thou teach me to believe this sorrow,
Teach thou this sorrow how to make me die,
And let belief and life encounter so
As doth the fury of two desperate men
Which in the very meeting fall and die
. – Constance, Act 3, Scene 1

Ironically the play is titled King John when the character who steals every scene is “The Bastard,” aka Phillip of Faulconbridge, who claims the throne as the natural son of Richard the Lionhearted (King John’s crusading brother). His role in the play is something between instigator/agent provocateur and jester/truth teller, and when all those courtiers and various pala legates start arguing, it is a true balm to see him needle people relentlessly with “And hang a calfskin on those recreant limbs.”

King John also gets good marks from some for strong female characters in the form of Eleanor (King John’s mother), Blanche (King John’s niece, getting engaged to the dauphin), and Constance (Arthur’s mother, and John’s sister-in-law). They also speak truth to power, and the characters listen, even as the papal legate urges Constance to calm, and Eleanor dies before the play is ended. Even so, it woefully fails the Bechdel test. The women are never talking to each other about anything other than the power that their menfolk hold. Ah, late 16th century politics …. The Merchant of Venice gives more gender equality in Jessica and Nerissa than any of the history plays do …. well. History plays gonna history play. I’ll stick with Constance talking about her lost son Arthur:

Grief fills the room up of my absent child,
Lies in his bed, walks up and down with me,
Puts on his pretty looks, repeats his words,
Remembers me of all his gracious parts,
Stuffs out his vacant garments with his form;
Then, have I reason to be fond of grief?
Fare you well. Had you such a loss as I,
I could give better comfort than you do.

O Lord! My boy, my Arthur, my fair son,
My life, my joy, my food, my all the world,
My widow-comfort and my sorrows’ cure!
– Constance, Act 3, Scene 4

I can recommend King John if you’re looking for ageless wisdom about infuriating politics with no clear hero and plenty of jockeying among the players, and plenty of commentary on motherhood, lost sons, and mothers and sons. It’s also packed with sparkling turns of phrase – it’s one of two of Shakespeare’s plays written entirely in verse (the other one being the earlier Richard II.)

Next: The Merry Wives of Windsor (The Lord of Misrule – Falstaff – ignites!), which I’ve never seen or read, and Henry IV, Part 2, after that, about which I am likewise ignorant. Followed by a spate of plays that should ring many school bells: Much Ado About Nothing, Julius Caesar, and Hamlet.

Update from Florence: An Open Letter to Germans and Tourists

This chic Georgetown look DOES NOT TRANSLATE to Europe. Do not attempt.
Photo by Mike Von on Unsplash

Dear Germans and Other Tourists in Florence, and you know who you are (look down at your feet),

NO ONE wants to see your feet. No one wants to see your toes, especially. I know it’s been a long haul, postponing the holiday of your dreams. Damn you, Covid! The last two years have been a slog for everyone, your homebound feet in particular. Everyone wanted to take a trip, go on an airplane, fly somewhere new and eat their ice cream. Some people took a trip anyway, precautions and actual statistics notwithstanding. Many others postponed trips until May 2022. All these people are now taking trips, and what’s more: IN SANDALS.

Now, the fifty-three day lockdown was hard, back in spring 2020. The months of waiting for a vaccine shot sucked. I would have gladly gotten one months in advance of when I actually did, on May 20, 2020. The nonstop trip plans and cancellations were the worst: Nice, Strasbourg, Portugal, Rome. Yes, I love to travel. Yes, I live in reality, and can easily read writing when it’s on the wall in 500-point font: DO NOT TAKE THE TRIP NOW. MAYBE LATER IS A BETTER TIME, A POSSIBLE TIME, TO TAKE THE TRIP. All these events and bumps in the road were very difficult. In fact, I cried when we had to cancel the Portugal trip in March because we all had Covid. It is my only regret and my only craving, I snuffled and shuddered to Jason. I get it. I like to travel too. A lot. Like, a ton.

BUT WHEN I TRAVEL I COVER MY TOES.

I don’t know why this is bothering me so much. All across town I am exposed to hairy, pale, naked toes, crippled and crushed against one another like overcrowded miniature bananas. They are wearing Tevas. Merrills. Chacos. FLIP FLOPS. Havaianas, people, are you kidding me? THIS IS FLORENCE. Have you seen the streets? Okay, tourist toes are ugly, but what is uglier: the poop-strewn streets of Florence, covered also with urine puddles, trash that failed to land in a can, plopped ice cream.

DO YOU KNOW WHY PEOPLE WEAR SHOES IN FLORENCE? IT IS BECAUSE THE STREETS ARE FILTHY.

Maybe, people think, my toes also need to travel. My toes have a right to breathe this sweet sweet Italian air! And I get it: they do. they absolutely do. But if you wish to recognize the this right for your toes, for god’s sake take them to Sanibel or Lake Michigan, take them to Corfu or the Mediterranean coast. DO NOT TAKE THEM TO FLORENCE. YOU WILL GET POOP ON YOUR TOES. How glamorous is that, strolling down Via Tornabuoni with pooptoes? Nothing screams “I just dropped ten thousand euros at Louis Vuitton” like pooptoes. Don’t even get me started on poopheel. I have seen it all. And I wish I hadn’t.

THERE IS A REASON THAT ITALIANS WEAR PROPER SHOES. THE STREETS ARE FILTHY. So, unless you have a pair of platform sandals that would make Hirohito himself sweat, find yourself a cute pair of kicks that lace up, and put them on. I don’t want to see young toes run free, or crippled toes unwind in the soft spring air. I want you to put on shoes and socks. I want you to walk around our city’s filth-strewn flagstone streets with the confidence that some stray dog’s poop is not finding its way between your toes.

Dear Germans, Americans, and other tourists, we are glad you’re here. We really are. But we don’t want to see your toes. It is for your own safety.

Thank you for reading my public plea. Consider yourself warned. Lace up.

Shakespeare Report: The Merchant of Venice

Heading back to Venice from Belmont. How I imagine it.
Photo by Luca Bravo on Unsplash

Can a maid’s fate be ruled by the wishes of her dead father? Can the same maid convincingly become a man, for a day, if she so wishes? Okay, so what about her low-born handmaiden – can she also dress as a man and fool everyone in a court of law, where people are meant to be paying very close attention? What does it mean to use people we scorn, and to whom we deny civil rights? Can a medieval Jew in Venice bear the punishment of conversion, if so decreed? Can the rich become poor, or the poor made rich, and how? Can a penniless noble don the markings of wealth to win a wealthy maid? Can a Jewish maid elope with a Christian saint? Can that high-born maid disguised as a lawyer win the day in her disguise? Is the Doge even paying attention?

Also, what does Shakespeare have to say about depression and mirth?

All this and more lurks in the misty layers of The Merchant of Venice (1596-1597). I continue to read Shakespeare as a writer to mine his work for insights and lessons. Shakespeare’s got so much to say and packs volumes in this slender play. This is another seminal work on the list that, prior to this week – this week – I had never read nor seen. Judge me now! Of course, as an English speaker, I was familiar with the allusions and the tropes – Shylock, and the Roth novel that bears the character’s name; Portia who plays an attorney in court to acquit Antonio, thereby saving him his pound of flesh, and very cleverly so, first by logic, then with law. But I did not know the whole story.

You could set any story in Venice and the audience would like it. This was as true in Elizabethan England as it is today. Who here will claim they are no fan of Venice? Set aside for a moment the madding tourist hoards; forget the humidity, and the mosquitoes, and the malarial memory. Dream, as I do, of red bricks and blind alleys, of serpentine columns and Moorish windows, of Byzantine gilt and silent gondolas. Consider the fog that blankets the lido in colder months, sliding toward the city to cover lower roofs. Venice, that citadel of culture, and Baroque excess, where nothing in as it seems, and every impression shimmers as a mirage in the mind. Nothing can be firmly grasped. Indeed, the purported Venetian penchant for dissimulation led to a costumed Carnival season that lasted for months, as the rule of law was suspended and heaven only knows what people got up to on divans under the frescoed ceilings of the piani nobili that line the Grand Canal, in those same blind alleys just before dawn. We might well imagine. Napoleon put an end to all that well-forgiven nonsense in 1796, when he exclaimed that the Piazza San Marco was nothing less than Europe’s drawing room. Now I’m thinking once more of The Passion by Jeanette Winterson, which I read in 2005 in Italy, and which I still recommend to people at least once a year. Lesson One: Set your story in a place that the average person loves and already dreams about.

That’s what Will did, and the lovely cinematic Merchant of Venice adaptation that I watched with the text this week, the 2004 production filmed on location and produced by Michael Radford, provides a sort of Downtown-Abbey-Meets-Shakespeare vibe. The cast of stars shines brightest with Al Pacino in a fantastic turn as Shylock. (YouTube stopped the video every five minutes to remind me how offensive its content is, and to ask me to consent to continue watching it. The warning seemed age-related, but I was perplexed, as the antisemitism for which the play is well-known is very clear, even if now it is viewed via a more subversive lens, as engendering outrage and sympathy for Shylock.) Jeremy Irons gives us a depressed, realistic Antonio, and Joseph Fiennes as Bassanio, still a-glitter, no doubt, from rolling around in another palazzo with Gwyneth in Shakespeare in Love, playing the titular playwright. Given the dynamic in the play between Antonio and Bassanio, the difference in their ages is perhaps too wide, but they’re both excellent actors who enunciate and look smashing in a slashed doublet so, SOLD! Lesson Two: Get good actors.

I am an enormous fan of a well-executed movie soundtrack, and I continue to listen to this Merchant of Venice soundtrack long after I finished watching. It’s haunting, period, minor-key pieces are just the thing for a rainy day in a medieval setting, such as Florence has offered all week long. With this music in my headphones the wet, uneven stones between the Arno and Santo Spirito felt ripe for a time slip, transporting me to a time when, as a graduate student in Spanish years ago, I really connected with Sephardic poetry, or even centuries further back, and I start to see normal passersby dressed in homespun and linen with pointed shoes, cape across the shoulder as they trot across an ancient bridge. Lesson Three: Music counts. Don’t skimp.

I continue to mull over the three thousand ducats, the lost ducats versus the lost daughter, the ring that Leah gave to Shylock when he was still a bachelor, taken by his daughter Jessica. (Did you know Shakespeare invented the name Jessica for the purpose of this play? I now like this name a whole lot more. I don’t care if it’s an old apocryphal chestnut.) The three precious caskets, the ruse by which Portia’s hand may be won. The engagement ring that Portia gives to Bassanio, and the engagement ring that Nerissa gives to Gratiano, which the unwitting men promptly give back to the two maids when disguised as a lawyer and his clerk, resulting in further cries of breach of contract. I will have my bond! Shylock cries. Lesson Four: Financial disputes are easily accessible plot points. Everyone gets mad about money fast and would like to expediently resolve money issues.

Shylock. Fast bind, fast bind. / A proverb never stale in a thrifty mind.

Portia. Confess and live!

Bassiano. Confess and love.

The play has given the English language the expression of a pound of flesh – a price too dear to pay, and exacted at great pain to the debtor. Portia lets Shylock and the public – feel that the day is his. The contract will be enforced. But then Portia, still dressed as the lawyer Balthasar, makes the excellent point – a pound of flesh does not also permit the drawing of blood, and who can extract a bloodless pound of flesh from a living person? The pound of flesh is therefore pointless. Thus ends the trial, the sentence commuted. She goes on to cite additional laws about threatening death, or actually murdering, a Venetian citizen, but by that time her logic is unimpeachable. Everyone agrees that it is impossible to extract a pound of flesh from a living man without shedding blood. Lesson Five: Construct a conundrum that can be somehow resolved.

What of Bassanio? He who put his dear friend (some have said lover) Antonio into this position by leveraging his business for the three thousand ducts so that he might respectably woo Portia in her sumptuous estate of Belmont, out on an island in the lagoon. He and Portia end up happily enough.

What of Gratiano? Bassanio scolds him for being too wild, too rude and bold of voice… something too liberal. Pray thee take pain / To allay with some cold drops of modesty / Thy skipping spirit. His slurs in the courtroom shock, but he too finishes in a sweet ending with Nerissa, discreetly courted while Bassanio was working on Portia.

And Anthony? He keeps his pound of flesh, ever the loyal friend, and remains single in the end of the play, having perhaps had his most intimate encounters with Shylock.

Ah, Shylock. Shamed in public, pardoned by the Doge after Portia/Balthasar’s pronouncement. His wife dead, his daughter eloped with a Christian, his business decimated, his faith hanging in the balance. At the end of a trial he utters, I am not well, and slinks home to sign the Doge’s contract of plea.

In Portia we finally find again a strong female character, whether dressed as a woman or as a man. But when is she at her strongest? As Portia, she controls the fate of her suitors, but remains under the thumb of her dead father’s will. As Balthasar, her intellect shines; she speaks well. She commands the courtroom, but would have never been permitted to do so had they known she was a maid. Her strength is always tempered by the social norms of the men in her milieu, whether living or dead. Even her penniless fiancé immediately asks her for a small fortune as soon as they are engaged, and she immediately offers to pay back twice the amount. Her money has power. It is her dead father’s money, for her to do as she will, in the same way that Jessica absconds in costume with a chest of ducats into Lorenzo’s boat. Her father’s money. Hers now.

Portia’s turn in the courtroom felt very familiar. How to thread the needle? The contract, versus mercy? How can we know when we’ve gone too far to enforce a bond? The natural law of mercy wins over the positive law of a signed contract, but then Portia twists the knife again to add insult to injury. Shylock escapes with no pride intact.

Central themes of The Merchant of Venice: why do we treat people as we do? How much of our personal opinion is borne aloft by received wisdom and social standards, however low they may be? Does a Jew not bleed? Why is a woman not free – who constrains her? Is a woman not as well-spoken and as strong in the courtroom, representing as both counsel and judge? Is a wealthy person not as quickly converted to poverty as a penniless bachelor, be he ever so well-connected, find credit for a significant sum? Who deserves love? Charity? Mercy? Lesson Six: Stick to some meaty questions.

I love The Merchant of Venice. I will be thinking about it for weeks to come. Thanks for joining me on my maiden amateur reading of this piece.

Next week: King John!

Update from Italy: Stolen, or Not Stolen?

Our family loves our bikes. Our many, many bikes. Photo by Nuno Ricardo on Unsplash

In mid- to late-March, the week after our family emerged from our Covid cave, my bike was stolen. This was my third stolen bike. Two of my old bikes were upcycled to new owners in need. But three were stolen: one in 2016, on the eve of the Feast of the Immaculate Conception (December 8) and another one on the Easter Vigil of 2019. Both of these thefts occurred as the result of an organized effort to steal all the bikes parked in the piazza where we live. Gigantic bolt cutters must have efficiently severed every chain from every bike locked to the rail. It is said that a bike theft syndicate takes all the bikes, trucks them to Pisa or Livorno under cover of night, and sets them all on a barge to north Africa for an untraceable resale on another continent. This is a local urban legend that one can neither prove nor disprove, but people like to repeat it. Indeed, in 2016 there was a local newspaper headline about local police catching the non-Italian (the news was very specific on this point) bike thieves in the act of piling high their flatbed with freshly-cut bikes.

Jason and I consider it an urban tax, a fee to absorb for the daily pleasure of living in the coveted ZTL of Florence, the zona trafico limitata, without a garage – the most American of amenities. Fine, so we’ll buy a 129 euro bike every year or two. The loss that pains more is the cut chain: 80 euros for an Arbus. Maybe I will just buy a cheaper chain in the future, reasoning if they cut it, they’ll cut it. We are each on our sixth bike since 2016.

Friends have urged me to get a Brompton. But even two years ago, I was Eleanor’s main ride every day, twice a day. Who puts a child’s seat on a Brompton? Is that even possible? What about my indispensable basket? Never mind the 1800 euro price tag.

So, getting back to the theft of my fifth bike (this is like the seven seals: and when the seventh bike was stolen…). It was the Monday after our wobbly return to post-Covid normal. We’d all been penned in and hemmed in at home together for over two weeks. I had begun to doubt the very existence of the World Outside. I ventured out weak-kneed and with a cough that would persist for weeks. It was a chilly Monday morning, post-school-dropoff. The kids were in. Hooray! Normality! I hurried to turn on my headphones and get my phone out. A quick walk! In the fresh air! Just what the doctor ordered! I made my walk, went to the office, did some work. Because it was Monday, I walked through the piazza to Gonzaga in Florence for my 12:30 PM with the students. I never even thought to glance at where I had left my bike. Where it may or may not have yet been resting, in the shadow of the Dominican monastery of San Marco.

And, as quickly became evident when I returned to its spot at five that afternoon, it was not. I was shocked and annoyed. I messaged Jason. Bike’s stolen. Can’t get the kids. I tried to think back to that morning. What had I done? It quickly dawned on me that I must not have locked up my bike, so distracted had I been with my podcast and headphones and scarf and gloves. I almost never do that – I am very conscientious with my lock. But if there ever was a morning that I would have failed to lock up my bike, it was this one. The Monday after Covid.

I trotted off to the Sergio Bianchi bike shop, where we have bought all of our bikes and chains and helmets and kid seats for said bikes since we moved here, and immediately bought a new bike from the kind father and son pair. And a chain, and a wire basket for the front. No kid seat this time – they’re too big. I bought a cheap bike. No gears. Hand brakes, which is a pity – I do love coaster brakes for beach boardwalk cruisers. Easier with umbrellas and grocery bags too. Especially in the rain. My new bike looks like a cappuccino with an espresso basket, in cream and brown. It’s very cute. It has the new eighty-euro chain, which is annoying. They tried to sell me some Erector Set chain that cost even more. No, I glumly declined. What use is a hundred-euro chain if I just forget to lock it? They looked at me in pity and tsked.

Afterward, when people remarked on my bike and I told them my fifth bike was stolen, they asked me why. I forgot to lock it one morning, I said, and apparently someone rode off with it. Their pity diminished, then evaporated. You didn’t lock up your bike? They looked at me suspiciously. Then you have to stop saying it was stolen. You basically gave it away. I beg your pardon? I rejoined. Last I checked, taking anything that is not yours is, actually, theft. They shook their heads. No, you gave it away. You cannot say that it was stolen if it was your fault. But in the past, I pressed, I have twice failed to lock my bike on Piazza della Repubblica (circa 2017-2018), and it remained there, safely under the arcades, for an entire day! They shrugged. A miracle. It should not have happened.

What says the court of public opinion? Was my bike stolen, or did I give it away?