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?

Shakespeare Report: Richard II

You see, Victor, the problem with being King is that everyone else wants to be King too,
and so usually a lot of people want to murder you.
Photo by Jeremy Bezanger on Unsplash

Written three to four years after Henry VI, Parts I, II, and III, Richard II marks the earliest chronological point in the history plays of Shakespeare. Covering the weakening and demise of Richard of Bordeaux, the Plantagenet king of England who died in 1399 after a court coup by Henry Bolingbroke (crowned Henry IV, father of Henry V [aka Prince Hal, erstwhile friend of Falstaff], whose name was made at the Battle of Agincourt). Richard II is one of a small handful of his plays written entirely in verse – a particular delight for this poet, who revels in a well-turned phrase, a surprising image, a carefully wrought psychology.

Triumph is become an alehouse guest.

I re-watched the 2012 BBC Henriad production of Richard II, starring the magnificent Ben Whishaw as King Richard (hitting perfect notes of creepy, conflicted, immature, and narcissistic). Ben’s been a favorite of mine for over a decade, from Perfume to Bright Star to The Hours and Cloud Atlas. He brings so much intellect, angst, and creative depth to his characters.

Down, down I come, like glist’ring Phaeton. – King Richard

I’d first watched this production back in spring 2020, at the start of the pandemic when we were in our two-month lock-down here in Italy. Perhaps, I reasoned, watching drama set in times centuries ago when plagues and other calamities were regular occurrences would help calibrate my response to our rapidly changing and difficult situation. I was partially right. It alleviated my anxiety somewhat. I appreciated the scenes where Bolingbroke looks like he is bounding through a Jo Malone commercial. I was, however, very much taken by the production, and the pleasant memories of this cinematic escape in part informed my motivations to take on the 2022 All Shakespeare Project.

Thus rise nimbly by a true king’s fall.

(Progress note: I am now on play 15 in a list of 43, but I created my spreadsheet without a full awareness of the Shakespearean apocrypha. The original list included such titles as Love’s Labours Won and Edward III, whose authorship have no doubt spurred a hundred PhDs. This puts me at almost the halfway mark of verified works!)

Poor boy, thou art amazed.

This play is downright morbid, depicting the power transfer between kings that the present king does not wish to happen, but the writing, so to speak, is on the wall, like the Old Testament feast of Balshazzar, when the words of Yahweh appeared in flames to the alarmed guests. (If you don’t know this tale, I urge you to investigate it and commit it to memory for handy reference, as it is very useful and applicable to a variety of life situations that involve illiteracy, rash judgment, and overweening pride.) Victor and Eleanor have now become interested in my Shakespeare project and watch with interest when I watch the films and read along using the Folger text. You see, Victor, the problem with being King is that everyone else wants to be King too, and so usually a lot of people want to murder you.

Within the hollow crown / that rounds the mortal temples of a King / Keeps Death his court.

Shakespeare, as is his custom, hangs his story on a few confirmed facts, and fictionalizes the rest. The story begins in Richard’s last year or so of his life. The dispute between Bolingbroke (the future Henry IV) and Mowbray is historic, as is their joust for honor, called off at the last moment by King Richard. Bolinbroke, Richard’s cousin, did challenge Richard and successfully take the crown. (Richard’s agony in forfeiting the crown and eventually relinquishing it furnish the meat of this drama.) Richard was locked up in the Tower of London (nothing ever ends well if they turn the key on you when you’re in the Tower). In actuality, however, Richard’s cause of death remains, strictly speaking, unknown, although it is supposed to have been starvation. Henry IV starved Richard to death so as to avoid any inconvenient marks of murder on the former king’s mortal body. There was a public outrage about the mysterious death (it just really seemed to threaten the whole Order of Things) and so his body was trotted out and displayed in 1400 for close inspection.

My sour cross

Shakespeare changes the narrative and styles this to an errand of honor in which the son of the Duke of York, one young and handsome Aumerle, is revealed to have gotten his hands dirty in a plot to murder Henry IV. All the co-conspirator heads roll save his. His life’s price? Head over to the Tower with some helpers and murder the the erstwhile king. He thinks! But as a twenty-one-year old is predictably wont to do, he acts too quickly and without consultation. When he trots back to Bolinbroke Castle with the coffin, Henry IV is outraged! Maybe hits a little close to home to see a former king in a bloody box.

Watching brings leanness!

Shakespeare also combines Richard’s two historic queens into one beautiful and powerless queen. In real life, his first queen, Anne of Bohemia, died three years before his own death in 1399. (Fun facts: Anne’s royal progress to England gives our language the word “coach” – from the Hungarian town Kocs (pronounced coach in Hungarian) where her carriage was built. Apparently this was an innovation in a world devoted to horseback riding. She also popularized the “horned” Bohemian headdress we now associate with medieval ladies, later simplified as a wimple.)

After Anne died, Richard married Isabelle of France, who was 7 years old. The child received got her own castle and staff. But then her much-older husband died. Sucks to be a ten-year-old widow in the 14th century. The play offers one sole queen with a few ladies in waiting, mostly wringing their hands and getting news secondhand about Richard’s forcible abdication. The historic Richard became king when his grandfather and father died a year apart. He was thrust onto the throne as a boy of ten. Never a warrior, and much given to luxury and prayer (the contemplative monkey is a nice touch in the film), he reigned until his death at thirty-three.

Things past redress are now past care.

The pro-England toe of the play means its lines get repeated often in the service of national pride, in particular the speech of John of Gaunt, whose phrases you may know from earnest Brexit reporting:

This royal throne of kings, this sceptered isle,
This earth of majesty, this seat of Mars,
This other Eden, demi-paradise,
This fortress built by Nature for herself
Against infection and the hand of war,
This happy breed of men, this little world,
This precious stone set in the silver sea,

Which serves it in the office of a wall
Or as a moat defensive to a house,

Against the envy of less happier lands,
This blessèd plot, this earth, this realm, this England,
This nurse, this teeming womb of royal kings,
Feared by their breed and famous by their birth,
Renownèd for their deeds as far from home
For Christian service and true chivalry
As is the sepulcher in stubborn Jewry
Of the world’s ransom, blessèd Mary’s son,
This land of such dear souls, this dear dear land,
Dear for her reputation through the world,
Is now leased out—I die pronouncing it—
Like to a tenement or pelting farm.
England, bound in with the triumphant sea,
Whose rocky shore beats back the envious siege

Of wat’ry Neptune, is now bound in with shame,
With inky blots and rotten parchment bonds.

The language really shines in Shakespeare’s stylish verse.

Let’s talk of graves, worms, and epitaphs. – King Richard

Hast thou sounded him? / As near as I could sift him on that argument… – King Richard / John of Gaunt

Too good to be so bad and too bad to live! – Bolingbroke

Deep malice makes too deep incision. – King Richard

Lions make leopards tame. / Yea, but not change his spots. – Richard and Mowbray

It boots thee not to be compassionate. / After our sentence plaining comes too late. – Richard

The clogging burden of a guilty soul … – Bolinbroke

Off go his bonnet to an oysterwench! – King Richard on Bolinbroke

Enforce attention like deep harmony. – John of Gaunt

My death’s sad tale may yet undeaf his ear. – John of Gaunt

His tongue is now a stringless instrument. – Duke of Northumberland on John of Gaunt

By bad events may be understood / That their events can never fall out good. – Duke of York

We see the wind sit sore upon our sails. – Northumberland

Lean-looked prophets whisper fearful change. – Welsh captain

Eating the bitter bread of banishment. – Hereford

A king, woe’s slave, shall kingly woe obey. – Richard

Crimson tempest should bedrench – Hereford

Barren and bereft of friends. – Richard

My fortune runs against the bias. – The Queen

My heart was not confederate with my hand! – Aumerle

The minor character Bushy delivers a truly magnificent dissertation on grief:

Each substance of a grief hath twenty shadows
Which shows like grief itself but is not so;
For sorrow’s eyes, glazed with blinding tears,
Divides one thing entire to many objects,
Like perspectives, which rightly gazed upon
Show nothing but confusion, eyed awry
Distinguish form
.

King Richard offers feelings to most sentient beings (sorry king, thou art become baser yet in my estimation!):

O, that I were as great
As is my grief, or lesser than my name!
Or that I could forget what I have been,
Or not remember what I must be now.

Act III Sc. 3

And here:

Alack the heavy day,
That I have worn so many winters out
And know not now what name to call myself.

Act IV Sc. 1

Thanks to everyone who read to the end of this. I have to say, I love Richard II. It is on par with Macbeth and Hamlet for psychological dissection and analysis of human motives. Whishaw in this role is in his element.

Next week brings me to The Merchant of Venice, another work I have never seen, nor read, nor heard, but know well enough from abounding cultural allusions. I can’t wait to see Al Pacino extract a pound of flesh from Jeremy Irons while Joseph Fiennes looks on. I am increasingly grateful for excellent and faithful film adaptations!

Italy Update: The Circle of Life (Hamster Chapter), Part II

La Kayla lying in state in our common room, with her name plate from the corner office of Hamster Inc.

The kids ate their lunch and Jason tapped away on his keyboard while the hamster’s earthly remains reposed peacefully in her cage. I arrived home from church in a torrent of rain, having opted to lock up my bike next to the sanctuary to catch a ride from a generous friend. Jason texted me from his armchair. When should we tell them? he asked. Did she resuscitate? I responded. No.

I looked at Victor and Eleanor, happily chatting away at the kitchen table. I looked back at Jason, who was pointedly trying to not look at me. When he did he raised his eyebrows.

Kids, I announced. They looked up at the same time. It is in these moments that they most resemble a matched pair of golden retriever puppies from the same litter. I have some important news, I said. I took a breath. Kayla has taken her final hop across the rainbow bridge. Victor’s eyes widened. When? Sometime last night, I said. He looked down. Eleanor was silent. Her face crumpled. She pulled her knees up to her chin and began to bite them. I extracted her from the space between the dining bench and the table. She was crying fast and silent, the fat tears streaming down her cheeks. Hey eyebrows turned red; this always happens when her emotions arise in earnest. We sat on the other armchair while Jason made our postprandial espresso. After about ten minutes I handed off Eleanor for paternal comforting.

We looked around for an appropriate container in which to place Kayla. One was too big, another still had stuff in it. Jason finally found an old box of breath mints. We didn’t like that flavor anyway (licorice orange). We threw the candy away. I tore the cream-colored hamster shroud from L*U*S*H* in half. I think I’ll let you do this, Jason said. It looks like you have a plan.

I went back to the cage with a plastic sand shovel. Kayla was resting where I’d first seen her, six hours prior. I teased her gently from the white cotton fluff she had arranged around herself as a bed. Her thin legs and long nails caught in the fluff. I got a pencil to work her body from the other side, then picked her up carefully with the muslin cloth, and tucked her into the shroud with care and tact, folding it on all four sides. I placed her in the breath-mint box and closed the flap, and discreetly walked her back out to our common room in a one-person cortège. Victor did not notice. Eleanor was still seated on Jason’s lap, playing with his hair. The medical examiner has confirmed, I said quietly to Jason, that she is gone.

What are you going to do with her, Jason texted me. I’ll figure something out, I answered. Jason shrugged. How long do you think she’ll take to decompose, I asked. Six months? Less, he surmised. Three, tops. Thus did I resolve my course of action. The kids do not need to be present, he said. I heartily agreed.

Jason and Victor prepared to leave for the farewell + birthday party of Victor’s best friend for the past five years. It started to rain harder. We’ll wait for this to calm down before we leave, Jason said. Then the two south-facing windows below the broken palazzo gutter began to flood, as they do two or three times a year. This offered a welcome and harried distraction as we moved all the things that Should Not Get Wet to higher ground. Eleanor took out the mop and bucket. Jason threw a bunch of old t-shirts on the increasing puddle, now gathering steam on its sloping way to the stairs. The rain relented after a while, and after about half an hour, cleanup was under control. Jason and Victor left for the party out in Rifredi. Eleanor and I popped some corn and settled in to watch the pilot of “The Gilded Age” on my laptop. It was distracting and useful to my purpose.

The rain ceased. I slipped from the room, put on my shoes, and picked up the candy box. I cased the area for some time before settling on a distant, dry spot, under a laurel hedge and far from any foot traffic. I prayed that no one would note my hurried activity. I hollowed out a deep enough hole and rolled the hamster into it, a featherweight, barely any flesh. I patted the wet dirt on top of the furry tuft. I lay a few laurel twigs to honor the brief life of a memorable and much-loved mammal that we hosted for just under two years.

Upstairs, Eleanor did not even noticed my absence. I put the candy box back on the china hutch. The sun came out and shone through our windows and skylights, bright yellow for just a bit before the clouds moved in again and gave way to evening.

Update from Italy: The Circle of Life (Hamster Chapter)

Our Kayla, as she appeared in health. (Actual Kayla not pictured.) Photo by Frenjamin Benklin on Unsplash

We acquired the small ball of fluff in July 2020, two months after the conclusion of Italy’s first and only (and most difficult) lockdown. The 52 days under house arrest for all the right reasons made our kids bored and anxious. We should have a cat, we murmured. A house rabbit, a hamster, a bird, anything to watch and take care of.

Italy being Italy, and my husband being himself, he knew just what to do: research the Italian Hamster Association to determine how to most efficiently and safely obtain a hamster for our home. After some back and forth with the local hamster experts, and a significant investment in hamster gear, he received the hamster at his office from a young woman with a handsome collection of piercings, ripped fishnets, Doc Maartens, and black eyeliner. He brought her home in a portable birdcage bedded with litter, and we released the mini-mammal into her new cage. She was a Roborovski dwarf hamster, and would easily fit inside the half peel of a clementine. Her eyes were shiny and clever. She was adorable.

A HAMSTER. Her welcome was joyful. The kids named her first Simone, then Brie, than Kayla. (Eleanor watches a lot of American YouTube.) So, you basically moved from a coastal name and progressed to interior territories, our friend Melanie quipped. Eleanor hand-lettered a nametag to go over her enormous cage as though she had the corner office in a Fortune 500 hamster company. And she was treated like a hamster executive. Fine German wood shavings for bedding, clean cotton fluff for her bed, new paper towels carefully pre-shredded for her by tiny loving hands. For her first birthday (Epiphany 2021) we selected a luxury hammock for her to play in. It clipped to the roof of her cage by means of four small carabiners.

But Kayla was wont to reward our kindness. Victor claimed that her temperament changed when the neighbor kids repeatedly came to play with her. They carried her around in a play dog bed as though she were a maharajah. They handled her and pet her head. One day, he confessed, one of the neighbor girls stuffed the hamster into a Barbie dress. Kayla grew resentful, then violent. She bit each one of our loving hands in turn on different days, drawing blood each time. When it was my turn, she ran out of her house like an offensive lineman, her jaws open, and clamped hard on my finger. Out of instinct I shook my hand in the cage with the appended hamster swinging. Her jaws were no joke. She eventually let go. I learned my lesson. My finger throbbed for days.

We tried to repair Kayla’s broken trust, but the damage had been done. No amount of internet research to re-tame a hamster could help. And so Kayla entered a sort of well-admired hermitage, looking very cute, waking up with tissue on her head like a medieval sleeping cap, running on her wheel, climbing the wire bars of her cage, doing wind sprints on her wheel, and shuffling through her food bowl to pick out the fat sunflowers seeds in the mix. She loved sunflower seeds. She would accept them from between the bars of the cage with a loud SQUEAK, hulling them expertly between her teeth. We were glad for the distraction. We felt affectionate toward Kayla, in spite of her biting. We remembered to never put our hand into her cage unless she was asleep and it was to replenish her food and water.

Sometimes last summer, Kayla took ill. We left town for a few weeks, placing her in the care of a capable Italian nonna who was delighted to have a hamster for a while. When we returned home Kayla was missing a lot of fur. Her skin was raw. She scratched a lot. After an awkward week of watching her worsen, we made an appointment for her to be seen by a local veterinarian. He was on the other side of town, so we loaded Kayla up into her tiny birdcage and motored on over to the vet’s office.

This vet seemed to specialize in every possible beast that creeps upon the earth except humans. He was very no-nonsense. Be careful! I said when he put his hand in the cage. He rolled his eyes at me. Kayla did try to bite him but he was faster than she was. This hamster’s an asshole, he said. Jason and I fidgeted. She’s missing a lot of fur. She’s got terrible dermatitis, he said. We know, we shook our heads. He gave us a thimbleful of antibiotic for her and charged us forty euros for both the visit and the prescription. We administered the medicine, which seemed to help a bit.

But Kayla lost more and more fur, and then her motor control. She got strange sores on her head, her hind legs. She teetered around on those pink toothpicks. She went blind. She could barely reached the metal tube of her water bottle. The kids lost interest in her as she looked increasingly ragged. Victor made a sad face every time we mentioned her, but he was willing to assist with her basic care. Pretty soon, though, I became the designated hamster hospice nurse, checking on her and changing her water and food. I idly wondered if hamster euthanasia was a thing. A quick twist of the neck would do it. I felt bad for wondering this. I set aside a little piece of white muslin that once wrapped a bath bomb from LUSH to wrap her in when her inevitable end occurred.

She was still eating well, but last night, when she tried to run on her wheel, she toppled over onto her side and struggled to get up. It was a rough scene, new territory. As I read Eleanor to sleep in her nest of blankets on the sofa, I heard Kayla rummaging through her dish of seeds, looking for sunflower seeds.

This morning when I went to check on the hamster, she was still for the first time in months, lying peacefully on her side. She was not scratching or wiggling around. I bent closer. She was not breathing. Her blind eye was closed.

I went into our bedroom to notify Jason. The hamster died, I said. Are you sure? Yes, I said. She is not breathing anymore. Jason sighed. Let’s just keep an eye on her. Keep an eye on a dead hamster? For what? She will come back to life? Or dry out, like a Peruvian mummy on the Altiplano?

We have not told the kids yet. I don’t think they’ll be surprised. But Eleanor might cry, in spite of having reassured me months that, after Kayla’s demise, she would cross the rainbow bridge where she could “re-be’s alive.” In fact I am sure she will cry. Tempus fugit, kids! Kayla, we barely knew ye. You’ll be missed – and we are so glad for all the lessons you gave us. Your memory will be a blessing.

Shakespeare Report: A Midsummer Night’s Dream

Photo by Dollar Gill on Unsplash

The course of true love never did run smooth. Oh Lysander, say it again!

A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Edmond North Mid-High, spring 1988. I am a high school freshman. I auditioned on a lark, because friends. I am cast as a very bit part – Moth the Fairy – in a very wordy play. I think I had one line, “And me!” My friends with meatier roles all had approximately ten thousand lines each more than I did but, at fourteen, I was content to be in their company, at the rehearsals and read-throughs, with the rest of the fairies, Titania and Oberon, Theseus and Bottom. They were good – they really were. It’s not an exaggeration to say I was in awe of my friends and their talents. And I think back to that drama teacher and the nerves of steel she must have had (not too mention a forgiving home life) to spend so many nights rehearsing with a cast of fourteen, fifteen, and sixteen year old actors, for weeks, into the dark hours. I’ll never forget the frisson that traveled up my spine on our first read-through, the tables pulled into a circle so we could all look at one another as we read the hard copies of our scripts together in the drama room. This is it! I remember saying to myself. Shakespeare! the stage! I didn’t even mind my fairly mute part and the purple tights and bodysuit and copious amounts of aerosol glitter that I donned by way of costume when the premier was upon us.

This falls out better than I could devise. – Oberon

Now, having watched the play in its entirety this week, I think I could have been a formidable Hermia, but alas in 1988 suffered a typical deficit of confidence. There’s no way I could have pulled the art off then. The girl who was Hermia was very good. Lysander was a homely boy who took another fairy for his girlfriend at some point during the production, but they broke up by mid-May.

Love looks not with the eyes but with the mind / And therefore is wingèd cupid painted blind. – Helena

The marvel of A Midsummer Night’s Dream is Shakespeare’s glib language, the way his action glides from reality to irreality, from benighted mortals (our confused couples, Theseus and Hippolyta, the workingman’s acting troupe) to enlightened fairies (Puck, Titania, Oberon, and various bit-part fairies) and back again. It was an enlightened choice for angsty teen actors – a world presented where words came as needed and beautifully so, a world of Elizabethan magical realism, a world where human folly is attributable to supernatural meddling (and making right again).

I am a spirit of no common rate. – Titania

If I didn’t know this play so well, I probably would have been as confused by the complicated action as I was with The Comedy of Errors. (Note to self – find live production of The Comedy of Errors to patronize.) I mean, who can keep track of which fairy put which magical eye-drops into the eyes of which mortal, who then falls in love with the right person? the wrong person? It’s helpful that Titania beds an ass – that keeps things very clear. But the Hermia/Lysander and Demetrius/Helena mix-ups are head-spinning.

So quick, bright things come to confusion. – Lysander

Perhaps the greatest charm of the play is how the fairy world reflects the human world. Fairies mess up, do a bad job, get confused, make mistakes, followed by attempts to rectify said mistakes. Humans try to understand, cannot understand, respond in frustration, and have many thoughts about their sad situation until things are put aright. But how much do mortals wish that we too might pack a bit of love-in-forgetfulness to spirit away our frustrations?

a little western flower / before, milk-white, now purple with love’s wound / And maidens call it love-in-idleness. – Oberon

I am struck by the return of the play within the play – reminiscent of the hick townies in Love’s Labours Lost. I have never liked the Midsummer Night subplot with Peter Quince et al. – it really grates on me. I don’t like the snooty responses of the academics and nobles in the audience and the mockery of the working class. I don’t like how idiotic the workingmen are. It’s like Jerry Lewis suddenly gatecrashed Shakespeare. I know the plays (the actual plays) were meant to be staged at a wedding or a fine event, and these little plays-within-the-plays must have been witty indeed in situ (hahaha, aren’t we amusing, etc.). But I will confess, I increased the playback speed to 1.25x, then 1.5x, then 1.75x to get through this whole silly story with Pyramus and Thisbe and the townie actors.

Lord, what fools these mortals be! – Puck

My visual production companion this time was the 1968 English film starring Judi Dench and Helen Mirren. Would you believe it! They were both so young, fresh, beautiful, and talented. Judi Dench was mostly disrobed and painted a sickly green, as were all the other fairies in the film adaptation. The little fairies looked emaciated and hungry. The FX were hilariously low-fi. The editing horrendous – was editing really this roughly done in the sixties?! But it was magnificent, and a country house in Warwickshire stands in for Athens, the Athenians all recently come from Carnaby street in mod blouses and mini skirts, Hippolyta’s asp jewelry snaking around her slim upper arm. It really reminded me of movies we watched in middle school, when the teacher rolled in some massive TV and a VHS player so we could watch The Diary of Anne Frank or some such. For that alone I am grateful this production was available free on YouTube.

I never heard so musical a discord – such sweet thunder! – Hippolyta

As a creative writer, some years ago I decided that my greatest struggle was with plot. I am good with character and insight and language, but what should we make these little characters do? When I devised this mini-project for myself, I had plot in mind. I would read all the Shakespeare plays as a plot clinic! But a third of the way through his collected works, I am finding that Shakespeare plots are shallow to the point of fatuous. The plots are not the point: take shipwreck, and a pair or two of identical twins, thwart true love, throw in some glaring class differences. End with a wedding, or a double wedding, or a triple wedding, or a joyful family reunion. Or a funeral, a double funeral, or a triple funeral. The Bard is no great shakes in plot! He hangs every tale on the same basic conceits. Add a few sonnets (very good), sparkling language, and abundant bawd. Repeat ad nauseum. Takeaway: if the audience is well-entertained, they will forgive you. They’re not there for the plot. They’re there to be amused by language and character.

Fie, fie, you counterfeit, you puppet, you! – Helena

Next week, back to the Histories, with Richard II! Four of the next six plays on my list are histories. Battle and armaments, ere I come!