Update from Paris: The Hammam of La Grande Mosquée

Photo by Linus Mimietz on Unsplash

My Finnish possible heritage compels me to investigate communal bathing whenever I find myself far afield: Spain, Mexico, Argentina, Hungary, Estonia, Finland, Sweden, Italy, the U.S. Now for France! A bit of extra time at the end of my recent Episcopal jaunt to Paris gave me a few ideas. I checked out various spas (from the Latin, Salus per aquam, made into a Roman acronym. Health through waters!), heard about the Nuxe and Caudalie spa centres (I adore both of these brands, so that was tempting), then my friend Flo said, you should go to the hammam of the Grande Mosquée! It’s in the Fifth Arrondisement, I’ve only ever been to the tea garden! My curiosity was immediately piqued. As soon as I confirmed late Friday night that the hammam was open for bathing Saturday at 10 am, I was resolved to go.

I was travelling light, just a backpack and a purse, and quickly found my way on the Métro to Austerlitz. In the backpack was a two-piece swimsuit I had tucked between my rolled summer dresses, hopeful I would find an opportunity, and here it was! People on the Métro who saw me smiling might have thought I had just received some other sort of Very Good News but I was just very much looking forward to an extremely local and specific spa experience.

Getting out of the Austerlitz construction zone was another matter entirely but after eavesdropping on the chatter of a quartet of French women, I followed them out and crossed the street to follow the length of the Jardin des Plantes. (I think it is really funny that French specifies, this is a garden of plants. What else would be in a garden? But perhaps this is a linguistic lacuna, such as when French says that something is a salade, which could mean a green thing is involved, or could mean some things are mixed together, such as jambon melon, or a salade de musau featuring a diced porcine snout with visible nostrils atop a bed of sad soggy lettuce. In any case, leagues from the salad bar popular in the North American imagination.) The Grande Mosquée is the biggest in Paris and lives up to its name. Its massive whitewashed stucco hulk, delicately laced with kelly green screens, towered over the street corner. The entry was discrete but I had done my research the night before and walked through the hidden door behind the café’s glass pastry case and stepped into a dimly lit interior courtyard.

The elegantly dressed madame at reception (hijab, perfect eyeliner) explained the options while I studied the menu. I agreed to a gommage (all-over body scrub), massage (argan oil!), and mint tea. But for an extra ten euros you can get the déjeuner! she urged me. Sold. I grabbed my claquettes (flip flops), was handed a towel, a scratchy mitt (very very scratchy – more on this), and a packet of special soap (more on this). I went back to the vestiaire to change.

The hammam is not for the faint of heart or nudophobes. Get ready to undress and scrub. The Maghreb-flavoured spa was all business. A woman in the shower explained the soap packet to me. I cut it open and applied the oily, olive-scented scrub soap all over my skin. DO NOT RINSE! she reminded me. AND PUT YOUR TOWEL BACK IN THE LOCKER! I followed her second piece of advice only to somehow set off an alarm as I pressed the wrong order on the key pad, but a cleaning lady had a bracelet to quiet the shrill warning and reset the code.

Relieved I wouldn’t be responsible for the evacuation of the hammam, I mazed my way through the thick air to the hottest, steamiest steam room for my prescribed twenty minutes. The marble floors of the spa were heated from below while the steam pushed out of marble vents in the wall. Hot condensation dripped from the ceiling. I repeatedly refilled my plastic bucket from the cold tap. The olive soap began to smell better and better in the warmth as it lathered up lightly. I could not stop sniffing my forearm. When I could stand it no more, I moved to the second room, which featured six bathing alcoves, also with heated marble floors, and their own private taps. Each sauna-sized alcove would have fit six to eight women, but I was by myself and took one. I tried out the scratchy kassa (glove) and was delighted to see its immediate exfoliating effect as rolls of grey skin began to slide off my skin. A raised marble dais in the center was inlaid with a marble cherubim or maybe a compass rose. The vaulted ceilings were lit by clerestory windows, further covered by latticed screens. The vibe was steamy, content, and private. I jingled all the plastic tags on my numerous rubber bracelets and thought, RIGHT. Let’s get this gommage going. I took my bucket and kassa and sat in the waiting area.

Three women who looked North African were scrubbing, each with a pink body laid out on a marble bed. Back, then front, then sit up for more scrubbing around the neck and shoulders. I was happy to see this level of grandma attention to skin and the care with which they treated each client. Much Parisian skin needed to be exfoliated that day, so I waited my turn. I was very familiar and in fact couvetous of the treatment to come, so patience was on my side. I have only managed to procure this type of scrub once in Hungary in 1995 at the Gellért, and once in Tacoma at a Korean spa where a tech in a sport bra and a girdle took my skin almost down to raw meat.

The grandmas motioned me in, and pointed to the shower. Once I was clean, my grandma took my gommage bracelet, laid me on the marble bed and went to work. She was all business, excellent and efficient. I felt the buildup from years of using lotion and sunscreen and suffering dry skin in winter all slough off and be rinsed away. Tout finis! she announced, and off I went into the next shower. By this time, feeling very relaxed, I kept my swim top in the plastic bucket, and headed back for some more steam, my service tokens clacking quietly.

The massage salon was situated on the upper floor, in a beautiful gallery of wooden trellises and bright paint. I was whisked into a room where once more a no-nonsense tech used approximately one litre of argan oil as she worked me over, front to back. The oil smelled like the garden of eden. Beaded curtains separating each treatment room rustled gently in the breeze as staff bustled by with clients. By the time she was done I felt like a roast ready to go into the oven, so I did exactly that. Down for more steam. My skin by now looked like a baby’s, oiled and washed and scrubbed and oiled. The steamiest steam room was really hot by now, so I crawled into the tiled cold tub and remained there like a fun-sized pink hippo. I honestly felt like I was visibly becoming thinner in the steam and from all the sweating. I wasn’t even hungry but knew that when I did locate my appetite, I would be ravenous (more on this). Ironically both times that I was in the cold tub it was full of the only loud women in the hammam: first Italians, then a group of Brazilians.

There is a lot to be said for the body positivity of an all-women bathhouse, and for the level of care and attention, and how much happier this makes a person feel to have a body, especially a person approaching the mid-century mark with years of post-partum and breastfeeding under the belt. It’s a level of calm that is difficult to approach in a bath or shower at home. The industrial steam helps. The communal setting of intention to relax is also strong. But relaxation is a commodity for sale. More than one of the staff seemed to be having a very stressful day. A cleaning lady leaned on a mop, hissing her grievances with the the first woman who had explained the soap packet to me, and the extremely capable grandma who had so efficiently scrubbed off all my dead skin was weeping in a corner talking to the beautiful receptionist, ils disent que les clientes …. I felt bad when I saw the grandma crying and wanted to tell her how perfect her treatment was for me, but I felt like the timing wasn’t ideal for such a move.

I successfully retrieved my towel from my locker without setting off any alarms and went to the main internal courtyard. Now I was down to my last bracelet: thé du menthe. The lovely receptionist poured me a glass of hot, very sweet, mint tea, and I found a quiet corner to relax in while my tea cooled.

Mint tea at the La Grande Mosquée. Photo (c) 2022 Monica Sharp

Usually in situations like this I like to have something to read, but I was in that spa for close to five hours and never felt like reading anything. I was just reading my own thoughts, doing what the protagonist does in “The Snows of Kilimanjaro,” where he mentally reviews various stories he never wrote – writing without writing, reading without reading. I wasn’t near death, but I was feeling very drowsy indeed by now, surrounded by low-volume French chatter. It was hard to know what time it was. No clock anywhere. I finally spotted one over the reception and began making my plan to ease into a less steamy, more dry, more robed world. I had a flight to Florence in the evening and would need to head to the airport by no later than four, and a Hammam Value Meal to put down before then. I made one more fast circuit, then got dressed and thanked the staff on my way out.

The quiet of the hammam was not matched in the restaurant. The place was bustling like I’ve never seen a Saturday lunch service bustle before. I realized that half of the guests were drinking the sweet mint tea and nibbling on small pastries. I, on the other hand, was now starving, and when the liveried waiter came I quickly made my selections, handing over my lunch ticket and looking forward to my halal kofta couscous. The people watching was superb, but I didn’t have to snoop on strangers for long because the waiter reappeared with my lunch: a platter of couscous, three huge flat meatballs, a tureen of stewed vegetables, a ramekin of chickpeas, and a ramekin of sultanas. The eyes at the table next to mine grew so big they almost popped out of their sockets.

But the waiter was not done. Oh no. Do you need the spicy sauce? the what? more? there’s more food? oh wait. Oh Yes I need all the spicy sauce! I smiled. He ginned broadly and reappeared with a third ramekin of red paste that would easily have powered a rocket ship. I dispatched my plates with gusto and reflected on the wisdom of this particular pre-departure lunch. The much younger dessert waiter came by and theatrically poured me some more mint tea (pictured above) and brought back a gargantuan platter of sweets from which I was permitted to select one. Just one?! I exclaimed. Oui madame, he nodded, patiently poised with silver tongs midair. I quizzed him on the contents of the mini burritos and baklava, and finally selected a hard, nutty pirouline dripping with honey. After I polished off the pirouline I silently conceded that one, in fact, had been enough. More than enough!

And so, five hours after my arrival, I was clean and feed, scrubbed and oiled, calm and ready for travel, my backpack carefully zipped, my phone in my left hand with the map active. I left through the same diminutive, single-person-sized entrance and started walking toward the Seine. I bought Eleanor two French berets on the way, just as I promised I would.

Thoughts on Roe

Photo by Jason Leung on Unsplash

I was born in 1973, almost exactly nine months after the Roe v. Wade decision. My parents were young and married. I remember my childhood as a a comfortable, safe life, but wealthy by no real stretch. We went to public (American definition) schools, drove to all our vacations, which were almost always to visit family who lived elsewhere. One year when my dad received a holiday bonus at work we all took a trip to San Francisco for Christmas break (on a plane!) and it was such an unknown format to us that my brothers and I all stressed out and wanted to just hang in the musty hotel room.

I was born in 1973, almost exactly nine months after the Roe v. Wade decision. The schools I attended were safe, as were the neighborhoods I lived in, aside from the occasional creepy male neighbor whom we all knew by word of mouth to avoid. We played in the houses of friends and jumped on neighboring trampolines. There were no gun or talk of guns aside from Michigan hunting culture. I had a safe path to education and a university degree. I understand that much of this opportunity was down to privilege. My growing up experience in the U.S. would have been very different had I been a Black or brown child.

I was born in 1973, almost exactly nine months after the Roe v. Wade decision. In 1991, when I was seventeen, I left home for college, which offered a major party scene on at a state school. Fortunately that period in retrospect seems pretty status quo and didn’t last long. Both gender politics and structural racism were brutal realities in the south. The un-diversified state economy based on big energy and ignorant arrivistes was tough to stomach as I learned more, read more, and realized more. Ambition and escapism met and married in my soul and I got myself selected as the chair of the university Speakers Bureau, choosing speakers to come to campus and allocating budget funds when requested by registered student groups: Douglas Coupland, Ice-T, Gary Hart, Carl Bernstein, Sarah Weddington.

The Speakers Bureau sponsored Sarah Weddington, whom I did not know of before I met her (oh youth! oh the receding horizon of ignorance!). She argued and won Roe when she was 26 in front of the Supreme Court. She came for an on-campus talk and we took her out for dinner. She signed her book. I bought a copy and she signed that with an encouraging dedication. She met my mother, who came for the talk, and told her that she should be proud of her daughter. Sarah had a lot of Texas no-nonsense in her, like Molly Ivins or my friend Betty. People who’ve seen a rough side of life and come out on the other side knowing that people need help, not judgement. Sarah was great. I felt like I’d met a real-life role model, face to face.

I was born in 1973, almost exactly nine months after the Roe v. Wade decision. The U.S. was different then. I came into a safer culture that offered choice, and education, and maybe understood a little better that decks can be stacked against people in ways that we can’t understand, and that those people deserve mercy and support, not judgment. I am privileged that my life has been my experience. I also accept that other people may find themselves in circumstances I cannot even fathom and who deserve my support for them to get meaningful help – meaning the help they want and need, not the help that derives from an ignorant or misplaced sense of charity.

I was born in 1973, almost exactly nine months after the Roe v. Wade decision. When I was 34 I was married and decided to stop taking the pill. I had one early miscarriage. Then my appendix ruptured. Then, a few months after I returned to work from that medical crisis, I became pregnant again, but this time it was ectopic. My husband and I very much wanted a child. We did not want to have miscarriages or ectopic pregnancies, but we did. Well after six weeks, I went to the hospital on a Sunday in May, which happened to be Mother’s Day. We were married without children. The “personhood bill” was then being much discussed and debated in that silly state legislature. Technically I was still pregnant, but it was a big problem. Ectopic pregnancies are nothing to fool with. They can go sideways and fast. After much consultation with our Israeli doctor and my always-on-call Aunt Ginny, an obgyn who will always take a call anytime of day or night from a female relative, we decided to proactively terminate. It was trapped. It could not live, and if left to continue, it would probably kill me. We trudged back into the doctor’s office and told him I wanted the methotrexate shot. I cried when I got it and then I went home and cried for weeks. I was lucky. I lived in a place of privilege. I had good health care. I am here today to tell you this story.

Fortunately I wasn’t on any kind of looney-tune public prayer list and no one tried to talk to me about the precious life I was carrying in my Fallopian tube. But in the family planning aisle of the drugstore closest to our house, zealots frequently placed anti-abortion pamphlets next to the pregnancy tests. Whenever I saw them I removed them and threw them away in the trash outside the drugstore, furious.

We went on to have two healthy pregnancies in that state, both our children born in the same hospital where I’d had to end the ectopic pregnancy in May 2010. As a pregnant person and a parent to infants, I appreciate more then ever the unknown twists and turns that a pregnancy can take, and the toll it can take on the pregnant person. Obviously I think life is precious, but it’s not my place to insert my opinion into the medical decisions of any other person.

I’ve lived outside of the US for years now, and it is becoming a culture I struggle to recognize. It grieves me that people in power cannot imagine the shitty hands that so many people are dealt in life, nor can they summon the empathy to genuinely support unimaginable suffering. It is amazing to me that predominantly Catholic Latin American countries (Argentina, Mexico) are now expanding women’s rights as the U.S. recedes further into a dystopian plot that even ten years ago we did not think was a foregone conclusion. How did Latin American people do it? Mobilize, protest, get on TV, radio, every social media channel out there, and change the conversation. Don’t let the story they tell be the only story, because it’s not a true one. People in power are owning this debate and setting the terms, and the suffering that will result from their shortsighted ignorance is beyond imagination.

Paris My Way: Collected Observations

Photo by Thibault Penin on Unsplash

In a city as charming as Paris, things start looking familiar at every turn, which can quickly make geographic disorientation an occupational hazard. This is also the case with Ljubljana, but less so with Florence.

It is strange to feel more European than ever landing in Paris and hitting the ground running. I squint to remember the times when I felt like the cultural status quo to myself (nation Monica, population 1) and Europeans seemed different. After 7 of the last 11 years in Italy, nothing in Europe chafes; the pleasure remains in finding a parc de loisirs of cultural delights.

Got controlled (checked for valid ticket) in 2 of 4 Métro trips today. This has never happened before. Glad I hung onto my single paper ticket after validating it. On my way to dinner the turnstiles were broken and so I just walked in. Luckily this was not one of the two controlled trips. The Métro cops detained a mother and her son (approximately eight years old) who was raising holy hell in a crowded, low-ceilinged tunnel.

Cojean is better than Pret A Manger by miles. Plus those bamboo cutlery sets are fetching. I bought a second set for a euro today just because… isn’t it nice to have two sets of bamboo cutlery?

French coffee is still abysmal – what does the culture hold against a good robust roast?

Tartine for breakfast in the hotel was magnifique.

A treat to catch up with old friends and share news, along with general annoyances and a refusal to watch Emily in Paris beyond the first few minutes of Episode 1, Season 1. Screw that dumb series with its shoddy writing and shoddier clichés and Phil Collins’s slender pretty daughter.

Hobnobbing in the Marais with French people who have married into glamorous American semi royalty of the cinematic and rock n roll classes.

Shocked at the line out the door to browse Shakespeare&Co. French friend and I were all, quoi? is J.K. Rowling in there or something? “No,” a middle-aged blonde American woman told us; “they stamp the books with rubber stamps with the store name (I know that) and I am going to buy Leaves of Grass!” (barf) We left disgusted.

The Parisian grand-mère on Ile-St-Louis passing an accordionist on the bridge and mumbling loudly, fait chier! We were dying. Poor Parisians.

Taking the Métro out to the 14ème for a single dinner. The restaurant had a special Icelandic menu and the rest of the complexe was showing Icelandic art, film, and more. A hipster concert was happening. I nosed in to ask. They asked me if I was with the Icelandic Embassy. No, I said, I just ate dinner here, but can I see the concert? Non, c’est complet. All full, lady! I laughed and went on my way, my stomach full of beet kimchi and arctic char and various blossoms scattered over cod, and chocolate mousse and warm brandy. The garden was so lush and the people-watching so top I didn’t mind eating alone.

I’m three for three on fantastic dinners (Le Timbaud, La Mère Agitée [“un bistro non confirmiste”], and Fulgurances L’Entrepôt). And the Hotel Cosmos is a place I would come back to in a snap, quiet in the high floors of the 11ème.

I “borrowed” a book from the American cathedral that I pretended to read on all my Métro trips (Hitler and Churchill, 2003).

Some tourists from Oregon were yelling the news about today’s overturn of Roe v. Wade by our joke of a Supreme Court. More like Supreme Mullahs. This was in the courtyard of the Musée Picasso, which I realized while perusing its 5 floors of treasure is almost entirely based on Marie-Thérèse Walter and Jacqueline Roque because the loot was all donated by Maya Picasso to satisfy her inheritance tax in 1978. None of my favorite pieces; no Braques, no Brassai, no Gilet! No Françoise Gilot!? Dégage! But a beautiful space comunque. I reflected on the irony of being informed of the crumbling of women’s equal rights in America in a museum dedicated to a man who may represent more than anyone twentieth-century machismo and who certainly did the women in his life no favors. Oh well. I bought a linen pillow cover (image: painting of MTW and Maya) in the gift shop.

My trip home may be fraught due to three different strikes in cockpits (10% of Air France pilots) , airspace (southeast France air traffic control) and ground crew in Florence (11 am to 3 pm, they’ll be drinking extra espresso and checking their phones more than usual.)

Paris, je t’adore.

How It Went

Photo by Jade Seok on Unsplash

It all came on so fast. Who could have expected it? 

It’s nothing, you say, it’s probably fine. 

The small hot knot in the lower belly, the discomfort, the fever. The indignations of advancing years include a drying of the skin, a tightening of the joints, the slowing of digestion as your prana fades to a low ember.

It’s nothing, you say, it’s probably fine. With thin hands you roll the edges of the thermal blanket, over and over again. The nights are cold in that palazzo. At some point you become delirious and call for your nurse. She comes in and lays a cool hand on your neck. Her skin is not dry. Her joints are not tight.

You hear her belly growl low like a hungry hound, right by your ear.

You are hungry, you tell her. But your face will not form a reprimand.

La febbre, she whispers. I am calling the doctor. 

It’s nothing, you repeat, it’s probably fine. 

You miss your mother. She crossed years ago. You still talk to her in your dreams. You hope she sees you now.  You feel her presence.

The nurse calls emergency medical services. The personnel arrive quickly, clad in orange jumpsuits, wearing masks and goggles and blue gloves for protection. 

NPIs, you say softly. I don’t blame you. We all have to do what we can in these times.

You were always so practical.

The attendants carefully lift you and place you on a gurney. Strap you in for safety and wheel you through your apartment, the one you and Matteo bought decades ago. Past every room. The hot knot in your stomach throbs and you know this was the last time you’ll see these rooms. The library, full of books, a frescoed ceiling, a glass case of Greek and Roman artifacts you loved to hold and turn in your palms. The tiled courtyard with its wooden cabinets of onions and garlic and oranges, the galley kitchen and your espresso machine, the sugar in the crockery jar. 

Never pastry, always fruit, you remember your mother saying. Never eat pastry with your espresso. Always eat fruit and you’ll live to be a hundred. The dirty red tazza you love, Go Get ‘Em in sprawling gilt script across its smooth surface.

Go get ‘em, you smile to yourself. Oh the irony. This is it. Your knees, weak and cold. Your ankles turned out. The medical staff put another blanket on you for the four-block ride to the central hospital. 

Out the door and into the ambulance, the siren blaring. You know these people. They’ve been taking care of you for years. They know you by name. Tsking, their faces grave, they drive the bouncing ambulance over the flagstones to the admitting side of Santa Maria Novella. Urgenze. Molto urgente.

You slip in and out of reality. The hot knot now melting down. The parts of your body don’t seem to fit together anymore. Legs drift from hips, arms unhook from shoulders. Fingers and palms no longer flex. Your head seems to roll away from your neck. It was all very strange. So unexpected. Nothing had prepared you for this. An unattached hand continues to grasp the blanket like a memory. The hospital is loud. Your mouth is dry. Minutes stop meaning. No window, no day, no night. 

The roar of the next life shushes and foams over the weir. Just like the cascade at San Niccolò, at Santa Rosa, where the clean cold water sheets over the rocks and lands many lengths below in a pool of churning foam. You can hear it as you drift toward it. You don’t even try to stop or turn around. This is surrender. It’s not up to you anymore. You’re leaving this body and this world behind. 

The pain recedes when the body is shed. What lightness! No more concern about the composite parts that drifted away from each other, the errant arms and legs, the unhooked arms and head. The spiral of a hidden staircase. Welcoming visions everywhere. A fountain whispers, a turret smiles. A garden greets you with its hands. 

*Final sentences culled from ad copy found on Memo Perfumes, ever a source of inspiration.

American Grief Abroad: Stream of Conscience

Photo by Hoach Le Dinh on Unsplash

America has shown us once more that the culture does not value life.
This contradicts what certain factions claim about a woman’s right to choose: if and when to have a child.
This piece expresses perfectly how I perceive the passing flurry of interest and media debate post-Uvalde.

The arrow piercing his flesh, the man demands answers. What kind of arrow is it? Who shot the arrow? What kind of poison is it? What feathers are on the arrow, a peacock’s or a hawk’s?

Summer break is upon us. In the US, they are burying nineteen children who were murdered at school.

The US has no focus.
The US has a harmful focus.
The US always changes the debate.
The US misses the point every damn time. How is this possible?

The US starts wars abroad that mirror the wars at home. The US does not want to admit the wars at home. The US is having the war at home. There is a war at home. This is sobering.

An academic study has found that Americans care about a tragedy for exactly four days.
“We need to be moved by the pain of all of the suffering. But it is important that we are not paralyzed by it,” Ms. Han said. “It makes us value life because we understand life is very precious, life is very brief, it can be extinguished in a single instant.”

The American orgy of grief / false grief appears once more.
Show me one day of genuine grief that leads to a compassionate response.

Grief devolves into noise. There are no solutions. The problems persist. The violence escalates.

People busily debate pointless points while the culture sacrifices the weakest on the altar of the “values” of the strongest and wealthiest.

I listened to an Ezra Klein podcast about deaths of despair.
I felt definite despair after listening to the podcast.
The podcast made me see how Americans are blamed – and blame themselves personally – for completely normal and human responses to a very, very broken system.
The speaker, Patrick Deneen, did not even mention health care or mental health care vis-à-vis the opioid epidemic, the pandemic, the violence.
Do people suffer for fun? Should people just be stronger? Make greater effort. Make more difficult choices. Don’t be weak.

Do Americans dislike families? Every single aspect of American culture makes it so hard to survive as a family, a single person, or an old person. Any kind of person struggles to survive in America.
Do Americans divorce for fun because they’re lazy? There’s no public accounting or recognition of the sheer stress that American culture visits on families. Endless bills. Job insecurity. Debt owed. No time off. No sick leave. No childcare. Schools. Moving, moving, moving, for work.
I keep wanting to write and post about this and I am just feeling so scattered and stuck and angry. And tired.
I am ashamed of my country. The culture is what it is. It cannot change.

The political left offers no anchor in the mid-spectrum. They speak in terms that only a limited in-group understand or believe. The Old Guard are so very old. Who will come after them? We are adrift in a running sea.
Gravity pulls people toward Trump, the NRA, QAnon, Boebert, MTG. There has to be a reason. People believe this. There has to be a savior. People believe this. Here is the savior.

The collective psyche of the United States of Id cannot field reflection or calm response. No recollection of useful facts or history.
The center cannot hold. I do think it will politically fracture in our lifetimes. Lines will be drawn. New countries will emerge. Mark me.
I am a compassionate humanist.
I am so tired of the American anger and American blame game. I want to peer deeper, see more, understand. I want to help. How can I help the healing? Can I?

I don’t think I can. I used to think I would. I thought that I had to. That social justice was my vocation. It’s not, in the end. How can I sacrifice myself without sacrificing my family? I cannot. Hope despairs. My friends. I am so sorry.

I feel guilty for surviving it all, at all.

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.