Update from Italy: Thinking Freely

Photo by Bianca Sbircea-Constantin on Unsplash

American exceptionalism. I discussed this in a post that hit a nerve yesterday. Yowch. I want to clarify a few points of opinion here.

I think America can be a city on a hill, if we allow that other countries also shine in exceptional ways from their own hills. Yes, America is special in some ways – as is every other country on this planet. Yes, America shares much in human nature, if perhaps somewhat less in culture, with all these other countries.

America is not the only nation of immigrants. Include Canada, New Zealand, Australia, Argentina, Chile, Brazil, to start. America is not the only multicultural game on the planet. The foregoing come to mind, along with Malaysia, Singapore, South Africa, Nigeria, Mexico, Peru, the U.K., Ireland, and more. If America were the only city on the single hill in this cherished extended metaphor, why would people ever have emigrated anywhere else?

American exceptionalism paves a slippery slope to personal exceptionalism. If I live in a special country, then I too am special. I mean – yes and no. I remember years ago realizing with a shock that I was simultaneously the most important thing and the least important thing in my life. The individuals who comprised the mob last Wednesday certainly invoked a personal exceptionalism. They stormed Congress while our elected representatives were in active session to validate the Electoral College tallies and expected impunity.

Much has been made in the past decade of the echo chamber of social media. I want to highlight its close cousin, the cultural echo chamber – when Americans talk to Americans about America. Yes, this is a fine and useful thing, but suffers from a lack of interrogation and analysis without outside perspectives. I think we can and should learn from other countries, as well as asking them how they see America. Every country, to some extent, struggles with class, income inequality, equal rights, sexism, food poverty, healthcare access, civil strife, political volatility. Why reinvent the wheel on every possible pain point? Why go it alone? Why not connect with people in all places to get some insight? I am reminded of one fractious meeting in my time as admin staff on campus, when I suggested that my university employer benchmark international enrollment strategies with peer institutions. The then-powerful dean of the College of Arts and Sciences snapped, Those are the last people I would want to talk to! He didn’t say why. End of discussion.

America, if we know who we are, then we know who we are not yet, and we can chart that path forward. But we need to be honest about who we are now, and who we want to be. Yes, there are flaws, but a lot of it wants to work. This discussion is going to be painful, because people are going to disagree. But I think we can do it. There are many, many people of good faith in America who want to support the cause, this ongoing experiment in democracy.

Extremism on either end of the spectrum is not the way forward. I love America. I’m a product of the country that raised and educated me, employed and challenged me, and yes, at times disregarded me and caused needless suffering. I want to help heal it and help make it a better place – more fair, more just. I’m doing that by writing about the positives in our culture and government while calling out issues that require the attention of fair-minded people of good faith. I’m exercising free listening with my free speech.

I’ll close with an anecdote. A few years ago, after we’d been living in Italy for a year, I flew into LAX for a professional conference. I waited in line with my blue passport, holding onto my suitcase in one hand, documents in the other. This was some months after the Muslim Travel Ban was enacted as an executive order. When it was my turn to be stamped in, an African-American man in a nylon cap waved me toward him. His name tag said Muhammad. Welcome back home, Monica, he said with a big grin. We’ve missed you. I almost started crying. No better welcome could have been imagined for me. This reality did not match the news. It didn’t matter what the White House said, or tried to do; here was proof of my America, different and warm and welcoming and defiant.

The View from Italy: Flash Bang America

Photo by Tingey on Unsplash

This is Day 5 since the Capitol Mob stuck while Congress was in session. Five dead, a sixth related death over the weekend. Italian questions have tapered off a bit – for now – until the next violent demonstration flares up, and I suspect it will. The U.S. is starting on a long path toward a new destination. It’s going to get darker before it lightens up.

In the year we have all just experienced, and survived, if you’re reading this now, there was so much happening in the U.S. that required our careful attention. The pandemic. How it impacted everyone’s work and income, childcare and school. Healthcare and hospitals, families and spaces. Insurance and savings. Where people lived, and where they wanted to live. Key elections. And yet here we are, dissecting human nature, and focused on a certain narcissist who’s bored of his job.

After the election of 2016 was called (on Wednesday, you’ll recall), Italians in town regarded my sniffling with no small amount of sympathy. We survived Berlusconi, they told me. We felt just this way when he was elected, and elected again. It will be hard, but you’ll be fine. You’ll come out of it wiser and more resilient. These words from my very international Florentine friends. I believe them when they say they know how graft and corruption work. You want to see some political gridlock? Come to Italy in most any year; they’ve had 61 governments since 1945. (Americans tend to say this as though astonished, when our biannual election schedule does something similar to Congress, as we anticipate now in the upcoming rearrangement of Senate leadership within its 20 permanent and 4 joint committees.) But Italians have seen centuries of political intrigue in their territory, well before statehood. They have a certain wise weariness about it all. They live their history routinely through their decisions and perceptions. Rome, the Church, the Great Schism, duchies and papal states, Spanish and French incursions, all live in the collective memory. Little surprises them. Humans are humans. Some people are bad actors, other people are goodhearted. This portion is idealistic; that section is pragmatic. Italian culture excels at this kind of emotional wisdom. They understand things on a cultural level. This is my perception as a global American. It seems to stand in contrast to much of what I lived and experienced in the U.S.

I feel Italy is shaking its head kindly, some days, tsk. Poor America. What took you so long? Welcome to the rest of us, here on the planet, struggling with culture and communication and competing priorities and prejudice and good (and bad) governance. Why did you think you were different?

America and Americans really want to be different. I get that. Americans want to feel they are different. This is very important to American culture. What a shock to realize that American society is destined, like all peoples, to struggle with culture and communication and competing priorities and prejudice and good (and bad) governance. I remember the “city on a hill” metaphor about American exceptionalism recounted by a political science professor with shining eyes (by the way, I cannot believe that passed for collegiate coursework – why weren’t we urged to more deeply interrogate the trope?). American exceptionalism is harmful, and it harms America most of all. It harms us. It harms Americans to think we are different and special because it cuts us off from the collective psychological support and wisdom offered by example in the other 194 countries in the world.

I urge all Americans to read more widely in the news. Repeating that you can’t believe this could happen in the U.S., and no one can believe it – you know, the rest of the world believes it. They wonder what’s taking us so long to believe it. Have Americans somehow discovered a way to escape human nature? The miracle of America, insofar as one can be said to exist, is the idea that people in America are different than people elsewhere. That we too do not fight bitterly, resort to violence, cheat one another, lie, sell out. The miracle of America works only as long as everyone is aware of human nature, and prizes key values more than human nature (cue freedom, liberty, open debate, inclusion, tolerance, respect). It is possible for a country to act broadly with an executive function (in the psychological sense), but this can only happen if everyone – everyone – every last person – is aware of and admits to the pitfalls of human nature. Everyone.

If you’re glued to your laptop, to MSNBC, the barrage of memes and TikToks and American news about the violence, consider visiting other news sources to help balance your reading and understanding. (Although the NYT has been doing a grat job, and I appreciated that they ran this essay by Yale historian Timothy Snyder. Aside from the BBC and the Guardian, I’ve been following a Sri Lankan journalist, Indi Samarajiva, who writes with truth and insight about recent events in the US. This piece ran in November, and its clarity brought tears to my eyes. He published an equally honest and stunning follow-up piece in PRI on Friday. I happen to crave the truth, even when it hurts, even when it’s bitter and unpleasant. I’ll spit out that sweet lie any day of the week. I also like cutting satire to help me understand the world around me, and this piece about Kenyan journalist Patrick Gathara does not disappoint. These journalists seem like fortune tellers, but they’re just honest and observant, and good writers. Read news from sources that go beyond privileged anglo outlets. Their insight is priceless. It can help us out of this mess, and understanding is the first step to healing.

There’s a whole world out here that cares what happens in America, but which is not surprised. We’re not alone. America was never alone. Please realize this, and put down shock and claims of specialness. There’s work to be done, and there’s some for everyone.

Update from Italy: Que sais-je?

Bourdeaux, France. Photo by Philippe Oursel on Unsplash

Que sais-je? What do I know? The famous refrain of Montaigne, who five hundred years ago always wondered what he knew. What do I know? The shrug of a mensch.

I have this issue where I pinch books from hotels and caffès, semi public places sometimes with hand-lettered signs that exhort Take One? Leave One! The motley collections betray their unloved status. Very often they are in English, Swedish, Dutch, German. The languages of those stricken by wanderlust. I very rarely leave one. I almost always take one, sometimes more. During the pandemic my natural bookworm inclination was given free rein to worm through any and all books at hand. I finished reading my first book in Italian last year. It felt great – La lingua geniale. I tried reading La vita bugiarda degli adulti in the original Italian also, just before La lingua geniale, but was dismayed to find I could not do it. The deceptively simple English of Ferrante in translation presented itself to me in the original as an impossibly opaque, stream-of-consciousness Italian. Reading in Spanish, French, and Italian is much more cerebral for me than reading in English, but the rewards are greater for their relative rarity. I must slow down, take my time, think. I am a deeply emotional reader in English. I feel the words and hard. I read fast, inhaling the painted scene. When I’m far from English, a different mind is reading.

Last summer at the auberge in La Rosière the shelf was full of slim tomes, many of them the Livres de Poche imprint I know so well from my time as a student in Strasbourg. A couple of them caught my eye, and I slipped them into my backpack. I’ll bring them back next year, I told myself. I put the books on my nightstand, enjoying their slim Gallic silence. Montaigne by Zweig and something by Montaigne himself. I picked up the Zweig over Christmas and was floored by its simplicity and literary transparence, and read it in a week or two. Zweig felt he’d met his match in Montaigne. So much in common. To be fair, I read the Zweig introduction twice, picking my way through for clues and setting the stage to imagine Stefan writing the book as a political refugee in 1941 Brazil. Many students know him today for having studied his Essais. I was not in this lucky tribe of adolescent essayists, but was charmed by Montaigne’s story in a way I did not expect, and glad to address this hole in my liberal education.

Michel de Montaigne (1533-1592) is a case study in nature versus nurture, human relations and the arc of life. The child of class-mobile arrivistes, conversos from Spain fleeing the Inquisition, unlanded gentry with high hopes to jump a rung or two on the ladder of sixteenth-century France, his grandfather bought land, then his father a title. Only his maternal grandmother was Catholic; the others were Jewish or Protestant. The last name changed from Eyquem and Villanueva-Lopez to Montaigne.

His father Pierre, the mayor of Bordeaux, was so excited to welcome petit Michel that he placed him with a local family of farmers so that the child would learn how the other half lived. This part of his education only lasted until he was three, when his father took him back into the velvety bosom of the Montaigne estate. Here, however, still no business as usual. No one was allowed to speak French to Michel, ever. Latin only! Latin immersion. He would learn to speak Latin, the tongue of erudition, as his first language, Pierre decreed! And so the boy did, and the Latin efforts rippled throughout the household and town as bits of Latin vernacular filtered from the family into their surroundings. A Latin-speaking staff was hired to mind the boy, and his tutor, a fellow from Germany amusingly named Horstanus, didn’t even speak French, thus removing the possibility of slipping back in French.

Michel was also a fitful sleeper, so Pierre hired some musicians to play music for him upon his awakening each day. He was probably freaked out about everyone switching from French to Latin each time he entered a room. But by the time he was seven or eight, it was clear that the boy spoke Latin as his first language. Pierre was pleased. Michel attended an élite boarding school nearby, then hobnobbed in the French court, dallied at a battle at Rouen, and picked up a medal he’d been coveting since boyhood (in Latin). He went on to be a counselor for various governmental entities. He was smart and in demand.

But by thirty-eight, Michel had had enough. He didn’t even really like his wife too much, and advised her to seek a lover. He said he was sick of working, and the daily grind. Also, five of his six children died in infancy, so that might have had something to do with it. What grief will make a person do. Especially a person of generous independent means! So Michel did what was logical: he trotted up into his literal ivory tower on one side of his property (his wife kept the other tower as her space). He made a public proclamation of his fatigue of court life and work, and said he wasn’t going to be around anymore. He sat in his tower and etched Latin aphorisms on the oak beams overhead. He read and write and rearranged his thousand-book library. He hired a secretary to take his dictation. Apparently his written Latin was fantastic. He investigates and interrogates and dissects himself, his opinions and believes. Que sais-je?

But then! How much of the self can one person take?! By forty-eight, Michel is bored out of his mind, tired of the hearth and the reading and the dictation. He’s probably been eating soup every day for a decade. He comes down from the the tower and tells his wife his is going on a journey.

Oh really, where to? she calls down from her tower.

Don’t know, really. I’ll take a friend. Michel sets out and heads straight to France, Germany, Austria, Switzerland, and Italy. All this in a carriage! He complains about the tyranny of the road (because roads have a beginning and an end point), which leads to a destination. He wished to have no known destination! (Man after my own heart here in terms of travel.) He charms the pope, no doubt with his excellent Latin, over dinner. The pope suggest a few edits (maybe faith over fortune?). In 1581, he finds himself in Lucca taking the waters for his chronic kidney stones. Did I mention that Michel is very, very short (150cm) and never in great health after he exits his towers. The stones, man – those damn stones. While in Lucca sipping the sulphuric elixir he receives a letter that says, Felicitations! you have been elected mayor of Bordeaux! Please come back and manage things for the people of Bordeaux! So he packs everything up and cuts his trip short, which pains him.

He goes back to Bordeaux, he runs the city as his father did before him. He thinks he is safe back at home, until the night of the St. Bartholomew massacres arrives at his house and head are literally rolling down the hill off his property. His last political gift was brokering a succession agreement for France, by convincing Henri de Navarre (the leader himself of the Protestant Huguenots) to become Catholic. (It took months.) Then Montaigne died of quinzy, or tonsillitis. His mother, Antoinette, was almost ninety, still tottering around that castle.

So, book report aside, here is my takeaway: if you retreat from the world, the world will come to find you, and it may alarm you. Do what you can. Que sais-je?

Combien de choses nous servoyent hier d’articles de foy, qui nous sont fables aujourd’huy? How many things served us yesterday for articles of faith, which today are fables for us? – Montaigne

Update from Italy: Watching America

U.S. Capitol. Photo by Cameron Smith on Unsplash

I have so many thoughts on the latest developments in America. It’s been overwhelming, even from here, and I am trying to compile my thoughts. I’ll start on the micro responses, then pan out to macro.

I’m no Forrest Gump. I’ve never even seen the movie, only its highlights. But anytime calamity strikes, I can’t help but think, I was there, I know that place. OKC bombing, check. 9/11, check, all locations. Madrid’s Atocha station, check. There might be more, but those are the ones that stand out. Add now to this list, U.S. Capitol, check.

I know those stairs and halls well. I interned in the U.S. Senate in the summer of 1994, a year after everyone cool did it. I was on a fellowship and stayed for all twelve weeks – interning is so popular that offices offer it in two shifts of six weeks each. I stayed with my aunt in Arlington, rode the bus to the Pentagon where I boarded the Metro to Union Station and walked out to the Russell Building. The east entrance, the west entrance, the north wall. I can close my eyes and walk it.

The interns were a pretty homogeneous group. Almost all white, university undergraduates, children of privilege, whose families were politically well-connected or major donors. I was the one scholarship student. The glimpse into this level of privilege was eye-opening for me. The things they expected. The days they passed, the worries and frustrations they expressed. We spent the day in a capacious conference room reading Roll Call, running out as needed for errands or to give a Capitol tour to a constituent family. I really loved giving tours of the Capitol. Here the Rotunda, there the crypt, this the original stairwell, here is where the Supreme Court originally heard cases. Once or twice I gave it in Spanish – a highwater linguistic mark for me. The luckier interns got picked up into the “press pod” or scheduling. To ensure everyone stayed busy, we all had to work on a research paper using the Library of Congress and the Congressional Research Service. (This must have changed so much with the internet.) I wrote mine on mineral rights. It was a boring paper. I turned it in at the end of my twelve weeks.

There were other scheduled activities to keep us busy. Bless those senate staffers who tolerated us with as much good cheer as they could while trying to get their jobs done. Many of them were witty. They were also barely older than we were and often hungover. We played intern baseball against other teams from the House and Senate. I soon deciphered the rabbit warren of the Capitol complex and became an expert tour-giver and errand-runner. (This, too, must have changed so much with the internet.) The basement corridors, the hanging wires since the buildings are all code-exempt. The security checks to enter the Russell Building. A month or so into my time there, I was astonished by how normal the staff seemed. No debate champs. No Merit Scholars. Two young women seemed to do about 95% of the actual work. Routinely running into senators in the hallways and being surprised at how old most of them seemed. I remember heels clicking on marble floors. I remember wearing clothes that didn’t feel like they belonged to me.

Watching midweek events unfolding in the Capitol, wrinkled in my memory in the quarter century between then and now, I could smell those hallways, see those marble washrooms again. Knowing how hard it was to enter as a badge-toting college intern, I could imagine what pressure and force and numbers it must have taken for the the rabble to overwhelm the Capitol Police. What a shock it was to see the defamation of those spaces where, for heaven’s sake, I was not even allowed to wear pants in (skirts required) in 1994. The feet up on the desk. The blood and feces on the marble statues. The pieces of wood paneling with letters NCY PEL SI tossed around by Americans in hoodies. I could hardly believe my eyes, and yet, felt almost no surprise. I couldn’t sleep Wednesday night, checking my phone again, and again, for news. At one point my NYT app had 72 updates. I couldn’t keep up. Who can keep up with this?

The news from America about the global response to these events seems to insist that everyone is surprised. The people in Italy are not surprised. They are disappointed and sad. Everyone saw it coming. Violent rhetoric begets violence. We’ve had years of violent rhetoric, and now reap a harvest of hate.

I remember my earnest civics teachers and American History teachers in school, how carefully they taught us about the three branches, the reasons why, the federalist papers. Checks and balances. It’s clear from here that the checks and balances on the executive branch since 2016 have been insufficient. The legislative branch is complicit. The founders knew this. The U.S. was born as a repudiation of governmental tyranny. I wonder what Mrs. Bocock, Mr. Boyd and Mrs. Berryhill would say. That no one thought it would come to this. That this is not how things should happen. That this should not have been allowed to happen.

Blood on hands and in the halls. I don’t like it one bit. It’s indefensible. Large segments of my extended family believe that it is.

I do know what one lucid writer says:

The making of the treaty is the treaty. It doesn’t matter what the terms are, just that there are terms. It’s the goodwill that matters. When that runs out, the treaty is broken, whatever the terms say. – Hilary Mantel, Wolf Hall

This probably doesn’t make a ton of sense. I’ll try again tomorrow. In the meantime, I feel extremely concerned about public safety, in the the District and in the Capitol, in the weeks to come. This is not a drill.

Update from Italy: Unmoored American Musings

Art credit: Christopher Manning (c) 2020. Concept mine. But I am sure it is all over the interwebs already anyway.

The time has come! The time is now! JUST GO, GO, GO! I DON’T CARE HOW!

Donald J. Drumph, will you please go now?!

I see you in flight, to your ducks well-teathered / and though you be tarred, they be feathered / and from first class, the birds, they count seven / may they swiftly convey you to your sunk Tyrant heaven.

Donald J. Drumph, I don’t care when, I don’t care HOW! Donald J. Drumph, will you please go now?!

Your battering tantrums have weakened our world / I can’t hear your soundbites, I only see your lip curled / I’m tired of explaining how we got to this point / our federal branches, all three out of joint.

I’ve fretted and read and armchair analyzed you / I still can’t understand how your sycophants prize you. / In this pandemic year, all my goodwill is spent. / I said, ‘GO’! and ‘GO’, I meant!

Après Seuss. With my eternal thanks and recognition for how his poetry washed up on my juvenile shores in the seventies, remain buried treasure to this day, and deeply so. Marvin K. Mooney Will You Please Go Now! is a 1972 children’s book by Dr. Seuss. Apparently he did release a version of it that was Nixon-specific, back when presidents knew shame.

Wishing everyone a kinder, gentler 2021. Remembering when leaders aspired to civility.

Florentine Notebook: River Muskrat

I might name him Ernesto. He could use a toothbrush. Photo by Max Saeling on Unsplash

The Arno teems with wildlife. One need only look for it. The water courses through the city, a vital line of energy, sluggish and full of mosquitoes in summer, rushing and angry during winter months. It is rarely placid. It is never blue, unless the sky above is clear and the sun shines brightly, making a heavenly reflection on the dun surface. I have spotted egrets, herons, ducks, and gulls in the nooks and crannies under the old bridges. The pluck fish from the water. River sushi.

The city enclosed the river within stone retaining walls – the Lungarno, or the length of the Arno – centuries ago. Prior to that, the riverbank was level with the mouths of many streets, and when the water rose with the rains, damage ran deep. Now walls two or three stories high drop from the street level to the water below, and when the water rises, it rarely breaches the walls. The last time this happened was in 1966, and the people still talk about it as though it were yesterday. Cars swirled through intersections, borne up by the pulling current. Innumerable precious manuscripts and works of art were lost. In Piazza Santa Croce, a priest held the hand of a woman in a wheelchair, trapped in her home, praying with her until she drowned. I still don’t understand how she was trapped in her ground-floor apartment. There is an account of it somewhere, the door, the iron grilles, the rising water.

I walk each day in the city. The quarantine this year was so hard that now I take every opportunity I can to gulp fresh air, gaze at a blue sky, a cloudy sky, blankets of mist, I don’t care. I walk up and down the Lungarno, out Via Romana to the old Porta Romana, back to the river again on Via degli Serragli. Two weeks ago we had rain for a week, heavy rain, and the river was roiling. Chocolate milk garnished with logs and lost balls ended in billows of foam over the old weir that used to power a woollen mill for a monastery. I could not stay away from the river and its simple drama: river running high. How different it looked, its tone, its voice, so loud I could barely hear my audio. It seemed frustrated, not angry, but somewhere under those swells was the memory of calmer waters.

The last day of the river’s churning I was walking across Ponte Vespucci (Amerigo himself is buried in the church of Ognissanti, at the bridge’s eastern landing, kindly painted by Ghirlandaio.) When I had almost reached the other side, I looked down and spotted a wise moustache, two bright eyes, and a sleek coat. The nutria! One of the nutrias of the Arno. He didn’t see me, but looked around, blasé and bored, never mind the water. I watched him scratch his belly with a back leg. He looked well-feed, and handsome, his whiskers almost touching the large rock upon which he sat to view the rushing weir. The poor cousin of a walrus or seal, coursing their salt swells in far-off oceans. More muskrat than beaver; the gamey meat falls somewhere on the spectrum, I read, between pork and turkey. They’re farmed as a protein source in Azerbaijan and Uzbekistan, and longer ago, for their fur, but no one wants a water-rat coat or even water-rat collar these days. I laugh and think of my rabbit-patch fur coat from the seventies. Perhaps it was dyed nutria.

His face was wise. Bored, even. He’d seen it before. He’d see it again. I waited to see if he’d see me, but he never did. I walked on. He seemed so kind that I am now sorry to learn he is considered a global pest, an unwanted pelt, a faux pork chop.

Scottish Notebook: 1995/2020

Photo not mine, but not inaccurate. I must have been really carsick those weeks long ago. Photo by Ariel Pilotto on Unsplash

I was 21, fresh out of college. I longed for Europe, Scotland in particular. Probably due to certain wide release films (Braveheart, Rob Roy, I blush to confess it), I had Scotland on the brain. And bad. Really bad. I abhorred the Oklahoma sun as much as a McLeod set down in Alice Springs might curse the burning light of the Outback. I have always done my best thinking, my most creative writing, on overcast or rainy days. Sunlight bleaches it all out of me, suns me dry, until my thoughts and words and feelings lack for color and life. I vowed to myself that I’d leave and never look back. 

In my ground-floor office, I worked out my travel plans on a whiteboard with colored markers, tracing routes, starring destinations, on my freehand map. The middle-aged woman who shared the office with me stared, gaping. What in the world are you doing? I’d love to go to Europe to see how they lee-ive in huts.

Wrong continent, Linda! I’ll go here, I’ll do this, I’ll do that. I had friends in almost every continental port of call who urged me to use their guest room, I’d be welcome, mothers from Ireland to Spain and all over Germany would cook for me and do my laundry (the gender politics of this statement now jar). My planned per diem was laughable (somewhere in the neighborhood of twenty-five dollars a day, offset by all the free lodging and meals). I had a three-month Eurail pass and some cash scholarship money, plus a planned student loan to keep me over for a year. But I was most excited about Scotland.

I bought a one-way ticket to Edinburgh on British Airways and landed in the city in early August. Scotland in late summer meant long days and short nights, midges and pints, scenery and laughter. I made friends quickly as I traveled around with a friend from home, whom I’d known half my life but now felt impossibly mopey as he cast longing looks in the direction of a beautiful Australian. His anxiety was a burden. I had said I would accompany him, not be his personal tour guide in a country I looked forward to discovering for myself.

I wanted to steep in Scotland, to breathe its air, to travel with my eyes down the spine of her mountains. I wanted to drink her stout pints and milky tea, I wanted to revel in the dry humor and their fetching brogue. I wanted to take the train along the coast to Culrain, the ferry to Skye, set out in a small boat on Loch Ness. I wanted to eat every toastie and bowl of scotch broth I could find on a menu. An old man in tweed, drunk at noon, shouted Christ but you’re a cheesemuffin. I laughed. Perhaps the films had prepped me, but deep down I’d always had an affinity for the culture, the music. The people.  

Edinburgh’s damp morning streets led to Perth and Pitlochry, Aberdeen and Inverness. I went full American on my itinerary, seeing the breadth of Caledonia in three weeks. I lugged my backpack in and out of hostels and castles turned hostels. I met half of Scotland, it seemed. In Edinburgh a drunk man tried to tell me he was Pictish. I told him to get lost. Not one for mullets or acid wash.

On the plus side, my compatriot was a musician, and found us no end of traditional pubs hosting folk music. Fiddles, drums and harps, flutes and voice weave the soundtrack of those weeks. 

Outside of Pitlochry, we hiked a few miles on a path to a whisky distillery, the sweet mash perfuming the air. It was sunny. I have a picture of myself there, with short hair and a childish face, frowning into the lens. 

The Edradour distillery was small and inviting. Logs blazed in the hearth, even in mid-August. The sun could not completely chase away the Scottish chill. I loved it. We looked with mild interest down on the copper vats of mash from a mash man’s catwalk, heard about this or that step, and x amount of time. Yawning, bored. But down in the hall, by the hearth, a man in a kilt sat me down and poured me a dram in a shot glass with a pleasing heft. An Italian tour group was busy getting all the information interpreted for them. I sat on the masoned flagstones and sipped the whisky, the fire warm at my back. What was this, the whisky was sweet? And suddenly in a flash I understood, I understood so much! Why Scotland is cold, the sweetness of whisky, the comforting embrace of the heath’s gentle heat, how pleasant it is to take a rest after a long walk. This moment was a reset button for me on many levels. In my heart I felt I had come to my proper home.

I recently learned that, in 1685, my eighth great-grandfather – one William Sharpe of Aberdeen – emigrated from the east coast of Scotland to East New Jersey. About my same age, similar life circumstances, opposite direction. A flicker of recognition brushed my heart as I remembered my own youthful one-way journey, the prodigal salmon. I had no idea then what my family connection was to Scotland, only that I loved it and wanted to go there. Knowing what I know now, after hours of digging through archives and piecing together fragments and comparing lost stories, I understand so much more. It all makes sense. I’d love to return to Scotland now, with this knowledge full in my heart, in my mind. 

Spanish Notebook: Pipas 1948/1995

He held up his lighter, a well-worn U.S. Army Zippo. “Americano. Muy malo.” 
AmePhoto by Vinicius Löw on Unsplash

Pipas. Spanish sunflower seeds. Such a sweet, suggestive word, the cheep of a bird, a finch or a swallow, dainty in feathers, making hungry sounds. A word as happy as the flower from which they are harvested. Pipas does not sound like anything associated with a potbellied older man, wearing layers of salty jumpers and ancient grey trousers, a stinking cigar butt held loosely between two stubby fingers, drinking beer and cracking sunflower seeds between his teeth in a bar. 

He leaned in toward me with a conspiratorial air. He held his cigar in front of him and tapped it with the opposite index finger.

Cubano, he said. Muy bueno.

He held up his lighter, a well-worn U.S. Army Zippo.

Americano. Muy malo. 

He shook his head and slipped the lighter back into his trouser pocket.

They said that a bar’s good reputation was evidenced by the detritus on its floor, in front of the bar, under stools, underfoot. This was very strange to me, as a person from northern climes, where shopkeepers and pub owners swept their floors with pride, picking up crumpled receipts, dried gobs of chewing gum, toothpicks, wadded napkins, cigarette butts. In Spain all this refuse proved that patrons had entered and stayed awhile before hurrying off to their next destination. And in the most popular bars, the low drifts of rubbish are composed mostly of the husks of sunflower seeds. Pipas

And yet men of all ages – rarely women – placed pipa after pipa between their top and bottom teeth, balanced in the visa of their jaw, bearing down until it split its seam vertically to release the oily seed inside, spitting the hull onto the floor where it landed with thousands of hulls just like it, bitten in half. Seed after seed, picked thoughtlessly from a tight-woven basket set atop the bar, the perfect accompaniment to their ice-cold lager served in tall glasses they called cañas

Pipas, pipas, pipas. Cañas, cañas, cañas.

The acrid smoke from the black tobacco rolled into thin cigarettes twined in the air. An endless parade of cañas y pipas, lasting from the early evening sun until well after midnight. I see before me that girl Pipas, so named because she was the only woman anyone knew who cracked the pipas to eat them with her lager, smiling knowingly as she spit hull after hull onto the floor. They said she’d fought for the Republicans, and looking at her slender hips and thick, short braids, I believed it. They called her chica out of affection but she was at least thirty. 

No one understood why I didn’t speak to her. My hands trembled with the old frightened feeling.

One evening in Don Alonso’s I ordered a cerveza, por favor.

Don’t you mean a caña? Surely you want a caña, she purred an arm’s reach from me.

Yes, a caña, I nodded. 

After Alonso slid the caña over to me, I drank it in silence. I could feel everyone looking at me. 

Eh, Luz, order me a caña, why don’t you! a handsome man shouted from the other end of the bar.

Call her Pipas if you want something, an older man said. Then they all laughed.

I finished my beer and left. I was just a north-country git, a farmer’s son, and spoke barely any Spanish. I can taste the cerveza and pipas now, smell that cigar smoke, when I close my eyes. 

Author’s note: This piece is creative non-fiction, borne of my time in Spain and innumerable peninsular history classes and films, along with a healthy admiration for George Orwell.

Italian Notebook: My Darling Clementine

I’ve called them mandarins and satsumas. I’ve encountered them in cans and in wet salads in America. None of those command the loyalty I’ve found for the Italian clementine. Photo by Monika Grabkowska on Unsplash

The clementines begin to arrive from Sicily toward the end of November, packed into crates facing out from trucks framed by steel bars at the sides. Smaller than navel oranges, ovoid in shape, dark green leaves left attached by the stem to make them more orchard-fresh.

Clementines have been sold this way on the roadside in Italy for centuries. Sunshine in the palm of the hand, a burst of freshness to slice through the socked-in valley of the Arno that stays stubbornly grey all winter long. The days of endless Tuscan sun are promptly followed by soaked grey days of darkness and Tuscan thunder. I tuck one into my bag before leaving the house each morning, a modest mid-morning snack to anticipate with pleasure.

To peel and divide a clementine in December is to undertake a citrus dissection, biting the crescent in half, the cool liquid filling your mouth, mopping it clean with astringent and cloying pulp. You can taste the southern rays, close your eyes and smell the dust of Agrigento’s temples, the salt air blowing north from the African coast to a shore known by everyone down the course of history. The tiny beads of the orange burst between your teeth, reminding you there is hope even in the darkest days, and that summer appears in winter in this spritely form, rolling and cheery, game and full of laughter.

French Notebook: Radishes

Their green stems poking smartly over the edge of the white porcelain plate. Photo by Dimitri Houtteman on Unsplash

Eve sat at the wooden table tucked into the corner of the dining room. Her host parents were much older. The wife was round and looked like Mrs. Claus, blue eyes twinkling behind wire frames. The husband matched her height, in no great shape, a Frenchman from a different time. Without a doubt they both lived through the war. The wife put out a small plate of starters, tiny red radishes with their green stems poking smartly over the edge of the white porcelain plate. She also brought from the kitchen a fluted ramekin with creme fraiche, and a salt cellar. I watched Eve closely to see what to do. 

She placed her napkin in her lap; I did the same. She calmly carried on with the wife.

“Je vais toujours prendre une douche ce soir.”

I’m still going to take a shower this evening.

My mouth hung open. I heard every word she said, deliberately and slowly, twisting her brown hair around a finger, and realized with a flush how deficient my French was, living in a largely anglophone community in my résidence universitaire. Toujours can mean still! I was shocked. I understood everything, and heard a word used in a new way with which I had heretofore been wholly unfamiliar. I folded my hands under the table. 

Eve took a single radish from the plate. She held the radish in place with the fork and bisected it with the knife, then cut it again so that the pieces were now in quarters. She dollopped a bit of creme fraiche on the wedge, then pinched up some salt from the ceramic cellar and sprinkled it atop the piece of radish. I observed her carefully so that I could recreate these steps with as much confidence and panache. Prior to that I had never once considered eating a radish, in any format, raw nor cooked. 

I recreated Eve’s steps, gingerly halving the radish, then halving it again. Creme fraiche, salt. Spear it, bring it to the mouth with the silver fork. Eve continued her genteel conversation with the wife. I bit into the radish. It was unlike anything I had ever eaten before. I didn’t know horseradish then. I certainly did not know jicama, or daikon; those vegetables remained far up the road to Future Food. The radish flattened with a crunch between my molars. It was watery, with a firm base note of clean pebbles. It tasted of sunshine, and winter, and well-watered black dirt. The creme fraiche and salt were genuine improvements to the bland background palette it offered. The French of the Alsace clearly knew what they were doing with radishes. Eve had nibbled the radish down to the top of the step, then discarded the stem gently onto the plate with another quick pinch. I ate all four pieces of the first radish in this way. 

The wife came back, ready to remove the radishes in preparation for the buttered spaetzle she had just tossed into the boiling pot. I saw the steam from where I sat.

Non, non, je vous en prie, I said. Her eyebrows went up. Je les mange toujours.

Ah oui, c’est bien! She smiled with pride. Les radis, ils sont très très bon cette année.

Toujours can mean still. I am still eating them.

I always taste the radishes. I still taste them.