A few evenings ago I got onto a crowded city bus to come home, and was pressed all the way to the front window, just another sardine in the can. It turned out to be the most amazing way to see the city, even the familiar commute home — from the middle of the street, a few feet up, gliding effortlessly like the swooping aerial shot at the beginning of a movie. It was kind of magic, and though I clearly wasn’t, I felt as if I were the only one there.
After a few minutes it seemed that a man squished next to me had noticed the beauty of it too. He asked me something, and when I answered he told me in Italian, “You have a strange accent, are you from the North? From Milan?” “No,” I laughed, “I’m from New York.” And with a smile, he switched to English: “Really? Me too.” He had been talking to a woman further down the bus, and he pointed out the coincidence to her.
It’s funny, how much it can mean, just running into someone else from New York here. Someone that, if you met there, you would have nothing in common with, maybe nothing to talk about. But because we both find ourselves here, it’s a whole shared perspective, shared background, some kernel of mutual understanding that’s immediately recognized between us. A compatriot. It’s an odd thing, when meeting a complete stranger can feel comforting somehow.
We just made your most basic small talk, but it felt more like talking to a friend. “I’m a camera-man. I’m actually going to work at the film festival later tonight.” ”Wow, that’s great. That must be really interesting.”
I thought to ask him his name or his phone number, but he was with a woman, and even if it was only platonic, it didn’t seem quite right. “Well, maybe I’ll see you around sometime,” he said, before slipping down towards the door.
“Yeah, it’s a small city. Well, compared to New York it actually is,” I answered, only realizing the ridiculousness of calling — and truly considering — a city of 6 million “small” halfway through the statement.
And that’s one of the things that I really like about living here — it makes me think about these questions of scale, of how we see things, based both on where we come from, and where we find ourselves now.
What is the actual value of experience in life? Keeping things in perspective and scale. Seeing what’s beautiful and ugly at the same time, what’s worth complaining about, what is so easily to take for granted but should really be appreciated, remarked about, held out at arms length just to actually look for once.
Something little, magnified (see also: my bizarre number of posts relating to coffee). Something big, made manageable, accessible, yours. I went to a few events at the film festival and it was a marvel for me: big enough to draw international names, but small enough that it was open to little peons like me, a chance to dress up, play elegant for a night. Sure, NY has Tribeca Film Festival, but believe me it’s much more of a big deal — which is to say big hassle. These things in Rome feel sort of like having the entire world in your back yard (not to mention an entire history of civilization). It’s a city that’s big and small at the same time, to a NY girl. Ancient and modern. It’s a city of a whole bunch of contrasts that NY, for all its diversity, has never made me experience so directly.
This week I’ll have a series of posts on these spheres of high culture in Rome that I’ve been getting to see in the past few weeks: film, fashion, art. Hopefully bringing some of these ideas together more coherently!
realizing maybe i don’t know my mother at all
Yesterday I got an email from her — she’s setting off on one of her 3-week business trips to South America. Which sounds sort of like fun in the abstract, but she’s already been traveling for months, on and off, and she won’t be spending more than two days in any place, to get to relax or see anything. She’s done many of these before, and of course realized it can be exhausting and lonely, but yesterday she wrote that she’ll have to try not to get depressed as she often does on these hectic trips.
I don’t think I’ve ever heard her use the word “depressed” before, in relation to herself. And she said it with no melodrama, as if although it’s an extreme emotion, it’s just situational: checking into a hotel late at night, only to check out again to fly to the next city early in the morning. Day after day. It makes sense. And she’s a worrier: worrying about my father, who’s not in perfect health, and my brother, and me a million miles away, and her work.
While all this makes perfect sense, it was funny to me that she had never said it before, so directly. She has a personality that seems very open and straightforward, but I realized that she didn’t really talk about how she felt. She’s never outwardly made her own happiness a priority (funny for a child of the 60s, maybe), but even so her work and life choices I think have brought her genuine satisfaction and contentment, even if not daily joy. Well that’s how it’s always seemed anyway, but maybe I don’t really know afterall.
The email made me sad (just about any emails from home make me sad though), but in a way I also see this as an opportunity. A little more emotional honesty and openness, hopefully running both ways, now that I’m more of an “adult.” Now that we realize little by little how much we are like two peas in a pod, although you wouldn’t know it at first glance.
The only real Easter memory that I have is from when I lived in New York City, as a little girl. Every year the doormen would give me and my brother, and all the other children in the building, a little easter bag filled with a stuffed bunny, and a bunch of chocolates in foil shaped like ladybugs. I was too young to remember much from those years, but I have a vivid memory of this: standing by the front door to our building, looking up at the doorman in his crisp suit, being totally delighted with my treats.
It occurs to me that between my jewish relatives, jewish pre-school, and jewish friends from pre-school, the doormen at our building might have been the only actual Christian people I knew at that young age. Sort of strange, but very New York.
the boy next door
At the Passover dinner I went to on Monday night, I was talking to the woman sitting next to me (who kindly didn’t mind speaking English) about how she met her husband, our hostess’s son. She said that they had grown up in basically the same neighborhood, here in Milan, but had gone to different schools, had different interests, and didn’t meet until they were both living elsewhere, but back visiting home. They had each moved hundreds or thousands of miles away, and they found each other right back where they started. I told her about my cousin, who married someone she had grown up with, but had never dated until they met again as adults. There’s something quite poetic about this.
Because when you’re younger, you want to try new things, date people as different from you as possible, and all those little differences are incredibly charming. You test out your boundaries by seeing someone else’s. It’s not just love, it’s an adventure as well. And it can be quite magic; believe me, I know.
But as you get older, and you settle down more, and especially if you have kids, each of those cute little differences have the potential to be problems, thorns snagging you at every step you try to take. I have a friend here who is from Scotland, but married to an Italian, only to find that because they had such different upbringings, their views on parenting are almost completely opposite. They’re making it work, but it is a lot of work, every step of the way. Even couples that start on the same page have a hard time parenting together and growing older together — but these things can be coded in our DNA, based on how we were raised ourselves, and you often don’t know how you’ll be until you actually get there. A lot of aspects of personality, individuality, can transcend culture, but I’m not sure if these are the kinds of things that can.
So there’s something really nice about experiencing a lot, but coming back to someone will understand and share those base elements, yet still excite and intrigue you. Whether they’re literally from your neighborhood, or a place with the same character, the same ethnic background maybe, the same memories of grandma’s baking and knitting.
I don’t know why it’s easier for me to get back in touch with old friends in New York when I’m all the way out here, but it is. Maybe it’s that the pressure or awkwardness is off since meeting up is impossible, or maybe it’s just that my nostalgia can bulldoze through any shyness or what ifs. But I’ve taken the opportunity to contact a lot of people that I used to know, even people I found again a while back on facebook but didn’t quite make it to clicking “add.”
One of them it’s been particularly nice to catch up with though. This is not to imply, as a segue, that I want to marry and settle down with him (although I wouldn’t really mind, you’ll see why). Hearing what he’s up to (Ivy League medical school) and laughing at that familiar sense of humor particular to a certain subset of New Yorkers, is a comfort, almost like coming home, even though I don’t know him personally that well. That’s the kind of feeling that you can’t really knock about the boy next door, as it were. Even just as a friend, it’s an easy friendship to fall into. We have similar interests, similar priorities in the day to day and in the larger scheme of things. It’s just being on the same page, even if that page is still blank and waiting to be filled. The silly romantic in me thinks that maybe he’s my Nate Archibald, before there was a Nate Archibald (yea, I just referenced Gossip Girl. Oops.) In the meantime, we can just laugh and roll our eyes at all the same things, from thousands of miles away. And catch up for real, in person, one of these days.