Spello is behind a veil. I sense her presence, I feel her heart, but for the most part, I push away the conscious awareness that she and I are divided. But there are times that I startle into realizing the global gap between us. More than just distance. Custom, habit, ritual, tradition. Sometimes those moments are quick and amusing, sometimes they spur a frisson of grief. Earlier this week we took a family walk downtown to get gelato, though opted for American-style ice cream knowing that gelato would inevitably engender too much disappointment. Being together (which is rare right now, as the children are pulled in different directions), walking towards frozen confections, and stopping to talk to a neighbor about cats—all of a sudden, Spello was omnipresent for all of us. For the rest of the evening, we couldn't escape the memories. Four of us sighed longingly; Nicolas was really just focused on ice cream.
He actually told me that Charlottesville is the the best city in the world. Though in response to my puzzled look, he admitted that he suspects himself to be in the same honeymoon stage with Charlottesville as he initially was with Spello. It will be curious to see if once the high of old friends, soy sauce, and engaging academics fades, will he be where the rest of us are—limping on a wound we can't see, but only feel?
In any case, even my stoic eldest has been stopped short at times by what was familiar just a short year ago.
- The first morning we were home, I looked out of my window and about had a heart attack. "Ack! There's a woodchuck climbing a tree in our yard!" No, that's just a squirrel. I haven't seen a squirrel in a year. Come to think of it, I haven't seen a woodchuck either, so why that should occur to my feeble brain is beyond me. I plead jet lag and disorientation. Though I should confess that I still startle every time I see a squirrel. Cardinals are surprising, too. As are hummingbirds that are actual hummingbirds, and not bugs dressed in hummingbird prom dresses.
- The size of appliances should cease to amaze me, but every time I open my refrigerator, I'm stunned. I feel like I could park our old Fiat Punto in there. I have yet to fill it; I'm convinced if I do, much of my food will spoil in the corners.
- We went to the library, and that felt like an amusement park. I walked in and lost my breath. So many books. And I could take any one I wanted off the shelf, walk up to the counter, have it scanned, and I'd get to keep it for 3 weeks. Cookbooks, novels, even a movie. I walked out high. This is one aspect of American life that inspired awe and gratitude. Even the kids were blown away by the opportunity. And not just because I bought them a cupcake on the way there.
- Every time I stop at a red light, I'm dumbfounded. Therefore, I'm dumbfounded a lot. I calculated—a trip across town, 10 minutes of driving, and 10 minutes of stopping at red lights. I am not used to red lights. I saw a handful during our tenure in the boot, but Italians are solid proponents of the traffic circle. I had no idea how genius this was until we returned home, and now spend so much time stopped. No wonder Americans have high blood pressure (I'm making this up, I have no idea if Americans have higher blood pressure than average, but if they do, I bet this is why)—it's infuriating to constantly be blocked from getting where you are going. Now, there are certainly some nice parts to American traffic habits; we are all consistently astonished when cars stop for us to cross the streets, even sans crosswalk. That's pretty wonderful as a pedestrian, but the flow of traffic as a whole is dysfunctional in this country. And here's the funny thing. Despite the fact that in Italy there are no traffic lights and few signs, despite the fact that Italians drive like someone is chasing them with American coffee, despite the fact that Italian notions of personal space extend towards drivers such that they creep close enough to your bumper that you can see in your rear view mirror how many days of artful stubble the driver has cultivated, despite the fact that in Naples drivers are so undecided about which lane they want that they take two and literally straddle the line for long stretches of time—despite all of this, I saw one accident the entire year that we were in Italy. I don't know if all the American rules of the road make drivers more complacent and likely to go on autopilot, and therefore less tuned into what's happening around them, or if Italians' repeated shots of espresso keeps them more alert. Or even if accidents are cleared so fast that I just never saw them. I just know that the sluggish nature of movement here is a consistent reminder of the smooth flow of driving in Italy. I'm pretty sure there is a metaphor in there somewhere.
- There is a new mall in Charlottesville. Nicolas went to see a movie there with a friend and pronounced it bigger than many towns we visited in Italy...he was not wrong. When we later went to spend $50 for a family movie and $30 for some snacks (hope everyone enjoyed it, we're not doing that again anytime soon) I found that it's not only gigantic, but the lobby of the movie theater is a profusion of textures, lights, and colors that made my head spin. Truly, how much stimulation is needed? It was headache inducing. And brought to mind the simplicity of hand-chiseled stone.
- What the heck is a venti? Winds? Twenty-somethings?
- We received a list of school supplies our children would need, along with a roster, and a school calendar. Over email. After a year of struggling to find out what we needed to do, not knowing how to contact anyone, and subsisting on a patchwork/google-translate approach to understanding—having an organized list land in our e-mail inbox feels too crazily easy. And as we prepare those school supplies, and think about school starting, Gabe is getting increasingly excited. We had a long conversation with him and now he's itching to get to school. He's telling anyone who will listen that they don't spank in American schools (earlier he reminded me that they weren't supposed to spank in Italian schools either, but it happened, to which I responded that it was a much more serious breach of conduct in the States—to his palpable relief). The biggest revelation for Siena is that her school bathroom here will be a proper bathroom, rather than the squat-and-aim hole in the floor in the Scuola Elementare (which she studiously avoided, to the probable detriment of her bladder). Let's hear it for American notions of modern hygiene. You can bet those bathrooms will even have soap.
- Grocery shopping not only makes us startle in the overwhelming number of choices, but shopping for produce is a whole different system. Keith told me that he stumbled, feeling like he was missing something as he put the produce in the bag, and then put the bag in the cart. And then he realized—in Italy, you have to weigh and label your bag. So he is used to reciting the produce code to himself as he walks to the scale, weighs the produce, prints the label, affixes it to the bag, and then puts the bag in the cart. Not having a cycling number in his head tugged his brain that he was missing something. Though he still felt like something was wrong and remembered—he wasn't using a plastic glove to pick up produce. Italians may be cavalier about bathroom hygiene, but they are fanatical about produce hygiene. You either use a plastic glove, or, in smaller establishments, you have the grocer pick your produce. Picking up a piece of fruit with your bare hands will earn an old fashioned tearing down. Even if it looks like that fruit is for sampling. Anyone remember Florence?
- Speaking of produce—it seems chronically underripe. Most produce has very little fragrance, and picking up a tomato that doesn't have a sharp, green smell or strawberries that don't make you swoon when you are still meters away feels strange. I wonder if produce is picked underripe so it can survive transport. Italy has less of an ethical leaning towards local eating, but it has a default leaning towards local eating, in that it is a small, nationalistic country. So in the stores, most of the produce is from Italy, and it doesn't have quite so far to travel.
- I could probably go on and on about grocery shopping. But here are two more moments of awareness yesterday. One, the checkers seemed awfully tall. Why are they so tall? It took me a minute to realize that in Italy, all the checkers sit. Our checker probably thought I was creepy , the way my eyes kept traveling from her midsection up to her face, but in reality, I was just trying to figure out where she was. And two, despite the hundreds and hundreds of shampoo choices, none of them are for oily hair. I have a teenage son, and I'm pretty sure being oily is part of the diagnostic criteria of teenager-ness. So he can't be alone, where are the products for oily hair? When I was in that boat, I remember having that option. Nicolas maintains that Americans don't like to acknowledge flaws, so they can't sell something if it caters to a deficit. We opted for a shampoo that boasted "super clean." I need to know the euphemism for oily. Lustrous?
- Every night as I snuggle down on my fancy foam mattress and under my lofty comforter, I breathe a sigh of relief. There is much I regret about leaving Italy, but summertime sleeping is not one of them. Every night, I'd toss and turn if it was hot, and regardless of the temperature, I'd be constantly aggravated by bugs. Mosquitos, yes, but also papatacci, which are also known as sand flies. If you think tiger mosquitos are bad, you've never been treated to an evening spent serving as an all-you-can-eat buffet for papatacci. Papatacci are dun colored, tiny, and harder to spot than mosquitos. It took us all of last summer and half of this one to start being able to discern their sinister sand-colored bodies floating in on the drifts formed by our warmth. And their bite is not to be described. First of all, they look more like ant bites and they cluster rather than polka-dot. Second of all, unlike mosquito bites which if ignored, will stop itching, these create an itch more like poison ivy. Rampant and constant. But even if that siren call is desisted, those bites itch for weeks. I still have red welts all over my midsection from voracious papatacci. Third of all, after enough bites, one starts to develop a new kind of reaction. At the time of the bite, or a few moments afterwards, theres a zing like an electrical pulse. It really hurts, and sleep is hard to come by when you keep starting "Ow!" And these bugs are insatiable. Our first night back from France, Gabe got over a hundred bites just on his legs. We went into high defense—repellants for our bodies, plug-in repellants, electrical zappers, long jammies for the kids at night, a fan (which I think was probably the most effective). So to snuggle down in the cool (in Spello, we even took to closing our windows—one to avoid cat escapes, and two to lessen the number of nighttime visitors), aware that no insects will trouble us, smelling like ourselves and not like chemicals, wearing what we want to wear instead of the Hanna Anderson-equivalent of a hazmat suit—every night our awareness of the bliss tickles our brains.
- Water tastes weird here. Kind of like the American cheese version of real water. Processed, with a hint of chlorine that hits the back of my throat. Drinking water makes me miss our Spellani water, that evoked the chain of rain falling on Subasio, collecting in underground caves, then channeled to our stone town. You could taste the earthy minerals, the cycle of fall and collection. I have a hard time drinking the water here, which may explain the persistent throb in my temples.
- I knew that the butcher shop here would not be like Sauro's. I knew it. And yet seeing that small case of meat, and facing the scent of iron turning rusty, and mostly trying to discern what was in the shrinkwrapped packages tossed carelessly into the freezer case—it was heartbreaking. I miss the lessons at every shopping trip, the assumption that I'll want my meat cut to order rather than pre-ground and sitting in a bacteria bath, the beautifully clean and arranged possibilities, each more delicious than the next. And the prices. I'm going to have to go partly vegetarian. I can't stomach the readily available meat here anymore, which means I'll need to spring for sustainably-raised, local options. Which I completely believe in, and support, but it does cost a small fortune. But I'd rather eat beans and rice three days a week (particularly if I can pair that with my favorite hot sauce, which is easily found here) and have my meat be quality, rather than eating substandard meat that makes my heart hurt. This means less salumi, too. Cured meats here are double, if not triple, the price they are in Spello. So much for my daily snack of salsiccia secchi.
I'm told these moments of awareness, those times I mentally trip over place, will fade. As will the pain. But I don't want that. The pain means that I'm carrying Spello in my heart. When I pass a coffee shop and mourn Letizia, or when I consider making pasta and I remember meals in our kitchen with the terrazza door opened to the sounds and smells of Spello, it keeps it all close. I don't want those thoughts out of my existence. If they create a yearning, I carry it like a badge, like beautiful counterpoint to those papatacci bites. It means I still have a connection, illusory though it is.
I'm not ready to let it go.