On the roof of Milan’s Duomo
I'm on the roof of Milan’s Duomo, I am dwarfed by flying buttresses, feeling like a pigeon whose preening season has passed. I look at beetle-sized tourists in the square below and wonder who I am today. I’m too mature to be Rapunzel letting down her ladder of hair, too pragmatic to think I can dupe the crowd like Simon the Magician.
Grotesque, but The Hunchback of Notre Dame could have been filmed here. European gothic is European gothic. My fellow rooftop visitors are speaking all the romance languages punctuated with squeals. I am not awestruck; I am tired. With backpack straps digging trenches in my shoulders, I remember that Quasimotto carries his hump without complaint.
French with Mr. LaRue
My Parisian mindset is a hangover from last night’s dinner. Atrociously expensive French cuisine was listed in Italian and translated by a Francophile waiter who forced me four decades back in time to Mr. LaRue’s conversational French class. We read a book about Pierre Douche. With a nervous twitch, Mr. LaRue instructed us to call the hero Pierre Shower, although the entire football team leered, “Voulez-vous a couche avec moi?” and the Home Economics teacher uttered “merde” when she tasted my perfection salad. I often wondered if the Board of Education laid bets on how deeply Mr. LaRue would blush over that book title. His persnickety habits, precisely folded pocket hankie and love of poetry pegged him as a homosexual. I knew better, but I did not defend him.
Mr. LaRue did not equip us for ordering a meal, for who in that Heartland USA high school expected to widen their horizons beyond Cook County. We learned to fermez the door, not ouvrez the wine. It is not a hardship. I’ve been to thirty countries, I still haven’t been to France. I keep returning to Italy, for here is where I see the roots of my culture, and here is where I understand that this is my time to bloom. In Italy, I have come to terms with becoming soil of an emerging civilization. Something of me will last, like the finger of Saint Thomas enshrined in Santa Croce’s relics chapel, or the woman in the background of a Renaissance painting, or a few letters scratched on an Etruscan pot. I do not expect my stories to outlive me; a shard will mark my existence well enough.
I saw Monet and longed for Raphael
Last night, that French restaurant was the only one near the hotel that did not require reservations. It was French cuisine or McDonalds. I had been eating too well in Italy to spoil the mood with fast food. After lemoncello in Sorrento, fried zucchini flowers in Rome and gelato in Florence, I expected a memorable dining experience. But crossing the threshold was like crossing the border; I saw Monet prints on the wall and longed for a Raphael Madonna.
The flambé singed my bangs, I am still burping crepe. The entrée was smoked something. Maybe with fins. Maybe not. Definitely not mammal. Potential entrails in the sauce, I don’t want to think about that on this sloping roof that is making me more nauseous than curious.
I wasn't always like this
I wasn't always like this. But once you’re fifty, a strangeness sets in. You worry about hip fractures on tilted surfaces and incontinence if you laugh too hard, yet you risk the heights of geography and hilarity because this is your life, no matter how you’ve failed the vision in your high school mirror. I was pretty. Now I know how that mousy girl with no bust in homeroom felt.
Not once have I been groped
Mr. LaRue was not the best envoy for the French Chamber of Commerce. He groped me with a thin shaky hand when I stood beside him in my gym suit handing in overdue homework. I have been in Italy for two weeks and have not been groped. Not once. Not even during my perky promenade around Rome’s Piazza Navona where groping is the neighborhood sport. I went from a prize grope to a non-event in a few years. You would think that with all my memories, I could dredge up a more erotic touch than that chalk-dusted astonishment. He was an old man, for God’s sake, addicted to breath mints, with a red tie garroting his Adam’s apple. I never told anyone. It was too strange.
Quasimotto fascinates me
Now I like strange. Quasimotto, played by Lon Chaney, fascinates me. The lust of that ugly, inarticulate creature leaping on a huge bell and bonging the hell out of Paris.
And I like Esmeralda – blousy, earthy, with a dirt-streaked face and tangled hair. The gypsy witch, saved from the pyre by every woman’s worst nightmare of a blind date. Quasimotto stumbles through the movie; Italian men strut through the ages. Even from this distance, I can pick out the Italians showing off across the square below. I also see men stomping, shuffling, mincing and plodding. They are tourists.
In Italy women enter another stage of beloved
In backyards across America, fathers teach their sons to catch baseballs. In Italy, men march their sons to public squares and show them how to strut. Splashed by fountains and blessed by faded Virgin Marys in second-story shrines, they find their center of gravity on cobblestones and ancient bricks. At least that is how an Oxford professor explained it to me. “They must walk sure-footed or risk sprained ankles,” he said, extruding a twinkle from his frosty, blue eyes and discrediting the British Isles’ grasp of Western Civilization.
For how is it that acne-scarred teens and old men strutting along with canes project the same maleness as Italian men in their prime? When Italian men look at you, you know you are Woman, even when your mirror reflects Crone. In India, this is the age when women believe they are no longer women. In America, we are dismissed, ignored, tolerated. In Italy, we enter another stage of beloved – Mother – not the guilt tripping e-mail joke, but the source of comfort and nourishment, the holder of memories and cannoli, the richly furnished palace of wisdom. For who but an Italian sculpture would give the grieving, forty-something Mother of God a sixteen-year-old face? In Italy, the beauty of a mother transcends age, poverty and pain.
Italian men populate trattorias called Nonnas, Grandmothers. While such establishments in America attract a cotillion of me, who were never weaned, invisible women who have stopped grazing at salad bars, are working toward the acceptance stage of size-fourteen skirts. Nonna doesn’t give you what you order, but what you really want. Saltimbocco? Not today, not when I bought this nice veal shank from the butcher just for you. And cicoria. You need your greens.
The love affair evolves rather than ends
The love affair evolves rather than ends. Men strut toward women swishing silky hips, stirring steaming pots of pasta fagioli and flirt with both indiscriminately. In Quasimotto, Esmeralda saw a man who would love her in all her ages. I understand what Victor Hugo may have not – the woman raging between the lines at a crowd blind to the woman she is and will become if they would let her live. Only in Italy do I understand that I have transitioned, not “aged". No man would grope the mother, but they still look us in the eye, knowing we are interesting and important.
Mr. LaRue knew the wrong language. Had he been teaching Italian, he would be a friend, not a gauche and seldom a memory. He would still be dropping by for grappa and a mess of garlicky greens, we would laugh about the day he charmed me out of my gym suit and taught me the language of love.