A Welcome Note: On Filling the Gaps

Dear Friends and Family:

Although I haven't added any posts since the summer of 2007, this blog continues to be a warehouse of my thoughts and experiences from my time abroad.


Tuesday, January 30, 2007

On The Colorful Cast Of Characters That Make Up My Local Experience

Marina: My host mother is amazing. Marina, 56, just retired a few months ago from teaching, so she has a lot of free time to speak with me and help me to learn her language as well as spend much of the day buying food and cooking for me. Every day she wakes up at 6AM to “preparare la colazione,” or prepare the royal feast which is my breakfast. She typically does local errands during the day and on Tuesday and Thursday nights frequents an English class with her friend Rosa. Marina tells me again and again how impressed she is with my Italian given how long she has been taking English and how much less proficient she is in that language than I in Italian, which does wonders to boost my confidence! Provided I don’t go out at night, Marina and I usually speak for a good two to three hours a day, during and after dinner. Often, this consists of Marina recounting a vacation, describing a friend of hers, or more likely preaching to me about how it is important to eat slowly and how to twirl my pasta so I don’t end up with a fistful of spaghetti on the end of my fork. You see, I thought I was being very gentile when I delicately cut my pasta with my knife on the first night here as not to make a mess and take to large a portion; however, in Italy it is considered rude to cut your pasta—you must always spin it around your fork like a ball of yarn. Many a night we sit around the modern glass dining room table and share fotographs. From the start I wondered about whether she was divorced, separated, widowed, or simply never married. I learned from her daughter Elena that she and her husband separated 10 years ago and he now lives elsewhere in Rome with another woman. Only the other day, I got the rest of the story from Marina herself. Still married today (since they are Catholic and therefore cannot get divorced), she has been separated from her husband, now a short balding man for 10 years. The separation was the greatest pain of her life and although in the few years leading up to their split there was little affection between them, it was still very hard for her. She is a strong and bright woman however, and with her remaining savings and energy bought a house (apartment really). One day she hopes to purchase a microwave, but at this point, she is putting most of her savings into paying off the mortgage. Marina fills her free hours by visiting museums, reading literature and keeping up with world news. We have had many interesting conversations about the Iraq war and the current global situation. Marina is also a very considerate person. She is always looking out for my well-being and always anticipating my needs and wants, offering to drive me places and run errands for me. (I almost feel like I’m at home!). She really is an intellectual as well and is both open minded and opinionated, the best combination in any intellectual. We often have debates about politics and just yesterday, shared our opinions on the controversial Italian expatriate author, Oriana Fallaci, who lived in New York until she died just a year or two ago. I’m reading one of her later books The Rage and the Pride for my Political Science class here and am quite frustrated with the author’s bigoted and racist litany. I asked Marina if she had read the unabashedly anti-Islamic and violent text and she had. My host mother insisted that I finish the book before completely casting aside Fallaci’s argument, and our discussion went into so much depth, that this morning by my breakfast plate, I found a printout of a piece of literary criticism Marina had found which represented her viewpoint on the matter. Once I had deciphered the Italian text, I began to understand Marina’s viewpoint. Fallaci’s writing according to the critic has changed in her most recent years and though Marina was able to identify with the “pride” the author has for both the United States and her patria, Italy, she was unable to appreciate the “rage” scrawled across the pages. Thanks to our conversation, I now feel I have a much more balanced understanding of the Italian author’s text. Marina even gave me an older book of Fallaci’s to read (in Italian of course). Wow, it’s only been three weeks here and I can already sense how fast this thing is going! I am really going to miss my host family. I’ve only been here 3 weeks and I already feel like I’ve known Marina for years. Better go throw some more change in the Trevi fountain I guess.

Elena: Marina’s daughter is a gem of a person. She is the y encounter. A dancer by profession, Elena subconsciously incorporates the fluidity of her artoungest 32 year old I have yet to into all aspects of her person. She twirls over to the dinner table, gracefully tilts her head to kiss me hello and goodbye, spins around and dips at the waist when washing dishes and balances on her toes when she gets excited or worked up about something. Elena speaks excellent English, a bit better than my Italian, and travels around Europe performing. I am sad to say I had to say goodbye for a while as she is in Holland for the month of February. Although she still keeps a room at her mother’s house and often stays there, she also has her own apartment in Trastevere. Elena loves music and even recorded an album of her own with friends when she was hurt in a motorcycle accident and couldn’t dance for a year. She has an incredible voice, especially for someone who only sings as a hobby—when I heard her singing along to one of her recordings, I first thought it was a professional musician on the tape! Elena is a bit more difficult to understand than Maria since she is younger and speaks more quickly. However, she very bubbly, and like her mother, never tires of conversation. As part of her weekly regimen, Elena also attends martial arts classes and does yoga late at night before going to bed. I already miss her now that she’s in Holland, and can’t wait to see her when she returns.

Rosa: Although I have never met her, I have heard plenty of stories from Marina. First off, she is the mother of two girls, Germania and Francesca, both friends of Elena. (Germania is incredible in the kitchen—she made an apple strudel for us the other week which was unbelievable). Anyway, Rosa is a great friend of Maria, but she’s going slightly out of her mind. She insists that someone has hired a secret agent to follow her, and that this man, his identity unknown, has been sneaking into her apartment for the past 30 years! Maria has tried to rationalize with her and explain how absurd it would be for someone to pay all kinds of money to hire a professional investigator to monitor someone like her. Rosa, sadly, to the amusement of all, will not give up her story.

Marco: So next door to the apartment where I live, Via Lidia 56, is an old theater called the Stellarium, long abandoned and boarded up. It’s a colorful fa├žade, a relic of years ago, and tells of time when this area had a greater cultural draw. But what is most interesting about this conglomeration of aluminum, steel and glass, is that it has been recycled into the winter home of a man named Marco. Marco moved in, according to Maria, just a few days before I arrived in Rome. A regular passerby would identify him as simply another homeless Roman, barely getting by day to day on the generosity of others. But I could tell within a few days, that this man was somewhat different. He doesn’t press his skull to the pavement in prayer for charity, he doesn’t tote around a child for sympathy, he holds no sign which reiterates his misfortune, nor does he have mangled appendages or head tumors like many of the other unfortunate souls in this city. Marco lives under the canopy of the Stellarium by choice, not inside the building, but out front. According to Maria, who used to give him money until she spoke with him and learned his story, Marco has two sons who own restaurants in Trastevere and do quite well for themselves. However, when he and his wife split up, Marco went slightly mad, took to drink, and sold his apartment. With the money, he has chosen a life of leisure, albeit an unhealthy and difficult one, and for the past two years has been homeless. Last winter was his first on Via Lidia, and this winter, his second. Maria has explained that in the summer he leaves, but where to she is unsure. Even more strange, Marco has so established himself in front of the Stellarium—a place no real bum would chose as there is minimal foot traffic here on the outskirts of Rome—that he has his own sleeping bag, suitcase of belongings, camping stove, folding table, blankets, and a modest amount of utensils, plates and bowls, etc. He even has regular visitors who frequent his perch and stay to chat for hours at a time, and wait (you won't believe this) he even has a cellphone! Marco is more friendly than the other homeless men and women in Rome, always smiling and seemingly content with himself, despite his deteriorating health. I haven’t made up my mind whether or not I feel for him or not, but I think one of these days I will take the time to sit and talk with him for a bit.

Alessandro: When I toured La Sapienza, the largest university in Europe (and 2nd largest in the world), located in Rome, just northeast of Termini, the train station and above San Lorenzo on the map, I left a message tapped to a window in one of the buildings offering to meet up with a student looking to practice his or her English in exchange for help with my Italian. I received an email last week from a guy named Alessandro, who offered to meet up and accepted. Last Thursday, we got lunch at the University and the 23 year old grad student in languages (English in particular) and economics was extremely nice. He spoke in English the whole time and I in Italian. I love practicing my Italian with Marina, but it was so much fun to speak with someone close to my age. I plan on meeting up with him again to practice my English some more over the next few weeks.
Thanks for visitng!