Bad news / Good news.
First the bad news.
Last night, my cell rang. Service!!! I heard...JOAHN JOAHN.
It was Polma calling to say that her aunt in Toronto died, and that they (I am assuming her mother) are going to leave for Canada on Wednesday. There would be no one in Maierato to help me out in the investigation of il mio albero genealogico. My family tree.
She said she would call me from Toronto after I got back to Oregon.
So Ciao, Ciao to an nonrefundable $150 ticket.
I considered going because now I was all revved up to see the place. But what would be the point. Meeting Polma had become the biggest reason for going.
The good news:
I now know that I have a good friend in Polma. She could have simply not called me or become impatient when I had a little trouble understanding because of the way she was using a verb that I didn't quite understand. She could not have wanted to call me from Toronto. She also seemed very eager to let me know she has a sister in Cleveland. Maria Cutuli. In short, the story is not over.
Also, I was able to carry on these two conversations with her entirely in Italian. This was very exciting.
And third, in the process, I found what I was looking for, or rather I understood what it was that I came here looking for. My courage. And my optimism. I realized after Polma's call that after having my career swept so abruptly and unjustly out from under me, I lost all confidence and courage. Confidence in myself, in life, in hope, in everything instilled in me by that one Joseph Conrad quote that I read my senior year in high school: Woe to the man whose heart has not learned while young to hope, to love, and to put its trust in life.
It was this quote that inspired me to study literature, this quote that always gave me the courage and confidence to fight my pessimistic nature. Actually, I find I am not, as I thought, a pessimist by nature. The pessimism was a result of never fitting into the right-brained sistema educazione. I never let the sentiment of the quote go, but I didn't really believe in it.
Immersed in the images of birth, death, and rebirth all around me here in Firenze, I now feel this constant process in the evolution of humankind, as well as in each person. Of all the art works I've seen, the one that mean the most to me is that bronze cross in Cortona, the one created circa 950 A.D. by an unknown artist. The exquisite and beautiful grief on la faccia di Cristo expressed the grief in my heart. It is the grief of an unknown artist who came to terms with the unknown, the condition of all humankind. I felt a bond with that artist, as I now feel a bond with my parents, all my grandparents, and all of the past experiences that brought me here to Florence. The bonds are of a mystical nature, what connects me to all of the forces that came together to give me the remarkable consciousness of life. Existence. My existence. Feeling the enormity of this is profound. I do not have to go to a town to find it, although when I do go there, it will be great fun.
The connection I sought there is now in my friendship with Polma, a connection made through minimal language but with what I think are mutual desires of the heart.
The gifts I brought for her, I will take home and share with la mia famiglia a Peetsboorg e la mia famiglia a Nehtahrts.
I am looking forward to the next two weeks, but also to going home. Things here are old and magnificent. But the sea is older and more magnificent.
So anyway, on Friday, Gabriele, brought Marilee to my grammar class. Gabriele is one of the brothers who runs Scuola Toscana where I am learning Italian. Marilee is a travel agent of sorts, with her own business and an idea that people my age would like getting more out of travel if they could really live like a "real" person in a country.
She seemed like a nice person, and she was eager to talk to me about my experience at the school. So I invited her over to my apartment for wine. Well, as I was pouring the first glass, I said the usual, "Say when," except she didn't.
And down the hatch the first very large glass went as we talked. She said how wonderful my experience sounded and that she wanted me to tell her all the things that I had to learn in order to get along, from from the planning of the trip to getting used to being here alone. She said she wanted her clients to experience the country, but without the hassles, so what did I have to suggest.
Come Monday, she will be sitting in on classes to see how her clients might take one or two weeks to familiarize themselves with the language.
I studied on my own for about 18 months. I wrote letters to unknown Cutulis and built a friendship with Polma. I read dual translations of Italian poetry and The Divine Comedy and watched DVD lectures on the Italian Renaissance, Dante, and Rome. I discovered the week before I left that Bank of America people hadn't told me the full truth about using my credit card abroad so that I could have accrued finance that I would have been paying off for the rest of my life. Upon learning this, I was so nervous about what else I didn't know that for the rest of the time until departure, I depended on better living through chemistry aka Xanax. And when Ed and Pete were leaving me at the airport, I wanted to throw myself around their legs and beg them to take me home.
Of course, the height of idiocy was that less than two weeks after ordering a global phone from Verizon, I was so stressed out over the impending adventure that I set the new phone on my wood stove, forgot it, lit a fire, and melted the damned thing.
Would it have been easier if I'd had someone to guide me through the preparations and tell me to weigh my own vegetables when I got here? Most definitely. Would it have been easier if I'd just had someone find the right school for me and give me an orientation before I found myself immersed in a foreign language with no options for speaking English? Indeed. I think the worst thing about that part of the adventure was not being without an identity. It was being without a sense of humor. It's impossible to make a joke if you don't know the language. I suppose that's not so much of a handicap when I think of it because for the first week, nothing much was funny.
So anyhow, Marilee was on her third glass of not-saying-when to my very nice bottle of Bardolino and had devoured most of an apple, a few very good-sized chunks of my cheese, and a packet of my non-gluten crackers, when it occurred to me that if what I'd done had been easy or figured out for me, it would have been a vacation, not a quest. Vacations are great. The next time I come to Italia, I will be on one. But this time, I wanted a quest. I needed a quest. Next year, I'll be 70. Life is not a dress rehearsal. I wanted to be sure of the last act—the art, the direction, the motivation. I thought that getting away would give me perspective, insight, clarity. I wanted to write the final act for myself, not leave the motivation to chance.
And speaking of age, this afternoon, I was walking home through the Piazza di Santa Croce. As always, tourists were gathered at the foot of the statue of Dante snapping pictures. It struck me that 700 years ago, Dante never could have imagined that on any given day, scores, perhaps hundreds of people would have arrived in airplanes and trains from all over the world and be having their pictures take at the foot of his statue.
There is definitely something to be said for being old. It's not wisdom one acquires but rather the rest one can enjoy from having outgrown the need for experience.
I wish that the history of my country did not begin with Columbus as a hero of discovery.
Last night and this morning, a little old woman was sitting outside the grocery store on the cold cement begging. She was toothless, and her mouth was like the half-circle kids draw to show a frown. A smile is a frown turned upside down. Last night, I had a baggie full of coins I was going to use today for my gelato. But I dumped them all in her cup. Her story was not the tragedy of being old but of being poor and without opportunity in a country of priceless art and a world with plenty of food. And all those big empty marble spaces with tombs. What use do the nonliving have for all that empty space?
In Florence, the history of birth, death, and rebirth are everywhere. Yes, there's something to being old. There is no need for activity to acquire experience. The sorting out process is way more fun and profound. All this being true If, of course, you don't have to sit on the cold cement to beg. The art and vast cathedrals seemed a little bit less in a country where an old woman has to sit on the street and beg. Or when anyone is suffering in a world where wealth abounds. I was suddenly very tired of looking at the art and visiting the grand cathedrals and tombs.
The next two weeks will be less emotionally harrowing. And instead of going on the exhausting journey Maierato, I will enjoy some time in Siena.
Oh, yea, long with the bronze, Cristo, I loved seeing the tunic of San Francesco. I have a statue of him in my garden. I love all the stories of how he talked to the birds and convinced a cattivo wolf to mind its manners. I can't wait to get home and talk to the cats. Hopefully no one will have eaten them.
Only concern: I don't want to know how much cholesterol is in gelato.