Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Autumn Leaves

When I was seventeen, I was left to stay home with my dad for four months against my will. My mom was in Florida assisting my grandmother with a knee surgery. I would have gone with her if I didn’t have school.

One night, on the ride home from my four-hour work shift at Pier 1, I told my dad that I loved seeing the autumn leaves on the ground.

“You know, when I was about six or seven,” he started, and I turned my head to watch his face become illuminated with the headlights of passing cars. I thought to myself, I have never heard a story from Pop’s childhood, and he talked about using the gutter leaves as a roof for the war bunker he and his brother imagined in the sewer. I wanted to ask him to tell me more.

What was your mother like; did you cry when she died? Why don’t you ever talk to Uncle John; why have I only met him once? What else would you imagine when you were little? I will remember that car ride as long as I have a memory. It was the only time I ever felt like my dad could feel.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Hills Like These

Fiesole is a small, clandestine town that rests on a hill just outside of Florence, Italy. The pocketbook tourist guide that I bought from a Barnes and Noble suggested I visit Fiesole for its fine cuisine and intimacy. My friend Josh and I decided to go.

My pocketbook guide also suggested we take the number 7 bus from Piazza Dalmazia, in Florence, to Piazza Mino, in Fiesole. The trip was an estimated 20 minutes, at most.

“I say we take the train,” Josh said.

“What?” I looked up from the little guide book. “Why?”

“Aly, I’ve done it before. The scenery is amazing.” I was done with all of my class assignments for the week; I had time to explore. Besides, I trusted Josh. He was two years older than I and spoke fluent Italian and Spanish. I was in good hands.

“Okay!” I exclaimed, and we walked the ¾ mile to the Piazza della Stazione from our little apartments on Via dei Magazzini.

The train took us through grape vineyards and terracotta-roofed homes, all resting on the slanted hillsides. It was dusk, and the orange sun streamed through long clouds. The hills, I thought, were too large to be called hills, yet too small to be called mountains; some were dotted with basil-colored trees and others were blanketed with tan brush. Italian cypress seemed to poke the underbellies of purple-pink clouds, and I told Josh we will be neighbors someday in these hills.

After about 40 minutes in the cabin, Josh and I exited in Caldine. There were no other people at the stop besides a small child and, I assume, his grandmother. They boarded the train and left Josh and me to ourselves.

“Okay, my friend, now we just need to find a bus to take us up.” Josh said. By this time, the air was blue and cold. I shivered in my red, nylon sundress and sequined sandals.

Minutes later, we found the bus stop, and discovered the routes had stopped running for the night. We looked at the map plastered to a bench and began walking up the long Via Fontelucente. The road would lead us directly into Fiesole’s main piazza; it ran uphill the entire way, wrapping the mountainside. There were no sidewalks, and Josh and I walked in brown Cypress needles that collected at the edges of the road. Every few moments a Euro sports coupe would zip towards us—we’d both fake a scream, and Josh would protect me by trading me places to walk closer to traffic. The arches of my feet rubbed raw against my shoes. My mouth felt full of cotton. It was around 9:30 p.m. and it had been about six hours since I had eaten.

“Isn’t it beautiful?” Josh turned his body toward the view, walking backwards, and spread his arms to hug the scenery. I turned my neck to glance, then found myself stopped to face the view.

I’d seen large hills before, probably in southern California or northern Utah, but I’d never seen them like these with vineyards draped over the sides. I’d never seen them with a deep purple backdrop, or with tall stucco houses lit with orange light. I’d never seen hills like these, and now I was standing in the middle of them, breathing their vapor, dirtying my feet with their residue. I breathed deep with my eyes closed, turned back around, and continued my walk to Fiesole.

Monday, November 9, 2009

Where is Home?

Throughout my childhood, I lived and breathed Italian. Every Christmas, my mother rolled deli meats, placed them on platters as big as snow saucers, toppled them over with peppers, olives, water mozzarella, and called it antipasto. In the summer she’d mash boiled potatoes to a cream, knead them with flour and eggs, shape them into little dumplings, and call them gnocchi. I was a true Italian, I thought. My mother’s vocabulary and cooking expertise confirmed that for me at an early age.

My first day in Florence felt like I was coming home. Every man I saw with a hooked nose, olive skin, and crocodile Gucci boots looked like a brother of mine, an uncle, someone from an old brown photograph my mother had tucked in her closet. The old women’s bodies I saw were like my grandmother’s—soggy necks, abundant chests, hunched backs and wobbly walks. Was this home? My flat forehead and almond eyes suggested that it could have been, but my American citizenship and months of Berlitz language training suggested otherwise.

One particular night, I took the four hour Trenitalia from Rome to Florence. The seats were dark blue, and I felt their rough, fabric balls through my nylon dress. Blisters lined the arches of my feet, and my ankles were sore from walking the cobblestone without a map. A low murmur of others’ voices in the cabin sang to me as I watched the warm orange lights from the buildings pass the windows like glowing tadpoles. I held my tired head up with the palm of my hand. My hollow stomach snarled at me, and my eyes burned each time I closed them longer than a blink. I propped my legs up on the stained seat cushions facing me, my Rome-dipped shoes touching the fabric balls. I fell asleep.

Che schivo!” I cracked my stiff eyes and looked up to see a tiny man wearing a dark blue conductor hat just above me. He pointed to my feet, waved his hands in my face, then pointed to my feet again. His fast Italian words filtered into my brain, and I squinted my eyes, trying to understand every word. How disgusting, he said. Dirty American, he said. I quickly removed my feet from the seat in front of me. Scanning the cabin to see what kind of attention this was drawing, I saw a woman with long brown hair from the next seat down stretching her neck around to watch. She spoke to the small man, nodding her head. She looked at me straight-lipped and waved her hands when she spoke.

Me despiace!” I looked at the man and apologized, but he continued to yell. “Me despiace!” I apologized again, with all of the energy I could collect in that exhausted moment. I thought of Grandpa Tony—he would be so ashamed of me right now. The small, angry man handed me a pink slip with €7.50 written on the line at the bottom. I couldn’t decipher the entirety of the little yellow paper, but I understood that they were asking for the remainder of my trip money.

“Fee to clean.” The man pointed to the yellow carbon copy like he was practicing Morse Code in mid-air. “Che schivo.” He snatched the shaking money from my hands. I’ve wronged the people, I thought.

Throughout my entire stay in Italy, I had tried so hard to be accepted by these people—I imitated native speakers when asking for a cone of chocolate or pistachio gelato, I wore fancy sun dresses from Dillard’s and Khol’s instead of tropical tourist shirts and khaki shorts, and I even purchased a paintbrush from a local artisan to make my brushstrokes look more Italian. I tried so hard to be accepted by these people who I knew I was a product of—their blood ran in mine. But to them, I was just a dirty American.

I stayed awake, with my feet planted on the floor, the rest of the ride to Florence.

Now, when my mom pronounces Riccotta the way she always has, I correct her. When she calls my dad a stoonad, I tell her that I asked a native what it meant, and he didn’t know. When she says that’s how the real Italians do it, I ask her how she knows. The truth is I can never be a native Italian—the people will always know; I will always know. What I am is found within some paradigm of Italy and Ellis Island, New York. Somewhere, between those two places, I belong. Somewhere, between those two places, is home.