The heat here is abysmal.
I mean Georgia was sticky hot.
And Baltimore was humid like hell.
But neither can compare to this inferno
of Dante’s inspiration.
I can’t seem to recognize summer in Rome.
There are no bon fires in bare-foot backyards.
No scents of BBQ and charcoal grills.
I have yet to see a single fire-fly.
Red solo cup.
Or fire-works sale.
I miss air conditioning,
And afternoon thunderstorms –
The way the dark clouds roll in and thirsting leaves turn belly side up.
I miss neighbor-kids gathering on front porches
with artificially stained lips,
sucking on endless freeze pops.
Their carefree, crooked smiles.
I miss dirt-cheap Natty Boh’s.
Highland-town lemonades. American food because you can pretty much eat anything.
And you can always add cheddar cheese.
And you can always add bacon.
And I don’t even eat bacon.
I guess I like the option.
This was his closing argument.
Almost every time.
Even when we were talking about:
And then I would clock out of my shift.
“Get Jules a Redbreast.”
And I would drink a Redbreast.
And it’s still is my favorite whiskey.
But no one calls me Jules anymore.
And I stopped trying to fight
with other peoples
And I haven’t played beer pong in awhile.
And I’ve never seen an Italian shotgun a beer.
But damn it’s hot enough to fry an egg outside,
And I am cracking in this heat.
Just dreaming for a breeze,
And of the places I used to see.
Give the family a kiss.
I miss you girls like hell.
Stay cool and be good.
And never visit Rome in the summertime.
“Existence is futile!” a man shouted from the third floor window of a worn-out building. He was hanging on a curtain rod, a cigarette dangling out of the corner of his mouth.
He was a dirty man, maybe in his 40’s. I was never too good at guessing how many years a person’s been living for.
He saw me watching – a look of dignified delight spread across his dingy face, his hallowed eyes fixing on my little dress; his mouth slowly stretching into a gummy grin decorated with a few fossils of broken teeth.
“What’d you say?” I yelled back, my hand now parallel to my forehead, as if I were a solider reporting to her general. Really, I was just trying to shield my eyes from the hazy July sun.
“Viene qua, bellisima.” Now he was laughing all mad-like, clutching on to his ribcage, howlin’ and cracklin’ like a hyena.
“Where you come from?” yelled another man, maybe Moroccan, and before I knew it there were 10 of ‘em, all hootin’ and whistlin’ and still somehow suckin’ on their cigarettes.
I turned my attention to the empty street, lined with over-flowing trash bins and haphazardly parked cars. The sun was beating hard on the back of my shoulders, and I was trying to concentrate on a small dog up the hill, on the horizon of the piazza. He was dancing and skipping about, a little too care-free for the scene. His owner was taking a piss next to a trashcan, taking no measure to cover himself.
I took a sharp left onto a small side street, somewhere in between a via and a viccolo. Delivery items were being transferred from boxy trucks into dying businesses, the Chinese yelling in Italian, Italians yelling at the Chinese. I accidentally made eye contact with a homeless man lying dead in the center of the sidewalk. His mouth was slightly agape, and he slowly stretched his shaking arm in my direction, piercing me with his gray dull eyes.
“Existence is futile,” he whispered, and my over-heated July skin flushed with goose-bumps.
“What’d you say?” I sang back in a sad tune, like a reflex that a doctor checks to make sure you’re still feeling things.
He began to groan, and cough, and shake some more.
I marched on, past a Banglah and cellphone shop. I walked past Hallal fast food and empty stores with no names. I walked past children playing in the street, mothers humming as they hung their wet clothes out their apartment windows. I walked past hot trash begging to become fire, dirty birds sifting for something to eat. I walked past construction workers in their bright orange vests and long pants, past the crumbling buildings that once signified affluence and opportunity.
I walked, until I finally saw a bar. I opened the door, and that’s when I realized I was following my feet.
“Ciao, dimmi,” said an old man with a big mustache and watery blue eyes.
“vorrei un caffe,” I asserted, over annunciating.
The stainless-steel machine whizzed and steamed, a dark black liquid gently trickling into a small, white porcelain cup.
He placed it on the bar with a flourish, and I languidly began stirring in the contents of a sugar packet, my eyes fixed ahead on a mirror, watching the room behind me.
A business man in a well-tailored suit entered into the picture. He had a big watch with the wrong time and pearly white teeth that looked like maybe they had been sharpened.
“Un caffe,” he snapped, and the old bar man stepped into motion like a switch had been flipped on. He never looked away from the machine as the espresso found it’s way into another cup. A small, white cup. Porcelain.
The old man placed the coffee on the bar, and I felt the eyes of the business man on me. I kept looking in the mirror. Maybe I was waiting for something.
“Existence is futile,” he remarked, as he dropped a few coins on the counter and headed back out into the streets.
“What’d you say?” I asked myself, because no one else was around to hear me.
“Un euro,” the old man replied, with a warm smile and busy hands.
“Grazie,” I placed a coin on the counter, and followed my feet outside.
The two shared a laugh, as I methodically stabbed a piece of cantaloupe with my fork and lifted it to my mouth.
“Do you know what this means? It’s one you should learn.”
I had been sitting on the outskirts of their conversation, a comfortable place I have learned to call home.
“I always mix up the profanities, but ‘cazzo’ means dick, right?”
“No, no, it’s not a profanity! It means ‘nevermind.’”
“What’s the literal translation?”
“These dicks. But that’s not what it means.”
“Ahh okay. We have phrases like this in English, too.”
“But it’s not a phrase. It’s a lifestyle! For example, you wake up late? Masti cazzi. You forget your laundry in the washing machine? Masti cazzi. You lose your job? Masti cazzi.”
So it’s the Italian hakuna matata, but with dicks? Ho capito.
“How long have you stay in Italy?”
“Why haven’t you learned Italian yet?”
I have the latter part of this conversation at least once a day.
“I’m lazy” has always been a lame excuse for something deeper.
“I battle with a constant, depressive existential crisis and struggle with interpersonal self-motivation,” is not exactly polite to say. Even if I said it, I don’t think it would mean anything.
Now, ‘I’m lazy’? People can really sympathize with that. And I’ve built a solid defense for this excuse. But I accidentally learn something every once in awhile. Piano, Piano. It’s not a phrase, it’s a lifestyle.
Over the last six moths, I made an important transition from “living in Italy with a random family and being totally clueless” to “living on my own in Italy and being totally clueless.” I have been teaching English for a private company in Monteverde Vecchio, which I recently understood quite literally means “old green mountain.” This old green mountain, which sits 298 steps above the tram tracks, is adorned with vibrant vines climbing up the sides of distinctive romantic houses, in pale yellows or baby pinks, contrasted with deep-hued shutters on door-sized windows. The ceilings are tall, just like the trees, and everything feels a bit closer to the moon when night begins to fall.
Teaching English has been a strange and rewarding experience. Before, I never had to think about why my verbs agreed, or how time and language are so deeply tangled together in an expression of existence. Now, I have been asked to explain things for which I had never previously assigned reason to.
“What dose how mean?” an adult student once asked me, causing my brain to implode. How do you explain how? It’s something I’ve been considering ever since. It’s the way by which something is done, but also related to a state of being. It can express both quantity and quality. Methodology and measurement. When she asked, I didn’t have a thoughtful answer. I believe I said, “ummmm.”
It felt like I was teaching someone how to breathe. I don’t know how, it comes naturally.
Apart from needing to consider my language in a thoughtful way, I also began an exposition into the psychology of learning. I had 40 students, aged 7 to 40. Some were in small groups, others individual lessons. Each leaner needed to be motivated in a different way. The biggest challenge in teaching is keeping students interested. The school is full-immersion, which means it’s forbidden to speak in Italian to the students. I can’t speak in Italian anyway, so it was an easy rule to follow, but it proved to be very trying in a class with eight 7-year-olds who don’t speak a lick of English. Some of the worst-behaved kids were my favorite students, because I saw a lot of myself in them. The bad kids were usually the most intelligent. They were bored, so they clung to distractions.
In a way, each class was its own chemistry experiment. I had to learn through trial and error how to be relatable. The first step in learning a language is a desire to communicate. I quickly learned my younger students are Justin Bieber fans. My 10 year olds even had opinions about Donald Trump.
Sometimes I would have to separate students, or a few kids would be absent. This completely changed the classroom dynamic, and I started to understand more about the influence of a social setting. Different combinations of students brought out different social environments. I learned the importance of developing an individual relationship with each student. Disappointment is a more effective tool than anger.
The school year ended last Wednesday and I realized it’s been six months since I published on my blog. Everything about life has changed. When I moved to Italy and began this blog, I was really bored. I thought if I threw myself into an ambiguous situation, I would finally have “something to write about.” Roma has not disappointed, and I feel incredibly shocked and lucky each day that I’m here. I hope to continue writing, and I thank anyone who takes the time to read. I’m not an expert on anything, I’m just a girl with a hypothesis.
I am running up a flight of stairs, cocktails barely balanced by the tray in my left arm. Each step synchs with the pronunciation of a piano key. I am on beat, or maybe the band is.
I am at Gregory’s Jazz club, working my first night as a waitress without a cause. I was hired because I speak English, and most of the clientele are tourists. Tonight we are booked full of Italians, and I don’t speak a lick. I’m jolting in and out of spaces like an eight-year-old boy who drank too much mountain dew. My hair is tied up in a sloppy bun held together by criss-crossing pens. I have no pockets, so my notepad is hugged against my hip by the elastic band of the top of my leggings. I’m starting to wonder if my life is an episode of “I love Lucy.”
The clarinet sounds better than I remember, and the gentle “tsss” of the symbol keeps my energy in balance. I feel myself transitioning from frantic footwork to silky side steps as my hips begin to sway without my consent, navigating through the crowded room like a dance move.
Italians are very relaxed, not troubled by the idea of rushing through anything. They take their time, and shamelessly indulge, which is my favorite aspect of the culture. There is no “to-go” coffee, you take a moment and drink it at the counter. Maybe order something sweet, too, then have a cigarette before you’re on your way. The bad side to this quality is they are largely disorganized, particularly when it comes to systems. The public transportation actually circumnavigates the center of the city, and busses are liable to not just be late, but never come. I had one hour after my last English lesson to make it from Monteverde to the Spanish Steps. Geographically speaking, this isn’t a lot of distance to cover. Still, I was late.
I arrived to Gregory’s out of breath, but high on the adrenaline specific to the experience of racing against the clock. I was determined to transcend the space time continuum, hoping that somehow I could make the ticking minutes multiply.
“Ecolla,” said my manager, as I burst through the doors like I was about to rob the place. He was not mad I was late, rather happy to see me in general. Without missing a beat, I was delivering drinks and staring blankly at Italians. Questions poured from customers looking for simple items my vocabulary could not provide them. My only solace in these moments was the fact we were not working for tips.
“aaahh, sorry, no parlo Italiano. Parlee Inglese?”
With younger people, this was not a problem. After the second world war, they started teaching English in the schools, replacing the previous second language of French. For the older clients, the ones who have made this jazz club their weekend home, my muted vacancy was not impressive.
We were booked to full capacity, yet somehow continued to find new places to fit eager customers. The iPad operating system was very efficient, but the table numbers were confusing and I once again found myself in a new job with few instructions. There were not enough minutes and not enough clones of myself to accommodate the overflowing room. At one moment I decided I was going to quit. I’ve worked in a lot of bars and restaurants, but the chaos of this one had nearly broken me.
The drinks were served, the jazz was swinging, and I finally had a moment to take a breath. “It’s not so bad,” I thought on a long drag of a cigarette, peering through the window, watching the bustle of a busy business. The beautiful thing about the service industry is the ability to meet and speak with people of all walks of life. In this night, I met a surgeon from Berlin. He said he found us on yelp.
“People do not come here by accident,” the owner told me at a quiet table the night I was hired. “They come here for good jazz and good whiskey.”
What I love about Rome is it feels like a time capsule. In this club, I imagine people in the 20’s and 30’s, sitting in a smokey bar, listening to the same notes. Time goes by, but music is everlasting. It can transport you to a specific moment, and connect you to millions of other people who once heard and thought about the same song. Maybe we do not hear the same thing, and maybe the songs are played with a different energy, but at the base of each song is a beat we cannot deny. A compulsion to tap or sway along. Music is the language that moves.
It is the end of the night, but the happy customers show no signs of leaving. They are joking and drinking, with humidors and fat cigars and never-empty glasses of whiskey. I am upstairs, where the stage is, sweeping up chaotic crumbs resting in the dark. A many is softly playing the piano. I hum along.
“Will inspector Sams please report to the central concourse,” boomed an overhead radio system into the mostly empty cafe.
I am at Victoria Station, eating a cheese sandwich, and drinking a tall glass of Strongbow cider. Neither taste the same as they do in the States. It’s a nice break from cheap pizza and economy-sized Peroni.
I arrived in England peering through half-open, sleep-filled eyes, depicting a hazy scene that could have also indicated I was in purgatory. Travelers were immediately ushered into orderly queues, organized by paperwork and bureaucracy.
Turns out, I was spoiled entering Italy as my first foreign country. I walked off the plane, into the airport, picked up my bag, and hopped in a taxi. No one checked my passport. No one asked me to declare anything. Everybody was taking their time, stopping for a coffee or tied up in casual conversation. Today was a different thing. I waited in a snaking line full of silent minds, and something about it felt clinical. No one was speaking, but the space was near full. It was like a class of elementary students who were just threatened by the teacher. One peep, and we’d all miss recess.
A woman handed me a slip of paper identifying the time I joined the queue, for quality control, she assured me. I was asked to give it to boarder control as a method for measuring our lines’ wait time. Twenty minutes off the plane, and they were already utilizing me to benefit the system…sneaky Brits. Well played.
From Stansted, I took a spacious bus with leather seats and a flatscreen TV mounted above the driver, displaying a live feed of the street in front of us. I’m not sure what this was for. I think it was supposed to help us feel like we were driving. The whole thing was meta, but in a depressing, endless expanse of highway kind of way.
In the hour and a half bus ride to London, I examined the back of my eyelids, struck in the middle of dreaming and thinking. Never fully committed to being asleep or awake. The content of my thoughts were muddled and disturbing. A cocktail of the wrong ingredients. A manhattan made with rum.
I forced myself awake when I realized we were in the heart of the city. I was curious to begin the identification process. When I came to Rome, I knew of certain landmarks, but I never spent any time with a map. In part I wanted to be surprised, and in part I’m really lazy about my adventures. I had a vague mental image, but I never tried to define it. I didn’t want to ruin it with expectations. I came to London with the same sentiment.
On first impression, the buildings are sleek and smart. More modern and abstract than I would have expected. You can sense the Germanic influence. There is a coldness to the architecture, especially in contrast with Roman romanticism. It feels like a cleaner, smaller and better organized NYC. At one point, I saw a man raking leaves into very precise piles off a side street. The city workers seem dedicated and plentiful. Well organized, and with good attitudes. This is already different than Rome and the States. A healthy sign for a city.
London feels chic and current, with “healthy fast food” restaurants peppering between buildings and taking advantage of the “vegan, soy-free, conscious consumption” movement. I’m not complaining, because their design and marketing teams have done a killer job. I will add that anytime someone markets themselves to be something, they probably aren’t that thing, but okay, they still did a hell of a job. There’s a level of stringent sophistication permeating from the concrete. I’ll be curious to find where the homeless sleep. You can learn a lot about a city from their homeless.
I keep saying “ciao” and “grazie”, which is really terrible, because I have a strong American accent. They’re at the tip of my tongue, because these are the few words I use to communicate with Italians. After a few months of conditioning, it seems like I don’t know how to speak to people.
When I first came to Italy, street conversation was extremely alienating. It made me uncomfortable to not know what people were saying around me. After awhile, it became a white noise in the background, enabling me to develop intense focus on my own thoughts in public spaces. Here, I can understand conversation bits from all directions. It’s disorienting, and I’m experiencing a lot of noise pollution. This has been the biggest surprise for me, the realization that I like strangers better when I can’t understand them.
On the surface, I like the feeling London gives me. There is a crisp quality to the air that makes me feel like I can breath. I’ve navigated the public transportation with virtually no problem, to which I can thank the horrible transit system in Rome. I’ve spent most of my day alone, except for a quick stop at the gallery for a long hug from an old friend. This is just the beginning. I have a city to learn.
Has anyone ever metaphorically spat in your face? It just happened to me. I received a long lecture on how abruptly leaving a job as a caretaker is, well, careless. I was told I was not respectful, and to do what I’m doing makes me a bad person.
It’s hard to disagree with, and brings up memories of me leaving from a string of situations on less than graceful terms. Naturally, it has snowballed into an overall speculation about the nature of my existence, and if, in fact, I am “bad”.
To answer this question, one must first understand what defines bad or good.
If you take a dog for a walk on a day full of sunshine, a soft breeze tickling the hair on the back of your neck, whispering in your ear a melodic cacophony of early spring, this might be good.
If you’re getting a last miute haircut by the only hairdresser who doesn’t have clients booked, and the blow drier short circuits causing a spark to light a fire that burns down the building and also envelops your whole head of hair, this might be bad.
However, both applications of these values are created by yourself in the scenario, meaning they don’t construct an objective reality for which we can build a consensus. Generally, most people would agree that these situations are “bad” or “good”. But what if you change perspectives with someone else in the scenario? What if the dog really hates you, and being forced under the control of your subordinate leash brings him great anguish and turmoil? What if you’re walking the dog past a girl who had her own dog die recently, and the sight of your dog triggers her grief? Alternatively, what if the proprietor of the building always secretly hoped for a fire because he had a big insurance policy? Now he is happy. And I don’t think he cares about your hair.
The problem with morals is they are subjective. Everything in reality is. Physics tells us time does not exist the same on street level as it does the 9th floor of a building. I constantly vow to give my sisters “tips from the future” because my day occurs 8 hours ahead of theirs. This is a different problem, though, and we can talk about it later.
So what are these morals, and where do they come from, if everyone is looking at the same situation with different eyes? Most of us assume that murder is wrong, but is it still wrong if you murder someone who is trying to murder you? Where do we derive our rules for how to navigate life? For many, it’s religion. But throw religion away for a second, and pretend it isn’t real. We could still probably agree on the golden rule. “Treat others as you want to be treated.” Okay, that’s nice, so *WHAT IF* I’m really into being tied up and spanked? Does this mean I go around tying up people and spanking them? Seems like a bad rule of thumb.
I was asked to turn the situation around, and see it from the employers perspective. I tried to explain I’ve gone inside and out of the matter, but sometimes you just have to let other people talk. “What if we decided we were throwing you out, with only three days notice before you must leave?” I said I would have to create a plan and find somewhere else to go. This was not a satisfying answer. “Yes, but what would you tell other people when they asked you about this situation? You would say we were bad people.” For me, the idea of having to find a new place to live seemed like it would be the most important thing on my mind. She did not believe me.
One time in college I was sitting on a bench in a tree-spotted greenspace referred to as the oak grove. I was pretending to do trigonometry homework, but mostly watching a group of “larpers,” or, individuals who do role-play jousting. A dog stopped beside me, who I began to pet, surprised by his outgoing personality. The dogs companion, an old gentleman with white Einstein hair and crystal blue eyes, approached me next, and started telling me conspiracy theories about JFK’s assassination and what really happened on 9/11. He then told me he used to teach sociology at IUP, segwaying into a lesson I didn’t ask for. He explained the “A,B,C theory of emotions,” developed by Albert Ellis in the 1950’s.
Einstein-man told me “A” stands for an action. Life is comprised of action and inaction. There is no connotation associated with these things. Nothing is “good” or “bad,” it just is. “B” stands for the conscious or subconscious belief we have regarding the action, which provides the action with assigned meaning. “C” stands for emotional consequences, or feelings we derive from the meaning we assigned to an event. For example, A. Sally sees a snake. B. Sally has heard bad stories about snakes. C. Sally is scared. With this logic, we assign meaning to everything, and that meaning is left up to our conscious or unconscious thoughts to translate into our emotions. Realistically, we can control our emotions about an event by assigning our own meaning to it. This is a therapeutical technique aimed to shift the traditional viewpoints and approaches about human behavior from assigning a one-size-fits-all template to “actions,” and instead giving an individual the power to customize their feelings and beliefs. That was a really long sentence, and I’m sorry.
I’m headed to London tomorrow, and before leaving, I was asked to pack up my belongings and reimburse the employer for 30 euro. This is all action, and my conscious belief tells me after I’m on the plane, I’m going to be just fine. I’m headed to visit a dear friend for his final photography exhibition, as he graduates from the University of London Arts with a degree in photojournalism and documentary making. His project is called “sonostalgia,” the inverse of nostalgia, which is the phenomena of feeling homesick for home while still living there. It’s feeling homesick for the way things used to be – a place you can never go back to. And when I return to Rome, I will begin a new life, something I have become quite practiced in.