In the south of Italy in the summer, time seems to be ever grinding to a halt but never quite stopping. We move our beach chairs around like hour hands slowly across a sandy face to extract the best tan. Twilights slide into nights into late mornings, and on again. No one can seem to remember if we danced above the rocks last night, or if it was the night we leapt into an aqua, glowing pool overlooking a canyon before rains the kinds Palermo rarely sees poured down and lightning crackled against the mountains. We drove home in a foot of water that night.
There is no space for talking about work between the coffees, the cigarettes, the dancing, the sun. There is time for commiserating — Italians know how to do that, talking about food with a passion that Americans would reserve and distill into a ferocity for politics. There are new pop songs on the same radio station I always liked, new for this year and equally forgettable as last years’. We shout them out anyway, getting the lyrics wrong when they’re not in our respective languages. The grottoes still glisten with algae and the water is still warm. Tan skin hides what may have changed in the days since we last met.
And everything and nothing has changed. In the first days before I shake off the jet lag, life moves too slowly for me and everyone speaks too fast. “Ripete, Ripete.” I’m overcome by nostalgia — for inconsequential things, like Italian soap operas and the way the jeweler wraps my purchases (meticulously, as if I had bought the most precious thing in his store.) But really it’s nostalgia for what I had last year in Milan. Nostalgia for my escape. The feeling will subside, though. There is too much life to be lived here to dwell in what might have been, or even what was.
We drive through the mountains and to the sea. I’d never been to Palermo before, but the open arms make me think I have. The watercolor blues and greens America’s water begs to be painted with aren’t to be found here. There are only electric hues, and the worn out, sunburnt brown terrain.
And when our time is over, our little red car, packed to the gills with three unlikely girlfriends and our trappings (homemade oil from our b&b host; postcards I keep forgetting to mail; an artisan ceramic vase I pray stays intact) winds back through the landscape. There are new faces, locations, this time, but it’s still Italy — a place that was strangely somehow familiar to me when I arrived here for the first time.
Troppa bellezza. Too much beauty. Troppa. Too much. I eat even the skin of the figs. I burn my skin hoping for a tan. And 10 months ago, I would’ve drunk the last drops of everyone else’s wine. Tutte o niente, all or nothing. Moderation is something you’re born with. Or maybe it’s just a lesson I need to learn.
This is one reason why I love Italy. Here there are enough hours, but never enough time. Sicily’s mountains exist only to scoff at our attempts to perceive them with sufficient gratitude. There are more seaside cafes than we will ever get to linger in, more beaches with still cleaner, bluer, deeper water than we will ever swim in, more grandmothers to feed us, more men to admire us that we will ever encounter. The sheer enormity of this place’s beauty forces moderation. Without it, to exist here is impossible.
i’m leaving milan for new york tomorrow. and i may be moving further, after that. but for now i’m sitting here in my cold almost former bedroom with two-and-a-half overstuffed suitcases and the smell of cleaner for company.
i got used to things here so quickly. i heard trains rushing by in the night, same as i did growing up, which helped me sleep. (my theory’s that if you can sleep well in a certain place, you’re halfway to forgetting you ever lived anywhere else.) but once in awhile i walk into the lobby and forget that i live here and i smell the place for the first time. sometimes when i take the tiny two-person elevator i run haphazardly into the memory of how i stuffed my luggage into it the day i arrived, of how disoriented i was when i first stepped off the plane. xanax and a layover in brussels didn’t help. sometimes i wonder what i would forget if i had never left new york. i had been there well past the point of forgetting to remember the first times.
somehow, the kitchen where my roommates first reigned, all swinging stovetop espresso and fast-flying italian, became my domain in part, too. i’ll miss the balcony. but the people, most of all.
today was a feast day for sant ambrogio, patron of lombardia, the region of which milan is capital. the streets were empty and i took my bike out, rattling down the cobblestones through air that just this morning turned frigid. i rode down to parco sempione, where i used to drink big, cold bottles of prosecco and eat cheese, crackers and fruit for brunch with friends in the springtime. we’d first throw down a sheet then throw down ourselves, emerging hours later buzzed and sunburnt and completely in awe of our good fortune in waking up here in italy and finding what would turn out to be a friend rubbing his eyes next to us, discovering the same. but today the sky was gray, portentous, and a confounding christmas market snaked around the entrance. most of those friends have left, or are about to leave, milan.
later in the day, it snowed. for all the first times i remember (in milan: the first aperitivo, the first day at work, the first road trip; but then, also, every beautiful heartbreaking earthquaking first in life), i can’t remember the first time i saw it snow. i guess i’ll count it as today.