Punto! Enough. No more. We’re done. This conversation is over.
It’s the strongest word I know in Italian. And I just wrote it to one of the few Italians I actually know.
I didn’t come to Italy for romance. A few friends said, “Maybe you’ll meet an Italian and stay!” No. Absolutely not. Of course, I would say that and then laugh. If I said it as strongly as I felt it, people would think I was upset. Instead, I tried to be nice in my response, to laugh, smile, brush it off. People in general are often put off by my directness. Maybe because they are first drawn in by my smile. When I am firm in my response, my voice often drops an octave and then people pull back. If I was a different person, I might enjoy that. But I’m a person whose life purpose is to connect. I’ve spent my entire adult life trying to soften my approach. I don’t want people to feel I’m harsh or rude or unkind.
Anyway, I didn’t come to Italy for romance. No secret hopes of a chance meeting that leads to falling in love. No brief and exciting escapade that ends up in bed with a dark, handsome, man. No. Definitely not interested. That’s not what I want. I’m not ruling out the chance that someday I may fall in love again – but at the moment, that’snot what I’m looking for. I LOVE my life. I love being single. And, in the States, I think I’ve finally learned how to navigate this status. I think.
The #MeToo movement has helped tremendously. No more slimy innuendos from men. No more inappropriate comments. Or rather, I encounter less of them now. And when I do, I feel more confident. More justified in feeling creeped out and disgusted. I’m just a little more emboldened to say something like, “Does your wife know you’re talking to me / saying these things to me?” or “You’re making me uncomfortable.” Okay, now that I think about it, I’m not sure I’ve had the nerve to actually say that in the moment. But I have written it – In an email or in a text.
Fast forward and I decide to finally visit Italy. A country where people have largely responded to #MeToo “with scorn and skeptism.”[i] No problem. As friends would say, if anyone can fend for themselves, it’s me. I’m direct. (remember?)
Except that I’m not. Not as much as I’d like to be. Not when it comes to me.
I have zero problem standing up for another person. When I hear something inappropriate being said, or see something wrong happening, I quickly jump in. My mouth engages before consulting my brain. I’ve interrupted and diffused many a potentially violent situation. But standing up for myself is something altogether different.
I don’t know if I was culturally trained not to hurt people’s feelings, if it’s a woman thing, if it has something to do with my father, or if I’m just overly sensitive to not wanting others to feel bad. But my entire life I’ve had men make sexual innuendos to me and instead of telling them to stop, I’ve just tried to ignore it. My first memories begin at age ten. A family friend, a music teacher, bosses, clients, guys that I thought were my friends and, of course, countless random men. Then, in graduate school, I was sexually harassed for almost three years by a woman older than me. And like all the times before, I couldn’t find the words to stay stop. To firmly declare, “You’re out of line.” Instead, I tried to brush it off, to laugh, maybe shake my head, but always still smile.
So here I am in Italy. Just being me. I’m smiling at strangers. And strangers are smiling back. No problem. Or so I thought.
The only time during my entire trip that I’ve actually engaged with a group of people was at a small gathering for folks who travel. We met in a restaurant in Rome. Most were local Italians. I spoke to a man from Naples, a man from Sicily, a man from Calabria, two men from Puglia. This is fantastic! All places I want to visit. And then there is one man, I can’t remember where he is from, but he has visited the States a few times. A day or two later, I notice he is following me on Instagram. And then the message, “You have sexy feet.” Or maybe he said cute feet, I can’t remember. In my disgust, I deleted it. Now to be clear, only 18% of all my posts on Instagram have photos of me and one of those is my feet. That’s the one he comments on. Really?
So I didn’t respond. I ignored it. I heard nothing more. Until several crazy days later after I’ve settled in Sicily and post a photo of me resting in the sun by the water with the text, “Technically I shouldn’t be out here.” Then this guy writes, “Respect the country.” No personal message this time. No, “How are you?” No, “Glad you’ve made it to a safe place.” Nothing but a very direct and public “Respect the country.” It felt like a scolding. This guy, whom I don’t even really know and who had the nerve to comment on my feet, scolds me for resting in the sun.
I was mad. I wrote him back. I tried to explain. I wrote my blog. And in the end, the truth is, he was right. Lockdown means lockdown. Giving the impression that I am on holiday, breaking the law, doing whatever I wish, was wrong. Bad form. But ultimately that isn’t what upset me.
You want to know why I was mad? What really got under my skin? He was able to be direct. To just say what needed to be said, without any consideration of niceties. He did what I should have done when he mentioned my feet. But I was cowardly. I ignored him. And when the time came for him to ignore me, to just brush off my behavior, he didn’t. He called me out. And he did it without any concern for my feelings.
Meanwhile, I texted another Italian I know – the fellow who hosted the gathering of travelers. I asked for his advice. He told me: “You are too nice. Don’t smile at men until you can trust them. In Italy, it’s okay for a woman to be rude.”
Well there you go. I need to stop worrying about men being sensitive to me being direct.
Add that to the list of blessings and lessons learned during #AmericanInItalyDuringCoronavirus.
[i] See NPR’s article from 18 January 2018 (as just one example) https://www.npr.org/sections/parallels/2018/01/18/578562334/in-italy-metoo-falters-amid-public-scorn?t=1584284623265
According to Italian law, enacted on the 9th of March, 2020, you are no longer allowed to leave your dwelling, to go out, stroll the streets. No gathering in parks, no chatting with neighbors on street corners or at the local bar (for coffee). Lockdown means lockdown. This is why the recent videos of residents singing from their balconies is going viral. Humans will always find a way to connect. Our spirits are always lifted when we realize we’re not alone.
When you do leave your home, you must fill out the appropriate form and carry it with you, in case you are stopped by the police. The form includes your name, date of birth, where you live, and your telephone number. It states that you are “aware of the criminal consequences in the case of false declarations…” and provides four acceptable reasons for not being at home:
You then must sign, date, and time the form. And, if stopped by police, the policeman will sign it as well.
I returned my rental car within 36 hours after this law went into effect. Clearly, my hopes of driving around nearby towns would not come to fruition. No last-minute drive to Marsala to stock up on wine. There would be no sight-seeing for the foreseeable future. No reason to have a car.
I didn’t have the form on me when I arrived at the Palermo airport. The Avis employees were shocked. Finally, they provided me a blank one and insisted I fill it out before heading “home.” Less than twenty people at the airport. Only two other people were on the train, plus the conductor.
The only people I see out on the streets are those walking their dogs. Plus a few others walking along the dock or beach for exercise. (I think this must apply under either health reasons or situations of necessity.)
Yesterday, after reading about Americans stocking up on toilet paper and hand sanitizer, I decided it was probably a good idea to get more rations, just in case further restrictions were imposed. Ok, honestly, there was also a very tiny fear that Italians might start acting like crazy Americans and begin hoarding / clearing off shelves. Plus, I had run out of cheese, salami, and olives. I was definitely going to need more food!
I left my apartment at 8:30 Saturday morning. An easy stroll down narrow streets in the early sunshine. About ten blocks past laundry already hanging from balconies to a more commercial street with closed restaurants and a few stores. When I reached the butcher (which I hadn’t seen previously), I discovered one person inside and one car on the street waiting. Under the new restrictions, only one person is allowed in a store at a time. Others wait in a line outside for their turn. Lucky for me, the car was waiting for the woman inside. When it was my turn, all I bought was cheese and eggs. Lots of cheese. I tried to give the butcher my re-usable shopping bag that I had brought from home and he panicked. “No! No!” he said as my bag touched the top of the glass case. I froze and apologized. “Mi dispiace,” I said. I’m sorry. To which he responded, “Va bene. Ma polizia, la polizia.” It’s okay, but the police, the police. What did he mean? My Italian is too poor for me to understand or to ask for clarification.
My next stop was one door over for more vegetables and more fresh basil. The old woman who runs the shop was clearly surprised to see me again. Her eyebrows raised over her face mask and she nodded. Next door the bakery was open! Yay!! Gluten be damned, I wasn’t going to miss this chance to stock up on baked goods. First, I bought three croissants and then I just started pointing at things. I filled an entire bag with cookies and croissants.
A few more blocks and I found the same grocery store I had previously visited, where I purchased more supplies: canned tuna, capers, tea, boxed wine, chocolate, and body lotion. This shop owner recognized me as well and was very friendly, even offering me a slice of cheese to taste before buying. Such a small gesture, one we not only take for granted but expect in the States. Here, it took me by surprised. I swear I could feel my heart expand and I fumbled to express a few thoughts in Italian, more than the standard “Grazie.”
In all, I saw maybe twelve people during my entire excursion. There was no one on the streets. Only two cars drove by. Everyone now wears gloves and a mask. Luckily, I have a few with me (the gloves I wash with soap and water when I return home, dry them, and reuse). It would be disrespectful to not wear these things, I think. Even if we are at safe distances, even if we’re told face masks don’t really work. I don’t want to be the rude foreigner perceived as spreading the disease.
Which is why I was so taken aback this morning when the only Italian I know who follows me on Instagram responded to my last post by writing, “Respect the country.”
The apartment where I am staying is in a small coastal town outside of Palermo. Normally, it is filled with tourists or Italians on holiday. The building has five apartments, all of which are empty, except mine. I have a balcony that looks out at the water. It is beautiful. I truly am fortunate to have landed here.
And, I am accustomed to exercise. To walking and dancing. Sunshine is beautiful through the windows. On the balcony, it comes with cool wind. I think the best thing would be to walk a bit along the water. Go see the boats docked below. I text my landlord (residing in Palermo) and he says okay. “Yes, exercise is important. Just don’t stay out too long, stay away from other people, and make sure to bring the completed form.”
So I do this. I walk down to the water. Not to the boats, but nearby to a stretch of rocks completely abandoned. I am alone to eat my oranges and listen to the waves. Eventually I lie down to feel the sun on my face.
It is this photo I take and post on Instagram. Me lying in the sun. With a note that says “I’m technically not supposed to be there, lockdown really does mean lockdown.”
And this morning I awake to the response, “Respect the country.”
This post is my response. This post is my way of sharing what things are really like here, apart from the great posts you see on social media of people singing from their balconies. Truly, I am so grateful to be here at this time. I intend to follow the law and stay put. I also intend to keep enjoying the fresh air and sunshine.
And keeping eating oranges.
Now if only I had a dog.
13 March 2020
Adulting is hard. No doubt about it, There are absolutely days when being an adult can feel overwhelming. And yes, there are times when I wish I had someone – a partner – to help me make decisions.
This is not one of those times.
Just like most folks, there are days when I want to relinquish responsibility. I want someone else to just make the decision. Should I have bought insurance for this trip? Do I book this flight or that one? Do I argue with Avis about their astronomical and unprecedented high fee? Or what about AT&T screwing up my order, leaving me high and dry and then charging me anyway? Yeah, those kinds of things. But those times when I want someone else to take over only come when I am afraid. When the six-year-old inside me starts to panic, when I forget who I am, and the little girl takes over. And you know, when your inner child has the upper hand, that’s never the right time to want a partner. If we’re honest, what we want is a parent. But a parent as your life partner is never a good idea. That kind of relationship is bound to fail. It keeps you stuck as a kid and every kid eventually acts out or, at the very least, wants to grow up. So I’ve learned to allow my kid to express – and – I’ve learned that I’m the only one who can comfort her. Essentially, I parent myself. Which somehow seems easier than just being an adult. It’s easier to be strong and to make decisions because someone else needs you than it is just to do it for yourself. At least, that’s true for me.
So here I am in Sicily during a complete lockdown, and I do mean complete. Nothing is open. Only grocery stores and drug stores and gas stations. No bakeries. No restaurants. No hair salons or clothing stores or bars or schools. Where are all the people? Not on the streets. One on the beach, four on the pier, one or two walk by with their dogs, a few peep out from their homes to hang their laundry.
I’m no stranger to being alone. I’ve been single a long time. More than that. I lived by myself in a town of 65 people, twenty miles away from the county seat (in a county of only 21,000) for ten years. It was rare to have a visitor and entire days could go by without someone calling. Of course, there were my dogs…
Admittedly this is different. There is a certain eerie quality to this solitude. My Airbnb host left for Palermo the day after I arrived, saying he’d be back in three days. But then the Prime Minister ordered everything closed and papers are required to move from place to place. He feels unable to return. So I am alone in a building of five empty apartments, sequestered in this tiny coastal town that I never intended to visit and hadn’t even heard of until a few days ago.
In response to these circumstances a few friends have written, ever so kindly and with well-meaning, “I wish you weren’t alone.”
This has given me pause. I consider the alternatives. Do I wish someone else was physically here with me? A partner, a best friend, a sibling? No, not really. This was my choice. I didn’t know it would be quite like this, but I did know I was choosing to stay here, by myself, in a foreign country during a global health crisis. I’m responsible for that. And when my six-year-old starts to get scared, I comfort her. Mostly, at least during the daylight, we just enjoy the silence and find exploring our surroundings to be a curiosity and small adventure.
But here’s the real surprise: I’m not alone. I thought I would be. A part of me even wanted to be (see my first post). But, unexpectedly, I’m not. There are well over one hundred of you now that have reached out. You’ve liked my posts, replied with encouragement or messaged me. You are thinking of me, holding me in prayer, sending me love and light. Some of you I’ve known for more than half my life, others for only a few days. It really is quite overwhelming to feel this much love. Not the normal Facebook likes that can feel so superficial, but genuine, heartfelt, honest love. I can feel it. Truly. All of it. Your love washes over me, wraps around me, and pierces my heart.
I hope you can feel my love in return. Meeting you in an embrace that isn’t cut short by awkwardness or social norms. A long embrace. A focused, ten-second embrace that ripples through every cell of our bodies and boosts the immune system. Each time I hear from you, I allow myself to feel this. I take it all in. Against the laws of geographical distance I hold each of you, independently, with so much gratitude.
You are with me. Your presence provides a safe container for my fears and amplifies my joys. And really. I don’t need anything more than this. This is everything.
Well, okay, this and maybe a dog.
Ok, definitely a dog.
But as long as I have you, right now, I’m good.
10 March 2020
It was never my intention to stay in touch. Six weeks in Italy and I wanted to disconnect, to fully immerse myself in this place where I had never been. I wanted to discover new things, things I had read about, things which I had a sense or feeling for but couldn’t explain, couldn’t yet articulate.
Everyone who knows me well understood. I have always been this way. In years past, when I returned from a trip abroad, it would take some time for me to reengage. Always struggling with the excitement of those who greeted me, wanting to hear everything, to share my stories, to show my photos. I needed silence for a bit—sometimes even days—before I could return to my animated self. Of course, this was all before cell phones and internet, and video chat was only something used on The Jetsons. My last big trip abroad was to Ethiopia in 2011 for four weeks. I sent a few emails to folks states-side, updating them on the nonprofit work in which I was engaged, but photos and Facebook? I grimaced at the thought of it. And this time I had all but given up Facebook a few months ago. But then the coronavirus hit.
At the end of February, just days away from my departure, the questions began: Are you still going? The question seemed ridiculous. Of course, I was still going. From the very beginning, seven months prior, I was pretty clear that I would only travel in the south (with one small exception to the southern part of Umbria for maybe two days). Yes, there is so much beauty and history to see up north. And that would have to wait. This trip wasn’t about the art. This trip was about really being in Italy. Not always on the go, skimming the surface, seeing as much as I could. Instead, I wanted to really get a feel for the place. And hopefully, have time to write. Besides, the coronavirus was up north. How wise I was (thought I, rather smugly) that my travel plans had never included the north.
In the last two weeks before departure I was almost out of my skin ready to go. This time, exactly at this time, was when I needed to be there. I knew that somehow. Rationally, I figured March and April would be off-season for tourists and the weather would be pretty good. And theoretically it would give me time to prepare: to research, save money, and learn the language (the latter of which I did not do, alas.) More than that, I just had a feeling. Now, I would call it intuition. But earlier, it was just a sense. So when I lost my job in October and several friends suggested I go to Italy then, I declined. It wasn’t the right time.
And then came the coronavirus. And Italy became the third highest rate of infection around the globe. And still I came. My only concession was this: I would use WhatsApp to stay in touch with my family and closest friends and I would post a little on Facebook. And ok, for those who used neither, I would even send an email or two to assure I was okay. And then the day before I left, (a lot of ‘and’s to this process!) I acquiesced a bit more: I contacted AT&T to set up International Passport plan that allowed for unlimited texting. But AT&T failed me as soon as I reached Toronto, so I purchased a TIM card immediately upon landing in Rome. I thought I had my bases covered. I thought all of this was not that big of a deal.
I was wrong. At least about the virus. Six days in Italy and everything moved so quickly. By the morning of the seventh day, everything would be different. Very, very, different.
The truth is, today I am a bit raw. Fatigued. Slept 10 hours. I know I will need several days to recalibrate and adjust. I am grateful – always grateful – and, yes, this is not what I expected for this trip. Today the tears come. Tears which are the luxury of safety. The adrenaline of the past few days, alone in a new country where I don’t speak the language, only me to rely on to make decisions and make them quickly, simply doing what I always do: stay positive & get the job done. I did. Now I’m here. And now the tears come.
I’ve been accused so many times in my life of not showing my vulnerability. Fair judgement – it’s true. I’m also told repeatedly that I’m courageous. Which I don’t feel – I’m just being me. The real courage, in my case, is being authentic with all of you. Not seeing your faces, speaking 1:1 –b/c then, as you know, I am always forthcoming, honest, authentic. But to write to you this way, in this medium – this is challenging for me. Very challenging. Wrestling with self-doubt and other various monsters. This, for me, takes courage.
Your responses touch me. I am more grateful than you can possibly know. Thank you. And so it is with your encouragement -and with a good amount of trepidation- that today I stick my toes into the big sea possibility of writing a blog… (and if you have any ideas for a name, let me know) While researching how to do this, and googling possible versions of my name, I found this and it took me by surprise. (Didn’t realize it had been uploaded to the ether of the internet.) I’m always uncomfortable hearing my voice – (and please, my Jungian friends, let’s not discuss right now what that means psychologically!) But I went ahead and listened to this and damn if it didn’t hit home. Me today needed to hear these words from me a few weeks ago.
So the truth is, friends, I don’t have any of this figured out. Really, none of us ever do. The best we’ve got is following our inner compass, stumbling along in our vulnerability, dwelling in possibility, choosing love over fear. Thank you for joining me on this journey. Thank you for helping me be courageous.
Oh, and if you do listen to the link, the song prior to my talk was “Let Me Fall” from Cirque du Soleil’s “Quidam” show. See below for the YouTube video that was used in the service. It’s amazing.