Posted by: 4initalia | January 11, 2010


Every morning of 2009, I awoke to the walls of my Italian bedroom. I’d see and smell paint applied just after the founding of Rome, and smile: “We’re still in Italy!!” Not today. This morning I woke in my own room, in Colorado. I love my bedroom, it’s airy and light, with periwinkle walls and shimmery cream sheers. The paint in my Modena apartment wasn’t as much a hue as it was a residue of passing years, soaked in mold and laced with cobwebs. Beyond the windows, the sienna scales of ruffled rooftops skitter above streets that wander like poets lost in thought. The colors of Modena, the shades of history and endless expectation, are back in that apartment. And next week, the apartment will have fresh paint.

If I had stayed until the walls were redone, getting me on the plane would have required sedation. If our apartment had had water pressure, a washing machine that didn’t require a full-time assistant to keep it running, or maybe just an occasional splash of hot water for bathing and washing dishes, I’d want to stay forever.

Because what I left behind in Modena was an inherently interesting life. Every Monday in Modena, there is an open air market, where the bazaar meets the bizarre, and you might find the perfect purple sweater, or a great jacket for fifteen euro, but just riffling through heaps of fabric was endlessly fascinating. Modena also holds Elana’s skeptical laugh, Piero’s sun-softened studio, Annamaria’s home made pasta, Giovanna’s smile, and the beauty of Michele and Yael, a gorgeous young couple who will make Italy what it will be next. And bells and buildings and fabulous art.

Living in Italy was heaven for me, a perpetual afternoon in the library of a long-abandoned palace, with hours to explore shelves of intimate treasure: illuminated manuscripts, illustrated histories, carefully folded love letters and memento-stuffed diaries. In Modena, a city made modern by people who pre-dated the Romans, every building was a volume of secrets, every view held exquisite surprises of rich color and the living work of long-dead artists.

Heaven for me is an endless museum. But although I lived in my idea of paradise, I had to function in most Americans’ idea of hell. Italy is not efficient. Italy is not convenient. Living in Italy is not particularly comfortable. It’s a fabulous place to relax, but it’s a very hard place to get anything done, unless all you want to do is lunch.

The most basic tasks were insanely complex. How do you ship a box to the United States? The shipping rules of the Italian post office depended on the day, on the post office, on the mood of a particular employee, maybe the pollen count. The rules were never the same once, never mind during multiple transactions. Trying to complete a simple task in Italy was like trying to fill out a mortgage application while being held hostage by drunken bipolar pirates. Every transaction was a swashbuckling adventure into what I didn’t know.

But what marvelous things there were to learn! Where does this conga line of ochre buildings lead, whose heroism does this plaque remember, how does every fruit stand look like it was created by a Renaissance painter? What made each generation of Italians preserve all this, so terracotta trim and the roar of a carved marble lion still catch the afternoon sun, after five hundred, eight hundred, a thousand years?

Italians have always made an art of living, and they still do. Italians today transform automotive steel into raw power and growling desire. Italians create edible art, spend hours enjoying it, and orchestrate every outfit like they’re staging a private opera. Italy doesn’t hide its beauty in museums, or within the pages of magazines, Italian beauty is woven into everyday life, so the packets of sugar on the counter of a coffee bar are a fanned and festive sculpture, and the diplay of even ordinary objects (nail clippers! sewing kits!) beguiles the passerby.

Italians created a cult out of culture.

Such a fine basis for a civilization. Now if Italians could organize government as well as it organizes crime, establish a power grid that can support a microwave oven, and just maybe, ask dog owners to pick up the poop under the portici, Italy would be the clear winner in the You Should Be Like Us sweepstakes.

Back home, at my comfortable computer desk, with a tray that rolls out, and carpeting beneath my feet, I can only remember the colors and sounds. I have so many memories, so many photographs. In the past year, we visited fifty European cities, many of them several times. We went to Rome in early spring, in blazing summer, and dampening fall. The statue of David is an old friend. On the second visit, I spent twenty minutes just taking in the perfection of his calves: Great art takes time. Only on the third visit to the Sistine Chapel could I drop my eyes to the Botticellis surrounding the walls of the chapel, find all the places where Moses was painted, in green and yellow robes, and recognize a view of the Arch of Constantine in the Roman Forum. So many Emperors, so much time, how do I learn enough to appreciate what I have seen?

This year we walked the beaches of Normandy, had dinner with Andy’s relatives in Poland, and with mine in London. We skipped rocks in Sardegna, ate lasagna as it was served in ancient Pompeii, and retraced Galileo’s steps up the tower in Pisa. We saw Dante’s home in Florence, the church where he was married, and his tomb. On one of our last days in Italy, Annamaria poured into my palm three hundred year old aceto, her family history distilled into sweet thick drops. And Piero gave us a watercolor that he had painted, of the Duomo. I not only lived in a museum, I ate in it.

Now that I’m home I notice the differences. Everything in America is bigger. The streets, the cars, even the spaces between things, are all built on a larger scale. Toothbrushes look painfully swollen here, and mammoth stores sell them in sets of eight encased in packaging that can be opened only with wire cutters: How much plastic do we need to remove bacteria from our teeth? I bought juice glasses in Italy like some I had at home, but the American ones are double the size. Bigger glasses create bigger portions, even when you’re just drinking water. No wonder Americans have grown larger – our big cars carry big boxes over wide and unwalkable streets: our bodies can’t burn off enough calories to keep up with all the effortless consumption.

In America I am comfortable. Stores are always open; I can buy a lifetime supply of toothpaste at 3 a.m.. I know how to mail a package, I can wash and dry a week’s worth of clothes in a few hours, and have time left over to read Dante. But I can’t walk where Dante walked, I can’t climb Galileo’s tilted tower. I’m not spending an afternoon in an enchanted museum, I’m trapped in a 24/7 superstore. One that will sell me a million of anything I want, but that doesn’t hold anything I need.

I wonder if the paint is dry?


  1. I loved finding your blog… I too lived for the past year or so in Europe but in Vienna. I loved and hated it usually at the same time. We also have 2 kids and even complicated it further by bringing 2 dogs. We all got a lot out of it. I kept a blog as well, mostly about food since I am a chef here in the US. We are back now but thinking we may move there again…. I am ready for the laundry now (I think)!

    • Hi Kerry – where’s your blog? I’d love to read about living in Vienna. We didn’t get there, and that’s one of the places I really wanted to see – I’d love to hear all about it. Living in Italy was never easy, but it was always interesting, and I thought that the crazy bureaucratic stuff (needing a passport to buy a cell phone, not being able to buy stamps) was funny. Go check out “Fabio On the Balcony” – about my gorgeous neighbor – even the annoying washing machine had its compensations. I can totally understand wanting to go back!

  2. Beautifully written, beautifully descriptive and so evocative of a place I’d love to be! And that’s just your most recent entry! So…what is next for you? Other that having lunch with me, that is. Let’s do that soon. Call me at 303-905-8092. I can do almost any day except Wednesday.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s


%d bloggers like this: