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Posts Tagged ‘culture’

I keep thinking of Hilary Mantel, winner of the Booker Prize, twice. The New Yorker did a wonderful article on her in which she referenced an old belief that one must return to one’s own country within 10 years of leaving or risk never fitting in again (she lived abroad for 9 years before returning to England). We’ve been out five years now but I already feel that old adage wrapping me up in string. I feel a part of Rome; I am becoming etched in its stone. Perhaps it is in my blood, my grandmother being Sicilian, or perhaps I have simply fallen in love with the Italian way of life; I have.

Halloween just passed. I think of the holiday back home, the costumes, candy, fright. To what end? Halloween is All Saints Day here in Italy. It is a day to remember those who have passed, to be with family, feast in honor of the dead. Everything has weight here; everything rests here.

When I returned to the States earlier this year it was like walking into an old closet and putting on your favorite sweater. I felt warm, at ease, comfortable. But then I started to notice how some buttons were missing, a tear where I had not known there to be one, fabric scratching my skin. When I caught my reflection in a mirror I realized the sweater no longer fit me.

I’ve met many ex-pats here, there, around who move like currents over the earth or find new shells to grow old in far away from where they were born and raised. When you no longer see through your culture’s eyes can it still be called home?

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Bits

There are quite a few things that have surprised me here in Rome. Of course I come from a bias of NY Italians and the Sopranos, but I think the stereotypes throw a wide net.

Here are some of my observations:

I see more Romans drinking white wine, not red, even in the cold of winter. I wonder if this is partly because there is so much bad red wine here. I cannot tell you how many bottles I have had that have sat in the heat too long and turned. Most wine stores are not air-conditioned, and with a summer of 35+ temperatures (95+) going into a store in the fall for a nice bottle is a bit like playing the lottery. I never win.

There is not a lot of garlic used.

Red pepper flakes are put on everything.

Vegetables are merely a vehicle to get olive oil into your mouth. Everyone of them tastes exactly the same as you spoon them into your mouth, oil dripping down your chin. Of course the ones smothered in pepper flakes also leave a nice burn.

The bread–and I am going to offend some with this one–is not very good.

The pizza–and this one will really hurt–is better in NY. (The pasta however is amazing.)

Coffee is simply to get the caffeine in. The idea of lingering over a coffee enjoying the “roast” as Americans like to do is funny to some of my Roman friends.

Romans do not open their windows at night. Not only are they shut tight, but shutters are locked and metal grates are pulled down so nighttime feels like lock-down in a prison. As an American I love my fresh air, so insisted we not follow this cultural trend. We were robbed.

It is not uncommon to see a pregnant women smoking.

More to come…..

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As my sojourn in the states comes to an end and Italy looms closer every day, I find myself reflecting on all I will miss and the things I most certainly won’t.

_____

Things I will miss:

The diversity.

Brunch.

Endless hot showers in wintertime.

Heated cafés and restaurants in wintertime.

Considerate drivers (at least here in LA).

Enormous playgrounds in which to watch your child run free and have a ball.

Progressive education options.

Jon Stewart.

Opening night movies.

Barnes and Noble, where I happily can spend an entire afternoon.

Mexican food.

The ability to see a doctor in August.

Avocados.

Internet plans that let you just keep having internet without it running out at random times.

Stores that stay open all day.

New York. New York. New York.

_____

The things I can do without:

Pundits. I watched someone on the news the other day speculating on a speculation made by someone speculating on an original speculation.

The continuing, embarrassing war on women.

Ketchup.

Outrageous school fees and a failing public system for those who cannot afford it.

Campaign spending.

GMO foods.

Youth obsession.

Oversized meals. (Unless of course it’s Mexican food.)

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Warm milk

Yesterday, I went to Korea.

I soaked in soft mineral baths and steamed out a week’s worth of wine before following a tiny Korean woman into a wet room where I was placed on a table and for an hour and a half bathed.

At first she scrubbed my skin with what felt like sandpaper, but there was no pain, just the feeling of my pores crying out in ecstasy.

As the steam from the constant running water enveloped us, she took buckets of hot wet towels and used them to rock me back and forth so that I began to feel like a ship lost in a storm, but firmly and wonderfully attached to the waves. Then she took a hose and water poured out on me like honey, and when I didn’t think it could get any better she put watermelon oil all over me and rubbed my aching muscles until I started to melt into the table and truly move like liquid, all while fighting the urge to eat myself. Wrapping me back up in hot wet towels, she covered my face with ice cold cucumbers while deeply kneading my head and then washed and conditioned my hair, which is an incredibly vulnerable feeling that I cannot wait to feel again. When it was all over she sat me up and rinsed my whole body in warm milk.

The great epics of Homer continually talk of kings and queens being bathed. I cannot seem to turn a page without someone being undressed, cleansed with giving hands, and anointed with oil. Not just a custom, but a gift given to those both at home and weary travelers in need of a place to rest.

Not everyone left this incredible experience in antiquity. Korea, China, Hungary, and more still practice this art daily. Imagine the world if we all had to be that intimate with each other. If we had to completely release  into another’s hand.

I miss traveling. It’s so nice to know that there are hidden pockets of foreign cultures right around the corner just waiting to be found.

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I love how Italians eat lunch. The middle of the day is not just a stop to refuel, to grab something on the go, to get to the next point, it is literally in the Italian language a “pause.” You must pause, stop completely, rest.
It was the same in Uganda. Day after day I would marvel at the locals around me, no matter what their job: government official, housekeeper, garbage man; when it was lunch time it was lunch time. Everything stopped. Meals were lingered over in restaurants with those who could afford, or laps with packed meals from home. Each bite tasted and savored and always, ALWAYS followed with tea. Here in Rome it’s coffee, but the lingering is the same. I’ve watched many foreigners become impatient at the end of the meal because the check was not dropped off at the table. In Rome, as well as in Uganda, the meal is not done when the food has been finished, even the tea or coffee consumed, for there is always more pause. To drop a check in either of these places so quickly after a meal is culturally rude. You would never rush someone like that.
I think of back home where even in line at a check-out counter I felt like I was in a race to the end, what end I do not know, but stumbling with my wallet and trying to get bags together, I could feel the breath of frustration on my neck hurrying me along because the person behind me had to hurry along. Now every day I  get to sit for lunch with pieces of Uganda in my heart, Italy holding me up and I say to myself when I start to feel those old feelings of unnecessary motion, “Sabrina, just pause.”

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The advice

My husband was recently in Yemen for work. One afternoon, during lunch, an unnamed official from the Ministry of Education kindly offered him some help.

You see the conversation had turned from work to life and the difficulty on spouses who are moved from home to home, continent to continent where they alone have to set up shop and maneuver the streets, find someone to talk to, while the other is at work surrounded with like minds and breathing room.

“Yes,” my husband agreed, “it’s been hard on Sabrina at times.”

“I have some very good advice for you, young man,” the unnamed official offered.

My husband, very excited to come home with more than just good rugs for me, leaned in closer.

“What you need is another wife,” he said.

And don’t I love my husband for his response,

“But I like my wife.”

“Oh, no, you misunderstand me,” the unnamed official explained, “you can keep her, but you need another one to keep her company. This way, when you travel to new places, she will have a friend.”

My husband assures me he didn’t think about this for too long. What he did was take a moment and then responded in the most sincere way he could.

“No,” my dear romantic hubby said to the unnamed official. “I can’t afford another one.”

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Empire State of Mind

I feel the pull. I think it started with a picture. Or maybe it was just a word. But the roots I felt were slipping, slowly untangling and shredding have found a concrete barrier and tug me back towards them.

I don’t need much. Just a fix. Just to know it’s still there while we jump from place to place, circling the sphere like balloons.

I wonder where our daughter will find hers. Somewhere we happen, when suddenly she starts to grow downward, into the land itself.

I was born in Virginia, and then moved to Arizona, then back to Virginia till settling in Florida around age 6. For the next 10 years, swamps and moss and gators were my backdrop. But somewhere in the middle, on a trip to New York, I found the place I would first call home, and those last few years in Florida were nothing but waiting.

For my husband, it’s raw nature. As remote as can be, that is what he calls home. The place he can rest and sometimes dreams to be.

I know for some home is where they started, where they remain, and even if left for a little while, always return. Home for me was found much later than that, and perhaps I will never go back for good, but today it pulls and tugs at me. I am right back on the streets, with the smells and sounds that seemed to have no boundary with my body, as if the whole city were just an extension of my being and without it I feel a little less of myself.

Right before we left, before the boxes were packed and stored, before I would become a mother and before the world would become my backyard, there was a crazy afternoon when the sky of New York seemed to turn in on itself. I stood on my terrace and took it all in, memorizing it, inhaling it, so on days like today I could bring it out and stand back under it.

[photo taken by a friend from her apartment downtown]

[from my terrace, original light]

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