I Met a Girl

img_6896Not recently. This was awhile ago. Decades.

I’d spent the summer hitchhiking around Sicily with my cousin Giorgio. It was 1975, the middle of the OPEC-sparked recession, and I didn’t have a summer job. My parents, for whatever reason, decided that I’d be better off shipped to Palermo, where my father’s from. I wasn’t going to say no. I’d live with my relatives, and get to know the city and Sicily in a way that only 18-year-old kids can.

I did. I rode a delivery truck with my uncle, hitched to the beach, hung out with Swiss cousins there (speaking a combination of Italian, French, and English), went to a sagra (feast) up in the mountains where a local band shredded the lyrics to “Smoke on the Water,” but did a credible job of playing it. I learned how Palermitan kids my age partied—and had a thing for Tina Turner records. I can hear “Nutbush City Limits” playing in my head even now.

But back to the girl.

I met her in a college Italian class. I understood the language okay, but I didn’t know things like verb conjugations, how to read it, etc. And after a couple of months in Italy, it was frustrating. I’m a language freak anyway, so I thought I’d learn Italian properly. So did this girl named Kathy. (I call her The Spartan Woman on Facebook, which comes from her half-Greek background and the moniker dates back to when I wrote a column for my law school’s newspaper.)

Kathy was in her senior year, and was going to go to veterinary school in Perugia, Italy. So she, too, wanted to pick up the language. We met because she took the seat I wanted in class. It was empty, actually, but her friend saved it for her, and I decided that I didn’t like her because of that.

I changed my mind quickly. We got to be friends, then we got to be a thing. She went away, though. I felt lonely, played a lot of guitar with a degenerate crazy man, and wrote her obsessively. She came back after a year, deciding she liked me more than she liked studying veterinary medicine in Italy for a few years. (Yes, we’re married, had a couple of kids, etc.)

But she couldn’t give up Italy, and neither could I. A couple of things made it easier to go back regularly over the years. We have friends who put us up. And I have relatives. It meant that we didn’t sightsee in the normal tourist way. But it also meant that we lived in Perugia when we were there, and we had the added bonus that our friends were great cooks and didn’t speak English. Total immersion, in other words.

As our friends got older, we didn’t want to be such a burden. So 10 years ago, we bought a little place in their neighborhood, on a narrow street with a long history, up the hill from Perugia’s Univesità per Stranieri, or University for Foreigners, which teaches Italian language and culture.

A cousin called us “complotti”—co-conspirators. I got lucky, in a lot of ways. Like me, Kathy doesn’t care about driving flashy cars, having a posh house, or wearing jewelry. (In fact, I never bought her a diamond ring because, you know, blood diamonds. She would’ve probably thrown it at me.) What she does like is to wander, to hang out, to be somewhere else. We’re basically the same when it comes to politics, food tastes (though she has a thing for okra, which I’m not totally down with), and being smart alecks.

So in the following posts, I’ll tell a little about our past, and we’ll explore what it’s like to get ready to move. We have that little apartment in Perugia, and now, a big house in the countryside outside of Perugia. And for those of you not having a great day today as Orange Man is sworn in, we’ll give you a place to hide out, at least temporarily.


A Foreigner in my Own City


I just got back from a walk around the neighborhood. We live in a pretty place—it’s the northeast tip of Staten Island, New York. The general zone, area code 10301, is like a triangle that includes the neighborhoods of St. George, Tompkinsville, Silver Lake, Randall Manor, New Brighton, and Grymes Hill. I was getting antsy, so I walked up the hill from our local commercial strip, Forest Avenue, and did the loop around the lake in Silver Lake Park.

I felt like a sightseer. It’s been awhile since I was around much in the daytimes. For the past few decades, I had a full-time editorial job in “the city,” or Manhattan, and when I had much free time I took a trip. But since I left the company that must not be named (a small, struggling “information” company), I’ve been getting reacquainted with the ‘hood.

I’ve also been getting to know the city of my birth a little better. When you’re spending 40 or so hours a week moving copy, there isn’t much time to enjoy what tourists come to see, and what ladies and gentlemen of leisure get to do. So I took a long subway ride up  to the new Second Avenue subway (three stops, four if you include the closed section of a stop already in use by another line, after a century of planning) and walked down Second Avenue, surveying the scars left by years of construction. That was on a weekday, and at the moment, I felt incredibly liberated. My ex-colleagues may have been sitting in their sad, library pod-like cubicles, but not me. In a way, then, I was a tourist in my own city.img_6866But I was, and have been, a tourist in another way. My father is an immigrant from Palermo, Sicily (Italy, if you insist), and I’m just beginning to realize what a profound effect his otherness has had on me over the years. Language, for one thing. I grew up used to hearing accents, some heavy, some not. I figured out that my father thinks in English, but it doesn’t always come out right. He’ll say, for example, that “you must cry the consequences.” I always thought that that phrase would make a great title for a country song.

Another way, and this is common to immigrants’ kids, is feeling like an outsider. My father (and even my mom, who was first-generation Sicilian-American) didn’t really know to to navigate in U.S. society. Part of that is cultural—Italians in general, and Sicilians especially, are notoriously tribal. Anything outside the family is viewed with suspicion and sometimes fear. But it’s also being in the early stages of acclimation to a new place. I pushed myself out of the nest a bit, but once out, it was alien turf.

So you get to react a couple of different ways. You can turn your back on it, refuting the old ways. You can be culturally bilingual, existing in the tribe, but adapting outside of it. My wife and I did some of that. Or, you can embrace a new version of the old country. And that’s pretty much what we did. I feel more at home in modern Italy than I do in most of the U.S. outside New York. Business conferences, in particular, turn me into an amateur anthropologist, looking at these alien beings for clues of what makes them what they are. “Do you realize you talk about Americans in the third person?” my Italian friend Federico once asked me.

I’m still trying to figure it out. I joke that Umbria is a kind of halfway house between Palermo and New York. It’s cleaner, more efficient, more civic-minded than Palermo, while still being Latin. So maybe I’ll work it out in this blog, while I share our adventures of living in two places, always comparing (but doing that less and less because we know where we want to be) and always feeling just a little out of place.