The first time I saw pepsi being poured into the same glass as red wine, I thought to myself that some religious sacrament must have been obliterated. What’s more, it was done by Leo’s grandfather, Francessco, affectionately called Nono Cico by his grand- and great grandchildren. As the wine aficionado of the family, he had been responsible for running the vineyards and producing the wine for the last five plus decades. Now, he was a weathered and wrinkled old Italian man, who was missing a few teeth and walked with a stoop in his back. For a patriarch, though, he was mild-mannered and soft spoken. In fact, he spent most of the lunches eating the smallest portion he could get away with without the women making a fuss, and filling his glass over and over, half-half, with the red wine and cola mix. Like the shrimp with their long antennae, bodies still intact, googly eyes staring up from the plate as they lay on their bed of pasta, I surmised it must be an acquired taste. One day, he caught me staring and grinned sheepishly at me. He offered me the bottle of cola, which I turned down with a polite smile and slight shake of the head, and he set it down next to his chair before tucking his hands into his armpits, smiling at me again briefly, and turning his head to listen to an anecdote his daughter-in-law was brazenly telling to the world. I still had not grown accustomed to the boisterous expression that every conversation was required to be spoken in. But at least I had stopped wincing every time the person next to me decided to join in.
On a hot July day, at the peak of tourist season, I found Leo’s sister, Elisa, skulking in the shade on the steps that lead down to our apartment. I had been hurriedly on my way to scavenge whatever would be left and sold cheaply at the market, but stopped in my tracks when I saw the tear stains on her cheeks.
“Elisa? Are you alright?” I asked her tentatively. We had spent a few evenings cooking together and watching television after Leo came home from work, but I still didn’t know quite where I stood with her.
I had ventured my question in Italian, but she responded in English. She shrugged and rolled her eyes. “Fine. Just another stupid fight with my stupid boyfriend.” Taking a closer look, she looked more angry than sad.
“Oh. I’m sorry to hear that,” I began, trying my best not to act awkwardly. “Would you…like to talk to me about it? Or anything else…” I said, my eyes darting to hers and then away again. She stood up, surprising me.
“That would be nice. Let’s get a bottle of wine from the fridge. It’s hot as hell, and I’m in crisis.”
For the first part of the conversation, we sat in the cool dark of the apartment. We drank, and she told me the premise of the argument in perfect English. “He was supposed to come down here this weekend. He has a car, and he can take holiday from work. Because that’s what all people do in Rome in summer—they get the hell out of there. It’s oppressive, you see.”
What I saw was a beautiful, dark-skinned young woman who probably could have any man in this town, Rome, or Europe if she wanted to.
“Anyway, he decided he is going north, to Milan, to visit his sister and brother.” She raised an eyebrow at me and drank, draining her glass and refilling it. “He drives me completely crazy because he never does what he says he will. Its always about his fucking wishes, and he never seems to consider my feelings. What about what I want?” She was looking at me, and I didn’t know if I should answer, so I just nodded my head. “All my life people have been telling me what to do, where to go, how I should look, what I can wear, blah blah blah. I’m sick of it. Fuck them. Fuck him. For once, I would like to make the decisions.” She stood up. “Come on, I’ll show a place to sit outside. I need a cigarette and more wine.”
I followed her out onto the terrace where she led to me to a shady corner. She climbed onto the low wall, and there we sat. She lit a cigarette.
“Don’t take this wrong way,” I began as she poured us more wine, the cigarette pressed between her lips, “But your family is really intense.”
At this she laughed. “You have no idea.” Her brown eyes met mine. She pulled the cigarette away from her mouth and exhaled. “Then again, you probably do. I can only imagine how we look to you.” Again, she rolled her eyes.
I shrugged. “I’m struggling to fit in, that’s the problem really,” I said.
“Don’t try to fit in,” she said. I looked up at her. She waved a hand. “Not worth it. They’ll take everything you are. If you give them something, they’ll shape you into what they want, not who you want to be.”
“Well, there can’t be much to be done with me, I don’t even really know the language.”
“Good, that’s better. Believe me. And when you do, fake that you don’t.” She drew on her cigarette again. “For the past three summers, I haven’t come back here. Now I remember why.”
“Where did you go? Did you stay in Rome?” I asked.
She shook her head. “No, that would never do. The first summer, I went with a friend to Switzerland and worked in an expensive hotel in Geneva. After that, things became a little more complicated.” She was smirking. “Its really nothing I should be proud of, but it was my best act of rebellion.”
“What happened?” I asked, thoroughly intrigued.
She blew out the last cloud of smoke and stubbed out the cigarette on the cracked tile next to her. “Well, the first thing you need to know is that I’ve always wanted to be an actress. Not like Hollywood or any bullshit like that. Like a theater actress, maybe even an opera singer, though I think it may be a little too late for that. Anyway, my parents, they said that would never do. ‘Actors everywhere are starving and can’t pay their rent’, that’s what they said. A doctor is a respectable profession, and I could come back home and open a practice and take care of all my ailing relatives as they aged.” She shook her head. “That’s fine, if you’re not me. I couldn’t accept this life without putting up a little fight.”
“But aren’t you studying medicine in Rome?” I asked.
She nodded. “Yes, but gynecology. Not general medicine. That is rebellion number one.” She smiled proudly, and I raised my glass to her.
“So, because I was determined to pursue my dream on top of my university studies, I decided to go abroad to make money during tourist season. It started in Switzerland at the hotel, and from there it was France, where I was a cocktail waitress who sold expensive liquor and good cocaine to wealthy men and women who weren’t their wives.” She stopped, waiting for me to react. I kept my face smooth, and she continued. “After that, I spent a summer in Berlin, working for a nightclub. Some nights I bartended, some nights I was a dancer, whatever they needed. I kept the patrons who knew about it supplied with coke, and had sex with more djs than I can remember.” She laughed. “But the money was amazing. And I finally had enough to start taking acting lessons in the evenings when I didn’t have classes. I booked my first gig last fall, and since then, I have been doing small productions here and there, and now I take singing lessons, too.”
“And your parents don’t know?”
“They don’t know a thing. They would of course die if they did. But, I know my mind, and I will always fight for my happiness.”
I nodded, wondering how that must feel. She reached for the package of cigarettes. “Hmm?” she asked, gesturing to me with it. I took one and she held the flame out, lighting the end. We sat in the quiet heat and smoked, a sense of peace in the still and heavy air.
“Your English is perfect, Elisa. I had no idea,” I said after awhile.
She laughed. “Yes, I took English lessons, too. But I can’t let them know that, can I.”
I felt myself smile.
“Does Leo know?”
“Leo knows everything. But Leo knows his own mind, too. He got out of here, too. At least for a time.” She ashed in the brush.
What do you think will happen now that he’s back?” I asked, half-fearful of the answer she might give.
“Nothing. What can happen? He will take over the wine, as is his duty. He will pretend like my mother is in charge, but he pulls the strings really. He’s much smarter than they are. And plus, he has you.”
“What do mean?”
“You’re the woman of his life, Lillya. He would do anything for you now, because you did everything for him.”
I was quiet, letting her words sink over me.
She continued. “He is worried that you do not know what you want. But I think you do. You just have to, you know, bring it to the surface somehow. You are smart. And beautiful. You’ll do it.” She squeezed my arm and smiled.
We finished our cigarettes and the second bottle of wine. By the time it was empty and lying on its side, we were both giggling and talking absolute nonsense.
“Let’s go down to the sea. We can jump in naked and give all the old men a heart attack,” she said, giggling. Instead, we stumbled into the house and I went to the chest of mahogony drawers to fetch two swimsuits. She shamelessly shimmied out of her sheer sundress and out of her gossamer undergarments. I averted my eyes, afraid that she would catch me looking at her shapely body. I tried not to compare myself to her. However, the top of my suit did just enough to cover her breasts, which were at least two sizes bigger than mine. She laughed again. “This looks like what I wore in those German clubs,” she remarked.
A bit more modestly, I changed into my suit, and we left.
New beginnings are about a lot of things. Mostly, though, they are about the moments to rise from the ashes of the past, see the world for what it is, and let go in order to let something else in.
The turning of the new year, for example, was more of a metaphor than anything else; my new beginning was born on a warm day in July, over six months ago, and I haven’t turned back since.
No. In fact, things have only become sweeter. Though there was suffering, I remained on my feet with a happy soul to cling to. Looking back over the last year, I realized every trial I came up against brought me further in my journey, prodded me back onto my path.
And now, here I am. And here is good place to be.
I realize, the more I go along, that it takes tremendous strength and courage to walk away from something that is not of my soul and to continue to walk on. But, the feeling that comes with it, the one that I wake up with everyday, is the validation that gives life its meaning. Knowing I am right where I am meant to be, regardless of what happens, is a freedom unlike any other. And this knowledge, coupled with a positive mentality, has made all the difference.
There is a word in the German language that, until recently, I couldn’t quite define. More of a multifaceted feeling than a tangible element, Ausstrahlung can be defined quite beautifully and accurately by Roald Dahl’s astute definition.
This is both my favorite word as well as my favorite feeling. It is the “qua”, the something, that is undefinable yet unmistakable. It is the light, the radiance, that shines out from within. And that, my friends, is true beauty.
My thoughts built up like the clouds piling up behind the mountains, nearly catching up to the sun at its zenith in the summer sky. Shading my eyes to look over the land, I saw the rocky pilings of the small beach where, years ago, fisherman had made a life out of the frutti di mare from those true blue and ever clear waters.
I dropped my arm and as it fell back to hang lazily by my side, I took notice of the burn beginning to assert itself on my bare arms and neck. I hastily pulled the gauzy shawl up over my shoulders and turned for home.
Everyone was sleeping; that’s what one did in the afternoons of the Mediterranean summer. We had taken lunch on the veranda, quiet today, just the two of us, and then Leo had kissed my forehead, helped me haul the plates inside, and had gone off to rest in a wine and heat induced snooze. Usually, I sat on the cool fabric sofa with a book or a magazine, successfully reading a few pages before nodding off myself, but lately I had taken to wandering the hills that composed the terrain in and around town.
As I meandered, I thought extensively about what had brought us here; it wasn’t a complicated story. We had been living in Portland, the city where we had met each other not quite three years ago. I don’t think I ever would have fallen for a man like Leo if it had been another time or another place. But, the combination of his eyes, patience, and persistence had not failed to make me realize that timing really was everything, and his was the right hand to hold through the next part of life. I had been living with an aunt, one of my most favorite women to ever exist, and she had given me a job at her start-up that she shared with a male business partner. When he became her husband and moved into the condo, I realized that a menage-a-tois was not the kind of life I wanted to be living going into my thirties. So, nine months into our relationship, Leo and I began to share his small apartment located a block away from the harbor. It was the kind of neighborhood Portland was known for; up-and-coming, trendy yet inexpensive, artsy, full of musicians, artist and actors. Serious young professionals came here to eat and drink, but Leo, never being able to shut off his brilliant mind, decided that this was just the kind of place for a teacher to find inspiration everyday.
And then, one fine Fall day just over six months ago, we got a call from the Old World; he had not mentioned to me that he had been destined to become a winemaker according to his family’s legacy and tradition, and with the ailing of his grandfather, it was time for him to take his place as his father’s assistant so that he could be properly groomed and educated on how to one day run the family business.
“I know its a huge leap of faith for you to make, carina, I get that. I understand it one-hundred percent. But, if you come with me, I promise we will be embarking on the greatest adventure of our lives.” He was smiling because he already knew what I would say. Despite not knowing more than a handful of ill-pronounced words in Italian, and would likely not be able to find a job very easily, with a furtive glance around our little apartment, I nodded once, nodded again, and agreed to something of which I understood very little. What I did understand of Italian culture were that honesty and trust were of the essence when it came to family matters. Leo called me his family, and so away we went. It was like his grandfather always said: “A man has his God, his family, and his name. If he loses one of these, he has nothing.” But I didn’t learn this until a bit later.
Everybody has to have a beginning. For Italians, life begins and ends with family.
The thing about southern Italian families, though, is that they are everywhere and in everything. The first time we took dinner at an aunt’s house, I hadn’t expected twenty people, let alone thirty plus. And if the sheer volume of bodies wasn’t enough, the extreme level of noise at all times put me into sensory overload. I couldn’t understand them when the spoke, not a word, and their constant vying for Leo’s attention left me to manage the giving and receiving of kisses on cheeks to the best of my feeble ability.
“Is your family always so confrontational?” I had asked Leo on the way back to his parents’ house. He had smiled and looked at me from the corner of his eye.
“That wasn’t anything serious, carina. They were just happy.”
I felt my eyebrows raise, but I continued to look straight ahead, contemplating how one could possible tell the different between felicity and belligerence at family dinner. I shuddered to think what actual anger would look like.
For the first year, we shared residence with his parents. His sister had graciously vacated the ground level apartment for our use and had gone to stay with a cousin in the city center during her summer break from university. I realized, however, that just because we had our space didn’t mean that it was actually our own. We had family guests calling on us, or rather, on Leo, just about every minute of the day. There was business to be discussed, family matters to be exacerbated, stories to tell, food to be exchanged, and everything in between. Most of the time, they just smiled politely at me, from time to time to acknowledge my presence, but I was otherwise more of a ghost who wasn’t quite privy to the conversation.
It was strange; I understood it and I didn’t at the same time. Therefore, I was quite at a loss at what exactly I should do. I felt it would be rude to sit on the couch and be for myself, but I also found it tiring to sit with them and be useless to absolutely everyone, including myself. So, I tried to do a bit of both, and hoped I wasn’t offending anyone either way. Cultural limbo, I called it. And it was exhausting.
One night as we lay in bed, I remarked that his cousins would likely come to bed with us if we gave them the slightest allowance. He smiled, kissed my forehead, and assured me that I was completely correct. “Who wouldn’t want to go to bed with you?” he asked with a huge smile. I looked at him, took it as a rhetorical question, and switched off the lamp. And for the next several hours, I lay there next to a snoring native, wondering how in hell I would ever manage to be part of this family, part of this world, part of something of which, the more time went on, I understood less than I had previously thought. Before I finally slipped into sleep, I remember thinking that Leo would be my guide; as long as he gave me an example, I would eventually be able to follow.