Saturday, September 18, 2010

Friday Night

Yesterday was my last day of school.  I knew I would enjoy myself here, but I had no idea that by the last day, I would be aching to stay in Verona, that I would spend the day lamenting, “This is the last class!  This is the last coffee break at this bar!”  I didn’t think I would have gotten so attached to the people, either.  I know that many of us, myself included, are wont to complain about social networking sites, but really, today I all I can think is thank goodness for Facebook, through which we all actually have a chance at remaining in contact.  I feel I’ve made real friends here, not just acquaintances, and I don’t want to lose them.

After class I got my certificate:

There are six levels of proficiency certification: Elementary (A1-2), Intermediate (B1-2), and Post-Intermediate/Advanced (C1-2).  I received my certificate in level C1.  Hurray!

To celebrate (and mourn) our last day in Verona, B. and I had come up with quite a social program: gelato, then a movie, then dinner, then drinks in Piazza Erbe, organized by the marvelous H., who has been living here for five months and seems to know just about everyone in town.

First stop was the Boutique del Gelato.  It was easily the best gelato I’ve had on this trip.  Even better than Grom, which was pretty excellent.

B. chose fresh almond and red currant-ginger.  I had date and cinnamon.  The proprietor, Roberto, came out for his cigarette break while we were eating, and chatted with us for a while.  About gelato, about his and B.’s mutual friend, about motorbikes. 

We met up with H. at the movie theater.  Playing that day was a little flick called Mangia Prega Ama.  Yes, dear readers—we actually went to see the movie adaptation of Elizabeth Gilbert’s memoir Eat Pray Love, the first third of which is set in Rome, and we saw it dubbed into Italian.

This isn’t the place to be a move critic, so I’ll spare you a review.  But I will say that I am not at all accustomed to watching dubbed films, and it was a little weird.  The most disorienting thing was not the different language, but the different voices.  Julia Roberts, who plays the protagonist, has a very distinctive voice and an even more distinctive laugh.  I mean, come on, we all know that voice!  But whenever she opened her mouth, the voice that spoke was totally not her voice.  But she’s probably had the same Italian actress doing her voice-over work for years, so for the Italian audience that voice actually is the voice of Julia Roberts.  So strange.  And I had been very curious to see how the dubbed film would deal with the issue of the protagonist learning to speak Italian and exploring Italian culture.  It is stated explicitly that she’s American, but for example, when she visits the Balinese medicine man, he doesn’t ask her to teach him English, but to teach him “your language.”  When in Rome, her friends explain to her that this is how things are done in Rome, not in Italy generally—for example, the vocabulary of hand gestures.  But all Italians gesticulate.  Northerners, southerners, they all share a sign language that is more mutually intelligible than their various dialects.  And in the scene of the protagonist’s language lesson with an Italian friend, she’s asking him to explain phrases in Latin.  You know, because they’re in Rome.  And all the lovely things she would, in English, be saying about the luscious musicality of the Italian language—the rolling Rs and so forth—she is saying, in Italian, about Latin.  I didn’t believe for a moment that this character was so hungry to learn the meaning of stock phrases like carpe diem and amor omnia vincit.

I totally thought I could get away with being a girl traveling alone to Italy and chronicling my experiences and never mention Eat Pray Love.  But then we saw the movie and I feel compelled to talk about it, even if with a little disagio, unease.  There’s this trope, you understand—because of the success of Ms. Gilbert’s book it seems like it’s very much of our pop-cultural moment, but it’s at least a hundred years old—of the young woman who goes to Italy and discovers herself, or discovers love or pleasure or how to let go of her inhibitions, or something like that.  It’s happened to everyone from the fictional Lucy Honeychurch to the nonfictional Ms. Gilbert, and then there’s that Bertolucci film where the American chick goes to Tuscany, and a dozen others like it.  Then that dreadful movie that came out a few years ago, which took a perfectly lovely memoir about a poet’s new house, and reshaped it into one of these female-"empowerment"-self-discovery narratives (the author was in a happy, stable partnership, so of course her cinematic counterpart had to be divorced and lovelorn, because that’s all audiences want to see).  Sono stufa di queste storie!

Obviously, I have nothing against female empowerment or self-discovery.  But it bothers me that there is one major archetype of narrative that culturally (in the contemporary US at least) is assumed or expected to fit a multitude of experiences.  Someone very close to me—whom I love, and whose opinion I value enormously—said to me often as I was getting ready to leave on this trip, “You know, I have a feeling—I know this is going to be an amazing time for you.  You’re going to have an incredible experience and come back a whole new person.”  She is tremendously wise, and I have never yet heard her saying anything that has proven untrue; but her prediction for this trip, I fear, was somewhat exaggerated.  Yes, I have had an amazing time and incredible experiences.  But…I am hardly feeling like a whole new person.  I just feel like myself, only here.  I am proud of how my grasp of Italian has improved over the last weeks, but on the other hand, I see more clearly than ever how much farther I have to go before I attain anything like a deep knowledge of the language.  I was actually hoping for an intellectual epiphany, a breakthrough, a light bulb to illuminate the future path of my academic research.  But in real life, illumination doesn’t usually come in sudden brilliant flashes; it tends to build slowly, accruing in increments until we are eventually able to see more clearly where we're going.  We gather knowledge, we gather experiences, and this is what makes us who we are.  I’m a little sorry to have nothing groundbreaking to report to my dear, wise friend who hoped for a life-changing experience for me.  On the other hand, maybe others will see changes in me that I don’t see in myself, or maybe those changes have yet to become manifest.

After the movie we had dinner at la Pigna, a local eatery recommended by one of our teachers.  “The tourists don’t know about it,” she said, “and it’s typically Veronese, the kind of place we always go.”  The menu was simple, just the local classics: gnocchi, pasta with shrimp or clams, bigoli (a fresh wheat noodle shaped kind of like spaghetti) with ragù d’asino—yes, you read that right, they eat donkey in the Veneto, usually in ragù, and horse, usually in the form of a stew, though I’ve seen it in the markets as steaks and roasts, too.  Somehow pasta with "donkey sauce" doesn’t seem fit to print, and I dare you to say "donkey sauce" aloud with a straight face.  And the secondi were also typical Veneto dishes like baccalà (salt cod) and bollito misto (boiled meats with a variety of sauces).  To start we shared an antipasto of soft polenta topped with porcini mushrooms—exquisite.  H. and B. both had the ravioli with spinach and ricotta; I ordered the pappardelle with duck.  When they chose the ravioli, I admit that I thought to myself, “Oh, spinach and cheese, so predictable.”  Then I tasted one.  It was airy and supple and though it appeared light it was richly flavored, dressed simply with butter and sage.  My pappardelle were fantastic.  We didn’t have room for a secondo or dessert, but lingered over a caffè corretto (grappa).

When we finally got to Piazza Erbe, our crowd was packed around a full table, and by the time I left, at half-past midnight, the piazza was so full of people that you could hardly move; typical for a Friday or Saturday summer night.  We drank spritz and beer, talked and laughed, met new people, said goodbye to friends.  C. and V. walked me home so I could give them—as a gift to share with their brothers—a bottle of Prosecco which I’d bought a couple weeks earlier and hadn’t gotten around to opening.  I couldn’t carry it home with me and I didn’t want to waste it.  It was a very small way of thanking them for their hospitality.  I could have kept partying all night, thank to that after-dinner coffee, but since I’d planned to set out for Vicenza early this morning, I thought it wiser to go home.  But as I write this, a torrent of rain is coming down; it’s miserable out there, not a day for walking and being outdoors, and taxi fares between home, stations and museum would cost five times as much as the train tickets.  It looks like I’m staying in Verona today.  I fly out very early tomorrow (Sunday) morning.  I'm sorry to miss out on the Teatro Olimpico, but I will see it on my next trip.

We’d invited all our teachers to meet us for drinks but only one was able to make it, the fabulous G. who led our conversation group.  Even though we weren’t in school, we kept asking her questions about language.  As members of our party scattered homeward, C. wanted to know how to say they were “dispersing,” so we learned a new word, sparpagliarsi.

There are many truly delightful words and idioms in Italian, and one of the ones I love is trovarsi bene—literally, to find oneself well.  It is used to describe a person in a new situation or location.  Ti trovi bene al nuovo lavoro?  Do you feel comfortable in your new job?  Vi trovate bene alla nuova casa?  Do you like your new house?  Mi trovo bene a Verona: I am happy in Verona.  There are rich possibilities, were I inclined to spin them out, in the notion of “finding oneself” in a place or a situation; many of us have “found ourselves” at college, in a new city, at a fulfilling job, in a relationship, in where we live, in parenthood, in traveling, in standing still, in friendship, in solitude.  As for me, I can confidently say, Mi trovo bene a Verona; mi trovo bene in ItaliaMi sono trovata bene back home, too.  But trovarmi bene a Verona, trovarmi bene adesso e nel futuro, does not, for me at least, carry the sense of finding something new.  Trovarmi bene means finding something that may have been temporarily hidden or misplaced, but that was there all along.