Roots and Wings



In celebration of Earth Day last week I sprinkled a little bit of attention on the small piece of earth I own.  A few years ago I created myself a beautiful bed of shapes and colors out in the back yard; it was just one of my many steps to eradicate any trace of grass from my lawn.  And at the time, it was the meditation I needed to stay sane during a really shitty period in my life.  On Friday I faced that neglected zombiescape with a great amount of shame.

The cherry tree I rescued is thriving and heavy with now-fading bloom, but the barren, boney limbs that were too far gone to be coaxed back into production are grey and brittle, poking towards the sky.  I never understood exponential multiplication until I started growing Iris.  Where they once punctuated with sharp, green blades and colorful frills, they now threaten to devour the deceptively delicate looking camellia I only bought because it was on sale.  Some girls are suckers for abandoned puppies or designer shoes; I can’t pass up a flowering perennial.

My red, twisty Japanese Maple that I affectionately refer to as my dragon tree, is full and lush, but slowly being choked out by the skeletal remains of the fallen army of Chinese Forget-Me-Nots that jumped their flower pots and made my border bed their battle field.  They scratch my flesh and pull at my clothes when I walk too near.  All of it is calling out, “Tend to me.”

I have, once upon a time, loved this garden.  It wasn’t something I ever intended to complete and then maintain; my joy was in nursing, adding, moving, and gifting my plant babies.  I started every February and continued until the heat chased me inside for the season.  But last year was different.  In February I already didn’t feel very good and I barely kept up with weeds.  Had I been paying closer attention, I’d have identified the Chinese Forget-Me-Not problem sooner and my arms would not now be covered in long, thin scabs.  By the end of May, I was recovering from a surgery to remove a tennis ball sized tumor, along with the ovary it was rooted to.  When I was well enough to work in the garden again, my heat limit had already been exceeded.  Coincidentally, that’s when I rediscovered an old flame of mine: travel.

Not that I ever forgot my love of road trips; the highway will always be the best hairdryer and my favorite therapist.  But I fell in love again with air travel and taking the longest possible route between any two locations.  While I was busy not keeping up with my garden, I went to Boston (regrettably, straight through).  I visited New Orleans by way of Minneapolis; from Philly to Phoenix to Spokane so that I could spend a long weekend in Montana.  I flew to Orlando so I could drive to Savannah and St. Augustine.  And then I started on my quest for passion, flying into Nashville so I could drive to Memphis for Elvis’ birthday, and then flying into London so I could spend Easter in Rome.  Even as I stooped to yank the uninvited plant life out of my garden, I was making mental preparations for my upcoming trip to Dallas and trying to decide where I’m taking the kids for summer vacation.  I have, it would seem, grown myself a lovely little set of aluminum wings, and I love them.  But my fingernails scratched at a different love, there in the dirt behind my house.

I successfully pulled the biggest, ugliest weeds on Friday.  In this garden, neglect fruits more prolifically than my labor ever did, and I clearly have to make some choices about where my energies are going to be expended.  With legs cramped from all of the stooping and squatting, I turned to herbicide as an answer to the pesky grass, clover, thistle, and lemon balm that have appointed themselves as ground cover inside my flower beds.  Just as the 1.33 gallon jug of Round Up ran dry, fat, juicy rain drops splashed onto my forehead.  For the next twelve hours, all of my chemicals were washed away, reminding me that there really are no short cuts.  Not with roots, and not with wings.

I’m not gassy, I’m American.

Some words are universal. I’m sure there are examples of Italian words that we leave alone, but I cannot think of any. In English, one such word is Pacemaker. It is the same in every country, though investigated far more thoroughly in Europe than I’ve ever encountered in the States. Here, I can declare my pacemaker and be waved around any metal detector. After making my declaration over there, I had to show my Medtronic device card and passport. I was escorted around metal detectors then patted down, where available by female police or security. Thoroughly. So thoroughly in the Naples airport, in fact, that I learned exactly where I fit on the sliding spectrum of sexual preference. Let’s just say Mike enjoyed the show and I needed a drink when she finished.

We were told in advance that there was no real reason to learn Italian because everyone speaks English and is eager to help. With a handful of exceptions, most of whom were Gypsies, this was blatantly wrong. We ended up playing a lot of charades, the most futile game of which took place in a Naples farmacia just seconds before they locked their door for the night. I hurried in and asked the pharmacist if he had any Tums. The café and wine based diet has one major disadvantage. He gave us the universal non comprendo shrug. It made sense to me that if pacemaker was universal, heartburn would be as well, so I said it while rubbing my tummy.

He smiled, went to the back and left me standing with his cashiers for an awkwardly silent amount of time, then returned with an item in each hand; panty liners in the right, tampons in the left. Later, Mike tried to spin this into flattery. “At least he thinks you look young enough to still need those.”

I reminded him I am still young enough to need them, just not right that moment. The interaction left me grumpy until our next bottle of wine.

Back to the farmacia. I said no with my mouth, my head, and my hands, and tried again.

“Heartburn. Stomach acid.” This time I rubbed higher up, on my rib cage. He retreated to the back again, and returned with a green box labeled Anacidol.

That seemed like a reasonable translation of anti-acid, so I said grazie, perhaps overly enthusiastic to end this game of charades, and paid the seven euro.

The seven euro was my first hint that I was not buying the right product. So far, everything had been much less expensive in Italy. By my calculation, Tums should have been no more than two euro for a box that size.

The box was my second clue. Tums doesn’t come in a box at home and by what I’d seen of Italians so far, they shunned unnecessary packaging. Hell, sometimes they shunned sanitary packaging. When we reached that next bottle of wine, I investigated my purchase. Magnesium and dimethicone. Constipation and gas.

That’s when I decided to smile more, so as not to look alternately menstrual and constipated. And that’s where the wine came in handy.

Now, this tidbit of information may only apply to the parts of Europe we were roaming last week, but Mike, with his silver hair and Carribean Sea blue eyes seemingly has the word ‘American’ stamped across his forehead in blazing, capital letters.  I, on the other hand,  with my muddied DNA, could be (and in varying degrees, am) almost anything.

I watched as multi-lingual beggars, aggressive street vendors, and other peoples with questionable motives approached him and, in decent English, asked for money, pitched their wares, or attempted their ploys to lure tourists into dark alleys. These are tenacious people who do not take, ‘no,’ for an answer. When walking alone, just as many people made their appeals to me in God-only-knows what languages, but never in English. On our first morning in Rome I realized there was no language in which I could rebuff them that they don’t speak better and could continue their spiel. So I made one up.

Raise your hand if you remember the Ricky-Martin-spawning, Puerto Rican boy band, Menudo. If you don’t, I’ll give you a minute to familiarize yourself.

All caught up? Good. So, Menudo doesn’t sound like a real word, right? With each unwelcomed entreaty, I gave a sympathetic shake of the head and said, “Menudo.” Sometimes I felt a shrug and a, “No, menudo,” was a better response.

I got only baffled looks in response as my accosters retreated. It worked so well that Mike started using it.

Only once we reached Naples did it occur to me that I might have inadvertently been saying an actual word. How would I know? I turned to Google Translate. Great app; I recommend it for everything from ordering lunch to deciphering graffiti.

“Menduo,” as it turns out, means nothing in Italian. However, “Ma nudo,” which is how it is pronounced, means “but naked.”

So for four days we had been startling street people around Rome.

“Can you spare change?”
But naked.

“Do you need tickets?”
No, but naked.

“Have you any bread?”
No, but naked.

“Selfie sticks, five euro!”
But naked!

“Have you seen my daughter? She’s this tall with brown hair.”
But naked.

I really have no idea what was being asked of me when Mike wasn’t around, telegraphing his Captain America beacon. But, I learned that in dealings with people whom you cannot understand, instead of pretending to speak a language they’ve never heard, it is perhaps more effective to appear insane in a language they know well.

And only now does it occur to me I’ve been doing that for years.