TallGirl’s friend broke my heart.
“I think I’m too old to try new things. ” She is 22. She was talking about butternut squash.
Maybe I was particularly sensitive to the sentiment because I’d recently had an argument with a travel article titled 30 Places to Visit Before You Are 30. If beer-bellies can yell at TV sports, dark-rims can raise their voices to a magazine. Only fair. I am post-30, and I can totally justify skipping Milan because I don’t own the wardrobe befitting their sidewalks. Besides, they have a Starbucks, so why bother? It’s practically Parsippany, now isn’t it? But do they mean to tell me Venice has nothing to offer now that the bloom is off my flower? At my age, is it so hard to believe that I might appreciate the history of Budapest a little more than I would have twenty years ago when my biggest struggle was keeping up with a scrunchy? Just kidding. Twenty years ago, I had a toddler and my first broken marriage to navigate. I will concede this article wasn’t written for me, or people like me at that age. Still, I think it was a little short-sighted to write a travel article that specifically excludes me, and people like me now, who – precisely because of age, have the time and disposable income to visit the boutique hotels being shilled in the glossy pages of this magazine. But that’s just me.
Through middle and high school, TallGirl’s friend was a frequent visitor to our dinner table. Scratch that. She wasn’t a visitor. She was family; there was always a chair for her. Without fail, every single meal, she ate something for the first time. When we knew she was coming, it became a game of mine to guess, while I was cooking, what would follow her, I’ve never had declaration. Sausage, chocolate chip pancakes, pork chops, broccoli with cheese. We aren’t talking exotic fare, here. After graduation, they chose different paths, and she is now a vestigial daughter, visiting only once or twice a year. We miss her, and I’d forgotten her sheltered culinary life. That she’d never had butternut squash before was only surprising in that I hadn’t even considered it before dinner was served.
But here’s my confession. I have passed the halfway mark in my forty-second year of life and last night, I ate capers for the first time. Ever. I was aware of capers. My first knowledge of them came from Heartburn, by Nora Ephron. I read it about two decades ago, during those tumultuous, family breaking years when apparently I should have been traipsing the globe instead of potty training my beautiful daughter. Between you and me, I made the wiser choice. My life is rich beyond measure because she is in it, and hers is measurably improved by being potty trained. You’re welcome, BooBoo.
Nora Ephron has been accused for years of steering women wrong by romanticizing the troubling character flaws of both women and their male counterparts in her romantic comedies. Forget that. Neuroses are funny to everyone (save for those closely related to the afflicted, and to a lesser extent, the afflicted themselves), and it is exceedingly difficult to move a plot along if everyone in the story behaves rationally. She did what she had to do as a writer, and I, for one, admire both her chops and the battles she fought to be allowed to flex them. Where I take issue with her though, God rest her soul, is the terrible advice she gave in Heartburn. “…The truth is that any dish that tastes good with capers in it tastes even better with capers not in it.”
Living in the homogeneous suburbs of the south-east, it’s not like I had to go out of my way to avoid capers. They were always something that existed in the world but that I would likely never try, not unlike puffer fish or haggis. And equally, I assumed I wasn’t missing anything special; possibly, I was saving my own life by not trying them.
By the laws established by the governing body of dieters everywhere, I think I am required to tell you that I am starting the Whole30 Program. I am probably breaking some cardinal rule by not posting Insta pictures of every meal, or talking incessantly about what I am obsessing about eating, or not eating, next. But that’s just not who I am. I am only telling you this now because I have a cookbook that tells me exactly what to make to stay compliant and last night’s dinner involved capers. I considered leaving them out because Nora Ephron didn’t like them. The ghost of Nora Ephron wasn’t even invited to dinner, so is that nuts, or what?
Nuts, by the way, are allowed on the Whole 30, but not a wise nutritional choice. Now you know.
And you know what? I loved them. I loved them so much that I want to invite TallGirl’s friend over for dinner, even though TallGirl is still away at school, and make her eat them with me.
Last spring I was in Rome. I don’t know if that is a city on that stupid 30 Before 30 list, but I can tell you, no matter how old you are, get there. Our apartment backed up to the Aurelian Walls, and there were lush, green cascades of vegetation with pretty, wispy, white flowers growing freely from the cracks in the ancient brick. I asked a local what they were, and she thought a moment as she consulted her English vocabulary. More like a question of her own than an answer to mine, she said, “Wild capers?”
Because of the way she wrinkled her nose when she said it, and because of my Ephron association with the little beasts, I agreed with her that yes, those must be wild capers. I probably even wrinkled my own nose in solidarity.
I consider myself to be adventurous, but just like TallGirl’s friend, even I sometimes forego new experiences due to preconceived notions, or have those intrusive thoughts that I might be too told to try a new thing. I’ll try harder to recognize them, and nip them in the bud.
We are never too old for wild capers.
As a cautionary side, Whole30 was a terrible time to try capers. They have the same effect on my breath as a pickled garlic-onion might, and gum – all gum – is forbidden. If I accidentally breathe on you this month, I apologize in advance.
Forty-nine days from now, right now, at exactly this time, Central European Time, I will be referring to my exhaustion as jet lag. I will be completely moved in to my new apartment, the first place I will ever live without my parents, my spouses, or my children. I will have unpacked my two sundresses, one pair of shorts, a tee shirt, and eight sets of underwear into my dresser. My Italian dresser. I will have stroked my Italian kitchen counter, bounced from my Italian couch, to my Italian chair, and decided which corner will become my Italian writing corner, where I will plug my American laptop into an electricity converter.
I will not have eaten lunch, unless it is served in the air between Frankfurt and Rome. My body will say it is just after 2pm, but my Italian wall clock will say it is a quarter past 8. I won’t grocery shop until the next morning, so I will leave my apartment, walk across the street, through Vatican City, using the whole of the tiny, holy country as my short cut to my favorite trattoria, Perdincibacco for a light dinner of Caprese salad and a bottle of their house red. If I’m lucky, Massimillano’s dog, the adorable chocolate lab puppy that stole my heart last year, will have grown into his host job and greet me as if I never left.
Or maybe he won’t. I don’t yet know the temperament of Italian labs, but American ones tend to greet people with the same excitement, no matter how long they’ve been gone.
I will cork what’s left of my wine and carry it with me. The tunnel on Via di Porta Cavallegri is always dark, but since the sun will be set by then, I won’t have to squint when I pop out the other side. A couple of blocks ahead, I will descend the steep, piss-smelling steps to the Tiber River and in a most American fashion, I will lift my wine in a toast to Summer, 2017, and drink straight from the bottle.
I can’t wait to find out what comes next.
On my first full day home from Mexico, Michael slid a folded piece of paper across the lunch table to me.
“You are leaving for Rome in about sixty days,” he said.
Sixty days. Porca puttana! My sabbatical just became a little more real to me. I opened the paper he gave me. “What is this?” I ask him again.
“Well, I was thinking,” his own excitement was mostly contained, but a little bit was leaking around the edges. “You might want to see a show while you’re in Italy.”
“I am seeing a show. Unless I sell my U2 ticket…” I trail off.
“Don’t sell it. You should stay and see it.”
“But if I sell it, I can leave Rome earlier, and have more days to do something else before I go to Budapest.” Who is the person sitting inside my body, saying these things? I don’t go to Budapest. I don’t go to Rome. I don’t leave home for two months to go be alone in a foreign land. This isn’t me.
But I know that isn’t true. This is me. For the first time. Out loud. This is me.
“I think you should stay and see them.” He’s been nothing but encouraging. “But I thought you could see another show, so I looked something up.”
He took the paper from my hand and explained it to me. It was a list of dates in July and August, each beside a venue and city in Italy. On the bottom half of the page was a printed map labeled with each city from the list.
Again, I asked, “What is this?”
“Francesco Renga. It looks like his shows peaked about three years ago, but he’s starting a new tour this summer. This is a list and map of his shows.”
My heart skipped and my lips cracked from smiling. “You found my boyfriend?”
I was delighted!
I discovered Renga last spring. His song, Guardami Amore, was the only Italian song mixed in with the American pop hits from the 80’s and 90’s playing in every restaurant or store we visited. The melody and the voice became recognizable to me and soon I was madly in love with the Stranger With The Voice, as I began calling him.
On our last morning, we stopped into a cafe for our last good cup of coffee, and they were using YouTube for their music services. For the first time, I got to lay my eyes on the handsome face that had been singing to me our whole trip. For Christmas, Michael bought me two of his CD’s. My infatuation with Francesco Renga clearly inspires him, too.
I’m having so much fun getting to know this person who jumps on airplanes and flings herself far and wide. I could not do it without such a supportive partner. For that, I am forever thankful.
I reached a milestone with my writing yesterday. I had to kill off a character.
He made me so happy when I invented him and every time I proofread, I loved seeing his little face. Regrettably, he not only failed to advance the story, but he complicated it needlessly.
I didn’t kill him so much as I just wiped him out of existence. He was never here, as far as you would ever know. But I know better, and last night at dinner, I was feeling a little guilty about that. This is what Mexico has done to me; I’m the kind of person now who yells at dogs and kills Steve.
Kitty suggested that maybe Steve will crawl off and grow a new tale. This is where I have to tell you, so that you can laugh at that last line, that Steve was a snake with a complex back story. He was kidnaped from his home in Greece by Roman mercenaries and taken to a foreign land where an awful lot of responsibility was placed upon his shoulders. Steve handled his predicament with grace and style, but dammit, none of that is what I’m writing about. At least, not now.
So maybe by telling you about Steve, he isn’t dead. He really does exist – somewhere – and, as is the habit of snakes, will pop up again where we least expect it.
Until then, so long, Steve.
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?”
“Do you need tickets?”
No, but naked.
“Have you any bread?”
No, but naked.
“Selfie sticks, five euro!”
“Have you seen my daughter? She’s this tall with brown hair.”
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.
I bet you didn’t know all those roads that lead to Rome are, in fact, covered with the same material the ancient Proverbians used to pave the road to hell: good intentions.
And mama, my intentions were the best.
This whole journey was intended to be the next stop in my search for passionate people doing the thing they’re passionate about. My first stop was kind of a bust, if I’m being honest – which I’m almost ready to do – so I had high hopes for attending Easter mass with the Pope. I observed Lent for 35 of 40 days, attended mass 6 times (half of which were in Latin, because it only counts if you suffer), and just to give you an idea of how serious I actually am about this, I followed the rules. Well, The Rule, to be specific.
What rule? The one on the Vatican website that instructs the faithful masses how to get tickets to the Papal Masses. Per their requirement, we downloaded and completed the request form. We faxed it to the Prefecture of the Papal Household because this organization is notoriously not an early adapter of anything, and we have, per instruction, been patiently waiting since November 12th to receive the Golden Ticket by post. Except in this case, the Golden Ticket is merely a confirmation that our fax request was received, along with instructions to take said letter to Vatican Will-Call* on the afternoon before Easter to find out if any tickets were issued.
So here we are, folks. Two mail deliveries left before I slip the star spangled bonds of America and begin the European leg of my passion quest and I think it’s pretty safe to go ahead and call it. Under normal circumstances, I’d probably be scheming a plan to crash the mass, but the documentary I just watched on the Swiss Guard has convinced me to just accept this as the universe’s way of rearranging my adventure for me.
So besides church, what exactly does a traveler do in Rome on Easter Sunday? I’ll keep you posted.
*Yes. The Vatican really does have a Will-Call. And a fax machine. If you’re feeling nostalgic for the 90’s, I recommend you fax them your favorite comic strips every morning (+39 06 698 85863). If they can’t get around to sending me a confirmation letter, they probably won’t send the Swiss Guard to your house to ask you to stop.
Catholics are going to hell. I know this because the second Southern Baptist phase of my mother’s religious evolution coincided with my formative years, and she told me so. Repeatedly. This alone would have made catholic boys wildly attractive to me, had I known any in my small Appalachian town. As fate would have it, I didn’t actually meet any until years and years later, after my mother transitioned into her Extra Terrestrials Created the Universe phase. And wouldn’t you know it? I married the first one I met.
While engaged, we sat before a vicar who unwittingly blew the starting whistle on what became, for me, a seventeen year wrestling match with Catholicism. By that time, I didn’t believe in marriage or God, but since both were important to the man I intended to spend the rest of my life with, I thought, what the hell? This was before I learned the important lesson that things you don’t believe in can still eat you right up. Correction: This was the beginning of that lesson, and another story for another time.
The vicar emphasized that the Catholic Church would never recognize my marriage to my catholic fiancé unless I had my first marriage annulled. I had so many questions.
The first being, the church recognized my first marriage, the one where two non-Catholics got married outside of a catholic church? Yes. They did.
Secondly, but the church won’t recognize a Catholic’s marriage if it takes place outside of the Catholic Church? That is correct.
Third, how does that make even a little bit of sense? Cannon law. But for the low, low price of some tens of hundreds of dollars, the Church can erase the first marriage, write the second one, and we could live holy ever after. Happiness not guaranteed. Installment plans available. Must be over the age of reason. Offer invalid outside of the continental U.S..
In the end, we hired a retired pastor who ran a wedding chapel beside a laundromat and imported him to the North Raleigh Hilton where we intended to have a non-religious ceremony. Our plans were foiled when the father of the groom slipped the reverend a twenty to insert a reading of one of the Corinthians and the Lord’s Prayer.
Yea. That’s where our plans went awry.
For the next decade I continued to butt heads with the Church through a botched conversion and then at every point along the arc of our marriage; birth, death, infidelity, divorce…. And then it was over. When you’re not catholic and find yourself no longer married to someone who is, all of that just falls away. But not quickly if you’re a Virgo that just doesn’t let shit go.
Almost another decade has passed and I find myself remarried, this time to a man who converted to Catholicism in order to marry his ex-wife. He remains mum about how much he ever believed, but he stopped practicing when that marriage ended. And like the beliefs of my mother before me, mine have also evolved. I still don’t believe in marriage, but I believe in mine. I do believe in God now, but not in an institutional kind of way.
Last year I began a pilgrimage to unravel the mysteries of passion, something my mother had, but that I lack. It started with an itinerary to put myself in the way of passionate people in order to better understand them. I’m still processing what I did and did not get from my trip to Graceland for Elvis’ birthday last month, and happily planning for my trip to St. Peter’s Basilica for Easter mass next month. It has occurred to me that unlike my trip to Memphis, maybe I should prepare a little for my trip to Rome. So in addition to meat and all beverages that are neither water nor alcoholic, this Lenten season I am giving up my long grapple with Catholicism.
On this Ash Wednesday morning I sat in St. Catherine of Sienna’s parking lot and silenced my cell phone to the best of my ability. I ran through the mental checklist of rituals from all those years ago when we attended St. Raphael every time we visited my in-laws in Pittsburgh. I remembered to cross myself, but forgot to genuflect. For the first time ever, I did not feel like an imposture. I wasn’t there out of some familial obligation. I was there seeking understanding, just like everyone else; even if not understanding of the same thing.
The music was simple and the ritual of it all was quite moving. The priest read the Gospel, then in the brief silence between the Blessing and the Distribution of Ashes, my phone received an e-mail – a sound that apparently does not turn off with any of the settings I adjusted in the car. The perturbed look on the faces of the elders around me was no match for the horrified look of the little girl sitting immediately to my left as the four notes of the Mockingjay whistle rang out loud and true from my purse sitting between us on the pew. I volunteered her as tribute and gave her a perturbed look of my own. On the outside, it might have looked like a frown and wrinkled eyebrows, but what I was trying to convey on the inside was, Hey kid, thanks for taking this fall for me. I owe you one.
If by any chance my mother was right about where these people are headed, I’m probably going to be spending an awful lot of time with them in the afterlife.
I’d already snapped a photo and was putting my phone away when he said, “Oh God. You aren’t going to have your phone out all the way across Europe, are you?”
Understand, we won’t actually be in Europe for another 5 months, and I’d just taken a quick picture of my pasta salad so I could try to recreate it later; pasta shells, feta, black pepper, shredded basil, and tomatoes. No dressing. Simple. Delicious.
He exaggerated on, using his own phone as a prop, “Snap. I need to post this. Snap. I need to post this.” God, he’s unattractive when he mocks. I know he thinks the same about me. I wait for him to finish.
“Yes. My phone will be out all the way across Europe. So will my giant camera, probably even across the Middle East, too.” I add the last part because I know he does not think I should go to Israel. He thinks I should not because he does not want to go himself.
“In fact I’ll probably do many things, nay, all the things that annoy you so maybe now is a good time to start planning your own itinerary.”
When I dreamed this trip, I’d had in mind that it would be solo; a detail that was supported by his vehement push against it because Rome in the middle of winter will be miserable and cold. I’d explained that the end of March is not the middle of winter and the whole point of going was to be there for Easter. I can’t very well expect the Pope to reschedule Easter for more agreeable weather. It came as a surprise when he began saying the words, ‘we’ and ‘us’ when I discussed the trip.
Soon enough, I realized that getting to Rome could be much less expensive if I take the long way around – like I do. As such, last week I booked our flights into London and out of Paris. The outer walls of my odyssey are in place, with a nine day nebula in between, propped up by one pillar; I must be in Rome for Easter. The time for extending the pilgrimage into Israel does exist. We can use small, local airlines to maneuver us fairly inexpensively where we need to go around the region. And having him with me in Paris, in the spring, won’t suck.
“God, why are you always so quick to tell me to go do my own thing?” He rephrased that question twice more in rapid succession before I interrupted him to answer.
“As much as you don’t like the annoying things I do, I don’t like being reminded that I am annoying. If you tell me how much you don’t like me taking pictures across Europe, I will still take pictures across Europe, but be very aware with every click that I am bothering you. You will ruin an otherwise lovely experience.”
He defends himself, “My trip won’t be ruined by your taking pictures.”
But mine will be ruined by knowing it annoys him, and I’m not built for the force it would require to drive this dull point home.
A long time ago, Rilke sold me on this idea that each partner appoints the other to be the guardian of his solitude, and this month we celebrate the third anniversary of taking our vows to remain separate, but together. We faithfully work to iron out the wrinkles in how such a union can actually work in practice. But let me tell you this; it hasn’t been easy in matters of travel.
We will meet for lunch twenty times again, just as we did today, before we leave. With a little luck and a lot of hard diplomacy, we’ll have it all figured out by then. In the meanwhile, I need to brush up on my French, learn a little Italian, and maybe make some of that pasta salad.