My welcome-to-Italy fetters

A water fountain near our apartment and on the way to the college, a former monastery, Susan Barrett, photographer

I want to write romantically about Italian food. 

I want to write with enough detail that you’ll head to the kitchen. I want your taste buds to long for—I mean, really long for a dainty pastry stuffed with lemon curd, nestled on a ceramic saucer holding a steamy demitasse swallow or two of velvety coffee supporting a swirled milky coat of arms.

I want to tell you about the first pasta I was served. The light white sauce. Perfecto. Parmigiano Reggiano whirled with a hint of burro, with even less cream and ground pepper. If you need to try this tonight, do not scrimp on the pepper.

But instead, I’m writing about my welcome-to-Italy fetters. My knots. I know, I know. You say, don’t, Susan, don’t. Please pass the pasta. Keep that last paragraph going. 

I hear you and understand. But you see, I must learn the skill of recognizing knots.

I hear teacher Thay’s (Thich Nhat Hanh)  suggestion to attend immediately to knots. “Give knots full attention as soon as they form.” Why? A faced knot is loose and can be more easily untied. I know the difficulty of a tight knot. 

So, I’m here to untie a knot or two.

Some context: I have a severe chest cold. Illness adds so much more to working with propensities or habits.

Day one: Rome. In a broad stroke (and acknowledging this city’s historical significance), Rome is too violent for me, especially the ruins of the Forum and the Colosseum.  I'm grateful for fifteen minutes of teal blue sky over the Colosseum because if I had to stand looking out into that stadium in the pouring rain, well, I might faint. I look skyward and silently exclaim that I'm not on a pilgrimage. I'm not honoring this place nor succumbing to formalist art delight at the expense of forgetting just what happened in this oval: a half-million people and a million animals were killed for spectacle. I see too much primitive human pilfering, cruelty, and warring. 

Twelve miles of fast walking and listening to scholarship keeps me from noticing what I notice. I mute my earphones. The quiet allows space. 

Day two: I stay in bed with a fever. 

Day three: Now, what happened on day three? Oh, that’s right. The Vatican, St. Peter’s Basilica, and the MAXXI Modern Museum of Art.

Day four: Orvieto, Italy. A funicular cable ride up the mountain to learn in a downpour of cold rain about the facade of the Orvieto Cathedral, meandering streets, and finally, zuppa. (Funicular brings the Funiculi Finicula song to mind. I bet you know it.) 

At about 4:30 PM, I get my first glimpse of Cortona, a small town nestled near the top of a mountain. Our bus stops next to a church. Below the church is the monastery, which is now a college established by the University of Georgia.

Roberto our landlord takes us to our apartment on Via Maffei. Thirty-three steps up, broken into three angular sets. My legs ask why I didn’t investigate apartment options. We get a quick tour of what will be home for three months. We unpack. The charm of a 1500 CE apartment with thick stone walls, beamed and brick ceilings, terra cotta floors, and swinging windows and shutters is chilled by weariness. 

I skip dinner. I prop a pillow on the floor by a radiator away from the chilling walls. I breathe. I am in a retreat setting I wished for, and already I don’t like the company (me). I cry and then lighten enough to have this thought: Nothing’s wrong. I’m in an ordinary situation. I don’t have to be better than I am in handling this. 

I am sitting in the same spot an hour and a half later when Terry returns with vegetable soup. I sip a cup, then we go to bed. 

I wear my sweater to bed.

It snows in the night.

Even though Terry catches my cold, he still brings me coffee in bed that first morning. He wears a blanket on his shoulders, and I can tell he’s chilled. His kindness shows up anyway.

We all respond to adversity differently. On our walk from the college to our apartment last evening, Terry stops to photograph a shop’s window. He says, “You’re in the reflection.” I step away, but it’s how I hear it. (Well, he is admittedly crabby.) 

Engaging in my own little Roman war, I hit back. 

I move away, arms tight, face hard, swiftly looking to the side, I blurt, “I could never live here,” which is a passive-aggressive way of saying something like, “I’m not so happy to be here right now.” He looks over with his eyebrows raised and asks, “Why?” I lie. “It’s too cold.”

I say I’m cold and didn’t pack like I was headed to a mountain top. I want to blame him for not telling me about this or that as if he’s my personal assistant. I want to blame the weather for the discomfort of our twelve-mile walk through Rome, in the rain, on slippery cobblestones to see some of the most iconic structures and art ever created (and looted). 

I want to blame someone for my unsteady footing today in Cortona. I’m cold and didn't train for walking on narrow, steep, rainy (and snowy) cut-rock roadways without falling. 

I think our shower is tiny, not hot enough, spewing wildly from a mineral-corroded shower head. The radiator-heated rooms scream for a scarf, hat, gloves, and three sweaters to be worn indoors. Not suggested. Required.

I’ll be buying a down coat.

But honestly, this is it: I’ve shut down to newness and uncertainty. Hardened. Closed tight.

I see what I don’t like about myself.

My views. (Why does dinner have to be at 7:30 PM when I like to eat at 5:00.) 
My reactions. (I say zuppa and she says she doesn’t know what that means so I say it louder.)
My opinions. (Our apartment needs a clothes-dryer. And WiFi.)
My judgments. (That mini-blender isn't good enough: it won’t chop kale.) 
My thoughts. (I’m on a self-selected retreat, so why is it so difficult?) 
My admonishments. (You’re too “something” for a trip like this.)
My behaviors. (Lost in a tired woe, I pass a homeless man and do not think to give him my leftover food.)

I’m learning. Awareness shows me what I can work with. So I’m letting this experience be an example of not giving up on myself, not being afraid to be myself in all my frozen-assedness. I get to see how I am. That I am not some ideal I have to live up to. I am who I am right now, and I’m working with it.

Simplicity and quiet are not for the meek. I thought I already had pared my life. Not so. The unfamiliar invites a new level of less and stillness.