The other day, sitting on a stool in our narrow kitchen, I paused at the following passage from Lampedusa’s “The Leopard”:
This was one of those rooms (so numerous that one might be tempted to say it of all rooms) which have two faces, one with a mask that they show to ignorant visitors, the other which is only revealed to those in the know, the owner in particular to whom all its squalid essence is manifest.
I had just been thinking about the twin Romes. Over the past three years, my Rome has grown down into the ground–become just another place where I crowd onto busses running behind schedule. I see the Coliseum several times a day through scratched-up plexiglass as I travel to work and back, or to meet friends to sketch (gossip) in parks and villas. I know my local grocer, Giuseppina (Pina.) Last week she offered to bring milk and eggs to my door, should the new baby leave me too tired to cross the street. My butcher, Franco, is a big elk of a man with a wide, heavy grin. He winks at me while I wait behind the nattering grandmas after their breaded fish and tripe. And then there are the sundry moms from the playground.We size-up our lives while chasing our children.
My neighborhood is overrun by nuns, hustling from one of the three or four convents nearby to mass, and back again. Some are dark and round, others pale, tiny and wizened; virtually all smile shyly from behind their habits as they pass. And there is the neighborhood patrol: grandparent couples out for their strolls, stopping me to admire Giovanni and to check that he is properly clothed. My running joke is that, were I to faint in the middle of the street while pushing a stroller, I would immediately be trampled by a pack of nonnas desperate to ensure the baby was wearing socks.
How different this Rome is from the tourist wonderland, the forced march of marble-faced must-sees downtown, dipping their eternal toes in the ever-shifting eddies of tourists. My neighborhood, the Rome I wake to—just another pastel and eggshell morning in another intimate, Italian city.
There is a Mormon compound on my block; boys in cheap suits are carted away by van to try to convert a country of Catholics with scant interest in faith. It’s a fool’s errand, and I think about them that, if your beliefs are strong enough, it’s possible to stay a tourist forever, wherever you go, yet when they stop me to sell their ideological wares, I do my best to be flattered that someone out there cares what I believe.
New Year’s Eve, outside on our mostly abandoned neighborhood street in Rome, teenagers darted from the shadows, throwing noisemakers that reverberated like gunshots off the upright carpet of brick palazzos, all swallowed in the dove dark of urban nighttime, Judas trees and bar fronts golden where the streetlights climb. You would think that in the age of the iPad, scientists might come up with a new set of noises for these fireworks (“black cats” where I’m from)—that, instead of BANGBANGBANG, they could maybe erupt in the lowing of cows or the chirp of a thousand, unified peepers, or in thunder or maybe just a foghorn.
But no, it was one blisteringly loud crack after another. We reclined in the dark, E and I, suspended in the well of involuntary intimacy that exists between a parent and small child. She rubbed my fingernail between her thumb and forefinger. I looked over the rise of her small body in its blue pajama suit. She kicked off the covers. Outside the window another BANG; she lifted her head in alarm. I smiled and told her not to worry, it was just some people being silly, thankful that this time the truth was easy, if no more comforting than usual. She crawled from the bed and began yanking at the cord that lowers the metal curtain outside the window.
I asked G if he couldn’t go downstairs and tell them to stop, they have a whole city full of insane revelry to embrace just twenty minutes away by bus, in Rome’s other life. He shrugged: “It’s tradition.”
Here, that’s almost like saying it’s law.
Well, it had been tradition for the past three days, probably since they bought the damned things and unraveled them in a fit of youthful impatience.
We had spent the night playing. E has lately become the proprietress of an ice cream store. It is made and remade of legos, staffed by a lego bunny and frequented by a lego bear and a lego Hello Kitty. Speaking for the lego bunny, I greeted her lego bear who had approached the counter:
Hi! Do you want ice cream or a cupcake?
What do you want?
Um…ok, let’s see…Oh, turns out we do have fish back here!
The transaction complete, the lego store came under attack by a plastic lion, which was in turn defeated by a plastic elephant. Then Godzilla destroyed the whole enterprise.
Christmas day was spent at the grandparents’ house—a ground flat with marble floors behind a thick wall. This is in Monte Sacro, one of the neighborhoods fanning out half an hour’s distance, by bus, from the center.
Every surface in the house is heavy with photos: Generations of Italians peer out from bureaus and shelves, born into their frames with the arrival of photography: fidgety babies swallowed in antique baptismal gowns; men stiff in military uniforms; children assembled at campgrounds with the Mediterranean sighing in the background. As the new grandchildren arrive and hit their landmarks, these older faces sidle into corners to make way. The Buddhists teach that, behind the illusion of individuality, we are processes in an undifferentiated whole. The Italian family demonstrates this in its odd way.
It is a perfect grandparent house, a holding pen for the past, full of toys underfoot and breakables on walls and high shelves; the generous balcony hosts a garden, several plastic slides and a recently constructed play house. The kitchen cabinets and refrigerator brim with things forbidden by mommy: chocolate pudding, indestructible snack cakes enshrined in plastic, greasy prosciutto, and so forth. As far as I’m concerned, what happens at nonna’s house, stays at nonna’s house.
The holiday was a massacre of gifts. When we arrived at lunch time the formerly barren Christmas tree had blossomed in a pile of bright bags and boxes. E and her cousin A tore through the shiny parcels like happy little jackals until strips of red and green paper littered the living room in defeat. This was followed by a frenzy of overeating, the backbone of every Italian family gathering: pasta wrapped in curlicues of spinach and cheese, crepes stuffed with ham, a meat dish bypassed as we sauntered straight on to desserts: torrone, panettone, fresh fruit and walnuts.
Giulio’s mother noticed me picking the raisins out of panettone (funny how much better raisins taste when picked out of a cake) and handed me the crusted bottom where the cake had been cut away, leaving more raisins to be foraged. “She must really love you, that’s her favorite part” observed G. I felt suddenly at home.
Back at our apartment, Papa and E limped off to the bedroom for a bloated nap. The baby threw his little fists up next to his ears in the crib and joined them. I would say more about the baby, but so far he has proven to be the world’s most tranquil; he flails frantic when hungry, but is otherwise content to stare thoughtfully into this new and harried existence. My working theory is that, after all the screaming that accompanied his arrival, he is reluctant to stir the pot further.
Granted this rare reprieve, I, of course, went for a run, slogged through the damp of the park under a gray sky at the most unimpressive speed beyond walking. We all reconvened for dinner, which E was reluctant to eat. Negotiations ensued: You can watch Pipi Longstockings if you eat. If you throw that plate on the ground you will go to your room for the rest of the night. Just one bite, fortheloveofallthingsgoodintheworld JUST ONE BITE.
E is growing up to be a stubborn girl. Every time she digs her heels in, I hear echoes of my grandmother lamenting how I was “stubborn as a mule.” At the time, I didn’t know what the problem with that was. I’m increasingly convinced that children teach us more than we teach them, generally about ourselves.
At around 9pm, G and I sat on the couch with the baby while E played with the Barbie her aunt bought her (in spite of my outspoken disapproval of that little blond tool of misogyny.) Her aunt M, G’s youngest sister, has made it her business to torture us via gifts. Last year, she presented E with a bag full of plastic musical instruments. Objects which make noise that does not resemble music, so much as it does the abuse of plastic. This year, she gave her a box full of markers and crayons. E can’t actually draw yet. She represents the family on her etch-a-sketch in angular squiggles. Daddy is a line that loops once on itself then drifts off. Mamma is an awkward v shape. Suffice it to say that daddy removed the crayons yesterday after E decided the purpose of yet another one was to be broken and then ground underfoot into the floor tiles. Next year, I anticipate E unwrapping a set of butcher’s knives, or perhaps a flame thrower.
So there we were, enjoying a serene-ish family moment, when E set the doll down and something happened which I haven’t seen since she was a baby: Her eyes began to track a not-there in the empty air near the door. Then she pointed.
What is it? I asked.
What is it? I repeated.
G, what is she saying? I asked, thinking this was one of those Italian words I haven’t learned yet. Like “dolly” or “rutabaga.”
He shrugged: It’s not Italian.
E, where is the indecipherableword?
She pointed behind me near the door leading from our living room into the hallway.
E, what is the indecipherableword?
Il mostro. (the monster)
Where is the monster, E?
Sta arrivando. (It’s coming)
On one hand, I don’t exactly believe in monsters or haunted houses; on the other hand, I don’t not believe either. As far as I can tell, if these were knowable things, we wouldn’t spend so much time arguing about them, or discussing them around campfires. Nor would we be so eager to sniff incredulously at the inferior folk who do believe strongly. To me, it’s not a matter of having faith in science or not. Science is one of the most wondrous byproduct of our brains–given all of their unknown limits. It is very good at establishing the ground rules, but a bit clumsier when fumbling around the margins and exceptions. Plus, I lived in a house full of graduate students in science for five years and can assure you that they do not in fact know everything, including sometimes, how to throw their empties in the appropriate recycling bin.
That said, this apartment, in my unscientific opinion, has a distinctly haunted-ish vibe. Lights switch back on seconds after being turned out. Doors close of their own volition and shadows morph into figures lurking in the corners of my eyes. Last night, the clock radio awoke at an ungodly volume in an unoccupied bedroom. All explainable phenomena, it’s true: weird wiring, drafts, sleep-deprived hallucinations.
Still, Edda’s declaration gave me chills.
Ever since we became parents, I’ve had the feeling that the world is fundamentally different than I had always imagined. For one thing, it’s not for me. For another, I am just an animal, another animal aging amidst its cohort whose collective time is both peaking and passing. The children have summoned time as a fresh creature. In having these little ones, I get the sense that I am relearning life anew. She and Giovanni recall a distant tomorrow, where I had always chewed over my life as a march of yesterdays and vague, undreamt possibilities. Also, it’s a marvel to see the world from a child’s eye view. They say youth is wasted on the young. That’s a bunch of crap. I’ll never again have the fearlessness and curiosity and mostly frustration that require a child’s health and vigor. And if you imagine you still have those things in spades; it can only because you have no three-year-old in the vicinity to measure yourself against.
But we are talking about monsters. For now, Edda has her unseen monsters, but we acquire monsters like different species of flea that itch away at us throughout our lives. From what we’ve been able to determine by her pointing in the car, she associates skulls with monsters for now. In no time, fairy tales and Disney movies will hammer them into witches, dragons–women over thirty-five, mostly. Later, the bullies will come (and I desperately hope she will not be among them.) In her teens, monster will acquire authority; they will be teachers, and parents and mundane obligations. When and if she decides to have children, we will finally share all of our monsters.
For now, I am content to let her fears explode in the night, manifest in my frustrations and uncertainties. For all the rest, there will be time.