When discussing age in Italian, I find it amusing that one “has” years. Per esempio, in Italiano, I would say, “Io ho trenta sei anni.” The notion of possessing one’s age is pleasing, as if it’s possible to hold time: I hold 36 years and I own every damned minute of them.
It’s equally divertite how many times I’ve been asked my age here; it’s impossible to tell what specifically motivates this question — is it pure interest, to see if the veneer matches the number of rings? Or, do I appear markedly young (or old) in comparison with how I present myself?
We held a contest at dinner on Thursday after Marco inquired this of me, and the table’s conversation immediately hushed with interest. I suggested that someone guess before I revealed the answer. Nina was close with 32 (che carina!), however —naturalamente— it’s no surprise that this question arose again a day later.
After scaling a gate leading into the giardino at the farthest reach of Civita before the road veers right toward Mary of the Incarcerated, Fabrizio popped that question in frustration at my resistance to his advances. “Gabriela, quanti anni hai?” he demanded.
We were mid-caper, standing in the darkness at nearly midnight in the backyard of a palazzo owned by a wealthy Roman. Looking behind me, I saw dramatically lit buildings with grand ionic columns, as if Caesar himself stayed over occasionally. Down below, the valley was cloaked in deepening shades of pitch, alit only with small clusters of porch lights — including ones that brightened Fabrizio’s agriturismo.
When I said that I was 36, he gestured emphatically, like I had given him the ammunition he sought. “Tu hai trenta sei anni; io ho trenta sette anni; siamo in Civita –paradiso– non vuoi avventura? Romanza?” With the right person, that question is easy to answer. Romance and adventure in an ancient Etruscan town with old stone streets, delicious wine and food, and gentle yellow lamplight? Si, certamente!
I winced, realizing that I had allowed my eagerness for exploration, the makings of a good story, and pity for his situation to place me in circumstances where I shouldn’t be. When he met me coming out of Tony’s after dinner, wanting to share a glass of wine at his father’s, Felice’s house, I thought it might go toward a sense of goodwill…and I was interested in seeing places that are perpetually locked to everyone.
We drank Fabrizio’s wine and a splash of Vin Santo inside Felice’s rustic quarters, the place where a curious late-night party was held a week ago. Then, he led me on a tour through the closed bruschetteria where we shared a draught of homemade limoncello and a rare opportunity to push the olive press — the 1,500-year-old stone wheel press that bears the sign, “Do Not Touch!” He showed me how they once crushed the olives, filtered them in woven baskets, then pressed the oil with a giant metal contraption.
Inside the bruschetteria hang tools beyond imagining — old iron relics like grappling hooks, harnesses for beasts of burden that walked in a circle to move the press — and a well that dips so deep into Civita’s stone that it’s possible to smell water even today. Fabrizio showed me a series of alabaster cones that fit inside one another to collect rainwater, which was then used for cooking and washing. Every artifact was a treasure as much as the exposed stone structure itself, so naturally, this was the point where I began to kick myself for not bringing my camera.
We stepped next door from the bruschetteria to tour one of the Rocchi family’s homes, which I’ve walked past hundreds of times, but assumed was used for storage. A modest old wooden door with a lock, I never imagined that this is where his family once lived and still occasionally haunts. He showed me the old stove where his nonna cooked for him as a child and the dining room where a painted mural of Civita is displayed on one wall and dusty photos and tattered banners hang from the other, evidence of past-gone family glory. There was a more recent photo of him and his daughter, Chiara, winning a donkey race when she was a toddler — the same race that will take place here tomorrow.
It was exhilarating to continue this secret exploration from the ancient olive press to generations of family relics and forgotten rooms into a forbidden garden, guarded by a threatening gate topped with sharp metal spears. He climbed over as if it were nothing, placing his hands over the spears as I scaled it next, tentative in every step. Looking out from the edge of the cliff, he turned me around to kiss me as I pushed him away, several times, finally uttering, “Basta! Siamo amici! Solamente amici!”
He continued to impress upon me his argument, “Gabriela, tu sei bellissima — bella, bella, bella. Ti desidero. Perchè no?” I tried again to speak of friendship, to which he responded that, in Italy, it’s impossible to be only friends with a beautiful woman whom one desires so much.
We climbed back over the gate onto the decumanus maximus in disagreement, parting ways at Felice’s house where he was staying for the evening. He encircled my waist, pulling me to him, against which I raised my hands to his chest. “Basta. Siamo amici,” I said, placing my hands down against him emphatically with my words. He dropped his hands, commenting on how Americans are so closed, tight, senza avventura.
“Non è vero! Non sono!” I gestured at myself with defiance. He sighed and shook his head, saying that he didn’t understand. I paused, then sighed, “Ci vediamo,” as I turned to leave.
He snorted and said in Italian, “Of course. I live here. Where do you live?” It pleased me afterward that my immediate answer was –in Italian– “Abito qua!” He shook his head and responded, “No, you don’t live here. You live in Seattle.”
That statement played in my mind as I drifted off to sleep against the howling wind, a raging daylong tempest that still whistled through the hearth and rattled the outer doors. Seattle, Civita…where do I live now? A person who looks like me will return to the Pacific Northwest in October, but she won’t be the same person who left.
Exploring this paradise, as Fabrizio called it –filled with angels and imps, fire and dance, bridges and bluffs, stones and gardens– will surely transform me; yet, just as I hold my years, I will always remain in possession of myself.
Whoever I turn out to be.