An echo of my Italian sojourn in 2010, my feet ached terribly the day that I met John, Enrica and William in the North End of Boston.
In Venice, I blamed the cobblestones for the dull thud in my toes and the balls of my feet after walking from the Castello Sestiere to the Arsenale –and a day-long tour of the architecture Biennale— in my red Mary Janes. Afterwards, Iole and I sat down for a spritz at her favorite pizza restaurant on Calle del Diavolo and I confessed my intense pain, wondering as I had on many occasions how Italian women managed to walk the same cobbled streets so gracefully in stilettos.
In Boston, it was my journey from Columbus and Mass Ave to meet Jesse, an urban planner, at Boston Common. He took me on a three-hour architectural walk through downtown, Chinatown and parts of the Freedom Trail, calling out new and old history behind the landmarks and buildings that stand today. In both cases, I was torn between great company and interesting subjects on one hand and aching feet that made me weep on the other. When I later learned about Enrica’s equally sensitive soles, destroyed from years of wearing those beautiful shoes I admired, I felt a little less defeated.
Even as my toes swelled with blisters at the end of our trek, I worried that I was letting Jesse down. I wanted to continue on with him to Cambridge, but we parted at Boston Garden near the Rose F. Kennedy Greenway and its flank of reddish-brown brick buildings whose ends had been lopped off to make way for it. After Jesse departed, I sat for a few minutes on the low wall, assessing the gashes that my Mary Janes had sliced into my ankles, vowing never to wear them on another trip.
Hobbled, I dragged myself to a cafe on Hanover Street that seemed promising. Just inside the open doors sat a tiny elderly woman dressed in black with a cup of espresso and a loaf of crusty bread. Next to her, a garrulous table of middle-aged men discussed the vicissitudes of life. The scene reminded me of a conversation with Tony on our way back to Civita one afternoon:
“They sit there every day, all day, the same guys. What are they talking about?” I asked, fascinated, as we passed five men sitting in red plastic chairs in front of Massimo’s Bar.
Tony smirked and wrinkled his nose to push his glasses farther up his face, steering his Fiat through the narrow part of Corso Mazzini where the buildings seemingly wanted to embrace each other. He quoted The Walrus and the Carpenter with a snort:
“They talk of many things: of shoes–and ships–and sealing-wax, of cabbages and kings, and why the sea is boiling hot–and whether pigs have wings.”
Amused, I listened to their American cousins go on passionately for several minutes about absolutely nothing of importance. After I ordered an affogato, I was surprised to catch the server speaking in Italian with the old woman. I had assumed that the North End’s cobbled streets and quaint storefronts were facades meant to encourage tourist dollars. When the server returned, I ordered an espresso and a glass of water in Italian, bringing a spark of delight to her eyes. We exchanged smiles and reassessed each other. “Grazie,” I said, enjoying the rolling R in my mouth. “Prego,” she nodded with a small bow and a wink.
The sugar crystals dissolved quickly when I stirred my espresso with the dainty silver spoon. I realized that this was the first time I had spoken Italian in my home country as an actual business exchange. It felt like the first time I walked through Pioneer Square in Seattle and saw bricks underneath a section of broken asphalt: each experience opened a window into history that made America feel older and more substantial than it normally does.
Two hours later, my feet slightly deflated, John retrieved me near Old North Church at the statue of Paul Revere where I had stopped to hear a guide tell the story of his ride and the famous lantern signal that warned of British invasion. I followed John to a park bench at Christopher Columbus Park where I met his wife, Enrica, and their three-year-old son, William, for the first time — a fitting spot for an Italian landing.
As we retraced our steps over the past decade, John reminded me that we last saw each other in Las Vegas for my ex-husband’s 40th birthday in 2006 rather than upon our departure from Tucson in 2001. Even that felt like a lifetime ago. I was different person with a different name; I had never traveled alone, let alone contemplated living abroad. The idea for CivitaVeritas was still three years away, which made it that much more delightful that John and I now had the bond of Italy between us, in addition to our college friendship.
The day turned cold and blustery, and I found myself huddled in a slice of filtered sunshine on the bench with the other mothers as John and Enrica took turns watching over William. Enrica was there to see a friend off, a research scientist who was headed back to Bologna for work.
There we were: several Italian-American couples and their toddlers, all of whom spoke Italian more fluently than I. These were American kids living in the United States, yet most didn’t speak English more than to mimic words and songs. They chattered in chipmunk voices, playing and making declarations like “I love you, mama” all in Italian. I learned that it is typical for bilingual children to abandon their second language once they enter an English-speaking school; this was their parents’ way of stuffing as much language learning into their minds as possible. Of course, if the kids were learning only Spanish, people would have a tizzy (“You’re marginalizing your children!”); it made me consider how often this happens elsewhere in North America with dozens of languages.
His Boston upbringing aside, William was definitely an Italian child. Once the thin veneer of shyness lifted, he was all flirt and he said my name with that same rolled R in an accent that reminded me of children’s voices in Piazza S. Donato. He asked questions and I answered them; our exchange felt like magic, like the four of us shared a secret language.
When all of the cheeks were properly kissed and goodbyes wished, John drove us through Charlestown, Cambridge and Somerville before steering back to their house in Arlington, northeast of Boston. Enrica produced a bottle of Aperol and my heart smiled again, thinking of the afternoon spritz that Iole and I shared every evening in Venice.
Enrica and I bonded over a fiery disdain for American food, which reminded me of how desolate I felt returning from Civita to find my country’s cuisine dull and dusty. The ache in her voice for the simple, flavorful food of her home country made me wish that we lived in the same city so that she and I could cook together.
As we discussed relationships, work and motherhood, it reminded me of conversations in Civita with Alessandra, a single mother of two and an architect. Women experience so much added guilt and pressure when they have children — especially modern Italian women, who grew up with intensely attentive stay-at-home mothers against whom they measure themselves.
For women like Enrica, far from family and familiar customs, the task of navigating the working world as a mother is more challenging. Yet, like Alessandra, she meets each day square on, her thin, sturdy frame leaning headfirst against the wind, formidable and fragile all at once, battling to keep some semblance of herself while creating what she hopes is a nourishing childhood for William. I watched her brush a lock of brown hair from her beautiful tired face as she made us dinner, thinking that she was very brave.
John cleared the dishes as we steered from course to course, and it hit me how grown up we’ve become in sixteen years. We’ve bought and sold real estate, lived in other countries, fell in love, married and divorced spouses, advanced in our careers and had children. That we met again around a very Italian dinner scene just outside of Boston –a city that neither of us considered during our oven-hot tequila-shooting Tucson days– felt surreal but not completely unlikely.
That evening with John, Enrica and William felt like the culmination of what I treasured most about all of my Italian adventures: the exaltation of hearth and home, good conversation, wine and the notion that we would see each other again, though years might pass in between. As citizens of the world, I expect our next meeting might take place in another yet-unforeseen location, perhaps in the U.S. or beyond… maybe even in Italy.
When we do, I wonder what languages William will speak.