I know some of you envy me for being able to enjoy a six-week holiday in Europe but at times it was torture. It’s like finding the ideal mate and knowing you only have a limited amount of time together. When I told friends I was going to Italy for a month, they wondered if I’d return. Well, sadly I did. I’m back in L.A., though more determined than ever to find a way to become an ex-pat once again.
Walking down cobblestone streets in Rome’s Trastevere section or through Tropea’s narrow streets and gazing at the bluish/green sea while lounging on the beach in Tropea stirred my desire to once again become a resident of the boot-shaped country. Not that the yearning ever left me after returning in 2005. I’m so fond of Italy’s small towns that I envision myself teaching English in a medieval village while continuing to write. I even brought up the topic with a couple of residents of Tropea, where I was welcomed like a local but don’t think is the place for me, and was encouraged by their responses. I realize money is tight in small southern towns like Tropea so while parents may wish for their children speak English, being able to hire someone to teach them is another matter.
Spending my last night in Italy with five ex-pats and one hopeful at a charming enoteca near the Colosseo, or Colosseum, was the ideal way to end my sojourn. Perhaps through osmosis, the will, courage and spirit of these fantastic women (as well as my other ex-pats friends like Layne and Elizabeth, who couldn’t make the girls’ night out, ex-pat gathering) will inspire me to get my butt in gear. The euro is a bit kinder to the dollar than in 2005 when I was forced to pack my bags after 26 months in Italy. However, one still takes quite a beating earning in U.S. dollars and spending in euro, which is why I need to focus on making euros. A report released by Manpower Inc. the other day listed Italy among four countries with a negative employment outlook. (Greece, Ireland and Spain are the others.) But I can’t let depressing statistics, or reality, deter me. Layne, whom I met when we both lived in Florence in 2003, recently landed a job as an international attorney at Fendi. So there!
Plus, the women I hung out with Tuesday night, some new acquaintances and others old friends, are positive examples of how ex-pats can make it work even if they don’t have a major fashion house signing their paycheck. I had invited the other ex-pat hopeful Lynne, whom I had met the previous night through Layne. Over bottles of Nero d’Avola, the ex-pats told me they would help me in any way they could should I decide to return. As the group dispersed (not me because I was staying for more vino and a real meal since I hadn’t eaten yet), we met a woman from Chicago and her Italian husband. This couple was a hoot and what fun I had chatting with the two of them. But it wasn’t just the laughs we shared but the seriousness of our conversation as well.
The husband told me and Lynne, who had stayed on to keep me company, how he encouraged his Caucasian wife to introduce herself to us when he saw our group, which consisted of six women of color and one Caucasian, because he had never laid eyes on a collection of beautiful, sophisticated black women in Italy.
Sadly, too often the image of women of color in Italy is of us as a puntana, or prostitute, in Naples. We offer nothing except sex. And it’s constantly reinforced. On Layne’s seven-hour bus ride from Tropea to Rome, she was appalled by a movie about a Senegalese family that moves to Italy. The African wife/mother begins an affair with a married Italian man. She’s shown nude, moaning and screaming during their multiple sexcapades. And this was shown on an early morning bus ride with about 15 senior citizens, who were riveted. When the Italian wife learns of the affair, her family tells that for African women, “sex is like water. They need it to live.”
It’s these kinds of stereotypes that the women I hung with last night are able to break down. And it’s not just in Italy. Four years ago I traveled solo through Croatia and met a local on the island of Hvar who told me how much my presence in his country was doing to educate Croatians about Black people for I showed that we can be intelligent, classy and professional. That country has such a bad reputation when it comes to racism that an editor of a black travel magazine wouldn’t give me an assignment about Croatia because he was reluctant to promote such a place. It turned out to be one of my best vacations.
But back to Italy and my oh-so-fab group of ex-pats that I want to join. There’s Bunmi, who is from the UK, married to a New Zealander and is the mother of two. Courtney, who is married to an Italian and approaching her second anniversary. Charmaine was divorced from an Italian when I met her several years ago but she wed another Italian about a year ago. I didn’t have a chance to ask Arlene, who moved to Italy in 2008, about her relationship status. Nancy, the lone Caucasian, dates John, an American sportswriter in Denver whom I have known since my days covering sports. Nancy and John had moved to Italy together and left due to finances shortly before I arrived in April 2003. Now she’s back and hoping John returns as planned. When living abroad is in your blood, it doesn’t leave. And there’s Lynne, who like me would like to live in Italy and is traveling solo on holiday. I wanted her to meet these women so invited her. Lynne, also like me, never can get a date and can’t figure out why.
That brings me to Paolo. Some of you have wondered what became of the Italian who fell madly in love with me on first sight and on our first date invited me to his house to meet his mother and called her on the mobile so I could speak to her. No, I didn’t meet mama but she did call me on my final night in Tropea to tell me what a pity it was that we didn’t get together and that she hopes that the next time I come to Italy that we meet. I told her that I was sorry that it didn’t happen either, even though I wanted very much to meet her.
Layne and I scream with laughter trying to figure out what happened with what looked like a promising start to something, although I wasn’t quite sure what. But something more than what I ever have going on in the States. Maybe it was my lead pencils, my vacation hair, my strong deodorant or writing “ciao amore” that put the brakes on Paolo’s fast-moving train.
Let me explain in detail:
As you may recall Paolo, a single attorney with no kids and who I found out is 46, lives 120 kilometers from Tropea and came for a weekend to hang out with his brother and another friend, both of whom live in Rome. That’s when we met. Thanks to a mid-week holiday in Italy, Paolo returned to visit me a couple of days later.
Before he left his city he asked if he could stay overnight with me since it was a long drive back. I told him of course, but he had to sleep in the extra bedroom. He scoffed at this so I relented and told him he can sleep with me in my room but we are NOT having sex. Once he arrived, my self-control didn’t stop me from wearing a revealing baby-doll nightie with a thong to bed because hey, a girl’s gotta feel sexy even if she has no plans to give it up on the second date. Being that he’s a man, and Italian at that, of course he brought up sex when we were in bed. (We always spoke in Italian but I’ll write in English.)
“I don’t know you well enough,” I said as to my reason why he wasn’t getting any.
“How long do I have to wait?” he replied.
“How long do you usually wait?” I asked, knowing that he had dumped his girlfriend of 10 years just three weeks prior.
Anyway, the sex, or lack thereof, didn’t turn into an issue during his two-night stay. At least not then. Interestingly enough he brought it up after returning to his city. At his request, I emailed him photos of us and began the email “Ciao amore,” or “hello love.” He wrote me back and asked “how could I write ciao amore when nothing happened.” For Christ’s sake! I say “ciao amore” to cute Italian babies on the street who I don’t know. Was it really that big of a deal?
And we had gotten along swimmingly during the two days together. I was thrilled to discover how health conscious he is: he works out at a gym three times a week and jogs — and I’ve taken up running because of him; we both drink soy milk and abhor cigarettes. And he’s clean. When he returned from our morning run, he washed his workout clothes in the sink and hung them out to dry. This was huge because I consider him a mammone, an Italian mama’s boy who lives at home and relies on his mother to do everything for him. He does live at home but he explained that it’s in a palazzo with five apartments on the bottom. I can overlook this as it is not completely atypical in Italy. Plus he’s affectionate and thoughtful. We cuddled on the beach and when my iPod froze, he offered me half of his earphones so we could listen to his music while soaking up the rays.
We took in sunset from my terrace while drinking Martini Bianco, my favorite apertivo, he cooked dinner for me both nights, and when we walked Lucia at night we stopped for after dinner drinks.
In just two days my Italian improved exponentially because I took my dictionary and notepad everywhere, looked up words he used and jotted them down so I could remember them. I also looked up the word “rebound” and showed it to him as I figured he was on the rebound, which he denied since he was the one who called off the 10-year romance. During his visit, he called home to check in with his family and tell them how he cooked dinner for me. They were shocked because he NEVER cooks.
I talked to Paolo’s brother Dino (for the second time) as well as Dino’s girlfriend Gabriella. Everyone had seen my photos on my website and agreed that I was bella. Lucia was a little cautious of Paolo at first but she became his little buddy, curling up at his feet when he watched TV and staring at him as he shaved. We don’t get many men spending the night so this was an unusual activity for her.
When Paolo returned home, he told me his mother continued to ask when to expect me for dinner. I never received a formal invite and couldn’t take the train three hours and show up on my own. After he returned home, Paolo also repeatedly complained about the stress he was under at work and home but provided no details. While Skyping one day, he asked if I noticed how he didn’t sleep during his two-night stay with me. Sure I had, but I figured it was because of me.
My bed, which I had slept like a baby in until his arrival, squeaked with him in it. Every time he moved, it creaked. And he moved constantly because he hasn’t slept in a while. He periodically dozed off and when he did, he snored something fierce, which awakened me and pissed me off. So for two days I barely slept at night. (Earplugs don’t stay in my ears so are not an option.) Thankfully I slept fine on the beach and my ability to fall asleep anywhere on a moment’s notice became a running joke between us.
Because my bed, like most in Italy, was only a double, we slept VERY close. Okay, he wrapped his arms around me and our legs intertwined, if you need details. By the second night, he told me my legs were heavy. I pulled them away but stayed in his arms because when I rolled out of his grasp before, he asked if it was uncomfortable being in his arms. No, I like being in a headlock. No problem. Deal with my legs. Heavy, I thought to myself. My tooth pick legs? How can they be heavy? Now Layne and I jokingly call my legs the lead pencils.
During another point in the middle of the night Paolo told me my perfume was strong. I was 99% asleep and therefore very proud of myself when, without thinking I need to speak in Italian, I replied, “Non ho usato perfuma.” (I didn’t use perfume.) He then made a comment about my deodorant being strong. Yeah, I wear Secret, which is strong enough for a man but made for a woman. But it’s powder-fresh scented. Strong as it may be, my underarms still smell fresh. Dude, be glad I don’t come to bed smelling like a goat.
When Paolo initially called his mother to tell her about me, he told her that I am as tall as him and have curly hair. When he later checked out my website, he saw photos of me with longer, straight hair. He commented about the different hairstyle and said “piu bella,” telling me that I am more beautiful with long, straight hair. I replied that I agree but it’s shorter and curly now because this is my “vacation hair.” And I left it at that. I didn’t feel like explaining/couldn’t explain in Italian that I’m wearing a weave during this trip because I can’t deal with my natural hair while traveling for six weeks. I’d have to explain what happens to my natural hair when it gets wet, how I didn’t want to wear it in its natural state for six weeks because maintaining the spiral curls requires lugging around a lot of products, define a hot comb and pressing, tell him about my aversion to creamy crack relaxers, convince him that I really do have thick, shoulder-length hair like my website shows but it is braided for now and I have some Indian chick’s hair attached to the braids. This is complicated enough to explain to a non-Black person in English, let alone an Italian in Italian.
Paolo sometimes caressed my hair and I’m sure he had to feel the tracks. But he never said anything so I adhered to the military’s “Don’t ask, don’t tell” policy. Most black women who wear weaves impersonate a boxer by ducking and dodging when a man reaches for their hair. But not me. Go ahead, cowboy. Touch my weave. It’s not coming out and your hands aren’t going to get caught in the tracks. I am most positive Paolo never felt tracks before so he had no idea what he was feeling. Maybe he thought I had growths on my scalp and couldn’t bear to fall deeper in love with me and then lose me to some outlandish skin condition.
So it could have been the vacation hair, strong deodorant, lead pencils or “ciao amore” that kept me from meeting mama and prevented him from returning to visit me on the weekends, when I know he was free because we talked all the time. Maybe Paolo, whose is not without faults but is workable as no one is perfect, didn’t see the point of getting wrapped up in somebody who would soon depart (especially after breaking up with someone after 10 years) and doesn’t live in the moment enough like me to enjoy hanging out only for a few weeks. Although we stayed in contact daily through Skype and SMS while I was in Tropea, I was thrown for a loop when his mother got on Skype my final day.
So although I didn’t meet the mama, I return with fantastic memories of new experiences and having fallen in love – all over again with Italy. Baci!