Friday, March 25, 2011

Italy, Part II: "But then, I love you more!"

There are moments, like that on the train from Agrigento, that Italy overwhelms me, that I feel that it is too much for me, and I am too foreign for it. And then Italy creeps up on me - it surprises me, unbidden, not in its ruins (the Valley of Temples at Agrigento, the Ampitheatre at Taormina), but in its living things - its color and vibrancy. And then Italy is part of me, and I belong to it, and it will never leave me, and I can never leave it.


The day after my last entry, I took the train to Palermo, and there I walked through the narrow alleyways, the marketplaces. The shouting and the freshness of the fruit – ripe, big, bright things that belonged to a buzzing world of ripeness and brightness: not the withered broccoli and stony pears of England. The aubergines were purple and bulbous and phallic; the tomatoes were like red stones – the oranges dripped and all around me the cries of “novanta-cinqo” (for it was all in Sicilian dialect). The spices in bags and the smell all around me of things that not only lived but thrived, grew up to the sun, burst themselves open with juices and seeds and skins, proud to live, wanting to grow large!

But what struck me most was the fishmonger who grasped in his bare hands a collection of squids – soft and embryonic and venal – and let his grip linger as he flung them down upon the table. He was not disgusted, and I was not disgusted. It was life – pure life! - venal and squelching and dirty and wonderful. Handfuls of squid – the feeling of something slippery and wet and slimy! Or the half-flayed goats and sheep – how could I feel revulsion, when the corpses really meant life!

It meant real things – handfuls of squid and halves of goats and bright, hard tomatoes – it meant life. It meant knowing the shape of food which would soon become me (c.f. Cabasilas, I believe, who sees food as becoming the eater, except for the Eucharist, where we become the food), and entering into an honest communion with it – the life of the plucked fruit and the life of the slaughtered goat. (And, of course, the squid!)

And I felt alive! And for all my anger at Italy I know that I can never really leave it, really stop loving it, not when I am part of that buzzing, fly-covered life, part of the stray dogs and the burst tomatoes and the truck full of squacking chickens off Via Turkory, the Hebrew and Arabic lettering on Via Mesquite, part of a life so alien to my normal self-narrating neurosis. So alien, too, to my walk at Agrigento, where I stood at the feet of dead things and thought about my novel.
Valley of the Temples

So I am the thought-self, the thinking-self, the doing-self, the wanting-self, and the living-self! Not a bad conclusion, inconclusive thought it may be, for my terrible gaze into the sea. 

Cefalu was hard, I think - Taormina harder still, for I lost my panama hat in the rain among the orange trees. But I think my voyage to Sicily did provide me with what I was looking for, somewhere between my endless hours of reading (highlights: Romola especially, but also, The Deptford Trilogy, The Princess Casamassima, A Time of Gifts, Cities of the Plain, Zorba the Greek, and Monsieur, plus many Agatha Christies) and my journaling and my sunburn. It made me more of a person. I became Romola and Marcel, and in Palermo, I felt more alive, more in tune with my own selfhood, than I've felt in a while.

Not quite an alma mater, Italy, but a primordial earth-mother of some kind.

Friday, March 18, 2011

Italy: I hate you then I love you; I love you then I hate you

Disclaimer - I may say many nasty things about Italians in this essay. I am, in fact, Italian (non-English-speaking Norman-Sicilian father living in Orvieto; grew up in Rome; Italian was my first language). The following should be taken as an expression, therefore, of exasperated love, rather than xenophobia.


If two men, traveling together and chatting amicably, enter an EMPTY train-carriage, in which ONE girl is sitting quietly, reading, in a 4-person-section, they have a few options...

a) Sit in an unoccupied 4-seat section on the other side of the compartment, and talk easily and quietly among themselves (most considerate).
b) Sit in an unoccupied 4-seat section across the aisle from Girl, whereupon Girl would be only mildly annoyed at overhearing their conversation. (considerate)
c) Sit in two of the three unoccupied seats in Girl's section, which would be intrusive, given that the rest of the compartment was empty, and speak quietly. (a bit inconsiderate, but forgiveable)

But NO! This is ITALY! Therefore, the only conceivable option MUST be

d) have one man sit in Girl's section, have the OTHER man sit ACROSS THE AISLE in a COMPLETELY EMPTY SECTION, and thus SPEND THE ENTIRE JOURNEY SCREAMING AT EACH OTHER ACROSS THE BLOODY AISLE!

I was Girl, in case you were wondering.
Don't mind me! I'm just trying to enjoy the scenery.

Every time I go back to Italy (twice a year, more or less), I have a rather uniform set of reactions. I begin by feeling that at last I have come, returned to my ancestral home, immersed myself in the beauty and poetry of Classical Rome, orange groves, olive trees, and the unparalleled perfection of cicoria in padella. I learn to appreciate my feminine beauty. I let my hair grow long and curly and turn my face up to the sun in piazettas. This lasts about two days.

This is shortly thereafter followed by the realization that I CANNOT STAND ITALIANS, and that in NO WAY am I suited to Italian culture, and that I can NEVER COME TO ITALY AGAIN. I've worked for six weeks in Liguria; I've lived for years in Rome; I've spent many summers in Ischia. And the result is always the same uncanny disconnect - this place, in which I was raised, into which I was born, is entirely antithetical to several fundamental aspects of my existence. (Even as various Italianate qualities make me completely incapable of living outside Italy, alas!)
The Horror! The Horror!

It was only during this latest excurse to Sicily that I put my finger on it:

The culture of "la bella figura" - the Italian idea that every action and every moment and every turn of the head must be beautiful and graceful (to which I subscribe), leads collectively into a culture in which everybody is simultaneously actor and objet d'art.

 Marvelous as this sounds in theory, in practice it means that I am always visible - as an objet d'art, I exist explicitly for public consumption. Therefore, it is perfectly acceptable for Italian girls to publicly point, stare, and laugh at me for my "foreign" dress sense, old women to loudly comment on the unsuitablity of my shoes, and young men to follow me in their cars, insisting that I speak to them.

I am not a self-for-myself, in Italy. I am a self-for-others, condemned to playing out my Art-Muse-Virgin-Whore-Mother role by being beautiful, graceful, and charming, whether or not I particularly feel like it.

This plays itself out, too, in drastically difficult understanding of privacy (an old boss of mine in Liguria couldn't understand why I didn't WANT to "befriend" my pupils outside of lessons, even as I felt that she was expecting me to "work" well beyond the agreed-upon hours. Likewise, I've had to hide from flatmates in Rome in order to avoid being forced to eat with them because they had decided I didn't eat enough that day - my body, their business!).

I - well and beyond even my Very English Gentleman - like clearly delineated social situations. Public/private. My time/your time. Alone/with others. My space/your space.

This dichotomy does not exist in Italy. All time is public time. All space is public space. At no point am I allowed to be invisible or for-myself; I am expected to, by virtue of being female, young, and reasonably attractive, share myself with others. My body is your property - feel free to comment on my footwear, fashion, or fitness as appropriate! My room is your property - come in uninvited and refuse to let me read in peace! My time is your property - be as late as you like upon making an appointment with me, especially if I've inconvenienced myself in order to be on time!
This is me, in Italy. Except
sans penis.

When I was growing up in Ischia in the summers, my Italian friends and I used to wander the town together, like a pack of feral dogs, aimlessly drifting from one street to the next in an endless passiagata. I always hated the "aimless wandering" form of social intercourse - still find it hard when expected to do so with Italian friends - and yet it's so tied into Italian notions of space and time. What could be more Italian than avoiding the pub/work, home/bar dichotomy by turning a public street into "social space," time into indefinite "social time," such that everyone in it - whether an innocent passerby or a tagalong half-breed like me - gets dragged into the unbearably, endless process existing-for-others?

That's not me. I love beauty and piazzas and sun and ruins. I love existing as an objet d'art. I find the lack of immediate sensuality and un-examined selfhood (as opposed to Anglo neuroses), to be lacking outside of Italy. But the difference is that, outside of Italy, it is my choice to behave in a "visible, artistic" matter (blogging, for example, or indeed any form of writing). In Italy, I feel as if that choice, that sense of autonomy and self-hood has been taken away from me.

Up Side: Exhibit A
The positive side of this, I suppose, is that I get to be a "self" in a different way. In existing in the Italian fashion, in-myself and for-others, I don't exist for-myself, constantly narrating my own life story, verbalizing and intuiting my own experience. Self-overhearing is so completely foreign to Italy: I can't imagine an Italian "Hamlet." One just is, one is one's body and senses and experiences. And that, I suppose, is refreshing, especially for a neurotic like me. For all my complaints, I do love sitting by the sea, editing the latest draft of my novel, eating pasta with sardines and simply experiencing sunlight without having to fit it into the novel of "the girl who reads/eats/experiences sunlight."

But is it worth the cost of losing myself in the process? In good news, it looks like I'll be at Oxford another year for a master's, so my brief flirtation with the idea of doing graduate work at the Pontifical Oriental Institute in Rome is out, so I'll won't have to contend with my Italian shadow-self.

(I suppose this explains why, unlike many TLGers/expats here, I haven't found Georgia to be difficult/a culture shock at all! Compared with Italy, it's practically Scandinavian! Except for heavily-Austrian-influenced Trieste, which is wonderful, in part because people leave me alone there!)

In "The Rebel Angels," Robertson Davies writes of Maria Theotoky, a half-Gypsy medievalist whose academic selfhood is constantly threatened by her Gypsy past. She discovers that she needs both the root and the crown. Can I come to terms with my roots?


Sunday, March 13, 2011

Cefalu and The Eternal Dichotomy

Thalatta, thalatta
The thesis is handed in, tutorials have ceased, and I've run off to Sicily (land of my ancestors, who unfortunately were not Byzantines but Normans, although my great-great-grandfather was an acceptable sort) to attempt to sort out my life, which is as-yet-unsorted until I hear back about grad school applications, funding, etc. I found a bed and breakfast overlooking the sea, which whipped wine-dark all night during a storm, and am attempting a week of meditative retreat, extensive journaling, and sorting out the problematic dichotomy that seems to have unwittingly conquered my self-perception.

I was once told by a rather drunk and venal potential-romantic-interest that I was "Manichean" - that I saw things in terrible, stark binary. Incorrect in context, as it turned out (though he prided himself on uniting the body and soul in a profoundly Whitman-American way I do admire. If I moved back to America I'd ride horses and spend nights under the stars.). But right in theory. I do divide things into cliches (even if I like to soften the blow by calling them "archetypes"). West/East, academia/bohemia, Catholic/Protestant, Hebraic/Classical, Europe/America, Old World/New Word. I'm in love with images and ideas: my favorite writers, like Lawrence Durrell, are the ones who evoke: they can write of "Circassians" or "scented marketplaces" or "Arabian deserts" or chateaux in Avignon and have the very images carry something over to me.
Just saying the WORDS Arab-Norman-Byzantine excite me - c.f., the Cefalu Duomo.

The problem, of course, is that this turns quickly from evocation into Homeric epithet ("wine-dark sea"; "grey-eyed Athena"; "clever Odysseus" .... "sun-dappled Sicily", "melancholy Vienna", "wild Caucasus") and from epithet into cliche. ("Georgia, a blend of East and West, a melting pot of cultures...." I've done web travel writing to pay the rent in time gone by, and there's been a lot of [insert country here] is a fascinating mix of old and new, with charming [ruins/temples/churches/casbahs] standing alongside vibrant [cafes/galleries/performance art installations]. And I know, I know, my weakness is falling in love with novel-worthy images and ideals, and casting myself as the heroine in my Many Great adventures.

The Professorial Personage's Demesne
The problem is that these tendencies mean that I've got two completely incompatible novels of myself in my head. There's the Novel of England, which involves me getting my D.Phil, fussing over manuscripts, trudging around Oxford in musty skirts, getting my boots muddy in the canal, writing theological tomes (ideally promoting the cause of Christian feminism combined with esoteric studies of minor obscure Eastern Christian texts), drinking tea, and snuggling under quilts. This Professorial Personage is intellectual; she is cerebral. She probably wears glasses and looks down her nose at you for not knowing the proper application of a dagesh forte. Easy evocative images here - West, Gothic, Old Norse, stone, ice, winter, establishment, country house parties.(To compound the dichotomy, Very English Boyfriend is, in fact, an Oxford-educated Old English and Norse scholar who loves Jane Austen. Although he's a Catholic, which is messy.) Cliche One, enacted for six months of the year.

The Bohemian Novelist probably lives here -
when she's not sleeping under the stars or on the road.
Then there's the Novel of the East (yes, I know, Edward Said is turning up his nose). The Bohemian Novelist who poses in garrets for Parisian artists, serves as a dark-eyed muse for pianists in Vienna, dresses in Bedouin garb, and writes novels while trekking from Syria to Egypt. This is my life in Georgia, to some extent (or at least I pretend to myself that it is) - melancholy wanderings in Sololaki and long tea-breaks at the bathhouse, although Georgia is frustrating precisely because I can't put it nearly into my mental dichotomy or ascribe to it Homeric epithets. Images: Classical poetry, the Mediterranean, carpets, terracotta, whitewashed houses. Cliche Two.

So, with everything hanging in the balance, I've got decide what on earth I'm going to do with my life (keep this precarious Georgia-England balance? Leave it all behind and go to Rome? Decide to stay in Damascus halfway through my summer tour? If I don't get Oxford funding, who knows? It may be Damascus after all, - or else I'm bound to ghostwriting quite a few romance novels at 3 am*

The problem, of course, is that I can't be a cliche. I can't have my tomes-and-tea or my scrolls-and-sands: at least not in the unadulterated way I read about in novels. (Both of my Cliches also assume it's 1935). I've got to integrate these various sides of myself - to find a way to be both professorial and bohemian, Gothic and Mediterranean. I suppose Byzantium fills that hole for me - it's musty and ancient and irrelevant, but it's also mosaiced and gold-haloed and evocative.As does Georgia, although Georgia I'm still figuring out.

So fitting, I suppose. I come to the land of my ance stors literal  (there's a village that bears my father's last name right down the coast!) and figurative (mess of Norman-Byzantine-Arab-Italian that makes up my day to day life) to try to accomplish something like integrated selfhood. A self that isn't just "the one who" goes to Jordan or "the one who" does a D.Phil in Byzantine theology, but is something more, something that is a self beyond its attributes.

(And this is where my Christian Trinitarianism comes in, and I do think Zizioulas has something interesting theological to say on the matter of selfhood.)

And yes, this is very much a First World Problem. But this week - the first week I've had without either schoolwork or (much) ghostwriting work in a very long time - ought to be a start on sorting it.

Future Sicilian travel plans (and posts-to-come): Taormina, Castelbuono, Agrigento, Palermo/Monreale.

*How I pay my rent/tuition/travel costs. Really, I swear. But I can't tell you which ones. Then they'd fire and sue me and I'd have no more money to go to Cefalu!

Friday, March 4, 2011

The Pilgrimage!

The Hegel thesis is a few days away from submission, finals are approaching, postgraduate applications are pending, and looming over me is the promise of three, glorious free months.

...during which I will sleep in Bedouin caves, ascend the monasteries of Meteora, and write novels in the caves of Cappadocia! The arrangements have been made, and I plan to spend the first seven weeks of summer (along with a combination of surplus savings, graduation gifts, and birthday/Christmas presents) on a solo tour through the Middle East and the Balkans.

My itinerary looks something like this:
Late June: Leave Tbilisi for Batumi; at Batumi change for Trabzon, Turkey. Spend a day or two pretending that I am in the ancient kingdom of Trebizond before embarking on a nearly 24-hour bus ride to Antakya, former Antioch (!), from which I will catch a bus to...
First Week of July: Syria (visa permitting), where I'll indulge in my Orientalist tendencies by wandering through Aleppo, Palmyra, and Damascus. I shall also wag my finger at the Crusaders at the Krak as a means of preserving the honor of the Comneni and Byzantium! I haven't forgotten 1204, you scoundrels! (1453, eh, I'm not bitter. No hard feelings, Seljuks! But the FRANKS, on the other hand...)
Second Week of July: Jordan, where I shall sleep alongside the Bedouins in Wadi Rum, wear a panama hat, ride a camel, and pretend to be T.E. Lawrence.

Third Week of July: NOT ISRAEL. That's right, Syrian authorities, if you see this before giving me my visa, I have no intention at all of going from Aqaba to Eilat and Jerusalem! None! I'll be taking the boat from Aqaba, and NOT the bus from Jerusalem, to the Egyptian border at...
Totally NOT GOING HERE!

Fourth Week of July: Taba, from which I head to Dahab before landing in Cairo. From Cairo to Luxor and back, until on the 30th, I make my way to Alexandria (which I have convinced myself is still a place of languorous doe-eyed women called Justine) to take the morrow's ferry to...
Early August: Venice! As I am poor, and cannot afford Venice, I'll take the train onwards to my favorite haunt, and former home of my namesake Sir Richard Burton, Trieste, before bussing to Split.

Somewhat more luxurious than a Bedouin tent

 A few days in Hvar and Dubrovnik, then a mad dash down through Montenegro and Albania before catching the ferry from Saranda, Albania, to...

Orthodox monasteries! 
Second Week August: Corfu, Greece. Eventually I will reach the mainland, and from Athens I will make my way to Delphi, Meteora, and Thessaloniki, bussing back to...

Kas, Turkey





Third Week August: Istanbul, where if all goes well I shall rendez-vous with my Very English Gentleman by the Hagia Sophia before washing off my Lawrentian (T.E., not D.H.) grime with a few days by the beach at Kas with the V.E.G. Then onwards to find the Cappadocian fathers at Goreme and back to Tbilisi, via Trabzon. Ideally, I shall kidnap the V.E.G. and keep him in Georgia until October, with side-excursions to Armenia and Svaneti.

I'm afraid I'll have missed one of the Pentarchy (having been to Antioch, NOT!Jerusalem, Constantinople, and Alexandria - four of the five great Sees of Christianity), but given that I've grown up in Rome, I feel rather comfortable sitting the See out this time 'round.

So, gentle and brutish readers, will this tiny, twenty-something blonde girl return triumphant from her intrepid adventures, newly-written novels in hand and skin browned with the blazing sun of adventures! Or will she crawl into a hole somewhere near the Der Mar Musa monastery and rot from dysentery/get kidnapped and sold into slavery/fall into the Grand Canal (the latter is most likely, especially if I am wearing heels)?

Help me avoid dysentery, abductions and Venetian water-beetles! Suggest itineraries, locations, travel tips, or - ideally - the home of your hospitable Israeli/Syrian/Jordanian/Albanian/Greek/Egyptian friends, who would be oh-so-glad to host a wandering novelist with grand presumptions of pilgrimage?

Thursday, March 3, 2011

Across the River: Phenomenal Views and Faux-English Tea Houses

I have my haunts. If I'm not in or around Abanotubani, I like to wander through the back streets of Sololaki or up in the crisp mountain passages of Mtatsminda. I take my shortcuts into town through the gardens and crumbling churches of Betelmi, or else I head down Shavteli into the centre of town. Prospero's Bookstore, the Academy of Sciences, and the Opera House represent "the end of town" to me, and Vera, Vake, and Saburtalo are visited on rare occasion when I'm meeting friends in the area.

Full disclosure: I don't particularly like Vake or Saburtalo. I will go to particular restaurants or cafes IN Vake or Saburtalo, on occasion, but I find the chain stores and modern apartment blocks to be a perfect waste of a melancholy-historic-poetic city.

But it's still rare for me to cross the Mtkvari river. There's little there by way of tangible destinations, with the exception of the Sameba Cathedral, the National Music Centre, and the Cafe Flowers, where I am willing to risk regular food poisoning in order to experience this view:

Definitely worth food poisoning.

But, by and large, I tend to avoid crossing the river, which is a great shame. When it comes to long, aimless walks, stretches of Avlabari are some of the most beautiful in Tbilisi* (I once wandered into what appeared to be a pine forest about five minutes from the river, and still for the life of me can't figure out how I got there!) The walk up to Trinity Cathedral is among my favored Saturday-morning activities, and it's a wonderful mechanism for head-clearing and pretending that I'm Exploring Somewhere Remote without running into Ray-Ban stores or Geocell shops.



*Erm, usually: 

I don't often go to the David Agmashenebeli/Marjanishvili area (I avoid McDonalds on principle) - I don't mind it, particularly, but since I do nothing all day but read books and write novels/thesis, I might as well do said nothing in scenic spots.

That said, I had a very curious experience with the English Tea House on Marjanishvili Street. As a sometime-Englishwoman, I have a very precise idea of what an English tea house is. (Beamed ceilings, cramped quarters, heavy wooden tables, a roaring fire, sticky toffee pudding, a panting pub dog, G.K Chesterton smoking a pipe in the corner). This is precisely what the English Tea House isn't. Other than serving Whittard's tea, the English Tea House is, basically, the Anti-England. If it resembles anything English, it's that sort of horrendous "trendy" London chrome-and-glass, cheap-looking "business luxe" hotel my Very English Boyfriend is prone to bemoaning in the same breath as the Blair government and London transport.

It's enormous, drafty, sleek, cold, impersonal, and generally horrid:
Do YOU see a pub dog anywhere?
...and yet, somehow, I love it! I love the rubbishy Whittard's tea, the un-English dessert menu, the uncomfortable chairs! I love curling up with my Agatha Christie novels, ordering an overpriced cup of Earl Gray, and marveling at the hilarious non-Englishness of it all. (That this correlates with an increased self-identification as English is perhaps coincidental).

But I need more reasons to cross the river, friendslist! Send suggestions in my direction!