I spent the last three weeks in Italy through GTL, and the two before that in Santa Fe. In Santa Fe I slept on a beautiful couch carved out of wood, and I woke up every morning to the voices of my family and the smell and sizzling of hot breakfast, and coffee made for me as consolation for the early waking. There was a snowstorm. There was the walk up Canyon Road on Christmas Eve, with the farolitos and the music and everyone in hats and my cousins and my brother and my sisters and my best friend Shasta. My sister’s Bolivian mother-in-law taught me how to make batido, dark beer made richer with beaten eggs, and my uncle taught me how to start a jar of lacto-fermented sauerkraut.
In Italy, in an overcast industrial town in the north, I taught debate to high schoolers ranging in age from sixteen to nineteen, with English vocabularies ranging from from “4:20,” (end stop) to “The last sentence of Dostoevsky’s White Nights was especially powerful—“ (commence enthusiastic discussion). I miss them. Teaching as difficult as I expected, and high school is high school even in Italy (which means I had a hard time getting myself to go every day) but in the end I wished I had another week, just for the students. I stayed with the family of one of my students, and they were warm and welcoming and generous (especially with helpings of pasta). I loved the affection in the family: the thirteen-year-old boy stroking his father’s beard, tapping his mother on the head, everyone always giving kisses on the cheek. I came home every day for lunch with the family, napped, ran, read, and prepared the lessons for the next day. Some days the routine varied, and on weekends I went places, but for the most part I stuck to the routine. Rituals ground me away from home. One day my knees were hurting, so I didn’t run, but I walked along the same path by the river and sat and watched things. This is what I wrote:
Journal, evening, Tuesday, January 26
It is spring already, it is decided, the ground is damp & springy and the air smells like water and moss. It’s January so this is strange but in the short-term, this minute, I am glad because I can sit here without gloves and write. and the melted half of the water’s surface ripples gently but insistently and reflects the trees. The silver frozen skin covering the other half of the water reflects nothing, only shows its own changing texture.
Why do I feel called to write about where I am from? Why did Joan Didion, why does anyone? Because we want to write about ourselves? We wants to trace our paths and mark our origins to show why we are the way we are, and to convince ourselves and everyone that—a nutria or something like it, maybe a rat the size of a cat, crawls out of the water and fluffs up its breast with its paws, and at the same time a paler rat-size rat darts up the bank—that we could not be anyone else, that because we come from a place and follow ourselves out we, as we are, are inevitable. That we exist and it could not be but so. But really it is very close to not being so, we sense—and now there are four of these animals, suddenly, and a small brown bat dropping and catching herseld over and over and, and the wind blows audibly over the water and even the ice ripples. A soft crushing sound, then the wind stops and there is only the water lapping the edge of the ice, and two of the nutria nibble at grass and one stares into his paws. The bat drops again and every time I catch my breath because she falls so sharp & sudden, like a bird shot out of the air—but her wings beat like a butterfly’s and she ascends
I count four of the cat-size rats. Five plastic bags in spitting distance and twelve cigarette butts at my feet. One dog, little and orange, who chases the rats/nutria back into the water. One, two paddling, noses and whiskers in the air, two lurking like brown-furred hippopotamuses. Two old men talking and walking, now passed.
All the cars on the highways and the trucks stacked full of ceramic tiles and the wind on the water again. The sound of
and the writing ends because I used the next page and a half to draw the scene. In black ink, the tall reeds and dark bare trees and the nutria swimming. They were in fact nutria. I was surprised to confirm this because nutria are native to the Western hemisphere, but they were brought to Europe to be farmed for fur, and when the furs went out of style the nutria were let go. Now they live wild all through the river. “It is a real problem,” the English teacher said, because they have no natural predators there.
My mood varied with the time of day and the weather and the sleep I had gotten. Some days teaching was easy, and I came home and slept and ran and had a warm meal and sat with the family, learning Italian words for table settings. Some days teaching was hard and I came home worn out and had to read myself better. Some days (the first days) I let the structure of the day consume me, expanding every ritual (tooth-brushing, bed-making, hair-braiding, arranging things) to fill time and to fill my head and fill the space made by distance from my family. Some days (the later days) I wished I could bring students back to Cambridge. My first weekend there, after landing, I stayed in Bologna a few days. The second weekend I went to Milan. The third Saturday, yesterday, I visited Verona with my host sister and her girlfriend. All the cities were beautiful, with ancient and medieval buildings like I’ve only seen in pictures (but in so many pictures). Everywhere there were people who were more generous than they needed to be. Now, on this airplane with ink-stains all over my hands and chapped lips and no deodorant, I am dying to be in Cambridge again, but Friday night, after tigelle (fifty tiny sandwiches spread with pig fat and sprinkled with parmesan, or spread with hot pepper jam and topped with pecorino) with three of the teachers from the school, I said (and meant) that I wished I had another week. Only because of the students. There were wonderful people and I probably won’t see them again. Traveling is like this: a three-part combination of discomfort, homesickness, and beautiful memories and friends newly made. Sights and relationships can be recalled but never relived. I am grateful to the students, the teachers, and the family who welcomed me and fed me and made living there easy. Every day I came home to warm, rich food—pasta carbonara, pasta al forno, sugo di noci, panele—and said buonanotte to a glowing kitchen full of glowing faces, a glowing fire in the wood stove.
My favorite meal eaten in that house, recipe given by the mother and translated by the daughter, as recorded in my notebook on the night we ate it:
olive oil & garlic in pan
cut chicken in small pieces
cook for 5-10 minutes
add pancetta, artichoke, olives, sun-dried tomatoes, white wine
The books I read:
Slouching Towards Bethlehem (Joan Didion)
Where I Was From (Joan Didion)
Blue Highways (William Least-Heat Moon)
Against Interpretation & Other Essays (Susan Sontag)
Undoing Border Imperialism (Harsha Walia)
The Best American Poetry 2015
What I taught:
how to argue kindly, how to detect and avoid logical fallacies, how James Baldwin crushed William Buckley in a debate in 1965 (below).
On my last day, the students organized lunch at a Japanese restaurant. There were twenty or thirty of them at a long table, and I wanted to sit next to everyone. Afterwards, eight or so of us went for coffee. I wrote down a list of my favorite rappers for R. who listens to American rap and acts like all the crazy boys I loved in high school because they made me laugh. I wrote down a list of books and essays for M., who reads Joan Didion and all kinds of philosophy and gushes analysis and reflection like a waterfall, even in English. I sat across from G., who is almost my age and so not in any of the classes I taught but who wanted to become my friend anyway, and did.
Now I am back in Cambridge. It is the morning of the first day of classes, and I have been awake since four a.m. (jet-lagged). I have been peeling back the curtains, checking for signs of light, and finally there is some light. Time for breakfast.