Wednesday, May 14, 2014

On Waking Up Italian

It’s different from waking up American, which is what I do inevitably when I travel. 
               But this time is different.  This time I’m living in another country, if even for a short, two months’ space.  And there is an adjustment in the psyche when you come to stay, instead of passing through.
               The schedule of the tourist is marked with high spots—hotel accommodations, notable (even dramatic) sights and sites that dominate your days in a place.  When you live there, you can notice a gradual shift in your attentions, until you are waking up in the rhythm of the place (in my case “waking up Italian”, even though I know I am not, will never be Italian).
               Those who know me, know I am a notoriously early riser, and right before sunrise, outside the window of our flat, a flurry of nightingale song lifts us toward wakefulness.  In the past, my European students (and Australian students, for that matter) have admitted to missing the sound, and it takes the actual hearing of it to understand their nostalgia.  Italians, it seems, do not rise so early, and it's odd to think most of them sleep through such elation.  On the other hand, garbage collection takes place (at least here in Aosta, at least in our neighborhood) between 11 and midnight, jostling us awake after new sleep.  Maybe you gain and lose in every daily transaction, so the disruption at the end of a day is richly compensated by the beginning of the next, the only problem being that sleep is lost at both ends of the transaction.
               But I don't miss the sleep at all.  In the hours following sunrise—what I have always considered “my time of the morning”—the streets of a town such as Aosta are pretty much left to the early riser.  Only a few shops are open, the traffic in the “pedestrian area” of the town is sparse and quiet.  It feels as though you have walked back three or four centuries.  The cobbled streets are narrow, and the muted yellows, oranges, and pinks of the buildings—particular hues I am sure you only find in Italy—brighten in the sunlight that here, at the edge of the Alps, is a disarming and unalloyed white, and by 8:00 or so, the walls shimmer and the colors waken into morning. It is, in short, a landscape a long breath away from the modern and still fully Italian.  
          Which means, among many things, that there is something unmistakably Italian beneath the technology, the mechanization, the years, that persists at the most quiet time of day in a kind of serene and expectant dignity.
And dignity, too, in the obituary posters at the gates of the churches—one of the first things you notice on a walk through an Italian town.  Here the notices of death are posted for a smaller, more intimate community—those in a church parish, those who might bask on a town square in the early afternoon when the rarefied sun intensifies and the shadows slide from one side of the streets to the other.  Death notices, the people invariably up in years, recording their passing in an old-school way that might be otherwise lost in the newspapers more central to our tradition, where the news of death is more impersonal, where it vanishes more quickly. 
Because an old vanished time is still apparent on the streets of Aosta before the day’s rush covers it.  Beneath a very modern Italy there is indeed a core, an essence, an ancient country whose rhythms still surface in the daily life of the people, from the aggressive, brilliant music of their language (which I do not know) to the smell of the bakeries, both of which are rising from the shops and side streets as I write this.  Somewhere among and above the images of the dead the city is awakening, moving slowly toward a resemblance to the American cities I know.  I begin to wonder if there is a kind of place out of time in the America I know, or whether we are too young a country or too overloaded a people to have developed that place and time to begin with.
The faint, tart whiff of cigarette smoke commingles with the aroma of bread and dark, magnificently strong coffee, until all kinds of enticements settle in the bright Italian air, the coffee the only temptation I will not resist, as the city and I awaken together.    ©2014 Michael Williams

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