Italy reeks of love in its dirtiest places.
The decrepit autostazione in Milan is sufficiently reminiscent of Greyhound to feel strangely homey: molding brick building under wet-orange sky, shuttered business counters, two broken payphones, five different men from five different ethnic backgrounds aggressively eyeballing me all at once beside the unabashedly romantic spray paint on the wall:
EMI TI AMO
PER FAVORE CHIAMAMI 39666-6666
A tall gentleman in a basketball jersey sucks his teeth at me and fingers the crotch of his acid-washed jeans. I sit on my pack, toying around with my trusty invisible prison shiv until someone else’s father pulls up in a family-sized hybrid. An athletic young girl bursts out screaming, “JESSI?”
My ride’s here. Sorry fellas.
VALERIA IS EIGHTEEN and she’s 100% ready to marry her boyfriend. They are fiercely in love, fighting every ten seconds and sucking face every twelve. He grabs her gullet with his hand and squishes her lips together when he kisses her; I’d rip a nut off a dude if he ever did that to me but it’s somehow aggressively romantic in a way that could only ever make sense in Italy. I’m staying with Valeria’s family for two weeks. Her mother Viviana cooks every meal for us all and if I try and help out in the kitchen she gives me an affronted look and chases me out, “Certo che no!”. The results are similar if I attempt to pay for anything or, for that matter, refuse food to any degree. This is the only time I feel at risk of being physically harmed.
Vale tells me her parents are prolonging their unhappy marriage for the sake of their children (who, like my brother and I years ago, strongly oppose this decision.) Vale takes Prozac and is recovering from anorexia, although she’s bulimic now, and her younger sister suffers from obsessive compulsive disorder, so the two girls combined are basically a whole me. After divulging this information, Vale hugs me and tells me she loves me. I feel pretty strongly that she is the real reason I’m here.
Saturday 13 June
Went out in Pavia tonight with Valeria and her friend Erika (also eighteen), had a fancy Pacino cocktail at a fancy bar stocked with fancy booze and got bored listening to loosely-translated high school drama for the better part of three hours. Worth it when Vale dragged me over to a circle of her boyfriend’s hoodrat buddies as they fervently freestyle rap battled in a narrow alleyway, enthusiastic neighbors cheering from the balconies above. The city is beautiful, not too touristy, all cobblestones and golden-burning lamps, the smell of hot pizza and waffle cones and sweet chestnut trees in the muggy air. Italy is a magical place. Almost all the graffiti I’ve seen is some sort of romantic declaration — one notable anonymous vagrant even devoted an entire pillar on the Ponte Veccia to a four-stanza poem about losing his wife. I admit, I’m probably once again experiencing The France Effect – the one where you leave France and everyone’s nice all of a sudden and the world is shiny and bright and new, nobody rolling their eyes at you and saying “Mais NON, evidemment, c’est pas possible–“ even though all you want to do is buy A MOTHER FUCKING STAMP
I could stay here.
(Side note: mosquitoes notably aggressive.)
Tuesday 16 June
There’s a thunderstorm today but little rain, the kind of thing that could take down a forest back in Oregon. Exhausted, running on 6 cumulative sleep hours in 60 hours total due to mosquito hunting and general insomnia. The (incessantly overbearing) director of our program looks like a shrunken head with a body still attached and she haunts my dreams, which doesn’t help. Woke up today thinking that I was back in the bar in Lyon and had fallen asleep at work, which is not altogether unreasonable. Head pounding, but have yet to slay any youths. Received one love note, more hugs than the rest of my life combined and probably Hepatitis B from high-fiving so many nose-picking buttcrack-excavating little gremlin-people. The young ones are fucking adorable. The old ones, meh. Two of them are chubby little fuckboys, a head taller than the others. Hobbies: screaming, humping myself and the other children, hiding under tables during lessons. I gave one of them the most epic punishment today – private one-on-one in the classroom with me while everyone else played outside. Instead of bashing his fat little fuckboy face in, I explained some prepositions, smiled, looked him in the eyes, was the absolute best tutor I know how to be. The worst kids deserve a chance, they’re like that for a reason. That is more likely an excerpt from a teacher’s self-help forum than my own original thought, but either way — this kid better have a fucking reason. Seriously. Somebody somewhere better be beating him.
Last night Valeria and I rode around Pavia on her family’s little Vespa. We went for pizza in the city center by the Duomo, and later got gelato with Stephano’s boisterous plump sister in his “bro’s” gelateria. Stephano tells me enthusiastically that Detroit is the best city in the world and wants to know if it really contains black people. His “bro”, the owner, looks like the type that would leave a severed animal head between your sheets if you crossed his clan or engaged in consensual intercourse with his daughter: fifty-something, gold chain around a thick brown neck and greasy crumpled eyelids, expertly slapping gelato onto cones with the finesse and determination of a man who’s highly trained in pistolwhipping. Though I can comprehend a fair amount of Italian I was rapidly fading from my one hour of sleep the night prior, so the evening blurred out into a delusory stream of white-green light and milk cream and Valeria’s strained, amorous laughter. Stephano’s sister speaks decent Inglese, she worked at Epcott for a year in 2004, and told me a hilarious bunch of rapid-fire stories, namely one about her endemic struggle to “hold a fart during scary events”.
Saturday 20 June
Milano has fashion in it. I don’t get high fashion. I think it’s a cult and that its followers are a bunch of witless swaggery capitalist sheep-drones.
This city is more sterile than the Italy I’ve become accustomed to. The Duomo is the most fantastic church/building I’ve ever seen, though it looms out strangely from the city like an ancient twisted wizard’s island from a featureless sea. Antiquity, evidently, was washed from Milan years ago when it went out of fashion. Perhaps now it’s coming back. Too bad architecture isn’t like high fashion, you can’t just fish back the charm of an ancient villa like you can bring back bellbottom jeans. CAN YOU, GIORGIO ARMANI? YOU SICK CHEAP FUCK.
(Note: the mosquitoes are black with white stripes and iron rods that pierce through denim. Repellent has no effect and they can hang on while prey is running away. Have counted over 90 bites. Melanie says they go for the legs as gravity sucks all the blood down there.)
Monday 22 June
I’ve been moved to a new family. At first I wasn’t too happy to change over, feeling pried away from my perfect dysfunctional unit (I felt uncomfortable at all the right times, yet loved enough to make up for it — just like home!) But this new family… they are so happy, genuinely a happy family. I don’t think I’ve ever seen one in person before. Fabrizio fondly refers to his two daughters as his “little shits”. He tells me about the trackmarks in the ditches of his arms, remnants of the junkie life he left behind when he decided to settle down. Having loved an addict for over a year, Fabri’s stories haunt me in a profoundly saddened way. I find myself swallowing and blinking too much, listening to Patricia talk about making her husband turn back in the morning on his way to work if she’s forgotten to kiss him. Blow-drying Sara’s hair, helping her with math problems. Marta texting (she’s 14 and refuses to speak English to me) but with a grinning family selfie as her WhatsApp background. They break my heart in two.
(Mosquito update: Bite count past 120. Have bandaged up a select few, thought Patricia might barf when she glimpsed that one on the back of my calf)
Tuesday 23 June
Italy is killing me. I like it a lot, but this is the least healthy I have ever been. Exhausted, craving sugar, won’t do planks. When I tried to reason about portion sizes (“I’m American, I can’t eat this much real food!”) Fabri said tomorrow they will give me one tomato and one apple to eat. Probably an improvement from the literal bucket of pasta a day I’m being shoveled (not that I’m complaining.) Nobody even lets their kids walk to school, which would be a 3-4 minute journey, maybe 8 if they’re rolling horizontally. My awe is profound. Each of these people consumes enough carbs a day to feed a small village, yet you could fit two of them inside of me. If I ate one Italian in a day, I would likely be consuming fewer calories than I am currently being fed by Italians.
Wednesday 24 June
You wouldn’t guess where I got bit by a mosquito last night.
Thursday 25 June
A CIRCLE OF ITALIAN PARENTS DISCUSSING GENITALIA
Pattatina: “friends of bird”
Fabrizio explains the process of seduction: “A bird fly in the world and meet a potato…”
Pattatina: literally potatoes, child appropriate
Pussy (English): Italian mothers believe this to be child appropriate (“sounds so cute!”)
Da hole: Fabrizio believes this to be the superior option, appropriate for all ages
I have decided that my future estate shall henceforth be titled Pattatina Palazzio… or just Da Hole. Not sure. If the actual look and value of my future estate is to be taken into consideration, Da Hole is certainly more appropriate.
Saturday 27 June
Just booked a dirt-cheap flight to Copenhagen. Remember that ticket to Roskilde Festival?
Patricia is evidently not the last-minute type. Her immediate response was to ask, “What are you doing with your life? What are you running away from?” Well, Patricia, thank you for asking. I would say that for the moment I am traveling the world and rocking the fuck on. I am running away from my dysfunctional childhood-induced pathologies and my fear of commitment to the real world. Just kidding, I can’t say that in Italian.
Fabrizio wrote me a card that says, “WE CONTROL YOU EVERYWHERE.” He handed it to me and said “Remember, don’t make the gay with the ass of the other.”
Fabrizio gets it.
Monday 29 June
Spent the night hooliganizing the Milano Marpenza airport. My only shorts decided to blow out in the crotch. Have stitched up with dental floss.
Slept on the floor of a toilet, in my opinion a highly underrated place to sleep – dark, quiet, locking door AND private stall? Not to mention the toilet itself. I mean it’s basically a hotel.
Woke myself up twice on the floor shouting “Okay, everybody, time to go… time to go, come on guys…” believing wholeheartedly that I was wrangling a field full of children. When I rustled and the light flicked on, I realized rather hollowly that I was trying to rally my rucksack, perched on the toilet in my blurred-out line of vision. I’m gonna miss those little fuckers. A little bit.