I needed to make some friends. So I got busy with it, and now it is October and I have a nice assortment of them. I know two Elizabeths in Rome now, besides myself. Both are
American, both are writers. The first Elizabeth is a novelist and the second Elizabeth is a food writer. With an apartment in Rome, a house in Umbria, an Italian husband and a job that requires her to travel around Italy eating food and writing about it for Gourmet, it appears that the second Elizabeth must have saved a lot of orphans from drowning during a previous lifetime. Unsurprisingly, she knows all the best places to eat in Rome, including a gelateria that serves a frozen rice pudding (and if they don't serve this kind of thing in heaven, then I really don't want to go there). She took me out to lunch the other day, and what we ate included not only lamb and truffles and carpaccio rolled around hazelnut mousse but an exotic little serving of pickled lampascione, which is--as everyone knows--the bulb of the wild hyacinth.
Of course, by now I've also made friends with Giovanni and Dario, my Tandem Language Exchange fantasy twins. Giovanni's sweetness, in my opinion, makes him a national treasure of Italy. He endeared himself to me forever the first night we met, when I was getting frustrated with my inability to find the words I wanted in Italian, and he put his hand on my arm and said, "Liz, you must be very polite with yourself when you are learning something new." Sometimes I feel like he's older than me, what with his solemn brow and his philosophy degree and his serious political opinions. I like to try to make him laugh, but Giovanni doesn't always get my jokes. Humor is hard to catch in a second language. Especially when you're as serious a young man as Giovanni. He said to me the other night, "When you are ironic, I am always behind you. I am slower. It is like you are the lightning and I am the thunder."
And I thought, Yeah, baby! And you are the magnet and I am the steel! Bring to me your leather,
take from me my lace!
But still, he has not kissed me.
I don't very often see Dario, the other twin, though he does spend a lot of his time with Sofie. Sofie is my best friend from my language class, and she's definitely somebody you'd want to spend your time with, too, if you were Dario. Sofie is Swedish and in her late twenties and so damn cute you could put her on a hook and use her as bait to catch men of all different nationalities and ages. Sofie has just taken a four-month leave of absence from her good job in a Swedish bank, much to the horror of her family and bewilderment of her colleagues, only because she wanted to come to Rome and learn how to speak beautiful Italian. Every day after class, Sofie and I go sit by the Tiber, eating our gelato and studying with each other. You can't even rightly call it "studying," the thing that we do. It's more like a shared relishing of the Italian language, an almost worshipful ritual, and we're always offering each other new wonderful idioms. Like, for instance, we just learned the other day that un'amica stretta means "a close friend." But stretta literally means tight, as in clothing, like a tight skirt. So a close friend, in Italian, is one you that can wear tightly, snug against your skin, and that is what my little Swedish friend Sofie is becoming to me.
At the beginning, I liked to think that Sofie and I looked like sisters. Then we were taking a taxi through Rome the other day and the guy driving the cab asked if Sofie was my daughter. Now, folks--the girl is only about seven years younger than I am. My mind went into such a spin-control mode, trying to explain away what he'd said. (For instance,
I thought, Maybe this native Roman cabdriver doesn't speak Italian very well, and meant to ask if we were sisters.) But, no. He said daughter and he meant daughter. Oh, what can I say?
I've been through a lot in the last few years. I must look so beat-up and old after this divorce. But as that old country-western song out of Texas goes, "I've been screwed and sued and tattooed, and I'm still standin' here in front of you . . ."
I've also become friends with a cool couple named Maria and Giulio, introduced to me by my friend Anne--an American painter who lived in Rome a few years back. Maria is from America, Giulio's from the south of Italy. He's a filmmaker, she works for an international agricultural policy organization. He doesn't speak great English, but she speaks fluent Italian (and also fluent French and Chinese, so that's not intimidating). Giulio wants to learn English, and asked if he could practice conversing with me in another Tandem Exchange. In case you're wondering why he couldn't just study English with his
American-born wife, it's because they're married and they fight too much whenever one tries to teach anything to the other one. So Giulio and I now meet for lunch twice a week to practice our Italian and English; a good task for two people who don't have any history of irritating each other.
Giulio and Maria have a beautiful apartment, the most impressive feature of which is, to my mind, the wall that Maria once covered with angry curses against Giulio (scrawled in thick black magic marker) because they were having an argument and "he yells louder than me" and she wanted to get a word in edgewise.
I think Maria is terrifically sexy, and this burst of passionate graffiti is only further evidence of it. Interestingly, though, Giulio sees the scrawled-upon wall as a sure sign of Maria's repression, because she wrote her curses against him in Italian, and Italian is her second language, a language she has to think about for a moment before she can choose her words. He said if Maria had truly allowed herself to be overcome by anger--which she never does, because she's a good Anglo-Protestant--then she would have written all over that wall in her native English. He says all Americans are like this: repressed. Which makes them dangerous and potentially deadly when they do blow up.
"A savage people," he diagnoses.
What I love is that we all had this conversation over a nice relaxed dinner, while looking at the wall itself.
"More wine, honey?" asked Maria.
But my newest best friend in Italy is, of course, Luca Spaghetti. Even in Italy, by the way, it's considered a very funny thing to have a last name like Spaghetti. I'm grateful for Luca because he has finally allowed me to get even with my friend Brian, who was lucky enough to have grown up next door to a Native American kid named Dennis Ha-Ha, and therefore could always boast that he had the friend with the coolest name. Finally, I can offer competition.
Luca also speaks perfect English and is a good eater (in Italian, una buona forchetta--a good
fork), so he's terrific company for the hungry likes of me. He often calls in the middle of the day to say, "Hey, I'm in your neighborhood--want to meet up for a quick cup of coffee? Or a plate of oxtail?" We spend a lot of time in these dirty little dives in the back streets of Rome. We like the restaurants with the fluorescent lighting and no name listed outside. Plastic red-checkered tablecloths. Homemade limoncello liqueur. Homemade red wine. Pasta served in unbelievable quantities by what Luca calls "little Julius Caesars"-- proud, pushy, local guys with hair on the backs of their hands and passionately tended pompadours. I once said to Luca, "It seems to me these guys consider themselves Romans first, Italians second and Europeans third." He corrected me. "No--they are Romans first, Romans second and Romans third. And every one of them is an Emperor."
Luca is a tax accountant. An Italian tax accountant, which means that he is, in his own description, "an artist," because there are several hundred tax laws on the books in Italy and all of them contradict each other. So filing a tax return here requires jazzlike improvisation. I think it's funny that he's a tax accountant, because it seems like such stiff work for such a lighthearted guy. On the other hand, Luca thinks it's funny that there's another side of me--this Yoga side--that he's never seen. He can't imagine why I would want to go to India--and to an Ashram, of all places!--when I could just stay in Italy all year, which is obviously where I belong. Whenever he watches me sopping up the leftover gravy from my plate with a hunk of bread and then licking my fingers, he says, "What are you going to eat when you go to India?" Sometimes he calls me Gandhi, in a most ironic tone, generally when I'm opening the second bottle of wine.
Luca has traveled a fair amount, though he claims he could never live anywhere but in Rome, near his mother, since he is an Italian man, after all--what can he say? But it's not just his mamma who keeps him around. He's in his early thirties, and has had the same girlfriend since he was a teenager (the lovely Giuliana, whom Luca describes fondly and aptly as acqua e sapone--"soap and water" in her sweet innocence). All his friends are the same friends he's had since childhood, and all from the same neighborhood. They watch the soccer matches together every Sunday--either at the stadium or in a bar (if the Roman teams are playing away)--and then they all return separately to the homes where they grew up, in order to eat the big Sunday afternoon meals cooked by their respective mothers and grandmothers.
I wouldn't move from Rome, either, if I were Luca Spaghetti.
Luca has visited America a few times, though, and likes it. He finds New York City fascinating but thinks that people work too hard there, though he admits they seem to enjoy it. Whereas Romans work hard and resent it massively. What Luca Spaghetti doesn't like is American food, which he says can be described in two words: "Amtrak Pizza."
I was with Luca the first time I ever tried eating the intestines of a newborn lamb. This is
a Roman specialty. Food-wise, Rome is actually a pretty rough town, known for its coarse traditional fare like guts and tongues--all the parts of the animal the rich people up north throw away. My lamb intestines tasted OK, as long as I didn't think too much about what they were. They were served in a heavy, buttery, savory gravy that itself was terrific, but the intestines had a kind of . . . well . . . intestinal consistency. Kind of like liver, but mushier. I did well with them until I started trying to think how I would describe this dish, and I thought, It doesn't look like intestines. It actually looks like tapeworms. Then I pushed it aside and asked for a salad.
"You don't like it?" asked Luca, who loves the stuff.
"I bet Gandhi never ate lamb intestines in his life," I said. "He could have."
"No, he couldn't have, Luca. Gandhi was a vegetarian."
"But vegetarians can eat this," Luca insisted. "Because intestines aren't even meat, Liz. They're just shit."