Sometimes I wonder what I'm doing here, I admit it.
While I have come to Italy in order to experience pleasure, during the first few weeks I was here, I felt a bit of panic as to how one should do that. Frankly, pure pleasure is not my cultural paradigm. I come from a long line of superconscientious people. My mother's family were Swedish immigrant farmers, who look in their photographs like, if they'd ever even seen something pleasurable, they might have stomped on it with their hobnailed boots.(My uncle calls the whole lot of them "oxen.") My father's side of the family were English Puritans, those great goofy lovers of fun. If I look on my dad's family tree all the way back to the seventeenth century, I can actually find Puritan relatives with names like Diligence and Meekness.
My own parents have a small farm, and my sister and I grew up working. We were taught to be dependable, responsible, the top of our classes at school, the most organized and efficient babysitters in town, the very miniature models of our hardworking farmer/nurse of a mother, a pair of junior Swiss Army knives, born to multitask. We had a lot of enjoyment in my family, a lot of laughter, but the walls were papered with to-do lists and I never experienced or witnessed idleness, not once in my whole entire life. Generally speaking, though, Americans have an inability to relax into sheer pleasure. Ours is an entertainment-seeking nation, but not necessarily a pleasure-seeking one. Americans spend billions to keep themselves amused with everything from porn to theme parks to wars, but that's not exactly the same thing as quiet enjoyment. Americans work harder and longer and more stressful hours than anyone in the world today. But as Luca Spaghetti pointed out, we seem to like it. Alarming statistics back this observation up, showing that many Americans feel more happy and fulfilled in their offices than they do in their own homes. Of course, we all inevitably work too hard, then we get burned out and have to spend the whole weekend in our pajamas, eating cereal straight out of the box and staring at the TV in a mild coma (which is the opposite of working, yes, but not exactly the same thing as pleasure). Americans don't really know how to do nothing. This is the cause of that great sad American stereotype--the overstressed executive who goes on vacation, but who cannot relax.
I once asked Luca Spaghetti if Italians on vacation have that same problem. He laughed so hard he almost drove his motorbike into a fountain.
"Oh, no!" he said. "We are the masters of bel far niente."
This is a sweet expression. Bel far niente means "the beauty of doing nothing." Now listen--Italians have traditionally always been hard workers, especially those long- suffering laborers known as braccianti (so called because they had nothing but the brute strength of their arms-- braccie--to help them survive in this world). But even against that backdrop of hard work, bel far niente has always been a cherished Italian ideal. The beauty of doing nothing is the goal of all your work, the final accomplishment for which you are most highly congratulated. The more exquisitely and delightfully you can do nothing, the higher your life's achievement. You don't necessarily need to be rich in order to experience this, either. There's another wonderful Italian expression: l'arte d'arrangiarsi-- the art of making something out of nothing. The art of turning a few simple ingredients into a feast, or a few gathered friends into a festival. Anyone with a talent for happiness can do this, not only the rich.
For me, though, a major obstacle in my pursuit of pleasure was my ingrained sense of Puritan guilt. Do I really deserve this pleasure? This is very American, too--the insecurity about whether we have earned our happiness. Planet Advertising in America orbits completely around the need to convince the uncertain consumer that yes, you have actually warranted a special treat. This Bud's for You! You Deserve a Break Today! Because You're Worth It! You've Come a Long Way, Baby! And the insecure consumer thinks, Yeah! Thanks! I am gonna go buy a six-pack, damn it! Maybe even two six-packs! And then comes the reactionary binge. Followed by the remorse. Such advertising campaigns would probably not be as effective in the Italian culture, where people already know that they are entitled to enjoyment in this life. The reply in Italy to "You Deserve a Break Today" would probably be, Yeah, no duh. That's why I'm planning on taking a break at noon, to go over to your house and sleep with your wife.
Which is probably why, when I told my Italian friends that I'd come to their country in order to experience four months of pure pleasure, they didn't have any hang-ups about it. Complimenti! Vai avanti! Congratulations, they would say. Go ahead. Knock yourself out. Be our guest. Nobody once said, "How completely irresponsible of you," or "What a self- indulgent luxury." But while the Italians have given me full permission to enjoy myself, I still can't quite let go. During my first few weeks in Italy, all my Protestant synapses were zinging in distress, looking for a task. I wanted to take on pleasure like a homework assignment, or a giant science fair project. I pondered such questions as, "How is pleasure most efficiently maximized?" I wondered if maybe I should spend all my time in Italy in the library, doing research on the history of pleasure. Or maybe I should interview
Italians who've experienced a lot of pleasure in their lives, asking them what their pleasures feel like, and then writing a report on this topic. (Double-spaced and with one-inch margins, perhaps? To be turned in first thing Monday morning?)
When I realized that the only question at hand was, "How do I define pleasure?" and that I was truly in a country where people would permit me to explore that question freely, everything changed. Everything became . . . delicious. All I had to do was ask myself every day, for the first time in my life, "What would you enjoy doing today, Liz? What would bring you pleasure right now?" With nobody else's agenda to consider and no other obligations to worry about, this question finally became distilled and absolutely self-specific.
It was interesting for me to discover what I did not want to do in Italy, once I'd given myself executive authorization to enjoy my experience there. There are so many manifestations of pleasure in Italy, and I didn't have time to sample them all. You have to kind of declare a pleasure major here, or you'll get overwhelmed. That being the case, I didn't get into fashion, or opera, or cinema, or fancy automobiles, or skiing in the Alps. I didn't even want to look at that much art. I am a bit ashamed to admit this, but I did not visit a single museum during my entire four months in Italy. (Oh, man--it's even worse than that. I have to confess that I did go to one museum: the National Museum of Pasta, in Rome.) I found that all I really wanted was to eat beautiful food and to speak as much beautiful Italian as possible. That was it. So I declared a double major, really--in speaking and in eating (with a concentration on gelato).
The amount of pleasure this eating and speaking brought to me was inestimable, and yet so simple. I passed a few hours once in the middle of October that might look like nothing much to the outside observer, but which I will always count amongst the happiest of my life. I found a market near my apartment, only a few streets over from me, which I'd somehow never noticed before. There I approached a tiny vegetable stall with one Italian woman and her son selling a choice assortment of their produce--such as rich, almost algae-green leaves of spinach, tomatoes so red and bloody they looked like a cow's organs, and champagne-colored grapes with skins as tight as a showgirl's leotard.
I selected a bunch of thin, bright asparagus. I was able to ask the woman, in comfortable Italian, if I could possibly just take half this asparagus home? There was only one of me, I explained to her--I didn't need much. She promptly took the asparagus from my hands and halved it. I asked her if I could find this market every day in the same place, and she said, yes, she was here every day, from 7:00 AM. Then her son, who was very cute, gave me a sly look and said, "Well, she tries to be here at seven . . ." We all laughed. This whole conversation was conducted in Italian--a language I could not speak a word of only a few months earlier.
I walked home to my apartment and soft-boiled a pair of fresh brown eggs for my lunch. I peeled the eggs and arranged them on a plate beside the seven stalks of the asparagus (which were so slim and snappy they didn't need to be cooked at all). I put some olives on the plate, too, and the four knobs of goat cheese I'd picked up yesterday from the formaggeria down the street, and two slices of pink, oily salmon. For dessert--a lovely
peach, which the woman at the market had given to me for free and which was still warm from the Roman sunlight. For the longest time I couldn't even touch this food because it was such a masterpiece of lunch, a true expression of the art of making something out of nothing. Finally, when I had fully absorbed the prettiness of my meal, I went and sat in a patch of sunbeam on my clean wooden floor and ate every bite of it, with my fingers, while reading my daily newspaper article in Italian. Happiness inhabited my every molecule.
Until--as often happened during those first months of travel, whenever I would feel such happiness--my guilt alarm went off. I heard my ex-husband's voice speaking disdainfully in my ear: So this is what you gave up everything for? This is why you gutted our entire life together? For a few stalks of asparagus and an Italian newspaper?
I replied aloud to him. "First of all," I said, "I'm very sorry, but this isn't your business anymore. And secondly, to answer your question . . . yes."