It starts on the ride back from JFK Airport. The realization that I’m not in Italy anymore. The wide highways, the clear green signs, the heavy but orderly flow of traffic, the grayer sky, the exhaustion of my entire body. But…but, I was buying candied fruit in the supermarket in Portici just a few hours ago…
Now it’s back to an ocean ago.
I’ll be okay, of course, it always works out, no panic attacks, no clinging to the heat of a Mediterranean summer that it’s no longer mine but that still knows my name.
Yes, I need to re-adjust, when I return from Italy. It’s not instantaneous, it’s not easy, it rips my heart, but I keep my cool of course. I need to cocoon in my American house for a few. Days, that is, but that’s just because I force myself to focus on my usual routine, not to disrupt my family, my reality. I unpack immediately. Need to hide those suitcases that connote airports, fluffy clouds, mediocre airplane food, but also the sweet faces of those who wait for me on the other side. My past, my core.
I pile them all up on the kitchen table, the wondrous items of my booty – espresso cups and stove-top coffee makers purchased at the usual place, Nicola’s cluttered little shop, on one of the side streets of the open market; stacks of pretty dish towels, baking powder, vanilla powder, Kimbo coffee, black pepper taralli in vacuum-sealed bags, colorful earrings bought at a local fair, handmade by an artisan out of aluminum and a special natural rubber, inexpensive and unique.
Gifts for my dear ones, summer dresses, and a pair of shoes of course, enthusiastically purchased on saldi (sale) in a trendy shoe shop on Viale Leonardo, Bla Bla (yes, that’s the name of the store), in Portici. My tangible connection to Italy, to cling to as I re-adjust to life without it.
Sweet torture, my annual visit. I want it and I don’t. My heart beats out of my chest when I land at Capodichino (Naples’ airport), and it’s always sunny, chaotic, stressful, often the luggage belt doesn’t work, and the wait is eternal, but the cornetti are fresh and filled with cream, so it makes it all okay. Someone is waiting for me, and their smile is pure joy, and I’m young again, though everything has changed. But nothing has.
The smell of fuel and cigarettes rattles my soul, because it was always present, then, mixed with humid heat and the intoxicating scent of dreams and hope.
I turn on the air conditioner, place Amica – my favorite Italian fashion mag – on the coffee table, next to a couple of novels I picked up at a quaint, old-fashioned (but fairly new) bookshop located in an old building in Via Diaz, the uphill street that used to be the gateway to happiness, a million years ago, when I lived in a different language. I don’t answer the phone, ignore Facebook, concentrate on familiar objects that don’t hold powerful memories. Others don’t understand, really (though nodding politely), that I can’t bear to go outside and talk to people who speak a language that I struggled to learn a lifetime ago, which I love of course, but right now just grates on my raw nerves.
I’m too vulnerable now, too fresh back from my past, too fragile to face the new me that I’ve built over the years. I need time, just a little time to be comfortable once more in my beloved adoptive land. Need to transmute into the person who is mature and confident, developed slowly, and certainly laboriously, over the span of decades.
Happy to be back; broken because I am.
I’m of two worlds, and each of them owns a piece of me. Love them both, but
ache for one.
But there they are, my colorful trinkets, concrete memories of what is once again immensely distant, untouchable, fading away as my sea becomes my river.
Material things: yes, they are important. They can save your sanity.