Diving in

Against my better judgement.

I usually ignore it, when I go up into the attic.  The little, light, green plastic suitcase, vintage 70’s, standing up straight, partially hidden by all the others, the large modern ones, mostly red, mostly rarely used.

But in there lies my story, my history, my Italian life, my marvelous and angsty formative years.

I unzip it, and the flood of the past engulfs me almost instantly. I can smell the salty marine air of the Portici’s harbor, all the fishing boats lolling on the gentle waves, preparing for their nightly journey.  I am blinded by the lights of the parochial theater, buzzing with activity and excitement, as the teens enthusiastically rehearse for the play.  I walk the elegant, crowded Viale Leonardo da Vinci, a river of chatty, animated young humanity, bursting with the hope and joy of those who still don’t know better.

A rainbow of notebooks unfolds before my apprehensive eyes: I blink, even turn my gaze toward the window and the fading green of the trees of my New York autumn.

I’m ready to close up that perilous well of the past immediately…but I can’t.

So much writing, more or less neat, in those hundreds (thousands?) of pages, a plethora of exclamations points ending the sentences, because emotions were pure, extreme and raw in those wonder days. The tender, innocent diaries of someone who was in love with the world, yet insisted on despising it.  Call it teenage angst, or embarking into the tentative construction of your own life, not according to your parents’ desires and plans.

My cheerfully decorated school agendas, filled with an insane quantity of quotes, mostly sappy, but, at the time, fundamentally powerful, next to the list of my homework assignments.

Life was vividly colored then, no gray areas.  Friendships were forever, infatuations were eternal love, the future was a kaleidoscope of images of that amazing life of traveling the world, a world that was kind and welcoming, as I believed in my naïve knowledge of humankind.

A stack of letters, some slightly yellowed, the ink fading in spots, some corners torn.  I read the names, and some shake me to the core, others barely ring a bell.  So many summer friendships, developed spontaneously at the various resorts where my parents would take us during the summer months, new ‘best’ friends, whom we couldn’t bear to leave, at the end of our two-week stay, our young hearts ripped in two.  Thus, the frequent correspondence, afterwards, for several months, three-four sheets of flimsy letter paper filled, with every single detail of our lives, sincerely curious and interested in each other’s stories.  Stories that eventually ended, when one side or the other would simply stop responding.

Those days when people were made of flesh and smiles, their touch was real, their voice close by.  Not photographs on Facebook, their words blue-white letters on a lit screen.

My precise drawings, illustrating my original fairy tales, amuse and inspire me: Why on earth did I stop drawing? I was rather talented.  Oh yes, life happened, the real thing, the one that overwhelms the mind and soul, that erases dreams and innate skills, that dulls the senses.  It’s called maturity.  Also known as the demise of spontaneity and vibrant, liquid emotions.

The photographs are aggressive. They grasp my heart and squeeze it till I’m gasping for air.  Noisy school yards, smiling boys and girls, spensierati, yes, carefree though we didn’t know it.  I turn over the class photos, and make my aching way through all the handwritten dedications and messages.  Yes, I remember you, and you, and you I hated, but not truly.  And you were my world till it ended. And, after that, you were my world. A series of important people that really weren’t so, after all.  The cruel unfolding of life. Continuous replacement.  Of everything.

I close the suitcase, grab the handle and make my way up the ladder to the attic.

But it’s so difficult, the climb: the little green suitcase is so much heavier now, I can barely drag it.


My Doorman Was Spiderman: An Italian Memoir

Doorman, super, handyman, cleaning crew, even the occasional delivery pictureman.  That was Giovanni, the doorman of the condominium in Portici where I grew up.  A mild-mannered middle-aged man, Giovanni sat in his gabbiotto for a good part of the day.  That would be the little, glass-enclosed box where a doorman is stationed, don’t even know what it’s called in English, but in Italian it derives from the word gabbia, meaning cage, which makes it sound a lot more ominous that it really is.  The citofono (intercom) was in the gabbiotto, and only he was allowed to push the appropriate buttons to make the connection to the various apartments, about 120 of them. You would tell him to call number 20, 30, whatever (mine was 51, forever imprinted in my mind, like the old phone number), he would click it, then pass you the receiver.  Or, I would just say, “ Giovanni, può chiamare mia madre?” and he would connect me to my apartment.  I would encounter him on the stairways, sweeping the steps, washing the ample hallway floor, watering the many planters in the courtyard, opening and closing the windows on each floor, taking care of the tiny elevator when it got stuck (though sometimes he just put up the ‘Guasto‘ sign – out of order – and call a repair service who would take their sweet time to show up), going up and down those stairs several times daily.  But he sure took il pranzo seriously, his lunch break was sacred.  The gabbiotto would be closed at 1 pm, and stay so till at least three, while he hung out with his family in his street-level apartment, the first one on the left, in our wing of the building. The front entrance would be locked, and residents would have to use their key to get in.  If you needed to call someone, well, you couldn’t, unless you started shouting at the top of your voice (which we kids did sometimes, much to the embarrassment and fury of our parents and the other tenants).  Giovanni progressed through his years-old daily routine methodically, and kept everything in order, never rushing, never stressing. As I said, a very average man who just did his job.

Until it was time for the annual cleaning of the windows.

He would start early.  We children were still in bed, our day not yet begun.  But his was just about to change the dimension of his life.  Dragging along his cleaning supplies – bucket, rags, squeegee – Giovanni would take the elevator to the top of the building, the sixth floor, and begin his yearly task.  He would open wide the windows of the landing, sit on the sill, and start reaching out with his materials, spraying, scrubbing, wiping.  As he did so, he would picturegradually stand on the sill, then literally walk out of the window, holding fast to the interior glass with his left hand, and energetically scrubbing away with his right.  Steadily, precisely, but definitely fearlessly.  Balancing his loafer-encased feet on the narrow ledge outside the window, he seemed to stretch all his limbs to reach every corners, wiping and polishing till the glass was sparkling.  When we kids walked out into the sun-warmed balcony, we would stare in awe at this man, our very own Giovanni il portiere, practically walking on glass, and we would cover our mouths so no sound would escape that might distract him.  And cause him to plunge to his death.  My mother would avert her eyes, scuttle back inside, mumbling non posso guardare (I can’t look), and again cautioned us not too make a sound, but just pray (silently!) that he might not lose his grip…quel pazzo scervellato…Yeah, she wasn’t very fond of his dramatic acrobatics, deeming that display of circus-like behavior completely irresponsible and ridiculous.   But, really, how else was he going to wash down those windows?  No professional window-washer crews, with scaffolding and workers secured with ropes, for my building in Portici, just a one-man team who crawled his way through six floors of landing windows, and on both wings of the building, a total of twelve floors.  How I wish I had snapped some photos of this awesome spectacle, but those were not the days of cell phones (besides, if he heard the click, he might even have turned around and, well, you know the rest).  Thus, I shall just post some photos of my good old building and the rusty gate (yes, you can see the gabbiotto behind it), as it still stands there today, beckoning every time I go to Italy.

The doorman days are over now.  It has already been more than twenty years that Giovanni’s gabbiotto has been locked up and empty, and a sturdy gate blocks the courtyard.  A regular intercom system outside the gate allows people to contact the residents, and be buzzed in.

I don’t know who cleans the windows these days, but it will always be Giovanni, il portiere, I will imagine up there, high on the fourth, fifth, sixth floor, semi-dangling from a window, his palm flat against the glass (so white!), his legs steady on the sill, our resident Spiderman performing his stunts. All in a day’s work.

A Tanning Tale

It used to begin in June, my predicament, when I was a teenager in Italy.  The picturedays were longer and brighter, the nights pleasant, the temperature rising enthusiastically, and one could taste the tantalizing flavor of summer (all of this before the weather patterns started to lose control or any sense of season).  Dresses were minimalist, strappy sandals replaced boots, and vacation plans were the talk of the day.  And, while they were talking about anything at all, the ‘others’ started to tan.  Yep, just like that, my Neapolitan friends steadily began to morph into happy, exciting summer people, with lovely bronzed legs and dazzling white teeth.  And they didn’t need to do a thing about it!  Just walking down the street in a t-shirt and their arms would be golden within three days.  And the contrast between my pale skin and theirs was screaming What’s wrong with you!?  Blame my Northern Italian blood from my mother’s side (another non-tanner), or the fact that I wasn’t really (ok, at all) outdoorsy, but as my friends became to look like ‘vacation’ I sulked pathetically ghostly in their presence. You might find this hard to believe, but I somehow never really fit like a piece of a puzzle in the environment I was born in.  I wasn’t really at home, at home.  With my light blue eyes (occhi di ghiaccio, someone once said) and my fair complexion – not too mention my clearly not Neapolitan accent – I often stood out more than I cared to.  Imagine that one day, while I was doing some window shopping on an elegant street downtown Naples, two young men approached me (like it happens every day, no, every minute…) and asked me where I was from!  I was taken aback for sure.  Anyway, hot weather always put me in this uneasy non-tanning situation, so I searched new methods every year to color myself summer.  The spray.  Guaranteed to turn you a golden brown in a few hours.  Yes!  I bought a can, hit the bathroom and started spraying away at my arms and legs.  It worked!  A little while later, I had developed an amber hue on my limbs, though not a particularly even one.  Allora, do you know that some people actually said, Ehi, sei bella abbronzata! (you’re nicely tanned!).  Bingo.  Until the next day.  When I woke up covered in weird orange spots.  And so did my sheets.  No, my mother was not happy, to say the least.  My father warned me that I might be poisoning myself, God only knows what’s in that crap…And I spent hours scrubbing away the orange, and not very successfully.  It was jeans and long-sleeved shirts for a few days.  Then, the beach.  As I mentioned in another blog (Check Archives: August 15, 2010) my father had developed a disciplined routine to allow us to sunbathe without getting burned, which he enforced every year: precisely timed exposure to the sun, to be gradually increased daily.  It worked, really.  None of us ever burned, but, while my father and my siblings attained a healthy color, I (and la mamma), barely acquired a touch of beige.  Damn, was it frustrating!  These days, I’ve embraced my ‘Scandinavian’ complexion, and slather it with sunblock 40 any time that I know I will be exposed to the elements for a long time.  No more fighting nature, I’m okay with myself.  Under every possible aspect.  It’s called maturity, I think.