He stayed on as long as he could in Rome. Years went by during which he thought of returning to America, but he didn't.Instead, he hung on doggedly, ghost-writing books for Americans to make a buck. He was there when Berlusconi, the capitalist freebooter and rakehell media baron ascended to the presidency, and the tenor of public life worsened appreciably. He was there for the run-up to the millennium celebration and watched the ancient city forcibly facelifted by wholesale sandblasting which rendered its patinaed facades the glaring white of fresh dentures. He witnessed the Euro introduced and predicted disastrous results. "You don't understand," he went around telling people, "I'm an American, and this is a cheeseball copy of the dollars and cents, this Euro, but wrong, queer, badly weighted." The lire, after all, was slithery-smooth. It was old and lovely and palm-handled and related, somehow, to the way things looked; the visual specific gravity of the setting of Italy. Its ease of handling and even its inflationary, preposterous amounts — 2000 of them to the dollar — seemed somehow appropriate to a country which was itself so honeycombed with recesses, odd ancient compacts of understanding and caches of dead cultural space.
But the disaster wasn't merely aesthetic. The introduction of the Euro in Italy was an opportunity for wholescale profiteering not seen since the days of rationing in World War Two. In the six months after its arrival, the Italian income gap widened appreciably. The ancient safety nets of the country, grown up around immemorial neighborhood practices of making do and scrimping, suddenly developed gaping holes. Conservative estimates put the average price gouge at around thirty percent. This was bad enough, but for those like him, being paid in dollars, a further decline in purchasing power was admixed into the equation by the nosebleed-fall of the dollar itself, which lost half its value against the Euro in a matter of months.
Despite his love of the city, all these things hastened him on his way back to America, as did the thick, smoggy air of Rome, the noise of its manic motorbikes and horns, its clogged infuriating bureacratic functioning and the perceptible climate of rip-off which weighed on foreign inhabitants of the city most of all. And yet of course he would cry bitterly as the final day approached, and the movers came, and the people to whom he piecemeal sold all his furniture came as well. Away it went — the treasured up old odd pieces bought at Emmaus, the Christian charity organization named after the hill near Christ's death, (a huge, barnlike space filled with the molted household goods and clothes of the Romans, and presided over by a variety of handicapped people bussed in each morning to work as staff and cashiers). Goodbye to the snuffling catarrhal refrigerator, sold to a woman with tangled blonde hair and bijoux earrings. Goodbye to the various chairs and tables, some of them purchased at the prettily named furnishings store called Casabella, now out of business, or with a certain embarrassment, Ikea. The huge elliptical mirror mounted sideways a foot off the wall went to his perpetually stoned neighbor, a struggling artist named Giacinto. The giant sloth of a futon, compressed by a thousand sleepovers into something biomorphic but not especially recognizable, was left for the vultures who he knew would swarm the place after he was gone. Into thick black plastic bags went the cutlery, the bric a brac, the thousand household odds and ends.
It was over. His long idyll was over. He'd first come to Italy in 1983, having met an Italian girl on a bus in Manhattan and struck up a blazing correspondance which drew him to her on a trail of warm, beautiful, eccentrically Englished letters. The relationship quickly crashed and burned, but he stayed on in Padua, near Venice, living peaceably amidst widows, spinsters and young families in a quiet area of the city called "Chinatown," while the months slid by in a watery sunstruck trance.
Part of this suspended feeling was due to the fact of speaking Italian, with its gliding elevations.From the start, Italian seemed to be emitted from a different part of his throat than English. It implied a world of deliciously stable properties. When, after three years in Padova, he began to lose his English, he relished the fact. He returned home to Manhattan, and his friends told him the shape of his head had changed.
Twelve years later, returning to Rome to live, he was met with an Italy entirely different from the one he'd known. This was not merely the passage of time which had drawn Italy, like every other country in the world, more tightly into that knotted skein of speeding uniformity called globalization, it was that Rome was as different from Padua as Murfreesboro is from Vancouver. Located on the same peninsula and speaking the same language, the two cities occupy parallel universes.
The North-South divide of Italy has historic roots in both the differences of north-south cultures the world over and the specific historical freaks and accidents of Italy itself. If the Padovani are thrifty, ingrown, upright, industrious and speak a dialect that sounds like someone gargling with glue, then the Romans by comparison are warm, evasive, theatrical, and speak a sub-dialectal argot called Romanesco that is full of capital city bluster.The Romans like being jaded. They've been the center of the world for 2000 years and it shows individually in the faces and the tired, furtive yet commercially quick instincts of the populace.
He didn't care. He adored the way Rome, uniquely among world cities, retains the fine-grained local intimacies of a village. He enjoyed the gestural horsepower of Roman daily life; and the paradox of deep sleepiness beneath the surface chaos. And though he was infuriated by a hundred different things about the city, none of this changed the fact that he wanted to stay. He didn't want to leave. He hung on as long as he could. Five years passed and he'd felt he'd just nicked the surface. When he did leave, he was terribly sorry to go, and he's never stopped thinking about it since.
÷ ÷ ÷
Eli Gottlieb's The Boy Who Went Away won the prestigious Rome Prize and the 1998 McKitterick Prize from the British Society of Authors. It also received extraordinary notices and was a New York Times Notable book. He lives in Boulder, Colorado.
Books mentioned in this post