Travels With My Antecessors: Michelle Orange Goes in Search of Her Name
A series of dispatches from Italy.
Basta Cosi, Part One.
REGGIO DI CALABRIA—My dream came true under a white morning sky, leaving me free to steal, hot-wheeled suitcase pitching and swerving in my wake, down to the water. After a final night of clenched, red-faced sleep, it was as easy as balling one wilted, grief-wrung sheet into a small plastic bag and leaving it in a sniveling bind at the foot of my building. When I arrived two weeks before, it was with that most pious of vacation intentions: language study. I chose Reggio, at the tippy-toe of Italy, because the location lent itself to day-trips along the southern coast and to Sicily, it was cheap and I fancied blending myself into a true palette of unvarnished Italian life.
It was an excuse, I suppose, simply to return to Italy a third time, for a month, job-willing. I knew that I look different in Italy’s mirrors, that the sun sits on my shoulder, chatting softly, and that somehow the two are connected. Though I’m only a quarter Italian — twice as Irish, really, the rest, French I think, but who’d want to confirm such a thing — I have always fixated on my southern Italian ancestry. Yet how blithely I ignored the undertow of this curiosity, even as it dragged me down the coast of Italy; the faces and names I had spent my life tinker-toying into a construct of sparse, hub-like facts and endless spindles of speculation.
There were no mirrors in the apartment I was escorted to by Francesco, Italy’s answer to Mr. Furley, upon arrival. After weeks of trying to reach him from Canada, I made contact just before my train left Rome. That conversation proved to be the first in a delirious conga line of mis-steps that was to be the defining choreography of my stay in Italy.
Southern Italians abstain from even the basics of the English language, and over the repetitions of my arrival time in what I thought was decent Italian he chanted the model number of his black BMW: together we composed a neo-Revolution #9. Distracted by the finer points of the 24-hour clock and the impregnable departure board, the model number slid from my ears; how many black BMW’s would there be trolling the train station of shambly, scrappy Reggio anyway?
Nine hours later, yanking my churlish, splay-legged dog of a suitcase out of the Reggio station, I squinted into the grey flannel sky above a blur of black BMW and the odd black VW Golf that never seemed to drain from the piazza. Beware the city where the blooping and mewling of luxury car alarms permeates the space normally occupied by the austere wretch and belch of legitimate industry.
About 45 minutes and one final phone call to the elusive Francesco later (“OK! Si! ’Alf ana ’or! I teach ay-a sock-hair fee-yelled, si?”) I needn’t have worried about picking Francesco out of the crowd, I was the only one with a suitcase amid the daytripping loiterers on the platform, and my black BMW stopped inches from my feet. A tall, surprisingly young man in black was out of the car and pointing at me when I looked up from the reflection of my shoes in its hubcap. Francesco.
At the apartment I was introduced to my roommate, who had arrived three days earlier. Caterina was the picture of a 22-year-old Serbian student; I later learned that my first impression is that of an 18-year-old Dutch drifter. Francesco went overboard, carrying my suitcase up six flights of stairs, slapping away the palm I periodically slid under its girth. He was airing out on the balcony as I took in the broken windows, mirrorless bathroom, showerless shower, card deck-sized cot and IKEA-meets-Picasso armoire in my room. He caught up to me wrestling a drawer out of my lap and back onto its rollers. Pointing with a magician’s elan to functioning amenities and obvious atrocities alike, he began to liberally wield the crown jewel of his English. It was a word clearly ground down to glinty, prismatic perfection by the frowns of countless students: “Ess-sent-chee-all-ays!”
Caterina audited the tour from various doorways, seemingly evaluating Francesco’s consistency as a performer. She paid particularly wry attention as he moved me through the bathroom, promising a mirror and an end to the filthy, clogged tub by tomorrow at 1400h, nodding cryptically to the bidet as a stand-in until then. I got an open-and-shut glimpse of a third, furniture-filled room and a lengthy, if inscrutable, lecture on taking electricity metre readings. I stood in my room as the sound of a disconcertingly two-sided Italian dialog filled the apartment. Francesco seemed to be begging off, Caterina solicitous, and apparently there’s no Italian word for “fax”. There was a knock on the door: Francesco wanted the money for the whole month up front but I was short by 10 euros. “I-ya come next day! No problem!” Then he was gone, leaving Caterina staring longingly at me and me staring dolefully at my cot.
They had said to bring linens and towels, which I assumed meant there would be a blanket and a shower. Woops. I began to fashion a top, bottom and pillow case out of the single sheet I had desultorily shoved in my suitcase, where it hogged valuable book and dry goods real estate. It was too late for buying fruit or scouting for a good running route; I was too tired to break my suspicion that I would blow off the University to Caterina. With nothing to be done for this hour, I called off all heroic measures to revive it. There seemed to be no hour, in fact, except 8 the next morning, when I was to write a placement exam. I angled myself into my origami bedding to think about the possibilities, putting the school decision off until morning.
My dad hadn’t confirmed his trip to Italy until a couple days before I left. He would be arriving just as I was leaving; we were to meet in Florence to attend my cousin’s wedding. I wondered if he was sitting in his den just then, if he had remembered to send in the RSVP that I had seen still sitting on his desk at Easter. The option of a month on my hands in the seat of my ancestry, with no other itinerary than ending up in Florence, walked into my mind, dropped its luggage and threw its arms open with a Fonzie flourish. I itemized all the things I’d need to pull off Operation Orangeo: Italy I could handle. Francesco even: “no problem!” I could take the hit on the rent. It was the ancestral information only my dad knew that worried me. It seemed to me like trying to talk a cat out of a tree. A family tree. A family tree that had been TP’d. With rolls and rolls of reductive red tape.
When I was young, I’d ask my dad over and over how many drops of Italian blood I had in me, hoping it would rise above the standard “three or four” as I grew. At 8 I heard the story that our name was not our own, that it had been changed to Orange from Arangia, or Arance, or Orangeo, by an Ellis Island lackey. I took to signing every book report, birthday invitation and wet sidewalk “Michelle Orangeo” and spreading the news of my Italian roots to my teammates during downtime-heavy rounds of Red Rover. I still have the letter in which Miss Camiletti, the student teacher I loved as a paisan and then — after she left me standing on the long and winding road of the fourth grade — as a pen pal, wrote that I didn’t look Italian, breaking my heart into three or four pieces.
My earliest memories in life consist solely of my grandfather’s final days. He stayed with us while my grandma was treated for an aneurysm in my hometown’s superior neurosurgery facilities. It was my mother’s birthday, the day my grandma was finally being released — a great day, on paper. A few minutes after I left for school my grandpa collapsed and died in my brother’s room. My dad was the only one home.
I have no memory, though, of our super-8 embrace, about a year before he died. I was in my third year of what I’m sure I assumed to be a three-year program. I was hungry, potty-trained and ready to rock the real world; not much time for the establishment. My grandpa, seated on an ottoman, is wrangling me into a between-the-knees hug. I am fluttering at the outskirts of his reach, hedging toward something more familiar, someone with more pull, a known quantity, a deal-closer, a play-maker. Gumdrops, perhaps. But in one swift lurch my grandpa manages to pin my spastic wings, pull me in and wrap both arms around me in a fulsome full-nelson. His opened suit jacket drapes from his sides, enfolding me as he burrows his face into the top of my head, a satiated bat. Only my eyes remain, seizing up, then firing a red alert out of frame right.
I brought an equally regrettable look to my dad’s face five years later as I asked him, out of gloriously unfettered curiosity, what he thought grandpa looked like right now. He recoiled from me as from an imposter in arms.
I later made a ghoulish bizarro-sherpa of myself, leading neighbourhood friends down into the den at the summer afternoon hour when the sun, hitting some unknown reflector, projected a dime of light onto the ceiling in the corner. I would file the procession of bathing suit-clad mourners past, that close, corn-chip smell rising off their drying hair and bodies. Pointing up to the glowing splotch, I’d whisper gravely about my grandpa’s spirit, forever trapped beside the highest bookshelf, solemnly buttressing The Joy of Sex.
There is a photo of my grandpa in that den, he and his siblings jostled into a row of lucent bodies and clear eyes. His expression is what comes to me as I lay awake that first night in Reggio, absently raking my gaze across the shadows striping the wall, like a stick along a fence, and paginating the voices of the kids playing soccer outside. Such an Italian face. A secret held between his teeth has lowered his lids, setting his eyes to mirth, those cold couple of degrees from laughter. Nostrils wide open — the better to savour — arm slung around his sister, head tipped back in mid-taunt, crazed hair taking opposing tides right off the sides of his head.
A universe of interdependent cycles and currents seem to whir through him. It’s a man in perfect calibration, it seems to me, yet he doesn’t begrudge my eyes, your eyes — our lives — the luxury of our imbalance. I love that picture; I believe in it. Perhaps, having pushed its energy into the corners of my father’s house, missing its limber lines in the planes of my face, I had given chase across the globe, unwittingly adding a new arc to its nucleic buzz of promise.
Piloting the slippery sleep of the jet-lagged, I veered awake to what sounded like a rabid velociraptor tearing through the tarp of the sky. I flattened my back against the noise and braced for a cracking storm. The bouquet of explosions left delusions of thunder behind as a topnote (backfiring cars? heavy shelling?) popped like Braille through their foundation. This last development ruled out the ignition of Mt Etna, which had been the pacecar in the disaster theories Grand Prix. Is Reggio even rougher than I thought? Had Operation Enduring Freedom kicked off a summer tour in Italy? Is Caterina awake? Why does her Italian kick my Italian’s ass? How does my pepper spray factor into this scenario? What in the name of Tony Soprano is going on here?
He doesn’t talk much about his dad. In his storytelling moods, as brief and jarringly expansive as a kitten’s yawn, I hold very still and try not to betray my desperation. This last generation of Oranges have made unfortunate strides in the art of dying young. My father has lost lifetimes; I have much to find.
When my shutters began to thump above me I pulled myself up, crouched back onto my heels and reluctantly squared my face in the window. The buildings outside were effaced with a deep, flickering orange; I should have checked CNN in Rome. I was so tired, so very awake, gripping and re-gripping the window sill rhythmically, my careful sheet-maximizing efforts a-twist around my legs. Yet no bedroom light clipped on in annoyance, not a scream shot through the streets, even the dogs, otherwise highly strung, couldn’t be bothered. It was over an hour before I lowered myself back down to lie there in state, evenly dispensing incredulity from head to toe. I courted a fugitive, sleepless suspension as the rubble that would no doubt confuse the issue of tomorrow’s inaugural run continued to amass, unabated.
Running in Italy is for the ignorant or the very well-informed, and it usually takes me a couple of weeks to side-step my way from the spectacle of the one to the respite of the other. It’s the latter route I seek out first in each city I visit, the secret galaxy where even Italians orbit unmolested. That morning in Rome I ran along the outer perimetre of the huge Verona cemetery, knowing it was a perfect 80 minutes, and knowing better than to enter, having been kicked out the previous year. Italians react with a kind of disheartened disgust to people running in their cemeteries, and disheartened disgust is the polio shot of expressions: one exposure sets you straight for a lifetime. As I skittered around the familiar flower-sellers outside the cemetery gates, chin cordoned in, I thought of the reverse push-ups I’d seen executed off of a tombstone at home.
A greater appreciation of life, I have had the dilettante pluck to venture, is the logical counterpart to Italy’s exceptional reverence for the dead, evidenced in its citizens’ weekly grooming expeditions to the cemetery. In Reggio, an exhaustive attention to life is all I had the heart to allow. But can attention amount to reverence, and mustn’t it, at some point, when our hearts are broken for good? I have seen strangers bump into each other on the sidewalk with something like relief, then launch into a genial logistics analysis of what just happened.
It’s this unwavering attention to my own life, the constant demands for clarification, that set visions of pepper spray dancing in my head. I had come to watch, to slip a hand out and unfurl the aging corners from behind the veil of the future. ‘Dove seite?’ It means ‘where did you come from?’ or ‘where are you going?’ but sounds more like ‘why are you here?’ and ‘what do you want?’ when it is rained upon me. Were the whore of Babylon to don a wedding dress and patrol the streets of Reggio, the rice discharged from the hands of the locals with all the goodwill of a round of buckshot could not rival the downpour of impugnment that peppers my path. I felt the initial tweak of confrontation during that first lay-of-the-land run, when even the roads hedged under my feet and petered out without warning, unwilling to let me find direction as I went.
Reading in Rome: By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept, by Elizabeth Smart
Reading in Reggio di Calabria: The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner, by Alan Sillitoe
The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, by Carson McCullers
[Read part two.]
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