REGGIO DI CALABRIA—Early on, when I was still racked with drop-out guilt and paranoia, I wandered Reggio non-stop. Every police car I saw was about to pivot in my direction, every car scraping into my building’s lot was Francesco, come to box my ears and collar me into a classroom. It usually was Francesco, but he was more concerned with maintaining a constant level of disarray in my room, furnishing and re-furnishing. Every day I came home to a new configuration, to Francesco and his mooks installing a desk twice the size of my bed, a dresser, a dresser to replace that dresser, a middle-aged Spaniard, but never, ever, a working shower.
Late one morning, having just hobbled my way through our de facto bathing stations, I opened the bathroom door to find the usual hall full of heaving movers. Seeing me, each one gallantly stepped into the doorway closest to him, and I slipped into my room, modesty somewhat intact. Minutes later, as I was jockeying to catch my reflection in my window, there was a knock. I opened the door brushing my wet hair, apparently giving Francesco a start, as at once he turned from my Housing Huckster into Softie the Super. He had come to give me a book, a very big, very Italian novel by his “very best aw-ter! Much famous!” I thanked him and we stared at each other: he didn’t ask why I wasn’t at the school, I didn’t want to know why he just gave me a book I had no way to read. Then it was over and I closed the door.
Before my liberation via dirt-cheap train rides up the coast, I averted the hunt by becoming a hunter. For maps of Calabria, a working ATM, ideal places to sit (high up, three-way sightlines, no access), Diet Coke, bathrooms. For a soul between and 1 and 4 PM, the tourist office, the place where I got those apples that, while listening to a woman sing “Unchained Melody” with crowd-pleasing vibrato in the nearby soccer field that night, had turned my eyes into ping-pong balls. For the response to the mamas who could take me by the shoulders and turn me about like a child about to leave the house for school in one glance. For the word for “band-aid” and my towel in the dark to drape across my legs in the middle of freezing cold nights. The essentials.
I kept old man hours at the local park, the only place that provides any sort of cover. Clocking about five attempts on my attention per minute on the streets, I, apparently, was the most exciting thing to happen to Reggio since Etna actually did explode in 1992. I read on benches, stared into space, horned in on card games; two days into the program I was a fedora and a cross-piazzal discussion away from induction.
On my first cloudy wander, coming down from a two hour search for an ATM that would pony up the rest of Francesco’s money, I ran into Caterina on the boardwalk, on her lunch break from school. As we walked down to the water, she told me about her Mr. Bean look-alike teacher and the epigram he pulled her aside to impart upon learning that she was Serbian: “In your country there are two men and three opinions. In Italy there is one man and two opinions.” I scoffed, noticing that the sun was out over Sicily, and mumbled “And no women.” We stopped and looked at each other, the honks, flailing arms, curling lips and offertory wails of the men surrounding us falling away for just a moment.
It proved a prophetic remark, as I would never see her, or any other person of my height and colouring, or indeed any other unescorted woman, in the streets again. The girl who had shrugged off the nocturnal bombing blitz with “I’m from Serbia, I’m used to it” went to and from school directly and spent weekends cowering in her room. There were times, after enduring the final hisses, luridly unscrolling car windows and murmuring doorway shadows of the day, when even I, the titanically stubborn, the even more stubbornly oblivious —the depraved —could tip over with wretchedness.
Each morning I returned to that boardwalk, the best stretch for running I could find, and greeted the early shift of old men, punching in at the fountain or gumming a pear from the teeming, street-impeding market two streets up. I could probably be heard singing to the peculiar playlist of Radio Kiss Kiss (“No Dow-but” segues into Hall and Oates) a stone-skip across the water in Sicily.
It took a few days to find the fruit stand I adopted as my own. The no-nonsense boy at the cash greeted me with one of three questions on my daily sidewind up to the counter. My invariable “Si.” garnered variously a bag, a receipt and a cursory nod. This school of linguistics by elimination worked well most of the time. On the one occasion when my amenability triggered a torrent of inquiries I just backed away slowly, strewing euros and bumping into his mother on the way. I built up the necessary cache of protocols by eyeing the habits of the natives. Putting the fruit on the scale yourself is an earned privilege, as is putting two kinds of apples in one bag. Don’t dawdle, or insult them by inspecting the fruit for too long-or at all, if you’ve got the stomach for it —never greet the son before the mother, exact change is standard and the key to a circumspect matron’s heart is breezing into the store clutching your bag from the day before.
The cursory nod sentence —"Basta cosi?" —is the Italian equivalent of “Is that everything?” though it translates literally to “Is that enough?” a question filled with maternal, rather than mercenary concern. Italians seem to have a firmer grasp of enough than we do. They know how to exist as a country where everything functions but nothing works, having realized empires ago that functioning would have to do.
Reggio is a cramped up, confounding place; only the streets are laid bare. Curbs? Superfluous. Sidewalks are excessive; often the corner of a building and a street are one and the same. Crossing intersections is a matter of deciding when you have stood on the corner long enough and strolling into the oncoming traffic, which unerringly swaths gracefully around you. I was expecting a Neapolitan scrubbiness, but if Naples is hard-scrabble, Reggio is the u-less q-word of Italian cities.
In Reggio the hanging laundry lines —bastions of cinematic romance in even the grimmest parts of Italy —become simply the banners of poverty that they are. Standing on my balcony I watched the lines on the jumble of balconies across the piazza tipple listlessly, like the police line-up after a crackdown in the park. A bagged out pair of jeans bums a smoke off the haggard pea-soup slip while a lone sock tries to stay its tremor’s long enough to spit out a conspiracy theory. If the clothes on the line look like they still smell bad, the fundamental principle of hanging laundry has been undermined. I turned to look balefully at the sink and arthritic drying rack by the screen door. I had imagined that apartment living in Italy would mean tending to a laundry line of my own; that gently smiling pinnacle of integration. I went back inside to flop another rinsed out T-shirt over my palsied armoire door.
It turns out you have to go to Sicily, where I ended up one morning after apparently rolling over one too many times during the night, to get the primo laundry line action. As far as the eye could see there were brightly striped tea towels, billowing eyelet blouses, fluttering soccer jerseys, a bevy of fabric softener flavours leapt to mind. Surveying the cottony delectations of Taormina, my arms loosened at my sides; if limbs could salivate, the streets would run with the drool of foreigners.
I read a quote the other day from someone named Canetti: “The most peaceful place on earth is among strangers.” It seemed impossible to me, bracing as I did each day to become public property, a roving mascot of oddball curiosity, that an Italian could say such a thing. Caterina, my sole friend, whom I avoided desperately in pursuit of that lonely peace at home, told me Canetti is a Belgian-born German.
One night, upon coming home dirty and exhausted after another day of talking to no one (coherently) and doing nothing (cohesively) I passed her closed door, realizing I hadn’t seen her in almost a week. I washed my face, ducked into my room and closed my door, but when I gave the final shove it behooved, the handle snapped off in my hand, trapping me inside. I clawed at the severed artery affixed to the door, trying to will a locksmith loophole into evidence. Just as I was about to pathetically call Caterina’s name I heard her call mine. Neither of us was sure that the other was home, she assumed the crazy ex-tenants who terrorized us at night, attempting numerous times to break in and spirit away lighting fixtures, had returned. We stood there stupidly, barefoot in pyjamas and crooked pony tails, and I remained so as she jumped into action, getting a knife from the kitchen and dismantling the whole works, then MacGyvering the intact handle back in on the other side. I was oddly shaken up, laughing first nervously and then a little hysterically, duelling reliefs trying to settle the absurdity of it all.
When we were done laughing at the door and carving Francesco we tentatively shuffleboarded each other into the kitchen to sit at the table like normal people. I was ashamed listening to her very decent English. It was her first time to Italy and I felt badly for being a drop-out, phantom roommate, but moreso because the men here were the worst Italians I had seen, and she was developing a serious prejudice. We commiserated for a bit before I tried to cheer her up with news of Scilla, an isolated beach I discovered a short train ride up the coast and of a nice, helpful man I met that day. He had followed me unsuccessfully for several blocks, then re-appeared hours later as I sat on the boardwalk, one of the few to break me with persistence. I told her about how, when he went to grab my pencil so he could draw detailed maps of places to go and stay, I couldn’t help flinching bitterly: “Oh Michelle! Why are you a-Freud?”
“I’m not a-Freud, I’ve never even been to therapy!”
She recounted being propositioned by a Carabinieri when she made the mandatory student trip to register at the police station and passed on a rumour about a paradise a couple hours away called Tropea. The school was filled with Americans barely fluent in English, yet her sister, a student of English and Italian throughout her schooling, as all Serbians are (_bon_giorno!), had been denied a VISA at the last minute. Continued attempts to get her in were behind Caterina’s regular confabs with Francesco and our third, empty bedroom. When she found out I was four years older than her and not the exact opposite, as she presumed, she erupted with dolefully sweet surprise, her glowing skin shining in the low light. My door was never fixed and I was glad, functioning having triumphed over working once again.
I had grilled my cartographer friend, who insisted his name was Giorgio Armani, about everything from phone cards to ferry rides, but mainly I focused on staving off the bends brought on by the constant nodding “conversation” with him demanded. He could kiss his fingertips with complete ingenuousness, sometimes three times on a single topic, once to assent, again to authenticate the answer, and a third time to augment his praise. When he got stuck on a word —"Le suore. . . lady prayers? The women with God?" “Nuns?” “None-es?”-he would insist on writing it out himself as I dictated.
An insatiable student of English, he was thrilled to learn the word for saccoapelo (backpacker), and proper pronunciation of porr (poor), schedule (took a hit on that one) niece and nephew. In return, he offered me a ride to San Giovanni and the subsequent use of his car in Sicily for the princely sum of one dollar. He was more concerned with the status of my driver’s license than whether he could trust me to return his car to the Messinia harbour. Days later I was waiting in the Reggio station, relatively decked out in a kelly green wrap-around skirt and a white boat-necked top. A commotion from across the platform drew my eye to Giorgio Armani and his bicycle. I was I knew I was in for it. “Mee-chelle! Look at you! You never called!” (rallying) “Look at her! Stupendo! Beautiful and elegant!” Oh Giorgio.
Back on the boardwalk that first day, it was two hours before I got him to draw a blank by asking if he knew of a village called “Filinia Viliatura” or “Vilinia” or any of the other possibilities my dad had given me. The sight of his face gone suddenly lax was the more worrisome after his display of a pathological knowledge of Calabria. When I told him my mission, he was back on board, and began spewing the cheerful vitriol of his conversational low tide with even greater force at the thought of my father never having travelled the course I was about to plot.
I took to finger-drawing rude signs on this dusty conundrum during walks home. Had the origins of our strange name never come up in my dad’s conversation with his father? How could he never try to find out for sure? He always seemed interested, but never interested enough, to me. One evening I ducked into an untested phone booth to make the usual, and usually useless, attempt at contact. When my dad answered I realized my phone card had only two euros left and got right to the point: I was fine, the name he gave me of my great-grandparents’ village wasn’t on any map and no one here had heard of it. He rhubarb rhubarbed a bit, then gave me the breaking news that it was likely too small to be on a map. I lost patience. Flatly: “Well, dad, if it’s not on a map I don’t know how I’m supposed to find it.” He sounded very far away. The peripheral honking swelled to fill the silence on the phone as I watched the euro count dwindle on the tiny screen.
He said he’d call the cousin who knew the exact name. “Call back tomorrow”. I kicked out of the booth, snarked at the boys draped across my path and waded homeward, through waist-deep self-righteousness. After 26 years of prodding, I had had to cross the earth, languish in a strange city for two weeks and allude to various brinks and breakdowns before he agreed to make the phone call that would give me the answer. I nodded at my fruitstand vendor before turning the final corner to my building. Ma ronne.
The next day I happened upon the tourist office I once sought for several hours in Reggio’s unlabelled streets. Inside were two old men, one pamphlet and not a word of English between them; they looked on languidly as I turned my back to mock-peruse a map on the wall, gathering myself to storm the beach. I knew the answer was over there somewhere. One hour and a tour de force performance wherein I managed to pantomime “marriage license”, construct a family tree on a matchbook and squeak out “grande nonno” later, the materialization of a huge almanac was my reward.
As one gentleman looked under the f’s for “Fee-leen-ee-a / V-qual cosa”, I copied out hotel numbers for Tropea. I heard a grunt and looked up to see the book sliding toward me, a great, blunted fingertip smudging the tiny print on the translucent paper: ‘Figline Vegliaturo, 15 km SE of Cosenza.’ “Molto molto piccolo” they said, nodding. “Si”, I said, struggling not to lunge across the counter and knock their heads together with kisses. I pecked and fussed at the book, lingering like a retarded parakeet in an unlatched cage; my sense of the occasion seemed wholly unreciprocated. It was time to get the hell out of Reggio.
Taking the train home from my final trip to Scilla I tallied up the things left to do: ask Caterina how to say “City Hall”, make a dinner to eat in Tropea, ask Caterina how to say “great grandfather”. A shadow darkened the seat beside me, began talking, asking me to kiss him, refused to disembark before I did when we pulled into Reggio. He followed me to the end of the deserted platform, the empty washroom there my rather imperative destination. Realizing that the washroom was now not an option, I swung back toward him, stopping inches from his face to demand what he was doing. I felt a feral urge to grab him by the throat. As I hit my derisive stride, his ears seemed to flatten against his head, traces of his brittle smirk snapping off like icicles from a gingerbread house. I paused, drawing back in momentary fear of what I might be dealing with. Then I turned and walked away, without looking back.
That night I woke up at midnight to the sound of drilling against my wall, Francesco’s voice surfing in on the din. I saw the noise of the drill tightly stacking the darkness with iridescent font: BBRRATTATATATATATAT DDRRRRRATATATA. Slipping through the crevices, Francesco’s words reassembled to paper my walls with paragraphs, encrypting them with text. In my head and then into pillow the refrain “Please, just go.” battered themselves against his implacable cursive battalion.
The moment he left, approximately 10 years later, I slipped out of bed and edged through the dark into the bathroom. I went straight for the tub but even by the moonlight it was clearly the same sludgy mire. I turned to go but was caught in a clock-shaped mirror, complete with faux half moon alarm bells. My eyes were lost in shadow but they looked to be about quarter past the hour.
The next morning, after unloading the sheet, I bought my farewell basket of strawberries. I don’t know if my favoured vendor noticed the suitcase idling by the eggplant crates but he posed his “Basta cosi?” with a little more gravitas than usual. For once I was pretty sure it was.
Reading in Reggio:
The Wings of the Dove, by Henry James
The Global Soul, by Pico Iyer