> SlowTrav > Stories > A Mind's Eye in Italy

The Time Between - Can an Ex-Pat Truly Return?

Nancy Lytle

Rome, March 2005

I'm in Trastevere, that acquired-taste of a Roman neighborhood that is a challenge every moment of every day, beginning with the first step outside on an early spring morning --- and a stumble over one of the gaps created by millions of missing cobbles. The spaces between the intact cobbles are stuffed with cigarette butts, bits of plastic, odure of every description, and brave blades of new grass. All I want is to make it to the Ombre Rosse, the Red Shadows cafe, for a cappuccino, so I walk carefully, one eye tracking danger on the ground. For months, I have dreamed of a daily stroll to this cafe where I can, for ten days at least, feel like I am back in Italian life.

A complete set of car and house keys is resting on an iron trash receptacle as I pass through the Piazza Santa Maria. I picture someone retracing steps far into the night to no avail. Finally, a taxi or a long walk home. The steps around the fountain are momentarily empty of young people and dogs. Later on this afternoon, I'll go for a drink with friends who live in a house on the piazza --- I have a little surge of well-being about it.

The outdoor area at the cafe is almost deserted, deep in cool shade. As I wait for my coffee, a sleepy man ties up his black dog to a stack of chairs and goes inside, yawning. He's obviously a regular, exactly what I want to be, one of those People of Trastevere who seldom cross the river and belong to the special group of quirky, neighborhood individualists. The thought does cross my mind that I am way too old to be this simplistically romantic. After all, I've lived in Italy already. Five years all together. No good reason to justify nonsense.

The cappuccino is good. The pace of foot traffic picks up as the sun spills over into the lane. Across the way, a shape emerges from a pile of cartons, a voice calling out, "Massimo, un cappuccino per Don Giovanni." The man, bearded and in a grimy overcoat, shuffles over, making huffing sounds. Avoiding eye contact, I feel the beginning of annoyance, a buried residue from twenty years in the Haight Ashbury.

"Massimo, un cappuccino per Don Giovanni, un cappuccino per Don Giovanni, un capucc---," is repeated until the guy from the cafe comes out with a plastic cup, shaking his head and laughing. "Don Giovanni" makes a deal of stretching his aching back before graciously accepting his free coffee. After another perusal of who's who in the outdoor area, he gets on with his apparent first job of the day, guarding the black dog tied up outside. There is sitting, petting, talking --- conversation with the pooch and with everyone else who walks by. Several people stop to chat, calling him Gianni. Everyone is affectionate.

Eventually, the sleepy guy comes out, thanks Gianni for watching his dog, has a few words and strolls off. An old memory bobs up; I flash on one particular homeless man named Johnny that hung out for years in my old neighborhood, Cole Valley, who was "our" guy. This Gianni goes with this vicinanza, one of the "special group of quirky, neighborhood individualists" who come with the territory.

In my room at the Hotel Cisterna in Trastevere, the windows are open, with a balmy end-of-March breeze, voices of people clearing out a garden below, hammering on metal, a dog or two yapping, and traffic --- always traffic. It's mid-morning and the aroma of frying garlic is beginning to waft through the air. Lunch is a mere three hours away. This is my last week of a month-long journey away from my current home in Santa Fe. I spent a few nights near Piazza Navona after arriving in Rome, a week in Taormina with friends, nine days in Paris --- and now a final ten days in Trastevere. I feel surprisingly neutral about leaving next week, a first for me.

In the past, my heart would ache for days before I had to leave Italy, even when I lived here and knew I would return to a home I had made. Something might happen, something might stop me from coming back; the horror of that thought would keep me awake at night.

The original plan for this trip was to take time to find an affordable apartment in either Rome or Paris. After two years back in the U.S. and the depressing election results, I've been wanting out --- again. This time I have a house I can exchange or rent out, maybe even for just three or six months a year, so I could, theoretically, spend extended time again in Europe. By the time my departure date rolled around, however, I realized that the present (and on-going) exchange rate made the whole idea ridiculous from a financial standpoint. My previous five years of living in Italy had been in a cushy bubble of strong dollars and no hint of a 9/11. After the disaster, I still held out for another year before I moved back, in early 2003.

So, the last few weeks have been, more or less, a holiday, spending lots of weak dollars, and thinking "what if." What if the dollar regained strength, what if the economy rebounded? These things will probably correct themselves with time, I can tell myself and, with a sigh, order another vino bianco.

However, now that my return to the U.S. is nearing, other issues are lounging with me in charming cafes, whispering like little annoying homeless spirits in my ear. Would I, could I, ever be as happy again as when I first moved to Italy in 1998? To make the move once more and not feel the ecstasy --- how awful would that be? To be a renter again in Italy (or France), once more under the thumb of a landlord with an inexplicable agenda. To face yet again my phobic loathing of any contact whatsoever with foreign medical or dental facilities. The little spirits are multiplying, it seems. Mi lasci in pace...

Perhaps most importantly, has too much time passed since I lived here? Although Italy and Italians seem familiar and wonderful as usual, I feel different. I'm more interested now than before in having a sense of belonging. A country I am from, where I live because I am part of it, not just as an explorer, an adventurer, a student of its culture. Of course this is a by-product of getting older, I can tell myself with complete confidence. Encore di vino, per favore.

Outside the window, a little church bell is ringing, anticipating noon by three minutes. I'm starting to think about lunch, seriously. A short walk will result in a plate of delicious risotto --- that's an immutable fact, not a vaporous thought. And as far as ecstasy goes, all I have to do is think about my recent nine days in Paris. I haven't lived there yet. Plenty of ecstasy to be had in Paris for a couple of years, I'm sure.


Nancy Lytle lived in Italy for five years, writing manuscripts for two novels and various travel essays.

© Nancy Lytle, 2005

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