Wednesday, August 12, 2009

E non ho amato mai tanto la vita...

I've made the long journey back home after what may have been the most wonderful 5 weeks of my life. But I'll get to my feeling about that in a moment. First on the list is the events and happenings of my last week in Urbania.

Our last week of rehearsals was spent in the Teatro Bramante, where the performance also was. Its built like many European theaters, which a raked stage and circular box seating. The ceiling is painted with images of Earth, Wind, Fire, and Water. It's an adorable theater, and I felt like I stepped into a music box when I walked onstage. Teatro Bramante isn't big by any standards, but it has much personality and charm, and I loved exploring around the many different corridors and hidden areas.

To be honest, our first few rehearsals in the theater did not go well. Many of the students were still insecure in the music, which was a huge disappointment and problem. Our conductor was not pleased, but I knew the music and was not worried about being on the wrong side of the line. However, after some "tough love", so to speak, we felt prepared and made it work. L'Elisir D'Amore is a beautiful story, and probably one of the first operas that shows the nerd wins and gets the girl. Nemorino, a shy, nerdy, poor, and generally awkward guy, is in love with Adina, who is beautiful, rich, and flirty, and thinks Nemorino is sweet, but a waste of time. So Nemorino gets desperate, and buys a "love potion" from Dr. Duclamara, a quack doctor. But between some more desperate acts on Nemorino's part, the death of his rich uncle, and some attention from the chorus girls, Nemorino gets Adina in the end, much to the displeasure of the baritone.

Tuesday was Cate's birthday, and I spent some time looking around Urbania trying to find poppies for her. Poppies are the birthday flower for August, but since its winter at this time in New Zealand, where she's from, she's never had them on her birthday. I thought this would be a good idea, and started going to floral shops. My first stop was at Lady Man, which I think used to be a men's/women's clothing store, and the name didn't change when it became a flower shop. Still, its a funny name, and run by a guy that looks like Mafia material. I went into the shop and started asking about poppies, and of course, couldn't remember the word for "poppy" in Italian. I must have been talking very fast, because I was promptly told "Piano, piano" by the Lady Man guy. In the end it didn't really matter, because all Lady Man had were fake flowers, and I ended up buying Cate an orchid plant at another shop. But the Lady Man experience was worth it. There's probably guns in backroom.

All of the host family went out for dinner with Cate on Wednesday. And when I say the whole family, I mean it: Francesco, Leonarda, Hans, Giulia, Carlotta, Tobbia, Agatha, Gretta, Walter, Viola, and Cate's Australian friends Stewart, Natalie, and their children Emannuelle, Maya, and Noah. That's a lot of people and a lot of small children. Nota bene: it took me all 5 weeks to figure out how to spell Hans's name. Since "h" is always silent in Italian, so I heard "Antz", but thought, "That can't be spelled like that". So no, his name doesn't resemble that of an insect, but Hans. This means that he and his sister are Hansel and Gretel. Cute, no? But I realized when we were all together just how much I was going to miss them, and that I really didn't want to come back to the U.S.

Thursday afternoon I sang for Lanfranco, our maestro. There had been some confusion about me singing or not, but in the end I did. There were some nerves involved, of course, because he has connections with the Rossini Opera Festival in Pesaro and the Academia in Pesaro, something I'm very much interested in. I sang "Parto ma tu ben mio" and "Priva son", and got some very good advice. He told me to not take too many professional engagements too soon, and to not sing roles that were too big at the moment. He told me to start learning the roles of Rosina and Cenerentola, and suggested the Adacemia in 2 or 3 years, which made me quite happy.

Our performance of L'Elisir D'Amore was Friday evening, and everyone was pleased with the results. John, our tenor who sang Nemorino, was definitely a stand-out. The role of Nemorino fits his voice perfectly, and his acting was dead on for the role. The theater is just so much fun to sing in, and there's always more energy with an audience. It was a late night, however; the opera was scheduled to begin at 9, but this it Italy, and we began at about 9.20, and with both acts and an intermission, we finished close to midnight. After the performance most of the students went to Bruno's, one of the local watering holes. I had really never been there before, and definitely not at that hour, which made for an interesting experience. Cate came with me, and after a few glasses of wine, a fun conversation with Stephanie (during which I think she may have been trying to find a guy for me?), and saying ciao to other students, we headed home at 2.30.

By this time I was in denial about leaving Italy, as was Cate, since she was moving into her own apartment on Sunday. I just could not bring myself to think about leaving Italy, Francesco, Leonarda, Cate, and all of the other wonderful people I'd gotten to know. 5 weeks is just the right amount of time to develop relationships with people, and leaving after that amount of time made me feel like I was simply abandoning everyone in Urbania.

But my last day in Italy was wonderful. Cate and I went to Pesaro in the morning, and stayed until the shops closed for la pausa. I got some great deals in the shops, and probably spent more money than I should have. On the way back to Urbania, we stoped at a friend's country house, where some English tourists were staying and Cate was cleaning. The view of the hills from this house was enough to take your breath away, and I about burst into tears when I thought that I had to leave. After Cate finished cleaning at the house, we drove back into Urbania for a gelato with the Australian family, ran into Francesco, and then drove to Peglio. Peglio is a town of about 400 people 5k from Urbania on top of a hill. There's really nothing in Peglio except for the clock tower and the view which lends itself to great photography. We went to the top of the tower, and I could see Urbania and the other surrounding towns. When one stands on a place like that, or the Duomo of Firenze, you sense just how wide the world is, and all of the different places and people to see, and how small we are in the midst of this spectacular existence.

After returning home, the host family and I went out for one final dinner together. And while the pumpkin ravioli and steak were wonderful, Leonarda's cooking really is better than any restaurant food I've ever had. When I expressed my nerves about flying the next day, Francesco told me to drink some wine to relax. We later had Limoncello with the guy who ran the restaurant in his winter room, and I was indeed relaxed. We walked around the piazza for a while after dinner talking to friends, and also saw Hans and Giulia and the grandchildren. Carlotta chased Cate around the statue of Sant Cristoforo, and Tobbia began a game of catch with me, which mostly involved me running all over the piazza after his plastic ball. Before leaving to go home, Francesco asked me if I was sad to leave Urbania, and when I said yes, he patted my head and told me it would be OK. Even though I knew he was right, I still was not looking forward to packing and returning home.

Because my bus for Roma was leaving at 2.30 in the morning, I decided to just not go to bed that night. I still had most of my packing to do, and it seemed simpler. Leonarda said good-night and good-bye to me when we came back home from the piazza. The reality that I was leaving began to set in, and a few tears rolled down my face. Leonarda gave me a very motherly hug and told me not to cry, that I am a kind and generous girl that will be missed, and to give her best to my parents. Francesco also said good-bye and seconded Leonarda's words. Leonarda went to bed, and Francesco stayed up for a bit; I don't know if he intended to stay up until I left, because he fell asleep on the couch with the TV on. But I packed up my things, and left the apartment with Cate at 2.00. Leaving at that hour, I felt like I was running away, or simply vanishing into the dark night sky. And just like that, I was gone.

I feel like I was in Italy long enough to make some observations about the country, the people, and the culture in general. Here we go:

1. Italy really is as beautiful as books, film, and travel guides and shows lead you to believe. Being surrounded by such magnificent beauty, it isn't hard to see how some of the world's greatest achievements in art and music came from this country. When surrounded by such spectacular scenery, inspiration almost comes naturally.

2. The food. Oh, the food. The food is even better than I thought. In America, we tend to overcook our pasta and then drown it in sauce. But Italian cooking is much more simple and subtle than we would like to think. Everything Leonarda made was beyond words, but I do have some favorites: rice salad (rice, grape tomatoes, olives, mozzarella, corn, olive oil, tuna, basil, and capers), her meat sauce which she made every weekend and took hours to cook. It had sweet undertones and she cooked sausage links in it. Risotto alla Milanese (risotto with saffron), and the roasted tomatoes topped with bread crumbs, oil and vinegar. I've tried making some of these dishes here, but its just not the same.

Speaking of food, Italy is the only place where I have ever been peer pressured into eating. Leonarda would always give me a huge bowl of pasta followed by meat, salad, or something similar. When I finished, she would offer me more, and if I said I was full, she'd give me more food anyways. One Saturday the entire family came over for lunch, and after having a bowl of ravioli, Hans, Francesco, and Leonarda insisted I have some tortellini, because I needed it. I learned that I just can't win, and dig in.

3. Italians do most things slowly, except for drive and drink coffee. In America, when you go out for coffee, a 3-hour conversation is usually a part of the deal. In Italy, going out for coffee means you get your espresso, drink it in under a minute and go.
Traffic laws are sometimes just a suggestion, especially when turn signals are concerned. Why use a turn signal when you can just go? I also saw a few people drive on the sidewalk when the mood hit them, and driving at speeds over 80 mph on the highway is perfectly normal.

4. The stereotype about Italian men and their mothers is true. Enough said.

5. Italian culture, at least in a small town, is very open and welcoming. Whenever I would talk with people and say how much I love Italy, a huge smile would appear on their faces as if to say "Of course! How could you not love Italy?". I met so many people during my 5 weeks simply by walking into a store and asking questions, or by saying hello to the lady down the street. Italian culture is easy to slide into, mostly because they want you to be a part of it too.
And while gender roles in Italy are very traditional, I never felt that the culture was sexist, but that women are very much appreciated and respected. The men constantly compliment women on their looks, but usually it was with sincere intentions. When one of the older men told me I looked like a Botticelli painting, it wasn't because he was a creeper, but because he thought I looked like a Botticelli painting. There are the people you know to avoid, however, and I did so, sometimes by pretending I was Russian and didn't understand Italian or English. Its all part of the learning experience.

The rest of my journey was fairly uneventful: arriving at Fiumicimo and saying good-bye to the other students, flying from Roma to London with a group of middle-aged Italians from Bari set for a week in Scotland, trying to stay awake in Heathrow, and the 8-hour plane ride to Chicago, followed by 4 hours in a car home. I arrived in the USA at about 9.30 Sunday night, and we made it back to Indiana by 2.30 Monday morning. I was happy to see my family, of course, but after having been up since 8.00 am Saturday morning (2.00 am US time…so that makes a total of 48 hours with really no sleep?), I was exhausted and ready to sleep.

And so my Italian adventure was over, and now I’m back. I’m still slightly jet-lagged and experiencing culture shock, but I’m here. I miss Italy, and all of the people and places I left there. You may ask how is it that me, someone who always has struggled with homesickness, can miss a place half-way across the world? It’s because after years of looking for my place in the world and somewhere that I feel like myself, and after failing many times, I found what I was looking for. Never before have I felt so free and so comfortable with myself, and I never knew that life could be so beautiful, or that a culture could be so welcoming. Cate and I had a talk about this very topic, and the welcoming atmosphere is the very reason she decided to move here, and despite the not-so-wonderful things we’ve seen of life while there (deaths, friends having housing troubles at the expense of others…), we still haven’t felt happier. For the first time in my life, everything felt right.

I’m going back to Italy. I don’t know how, or when, but I’m going back.

Ci vediamo presto!