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New Pleasures in Old Things

 F. Scott Fitzgerald — "Life starts all over again when it gets crisp in the fall."

The transition to autumn makes old things, like dried-up leaves and harvest-time traditions and knitted sweaters pulled out of storage, feel new. And on a longer time cycle, being in one's 30s (hair starting to change color, skin drying and flesh ripening!) is a magical time in life when our ancestors a thousand years ago began to get really old (like, toothless, hairless, infertile, infirm old) and which is today, according to the Italians at least, just the beginning of adulthood. (Everybody is ragazze until age 30.) This year, I've been enjoying the hell out of lots of old, crunchy, dusty, fermented, dried-up, patina-covered, story-drenched things in my life that have been somehow transformed through the passage of time into fresh, novel experiences that carry with them that sharp complexity that only an aging process can deliver.

In my 30s, I've reached an age when I can experience the flavors of my youth over again on different levels. Meanwhile, human civilization has reached the explosive information age, in which I have the historically unprecedented power to search through the virtually limitless annals of human anthropological, archaeological, biological, and geological history with the tap of an iPhone or a few keys on my library branch's computer. I can scrutinize every detail of every stroke of marginalia on each page of the digitized Book of Kells. I can call up forgotten works of literature from the catacombs of library storage and inhale the pages of a book no one has touched in a hundred years. On a smaller scale, I watch the lives of my own childhood's Troll dolls and Popple and Lego sets from 25 years ago reincarnated in the unique imagination of my daughter.

Remember those dangerous metal and dirt playgrounds? Still the best!!!

I've learned that with just about anything from the past, from my own life or from the far reaches of human history, reliving the story is so much more fun than living it in real time. (Think Renaissance Faire vs. the actual Spanish Inquisition.)

willow tree, photographed by three-year-old Nux Gallica

So many things improve with age--teenagers, various cheeses and spirits, beautiful trees, memories of winding paths taken--both easy and hard. I am so grateful and appreciative now, in my 30s, that I traveled to many exotic places and had many soul-trying adventures in my teens and 20s. I usually couldn't see it at the time--lying in that hospital bed in the Mexican highlands with the donkey and rooster singing a duet outside my window, or shaking in my high-heeled boots that time I got trapped on a cobblestone bridge in Rome between a pro-Saddam Hussein march and the riot police--but those crazy, mortal-terror-sweaty, confusing, even bitter moments experienced in unfamiliar places always make the best stories and somehow ferment into the most savory of recollections to enjoy later, from the comfort of settled, safe and secure, real grownup life.

My fantasy babydaddy Till Lindemann (who was just starting his rockstar career at age 30) once said, "You've got a kind of inner store. When things aren't going well, you just go inside and get a glass of travel preserves for your soul, open it and fill up on it."

Speaking of things that get more delicious with age... Awww yeah, Grandpa Till! You keep on rocking out! With Gogol Bordello! And Molotov! And those new young kids get off my lawn!

Till's travel memories involve hunting anacondas and contracting tropical diseases, and mine aren't quite as exciting, but they still give my soul a surprising kick once in a while.

That's So Last Decade: Reading Eat, Pray, Love a Dozen Years Late

For example, I finally read the book Eat, Pray, Love on a whim this summer and discovered that the author, Elizabeth Gilbert, was living in Rome at the same time I was. She was licking the same gelato, drinking the same espresso, and devouring the same pasta. Not only that, but we may have crossed paths in other locations around Italy, like Venice and Naples, where we waited in line for the same slice of legendary, transcendent pizza.

Her description of her experiences of Rome and other parts of Italy a dozen years ago was like time travel for me--it brought back so many memories of experiences we shared, unbeknownst to me at the time--and it also threw into stark relief experiences we did not share. Perhaps some of it is due to the way we have both recreated that time and place in the stories we have crafted about it--intentionally or not. But some of it surely demonstrates how the same exact setting can be a whole parallel universe away from that setting lived by another person. Mine was a little more like...

Eat, Pray, F***u!

Thanks to Elizabeth Gilbert for showing me the spelling of the abbreviated Italian expletive I heard so often, but which no one would explain to me. This blog is rated PG, so you'll have to read her book if you want to learn it too.

My college roommate and I arrived in Rome several weeks before Liz (as I will call her here for brevity like she's now my imaginary friend), during a deadly heat wave that had emptied out the city like fascist warfare. Those who hadn't died of heatstroke had fled to the seaside, so we were dropped off in front of a sun-scorched, ghost town slum house in the most sad and degraded area of the Monteverde neighborhood. Every window in every building was closed with a heavy, black metal shutter resembling an industrial garage door. Because there are almost no buildings in Rome with the electrical infrastructure to handle air conditioning (even a window unit) and no stores were open where we could even buy a fan, we were advised to stand in a cold shower on and off throughout the day to stay alive.

This didn't, of course, dampen our excitement for exploration, even fresh off a zero-sleep red-eye flight over the Atlantic. Nor did the fact that my six-months-worth of luggage was somehow lost forever in the clutches of the notoriously luggage-hungry Da Vinci airport, nor the fact that every sight worth seeing was at least a 45-minute walk made up almost entirely of stone and concrete stairs in the brutal heat. The thrill of youthful adventure compelled me to hit the ground running, wearing my sandals to pieces (the only footwear I then possessed)--literally to pieces, falling off of my swollen, lacerated, and blistered feet before I could find a retail establishment that could and would sell me another pair with the credit card I had brought in lieu of actual money.

The door to our apartment building didn't fit in the frame, so it was wedged permanently in a partly-ajar position. We didn't mind so much at first because there didn't seem to be any other human beings in the neighborhood, and the door to our apartment itself (up six flights of broken stairs, no elevator, not that we would have dared use a Roman elevator) was a prison-style slab of steel with various types of locks and deadbolts installed haphazardly, with industrial hardware, from top to bottom.

When the people of Rome flooded back into town in early September, about the time Liz must have arrived, the entire city went through a fantastical transformation that I was truly shocked not to find mentioned in the pages of Eat, Pray, Love. It was the fall of 2003, at the height of Bush's troop surge into Iraq, just before the largest anti-war demonstration in the history of the world was about to take place in the city of Rome. In Monteverde and over the surrounding hills, down into the valley of the Tiber and around the Forum and through the Vatican City and extending out into every single neighborhood of Rome, including the one Liz arrived in (which she joked wasn't even really a "neighborhood" unless you could call the Guccis "neighbors"--haha, good one, Liz!), was blanketed from clothesline to rooftop, highest balcony to lowest window, corner to corner of every block, with bold, bright, flapping, billowing rainbow flags beaming the word PACE in four-foot-high block letters from every visible surface.

"Yeah," slurred our alcoholic classmates at the American tourist university, "they're really into gay rights here."

The university, conveniently located just a few blocks from my apartment (accessible only through a brick arch in a medieval papal wall through which several fast and busy streets converge and cross each other at random angles, where catastrophic bus, automobile, motorino, and pedestrian collisions occur on a regular basis), seemed (admittedly, to my cynical 20-year-old mind) to be a daycare center for rich 20-something Americans who were not capable of functioning independently but whose parents desperately wanted them as far away from home as possible.

The citizens of Monteverde seemed not to appreciate the presence of these American students in their shops, cafes, buses, or streets. To this day, I am not sure if it was more the fault of the d-bag-magnet school or the Iraq war, but upon being recognized as Americans, we were refused service in shops and restaurants, shoulder-checked off the sidewalk, sexually assaulted on the bus, and playfully bumped by laughing automobile drivers who would sometimes even swerve up over the curb to give us a thrill. If we dared step outside in dumpy sweatshirts or with overweight friends, we were followed by pointing fingers and raucous laughter. We were pick-pocketed, groped, slapped, mocked, and threatened. Whenever we tried to escape the screaming, terrifying fury of Rome for a day trip, we were often greeted between airport and hostel (most memorably in Athens, Greece, while sharing a bus with a drunk American student using her outside voice to incessantly repeat a tale of a one-night stand she'd just had involving anal sex--"LUBE IS KEY, YOU GUYS!"--to an audience of humiliated fellow Americans and nonplussed Greeks) with spray-painted messages in English along the lines of "F*** AMERICA GO HOME."

Talk about culture shock.

I had never felt so defensive about my American identity nor so humiliated by it at the same time. My perspective was totally blown apart about the meanings of war, poverty, stereotype, otherness, and the importance of those little things lost in transit and translation.

Meanwhile, I spent the next five months in Rome desperately lacking appropriate clothing, personal care items, enough food to eat, shelter from the elements (our apartment windows and terrace door did not fully close, and our heating system did not work, so we slept on plastic mats laid between puddles and bundled in everything we owned, like homeless people), safety, and consistent electrical and phone services. Every single classmate of mine ended up bailing out before our planned six months abroad, so I had to put an extra plane ticket on my credit card as well and flee earlier than planned... yet not early enough to experience Christmas that year in any way one might anticipate. (First world problems, I know.)

All this hardship forced me to find inner strengths and superpowers that I did not ever know I possessed. Upon my return, I stepped off the plane in the United States feeling stunned that I had actually survived to touch my feet on the good old New World once again, and I knew from then on that I could make it through many things I had previously thought impossible. (No Christmas at all? And yet here I am, building a replica of the Venus de Milo out of Michigan snow!)

It also heightened the pleasurable sensations of my time abroad--the rare but soul-sustaining, random kindnesses by Roman strangers and neighbors who took pity on me or finally melted under my dogged persistence in trying to make friends, the richness of gelato and espresso, the music of voices reverberating within a medieval church sanctuary or baroque piano chords bouncing through a cold marble stairwell.

Rome has style, I will give it that. People argue with style, swear with style, ride the bus with style (steel stiletto heels stabbed into the corrugated flooring, the balance of a string dancer, an untouchable aura of Marchesa di Casati-esque troubled grandeur), and create every handmade product, from lattes to shoes, with pride.

The very decay of Rome is elegant. My first evening there (giddy after two time-warped days without sleep, followed by hours of hiking up and down stairs through the city), I was unmoored by the sunset that blazed like an Old Master fresco of gilded clouds through the forests of TV antennas that crowded the sky above the apartment buildings. From that first day, I felt buoyed along by the sense that every moment could be my last, that I was being swept along in an ancient storm of tyranny spiraling off a fall from greatness that had never ended since the Caesars, whose temples now reek of the piss of stray cats and men. The tragedy of the crumbling Forum, the ruins of palaces layered atop the ruins of older palaces, the poverty scavenging sustenance from the bleached, naked arches and towers that resemble the bones of a giant carcass, the white statues of immortal beings antiqued by the black grime of diesel exhaust and the pits of acid rain--all this "beauty in the breakdown" (as the Frou Frou song played on every radio) made me feel that death, if not welcome, could be at least aesthetically pleasing.

Of course, I didn't go to Rome to die. I also didn't go there for some necessary college credit (though, like Hermione Granger, I feared the loss of my financial aid slightly more than I feared death, which is why I did not bail out and fly home sooner). I chose the destination of Rome for the same reason Elizabeth Gilbert did, to learn the most beautiful language in the world. We both yearned to taste it on our tongues and feel its vowels humming in our throats like the chords of a Stradivarius.

Early on, we both discovered a favorite word. Liz says that hers was attraversiamo ("Let's cross over"). How delightful! How adventurous! (Especially on Roman streets!) How friendly! My experience being so different from the start (lacking friends in Rome to welcome me, lacking the wealth to live in a safe neighborhood, lacking that untouchable rich lady aura that repels the dry humpers on the bus), my favorite word was lasciare. La-SHA-re. To let, to allow, to surrender, to leave. As in, "Lascia ch'io pianga," "Let Me Weep," Handel's aria written for the last castrato.

Melodramatic? Yes, oh yes. Luscious melodrama was one of my only comforts at the time, and now, it flavors my travel stories with melancholy humor.

My time in Rome was a riot of sensory bombardment. Yes, there was delicious food and exquisite music. There was beauty and fragrance. There was also horrific noise--"Roman conversations" involving two people shouting a sentence over and over while their opponent simultaneously repeated another, traffic screeching and smashing every so often, whole symphonies of car alarms going off along streets packed with triple-parked vehicles, intersections where no one paid attention to the lights and everyone leaned on their horns as they blasted through, the hornet-on-steroids whine of motorbikes, the snapping bursts of firecrackers and small bombs going off on every rooftop, terrace, and street corner during every frigging Italian holiday--of which there are many--and the bone-jarring screech of the alarm on the side of my apartment building that went off endlessly and senselessly every time the electricity went out, which was awfully frequent. There was an indescribable stench of overflowing trash heaps rotting in the sun, the remnants of the weekly fish markets, the urine of cats and people, and streams of liquid dog shit trickling down every sidewalk in my neighborhood, where everyone seemed to have a  dog and every dog had chronic diarrhea. (And there is no grass anywhere, and everyone lives in an apartment--you do the math!) Even on cold days, it was hard to walk down the street without gagging.

During those five months in Rome, I was assaulted, stolen from, shouted at, insulted, degraded, starved, shunned, and bribed with paltry amounts of food and money to keep silent about the shortcomings of my educational program. And even while it was happening, I pulled in all those sensations, the cold of marble, the medieval city stench, the mortal terror, the shrieking sirens, the blaring horns and car alarms and repeated cycles of rapid-fire exclamations rolling over and over each other like squirrels locked in mortal combat... the wonder and the terror, the sweetness and the bitters, the heat and the cold, the horror and the divine beauty... I knew that someday, after the PTSD symptoms had faded and I no longer found myself tucking and rolling into the bushes when a car backfired, I knew the dread would dry up into a potpourri of strength, hilarity, and wisdom that would be invigorating to uncork in years to come.

It is amazing to me, even considering our difference in means and social connection, how very different my story of that time in Rome is from Elizabeth Gilbert's. She mentions, briefly, the historic war protest, the capriciousness of the mail system, and the frequency of mass strikes that would halt public transportation and emergency services over and over again. But that bit about people telling her that all the Italian men had suddenly stopped groping women on the bus? What? And no mention of the crush of homelessness, pickpocketing, stray cats, general desperation? And what's this thing about Rome not caring to compete with the rest of Europe--where on earth was she on the White Night?

There is no bubble in Rome for the privileged. Roman wealth is a medieval type of grandeur, which rises above a backdrop of picturesque depravity and decay. I've been through Liz's neighborhood. It's where all the best high-end shopping happens, near the Piazza del Popolo and the Spanish Steps. The area is so heavily laden with beggars that there is a permanent sign beside the Spanish Steps asking people to please not defecate on them. The stink of garbage, urine, and dog diarrhea may have been greater on my side of town, but that isn't saying much.

And really, really, where was she on La Notte Bianca? The White Night is a new European tradition, initiated by France, during which there are festivities in the streets, free public transportation, and free samples given out by local businesses, from dusk until dawn. All the lights of the city stay on until morning, and everyone parties all night.

In the fall of 2003, Rome decided to get in on the action. Unfortunately, Italy chose (apparently it is not on the same date in all nations) a weekend during the Jewish High Holy Days. Maybe this is why Liz missed out; many of the high-end shops in her neighborhood were actually closed down and darkened, bags of trash plopped in the middle of the narrow sidewalks, because they were owned by observant Jews who had gone home to celebrate their own holiday.

All my classmates went out to celebrate Rome's first White Night. Considering that public transportation, commerce, and electricity are sporadic at best in Rome, I felt that the night would surely end in disaster. But I kept my mouth shut, refusing to play Cassandra, and marched silently down the hillsides and mazes of concrete steps with my cohorts that evening. The idea was so popular that the streets in the Trastevere area quickly filled to bursting, so that children were trampled, the elderly were carried off in the crush of bodies, and buses were stranded in the middle of the streets, overrun with passengers crawling over each other inside and on top of them, demanding their promised free ride.

And all this was before night fell.

When the buildings around me started to redden with the ominous gloaming of a Roman sunset, I told my classmates, "I'm out of here." No one wanted to come with me--after all, there was free admittance into the Coliseum!--so I turned tail and literally ran for the hills, alone. I had been pounding up concrete stairs for about forty minutes when I heard the screams. I looked behind me, down toward the valley of the Tevere, and watched the whole, glorious skyline of the Vatican and downtown Rome turn black. The screams of a million people lost in the dark were peppered with shots--gunfire? more fireworks?--accompanied by the wailing of many impotent sirens and finally drowned out by my own hysterical laughter.

The rolling blackout swept up the hillsides and overtook me, and I staggered toward home, feeling my way along mossy brick walls and tripping over broken stone, laughing all the way.

Back inside the apartment, I fastened all the locks from top to bottom, threw myself onto my plastic mat, and buried myself in all my clothes to muffle the window-rattling percussion of firecrackers and M-80s thrown from the surrounding rooftops.

In the morning, I discovered that my classmates had finally returned home in the wee hours of morning, bearing a great story about being trapped in pitch blackness within a mob of people inside the Coliseum, and that the world outside looked as though it had been through a siege. Trash cans were blown to pieces, garbage and ashes fluttered on the wind, buildings were charred and sometimes totally destroyed, and the air smelled of burning tires.

To this day, I am not sure whether Rome considered its first White Night a success.

I'm Not Old, I'm Vintage: Nirvana Can Be Oldies Now

One more thing that really pissed me off about Rome was the local MTV broadcast. They kept showing 1990s videos, such as "Smells Like Teen Spirit," with the label "Vintage" emblazoned across the screen. I was still being called a ragazza (girl, kid) by everyone, and yet an album I had purchased with my own babysitting money was being called "vintage?"

Too. Soon.

Now that we have a comfortable two decades between the present and Nevermind, I am ready to open a bottle of vintage '90s nostalgia.

I'm also ready to look back on my own youth, laugh at it, and feel grateful for hard-won maturity. I am ready to BE vintage.

I told some of my Rome stories over aged cheese and charcuterie to a friend (who sells beautifully refurbished vintage jewelry) the other day, and we also swapped shared memories of Berkeley, California in the early "aughts" and its awesomely ironic culture of academia. Oh, the extremes! The beauty and the tragedy! The thrilling desolation of longing and not belonging! Those memories of youth and naivety and newness, the sweet and the sour mingled, add such complexity to the flavor of life now, in our 30s.

Even crappy memories of being an awkward teenager, by this age, break down into humor and whimsy. The other day, at the risk of dating myself, I pulled out a tiny-daisy-print, spaghetti strap maxidress from 579 (remember that store at the mall, '90s children???) and wore it to work on top of a white baby tee. What's that piece of advice? Ladies, when you get to the age when stuff in your closet that you bought new becomes vintage... F*** it, take it out again and rock it!

It's hard to feel old when you have a child, anyway. I get to experience the newness of life through her every day, at Cider Mills and old playgrounds made of recycled trash and the zoo and in antique children's books and the change of seasons that make every old thing new again. "Look, Mommy!" she says on our morning walk. "The trees are posing for us against the blue sky!"

There is nothing better than a cider mill in early fall, no better time than the sweet spot when the leaves are changing, when everything has ripened and aged to peak flavor, when the heat has mellowed but not gone, when new children play in new-fallen leaves and squirrels fatten up for a lazy winter, when the world, in celebration of its oldness, is by its very age renewed. At this point in my life, the idea of aging and "wise-ening" feels peculiarly exciting and novel--something to anticipate pleasurably--instead of something to be dreaded.

a squirrel hoard in my backyard

Ekkehard: A Nineteenth Century Tale of the Tenth Century

In the great scheme of things, of course, I am not the slightest bit old. In tenth century Europe, a woman of my age may have gone through menopause by now, lost half her teeth, and gone totally gray without the dignity of multi-tonal highlights. A woman my age would have already lived past average life expectancy and probably buried multiple children and other relatives along the way.

Today, though, I just barely qualify as a donna (adult woman) to the Italians, who have a deeply personal sense of the meaning of age.

But already, I know what I like, and I know how to follow my joy. That means enjoying my young family, working for a better world, and digging up musty old history to use as raw material for spanking new narratives.

Joseph Viktor von Scheffel

I am currently reading Ekkehard: A Tale of the Tenth Century written by an old, nineteenth-century German guy who I suspect may have sported a French braid (from his portrait in the frontispiece of the copy in my hands). It is a richly detailed, historical fiction about real people, Duchess Hadwig of Suabia and Ekkehard II, a monk and Latin scholar.

Once I get my hands on a copy of Volume II of this delightful story, I plan to review it for German Literature Month. Join me if moldy-old German romance is your thing too! 

Dear readers, what old things are giving you new pleasures this season?


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