Artist Date 90: Full

Outside Mercato Sant'Ambrogio.
Outside Mercato Sant’Ambrogio.

There’s an empty space in front of me where a wine glass used to be. It was there just a few minutes before I got up.  But now it’s gone.

It’s a God thing. I’m sure of it.

It is 10 a.m. and I am at a wine shop – the first stop on a walking food and wine tour of Florence – Artist Date 90.

I was the first to arrive on the piazza, to meet our guide Ishmael.  I refrain from any The Old Man and The Sea references.

He is from Latin America, but has made Florence – or more accurately, its environs – his home for more than 30 years. He is bearded and handsome and gentle.  As is the case with so many men here, I cannot tell for certain whether he is straight or gay.  I decide not to worry about it.

We wait for 10 others to join us. They come in groups of twos, like animals on Noah’s Ark.  I feel wildly liberated, untethered and free.

We walk a few blocks to a wine shop, where a long table is set up with stools, glasses and a variety of bruschetta.

I have not had a drink in nearly seven years. It is strange to be here.

And yet, this used to be my life. Conversations about the dwindling availability of cork, comparing plastic versus screw top.  Stainless steel versus oak.  I was living just an hour from the Napa Valley and spent a considerable amount of time there – tasting, learning, drinking.

I fancied myself fancy because I knew just a little bit.  Until the day when a stranger said to me, “Wine aficionado is just a fancy name for a drunk.”  I was incensed.  But in regards to me, he was right.

About half-way through the tasting Ishmael notices I do not have a glass. He asks if I would like one.  I shake my head, smile and say no.

“Are you sure,” he asks. I am very sure.

At the wine shop...I focused on the bruschetta.
At the wine shop…I focused on the bruschetta.

We stop at a food cart – like the ones in Portland, San Francisco and New York, like the one made famous by a pre-teen’s Tweeting in the movie Chef.  Except there are no hipsters here.  Only work men.  And instead of hawking clever cupcakes or Asian-Latin fusion, this one sells tripe.  Just tripe.

Ishmael asks if any of us would like to try it. I raise my hand, along with the Greek painter from Lawrence, Kansas, and a few minutes later receive a white plastic container, along with a plastic fork and a hunk of bread.

I am a bit nervous, but tell myself “when in Rome”…or Florence. But, like Mikey in the 1970s Chex cereal commercial, I like it!  It is well-spiced, like a fiery, paper-thin calamari.

I ask the woman from New York traveling with her mother to take a photograph of me eating it, my MAC “Kiss Me Quick” lipstick staining the plastic fork – lest anyone question my story.

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Not many ladies eating tripe off a food cart…

I was a picky eater growing up.  My mother would serve me a silver-dollar size piece of steak that I would cut up, cover in ketchup and move around the plate for a quarter of an hour until my father, exasperated, would say, “Make her a grilled cheese sandwich.”  I lived on grilled cheese, hot dogs and Spaghetti-Os until I was about 14.

We wander over to Mercato Sant’Ambrogio. Outside vendors are selling grapes, carrots, herbs, mushrooms – truffles.  I recall the chef I briefly dated kissing me in his kitchen, and asking when I would be in Italy.

October.

“Mmm…truffle season…except you cannot afford them.”

I should have told him to fuck off.  Or how he was so certain what I could and could not afford.  But I said nothing.

I think he would enjoy this culinary tour of Florence.  And then decide not to think about him at all, but instead the cured meats, cheeses and olives that a butcher is serving us with toothpicks off of a polystyrene tray.  From the North, the South, Tuscany.  Aged six weeks, six months, 16 months.

We sit down on long benches and sample orecchiette with finely chopped broccoli, spaghetti with pancetta, olive oil and parmesan, pomodoro.  Once this was simply a place for market vendors to have a meal.  Today it is a restaurant.

I am generally not one to get too excited about pasta. Until now.  It is silky and warm on my tongue, along my cheek.  I taste every ingredient.  Minutes old.  I am silent.  I am, as my friend Stan says, “having a relationship with my food.”

Yes...I left a little bit.
Yes…I left a little bit.

We end with gelato from one of Ishmael’s favorite shops – Il Procopio. I pair carmelized figs with cream, almonds and pine nuts with the shop’s namesake of pistachios and orange peel.

I have eaten gelato every day since arriving in Italy more than a week ago, congratulating myself on always ordering a piccolo.  But today, grinning and completely conscious, I order a medio — and congratulate myself that it is not a grande.  It’s a God thing.  I’m sure of it.

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Il Procopio. Firenze, Tuscany. Enough said.

 

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Happy On My Birthday

Happy on my birthday, in Paris.
Happy on my birthday, in Paris.

I walked out on my 21st birthday party.

A little past midnight, noticing no one had noticed it was now officially my birthday, I stood up and drunkenly announced, “You’re all fuckers. Good night.”

I still cringe thinking about it.

Ten years later, I didn’t behave much better.  I spent my birthday in Paris.  Yet all I could do was lament about dinner at the restaurant that had been suggested – Chez Chartier.  Loud, boisterous.  A place where working-class families had fed their families since 1896.  Where surly waiters leave your tab written on paper tablecloths and patrons climb ladders to reach the mezzanine dining room.  A Parisian institution.

I didn’t think the meal was very good.

My birthday has always been fraught with anxiety. Anxiety created by expectations.  Of others.  Of myself.  Of experiences.

Never mind my friends gather to honor my being here on the planet – some driving more than an hour to join the festivities. Never mind I spend the morning in Amsterdam and the afternoon at the top of the Eiffel Tower.  Somehow, in my mind, each celebration missed the mark of being “special enough.”

Until this year..when I turned 45 and decided to spend my birthday alone.  Dinner in Paris, breakfast in Rome.

It was the end of a 17-day trip to Italy. A trip where I had gifted myself with hand-stitched Roman sandals in Assisi, and aubergine leather gloves in Florence.

Where I stopped inside a boutique in Rome to inquire about a coat in the window and left wearing it.  A short, smart, cream-colored trench with a ruffle.  I slipped on a size small – both surprised and delighted to find it fit considering I had eaten gelato every day since my arrival – and looked at myself in the mirror.

I liked it. The coat.  My reflection.  I didn’t need it, and yet, the words “I’ll take it,” tumbled out of my mouth.

And where 30 minutes later, on Piazza Navona, I questioned what I “deserved,” and if I could justify “more.”   Where I pulled a leather bag over my shoulder and across my body — like the one my tour guides Ishmael and Paul wore and which I had twice admired – but left it behind because it felt “too decadent.”

Never mind my mother had sent me a check as an early birthday gift. Never mind a client had given me a several-hundred dollar tip, instructing me to use it for something wonderful in Italy.  Never mind I had enough for it.

I went to dinner where I ate pizza with impossibly thin crust, covered with four kinds of cheeses, arugula and bresaola…but I was still thinking about the bag. Strolling back towards the piazza I called out to the universe, “If I am supposed to have this bag, give me a sign.”

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I received it, but not until after the salesman wrote up my purchase. When he placed the leather satchel inside of a green fabric bag, wrapped it with string and tied a bow.

I smiled recalling my Aunt Ellie taking me shopping at Jacobson’s – a tony department store in a tony suburb of Detroit – when I was 10-years-old.  When I was doughy and awkward and wore a bad Dorothy Hamill haircut.

After purchasing trousers, a sweater, and a bag shaped like a roller skate, she asked that each item be placed in one of the store’s signature silver boxes, embossed with a J, and wrapped in shiny ribbon.

“Everything is better gift wrapped,” she informed me. Opening the packages at home an hour or so later, I knew she was right.

Thirty-five years later, she still is.

And yet, a few days later, I once again questioned my right to gift wrap my life. This time, to end my travels with a 15-hour layover in Paris.  Just long enough to have dinner and to spend the night — on my birthday.

It had sounded like a wonderful idea when I booked the ticket, but as the days grew near it only sounded like a lot of traveling, a lot of navigating, a lot of work for one night.

I ignored that seemingly practical voice and went anyway – roaming the streets of Paris for the third time in this lifetime.

Crossing the Seine in my cream-colored trench, my leather bag strapped across my body, I saw the Eiffel Tower and Notre Dame – all lit up. Just like me.  I could feel it.  I giggled out loud wondering, “Who stops in Paris for 15 hours just for dinner on their birthday?”

I do.

I ate a pistachio macaron on the streets before dinner, and later, mussels and pommes frites. And for perhaps the first time in my life, I could not imagine anything making the moment better.

I didn’t wish for a man or a friend. For a different meal.  For anyone to sing me happy birthday.

I was delighted by my own company.  That I had given myself everything I had wanted most.  And in doing so, rather than hoping someone else might, I was happy on my birthday.

 

 

 

 

 

Looking for Ladybugs

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My friend Kerry told me to look for ladybugs while I was in Italy.

He was referring to the part of the movie, Under the Tuscan Sun, when the sexy, older ex-pat from London tells Frances, a recently divorced American reinventing herself in Italy, that looking for love is like looking for ladybugs. That when she was a child, she would spend hours looking for them, eventually tiring and falling asleep in the grass.  And when she awoke she would find herself covered in them.

I wasn’t sure I was looking for love in Italy. Or even a romance – although I assured him and others that my heart was open to the possibility.  However, as the days to my departure date grew more near, I was more than certain I was here to do something.

I saw my first ladybug when I arrived in Umbria, 24 hours after arriving in Rome.

After I nearly took the wrong bus from Arezzo to Cita de Castello – twice – and a young man named Leonardo approached me, offering help in English. After we spoke for nearly 45 minutes – talking about writing and language and being “black sheep” – and friending one another on Facebook.

After Giulia and Elide – my contacts for the AltroCioccolato, the “other” chocolate festival I came to volunteer for – picked me up at the bus station. And after bringing me to Roberto’s house – one of the festival’s founders – where I sat in the sun while he plied me with buffalo mozzarella, tomatoes – shiny with olive oil, and espresso.

It was a few hours later, driving to pick up groceries at a biological food co-op. A large ladybug graced a sign announcing that our destination, The Happy Worm, lay ahead.

The next day, I saw three more. One embellished a pizza parlor sign.  Another, actually a mess of them, covered a car steering wheel.

The final one landed on another of the volunteers – Duncan, the youngest of the group and the only other American. He asked me if I wanted it, knowing nothing of Kerry and our conversation.  I told him I did.  He put his arm next the mine and the ladybug crawled over to me without any prodding.  And refused to leave.

That night, I found myself in the city’s hospital. What had merely been a health nuisance while I was in the states had escalated enough for me to make contact with healthcare professionals back home at .99 a minute.

I was fairly certain I would have difficulty getting a live voice at Northwestern Hospital, so I called my physical therapist to ask her advice. She told me to call my doctor.  That she wasn’t comfortable giving advice on this matter.  When I told her I didn’t have an internet connection, she looked up the number for me.

Several holds, disconnects and phone calls later, I was advised by a medical assistant to seek attention.

I knocked on Giulia’s door and told her I needed to go to the hospital. As she dressed, my roommate Ingrid, from the UK, offered to join us for moral support.  In the piazza at midnight in this sleepy village Giulia – a native of Italy – asked around for a cab.  A stranger offered to drive us, dropping us off at the hospital and wishing us buona fortuna — good luck in Italian.

Ninety minutes later I was warmly assured by a doctor that I was in fact, ok.  I received a bill for 25 euros which I was instructed to pay the next day.  And Elide – whom Giulia had called – drove us home.

Earlier that evening, in the hospital, I broke down in tears. Overwhelmed.  Afraid.  And aware that my ex-husband, a doctor – was no longer “my person.”  That I was “alone.”  Giulia responded, wrapping her arms around me and saying, “We are your family.”

And I realized that ladybugs weren’t just on signs and steering wheels and the arms of volunteers. That ladybugs – that love – followed me everywhere.  All the way to Italy.  To Umbria.  Just south of the Tuscan sun.

 

Why Yes, I Am A Tourist

First gelato in Rome...
First gelato in Rome…

I used to have this thing about being a tourist.

I never wanted to ask for directions. Carry a map.  I didn’t even want to do anything “touristy” – including going to the top of the Eiffel Tower.  (Thank goodness it was rainy and cold and there was no line, so I submitted.  And, of course, it was fabulous!)

Instead I got lost in the neighborhoods of Puerta Vallarta – where a kind stranger took pity on my ex and me, intuitively knowing we couldn’t possibly be in the right place and asked us where we were trying to go.

Somehow I associated it all with white Reeboks. A fanny pack and speaking very loudly.

The last time I traveled alone – and by alone I mean not meeting a friend or traveling together as a group, which means Dublin and Rwanda don’t count – I went to France.

I was participating in a volunteer project, but I started off with a few days on my own in Paris. Intent on playing the part of the Parisian.

That night I wandered the streets of the City of Lights, slightly drunk – alone. I was scolded for smoking in the non-smoking section of an outdoor café. (Who knew there was one?  In Paris!)  And I called my then-husband sobbing.  I had wanted to travel alone.  And suddenly I felt very alone.  I didn’t like it.

The days that followed weren’t much better. That is, until the day I left for Avignon to join my volunteer team, when I was able to remember a single word of French and use it, thus communicating with an old woman at the train station.  “Plutar.”  She lit up.  “Plutar!  Plutar!”  Yes, yes, I was going to Avignon too – later.

So I was a little bit nervous about coming to Italy alone. Even though I chose it.

I know traveling alone can be lonely. And scary.  There is no one to get lost with.  And it has been my experience that getting lost together is far less scary than getting lost alone.  And yet, at the end of my first day in Rome, I haven’t gotten lost.  And I don’t feel lonely.  Or alone.

Perhaps because I’ve asked a lot of questions. Of the teenage boys on the train from the airport.  “Why did so many kids get on all at once at this stop?  Is there school on Sunday?”  (Nope.  Game and comic festival.)  Of the man behind the counter at the newsstand.  “Can I buy a ticket for Tram 8 here?”  (Yes.)

And of a woman on the platform in the middle of the street. “Is this the right stop for Tram 8 going towards the city center?”  (Yes.  And she even reminded me when we got to the third stop, my stop.   I had mentioned it to her.)

I asked my host where I might eat and he suggested the very same place as a friend of mine in the United States had. And then I asked him to show me on a map how to get there.

I ambled. I rambled.  I looked for street names on buildings and found them on about one-third.  I held out my map and “stood in it” like Joey did in London on Friends.

I got lost. I got found.  Or maybe I just got turned around.  But I didn’t panic.  And along the way I heard music in Piazza Santa Maria Trastevere and enjoyed my first gelato of the trip – yogurt, pistachio-hazelnut-chocolate and single-sourced cocoa.  And just before handing me the cup, the server lopped on an extra spatula full…just because.

I took things slowly. I found my way to the river, crossed over and made my way to Piazza Campo De Fiore.  Yes, given the time I can read a map.  I also found the famed Grom gelato – there’s an outpost shop in Manhattan – but decided to save it for another day.  However that didn’t keep me from checking out the flavors at another shop and tasting the ginseng and one with candied fruit when invited to.

I finished with dinner at Ai Spaghettari – where my host and my friend had suggested and I had the carbonara, also suggested, along with melon and prosciutto and a macchiato.

All around me were Italians glued to the soccer match on television, and a fair number of Americans plotting their next move.   And I was one of them.

I’ll Be Your Mirror

Overlooking Lake Michigan, at Dawes Park...where, up until this year, my congregation has done tashlich.
Overlooking Lake Michigan, at Dawes Park…where, up until this year, we have done tashlich.

A couple of weeks ago I received an email from my rabbi. It was not directed to me individually, but to the entire congregation.  After 17 years with our synagogue, he was leaving.

I wasn’t entirely surprised.  But I didn’t know how I felt about it, or what to say, either.  So I did nothing.  No email.  No phone call.  Which, for this rather impulsive person, is growth.

Except that I continued to do nothing.

I skipped a part of Rosh Hashanah tradition, tashlich – joining the rabbi and cantor and other congregants at Lake Michigan to empty my pockets of the residue of the past year.  That which I no longer needed.  And considered skipping second day Rosh Hashanah services too.

This was highly unusual.

I’ve been blessed with a close, personal relationship with my rabbi. He led me through my conversion and through my get, my Jewish divorce.  I traveled to Africa with him and other congregants during the summer of my divorce, and I have met with him more or less monthly for the better part of the past five years.

And it hit me. I was avoiding.  Or at least I think I was avoiding.  Rather than facing the pain of change, of uncertainty, of not knowing what to say, I chose to ignore it, ignore him – telling myself I would say something eventually.  When I had the right words.

I wondered if these were the same thoughts that The Chef and Mr. 700 Miles had when they chose not to further pursue a romance but didn’t or couldn’t say anything about it.

I was doing what had (potentially – I’ll never know for certain as I do not live in their minds) been done to me.

I first had the realization I was not free from this behavior a couple of weeks ago. Just before returning to San Francisco, my home for 14 years.

I had a friend there I knew I owed an amends to – I just wasn’t sure what it was.

About four or five years ago I told her I needed space. Without warning.  Without lead up.  I did not return a couple of her phone calls in a timely manner, and when she called me on it – in a voicemail, simply asking if she had done something wrong and if, in fact, I was ok – I responded with an email, something along the lines of “I need space.  I’m sure you understand.”

She replied that she did not understand, but would honor my request. And, with the exception of a single message wishing me well I was moving to Seattle, and my thank you in response, we had not spoken since.

Until a couple of weeks ago.

When, preparing for my trip, I realized I had done to her what had been done to me — almost. I left without explanation – almost without a word.

I phoned before my visit and asked if we might meet. If I might right my wrongs.  She graciously said yes, and we did.

My amends was simple. That I had walked away when she needed me most, with barely a word or an explanation.  That I had been selfish.  That I had been wrong.

And then we talked.

About who she had been in my life and who I had been in hers. How she remembered things and how I remembered them.  About why I had not been able to be there for her – because of “my stuff” and how it and I got triggered.  Things I had never told her.

There were tears. And there was healing, for both of us.

I found myself thinking that perhaps The Chef and Mr. 700 Miles had come into my life, at least in part, to be my mirrors. To show me my behavior.

Mr. 700 Miles finally did make contact with me. His words were simple.  That he had “left” because he fell in love with someone else.  That he was sorry.  And with those words that last bit of wondering, that last bit of residue, was gone.  Like the residue I would normally rid myself of at tashlich.

I wanted to write back, “Thank you,” or “Was that so hard?” But I did nothing – other than thank him and wish him well in my heart.

However, I did make contact with my rabbi. I sent him an email that night after the tashlich that wasn’t.  I apologized for having been so silent.  I told him I had assumed he might be overwhelmed by the response of congregants and others to his news.

And I told him I didn’t know what to say.  But that I honored his decision.  The graceful way he was moving through this transition.  And that I hoped we would find our way to a new chapter in our friendship.

I did go to second day Rosh Hashanah services, where we talked briefly about what I had written. My tears drowning out my words.

I let them flow, rather than trying to talk through them.  No longer avoiding.  No longer doing what I thought had only been done to me.