I have been out all morning. Making my way to Retiro Park. Buying bandages for my feet, an additional converter for my electronics, my first pair of Spanish shoes — Picolinos. Eating gelato. Tracing steps a friend of mine shared via Google maps.
I turn on to Don Ramon de la Cruz, the street where I have been staying. It is 4 p.m. Decidedly quiet. The locals are finishing lunch at outdoor cafes. Grates are pulled down over the entrances of at least half of the shops. Siesta.
I have not quite made this tradition my own. And yet. The universe provides me with a few moments at home…to wash my feet, change my shoes — my Italian leather sandals continuing to rub against my big toes — and put a little sustenance in my body — lamb’s lettuce, a soft boiled egg, goat cheese, fresh figs, a coffee from my moka pot (one of the few “creature comforts” I packed. D rightly insisted I do so).
I will leave again shortly — this time to meet a friend of a friend who I have been introduced to through Facebook, another American, raised in the Midwest, transplanted to California and then Madrid. I am excited to meet her, to explore another neighborhood. And to relish in a few culturally imposed moments of stillness, quiet and rest.
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 TheOld 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.
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.
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.
“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.”
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.
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 drive a 13-year-old Honda Civic Hatch DX. They don’t make my car anymore. From time to time I find a note on the windshield, someone offering to buy it.
In the glove box, in the side pockets, and behind the cup holders are stacks of CDs.
I grabbed them, haphazardly, when I left Seattle. Three Dog Night. Basia. Mazzy Star. Those were my ex’s. Donna Summer, Stevie Wonder and Torch Song Trilogy are mine. As is a disco mix my friend DJ Andy T made for me.
I can listen to them over and over again without growing bored. Singing along. The familiar words keep me awake while driving long stretches. Keep me from my thoughts.
And then I hit a wall. Pulling out disc after disc as I make my way down Lake Shore Drive, looking for something I want to hear. I come up empty. No more Bonnie Raitt. Annie Lenox. Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young. No more Dire Straits. No more Gipsy Kings.
My destination for this week’s Artist Date – 47 – was easy. To Laurie’s Planet of Sound on Lincoln Avenue.
I pass by here almost daily. There is a white board outside with new arrivals written in dry-erase magic marker. There are t-shirts in the window. And inside there are records, books and CDs. I can tell from peeking in, but I’ve never been inside. Until Friday. And then, just for a moment.
There is a hipster man-boy at the register. Big curly hair, plaid button-up shirt and chunky, nerd glasses. We nod at one another. I think John Cusack, High Fidelity.
I am holding The Best of Elvis Costello and the Attractions CD. $6.99. I used to have this on cassette. I remember singing along with Elvis to “Alison,” “Pump it Up,” and “Every Day I Write the Book.” I remember my high-school crush giving me grief for buying “best of” albums.
My phone rings. It is a call I have been expecting from a friend and mentor. I drop the CD back in the bin and walk outside. I will return later for it.
But I don’t. During the course of our call, I find out she is moving away. The stars have aligned and a “not-to-be-missed” opportunity has been presented to her family. I am the first person she has told.
I am delighted for her. And I feel the loss inside of me too. I am acutely aware that our relationship will change. I am tired of change, I think. And yet, when things stay the same, I am restless and bored.
We finish our call and I go to Paciugo for gelato. I order a piccolo cup – toasted coconut, sea-salt caramel, and cinnamon – and eat it walking home. The sun is shining and the air is cool. I am wearing gloves. I tell myself I will go back to Laurie’s later.
But I don’t.
A friend comes over, and later, when I drive her home, she asks if I am looking forward to my Friday night alone. Sometimes I do. Especially this time of year, when night comes early and my radiator-heated apartment feels toasty.
I do not feel this way tonight. I tell her so, bursting into tears. By the time I pull over to her apartment I am sobbing uncontrollably in her arms.
I am so lonely. She holds me.
I have been on the verge of tears all week. This is not entirely unexpected.
Perhaps it’s because my ex-boyfriend – the one I always sort of held out hope for and thought “maybe one day…”– got engaged.
Perhaps it is because my friend and mentor is moving. Or because I have begun to look for work in earnest, for the first time in 12 years.
Perhaps it is because I chatted online with my ex-husband today and that always kind of throws me off my square.
Or maybe it is because it is the first week in November. That it’s just that way right now. I don’t know. I’m not sure that it matters.
All I know is going home by myself, to myself, is a really bad idea. I know I won’t cook or write or take a bath. I am pretty certain I will do something not helpful, like look up old lovers on Facebook.
I don’t feel like going back to Laurie’s either. I don’t want to hear the chatter in my head. And I don’t want to talk about it. There is nothing more to say. And knowing that is really something of a miracle.
Dallas Buyers Club is playing at the Century Theatres. If I drive fast I can make the 8:30 show. I make a beeline and arrive with time to spare.
I buy a ticket and claim a seat on the end. I lay my coat on the seat next to me, joining the one belonging to the man sitting two to my right. He is also alone.
I think about Tony, my first close friend diagnosed with AIDS. I remember him cutting my hair in his kitchen and doing me up like a drag queen, full-well knowing I would never wear my hair like that. But it makes him happy. I remember smoking pot with him and eating empanadas in Detroit. I remember that AZT made his mouth taste like metal and put him in a cranky mood.
But mostly, I get lost in the story unfolding in front of me.
I forget that Matthew McConaughey is Matthew McConaughey and not Ron Woodruff – a red-neck, homophobic, drug-addicted Texan diagnosed with AIDS. I open my heart to this man who lived seven years instead of 30 days.
This man who befriended a card-shark, drag queen named Rayon. Who smuggled non-FDA approved treatments into the United States for his Dallas Buyers Club. Who in helping himself, helped others.
I cry watching him hold on to that bull for eight-seconds. (See the movie. You’ll understand.) I cry when the screen goes black and silent white letters report his death. Even though it isn’t a surprise.
I have gotten caught up in someone else’s story instead of my own. It is what I had hoped for.
Driving home, I feel just a little bit better. But I am still holding on by my fingernails. Like a newly sober alcoholic counting the minutes before bed – congratulating himself and thanking God for making it through another day without drinking.
Holding on to that bull for eight seconds. Holding on.
I just got home from a gelato date. Three flavors is a piccolo (small). I filled my cone with pistachio-almond, yogurt-granola and rose and sat in the square watching children run back and forth and forth and back over a star pattern on the ground – my friend Ernie took a picture of me in this space when he was visiting in the fall. He thought it was a Star of David and wanted me in the center. It isn’t.
The sky is pale blue, silky – like underwear. Clouds like cotton. The weather has been unsettled for the past two days, and I too, along with it.
I feel acutely alone in this moment, which is strange as I spent the better part of the day with people I love.
During the winter I often spent Saturday nights alone – by choice. I looked forward to cozying in, midnight blue outside my window – cooking, writing, sprawled out on the shiny, moss-green futon. Summer feels different, like all the world is out – together.
I remember when my friend Teresa found herself “suddenly single” after a many-years long relationship. Understanding why, on Monday, I was making plans for Saturday. “If you don’t, you end up alone,” she surmised.
And yet, I chose this “alone” – for Artist’s Date 27. But I never quite made it.
I thought I’d throw pottery at Lill Street Art Center. I attended my first, First-Time Potter class on Wednesday. Studio time – every day from 10 to 10—is included in the fee and students are encouraged to go practice.
But I didn’t go. I talked on the phone with Chase, then Monica. I went for gelato. I told myself, and Chase, that I was tired. That I needed to take it easy. Maybe. But mostly I think I was afraid.
What if I don’t remember how to start the wheel? What if I can’t get the tray that sits around the wheel collecting water to snap into place? (I had trouble on Wednesday.) What if the wheel is running in the wrong direction – clockwise, like how they throw in Japan, instead of counter? I vaguely remember Robert, the instructor, telling us the wheel turns in both directions, to make certain it is running counter-clockwise. He did not tell us what to do if it is not.
My friend Mark recently told me an acronym for SHAME. Should Have Already Mastered Everything. Genius.
I get caught up in my pride and it stops me from moving forward.
And yet, I am moving forward. I signed up for the class. I went. I kind of sucked – I certainly had not Mastered Everything. And I loved it.
I was afraid that night too.
Afraid I wouldn’t be able to tolerate the painful callous that developed on the side of my hand the last time I tried to learn to throw. Afraid I wouldn’t like it. Afraid I would be an utter failure.
I didn’t develop a callous. The wheel wasn’t painful against my skin. Different clay, I was told.
I wasn’t an utter failure. Two of four pieces will be fired and glazed.
I did like it. All of it.
Buying my supply kit and writing my initials on each piece with a Sharpie marker, my full name on my blue water pail. Picking up a 25-pound bag of clay and splitting it with a partner – separating the four vertical logs from one another, each of us taking two.
My clay “partner” is here with two of her friends. They just graduated from high school and live in the suburbs. One of their mothers dropped them off here.
They seem so young, so brave.
I run a wire twice through my logs and place four disks of clay in front of me. Robert teaches us to wedge the clay, to take the air out of it and prepare it for use.
I roll one wedged disc into a ball, stick a thumb in the center, and form a pinch pot. As we get acquainted with the clay, we introduce ourselves, sharing a bit about what brought us to this moment, this studio, this canvas table.
There is a couple taking the class together. A woman who just moved from Minneapolis and thought this would be a good way to meet friends. A woodworker.
I mention that I always wanted to go to art school. That at 43 I can send myself. The words tumble out of my mouth. They feel profound, true.
I remember my friend Robyn saying our parents tie our shoes until we can tie them ourselves. Throw us birthday parties until we can throw our own.
Robert moves to a wheel and we gather around him, watching him craft a simple bowl. He shows us how to throw the clay on the wheel – “throwing” pottery. How to center. How to bring it up, bring it out. He tells us to keep our clay wet. Shiny.
We nod our heads. Fill our buckets with water and go to our wheels. My mind is blank. I put my foot on the pedal. Nothing. The woodworker is sitting next to me. He smiles and points to the “on” switch. I smile back.
I throw the clay and press it down, pour water on the wheel. I am having difficulty bringing it up. Robert shows me how. The bottom is too thick. He shows me how to thin it out.
It is rising. It looks good. I don’t stop. It collapses onto itself. I throw it onto a board and put my initials in the clay with a tool. I will let it dry out and re-wedge it to use again.
My second bowl goes better. It is small. Imperfect. A reasonable effort.
Robert calls us to him again and demonstrates another bowl. It makes more sense now that I have been on the wheel. We return to our stations. I remember things he has said. To angle my finger at 5 o’clock to widen the bowl. It feels like arriving home for the first time in a new city, without getting lost. Without using a GPS
My third bowl collapses onto itself. The fourth joins my second on a piece of wood, hydroplaned on. I cover it with dry-cleaning plastic wrap and put it on my shelf – the one assigned to me for the next four weeks.
Cleaning up, I watch the potters in the advanced classes. Their work is beautiful. Elegant. Effortless. Perhaps I will be like them one day. I am over my SHAME. I know there is no reason to believe I Should Have Already Mastered this. Or anything else. Not even my Artist Dates.