SOUVENIRS OF UMBRIA
notes from Central Italy, March 2018
Would there be there lemons?
Someone always liked lemons; the months she lived on the island she sent photographs of the hillsides spotted with their trees, all full of fruit. Once, she wrote to me about plunging her hand into a box full of mottled ones and coming up from the depths with a perfect and tiny one grasped there. Her nails were too long, perhaps she scraped some rind away. The lemon only cost 6 cents at the register. An open-air market.
What do you write back to a perfect story about a tiny lemon?
It seemed we would be at the right latitude for lemons. The flight map on the seat-back charted the 4,279 miles from JFK to FCO. The map was a time-zone gradient; behind the cartoon icon of the plane the world was dark, big cities starry with electricity. I traced my finger along the path, zoomed in on the Aegean, which looked like it was just about to be bathed in dawn. So there would still be two seas between us: Adriatic and Ionian. My finger dropped from the lit screen. 9 hours locked in aching place; I was rudely awakened with yogurt and sunlight.
The four of us––my closest friend, Reba; her father; her stepmother; and I––did not glimpse much of the city as we sped the two hours north towards their new house in Umbria. We stopped at a gas station where you could purchase fresh sandwiches full of cheese and meat and nothing else. We bought four of them, wolfed salt down as the cashier complimented Reba’s stepmother’s Italian. There were gesticulations, enthusiasm. We sped on but the salt lingered for the duration of the week.
The house, an old stone castle, was set on a hillcrest along a via belvedere. There should be a breeze, come summer, and the stones will keep the house cool in a dry heat. When we arrived, Leonard Cohen was crooning from Reba’s father’s speaker, lonely on the long dining room table. The song wasn’t something recognizable like “Suzanne,” which someone apologized for playing on the first night she brought me back to her opaque blue room in Providence.
The house looks out on two mountain villages, one called Todi and another called Monte Castello di Vibio, which was so small we couldn’t find a post office on the early afternoon we went for cappuccinos and an initial walk. Apparently Italians don’t drink cappuccinos past 11am, something about milk turning the stomach too late in the day, so we were already committing our first faux pas. The buildings were medieval and there were cats napping, plants hanging, iron nailed to the doors.
Up at the house, the mornings were bright and only warm in the places the sun could catch. Olive groves lay below us and barren vineyards stretched across the hills. There were cyprus and plum and chicory trees, overgrown lavender, something that smelled like rosemary, umbrella pines. Wide circles of burnt olive branches littered the hill, part of a sacrifice I did not understand.
Still mostly unfurnished and unheated, the house was coated in layers of frozen air and dust. The kitchen empty but for a few half-finished bottles of wine, hardened cheese and a string of salami, crusty bread left in haste. Staples. Reba and I pulled a mattress out to what will one day be a dining room with views of the deep and lush valley of the Tiber River and slept by a working radiator, our bodies back-to-back to keep warm.
This was the 15th year of our friendship, and Reba’s eyes were just as round and unabashed as they were in the 2nd grade. Over a platter of cured duck, her father asked Reba about her first recollections of me; then mine of her; we could not remember either. Maybe her eyes were my first memory. They say your eyes never grow.
One night, the radiator thawing my feet, I dreamt of her again, of the girl I keep calling “someone”. She calls this “really funny” when I tell her––I promised us both I would text less but sometimes I shrug my shoulders at self-admonishment–– but I wonder if she understands why she cannot be herself, named, overheard, at home in Providence. Like when Reba and I visited some restaurant down the hill, I said someone told me the coffee here sucks and she said who told you that and I said I don’t know I can’t remember and she said oh yes you can it was _____. And the coffee’s fine.
Unwilling to claim her name as mine there, or outside the library, or maybe even in the house on Arnold which is supposed to be all mine but where I cannot seem to clear my memory, of summer months a year behind now. It had already been a year; swifter than the ones that came before. I had probably thought of her every day for it. I think I had.
In the radiatored dream I watched someone gnaw on cracked bread, pull meat off bones. Dig in. She once wrote to me about British men watching her as she ripped lamb from a shank. She once wrote to me about a stray with large deep eyes loping into a restaurant with Greek folk music. The waiters tossed him a shank and the dog curled up with it. How do you respond to a story about a stray dog? But in a dream.
In the dream I watched someone pull me along the Roman cobbles. The city was open before us, and we tripped, drunk. I coughed through her cigarettes, as I did in August, but here I was so eager that I did not wait and instead sucked the flesh of her arm just before smooth shoulder, bit at that, too. Dug in.
Strange, something like a satisfying nightmare. But only a dream––and lately, I am trying not to overanalyze dreams.
Instead, I am trying to repeat to myself in a nonjudgmental and soothing tone of voice
and feeling pretty sure that there is another, better person somewhere who deserves your time and care and words, and has the space to fully appreciate them in a way that I don’t
I screenshot this email, read it aloud once, a whisper, growing stronger.
How do you respond?
I want to ask someone––what are you dreaming of? And are there still the nightmares? What about the being afraid of mundane places? which took me by surprise, given her placid disposition. But she had seen things to be disturbed by.
There are things to be disturbed by here, I think: people selling wares on the streets, coming into literary bars at night––
I am drinking vini dolci, it is all over my nostrils––and offering roses no one wants. She was picking up Arabic from the refugees. She called me habibti. Your work is important I once wrote her, you are doing big things, her life felt much bigger than mine. She was two years older but that wasn’t really the point. She knew the answers to lots of my questions about books, or about the difference between the definitions of words like oeuvre and opus, the difference between particular kinds of cheese and wine. She enjoyed bark-wrapped harbison. My friends called her pretentious.
Now someone lives in Athens, where she works with refugees. go. She tells me many of them are alone; their families drowned or dispersed, with no way to be reunited without a spousal bond or a child under the age of 18. Were we in their positions, in camps, unmarried, 24 and 22, terrified to walk alone from wet tents to the outhouses in the night, we would be trapped. She calls this the condition of people who’ve been totally screwed. She is trying to ameliorate that condition.
There are many more refugees in Athens than there are in Rome; this is why someone moved from Providence to Athens in the first place. went, gone. For a while, when we were in Providence, I thought we ran on the same wavelength or something. A May day under the sun at the Barrington town beach. We burned soft skin; her hair blond-brightened, it seemed, before my eyes; we laughed about books we had both read and foods we both liked and boys we both found pathetic. We used all the same types of words, though she knew more of them than I did. Conversation––everything, really, the whole relationship, which she always called affair or engagement or entanglement and was this to make it more exciting I never knew––felt very smooth. We both questioned aloud whether it should have been more strenuous. After a while it wasn’t smooth though, and then, slowly, and yet as if all at once––very, very strenuous.
We never did really fall in love, anyway. But there wasn’t time and then she left for Europe.
Or was this is the ending I told myself and my friends who never needed an explanation anyway
and was this to make it easier I never knew.
Months later, traipsing through a forest with a friend, thousands of miles from someone and from anyone else, my friend asks me but doesn’t it get boring, always agreeing? I think my friend always had more questions than I did, and listened harder.
I came to Rome for 2 days on Reba’s dad’s dollar, on his house and the cappuccinos and yes sometimes a United States passport feels heavy, burns in my jacket pocket. Is that guilt? For the preposterous ease of our travel, the freedom of our movement, and the right to it.
The guilt passed. Other disturbances passed too. And the four of us continue to walk. There was Perugia, with the walls, and then Florence, ochre at sunset. Last was Rome, with undreamed cobbled streets. We tried not to traverse a single one twice, and liked to laugh together and then easily grow silent, after many years side by side. I did not need to tell myself to have fun, or to remember to––the fun seemed to settle upon us, happen to us, by virtue of arriving in mostly-strange cities with no plans, no lists of things to do or see, knowing nothing, our ignorance liberating us to simply walk at random and as compelled. On our way, we peered in many shop windows; we searched for leather shoes but did not buy any; we yelled over the pontes, looking down at the rushing water. Sometimes it was midnight and we did not feel afraid to wander––our ease, our freedom, our right.
Between the cities, we took trains which smelled of shit and cleaning product. The wind seeped through the windows as we moved amidst the countrysides, flapping the pages of my book: Go, Went, Gone by Jenny Erpenbeck, about refugees living in Berlin in 2015. When I wasn’t reading, Erpenbeck’s words still flooded the spaces between my memories.
And all too abruptly, the trains pulled in, the nights ran out, the trip ended. There was no choice to stay, to linger––a break was done and exams called us back. A week in Italy felt laughable. I tried not to compare it to the six months someone had already been living in Europe. But I thanked Reba’s father and her stepmother and we bought last-minute extra virgin olive oil in the airport, souvenirs for my parents.
The months I was away last winter, I collected souvenirs bought for no one but always with someone in mind, rosebud balm and natural soap. She only ever requested postcards, which I stowed in my pack all the way home, but I knew no Greek address. They sat perched in the small window in my room in Providence; I had grown fond of them by now. My only unsent letters.
Souvenir (the French) is the act of remembering. The object of a memory, the thing of it. What would be the object of a dream? My old professor, Litany for the Long Moment: “The way a dream can be a memory. / The way a memory can be a wish.”
The book by Jenny Erpenbeck. That felt like the object of a dream, not souvenir. Maybe Erpenbeck’s words would also flood someone else’s spaces. The night I got home my body was 6 hours ahead and drained of water from a poisoned intestine and the flight and all the leftover accumulated salt. In delirium I spent twenty-six dollars to send a copy of the book to Someone, Tsimiski 21, Athina, Attica, 114 71. I had no idea if this was the right address, I just found it listed online for the center she worked at. I looked up “how to address an envelope to Greece.” It wouldn’t arrive for 10-12 business days.
For 10-12 business days I tracked it like a flight path: Out for Delivery, Arrived, Out for Delivery. It left New York, went to London, went to Athens. I felt giddy, watching its progress. Out for Delivery.
And then, the 12th day
Undeliverable, Incorrect Address.
It had gone all that way. I wanted to cry but had wasted whatever briny liquid my body had stored for her long ago. Why had I put my naivety and faith in the largest Internet retailer in the world to safely carry the object of a dream? Right into her distant hands.
I was careless with the gift. Or no, she had been, with me.
6:55 AM PDT Amazon: Hello there how can I help you
6:55 AM PDT Lily: Hello, I need to change the address on my package it was incorrect
6:56 AM PDT Amazon: I will check the details and help you with this Go, Went, Gone
6:57 AM PDT Amazon: I have checked the details and the prodcut is already into advanced shipping stage
Hence i am unable to change the address
6:57 AM PDT Lily: Are you sure? Online it says I can change the address if I contact you
6:58 AM PDT Amazon: We are working on it.
6:58 AM PDT Amazon: Yes I will try to change it. The carrier is out for delivery today so please set a house, so that its delivered on time ASAP
6:59 AM PDT Lily: Okay let me get a house address very quickly one second please
“Can you give me your address?” I felt small, bothersome.
Someone gave it very quickly one second please. I copied down the unfamiliar numbers and sent them to the Amazon live chat woman named Shateel who misspelled words so I did not trust her.
7:04 AM PDT Amazon: Please stay connected. I really appreciate your patience.
7:05 AM PDT Lily: I’m still here! I’m not leaving
7:07 AM PDT Amazon: This is taking longer than expected. My apologies for delay. We are again working on it
7:14 AM PDT Amazon: We have contacted the carrier and updated the address to them. They will redeliver the package on this address Someone, Dinokratous 9, Athina, Attica, 106 75. is this ok Lily?
7:15 AM PDT Amazon: are you ok Lily?
7:15 AM PDT Lily: Yes, sorry! That is perfect. Thank you!
7:16 AM PDT Amazon: I’m glad I was able to help. Have a great rest of day!
7:17 AM PDT Amazon: Please click “End Chat” to close this window.
When I searched for Dinokratous 9, I understood that it was the apartment with a narrow balcony. Were there lemons? Someone’s boyfriend somewhere inside, counting down to her return. Slicing vegetables, or stretching long across their double bed, their medicines and books and clothes––the stuff of their lives––around him.
The next day, Go, Went, Gone arrived. “Thank you so much,” someone said. She sent a photograph, her rough fingers clutching withered brown paper plastered with stamps and stickers. It had gone all that way. I wondered if it, too, felt tired.