The Purple of Life

She told me to hold on to the purple in my life.

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Location: Chicago, United States

I'm a 37-year-old editor and city dweller, wife and mother, moderately liberal and radically optimistic. I would fill my perfect day with a cup of coffee and the Op Ed section, a flea market and the playground, a run along Lake Michigan, a walk through the neighborhood with my son and my greyhound, a Cuban dinner and a bottle of red with my husband, and an evening flight to some European city. I wouldn't be picky about which one.

October 11, 2010

Italy: Nine snapshots of twelve days

The bar on the first floor of our B&B is tiny, with round tables for two outside, faded newspaper clippings of football stars on the walls inside. In the morning, we pay for coffee and a cornetto at the register, then go to the bar and place our order, two café lattes. Old men are drinking espresso and eating pastries, greeting friends loudly in Italian. In the afternoon, we look down from our window and see people sharing a drink and a chat, reading the newspaper. Way into the evening and beyond midnight, youngish, coolish (but not obnoxiously trendy) people are drinking beer and wine, smoking, debating, laughing. We join them, pay for our Peronis from the same man at the register, spill out with the Romans into the narrow cobblestoned piazza (the tables have long been taken), sidestepping passing scooters.

Inside the Colosseum you can see below where the floor used to be, to the crumbling, grassy tunnels where animals and gladiators awaited their fate, listening to the roar and crash of the crowd above. Our tour guide, a young South African woman, explains that the Roman people so adored gladiators that when the winners bathed in olive oil after a fight, their attendants would carefully scrape the oil from their skin into bottles and sell them to an eager public. She tells us about matches between lions and crocodiles, shows us where the emperor used to sit. The dust of the Forum coats her turquoise leather ballet flats.

In Pompei, dogs. For years, strays have roamed the ruins, and now there’s a movement for them to be adopted. A nonprofit group makes sure the dogs are fed and cared for while working to find them forever homes. We see several of these dogs wandering among the devastated houses and eerily empty lanes, snoozing in the sunlight against a 2,000-year-old wall.

As we ride the tiny elevator up to our room in Positano, the hotel employee who’s bringing us there remarks that she has the same purse. H&M. We get off on the fifth floor, and she leads us down the hallway to a door at the end, #540. The room is dim and cool, with a coral and blue tiled floor. Curtained double doors lead out to the terrace we requested. She opens the doors and we step outside, and I literally gasp, become choked up, swallow back tears at the pure beauty of what’s before me. In the bright sunshine, the town of Positano tumbles down the cliff to the diamonded blue sea below, pink and white houses everywhere, green mountains, little boats so far below. I have never seen anything like it. John opens the bottle of limoncello.

Hordes of older American tourists everywhere. Denim capris, Reeboks, baseball hats. They speak so loudly; we can’t get over how often we can hear every word. They talk about the price of a Burger King Whopper in euros. They cannot get over the fact that they have to pay (50 cents) to use a public bathroom. That the light wasn’t working in the bathroom. When they’re seated next to us in a restaurant and hear us talking, they say, “Oh good, Americans!” On the train to the airport, they ask a white South African couple “how [they] ended up down there” (they were, you know, born there) and ask if South Africa is “third world.” We’re never quite sure what our ratio of amusement to horror should be.

There are dark clouds gathering over the medieval hill town of Montepulciano, but we park the car and begin to climb the steep streets anyway, looking for views and red wine. I tug on my black raincoat, grateful that I wedged it into my suitcase at the last minute. We approach an old church and see a young girl sitting on its steps with a man we assume is her grandfather. She has a small jet-black crow perched on her arm. I have to stop and look at this, the little girl in her school clothes with her pet crow. She feeds it pellets of food. The crow gulps them down, then attacks a faltering moth on the steps. I am still watching. She sees me, gestures me over, and asks “English?” “Si,” I say, “Do you speak it?” “Ehh,” she replies, shrugging. She motions for me to sit down and gently pushes my arm onto the stone step. “She’s showing you how to get the crow to come to you,” explains John. I rest my forearm on the step, and the crow nimbly climbs onto my arm and perches there, dainty claws gripping my jacket sleeve. I stare at it in wonder, and it stares back. The girl tells me that its name is Giulia.

Merely ordering a “latte” in the morning will earn you a glass of warm milk. The word “café” is key.

On our last night in Rome we wander down toward the Colosseum and take our chance on a restaurant that’s bustling with outdoor seating on a Tuesday night. The host explains in broken English that we’ll need to wait for 10 minutes for an outdoor table. He ushers us inside to the bar. Unfathomably, he brings us slices of warm garlic bread and two glasses of prosecco on the house, to enjoy while we wait. We are aghast. This little neighborhood place, which serves only appetizers and pasta, ends up being one of our best meals in Italy. As non-Italians we are in the minority. The 2006 reserve Chianti is so good we take a picture of the bottle. The foccacia bread is warm and studded with rosemary; my gnocchi has been baked in the oven. We sit and sip our wine, watching Romans walking home from work, gathering at the fountain near the restaurant. We eavesdrop without understanding.

Many times he walks ahead of me; I dawdle, staring up at the buildings, stopping to make a photograph. He is the keeper of the map and almost always knows where we’re going, except in Trastevere, where the ancient crooked streets would confound the most seasoned explorer. He wears a gray cargo jacket and expensive aviators that he drops twice on the cobblestones, no damage. He always suggests a drink after dinner. He’s interested in history, explains to me why medieval people lived in tower houses, why the windows were so narrow (so that armored knights couldn’t fit through them). He makes fun of the reverent way I say, “Mmm, wow,” after my first bite of something particularly delicious. He does not make fun of me when I’m too scared to climb the narrow bell tower in Siena. Sometimes we snipe at each other. Then we eat gelato (I introduce him to pistachio), and all is well. He is not gifted in languages, but he listens to Italian for Dummies podcasts and after a few days, he can pronounce “Dov'e il bagno?” with ease. He wants to see the Sistine Chapel. He drives the Fiat in Rome like he’s been doing it for years, in three-lane traffic where the lanes aren’t marked and scooters are weaving with abandon. After nine years of marriage and five trips to Europe, we still go together so well. I cannot imagine any other traveling companion.

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