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I first met Elisabetta Bonino eighteen years ago while traveling through Italy with my college friend, Mojgan Sami. We were new grads with degrees in International Affairs and backpacks full of tank tops and political theories. Mojgan, with her thick black hair and provocative Persian almond eyes, was traveling between family members who scattered throughout Europe during the Iranian Revolution and fall of the Shah. I was trying out the “affairs” part of my degree. We were twenty-one and twenty-two with a six month grace period before the student loans would come calling. We met up in Paris that summer and then again in Denmark where we boarded a train for Greece to spend six weeks at a Greek wedding party. Why not? I remember Mojgan asking me if I knew exactly how we would get to Greece. “Go to Italy and take a left.” Imagine the roar of youthful laughter when we reached the heal of the Italy’s boot to board a ship and found a large arrow pointing to our left that read, “Greece.”
Sometime before being “doomed and anointed,” as the late cowboy singer Dave Carter might have said, with degrees in International Affairs we had signed up with a travel organization called Servas International. In the long ago days before the Internet, Servas travelers would write letters to Servas hosts in countries they wanted to visit. You would arrange to stay with the host for two to three days. Being the planners we were, we showed up in Rome and called Elisabetta unannounced at 10pm one night. “We’re those girls from Oregon who wrote you a letter three months ago. The boyfriend I met in Brussels last month, the one who was supposed to put us up tonight, didn’t show – could we come stay with you?” Thus began a lifelong friendship and travels between the US and Italy ensued.
Elisabetta is sixty-three years old. When we first met she was an actress, but has since retired and lives on a small pension. She’s the most independent woman I’ve ever met. In just the past few years she has traveled to Mongolia, Iran, Uzbekistan and Turkey – all on her own. I’ve seen photos of her sleeping in cave dwellings and riding stocky Mongolian horses, the wind whipping her headscarf out behind her. When I ask about her former partner of twenty-three years, Adalberto, he has also been to my house in the US and we’ve all traveled together to Canada, she only smiles. ‘I’m so much happier now,’ she giggles. ‘No one telling me what to do. No walking on eggshells,’ is basically what I understand. I wonder if I will be so much happier one day. Although they split twelve years ago, we see him for lunch a few times. They fight like an old married couple and then get to walk away from each other. She laughs about this. Elisabetta is clever and funny even in a second language and through translation. Maybe even more so. She forgets her map, her lists, her book in her fifth story apartment with no elevator and cusses all the way down the street. “I use my head only to grow my hair,” she sputters. I learn to swear like a real Italian while driving with her.
Although I try to be a good guest/roommate, I forget things. These are the things that just don’t occur to me as an American. I can’t remember to turn off lights every single time I leave a room. If you walk from the bedroom to the bathroom and come right back, you still turn off the bedroom light. I forget to unplug the computer at night to save energy. I don’t always eat everything on my plate. I scrape the small bits of leftover food into the garbage when I should save it. I flush the toilet at night and use the hot water to wash my hands. Both of which clatter and clang in the small, one bedroom apartment and wake my friend up in the middle of the night. I drink up all of her precious Turkish coffee, which coincidentally is in the same Il Piatto container that my delicious Italian coffee is in, by mistake. “But it says “@#$%^” on the lid,” she cries. I don’t read Italian or Turkish. I always know where I stand with Elisabetta. Those waving arms and expressive Italian actress eyes tell me everything, even when it’s in Italian. There’s no BS with her. I am in tears one day, lost in my own thoughts. “You okay?” she asks. “Yes.” I lie. “No, not okay, not okay at all,” she says as she comes to the couch and wraps me in her arms like a mother. If she’s frustrated, happy, annoyed with me, I know it and it makes life so much easier than reading between the lines. I have no energy for that right now. Sometime you need your friends and sometime you need your space. Just say it.
I recall her wiping up the spilled wine from the first morning, after the woman downstairs distracted me from my sleep with her orgasm, with newspaper not paper towels. “You weren’t born during the war,” she says to me often. Neither was she, but she was born right after. Italy lost the war. She tells me about how desperately poor everyone was. Her school served split pea soup and a tablespoon of cod liver oil for vitamins everyday for lunch, except Saturdays. On Saturdays they got to savor the delicious diversion of bean soup. Newspapers were torn into strips and used as toilet paper. At home she ate milk and bread for dinner everyday. She smiles broadly remembering her maternal grandmother, who saved money to buy her a chicken leg once. She talks about some people who had to eat cats. Taste like rabbit, which tastes like chicken, I suppose. I imagine my orange tabby at home covering her ears with her paws. No wonder I see so many stray cats here. Stockpiling. I have my cousin, who is watching my cat and house back home, email me a photo of her that night. Not yummy, I think.
Pizza is yummy and I’m eating it Italian style, the whole pizza all to myself, while sitting in the sunshine. Elisabetta has been waving her arms at me and I’ve decided to give her some space and go for a walk – an all-day long walk. While we have made our meals at home most days, I am excited to splurge on a lunch at a sidewalk café. I use the little Italian I’ve picked up to order. I sit there letting the sun burn my bare legs. I want to feel it. Feel a different kind of pleasure and pain than what I’ve been feeling these past months. The yellow tablecloth and hand-painted ceramic wine carafe grace my small table as I watch the green, white and red flag of Italy wave from a cafe across the street. I order a bottle of still, not sparkling, water. One of Elisabetta’s favorite memories from America is of stopping in at a bar to use the bathroom and being greeted by the waitress with a cold glass of water. Water is not simply brought to your table here.
The most perfect specimen of Italian pizza that I’ve ever had the pleasure of consuming is set in front of me. Red, red sauce. Delicate artichoke hearts that beg me to love them. Whole succulent black olives, their pits just waiting to be freed by me. I’m so in love with this pizza I need to take it’s photo. The lovely curve of the brown baked edges and the straight lines of the yellow tablecloth. I wait patiently, which isn’t easy, for the feet passing through the background of my picture, to move on. “Run, damn it!” I want to yell. I make sure the focal point catches an olive and the table corner lines up with the bottle. Snap. I cut the pizza into sections then eat every bite using my fork and knife as they do here. After pausing for an eternity to watch the world on my walking street pass, I beckon the blond-haired, blue-eyed waiter, who has little interest in being interrupted from his own wine drinking, over for dessert. My stereotypes of dark Italians are ruined here in Northern Italy. Never the less, blondie brings a lemon sorbet in the most darling delicate glass. I have little time to shoot before the sun begins to melt my sweat subject, and I can resist no longer.