For a couple of decades I lived under the illusion that, though I had spent all my life in the USA (Texas, Berkeley, and Cambridge), my true spiritual home was in Europe. I had convinced myself that there were many more people in Europe, especially France, with whom I would feel a close affinity than there were in my native land, whose faults I knew so well, but whose virtues I largely took for granted without even being conscious of them. There was also the alluring mystique of the beautiful, intellectual (yet thoroughly natural), sensual European women, different from American women in some indefinable way: in their Europeaness.
A brief visit to Europe when I was around thirty had only enhanced its romantic lure (that of Paris, especially) but I did not get across the Atlantic again until some ten years later when an opportunity arose to work for a year in Torino, Italy just at a time when my personal situation gave me a strong inclination to get the hell out of town anyway.
Torino would not have been my first choice as a place to begin my possible new life in Europe, but it would have to do for a start. As a rather provincial, industrial city, an extremely polluted one, it did not match my idea of the European paradise; wasn’t even close. I was working as a consultant for Aeritalia, the Italian national aerospace company, in the Space Division.
Torino was off the beaten track for tourism. I remember some Torino native asking me “Come maì Torino?” Meaning why had I picked Torino, of all places. The lack of foreigners in Torino meant that, outside of Aeritalia, where there were some other foreign consultants and where the Italian engineers liked to practice their English with me, I was forced to speak Italian. I had only started my self-study of Italian a little before I came to Italy, so I was far from fluent in it.
A major problem that I found in Torino was that almost the only women I saw in public were either married or too young. Meeting women outside of work was going to be a problem. This was disappointing, and a major deviation from my naively imagined life in Europe. I was later shocked to hear how matter-of-factly some of my Italian coworkers talked of utilizing the services of local prostitutes.
For the past several years, I’d been living in Cambridge, Mass. and spending a lot of time in Harvard Square, which my workplaces and abodes had been near to for most of that time. The Square’s numerous bookstores, street performers, cafés, restaurants, and bars attracted lots of graduate students, professors and other academic staff, and assorted artistic and hippie types; along with undergraduates, high school kids, yuppies, and general seekers of a good time. Harvard Square had been a place where it was possible to meet a woman; and, in addition to my wanting a comfortable milieu, that was a reason for hoping I’d find a similar place in Torino.
There was no such place, but I did find that the area around Via Po, which ran down to the Po river bridge, was the university neighborhood and probably as close as I was going to find. One Sunday afternoon after I’d been in Italy, feeling rather forlorn most of the time, for about six weeks, I was sitting in the Gelateria delle Alpi on Via Po, by myself as usual, drinking a beer and eating what the Italians called a “toast,” which was basically a grilled cheese sandwich.
A beautiful young woman at another table caught my attention. She was tall, vibrant, and dramatic in an oh-so-Italian way. Her attire—running shoes, pants, and sweater—made me think she might be a student, though she was no young kid. Advanced drama student I guessed. She was talking to her Italian girl friend with sweeping Italian gestures. Her big expressive eyes were especially beautiful. She wore no wedding ring.
I was spellbound. She kept looking at me, or looking to see if I was looking at her, in the mirror. In stature and flair she reminded me a bit of my second wife, whom coincidentally I had first seen in a café in Austin (speaking French, I now recall). This was not necessarily a good sign, though I didn’t think about it at the time. But this woman was gorgeous and vivacious in a way that shouted out her Italianess.
This made up for the weeks of feeling isolated in an unfriendly city that didn’t welcome foreigners. She was altogether the most appealing woman I’d seen since my arrival in Italy—the Italian dream woman really, not obviously married and not a teenybopper; and it seems she might even be interested in me, if those looks my way meant anything. Did I dare approach her, especially with my meager knowledge of Italian? I was getting nervous at the thought of it, which was not good.
Now she and her friend were getting up to pay and leave. I might never see this perfect Italian woman again! I dove in without further thought.
“Parli inglese?” (Familiar, rather than polite form. See if she speaks English.)
“I just wanted to tell you how much I enjoyed watching you and your friend talking. Avec des grands gestes italiens.”
I remember throwing in the stupid (and probably incorrect) French phrase, no doubt accompanied by some gestures of my own to add to the ridiculous effect, but I can’t account for it. I guess I wanted to be speaking to her in Italian, but French came out instead. I continued quickly.
“Sono americano and I really enjoy…”
She had to have completely misinterpreted the thrust of my words, for she interrupted me before I could complete the sentence in which I was going somehow to express my admiration for her as the quintessential Italian woman.
“So you could really tell I was an American,” she said. It was more a statement tinged with disappointment than a question; and in perfect American English.
Questa donna italiana! She—an American! While she seemed disappointed that I’d seen through her act and approached her as a fellow American, so she thought, I was briefly disoriented, for I had fallen for the act so completely that the truth had suddenly exploded both my imagined reality and the hope that sprang from it. I don’t remember the rest of our sputtering conversation very well, not that it amounted to much.
The sad truth was that both of us were trying to escape America and Americans. She said she particularly liked Torino because there were hardly any tourists. She was with a theater company, so my guess had been pretty close. She had to get back to her friend. Yeah, I was getting the brushoff, but it really didn’t matter anymore, and I was left to ponder what it meant that my perfect Italian woman had turned out to be American. As American as I was.