Buco Sweet Buco
Casa mia, casa mia
per piccina che tu sia
tu mi sembri una badia
A lot of things in Italy are very very tiny: shower stalls; washing machines; the aisles in grocery stores; the doorways on train cars; doorways in general; automobiles (one of the most popular cars, The Smart, is roughly the size of your average American mailbox); the chairs at cafés (it never ceases to dumbfound me that the country known the world over for its café culture hasn’t managed to stumble across a design for a comfortable café chair). Among the smallest things here, not to be vulgar about it, are boys’ butts, and the way young guys manage to squeeze themselves into second-skin jeans and shirts that taper down to some Escher-like infinity seems, like many of the latter’s lithographs, an architectural impossibility. They’re a source less often of lust than of awe: You admire them the way you admire netsuke: Brilliant but also a little creepy in some hard-to-define way. The body-shaving mania has hit here as well, which means that McDonald’s is now only the second-most destructive American import.
Still, what you notice are the people who are out of phase—men my age who are still playing at being ragazzi (a special type of appariscenti with gym muscles, Yul Brynner heads, and the menacing demeanor of the bad-guy extras in a Steven Segal movie but whom, you suspect, are still living with their mommies); young guys who’ve opted out of the couture/coiffeur competition, becoming either geeks (such as the sweet, sloppy boys who run the internet point near my apartment, on the narrow and tortuous via Ulisse Rocchi, which leads straight to the university and which, I’m told, is the oldest street in Perugia) or punkabbestie (a motley, hard-to-describe lot of guys and a few girls who have multiple piercings, raggedy hair, and a general air of dissipation).
I think it must be exhausting to be a young man in Italy; there’s so much performing and costuming to do, and it doesn’t end for decades. And then it doesn’t really end, it just metamorphoses. On the other hand, one sees many fewer girls who protest in this highly visual way, which suggests that it’s even more exhausting to be a girl.
And then there are the older men—the caffé debaters and bocci ball players—whose families (one guesses) are gone and who seem eager to latch on to anyone who’ll allow them to play nonno for a while.
I met such a one on my first Monday in Perugia as I waited, hopelessly, at the office of the Atena Servizio, the student housing office on via Bulagaio, to try to talk to someone about changing my apartment. I pulled #24 from the little red box just inside the door (“Munirsi di un numero. Grazie.”) when they were only on #89. Disgusted, I went away to get the results of my placement test, to make one of my many visits to the Segretaria at the Università, to argue with the man at the Ufficio delle Borse di Studio about why the Segretaria was insisting I owed additional fees even though I have a scholarship; to the cashier to pay those extra fees. When I came back to the housing service, they were on 03.
That’s when Signor Barbarossa appeared in a too-large Volvo, which he appeared to intend to drive directly through the door of the housing office. Through the windshield he made wild and incomprehensible gestures at the crowd of sweaty, exasperated students massing at the doorway, and they dutifully pressed themselves ever closer against the wall so he could pass. But he didn’t move and he didn’t stop waving. Finally, I said, half-muttering, “Ma quanto spazio ci vuole, Signore?” (How much space is it going to take, Signore?”) I didn’t think he heard me, but he did.
“Non per passare. Per parcheggiare,” he said. (“Not to drive by, to park.”) I said, “Sul serio?” and he nodded. “He wants to park,” I said in the general direction of the crowd at the door. I didn’t think anyone would move (I probably wouldn’t have), but they did, and he jerkily wedged his car into place, the back end sticking into the street at about forty-five degrees. With great difficulty, he extracted himself from the driver’s seat, clanging a metal cane against the door and the wall and the side of his car, and lurched in my general direction. I thought I was going to get it, but instead he started telling me about all the apartments he owned and how he’d come to pick up some students who’d reserved rooms with him, and did I know that he still had two apartments left for rent and was I interested. At first I thought he’d overlooked my rudeness because I’d helped him park, but then I decided he just couldn’t see me well enough the first time to realize I was the same person who’d asked him how much space he needed.
Of course I was, sort of, interested in an apartment because I wasn’t all that thrilled with mine, but mostly I was interested in him, so I started in with my own questions about where his apartments were and how much he was expecting in rent, and so forth. He was one of those older guys who, when you ask him something, always starts his answer by saying, “OK, now just hold on a minute. Listen, and I’ll explain everything.” And then he doesn’t.Still, he kept inviting to drive me to see the apartments, and though his asking price seemed to be well high of the mark, I thought: You never know. So I climbed into his car, enjoying the inscrutable looks on the faces of the people he’d nearly pinned to the brickwork, and off we went on Mr. Magoo’s wild ride. Signor Barbarossa never stopped talking, so it wasn’t much of a conversation, but he was a hoot anyway. Or maybe just a loon: He told me about the Norwegian man and his wife who stayed in one of his apartments for eight months while the man wrote a book about the Tiber (its source is not far from Perugia, north in the mountains). I asked if the book had ever come out, and Sig. Barbarossa said he didn’t know, but he did know that the man’s wife had up and left him one day. He told me about many of the students who’d stayed with him over the years and how much they loved him—especially the Germans—and he exhorted me to ask “anyone” at the University, because they’d tell me how good Barbarossa was to his students.
The apartments, probably predictably, were a pair of dumps: a very long, uphill walk to the University or a two-bus ride, sort of run-down, cheap-motel chic in a residential periphery just outside the city walls. I couldn’t imagine anyone writing a book about the Tiber there, or a book about anything, though I could easily see them as a place where a person might come to the decision to leave her husband. The only thing they really had going for them over the apartment I was already in is that they were two or three times the size. That aside, they were dreary, airless, and without character. I told Sig. Barbarossa that, as I had only just arrived, I wanted to see what other options the housing office might have for me before I made a final decision. I encouraged him to take any other sure thing that came along while I dithered. That, of course, initiated a long discourse about student housing in Perugia and how I wouldn’t find anything better or at a better price or with a more attentive landlord. (This attentive landlord, I thought, was one of the blemishes on the apple.)
Two weeks later, I’m glad I stayed in my little buco (hole in the wall) on via Vermiglioli. When I couldn’t get anyone at the housing service to answer the phone, and the line outside the door seemed never to get any shorter, I decided to take my chances with the landlord himself. I phoned him and complained about the bed (è uno strumento di tortura medioevale,” I told him, which I trust needs no translation), and he changed it the next day. I said the shower stall was a disgusting mess of mildew, and he immediately sent someone to clean not only the shower but the entire bathroom. This last weekend, which was a national holiday (the Feriae Augustales – the Ferragosto), the electricity kept going off and I shot him an SMS (a text message that you send from your cell phone and which is the Italian’s primary means of communication). He showed up an hour later and told me how to fix the problem, which involves a complicated series of instructions about what circuits to close at the breaker box depending on whether I’d like to run the washing machine or the hot water heater). He’s a very nice man, actually. Compared to the horror stories I’ve heard from other students—the signora who appears at the entrance every time the door opens to make sure no one lets any boys inside; the apartments that charged students an extra fee for use of the washing machine, even though the washing machine appears not to have functioned since Il Duce—I’m one of the happy, lucky survivors of Perugia’s summer student housing wars.
But that doesn’t mean I don’t feel huge here and clumsy, as I negotiate the few inches of floor space that remain after I’ve opened up the divano-letto at night to sleep, or try to cut bread on the counter without knocking the dish rack onto the floor, or pirouette sideways between the bathroom sink and the washing machine on my precarious way into and out of the shower. It’s one of the reasons that public spaces are so important in Italy, I think, and so unimportant in America. Here, everyone’s dying to get outside, where they can stretch their legs. In America, public space often seems encroached upon, begrudgingly provided.
Still, living space is one of the ways that Italy reminds you who has and who hasn’t got. “We all live in jail cells nowadays!” my slightly whacky literature professor hollered the other day, on one of her rants about the ways that modern society fails the human spirit. Having seen real jail cells, I know the comparison is exaggerated, off the mark in degree if not entirely in substance. My cell has bars on the windows, and the walls are covered with sentimental German postcards left there by a previous tenant, but I have a door that opens onto the whole, wide world.