How To Tell What You Are, or, A Writer’s Revenge ….
Six weeks in Perugia have left me, more than anything, in a condition of advancing apolidia—which is to say: of statelessness. I’m not feeling very American these days (not that I felt especially American even before I arrived, but now it’s like being the character in a Flannery O’Connor novel whose parents, the whole town knows, are a drunk and a mongoloid). I certainly don’t feel Italian, which increasingly strikes me as a tremendous amount of work. So I float—or I lurch—among the categories.
I was the only English mother-tongue speaker in my August classes at the Università per Stranieri. It is true that most of the other students spoke some version of English, or at least they said they did. I made sure never to have an entire conversation in English, so I couldn’t say one way or another. Very little set my teeth on edge quite like listening to a bunch of American twenty-somethings as they slouched outside the mensa, talking like Keanu Reeves on Valium. No, I take that back. Like Keanu Reeves with a lobotomy on Valium. (If there is any word in English that deserves to be taken out and garroted more than “like,” I’m sure I don’t know what it is. Or we could just garrote the people who treat the word as though uttering it were physiologically necessary, every few beats of the heart, to keep the circulation of the blood from screeching to a halt.)
Still, by the time the month was well under way, the group I was hanging with—a spagnola, a swizzera, and a montenegrina—had developed a sort of argot all our own: 95% Italian but with a smattering of English, Spanish, and Switzer Deutsch thrown in. It’s easy to see how pidgins develop: Pretty soon we were sticking German endings onto our adjectives (stanco—tired—became “stankiert”) and exclaiming “¡Qué calor!” instead of “Che caldo!” as we struggled, in the savage humidity, up the forty-five-degree slope of the path that lead from our classrooms to via Pinturicchio, the main road back to the center of town.
In August, the fifth and even fourth levels of classes here were entirely devoid of Americans, while the first, second, and third levels were full of them. Perhaps this suggests something about our attitude toward foreign-language learning or the quality of foreign-language instruction in American schools. Or perhaps it just means that we’re exactly as rich and stupid as the rest of the world thinks we are, because more than anything the Università per Stranieri is a place where spoiled rich kids come for the summer to pretend to learn Italian while, in fact, they plan their next assault on Florence, Assisi, Cortona, or even Rome for shopping and disco attendance.
The exceptions to this rule were, as perhaps they are in universities the world over: (1) the scholarship students, who were counting their pennies and trying not to embarrass the people who’d given them the money to come to Perugia; (2) the Chinese students, who are both awe-inspiring and slightly ominous in their ability to memorize lists of vocabulary words and verb conjugations, but who suffered from the same difficulties as everyone else when it came to producing reasonably fluent speech; and (3) those of us who were over forty and are just as out of place in Italian nightclubs (with their ferocious youth culture) as we are in Italian clothing (with its ruthless elevation of style over comfort).
No great leap is required, of course, to imagine me having a snotty attitude about the rich, the young, or the fabulous, but what I never expected was to come face to face with a big, ugly stockpile of German-hating that I’ve apparently been nurturing for years. Not only couldn’t I abide the Germans and the Austrians (who apparently consider themselves the historical victims of the Germans, so there’s no love lost there, either), but the mere sound of German being spoken aloud gave me that same, panicked sense of enclosure and suffocation that comes over me when I can’t get away from cigarette smoke—I either have to leave the room or I’m going to say something nasty. But this was a visceral response, unsettling in its violence and in its intractability.
Of course, the thing was helped not one little bit by the presence in my level (which means we had ALL of our classes together) of a twenty-year-old Austrian boy—named, for no earthly reason, Pascal—who was so relentlessly effeminate and camp that the compulsion to act out some primordial sissy/bully drama with him was nearly irresistible. He was, as Mart Crowley has one of his characters memorably say in Boys in the Band, “like a butterfly in heat.” And yes, God help me, I wanted to beat him up.
Because Pascal’s spoken Italian was so very very bad and because he was so very very lazy, he didn’t even try to make himself understood in Italian, but rather spoke only in German and only to the other German speakers, even when we were out together in a group of mixed nationalities in which the only common language was Italian. At first his behavior struck me as merely rude, but after about a week it started to strike me as the sort of thing which, if I explained it carefully enough, would seem to any reasonable jury like an acceptable defense for murder. Pascal missed the last day of classes because, or so I was told, he was busy ransacking Perugia for a store where he could buy a suitcase large enough to contain the shoes, slacks, CDs, books, and sweaters that were the result of five weekends worth of shopping-junkets. This story seemed to make other people want to giggle. It made me want to track him down and bury him alive with rats.
It isn’t fair, I know, to consider Pascal a bad example of anything, including his nationality, his youth, his social class, or his sexual orientation. If I repeat this aloud to myself enough times, I’m sure to start to believe it.
But the point here has to do with how quickly we find ourselves in the land of national(ist) stereotypes. The Chinese students never go anywhere except with other Chinese students, and the Japanese students are grimly Nippophilic. (In fact, the Università provides special guides for Asian students so that there is always someone to interpret and to explain. In my first days here, as I waited on line at the Questura, I was amazed to observe a group of twenty Japanese students enter the waiting area and arrange themselves in an orderly little scrum on the available seats and, when those were exhausted, on the floor, while a docent explained every single line of the Permesso di Soggiorno application form, in Italian and Japanese. They quietly filled out their forms, and then went in a group to a special window, where the docent stood by each one of them as he or she presented the application, making sure that there were no misunderstandings and that the Questura issued the correct paperwork.)
The Spanish speakers hung together nearly as tightly as the Germans did, though they were by any measure more gregarious. The French and Belgian students, on the other hand, were most willing of all to speak Italian, not that you necessarily wanted them to. One French student, for example, who was (he made clear) a mathematician and an aerospace engineer who had gone to some Parisian polytechnique that supposedly meant you were smarter than God, spoke with such an abominable and intransigent accent that two-thirds of what he said was utterly incomprehensible. (English with a French accent can be charming; Italian with a French accent is brutal. I don’t make these rules; I just report them.)
But was that a French characteristic, that refusal to modify a horrendous accent (because we all know how they are about their language)? When he declaimed authoritatively on subjects ranging from number theory to holistic medicine to the local train schedules and rolled his eyes and made great smorfie when he disagreed (the wonderful Italian word for grimace that is very nearly visual onomatopoeia—say it out loud and you wind up duplicating the face it describes)—was that because he was French, or was it just because he was an arrogant git, and would have been an arrogant git had he been Scots, Nigerian, or Kwakiutl?
And what about the Tunisians, all of whom were white, and the South Africans (ditto)? What was the source of my involuntary internal hiccup, that spontaneous mental veering away that had to be overcome with conscious effort?
No one likes being picked by the ears of his or her nationality and dangled like LBJ’s dogs. Including me. I’ve heard plenty of anti-Americanism here, which offends me in some oblique angle of my being. Not because I disagree with a single thing anyone has said, but because I don’t like being painted with the sins of people I detest probably more than the Europeans do. (It’s fair to say, though, that the outpouring of concern expressed over the disaster in New Orleans has been genuine and gracious, especially from the Italians. This is a country that knows something about the sudden destruction of beautiful things at the hands of forces both natural and unnatural, and compassion lies just under the surface of a certain cynicism.)
And if the Africans talk too loudly and the Chinese are cliquish and the English confirm their stereotype as either giddy or chilly or both, and the Spanish are melancholy, what difference does it make? I mean, really make?
There is a large map of the world in almost every classroom in Palazzo Gallenga, the Università per Stranieri’s main building, and every map centers on Europe. In fact, they aren’t really maps of the world: North America barely appears, or just the northeast corner of it, off to the left somewhere. If I want to point to where I’m from on the map, it’s almost never there—not where I was born and not where I’ve lived for a quarter of a century.
I know: An observation about the way the maps are different here runs the risk of superficiality (John Travolta confabulating in Pulp Fiction, for example, on the “Royale with Cheese” at the Burger Kings in France, because what you notice when you go abroad are “the little things”), but I find this visual and geographic displacement to be powerful, instructive, and even poetic. “The true mystery of the world is the visible,” wrote Oscar Wilde in Dorian Gray, “not the invisible.”