Tonight is the night before the night before the day I leave for Italy.
It has been two years since I have lived abroad, and though the coming six weeks hardly measures up to my longer soujourns, I cannot think of a better way to spend my summer than among the fields and orchards of Umbria.
Italy came upon us suddenly; an offer in March finalized shortly thereafter, and at once we had our summer taken care of, long and leisurely, a throwback to childhood. Here we are, my husband and I, in the scant months before graduate school, poised between the working world and a return to being students -- and Italy has come between. Italy!
I imagine that Italy will remind me of Argentina, where so many Argentines carry around their grandparents' memories of pre-war Italy like proud badges of their europeidad, enacting their roots in Italian cultural organizations, soccer clubs, elementary schools, widows' funds, and opera performances. More than one and a half million Italians came to Argentina between 1880 and 1950, out-pacing all other immigrant groups in Argentina and leaving traces of Sicily and Sardinia in the Argentine accent, with its lilting quality uncharacteristic of the rest of Latin America, and in Argentine food, abundant in pastas and cured meats, tomato sauces and basil relish. As neo-Europeans, Argentines impose a European imaginarium on the vast stretches of the Pampa, in the same way that the architects of Buenos Aires remade the city into a European capital after Haussmann's Paris, installing broad avenues and Mansard-peaked town houses. Buenos Aires is the "balcony onto Europe," but most of all, a balcony onto Italy.
I spent one year in Argentina, in 2003, when the country was still reeling from the effects of its fantastic economic crisis in December 2001. I lived in Buenos Aires with a 70-year-old woman named after Dante's love; the child of an Italian father and a Romanian mother, Beatriz had studied opera and voice at the Teatro de Colon, Buenos Aires' most eminent theatre, and spent her dotage as a contralto in a professional choir. We spent the evenings talking of music, and listened to her old tapes of Jessye Norman and Martha Argerich while she served me polenta with tomato sofrito and regiannito cheese, the Argentine version of Parmigiano (sans the A.O.C.).
So, the clearest version of Italy that I have is the memory that an old woman in Argentina has of her father; it's an Italy that hasn't seen the television, or witnessed the return of its emigrants' children and grandchildren after the most recent crisis. It's an Italy that melds together with my impressions of Little Italy here in New York; of Verdi and Puccini and Vivaldi; of The Splendid Table; of Umberto Eco and The Name of the Rose; of Marinetti's futurismo and other manifestos of modernity.
This Italy of my imagination is kitsch crossed with nostalgia for a past that was never mine. On Friday I will see how much of the present it can contain, and whether or not it will be satisfied with its liminal and transitory role in our lives, crossroads between the post-college work years and the doctoral programs that are before us. Is this the last chance for pleasure-walks and cooking extravaganzas? The last hurrah before the candle burns low? Or merely more of what has been, and signs of goodness still to come?
I wait anxiously for my departure, to know something more of this country that already holds such a place in my narrative.