This is the fourth installment of a series of #content meant to illuminate the first study abroad trip for UConn student Sten Spinella.
The art is in the architecture, it is in the sculptures, it is in the museums, it is embedded in the streets among the painters and caricaturists, it is definitely in the food, whether a simple sandwich or, well, most Italian food is simple, and inspiring, like a well-drawn picture, it is in the people and the clothes they wear, it is even in the shops, and the Apple Store, which is located in a thousands-of-years-old, impressive building. This is an art overload after coming from the otherwise oppressively inartistic state, Connecticut, or country, the United States. We rely on the natural world for our beauty as surely as we destroy it. We seem to see commerce and capitalism as an art more important than any creative pursuit: “The Art of Business,” “The Art of the Deal,” “The Art of Negotiation,” “The Art of Trade,” “The Art of Influence.” (All books written by Donald Trump, presumably.) Money is the most aesthetically pleasing artwork to Americans.
The problem is becoming a viable artist. Most are also professors, forcing them to work twice as hard, and often to curate other art while neglecting their own. Labor and art go hand in hand, unless that labor is done at the expense of the art. There are no upstanding street painters in the U.S., you can’t sit outside by the hundreds and expect to make money with your charcoal or your prints or your landscapes. You can post them on Facebook and Instagram for likes, and become a tattoo artist. Us Americans don’t like hanging art on our walls, but we do like masquerading as artwork ourselves.
Oh, you thought I had a solution to the viable artist thing? Then you don’t know me. Like Bernie Sanders, I am damn near a savant when it comes to diagnosing problems, but subpar when it comes to convincing prescriptions. America is fickle in its art. You do not know which poem will go viral, which song will make memes, which book will earn accolades, which painting will be determined expensive. That is what makes its pursuit volatile, despicable, vital, and noble.
Enough of my waxing: I ordered food in all Italian today. It was a sandwich, “La Dante,” which I decided on because of its namesake coming from the great, deceased poet. I also attended my European Union class after three hours of sleep and a night of drinking, the type of night that has tended to happen quite often since I’ve been here. This was not my best decision, as I have never struggled more than I did that class to stay awake, and I happened to sprain my ankle in a sidewalk divot during the half hour my classmates and I were to be looking for symbols of the EU around Florence. It was not a banner day, but determined to make it important, as, unfortunately, bankrolling my own adventure makes each day incredibly expensive, I stepped out to the streets and tried to glean all I could from the sights and the people.
There is a surplus of women in this program compared to men, coming from schools like Penn State, Arizona State, University of Virginia, University of Massachusetts, and others. I don’t know why this is – I would think, like bathrooms, studying abroad could be gender neutral. As I am happily in love with a Frenchwoman, this fact has not caused me much thought. Sometimes, though, Italian men take a liking to one of my female American cohorts and I can tell the woman does not feel similarly. This leads to angry words, as well as a now-lonely Italian man leaning against a wall outside the bar and smoking a cigarette. The friend thanks me and continues to drink tequila. I look for my roommates and wonder why I do this.
The wrinkly Italian men with crooked smiles sit on wooden crates, benches, or barrels. Their talk cuts through the constant smoke of cigarettes and sips of wine. I watch. Sometimes I lake too long, and am shouted away, the only words I understand are “Americano” and “Deporte.” They might play dominoes and eat bread and cheese, they might be street painters or shop owners, maybe childhood friends. Whichever street they are on – be it a park in Lucca, shaded by trees, or huddled together on a corner in Florence – they own. I’d give anything to know what they’re saying.
I’m out with friends two nights before we see the Leaning Tower and I discover my favorite museum is a graveyard in Pisa. We know Mirko the bartender so whenever we come in he gives us free shots and cheap drinks and tells us to come turn up with him and the staff at a club or a bar at the end of the night. I have no idea how he does it, he pours drinks every day and probably gets drunk twelve times a week. I meet new peers, usually majoring in finance or nursing, and we exchange the normalized pleasantries of place, occupation, and namesake. One girl is in journalism at UConn (albeit of the television variety, you know, the print plagiarists) and I tell her that I’m done writing for the News section of The Daily Campus because I didn’t get promoted and there’s nothing new for me to do after writing two hundred articles over three years for that publication. Why? Because I wasn’t chosen to be editor of the section. Well, that’s petty. Yes, it is, but do you want to know what’s pettier? What? I believe I wasn’t promoted because I would ruffle too many feathers, so I’m joining the opinion section to tear the feathers off.
See, I was basically like one of the old men on those streets who liked to produce old photographs or meaningful quotations to back up my rather bland statements. But I’d rather be the personality who the other men laugh at and worry about because of my color and bombast. I didn’t get the respect I wanted during the first three quarters of my collegiate life, so I’m using my crate as a soapbox on my way out.
The truth is that I find the history of the Duomo and the story of the city more fascinating than who the Italian Prime Minister is, and his latest policy reform. My interest is in the symbolism of the human condition in the museums of this country much more than the latest data on refugee relocation. Their narrative, the right and wrong of their situation, how words can be combined to convince, prove, fix, and illustrate, is my place. It’s so fucking obvious now. I was lying to myself before. To argue like those men on those benches, to shout at representations of wrong, to glorify that which deserves glorification, is all so much more appealing to me than disguising a forceful truth with hard facts. Why did it take me leaving my own country for this first time to figure this?