This is the seventh installment of a series meant to illuminate the first study abroad trip for UConn student Sten Spinella.
We returned to Vale’s family home where dinner was ready: red wine, water, pasta and Francesco’s homemade pesto, bread, five different kinds of cheeses, prosciutto, salami, fruit and gelato. We spoke of family, Vale’s translating skills going into hyper-drive, and I explained my experience and the circumstances of studying in Firenze.
Out the door we went to La Spezia, where Vale and I were to meet his friends. This involves a sprawling group of boys from ages 17 through 23.
We met at “The Bunker,” a dead end street where there is guaranteed parking, a place that had acted as the agreed upon area of planning for the group for years. At first I was worried that Vale’s boys wouldn’t take to the foreigner, but that is not what happened at all. Even though none of the eight that Friday night spoke English well, excepting Vale, they warmed to me immediately.
We all drove to the precipice of La Spezia and looked out on a spectacular view and array of lights. As they rolled their tobacco, the boys told me their names, and that my last name loosely means “joint” in Italian (“spinello” is the real Italian word for it). Tommaso, who was exceedingly small and quiet, was poked fun at incessantly for not being able to speak any English at all despite learning it since age five, and for other reasons. He had once had two girlfriends simultaneously. He was “too pretty for work, too dumb for school.” He was hilarious. The other boys included Maurizio, Niccolo, Davide, and Giacomo. I can’t remember all their names. They cracked jokes with each other and Vale tried to translate fast enough for me to keep up. Giacomo, whom they called Jimmy, particularly liked me and used my presence to practice his English. I loved his six-month-old golden retriever, Aaron, and he loved me back. The atmosphere at the top of this mountain was jovial, like a reuniting, and Vale confirmed this when he told me that my visit was the extraordinary experience his friends had needed to have a reason to all come together at once again. I was flattered.
Back to The Bunker we drove. A group of kids who were apparently peripheral friends with Vale and the boys were there smoking cigarettes. Throughout the weekend, Vale would socialize with whomever he saw or slightly knew. A girl approached him, hugged him and he kissed her on the forehead. I thought it was his girlfriend.
“Mi chiamo Sten. I met your friends yesterday! It’s so nice to meet you!” Vale shook his head and grinned.
“Sten, this is only my friend Michela.” I was later lectured at about the difference between kisses on the cheek and the forehead and kisses on the lips.
From The Bunker we walked through La Spezia. Groups of young people lingered about. We made it through the city center and onto the outskirts, where, Vale told me, the boys were taking me to look at the marina, and, more specifically, the yachts.
I noticed writing scrawled on the walls as we walked. “All cops are bastards,” “Satanic Youth,” “666.” This is somewhat unrelated, but so many of the Renaissance paintings I’ve seen have been horrendous depictions of the devil eating people and Hell’s ugliness.
I noticed a group of fishermen throwing back the bad fish to the delight of seagulls. It was past midnight. The boys, with their obsession over the huge boats we were about to see, were enthralled with wealth as much as any American. The main difference between Italy and the U.S., though, is moderation. Italians drink for enjoyment, Americans drink to drunkenness. In America, we are obsessed with big. We can afford to be. Our people are fatter, including myself, because we eat until we’re too full. Italians have experienced hunger more recently than us, during and after WWII. Generations of grandparents afterwards always made sure their kids got enough to eat. This idea of size resonates in European countries, especially where youth unemployment has skyrocketed, except it resonates differently. In Europe, size is special. In the U.S., it’s commonplace. Vale pointed to a black boat, the biggest in the marina, and told me he wanted to own it one day.
On Saturday, after breakfasting with Rosa and Vale outside on the water in Lerici, I met Vale’s girlfriend, Iulia. They made a handsome couple. She was sweet and, according to Vale, more fluent in English than he. We left Lerici, picked up Iulia, and departed for Cinque Terre, Riomaggiore from the central train station in La Spezia. Iulia’s grandmother has an apartment in Riomaggiore with a view of the Mediterranean.
Part of Vale’s plan to treat me as his “special guest” included “eating like kings” all day on Saturday. He loves seafood, and wanted to show me all his country had to offer. It had a lot. We ate in a patio area, Vale telling me exactly what to get. A consistent half-liter of white house wine lasted for one bottle and two refills. The first course was mussels, and crostini to mop up the sauce. The second, a plate of pasta with assorted seafood. I helped Vale and Iulia with their seafood risotto. Coffee and glasses of Amaro followed. I felt important for no reason.
At one point during the meal, Iulia left for the bathroom. Vale told me he had fallen in love with her junior year of high school, but didn’t tell her until senior year, when she responded in kind. The component of racism came up again. Iulia and her family are originally Romanian.
“I do not care about this, but many in my country might. They see immigrants as dangerous, and they are wrong. In my opinion, Iulia and her family are better than most Italians. Her house is empty all day because her parents wake up early to work and do not come home until late at night. I am very happy with her.”
When Vale went to the bathroom, and I asked Iulia about them.
“He liked me before I liked him. But now I love him. He is not possessive and very sweet and is not the type of boyfriend to not allow me to go to the disco.”
“You guys sound solid,” I said to her.
“We are.” Vale came back to the table and looked at Iulia quickly and tenderly. It made me miss Margaux and her sweet smile more than I ever had. She should’ve been there with me.
The two took me to rocks jutting into the sea. They nimbly managed them, picking their way around the people tanning, while I lagged behind. We drank our beer and stared out at the ocean, talking about how we wished we lived in this small area with the colorful houses on the steep land near the great water. From there, Iulia led us through the maze of passageways to a patio area under her grandmother’s place. Vale and I waited for her while she went inside to mingle with her family. We examined the view of the saltwater and the neighboring five lands. I felt good and hot in the sun and unbuttoned my shirt. Iulia came out after ten minutes with seven slices of chocolate and lemon cake, as well as a big bottle of water and three Coronas. Back and forth we went about the benefits and dangers of marijuana, how and why Americans drink so much more than Italians, and why Vale did not enjoy the disco while Iulia did. Iulia took a photo of Vale and I on the terrace, the water behind us. I could have stayed for hours longer, but Vale had a plan to execute.
The train came and we went. Vale kissed Iulia goodbye, and I was even awarded a kiss on the cheek and a “good luck in your travels” from the love of my young cousin’s life.
After parlaying with Vale’s friends in The Bunker, this time, a new guy, who spoke English quite well, had stumbled upon some hashish. He was with Maurizio. Us four met Tommasso on top of another mountainside. It was a secret in broad daylight, one of those places that, had I been a tourist in the area without a local to guide me, I never would have found. On the side of a busy tunnel was an area for kids to hang out and smoke tobacco and hashish while staring at the sea. A cement strip we sat on hung from this tunnel that lay on a busy road between La Spezia and Cinque Terre. It provided the perfect place for me to get to know both Vale’s friends and his ambitions more.
Maurizio and Tommasso discovered a commonality with me: black entertainment. They love J. Cole, Jay-Z and Kendrick Lamar, Chris Paul, Allen Iverson and Lebron James. They wanted to know my opinions on American Hip-Hop and the NBA, which I gleefully had Vale translate.
During a light but lengthy conversation between Vale’s three friends, he and I traded our future plans.
“I’ve gotta say, I love your country,” I told him. “Its landscape is unsparingly stunning. It has history and art and stories everywhere. It’s my goal to one day be able to pay to live here.”
“That’s great, man,” Vale said. “But nothing happens here anymore. I want to live in your country. I want to go to school there and get a job.”
“I should have said that it is easier for me to get a job in the United States than in my country. But I really do want to live there.”
“Look at our cousin! Adam and David made their way up to success. That is impossible here. They were able to make something of themselves in your country. I don’t think I can do that in Italy.”
“I get that. You’re further along in your dream than I am in mine. You can already speak the language of my country and everything!”
“I could see you here. You just have to learn a little more.”
“True. So what do you study?”
“What do you want to study?” He laughed.
“It is not what I want to study. It is that I must study something to find job.”
“That’s definitely a strong train of thought in my country. I’m looked down upon by some for studying literature and politics. There’s no clear job path there.”
“I would like to study philosophy, but I cannot, the way things are. Do you understand?”
“Far too well my friend.”
While the Italians talked to each other and turned inward (and I was grateful, feeling bad for making Vale translate so often), so did I. At this point, I had no sense of ranking for the views I’d seen in Italy. I just came to the naïve conclusion that everything in this country was beautiful. I was less than a foot from falling off the ledge and down thousands of feet below. The sea was framed by the ends of land, the mountain edges, and although cars drove loudly by behind me, the blue and green hues in front of me were too powerful to notice anything else. Good lord, it is so much easier to write in this country than mine! There are nothing but buildings and offices where I am from, schools and classes. This country begs to be written in, but, according to Vale, no one has the will or way to write, or engage in other such frivolous pursuits.
This is when I took out my phone to take notes. After I jotted down three thoughts, I stopped. Shouldn’t I be able to live something first then write of it after, rather than having to write at all times? Writerly tropes argue that any self-respecting scribe must have a pen and pad on their personage at all times, to be ready for any circumstance and be sure they will not forget it. What about experiencing something thoroughly then writing of it later? Is that not more conducive to truthfully conveying a feeling? I did not take another note during my visit, not even when I thought of some turn of phrase that effectively portrayed my love for Margaux and my vision of our future. If it didn’t come when I sat down to write, it wasn’t worth it. If this essay does not end up being good, maybe I will again religiously write down what I witness and think before I organize it into cohesion.