This is the ninth installment of a series of #content meant to illuminate the first study abroad trip for UConn student Sten Spinella.
The Italian boys opt for a “smoke your part” policy rather than “puff puff pass.” It makes the whole experience more leisurely. After about two hours on the top of the mountain, we drove back toward The Bunker and into La Spezia. There was a warm, summery, sort of classic, tan tint as we drove away from the tunnel. A more narcissistic man would see this as a higher power peeking down.
Gaining four more boys and one girl (Jimmy’s girlfriend) at The Bunker, we departed for Porto Venere. Vale told me on the way that here and in Lerici, the famous poets Byron and Shelley lived and wrote.
In Porto Venere, which is sort of a tourist town, even if that means Italian tourists, there was a large marina and a strip of restaurants to choose from. Us nine young men and women marched into one of the fanciest ones, receiving wondering looks from the more elderly eaters.
There I tried delicious fried seafood of all types, as well as shrimp scampi, seafood soufflé and white wine. When we weren’t busy laughing at Tommasso for some reason, the entire table interviewed me about my girlfriend, my thoughts on Italian rappers, my thoughts on the disco, if I liked soccer, where I had been in the U.S. and other topics. I was happy to indulge them, they were happy to test their English. I noticed that I was the first to drink wine, and Vale poured a glass for himself right after, as if for my sake.
We walked to the Byron Grotto, a rocky area with an organic stone arch and pathways and railings surrounding the water. Before I entered, I read the placard above the arch, which was inscribed in Italian but also bore an English translation: “This grotto was the inspiration of Lord Byron. It records the immortal poet who, as a daring swimmer, defied the waves of the sea from Porto Venere to Lerici.” We walked through the wetness, waves lapping in this peaceful little area, and looked at the castle on one side, the church on the other. A tourist boat was in the center of the water hole, and the area was bordered by large swaths of rock scaling high above the ground.
Before grabbing gelato, we walked to the top of a medieval church and smoked cigarettes. Everyone was in good spirits. Vale told me the boys didn’t want me to leave. I was taught the difference between bella (beautiful), bellissima (all of the beauty) and pubela (the most beautiful). We compared Berlusconi and Trump. They told me about the mafia in Naples and Sicily.
When we got back to The Bunker, the boys declared I was “one of Bunker,” albeit Americano. They insisted everyone take a picture together. I told them all how happy I was to have met them, and thanked them for everything. I was sad to leave them, knowing I would probably never see them again.
There was something else Vale wanted to show me before the night ended. We went to a residential area and walked up to a chain-link fence. There, in the most unassuming place, was a view of everywhere we had been, lights and everything. There, I asked Vale about his past with women. He wasn’t always such an angel. Still, he has forever been focused on the emotional rather than the physical. I asked him, as the police officer on my first day in Italy asserted, if “Women” really are Italy’s number one sport. He said for some that is the case, but not for those with a good head and a good heart. He asked me about women. I told him that, like him, I had found someone I unequivocally want to be with, despite recent years of uncertainty, stupidity and licentiousness. We drove home. We went to bed.
The next day we had about four hours to kill before my train back to Florence. The first thing we did was meet Vale’s grandparents at a café where they had been talking with their friends. I thanked them for their hospitality and told them that Helene and Charlie sent them their warmest regards. They embraced me, and Rosa called for a selfie.
At noon Vale bought me a delicious pizza, of truffle oil and prosciutto, and a beer. We walked to the Castle of Lerici and I was again treated to a view. He then showed me the secret parts of his town. We went through back alleyways and stone steps and I found myself looking at a childhood watering hole of Vale’s with a small beach. Before we could get there, though, Vale pointed to a dilapidated cement lot with two broken down chairs and a rusted fence.
“This,” he said pointing to the area, “is the problem of Italy. This could be pretty, it could be something. Look at this view! But no. We don’t care. We don’t take opportunity.”
Afterward we traveled through a tunnel with kayak rentals and a high school art gallery of copies of classic paintings, except with the insertion of the Castle of Lerici into them.
“Here again is the problem. This is good, and funny, but I have heard nothing about it! Nobody spreads word.” I nodded in agreement.
The time had come to go back to my apartment. It was raining. Vale dropped me off at the train station, hugging me and smiling sincerely.
“Come back any time. You are always welcome as my special guest cousin! I will miss you!”
“Thank you so much for what you’ve shown me and how you’ve treated me. Come to America whenever and let me return the favor. I’ll miss you too cugino.”
I do not want to be constrained. I will work to give the people I love the type of treatment and chances Vale gave me that weekend. I will work to get back to this country and learn it from top to bottom. We’re not leaving. We’ll get it right.
I’m homesick for the first time in my life, and it’s not that I don’t love this city, with its late-night drinking-dalliances and its morning architectural, political and cultural history lessons and its mid afternoon strolls along the river, or its pasta with meat sauce, its spicy salami pizza, its many bridges (built after the Germans destroyed them as a wartime goodbye gift), its secrets, its pockets of modernity (The Oltrarno, Piazza Santo Spirito at 2 am when the Americans are at the American bars on the Duomo side of the bridge, whereupon 500 young Italians gather and celebrate the fact that they are not tourists), its friendly or unfriendly shop-owners, its well-groomed dogs, its moments of clarity and grandiosity when I look up and I listen to music and I see the tops of buildings built centuries before and into the vast distance of D’Arno that Hitler once admired, even its tendency to force me to be selfish, because I spent the money to come here, I read the books, waited the tables, and romanticized the country to come here, and I must take advantage of every opportunity presented to me, or make my own opportunities, the focus is on me and the me here and the me back home and the me who feels constantly on trial because I was given a life very few have, and I refuse to be found guilty of not caring but also, paradoxically, to be found guilty of not taking advantage of my leg up, though I hope to do it in such a way that I can spread the love, give everyone a leg, we all deserve one even if we don’t, and its ability to make me appreciate my Americanism further, since I’m of course reading American authors and every author writes to define the place where they are from (or the place where they are writing), and A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, as much as it is an exercise in narcissism and self-reflection, is brilliant and entirely American, and its ability to make me both appreciate and excoriate America’s singularities, but I am homesick, because the people that I love are far away, and almost a month into this adventure, there’s something to be said for familiarity. I’d rather they all come live with me here, because one way or another, its detrimental to be apart from your people for too long.