It was a warm night in the summer of 2007 and my friends and I were trading obscenities in Italian. I was seated in an infamous tourist bar called “Barone Rosso” in the medieval Tuscan city of Siena, drinking and chatting with three newfound friends from class. I was in the country for an Italian literature and instruction course at the local university that cost only three hundred euros. For three hundred more I could stay in a local residence with some of my meals taken care of for a month. At the time I still entertained the ambition of being a professor of Italian, so it seemed like a good deal. Those were the days, I guess.
L and C were a pair of pretty French girls from Provence and F was a dude from São Paulo, Brazil. Italian was our common language, which took an amusing toll on our communication skills as the night wore on. Forming friendships in what was a second language for all of us added a level of novelty to our socializing. We chatted and joked with each other about the language and the country, letting our conversation drift between topics, from the weirdness of the town’s customs to the rambunctious activities of previous nights as the crowd swelled and shifted around us.
The men in the town seemed utterly smitten with L and C. The girls, despite having been raised in a Mediterranean region themselves, still found the intense forwardness of Italians noteworthy. At any given moment, men would approach the table and try to hold their hands, or bend to whisper in their ears. “So’ innamorato,” they would say insistently, “I’m in love.”
I assumed that the strength of these declarations stemmed from the language itself. Italian has its own unexamined assumptions, which impact the most ordinary interactions. For example, when you meet someone and say, “How was your day?” you often ask “Cos’hai fatto di bello?” which means, literally “What beautiful things have you done?” A similar construction is “Cosa mi racconti di bello oggi?” which means, “What beautiful stories are you telling me today?” While trying to get my head around the real significance of everyday interactions, I often came up against fundamental differences of expression.
I shook my head as the latest suitors walked away. “I don’t get it at all. Do they really think it’s going to work, just saying they’re in love all the time? You’d think they’d realize the phrase loses some meaning if it’s that ubiquitous.” L looked at me with a grin. “I agree, it is a little strange. But what do you think, when is a good time to say ‘So’ inammorato di te?’” I shook my head and furrowed my brow, chewing on my lip for a moment in concentration. I looked up at the other three. “I dunno, after four months, maybe five months of a pretty serious relationship? It would have to seem appropriate at the time.”
My companions’ faces contorted in surprise, and L’s mouth dropped open. They looked at each other with expressions of shared amusement. I searched their eyes as they laughed. “What? Is that too soon?” C arched her eyebrow. “Are you crazy? I would dump a boy if he didn’t say it within two weeks.” L nodded, “If you haven’t said it to each other by the second or third week, something is not working.”
“Really?” I stuttered, “Don’t you think that’s too soon to tell?” F shared a knowing look with the French girls. “Back in São Paulo, you have to say it on the first night, or no girl will let you date her.” I paused for a second, and then turned to him. “Okay, but you have a girlfriend back home, right?” “Si,” he responded. “So you said it to her on the first night?” He nodded. I looked at the girls. “And I know you guys have boyfriends back in Marseilles.” They half nodded, half shrugged their assent, and the conversation moved to another topic.
The discussion stuck in my mind, though I said nothing, in part because all three of my companions that evening were fairly open about their desire to meet attractive members of the opposite sex that night. Their partners back home had shown up in conversation casually, but never seemed to weigh heavily on their minds. I felt, not for the first time, like a slightly clueless North American. I had known that my friends were seeing other people while abroad, but had unthinkingly assumed that their significant others at home were casual or new, certainly not relationships where the word “love” would figure in.
Among the continental Europeans I met while studying abroad that summer, I noticed a freeness and casualness in their attitude toward love and sex that only obliquely intersected with mine. The gulf wasn’t impossibly wide. It seemed rather that there were a number of slightly different shared presumptions that underlay sexual and social dynamics. All of my friends had significant others at home, some of whom would visit for a week. When partners were visiting, everyone treated them like partners. When they were gone, all bets were off, and this never warranted discussion in public or in private. And everywhere, I heard that word “amare”, in all of its tenses and usages: “Ti amo”, “Io sono innamorato di lei.”
Almost a year later, back in my hometown, I was waiting on the steps for the girl I’d been seeing for the past month. She was cycling back from a Holy Fuck show she’d been at with many of our friends. Moments after I looked up, she crashed her bike against a parked car while hunting in her bag for a lighter. She left her bike on the grass and stumbled toward me, stepping over my legs as she entered the house. “Hey, what’s up?” I asked. She turned her head as she walked inside, “I don’t know what’s up, or what is . . . around, but I do know I have a gas fire stove.” While I pondered her response, she reappeared with two lit cigarettes. We sat outside the house smoking for a few minutes, then went upstairs to her bedroom and started fooling around. Suddenly she sprang up. “I gotta go.” I followed her into the bathroom where she began to get sick into the toilet. I couldn’t figure out what to do, so I held her hair back while she was being violently ill.
She abruptly turned her face toward me, and, between retches and gasps, uttered the words, “God, I love you.” Without thinking, I responded in kind.
We’ve been dating for three years.