Big surprise. Another demonstration in Piazza Duomo.
The year was 1999 and America was bombing the shit out of the Serbians, much to the chagrin of the Italian far-left who seemed to thoroughly enjoy bringing up the sexual escapades of Bill Clinton.
From the country that brought us Silvio Berlusconi, ladies and gentlemen. Pot meet kettle. Kettle, pot.
I loved Florence, but hadn’t yet fallen in love with Florence. I was 19 years old, didn’t yet speak the language, going on my second month living in an apartment whose landlady I hadn’t yet slept with in exchange for six months of free rent. I was just a stranger in a strange land, not quite sure what I wanted to do with my life.
Like I said, I was a 19 years old.
My school was located in Piazza Santa Spirito, on the side of the Arno river away from the tourists and chatter of the city-center. The Santa Maria Novella train station, where I caught the bus home, was on the complete opposite side of the city, meaning everyday I got to walk right through Piazza Duomo.
Crossing the Ponte Vecchio, I took a right into Piazza della Republica and then a left past the cafe where perhaps the most sensationally sexist picture ever, “American Girl in Italy,” was taken.
On this day, there was a gigantic tent set up in the piazza filled with anti-America slogans, anti-war messages, pro-Left propaganda, Bill Clinton blowjob jokes. They ran the gamut.
I had no emotional investment in the situation in Kosovo. I hadn’t yet felt a connection with the rest of the world, having been raised in a country that stresses its own importance while downplaying anything that was not America. I was a product of an Ameri-centric educational system, with an innate curiosity I hadn’t yet found a way to satisfy, a curiosity that no academic institution had ever attempted to nurture.
I was your typical, 19-year-old American: Ignorant, arrogant, naive, self-centered, self-absorbed, blah, blah, blah…
As I walked down Via Roma a girl walked approached me with a stack of literature in her hand. I could tell by her dress that she was with whoever had erected the giant tent, and I didn’t want any part of it. I veered to the left as if I was going to enter one of the shops, which I was prepared to do in order to avoid this girl until I realized the store I was about to enter was one of the many Italian lingerie shops. The only thing 19-year-old me knew less about than politics was women’s lingerie, so I decided I’d entertain the lesser of the two evils and talk to the girl.
Looking up at me she fired off a string of impassioned Italian sentences, of which I didn’t understand a single word. Sure, I’d been in Italy for over a month, but I hadn’t yet learned a word of the language. I’d associated with fellow-students and used English when in public, expecting the Italians to accomodate my language skills, or lack thereof.
I was an American, goddamn it.
“Umm… I don’t understand,” I told her. “English?”
“My name,” she said, “Salvina. You name?”
“Like Jay-zone Priestly, Beverly Hills 90210?” she asked, suddenly excited by my name.
“Yes, I suppose,” I confirmed. “Just like Jason Priestly.”
“Piacere Jay-zone,” she said with a smile, reaching out her hand.
“Youuuuuuu,” she asked, dragging out the ends of all of her words, “write name toooo make stoppingggg of bombs in Kosovooooo?” She was holding out a petition.
“No thank you,” I told her, as if she was trying to sell me a magazine subscription.
“No?” she asked, surprise. “Why you say no?”
I was having a bad day and Salvina was going to catch a mini-temper tantrum. I’d just failed another paper, my classmates were about to haveanother house party I didn’t want to go to, and I was homesick. I wasn’t in the mood to discuss the balkanization of the former Republic of Yugoslavia.
“Look, Salvina is it?” I asked, while she confirmed with a nod. “Ok Salvina, you seem like a nice girl, but I don’t know shit about Kosovo. To be honest, I’m not even sure where in the fuck Kosovo is, or how I ended up here in Italy, for that matter. I don’t belong here, I don’t really like the other students in my group, and I don’t speak Italian so I can’t meet any locals. I’ve yet to turn in a single assignment that didn’t come back with an “F” on it because apparently I’m not very smart, so this whole college thing is beginning to look like a mistake, but I don’t really have a plan B, so I’m going to have to ride this out. I miss my friends and family back home, and I spend an unhealthy amount of time wondering if they miss me back. I don’t belong here but I don’t really belong back home either, so I’m sort of screwed. All I want to do is walk to my bus, ride it to the apartment, walk to the grocery store where the lady who has no idea what I’m asking her works, settle on some form of pasta, lay down, listen to music, and figure out what I’m doing with my life.”
This poor girl became my temporary therapist, through no fault of her own. She just looked up at me with a blank look on her face.
I was certain my rant would make her go away, so you can imagine my surprise when she asked, “You have cafe?”
“Cafe?” she asked. “You go uhh… wiiiiith meee to bar for cafe?”
I was stumped. Why did she want coffee with me? Didn’t she understand that I had a whole evening of self-loathing and deep contemplation planned?
“Sure,” I said, more of a reflex than an answer.
We walked to a nearby cafe and she let me vent. I don’t think she understood anything I said, but it felt good to talk. I told her about my car accident, how I lost a football scholarship because they had to put a titanium cage in my spine, how football was really the only thing I was good at and how it was snatched from me, which seemed universally unfair but was something over which I had no control. I tried to explain how strange it felt to feel alone in a city filled with so many people, how I didn’t know what I wanted to do with my life, and that scared me. To my core it scared me. I may have even told her about how I got to Italy in the first place, signing up for a study abroad program while high out of my mind on pain pills.
And I listened to her, in painfully-slow and broken English, talk about politics, war, death, refugees. I could see in her face that she felt an empathy for human beings she’d never met, that war caused her a physical pain that I’d never felt. She had the look of somebody who, on the outside, wanted to change the world but, on the inside, knew she was fighting a losing battle. My admiration of her developed because she knew this, but fought anyway.
About a half hour in, she looked at her watch and told me she had to leave.
“Tonightttt, I have friends in my house, for, cenare, how you say… dinner? For eating. You come?”
“Yes,” I said, once again more of a reflex than an answer. “I mean, si,” I smiled, proud of myself for at least using some Italian.
“We have party,” she began explaining.
A party? I thought about it. I envisioned college-age kids, drunk, drawing on passed out friends with sharpies. You know, A Party.
“We are communist party,” she said, as if that was some throw-away line. “Alle sette, you come. Umm… SEVEN,” she told me before walking away. Looking back she smiled and yelled out “CIAO JAY-ZONE!”
I just sat there thinking. Communist party? What in the hell?
I needed to catch the bus by six o’clock to make it to Salvina’s house by seven. It was 5:30 and I sat in my bedroom contemplating whether or not to go. A communist party? Communists? All I knew about communism was what I was taught in school. They were Russians and in elementary school there was huge section of the map that was colored red, representing the Soviet Union. Was this girl Russian? What in the fuck is a communism party? And what does one wear to a communism party? I found a red t-shirt, hoping that would suffice.
As my roommates got dressed to go to some house party an American student was throwing in his apartment, I was leaving for a communist party with some Italians. Or maybe they were Russian. I had no idea. I had a map, an address, and a red t-shirt.
Salvina’s apartment was in the Italian equivalent of the projects. The street was dark and I was scared. Was I walking into a trap? Communists were bad people after all, and despite the fact I had no idea what communism was, I was sure they wouldn’t like me.
The flat was on the third floor, and this was not a part of town where elevators functioned. I huffed up all four flights of stairs and stood outside of the door. I could hear people inside laughing, talking, a seemingly civilized discourse.
Here goes nothin’.
Knock Knock Knock.
“CIAO JAY-ZONE!” she yelled, excited, giving me a hug and kissing me on each cheek.
I glanced around the room. There were no ropes or cages, which was a good start.
Salvina introduced me to everyone in the room. There was an Albanian named Bledi, an Italian girl named Silvia, another Italian named Marco, and an American, also named Jason. Everyone seemed genuinely happy to meet me except for Jason. He eyeballed me with suspicion, obviously unhappy about another American joining his pack. He was short, heavy, looked 40 years old but was probably 30, with glasses and hair that suggested “I don’t give a fuck,” but in a trendy sort of way.
We sat down at the table and began eating. They spoke Italian and I just listened, occasionally asking Jason what they were saying, which obviously annoyed him. Every once in a while they’d speak to me in broken English, asking me about the war.
“I don’t really know,” was a sentence I played on loop that night, with the occasional “I don’t understand,” sprinkled in for variety.
“America is evil,” said Jason out of nowhere, looking at me as if expecting me to just agree with him.
The whole table looked at me, awaiting a response.
In hindsight he was probably a grad student who’d just been introduced to Howard Zinn or Gore Vidal, but at the time the words stung my ears a bit.
“I don’t know about that,” I said, tip-toeing into the arena of political discussion. “Evil is a pretty powerful word. I think there’s a level of complication here you’re ignoring”
I’d surprised myself. I didn’t know I had it in me, but I was ready to discuss.
And discuss we did. We spent the night in discourse. Nobody yelled, or shot down the other’s point of view. People asked questions not as a set-up, but out of true curiosity. I was used to CNN and Fox News, where political discourse was something that triggered tempers and the discounting of another’s point of view. Political discourse was adversarial. This was something new.
They explained how they were members of the Italian Communist Party. Not a frat-party, or college party like I’d expected. They were kind, they listened, they did their best to speak English, and as I listened I began to pick up a little Italian based upon the context of the conversation. Everyone was nice but that asshole Jason.
“You just don’t realize it yet,” he said to me, in an overly-condescending tone, “but all of the world’s evils come from the United States. We don’t really care for Americans here.”
That’s funny. I’d been treated just fine.
“I’m not really a fan of absolutes,” I told him. “I think that’s a very simplistic worldview.”
“Oh yeah?” he countered, eyebrows raised. “You think my worldview is simple?”
“No,” I said, deadpan, “I think you’re simple. You like things black and white, and the world has lots of gray.”
The group watched us, silently, not understanding our conversation but definitely picking up on the awkward vibe. I could tell that Jason really didn’t like me now, probably because he only surrounded himself with people that agreed with him. He wasn’t used to opposition.
Jason was filled with a level of self-hatred and guilt that most assuredly came from something much deeper that he wasn’t acknowledging.
As the night wrapped up people began preparing to leave. We cheek-kissed each other goodbye, and as I prepared to leave, Salvina approached me while Jason mean-mugged me from across the room.
“Domani,” she said, looking at Jason for the translation.
“Tomorrow,” he blurted out, annoyed.
“Tomorrow we go in the train to Sicilia, to my cousin. You come?”
“To Sicily?” I asked, surprised. “I can’t, I have school.”
Salvina frowned. “If you come we go alle otto… at eight o’clock, binario 15.”
I had no idea what “binario 15″ meant, but it didn’t really matter. I couldn’t go.
“Thank you Salvina,” I told her. “Ci.. umm.. ci viddiamo?” I said, more of a question than a statement.
“JAY-ZONE,” she yelled. “Bravo! Ci viddiamo! See? You speak Italian!”
I smiled. “Si.”
When I got home I laid down in bed and I felt some semblance of peace, but couldn’t sleep. I tossed and turned, the night replaying in my head. How were they so nice to me? I thought communists were bad people? My worldview was being altered, and I had more questions than answers. I didn’t agree with much of their political philosophy, but I had gone through my entire life not even realizing their political philosophy existed. They’d opened a door in my mind that I didn’t know was there.
I genuinely liked these people, everyone but Jason. Fuck Jason. But the rest of them were cordial. I made friends… I MADE FRIENDS! It felt good. Even though we couldn’t communicate verbally, I felt more of a connection to them than I did my own roommates, or the other students in my group.
At 6:30 I began packing my bags. Forget school. I was going to Sicily.