From Italy, With Love.

Anytime anyone mentions Italy in a sentence, I get incredibly nostalgic.

Anytime I am strolling around downtown, with a sky that is overcast, and a sidewalk smelling vaguely of urine, I get incredibly nostalgic.

That’s because almost 10 years ago, I studied abroad in Italy — but not rolling hills, vineyard-dappled Italy.  No.  Instead of Florence I chose Milan, gloriously concrete and industrial in every way.  It rained daily.  I lived a few blocks away from the train station.  The whole city was crumbly and urban and echoed constantly of blaring car horns, and I loved it. 

Because Milan life is so decidedly busy, people have to find quick and efficient ways to communicate with each other.  This is why whenever I see a pissed-off passive aggressive note, I get so nostalgic that my heart almost bursts with joy.

* * *

When I told my advisor in college that I wanted to study abroad, but I didn’t know where, she said, “well, what do you want out of your study abroad experience?”

I thought about it for a minute.  “I guess I want to go where I don’t know anyone, and I don’t speak the language.”   A typically overconfident college student.

Having just come off a trip from Asisi herself, she suggested: “How about Italy?” no doubt picturing quaint cobblestone streets, demure chapels, a home stay with a sweet Italian family.

“Done,” I said, and marched that day over to the Study Abroad office.

* * *

My first day in Milan, I was told I would be sharing an apartment with one girl on my program, and two Milan locals, also female.

One of them liked cheese.

The cheese part wasn’t mentioned in my program debriefing, but I quickly discerned it once I turned my key in the apartment’s front door, and was greeted by a most unique, pungent stench.

“Hallo,” a young woman, about 30, said as she turned away from the stove.  She appeared to be sautéeing a block of cheese.

“Ciao!” I cried eagerly, trying out my brand new Italian.  I breathed through my mouth and commanded my nasal cavities to stop inhaling.

“I am Elena, and we have prepared the apartment so much for your stay,” she said earnestly.  “After lunch we talk, yeah?”

I nodded.  I set my purse down and retired, gratefully, to my new bedroom to unpack.

About an hour later, I came out.  There was no Elena.  Instead, there was a note on the kitchen table. 

“Please to not keep purse in kitchen.  XO Elena”

Oh, ok.  I thought.  No problem.  Purse stays in bedroom — duly noted.

* * *

The next day, I awoke to Milan’s morning chorus of emergency sirens and trolley car bells.  My roommate and I rolled out of our beds, padded into the kitchen.

“Friends: Good morning!  At work.  Please not use coffee pot.  XO Elena”

Once again, this note was left for us on the kitchen table. Elena was gone, but there was her coffee pot, tantalizing us from the kitchen counter.

“Maybe it’s broken?” my roommate said.

Since we lived literally right above a coffee shop, Elena’s mysterious letter didn’t bother us too much.  Caffeine was an elevator descent away.

And yet, when we came home that day —

“Coffee pot MUST NOT be in use!  XO Elena”

We decided the note must be directed at the other, fourth person in the apartment, the Italian roommate we hadn’t met yet.  Shrugging it off, we figured we had accidentally stumbled into a domestic territorial battle, and Elena and her other roommate were simply sorting things out.  We’d stay out of the way and do what we did best, traipsing around the city drinking, I mean studying.

We came home drunk that night.

When we arose the next morning, Elena was — again — nowhere in sight.  But Sheila, our other Italian roomate, was.  Having never really met her before, we were concerned to see her studying a piece of paper on the refrigerator in the kitchen, her brow furrowed and face incredibly worried.

“Friends: Last night were LOUD sounds in the house.  Please to let me SLEEP as it is MIDDLE OF WEEK DAYS!  XO Elena”

We apologized profusely to Sheila, and told her to tell Elena that we would try to be more quiet next time.

* * *

Eventually, I got so used to the ever present fog of sautéed cheese around our tiny apartment that I didn’t even notice it anymore.  My roommate and I were scared of Elena, so we stayed put in our bedroom when we heard her click on the gas stove and plop some cheese into a pan.  One time, I heard her messing around the kitchen while I was in the shower, so I simply extended my bathing period until I knew she was safely out.

Dripping in my towel, I was stopped by this note en route to my bedroom:  It was taped to my door.

TOLLY — Hot water very EXPENSIVE, our bill it will raise!!!!!!!  XO Elena

I didn’t know whether to scoff or laugh.

I left the note there, hoping that in a calmer, more level-headed state, Elena would re-encounter her own note and realize how ridiculous she sounded.  The capitalizing.  All the frantic exclamation points.

That afternoon, I wrote: “I’m sorry, I’ll make showers shorter,” at the bottom of the note, and left our strained exchange on the kitchen table, our preferred communication way station.

* * *

Over the next few months, my roommate and I would receive additional notes from Elena, in varying degrees of intensity.  Some were simple, wholly reasonable requests, such as “If departing tonight please lock front door XO Elena” while some asked for essentially the same thing, laced with more fear than necessary to really get the message across.

Lock front door because BURGLARS.  WE DO NOT WANT!  XO Elena.”

Which was true, we didn’t want burglars.  Despite the fact that my roommate and I were basically responsible, Elena’s anxious notes appeared regularly around the house and mostly in the kitchen, like angry little Easter presents.  “Dishes in cabinet ARE ALL THERE? XO Elena”  With an accusatory question mark, as if we had suddenly decided to become flatware thieves.   We decided that Elena had gotten burned in the past by reckless study abroad students, and soon, we stopped paying attention to the notes.

Unless, that is, they were too sincere to ignore.

I was coming home from a bar one night, where friends and I had met after school.  My books were heavy and my shoes were soaking wet, having walked several city blocks through consecutive pools of rain puddles.  I slumped into the elevator, spilled out, and saw this note taped to the front door:

MAN IN HOUSE.  Privacy please.  XO Elena

Goodness.  Action for Elena, and on a week day (“MIDDLE OF WEEK DAYS”) no less?   It was a nice change of pace for our draconian note-writer.

I left Elena and her man-in-house, and walked right back to the bar.

* * *

Would you believe I tripped into this whole story because of an art exhibit happening on Thursday?
Aviary & IF+D Presents: “Me + You,” New Mixed Media Works by Laura Lea Nalle
Thursday, March 10
7pm – 10pm
Aviary Lounge (5110 S. Lamar)
The artwork you see above is by Laura Lea Nalle, star of this Thursday’s art opening.  Her work reminded me of Milan, and Elena, because each piece in her Me +You series above is inspired by the passing of time in Italy, people making their mark over and over again on town walls and buildings.

From the press release:
“Laura Lea Nalle’s new series, Me + You, explores the passing of time evident in the cracks and multiple facades of walls throughout Italy, built over, painted over, and crumbling back away to reveal many layers of the past. Her playful addition of words and phrases capture both the inevitable decay of time and the possibility of creating anew. “
I have to say — as SXSW draws closer, I find an art opening quite a calming possibility.  I have aerial dance on Thursday nights, but might swing by this event afterward in my dorky dance clothes.