We have a new server at Nud e Crud, one of our favorite restaurants in Rimini. Tizi and I form attachments to servers. Dido at Passatore, Valentina at Marianna, Luccio in San Gregorio, Sergio at La Rivetta. We’re more than consumers passing through, paying for a product and service. We’re regulars now. The food, the transaction, the reunion, is personal. We joke, we chat. The banter is light. My Italian is good enough, I can usually join in. The new guy at Nud e Crud is Antonio. He knows us now. We’re getting there. It’s starting to feel personal.
“Where’s he from?” I ask Tizi one day. Native speakers, people who are from here, can usually locate individuals by their accent. A couple days ago at the local bakery, she placed the pastry chef, guessing he was from the north. And she was right: Venice. Today she says, with confidence, that Antonio’s accent is Lazio, down by Rome.
I tell her I can’t understand a word he says. Which effectively places me on the sidelines: observer rather than participant.
This happens a lot.
A few days ago, a Sunday, was Father’s Day in Italy. We went out to eat with our niece, her husband, and his mother. Malardot, where we are usually served by Federica or Sabrina, was packed. There was a new guy serving tables, a new guy who, everyone decided based on his accent, was from either Spain or Central America. I couldn’t understand a word he said.
“They’re really busy today,” Tizi said. “Let me talk.”
“Don’t objectify yourself,” Arthur Brooks writes in The Atlantic Monthly. “Thinking of yourself as an observer is better for your happiness than obsessing over being observed.”
Brooks makes a distinction between I-self and me-self: I-self the observer, the eye; me-self the participant, the actor-talker-sharer-giver-receiver.
Me me me. Can’t you just be? Yes, but it takes practice.
In a recent two-night excursion, another challenge. And some practice.
We’re on the southern edge of Orvieto, entering the underground tour. There’s fifteen of us. Plus the guide. It’s a good time to take shelter, as the sky has darkened and light rain is in the forecast. When Tizi and I exchange a couple words, an Italian gentleman next to me turns and says, “British?” No, I say, American. Then, as I usually do, pointing at Tizi I add, “Not her. She’s from San Marino.” He and I exchange a few words in English. When I compliment him, he shifts to German and invites me to join him, then tells me he can also speak Czech. He’s happy to show off a little, and I get that, because I too am a show-off and will blithely inflict my Italian on anyone who will listen.
We duck our heads, entering the cave, and proceed single file down a series of steps, to assemble in front of a large illuminated map, where the tour will begin. Our guide is in her 40’s, dressed in a spiffy blue guide uniform, with long brown hair spilling over her shoulders. She launches into her presentation.
“Sorry,” Tizi whispers to me. “It’s in Italian.”
Why, yes it is. I tell her that’s okay. I’ll pick up what I can.
The guide has a lot to cover and, in the manner of professional guides over here, launches into a discourse that is practiced, fluent, and scholarly, full of proper names and dates, along with some technical jargon.
We’re in a cave. So she has a lot to say about rock.
We’re in a cave, which means there is an echo, which puts me at additional disadvantage. Anyone who is hearing challenged, as I am, will tell you that echo is not their friend. It creates an auditory blur.
Right now I’m getting, in the sketchiest terms, a few echoes of Etruscan history.
“You okay?” Tizi whispers again.
“You can tell me all about it later,” I say.
For the fun of it now, as a thought experiment, put yourself in a cold, damp, dimly lit space 100 feet underground. It’s a walking tour, but you’ll be standing for most of the hour, listening to a dense lecture in a language you barely understand. Wanna sit? You can’t do that. Wanna lean? Best not too. You might damage the rock, which I’ve managed to glean from our guide is called “tuffo.” It’s a porous, friable rock, ideal for what these Etruscans were up to back in 600 BC.
There was a time, I confess, I would have wanted to run out the place screaming rather than move through a one-hour tour with the fifteen, unable to follow the talk. But I hang in there, in observer mode. It’s passive listening. I understand this:
And I understand this:
We continue the tour, the guide talks a lot, I look around and try to take notice. Here’s a press. Here’s a large stone wheel that’s 2600 years old. How’d they get that down here? My multi-lingual friend, I notice, has brought a flashlight. Every few minutes he steps away from the group, lights up a small section of the wall, and examines it. What’s he looking at? Another guy separates from the group, goes into his own private grotto, and coughs. People wearing masks adjust them. Here’s a well 90 meters deep that the Etruscans, with hammers and chisels, dug to find water. You can stick your head in the well and say, “Hey!” It echoes back, an echo I don’t mind.
“Amazing,” Tizi says.
Brooks refers to the via negativa. Via negativa is not a street, although it could be. (One of our favorite streets in Bologna is Via Malcontenti.) It’s literally “the negative way,” how mindful negatives can become a positive. “Everyone,” Brooks explains, “has what psychologists call ‘negativity bias,’ a propensity to notice the details you dislike over those you like in any situation.” The via negativa is subtracting the negatives.
Like you’re stuck in a lecture underground and can’t understand hardly any of it. Forget yourself, if you can. Put the negatives out of mind. That way lies happiness.
Ten years ago, in the Blue Grotto on Capri, we needed the via negativa. It’s a tourist attraction, like a natural cathedral. And it’s amazing, like a cathedral. You get there by rowboat, which in low tide passes through a rocky archway. The rowboat is piloted by a local dude. Think gondola and gondalier. We were pretty geeked. Once we got inside the grotto, bobbing up and down on the rising and falling waves, we noticed 1) that it was crowded (picture a large parking lot with no stripes, a lot of cars randomly parked—floating—willy nilly), and 2) that our pilot had no patter, nothing to say. He floated next to another boat and yacked with the other pilot in dialect for about ten minutes. I understood when he said “lunch.” And that was it. Possibly Tizi understood more, but he showed no inclination to talk to us. That’s what we took away from the tour. We were there, it was beautiful, the boat guy didn’t talk.
This was me-self plural. Us-self. What about us?
After our tour of the underground in Orvieto we spend some time in the cathedral, the Duomo. In there, you’re supposed to forget yourself. You’re small, God is big. Really big. That’s the point: to put you in your place. You would think in a church it’s time to invoke the via positiva–how you get to God. But how positive is it? You have to die to get there.
And really, we’re still on the via negativa here. For one thing, it’s cold. Can you just ignore that? For another, there’s the whole pervasive atmosphere of the sacred, which can be oppressive. The Duomo is an art museum, but with an attitude. So put that out of mind. And even the art element, it’s all too much, way more than you can take in in an hour or an afternoon or a day (or a week or a month). So, if you have one, you go to your happy place in there. You’re on alert. Maybe you’re into pulpits or altars, maybe statuary, maybe angels and saints. My thing is feet. And hell. I pick an apostle and take pictures of his feet. Then I look for images of hell, which you can’t miss. In the Orvieto Duomo I’m richly rewarded with images of hell, and I am struck, perhaps for the first time, by the fact that everyone in hell is naked. Those who make it to heaven can bring a small carry-on, they’ve got clothes, but in the other place, you’re lucky to get there in your underwear.
This focus, on feet and on hell, has given me a reason to go into a church, any church, in Italy. I’m like my multi-lingual friend with his flashlight.
We saw Antonio yesterday in Nud e Crud. Tizi talked to him. I did not, other than to say bring me the club sandwich and a quarter liter of red wine. What on earth is a club sandwich doing on the menu? What’s up with that table over there, with the four businessmen? And that guy in the corner, vaping between courses, can he do that? The two women at the next table clink glasses when their drinks arrive. Antonio wanders among the tables, looking perplexed today, like it’s all more than he can take in. And it probably is. I know the feeling.