In July of 2013, I spent three weeks in Italy visiting relatives and attending the wedding of my cousin’s daughter. Again, for the third time, I felt so much at home there that I was loathe to leave, except for the fact that I missed my family, and had to return to work.
The lifestyle of Southern Italy echoes the lifestyle I lived in Riyadh. The sidewalks, stores and apartments also resemble those of Riyadh, with their concrete construction and vines clinging to gates, pointing towards flat roofs. Even the weather pattern resembles that of Riyadh albeit less extreme. In Italy, I awoke early in the mornings, took my coffee, read and wrote, just like I did in Riyadh. Mid-morning, I walked to my relative’s apartment, and we shopped, ran errands, and even went to the beach (something I could never do in Riyadh).
Rosa cooked the midday meal, which was always the larger meal of the day, again like my lifestyle in Riyadh. I wish she would have let me cook, but the kitchen in the new apartment is small, and she is the queen of it. The entire apartment is small; in fact, there is no guest room.
I stayed in their old apartment, the one I stayed in during my previous visits. It is located on the third floor– we in the States would call it the fourth floor– accessible after a sixty-step trek up a gray marble staircase exactly like the gray marble staircases of Riyadh apartment buildings. Hard and noisy, also like the Riyadh steps, the Italian steps did not accumulate triangles of sand in their corners. Franco and Rosa had lived in that apartment many years, and raised their three children there. The only reason they moved is that the building has no lift, and they have became too fat to ascend those stairs.
I walked back and forth between the old apartment and their new one– on the ground floor—twice a day. They always wanted to drive me back and forth but I refused, because I love to walk when I travel. Walking is the best way to explore and get some exercise for mitigating the effects of an uncontrolled diet.
I walked along sidewalks that changed width and sometimes disappeared altogether, sidewalks that dipped, curbs that crumbled, and potholes in the middle of everything, all the while keeping one eye up and one eye down.
The down eye scanned my footing and warned my feet when to adjust their steps.
The up eye devoured the grace and singularity of the doors that separated streets from living quarters. Italians live much closer together, and closer to the street, than Arabs. Italians do not demonstrate an exaggerated sense of privacy. On the contrary, they are constantly mingling in public places, chatting, sitting outside their doors along the street when the air turns mild in late afternoon.
Southern Italy provides the best of both my worlds, gives me the freedom I need to wander, and the flexibility I need to be myself. Then, there is the language. I speak Italian now, not fluently, but well enough to take care of myself and interact with the relatives, most of whom do not speak English. Their delight at my efforts, and their encouragement, reinforced me in ways they cannot perceive.
My ex-husband never allowed me to speak Arabic. Every time I tried, he walked around the house whining, “Speak English! Speak English!” He never understood, or cared, that his rejection of my desire to speak Arabic figured prominently in our divorce. At least, he did not object to me going to the madrassa to learn tajweed, nor to the community college to study classical Arabic grammar. No, those skills would not have threatened the linguistic gap he wished to remain between us.
Of course, I was thankful for those learning experiences. I studied intensely, and learned more academic Arabic than most Westerners, yet my heart wanted more than anything to speak freely with my husband in his own Egyptian dialect. He never let down his guard, and never spoke to me in Arabic, and never let me speak Arabic with him, even by mistake.
Now, after having learned Italian, and spending time in Italy with my relatives, speaking Italian only, I am vindicated for the pain I felt from my ex-husband’s disdain towards my efforts with Arabic. I intend to speak Italian with near-native fluency, sooner or later. Already, I have read several books in the language, and continue to read, study, and watch Italian films without subtitles, and I take immense delight in my progress.
In spite of my success with Italian, however, I still feel a hole where the Arabic should have been planted.