An Italian friendship and conversations, and eventually letters:
How does one begin to write about a person, about a friendship with its strange ties and bonds, and even stronger boundaries? Mario and I were simply two people who found pleasure in each other’s company. We demanded very little, yet the time we gave each other was much. It is significant perhaps that it was only later when our conversations took the form of letters that the more formal lei graduated into the familiar “tu.” I found myself keenly aware of whatever we were discussing – of everything we touched on –which now makes me wonder how much I was under scrutiny. Time or a schedule seemed completely unimportant, so that afternoons spent correcting my attempts at writing a theme in Italian might stretch into evening and a lunch appointment also became a dinner appointment. I wondered occasionally if my freedom of time made this newfound friend feel somehow obligated to fill it. But I think now it was just the Italian way of living in the current of time, not even thinking it necessary to say at noon – shall we also have dinner together? It simply happened. If one or the other had other things to do, they would come first.
Still it was a strange friendship, for he knew nothing of my past life nor I of his. Personal problems were generalized: we knew each other as individuals living in this hour, and despite the promotion of “lei” to “tu,” it was still a matter of handshakes rather than hugs when I returned from a trip. I was thought of first of all as a person, I was a friend, not a girlfriend, as would be the case with many Italian men. He was fortyish – but that meant little. He was shorter than I, and so very near-sighted that I wondered what sort of a picture of me he had. His warm brilliant smile made you forget that his teeth were anything but perfect. What mattered was that he did not take the serious things of the world too seriously and was willing to talk to a perfect stranger. Thinking back now, what we had were conversations, not simply restatements of things each of us has thought and said many times before. What he said, always called for a response – and what I might say often led on to further ideas. Conversations with momentary acquaintances, say on a train or at a party, had little depth to them, embodied the superficial spirit of Italy.
With Mario I was speaking first of all with Mario, and then with an Italian. Yet he was also typically Italian in his attachment to his native town, Perugia, his sense of time, his general disregard for the future, his preference for living in the present. His work at the museum – he seldom talked about it although I was fascinated by the Etruscans he was, so to say, in charge of. His profession must have been really interesting but since it was for the Italian Ministry of Culture, in the civil service sector, it was not a highly remunerated position.
And on my part being a very discreet person, I always hesitated to ask, not wanting to intrude in personal affairs. Perhaps what distinguished him was that he wanted to be master of his own time, more Italian than not.
One of the reasons our conversations were true conversations was that I had continual questions and observations on the Italian language. And Mario not only would give me meanings, explanations, but also derivations. I almost felt as if we were discovering words together. His education (pre-university) was based on the classical lyceum, which had given him the tools with which to enjoy so much of his country’s culture. After seeing the results of Italian education, I rather side with those who want students to acquire a basic mental education – with the study of Latin and even Greek, the inclusion of cultural history – all making for such a rich life. When I try to put myself in a position similar to Mario’s, I come out sadly lacking.