Passato remoto and the present tense

In Italian, passato remoto is the verb tense you use for things that are very solidly and without a doubt in the past. Yesterday might seem like it is in the past. Technically, yes, it is. Last week might seem like old news to you now. But guess what? When you’re dealing with a language like Italian, you need an entirely different verb tense, one that needs to be able to evoke millennia, which is appropriate when you’re dealing with antiquity. The remote past – it is necessary, and so it exists. It is conjugated in a totally different way, with just the verb itself, no modifying verb needed. For the recent past, you basically have to say,  “I did go,” or “I did swim.” I swam would be the remote past, but it would need to have been some time since you’d swum. Not just since the summer. Try since 1962, or something. Even that might be too recent for passato remoto.

Via Aretina, 57
Via Aretina, 57

For a few months – very few months, it seems crazy to think how few months – this was home for me. I’d walk back through this dark alcove from the bus after school, or stumble back here in the late evening after a drink or two, call the tiny elevator, go upstairs, and be home. (If I was lucky, I didn’t wake anyone.)

The photo above makes the building look like it inhabits the recent past, however. So let’s zoom out and get a sense of history.

Via Aretina, 57
Via Aretina, 57

The building bears scars, now. The plaster is chipping away. Is the building trying to slip into passato remoto? It would be too soon, but the decay is evident. The exterior most definitely did not look like this on the frigid March morning in 1992, either before or after an unusual snowfall, when I showed up to talk to a Mexican woman, G, about subletting a room there. The building, in contrast to 2014’s graffiti, was not LOST then.

But then I pan a little to the right, along the main street, and I notice something.

Via Aretina, 57 e pasticceria
Via Aretina, 57 e pasticceria

The pasticceria is still there, lace curtains and all. It is still called RENATO. There was also gelato there. I have no idea whether it was a good pasticceria, because every pasticceria seemed good because they contained delicious pastries you’d never had before. Our apartment, five flights above the pasticceria, benefited from the perfume rising from their ovens (and also, roast chickens from the rosticceria, which is, in fact, now part of the remote past). In New York City, they would undoubtedly find a way to make you pay extra for this olfactory privilege.

I’ve written here before about my time in Italy, and this has been a banner year in terms of remembering, because I got to see my friend J from Sweden, whom I met in Florence, earlier this year, after not seeing him since the last day of school in 1992. It was wonderful to snatch my memory of someone that might have slipped into passato remoto, and instead be able to update it, make it more immediate, to even change the nature of our friendship because we now speak to each other as adults in our mid-40s, not as kids barely in our 20s. In March, another dear friend from Florence, M, and her boyfriend F, visited too. Living in NYC has its privileges, when it comes to the world coming to see you.

Today, I saw H for the first time since 1995 (which was the last time I visited her in Italy). Dear, sweet, beautiful H. The person I shared a room with in that apartment on Via Aretina. Of all of the ads in the newspaper that week, of all the ads I called looking for a place to stay, I like to think it was no accident we wound up meeting. H possesses as much complexity in her very existence as I do in mine, based on family origins (her father was Italian and her mother, German) and how that always seemed to require explanation to everyone. She loves literature, and I remember borrowing a book of Kafka short stories translated into Italian from her. She was also instrumental in getting me to understand certain bedrock cultural assumptions that I was to uphold under every circumstance. Like, I was supposed to wear a belt. Always. And I was never, ever again to do what she caught me doing one night while I ate pasta for dinner: mop it up with whatever I had available (which that night, to my retroactive horror, happened to be Melba toast). H mostly ate salad for dinner. But on the rare occasion she cooked something, it was always exceptional. I remember her whipping up a pot of pappa al pomodoro, a simple Tuscan tomato soup that was the most delicious thing I’d ever eaten.

H and I moved in different circles outside the apartment. I hung out with friends from school, or from the synagogue, usually going out for drinks or to a movie, or maybe a club. I can vividly remember a couple of occasions when H and I went out together, however. One was very early on, when we didn’t know each other that well yet. One of her classmates from school was taking part in a fashion show, and we went to watch. It turned out that the fashion show was just one of a series of events in an evening at a stadium that was put together to support the local Socialist candidate for parliament (it was election season). There was also a noted Florentine comedian, Pieraccioni, whose jokes were unintelligible to me because they were all in dialect. And a pop singer, Alessandro Canino, came by to sing his awful hit, “Brutta.” It was one of the most Italian evenings I had while there. It was italianissimo. Another night, we went to a performance art thing which was called a mimmidramma (mime-theater?) which was performed by a bald man who had some definite issues with his mother. It was an evening that we would recall with fits of giggles for weeks after, and as an in-joke for years after, repeating lines from the show. Stranamente strano. Incredibilmente incredibile. La mamma ti vuole bene. Dammi un bacino. Quarantadue.

H took afternoon naps, went to bed early, and woke up early. On weekends, she often headed home to Viareggio, a Tuscan coastal town, or to see her boyfriend. He lived in Rome, I think, and they talked on the phone every night. He was a tennis instructor, maybe? I can still hear her voice, saying goodbye to him quietly on the phone every night: “Ciao, bello, ciao, ciao.” (They moved in together later on, to a town called Poggibonsi. I remember her telling me in a letter it was “fra i lupi” – among the wolves. I was never sure if she meant actual wolves, or if that was an expression that meant something else.) When H was away, I would put the tape from her “English for Medicine” course (she was studying nursing) in my Walkman and laugh at the cheerful voice. “Hello! My name’s Watson! Sheila Watson! I’m here for an operation! I’ve got… appendicitis!!”

In a flash, my four months in Italy were drawing to a close. H invited me out to her house to spend the night. I met her parents and her siblings and their amazing Maremma sheepdog, Brebi. I was really heartbroken to say goodbye when I left. H wrote me a few pages from a tiny notebook expressing what our friendship had meant to her. I had seen these before, at school in Florence, and I had decided they were called “friendship manifestos.” I hadn’t quite experienced anything like them back home (I don’t think yearbook signatures count). I still have the friendship manifesto H wrote for me, tucked away in my Italy notebook. She has great handwriting – very slanted, very 19th century, not at all like the uniform loopy script that most Italian women use.

I visited Italy a couple of times after that. Once, I visited H and her father (may he rest in peace) took us out on his boat, up to Portovenere. It was either on that outing or another one that H put on a wetsuit and a mask, took a tool with her that looked like a trident, and dove down to the bottom several times. She caught razor clams. Now, I don’t eat shellfish, but given that my friend had just dived down and caught them right there, I decided I would make a singular exception. H prepared them with pasta and garlic, and I still remember her cleaning the clams and throwing every fourth or fifth one to Brebi, who would catch them in the air and swallow them in a gulp.

On my last visit with H in Viareggio, things went a little pear-shaped on my second day there. We’d rented bikes and ridden through the pine forest to the beach. When we got back with our bikes, there was a fantastic trampoline, and without hesitation, we jumped on. I hadn’t been on a trampoline in years, and remembered why almost immediately. As I landed, my ankle gave way, and swelled up immediately. H, who was working as a paramedic at that time, took me to the hospital, where (after nearly x-raying the wrong ankle) they told me it was a bad sprain. I spent a few days laid up in H’s brother’s bedroom, which had the requisite Italian teenage boy decor (a poster of Mickey Rourke). Brebi had recently had a litter of adorable puppies – ten of them – and they were happily peeing all over the downstairs of the house. By the time I left, they had learned to climb upstairs, too. I was in a lot of pain, but made my way to Florence for the next leg of my trip, at least secure in the notion I wasn’t going to be adding to the chaos in their house anymore. But no one had ever complained or showed annoyance with me there – only extreme kindness and care.

H and I lost touch after that visit, and when J and I were in Italy in 2004, I could not find a way to get in touch with her. We briefly got back in touch again via her boyfriend’s email address, in the late 90s. I didn’t learn what happened to that relationship until today, and it was the saddest story imaginable. I won’t go into details here, but I did tell H that if such a thing happened here, not only would there be a lawsuit – it would be a lawsuit that was televised, all of the involved parties shouting at one another. My heart hurt for her.

Thanks to Facebook, which has brought me back in touch with many significant people, H and I are back on each other’s radar. So she knows about my more recent problems, and I know about hers. When I was in the hospital with a collapsed lung last year, we texted, because I was up late and it was morning for her. We send each other love via emoticons, sincere and heartfelt ones.

I was so excited to hear she’d be coming through New York. I had hoped we might have an afternoon to spend together. Things were a bit hectic, due to her schedule and the unremitting, monsoon rains this afternoon… but H and I reunited at last! And at last, I met her wonderful husband, and also their friends from back home.

I’m so grateful to have seen H again, to have reconnected, and to be reminded that as old as I may feel, and as long ago as many things I’ve narrated here may seem to me, I am still far too young to ever use the passato remoto.

Ti abbraccio, H.

20 anni dopo
20 anni dopo
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