Place, I say to my writing students. Get it right, time and place, at the beginning. Chekhov has the clock tick out minutes; the color of the sky reflects that very month and day; a street name rings familiar and strange until, in story after story, life has confines, tensions and curling roots.
So after living nearly four decades in Italy, where am I, an American midwesterner, when I write? In front of a large window, facing it, whether I am writing in Parma, where I have lived with an Italian population biologist for thirty five years and raised a daughter, or on a train, heading to Florence, with a notebook on my lap, or in Rome, in a corner of my memory where typewriter keys bounce along.
I am always facing out. I need light, air, a sensation of outside to counterweight the innerness of writing in English. What I mean is I work from an American language and life that I rarely live outside the house. Parma has no community of ex-pats—had it, I might never have discovered the worlds I did. I live my writing mostly as reaching, as tension: a feeling of confinement leading me to look beyond. In Italy, I have all the solitary space I need to get to my window.
Just before I left for New York City this fall to teach a graduate class in writing at Columbia University, I had a late afternoon coffee with a friend in Parma. We were slightly bundled, chestnuts were falling, and she felt nostalgic about America. Like many in the nineteenth century who mounted boats for the new land, she felt a terrible finality in admitting that she probably would never return. Crossing the Atlantic now we barely stop to think about measuring distances between one shore and another. Yet seen as a permanent move, in some moments, what survives through the changes makes a life look like pounded driftwood. My dear friend could barely stand her bleak thoughts. Instead of letting her sadness weigh us down, she said, “Do you know what Neruda regretted most at the end of his life? He wished that he had eaten more ice cream.”
That explains a lot about what it is like to write in Italy. The ice cream makes every day a festa, and faint irony sweeps up the frustration that comes with the acceptance of impossibility. Ripe figs help, too, and serious wines, as does the grandmother on my street, Signora Bianchi, who runs after her mischievious charge with shouts of unconcealed pride. In Italy, one can always speak one’s mind, even if it is only to provoke. I have learned to laugh out loud and sometimes to grab absurd bait and argue, rather than to shut down.
My roots, no more torn than most Americans, appear quite disturbed when set beside my neighbors’, who often support three generations trying to get along in the same rooms. I was fond of similar continuities growing up in a Wisconsin family who took pride in generations of our German and Norweigian relatives who went off to university and then returned to the houses in which they were born. For many reasons, some accidental, I could not find windows within those borders. Yet, the stability and sense of nature experienced in my early life have strangely returned in Parma, where I recognize patterns I could not then live but did not want to leave behind.
Spalancare is a transitive verb in Italian that defines an opening or an uncovering so complete it makes one want to shout out in amazement. Its unconjugated sounds—spaaa-laan-caaa-re—are at once emphatic and ground-taking. It describes a state of being—how my chest opens without limits when the air sparkles and I can see all the way to the Alps from the Baganza river. It also is an action that rends one open and exuberantly vulnerable. It can be a clearing gesture—sweeping the table clean. I like writing that uncovers, pulls, and exposes a self and the world until timidly or boldly, both are or have been spaaa-laaaan-caaaa-tiiiii, opened.
Being a writer in Italy I live in space that always offers room to observe by not fitting in. Angles—geometry that lets me see people’s faces and other countries’ dramas and politics from other slants—are intrinsic to living in a place that provides a writer with “otherness.” The angles of living outside of America reveal surprises quite often—I think of Cinderella, of when the clock strikes midnight and the appearance of what you were falls away. There is freedom and reckoning as you sift through the mice and what remains. There is also the sensation of having been an unknown presence at the magical ball in which you were a central figure.
Before possessing full powers to define or oppose, I acquired a new language rich in ambiguities and so full of sensuality I held the equivalent of wine in my mouth. The sounds of Italian, which remain within completely predictable ranges, are quite different from the specific rhythms and uses of English. Italian words hold the dark, il buio; hold the light, la luce. They smear, and accrete, and carry much collective learning. Here, as have many women before me, I found fertile ground that grants women centrality in the culture and have found more freedom still by feeling these gifts could be carried into my work as a writer in English. Women’s voices in Italian are not so ideological about proving successes. Rather they draw on roots starting from the language of the body, feeling, and the history of everyday life and families.
Earning a living remains a sore point in Italy for anyone hoping to find a job simply by merit. So the conditions for growing strong, independent and determined as a writer are conditions very much shared by non-artists. There is a lot to do, a lot to oppose, a lot to remember. Certainly, when writing is mentioned in Italy, someone will point out that even Nobel Prize winner Eugenio Montale sold only 45,000 copies of his collected poetry in the fourteen years following the award. Writing in Parma carries with it no social pressure to succeed.
As an outsider, reaching as far as I can, I find much to justify spending my life in this way. By continuously turning reality around, I have discovered that writing poetry, nonfiction, and fiction get at different parts of place and identity. I have tried them all and been led to new speech in my work and deeper roots. Italy’s perspective on life as buio and luce has been useful to write about the world and to belong to it. Italian beauty though—its landscapes, buildings, colors, foods—is the window that opens my writing the farthest. Define it, in the face of senseless evil; define it, as you begin to grasp its oath to truth and time. It is the scale writers who come to Italy seek. In Italy, Signora Bianchi, who does not question her mission to follow her grandson for as long as she can, is usually out early. My frame of vision needs her as the starting point on the page. Her humanity is why I struggle with words, and her joy and pride are as important.
WALLIS WILDE-MENOZZI lives in Parma, Italy, where for decades she has observed Italian life and participated in its dialogues. Her memoir, Mother Tongue: An American Life in Italy, was published in 1997 by North Point Press to critical acclaim. The Other Side of the Tiber made Longitude’s Best of 2013 list, and was recommended by The San Francisco Chronicle as a perfect gift for travelers.