Friday, September 21, 2012

Italian Kisses

It was my second trip to Florence. I was visiting a distant cousin who worked for the Foreign Service. She was expecting me at her home – a large palazzo across the Arno. It was raining and had been raining for days. There was so much rain that the Florentines would look at the Arno with worried faces fearing another flood. The weather seemed to suit me. My heart was broken and I needed a change of scene. My cousin was happy to see me and apologized for the weather. I didn’t mind the rain, I told her. She gave me a cozy robe to wear and I ate peanut butter sandwiches and we talked until late.

The next day, she insisted I wear her rain boots when I went out and not the fashionable short suede ones I was wearing. They were knee high and bright red. She also gave me her golf umbrella and off I went. Because this was my second trip I wanted to see what I had missed the first time. My first stop was the Palazzo Vecchio. It was a rainy weekday in October, so there weren’t any tourists, but there were two businessmen standing inside. One turned to me as I looked around and said, “Now here is an intelligent young woman,” pointing to my boots.

I blushed, the boots were hopelessly American and after living in Rome for a year, I had tried to become as romana as I could.

He and his companion smiled at me.

“Is this your first time in Florence?” he asked.

“No, my second, but my first time at the Palazzo Vecchio.”

“Well,” he said, “if you give me 10 minutes, I will show you the Palazzo. I am the direttore.”

I don’t know if I wanted to say no. Maybe I wanted to get out of it, but he had sad eyes and an almost uncanny resemblance to Giancarlo Giannini, so I followed him to his office. After a few calls and a re-arrangement of papers on his desk, he took me on a tour of the Palazzo. The Palazzo no one really sees – cell-like rooms and a tight passageway with only one tiny window looking out onto the grey sky and the Arno. It was in one of these darkened hallways I started to get nervous. Maybe it was a little claustrophobia; maybe it was the New Yorker in me wandering in dungeon-y places that got it started. The direttore sensed it and soon brought me back to the main room of the Palazzo. He beckoned me to follow him again. This time to the Tesoretto, a small jewel-box of a room also known as Lo Studiolo di Cosimo I. He unfastened a velvet rope and led me in. He closed the Tesoretto’s door behind him and walked to me. There were only the two of us in Cosimo I’s most private of rooms where he had once kept his most precious objects as well as personal documents and healing plants. The direttore stood in front of me and smiled.

He bent his face down to mine and kissed me. It was the first time I had kissed a man with a moustache. He kissed me again. Then he walked away and opened the door. And I followed him.

Thursday, September 20, 2012

Saturday, September 15, 2012

What You Are Searching For

This is something from the book I wrote called The Goldberg Variations. Ammachi or Amma is considered a living, Hindu saint. Her darshan or blessing is given in the form of a hug.

What You Are Searching For

I wear a t-shirt that I bought in New York. It was one of the last things I buy for myself before leaving. On the front is the symbol for yoga and on the back it says, “Om is the essence of all you’ve been searching for. Om is your own true nature.” It is a quote of Ammachi’s and I spend three days at the Manhattan Center when she is in town in early July. And after years, I even receive darshan. What I think I will feel when I receive it is not what I feel. I have been emotional and nervous all day, but when I receive her blessing I feel calm, peaceful and I have no need to cry or to manage my emotions. I am. So I look around for a place to sit and be alone.

I find a corner in the first balcony – I have sat there before and because I am a creature of habit, I return to almost the same spot. I drop my purse, my bag and I wrap the white cotton shawl I bought earlier in the day around me. I feel the drape of the cloth on me and I feel a deep pleasure – the weight, the feel on my arms and on the left side of my collarbone, the warmth that it gives me in the over-air- conditioned hall. It pleases me and I feel happy. I turn my head and my attention goes to two men two rows in front of me on my right. The older man has a grey ponytail that stops mid-way between his shoulder blades. He is wearing a soft cotton top and vest and flowing linen pants. The colors are all pale and faded and he sits lightly turned towards his companion with his right arm wrapped around the back of the empty chair between them. The younger man is turned directly to one side, he sits cross-legged on the chair giving his full attention to the older man. The younger man has short, black hair and a short black beard and is dressed in loose white linen.

I just want to be, but my attention is drawn to their conversation again and again. The older man talks of his experiences – of going to India, of meditating by the Ganges, and how, from time to time, he has a flash, a moment of divine connection. He knows it, he feels it and soon it is gone. He speaks slowly, thoughtfully and pauses now and then to look down to the stage where Amma is giving her blessing. When he stops, the younger man is quick to quote some teacher he has heard speak or make some witty remark and laugh almost too loudly. His energy is strong and sure and full of certainty. The older man continues to speak quietly and I begin to feel annoyed at the younger man. The older man has all the patience in the world for him, I do not. I see in everything he says a need to be noticed, to be considered wise, to be well on the path to knowledge and enlightenment. He is so sure and knowing – the older man is not so sure. He speaks of his traveling, of not knowing and finally says, “I know I am an aspirant,” and this word rings in me like a bell.

“This is what I do,” he says, “This is what I am.”

The younger man says something and laughs. But I am looking at the aspirant who moves his head slightly to one side and I see that he is very handsome. For a while I am lost in thought about these two men and who they are. It seems so clear to me that as time goes on we become so much less sure, much more afraid, everything is more fragile, closer to death, and therefore, more exquisite, more beautiful and more rare. There is a spark in youth that we lose in time, but if we are true to the questions within us, we are visited from time to time with a moment of enlightenment.

The younger man is still talking and then when he stops the older man says, “And now that these three years have passed, I want to give myself to love.”

“So, it has been three years?” asks the younger man.

“Yes, all this traveling has helped me know myself better.”

“Ah,” says the younger man, “so you are ready to fall in love.”

“You know,” says the older man, “to love someone else is a way to confront yourself, to understand who you are. When you look into the eyes of the Beloved, you are looking at yourself. That is why we fall in love, to know ourselves. But to open ourselves to someone and to let ourselves become vulnerable and allow them to love us, for however long and however imperfectly, that is when we confront the divine.”

The younger man looks at the older man and says nothing.

“But I am afraid,” says the older man, “Am I really ready? How will I know?”

“In time, in time,” says the younger man and they are quiet for a while. So I pick up my bag, my purse and I pull the shawl up over my left shoulder and I go.

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Damn You, French Dress!

I was on my way to the library, really, I was. I just wanted to stop at Carrefour to see if they had those 100-pack tea lights I love. Having candlelight at home is one of those small indulgences that really make me happy. They didn't seem to have them anymore, so I was on my way into Beşiktaş when I remembered the discount designer dress place that was close by. I still need a dress for my cousin's wedding in Italy and I haven't felt very inspired to spend a day mall shopping. Since this was on the way, why not? I’ve wanted to write something about clothes and fashion here in Turkey (look for it on my Hürriyet Daily News blog soon), so I thought I might find some inspiration today as I shopped for a dress.

I walked over to the store and scouted the racks. Everything is arranged by color and the knee-length designer dresses (as well as the ball gowns) are in front and to the right when you walk in. We have stores like this in New York, racks and racks of designer dresses for 70% off or more. My favorite is Daffy’s, followed by Century 21’s Bay Ridge branch. The prices in New York are much, much better, but New York was not helping me today.

I decided to try three dresses and take some photos. I wanted to try some things with color – not black, not red and certainly, not white. Blue would be perfect, maybe even green. I flipped through the dresses. I picked three that didn’t inspire me with high hopes. Maybe I could write something funny, I thought.

I tried the first dress.

My niece dresses like this when she plays Disney princess dress-up. But where was her Bedazzler? This dress needs some rhinestones. Oh, and definitely some sparkles! I would accessorize with a wand. Or maybe, not.

Dress number two is a Halston dress.

Unimpressed. Yeah, me too. Does it look more like curtains or a bed sheet to you? I thought the off-the-shoulder action would give it a Godess-y, siren-y vibe. I was wrong.

And then came dress number three. Here it is on the hanger.

We’ve all known dresses like this. Whatevs. Am I right? Then, I tried it on.

It just needed my body to give it life. Damn you, French dress! You are way, waaaaaaay too expensive for me. But I can’t deny the way you make me look and what you make me feel. You make me want to pick up Saudi princes and [redacted] in airplane bathrooms. You make me feel like more of a woman than I can handle. You want things from me, no, demand things from me that scare me a little. And then I tried on the fuchsia shoes.

Oh, damn you, too, slutty, 1980s, fuchsia shoes.

The net-net:

Ariel’s Ballroom Dancing Dress: Dina Bar-El – 295TL (164 USD)
Halston Schmatta: Halston Heritage – 373TL (207 USD)
Damn You, French Dress: Vionnet – 510TL (283 USD)
Damn You, Goody Two-Shoes: Le Silla – 243TL (135 USD)

Not putting any of these on my credit card. Priceless. Though if you’re a Saudi prince or a Turkish millionaire, I’ll pour myself into the dress and gladly pour out some other ideas from my all-too-vivid imagination.

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

My Non-Winning Entry from McSweeney’s Column Contest

I knew I wouldn’t win, but entered anyway. It’s not that I am not funny. I’m plenty funny. Hilarious, even. It’s just that I really can’t see myself writing column-length pieces in McSweeney’s preferred style, which is funny, ironic, sardonic, sarcastic and laconic (but probably not in that order - or probably, yes, in that order.) It’s not that I’m not cool. Oh, I am plenty cool. It’s just that I don’t think I can throw off a “So-you-think-you-are-the-1,181-incarnation-of-Sri-Babaji-Snatam?-Please-fill-out-this-form-and-the-Rinpoche-will-be-with-you-shortly”-columns twice a month. I have to be in the right mood for them – and honestly, I am new to comedy writing. It’s really not my literary métier. Those of you who have read my extensive (and private) literary catalog will probably agree that I am more at home with the elegiac form. Ain’t nothing funny about an elegy, my friends. It’s as serious as a heart attack. So hopefully, what you are about to read is, in fact, funny.

‘I’ is for Italy

I didn’t know what I was looking for, which isn’t the best way of trying to find something. But that did leave me open to surprises, which I got a lot of and right away.

I knew I wanted to be happy – and all my usual ways of finding it – shoe sales at Daffy’s, mental-health-days off at Coney Island and intensive chocolate therapy did not offer any long-term, residual effects. Nor did the obsessive checking of the MLS listings for lake houses within two hours of New York City. Something drastic needed to be done. And when I say drastic, I don’t mean shaving-my-head-and-joining-an-ashram drastic. First of all because I need bangs to cover my wrinkles and I don’t like the idea of someone shooting botulinum in my head and two, do you know how much it costs to shoot botulinum into your head? And also, even if I could get my ass out of bed for 5-a.m. yoga at the ashram, I am going to need tons of espresso to be able to do it – and I have a feeling Guru Vegetariananda is not going to take too well to my espresso addiction. There, I’ve said it, and what’s more, I have no intention of quitting, not even for a week. But, Namaste.

So I packed up my under-market (!) Park Slope (!) one bedroom (!). Gave the keys to my landlord and put everything I owned into storage. I paid someone named Lick Shot to do it. He was from Guyana. The man at the storage place recommended him and when I called the number from the card, I had asked for his name.

Was it Mr. Lick? Mr. Shot? Mr. Lick Shot?

“Just Lick Shot,” he had said with his lilting Guyanese accent.

I knew then the adventure had begun and in the best possible way. This was even before the ride in the front of the moving truck listening to reggae music all the way up 8th Avenue to Brooklyn Heights. And way before all my clothes and furniture were expertly placed in my storage space like the Tetris pieces of my life. This is how eleven years in Brooklyn ended and how something new was about to begin.

What? Well, I was going to dive right into an Eat,-Pray,-Love journey. I was going to be all cute and Liz Gilbert and find Javier Bardem somewhere in Italy. He’d wear tight, black pants and a tight, black shirt open to the navel revealing his hairy chest. I’d lie on it under the moonlight and he’d play his gypsy guitar. Or something like that as long as the guitar wasn’t lying on my face and it would be all romantic. In this fantasy I was looking a lot like Ava Gardner in The Barefoot Contessa. Ok, no, not the fat, happy lady who cooks with a lot of butter and cream in her East Hampton kitchen. That’s Ina Garten. Ava Gardner. She was married to Frank Sinatra and starred in The Son Also Rises. Hourglass figure, red, red lips. You know what, forget the film allusions and let’s get back to me.

I was going to Italy. I was going to write. And I was going with a wildly handsome man whose sole purpose was to hold my hand on the plane. His name is Q. No, I am not making this up. This is true. I was deathly afraid of flying and a handsome man was going to hold my hand. Basically, I could not trust Alitalia to assign a handsome, single man to sit next to me, so I brought my own. That I could trust the airlines was a lesson I would learn at a later date. For now, I was off to Italy.

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