Tuesday, February 24, 2009

The Sawdust of Rome

I can't think of one person I know who prefers to eat alone. When dining out in Italy, I was used to requesting a table for, say, 18 or more. In soup kitchens in Poland, you'd often see a long table of men or women curled over a bowl of borsch, sometimes exchanging conversation, but mostly just eating--eating together. Even in the mountains of France after climbing up some rock crag, you'd find a whole table of folks sharing sandwiches. Eating alone is not natural, but then again it might be cultural. 

For a country that shows we love to eat or eat a lot, I am often surprised by how many Americans eat alone. Everyday where I work I see people eating over a newspaper; I know they come to the Good Food Store to see people, watch them or hopefully find someone to eat with. My husband who is back in school loves cafeterias. I'd like to think he's going back for his MBA and not just to eat at the Food Zoo. He told me his lunch routine is to find a person, usually the most awkward-looking, and join them. Yup, sit right next to them, tray by tray and introduce himself, strike up a conversation and well, have lunch with a stranger. 

I've had some pretty memorable lunches with the most random people--on trains sharing oranges, marooned in random bus stations exchanging our last peanuts, even on hiking trails splitting an apple or coveted dark chocolate. But I must admit, I hate going out to eat alone. I remember the first time I came upon this dilemma. I had taken a bus from Poland to the Netherlands alone and not quite with an itinerary other than to just explore the city where my grandmother was from and mostly to see the Keukenhof Gardens. I arrived in a brutal April downpour and walked to the city center to find a hostel. I was so hungry, cold, and suffering from travel lag and a bit of shock between rural Poland and cosmopolitan Amsterdam. I can recall walking by tiny bistros with fogged windows, people eating bowl after bowl of tomato soup or chowders, laughing with grilled cheese in their teeth.

This was like entering into some strange canto, or level of hell. Here I was yearning to eat and too shy and travel-green to just walk in, I couldn't. I couldn't muster the guts to just find a small seat and order the soup de jour. It would take me years to learn this, but really I just didn't like to eat alone.

It is this simple fact that spurred my interest in cooking. As a college student, food is merely a function or a community event. When I was a caregiver, I certainly cooked meals, but there is a difference between cooking to eat and cooking because you want to eat well. Even in Italy, I never really learned how to cook much of anything because I was too busy eating--everything. It wasn't until I found myself in Northern Michigan and well, alone did I really learn to cook. I was a writing fellow working on poems and teaching when I found myself with a lot of time at night and a longing for foods I couldn't find. And I figured, if I cooked then I could invite people to come over and eat with me. It sounds calculating, but really I just wanted to fill my house with flavors that I missed and laughter that my cat certainly wasn't filling my sparse space. 

On those occasions when I found myself alone with my cat, I would actually pull down a mirror and set it on the end of the table. This was by no means an act of vanity. It was an odd reaction to loneliness. I mean some people invent other people to talk to, chat to absolutely nobody on their cell phones in public. But in private, when it is February in Northern Michigan and the snow is even quieter at night, loneliness can creep in fast. I used to place the mirror not directly in front of me, rather on the side as if to reflect some dinner guest. I usually pretended my guest was Franco. 

Franco was the man who gave me the mirror and the following poem was written for him. Franco was a Cornici, or a framer of artwork. His tiny shop filled with sawdust and golden frames seemed somehow familiar and soothing. Maybe it was the smell of sawdust that reminded me of my own grandfather. I would sometimes visit with Franco and have a snack, chat and really just talk about the details of my day. He was the one person I found myself confiding in and explaining how being foreign was lonely and isolating. Franco would listen and give me advice. It wasn't the advice you'd give to your granddaughter, like someday you'll find someone to eat dinner with, or all you really need is a boyfriend. No, Franco's advice was about how to live with loneliness. He loved to laugh, get angry about soccer like most Italians, but unlike a lot of Italians, Franco knew how to be alone. He was happily married, had children, but somehow through my stilted Italian and his 1950's English we communicated about something that perhaps isn't cultural or maybe it is--we talked about loneliness. He used to tell me that being lonely would actually help him work better. He felt it was his loneliness, not sadness, that helped him turn to his work for comfort. Franco told me he loved his work so much that when people would come to visit, he could give them all of his attention because he knew once they would leave he would have something, something of his own. I was one of the lucky ones to walk through his door, to get some of his attention and to learn a little from him too. He'd say to me, "Amelia being lonely ees like de weather, just waita and it'll passa, wait for change, no?" Sounds really simple and trite, but it's true. Just wait and someone might show up to eat dinner with. If not, cook as if they might. 

The Sawdust of Rome

I walked through a garden on the edge
of the Pacific, found a bunch of poppies
under the moon, blanched and waiting
for morning to turn red

And it's the mornings here
that make me think of Rome,
like I'm living under the same sun.
Some days Rome was just dog shit
and traffic. My neighbors,

the sisters, never shut their windows,
swore at each other and their dead mother.
The strange loneliness of living in a city
with bored and beautiful people.
Franco, the Cornici, would wave me

down off the bus after work, 
his store filled with wooden frames, empty
and naked like an open eye. His radio
covered in sawdust played Sinatra.
We'd sing along and draw stick figures

of soccer players and politicians 
to understand each other. He'd take out
photographs, sepia shots of himself
car racing, or Franco the bambini
under the palm next to his nona.

He'd point to himself, puff up his chest
and say his name as if he were the foreigner.
And when I told him I was leaving for America, 
he gave me a mirror. Not as a reminder
of him or a means to fix my  my hair.

But to hang on my wall
like a window. Like a window held open.

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