The Common Statement

By JENNIFER ACKER

To get anywhere from the borgo—the walled-in cluster of medieval houses and skinny lanes connecting the castle, the church, and a tiny grassy square—one must go steeply downhill and then steeply up. Each morning, I choose a different high point from which to take in the magnetic hills of this corner of Lunigiana in northwest Tuscany, where friends have made a part-time home. Once I saw a handful of seniors out for a stroll, and I often say hello to a man in his eighties whose dog takes him out for jaunts, very slowly due to his heart trouble, but otherwise I encounter no one.

Backpack weighted with water, a borrowed cell phone, and a notebook to write in over lunch, I set off one day for Bagnone, downhill. Overnight the weather has turned from cool, overcast late spring into fully ablaze summer. Farther south and in the plains, it’s in the nineties, and tourists are feeling wretched. Like the old man with his dog, I walk slowly. I wear a hat. Step over flattened green snakes of alarming length. Pass the rows of beehives and the Di Negro winery, where my friends buy rich and fruity bottles of the local vermentino. Finally the brown-and-white road signs featuring a walker with a stick and a hump on an androgynous back make sense. The path I am on is a stretch of the Via Francigena, “the road that comes from France” and leads to Rome, to the tombs of Peter and Paul. And so, in the middle part of my walk, that point when the beginning feels far behind and it’s unclear when the end will come, I feel, myself, like an improbable pilgrim.

An American Jew of German descent, I am familiar with refugees and homeland returnees, but I know nothing about pilgrims. The idea is suddenly appealing. A journeying act of devotion—how exotic and romantic! My afternoon plan of a few solitary hours anchored by a plate of tagliatelle ai funghi porcini and a letter to a friend elevates into an adventure with spiritual purpose. In the tenth century, the Via Francigena was traversed by the Archbishop of Canterbury when he traveled to Rome to receive his pallium. More recently, George Clooney was said to be so inspired he bought a villa in nearby Pontremoli, one train stop north.

Though I don’t have religious credentials, wealth, or celebrity status, neither do most pilgrims, I think. And being a pilgrim is infinitely better, more reasonable, more authentic, than being a tourist. The pilgrim’s purpose is enduring and spiritual; a tourist’s fleeting and vulgar. Though impersonating a pilgrim could be taken as a grave transgression, oddly this imposture does not match the unease I feel elsewhere in Italy from the much less devious act of merely entering a church. Italians don’t make me feel this way; this is an internal problem. A confusing discomfort, given the many hours I spent inside churches as child. My most constant and beloved babysitter was a French Catholic who took me to weekday services in the local St. Denis parish. My father’s family is Methodist, and many a Sunday found us inside a Ventura, California, church with my grandmother and my father’s minister brother at our side. Acker family reunions regularly featured hymnal sing-alongs. You might think, then, that my discomfort in Italian churches grew from years of attending Hebrew school. But I was an impostor there as well. Or rather, as one of my parents’ friends recently pointed out, I was a dropout.

While it’s factually true that I didn’t continue Hebrew school through bat mitzvah, I’d never realized others thought of me as a dropout. I was shocked. But what had I thought? That they simply hadn’t noticed my disappearance from our class of five or six kids about to turn thirteen? What’s stranger is that this decision to cease my religious education is a lacuna in my memory. I have strong recollections of years of reading Torah passages, studying Hebrew, writing and staging Chanukah and Passover plays, snacking on Nilla Wafers and grape juice. I remember going to a statewide youth gathering where we were encouraged to sing songs that ran, Yes, I’m proud to be a Jew, and I want everyone to know…. Yet for years I haven’t been able to recall my dropout moment, and this troubles me. My parents don’t remember either. Collective amnesia marking a moment of either great import or complete inconsequence.

Add to this the facts that my parents are the most devout deliberators and that, according to them, I was the one who asserted my desire to attend Hebrew school in the first place, and the picture clouds even more. I said, apparently, that I wanted to know something about God. They said, baffled, Sure. I already went to Catholic church with Nancy and Methodist with Grandma Acker. We could attend more synagogue services than just High Holidays, they suggested, and maybe there were some Quaker friends who’d take me along to a meeting…. To this I said, No. Hebrew school. Sign me up.

From where I stand now, I cannot understand this early part of myself except as an impostor. I had no religious feelings. My German Jewish grandparents, who lived in a house attached to ours, were scientists, and my parents were psychologists; the world was comprehensible to me as it was presented. Why would I want competing explanations? I was raised in the quiet of the country as an only child, a child who did not fit naturally into the public schools. Surely, the truth is that although I never desired to know about or be close to God, I still wanted to belong somewhere special.

So began my career as a wannabe belonger, which continued until I was forced to admit that completing Hebrew school would constitute outright fraud. Perhaps this early, buried shame is what makes me feel so uneasy and unwelcome in places of worship, across a highly religious country like Italy and beyond.

This desire for spiritual passing—wanting the status without feeling the call or doing the work—is not so uncommon, of course. There’s a wonderful example in one of the classics of modern Italian literature, Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa’s The Leopard, which charts the changes in Sicilian life resulting from Italy’s 1860 Risorgimento and subsequent emergence as a country of unified states. At the heart of the story is Prince Fabrizio, one of Sicily’s last aristocrats, a man who believes Sicilians are immutable, shaped inevitably and forever by the dramatic, searing landscape and a history of domination by foreign powers. The reflective Fabrizio is also a playboy, and one morning the family priest, Father Pirrone, asks if the prince would like to confess the previous night’s sins of the flesh. Don Fabrizio protests, “Really, Father, there wouldn’t even be need, would there? You know it already.” But the matter is not so simple, and the priest interprets the man’s question as spiritual deception and manipulation.

This insistence on his forced complicity irritated the Jesuit. “Excellency, the efficacy of confession consists not only in telling our sins but in being sorry for them. And until you do so and show me you do so, you will remain in mortal sin, whether I know what your sins are or not.”

What Father Pirrone points out is something all of us understand: A clean way in the world requires more than making select facts about ourselves known. Such partial alignment would be posturing. To act in true good faith requires aligning our state of mind with our external presentation.

 

***

 

The road to Bagnone leads to a castle, of course—one of Lunigiana’s 160—a moderately grand set of stone buildings whose warrenlike paths lead to dead ends and slanting doorways that appear to be private residences. But just before the entrance, I turn down a hidden path of weedy, eroded steps that wind down the embankment to one of two bridges crossing the Magra River into town. In the heat of the day, no one is out. I note a few dim shops along the dusty main street to visit later. But first: lunch.

The desk at the base of the first flight of stairs inside the shallow grotto that is I Fondi is vacant, and a quick search reveals only two hefty men finishing up a plate of meat. I step into the disarmingly quiet staging area outside the kitchen, and a startled Eastern European woman sends me back up the stairs to the street entrance to wait for Anna, the owner. I wait, scuffing my shoes like a middle-schooler, worried she will not appear and I’ll have come all this way only to be disappointed.

Soon I’m seated at one of the prime tables on the terrace, which offers both shade and a sigh-worthy view of the riverbank I descended, thickly blooming with geraniums and tomato vines, apartment windows strung with sheets and shirts and undergarments. I am alone. I’d thought I was on Italian time, or would at least be kept company by other visitors. As far as there are reviews at all for eating establishments in Bagnone, this is clearly the place to go.

Anna answers a few questions and reports my tagliatelle order to the kitchen. Then she takes a seat at a large table a few feet away and smokes heavily, one cigarette to the next. She wears a shapeless white tee under her apron, her thick dark hair pulled back into a braid. Her skin is lined, her voice husky. Her complexion is darker than that of most Italians in the area. She both asserts confident ownership and conveys a desire to slough off the harsh armature of her surroundings the way an employee waits for her shift to end. I later learn that Anna is from the South, and perhaps it is because her manner is perceived, by some neighbors and clientele, to embody the stereotypical coarseness of the southern states that the restaurant is suffering, despite its generous portions and delicacies. Perhaps her living in this town at all is contra natura, “against nature.” Leaving one’s native region for another, living apart from your own kind and those who can keep an eye on you, trying to pass as a member of a society you were not born into—these are prohibitions that, long after Prince Fabrizio’s time, still pervade some pockets of Italian thinking, as they do the provinces of every country when the wholesome, identifiable idea of itself is threatened. Pope Gregory XVI decided in the 1840s that trains, because they allowed such dramatic social mobility, were themselves contra natura.

The Latin root of impostor is imponere, “to impose upon.” Even if, in the eyes of some, migrants like Anna are contra natura, they do not impose. Not like tourists. Far from adhering to the norms of la bella figura—the Italian concern for etiquette and grace above all—and equally far from the devout motivations of the pilgrim, a tourist slices flamboyantly and impatiently through the world, imposing her ignorance and wants on all she comes across. Asking obvious questions, needing translations, misunderstanding social cues.

And yet, isn’t this imposition at least honest in its own way—an authentic expression of desires to learn of elsewhere, of another? It seems impossible today—and maybe it seemed impossible even then—to agree with Prince Fabrizio, who claims imprisonment by environment, asserting with such sureness that he can function beautifully and seamlessly only in his native land, and should therefore venture no farther. In her discomfort, the impostor, the tourist, lays herself bare. She does not belong, but nevertheless seeks, in good faith.

After a bowl of vanilla gelato, I pay, receive a smile, and set out to wander the shops. I’m interested in olive oil and plum jam at one of the grocers, things I can carry on my back and consume in a few days. But I’ve miscalculated, forgotten about the postlunch closings. I’ll be locked out for another hour and a half. It’s too hot to sit along the river in the sun, and the only inhabitants of the small cafés are men playing dominoes. Deciding I’ll feel too out of place among them, I head back along the pilgrim’s path toward home, uphill.

 

—Jennifer Acker, Editor in Chief
Castiglione del Terziere, Lunigiana, Italy*

*Mille grazie to Martha Cooley and Antonio Romani.

Jennifer Acker is the Editor in Chief of The Common. She has an MFA in fiction and literature from the Bennington Writing Seminars. She is a visiting lecturer at Amherst College, and in 2012-13 she was a Faculty Fellow at New York University Abu Dhabi. 

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