The Not-So-Dolce Vita

 

No one tells you how difficult the first year of marriage is under normal circumstances, let alone when you (a) are suddenly living in a foreign country, (b) don’t know another living soul, (c) still don’t speak the language very well, (d) reside in a 500-square-foot studio apartment, and (e) don’t know how long your meager savings will last.

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Whether you’re new to Good Men Project Magazine or a longtime reader, it’s worth noting that what you’re reading is the love child of the Good Men Project book. A collection of 31 stories from good men of all kinds, the book is where everything started. This is an excerpt from one of the book’s essays. 

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In September of 2001, three months after we married, Celia and I up and moved to Italy. Six months later we returned to the States, almost broke and, somehow, still married.

“Up and moved” implies that this was a scheme we had hatched while crashed on the couch in our underwear, watching Cops and eating pepperoni Hot Pockets. Or that the World Trade Center attacks had jolted us into a radical, life’s-too-short course of action. But actually, we had been planning the move ever since making a drunken New Year’s Eve resolution (is there any other kind?) nearly ten months prior. That night, we promised each other that after we were married we would begin our new life by doing something . . . different. We had no idea what “different” meant, but we did know this: She was twenty-nine, I was thirty-three, and we both were more than ready for the emotional commitment of marriage but still too young for any kind of physical permanence. The notion of getting married, immediately moving to the burbs, having 2.5 kids, getting a golden retriever and a rider mower and a sump pump, and slogging away at our advertising jobs (I was a copywriter, she a producer) for the next thirty years reminded us of a certain scene from Pink Floyd’s The Wall: We didn’t want to be two more faceless drones shuffling on life’s conveyor belt toward the meat grinder.

That New Year’s Eve, in 2000, while gorging ourselves on piles of salted, cured meats with some friends at an Italian joint in Boston’s North End, we remembered we each had a dream that just happened to fit the other’s like a jigsaw piece: She had always wanted to live abroad and learn a foreign language; I had always wanted to feed my inner Hemingway, live in an exotic, faraway land and have time to write something more creatively fulfilling than McDonald’s commercials. Not that I believed my writing would be the literary equivalent of the polio vaccine, but I at least hoped to contribute something more beneficial to society than helping people waddle toward morbid obesity.

Maybe it was because we were loopy on a couple of gallons of Chianti, had recently been swept up in Sopranos mania, or were feeling cocky because New Year’s resolutions were, by nature, hypothetical, but by the time we were back home watching the immortal Dick Clark host the Times Square ball drop, we had boldly agreed: Yes, damn it, we would get married that June, quit our jobs, and move to Italy.

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Newlywed life abroad was often a fiendish torture that our neighbor Dante would have considered too harsh for his nine circles of Hell. We fought about everything. Tiny decisions became multistage debates. Meals became interminable staring contests. What’d you do today, honey? Oh, right, I was with you for nine of the past eleven hours. We have nothing to say, and now—no offense, dear—I want to smash your goddamn face with this leg of prosciutto.

Say what you will about the nine-to-five world that we had left behind, but it does give you some much-needed structure to your days, something we had no idea we would so dearly miss. “I sometimes picked fights with you at meals just so we’d have something to talk about,” Celia admitted later, as if this weren’t borderline sociopathic behavior.

No one tells you how difficult the first year of marriage is under normal circumstances, let alone when you (a) are suddenly living in a foreign country, (b) don’t know another living soul, (c) still don’t speak the language very well, (d) reside in a 500-square-foot studio apartment, and (e) don’t know how long your meager savings will last. We had unwittingly enlisted in marriage boot camp, and we were washing out. My parents had been happily married for forty years, and here I was struggling to get through four months.

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Changes of scenery didn’t help. From Florence, we traveled to some of the most stunning places on Earth: Chianti, Lucca, Rome, the Amalfi Coast, Cinque Terre, Lake Como, Austria, Switzerland, Bavaria, Monaco, the south of France, Spain. But more often than not, we arrived at these places long after dark—and after having driven a car or ridden a train for hours—foolishly assuming that we would just wing it and find a cheap hotel. This would inevitably lead to more arguing about how much to spend, what was the best way to go, how to read a map—you name it, we fought about it. But who was she to second-guess me? She had lived in Boston for ten years and still got lost on our block. “Oh, definitely, you have a much stronger sense of direction than I do,” she admitted once, while we were hopelessly lost in the chaos of Barcelona’s La Rambla (which is, of course, Spanish for “street teeming with imbeciles who can’t find the Gaudí Museum”). Her patronizingly cheerful tone nearly brought me to tears of full-blown rage. “But I have a stronger will than you,” she continued. “And let’s be honest, I’m right more often than you are. So it’s unfortunately kind of a stalemate.”

I’m not a violent person, but there was this other time, in Innsbruck, when we misplaced our rental car, because, in daylight, neither of us could remember how to find the garage where we had parked the previous night. (I honestly believe foreign municipal employees rearrange their city streets while we tourists sleep, just to screw with our heads.) While Celia blamed me for our missing Fiat Punto, I imagined hoisting our massive rolling suitcase over my head and crushing her with it. Her feet would stick out from underneath, like the Wicked Witch of the East’s, and tiny, lollipop-wielding Austrians would emerge from manholes and nearby flora and gleefully raise their helium-filled voices to the skies, thanking me for ridding their kingdom of such evil. Then we would all eat some schweinsbraten.

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Celia and I finally hit rock bottom in January 2002, back in Florence. After a particularly heated argument—probably about money, or maybe I ate her last almond cantuccini, who knows—I grabbed my wallet, my passport, and my laptop and stormed out of the apartment to “get some air.” But truth be told, I was leaving her. I was going to take a cab to the airport and buy a one-way ticket back to Boston, cost be damned. What would happen to her? How would she get home? Would she be worried when I didn’t come back? I didn’t care. I was done.

But in my wild-eyed, foam-mouthed walkabout (it was kind of a blur, but I imagine my fellow pedestrians gave me a wide berth, pulling their children closer to them as I stormed by), I had not headed toward the Duomo, where the closest cabstand was. Instead I had gone in the opposite direction, to the Ponte Vecchio, one of our favorite spots in the city.

It’s one of man’s most timeless creations, so beautiful that it was the only Florentine bridge that Hitler, the sentimental fool, declined to destroy during Germany’s 1944 retreat from Allied troops. Amid a constantly flowing tide of jewelry-hunting tourists, frenetic locals, and North African street vendors peddling fake Gucci, Fendi, and Prada purses, I stood and just stared down the river. As the sun set with a purple-red flourish, I looked across the south bank—the Oltrarno, “beyond the Arno”—and up to Piazza Michelangelo, where Celia and I had hiked so many times to enjoy the most spectacular view of our adopted hometown.

The piazza was high upon a hill and maybe a full mile away, but I still imagined Michelangelo’s David, the epitome of the perfect man (even in bronze replica), fixating on me with his slightly furrowed brow and soulful yet challenging eyes. “Don’t look at me like that,” I muttered. I remained on the bridge for an hour, maybe more, long enough for me to forget what Celia and I had been fighting about, not just earlier that evening, but for the past five months.

Instead, I remembered celebrating her thirtieth birthday on Capri, how we rode a creaky rental moped to the famous Blue Grotto. She had her arms wrapped tightly around my torso, and we shrieked and laughed, and our goofy, Star Wars imperial stormtrooper–sized helmets occasionally clacked against one another as we took precarious corners and snaked up and down the narrow streets to the remote, northwestern shore of the island. And when we learned that the grotto was closed for the season, a discovery that might have reduced us to bickering cannibals—Um, no, you were supposed to check the Frommer’s book!—we instead had a moment of unity. Standing there above the Mediterranean, we basked in the unseasonably warm November sun and in the eerie realization that not another soul on Earth knew our whereabouts, and should we hold hands, jump off the rocky cliffs into the sea, and just start swimming, our next stop (tide and sharks permitting) would be Tunisia. I felt a surge of romantic, adventurous liberation knowing that we were totally alone yet completely together in a place, and in a moment, in which we never could have imagined ourselves just a few months before.

This memory triggered an avalanche of other discreetly sublime moments I’d forgotten: attending English-language movies at the majestic Odeon theater, sitting high in the balcony under the ornate, domed ceiling and sharing popcorn as if it were our first date, so happy to be hearing our native tongue that we didn’t care what was playing (hence our seeing Bridget Jones’s Diary twice); strolling through the Uffizi Gallery and quietly joking that they could really use a few more Madonna and Child paintings. I remembered how we had faced outwardly mundane yet wholly intimidating everyday tasks: ordering meat or cheese at a crowded salumeria; realizing we had to weigh our fruits and vegetables and sticker them ourselves before getting in the supermarket checkout line; calculating how many lire we needed for your basic white load at the Laundromat; cracking the veritable da Vinci codes of the Florentine bus system or the post office hours of operation. When completed, these chores might elicit a satisfied high five or sometimes even a joyous, sobbing embrace better suited to a couple reuniting after a war than to a husband and wife buying radicchio in the produce aisle.

If a man has the sense that God gave a common bivalve—and I often wonder if those clams know something we don’t—he should realize when he’s found a partner who complements him, makes him happy, and vice versa. Because the right person isn’t solely someone who’s happy with you, it’s also someone who’s not afraid to be unhappy with you. There’s no such thing as a perfect couple. Anyone who claims otherwise is either drunk, on Ecstasy, lying, or all three, and—bet on it—has at some point imagined crushing his or her spouse with a giant suitcase or some other large, blunt object. But if you can refrain from doing it, and eventually laugh about it, you’re making out OK.

Still standing on the bridge, I removed a 500-lire piece from my pocket, made a wish, flicked the gold-and-silver coin into the dark water below, and hurried back to the apartment, where I saw that my wish had come true: Celia was still there.

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About Mark St. Amant

Mark St. Amant is the author of two books published by Scribner, Committed: Confessions of a Fantasy Football Junkie, and Just Kick it: Tales of an Underdog, Over-Age, Out-of-Place Semi-Pro Football Player. He’s also an award-winning, 20-plus-year advertising Creative Director, and a founding partner of new Boulder, CO agency, Grenadier. Follow him on Twitter.

Comments

  1. I love it!!!!!!!!I think after 7.5 years of marriage my husband still wants to crush me with our luggage. It is the ability to come through tough moments that make the marriage stronger. It may not seem apparant right now but that time in Italy may serve as the bedrock of your relationship for the rest of your lives. Good luck….

  2. Loved this. So much.

  3. Nice story especially having spent time in Florence recently.

  4. Loved it, and it makes me love my country even more (yes, I’m Italian :) ).

    (but please, remove the (big) duplicate paragraph, this piece doesn’t deserve sloppy editing ;) )

  5. Beautiful, poignant, and oh so real.

  6. Mr Supertypo says:

    Good piece, well written :-)

    You made me miss Firenze (Florence) im not from there, but I have family in that city.

  7. As a newly married (2 years this month) American who moved to Italy with my wife before our first anniversary, I have to say this article made me do a double take at first. I live in a 500-sq.ft. apartment, barely spoke the language, and have dwindling savings! I quit my job! Who is writing articles about me?

    In all honesty though, moving to Italy has made me a stronger person, and has made our marriage nearly indestructible. I don’t think that there is anything that could get in the way of the two of us now, not that there was much before.

Trackbacks

  1. […] For more, check out last week’s “The Not-So-Dolce-Vita.” […]

  2. […] out previous excerpts here and here. And the book—the illustrious parent project to the magazine you’re reading right […]

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