Last spring, there was a duck and her thirteen ducklings in Central Park’s Harlem Meer. Every few days, a duckling went missing (picked off by a hawk, crunched by a rowdy dog off leash, carried by the current down into the sewer) until by July, the duck was alone again. Observing how one more from our cohort of thirteen drifts away from Milan each day, I told this story to my remaining fellow students. They didn’t find it very funny.
Then it’s my turn. The morning after a dinner of pasta in cheese and licorice sauce (I couldn’t stop eating it, but it was weird), we pack our five suitcases, dog, and box of Italian liqueurs in a leased car, and climb into the Swiss Alps, squeezing through the Simplon Pass. New friends in Milan, who had lived on Arthur Ave in the Bronx down the street from my work at Fordham, recommended a restaurant in Sierre. Our faces get stuck in a fondue pot there. We’ll be eating zucchini bake for a week in atonement.
We move on to the French Haut Jura and its deep gorges and high meadows ringing with more cowbell. Hikers twice my age crawl out of the woods to show off their ultralight gear and taunt me with their wholesomeness and skinny thighs.
After days spent winding around perilous roads to talk to cheese producers, absinthe distillers, painters, and bakers, we sit on the balcony and watch the swallows sail at sunset, up to the Moon. In Milan, people are just now coming out, but Septmoncel is completely quiet. If you’re not out on the town square filling your water tank at the fountain by 8 AM, you’ve missed the village’s social life.
There is no agriculture up here. Only hay and cows can negotiate the long winters, steep rocky terrain, and altitude. All the ingredients for great cheese. Local fromagers make it with an earnestness that convinces me that if they stopped, the world would end. There are some things one doesn’t do, like break up with a lover over a plate of cheese. I once saw this in Montreal’s Old Port and felt bad for the bereft cheese first, then the ditched lover.
We’ve curated a collection—morbier, comté, bleu de Gex, mousseron. As is our custom, we’re rolling deep with cheese. It’s all in the car’s glove compartment because it’s time to move on again.
Back in Milan, I’m buried under my dog. She’s known throughout the Navigli as La Patatona. I’m getting to know all the commeres du quartier. When I was a kid, they frightened me. Now we walk our dogs together. They must have become nicer, or I’ve become meaner. The WWII widows all in black are gone. A lot of time has passed since I lived in Europe in the 1980s, and so do lives. They are deceased now, along with their sons, husbands, brothers.
I live in a semi-permanent state of future nebulousness. As uncomfortable as it sounds, it’s better than living with the inevitability of a hard return date to North America. I will be here next week to eat the gelato, so I don’t have to stop at every gelateria I see. I will walk the dog in the park again tomorrow and see the same people. I might as well make an effort to speak Italian. I’m here for melon season and it’s turning into apricots and cherries. Make fruit salad.
It dawns on me that I haven’t cooked a meal since July 26 2018. I realize all I’ve put on hold for the past eleven months. Sewing. Stretching. Sketching. Kvetching with friends. My sister’s wedding. Sitting outdoors just thinking. With so much reading to do and papers to write, interviews to conduct and exhibits to not miss, every hour mattered. Keep going.
By the end of the next three months, I’ll have in effect written four theses: a business plan for food as cultural heritage; a consultancy for a ballet company’s conservatory; a case study on neuroscience in museums; and a policy paper about diversity in dance. This snowjob should frighten away any employer.
I dream that I’m sitting in a transmittal meeting in Hindi, that I’m trying to plug my US computer to a Euro converter connected to a Chinese outlet that’s falling out of the wall, or that as a Canadian citizen, I’m applying for a British Columbia visa. I think my brain scrambled Vancouver and the Vatican. I still need lots of naps to sort it out.
Naps are more frequent as Italy heats up for the summer. To avoid the sun, the morning dog-walk is coming earlier; the nighttime dog-walk is falling later. Soon they’ll merge into a 3-hour middle-of-the-night walk. Time to head north to coolder weather.