My first lover in Italy had peppered hair. He was only 28 and he hated it. But, of course, it’s what I noticed first; that, and it was curly. Curly and graying!!!! I thought. Mio dio, perfetto. I knew I would be after him in minutes; we talked about politics. I got embarrassingly drunk and forgot my camera in his car. We were to meet the next day so I could retrieve my belongings. I spent the whole day with him, and the next. And so on. When I left him for the next city in my vacation plans, I was confusingly devastated. I looked in the mirror that night and found a pure white hair on the top of my head. I thought it a sign and returned to Rome the next day to stay with him. We walked the city together and because I walked with a native, I too felt native, not a tourist. I had my own personal translator. In Siena we had large lunches, complete with the most delicious wine. We were already arguing; we’d return to the hostel, argue more, cry, and then make love. Paolo called me overdramatic, but I had thought surely in Italy my behavior would blend in.
In every city that I stayed, I visited as many chiese as I could. Seeing as how Paolo and I are both atheist, he seemed rather perplexed. I sat inside on a pew staring at the altars. It was not long before I began praying – to who I’m not sure. The first altar I prayed at was in Basilica di San Pietro and Paolo was not with me that day (in fact, I did not know I was to meet Paolo that very night). One of the reasons that I even wanted to visit Rome was to see the Pietà. Behind dirty plexiglass, zillions of tourists snapping photos with their cellphones and shitty digital cameras, Maria still held all of her wonder, all of her dignity, pain, purity and grace. Perhaps it was she who was perfect, and not her son. But something in me came alive. There was meaning for love and life. Voglio essere una moglie e una madre. And in Italy, motherhood is still sacred.
I prayed at le chiese, mainly to myself. Trying to understand new love, understand me, and everything else. I wondered about the saints, their devotion, obsession, and eventual sacrifice. Le chiese are dark, cool, and damp – a much needed relief from Italy’s summers. They are forever quiet and bring peaceful solitude from the craziness of the streets. I peek in, creep in, when I need a space for meditation. I sat through a service or two, awkward without the lifelong practice – and understanding the language would have helped little. Here, at Easter, I wanted to go to church. See the people filled with hope. Wanting to go back – it makes sense really. It is finding comfort in an obsessive ritual. It’s what they call home.
Paolo fell in love with my praying, maybe because he found peace for just a moment, or maybe because he began to understand my duplicitous ways – “I love when you (improvisely) change the subject, and when you talk to yourself inside the churches.” Nevertheless, I still have my white hair; and it’s the mark that I carry.