Stories Of The South: Letter From Rome
I brought my family to live in Italy based on all ill-conceived theory I have about the effects of expatriation on writing.
I brought my family to live in Italy based on all ill-conceived theory I have about the effects of expatriation on writing. I’ve always thought that writers should spend part of their lives abroad testing themselves in the crucibles of alien cultures. As a Southern writer I’ve worried that my prose would smell too much of okra and sweet potatoes, that my vision would begin and end along the drifting, surreal avenues of small Southern towns, and that all my novels would be summed up in the phrase “the night the hogs ate Willie in Carolina.” For a long time I’ve looked on Europe as a kind of finishing school for writers, a place for me to replenish exhausted metaphors and to refresh the dimming imagination before I sat down to write a new novel. What I didn’t know and am learning fast is that living abroad is Europe’s revenge for all of our ancestors migrating to the United States.
We chose Italy because of the weather and because Italian seem as friendly as Southerners. My mother raised a grinning child with a congenital need to be around other smiling people.
We rented a house outside Rome in a compound surrounding a castle called Large Olgiata. We moved to ancient Rome to reside in a modern villa built in 1971. Our house is made up of rhomboids and trapezoids and has all the warmth of a Rubik’s cube. But the house is authentically Italian, and we have done without electricity, gas, telephone, heat, and water at various unbearably lengthy intervals during out time here. If something works in Italy, it’s considered accidental and temporary, and rather amusing.
Instead of writing deathless, flowing prose, I spend much of my time apologizing to our children for brutally uprooting them from the emerald city, Atlanta, and transporting them to Europe. Moving will never be easy for children, and no child will ever make it easy on the parents. I can show them the Alps, castles, medieval towns, Sistine Chapels, the mustard crops of Dijon, the lake country of Italy, and all the glories of the Uffizi Palace and they will fix me with their wounded, kidnapped eyes and wail they would much rather be at Six Flags Over Georgia. High in a snow-glistening Alpine pass I heard one of the children whisper, “This is O.K., but I like Stone Mountain a lot better.”
But the South is deeply in them. In the fall Lenore and I took the children to Florence as a reward for not once mentioning Atlanta during a blissful three-hour period. We stayed at the exquisite hotel, Villa Massa, in Bagna di Ripoli, a converted palazzo overlooking the Arno River. The Villa Massa is my candidate for the perfect hotel, with a splendid restaurant, a discreet staff, grapes ripening in the arbors, and a German shepherd named Ottos who is multilingual and can say “good morning” in four languages. There is a small chapel in the garden a bar with goldleaf wallpaper overlooking the river, and brimming fish ponds. The goldfish, wary of cats, swish along the bottom like animated bullion. A perfect hotel can seduce even children, and I watched each of them solemnly sigh the leather-bound guest book in the hotel’s sitting room. When I signed the book as we left, I read my daughter’s note. She had loved the hotel but was holding fast to her identity. The note read: Megan Conroy, Atlanta, Georgia. How ‘Bout Them Dawgs.
Yet education is a secret and undefinable thing and I’ve watched the effects of travel on the children, who change despite their allegiance to Atlanta. I have a feeling the sediments of Rome are going to rest in the Gidden sills of their memories for years to come. So far they’ve been to dinner with an Italian countess who attended the bullfights with Ernest Hemingway, drifted silently beside the tombs of popes, gone to parties with their schoolmates Soong, Dariush, Atubia, and Jean-Franco, eaten octopus (“It tastes like a tire, Dad”), prosciutto, finocchio, a dozen different varieties of olives and olive oils, tasted wine from almost every district in Italy, sledded in the Apennines with Michael Mewshaw who’s written five novels, and lt votive candles in every church along the Corso in Rome. (They pray they will soon return to Atlanta.) I no longer tell them that they’ll someday regret not getting more out of the Roman years. Rome has done its work quietly, on all of us, and there is nothing we can do about it except be grateful.
Our daughter, Susannah Ansley, was born on December 7th at Salvator Mundi hospital in Rome. I became the first Southern writer I’ve ever known who’s the father of an Italian citizen. She was delivered by Caesarean section in the city where Julius Caesar once drew his first breath by the same method over two thousands years ago. When Sister Magdelena emerged from the operating room, she carried an inert bundle in her arms and passed me without saying a word or nodding in my direction. Her face was covered with a gauze mask and the baby, ominously silent, lay still beneath a white blanket which covered her face. I trailed after Sister Magdelena until she came to a small chapel. She entered, held the child aloft, and genuflected before a crucifix.
“Sister,” I asked, “I hate to bother you, but can I ask you a question?”
“Si, “ she answered through gauze.
“Is that my baby?”
“Sister Magdelena, is the baby alive?”
“Si. Big. Molto grande. Tre kilos, sette cento.”
“Can I see my baby?”
“No, signore. You have many germs in the mouth.”
I could live in Italy for a hundred years and never know the true weight of tre kilos, sette cento. Later an American friend with a. calculator informed me that Susannah weighed 8 pounds 3 ounces. I called my mother that night and told my mother the family had produced another Roman. My mother was born in Rome, Georgia, and the binding of the two Romes provides a pure associative joy.
We will have to tell Susannah about Rome and her first days on earth and the friends who came to see her in the hospital. We will have to tell her why we came to Rome and how the city has changed us forever. Because that is the singular gift of travel; it changes you because it gives you more to celebrate, to cherish, and to remember.
When Susannah is old enough to understand, we will be back in the South raising her in a Southern state, the Southern way. And I will tell her how Italy changed me and changed how I looked at the world. It made me confront the essence of my being Southern. It had nothing to do with geography; it had everything to do with my own personal view of the world.
When I refer to myself as Southern I am talking about the part of myself that is most deeply human and deeply feeling. It is the part of me that connects most intimately and cordially with the family of man. There are qualities of grace and friendship and courtesy that will always seem essentially Southern to me no mater when I encounter them on the road. Then I will tell her that I never appreciated the South until I left it for the first time. And that the reason you travel is to find out who you really are and what you really believe. Though she’ll be raised in the South, I cannot wait until my daughter is old enough to understand that the country of Italy has produced Michelangelo, Da Vinci, Dante, Garibaldi, and most significantly, for the history of my family, because of accident and writing and a need for a definition, a pretty, black haired Roman named Susannah Ansley Conroy.