Buona sera, ragazzi.

Last Friday night, after a week's consultancy work in London, I caught the late British Airways flight back to Rome. The commuter flight, as it turns out. Funny that, since I spent four years as a commuter between London and Edinburgh, as many of you will remember. My goodness, how things have changed.

At that time in my life, Edinburgh was only half the journey. From there, I'd travel another hour, into the hinterlands, each mile bringing me further and further into the unyielding Scottish countryside and, similarly, further and further away from good stores and decent café latte. It was like stepping onto the set of Wuthering Heights. Great if you're seriously into the Brontes and you like your men like your weather: stormy and difficult. Tough, however, if you feel like some good old fashioned, trenchant chick lit...

Anyway, all of that was a long time ago. Way before I ever moved to Rome. Back in the days when I thought that if I just tried hard enough I'd somehow fall in love with Scotland.

(A brief aside: Not surprisingly, it never happened. I just couldn't find common ground. For starters, there was the Haggis Issue. Now, call me close-minded, but the thought of organ meat slow-cooked in a sheep's testicle left me cold. In addition, I simply could not rouse myself to jihad-levels of passion over the topic of gardening. I remember one dinner party when I steadily drank my way through a 2-hour discussion of aphids and pest control, and then announced that I not only HATE nature --- not true, by the way but I was drunk and feeling like Courtney Love at a Girl Scout's convention --- but that I'd rather discuss Abstract Expressionism and its influences on vaginal art. Talk about a sure-fire way to bring a party to a halt. The word „vagina tends to slow the hors d'oeuvres at even the most successful of soirees, that's for sure. Of course, I was dressed in head to toe black, and I think the other guests, all of whom were sporting Easter egg pastel „trouser suits, wrote off my behavior to obvious grief and mourning.)

Back to the commuter flight to Rome. Trust me, this bore little resemblance to the scene I'd experienced during my Scottish adventure. Let's review the choreography of flight protocol for the average Brit:

1. Board the plane 2. Place your single piece of sturdy, sensible hand luggage in the overhead bin 3. Sit down 4. Buckle up 5. Open your newspaper of choice (Guardian if you vote Labour and live in North London, the Daily Mail if you're a Tory and support Chelsea) 6. Politely ask for a beer or glass of white wine 7. Remain in your seat, seat belt fastened, until the captain has turned off the Seat Belt sign 8. Disembark the aircraft in a civilized fashion and promptly engage your neighbour in a friendly discussion about the weather

On an Italian flight, on the other hand, there is considerable aerobic activity involved in getting to the seat, for it is an unstated but understood law that YOU DO NOT MOVE TO ACCOMMODATE ANOTHER PASSENGER EVEN IF IT MEANS SOMEONE SUFFERS BODILY HARM. Instead, when being prodded in the back by another passenger's carry-on Prada tote, you dig in your heels and hold your ground. To yield is to admit to a small penis.

Assuming you actually make it to your seat, you must now attempt to find room in the overhead bin. As soon as you raise your 53-pound carry-on, however, there is a shriek from the man below and, in Italian, you are instructed that you MUSTN'T touch or move the coat that is taking up half the available space. „It's Prada, you are told.

Finally, the flight attendant intervenes, but only after 22 strangers traveling with an odd assortment of salami and strong cheeses have their say about whose luggage should go where and who was where first and how much that Prada jacket costs, etc. You then find room for your bag and you assume your seat.

At that point, the doors are closed and the captain begins to ease the 737 out of the parking space. You should immediately reach for your telefonino and call someone. Anyone. You are NOT Italian unless you are talking on the phone up to the minute the wheels lift off. At that point, you settle in for two and a half hours without either a cigarette or contact with the outside world. You therefore do as the Italians do: start talking. To anyone. To no one. It really doesn't matter.

Now, as luck would have it, on the particular Friday night in question, I was seated beside an extremely handsome man named Massimo. He was returning to the Eternal City from a psychiatric convention on psycho-sexual stages of development. („Si, he informed me moments before take-off, „I spent five days discussing the importance of the penis. My British colleagues seemed unconvinced, he added. „As an Italian, I assured them the penis is very important, si? )

I nodded. Si. I mean, really, what else could I say?

At that point, we switched to Italian. I tried out the future tense and Massimo was very impressed. At one point, his eyes even left my chest.

Anyway, after complimenting my Italian („Cara, your Italian is magnificent, said Massimo. For those who do not speak Italian, this actually means, „You have a fantastic set of tits and I would like to either get your number or meet you in the bathroom before we land in Rome, where my wife will greet the plane&Mac183; ), Massimo asked what I was doing in Italy, what had brought me here, etc.

And I thought about his question. Then I answered him.

Here's something I've noticed after 21 years' worth of business travel: it is often easier to talk with a veritable stranger than it is to communicate with your partner or even your closest female friend. Once, somewhere over the Bay of Bengal, I had a man push to one side his foiled-covered Substance Stroganoff dinner and announce that he was going to ask his wife for a divorce. (I also remember that this man was wearing a polyester --- read: flammable --- bright green suit. I thought, at the time, Hey, I'm not sure she'll be too upset by that piece of information, my friend.)

So I found myself telling Massimo all about my adventure: how it was time to recharge, reawaken, reinvent. I talked and talked and talked. As the captain began the bumpy descent into Rome, Massimo took my hand, looked me squarely in the eyes and said, „You are the healthiest person I've met in ages. You are one of the few people I've met who really doesn't need psychotherapy.

I smiled. Beamed, really. Of course, I didn't have the heart to tell him that, as a New Yorker, I've not only had 8 years of individual sessions but also 2 years of group and even a stint in London courtesy of the NHS&Mac183;Let the guy think I have it all: a big chest AND a healthy attitude towards life. He doesn't need to know I'm the Sylvia Plath of the Via dei Chiavari.

Now, I tell you this story of Massimo for a reason. You see, over the last week, I've found myself reflecting on some of the life lessons I've learned since I moved to Italy: Why I came to Italy, what I'll do next, what matters most. I humbly submit my thoughts.

Why did I come to Rome? Hm&Mac183;.I remember a day last March. I was riding the London Underground to work, my nose buried in an issue of The New Yorker. I was reading an article on the politics of the pashmina. No kidding. I was fascinated, intellectually transported to a mountain community in the rocky Kashmiri climes.

And then, gradually, I realised we were approaching the White City tube station. Time to go. And that's when it hit me. I felt NOTHING. I didn't hate my job. I didn't dislike it. Instead, I was agog with indifference. And that fact hit me like an oncoming freight train. How had I so lost my way? I'm a person of boundless passions and at least 479 obsession-level interests. I liked the people I worked with, I respected them and I respected the organization tremendously. It wasn't the BBC that was the problem, it was ME. What the hell was my purpose?

So I decided to take steps. Sell my flat. Quit my job. Move to Rome.

Some people said it was a Midlife Crisis. I could almost hear the pity. „You know, she broke up with R., she doesn't have children, her dog died&Mac183;

Others said this was a phase, something I'd pass through; they cited my three-year obsession with all things Asian --- how I'd bought an opium bed, how I'd dressed like Madame Mao for the better part of 1999, how I'd learned to ask for three writing pens and a Western toilet in nearly flawless Mandarin.

The subtext was: Italy, ShmItaly. You're 45-years old. You're SUPPOSED to think your life is meaningless. It's a rite of passage. Before you switch to decaf and high fibre breakfast cereals.

Well, here's what I've learned. I'm not having a Midlife Crisis. I'm experiencing a Midlife Renaissance. I am rediscovering the joys of being alive on this watery globe. And I'm giving myself the opportunity to dance. To my own tune. Sometimes it's Frank Sinatra. Sometimes it's Marvin Gaye. Sometimes it's SugaBabes. And sometimes, lately, it's Tiziano Ferro, an Italian hottie I've recently discovered.

Tonight, walking past the Roman Forum, the marble reminders of ancient lives before me and lit up in the moonlight, I thought of the connection between Trajan's Column and my own little world. ŒTis a thin line uniting us, a connect-the-dots through history. Though my people were more likely sighted clutching pot roasts and fleeing the Tsar, there is still, somehow, a connection to all that preceded us. It makes me feel there IS a purpose: to live on this earth and enjoy the ride. For tomorrow we are little more than dust. Or postcard material, if we're very, very lucky.

Truth is, I now know I have a great life. I've rediscovered passion and energy. I feel rejuvenated.

So I like to think that maybe handsome Massimo, the penis-happy psychiatrist (show me one who isn't) was right: I am a healthy person. I came to Italy to rediscover life's passions. And I've done that. In spades. Certemente.


X A.


© Copyright Amy Selwyn 2004