Terracina is a small beachside town in the Lazio region of Italy – Western, central, on the coast of the Tyrrhenian Sea. There are hills and mountains; beaches and Roman ruins; sailboats and tourists. In the distance, La Maga Circe – a profile-shaped mountain named for the witch of Roman myth – reclines in the sea.
The sea is said to be the sea of Ulysses. The grapes that grow in this province are supposed to be the sweetest in the Mediterranean. The ancient ruins attract travelers from far and wide, and the beaches see high tourist activity during the summertime, full of summer people and summer beach homes that empty as the sun’s rays weaken before the start of the school year in September.
In Roman times, there were the gods, the witches, the emperors. In the medieval era, there were the forts built during the Gothic Wars. Later, there were Baroque churches, the epidemics of malaria, the World Wars. And in the mid-20th century, there were the Moscatellis.
Who were the Moscatellis? One of Terracina’s summer families, down from Rome each year. The father, a land developer; the mother, a casalinga – a housewife. Two children – one of each. In 1970, the father erected an apartment building in one of Terracina’s beach towns. He rented out the apartments on the first and second floors. The top floor apartment was reserved for him and his family.
Which now brings me back to the question – why am I here in Terracina, Italia?
Because of a boy and a girl.
And this girl:
The boy came to Terracina in the summertime, like the girl. He came with his grandmother – his Nonna Teresa – who rented the first floor of the building once the weather turned hot. His Nonna Teresa was stout and bearded; foul-mouthed and opinionated. A tremendous woman, by all accounts. A fifth-generation Roman. The boy, however, was new to Italy. He came from Guatemala. Twenty-five years earlier, his Roman mother had married a Guatemalan doctor and – Nazis, etcetera – left Italy to raise her family in a tropical land far away. There were five Italian-Guatemalan children. The boy was the youngest. He wanted to be a doctor like his father. When the boy was old enough, he was sent to Rome to attend medical school and live with his tremendous Nonna Teresa in the heart of the city. She told him: Eat! Eat! and Aou! Why are you showering every day? No one needs to take a bath every day! He said: Because I’m from Latin America and we are very smelly. She said: Ah, that makes sense and then, later, Roberto, I think you’re f*cking with me.
The girl was Isa. She was voted the most beautiful girl in her high school class. She wore thigh high boots and changed out of long skirts into minis as soon as she left the house. One day, Signor Moscatelli caught her on the street, smoking and showing off her legs; he honked the car horn and shook his hands at her. Isa thought she’d be an actress or a painter some day. When she met the boy in Terracina, she had never heard of Guatemala. She thought it was something you eat.
This was the summer of 1970. Years later, Roberto said that 15 year-old Isa was impossibly young to his very experienced 19 year-old eyes. Isa said Roberto spoke Italian with a strange accent. They were friends first and then, a couple summers later, they were more. It was a beach romance, set to the soundtrack of Lucio Battisti, Camaleonti, and I Pooh. They lay out together on the sand under the blankets of brightly colored umbrellas. They played cards together in his grandmother’s apartment. They went to the movies. They went out for gelato. He taught her to drive using a Romanian friend’s battered Fiat Cinquecento, snaking the car through the Romans’ cobbled, razor-narrow streets. His tremendous Nonna Teresa took Isa aside one evening and said: Ehi. Watch out for your little box, okay? Isa was confused: What box?
They were together in the summers; they were together in Rome. Roberto always called her signorina. Isa’s schoolgirl crushes fell away one by one. But then, in 1974, Roberto graduated from medical school. A bombshell: he was leaving. He was going to fulfill his childhood dream of living in the United States. He had always wanted to ride a Greyhound bus. He was going to England for a year to learn English. This was goodbye.
Isa mourned the loss of Roberto for the next year. She smoked consolation cigarettes. She tried to date other boys. But then, the next summer, Roberto returned and – as if nothing had passed between them – came to visit her in her family’s apartment building in Terracina. They went to the ancient Temple of Jove Anxur, high up in the mountains overlooking the sea. He asked her to marry him.
In mid-1970s Italy, one did not visit their boyfriend in a foreign country and they especially did not move continents to be with them. Roberto and Isa’s options were to break up or get married. It was a preposterous gamble to modern ears – especially considering their age – but Isa said “yes.” They were married in Rome in 1975 and emigrated to Brooklyn, where they quickly realized that English wasn’t so easy to learn after all. Roberto was now a medical intern. He worked in the hospital cafeteria to earn extra money. He couldn’t understand his customers so he served everyone hamburgers. Isa spent long hours alone while Roberto was working. She slept with a hammer under her pillow. They stayed in Brooklyn for five years until they moved to Boston, where they had two children – one of each.
A few years later, Roberto and Isa were tired of Boston winters. A colleague told Roberto of an opening at a hospital in Florida so they moved yet again to sleepy Crystal River, where people caught their own fish, had their own boats, and the waters were thick with manatees. In Crystal River, their friends were other immigrants; their house was always filled with at least three languages. Their eldest child – a daughter – became fascinated with words due to the constant exposure to the English, the Italian, and the Spanish. She learned to read when she was three and loved nothing better than to spend whole afternoons and evenings sunk deep into a book. She thought that some day she’d become a writer herself. She wrote constantly – stacks and stacks of “novels,” short stories, and plays. The year she was 16, she was the only student in the entire state of Florida to get a 6 – a perfect score – on the Florida Writes essay test. Her picture was in the paper. She thought this meant something.
At 18, the daughter moved to New York City to attend NYU. She thought: Now I will be a writer. Except she wasn’t a writer. She was weak – intimidated by the vastness of the city, the talent of her peers, and the rejection she faced when attempting to stick a toe into the young literary scene. To her horror, she found that when she tried she could no longer write. So she graduated college and worked for magazines, for advertising firms, but still she wasn’t writing. She thought: I will write again. I will get an idea for The First Great Italian-Guatemalan-American novel and I will write again. In 2004, she had an idea for such a novel but still, she wasn’t writing. Misery, thy name is literary paralysis. She thought: Maybe I will never write. Even if I do, no one will read it. I’m a small Florida fish who can’t swim. I don’t have what it takes and I never did.
The girl plodded through her New York City life. She froze in the winter and melted in the summer. She ate her weight in Gray’s Papaya hot dogs. At home, she stared at blank computer screens. At work she was promoted to the rank of editor, and punished those beneath her for her own failure. She saw the future – a lifetime of hating her job, living paycheck to paycheck, and mourning what could have been if only she’d had the talent, the nerve. She thought: I understand now that this is how it will be.
And then one day, she thought: It can’t be this way.
She made a choice. She would not choose a life of misery; she would choose a life of other. Her misery had been of her own design – choosing to accept defeat, choosing to stay in a job she hated instead of exploring other options. She admitted that she couldn’t write while struggling to survive in New York; drastic change was crucial. So she picked a point on a map. Then she worked overtime for the next year, padding her escape fund. She sold her things. She interviewed for jobs. She got a Visa. And in January of 2007 she said goodbye to everything she’d ever known and moved to Japan.
In Japan, she drank beer under cherry blossoms. She taught English. She ate her weight in sushi, began the maddening task of learning Japanese, and was molested by Japanese children daily. She discovered something strange – she hadn’t been able to write her novel, but she could write about Japan. She started a blog and wrote post after post. Eventually, people she didn’t know began to read what she had to say. And then – strangely free from the dark thoughts that had plagued her in New York, encouraged by kind comments from strangers – she wrote the first draft of her long suffering novel. And people continued to read what she wrote about Japan. And people continued to say kind things. She thought: Maybe I can. Then she realized that she had somehow saved a heck of a lot of money – living as though she were still broke in New York, but earning an ESL teacher’s salary in Osaka where rents were a quarter of what she’d paid back home. With money in her pocket for the first time in her adult life, she decided to apply to get her Master’s in Creative Writing. She never thought she’d get in. She thought: I’ll just see. And then she got in – to the Master’s of Philosophy programme at Trinity College Dublin.
She moved to Ireland. She visited 900 year-old pubs, watched the swans in St. Stephen’s Green, parsed Hiberno-English, rode blue double-decker buses, and ate her weight in potatoes. She wrote the second draft of her novel. She had a short story published in a creative writing anthology. She wrote about Ireland and people read that. Then she started to get paid for writing about her travels. She thought: I am almost doing this. Almost. Almost.
The Master’s Course is nearly over and her novel isn’t done. Her grandparents, the Moscatellis, passed away years ago and left the 1st floor apartment in the Terracina beach house to her mother – the girl. It is the apartment where her father – the boy – lived with his tremendous Roman grandmother forty years ago. It has been collecting dust, fallen into disrepair in the years since the boy and the girl met and fell in love. As such, it has been difficult to rent due to its poor condition and impossible to sell.
The daughter isn’t ready to go home to New York yet. The daughter wants to focus on starting a career in travel writing and finish her novel. She wants to perfect her Italian, get to know her relatives, walk through Roman temples, and eat her weight in risotto. She may live in the unsellable apartment. She will help restore it to the point where it can finally be sold. Until that happens, she will have a place to write. She will stay until her novel is done.
So that’s Terracina, Italia.
And that’s what I’m doing here.