The moon is already out and full on a late summer evening in Terni, Italy. We are on our way, by bus, to see a Russian ballet company perform Swan Lake in an ancient, open-air amphitheater down town. The light is that golden, hazy color that gives everything a magical, surreal glow. The day has begun transitioning and the marvelous glow is already edged by twilight. I press my face and hands to the windows. I want to breathe it in and keep it with me for as long as possible.
The sense of excitement we all feel is palpable on the bus with everyone pointing out the windows and commenting on some aspect of this new experience. Due to the performance, the downtown traffic is thick with cars. Pedestrians are weaving their way towards the front gates, holding hands, laughing and embracing one another. The Italian women are gorgeous in their seriously high heels and form fitting eveningwear. The men are decked out in similarly grand fashion. In Italy, creating a bella figura is a cultural given. You can wear what you want in your home but when you go out, you make a beautiful figure, dressed to impress, looking sharp for yourself as much as for your fellow citizens.
I have come to Italy to attend an art school in Umbria. I don’t consider myself an artist – far from it- but after leaving an intense corporate job have taken a sort of sabbatical to try to rest, recover and figure out the future. This school, La Romita, is for people at all skill levels. The teachers are from my hometown so I am comfortable that I won’t further embarrass myself as a rank beginner with instructors I haven’t met. Plus it’s an adventure. Every day we are bussed to a new little town. One can sit and paint plein air style or, as I opted to do with my friend John, explore the village by foot and take photos to paint from later. We return to the school in the afternoons for studio time in the old chapel that now serves as an art room. At night we eat family style, drink table wine by the liter, rehash the day and watch short videos about the next day’s sights.
This trip to the ballet was not on the original schedule but we are able to take advantage of a free night. Our driver, the very sweet and sexy Luciano, has had the ladies swooning for the past week and when he parks the bus, stands attentively at the door to help each of us to descend. Ever the observer, I like to sit in the back of the bus and so, am always the last to alight. As I step down onto the pavement, I am still holding Luciano’s hand when I teasingly ask him if he is coming with us. His English is not good and my Italian is non-existent but I think he understands what I have said.
Many, many cultural and gender stereotypes come crashing down at that moment, but I am blissfully unaware of them all until much later. I am assuming he, like many American men, are happier with a beer and a ball game than with the ballet. I am assuming that he is ready to dump the whole lot of us flirting, aging, giggling American women, roll his eyes and head to a quiet place to wait while the ballet takes place. I am assuming that in two seconds this goofy class clown will be on her way to catch up with the group, laughing pleasantly at a shared joke with a nice man and in the same general condition that I was when I took that last step off of the bus.
Instead, he hesitates a moment and looks at me until I make eye contact. He is still holding my hand. While my intent was to kid around lightheartedly, he has taken my invitation seriously and is touched. He explains that he can’t come with us, that he has to find a parking place and wait with the bus. He tells me how much he appreciates the thought. He takes my other hand, looks deeply into my eyes and thanks me again in his wonderfully accented English. And then, he leans forward, undoubtedly to buss my cheek but I move awkwardly and somehow the kiss lands just south of my jaw on the pulse point of my neck.
I’m still not sure why everything changed in that moment. Perhaps my senses were already heightened by the exploration of a new culture. Maybe it had something to do with re-learning how to “see” as I was surrounded by so many incredible artists and works of art. Whatever the trigger, there was an overwhelming aura of clarity and sensory awareness. Life had been so insulating in its comforting sameness for so many years. The curtain had parted. I didn’t know I was sleeping until I was fully, passionately, shockingly, wide-awake. Life began again.