Tuesday, February 14, 2012

For Valentine’s Day, a tale of lust at first sight

Blogs are self-indulgent little vehicles and today, I apologize for being even more self-indulgent and long-winded than usual. In honor of Valentine’s Day, I am sharing the story of my first date with Paolo.

Dreamy Orvieto after a summer rain
On July 4, 2008, I was a little more than mid-way through my two-month sojourn in Orvieto. The purpose of my trip was to see if I’d be happy living in Italy, and if so, how I could financially and logistically pull off such a move.
But I set aside those life-changing questions when my friend Barbara came from New York City to visit, and we decided to host a July 4th party. If anyone remembers “The Mary Tyler Show,” from the 70s, you might remember how Mary would always throw lavish parties, and Sue Ann and Lou were the only ones to show up. Having thrown a Mary Tyler Moore Party or ten in my day, I put the word out to all within earshot that they should come. When my landlady’s daughter, Stefania, sent me a text asking if she could bring some friends, I replied with an enthusiastic “Si!”

The party got on well enough, and in typical Italian fashion, the young people showed up late, around 9:30 or 10. Stefania came with three friends, amongst them a tall bearded fellow with Bono glasses and a ready smile. He came toting bottles of his homemade wine, and that was enough to make me swoon. “Well, that one’s too young and cute and cocky for me,” I thought in the space of about 10 seconds. “But still, he makes his own wine…”

And besides, I had a little problem. His name was Giovanni. He was my neighbor and for the past 10 days or so, I’d been involved in a very PG rated dalliance with him, which mostly involved making out on my couch. On paper, he was perfect for me. 48. A journalist in Rome. Liberal. Educated. Tortured and brooding, just the way I like ‘em. In reality, I was bored with the brooding and intensity, and I had gotten myself into something that I didn’t know how to get out of gracefully. I realized this even more when he asked me to meet his father, from whom he was semi-estranged. What was a harmless summer fling for me was much more serious for him, and he had become very attached to me, like a too-tight sweater that you try on in the dressing room, and then struggle and panic and sweat when it gets stuck on your head as you try to take it off. It should fit perfectly, but instead it suffocates you. With apologies, that was Giovanni.

So Giovanni, unhappy soul that he was, scowled as Paolo and his friends laughed it up and flirted with Barb and me. Or maybe he was scowling because I flirted back. At any rate, when Stefania asked the next weekend if I wanted to join her crew for dinner at a friend’s, I didn’t invite Giovanni.

The dinner was outside at a farmhouse in the hills above Orvieto. I hung close to Paolo and his pal Alessandro, who spoke English well and was a patient translator. When Stefania had a moment alone with me, she asked me what my intentions were with Giovanni. “I like Paolo,” I said, “but it’s not serious for me.” “You like Paolo?” she responded at the same moment I realized my Freudian slip. “I mean, I like Giovanni!” I tried to cover my tracks, but the cat was out of the bag. “You like Paolo!” she exclaimed.

That’s when things started to get weird. “But he is enamored of you, and very disappointed that you haven’t been speaking to him tonight!” she revealed. (Odd that he would tell her that, as I’d been practically glued to his side all night, much like that too tight sweater I complained about earlier.)

My conversation with Stefania was taking place in a pathetic mix of Italian and English, as each of us knew just a few words of the other’s language. So we called on a bilingual dinner guest, Cristina, to help us. Stefania had by this point run off to tell Paolo that I liked him, and I was transported back to the 4th grade. I was surprised she didn’t ask me to write a note wherein he had to check a “yes” or “no” box as to whether he liked me back.

Paolo the night before our date. Note the
"Let me take you to Tuscany for a pizza
and then we'll have sex" gaze.
She trotted back minutes later. “Tomorrow night he will take you to Tuscany for a pizza, and then you will have sex with him.” She said this in English, so I knew I’d heard her right. “Maybe this is the custom in Italy?” I thought to myself. Could I say “yes” to the pizza in Tuscany (after all, no one had ever taken me to Tuscany for a pizza before), but just “maybe” to the sex? I looked to Cristina, who explained to Stefania that whether or not to have sex with Paolo was not something I was comfortable deciding in advance. “Why not?” replied Stefania. “He is sexy Italian boy. You like him.” That part was hard to argue with.

I told Cristina to tell Stefania to tell Paolo (4th grade! 4th grade!) that I agreed to the pizza only. Stefania again scurried off and returned with an update. “You will go to Tuscany for a pizza and then you will have sex with him, and then you will spend your last two weeks at his house.” I looked helplessly at Cristina, and asked if it was normal for Italians to make these agreements up front. “I think you should do what is in your heart,” was her reply. Not very helpful, that Cristina.

At the end of the dinner, Paolo came up and draped an arm around my shoulder and said, “We’ll go to Tuscany for a pizza tomorrow evening,” he said in Italian. Fortunately there was no mention of obligatory sex afterwards.

Giovanni came over around 10 am the next morning, the day before we were supposed to go visit his father. I told him I was having dinner that night with another man. He brooded. He protested. Then he cried and said it was his fault. I breathed an audible sigh of relief when he finally left my apartment an hour later.

It was now nearly midday and I hadn’t heard from Paolo to confirm our date. In a pre-emptive strike, I texted him and told him it was OK if we didn’t go. He texted right back and said he would pick me up at 8. I texted him back (4th grade! 4th grade!) to tell him to meet me at a bar in the center of Orvieto. With Giovanni living close by, it seemed cruel for him to see that jolly fellow he so disliked come pick me up for dinner.

Likewise, I didn’t want Giovanni to see me all dolled up for my date, and I had put some extra effort into my appearance that evening. So instead of taking the short, flat route to the center of town, which would have taken me right past Giovanni’s terrace where he always sat, brooding and smoking a cigarillo, I headed downhill, then uphill, then uphill some more, in heels, on cobblestones. The absurdity of the detour seemed fitting for the absurdity of the moment—sneaking around one suitor to meet another who, as far as I knew, was planning to drive me to Tuscany (just how far away was Tuscany, anyway?), buy me a pizza and then have sex with me.

San Casciano dei Bagni, site of our first date. Yeah, I bet you'd
have had sex with him too.
Paolo arrived at the bar with that “Let me take you to Tuscany for a pizza and then let’s have sex” look on his face, and off we went  to San Casciano dei Bagni, a dazzlingly romantic, castled hill town, this one just past the Umbrian border in Tuscany. It should have occurred to me when we had to pass Paolo’s house in Allerona to get to the restaurant that the guy might have had a trick or two up his sleeve, but I was too busy looking up words in my Italian/English dictionary.

At dinner, we passed the dictionary back and forth, and I managed to explain that I thought it was a little strange that Stefania insisted that I have sex with him. To my relief, he seemed relieved too, and revealed that all he’d said to her was that he’d like to take me to Tuscany for a pizza, but she told him that I wanted to have sex with him and spend my last two weeks in Italy at his place.

I realized later that even with the language barrier, Paolo and I probably talked more that night than Giovanni and I had in two weeks.  We laughed and flirted and looked up words we could insult each other with. At one point, he pulled that quintessential Italian guy move, and stroked my cheek with the back of his fingers. Schwing!

Discretion dictates that I stop my tale here, but suffice to say, Stefania’s voyeuristic plan for Paolo and me more or less played out just as she’d called it. We spent the last two weeks of my trip together, mostly at his house in Allerona. He drove me to the Rome airport at the crack of dawn. I tearfully kissed him goodbye at the security checkpoint, and when I turned back to look, he was still looking at me. I turned a second time to see him exit the airport with a heavy sigh, shoulders slumped. I didn’t know if I’d ever see the guy again, but at least he seemed disappointed to see me go.
In Allerona, near the end of my visit

Then an email was answered, and then another, and then we both bought webcams and got Skype, and then he offered to pay for my plane ticket to come back and visit just two months after I’d left. And that pizza in Tuscany is still the best I’ve ever had.