Alexandra is sightseeing through Italy, in places I have never seen or learned of. Today she is climbing a mountain in the — region and carrying a first aid kit on her back in case of altitude sickness. She stops to lunch on packed sandwiches and cashew nuts in the crevice of a cave which was used to shelter refugees of a seventeenth century war. She is dwelling in a family member’s apartment above a garage in the — quarter. The hallways follow short, obscurely asymmetrical paths and the rooms jut off in small rectangular compartments with oily walls and creaking wooden floors. The washing machine peaks out from behind the toilet, and the garments and towels hang on the terrace to dry. The narrow cobble street harbors little activity but a handful of blocks to the west Alexandra enjoys the town center where cafés, shops, bistros, bookstores, and gardens meet on a corner, an avenue, and cul de sac. Dogs follow ahead of their masters without leashes and parents smoke on benches while their children push and pull each other in collared dusty school uniforms. A slide and tree house house their kingly pageants and battle games. In the mornings Alexandra and her relatives munch on two or three cheese pastries and dab the corners of their lips with thick cloths, then Alexandra ventures out with them or with a tour group. She carries notebooks, disposable cameras, and a ukulele in her knapsack and makes it a matter of course not to plan out her whole day. She crinkles her lips in subdued laughter when the waiters winkingly pronounce her English name with a hopeful but futile accent. Last weekend she spent a day ailing from something she ate or drank, but she did not vow to dine more selectively. Some nights she joins her Italian cousin in exploring the bars at the town center, where, on the autumn weekends, an outdoor farmers’ market and dance festival emerges within the borders of shrub trees and apartment houses. When they are not spending the workless days on long train rides to other regions and countries Alexandra and her cousin visit the celebration and talk about the boys and girls that they see. The tall boys slide their hands along the sides of the girls, who flex their wrists and throw back their heads to laugh. The fruit sellers call out their prices, which vary according to the crowd’s density and clock’s state. The thickly green shrub trees woo and pooh-pooh passers-by as the winding breeze cycles through the crowd, relieving their sweat, flaring their eyelashes, and punctuating their mirth noises. One weekend Alexandra and her cousin visit a small city in southern Switzerland, where they meet with a friend of a friend of Alexandra’s cousin, who, as soon as they disembark from the six-hour train ride, vows to show them a quality evening. They want to change clothes and to wash their faces but the Swiss friend of the friend pushes them to board the next train immediately if they wanted to visit the all-you-can-eat-and-drink karaoke restaurant. The train leads them through unpaved one-way roads to a misty neighborhood composed of unmarked buildings, locked garages, and illicit stores. After five flights of stairs they reach the heavy gray door that leads into the smoky square room with one long table and such a mass of people that they must haltingly squeeze their way to find seats and hold in their pee in order to keep them. Alexandra and her cousin are hoping for a hardy meal after languishing the day away on the train and sustaining themselves with convenience stores but this dinner consists of vegetables fried in reused oil, potato skins cut as thin as paper, and spaghetti mixed in ketchup. There is no karaoke, but a looming violin phases in and out of earshot while members of a party at the opposite end of the table scream at each other in an indiscernible nasal language, banging the table with their fists in rage or glee. The drinks are unmarked in size and in content and Alexandra avoids them but her cousin feels woozy and arid from the smoke and the noise so she takes in a decanter of blood red liquid. The Swiss friend seems to have invited several friends and they drink from pitchers and rant continuously and simultaneously in a foreign language, pointing at each other and blinking. When Alexandra tries to remind the Swiss friend that the last train back to the small city leaves midnight the friend reels her head from side to side and giggles an incoherent insult. Alexandra drags her cousin, who is spinning on her heels and collapsing on the pavement, to the station, but there is a delay because someone has thrown his or herself in front of a train to commit suicide. In order to maintain its place on the last train out of the town the mounting crowd accumulates in the limited cars and stands for hours clumped together, vomiting, peeing, and sleeping. Alexandra’s cousin stumbles and snaps her jaw repeatedly at the police lights. They arrive in their hotel as the sun rises and return to Italy the next day.
“I would have the shrimp cocktail, and then the pulled pork sandwich.”
Alexandra’s brother orders his lunch then opens his hands to me. I order a meal.
“Anyway,” he says, “she’s having an interesting trip. And she says her Italian is improving big-time.”
He blows his nose into a handkerchief in three short pops and clears his throat. He starts to tell me what he has seen in Europe, what he has heard, and what he thinks about what other people think. When the food arrives he rubs his hands and douses it with condiments. He asks me questions with a chewing mouth. Every now and then the sun flares through the half-closed wood-colored blinds and throbs a membrane of light around his shadowed head. The mix of the light and the sight of the clear sky through the blinds injects into my head the sense of a Floridian mid-afternoon rest in an atmosphere of postponed appointments, palm trees, flat streets, and lime-scented soaps. My phone buzzes and I glimpse at the title bar. It is a message from Alexandra, with a picture of her smiling with her thumb up in front of the ancient – building.
‘Ciao from Florence’
I examine the mailing list. She has sent the message to twelve other friends as well.