“Mediterranean Beauty” was amongst the inane nicknames given to me by my family while I was growing up. It sounds like something you call a horse, not a child. It was meant to be complimentary and affectionate nonetheless. But I was never good at receiving compliments. So I let the words slide over my epidermis with the prickle of mockery, never allowing the praise to penetrate and plump my olive skin.
Family, strangers, acquaintances, and lovers alike continued to allude to my “Mediterranean”, and more specifically, “Italian” look as years passed. Maybe it was my long, glossy hair or big, dark eyes or my penchant for wearing scarves.
Or, maybe it was something less tangible, less easily defined. Like the green-hued reflection of my face in the window of the last train leaving the glitter and gold of Florence on a Saturday night, bound for the next-to-nameless towns of the Arno river valley – stations for which the train barely came to a full stop.
The world of tourism goes speeding by those forlorn little towns alongside the train tracks. But, I’ve stopped, stepping down as the doors opened, dragging my suitcase onto the concrete platform. I’ve learned to sleep in these towns as the trains echo and rattle the windows through the night. I imagine those tourist-sun-tanned-faces peering out the smudged windows of the train as it rolls by, catching sight of my life meters from the iron thoroughfare and considering that place, perhaps with a fleeting, undue pity.
A woman sat across the aisle from me. She opened a bag of cookies for her daughter, catching my gaze, she sweetly offered one to me. Even repeating the offer when I didn’t quite catch it the first time. I hadn’t expected her to be speaking to me. It was one of those oversized bags bought at a discount grocery store.
Her youngest daughter sat next to her, quietly concerned with something on the mobile telephone clutched in her tiny hands, fingers tipped with chipped orange polish. When I declined the cookie, the mother smiled and handed the bag to her youngest, allowing her free reign of her consumption. She dipped her tiny hand into the bag intermittently, in between her occasional glances up to her mother, with her big doe eyes behind tiny, pink child’s glasses. Her eyes pleading while she said nothing, just waving her hand in front of her face indicating the stifling conditions of the train car in the mid-August Tuscan heat. Her mother acknowledged her complaint with a single nod of her head, while she returned her attention back to the bag of cookies and phone screen.
Her eyes were a brilliant green and her smooth skin was the color of espresso that you had accidentally poured too much milk into. The way you might prepare that first taste of the bitter beverage for someone that young, that innocent.
Her older sister sat across from her, maybe twice her age. She lived in that middle ground between the innocence of her sister and the too-soon decline of her still-young mother. Her hair pulled back tightly at the top of her head; her frizzy, bleached curls hung static from the elastic. She had that unintentional ombré to her locks as if her mother had let her bleach her hair for her 14th birthday, but hadn’t intended to pay for the upkeep of the look. Her eyes wore a weariness about them, as if she already knew the sadness that awaited her meager life. She sipped water from a plastic cup, filled from a bottle, as Italians are wont to do, and the corners of her mouth turned down even as she drank. She drank in life with a frown, bracing herself for the possibility of a life of boredom.
On the Saturday night last train from Florence, I watch a sagging pair of jeans and red sweatshirt twitch and jerk in the arrhythmic dance of teenage testosterone. Strutting in the aisle, he pulls his hood back to reveal his trendy, thick-rimmed glasses and puckered lips, which he swiftly lays on the upturned face of his seated female counterpart, opening his lips to enclose hers within his, showing her the rhythm he knows.
I watch his lips sliding over hers and bite into a juicy apple. Biting deep, I feel a seed from the core dislodge and tumble into my scarf, comforted by the fact that no one but me will find it.
In Italy where it seems everyone is on a honeymoon, I think about the relative discomfort of the thought of a physical being of another human body. How over breakfast, two sets of eyes can dart in all directions except for the direction that would catch the eyes of their partner, their union sealed by telling bands of gold. I think of the way I watched the hours of a train tick by as I observed a handsome, bespectacled, bearded young man fix the handle on his suitcase with superglue and resourcefulness. When he had finished, his grateful, lithe-legged, panty-hosed, pretty companion climbed into his lap like a cat, curling up to stay.
On the train from Monterosso to Santa Maria Ligure, a white haired Italian man sat across from what I assumed was his wife. Neither wore rings on the typical finger, but they interacted with marital familiarity. He lovingly reached over across the expanse between their opposite seats in order to touch her necklace and bracelets, examining each tassel and bead with delicate interest.
The station clocks were all 26 minutes behind. They were clocks with faces and hands, anthropomorphized objects from a time gone by. It didn’t surprise me that they remained. In a place of trains, whose golden era had long since passed. Where bright red poppies bloomed victoriously between iron tracks. In a village that continued to live in the glory days of the times when man was the measure of all things. No, it didn’t surprise me that they would continue to have clocks with faces and hands or that they were 26 minutes slow. They would have wound them back centuries if they could have.