When I was in college I spent a semester abroad studying Italian Art, Architecture, Language and Literature in Roma, Italia. It was a very powerful period in my life. I had been studying Sociology in school and was intrigued by paradigms, cultural relativism, and Gestalt figure/ground perspectives. I was an open-minded person with a sense that I would or could do anything and had a naive belief that I could effect a positive change in the world. I was young and enthusiastic. My experience in Italy was painful, transformative, joyous, strengthening, and enlightening. It was an adventure.
I had not planned to go to Italy. My boyfriend, who was an art major, was going and I thought “oh I should go too”; I didn’t realize that he had wanted to go without me so he could experience the world unencumbered. In retrospect it would have been more useful to ask him what his plans were before inviting myself along. This discovery was painful – finding him happily courting a tall woman from Oklahoma – I mention her height because it was the thing that was so irritating about her to me being a small petite girl – she was like an amazon woman stealing my boyfriend away from me. He was, of course a complicit and willing partner – no stealing – I was the only one who was unaware of the situation.
I was stunned. Alone in a foreign country and so sad. He and I had been the best of friends for a longtime and I wasn’t sure of exactly how to proceed.
For the days that followed my discovery I was on auto-pilot, disconnected, unfocused, just putting one foot in front of the next. Then after a while I began to re-focus on the beautiful amazing country that surrounded me. I started to identify what I wanted to do, see, accomplish and experience. In this re-evaluation I discovered myself.
There was a lovely young man in our group from England he was polite, handsome, kind, and ever so smart. I liked him and he seemed to like me. He was good friends with a young man who was very involved with Roman politics. It was exciting to hang out with them and learn about how young people in Rome spent their days. Quite different from my own experience they were VERY involved in politics, very early. Paolo, my handsome friend’s friend, had lost his best friend to a bomb due to political issues two years before when he was a teenager. He had strong opinions and sound arguments to back them up. It was so exciting to be in their company and begin to develop my beliefs about politics, my country, and theirs.
My handsome young man whose care I had fallen into was even more intriguing. He had gone to school in England but his family was Persian. He was one of the kindest and most gentle men I had ever known but he had dealt with great tragedy and difficult situations. We came to be very close and he showed me a fascinating world that I could never have imagined. His gentle eyes had both a sadness and a playfulness in them and I felt the safest I had ever felt with anyone when I was with him.
In the middle of our time together we went to Austria. It was beautiful and magical. I saw Freud’s house and we played together. It was like a fairytale. But the purpose of our trip there was far from the magic and fantasy of Disney. He needed to get a visa to come to America. He had gone before and followed the stealthy steps outlined by whomever was assisting him to do so, and he had lost money, and he had been denied. Half of his family resided in Iran and half was in America. There was still a great deal of wariness about young Iranian men coming to the states and so he had to go through this secret process not knowing the outcome and risking treachery from outside.
He was successful and this was a celebration that he would be able to join his siblings in the states.
We had a blissful time together in Rome through the rest of our time in school. After, on my way back to the states I joined him briefly in London and then we separated. I returned to my home and he to a new home in San Francisco. I visited him once later for a brief time when I went out to a college friend’s wedding, and then we lost track of each other.
He once said to me, while we were still in Italy, that his father would never have approved of him seeing me because I was American. His father was no longer alive and his mother was still in Iran. I never thought about how my parents would have responded; they seemed to be open-minded and accepting. But I was aware that to me he was not his country or his culture but rather an individual person with whom I was in love. I had not considered the problems between our countries until he made this comment.
Both these men, the boyfriend with whom I went to Italy, and the boyfriend I met in Italy, had perceived their time in Italy as a time to experience being with someone not accepted in their real or home world. They each had seen it as a break from the cultural and normative expectations to experience more fully a deeper self that they would not take with them except in their memories; and that however their experience may have changed them it must be left in Italy.
I had been so naive that I didn’t understand any of that and yet my experiences with each of them left indelible marks on my sense of self and my character.
I have studied sociology all my life and I would say that I view the world through a sociological lens and yet even with that I experience each person individually. Sociology takes the position that one’s self is completely bound up by one’s culture and that self and mind are really just an introjection of the society or culture within which you live; but my experience is that individuals interact with their culture in innovative and unique ways to develop intricately specific and personal selves. That one can see the culture and beliefs within another’s personality and characteristics but that self, and character are profoundly personal.
My dear beloved boyfriend with whom I traveled to Italy said to me upon our return that although he abandoned me for this exciting opportunity to be with that tall girl he ultimately had a depressing and uneventful experience because she went on to another boy and he was left without either her or me. And I, in my action to respond to his abandonment, had a true adventure. Sadly, for him this was true. Joyfully for me, he was right.
And perspective is everything.
I think of my dear boyfriend that I met in Italy, living in America, and I wonder how well he is thriving. I wonder if his family still in Iran is faring well through the strife in his country, and I pray that he and those individuals like him will be able to develop a country that better speaks to their needs.
See you tomorrow.