City of Dreams

When I was in middle school, I read The Thief Lord by Cornelia Funke. It was about a group of runaway children living in Venice. It was so beautiful, so magical, so vivid, that I read it again and again. It is one of the most concrete things I can use to account for my obsession with all things Italian—that and growing up hearing stories of Italy from my mother’s family. The first complete sentence I remember speaking in Italian on my own—not part of an exercise or group activity—was “Io voglio andare in Italia” (“I want to go to Italy”), followed closely by “Io voglio andare a Venezia” (prepositions in Italian are hard, guys). This was my dream. In high school, I wrote a short story set in Venice that later became a chapter of my honors thesis novel. There wasn’t enough time to go when I studied abroad in Torino three years ago, so this year in Italy, I was going. I had nine months in Italy, so I was going. And Italy might have been rough, but I’d been dreaming of going to Venice for half my life, and nothing was going to stop me. I. Was. Going.

 

But here’s the thing. Italy was my dream too, and for a whole lot of reasons, it didn’t go as planned. So what if Venice wasn’t everything I’d dreamed? What if it wasn’t magical at all? What if it was so crowded with tourists we couldn’t move? What if—and here’s where it started to get irrational—what if a car snuck in and managed to run me over even there? You get the point. When I stepped out of the train station with Mopsy and my mom, I was painfully excited, and at the same time, terrified that it would not be real, that this last dream that I had clung to all year would fall apart in my hands.

 

But it didn’t. Because from the moment we stepped out of the train station, it was magical. The light glittered off the Grand Canal. The gondolieri sang as they rowed. The breeze was cool and smelled of salt and fresh fish. There were no cars attempting to run me over (this was a big deal to me), and I didn’t even fall into a canal.

 

Yes, there were a ton of tourists, especially around the Rialto Bridge and the Piazza San Marco, but it’s Venice, and I actually found that the Italians were more friendly to me speaking Italian than they were in Rome and Florence. In Rome and Florence, they would continue speaking English, despite me repeatedly speaking in Italian. In Venice, they almost all exclaimed, “You speak Italian so well!” and then switched to Italian themselves. I also had absolutely no trouble bringing Mopsy in anywhere, which I think is a first. In fact, people were always really helpful, bringing Mopsy bowls of cool water without me even asking (it was 90 degrees every day).

 

Despite the heat, we stayed outside mostly, avoiding the big indoor tourist attractions, walking around and experiencing the city. We took a private tour, where we learned all about the history of Venice—how it was built in the sixth century when the people on the Italian mainland fled invading barbarians, how they later cut down the forests on the mainland and sank the trunks in the lagoon to support the city, how Venice is really an archipelago of something like a hundred fifty islands. Our guide took us to the parts of Venice where the real people lived, and we sampled traditional Venetian snacks—called cicchetti—with the traditional Venetian drink, the aperol spritz. In particular, she showed us all around the old Jewish ghetto, which I was really interested in because of my research into World War II in Italy my senior year of college. Not only did she tell us all about the history of the quarter and the city at large, but the tour also really helped to orient us in the city, which is something we desperately needed, what with all the canals and rios and campos and piazzas and alleyways so narrow your shoulders brushed the sides. They say getting lost in Venice is to be expected, and even part of the romance of the city, but it’s one thing to get lost in the light of day when you’re wandering towards something and don’t mind experiencing the city like that, but quite another to get lost at night, when you’re tired after a long day of travel, and just want to find your way back to the hotel, which is what happened to us our first night. So finding our “tiggerings and bearings” in the city with the tour guide was really helpful, and made us much more confident finding our way around the rest of the time.

 

The main city of Venice is divided into six sections, called sestieri, and we walked around all of them, through the tiny alleyways, across the narrow rios, up and over bridges, along the fondamentas beside the water. We ate gelato and listened to music in the Piazza San Marco. We took the vaporetto out to the islands and explored Murano and Burano. We did it all, and Venice is definitely on my list of places I want to come back to when I return to Italy.

 

Notice I didn’t say “if I return to Italy.”

 

Because even though this year has been rough at times, I have grown and changed so much, and I have met some truly amazing people and done some truly amazing things. And one day, I will come back. Because if I learned one thing from going to Venice, it’s that even if some dreams change and some don’t work out the way you wanted, some come true.

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“I See!” Said the Blind Man

I’ve talked a lot about the struggles I’ve had here in Italy because I am blind, but now I want to talk about something really wonderful I discovered, something that I have never experienced before, not even in America.

 

There was no school last Tuesday because of the holiday for the founding of the Italian republic, so my mother and I went to Ancona to meet my Italian professor from Kenyon. Professor Dubrovic took us to the Museo Omero—an art museum for the blind.

 

Here’s the thing: I rate art museums below bookstores on things that are useful for me. At least in bookstores, I’m interested in the stuff I can’t see. In art museums, I have virtually no concept of what is interesting about anything. There’s a painting. So what? And why is everyone making such a big deal over a sculpture of a naked guy? Sometimes, if I can get close enough to paintings, I can see the colors, but in Italy, where the art museums are packed with people and you’re being herded from one exhibit to the next, I couldn’t take the time to try to see anything. And even with people describing the paintings to me, there’s only so long I can stand there before I’m bored out of my mind. So, yes, I’ve been to the Vatican and the Uffizi and the Accademia in Florence and the Egyptian museum in Turin, but all I can really say about them is that I’ve been.

 

But this was different. The Museo Omero is an entirely tactile art museum, filled with models made from plaster casts of famous sculptures. It’s funded by the European Union, not by Italy, and it takes its name from Homer, who apart from writing the Odyssey and the Iliad, was also blind. When I was first applying for the Fulbright and planning my volunteer project to work with blind children and explore the differences between American and Italian society’s treatment of people who are blind, my Italian professor told me about this museum, and I knew if I was accepted to the Fulbright and came to Italy, I wanted to go see it. And I was accepted to the Fulbright, so here I was.

 

The museum was small, but the collection ranged from ancient Greek and Roman art, to Renaissance, Romantic, and Baroque art, to contemporary sculptures and modern art, and I could feel all of it. All of it!

 

I have never experienced anything like this, and I’m not sure how I can explain it. Suddenly, what everyone was looking at made sense to me, took on a whole new meaning, even. I never imagined there was so much movement, so much kinetic energy, so much life bound up in these statues.

 

For example, I just thought Michelangelo’s David was a naked guy standing there. I didn’t understand what the big deal was, unless it was that he was naked. But I had no idea that his left hand is cocked back over his shoulder, gripping a sling, and that there’s a stone clutched in his right hand. It made sense—he is, after all, the David from the story of David and Goliath—but I never really appreciated that until I felt the sling and the stone in his hands.

 

I had a similar experience, though not quite as drastic, with the Pieta. Feeling the Blessed Mother holding Jesus in her arms moved me. I could finally appreciate the complexity and intricacy of the statue. So that’s why it’s so famous.

 

There was more. Sculptures of people playing musical instruments, dancing, walking, gazing at their reflections in bowls of water—their reflections were sculpted too. I felt some of Michelangelo’s unfinished sculptures, and it was like the people were walking out of the stone, just like that idea that the statue already exists within the block of marble and the sculptor just has to chip away the excess. And, of course, we can’t forget the tactile representation of modern art—a pair of gloves, a towel, aluminum foil, a sponge, a brush, a cheese grater. I have no idea what the point was, beyond representing modern art in a tactile form. Perhaps something to do with common household items and what they mean. Whatever it is supposed to mean, it was certainly cool to feel.

 

We were the only people in the museum, so we could take our time exploring everything. Professor Dubrovic knew all about the history of the pieces, as well as the artists, and that made it even more special. We spent the rest of the day in Ancona with Professor Dubrovic, eating a delicious seafood lunch, visiting the cathedral, walking along the port and through the historic center, but for me, the Museo Omero was the highlight of the day. It was one of the most interesting things I have done in Italy—and I’ve done some really neat things—and it completely changed how I perceive visual art. It’s hard to describe, but something that I did not—could not—understand, even with the help of Jameyanne Feeling a model of Michelangelo's David, her hands on David's hands, feeling the sling iin his left hand and the stone in his rightdescriptions from friends and family, suddenly had real meaning for me. I saw.

The Next Adventure

One year ago today, I graduated from Kenyon College. My time at Kenyon was spectacular—four years of fascinating classes and amazing friends—and when it was all over, I went out into the real world, totally confident that I knew what I wanted to do with my life.

 

Or so I thought.

 

My plan: I was going to go to Italy and teach for a year, and I was going to love it, and then I was going to go to graduate school for a Masters in Fine Arts in creative writing, and then I was going to teach creative writing—hopefully as a college professor—and of course, write. I might, if I decided I wanted to, get a Ph.D in comparative literature. Sounds perfect, right?

 

So I graduated, submitted all of my applications to MFA programs, and went off to Italy. And it didn’t take me long to realize that I didn’t enjoy teaching. Sure, there were times when the lessons went great and everything was perfect, times when it felt like it clicked, but more often than not, I was battling exuberantly inattentive students or just plain bored . I have had some truly excellent teachers, and I have the utmost respect for them, and I really wanted to be like them. I tried to convince myself that things would get better. I’d just started teaching, after all. I was in a foreign country with students who didn’t speak English as their first language. I was working with high school students, and I’d always thought I would want to be a college professor. I was living far away from home, I wasn’t teaching the subject I thought I wanted to teach, and I was a teaching assistant, working with another teacher, instead of in my own classroom. But things didn’t improve, and by Christmas, I was positive that the problem wasn’t any of these things. The problem was I just didn’t want to be a teacher.

 

By this time, I’d also realized I didn’t want to be a full-time writer either. I’d always thought having the ability to write full-time would be the dream. I was only teaching in the mornings (school in Italy finishes at about 1:00 every day), and in the afternoons I was still too terrified of the crazy drivers to venture far from my apartment, so I spent all the time I wasn’t in school writing. It was as close to full-time writing as I’ve ever come. At first, it was great. I was so productive. But then it started to get a bit lonely, even for my inner introvert. And then, after I submitted all my revised short stories to the Dell Award, I was totally burnt out and didn’t know what to do with myself. I realized that, if all I’m doing is writing, I tend to write in giant bursts and then stop and not know what to do next and not have the energy to do anything even if I know what I want to do. But if I’m writing while doing something else, as I’ve been writing all my life while in school, I could write regularly and complete projects without burning out.

 

So, I didn’t want to teach. I didn’t want to write full-time (I still wanted to write, of course, just not full-time). Add to that the fact that being in Italy, which was my dream for years, was not what I’d expected, and I felt pretty awful. I didn’t know what I wanted to do with my life, and even if I figured that out, how could I trust myself that it was what I really wanted to do? Everything I had thought I wanted was a lie, after all.

 

I felt like this year was taking me apart, piece by piece, and putting me back together again all wrong. I felt like I would reach for something—an idea, a dream, a goal, my self-confidence or sense of humor—and it was not where I had left it.

 

I’m not one to wallow in confusion and misery—though it was very tempting this time. I would find something else I wanted to do, and I would try it, and if it didn’t work out, then I would try something else. Eventually I would figure it out. And I was starting to have another idea.

 

In November, I was invited to a dinner at the International Lions Club in Assisi. The Lions Club is an association promoting independence for the blind around the world. In Italy, they run a guide dog school, and they had heard that I was living independently in Assisi with a guide dog. At the dinner, I was very disturbed to learn that, due to financial constraints, their guide dog school could only match twenty to thirty blind people with dogs each year. The Seeing Eye, where I got Mopsy, matches at least two hundred guide dogs with blind handlers each year, and I know of at least five other guide dog schools in America. It is very expensive to train guide dogs, certainly. The Seeing Eye is funded by grants and donations, but as far as I could tell, the people at the dinner for this guide dog school were most interested in complaining about how hopeless the situation was. I understand I didn’t have a full picture of the situation, but to have a guide dog requires a certain level of independence on the part of the blind handler, so this was the first association I’d seen in Italy that was really promoting independence for the blind. And yet, when I cut up my own potatoes, my hosts broke into applause.

 

It was almost 2:00 in the morning when I got home that night, furious with the world, and while I was trying to calm down so I could get to sleep, I had the sudden thought, “You know, I could do something about this. I could work to make this sort of thing better.”

 

Since I stand by the fact that no idea at 2:00 in the morning is a good idea unless it still seems like a good idea in the light of day, I put that thought, and my frustration, to rest. But in the light of day, it did still seem like a good idea, and it kept growing. And after I was denied access to the Leaning Tower of Pisa with Mopsy—even though I called ahead to say I had a service dog and then presented my letter from the Fulbright Commission citing the Italian laws that allow service dogs access to all places open to the public without paying extra fees—I knew my idea was a good one.

 

It’s been a year since I left Kenyon, and it’s been a crazy year, filled with a whole lot of uncertainty and confusion and fear, but I know what I want to do, at least for now. It’s been a bumpy road, but I’m certain that every bump was important for getting me onto this path.

 

I have three more weeks of school here in Italy. Then I plan to visit Venice, Ancona, and other small towns around Umbria and Tuscany before I return to America. And I’ve decided that when I return to America, I will get a job and apply to law school so I can become a disabilities rights attorney. I have always had someone advocating for me—that’s how I got to where I am—and now that I’ve really had to advocate for myself, I’ve realized just how important it is. Plus, I like arguing. And I will always continue to write. I have some other projects planned as well. And I’ll see what happens. This feels right now, but you never know, and I’m okay with that. So I’m going to enjoy my last weeks in Italy, and then, let the next adventure begin.

Back to Basics

A few weeks ago, my two most advanced classes read my short story, “Naming Angelo,” which placed in this year’s Dell Award, and then we had a discussion about the story. The questions and the discussion were incredible. I was definitely able to see just how much they had grown in confidence in their English this year, and it was also really surreal to be asked questions about the choices I’d made for this story, as a writer. When one student asked, “Why did you choose to parallel your character’s struggle with personal identity with the struggle for Italian national identity during the risorgimento?” I was blown away. Not only was it a fabulous question, but I also had to think fast, because I hadn’t been thinking about any parallels between personal and national identity at all—when I first wrote the story, I was thinking, “This could be a cool time period to set this in,” and nothing more. We rounded off the class by me asking the students to share what they thought happened next after the fairly ambiguous ending of the story. If you ever need a lesson in how a story, once written, belongs to the readers, ask a bunch of seventeen-year-olds to tell you what happens next. Their responses ranged from martyrdom and bloody battles, to shameful victory and then unknowing marriage to the villain’s brother, to incest (I have no idea where that came from, but yikes!).

 

Anyway, after the students had read my story, I asked them if they would be interested in doing some creative writing lessons, and they were. they’ve been studying literature for their whole high school careers, and they had no background in creative writing at all aside from any they had done on their own, so they were very interested. This led to me teaching a series of lessons in the basics of creative writing.

 

In all honesty, after a year of teaching, I’m pretty sure I don’t want to be a teacher. I have had some incredible teachers, and I really admire them, but I’m coming to the conclusion that you have to be a certain kind of person to enjoy teaching, and even though I thought I was that kind of person, now I’m not so sure. I just don’t enjoy it as much as I thought I would, and there are other things I would like to do that I think I would be better at. But more on that later, because even though I’m pretty sure I don’t want to be a teacher, I will say that I’ve had a blast teaching these kids creative writing.

 

Since these students had never had formal creative writing lessons, we started with the basics. What is creative writing? Why do we write? What are the basic elements of a story? I then gave them prompts to choose from and had them outline and write a short (1 to 2 page) story for homework. The next week, first drafts in hand, I had the students pair up and read each other’s stories and give each other feedback. Then we discussed plot in more depth. What is plot? How can you outline a plot? What are some of the basic plot arcs? And so on. This time for homework, they had to map out their stories plot, and then they had to write several different beginnings to their story to see their options for where to start. Finally, using their new beginnings, their outlines, and their classmates’ feedback, they revised their story for the next lesson.

 

We did imilar exercises with character. First they read and gave feedback on their partner’s stories—different partners this time so they would get a variety of feedback. Then we talked about characters, agency, motivation, etc. We had a lot of fun coming up with examples of strong characters they enjoyed reading about. We even invented a few examples to demonstrate how motivation works. Why did the protagonist blackmail the driving instructor? The driving instructor was determined to fail the protagonist, so he wouldn’t be able to get his license and couldn’t drive his little brother to soccer practice. And if the protagonist’s brother couldn’t get to soccer practice, he would be bullied at school. And maybe the protagonist was bullied at school when he was younger, and he wanted to try to protect his brother. So why is the driving instructor determined to fail the protagonist? No, she can’t just be evil with no purpose. Maybe she’s going through a divorce and something about the protagonist’s attitude reminds her of her cheating husband? Maybe she has suspicions that he’s a supervillain and will use his license for evil? Coming up with these examples as a group and getting the students involved was tons of fun, but could get a little weird at times. They’re definitely a very creative bunch. After that lesson, they had to answer some questions about their protagonist and their antagonist, and then they had to pick a scene in their story and write it from the antagonist’s point of view to get into their head and understand their motivations. Then they had to revise.

 

Next we covered setting and all the cool things you can do with it. We talked a lot about how setting can—and in my opinion should—be as important as any character to the story. We talked about how setting isn’t just time and place, but it’s also weather and mood. We talked about how setting can reveal things about the characters involved. If a couple is having a heated argument in their home, it says something different than if they’re having a shouting match in the middle of a fine restaurant. And again, they revised their stories.

 

Tomorrow, for our final lesson, we’re going to talk about point of view. I should be planning that lesson now, actually, instead of writing this post, but I’ve been thinking a lot about how I’ve had to go back to the very basics of creative writing—back to things I learned in elementary and middle school. These are skills that are so ingrained in me that they’re second nature, and it was often very difficult to explain them. But in explaining them, I also gave myself a refresher course on the basics, which can never hurt, and was actually quite fun. I also wanted to make it hands on, so that what I was talking about was put into practice with their own stories, and so I had them work on the same stories all the way through all the lessons, revising first plot, then character, then setting. They have critiqued each other’s stories each lesson, always working with a new partner, and we have talked extensively about how to give and take criticism. Working with the same story like this isn’t a system I have encountered in any of the creative writing classes I’ve taken, but I think it’s worked out well for these students. After we talk about point of view, they will revise one more time, and then turn in their final drafts. So, while I’m not sure I enjoy teaching on the whole, and I’m not sure it’s what I want to do for a career, I have really enjoyed teaching creative writing to these students, and I can’t wait to read their final stories.

Writing for Kids

For the past several weeks, I’ve been working on a short story for this contest. Stories have to be for a middle grade audience, so ages eight to twelve, and a friend who was also working on a story for this contest asked me for some advice on how to write for kids, since I do it so well. My first response was “I don’t know. I just do.” It’s when I try to write for adults that I flail like a fish out of water. Trust me, it never goes well.

 

But then I started seriously thinking about it. I’ve already said I prefer to read young adult and middle grade books over adult books, so I’m more well-read in that category, which I think is the first step to writing anything. But what else do I take into account when I’m writing for kids? I’m not a kid anymore—I’m still working on that adult thing, but I’m certainly not eight years old anymore—and while I can remember some things from being eight years old, those memories are colored by other experiences. So, okay, I write for kids pretty naturally, but I still wasn’t sure exactly how I do it.

 

 

So, to answer my friend’s question and to satisfy my own curiosity—this is something I should know about myself, right?—I reread some of my favorite middle grade books and some new ones too. It couldn’t hurt my own writing, particularly for this contest, to think about it. I thought about not only why I enjoyed these books but what the writers did when they were writing them. And I came up with several constants.

 

First of all, kids aren’t dumb just because they’re kids. In fact, children can be quite intelligent and perceptive, but they’re logic isn’t always the same as an adult’s, and it’s totally possible that they will come to the wrong conclusion about something, which is, of course, excellent plot fodder.

 

So kids aren’t dumb or inherently more simple than adults, and the best middle grade and young adult stories I’ve read take this into account. Things are not overly simplistic. In fact, often they’re quite complicated, with multiple problems the character needs to face and no clear solutions. And just like the stories, the characters can’t be simple either. Kids are complicated, filled with all sorts of emotions and desires. And kids can be mean too, or make bad decisions, sometimes because of peer pressure, other times not. Again, excellent plot fodder.

 

For example, let’s look at Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, one of my favorite books in the series. Harry is thirteen years old, and this is the last book in the series intended for a middle grade audience. In the beginning, Harry loses his temper with Aunt Marge and runs away, convinced that he is going to be arrested for his illegal use of magic and will now have to live as an outlaw. He has a good reason to believe this might be the case, but it’s still not the best decision he could have made given the circumstances. Then, there are all the different plot lines: Sirius Black is coming after Harry and is connected with the murder of Harry’s parents, Harry is struggling to fend off the dementors, Professor Trelawney is constantly predicting Harry’s death, Malfoy is trying to get Hagrid fired and Buckbeak executed, Harry is desperate to beat Malfoy for the Quidditch Cup, Crookshanks keeps trying to eat Scabbers, Hermione has a secret, Lupin keeps getting ill… I could keep going. And all of these plots come together seamlessly in the climax. And that’s not to mention all the tension and emotion tied up in all this. And this is a book for middle schoolers!

 

Prisoner of Azkaban is fun to read. And so when I’m writing fiction for kids, the most important thing is that I’m having fun, that there’s this sense of elation and hope that pushes the story forward—especially when the story is tense or sad, especially when the characters struggle and fail and struggle some more. This is what I love about writing for kids, that there are complexities and bad decisions and struggles, but there is always hope.

Easter in Italy

I’m running late on this again, but since I haven’t touched my Easter candy yet, I figure I’m all right. And apparently people are still celebrating Easter here today—like the twelve days of Christmas, there’s a whole week of Easter—so maybe I’m not late at all.

 

So, for the first time ever, I had time off at Easter. In America, we have school vacations at the end of February and April or in March, but almost never around Easter weekend. But here in Italy, I had Holy Thursday, Good Friday, Easter Monday, and then Tuesday off as well for good measure. And according to the other teachers, this was a short break.

 

My mother came to visit, and we took the time to travel to southern Italy. I’ve never been south of Rome, so it was a brand new experience for me. We went on a whim, too. One of the other Fulbright English Teaching Assistants recommended visiting Matera if we had the time, and since history and geology and culture really interest me and Matera has all three—it’s the oldest continuously inhabited city in the world, with history all the way back to the paleolithic—we decided to go.

 

We traveled from Assisi to Bari, where we originally planned to spend one night and then go on to Matera in the morning. But when we arrived in Bari and saw the Adriatic Sea, we decided to stay a full day and take a later train to Matera. We spent the day walking all along the waterfront, watching the fishermen come in with their catch and then start selling it right there on the sidewalk. We walked all the way to the Bari Eataly, where we finally ate some of that wonderful, fresh fish, and then walked back to the train station, exploring and getting lost in the historic center along the way. There are no street signs in Bari, so our map wasn’t much help, and whenever we stopped to ask someone where we were or where the train station was, they responded, “I don’t know.” (I thought I was asking wrong, but I checked with one of the teachers at school the other day, and she confirmed that I was asking directions correctly. They really just didn’t know where they were.)

 

Next we took a train through the southern countryside to Matera. Matera is one of those places that they say you should visit now, before it becomes a huge tourist destination. It’s famous for its sassi, the natural and manmade cave dwellings that people lived in up until the 1950s and ’60s, when the sassi became synonymous with poverty and squalor and the Italian government came in and forcibly moved the occupants into better housing. We spent two full days in Matera. We took a tour of the city and explored on our own. We visited a reconstruction of a cave dwelling and saw what life would have been like living in one fifty years ago. We even stayed in a cave, though it was a very high-tech cave, complete with wireless internet and a heated towel wrack and one of the best showers I’ve seen in Italy. We used the ancient Roman baths in our hotel as well. Finally, we spent Good Friday walking the Stations of the Cross, which were carved above the doors of churches all over the sassi, a different station at each church.

 

Our tour guide described Matera as an eagle. The cività, where the wealthy citizens of Matera lived in Roman and medieval times, is the head. The two sassi are the wings. Everything is built right on top of everything else, so no matter where you walk, you’re walking on someone’s roof. The gorge and plateau Matera is built on was carved out by the ocean that once covered this part of Italy, in much the same way the Grand Canyon was shaped. The construction of the city was fascinating, and I was both intrigued and disturbed by the history—disturbed not only because of the way the government forced these people from their homes and communities and culture but also because of the way it is being romanticized for tourists now. I was reminded of one of the first lessons in the introduction to cultural anthropology class I took at Kenyon: it is important to respect other cultures, but cultural objectivity should not get in the way of what is right and wrong. By the time we got on the train back to Assisi, I had decided that I want to write a novel set in Matera. I have the setting. I have the history. I even have a title. Now I just need a story.

 

We returned to Assisi in time to celebrate a quiet Easter with my landlady and landlord and neighbor. We had a beautiful meal, and I finally got to try one of those giant chocolate Easter eggs I’d been seeing in grocery stores for weeks. No, we didn’t buy the giant one in the picture. Instead we got one that was smaller—but still pretty huge—and split it five ways. Generally, people are shocked when I tell them that in America, children get little plastic Easter eggs full of candy instead of giant chocolate Easter eggs with a toy inside.

 

Finally, we had a couple quiet days to recover from all the traveling and good food, and then school started up again. This was one of those weeks that I wish I could have recorded every minute of, so I wouldn’t forget anything, because it was so full of new information and experiences and emotions. I’d heard so many rumors about southern Italy, but I really loved visiting, and there’s so much I didn’t see. I didn’t realize how much I missed the ocean until I was walking along it, or fresh fish until I was eating it. And don’t even get me started on how wide the sidewalks are and how the cars actually behave how they’re supposed to—generally speaking.

 

This was a whim, but it was the best whim ever, and I hope I’ll get the chance to go back and explore more.

 

In the meantime, I’m in the home stretch. Spring has come. There are less than two months of school left. And then I’ll be on to the next adventure.

It’s Upside Down, Isn’t It?

As I mentioned in my last post, I’ve been thinking a lot about what it means to be blind. This has led me, naturally, to thinking about how people who are blind, and more broadly, how people with disabilities, are represented in fiction.

 

I am by no means well-read on this topic, though I should be, but the answer that I’ve come up with is it’s difficult to write characters with disabilities for many reasons and so they aren’t represented nearly as much as they could or should be.

 

In writing, you want your characters to have agency. They are the ones who push the plot forward. They take action. And let’s face it, because it’s true, there are some things that people with disabilities can’t do. That doesn’t mean they can’t have agency in the story. That doesn’t mean they can’t affect the plot or be the catalyst for their own change or anything like that. But unless it’s contemporary fiction or science fiction, the technology and services often don’t exist in the world of the story to allow that character to have their own agency, and unless there are superpowers involved, that character won’t be able to do what is required to move the plot along and be an active protagonist. And you have to be careful about having a disabled antagonist, because that can turn the disabled into the Other, which is bad. It’s possible to have a side character who’s disabled, certainly. They don’t affect the plot as much, but they’re still important. But you have to be careful that they don’t turn into merely a token character—”Look, I have a disabled character!”—or the comic relief. So it’s not impossible, but it’s difficult, and you have to be careful.

 

But I mentioned superpowers as a possibility.

 

Yes, I did. And it is an option. Give a disabled character a magical ability of some kind, and suddenly they can take action themselves no matter what. But there’s a problem with that. If they have a power that means they can take action no matter what, then why does it matter that they’re disabled at all?

 

This is not an easy line to walk. I’m blind myself, and even I struggle with it. I’m writing a story for this contest. My main character is blind. I have plans to write more stories about this character in the future, stories in which she has the ability to see the future but doesn’t know how to use it—because I enjoy messing with stereotypes. So, I’m working on this story, and I think, this could be the story where she gets these powers. She finds the confidence in herself to solve her problems on her own and finding that confidence unlocks her powers. I thought this was a good idea. She was accomplishing things without her powers. She gets powers, because she will need them for other stories, but she knows that she doesn’t need them to live as a person who is blind. Only, in practice, it didn’t work out that way. She gains her magical power at the end, as I planned, and all it really does is damage the value of her accomplishments, because theoretically she’s had this power all along even if she didn’t know it, so maybe the magic had something to do with it. Also, just from the point of view of good storytelling, if the power isn’t supposed to be important to her accomplishments in this story—which is meant to stand alone—then why do I have it at all? At first, I was reluctant to illiminate the magical power, but I realized if I do write other stories about her, there will be time to explore her agency outside her magic. So I cut it, and it’s a better story for it.

 

The point is, it’s really hard. I’m blind, and I’m having trouble with it. I only recently even realized the importance of writing about characters with disabilities. But it isn’t impossible. I’ve seen a few good examples of people who are blind in fiction. And what they all have in common is that the character who is blind is part of a group hero—more than one character is the protagonist of the story.

 

In All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr, Marie-Laure is blind, but she is not the only protagonist in the story, and therefore the plot does not only hinge on her actions. She is able to use the agency she has to save the other protagonist, who in turn is able to save her.

 

The other excellent example I’ve seen is Toph from Avatar: The Last Airbender. Toph has earth bending, and this bending allows her to “see,” because she can sense the earth around her. This gives her agency in the plot and power within the group, but at the same time, she’s still blind, because there are situations when she cannot see what’s going on, and she was raised in an overprotective household. And everything about Toph, from her desire to take care of herself at the expense of her friendships, to her dislike of libraries, to her difficulty with hanging posters correctly—as in my title quote and image—is all spot on.

 

There are probably other good examples out there. I just haven’t seen them yet. But I intend to find them, and I intend to contribute more myself. I have been reluctant to write about characters who are blind, because I was afraid that would come to define me. She’s blind,

so she writes about blind people.

 

But it’s important that people with disabilities are represented in fiction the same as any other group. People with disabilities are a part of our world. They have always been a part of our world. They will continue to be a part of our world. And if one of the purposes of literature is to tell the human experience, that experience should be for everyone, not just a few. People with disabilities deserve to be represented. Their stories deserve to be told, upside down posters and all.

A Person Who Happens to Be Blind

I have been living in Italy for a little more than five months now. I am blind. And at this point, I’m going to ignore the State Department blogging guidelines with impunity because i need to say this.

 

Cue deep high-speed radio voiceover: this is not an official Department of State website and the views and opinions expressed herein are my own and do not represent the Fulbright Program or the Department of State.

 

So: Italy is a terrible country to live in if you’re blind.

 

Okay, I’m sure it’s not the worst in the world by any means, but compared to the United States, compared to what I am used to and what I expected when I left college, it’s been pretty rough.

 

At this point, I need to back up to give a bit more context.

 

I was born with aniridia glaucoma. By the time I was one year old, I’d had twelve eye operations, and then two more when I was five. I had some vision in both eyes—light and shadows and color, but not enough to read print or navigate without a white cane or guide dog. For all intents and purposes, I was blind, and last year, I became blinder when the pressure skyrocketed and my retina detached in my right eye. The pain was so unbearable I had to have it removed. It was horrifying to open my eye onto complete blackness—even more horrifying when my brain started trying to compensate for the black, sometimes filling it with what it knew to be there, sometimes presenting me with thoroughly distracting swirls of light and color. But once I got used to it, my life didn’t change all that much. Yes, I am suddenly more left-handed than right when it comes to things I use my vision for, and yes, I like to sit in the middle or on the right of gatherings watching television so the black doesn’t get in the way, and yes, the Jameyanne the One-Eyed jokes are always fabulous. But my vision had been deteriorating in that eye in the weeks before it was removed, so by the time I had the surgery, most of what I was losing was the pain. And who needs that anyway?

 

But this is the sort of attitude I have had all my life. Yes, I’m blind. Big deal. It’s not going to stop me from biking or drawing or playing clarinet or swimming or going to school or teaching in Italy or whatever it is I want to do. And woe to you if you tell me I can’t or try to stop me.

 

It’s something I was taught when I was very young, something most blind children are taught. I am not a blind girl or a blind student or a blind friend or a blind teacher or a blind writer or a blind person. I am just a girl, a student, a friend, a teacher, a writer, a person, who happens to be blind.

 

All my life, I have resisted being labeled as “blind”. Because “blind,” when applied as a label like that, usually means “can’t.” And “can’t” is not part of my vocabulary.

 

All my life, I have learned the skills I need to be independent, and when I went to college, I felt as if I had achieved that. I had teachers who asked what they could do to help me before I told them what I needed, teachers who saw me as they would see any other student. I had friends who told me where we were sitting in the dining hall before I asked—even developed a system of banging on the table so I could find them—friends who sometimes argued over who would get to describe a movie or television show to me, friends who never questioned me when I said I was going to play Humans Versus Zombies with them or participate in the Kenyon Hunger Games (I rocked at both, by the way). The fact that I was blind barely ever came up. Best of all, I didn’t feel blind, not even during those months where my eye was exploding and I turned the lights off instead of on when I entered rooms. Okay, maybe a little bit then, but not for the same reasons.

 

And then I came to Italy last October, and all my dreams and ideas of what it meant to live independently and what I thought I could do were given a thorough pounding. I met, for the first time in my life and from almost all sides, the attitude that because I was blind, I couldn’t, shouldn’t, had no business, even, living so far from home by myself, working, taking the bus, walking to the grocery store. There’s a cultural attitude here that if you’re blind, or have any disability really, you stay at home and let your family take care of you. My volunteer project—to help teach children at the school for the blind in Assisi some basic independent living skills, like pouring water without spilling or tying your own shoes or putting toothpaste on the toothbrush without making a mess—was shot down almost immediately by the director of the school, because, and I quote, “They can’t do that.” My backup plan to work with blind kids at local elementary schools also failed because apparently there are no blind children at local public elementary schools. Even my most basic goals , like going to the store independently or cooking by myself, didn’t work out as I had planned. Since traffic laws are only suggestions here, and therefore sidewalks are synonymous with parking lots or sometimes even highways, there’s no safe way for me to walk to a supermarket, even though there are several within walking distance of my apartment. And since I need to use a lighter to light my stove, and let’s face it, I have terrible aim, I can’t cook by myself either. So, for the first time in a very long time, I felt blind.

 

This was very difficult for me. It was like my neighbors’ attitude was seeping under my skin, to my very bones, making me feel like somehow I had failed. It took a long time for me to realize that even though I’m not as independent as I would have liked, I’m still more independent than I have been my whole life. I’ve taken one more step towards independence after college, not the giant leap that I envisioned myself taking, but still a step. And I’ve done more than that.

 

Somewhere between eliciting a round of applause for cutting up my own chicken at a dinner for the International Lions Club and being denied access to the tower of Pisa, I realized that I am representing blind people to Italians who may not have any direct experience with someone who is blind. I have been showing them that a person who is blind can do things on their own. And I’ve noticed a difference in the reactions I get around town. People say hello to me as I pass in the street. They ask me how I do things. Sometimes, they even admit that they didn’t think someone with a disability could do any of the things I’ve done, but I’ve changed their minds.

 

It’s only been in the last couple months that I’ve noticed this change, and when I noticed it, I realized something else. Ever since I left high school, I have resisted being “blind.” I didn’t even know I was doing it, because I was so happy, but to give an example, if someone suggested I write about being blind, I resisted. I said it was because I wrote fiction, not nonfiction, but I didn’t even want to write about a fictional blind character. I didn’t want to be defined as “that girl who writes about blind people because she’s blind.” And this extended to everything else I did and said and thought.

 

But I am blind. It doesn’t have to define me—in fact, I’ve made it fairly clear that it doesn’t—but I can’t change it either, and I wouldn’t want to if I could. And who better to represent people who are blind, whether in literature or in real life, than a person who is blind herself? Who better to represent me than me?

How to Move a Mountain

Yesterday I attended the midyear meeting for the Fulbright English Teaching Assistants in Rome. This was a huge source of anxiety for me, because not only is Rome a gigantic, chaotic, and frankly terrifying city, but I didn’t know how to talk about what I have accomplished this year. Because I didn’t feel like I had accomplished much of anything: I felt like I’d been moving from one struggle to another and the best that could be said was that I had not been killed by a crazy driver or simply turned around and gone home. No friends my own age. My volunteer project dead in the water. Problems with classes I didn’t know how to teach and teachers who were being unhelpful. How, I asked myself, could I talk about successes when I felt like all I had done was fail? And how could I even express the difficulties I was having when I was sure that the other English Teaching Assistants were doing great?

 

So I came to Rome with this feeling of imminent doom. This was something I just had to get through. Then I just have to get through the next four months, and then I can get out of this country where problems are just a fact of life and there’s no point doing anything to solve them and where a young blind girl shouldn’t need to and has no business trying to live independently so far from home.

 

And then I had a fantastic day.

 

Part of it was that we’re officially past the midway point. Now I can say I’m more than halfway through, which is great, because saying “well, I’m halfway there,” automatically brought on the horrifying thought, “Oh God, I’m only halfway there!” And I’m not going to lie: having a shower that stayed warm for more than five consecutive minutes was a big help.

 

But hot showers aside, there were some bigger reasons that contributed to it being such a good day.

 

For one thing, it turns out that the other English Teaching Assistants are having the same difficulties as me, and it was wonderful to rant about all the things we’ve struggled with and haven’t talked about. It was heartening to discuss how much we miss home and our friends and feeling like we knew what the heck we were doing with our lives and salty food. And it was inspiring to plan how we were going to get through the last months of our year in Italy. To know that I am not the only one who feels this way, to know that I am not actually alone, was amazing.

 

And I was able to realize that I haven’t just survived these months in Italy. I have, in fact, been successful. I have students who respect me, who are interested in what I am teaching, so much so that they are asking for topics. My own Italian skills have increased tremendously. I am navigating a foreign country—an extremely ablest foreign country—independently. And I am succeeding. I’m not dead, right? And maybe I don’t have friends my own age in Assisi, but I have to remember that I had an incredible four years at college and that this year was bound to be hard wherever I was. This weekend, we talked a lot about re-evaluating our ideas of what social success is, and if I look at where I am now versus where I was in October, I have succeeded. People say hello to me as I pass in the streets. People ask me how I do things instead of saying I can’t or shouldn’t or, worse, applauding when I do (but more on all that later).

 

Another thing that helped a lot was being reminded of why I have always been so interested in Italy. We took a tour of the U.S. Embassy, and like everything else in Italy, the complex has an incredible history. The land was owned by a friend of Julius Caesar, then some art-collecting cardinals, then Queen Margherita (she of the pizza), then the Confederation of Fascist Farmers, all before it was given to America as part of Italy’s war reparations after World War II. All of this history is layered right on top of itself: there’s an ancient Roman aqueduct (which Mopsy made a point of drinking from) next to a statue of a young Venus next to a fascist plaque—the modern on top of the rococo on top of the baroque on top of the romantic on top of the ancient, and plenty more layers I don’t know the names for in between. We visited the ambassador’s office and saw the largest Murano glass chandelier in the world, and while the ambassador told us he finds the office a bit too grand for day to day work, it is easy to imagine Queen Margherita holding balls and musical nights there (which gives me a new novel idea).

 

But I’m getting off topic. It’s this layered history, not just in the architecture but also in the culture, that was what drew me to Italy in the first place. It was the thing that made living in Italy the dream. Yes, there was a time when living in Italy was my dream. How much I wish I could go back to that time.

 

I made that comment this weekend. I said I wanted to build a time machine and go back to 2014 Jameyanne and tell her not to do this. I wanted to tell her that it’s too hard, that it’s not worth it, that she’s going to be miserable and lonely and scared out of her mind, that she’s going to want to go home more than anything else in the world . And then I stopped and thought about that. If I had a time machine, is that really what I would do? Has this experience, as hard as it has been, really not been worth it?

 

Yes, it’s been hard. Yes, there have been times when I have been miserable and lonely and scared out of my mind. There have been many times when all I wanted is to give up and to go home. But I wouldn’t tell 2014 Jameyanne not to do it. Partly because, I was 2014 Jameyanne once, and I know that she wouldn’t listen to anyone telling her not to do something. After all, she was still the Jameyanne who stuck out a semester of incredible pain because her right eye was exploding and there was no way she was missing a month of school for a little thing like having her eye removed. And even if I told her this would be worse than that, she wouldn’t listen. But I wouldn’t even say that.

 

If I could, I would tell 2014 Jameyanne that it will be hard, that it will not be fun, that she won’t have friends her own age, that for the first time since high school, she will feel blind, that she will be scared, that she will be more homesick than she has ever been in her life. But I will tell her that this will be worth it. Because she will learn so much about what is important to her, what she loves, and what she can do. She will be taken apart and when she’s put back together, all her pieces will be in different places, and she will have to search for the strength to put one foot in front of the other and keep moving. But she will find that strength, and she will keep moving, and she will, in the end, succeed. This experience will be worth it. It’s a cliché, but 2014 Jameyanne will grow in ways that she can’t possibly understand, and since she can’t understand it anyway, maybe, if I had a time machine, I wouldn’t go back and I wouldn’t say anything. I would just let her experience this year for what it’s been.

 

Last week, I taught a lesson on Dr. Seuss, and I read Oh, The Places You Will Go to my kids. It was the first time I’d read the book since I graduated from high school, and I’ve been picking at it all week, the way I might pick at a hangnail:

 

I’m afraid some times you’ll play lonely games too.

Games you can’t win ’cause you’ll play against you,

And when you’re alone, there’s a very good chance

you’ll meet things that scare you right out of your pants.

There are some, down the road between hither and yon,

that can scare you so much you won’t want to go on. (37-39)

 

But if all the bad bits and sad bits are true, who says the good bits can’t happen too?

 

Sorry, couldn’t resist.

 

So this is what I want to say to 2015 Jameyanne, the Jameyanne who is going to stride confidently into the last four months of her Fulbright year in Italy and then beyond: Remember this moment. Maybe this year has not been what I expected or dreamed. But it is still what I make it. I have grown and changed and learned so much about myself in these last five months, and who knows how that will continue over the next four months, if I am open to it. Maybe this is not the adventure I wanted, but it has nevertheless been an adventure, and perhaps it is also a staging ground for more adventures that I can’t imagine yet.

 

Remember this, 2015 Jameyanne. When things get hard, as I’m sure they will, remember this moment. You are traveling back to Assisi. You are listening to “Hakuna Matata.” No, scratch that, wrong message. You are listening to “Go the Distance.” You feel confident. You have new lessons to teach. New lessons to learn. New places to explore. New flavors of juice to try. Seriously, don’t forget the juice.

 

And kid, you will move mountains. Whatever those mountains may be. Maybe not here. Maybe not now. But they’re waiting for you, and here and now is where you build the strength, the courage, and the will that you’ll need to face them.

So… I Just Ate a Pigeon

My mother’s family is Italian, and I grew up thinking I was eating traditional Italian food: lots of vegetables, pasta rather than rice, lots of fish, garlic in everything, fruit rather than sweets for dessert. So I came to Italy feeling like I had a good sense of what to expect, and I was wrong. Not entirely wrong—the olive oil is to die for, there is lots of pasta and vegetables, plenty of fruit—but there’s a lot that I didn’t expect. And since I gave a whole lesson on American food to my students, who were fascinated by pancakes and brownies, I figured it was only fair for me to talk a bit about my experiences with Italian food.

 

Bread: Bread isn’t something that you eat on its own like in America. Most of the time, bread is almost used as a spoon to scoop up other food. This means that the bread is unsalted and, by itself, not all that tasty. That being said, the bruschetta is fabulous—the bread grilled over an open fire and drizzled with olive oil and salt or tomatoes or garlic powder (I want to try making it with roasted garlic instead).

 

Meat: Perhaps it’s because my Italian relatives were from southern Italy, so they ate more fish, or perhaps it’s just because my family doesn’t eat that much red meat in general, but I was very surprised by the amount of red meat people eat here. And all kinds of red meat. There’s lamb and beef and veal and ham, of course, but my landlady got me to try a sauce made from pig’s ear, and she’s insisting that before I leave, I have to try horse. I was not brave enough to try chicken liver or tripe—they just smelled too awful for me to dare. I did try rabbit, though, and it was pretty good. And, as my title suggests, I ate pigeon as well.

 

Salty and sweet: I don’t tend to put a lot of salt on my food in general, but the almost complete lack of salt surprised me. I asked about it, and my landlady said that salt hides other tastes, which is true, if you put too much salt. But even when you buy crackers in the supermarket, you have to make sure you buy the salted ones, and even the salted ones have barely any salt at all. I’ve definitely started dreaming about salty snacks. On the other hand, there’s a lot of sweet food. A lot of people eat cake for breakfast, and when they say snack, they usually mean cookies. Croissants—called cornetti in Italian—are usually filled with chocolate or honey or some sort of jam. At one point, I bought a glass of orange juice at a café and the waitress asked if I wanted to add sugar to it, which, not going to lie, I found a little bit horrifying.

 

Fruit: It’s fabulous, of course. All fresh and local. When you buy a bag of clementines, they still have stems and leaves on them. And the fruit juice is great too. I’ve been having fun experimenting with all the different flavors that I’ve never seen in the U.S. So far, I’m a big fan of blueberry and frutti di bosca—wild berry—and pineapple. I also enjoyed a juice called esotica—which was like mango and papaya and kiwi and passion fruit. Strawberry juice was a bit too sweet for me, and apple kiwi tasted like a green apple Jolly Rancher. But I liked apple banana, and I have a bottle of peach lime that I’m curious to try.

 

Pizza: Because what post about Italian food would be complete without talking about pizza? It’s great. The crust is thin to nonexistent. Usually, if you order a veggie pizza of some variety, there isn’t any sauce at all, just crust, some cheese, and the vegetables. Personally, I’m a big fan of the onion pizza, which is crust and olive oil and a ton of caramelized onions. I also really like pizza marinara, which is just tomato sauce and basil, which you wouldn’t think would be that good, but the sauce is so flavorful it’s great.

 

There’s more I could say. Pine nut gelato and chocolate pasta and salty cake. Chicken with orange sauce, sautéed chick peas and fava beans drizzled with olive oil, artichokes with lemon and capers. Truffles. All of the truffles. Walnut pasta sauce. Fried apples with cinnamon and honey and orange slices soaked in olive oil with a little bit of salt.

 

Yes, I had different expectations when I arrived, and I’m sure my experience isn’t indicative of Italy as a whole, just this region. Perhaps, if I traveled to southern Italy, I would find the food of my childhood. Or I would find something entirely new . I’ve tried so many foods I never dreamed of, and yes, I’ve avoided some foods that I just didn’t think I could stomach. But I did eat a pigeon. And I’m sure I’ll try much more before I go home.