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June 10, 2009

Want my seat? And why do you cheat?

Dear Reader,

I am back in Milano and back in wifi-ville.

Here we go!!! Cut and paste time. For even with no internet, in the Tuscan countryside, your faithful asker was jotting down blog posts on her laptop, blackberry and scraps of paper, knowing this day would come...

The teaser/recap, since I can't hold back: It rocked. Got tons of discounts, met charming people, escaped from a cranky elevator, even had a brush with haute couture... all by asking!

Read on, and drop a line if you're so inclined. To rant, or rave, or just to say ciao.

Ever thine,

La Roxy


June 10. Day 345.

In the train heading to Florence, I approached my seat, number 95 in cabin 11, and I noticed three children were occupying the entire booth, including my place. Their aunt (not mother, as I later found out) looked stressed.

I moved into a row across from where I should have sat.

"Want my seat?" I asked the woman.

"Oh, would you?!! Are you sure?"

"Certainly. It makes no difference to me. As long as no one needs this spot."

"Great, thank you so much!" And later, she said to her husband, who arrived after everyone settled in: "That girl just gave us her seat, so we don't have to worry anymore, as long as no one else has the other seat."

Soon after the train took off, the kids started stuffing their little faces with some homemade panini. Looked like prosciutto on a thick baguette. Everyone here, all the time, is eating. More on that later. But perhaps my favorite example, until now: Milanese bankers in tailored suits patching together a crumbling economy -- who still make the time for ice cream.

What a land.

(I snapped a photo of the chomping children, but I'll refrain from posting it here. Privacy, ethics, legal stuff. Instead, here's a picture of the Arno promenade at sunset, a few hours after I arrived in Florence.)

Gained I: Made someone's day less stressful.

Speaking of eating. Il Latini is the one restaurant I can't not visit when I'm in Florence. It is ancient (since 1911 I think -- old by restaurant standards, even for Italy). It is fetching, thanks especially to the ham hocks hanging from the ceilings and the wines lining the walls, not to mention the waiters who would probably insult your ancestors and your reproductive abilities if you dared leave sooner than three hours after sitting down or failed to drink your weight in chianti.

The food is delicious -- my roasted pork was so perfectly salted and so exquisitely balanced between its soft and tender interior and carmelized, slightly chewy exterior that, a day later as I write this, I can still evoke the taste and texture in my yearning tastebuds.

And the mood, barking waiters and all, is supremely friendly. The kind of place where, as a single traveler, I can always find a spot at the communal tables and instantly make friends for the evening.

During this particular dinner, seated to my left were two men of middling age. After getting the basics out of the way (who what where), the conversation touched the subject of relationships. One man had a girlfriend and the other was married, they informed me, and then they asked my status.

"In love," I stated.

"You are, aren't you," the younger one replied. "She is. Look at the smile."

"Lucky," the older, married man said, a tad sadly.

"Why lucky? Aren't you happy?" I asked him back.

"That's complicated," he answered.

"How long have you been married?" I tried.

"23 years," he sighed.

He had the tone of someone reporting he lost his business in a fire or found out the sugar he'd been putting into his coffee all these years was actually Equal.

Lingering disbelief, mixed with a recognition that struggling is futile.

At which point I asked this complete stranger, "Did you stay married just because, or are you actually happy? Or where did things fall apart?"

"Wow, that's personal!" he replied, but he didn't seem offended. Just surprised.

Blame the wine, blame my lack of personal limits, blame this blog, but at that moment I pushed harder.

"Come on. We're strangers. We'll never see each other again. Let's talk frankly, shall we?"

It was a risk, sure. On the other hand, his tone and the general mood suggested it was ok to ask, and even to insist.

Suddenly, the conversation sprang from small talk to real talk. About recognizing and keeping love, and being decieved by chimeras. About the nature of commitment. Why people cheat. What it takes to make a relationship strong. Early clues of later joys or heartbreak.

"Do you like to hold your boyfriend's hand?" the younger one asked, as an example of such a clue.

"Of course," I answered.

"Good. That's good," he confirmed.

I wasn't sure how telling that test was was, because -- well, what couple don't like to hold hands when they're young and carefree? What honest marriage doesn't start with love?

Thus I was more interested in the perspective of the old guy, the married one. The one with the lover. Why did he get tired of his wife? What went wrong? Did he know from the start he'd want to leave her?

His story was typical -- and triste. He married because he felt he should and because he mistook enjoyment and company for a sufficient reason to built a life with someone.

And build a life they did. They have three kids. He's a successful [CAREER REDACTED].

Then he met a lady who truly understands him, with whom he feels he can speaking openly, about anything. And he realized what he was missing: a listening, curious, patient, and interactive ear. His wife was a mother, perhaps a lover, but not much more, for him.

Is this the story of every lothario? The collective narrative of rationalization that every little Tuscan boy learns to tell himself from junior high school onward, as his girlfriend waits in the cafe, wondering why Gianni never showed up -- only to discover that Gianni was looking up Sylvia's skirt?

Or is it the tale of a man who made the wrong decision half a lifetime ago and has been paying for it ever since? A man who doesn't have the heart to divorce the mother of his children, and who would feel as guilty for staying as he would for going? A man who tried to be good, do well, but failed?

Gained II: Emboldened by the anoymity, my dinner companions offered frank perspectives on love and life. I ended the evening completely stuffed and only partially enlightened.
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