Most of my days, I've refused, at least in my own mind, to be 'categorized', as senseless an endeavor as that can be. Humans need categories in order to communicate. How could I eat, if in English, we couldn’t agree on the words 'chocolate gelati in a waffle cone'?
I loathed the way I was treated differently because I was born a girl, and I have never recovered from that childhood indignation.
I feel for young men today trying to understand what it means to be a man, what a mess of public exemplars. But I can only speak the truth about what it feels like to be a woman, and something just shocked me, in a good way, I think.
I recently moved to Italy from London. I am a 54-year-old woman of no importance, no name, no deep subject expertise, no ready gest for dinner parties, no age-defying physical attributes, and I possess the irritating quality of ‘earnestness’ – toxic, at least, for a good part of the English gatekeeping society. I also possess a stubborn Australian accent, stubborn because I like it and it is part of who I am, and stubborn because I have lived the last half of my life in England, where sometimes one’s childhood accent can be packed away like other souvenirs from home.
In England, like many, I was invisible, especially as a foreign-born and a woman of a certain age. There was nothing about me that merited inclusion. Friendships with locals were tentative and fraught unless the person was unusually connected internationally (spoke multiple languages, lived in two countries, etc). My attempts to engage in the public realm were swiftly labeled a vanity project, vain about what, I am not quite sure. Logic was never my right. But I met many kind people who advised me to keep my head down. Thank goodness. If I had been fully myself the last nearly three decades, I would have been crushed to a pulp.
It’s pouring rain in my part of Italy, my newly adopted home. I know no one here, nor the language. Yes, an odd choice. I’d say the Italians I've met would largely agree or at least the puzzled look is a common reaction. But I still love it, so far. I was inexplicably drawn here and sometimes that’s enough.
The only café open was so busy there was nowhere to park. I pulled over opposite, at a precarious angle, and as I flew through the downpour to grab a takeaway, a parking space opened up, right by the door.
Now this was not just a coffee stop. If I could park, I could work in the café a while, surrounded by the lull of friendly conversation, and the outbreak of an argument, none of which I could fully understand of course, so never a significant distraction. I could return to work, at home, for the rest of the day without feeling alone. It’s how I can sustain my writing life.
Motorists had been lurking and competitors for this prime position would not be far. The only way I could secure it was to recruit a largish group of Italian men standing under the café awning, all chatting amicably, some smoking cigarettes, some not, some perhaps waiting for the heavy rain to pass. In painful Italian, I blurted out a jumble of words to ask them to please guard the spot while I move my car.
They immediately understood. I tell you, there is no one who could have moved into that slot. One man in a jeep tried and the wall of castigation and waving fingers was a triumph. I backed in slowly until they all shouted 'buono!', leapt out of my car and told them they were all fantastico! Indeed, they truly were. Whether I had a right to that car space is another matter.
I don’t know what category that behavior puts me in, or the men in, or Italy, but now my heart is large and the coffee tastes fantastic. Who knows tomorrow… I have much to learn, but in some inexplicable way, I feel free here, and as conscious as I am of its social and political construction, and the countless diverse manifestations, I feel like a 'woman'. I don’t expect car parks to open. I am not looking for a chevalier. I am not looking for anything. But loving kindness comes in many diverse manifestations, and in my book, in this world, it is a pure joy, worthy of celebration.