As I’ve mentioned before recently, or even, currently, I have been gorging on the books of Marlena De Blasi. I use the word gorge, as I seem to be binging on them. Choosing to curl up with her whimsical tales of Italy, more often than not I’ve found myself in bed with them at eight pm. Disenchanted with my own life, and enchanted by hers, I read about her adventures, and her hunger-awakening luscious descriptions of food. Often times I have to get up and out of my bed at ten for a night snack after reading a particularly descriptive passage about olive oil and bread. There is something about the way she articulates the simple pleasures in life that gives me new perspective. The beauteous bliss of a freshly baked loaf, really tasting olive oil, as if it were a good wine. Only the very green and finest first-pressed olio d’oliva will do. The greatest pleasure of one’s life it seems, should simply be a finely baked piece of bread with quality olive oil, and a “whisper of sea salt.” It leaves me thinking about food, and the dolce vita of my own life.
Also, of course, I can’t help but reflect back on my brief trip to Italy years ago. I curse myself for not realizing the large orange drinks everyone was guzzling were indeed my now favorite cocktail, the Aperol Spritz. If only I would have known, I lament. Or if I would have read her before my trip, would I have considered, contemplated and treated the habitual customary bread served before each meal differently? These are all thoughts that I’m bewitched by under the spell of De Blasi. Yet, after reading a passage a few days ago, I’ve become more obsessed with it than any other part of her work. I’ll give you a summary.
So in the last book I’ve read (and already finished)The Lady in the Palazzo, Marlena and her husband move to Umbria. I’ll keep this short, but essentially, she moves into an old ballroom, and her neighbor is a violinist. She knows this, as his music seeps through her windows, and she always listens, appreciating, but wishing just one day he would play a waltz. So much Brahms, if only a waltz!
Then, at the end of the book, she has a dinner party for all the crazy characters who make up her life in Umbria. Friends from completely different walks of life, they are all to gather in her dining room in a sort of ‘house-warming.” It took her over two years to finally move in, and the “friends” are by society standards, people who would not mingle well. Dukes and shepherds, a very wealthy woman and a maid. The polar opposite guests are asked to also wear fine dresses, and tuxes, so there is a real fairy tale/ball feeling going on here with her fete.
She calls the local conservatory to ask for a violinist to come play for her guests. The man on the phone says, “we have two violinists, should I send them over, so you can interview and choose which one you would like?” She tells him, “no, you choose and send him over at seven pm.” The night of the supper, the violinist arrives. It is the head of the conservatory, and her neighbor. He gets there before any of her guests, at this momentous occasion, to mark her newly formed misfit tribe of friends, and finally moving into her home after two years. She tells him to play whatever he wants. He sets up with his violin in the window, and starts to play. And what does he play? A waltz. Finally a waltz, how would he have known? She smiles to herself, and thinks “let life shape itself.”
This is sort of a motto of hers, “let life shape itself.” I think she means in some small way, that life has its own pre-destined course and to let serendipity play itself out. I’ve been mulling about this for some days now (obliviously.) In my mulling, I’ve decided that lately I’ve been really forcing my life in some strange way. Desperate for something magical to happen, and shift my life in a way I feel it so dramatically needs. Now, after reading De Blasi, I’ve told myself I’m going to chill out for a bit, and try to take a breath, and “let life shape itself.” No easy feat, for a somewhat control freak/ocd person like myself.
So last night, my Mom, sister and I went up to the 92Y to hear Lazlo Krasnahorkai and Salman Rushdie speak. I’ve never been to the Y, and bought the tickets months before the reading, thinking to myself, finally we will do something cultural in NYC! Last night came, and along with it, a deluge of a rain storm. We trecked up the FDR in a tiny car, our driver crawling along with barely working windshield wipers. All of us had forgotten our umbrellas and when we finally reached 92 street, it was quite literally a monsoon and we had forty-five minutes to kill before showtime. I noticed we had driven by a cheese store, so led my Mom and sister through the puddles two blocks back to see if we could get a glass of wine and piece of fromage. Soaked and wet-footed we were quickly denied seating by the hostess. I cursed a bit under my breath, thinking, we always have troubles when we go uptown, and this generally isn’t a great start to our evening.
Standing under an awning, whilst my sister fretted about her Chanel ballet flats, she saw a restaurant across the street. Once again we dashed through the puddles and into the restaurant. This time we were greeted by a much friendlier host who told us we could sit down. We were led through the curtains to a beautiful white-walled room with chandeliers and fresh wild flowers on the table. Essentially, a perfectly “girly” spot. Once seated, it dawned on us we were in an Italian restaurant, so instead of ordering wine, my sister suggested we get my beloved Spritz. Waiting for our drinks while watching our phones for the time, I looked across at my Mom whose hair was freshly out of the shower wet, and next to me to my sister, whose hair too was soaked, her signature frizzy in humidity look coming out. Again, not the best start to our night I thought. The waiter then interrupted my trepidation with our drinks, two gorgeous bright orange Aperol Spritzes for me and my sister, and a nice chilled white for my Mom. We toasted ourselves and I relaxed a bit.
“Oh what I wouldn’t do for a bit of bread,” my Mom said as she sucked back her Pinot Grigio faster than she normally would, now looking at the ticking time.
“I’d feel awkward asking for bread since we aren’t eating,” I told my Mom matching her by anxiously looking at the time as well. We all sat silently nursing our drinks hurriedly with the looming deadline of the reading a mere twenty minutes away.
“Would you like some bread, signora?” the waiter suddenly appeared and asked. “That would be lovely,” my Mom quickly answered. In a minute’s time, a crusty loaf, still warm to the touch, was presented to us. A side of thick olive oil saddled up next to its basket. We tore at the bread, dipping it into the olive oil. Soon we discovered, quite literally the best bread we’ve ever had at a restaurant. I couldn’t help but pause and smile, thinking of De Blasi to myself with a wink. The Italian staples of crusty bread, good quality first-pressed olive oil and Aperol Spritz now all in front of me at the table. A savory bite of olive-oil soaked bread washed down by sweet-citrus Spritz. Marlena would be proud, I thought to myself.
After we quickly finished everything, we ran across the street through the rain to make the reading. Soaking wet blond hair sticking to each of our faces, my Mom and sister with soggy shoes. We sat down in our seats, and I wondered how the readings would be. The beginning had a somewhat soporific effect, and I thought to myself again, this was going to be quite a long night. But, then it picked up a bit and the readings, and final interview section were totally entertaining and engaging. We left with the rest of the throngs of New Yorkers, inspired and energized after listening to a pair of such intellectual writers. Outside we waited on the step for our car, yet again racing into the rain to sit soggily in the backseat.
I sat in the back of the car as it whizzed down Lexington avenue, the Christmas lights colorfully streaming by. My Mom chattering on and reflecting on the readings, my sister, texting away on her Blackberry. All three of us still damp, somewhat sticking to each other. Every once in a while one of us would interject to remind us how good the bread, olive oil and drinks were. I half closed my eyes, with the cherished women of my family beside me, the words of a writer I’ve admired for years echoing in my ears, and a mixture of crusty bread and Aperol Spritz warming my stomach. I sat back and thought, “let life shape itself.”
I think it just did.