The operating instructions for the house in Volterra, Italy warn us about scorpions and a large, black stinging insect. Anti-venom and a syringe are located in the medicine cabinet with the extra fuses.
On the side of a mountain outside of an ancient Etruscan town running water and electricity are luxuries. Our luxuries—wine, hand-pressed olive oil and farm fresh produce—on the other hand, come cheaply and can be bought from Bruna, the farmer’s wife, who will check on us when they come to work the land around the old farmhouse.
A cat, Passante (the passer-by) will arrive for feeding. His snapshot is pinned to one of the rustic beams above a fax machine, for which no instructions are given. On the bookshelves are Anne Tyler novels, which I read one after the other, and an Esperanto handbook, which I transcribe because I love the way the sentences attempt to illustrate a linguistic simplicity to end the Cold War, but instead describe an increasingly bizarre world of going to the opera, chatting about Einstein and appreciating the phenomena of migratory birds.
I am in Volterra with my mother-in-law, her twin sister, and her sister’s husband. I work at a school and it is summer vacation. My husband will join us in a week. According to my journal, I feel undefined. Where is the instruction manual for your mid-20s? And why do there seem to be no other women my age in Volterra?
Whenever an insect flies by one of us will intone, “Il calabrone.” In writing their instructions, the owners used the Italian words for things, a form of tough love, so that we would not, for instance, be telling the Italian dottore that we were stung by a hornet, but would use the correct word and thus be seen to properly.
It’s nicer to be in a house, but it requires instructions on how to live someone else’s life or else to live a version of the life they imagine for you. In Paris, we would stay in the flat of our friends’ family friends who punctuated their guide with “I kid you not,” as if to live in France were to partake in an elaborate farce.
Instruction manuals for one’s home reveal assumptions about your readers, their inadequacies and their tolerance for your rules. Everyone has written one at some point, right? How to water my plants. How to work the keys. What my cat likes to talk about. On your return, you may find this manual barely touched—did they read it? Maybe I didn’t put it in the right place?—or gone, thrown out in annoyance, improperly recycled in spite of your detailed description of how and when your borough, your town, your country handles the disposal of trash. Or have they taken it with them as the source material for, I kid you not, a lifetime of running jokes?
At midday, Bruna lays down her buckets and takes a nap on a mattress that rests upon an old door on two crates. Her hair is white, her eyes are pale, her skin deeply tanned and lined. At the end of the day, when she and the two farmers go home, she changes into the kind of timeless dress that all the middle aged and older women wear. Her ankles are no wider than her Achilles tendon and I suspect that she may be younger than she looks.
The erotic Madonna in a modern art show is a predictable surprise. She is struck down by a powerful annunciation, the rays of light radiate from between her legs. Women are virgin, mother, whore. I am none of these.
My mother-in-law collects marble eggs. Her guidebook recommends an alabaster workshop. D.H. Lawrence, in Etruscan Places, mocks Volterra’s production of alabaster lampshades. Decades on tourists can find worse crimes against the native stone, which is dyed to make garish Easter eggs and drilled to electrify pyramids and goddess statues. At the place from the guidebook, a craftsman sits at his workbench. He has carved fruit, adding dark wood for the stems and leaves, and arranged it on platters, some whole, some halved. What lies at the core are not the seeds of the fruit, but human genitalia. Human torsos sprout from lilies. My mother-in-law has been studying Italian but would not have had the words to say that, while impressive, this was not to her taste. Was there just a plain egg to buy? A souvenir to remember, in a more concise form, all of these funny, awkward moments.
Coming home from dinner the town square is filled with beams of colored light and techno music for a slideshow about alabaster.
The matrons in self-belted dresses gather in the piazza. They gossip even while praying in church. I observe them turn their heads to watch a nun move through them in a billowing white habit. In spite of her steel-rimmed glasses and the grim shadow of a mustache, she has a youthful waist while they, no longer nymphs, with their knotty calves and roughly hewn hair, are like a forest of old laurel trees.
There are stumps of feather quills in our chicken. We are even more surprised to find inside of it not a plastic bag of internal organs but eggs.
Cu vi estas edzo? Edzino? Are you a husband? A wife? Are you a railway worker? What are you? Which other languages do you know? What time is it? At what time shall we hear the dance music sextet? How much do you know about atomic energy? Is a woman a creator or a destroyer? Which do you love more: singing or dancing?
I go by myself to Florence and find the Arno a deep and intense green, listen to music in a cathedral, eat gnocchi in a café and wish I were the kind of person who could go out at night on my own.
My husband finally arrives and I can show him the town. The weather turns chilly and there are new tourists in sweaters. They purchase their combo passes that will get them into all of the museums and exhibits. I dig mine out from the bottom of my bag for its final punch. We go to the Etruscan museum and look at the cinerary urns, the most famous of which is of a married couple arranged in bed, looking not at each other, but in different directions, facing eternity with a hard and fearless gaze.
At a restaurant in EUR, the night before we leave, a pregnant woman with a red, lattice-backed sundress is led by a little boy. Her long, wavy hair is pulled up, her bangs clipped to one side by a pink, plastic barrette. On the plane, young mothers in leggings press their feet into the carpeted wall of the bulkhead. Babies grab at their faces. The stewardess holds a baby aloft like a putti as a mother takes her seat. Once seated, the mother holds out her arms for her child, and the flight attendant says kindly, but firmly, “Fasten your seatbelt.”