Sunset was approaching like a sailboat on the horizon. My friend Anna and I were in Riccione, having finished a half hour of peaceful, infinitely slow wandering along the largely empty beach in search of shells. It was the end of September but the temperatures were climbing into the high seventies or low eighties. It had seemed there was no better option but to hop on the train and soak in some autumn sunshine.
Eventually, we stopped to let the waves lick our feet. On the edge of the water were two hermit crabs. One was completely outside of its shell looking rather defeated; the other was trying to pry itself from its old shell and into its new home, wrestled from the listless loser.
Anna and were spellbound watching this minute, rather prehistoric creature struggling to accomplish its task. All the while, the gentle waves buffeted the dime-sized hermit crab about. It was helpless to each pulse of salty water, which jettisoned it in one direction and its new shell in the other. Eventually, with a great thrust, it managed to at least pop itself out of its original shell.
We gasped as this weird animal that was all snapping pinchers a tightly coiled, nearly translucent pink tail swiftly jammed itself into its new home. The next wave carried it, rolling and bouncing, back inside the tepid waters of the Adriatic Sea.
Strange as it may sound, I really identified with the struggle of that tiny thing, fighting against the waves, trying its hardest to accomplish something quite tricky. Those of you that have been around for the ride are probably connecting my feelings about this battle with the one I just fought to stay in Italy. Italy — you insufferable, indescribably gorgeous jerk.
But observing the grit of that small hermit crab, I was reminded of a more common, well-known tussle that isn’t just mine alone: loneliness. All encompassing loneliness, which pulls you under like the tide. Momentarily, you forget that it always flows away again, leaving you lighter than you remembered.
I’d been having one of those lonely spells a few weeks ago. Fortunately, I had two things in my favor: I’m not much of a wallower, and I know my own power.
The thing is, each one of us is a powerful being, many of us just don’t realize it. Or we don’t make use of our power because we don’t know how or we don’t think we can. Life has a way of getting under our skin and dishing us up more crap on top of our crap sandwich, but using the power within us is a way to buck the system. By that I mean, we can heal ourselves. We can go on a quest to find ourselves joy. We can learn to love ourselves so much that we don’t need anyone else to love us.
And so — with the power vested in me — I planned myself a romantic vacation to Ferrara to see its famous Busker Festival. “Ferrara offers a 200,000 square meter stage for a thousand artists coming from 35 different nations,” I read on the Emilia Romagna Tourism website. If I hadn’t been hooked already, I was then.
I had to go, in fact, especially because in the ten odd years I’d been stalking Italy like a house cat after a canary, I’d never managed to make that particular festival. So, I found myself a ridiculously affordable Airbnb a juggling pin’s toss away from the center, booked a train and off I went.
On the train, I’d been texting with my host who said he’d meet me downstairs to let me into the apartment. He said 16,45 (4:45 pm.) but he’s Italian, so I took the most indirect route from the train station, arriving just after five o’clock. My young-ish, slightly disheveled host had not yet arrived.
When he did, I followed him up a creaky flight of stairs to his apartment. It was eclectically decorated with waving ferns, a chair with zebra print, old car posters and the unmistakable scent of skunky weed. He let me into a room with vintage posters from the 80s, a disco ball and a single bed that squeaked like a tortured mouse every time I twitched a muscle.
Then he showed me the bathroom which was, “Solo per te” or for my use only, except the toilet was refilling itself and I hadn’t used it yet…
Twenty minutes later plus another ten on foot and I was in the center, searching for a spritz while dodging a billion bikes (Ferrara has long claimed to have the highest bike density in Italy; in fact, it’s got 140,000 residents and 100,000 bikes).
Soon enough, I was sipping a cocktail to the cheerful riffs of an Irish string quartet. Then, admiring a rainbow-infused butterfly a skilled face painter was applying to the cheek of a beaming little girl. From there, I paused to listen to a woman with an angelic voice accompanied by my favorite instrument, the cello.
My feet directed me towards the main piazza where I floated about like a cotton blossom on a breeze. Along with a sizeable crowd, I listened to a quartet of musicians from Argentina, dancing because I couldn’t help myself. Their music was addictively cheerful, matching their joyful faces.
Around me, as usual, the Italians were rather still; I’m sure they were enjoying the show just as much as me, but in general they prefer to guardare (watch) instead groove. An observer could’ve picked the stranieri (foreigners) out of the crowd by our twitching shoulders, flailing arms and bobbing heads.
Then I wandered some more, absorbing various acts and sounds like una piccola spugnetta — a little sponge. I allowed myself to be rather fickle in my wanderings, listening to part of one song and bailing, arriving halfway into another. Or ducking under one of those bubbles that’s as big as a rolled up yoga mat and if it happens to pop above your head, will surely drench you like a summer shower.
Or squeezing into the front row to watch a man deftly spray painting sunsets onto various canvases. Before you could say, “Wow, what colors…” he’d finished one and was on to the next.
Then I made the mistake of looking around the crowd, and at the people beside me whom I kept accidentally elbowing. The same people I kept turning towards because I wanted to share the joy that I was imbibing from the guys in front of us juggling glass balls. Or the woman breathing fire, who was enviously gorgeous and as a performer had the crowd wrapped around her little finger like dental floss.
I’ve noticed many Italians kind of tend to stick together like the cream on the top of a really good bottle of fresh milk.
They come with their friends and they’re not searching for additional amicis. The same friends they’ve known since the day they all dropped their pacifiers on the ground and then picked them up and put them back in their mouths not knowing whose was whose. Dirt and spit friends, thick and thin friends, bonded by all those formative years, all those inside jokes and holidays, sunday lunches and laurel-crowned graduation parties.
In other words, I was in a crowd so big it felt like a loafer-clad sea, but I was one of the only lone fish swimming about. Everyone else was in pairs or gaggles. Because, logically, another thing Italians don’t seem so fond of — and of course, I’m still generalizing — is doing things solo. My Italian ex told me he hated eating out alone because “he looked pathetic.” Perhaps it was just his particular inner insecurities speaking (we all have them).
Or maybe this conviction is reinforced by a culture that gently but firmly suggests that a person conform instead of stand out. Who really knows, but I was suddenly feeling the empty space beside me as if it were an entity.
As evening tiptoed in, infiltrating itself in that gentle, golden way unique to autumn, I started to feel as if the loneliness was a net. My thirty-six years on earth began to feel like 36,000. As the cobbles passed beneath my feet, the empty space beside me began to posit questions… Was there something wrong with me that I was alone again? Would I ever find someone again? Or worse yet, if I found someone would it all go to shit like it had before?
And more importantly, why was I inclined to believe that my happiness depended on finding some sort of soulmate? Especially because I’ve never believed each of us has just one person in the vast, over-populated world.
Typically, being alone didn’t affect me so profoundly; I didn’t just tolerate doing things solo, I relished each chance I had to do so. Even home Faenza, where my days were full with teaching and traveling to Bologna to work on lyrics for Musixmatch. In the evening, it was grand to balance out the hustle with my own company. It must be that everything I’d gone through over the last year, mostly processed but still fresh enough, was piling up like fall leaves against Ferrara’s imposing Castello Estense.
Lost in my thoughts, I almost walked into a black, lacy arm. I stopped short and followed the arm up to a starkly white, painted face from which two unblinking eyes studied me serenely. A mime stood above me on a black wooden box. Her outstretched hand was closed; she subtly nodded towards the velvet hat on the ground and I tossed a euro in.
Behind me was a string of kids, bouncing like little Tiggers for their turn to toss in a euro and see what the mime held inside her gloved hand. One babbling blond boy received a little silver dog; another clutched a small circle on which was etched a tree representing the Circle of Life. A little girl held out her hand for a dainty silver crown.
When I held out my adult hand, the mime paused for a moment before carefully bending down to press a silver heart into my palm.
“Love is all around,” she whispered before resuming her perfectly erect, motionless position, pulling a fan slowly and dramatically across her face.
I blinked, staring at her, not even sure that she’d spoken at all. She winked at me as a lightness spread across my collarbones and down into my empty stomach.
Aiming for a couple slices of pizza, I stopped first for a beer from one of the countless bancarelle (stands) hawking such cold, refreshing things. Then, I devoured my pizzette alla trancia con salsiccia e friarielli e pancetta e radicchio while listening to another a folky trio with violins, flute and velvet garb.
By then an enormous crowd had gathered around a tall pole that was erecting itself under the hands of random volunteers. Soon enough, it would become a prop for an appropriately busker-esque act…
This man, too, had the crowd’s attention stuck to him like bird scat on a car roof — mine included.
Since it was Sunday, the Ferrara Buskers Festival was coming to an end. In the cooling air of evening, I followed the massive crowd that had been watching the man’s acrobatics on the pole. We trickled under an arched passageway into a spacious inner courtyard where the finale would take place. Above us, the stars twinkled in anticipation.
After a few minutes, the area was filled with a bone-thudding rhythm; its source was twenty-odd blue plastic drums. They were played by the percussionist group Vulcanica and these men and women were all muscles and masks, both of which were necessary. The muscles because their performance was lengthy and required serious energy; and the masks because their drumsticks were flying fast enough to break the sound barrier and probably a cheekbone or two.
By the time the mesmerizing finale finished, night had draped across elegant Ferrara like a lace tablecloth. Long, cobbled alleyways that were gorgeous in the daytime took on a sultry hue, the dark corners keeping their mysteries away from the light.
I sat on a medieval wall, observing. Here an elderly couple weaving skillfully through the dwindling crowd on bikes. There the call of a sleepy dove, hidden in the crook of a castle wall. Beneath it, necking teenagers, not even bothering to stick to the shadows.
Walking slowly back through the square, a smile lit my face like a candle in a window. In the morning, it would be wiped away by the sight of my host, stomping around the apartment in his underwear and looking as if a gym pass was farther from his mind than Antartica is from Ferrara by bike.
But for that moment, I was content. I’d made it to the other side of another wave of loneliness; of course, I it would be back sometime, tapping on my window like a branch in the wind. But that was all right — I could deal with it.
I looked around again, at the square swathed in the orange light of streetlights and still clogged with humans. With new eyes, I gazed at the groups of friends stuck together like a bunch of barnacles on the hull of a well-worn ship. I smiled more because love really was all around, as the mime said.
Perhaps I’d gotten it kind of wrong in that our soulmates weren’t those winsome, almost mystical, star-striking humans who love us and leave us (or even those that stay). Instead, our soulmates could be the people that were there since pacifiers and would hopefully be until dentures.
Or the ones that showed up in college and held our hair back and then never left our rooms or inboxes since. In fact, it would make much more sense if our soulmates were the consistent ones, the people who remind us why we’re worthy of the love that is all around.