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An Italian Affair



Mi hai spaccato il cuore.
You're reading a fairy tale in your evening Italian class when you come across this phrase. You think you know what it means, since the sea princess says it after her one true love abandons her, but you ask the teacher anyway.

"You have broken my heart," he says, and he makes a slashing motion diagonally across his dark blue sweater.

"You have cloven it in two."

Mi hai spaccato il cuore.
The phrase plays over and over in your mind, and the words in front of you blur. You can see your husband's face with his dark, wild eyebrows, and you whisper the phrase to him, Mi hai spaccato il cuore. You say it to plead with him, to make him stay, and then you say it with heat, a wronged Sicilian fishwife with a dagger in her hand. But he doesn't understand, he doesn't speak Italian; you shared so many things in your marriage, but Italy was all yours.

Mi hai spaccato il cuore.
You hear the phrase so many times that it loses its meaning, it just becomes Italian music, and it takes you into another realm. You're in another world, a place where people linger over lunch, drink full-bodied coffee, and stroll arm-in-arm at sunset. A place where the towns are built on such thick layers of tragedy and romance, stacked up like stones, that you can't take anything that happens to you very seriously. A place where you wouldn't be worried about running into your husband, who left you after a year of marriage for an old girlfriend, at an intimate little restaurant in your neighborhood. Where you wouldn't be home making dinner, expecting to hear the thumping sound of him doing fast-paced yoga in the bedroom upstairs. Where you wouldn't walk into the bathroom in the morning and miss having to pick up the Scotch glass and wet mystery novel he left behind on the ledge of the tub the night before. In Italy, you would be far away.

Mi hai spaccato il cuore.
Let's say you have a few friends in Italy and you speak the language well enough. Maybe you could go there, just drift away from all of this and leave it behind. Maybe you would feel more like yourself again. Why not? And then a fantasy flickers and you think perhaps an Italian man might not be such a bad idea, either.
Someone speaks to you and you look up and see bright blue eyes with smile lines and a head of gray-black curls. Your Italian teacher. He puts a hand on your shoulder and you realize you are crying.

"Laura," your teacher asks. "Che c'è?" What's up?

You quickly wipe your eyes and gather up your books. "Mi dispiace tanto, ma devo andarmene," you say. I'm so sorry, but I have to leave.


When the plane touches down in Florence, it's evening. Lucia is there, waving from outside the security area, flipping her short dark hair away from her angular face. She kisses you on both cheeks and says you look great, even though that can't possibly be true. She speaks Italian faster than you can understand in your bleary condition, but you're glad to just follow along. Lucia loads your bag into her miniature car and goes careening around the perimeter of the city and into the center.

Just outside the pedestrian zone, she maneuvers into a tiny parking spot, and you walk from there along the narrow cobblestone streets until you reach a pensione right in the historic center, near the Piazza della Signoria. You're staying at a little hotel this visit because Lucia, an art teacher who was divorced, unhappily, in her late thirties, has a new boyfriend who stays over. So there's no more room at her place. You don't mind; Lucia seems so content, her face softer than the last time you saw her.

You ring at a massive wooden door, get buzzed in, and then squeeze into an elevator cage that barely fits the two of you and your bag. You greet the grumpy signora at the front desk, roused from her TV napping, and deposit your things. It's late, but Lucia insists you have to go out for a drink.

"Andiamo," she says, and you are glad to be persuaded.

You return to the streets, which, despite the hour, are filled with couples strolling, middle-aged signoras locking arms, tourists taking flash photos, and bands of teenagers gathered on the steps of the magnificent marble Duomo. You end up at one of the cafés on the Piazza della Repubblica, taking a seat at an outdoor table, the September night air still warm. The waiter comes up in his crisp white shirt and black bow tie, and without asking, Lucia orders you both glasses of spumante secco.

The spumante secco reminds you of a moment you shared the year before, when you were vacationing together for a few days in the Cinque Terre, on the Ligurian coast, hiking from one fishing village to the next. You had arrived in Manarola, with its pastel houses stacked up around a tiny harbor, and sat down, dusty and tired, for a drink before dinner. Lucia had ordered the spumante, and by the time the waiter set the glasses down the sun was just setting beyond the little harbor, turning the whole sea as pink as smooth sandstone. "La vita è un arte," she'd said, clinking glasses.

You had returned to that moment in your mind many times since, to cheer you up.

When the waiter brings the drinks, Lucia clicks glasses with you again. "Cin cin," she says, chin chin. Then she gets right down to business, asking what happened with your husband.

"Raccotami tutto," she says. The Italians have that wonderful verb, raccontare, that means to tell a story. Tell me the story about everything.

She says she can't imagine how it happened. Just the year before, she reminds you, when you'd stayed with her for a few weeks, your new husband was always calling from San Francisco, just to tell you he loved you. In return, you had sent him cards you made with photo booth pictures, wearing Italian movie star sunglasses, blowing kisses, ciao ciao, telling him he was the only reason you didn't stay in Florence forever.

"What happened?" Lucia asks.

You say you aren't really sure, you're still in a state of shock about the whole thing. You recount, as best you can in your night-school Italian, the bare details of the breakup. You'd been married just over a year, after being together for three years before that. He had a new job as a trial attorney, and you'd just had your first book out; you were both doing what you'd always wanted to do with your lives. Everything seemed to be fine, even if you were both very busy. Then suddenly, just as mysteriously as you had fallen in love four years before, he seemed to fall out of love.

"When did it start, this falling out of love?" asks Lucia, sipping her drink.

You don't know. You had been luxuriating in your new marriage and didn't see the signs of trouble. Maybe it was in February, on your birthday, when you first became aware of a rift between you. You had driven north of San Francisco to Point Reyes National Seashore. That was the place, you tell Lucia, that had reminded her of the Sardinian coast when she visited you there. It was the place your husband and you had hiked when you were first so amazed that you'd found each other. On that day in February, on the trail back from the estuary where you had watched some sea lions lounge in the winter sun with their pups, you brought up the topic of having a child. Your husband—let's call him Jon—said he wasn't sure it was a good time. You said it's probably never a good time, but you had talked about it for a couple of years, and at thirty-six, you can't wait forever. He was quiet for a while before telling you that if you did get pregnant, it would really freak him out.

"But he wanted to have children?" Lucia asks.

"Yeah, that's why we decided to get married."

Lucia blows out smoke with a sigh.

"I was so sure we were going to have a child," you tell her, "that I even bought a set of maternity clothes." You had never confessed that to anyone before. They were still in the back of your closet, because you couldn't stand to give them away.

"You already bought maternity clothes?" asked Lucia. "Sei pazza, cara." You're crazy, my dear. She takes a long look at you and shakes her head. "Well," she says, waving her cigarette, "you can always wear them if you get really fat."

"Perfetto!" you say, laughing for the first time in months. "Do they serve gelato here?" you joke, scanning the restaurant for the waiter. Then your eyes rest back on Lucia, who has stopped smiling. "I was stupid," you say.

"You weren't stupid. You wanted a bambino. That's natural. Go on."

That day on the hike, the conversation shifted subtly, crucially. Jon said he wasn't just freaked out about having a baby in general. He was freaked out about you having a baby together. In that one moment, the whole relationship was in question, everything was up for grabs, and he couldn't explain why.

In the weeks after that, Jon got up earlier every morning to go to work, and stayed later after work at the gym. It also turned out that he was seeing a lot of a high school girlfriend, who, after being out of touch for twenty years, had called out of the blue. That explained why Jon, who had been too tired for months to make love at nine-thirty, was now coming home sometimes at one in the morning.

"He was seeing another woman?" asks Lucia, her bright face darkening. "Did you know her?"

You had met her once. You came home from being out with a friend one evening to find the remains of a cozy dinner, with candles and flowers. You called, and no one answered. You went upstairs to the bedroom, dreading the worst, and found them out on the terrace outside. They were wrapped in sleeping bags, drinking wine, staring at the moon.

"He knew you were coming home and he was there with another woman? In camping bags?" asked Lucia, incredulous. "What did you do?"

"I introduced myself." She left quickly, and the rest was a blur of discussions and lies, even a broken plate (you threw it, of course). Suddenly you were in the third session with a marriage counselor where your husband said, flatly, I just want out of this relationship. He didn't even call it a marriage. He dropped you off at home with an anxious, gripping hug, both of you crying, and that was it. He left.

"That was four months ago," you tell Lucia, "in May."

"I'm so sorry," says Lucia.

You're quiet for a moment, and then she makes a gesture flicking her fingers under her chin that Italians use to say, economically, forget him, he wasn't worth it, life goes on and you'll be better off.

"He seemed like he was an interesting, intelligent man," Lucia says, "but he never had the love of life you have anyway, the sense of la bella vita."

You nod. Lucia is right. There's nothing more to say. You drain your glass, and Lucia gestures for another round.

"You'll find someone else, someone better," Lucia says. "I never thought I would at first, but eventually, I did. It may not have been in time for a family, but . . ." She sips her spumante. "Pero, è cosí."

You lift your glass to Lucia. "To your new love," you say. She smiles.

"And to yours. When he comes."

The next morning, you wander around your favorite places in Florence. You stroll in the Boboli Gardens, hiking to the top, where the view of the city's spires, domes, and red-tiled roofs has always awed you. But now it just looks like another postcard.

You walk back down through the park, taking winding paths that lead to the streets, and study the windows of the boutiques near the Ponte Vecchio. You pass the men's store where the year before a charming salesman had spent half an hour helping you choose among the most beautiful ties in Italy, holding each one up under his chin, while you tried to decide which one you should send home to your husband. The tie you eventually agreed on had looked great on the Italian, and your husband had liked it, too—as much, anyway, as he ever liked a piece of clothing. When you met him, he had little regard for his appearance: aviator glasses, Grateful Dead T-shirts, bushy black hair, floodwater jeans. Beautiful smile, though. After living with you, he'd cut his hair, bought new glasses, some clothes that fit, and he'd received a lot of gorgeous ties. So now he looks great for his new girlfriend. And you look, well, older.

Next door, a boutique is just opening after lunch. You don't ordinarily go into Italian boutiques, not only because their clothes are usually made for tiny people, but because if you go inside it shows you're serious about buying something. You can't just browse the way you can in the United States. You nod hello to the shopkeeper, a stylish woman in her forties with a long black mane, and glance at the colorful shirts stacked in twos and threes on minimalist glass shelves. When you were together, your husband had definite ideas about what he liked you to wear: nothing too colorful or sexy, lots of navy blue, anything with a polo collar, sensible shoes. For a free-spirited type, he had extremely Princetonian taste in women's clothing. It was as if he'd been attracted to you for your exuberance, and then did everything he could to tone it down. You dutifully chucked your red shoes into the back of the closet and wore a lot of gray.

You ask the shopkeeper if you can try on a short magenta jacket. She looks at you doubtfully. "I don't think it will work on you," she concludes. Unlike in the United States, where clerks will sell you anything, no matter how unflattering, Italian shopkeepers don't want to be responsible for any aesthetic errors walking around on the streets.

"Why not?" you ask her.

"Signora," she says, delicately, "you have a large bottom and a small waist, and a short jacket will not look good on you. You must always wear a long jacket, fitted in here," she says, gesturing to your waist.
She was right, of course. What were you thinking? You should never deviate from that slenderizing long-jacket rule. You also never should have walked in. They have nothing your size in that store, nothing big enough for you and your big bottom.

The shopkeeper, sensing that you are out of sorts, whirls around to another rack, sifts through, and hands you a bronze knit top with tiny skin-baring stripes of crochet woven in. "This will suit you," she says. You try it on, half-heartedly, but it's a little too clingy, a little bare. You emerge from the dressing room and stand, slumped, in front of her. "It doesn't work on me."

She studies you. "The color is good for your hair, it picks up the gold, and the brown in your eyes."

"It's a little too sexy," you say doubtfully.

The shopkeeper gives you a look that suggests that nothing can ever be too sexy. "Well, you can wear a little camisole underneath it if you must," she says, pulling at the fabric here and there. "And you have to stand up, hold yourself strong." You straighten up a bit. "There," she says, "you have a beautiful bust, you should show it off."

You turn in front of the mirror. "This makes me look fat."

The commessa throws up her hands. "You are a woman, you have a woman's body, so what?" she says. "You should show what's nice about your body. I think your husband will like this."

He certainly wouldn't have liked it. "I don't have a husband," you tell her, fingering the fabric.

"Well, then, it's good to dress sexy for yourself," she says. "Maybe even better."

"D'accordo." Yes. You could dress sexy for yourself. You walk out with a top that your husband definitely would have hated, for about the price of a really nice tie.

The next day, you wake up questioning why you're in Italy. It's September, your friends are all busy working, and you have no plans. You've been to Florence before, you've seen all the major museums and monuments already, but you distract yourself by being a tourist anyway. You wait with all the other tourists, a long line of ants, to finally get into the Uffizi, crowding around the Botticellis and Titians, trying to catch a glimpse of the paintings between all the elbows and shoulders.

You really aren't in the mood for any more museums, so you rent a bicycle and ride up to Fiesole, past villas and vineyards, past the cliff where Leonardo da Vinci made some hapless assistant test out his first flying machine, and all the way to the top of the hill. The view everywhere is stupendous—cypress trees and olive terraces, Florence at your feet—but you can't just sit there and admire it. You're impatient to move on, to coast back down to town as fast as you can. No matter where you go, you always have the sense that something is following you close behind.

The following morning, you don't care that you're in Italy, you can't get out of bed. You're as tearful and depressed as you'd been in San Francisco; you've come all this way and all you can think about is how much you miss your husband, and how there's no one to call if you want to call home. At lunchtime, it's all you can do to finally get up and go see your friend Nina at her office near Santa Croce.

Nina is on the phone when you arrive, arguing with someone, gesturing angrily with one hand and greeting you effusively with the other. She drops the phone and runs over to embrace you, kissing you quickly on both cheeks, giving her assistant some instructions over your shoulder. Nina picks up her perfect black jacket and trim leather bag and motions you to come on, follow her out.

Nina, a sophisticated woman in her forties, stayed with you in San Francisco for a month several years ago, a friend of your Italo-American friend Cecilia, who had lived in Italy years before. At the time, you spoke no Italian, but Nina spoke a little English, and you communicated well enough that you admired her sensibility. She would make big bowls of exquisitely savory pasta, even though she swore she couldn't cook. She felt so sorry for your boyfriend then, for going out with a vegetarian, that she once made him a steak and a roast for dinner. She ate lunch every day at the same Italian restaurant in the neighborhood, and said she had absolutely no desire to go anywhere else, to venture out to try Thai, Cambodian, or Vietnamese food because there was always a risk of getting cilantro in a dish, and cilantro tastes like soap. A petite, dark-haired woman with a smoky voice, Nina had brought few clothes with her, but always dressed impeccably in a wool skirt, twin set, and flat Italian loafers—even just to go to her English language classes. She couldn't understand the way her American friend dressed, and once opened up your closet and demanded to know why you went around in sloppy jeans all the time when you had a wardrobe full of beautiful clothes. "Non ha senso," she said. It makes no sense.

A year later, Nina's friend—and now your friend—Lucia came to visit San Francisco with a group of her girlfriends. You had big dinner parties at your flat, everyone's cheeks red with wine and laughter. They invited you to stay with them in a house in Monterey that they'd managed to exchange for a week for one of their places in Italy. You went hiking with Lucia in Big Sur—she was the only one of the Italian women who was interested in hiking—and you liked that she was so willing to be awed by the drama of the steep coastal mountains, and by the playful sea lions at the rocky beach. Even though you spoke only Spanish in common, you became great friends, closer than most friends you'd known in San Francisco for years. There was something simpatico between you.

After the Italian women went home, you decided to try to learn the language, taking one evening class after another and watching all the Marcello Mastroianni films you could get your hands on. You took advantage of having friends and a free place to stay and visited Nina and Lucia in Florence a couple of times over the years. You became familiar with Florence, knowing the bus routes and flea markets and out-of-the-way restaurants where only Italians ate. You went to cooking school for a week in a fourteenth-century villa in Tuscany, spending mornings making ravioli and risotto, and afternoons walking on dusty paths through vineyards, olive groves, and patches of purple thistles. Then it was two weeks in a language school overlooking the Arno in Florence, drilling passato remoto verbs with young Swiss students who were much more serious than you were, but who managed to make the language sound guttural and stiff. You went to a Bob Dylan concert in a medieval town square outside of Florence, your Italian friends insisting that you translate the lyrics, and then laughing when you tried, "all confused in a big mess of blue."

By the time Lucia's friend Giovanna came to San Francisco to stay for a month—nothing an Italian would ever consider an imposition, and so you didn't, either—you'd learned enough of the language to carry on a decent conversation and slowly, slowly improved.

Now Nina leads you from her office into a busy little stand-up lunch place, where everyone crowds around the bar trying to shout his or her order. The guy behind the bar ignores everyone else when Nina approaches the counter. He asks what La Nina would like today, and she asks him what's good. They have a long, flirtatious conversation while everyone else tries to catch the waiter's attention. Finally Nina orders and steers you to a wobbly high table by the window, setting down a couple of glasses of red wine and then going back to the bar to pick up the plates of pasta. Nina tries a bite of the simple penne with fresh tomatoes and basil and exclaims about how good it is, thrilled at her choice, even though she eats at that same place every single day.

Nina says she was sorry to hear about your separation. "The first time you're heartbroken is always the worst," she assures you, dismissing the topic, and then asks about your vacation so far. You tell her about the exhibits and museums you've seen, and she is as excited talking about the art that surrounds her every day as she is about her lunch.

She shakes her head, marveling. "Laura, Laura," she says. "Last time you were here, you said you would learn Italian, and now you've learned it!"

"I need practice," you say.

"You need an Italian lover," Nina replies, matter-of-factly. "That's the only solution." Nina lights a cigarette, considering that. "To everything."

You tell her it's not such a bad idea. More than anything, you say, just realizing it, you want to put a body between yourself and your husband. You don't want him to be the last person you made love to, especially since the last time had been so horrible.

Nina asked why it had been so bad, and you tell her, because it's somehow easy to tell intimate stories in a romance language. It was during the brief period when your husband and you had been tense with each other; he was on his way out of the relationship, and you were trying to hang on, still thinking it was just a difficult time, the kind of thing couples go through that ends up making their marriages stronger. You thought maybe if you made love, things would be better, you would reconnect. You had joked about it, saying it could just be like casual sex, and he reluctantly agreed. After you'd had sex, mechanical sex, you leaned over his face to kiss him, and he turned away. "No," he'd said. "You're not supposed to kiss on the lips."

Nina gasps. "Incredibile."

Afterward, you got up to take a shower, pounding hot, to wash the whole thing away, and you knew that it was the last time you'd ever make love to your husband.

"That's terrible when you know it's the last time," Nina says. "But you always know." Nina drags on her cigarette and blows the smoke out the side of her mouth. "After that experience, the angels made a special note that you deserve better next time. I'm sure."

"Speriamo di sì," you say. Let's hope so. You pick at your pasta and tell Nina you're glad Lucia seems happy with her new boyfriend, since Lucia had been depressed after she split up with her husband—although it's hard to read depression in someone who is always so energetic and quick to laugh. You ask Nina if she is seeing anyone herself, and Nina waves away the question, too silly to consider. Then she confesses that she's been dating a musician, and starts laughing at herself.

"He's fat!" Nina bursts out. "I've never been with a fat man before!" She leans closer and whispers. "It's like riding waves," she says. "Wonderful!"

You like that image, and the way your Italian friends appreciate sensuality in all types, forget the ideal. You tell Nina that you yourself are cursed with always having skinny men interested in you. "Opposites attract," you say.
Nina looks at your body in that frank way Italian women will size you up. "You're thinner than you were last year," she observes.

It's the divorce, you explain. For the first time in your life, you've had no interest in food.

"Eat your pasta," Nina commands, and you do, glad that your appetite is returning.

As you wait for the waiter to bring coffee, Nina asks what you intend to do for the rest of your vacation. You tell her you don't know; you realize it's a bad time to be in Italy, your friends are all busy, and you've spent enough time in Florence over the years that you don't need another week dodging tour groups and looking at church interiors. You leave out that it's too hard to be in a place where your friends are all in love. You want to visit Giovanna in Bologna, but she, too, was recently married, and so you really can't stay there long, either. You don't have a plan for cooking school or a language course. You've already been to Rome, Venice, Ravenna, Umbria, Bologna, Liguria, and Tuscany. Maybe you'll go somewhere new.

Nina slaps her elegant little hand on the table. "Napoli!" she says, pleased with herself. "Perfect!" She'd just been to Naples, and had a wonderful time. The old architecture, the sense of beauty amidst decay, the food—it was all wonderful.

You're surprised. You'd always heard that Naples was a dangerous city to travel in, especially for a woman alone.

Nina waves away that concern. "It's like New York," she says. "If you carry your camera in a plastic bag, keep your money close to you, and act like you know what you're doing, you'll be fine."

"Maybe," you say.

"And Ischia!" Nina exclaims, ignoring your reluctance. "Go to Naples, look around the old city—you must look around—and then get the ferry to Ischia." Nina is definite, and full of plans, describing the island. "Or you can take the ferry from Pozzuoli, if you like. You can also go to Amalfi, to Pompeii . . ." Nina ticks off the possibilities on her fingers. "Just don't go to Capri. Capri is crawling with tourists, and way too expensive. You'll pay ten thousand lire there just for a cappuccino." Nina downs her espresso in one gulp. She has solved all of your problems, so she checks her watch. She has to get back to work.

You walk back to Nina's office, half a block away, and kiss good-bye. Nina runs up the stone steps to the grand front door of her building, then turns around. "Ischia, Laura," she calls, waving. "Ischia."
And so, the next day, you set out for Ischia. Maybe you'll see Naples, Capri, Pompeii, and the Amalfi coast, too, but your sights are set on Ischia. Something about a volcanic island with natural hot baths and long pebbly beaches sounds about right. Everything will be white stucco and washed with Mediterranean light. Everything else will be far, far away.

An Italian Affair
by by Laura Fraser

  • paperback: 240 pages
  • Publisher: Vintage
  • ISBN-10: 0375724850
  • ISBN-13: 9780375724855