April 22, 2010

The Smell of Nostalgia


For almost the entire time I was living in Italy - the last two months I moved to an apartment in Parioli - I was living at my grandmother's house in Prati, a wonderful old, but not quite historic, neighborhood in Rome.

The neighborhood is called Prati - fields, in Italian - because it used to be just that, and then a residential neighborhood was built to accommodate military families between the two world wars. The buildings range from Art Deco Fabulous - my cousins live in a building with a lush courtyard filled with banana trees and a goldfish pond, and which still has the two original stairwells, ones for the lords and ladies of the house, and one for the service people - to Aristocratic Fascist - which is the category my grandmother's house falls into. Not fascist in the repressive and dictatorial sense, but rather in the dark, heavy architecture, with the military helmets carved into the enormous wooden front doors, neither of which scream free-spirited bohemian style.

Although by looking at the outside of the building - a boring, blocky cement structure - you would never be able to guess how beautiful the apartments on the inside were. All stone-tiled floors, long, aristocratic hallways with countless rooms off the side, including a double living-dining room, a study, a library, and too many bedrooms for even a summer's worth of guests to fill up.

The only drawback was that it doesn't have a terrace for those warm, July nights where dining outside is an imperative. But what the tiny balcony lacks in size, it almost makes up for in charm, giving onto the inner courtyard, which although serving only as an unattractive parking area, is surrounded by a mosaic of windows, each like a tiny television set to the single channel of a neighbor's life.

There was the thirty-something Vinn Diesel lookalike, who although bulky and intimidating physically, lived with his elderly mother, and treated his kitty with such tenderness. He also liked to walk around in his white briefs! There was the old man who would play old classical records with the windows open. The son of the facing building's doorman, who worked on his cherry-red 1950s Vespa. And the twin girls (to whom I gave English lessons) who spied on me from their bedroom window, giggling.

Having lived there for more than two years, the building is familiar to me now. But I remember when I was little, and our summer trips to Italy were almost exclusively centered around the beach house, we would rarely come into Rome to my grandmother's house. But when we did, it was such a treat! The minute those huge (I'm talking fifteen feet tall!) front doors starting creaking open - electronically, as they are too massive to open by hand - the familiar cool, vintage smells of the building would come wafting down the stairs, bringing memories of my grandparents' old things.

The cold, marble foyer steps led up to the old, original Otis elevator, with the glass-paned doors you have to open manually, and which can only go to one floor at a time. Getting up to the fourth floor, we needed a huge six inch skeleton key to open the door to the apartment, which was always a little sticky.

Inside the house, each room was full of wonderful mysteries. From the box of Carneval costumes from when my dad and his siblings were children - way back in the 1940s! - to the drawer full of unlabeled correspondence between my grandparents and their friends, to the cabinets full of old, faded photos, documenting an entire century, and the engraved silver photo album with cardboard silver gelatin prints from the late 1800s.

I could go on and on - about the ancient scale with the little brass weights, or the collection of leather bound books from the sixteenth century, or, the aluminum Christmas boxes full of old wooden toys - but I won't bore you with every little thing that used to fascinate me on these visits.

In 2007, after I graduated from college, I moved into the apartment, and that elusive place from my childhood became my home. While I lived there, the novelty wore off a bit. Not entirely, because I would occasionally find myself wandering into the always closed living rooms, sitting on the straight-backed (horribly uncomfortable!) sofa, gently flipping through my grandmother's "yearbook" - a slim leather notebook where at the end of each school year, her classmates signed their names after poems or intricate pen and ink illustrations - which dates back to 1930.

But after a while I started to carve out my own space, full of computer cables and wireless routers, books that didn't belong in a museum, and all of my clothes, and I didn't spend as much time exploring. Although every time I did look around I always found something new.

The most beautiful, heart-strings-tugging, part of the house was in my grandmother's room. Back when her own children started pairing off and getting married she started tacking up photos on a wall of her room. Slowly, over the last forty years, the wall grew into a giant collage of all her nearest and dearest, from my aunts' and uncles' weddings, to my cousins' first steps, to our big family dinners around the ping pong table at the beach house (there were always too many people for us to fit around a regular table, so on the patio we would split the ping pong table into two and seat the grown ups around one and the kids around the other). Looking at that wall was like feeling the past give me a big hug, and I couldn't help but smile and linger every time I went into my grandmother's room.

In May 2009, my grandmother passed away. She was two weeks short of her ninety-fourth birthday, and I highly doubt that anyone led a fuller, richer life than hers. She lived through both world wars, through monarchic, fascist, and finally republican Italy. She lived to see her six children grow up, achieve success in their careers, get married, and have kids; to see each of her fifteen grandchildren born and become individual people. She even lived to meet her first four great-grandchildren. She was a kind, loving, generous, and brilliant woman, and every aspect of her wonderful personality was present in that amazing old house.


When I went back to Italy for Easter I found out that the house had finally sold. It was huge, it needed a lot of work, it was expensive to keep, and it was unfeasible for the six siblings (three in Rome, two in northern Italy, and my father in the states) to jointly maintain and manage the apartment, even renting it out. So the logical solution was to sell it. At least now I know it's going to a family, and it won't be divided up into offices (the sad fate of all too many huge Prati apartments, now that families no longer have six children and live-in help), but that doesn't change the fact that I'm heartbroken to see it go. I wish I could keep the apartment, to house all of my grandparents' memories, my memories from my childhood, and even my recent memories of living there these last few years.

But I suppose I'll have to content myself with remembering that familiar smell I recognized every time I stepped into the building - the smell of nostalgia.


leigh ashley said...

i love this post. that's all. just love.

Anasthaesium said...

you must really love that house :)...when you moving to NY then??

Cole said...

Sounds like she had quite a story to tell. :)

b.a.s. said...

That was some solid house description. You gave me a serious hankering for a small town Euro sojourn.




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Keenie Beanie said...

Such an evocative essay, Julia. I could totally imagine that lovely apartment. You are fortunate to have enjoyed its charms.

Julia said...

I just love this post, Julia. It's beautiful.