Sarnano Stories: The Expat’s Residency Permit

Italy is refuge and safety, anonymity. A place where everyone may not know your name. However, you can run from your country but not from yourself. No amount of entertainments or money changes that.

Expats come in an assortment of shapes and sizes. Different ages and backgrounds, each required to have a permesso di soggiorno, a residency permit. Some expats are dreamers or cynics, to find, look, renew, create an Italian family or hide from themselves and others with no association to the musical language or Rome. They come for adventure, believing they have exhausted the beauty and experience of their birth country. A few leave their homeland with only a desire to wander in green hills or walk upon the baked clay where centurions marched two thousand years ago. There are men who have been injured or died in other parts of the world; Italy is refuge and safety, anonymity. A place where everyone may not know your name.

You can run from your country but not from yourself. No amount of entertainments or money changes that. Mileage cannot be rewound on life’s odometer. Expats bring what they were, guilt and shame, pride, superiority, the expectation of a better future, food, relief from history or to slow the passage of time. Pain comes with, no purchase required.

The middle aged man came to Sarnano across the Western Ocean more than several years ago. He purchased a house four kilometers from town on a hill with a view of other hills. Most homes in the borgo were owned by members of the same extended family. Two were owned by people from Florence who came on vacation or to flee tourists. Three were empty and had been for sale onward of a decade. Fields and the forest surrounded them. A german shepherd kept hikers away. The town cared for the road in a desultory fashion; it was years since gravel had been added and the ditches cleaned with a backhoe. By car it was ten minutes to the shops and large piazza where people sat and welcomed the heat of the sun near the fountain where pigeons preened. A bronze statue of a priest in contemplation stood on tended grass. The statue was the gift of a Sarnano native who immigrated to Canada as a child after the world war and became a famous neurosurgeon. An offering that his name not be forgotten as generations passed.

The expat resided in a collection of awkward rooms with steep narrow steps to the higher floors. A garden and rose bushes surrounded the building. The pellet stove’s heat could not reach the bedroom where there was a fireplace. In the burgo the wind was constant and the air clean. Wild boar ran through the flower beds. Rain water collected in their tracks. When questioned by a neighbor why he had selected this dwelling, the reply was short and evasive. Sometimes a question should not be asked because the answer is hidden in the cardboard boxes of memory’s attic.

Once or twice a week he came to town in the new used car that was clean and cared for. He had coffee in the Bar Centrale with a rotating group of men, shopped for food and washed his clothes at the public laundromat, listening to the spin cycles and reading the notices while folding his clothes. He placed them in the yellow bag taken from the Ikea store an hour away on the coast. He was generally alone with the machines. The barber was close to the laundromat, two errands that could be combined.

When people came from the country listed on his passport he met them in a cafe and suggested that they meet for pranzo or an aperitivo. They spoke about what it was like back home; politics, the success of sport teams and weather, how Italy was better in most respects. Then he slipped away, the way people do when they finish a glass of wine and wish to hear the silence of trees. Seclusion was a shield from himself.

He was a good man, did favors and helped people that needed his hands and tools, had pizza at a restaurant with outside seating and an attractive waitress. He had an American’s poor taste for Nescafe instant in a country that understood better coffee and the use of a Moka pot, the ritual and time, waiting for the bubbling liquid and the fragrance of roasted beans. In the evening he watched documentaries and mystery programs on his computer or the big screen on the wall. He considered building a pool. There were issues with the other landowners. He liked to power wash the tiles where he parked his car and mow the grass. He had compassion without empathy and did not wonder why he had chosen this place, other than a friend’s suggestion. His day was a series of habits that were comfortable and allowed him to avoid the image in the bathroom’s mirror.

Like a faded favorite shirt with stretched button holes, secrets came at night when he ate dinner in the kitchen with cake afterwords or clementines in season. He refused them entry. He did not think of a bad marriage and the photo of a woman and child playing on a beach which lived on a side table. The boy grown to man was a disappointment without prospect beyond grasping for father’s money. He received an allowance to insure absence and the separation of oceans. Important to the expat was an upward trending stock market, a sign of prosperity and a successful life, justification and validation. He smiled when he looked at rising numbers on a spreadsheet kept neatly on the desk and maintained notes of record highs.

One winter evening during a high wind forecast alert the internet was down. He looked at the flames in the pellet stove and thought about life, how he had come to Italy. Shadows from the fire danced through the room. He admitted faults, added them to slights from friends and family, felt anger at his lack of achievement, distinction and affection. Why he had traded the Land Rover for isolation at the edge of a forest. He lied to himself, edging closer to despair.

When he arrived in Sarnano it was with a woman who was a friend. She was looking for a husband, perhaps him. It came to nothing. She bought an apartment in a busy part of the Centro and blamed him for difficult times. The pair became distant and he avoided her on the streets in town and at the supermercato. They shared acquaintances but he disliked gossip and avoided confrontation. She did not forgive him.

He had found a town where he could live the balance of his life with the rewards of his work. He frequented stores, bought fuel and services and increased traffic through the streets. His purchases were welcome. He was an incremental addition to the population and the limited number of foreigners was acceptable. He dressed well in expensive clothes but never became part of the community because he contributed little except euros and smiles. In conversation he had a tendency to ask questions and divulge nothing. People removed themselves from his company realizing there was not much depth beneath the pressed shirt. He quit a book club of English speakers because the women enjoyed wine more than fiction and he did not want to sit through long lunches.

It was years since he had come from America. One evening he turned on a radio program suggested by another North American. The station was well regarded and known for classical music. On the weekend there were hours of popular songs; Will Duchon’s wonderful Night Cafe and the Big Band Hall of Fame with host Susan Kennedy. Among the final songs of the night were Stardust by Hoagy Carmichael and Moonlight Serenade by Glenn Miller, first performed in 1939. Miller was dead above the English Channel and the trombone’s pulse stilled, but the music was forever and he wanted to stay close to the music.

He was alone and the hour was late. A presence he could not touch entered the room and stood by his side. Surprised and fearful, the expat began to speak of failure, hope extinguished years before, a life as far as he could travel from himself. They were together until midnight; he said what could not be denied about family, decisions made, the brother that rejected him, parents that were estranged before their deaths, the stock exchange with calls and puts, declined moral choices. The presence was silent in rebuke and scorn. The expat was wretched and went to bed. He looked at the ceiling until he fell asleep.

He never expected to die while the market was up for the week but the night and darkness became death. The stove ran out of pellets and shut down. Three days later the body was found because the car had not moved. The remains were cremated and flown to America. House and furniture were offered for sale and went to a family from Tuscany at a bargain price. No one came for the flatware, linens or the photo taken on a beach.

The vase containing his ashes was left by the courier at an urn garden miles from the wife that held him in contempt. The son did not attend the brief service. The American was no longer an expat and the permesso di soggiorno expired. Outside the low walls of the cemetery there was a group singing carols of peace and good will toward men. It was a week before Christmas and the music carried well through the rows of graves.