My wife and I made a big, life-changing move to Italy almost exactly six years ago. But for many months before that, we spent time divesting ourselves of two lifetimes of accumulated stuff.
According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the average American household moves every five years. Such moves are not necessarily long-distance but often involve merely tossing boxes, beds, and assorted furnishings into a rental van. A big moving truck is sometimes warranted for cross-country relocation. After a few decades of living, acquiring, and storing possessions, you can end up with a lot of baggage — physically as well as metaphorically.
The purging process is daunting. What a gargantuan endeavor. Just when we thought we were done, we would discover another box or chest filled with the leftovers of past lives, relationships, and stages of life. At one point, I wondered why I had repeatedly hauled early drafts of master’s degree papers from one coast to the other and back, for decades.
After six months, we managed to dispose of 90 percent of what we owned. Much of the material was discovered in a dark storage locker. I finally found that sleeping bag I had been searching for. I uncovered dozens of eight-track and VCR cassettes – long past useless.
We sold the furniture, the bed, and assorted bookshelves. That got rid of half of the volume. We gave away clothes, art, and small appliances (both the power and the plugs are different in Europe). That dropped it down by another 25 percent. Most of the rest we donated to Goodwill. A jumble of old electronic cables, long-forgotten files, and a large assortment of partly-used drugstore products was pitched into a dumpster.
We ended up shipping a few antiques, books, artwork, and clothes — all of which fit onto two 4’x5′ shrink-wrapped pallets. The cost of shipping was only one consideration. We had read stories of obstreperous customs agents at ports of entry. We wanted no surprise inspections, impoundments, or fees.
A few days ago, we finally opened the very last box. It had been shoved into the back corner of a storeroom. The last remnants of a previous life were uncovered — sort of a miniature archeological excavation, or time capsule, as it were.
I recalled a scene in the 1986 remake of the science fiction horror film The Fly where the title character, played by Jeff Goldblum, discovered bits of his former life in a medicine cabinet. “Look, it’s a little Brundle museum,” he exclaimed. At least I wasn’t dropping bloody teeth into the sink.
It’s interesting to see what remains in a box that could tell someone the story of your life.
A handful of expired passports, A stack of filled notepads, a plethora of pens and colored pencils. A clutch of Polaroids of a past paramour, mostly NSFW. As an architect and a writer, I instantly recalled the now ancient era of burning through a #2 pencil every month or so. These objects tell a story, for sure. Perhaps not a complete story but a Cliff’s Notes version. Not totally accurate in details but enough broad strokes to get the plot.
An article about cultural anthropology said the common elements of everyday life rarely get preserved over centuries. Mainly objects of great value survive, giving a narrow version of a culture and its inhabitants. None of the miscellany in the last cardboard carton rose to that level, however. More like a classic film scene where an elderly person finds a stained cigar box containing their childhood bug collection, assorted coins and seashells, and a crude drawing of a goat.
I suppose those Polaroids could be the source of amusement, if not bafflement, in the distant future. Thankfully, I will be long past embarrassment.
Discovering a box of bittersweet memories made me suddenly realize that the house we occupy now in east-central Italy is not only the one I have lived in longest but also the 20th over my lifetime. Seems I’ve bested that census average by a good measure.
America has always been a restless culture. Spreading across a continent with all the perils of pioneer life in an unforgiving landscape. I can easily count at least 10 wars that the United States has waged during its 247-year history. And countless social upheavals, from the pre-Civil War era of the Know Nothings to post-Civil War Reconstruction and then Jim Crow to the various labor riots, and to the 1960s civil rights and anti-Vietnam War protests. And I haven’t even mentioned protracted political fights right up to the current moment. These are indices of a country in near constant turmoil.
In contrast, Italy was fractured and disputatious for a thousand years after the fall of the Roman Empire. Split into multiple states, territories, kingdoms, and duchies, it was a mess for centuries. And by some measures it still is. But it has settled down into the relative calm of an unwritten agreement to disagree collectively and instead focus on family life and community.
Perhaps this sense of collective calm and peaceful co-existence is what Americans find so alluring about Italian culture. This year, the first full year of tourism since the pandemic, visits by Americans are at a historic high, exceeding all expectations. We have seen the streets of Florence packed with people speaking American English. For the first time, our small remote village of Santa Vittoria in Matenano was visited by a group of Americans, attending a course on landscape painting. One day, seven of them appeared at our door, eager to talk to familiar people about life in this country.
I must confess to feeling like a curiosity displayed in a cabinet of a different culture.