Tango Diva : Travel Stories for Women, by Women

by Sarah Naimark

It was a painfully cold afternoon in Val Gardena, an Alpine border town where it’s hard to tell the Italians from the neighboring Austrians.

The Dolomite mountains are mammoth, with rounded peaks and patches of snow, as different from one another as faces; they appear close enough to touch. It looks like they are gathering here in a great meeting to decide something terribly important, like where to go next or who should crumble first. Maybe they’re just reminiscing about the warm days they spent beneath the earth’s crust.

The mountains appear accommodating enough to the masses that come to slip and slide down their flanks. I was in Val Gardena accompanying an Italian family as their nanny, along for the beloved Italian national institution of White Week. During White Week, or Settimana Bianca, Italians flock to the snow, leaving school and work behind for a nippy week of downhill and gnocchi.

Val Gardena might be the Italian Aspen, with its wealthy skiers holding their breath to look slender in bulky ski suits. Mornings are chaotic as you to wade through swarms of small children with limited depth perception and long blades strapped to their stumbling feet. After the children are relegated to their lessons, the adults stumble a bit more glamorously to the slopes and the town quiets down momentarily.

I used my few hours off from nanny duty to plunk down at the café near the family’s cabin to distance myself from all things shorter than five feet. Everyone looked up as I walked into the café. I had gotten used to this by now. Not looking quite Italian or Austrian, wearing the flimsy clothes of someone not accustomed to seasons, I had been the target of many inquisitive stares over the course of the week. I rolled my eyes and shook off the looks, picking the table in the far corner. Pulling off my Gap mittens in a room full of Gucci, I couldn’t help but wonder, How did I get here?

I know why I came to Italy— after graduation I wanted something different than the cubicle black holes I’d seen others sucked into, and wasn’t ready for more school. Italy was a dream world for me, and fit neatly into the glamorous picture I had of Sarah, Age 23.

Yet once I was in Italy, I needed something to do besides wander around listening to the Amelie soundtrack on my iPod and feel hopelessly artistic. Nannying had been the most obvious and easiest way to earn a couple euros, and when the family asked me to join them for white week in the Dolomites, I happily agreed, envisioning myself sharing red wine with ruddy-cheeked instruttori di sci. I should have learned by then that reality is a relentless companion, and will stalk you to the farthest corners and highest peaks.

The week so far had been a test of all the faculties I had accumulated to date. The children were demanding and took every opportunity to correct my budding Italian. To make up for my California wardrobe, the family had lent me what they aptly referred to as “Moon Boots,” footwear more suitable for a cartoon cosmonaut than a snow bunny. With my feet in the puffy blue oversized boots, I looked like a shuffling mental patient with superhero fantasies—a look that didn’t go over well with the chic White-Weekers. The stares and giggles had pushed my ability to brush them off to the limit.

The icing on the Austrian peak was a debilitating ear infection I had received early in the week, which my hosts informed me was due to my ear-cleaning habits. Standing accused of poor ear hygiene, intellectually trumped by nine-year-olds, I was happy for the escape provided by the little café.

After a tart espresso accompanied by a sugary pastry, I allowed myself to exhale a bit. This too shall pass, I repeated over and over again, the phrase that had become my mantra over the past few months. I got up and went to the bathroom. As I washed my hands I stared in the mirror at my face, having one of those near out-of-body experiences my high school psych teacher told me about.

I am unquestionably an adult on the outside: the beginnings of fine lines mark years of smiles and squints. I also must have arrived at some kind of adulthood to be where I am: alone in a foreign land, mostly functional, mostly fluent. So why is it that I still feel that I am a thirteen-year-old? Why do I still feel that wide-eyed sensation—that palpable, painful, anxious anticipation of what’s to come? The interminable thought that the “real” part is just on the horizon, ready to break at any moment into the sunrise of my life. The sense that I am preparing for the curtain to pull back on the full and flushed body of my story.

My face reflected in the mirror tells me there is no sunrise, no curtain. That what’s to come is here, and every moment I spend in anticipation is a moment I will later look on with regret. I waste my life by waiting for it.

At this precise moment, technology and the universe teamed up against me, as they have done before and shall certainly do again. The motion-activated lights in the bathroom flicked off and I stood in complete darkness. I cursed and stepped to the side, hoping to trigger the lights back on—nothing. I waved an arm in the air—still nothing. So I broke out into a ridiculous, squirmy, flailing dance, hopping and swinging when surely a reserved prance would have done.

The lights flicked back on and I grabbed my purse from the sink. People stared at me as I left the café, no doubt wondering why that strange foreign girl was smiling to herself as she stepped out the door.

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