Monday, April 10, 2006

I was wild once, too


Last night I painted in the studio and watched PBS. There were two shows in a row I'd been looking forward to, a special on venom and its use in medical research, and a Masterpiece Theater adaptation of a book I loved as a child, My Family & Other Animals, by the British naturalist Gerald Durrell. I devoured his books when I was twelve, during my brief phase of wanting to be a veterinarian -- the only thing I've ever wanted to be besides a writer and even then, I would be a writing veterinarian, a zoo vet, a collector of rare creatures from deep jungles, an explorer like Durrell. The movie was charming. It's the story of his eccentric family during the time they spent on the isle of Corfu just before World War II. Gerald was just a boy but already a single-minded naturalist. In Greece he became a wild thing, a nut-brown savage-scientist-child, roaming the hills with his dog and turning over rocks to see what lived beneath. Some efforts were made to force tutors upon him, but mostly, his life was his own. I think this is what appealed to me about the book when I was twelve. Because I was wild then, too.

Not in the same way. I went to school. I was even a cheerleader. But I was golden, and powerful, and roaming, and free. We had lived in Gaeta, Italy (pic above) since I was nine, and it's a kind of childhood I would like to be able to give my own children when I have them, only part of me doubts such childhoods exist anymore. There was so little to worry about, then. This was the early '80s in a small town in southern Italy. There were no drugs, no violent crime. We prowled, climbed, swam, snuck moped rides, explored ruins. Ruins were everywhere. Gaeta had been a port city of the Holy Roman Empire and later a medieval seige town controlled variously by Moors, Normans, Popes, Aragons, French, and Bourbons. In Old Gaeta, the walls of some buildings were 9-feet thick. The mountain between the beach and the port was riddled with ancient towers, secret tunnels, and abandoned shepherd's cottages. There was a temple deep in a grotto with a handprint in the rock rumored to have been made by the Virgin Mary. Once my father and brother got caught out swimming against the tide and had to come up through the grotto in their speedos, much to the chagrin of the priests. In the summer, Neapolitan gypsy families set up bumper cars on the mountain and we'd gather there and dance. We ate gelato every night. Kiosks sold squares of pizza in wax paper to eat while you walked. There was an espanade of palm trees behind the cafes on the port road. Every single soul in town knew every other.

It was all ours. My best friend Jennifer and I were minor celebrities: the two girls who did gymnastics at the beach. We took ballet class up an ancient street too narrow for cars. My older brother sang Def Leppard songs with an Italian rock band. My first kiss happened on an overturned boat, with a Swiss orphan named Oliviero. (I found kissing vile and didn't try it again for two years, then two more after the next one.)

These were powerful wild years, the strongest, brightest memories of my childhood. The heat of Gaeta, the smells and colors, the routes of the passegiata, pretending to be a mermaid for hours on end when the surf was so rough the lifeguards put up red flag warnings. I'm grateful for the freedom my parents gave us there, the blessing to roam. I'm grateful that they felt able to give it, that there was a safe place in the world to grow up. Do kids have that now, anywhere? Watching that movie last night, I felt the powerful lure of that wild childhood, and I wondered.

32 comments:

AnnieElf said...

Reading of your youth in Gaeta made me think of my son and his four months of study in Rome last year. He traveled throughout Italy from Brescia to Naples. He found hospitality, friendship and community everywhere but also brazen broad daylight attacks. Sadly, you are probably right that your idyllic childhood experience could not be repeated.

tinker said...

What amazing childhood experiences - it sounds so magically wild and free, no wonder you developed such a gifted imagination!

Tongue in Cheek Antiques said...

Memories are golden. Especially ones on an Italian seaside years ago. I feel the same way about my childhood memories...and who is to say that in thrity years from now the moments lived now won't be golden too. Time gives a patina that often makes everything look beautiful. Saying this, I hope this is true I certainly hope so!!! Thank you for sharing such rich details of your life, i love childhood memories!

megg said...

this was wonderful! What a gorgeous girl you were! I wonder too about bringing children up. I had an unusual childhood myself & I think mark and I will end up giving our children that - but not in that same carefree, safe way that we had.

"I was wild once, too." You hit it on the head my friend. That's what we all want to be again. xoxo

Jim Di Bartolo said...

Having recently read "The Time Traveler's Wife" (yes it was me that had the conversation with an anonymous person who suggested that the husband's cotton should travel with him) I couldn't help but wish that I could have visited you growing up (not in a creepy way, but like it was in the book). I'm so glad that such a magical childhood turned you into the lady you are now and I'm so happy that time eventually did bring us together :)

Love ya wifey! :)

Jim

Cate said...

Fabulous memories! What a blessing to have them! I don't know if kids still have opportunities for that kind of childhood--I still have difficulty deciding if it really is more dangerous now or if the danger is just talked about more. I lean towards "more dangerous" . . . it's sad.

Can I just tell you--and I'm putting myself out there in admitting this--that your entry reminded me of when I twelve, too, reading in my grandma's Star Magazine and National Enquirer--about Princess Stephanie and Princess Caroline and Athina Onassis. Even your picture (thanks for sharing that, by the way) made me think of them--sun kissed, colt-like, in the water. Though I think you were a lot happier than they were (:D), there is something fresh and exciting about that time and that exotic, beautiful lifestyle!

Thank you so much for bringing us into your incredible memories!

Colorsonmymind said...

What wonderful/rich childhood experiences. I would love to have my child be able to have that too.

Shesawriter said...

You had a fabulous childhood. I'm sure you're using those experiences in your stories.

melba said...

I have accepted the fact that my childhood was less then ideal.

What you describe is so wonderful and beautiful. Even when I go to the local park with Ethan and Maggie I am constantly looking around. I get SO NERVOUS. I wish I could just relax and have fun and maybe after a few years I will be able to. But thoughts of abductions and molestation go through my mind when we are at the park. I just want my children to be safe and protect them. I think of all the freedom I had; riding my bike through the woods near our house to the baseball field as young as 10. Nothing bad ever happened to me. But I would never let my children ride around now even though I think the neighborhood we live in is extremely safe.

Your skin is so tan and glowing in that picture. You look so happy and loved. I hope I can provide those days for my children.

melba said...

This is the fourth time I have tried to leave you a comment. Blogger can be so frustrating!

I kind of lost my train of thought...

I love that picture of you...you look so tan and glowing and have the look of someone dearly loved. I hope I can provide memories like yours for my children.

Jennifer said...

I would LOVE to travel back in time and visit that place. WOW!

la vie en rose said...

what a childhood! and that wild child...she's still there...i see her in the sparkle of your eyes, the beauty of your words and stories, and the power of your art.

Deb R said...

What a wonderful glimpse into your past. I loved the photos too.

Anonymous said...

no wonder you grew wings!

What a fabulous childhood!!!!

God that picture is just life itself.

~bluepoppy

madness rivera said...

Gorgeous memories. . . .a swiss orphan named Oliviero on an overturned boat - such a great image.

Alexandra S said...

You never told me about Oliviero! That photo of you is so sweet and I loved reading about these luscious days in Italy- no wonder you long to return. Just don't forget about H's Hideaway for me to tuck myself inside when you do. And as far as childhoods, I sadly wonder myself if and where thats possible. So many parents would do almost anything to raise their children in environments other than where they are forced to, and if you have the luxury of time and $ to do so, I think its an invaluable gift to give a child the experience of travel, for them to know there are an infinite number of ways to see and live and breathe and soak in the world. Even if its not totally possible to shield one's children from today's insanities, do take comfort that they will at the very least have an Auntie Alexandra who will teach them to mow lawns with hair scissors and how to iron Twinkies to send back to their father. See, life isn't so scary afterall.

vicci said...

Laini....Memories are soooo wonderful! Where would we be with out them?? Really...that is who we are..our memories! I loved yours! especially since my roots are in Italy...and my dreams etc. I remember the 50's (I'm showing my age) and talk about a time of innocence...I remember riding my bike through a dark alley at night to go get pizza at the local tavern for the family...I was about 9..One can't EVEN imagine letting a nine year old daughter do that now...not even an adult should do that! Check out my adventure that I posted today on my blog...that was my "Sunday's Real Life".....

deirdre said...

Laini, what a wonderful adventure. My family lived in Ireland for a short time when I was a child. It wasn't warm and sunny. I like yours better.

M said...

Wow Laini!! This is amazing, you are so lucky to have had such a wonderful experience in a foreign country. I absolutely LOVE Italy, so am terribly jealous. I completely agree about giving our kids the same opportunities to experience something different up close, but the world has changed unfortunately.
Hopefully we can find a way to help our children see more of the world and learn about other cultures, become more open minded and understanding through acceptance and experience. I see it as one way to bring us all closer together and end some of the fear and ignorance that is so rampant these days. Love your tan as well!!

Kim G. said...

Laini - Thanks for sharing your sweet memories of childhood. I'll have to watch for the PBS special to come around again. I too went through a stage of wanting to be a vet. I read all of James Herriot's books and had the great privilege to meet him on a trip to England to visit my grandparents. He was such an amazing soul!

It is hard not being able to give our kids the freedoms we had. I often wonder how it will affect them in the future. I think the key is to provide opportunities to learn the lessons we learned, but control the safety factors a bit more.

jd said...

I ready to pack up and take the family to Italy. I believe childhoods like yours still exist. We'll see though. We are taking our three kids to live in Oaxaca next January for three months so we will see. But if I could swing it, I'd leave for three years and head for Italy.

Amber said...

No wonder you seem so magical...
Beautiful child, beautiful childhood! Thanks for letting us imagine it.

:)

acumamakiki said...

what a lovely memory. italy is my favorite place in the whole world.

kelly rae said...

so cool. makes me want to go and visit now! great photos, too. i love that smile. the smile of a free and happy and wild child!

Rampian said...

I, too, read and adored 'My Family and Other Animals' when I was a kid. I love your description of young Gerald Durrell. I think my resident entomologist, Brian, was very much the same as a child---he'd take baths with his lizards and frogs.
Laini, it's really quite something how much we have in common. I lived in France until I was seven and then would return to my grandparent's village in the south-western wine region every summer---also in the early eighties, the same time you were in Gaeta. Those summers are my strongest memories of childhood, full of things that seem so alien to the American experience: piano lessons in an 18th century chateau, village festivals, the ringing of the churchbell every hour. Then, at the end of the summer I'd return home and start school in subburban California. The two worlds felt so different that it was hard to understand how I could live in both and be the same person. Though I had a hard time defining it then, when I returned home I missed feeling the centuries around me in that old Roman town, and the link to centuries past through the customs of village life. I think I often feel a longing for that "other place" where life was entwined with the past. Like you, I ran around the village with my pals---we had our favorite spots, everyone knew us. Children have an important role to play in communities. Because they're out there in the public spheres of school, playgrounds, running errands, bothering the neighbors, doing yard work, babysitting, they help to bind the community together---a kind of glue. But in the lives of many Americans, children are becomming just as isolated as adults. They don't run around the neighborhood with gangs of other kids, and so, we deprive them of an important role, leaving a void in its place that boredom, videogames, consumerism are ready to fill.

When I have a child, I will search to find a place like Gaeta and Lussac for them to grow in.

Maggie said...

Such great writing...I too had a wild childhood, roaming my grandparents' farm in Maryland and my parents' ranch/wilderness preserve in Idaho, and I adored it. There's nothing like being a child, full of freedom and feeling that the world is your playground. My childhood is full of memories that I cherish and want to give to my own children as well.

Brandi said...

Your childhood sounds fabulous. I have to say, I do enjoy being a bit older, I can do whatever I want. Brandi

andrea said...

How long did you live there? Sounds fantastic and definitely memoir-worthy.

I, too, was a huge fan of the Gerald Durrell autobiographies, read them over and over again and lived the fantasy in my head for years. I even lived in Greece for a year as an adult in partial response to My Family And Other Animals. And I, too, saw the old movie on PBS the other night. It took me right back.

liz elayne said...

I love this idea of the wild childhood laini...being in touch with that spirit inside.
I started to feel a tinge of jealousy as I read this. My childhood was filled with more patent leather shoes and less wildness...but I realize that my wildness has a powerful existence in my mind and imagination. Even though I was quiet and so darn well-behaved as a kid, I would escape to far-off places in books. And then dream wonderful dreams. Thank you for reminding me of that. And thank you for sharing these fantastic images...I want to hear more...

chest of drawers said...

Laini, being stuck in this long, cold winter makes me think back to my own wild childhood on the beaches of New South Wales even more. I often wonder if my children would be happier if they were growing up near the water, in the sun. You haven´t lost that sparkle!

GoGo said...

Sounds like you had a wonderful childhood! Thanks for sharing your brightest memories.

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