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.
Posted by Laini Taylor at 9:42 PM