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A Human Animal

Italy makes me feel like a human animal.

Italy makes me feel like a human animal. In my homeland, I can feel too layered, complex and self aware. And not complex in some intellectually impressive way, per se. Simply a "way of complicating things" where practical things feel heavy, banal decisions are imposing and existential questions loom large and in charge.

Travelling also lends its own metaphysical lens through which I see my life from a vantage point where all options suddenly seem possible, creating a perhaps overabundant spectrum of choice that can tend to shrink the world up again.

Italy has a special effect. It's like a cultural antidote for my cerebral, environmentally conscious and philosophical brain. It calms the part of me that needs to dissect. In Tour de Soul terms, it helps my Taurus North Node find its footing (see the YouTube on this for explanation). The act of getting properly dressed for lunch in a piazza where even the meal is quite simple yet tastefully prepared becomes an important event. The symbiotic colours of your purse and shoes DO matter as does the combination of flavours on your plate. It's not your job to reinvent the wheel and breed cultural fusion in every direction. Tradition has its value, its austerity and luxurious quality, and one doesn't always need to 'change the program' in order to enjoy.

It's like when one's opposite is also one's medicine. The last few years of deepening spirituality and conscious consumption (a recurring theme in my life) have had me shunning the superficial. But to ignore the inarguable taste in fashion, architecture, event planning and all forms of aesthetic presentation in Italy - where the division between 'manmade' and 'natural' seems nothing but a silly, arbitrary concept - feels decidedly unspiritual.

In Italy, I feel permission to "just" be human. Being good at having a chat, enjoying a meal, communing with family, going to bed with your lover and taking a dip in the sea or a walk through a town - these feel like majestic events there. And they also underlie a kind of unspoken permission to be simply - and amazingly - a mortal woman.

I do not need to "do more" with life all the time. I do not need to render meaning to the everyday or the larger strata of my story. I do not need to dig down beneath the attributes of beauty, thoughtfulness, good manners, enjoyment, emotion, life cycles of youth, maturity, love, reproduction and death to find something extraordinary so that I can receive divine compensation for being "special."

As an only child and child actress, I have wrestled with the stranglehold yet simultaneous excitement of the purposeful pull of being special. I remember my mom telling me the story of her own mother bestowing on her the gift and curse of telling her she "could be anything." They have shown in studies that children develop better self esteem if we praise them based on their developing abilities and efforts, rather than their innate talents and potential.

This binary too seems to dissolve in my Italian persona. I feel more keenly aware of my god given gifts which includes a melting away of the tangy shame I have often felt about my appearance. I have rarely enjoyed an un-conflicted experience of my own beauty - I have either teetered into an insecure perfectionism, a self neglectful laziness around pampering or a kind of exhibitionist pride followed by an uncertain aftertaste. In Italy, I feel that to not harness the attributes given to me by my biological parents, ancestors and my conditions of evolution is an insult to God.

Similarly, veganism and environmentally conscious consumption have composed a necessary but painful journey for me over my life. I always felt an acute sensitivity for animals and a deep revulsion at any kind of waste (I do not know where I acquired the tendency to take my unused napkins home with me from a restaurant, disturbed at the waste of paper at each meal). The discomfort lies not only in witnessing animal and ecological suffering in my research, but also in how it breeds inner conflict. It is irritating to feel such psychological torment at having to throw a plastic container into a garbage can when there's no recycling bin available, choosing instead to carry it around all day in my purse until I get home only to remember that only 9% of what Canadians throw in their blue bins is actually recycled. I have often envied my friends who don't complicate their lives with such calculations and do not feel riddled with guilt at doing a small load of laundry, using chemical nail polish or buying paper towel (the horror!).

When looking at my dog before I left on this trip, I held a raw marrow bone for her in my hand that she was staring at with such a sweet but savage earnestness. I thought to myself: she is not guilty for wanting to eat another animal. This is in her nature. Her and I are both omnivorous animals. Yes, as a privileged human, I have sufficient choice, abundance of nutrients and awareness of the brutality of agriculture that I could forego animal products. But my desire to eat from an animal as another animal is neither innocent nor foul. It is simply a case of being a human animal.

The hippie, grassroots, empathic Pisces part of me is here to stay. But Italy brings out the slightly suffocated side of me that twinkles with the magical assistance of design, ambiance and conviviality. I fit in in Italy, much to my own surprise. I have a boisterous but grounded gravitas atypical of my Anglo-Saxon roots. I somehow know what dress to buy for a wedding despite never having studied Italian looks with any degree of consciousness.

I have my own way of being Italian or so it feels and this despite the fact that I do not really enjoy eating pig (in the land where there are 500 ways to eat them in a sandwich). I feel a kind of relief when my partner's family and I drive from Switzerland through Mont Blanc in France and pull into the first Autogrill and I hear the barista greet me with a blunt but warm 'ciao!'

There are less frills and formality, and yet an unequivocal web of unwritten codes of social interaction. There's class and grace, and yet brutish directness. There is less filler in small chatter and yet a customary series of exchanges at each encounter.

I feel a relief there, a permission to drop the cloak of my "Natalie-ness." My dominant persona can take a rest. I never felt I could live there because my Italian self will probably never be my primary Me. But it is a therapeutic adjustment.

A twist of fate brought me there in my late twenties. In my toxic but stimulating relationship with my ex partner, he convinced me to go Italy. To be honest, I did not have much interest in visiting there particularly in the case of Venice which my ex insisted we stay in for an extended period. How wrong I was. Venice became my favourite place on earth. Not a place to live but a place to return to yearly as a kind of colourful, enchanted pilgrimage. When I returned back from the trip battle bruised from our hellish chemistry and fight fatigue, I had fallen out of love with a person but had fallen in love with a country despite it all.

I began to take Italian lessons and a few years later I met a guy whose family was from Milan and Venice, the two places I had loved the most to this point in my life. Together with this handsome Italian man for seven years now, I am grateful that Italy has kept finding me despite my blind spot about not only its charms but its medicinal quality for my personhood.

In Italy, I feel like a human animal. Riddled with unavoidable complexity and yet smoothly following the predictable current of what it means to be a biological person from the girlish romantic fantasies, to the need to make a living so one can go on vacation to the urge to build one's own family and foster a legacy, not matter how notorious or anonymous it ends up being.

I need this kind of relief from my "higher needs" - to be special, different, distinguish myself in some way. One speaks of the ascent up Maslow's pyramid as some kind of benevolent achievement but what a prison it is simultaneously. How noble it is to drink from the simple pleasures of a beautiful landscape, locally grown and crafted food, a purchase of a piece of manmade clothing that will last many years and an organized communal gathering.

I crave a return there because I long for a break from being myself. These include the things I also love about myself like my propensity to over-analyze even the smallest moments, a tendency to abstract a situation or to observe every change in my bodily experience. The inventory of everything that goes into my mouth and a rigorous empirical study of my energy level and productivity. More broadly speaking, the North American fetish for overthinking and self optimization.

During a short stint on the island of Elba, my spirituality consisted of a very deep gratitude for the crackling sparkle of the Mediterranean sea, the seamless service of trained waiters at an outstandingly catered wedding and the nearly painful perfection of a coastline spattered with asymmetrically placed houses and restaurants. And also the tanned teenage boys with their statement suits, earrings and sunglasses atop a head of masterfully arranged curls.

The profound intelligence that resides right at the surface. The aching, breathing, beauty of what it means to be a human animal.

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