Taking Home Pieces of Another Life

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The flaps on the boxes aren't closed yet, and every time I pass them, I flip something else in: a report card, a geography book, a plaster model of the Coliseum. I'm moving back to the States after a year in Rome. The things I'm putting into boxes here are going to look different when I unpack them. I feel satisfied as I bend to nestle each item in, their newspaper skins rustling together.

Yet I notice there's a catch in my breath when I push the box into the foyer. Like a baby who is finally falling asleep after a bout of crying, I am relieved but also shaken. As the boxes take over more of the hallway, I feel a little lost, knowing that I belong nowhere for a time.

I ease the feeling by focusing on the terra- cotta tile in my hands, which I love. It's a venditore di formaggio, a cheese seller, and he's caught in a blue ceramic rain. In fact, it was raining hard the day I bought this in Umbria, buckets of rain that didn't stop for a week, but followed me all the way to Florence and back to Rome. Now's he's just something else to pack, but I'm still glad I got him. He will look good by the fireplace back home, out of the rain at last.

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I'm trying to remind myself that it will take some time to reorient the family to our "real life." I remember coming back from another year abroad, a year in Japan, when everything in America seemed obscenely huge.

Refrigerators towered over me like mouthless giants, washing machines resembled empty swimming pools, and our brass, queen-sized bed was a vast expanse of irresponsibly squandered space (after all, we put our beds away in the closet every morning in Tokyo). Everyone ate too much, too fast, and we missed our daily serving of rice and tea. But after two or three shaky weeks, the shock wore off. We fell right back into our old cultural habits, no longer bowing to the check-out woman at the Food Fare, and once again charging unhesitatingly into the house with our shoes on.

The things I have accumulated on my trips, however, those pesky pieces filling up this long stream of boxes in my life, continue to pull at me even when planted in their new surroundings. I recall when I was newly back from Tokyo, anxiously unpacking the delicate tea set given to me by my friend Toshiko, so thin that it is transparent. I gave in immediately to an undeniable urge to make green tea. The action and the object transported me, and I sat quietly in the empty, echoing dining room for an hour pretending I was back in Japan.

When my daughter and I play with the white wooden elephant puppet we bought on vacation in Thailand (it's amazing that it's not broken yet), I'm drawn back into that crowded night market, and I can hear the chattering and smell the lemon grass cooking in the stall next door. When I pick up the clay wedding plate on which a love poem is written in ancient Japanese, I still see the proud potter who showed me the earthen kilns, built tight into the hills of Mashiko.

And now here I am in Rome, wrapping up yet another piece of future poignancy, a tiny ceramic box my father bought for my dresser top when he visited me in Italy at Christmas. Soon it will be drawing me back into that dusty little shop in Deruta, where the proprietor mistook us for Germans, then offered us a hot drink when he realized his mistake.

Yet the accumulation of objects, however sweet, only partially softens a homecoming's sharp sense of displacement. I know that by the time I unpack this box in America, culture shock will have crept up on me once more. My lifestyle in Italy has been radically pared down, and I have lived quite happily without a lot of the things I consider necessities in the States.

In Rome I simply climb to the roof (there's a great view of St. Peter's) and hang out laundry on the line, or let it drip its heart out in the bathroom, as everyone else does. In Rome, my dishes drip-dry on racks cleverly hidden away in cupboards. In Philadelphia, they come out piping hot and dry as a bone from my trusty, mammoth dishwasher.

Here in Rome, my inauspicious refrigerator, easily mistaken for a modest broom closet, accommodates about two days' worth of food. I go to the market and buy fresh food more often. In America, I fill up the back of the station wagon with enough supplies to feed a small army and stash it in a refrigerator the size of Wyoming.

Indeed, when I think of all the gadgets that now await me in Philadelphia - from my food processor to my microwave oven to that enormous, soulless fridge - I admit to feeling a bit overwhelmed. I know that for those first two or three weeks of unpacking, my husband and I will keep saying, "Do we really need all this stuff?" The kids and I will bump into each other a lot, and we won't remember the English words for things like "can opener."

We'll become nostalgic for real pasta; for the small neighborhood stores of Rome, where children still get a piece of candy from someone kindly who reaches down to them from behind the counter; for produce that's not covered in plastic. I'll have trouble with new/old objects, like the keys to the front door, and I'll grope for the laundry basket and find the picnic basket, look for the silverware and find the cellophane.

AND then the newness will fade. The objects I have brought home will once again cry out to me about the places I've been, but they will be an interruption from another reality. By the end of the first 48 hours, I'll be back on good terms with my kitchen. Three more days and I won't find the billboards on the highway quite so garish. At the end of the first week, I'll be able to hum along with a few jingles on the radio.

By then my Italian life-style, like my Japanese one, will become an isolated island in the river of my life, a specific, finite period when I did things differently. I'll make friends with that big, embarrassing refrigerator. I'll be thrilled to warm my cup in the microwave oven on a chilly morning. And I'll haul my toasty laundry out of the dryer and wonder, "How did I ever get along without one of these?"

But for now, there's still a lot of work to do. I begin to wrap four Austrian cups in newspaper, the ones that are painted in swirls of green and yellow. I bought them in a tiny town's general store, accompanied by a friend with impeccable taste, and I can see her urging me to buy the dessert plates, too (I didn't). I can taste the apple strudel with warm vanilla sauce that we ate afterward, and see the Alps against an achingly blue sky. I bend down over the next box, keeping the flaps open with my knee, and fit the cups together on their sides.

Looking forward to being haunted by them in Philadelphia, I stand up and draw a deep breath, which catches at the top.

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