“Can I be honest with you?”
Let’s face it, you always want to answer “No” to this question. But you can’t. The only suitable response is, “Oh, of course!” Then one must sit there. Smiling. Holding ones breath. Thinking: Oh, shit.
“I don’t think you have what it takes…” My unsolicited observer swiveled the straw in his seltzer, drawing a line under his casual judgment, “…to be a journalist.”
I’d spent about an hour wandering around Rome with this guy, wondering what kind of role he was trying to take with me and had decided it was somewhere in the disconcerting mire between paternal and flirtatious. He’d been introduced as “someone to know in the industry” and “a character” with enough knowing looks and eyebrow raises that I had no idea what exactly to expect beyond: someone “unique”.
Paul was a sprawler. One who sprawls. In chairs, over tables, through rooms of journalists at the Foreign press office near the Trevi Fountain, and in language. He kept talking when others might have held themselves back but in between tales of what foreign countries he’d been to, who he’d interviewed (I got the idea that I was supposed to recognize the names but wasn’t sure if the fact that I didn’t was more of a reflection on him than on me… I do think: on me), and the complicated issues he’d written about. You had the feeling of being simultaneously impressed by his range and experience and, in my case, resistant. I was clearly supposed to be acting amazed which made me immediately want to not act amazed, which was easy since I basically had no idea what he was on about and therefore I started to feel quite stupid and insecure. He was both mesmerizing and exhausting.
Journalists are kind of like the ultimate gossipers. Their trade is information and their tools, both for getting it and delivering it, are words. Being with Paul was being in a constant stream of words, some uttered conspiratorially (“You’ll never guess what happened then” and “She wouldn’t want you to know this about her, but-“) some flaunted brazenly (“I was there that night, when it happened”) and others directed straight at you, like an arrow (“So what do you hope to get out of all this?”)
We found ourselves (sprawled) at a table in front of the Pantheon, me with beer (I was dating a British pilot after all so I’d replaced nearly all liquid consumption with beer), Paul swirling what seemed like the fifteenth seltzer. He was doing what journalists do, which is questioning you relentlessly about what I liked about writing, why did I want to be a journalist, why did I want to live in Rome, where would I go from here, what was the goal, what was the plan, what had I written about so far – and I was struggling to come up with answers that were more intelligent than: “It seemed like the right thing to do at the time.”
Like most things in Rome, I’d gotten this latest position through a friend of a friend. I was still trying to find any way out of teaching English that would allow me to continue living in Rome, a compulsion I still couldn’t quite understand but that felt as necessary to me as food and water. I was introduced to the editor of an English language newspaper in Rome and had started a kind of informal internship. The office was located near St. Peter’s Basilica in the back corner of a long room primarily dominated by the staff of a German, Catholic magazine. I was shown to my desk in the corner. That is, it was a corner of a desk in the corner of the office. It faced a wall beside piles and piles of old copies of the newspaper.
I was in heaven.
I had the feeling: this is the beginning of… something big. A newspaper job! Ok, it was an internship and my job was mostly to come in for a few hours a week to write up news pieces taking info from other news sources. Just sitting next to those stacks of old papers, listening to muttered German in the background, made me tingle all over as I wrote about Berlusconi commuting his four year prison sentence to one year of house arrest, Pope Francis’s reception part way into his first year in the papacy, a bus crash, the Concordia disaster, exhibition openings, racial slurs in the Italian parliament.
I’ve wanted to be a writer as long as I can remember. When I wrote my first short story at the age of nine my overarching thought was: “Finally I’ve done it. I hope it’s not too late.” To do what exactly, I’m still not sure. Probably to be a prodigy (yes, I acknowledge, I missed that boat.) I can’t separate this desire to write from my move to Italy. Every plan for my future, every job I take and opportunity I accept, I think: does this give me time to write? Ironically in the pursuit of not following the traditional 9 to 5 model and always taking non-contractual work that I could get out of “if needed” I’ve probably kept myself far more busy than if I’d taken a normal job. Constantly training yourself for new jobs, overlapping seasonal work with the next season while researching infinite ways (that always failed) to get myself legal paperwork in Italy took up a lot of time. But I guess it’s all material, right?
All this to say that doing a job, even if unpaid, that involved writing felt like the first stepping stone toward my life as “A Writer.” Capitals necessary. I was writing a blog called Young in Rome about travel in Rome with a new friend, Flavia (now called Which Way To Rome), writing for a local travel magazine and taking my first semester of an online course with the London School of Journalism but now I had something more than I had at those jobs. I had a chair. I’d made it. Other writers for the newspaper were freelance contributors so the only other person in the “corner office” was the editor. He faced the Germans, as was fitting.
The Editor of this newspaper was the opposite of the sprawler sitting across from me by the Pantheon. Every word he spoke seemed carefully taken out of a box, dusted thoughtfully and laid before you with precision and delicacy. He was the type of man who could listen to you talk for five minutes about something or other and after a pause respond simply with, “Indeed.” He signed emails with the word I will always associate with him: “Onward.” I could only hope to someday speak with the measured solemnity and purpose of this man. It would have helped, of course, to be British. They do seriousness and subtle humor in a way we Americans can only dream of and mangle occasionally when we try to operate with such gravitas.
One day, we got a request to send someone from the paper up to Venice (transport and hotel paid) to review the opening of a gallery exhibition arranged by the august Luciano Benetton, founder of United Colors of Benetton. I was the chosen one. I was, technically, the only one.
I wrote back saying I would be delighted to attend. When they followed up, asking if I’d like to have an interview with Mr. Benetton, I responded: Yes, indeed.
I was called into the editors office. That is, I was invited to swivel.
With slow gravity he unwrapped the sentence: “One does not… necessarily… need to respond… in the affirmative… to every request.”
“Ah,” I said eloquently.
“Mr. Benetton is… notoriously… challenging… to interview.”
“He does not….easily… part with… information.”
“But…we can prepare you,” he said. I believe the American translation for this would have been something along the lines of: Oh dear God, what the hell have you done.
After moving to Italy, I guess I’d gotten into the habit of seeing an opportunity and jumping towards it. The only thing certain would be change, and that’s what I sought. It was part of my survival technique and sometimes led to incredible opportunities and other times into rather sticky situations.
I read everything I could about Mr. Benetton from his humble beginnings peddling knit-wear from a bycicle to buying his first knitting machine and eventually opening United Colors of Benetton, famous for it’s shocking “Unhate” ad campaign of famous people kissing (Pope Francis and the Imam, Obama and the President of China, you remember this?). This new exhibition would be called Imago Mundi featuring miniature pieces commissioned by Luciano himself, displaying art from around the world in what would be a valued edition to the “Encyclopedic Palace” theme for the 55th Venice Biennale.
The plan was to take the train up to Venice, check in to the hotel to shower and change into my appropriately “professional, yet artsy” dress for The Interview and exhibition viewing.
I wore something comfortable on the train, a clinging blue, jersey dress with bra straps showing. Unwashed hair in a pony tail. I’d printed out my questions and spent what felt like the entire train ride up to Venice editing every last work with a satisfying red pen. I’d type them up in the hotel room, have the concierge print it out for me and head off to the interview. I had a good three hours to get this accomplished.
You can probably tell by the conditionals that this isn’t what happened.
Just as I arrived in Venice and caught my first glimpse of canal glittering in the summer sun, I got a call from the press lady. Mr. Benetton is ready to see you … as soon as you can get here. It seemed implied that otherwise, he might not have time. Opportunity = jump.
I didn’t think: I should at least drop off my rolling suitcase. I should at least shower. I should at least change. I should at least attempt to fix or hide my completely wrinkled and red stained sheet of questions.
The only thing that lay between me and the exhibition in the Fondazione Querini Stampalia near Piazza San Marco were about five hundred roads dead ending in water, one thousand canals and five million tiny steps going up and down the bridges to cross them. It was August. I’d brought a rolling suitcase, like a fool. If I looked disheveled when I arrived after a four hour train journey, you can imagine the state I was in when I burst into the exhibition, dragging the clattering suitcase behind me, bra straps flapping down over my arms, and sweat pouring down my face.
It was the Venice Biennale. An art opening. A fashion designer. Basically everyone in there looked like they were straight out of the Devil Wears Prada. I’d like to say they turned to stare but I didn’t make any impression whatsoever. Maybe I got one look up and down from a woman wearing some kind of fur contraption on her head as I was told to “leave that “thing” over there” and to follow the press woman up the stairs and straight into a room with many bustling sorts of people in suits and Luciano Benetton himself in a tweed coat.
I will never forget the grace and poise he displayed to what must have been the most unprepared looking interviewer he met that day. One of my very first questions to him was comparing this art exhibition to the Unhate campaign to which he responded (via translator) “We are not here to discuss that campaign today.” He did not drop his air of politeness and kindness throughout the entire interview despite the fact that I felt like I might be dying inside, partially from the stitch in my side after running across Venice, partially from hating myself for my dress and my interview questions that looked like a murder victim with all the red strokes through it. He didn’t rush me. He didn’t condescend. He was a perfect gentleman.
At the end he shook my hand with a little bow, looking me straight in the eyes with a kind smile.
That, people, is admirable diplomacy.
Now, in front of Paul and the Pantheon, I thought about what he’d said. Paul was talking about what he’d call “real” journalism. Investigative journalism. Getting to the heart of the story, going into dangerous territory, wresting information from people they didn’t even know they had inside them. “You say you want to write but that doesn’t mean you should be a journalist. A journalist is another animal. You need to have the hunger!” he said, gesturing to the universe. “The passion for the pursuit. A novelist does something quite different. I see you more as that type.”
I thought, he was probably right and what I’d like to do much more than wrest information from him would be to write about him someday.
I thought it best to respond as I’d been taught, as simply as possible: “We’ll see.”