July 14 2012
We’re back on the farm after 3 days on Elba where we splurged on a lux hotel with its own beach. There, I said it. We went lux. Amazing the feelings that Joel and I experience when owning our good fortune. Do the truly wealthy feel the need to justify their standard of living? Methinks not; not from the display of opulence we witnessed. Perhaps it is only those of us who grew up working class on strict budgets who feel a tinge of shame at having made it some way up the ladder, as if to do so implies some amount of corruption.
Several years ago I worked with an editor on a collection of my essays. At the time we were living beyond our means (as were most of us before the crash of 2008) in a rental apartment overlooking Central Park. It was small, bordering on tiny, one bedroom with a fireplace and a balcony that was so narrow we called it the ledge. Nonetheless, it was a far cry from my days as a single mother working 3 shifts a day and living in a cabin in the woods without running water – and that was a step up from the previous year when the cost of day care barely equaled my income, a period when I suffered the obverse sense of shame when presenting my food-stamps at the checkout.
I promise to return to Elba soon but first I’ll circle back to the editor who seemed to consider me privileged and urged me to delete any reference to that which could be read as such. Privileged? I thought that described those born with the proverbial silver spoon in the mouth, not to those of us who have put in decades of hard work, not only in the workplace, but also in the spiritual realm.
Still, it was interesting to note our reactions to our Elba treat, from Joel’s assumption that I wouldn’t write about it, to my sense of shabbiness compared to the other women, to our mutual judgment that the stained carpeting on the stairs of the gorgeous villa we were in hardly lived up to its 5 star rating. Jeez.
So, here’s the dirt: it was my idea. I wanted 3 days in a room with a terrace overlooking the sea. I wanted the bed made, the towels folded, the meals provided, the beach raked, the ceiling frescoed and the weather perfect. And for nearly as much money as it is costing us to live on the farm for 3 months that’s what we got. Are we privileged? No, we earned it. Are we well-blessed? You bet. Are we
grateful? Absolutely. Yet the other piece is that we were slightly uncomfortable, maybe even a little ashamed to be spending so much when so many are suffering.
It turns out that 3 days is about our limit in such an environment. We like life a little dirty. I’m not at home in a place where pealing with laughter seems inappropriate. I’m not into coiffeur and jewels. I believe elegance has more to do with self-acceptance than a designer dress.
But, like everything in life, there is a flip side. Our exploration of the Island revealed that all the other swimmable beaches were either as packed as Coney Island, or needed rock-climbing equipment to be accessed. Whereas the small hotel we were in had its own discreet beach where one could loll in peace all day on an umbrella-ed lounger when not dipping into the azure sea.
As for the rest of the island? It was a disappointment, not in its geography but in it desecration. I’d wanted to go to Elba since I was a little girl and had held on to the image of it as a little jewel with a few lovely, tasteful villages. But it seemed scruffy and impoverished in spirit and aesthetic. Capoliveri, a village atop the highest peak had authenticity but was the worse for wear. The rest of the island was mainly barren with a few nondescript tourist towns linked together by ubiquitous strip-malls. The sad truth is that although the Elba I had imagined does exist it can only be had at a price most of us cannot afford.
We took the back roads home, finally coming into our beautiful valley; the evening light both absorbed and reflected by the hills and then the stretch of dirt road, passing by the cows to our simple abode. Back where we belong.
PS. We got an unexpected bonus while lounging on the beach: the decision to be done with Italian lessons. Being away for a few days helped us realize that studying for the last month had not only taken 5 days every week – between lessons and homework – but had created a level of stress and frustration that is the exact opposite of what we wanted to experience this summer.
Are we mad? Is working so ingrained in us that we have to create it when there is no need? And then there’s all that crappy stuff, residing down there under the surface of maturity: the old feelings of impotence and stupidity that no amount of therapy seems to change. To the point where we had become squabbling children, picking on each other’s flaws in the vain attempt at not having to admit to our own.
Yeah, it is a bit disappointing to have to accept we’re just too old to conjugate. But really, it’s more of a relief. We have enough Italian to communicate not only that which is vital for survival, but also that which is heartfelt. So, we’ll muddle on, picking up bits and pieces as we go and who knows, perhaps our English will improve, too.