There was a café I frequented when I lived in Rome where the cappuccinos are overpriced and pigeons jump on tables and peck at people’s plates, but it’s still the most heavenly place in the world.
Housed in an ancient Greco Roman style Renaissance complex of monasteries attached to a church, colorful frescos adorn the walls and aged marble columns line the cloistered seating area, so you can look out on the lush courtyard in the middle. It is a tranquil retreat amidst the Roman chaos, with Wi-Fi.
The peaceful aura the building gives off might have something to do with the fact that it used to be a nunnery. A really creepy nunnery.
The nuns who lived there hundreds of years ago, along with the typical vows of poverty and chastity that all nuns take, also took vows of silence. With that, they literally didn’t utter a word for something like 50 years. They also existed solely in the dark. No noise, no light. (No fun?)
As such, the old convent is on the aptly named Via Della Pace (Street of the Peace). Silence can be peaceful, but too much of it drives you mad.
I’ve been known to have hermetic phases where I can lock myself in my room for days on end with Nutella and bread as my only sustenance, forgetting to wash my hair because I am consumed with producing writing that I end up hating, but the thought of not speaking for even one week terrifies me; I can’t even wrap my little head around 50 years without words.
Or light! Humans are like sunflowers. We need sunlight.
Thank God this esoteric practice is long gone. Fraulein Maria would’ve run to the hills from that place like she was on fire.
I spent a lot of time writing from this café, and maybe even more time contemplating the lives of those long-passed nuns, and the priests. The huge lifestyle difference between them is pretty baffling.
A priest bought my parents' house a few years back, and I was scandalized at the thought of him living there because thought he was supposed to live in the basement of the church or something. It might be naïve, but I was baffled when he started talking about wanting to mount a plasma TV above the fireplace. (Plasma TV’s were the indulgent electronic of the time.)
Why do priests get to drink liquor and have fancy TVs, mistresses, and live in family houses next to elementary schools, while nuns are taking poverty vows, not speaking and going blind from living in pure darkness?
The nuns took these vows in order to devote themselves to God, which is a beautiful thing. They also have a deeper understanding of the spiritual side of life than I do and possess a humility that I will never know. Still, the gender discrepancies in the Catholic Church are an antiquated, boring bit of bull and Pope Francis really needs to just change everything already.
One of the things that startled me about Rome when I first moved there was how many times a day I would pass by groups of priests and nuns walking the streets. I was in their holy stomping ground.
Naturally, I thought I was being properly blessed with good fortune, if only in the eyes of my Nonna, by passing by all these priests and nuns daily. I would smile at them and think How holy am I?!
Then my friend Massimo ruined everything by introducing me to an Italian superstition that changed the rest of my life in Italy.
According to him, and almost all other Romans, passing a nun is bad luck. Really bad, life-ruining, luck. There is no similar superstition about priests. They are apparently just fine to walk by.
But where there’s a curse in Italy, there’s also a way to counter it. In order to ward away the nunny evilness, you are supposed to touch metal immediately after passing a nun. “What if you aren’t around metal?” I asked while discussing the nun curse with my friend Monique. Her Roman boyfriend said that, in the absence of mental, men are encouraged to touch the next best thing, their balls. My response was: “Well, that’s great, but what’s a girl supposed to do, grab her boobs?”
She asked the Roman boyfriend, and the answer is: yes, of course.
After hearing about the nun curse superstition, I fully adopted it into my life. I passed by at least a handful of nuns on any given day in Rome, and developed a small but serious breast-grabbing compulsion. I tried to be discreet, but my thinking was that the harder I grabbed them, the more the evil I thwarted.
The nuns were in on it. I swear they’d smirk when they saw me grabbing my breasts like I’d die if I didn’t. They probably had pity on me, being pious and all. Once, I saw a young Roman man panic while passing a nun on the subway, until she grabbed the metal pole overhead and looked at him, telepathically urging him to do the same and not grab his balls. He clutched the pole and sweet relief washed over his face. The nuns didn’t seem too bothered by the nun curse thing, but it’s still a pretty horrible, sexist superstition.
But superstitions, the horrible, the awkward, the bizarre, seem to be imprinted on my DNA. My family passed them onto me along with my affinity for pasta and need to wear slippers all the time. We believe that bird poop on cars and the number 13 are good luck. I also won’t take a sip of my drink after we clink glasses until I’ve looked into your eyes for a good few seconds. And then there’s the salt over the shoulders, cross-style and making the sign of the cross when passing a church. I’m not even religious, but these acts produce a deep, almost spiritual sense of “the world is OK” within me.
My grandmother Genny was from a pagan tradition-steeped town on the Adriatic coast of mid-boot Italy. When I was growing up, she used to detect curses on people, and I’d watch her remove them by taking a bowl of water, pouring oil in the middle, and chanting something over and over with her eyes closed until, like magic, the oil released, shooting out in all directions, and making pretty patterns in the water, meaning the curse was lifted.
The “malocchio” or “evil eye” is not to be messed with. When I was little, and during my stay in Italy, “fai le corna,” was an expression I heard a lot. It means make the horns. By making the “rock on” hand gesture, and pointing your hand towards the ground, you send any bad vibes or evil eyes back down to the devil with apotraphiac magic. This is also why some Italians wear a red or golden horn around their necks. For luck. Always for luck.
Italians take the malocchio so far that they will make the horns when someone gives them, or their dog, or their baby, a compliment. Their thinking is that compliments could be masked jealousy, and it’s better to be protected from those weird vibes than to let them in.
On New Year’s Eve 2013, I made a special trip to the mall to purchase red undergarments because I left my lucky reds in Toronto. It’s good luck (according to Italians) to wear red undies on New Year’s Eve, and I wasn’t about to mess up my 2014 juju by ringing in the New Year with the wrong panties.
Suffice to say, there are a lot of superstitions in my arsenal, and I could go on explaining these wacky practices forever, but more troubling than the superstitions I’ve learned are the ones I’ve invented.
As a teenager, undiagnosed number dyslexia made me very cognizant of numbers, and how hopeless I was with them. I read numbers completely backwards; my math class D’s and handing backwards change to customers while working at the grocery store should have been evidence that there was an issue, but I just thought I was dreadful at mathematics.
I gave up on math, went the English degree route, and in my early 20s, took to counting things to even my score with numbers. It started small. I’d assign meaning to different numbers. 3 is always good, as is any even number, or odd number that is even when added together (like 13, 1 +3=4, 4=good). Then I’d make a rule for myself, like, unless I spin my keychain around three times before unlocking a door, the order of the universe, or my universe, would be unbalanced. In my mind, I was preventing bad things from happening based on absolutely nothing.
At this point, I wasn’t totally obsessed with counting. I wouldn’t flip out if I forgot to spin my keychain, but I’d really prefer to do it, thanks.
Things got a little out of hand about eight years ago. While in a relationship with a controlling man, I felt that I had very little say in my life and choices, so I began to exert absolute control over the things I could. Food, mainly. Whenever I ate berries, or any other countable food, I would count them out to an even number before washing and eating them.
My numerical OCD, born of a need to control a totally inconsequential aspect of my life, helped me live with the situation I was in. In actuality, I wasn’t making anything better, but counting my countable food gave me a fleeting sense of stillness, and that was better than nothing. It meant nothing, and it meant everything, because I had to do it.
I was mildly comforted, when it was revealed that Hannah on "Girls" suffers from an OCD counting issue, that a fictional character drinks the same crazy water as I do. (But if it’s tap water, I’ll have to rinse the glass out three times before I can take a sip.)
Eight years later, I now only count things when I’m feeling really stressed, but it still happens. Throughout the years, I’ve also attached superstitious meaning to certain pieces of jewelry, stones, clothing, songs, and days. I like Tuesday the best. I don't know why, but if something falls on a Tuesday, I instantly feel good about it.
So now you know that I’m batshit crazy, and I welcome you to share your own strictly adhered to superstitions, either learned or made up. Guaranteed I’m going to fold them into my own catalogue of irrational shit I need to do so nothing bad happens.