the times you’ve been happiest
Plus some depressing books by Italian women
Love notes from Siel is a weekly newsletter from Siel, who’s currently traveling around Europe. If you love it, subscribe for free.
Dear friend —
Mexico City is amazing, but Madrid just okay. Milan’s a great place to live, Rome not so much. These are the kind of throwaway opinions you hear often from travelers — and the kind you find yourself starting to form as soon as you get to a place.
But what is it, exactly, that makes a place amazing or okay or not great? How do you figure it out amidst so many random variables? Is Mexico City really a better place, or was the weather just nice when I happened to be there? Is Milan truly awesomer than Rome, or did I just vibe better with the people I happened to chat with during my brief trip to the fashion capital?
Six months into international travel, I’ve started asking different questions — questions that have less to do with place, and more to do with me.
Namely: When are the times I’ve been happiest? And why?
This is what I’ve discovered:
One: I’m a lot happier when the weather is nice. I knew this, but after the last couple months I’ve decided Europe is basically only habitable for me between May and September —
Two: I like being able to walk everywhere I want to go.
Three: I am a lot happier dancing than when I’m not dancing.
Four: I’m happiest when my days have a bit of a rhythm. Routines are good for me — even when I tend to resist them.
Those four things make me happier than the things I’m often told to prioritize while traveling — like visiting one-of-a-kind ruins, or in the case of Italy, cathedrals and castles and fountains. The wonders of the world are cool and all, but they don’t actually bring me happiness —
So — my travels will look a little different from now on. Instead of organizing my time around the so-called must-see, must-do stuff, I’ll be looking for cozy writing spots and dance studios and salsa clubs in walking distance. Unfortunately, latin dance doesn’t seem to be a big thing in Split, Croatia, where I’m headed to this weekend — but I’ve already sent an email to the one studio I’ve found and picked out coffee shops where I might write and read.
And you? When are the times you’ve been happiest in the last six months? Why? And does the place you live support your happiness?
Tell me, I’m curious.
Hollow Heart by Viola di Grano (Europa, 2015)
If you’ve ever wondered, What would the world be like after my death — and really, don’t all moody readers indulge in this fantasy now and then — meet Dorotea, the narrator of award-winning Italian writer Viola’s novel. At the start of the story, Dorotea’s already dead of suicide, having slit her writsts at the tender age of twenty-five after a brief, depressing life of the usual variety: missing father, depressed and alcoholic mother, disappointing lovers —
Is this mini book review getting too dark? Well, this book is dark. Reading it will envelop you with the numb, dissociative sensations of a heavy depression, from the rote indifference of joyless days accumulating into years to the hollow yet familiar numbness that comes after a particularly painful rejection.
Strangely, Dorotea’s experiences don’t end with her death. Her consciousness stays around, watching her own body decompose, creeping on a cute guy at the bookstore, spying on her mother while she fucks new boyfriends. The prose is hypnotic and gruesome and voyeuristic, floating in that dangerous liminal space between futile hope and hopelessness. Pick up this book for a literary version of Dead Like Me that’s more bleak yet more imaginative, more fanciful yet more real.
The Girl at the Door by Veronica Raimo (Grove, 2019)
A pregnant woman gets an unexpected visit from her live-in boyfriend’s ex-lover. This ex-lover says she’s come to realize that the relationship she used to have with the woman’s boyfriend actually qualified as rape — and so is filing charges. An inquiry begins! And said inquiry is a strange one, because this is all happening in a utopian town called Miden, to which both the pregnant woman and her boyfriend immigrated after leaving an unnamed country riddled with economic and environmental problems — a country that sounds a lot like Italy.
What’s a pregnant woman to do? And what’s an accused man to do? The novel moves between hers and his perspectives, dropping sharp little truth bombs — or are they false bombs? — about perception, memory, soul-searching, and rationalization. (Example: “In the end, what you tell yourself winds up becoming the truth.”) The ending is a bit pat but the getting there is fun. Read it if you like wandering through psychological mazes built around complex contemporary conundrums through which there’s no way out, not really.
The Girl with the Leica by Helena Janeczek (Europa, 2019)
Cope with the new war in Europe by indulging in a novel about a previous world war. This historical novel takes on the story of Gerda Taro, a.k.a. one half of Robert Capa, the now world-famous alias taken on by Gerda and her boyfriend Endre Friedmann. Today, the name Robert Capa is associated mostly with Endre — and Helena’s novel is an effort to unerase Gerda’s artistic and professional contributions.
That said, does this novel work? Told from three perspectives — none of them Gerda’s or Endre’s — the novel tends to look at Gerda from too far a distance and ends up painting a bit too glorified a picture of her: The perfectly beautiful, perfectly likable, perfectly talented, perfectly fearless woman full of joie de vivre. What was Gerda — this German Jewish woman who fled first to Paris then traveled to Barcelona to cover the Spanish Civil War — really like? And why was Helena — this Polish Jewish woman born in Germany who moved to Italy to become the first woman in 15 years to win the most prestigious Italian prize for literature — driven to take on Gerda’s story? Pick up this book if you like discovering forgotten histories featuring creative, peripatetic women.
Once a month, I share book recommendations. Shape it by recommending a read!
Three links you might love:
When monarchs get dethroned. “Across Europe, royal families are variously seen as tourist attractions, embarrassing artifacts, spiritual leaders, and symbols of national identity…. They are royal but not royal, monarchs without thrones, caught between the past and the future.”
When a man advocates for his own execution. “I seek in earnest to wave all my appeals immediately, I seek to be executed as I do here this day stand on MS Death row a guilty man worthy of death.”
When the New York Public Library did away with late fines, people finally returned books they’d kept for years. “Since last fall, more than 21,000 overdue or lost items have been returned in Manhattan, Staten Island and the Bronx, some so old that they were no longer in the library’s systems.”