They tell me that I’m “living the dream” because I live in Italy. Well, yes, Italy is quite a country and as I sink my remaining teeth into yet another bruschetta al tartufo at only 10 euros a pop, I do think, “Sod the teeth, this is the life.”
But there is a catch. Italy, tragically, is riddled with Italians. And Tuscany is even worse because lurking behind every oleander bush is an Englishman with a Panama hat on his head and a glass of Chianti in his hand. In every piazza is a sun-dried American woman of a certain age in a hurry to find an answer to her question, “Yes, but is it organic?”
I live in the small city of Forlì, in the Romagna which adjoins Tuscany and is like Tuscany before it became Chiantishire. So apart from a few English teachers at the university and two American men whose source of income is unclear, I am the only Anglo-Saxon in town unless you count professional basketball players.
Living here is no dream. It is like serving a life sentence inside an Italian restaurant. There is no escape. I work with Italians. I used to socialize with them, but I gave up booze six months ago and cannot face them sober. I’m even married to an Italian. She is much younger than me and is beautiful and sì, sì, certo, I do love her. But there’s no getting away from it: She is a bloody Italian as well.
All you need to know about Italians is that they are all either communists, fascists, or Catholics—whatever they call themselves—who indignantly blame the other two factions for their country’s spectacular corruption and stultifying bureaucracy. My wife Carla is a Catholic. That’s preferable, obviously, to a communist and also, if push came to shove, to a fascist.
Carla’s mission (God bless her or perhaps God help her) is to get me to become a Catholic because otherwise there is no chance of me going to heaven because only Catholics go to heaven and time is running out because the apocalypse is due any day now, as we can so clearly see from what is going in Syria, and not forgetting Iran, but also those really weird tornados in America. And in those very few moments of life as we know it left to us on Earth she feels “only half a person” being married to a non-Catholic, which also jeopardizes her own place in heaven.
We were married in a Catholic Church where I, who was baptized and confirmed an Anglican, had to swear to God that I’d bring our children up as Catholics. Fine, I thought. At least I don’t have to swear to bring them up as Italians. There are five of them now, aged eight down to four months. I speak to them in English but they do not take a blind bit of notice.
I would not mind being a Catholic in some ways because the Catholic Church is about the only institution left in the civilized world that defends the Christian values that gave us not only the free market but freedom.
My problem is that I am an agnostic. I am not an atheist like the Oxford zoologist Richard Dawkins. I take a much more scientific approach than the professor. I do not exclude God. How can anyone, especially from a scientific point of view? Before the Big Bang, what was there? Nothing? What is nothing? How do you create something out of nothing? As a scientific kind of guy, I would not be surprised if the final scientific discovery is that God exists.
But so what? Even if by some miracle I was able to decide that I believed in God, why would I have to pray to him? For what, exactly? To thank him? For my mother’s cancer? To ask him for a favor? A cure for my mother’s cancer? To ask God to forgive my sins so I can live forever in heaven instead of hell? OK, perhaps, but if he is God he knows all about my sins anyway, so why tell a priest about them as well?
Carla will not listen to reason. I say: “Why can’t I just stay Anglican?” No dice. “You Anglicans are heretics, no better than Jehovah’s Witnesses,” she says.
I say: “So only Catholics go to heaven, is that it? Moslems—where do they go? Sikhs? What about the poor Buddhists? What did they ever do to deserve hell?”
On Sunday mornings Carla, me, and the five children go to mass where I observe but do not take communion and on Sunday evenings, after the English Sunday roast, we all sit down in front of our peach-colored fridge to which are attached images of Jesus and Mary to recite the Rosary.
However hard I try I find it impossible to believe that the bread is actually the body of Christ and the wine is actually the blood of Christ as Catholics do. If I point out, “So you Catholics are cannibals,” Carla really hits the roof. And there’s no way she’s going to get me to confess my sins. Not to a priest. Not in Italy where the judiciary is tapping and bugging everyone and the confessional is such an obvious place to get the dirt on anyone, even a saint like me.
A week ago, she rang the bishopric in person and somehow got through to the bishop. He put her on to Don Pietro, who looks after difficult conversions. They fixed an appointment together for me to see him in the bishopric.
I went and told him the truth: I’m an agnostic but was baptized and confirmed an Anglican and Carla wanted me to convert. I said I did not mind, given how much it meant to her and the children who could not wait to see the day of my first Catholic communion.
Don Pietro, a very down-to-earth man, told me that I could not convert unless I believed in God. End of story. Well, thank God for that!
Carla was furious. “You played the vittima, didn’t you? How dare you sputtanarmi (slander me)? Con te, ho chiuso (I’m finished with you)!” she bellowed.
“Darling, we can’t be finished, because we are married and you are a Catholic,” I replied.
God, I need a drink.
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