Wednesday, June 6, 2007

A Day Late

[Written in 2007 for Sky magazine]

One of the pleasures of living overseas for part of every year—in my case, the coast of southern Italy, for four months annually—is to grow accustomed to a radically different sense of time. I do not mean the tired cliché of mañana, which (wherever I’ve encountered it) was neither romantic nor illuminating, and even more of a frustration for working locals than resident foreigners. No, I mean the education that comes with having your temporal assumptions eloquently dismantled.

Take the daily newspaper. Among Italy’s legitimate prides is the array of its journalism, veteran at analyzing complex layers of political, financial, and social scandals. Its great newspapers are easily found at giornali kiosks across the country. But they are challenging for my limited Italian, so invariably I look to the Herald Tribune, which appears six times a week as a succinct version of the New York Times, along with extra international reporting, independent op-eds, and regular pleasures like the art and antiques articles of Souren Melikian.

And yet here, in the seaside resort of San Felice Circeo, my folded copy of the Herald Trib always arrives a day late. Leaving aside the exorbitant price (with the weak dollar, roughly $3), why should reading it be such a valuable part of my day? Is it because I savor it over a cappuccino, while glancing away at a glorious view south to Vesuvius on a clear morning? Is it because I have the inestimable satisfaction of buying it at the same kiosk, just off a 14th-century piazza, from the spectacled grandson of the uncomplaining woman who collected the week’s mail for my father there for decades until we got delivery (electricity, too) on our side of the mountain? Or is it because, addicted to fetching the New York Times off my path in Massachusetts each morning by seven, I need a daily fix of familiar newsprint?

These are lovely, sentimental possibilities, but I’ve come to believe—having lived part of every year abroad for over two decades—that much of the enjoyment lies in the fact that the paper always arrives a day late. My internet connection (an unreliable dial-up, but still) gives me the news almost instantly; and allowing for weather, the BBC and the Voice of America are audible on my short-wave. It is easier than ever to stay in touch and there are handheld options for those more obsessed than I. But it is luxury, sheer lavish splendor, to enjoy receiving your daily newspaper a day late. It proves you have outlived the front page; that (presumably) nothing too catastrophic has rendered the news entirely obsolete; at the same time there is the sneaking pleasure of being a little more knowledgeable than the paper.

Perhaps the best of both worlds was two decades ago, in Istanbul, when the Herald Trib, Le Monde, and the rest of the international press might or might not arrive at the end of a work day—a displacement that seemed peculiarly appropriate to that dream-city equably perched on the edge of Europe and the margins of Asia.

It is liberating to read a daily newspaper one day or several or even a week or two late. The commonsensical conclusion is that few events affect you as urgently as the media want you to believe, and knowing about them sooner rarely changes anything. Such built-in perspective on what you read is a healthy reminder that life goes on, and to see the obituary of a friend a few days late—as I have just done—is a nudge that time moves forward impassively, at its own slipstream rate. Hopefully, to be an expatriate means to free yourself from the societal routines that get taken for granted, and at least in the States, keeping up to the minute is one of them. Try as I might, I cannot do it here without expending more energy than that knowledge is worth.

This awareness alone seems ample reason to live abroad—not just in another country, but in another time. On this coast, I will start to worry when either the Herald Trib begins to arrive on the proper day . . . or when it truly starts to bother me that it does not.

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