The other day I noticed these tiny little Roman numerals sticking on the inside of the face of my watch. A minuscule, upside-down “I” near the number 12, an “X” down by the 4, an “L” over by the 6. Given that my watch uses Arabic numerals, it took me a while to figure out where these little Roman Numerals were coming from. I finally realized they were not Roman Numerals at all but the small letters “TIMEX” written on the face have come loose and are floating around inside my watch and sticking to the glass. I also noticed an “A” and an “L” and am wondering what the other word was that I have had on my wrist for over a decade and has now come loose. I certainly cannot remember.
I have had this cheap Timex watch for about 18 years. I have replaced the battery and the watchband many times. It is perfect for me because I am always in a hurry and the numbers are big and I can see the time with a quick glance.
Of course, there is a story behind this watch. When my son was born 21 years ago, my Italian father-in-law said he wanted to give me a gift. He took me to a lovely old store called “Haussman and Co.” on Via del Corso in Rome with deep-burgundy leather chairs and wooden paneling. Posh sales-clerks placed pricey watches on black velvet trays for us to examine. We chose an elegant Cartier watch with a wide gold rim, roman numerals, and a black, alligator-skin watchstrap. I was honored by the gift and felt very sophisticated with my Cartier watch.
A few years later when my son was in his terrible twos, my husband took a sabbatical year and we moved to New York City while he taught at Columbia University. The Nobel Prize winning economist from Columbia, Professor Robert Mundell, gave us his apartment on Claremont Avenue for the year. I was pregnant with my second child and enjoyed my time off work, waddling around New York with my rambunctious two-year-old and waiting for the arrival of my second child. I proudly wore my elegant Cartier watch wherever I went, from the playground in Riverside Park to visiting the dinosaurs in the Natural History Museum. It was as though I was a little bit more European-sophisticated with my Cartier watch and not the messy, American mozzarella Mamma. Turns out my true, un-sophisticated alter-ego was lurking in the background waiting to attack.
On January 17, 1998, my daughter Caterina was born. Anyone who has done it knows that the jump from one child to two is a big deal. Babies are always easier when they are still in your stomach and my juggling act began (and still is going on). My rambunctious two-year-old (nearly three-year-old) became demanding and assertive, throwing toilet training progress to the wind (translate: massive accidents in the playground), tantrums timed to moments when Mommy was breast-feeding, and occasional falsely sweet murder attempts when Mommy was not paying attention. Those were when I left Caterina in her baby carriage and he would come up and say “Caterina, look at my teddy bear!” and then plant it on her face. Or perhaps an attempt to swing on the handle of the baby carriage risking sending baby Caterina flying skywards. Needless to say, I had to be on my toes.
I developed a nighttime routine that I swore by. I would read Nico several books then put him to bed and then around 11pm start giving Caterina her final feeding for the evening while I watched Seinfeld on TV. After Seinfeld and the usual rounds of burping and diaper changing, I would put her down to sleep, take a shower and then head to bed. That would usually guarantee me three hours of sleep until the 3am feeding.
One night I wearily put Caterina down and went into the bathroom, took off my clothes, turned on the shower, used the toilet, as I was taking off my Cartier watch and then–I will never know exactly how it happened–but the watch slipped off my wrist into the toilet as I was flushing and down it went.
I froze in shock and then yelled, “GUSTAVO….MY CARTIER WATCH JUST WENT DOWN THE TOILET!!!”
He came charging down the corridor into the bathroom and as I stood there with a towel wrapped around me I explained, “I just flushed the Cartier watch your Dad gave me down the toilet.”
Let’s just say his reaction was not pretty. He was furious, he was enraged, he was so mad at me he could hardly see straight.
Before I knew it we had the doorman, the building super, plumbers and I think even the fire department marching up and down our hallway and into the bathroom. They took apart the toilet and found nothing. They spent hours down in the bowels (literally, perhaps) of the building trying to find my Cartier watch. In the meantime, I cowered in the bedroom feeling like the world’s biggest loser and really just wanting to go to sleep.
(I hope Robert Mundell never reads this post. I don’t think he ever heard about this incident)
It must have been around 3am when all the workers gave up. It was awful. I still do not think my husband has forgiven me for that. Needless to say, I had to go out and buy myself a cheap Timex and have never mentioned the word “watch” to my husband again.
(Word of advice to any women marrying an Italian. Never-even by accident– flush an expensive gift from your father-in-law down the toilet. And if you do, cover it up. In retrospect, it would have been far wiser to buy a similar-looking cheap, imitation Cartier watch from a street vendor in NYC)
What is it about being an American and lacking that European sophistication, that savoir-faire, that “je ne sais quoi?” that distinguishes them from us sloppy, sweaty, messy boors. (Ok, don’t get offended blog-readers, I am just speaking about myself).
Fast-forward a couple of decades. My son is now 21, my daughter 18 and the third one is 15. I still have my Timex. The other day my husband took me to what I would define as a crème de la crème party in Rome. It was in this gigantic apartment in the center of Rome with art works all over the walls, precious tapestries, and antique everything. There were a combination of art world people, a few journalists, a former government minister or two, a sprinkling of nobles, prominent businesspeople, and then an awkward American. Yup, that’s me. I do not know why I cared but I noticed shortly after I entered that I was the only woman in boots. There are all these fashion rules and codes in Italy that I just don’t get. They are like the food rules – you never order a cappuccino after lunch, you just don’t (see blog post: “Amatriciana in the Blender”). Then there are also fashion rules that I am much slower on picking up—in fact, I have been living in Italy for over 23 years and I still don’t get them. For example, middle-aged women can and should wear a bikini at the beach and God forbid you cover up your flab in a one-piece bathing suit (see blog post: “Mozzarella Mamma meets Italian Teenage Summer”), and at a sophisticated dinner party your spiffy, suede, high-heeled boots are not good – you can’t wear boots. I went to an evening wedding one summer where I wore an expensive, pretty, cotton summer dress and all the women were in floor length gowns. Go figure. Can someone write down the Italian fashionista (not to be confused with fascista) rules for me, please!
So at this crème de la crème party this whole boot business started making me feel a bit like a loser with a capital L on my forehead at the get-go. Then I made a gaffe about a thing on the coffee table that turned out was a piece of art by a famous sculptor—as a woman on the other side of the coffee table was quick to point out. “Oh, you don’t know him?” she asked, smiling as she held her glass of pro secco. AWKWARD. No, I didn’t know him and the sculpture looked like a Maine lobster to me. I decided to shut up, stick to my husband’s side and be a good wifey. He knows how to handle these situations – let’s say he is a bit cremoso (That is creamy in Italian)– he would never flush a Cartier watch down the toilet, or make a dumb comment at a party about an obviously famous work of art. I, on the other hand, am not crème-osa. I tend to be more like sour milk that you pull out of the fridge at 7 in the morning and think, “damn, how did that go sour, now I have to run to the store before breakfast, dammit, dammit and then I will be late for work, dammit, dammit.”
When the food was served, I made a beeline for the dining table and piled up my plate with all the fantastic food. I then headed for a two-person couch assuming my husband was right behind me and I would only have to converse with him. But when I plopped down he was not behind me and the other half was soon occupied with a gorgeous woman who looked like a middle-aged goldilocks. She was wearing a glamorous mini-skirt and mile-high heels with pom-poms on them and she managed to pull it off, she looked fantastic. (Fashionista rule: mile high heeled sandals with pom-poms allowed, suede boots no). She immediately started up a flirtatious conversation with the man in a chair on the other side and I dove into my food. It did not take me long to polish off everything on my plate and soon I realized I had to engage in conversation. But feeling rather “sour-milky” and not “crème-osa” I was not sure how to do that, so I did one of my classic faux-pas (or “brutta figura” I should say since I am in Italy). I asked her what she does for work. I butted into their conversation with a casual little, “So, what do you do?” (That is a big no-no in Italy, See Blog Posts: “How I Ended up in Italy” and “The Tailhook and the Elegant Dinner Party”). She looked at me and laughed a delightful little crème de crème laugh and said, “Ah, you know, WORK and I just don’t go together. I have never worked. It’s just not for me.” Then she turned and went back to speaking to Mr. Crème on the other side.
To be honest, I eventually managed to break into their conversation and this woman was charming, interesting and knowledgeable. We had a stimulating conversation about international affairs but I did wonder what she thought of me with my black boots, my eagerness to talk about my work, and my old watch with the loosened letters floating around the face.
I guess it is time to buy a new watch, but I am actually very attached to this one. We have come a long way together in our messy, unsophisticated American way.
Looking at the super-close-up photo I did of my watch for this blog post, I am having some doubts that my Timex is actually a Timex. I see the letters I-T-A — which make me think of the word Italy, but I am quite sure “Italy” was not written on the face of this watch. Hmmm, I guess it will remain a mystery.