My rented Vespa took me up and down Sardinia’s hilly roads, too narrow and tree-lined for vistas to open up before me. Had I fallen off my scooter, the sharp edges of the craggy rocks alongside the road could have gashed my legs.
Yet I alone decided when to start my day, which roads to take, where to stop for a picnic. Any time I leaned into a curve, or sped up on a straight stretch, the decision lay in my hands.
The peak summer season, when Italian families and groups of friends moor yachts in the harbor and fill Orosei’s hotels and restaurants, was over. The mornings and evenings had an early fall crispness. Some buildings were already boarded up for the winter.
I was the sole guest at a small hotel along the bay, its exterior constructed of big, irregularly sized local stones. My small velvet-curtained room was furnished with a high, firm double bed and sturdy tables and cupboards. It was dark and calm.
I dedicated my first four days to exploring the dry hills, stopping now and then to enjoy views of the Mediterranean through the pine trees. Months earlier, I’d passed my motorcycle test in Germany on a low-humming Yamaha, and I’d envisaged renting such a motorbike when I arrived. But the guys in the shop told me they didn’t rent them out for insurance reasons. Or perhaps they said because I was a woman on her own—my Italian was a bit sketchy. And so it was that I got a Vespa with a high-pitched motor.
On quiet evenings, I luxuriated in reading and pondering three classic novels I’d brought along to reread: Anna Karenina, The Awakening, and Effi Briest. In high school, I was drawn immediately to Tolstoy’s lovely, delicate Anna, married yet susceptible to the charms of the elegant military officer Vronsky. “In that brief glance Vronsky had time to notice the suppressed animation which played over her face and flitted between her sparkling eyes and the slight smile curving her red lips. It was as if her nature was so brimming over with something that against her will it expressed itself now in a radiant look, now in a smile.” That described me too, I’d thought: my animated nature was just brimming over.
In all three novels, lively and beautiful heroines wither away in their marriages to stiff, humorless men. The message: marriage kills women’s free spirits, their liveliness, the spark in their eyes. The women’s attempts to free themselves, whether through art or a love affair, were doomed to failure: Anna threw herself in front of a train, Edna drowned herself, Effi wasted away.
I’d invited Teresa, my best friend from work in Düsseldorf, to join me for the second half of my ten-day vacation. Before the trip, I’d imagined it’d be the perfect mix—a few days alone on the island, then a few with Teresa. First on a motorbike (before being relegated to a Vespa), then with a tiny rented Fiat.
Hours before her arrival, I had gathered my belongings in one corner to give her half of the small room. I showed the room to her, and she looked around, then began to unpack. “Do you mind if I take this shelf for my stuff?” Teresa asked, eyeing my pile of books.
“Sure, no problem,” I said, watching her line up expensive skin products, labels to the front.
She fussed and folded and straightened as she hung her clothes in the cupboard and placed small items in drawers, checking first whether their surfaces were clean.
Teresa and I worked for a management consulting firm, she as a consultant, I as a translator. My boss, the chief editor, referred to her as “the most beautiful consultant ever.” At twenty-eight, she was seven years younger than me. Tall, with shoulder-length lush hair always gently swinging, her gaze was straight and steady. Whenever we entered a café or store, I sensed her naturally graceful movements next to my gawkiness, her carefully chosen, often ironed clothes contrasting with my jeans and T-shirt.
To celebrate her arrival on the island, we had a late dinner on the hotel’s front terrace. Afterwards, I suggested we walk across the road to the beach to sit close to the water, after I’d quickly grabbed a beer from the mini-bar (She didn’t want one. She hated beer. She said it reminded her of her father sitting in his recliner, being served by her mother). Teresa protested: “It’s ridiculous to pay those inflated prices! Couldn’t you have bought one at the village store earlier?” In her years of traveling for work, had she never indulged in a hotel mini-bar?
Three months before the trip, I’d walked out on my marriage to Harald, a Berlin-born lawyer. I’d moved into a furnished apartment my company’s office manager had offered me for a while, leaving behind what Harald and I had accumulated jointly in nine years together. I was surrounded by unfamiliar furniture. Harald called frequently, tearfully begging me to return. I didn’t know what I wanted. On the weekends, Teresa had been the one person offering to meet for walks and glasses of wine to talk through my marital turmoil.
When we first met, Harald was certain about his international law studies, about the importance of manners and tidy clothing, about the proper style in which to mix cocktails and furnish a flat. He was twenty-three, I twenty-five. Soon he was just as certain about me, a classically trained pianist from the United States.
Our romance was in German, his language. Our tiny apartment in West Berlin was his, too, provided by his parents for his law school years.
I took pride in my adaptability, having lived in nine different dorms and shared apartments by the time I moved in with him. Since little shelf space remained in his studio apartment, the six boxes of books and sheet music I’d shipped over were stored in the building’s basement. The grand piano I was renting at the time was shoehorned in between the window and the futon that served as both a bed and a living room couch.
It was Harald who helped me learn to read and write complex texts in German. We threw little dinner parties for friends—expat musicians and German law students. Though I lacked the confidence that I had the boundless talent and drive needed to make it as a performing pianist, Harald behaved as if he believed in my musical abilities.
He disapproved of other characteristics of mine, however: the sounds I made when I chewed apples; how, when we drank in public, I laughed and moved with less constraint than he thought proper unless we were alone together; that I cried when we fought.
Into the small space that we shared for years, he brought the energy of a punctilious only child living for the first time with another person, a woman. He cared so very much about every detail.
There had been boyfriends before him: an art student whom I’d met on a bicycle trip during high school—he was a camp counsellor and I a camper—then a philosophy major at college who chose to attend law school near me while I finished my degree. The hackneyed avowals of love on his frequent greeting cards made me squirm. There was also a jazz pianist studying musicology whom I’d met on a college semester abroad; so exciting how we seamlessly slipped into arousing each other—though always clandestinely, as he was always with another woman.
Harald paid a different quality of attention to my every move. Perhaps the constant heightened tension between us was true love?
Even before I moved to Berlin at the age of twenty-four, my emotional landscape resided on shaky ground. My father died when I was nineteen after fighting cancer for two years. My mother quickly remarried and moved house. Besides, she radiated an unbridgeable emotional distance. I knew that wherever I ended up, I was on my own.
Over the years, my Berlin friends cringed when Harald impatiently berated me for my repeated attempts at parallel parking or forgetting to buy cream for his coffee. On a rare trip to the States, I attempted to explain his ways to my younger sister—his sternness, his formal way of expressing himself, his lack of ease in fitting into family banter: he’d been brought up mostly by his grandparents, and Germany can be a formal place. Besides, I asserted, he’s different when we’re alone. But I’d become unable to pick up on others’ views of our relationship. My sister told me the family’s problem was not with him, but with how I changed in his presence, attuned solely to his every mood change. Only after I’d left Harald did her words return to me.
After living together for six years in Harald’s studio apartment, he and I married. We then moved to Düsseldorf, where he started his first real job, in corporate law. I too found an office job. I’d come to believe that I would never make a living from playing piano professionally, so I ceased seeking work in the field. Harald let me know he was disappointed in my lack of perseverance. By the age of thirty, I’d decided I was not meant to be a pianist.
Six months into my employment, my boss sent me to a two-day presentation skills training course in Paris. One exercise was to role-play how to say “I’m angry because …” to get a strong message across. While everyone else recounted annoying situations at airports or hotel check-ins, all I could dredge up was a moment of annoyance at an impudent piano pupil from years earlier. The group snickered. Willem, a colleague from the Amsterdam office twelve years older and far more senior, took note of my inability to express anger convincingly.
At the group dinner, Willem spoke to me about it: “Really, nothing angers you?” he said. “I can’t believe it.” He and I continued our conversation in his cramped Parisian hotel room, sitting on the double bed. We were both taken aback when we cried for hours: about being out of touch with our emotions, about wasted years, about not living our lives to the fullest. Clinging to each other in weepy emotional solidarity, a hug turned into an embrace. We had awkward sex that was over in a flash, then wept more and fell asleep. Afterwards, I could not give a name to what had occurred between us. He said he was simply a catalyst in my life.
Upon my return to Düsseldorf, he and I began telephoning while he drove home from the office. What I felt in his voice wasn’t desire, but rather a quiet calm, a stumbling honesty. He seemed to look out to the world from a quiet place within himself, not endeavoring to score points in some imaginary contest, just responding to my inchoate rambling, so close to tears.
Though I’d developed the habit of watching out the large window to the street to see whether Harald was walking home from his law office, that evening I must have been looking elsewhere. Harald let himself in, caught me on the phone with Willem, and confronted me: who was this guy, really? I’d mentioned his name a couple of times since my days in Paris. He asked if we’d slept together. I said yes, but the sex wasn’t important. He laughed derisively, then demanded I cut off all contact. He consulted a colleague, someone I’d never even met, then asserted he was within his rights to demand I never speak to Willem again.
Once, Harald tossed a plate of spaghetti at the living room wall. Another night, he bent my sunglasses at the nosepiece until they broke. Each time, he would then plead with me to forgive him. As our fighting escalated over many weeks, I understood that I had to move out.
In Sardinia, Teresa and I toured by day and took breakfast and dinner on the hotel terrace. She wasn’t much of a reader, so I didn’t bother her with my thoughts on the novels I was revisiting. But I’d started doubting what felt like the tragic inevitability of the women’s destinies. At the same time, I gathered that in the years with Harald I’d been suppressing my spontaneity and my joy. Maybe I had more of a say in shaping my life than those nineteenth-century literary heroines? Maybe there was a way to be animated and centered in my own life after all?
I didn’t miss the uncomfortable discussions, raised voices, and unsatisfying compromises traveling with Harald entailed. He’d often criticize how I dressed—too casually, and how I took care of my clothes—too sloppily. A familiar constricted feeling sometimes returned in my chest with Teresa.
I reveled in my time alone while it lasted, and found I actually preferred not to share my vacation with this friend from work. I could see more clearly what I required to be content in myself. I needed to avoid people who felt compelled to improve or correct me. And I needed lots of fresh air.
The following year, having moved to The Hague for a job as an editor, I bought my dream motorcycle, a used Yamaha Virago in black and silver—I called it a ladies’ chopper. Holland is quite flat, and many of the smaller roads simply parallel their canals. After short excursions on straight roads, I embarked on a ten-day springtime adventure: I rode south through Belgium, to the train in Calais, then transported the bike on a night train to Nice, where spring had broken out in full force, and then explored the south of France alone. I hardly spoke to anyone: days would pass when it had been only a couple of words in French to a waitress mornings and evenings. Fancy racing bikes ridden by French men younger than myself would zoom past me. It rained on several days, and I realized my gear was inadequate. But I had a wonderful time.
I returned to Berlin for a job, now the owner of a Yamaha and divorced from Harald. One weekend afternoon, a friend who’d been riding motorbikes since her teens joined me for an excursion on the country roads south of Berlin. When I tipped over going slowly around a sandy curve, she confirmed the gut feeling I hadn’t yet articulated to myself: “Nancy, you’re just not a natural on a motorcycle.” After selling it, I bought a convertible, a used 1986 Alfa Romeo Spider in black, a vintage whose lines I found particularly sleek and beautiful. “Now that,” my friend said approvingly, “is much more your style.” But I had no experience in buying used cars, and it broke down permanently not long thereafter.
My Sardinia vacation took place twenty-six years ago. In Berlin, where I’ve lived for decades, there are five or six months when the temperature is above freezing and the sun doesn’t set impossibly early. In those months, I love to set out alone on my bicycle to lunch with a friend, a library, my Spanish lessons. It may not have a purring motor and a curvy form, but my body becomes one with the bike, and we go together where I want to go.