Reading Yourcenar

Hadrian’s Villa in Tivoli

Roma, 24 maggio 2021

Dear R. ~

I have incurred a debt! 

Until today I didn’t owe anybody any money.  Not one penny. 

I am always up to date on my bills, I do not use a credit card, have never asked anyone for money, and other than my mortgage (okay, that is a loan but it doesn’t count) I owe nothing.  If I can’t pay for something that I want or need then I simply don’t purchase it until I have the money.  It simplifies everything, sets limits, and generates lots of ease.  I don’t know, maybe I need these artificial restraints, maybe I am unconsciously aware that without them I would spiral deep into debt, living a life beyond my means, living solely on Prosecco and pastries, swathed in silk, sailing the Mediterranean.  I don’t deny myself simple pleasures and luxuries, as evidenced by my collection of Italian leather goods, the preference for truffles, and the books… all those books!  But I fund that sort of thing through being financially sensible in other areas.  I’ve only ever bought used cars for example.  So anyway that’s how it’s been for me all this time.  And now I owe someone money.

After last weekend’s lunch at the beach with friends I had Hadrian on my mind.  It was almost a year since we had been to Villa Adriana in Tivoli (May 31, 2020 to be exact) and over lunch we talked about our visit there because our friends were planning on going the following day.  We shared with them what a treat it had been to walk the grounds with only a handful of other people in those early days of riapertura.  It was our first excursion out of Rome since the (very first) lockdown of 2020 and hardly anybody was venturing out yet.  We sped along the empty highway and when we turned into the museum’s parking lot we thought maybe it hadn’t reopened yet because there was only one other parked car there.  Previously, we had tried visiting twice but the lot was packed with cars and tour buses and the line to get in was long.  We can come back any old day we told ourselves, we’ll come during low-season, we’ll come in the winter.  But then we delayed, got busy doing other things, and then came the Lockdown.  We feared that we might not ever be allowed to leave our homes again, much less marvel at the beautiful landscape the ruins sit on.

We couldn’t have imagined a better day to visit (not that it was worth the sacrifice of enduring a pandemic) a lovely Spring day, quiet but pulsating with promise, and the expanse that we walked on to, softened by tall grasses and wild flowers that the grounds keeper had not mowed in all those months, instantly freed us from the lingering sense of sequestration.  We felt like ghosts wandering through the remaining walls, through thousands of years, tracing the intricate structure it once was. Only when we got to the reflecting pool and saw other humans did we remember that we weren’t lost in time. 

The thing about Hadrian that weighed on me during our visit, and that came up again during that lunch, was Marguerite Yourcenar.  For years I moved around with a livre de poche edition of her Memoirs of Hadrian in my boxes, always intending to read it, never getting to it, and then packing it up for the next move.  When I was at school in Paris I went through a Yourcenar phase.   Of all her books that was the one I was too afraid to read.  I kept thinking I needed to perfect my French just a little bit more before diving into it.  So it went for years, and finally, many, many moves later, I gave it away, giving up on my unfulfilled promise to read it in the original.  As we walked through the looming domes over what had been the baths during Hadrian’s time I began to feel guilty, even silly, for having been afraid to read her masterpiece.  I vowed to rise to the challenge and read it, and then go back to Villa Adriana. 

Over that scrumptious seaside lunch, our friends talked about the book, how they had just (re)read it (okay, not in the original but still) and how excited they were to go and visit.  I suddenly had this pit in my stomach and for a moment I thought maybe it was the seafood but then quickly realized it was a sense of regret; and then right alongside that feeling, I sensed desire:  I wanted to read the book, once and for all.  Which is why I am in debt. 

Saturday, on my way back from the morning market, I took a different street back than usual.  I like varying my routes for fun, being an explorer in my own neighborhood.  I came down that street I’ve told you about, the one that has the most well-stocked tabaccheria I’ve seen yet – it even sells laundry detergent, something I’ve never seen at a tobacconist before.  Anyway, that little second-hand bookshop that is never open, even on days when the sign says it’s open, was actually open! I’ve been watching that store for at least two years and I hadn’t, till now, had the fortune of finding it open.  I so wanted to drop my bags and run in and browse all the book shelves forever, but my bag was heavy and I had just purchased half a pound of ricotta for that strawberry cake I’ve been meaning to try and was afraid it would go sour if I didn’t get it home soon.  So I carried on, walking by the dusty window packed with old leatherbound books, past a rickety shelf, bursting with yellowed paperbacks, that had been pulled out onto the sidewalk.  It was so painful to not stop.  Then, out of the corner of my eye (isn’t it always that way??) I saw a copy of  Yourcenar’s Memorie di Adriano.  In Italian.  So of course I dropped the ricotta and sprung on the book. 

“It’s on sale for 2 Euro,” said jolly eyes behind a face covering.  I hadn’t seen him standing next to the bookshelf, swimming in his monochrome brown outfit.  “I’ve actually been thinking of this book,” I said as I quickly pulled out my coin purse, “and I’m so glad you are open today.”  The bookseller laughed and said that he was always open, except when he wasn’t, and that sometimes he was open when he was supposed to be closed, like today.  I laughed behind my mask, fogging up my sunglasses of course which only made it more difficult to count the coins, surely I had two Euro on me??  Nope.  But I did have a 5 Euro bill so I handed him that.  He sunk his hand deep into his pocket, and as if performing a magic trick, opened his palm to reveal a few cents.  As often happens here, nobody ever has change.  It’s imperative to walk around with a coin purse filled with spiccioli.  Everyone is always grateful for small change and you avoid waiting for the shopkeeper who has to run next door in search of it.  But I was out of the handy one Euro coins having just been to the market.  I scrounged deep but only had a few centesimi rolling around the bottom of my bag, including the no longer useable 1c. and 2c. coins (they stopped being coined in 2018).  “Tranquila,” he smiled, “no worries, take the book and you can come pay me later.” 

He doesn’t even know me.  How can he trust me?  What if I never return to pay?  What if he isn’t open the next time I come around?? 

So that’s how I came to be in debt.  All for a book.  A book I once owned and was too scared to read. 

Now I’m on a crusade to: 

  • Read Memorie… (did you know it took her decades to write?)
  • In Italian (possibly a taller order than reading it in French)  
  • And of course, pay my debt at the bookshop.  I hope it is open next time I go by…    

Wish you were here,


P.S.: Enclosed is the recipe to the strawberry cake

2 thoughts on “Reading Yourcenar”

  1. You are trustworthy— Jolly Eyes could tell.
    Mostly, it is a debt to self; but now an almost-fulfilled promised with (the upped challenge) to read the treasure in Italian.
    May the book live up to the expectations.
    You know me and yummy food; I was so distracted by the strawberry ricotta cake and now pine for the recipe.

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