There was a different sun in Italy—of this, Violet was convinced. She tilted her face toward it and closed her eyes, allowing its warmth to stroke her face as she admired the orb of white imprinted on her eyelids. Italy’s sunlight was pink-tinged and unwavering, and it was for this reason, she was sure, that the Italians were always so relaxed. Their sun loved them and they in turn loved all that life offered them. Violet inhaled a dandelion breeze while the Fiume Po floated by, carrying with it rolling otters and gleaming ducks. She was sitting on a splintered bench overlooking the river. A tree above her shifted its shadow on the ground, the leaves appearing to dance and pirouette. Behind her, couples kissed while they walked, bicycles wheels zipped and squealing children discovered the beauty of the world for the first time. Violet crossed one knee over the other and opened her book: Kafka’s The Metamorphosis. Marta had given her the afternoon off. Luca was at school and the household chores that day were minimal. In fact, there had been little to do since her arrival the week before, but her responsibilities would increase as time wore on. Her host mother wanted her, first, to feel at home. She was only seventeen after all and away from her family for the first time in her life. A small flower fresh from her primary education and seeking a year of adventure before falling into another routine, Violet had come across a website for au pairs to meet host families. This was where she had found Marta, the single mother of a three-year-old in Torino, eager for someone to help around the house and teach her son English. The same day Violet contacted her, Marta replied asking how soon she could start. Now here she was, una ragazza Americana on Italian ground. This idea aroused something deeply artistic inside her—an urge to paint, to write. And so she sat with a view of the river reading Kafka, weak with content, while the shadows of leaves did ballet below her.
Luca bared milk teeth at me, the sides of his eyes crinkling. A lion cub attempting ferocity. To me he was full-grown, a monster. It was three months in and he still hadn’t warmed to me; what was I doing wrong? Whenever his mother tried to leave he clung to her legs and screamed for her to stay until his face shone pomodoro-red. Outside, some of the leaves started bleeding. The greens melted into meeker versions of themselves until they were not green but yellow. Then the yellow leaves were spiked with orange. Some appeared to turn ginger all at once, like a switch being flipped. “Mamma!” Luca shrieked in a pitch uncomfortably high for adult ears. Marta assured me that this is just what children do, and advised me to have patience. But Luca had never been forced into such close quarters alone with anyone except his mother and grandparents. He growled, snapped, bit, cried until he hiccupped. I dreaded my time alone with him, feared his determined hostility toward me. Marta was convinced that his behavior was normal for a boy his age. Some leaves went directly from green to red, and glowed in their gory redness. From the kitchen window the trees were set on fire at sunrise and sunset, shattering the previous months of green and growing. The leaves charred to brown, withering like tarred lungs, lost their grips on tender twigs. “Luca, pass Violet the water,” said Marta at the dinner table. “No!” cried the boy, and if she asked him again he would start to cry. “Is this normal?” I aimed this question at my parents on Skype. “Normal depends on the culture you’re in,” said my mother. So it was their Italian-ness. La bella Italia, my torturous betrayer; it was not what it was meant to be! I allowed the tears to swallow my face only in the dead of night. And yet when most of the leaves had been sacrificed, Luca knocked on my door and entered with his favorite blue teddy bear. “Do you want to play?” he said, and all was saved.
When the trees were bare and the snowcaps began to creep down the mountains, you were no longer Violet. The endless collection of ashy skies, spitting rain and sleet onto the city, took its toll on you. The wind that nipped at your cheeks when you picked Luca up from school was wicked. All was gray and black, and you longed for a world blanketed in snow; without snow the cold was intolerable, deformed. You woke up with melancholy waiting at the bottom of your first cup of tea. But there were small comforts. You found some friends in other au pairs, from Canada and Australia, whom you met at an intermediate Italian class. You compared your host families over cappuccinos and pasticcini and pizza. You ordered in Italian to impress each other. “Una margherita, per favore.” And Luca came to adore you. He asked you to do puzzles with him and held your hand when you walked side by side. You spoke English to him and he responded in Italian, and you understood each other. Marta roasted chestnuts on the stovetop and the three of you ate them with warm milk in the buttery glow of the kitchen lamp, listening to Bach. She bought you a scarf for Christmas, which you all spent with Nonno and Nonna, who didn’t know any English. You missed your family intensely, but Marta had only taken a week off for the holiday, and Luca was off from school for three. She needed you there. On Christmas Eve you cried yourself to sleep thinking of your parents and sisters and all the family traditions. It did not snow until the fourth day of March. On that day, the snowflakes exploded from the sky like confetti on a stage. The city was buried. In the evening all three of you armored yourself in winter clothes and drove half an hour to a forest. It was higher up and the snow was several feet deep, all the trees iced like pillars of cake. At sunset, the forest glowed pearly pink and you were so moved by its beauty that you forgot what it was to feel blue. You were Violet.
“Look!” cried Luca in English. His little finger jabbed into the window, on the other side of which was a pale blue butterfly. It flicked its wings in a flirtatious sort of way, then leapt from the sill and fluttered away. Luca’s enormous eyes watched it until it was out of sight. I was reminded of a question I had once heard, asked by a young girl in a New York Times video: Do blue butterflies eat parts of the sky? “Farfallina,” said Luca, his eyes urgent as they met mine. “Yes, it was a small butterfly,” I said, smoothing the hair away from his forehead. I dressed him in a light sweater and trainers and we went for a walk. He brought his bubble blower and filled our path with shimmering rainbow planets. He gasped as they grew from his plastic hoop, and then chased after them. In the windows of the apartments on either side of us, flower baskets were filled with new blossoms, their leaves rich and green. Trees bragged their buds; some exploded with white and pink flowers, others with leaves. Luca wanted to go to the park by the river. He held my hand when we crossed the road. Beside the Fiume Po, dandelions burst from the earth, and Luca squealed at their yellowness. Dogs bounded after soggy-skinned sticks and children gossiped together on their way home from school. As Luca crawled through the playground, repeating every game a hundred times, I leaned against the fence and watched squirrels scurry across the grass hunting nuts. All around there was the satisfied hum of bees as their bodies feasted on flowers. The year was coming to an end, and before long I would return to my real life. What had I learned? That Kafka made sure not to specify the vermin Gregor Samsa became. That children are angels and monsters. That all would be well. We found ourselves sitting on a bench overlooking the river, licking gelatos that dripped luxuriously down their cones. Above our heads, swallows swooped and sang, and I was filled with joy.