It was thanks to some oranges that I got to meet Elizabeth Taylor. I was handling some pears at Campo de Fiori’s outdoor market when the woman standing next to me asked what color fruit went best with blue walls. “Well oranges, of course”, I replied. Surprised by my lack of hesitation, I told her that I’d studied Itten’s color theory with great care. “Color has a tremendous effect on us”, I continued. “Just think of Hitchcock’s bizarre dinner parties.”
“Once he had all the food tinted blue—blue soup, blue bread, blue mashed potatoes. Can you imagine eating a blue chicken? Blue, the color of bruises, is an appetite suppressant. That’s why you’ll eat less if your food is served on a blue plate”. Fascinated, the woman invited me for a glass of wine and that was the beginning of my friendship with Muriel Spark, author of The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie. Even though it was based in the 1930s, it’s such a contemporary story. Miss Brodie, accused of teaching Fascism, is forced to retire. The accusation is made by the student she trusts most, Sandy. After the betrayal, Sandy studies psychology and writes “The Transfiguration of the Commonplace” before becoming a nun. Why Sandy, a stone throwing sinner, felt the need to betray Miss Brodie is the real dilemma in the book. Because it’s the story of how one dogma substituted another but continued to dress in black.
Anyway, Muriel told me that a film was being made based on her book, In the Driver’s Seat, starring Elizabeth Taylor and she felt obligated to host a party in the actress’ honor. Muriel’s book had been inspired by the new French writers especially Alain Robbe-Grillet’s “repetition, boredom, despair, going nowhere for nothing”. You know, an existential hangover. But what did I care as Muriel had invited me to her dinner party where I met Liz and had a great time.
In the months following the party, Muriel and I often met for dinner at Galeassi’s in the heart of Trastevere. Rome had taught her how to become glamorous. She’d lost a few kilos and started wearing designer clothes. Muriel loved Rome because she said it was a place where you could assume the identity that you wanted. Her entourage of friends were straight out of a nouveau roman— charmers, flatterers, and borderline aristocrats. They were part of her new look until she started hanging out with the artist Penelope Jardine. You could tell the two felt really comfortable with one another. Eventually Muriel and Penelope moved to Tuscany and, for 30 years, they travelled around Italy in Muriel’s Alfa Romeo in search of new things to discover. Gossips speculated that it was a lesbian relationship but I don’t think sex had anything to do with it. Muriel wanted something the men she’d loved hadn’t been able to give her—companionship.
Lesson learned from Muriel: Everyone needs to live abroad for at least a year.
Muriel was from Scotland but had lived in Southern Rhodesia and New York City before moving to Italy. She understood the advantages of living abroad.
When you live abroad, you’re forced to do things differently than you did at home. This expands your peripheral vision permitting you to see more than you did before.
Learning to adapt to new ways of doing things will make your dendrites grow. Complicit with your imagination, you will learn to adapt which, according to Darwin, is the basis of survival.
Affronting the unknown is a stimulus. Even going to the grocery store can become a happening. The routine broken, boredom is obliterated and life is a thrill.
Comparing and contrasting old ways with new ones gives you more options when having to make choices. Plus the initial uncertainty that comes with living abroad helps build character and self-esteem.
Often creative people feel like aliens in their own country which can lead to a feeling of frustration and insecurity. When you live in a foreign country, it’s ok to feel different. Italo Calvino said that the ideal place is the one in which it is most natural to live as a foreigner.
(from Cool Breeze, aka The Age of Reconfiguration ©)
Related: Muriel Spark (1918-2006) + Muriel Spark and Penelope Jardine + some of Muriel’s friends in Rome included Brian de Breffny, Count Lanfranco Rasponi, Dario Ambrosiani, the Honorable Guy Strutt + Muriel Spark lived at Palazzo Taverna, VIA DI MONTE GIORDANO
Read The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie by Muriel Spark (1961) online + watch The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie online + Watch The Driver’s Seat on youtube
Stannard, Martin. Muriel Spark: The Biography.