February 27, 2024 | Rome, Italy

Castle in the clouds

By |2018-03-21T18:38:42+01:00November 16th, 2009|At Large & Sports|
For all of their talk of the adult world, they had the pure, joyous souls of children

ofia looked at me coquettishly. “Mi sta bene, vero?” I told her that it did in fact fit her, but that she would need her mother’s permission to buy a miniskirt with a Playboy Bunny across the back. After all, she was only 11. She stuck out her lower lip and spun back into the dressing room where her best friend Noa was trying on the same skirt.

Later, as the three of us waited for a traffic signal to turn, I watched the rest of my Roman students in a tableau in front of the Spire of Dublin. There were six of them waiting at the meeting point, none older than 15. I saw Giada first. She stood out, with hot-white dreadlocks, leopard-print tights, and sparkling facial piercings. I watched Loredana shake her mane of bright-red hair out of her eyes as she filed her fake nails. Giulia spoke German, Italian, and Spanish fluently; she was pleasantly voluble and flirtatious, she pushed Stefano in a gesture of disbelief. Stefano was only 13 but tall for his age. His blond hair hung undone in his face, and partially hid his look of ambivalence. His friend Daniele banged a cardboard poster-tube against the Spire to the fast beat of the heavy metal in his headphones. Fifteen-year-old Valentina sat with Giada on the curb smoking a cigarette and, as I arrived I heard, talking about condoms and the meaning of life.

“You’ve been shopping, now to Malahide Castle!” I proclaimed. It was Sunday and we had compromised, we’d do one thing they wanted to do and one thing I wanted to do.

On the train to Malahide I followed the hustle of Ireland’s miraculously quick clouds and furtively listened to my students. They talked about the previous night’s language school mixer. Sofia had sat for two hours silently holding hands with her brand-new and terrifyingly older (he was 13 and she’d claimed to be 12) Spanish boyfriend. Giulia had spent the night in a froth of teenage gossip and hormones. In five days she had acquired and disposed of two boys, and at the dance she had met another. The three boys and their friends gestured frantically at each other and her, while in three languages she individually teased and assured them. Giada and Valentina boycotted the “childish” dance. They sat out on the steps smoking cigarettes. When I went out to them, I heard they were discussing death and Pirandello.

After a tour of Malahide Castle I proposed that we picnic at the playground I had spied on the woody walk back to the train station. My idea was met with huffs. They were upset because their cell phones didn’t work along the forest path; they wanted to get back to Dublin. But as the woods opened onto the spacious park, I felt a subtle change in the mood. They sullenly left their bags on the ground and gathered in desultory and shifting groups to complain about their lunches, yet they didn’t petition to leave as I’d expected. Soon Stefano had run off on a reconnaissance mission of the grounds. He screamed from the castle turret for the others.

Later I heard Stefano justifying his child’s-play to a friend: “The playground was on steroids, and really well-lubricated. It was seriously dangerous!” He wasn’t exaggerating. The seesaw had a four-foot tall piston in the center that allowed it to move up and down and swivel as you seed and sawed. The jungle gym was secured to a similar joint, while some kids climbed and hung from its ropes, another could send it spinning madly around.

One by one the kids were enchanted by the screams of the others. And soon they had all forgotten their lunches and ran wild from game to game. The cliques they had formed dissolved. Age didn’t matter, nor did gender.

Meanwhile, the clouds above us lumbered to a stop and grumbled crankily. I fetched their bags and wedged umbrellas upright to protect them. Irish rainfall resembles the Irish themselves, overbearing but friendly. I imagined it would only be minutes before the kids felt chilled, their makeup ran, or their shoes got muddy and they wanted to go. They panted up to me in pairs, interrupting each other to brag of various conquests. Stefano’s knee was bleeding, Loredana had broken two nails, Noa’s hair was caught in a swing and her braids were loose and lopsided, Giulia’s designer jeans were covered in grass and mud. Not one asked me if their cigarettes or phone or camera had gotten wet in the sudden downpour. Not one asked if we could get out of the rain.

More than an hour later, on the suddenly sunny walk back, they ran and pushed each other. They laughed and fell and dared each other to climb trees and hop puddles. I thought about our rapid world and how it forces so much on them, about how they had to build personas to deal with the level of maturity required of them. I saw that, for all of their sarcasm and cynicism, for all of their talk of the adult world, they still had the pure, joyous souls of children.

And they were beautiful.

About the Author:

Julianne VanWagenen wrote the "Wonderland" column form 2008 through 2014.