This article originally appeared on VICE Italy
Beethoven's Symphony No.4 can always be heard coming from the living room – that's Iside's favourite. It's been three months since I moved in with her; I have my own room and bathroom (although Iside likes to have a shower there sometimes), but we share the kitchen and a sincere fondness for salmon. "I'm going to a concert. Why don't you go out and get some fresh air?" she asks me. I answer I've got some work to do and wish her a good evening.
I'm 20 years old and I recently had to move to Milan for work. Like anyone else my age, I was in dire need of cheap accommodation. A regular at the hotel where I used to work was from Milan, so one night I asked him for advice. He told me he would ask around and let me know if he found anything that fit my budget. A few days later he came back saying he'd already set me up: "My friend's mother lives alone in a huge house in the city – you can stay at her place," he proclaimed. "The only thing is… the lady is 85," he added.
I still thought this was a great opportunity – particularly because I wouldn't have to pay any rent but only do my landlady some minor favours. I thought it couldn't be worse than when I lived in London. I moved there as soon as I finished high school, looking for something new. But my flatmate was a drug dealer so I would spent most of my sleepless nights fighting back panic attacks by watching BBC documentaries on YouTube among rats and the smell of burnt foil.
The house in Milan was built in the early 20th century and is located in a wealthy residential district. Iside used to work as a chief executive for a company and has been a widow for the past ten years.
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I can still recall the smell of orange, cinnamon and honey permeating the apartment, when I first walked in and how afraid I was of sullying her beige carpet. Iside showed me my room, the bathroom and the kitchen. She was acting really formal – almost like a real estate agent.
Everything was in disturbingly perfect order; Her pans were arranged by size, while silver cutlery, crystal glasses, paintings and furniture whose value I am unable to recognise decorate the space. In the living room, I found a large sofa in front of the fireplace, a huge library stacked with old Einaudi sheet music, a crystal coffee table carrying bottles of whiskey and a statue the size of me next to it. It was in front of this statue that I realised the coming months would be a trip into absurdity, class-envy and misplaced nostalgia.
As time went by, Iside and I began to get more familiar. She started acting less formal and I slowly felt less shy. We started having dinner together, sitting at her long cherry-wood table – her crystal chandelier hanging above us. I sit at one end of the table, she sits at the opposite and we talk about literature, philosophy and travel. One day we even went out for lunch together and, between a sandwich and a glass of orange juice, she asked me if I wanted to write her biography. I mean, she isn't Baddie Winkle but hanging out with Iside is still pretty thrilling.
Some moments aren't quite as pleasant: One time, I came home late from work and found Iside sitting at the table in front of a bowl of soup. It was raining and I was glad to have something that would warm me up. But just as she asked me if I was enjoying the soup, I realised something was tickling my palate. It was a hair. A white hair. I nonchalantly took it out of my mouth as if it was a piece of dental floss. "So good, thank you!" I replied.
There are also all those quirks you would expect from a person her age: issues with technology, for example, and irrational worries – like the fact that she always checks the best-before date on the milk carton because she is convinced that "that lady at the store" has something against her. She is also of course constantly scandalised by the behaviour of younger generations. Then again, what did I expect when I decided to move in with a 85-year-old woman?
I've never felt any particular affection for the elderly – but it might just be that I haven't really hung out with one before. My maternal grandmother died in a car accident when she was about my age and her husband has spent the last twenty years locked in a mental hospital. My other set of grandparents live abroad and I usually see them once a year.
I'll never be a grandson to her, as she'll never be a grandmother to me, but her friendship has taught me to look at life from a different angle. I've also realised that I was biased when I first imagined living with a pensioner. I thought I would need to be a caregiver of sorts – having to escort her around town and run her errands but that has not been the case.
Even today, when I talk about it with people my age, their reaction is always the same: "Why in the world would you do that?" they ask. They assume I'm a type of social worker, but I don't see it that way. My personal freedom has not been compromised one bit. I mostly see her in the evenings, I haven't had to carry any groceries and I've never found dentures on the bathroom shelf. In the weekends, she goes out more than I do. And, unlike some of my previous roommates, she doesn't steal my food or leave dirty socks around.
As for her, I think she sees me as a polite young man she is beginning to care about. She has five grandchildren but she claims she's not a good grandmother. "I spent my whole life being a mother. I can't be bothered with acting like a grandmother," she once told me. "Obviously, I love my grandchildren and we hang out pretty often but I am not the kind of granny who calls them all the time. I want to focus on myself now," she continued.
When we talk she doesn't try to teach me how to live – though after the hair episode she did try to teach me how to make soup. She is OK with being old and rarely talks about her past. She says she prefers to focus on her future and the places she's yet to visit. And unlike me, she is not afraid to die. "What should I be afraid of? Life just happens and be sure that fear can't stop it," she often tells me. To hear that from a woman that every other day turns the Wi-Fi off because "the router is too hot, it could start a fire," – that's quite something.