Conquer or Be Conquered§

writer: russell j.t. dyer; posted: November 20, 2005; revised: April 23, 2018; readers in past month: 583

Porta Romana, Milan

In recent months I’ve been living in Italy, in Milan. I’ve been here for exactly one month. I’ve rented an apartment within the old city (the Porta Romana section) and am enjoying it — as well as grinding my teeth constantly in frustration. I’m quickly learning Italian — a childhood dream of mine and as part of a requirement for finishing my master’s degree in English. I’m able to do this since I’m a freelance writer and do editing work for a software company in Sweden: which is nice because they regularly wire money into my checking account back in New Orleans.

Basically, I don’t have a normal job, but I do have work and an income that allows me to live wherever I want, provided I have an internet connection for submiting my work. It’s taken me over three years of writing full-time to get to this point, plus all of the years prior in which I learned about computers and the years before that in which I learned about business to be able to market myself and my work to get to this point so quickly. I owe much of this effort to my friend Richard Stringer, by the way, since he encouraged me to go back to school, to major in English, and to become a writer, including editing my first papers for school and my first articles for publishing. He also encouraged me to see life in a different perspective, from a less rigid one and not to necessarily accept what people tell or to follow their standards for happiness.

With that background, let me share this minor linguistic perspective of which I have learned while living in Italy and learning Italian. This week I was speaking with an Italian woman who runs an antique furniture store near my apartment. She asked me what kind of work I do and all. This led me to explaining to her some of what I have mentioned in the previous paragraphs. Her response was, ‘Ah, conquista!’ I was surprised by that comment, by that word applied as it was. It literally means You conquer. In response to learning about my writing career and arrangement, I’ve had people say to me ‘that sounds great’ or ‘that sounds like a nice arrangement’ and the like. Never have I had someone employ the word conquer or anything close to that. From an Italian perspective (or maybe only from this particular Italian woman’s perspective) I had achieved success, but more importantly and maybe subtly obvious, I have conquered life.

All of my life I have been told what it means to be successful: have lots of money in the bank, own land maybe, have a house and a spouse and children, have a prestigious job (be a lawyer, a doctor, or in my case a stock broker). Well, I became a stock broker at Merrill Lynch, I bought a house and land in the country, I got myself a wife and a few kids, and a few other accessories necessary for success by definition and thereby happiness. The grand result was that I was miserable. Not that these things in and of themselves made me miserable, but the way in which I conducted myself, perhaps, and what I expected from these things and these people. In time I realized this and began extracting myself from my trap. Thoreau said something to the effect that many people will work for years to get a house, but in the end it is the house that gets them — they are trapped in the house because of the mortage and the other financial requirements to keep the house and everything that goes with it. Since they are not happy as a result, rather than question their definition of what it takes to be happy, instead they continue to work for more things like a bigger house in the hopes that that will bring happiness.

A month after Hurricane Katrina, I came to Italy with two small bags of clothes, my laptop, a few books, a little bit of money, my education and my spirit (such as it was), and some connections (via the internet) to people in the publishing business and connections to friends and family. In the end, that’s more than I really needed. And with this minimal stock, I am said by an Italian woman to have conquered life.