Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Love in Milan

October 23, 2012 – Love in Milan

I don’t know where to start with Milan except perhaps to say that I fall in love immediately. I still can’t put my finger on why. It’s not the Italy I’d always imagined in my head. It’s a city, and I’m not a city girl. Maybe that’s what love is. Something unexpected and startling. Often irrational. Beautiful. The pull of opposites attracting.

It might just be that for some odd reason I’ve given myself more time in Milan than any other place I’ve been in Italy so far. I can relax a bit. Settle in. Take my time.

It might be that the transit system is accessible and easy; making me feel like I know my way around, like I’ve always known.

It might be for the museums decorated with paintings by Tintoretto, Picasso, Giovanni Battista Piazzetta, Bramante, Rubens, El Greco, Licini, Cavallino, Carloni or Vecellio.

It might be the perfect coffee that my hostel has as part of its free breakfast.

It might be for the fact that I’m sharing my room with a girl from Turkey who’s been living in a small town near Rimini learning shoe making, and that seems like something out of a fairytale.

It might be for the gorgeous people. The insane fashion. The treacherous high heels. The boys--the pretty boys--who walk with their arms straight, unmoving by their sides as if they’re on a continuous runway. The women who are more beautiful than I can imagine being, who invest time in that beauty where I never would. For all the tall, skinny people.

It might be for the view I get when I climb the steps up to the roof of Milan’s Duomo. For the intricate and elaborate detail on every centimeter of the cathedral. For the gargoyles and the strange faun creatures with their hoofed feet. The spires and staircases. The statues and reliefs.

It might be for the sunshine and warmth despite the forecast’s prediction of all day rain.

It might be for the Vittorio Emanuele II Shopping Gallery where I follow tradition and spin on the bull’s balls for good luck. For the girl who agrees to take my photograph as I spin, and her mother who instructs me in Italian to “Later think about good fortune.” And, for later, whether or not because of that (who can say?), when I get in free to the Pinacoteca di Brera Museum.

It might be for the walking tour I take called In the Steps of Leonardo. For our guide, Lorella, who is a da Vinci enthusiast and history loving storyteller. It might be for the opportunity to see Leonardo’s actual journal pages with my own eyes. For the melding of history with the present through Lorella’s words and the art she shows us as we walk through Milan. For what she quotes from Leonardo when she tells us that photographs are not allowed while viewing The Last Supper. “Leonardo said we have all we need,” she says, “’The eyes to see. The mind to understand. The heart to remind.’”

It might be for the fifteen minutes I get to look at da Vinci’s The Last Supper (“Don’t take your eyes from it,” Lorella tells us). For the feminine beauty of John the Beloved, the surprise of Bartholomew, the questioning expression on Peter’s face and the knife in his hand, the foreshadowing betrayal of Judas Iscariot, the disbelief of all the other disciples. For the great obsession art historians have taken to restore this painting that Leonardo did with an improvised and quicker to deteriorate technique. For my own amazement at being here and seeing this. For having a kind of life luck that came way before I put my heel to the bull mosaic in Vittorio Emanuele II.

It might be for the Castle and the Ambrosian museum where I see Bramantino’s strange painting Madonna delle Torri with the devil as a dead frog and a heretic in human form lying at the Madonna’s feet.

It might be for the statues or the Museo Astronomico. For the Biblioteca Nazionale with its honey-dark shelves lined with books. For the flowers. For the fountains. For the street performers. For church tower clocks.

It might be for all these reasons combined.

Monday, October 22, 2012

Lost in Padua the city of Frescoes and Roundabouts

October 21, 2012 – Lost in Padua the city of Frescoes and Roundabouts

After I graduated from college I thought, “I should have minored in Art History.” After all, I took plenty of art history, painting, and drawing classes. But by then it was too late and who knows what good having a minor would have done me. Probably none. All too soon, with the passing of years, the images, the artists, and the historical importance of the works I’d studied faded to a sun-lightened pallor in my memory.

Despite time, some names and some objects managed to imprint themselves on me like tattoos. Leonardo da Vinci. Michelangelo. The David. The Pantheon. The Parthenon. The Last Supper. Giotto. The Doge’s Palace. St. Peter’s Basilica. The Pieta. The Elgin Marbles. I might have forgotten why these artists or works of art were important but I did remember that they were. Which is why I chose to visit Padua. It’s the home of Scrovegni’s Chapel (which my mother said sounded like a bad word) which is the home to the frescoes painted by Giotto.

Who is Giotto? Turns out (as I go back now to review) Giotto was one of the first artists to break from the flat two-dimensional Byzantine style into a more natural three dimensional style, and is considered by many to be the father of the Renaissance. He’s also considered to be the Father of Western Pictorial Art (I hope he had that printed out in diploma format, framed and hung up on his office wall).

Western art, as it is today, has Giotto to thank for things such as tears painted on people’s faces to indicate sadness (he was the first one to do that, the experts say), a more realistic sense of pictorial space, and better proportioned and emotionally expressive figures.

Thanks, Giotto!

I’d made my reservation for a tour of the chapel a month ago, while still in Sweden, to ensure that I’d be able to see it. True frescoes are wall paintings painted on wet plaster and don’t always withstand the heavy hand of time. Because of that, Scrovegni’s Chapel is climate and humidity controlled in order to preserve the art. No more than twenty-five people are allowed inside at one time. Visitors, such as me, must arrive early, check in, sit in an air-locked room for fifteen minutes to allow the temperatures to adjust between the outside air and the entry into the chapel and then be escorted inside. After all these measures have been taken the 707 year old frescoes can be viewed for a very precisely timed fifteen minutes.

That in mind, I leave the house I’m staying in (and have only just arrived to) around 11:00 am. I’m going to walk the 1.24 miles to the Chapel and I want enough freedom to see the sites, to get lost, to get unlost, and to arrive a bit early for my 3:00 appointment. It might seem like a bit of time overkill, yet with so many things to see in Padua, I’m glad I do. I’ve written out directions, but the street names I come to don’t seem to match what I’ve written. And Padua has more roundabouts than any other city I’ve visited to date. Or so it seems. At each roundabout I count the “exits” to see what corresponds to my directions and then go that way. Every time I’m wrong. I’m not sure I know how to follow directions.

Just after my first adventure with a roundabout, and being a bit turned around, I stop at a café to ask where Brecci a San Prosdocimo is. It’s only the fourth instruction out of seventeen on my notebook page and already here I am, wandering along and navigating myself more or less by feeling (which is usually, and in this case, not accurate). Two of the café’s men customers tell me in a flurry of Italian to go back the way I’ve come. Damn. I repeat what they’ve said with hand motions just to be clear. One of the men steps outside with me and begins to give the details again. Then he says, “I have to go that way anyway so I’ll just walk with you.”

He doesn’t tell anyone goodbye; we just start off. As we go, he begins to talk, to ask questions. Where are you from? Are you a student? Are you here alone? I tell him regretfully that I only speak a little bit of Italian.

“Do you speak French?” he asks.

“No,” I tell him. “Spanish.”

With three Romance languages and one Germanic one between us, he escorts me to Via San Prosdocimo talking the whole time. I smile and nod. Agree to a few things that aren’t true because it’s easier than trying to explain my current life to him. We just don’t have the time. Eventually, his path goes to the right and mine straight ahead. We move to part ways and I thank him. “Mille grazie!” and he shakes my hand, kisses me cheek to cheek and wishes me good luck.

I only get turned around a million more times, see Padua’s 800 year old University where Galileo Galilei taught at one time, walk past statues and down narrow cozy streets, regret only having one day to explore this place, visit the Cathedral of Padua’s Baptistery with the impressive frescoes of Giusto de’ Menabuoi (which, by the way, are amazing), pass by the Palazzo della Ragione, buy some peaches from the open market in the Piazza delle Erbe, and after two or so hours of historical, architectural and artistic distraction find myself at the Eremitani Museum.

I’m supposed to be there an hour before my appointed tour time to pick up my ticket and, being even earlier than that, I approach the ticket counter wondering how strict they are about the scheduling.

Apparently not very. Also it must be the low season because the ticket man asks me if I want to go in right now.

“Now? Sure,” I say. This will be great. Then the rest of my day will be freed up to wander and be lost if I so desire.

He prints out my ticket and changes the time on it in pen. I don’t have a watch, but I assume that right now means right now and I need to be at the temperature stabilization room soon.

Photography of any kind is strictly forbidden and I have to check my bag before I leave the museum. The Chapel staff does not mess around with the chance that anyone will take pictures inside. “Is it okay if I take my notebook?” I ask the bag handler. I wonder if pens are forbidden too. Forbidden is such a strong word.

“That’s fine,” she tells me.

Once my bag is claimed and shelved, I realize I don’t know where I’m supposed to be. “Where do I go to wait?” I ask a uniformed museum attendant in English, showing him my ticket and feeling like the whole day is a maze of lostness.

“Let me show you,” he says. He leads the way outside of the museum and turns down the cemented path. “This is my fucking home,” he says vehemently, making me, suddenly and unexpectedly, a confidante. He seems a little angry, very emphatic. I take a half step away from him (as surreptitiously as possible). “My fucking job. Fucking home.” I’m not sure how to respond. I open my mouth to say something to fill the space, but he beats me to the words. “That’s an American phrase,” he concludes in explanation. The power he’d thrown into the cursing is deflated from his voice and he’s amiable now, friendly. Ah. Well, there you go. He points me down the path and goes away.

I’m pondering the word “fucking” as a phrase, the advantages and disadvantages of having Hollywood and American Television as my calling card, and the strange ways people try to connect with others as I take a seat on a park bench outside of the automatic (and currently locked) doors. I can see a group of people sitting inside, watching a video as they wait for their chance to go in to the art world’s holy of holies. I hope they’re not the group I’m supposed to be with. I’m worried about this because the instructions on the ticket were very strict. They warned me that if I missed my time then there was no rescheduling. Although I have the feeling that today is not a sold out day and doubt that I’d be out of luck if that happened, I don’t want to chance it.

I’m fretting alone on my bench. I’ve lost my sense of time. I don’t know if I should just sit and wait or if I should find someone who has a watch or find some official who does or doesn’t use American phrases and will tell me exactly what I’m supposed to do, where I’m supposed to be. Before I’ve decided how I’ll act, a man takes a seat next to me. Like any good spy, I steal a glance at his watch. I still have five minutes before my new appointment time. I breathe. I can relax now. So I do.

A couple of other people arrive and--all of us anxious to be on the other side of the doors--we stand waiting until two staff members shuffle the inside group deeper inside, close off all the doors, and then open the outer door to let us in.

I don’t enjoy feeling like a herded sheep. I’m unused to being locked down to a specific time. I’m not a fan of lines or waiting. But that’s the price I’ve got to pay (along with the ticket price) to see this. I tell myself to chill out and remind myself that I’ve made it into the climate stabilizing room! You’re almost there. There’s a TV monitor at the front of the room and rows of seats facing it. I take a chair and settle back to watch the fifteen minute video that tells of the Chapel’s, Scrovegni’s, and Giotto’s history. I feel a bit naked without my bag, without my camera. I clutch my notebook and pen and dare the lady to take from me (in my thoughts).
Then. Then. It’s my turn to go in. This is my first I’d Be Sad to Have Been in Italy and Not Seen This place. I’d made a short list of things I had to schedule in advance and planned my itinerary around it. This one does not disappoint.

The strongest feeling I have in entering Giotto’s fresco lair, the biggest impression is, how rich in blue the room is. Overhead, the ceiling (officially called a barrel vault roof) arches majestically in dark night blue and is decorated with golden stars and saintly figures. Rectangular scenes, with backgrounds of a lighter blue, start on the top of one wall and round the entire room until coming around again to tier down to a second set of scenes and then around again to a third. The scenes, circulating the room in order of occurrence, cover the life of the Virgin Mary, the Nativity, the Passion of Jesus, the Resurrection, and the Pentecost. On the wall at the front of the chapel is a scene of God sending an angel to earth. And on the back wall is Giotto’s famous Last Judgment scene.


I know I only have a limited amount of time. Our guide, who reminds me of my Hungarian and wild haired college professor Dr. O (she was intimidating, had a terrific accent, and was completely wonderful), stands just off to the side of our group keeping a strict eye on us, making sure we don’t cross the rails, commit any infraction, or attempt to damage the frescoes with our thoughts. I hold my thoughts in check as I walk the room trying to appreciate each scene, but there isn’t enough time. I jot a few notes of some of the objects that stand out to me so that I’ll be able to remember better later; Jesus carrying a flag as he’s about to ascend to heaven, a dragon on a pedestal, Jonah being swallowed by a fish, a boar (why is there a boar?!), the seven deadly sins on one side of the room with the virtues on the other, Elijah in his chariot of fire. When I reach the back wall’s Judgment Scene I’ve only just glanced at a few figures (which are creepy and wonderful) when our guide calls Time Up and begins to usher us out. I linger, wanting to see more, to be here longer, to stay forever. For that, I get the evil eye and an impatient frown from the guide (she’s intimidating too). I give her a half-sorry grin. She doesn’t respond in kind. Chancing her wrath, I get one last look at it--as she all but pushes me out--and then the door shuts behind me.

I’m exhilarated with art. I’m feeling entirely blue, dark blue, light blue, painted blue. I want to beg to be let back in. Just five more minutes. Ten more minutes. Half an hour. Giotto painted too much and it was amazing to see. I hadn’t really known what to expect. I hadn’t known it would be that great in person. I want to go right back in and start from the end and work forward. There were just too many figures, too many stories, too much for only a fifteen minute glance. I’m gushing and frantic, punch drunk with images.

Pull yourself together! I think.

I go to collect my bag and toy with the idea of buying another ticket and taking that ride again. I want more time to stare at the demons, to lament with the tortured humans. I talk myself out of it by buying a small notebook with the Last Judgment scene on one side and a more angelic scene on the other. I’m going to need another notebook soon anyway.

With my appointment fulfilled, I meander back through Padua, retracing my steps, stopping to admire things more fully now that I have the rest of the day to spend however I’d like. Hours later, maybe, I make it to one of the roundabouts and (surprisingly enough) I’m not sure what exit to take. I put my hands on my hips and say aloud, “Where do I go from here?” Which starts off the Karen Carpenter song of the same title in my head. So I sit on the small ledge wall behind me and pull out my music to listen to it, singing along with Karen there on a street in Italy.

The words play out in my head, pass my lips, and I linger there contentedly thinking, Maybe now I can divine the way. 

Friday, October 19, 2012

Six Flags Over Venice

October 19, 2012 – Six Flags over Venice

Deaths from second story windows horrify me. I found this out when I read Colm Tóibín’s The Master, a novel about Henry James. In 1893, in real life and in the story, James’s friend Constance Fenimore Woolson, also a writer, moved to Venice where she rented an apartment that overlooked the Grand Canal. In January of 1894 due to a case of influenza or depression (or both) she fell or jumped from her bedroom window and several hours (or was it days?) later died.

Of all the things I read in The Master that was the bit that stuck most strongly with me. Perhaps because I read it while sitting on the fourth story balcony of my apartment in Lima, Peru. I stood, leaning over the railing, looking down, wondering what it would be like to fall. Even that height didn’t seem high enough for a well thought out suicide. And yet, it’s so easy to die. The story left me with a sense of darkness, wonderment, and sadness. I walked around for days reflecting on how fragile and delicate our human frames are. How dark and forlorn our thoughts. How isolated we can become. How desperate, resolved, or resigned a person must be to take their own life. Why would someone jump from such a small height? Is it better to die like that by accident or on purpose?

Since good books should stay in motion (this one was given to me by my writer friend Tim), I passed the book on to another writer friend, Rodney, to read. When he’d finished it we discussed, among other things, Constance’s death. A few weeks later when I told him I was going to Italy he sent me a list of the places mentioned in the book for me to consider visiting.

Casa Semitecolo, Constance’s home, was on that list.

Most people, I imagine, go to Venice because it’s the City of Love. It’s romantic. It’s beautiful. It’s watery. I go to check out the Doge’s Palace which I’d learned about in Art History and to evaluate a 118 year old death site.

I’m not normal.

I know this.

I’m okay with it.

However, I am a little ashamed that most of my knowledge of Venice comes from Woody Allen’s Everyone Says I Love You and not more from history or books. This is probably why I often expect impromptu singing and dancing to occur in high profile movie places (like New York, Venice, or Stockholm’s Sergels Torg). It’s always a little disappointing when they don’t.
Life isn’t a musical. Not even in Italy. At least not yet.

I catch my first glimpse of Venice as I elbow my way out of the train station and into the open air. Of course it’s a church that domes its way into visual prominence right off the bat. That and the crowds. It’s early, but already the streets are packed with tourists. Throughout the day I have to keep reminding myself that I am one of them.

Off to my left is the Ponte Scalzi which I’ll take to cross over the canal on my way to St. Mark’s Square where the Doge’s Palace is. I go up the steps of the bridge and squeeze between people to take my own photos. I’ve purchased a city map but quickly find that it’s easier to follow the signs that point me street by street towards San Marco than it is to keep my nose plastered to the laminated page.

I’m grateful for the signs because asking for directions is out of the question. Venetian venders are not friendly. I can understand why. If they let down their guard for even a millisecond they’d never get the chance to get it back up again. They’d be stuck answering questions for every single one of the 20 million people who visit Venice over the course of the year. It feels like there are that many people here this day.

Venice is a maze. A labyrinth of streets and canals. I’m shuffled through the narrow roads by the stream of people before and behind me in such a way I begin to feel I’m in a never ending amusement park line. I find myself getting antsy, feeling closed in, and touching my fingertips against the edge of agoraphobia.

Despite myself, despite the touristy nature of the surroundings, despite the amusement park feel, Venice has a distinct beauty. I find it over the heads of my fellow viewers. I find it down lonely streets. I see it in the old stone buildings, the soft lapping of the water, in the intricate detail of statues, in the architecture. But I never lose the sense that I’ve come to a place like in Disney’s Pinocchio. It’s Pleasure Island and I’m afraid at some point I’ll be turned into a jackass.

I want to escape.

Eventually, I wend my way to St. Mark’s Square and admire the crowds, er, the buildings. I didn’t purchase entry tickets to any of the Venetian sites beforehand, and seeing the queues standing hundreds of people long, I decide I don’t need to see the inside of anything here.

I work my way to the far side of the Square and look for open space. I need some breathing room. A little bit later, I find the only friendly Venetian and ask him how to get to the Santa Maria Del Giglio vaporetto stop from where I’ll be able to see the Palazzo Semitecolo where Constance died.
“It’s only one stop away,” he tells me. “You just cross this bridge, go around the street and you’ll find it.”

I thank him, “Mille grazie!” and follow his directions.

At the vaporetto stop there are two gondoliers sitting off to the side. They don’t acknowledge me lest they have to answer a question, and I keep my distance. Other than them I’m the only one here. For the moment. I step up to the edge, as close as I can get, and gaze across the Canal at Constance’s once upon a time home. I stare at the building. Hers is easy to spot being just to the left of a building with a gold mosaic.

What’s drawn me here? A morbid connection to another female writer? A desire to understand death by falling from not great heights? I don’t know. I don’t feel anything especially. Where are my emotions when I need them? All I feel is that the second story window seems awfully low. It’s not that high even if she jumped from the other side of the building onto the waiting stone street as I believe she did.

Ah death. So quick to grab us.

I want to sit down and scrutinize the building. To get a sense of the place. To grasp a sense of the past. But there’s no place to sit. The water comes right up to the edge of the buildings without even a ledge to stand on and the place where I am is not great for viewing. While I’m considering my next move, an English speaking couple come stand on the dock just to my left. I curse them inwardly for blocking my view that direction and for being in my space. Then I realize they’re waiting for the vaporetto, the taxi-gondolas that cart people from one side of the Grand Canal to the other. So I quit cursing and go stand behind them as the gondola arrives.

Crossing the Grand Canal is on my list of things to do. It’s perfect timing. Since I can’t admire the Palazzo Semitecolo very well from here, I can maybe see it from the approach and then check out the other side.

We, the couple and I, pay our Euros and climb in. A small group, also ready to take the short trip across, has formed almost numinously. They pay and find places to sit. An American couple argues with the gondolier about the price. It’s higher than the internet had said, but I’m not surprised. Everything is expensive here. Just pay it and get on, I think rudely. You’ve come to Venice and you’re going to quibble over a few euros? Soon enough they decide to pay, and when we’re all on, the gondoliers push us away from the dock and pole across.

You’re on a gondola crossing the Grand Canal, my inside voice says.

I know! I reply.

I get a brief close up of the Semitecolo and then we’re docked and shooed out. There’s not much else to see so I take the streets toward the Punta della Dogana. I’ve been told there’s a great view of Venice from the point and also a new, strange eight foot tall statue of a boy with a frog.

It is a strange statue and marvelous in its oddity.
Why is he holding a frog?” I ask the security guard watching the statue, but he doesn’t understand my question and turns from me immediately to tell someone not to touch the frog.

I’ll find out later, I tell myself. That’s what God made the internet for.

I turn from my questions to the panorama. The view from the point is worth the crowds. St. Mark’s Square is amazing from this vantage spot. It’s just like I remember from my Art History books. Only I’m seeing it in real time, with my own eyes, and it’s way better than a photograph.

In the opposite direction are the churches Santa Maria di Presentazione and Chiesa di Redentore which seem to float up solidly and majestically from out of the water of the Grand Canal. Boats, gondolas, and water-taxis pass by. This is Venice. This is the magic of a city built on the water. This is what the guidebooks rave about, the movies proclaim as romantic, the books painted out as amazing.

Now I can see what was being talked about.

I walk to the less trafficked side of the Dogana and sit on the convenient ledge with my back to the wall and my face to the sun. I pull out my ipod and scan to the song that fits this moment. That’s been fitting multiple moments on this trip.

It’s Coldplay’s Paradise. I turn it up and play it on repeat. “This could be para- para- paradise Para- para- paradise Could be para- para- paradise,” the song says. And I feel like I’m there. In paradise.

An older lady decked out in a sweater and with a newspaper in hand takes the seat beside me. Of all the places to sit. She talks to me and I tell her in Italian, after pulling out my earpieces, that I’m sorry I don’t understand Italian very well. This doesn’t seem to bother her. She goes on for a bit (even after I turn my attention away) and then settles back with her reading.

I adjust my earpieces, turn the music up a little louder, stare through the shading lenses of my sunglasses and write in my book:

I sit looking out across the Grand Canal
with an Italian lady so close
our elbows touch when she moves
I have Paradise on high volume
and when they sing
I’m so full of the sun
that I almost cry.
This is me
 In Italy.
 In the last days of an unimaginable
                                          On a perfect day. 

I don’t want to ever forget this. I don’t want to lose the threads of this moment when music, emotion, art history, the story of a long ago death, sun, and beauty collided and overwhelmed me. The best I can do is scratch a few words in a notebook and hope I can carry this memory with me forever like a rounded stone in a coat pocket.

Thursday, October 18, 2012

Trieste Mean Wind Part II

October 17, 2012 – Trieste Means Wind Part II
“The toilet paper is out,” I tell the guesthouse clerk, holding out the empty cardboard roll. I’d planned to leave it on the front desk since he hadn’t been there when I’d gone in to the restroom, but this is even better (toilet paper shortage is one of my few slightly irrational fears). With my good deed done for the morning I head back to my room.  

A second later, my camera in my bag, my hair tied back in a braid and my jacket on, I start for the front door. There’s a sound behind me and I turn. The clerk has a wide grin lighting up his face. “For your pleasure,” he says, holding up a new roll of toilet paper. “Something new!”
“Perfect!” I say. What else is there to say? Something old, something new, something borrowed, something blue, chants its way through my mind. I’m laughing as I leave.

It’s another blustery day. The sun is out, the wind is strong. A chill dances in the air. There are a few wispy clouds drifting busily across the sky. I stand for a moment on the sidewalk, zip my jacket up to my chin, and take stock of it all. I’ve made a list of things I’d like to see in Trieste. I’m intrigued by the Grotta Gigante and interested in San Giusto’s Castle. I plan to head in their general directions and see what I can. If I get distracted along the way it’ll be all well and good. Today I have no specific expectations, just a tentative game plan. First though, I need some fruit, maybe a piece of bread or two and, most of all, a cappuccino to get me going.
I wander around until I find a coffee shop. I pay the extra couple of cents to get mine in a To Go cup and then go sit outside so my hair can get blown out of its braid instead of drinking my cappuccino at the café counter. After I’m moderately caffeinated I roam the streets until I stumble across a corner shop with fruit. I get a few bananas and some peaches. At another store I buy a loaf of bread. Down the street, at an outside market, I buy some cheese. Thus armed with breakfast I can take on the world. Or, at the least, the wind. More or less.

I’d seen a sign yesterday for the Grotta Gigante so I start that way. As I go, I look down each street. Every one has a distraction. There are enticing stairways leading me up, taking me down. There are spires that draw me to the churches they top me like a moth to a candle flame. There are arched tunnels and stone walls. There are skinny bell towers and fat bell towers. There are breathtaking (or is that my out of shape gasping from climbing the stairs?) views of the sea. There are cozy, secret balconies that I want to sneak on to and observe the world from.
I lose myself in the streets.

I mean, I really have no clue where I am. All I know is that my hostel is generally downhill. Back that way. Somewhere. I feel like I’ve walked miles, days.
I decide to find out where I am. So I duck into a little shop. I’d been warned (from a book? from my imagination? from another traveler?) that Italians don’t much like Americans, and that they aren’t as accommodating to English speakers as some of the other European countries are. That in mind, it’s with a pocketful of wistful embarrassment that I wasn’t able to learn more Italian than I did that I put my best foot forward and go for it. A friendly looking older woman is standing behind the counter. A younger man is across the counter from her talking. Gathering myself together and sorry to interrupt, I pull up my few Italian words. “Excuse me,” I say, politely when they’ve turned my way. “Where is San Giusto’s Castle?”

They know right away that I’m not a native speaker. “San Giusto?” They look at each other and consult in Italian. I follow along the best I can. Apparently it’s far far away.
“There’s a bus,” the lady says to me in English. She’s friendly and accommodating. She opens a drawer, pulls out a transit guide and flips through it trying to find the bus number for that route. “I can’t find it,” she says. She flips through it again. The guy comes around the counter and logs online to the bus system’s website. They talk to each other in Italian and occasionally turn around to tell me something in English. Minutes tick by, five, ten, fifteen, and I’m thinking I should just head back to the center of town and go from there, but they’re going way out of their way to be helpful and I do appreciate it. A customer comes in and the lady pulls herself away from helping me to finally serve him his coffee and give him a sandwich. He puts in his two cents about how to get to San Giusto’s and then leaves. The lady and guy go back to studying the computer screen and finally she says, “Okay, you take the bus from here to the main city stop and then you transfer to the One and it’ll take you under a bridge. Go under the bridge, and then the next stop after the bridge you get off then walk up the hill and you’ll be there.”

I repeat it all, thank them profusely and walk out. Doing something new and unplanned can sometimes be scary. Taking the public transit with transfers feels out of my day’s adventurous limits. Why is this more daunting than anything else? I ask myself.
I don’t know, I reply. It just is. I’m just going to walk.

They really went to a lot of trouble to help you.

I know.
Ignoring my other, more thoughtful self, I decide I’ll go back to where I started from. I’d written down directions from there with the help of the internet the night before. It can’t be farther than a handful of miles. I’d just been hoping that my wanderings had brought me close to the castle instead of to the other side of town from it. Even while I’m planning to disregard all the help they’d so time consumedly and kindly given me, the guy, who is leaving the shop at the same time as me, says, “You can buy your bus ticket across the street there.” He indicates the tobacco shop across the road. “It’ll cost you 1.50. The bus leaves from right in front there. It should be along in a few minutes.” He points out the bus stop.

“Thanks a lot,” I say. I can’t very well walk away now, it would be rude, so I go across the street and, in opposition to my own silly hesitance, buy a bus ticket. After about five minutes of waiting, the bus slows to a stop at the curb and I get on. I remember to validate my ticket (all the travel guides had warned me about being sure to validate my train and bus tickets or risk being fined a horribly high fine), and take a seat. I’m suddenly very grateful for both the information and the ride. My muscles sigh in relief and I settle back. I hope it’s a long trip. I also hope I arrive there soon.
I get off at the city center, cross the street (after asking a few people to make sure I take the bus in the right direction) and wait for the 1.

Eventually it comes along and I climb on. I follow the lady’s instructions and get off after we go under the bridge. Just ahead there’s a sign pointing me up the hill towards San Giusto’s castle and church. I follow the arrow. Several curves, hills, and a few other churches later, I come to an obelisk and fountain. I find a spot out of the brunt of the wind and eat some fruit, bread and cheese. It’s way past breakfast time.
I look out over Trieste from my place in the heights. You’re in Italy! I remind myself.

I know! I respond. I hadn’t forgotten. It’s amazing.
It’s amazing. I gather my things and with a fuller belly make the final ascent, pushing hard against the wind, up another hill, up more steps, around another curve and finally come to San Giusto’s Castle.

I pay for a ticket to tour it and get an audio guide. I’m almost too enthralled by the views to pay attention to the recorded voice as it tells me the history and uses of the place. I do listen well enough to learn that I’m standing on stones that were built anywhere from the 11th to the 14th century.
I spend hours there, walking turrets, ascending staircases, ducking in dark rooms lined with cannons and giant round stones bigger than my head, descending stairs and exploring the statue filled museum down in what feels like the old dungeon. At some point, with the desire to be out of the wind—which is strong enough to make me take two balance catching steps every now and again--I go into the café just off the Captain’s House Tower and order a cappuccino. While I wait for it to cool enough to drink I redo my braid. I’m wind worn and probably sunburned. I sigh with contentment.

I’m in Italy
drinking a cappuccino at a castle

I write in my notebook. This level of happiness is becoming a habit I hope I never quit.

After I leave the castle I head over to the cathedral. When I’m done admiring the rose window of the cathedral I go inside the little gift shop underneath the bell tower.
“Buongiorno,” the shop tender greets me.

“Buongiorno,” I reply.
We get into a multi-lingual conversation and somehow between the Italian, English and French I find out that I can buy a ticket for only one euro to go up into the bell tower. While taking my money and giving me my ticket, the shop tender tells me all about the bells (in French because when he asked I told him I spoke French “un peu” with a smile that was meant to indicate that was pretty much all the French I knew). But I understand enough. I understand exactly when he tells me (still in French), “Don’t touch the bells.”

“Okay,” I say. “Thank you.” And then I walk up the four billion flights of stairs to the tower.
The bells are huge. Wonderful. Etched over with intricate reliefs. I want to touch them. But I don’t. Instead I think of the Dorothy Sayers Lord Peter Wimsey book called The Nine Tailors; a mystery in which the poor murdered soul (spoiler alert) was killed by the ominous and overwhelming sound, vibration, and power of the nine bells.

I’d rather not die that way, so I don’t touch.  

Eventually I climb down all those stairs, bid the shop tender another thank you and goodbye and walk the (thankfully downhill) way back to my hostel, getting dinner and more sightseeing in before I finally close the door to my room and call it a day.
The next morning, the guesthouse clerk is coming in as I’m heading out.

“You’re checking out?” he asks.
“Yes, thanks for having me,” I say.

“I’m Vladamir,” he says.

“Amanda,” I respond.
He sticks out his hand to shake mine. I oblige.

“You’re American?” he asks me. I nod. “I love Obama!” he exclaims. He’s still got my hand in his handshake. I don’t know how long is too long to hold on, but we’ve passed my personal preference point. I take a step back and gently reclaim my hand as we talk politics. We talk politics until I manage to squeeze out the door and get away.
“I love your language!” he calls out as a parting shot. “Safe travels.”

“Thank you,” I say.
I’m hoping for safe travels too. It’s Saturday morning and I’ve got a ticket to ride.

I’m on my way to Venice.




























Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Trieste Means Wind

October 17, 2012 – Trieste Means Wind

It’s the wind that greets me as I come into Italy. Strong, wild, and exuberant. I bow my head and push against it as I make my way to the hostel. I feel like I should have more emotion; tears, laughter, butterflies, excitement, fireworks. There should be music. Maybe an impromptu musical with dancing and four part harmony, or a flash mob. At least an outburst of Pavarotti. I’m in Italy. After years of dreaming of this moment, I’m really here. There should be some deep stirring in my soul that twines itself into a circle of completion. But I just feel like me. Content, lucky, happy and amazed with my own life.

You’re anticlimactic, I tell myself in a tone of voice that implies I should be ashamed of myself. I’m resorting to talking to myself (more than usual) because for the first time in eighty-one days I’m truly alone. It’s a little disconcerting. It’s also freeing. It’s also lonely. It’s also exhilarating. 

I follow the instructions listed on the hostel confirmation email and only have to stop and ask for directions once. Fortunately, the Italian I’ve managed to learn includes “Where is…?” That question coupled with hand motions and an address are sufficient for now. The lady I ask rattles off in Italian that I’m only a block away and points me back in the right direction.

Stuck in the middle of the street between an unbroken stretch of dark-stoned buildings I find the Alla Stazione Guesthouse. I get buzzed in and walk up the four flights of stairs, past the rickety, ancient elevator and am greeted at the hostel entry by the management. With my meager Italian and the lady clerk’s better English, I get checked in to my private room and shown where the bathrooms and common areas are. Thus settled in, I leave my heavy bag and go out to explore. I have a day and half here and too much to see. Although I’d never heard of Trieste before I found out it was a great crossover from Croatia to Italy, I’ve researched enough to know there are churches out the ear, nearby Roman baths and ruins, the Grotta Gigante, San Giusto’s Castle and Duomo which claims (according to some person’s blog or the internet’s wide storehouse of knowledge, I can’t remember which) the widest campanile, and--as the advertisements always say--much much more.

I need a lifetime for this.

After climbing down the four flights of stairs and letting myself out the street door, I head left. I only have the hostel’s little handout flier map, so I make sure to look behind me as I go so as to be able to find my way back again. I’m going out with the intention to orient myself a little and to find something for dinner. I’m a bit travel weary, quite a bit hungry, but not willing to lose out on daylight.

A block down, in the Piazza Vittorio Veneto, there’s a fountain with three figures holding up a gigantic, neck-bowing shell. They’ve got webbed feet or mermaid tails, expressions of accepting despondence, and perfectly proportioned figures. The water spills out over the shell lip and the wind blows it into my face, over my camera lens. I rub the drops off and take a step back.  It may not be a Bellini, Michelangelo, or Donatello (or it might be) but it’s impressive. Sheesh, I haven’t even gone 300 meters and I’ve already found something worth stopping to admire. I realize I’m going to have to learn to close my eyes as I walk or I’ll never make it anywhere due to being distracted by fantastic structures. 

Such as the blue dome I can just make out over the rooftops. I tell the sculpture goodbye and head blueward. Down the street, around a corner and there it is.

The Serbian Orthodox Church of St. Spyridon has five, not just one, blue domes with complementary gold-yellow paintings decorating the front façade and the building’s sides. I know nothing of this saint except that I think his name is funny. He’d probably think the same of mine. Inside, I stand for a moment under the cupola where a gold-glittery Jesus looks down on me with an expression I can’t quite read.

I stare back at him with an equally unreadable expression. Then I glance around. Peter would not have been able to say (as a Sunday school song sings), “Silver and gold have I none,” if he’d been head of this church. It’s gaudy, intricate, and extravagant. I’m not inspired into worshipfulness so I head back out into the blustery arms of the great outside.

I’m eyeing the Divo Antonio Thaumaturgo (whatever that is) when I feel a soft squish underfoot and a following splash against my shin. Red splatter stains my skin, and my first thought is blood. Blood but no pain. That’s strange. Then I see the poor stepped on tomato carcass just by my shoe and I laugh aloud.

“Welcome to Italy,” I say.

It seems a very fitting welcome.