Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Are You My Maman?

November 27, 2012 – Are You My Maman?

Art is weird. Powerful. Destructive. Edifying. Surprising. Distressful. Inspiring. I wish I could remember the first piece of art that drew me out of reality and into imagination. Or out of imagination and into reality. Because art can spark an idea, a story, a dream, a nightmare. Where did the love of art begin in me? When did a form first make me cry? Or laugh. Or say, “Good god! What the hell is that?” What is it about a painting or a sculpture or a building that can draw me across countries with magnetic force? How is it that color can stop me in my tracks, make me do a double take, induce me to return for another look? When did I become so susceptible to lines and forms that I allowed them to imprint themselves on my mind? Or get them inked on my skin?

I’ve come to Bilbao specifically to see Louis Bourgeois’s Maman sculpture. And I’m thrilled by it. I’d cross any other number of seas to visit her. I’d even endure another cruise trip to get to this end point (I think). I’m captivated by long legs. Entranced with the marble eggs set inside the metallic sac. Possibly obsessed. I’ve ranted before about how this sculpture for me symbolizes embracing fear and seeing the good in what is often deemed as terrifying. (Spiders are good for the world!) I’ve gone so far in my art appreciation as to have Maman tattooed on my right ankle. It still surprises me. I never thought I’d get one. Yet, here I am, there it is. Several people have asked me what my tattoo stands for and I always warn them saying, “It’s a long story.” Because it is. It’s about art, fear, beauty, connection to my sisters and sister-in-law, death, motherhood and spiders. Sure, Maman is a statue, but it’s also an idea, a dream, a memory, a hope. Maman in some strange way acts as a reconciliation between having a nurturing nature and my lack of desire to be a mother. It’s a reminder for me to do the things that frighten me. It’s also just a really cool piece of art.

Being here in Bilbao and seeing Maman in person is like living a life out of a Choose Your Own Adventure book, but one in which all the endings are good.

Seeing Frank Gehry’s Guggenheim Museum Bilbao is like the icing on the arachnid cake. I hate to admit that I’m not really up on architecture and I don’t even know who Frank Gehry is. But I look him up after my friend Erin says, “I’ve always wanted to see a Frank Gehry building up close”, and find out that he’s perhaps “the most important architect of our age” according to Vanity Fair.

When I get my audio guide at the museum and start my tour of the Guggenheim I’m informed that “every surface curves,” that Gehry “draws with a free association,” and that “robots cut and shaped the panels” because of the mathematical problems Gehry’s design made impossible for humans to solve by their own handiwork. I fall in love with Frank Gehry just a little when the voice tells me, “Frank Gehry has always found inspiration in fish” (how could I not love someone who finds inspiration there!), and that I’ll “notice the fish motif throughout the building.”

It’s an incredible place. Where has architecture been all my life? I find myself looking for the fish motif (and finding it) everywhere and not once do I find a surface, not even in the bathroom, that doesn’t curve. There’s a compelling comfort in the glasswork, stairways, windows and walls. There is a warmth in the curvature, an inviting sensualness in the concavities, a deceptive softness to the titanium outer walls.

As if Maman wasn’t enough. As if the Guggenheim wasn’t enough. Then there are the exhibits.

Off to the right of the main foyer, there’s a giant room dedicated to Richard Serra’s huge rust covered steel constructs in his exhibit called The Matter of Time. There are plaques along the walls and a side room with videos, drawings, to-scale models and long-winded explanations. Serra says, “[The Matter of Time] is the idea of multiple or layered temporalities.” I don’t exactly know what that means, but I do know that walking through the objects is fun. I skip most of the reading and just head from one construct to the other. Each one is a different shape, has “torqued ellipses, spirals, spheres, toruses” and is supposed to “engender the spatial continuum of their environment.” Serra likes to talk about his art with words like that. I like to interact with interactive art. Instead of trying to make sense of his descriptions, I wonder what it’d be like to sing from the inside of one of these (would there be a bell-like echo?). To run. To see if the differing space from top to bottom, from side to side would make me dizzy, giddy, or temporally changed. But there are too many cameras with their eyes on me, too many people around. I keep myself in check and act like a respectable art-appreciating adult (on the outside).

In another room, a small and cozy room, 1200 black and white photographs line the walls and are lit by free hanging, differing leveled, bare-faced light bulbs. Only ten people are allowed in the room at a time and I stand behind the line waiting for the attendant to wave me in. The exhibit is called Humans and is by the photographer, painter, sculptor and installation artist Christian Boltanski. When permission is granted, I enter the room with a tentative step. Some of the bulbs hang so low I have to weave carefully between them to stand up close to the walls or to move from one side to the other. The dim, glowing incandescent lights give the exhibit a fragile and sad aura. The pictures are of faces. Twelve hundred different faces. “Our faces,” Boltanski says, “are collages of the dead.” I want to look at each one. To see the expressions, to look into the eyes of the past, to gaze at the faces of people I’ll never know. To try and imagine what “fleeting experience” these photographs have captured. What lives they must have lived. What histories, what joys, what pain, what glory. But there are too many, and I can’t grasp one face to keep forever in my memory, they blend and meld and fade. This exhibit is, the voice from my hand held guide tells me, “a vanitas – a reminder of the ever-changing nature of the world and the brevity of our time in it.”

Even this viewing feels like a vanitas; sobering, beautiful, and full of stories I’ll never hear.

So much of art is sad.

So much of art is disconcerting.

Take, for instance, Mona Hatoum’s Home. Hatoum has taken common kitchen items like a colander, cheese grater, and a meat mallet and added electrical current to them “making them lethal to touch.” I stand on the safe side of a wire fence, mesmerized as the electricity surges, bringing the metal to life in a sort of horrific way. Hatoum’s added the element of sound to the scene by amplifying the buzz of electricity through speakers mounted on the wall. The exhibit is intriguing, macabre, sinister and delightful. She’s changed useful things into dangerous ones.

Maybe use is always dangerous.

The simple fence is all that separates me from death. From that fatal impulse to touch. To touch things. To touch art. To have a tactile sense of the unsafe.

It’s art as instability.

Changing comfort into menace
menace into comfort
is the trick of art
of warping
of bends and curves
lines and shadows
shapes and images.

In all its disconcerting statements about the traditional role of women, of use, of domesticity, of comfort and of danger it’s one of my favorite works of art within these walls. I don’t know what that says about me.

And then I get to Egon Schiele. Egon Schiele was influenced by Gustav Klimt and the Viennese Jugendstil and had a sad view of the world. “Everything is dead while it lives,” he said. His art is vivid, colorful, nude, bony, sallow, grieving, beautiful, plaintive and full of unflattering self-portraits. I love it.

What would art be without a reaction?

Outside, from the patio, I can see Maman. The air is refreshing. This museum, though less frantic than the ones I visited in Italy, still has so much to absorb. Art, Guggenheim style, takes all sorts of shapes and forms. In the shallow pool of water next to the museum are five fountains conceptualized by Yves Klein. They’re fire fountains and every night, gigantic flames shoot up in glory at timed intervals from early dusk until just after dark. The museum plaque says that the Five Fountains were his “most ambitious work in fire.” Yves Klein did a lot of work with fire. He did a lot of work in blue. He was also a black belt in Judo. The Five Fountains were fabricated for the Guggenheim in 1997, thirty something years after Klein’s death. I bet he’d have liked to have seen this controlled explosion of heat and light for himself.

I’m glad to see them. Flames are art too.

So is fog. Fujiko Nakaya’s Water Fog is a permanent feature of the museum since 1998. But Nakaya has been working with fog since the 1970s. She’s also the first artist to ever use fog as a medium. If that’s not greatness then I’m not sure what is. At various points of the day, a film of fog shape-shifts over the bridge, hugs up against the side of the museum, evaporates into the open air and billows around the visitors who find themselves in its way. It’s art in motion, in disorientation, in fog.

Back inside, I see the LED sign columns by Jenny Holzer the American Conceptual artist. The front face streams phrases and words in blue and red, in English and Spanish. The back face gives the same words in Basque—the forbidden language. I don’t understand it at all, but I don’t think that’s the point. I understand exactly what it means.

Art is strange that way.

I take a look around. Stretch my neck back to see upwards into the heights of Gehry’s building. Twist to gaze back into the rooms I’ve been in, at the artistry I’ve encountered today. I’m surrounded by words like oeuvre, overt, line, structure, form, allegorical encounters, solids and voids, ephemera, motif in this fishlike building that feels like it could be a home. I feel full.

Not so far away, through the double doors, down the steps, and across the bridge, a giant spider waits for me.

I’m going that way soon. I can’t stay away.

How many perfect days do you think one person is allotted in life? Is there a limit? I’ve had so many lately, and this one takes a spot at the top. I don’t want them to ever stop. But, if I have used them up, it was worth every second to have had today.

Sunday, November 25, 2012

The Rain in Spain Stays Mainly in the Plain

November 25, 2012 – The Rain in Spain Stays Mainly in the Plain

Arriving to Spain is like touching down on the terrain of some newer planet. A modern planet and a more relaxed world. Italy had felt old, still restless. Unsettled and discontent. As if it were trying to attain the glory it had lost, to cling to all the greatness it still holds. Spain doesn’t feel that way to me. Maybe it’s because I can understand the national language. Maybe the relaxing is only in my posture, in the release of the straining to hear, to listen, to know. 

Maybe it’s because I brought no expectations over the border with me. It’s not exactly like coming home, but it is like meeting a good friend for the first time and knowing the days together will be enjoyable.

That said, I have no real clear picture of what Spain is, only faded-edged images of mountainsides and trees taken from Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls, and stories of Toreadors and red-eyed, frightened, angry sword-pricked bulls. I know of the Conquistadors who bullied their way across the Americas, erected monstrous churches, and left their language to the subsequent generations. And that’s about it.

As the ferry eases into port Russell Watson’s Barcelona coincidentally, serendipitously, appropriately starts playing through my earpieces. I smile and shake my head. Spain! I never in my life thought I’d be listening to this song in the real place. The wind is a gentle breeze. The bells are ringing out. They’re calling us together. Guiding us forever. Wish my dream would never go away. Never go away. Never go away. Barcelona. Barcelona! It’s a space-world place with buildings like rocket ships and flight control towers and strange half circle sculptures.

I only stay in Barcelona one night, that’s all the time I have. In the morning, I admire just enough of the statues in the plaza near my hostel to give me the illusion that I saw something of the city. Then I’m off to the Barcelona Sants station where I climb on a bus that’s going to take me the 379 miles west and north to Bilbao.

I settle in for the seven hour trip. I’ve got music, snacks, a book, and a window seat. We drive through towns with names like Zaragoza, Logrono, and Vitoria. We pass countryside that reminds me of Joshua Tree National Park, dusty border towns of Mexico, parts of barren Peru and even some of the Texas panhandle. It’s dry land, sparse land, decorated sporadically with spots of fertility in the midst of nothing. There are old Spanish plantations, vineyards, solar farms, wind turbines. It feels like everywhere and nowhere at all. I love it.

The man sitting next to me, traveling with two women who I assume are his wife and mother, has ignored the fact that I’m listening to music and occasionally makes some light conversation. They’re from Argentina traveling to Bilbao to visit his son who is there studying Visual Arts. It’s their first time to Europe and the man is amazed by the harsh, barren, hard nature of the land.

“But aren’t parts of Argentina like this too?” I ask.

He concedes that there are, but we both stare out at the landscape because it’s captivating and austerely beautiful. The whole world is the same, I think. The whole world is completely different.

A bit of silence settles and I’ve turned my music back up when he says, “A history lesson?”

I turn the music off and fold my hands in my lap. “Okay.”

“Napoleon, you know of Napoleon Bonaparte?” I nod (thank goodness I do). “France is just above us,” he says. “Napoleon came down from France and marched through this part of Spain on his way to attack Portugal.” I look out the window at the wasteland. I bet that was one logistical mess. The man continues to tell me that because of Napoleon’s conquest of Spain Argentina rallied up enough gumption to stage a revolt and secured their independence from Spain. He includes dates and events that I don’t write down, that don’t sink into my forever memory. Now here he is, this man and his family, in this country that had been a heavy handed ruler over his, but whose conquest and influence enables him in this day to come so far from home and still speak the same language.  

It’s a short history lesson with good visuals.

For the rest of the trip, I’m thinking about armies traveling across countries in all kinds of weather, on horseback, on foot, and for subduing and conquering purposes. I’m glad to be on a bus.

In Bilbao, my seatmate and I bid each other safe travels and happy days.

I’m gathering my things while he’s hugging his son. While the women take turns hugging the son and my seatmate stands nearby with his hand on his son’s shoulder.

I swing my bag into place against my back, give a last glance backward to make sure I haven’t forgotten 
anything, wave an unseen goodbye to the man and head to my hostel. I’ve got approximately one hour to get there before the end of check-in time. The confirmation instructions had warned that once check in time had expired there was no checking in at all. So I’m hurrying up. I’m a mile and a half away and thinking it’ll be easier to walk it than to figure out how to use and pay for the transit system. If I book it, I can make it there in twenty minutes. If I take my time, I’ll still have a buffer. This distance is nothing and a leg stretch sounds nice. Ten minutes later, it starts to rain. Soft, hesitant, big drops. “Please hold off just a little longer,” I tell the sky. It’s Spanish rain. I’ve been collecting rain experiences all along the way. Belgium, Germany, Sweden, Croatia, Italy, now Spain. “The rain in Spain stays mainly in the plain,” I intone in my best Eliza Doolittle voice. And then I’m singing the words (not just in my head) in time with my rapid steps. I only have to ask for directions and totally retrace my steps once. 

I’m wondering if an hour for a mile and a half was really enough. But then I arrive to the La Salve Bridge and cross under Daniel Buren’s L’Arc Rouge and know I’m close.

Two flights in my bridge descent, I see her.


The very reason I’ve come to this place.

I stop, gasping for breath, cursing my windedness, and leaning too far over the railing in exaltation. I could leave now. I’ve seen what I came to see. All the rest, anything else is just a bonus.

“You’re beautiful,” I tell the spider.
But I have no time for a real conversation, I’ve got twelve minutes to get checked in before I’ll find myself sleeping at the legs of the giant bronze and steel arachnid.

Only slightly less out of breath than a few minutes previously, I stumble up to the door to my hostel, press my nose up against the glass and wave at the girl behind the desk. She buzzes me in.

“Are you Amanda?” she asks.

I nod.

“We were so worried about you! We tried to get ahold of you to find out where you were and when you’d arrive.”

Worried? I feel as if she’s waited up all night for me, yet it’s only just shy of 8:00. “Oh, I’m sorry,” I say. I’d marked a tentative five o’clock arrival time on my online reservation form. I hadn’t realized the Spanish took these check in times so seriously. “The bus took a little longer than I’d thought.”

“We called your mom,” she goes on. “You should call and let her know you made it safely.”

Oh lord, they called my mom. “I’ll call her right away.”

The girl gives me the tour, shows me my third-story bunk bed and locker, and then leaves me to get settled in. I call my mom and let her know I’m safe and where I’m supposed to be, grateful she’s not inclined towards panic and hasn’t spent her hours imagining worst case scenarios.

Once that’s all squared away, my stomach tells me that it will be thinking up worst case scenarios for me if I don’t feed it soon.

A few doors away from my two night home is a little pub called Crazy Horse. They have a salad on menu and that’s good enough for me. I sink into one of the outdoor patio chairs and look up to find that I’m right across the river from Maman.

“I’m having dinner with Maman,” I say. Probably out loud. “I’m having dinner with you,” I tell her in a low voice.

And sure enough, that’s the truth.

Here I am. There she is.

Saturday, November 17, 2012

I Like Big Boats I Cannot Lie

November 17, 2012 – I Like Big Boats I Cannot Lie

Cruise ship or not, it’s not very comfortable sleeping in a non-reclining chair. I think back fondly, wistfully to my cabin on the DALIAN. Despite the sign on the wall that says “Do not put feet on chairs” and something like “Do not try to move the chair” which I think is bolted into the floor – I eventually put my socked feet up on the seat next to me and try to curl myself into sleep. With the help of music I block out the very loud Italian group who has descended upon the room like a gaggle of geese, and find a few fitful hours of rest.

In the morning, the Loud Italian Group (LIG) is up early and off to get breakfast. Or to crinkle plastic bags for an indefinite amount of time. Or to walk by me, as one old man does, and poke my feet with his rule-enforcing finger. 
I glare at his retreating back. Seriously? I turn up my music, growl internally, and try to get back to the dream I imagined I was dreaming.

It’s no good. So I call it a night and get up.

In a situation like this, what’s called for is a cappuccino. I go to hunt one down. At the restaurant entrance, I glance at the menu. Too much stuff. It’s not as expensive as I would have imagined, but I don’t need anything extravagant. I just want a good coffee and a croissant.

There’s a restaurant steward standing by the line and I tell him in Spanish, “I’d just like a cappuccino and a croissant.”

“You can’t get that here,” he says. “You have to go to the bar for that.”

“Gracias,” I say and go to find the bar.

There are a few wait staff members milling about near the bar. There are a couple of other people sitting in the plush seats in the seating area. I’m not sure if I’m supposed to seat myself or order first. I stand in the middle of the room trying to get one of the staff to notice me. I go sit in a chair. I get back up and look for a menu. It’s no good. It’s like they’re trained to ignore. Even the girl behind the bar won’t turn around. Another couple comes in, they head straight for a side desk where I now notice a cash register, get the attention of the male staffer, order their drinks and get served as I’m telling myself, “So that’s how it’s done.”
I pretend I haven’t been standing like a witless fool for the past five minutes and go the register. The man there is my old friend who’d told me all about pilot boats in Italian the night before. He remembers my name, calls me by it as he gives me my receipt. I give him a friendly smile and go hand the paper to the girl at the bar who magically has come to life now that money has passed hands somewhere.

I get my cappuccino and a croissant.

A bite or two into my breakfast the restaurant staffer comes in and approaches me.  “Did you get what you wanted?” he asks.

“Yes, thank you,” I say, feeling the irony that now that I’m served I get attention.

He gleams at me and goes back away again. The pilot boat staffer is standing behind me talking with another staffer and I’m afraid at any minute he’ll come talk to me. It’s not that I don’t like him. It’s just I’m not feeling very social and my Italian is so limited it makes things interesting, difficult, and exhausting. I haven’t had a full night’s sleep and that always makes things even harder. If only I’d learn to just walk away. If only I’d just learn to try not to understand at all. I finish off my breakfast and beat a hasty retreat.

My plan is to go up on deck, find a quiet, lonely spot and stay out of sight for the remainder of the trip. There are ten hours to go.

Up the stairs and out in the open air, I take a walk around first. For a while I lean up against the starboard 
side railing and stare out into the blue. I’ve missed the sea. I’ve missed the changing textures of the water. I’ve missed the way the sky melts into the horizon, into the waves. Ah solitude, how I love you.

Just that quickly it’s gone. One of the LIGs comes alongside me and stares off into the distance as if that’s all he’s doing. But he doesn’t fool me. Especially when he starts talking. After I tell him that I don’t speak Italian very well he tells me that we should be able to see the shoreline of France at some point, that he’s with the Loud Italian Group for a five day Spain tour, that he’s separated from his wife (or she’s dead, I’m not sure which), that he has kids, and that he takes trips quite often.

I smile and nod politely, and when I can, I excuse myself and rush away.

The aft side is peopled, blast it all, so I go down a level and sit underneath the stairs. I’ll be out of sight. I’ll be out of the way. I’ll be in the sun. I put my music on and open my book up.  This is the life.
Then the door next to me opens and out comes my restaurant staffer. He looks down at me and smiles. I smile back, but cringe inside. We chat a little. In English and in Italian. 

He’s on a quick break and as he’s heading back inside he asks, “Do you want some water?”

“Actually,” I say, “That’d be fantastic.”

He goes back in and returns in record time with a cup of ice water. I thank him properly and then get back to my book.

The water churns out beneath the boat, the sun gathers strength, I read on.

The door opens again. It’s a different guy this time. He looks down at me and holds out a cup with cubed pineapple. “Do you want some?” he asks.

I don’t know that I’ve ever said no to fresh pineapple. “Thank you very much,” I say and take the cup.

With his act of kindness accomplished he disappears.

I enjoy the pineapple, think about moving into the shade for a while, and keep on reading.

The door opens again, it’s my restaurant friend. This time he has a foil package in his hands. “Would you like some grapes?” he asks.

“Sure,” I say. At this rate I won’t need lunch, possibly not dinner. I’ll take free fruit anytime. Thanks, Cruise boys. I open the package and start to pull off a bunch of grapes.

“No,” he tells me. “You can have the whole thing.”

“Really? Wow. Thanks so much,” I gush a little.

With my grapes, with my book, with the sun, I’m left in peace for minutes, maybe hours. I sit there long enough that I get hungry again. My boys don’t return with any other treats so I gather myself up and go to the deck bar. I order a bad for me snack and get an individual sized bottle of wine.

The guys at the bar speak Spanish and I chatter at them like a loon. I may not be bilingual, but I’m fluent enough to understand. It’s like putting on a well-worn coat. Comfortable. Warm. I wonder how it’ll be when I’m back in the States and I won’t feel guilty about not knowing the local language.

I take my wine and go sit at a table out of the main throng. When the cook hands me my snack I tell him “Gracias.”

“A ti, corazon (to you, sweetheart),” he replies, and I’m not offended by the term of endearment. It doesn’t feel like a come-on. But then again, what do I know? He tells me about his family and life at sea and I can finally ask questions and tell him I bet they’re beautiful. From across the way, the LIG old man is staring at me. I give him a friendly grimace and turn my attention back to the cook. Once we’ve gotten through his kids’ education he goes back to work and I determine to finish the last twenty pages of my book.

All the while I can feel the steady, intense, creepy gaze of the LIG. I try to ignore it. I try to act natural. But I feel vulnerable. Defenseless. Like prey among a boatful of predators. It must be the lack of sleep, the crunched-chair slumber that has me thinking in such extreme terms.

I glance around. The old man is still staring at me.

Am I ugly?

Am I beautiful?

Do I have something in my teeth?

These are the questions I write in my notebook to make a mockery of myself.

I finish my book. I finish my snack. I finish off the wine. I’m thinking about coffee again.

Just when I’ve decided to get up and order a cappuccino the LIG stands up and comes over. Huh, I think.

“Would you like a coffee?” he asks me.

“Uh sure,” I say, or something along those lines. There’s nothing like honesty. I figure he’ll get two coffees and we’ll chat like solitary traveling souls and that’ll be that. But he comes back with only one espresso. “Do you take sugar in it?” he asks in Italian, and he adds sugar to it and stirs it up before pushing the cup over to me. “Enjoy,” he says.

Now I’m hoping he’ll go away. He hovers for a moment. “Do you mind if I sit?” he asks.

What can I say?

He sits. “Please,” he says, pointing at the coffee, “drink.”

It’s like being on display. Awkward. “Thanks for the coffee.”

He talks to me and I listen. I figure everyone just wants someone friendly to talk to. Why do I have to look so friendly? It really messes with my need for solitude. It’s a long standing problem. I should work to resolve it.

“Tu ves bellisima (you are beautiful),” he says, apropos of nothing. The language slows me down. Keeps me from understanding what’s going on. Dulls the words, make them a simple compliment and nothing more.

“Uh, thanks,” I say, thinking I’m probably the only non-attached single female on this ship.

He reminds me that he’s separated, traveling, out seeing things. He asks me if I have a boyfriend. I lie and say I do. “He’s back at home,” I say.

The old man takes the news in stride. When my coffee is drunk I collect my things. I’m looking for the words to say thanks and then gracefully break away when he says, “Would you like to take a walk?”

Okay... I think. We can make one round and then I’ll split.

We make it halfway down the starboard side when he puts his arm around me. We make it a few steps more when he tries to kiss me. Um, hello. Wake up, little naïve thing. “No, thanks, but no,” I tell him in Italian. I know that much.

“I’m so sorry,” he says. “I apologize.”

I put some space between us, but he’s not that easily cowed. He goes for it again. Maybe old men are just braver. Maybe it’s just Italians. I should have known there was no such thing as Good Will Coffee. Why couldn’t the pilot boat staffer have tried to kiss me? I wouldn’t have let him get any farther, but at least he was cute.

“No, thanks, no thank you,” I say again and make more distance. I wish I had the fortitude to run off screaming dramatically. We make it kisslessly around the ship, thank goodness. He apologizes throughout. I don’t know how to tell him, “Good on you for trying.” and “They do say that persistent will get you all kinds of places, they just didn’t realize that it wouldn’t work with me.” and “I didn’t mean to give you the wrong impression.”

He wants to sit on the ledge of the pool. He wants to put his arm around me again. I’m done. I’m jaded. A touch of anger stirs inside me. Just leave it, man, I think. What about my boyfriend back home? I stand. “Thanks,” I say. “I’m going to go now.” I wave in a friendly manner and leave him by himself.

I don’t have even a twinge of guilt. I’m angry at him, the lonely old lecher. I’m angry at myself for missing the signs. For being oblivious. For being too innocent when I should know better.

Rule Number One, I chide myself. Say no to everything. Including coffee.

I sigh.

And another thing, if they tell you you look beautiful – in any language – that’s a warning sign.

I sigh again.

Will I never learn?

Sick with disillusionment, heavy with cynicism I find an even lower deck and hide. It’s a place that I think I’m not really supposed to be on as a passenger. But I don’t care. I’m hiding from everyone. Because I don’t have enough sense, enough jungle smarts, to be out among the animals.

Eventually the warmth of the sun evaporates the edge of anger. The familiar motion of a giant boat stills my disenchanted soul.

But the magic, if it had ever been there at all, is gone. I’ll take a freighter over a cruise any day, I think. It’s more like being at home instead of at a club where you can’t find the exit.

It wasn’t a glitch free ride from the start there either, I remind myself.

I know, I remember.

Sure, it had taken me a moment to find my place on the DALIAN, to fend off a boy or two, but I knew where I belonged, I quickly learned how to navigate and before long I fit in.

There’s just not time for that here.

“You have to go forward to go back,” Willy Wonka said. And I realize that there’s no going back. Those thirty days aboard the DALIAN can only be relived in memory, in the written word, through pictures, through the friendships I gained. If I am fortunate enough to make another voyage like that someday it’ll be perhaps on a different ship with a different crew. And, it’ll probably be a different me as well.
How can I stay the same? I’m changing every day.

I look out at the sea. This boat is a whole different kind of boat. A whole different kind of world. I turn my music back on, lean against the metal wall of the ship, and wait for us to reach Barcelona. I’d been right all along; I’m not suited for cruises.

Friday, November 16, 2012

A Ship and a Star to Sail Her By

November 16, 2012 – A Ship and a Star to Sail Her By

After things like going with my hosts to an Italian reading of a Greek tragedy in an old Roman outdoor theater, avoiding a transportation strike, walking down the Via Appia Antica (the old Roman Road) where I skid my feet across stones that chariots used to ride over, and running up the Spanish steps while humming the Rocky Theme song to myself (to recount a few), I take the train from Rome to Civitavecchia where I catch a shuttle that transports me to the dock. I’m about to get on a Cruise Ferry and go the twenty hours from Italy to Spain.

This wasn’t a set thing in my itinerary. In fact, I was supposed to get on a flight from Rome the next day to head back to the United States. But while at La Torriola, sitting on the balcony looking out at a version of paradise, I’d done a hard evaluation of my budget and realized I had done a pretty good job of staying under my limits.

The smart thing, I told myself, would be to take that money home with you and use it wisely as a little bit of a buffer before you have to get a job.

I don’t really want a job, I replied. I just want to write.

All the more reason to play it smart.   

I thought about this for a while. I also thought about what I’d regret if I left Europe now. What else did I want to see? What else could I do? Where else could I go? I’d already had the unexpectedness of a spontaneous trip to Croatia. How much is too much?

I don’t know, I said in answer to the last question, but I set a high bar.

My other self just shook its head.

I looked at my hand drawn map in my notebook. I readded, resubtracted money.  I looked at the notes I’d made before leaving the States. I looked at the words that said the Tate museum in London and the Guggenheim in Bilbao. Why those places? Because there are spiders there. Not just any spiders. Giant sculpted spiders.

See, I have a slight obsession with Louise Bourgeois and her spider sculptures Maman. There are six (or nine, I never can get a definitive answer) of these permanent spider sculptures at museums around the world.

 I’d seen one of the temporary ones in Washington D.C. several years ago when my sister and I were there, and ever since wanted to see the even bigger renditions. Wanted to --like toys from a cereal box--collect them all by visiting them.

The blurb on the National Gallery of Canada’s site says: “Inspired by the artist’s own mother, a tapestry restorer, ‘Maman’, the great egg-carrying spider, is a nurturing and protective symbol of fertility and motherhood, shelter and the home. With its monumental and terrifying scale, however, ‘Maman’ also betrays this maternal trust to incite a mixture of fear and curiosity.”  

With an advertisement like that, how could I not want to see this spider in person?

I chewed my lip and said, Don’t be crazy.

All I need, I replied quoting Willy Wonka, is a ship and a star to sail her by.

With those words I suddenly, grippingly wanted to go to Spain.

I looked at my map again. Spain isn’t that far, I said. I mean, if you discount the Mediterranean Sea.

You haven’t even gotten to Rome yet, I countered. You haven’t even left the countryside. One thing at a time. Can’t you just be in the moment?

Maybe. I tried to be in the moment, to experience the Now, but there was a seed of thought spreading some tentative roots through the dark soil of my mind. It’d be incredible.

Well. You don’t know if it’s even possible, my rational self said. The whole crazy scheme is contingent on if you can alter your flight from one country to another.

Yeah, there is that.

I put the scheme on pause, finished out my last night in the Umbrian Countryside and got to Rome.

A day or so later, from an internet café in Rome I call my aunt. She used to work for an airline and still has the ability to use the airline for herself and to share affordable flight options with a certain number of people. I lucked out by being one of those, and it’s because of her magic that I’m able to afford to get home. It’s because of the standby nature of my travel that I can be so flexible and spontaneous.

I tell her my crazy idea and ask her if it’s possible.

“Just email me the city you want to fly out of and the dates and I’ll make it happen,” she says.

We talk a while longer, but I’m in a kind of frenzied shock. Oh my god. I’m going to Spain! How did this life become mine? I want to ask the girl sitting next to me, but I contain my emotion and keep my thoughts to myself. The next couple hours are spent booking trains, a ferry, buses and hostels. I hope I’m not missing something.

Apparently I’m not. For less than a week later I find myself going up the escalators to the main level of the ferry Cruise Roma. It’s like a shopping mall. Glitzy. Shiny. Clean. Impersonal. So different from the DALIAN and its utilitarian and homey construction. I feel out of place, like I don’t belong in something so posh and cruisy. It’s not my style. I don’t know how to fit into this.

There are uniformed stewards standing at attention near the front entrance. They’re like guards and I hope I don’t do anything wrong.

“Where do I go?” I ask one of them, showing her my ticket. She points me to a common room with rows and rows of seats like a movie theater (though not in stadium tiers). I’ve only reserved a seat for the trip and not a room. It was much cheaper, though I’m sure not as comfortable for sleeping. I find my seat number and put my bags out of the way. I sit for a while and then realize I’m not buckled in, I don’t have to stay put. I go out to explore.

The glittering shine of the boat intimidates me a little bit. I sidle up to one of the stewards. I don’t know what the ship’s language is, but I go with Spanish when I ask him if I’m allowed to wander around (there was no third mate to orient me to this ship).

Mijita,” he says, looking down at me and giving me a smile as if shocked that I don’t know how a cruise ship works, “You can go anywhere you want.” He tells me of the upper decks, the pool, the common rooms, the restaurant and the casino. “You can go anywhere. Except the sea,” he says and laughs. “Any place you want except the sea.”

I thank him and go up the stairs.

Eventually I find myself out on the deck. There are other people cluttered together near the bar at the far end. I find a place aft side, out of sight, where I can watch us leave port.

I should say goodbye to Italy. I’d longed for it for so long. But it didn’t call me home. There was too much of a restless energy in the air like all that the Romans achieved was still something to strive for again, to keep active, to push onward with. Not like the peace of Sweden. Not like the comfortable life I found on board another boat. Maybe it was because I was going from place to place so quickly, maybe it was a restlessness on my part and not the country’s. But as I leave, I’m content with the time I spent there. I don’t know that I’d need to go back. Maybe I’m heartless. Maybe I’ve learned how not to become attached because I know I’ll be leaving. Yet, I do have emotions to places, the feeling in my soul says that it would be Sweden or Croatia I’d come back to, not Italy. I stand against the railing and watch Civitavecchia’s lights fade into tiny specks. I cross my arms, jacketed against the wind and twirl my hair to keep it out of my face.

A while later, I walk around to the other side, to make sure I’m not missing out on a view. A ship’s employee, a bartender, comes to stand by me at the railing as I gaze down at the pilot’s ship leaving the side of the Cruise Roma.

“It’s the pilot ship,” he tells me in Italian.

I smile at him and nod. What I could tell him about pilots and ships and standing watch with officers on the bridge. He might not believe me. Maybe I wouldn’t tell him even if I spoke the language, and just let him have the honor of instructing me. It’s a choice I don’t have to make.  

“I don’t speak very good Italian,” I tell him in Italian when he’s made a break in speech to give me a chance to talk.

He doesn’t care. He talks to me for the length of his break. Then he introduces himself and waits for me to say my name. We shake hands and he goes back to work. Left alone again, in the comfort of my own company, I turn my face back out to the far horizon.

I’m not heartless.

I’ve come in an egg shaped curve back to my beginning point. Okay, it’s the Mediterranean and not the Atlantic. It’s a giant cruise ferry and not a freighter. But I’m walking the deck of a ship, feeling the cool outside, watery air, seeing the half-moon haze behind some clouds and trying not to cry. For happiness. For the heartache missing of the familiarity and the known of the DALIAN, her crew, her officers, and my part in it all.

I’d said only the other day, “All I need is a ship and a star to sail her by,” and look, here I am, once more on a ship with stars blinking into view above me.

I’ve never been sadder. I’ve never been happier.

Monday, November 12, 2012

A Thing of Beauty is a Joy Forever

November 12, 2012 – A Thing of Beauty if a Joy Forever

Math has never been my strong point. But that doesn’t matter when it comes to viewing the Pantheon. Here is art, math, and architecture combined in one single location. I’d learned about the Pantheon in art history (and occasionally confused it in my mind with the Parthenon in Greece) and been intrigued by it. More than the allure of a church built to all the gods of ancient Rome, I’ve recently been reminded (by looking it up online) that the structure commissioned by Marcus Agrippa in some antique time and rebuilt by Hadrian in 126 AD still holds the record for being the largest unreinforced concrete dome in the world.

 It’s also mathematically perfect. I don’t exactly know what that means. But its stark beauty magnetizes me. I hardly glance at the alcoves filled with saintly figures (some time in the 7th century the church was taken from all the gods (which kind of makes me sad) and given over to St. Mary and the Martyrs and the basilica is still used for worship today), I’ve got my head cranked back to stare upwards. Before I fall over, I take a seat on a bench next to some other tourists and gawp. It’s the simplicity of the dome. It’s the perfect little squares that tier inwards like a child’s toy whose pieces fit within itself. It’s the light that streams down to illuminate me. It’s the rounded beauty of geometry. It’s amazing. The center of the room is roped off and I make a face because more than anything in this moment I want to lie on the floor below the oculus and be directly underneath perfection. 

This is probably why they’ve roped it off. They knew I was coming.

I content myself with getting a crick in my neck and trying to count the squares. It’s so perfect that even Michelangelo said it was designed by the angels.

Mathematically inclined angels apparently.

Speaking of Michelangelo. I’m kind of in love with him. I don’t care that he’s dead. Well, maybe a little bit. And really this love is more of an impressed crush. You know, the kind you get on someone who does anything well. I’m continually falling in love for a day with a musician, athlete, or poet. One time I even day-crushed on a whistler. This of course doesn’t begin to touch on all my fictional character crushes. That’s another story altogether. But, back to Michelangelo. He’s incredible. It’s no wonder he’s considered one the greatest artist of all time. Prolific. Prodigious. Pure.

Take for instance the Pieta. Michelangelo completed this sculpture when he was twenty-four years old. Twenty-four years old! (I’m thinking I shouldn’t compare my achievement at that age to his. It’ll only depress me.) The Pieta is housed inside St. Peter’s Basilica (also designed by Michelangelo). It’s another one of the things I didn’t want to leave Italy without seeing. And I’m glad I don’t miss it.

The Basilica is huge. Ostentatious. Spectacular in an overwhelming way. When I turn to my right and see the Pieta, I’m relieved to have one thing to focus my attention on. I stand in front of it for a long time, being affected by the stone. There’s a man next to me who seems bothered by the continuous camera flashings, who seems to be there in an air of worship or contemplation. I stand next to him and feel a kind of kinship, like we’re the only two there who are really looking at the statue, really seeing it. Moved to my own contemplation I pull out my notebook and write:

Mary makes holding the dead weight
of her eldest son
seem so easy
so graceful
so perfectly marble.
Oh sacred head now wounded
with grief and pain weighed down
on the Madonna’s supporting,
and aching?
heartbroken, heart yearning,
Why, Jesus, why?
she seems to ask with the
upraised palm, the questioning turn of her
other hand.

After the man has gone, I eventually leave too. The emotions garnered from the Pieta fall off as I walk. The sun beats down on me and I feel full, touchingly melancholic, happy.

Although not any less remarkable, not all of Michelangelo’s work was so passionately haunting. I find this out in the Basilica di San Pietro in Vincoli. My host, Chiara, had told me that I had to see Michelangelo’s Moses. I’d forgotten about it. Somehow Moses hadn’t left an indelible imprint in my art smeared memory. But I add him to my list of things to see and make my way over after a full day spent at the Colosseum, Palatine Hill, and the Roman Forum. The church is closed when I arrive. A sign on the door says they’ll reopen at 3:00. It’s about twenty minutes of and already there’s a group of tourists waiting on the benches outside. I sigh and imagine the mad rush to get in when the doors open. The drooling, open mouthed gapery of all these objects inside. How am I any better?

I just hadn’t thought this place would be as well known. Perhaps because I hadn’t known about it. I find a pillar to lean against and wait out the time.

When the doors open, the crowd goes in. I linger for a while and then follow.

Moses is sitting off to the right of the altar in a throne. He’s enclosed by a wooden fence and kept company on either side by the biblical sisters Leah and Rachel. Above him are other figures, one of which is laying on a sort of dais and might be Pope Julius II who commissioned the entire gigantic piece for his tomb.

The interesting thing about this depiction of Moses is the horns on his head. There’s a lot of debate about these horns. Some say that Michelangelo used Jerome’s Latin Vulgate translation as his model (per se) of the biblical story of Moses receiving the Ten Commandments from God on Mount Sinai. This version had translated the word for radiant or haloed as horned (it was a simple thing of Jerome’s mistaking the verb karan which means to cast a glow for the noun keren which means horn). Others vehemently deny this. Still others say that Michelangelo was trying for some great optical effect for reflections of light, or some such thing.

Regardless of why they’re there (I don’t care about the reason) I think they’re marvelous. Well worn, Moses, well worn. I take him in from all sides, and, in good time, satisfied and delighted by the vision of the old Patriarch as cornutus I make my escape.

I go back under the arch and down the stairs, sneak past the accordion player and singer wailing out “That’s Amore” with a hat out for tips, and head back to the main street. I’m thinking about Michelangelo an awful 
lot. But how can I help it here in Rome?

As if statuary wasn’t enough. As if architecture was just a trifle to play around with. Michelangelo was also a skilled painter (if I didn’t love him, I’d hate him with mad jealousy). As a small example, take the Sistine Chapel. Good lord! I don’t even know where to start. It makes me feel a little bit better that it took him four years to complete it, but only just a little. I try to count all the figures on the ceiling, but I lose track around fifty (remember math isn’t my strongest suit). Smashed in by all the other visitors, I once again, crane my neck to take in the color.

I look at each panel and trace the bible stories. The creation of the world. The famous hand of God to hand of Adam creation of man. Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. Adam and Eve being tempted by the serpent. Adam and Eve being expulsed from the Garden. That’s just the beginning.
My favorite scene from the Sistine Chapel ceiling is the Garden temptation. I don’t know if it’s for the coiled tree trunk length of snake ending in a human figure handing a fruit to Eve. Or for the relaxed pose of that first mother, or for the leaf-sorting curiosity of Adam. Maybe it’s for the right side depiction of Adam and Eve being forced by sword-point out of Eden. I can’t quite put my finger on it (maybe it’s the storyteller’s penchant for putting characters in the worst possible situation), but it captivates me.  

My favorite figure is a toss-up between the Delphic Sibyl and the Libyan Sibyl. I’ve loved them both for a long time. The Delphic Sibyl for the blue of her head scarf, the green of her dress, the captivating orange of her over piece, her almost bored expression. The Libyan Sibyl for her muscular and manly shoulders and arms, the delicate draping of her dress, the intricate headpiece she wears, and the orange.

I love well placed orange.

I also love the prophet Jeremiah for his ponderous, dejected lamentation and The Last Judgment for the creepiness of it all. 

There’s too much to take in. Too many stories being shown. Too many scenes being acted out in static painted permanence. I stay there a long time. I stay until the stories lose their meaning and I become a little starved for fresh air.

And what of Rafael?

The Vatican is a labyrinthal museum. As I follow signs (pointing me ever towards the Sistine Chapel) I put my brother’s band Bayta Darell’s album on my playlist. I need to block out the chittering noise of the people around me. With the soothing, haunting melodies to guide me, I maneuver through the Pio Clementino Musuem, the Gallery of the Candelabras, the Gallery of Geographical Maps, the Tapestry Gallery, through the throngs of people, and find myself in the Rafael Rooms. These are frescoed rooms. And frescoed rooms are rife with images. Rife with color. Rife with stories and morals and warnings. They’re like cacophonies of the visual. I’ve got my nose pressed up to a wall and see a figure holding a chalkboard. Another figure sketching out a mathematical form with a compass. Hey, wait a second, these are familiar figures. I almost cry when I realize that I know this painting. I’d wanted to see it. I’d somehow not realized I’d find it here. It’s The School of Athens by Rafael.

“Hi,” I say to it. And then, “Hello from Marie.”

My painter sister-in-law had told me, “Tell the School of Athens hello for me (if you see it).”

With the formalities out of the way I stand and stare, take time to look at each figure; Zeno of Citium, Epicurus, Ptolemy, Leonardo da Vinci, Rafael himself, Socrates, Michelangelo, Aristotle, and the rest. It’s the surprise of stumbling upon it that makes it all the greater to view, all the more precious to see. I only wish Marie were there to admire it with me.

In another room, a more modern room, I find Salvador Dali, Max Ernst, Marc Chagall (what was his obsession with goats?), and Edvard Munch. If the liquid in my proverbial cup were seeing almost all the artists I’ve loved from books then it would certainly be overflowing. It’s probably making a mess on the floor. A sopping, artistic, painterly mess.



Do the math.

If I could add it all up, all the art of Rome, I don’t know what the sum would be. Except that I’d express the formula in words. That beauty is in art and art is in the detail and appreciation comes from the soul.

Whether it was Keats or Willy Wonka who said it, it’s still true: A thing of beauty is a joy forever.

Saturday, November 10, 2012

When in Rome

November 10, 2012 – When in Rome

My days in Umbria pass too quickly and soon enough I find myself (with much less misdirection) on a train to Rome. I’ve made a page long list of things I want to see and had the sense to prebook my tickets for the Colosseum and the Vatican a month or so ago. I’ve got seven days before I’m supposed to fly back home to the States. I’m not sure it’s going to be enough time. I’m not sure I’m ready to go.

I’m thinking about this, and about how to extend my adventures as the train slows its way into the Roma Termini Station.


I once wrote a scene in a book where four brothers do a juggling act in front of the Trevi Fountain. It’s the first thing I go in search of. From the train station I buy a ticket for the metro and take the subway to the Barberini stop where I climb up the from the underground, pay brief tribute to the statue of Triton, and wander down the old streets to the bigger draw (sorry Triton). The idea for the Trevi Fountain was hatched up by Pope Urban VIII in 1629 when he thought the current fountain lacked pizazz. He asked the famed sculptor Bernini to sketch out some ideas, but the project fizzled out when the Pope died. Eventually, in 1732, under a different Pope the statue was put up to a contest and the artist Salvi won the commission. He died before it was completed (apparently death was an epidemic of time) and Pannini took it in hand and finally finished the thing up in 1762 (and we complain about construction projects these days). 

Due to its scale and impressive detail it’s still considered one of Rome’s most famed landmarks.

I believe that as the sound of voices and the splash of water hits my ears even before I come around the corner to the plaza. It’s a madhouse. There must be five hundred people here. At least. Everyone is scrambling to get their picture taken or to throw a coin into the fountain. Local legend asserts that throwing a coin into the Trevi Fountain will assure the thrower’s eventual return to Rome. I look around. There’s no way my jugglers would be able to perform here (not easily) on this day. I can barely make it to the ledge that overlooks the fountain from the right hand side, much less to a space where I could perform a complicated juggling act. I don’t even try to get down to the steps. I think about throwing in a coin, but I’m not sure I want to come back.

I admire the stonework the best I can what with the shuffling and edging- in distraction of humanity (and a horse) all around. I try to feel something significant. But I just feel like me. Content, I make my way through the throng, give a glance over my shoulder at the Fountain, and go to catch the subway to my next stop.

So this is Rome.

If I ever get back to that book, I just might have to rewrite that scene. 

Friday, November 9, 2012

The Good People of Umbria and a Travel Miracle

November 9, 2012 - The Good People of Umbria and a Travel Miracle

I dreamed of Italy and the place I dreamed of was Umbria. I loved it (from pictures) for the sunlit balconies, the cities built up mountains, the vineyards and olive trees, the greenery, and the sunshine. All that sunshine. I could see myself there. So I decide I’m going to live in Umbria. In a villa up on a mountainside. For five nights anyway.

To this end, I’ve booked a stay in an upstairs apartment, complete with balcony, at an Agriturismo Farm in a place called Todi. I’m not sure this is the highlight of my trip, but it’s something I’ve been looking forward to. The time to sit still. To be alone. To be away from city bustle and chaos. To slow down. To read. To write. To do nothing. To drink local wine. To eat fresh produce. To sleep in. To see what a dream looks like in real time, firsthand. It’s going to be my get-away in the middle of my grand get-away.

I pack my bag, wave goodbye to Florence, and catch the train to Perugia. I stick my earpieces in and listen to the songs shuffling through my playlist. I smile when Pavarotti comes on. It seems fitting. While the music plays, I flip through my notebook to see what my next step will be. I’ve got to take a bus from Perugia to Todi and then get the two kilometers from the bus station to La Torriola. How hard can that be?


There’s a kiosk right outside the Perugia train station. I get in line and when it’s my turn I say, “Un biglietto per Todi, per favore (one ticket to Todi, please).” The lady behind the glass pulls out a batch of tickets, tears one off, and slides it through the half circle opening at me in exchange for the money I hand over. She’s looking past me now, already waiting for the next in line. But I’m not quite done. “Where do I wait?” I ask her in my broken Italian. She gives me an irritated glance and gestures in a direction generally behind me. 

“Grazie,” I say, and step away.

This little area of Perugia is shaped like a tetradecagon; there are corners everywhere. But following the lady’s gesture, I go to the nearest one and look at the faded bus sign. It lists a multitude of stops, but none of them are Todi. I ask one of the people waiting and they gesture across the street to another bus stop where there are even more people waiting. I cross the street. The sign there seems to indicate that the buses go to every place in Italy except Todi. I just need to go 46 kilometers. It might as well be 46 million kilometers if I don’t know the right direction. But seriously, someone has to know how to get there. Three teenage girls are loitering by the sign and I ask them if they know where the bus to Todi leaves from. They consult the sign, agree it’s not the right way, chatter to each other and then apologize to me that they don’t know. I try two more corners. No success. So, deflated, and irritated that I don’t know more Italian, I head back towards to Kiosk willing to stir up the attendant’s wrath by asking for specifics.
I approach tentatively. The problem is I can ask how to get somewhere, that’s easy, but it’s understanding the response that can be tricky. Just as I near, a uniformed male attendant comes out of the kiosk. He looks somewhat friendly so I dish out my question.

“Todi?” he asks.

I nod. He rattles off a long stream of instructions and points to the original bus stop. “You have to take the bus from there to the main bus station of Perugia. It’s about a ten minute trip and you get off at Plaza Partigiani.” At least this is what I think he says. I point at the bus stop and repeat the get off plaza. He nods and leaves me to wander the world alone.

The bus arrives shortly after and I get on. I ask the driver if he goes to the Plaza Partigiani and if it’s near the bus station to Todi. He says it is, so I sit down. I haven’t purchased a ticket for this bus, and since I haven’t purchased it I can’t validate it. Which means if a ticket checker gets on and I get caught I would have to pay all kinds of fines. But that seems to be the least of my worries.

Perugia is pretty. The trees are turning from green to colors of fall splendor. The road we take winds alluringly uphill, passing us by quaint buildings. It feels ancient and inviting. I’m too distracted to really take notice and appreciate it. Or to feel at home here. I’ve got my eyes peeled for any indication that we’re nearing the Plaza Partigiani. I could end up anywhere. Normally this would be okay only today I have somewhere specific I want to be.

The time goes by and, a little anxious, I stand up near the front of the bus and ask the driver if the next plaza is mine. He tells me no, it’ll be up the road a ways farther. Then he keeps on talking. Fortunately for me, there are enough similarities between Italian and Spanish that I can mangle my way through conversations. I smile and nod. When we get to the plaza he tells me that I’ll have to cross the street and walk around the corner in order to find the bus stop.

“Mille grazie,” I say and get off.

Per his instructions I cross the street and make it around the corner to the bus stop. Not ready to congratulate myself too prematurely on a job well done I go in search of someone who can tell me where to wait and what time I’ll leave. Inside the station I find a list of times and towns. Todi is on there. Bus 2 or 4 will take me on. Score! I get the attention of an attendant. He walks over and I ask him where I wait for the bus while pointing out the ones I want on the sheet.

“You don’t want those,” he tells me in Italian (these are not exact quotes. They are my translation based on my understanding which is pretty darn slim). “You want to take the one that leaves at 14:15.” He checks his watch. I check my time piece. I have just around half an hour before 2:15. “You have to go to the Santa Ana station,” he says.

Something shrivels up and wants to die inside me. What? This isn’t where I wait? A despairing wail starts to build in my gut and I tell it to shut up. “How do I get there?” I ask.

“You go across the street just there,” he points. “And then go up the hill, around the corner to the left and then you’re there.”

“The first street or the second street?” I ask.

“That one,” he says. Okay. I thank him, adjust my bag on my shoulders and follow directions. Vague as they are.

There are two streets that run parallel. They both go up. I’m pretty sure he meant the second street, but I see a bus stop with a lady waiting on the first one. I climb the hill. “Excuse me,” I say. “Is this the bus stop for Todi? The Santa Ana Station?”

“No,” she says. “You go down the hill, around the corner, back around and then you’ll see it on your left.”

I thank her and go down the hill, around the corner, and back around. I see nothing on my left except a little café and a train stop. I ask the bartender where the bus stop to Todi is. He speaks English and says to go back out and across the street and then I’ll see it on my left. Or maybe it was to my right.

I’m beginning to think it’s all one big joke. There is no bus to Todi. Despite the research I’d done that said Todi could be reached by bus from Perugia via the APM bus system I just don’t believe it. I wish I’d been smart (like I have up to this point) in sketching out walking directions for myself from station to station. Like they say, “Hind sight is twenty twenty.” I ask a couple more people about the Santa Ana Station. Somewhere in all this, as the seconds and minutes click closer to 2:15, it dawns on me. Santa Ana Station is the train station. The bus guy sent me to the train station. Thanks a lot. And that’s where I am. Screw the buses.

I go inside the depot. The guy in line before me is speaking to the attendant in English. So I approach the counter with my native tongue on my lips. “Is this train,” I point out the window, “the one going to Todi?”

“Yes,” he says.

I hold up the bus ticket I’d purchased years ago from the kiosk. “I bought this bus ticket. Will it by chance work on the train?”

“How much did you pay?” he asks.

“Five fifty euros,” I say.

“That’s more than you would have paid for a train ticket,” he tells me. “It’s three twenty. So it should be fine.”

“Thanks,” I say. I head across the platform to the train, step up and try to validate my ticket. The machine denies it. Already having tested the gods by taking a free bus ride, I’m suddenly worried. I speed walk back to the depot. “Can I buy a train ticket?”

“Why?” he asks.

“I can’t validate this,” I tell him.

“Don’t worry about it,” he says. “Just tell the conductor before the train leaves.”

The conductor is standing on the platform as I come out of the depot. I don’t know what language I’m speaking but I somehow tell him that I’ve bought this ticket, but I can’t validate it and I’m going to Todi. He takes the ticket, looks at it, tells me not to worry and to go ahead and get on the train.

So I do.

Although I’ve made it by some weird luck I still feel antsy and more than a little—not exactly lost—but lost.
I get a window seat and try to relax. A guy takes the seat next to me and his father, uncle, someone older, takes the seat across from us. We nod at each other and I try to look local. The all aboard is called and then the train gets underway. With a kind of incredulity I remind myself that I made the train, without even having to run for it, and I’m heading in the right direction. Through no merit of my own. As blindly as possible. It’s a miracle for me the blunderer.

The conductor comes by to punch our tickets.

“Terni?” he asks the men. They nod.

“Todi,” I say, when I hand him mine. He nods and punches my ticket. Now I breathe easier. No fines this trip.

The train chugs on and we make a few stops. Train stops for the little towns usually hit the minute mark and then they’re off again. Most people gather their things the stop before and go to stand by the doors. It’s been my modus operandi up to this point to know how many stops there are before mine. That way I can mark my progress and get up in time to get off the train at the appropriate stop just like everyone else. This time I have no clue. 

What happened? I ask myself.  How did you manage to be so unprepared for this?

I have no idea, I respond.

I’ll say, I say.

But there are ways of finding things out. I turn to my seat mate and in the best Italian I can manage ask, “Is Terni before or after Todi?”

“After,” he says.

“Thanks,” I say.

“There are two stops for Todi,” he continues. “Which one do you want?”

“I don’t know,” I say.

The conductor shuffles through and the older man taps his elbow. “She doesn’t know when to get off. Can you tell her when we get to Todi?”

“Don’t worry,” the conductor tells him, tells me, “I’ll tell you. I have to get off in Todi myself.”

I say thanks to everyone and take the time to enjoy the passing scenery. It’s just like I had imagined it would be. Amazing. The miles run out. The distance vanishes. Soon enough, I see the Todi Ponte Rio sign as we approach the station. I begin to stand up and the older man says, “This might not be the stop.” I hesitate. Just then the conductor sticks his head around the corner. “This is it,” he says.

“Grazie. Ciao,” I tell the men. “Grazie,” I tell the conductor.

I step off the train.

It’s a miracle. I’ve arrived!   

I’ve arrived!

To the middle of nowhere.

The few people who’d gotten off with me have disappeared. The conductor is also gone. I have no ride to pick me up. No car waiting for me. And it’s siesta time. The little station is empty. There are a few cars parked out front but no one to go along with them. It’s as if all the people have been raptured and I got left behind. It’s like I’ve stepped out into a ghost town.

At least I’m in the right place. Ghosts or not. And only 1.86 miles from my destination. Shoot, 1.86 miles? Please, I could walk that in my sleep. I set my bag on the bench outside the station and rest my shoulders. I had thought there would be a bus, but I’m not seeing any signs that validate this assumption. However, there is a sign with a taxi service number with the declaration “We Speak English.” I go inside to look for a payphone. I might be willing to pay for a ride. It’s been a long walking day already. As luck would have it, there is a payphone. But as fate sometimes thwarts things, it doesn’t take coins. It only takes a phone card which I don’t have and my cell phone doesn’t work in Europe. Too bad. Walking it is. I have driving directions listed on my confirmation email printout and I figure I can follow those for walking.

I’m not making any progress by standing still so I shoulder my pack and head out toward the road. At the main road there’s a sign pointing up the hill to Todi. It looks like a long way up to any kind of civilization, but 
I take it.

Half way up the hill I spot a shop off to my left and see two ladies inside. I make my way over, tap the glass and try to look trustworthy, friendly, and lost. One of the ladies opens the door.

“Excuse me,” I say. I’m getting good at this. “How do I get to La Torriola?”

They don’t recognize the name. I try again after consulting my paper. “Pian di san Martino?”

“Oh! Pian di san Martino,” they say. “It’s down the hill and around the corner. You’re walking?”


They rattle on for a bit and then I thank them and head down the hill I’ve just walked up.

It’s a two way highway with only a small shoulder. A semi passes me and I move over into the grass. It’s not an ideal walking route, but what choice do I have? Not really any other that I know of. It’s a warm day. I’m glad I’m wearing short sleeves and thinking I should have slapped on some sunscreen. I put on my sunglasses, wipe the sweat from my brow, shrug the weight of my bag into better position and walk on.
I’ve gone ten minutes. Fifteen. Three? When I come upon a little house. There’s a car in the driveway with two people inside. An older woman leans in talking to them. I figure I’ll make sure I’m still going the right way. So I come up and stop at a respectful distance.

“Excuse me,” they all look at me. “Is this the way to Pian di san Martino?”

“Yes,” the old woman says.

“You’re walking? It’s a long way,” the man says from the driver’s seat. “It’s three kilometers.”

I could walk that in my sleep too, but I’m beginning to wish I didn’t have to. Since they don’t offer to drive me, I thank them and move my feet. A few meters later, I’m singing, “It’s a long and winding road,” and hoping that it leads me to the door I’m shooting for.

I’m taking it slow. Skipping off the shoulder into the tall grass when big vehicles zoom by. Wondering if I should be walking on the opposite side. Cutting the distance, slowly but surely, with each step. I hope.

Eventually I come to a little village. There’s no sign telling me the name or the population so I trudge on through. It’s still siesta time and the place is quiet. Asleep. Except for one man who is sitting in a chair outside a shop smoking a cigar. In my usual manner, I cross over and go to ask him if I’m on the right path.

“Excuse me,” I say. “Is this the way to Pian di san Martino?”

“You’re walking?” he asks.

I nod.

“It’s not a great road for walking,” he tells me.

Yes, this I know. I don’t have the words to tell him that my options were pretty limited. So I just nod. He takes that and runs with it. We have a long and involved conversation. I don’t understand much of it. Then he stands up and gets his helmet and goes to his scooter. I wonder if he’s going to take me. I can’t wait to tell my mom about this. Helmet in hand, he turns and asks, “Where are you going after that?” or perhaps, 
“Where is your final destination?”  

“La Torriola,” I say.

“La Torriola!” he exclaims. “I have a friend in La Torriola. I’ll call him and tell him to come pick you up.”

What a small world. What a random and happy happenstance for me.  

He pulls out his phone, dials a number, asks to speak with his friend and then we wait. I’m beginning to think his friend is unavailable. But no. My new friend tells his friend who is calling and then says, “Listen. There’s this girl who is trying to walk to La Torriola. She’s on her way to La Torriola. Walking. Bring your car and come pick her up.” There’s a little bit more exchanged and then my friend hangs up. “Okay,” he says. “Here, have a seat.” I take the chair next to his. He gets back to his cigar and begins talking a mile a minute. Faster than I could walk.

He’s asking questions and I’m doing my best to answer. I preface it all with, “I’m sorry, I don’t speak Italian very well.” But he doesn’t seem to care.

“What’s your name?” he asks.

I tell him. He tells me his and it’s something long and with lots of gs and vowels and I ashamedly and promptly forget.

“How old are you?” he asks. And I think, It’s the same everywhere. We all want to know those basic facts. Just watch, he’ll ask me if I’m single next.

I tell him my age. He tells me he’s 47. Or 48. “Are you traveling alone?” he asks.

It seems kind of obvious to me that I am, but I tell him yes. He keeps the conversation going until a car rumbles up to a stop in front of us. We both stand. My new friend goes to speak at his friend through the open window. His friend is a man old enough to be my grandfather. He looks out at me as my friend explains that I was walking and I just need to get to La Torriola. I’m beginning to realize he doesn’t work where I’m going. But that doesn’t seem to matter.

My friend opens the door, shakes my hand, kisses my cheeks, and wishes me luck. I thank him effusively and wish him all the best.

Then I get into the car with a complete stranger. Just wait until I tell this to my mom. I explain to him I’m trying to get to the Agriturismo farm in La Torriola, that I’m staying there on holiday. He nods his head, turns the car and we drive off. I wave goodbye through the window to my friend. My newest friend tries to get me talking. I tell him I don’t speak Italian very well. This doesn’t seem to bother him either. He talks and I smile and nod. We drive through the little town of Pian di san Martino. We drive around corners. Down roads. Up hills. Past signs that point us toward La Torriola. We drive on and on and on.

My pack is on the floorboard at my feet and I’m grateful for the chance to be sitting down. As the wheels turn and we continue, I become more and more grateful. It’s a long way. Maybe it really was only 1.86 miles, but the last bit is all uphill and twisty and turny. I’m thinking I’m the luckiest person in the whole entire world. Being helped by kind people. This is how the world could be. This is how the world sometimes is. This is the world I’m in right now.

We pass an old building and my newest friend, taps a finger against my knee then points at the building and tells me he lives there or it’s the tower that the town is named for or something like that.

“Oh,” I say. “Wow.”

Eventually, past farmhouses and vineyards, we pull in front of an open wrought iron gate. Torriola is on a sign on the stone wall. My newest friend drives us inside, honking as he goes. After a moment a man comes up from where the pool is and approaches the car.

“La Torriola,” my newest friend says.

“Thank you so much, mille mille grazie,” I tell him. I open the door and step out.

“Amanda?” the man asks.

“Maurizio?” I query.

“How did you get a ride with him?” he asks. “Why didn’t you call me when you arrived?”

“I didn’t have a phone,” I explain.

Maurizio leans in to talk with my newest friend. Gets the gist of the story from him, thanks him, and then with waves on all our sides my newest friend puts the car into gear and drives off.

“How do you expect to be here and get around without a car?” Maurizio asks me.

“I don’t really plan to leave,” I say.

He thinks I’m a little crazy. He doesn’t realize that I’ve wanted to be in a place like this for years. That I would live here forever if I could. He gets me checked in and shows me to my apartment. The view from the balcony takes my breath away. It’s so amazing I begin to think immediately in clichés.

“This place is like heaven,” I tell him.

“I don’t know about heaven,” Maurizio says. “I only know about hell.”

“Well,” I say. “I think this is heaven.”

I’m glowing from my travel success. I’m astounded and exhilarated that I made it. I’m heart warmed by the kindness I’ve received from strangers. I’ve made it 112 miles by the skin of my teeth. Florence seems a lifetime ago. I’m a nomad. A transient. 
An unprepared traveler.

“Did you not get my email?” Maurizio asks still trying to puzzle out how I made it by car with the older man (who he knows because it’s a small town).

I’d emailed him before I left Florence to see what the best way to get to La Torriola would be. I hadn’t gotten a response. “You must have sent it after I left,” I say. “I didn’t get it.”

Buzzed as I am with excitement, I give Maurizio the whole story of my day’s adventure. I know I’m blabbing, I know I’m talking too much, but I can’t help it. I’ve arrived in paradise.

“When you give your review,” Maurizio tells me, after I’ve shut up a bit. “You’ll have to make it about the kindness of the local people and not about this place.”

“I know,” I say. “I know!”

“If you want, I can run you down to the store in my car so you can get some food to last you a day or so,” he tells me.

“That would be great!” I plan to get enough so I don’t have to leave for the entire five days.

After he completes a few tasks, Maurizio takes me to the grocery store. I get what I need and then he drives me back.

I take my groceries up the steps and settle in to my new home. I put my food in the fridge. I put my clothes in the small shelf closet. I leave my toiletries in the bathroom. I set up my life outside on the balcony. I’m living a fictional life. Larger than life. Too good to be true. Picture perfect. Dreams really do come true.
When I run out of clichés I go to sleep.

The sunrise wakes me.

I take my notebook and the cappuccino that I’ve made the Italian way outside. With this view it’s like watching a living painting. I don’t need anything else. I’ve got my words and they ink down on to the page as I write:

The balcony faces east
and I sit looking into the rising sun
watch the mist and haze decide how it’ll spend the day
while drinking coffee
and thinking of Heidenstam sitting on his terrace in Sweden
Why can’t it be June evening – September morning – every day
and why do we have to die?