Friday, October 27, 2017


Italian is not my language.
I don’t mean that in the sense of "I'm not Italian" or “I wasn’t born into it,” though both of those are true.
I mean that it’s not mine yet. It doesn’t move across my synapses with the ease I hope to one day attain.
At home, with my mother tongue, I’m used to being generally considered an intelligent, educated, and articulate person.
In Italy, in Italian, I sound like an academically challenged five-year-old.
Which is difficult in some ways (mostly for my ego), but I find when people think you’re not very bright, they don’t expect much from you.
I’m just saying, it has its benefits.

As I say, I hope one day Italian will be “my language.” One of them, anyway.
I hope to relieve my Italian friends of the burden of assembling into something coherent the linguistic puzzle pieces that currently spew forth from my confused face.

But there is one phrase I hope I never integrate into my brain like an Italian. I want to keep my non-native understanding of it. I like it better.

The phrase is “venire a trovare.”
For Italians, it simply means “to come visit.”

I didn’t know this until my dear friend, Isabella, corrected me. I had been using the word “visitare”, to visit.
They were dining at my house in the Cilento (see La Divina Commedia post), and I asked her three-year-old daughter, who already speaks better Italian than me, if she would come visit me when I return to the Cilento in a few weeks. I used “visitare.”
Isabella gently corrected me, “Vieni a trovarmi,” come visit me.

I try to remember to use it now as I invite nearly everyone I know in Italy (and friends in other countries) to come visit me. I'm eager to share the joy of discovery with friends, new and old.

But even as my Italian improves, I will hold fast to my more literal English translation:
“Come find me.”
"Trovare," by itself, means "to find," "to discover," among other things.
I wish I could convince Italy to adopt this sense of the phrase.

This is beautiful to me. It goes deeper than a visit.
It goes much deeper than any social media network.

Confidences, by Pierre Auguste Renoir, 1878

Come find me.
Let’s find each other.
I’ll cook for you, and take pleasure in your pleasure.
Tell me your stories, I’ll tell you mine.
Tell me about that book you read, and why it moved you.
Tell me about your greatest teachers; the sharp and painful ones, the soft and kindly ones.
Sing a song for me. I'll sing for you, too. We'll compose something bright and new together in the offering.
Tell me about the time the birds rose en masse from the fields and trees, and their circling above brought you to tears of gratitude.
Tell me about the smells and sounds of the place you call home.
Tell me about your travels, in the world and in the mind.
Tell me about the one who broke your heart.
Tell me of the one who repaired it.
Let us make messy mistakes in communication, and survive them together.
Let us irritate and appreciate and challenge and inspire each other.
I will weep for your sorrows. I will celebrate your victories.
I promise.

Come, find me.

Come, be found.

Talking It Over, by Enoch Wood Perry, 1872

The Pride of Dijon, By William John Hennessy, 1879

Saturday, October 21, 2017

La Mia Divina Commedia

La commedia illumina Firenze--Domenico di Michelino

Dante has nothing on me.
Let me tell you, Friends, about my Divine Comedy, complete with many circles of hell, purgatory, and finally angels that show me Paradiso.

Dante had Virgil as his guide.
I have Maria, but more about that in a moment.

It starts with one of my deadly sins, Laziness.
But no . . . wait . . . it’s gluttony.
That’s where it begins, with gluttony.
I’ve taken on the task of cooking for Italian friends, which is always terrifying for this American.
But these are Italian friends who run a restaurant in the summer. So it goes beyond terrifying to potentially traumatizing (for both of us). I think they’ve only agreed to come because I promised cheeseburgers would not be on the menu.

Not only am I *not* cooking cheeseburgers, I’m going into extreme overcompensation, which is one of my specialties. I’m representing my country, after all--my country which has heretofore won the gold medal in the Obesity Olympics and has Paula Deen as one of its food ambassadors. The woman fries butter. Need I say more?

I labor under my nation’s bad culinary reputation, and seek redemption on this night through eggplant/roasted garlic/rice/orange zest polpettine;
cauliflower with garlic, pine nuts, olive oil and lemon;
cannellini beans with carrot, fennel, sage, rosemary, and parmigiano;
and my simple but delicious homemade tomato sauce.
I also want to make homemade gnocchi and a vegan chocolate-orange cake for my friend Isa’s birthday, but my journey through hell will take a lot of time and prevent me from the full expression of my food obsession (she gets the cake a few days later, though, on her actual birthday. The gnocchi are a lost cause).

So, as I said, my trip through hell begins with gluttony, followed closely by laziness.
I have sliced and diced the eggplant and garlic and placed them in the oven to roast. Easy enough.

Then, I decide to take the overflowing compost bucket down three flights of stairs to the compost bin in the garden. The laziness comes into play because the voice in my head says, “It’s warm out. It’s right downstairs. And those boots are soooo hard to zip up. Socks are fine. Just wear the socks. You’re doing laundry later anyway . . .”

I carry my compost bucket and other recyclables downstairs, and leave the key in the door, which I have also left ajar.

The breeze from the terrace has other ideas, though.

The misadventure begins as I descend these stairs.
When I reach the garden, I realize walking barefoot on this terrain isn’t a great idea. So I trudge back up the stairs only to find the door is now closed.
This door doesn’t have a knob that you turn. It only opens with the key--the key that’s in the door, on the inside.

Enter first circle of hell.

I have a rapid series of thoughts as I see that closed door and try to push it open, to no avail:

I must call my landlady.

But your phone is in the house!

I must walk to the neighbors to ask for help.

But you have no shoes!
But you have no neighbors except goats!

I’ll drive to . . .

The car key is in the house, idiot!

I’ll just open the automatic gate and . . .

The device to open the gate is in the house!

I’ll climb over the wall.

Remember the part about having no shoes?

Now, when I write, I should tell you that I often have a cinematic vision in my mind. It’s thorough, complete with rapid montages, panning, close-ups, lean-outs, and even a soundtrack.

As the scream escapes my lips and echoes off the hillsides and cliffs, I can see the people of the Cilento stop everything they’re doing. The goatherd looks up from his flock toward the heavens. The shopkeeper steps outside the front door to investigate the source of this unearthly howl. The farmer harvesting his olives stops combing the branches, and gazes out toward the Gulf of Policastro. The barber holds fast to his razor, should the need for defense arise.
They all ask the same thing: from whence cometh such a sound of suffering? Is the apocalypse nigh?
The force of the breeze that carries this shriek smacks the broom from the housewife’s hands. As she bends to pick it up, the breeze lifting her apron, she knows.
Oh, she knows.
It’s that American up on the hill. That American has done something incredibly stupid.

They will likely write songs and poems about this day, the day The Sound shook their land.

Keep all that in mind as you now hear my pained screams. You can listen to a reenactment below, but use headphones if you’re at work.
And make sure the headphones are NOT at full blast.

If you can’t play the audio for some reason, here is a transcript:

“Oh no . . . no . . . no, no, No, NO, Fuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuck no no no no no no no . . . . “

At this point, I pace a lot. I pace on the upper floor by the door. I pace in the driveway.
I am swearing.
A great deal of swearing is happening, in fact.
An extraordinary amount of swearing that is most unbuddha-like.
I am also talking to myself, and scolding myself, and picturing the eggplant in the oven burnt to a crisp and possibly burning down this beautiful house if I don’t find a solution soon.

When I travel, out of respect for my landlords and hosts, I typically try very hard not to burn down their houses. It’s a matter of principle with me, really. I guess I’m old-fashioned like that. I think it would also ruin my prospects with future AirBnB hosts if the current landlord’s review read something like “She was very punctual, and respectful and quiet . . . except for that scream that scared the entire region. Oh, and she also accidentally set fire to our house, which was very beautiful, but is now a pile of ashes. She is an American--they elected Trump, so really what did we expect? Making the Cilento great again, my ass.”

OK, so this whole burning down the house thing weighs heavily on my mind. I race down the stairs again and begin frantically searching under every flowerpot, stone, and bench (there are a bunch of them) to try to find a spare key. Italians hide keys in obvious places, just like Americans, right?
I try every shutter and window and door on the first floor. Yes, Italians have shutters and they actually use them to shut things up. They aren’t simply decorative like in the States.

Walked all around the house and yard searching for a non-existent key.
I then find a work shed that’s open, and imagine myself a criminal. I’m going to take this wire and this metal-whatever-it-is and poke around in the keyhole and it will open the door.
As I start jamming the wire in the keyhole, it occurs to me that, given my luck so far, this wire will break off in the keyhole and render it useless even with a key. I run downstairs, take off my socks and put them on the roof of the Fiat for some reason (seriously, I don’t know why I did this except that maybe I didn’t want to rip them as I did the next stupid thing).

Driveway below, and the Fiat that held my socks for me.
I head toward the stone wall by the gate and look over. It’s not too far to fall. It would suck to fall, but I won’t die from it. Maybe just sprain an ankle. Over the wall I go, with my bare feet, and head up the unpaved white gravel road, to the next “house” on the road, which really can’t be called a house. It’s more like a shack. I rarely see anyone there. I think some people come to work the garden occasionally, but they don’t stay.

The impenetrable gate and wall I had to climb, barefoot.

But today’s my lucky day. There’s a blue car parked in the driveway. I call out “Salve!” and hear “Hello” back. This is a deception, because the woman I’ve just encountered, Maria, doesn’t speak English. She doesn’t seem to speak Italian, either. She speaks the local dialect.
Luckily, she also understands Italian. She can understand me, but I can understand only about 10% of what she’s saying.

The paragraph above that begins with “When I travel” has just over 100 words. To increase your empathy for my situation, try reading only every tenth word and see how clear it is.

I try to explain my situation, as I stand there in a panic. I do the best that I can in Italian, but I suspect what she sees and hears is a crazed, barefoot stranger, blathering almost unintelligibly:

“Good day, Madam. I rent tall house there behind trees. I am idiot american with no keys and have no shoes. You are knowing the lady of that tall house? You are knowing her phone? Things in oven make fire soon.”

Miraculously, she seems to understand. She hands me her flip-phone and seems to suggest I can use it to call my landlady.
She doesn’t realize this is 2017 and my “smart phone” has made me very dumb. I haven’t remembered a phone number since 2009. My landlady’s number is in the phone that's in the house.

Maria gets this and, after bringing me a pair of garden clogs for my feet, begins an hour of flipping through her handwritten phone book and trying to decipher her own handwriting, while admitting that many of the phone numbers are probably no longer in service. She can’t reach anyone. No one is answering.

I ask if she has a ladder. Because “Eggplant Fire” might be a great band name, but it’s a lousy way to lose everything, including your passport and your phone. I tell her that the door to the third floor terrace is open. We could climb up one storey at a time. But I’m mostly acting this out like a very unskilled and annoying mime.

We carry the ladder down the road, and when I begin to pass the ladder over the wall, she points out a gate that opens without a key, next to the driveway. A gate that could have prevented the need to climb barefoot over a stone wall if I had seen it earlier.

The ladder doesn’t go very high onto the first floor. It’s flimsy, frankly, and a bit precarious. I get halfway up, and freeze. My brain will not let me lift a hand or a foot. I’m looking at the concrete below and thinking how much it would hurt to land on it. Especially head first.

The flimsy ladder made it *just* to the first floor balcony.
Meanwhile, Maria’s phone is ringing every five minutes with someone returning her call. I couldn’t find a sample of the exact ringtone, but it was nearly as ridiculous and incongruous for this situation as the song below, only bouncier and more . . . I don't know . . . just really, really stereotypically Italian.

As I took down the ladder and waited with Maria in Purgatory, her phone rang for the 5th time and blasted that bouncy song. I had to laugh. But thankfully, this time the call was from Assunta, the house's groundskeeper. She'd be there to help us in ten minutes.
This is the part in this Divine Comedy when the angels arrive, when redemption is not just an elusive dream.

Assunta speaks dialect and Italian. She is kind and sympathetic, and finds me hilarious, whether I intend to be or not.
She opens the one door I hadn’t checked. To the garden shed.
In it, there’s a key to the first floor apartment (which extends to the second floor, where there is a terrace below my terrace).
We carry the ladder up to the second floor, and Assunta shimmies up like an Italian monkey, without batting an eyelash. Completely unruffled. She says it’s a good thing I left the terrace door open, too.
I call up to her to ask about the oven and the eggplant.
She responds diplomatically that perhaps we should have a different plan for dinner tonight.

Sad, burned eggplant.
I thank her and Maria profusely, and offer to carry the ladder back to Maria’s house, but Assunta will not hear of it. I tell her in Italian that the good news is the house is very secure. She laughs heartily. Did I mention she thinks I’m hilarious?

The night before, I had made tomato sauce and over-salted it.
I had to throw it out and start again today.
I have now been to the local market to buy the same things twice. I will need to go again, and explain to Ralph From-Brooklyn-50-Years-Ago, who owns the place, that I am not stockpiling tomatoes and eggplants for the End Times. I’m just a careless American twit.

After I clean up the burnt vegetables, I realize how little time I’ll have to complete this dinner before my friends arrive. I take it as a challenge.
I GRAB MY KEYS. ALL OF THEM, and run down to the car for the 10 minute drive into town.
But on they way up to the main road, I pass Assunta. She’s opening a garden gate.
I dangle my house keys next to the car window. She sees them and laughs again, but tells me to stop. She says she thinks she has some eggplant ready to pick.
So, I go into the garden with her. She fills the bottom edge of her large shirt with small eggplants and beautiful tomatoes. I think she’ll hand me a few, but she puts the whole lot into my car.
“Wait. . . that’s all for me? I thought you were picking some for yourself.”
“No. It’s for you. For your dinner.”
“But . . . really? OK . . . thank you so much. You’re so generous.”
She doesn’t miss a beat before she says matter-of-factly, “It’s not a gift from us, it’s a gift from the land.”

Gifts from the land (and Asunta)

I can’t argue with this, and wouldn’t want to. Of course, she’s right. It’s a good reminder. It makes the last few hectic hours seem worth it just for that.

In the next couple of days, I’ll have a chance to get to know Assunta a little better, and be grateful for it. She is small in stature, dark-skinned, with hands that have clearly worked hard for a long, long time. She is eager to laugh and quick to offer a smile, and I have never heard anyone so clear about their place in the world, so grateful for each day, each moment, even when you have to help fools who leave their keys behind locked doors.
I invite her in for some cake a few days later, and she happily obliges. She’s not much for technology, she says. She likes to talk face to face.
She points to a nearby hill and tells me she was born “right over there.” She’s lived elsewhere, but has come back here. “This is my land. This is my world,” she says, smiling. “I love my land. It’s the most beautiful in Italy.”

Surely the fates are wiser than me, and can use my carelessness to send a living Buddha into my frazzled sphere of existence. She moves through the static with ease, ascends the ladder without fear, smiles and laughs at my Divine Comedy.
It’s all happening here, now, in her land, her world that she loves.
She will not pick and choose. She will love all of it.

She drags me out of purgatory, into the bright blue Cilento day.

Wednesday, July 19, 2017

Phantom of the Arena

It’s cooler here in the shade of these corridors than out in the center of the Roman arena, under the blazing Andalucian sun.

I’m walking slowly.
I’m saying their names out loud.

"Antonio Dominguez"

“Jose Lopez”



I’m wondering, and so I ask “Do you hear me, Juanito?  Is this what you wanted?”

I pause, but only a distant crow replies, and really, I think he’s talking to someone else outside. What a primeval sound it is, though. I imagine those whose names I’m reading and speaking might also have heard that “caw” as they wandered and wondered here.

It’s heady stuff to imagine I could bestow immortality in this way, by the mere utterance of a name no one has spoken for perhaps centuries. But of course, I cannot. My companions here are ghosts, long gone.

"D [?] 2 April, 1934. They visited this historic place."

I’m on my way to the Sierra de Grazalema, but have decided to stop at the archaeological site of Italica, just outside Sevilla. Founded by the Roman Emperor Scipio Africanus in 206 B.C.E., it was conceived as a settlement for veterans of the second Punic wars. At the time of its construction, the amphitheater at Italica was the third largest in all the Roman empire, accommodating 25,000 spectatorsmore than three times the actual population of Italica, by some estimates. The Romans were not known for understatement. Overkill was more their thing.

It’s pretty quiet on this day in 2017. No boots on the march or clanging of swords. I have the place almost to myself, save for a few teenagers and their chaperone on a field trip.
And the ghosts of tourists past.
That’s who I’ve been calling out to; the names scratched onto the arena corridor’s walls.

I first spot them when a beam of sunlight streams through an opening onto the bricks, and a grandiose script emerges from among the shadows.
Mario wants us to know he was here, a very long time ago, as do hundreds, perhaps thousands of others.

There appear to be layers and layers of them, scratched or scrawled, then fading, and overlain with new names as the unrelenting river of decades and centuries flows by.
They are caught up in that stream of time and carried off, leaving these vain little eddies.

I’m asking myself where the line is drawn; where does the expression of human yearning cross over into vandalism. Were I to add my scrawl here, how many years would it take to be considered a statement about that yearning to be seen, to be known? Fifty years? One hundred years? A thousand?

I confess, a part of me thinks the 19th century tourist whose name I’m trying to discern is an asshole for marking this fragment of Spain’s patrimony for himself. It ain’t about you, buddy, and when I look at the achievements of the Roman empire, including this arena, your signature here can only suffer by comparison. I can picture him, Grand Tour fop with a waistcoat and walking stick, proudly assessing his handiwork. His more well-bred cousin, actually making sketches of the ruins, impresses me more.

Tabula Gladiatoria. This one isn't graffiti.
Still, it’s one of the the most human of traits, wanting to leave our mark. Caves all over the globe tell us this. In those other Roman ruins of Pompeii and Herculaneum we find the spectrum of human experience documented, scratched and scribbled onto walls: politics, commerce, religiosity, greetings, poetry, angst, love, lust, revenge.

A sampling from those famous Roman sites:
“Here love will be wise”
“Let the bears devour me”
“Myrtis gives good fellatio”
“Lasius is a pervert” [I’m guessing Myrtis wrote that one]
“Goodbye” “Good luck”
“Biggus Dickus has a . . . “ well, you know. And if the Monty Python troupe tells me it’s so, then it is.

Ok, that last one isn’t really found at Pompeii or Herculaneum. But I have to say, I do prefer the narrative graffiti to the simple names. If our 19th century dandy had told me something on that wall about his travels, his conquests or his longings, I might readily forgive him in exchange for that moment of human connection, that window into the past. I’m a history nerd, after all.

Bricks and names, turning to mold and dust, as we speak.

But then, who am I kidding.
 Ancient ruins always call to mind the knowledge that we’re only passing through this world. They always call to mind our mortality. And in the face of that knowledge, words often fail. So instead, we call up those practiced letters that offer us and the world the simplest, weakest approximation of who we are.  

I could add my name and join this throng, but I don’t. I will join them soon enough.
Just like those seemingly invincible Roman generals, I cannot overcome impermanence. I’m grateful for this reminder they’ve provided me today, even if it was unintentional.  

To say their names now is a form of sadhana. I say my own, too, not worrying that the crows might hear me.
I smile, thinking that, like drops of rain that reach the surface of the sea and become indistinguishable from one another, we will meet again and quell that ache that compels us to litter monuments with names.
These phantoms and me, we are that sea. We have always been that sea.

I exit the amphitheater past plantings of oleander, lavender and rosemary. In this heat, they cast their clouds of scent outward toward me like a net, capturing me in this moment.
“See these colors? Smell this fragrance?” they whisper like those phantoms in the corridor.

“You are alive. Be here now.”

Archaeologists at work

Roman legion stragglers near Italica