Paint everything which is not
only sky only
the tranquil green of a hayfield
tumbling towards a horizion
of what it’s missing.
It is this void, superimposed upon the mountain
which instructs the heart:
There is the possibility of absence.
Bonnie M. McClellan
I have lived in Italy for three years now and it never stops being beautiful. The concept of a quotidian and yet extrodinarily beautiful vision continues to fascinate me as did the daily magic of the sky when I lived in Texas.
I wrote this poem parked in the parkinglot of the cemetery of the town of Orino, Italy. The cemetery is along the local road that I drive down on the way to and from my daughter’s daycare in Castello Cabiaglio. I encounter a vision twice a day on this drive: Monte Rosa. The mountain is the wallpaper of my everyday life. Despite the ubiquity of this beauty, I feel an ache in my chest that has the emotional resonance of loss everytime I round the curve in the road that brings the moutain into sight. I’m still working my brain around living with something so beautiful that it hurts to look at.
It’s still incredibly beautiful here. I forgot. In the spaces between the rains the sky runs and falls; gathers itself and plunges again towards the sea. Cumulonimbus titans strike their shins on the horizon line as they stumble through the Mediterranean, dead drunk and anxious to reach Ithaca. This is a place where mothers still name their sons Ulysses.
Caulonia superiore under stomy skies.
The houses are like barnacles on a rock; roof tiles buried in lichen and slathered with concrete where they meet at the crown in an uneasy sea-sick ridge. Below the rust-eaten white iron boundary of the balcony-rail I can see two flaps of a prickly pear struggling out from between two heavy arcs of terracotta.
Morning light on the Ionian Sea from Piazza Belvedere
The edge of the sky at dawn over the water is like Montale’s description, a singing strip of metal lath, a kite string straining against the rebounding vault of blue. His was the western sea, the Ligurian coast, a sunset light. Here the Ionian dawn makes eastern music…Jove’s mute mistress writes her name in the sand with a round hoof…IO.
Every few days there is rain in Serra San Bruno; this is not good for the filming. Most of the movie takes place out of doors where the charcoal burners are working. There is lots of expensive equipment, including a camera that costs as much as two houses which needs to stay clean and dry in an environment full of wood smoke, charcoal, and rain. In sum, this is not an easy combination for getting things done on schedule. Today the wind was so fierce that half the film crew came back black-faced from the charcoal smoke.
The structures built by the charcoal burners (or carbonai) are incredible, they look like sculptures by Andy Goldsworthy and seem more beautiful being constructed so of necessity rather than invention. The movements, the decisions, the rhythm of constructing these “scarrazzi” (in english this translates as a ‘charcoal clamp‘ are intuitive for these men. For the film Matthew needs to make some pieces of wood to be used in the construction of the centre of one of the scarrazzi appear very white and as if the bark was trimmed off by hand…so he’s trimming it off by hand with a big machete. The wood is fresh pine and exuding resinous sap, Robin calls it “Papa’s sticky wood” and is very excited to see the capo of the carbonai, Artemio, using a chain saw. In general she likes the men in their black dusted clothes and faces and remembers all of their names: Artemio, Bruno, Zeno, Salvatore.
The smell of woodsmoke chases through the town on the tail of the hard wind like the ghost of a warm fire searching for a place to sit down. I am unsure if it’s smoke blown down the long river bed from the charcoal burner’s works or from the cumulative fireplaces of Serra San Bruno, long and narrow; clustered along both sides of the river like Lancelot and Guinevere on either side of Arthur’s sword. Robin and I go out and take our walk in the wind and smoke…amidst the baroque granite landmarks remains the rest of the town, getting on with it’s normal life in the south:
There is a store that sells real fruit and fake flowers, the sales woman inside is wearing her winter coat and a hat, the small heating stove is off, we are the only customers I have seen in this store in a week of passing by the door twice a day. The saleswoman will not take my money, she gives Robin an apple for free. This is Calabria.
We keep walking and pass by facades of ridged brick both holding up and falling down, the sad leftovers of Mussolini’s vision, shoving up against both the slender, solid granite posts of the old houses that support gracious granite arcs as well as the concrete walls of apartment blocks made to ward off both earthquake and beauty; battened down with corrugated steel that sends streams of rust enriched rain water down into the flaking plaster of the house next door.
What a place. And next we’ll be going to another paradoxically beautiful and squalourous Calabrian town, Caulonia.
Matthew is anxious to get back to Caulonia because there are many other things that need to be worked on there. On the one hand, it’s been a real break for me, staying in a hotel; there are other people doing the cooking and cleaning and lots of big spaces for Robin to explore as well as lots of new people to make friends with. Still, I think we are all ready to be in a place where we can wake up in the morning, make our own coffee and drink it in bed. So we’re looking forward to being in Caulonia where we can stay in an apartment with a kitchen.
We made it to Calabria about a month ago. Robin was wonderful on the airplane; she sat on my lap for the whole flight without much wriggling at all, ate chips, drank juice, and looked at the Easy Jet magazine. It happened that there were lots of other kids on the plane and the older ones ran up and down the aisle paying her occasional visits complete with kisses and games of peek-a-boo.
We arrived right on time and Matthew was there about 2 minutes after we walked through the exit door. Robin was very excited and we were all very happy to see each other. We went immediately for a slice of pizza because it was 1:30 by then and we were beyond starving! Then we got chips and hot water to go and packed ourselves into the van.
As we started down the road Robin talked to her dad while I ate a huge orange (one of several that were in the car). This part of Italy is orange country and this is the season for them. People give them away by the sack full and this one was really delicious. I had forgotten what spring looked like. Up north we still had snow in spots and frost on the fields every morning where standing water was dull with ice. Things had just begun to turn that hopeful shade of gray that presages green the week before we left. Here, in the far south, there were lush swaths of green grass poking up around olive trees as big as live oaks. It was a pleasure to see these trees again, two and three hundred years old they dwarf the smaller olive trees of Tuscany and as torqued as the trunks and branches are it is easy to imagine them as more than trees.
In Serra San Bruno Bobbie and I took a walk every day. First we would stop at the piazza which is closest to the hotel. There is a church façade covered in scaffolding, some benches and it is here that we stop for cookies. Then Robin goes up and down the steps of the church, occasionally stepping inside the door where she’s been heard to say (unprompted): “No more church for MY daughter.
Our next stop is the “Lion Fountain” where Bobbie can put her hand in the running water and beep the noses of the lions that are not spitting water. On the way we pass this lyrical baroque church façade carved surprisingly in unlyrical granite. The contrast of the form and the material is pleasantly diverting to the eye.
Normally my blogs are a little more like essays…this one is lighter and more gossipy but I have to tell you: I had a really great birthday! Spent the morning being lazy around the house and then we all got into the car and went to Varese to run errands which we didn’t quite finish before noon (when almost everything in Italy closes for lunch). I decided on the spur of the moment that we should try the new steak house up the road. It’s funny, Italians don’t age their beef as a rule, so the meat may have a good flavour but the texture is, well, bleah! Besides that, they’re so good with everything pork and seafood that it’s rare for us to eat beef (oooh, bad pun…sorry!).
Anyway, lunch was a big whopping rare t-bone with a salad and a few french fries that I snuck off of Matthew and Robin’s plates. They brought little Robin balloons and she had the most fun moving peanuts from one little bucket to another although she did manage to eat three chicken fingers and five fries (which she kept calling ‘pies’). Thanks you mama, steve and G.G. for buying us such a delicious lunch! I had the chance to talk to them for a few minutes when they called while we were on our to Laveno.
It was a gorgeous day! Laveno is by the lake and with the sun out the alps were a postcard…covered in snow on the top shading into deep violet/blue of the valley’s. We went down to the ferry landing to let Robin feed the ducks, had some hot coco at the nearby pastry shop/bar, bought white flowers for our sculpture and came home, kind of.
Our little girl had had a bad cough for a week so I decided we should run up to the pediatrician’s office for a quick visit (in Italy it’s FREE! and the doctor is just open so we could walk in, that is so cool!) Good thing we went because he thought she had a little bronchitis and wanted her to have a mild antibiotic. Matthew ran up the street and to get the rest of the ingredients that he needed to make me a cake and then down to the pharmacy by the station to get the baby’s medicine. Living in the mountains is a leg toning experience!
We gave Robin her medicine, a little something to eat, and a bottle of milk and it took her about 2 seconds to fall sound asleep. I sat in the kitchen, sipped a glass of wine and watched Matthew making cake. He’d been hinting for a month that he’d found the perfect present and I was wondering what it could be. I knew that he’d bought me another 6 place settings of silver plate flatware to match my grandmother’s pattern that would come with his family in February; but, he’d said there was something else even better…what could it be?
Matthew had been text messaging all day so finally I asked if it had something to do with the film (he’s going to start building sets for a film in about 3 weeks). He looked up and smiled and said, ‘It’s your present. I’m having it delivered.” Now I was curious, was it a pizza or a piano? His phone kept buzzing and he kept texting, then after a while he said, “It’s here, maybe you should go look downstairs.”
We live on the third floor of an old palazzo built in 1908. Outside our door is a wide stone stair case with a wrought iron rail that descends around a square foyer. When I leaned over the balustrade I could see fabric cases with zippers…big square ones. Had he hired a masseuse? I saw the top of a blond woman’s head but didn’t see her face…voices, more cases. I started down the stairs. When I reached the bottom I saw my friend Lee with her little girl Dahlia and then her husband Marco carrying in a case for a stand up bass…Music! The square cases were for a big vibraphone belonging to Francesco who often plays with Marco. Matthew was giving me a private jazz concert for my birthday…but just for us, it seemed extravagant.
We shoved the furniture to the side so that Marco and Francesco could set up in our living room. The 16ft. ceilings and thick stone walls combined with the wood floor made a perfect room for the sound. I heard Matthew telling Marco that after they set up we’d all eat dinner…dinner, I’d thought we’d be eating left over risotto from the night before. Right about then the door bell rang. It was Annarita and Manuella with two big casseroles of Pasta al Forno. Then came Marco Chierichetti with flowers and a book of poetry by Fernando Pessoa, two of our neighbors, Graciella, Amy with a tray full of Turkish sweets that she’d baked and much later Rick…A surprise party. I was so deeply touched that more than once I almost cried. That and homemade lunchlady chocolate cake…Wow!
After awhile, Robin woke up. At first she was sure that the music was somehow coming from inside one of my birthday packages. As she helped me unwrap them she peered anxiously inside saying, “music? i-pod? music in package?” I finally convinced her that the music was coming from the two men playing instruments and she was more than a little nervous. Looking at the stand up bass she said, “Very, very awful violin, VERY toooo big.” Later, during a break she was excited when Francesco gave her two of his long mallets and encouraged her to bang away on the bars of the vibraphone. It was so fun for me to watch her respond to something completely new.
Music may seem like a small thing, a ubiquitous thing; but as anyone who is the parent of a young child can tell you, leaving the house to see a movie or to have dinner is already difficult, staying out late enough to see a concert or go to a night club is almost impossible. A live jazz concert during mid-winter in provincial Italy, forget about it. Walking through our house, the air in every room humid with sound classic compositions by Parker, Davis, and Coletrain along with new compositions by Francesco and Marco I was in heaven. It was the perfect gift: thoughtful, intimate, a surprise. The gift of an experience together with our friends which contains within it the future pleasure of recollection.
P.S. I wish I had made a video of ‘my’ concert but I did find the above video clip of the vibes player on youtube…
This is the garden of the ‘White Prince’, the name given by Matthew’s younger brother Frank to our friend Philippe Bredael perhaps because he likes everything around him to be as beautiful and harmonious as his garden. Full of palm trees and sunset light it’s hard to believe that I took this photo in late December. Philippe is the second person that Matthew met in Italy when he was on his vagabond’s tour of Europe in 1990 and one of the reasons that that tour stopped here; their friendship spans 19 years. It was in the palace of the White Prince that little Robin spent her first Christmas and slept through her first new year’s.
In December of 2007 we had been living in Torano for seven months (for more about Torano/Carrara see my post:Carrara: adventures in quarryland) and in this short time had made only a few friends. I never imagined how difficult holidays would be with no social structure to hold us up, no friends or family to visit, no one to attend a Christmas Eve dinner or a New Year’s Eve party if we planned them. Here we were face to face with a clean slate on which to write out our new family traditions, a nine month old baby and a toaster oven that was not big enough to roast a goose…it was time to ask for help.
Philippe and his large oven came to our rescue and so we decided to spend the week of Christmas and New Years a little closer to the North Pole. Many of Matthew’s ‘amici del cuore’ live near Lago Maggiore, he calls them ‘La Tribu’, The Tribe. Matthew has a slew of wonderful stories about Philippe and The Tribe, carnivals spent in Venice as wandering face painters, fantastic parties, summer afternoons by the lake diving from Sasso Galletto. These adventure stories are best heard straight from the horse’s mouth in our kitchen with a good glass of Refosco in hand. I mention them briefly in this context to try and sketch with a few light strokes the backdrop of Robin’s first Christmas.
With our friend Chemda and I illegally riding in the cargo compartment of Matthew’s van and the baby on the passenger side nested safely and legally in her car seat, we embarked from the relative warmth of the Tuscan seaside towards the cold grey north…Lombardy. I have to say that I felt a bit as if I were in the middle of a movie about an immigrant circus family on holiday. After a few hours on the road we arrived in Milan and stopped to visit with our friend Michelangelo and his friend Barbara. They gave Robin her first Christmas present, a ‘Piglet’ from Winnie-the-Pooh that burst into song when his tummy was squeezed. Robin’s fourth word after “Mama”, “Papa” and “Banana” was “Pag-lat”. I’m not much for electronic toys but I am deeply grateful to this magic singing Piglet and to Chemda’s mothering experience for getting Robin through the last hour in the van from Milan to Varese.
There was supper on the table, there were people smiling and happy to see us. Philippe is a consummate host and I immediately felt a sense of ‘home’ despite the fact that he was the only person at the table that I knew. We ate well, we slept well, we woke up and began the first of a series of dilatory days involving eating, visiting, and sightseeing. The landscape was stunning, the white snow capped Alps in the distance, the placid surface of the lake, a profusion of evergreen palm, pine, laurel and magnolia trees interlaced with the black and white bareness of elm and beech. During the day the sun shone with a force equal to the cold, as it went down the air bit.
On the 24th we went to get a fresh goose for Christmas day dinner from a local farm. On Christmas morning while Robin opened her second package (with a lot of help from Mama) and enjoyed looking at her new book about farm animals, the grown up’s started discussions about cooking.
Matthew went down to the van where we’d left our lovely goose overnight to discover that she was now frozen…we let her warm up on the kitchen counter while working on dressing and pie. Little Robin pulled herself up for the first time on the ladder back chairs in Uncle Pippo’s kitchen. Matthew had given me a copy of The Gnostic Gospels and I read the first story which was The Pearl, a sweet coincidence since he often calls me ‘Pearl’. Matthew cooked. The goose was perfect, even vegetarians were tempted to taste a bit of the stuffing. The house was full of people (with the exception of ourselves) who had been to India so exotic travel stories were exchanged as plates and glasses were refilled.
Between Christmas and New Year’s eve we went to visit the Monastery of Santa Caterina and a Buddhist meditation center across the lake above a town called Bee. We took walks in the national forest at Campo dei Fiore, went ice skating at a tiny rink in the Lakeside town of Laveno, and had dinner at the homes of some of Matthew’s other friends. There was an exhibition at a local museum with work by some artists Matthew knew from Milan. After seeing the show we went for drinks at a little bar in Caldana where some people were vigorously playing oom-pa-pa music on accordion, trumpet and tuba to the vast delight of our daughter who squealed and clapped when she wasn’t cheerfully jamming potato chips into her mouth. Despite the social whirlwind, or perhaps because of it, I often felt terribly lonely and exhausted. I was surrounded by people who all had an shared history with one another, a involved story that was communicated in a language that I was just beginning to speak among men and women who were not yet my friends.
My sombre mood probably had as much to do with homesickness as to my eternally cold feet and the lack of sleep. Little Robin was on the third week of her first cold and so she (and I and Matthew) woke up often durring the night. Durring the day she was her normal easygoing self, happy to see new people or to fall asleep in the car seat. Everyone was completely in love with her…it’s hard not to be. New Year’s eve was great fun, Matthew and I dressed up, he in his best suit and a red tie, I in a strappy red dress and heels (red is the New Years colour in Italy). We danced, we snacked, we drank good wine and bad. Robin fell asleep early and we tucked her safely into her travel bed moved to the relative quiet of Philippe’s bedroom and then obsessivly checked every 10 min. to make sure she was alright…the new parents’ waltz.
At midnight we kissed, first each other and then, in a secular version of exchanging the peace, everyone else…hugs, kisses on both cheeks, the tapping of glasses filled with prosecco; “Buon Anno, Aguri, Aguroni, Buona 2008”. Finally everyone settled into the ancient ritual of eating lentils for good luck and the contemporary ritual of frantically transmitting one’s best wishes for the new year via text message to jammed satellites that would then deliver them at inopportune early hours to groggy friends not present. Guests began to shift towards home; we moved Robin’s little bed back into the room where we were sleeping and where a fire remained burning in the fireplace. She woke up and watched the fire, still sleepy and hypnotized by the warmth and movement.
The next day there was snow…a walk was proposed by the guests who had remained for the night but for once I said no. I loaned my hiking boots to a photographer who’d arrived for the weekend from Milan in suede flats and started the hot water running in the bath tub. The bundled crowd went out to walk in the falling flakes and I wrapped my little girl inside my coat and carried her out on the balcony to see the white filtering through the palm trees.
Kings Day, La Befana, Epiphany, the last day of Christmas. Right now I am looking out at the snow sifting down steadily from the white blankness of the sky that brooks no horizon. Mountains, tree tops, and atmosphere all are one. In Italian I might say ‘sfondo sfondata’…a background with the bottom broken out. This is the whitest Christmas I have ever known. It has been a beautiful season for us, the first one we have spent at home, as a family.
My first Christmas in Italy I was a little more than 4 months pregnant with little Robin. Matthew and I were living in a small apartment under a converted mill where our friends Sandro and Adele live in the hills outside of Pontassieve just south-east of Florence. It was our first Christmas together and for me one of only a handful that I had not spent at the home of my maternal grandparents. Matthew suggested that we spend the holiday in Florence at a bed and breakfast called Il Giglio Bianco (the white lilly). It was owned some friends of his and was officially closed so we were the only guests and had our run of the well equipped kitchen and the occasional company of one of the owners, Eduardo.
I will not speak for Matthew other than to say that I think we were both feeling lost. Having walked away from the traditions we had known with our former spouses we were reaching for a sense of how to form a mutual tradition, something new and whole that we could offer our daughter when she was born. Tradition is, of course, a function of time so we talked about what little Robin’s coming Christmases might be like. the things that when she was our age she would remember; “at Christmas we always…”. I think that it was this idea of how to create a family together that helped us through what was, despite being together and in one of the most beautiful cities I know, a lonely and wistful Christmas.
On Christmas eve we went to midnight mass. We’d chosen the church at random, one on a side street and not too long of a walk. Santa Trinita is relatively small and unfamous if such a thing is possible in a city like Florence, we did not know who had painted the paintings but we liked them. I remember being tired, the weight of my belly, the umbral darkness of the church and the snatches of the liturgy in Italian that I was able to understand. I also remember the sharing of the peace, strangers turning to shake my hand or kiss me on both cheeks and I, returning the gesture and echoing their words: “pace, pace, pace”.
When we got back to Il Giglio Bianco and were getting in Bed I felt Robin rolling and kicking and called Matthew and he felt her moving for the first time. I still remember the look on his face though for the life of me I am without words to describe it to you, perhaps it is sufficient to say that it was a moment of grace.
The next morning (late) we began cooking: roasted goose with chestnut stuffing, giblet gravy, apple pie. We served ourselves in the empty but still cozy dining room with a view over the top of a wall into a garden. Later we walked to the centre of the ponte Santa Trinita and looked down at the Arno and then crossed over into the old city centre. We walked through the streets lined with luxury shop windows and strung with white lights, full of people but not Disneyland packed like it is in the spring and summer. The piazza del Duomo was her own beautiful self, the facade of the cathedral always gives me the impression of whiteness when I see it despite the multi-colored stone decorations and iconic black stripes.
The following day on the advice of Eduardo, we went to see an exhibition at the Palazzo Medici Riccardi of a first century Roman Bronze that had been discovered off the coast of Croatia and sent to Florence for restoration. I remember that it was the end of the day and the museum was only open for one more hour. The blindingly white room where the statue was exhibited was empty except for the two of us and an occasional other visitor who passed through. Matthew and I spent 45 minutes just looking, something that now seems like an incredible luxury for the parents of a 21 month old girl who gets faster on her feet every day.
My first Christmas in Italy had it’s whitness, even without snow. The ‘White Lilly’ the clean sheets on the bed, the lights hanging over the streets, the white stripes on the Duomo and the labratory white of the exhibition space. It is this white background this sfondo bianco, that I thought of this morning looking out at the snow. An horizionless space out of time where an infinitely old and etrnally young athlete is still scraping the oil and sweat from his bronze forearm, where the only point of refrence is what is present to the eyes and what is present internally. The white of snow would come the next Christmas, Robin’s first in the outside world…