Tuesday, October 15, 2013

The Beautiful South, Redux


This summer I had the wonderful opportunity to visit a part of Italy that I had never been to before. I have been to Italy many times and have lived there for two years, but had never been to Puglia, outside of stopping through as a teenager on my way to Greece during my “Grand Tour” of Europe as an intrepid backpacker, the trip which inculcated in me the wanderlust that has been with me ever since.

As such, this was like going to an entirely new country, though with several familiar aspects of Italy that I have grown accustomed to. In other words, it was going to the same place, which was not the same, and yet it was.

One of the highlights of the trip was that I was able to swim every day in the Adriatic Sea (and one day in the Ionian). Swimming has always been my meditation, a way of getting me unstuck from my daily grind. Although I am able to often let go in a mere swimming pool, there is no comparison to swimming amongst the waves (and, no matter how long a pool is, it is merely swimming in a circle, whereas when you swim out into the Sea, one direction will be with the waves, and the other against them, resulting in two very different experiences), against which you realize the futility of fighting them. You will never win against the power of the Sea or Ocean. I have learned that in my experiences, and it is an important lesson to learn. Some things are and will always be more powerful than we are. And, the sooner we learn that, and moreover accept that, the sooner we can be at peace with our limitations and then work within them, rather than be frustrated by not being able to transcend them. It is not an admission of failure, but rather one of surrender to powers that are greater than we are. It can be a liberating feeling if you allow it to be so.

Here are some pictures of the beautiful Salento region at night. Enjoy.









Thursday, April 4, 2013

Made In Italy

There is one surefire answer that I have when people asks me what it is that I love so much about Italy, and that has been and will be, simply, "the details."

Without a doubt, Italians have an eye for detail and it is not always readily apparent, but the more time the you are able to spend in Italy, the more that you will see that this is true.

One very simple example is something that I just experienced this last time that I was in Italy. Having a coffee on the Piazza Maggiore, a very tourist thing to do, but when I travel, I balance being a full-blown tourist with the more aloof traveler, as you get to know the city both ways. So, sitting at the cafe, admiring the San Petrino Cathedral, which even normally is half-girth with its development, is now surrounded by scaffolding, with a silk-screen façade of the half-façade of the church. A bit surreal, but nothing for Italy.

But, what was most interesting to me was the coffee service that my friend had. Normally, for Italians, a coffee is a swift shot of espresso (not eXpresso), which literally means "pushed through" or pressed through. You then sift a bit of sugar in and nonchalantly stir with a small spoon that said sugar in and then throw it back like a shot of Tequila or something and then move on.

But, all other nationalities like to order a "slower" coffee, one that takes more than a few sips.

So, to accommodate that, the actual saucer of the coffee cup has been modified, a detail I have only ever seen in Italy, and it makes sense. Italians pay attention to detail at its minutiae.

The saucer is elongated and the depression for the cup is off-center. How brilliant is that? So, on the side, you can put your small spoon, and a package of sugar to off-set the balance of the off-set cup of coffee.

Truly, though this seems a trifle, this it Italy in a nutshell. If it is "made in Italy" I guarantee there has been endless discussions about balance, perspective, appearance and function. What never ceases to amaze me about Italy is the combination of form and function.


Friday, March 15, 2013

Alma Mater Studiorum


Walking through the streets of Cambridge, through the winding streets lined with great stone buildings with dizzying spires and stained glass windows, and signs like “Corpus Christi College: Closed to All Visitors,” there is obviously a sense of propriety and entitlement. Though the iron gratings and fences are covered with flyers and posters, they are all announcing lofty music concerts and high-powered lectures such as the one I am going to tonight on the Higgs Boson and the Large Hadron Collider.

On the train from King’s Cross in London, a young woman was on her cell phone, talking to someone about how one of her friends would be in Cambridge that afternoon and that she might run into her at the library. There was a pause, as the interlocutor on the other end must have responded, to which she rejoined, slightly louder, “I don’t know, I guess there are some books at Cambridge that Oxford doesn’t have." A wave of smugness filled the air that was palpable, and I heard a few self-assuring chortles from the fellow passengers.

This summer, in a series of random events, I ended up being an “hono(u)rary” player on the Oxford University Water Polo team at a tournament in Antwerp. As a thank you to the team, I took them on a tour of Antwerp. Time and time again, jabs at Cambridge would come up from the players, and then ultimately it came out that the absolute, and I mean absolute, worst insult you could ever levy upon someone from Oxford would be to mistake him or her for someone from Cambridge. The Horror, the Horror…talk of splitting hairs and atoms on a pin head...

So, with my own silent smugness, since I have never been part of Ox-Bridge outside of this honorarium, as I walk through the streets, I think to myself, well, I once taught at L’Università di Bologna, the OLDEST universities in the modern world. Its motto, in fact is Alma Mater Studiorium, which loosely translates as “the mother of all universities.” Established in 1088, it trumps Ox-Bridge by a bit over a century. A few years ago, there was a major, and highly unpopular agreement amongst European universities to be more accommodating to each other’s curricula and encourage more exchange program without losing credit hours, and as it was a conclave of all the Rectors of the major universities in Bologna, it became known as “The Bologna Accord.” So, some people only associate the words Bologna and University in a negative connotation as a result. Hardly what has happened with the names of Oxford and Cambridge.

Moreover, the physical aspects as well could not be more of a dramatic contrast. Whereas Cambridge is a clean, tidy, probably nearly crime-free (aside from intellectual theft (and since I first wrote this post, also bicycle theft)), town, Bologna around the university is gritty, grimy with lots of crime, drugs and no beautiful Backs to walk along admiring the grandiosity of the Colleges, even from their “backsides.” There are very few original Aule Grande left on Bologna’s “campus,” which is a very loose word as there is no central courtyard, or even cluster to distinguish it as a coherent University. Like much of Italy, it is chaos that somehow works.

But, unlike walking down Trumpington Street from my hotel, hitting the staggering Corpus Christi and King’s Colleges, walking down Via Zamboni, one sees an endless array of dreadlocks, tattoos, piercings, dingy and wild student cafes, spilling over with smoking Italian students (and mostly Italian students, unlike the highly international make-up that one sees here), dodging used needles and dog shit, not to mention the dogs making said shit. One of our friends was bitten by such a dog and was very ill for quite some time.

Now, don’t get me wrong, I love Bologna, for so many reasons and would move back there in a heartbeat, and I believe that I would rather live there again than be here. Not that I actually liked seeing people shoot up heroin next to dumpsters on a regular basis, but for the most part, I loved Bologna. Hard to explain if you have not been there. The rest of Bologna is not like that at all, but rather is a beautiful treasure with the greatest unfinished Cathedral façade in Europe and a wonderful Piazza Magiore, where all of Bologna comes together for various events and music and film and celebrating the city of Bologna.

But, the University is truly a bohemian mecca of sorts, and it is interesting to think of what it would have been like in Medieval times. I think that probably much more like what the Cambridge of today is like. Austere, but also a place where the world came to visit. L’Università di Bologna still commands great respect, and the world still does go there, but on a different scale: in ways, a more “human” one, whereas here, it feels untouchable at times, unless you are a member of the club. But, again, so as not to be hypocritical, I do admit to being able to break out my L’Università di Bologna tie, with its logo and the 1088 date on it, on special occasions, knowing that I did not just merely buy it at a gift shop to say I had “been there.” 

Friday, February 15, 2013

Witch Mountain


Today, while waiting for my ex-wife to come by to pick up some things for our daughter for a play date, I was waiting in the foyer of my apartment complex, and I was leaning my arm against the wall, stretching it out as I had come from a good swim earlier and I was starting to feel the muscles talk to me.

I was almost taken aback about how smooth and cool it was. Not that this was the first time I have touched marble of course, but it was just a jolt of consciousness to suddenly feel that surface, and it felt good to be pressing my arm against it.

I was then reminded of three marble things that have made the most impression in my life. One of them was the sheer amount of marble that the Taj Mahal is made of, so much that it is staggering to comprehend. The second are the statues of Bernini, which if you have ever seen them in real life, you would swear that they are soft and malleable if you touched them.

The big one though, was not the product, but the source. One of the eeriest places I have been in is Carrara marble quarries of Northern Tuscany. It is a haunting feeling to drive up this mountain that is a sheer cliff of un-mined marble. Not only is the looming façade of marble daunting, it is the ethereal white dust everywhere in the air from the extraction tools of the rock. I just remember driving up in near silence, as if we were going to the castle of some White Witch or Elven palace high up in the mountains, and the wisps of marble dusts were the guardians.

I had forgotten about that drive until today, when thinking about that marble on the wall, and how it got there. Though Belgium is known for its own opulent marble supply, I will never forget the specters of the Carrara quarries, even if I have to be reminded of them.

Sunday, February 3, 2013

Masks we wear


There is one image of Venice, or Venezia, that will never leave my mind.  I have been to Venice a half a dozen or so times, but there was one time that left an indelible mark on my mental mindset.

Going to Venice in the summer is probably the worst possible thing I could wish upon someone, yet, that is when the Americans go. If you are reading this, and have had bad memories of Venice, go in February or November. You will leave enchanted.

So, for my memory of Carnaval, it was nothing short of mysterious, magical and even somewhat mesmerizing.

My Ex-wife and I went to Venice on almost a whim, but turned out to be one the best memories I have of Italy.

After a less than great dinner of apparently “local” food, we headed out to catch the last train back to Bologna..

In that short journey, we saw the most amazing ensembles of characters. Unlike Mardi Gras in New Orleans, of which I have another story to tell, Carnaval in Venice is nothing short of austere.  Groups will go around in silent  pageantry, not drunken idiocity like in NO.

So, the image, which is imprinted upon my mind was a formidable man dressed like the father from the movie “Amadeus” emerging from the fog, mind you  with true vapor trails of mist emanating from his long tails.  I remember him coming through the fog, as if he was floating. The only other spectacle  I can compare it to was an owl, with no less than a 6 foot wingspan once I saw in New Mexico, which did not make a sound, as nor did this man.

Why do the masks make us so surreal? They do. We all wear masks,  every day. For some reason we seem to value the physical mask more than the metaphysical one.

Saturday, September 22, 2012

The Things We Carry



I will be packing up my books again, which is the bulk of my material possessions, so I mention them as a part for the whole, the synecdoche of my worldly existence. So, I will be packing up the books for a move across town.

It reminds me of the move that we made in Italy, but for all intents and purposes, it was a move I made across Italy. It was a huge transition from the limelight of being a visiting Joycean under the auspices of the esteemed Madame of Joycean Studies, Rosa Maria Bollettieri Bosinelli, a woman whom I hold in the highest regards and with whom I was humbled to be able teach with at L’Università di Bologna, to the study abroad program in Castiglione Fiorentino, where the now deceased Paolo Barucchieri led Italart, a consortium of universities established to explore and convey the Beauty and Art that Italy has to offer. It was a change. A transition.

We were living in Piazza Aldrovandi, in the best part of Bologna, in a fourth-story apartment overlooking the reddish, clay-tiled rooftops of a city that is forever deeply rooted in my heart and soul. A town I would move back to in a heartbeat, given the chance. It is a town with a Soul, deeply embedded in culture, cuisine, literature, philosophy, pride, and family. It, like Antwerp, Santa Fe, Austin, and Madurai, is a city different. It lives.

I was sad to leave Bologna, but equally excited to move to the hilltop town of CF, an original Etruscan settlement with equally rooted history and a highlight of a piazza designed by Vasari himself apparently, so this was no move downwards, but sideways, as is my current one, and ones I have engineered in the past. I live where I live, so it is paramount to me where I live, I love.

I loved Bologna and I loved Castiglione Fiorentino. I guess you could say that I am romanced by cities (though nature—Maine Coast, New Mexican back roads, American West, the Dolimites—move me just as much). I love a sense of place, a sense of Space.

When moving, my ex-wife was settled in Rome for the month for research purposes, so it was up to me to make the move from Bologna to CF, which was the norm. Being on the 4th floor, with no lift/elevator, and about forty trips up and down to load the Furgone by myself, with the notion that it was parked illegally and I had to keep moving it to keep it “legal,” which in Italy is a loose term.

But, in addition to scaling Le Scale multiple times in the matter of an hour or two, meanwhile abating the howls and concerns of our two cats I had locked in the bathroom, soon, said two felines and myself were on the road in a rented furgone and on the way to a new chapter in my life, one that was both definitive in many positive and negative ways alike. It was the balance of the life we live.

Driving across Italy, with now two semi-docile cats and the feeling of change in the air, it was a bit daunting to drive into a very small, secluded, hill-top Tuscan hamlet to a dead-end street in which the van I had rented only fit with bring the mirrors in and a wing a prayer. I had only been in a tighter squeeze in Limone, Italy with a rental car in which literally I had about a ½ inch on each side of the car not to repeat a Chevy Chase “European Vacation” moment. That is not an exaggeration. It may have been a ¼ of an inch…

But, I and the kitties made the journey through beautiful back roads of Emilia Romagna and Tuscany, pulled into town with an entourage of village rugrats in train behind us, waiting to see if lo straniero could pull it off.  I did, and did not displace a single flowerpot of the flowerpot-lined lane.

I have moved quite a bit in my life, and even when married, I usually managed the majority of the move. I have packed boxes, lugged them and furniture up and down many stairs, hired many vans, and have seen my life parceled into boxes, enough to know that it is not the material, but the things we carry with us, to paraphrase Tim O’Brien, which make us who we are.

My life is changing, as it did there in Italy, from Emilia Romagna to Tuscany, but, when we remember the core of who we are, change is irrelevant.