It is a cool, perfect morning in Tuscany. The pale blue sky has been accented with wisps of clouds by some Artist’s technique that surpass even those of Michelangelo and Botticelli. Birds are singing cheerfully, for they will be staying home in Tuscany to revel in the blooms and rebirth of Springtime in Cortona. It’s interesting, the way the birds sing because it fits the atmosphere so perfectly– their melodious songs are not shrill or in conflict, but they seem to be designed to enhance the air of tranquility that we breathe here each morning. Each call hangs gracefully in the air as it blesses the ear, then leaves spaces for an answering complimentary series of notes that sing, “peace, peace” to all who listen. The first thing I saw out the window this morning was Buddy and Susan’s luggage out in front on the Villa, awaiting the driver taking them to catch a train to Rome. For some reason the sight of Buddy’s snappy straw hat sitting on top of the bags in the driveway accentuates my sadness over leaving. Each day he has announced a winner of the “hat contest”, of which he is the originator and for which he has been the sole judge. The judges’ decision each day has been dictatorial and final, and to be honest, somewhat capricious. I do not denigrate the hat contest because I never won a single day, nor do I second guess the judge’s decisions… But it was clear, as we waited breathlessly for the results to be announced each day, that I was going to finish at the bottom of the hat wearers, foiled each time by some small detail or new entrant. And one day, actually, my HAT won, but alas! I had loaned it to Brian that day… In the last announcement for the hat contest last night, after our Tuscan cooking class, Buddy announced the results of the final day, retiring the trophy to the Smiths, who had won three times. But then he added a “sportsmanship” award, given to the participant who, although he lacked talent, size, or speed, continued to compete with others better equipped and worthier than he. Imagine (as our Italian guides have said, Ih-MAY-gine) my surprise when I won! The prize was a straw hat Buddy bought from a street vendor in Pompeii, which I will treasure. The hat contest was just one of Buddy’s contributions to our trip, which was not only about Italy but was also about fellowship. We have a fairly diverse group who came together to explore Tuscany, and it has been fun to get to know them. Traveling in a larger group (even one full of Christian folks) can be dramatic or exasperating, but this band of tourists has honestly been a delight. The Villa Laura has been a place effective at promoting good conversation and goodwill. Francesco and Christiano, our chefs who were originally taught by their grandmothers, gave us a cooking lesson last night. After finishing our pizza and tiramisu, our group went into the Chapel and sang some hymns. Many of us had sung in choirs, or just sung in the shower, but as we sang together, magic happened. Harmonies were captured and interwoven, choruses were blended ethereally, and for a few minutes we were the songbirds of Villa Laura, complete with complimentary melodies that lifted us out of that chapel into other realms. For a few minutes, we were blessed with a very small glimpse of heaven, where our happy, harmonious voices will be lifted together in praise. I am not an artificially devout man (probably am not devout enough for lots of Christians who are), but those minutes we spent singing some great hymns of the past together in the chapel will stay with me as inspiration and encouragement. I know today’s modern churches have left hymns behind in favor of more contemporary sound, but I’m just gonna say it here: they have lost something important, and they don’t even know how much they are missing! It is sad to leave greatness behind. Seeing Buddy and Susan’s luggage reminds me that they are leaving to catch a train to Rome. From what we have learned about traveling in Italy, this is bound to be an adventure. Our eclectic band of fellow travelers will all be starting new adventures today, but I take solace in my last time hearing the songbirds of Villa Laura, knowing that as sad as it is to leave greatness behind, it is awesome to know beyond a doubt that there are even greater adventures ahead.
The guy handing us our bikes at Topbike rentals in Rome looked at our group, calculating the odds, and he seemed to give an unconscious shake of the head… He was about 25 and looked like he could bike the Apenines without breaking a sweat. Our group was made up of fifty and sixty something retirees, empty nesters and grandparents who apparently did not appear to be regular cyclists. “Perhaps you would like the motorized bikes? Ha ha, I am only joking!” Others in the office laughed conspiriatorially, trying to appear like they knew he was teasing, but coming off as young and fit and somewhat concerned for our safety. The very people who stood to make money conducting our tour seemed to be trying to give us a way out! Maybe they were concerned that when several members of our group did not return, it would damage their reputation. I asked, “will you be our guide?” He paused, and then spoke rapidly in Italian to the girl in the office. They seemed to be disagreeing on something, and he seemed to be protesting; then I heard them say something about Simone, and he turned to me with a big smile on his face. “No, unfortunately I have another tour today. Simone will be your guide.” Reading between the lines, I sensed that Simone was late coming in, and had drawn the short straw. We were his penalty for being late. When Simone arrived, he too looked us up and down…. “You realize that this tour is over bumpy roads, yes?” we nodded. And you realize that you will be on the bike for 6 hours, over 40 kilometers, yes?” Our entire group put together had probably not been a bike six hours in the last 3 months combined, but we all said yes. Simone looked skeptical. “And you know the roads will be the cobblestone-ahs, yes?” as we nodded, he said, “we will go to the parking lot across the street and do the skills test, and learn the ways of the bicycle. Then we will go, ok?” Amazingly, we passed our skills test, emerged from our practice braking unbroken, and were able to proceed. Simone was possibly late thirties, maybe early forties, but he is a lean, tanned, good-looking man with attractive features and striking salt and pepper hair. Since he bikes 50 miles a day, his legs appear strong, tanned and muscular, unlike any other man’s legs displayed within the group he is guiding. Starting out, he seems thoughtful, but then I realize he seems to be doing more calculations than a CAD computer executing a 3d design. He suddenly announces that he knows a shortcut that will not only give us an amazing view of the City wall, but is flatter and shorter than his usual route. (for all we know, he has redirected us from riding through DaVinci’s front yard and is now taking us via an alleyway instead, but then he did use the magic words flatter and shorter). Having said that, he doesn’t really have to sell us on this idea. We begin, pedaling along at a leisurely pace. Today is May 1, National Workers’ Day, and because it is a holiday, light traffic conditions give him some options. I think he figures he will need them all to help us complete this bike tour on the Appian Way. Simone stops often to show us details and give us lessons on history and background of what we are seeing. (I’m not sure if he is really explaining something important or just giving us multiple opportunities to rest.) We seem to pedal forever, leaving the massive City wall behind, and after what feels like an eternity and the beginnings of saddle sores, we see a street sign that clearly says “Appian Way”. We are cheered by this until Simone says, “Ok. Now, we can begin.” I was thinking we were hopefully about halfway through until this, and checking my watch I realize we have only been gone about 25 minutes. This group of grandparents is game, though, and on we pedal. We do get to make a pit stop at the Catacombs of San Sebastian, and it is amazing to see the care and effort taken by folks to deal with the remains of loved ones. Uncertainty about eternal life is a powerful motivator, and we see signs of that effort displayed poignantly in the tombs of babies and children, extravagantly in the eternal dwellings of the wealthy. If I have learned one thing in Rome, it’s that even as it relates to eternal life, money is still considered as a means to an end. Or THE end, in this case… People have been hoping to buy or work their way into heaven for centuries, when all they need to do is discover Grace…
Our intrepid group remounts the bicycles, sobered now by viewing all those burial plots, and even more sobered by the cobblestone-ahs and the off-road alternative. After bumping along for awhile, we ask Simone how far we are from our wine and cheese stop. “Is not far. Ten minutes.” onward we ride. We hop curbs into dirt paths along the Way, or we bump and stutter over the ancient Roman road. To think that Paul and perhaps Timothy may have once walked this road! If they did, they were certainly more comfortable than we are on these bicycle seats! This change of pace does not daunt our group, although poor Buddy is stricken so badly with hay fever that his primary means of transport has become sneezing down forcibly to propel himself along by the force of the sneezes alone. We have a couple of accidents while negotiating terrain, and there are several bumps and bruises among our riders. After a scrape with some rocks, Cindi’s leg looks like it has been put through a meat grinder, but she is one tough cookie. The ladies help to clean up the blood, and Simone breaks out the first aid kit, and onward we go… As the lean, attractive guide helps to bandage Cindi’s wounds, I swear that some of our other ladies are calculating the risk-reward factor in crashing just so that Simone would have to bandage THEIR legs! We keep riding. “Ten minutes” has stretched into an hour, and still we pedal. Our reward is to see the amazing Roman aqueducts, which run alongside the Appian way. (There is even one that is still in use today! ) Seeing how people lived 2000 years ago is interesting. What is fascinating, though, is seeing how people live TODAY. For the Holiday, it seems that every family in Rome has come out to this park to cook out, to gather with friends and family. They have beaten down little patches of grass, parked under sections of the aqueduct, and filled every conceivable space with family and fellowship. There are impromptu soccer games, parents doting over their bambinos, women talking animatedly in small groups, small children running and playing, and people gathered for fellowship everywhere, as far as the eye can see. They are flying kites, playing pickle ball and bocce ball, smoking cigarettes, playing foot-ah ball, and enjoying being together. If we had wanted to get a glimpse of life in Rome, this is a perfect place to start. Simone tells us that if he were here by himself, he could just ask anyone cooking out and they would give him a sausage from the grill, but since there are nine of us, it would be too much to expect. We totally understand, but that doesn’t keep us from eyeing every grill with a bit of longing as we head towards our wine and cheese… As we dodge happy children at play, and pedal through family reunions and barbecues, one thing is clear: in Italy, the family is still alive and well! The entire park is a testament to multi-generational love, and to the resilience of Italy’s families. When we reach the farm, we are charmed by the ancient, rustic surroundings (the large building there is being renovated, and the signs illustrating the project say it was to be finished in 2011. It looks barely started: Italy!), and we enjoy the hospitality there. Buddy is still suffering, but he’s a fighter, and coming back; Cindi is bandaged but chipper. I am so impressed with our group’s toughness and spirit. There at the farm, our hostess Anna shows us how they make cheese, and we drink our wine. We are given some fava beans to try, and Simone says that should help us on the way home by providing us with some gas-powered jet propulsion! A family group connected to the farm somehow is sitting nearby, having a private cookout as well. They are grilling lamb, and we are famished. As lovely as our wine, bread, and cheese are, that lamb smells GOOD! When we compliment the cook on the aroma, he says something to his party, and then brings our battered little band of bikers a few slices of freshly grilled lamb. It gives us true refreshment– not just from the protein in the meat, but from feasting on Italian generosity. We managed to complete our bike tour, and carry with us indelible images: The City wall, the sights along the way, the Catacombs, the aqueducts; for some, Simone’s tanned Italian good looks; and for all of us, the scene of thousands of Italian families living and loving, and the generous Italian spirit, and the satisfaction we got from spending seven hours bumping along the Appian way.
This story has several beginnings, or perhaps it is several stories interwoven, or perhaps it is one story, but it started four years ago and is more amazing today than I could have ever imagined. It went from Dallas, Texas, to a Calico Corners fabric store in Palo Alto, California, to a kitchen in Coppell, Texas, then into storage for 3 years, then back to a living room in Coppell. While packed away, it was magically interwoven through time and space by literary transport, and established a connection that continues today in Cortona and Arezzo, Italy. It is a story of magic, of relationship, and of miracle! It is a real life version of Julie and Julia, and today I witnessed it with my own eyes. Four years ago Nancy and I were traveling in northern California and stopped into a Calico Corners fabric store near Stanford University. She found some fabric that she then used to make window treatments for our “Italian style” kitchen, which we were redoing with granite and faux Tuscan wall paint. We had never been to Tuscany, but we admired the style and wanted to enjoy it every day. Being an excellent seamstress, Nancy accented the windows with the rich burgundy and gold fabric she had brought home from California, and the cornice looked terrific over the redone kitchen windows. About a year later, when we sold our home, she salvaged the fabric and took it with us, hoping to use it again someday… The magic threads of this story began to weave a tapestry that is far more interesting a tale than I could create.
A little over a year ago, we were sitting in Bill and Cindi’s living room talking about traveling to Italy. Cindi had been wanting to get a group to go to Tuscany, and had found out that the Villa Laura (used in the movie to represent Bramasole from Frances Mayes’s book in the movie “Under the Tuscan Sun”) was available to rent if we could get a group to go. We joined in enthusiastically, and Cindi made the arrangements. For a year Nancy and I were saving, planning, and thinking about our trip to Cortona. Nancy began researching Cortona and the places we would visit on our amazing journey to Italy. During that time we purchased a fixer upper home, and again redid the kitchen, which again received new granite counters, travertine backsplash, and faux paint. Nancy went into the attic and retrieved the fabric she had used in our previous home. This fabric, I would discover, would connect far more than our two do-it-yourself kitchen remodels. It would span oceans and continents, time and space: and I’m not making this up!
While researching Cortona, Nancy read Frances Mayes’ Under the Tuscan Sun to learn the REAL story about where we would be staying. We learned that the Villa Laura was the home used in the movie, but not the actual Bramasole villa. It was still beautiful, and we were still able to anticipate being where Diane Lane got her groove back in the movie, so it was all good. Near the end of Frances Mayes’ remarkable story, she mentioned that she had used fabric from her home in the states to make window treatments in Cortona. She had bought the fabric at the Calico Corners in Palo Alto, California, had salvaged it from the home she left, and used it in her home in Italy.
At the same time she was finishing “Under the Tuscan Sun”, Nancy happened to be making the treatments for our “new” kitchen, doing exactly the same thing in Texas that Frances Mayes had described in her book. It was utterly serendipitous, and she couldn’t help but reflect on it as she sat in our kitchen, sewing her window treatments. Nancy said, “I felt such a connection with Frances Mayes at that moment, making my window treatments with fabric from exactly the same store, and it made our upcoming trip to Italy come alive!” the connection was deep and sympathetic. Nancy continued to read everything Frances had written, and we both grew more and more excited about Tuscany. Like many fans, Nancy sent Ms Mayes a Facebook friend request and received a confirmation. I think the Mayes even mentioned on their page that they would be traveling to Cortona in May– so we were intrigued that we would be in Italy at the same time. Wow, small world!
Little did we know… After some time in Rome, our travel itinerary today took us to Arezzo, where they hold an open air antique market once a month. Undeterred by rain, we walked the market and bought several keepsakes. Crowds were light because of the weather, and we shopped and looked around some more. I had to sort of squeeze by a tall, silver haired man with an umbrella, and he politely let me slip by him underneath it. His companion, who I did not really notice, was browsing at the table beside us. Then Nancy grabbed my arm. “Bo, I think that’s her!”. I’m a little slow. “Who?” “Frances Mayes and Ed!”
“Well, go meet her!” I said. “No, Nancy said, I don’t want to bother her.” “Nonsense, she’ll appreciate it.” We approached Ed and Frances, who were as nice as could be, and Nancy got to share with the author how meaningful her books had been in preparing for our trip of a lifetime, while I said something inane to Ed about our being do-it-yourselfers too. We spent a couple of pleasant moments there, standing in the rain in downtown Arezzo, somewhat overwhelmed with the unlikeliness of it all. The threads of the tapestry, woven in San Francisco, Coppell, Cortona, and Arezzo had come together: picture street booths, rainy cobblestone streets, umbrellas, and four people meeting impossibly at that moment at that Italian intersection… As we parted, the Mayes said, “See you on the Piazza!”, and there, 5200 miles from our kitchen window treatments, which which had traveled from Calico Corners in Palo Alto to Texas, we met the woman whose window treatments traveled from Calico Corners in Palo Alto to Cortona. It just took a trip to Arezzo to connect all the threads of the tapestry, woven across time, space, and possibility.
“Look at me. LOOK AT ME!” our guide Carmine is standing before us, holding up the book on Pompeii, which illustrates the city’s charm and beauty and provides a dramatic counterpoint to the ruins in which we stand. I get the feeling that Carmine could have easily stepped into its pages and been right at home in its cosmopolitan atmosphere. He is a wiry, sensual man, about 5’6″ and deeply tanned, with a mostly silver mane of longish hair that is swept comfortably back. He glides before us like a bullfighter in the ring, easily engaging our puny tourist comments or questions, dispatching them with graceful parries. His somewhat raspy voice speaks in low melodious tones. His accent carries a bit of French, but perhaps that is just his imperious nature and sophistication peeking through his discourse. “Before we go in, there are the restrooms if you need to make the quick peepee.” If you crossed Mick Jagger with Al Pacino, you would have a tour guide very much like Carmine. Somehow he seems Italian to the core. With his pastel striped sweater, chic sunglasses, and his European man-purse, he is utterly at home in his own skin. He wears a dark blue bandanna tied jauntily as a neckerchief, completing his devil-may-care look, and he struts more than walks. There is a bit of ennui in his delivery, (after all, how many times has he led tourists on this same path?) but he still has traces of his passion that redeem his presentation and give it personality. He is a bit disgusted with us because, like Gilligan, we have only signed up for a three hour tour. It is not adequate, but he is not responsible for our limited time and resources. He can only make the best of our plight. “If you had a week to see Pompeii, it would not be enough. Perhaps it would take a month.” Since we will not be there a month, his attitude suggests that there is only so much he can do with us. “Everything you see is original”, he tells us, which does not preclude us from asking several times, as we see some detail of ancient life or construction, “is that original”? After a couple such inquiries, the diminutive Carmine turns to our 6’2″ friend Buddy and says, “if you ask me one-a more time-a, is that original, imma have to kill you.” Carmine does a very good job explaining what we see before us, enlarging our perspective and helping us to visualize the sophistication and beauty of life in Pompeii. We are dazzled by the amazing public baths, and by the house of the Faun. Carmine gives us details about customs which we did not know. He describes how people would socialize while sitting on one of the holes set in the common bench of the public toilet, and how rich people would have servants go sit on the cold bench for them in the winter before they would go use it– which prompted Buddy to say, “that must be where the term, ‘bench warmer’ came from”. Makes sense. As he leads us through the ruins, there are some not-so-subtle clues to Carmine’s sexual orientation. He helps women over steps, but says, “I am allergic” to men, who must navigate rough spots on their own. He cannot help but react to the youth and prettiness of a young Russian woman who asks him a question in passing, and the Italian in him appraises her with the confidence of a man who believes that, given the opportunity, she would want him. He is proudly heterosexual, and it is natural for him to be available. He takes pleasure in showing us some of the things they DIDN’T tell us about Pompeii in elementary school– the erotica of Pompeii…There are paintings or pieces of pottery for sale that illustrate passionate embraces and Kama sutra-like positions. But the one he enjoys pointing out the most (pun intended) is the picture of the man (or is it Bacchus?) whose extremely large phallus, which extends to his knee, is balanced on a scale. In the opposite side of the scale is a large amount of precious metal. Carmine tells us this is where the phrase “worth its weight in gold” came from… He is enthusiastic as he tries to get my wife to buy this artwork, but he remains professional. While he is suggestive, he never really crosses the line to crude, and although he is open to flirting, he never openly flirts. We are customers, after all. But he enjoyed our reaction to the gold on the scale, and traversed the line between tour guide and rake without being too naughty. And this is what I found noteworthy about our tour: Carmine was professional and informative, and he was doing a job for us that he does all the time. He was, yes, perhaps a bit bored, and yes, perhaps a bit disappointed that we were not giving Pompeii the time and attention it truly deserved, but when all was said and done, two things stood out to me about him: first, he was thoroughly professional, and he delivered scholarly content with ease and authenticity. He never spoke down to us, and guided us without being too condescending or, on the other hand, too familiar. Second, there was something a bit more subtle. Even though he was a bit of a true Italian ladies’ man, I noticed a couple of times his taking time to assist a couple of our group members who encountered difficulty navigating Pompeii’s rough streets or steps, and he cautioned us a couple of times about going too fast for some to keep up. As I heard his gentle reprimand about going too far ahead, and as I watched him gently assist a couple of our ladies to negotiate a high step, I thought, “the precious metal on the scales is not the only gold in these ruins.” There is a little in Carmine’s heart as well.
I couldn’t imagine a more perfect evening. We have arrived at Cortona after our whirlwind Roman Holiday, and the change of pace from Rome is astonishing. There are birds singing, and the pale azure sky is accented by wisps of cotton scattered lazily across its vast, comfortable canopy. The temperature is utterly appropriate, and makes it possible to feel completely at home by the pool on grounds that are lovely as any I have ever walked upon. Flowers are celebrating the Italian Spring, and the smell of rosemary and jasmine resound like a nasal aria wafting over us in the very gentle breeze. Francesco and Christian are in the kitchen cooking our evening meal, which we will eat on the terrace in the courtyard, listening to the soothing, cheerful melodies that baptize us with pure joy. Good wine and good company make this a wonderful day to be alive.
I’m sure there were days like this in Pompeii before Vesuvius erupted and buried the city under tons of ash. There were beautiful days of sunshine and blessing. People were laughing, talking, eating, playing, and then– sudden disaster. They were caught and trapped in their homes, buried while attempting to escape, frozen in hot ash and a moment in time. On our tour of Pompeii the other day, there were molded images of their distress on display, bodies outlined from having been smothered under the falling volcanic debris. The bodies are people of all ages, shapes and sizes, grandparents and children, frozen now for centuries in their ashen state. The terror of sudden demise is expressed in their body language, and relentless time has turned them into morbid statues that we tourists gawk at with sympathy and relief.
So, what does Pompeii have to do with Cortona? Or more accurately, why am I sitting in this perfect evening at Villa Laura, thinking about death and destruction in Pompeii? Well, first of all, I think I appreciate this day more, having seen the unfortunate results visited upon those poor, ashen forms… And I should not only appreciate this day, but every day as a blessing and a reason to celebrate. The contrast between Pompeii and Cortona is a reminder that life is short, and we need to embrace the day at hand. Don’t waste it. Finally, we should be grateful for the life we have, because it is a blessing to be savored and appreciated. I shouldn’t need a perfect Cortona evening to inspire such gratitude, but I do intend to carry this evening forward with me as a permanent reminder that today counts. I hope you will too.
Start with beautiful clear gray water, sparkling with gentle accents from the sun running in diamond currents just beneath its surface… Marry that water to a rocky shore made up of cliffs dropping into the sea; put some random terraces on those cliffs, and line those terraces with lemon trees extending along the cliffs. Wait, that’s not quite enough– yes there are lots of blank rocky spaces on the cliffs, but on the ledges and terraces, add many more lemon trees, aligned like citrus-bearing soldiers laden with yellow ammunition! Put rows of them on every terrace, every available scrap of earth on the mountainsides, broken up only by residences perched precariously on the cliffs, just off the two lane highway that hairpins over and around from Positano to Amalfi. As you negotiate this road, winding along the coast, you will pass through small villages, clusters of homes, and businesses and hotels. See the colorful stucco walls, the various shades of tile, the cliffs rising not only above you, but falling beneath you as well, either covered in lush green vegetation or providing rock formations that make for interesting interpretations as they interrupt your view of the sea. Occasional boats dot the water, although traffic is light since it is very early in the season… Every so often there will be an extension of rock out from the shoreline, creating a small peninsula and an advantageous viewing position. On these such vantage points, very old castles or forts still stand, attempting now to look like a restaurant or a residence, but failing because their shape and scale and massive gray stonework will never permit them to be anything but a castle or fort. At one time, hundreds of years ago, they enabled someone to control this coastline with some well-placed artillery, but today they are part of the scenery. The road along the Amalfi coast connects them, but not always efficiently. Two narrow lanes, hairpin turns, Italian drivers, unconcerned pedestrians, and scores of different sized and shaped vehicles make this road an adventure to drive. Nothing is guaranteed, and tourist schedules are reconfigured to Italian time, tempered by the realities of Amalfi traffic. Cars (small cars, mini Coopers, Smart cars), motorcycles, scooters and trucks of every shape and size grind to a halt. We are on a downhill space, overlooking a “T” intersection coming into the hairpin turn below us.Nothing from our lane is moving, and a 20-something man is blocking our bus’s path with a legal-looking hand signal that must mean stop! His presence is the only indication that something might be amiss with traffic flow. The scooters and motorcycles all zip around us and head down towards Amalfi, as do several small cars. After they pass, numerous vehicles coming up hill are allowed to zoom on past us, and still we sit, waiting for a signal to go… Trucks come by, other busses rumble past, and still we sit. Cars coming into our lane from the “T” are getting stacked up. Cars behind us are also deadlocked now. Finally, after about 30-40 minutes, a female Carbinieri arrives on a scooter from around the downhill bend, and begins to talk to the easy going young construction worker. Their hands fly, mouths move, and he talks to someone on his radio. She gestures and talks on HER radio. Some others nearby them join in, adding to the discussion. There is a big empty flatbed truck wedged comfortably into a space very few people in the US would have even considered trying to park such a truck, and they point to it, then point back down the mountain. Everyone seems somewhat frustrated, perhaps confused, but mostly are wearing their “what-are-you-gonna-be-able-to-do-about-it? look…He shrugs, they disperse, and she putt-putts back downhill around the corner. In awhile (10 minutes? Who knows?) she returns, leading a large vehicle obviously designed for road grading or material sifting, which crawls up the road slowly, large extended conveyor out over its cab, treads bringing it laboriously uphill towards the truck. Two guys in hard hats ride in it, guiding its ponderous structure along the narrow, twisted turns. It parks in its lane, looking wide enough from where we sit to block everything. “Ahhh!” we think, they will load this vehicle onto the flatbed, and clear some space, and THEN we can resume our journey. But no, there is another discussion, more gestures, more pointing… If this were opera it could not be more confusing! The carabinieri directs some cars this way, clears some from the “T”, motorcycles opportunistically race forward, cutting in and around other vehicles, and MORE traffic is allowed to come past us again from down the hill, then we are held up while some smaller cars come around us from behind us? The big road machine stays parked, the flatbed semi stays parked, and finally, for no apparent reason, our bus is allowed to move. We squeeze by the machine with about 2 inches to spare, and continue around the corner. There we find the source of this hour and a half delay, the reason that dozens of cars, trucks and busses on the Amalfi road were dead-locked and brought to a stand-still. Around another turn we encounter construction signs, one lane is closed and there are 3-4 workers with a bucket of cement and some bricks, repairing the guard rail. That’s it. “Aaaah! we think, “this is Italy!”
It takes about 2 1/2 hours by bus to get from Rome to the Amalfi coast. Our driver Gianncarlo does a masterful job negotiating the endless near-miss that is standard Italian traffic. We Americans marvel at Italian pedestrians who walk brazenly along streets and thoroughfares, never flinching or even noticing that they but are inches from being run down by not only our bus, but also the small cars that hurtle past us, and the motorcycles and scooters that zip along beside us. I mean, these people don’t turn sideways, don’t “make themselves small”, they DON’T NOTICE death crazily leering at them as they saunter along, daring some accident to occur… The road to Amalfi runs past the ruins of Roman aqueducts, marvels of engineering and construction, past centuries-old monasteries and farmhouses, alongside lovely green fields, farms, and groves of trees. It continues to progress, past super markets and IKEA, shopping malls and gas stations. Social wear and tear becomes more evident, and gang graffiti litters the walls along the highway here and there. Near Napoli it converges with commerce, and the byways get dirtier, more actively used. There are signs of dusty construction and industry. A plant alongside the road has goods made and stacked, pallets ready to be loaded onto trucks. Seemingly out of place to an American eye, a fairly large statue of Jesus overlooks the outdoor employee break areas, arms outstretched in encouragement and approval. Farther down the road, more of the bustle of business besmirches the countryside. Evidence of shipping activity abounds at a plant where there are stacks of big metal containers marked Yang Ming and Italia. The residences around this part of town are drab multi-story apartments, the kind with doors and windows open, trash on the porches, and laundry hung out to dry. They look dingy and lived in. As we pass a particularly dirty manufacturing plant, I see something right beside the freeway and overlooking the exit ramp. There is a bright splash of color, actually 3 bright splashes, that stand out from their gray and dusty surroundings like an opera singer at a hoe-down. They are 3 beautiful flower boxes on an immaculate front porch, an oasis of beauty in an otherwise drab and dirty world. The flowers are bursting with beauty, and everything about the residence looks, well, cared for. There is no indication of more money, no ostentation, nothing expensive on the front porch to say, “we outspent our neighbors”; but there is care and time and nurture leaping out of this home, at least what I can tell from my five second observation of this lovely porch as we drive by… Love leaps from this porch, and as I feel it, so do lessons and applications. Things I thought: wow, what a difference nurture makes! What or who am I nurturing? It’s amazing how just being cared for makes something more beautiful. Have I thanked someone lately for making me more beautiful? (uh, thanks Nancy, you are awesome!) and who am I making more beautiful? And lastly, I realized that beauty can jump out sometimes when you least expect it, unlooked-for, from otherwise drab and simple surroundings. If you assume it’s not there, you might miss it! So wherever you are, keep looking! It doesn’t have to be on the way to Amalfi.
I am awakened at 5:53 am by construction, but what is being built nearby is not something visible or even tangible. It is construction on the most ambitious and yet most intricate scale, rivaling the wonders of ancient Roma, which we toured yesterday… Even though there is no irritating, shrill back-up warning from bull dozers, no literal clanking of machines or hammering, the bustling construction is just as real to me as if there were hundreds or even thousands of weary slaves working under the relentless direction of their Roman taskmasters. There is a vast mosaic of Rome being built in my mind, still in its early stages of formation, but teeming with multitudes of scenes and vistas bursting with colors of culture, nature and personality. The mosaic is complex and beautiful, an ever-changing kaleidoscope of images, monuments and people. There are many scenes and impressions, each being inlaid into the landscape of my mind with chaotic precision all at once. It is filled with contradictions and incongruity, monuments to the past amidst relentless change, like the young Catholic clergyman waiting next to me to cross the street, wearing the timeless, cream-colored robes of his order but carrying a briefcase; it is young Italian boy, gawking and pointing out to his father the tall, over-endowed blonde in the red top at the Coliseum, whose shape is a testament to artificial construction of a different sort. The mental mural is alive and ever-changing, bustling with commerce and change, smudged with dirt from excavation and construction. It began with Alessandro B, my seat-mate from Heathrow to Rome. He is a nice-looking man with a leonine salt and pepper mane, a Roman businessman returning home from a productive trip.
He owns his own company, and is experiencing success navigating the currents of trade with emerging African nations. He has been doing business there for years, and is now close to the President of Ghana, having gotten to know him in the past when he was an up-and-coming young politician.
He is articulate and thoughtful, this man descended from empire-builders… He is smart and a bit cynical about the politics of Italy but still he is optimistic. He even allows that although the current prime minister is a Comedian, he is doing a pretty good job! This of course is natural for Italy.
Our driver Guiseppe not only drives but owns the tour company, and works hard building a life for his family. The Romans we meet are interesting, polite, a little fatalistic, but still optimistic that any people with such a glorious past can one day build a solid future. In the meantime, the Roman mosaic has scenes of past and present intertwined, churches inside of temples, nuns with their dark habits, Carbinieri with their dashing uniforms, people eating (and loving!) gelato, sidewalk cafes, pictures of the pope for sale on street carts, Christianity placed alongside mythology, beautiful fountains, monuments and an ancient history that still casts its shadow over modern Rome. As we scan the rich, vibrant scenes of the eternal city, we see hope and bustle and a unique vibe that will continue to be the heartbeat of people like Alessandro, and the inspiration to millions of visitors like me who cannot merely view the vista unfolding in Rome, but– having visited– have also become part of the mosaic itself, carrying the lessons of the past into the future.
We are getting ready to go on vacation today– and it’s one of those “once in a lifetime” vacations, to Rome (the eternal city) and Tuscany, the heart of Italian wine country and culture. We have been thinking about and preparing for this vacation for over a year, and it seemed as if this day would never come! We have spent hours thinking about going, looking forward to our sojourn in Italy. But now we are killing time today at home, waiting for our evening flight and in the meantime trying to think of what we might need in Italy, or what we may have forgotten to pack. We are also readying our home for our absence– our dog Abby is at grandma’s, the timers are set on a couple of lights, the potted plants are all near sprinklers now, and the thermostats are programmed. As I walk through our home, I feel strangely disconnected, knowing that I am leaving for even a short while to reside somewhere else. Even though our home is warm and familiar, I am looking forward to the journey ahead– new sights, new places and food, new friends, and new adventures! We have been so looking forward to this trip that it has affected our reading, our conversation, and our priorities. It’s amazing how an upcoming experience like this makes an impact on what we do and how we feel– and today we feel the thrill of anticipation, knowing that we will soon look upon work by Michaelangelo, DaVinci, and see first hand the wonders of ancient Rome… that anticipation is so pervasive that part of me has already left this familiar home and is projecting my thoughts to the trip ahead. I’m ready to go!
Then it struck me… I will also be going on a trip soon, one to the “eternal city”, one that will involve new places and friends, where the work of Michaelangelo and DaVinci will seem insignificant, and where growth, friendship, and revelation will be continuous and inspiring. Anticipation will be endlessly fulfilled and surpassed, conjoined with even more delightful anticipation that will be again fulfilled and surpassed. And I wondered… is THAT trip affecting my reading, my thoughts, my conversation? Has it changed my priorities? Am I looking forward to my ultimate destination with enough connection and assurance that I am preparing to go, taking care of details, and not feeling TOO connected to this familiar home? Peter said that we are aliens and sojourners, people on a journey to a wondrous destination, and that as temporary residents we should take care not to get too wrapped up in temporal pursuits. We are never told to ignore our place on this earth, but we are reminded of its brevity– so we should smell the roses, and appreciate not only where we are going, but we should also enjoy where we are, even when the season is temporary. May our journey enliven and transform us, and may we recognize the wonder in our sojourn, even as we anticipate the joy in our arrival!