Wednesday, November 30, 2011

zooming around lago di garda

the drive along the western shore of lago di garda surprised me. i expected early november in northern italy to be chilly and the mountains on both sides of the lake to be covered in snow.

instead, it was warm—there was not a speck of snow even on the tallest dolomite peaks—and, in addition to olives and grapes growing on every spare patch of ground (including almost vertical groves clinging to the mountainsides; how sturdy and tenacious the plants are—and that description also holds true for the  farmers who tend these crops), there were sunny, bright lemon and orange trees full of fruit, and clusters of palm trees greeted us, making the lakeside seem like a mini tropical paradise.

the towns surrounding the lake enjoy a climate influenced by the tall peaks and garda's warm water—they are in their own mild micro-climate.

low clouds persisted on the day we motored along the shore in our little lancia, zooming through tunnel after tunnel carved out of solid rock at the edge, at the precise point, where the mountains meet garda. then we ascended the steep, snaky roads up to tignale and montecastello.

the frighteningly narrow roads—with plunging rock precipices directly outside the car window—hairpin turns and blind corners created an interesting excursion, especially when the weather turned even cloudier and we encountered bicyclists along the way. looking at the positive side, it didn't rain so we didn't have to add slippery roads to the already treacherous drive.

but on a more negative note, the images i took from almost 2000 feet above the lake at montecastello do not clearly show the lake below and the mountain peaks on the eastern shore due to the poor visibility. yet even with the cloud cover the views across the lake were stunning and our explorations up there made for a great day.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

please hide the americans

after dinner was over, the flight attendants turned down the lights and the passengers read or watched movies or slept. i found myself dozing on the journey from washington to rome, not really falling asleep, not dreaming or drooling or snoring, but trying to locate some sort of state of rest, i guess you could say. i would love to be able to sleep sitting up on a plane, but it's impossible to get comfortable enough to get any real z's in fun economy seats that don't recline and are always generally stiff and uncomfortable.

somewhere in the midst of my small mock rest some visions started floating around in my head. they were not pleasant ones.

later, as the sun rose on a new day in italy, and i watched its fiery glow on the eastern horizon through the ice speckled window while we curved around liguria, past the apuan alps, and down toward rome, i experienced some more visions—this time wide awake ones—and again, they were not altogether pleasant.

i was envisioning americans, and oh how i hoped i would not end up in hotels with lots of them; and oh how i crossed my fingers and wished i would not hear their american voices on every street corner and in every restaurant; and oh how i just wanted to enjoy italy, listening to and seeing italians—that shouldn't be too much to ask for, right? italians in italy?—and be away from seemingly ever-present americans.

i don't dislike americans—ha, i am an american. it's just that sometimes american tourists can be a bit, shall we say, much—a bit loud, a bit demanding, a bit embarrassing, a bit off-putting—i'm an american and proud of it—instead of just blending in and going with the flow. i think trying to blend in, doing what the italians do when you're in italy, is what a good tourist should do.

brush up on your italian and put it to good use greeting shopkeepers, innkeepers, and restaurant employees with a buongiorno or buona sera, and hopefully more, instead of simply assuming english will automatically be spoken (which it will, because italians do). your accent gives you away, but at least you're trying.

and don't expect restaurants and italian hotel rooms to be identical to those in the states (unless you stay in a marriott. how icky/grody!). americans get whiney when there are no french fries and humongous steaks at dinner (expect a lot of veal, soups, and fresh pasta), no bacon and home fries at breakfast (instead you will find fresh crusty breads, cheeses and fruit), and no elevators or air conditioning in hotels (too bad you'll just have to climb the stairs and throw open the shutters in the evening).

holy moly, grow up people! don't you travel to experience something new and different?

i want to say ye gods, just chill, slow down, enjoy a different lifestyle, absorb the culture you're in, why don't ya?

if you're not willing to behave yourselves, please don't let me see or hear any of you americans while i'm traveling in a foreign land—keep yourselves well hidden and out of my sight.

Monday, November 28, 2011

after the feast

after the feast, that day of thankfulness for life and loved ones, i looked back at thursday's hours and was reminded of short days and long nights, of endings and beginnings, of the cycle of seasons and the rapidity of decades.

was it really so long ago—important dates: 1621 for the religious observance, later in the 17th century for the yearly september feasts offering thanks for successful harvests, 1941 for the designation of the official thanksgiving holiday, the last thursday in november—or something like it if you need more facts—when the pilgrims ate their thanksgiving feast of fish, deer, foul, squash, berries and nuts on long tables outdoors in a plimoth clearing, and invited about 90 wampanoag indian friends to be their guests (i've been told the wampanoags brought the venison)?

can you see them in a grassy field, english folks of both sexes adorned with fresh, white collars, the men wearing tall black hats, the women in black or white caps, and their native guests in buckskin, beads and feathers?

was it really so long ago when i was a little girl? back then it was mostly family around my parent's thanksgiving table, but occasionally friends would gather with us, too. this year at our house, in addition to family, we had a friend and business associate from china as our thanksgiving guest.

my mother was an excellent cook; the cooking would begin on tuesday and everything was made from scratch. what i remember most were her desserts—pies and cakes—and her mashed potatoes and gravy. i see her stirring and measuring and adjusting flavors, adding a pinch of this or that. when mum started to become ill, her memory fading, her fingers stiffening, i asked her to show me how she made her gravy so that we would always be able to have gravy the way memi (what my children call their grandmother) made it. she laughed and told me there was no recipe, or more precisely, there was no exact recipe, only the ever-so-slightly-changing variation of a recipe that came out of her head each thanksgiving.

she stood patiently beside me and recited her gravy process, and as we hovered over a saucepan together, mum stirring with a wooden spoon, me scribbling notes with a pen, we came up with a wonderful version (perhaps it's the one from thanksgiving 1973?) of her gravy. it was on the table last thursday.

this year before dinner was ready i suggested that maybe one day we should use picnic tables in the yard and eat outside like the pilgrims at that first thanksgiving feast. (had we done so this thanksgiving we would have been setting up our tables in a muffled winter wonderland surrounded by heavy snow which weighed the pine branches down, and hauling platters of food as we trudged through 8 inches of the white stuff which had surprised us the day before.) not one person enthusiastically embraced the idea; alas, no pilgrim types in this group.

every year we prepare for days and the food is gobbled up in a flash.

time burns down and disappears like the candle tapers on the table.

and speaking of burning down, the day ended with a bit of excitement. i opened the chimney flue and lit a fire in the living room fireplace after we finished our meal—well, that is, i thought i had opened the flue. (just let me add i have been lighting fires in the fireplace for 30 years and this is the first time i have had flue issues.) the fire was burning nicely but after 5 minutes the room began to smell like woodsmoke, we could see some smoke above in the loft, and our eyes started to sting. i could have sworn the flue was fully open, but obviously it was only partially open.

i reached into the fireplace with a poker and pulled the lever forward. the smokey wisps stopped sneaking out of the firebox and were sucked up the chimney. we had to vacate the room, open the windows, and sit in the family room. no damage occurred but it still smells a bit like a smokehouse—though not at all unpleasant—as if hams ought to be hanging and curing from the beams.

i promptly had some grey goose to calm my nerves.

i'm glad to report the rest of the evening passed without incident.

Monday, November 21, 2011

the eloquence of woolly bears

it is what i feel when the darkling sea spreads
the flow endearing itself to me, deep inside
my veins cool, my bones warming, as it presses in there.
my awareness aroused, it rises to the surface
cascading over the edge—a rush out of the gloaming—
pooling at my heels.

the words we utter are the entirety of what we are—listen
to the soundbut they are nothing, really, measured against
the eloquence of black-striped russet woolly bears shuttling
across the path giving deafening praise to hibernation



compared to the way the red maples fill me: those trees
covered with purple, the ones next to them pink
over there, yellow, and these at the end
resounding red and orange, the serenade
of their saffron-pumpkin-lemon-pomegranate leafsong rising
up and up. no mere tra-la-la—how do they manage that?
aren't they all the same kind of maple?—but wondrous
notes marked in the spaces within
the sweet lines of air scaling the sky.

i am so small.

it is what i feel when i realize this: if i walk
through a forest, stop in a bright clearing, scatter flower seeds—
any species foreign to the resident bumblebees—i will become
a witness to the infinite cycle of existence.
it is no secret—
bees will visit each flower that unfolds herself
explore every one, even the strange ones.


i am left speechless.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

portrait of sally

i asked "in what universe could the humanity, family integrity, and honor of slave owners count for more than the humanity, family integrity, and honor of slaves?" my answer was that we americans have lived in that universe since the founding of the country and have only recently begun the process of moving beyond its boundaries.     annette gordon-reed the hemingses of monticello 

the portrait of sally, a remarkable piece, should begin as an outline
offering barely a glimpse of a woman-in-the-making—first
a teenager in london: abigail adams murmured to no one in particular
sally's nature is good, and the parisians smiled
nodded and offered tres jolie to look at—while tom took her
shopping and carefully selected outfits after she was left alone
to be saved at sutton's house: inoculated, feverish, muttering nonsense.
not to worry—sally survived, no visible scars.

the paint wet but already fading by the time she arrived back
at the mountain, his home and hers, to pose for 38 years.
sally, the much younger half sister of his beloved dead wife—
resembling her always with her fine carriage and creamy skin—
her loveliness a perfect mixture in the palette of dusky rose
and lily—reigned, a faux wife, her crown shattered, trodden
under the boots of dark-flesh traders, her humanity strangled
by the noose of southern law but revived by her man
the king of monticello.

still her portrait hangs incomplete.

it's difficult to see you, sally. you've become a smudge. i'm sad
to say the picture of you is missing from museums—
in this universe it's starkly nonexistent—stolen
from us before a light sketch could ever be drawn
with this bit of charcoal on this scrap of paper.

but elsewhere out there it exists, sally, i know it exists.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

up the stairs in italy

in addition to bidets in every hotel bathroom, italy also has a lot of stairs both inside and outside. few small hotels have elevators so i walked up 55 stairs (i counted) in siena after checking in, and up again after going down 55 stairs for breakfast—and again, up and down, up and down, several times a day.

in the hill towns of orvietto, montepulciano and siena, and the more mountainous tignale, stairs are everywhere. if you want to get to visit these places you have to go up, sometimes by car and then eventually on foot. alleyways between buildings go up (and back down after you go up), cathedrals are up, piazzas are up, restaurants are up, peoples' homes are up. of course not every "up" is reached by stairs. the cobbled roads go up, too. but stairs are inevitable. you go up hundreds of them in places built along the steep sides and tops of hills.

italians eat well and drink well (and so did we in our travels around italy)—hearty soups, wine and cheese, meat and olives, vegetables and desserts—bring on the antipastos, the primos, the secondos, the contornos, the dolces!—but i rarely saw a fat person in italy. the fattest person i came across was german.

italians are fit people. they walk a lot. they walk up a lot. who needs a gym when you spend your day tackling hills and stairs in order to get from here to there.

Monday, November 14, 2011

the rooftops of siena

i wake up before sunrise just like i do when i'm home in maine. my brain doesn't seem to register that it's after midnight there; nice, no jet-lag issues.

but the difference between when i wake up in my own bed in maine and when i wake up in a strange bed in a foreign land comes down to the moment i pass from eyes-tightly-shut-sleep to eyes-mostly-open-alertness. unlike when i'm at home, the first morning i'm in a new place i don't lazily turn over, slide deeper under the covers, and squeeze my eyes shut again in order to extract a few more minutes of warmth and softness and peace before the day officially begins.


i simply can't do it. i can't roll over and go back to sleep

i'm too excited by the thought of smelling foreign air.

especially since my room is a few floors above street level in a city perched high on a hill overlooking the rolling toscana landscape of vineyards and olive groves.

instead i leap out of bed. (ok, i admit that's a disgusting thing to do at such an early hour—my husband is so totally appalled by my uncivilized leaping out of bed at this indecent time of the morning that he expresses his disgust by remaining an unmoving, mute, almost mummified-seeming kind of lump on the other side of the bed—especially since there is absolutely no need to get up yet.)

he can sleep. i, on the other hand, walk across the room, open the curtains, unlatch the interior wooden shutters (they are everywhere in italy) and then the windows and stick my head out to breathe deeply and look at what morning has to offer in the medieval italian hilltop city of siena .

ah, the view, the view (with no screens to block it!).....

in a city where all the buildings are fairly low, being at the top of one of them lets you see things like the black birds (are they ravens? crows?) do, as they swoop and dive and ride the air currents around siena's rooftops at dawn.

i am thrilled that the window faces east. here comes the sun.

i love the old red-tiled roofs that slope down toward narrow, cobbled passageways, many of which i later find out are actually one-way "roads" barely wide enough for small fiats and lancias. i discover this fact as i am rudely pressed against a building waiting for a car to pass.

beyond the rooftops is the rolling countryside shrouded in early morning mist. amazing to think the view has not changed that much in hundreds of years.

another good reason to jump out of bed in the morning like a madwoman.....

Thursday, November 10, 2011


bayham abbey, sussex, united kingdom. june, 2011.

ever read lines of light
through an opening, watch them
arc like cilia tending
to the surge that bends them
and moves sustenance along?
ever try to see the real thing below
the surface before it shifts and nothing
but the trivial is left?
difficult that, but not impossible.
i am being nourished, my eyes narrowed
to living slits, hardly needle sharp, yet
pricking their way down tunnels
sucking in what ansel
and edward, those f/64's
were worked up about.
they were on to something—click, click
the rich deepening of fields.
my field isn't deep. there are gaps.
i'm squinting fast
blinder than i ever was
blind then
blind now
needing more, trying
to hold on to something, anything, as i lean in
closer to the edge and crash
through this pinhole, rabbit hole, squeezed tight
at the end, prying out the miracle
stuck in my inner eye of a see! see! see!
revelation on the other side.