Postcards from Italy

Italy I: Perugia

I’m ready for a new adventure. I ask myself the magical question: What would I really like to do? And what I answer myself is: Go to Italy. So here I am, studying Italian in Perugia, a medieval Umbrian hill town. Old stone buildings, red tile roofs, green shutters, and narrow winding cobblestone streets. The colors are all peachy and gold.

I live in a fourth floor walk-up flat with three other women (one Italian, one Israeli, and one Japanese). This means 70 stairs (I counted). Every time I go to the grocery store I go down 70 stairs, up the block, then up 98 stairs to get to the next street up, before walking three blocks to the store. But being up so high also means a great view. My room looks southwest onto steep ravines and orchards, with the steeples and turrets of the old city strung along the tops of the hills.

My Italian classes are held in an old palazzo built in 1750. One of my classrooms has a fresco on the ceiling of a plump pretty woman with one breast exposed, surrounded by three sweet little cherubs and fluffy pink clouds.

What more could I ask for?



Italy 2: Perugia

I’ve come a long way. I can now say in Italian, “In the morning I usually get up early,” “Does this bus go to the train station?” “What do you have for dessert?” and “I need a laxative.” I prepare myself with this last phrase before I go to the pharmacy, take a number, and stand in line. As I’m standing there it gradually dawns on me that I will have to speak my request (in my excellently prepared Italian) to the gentleman behind the counter while the four people behind me stand by, waiting for their turn. It’s very quiet in the little pharmacy. You can hear everything.

I decide to head for the supermercato and buy some prunes instead.



Italy 3: Assisi

Assisi is all pink and white and foufou like a wedding cake. There are twenty-nine churches, seminaries, and oratories in this tiny little town.

Like everyone else, I go the Basilica. I rent one of those little audio systems that will take me on a guided tour and enlighten me about St. Francis, the history of the cathedral, and its famous art. The young man in the booth quickly explains how it works, zip zip zip. I pay my 6 euro and start off on my tour, then realize that I can’t even figure out how to turn the damn thing on. I go back to the booth and ask him to explain it again. He does. I thank him and head back to the door of the Basilica. Now it’s turned on, but I can hardly hear it. I go back to the booth and ask if there is a volume control. There is, but it is already as high as it will go. Okay. Back to my tour. I get it turned on but now I can’t figure out how to choose a chapter of the tour. I keep poking and tapping, but this little gadget and I are not getting along. I go back to the booth and ask him to explain it again. He does. Very quickly. Zip zip zip. He taps here and flicks there and scrolls through the chapters, and I can feel my temperature rising and the muscles in my shoulders turning to cement, and I finally say, “Just forget the whole thing. Can I have my money back, please?”

So I wander through the Basilica, ignorant, but with my temperature gradually returning to normal. It’s a wonderful old building, soulful, a bit decrepit. It has a dark blue ceiling with golden stars, which reminds me of the illustrations in my favorite children’s books, like Mary Poppins and The Little Prince. It also has a lot of famous frescoes by Giotto that I still know nothing about.



Italy 4: Assisi

I walk all over Assisi with gobs of other pilgrims, and marvel at the variety of souvenirs for sale. There are oodles of holy trinkets and sacred doodahs…little ceramic things with “Pace e Bene” on them, drawings and photos of the town, little figurines of St Francis, crosses, rosaries, wines, cheeses, special breads, everything I can imagine. My favorite is a tiny dancing hula girl shaking her hips in a green grass skirt. I have no idea what her connection is to Assisi, but she is very happy.



Italy 5: Perugia

There are lots and lots of churches here. I love the ceilings, the graceful dance of intersecting arches. One big church has a whole bunch of voluptuous angels painted up there among the arches. What is the word? A flock of angels? A band? How about a crescendo of angels? I like that.

I love the music of the Italian language. Italian is vivace (lively and fast). It’s very different from French, which to my ears sounds adagio (slow, restful, at ease). Italian has a bouncy sort of rhythm to it, a syncopation. My favorite word is cappucho, which is the friendly way of saying cappuccino. It makes me feel happy just to say it. Cappucho! Cappucho! It sounds like dancing poodles.



Italy 6: Florence

I seem to be a different person than I was twenty years ago. I have had several proofs of this lately. The first one is that for many years past I have been drooling on and on about memories of pasta with white truffle sauce, but now that I’ve had a chance to eat it again, it’s not at all what I remembered. It’s actually a bit repulsive. How can that be? And twenty years ago Florence felt, well, oppressive. Not enough green. Too much brick. I couldn’t stand the Duomo. I’m the only person I know who couldn’t stand it…all that green and pink gobbledygook all over it like a birthday cake gone berserk.

But this time I find the Duomo delightful. It makes me laugh. It’s just so darn pretty. It’s what the Hallelujah Chorus would look like if it got turned into marble. And Florence doesn’t feel at all oppressive; it’s lovely and lively. The first time around I kept running into the Piazza della Republica (because it’s centrally located) and I hated it. It felt hard and impersonal and exhausting. So this time I avoid it entirely for three days until I accidently come upon a charming piazza, full of people walking, biking, eating, whirling around on the merry-go-round, listening to a jazzy trio playing something from a Woody Allen movie, and I think, what is this lovely place? I check the map, and sure enough, it’s the Piazza della Republica. I’m shocked. Where was I twenty years ago? Who was I?



Italy 7: Venice

I am afraid that Venice will be disappointing, after seeing so many pictures and paintings, and hearing all the hoopla. How can it possibly measure up? But it does. So does the Cathedral. Imagine the most elaborate sand castle possible, with a strange conglomeration of eastern and western domes and arches and columns, and then put pinwheels and whirlygigs and sparklers all over it, and there you have it: St. Mark’s Basilica. When I walk inside, the domed ceilings are all covered with glittery gold mosaics. One part of me thinks I should be offended at all the opulence, but I’m not. It’s stunningly beautiful, in a splooshy, decadent sort of way.

St. Mark’s Plaza is almost knee-deep in cold water. It’s winter, it’s been raining, and it’s high tide. Poor Venice. People slosh around in pink and blue plastic boots, which is an important tourist commodity in Venice. There are long catwalks that enable you to get from the dry surrounding areas across the flooded piazza into the cathedral. The catwalks are made of sturdy platforms about 3 feet wide, 8 feet long, and 3 feet high. There are long slow lines of people who have been through the security checkpoints and are waiting to get inside the cathedral out of the cold and damp.

And next to one of the platforms there is a little old lady kneeling in the freezing water, holding a large frayed paper cup out to the people slowly shuffling by. Her head is bowed and covered with a black scarf, she doesn’t say anything, doesn’t move, just kneels in the water and holds out her cup. She is wearing a thin jacket and a long, faded skirt that is now soaking wet. Once in a while someone drops some money into her cup. Others take photos and walk on. Suddenly there are two handsome young Italian policemen on the catwalk above her, saying, “Theresa, Theresa!” in kind but exasperated voices. They obviously know her well. They lean over, urging her to come up out of the water, and help her up. They escort her out of the piazza. The long line of tourists moves on into the resplendent golden fantasy world of the Basilica.



Italy 8: Venice

I decide that I want to see a very old illuminated manuscript called the Breviario Grimani, which is at the Biblioteca Nazionale Marciana, just across the Piazza from St. Mark’s. I don’t really know what it is, but I know it’s famous, so I want to go look at it. When I walk in and ask to see it in my crude Italian the guard throws up his hands and says, oh no, you can’t see that! But I look forlorn (in Italian) and he phones someone and talks awhile, and then, with a bit of a wink, he says to wait. In a few minutes a sweet older lady comes out and tells me that no one can see it. Golly, I think, this thing must be awfully special. When I ask more questions (in my crude Italian) she says that they have a facsimile copy of the manuscript that I can look it if I really want to. I’m disappointed. A facsimile? You mean like a Xerox? But she says no, it looks just like the real one, so I say yes, I’d like to see it. Then she and the guard say that I have to go somewhere and do something with my passport before I can see it. Okay. The guard shows me where to go.

I walk into a little office where there is a man bent over some project and a woman at a desk with a computer. I don’t know why I’m there or what I’m supposed to be doing, so I just stand there. Finally the woman looks at me and I ask her if she speaks English. No, she says, with a bit of a sneer. So I say that I’d like to see the Breviario Grimani, and she sort of yells at me for a while and says one word over and over, a word I don’t understand. So I nod and keep standing there, and she turns to her computer and ignores me. For quite a long time. Finally I get the message, apologize for bothering her, and start backing out of the office. Then the man kicks into action and tells me in garbled English that I need to register. Okay, I say. How? The sneering woman sighs, asks for my passport, and writes down EVERYTHING on her forms. This takes a while. I’ve never seen anyone take down so much information off my passport. I didn’t know there WAS that much information on my passport. Then she takes a photo of me and disappears into a back room. When she returns she hands me a plastic library card with my photo and my own number. I thank her. Briefly.

Now I go back to the guard and say, whew, I survived. He grins (obviously he’s familiar with the sneering lady) and takes me to a rare books room where there are several people silently studying rare books. The room is pale green and full of delicate molding and painted swirly things. It has a high, coved ceiling. I show my card to the sweet older lady, who gets a younger lady to help her get my book out of a cupboard. It takes two sweet ladies, all bent over and straining, to carry the damn thing over to a table. It’s absolutely enormous. It must be about 8 inches by 10, and about 9 inches thick. It’s encased in a clear plexiglass box. The other people in the room look at all this fuss and this enormous book and frown at me. I can imagine them wondering who the heck I am and what I’m doing with this special book.

Now I’m getting nervous. This is a much bigger deal than I expected and I would gladly sink into the floor and disappear. But I can’t exactly say, please don’t trouble yourselves, it’s okay, I’ve changed my mind, I’ll be going now. So I smile and wait and try to ignore the people who are frowning at me. The two sweet ladies set the book up, very carefully, and open the plexiglass case, very carefully. They go get three little red velvet pillows to stack on one side of the book to support it as it is opened. They step back and smile at me and indicate that I’m supposed to just go ahead and look at the thing. All by myself. I can turn the pages and everything.

This is no Xerox. It looks exactly like a genuine 800-page illuminated manuscript written hundreds of years ago. The paper is thick and creamy. The calligraphy is exquisite. The colored drawings are brilliant and clear; some are full page and some are small, framing the elegant Latin calligraphy. There are beautiful drawings of the Annunciation, the birth of Jesus, the three wise men, the flight to Egypt, all the way through to the crucifixion and resurrection. But there are other drawings, too, secular drawings depicting everyday life on a feudal estate: sowing and reaping, farmhouses, barns, hunting scenes, countryside, castles, lords, ladies, cobblers, farmers, children, dogs, pigs, horses.

And right at the beginning, on the second page of the book, setting the tone for the whole thing, so to speak, is a full-page drawing of a farmhouse and barnyard in the wintertime. There is snow on the ground, and there are chickens and pigs and ducks running around. The farmer and his wife are in the kitchen where there is a fire in the stove, and they are beaming at their little boy, who is standing in the doorway, lifting his shirt and peeing out into the snow.



Italy 9: Rome

Where better to celebrate the miracle of Christmas than in Rome? I imagine lots of lights and decorations, and Christmas music everywhere, and am surprised to find that it’s actually rather subdued compared to the frantic hullaballoo in the US. There are very few lights at all until the first or second week of December, and then the displays are quite simple.

Most of the music in public places is just regular music, not Christmas music. This makes me happy. Every year I dread having to listen to “Feliz Navidad” over and over again, which I have had to listen to every Christmas since 1970 when it first came out. That’s almost 50 years of an extraordinarily obnoxious song. But I’m not hearing it in Italy. The Italians seem to like “Jingle Bells.” They play “Jingle Bells” at every Christmas concert I go to. One concert even does it twice (once for an encore). I’m not fond of “Jingle Bells” either, but it’s better than “Feliz Navidad.”

I go to a special exhibition of Nativity Scenes. There are 100 nativity scenes from all over the world. The scenes are made of everything imaginable: seeds and nuts, terracotta, bread, corn leaves, ostrich eggs, sheep wool and goat skin, lace, wire, palm fibers, stained glass, beeswax, bamboo, straw, porcelain, shells, pinecones, nuts and bolts, wild boar teeth, aluminum foil, pasta, rice… They are serious, elegant, elaborate, and silly. Some are humorous: a terracotta Mary from Campania is totally fagged out and asleep while Joseph holds the baby. Some are sobering, like a scene set in Iraq, with tanks, soldiers, bombed out houses, barbed wire, and several guns lying at the foot of the manger. Another is fanciful, set inside a big mushroom; the slugs and snails are bigger than baby Jesus. It’s absolutely enchanting.



Italy 10: Rome

I take a taxi to the Borghese Gardens. I think that Roman taxi drivers can’t possibly be as scary as they say. No, they aren’t. They’re worse. It’s one of the most frightening things I’ve ever done. This guy is careening through Rome, screeching to stops, zooming off again, driving on the wrong side of the road, yelling at people, honking nonstop, and narrowly missing little old ladies and children who are trying to cross the road. A nightmare. After that, I walk.

I go to a weird and fascinating place called the Capuchin Crypt, where one of the monks, a long time ago, decorated six little underground chapels with all sorts of delicate and pretty designs, arabesques, loop the loops, and arches, all made out of human bones…the jawbones, femurs, pelvises, skulls, and vertebrae of 3700 of his fellow monks. Even the chandeliers are made of bones.

There is a little sign in the middle of all the old bones: “What you are now we used to be; what we are now you will be.”



Italy 11: Rome

Snapshots of Rome: an old lady hobbling down the road with a cane, wearing a purple down jacket and a leopard skin hat; listening to a choir singing the Hallelujah Chorus in the Pantheon; the fountain of Trevi, an exuberance of blue and white, water and horses and men plunging, rearing, and whirling; the anguished expression on the face of Bernini’s Medusa in the Capitoline Museum (what it would be like to watch everyone I looked at turning to stone?); the magnificent statue of Marcus Aurelius in front of the museum, with a pigeon perched on his head and white pigeon poo dribbling down his handsome bronze face; enormous marble wings in the museum on the Palatine Hill that look like real honest-to-god feathers; a pair of custom made Jimmy Choo “Cinderella” shoes in a store window, all covered in Swarovski crystals and costing $3500; people laughing nervously as they stick their hands into the Mouth of Truth, hoping their fingers won’t be bitten off; bags of pasta in the Campo de’ Fiori market in every possible shape, including Stars of David. At dusk there are hundreds and thousands of birds (a murmuration of starlings!) over the Tiber, big black swoopy elastic clouds of them. The sidewalks and cars along the river are covered with a layer of slippery bird poo. Although the weather is perfectly clear, people are using umbrellas to walk home from work.



Italy 12: Rome

I spend a day at the Vatican Museums. The Sistine Chapel is larger than I expect. I am mystified why Michelangelo would make God’s bum such a focus of attention in the panel called “Creating the Sun and Moon.” It’s right there. It looks like he’s wearing droopy drawers. I can’t figure it out.

I am struck by a large painting of the Garden of Eden by Wenzel Peter. It’s idyllic, lush, detailed, filled with colorful animals and birds. He paints it at the moment when Eve is giving Adam the apple. I know that I’m supposed to feel anger and disgust at her for being disobedient and getting us thrown out of paradise, but instead I feel something different. I feel her yearning to know, her hunger for deeper truths and wider experience. She is not satisfied with an easy, superficial life. She wants the kind of strength that has been challenged and tested by fire, has made sacrifices, has faced painful choices, and has overcome temptation. She yearns for the kind of goodness that comes from tested experience and self-knowledge, not just imagining the choices she’d make, but having to face the challenges and make real choices. She wants authentic integrity, honesty, peace, and faith. Some of us are content with easy, comfortable lives, and some of us want to test ourselves, to know who we really are, what we’re made of, and how far we can go. Some of us go looking for apples.



Italy 13: Rome

Inside St. Peter’s Basilica I spend a long time in front of The Pieta, because at first it really irritates me. I can’t imagine a mother looking so peaceful while holding the broken body of her son. I think, Michelangelo obviously knows nothing of what that would feel like. How dare he reduce such a thing to this bittersweet calm? I am revolted by his youth and his arrogance. But I stay with it. Eventually something shifts, and I see something different. I see a mother who has deeply accepted this unacceptable death, who is enduring her unendurable grief, and without denying it has moved through it into a rare and exquisite communion with God. I feel like she has opened her heart and let me in.

How could this be? Michelangelo was only 25 years old.


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