Wednesday, April 27, 2005

Travelogue 75 – April 27
All the Pretty Places

Well, I have fallen grievously behind in my reports, primarily because Italy is mysteriously lacking in internet cafes. So many kilometers and many towns since my last log, I hardly know where to begin. Last I recall, I was making my way over the Appenines in the company of a beguiling Argentine. Oh yes, and then there was:

Bari: All in all, the pleasant surprise of the trip. As the train rolls into this southern Italian town along the Adriatic coast, you look out the window glumly, saying to yourself, “Another Euro-sprawl – blocky housing highrises, busy traffic, denim and big hair as far as the eye can see. But be not dismayed. Look for the so-called pension where the old man who buzzes you in leads you to the extra bedroom in his coop apartment, the cold room with high ceilings and huge, old-world bureaus, where the door doesn’t lock and the weary wife smokes in the kitchen. Drop your stuff without worries and hurry down to the old town, just as the sun sets.

It’s a lovely section of town, taking up most of the city’s peninsula into the sea. Narrow alleys of thick, pock-marked flagstones and buildings of white stone; Venetian churches eight and nine hundred years old, strangely carved with sphinxes and elephants. You stand alone in the beautiful front courtyard of San Nicola, but for a group of boys kicking around a soccer ball. You’re hungry, but restaurants won’t open for another few hours. Instead, you stand puzzled at the threshold of open salons that you take for primitive bars. A group of men plays cards, a bottle on the table. There are a few framed religious pictures on otherwise bare walls. They stare at you. You realize this is a home. The homes in this section have living rooms on the bottom floor indistinguishable from storefronts, and families open them at this time of evening. In others salons, matrons sit in circles and scream. In fact, everyone in the crowds on the streets screams at each other. Cars rumble by, leaving inches on either side for people.

In the daytime, these matrons are in the alleys behind their houses, rolling pasta and putting them in mesh-bottomed boxes outside to dry. They’re hanging laundry above, from their balconies. A boy of about ten puffs out his meager chest and playfully acts ready to backhand you. If you’ve just come from Ethiopia, you realize with a high degree of discomfort that in southern Italy, everyone has begun to stare at you again.

You check out the port because you’re still under the Argentine’s spell, and you’re dreaming of ferry rides across the Adriatic. Milling around the first pier are Slavs of various stripes, Albanians and Croats mostly, all grey-faced and thin, smoking through their bad teeth. You are sentimental about your days in eastern Europe, so you try to converse with them. They’re gruff and dismissive, and you love them for it. At the café at the port’s entrance, old men are playing backgammon. From another pier launch the ferries for Corfu. You debate with yourself, and Corfu wins because you’ve daydreamed about Greece since you were little.

Since it’s an overnight journey, you submerge back into the old town. You settle at the only café that approaches western hipness. A young woman with dreads, drenched in ennui, works behind the counter. She wears a “Czech” T-shirt, which you enquire about. She wants to move to Prague. She sighs about Bari, and about Italy in general. There are no jobs. There’s no culture. It’s boring. She worked for a publishing firm before this. They wouldn’t give her a permanent contract. She worked for the university. They wouldn’t pay her.

Boarding the ferry is a great thrill. The Greek language is alive! You’ve had your days when you dabbled with ancient Greek, a kind of ambiguous ancestor worship. But here is Greek script all over the ship. You watch Greek TV, and you’re alarmed to find it sounds Slavic. You wander over the whole boat while waiting to set off, determined to stay awake all night and watch the water. But once it’s finally under way, the cold winds drive you inside, and the gentle hum and vibration of the engines, along with the slight rocking of the sea, make you irresistibly sleepy. You can’t stay awake. Sometime just after dawn, you manage to pull yourelf out of bed and ascend to the deck. You’re the only one out there. The boat is passing through a narrow channel between the Greek or Albanian mainland and some islands. The scene is stark and strange. The hills are dark and jagged. The sea is steely blue. History becomes frightening, but you can’t take your eyes off those hills.

Wednesday, April 20, 2005

Travelogue 74 – April 20
Life Lessons

They say we travel to learn, right? Here are a few recent lessons.

First, when you get on a train out of Rome, and you have no definite plan other than to see Sergio in Abruzzo, beware the Argentine girl with milk chocolate eyes and the soft voice who sits across from you. She will tell you all about her travels in the south of Italy and infuse them with sun and wine. Should it happen that Sergio doesn’t answer the phone, as he hasn’t for the last few days that you’ve called from Rome, you are in particular danger. Candelas is her name, and though she gets off the train much earlier than your destination, in order to hike around those tall, snow-capped mountains you’re passing as you cross the spine of Italy, she stays with you. Later, you walk to the beach in Pescara, and you meditate the mellow Adriatic Sea, and she whispers in your ear, "Go! Go!" Your feet unconsciously lead you back to the train station, and in a sleepy voice, you order a ticket to Bari.

Secondly, never second-guess on a ten-euro purchase. I didn’t pack much when I left Ethiopia, planning on traveling light. Now, the clothes I have are getting rank. I’m going to buy some cheap clothes, and, what’s more, I really want to go Euro-trash. I’m enjoying the idea of running around Europe in those sweat pants with stripes down the sides that rustle as you walk. I had my chance on my last day in Rome, at a street fair. I had them in hand, walking to the cashier, but some repressed, misplaced fear and pride rises in my throat, and I turn back. I have regretted it ever since. Fortunately, I’ve had a chance to partially rectify that bad move. The other day, I bought a Euro-trash pullover, complete with the tight middle and stripes down from the armpits. I wear them proudly today. Next, I just need the 80s hairstyle gone bad, the spiked and dyed mullet, and I’m set.

Third lesson is that being out of money produces raised levels of anxiety. It reduces enjoyment in travel. It is distracting. Arriving in Bari, I'm low in cash. I go to the "Bancomat." When it rejects my request, I begin to panic. Last year, when I was in Europe, I was shut out of my account. I was down to about ten euros by the time I could track down someone in the States who could take care of the problem. It took weeks. The most interesting corporate response to that crisis, last year, was dreamed up by my credit card company. When I requested my password for cash advance, they sent it in the mail to my home address. I was dying to learn the logic behind that move, and called them many times afterward to satisfy my curiosity. Anyway, that day in Bari, I run around to a handful of Bancomats, and it's the same story at all of them. Suddenly, I'm facing two weeks of living off my credit card.

Fourth lesson: don't break a fast with cappuccino and a cheese pie, if you can at all avoid it. About twenty-four hours after Bari's banks have refused me, I'm in Greece, having used the ferry ticket that I bought before I learned I had no cash. I figured broke in Greece is the same as broke in Italy. On a whim, I try the ATM in Greece. It works. I have money in my hand. I turn around and hungrily survey the street. I haven't eaten since the day before. Food is not easy to arrange by credit card, and it seemed as though I had two weeks to feed myself with something like fifty euros. I follow my nose to the nearest cafe. Yes: it's cheese pie and cappuccino for me. Now, these cheese pies are serious. Thet take a while to gulp down, even for a starving traveler. And they put cream on top of cappuccinos in Greece. I sit at an outdoor table, and I watch the old men in their Greek caps, the black-haired maidens in discolored jeans, the excited conversations. I chew. I punish my stomach. Crumbs gather in my lap, but I'm blind. Even after the first sensation like lead solidifying in the pit of my gut, I keep going. It tastes so good. The rest of the day is a blur.

Wednesday, April 13, 2005

Travelogue 73 -- April 13
Oh, Maddalena

I'm spending my time in Rome searching out new sights. It's not as easy as it once was, when the city was new to me, but hey, it's Rome. It goes on and on. My fantasies while I was in Ethiopia about the day I would escape? Food and museums! In between indulging in those, I find new things to see.

The other day, I return to the Lateran to look into a place I've only just heard about. It's across the street: the Scala Santa. Legend has it this is the original staircase from Pilate's palace, the one Jesus climbed and descended on that fateful day that some of you may have heard about. At the top is a chapel once deemed the Sancta Sanctorum, the holiest stop in Rome, because of its relics. All that's left of them now is an icon from about fifteen hundreed years ago, a painting of Jesus that no one ever sees because it's completely encased in silver and jewels and gold. It reminds me of Czestochowa in Poland, with the famous Black Madonna. And it's more than the icon that reminds me of Czestochowa . It's the dictat that no one ascends the stairs except on their knees. I've tried that in Poland. It hurts! Fortunately, there are parallel staircases for the weak. I don't get to see Jesus's blood through holes in the protective wood covering, but I preserve a few precious drops of my own.

I make it to see the graves of Shelly and Keats. Thetwo poets are at rest in what's popularly called the Protestant Cemetary on the southern edge of the city, behind the pyramid of Caius Cestius. I prefer the real name of the place: the "Cimitero Acattolico per gli Stranieri," or the Cemetary for the Uncatholic Foreigners. I've made this trip on every trip to Rome and always found it closed. A tip for the unlucky: you can see Keats's grave through a window in the cemetary wall. I'm happy I made it inside; it's a beautiful place. Apparently, these uncatholic foreigners are a rich lot. The central graveyard is choked with extravagant stones, elaborately carved, adorned with poetry, statues, mourning angels, miniature gothic spires, stately crosses. Shelley's stone is here, a simple, flat one, underneath a crumbling tower in the ancient Roman wall at the back of the graveyard. Keats lies in an adjacent yard that is more peaceful and less crowded, nearly underneath the pyramid. He also has a a simple stone, standing and rounded on top. It bears the image of a lyre and has no name. Instead, it bears the lines that Keats willed: "Here lies One Whose Name was writ in Water." Next to him lies his friend, Joseph Severn, buried here some sixty years later.

I have a new favorite hangout in Rome, discovered while dodging the Indians with umbrellas who seem to rise from the cobblestones during the sudden spring rainstorms. It's a little piazza just north of the Pantheon. This restaurant has outdoor tables and offers glasses of red wine for 1.50 euros. Of course, it tastes a little like vinegar, but you can call that atmosphere. This is the Piazza della Maddalena -- the attendant church is Mary Magdalene's. It's a pretty little church, high and narrow. The facade is standard Rococo. I've always favored la Maddalena, myself, and I'm happy she gets a church in Rome. Of course, befitting her ambiguous reputation, the facade features in its lower niches two expostulating male saints. Up above, one of the women is only ambiguously Magdalene. There's heavy traffic through the square, fresh from seeing the Pantheon. A shaven-headed man sets up a tiny amp and plays an underwater variation of classical guitar. I notice that part of the slogan above the church door reads, "Quotidiana Perpetua et Defunctis." I don't know what it means in Latin, but it seems an eloquent comment on my life. I grow even fonder of this place. It could be the wine. In that, I have company. At a far table, some loud Dutch girls -- as ubiquitous as Indians with umbrellas -- are flirting in a sloppy way with the waiter. "We like Italian boys," they declare. He smiles for them, but goes on about his work.

Saturday, April 09, 2005

Travelogue 72 -- April 9
In Mourning

The funeral was yesterday. This morning, it's raining, and Rome is quiet. Stubborn clusters of tours carry on, setting out for the Forum or for the Fontana Trevi, but by and large, the craziness is over.

I came to Rome via London. Thomas took me out to the Island Queen, our hang-out, our Victorian pub. I arm-wrestled with Kate, my flirtation in this country. We agreed on a draw. I accused her of being unfaithful, and she didn't deny it. I know Thomas and Neal had been doing their best to be the instruments of her infidelity. Tuesday night is quiz night at the Island Queen. I sat rather silently, as most questions were British TV and sports, and I contemplated Amanda's impossibly white skin.

Lots of flags, lots of priests, and lots of helicopters. These were the signs that something was going on in Rome. The airport and the trains were crowded. My flight was delayed in landing at Ciampino Wednesday night because we had arrived at the same time as Air Force One. Lots of speeding motorcades, too, taking over the streets, whizzing by in a blast of sirens. Lots of posters, put up by the city: pictures of John Paul II with messages of thanks and sorrow. On Thursday, I approached the Vatican, looked over the crowd, and turned away.

I didn't go to the funeral. Rather, I took advantage of the distraction to go for a long walk. I walked a ways down the old Appian way, surprised to see how quickly one came to green hills and country lanes, and came back by the enormous Baths of Caracalla. I was so happy to be able to take a walk without being molested. Anyone's approach made me cringe: they're going to stare; they're going to beg. They didn't. I'm in Europe; I can breathe again.

Coming upon the great field of the Circus Maximus, I saw the crowds. They had set up two video screens at either end, and thousands of people had gathered to watch the funeral. They were quiet, somber. They stood at the proper moments -- everyone -- as they were doing outside St. Peter's. There were kids. There were tourists. There were contingents of Poles, standing under their flags. More flags, more backpacks.

You couldn't escape the funeral. Everything was shut for those few hours in the morning. As you strolled around Rome's empty streets, you heard the ceremony, broadcast on screens in piazzas around the city. I stopped a while on a bridge over the Tiber and contemplated that great, grey-blue dome in the distance.

The night before, I had been up late, trying to delay my return to the hostel. I'd been booked into a room with some odd teenagers, whose vacation seemed to consist of staying up all night at the hostel's computers and wandering in and out of the room, muttering to themselves. I stopped at the Spanish steps at about midnight. Kids were strumming guitars and singing. Groups stood around like something might happen. Some Polish ladies with a manic gleam in their eye ran up and down with their flag. They asked me to take their picture. They asked the way to the Fontana Trevi.

I seem to have lost some intangible American-ness. I'm always something else, here and in Ethiopia, too. At one cafe, they were calling me "il francesco." I get asked for directions, and to my great pleasure, I'm able to answer. To some small extent, Rome is mine now. St. Peter's? You'll have to cross the river.

Sunday, April 03, 2005

Travelogue 71 – April 3
Ethiopia the Movie

It’s one of my last days in Addis, one of my last days in Ethiopia for a while. It’s been beautiful for me, with a stunning sky and cool breezes. And it’s one of those days when the soundtrack is pleasant. You see, Addis has a soundtrack to daily life – it’s the one, government-run radio station. Today, for some reason, there’s a kind of an extended funk riff going. When they aren’t playing their very limited pop Amharic playlist ad nauseum, I’ve noticed that they have fairly good taste in music. I’ve heard funk, jazz, and salsa from time to time. Okay, the occasional Michael Jackson. Today it’s Shaft. I disembark from the taxi, but the radio follows. It plays from the line of shops I’m passing, from each one. It’s flowing from car windows. I enter my café, and it goes on. How can you not feel in the groove of life?

A man sits at my table, though there are other seats in the place. I prepare for the pitch. Maybe it’s for money; maybe it’s for religion. He asks where I’m from, and I tell him, but it stops there. He just nods, opens his newspaper. I’m encouraged. The music is working. He reads; I write. Sometime later, he wants to know what I’m doing in Ethiopia. He has a funny accent, something between French and German. I ask him about that. He says he’s been many years in France, Germany and Austria, studying. He says he came back after post-doctoral work because he wants to help his country, but the university won’t hire him, though they have no one with his expertise. He says it with a laugh. He says, the university president is a party hack, and he won’t hire outside certain political or ethnic parameters. I think of Professor Andreas, whom I’ve met, the old man with the dreamy gaze, who listens to classical music and smokes constantly, holding the cigarette with European elegance.

My friend goes on about the elections coming in May. I’ve had many discussions about these elections lately. A few days ago, the government kicked out some American observers. There are many stories going around about intimidation in the countryside and how the thing is rigged. This government has apparently already rigged a few. Before Bush, I might have felt shocked or superior. My friend’s laugh turns sour. He shrugs like an Italian and rants about the frustration he feels here. I’ve heard all this before from returning Ethiopians. So many resources, so many needs, and the twain never meet. It’s the same all over Africa, he says. Bad governance. He shrugs again. “I may have to go back to Europe.” He returns to his paper.

It’s a melancholy conversation, heightening my melancholy at leaving. I study the university crowd at the café, giving particular attention to the lovely young women, of course. The funk kicks in again. The kids are all laughing, in that strange, relentless Ethiopian way that makes you wonder how anyone became so accomplished a wit here. But the laughter exhibits the beautiful smiles, which is nice. Not as nice as it used to be before that conversation with Kevin on the night of his birthday.

We’re on my terrace at the Mekonnen Hotel in Dire Dawa, looking out over the dusty circle as night descends, looking out between the orange bougainvillea and the satellite dish. “Eighty percent, my friend,” he’s saying over his third or fourth beer. I’m not sure how we got on this topic, but it goes on and on. Some NGO worker gave him this appalling figure, and he latched on with morose fascination. “See if I were you,” he says, “I would back up your program a few years, catch the kids before they’re born.” Offer the prospective parents to pay the kids’ education in exchange for a few concessions. It’s economics: “No American is going to marry their lovely daughter if she doesn’t have all her landing gear.” Meanwhile, I have the perfect pitch to sponsors back home. “I paid for this little girl’s education,” they’ll say. “And I bought her vagina. When she grows up, she’ll have a job in technology, and she’ll have a complete body. I ...bought ...her ...vagina,” he sighs and repeats his slogan with great satisfaction until I eventually agree; it has a ring to it.

And the beat goes on all over Addis. We’re all sharing the movie. The pretty girls are still giggling, landing gear or none. I’ll miss them.