Tuesday, May 31, 2005

Travelogue 81 -- May 30
The Potentates

God is playing with us. Or the gods of global warming. Bands of quick clouds fly over Minnesota, dumping rain here and there, painting the skies dramatically. When it's dry, the air is thick with fluff from the dandelions and cottonwood trees. June's a few days away, and no one dares take off his or her jacket.

Raul paces the parking lot, a dwarfish bobcat. He was due twenty minutes ago, and now he crosses the asphalt in front of us, not acknowledging us, murmuring into his cell phone. As it happens, we have to speak to this man, who owns the lease on the building that Baja inhabits. Eman and Craig have plans to open up a café, and there's space for rent in this vestige of old, brick Minneapolis.

Finally, he hangs up and approaches. For us, he has sulky glances and, "You wanna see the place?" We enter. It's one long room, spare wooden floors, high ceilings, and bare brick walls, divided arbitrarily by the skeletons of a few new walls. He grumbles that if there isn't enough interest, he'll sell the building. We've already had it from the bartenders at the Baja that Raul doesn't own the building. In fact, he's facing a few legal battles over his trick of asking payment on bills a few times over. We explain our plan, and he nods sullenly, checking his cell phone.

Ravenna is a surprise. I like when places surprise me. It's smaller than I expected. I suppose a few things can happen in the fourteen hundred years since a city is the western capital of the empire. You have to catch a small regional train from Ferrara or Bologna to get there. I also, ignorantly, expected a sea front. But it's a whole lot of marsh away from the sea. In fact, the town seems to face away from the sea. You exit the train station and walk inland into town. I quickly recognize that I've re-entered northern Italy. It's the way people walk and the way they train their eyes. No more yelling, no more cocky gestures. It's back to that familiar, cold European irony and self-assurance.

My first excursion is to find Dante's tomb. It’s the reason I came, following through on my resolution a few years ago to complete the Dante tour. Here's where the poet died, after years of exile, a guest of the ruling Da Polenta family. Some four hundred years later, the town built this neo-classical tomb. On my first day, I have to be contented with looking in through the closed gate. But I pass it many times on subsequent days. Once, I file through with a bunch of high schoolers. And then finally, I happen to pass when it's open and empty. I pay my respects to his spirit. His remains, I don't know exactly where they ended up. There are many stories of their peregrinations around town during wars, and there are even little monuments nearby: here's the box where the monks hid Dante's remains during the such-and-such war ….

Ravenna's real claim to fame are the mosaics. Early, end-of-the-empire Christians carried on this very Roman art form for several centuries into the new era. Justinian took back Ravenna for the "Roman," or Byzantine Empire in the 530s, and quickly, he and his put their stamp on the city. We can visit him and his illustrious wife to this day in the Basilica of San Vitale. In the apse, he and his men stand over the altar on one wall, while she and her attendants stand over it on the other. These famous mosaic images are fascinating in the way they convey so much personality and presence, in what is essentially very simple, if sumptuous, craft. The mosaics glow, as they do in the earlier mausoleum of Galla Placidia, mother of one of the final western emperors, which sits behind San Vitale. It's an amazing little domed building, plastered everywhere with rich mosaic color, little alabaster windows admitting dim light, four massive sarcophogi quiet in their alcoves.

There's an exhibit while I'm there of Roman imperial art, centered around the ritual of the banquet. They have several mosaic floors dug up from somewhere nearby. Apparently, it's all the fad in this period -- I seem to recall it's the third century AD -- to install a floor that depicts the remains of a messy feast. So the fragment I'm looking at portrays fishheads and walnut shells and the bones of fowl and even a mouse chewing on crumbs. Outside, there's a workshop, where a woman creates a duplicate. She breaks off individual tesserae from glass or stone and places them in her lime concoction spread across a board on her easel.

I enter a café to kill some time before the Italian restaurants open in the evening. All eyes are on the TV. I see crowds in St. Peter's Square in Rome. I figure out they've sent up the traditional smoke signals over the Sistine Chapel. Eventually, the door on the balcony of St. Peter's opens, and some cardinals bustle out. We're breathlessly watching the old men prepare. Their lack of polish is refreshing. One takes the mike, and in a surprisingly short announcement, the news is conveyed. "E il tedesco," the café owner spits and turns away, shaking his head. Excited chatter sweeps across the café. People share awkward smiles and blink at each other. What does it mean? Il tedesco emerges, robed in white. He holds his hands high. His grin is uncomfortable. The café patrons watch him quietly. A few chuckle at his Italian when he speaks.

Wednesday, May 25, 2005

Travelogue 80 – May 25
Baja and the Bay, Part Three

The lights go out again, and the music fades. We look around in wonder. Fantu taps my shoulder. "Can I borrow your phone?" His smile is shy and ironic both. He knows he's in for another round of teasing about his phone calls. My minutes are free now, so I lend him the little blue beast in my jacket pocket, the cell phone. He's calling San Francisco. Fantu has a girlfriend now, someone introduced to him by a friend, a woman he's never met. But she knows his schedule and his life intimately. He calls her at nearly every stop during the day. Earlier, upon Eman's demand, he has sent her photo around the table. The girlfriend is posing in traditional Ethiopian gear, stuff that resembles Native American clothing. We can't see her face. Eman leans into Craig's chest, and they both look at the photo in Craig's hand. They're beaming. Eman especially: she's happy for her friend; she's happy in the warmth of her companion. I'm reminded of Leeza's radiant smile. This would be a happy sight for her.

Now it's raining on Corfu. A fierce wind is whipping up white-caps in the little bay. I've taken refuge in the only bar open in Paleokastritsa. The pretty blonde Brit has left. When I first came in, she said they would be closing in an hour, but that deadline has come and gone. George, the owner, still plays cards with some locals. David and I chat. He came here to stay with his father, who has since passed away. "I'm here for good," he says complacently. He's ten years older than I. There's something of the pudgy boy in the schoolyard about him. We talk about the British community here. There are a lot of them. There are the aging surfers who run the other bar down the street. There aren't too many Americans. There's a Canadian. George is trying to set David up with her. George comes up to the bar, and they laugh about that. She's daft, apparently.

We listen to the winds. All the doors are open. Before the rains came, I had seen some fireflies out there. They reminded me of meadows in New England, evenings with Hillary. "We were closed yesterday," George says. He's going to tell me the story David told me already. "Just like that," he shakes his head. There was another George who worked in the bar, part-time, just for fun. He had worked in bars and hotels around the world. He was a real gentleman, they say, always chatting up the ladies, always polite. About three or four days ago, he keeled over, right there in the bar. This George paints the picture, with a haunted expression. The old George was talking; he was raising a cigarette to his lips. "Just like that!" He stares. Unsteadily, he raises a toast to George. After that, he returns to the game.

The next day, I begin the long haul back to Italy. I didn't sleep too well. The winds are making the shutters bang. I keep rising and staring out at the stormy night. Lightning blooms and shakes us. In the morning, the weather has settled. It's cloudy, but quiet. The journey ahead: a bus to a ferry to another ferry to a train to another train, and in a day and a half, I'll find myself in Ravenna.

I stop in Corfu Town, and I walk for a while. I stop by the tomb of Menecrates, a seventh-century BC friend of Corfu's -- not even a citizen, but a representative for his people on the mainland. It's a round bit of limestone masonry, overgrown with grass, sitting inside a shallow well of stone. You can just decipher some ancient Greek inscribed around its low wall. Old Menecrates died at sea.

I also have some time in Igoumenitsa, the town on the mainland where ferries come and go. It's an unremarkable, quiet place that hugs a bit shore inside a rocky bay and climbs the steep mountains behind. At dusk, residents promenade by the bay. You can just make out some sun beaming down on the hilltops of Corfu with colors of its setting. I check my email in a spare place called "La Boheme." It could be anywhere.

And I'm on another deck, this time, on a huge ship going to Ancona. Albania slides sullenly by again. I retreat to my cabin, which is chilly because I opt for an "outside" room, with windows. It's cheaper. The hum makes me sleepy.

And we stand outside Baja, smelling the damp air. Fantu wants to borrow Eman's phone. "Are you kidding?" she asks. As he talks, he gazes up at the glow of the moon that illuminates the fast clouds. It's like he can almost see her.

Friday, May 20, 2005

Travelogue 79 – May 20
Baja and the Bay, Part Two

The waitress is tired from running up and down the stairs at Baja, carrying drinks, bringing checks. We're the only ones up here. Steve wants to argue about the bill. He wants to pay; then I haven't paid enough. He wants the receipt because we talked business, but I protest that now I've paid half the bill. when Nea laughs at us and all is forgotten.

We return to Craig's house, and Eman wants to show me pictures from their trip to -- where else? -- Baja. Last winter, they biked, (motor-,) down from Arizona. I hazily flip through them all. Eman, a petite silhouette in afternoon sunshine, repeatedly steps into blue waters. A jagged island rises from the sea. They snooze on the deck of the ferry from the mainland. A smokestack rises into a thin cohort of clouds. They set off on a barren dirt road. It winds among miles and miles of hills. Craig stands beside his still bike in black leather pants. It's another time.

To get to the western side of Corfu island, you catch a bus near the port. It's only a couple euros, and it leaves on time: the one reliable human phenomenon on the island. You pass some meager suburbs and some grand houses above, red tiled roofs in the hills. And then, the oleander takes over, and the cypress, and the olive, and the blossoming cherry trees. The meadows are bright green and yellow. You pass shady streams under steep hills. You stop at a crossroads, where two old women struggle down the bus steps onto the road.

It's only a little more than a half hour before you are catching glimpses of the western sea. And then you're catching impossible panoramas: wooded bluffs and craggy rocks in the bright blue, agitated waters. You pass glorious bay after glorious bay, wanting to stop, but the bus carries on, faithful to the island's one well-executed duty. You descend into Paleokastritsa right on time. You are one of several disembarking beside a small crescent beach, sheltered by two high arms of rock. Atop one is a monastery, first founded eight hundred years ago, set on the spot where tradition says Odysseus met Nausicaa. Inside the monastery church, you're pushed aside by teenage girls who want to bump their heads against icons.

The first hotel I find is closed, and the Brit working on it, lanky and blonde, loose-jointed as a surfer, tells me it isn't season. Everything but his restaurant is closed for a few more weeks. Wandering around, I find a Greek guy working on another hotel who calls his aunt on his cell phone. He drives me over to her place. She silently and smilingly opens one of her guest rooms. It's spacious and peaceful with a porch overlooking another gorgeous bay, looking over trellises with grape vines, looking over a laughing Greek father and daughter in their courtyard. I'm sure I'll never leave.

I decide upon an exercise of Greek hubris. I'm going to climb the towering, craggy mountain behind the town to reach the 13th century Byzantine castle that you can just discern above. I'm aided by tiny roads that wind among mansions and olive groves. Gradually, the former dwindle; the latter preside. The gnarled olive trees stand peacefully along their terraces, in earth piled behind ancient, low stone walls. There's a shortcut, a steep gravel path going straight up. Soon, I'm climbing among woods offering glimpses of dream-like refuges among every sort of wildflower. I keep climbing. Wheezing, I arrive at a quiet town perched on the side of the mountain, Lakones. Aside from the two-lane highway that will lead me to the castle, there are no roads in the town, only narrow, stepped alleys meandering between houses.

The road winds silently on, through several more villages, none as cute as Lakones, and I begin muttering about the Furies. Buzzards have spotted me and circle. I stumble forward, determined, and somehow, in the late afternoon, I emerge upon a windy bluff opposite the crumbling fortress, isolated on this spire of rock. At the base of the steps I encounter a local couple just getting out of their car. I beg them to drive me back down the hill. Their appearance suggests they're taking a break from a rehearsal of "Grease." He is muscle-bound and regards me with disdain. When he speaks, I wonder if this island is the origin of the Brooklyn accent. I don't ask. They reluctantly, and yet graciously, agree. All the way down, he teases his girlfriend about her driving.

Before we go, I have a chance to stand on the heights, my Herculean labor rewarded. From the vantage of one broken wall, there is only air and sea, the land falling precipitously away. I feel history again. What an odd collection of souls have stood here and seen this sea! I wonder why we can't know each other.

Sunday, May 15, 2005

Travelogue 78 – May 15
Baja and the Bay, Part One

We're back in the Baja, and Nea asks, "Now, why is it we're always coming here?" There's not much to recommend the place. It's a bland, two-story bar and restaurant, vaguely Mexican in theme, almost always empty. You rarely see the same server twice. We're alone upstairs and no one's turned on the lights up here. Outside, a dark day is collapsing into evening's darkness. It's still raining. This morning, I went running right after waking, and it took me about a half mile to realize something was wrong. My hands were red and raw; the light rain cut into my skin. I stopped and looked into the sky. Is this May? The temperatures are down around freezing.

Ah, yes, the Baja. It's where I go on my first night out in Minneapolis. Since last year, they've opened up the bottom floor so there's a dance floor. That night, gay men are line-dancing. Otherwise, the place is empty. I stare, and I tell Craig to rush the $2 margaritas. Culture shock is descending.

Tonight, it’s Craig and Eman who are dancing. They sway and tilt across the second floor's carpet. They're pleasant to watch, particularly as Craig is a good foot and a half taller than Eman, and because Eman's smile is so radiant. She cries out, "I saw you on Channel Six," and has another laughing fit. It's her favorite joke tonight. A man in her building told her he saw her on Channel Six. That's the cable channel where building residents can watch the video from the lobby and the elevators.

Eman's building is always entertaining. We tease her that it takes longer to get from the parking lot up to her apartment than it takes to drive across town. First, you stand in the lobby, waiting for someone to let you in the building. It's the accepted practice; no one actually has a key. Then you wait for the elevator among a burgeoning crowd of Hmong and Somalis and Mexicans and all their children. The elevator clunks to a stop at every floor up to number nineteen, Eman's floor. They all look the same, like an abandoned hospital complex, with someone waiting and glancing in, like their mother's plane has just arrived. You walk down the hall to the tune of five languages from behind the doors, five different ways to scold kids.

But here we are at the Baja. I order more nachos on Steve's credit card. He scowls. He complains about the margaritas. The waitress tells us they've run out of the proper mix, and the manager has locked the liquor closet and left. Some swaggering ganglanders are being guided through by another employee I don't recognize. It seems they're thinking of trashing the place to celebrate a wedding. I regale my crowd with stories from Ethiopia, of failed romances and foiled ideas. I happily gather their advice, knowing I haven't the will power to obey. I make them laugh with my nightmare of being trapped forever inside an Ethiopian greeting: "How are you? Are you fine? How's your family? Is work good? How are you?" I'm thinking, with some measure of kinship, about the Chinese man just released from prison after his murdered wife showed up alive. The lights flicker, glare, go out. Nea says she's figured out why I like the Baja. "It's weird."

At another bar a world away, I comment to David that it must get crazy when summer comes. Tonight, the bar is empty but for me and David and George and a few locals. David is a stocky, retired, good-natured Brit, a regular here. There are a lot of Brits on the island of Corfu. George is the owner, a short and bald Greek with a hazy smile, husband to the gorgeous tall, blonde Brit behind the bar. It's the only place to eat in this small town. I had schnitzel. It's what they're serving -- what can I say? This morning, I've taken a bus out of Corfu Town. I'm now on the western shore of the island. Outside, dark under a wintry sky, is one of the prettiest little bays I've ever seen, one of about three or four on this town's rocky coast. David nods amiably. He says he doesn't mind it. He likes meeting people. He sees it as a service to the bar for being so kind to him. He chats up the tourists. I take a sip from my kumquat brandy, enchanted with its bright orange color and flavor. George returns to his card game.

Tuesday, May 10, 2005

Travelogue 77 – May 10
Somewhere in Old Corfu Town

The mantra on the radio is fifty percent chance of rain. It has been for days. We drift under slow clouds that threaten, that sprinkle, that move on and allow teasing spots of sun, that muffle the sparse signs of life in Minnesota. It’s neither warm nor cold. You don the jacket; you shake it off. It’s suddenly humid and suddenly brisk. The treetops sway, bright green with new growth, whispering timelessly. You drift along wide roads, the sides of which are yellow with dandelions. You pass hedges of lilacs, blooming with tiny purple cones that are stingy with their scent. They’re not Greek bushes. In Corfu Town, the lilacs are luxurious, light violet and large as bunches of grapes. They lie across the tops of balconies and their scent permeates the squares.

I drift across the channel in the early morning. An indeterminate storm is coming or going. It’s chilly. I watch the approach to Corfu with an interest that’s stifled by the grey weather, and that is strained by my money anxiety. I’m floating somewhere far away; that is, nowhere; that is, somewhere between spots on the globe, with no money in my pocket. I haven't eaten since the cash machines said no.

Corfu is a long, thin island hugging the Greek coast. Approaching, you're between two long coasts stretching out of sight. A brown morning smog hangs over Corfu Town. Kerkyra, by the way, is the local term for island and town. When you're close enough, the town jumps out at you. You see the old Venetian fort perched above cliffs atop a rocky peninsula. Behind is the scenic town, white walls, yellow walls, brown tiles. Across the bay are high mountains. You pass the fort and watch the town unfold along the coast. You're somewhere again.

Right off the boat, I dive into the nearest neighborhood, looking for a hotel and for an internet café where I can check for responses from my bank. It's not the tourist part of town. Off the seaside road, it's hushed. Old people shuffle by. Short buildings decay quietly. I'm on my way to discovering two facts about the island. The first is that hotels are scarce. The second is about service. I find a place labeled "Internet Café." Inside, a row of gruff guys at the counter turn to stare. When I ask about computers, the barista shrugs and gestures toward empty tables. "I see. Well, do you know where …?" He shrugs again. I get the same response at the hotel, once I find one that takes credit cards. "You'll have to go into town." No kidding.

It's all eventually settled. I find an internet place, a sudden, smoky haven of European coolness amid the lazy, old town. I find the blessed magic cash machine. I find the cheese pie and frothy cappuccino. I'm free to wander in a glutted, blissful fog around the streets. Head toward the fort's peninsula and you cross into Old Town in the blink of an eye. Prices jump, the condition of buildings improves, tourists appear. The streets narrow and become beautiful. You're back in Italy. The island was, after all, Venetian for hundreds of years. The gorgeous plaza underneath the fort, with green lawns and lined with cafes, is called the Spianada, and the oldest neighborhood, right behind it, is called the Campiello.

The Brits left their mark, too, in the early nineteenth century. Their statues stand in the Spianada. You'll find there a circular, pillared monument that may fool you for a moment, if you don't notice what good shape it's in. 1816: erected in honor of Sir Thomas Maitland. My favorite British relic stands on the site of the old fort, the church of St. George, an 1840 structure in Doric style. You see it from the ferry, like something from the Athenian Agora, but gleaming in suspiciously good health. Two thousand years have treated it well! I laugh when I finally stand beneath it. There's something so British, so Byronic and earnest about it. You can sense their thrill and the solemn duty they bring to being stationed on Greek soil.

There is something Greek on the island, too, believe it or not. I enter the sixteenth century church of St. Spyridon, the one with the lovely clock belfry that you can see from the ferry, yellow with a red dome. Like most Greek Orthodox churches, the interior is quite dazzling with silver and gold and crowds of icons. A group of high schoolers are sharing the space with me. I become entranced by a book encased in silver when I'm nearly bowled over by the teenage girls. They tap me on the shoulder and push by. I should have remembered from Ethiopia how the Orthodox have to kiss and bump their heads against everything. They line up to kiss the book, and then move on to each of a series of huge icons by the altar. It's nice to witness these strange marks reverence from teenagers, as they brush their big Euro hair aside to kiss the saints.

Thursday, May 05, 2005

Travelogue 76 – May 5
Between the Lakes and Deep, Blue Sea

I’m back in Minnesota! Even in spring, arrival into MN is like being dropped into deep, powdery snow, into a roar of silence, into enforced meditation. Even downtown is a bit of a cloister walk. I seem to have arrived just as spring does. The locals tell me there were some warm days in early April, but each of the few days I’ve been here have been ten degrees warmer than the last, under blue skies. I’m tempted sometimes to doff the jacket! Minnesotans are quietly exuberant. The geese are out with their babies. I treat myself to a walk along the river shore, and there they are: mom hissing at me, and the fuzzy babies scurrying and pecking among the new grasses. The goslings have no adult markings in their canary yellow down: all innocence. The robins are hopping about, as are the bunnies, gearing up for the feast and riot of Minnesota spring. The college boys next door to Craig are exhibiting similar behaviors, primping on their porch with rosy cheeks and eyes duller than one might expect from university students, bathing in rock that was bad twenty years ago.

I’ve enacted a certain ritual of hope myself today: I bought a cell phone! Amazing what love will lead one to do. Everything that that little lozenge of electronics embodies is wrong, most essentially the idea of unlimited accessibility, unlimited communication. Why would a writer object to communication? Because I believe in words used sparingly and beautifully. Maybe I’ve become a little too fond of the rare Minnesota sky, so wide and clean. I think the collective human mind is best when it reflects such a sky. Owning a cell phone implies that there really is that much to say. But love led me into this business – love of Leeza and love of the kids. And talk is the grease of the money machine. I’ll pretend.

The guy behind the counter makes an elaborate show of boredom. Every sentence expires with a sigh. He slouches heavily on his stool, twisting slightly left, slightly right, eyes on the street outside, watching the spring spring in the step of the ladies. His answers are precise, as are every motion in the subsequent sale. There’s something of the wicked cynicism of a drug sale to the encounter, even in the suggestion of a smirk when he passes the instrument across the counter. “There you are.” “Money?” I say. He says I’ll be billed, with the same evil confidence. That’s that. My God, what have I done? Outside, I pause on the sidewalk, feeling the sullied kinship with humanity that the husband feels in his furtive cigarette at the bar. Oh, but that analogy no longer applies in Minnesota, I hear. Indoor smoking? Outlawed! Last night at Frankie’s, nearly as many stood outside the front door as inside it. This crusade leaves me a little cold, to say nothing of these poor saps once winter comes around again. But Americans love their bursts of temperance.

Oh, I’m in a didactic mood, aren’t I? And I’ve left the story of my trip hanging. Last I heard of myself, I believe I was suspended above the Adriatic Sea as Apollo spreads rosy-fingered dawn across the wine-colored hills. And I will don my helmet as Ilium heaves into view. Or maybe it’s just Igoumenitsa, and all I have is a baseball cap that fares poorly against the sharp winds. I retreat back inside the ferry to stand with the growing crowd of tourists by the exit, waiting for our arrival at the wharf and the lowering of the doors, through which we disembark alongside the rumbling trucks.