Saturday, May 20, 2006

Travelogue 136 – May 13

In the last week I've walked along the banks of three rivers: the Tiber, the Thames, and the Mississippi. The waters, the colors of moss and storms and mud, the curling eddies, flow on. I’m Caesar, Tudor, Sioux and more: in other words, irrelevant.

The skies in Minnesota today are exhilarating. Angry grey masses intrude upon the blue, dropping half-hour doses of rain on the city. Strong gusts blow. After each set of clouds passes, we get steamy sunshine.

London was touched by a bit of the wild last weekend. A sort of storm moved among us. I came upon it three times in three days -- at Whitehall, at Trafalgar Square, at Piccadilly. I sense it as I approach: a swelling of sound among the buildings, a crowd, a feeling of something oversized.

The first time I see it is no accident. Neil leads us to it. Neil and Pete work in Mayfair, on Cork Street, famous for its art galleries. Pete has met an ageing Stone, aspiring painter, across the street. We cross Piccadilly, run by St. James Square, down to the Pall Mall. The crowd is thick at the Horse Guards’ Parade – where an elephant slumbers.

Slowly, at the show’s appointed hour, the elephant stirs. It rises and it stretches it trunk out. It roars. The elephant’s face is carved from wood. So are its back and sides. Its guts are metal and run by several men in Indian garb sitting in chairs and pushing levers. It stands and the crowd backs away. It begins its trek across London, spouting water through its trunk at screeching children. Riding on its back are Sherlock Holmes and a belly dancer.

The girl has a wooden face, too, and she blinks like the elephant does. She moves with more grace than most puppets, even though she's the height of about three men. She sits astride a red London tour bus and follows the elephant.

The girl arrived in a spacecraft that looks like a barrel of stout with portals. It has crashed into the street just off Pall Mall. We passed the capsule on the way. It smokes and the asphalt is buckled around it. Very convincing.

This is street theatre, a production by a French troupe called Royal de Luxe. The elephant has already stalked the streets of Nantes, and now it spends a weekend in London. The show is a hit, judging by the crowds that gather for it. They follow with wonder. There's a Jules Verne story behind the strange, gargantuan cast, but it hardly matters.

I doubt that Verne wrote about the band pulled behind the elephant on a cart. On the first day, there's a British rocker and his ensemble -- he has the craggy face of an eighty year-old under his stylish African hat, but he moves like a stiff twenty year-old.

On paper, this wizardry would have made me skeptical, but enjoying it firsthand with the tykes on their daddies' shoulders, seeing the craft in the manufacture of the puppets, and most of all, seeing giants lumbering among the streets of London, was sweet. It awakened a sense of whimsy. It broke through in the way it was meant to.

Suddenly I'm back in America. I feel a bit like a lumbering pachyderm myself here -- not in any sense of size or majesty, but of clumsiness and dissonance. I ride to Craig's from the airport on the light rail, and study faces. They seem lost. These aren't the composed and purposeful riders of the Tube, or the grumpy cast of the Roman Metro. The eyes seem eloquently empty.

I'm riding my bike between rain showers today. I take shelter from one shower in the doorway of the new Guthrie Theater. The hard blue exterior is nearly finished. I peer in and watch shadowy workers pick their way among the detritus of construction. Above me is the bloated face of George Bernard Shaw, one story tall. Beside him is Chekhov. Together we watch the progress of the rain across the surface of the river.

Saturday, May 06, 2006

Travelogue 135 – May 6
La Pazza Vita

Loyal readers: I have to play a little catch-up. Travel has been intense. Some of you know I've left Rome already, but there was this little entry remaining to post from my time there. Sorry about the delay.

Statuario is a pretty neighborhood, but not one of the most convenient. It’s twenty minutes walk to the nearest internet and phone. It’s forty minutes by bus. Or a couple days, depending on politics. The other day, I waited an hour at a very pleasant bus stop. I had glimpsed something in the newspaper the week before about a sciopero, a strike, but I figured I would hear something more definite when the time came. I figured someone passing might mention it to me. I saw one bus go by the other way a long time ago....

I give up on going downtown, and I walk to the internet place. "Oh! There’s our American friend! God bless America," shouts ‘John’ in his thick Albanian accent. Short, haggard and shaggy, ‘John’ is permanently unshaven and always smoking. His sister or cousin – the story changes – runs the shop. I'm not sure his name is 'John'; he laughs when he offers it.

I’m fortunate today; the internet place is open on the first try. Usually this is a two-stop errand. The place will be mysteriously closed. Next try it will be "My American friend," and long discourses about life and work in Europe. Twice I have to call England, and twice I hear word for word the same bromide, with even the same hand motion, sandwiching the stale shop's air in front of his stomach. "It is rare to find both wisdom and courage in the same man." This is what England inspires in 'John'.

He isn't happy in Italy, after four years. "In the West, they say they are free. This is free? Free for what?" The Italians are up at sunrise to work and home late, only to lock themselves in with their families. This offends 'John'. He prefers Greece, where he lived for nine years. "They will take time to make their lives pleasurable, to play and indulge themselves in their mutual friendships."

Putin, he tells me -- in the same sententious tones as his remark about the British, Putin has warned that 'democracy' is just another weapon in the arsenal of the US and UK. I sympathize, though I have to tell him Putin doesn't win my award for most honorable world leader. 'John' shrugs.

When I log on the internet there, a porn site comes up first. When I open my email, 'John' stands behind me. He sways as he sets his glasses on his nose and reads my messages. I don't mind. I don't have many options in the neighborhood -- even for phone calls.

My landlord doesn’t have a landline. I took my British mobile into a local shop, also some twenty minutes away, and the boy couldn't help. He took the set apart like a soldier with his gun, being timed. He replaced the card, but the phone wouldn't take it. He shakes his head and that's that.

I stash the phone in my bag and console myself with coffee and a cornetto, sitting outside the caffe, admiring the gardens and the pastel houses with tiled roofs. Three old men are yelling about soccer. A bus halts in the narrow road while the driver gets coffee. Cars honk. Scooters race by like wasps.

I stop in a neighborhood outdoor market. Under tents, vendors sell fruits and household items out of boxes. Victim of packing under a hangover, I need underwear. I'm uncomfortable asking the young tough behind his tables about the 'slips', as they call their underwear here. He's amenable, handling his variety of 'slips' for my benefit. He shoves a few in a box, and he counts back my change in a palm glistening with snot. He notices and wipes it on his pants with a wink.

Monday, May 01, 2006

Travelogue 134 – May 1
I Fiori, Part Two

A teenage boy asks me directions. I’ve had a string of these encounters lately. An old man asks me what ‘zona’ we’re in. An old woman stops her car beside me with her map unfolded in her lap. The boy I can answer. “Where is Via Squillace?” We have to shout over the traffic of the Via Appia Nuova. Keep going, I tell him. It’s across from le rovine, the ruins.

The Via Squillace is the Main Street of my little suburban village near the southern edge of Rome. The ‘zona’ is called Statuario, by the way, which I think is quite evocative. It’s got everything I need, cafes and markets. I’ve settled in among the stares quite comfortably. I haven’t been into the center of Rome for days.

Eric writes to ask why they stare. In a hundred years I could never fit in. The Italians have a keen sense for who is one of them, particularly in the south. And among northern Italians, Rome is known for its provincialism. If my looks weren’t a red flag, then one word, even in my very best Italian, would provoke the sour look. The good news is, once you have submitted to your disgrace, and have shown your face a few more times, they warm up to you – to a point.

The ruins that I guide the boy by are across the broad, crazy Via Appia Nuova from the terminus of my little Main Street. They occupy the top of a green hill surrounded by wide peaceful meadows. Skeletal and ghostly bits of wall stand, tall and red, empty walls and the high, round brick arches that they frame. This was the country villa of the Quintili, a noble family of ancient Rome. On the other side, across more silent meadows, the estate still has a gate on the ancient Appian way.

It’s a place for ghosts, and I can almost sense them. These aren’t the scary kind. These ghosts are purified by the ages, living where there are no roofs. They wear white and make elegant, solitary promenades among the grounds, reminiscing about the baths and the feasts and the poisonings. They craft long, ironic odes. They sleep for centuries.

I’m pretty tired myself these days. I’ve started running again. My comrades in London have signed me up for a 10K this summer. I might just finish two kilometers if the race were today, with an embarrassing effort of sweat and fury.

I run the other direction out of Statuario, away from the ghosts on the hill, down several typical Italian streets, where there are no sidewalks and the space between parked cars is just enough for a speeding Fiat to shave your thighs. There are several tiny underpasses under railroad tracks that you enter blindly because the meandering road veers into them. You hold your breath and dive in. If you survive the first one, you enter a small pocket of countryside, jogging between two flat green fields. If you survive the second, you enter the park.

Here you find more rovine, though I think any ghosts have been chased away by the kids playing soccer, with all the usual Italian vocalizations. Here you discover a long and lovely segment of an aqueduct built by the Emperor Claudius. Maybe it’s the adrenalin from having emerged alive from the hazards of an Italian roadway; maybe it’s the adrenalin of challenging fate with one more bone-rattling, heart-pounding run, but the sight is glorious. The arches of the aqueduct stretch across your field of vision, grey and weather-beaten, crumbling and clumsy with age, but beautiful nonetheless.

Between you and the aqueduct are rich meadows, so full of flowers that their shades of yellow overwhelm the green of the grass and make a brilliant concoction that makes you hungry. They are thick as foam on the shore, or bubbles in your spumante. Among the yellow are reds of poppies and the purple of some thistle flowers. Beyond and underneath the arches is a small grove of olive trees. You’re floating now. You run beside the square columns and overlook the sea of honey, and the pain is washed away.