Monday, April 24, 2006

Travelogue 133 – April 24
I Fiori, Part One

It’s back to being stared at. Lucia lives in the far periphery of Rome, and residents aren’t subtle about their surprise. I pass a small, red-haired old lady in the cafe, and she turns all the way around to watch me walk to my seat. I would like to believe they’re all wondering about my power, grace and beauty, but I have a hunch it’s a different thought that motivates them. I don’t know Italian for ‘freak’.

Lucia lives very close to the Ciampino airport, where I arrive, but I still have to go into town to meet her. It’s easier that way. I enjoy the bus ride into the center. It’s afternoon. The air is warm and fragrant. We swing past fields dotted with poppies and daisies, down roads lined by the maritime pines so characteristic of Rome, with their high, flat crowns of gentle green. Enormous lilac blossoms hang from fences. We enter the ancient city walls under a narrow brick arch.

And so I’m back in Rome. The next day is a deep baptism. I take my first ride on a Vespa. Well, a scooter, as Lucia would point out. It’s not the Vespa brand. She is going into town, and I hitch a ride on back. Immediately, we’re weaving among traffic at 50. I’m trapped in her spare helmet, trying to hang on, though she has lost her foot pegs, and trying not to bump her helmet with mine when she brakes. I’m laughing the whole way, though I can easily imagine the mess I would make on the road with the least miscalculation.

She drops me at a Metro station. This isn’t the London tube. It’s dingy. There’s graffiti on everything. No one waits for people to disembark first. Passengers freely check each other out. They do have one strange tradition that may or may not arise from courtesy: if their station is next, they move toward the doors immediately after doors close. In a crowded car, that makes for a second and seemingly unnecessary shuffling of position at every stop. But when in Rome ....

Of course, in the center of Rome, not so many do as the Romans do. It’s spring, and the tourists are taking charge. The great irony about tourists is their self-absorption. They parade in noisy groups, afraid of eye contact. They comfort each other with a steady line of quips, and mediate with guidebooks and cameras. They have little sense of physical space or of the lives going on around them, wading through local traffic obliviously. And yet, with all these defense mechanisms in fierce deployment, they are nervous and greedy and distracted.

On Sunday morning, the tourists meet their match. The little old ladies are out. They plow along the streets in squads, burrowing onto the Metro and onto buses with amazing muscle. It’s best to stay alert. You will get hurt in Rome getting trapped between these two armies, the belligerently happy tourists and the grim, God-fearing matrons.

But I digress. My first full day in Rome ends with an expedition to Lake Albano, south of the city, with Lucia and her friends. It’s night so I don’t see much. It’s a weeknight, so we have the restaurant near the water to ourselves. We indulge in course after course of local specialties. Everything is meat and cheese, except for the artichokes and eggplant. There is prosciutto, porchetta, sausages, mozarella, some sort of breaded cheese, and lots of bread. Behind us, lights from across the lake play on the surface. The reflections come to us though shadows of leaves

Italians don’t need wine to encourage conversation, but the red stuff does turn up the volume and the laughter a notch or two. I’m quickly reminded that I don’t know Italian. Lucia is a teacher, and she knows how to speak to foreigners; my confidence was up. Now, the language flows like a Renaissance fountain. I admire the bubbling sound. Francesco and Maurizio launch into long stories that have everyone in stitches. Francesco weaves brilliant, breathless sentences that would fill pages of prose, all of it a kind of dreamy improvisation. He is finally checked by the ladies, who would like some air time.

Whether the wine improves their fluency, I can’t say, but it does improve listening comprehension. I sink into a beatific hypnotic state, and I understand. They’re talking politics. Francesco tells me about the old days when he and Guido had long hair and got into fistfights with the fascists in their housing complex. He’s falling into harlequin-Homeric rhythms again, and I’m keeping up.

It’s late. We have to have coffee. In three cars, we weave among the hills of Albano. Maurizio loses us. We outpace Francesco. There are conferences among our mobiles. We converge on Castel Gandolfo, a village above Albano, which Renaissance popes used as a retreat from the city. There’s nothing there. We race down to the quaint center of Albano, where we find an open caffe. Urgently, we toss back espresso and chatter. Sabienna from Albania is telling me how much she loves Italy. Her teeth are stained with wine.

Piacere. Buona notte. We’re off down the hill. Guido is upset with his date, who is riding with Francesco now, though she lives in Guido’s building. There are a lot of words about this. My magic wine is wearing off. I watch the streetlights and wonder how none of the roads are straight.

Monday, April 17, 2006

Travelogue 132 – April 17
Boxes and Tubes

Easter Sunday, the tourists are still out. The streets of London are crowded, and many venues are open. Over my coffee, I try to remember what we Americans do on Easter. What were holidays about? I ask myself. The tourists will say it’s about touring.

My own touring continues. The day before Easter, Jayne invites us for an afternoon visit to an exhibition in the Somerset House. The Somerset House is an exhibit in itself, a turn-of-the-century governmental mansion on the Thames, with an impressive cobble-stoned courtyard inside. All this, you reflect, built for Inland Revenue. Serene classical stone for a corps of accountants. So be it. Now it’s a stop on the museum circuit.

Inside is a show of Russian photography from the 20s and earlier. They are remarkable little dreams, silver and sepia ghosts from a strange era – young dancers acting out myths and spells, dark peasants lost inside a haze of centuries. The art itself survives as a fragile moment between the czars and the Soviets. There is something to mourn in each tiny square.

Wander into the next set of small, dim rooms, and you’re confronted with quite a different world, the sparkle of aristocratic Europe strutting in powdered wigs. It’s a collection of snuff boxes. Dazzling spectacles these small items are, – (and yet hardly pocket-size; I wonder who carries these kits around) – caked with diamonds, sculpted ivory and gold, colorful enamel, and oval portraits or pastorals in miniature. I’m hypnotized. The gems are lit in such a way that they come to life.

One evening, I explore Notting Hill. “Since the movie,” Jayne says, the neighborhood has become even more chic and expensive. That’s the strange logic of modern cities. It’s cute, I decide, but it has that introverted, immaculate uniformity I’ve observed in all the wealthy neighborhoods in the West End.

By an odd set of circumstances, I have found myself in possession of a free ticket to a small but prestigious theatre in Notting Hill, the Gate Theatre. Below is a pub full of Hugh Grant wannabes. Upstairs is a confined little venue, recognizable the world over as the ubiquitous and magical black box. But this is England!

The show consists of two short plays by Pinter, who has himself participated in rehearsals, to the extent that a very old man with cancer can. The scripts are a bit tired, honestly – windows into the modernist-becoming-postmodernist mind, messages of meaningless, or meaningless messages about meaning, with meaning and for the meaning, or some such overwrought conundrum. An old man and wife air baskets of desperate alienation for the benefit of a silent, old beggar.

Fortunately, we haven’t transcended flesh-and-blood directors and actors yet, and their sensitivity and their beautiful voices rescue a story or a whole collection of stories from the morass. I am transported.

After the curtain, there is the London Tube. Always there is the London Tube.

An old black man sits across from me. He wears a sporty plaid cap. He’s compact; his fingernails are long. His eyes are warm and thoughtful. He can’t sit still. He fidgets even more fretfully as we enter King’s Cross station. He can’t contain himself. He tells the black ladies next to him in a Caribbean lilt, “This is the first stop from Jamaica. This is the stop.” They are confused. “After the plane and then the train...” Oh, they say, this was the first place you saw in London. That’s nice. He nods, and he watches the station disappear again. He settles into happy thoughts.

I’m waiting at a station, almost as far as Hackney. The overland trains are infrequent. There’s an old, ruddy-faced man on a nearby bench. He wears a luxuriant, chestnut wig. His two front teeth remain to him, though they are chipped and have absorbed their fair share of tobacco.

In a soft brogue, he informs me that things have become decidedly worse of late. People are aggressive; old and young can’t get along. “There was a day we didn’t have to lock our doors in Dublin.” All this is delivered mildly and with an incongruous chuckle. “There’s jealousy over women, men fighting over the ladies. There are these contraceptives. Now,” he wags a finger, “there was none of that when I was young. No.” He shakes his head gleefully.

When the train comes, he doesn’t board, but moves to a new bench. Inside, I sit across from an enormous black kid in a stocking cap and his Arab friend with a thin black beard. I try to imagine what they look like without earphones.

Monday, April 10, 2006

Travelogue 131 – April 10
Space and Domes

Skies have been blue. The clouds make way for sunshine. It races across the city, making sidewalks white and warming my back. I take this opportunity to indulge in one of my deepest longings and most secret fantasies from the long months in Ethiopia: I take long walks in the park.

I go to Green Park, sandwiched between elegant Mayfair on one side and Buckingham Palace on the other. I walk the length of it several times, soaking in the beauty of man’s work, the height of imperial architecture on my right, while I revel in the quiet green spaces to my left. The cherry trees are blossoming. The other trees are beginning to bud. Banks of daffodils stand here and there, swaying bright yellow in the fragile sunshine.

Green Park isn’t big enough. I want more space to celebrate my freedom from African claustrophobia. I pass under the huge arch of the Wellington monument, across the river of traffic, and into Hyde Park. Here there is room. I return several days in a row to explore the avenues, paths, gardens, and broad meadows. It’s the perfect balm to my space-starved soul.

In the northeastern corner of the park is Speaker’s Corner. I stop by several times, expecting to find ranters round the clock. There’s nothing, no podium, no pentacle. Eventually I find out that speakers are only allowed on Sundays. Somehow that dilutes the spirit of the thing. I return on Sunday. There’s an African American Muslim on a small stepladder crying out against abortion. Freedom of speech was never pretty. There is a crowd around him, but the majority of them are facing the other way, taking pictures of the vast parkland ahead of them.

I’ve walked along most of the paths they’re capturing for dusty photo albums. And yet, in hours of exploration, I’ve only charted about half of the park, the eastern half. At my furthest point west, I can make out the shallow dome of the Royal Albert Hall.

Craig has a deal in his London passbook for tickets to Carmina Burana at the Royal Albert Hall. A group of us attends, venturing into the heady environs of Kensington, playground to the visionary and the rich in Victoria’s day. The Royal Albert Hall is a vision, round delicacy of brick and terracotta. In a band around one high level is a Greek-style frieze in terracotta, in which artisans of all types ply their trades, some in Victorian duds, some in ancient robes.

Inside is crimson grace and wide open spaces. Above us is an intriguing, ancient-seeming loggia that I vow to explore after the show and don’t. The symphony and several choruses enter. First, we get a Stravinsky that I think I understand. That’s a comfort. During intermission we taste wine and stand on plush carpets, contemplating the handsome youth that Prince Albert was. Primed with vino rosso, one settles into one’s crimson seat and surrenders to the red Gothic strains of Orff’s little ditty. Afterward, you can only blink. It seems the world is a dramatic place after all. You sigh with the burden of inspiration, wondering where and how quickly you can ditch it.

Outside, Kensington strives for its mood of grandeur. All kinds of sand castles survive the tides. Immediately outside is a quiet plaza surrounded by a variety of Victorian layer cakes. Behind the hall, in the park, is another monument to the dashing prince, the Albert Memorial, a colorful, neo-Gothic spire cum canopy for the golden man. His gilding and the gold spread liberally over this Christmas ornament shines with a recent burnishing. At four corners stand the usual clusters of conquered races. I don’t see any familiar faces among the Americans, nor among the Africans. The latter exposes an unexpected vein of grief, and I flee.

Down the hill toward the tube station, between stately rows of flats that suggest levels of delirious wealth, through museum crowds, and between the various bastions of restless empire: the Victoria and Albert Museum, the Imperial College, the Natural History Museum. The latter is a very pretty example, by the way, of 19th century England’s fetish for medievalism.

I can recommend another dome in London. I’m a regular visitor to the British Museum, where one of the world’s finest collections of antiquities is housed. I pay my respects in the chapel of the Marbles. I challenge Assyrian winged bulls. I rub shoulders with the crowd around the Rosetta Stone.

I head out into the courtyard. The museum is four large galleries placed around a huge courtyard that was redesigned for the queen’s jubilee six years ago. It’s an imposing courtyard, austere cream stone under a glass ceiling. In the center is the old reading room, round and domed like the Royal Albert Hall. But the color scheme is blue.

It’s a beautiful room, designed in the 1850s by a couple showoffs named Panizzi and Smirke. The dome just exceeds the width of that of St. Paul’s. It rises above the three layers of stacks that line the walls, baby blue with gold trim, above high arched windows, up to disc of glazed glass at the top.

Below, reading tables upholstered in blue leather radiate from the central librarian’s hub. Notable are the quaint fold-out reading stands for each reader. There’s an air of silence and reverence inside that overcomes the whispers and cameras of tourists, who are contained within a small area by the door. The ghosts of great readers sit beside you. Especially popular among the staff is Karl Marx, who was a daily visitor in his day.

Monday, April 03, 2006

Travelogue 130 – April 3

I’m waiting for Craig under Nelson’s column in Trafalgar Square. Craig is arriving from Minneapolis. He’ll be the first person from home I’ve seen in almost a year. I’ve only just arrived from Bath an hour ago.

Peaceful Bath, limestone yellow and elegant Bath, nestled in among the western hills, hills so green they glow, nestled in under clouds quiet and fast. Peaceful Bath, and yet I feel beleaguered by the fiery purpose in everyone’s eyes and pace. The blonde headmaster at our sister school sits on the table’s edge and leans in. She shoots questions and interrupts answers. Her smile is sincere and deliberate. Her interest is real and clocked. I rally, but the ritual is so purposeful as to be meaningless. A successful meeting feels a bit empty as you are rushed out the door. I suppose we console ourselves by proliferating the meetings.

London is grey. I don’t expect any less, and indeed the prospect of grey skies is comforting. It’s a relief, like the blessed anonymity on the streets. No one among the stream of faces finds me worth a second glance. I’m happy.

The mottled grey in the sky inspires me. There’s something noble about it. It’s a sensible nobility, nobility that only blows bugles when absolutely necessary. Daylight is rationed. When it breaks through we smile, but we don’t skip. When it passes, we aren’t fazed. We walk; we don’t run. Light is measured and understated. It will last that way. There will be light left for Jesus when he comes. He comes as a street sweeper. Leave the dramatics for the Italians.

There’s nothing unsteady about the patchy sky, nothing fickle about the breezes. They impart a sense of endurance. They say that all endures in Britain. They tell us to be comfortable with time. Everything passes into the sea, so be at ease. This is undoubtedly the key to the Brits’ legendary aura of dignity. It’s another source of relief for an American raised to challenge time like a rival gunslinger. Guess who wins.

London perseveres. Everything speaks of it: the proliferation of long streets replete with centuries of monuments in stone; the victorious facades of houses, public buildings, and theatres; this rich world of clean, brown brick; even the constellations of faces and languages one passes through on the streets, progeny of empire. That London survives has comforted many a Brit who incontinently has let mortality trouble him. I can sense that.

Nelson stands unperturbed, his gaze directed out toward the Thames and toward Parliament, despite the indignities at his feet. Scaffolding has risen around the base of his column; and the monstrous, black lions so fond of posing with tourists are bound in by a blue barrier during restoration.

At least his back is turned to the latest addition to the square’s otherwise grand statuary, a modern monstrosity in white marble. She turns away from the square, appropriately. The face is blank and lacking all character. She’s pregnant – and naked (need I add that?) Her arms are shriveled stumps, and her legs are stunted. The artist can’t leave well enough alone. He inflicts upon us a statement, something about the model and his renewed faith in life and.... Nelson watches the cloud cover as it follows the currents of the river.

Craig arrives. In the evening, we dive into the stream of time with our local friends, dodging into various pubs off Fleet Street, skipping among centuries in pubs that were banks and courts, finally arriving at one of the earliest specimens, Ye Old Cheshire Cheese, a set of rooms in dark, undulating wood that may have been frequented by Dr. Johnson, whose house is a few blocks away. The sign outside says, “Rebuilt 1667.”

The tiny rooms are stacked four levels high. Many of them are reserved for private parties. Below street level, the walls dissolve into indistinct, rounded shadows to match the burgeoning haze from your smoky pints. You contemplate the bare bellies of working class girls who might think they’re on TV, or the big bellies of scriveners in ill-fitting button-down shirts who shout when they laugh. There’s a voice like the good doctor’s in your head as you take the measure of your fellow man.