Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Travelogue 281 – May 27

I’m back in medieval Italia – and more convinced than ever that it’s the Middle Ages that remain triumphant in Italia, the birthplace of that era’s antithesis, the Rinascimento, renunciation of everything Gothic and ‘dark’.

I’m led away from the Italian capital, from my tender-hearted city of condottieri, new classicism, corruption, and the Counter Reformation, my humble town of baroque and rococo, Rafaello, Bernini, and Michelangelo, by a quirk of modern, internet travel.The cheapest route between two points in summer is a small line: a light thread held tight by a small airline traveling between two small cities. Rather than join the cattle drive between capitals, I’ve booked a cosy hop from Pisa to Bristol that costs only a few dollars more than the mandatory fees and taxes. (Though, with trains and hotels, I’m probably breaking even.) I’m happily counting my pennies saved on the train ride to Pisa, humming along to the Tuscan landscape, when the conductor informs me that I forgot to stamp my ticket at the station. Forty euro penalta! I’m no longer humming. I’m brooding along with the rain clouds gathering over the Tuscan hills.

I’ve been to Pisa once before, about five years ago. It was another pass-through. I wasn’t drawn by the Leaning Tower. I was drawn by geography: the coast, and the necessity of connecting two trains. I did walk around the Campo dei Miracoli, where the duomo and the famous tower are located, and I was impressed. I was impressed again this time, though the flavor of the place struck me differently, leaving an aftertaste of spice from the Orient. It is beautiful architecture, but kind of bizarre in its prolific detail of design. There is a strong element of Muslim decoration here. In any case, it’s a wonderful park, with lots of space for lots of tourists, and wide, tempting lawns that give employment to guards.

This time, I have a long day in Pisa, and I’m well rested. I decide to tour the sights. Preliminary report: it’s one of my favorite little towns in Italia. Smaller than you would think, comfortable, and scenic. And medieval: seems like the Rinascimento sailed overhead. And what’s more: lots of people on bikes. It’s a university town.

Once you’ve marveled at the Muslim-Gothic architecture of the duomo, and you’ve posed with your hands out, holding up the leaning tower, here are the must-sees of Pisa. Head back to the Arno. It’s a cute little riverfront, and you’re forgiven for taking joy from nothing else but the promenade. But you might as well mix in a little history. If you walk left along the far shore, having come from the duomo, you will have an opportunity to add another jewel to your Knights Templar tour, the church of San Sepolcro. Besides having a cool name, it has a lengthy history, being built some time in the 12th century. It’s an octagonal structure, following the usual Templar plan, simple in design, and inside it consists of little more than an ambulatory around a central apse and altar. My sentimentality for these Templar churches is just these symmetrical blueprints, roughly circular, which echo Middle Eastern and, indeed, Ethiopian, church designs. But, dating back to the earliest days of Templar history as the church does, I’d bet my collection of Atlantean crystals that there’s some mystery in there for Tom Hanks to decipher.

Backtrack along the river the way you came, passing the bridge you crossed and continue. You will come to the marvelous church of Santa Maria della Spina, built in 1323, right on the banks of the Arno – though it’s been moved across the river to its current site. You can’t miss it because it rests right in the middle of the sidewalk. And yes, it’s that small. It’s a sweet little church, built like a tiny showcase of every high Gothic trick. Very lovely and worth a visit.

Back at the Ponte di Mezzo, you’ll head back into the old town. You’ll want to stroll up and down the Borgo Stretto, a narrow, old street with plenty of outdoor cafes, shops, and covered walkways that might remind you of towns on the Adriatic, like Padova or Ravenna. Close to the river, you’ll discover San Michele in Borgo, a beautiful small church dating back to the 900s.

Have a seat in one of the cafes and partake of the modern town of Pisa. Watch the locals bike by, or eavesdrop on the chatter of the teens at the next table. It doesn’t sound so inane in Italian. Look over the wares of one of the dozens of African street vendors who will approach you. He will be grateful you spoke to him. He’ll proudly tell you about Senegal. He’ll proudly tell you about his lighters and fanny packs until you buy something.

But save yourself for dinner. After 7:30pm, you will want to cut through the alleys branching off from the Borgo Stretto and find the nearby Piazza delle Vettovaglie, a kind of scaled down and mellow version of the Campo dei Fiori in Rome. Visit this square in the morning for its market, in the afternoon for coffee and people-watching, but definitely visit in the evening for food at the wonderful Vineria di Piazza.

Don’t be fooled by its stripped down presentation, broad wooden tables and benches, inside and out, very informal. The food is incredible. At one meal, I have fat pasta with boar meat. At another, pasta and vongole, or clams. I was content as I could be, sitting at a small table behind a group of doctors of philosophy, speaking in English about extensionality and substance, sipping my wine and watching the square outside come to life again.

We were all taken by surprise by a sudden, heavy rain shower. It was cause of much merriment as people dashed under cover on all four sides of the piazza. Within minutes, all that was left in the open square was someone’s forlorn Harley Davidson, popped alone on the cobblestones. Twenty minutes later, the rain had passed and sunset colors were creeping into the piazza. There is something about Italian towns that seems to enhance the beauty of sunsets, as though traditional architecture were designed for nothing else. The brick, the plaster, the tiles all seem to pick up and glory in the hues of day’s end, the time when everyone takes to the streets for their passegiata. There’s nothing like it.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Travelogue 280 – May 26
Spring Therapy

It’s Roma the next day, and my squeezed itinerary only allows half a day and an overnight. I hustle from airport to train to Metro, so that I can catch the day’s landlord, Sr Tallarico, at the apartment that has become my new stopover pad. It’s down the Via Appia Nuova in the area called Colli Albani, as I’ve previously described it: mile upon mile of bland residential high-rises, that still manages a sunny, Italian charm.

Sr Tallarico is sparing with his Italian charm. If anything, he is rather Teutonic in the administration of his bed-and-breakfast. Sr Tallarico is an older gentleman, whose retirement is devoted to the serious business of hospitality. He is a small man with an unyielding scowl on his face, and today the scowl is sterner than usual because I’m late by one day – travel problems: see the previous blog. I did manage to email ahead to assure him that I would still pay for my reservation, but it is all unsettling for him. The whole notion of Addis Ababa is unsettling for him.

Once Sr Tallarico has grumbled off, I am free to engage with my beloved and eternal city … for a few sleep-deprived hours. By the time I’m back down the four flights of stairs to street level, there can be no doubt: this tour will be an abbreviated one, a kind of collection of distilled essences. In fact, I realize, I will be staying right here in Colli Albani. Once the scope of the tour has been settled, the choices are easy.

First come tastes. I have a cornetto and caffe at the Small Cafe across the street. That’s the name of the place, in Italian, the Small Cafe. The baristas recognize me, sort of: in their comfortably disdainful way. I glance through the local paper for the latest shenanigans of the Pope and soccer stars.

Next comes fast internet. I check in at the Bangladeshi phone and internet place around the corner. Checking in is no easy task. The Italian government requires ID on every user, and the Bangladeshis require a user card and passwords that somehow must incorporate every bit of biographical data available. But once in, it’s heaven: responsive internet. I can go wherever I like! I book my hotel for the next night, in Pisa, and it takes five minutes!

Next comes therapy. This will be color and aromatherapy. I take a walk to the Caffarella Park, that expanse of green hills between the old and new Appian Ways. It’s gorgeous out. I catch my first spring scent of lilac. I’m overcome by the scent of grass and wild blossoms in the hills. It’s dizzying. And the spring colors fairly vibrate with life. In fifteen minutes, I’m quite restored: all is right with the world. I hike to the top of my favorite hill, from which you can see the dome of St. Peter’s in the distance, and in the other direction, several high monuments along the old Appian Way.

Back in town, I indulge in pizza and gelato. The day is complete. I’m ready for a long rest, and I’m in bed while the sun is still high in the early evening sky. Tomorrow I have to catch an early train. I’m so successful at resting and at rising early that I’ve showered, mastered the Metro, and boarded my train by 6:30am. Off to Pisa!

Monday, May 25, 2009

Travelogue 279 – May 25
Sun Smiles

It may happen one day that you arrive in Cairo unannounced, on an unplanned stopover. You might, for example, have been forced to extend your business in Addis Ababa. It might be that the combination of making last-minute changes to your travel plans on a weekend, inept customer service, and internet problems have overwhelmed any hope of comfortable travel, and you arrive at Cairo airport at 3am for an eight-hour layover. Don’t fret, because Sameh will be there for you.

You’ll recognize Sameh as the composed and awake, well-dressed and well-groomed (in hirsute and fat tie Arab style) young man waiting for you as you emerge from customs and passport control. Actually, he is the one who will recognize you: as a discerning Dutch businessman on the go. Yes, I’ve had the odd good fortune to arrive from Addis at the same time as a KLM flight from Amsterdam. In a surreal twist, during these days of swine flu, the men with white masks over their mouths and noses who meet us directly as we enter the terminal building, are stopping travelers from Europe and letting those from sub-Saharan Africa go. So I emerge ahead of the brisk Dutch businessman, looking just Dutch enough for Sameh to rush to my service.

Sameh escorts me up the long escalator to the mezzanine level of the terminal, into his little office with comfortable armchairs and brochures. Hotel and taxi? Why, of course. He glances through a notebook full of hotel brochures, and he selects the perfect glossy trifold for me. I’ll be spending the night in the Sun Smiles Hotel in Heliopolis, a short ride from the airport. It’s new; it’s quiet. It has a cool name.

The taxi driver doesn’t find it amusing. This round, grey-faced man engages in long guttural exchanges with the even smoother young travel agent assigned to walking me down to the parking lot. He needs to process the name of the hotel, the directions to the hotel, the voucher for the hotel, his compensation, and the current state of NASA, as far as I make out. While they negotiate in ever higher volume, I watch a grumpy Dutchman grouse and quibble with his handlers beside the next car; he’s obviously irritated at being frisked for farmyard viruses. His taxi takes off well before my driver has exhausted his line of inquiry; the Dutchman stares grievously out the back window as if in one last indictment of all customs people and chiseling travel agents. I don’t know what indignities he may have suffered from the men in the masks, but I find no fault in Sameh’s service. He was there when I needed him, and within the hour I’m snug at Sun Smiles Hotel.

I might have been snug in 30 minutes, but predictably my taxi driver gets hopelessly lost, flying down the wee-hours highway, only to creep in confusion among the side streets of the hotel’s neighborhood. I get a comprehensive 3am tour of some two dozen affluent blocks in Heliopolis. He pulls over to ask at a 24-hour newspaper stand. He engages in more discourses with my smooth handlers on his cell. And eventually, on a block virtually indistinguishable from any other, housed in a building indistinguishable from its neighbors, we discover the Sun Smiles Hotel, resplendent inside if not out, in the splashy (faux) marble and gold style of the Arab world. My bed is sprinkled with ficus leaves, and at its foot is my towel, twisted into the shape of a heart. I am delighted by these touches, as any sensitive traveler would be, but have to confess that sleep came as something even more deliciously luxurious. Four hours later, I have to submit to being rudely awakened for the next leg of travel.

Saturday, May 09, 2009

Travelogue 278 – May 9
Good Vibrations

Here’s what I’ve learned about life in Addis Ababa in the merry month of May: First of all, as I’ve mentioned before, we’ve arrived at the end of the dry season, so hydro-electric Addis Ababa is perhaps the quietest capital city on Earth. It’s a great month to pick up a meditative spiritual practice. There will be plenty of time for enlightenment while you wait for the power to come back. And during those brief and unpredictable spells when the lights come on, you will need Buddha by your side while you try to catch up on weeks’ worth of work. You will see the neon lights of Nirvana well before you finish any of your projects.

While Minnesotans revel in the glories of springtime, Addis citizens are sweltering under the sharp sun of the final month of dry season. If you have asthma, don’t step away from your inhaler: nine months of particulate matter has lodged itself firmly in the atmosphere of the city. Native citizens labor under the burden of pollution-fueled colds and flus, while faranjis wheeze and limp along the roads of Piassa, looking for internet cafes with generators and available computer stations.

But today, there is one happy place in the nation that is a showcase of ruddy good health and good cheer. That is the Tserah Tsion School in Mojo. About a dozen members of Team Tesfa, men and women, teens and adults, have volunteered to hop on an early bus to Mojo in order to spend the day cleaning, maintaining, repairing, and painting the kindergarten out there. It’s part of my effort to set a tone to this team project, one of generosity, community service and moral leadership. If any one of these athletes resents giving to others, they should be in Hollywood, because at 7am they are all smiles. We take over one of the minibuses heading east, occupying every last seat. The hour and a half trip is all bubbly conversation and laughter. And once there, not a moment is wasted. They mob the astonished school staff, and immediately start piling tables and chairs and mixing paints. The only delay is waiting for a local boy to fetch us jerrycans of water.

Soon the school is a hive of activity. The athletes have swarmed into every room and have started sweeping dust and cobwebs off the walls. The water arrives and swaths of primer and paint are unfurling on all sides. Everyone is splattered from head to toe. In the playground, Lewis – a volunteer from London – is busy kicking around a couple soccer balls donated by Mark, another Londoner, with some of our kindergarten kids. The school has a vast, dusty space for play – the spaciousness was one reason we liked this facility. And there is no fence beyond a much-abused hedge, so the road beyond is like a spectators’ gallery. The team invasion is provoking a great buzz in the neighborhood. Kids are especially intrigued by the wild soccer matches. A few slip through the ‘fence’ and join the galloping play. The reckless cavorting is no less a temptation for me, and I’m drawn to dash into the games, thinking nothing of trying to keep up with professional long-distance runners. The mill of karma grinds quickly, and the dues are paid that evening: sunburn and lactic acid burn, as I watch Liverpool play the game the way it’s supposed to be played on the TV in the hotel restaurant.

By mid-afternoon, the team is wrapping up. We’ve painted inside and out, and we’ve patched up some cracks in the concrete floor. Asnakech, official barometer of mood, strikes up a whine for food. But Addisu won’t have it. He is surveying the walls earnestly, and he attempts to explain what is thinking. I sigh when he says ‘pictures’, and pull out the camera again. Photography has been my primary duty today. But, no, he protests, it’s si’il that’s missing: art on the walls. The athletes are immediately on it, sketching out houses and animals and flowers in primary colors. A few of the drawings show promise, only marred by the English spellings the runners add underneath.

It’s time to eat. Malaku, our local school director, takes us to a place that looks like an old and neglected VFW hall, with an empty stage and an empty dance floor. The staff, with stunned faces, round up a chain of tables that they set up beneath the stage. Malaku is maitre d’ and conductor, taking orders from among the day’s three dishes – kikil, tebs, and shiro – lamb, injera, and chickpea sauce – and orchestrating the convoy of food and beverage from the distant kitchen. The team is in good spirits, and they plow through plates and bowls of food with gusto, while Malaku keeps it coming. Yes, good deeds do have their rewards.