Monday, December 17, 2007

La oca is getting grassa

There has been a frost of early morning the last few days. Some of the cold lingered yesterday on north-facing roofs, in the shadows on the soccer pitch, along irrigation ditches out in the fields. The street cleaners whirring by sweep up the most recent brown leaves, remnants from an extended fall. Each week the signs of Christmas’s approach grow in number and illumination. As in the United States, whispers of Natale were heard in these parts as early as late October – in the supermarkets, I frequently saw panettone, the traditional Milanese sweetbread, alongside Halloween decorations.

Now, every street has at least one house or apartment strung with lights (unfortunately I haven’t seen yet any of the palms trees so decorated). In the absence of yards, many hang the most popular decoration of the season from their windows or balconies: Babbo Natale climbing a rope ladder. Cute and everywhere. Though, with his feet dangling off the rungs, St. Nick looks less magical than out of shape, a kid struggling in gym class.

The towns and cities I have seen recently are tastefully, festively, even whimsically bedecked for Yule. In Milan, il Castello Sforzesco is draped with electric blue icicles. The comune of Parma have put up a large, well-appointed tree in Piazza Garibaldi; simple strands of white lights add elegance to a small side street.

Here in Codogno, as in many Italian communities, most of the streets in the center are spanned by a variety of bright stars and geometric constellations. One street even has wrapped presents sprouting from the walls above it.

I have seen no menorahs, dreidels, or potato latkes, much the pity. Hanukkah is not much celebrated in these parts.

We turn this week in our elliptical orbit - in the Northern Hemisphere a turn from darkness back towards light: the Winter Solstice. I hope that you and joy find each other, wherever you are and whomever you’re with. I hope that you can celebrate a festival of lights, with ample reasons for thanksgiving and continued hope for peace. And remember the words of Zuzu Bailey, “Every time a bell rings, an angel gets his wings.”

The Shortest Day
by Susan Cooper

And so the Shortest Day came and the year died
And everywhere down the centuries of the snow-white world
Came people singing, dancing,
To drive the dark away.
They lighted candles in the winter trees;
They hung their homes with evergreen;
They burned beseeching fires all night long
To keep the year alive.
And when the new year's sunshine blazed awake
They shouted, revelling.
Through all the frosty ages you can hear them
Echoing behind us - listen!
All the long echoes, sing the same delight,
This Shortest Day,
As promise wakens in the sleeping land:
They carol, feast, give thanks,
And dearly love their friends,
And hope for peace.
And now so do we, here, now,
This year and every year.

Thursday, December 13, 2007

Libel, reversism, and other abuses

James Agee, in Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, wrote:

"For in the immediate world, everything is to be discerned, for him who can discern it, and centrally and simply, without either dissection into sciene, or digestion into art, but with the whole of conciousness, seeking to perceive it as it stands: so that the aspect of a street in sunlight can roar in the heart of itself as a symphony, perhaps as no symphony can: and all of consciousness is shifted from the imagined, the revisive, to the effort to perceive simply the cruel radiance of what is.

This is why the camera seems to me, next to unassisted and weaponless consciousness, the central instrument of our time; and is why in turn I feel such rage at its misuse: which has spread so nearly universal a corruption of sight that I know of less than a dozen alive whose eyes I can trust even so much as my own."

Here are some recent odd notes from the Italian symphony, well represented or no.

Men are constructing a new structure next to the town sports bubble, but first they had to clear the space. Apparently they could not find George Washington to borrow an axe or Texas Massacre people to borrow a chainsaw, because they knocked down the problematic trees with a small excavator. The perfect tool for the job.
Graffiti in Italy sometimes seems nearly ubiquitous. I am still investigating this phenomenon. Few Milanese buildings are completely clean of paint. Churches and monuments do not escape inclusion in the defacing/expression. Here is a stencil I found recently here in Codogno. Perhaps it was a first draft. Or maybe there is some Satanic message to be heard when the text is read backwards...

Among the legion of small vehicles plying Italian roads, my favorite is the Ape (or Bee, a companion of the Vespa, Wasp). Essentially small wee trucks, Apes can be equipped with a flat bed or a closed back, usually have only three wheels, and sometimes have handlebars instead of a steering wheel. They are more common in Tuscany than here in Lombardia, unfortunately; even more unfortunately, this next picture documents a good Ape turned bad. I do not blame the Ape.

Where else but Italy are you likely to find graffiti scrawled against both the current and preceding Bishops of Rome, using their pre-Papal names?!

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Fogginess surrounds

Reading an article about surfing and pelicans in my favorite magazine Orion last spring, I came across the following: There is a German word, funktionslust, meaning “pleasure taken in what one can do best.”

Does the weather here thrill to bring us fog? Last night, the soccer teams practiced despite low visibility - looking out the window felt akin to flying through clouds and coming upon a gaggle of angels playing ninepins.

Babbo Natale's foggy beard draped all over - hoary weather reminding me again of Ireland ('Until the Battle of the Boyne Ireland belonged to Asia.' W. B. Yeats), and also of the California coast where fog is as regular as bow-tying laces, honeybees, and extra pennies rolling in gutters.

Another fog poem, this one from a poet of the California coast.

Boats in a Fog

by Robinson Jeffers

Sports and gallantries, the stage, the arts, the antics of dancers,
The exuberant voices of music,
Have charm for children but lack nobility; it is bitter earnestness
That makes beauty; the mind
Knows, grown adult.

A sudden fog-drift muffled the ocean,
A throbbing of engines moved in it,
At length, a stone’s throw out, between the rocks and the vapor,
One by one moved shadows
Out of the mystery, shadows, fishing-boats, trailing each other
Following the cliff for guidance,
Holding a difficult path between the peril of the sea-fog
And the foam on the shore granite.
One by one, trailing their leader, six crept by me,
Out of the vapor and into it,
The throb of their engines subdued by the fog, patient and cautious,
Coasting all round the peninsula
Back to the buoys in Monterey harbor. A flight of pelicans
Is nothing lovelier to look at;
The flight of the planets is nothing nobler; all the arts lose virtue
Against the essential reality
Of creatures going about their business among the equally
Earnest elements of nature.

Monday, December 10, 2007

Fogginess abounds

Here in small town northern Italy, we are officially in the Season of the Fog. Apparently la nebbia plagues local airports, causing flight cancellations and the like. Apparently, it gets worse as we move further into winter. I've lived with cold, rain, and snow, in heat and humidity, but fog? It calls to mind Baskerville hounds and Heathcliff out on the moor. With life imitating literature, the fog brings some mystery to the day. This is Seamus Heaney weather.

The Peninsula
by Seamus Heaney

When you have nothing more to say, just drive
For a day all round the peninsula;
The sky is high as over a runway,
The land without marks so you will not arrive

But pass through, though always skirting landfall.
At dusk, horizons drink down sea and hill,
The ploughed field swallows the whitewashed gable
And you're in the dark again. Now recall

The glazed foreshore and silhouetted log,
That rock were breakers shredded into rags,
The leggy birds stilted on their own legs,
Islands riding themselves out into the fog

And drive back home, still with nothing to say
Except that now you will uncode all landscapes
By this: things founded clean on their own shapes,
Water and ground in their extremity.

Sunday, December 9, 2007

And when you're out of fuel I'm still afloat

Boccaccio wrote in his Life of Dante (1374): “Everything that is acquired with toil has more sweetness in it.”

The marathon. Mark and I ran the Milan Marathon last Sunday, and we lived to tell the tale. Overall, I found it to be a very positive experience - look at me! I'm healthy enough to run this far! I'm lucky enough to be here, in Italy, on this day!

It was a thrill to be running - thanks to some sage advice from former roommates and Mark's sister, marathon experienced folk, we kept an easier pace through the first 2/3s and it made worlds of difference. The course is flat which made for easier running. A nice if unusual way to see the Milan sprawl, the course winds through a number of neighborhoods I had never visited and probably won’t again. The cold, mists, and fog added an ethereal quality to the day.

There were great provisions along the way - every 5 km the course organizers had tables manned with volunteers stocking cookies, orange slices, water, warm lemonade, warm tea... Slices of heaven. Staggered with those were stations dispensing sponges soaked in water - given the cool to cold temperature and periodic wind of the day, I avoided the sponges but I did like to run past the stations swinging my arm a la Eddie Van Halen - never failed to get a cheer out of the red-coated volunteers.

I enjoyed thanking as many of the volunteers and sparse fans as I could, including the police who stopped traffic - a thankless job as the Milanese seemed neither aware of nor enthused by the marathon snarling their already wicked snarled streets. It was quite unlike the marathons I have seen in Boston and New York: hilarious arm-gesture-accompanied invectives and horn honking abounded at intersections made dangerous by the collision of an immovable object (Milan traffic) with an unstoppable force (marathoners in the zone). In defense of the Milanese, the marathon is young (this was only the 5th running) and there are bound to be growing pains.

We met folks from across the United States (a West Point graduate from Houston living in Kiev; a woman from Seattle living in Turkey; a student from Connecticut who knows the Buckhorn Lodge, my favorite bar in Southern California). And of course Italians, many of whom spoke glowingly of running other marathons in Italy and the States.

I saw a man finish who ran the entire thing barefoot.

Mark and I finished together right around our goal time and received medals for participating: we did it! The space blankets that they give out at the end of the race are one of my new favorite inventions – without one, I may have lain down to freeze to death.

Soon to think about the next one... But not too soon.

Thursday, December 6, 2007

Watching all the cars go by, roaring as the breezes

Trains bombed with words, here and there around Italy:

I dance to the beat, shuffle my feet
Wear a shirt and tie and run with the creeps
'Cause it's all about money, ain't a damn thing funny
You got to have a con in this land of milk and honey

They push that girl in front of a train
Took her to a doctor, sowed the arm on again
Stabbed that man, right in his heart
Gave him a transplant before a brand new start

I can't walk through the park,
'Cause its crazy after the dark
Keep my hand on the gun, 'cause they got me on the run

I feel like an outlaw, broke my last fast jaw
Hear them say you want some more,
Livin' on a seesaw

Don't push me, 'cause I'm close to the edge
I'm trying not to lose my head
It's like a jungle sometimes, it makes me wonder
How I keep from going under

- Grandmaster Flash, The Message

Wednesday, December 5, 2007

The bocciodromo

Around the corner from our apartment sits the town’s bocciodromo. After seeing everyday from my steps, passing it on my way to the grocery, I finally got around to visiting the other night...

A sign printed in bold, red ink reads: Access to the bocce playing courts is exclusively reserved for those who are wearing shoes with regulation smooth rubber soles.

There is almost no talking, hushed like a pool hall or a high-stakes poker room. Lit like a rink, the sounds of the bocciodromo are reminiscent of hockey, without the scrapes and slicing of skates. Echoes are shorter and lighter. Almost all of the fans keep their coats on. The players hang theirs along the risers, above their bags which have separate compartments below for shoes. There is one woman out of 50 people present. Conservatively, I am the youngest by 35 years.

Four matching courts, divided by short partitions painted barber-stripe red and white. The floor is a grey concrete covered in a fine green dust that shows broom sweeps and skids and knocks and the drag of feet on follow throughs. On an empty court, a pair rolls in anticipation, checking the give and flow of the surface, like goalies, golfers, skiers. Against the green background, the piebald balls stand out, some in day-glow bright, others blue or grey marble, a plain flecked yellow like lemon sorbet. The shadows thrown by the legs of onlookers appear at first glance to be small undulating valleys. Boards at the end of each run tell the score in black and hunter orange numbers on white plywood.

I focus on one player who in turn focuses on the pallino, a small pink ball 35 feet away. He rests his hand low, almost touching the ground as if to pick up a coin. The bowl approaches perfection, to within four inches. He turns to a friend behind the glass with a familiar smug smile. On another court I see a ball launched airborne. Arcing nearly the length of the floor, it swoops in to knock an opponent’s ball from its proximity to the pallino. Because of back spin the thrown ball stays dead put.

Like grown up marbles, bocce is a game of precision and touch. The judge carries a device with sliding calipers to measure distances and a marking end to note ball locations. Walking past me, he slides in a new piece of chalk and I notice his laminated name badge. The players all carry buffing towels in their non-throwing hands. The pairs wear uniforms, shirts long-sleeved and collared, pants a polyester athletic blend. The shoes blend the aesthetic of Florida white pants retired and East Village tight black jeans – Puma, Adidas, unknown brands. All, undoubtedly, have the appropriate soles.

The tournament started with 128 teams and will be down to the finals tomorrow night.

Tuesday, December 4, 2007

Birds, beauty, perambulations, and a bottom feeder

Walking the Florentine streets, we came across many things of interest. A few Irish pubs selling Kilkenny, a great Irish beer that is unfortunately not exported to the U.S. My mother’s new favorite digestif, limoncello – a sweet essence of summer lemon groves liqueur that may be the closest drink we have to Ray Bradbury’s dandelion wine. Christmas lights strung across the narrow streets, lighting the window shoppers, low-hanging constellations in blue and white. Taking the advice of my brother’s roommate, we took special care in crossing the streets – many Florentines zip through the city on scooters like rabbits late for very important dates – occhio!

In Piazzale Michelangelo, above the city and across the river, a green copper copy of the David stands above kitsch booths and buskers – we heard delicate classical guitar played by a focused youth with his back to the views. This piazza and the cemetery higher up on the hill are not to be missed.

From the banks and bridges of the river Arno, we caught frequent glimpses of the Duomo and the crenellated tower of the Palazzo Vecchio, admired skullers from the world-champion Florentine crew club and the reflection of Ponte Vecchio on the still waters of a cloudy day. My brother and I also saw some locals feeding imperial Roman quantities of bread to a flock of pigeons and a family of nutria – rats of the sky and rats of the water. Brilliant.

Perhaps the oddest aquatic sight was the giant catfish we saw pulled from the river by Hemingway’s Italian old man. I would not have thought such a beast possible in those waters. Leaving the fish up from the water’s edge, the fisherman waded back to shore through a whorl of gulls. He was loaded down with long rods, a cooler, a net large enough to seine for shrimp. He rode off on his bicycle and we did not stay to see whether or not he returned for his catch.

Monday, December 3, 2007

Revisiting Siena

During my family's visit last week, we took a day trip by bus, through fog, to the Tuscan jewel Siena. Because of the Bubonic Plague and its long history in the shadow of her busier rival, Florence, Siena has retained her medieval structure, feel, traditions, and politics more significantly than many other places in Italy. I visited in August for the Palio, perhaps the most famous bareback horse race in the world, and it was a pleasure to go back with my family. Thanks to the excellent introduction to the city I received from Magno (like our favorite team, the Red Sox, sempre campeon), I was able to play tour guide for part of the day. And what a day it was. The winding labyrinthine streets of the contrade. The elegant striped and unfinished Duomo, home of an amazing marble floor and a stargazing scriptorium. The sloped scallop of the picturesque Campo, site of the biannual race and a perfect setting for a late afternoon drink. A wandering ramble past churches, the university, vistas, the calcio stadium, leather and paper and ceramics and artisan shops, eventually back to the bus station. Here are some of the many photos we took.

Saturday, December 1, 2007

Exit music for a film, with leather and stone

On today's trip through memories of Florence we visit Santa Croce. This piazza has retained a smaller, older feel than her more famous Fiorentine sisters. Last Sunday's marathon finished there, a thought to keep you going during 42 kilometers of hills and gasping questions. Inside the church are buried a cadre of famous Italians, including giants of literature, art, science, and politics: Dante, Machiavelli, Galileo, Michelangelo... The central door is massive but it was not enough to hold out the flood of 1966 – a plaque on the wall marks the water's high line.

Exploring the church, through the carefully lit scriptorium, out past the stained-glass transept, a visitor can wander into the Leather School and watch masters craft leather into bags, purses, wallets. The reflections from angled mirrors and the orderly collections of worn tools could have kept me mesmerized for hours.

Tucked into a dark cellar just off a spacious courtyard we found a small exhibit dedicated to the printwork of native son Pietro Parigi. Anyone who has read the Catholic Worker will recognize his simple, rustic style. I am fascinated by this art form; some favorites include the California artist Tom Killion and the book The Man Who Planted Trees by Jean Giono.

During two visits to the neighborhood around the church, we heard great street musicians – a trio named Grupo Romm Dracula's that is comprised of stand-up bass, djembe (or its cousin), and a hammered dulcimer, a stringed instrument resting on a stand that is played with small mallets. The members are Romani, or gypsy, and perhaps have brought strains of the Middle East, even India with them to Florence. [On a side note, this minority is currently much maligned here in Italy, as so often in the past in so many places – e.g. the word “gyp,” as in “That market vendor gypped me.” Xenophobia: a topic for another day...]

The music was new yet somehow familiar, like a bite of some untried sweet that carries remembered tastes, spices. Novel madeleines. Watching people walk away down a narrow Fiorentina street, with the lyrical skipping music playing behind me, I felt like a camera recording the closing scene of a movie. I was reminded of the ending of The Third Man; I later confirmed, through conversations with my classic-movie-knowing family and a bit of Internet research, that the score of that great film noir featured a zither, a close relative of the dulcimer. Romani music – yet another rabbit hole to wander down some other day.

Friday, November 30, 2007

Trading post cards for boarding passes

For Thanksgiving this year, I ate no turkey and watched no American football. There were no pumpkin pies cooling in my kitchen, no traditional Quaker hymns sung across generations. I did receive a gift beyond worth when my parents and brother came to visit for a week. We spent our time together in Tuscany, mostly in Florence with a day-trip to Siena. We rambled and ambled, wined and dined, raptured at art and city and captured moments on film. To avoid gluttony of reading and writing, I will try to describe the vacation in installments. Hey, it worked for Dickens and Matthiessen, right?

The Uffizi. A grand palace with an overwhelming collection of art. Countless Adoration of the Magi; innumerable Madonnas, including Madonna of the Pomegranate, the Long-necked Madonna, and a dark 15th century portrait that reminds me now of Munch, found by museum representatives at a flea market in Milan in 2002. I learned about the martyrdoms of various saints: Sebastian killed by arrows, Florian thrown from a bridge with a millstone chained to his neck. Many of the Masters are there: Caravaggio, Botticelli, Raphael, da Vinci, Michelangelo, Giotto, Titian, Dürer... Having now traveled a bit in Italy, I recognize its plants, architecture, and landforms in Renaissance art: who knew that Bethlehem looked just like the Tuscan countryside? At night, the city sparkles along the river and the dome of the cathedral still boggles the mind despite the shadows.

The Accademia. We lucked out and, with the combination of a slower tourist season and an afternoon rainstorm, walked right in without waiting in line. The pen-and-marker graffiti along the wall lining the sidewalk attest to the expectant purgatory of visitors past. The small museum has one room of amazing paintings and another exhibition area of musical instruments from the Medieval and Renaissance periods. However, the gallery’s main attraction is Michelangelo’s David, and rightly so. A few unfinished sculptures precede the David and show some of Michelangelo’s process and genius. The 17-foot tall David is... Giorgio Vasari, Michelangelo's contemporary and biographer, said: "Whoever has seen this work need not trouble to see any other work executed in sculpture, either in our own or other times, by no matter what craftsman." The stone seems more alive than some people I’ve known. I had to remind myself of optical illusions when I saw his chest swell with breath. With tired feet and a curious mind, I was happy to sit and stare for a long time. To think that Michelangelo completed the sculpture by the time he was thirty...

Thursday, November 29, 2007

Dancing in the dark

Last night I went to church. There were over 11,000 congregants, eight deacons, and one high priest. By the end of the service, I could have spoken in tongues. If I still had my voice. Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band tore through Milan’s Datch Forum like a steam train running full-head downhill and I willingly went along for the ride.

[photo source: popmatters]

Until last night, I had never seen Bruce Springsteen live. When the show went on sale back in September, my friend David and I tried in vain to buy tickets. Hope does spring eternal - through a series of fortuitous turns, we found ourselves grinning like fools walking onto the floor of the Datch Forum for last night’s show.

I have heard from friends and read reviews of Springsteen's legendary energy. Backed by a drummer, two keyboardists, a violin/fiddle/guitarist/vocalist, a bassist, two vocalists/guitarists, and one mean saxophone player, Bruce lived up to his reputation. Most of the songs were from their new album, Magic, which I have not yet heard. I could not sing along, but as with attending mass in Latin or other unknown languages, I could still participate in the rites and rituals, feel the reverence. The concert was 2 ½ hours of chanting and shaking and hand waving and singing. Without rest, even between songs – a quick drum change from cymbal and high hat to kick bass snare overdrive – in the few moments of transition while the band wrapped up the previous song, Bruce would douse himself with a carwash sponge soaking in a bucket by the drummer’s feet, shake his head snorting like a horse at the gate, and charge 1 2 3 4 into the next song’s beat over the decrescendo of force. Centrifugal and centripetal.

Some will scoff and say dismissive things of Bruce. Others will bristle at the comparison of a rock concert to a religious experience. What I know is this: never have I seen a band and crowd so earnestly, unselfconsciously in sync about the joy of music. I have drunk the Kool-Aid.

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

A rose by any other name

The magpie is back, outside my window, walking with exaggerated strides and short hops. From the spotty lawn, she pulls seeds? worms? Her black head and shoulders look like an executioner’s hood and the flash of blue on her wings is captivating.

Back home, I am so-so with flora and fauna identification, an area I would like to improve. I felt most knowledgeable in the montane zone of Colorado where I worked for a few seasons, though the relative symplicity of the ecosystem there made it easier to learn than the crowded temperate forests of southern New England.

Here in northern Italy, I’m most often unknowing when it comes to the natural world. I have plenty of opportunities to see plants and animals that invite investigation, especially on my runs out along the Via dei Mulini, about which I have written before. Long elegant herons are justifiably skittish and leave off whenever I approach within 100 meters. Nutria, large riparian rats, are hunted systematically by farmers during the fall, after the corn and hay have all been take in; an invasive species, they are unwelcome and left dead on the sides of the road. During this season, I have also seen the men wandering the fields, usually with baskets and dogs, searching for mushrooms.

The European magpie I knew by name. It was not the bird baked into a pie, though that “Sing a Song of Sixpence” nursery rhyme, like many others, has an interesting back story – this one with pirates! Arrrr! The magpie, as I found in my research, is common throughout European folklore and is often associated with unhappiness and trouble. Occhio!

The list of plants and animals to look into grows. I will never be the Thoreau, Abbey, or Muir of Codogno, but perhaps I can take part in the ancient practice of naming the world around us.

A poem on names and the light inside the named.

34. ‘As kingfishers catch fire, dragonflies dráw fláme’
by Gerard Manley Hopkins, SJ

As kingfishers catch fire, dragonflies dráw fláme;
As tumbled over rim in roundy wells
Stones ring; like each tucked string tells, each hung bell’s
Bow swung finds tongue to fling out broad its name;
Each mortal thing does one thing and the same: 5
Deals out that being indoors each one dwells;
Selves—goes itself; myself it speaks and spells,
Crying Whát I do is me: for that I came.

Í say móre: the just man justices;
Kéeps gráce: thát keeps all his goings graces; 10
Acts in God’s eye what in God’s eye he is—
Chríst—for Christ plays in ten thousand places,
Lovely in limbs, and lovely in eyes not his
To the Father through the features of men’s faces.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Walking on the edge of winter

Today, walking back from the grocery store with a full red pack like a mountain peddler, I smelled woodsmoke and saw a palm tree. I normally consider these things to be of different worlds, but I was wrong. It is growing colder here, with nighttime temperatures dipping just below freezing, and I have heard rumors of snow. Apparently it does not get cold enough here to prevent palm trees from growing. I have also seen some succulents, like jade, and caught hints of fragrant plants that I cannot name, reminding me of California.

Just a short walk from our apartment, one can leave the small town behind and find the sky open up across scattered farms here on the flat plain of the Po Valley. Here are some photographs I took a few weeks ago, on a particularly breath-taking day. A distillation of fall.

Following that one-lane road path leads after two miles to Mulazzana, a collection of 6 or 7 houses with no stores and a church I have never seen open. Beyond that, it is almost another two miles before one reaches the village of Camairago. I do not know how many miles I have run and biked along that road, but I am familiar with its turns, stretches, trees, the irrigation ditches that line it. Recently, as the weather has cooled and the rains have cleared the hazy air, distant mountains that were formerly invisible have come into view: the Ligurian Apennines to the south and the snow-draped Bergamo Alps to the north.

A poem from a man of the mountains.

by Gary Snyder

Lay down these words
Before your mind like rocks.
placed solid, by hands
In choice of place, set
Before the body of the mind
in space and time:
Solidity of bark, leaf, or wall
riprap of things:
Cobble of milky way,
straying planets,
These poems, people,
lost ponies with
Dragging saddles—
and rocky sure-foot trails.
The worlds like an endless
Game of Go.
ants and pebbles
In the thin loam, each rock a word
a creek-washed stone
Granite: ingrained
with torment of fire and weight
Crystal and sediment linked hot
all change, in thoughts,
As well as things.

Monday, November 19, 2007

On steel horses we ride

On Friday night, I attended the Bicycle Film Festival in Milan. An international festival, it may be coming soon to a city near you. Occhio! If you like bicycles and bike culture, you will find it right up your alley. I heartily enjoyed the black hoodie sweatshirt and rolled pant scene, guys with scraggily beards and thick frame glasses, girls with beautiful fixed gear bikes and small-brim bike caps. Good movies, too. This was a crowd favorite: a group of Oakland kids waxing ridiculous about their tricked out “scraper bikes.”

Wendell Berry, one of my favorites, writes beautifully, thoughtfully, and passionately how we can improve the health of our families, communities, and the natural world all around us. Those who have read his essay “Why I Am Not Going To Buy A Computer” will agree that the bicycle fits many of the criteria he uses for technological innovation:

1. The new tool should be cheaper than the one it replaces.
2. It should be at least as small in scale as the one it replaces.
3. It should do work that is clearly and demonstrably better than the one it replaces.
4. It should use less energy than the one it replaces.
5. If possible, it should use some form of solar energy, such as that of the body.
6. It should be repairable by a person of ordinary intelligence, provided that he or she has the necessary tools.
7. It should be purchasable and repairable as near to home as possible.
8. It should come from a small, privately owned shop or store that will take it back for maintenance and repair.
9. It should not replace or disrupt anything good that already exists, and this includes family and community relationships.

I love bicycles. I love riding them, looking at and photographing them, reading, writing, and talking about them, extolling their numerous virtues. I am more and more convinced that the bicycle is one of the best technological advances we have made (the knife, the bowl, the pencil, the printing press, the camera, the surfboard, the ski, and musical instruments are also excellent, among others). As I've mentioned before, Italy, while not on par with Denmark or the Netherlands in bike culture, is definitely more bike-friendly than the United States. I am frequently impressed by the feats of balance (two people on the same bike is a common site), style, and function that Italians manage a bici. Riding in the rain? No problem. Here are some other photos I have taken over the past few months of le biciclete italiane.

For an interesting examination of the power and efficiency of bicycles, I recommend these excerpts from Ivan Illich, published in 1978 and even more salient today.

If you are looking for some inspiration on world traveling, or if you would like to read about an amazing adventure from your arm chair, I can recommend checking out Heinz Stücke, “the Bike Man.”

The parting words I leave to Queen.

Friday, November 16, 2007

Let my steeple snow!

Language students are frequently reminded to notice cognates. But as with the Ides of March, beware the false cognates! One student studying in Chile, as urban legend has it, was taken to the hospital after a series of fractured conversations with her host family. She wanted to say, “Yes, I’m sorry. I feel so embarrassed.” Embarazada, right? In Spanish, embarazada is pregnant. Not embarrassed. Occhio!

Besides hospital visits, there are of course many reasons to learn another language. Ordering in a restaurant or discussing food can also be fraught with danger. Mark relates a story of his first summer here in Italy when responded to a question about his favorite recent meal by saying that he had really enjoyed i cappellini. “Really?” “Yes, i cappellini were very tasty.” Now, capellini is angel hair pasta but maybe only in the United States? And yes, the two ps make a difference in Italian. Mark’s friends soon informed him that he had been extolling the gustatory virtues of “cute little hats.” Maybe they were just pulling his gambe...

Living in a country where English is mostly an amateur sport, I have had ample time to consider language. As many of you know, I taught in an English/Spanish bilingual classroom in New York City for two years. Through that experience and my graduate studies, I learned more than I want to remember about BICS v. CALP, comprehensible input, Krashen’s theories on the stages of second language acquisition and the psychology of affective filters, and... Sorry, the dormant grad student in me took hold of the keyboard there for a moment.

Recently I have been curious about focusing on my own Italian language development. Through self-examination I thought perhaps light could dawn on Marblehead, to use an old New England saw. I turned to an old stand-by, the Student Oral Language Observation Matrix (SOLOM), which assesses five categories: Comprehension, Fluency, Pronunciation, Vocabulary, and Grammar. The matrix is scored on a scale of 1 to 5, where 1 signifies “has no proficiency” and 5 means “approaches native fluency.”

To improve the accuracy of the test, I tried to approximate lifelike testing conditions. I installed a speaker on the wall that occasionally spit loud gibberish. I taped some of my artwork and a recent spelling test by the window. I instructed my roommate to throw erasers at me. For breakfast I ate three pounds of Twizzlers. After the test, I decided that I rate a high 2 or low 3. I scored especially well on Comprehension, not surprisingly as this area is usually the first to develop.

My Vocabulary is okay, given the number of cognates from English and Spanish. But there is certainly room for improvement. I give you Example #1, translated from the Italian, in the case for “This guy often doesn’t know what he’s talking about.”

My Italian friend and I were talking in a bar.
Me: “Look at those Jews over there.”
Friend: “Excuse me?”
M: “Yeah, those two Jews over there are crazy, huh?”
F: “Ummm... What do you mean?”
M: “Look at them. They’re talking loudly, gesturing wildly, making a scene. [Snort] Jews.”
F: “What?!”
M: “Those two Jews. Yikes. That’s embarrassing.”
F: “......... No. Not Jews – drunks. They’re drunks.”
M: “Uh... right. Drunks. Thanks.”

Obviously in English this would be an egregious offense. In my defense, however, the words are close in Italian. You be the judge: ebraico – Jewish; ubriaco – drunk. A related note: this “Italian Friend,” who speaks English well, had thought for years that the Beatles had been singing, “Hey, Jew, don’t make it bad. Take a sad song and make it better...” The Chosen People are everywhere!

For more fun with words, I recommend a site I found through friend Bleeding Espresso. Free Rice - a vocabulary game that rewards achievement with donations to the United Nations World Food Program.

Thursday, November 15, 2007

Wascally wabbits and other unearthed gems

Italian television, a strange and wondrous place, continues to amaze, astonish, and entertain. My new favorite show is Bugs Bunny dubbed – “Ehhhhh - Che succede, amico?” The other night, Mark and I saw what seemed to be a giant group talent/variety show pitting two groups of mostly buxom and scantily clad women against each other: le bianche e le nere. The white women versus the black women. And no, I’m not talking about uniform colors. Interessante...

Also interesting is that I just finished watching Game 4 of the World Series on Italian television. Yes, the Red Sox still won, the Colorado fans waving white towels still looked like they were conceding surrender, the victory still felt different from 2004, and Papelbon is still crazy good and crazy just. That it is now mid-November and this game was played... 2 ½ weeks ago is odd enough, but the video editing by the Italian TV channel was really outstanding. And by outstanding I mean bizarre. So they skipped a few innings, wanting to condense the game, fine. But missing Bobby Kielty’s homer only to show him descending the dugout steps? During a pitching change for Colorado, they cut to a blimp shot of the night stadium and next to Jacoby Ellsbury of the Boston Red Sox playing leftfield? The bottom of the ninth, three final outs left for Colorado, and... they... showed... two of them? Who was editing this? Edward Scissorhands? Buñuel? Mr. Ed?

On our non-cable TV, there are three channels in a row – 14, 15, and 16 – that are identical. There are at least two other matching pairs between 1 and 30, which is as high as our TV goes. Sometimes I feel like I’m playing a game of electronic media: “Yes, yes, I know. The pope was talking on that other religious channel too... but which one?!” The local access channels that we get seem to focus primarily on karaoke and variations thereof. Call in dedication request karaoke anyone? As previously mentioned, Walker, Texas Ranger is often at home on Italian TV.

Easily the most bizarre aspect of Italian TV I have seen is what appears to be the rug channel. Yes, the rug channel. Any time I have passed it, there is a well-coiffed man in a suit and tie sitting on rugs, pointing out the qualities of rugs, standing next to hanging rugs, talking about rugs. I think he is selling the rugs – beautiful Persians, interesting abstract Modern geometric designs, etc. – but I am not sure. I have never seen anyone else on the channel, and I’m beginning to wonder if the host is in solitary confinement in a rug warehouse... with a cameraman. Maybe there is a rug fascination that has swept Italy but somehow missed our apartment. We do not have a single rug.

An additional note: in bocca al lupo to the boys’ and girls’ soccer teams at PS 161 in West Harlem! Both teams are in 1st place in the NY SCORES program going into the last games tomorrow – forza! Dai! Dai!

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Islands in the Stream, Part III

The last installment of Mordecai's essay...


Pius II’s efforts towards the creation of a utopia in the hills of Tuscany are often glossed over by historians of theology, the Crusades, and the political foundations of modern Europe. It has particular resonance for historians of sport, however, and there is a growing body of research on Pius the Sportsman. Some grants have been awarded in support of further studies of Pius II’s practice of falconry, for example, but, given the prevalence of that activity during the early Renaissance period, more adventurous historians have set their sights elsewhere.

While the evidence is scant, some historians are beginning to assert that Pius II was an ardent practitioner of a much-practiced yet oft-maligned sport: Wiffle Ball. Yes, Wiffle Ball – a variation on baseball that is played using a lightweight, perforated plastic ball, almost invariably white in color, and an invariably yellow plastic bat. Groundbreaking historians in this field, including Hampton, Grieves, et al., now claim that Pius II’s fascination for and dedication to the sport of Wiffle Ball were so great that he designed the central piazza of Pienza to be a Pantheon for its dedicants.

Centuries later, a group of us made good on Pius’ promise to Wiffle athletes. On our recent trip to Tuscany, we played Wiffle Ball in Pienza’s historic central piazza. Crazy, yes, but true. We found many pieces of Pius II’s grand Wiffle Ball stadium still in place and were frequently surprised by the overarching beauty of his plan. The locker room/dugout along the wall of one abutting palace, replete with hooks for jackets. The batting practice cage alongside the ancient well. Infield/outfield practice from the lip of the central door. A perfectly placed circle bricked into the very pattern of the piazza from which the pitcher could serve up Wiffle junk.

The lights shone bright on our field. Tickets were scalped to disbelieving neophyte fans for free – we were putting on a show and inviting all of Tuscany, even the papal ghosts, to join us. Except for when the municipal police rolled by: some of us scattered like high schoolers caught loitering in a midnight parking lot; one of us waddled off with the Wiffle Ball bat running the length of his leg. Our official photographer documented the scene. We laughed at the spettacolo and improbability of it all: Wiffle Ball in the House that Piccolomini Built for Wiffle Ball. A fitting sequel to the Lake Como Cup of 2006.

[For a fuller treatment of Pius II’s fascination with American sports invented, allegedly, after his death, I encourage you to read Jackson Checo’s thorough and impeccably researched examination of the subject, Piccolomini: The First Suburban Teenager?]

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Islands in the Stream, Part II

Mordecai's essay continued...


The Leibnitz party thought they had found their parcel of the Promised Land, but the island proved barren despite their efforts. Within a fortnight it became clear that it was not even, in fact, a true island, as the spring Proxigean tides soon inundated the small space, leaving but a speck of damp sand “the size of a rolltop desk (Adão, ed., 1957).” By that point, the party was over, and Leibnitz was the only remaining guest.

One of the last to depart, Maggie Oswald, claimed, in her interview with the New Bedford Daily Register, that Leibnitz was attempting to construct “a platform of some sort, from any which flotsam and jetsam and the like that happened by. I saw a lobster pot he had, and a shipping palette, an empty rum barrel from a pirate ship I think, a big bone maybe from a moose, a split plank flower box... I don’t know. It didn’t look real stable (Adão, ed., 1957).” Colorful as this description may be, Ms. Oswald’s report was certainly influenced by the severity of the ordeal she had just endured and unfortunately could not be verified.

Any attempts to corroborate her story of Leibnitz’s unusual tower were thwarted when, within a few days, an unseasonal hurricane swept up the North Atlantic coast. While meteorological records from the period indicate a low-force storm (Davis & Davis, 1922), by the time the weather had cleared, Leibnitz, the accordion, the two sheep, any platform, and the first ten feet below sea level of the island had disappeared. At the University of Maine at Orono-hosted symposium “Is Any Man an Island?: A Discussion on the Hermeneutics of Ill-Fated Utopian Expeditions of the 19th Century,” Dutch researcher Jan-Mendelt Van Wristler commented, “It is doubtful Leibnitz survived.” Indeed. Another arrow shot at the moon that fell well short.

Whether or not Leibnitz knew of Pope Pius II (1405-1464) is a subject of some debate among utopian historians. However, they both held la città ideale of More and Plato in high esteem: Leibnitz played out his tragedy along the Massachusetts coast; Pius II used the Tuscan countryside as his palette. What is generally agreed upon is that Pius II was “born Enea Silvio Piccolomini in1405. [He] was Pope from August 19, 1458 until his death in 1464. Pius II was born at Corsignano in the Sienese territory of a noble but decayed family. His longest and most enduring work is the story of his life, Commentaries, which is the only autobiography ever written by a reigning Pope.”

Strongly influenced by the humanists of his day, Pius II set out to resculpt his hometown, and this aspect of his papacy is of special interest to historians of urban design. Corsignano, later renamed Pienza in honor of its most famous son, became the first formidable exercise in city planning in post-plague Europe. The town still retains most of the fruits of his labor and was designated a World Heritage site by UNESCO in 1996.

Monday, November 12, 2007

Islands in the Stream, Part I

On my recent trip to Tuscany, I traveled with my roommate Mark and a collection of characters associated with his baseball team. We also spent some time with an acquaintance of mine from New York, Mordecai Johnson, who is a visiting adjunct professor at the University of Bologna. He asked if he could contribute some historical perspective to my blog, and I readily agreed. Because of the length of Mordecai’s essay, I have separated it into three installments.


The desire for utopia has engendered many attempts at the ideal community. Plato’s Republic and Sir Thomas More’s Utopia are justly the most famous literary antecedents. In Massachusetts of the 17th century, the Puritans believed they were establishing a “city upon a hill” that might serve as a beacon to the world. Many sought a counter-example to the increasingly teeming cities of the Industrial Revolution during the 19th century. Within this last category, the story of Arnold Leibnitz provides an especially telling example. While peculiar, the story is by no means unique; the Leibnitz party and a trove of other foolhardy experiments share a common result: failure.

Leibnitz was in many ways the archetypal aspiring utopian leader: charismatic, prematurely grey, neglectful of quotidian minutiae. With a small group of like-minded souls, Leibnitz set off from Boston in mid-March of 1857 on what was then an arduous overland journey to Provincetown, Cape Cod. Inspired by Leibnitz’s creative firebrandery, they hoped to form a utopian community apart from “the roiling mess of present society (Rosenfeld, 1975).” By early April, however, having established nothing more than poor relations with the local inhabitants, the group was run out of town. Though first-person accounts vary wildly in their depiction of the Leibnitz party’s exodus, there is a general consensus that the group was lax in paying bar tabs and maintaining personal hygiene.

Finding themselves with “but a skiff and a sack of potatoes to their collective name” (Lister, 1964), the group gathered on a dune to regroup. Eventually, after much deliberation and not a little ill will, the latter primarily directed towards the accordionist in the group, Leibnitz decided to lead the party out to a small, uninhabited island he saw just off-shore. Gesturing vociferously, he proclaimed, “There, amidst the unspoilt bosom of Nature, we shall settle and make famous our experiment (Kalantagian, 1981).”

Clamoring into the skiff, one and all with potatoes and accordion and two sheep – the reasoning being that most in the party enjoyed their tea with milk and that come fall they could “make what harvest we could from the wool of our flock” (O’Leary, 1980) - the group splashed out towards the island. They made landfall on Accordion Island, so named for completely unrelated circumstances, after over four hours of drifting caused by the group’s having neglected to bring any means of propulsion or steering and to “Poseidon’s cruel sense of humour [sic]” (Ferthen, 1917). Splashing ashore, Leibnitz fell immediately to his knees in prayer to God, Shiva, and the animist spirits of the island, it being an ecumenical endeavor...

Friday, November 9, 2007

Walking on the moon with the lights turned off

Last night I wandered through a carnival being set up in town. Here in Italy these traveling amusements are called Luna Parks, though that may be a brand name? The community of carnies is living around the corner from us and the park itself is set up just down the street. While I am certainly peripatetic, I can only imagine what a 21st century nomadic life would be like...

It was odd to walk the midway before it has opened for business, like being in school on Sunday or a ballpark in November. An amusement park with its shutters down and its plugs pulled. Flashy wheeled carts and miniature fire engines and flying horses at rest. Wooden bottles in no danger of falling boxed up. A bull roping gig set to snort steam collecting dew. Bumper cars lined up in their shawls like boats at a winter marina. Food booths linger already or still with the scent of popcorn and toasted sugar. A whirly top with flanges for seats and standing room screaming only quiet dark. All of it waiting.

Durante medio siglo
la poesía fue
el paraíso del tonto solemne
hasta que vine yo
y me instalé con mi montaña rusa.
Suban, si les parece.
Claro que yo no respondo si bajan
echando sangre por boca y narices.
- Nicanor Parra

For half a century
poetry was
the paradise of the solemn fool
until I arrived
and I settled in with my roller coaster.
Go on up, if it strikes you.
Of course I won’t respond if you come down
pouring blood from your mouth and nostrils.

Wednesday, November 7, 2007

The quickest way to a man's heart

Cypress trees ring the early evening sky. The air hangs with the smell of sulfur. Steam floats off down valley in the growing dark. I’m floating, boca arriba, in the thermal baths of Bagno Vignoni. In Tuscany. On cloud nine. How did I get here?

While Italians don’t really celebrate Halloween, All Saints’ Day is a national holiday. Because it fell on a Thursday this year, most Italians took one of their favorite (among many) liberties and stretched the day-off into a four-day weekend. Fare il ponte – to make the bridge. Mark and I traveled south to Pienza in Tuscany with friends from the baseball team and a few others, some of whom who have been visiting the area regularly for ten years. Mark and I agree it is one of the best ways to travel in Italy: go with Italians who know where to go, where and what and how to eat and drink, who to talk to, what to see, etc. Thanks especially to our de facto tour guides Bodo, Moris, and Panno.

Cloud nine is a big place full of many wonders. I cannot hope to cover our trip adequately, especially not in one post. My best advice: go and see for yourself. Tuscany is magical and it calls to you.

First, let me start with our meals, since that was one of the central motivations for the trip. As with small vehicles, contour plowing, and wiffle ball stadiums, Tuscans do food very well. Perhaps too well. If I lived there the way we lived this weekend, I wouldn’t live very long. I would probably drown in the thermal baths, satiated on homemade pasta and locally-produced wines.

Eating with honorary locals Bodo and Moris, we were often that group at the various restaurants we visited: 7 guys, talking exuberantly, sitting for hours at a table that had been reserved weeks ago and marked with a little card, ordering the entire menu, turning heads of less-informed and un-local-tour-guide-blessed tourists, joking with the waiters, calling out to the owners on a first-name basis, laughing at each other and the rubes who thought they could merely walk up and get a table (most of the restaurants we ate at had between 5 and 10 tables; all were bursting with patrons), eating enough to sink small ships, and drinking enough wine to float ‘em back up.

Here is a sampling of what we ate. Most of it was “four stars heartily shake the hand of the chef” good. Some of it was “call the cemetery and reserve a spot because I can now die and go to heaven” good. These are of course subjective descriptors and will require further research to refine. I have tried to list them as best as possible in the order in which they would be eaten during a meal. Yes, sometimes we ate the vast majority of things on this list at one sitting. I wish I had photos of all of these dishes to share, but I was too busy eating to remember my camera.

- crostini: small pieces of bread toasted with toppings: olive spread, liver pâté, pecorino (sheep’s cheese, also known in Tuscany as cacio) with chopped nuts, pecorino al tartufo (cheese flavored with truffle , a good example of how man was not born to live on bread alone)

- bruschette: another toasted bread dish, familiar to most, addictive to many; the difference from crostini seems to be that the bread is toasted first and then topped with tomatoes and olive oil, pecorino al tartufo, ricotta and green onions

- salumi misti: mixed cuts of cured meats – salami, prosciutto, culatello (another type of prosciutto), capicola, bresaola, lardo (yes, lardo) - Tuscany, or anywhere in Italy for that matter, is not the best place to keep kosher AND sane

- salad with salsa di acciughe (anchovy sauce)

- zuppa (soup) with pane (bread), fagioli (beans), olio (olive oil), pepe (black pepper), and erba cipollina (chives, or, literally, green little onions)

- cipolle al pane: onions with bread chunks, baked in the oven in terra cotta dishes (a common technique used to perfection in Tuscany)

- pecorino fresco con pancetta: fresh sheep’s cheese (there are three general categorizations of pecorino, which I hope to cover in a future post) baked in the oven with bacon – perhaps both the tastiest and least healthy food I ate all weekend – wow.

- salsiccia alla griglia: grilled sausage

- pici: a homemade pasta special to Tuscany, rolled between the hands, long like spaghetti but thicker; with cinghiale (wild boar) ragu, with briciole (bread crumbs), with aglio and pomodori (garlic and tomatoes). I would probably eat this pasta with mulch or gravel or newspaper pulp. It is wicked good.

- tagliatelle: another homemade pasta, often served with a meat sauce

- maialino di latte: roast suckling pig, served with some of the subcutaneous layer of fat – tasty but not my favorite

- semifreddi: ice-cream-esque dessert that comes in slices like bread

- cantucci e vin santo: small almond biscotti, that may or may not be baked feathers from angel wings, and dessert wine traditional to Tuscany – I think Heaven may be a piazza where you sit all day drinking caffe, eating pecorino, reading La Repubblica, writing postcards, drinking vin santo with cantucci, watching stylish women walk by in stivali (boots).

Stay tuned for more reviews from la Bella Toscana.

Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Spooky in Italian would be...

For Halloween this year, I’m masquerading as a small-town Italian. I have many of the characteristics down pat (no pun intended): the slow bicycle rides; the affinity for gelato, cafe, and Park Club; the friend who drives a school bus; the other friend who runs a sports store with his wife; the friend who goes bird hunting just after the sun has risen; scarf wearing; a local watering hole where... well, everybody knows my name.

The Penguin Cafe has become our Cheers only it has more style and panache, decked out as it is in simple, Modern furniture and art; it serves much more wine than beer, and tasty aperitvo instead of peanuts and pretzels; you cannot watch the Red Sox or Patriots on the TV; and... right, it’s in Italy. And I don’t think anybody works for Poste Italiane, which is fine because the last thing those people need is anything else slowing down their infamously leisurely post service.

Mark met the owners, Mario and Paula, through an American who stayed here briefly over the past two summers. Now, Mark and I are greeted warmly when we arrive. We often end up staying past closing time, chatting away with a revolving series of characters. Personaggi. Just like in Cheers, the Penguin attracts many types: the longer haired charming suitcoat; the barkeep who laughs a lot and keeps everybody guessing; the wild-eyed sage on the corner stool. At a recent festa del vino, we even had the opportunity to rub elbows with the director of a vineyard. (Maybe that would be like sharing a pint with Jim Koch?)

All of us are drawn by the place and especially the penguini, as the staff are known. And the wine is excellent. Of course. [In truth, as inquiring minds might want to know, I have consumed nothing bad here in Italy. Even the strips of pig back, while far from kosher, were tasty.] As with the baseball team, it's nice to be included. To feel part of something larger than myself. Even if it is a bar... especially if it's a bar.

Happy Halloween to you and yours, wherever you may be. I’m sure that among the lot of you there are some mighty costumes. Maybe even a Sam Malone? A Papajima? Daniel LaRussa remains tough to beat, on and off the mat, but that doesn't mean you shouldn't give it a go.

Oh, and if you’re in Boston seeing the tourist sights, you can skip the Cheers bar. ‘Tis a silly place.

Friday, October 26, 2007

Ramblin' 'round Milano

A few more reasons why Milan continues to grow on me like a pleasant moustache. What? Never mind. I don’t know either. Must be all of these late night/early morning Red Sox games. Oh, and a BC football game. Oh, and Mark just brought home two hockey sticks – I can see the headlines in Il Cittadino now: “Intrepid immigrants inject area inter-murals with hockey sans ice.”

A stone's throw from the castello, Milan's Chelsea/West Village lies in wait. Artists lounge, smoke, chat, doodle, scan the perforate-toothed want ads and have ads, discuss Matsuzaka’s Game 3 start in spacious Coors Field – an art school with balustraded courtyards, an astronomical museum, and a botanical garden. Sagan, spray paint disk space scenes busked, Audubon hummingbirds, O’Keefe, Da Vinci (same of the navigli). Perhaps it is common to use cartoon characters to advertise exhibitions of historical astronomical instruments but... i Simpson? He who designed said sign ingested perhaps an additional hallucinatory hot pepper.

Meanwhile, across town... The navigli, or canals, as I’ve mentioned before continue to wave their flower-boxed windows at me, smile back from their colorful reflections, wind their way towards my heart. They are twists on the type, an endearing wrinkle in the fabric of the city. Not as whimsical as the slide from a pedestrian walkway at the top of the ascensor where I lived in Valparaiso, Chile, but unexpected just the same.

Later, with the day winding down... il Duomo stands stately over the largest piazza in the city, justly famous for staccato spires and a reconstructing facade. Inside, I found it hard to see the trees for the forest – the nave and transept crossing at great heights, both filled with gild and gesso-glossed gigantic canvases. Devotional candles, a collection of closed-door confessionals, stone pillars smooth from years rising above a foundation started 700 years ago... Il Duomo inside is one of the most breath-taking buildings I’ve ever been in; outside... well... I’m curious to know if there are any cathedrals the world over that allow you to sit on the roof and take in the sights. And what sights. After walking up the stairs (or taking the lift if you want to pay an extra 2 euros and get there quicker), you can elbow up with saints and gargoyles, gulls and flying-buttress sight lines, but sadly no kite lines. The green copper domes of other churches rise above the sprawling centro storico. Cranes swings stories above rooftops constructing the new amidst the old. The clouds color as the sky fades to black.

For more photos of my Milano meander, please click here. No here. Okay, really here... or here. That will work. Pinkie swear.