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.