Story #7 November 13, 2020
MARY, MARY, QUITE CONTRARY
Mary, Mary, quite contrary,
How does your garden grow?
With silver bells and cockle shells,
And pretty maids all in a row.
Her rage boiled as she heard that awful rhyme float up from the lawn below, chanted by a group of children waiting for a school bus. If she, Mary Stuart, Queen of Scots, still were on the throne, she’d have all their heads lopped off, even if they were children. Especially if they were children.
She looked out at the watery morning, the misty rain in the early light, and wondered what it would be like to play golf again, a distraction from the vile children below her window in Holyrood Palace where she had been for over 400 years. She’d play if she could hold a club since nothing had stopped her before. After all, the day she helped murder Lord Darnley, her pesky second husband, she had played golf and it was raining torrents. To be appropriate though, she had worn black.
She lifted her head off her neck, set it on the vanity and braided the hair, wrapped them into a swept up coil and replaced her head on her neck. The jagged marks of the three axe hacks it took to remove the cranium were still visible 400 years on, but the scar of humiliation was worse. The incompetent executioner had picked up the head by the hair, which was a wig, and the head had thudded to the floor and rolled some distance, to the horror of the crowd and the outrage of Mary. So spiteful was she, that her spirit had made all of the executioner’s children look like pigs.
Mary’s execution had stemmed from one tiny, insignificant indiscretion, namely, the liquidation of Lord Darnley, the father of her insolent pipsqueak son James. The incident had not gone well. Out of jealousy Darnley had murdered her secretary, David Rizzio, without her permission, so she’d sworn revenge against him and had ordered Lord Bothwell, her lover at the time and soon-to-be husband, to blow Darnley’s residence to dust with gunpowder. Sadly, Darnley survived the explosion so Bothwell had to smother Darnley in the garden. Messy business, that was. She married Bothwell too soon after that and the squeamish nobles had revolted over the scandal. Murder, more murder, and affairs were, she guessed, too much for the dainty nobility. Because of Bothwell’s botched butchery of Darnley and her involvement in the incident, she had been replaced on the Scottish throne by her whiny, mewling one year old son, James. Irritating, ungrateful child, she thought. Should have drowned him in the river with the kittens. Thank the heavens she only had to spend the first month of his life with him. She understood why some animals eat their young.
The rain had stopped and she gazed across the Scottish countryside, the brilliant slants of sunlight illuminating the jade and kelly green of the hills. The low mountains looked like giant puffy, moss-covered muffins, with patches of bluish purple as the silver and pewter clouds scudded overhead. From the third floor of the Palace at the foot of the Royal Mile in Edinburgh, she could clearly see the mass of Edinburgh Castle, one mile to the west, perched high on the cusp of the remnants of a volcano, and the old town, that clung to the downward angle of the crater’s edge, and ended at the palace below.
The Castle, massive-shouldered, rough and formidable, was the symbol of Scottish history, the icon of the nation. It commanded the bay and the valleys, and still had the enormous shiny black cannons of Mary’s day, the late 1500s, pointed out to sea. The chapels, the great vaulted dining hall with a stone fireplace a man could stand up in, even the tiny chamber where she gave birth to James, were all up there, she reminisced. She looked at the Royal Mile lined with the creamy stone structures from the 17th and 18th centuries, built in elegant Georgian style with large mullioned, rectangular windows, fluted columns and grand entrances. Built 200 years after she had been queen, they spilled from the sides of the avenue to the valley below and nuzzled against the hillside.
From below she could hear fragments of conversation about something called ‘Brexit’ and calls for Scottish independence but she had not followed the news in a couple of centuries. Her place and self importance in World and Scottish history was secure and permanent, she knew, which gave her great comfort. But in the next instant, her musings were shattered.
‘You wench!! You thieving, conniving, traitorous slut!’, boomed a voice through the stone wall as an apparition oozed into her view and became Bothwell, her last husband. He moved forward, hands raised as if to strangle her, but the two figures passed through one another harmlessly, which quite embarrassed him. ‘Damn!’, he said, as he looked down at his insubstantial body.
‘You’ll get used to it,‘ said Mary sarcastically. ‘So why are you here, you dobber? Your prison was the perfect place to work on your book, Gun Powder for Dummies’. After the murder, Bothwell had fled England but was imprisoned in Denmark, and by the end of his life was as mad as a March hare.
‘You, Bothwell, were the putrefaction of the problem. You couldn’t kill a cockroach without a committee,’ Mary chided. He came at her again but was suddenly arrested by the view of the landscape out the window. He stopped in mid float to stare at the breathtaking town and countryside, a wonder he had not seen in 400 years. Mary and Bothwell stood side by side for the moment in mutually acceptable loathing, Edinburgh and Scotland spread out before them.
‘I miss the old town of 1560,’ she whined, ‘the haggis washed down with a pint of scotch, the bagpipes on the lawn and the kilts on the young men.’
‘Tell me, Trollop of the Town,’ asked Bothwell, ‘what do you miss the most? The ramshackle, tumbledown, oily huts of the stinking peasants, the horseshit, the dead in the street, the reek of damp peat smoke hanging thick as cake layers and mixed with the foul frothy fog? Look at the town today,’ he said. ‘It is a gleaming, glowing, spire-filled metropolis of cafes, museums and elegant shops on a bay of sparkling beauty,’ he said, sweeping his arm across the window. ‘It is filled with leafy squares, broad avenues, and the pulse of life.’
Mary turned on him and spat, ‘Why must you ruin every good rant of mine?’, and regally tossed her head, which dropped suddenly to the table.
Silently Mary had to admit that Edinburgh was miserable in 1560, though the countryside was magic. She imagined it still was. “This Brigadoon beauty, this lone and fragile landscape, this stark and solitary transfiguration of soul, this Scotland,” she quoted from some forgotten poet. She loved the fjord-like lakes, the hills of the Trossachs and the lochs in the West, the muddling brooks, the gorse and thistle carpeting the fields and hollows, the aroma of cherry blossoms and heather and cloveroot, the purple and pewter clouds, mists like veils and an enveloping silence.
‘Those days in the country were idyllic, you know, before Queen Elizabeth locked you up for treason then ordered your head chopped off.’, Bothwell said smiling with pleasure. ‘And then the executioner dropped your silly head!’, as he floated into the chandelier, as he howled with laughter.
Mary replaced her head and dismissed the remark, ‘Tut, tut. So I tried to start a civil war and steal the throne of England from her. Minor matter. And then that skank Elizabeth made my son king of England and unified the nations! Outrageous! Should have been me,’ she whined shrilly. ‘My subjects adored me then and adore me now.’
‘Adored you?!‘, Bothwell said with a grimace. ‘They spat at you after you paraded past them, they pissed in the street behind you, they made up horrible rhymes, like ‘Mary, Mary…….’.
But she cut him off with a shriek of outrage and humiliation, ‘NO, NO! I won’t hear it!’, she wailed, covered her ears and sang a ditty to drown out the poem.
‘Face it, Harlot of the Highlands,’ Bothwell continued, ‘we’re both just footnotes of Scottish history. Compared to the Celts, Hadrian’s Wall, the Vikings, ‘Braveheart’, the wars and union with England, we’re just an entertaining side show, if that. We’re the hapless stars of a Jerry Springer segment, strutting about, screaming and yelling accusations at one another playing as if it’s of great importance, while it’s really just sound and fury, signifying nothing. After a while, people tire of the drama and move on. Our show’s been cancelled Mary. I’m forgotten already. And the moment you don’t make money for them with your face on souvenir cups and refrigerator magnets, you will be forgotten, too, and only the stupendous beauty of the nation will remain.’
Ignoring the rest of what Bothwell had said, Mary asked, ‘Who is Jerry Springer?”
Bothwell looked at her in amazement. ‘Stone the crows, woman. If you’re in a Danish prison for 400 years, you’ll watch anything on the light box for distraction, even that dreadful Springer show, with dreadful people tearing one another apart. By the by, that reminds me of the reason I came, to find out why you had me imprisoned!’
‘Oh, that,’ said Mary with a dismissive wave of the hand. ‘Darnley murdered Rizzio so I had you murder Darnley but once that was done, I wanted you out of the way so I banished you to Denmark and had you imprisoned. You went quite mad all on your own, probably from watching Jerry Springer on that light box thing.’
Suddenly Mary seemed to have remembered what Bothwell had said earlier. ‘A footnote in history? Is that what I’ll become?’ Mary had always thought that her legacy would endure as long as the beauty of Scotland, but now she was not so sure of her importance in a world that had clearly gone past her. She wheeled angrily.
‘Out, damned spot! Out, I say!’ she commanded Bothwell, who smirked with satisfaction and floated off, into the gathering gloom, leaving only his footnote behind. This can’t be true, she thought, ‘I’m important, I’m permanent’, but something gnawed at her. The mantel clock, its monotonous tick tock, pendulum swinging, thrummed ever louder, louder still, until she wanted to dash the mechanism to the floor. The memory of Bothwell’s words, ‘all that’s left of you is a face on a mug or a fridge magnet’ crawled through her head and depressed her.
The school bus pulled up, discarded the children and she heard again, muffled, from the lawn below, ‘Mary, Mary, quite contrary…..’ but this time, instead of rage, she felt a kind of relief. Perhaps her legacy would live on after all. Yes, she was sure of it.
Story #6 October 30, 2020
‘A STRANGE THING HAPPENED ON THE WAY TO THE FORUM’
There was such a crowd in the subway at the main train station in Rome that it felt claustrophobic. Even for July, the day was unusually hot and sticky. Mirages blurred, distorted and disappeared in the shimmering heat that rose in waves from the pavement. Below ground, the narrow platform in the low-ceilinged tunnel amplified the bustle of noise of the crowd. The station above was open, airy and efficient, but below, the subway yearned for long-overdue maintenance.
In case we should become separated, I had told my small group that we would exit the train at the ‘Cipro’ stop near the Vatican, 8 stations distant, and turned toward the track when I sensed someone or something uncomfortably near me. It might have been smoke or refracted light but the figure seemed translucent as it coalesced, staring hard. A face formed, one I vaguely recognized because this wasn’t the first time I’d seen it, then a body cloaked in white took shape. The arms raised slowly, the hands came up and a sudden wind-like force pushed me into the air. It was all very ethereal and dream-like, as I flew out over the open tracks, hung in the air a moment, then fell head first, my right shoulder striking the steel of the rail five feet below.
My vision blurred, blackened, cleared a bit and, in a fog, I smelled the soot and coal of the tracks I lay face down on. The muffled voices of those scurrying on the platform sounded like a distant, boisterous party. Someone gingerly helped me stand and led me stumbling to the stairs and back up onto the platform. Hazy faces swam in front of me, lips moving, but the words were lost behind the ringing in my head.
Minutes passed, trains arrived and departed, my head cleared and the waves of nausea subsided. Looking down I saw that my pants and shirt were filthy and greasy, the right shoulder slumping awkwardly at an oblique angle, the Vatican Museum tickets sticking out of my shirt pocket. We had a timed entrance and this was our only chance to visit. The pain was like a migraine, sharp and blinding, but I figured the shoulder was only dislocated so I assured everyone that we would continue, and, gently sticking my right hand in my waistband, we boarded the next train. With relief, I sat as the car rumbled away. I breathed deeply and mulled the events, trying to remember when I had first seen that ominous face.
The previous day we had scoured the Colosseum, that immense stone amphitheater that has become the symbol of the glory of the ancient Roman Empire. The design is so elegant and simple, the beauty so remarkable, that even though a large section is missing it still retains the aura and majesty of when it was built. Walking up into the empty stands where once 50,000 spectators roared with delight as gladiators fought gladiators or wild beasts, where countless emperors had commanded life or death, it took little imagination to visualize those gory spectacles. We clambered around it like kids enjoying its myths and legends, staring down where the arena had been, imagining the chaos in the labyrinth of tunnels and cages beneath the sand covered floor.
Afterward, we had gone to the Roman Forum where the city was founded nearly a millennium before Christ, to view the ruins of the once monumental gleaming marble basilicas and temples along the Sacra Via, the Sacred Road, a passage back in time, older than the Empire, back to the age of the Republic. In the middle of this open air museum is an odd little structure, a stone hut where the remains of Julius Caesar, the historical fulcrum between the Republic and the Empire, had been cremated. Julius, I explained, had cast himself as the liberator of the city but quickly became a dictator who set in motion a titanic civil war. He had wealth beyond imagination but he longed for absolute power to satisfy his towering ego and he destroyed the Roman Republic to get it. Neither Julius nor his mother would have appreciated my explanation.
Sitting there on the train, that thought jolted me because it was near this cremation hut, immediately after I had told the group of the treachery and deceit of Julius Caesar, that the smoky figure first appeared, shadowy and nearly transparent. I had barely said the words when I noticed a light cloud, perhaps a figure, drifting near the Temple of Saturn, but when I blinked, it had dissipated. Ghosts and apparitions don’t exist so I knew it was just a trick of the shadows and bright sunshine.
From what I was able to remember just then, there was no reappearance of the shadow at the Pantheon, with its immense 2000 year old dome, nor at the nauseatingly overrated Spanish Steps. Steps? Where the hell are they? You can’t ever see them because of the permanent carpet of tourists, panhandlers, townspeople and pigeons that cover them. Maybe at 3 a.m. they’re visible but I don’t intend to get up at that hour to see stairs.
Sitting on the subway to the Vatican, right arm hanging loose and useless, the memory of the previous day was becoming hazier. Sometime in the afternoon there were the sparkling waters of the Trevi Fountain, Anita Ekberg in an elegant black gown, the movie “La Dolce Vita”, the graceful figures of Poseidon and his team of horses spouting water into the huge marble basin. No, I shook my head, Anita hadn’t really been there but neither had the apparition. The memory of the smoky figure in the Forum had been pushed out of my mind in order to find toilets and beverages for my people. But then we went to the Area Sacra del’Argentine, the place where the conspirators, Brutus and the boys, had murdered Caesar.
I remembered explaining the ruins which lay about 20 feet below the level of the modern city, and was pointing to a temple when there was a slight flicker of motion to my left, almost like a tiny flame in the wind, out of direct view. When I turned, I saw nothing but I had sensed something. My people looked at me a bit strangely but kept quiet and we moved on, the apparition lingering in my head. My cognition was increasingly challenged, it seemed.
The train jerked to a halt at Cipro, I secured the right hand again in the waistband, and we walked to the Vatican Museum, a huge complex of halls and rooms filled with artistic treasures of the world. Most famous is the Sistine Chapel, the ceiling and altar painted by Michelangelo 500 years ago. If all you did was journey to Rome to see this masterpiece and return home, the effort and expense would be worth it. The work is that awe-inspiring, the Old Testament come to life, a living, breathing, and in many ways, quite modern work. The adjoining St Peter’s Basilica is so gigantic that one expects to hear conductors calling out the arrivals and departures of trains. By that time though I had trouble remembering where the exit was, my speech was slurred and the shoulder looked as if I had a melon perched there.
When I awoke from the surgery, again dazed and confused, it took several moments before I began to piece together what had happened. I had simply been knocked off the platform by the crowd, and the shadow I had seen several times was just that, a trick of the light. Long dead people, even Julius Caesar, don’t get pissed off enough to enact revenge just because they are described as vicious dictators by a guide.
I’m still convinced of that, although in the future when I describe Mao Tse Tung or Stalin, I may be a bit more cautious.
Story #5 October 16, 2020
‘THE PHANTOMS OF FLORENCE’
From his cloud, Angelo gazed down at the dusky brown town. The intervening 500 years had spared many of the Medieval villas and apartments, the streets looked just as crowded and chaotic, but he wondered if the soul of the city remained. Like a puff of smoke, he floated down into Florence, the city he loved, the city of geniuses, of architects, poets and philosophers, and birthplace of the Renaissance. He had heard that his statue was in the Accademia Museum, moved from the Piazza della Signoria, and Angelo drifted through the glass cupola as if it were a sieve.
‘What are you doing here, Spawn of Pond Scum?’, Leo asked the transparent figure of Angelo. “I could ask you the same, Son of a Street Whore,’ Angelo retorted. Da Vinci had come to admire the DAVID but could not admit that to Michelangelo, who had just pinched his nose against a wretched odor. Fluttering not three feet away was the bedraggled, vermicious figure of Rola, still reeking of the fire that had burned him to death five centuries ago. ‘Well Stinky’, said da Vinci, ‘why are you here? Planning another fire and brimstone tent revival?’ ‘Shut up,Traitor for Hire,’ said Savanarola to da Vinci. The verbal blow stung because Leo had designed all sorts of military machines to sell to the highest bidder. The three floated a few inches above the marble floor of the Accademia Museum in Florence, Italy, and surveyed Michelangelo’s DAVID, 15 feet of solid, perfectly chiseled white marble. Somehow this solid stone expressed perfect confidence, absolute purpose and the daring to act. It seemed alive, as if it would move any second.
“You know Angelo, this is quite good, despite the giant hands and feet,’ remarked Leo. ‘I hate to admit it, but it reflects Florence and the Renaissance very well,’ Leo continued. Michelangelo considered this unexpected compliment a moment. “Carving is easy,’ he said. “You just go down to the skin and stop.” Seething, Rola spat out, ‘It’s a piece of bourgeois trash that represents the oppression of the masses.’ He sounded like the holy roller monk he had once been, purveyor of gloom and doom who had so frightened the citizens of Florence that he had destroyed the Renaissance spirit of the city with his fiery, divisive and hate-filled speeches.
Michelangelo rounded on him. ‘Hey Rola, let’s visit the site of your greatest fame,’ and drifted outside and down the street, the other two following. Ahead of them was the dome of the Florence Cathedral. The giant orange structure by Brunelleschi was already in place when the three men were children. They hesitated a moment in front of the white, green and pink marble mosaic that festooned the facade of the cathedral, gaudy but striking, before they moved on toward the Piazza della Signoria, town center then as now.
There was a cluster of people in the middle of the square, all looking down as they listened to a guide explaining a large granite circle embedded in the paving stones with an inscription in Italian. “This is the spot where Savanarola was burned at the stake,’ the guide said, ‘after the monk declared he was mightier than God. But by that time, the great artists and philosophers of the city had fled, fearful of Savanarola’s so called bonfires of the vanities. The town was nearly destroyed by his deceptions, lies and conspiracy theories and the people finally called his bluff.’ Rola fidgeted nervously, remembering the flames as the heat flayed his skin and the smoke choked his shrieks of agony. ‘I was a saint,’ he protested, ‘I was the Great One!’ But he floated away quickly when he saw the ghost of the sharp-tongued Machiavelli approaching.
‘I see that Leaking Sewer of a Corpse Rola just left. Can’t bear that smell,’ said Machiavelli. ‘Odd little fellow, that one, but Florentines revered him once. One who deceives will always find those who allow themselves to be deceived.’ Clearly, his political wit had not abandoned him, even in death.
Drifting along, the three spirits marveled at how much of the old city remained, still filled with Medieval structures they remembered from 500 years ago, the crowds of people in the alleys and lanes, teaming squares, cafes jammed with students, mobbed restaurants and lively market stalls. The clothes had changed, the horses and horse shit were gone, and in their place, contraptions that were called bicycles and motorbikes, autos and trucks. But most people walked, just like when the spirits were children.
Around the corner from the Piazza, the three stared at their own stone effigies displayed in the large rectangular courtyard of the Uffizi Museum, among a collection of statues of other famous Florentines. There stood the patron of the Renaissance Lorenzo Medici, the writers Dante and Petrarch, and Amerigo Vespucci, the cartographer after whom America was named, all sons of Florence. ‘Rather nice to be remembered this way, isn’t it?,’ remarked Leo. ‘I would think your paintings in the Uffizi would be a more fitting tribute,’ said Angelo, referring to da Vinci’s The Annunciation and The Adoration of the Magi. ‘You were always a better painter than I,’ admitted Angelo. ‘And you the better sculptor,’ whispered Leo. Neither would face the other but after 500 years the truth was easier to say.
Out through the Uffizi portico, the three drifted a moment above the Arno River and spotted the Ponte Vecchio, the Old Bridge. ‘Now that is a welcome change,’ said Machiavelli, seeing the gold and jewelry shops lining both sides of the bridge. When the three were young, the bridge had been the site of the tanners, creating the leather that was made into shoes, coats and saddles for the wealthy, founding a craft that still made the town famous. They remembered the leather workers throwing buckets of chemicals and human waste from the tanning process into the river, so much that no one drank water from the Arno. The smell had been foul and death-like. But today the river was clean and the bridge was graceful and lovely with shops that glinted and glowed with necklaces, bracelets, and pendants festooned with diamonds and emeralds. It was a glorious transformation, they all agreed.
They flew on, down the alleys and lanes, passing the Medieval facades that hid the glossy, streamlined interiors of Prada and Cartier and elegant hotels, leaving the old town looking much as it did in 1500, although now paved and with street lamps. As it was when they were young, they noticed that the atmosphere was a bit chaotic, with the masses of people, snarky tourists, motorcycles, bicycles and delivery people all crammed into the narrow Medieval lanes bordered by even narrower sidewalks, often blocked with errantly parked bikes, little different from 500 years ago when it was a town of dirt streets and mobs of shouting vendors. The vibrancy, the excitement, the energy was still there, like electricity in the air.
On they went into the ancient Florentine neighborhoods south of the river to the Santo Spirito Church. ‘Michelangelo, you did illegal anatomy in the basement of that church,’ said Leo to Angelo, poking him in the ribs. ‘And you locked me in and called the police, Wart on a Pig’s Bottom,’ said Angelo. In the square there was a little local restaurant, the Osteria San Spirito, spilling out onto the plaza. Leo, Angelo and Machiavelli closed their eyes and inhaled deeply, as the aroma of walnut cream tortellini, gnocchi gratinati, and tagliatelle con peperoni filled the air. Bottles of deep red, rich, Sangiovese and Chianti were on every table, shimmering in every glass, and the three spirits savored the moment, regretting they were allowed to smell, but not to eat. Candlelight illuminated the vivacious faces of the diners, relaxing in smart jackets from the centuries old Florence leather markets.
‘Why do people still come here?’, wondered Leo. ‘What is the attraction of this old town?’ He and Angelo looked at Machiavelli, knowing his logical mind would already have figured this out. ‘It is because of us, gentlemen, the lure of the great past and the vibrancy of the present. Look at those diners, their glowing faces, they enjoy every aspect of Florence. Not just the DAVID and the Adoration of the Magi, but the leather markets, the jewelry shops, the walnut cream tortellini and Chianti. That’s the attraction,’ said Machiavelli. “I must run,’ he continued. ‘I have a roundtable discussion this afternoon with Attila the Hun and Socrates.’ I, too, must be off,’ said da Vinci, ‘I’ve a journey back to Paris.’ ‘Still working on the Mona Lisa?,’ Angelo inquired. ‘On and off, ‘ sighed Leo. ‘It’s hard with the crowds but I’ve made progress. Art is never finished, only abandoned,’ and he drifted off as well.
Michelangelo returned to the Accademia for a final glimpse of his DAVID. ‘The feet and hands are too big,’ he admitted to himself. ‘But I still like it.’ And with that he, too, was gone.
Article #4 October 2, 2020
THE DAYS OF WINE AND SUNSHINE
The first time I saw Volterra high above the winding vertiginous road, it looked like a storybook village created by Disney, perched on a hilltop with crenellated fortress walls and jutting turrets, damsels in distress, knights riding to the rescue, all aglow in the early evening sun.
But at that moment I didn’t give a damn about damsels, knights or fortresses, and instead cursed the 96 degree parched late August heat, relentless sun and no air conditioning in the car we had picked up at the Florence Airport, about two hours before. The AC had worked until just past the halfway point of the journey, too far to turn back, when there was a wheeze, a cough and then nothing, the previously cool dry air spilling out from the vents becoming warm, then hot, then “time to put the bread in the oven” level. We kept driving and I figured we could get the AC repaired locally. As it turned out, it was a good decision because to have missed any time in Volterra would have been a mistake.
The higher we drove, the air became cooler and clearer, until, at the top, the breeze was mild and dry. Just outside the 15th century walls was our hotel, the Villa Nencini. Our balcony overlooked the valley, undulating fields of gold, green and purple, in rectangles and rhomboids, baking under the sun. Dotted across the fields were stands of cypress, tall and slender, dark green and elegant against the blinding sun. The mid afternoon haze had just begun to settle into the valley, diffusing the light, softening the hard outlines and turning it to a watercolor.
Silvano, the hotel owner, called an auto repairman who showed up an hour late, smiling and affable. Angelo’s English was as limited as my Italian but it was easy to explain the problem. ‘Non aereo condizione’ said it all. He nodded, fiddled under the car hood, started the engine, fiddled some more, and came to me wiping his hands on an oily rag. He’d order a new condenser and have it ‘soon’. ‘What is soon’, I asked, wanting to have it done in, say, the next 10 minutes. ‘Soon is soon” he grinned. ‘Domani?’, tomorrow, I hoped? “Si!!, domani!’, and he grinned. I kept my doubts to myself.
We strolled up the hill into town under a blazing sun, a beaten copper disc in a bottle-blue glass sky, past the ubiquitous rosemary bushes the size of compact cars, the spicy and slightly pine fragrance light and fresh in the shade, past tall stands of chestnut trees right out of a Van Gogh painting, up to the closed Etruscan Museum. That was a stroke of good luck because right across the way was the Bra Bar.
The Bra Bar was like nothing any of us had ever seen. We walked into the dark cave-like space and had waited a minute for our vision to adjust to the darkness. Then it hit. Hanging from every wall were hundreds and hundreds of women’s bras in every shape, color, size and condition. They were everywhere, on the walls, the window frames, the front of the bar and down the hall. I could only imagine how many women were strolling around the town bra-less, which in itself was a pleasant idea. Lost in that thought, I almost missed the 1967 VW Beetle hanging upside down from the ceiling. It was so incongruous we just stared at it. ‘My first car.’ said the bartender, ‘I just couldn’t part with it so I decided to hang it on the ceiling.’ As a conversation piece, it was unmatched.
We sat at a table off to the side should the contraption suddenly snap its moorings and plunge to the floor, and ordered a typical Italian mixed cheese and meat tray with 4 bottles of Moretti beer, a good sturdy Tuscan ale. There were 6 different cheeses and as many meats, olives and several slabs of rough farmer’s bread. When we paid, the barkeep recommended a restaurant for the evening that specialized in ‘cingale’, wild boar, and panzanelle, strips of bread topped with tomatoes, red onions, basil, olive oil, vinegar and salt, typical Tuscan food that turned out to be so good, we ordered it several times. The ribolleta, hearty vegetable soup on top of a crusty slice of bread, made a great lunch on other days. The food everywhere was excellent and unique but the best was the wine. The local Montepulciano was like drinking liquid sunshine, rich, full bodied and as relaxing as a hammock on a fine summer’s day.
We strolled back to the town’s main square, the stone rectangle of Piazza dei Priori, with the town hall, a couple of banks and some apartments filling the tall golden limestone structures from the 13th and 14th centuries. We found an umbrella covered table at a cafe and ordered a carafe of the house wine, of course a Montepulciano. Like easing into a pleasant dream, the real charm of Volterra began to drift over us. The heat of the day, the auto problems, the jet lag, started to fade.
The appeal of the nearly tourist-free town is not just the rich 2500 years of history. It is the ambience, the pace of life, that is so enjoyable. No Walmarts, Applbees, Citibanks or Macy’s, but instead, tiny shops scattered up and down the alleys and lanes, places to bring your own jug to fill with wine or olive oil; gelato, chocolate, olive wood, yarn and woolen wear shops; bakeries, fisheries and meat markets, and above all, alabaster, milled into lamps and bowls and chess sets. Life is spent in coffee houses and wine cafes, meeting friends for lunch or after work, calling out to neighbors from upstairs windows across freshly hung laundry. There is a pervasive calm across the town, as if someone put a bit of propofol in the Montepulciano.
A while later, I recognized Angelo, the auto repair guy, coming toward us across the square. How he found us I haven’t any idea. “Non domani”, not tomorrow, he said. ‘Piu tardi. Mi dispiace’, a little later, I’m sorry, and he put up his hands in a ‘can’t do anything about it’ gesture. Three hours earlier I would have done my ‘I’m mad as hell and I demand fast action’ dance. But the storybook town had already taken effect. We invited him to sit and share our wine and decided we’d just take the bus for a few days. Thus began the love affair with Volterra.
Article #3 September 18, 2020
DON’T DRINK THE WATER
Over a thousand years old, the monuments wear the moss of the faded glory of an empire, the tangled web of warren-like alleys link the mosaic of piazzas, a whiff of enchanted decadence drifts with the breeze, and the dark and twisted history of the town lurks around each corner. Mystery and death intermingle with intrigue and treachery, the companions of great wealth and power.
Today there are still no cars, no sounds of traffic, no hissing or squealing of tires, no exhaust, no traffic signals and walk/don’t walk signs, just endless narrow canals separating little islands of calm and tranquility. The sidewalks are lined with shops, cafes and boutiques, with restaurants spilling out into the squares, bustling waiters in starched white shirts under formal black jackets.
There is only one Venice, Italy. In the late afternoon when the throng of the “3 hour tourists’ scatter like the pigeons (yes, during midday it is best to explore the Castello or Dorsoduro neighborhoods and stay away from the central square) it is wondrous to visit St Mark’s Cathedral, the 10th century hodgepodge of architectural styles that Rick Steves calls “early ransack.” He’s right, but it is still a magnificent mix of Christian, Muslim, Arabic, Byzantine and You-Must-Have-Found-This-In-Your-Grandmother’s-House styles. At night with only the moon overhead and a few ornately delicate gaslight lamps to illuminate the facade, it seems to float above the square. Don’t look too closely or you’ll see the walls and columns are at crazy angles, shifting and leaning ever more as the wood pilings on which most of the city is built, shift and erode. The cathedral occupies one side of the huge rectangular St Mark’s Square, which is surrounded on the other three sides by elegant white marble Renaissance buildings, festooned with tiny twinkling lights along the even rows of windows. The history is epic, the sea food world renowned and the gondola rides enchanting, (at least once but don’t expect the gondoliers to sing for free).
No, the town isn’t really sinking much, but yes there is ever more flooding because with climate change comes higher sea levels. Hence, Venice is prone to have ever more high water days. Usually ‘high water’ means something like ankle deep, flowing in from the Adriatic Sea for a few hours and then out again. If you were so inclined, you could look at that as an efficient way to keep the streets clean, and indeed, they are unbelievably clean.
Sometimes though, Mother Nature conspires to have the tides coincide with the wind direction which causes high water, but the Venetians have a better and far more colorful myth. The sea sweeps into the town when Mama Giacometti’s pasta turns out badly. If it’s a good batch, you’re safe. If it sticks together and is pasty, she rants throughout the apartment building yelling and pounding her feet, causing the wood pilings beneath to vibrate and the sea to flow into town. At least it seems that way to me, much more random than the meteorologists would have you believe. I’ve met Mama Giacometti and believe me, she could cause this.
In the past, the flooding occurred rarely and only in winter so, having only been in the other seasons, I’d never experienced this adventure. That was about to change one beautiful summer day. I had a wonderful group of sturdy, adventurous folk, a terrific family among them, and we had enjoyed sunny, mild June weather for our time in Venice when on our final afternoon, I heard a steady, low siren drift across the town. I didn’t think much about it but noticed the shopkeepers begin to install barriers at their front doors low enough to step over but a good foot in height and very tight fitting. After the second siren call, I stepped into a cafe and asked in my broken Italian what was happening. The woman looked at me as if I were an addle-headed fool. FLOOD!, she pronounced! I glanced at the dry pavement outside and she said with exasperation, ‘Non adesso, piu tardi! Not now, later!’ Relieved I interpreted later as ‘late that night’ and the group and I walked to our dinner restaurant, avoiding the few damp patches, and dismissed the reactions as exaggerations
After dinner, we stepped onto dry pavement and began to walk back to the hotel, talking about the great meal and how lucky we were to have avoided the problem. Then we turned a corner and saw the sheen of water covering the sidewalk. Even as we stood there staring, we could see the water snake its way toward us, mirroring the shops’ bright lights and displays, filling the lane from side to side. I turned a corner abruptly and took another route but that too was blocked. Then another and another until I realized that we were on an island and that every route back was covered with water.
Since it seemed only a few inches deep, we took off our sandals, rolled up our pants and walked through it but the closer we got to our hotel, the deeper it became. By the time we reached St Mark’s Square, the water was thigh high and swirling. We darted down a side alley where it was shallower, passed diners sitting at tables with their feet in 5 inches of liquid and noticed they were being served by waiters in shorts. Why interrupt dinner for a bit of extra water? The whole scene was out of Bizarro-Land. We all laughed at the wine sipping diners who toasted us as we slogged past.
By midnight, all of the water had drained away more quickly than it had come, the squares and lanes now drying and swept clean. I went out for a quick stroll past St Mark’s. The Square was empty, the moon high, and the tantalizing sense of mystery and intrigue settled once again over the town, the whiff of decadence returning. Venice, as Babylon and Nineveh, will eventually disappear because nothing lasts, but for that moment, it was mine to enjoy.
Article #2 September 4, 2020
MADAM & THE METRO
When people are asked to conjure up a vision of London, they usually select all of the well known icons that most of the world easily recognizes, even in silhouette. The first is Big Ben and the Houses of Parliament. It’s impressive, no question there, and has come to represent the city well. The glowing circle of the clock can be seen all up and down the River Thames and the tolling of the bell heard for miles. It’s wonderful. Then there is the inspiring dome of St Paul’s Cathedral, the historic Westminster Abbey and the Tower of London. All worth seeing for various reasons, at least once in your life. Others that are hawked to tourists like Madame Tussaud’s or the London Dungeon are just dreadful, as boring as a collection of past- their-prime stuffed animals. Ever been to a Madame Tussaud’s? It’s as if you died and went to Hell, that being the worst cocktail party of your life where no one spoke to you, everyone was stiff and lifeless, the beer was flat and the food tasted like wax.
None of the above is my favorite London icon because after a couple of viewings, all of them get a bit stale. The Crown Jewels don’t glitter any brighter, St Paul’s dome looks the same after 350 years, the Abbey hasn’t had a recent wedding or funeral, and Big Ben tolls now as it did when Victoria was queen. They are great in their own ways but I now prefer something not so static, something that is changeable and vibrant. My favorite London icon is the London Tube, or subway.
Yes, you read that right, my favorite is the Tube. It is rich with history but changes day to day, in fact, minute to minute. It is the embodiment of the modern era as well as a bridge to London’s Victorian past. It is the soul, the heart and blood, of a living, breathing city, not some ‘made for tourists’ attraction.
The Tube, so named because the tunnels are circular, is the great melting pot of the city. Men in tuxedos and women in ball gowns ride with beggers and street people, tourists with locals, doctors and lawyers with shopkeepers and street cleaners. The wonder of it all is often how courteous people in this big mix are to one another. It is simply expected that riding the escalator to or from the subway, if you want to stay put, you move to the right and let everyone who wants to move past you do so on your left. If there is a space between the train and the platform, a kind voice reminds you to “Mind the Gap”, a phrase that has also become iconic. Riders routinely stand to give up their seats to pregnant women and the elderly. It’s quite remarkable.
Every day there’s a new adventure. Once I glanced down an impossibly long escalator and saw at least 30 pandas on their way to the Jubilee subway line. In a stunt to publicize the new panda exhibit at the London Zoo, a few dozen employees dressed up as pandas and rode the subway for much of the day. Another time a sign posted by the city advised that there had been ghost sightings recently and that since they were riding without tickets, other travelers were to report them to authorities immediately. Then there was the large group of pranksters dressed as Antarctic puffins who handed out shaved ice on a particularly hot day (they must have roasted in those costumes.) And none of my friends can forget the time a bunch of us on the Piccadilly Line sang ‘Love Potion Number 9’, as loud as we were flat, and we were very loud. But my favorite was when an older well-dressed gentleman boarded the car at Victoria Station with a small bistro table and chair, set them up at one end of the car, poured himself a glass of wine, sat down and read a novel. The other riders, having become completely used to strange behavior, hardly gave him a glance.
Even the station names are synonymous with something exciting. Piccadilly Station in the vibrant theater district; Trafalgar Square for the National Gallery of Art; and Covent Garden for the famed market and restaurants. Many have been enshrined in literature and film such as Charing Cross and Baker Street, woven into English language culture like infinite threads.
Others can drag themselves through Madame Tussaud’s and Ripley’s Believe it or Not, but give me the Tube any day for new excitement and wonder.
Article #1. AUGUST 21, 2020
Life, Death and Progress in the Era of Pandemic 1348-2020
Imagine if you will, just for a moment, that you live in the small English countryside village of Kingchester. You are a prosperous wool merchant with a family and life is good. You regularly go to the market in Shiring, a larger town a half day’s ride distant, to sell your wool and bring back grain. The year is 1348, King Edward III is on the throne and all is well.
One market day in Shiring you hear rumors of a disease that is spreading throughout the countryside but you are unconcerned and return home with bags of grain you traded for your wool. The grain has some live rodents in it but that’s normal and you share the grain with your large family. Soon after however, members of your family begin to sicken with high fevers and develop huge black blotches on their skin. You need to go back to Shiring to sell more wool but Old Lady Maude, who brews potions for sore throats and sets broken bones, warns you against returning. Although she has always given good advice, you now think she’s daft because you want to sell more wool, you have always traveled and you have always done exactly what you wanted.
This time the grain you return with has both live and dead rodents in it and even more people are sick and dying of what they call the Black Plague. You argue that the business must continue or everyone will starve but you look around and see that there are less and less to starve since so many have already died. The villagers begin to perish by the dozens and you know that Maude was right. One morning you awake with a high fever and notice the ominous black blotches and realize that you are next.
It’s late January 2020. You are a prosperous computer chip entrepreneur in Seattle and make frequent visits to the tech centers in China, including to a city named Wuhan. You sell your products and purchase semi conductors which you bring back to the US. The economy is good and all is well.
One day in Wuhan you hear rumors of a disease that is spreading throughout the countryside but you are unconcerned and return home. Some health experts begin to issue dire warnings of the fast spreading virus that can sicken and kill in as little as 4 or 5 days. Heedless you return to Wuhan, ignoring the concerns of the doctors and nurses.
You enter a city that is locked down, scores of neighborhoods that people are not allowed in or out of, dead bodies left in the street for pick up, overwhelming crematoriums and funeral parlors. Everyone must wear a mask and stay 2 meters from each other. You are in the middle of a pandemic and if you don’t leave immediately, you will not be allowed back in the US. You hastily return but you are now burning with fever and doubled over with wracking coughs. Your final thought is the question, ‘what are they putting down my throat’.
“We suffer into knowledge,” the ancient Greek poet Aeschylus wrote. Apparently, sometimes we simply suffer and reject the knowledge we should gain. 700 years separates us from that pandemic, yet despite our supposed progress, we seem still to self victimize as they did. There were conspiracies and massive misinformation in the 1300s exactly as today. It makes one wonder how much knowledge we have gained and how much progress we have made.