ARCHIVES 2007December 2007
Italia - Fast travel with teachers and myself
After decades of threatening to run away for Christmas, did it, though perhaps got a bit carried away--Italy could more easily have been Tucson or Florida or Ojai. Whatever was a micro drinker doing in Italia! Blame it on John's seductive descriptions of leaving consumer frenzied Christmas behind for a subtle holiday abroad. At the end of summer, held my breathe, signed up. After the Dec. 9th ice storm, I was ecstatic to go anywhere.
Joined ~3 doz. veteran globetrotting Elderhostel/EH folks for 2 weeks of "cultural study" in central Italy. Some travel internationally every few months, have for years! Whereas, not only had I never heard of the Herald Tribune, Duccio, Simone Martini or Pietro Lorenzetti, I was also entirely out of my league--cough, cough--physically. My fellow travelers might hobble, but I was left in their dust, as they pushed past me in airport or down old narrow streets! "Join a fitness club and double your workout", snapped one, unsolicited of course. Sometimes it was like having 30 moms on your case, brimming with wisdom like "If you're sleepy, go to bed earlier!". Yawn--travel with teachers, "life long learners" one called herself. The rest of us ain't? Life long talker's more like it (snorted to myself). Took years to understand the difference between teachers ("Not a good idea") and educators, leading the way ("What are the possibilities?"). Place for both I realize as I write.
Started the trip feeling below par, ever a casualty of holiday stress; ended up really dragging (and voiceless). Not used to being sick! Of course I'm not usually up and running in the dark, out of range of water and tea, hours on end; dining late in the evening; rooming over a coffee bar one week, sharing $300/night digs with a first class snorer another week. On all fronts, I was way out of my comfort zone, uptight, uncertain. Judging from sharp comments overheard, maybe I wasn't the only one. Startled myself by being ready to go home after week #1. Used to be a better traveler!
Of course I wasn't alone under the weather. While the gang went side tripping to a live precepe/manger scene Christmas Day, I went to mass at the Basilica of San Francesco d'Assisi (more about that meaningful afternoon later). On both sides women blew noses. Felt right at home. By the second week, our lecture sessions resounded with sneezes and coughs--some scary ones. I was the main whiner (the New Yorkers simply demanded new rooms, different meals, etc.). Later I learned I wasn't the only one challenged to sleep above the late night coffee house. I was fascinated by hearty Italians socializing outdoors, in near freezing temperatures, long into the night (as in 2 or 3am)! As I lay there, Italian pronunciation floated by and began making its way past smatterings of French and Spanish which seemed to be in the way. Still it took days to be able to pronounce room numbers 16 and 130 recognizably! Christmas evening Tumbula (bingo) was a clever way to help us learn (numbers). I was delighted when fellow Illini John (a veteran Assisi tumbula player) was a big winner; we played our cards together.
As I write it continues to sink in just how appalling ignorant this yogi/nature lover was to these educators and lovers of Renaissance art. Worse, I didn't know enough to be ashamed; reminded myself I knew about badha konasana and samasthiti and they didn't! No wonder folks were disgusted--could almost hear the silent "stupido" at the ends of sentences! Having a deaf ear turned to my occasional queries tended to bring out the very worst in me. (Of course I traveled with my peculiar sense of humor, enjoying myself at inconvenient moments.)
Anyhow--ITALY! (Obviously I'm inner focused, intrigued by any and all people dynamics!) Guides/teachers gave wonderful lectures on history and culture of Umbria and Tuscany about which I knew not one tiddle aside from Frances Mayes trendy books; WW2 reading; and old black and white Italian movies. Hadn't realized Italians were so militantly regional, although as an sometime anthropologist I understand the influence of geography; hadn't known about the long tradition of warring states and how much hostility continues; that the country and official language were so new. Knew they/Italians, were nuts, crazy, excitable--the fisherman and I witnessed that in 1990 (in southern Italy/Sicily/Sardinia.) Quite different, this orderly, high end 2007 experience. (So much so that I forgot I'd been in Italy before.) Women were still stylish, but men no longer pinched or leered, even looked at women! Fellow travelers kept reminding me it was because I was an old now, but I watched classy gals in pointy spiked heels--men rarely batted an eye. Perhaps money has taken the lead?
Probably what impressed me above all was how healthy Italians are--fit and slender with excellent posture, active, eating healthy food in moderation. Being served fruit for evening dessert, with no butter or salad dressing on the table for 2 weeks may have saved my life, though I had a strong sense that eating in a hurry and eating at dawn and late at night took a toll. Because we were impatient Americans, we were served meals quickly; don't think that's the way locals live. Very much enjoyed eating family style, from beautiful platters of home cooked food (especially in guide St Marco's hometown Assisi). If I'd had a good camera I'd photographed every platter, every dish, every serving! Lovely, healthy portions, not American size! I was in awe how pretty young dark haired Bruna and Sonja managed to serve us in the tight dining room in Assisi. In addition to eating well, we, like everyone else, walked and walked. (Handicapped access not on the screen.)
Highlights:And then it was over. I was flooded with gratefulness the evening we landed in Illinois. Unlike flights between Florence, Frankfort and Chicago, fell instantly and blissfully asleep on the hop to Springfield, showing me just how uncomfortable I am in new places, what relief the familiar. As the 16 degree, clear night hit, winced once again at the decision to return to empty, monotone midwest with its notorious weather and flat landscape. We'd left Siena in the dark; Italy's weather had been agreeably mild (compared to this). (Indeed left life behind for 2 weeks--where did I park?) Eventually found toyota, not buried in a snowdrift. Door unlocked reluctantly, engine started likewise. God in charge of details. Thank you! By then luggage (mine by now one wheeled) was arriving.
PIGEONS. And more pigeons and droppings. Italy = pigeons! NARROW STREETS with AMAZING WALLS. The Italy I saw--old hill towns whose buildings had pigeons on 'em and art inside--had narrow streets lined with wonderful old walls of reworked stone and brick, which no doubt told endless stories. STEPS and stairs, especially Assisi. Tall, steep steps. 3 flights to room. MUSIC. Chorale concert, Basilica di Santa Chiara Assisi, directed by Franciscan monk. Nearby monk beamed throughout. Private piano concert by local maestro, in small (v. old of course) church, early Christmas eve. HUMOR? St. Marco's PDQ Bach moment, when he answered a cell phone (the only time I saw him answer one) Cmas eve en route to the above private concert. Remembering Peter Schikele (no doubt I was the only one who did), I shrieked with laughter. The group shushed. Thought it was a joke! Happily, it was one of the few times I was aware of anyone in the group on a cell phone. ART. When a (Franciscan) monk wasn't available, Marco toured us through Basilica di San Francesco. We plugged high tech "whispers" into our ears. Though I wanted to meet a "real monk", Marco couldn't have been better describing the mural where Mary points the child to St Francis, etc. Experienced travelers let it be known they were often bored, but I loved Marco's accent, vocabulary, humor, exaggeration and passion (the perfect Italian in my inexperienced book). And I thought I was harsh! I was a piker beside "life long learners". (I loved the guides, lectures, food!) By the end of the trip I considered both Marco and Simone saints for their patience with us. Another art highlight: Piccolomini Library at the Duomo di Siena. Ach! CHRISTMAS Day mass, Basilica di San Francesco. Following mass, the choir sang O Holy Night; some of us walked forward to listen. I was already teary when the policeman who'd overseen the considerable crowd (apparently nothing like Christmas eve) lifted a retarded child off altar (under the gold St Francis in heaven mural I was smitten with), kissing both the child's cheeks à la la Italian. Jeannie pulled up her rhinestone Shopko reading glasses quickly. Christmas Day dinner in the Taverna di Consoli. My first evertaste of TRUFFLE--gnocchi with gorgonzola and truffle! Awesome. Did my best in the wine department--sampled both white and red wine--then chattered like a monkey. Amused to realize seating at the 3 long tables was by sexual preference--mainstream couples; same-sames; indifferents, unclassifieds and widows. More FOOD. Tasty pastas like I'd not met before. Baked vegetables - tomato, zucch; thin sliced prosciutto, salami. Bruschetta. Yum. Although I hate olives--probably not an Italian cell in my body-- pasta's another story... Healthy, satisfying food was a great treat, especially that first week in Umbria. Can't say enough about the Assisi, Perugia and Penzia cooks we enjoyed. LECTURES-- Marco, Ann, Kevin, Donatella's... Brought Etruscans, history and art to life. I was riveted (when I was awake anyhow--kept falling asleep from not sleeping nights) by guide's descriptions. Marco's wood frame MYSTERY ITEM - Turned out to be "the priest", a charcoal holding bed warmer. Hmm. (Looked like a fish trap to me.) MONTE OLIVETO - The name was familiar but I didn't realize it was The Monte Oliveto Maggiore Benedictine monastery where our beloved (WCCM) Fr Laurence of London leads retreats ('til I double checked on a hotel computer)! The Sunday morning the bus headed into lovely country and stopped (briefly) in (rare) trees, I was all eyes and ears--what a gorgeous place. While the group headed off to see frescos, I wandered, wondering where a retreatant would stay, then headed to the bookstore to study local herbal concoctions. Hustled back to the bus as the bell for mass tolled, thinking, grrr... love to go to Sunday mass! Pick me up later! Well, I'll be back. Rushed off to the next famous hill town--Iris Origo's Pienza if I remember right--for lunch and several hours of shopping. Priorities. SIENA. Exclusive visit to the Goose Contrada museum. Learned colorful, crazy history and culture of Siena neighborhoods. PALIO lecture. "Humanities professor Dr. Marco Ceccarani brings Siena's alio horse race to life with his special insights." Bet I wasn't the only one to end up thinking-- "Huh?" WINE. Think it's fair to say the group drank liberally. Whereas I had enough trouble sleeping without wine. Seemed to me, the more roommate (week #2) drank, the louder the snoring. I was jealous that the minute she hit the bed she was out cold; whereas I reached for earplugs, tossed and turned (w or w/o roommate). Our official wine tasting event was lost on me. (Though I enjoyed the accompanying chicken liver pâté, while others didn't. This was one of times I was amused to hear someone whine for mayonnaise!) Yes-- Italian WOMEN dress to the nines! (John told me we'd see fur coats--sure did!) I stalked them unsuccessfully with my disposable camera. (Did I mention I totaled the new camera on the tile hotel floor morning #1?) More than once on a public bus, I could have been caught surreptitiously petting a nearby mink (coat). Are Italians beautiful and sexy? Not in my eyes. Interesting, diverse faces-- absolutely. One outrageous exception, however, was our stylish class act guide Donatella! Never seen anything like it! When I grow up... Snapped photo after photo (unsuccessfully as it turned out) of her terrific posture and size 6 senior figure in amazing orange leather jacket with black patent belt, purple scarf, cinched cuff pants... (Guide Marco warned us in his usual exaggerated way, she was full of energy, "perhaps too much"! I didn't care; gawked and dropped every myth I'd ever heard about growing old and ugly. (As for irresistible Italian men--outside of our appealing guides--again, all I could think was, Huh? One more time my fellow travelers reminded me I was over the hill, what did I expect? If I'd been younger, the men would have looked better? "Academic" non logic. Stick to the Renaissance where I'm clueless. CEMETERIES. Where? They're all over the Midwest, eastern US! Asked on the bus repeatedly. Silence. Finally an irritated voice said, "Look over there!" Lo, a walled plot. Hmm. Thousands of years of people and only an occasional cemetery? NATURE? I was a fish out of water in towns and cities where trees/grass were rare. Perked up at the site of persimmons still on trees, a quick stop at a 12th Century Benedictine abbey (Abbazia di Sant'Antimo) in the country, and Monte Oliveto Maggiore abbey in the Tuscan hills. No doubt there are country paths to be walked. What this nature lover was doing in a country that's been cultivated and inhabited for millennia, with guides who warned us not to ask about birds and trees, is still unfolding.
After a symbolic welcome home whopper (burger), hit the so called perilous back road home that I enjoy. Soon familiar window candles appeared, a last minute decision to leave them on affirmed by woman who checked house. Turned on heat, brought in mail. Started bath; plugged in heater; read (Christmas) cards as I soaked, then worked on rough, neglected feet. that were ripping socks! Dived into bed, windows lights still on.
I'd hated 2 weeks without a tub (some folks had 'em). My first clue that I might be traveling with the wrong group hit when I was bluntly told-- no way can you use my tub! Folks shared advice freely, but not tubs! More than once I was frightened by my attitude towards my fellow travelers! The Desiderata's--"...avoid loud and aggressive persons; they are vexatious to the spirit" kept echoing. Wearied of the subtle competition to save seats 3 meals/day for preferred buddies. People! These were "traditional" folks who define Who Are You by What You Once Did to Make A Living, and Children-- not my strong suits. So unlike the What Makes You Tick, What have You Learned approach I prefer. Wearied of being the group's "spirit-u-ol" curiosity-- "How was church (all 2 times I found a mass to visit--Christmas Eve and Christmas Day)", folks purred wickedly. (A number attended midnight mass Cmas Eve--after all, it was ITALY! But not twice! Learned in Ireland Americans abroad are unlikely to be interested in things religious. True, Italians don't go to church much either, but as guide St Marco commented--try taking away the Vatican!)
Woke hours later to the blue glow of the new led bathroom night light outlining the "new" french doors--my own basilica! Falling in love with home, bit by bit! How good to be back. Got up, wandered 'round house, back to den to gaze at backyard (recent scene of ice holocaust) fully lit by neighbor's backyard light. Not 1, but 2 rabbits (rarely see 'em) sat on the thin crust of snow. "Wildlife!" Never happened in ID--too many dogs. Towards dawn got up again and noticed waning moon high in sky. Everything felt like a welcome, from the customs officer's "welcome home" to the woman who'd lost her voice (me), to the crescent moon. Put on mellow music, leaned back, before starting day number 1 of recovery--all day in pj's.
Did we escaped the worst of Christmas? I think so. Italian holidays were kinder and milder. No whining kids extorting goods from guilty, overwhelmed parents. The odd santa claus hung on narrow street walls, perhaps in deference to foreign friends? Yes, Italy's expensive. Extremely. Good thing the euro (unlike pesos) makes prices appear lower. Does Italy rely on tourism? My impression-- possibly 100%! I thought we were ugly, imperious Americans; perhaps we paid our way. Dunno. My fellow travelers were successful getting what, when and where they wanted. Whereas I was uncomfortable just having the sheets changed every day! Don't do that world well at all.
As weeks go by I realize there are lots of reasons to travel. Checking off countries, cities, museums and sites is of course one. "Have you been ___" could well have been the most common discussion. Escaping loneliness or families, Christmas or snow are others. We were Christmas refugees, with considerable personal baggage. More than once I cringed to see my own uptight shadow in harsh light of travel. Spouses traveled to please. One fellow came to life when food was mentioned. Nearly all held glasses high when wine was passed and looked nervously for more. Renaissance art attracted others (and well it should I learned). And of course the big one--shopping. (Clothes were problematic for sturdy Americans--but we came back with one size fits all scarves!)
The inner journey is always mine! The anthropologist in me loves studying other cultures. Along with finding rosaries in Assisi for brother Jamie, travel was watching Hairspray in German on the plane, sitting by a Romanian, enjoying airline breakfast fruit at the end of a long flight. Though it may not sound like praise, it's meant to be: the trip was a 100x more delightful and satisfying than my late pilgrimage to Ireland.
I was pleased my last minute thriftshop gear more or less did the trick (well, not the suitcase--it was iffy). The trench coat--not basic black--did the job, though I wouldn't wear a long coat again what with all the stairs, especially in Assisi--always stepping on it. The mock turtleneck worked, gray cotton cardigan, lined wool pants, red cotton sweater; red wool crushable hat and gloves; black vest, crinkle green and black dress was fine New Years Eve (yup, some of us boogied). The hot water coil with adapter took maybe 20 minutes to heat water--used a couple times. My primary irredeemable mistake was not bringing that extra camera I considered. Aiyee! There was no way to replace my broken one except with disposables which were dreadful, until the final roll. The silliest thing I traveled with was a bag of camouflage bug net--mistakenly thought it was a light blanket.
Memories of fast travel with Friar Tuck, C. de Ville and friends, Italian sun and scenery, steep steps and narrow streets, al dente pasta and eggplant bruschetta, cento trentatrè (?), scent of incense, glimpses of Italy through our guides, now drift along pleasantly with the gray weeks of midwest winter. Grazie mille! Ciao!
Couldn't wait for it to cool off (turned out to be well into October!). What an endless, long hot summer! No umphf to go anywhere. Thought I'd been a good sport about summer, but enoughs, enough. Late September, finally drove down to the (what turned out to be hot, dry) Shawnee Natl Forest during the last mid-week I thought I could get away. (Have I mentioned how busy small town life is?) Way Out West, spring-summer-fall I often spent Sunday nights car camping. If I'd tried last summer--I'd-a roasted! In Idaho I often felt baked; here it's more like steamed.
Once in the Shawnee, holed up in the tent or hung out at a picnic table 4 days and nights, writing and reading my heart out. Hadn't realized how much I needed to unload and reflect until I locked myself in the tent with vegetables, stove, paper and pencil, micro computer, and books. Realized it was roughly my one year anniversary of returning to the Midwest, perhaps time to take stock of this first year. Still can hardly believe I've returned to roots; this chapter would seem to be about grounding. Emerged 4 days later, with a better attitude, game for another set of seasons. Different ways (of taking stock) for different folks. My way's to put a few miles between me and everyday. Along with camp stove cuisine, sleeping, books and writing, managed short walk near Bellsmith Springs, down to the stagnant creek--oh, it's dry. Might have walked more, but the scars from a whopping good case of poison ivy in June cooled my interest--and poison ivy was absolutely everywhere! Danced through it to the outhouse... Enjoyed hours of listening to cicadas and night sounds, watching the waxing moon through the trees. Tickled when I realized how much cicadas sound like my friction powered/squeeze flashlight. Several nights barred owls called. Good to be away from email and phone, every day life, worries about house, this and that, the world of doing.
The Shawnee (Forest) appears severely logged, a remnant of what it must have once been. The trees I saw were young; much of the area is private vacation homes now. There's only a hint of what must once have been rather appalachian country. One day, when I pulled over to turn back for a photo, a fellow on a motorcycle stopped to ask if I needed help. I showed him the Illinois Atlas he'd not seen and inquired about a reservoir a few miles away. "Never been there", he explained, going on to mention we were right at the corner of 3 counties. He told me where he and the wife live and said to come by if I needed anything. I believed him. I'm grateful to meet folks who know who they are and where they are, whose roots are deep rather than wide. None of this 14 countries in 14 days for Joe and the family.
On the drive home, I was well into Saturday night "traffic" on the main drag into town before it dawned on me that the toyota with kayak atop (along with other unsuspecting travelers) had blundered into Cruise Night. The highway was lined with hundreds of folks in lawn chairs--perhaps the biggest crowd I'd seen since returning. True, I'd noted the likes of '54 chevs pulling onto the highway from back roads as I neared home! We crept through the half doz stop lights of the 4 lane, mile strip. My head spun with the surreal scene--this camper with kayak trying to get home, stuck parading through town on a hot summer night with all varieties of pet cars--antique, muscle, souped up with neon, stripped down, anyone who wanted to be in the parade. Why me?
Back West - warm soaks and visits
Big trip--just before Memorial weekend, drove back to Colorado and Idaho for workshops and visits. Gone so long forgot phone number and garbage day. [No--getting out of the remodelers way for 3 weeks, didn't give them a chance to finish--still no screens.] Loved crossing Missouri and Nebraska into Colorado through spring greens. Returned to the Pawnee Grasslands for a night of car camping before facing wild and crazy Boulder (it's surreal to recall living there late '60s to '75). Only in Boulder would one park by 3 lexus at a hostel (see photo)! Enjoyed nearly a week of Whole Foods grazing. Ken's Beauty of Qigong workshop was delightful--from whales, to mime, to alchemy. Stunning thrift shopping along the front range. But please, get this skittish prairie chicken out of front range traffic; quickly reminded why I retreated to the empty midwest.
Good visits with hospitable Colorado and Idaho buddies along the way--thank you George, Evette, meditators, Sally, Gary, Dian, Mike, Dr A, Jim and Walter....
The stunning qigong banquet (see seafood photo) in Boulder, left me yearning for more oriental food so I was grateful to be back eating Boise Chan's awesome dishes again--how I miss him! Like Ken's workshop, Allard's yoga classes alone were worth the trip. Missed the final session in order to go to early church. Left town the beneficiary of warm friendships and garden's harvest (garden buddy and camp prep from garden above). My head swirled, cup runneth over. Truly a gold star experience to camp my way west, in aspen, under ponderosa; to sleep by talking streams, soak in warm springs (though mite bites dinged that experience). Perfect weather, included skies opening on the way home.
Best of the west--thank you all beings for the opportunity to wander west againt, toyota and mechanics! Equally good to return to the Illinois ashram (in progress) where summer fun was fully underway. Who needs south American jungles when there's Illinois in the summer? Watched the crescent moon near solstice with awe.
Ohio loop - reconnecting
Getting out of the remodelers way, didn't hasten things along, but I slept better and relaxed as I often do when away. Listening to Kathleen Norris' Cloister Walk (again) prepared me for the "surpassingly strange" folks I'd be with for Richard Grove's "right dying" workshop as I've come to call it, in Cleveland, where I listened to Lake Erie crash all night and saw the last of the weekend snowstorm. On the way east, stopped at awesome Columbus Vineyard. Returning, I looked up old Arizona friends with new kid (behind screen) in small town rural Ohio, found ancestors in Blooms Grove and a 92 yo in Gilman-ite who remembered great Uncle Frank Layer doing the flowers and reception for her wedding!
Missouri Micro Retreat #2
It's something of a relief to scale down travel to within a couple hours drive. For the first outing of the year, went back to Missouri. The 21st Annual Missouri Shape Note Convention was held at St John's United Church of Christ, Pinckneyville Township, Missouri. Attended Saturday's sing of 80 songs, using both the "red book" (purchased the 1991 edition to replace my older version that kept coming up with wrong songs--imagine--shape notes out of date!). Bought the "green book" too--Missouri Harmony. After sitting in the back of the church awhile, got my folding travel chair out of the Toyota and moved over with the altos. I'm still trying to track down the song about death (that favorite subject of mine) that so took my breath away that I let out an audible whoop at the end! Paging through the books to find it again, without the energy of the voices, I'm unsure which it was. Perhaps one of these:
On the church grounds, I walked around like I'd just crawled out of a snowbank and was seeing the world for the first time--such a gorgeous spring day! A 3-way tie knocked my sock off-- 1. Seeing the first flowers of the year, across the road (wonder if crawling on the ground to sniff and click is why I seem to have a patch of poison ivy); 2. Full tilt, open hearted singing that brings tears to my eyes; and 3. The hospitality of the day, especially The Noon Potluck. The sing ended with episcopal communion and more singing (of course). That evening I stopped at the local theater to see "Amazing Grace", then slept at the nearby rest area. A Wow, soul reviving weekend.
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