There is a place I visit when I am in Italy where "smiles are free".
It is a place where they remember you after a month's absence; they see you walk in, clear off your favorite table, and serve up your cocktail of choice - all the while bantering together with smiles that are free.
And what if love were free. And what if peace of mind were free.
If hugs, and acceptance, and tolerance, and hope ... were all free.
In Venice I found the street on which I have always lived.
Every time I travel somewhere, I walk for hours and hours a day; through ancient cities, down avenues, over cobbly streets, I walk. And eventually my feet take me home again. But there is always that nagging, somewhat surreal but familiar, feeling that I am on a journey and always have been; that I have not yet found the place where I am meant to go.
Perhaps I live on Passion Street. Not three weeks ago someone said to me, "Please stop living so passionately!" My eldest curled her toes. After all, we are now two to walk the streets to somewhere, feeling not unlike ants that touch noses and then walk on, only to touch again later. It is our fate, perhaps, our destiny.
My street is Passion Street. No, it is Calle de la Passion.
But the first thing one must never miss in the Eternal City is caffè. Whether in small coffee houses or hosteria, coffee in Rome is an existential experience - it is that good. And when you return home and flip on your own machine, steam your own milk or brew your own expresso or ristretto capsule, there is this not-quite-as-good funk that settles in as you remember the ecstasy of a Roman delight.
Still...it is better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all!
Four days in Rome, and I flew away knowing that I had been at the center of the world. There are stories to be heard; stories to be told in the quiet scratching of heels on cobblestones deep in the Farnese at midnight; to be felt in the cool echoing of abandoned catacombs at dawn. And I return...
We approached the ancient walled-in city that was founded by monks in a valley of medieval seclusion. The road that winds there passes through thick forest and nods in the city's direction as you drive by. Fog clung and hovered while drizzly rain drenched and soaked. It was the night I would be in charge for the first time; in charge in a city where I have often found inner refuge.
The recital was to be Beethoven, Schumann, Prokofiev - among others - and the final parting of Romeo and Juliette in opus 75 seemed appropriate for such a day. I pulled the heavy doors open and let my eyes adjust to the great darkness.
It is a long walk down the stone aisle to the front of the church. Notes carried and flew above me, and all that is Christlike, all that is holy seemed to gather there.
Hours later, connoisseurs of music, both passionate and passive, bought their tickets and took their seats. The church filled; the pianist waited - concentrated - in her green room for me to summon her. I watched as everything fell into place, eyes darting for loose ends that needed tying up; but as I stood quietly, pleased that nothing had fallen apart on my watch, two social workers with four intellectually disabled guests entered the foyer in wheelchairs and then turned to leave. A colleague approached:
"They didn't realize it wasn't free admission. But there is plenty of room and it's time to begin. We can let them stay, can't we?"
I scanned the room, wondering why this had suddenly become my decision, and then remembered whose cathedral it was. Holy music, indeed.
They pushed the chairs to the very front and lined them up as Varvara began playing her angelic songs. And all I could think as I sat two rows back was of the final banquet that had just begun.
I traveled back into the alps for an exquisite concert last week - to Gstaad and the Lauenen chapel where texture and daylight stir and splinter, and candles warm stone walls at nightfall.
Surrounded by people, I was alone; enfolded in music, I sat in silence.
I climbed the ancient stairs to watch while his fingers made art on white keys. His mind was in a place I could not access as the masters within him resisted being conjured up on such a lovely day - his intensity to force their hand imposed a saturation within that quiet place such as I have rarely felt.
It was one of those summers middle aged women talk about in self-help books; where the kids have grown and gone off to camp and they find themselves alone with their laundry, their jobs, a dozen realizations that life has passed them by; where you lay the damn book down halfway through and decide to dance to Lyle Lovett in the kitchen just to keep from crying on the bathroom floor.
They grow, you know. One day they go out to play and it isn't just down the street, it's to southern France. You ring the dinner bell and three instead of six sit down to eat.
It's an age-old game, nothing new. There isn't anything anyone can say in a bestseller that will make it any easier. No one is wiser - no one knows better - no one has it figured out. It's the same for each of us, and it will be the same for those after us.
That is the thought that has made it bearable. I walk with my daughter to the end of the street of an evening just to look out over the fields. She dances in the moonlight; her hair glows; our bare feet pad along the asphalt.
It was the same for each of us. And it will be the same for those after us.
Tomorrow school starts again, which surprisingly means they're still mine for another year. :)
The quiet hum of
diligence pervades a farm high in the hills of Bernese Jura, where the
green fields of Switzerland still bring forth milk and meat products -
many of which are organic - and local farmers genuinely care about what
goes into them. For one producer in Grandval, the profession is an art
form, the daily grind a strategy.
The Russian - who spent years of his childhood on a farm in relative poverty - does not really get that. Loving something old and rusty seems an existential oxymoron to him; you work hard to provide a home that neither leaks nor lets in thieves, and then you drag the dilapidated home to decorate it.
The Dreamer - as he calls her (and not necessarily with any amount of affection) - spent years in the city. She likes comfort and ease (no camping, please) but finds something beautiful in the ancient.
The Russian and the Dreamer went to church on Sunday. They pulled up and parked in the lot, joined the service-goers in the courtyard for a cool drink (cool being artistic-license in this case. The Swiss do not drink things cool - room temperature on a 104° day is quite appropriate. Be grateful you have something to choke down.)
They looked around. The Dreamer fidgeted.
"Is it the courtyard?" he asked. "It's too clean for you, isn't it?"
There was not a leaf in sight; not a bit of anything on the ground. Clean to the point of obsession; mental-illness clean.
I am a lucky Dreamer. I married the Russian. We have old shutters and leaves on the ground. He is willing to betray his roots. ;)
I caught you long ago and held you as you flapped your wings inside my cupped hands. You getting ready to fly - me supporting you as you did. And then one day, the beating grew stronger, the sting more acute as you fought to soar.
So I opened my hands, and away you went.
I have been watching you fly from where I stand on the graveled road; from the place you last walked with me. I have been proud of the circles you make in the sky; of the applause of all the other butterflies as they adore you.
But know this. I will still be watching even when you are too far to see. Here where I am - on the ground.
Well... this post has nothing to do with the picture. But I was at too much of a loss half an hour ago to think to take one as I stood with Strawberry Girl by the railroad tracks waiting for a friend who never showed up. She was coming from America - all the way from Texas - and we are still shaking our heads as we sit here in the dimming light of an empty house. I type a few words, pause, and call out "But how is that possible?" And a voice in the kitchen sighs back, "Maybe she was in the bathroom. Maybe she's still there, mom."
We were stood up - or perhaps she got lost - or possibly missed the train. This afternoon as I prepared the tiny guest room, I had this feeling... I missed her - missed out. And in the gathering darkness - in this gathering day, Betsy - rise thoughts that those who are with me now in this house, in this life, may one day take a different train. And I may sit forlorn there as never before. I will love them before the grumbling roar carries them away. NB: The Russian just said: Hogwash, she's probably on the next train. And he ran out the door to go see. :)
Down the road at the end of our cul de sac - just a few bare footed steps away - is a garden. It starts at the edge of the fence and blooms inward and upward into most luscious fullness.
Sometimes I get up from my desk and walk out the front door. I don't lock it, surprisingly, but wander down the narrow street without key or phone or bit of responsibility. I just walk down ... to the end of the street.
And look at the lichens growing on the rail - and listen to the bells ringing on bovine necks - and feel the wind speak to me.
And the most beautiful thing of all is that home is but half a minute away, as the bare feet pad.
I drove out to the farm this week to do a photo shoot for an article on sustainable farming, and took little Strawberry Girl and her best friend along for the ride. As I worked, the girls played with the farmer's tiny daughter and wandered the yard and barn on a lovely summer day.
But at the end of those two hours, as the sun had begun to set and
the tractors were gathering up the last bales of hay , the three of us
hiked up behind the freshly mown field to hunt for wild orchids. And
deep in the tall grasses - in a place anyone might have walked right
past - was the bounty of fairies. Wild strawberries!
Farmer Oester swiftly bent down and popped one in his mouth with a contagious grin. "Looky here!"
We picked and tasted, and carried home a copious handful for dinner.
What an adventure that was! I have learned a lot about myself over the past couple weeks - or was it months? Picking out three pictures from thousands in my data base, writing a blurb that reduces forty-three years into a couple paragraphs? If there had been Pepto Bismol in Switzerland, I'd have bought it in bulk - ask Danielle, the patient blog designer who doubles as a personal cheerleader.
So thanks to Olivier for the portraits, to Colin for the shot of my back (will never forget that) and to the family who suffered at my side over such an easy thing.
"Easy," in the words of Dylan Thomas, "to Leonardo".
Venetian Baroque is in peril. The history of its birth – the emerging of
the first public opera houses, the invention of sonata, cantata,
concerto – has been told worldwide but remains largely unspoken at home.
Sublime publishes my piece on how Artistic Director Olivier Lexa helps Venice reclaim authenticity through the Monteverdi Vivaldi Festival. To read the article: The Journey Back to Baroque
Bridge of Sighs
Olivier Lexa, Artistic Director Monteverdi Vivaldi Festival and Founder of the Venetian Centre for Baroque Music. (photo credits: Matteo Da Fina).