Saturday, November 28, 2015

Churched Out


I write again from an AirB&B apartment in Italy.  Another Saturday morning.  This one in Florence.  Himself sleeps.  Despite watching an instructional You.Tube video I have just melted the tiny Bialetti coffee pot.  I make a fine, albeit dinky, cup yesterday. I think I’ve followed the same steps today but apparently not and I am relegated to drinking tea.  After instant coffee in Ireland and a week of wee cups of Italian sludge, it will nice to be home to my 12 cup machine and the jumbo canister of Trader Joe’s beans.

We travel off season, not only because that is when Himself has time off, but also, to avoid crowds.  Rome however is jammed. The weather is lovely, in the 70s and the streets and cafes teem with visitors and Romans alike.  We walk around the Coliseum but the ticket line is long and we observe that the inside is dense with people snapping selfies.  Crowds distract us from getting a real feel for a place and it seems that in some cases looking at images and video online is more satisfactory, as many of Rome’s heavy hitter tourist sites feel like Disneyland.  We eschew most of the “A ticket” attractions and instead wander and poke into churches.

The number of churches, that don’t even merit guidebooks listings and are over-the-top ornate is mind boggling. The percentage of Italian Catholics who are church involved decreases every year.  In most of the churches we visit, there are a handful of people engaged in prayer but almost all of the worshipers are substantially older than we are.  Despite the rockstar popularity of Pope Francis it is predicted that church affiliation in Italy will continue to decline.  There are a number of UNESCO designated churches that will always draw an admission paying crowd but what will become of the little gems that are off the beaten path?  It seems that there is a church every few blocks and each has its own treasures.  But these structures, crammed with precious religious art, must cost a bundle to maintain.  I doubt if the Irish or Italian government is in a position to protect and maintain every historic church and I wonder, what with the decline in active Catholicism, how these countless ancient churches will be preserved.

We make the obligatory stop at the Trevi fountain.  The crowd is incredibly dense and we can’t really get close so Himself tosses coins from high overhead. They may have hit the water or perhaps another tourist.  The Spanish steps are under construction.  The Vatican at dusk is stately and awesome but lined with kiosks laden with religious kitsch and peddlers hawking selfie sticks.  

There are posters all over Rome advertising a Balthus exhibit. Perhaps it is sacrilegious to take in a show by a modern French/Polish painter instead of Michelangelo, Leonardo and Bernini but we both like his vaguely creepy paintings of sexualized pre-adolescents and cats.  There is a particularly satisfying group of sketches inspired by Bronte’s Jane Eyre and other works that give a nod to Lewis Carroll.  Balthus’ biography reveals that as a youth, he was encouraged in his artistic pursuits by Rainer Maria Rilke. The poet also happened to be having a love affair with Balthus’ mother.

Mostly though, we walk.  We get lost trying to find a recommended restaurant and wander for hours on the outskirts of Rome, through housing projects and modest neighborhoods.  We navigate the twisty alleys of the Travastere. The Monastario San Grigorio, home to an order of Calmondolese monks since the 1570s, pops up as we stroll.  Just a sidebar in the guidebooks, we peruse the particularly vibrant frescoes virtually by ourselves.

Himself knows just about every saint and points them out in frescoes and altarpieces. I can probably give most Jewish girls a run for the money on martyrdom and torture wheels, upside down crucifixions, and definistrations.  For Himself these vivid depictions give vision to the tales that filled his childhood.  Despite the grisliness, I think he experiences some sort of nostalgic comfort.  For me, most of the churches and monasteries are a blur. Altarpieces.  Frescos.  Fantastically intricate painted ceilings. Tons of gold leaf. Relics, including the preserved severed head of St. Catherine of Siena.

I’ve lost count now but one of the standouts is the Dominican monastery of San Marco, in Florence.  The artist-monk Fra Angelico was born in 1395.  The monastery displays altarpieces and spectacular murals.  During the Renaissance tones grew darker and more muted but the work of Angelico is vivid and crisp.  We notice too that Angelico has a sense of community.  Witnesses to miracles and martyrdoms are engaged in conversation and their bodies stand naturally. Fra Angelico seems to have broken with the stiff symmetry of pre-renaissance paintings.  It is this ordinariness of spiritual experience that attracts me to the work of English painter Stanley Spencer, who was undoubtedly very much influenced by Fra Angelico.

The tour of San Marco also includes the cells of the monks, each with a mural depicting a stage in the life of Christ.  Some of the murals show the birth of Christ, all soft and sunny but others bear gruesome images of the crucifixion that I would prefer not to have to wake up to each morning.  Another notable resident of San Marco was the infamous super zealot monk Savonarola, who rallied against the secular.  His disciples burned artworks and books--The Bonfire of the Vanities.  Savonarola also spoke against the corruption and greed of the church.  The pope eventually ordered the monk's excommunication and hanging.    His hairshirt is on display at San Marco.  

Siena is a spectacular medieval city.  We stay at a former convent that’s been converted to a hotel but is still under the church’s aegis. There are fussy little signs everywhere.  Don’t put your suitcase on the bed.  No clothes washing or food allowed in the rooms.  Eat your breakfast from a plastic tray so as not to soil the tablecloth. Nevertheless, our spartan room has a spectacular view of the ancient city and the magnificent Byzantine Duomo.  We climb an unbelievable number of steps to reach a viewing balcony.  The picture of splendid old city surrounded by the gentle green hills of Tuscany is well worth the effort.

From Siena we travel on to Florence and then Venice. I work some on this piece from a Venice coffee shop but the document disappears and as our trip winds down I don't manage to get back to it until now, having been home for a week. After having no television for our first week in Italy, the apartment in Florence has a set and the only English language channels are BBC and CNN. The news is devoted to the Paris massacres exclusively. We can't help but watch, compelled a bit more than we might be ordinarily I guess as Italy neighbors France.

Church fatigue has set in by the time we reach Firenze. We trudge with crowds through the Bargello and Uffizi Galleries. I prefer the crisp vivid colors of the late middle ages to the moody grays of the Renaissance except I am taken with the complicated composition of the many enormous Tintoretto works at Venice's Scuola di San Rocco.

Venice is our last stop. I expect it to be unlike any place I've ever visited but am blown away by how profoundly different it is. Our hotel is so difficult to find that we have to load a video with directions unto our phone. Dark, twisty alleys lead to bright crowded squares. Dogs, without the risk posed by cars or bikes, wander freely. We see a mutt with a fancy collar, by himself, walk into a pet store to check out the merchandise. We see some Orthodox kids with payot and yamulkes in less touristed Jewish ghetto. A plaque memorializes the 247 Venetian Jews who were deported and executed by the Nazis during the Second World War.

As the church looses ground in the west, the pope characterizes the current threat posed by fundamentalist terrorists as a piecemeal Third World War. Back in the day, church leadership could expediently rid itself of the messily over zealous. The Pope made sure that after his hanging, the bones of Savonarola were burned, less any relic peddlers attempt to martyrize him. I doubt if this would be a practical solution for mainstream muftis and imans.

Himself, the most frugal person I have ever known, is actually enthusiastic about commissioning from a Venice mask maker, a papier mache kitty with our Gary's likeness painted from one of the pictures, from the several hundred that I have stored of him, on my phone. It is difficult to remember all of the animal companions we've survived but it is inevitably the case that each pet has a favorite human and both humans have pet pets. Gary's littermate Mary, who died a year ago, preferred me and Gary has slept most nights on top of Himself and spent many days perched on his shoulder, staring into a computer screen.

Our herd has thinned now to just a single dog. I stole from someplace the wonderful observation that one dog is people. Two dogs are dogs. Given the truth of this I am content to keep only a single dog. We say we want to get down to no pets because we enjoy traveling so much. The truth is, it has never really been a problem to get a house-sitter. The problem is that when we travel we miss the pets too much.

Opie goes through her normal hysterical whining and dancing routine when we return. If I had worn military fatigues when I walked in the door after the trip, the video would go viral. Gary usually gives us a cold shoulder for about an hour before we get his purr back. We hear him howling and finally find him cowering under the bed. He will not eat and only briefly tolerates being held before he disappears again under the bed. After three vet visits and no concrete diagnosis, he has a seizure the day before Thanksgiving and we know that it is time. Himself stays with him until the end. I can only stand the first injection. The mask is beautiful and I am relieved when I consider how much worse we'd feel now if we'd elected not to have it made.

Even if we hadn't endured the drama of losing the cat, I doubt if this piece would be completed any sooner. The accretion of churches, punctuated by a Paris bloodbath and all in God's name leaves me at sea. I do not cover my Facebook profile pic with the French flag. I am not Charlie Hebdo or France. Nor do I have an affiliation with any religious organization and my observation is pretty much limited to a couple of minutes on Friday night where we try to cram in some appreciation of family and a nod to the salubriousness of mindfulness.

Freud alluded to the human need for religion as a substitute for mother love. Himself reads a book by a biologist who explores this theory with a sophisticated scientific understanding. I wonder if there is any evidence that suggests that the most vulnerable to religious excess have a history of troubled maternal bonding.

There is some sort of singular satisfaction I guess; Himself just can't pass up a church. Between Ireland and Italy though I am more than sated. How many of the greatest treasures of western art were created at the behest of the Catholic church? To me, every ornate church is an example of the church's insatiable appetite for wealth and power, The clergy has its hands in the pockets of the poor while they preach for them to accept the nobleness of poverty.

The conundrum for me is that I am pretty intractable when it comes to freedom of religion. But this unwavering tolerance opens the headways for a whole lot of crackpot bullshit in the name of faith. Not that it would happen, but perhaps stripping religious institutions from tax exempt status in the U.S. might separate a bit of wheat from the chaff here at home. Nor do I see an effective tool on the global horizon to tamp down out-of-control extremism.

Fortunately, I have not been charged with preventing deranged nut jobs from carrying out atrocities in God's name. I have not been selected to oversee a more equitable distribution of church assets. Apparently we have a biological need to replace mother-comfort with the belief in some higher loving force. Perhaps they'll invent a pill for this. Or maybe, like the pantheistic faiths of Greece and Rome, the religions of the world will simply run their course. And then of course there's the chance that the Pope is right and we are on the cusp of unimaginable destruction.

In the wake of the attacks in Paris, someone posts “Don't pray. Think.” This makes sense when one considers the scores of atrocities committed in the name of faith. But my own thinking is confused and ineffectual. I am not Paris, or Kenya or Malala. There is still clean up from Thanksgiving. We are sad about our cat. We're due for a binge on Amazon's Man in the High Castle. I have no bright ideas to bring to the debate about religious extremism. Nevertheless, being in Europe after the Paris attacks and having had thrown in my face for four weeks the obscene riches of the Church, the state of religion is on my mind. My thinking however is naive and distracted. When your intellect is absolutely and utterly useless, maybe it's not so bad to pray.

Saturday, November 7, 2015

Travelblog #2

The GPS of Death and the Italian Nightgown

 We have become so accustomed to getting lost finding places that elude our little Garmin GPS that we don’t even fight anymore. I enjoy listening to pop tunes on local radio to tune in with the zeitgeist of a place but if Himself heard one more Adele or Taylor Swift song I would have been in extreme jeopardy. We agree on an Irish National station, designed for old fogies,with all talk, all the time. We drive over a thousand miles in Ireland. That's a lot of talk radio. The station broadcasts to the entire country. Call-ins have been replaced by text messages like "Tell me mam that I'll be there as soon as your show is over." Programs shift completely unpredictably from banal to sophisticated. Erudite discussions are followed with inane banter. There is a piece on sex education for the severely autistic and a long interview with Vincent's Price daughter. A serious piece about the Troubles is followed by an equally earnest piece about Nantucket whalers leaving their wives with hand carved dildos that could be filled with warm water. Everything is punctuated with listener's texts from all over the country about traffic, the weather and ironing.

Saturday morning we leave the twee but not unpleasant guest house in Linsalong to visit friends Sinead and Tony at their cottage in the also GPS absent Corduff. Finally we stop for directions at a little B and B with two miniature horses. The nice lady offers us tea and tells us that we’ve actually arrived in Corduffkelly but that Corduff isn’t too far.  From Tony and Sinead’s description I expect a mud floored, thatched roof arrangement.  I make a mental note that Corduffkelly and the tiny ponies might be a good alternative if the cottage proves too primitive.  When we are finally able to differentiate Corduffkelly from Corduff proper we arrive to find a completely equipped little house and a lovely room with private bath.  There’s even a dishwasher.

What there isn’t, by Sinead and Tony’s design, is wifi, cellular service or television.  My phone and laptop are idle for the day.  I try to remember the last time I lacked digital access for over twenty four hours and realize it must be when I was giving birth to twenty year old Spuds.  Writer Tony made contact years ago after reading on the net some of Himself’s essays on subjects arcane and disparate.  Himself has met the couple a number of times but this is my first encounter.

We sit by the fire and Himself and Tony jump from book to book to book.  I haven’t met many people who read as voraciously as Himself.  It is hard to follow the trajectory of their conversation but I can tell for both that it is very satisfying.  I will add, that unlike Himself, Tony engages in yard work.  Sinead and I have been Facebook friends and send each other cards for our February birthdays.  A few times I have met people from cyberspace and find them far less appealing in person.  Fortunately, Sinead and I hit it off right away.  We are both passionate about food and essentially, we are married to the same man, except that one of them does yard work.

It is Halloween, which has become in recent years a huge deal in Ireland.  There is a profusion of bonfires and scarecrows are everywhere, traditions likely inspired by the Celtic festival of Samhaim.  But there are Halloween costumes and trick-or-treating which are relatively new customs here.  We sent, for a number of years, Halloween costumes for our American friend Carrie’s children as she was unable to find them in Belfast.  Tony takes us to the charming village of Carlingford and the cobbled main street is decorated and children and adults alike wear masks and painted faces.  We enjoy a nice lunch served by an elaborately costumed waitstaff and visit the ruins of an ancient mint.  

I enjoy, more than I should admit I guess, a stop at the bargain supermarket Lidl’s.  I shop there in England in summer and love the selection of dirt cheap food plus the shelves of odd merchandise like bras and power saws.  We talk, in front of the fire, until nearly two a.m. and wake in the morning and talk some more before we set off for Adare.

Years ago we met Bridie in the park with her three children.  Our kids played together and we struck up a conversation and we’ve stayed in touch with her and husband Sean ever since.  They own a pub in Adare, one of the most touristed of the many quaint Irish villages. Our kids were so young on trips to Ireland that their memories are very hazy but both have a vivid recollection of watching Sean kick a drunk out of the bar.

It’s been over ten years since we’ve seen Sean and Bridie Collins.  They’ve added a guesthouse next to the bar and closed The Pink Potato--a brief foray into fast food.  Ireland was a country hit particularly hard by the recession and the Collins describe how tough this has been to weather. Things are better now but with three kids, a bar and a hotel, both work incredibly long hours.  Sean and Bridie are both wonderful raconteurs, naturals behind the bar and in their element serving pints and chatting with the locals and tourists who visit the pub.  They note that it is nearly impossible to take time off but with a satisfaction of having survived and ultimately prospered in a dreadful economic climate.  

From Adare, on to the Dingle Peninsula, a part of Ireland we’ve yet to explore.  It is off season but there is still some action in the town. Years ago at the Tate Britain I was captivated by the painter Stanley Spencer.  After visiting St. Mary’s Church in Dingle I am partial now to Harry Clarke, who designed some of the most spectacular stained glass I’ve ever seen.  Although I am too nervous for Himself’s driving back at home, after transporting us the short distance from the Dublin Airport to Drogheda I abdicate.  However, if Himself had permitted me, as I did in England, to post a sign on the rear window that says “American Driver” I might have hung in while longer.

There are unpaved patches and narrow one lane roads all through Ireland.  The Dingle Peninsula amps up the fear factor with steep cliffs and blind turns.  It is rough and beautiful, the pervasive Irish green against the gray Atlantic.  The Blasket Islands are close but there is no ferry service in the autumn.  The Irish government forced the evacuation of the populace in 1953, deeming the islands unsustainable.  Our accommodations, yet again, aren’t on the GPS and our landlady is vague with her directions.  We finally locate the nineteenth century stone cottage and pick up groceries for dinner from a store where Irish is spoken.  The shopkeeper is surprised when Himself tries out his Irish and I am impressed that the autodidact can actually communicate effectively.

The Ring of Kerry presents another driving challenge but Himself is confident behind the wheel and the scenery is breathtaking.  Another idiosyncrasy of our Garmin GPS is that to reach Cork from Dingle we are directed to traverse Priest’s Leap Road.  After the fact, we see on Trip Advisor that others have had the same misfortunate, due to Garmin.  This yields some of the most beautiful scenery I have ever witnessed but the road is unimaginably treacherous.  Opposing traffic, darkness or rain I’m sure would have guaranteed our doom.  I think that soon we’ll come to a less steep, wider, smoother section but the road just becomes rockier and steeper as we ascend.  The ten kilometers of Priest’s Leap is far and away the most frightening car journey of my life but at least I’m not driving and even though my heart throbs, I am at least able to take in Ireland at its most wild and rugged.

I know I’m a broken record but after surviving Priest’s Leap, we set out for another vacation rental unlocatable by GPS.  Ardfield is on the coast, west of Cork.  We rent another ancient stone cottage and after a few days of intense traveling we collapse for two days.  There is an organic farm honor stand two doors down.  I chose some carrots and potatoes and a bunch of shallots while a dog snoozes in the corner.  I pop a few Euro in the till and maneuver an ancient peeler to make a pot of soup.  I am delighted that Judge Judy is on Irish television most of the day.  They broadcast very old episodes that I haven’t seen.  I note that in recent years that Judy metes out justice much more swiftly and less patiently than in the past.

It is easy at least to arrive in Cork.  The parking is challenging but once that’s accomplished we head to the lovely Crawford Museum.  The obligatory eighteenth century portraits of the town’s landed gentry are particularly awful but there are a few beautifully chosen exhibits.  We happen again, fortuitously on the work of Harry Clarke, this time some amazing illustrations for fairy tales and the stories of Edgar Allan Poe.    Cork is known for the 17th century English Market, filled with victualers, fishmongers and cheese merchants.  We enjoy some soup and grab a couple of sandwiches to take to Dublin.  After spending the night in a generic airport hotel we catch a very early morning flight to Rome.

Himself’s suitcase is one of the first to arrive at the baggage claim.  We wait a half hour for mine which, an hour later we find remains in Dublin. The owners of our Air B & B apartment have arranged to meet us at the airport.  They brush off their two hour wait and concern themselves only with helping to insure that I receive the bag.  The apartment is up a few flights of worn stone stairs in an ancient building but after two weeks of fusty Irish Cottages and ubiquitous instant coffee it is enormously appealing.  There is everything we could possibly need, including an espresso machine and a fully stocked bright blue refrigerator in a tiny cunning kitchen.  I tell Himself that as much as I love Ireland, I always feel like an outsider.  Here in Rome among the food and wine loving dark complected I feel more at home and brim with a sense of lively excitement.  Our apartment is around the corner from the Campo Di Fiori, an ancient and bustling produce market.  While one of our hosts shows us around the apartment the other dashes off to the market to fetch for us a bunch of flowers.

We wander around happily and aimlessly.  We step into the Pantheon and see the tomb of Raphael.  We wander in and out of alleys with cafes and endless rows of Vespas.  I need a few items to survive the night sans suitcase.   Yelp directs us to a non-existent department store and with a bit of fatigue setting in after rising at 3:30 a.m. to catch a flight I am about to give up when I see an ancient shop with bras and nightgowns in the window.  It is a shop called Di Cori.  Little English is spoken.  I have studied Italian daily using Duolingo for about six months.  Almost useless.  This is a very old school shop, established in 1863.  There is no merchandise laid out for you to browse.  Everything is in drawers and cupboards and salesladies zip around the tiny store pulling out nightgowns and underpants once I am able, through a combination of broken Italian with accidental Spanish and mime convey my needs.  I have noticed after a couple of weeks in Ireland that clothing seems to cost twice as much as it does at home.  The first nightgown is a simple one but at 52 Euro I manage to communicate that it’s for a night only and I need one that is menos caro.  I end up with a cotton number that actually isn’t bad and based on local pricing is a bargain at 32 Euro.  I notice as I pay a tiny tzedakah box behind the counter.  I know the word for Jewish because as a food obsessive I am aware that a Roman speciality is Carciofi Giudea--Jewish artichokes.  I point to the box and say to the owner “Giudea?”He nods affirmatively and I point to my heart and say “me too.”  He smiles and the ladies warmly thank me and wish me well as I leave the store.  My only other requirement to get through a night until the suitcase arrives is some facial cleaner.  Three girls jabber indolently behind a counter at a pharmacy.  Once they understand what I need one of them points to a shelf and resumes her conversation.  She takes her time and avoids eye contact while ringing up my purchase.  I wonder if there is a Jewish pharmacy.

The area is tourist heavy and restaurant staff aggressively try to reel us into cafes and trattorias with English menus outside.  I want to stay close to our apartment in case my suitcase arrives so after researching using Yelp and Trip Advisor I settle on a place.  Although highly praised on both sites, It turns out to be a tourist trap and the service is unctuous.  Everyone is asked “Where are you from?” and the server keeps her hand on my shoulder as we order.  Actually the food isn’t terrible and it’s very inexpensive but my lesson is learned about the reliability of Yelp and Trip Advisor.  We do a bit more wandering and stroll along the Tiber after dinner.  A lemon chocolate gelato is a great conclusion to an exhausting day.

Himself sleeps while I write most of this.  I get a text from the owners of our apartment that my case has arrived.  Himself, still groggy is about to begin is daily exercise routine when I importune that he should go get my suitcase and drag it up three flights of stairs.  He obliges and my bag is here.  Himself says that my new nightgown is matronly but I like it.