Jun 2007

Marenese Abroad

There is a reason for my long silence here…beyond my occasional reluctance to write and therefore open myself up to dreaded praise.

Recently, I have been on a whirlwind of travel to places I would normally never visit, but found myself doomed or destined to go there and in spite of myself had unforgettable adventures. Add to this a whole lot of stuff going on as usual in Mareno. I have a lot of writing to do...

Rome - June 2007

The Italian soldiers whistle as they march. They whistle. These big burley men, muscles bulging from rolled up sleeves, berets clinging to shaved heads, arms holding frightening weapons folded across chests, marching with such vigor that their cheeks shudder at each step, whistle. And they then break into song, singing words of challenge, pride and “Fear, fear we don’t have that!” Gives me goose bumps and I feel proud of these soldiers who declare with such jauntiness their preparedness to protect Italy, Italians…me?

I stand at the base of the Capitoline Hill, the very heart of the former Roman Empire on June 2, Independence Day. Here, around the corner from the excessive Piazza Venezia with the looming edifice of blinding white marble, the crowd is thinner and I am able to stand so close to the passing troops that I could reach out and tap one on the shoulder. Not that I would, and risk being garroted, bound and dispatched with medical precision. I stand at a respectful distance and get misty eyed as the nurses division, dressed in white with large red crosses on their chests stride past me, challenging me to bleed.

I had just left Zio Danilo’s “house” that morning, a Catholic Mission on the edge of Rome where I had been staying for a two day intensive training session…on Rome. I have unexpectedly been asked to work as an on-site coordinator for a two week study abroad program out of Berkeley (despite my ignorance of this city) based on my perceived organization and language skills and my empirical knowledge (as an Italian housewife and veteran of four years in this country) of life in Italy.

Zio Danilo listened carefully when I explained my role as trouble shooter and guide to the arriving participants on such subjects as restaurants, buses, and subways.

“Ok. We will stop at the train station and get a guide book. Then we will get a transit map which lists all the buses and trains of Rome. Then we will ride around and go to St Peter’s since Americans always go there…but wait, are they Catholic? Never mind, not important. Then we must go over restaurants in the area. Anything else you need to tell them?”

“I am supposed to be the expert on life in Italy…you know, explain how Italians and Americans are different and why. That kind of stuff.”

“Hmmmm. We could get a book on that, but I don’t know one…”

I know this! That is why I am here!”

“Ahhh. Right.”

I had spent two nights on the Sisters floor at the mission (the button on the elevator is even marked “S” for
Suore) and they clucked over me in the dining room.

“Get some cheese for that soup. Here, I will get it.”

“No, no, it is ok.”

Wump! She shoveled a pile of grated cheese on top of the broth which turned out to be full of liver. She smiled broadly from under her wimple as Zio Danilo loaded up my plate with some more fruit.

Now I am happily ensconced in a tiny, but charming apartment in the heart of Trastevere, a neighborhood of Rome whose name I could not even pronounce a few days ago and where the inhabitants, just across the Tiber River, have retained a distance from the heaving population of Rome proper in their dialect, spicier food and medieval houses. My first solo expedition had been the parade around the ancient city where my heart beat faster as the fighter jets roared overhead spewing out the national colors, green, red and white, I felt even more Italian than ever. I was ready for those Californians.


I sit writing at a restaurant table which teeters precariously on the cobblestones; a gaping new hole in the street has opened up nearby overnight, a result of the heavy rains. The restaurant owners seem to be prepared for such events as they have dumped a still warm concoction of tar and gravel into the crater in a homemade attempt to fix the street. I wonder if they mixed up the tarmac mush in the kitchen alongside my order of
fettuccine cacio e pepe

My thoughts are, however, on my feet which are making themselves known by quietly throbbing under the table. This is day four of sixteen days in Rome where the most important and, let’s face it, most dependable form of locomotion are attached to my ankles. I know they are there because they are…well, throbbing in silent protest to the workout. I have tried various shoes in attempts at comfort and I have yet to find a pair that seems to satisfy my feet. But in fact, who could blame them as I head across yet another vast piazza paved in ancient stone. Surely the people who built this city walked in simpler shoes than mine. How did they manage? Perhaps each night they also sat with aching feet, thinking there had to be an easier way.

Now I imagine my feet to be bigger and red, with pulsating skin. I wonder if the people at the next table can hear them thumping. But I looked down to check and they look exactly the same as they did this morning, when I gingerly touched them to the floor to see if I could stand. Miraculously, overnight, my imaginary swollen appendages return to normal shape and size, completely pain-free. Tomorrow I am pretty sure I will again stand on them for a moment in astonishment at the recovery and slide on another pair of shoes, ready for the next piazza.


We listened with deep concentrationn, draped on broken bits of marble that once probably held up a temple to Venus in the 2nd century, but now served as a temporary respite from our exhaustion. Our ragtag group of scholars, doctors, writers, executives and professors sweated quietly in the noonday heat, having climbed laboriously over the rubble of temples the origins of which I am sure they all knew in depth. Holding umbrella and hands against the sun, streaked with dust and sweat, these professionals, many of whom are retired and all of whom
chose to spend their holiday in this way, paid close attention to our professor who also defied laws of nature by standing in that heat, with no sign of any perspiration, not a hair out of place, and speaking nonstop on the complex chain of events that led up to that pile of rubble over there or this debris field to our left. The Rise and Fall of the Roman Empire is not for sissies, not at the time, nor for those studying it 2000 years later. I was in awe of everyone’s devotion…or insanity.

Meanwhile all around us, the Roman Forum teemed with tourists moving in packs behind the guides and the raised torches of furled umbrellas.


Baroque Art is defined as “the ornate architectural style of the 17th and 18th century” in Oxford American English Dictionary. Before arriving in Rome, Baroque art for me was something which one might be able to discuss for ten minutes. But for two weeks? My heart sank as the organizers, due to staffing requirements, assigned me to be the escort for all site visits of the Baroque Art program. This meant jumping on and off buses, shuffling through churches, walking blocks and blocks across town risking life and limb at every intersection, with a group of 12 equally passionate students, many of whose hearts were in it, but their bodies sometimes struggled to keep up. “I am doomed.” I thought, though I went to the first lecture anyway. I figured that I ought to at least be able to follow.

The professor stood before two screens saturated with slides of paintings by a man named Caravaggio. Uh huh. Heard of him. I had even seen these paintings before, hundreds of times. But the man standing before them changed everything. His entire body swayed in gestures to the paintings on either side of the room. He spoke with the passion of a man possessed as he filled the room with words that hung in the air like old lady perfume.

“And then you can see how this overdose of sensual mythology saturates the canvas and then draws us into the scene, only to then move out into the space created by the vacuum”… or something like that. I turned the phrase over in my head, even as he raced on to tell us more. “Notice the surge of emotion sweeping around the room in this painting like a flood of water washing against a perceptively impenetrable wall.” I paraphrase.

It was like a drug…I wanted to hear more. And judging from the rapt faces in the room, I was not alone. In fact, we followed our Professor like Moonies, notebooks out, full attention, on and off buses across the grimy city, with cries of dismay at the suggestion of stopping early for a previously planned event. We lay on the floors of churches and museums staring at bombastically frescoed ceilings which used to be just overdone art, but now were revealed as intricate stories of long ago love, betrayal, faith and passion. Two weeks later, I am a total convert as I find myself reading about Caravaggio and Borromini and patiently explaining to Luciano the difference between the earlier Baroque masters such as Bernini who were inspired by Michelangelo, and the latter who were sliding into the misunderstood Rococo.



After a teary farewell, our group began to gird themselves for reentry into the land of Starbucks and plastic benches. One by one, participants came up to me and asked if I wanted to have their books on the history of Rome and Baroque art as they did not want to carry them back. Never wanting to throw away a book, I agreed and suddenly there was a pile of hardcover books waiting for me at the hotel desk. I gave as many as I could to Zio Danilo to keep for me and I packed up the rest with a vague hope of one day getting them all to the educational program in California.

Rome is a chaotic, ribald city easily revealing only the top layer of a deep and complex flesh. It is intoxicatingly beautiful, buried under fetid layers of pollution, progress and passion in the hot sticky heat of June. One moment I relished the energy, the next I was exhausted by the overdose of spiritual mythology…or something like that. I longed for the simple views out my window in Mareno where history goes as deep as the chickens scratching out back. I was ready to go.

I packed my bags and, worried about the suspicious book bulge of my suddenly very heavy suitcase, I carried two books in my arms, as “carry-on” like I was in the midst, you know, of reading them. One of them was of Caravaggio, my new hero, and the other of the Fall of Rome. As I stood in line I examined the art book. It was thick with small print and very heavy. I would never read this. Hmmm. At the counter, the clerk weighed my bag and checked me through to Venice. Heartened, I asked if I could add the book to my suitcase.

“Why no, signora. It is already overweight.”

“Oh. Umm. Do you like Caravaggio?”


“Can I give you this book? Are you interested?”

“Well, yes. Thank you!” She slid the book beneath the counter.

“Good. I am all set then?”

“No. You are 8 kilos overweight. That will be 67,00 euro.”

I was shocked. I thought we were of like minds. Glaring at this charlatan art aficionado, I yanked the bag off the scale and muttered, “I will remove some things.”

Ten minutes later, with pockets, briefcase and computer bag stuffed, I rechecked the bag which had miraculously lost 7 kilos. It all got on the plane anyway, silly woman, just in different places. Thus, with seven kilos art and history pulling at my neck and back instead of comfortable packed in my suitcase, I waddled onto the plane and left Rome in all her squalor.

Luciano drove me peacefully through the Veneto, and Mareno, with the cool green vineyards and silver grey grasses waving in the fields across the silent, scooter-free street, was showing off a little to welcome me back. I sat in the silence of the evening, completely at peace and watched the lone chicken scratching in the rich dirt behind the house.