Yesterday was dim and chilly, but there was no rain for the moving sale. Over half of the bookshelves went, and a lot of other stuff. Many of my friends came by and got things from me, and some of their goodbyes left me tearful. Others stayed for a while and had dinner with me afterwards; it was very kind of them and I enjoyed their company immensely. One of them, PSV Lupus, wrote an elegiac post about living in my library for two and a half years, and about our friendship.
I will admit, I sniffled a lot when I read it in the dark, early hours this morning, when I wasn’t able to sleep. A word to my friends – you guys have to stop making me cry, damn it!
Today has been rainy, though somewhat warmer. One friend who couldn’t make it yesterday came by today and picked up a bunch of stuff that I’m much happier to see going to a friend than to a charity shop. He also picked up some things I’d given to another couple of friends who’d come by for dinner last week and forgotten what I intended to send home with them. Overall, I pulled together several hundred dollars from the sale, and I feel very good about what’s going off to the Northwest Center on Wednesday morning.
After spending that brief time with Robert this afternoon, I went back out to the garage and started bagging and boxing things for the Northwest Center. There’s more to do yet, but Charles is coming by this evening, in just a little while, after he gets back from the Irish language class he teaches with my girlfriend Caera on Sunday nights. The class used to be located here, but I haven’t any furniture left, so there’s no place for anyone to sit. When I’m not using my laptop, I have to stand at the breakfast bar to use the desktop computer, and that’s being shipped off to my brother late next week.
In the midst of all the activity, I’ve been reflecting a little on some of the things I saw in Italy last summer, and how much I would love to see them again, to give them a chance to settle into me more. We went to places that astonished and delighted me, and I’ll share a few photos with you here, and my memories of those places.
Mary shrine at the headwaters of the Livenza
I had never seen an entire river emerging from the base of a mountain before. Fiume Livenza emerges from three sources near the town where my brother lives. We visited the banks of the stream that flows from the underwater cave at Gargazzo; there’s a restaurant there where I’d love to have dinner some summer evening. The water is incredibly clear, and the emerging stream is in a gorgeous wooded area and flows down into the small town below.
Another source of the Livenza is situated next to a busy road. Just slightly downstream from the little shrine pictured here is a ruined mill, broken and painted with graffiti, but there’s a path that runs along both sides of the river and around the resurgence where it emerges from beneath the mountain. There’s a beautiful riparian zone below this, peaceful and filled with life. In the myths that I read and love, “springs” and “wells” play a powerful part, representing not just life but the eruption of poetic power and wisdom from some secret otherworldly source, but I had never really viscerally understood what that meant and why they might feel so sacred before I saw this place.
The Livenza here is not just a little stream. It’s a full sized river coming out of the ground.
Mountain. Road. River. Nothing gentle about this transition at all. It’s nothing like the swamps where the streams and rivers of my childhood rose in the Berkshire hills of Massachusetts. In this place, I knew with my entire body what the poets of Ireland were talking about when they spoke of the sudden, violent emergence of rivers from the otherworld.
Venetian flag on a gondola
We spent only one day in Venice during my visit. Like so many others, I was enchanted by the city and its canals. I’ve always been in love with water, and I wanted very much to spend more time there. This city, without cars and trucks in its streets, was a large part of what inspired me to try to move to Italy when the dizziness hit. If I couldn’t drive anymore, if I had to walk and take public transit for years, or possibly for the rest of my life, I thought it might be a good idea to live in a place where everyone walked.
Public transit in Washington state includes the ferry system. These are moderately sized car ferries that traverse Puget Sound in a wide variety of routes, and I’ve taken quite a few of them over the years. It’s always a pleasure to take my friends on the ferries when they come to visit, and I have loved riding them simply for the love of being on the water, and the view of the Cascade and Olympic mountains rising above the sound before and behind me. Tahoma towers in the distance to the south, an immense, snow-crowned presence that visually defines the region. It is a spiritual presence as well as a physical one.
The vaporetto system in Venice is more like city buses than our ferries are, but they are at least larger than the smallboats I took to work from the mainland of Pearl Harbor when I was stationed at Ford Island back in 1980. I understand there’s a bridge now, and that you can drive to the island if you work there, but my daily commute was standing crammed in with probably thirty or so other people, swaying with the waves, and getting wet from the spray despite the canvas cover, regardless of the weather.
The vaporetti are a lot more comfortable. You get seats. I could get used to the vaporetti.
Lion in Piazza San Marco
I could get used to the strange, casual beauty of the cities, and to the sense of age and history that non-indigenous North America lacks. While there are interesting architectural moments in Seattle, its buildings are largely utilitarian and they don’t date back past the late 19th century. Some 25 blocks of downtown were lost in the great fire of 1889 that resulted in the burial of most of downtown and raising the streets by about twenty-two feet. There’s nothing particularly elegant about Seattle’s buildings now, though I’ll admit to being amused by the long-tusked walruses on the façade of the Arctic Club building.
We have natural beauty in the mountains and the waters here, and the temperate Northwest rainforest can only be understood by backpacking and camping in it, but our cities are too modern to have the depth of history that is found everywhere in Italy. Put a spade in the ground there, and you unearth Romans and Etruscans.
The Dolomites are sharper and more angular than the Cascades and the Olympics, and the environment, while alpine, is very different than the mountains here. My brother took me for a drive up into the Dolomites along a winding road, filled with switchbacks and hairpin turns, that he’d helped improve some years back, when the US Air Force was doing community projects in the area. I was eager to get out and hike, and we spent time walking along a dirt road in a park, moving slowly up the mountain. I took photos of flowers in the forest, and pictures of the view from the road as we turned and turned again.
When he was out here visiting a few years back, I took him out to the Hoh rainforest, and to the Grove of the Patriarchs on Mount Rainier; his friends back in Italy who saw the photos of him hiking the trails could hardly believe the size of the trees. Jim had been pretty impressed himself. They are some of the most ancient and impressive living things on the west coast. I’ll miss the cedars and hemlocks and Douglas firs. The scent of cedar in the rain is the scent of home to me.
Mosaic in the basilica at Aquileia
Jim took me to Palmanova and Aquileia on a sleepy Sunday afternoon. We had a snack in the piazza in Palmanova and walked out to the city walls. I would have liked to explore more, but Aquileia promised mosaics and a really nice little museum. I’d seen the mosaics in documentaries before and was eager to see them for myself. The whimsy of the sea-life charmed me from a screen, from the octopodes to the sea monster swallowing Jonah. Seeing the mosaic pavement for myself was a wonderful experience.
Aquileia was once one of the major seaports of the Roman empire, on the Natissa. We walked the archaeological trail through the ruins of the ancient port; its waterway was a still green trickle, sailed only by a few ducks. The place was well-supplied with signs in Italian and English, explaining the town’s Roman history.
We ate our lunch at a sunny table outside a small cafe, where the waitress tried to talk to my brother in German. He kept answering, in Italian, “I don’t speak German. I’m not German.” She refused to speak Italian to him – apparently not believing him – but did take our order. I ate my sandwich under the watchful eye of the Lupa, suckling Romulus and Remus atop a column next to the basilica.
The crypt was almost as fascinating to me artistically as the 4th-century mosaics. The paintings had a different sort of charm, with boggle-eyed kings and saints, foliate green men, and beautifully flowing trees.
Heron or crane from the crypt below the Patriarcale Basilica di Aquileia
There were monochrome figures and medieval graffiti. I particularly liked the heron eating a fish. Speckled and cross-hatched, he looks a bit smug and quite pleased with himself.
The damage to the paintings was considerable. In some places entire figures were expunged, while others were missing parts. Yet there is nothing like this here where I live. America is obsessed with newness and youth, and things like this would vanish under the hard machines of developers here. It’s difficult to preserve what history we do have, whether indigenous or immigrant, because profit drives everything, and history isn’t generally considered profitable.
Without history, though, we have no sense of who we are or where we came from. We are adrift in the present and without roots. Without history, we don’t value the past and the forces that have shaped us.
I want to touch an older history. I want to look back beyond my lifetime, beyond even the lifetime of the country where I was born. I want to spend time in cities that have been inhabited for hundreds or thousands of years. I want to have ghosts beneath my skin. I want to read the words written by the people who lived in those places, to see the art that they made as it changed and developed.
This history is distant from Americans, not just temporally but spatially. We are thousands of miles from these places and events. Even more recent history can be difficult for us to feel on a more than theoretical level.
Dragonfly in the WW1 cemetery behind the basilica in Aquileia
Behind the basilica in Aquileia is a cemetery filled with the men from the town who died in the first world war. It’s a quiet place, laid out in neat rows of iron wreaths of oak and laurel leaves. Its battles were never fought on my continent, though over a hundred thousand Americans died in the fighting. Its physical distance puts a psychic distance between us and the reality of it all. In Europe, there are still memorials everywhere. Each town has them. Here, they are much more difficult to find and, unless a family member died in that war, no one really remembers. It’s a short segment of a high school American History course and very little more.
There, they are present by sheer force of numbers, and by the battles fought on familiar ground. What was theoretical for me became a lived reality when I stood in the presence of these iron wreaths.
I know I have rambled here. I am facing a loss of my own personal history as I leave my country and my friends and family behind. I hope to find a door into another history there, one that I can immerse myself in and learn from. I will read Catullus and Ausonius and Dante and Petrarch, and walk the places they once knew. I’ll follow in the footsteps of Joyce and Rilke in Trieste. And I’ll bring some of that history into my own experience.