11 Days: Remembering last summer

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

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

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

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.

Dolomite mountains

Dolomite mountains

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 bascilica at Aquileia

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

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 Aqileia

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.


22 Days

Time is moving at a faster clip than I ‘d like sometimes.

Yesterday, I sold my desk and my dresser. Aside from bookshelves, that was it for the large furniture. There are a few small pieces left, but nothing of any size. The garage/moving sale is on November 30th and anything left after that will be hauled off to the charity shops. It has to all be dealt with by then so that I can be out of my apartment around December 5th. After that, I’m staying with my girlfriend until I leave.

Tomorrow, along with a doggie dental appointment, the Dog of Devastating Cuteness +3 is getting his EU compliant identity chip implanted. Sadly, the ones that are usually used here in the US are not compatible with EU systems. He’s an adorable little guy, but kind of temperamental. He’s 10 years old, and he was a rescue and has issues. His not getting on well with other dogs (or other animals generally speaking) means I have to leave him here with a friend until I get my own place, as life at my brother’s would be really difficult for him. Jim lives in a little place on a farm where there are other dogs, horses and donkeys, geese, chickens, and cats, at my last recollection. It would be a disaster waiting to happen. Fortunately, my friend Patrick will take him in until I can come back for him in a few months. I’m also looking into safe airlines for flying pets. I’ve heard Lufthansa is good.



I’m in the process of checking out shipping companies and seeing if my things can be stored for a bit when they get to Italy if I don’t have my own apartment rented by then. One place so far says, “Yes, up to two weeks for free, then we charge you.” Another hasn’t got back to me yet, but I only just sent the emails a little while ago. I may well have an answer from them by the time I get home this evening, or sometime tomorrow. I’m almost done sorting everything and all I have to do is get the rest of what I’m keeping into my storage unit. One of my friends is coming by Monday to help manage the pricing and sorting of the things I’ve got out in the garage for the sale. Between the two of us, we should be able to manage moving the last larger bookshelf out, and the smaller one won’t be a problem. With a cart, I could move it myself.

The weather has taken a turn for the frigid. It’s brilliantly sunny out today, but there’s still frost on the ground where there’s shade and the grass crunches when I walk on it. It’s definitely a contrast to the grey and rain we’ve been having, with some flooding in lower lying areas. Those fish crossing signs are probably getting a workout in some places. (Lest anyone think I’m kidding, here’s a picture for your amusement.) I’m concerned about the moving sale being out in the garage in this weather, but selling any of it at all will do. At this point, every few bucks counts for putting money in the bank toward moving costs and getting my own place. There’s no going back.

33 Days

Calendars are inexorable things.  There are times when I think they hang on walls just to mock me. The one beside my desk is a Hark, A Vagrant! calendar, so at least I’m being mocked by the best. They remind me how swiftly time moves. My only work is my writing, when I have the focus to do it. It’s not on a schedule, so half the time I don’t even know what day it is unless I have an appointment scheduled. When I look up at the calendar I’m surprised, because wasn’t it just June a few days ago? Was I supposed to be doing something today?

I check the calendar on my phone. No, today really is November 8th. I have 33 days to wrap up my life here, tie up my loose ends, say goodbye to those I can actually see before I get on a plane. 33 days to make sure my apartment is empty. 33 days to deal with utilities and notices and sorting and selling the last of my things.

33 days to wonder who I will be when I step off the plane.

Many years ago, I wrote a poem called Reefs.

we grow in reefs
like coral
moment on moment
image on image
touch upon touch

we are congregations of experience

each memory leaves its sign
its fossil trace
we are colonies of memories armored with our past
your eyes
the way you breathe
the twining of your fingers with mine
at dusk

we grow in rings
like trees
encircled by time by stars by the moving
breathing sea

we are touched by fire

each memory bends us
shapes us
like fingers in clay
strong as moving water
we mould ourselves around them
our shapes are the shapes of trees on the rocks of a deserted shore
bowed by the hand of the hard north wind

we are spells of making we are words
we are ancient magic
the sum of memory
we grow like roots in stony ground turning
on rough pebbles
we are shaped by love and terror and the sweet depth of longing
we are memory

below the surface of our  lives
we grow in reefs

This place has shaped me and left its mark in me and on me. The friends I have made and the people I love and my experiences here have been the wind and water that have formed what I have become in the last three decades and more. But when I step away from this place that has so strongly affected me, who will I become? When the context in which I have spent so many years is removed, who is left? What remains? What part of me is defined by Seattle and what part is defined by the core of my being? What part will be defined by Italy, reshaped and sea-changed? Will my eyes become pearls? Will I become coral, sharp-boned and beautiful?

I hope this blog can be a conversation with you, who are reading my words. I have so many questions and muddled thoughts, so many hopes and fears, so much formless, breathless excitement, and very little knowledge to go on right now. I’ve had a short visit to Italy, conversations with my brother, and a lot of poking around on the internet to shape my initial perceptions. I know that my experiences when I step off the plane will be different than what I might imagine right now. I’m trying to go into this with as few preconceived notions as possible. Consider this an invitation to sit with me, to have a cuppa, to speak around the table and be heard.