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A little Italia

21 Jul

After finishing up my teaching gig in France, I traveled through north and central Italy for a bit.  In Firenze, I met a man who told me that writing in the moment is a much different process from writing out of memory.   It creates a different kind of art. Not better, or worse, only different–memory allows us to mold to a certain extent our stories.  We can change our stories, and in the process, change ourselves.

I was very tired when traveling through Italy.   I didn’t do much writing, though there are several lucid and brightly detailed impressions that remain with me that were never recorded.  The scant traces I did write are like sloughed skin, so fragile and untrue they now seem to the form of what really happened.

I remember fields of poppies from the train window on the way out of Bologna, a woman with a pink backpack standing beside two nuns at the station in some small town.

The blinding white heat of climbing in the hills above le Cinque Terre–walking through the high villages that are still small—smaller than their notable touristed neighbors below—buzzing with insects and sun, the lunar green of the vineyards and the sea gloaming below.

Florence.  Oil paints, Louis Armstrong, sparkling red wine, ricotta with honey.  Mirrors, clocks, a cool respite in an otherwise unbelievable day.

Rome.  Friend from Corsica meets friend from Montana– the ever-giving fountains, the gray heat and clouds, running through the streets, thinking I’m crazy to be running through Rome, of all places.

Lucca.  An ivory church tower at dusk, olives and cold lasagna from an alimentari, eaten at the feet of that church.  Murals of lapis lazuli, ripe cherries and their pits, a red Porsche, twisting hill roads lit up by headlights.  Indulgence, indifference.

When I was a kid, Italy existed for me as France did–a place I explored in my dreams, romantic, ancient, sumptuous.  A place where reality, where who I was in reality, didn’t apply.  How is one allowed to feel indifferent in Italy? Well, I did.  I wanted nothing typical.  Days washed over me, ran through me, like so many waves.  It’s not that I didn’t care–I just was tired of looking for something that, as I’d learned in France, didn’t exist.  Instead I found something more honest.

Manarola, Italy. Population < 500.


Bonding moments with the French

22 Feb

In the classroom

We are playing exquisite corpse, a group drawing game.

Sulky teenage student: What point does this serve for learning English?
Me: None. I thought you guys might want to not work for a change.
Student: (appreciating irony of statement, laughs uproariously)

We are writing and performing short dialogues between a waiter and a customer in an American pizza parlor.

Student (as waiter):  And would you desire a coffee after your pizza meal?

Student (as customer):  Yes.  Please make mine zucchini-less.

In and around Saint Jean

C:  We’re going to eat some cakes.  You like that?

P:  Paris—the most beautiful city in all the world, and maybe the most beautiful in all France.

C:  (in front of the perpetually broken copy machine in the staff room)  I just kick it hard when it’s not working.

On the train

Man sitting across from me:   My apartment in Bordeaux just burned down, but normally I fight bulls in the Basque country.

Woman with high-pitched, metronomic voice:  (at her mobile)  Hallo?…Hallo?…Hallo?…HaLLO?… (this just after realizing we were on the wrong train, headed far away from our intended destination)

SNCF woman*: Saintes. Ici, Saintes. (jingle cue:  dum Da duh DA dum)

SNCF woman: Arles.  Ici, Arles.

SNCF woman:  L’enfer.  Ici, votre enfer à vous.  Attention au débarquement.  (“Hell.  Here, your own personal hell.  Watch your step on descending.”)

*Her name is Simone Hérault.   She is interviewed, in French, on the SNCF site.  I was amazed to find that she is actually a real person who exists, and not a callous robot created to blithely announce that all departing trains are to be delayed for the next 5 years…merci pour votre comprehension.

La mer

18 Feb

Took the midday train to Royan, a coastal town erroneously bombed by Allied forces in the winter of 1945—an accident that razed the town and killed 1,200 people—and afterwards reconstructed as part of an “experiment” in urban infrastructure.  The restoration of Royan was deemed a huge success in terms of both functionality and aesthetics.  Personally found the town, though impressively surreal, just moche à pleurer (“ugly enough to cry”):  the church resembles a clunky spaceship; palm trees and cedars grow awkwardly and artifically side by side; the whole centre ville has this weird suburban 2001 Space Odyssey feel about it.  While pride in regeneration after catastrophe is right and beautiful, it’s just too bad that the regeneration had to occur in the 1950s.

Then there was the ocean, the thing that mattered.  Watched the tide come in, slow and brown and hulking, hunkered against the wind on a blue and white striped bench, listening to Georges Brassens’ gullet croon  “Les Copains d’Abord” on the radio.  It’s a song about men and boats, so it fit the day well.

You can’t eat the oysters or clams.  There are lots of things you can’t do on the many beaches in Royan, the small rocky coves and more generous swaths of sand spotting the long walkway along the water.  There is unsupervised swimming a little bit farther up.   Considered it, but swimming in the ocean in February is fun only with company.

A Martian landscape, gray and incomprehensible, unseasonably strewn with strange exercise machines placed in random spots along the path — wet balance beams, mounted wheels to spin in circles, and hilariously, ellipticals.  The houses, or maybe summer vacation retreats, had names like ‘La Lanterne’ and ‘Coupe Vente.’

Found a municipal memorial dedicated to the theme of humor:  savoir rire, c’est savoir vivre.  Knowing how to laugh is knowing how to live.  Noted for future reference.

C’est psychologique

14 Feb

Sunday, monday.  7, 8 février.


Porous white buildings looming in crepescular light.  Lit windows in neoclassic shadows.

Stairs to the gare, to the cathedral, staircased hills, angular water, old port.

Pigeon split open on the sidewalk, flushed wet and pink.

Stained asphalt, spices, kebabs, industrial chocolate biscuits “à l’artisan,”

une noisette et un p’tit crème.

Sketchbook, children in a crooked parade at the fountain.

La Méditerranée, green and clear, dark beards of algae, cupped by white rocks and ochre hills.

In the city longing for the country but in summertime,

April sea in winter,

running to catch the bus, sun fever and déjà vu—

“ça existe pas, c’est psychologique”—

hunger pangs, lingerie ads.

Running for the métro, running for the gare,

right ticket, wrong train, long detour home

All dried out and water everywhere.

Les vacances, j’adooooore

13 Feb

Saturday, 6 février.

Carpooled from Saintes to Nîmes,  nursing  a February stomachache and halfway succeeding in communicating with the driver, a man whom I never had met nor ever will meet again.   He got me across France for 30 euros, and I couldn’t have asked for more. The perfect relationship — cheap and finite. You find a lot of these while traveling.  We talked about vineyards, plumbing (his profession) and the giant windmills, éoliennes, strewn across the rugged hills between Toulouse and Narbonne.  We also passed a gorgeous nuclear power plant that fuels a good part of southwest France.

Arrived in Nîmes, bought a train ticket for the last 20 minutes to Arles — which I needn’t have done, as the conductor didn’t even come through the cars to check — and finally arrived at the apartment of my French friend, la Corse (she is from Corsica).  I hauled my backpack up a narrow winding stone staircase, feeling like a less delicate version of Alice in a French wonderland.  I knocked on two doors, including a closet, before realizing there was an additional terrace where the last two apartments were located.

After a deep evening catnap, la Corse, her boyfriend and I walked along the wind-scoured stone embankment of the Rhône, a muscular river that runs from Lyon down to the Bouche de Rhône region, translated “mouth of the Rhône,” where it surrenders to the Mediterranean.  On the steps of a cathederal turned concert hall were two dozen or more musicians in winter coats and scarves, brandishing trombones, oboes, and a fiddle with a trumpet flute welded to its neck — through some ingenious feat of engineering, the bow, when pulled across the fiddle strings, actually produced a sound resembling that of a brass instrument being strangled to death. “C’est la fanfare,” la Corse explained to me, referring to the spectacle as a whole.

Saw French people eating sushi stuffed with red meat and cheese.  Could not stomach the thought of touching it.  I think the winter may be getting to me.