Sunday, August 28, 2011

Ciao Marcello

The church bells didn’t wake me at 7a.m. because I am already up with the large windows open to the street. The pleasure of the crisp breeze coming through the kitchen is as if the shutters did not remember they were kept closed last week to keep out the heat. The street below is calm and almost lifeless until I hear a loud thud as Georgio, the young café owner across the street, empties the garbage from last night. Then woosh goes the big machine behind the bar as he steams milk for his first cappuccino of the day. From my fourth floor vantage point, I see it’s for a young man in a red polo shirt sitting at the window table. A stack of chairs is on the patio of the café and one-by-one, Georgio places them at tables in his small outdoor dining area. There are 20 chairs, each belonging in a certain location. On the mornings I watch him position the chairs, it’s as if they speak to him and say, “No, I go on the end of table number three,” or “thank you Georgio, it’s another beautiful day outside.” Knowing his routine gives me a sense of comfort; a sense of belonging to the neighborhood.

I have no steamed milk, but my espresso is brewed and I pour it into a little yellow espresso cup with matching saucer purchased from the Italian 99 Cent Store. A limp bed pillow overlaps the seat on the straight back wooden chair at the dining table where I work. I fluff it before settling back down to begin sorting yesterday’s photos. “Ciao Marcello,” I hear Georgio say. I fight the urge to run to the window, but it is no use. First I try to act nonchalant, as if just coincidently passing by the window – shoulders back, head erect, attitude aloof. I’ve watched the young Italian girls walking on the street with an air of confidence and I imitate their haughty style. It doesn’t matter. The men don’t look up my way. I pass by the window again, and again nothing. They’re talking loud enough for me to hear and I might be able to decipher the conversation if I listen carefully. I stand with my ear to the street, an outsider trying to be part of their world.

“Pecorino, olio, porcini, tagliatelle,” Georgio says. From Watching David Rocco’s Dolce Vita on the Cooking Channel, I know pecorino is cheese made from sheep milk and that it changes texture as it ages. Olio is olive oil; porcini is a mushroom, and tagliatelle a pasta noodle. “Pomodori, quattro, cinque,” Marcello says. I easily translate to tomato four five, which I guess means four or five tomatoes. I don’t know if they’re discussing a grocery list or a recipe but I’m on a roll and so pleased with my translation abilities that I all but lean the entire top half of my body outside the window and prop myself against the sill as if invited to be part of their conversation.
“Ciao Marcello,” I want to yell out the window remembering Vivien Leigh in the film The Roman Spring of Mrs. Stone when she threw her apartment keys to her young lover, Warren Beatty, on the street below. “Ciao Marcello,” I’m afraid to yell out the window for fear Sophia, upstairs, will hear me and put a stop to our desire. “Ciao Marcello,” I whisper as he finishes talking with Georgio and turns to walk away.

My eyes are locked on his body. It is solid and rugged.

He looks up at my window, as if expecting to find me there. He meets my stare and smiles wide, revealing a gold capped molar. He winks and looks at me longingly as if to capture a memory to last all day. He waves. I wave. But, my mouth won’t open to utter the greeting I have practiced so many times. The breeze blows over my flushed face, my heart rushes, and I think of how it might be to have our own home with a patio outside the upper floor window and what it will be like to grow old together. I imagine always standing in a window, looking down at him when he leaves and still feeling that rush of life through my blood. He smiles again and tips his head. Today he’s wearing lime green pants. I watch until the color fades out of sight. Ciao Marcello, until tomorrow.

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Portofino On The Mind

The little town of Portofino is built in the slice of a hillside that drops into a tiny sheltered natural harbor opening into the Mediterranean Sea. The experience of arriving by water is one of awe as if opening a long sealed treasure chest or finding that someone has changed-out your seasonal closet and in addition to arranging everything in color order, has washed and neatly draped last year’s favorite coffee stained sweat shirt over your chair. Portofino has a language of its own that says, “I see you’ve returned.” Even if you’ve never been there before, it gently wraps it arms around you and pulls you home.

Portofino is not a town like others small communities on the Italian Riviera. It does not have a white sand beach dotted with umbrellas; it is a harbor town.  Mega yachts moored outside the harbor are the first indication that you’re about to enter the land of something special. The captain steers our boat around the anchored sea vessels and mountains hiding the harbor knowing that his passengers are about to ooh-and-ah and then be dumbstruck. The visual magic of Portofino grabs the day-tripper by the waist and doesn’t let go until the last boat taxi toots its horn good-bye.

The captain maneuvers through the waters inhabited by fancy boats floating alongside small fishing boats. A salty fisherman salutes our captain then turns to wave to the uniformed crews on private floating mansions. All the boats boast a gleaming polish and the largest are outfitted with huge fresh floral displays on tables at the stern, which look to be set for afternoon cocktails. Our captain told us that famous people gravitate to Portofino and that a few days earlier Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie were here.

A policeman on shore monitors the dinghies as they drop-off and pick-up their passengers. We watch a crowd gather on the pier looking toward the big white yacht where people move about. They’re watching a silver haired man followed by a cameraman as they disembark. I don’t recognize him as a movie star, but maybe he is. They quickly blend into the crowd and as we see them throughout the day, their oddity seems to have waned. A man talking on his cell phone looks like a movie director from the way his shirt collar is cocked up to cover the back of his neck and he wears two pair of reading glasses. He too mixes in the crowd unruffled. There seems to be a general understanding that famous people are not to be bothered here and I’m thinking that perhaps that’s why no one is bothering me.

The facades on the buildings are faux painted, giving them the detailed three dimensional feeling of pages from a pop-up book. There are designer shops next to sidewalk cafes, and people reading travel brochures and eating gelato. There are no maps here – the town is so compact, people just point you in the right direction. The smaller boats in the harbor are lined-up creating patterns in the water, and punches of color from flowers, awnings, restaurant umbrellas, and signs accent the shot through the viewfinder no matter where you aim your camera. It’s a simple little town overflowing with happiness. The natural beauty quiets even the outward passion of lovers as you catch them in a deeper shared longing, stolen from this moment and this place.               
Not too far up the hill, the Church of St. Martin, built in the 11th Century, looks back down to the town center and harbor of Portofino. Divo Martino is as precious as a tiered wedding cake with butter cream frosting and layers supported by Corinthian columns with capitals dipped in gold, accented with piped sugar roses. The community church pulsates with only the flickering of candle light as if to say, “Come in, friend.” A modest collection box next to the candles has a sign thanking visitors in advance for their donations to light a candle. I make a donation but don’t light a candle. The church already glows to perfection.  

Portofino has what I think of as cobble stones, whereas other cities have blocks or bricks with angled sides in their streets. The stones of Portofino streets are rounded, perhaps from being worn down by centuries of water currents and then removed from the sea and arranged artistically into roads. Some of the roads have a picture mosaic made of stones. There is a celestial stone mosaic on the open air patio entrance to my favorite little church.
There is an uncanny familiarity about Portofino that gives me a feeling of wellness and satisfied fullness. There is a gentle peace here that mixes easily with the bright hues of the bougainvillea and climbing vines, the architectural impact of the painted buildings rising up the hills, the calm harbor, and the sea air. It’s a feeling of being safely held captive in a life-size snow globe. Portofino is the one place I am most sad to leave. I leave with the residue of desire, the desire to return here and feel content again.

Saturday, August 13, 2011

Week Five - Touching Venus and Stairwell Dining with Sophia

This is the week five entry of Five Weeks in Florence and by now you have figured out that week five is not the end of this saga, nor is this a typical blog. What of the Italian food, the shopping, the markets, and the wine. And, what about the original purpose of going to Florence – to take photos. Where are those “only you could take them” photos? These topics and visuals are all coming if you wish to continue to check in weekly. For today, the subject matter is touching famous art and anxiously anticipating Sophia’s, Marcello’s wife, Sunday meal.   

Dining in the Stairwell
Even on a hot day, the stairwell of 17 Ricasoli is dark and cool. Today is Sunday and in the kitchen upstairs, Sophia prepares the mid-day meal. The aromas of sautéed garlic and onion sneak in through our hallway window and Barbra is motivated to cook risotto. I will go to the store for a bottle of local white wine and some onions; she already has the olive oil and a black truffle stored in a cup of rice. My grocery list includes fruit, yogurt, eggs, and milk as it does in the U.S., but in Italy, ricotta, crostini, wine, olives and espresso are added to the food staples.

I instinctively know when to hop on and off of the sidewalk on my way to Supermercato Il Centro, the neighborhood general store. On the way home I walk on the sunny side of the street with my grocery bags slung across my body. I’m wearing my Italian peasant blouse and my Fellini-esque sunglasses, I feel very local as I nod “hello” to the latest batch of tourists hovering in the shade of the Accademia in cue to see the Statue of David.
When I return, the entire stairwell smells like a cooking school. The landings on each floor are large enough to fit a table for eight. I imagine that later in the day the landings will transform into family dining areas with tables covered in fine Italian embroidered linens and set with rugged blown-glass tumblers for wine. Food arrives in huge pots and platters from the different kitchens and the stair well turns into a vertical dining hall.
Sophia scoops Pappa al Pomodoro (tomato bread soup) into shallow ceramic bowls and Marcello pours Chianti from a big jug he filled at the local wine-bottle-refillery. Families share stories about the tourists, the heat, and treasured old recipes. Their laughter latches onto whiffs of Boar Ragù and Porcini Mushroom Pesto – the aromas of Sunday in Florence drift up the four floors of the stairwell and through the open apartment doors to be savored until the nighttime breeze sweeps them out into the street as we crunch our last biscotti.  

Birth of Venus

Many life size statues, including Pisano and Donatello, grace the outside the Uffizi Museum. A Leonardo DiVinci look-alike coaxes glances of wonder from the gathering crowd as he bows to acknowledge coins dropped in the open container at his feet and poses for photos. Inside, observational research quickly revealed that the famous artworks in the Uffizi Museum were covered with a sheet of suspended glass and the most famous paintings had a guard rail attached to the floor about 24” in front of the glass: such was the case with the Birth of Venus.
If David is the most recognizable male in Italy, his female counterpart is Venus standing in an open sea shell with long hair swirling about her body. David however, started as a statue whereas the image of Venus is extracted from a fantasy oceanic landscape in the painting Birth of Venus, 1484, by Alessandro “Sandro” Botticelli, which hangs on a wall in Room 10 of the Uffizi Gallery. 
I don’t remember the story of the painting’s importance from my college art history class, so will instead provide my immediate reaction to the masterpiece. Her flesh has the fragile quality of porcelain while the background landscape recalls the stitching of a tapestry and the detailed embroidery of the garments make them hang weightily on the other human forms in the painting. The waves in the sea resemble upside down cartoonish clouds and the softness of her hair mimics sea weed floating in the water. The piece is almost life size, approximately 6’x10’, with a heavy carved gold frame almost 8” wide. In one word, it is “luxurious.” 
Next to the painting is a 2’x3’ tactile reproduction of the Birth of Venus done in low relief white resin. It has a sign in Italian and English saying that the relief was donated to the museum by an art foundation. I did not notice that the information was given in braille. The highest parts of the relief shine pristine white from the gentle touch of millions of fingers, while the deepest shadowy incisions are dark and layered with the grime of warm handprints. I closed my eyes and rubbed my fingers and palms gently over the surface of Venus trying to imagine how it feels to the blind to see a famous work of art through the fingertips of their world. I was conscious to touch with respect, avoiding her tiny and delicate private parts.        

Venus is not the only guest in Room 10 at the Uffizi. Botticelli’s work covers the walls. His textures are exacting and facial expressions honest. The figures float on the backgrounds creating ethereal and magical kingdoms known only within the frame of the canvas. Transparent flowing fabrics and heavy red velvet robes indicate that the artist understood the make-up of inanimate objects as well as he understood that facial and body language reveals personalities. 

His small pieces, perhaps 8”x12”, explore the same detailed quality as his large pieces. I might guess that he changed from large work to small work depending on the availability of room in his studio or if he wished to sit or stand on a given day. Sometimes his backgrounds are as ornate as the foregrounds and sometimes they are sketchy, as if to avoid competing with the subject. Large or small – all works had the same intense detail where he wanted to have detail and were loose in areas he wished to allow freedom. Artistic freedom is carried on today in Italy as shown by a retailer in the thoughtful positioning of the perfect Venus between two iconic religious statues.      -end-

Saturday, August 6, 2011

Week Four: Taiko Drummers at the Duomo, Look Up, Uffizi Museum, Lovers, Nude Statues on Pedastals

Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow

The days and weeks blend together until the stories of the places and the people stand alone, and specific dates no longer play a leading role. Some stories have no accompanying photos, some museums don’t let you take photos, and some photos are added because they beg to be included …like the Taiko Drummers on the steps of the Duomo.  

Look Up

“Look up” are the first words spoken by tour guides in Florence. Each guide carries a personalized divining stick to lead their group. Some have an expandable yardstick with a colorful flower on the tip, some carry official branded signs from a cruise line or tour company, and others, like Marta from Santa Reparata International School of Art use a huge scarf that doubles as a shoulder wrap. Her scarf bears the neon colored icon of a contrade in Sienna.
No matter the origin of the tour group, if they stop and the leader raises the colors, everyone gets quiet and looks up. I find myself looking up with them. I find myself listening to the guide for several minutes before realizing I don’t understand the language. My six Italian classes and five months of listening to Italian lessons in the car did give me a slight advantage. I have translated the aperitivo (happy hour) discussion between a shoe sales person and her girlfriend about where to go for cocktails, and shortly after that a cab driver’s discussion with his wife about ingredients, quantities and preparation of a pasta dish.

I was unsuccessful with our next cab ride. When we opened the cab door, with water bottles and cookies in hand, the driver turned to us and announced in a stern voice, “No eating, this is not a restaurant, it’s a taxi cab,” and then he returned to his phone conversation which continued for the entire 12 minutes of our trip. He spoke so fast, loud and repetitively that I only caught “ascolto,” several times which means listen/hear, and then a bunch of numbers. Maybe he was a bookie placing bets on the upcoming Il Palio (horse race in SIenna on August 16th). When we reached our destination, he paused his conversation to take our money. Once outside his domain Barbra sniped, “No eating, this is not a restaurant, it’s a phone booth,” and we laughed knowing that Ciao Marcello and this is not a restaurant it’s a phone booth would become imbedded in our future conversations.  

Visiting the Uffizi
I visited the Uffizi Museum and bellied up to a group of Japanese tourists with a female Japanese guide speaking Italian. By now I had determined that if I listened intently to conversations in Italian, French or Spanish (none of which I spoke) and watched the accompanying body language of the tour guide and group, I could glean information from the discussion. I also found myself reading painting or statue descriptions written in Italian assuming that if I continued to read, the words would ultimately speak to me, and sometimes they did.

I have been in museums in different countries before, but only in this museum did I feel as if I were walking through the halls of time and uncovering reasons for my own existence. I had used the same tri-colored pen for five weeks and did not lose it. I wore the same clothes, I ate the same food, and I absorbed art like a sponge. I was always satisfied, stimulated, and enriched – never bored, lonely, or longing. I left wondering if my life at home would be more satisfying if it were simplified. I might like my new profession to be getting up in the morning and wandering with a camera and notepad in hand – simply recording whatever interested me as I have done in Florence.

Lovers in Italy

Lovers kiss and hold each other in Italy – on the street, on bridges, in restaurants, by the sea, in art galleries – and it’s not just a peck. Their desire is wicked enough to cause spectators to move aside for fear the lovers will explode – or to watch and hope they too will catch fire. 

When life size statues are displayed on 4’pedestals, that positions their reproductive organs about 8’ off the ground. On both sides of the worn walls of the main hallway in the Uffizi, every 10’ there are two life size busts (heads) on pedestals followed by a male or female nude, then two more busts and another nude as far as the eye can see.

One by one, you can watch the heads of the old and young men, women and children, bob up and down as their eyes meet the genitals. They first look away, as if surprised, even though they have already passed several other naked statues, and then, after they pass by, they look again as if to make sure they hadn’t missed anything good. I overheard an art history teacher explain to the students that the artists’ male models were not circumcised and therefore the penises on the statues were not circumcised. The muscle tone on the statues was so taut and defined that I almost expected the penis discussion to spark the question of why none were portrayed erect. I listened, but that discussion never happened. Of the female anatomy, the breast, nipples, and stomach areas provided the focus of the sexual tension.

I wondered if all of this divine nudity may be what prompts preliminary acts of love in the museum. Look through the crowd of travel worn tourists and you’ll see sexy confident European men in tight pants and open hanging shirts with stylish women dressed in high fashion boasting a similar air of self-assurance. Look again and you see lovers embracing on a bench, or twisted-as-one in the middle of a busy hallway. As I didn’t notice potential partners, I went back to thinking about these active lovers and how long it might take them to find the exit.

Finding a new friend in a museum
All but one of my museum visits was with a group led by Dr. Carey Rote, an art history professor; her verbal art lesson was a bonus. The professor discussed the highlights of the work as well as adding side notes. Her passion for the pieces enriched the content of the discussion and my experience. I had a schedule conflict with her Uffizi visit so went by myself and stayed the entire afternoon, wandering from room to room in search of the next great surprise. I could almost drink the wine from the glass in Caravaggio’s Bacchus, the tons of brushed gold leaf made me squint, and I felt the bonded love in every depiction of Madonna and child.

Being amid the crowds of people and life size statues made me desire human interaction. I discovered that if you’re alone and you want to talk to someone at a museum, you either go to the viewing point where people are allowed to take skyline photos, or sit with a notepad at the end of a bench and start writing. At the patio outside the museum café, aka the viewing point, it didn’t take long for a couple from Belgium to ask me to snap their photo and they snapped mine in turn.  

In the long hall lined with the naked statues, I sat at the end of a bench leaving space for someone to sit next to me and started writing intensely in a journal. There seems to be nothing more alluring than interrupting someone who is focused on writing. In about 45 minutes, at least eight different people sat down and started talking to me.

“Youa speaka English,” my first new friend said. He was about my age and I assumed that since he sounded like Marcello, our upstairs neighbor, he must be Italian. I was half right. He was Italian, but born and raised in Pittsburgh, PA and he had a military buddy who lived in Pittsburg, CA. "Youa know Vaina?, " he asked.
I replied with an expression which implied I did not understand the question. I didn’t. I didn’t know if Viana was an artist he was trying to locate in the museum, a dessert, a movie star, a sports car, or a politician.

“It’sa the town wherea my family came from,” he said. “I broughta my American family toa see it.”
“Youa know Capodiamonte?” he asked mentioning the name of a town he said was near Naples. 

“No sorry, I don’t know the Italian map very well,” I said.
“Well, youa know,” and he mentioned another town.

I replied yes to knowing the location of Rome, which caused him to ask if I knew the location of other obscure towns along with providing their coordinates.

“No sorry,” I said again, “I don’t know the Italian map very well.”
A man and boy came out of a gallery room and started walking toward my new companion. “He looks like you,” I said nodding toward his balding middle age son with the large hook nose, rugged skin, and small close-set dark eyes.

My new friend beamed and with pride said, “Thank you.”
I guessed they would meet up with his wife and daughter-in-law in the gift shop. He rose from his temporary seat by me and took the hand of his willing preteen grandchild. Their heads bobbed up and down, back and forth, as they did the stop-and-go spectator dance down the hall flanked with the naked uncircumcised men and women with rounded marble breasts.