Hiatus

I’ve been off-duty for a month. I didn’t announce my absence, mostly because I was in denial about the break I meant to take. But, take it I did. If I have any loyal followers, and they were disappointed by my disappearance, I apologize for my callousness and lack of consideration.

We hit Portland just after Christmas and we needed some readjustment time. School started and I felt obliged to focus on that for awhile. In fact, that’s still my focus.

I will update from time to time, probably with school-related bits (because that’s all I think about most of the time). Perhaps too, with seemingly un-related bits. I hesitate to say how often, though I hope to post something every week or so.

In the meantime, I received this from my longtime friend Jason who has been playing with a “project” band for the last year-and-some. They are making their big push for stardom and would really like it if all four of my readers would give their single, “Undercover Lover” a listen.

Okay. Cool. Enjoy. See y’all soon.

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How to End Your Unscheduled London Holiday Before All of Your Borrowed Money Runs Out and the Consierge at the Hotel Has to Call the Bobbies on You

25December2010

“There’s no place like home.” That’s what you say when you come home after a long absence. No, wait… that’s what you say when you’re still far away and clicking your heels together. “Home, sweet home” is what is said when you get there.

*****

Well, we’re not there yet. But we are a lot closer than we thought we’d be on Christmas day. An early call to British Airways on the 24th netted us two seats on a flight to Seattle. We booked ‘em and threw all of our shit back into bags, and ran from the hotel like mad monkeys, waving our arms above our heads and screeching into the blue London sky, “Taxi! Taxi!”

The first cabbie that pulled to the curb didn’t take plastic. He said that only Radio Cabs accepted credit cards,  but offered to take us to a cash point himself. We thought that would take too long, and as a Radio Cab was rolling to the corner at that moment, we sent him on his way.

The Radio Cab driver told us that a card swipe would cost an additional 12%, so we accepted his offer of a ride to the ATM. On the way to Heathrow, he regaled us with tales of bureaucratic ineptitude in his beloved London. His mum lives on a curve that never gets any salt when it snows. The lamp post outside of her house gets bent over by sliding cars. They keep standing the lamp back up, but won’t come grit the road when it’s icy. He’s afraid someone’s going to drive into her living room one day.

So, he went to the home store and bought a bag o’ sand. He says if it snows again he’ll go grit the corner his ownself. Rosie says he should send the county a bill. He laughs – without bitterness – and tells us a story about getting a speeding ticket while visiting Florida. His brother-in-law was driving.

*****

We made it to Heathrow sixty pounds lighter, but in plenty of time. Out front, dressed in reflector vests were two men, metering the flow of travelers into the terminal. “What time’s your flight?” one asked. “Two-twenty,” I told him. He pulled aside the vinyl ribbon and let us in.

*****

Walking onto the Arrivals floor was a little like taking a punch in the gut. A long serpentine line of passengers wound its way from way back by the reader boards, up to a much shorter row of baggage checkers. Another bloke – this one in a blue British Airways blazer – was metering entry into this line. “Have you checked in yet?”

“No”

“You’ll need to go to one o’ dem machines and check in first.”

“Okay. Thanks.”

The machine laughed at us, and told us that check-in was unavailable. Another BA helping hand listened to us explain and said, “When’s yer flight?”

“Two-twenty.”

“Where ya goin’?”

“Seattle.”

“Go to area A, please.”

“Alright.” I was beginning to sweat a little under my winter layers and my load of luggage. Rosie looked worried.

If they allowed crows into the airport terminal, one might fly from the check-in machines that mock passengers’ pain to area A and travel a distance of  twenty yards. As we are not crows, we had to walk, dragging our baggage behind us, a distance of two touchdowns and a long field goal attempt – weaving in and out and around and through, sometimes under, but never over – to arrive at yet another queue, guarded by another reflector-vested man who asked more of the same questions and granted us entry into the coveted area A.

Once inside, we approached a rather disinterested chap who took our passports and dialed a phone while we waited behind the yellow line. We caught ominous snippets of his conversation, “Seattle flight… booked… two passengers… bags.” Okay, writing it down, it’s not as ominous as it sounded at the time, but our recent history with flying had taught us to be skeptical. And we were.

He beckoned us forward, took our checked bags, and handed us two boarding passes. “Sorry, but we’ve had to upgrade you. Seems the flight is full.” That’s alright, Sir. We’ll try not to be too disappointed.

At security, we found some items that we’d packed into the wrong bags and had to toss out a multi-tool and most of a 2-litre bottle of sparkly water. The lady at the check point was clearly having a bad day. We tried to be respectful and efficient. No one got hurt, and soon we were on the other side of the metal detectors, wondering how to spend our last seven pounds of British bread. The only reasonable answer was ale.

While we sat at the seafood bar, drinking, we tried to figure out how to use the free 45 minutes of wi-fi access advertised by Heathrow Airport to contact someone in Tacoma to pick us up at Sea-Tac. We couldn’t figure it out, so I went up to the BA lounge to beg access to their wi-fi (it’s separate from the airport network). The lady at the desk upstairs was elitist and smug, and completely unsympathetic. When I got back down the escalator, I had a bitter taste in my mouth and had to wash it down with another sip of London’s Pride. By the time my beer was gone, they’d posted a gate for our flight, so we decided to ask for help at that end.

*****

We took a train out to the concourse, found our gate and plopped our carry-ons down in a couple of seats to await boarding. No one was at the gate to offer assistance, so I went asking at the one next door. There were two BA employees having a chat. I interrupted them. The round-faced lady wouldn’t let me finish explaining what I wanted. She kept cutting in to finish my sentences, or to tell me how it was that they couldn’t help because our flight was posted at another gate.

The tall, skinny kid with the nice slacks offered me his cell phone. “I just want to know how to access the free wi-fi” I said. Not understanding what I was getting at, he said there was an internet point that took 1-pound coins. I called him a dirty capitalist in my head. Rather than try to explain again, I accepted his cell phone and made a quick call to Paulie. I had to leave a message, but figured that was better than nuttin’. I gave him back his mobile, and we exchanged a few words about the relative value of our respective monies. “I don’t know what you think we make,” he said, “but we’re having financial trouble here too.”

“Yeah, I understand that.” I said. “But you still have the strongest currency on the planet. Every pound we spend costs us a dollar-seventy-three. It ain’t cheap to be stuck in London.” He said that he hoped someone was there to pick us up in Seattle and wished me a merry Christmas. I thanked him, wished him the same, and went back to my Rosie to wait for boarding.

*****

Half an hour later, we were in queue to get on the plane. At the gate, the agent apologized and told us that we’d been upgraded (again?) to business class. “Hope that doesn’t disappoint. It’s one of the occasional perks of flying World Traveler Plus, I’m afraid.” I almost believed that it was a bad thing, so disillusioned had I become with the great British Airways. What was it with these guys and apologizing for being nice?

“Does my wife get upgraded too?” I asked. They let us both into the club.

On the plane, they offered us champagne while we were taking off our jackets and settling into our comfort-optimized sleeping pods. A guy offered to take our coats. We surrendered them and he smuggled them off to some closet that I never knew existed. We drank our champagne and discussed our new digs with unabashed giddiness. We weren’t mad anymore. We poked at buttons that raised and lowered our seats, inflated lumbar support pillows implanted under the upholstery, popped out viewing screens, and dropped down laptop trays or footrests. I caught the lady across the aisle watching us with amusement.

A flight attendant gave us lunch menus. Before we began to taxi, someone brought us more booze. We ordered appetizers: smoked salmon for me, salad for Rosie; and a main course: fish cakes, made with real crab, and a plate of veggies with a rich, warm sauce whipped into the mix. We didn’t have to take cellophane off of anything. They gave us metal utensils to eat with, cloth napkins, and more to drink.

Before they dimmed the lights (to encourage everyone to take a nap, like in kindergarten) someone stopped by each quarter-hour to ask if we wanted something else. We ate too much, drank too much, smiled at each other over the retracted privacy screen, and watched movies on the pop-out vid monitors. Somewhere in there, we did take a nap. The first half of the flight was magical, the best experience I’ve ever had at 30-thousand feet. The second half, I had to pay for my excesses.

A headache and mild turbulence worked together to whip up an uncomfortableness that sent me to the restroom every ten minutes or so, each time more certain that I was going to have to surrender all of that wonderful food and free alcohol. I’m not sure how I survived, but we did make it to Seattle. Once on the ground, everything was great again. I didn’t even mind standing in line at Border Control.

*****

We got through and Paulie was waiting for us at the baggage carousel with his new girlfriend. We exchanged embraces. When he tried to let go, I hung on. It just felt so damn good. It felt like coming home. The new girlfriend, Erin, hugged us too. Had we met her before? No. She’s just friendly. Fine by me. Friendly is a good character trait, and I was in a hugging mood.

We drove back to Tacoma, me in front with Paul, Rosie and Erin in the backseat. Paul and I talked politics. He’s in love with the new spirit of compromise that Obama has brought to D.C. I tried to convince him that the spirit isn’t new. It’s the same old compromise that leaves us wishing that they’d negotiated a better deal for us. He refused to be disillusioned, so we talked about his new construction business instead.

I had a moment while we were driving by the exit to 320th, when a temporal window opened up and I peered into our past, going through puberty together in Federal Way. I could clearly see the image of two awkward boys with ridiculous haircuts, riding in a green Dodge Aspen on our way to the ninth grade dance. Somewhere there’s a snapshot of the two of us, dressed-up and making faces in front of Illahee Jr. High. We’ve come a long way since then, but I still love him that much, with the same lack of shame.

It occurs to me that part of growing up is making friendships in a more reserved way. As we get older, it’s harder for us to invest so much in relationships. We become too aware of the dangers involved. If we are lucky, we find a partner that means as much to us as our teenage friends did, and we cling to them in the same way, and it hurts just as badly when we are apart from them. If we are really lucky, we get both.

By “we,” of course I mean me. I’m feeling really lucky this Christmas day. I’m glad to be home.

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How To Extend Your London Holiday When You Don’t Have Any Money (And Really, You’re Not On Holiday In London Anyway)

The guy holding the hand-written sign has a cheery round face that’s fallen slack and looks a bit sad until I say, “I’m Mrs. Watson. Where are we going.” The veil over his eyes lifts slowly, and the cheer comes back to his tight, red cheeks.

“I wish you was Mrs. Watson. She’s in there somewhere.” He nods to the arrival gate. “I’ve talked to her twice on the phone. She’ll have to come out sometime.”

We talk for a bit while Rosie collects a giant mocha and a muffin from the Costa coffee stand on the ground floor at Heathrow – Heathrow, the un-workingest airport in the United Kingdom this fine December day. Mrs. Watson’s potential driver thinks it’s a disgrace and he tells me so. He says that the Canadians came here and laughed, “This isn’t snow!” Mrs. Watson’s driver says that Heathrow is one of the “most important airports in all the world,” and they can’t figure out how to keep it open. “It’s embarrassin’ is what it is.”

*****

There’s a lady on the “Departures” level who looks old and tired. Maybe her exhaustion makes her look older than her actual years. Maybe it’s the tears that stream down her face, following the lines of worry that burrow into the dark skin around her mouth. The flames that rim her eyes tell of a recent history of crying. She has cried enough today that she’s stopped trying to sop up the water. Her handkerchief lies limp in her lap as she rocks slowly forward and back on her makeshift cot. Hers is one in a long row of makeshift cots that extends along a low glass wall, the entire length of the terminal.

The British Airways lady that I talked to says that some people have slept in the airport for three nights. Some charitable airport folk have been making the rounds with sandwiches and water. The lady on the public address system keeps suggesting, very politely, that we all proceed towards the exits and vacate the terminal. The first hotel that we call has a room. The first call that we make for a loan pans out (Thank you, Paulie!). We won’t be sleeping in the airport tonight.

*****

At the Columbia Hotel in Paddington, the lady on the BBC says that Heathrow expects to handle 1/3 of the normal traffic tomorrow. Maybe we’ll spend another day here. No one is answering the phones at British Airways. Their website is down.

The guy at the front desk says, “I definitely have a room for you. Just let me know in the morning.” Man, those are some warm words to receive, let me tell you.

There’s another lady in the lounge who’s watching the news come in – the news that’s no news at all. “I just want to go to Scotland,” she begins, and sheepishly finishes “and then on to the States.” She smiles and returns to her second drink at the table by the window.

Behind her, snow drifts gently down. It’s nothing to be alarmed about. They hardly count as flakes. Can you describe snowfall as a drizzle? Hyde Park is a wonderland of rolling snowdrifts protected by black, iron fencing and a thick hedge. Trees bend over the road. Cars roll by at the normal speed. I can hear the tires striking pavement.

The BBC plays an interview with someone sleeping at Heathrow who says there’s no excuse for the treatment they’ve received. An airport rep comes on and says that it’s hard to get investors to spend money on snow removal when it’s so rare an occurrence.  The lady on the makeshift cot sways to and fro, her hands resting quietly between her knees. A sandwich cart trundles by and heads rise up from jackets that have been rolled into pillows. It’s dinner time at Heathrow.

*****

We are in our room, number 217. We had pizza delivered. The helpful young man at the counter called it in for us. There was trouble at first, getting the delivery guy to take a credit card, but it worked out in the end. We ordered beer and wine from the hotel lounge. It doesn’t seem likely that we will be going home tomorrow. Maybe our money will run out. Maybe we’ll be able to borrow some more. Tonight at least, we sleep in a bed.

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You’ll Never Catch Me, Coppers!

14December2010

They finally caught up with me. I don’t know why they were following me, probably never will. But they got to me, and I didn’t even see them coming.

I was walking through the portico with “Stuff You Should Know” blatting from my headphones. A voice squeezed into the tight space between the earbud and the ear. I ignored it the first time. I’d been dodging panhandlers ever since stepping onto Pratello, back near the apartment. Now that I was kilometers away in the heart of the city, my feet were practiced at skipping sideways to dodge the palm-up hands waving in my path. I had my blinders on and I assumed that the distant voice was coming from a dissatisfied alms-seeker.

The voice came again, and a hand pinched my coat sleeve. This was a breech of protocol. I might be jostled a thousand times walking any given path through the city – on occasion, even bowled over – but never clutched at. I halted, pulling at the thin wires that led to the stoppers in my ears. The guy in the knit cap and blue jeans had already pulled a worn-edged wallet from his jacket pocket and was flipping it open as I turned. “Scusi. Sono Polizia.”

Thump-thump. My heart did a clean somersault and stopped. I hadn’t done anything wrong. I never do anything wrong. (Don’t look so incredulous. It’s true.) But there’s that ingrained mistrust of The Man, that certainty that authority everywhere is corrupt. I had this momentary impulse to shout like the idiots do in the movies, I’m an American citizen! You can’t treat me like this! Like what? – I asked myself, and looked down at The Man’s identification card. I could make one of those on my printer back home.

“Di dove sei?” I peered up at his face. He looked sincere enough. He tried again, this time in unpracticed English, “Where you from? What country do you…”

“The U.S.” His puzzled expression shook my Italian loose, “Sono degli Stati Uniti. Sono Americano.”

To this, he nodded. “Tourist?” he asked.

“Studente.” I corrected him.

He asked what I was studying, and I told him International Studies, which made no sense to him. So I said something like “relazioni internazionali,” which seemed to satisfy. He wanted a peek at my documenti, so I dug my passport out and handed it to him. He flipped to the front, and I said “Ho un visto, qui.” and helped him find the full-page visa stamped by the Italian consulate in San Francisco. He did a double take when the photo didn’t display my hair, which I was wearing down to block out some of the chill.

He laughed at himself, “i capelli…”

I wasn’t nervous anymore, but I was curious as hell. I was even a little suspicious until his partner came over (I hadn’t seen him before) and peered over his shoulder at my papers. They mumbled to each other, then asked me how long I was here for. I answered that I was finito agli 19 diciembre. Yeah, but when did I get here? I said, “trenta di agosto” at the same time as The Man #2 pointed out my entry stamp to his buddy: 30-agosto-2010.

#2 said something to #1, and #1 asked me “Dove abiti? Qui. What your address… indirizzo a Bologna?”

“Via Francesco Roncati.”

He repeated it, nodding. And the number, he wanted to know. I felt that tickle of suspicion again, but told him anyhow. The two cops conferred in muttered voices, leaving me out of the loop. They made faces that expressed something un-guessable and turned to me in unison. The Man #1 said, “Okay. Thank you. Grazie.”

I took my passport back from his outstretched hand. As I walked away, I looked over my shoulder at them. They were tucked into each others’ shadows, whispering secrets that came out disguised as clouds of steam.

I left feeling like I’d gotten away with something. God only knows what it was I’d gotten away with. God… and The Man.

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“Email Me for Beers”

06December2010

The atmosphere in the Irish Pub compresses around me so suddenly that I feel bodily moved and I nearly tip from my chair. The air continues to crackle with post-cheer comments on the apparently amazing goal just scored by Bologna’s football squad. I peer over my shoulder and catch the replay. Yup. It was a doozy.

I look across the table at Freddy who has a hand up to cover his surprised smile. I say, “Jesus! That scared the crap outta me.”

“To be honest, I was also frightened,” says Freddy. To be honest is a phrase that Freddy has become comfortable with. It’s like a place holder in his speech, to give him an extra second to decide how to say what comes next. Usually what comes next is a little bit more formal than it needs to be, but it’s become pretty endearing.

We finish up our beers and escape the increasingly uproarious den of the Irish before another goal is scored and we are cut in half by the enthusiasm of the patrons. As usual we are talking politics (or more accurately, policy), and the conversation follows us into the portico outside. We stand for a moment under the giant amber lamps that straddle the dark oaken doors of the pub, and adjust our scarves and collars to best shield against the cold. Even out here, the crowd is growing. It must be time to head homeward.

*****

Back at Freddy’s place, he waves a tin box under my nose. “Would you like to eat some German cakes? My mother sent them to me.”

German cakes turn out to be soft, molasses-drenched cookies dipped in chocolate. They are delicious. I tell Freddy how I feel about his mother’s cakes and ask him to extend my thanks to her.

His laptop is warmed up now and he takes me on a photo tour of Eastern Germany. Dresden, Winterberg, and… um… a third town with a name that escapes me. He tells me that this third town shares a border-river with a Polish town that, before the war, was all German. Sometimes when Freddy talks about post-war borders, I detect a hint of resentment in his voice, like when he discusses Eastern immigrants in Germany. Though we haven’t had the explicit conversation regarding German nationalism, it seems that there is some of that lingering in the air there.

The pictures that he exhibits mostly illustrate the historically accurate reconstruction of the bombed-out little towns. “I spent most of my time in this square. I drank beer at this pub and looked at the church. Here, you can see the darker stones. They are from the original church. This wall was all that was left after the war. They had pictures and drawings and figured out where each stone belonged. They placed every stone where it was before. The whole town was destroyed. You can see the cranes, over this building?” He smudges the screen with his chocolaty fingertip. “They have just finished rebuilding this block, and they are working on the next street now.”

*****

I didn’t ask if he meant that they were still repairing the damage from the war. It didn’t seem necessary. I was supposed to be impressed by the beauty of the work and the simple splendor of the town, and I was. Besides, it seems like rebuilding after the war is something that we are always doing. The rebuilding is never done.

I told Freddy that I hope to make it to Germany someday, and that he will have to be our guide when we come. I told him to stock some German cakes for our visit. He walked me to the door and said that we should try to get together one more time before we go home. “Email me for beers.”

He leaves on the 17th for his Christmas break. We leave on the 19th for good. I hope we meet again. I’m going to miss Freddy. He’s my friend.

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Baby, It’s Cold Outside

04December2010

Rosie and I are sick, sick I say. That is, we have head colds, sinus-infections, brain fungus, and the hyperbolic plague. (See what I did there? It’s a complex pun. Go ahead, take some time, mull it over. It’s pretty clever.) I think that we contracted it from one of the mercadi igienici, hygienic markets. Mohon has had a febbre he tells me. I’m sure he sits in the alimentari, fondling the beer while he waits for the next customer.

We went to the Farmacia last night, in search of some Aleve (which is properly pronounced a-LAY-vay in Italy), and met with another of those generous people that will patiently allow us to butcher their language until we’ve communicated something. The pharmacist stood there smiling, while I stood there twisting up my face, trying to say the right thing, “Vorrei comprare…” (brows arched, eyeballs rolling at the ceiling) “… un analgesico…”

She interrupts – gently – and attempts to fill the blank created by my thinking pause, “ibuprofen?”

“No… negli stati uniti, um…” (conjugating, conjugating)  “…si chiama Aleve, naproxen sodium.

She smiles and slides a piece of paper and a pen over to me. Before I’ve finished writing, she nods and corrects my pronunciation. Two minutes later, she is wishing us a pleasant evening as we head out the door with a handful of over the counter muscle relaxers. Ooo… it sounds elicit illicit when I write it like that.

*****

It looks cold outside. That’s becoming a theme, these last couple of weeks. The leaves are gone and the naked trees shiver in the occasional breeze that flutters up the street. Red noses float by the kitchen window, poking out of their winter wrappings of fur and woven wool, sometimes accompanied by leaky-looking eyes, but more often, so closely bundled that only the tippyest-tips of the nosiest-noses escape the hoods’ gray shadows and the curling plumes of steamy breath.

The elderly hobble slowly down the sidewalk in pairs, one propping the other up and vice versa. Their bones crackle in chorus with each shuffling step. Every time the wind gusts, they are overtaken again by the little bits of litter that have been following them since the end of the block, and that fall behind when there is a lull in the bluster.

Dogs wear wool sweaters and leather jackets and hi-tech parkas. Most of them are pleased to be bundled like their owners, but some – the smartest of them – are aware of the absurdity of covering a luxurious fur coat with cloth or vinyl, and the utter cruelty of wrapping an animal with the skin of another animal. It’s like an unspoken threat. Behave, Signore Sparky, or you’ll be a doggie coat too someday.

Young couples stroll with arms locked, trundling carts full of swaddled rosy cheeks, nested in mounds of insulating cotton and silk. The babes are tucked in so tight that their twinkling blue eyes barely move in their sockets. They stare skyward, awaiting that next delicious spoon of gooey, hot chocolate. Patience my dears, it’s just around the corner.

*****

Yet, I still look forward to going outside. Being sick only makes me more aware of how little time remains before we’ll be jetting back to London, and then on to Seattle, from there to Portland. Each day carries us further from Bologna, unless we can manage to store it in the backs of our eyes, and take it home with us.

And the frosty air makes me hope to see more snow. What if I’m inside this apartment when a few flakes fall in piazza Maggiore or at Santo Stefano? That couldn’t be forgiven. I bet there’s some snow at Santuario San Luca, but I don’t think my ailing body can make it up the hill. Not yet, at least… maybe tomorrow. I’m feeling better already.

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Bologna in the Snow

29November2010

It snowed yesterday. That was part of my dream, Bologna in the snow. It started as little bits of damp cotton, caught up in the wet fall of rain. But soon it soaked up all the water and became a thing of it’s own. It was still sopping… but it was a snow shower.

We watched it through the window while Rosie worked, until we couldn’t hold ourselves inside anymore. We walked one of our usual routes, past San Francesco and through Porto Nuovo, into the center of the city. The paving stones were slick as glass, even under the porticoes. We tried to document every falling flake with our camera, but the batteries died and we had to click-click-click with the shutters of our minds. Oh, the images I’ve got up there.

We were drenched and chilled by the time we got to piazza Maggiore, but it was magical all the same. The crazy Christmas decorations were up, though only some were lit, and the chocolate festival was still in full swing. We turned a couple of circles in the middle of it all before buying a treat and hailing a cab. It was worth the eight euros to get home and begin the drying process. We sat again at the window for a while, watching the last few flakes fall to their deaths on via Francesco Roncati.

*****

Today I start classes at the end of a brief respite while Franco has been out of town. He was  in Portland for a couple of weeks. He wrote at the end of last week to say he’s back and ready to go. I wish I could say the same for me.

If I reflect on it honestly, I’ve been enjoying this extended vacation in Bologna. As interesting as school has been at times, nothing compares to the experience of wandering the porticoes, looking in shop windows, reading graffiti, poking my head out from time to time to check the weather. I’d drop-out right now if I thought that this could continue indefinitely. I’m a real bum that way.

I am looking forward to the walk into town today. Some of the snow is left. I have a little hope that the shadows will hang onto a few drifts for me to peer at in the daytime. I also hold out a little hope that it will snow again while we are here. It passed so quickly. I hear a bird chirping out there even as I type. Does that little bastard know something that I don’t? Probably.

*****

I feel that I should write something else, maybe something insightful, or a bit more reflective. All I can think about is that snow. After coming home last night, I had to run to the alimentari for some cheese. On the way back, I walked past San Francesco for another shot at remembering what its little piazza looked like covered in clean white.

The church has a tiny park next to the square. There rest four benches, facing each other in a very neighborly way over a rippled cobble surface. Umbrella pines sprout from the surrounding ring of grass and shelter the lot of them. On a normal day, they crook their gnarled arms to frame the red bell towers in sooty green. Yesterday these trees collected great, sloppy pillows of snow in their needles, and framed the towers in white. It was something to see, with the towers themselves doing all they could to cling to some of the dusting. Tracery lines of glistening gossamer hung in the cracks and on the ledges, creating a kind of negative image of their splendor against the black sky.

Like the towers and the trees, grasping at the transitory blanket of white, I stood under a dripping awning, trying to burn that image onto the film in my brain. Will I remember this so clearly tomorrow? Next week? Next year? Alas, no. It’s already a little fuzzy around the edges. I just hope it snows one more time before we have to go.

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Home (Part 2) – Portland

28November2010

Sunday morning. It’s raining again. The tires of the passing cars hiss on the wet pavement, the sound drowning out the drone of all but the loudest engines. Why are there so many commuters on Sunday? Everything in this town is close enough to walk to, and there’s a church every couple of blocks. One need not drive to worship in Bologna.

I miss our quiet bed in Portland. I barely remember the sound of the diesel busses stopping at the corner every fifteen minutes. But, I do remember that I got used to it, and that it stopped waking me up in the middle of the night after a couple of weeks. This constant traffic (with the two-hour lull in the early-early morning, filled by the sound of garbage trucks), is impossible to shut out. Between that and the too-short bed that my feet hang out of, I never feel rested. I miss our Cal-King. I miss sound sleep.

I miss my bicycle. That sounds crazy, I know. Bologna is littered with more bicycles than the dreams of the entire Schwinn family… for five generations. But… two things: 1) I love my bicycle. And I know that if I had a bicycle here, I would come to love that one too (the bikes here are so cool!). It would make me sad to have to leave it behind when I go. And 2) The idea of cycling in Bologna is a little terrifying. There. I’ve said it. I’m scared.

Sweet, sweet Huffy back home (and Rosie's Schwinn).

Designated parking outside of Palazzo d'Accursio.

These are loaner bikes, available through the municipal transit service.

This is the sign that accompanies the loaner bikes. "Uso Gratuito" means free to use (with i.d. and a deposit).

His and hers? Cool bikes.

Maybe the coolest in all of Bologna, thanks to the custom daisies. Almost all of the bikes here have cargo carriers and safety lights that run off of a tire-driven generator. Man! I really went crazy with the bike photos... I have more.

While I’m at it, I miss brew pubs and movie theaters, all wrapped together in a charming, historical building. If I knew a McMenamin, I’d thank them personally. We haven’t been to a single theater since we’ve been here. It’s not that Italian films don’t interest me. Really they do. But again… two things: 1) No beer, and if they had any, it would suck. And 2.a.) The theaters here are all full price, like a Regal. And 2.b.) The only English language support (subtitles or original-language movies) comes only on Monday night, at one theater, that has so far played only movies that we’ve already seen. My Italian comprehension in conversation is at about 40%. I can’t even guess what my Italian over-dub comprehension would be.

I’m about to blaspheme… I miss the structure of my classes at PSU. Studying here was supposed to be a magical experience. But, my training has left me shamefully  unprepared for the Italian university system. While offering truly meaningful education, Unibo relies heavily on the students’ understanding of the system. Having no understanding, I can’t seem to ever feel like I’m doing the right thing at the right time. I want to get back to my familiar classes, where I know what needs to be done, and when I need to do it.

I miss the green. I miss the parks and the trees in every yard. And the rivers, the visible landscape. You have to hop a train to see anything substantially green here. There are hints of it on rooftops and glimpsed in courtyards through gated driveways. Side-streets to the south offer sliver-views of the rolling green sentries that guard Bologna’s flank, but until climbing the Asinelli tower, I never saw any hard evidence that there were actually any hills over there.

The Pacific Northwest swats you over the head with her greenness. Trying now to conjure up an image of it, the first that comes to mind is the St. Johns bridge, silhouetted by the West hills. The river underneath flows dark and flat, reflecting the emerald lawn of Cathedral Park and the nearly-black ranks of firs that march up the hill on the other side. I haven’t seen anything like that here… and I do miss it.

Cathedral Park, under the St. John's bridge. Alas, I couldn't find a pic with the river in it.

I am an odd creature, I realize.  What about my people? I miss them most of all. I miss my professors that email me back. I miss the hyper barista at the Meetro. I miss the staff downstairs at Food For Thought Café. Most of all, I miss playing music with Nick and Jason, or hanging out with Dan and Tom. I can’t wait to get home so that we can spend a whole day playing video games with Kate and Mike, as promised. And I can’t wait to embrace family again. We’ve been gone so long, I can hardly remember what it was like when they were there every time we turned around. I hope that Cheré has found a place to live in Portland so that we can go play pool from time to time.

So, I am looking forward to going home. I’ll miss Bologna. In some way, it will always feel like home too, but it will never replace my real home. Someone once said, “Home is where the heart is.” If that’s true, it’s no wonder we’re all so schizophrenic. I can’t take all of my heart with me when I leave any place.

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Home (part 1) – Bologna

Torre Asinelli through la Porta Maggiore

We climbed the Torre Asinelli today. We stopped half-way up because Rosie had a little panic-attack. The stairs are worn-slick wood, narrow, down-tilted, and up-spiraled like a hypnotist’s wheel. For one predisposed to anxiety, it can be overwhelming. It was just a little too much for her.

Vertigo inducing spiral... up, up, UP!

But we made it… all the way to the top, where the parapets are grated with oxidized steel and the views of Bologna are unparalleled. Ranging vistas of terra-cotta roof-tops and crooked towers, coppered domes and slinking avenues stretch off into the distance and disappear under the smog-misted foothills.

Here at about 1/3 of the way up the tower, the Torre Garisenda partially blocks the view over northern Bologna.

Looking south from the tower, Santuario San Luca is on the distant hilltop. Basilica San Petronio is prominent in the foreground.

Looking west, with chiesa San Francesco and its own two towers in center frame.

Coming down was equally painful for Rosie, but again we managed, and she danced a little jig, cackling with glee at her good fortune in having survived the journey. We bought slices at Due Torri Pizzeria – olive e funghi – that we carried to the wine bar on vicolo ranocchi. We sat in the enoteca with glasses of the world’s best Sangiovese and refueled.

The enoteca is one of the places that I’ll miss the most when we leave Bologna. I’ll miss Piazza Maggiore with its great, open square and fantastic market. I’ll miss Neptune, and the cafe around the corner with the sweet, gay barista (why can’t we figure out, once-and-for-all what to call that place?).

Neptune overseeing the goings on in Piazza Maggiore

I’ll miss the Mercato delle Erbe on Ugo Bassi, and I Campetti where we fill our wine bottles. I’ll especially miss the bread guy in the market. I’ll miss the alimentari on via Pratello, and the guy at la Pizzeria dal Barese.

Maybe most of all, I’ll miss the long, slow walks to school. I really love strolling around, gazing out of the windows of my eyes. I try to soak it all up. I try to force the details to imprint on my brain, to leave a mark that I’ll be able to enjoy later when my own town looks drab and depresses me with its sometimes-phony liberalism and its inability to mimic the beauty of medieval Italian cities.

Via Pratello has great "colore della sera," even if the buildings aren't the most elegant in Bologna.

I've forgotten the name of the street, but it's one of my favorite photos.

Though I may leave Bologna (surely, I will), I believe I will return many times throughout my life. How can I not?! Afterall, Bologna is certainly never going to leave me. I am infected by it, and there is no treatment for this kind of enchantment. I dread the day that will inevitably come when I will have to face the fever of withdrawals. I’ll be stuck there, in Portland, with no tortellini, no Neptune, no cheap wine like magic potion, no evening-colored rows of houses, stacked atop porticoes like stilted palaces. I ache now to imagine the loss.

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Mohon

25November2010

“Today I have terrible news. My father is dead.”

He is smiling as he says this, so I am not sure if he has said what he means. His English is only a little better than his Italian which – taking into account his short ten months in the country – is actually pretty decent. But still, there is room enough for doubt that I have to look at his eyes to see if the smile is there too. It’s not.

“I’m so sorry,” I say as I tuck my purchase into the pocket of my coat. The response feels lame, ineffectual… as if any other response would feel any better. What does a body say to that? I could just as easily apologize for my inability to say something helpful. Mohon lets me off the hook.

“It is okay.” I can’t be sure if he is excusing me, or if he’s being brave. Maybe he’s mishandling his English again. Of course his father being dead is not okay. I can see that much by the way he shifts his weight from one foot to the other, his eyes rolling from one dark corner of the store, to the street outside the window, and back to my face again as he tells the story in a crippled creole of the languages he’s recently acquired.

I only understand bits of his narrative. He gives me a daily rundown of his father’s condition. I catch “Wed-nes-day,” and “T’ursday,” and “Sabato.” The story begins last week, when his father had some kind of accident. He might have been struck down by a car in the streets of his hometown in Bangladesh; that detail is uncertain in the telling. His neighbors saw that he needed help and carried him to his home. Someone called a doctor. His wife and daughters tended to him. He got better first, and then worse. He spoke with distant family on the telephone. They live near a nice hospital where Mohon’s father has worked for twenty years, and where he eventually died from some kind of organ failure.

Mohon doesn’t cry as he tells the tale, repeating details, doubling back on the timeline, correcting himself. He smiles a lot. He crams his fists deep into the pockets of his jacket and tells me how his dad asked for him, his only son, to come to him as he was ailing. His eyes glisten, but never spill over as he tells me how much it would cost to fly home for the funeral. “It’s a very big problem,” he says.

*****

I started buying beer from Mohon my first week in Bologna. It’s his brother-in-law’s shop, but Mohon is almost always the one on duty. I came in one day while Mohon was training his sister’s husband on the use of the scale and the receipt printer. I know he doesn’t own it, but I think of it as his store. That’s not the point…

The point is, all that I know about him is written above. Prior to the telling of his father’s death, the longest conversation I’d had with him barely extended beyond greetings. Last night was the first time I heard his name. I usually just exchange ciaos, buy a beer, and go on my way.

But that’s not the point either, or rather it’s a way to begin the journey to the point. It points at the point. I barely know Mohon. Though we are friendly, I am not his friend. But last night, Mohon needed a friend more than anything. I recognized his need in that moment, a rare instance of insight for me.

So I stood there listening, not knowing what to say, a little uncomfortable in my role as improvised buddy, a little embarrassed at my discomfort. If I’d known him better, I would have given him a hug – a big, comforting squeeze. But I only know him as the guy at the alimentari, so when he was all talked out, we shook hands and he said, “Okay. Thank you.”

I could see that he was embarrassed a little too. His sister and her son walked in, and he asked me for the English word for nepote. “Nephew,” I told him.

He nodded. “Nephew,” he said.

*****

Walking through the portico with my beer still in my pocket, I considered how large this little world gets when you are so far from home. I thought about how lonely the inside of a person’s head is. I thought about the relief that comes from letting the words spill out when you feel them welling up inside you, even when what comes out is hard to understand. I thought about what’s left behind after one of these eruptions… what gets stuck on the way up.

When he was through telling about his father, there was still a lot of story left inside of Mohon. I could tell by the way his smile faltered when he wished me a good night. There were other things he would have said if he could have found the words, and if I were really his friend. Maybe, with the two of us so far from our respective roots, we are as close to friends as either of us will find here. And, maybe that’s just good enough.

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