Florence, Venice, Siena Fall 2005

Words on a Page

Tuesday, September 20th, 2005

Fossils in rock
Footprints in sand
Paths in a chamber of cloud.

To mark the beginning of early retirement, I’ve spent the summer clearing out shelves and file cabinets at home and in my office at the university. On a table in the hallway I left dozens of books bequeathed to me by my retiring predecessor in 1989–hardcover volumes of Shakespeare criticism he longed to have someone take off his hands, only one of which I ever read. This morning I said goodbye to a multivolume German gothic print history of European art packed into their lift van by my parents when they fled Berlin in 1937 and a 75 pound 1955 edition of the Encyclopedia Brittanica that I asked for as a Bar Mitzvah present. Our second hand bookstore proprietor had no use for them and told me that unlike junkmail, you cant recycle books, they have to go to the landfill.

I’ve written three books. When the first one–Youth against Age–went out of print, the publisher sold me the last 40 copies for five dollars each. Thirty five are still in the closet. Yesterday I went to the local Borders to try to get them to carry the two books that are still in print. The young store manager looked at me mockingly and told me to get in touch with his assistant, who would need to see hard copies before making the decision whether or not to order one of each.

A friend died of lung cancer a few years ago. He was my digital mentor. I was delegated to clean out his office to make room for a replacement. I filled a dumpster with stuff, and saved what I could on a website called Legacies When another friend was stricken with mesothelioma and given about a year to live, I said in his situation I would spend part of the time assembling an electronic archive of my life. Six months after he died, the college secretary gave me a CD which contained his memoir, easily uploaded. I expect to maintain this site until I become part of it.

Though disposing of the past has become a preoccupation since I turned 60, passing into a new stage of the life cycle excites me about the future and prods me to produce more. I take alot of pictures, especially of my grandsons. Not having a captive audience of students for six months of the year makes me look for other listeners. Prosperity and health send me on new adventures. And the end is always nearer.

In four days my wife and I will embark on a trip we have planned for a year–our Italienreise to Florence, Venice and Siena. At first I thought I’d leave my laptop home, save photos in a portable hard drive, and write in a journal. But instead I’m trying something different.

Technotravel

Sunday, October 16th, 2005

Saturday September 24. Sitting on the floor in LAX international terminal next to the only electric outlet on a mile of concourse. Many wall receptacles have been removed and the holes spackled over. There’s no wireless internet connection here, so I will try to simulate the Blogger interface in Microsoft Word.

Here’s Jan in a chair across the carpet as this area fills with passengers waiting for a JAL jumbojet. I took her picture, downloaded it to the laptop, put it in here. With a camera phone I could have snapped and sent it directly to the blogger server. Once again I’m technically behind. A good consumer of technology, I find the new tools inspire creative play. How does this mesh with a primitivist preference of the simple and natural—in gardening, eating, economic exchange, and child rearing? How can I teach Ecoliterature as a web based class in which we exchange journal entries and photos about wilderness experience online?

Last night was insomniac again—I got up at 1:20 and at 4:00 and wrote emails. There was plenty of time to load up and lock down the house this morning before we left, but once we got to the airport I realized I’d forgotten the computer power supply chord. Between flights, we took a short cab ride to Fry’s, a huge L.A. electronics supply house near the airport where we found a replacement that would work with my Mac. Without it I’d have been unable to keep this journal.

Il Fiorentino

Sunday, October 16th, 2005

picture gallery

After 24 hours in transit we arrived at the Hotel Fiorentino Sunday afternoon. It was the lowest price place I could find on the internet. The guidebook said it was in a high crime neighborhood, the entrance looked seedy, the hotel clerk at first said he couldn’t find our reservation. But after we climbed three narrow flights of stairs and mastered the old lock and key, we gasped. The ceiling was fifteen feet and two corner windows gave out on the vast complex of the Cathedral of Santa Maria Novella and the railroad station. The stone balustraded balcony could have been where Mussolini harangued the crowds. It felt like standing on a rock in the middle of a fast flowing river of buses, cars, and pedestrians.

Despite jetlag and fatigue we were driven by hunger and curiosity to go out. We bought some bad sandwiches for a picnic in the adjoining square in front of the 14th century cathedral façade where a small band played in the warm and surprisingly quiet late afternoon, and then we started wandering toward the center. The city was full of people—mostly goodlooking and stylish Italians—but didn’t feel overcrowded. Some divine gelato made up for the sandwiches, and soon we were in front of the Duomo. We sauntered from piazza to piazza—each of which could be the center of a great city– admired the clothing on sale in shops and stalls, bought a new guide book, and came back to our little palazzo to shower and rest. Then we set out for dinner at the square near the central mercado, mixing with pedestrians, bicyclists, scooters, and people pushing their market stalls through the winding streets. We came out on a large square between the market and the dome of San Lorenzo full of lights, music and buzzing outdoor restaurants on platforms roofed with tents. It was 8:00 p.m.—time to celebrate dinner! The salad of urugula, fresh corn tomatos cucumbers and carrots and mozzarella, with bottles of vinegar and oil on the table was a fine overture. During the two hour meal, we drank a liter of wine, joked with the amiable waiter, and had an animated conversation with two young people from London at the adjoining table. We seemed to have the city in our pocket.

6:00 A.M. Monday September 26.

Still dark out but the noise of streetcleaners is deafening. I got up at 5:00 after an uncomfortable night of sore throat and insomnia. Once I rose from horizontal, took some vitamin C and started processing pictures, I felt better, but still apprehensive about the coming day: will I get sicker? Will we connect with our old friend Brenda who’s invited us to stay at her place outside the city for the next two nights or will we be forced to find a different hotel here in town? Will my digestion return? Such perils provide spice to the pleasures of travel.

The Plague in Florence

Sunday, October 16th, 2005

picture gallery

Monday morning brought relief from the sore throat. Jan negotiated with the concierge to give us two more nights in Florence, to delay our arrival in Venice and to postpone our visit with Brenda. We found some lovely coffee and brioche and panini in the square and stood in line to pay admission to Santa Maria Novella, the cathedral 20 feet from our window.

Those who come to pray can enter a special chapel free of charge, said the sign, and photography is forbidden. The side entrance, only recently reopened after having been closed off for several centuries, led us into an immense, light airy space, illuminated by stained glass and circular clear windows, the walls painted white, ornamented with widely spaced paintings and sculptures.

Opposite the door, a Massaccio fresco seemed to make the space grow deeper with its pronounced perspectival rendering of God presenting the crucified Jesus to his wealthy patrons in front of a hugely receding nave. To the right was a twenty foot crucifixion in bright yellows oranges, reds and blacks, hanging from a rod 25 feet above the floor and 150 from the ceiling. I averted my eyes in order to save the full impact of what I recognized as Giotto’s work, dazzlingly restored, for later, and looked down the nave to the rainbow colors of the floor-to-ceiling frescoes surrounding the central altar. Like the city itself, this church offered more than we could absorb. With help of our Green guide, we focused first on a raised chapel with early frescoes of the Divine Comedy–one wall Inferno, the other Paradiso, gaining orientation by identifying places and people we recognized from our memory of the poem. Then we descended to the Sacristy whose doorway was a combination of classical architectural stability, melted into an organic flower-like entry. Inside were huge wooden cabinets with dozens of large drawers to hold vestments, more paintings and a della Robia relief, all in late Renaissance style.

After two hours we decided to take a break from the church and walk to the central market for lunch, and return in the late afternoon. The mercado is a two story temple of food, just closing as we got there. We bought beautiful muscat grapes, olives, bread and “gorgonzola dolce,” (a soft luscious cheese), and ate on the steps of the Cathedral of San Lorenzo, bothered by pigeons who wanted our food and blew ash into when we sushed them off. Instead of going inside we decided to come back for the free concert advertised to start at 9: 00 that night, and took an adjoining doorway into the courtyard of the Laurentian library, whose arcade we circled entranced.

Then we walked back to Santa Maria Novella and spent another two hours feasting on the art. First a chapel decorated by Duccio, which was, Jan noted in the guidebook just for this church that we had bought, the location of the start of Boccaccio’s Decameron where a group of young aristocrats meet to plan their escape from the plague in Florence. What sort of portent?

Then Fillipino Lippi, and Ghirlandaio frescos, a Brunelleschi Crucifix and the Giotto Christ. The wealth of beauty and of history in this randomly adopted church of ours is unbelievable. It in itself merits a trip to Europe.

Back in our room at 5:00, I started feeling bad again and Jan offered me the Z pack antibiotic she had gotten from the doctor in case she got sick. It was clear we wouldn’t attend the nine oclock concert. We went for a quick pizza meal in the square, and I tried to get to sleep.

Tuesday morning, I awoke and realized I was really sick. My cough felt like a rattle in the lungs, and I had sweaty fever. Jan met Brenda and her friend Kiki and went to the Pharmacia and many other places while I slept most of the day.She brought the two visitors back to the room and I made pleasantries for a few minutes, but I was so sick I asked them to leave. I took the second Z pack pill, along with vitamin C and the herbal remedy Jan bought at the Pharmacia, slept all afternoon, and went out with her to the square for dinner and a short walk. I couldnt get to sleep because of the cough so have stayed up till 3:00 A.M. writing this entry.