15….FIFTEEN

ITALY

Pirates constructed the leaning tower of Pisa.  Around the time of the Crusades Pisa was a port city with a victorious naval fleet and thriving merchant settlements throughout the Mediterranean, North Africa and the Middle East.  A status they had earned by fighting various neighboring cities – Carthage, Constantinople… and winning.  As a result it was a very prosperous city and consequently needed to defend its position against  the neighboring Italian port city -Genoa.  The struggle between Genoa and Pisa continued for over 200 years concluding an epic confrontation we now call the Battle of Meloria in which Genoa was victorious.  After the battle the Genoan military promptly  filled-in the Pisan harbor and sewed its land with salt rendering it unproductive for years to come.

My older brother is a photographer and architect, needless to say he loves Florence. The day after finishing my studies he arrived to help me clear out my apartment and to begin my travels.  Naturally the other girls and I hosted a farewell party and my brother and I ended up watching the sunrise with a bottle of Sangria on a bench in front of the Santa Maria Novella cathedral.   Later that afternoon we shipped the monolith of a bag I was sending home and jumped on a train to Pisa.

It was a totally new feeling as the train left the station in Florence, I knew I was not returning – at least not for a long time – and I watched as the city that had been a home to me flicked past the windows and gave way to the countryside.  That evening we collapsed into one of the rooms of a converted farmhouse right outside of town.  After a great cup of morning coffee at a street-side cafe facing the infamous leaning tower, we set out to explore the site.  Admittedly it was far more interesting for my brother, knowing details about the myriad of architectural marvels we were witnessing.  While I enjoyed the expansive  green grass and open space named “The Field of Miracles” found at the center of the building complex.

Next, we took a train north up the coast to La Spezia.  Halfway between Pisa and Genoa lies La Spezia.  While it is another port city, it never reached the levels of political or financial grandeur that either Genoa or Pisa enjoyed.  Instead more recently it has been called the “Doorway to Zion”.   Between 1945-1948 over 23,000 Jewish people used its port to escape into Palestine after WWII.  Less controversially, it is also the doorway to “Cinque Terra” a beautiful and rugged coastline home to five small towns.  Cinque Terra has been designated as a World Heritage Site, famous for its terraced fields and its rocky cliffs which dramatically drop straight into the sapphire-colored Ligurian sea.  Taking a small local train from La Spezia we met up with a few friends from Florence and had dinner together on the beach, watching a local soccer game in the sand.  As is the unfortunate truth for many small, and gorgeous, towns on the Riviera, Cinque Terra was too expensive for us to linger more than one day.

We followed the coastline arching northward until we reached Genoa, where the train stopped abruptly.  We collected our belongings and heaved our backpacks off the train along with all of the other passengers.  The station was like a ghost town in an old western movie, there might as well have been tumbleweeds and a hand-painted  Saloon sign, squeaking as it swung in the dusty breeze.  I was confused – where was the overcrowded buzzing transportation hub sending passengers off the a thousand destinations…After 30 minutes of unsucessful attempts to find an overnight train to France, we decided to settle into a couple of the plastic chairs in the waiting area.  Across from us was the only other person in the station, a rough-looking elderly woman deeply in slumber.  Not sure how long we were waiting we made an effort to sleep ourselves.  Finding it impossible under the harsh lighting and rigid seating, I walked around the station taking photos.  At midnight a security guard using simple body language explained the station was closing and we were no longer welcome to enjoy its accommodations.

Our plan had been to sleep on the train therefore saving the cost of a hotel room and were sticking with it- besides the weather was very pleasant that night, so we followed the old lady into the park.  She seemed to know where to get a night’s rest on a tight budget.  Once stepped off the pavement and into the darkness we realized what we thought was a park was actually some land in front of the station that had been left to its own devices and was completely wild.  It was also, as it turned out, home to dozens of Genoan homeless. With some difficulty, we located a vacant tree and sat down with our gear, leaning against its trunk.   My brother reminded me of the half bottle of Grappa and Ouzo we had brought with us left over from my apartment and I dug them out of my pack along with a little stereo. The grass around us was nearly two feet high and moved beautifully in the soft breeeze that had started up, for the rest of the night we laughed and sang – enjoying our spoils in the sea of green.

14 ….. FOURTEEN

ITALY

On the Origins of Species was first published in 1859 by Charles Darwin.  While not the only one at the time to be developing theories about evolution, this book is regarded as definitive when discussing Natural Selection – a process that dictates the success or failure of certain traits in a species.  Behaviors or attributes that best ensure the production and survival of future generations are those that win the prize of being selected.  In “The Selfish Gene” published in 1976 by British evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins, the idea of a “meme” was introduced as a similar evolutionary agent within a culture or social grouping.  The idea that a certain kind of music, technology or style reproduces only in so much as it is successfully accepted within that group could be used to examine  the popular culture of any era.  Selection, survival, popularity are all mitigated via competition.

If you are able to contemplate the moment deeply there are a seemingly endless number of possible options.  However, only the options that best catch our attention are usually considered and the rest fade away with no hope for future reproduction.  Competition serves a vital function when applied to the survival of a species, although once the ability to survive is no longer a question, as is the case with a large percentage of the human population, this urge towards competition transforms into spectacle.

As a child my name was not a common one and because of this I usually had to explain the two facts I knew about it; “It’s a reddish-brown color and it’s a small town in Italy”- I must have said it a thousand times.  Naturally I was curious to actually seen the ‘small town in Italy’ for myself.  Siena is less than two hours from Florence by bus.  It has been categorized as a UNESCO World Heritage Site and twice every year the citizens organize a competitive horse race called the Palio di Siena. For centuries the city has been divided into 17 neighborhoods called contrades each with their own symbolic animal, slogan and historical rival contrade.  The race is held in the Piazza del Campo.  For each race the city uses large quantities of public money to transport truckloads of dirt into the piazza for the track, hires artists to hand paint the banner that will be presented to the winning contrade and stages a huge parade before the event.

Each neighborhood has its own museum to display the prizes, memorabilia and photos of past races.  They have designated committees, websites and merchandise.  The jockeys are paid huge sums of money and once selected, the horses must be watched continuously to prevent rival teams from drugging the animals.  During the 90 second event the competitors are free to win the race by nearly any means possible.  The winning horse is the first to make it around the piazza three times and the losing horse is the second to do so, not the last.  For months following the races the city is overrun with wild parties and the settling of scores across neighborhood lines.

The rest of the year, Siena is a very quiet small town as I discovered on my visit.  The buildings are constructed with a reddish-brown stone and the streets leading to the Piazza del Campo are narrow and cobbled.  Moving through the town, I noticed ceramic tiles painted with the crest of the contrade and the neighborhood’s animal – a giraffe, a caterpillar, an  owl, a  jaguar… Once in the piazza itself I was surprised to see how small it was and could easily imagine how much chaos must ensue during the race days. A tower stretched up out of the rectangular buildings  and a large clock was mounted on one of its sides.  Unfortunately my earlier wanderings had made it impossible to actually ascend the steps inside the tower, being closed for the day already.  I had wanted to get a view of the city from above and slightly disappointed, I looked around for another choice.  On the edge of town I found a church building that was built on a slight incline and was happy to discover that it was still open.  From an open corridor on the third floor I looked out onto the tiled rooftops of the city buildings.  It was dusk and the pale grey in the sky complemented the earthy color of the buildings below.

The streetlights began to come on in an domino-like sequence, culminating in the  high-powered beams directed at the main cathedral.  It seemed I was the only witness to this light show, I had not seen many tourists that day.  In fact the whole city was very quiet with only a few local people navigating the maze of streets.  It was late spring and the races traditionally take place during the summer.  I imagined most of the community was spending this beautiful evening buried in plans of conquest strategizing for the competition that was going to define their neighborhood for rest of the year.

Returning to Florence I was thinking of a defining moment of my own.  The next week my painting instructor was choosing which paintings would be displayed in the final exhibition. It was my last week in Florence and my room was dissected into piles that kept shifting.  I was going to ship a bag of personal items back to the United States and continue traveling for the next several months.  Being my first time backpacking in an urban environment, I was having some difficulty deciding what I would need to keep with me.  As the days progressed I collected the completed jewelry pieces and then my prints and metal engravings.  All of my sculptural work was too large and too heavy to be sent back so I spent one afternoon shooting photographs of each piece and then rather painfully trashing them all.

During the last couple of painting sessions in the studio I had completed  a portrait of an old woman, she was our final model.  She sat in a folding chair wrapped in a buttoned sweater and from time to time drifted off to sleep.  Her hands were folded in her lap and I could see her wedding ring from where I was painting.  She was beautiful and I had loved painting her.   Walking into the final exhibition I saw this painting displayed on an easel against the far wall.  The struggle to progress my technique to evolve the way I saw what was in front of my canvas during the past months in Florence had come to this; selected.

13….THIRTEEN

ITALY


In 1861 the Kingdom of Sardinia became the Kingdom of Italy and Sicily, having been annexed by Giuseppe Garibaldi the previous year, was united with the rest of the peninsula.  For centuries the island had passed through the bloody hands of nearly a dozen rulers as they claimed control over the lucrative Mediterranean trading routes. Over the next eighty-six years Sicily experienced a devastating economic collapse as the feudal system was broken down and a new middle class took over the freshly privatized property.  During this time the central powers of Italy provided relatively ineffective enforcement of the new land titles and the people turned to their own for protection.  As what seems to be a logical result after hundreds of years of bloodshed, those asked to protect the Sicilians chose violence as a means to do so.  Eventually the small groups of local men charged with enforcing Italian law became a handful of large families competing with each other for increased wealth and power.  Maintaining their savior rhetoric the “Cosa Nostra” (meaning our thing) agents referred to themselves as “men of honor”. Ironically the isolation that had caused the citizens to require protection simultaneously allowed for widespread extortion and the implied “hell” that would be faced as a result of non-compliance with these Mafiosos.

We arrived in Sicily during late spring and the weather was perfect.  The small hotel we had booked faced the ocean and the coastal road following the beach.   After a long train ride walking barefoot in the sand was just what we needed to rejuvenate.  We spent the afternoon enjoying the ocean breeze and clear skies before returning to the road looking for lunch.  After some difficulty, and to the frustration of my companions, we found a restaurant offering Pene Arrabiata – the reliable standard as a vegetarian traveling in Italy.  After lunch we took a gravity-defying stairway to a town built on the hillside above the beach.  As it was growing dark, the shops began illuminating their window displays as we explored the maze-like streets.  I discovered Marzipan that evening and was fascinated by the degree of artistry which had developed around this sweet material.  Storefront after storefront were filled with sculpted Marzipan fruits and vegetables of every kind, exotic animals and even small scenes of people at markets and sunbathing with umbrellas.

Mt. Etna is the largest mountain south of the Alps rising to over 10,000 ft  and is one of the most active volcanoes in the world – a major source of Sicilian pride. The second day in Sicily we had decided to climb a route that promised a spectacular view of the crater, traversing one of its rocky sides to an outlook.  The loose  volcanic rock that covered the trail was extremely hot, sharp and painful as it wedged into my open sandals with each step and  reminding me to make more appropriate footwear choices when packing for the next trip. Reaching the top, we spent some time admiring the vantage point and wondering at the immense opening which we knew led to the very core of the Earth.

Sweaty and tired, we were headed back to the beach to remove our shoes and cool down in the water when we saw a van advertising a scuba diving shop parked in front of the hotel.  A middle-aged man with long shaggy hair and flip-flops crossed the road and jumped into the front seat.  Before he had time to turn the key we had decided.  The most conversant in Italian of the three of us approached the van and asked how much it would cost to take us for a dive that afternoon… and none of us were certified.  They agreed on a price and we climbed into the van, the dive shop was just down the coast.

Wetsuits and goggles on, the shaggy-haired man started up the boat and took us out into the water.  For the next twenty minutes he shouted a mixture of instructions and precautions over his shoulder  as he steered away from the shoreline and then cut the engine.  We followed him awkwardly, maneuvering backwards flipper-footed until we could roll off the edge of the boat and into the sea.  The water was cloudy and unfortunately the only highlight of the dive was a three-inch long brown-spotted fish.  That evening sufficiently worn out, we returned to Florence on the last train from Catania.

The following day was Monday – I was enrolled in a sculpture course on Mondays and that particular week we were going to the baptistery of the Florentine cathedral.  One of the fantastic things about Florence was the abundance of “public” artists.  People with easels, brushes and canvas were everywhere – but so were other kinds of artists; sculptors, leather workers, musicians, photographers all seeking a point of inspiration.  In order to find our own inspiration, the group was instructed to choose a figure encrusted onto the facade of the baptistery and spend the next five hours duplicating it to the best of our ability.  I chose the bust of a woman from a bronze panel –  part of “The Gateway to Paradise” doors that were created by Lorenzo Ghiberti in the 15th century.  The clay was warm and soft in my hands; I began forming the round part of her head and then pressing in to make cavities for her eyes, building the shape of her nose and the slight parting of her lips.  The edge of her mouth curved upwards – sure that she had made it to the gateway of paradise and once inside her soul would be safe for all eternity.  Perhaps there had been a girl like her in Sicily, sure that she would be saved and that the “men of honor” would protect her.

12….TWELVE

ITALY

Ukiyo-e is a form of Japanese printmaking which began during the 17th century.  When translated literally, Ukiyo-e are “pictures of the floating world”.   The pleasure of moonlight on a blossoming tree, the tranquility of a peaceful landscape, the enjoyment of wine and conversation or a beautiful woman’s company – nearly all pleasures were possible in the “floating world”.  Prints depicting such a world transformed Japanese culture and the artists themselves.  They became Rebels; printing taboo subject matter and glorifying the lower classes, Revolutionaries; breaking down the hierarchy of art and making it accessible for nearly all citizens, Globalists; reformatting imagery from foreign literature to please the Japanese palette and bring Japan into relationship with a world across the sea.  Regardless of variations in style or character, at the heart of Ukiyo-e is a reverence for the universality of a sensory experience resulting from contact with nature and one’s own instincts.

As part of my submersion into the study of fine art in Florence, I enrolled in a printmaking class.  The day before our first studio meeting, I spent the afternoon at the Piazzale Michelangelo overlooking Florence.  It has a gorgeous view of the city and many important buildings, but I was looking for something else – trees.  Growing up in Boulder at the foot of the Rocky Mountains I hadn’t realized how deeply reliant I was on being able to spend time in the natural world.  From what I had been learning it seemed the idea of  building a city in early human history typically meant “keeping the wilderness out” and had resulted an absence of trees in the city center.  There were gardens in Florence and some small pockets of nature, but living three blocks from the Duomo meant that my walk to the studio everyday rarely brought me into contact with any of them.  I yearned for nature, for solitude and space to enjoy the spontaneity of a world un-measured by human hands.

On the map it had shown an area of green space behind the historical buildings and the plaza full of tourists taking photos.  I had gone to see if it could offer me the wild I sought out.  What I found was a small Cypress forest.  The thick shadowy earthen smell filled my nose and I stepped down from the stone platform at the edge of the plaza complex.  Small birds looped through the tree branches, calling out to one another.  The light filtered down in spirals illuminating patches of moss and wildflowers.  It felt like home; it felt familiar and comforting like someone who knew me in a crowd of strangers.  Towards the back of the forest the land sloped  forming a hill and providing for an expansive panorama of  the countryside surrounding Florence.  I unwound my scarf and reclined against a tree, closing my eyes and feeling the combined sensation of the sun’s warmth and the fresh air on my face.  For the next several hours I sat relaxing and enjoying the pleasure of the scene before me.  The sun setting, I returned through the forest and on the path encountered a fallen Cypress cone. I picked it up and put it in my jacket pocket, continuing to roll it between my fingers for the rest of the walk to my apartment.

Printmaking is a term encompassing nearly a dozen techniques; some requiring chemical baths, or fine drawings into layers of wax or the scratching of metal plates with sharp tools.  Woodblock printing is basically a 2D sculpture carved into a panel of wood.  My first printmaking project for the course was to complete a woodblock print with nature as the theme.  It was cold in the studio and I was wearing the same jacket I had been wearing the day before in the Cypress forest.  Retrieving the cone from my pocket I examined it closely  and decided that it was going to be the subject matter for my first print.  First, I plotted heavy lines with a black marker on the wooden board and then began removing tiny slices from the surface with my chisel.  It became a kind of meditation as I allowed my mind to return to the sensations of being in the forest the previous day while slowly carving into the wood before me.  When I finally rolled the panel with gummy black ink and pressed it into a sheet of fibrous paper, the print I revealed had become an icon of my own “floating world”.

11….ELEVEN

ITALY, Switzerland

Sir Isaac Newton did not invent gravity. Describing an isolated characteristic of the universe in terms that satisfy our intensely analytical human minds, does not constitute inventing it.  I do not mean to insinuate that Sir Isaac is undeserving of the historical fame with which he has been adorned, only that he should be part of a larger portrait of human curiosity and observation.  In fact  Robert Hooke, a contemporary of Sir Isaac, accused him of plagiarism directly following the release of  “Principie” – Newton’s great masterpiece describing gravitational forces.  Many people from many cultures around the planet have conducted their own investigations, successfully described their findings in terms the community understands, and have been doing so since they could first use words.  Gravity is a force that all human beings navigate.   Since first lifting up to continue as bipedal sapiens, we have found ways to challenge its dominance and its unbending rules.  Perhaps skydiving is the most intimate game we’ve played with gravity so far.

For my 21st birthday I bought a train ticket to Switzerland – I was going skydiving over the Alps.  The afternoon train I boarded traveled up the center of Italy reaching Milan in the early evening.  Milan is an industrial city, the very ingenuity and design of product is nearly tangible in the air.  I found a small restaurant near my hotel for dinner.  The restaurant was dim and the  table cloths had long since lost their crisp corners.  The bartender and a client were focused on a small discolored television set, there was a luxury car race flashing and it  reflected on the skin of their faces.  I ate my spaghetti facing the opposite direction… the street lights came on, and illuminated the pedestrians walking by outside.

The next morning, coffee in hand,  I settled into my seat on the train headed across the Italian / Swiss border.  The scenery out the train window that morning was spectacular… mountains, forests, small lakes- all brilliant and gorgeous shining in, warming the velvet of my seat cushions.  Arriving at the Interlaken station, I was not disappointed.  A city situated between two large lakes, Interlaken boasts the most incredible mountain vistas no matter what direction you are facing.  The air was fresh and cool against my cheeks, I decided to walk to the hostel.

When making the reservations for my skydive, I was also able to request a room in their company hostel.  Arriving at the front desk,I mused at the kitsch decor… a plastic St. Bernard with a whiskey barrel around his neck, the heavy chalet style wood work around the windows, and the ubiquitous red cross of the Swiss flag.  After settling the skydiving arrangements I was shown to the dormitory and directed to one of many wooden bunk-beds.  The reception staff working that day was a muscular woman with tattoos and long blonde hair.  Before leaving the hostel for a walk she informed me of a dance club in the basement and told me it was free for hotel guests.  It was early still and I needed to eat some dinner so I thanked her and went out to survey my vegetarian options.  Which ended up being some bread and cheese accompanied by a Kinder egg from the grocery store.

Later that evening I wound up on the dance floor, dancing and drinking with a basement full of young people.  The blonde employee from upstairs showed up behind the bar and bought me a drink, I bought her one and we clinked glasses.  The next several hours were a throb of bass and sweat and ended with a hilarious tramp through a nearby meadow with the employees after they had closed the club .  We sat outside looking up at the stars and laughing – I realized that one of them was going to be pulling the cord to release my parachute the next morning.  A mixture of feelings; anxiety, kinship, excitement…compelled me to climb the ladder to bed and rest before the sun rose.

The night’s frost was just beginning to melt off the grass as I stood in a clearing at the foot of high mountains.  A small plane was getting warmed up in front of me.  One of the staff came by and helped me into the harness I would be wearing over the jumpsuit I was already equipped with.  Next I donned a tight leather hat, clasping the leather straps securely under my chin before stretching the oversized goggles onto my forehead and into place.   Next I was instructed over the sound of the engine to climb into the body of the tiny plane. I was followed by other “jumpers” and accompanying staff members.  As it was our first jump, each of us would be attached to a professional, who would be in charge of monitoring everything during the free fall.  I had paid the extra money to have a video taken of the jump and so the camera man packed in with us as well.

There were no seats –  we were all tightly squished and sitting on the metal floor of the plane, our heads almost reaching the ceiling.  With a rumble, the plane took off down through the meadow and then up into the air.  For awhile we were moving through dense clouds and all I could see out of the oval window were patches of varying transparent whites.  After elevating above the cloud-line a sublime landscape presented itself.  The land curved out to the horizon and the snow dusted mountains encrusting it were far below us.  All in an instant the door of the plane was flown open and sound of a sudden flood of cold air caused a strong dose of adrenaline to be released into my blood stream and before it could dissipate, I was staring at my swinging feet dangling above the kaleidoscopic, white-tipped peaks. Shifting my weight forward and rounding my spine, I rolled off the edge of the plane and became a bird – a laughing bird.  My natural response was to laugh, and I did so the entire free fall.  When the parachute was deployed we were jerked upright,  it was abruptly silent.  Then we took control; flipping and swooping, the parachute became a kind of boomerang-like counter weight before depositing me safely back into a field of soft grasses.  My sneakers touched down and the rippling folds of multi-colored cloth quietly landed behind me, gravity regained it’s control of the game.

10…..TEN

Greece, ITALY

Her hair smelled of olives and as she embraced me in front of the hotel, I breathed in deeply.  The softly wrinkled olive-smelling woman then waved to us before turning to walk away into the darkness. Earlier that day we boarded a ferry and had spent the afternoon crossing the Mediterranean ocean with a group of elderly Greek musicians.  Between the napping and the snacking our new friends happily tuned their instruments and played folk songs to accompany the endless blue of sea and sky that surrounded us.

In the morning we rented a-very-little car, bought a map and started out, ready to explore the unknown island.  A fantastic element of island travel is the lack of anxiety over being lost.  No matter what happens, you can only drive so far until you hit ocean. Our first target was Knossos; the ancient home of a king who defied the gods.  Minos was a king that defied Poseidon’s request for sacrifice and consequently was forced to hide the Minotaur born to his cursed wife and a white bull which had appeared from the sea.  In modern times, Knossos, like so many other historical sites, has fallen victim to new kinds of madness.   Crazed archaeologists busied themselves repainting the ruins and the unfortunate results are somewhere between a tacky theme park and the prostitution of our human ancestry.  After watching some of the workers retouch a fresco, I decided to take a nap and stretched out on the warm stone steps, watching the clouds for a few minutes before falling asleep.  I dreamt of women dancing in circles at the bottom of the steps which were filled with people laughing and singing in the sunlight.  When I woke up my friend was sitting next to me, the sun had started to go down and we were both hungry.  Driving along the coast we found a delicious local restaurant on the water  in one of the small fishing ports and watched the stars come out as we had dinner.

There was said to be a beautiful central plateau, hiding the cave in which Zeus was said to have been born.  Our first attempt to navigate the more “local” route led  us down a one lane, bolder-studded  dirt road for 4 hours before arriving at the front doorstep of a small wooden house.  There was an old woman sitting outside cleaning some vegetables and she stared at us suspiciously for a few minutes before smiling at our enthusiastic efforts to mime-out apologies and excuses for our rudeness at having scared her livestock.   Miming requests for directions proved less humorous and after ten minutes we turned the car around and left her in peace.  Another several hours down even smaller dirt roads, the car atmosphere in the car was getting tense.  With every horrifying scraping noise, the long walk to find a tow truck became increasingly vivid.   Our second attempt had brought us to a clearing in the olive trees which was filled with small wooden boxes, evenly spaced and unattended… beehives.  What a nice place to be a bee, I thought as we turned the car around again made our way back out to the main highway.  It was getting late and the sun was starting to go down on our second day in Crete when we finally crested a hill and saw the plateau below us.

A few donkeys walking with local farmers and some stray goats meandered along the road.  An occasional windmill dotted the landscape and further ahead mountains framed by a warm glow.  As we pulled up to the cave’s main entrance we discovered that the metal gates were shut and padlocked. A shepherd and his flock were grazing nearby and he confirmed that the gates had been locked at five – it was 5:20.  I waited until the sound of his sheep slowly faded away and I jumped the fence.  My friend followed suit and we started running up the trail towards the mouth of the cave.  There were small piles of snow at the edge of the trail and the ground was soft enough that when we arrived at the inner gate our shoes were muddy – making the second fence slightly more difficult to scale than the first.  At this point the sun had set completely and it was very dark.  At the mouth of the cave we could hear a symphony of echoes as hundreds of tiny water droplets fell  from the ceilings and walls of the cave.  Everything was wet and covered with moss and our lack of light made moving down the wet metal stairs an intensely sensory experience.  It was becoming obvious that it was going to either be very dangerous or ridiculously slow, when I remembered my digital camera.  For a fraction of a second the path was illuminated by a flash and we were able to walk confidently for a few steps, and so we progressed through the entire cave system in this manner.  Humbled by our underdeveloped senses and our lack of instinctual prowess it was easy to imagine why this place, before technology could light the way, was considered the origins of a god.

9….NINE

Greece, ITALY

The woman at the ticket window rolled her eyes slightly as she slid two of the cheapest ferry tickets under the window.  A friend from my painting class was waiting by the dock and walking over to her I ran fingers through my hair, trying to smooth out my blonde pony tail.  I was tired – and it showed.  We left Florence the night before and took the overnight train to Brindisi a small port town facing the Ionian Sea.  In an effort to save money we decided to cross over to Greece on the upper deck of the boat.  We spent several hours of windswept contemplation watching the landscape disappear and then reappear again as we arrived in the Corfu harbor.  According to Greek mythology Corfu was the refuge of Poseidon and a beautiful river nymph he kidnapped.  Soon after  Phaiax was born and  became the namesake for later populations; the Phaeacian.

Our hotel was empty so the front desk staff had plenty of time to explain how to walk down to the beach.  The sun had already set and it was dark. At first I thought we had misunderstood their directions.  The path they described was leading us through a series of abandoned clubs all perfectly situated for spectacular ocean views.  Curious I pushed on one of the back doors,  it was open.  Stepping inside we discovered it had not been abandoned but instead was only hibernating – apparently we were very late to the party.  So, as a couple of delinquent raccoons we  embraced the chance to prowl around while no one was looking.  It was like a spaghetti western movie had turned spring breaker and was about to wake up with a horrible hangover on a distant Mediterranean beach – bizarre and somewhat disorienting.

The next day we decided to rent a car and explore the part of the island that was more familiar with Poseidon than it was Smirnoff jello shots.  Immediately leaving the mega hostel complex we were surrounded by olive trees.  They were so beautiful, twisted and crouching low-crowned with pale and  silvery leaves.    In the afternoon we stopped in front of an overgrown and disintegrating archway.  Getting out of the car, we climbing over large, obviously hand-cut blocks of stone. The lichen was already spreading like ink blots across their exposed surfaces.  After a few minutes the crumbling stone walls opened up onto a meadow of tall grasses and wild plants.  The sun was warm and there was no one around, it was quiet and intensely peaceful.

Anxious to see more of ancient Greece we booked overnight transit to Athens; by ferry and then by bus arriving early before sunrise the next day.  The lights inside the bus came on as the engine cut off and before I opened my eyes I realized it was cold, really cold. Pushing back the dark polyester curtain I saw snow… the tiny crystals falling and innocently crushing my dreams of a bare-shouldered Greek vacation.    The hostel was not accepting our pleas for an early check in so we waited in the entrance sipping watered down coffee from plastic cups until the regulated check in time; 9am.  Once inside our room we desperately tore open our bags, assembling new combinations of clothing – flowing skirts over linen pants… the one long sleeve shirt I had brought last-minute suddenly rose to imperial levels of importance.   Eccentrically bundled up. we left the hostel  and found our way to the Acropolis.  The scaffolding being used to repair the Parthenon was dusted with snow, the toga-clad Caryatids took on an unexpected surreality…we were two of only a handful of hardy visitors that day.  Almost alone at a site that welcomes more than seven million tourists per year, we were able to enjoy moments of solitude and I found myself reflecting on the immensity of time, of history.  It is said that the Acropolis was the climax of  the first successful rebellion led by the “common people” against a violent and tyrannous aristocracy.  Shortly after this a political system new to the early world of Kings and blood lines  was devised.  With one black stone or one white stone the people decided everything together, everyone could speak, everyone could take part.  A progressive idea for any era and one which had been exported and copied thousands of times leading up to the day I stood looking out over a snow-coated  Athens.

There was a different kind of movement in the streets that day, or maybe it was the same…  As we descended back into the downtown area we could hear shouting and turning a corner we came onto a wide street.  It looked like a street leading to governmental buildings and it was filled with people, banners and tanks.  A group of men passed us yelling “MURDERERS” in our faces and someone else whispered “Killers” …  then I saw the walls of a building across from us.  It had been spray-painted with a giant swastika symbol and on either side framing it were the letters U and A.  It was the first moment in my life I realized that the world viewed me as a citizen of the United States and that I was therefore perceived as accountable for its actions.   Gazing over the tanks, I watched the snow fall onto the ancient Acropolis and wondered where my stones were.

8…. EIGHT

ITALY

My mother backpacked around the world in the 1970’s, before cell phones and Skype, before ATM machines, even before email.  She spent most of her trip in Africa and those were the stories I asked her to tell me over and over again as she put me to bed at night.  I had some favorites; when she was sick on the train and the woman in front of her threw out the bucket full of her children’s urine, dousing my mother by accident.  Or when she climbed Mt. Kilimanjaro, when she ate roasted rats or when she went looking for a camel market by motorcycle.  She had been traveling with the man who would  later be my father and not to discredit his unique sense of adventure, this part of my story is about her.  Her voice all of those nights, describing smells and colors, foods and landscapes – it ignited my imagination and began to slowly burn, forging an indestructible desire to explore, to travel and to challenge myself. My first step was getting my ears pierced.

I was seven years old and I wanted to wear earrings, beautiful dangly earrings that made sound when you moved your head… although it resulted in mostly studs of little animals and quartz crystals.  A couple of years later I wanted to get two additional piercings, but this request was denied.  Much debate ensued and my mother agreed to a second round of piercings…but only every seven years.   After waiting anxiously for the remaining eternity of birthdays, I was in the piercers’ chair again as I turned 14.  The next year I started high school and began listening to electronic music, after I turned 15 I went to my first rave. I made friends with older people and some of them owned a tattoo shop near the university.  For the rest of high school I spent some time hanging out in the shop and learning about various types of body modifications using jewelry.

While I deeply respected the art of tattooing, it was the piercing that fascinated me.  The incredible variety of traditions and Peoples that used jewelry to change the ways they experienced their bodies inspired me, it felt like an adventure into ornate and exotic worlds.  I wanted to explore personally what I was seeing.  So I started changing my body.  I began by removing the second set of earrings and piercing a part of the ear called the ‘tragus’.  This is the little piece of cartilage in the ear found closest to the face. Slightly surprising my mother although maintaining the four piercings policy, I was allowed to keep them.  Then I started stretching the piercings in my ear lobes. This is done with a metal cone-shaped tool appropriately called a taper.  The taper is forced through the original piercing and then followed by a slightly larger earring.  The ear is allowed to heal for three months and then the process is repeated.  Over the next five years I spent a lot of money on buying new jewelry for my rapidly expanding ear lobes.  During this time I moved my tragus piercings to my labret, the area of skin directly below the bottom lip and the fourth to my nose.  It was exhilarating to identify myself with a group of people around the world that decorated their bodies, that changed the symmetry and balance of their identities, albeit through – at times substantial physical pain.

A couple of years after graduation I moved to Italy to study art.  One of the courses I decided to take was jewelry design and construction.  The jewelry studio was near the river in an old stone building with a courtyard of wild and forgotten plants.  It was bitterly cold in the studio and I relied on my thermos of hot tea to sustain me throughout the hours of work cutting and filing and polishing raw silver.  I made a small ring set with a translucent stone that reminded me of the moon and an extremely large one imitating a singular ‘brass knuckle’.  Among the handful of completed pieces, the design and resulting necklace I made as a gift for my mother was my masterpiece.  It was a web of Mother of Pearl, carefully stitched together with silver wire.  Dozens of pieces were fit and measured to produce a mermaid-like breast-plate which clasped at the neck.  I loved working with the saws and torches and files, where many of the other girls felt awkward and clumsy – I excelled.  All of the hours spent around my father building in his workshop had acclimatized me to an environment of heavy metal and dangerous objects.

During my daily life in Florence I naturally gravitated to familiar places and on several occasions visited the local tattoo shops.  As a student planning to travel for months after my studies concluded in the summer, money was tight.  Needless to say, I had no budget for buying new jewelry.  So I began to experiment with ways of making my own.  My first attempt was with a wine cork I cut down into the shape of a taper and one evening attempted to force it through my ear.  It was a very painful prototype and resulted in my ear congealed with blood attaching itself to the porous cork.  After a hot shower and a very brave roommate I had removed the cork and began thinking of other materials that were less likely to cause me such pain.  Eventually I discovered that by using clay baked in the apartment’s small oven I was able to form a smooth-sided taper. Doubling as an earring, I slowly pulled it through thereby stretching my ear lobes a little  everyday.  The only downside to the new clay taper/earring came while in the shower.  A few days found the clay starting to dissolve and I was forced to construct a new pair.  Stubborn and now personally committed  the project being a success, I remade the tapers as often as three times a week.  This process allowed me to make very rapid progress and within a few months my new held a striking resemblance to the images of African tribesmen I had imagined listening to my mother’s voice in the dark many years before.

7….SEVEN

ITALY

Catastrophe – Pompeii is one of the most famous versions.  One day in late August, the people of Pompeii celebrated their Roman god of fire, the next day Mt. Vesuvius erupted.  In just six hours the city was buried with 25 meters of volcanic debris.  In a moment, every creature was dead as a result of the intense heat and then preserved  by a blanket of thick ash.  When this story is recounted, historians typically emphasize how quickly the city was decimated, highlighting the expressions of shock and terror on the dead citizen’s faces. Nearly 2,000 years later, I sat in the outdoor cafeteria with one of my roommates eating lunch.  The exciting, morbid curiosity that had caused us to stop in Pompeii on our way to the Amalfi coast, had all but faded completely.  The low quality, bland tasting, over priced food and the sprawling noisy gift shops combined with the suffocating number of tourists – if I squinted my eyes just right, I could have sworn I was in Disney Land.  As I was squinting and trying to imagine the orange service tray in front of me offering anything but the oily pasta I had ended up with, something rubbed against my leg under the table.  By the time I had regained composure, my roommate was lavishing attention on the street dog and gently massaging its greasy head.  It was time to go.

We approached Sorrento and the air-filled with the lusty scent of citrus, it was incredible… I could literally smell the botanical seduction.  The lemon orchards were everywhere and perhaps it was the sensuality of the trees pollinating but the entire coastline with infused with an epic sense of romance. The area between Sorrento and Salerno, just south of Naples, is gaspingly beautiful; lush, scented cliffs drop straight down into the most perfect, clear, blue sea.  A road follows the dramatic contours of the cliffs and villas hang like floating castles off their faces.  Leaving Sorrento, we took a local bus to Amalfi and sat on the beach watching the ocean and absorbing as much beauty as was possible in one afternoon – until it was clear that a couple nearby was in desperate need of some privacy.  Returning to the small city we decided to climb the stairs of the main cathedral and from its grand entrance looked out on the colorful cafe umbrellas which populated the cobbled stone plaza below.  Briefly, we explored the dark interior of the cathedral and then headed down the coast to Salerno.

I had not booked a room in Salerno and because of this we were forced to get creative – all of the hotels in our price range were full that evening.  In the guide-book a campground was listed and as a last resort we walked along the coastal road a short while out of the city and discovered a group of tents clustered together in a wooded area above the beach.  After negotiating with the supervisor I managed to secure the use of a small camper parked towards the back of her property.  That evening we explored the city by foot for a few hours and then happily returned to the camper to spend the rest of the night eating chocolate, drinking wine and talking about history – all the while the scent of lemons.

6 ……SIX

ITALY

Easter had nothing to do with Jesus in my childhood.  It was an honored holiday full of traditions for both of my houses, but Jesus just… never came up.  The Easter Bunny reigned supreme, rivaling but never outdoing, Santa or Halloween – neither of which I thought of as religious holidays.  I related Easter with baskets of overflowing neon-yellow marshmallow chicks, tinfoil wrapped chocolate bunnies, jelly beans, and an occasional CD to add to my Opera collection… but never Jesus.  In Rome, I believed, Easter is definitely about Jesus.

Two of the girls from the house and I took the train to Rome for Easter weekend; we were going to join some friends and see the Pope speak at the Vatican.  I was curious about the Pope, but even more so about the Italian capital.  I was hoping to get the chance to experience a highly potent version of the city, to witness what was important to modern Romans.  Most of the main tourist attractions would be closed – preventing total mayhem as the city was overrun with tens of thousands of pious tourists.  Because of this, the Rome that I was planning on seeing had more to do with the citizens that lived the legacy of their ruins everyday, how the people of Rome shouldered the weight of their city’s history and it’s fame.

When we arrived at the Vatican, it was nearly empty except for a couple dozen rows of forlorn folding chairs.  The first several of which were occupied with people staring at an empty stage and the closed doors of St. Peters cathedral.  Shocked, I had second thoughts… maybe the Easter bunny was gaining power.  The other girls, undaunted by the apparent lack of  local interest, chose a group of chairs as close to the front as was possible.  After getting settled, one of the girls took out a book and began reading.  It was instantly clear that at least for the other girls, this was not going to be about the Easter bunny.  Over the next  several hours the chairs behind us began to fill and when the Pope finally made his entrance onto the stage assisted by his motorized throne, the entire plaza was packed  as were all of the adjacent streets.  For most of the ceremony I studied the Pope’s face using binoculars, much as a wildlife researcher would observe the change in behavior of an exotic jungle bird.  He fell asleep a lot and there were a number of moments during the ceremony where his hat was removed, this seemed to annoy him as it was quite chilly that afternoon.  His face was gentle and passive and as he napped I wondered about his dreams.

After an especially enthusiastic vocalization given by a church authority, people around me began to stand up and make lines in the aisles.  So in the spirit of participation, I also stood up and took my place in line moving slowly forward until I came face-to-face with a man in long robes.  He lifted the small white cracker into the air, said a few words in Italian and as a random collage of pop culture, news footage, movie scenes and a handful of real life experiences merged together; I opened my mouth and ate the cracker.  Unfortunately for me, my good intentions of  “When in Rome…” were not appreciated by the group and upon returning to my chair I quickly understood that it was a good time for me to do my observing elsewhere.

After carefully weaving through the chaotic mass of people and umbrellas (it was now raining) I reached an open side street, obtained my own umbrella and began walking away from the Vatican.  The rain was beginning to flood the gutters and a breeze made it’s way through my light jacket.  Just as I was beginning to complain to myself, I saw her.  She was elderly, probably in her late 80’s and the water from the street had already soaked the cardboard beneath her.  Her legs had been amputated above the knee and her arms above the elbow.  A bowl was stuck between layers of clothing in a way that kept it from falling from her lap and she was begging for coins.  I stopped in front of her.  It was the first time I truly regretted falling behind in my Italian classes and she could not speak English.  The horrible hypocrisy of the situation overwhelmed me.  Not a hundred feet away there were thousands of people begging the church to forgive their sins, hoping to live in a way that mirrored Jesus, celebrating his resurrection from suffering…eating crackers.

Even at this point in the story I understood that beggars were typically organized, the homeless children, the elderly, the mothers… there existed a kind of mafia that put them to work in the streets.   As a direct result of this organization, or manipulation, the more money any one of them collected the more they would be “put to work”.  Regardless of this understanding, the complete helplessness of the old woman juxtaposed against the majesty of the Catholic epicenter I had just left impacted me deeply, profoundly.  I gave her money and began a tradition of my own, taking a deep breath and looking at her with my full awareness and presence, I dedicated that moment of my life to the liberation of her suffering.  It’s small and it’s probably a trivial habit, but I stopped and really opened my eyes to where I was standing, appreciated whatever could arise and took it’s impact with me when I walked away.  There was no way of knowing what would happen to the money I gave her, no way to rescue her with my guilt and lack of context of her life as a whole… but I could stop and really see her, let her change me.  I doubt she remembered me, but more than ten years later I am thinking of her and sharing the story with you.