6 ……SIX

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.

5 ……FIVE

On March 19th, 2003 the United States invaded Iraq. It was several hours before my 21st birthday when I heard the news in Italy and the people were already in the streets.  One of the girls from the house and I met with some Italian friends and we walked together quietly towards the river.

I grew up in two worlds.  My parents divorced when I was still a baby and I spent the rest of my childhood riding my bike or being shuttled between two very different houses.  The community of one house demanded that I reflect on and contemplate my choices, how they affected other people and how they impacted the general harmony of the household.  We discussed politics and ethics and we read a lot; I read every night with my mother until I was an early teenager.  One of the books she bought me was called “The Big Book of Peace” and it was a collection of stories about war from children’s perspectives, I read it several times.  There was no hitting or violence at my mother’s house, ever.  When my little brother and I fought we were forced to sit down, hold  hands and  come up with three things we respected about each other.   My father’s house was very different.  That household valued physical strength and ingenuity.  Above all things my father respected production and skill and he wanted to see results.  The three brothers I grew up with in his house were builders, inventors, craftsmen. My father spent most of his time in his workshop using powerful equipment, teaching us to use saws and drills. When camped, he built the table we used on-the-spot and preferred duct tape and paper towels to band-aides.  There was a lot of fighting and also a lot of creativity.

I learned to transition weekly between different realities.  Each time I arrived at the front door, I had to switch between my two selves.  Sometimes I slipped, forgetting which Sienna I was expected to be that day and confused my family.  I was never very successful at transforming completely.  I am emotional, borderline dramatic, and have always found that the events around me inevitably filter through a primary lens before I can relate to them at all.  Standing on the Ponte Santa Trinita in the middle of the Arno River in Florence I experienced the effect of that lens as tangibly as I had ever felt it before.  Later, my father would support the military as one of my brothers would join and my mother would want to discuss the reasons for why we were taking action, but before I came to either of those dinner tables… I knew that I disagreed with the decision my country was making that night.

The people I joined on the bridge were illuminated with hundreds of candles and looking into the night down the river, all of the bridges in succession were glowing and filled with protesters.  We pressed our way through them, passing groups of musicians, groups of people holding hands and people crying, and at the other end of the bridge an ambulance was stopped with its lights flashing – the paramedics were lighting candles; pledging their services to both sides of the new war.  The next day I bought the flag that had begun circulating Florence, it was a rainbow with large white letters reading “PACE” meaning Peace in Italian.  I hung it outside my window and as a result I had the first conversation of my life about patriotism.  One of the girls in the house was concerned that the flag symbolized my hatred of the United States and therefore cast an anti-patriotic shadow on the house itself.   Regardless of our opposing views on the US invasion, we set a time to sit at the kitchen table together and share our feelings.  I have always honored this moment as a triumph for the two of us and if a small one, an example of the potential for successful and emotional communication.  Neither of us left the table changed or with a new magical understanding of the other side, but we were able to stand firm and present our beliefs in a way that the other person could hear them.  In many ways I wish I had been able to accomplish that within myself while I sat at the two tables of my childhood.

4 …….FOUR

Slowly the people below me on the platform began to disappear as the train pulled out of the station and into the  bright, Florentine sun.  We were headed north towards Verona and then further on to Venice.  It was February and we had plans to experience a Ventian Carnival.   Even a month ahead of time it had been impossible to reserve rooms in the city itself, so we had decided to stop first in Verona and then to the hotel outside of Venice that had finally been secured.

After checking into the hotel, we went out walking.  For a small city, it was surprisingly busy and a moment later we discovered why; a series of hand painted floats were making their way towards the crowd in the main plaza.  Each float had several operators moving the various parts, accompanying them were teenagers spraying the audience with colored foam, and the streets were already littered with confetti.  I was slightly confused as I had expected Verona to be a quiet stop-over to visit the various Romeo and Juliet sites and to get a good night of sleep before arriving in Venice.  Noticing my stupor, a small wrinkled Italian grandmother kindly explained in her broken English:  “Day of the Gnocchi”.  The citizens of Verona were celebrating the city’s delicious Gnocchi (a potato dish very similar to pasta).

Keeping our distance from the teenagers, we walked around the small amphitheater and then headed to the most famous balcony in literature.  There was already  a long line of tourists in the courtyard waiting to rub the, now gleaming, bronze breast of Juliet as she stood below her bedroom window.  An equally impressive line had been formed in another part of the courtyard where tourists waited for their chance to step into the iconic role of Juliet at the balcony.  Hours of wildly different people appearing and disappearing, day after day demonstrated in the most definite of terms the universal,yet commercial, desire to be adored. Inevitably as each hopeful foreigner stepped out onto the balcony and looked down you could see a moment flash across their face when they imagined their own version of Romeo looking up at them. I was amazed by the kaleidoscopic nature of these faces; anticipating, desperate, gratified, regretful, sentimental… each of them comparing their own lives with that of a fictional (and somewhat irrational) couple.  Watching a group of Spanish women triumphantly rubbing Juliet’s shiny breast for a picture – a plump Chinese man looked down at them from the balcony, the surreal took over and I got up to walk around.

We were all on the train again the next day with Venice on the horizon.  Feeling the festive spirit begin to take hold, I had a glass of warm spiced wine from a street vendor outside the station in Venice before we transfered from train to bus and rolled back out into the countryside.  Our accommodations were in an old converted country schoolhouse about an hour away from the floating city.  It was dark and all we knew was the name of the hostel, an hour passed and it was developing into a desperate situation.  The windows kept fogging up and the landscape was becoming more and more bleak… I could not escape the horror movie cliches that came to mind.  Finally the headlights illuminated the painted letters of the hostel’s name and relieved we descended into the night air. A thick, silent mist hung wet and cold around us as we consulted the next set of directions.  After some jostling for flashlights and paperwork, we realized that we would now need to trek down a dirt road for a mile to reach the property.  A small restaurant operating out of a farmhouse on the corner seemed like a welcome, if not only, option for dinner.  Inside the staff welcomed us as the only customers for the evening and seated us at the central table.

Two hours later, energized from the warm hospitality and reassured that there was indeed a hostel down the road a mile or so, we set out again into the night.  The road was lined with barbed-wire and at various times, menacing-sounding dogs snarled deeply from the dark fields, rushing the fence.  Arriving at the hostel produced a somewhat mixed feeling. The group was welcomed by a very irritable man, chain smoking behind a protective glass window.  We were to be the only guests booked for the evening as a result we had a cavernous room full of bunk-beds all to ourselves.

The next morning we walked back along the now picturesque country lane to the highway and caught the bus to the edge of the city.  Nothing could replicate the sensation of walking in Venice.  There are no cars.  This may sound oversimple, but due to this simple fact there are no traffic, no noise, no pollution, no crosswalks… none of the infrastructure that accompanies a city planned around using cars. All places in the city were accessed by foot (or boat) through narrow paths and hemispherical bridges, networked to connect the ship-like buildings.  It was like returning to a memory of childhood, crawling in a fort or hiding in a hallway… the playful nature of the city was a physical experience.  Carnival focused this mirage-like atmosphere through a diamond-tipped lazer.  Hundreds of stupendously elaborate costumes floated across the criss crossing bridges, strange music drew us through corridors and out onto plazas, merchants offered samples of  handcrafted wines from tiny ancient doorways, and the cathedral rose out of the canals as a queen bee swarmed with her water taxis buzzing in all directions.  The effect was something like watching a classy film noir-style love story  while wearing 3D glasses.

With the sun bleeding into the ocean on the second day and the euphoria reaching it’s climax, a city-wide migration began to the main square in front of St. Marks cathedral.  The chaotic pulse of the crowd exploded  into the open space of St. Marks as if they had borne the litter of Bacchus on their very shoulders.  The golden facade of the Catholic building at the end of the square was fully illuminated as if presiding over the celebration and waiting patiently for it’s turn.

3 …….THREE

Instead of attending the mandatory painting exam preceding the start of the semester at Lorenzo de Medici art school, I decided to have a picnic.  The sun was glorious that afternoon as I sat sipping a cold Moretti, eating freshly baked rosemary foccacia and stretching my sneakers out in front of me, content to observe the piazza.  A group of boys were kicking a ball around, weaving in between Gucci suits and frenetic pigeons, dread-locked university students were playing African drums and the constant foot traffic slowly fed the colorful human landscape.  Technically I was hiding out; like an outlaw I was taking matters into my own hands. Being placed into the first level painting course, even by accident, was not an acceptable possibility.   I had never painted with oils before but I was determined to attend Painting 2  and at least in the sun of the piazza confidence washer over me – everything would be fine.  All of the materials were prepared, admittedly there were several items that I had found exotic and unfamiliar accustomed as I was to painting with acrylics but I repeated a mantra of self-assurance and took another cold gulp of Italian beer.

When the first day of classes began I felt slightly less assured. Strategically, I chose an easel towards the back where I was able to observe as many of the other students as possible.  The instructor was a small, slender blonde from Finland who immediately made it clear  she was serious about painting and expected the same level of focus and dedication from her pupils.  Without so much as a round of “My name is…” she had a brush in her hand and in less than 10 minutes finished executing the under-painting for a portrait of an exuberant young woman.  Watching the agility and confidence with which the image was created, my nerves started sending urgent signals to the rest of my body; panic-fear-danger-flight… When the model came into the room and the instructor directed us to make an “underpainting” it was all she could do not to confess my picnic.  Only with the grace of my periphery vision was I able to mimic the steps of my peers and temporarily postpone the need to flee the room in shame.  I had been painting for years and had successfully participated in several juried exhibitions.  Although this only acted to enhance the blinding criticism of my ego during the first few studio sessions.  The complete lack of communication between my opinion of myself as an artist and what my hands were able to produce in oils was almost intolerable.

Relief, finally…after two days when the class was asked to meet in a side room and spend an hour viewing slides of various  Renaissance-era paintings.  Before this I had been preoccupied with the thought of being ‘discovered’ and being relegated to the lower class – forced to endure tedious hours of lectures about complimentary colors, tints and hues.  Sitting in the dark listening to the instructor masterfully network a range of topics – physics, religion, history and taste…into cohesive explanations of the images we were seeing truly inspired my.  A whole world of cause and effect, of my love for philosophy and adventure instantly became relevent sources for my artwork, in fact vital sources.  Leaving that dark room I no longer worried about being relegated to color wheels but instead I was desperate not to lose access to the brilliant insights of this unique instructor.

Resolved to learn as much as possible, an odd sentiment when considering that I was enrolled in the program to do just that, I instituted a new policy of self-control over my raging ego and decided wholeheartedly to remain open and curious.  It did not go smoothly every session and there were setbacks, many of them, but the resolve remained.  Several one-legged yoga postures and some Argentinian loose-leaf tea to keep me going, I spent many fruitful days in the studio watching the light shift on the model’s skin as hour after hour the Tuscan sun passed the skylights above my head.

2 ……TWO

     Typically when you decide to move into a small apartment with other people you meet them first.  This was not the case in Florence.  Sharing a three bedroom apartment with four other random American Girls was a pebble in the shoe of my “get out into the world” version of myself.   I was hunting down personal transformation and was anxious about sharing the chrysalis.

I had avoided the “dorm experience” due to a brilliant plan on my mother’s part to keep me in high school – between the ages of 16 and 18 I completed my freshman year of college while simultaneously attending two hours of high school and working full-time.  Happily I spent most of my high school years with university friends and as a result of the hours spent in the dorms, never wanted a first hand experience of living in one.  This was not to say I was unsociable, the hours were typically spent in transit while raving – dark, humid, bass-pulsing warehouses filled with thousands of costumed strangers.  Following a code of egalitarian ethics while experimenting, in every ecstatic sense of the word, I had been very social.

I spent five days alone.  I  drank Tuscan wines, explored the vegetarian options in the Chinese restaurant downstairs, walked along the river and learned NOT to ask Italian men for directions.  Then one afternoon as I was barefoot standing on the marble floor drying my hair after another cold shower, the doorbell rang.

Immediately it was clear that I had missed the secret “roomie” memo as they all arrived in practically the same taxi and I found herself explaining… “No, we don’t have any hot water yet, the grocery store is around the corner but the small shop in the other direction also has a good selection of chocolates and Chianti, the patio is a great place for drying clothes except if the girls upstairs are home and then they drop cigarette ash onto the laundry, there is a cheap but decent bar across the street that plays reggae… and Yes, I have the private room with the largest bed …”

Following brief introductions I began to  imagine a dark office somewhere producing “U.S Girls Go to Italy” – my life as a reality T.V show and I was tempted to look for cameras, or museum flyers, it was like a  British “Cabinet of Curiosities” with strange and exotic female species arriving to represent their particular U.S stereotype. Growing up at the foot of the Rocky Mountains in a town with a flourishing caucasian Tibetan Buddhist community several fine dining Vegan restaurants, it would be reasonable to have called me a “hippie”.  I got up every morning to do yoga, listened to Vietnamese monks lecture and had already infused my bedroom with the scent of fair trade, organic essential oils. The next roommate, or specimen, was studying in Texas and she had voted for Bush.  She identified herself as a Conservative-Republican-Christian and was an artist.  The third – Miss Southern California, was outgoing, light-hearted, non-political nor opinionated.  The fourth was from Wisconsin and shortly after her arrival we found ourselves in a discussion about the term “shining” which entailed the use of truck headlights to stun deer in order to shoot and kill them with ease. The final member of the house was from New York by way of Canada, she was reserved and had a long term Japanese boyfriend.

Whoever was watching could expect a great first season.

1 ……ONE


Filippo Brunelleschi.  A man credited with developing linear perspective, getting thrown out of bars and being the maverick architect of Florence’s “double dome”… Il Duomo.

Rounding the street framing the central plaza, enormous rose and ivory colored walls arched skyward and I strained to see through the window.  Air rushed in to fill the back of the taxi and suddenly planning to live in Florence yielded to living in Florence – with a single, deep, breath. Apart from obsessively making art since childhood, Italy had been  a circumstantial choice.   During months of piecing together part time jobs and jumping like a stunt dog through flaming rings of documents all in the name of “getting out there” Italy was chosen as the place to land.

We turned down a claustrophobically narrow street, drove a few more blocks and stopped.   The taxi drove off into the proverbial sunset and I stood with my desperate luggage interrupting dozens of busy pedestrians.  Annoyed Florentines spilled around me for a few minutes as I contemplated what to do about being on the wrong side of the street.   My bags were so large they betrayed my naiveté as an “international jet setter” as it was now impossible for me to carry them both at the same time.  Images of gliding into the city with the ease of an authentic modern woman started falling apart.  I bravely stepped off the curb to drag my first bag across the cobbled stone, dodge traffic until the end of the block, maneuver around the parked cars, doubling back down the block to my new front door.  Whatever trace of elegance I had managed to falsify, quickly evaporated following ten minutes staring at the non responsive intercom button.

Returning hours later after several less-than-elegant-ferrying episodes of luggage in and out of taxis, flushed and sweaty I closed the apartment door behind me.  The floor plan was simple three bedrooms, a kitchen, a small patio and a bathroom.  Months prior I had decided to pay an extra fee to occupy the single bedroom.  Cautiously, I opened the rather ornate wooden door to the middle room and was horrified to find  what looked like a WWII stretcher supplied as my bed.  A multitude of discomforts and inconveniences in exchange for the sensation of being absorbed into the chaos of the world would doubtless confront me in the months to come.  This fact – although true –  did little to repress my total conviction that every one of them could be resolved in some way if I was resourceful enough.

Four other roommates would be arriving any hour, any day, any minute… I couldn’t be sure, I had to act fast to correct the situation.  With the focus and precision of a trained assassin, I located  and replaced the stretcher with a more comfortable queen sized option found in an adjacent room.   Once I had secured ownership of the largest bed in the apartment and without any interference;  I thought to try my luck with the city.

The rest of the afternoon was spent eating pizza, drinking Chianti and enjoying the spectacle of Japanese tour groups being led around Brunelleschi’s Duomo.   As the sun started setting I remembered the empty mini-fridge waiting in the apartment and set about looking for a place to buy supplies for dinner.  On one of the back streets near the apartment I found the familiar fluorescent glow of a supermarket.   While I tried to orient myself to the layout of the various aisles I passed the meat aisle and it’s expertly designed – noted –  graphic logos depicting the sources of the various bloody packages;  cow, pig, chicken…rabbit, veal, HORSE. Unfortunately at this point in the story I was still a vegetarian and because of this sad fact my adventure in the Italian supermarket that evening was rather limited.  Regardless of the slightly disturbed feeling; I left with an exquisite block of Parmesano Reggiano, array of fresh veggies and some gorgeous handmade pasta.  My culinary foray into the world of horse meat would have to wait for later.