Friday, July 6, 2012

21. The Other End of the Road

Wednesday, July 4
Early Morning
Florence Peretola Airport

Last night didn't white work out as planned and I'm glad for it. Bruce called around 7:30 to say that they had to have a mandatory dinner with the students and so had to call off getting together. While it would have been nice to do that, I really do prefer to have final nights in Florence to myself.

After a call to Bridget, I headed out for another night of enjoying the Florentine night. The monuments were all lit up and the streets were filled. Just off the Piazza Della Repubblica I ran into a large crowd. They were watching the same street performer I had seen on this block seven years ago. I walked toward the Duomo then down through Piazza di Signoria, through the Uffizi, over the Ponte Vecchio then back to my room. Given the sadness I always feel at leaving, I was doubly glad not to spend the evening with others.

I'm now sitting in the airport awaiting my flight to Zurich then Chicago. Assuming all goes according to Hoyle, I'll be back in Chicago and, more to the point, with Bridget in about 12 hours.

Here's hoping that time passes quickly.

Late Afternoon

I'm home. Bridget was waiting at the airport. There's no better way to come home.

Thanks to all of you who took this journey with me via the blog.

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

20. Looking Back While Thinking Ahead

Tuesday, July 3
Late Afternoon

I spent the morning exactly as I should on my last full day here: walking and taking up positions at favorites places. These included the Loggia, the Ponte Vecchio and the front steps of Santa Maria dell' Fiore. It is hot today, but not as oppressively so as it has been the last several. I still looked for shade, but now it actually gave some relief.

Around 1:00, Bruce called to figure out lunch. As it turned out, he's staying on the Via di Giglio, a street I have some acquaintance with. I walked over and met him at La Madia, a nice, homey little trattoria. A few minutes later, we were joined by two colleagues, Ann Hemenway from Fiction and Adam Jones from Film &Video, as well as Lauren, an advisor who is here to help set up the Florence program at Scuola Lorenzo di Medici. Lunch was very good, which is to say that there was a minimum amount of shop talk and a maximum amount of wine. By the time it was done we all agreed to meet at the Loggia at 8:30 for drinks and gelato. This, then, will be the final night of this year's sojourn.

On the way back to my room I texted Bridget with the all important question of her T-shirt size. I spotted one yesterday that I know she would like, but didn't want to get it in the wrong size. She said that she wears a medium, but to get a small if I like it tight. Needless to say, I got a small.

Beyond this, it really is the time to start processing this year's journey.

If any one word can sum up this trip it is "incursion." Incursions come in good and bad flavors like sweet and sour sensations on either side of a gelato cone. In truth, I've never had one of these sojourns where my life back home has so often interrupted my life here.

In keeping with the Mayan definition of 2012, there were a number of finalities that reached across the Atlantic to touch this journey. One friend lost his father while another is preparing to put his into palliative care. Having just been through the loss of my own father, and of the importance with which I hold both of these friends in my heart, I have felt what has been going on in their lives in a very personal way.

Of course the greatest loss to me, though, was my beloved cousin Eileen. As we got older, we found a bond in our mutual love of Tuscany. I visited her at her home in Casetta in 2005 and since that time had maintained with her a loving conversation about this country and its importance to us both. It was hard enough to hear the news of her death, but doubly hard to hear it while I was here. It made both the loss and missing her that much more acute and I know that I'm still not quite over it.

These incursions, though, were counterbalanced by one that was even more personal and profound. When Bridget arrived, it was more than a breath of fresh air. Coming as it did two days after I heard about Eileen, it was restorative. But it quickly became more than that. Since practically the day we met, Bridget and I have never denied either to ourselves or to each other the enormous importance that we have in each other's lives. When we finally got together last summer, there was a comforting meshing of gears, as though we both knew that this was the way that it was supposed to be. We have never been shy about expressing our feelings to each other and we have always had the gift of demonstrating them in ways that the other one understood and needed.

But something happened on this trip. Without trying to control it or intellectualize it out of existence, we relaxed into a far deeper level of intimacy than we had found before. This took us both by delighted surprise because before this trip we thought we were already there. Whatever final synchronization needed to take place happened in Mascali, Sicily, in a second-floor walk-up in the shadow of a basilica whose constantly tolling bells heralded the great change we were experiencing. That this happened in the shadow of Mt. Etna, the same place where it occurs for Ray and Nina in the script, created a precious circularity of which we are both aware. There is really no other way to describe our time in Sicily and Capri without resorting to the hoariest of clich├ęs: They were the happiest days of my life.

From this vantage point, it is easy to see this trip as being divided into three parts - Prologue to Bridget, Bridget, and Epilogue to Bridget. At the same time, such an assessment refuses to give credit to the singular and solitary joys of the time that I've had here without her.

Before her arrival, I was able to once again get my feet on the ground in my favorite city in the world: Florence. I always try to begin and end in this city for a very simple reason. There is no place that I have ever been that inflames my imagination the way that this treasure on the Arno does. From the moment I enter Florence to the moment I leave, I am in a constant state of excited discovery. This is never more clearly displayed than in the photographs I take there. After my first visit in 2005, I showed my pictures of Italy, Germany, Greece and Austria to my friends Martin and Eileen. At the end, Eileen made a comment I've never forgotten. She said, "It's obvious you loved the trip, but you were in love with Florence." This trip has been no different. When I look at the photos that I took in Florence I recognize that they are superior to all the others. The people are more vital, the lighting more striking, the commentary more precise. These can be credited to the subjects, of course, but it is my eye and my imagination that finds them and gets them at the right moment. And these are shaped by Florence in a way that no other place can do it.

After Florence, there were two great happenings. The first was spending a day on Isola del Giglio. The sight of the keeled cruise ship Costa Concordia is going to bring out all kinds of responses in anyone who is in its presence. Certainly awe, hopefully respect for the souls lost, and undoubtedly a wave of morbid curiosity. I had these, but more than anything else, what I responded to was the surreal incongruity of it.

Giglio is a beautiful and quaint tourist town. It has the same kiosks and bodegas that are to be found in any other place that bases its economy on outside dollars. Although the accident happened a few short months ago, normalcy appears to have returned. None of the locals seem to give ship the slightest notice, despite the fact that it is almost literally close enough to touch. People sunbathe on the beach and only seem to note the existence of the Costa Concordia when the sun is low enough to cast a shadow. When this happens, they simply move their blankets and go back to the business of catching rays. People drink their coffee, buy their souvenirs and lounge on the boardwalk as though there isn't a ship the size of the Titanic lying on its side a stone's throw away.

The second great pre-Bridget happening for me was the discovery of Orvieto. As frequently happens, I make my best discoveries when I make no plans. I had several days to kill before I had to be in Rome. Orvieto was on the way and, since I'd already been to the other points on the triangle, Montepulciano and Cortona, it seemed like a logical place to go. In all honesty, I didn't even know it was a mountain town until the train approached it. What I found was a beautiful haven, a lovely place to spend a few days. Some of its charms are of the obvious kind - a spectacular duomo, beautiful smaller churches, excellent if quirky museums - but it was the less obvious ones that made me fall in love with the place: the Teatro Mancinelli with its color schemes more theatrical than anything that appears on its stage; the extraordinary mountaintop view so expansive that I could see a valley bathed in sunlight then turn my head to see a storm pummeling a mountainside, and; a tour of the caves that underpin Orvieto and create a whole separate city.

The post-Bridget time brought another great discovery. I hadn't even begun to process where I would go after she went back to the states. It was an act of Herculean denial that kept me from even considering the subject until the night before she left. At that point I had to make some kind of a decision because we would be checking out of the hotel in a few hours. I would have to either commit to staying in Rome, or buy a train ticket to somewhere else. I chose Assisi on the spur of the moment and within less than ten minutes had committed myself by booking a hotel online. The next morning, when she bought her ticket to Fiumicino, I stood at the machine next to her and bought my ticket for Assisi on a train that would leave less than an hour after hers.

Like Orvieto, I did not know what I would discover until it was right in front of me. What I found was a beautiful mesa town with more churches than one can imagine, a fortress so quiet that only the shadowing German family got in the way of my feeling that the castle was solely my own, and a tourist town that was quiet and, for the most part, devoid tourists. Most important, though, I discovered my church. I make it a point to visit dozens of cathedrals, basilicas and chapels when I come to Europe and invariably one of them stands out from the rest. The Basilica di Santa Maria degli Angeli is my church for this trip. I couldn't have been happier that my charming and off-the-beaten-path hotel, the Vignola, was only two blocks away. It meant that I was able to visit it as many times a day as I wanted.

Most of the times when I come to Europe, I'm in a constant state of movement. This means that most of the people I speak to or at least see are quick hits - relationships that are memorable because they are initiated, consummated and finished within a matter of minutes, sometimes seconds. These are the cab drivers and waiters, tourists and officials who appear briefly, do or say something memorable, then disappear back into their own lives never to intersect with mine again. This trip, though, had a number of meetings and run-ins that while maybe not profound were at least more than fleeting. This was a time when I made new friends like Giovanni the manic networker and Davide with whom I had a thoroughly delightful evening in Rome. There was also time to deepen some newer friendships. I got to spend a lovely afternoon sipping cappuccino with Sara and Caroline in Assisi, spent time in Florence with colleagues Bruce, Ann, Lauren and Adam, had a spectacular five-hour non-stop conversation with Jean O'Sullivan in the Borghese Gardens, and an even more engaged day-and-a-half with Gia and Beppe at their beautiful home in the very familiar town of Montevarchi.

The hit-and-runs were, of course, as much fun as they always are. Among my favorites on this trip:

An officious German guard at the Munich Airport who tried backing me down an escalator simply because I didn't read the signs the way she wanted me to;
A Florentine cab driver who looked suspiciously like Roberto Benigni who couldn't decide what was more important, his fare or the blonde on the Vespa;
Two overweight American women in Orbetello who were probably not even aware that they were singing and dancing to Beatles music while the rest of us were eating breakfast;
A little old Italian man who decided that his (much-appreciated) act of kindness for the day would be to lead a tired American through the streets of Orvieto to his hotel;
The clerk at that same hotel who did everything in her power to convince me not to use the hotel's laundry service;
The tall, gaunt clerk at Complesso di Sant' Agostino who first plied me with maps that he admitted were useless then put on atmospheric music only to turn it off as I was leaving;
Ariston, the over-caffeinated and long haired guide through the caves under Orbetello;
A harried car rental agent in Messina who was far more interested in where he had to be for a party later that night than he was in my needs as a customer;
Mandy, the initially suspicious but ultimately talkative, helpful and thoroughly delightful chubby British woman who is the concierge of the Hotel Vignola;
Her affectionate red-haired spaniel, a bitch named Snoopy only because it was given that name before they discovered that he was a she;
The young Chinese woman demanding that everyone take her picture in front of monuments she was far too crazed to enjoy or even notice;
The Polish woman whose confusion over the lavanderia system nearly drove her into a mortal depression;
The Chinese Second Wave who allowed me the chance to share what I had learned, and who were thankful for the information gleaned;
The very pretty concierge at La Scaletta who always remembers me and greets me in a way that helps me feel as though I have just come home.
Most of all, I remember the German Couple, the lovely twosome I kept running into in both Orbetello and Porto Ercole. We couldn't speak each other's language yet we still delighted in our constant collisions. A day hasn't passed since then that I haven't consciously looked for them in out of the way places, always convinced that I would see them one more time.

These people were all part of the colors of this particular trip. The colors, though, extend past the momentary pleasures of people to the fleeting events that marked each day. Even at this remove, the very best of them have Bridget beside me. Going to mass in Mascali then spending the rest of the day on the beach. Watching her walk down a long shaded street in Caltanisetta that my grandfather must undoubtedly have known. Dinners on the back deck and on a mountaintop in Capri. Lying side by side on the chaise lounges while I read Patti Smith and she read "Fifty Shades of Gray." Looking past the second bedroom and onto the deck where she was doing her morning yoga practice. Watching her sunbathe in her stars and stripes bikini on a Caprese rock. Spending whole days in bed with her talking about our future and where we want to go together. Just being in Italy with her. Finally.

Yes, there were many wonderful moments throughout this journey and even a few harrowing ones (may I never drive in this country again!), but in the long run, this was the trip in which the sweetest incursion of all, Bridget, came to stay. That makes it perfect.

Monday, July 2, 2012

19. Home Again (No, The Other One)

Monday, July 2
Late Morning
On the train from Assisi to Florence

It's been a very good morning. Right now the train is pulling out of Bastia and I'm getting my last look at Assisi, up on the hill and several miles back.

I checked out of the Vignola, but asked Mandy, the concierge, if I could leave my bags for awhile. I could have caught the 9:39 to Firenze SMN but decided to take the 11:17 so that I could make a last visit to Santa Maria degli Angeli. It was bright and quite warm so the cool of the Basilica was welcomed wholeheartedly.

As soon as I entered the nave I could hear singing. There was a large pack of cub scouts marching down the aisle but the music wasn't coming from them. It was coming from the Porziuncola. Mass was being said in the church-within-a-church. About fifty worshippers were crowded inside, all huddled together and nearly sliding down each other when genuflecting was required. I got there in time for the Eucharist and watched as the crowd seemed to undulate as each made room for the other to move forward and receive the host.

I watched for about ten minutes then followed the signs to the Rose Garden. On the way, at one corner, there is a statue of St. Francis. In his outstretched hands is a bird's nest and in that nest a dove. A live dove. Unfettered by the sight of us, he sat there calmly biding his time.

The Rose Garden can be viewed but not entered. Next to it, though, is another one of the original Francis sites on which the church is built. In this case, it is a cell where he had spent time. In order to see into it you must get down on the floor and peer through a small window. In this dungeon is a statue of Francis praying to a crucifix that lies on the floor.

I took one last long walk through the church then sat outside until 10:20. At that point, it was necessary to go. And I wouldn't have gone if it wasn't. I went back to the hotel, had a final conversation with Mandy then got the taxi to the train station. In true Italian fashion, the driver was the brother of the one who took me to the hotel four days ago.

A few final thoughts on Assisi. Having had no idea of what to expect it would have been easy to be pleased with what I would find. It would also have been just as easy to be disappointed. That I loved it as much as I did is probably some kind of testament to my basic optimism. And love it I did. The ancient city is breathtaking and quiet in a way that I would never have expected. Oddly enough, though, it wasn't what made the visit for me. The two strongest memories that I will take away are of Santa Maria degli Angeli which is well outside the ancient city, and the stay at the Hotel Vignola. While the hotel is a perfectly nice little pensione on a quiet street, it is distinguished by something that I'm no longer used to finding in inexpensive hotels: A friendly atmosphere. Between Mandy's desire to be helpful, her willingness to get into a conversation, and Snoopy's enjoyment in being petted incessantly, there was an almost familial feeling about the place. I honestly hated saying goodbye this morning. To use the Italian expression, all was piacere - pleasant.

Early Afternoon

The train ride was one of the better ones of this trip. Although the air conditioning was of course not working, the windows on this train opened and stayed open. The breeze was great and we were on a beautiful route that went past Perugia, Lake Trasimeno, Cortona and Terontola.

Getting from Firenze SMN proved to be a little trickier than normal. I took one look at the half-block long line for cabs and decided that the bus was a much better option in spite of a bad back and big bag. In order to do this, I had to cross the street, go to the tourist information booth to find out which bus I had to take then go back to the station to get a biglietti. As I was about to enter the station to do this I saw my bus sitting there. Unfortunately, the man in front of me at the news stand couldn't find the right change. His discovery process took so long that I missed my bus. The next one didn't come for ten minutes. Trust me, in this heat, that's a long time.

When I finally did get to the La Scaletta I was greeted as I was last time. The pretty concierge broke not a big smile and said with mock disappointment, "Mr. Falzone! Not again!" She asked for my passport then apologized for not having the number memorized. When she handed me the paperwork and the key she said, "I'm not going to tell you what to do. You already know. You should be working here."

It's nice to be home.

She gave me the same room as last time (my third time in it). As soon as I threw my suitcase in the corner I called our department chair Bruce Sheridan. He's teaching in town this summer and wants to get together for dinner this evening. I'm pretty sure this will include other teachers in the program, many of whom I already know. If so, there will probably be a lot of shop talk. Sigh.

Late Evening

I went out for a walk and did a little shopping for Bridget along the way. It's ridiculous how much I like doing that, even when it's just for little things. And I know exactly how dorky that sounds. Tough.

Somehow - and not at all surprisingly - the walk ended up at the Loggia of the Uffizi. Taking up my favorite spot, I sat for about an hour and shot the occasional tourist. It is a very hot day. Not as bad as yesterday, but still stifling enough so that lots of water and the occasional granita was necessary to make it through. Today, the Loggia Police, a group of worried little old men who are hired to maintain decorum, we're out in force. They worry, for example, if you're sitting on a bench but lean against the pedestal of one of the statues. Why this would hurt a couple of tons of solid marble is anyone's guess. In any event, I got warned for this infraction.

Afterward I went back to the hotel and made a call to Bridget who was then driving to Fort Worth to work on a client. Just as we hung up the phone, Bruce called to say that he was going to be stuck in meetings for awhile. Since the back brace has been giving me a bad stomach (if it ain't one side, it's the other) I willingly postponed until lunch tomorrow.

Bad stomach or not, I needed dinner and decided to go around the corner to 4 Leoni, a very nice place where I had dinner last year with Gary and Linda. I was hoping for their carciofi appetizer but they were operating off a new menu and this was no longer offered. No matter. The food was good, even if they were clearly unsure of how to handle a single looking for a table.

My original thought was to head back to my room after dinner and go to bed. In truth, this is an idiotic notion where this city is concerned. My feet just started walking and before I knew it I was sitting on the steps of Santa Maria dell' Fiore. The hot day has turned into a cool night and the streets are alive with musicians, dancers, jugglers, you name it. One of the many reasons I love this city so much is that it remains as alive at midnight as it does at noon. Other cities are louder at night (in fact, most other Italian cities are louder at night), but none has the vitality of Florence. It manages to be big and alive yet strangely intimate no matter what time of day it is experienced.

Oh God, I can already tell it will be brutal saying goodbye to it on Wednesday. It always is.

Sunday, July 1, 2012

18. The Chinese Second Front

Sunday, July 1

I managed to sleep through the night in spite of the back problems. By the time I got up, some of the stiffness had gone away, but it was far from perfect. I decided to be on the safe side and cancel my plans to go to Perugia for lunch with Sara and Caroline. At the same time, I knew it would be good to get out and walk.

I went up for breakfast on the terrace where I ran into the concierge. "You wouldn't know where I could buy a back brace around here?" I asked.

She thought about this a second.

"Well, love," she said, "I don't think they'd have one at the supermercato. Now you can get one at a farmacia, but you really want to go with the Chinese on this."


She slapped her side.

"I'm wearing mine right now. Awful back problems myself. You can pay a lot at the farmacia, or you can find a Chinese shop. The one they have won't be as good, but it'll be cheaper and it'll get you through a couple days at least."

Normally I would go for the good stuff, but I'll only be in Italy for three more days and I have a good one at home.

"Where can I find a Chinese shop around here?"

She thought about this a moment.

"I don't really know, but they're all over the place. Maybe there's one by the church."

She peered down the street as though looking for one.

"I'll tell you what you do," she said. "You just go into any shop down there and tell them you're looking for a 'negozzi Cinese.' They'll know where they are."

This was pretty vague, but I needed the walk anyway. If worse came to worse, I would find a farmacia and they would have one.

I went down to my room to get my camera before taking off on my walk. Before leaving, I checked my email. There was one from Bruce asking me if I wanted to stay in his second bedroom in Florence. Although it was already inside 72 hour cancellation limit at La Scaletta, I thought that I could pay the one night penalty and save on the second night. I was about to do this when I got a second email from Bruce. He wanted to warn me that his flat is a fourth floor walk-up. Given my back and the size of my suitcase, I decided to stick with the La Scaletta option.

I walked down toward Santa Maria degli Angeli. My back was handling it OK, except for those times when I would hit a sudden dip for a driveway or an unexpected curb. Then it felt like a pile driver on my lower back. When I got to the shopping area I started to look for anything vaguely Chinese. Nothing. I did, though, find a farmacia and decided that expense was the better part of valor. I went in.

I could see that the small shop was well stocked so I had a glimmer of hope.

"Parla Inglese?" I asked the clerk.

The man just shook his bald head.

Great. How the hell do you ask for a back brace when you don't know the words? I pointed to my back and mimicked pain. He smiled, nodded his head reached behind to grab a pack of some kind of back pills.

"Non, non," I said. I mimed wrapping a belt around my middle and standing straight. He looked at me quizzically then suddenly lit up.

"Si, si," he said then repeated this over and over again as he searched for what I was looking for. He found a solid looking elastic brace for 19 Euros. Actually, the roughly $24 USD that it would cost is a lot less than I'm used to paying for such things. I bought it.

Before heading back, I wanted to sit on the steps at Santa Maria for a while. If yesterday was a melange of tour groups, today, Sunday, was a plethora of monks and nuns. Once mass started I was tempted to go in. It passed when I imagined doing all the "stand up/sit down" a Catholic mass requires. Just the thought of it sent me home to put on my brace.

Relief - at least relative relief - came as soon as I fitted the brace tightly around my waist. I wanted to take it easy so spent the next several hours writing. About 2:30, I got the sudden urge to go out, jump on the bus, and head back toward the ancient city. It would be nice to get in a last walk before leaving in the morning, and it would be good for my back.

I was not prepared for how much the temperature had spiked in the few hours that I had spent in my room. Suddenly, it was around 100 degrees and the direct sunlight was brutally hot on my black-clad shoulders. I stopped to buy some water then went back toward the church to catch the bus. Since I had no idea when the next bus would come, I figured I could always wait in the Basilica where it would be much cooler.

As it turned out, I did not need to put this plan into effect. When I checked the schedule at the stop I saw that my timing was very good. The bus was there in about three minutes.

When the bus stopped at the train station, five Chinese tourists of varying age got on. One, a woman in her thirties, sat next to me. They conversed in Mandarin for a while. As we were passing under the Basilica di San Francesco the one seated next to me turned.

"Is that where we should be getting off," she asked in pitch perfect English.

"That depends on where you're going," I replied.

She told me that they didn't have specific plans, but that looked like it might be a good place to start.

"No," I said. "That would be the worst place to start." Remembering the advice the concierge gave me about starting at the top so you would always be headed downhill, I told her about getting off at Piazza Matteotti then told her which signs would be best to follow to get her and her cohorts to San Francesco. I also made sure to tell her how to get to Piazza Giovanni Paolo II from the Basilica since this was the stop for the C Line, the one they would need to get back to where they came from.

The woman was very pleased with this advice then turned and told her cohorts.

A few minutes later I got off the bus. I saw them start to get up. No, I told them, this wasn't Matteotti. They needed to stay on for one more stop. Again she thanked me.

I got off at Largo Properzio, one of the porta in the city wall. At first I thought I would have to climb to get to the city, but some developer had the presence of mind to put in escalators. Nothing could have been more of a godsend on this hot day.

I had no plan. I just wanted to stroll through streets that had gained a certain familiarity in the past few days. As usual, I decided to sit in the Piazza di Comune and just let my mind (and camera) wander for around a half hour. I got up and started walking toward the road that leads to San Francesco when I suddenly heard several high-pitched voices squeal things like "Hello!" and "It's him!" I looked to the source and there were four of the Chinese tourists from the bus, all now speaking perfectly good English. They were posing for a picture in front of the Temple of Minerva. The photographer was the woman who had been seated next to me.

"So glad to see you," she said. "Your advice...I think would be all dead without it!"

I told her that I was glad to help and asked her if they were enjoying the city so far.

"Very much," she said, "but San Chiara is too crowded."

I thought this was odd since it was very quiet when I went in the other day. I told her this.

"Oh, we didn't go in!" The tone in her voice made it sound like going in would be breaking the law. What she meant was that the piazza in front was too crowded to take a good picture. She then asked if I wanted her to take a picture of me in front of the temple with my camera. I thanked her, but said no. She shrugged and said goodbye. I could see that she and her group were starting to leave. Almost involuntarily, I shouted "Wait!"

They stopped and I went over to them.

"You really need to go inside the Temple of Minerva," I said, shoving my thumb in the direction of the Roman edifice. They looked at each other somewhat confused. "Really, I said, "it's amazing inside."

They turned to the woman I had been talking to and conferred, now back in Mandarin.

"Go in," I said. "You'll love it."

I could see them suddenly throw caution to the winds. They headed for the temple. The woman came back to me. "Thank you," she said. "And where are we to catch the bus again?"

I gave her instructions on how to get from San Francesco to the Piazza Giovanni Paolo II. As she was turning toward the temple she called over her shoulder, "Maybe we see you on the bus."

Sadly, we did not. On the other hand, maybe we weren't on the same bus because they finally decided it was all right to go inside the churches. After yesterday's crazed Chinese woman with a camera, I felt like I was able to do a good deed by getting this group to stop and smell the antiquity.

That's not a bad way to say goodbye to the home of St. Francis.

Saturday, June 30, 2012

17. The Polish Question

Saturday, June 30
Early Evening

Well, the day started out fine.

I had arranged to meet Sara Stevenson and her daughter Caroline in front of Santa Maria degli Angeli at noon. Sara is an old friend of Bridget's whom I met in Austin this past March. She and her husband Richard were instant compadres. Since she is about to start Italian lessons in Perugia (about 15 miles away), it seemed like a no-brainer to get together for lunch.

I got to the church early so that I could sit outside and watch the tour groups go in. I know from past experience that these are precisely the types of people I like to shoot. They're usually animated in one way or the other - excited, tired, irritable, engaged, whatever. Today, several tour groups showed up simultaneously, each distinguished by a different colored hat. Some were in red, others yellow or blue. There was also a group with armbands that were part of some kind of service that was about to take place. This group include a number of old men who (without any irony intended) were missing an arm.

At pretty much the stroke of noon Sara showed up. She has a wonderful energy so we pretty much jumped into a conversation the second she got there. Sara needed to get who Caroline was down the street at the laundromat. Since my favorite pasticceria is across the street from this, it seemed the logical place to meet up as soon as they finished folding their laundry.

We sat around for at least an hour-and-a-half. Not surprisingly, a portion of the conversation was about Bridget and I. I certainly enjoyed the chance to catch them up on what was going on. They had already gotten some of it from Bridget via email, but it was fun to talk about it from my perspective. By the time they had to leave we were having a good enough time to arrange to do it again tomorrow. Perugia is a quick hop by train so we figured to meet around noon and hang out.

After they left, it was my turn to do the laundry. I went back to my room and started to pull the dirty clothes out of my suitcase.

That's when the day went south.

I bent over to pick up the clothes and my back went out. It's always the simplest and therefore most unpredictable things that cause it to go. Once it was nothing more than reaching for a spoonful of sugar to put in my coffee. Today, as soon as I started to get up, I knew this was not going to be one of those that just goes away.

Sometimes, walking it out is the best solution. Having to get the laundry done, I decided to carry on. I walked the block to the lavanderia and hoped for the best.

When I got there, I found that I needed to get change. The change machine accepts 5s and 10s, but the smallest I had was a 20. This meant going back over the pasticceria, getting something so that I could break the bill, then going back to the lavanderia to get the coins that I needed. There I was confronted by an intensely fickle machine that kept spitting back the bills instead of making change. I just kept feeding them back into the machine in the hope that I would win the showdown. I did. It eventually gave me what I needed. I then had to put the coins into the central money machine that controls all the washers and dryers. Now, no matter what one Euro piece I put in, it spit it back at me. I kept trying until eventually I either found the machine's sweet spot, or it gave up fighting me.

A few minutes later, a Polish woman came into the lavanderia. Confused by the same system, she turned to ask me how it worked. In Polish. I simply could not convince her that I did not speak Polish. She kept spitting out a string of questions then looked to me for answers. Eventually - inevitably, really - I took her money and set up her laundry for her. At least now I was more patient with the change machine and better equipped to handle the sweet spot of the other. The one thing that I could not help her with was the temperature control on the machine. I kept using hand gestures to try to get her to understand that she needed to adjust this herself since I had no idea if she wanted it hot or cold. Finally, she arbitrarily pushed the button to 6, the hottest setting, and pressed the start button.

About ten minutes later, she got up and walked over to the machine. She watched her comforter going round and round for a moment. She then pressed her hand against the door and recoiled. She turned to me and let out another stream of Polish. When it must have been clear to her that I had no idea what she was saying, she touched the glass door then pulled her hand back and blew on it. She did this a number of times until she finally conveyed the idea that the water was too hot. We both tried readjusting it, but the machine would not allow a change in mid-cycle. She looked like someone had just eaten her puppy. She went back to her chair, put her head in her hand, and started mumbling in Polish. I really didn't want to know what she was saying since my guess is that she thought I was somehow to blame for this predicament.

A few minutes later, her wash was ready. She ran to the machine, yanked out the comforter and inspected it. Fortunately, it looked like the hot water did it no real damage. Relieved, she transferred it to a dryer, put in her money and was about to turn it on. I put my hand out to stop her. I checked the heat on the dial and saw that it was set at 90 Celsius. This is very hot, and if it is one thing I know from painful past experience, you can ruin a comforter in an overheated dryer a whole hell of a lot faster than you can in a hot washer. I readjusted the heat then put the coins in for her, making sure that she had a longer drying time than usual to make up for the lower temperature. The effect of this was that I went from dog to hero faster than a Smart car goes from 1 to 2 mph. By the time I hobbled out of there she was thanking me profusely in Polish and saying the one Italian word she knew: "Buongiorno."

The walk back to the hotel told me that I was pretty much toast for the rest of the night. I had a quick call with Bridget then downloaded a book on RKO that I've been wanting to read. Other than attempting to go out for dinner, my night will be taken up with starting this book and deciding if it would be better to sleep on the floor tonight.

Friday, June 29, 2012

16. The Chinese Subject

Friday, June 29
Early Evening

No, I couldn't resist the urge to revisit Santa Maria degli Angeli, but I had lots to do before I did that.

I'm rapidly coming to like this hotel. The concierge, who was quite fearsome yesterday, has decided that I'm OK. This probably came about because she has an aging spaniel named Snoopy who has fallen in love with me. I spent a good deal of time last night playing with her and did a little more this morning after breakfast.

This breakfast was served outdoors on a very quaint patio overlooking the Hotel Frate Sole and its Sorella Luna Ristorante. The translation of this is a reference that all in Assisi know: Brother Sun, Sister Moon. These are the names given by Francis and Chiara to each other. Theirs was an all-consuming but (we assume) chaste love. Certainly the fact of its existence is not hidden around here. Among other things, there is a statue of the two of them holding hands outside the Chiesa Nuova.

After playing with Snoopy I went back toward Santa Maria to catch the bus back to the ancient city. Like yesterday, the neighborhood was covered with monks and nuns, all on their way to the church. There was also a very large contingent of uniformed Catholic school children and their teachers, all wanting to board the same bus. Fortunately, the bus was one of the rare full-sized ones and it was empty when it go to us. Just as fortunately, these screaming, laughing, squawking kids got off long before the bus reached Piazza Matteoti.

My first desire was to go to Rocca Maggiore, the fortress that overlooks the valley. I knew that I would have to do this early because the walk up was very steep. I did not want to do this in the midday sun. Even with the precaution, the crawl to the top was fairly intense. My timing, though, couldn't have been better. I fell through the front gate just as the fortress was opening for the day. Except for an American couple and a German family of four, I had the place pretty much to myself.

Rocca Maggiore, which translates as "more rock," is well-named. With the exception of some wood beaming, it is constructed entirely of stone. As such, one can see why it was an effective defense. On the other hand, I would think that the insanely steep hill was the best defense and that the defending army could have done the same trick with grass huts.

At the center of the fortress is a tall round tower. Once on this platform it is easy to see the long and looping fortress wall that surrounds the entire city. There are six porta (gates) that allow entry, each of which is sufficiently narrow to have quickly bottlenecked any army trying to get in. All of this sounds great until you start to learn about why the fortress was necessary. The leaders who built it and controlled it for years were a bloodthirsty lot. The fortress was used for imprisonment, torture and execution, all at the whim of whomever happened to be in charge at the moment.

And did I mention that some of them went on to become popes?

Throughout my stay at the fortress I was constantly stumbling onto two things: Angry pigeons who did not want their aerie disturbed, and the German family. This father, mother and two teenaged sons were always two steps behind me. The American couple left as soon as they saw the steps they would have to climb, so it was pretty much me and my German shadows for the hour or so I was checking out the place. Every time I went to a window, they came to see what I was looking at. Every time I found a new staircase to climb, they were right behind me.

As I was leaving, I went to sit under a shade tree. There next to me was a golden tabby, a cat as affectionate as Snoopy. Within seconds he was crawling all over me and I was letting him do it. I thought that this was a lucky cat. After all, he was in Assisi, the home of St. Francis, the patron saint of animals and children. I mean, if you were a cat and you wanted to live where the karma is right, you couldn't do much better than this town.

As I was leaving the fortress, I noticed a man huffing his way up an incline that appeared to split off toward the city. I figured that this would be faster and prettier than the circuitous route that I had taken earlier so I headed in the direction he had just come from.

It is a sign of how steep this city is that many roads have staircases built into them. This was a street that was maybe seven feet across with a two-foot staircase running down the center. I found it easier to walk on the road portion. About halfway down, I found a secluded gelateria with an arbored terrace overlooking San Rufino. I stopped in for a large mint granita, my liquid air conditioner of choice.

I didn't really have a plan for the day except to just keep looking for things to see. As I was approaching the bottom of the stairs/street, I was thinking about what direction I should turn. Just then, a young Chinese woman came running around the corner. She saw me then looked around with darting eyes. She noticed a bench next to a doorway. Both were surrounded by pots of flowers. She whipped her head around to me and held out her hand. In it was a small digital camera.

"Take picture," she said. "Please!"

I smiled, said I would, then took the camera. She started pointed to a button.

"Click. Yes. Picture. Point. Click. Yes."

I'm glad I knew how to operate the camera before she handed it to me. I'm not sure those directions would have done the trick if I hadn't.

She rushed to the bench then sat down. Just as suddenly, she froze into an uncomfortable stance with a plastered-on smile.


I took the picture.

"Take another!" she shouted, still frozen in the same uncomfortable position.

I took a second shot. It wasn't one iota different from the first.

She leapt up, grabbed the camera and looked at the picture. She smiled broadly then bowed her thanks and ran up the stairs.

I made the decision to turn to the right. Within a minute or two I was in the Piazza di Comune. Taking it as a sign, I went back to the Temple of Minerva, sat on the steps and started to shoot tourists. I wound up doing this for about an hour. Pretty soon, I was getting hungry. I went next door to get some lunch.

Just before I went to bed last night I got a text from Bridget. She was in OHare and had just had a caprese sandwich and a bottle of Pellegrino. She wanted me to know this because she was clearly in denial about being back in the states. I texted back that I would have a hamburger today because I was in denial that I wasn't there with her. So that's what I had for lunch.

Afterward I went to the Chiesa Nuova, a quaint (at least by Italian standards) church. Nuova, of course, is a relative term. This church was built after the death of Francis in the 13th Century and, like Santa Maria degli Angeli, was built over an important place in his life. In this case, it incorporates the small cell where his father locked him up when he was a young man. The cell currently has a statue of Francis praying to God that his father will stop beating him. This faces the altar. I'm sure there is some symbolism in this, but I wasn't really willing to divine it.

I followed the long downward slope to Basilica di San Francesco. The grounds for this are massive, taking up approximately a quarter of the city. Much of it is a functioning monastery and so off limits to visitors. The Basilica, though, is open and free (although another one where photos are not allowed). The Basilica itself is impressive for its size but not for its decor. There are only two ancillary chapels, each flanking the altar. The long walls leading up to these are filled with religious frescoes, but the ceiling, all blue and gold, upstages these literally and figuratively.

To the left of the altar is the entrance to the chapel and tomb of St. Francis. You go down about twenty steps before you can see into the underground chapel. Unlike its counterpart upstairs, this chapel is ornate. Fusing red and gold in the palette, it manages to be both intimate and grand at the same moment. Just past the chapel is another flight of steps that go down to the crypt. Rather than a sarcophagus, the remains are in a covering that is then made to appear organic to the altar on with they lay. This altar is surrounded by intricate wrought iron that is open in the front so that it can be used for a mass. Kneelers surround the crypt and these were filled with worshippers.

The one consistent architectural design between these three areas is the profusion of signs that read, "Silenzio." They are everywhere. You can't even turn a corner without finding one to greet you as though the sudden turn of your body in a new direction might have erased your memory of this command. As if the signs weren't enough, occasionally an electronically amped voice reverberates through the sanctuaries: "Silenzio! Shhh!"

I was nearly blinded by the sun when I came out of the tomb. The exit empties out in to a long, wide piazza whose brickwork surface creates a dizzying array of angles in black, white and gray. I found a place in the shade and sat for a while in the shadow of the Basilica.

When I finally got up to leave, I started to walk down the long piazza toward the gate. Suddenly, I heard a familiar voice.

"Hey! Take my picture!"

I turned to see the young Chinese woman. She was shoving her camera in my face. It was quite obvious that she did not recognize me from earlier.

"Here. Click. Picture."

At least she had honed down her instructions. I took the camera.

She ran back about thirty feet then looked up at the campanile of the Basilica to make sure that she was lined up the way she wanted. She then turned back into her uncomfortable smile and stiff demeanor.


I took the picture.

"Take another!!!"

I took another one.

She ran back to me, looked at the camera, smiled and bowed her thanks. I watched her run away. Within thirty seconds she found another tourist and had that person take a picture of her with the colonnade behind her.

The bus stop at Piazza Giovanni Paolo II was just outside the gate and I was getting tired. My bus was there so I headed for it. Just as I was getting to it, it took off. I checked the schedule and saw that the next one wasn't for another half hour. With time to kill, I went to Chiesa di San Pietro, a church just outside San Francesco and a few steps from the bus stop. This one is gray slate and sparse. It is also very cool, so it was the perfect place to wait out the bus. While I was in there, a woman came in and sat in a pew across from me. She sat still and silently for the whole time I was there. She only got up to leave when an Australian couple came in and started to comment loudly on what they were seeing. Where's the "Silenzio" sign when you need one?

I took the bus back down. Seated facing me and two seats up was the young Chinese woman. She looked completely exhausted. I couldn't help but wonder if she actually got to see anything while she was here. She got off at the train station, presumably to find another town in which to have her picture taken.

When I got back to the hotel I decided to rest for a while. Eventually, I wanted to get a snack so headed out to a terrific and inexpensive pasticceria across from Santa Maria degli Angeli. As I left the shop, I decided that I needed another fix of the Cathedral. Like yesterday, it was quiet in a way that put out a nice sense of peace. I walked around the inside and went into the Porziuncola for a few minutes.

Honestly, this is rapidly becoming my favorite church anywhere.

Thursday, June 28, 2012

15. The Big Catch-Up; or, She Came, I Saw, We Conquered

Sunday, June 17
Early Morning

I got out of the Mirage as fast as my little feet could carry me then carted my bag across the Termini to the Hotel Atlantico. My hope was to check-in, put my bag behind the desk and get some breakfast at one of the cafes on the street while waiting for Bridget. It never occurred to me that the room at the hotel would actually be ready, but it was. The desk clerk sent me right up and told me that I could have breakfast here. This place is already night and day from the Mirage.

Beyond the courtesy, the room is big, nicely done, and on the top floor so it gets plenty of light. The rest of the hotel is fairly upscale and the breakfast is huge. I'm just happy that they are serving pastries that didn't first see the light of day in the Paleolithic era.

According to Flight Tracker, Bridget's plane landed eleven minutes ago. Yes, I'm counting the minutes.

Monday, June 18
Early Morning (Very Early)

Bridget's shuttle from Fiumicino arrived at the Termini at 11:40. We had tried texting so that I would know when to be there, but problems with her text application meant that I really didn't have a clue when she would actually arrive. To be safe, I headed over around 10:30 and took up position just outside the Moleskine shop at the end of the arrival track. She was finally able to get ahold of me around 11:00 and told me that she was on the train.

I guess I was anxious. Instead of waiting in the prearranged spot, I went straight to the train the minute it pulled in. After a few minutes, she came down the walkway. She was craning her head to see if she could spot me by the shop. I have to admit that I thought the same thing that I do every time I see her after an absence: God, she is beautiful. With that, all the stresses of the past few days disappeared. I was in Rome with Bridget. That was all I needed.

She didn't see me until she practically bumped into me. We hugged for a ridiculously long period of time then made our way through the crowd and out to the Atlantico.

Although she had gotten some sleep on the flight from Dallas to JFK, she got none on the flight to Rome. She was feeling just this side of jet lagged so we decided to spend the afternoon in our room. About 6:30, Bridget took note of the fact that she hadn't eaten more than a croissant and a bag of popcorn in the preceding 16 hours. And I hadn't had anything since breakfast. Dinner was suddenly sounding like a good idea.

The east side of the Termini is decidedly downscale. With our move to the Atlantico we were back on the much nicer west side. The neighborhood is filled with nice hotels, most of which have outdoor ristorantes. My favorite is at the quizzically named Hotel California. I suggested we get dinner there.

The waiter seated us right at the curb. At the table next to us sat a husband and wife, American, probably in their mid-fifties. Bridget and I were holding hands and talking when I became acutely aware that the woman was staring at us. She was looking with a kind of wistful sadness at our intertwined fingers. I glanced at her husband. He was wearing a napkin for a bib and silently twirling spaghetti onto his fork.

Throughout the meal and for the rest of the evening, Bridget and I would suddenly break into giggles about the fact that we were in Rome. It wasn't a matter of being in an unfamiliar and exotic locale. I've been here five of six times and Bridget has been here numerous times over the years for equally numerous reasons. It was more that we were here together. Italy was a large part of our conversation when we first met and I haven't been over since when I haven't at some point or another thought about what it would be like if she were here with me. Now, finally, it was happening.

After dinner we were both up for a walk. We decided to go straight down the Via Cavour toward the ruins. Along the way, we stopped for gelato and within another five minutes we were on the Via di Indipendenza, the wide boulevard that connects the Colosseum with the Vittoriano. We turned in the direction of the latter.

The Vittoriano is lit at night, now a virtual neon wedding cake. We walked around there and looked into the ruins below Maria di Nome. These appeared especially eery in the light reflected off the monument.

At this point we could have walked south to the Colosseum or turned north toward Fontana di Trevi. We chose to head toward the fountain, something I had never seen at night.

I now know that it doesn't matter what time you visit the fountain, it is always jam packed. Bridget and I managed to work through the crowd and find a seat on one of the steps facing the center of the massive sculpture of Neptune that dominates the cascading waters. Several people were flinging coins over their shoulders. I imagine most think that this is some kind of ancient rite, but it is really a ritual invented by the screenwriter of the film "Three Coins in the Fountain." No matter. Everyone enjoys the toss. I've done it a few times myself. What I haven't seen is Anita Ekberg floating through the fountain in a black dress, but I keep hoping.

When we started to feel the crowd, we decided to walk over to Piazza di Spagna, about five minutes away. We found a perch on one of the platform steps, put our arms around each other and enjoyed night air. Soon, though, we knew we would have to head back if we were going to have any hope of getting some sleep before our early train to Messina.

Right now, we're in a semi-private compartment on that train. The conductor just came around looking for change for a 5 Euro note. We're just outside of Naples with the Tyrrhenian Sea on one side of the train and the high peaks of the Apennines on the other. Bridget is reading Patty Smith's books about her relationship with Robert Mapplethorpe and has her bare legs flung over mine. My iPad is on top of her shins as I write this.

This love thing is pretty cool.

Monday, June 25
Mid Morning
On the train from Messina to Napoli

I decided not to blog the Bridget portion of the trip for what I hope are obvious reasons. At the same time, our leaving Messina allows me the opportunity to thumbnail our trip so far.

We arrived in Messina more than a little ragged. Our respective moods were not improved by the singular peculiarity of living out in life a scene from the screenplay. In "Through a Door Like Anna," Ray and Nina meet at a car rental agency when both are unhappy to find that the automatics each requested are not available. When we reached our agency, the same thing happened to us - and with a similarly harried clerk. We had to wait an hour which was pleasantly spent sitting in a piazza sipping drinks. When the car did show up, the clerk kept stopping to argue with a friend about where they were supposed to go for a party that same evening. I asked him several times to knock it off, but my request would only be heeded for a minute or two then he'd go back to the far more important issue of party location.

We were given a Smart car, something of which I am apparently too Dumb to master. Although an automatic, the shift was entirely foreign to me. By the time we got on the road and confronted the justifiably infamous Sicilian traffic, I was in a foul mood, something that only succeeded in putting Bridget in one as well. To say the least, our first night in Mascali, the site of our apartment rental, was rocky.

This, though, was not a bellwether of the week to come. Although the neighborhood was loud during the day and most of the night, the apartment was quite lovely. The kitchen was relatively well stocked with utensils, the bathroom (and especially the tub) was large, and there were two bedrooms, a small airy one with plenty of light and a master bedroom with a larger though rather lumpy queen-sized mattress. The anomaly in the apartment was the living room. Like so many Italianate houses I knew as a child, it attempts to be more than it was built for. A couch runs along one wall, but instead of facing an open room, it is practically butt up against a dining room table. This has a plastic tablecloth with an overly busy pasta motif. The walls of this room are covered with pictures of Sicily and a few prints that are a long way from the masters. In an apartment that was otherwise a model of modern design, this living room reminded me of the overcrowded and airless one that was presided over by my Grandma Muscolino.

The real joy, though, was the deck. Wrapping around the building, it has two large terraces running perpendicular to each other. One is empty and takes direct sunlight. This made it ideal for drying clothes fresh from the wash. The other has a large arbor that along with a towering shade tree made this one of our most important living spaces. This is where we would have dinner each night, where Bridget began most days with an early morning yoga practice, and where we read side-by-side in matching chaise lounges, me from Patti Smith and Bridget from "50 Shades of Grey." I can't say how many times she would burst out laughing and read me a particularly purple and execrable piece of prose from this thing, but it was a lot.

In spite of the difficult first night, I can easily encapsulate the next six days by saying that it was one of the best weeks I've ever had. Period. While Bridget and I have never denied the depth of our relationship, this time in Sicily deepened it even more than we would have thought possible. With the exception of an afternoon run to Caltanisetta (where my grandfather was indentured to the mine and a major location in the script), a Sunday morning church service, and a very hot but pleasant several hours on the Mascali beach, we never left the apartment. Sometimes, we didn't even leave the bed, preferring to use it as a platform for our discussions about our shared future, our joint and separate pasts, and, most important, our feelings for each other.

As we were on the train down to Messina last week, I mentioned to Bridget that this was really our first opportunity to set up a household that is entirely our own. To that end, we rapidly found the right rhythms for respecting each other's need for space or quiet time, for sharing the chores, and for perpetually finding joy in looking up and seeing the other one standing in a doorway or quietly reading in the shaded light of the deck. We both knew that this was the real bellwether.

At this particular moment, our train is standing in the station at Villa San Giovanni. It is hellishly hot since neither the air conditioning nor the breeze functions when the train is still. This may portend a difficult travel day, but I really don't care (at least not at the moment). Bridget is sitting across from me eating her lunch and reading, and we're on our way to the island of Capri for two nights in a high-end B&B carved out of a monastery.

I really don't the I have anything to complain about. In fact, I feel ridiculously content.

Wednesday, June 27
Late Afternoon
On the train from Naples to Rome

If Sicily was wonderful then I'm at a loss for how to describe Capri.

The train trip was not the easiest. The air conditioning never did come on and the one window that could be opened slammed shut every time we turned a corner. By the time we got off the train we were soaked straight through.

The cab between Napoli Centrale and the port had the advantages of open windows and a fearless driver who understood the crazy Neapolitan traffic. We got on the ferry and took the forty-five minute ride while sitting inside the boat. The windows were so stained with years of salt water spray that it was hard to see what was out there. As we started to approach the port, I went outside to get a few shots.

I'm not sure what I was expecting, probably another cute little island town like Giglio. Capri isn't quite that. A huge waving rock shaped like a reclining woman, it is dominated by a town that crawls from the base up to the top of the torso between to the two peaks. Nearly all of its architecture is white or cream. My first response was to gasp. I went back and got Bridget, telling her that she had already scored major points for this choice.

We took an open-air cab to Anacapri, the smaller of the two villages on the island. The road to get there twists and turns around hairpins with the ever-elevating view of the harbor visible on our right, then our left then our right again. By the time we reached Anacapri, it felt like we were about a mile high.

It took a few minutes to find our B&B. It was nicely hidden behind Chiesa San Michele which made perfect sense since our place had once been a monastery. I don't know how the monks lived back in the day, but I'm pretty sure that it wasn't like this. There are only rooms for two occupants at a time and for the first night the whole place was ours. Under any circumstances, ours was the luxury suite. We had a big bed at the base of which was a trough-style bath tub. This was dominated by open windows looking directly onto our interior courtyard. There was a large living room and a narrow but beautiful and sunny kitchen done in whites and yellows. And then there was the bathroom. If it were any bigger it would have needed its own zip code. The dominant feature of this room was the shower. A black marble pedestal running the width of the room, it had two side-by-side rain-shower heads and opened without doors or curtains into the room. It was like being onstage.

After giggling at our luck, Bridget and I went out to get dinner. We found the Capri Palace, at two-star restaurant, at the highest point in Anacapri. We had what can only be called an intensely romantic dinner at a private booth on the patio. Over our heads, the clouds moved from white to pink to flaming red as the sun set over the harbor.

We got up yesterday with the full intention of enjoying the island as well as each other. We had breakfast then went to visit Casa Rossa, a small red mansion that overlooks the sea. Built in the16th century as a fortress against Saracen invaders, it was later bought by a lieutenant colonel of the Confederate Army who couldn't bear to live under Yankee domination. He filled with art of that period and dedicated it as a museum in his will.

We did a little shopping (well, Bridget did while I shot tourists) then got lunch at a pleasant trattoria on the outskirts of the Piazza Vittorio. From there, we took the bus back down the mountain in the other direction and went sunbathing a stone's throw from the Blue Grotto. Afterward, we went back to our room and stayed in until it was time for a late dinner. Our original plan was to get takeout and bring it back to the room, but the pizzeria we found was so pleasantly surrounded by trees and greenery that we decided to eat there. Like the night before, it was more than a little romantic.

This morning we got breakfast, assembled our luggage then took the bus down to the Marina Grande. We left out luggage with a deposito then took the bus to the village of Capri. More touristy than Anacapri, its best feature is its duomo. In keeping with the rest of the architecture on the island, it is blazingly white on the outside, and bright and airy on the inside. Although small, it had no less than eight beautifully appointed ancillary chapels and an altar dominated by gold ornaments and leafs.

In no hurry to get a ferry back to reality, we decided to head back down to the marina and lay out on the beach. We did this until 3:30 then, much to our regret, we got onboard the ferry and left Capri. By halfway to Naples we were making plans to come back next year.

The connections were perfect. As soon as we got off the boat there was a taxi waiting. After freaking out the driver by asking him to take us to Milano Centrale (this, he was nice enough to point out, was Naples and not Milan), we got to the station and bought tickets for the first train heading to Rome. This one was leaving in three minutes. When we couldn't find our seats in second class, we grabbed two in first. So far, no one has caught onto this.

Of course, tomorrow is the hard part - saying goodbye at the station. It has been quite extraordinary having her here, giving us both the time to explore this relationship and get even more committed to each other and to our future. One decision we have made is to slow up her moving up to Chicago with Liam. We realized that we were rushing it and that we both need some time to get ready for it. Instead, she will be flying up to Chicago on the fourth and will be there to meet me when I get back from this trip.

I honestly can't wait for that.

Thursday, June 28
Mid Morning
On the train from Rome to Foligno/Assisi

OK, that was tough.

Saying goodbye at the station was no fun. We got up round 7:00, got breakfast in the Sala Grande then walked over to the Termini. We got tickets for our respective trains - her to Fiumicino, me to Assisi - then waited a few minutes, ducking into the occasional shop. When it was time for her train I walked her to her car and kissed her goodbye. We both agree that the saving grace in this departure is that we'll be back together in a week when she flies to Chicago. Still, it won't be that easy to continue the trip on my own now that I've had the pleasure of her company.

We spent our last night of the trip back at the Atlantico where the desk clerk immediately recognized us and tried to give us the same room as earlier. It wasn't available but an equally nice one was. I really hadn't been focusing on the trip post-Bridget so had to make a quick decision on what my next stop would be. I landed on the idea of Assisi because it is one of the last major towns in central portion of Italy that I've never visited. After arranging a room and figuring out the train schedule, Bridget and I went out for a quiet dinner at a little outdoor trattoria on the Via Cavour we had noticed on our walk around Rome on the first night.

And, yes, it was romantic.

Early Evening

I could see Assisi as the train was arriving in the station. Like Orvieto, the station is at the base of the mountain that houses the ancient city of Assisi. This ranges all across the top of a broad mesa and spills down the sides like neatly ordered layers of candle wax. In keeping with Italian tradition, all the buildings are the same color. In this case it is umber. Not a big surprise since we're in Umbria.

The mountaintop, though, was not the first place I saw. Before seeing this, I looked out the opposite side of the train and saw the huge dome of Santa Maria degli Angeli. The basilica is as impressive as any I've seen and provided me with a first impression of the town.

As soon as I got in the cab, I discovered that my hotel is below the mountain rather than on it. It's also two blocks away from Santa Maria degli Angeli so I knew this would be my first stop.

The hotel is certainly quaint, a small homey place with small homey rooms. The concierge is an English woman with both the manner and looks of a wary pug. She refused to warm to me until she had my passport as well as proof that I really did have a reservation. After all was provided, I asked about Internet service.

"Not until later this afternoon," she barked in an accent that clearly refused to "go native."

Why this would only be available at certain times would have been a worthy question, but I really didn't want to get barked at on this topic. I changed the subject and asked about how to get to Assisi.

"By bus," she said as though I should know this. Then, as if she now accepted the fact that I might not actually have knowledge of how to get around Assisi, she said, "You have wait until you get to Piazza Matteoti before you get off." Then, pointing at several stops on the map, she said, "You don't get off here. Or here. Or here. You get off here!" She pointed of course to Piazza Matteoti.

"OK," I said, pretending to know why she was telling this to me.

"If you stop here, here, or here," she said, once again pointing to each spot, "then you will have to walk uphill to get to everything. Piazza Matteoti is at the top. Get off there and you'll always walk downhill. At the bottom is Piazza Giovanni Paolo II. You get the C bus there to take you back here."

This struck me as sound advice. She also told me that everything in Assisi shuts down from noon to two for lunch so not to even think about heading out before two. This gave me an hour and a half to kill so I went down to my room and rested up.

I headed over to the basilica at 1:45. I wanted to get the necessary biglietti for the bus and something cold to drink before going into the church. I accomplished the tickets and the drink, but not the church. It wouldn't open until 2:30 so I decided to take the bus to the city on the hill.

As we were driving up the mountain I could tell that I would be glad for the concierge's suggestion. Although the streets on which the bus drove were not particularly steep, it was clear that the visible roads inside that town were quite canted.

Piazza Matteoti isn't a piazza so much as a narrow bus stop. I got off the bus, checked my map and then set off into the labyrinth of "pedestrian only" vicolos that would lead to San Rufino, the first of the churches I wanted to see. Much to my surprise, they actually got me there.

The first thing that I noticed about Assisi is how quiet the place is. There were not a lot of tourists, and the vast majority of these were in tour groups. As anywhere else, this means clumps of people listening to guides then posing for a group picture in front of whatever monument or church they've been alowed three minutes to explore.

At least for the time I was there, San Rufino was spared this. Situated at the end of a long narrow plaza, the church is relatively plain on the outside. Inside, though, it makes up for this. White and constructed along a colonnade, it does not have the ancillary chapels of most Medieval cathedrals. Instead, there are kneelers facing large icons. some quite modern. One, for example, is dedicated to John Paul II. The real prize in the church, though, is the baptismal font. This is the same font where both Saints Francis and Chiara were baptized.

One thing that separates San Rufino from several of the other churches is that they let you take photos in this one. This was not true of the next church I visited.

The Basilica di Santa Chiara is larger but far less impressive than San Rufino. The nave is Spartan and very dark. A rather officious nun sits in a booth to the side to make sure that no one takes pictures. Given the lighting circumstances, any shots would have to be done with a flash so I can see the reason for their reticence.

Downstairs is the crypt of Saint Chiara. Unlike the church, it is well-lit and beautifully tiled in off-white and blood red. To one side is a collection of her vestments while the crypt is in a secluded section on the opposite side. The sarcophagus is topped by a replica of the nun lying in repose. This is inside a glass enclosed tomb. The only people who are allowed to get up to the window are praying priests and nuns. All others stand behind a second glassed-off area and observe.

Outside the church I grabbed a slice of pizza and a coke and sat in the piazza for a while. The tourists were huddled in their groups and nearly every priest who passed by was enlisted to have their picture taken with individual tourists, or asked to shoot groups of them on the front steps.

I walked from there to the Piazza di Comune, the center of local government back in the day. The most impressive part of this square is the Temple of Minerva. An ancient bit of architecture dating back to the Roman Empire, its ionic columns and triangular cornice seem wildly out of context in the midst of this Medieval city. Originally constructed as a temple to a Roman goddess, the building was usurped by the Catholics and converted into a church in the 14th or 15th Century. This is where the incongruity really hits you. While the outside is Roman ruins, the inside is a small but brightly painted (mostly in shades of deep blue) collection of Christian iconography. I couldn't help but feel like it was the Christian revenge for all those lions. Here, Christianity was defiantly defacing the Roman aesthetic.

By now I was getting tired in the heat and sun. I didn't want to see too much today because I'll be here for a couple of days. Besides, I wanted to see Santa Maria degli Angeli before calling it a day. I walked down the long steep roads to the Piazza Giovanni Paolo II. Occasionally I would be passed by a huffing and puffing tourist attempting to walk up the same incline. At these moments, I blessed my concierge.

I got to the stop a few minutes before the bus did and took this back to Santa Maria. The church was now opened and was filled with priests, nuns and monks, all part of their own pilgrimage.

Unfortunately, this is one of the churches where they do not allow photos. Since I really do respect these rules, I was more than a little disappointed. It isn't that the church is ornate (although God knows it is), it is quite unique for other reasons. When you walk into the mammoth basilica you can't help but notice that below the dome is another church. This small church is known as the Porziuncola and it is the nucleus of the first Franciscan monastery, built by Francis in the 13th Century. It is also the location where he bestowed the cowl of the religious order on St Chiara. It is a small, dark chapel built of stone and decorated with murals. The light flooding in from the dome windows illuminates it in a way that separates it from rest of the darker basilica. Directly behind this church-within-a-church is the Cappella del Transito. This is where Saint Francis died in 1226. It now houses a relic from the saint and was currently the site of numerous priests kneeling before the small altar on which it sits. This entire cathedral was designed and built over these two locations and done so in a way that brilliantly contextualizes them.

I sat in the church for quite a while then headed back to my place for the evening. My guess is that I'll go back to this basilica while I'm here.