Tales of a wandering lesbian

The art of giving

Usually, I wake up in the morning, make a cappu (or have one made for me by one of the wonderful women I live with). I catch a ride with Deb into Barga and spend the day writing, walking, eating and repeating.

This morning, when we reached the studio, I changed my plans. The studio, which is full of beautiful, passionate art, is an unqualified mess. The studio consists of four rooms. The front is a great cavern of color and shape, the place where tourists and locals can wander in and view the paintings and photographs that Sandra and Deb have on display. Through a curtain to the right is the back room where the artists work: studying figures, editing photographs, consulting with clients. Bright overhead fluorescent lights and photographic equipment dominate.

Behind the workroom is an alcove that has been walled off with drywall – something completely strange in this ancient space. The alcove houses a workbench, paint, mats, shelves of paper, drawers of miscellaneous hardware, and a collection of years of partial drawings, sketches and paintings.

A small ground-level window opens onto a lovely garden, but is obscured almost completely by a side-table crammed with more papers and mats.
The fourth room is a bathroom, hidden behind a plywood door, and completely unexpected.

Along with the toilet and sink, this room houses boxes of plates, forgotten frames hanging from the pipes, a baker’s rack full of baby-food-sized jars of paint, and the cups liberated from cafes and restaurants in the town.
I remember the first time I walked into the studio. I was blown away with the power and beauty of the images in the space. The passion of the women who own the studio washed over me as I sat on the small sofa against one wall. I was excited to think that these women could make a living with their art – that they had carved a little space in the world where beauty and passion were primary and sufficient.

Things are rarely that simple, but this studio gives me hope.

So, today I changed my plans. “Will you let me clean up the studio today?” “Assalutamente, si,” came the response – almost before I had finished asking.
I spent the first hour just walking from room to room, assessing the situation; snapping pictures, sweeping, taking stock of the stacks. After that, I started rearranging. Sandra is prolific. I was totally amazed at the variety of subject-matter, style, and materials. One moment I was sorting through canvases, then wood panels, then round wooden boxes, then pottery, and even a piece of marble. There are probably 100 pieces in the 20×20 studio, hanging from the walls, stacked in the corners, leaning against furniture.

My marketing background kicked in, and I started by rearranging the intimidating entrance from one flanked by huge bins of prints, to one that beckons to passers-by to come in and look at the beautiful postcards that feature the works of Deb and Sandra. On the little table in the middle of the room, I arranged information about their wedding photography business.

The studio began to open up. I really enjoy arranging spaces, whether it’s furniture or artwork, it’s therapeutic for me. While I’m often unable to do this for my own space, I’m able to help clear the physical surroundings of others. I’ve found that when I’m arranging a space, it will talk to me, letting me know what color or shape should go where. The gallery talked to me today, but it also fought me a couple of times: once when I tried to hang a painting of a flower too high, and then when I moved from paintings to begin hanging photographs. That’s when the studio kicked me in the gut.

The workspace houses some of the most striking works, in my opinion. A bold, large painting of a nude hangs high in one corner, while the opposite wall is covered in photos of partially nude figures portrayed as angels. Among these photographs is one of the most beautiful I have ever seen. I don’t say that lightly and it’s not meant as flattery. It’s simply the truth. I was so stuck by it last time I was here, I wasn’t able to look at it for very long.
This photograph was propped against the wall where almost nobody saw it. So I made a space, found a chain, and hung the beautiful figure high on one wall where it could be enjoyed by all.

Yes, I know the walls in the gallery are old. Yes, I know large photographs with glass are heavy. Yes, I know. However, it wasn’t that heavy, and the chain hung on three nails – for about a minute. It was quite beautiful for that one minute. Fortunately, I had cleared the area below so that when it came crashing down to break on the marble-tiled floors, the other beautiful photographs were out of the way.

Evidently, the gallery wasn’t ready for the photo to hang there just yet. As the glass shattered and scratched the beautiful image, I wanted to scream. This great tribute to my friends. My contribution to the display of their passion – broken and scratched. (Okay, I know it’s really dramatic, but it sucked – big time.) I seriously wanted to hide and cry. Instead, I got the broom and Deb found a box for the glass. There are people who make you feel horrible when you break their junk. And there are people cheer you up when you break their art. I really do prefer the second kind of people. Whether she knew it or not, Deb made an effort to cheer me up over the next hour.

Yes, we’ll get the picture reprinted. Yes, I’ll finish cleaning the gallery. Yes, these things happen. I’m not so sure I’d have been as generous and kind, but I’ll remember to try next time.

When we got home, we found Sandra in the kitchen cooking dinner. Vegetables. And soup. I’m pretty sure that before I got here, there was a good deal more meat eaten in the house. But Sandra worries every night whether I will have enough to eat and cooks accordingly. Tonight we had a fabulous mixture of baked fennel, potatoes, carrots, peppers and onions, prepared lovingly by Sandra. Her mother made the soup (fabulous as well). Her mother, it turns out, also took care of my clothes. She brought them in from the yard where they were drying and folded and ironed them – even my underwear. For real.

Then, as we sat down for dinner, I saw something out-of-place at my setting.

Kiwi wand

Tommy, who knows I like Harry Potter, spent the day carving a legitimate kiwi-wood wand for me. Evidently, he’s not very handy, but he did a great job with this thing, even carving my initials in the handle.  Wow.

After dinner we all sat down for a game of Italian Pictionary ®. We use this as my vocab lesson, me guessing in English and Sandra, Deb and Tommy guessing in Italian, explain the words as we go.

It was a very full day. More than usual I am struck by how giving the people I am staying with are. They have a person they met for one day six months ago sleeping on their floor and sharing their table. It’s amazing how well it has worked for the last 10 days. We all give what we can and it works.  What more can you ask, really?

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November 3, 2009   2 Comments

Dusting off

I have a special kinship with children. In almost any social setting, if there are children present, I find myself in their company. I’m not sure if this says more about them or about me. It’s not clear who seeks out whom.

This year, as I’m in Italy, I spent Halloween in an Italian town. Sandra, Deb and I took Deb’s eldest nephew, Luigi, who is maybe 8, into Barga for the Halloween celebration. It wasn’t trick-or-treating, but rather a celebration in one of the squares of the town, complete with music and sweets and performances.

We stood for a while, on the edge of the scene, observing; picking up the bits of skull-shaped confetti, collecting treasures in a vest pocket.

After a time of wandering through the square, we headed out to search the streets of the town. Children in masks and capes trotted along with excited voices. The selection of Halloween costumes in this small town must have been sparse. Each child wore one of three masks, with various cloaks and capes, making the whole evening even more surreal (as though I needed that, walking through an Italian mountain town on Holloween).

Just outside the walls we found a stand selling freshly roasted castagne (chestnuts). We ran into our friend, Frank, who noted with a tone of amusement that the nuts had been brought in from a neighboring region, though Garfagnana is known for its castagne (this is rather like being in Idaho and having Oregon potatoes). The nuts, however, were excellent, owing mostly to the fact that they were being roasted in front of us over an open fire in a great drum – on Halloween night – In Barga.

Castagne roasting - Halloween

After a while headed back into the town, where bands of children were knocking on the doors of vast, empty “palazzos” (palaces) and running away squealing. Luigi expressed a little fear about the ghosts that he might see that night, and Deb, in a fit of gallantry, handed him her flashlight so that he could shine it on any fantasma he might see and make it disappear. He spent the next hour shining the light on practically everything, systematically determining what was real and what was ghost.

Looking for ghosts

We returned to the square to find hoards of children filing in behind four men carrying a coffin. I’m not sure exactly where the coffin and the children went, but Luigi stayed by Deb’s side. About a minute later, screaming children flooded back into the square as firecrackers exploded somewhere out of sight.
Luigi is fairly new to the area, his family having moved back to Barga about a year ago. He has just started learning to speak Italian, and has a Japanese father – not so common in Barga. He is a beautiful, self-purposed child, intelligent and, at times, over-confident. (The first day I met him, he told me he had just built the kitchen chairs that I had seen his father assembling earlier.) On Halloween, in a dark piazza, surrounded by children who knew each other, and who were talking in excited Italian, all of his confidence melted away. While the others ran forward to play a lottery game, Luigi moved to the back, closer to his auntie.

I bent down to arrange some of the Halloween confetti with Luigi. There’s something about bending down to the level of children that makes them pay attention to you. Within about a minute I had 5-10 children helping me with my creation.

Confetti art

Quickly, the quiet moment dissolved into the chaos of the evening, and the children started running, playing, chasing. Luigi caught the attention of a boy from his class. Without words, he engaged the boy. We watched as the boy first ignored Luigi, then dismissed him, physically pushing him away. Luigi came back to Deb to be reassured just by her presence – then he tried again.

Soon enough, the boy was chasing him. Luigi crouched and then charged, swerved and darted around the square as one, two, three others joined in. Deb and I watched in apprehension, aware of the power dynamics of one-on-many, and yelling out when the play got too rough.

Luigi was clearly pleased, if a bit unsure, as he ran from the boys. Then his foot caught on one of the centuries old stones that pave the piazzas of the town. Down he went in a spectacular crash, his knees, hands and cheek hitting the cold ground. Everything stopped. While Deb ran forward and the kids moved away, Luigi picked himself off and walked away. Debbie jogged over to him and steered him to a bench away from the crowd.

There were no tears. Just a bruised lip and skinned hands. We regaled him with tails of the battle, his bravery and skill, and his confidence snuck back. As he cleaned his red hands with my cherry blossom hand sanitizer, we agreed it might be time to finally head home.
Watching this brave little boy, I felt a powerful connection. Stripped of most of the tools we use to make friends, he headed into a crowd of strangers, and doggedly pursued one until he had a friend. I often feel that I’m running up to people I meet, testing to see if they will play with me. Hoping against fear that my efforts won’t leave me pushed away, on the ground with skinned knees, but knowing that, when they do, at least I’ve done my part. At least I’m sure that I haven’t missed an opportunity for something beautiful.

And now I’ll have the image of Luigi, picking himself off, dusting himself off, and cleaning his hands with my cherry blossom hand sanitizer. Grazie, Luigi.

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November 2, 2009   5 Comments

A friend with a view

The duomo in Barga sits atop the hill.  The stone paved roads wind up and around the hill, through brightly colored buildings, past rotting doors and gated gardens.  If you walk up amost any path, eventually you will reach the duomo.  Every 15 minutes it gently announces its primacy with the ringing of its bells.

I spend time there, sitting in silence, observing the mountains, the workers repairing its walls, the tourists who come for the view.  The view.  The view is fantastic.

Duomo view

Looking out you see the alps.  Jagged, expansive and beautiful.  You can see other towns nestled in the valleys, and perched on the ridges.  Maybe it sounds cliché, but it’s a majestic view, one that makes you feel the grandness of the landscape.

Looking down, you see a beautiful, well maintained, piazza, children playing, and Frank’s house.  I’ve been sitting in the piazza for the past week, writing, talking with my family and just enjoying the beautiful fall air.

A couple of days ago, when walking up the hill to the studio with Deb, we were hailed.  A couple of men were talking and called us over.  They had a familiar look and feel about them, but I wasn’t sure if I knew them or just felt like I knew them.  (I’ve had this happen several times here, and so far it’s been more the feeling of knowing that washes over me.)

“I think I’ve just been reading your blog.”

“What?  My blog?  Really.  How?  I mean that’s great!”

The surprise of being addressed immediately and directly in English was enough to throw me off a bit, let alone being addressed about my blog, in a foreign country, by a stranger.  I’m afraid I wasn’t at my most eloquent.

Keane, immediately recognizable by his full, graying beard, boldly colored cardigan and paint-stained Birkenstocks , is, like many, an import to Barga:  An artist who, among other things, manages the online magazine, “barga news”.  My instinct that I recognized him was correct.  It turns out that I had seen pictures of Keane on the site, and that he, in a funny way, was partly responsible for my trip to Barga.  Keane was instrumental in the gnome liberation movement.  A misread article led my family to visit Barga in search of the nani.  It was that visit that turned my world upside down.  Cheers Keane.

Standing in the street with Keane was another man.  “Oh, so you’re a bloggist?”  Frank presented a stark contrast to Keane.  Dressed in a button down shirt, with a neat, dark beard, Frank’s gaze was incisive and matter-of-fact.  And he had the most excellent glasses.  I’ve long made it a practice to compliment often, and immediately if I am struck by someone.  Why save it?  “I love your glasses. They’re really great.”

His modest discomfort with the compliment was charming.  Or maybe it was that he really didn’t buy it.  Or maybe pretty girls make him nervous.  It happens to the best of us – believe me.

I left the brief conversation hoping that our paths would cross again, and sure that they probably would.  It’s a nice feeling to know that I’m here for a while.  It changes the dynamics of conversations.  There’s no sense of hyper-immediacy that comes when you know you might not see someone again, and that you need to pack as much in to an interaction as you possibly can.  You can let things unfold.

Yesterday, after my second cappuccino of the day, I was making my way up to the duomo when I saw some friends of Deb’s sister sitting outside a cafe.  I went over to sit with them and chat a bit.  After a while, another friendly face appeared.  Frank!  “That’s a terrible book.”

I had just been telling the others how helpful I found the Rick Steves guide book when travelling to places like Florence and even Lucca, the walled city.  We were heading to Lucca that evening, and we were discussing museums and gelato shops.  “It’s really awful.”

I had a feeling I knew what Frank’s beef might be with the book.  While at Caffe Lucchesi for my second cappu, I had opened up my atlas and guidebook to put together the itinerary for the rest of my time in Italy.  When I opened to the map in the front of the Rick Steves book to locate Calabria (way in the toe of the boot), I saw that southern Italy and Sicily were cut off.  My family is from Southern Italy, so I found this mildly irksome, but had had good luck with the book, so I soldiered on, noting that I’d need to consult a friend in Calabria anyway, so it would be alright.

Frank’s family is from Sicily.  He took the book from me, “see, this is his all Italy book, right?  Well, look at this map…”  Bingo.  This book, along with being a touristy flag waiving for all to see, was a direct assault on his heritage.  Don’t get me wrong.  It’s a fair point.

The party broke up, and talk turned to mushrooms.  I enjoy collecting mushrooms, and have been hoping to find someone to take me into the hills.  Only I don’t want to get lost or shot, and nobody really wants to share their secret mushroom beds with anyone.  As we stood there, talking about how Frank, who grew up in Detroit, came to be in Barga, another of his friends walked in.  By the sound of him, a Scotsman.  After a bit of friendly banter, we all headed over to another restaurant where we found Keane.

I love sitting and listening to others speaking Italian.  I’m beginning to understand a little better the patterns of speech.  The ebb and flow of the words.  I can’t fully understand, but I am beginning to hear and catalogue the frequency of certain words; to hear fillers that are used often, and to begin to understand the why and how of each of them – at least sometimes.

Realizing that I had someone who might be able to explain the usage of filler words in the context of American English, I seized the opportunity and started peppering Frank with questions.  “how is allora different from ecco?” “ and if ecco means then and poi means then, which is temporal?” “and to look and to look for?  Which is which?”  Patiently, Frank went through his paces, answering the questions that have answers and explaining that much what I was asking is dictated by loose rules that give way to regional idioms.  Great.  Super-helpful.

Frank, it turns out, is quite an interesting guy.  He spent his career as a correspondent in war zones.  A journalist of fantastic pedigree, Frank has a tidy (not to be read as simple), well-rounded view of much of the world.  (Of course, this is my assessment after spending a couple of hours, so take it for what it’s worth.  In reality, the guy could be a psychopath.  Which is funny, because Sandra and Deb and I joke every so often about how any of us could be murderous thieves, but after meeting for one day, we were willing to merge our lives – even if briefly – with virtually no concern.  Crazy.  And beautiful.)

Frank also wrote a book (well more than one, actually).  Great!  My first question was “what is it about?”  I really couldn’t have anticipated the answer.  As Frank explained it, his grandfather had always said that the family moved from Sicily because his great-great-grandfather (I think) had been assassinated.  Before his death, his grandfather whispered the name of the assassin to Frank.  So Frank returned to Sicily to find out what happened.  Seriously.  I’ll be putting the book on my sidebar so that you can purchase it from Amazon.  I know I’m going to.

As the shops closed down yesterday and people headed home for lunch, Frank invited me to see his place.  Like so many others, Frank fell in love with Barga when he visited.  He ended up buying his house, which sits atop a 900 year old nunnery directly below the duomo.  (I’ll let you know if he rents rooms.)  We walked around the corner, and he pointed it out.  Stacked on top of each other, the houses on that side of Barga are layered like an archeological dig, newer on top of older, dug into the side of the hill.

“Come on up and I’ll show you around the place.”  Yes, yes, I think I’ll follow a strange man into his home in a village in Italy where nobody knows where I am.  Brilliant idea.  Mom would totally approve.  But, he had the stamp of approval from Deb and Sandra, so I accompanied Frank into his beautiful home to see the view of the mountains.

The view, says Frank, is the same as that from the Duomo.  It’s about 50 yards away from the duomo’s steps, but I found the view about 3 times more beautiful.  While the view from the top of the hill, shared with the stark face of the impersonal marble is expansive and striking, the view from Frank’s terrace was warm, welcoming and friendly.

Frank's view

Frank went to the kitchen to make a sandwich, and I stayed to join him.  While he prepared bread, cheese and fruit, I wandered through the ancient garden of olives, grapes and herbs.  Over lunch, Frank taught me to eat sheep’s milk cheese with honey, and brought out the most amazing persimmons that dissolved into spoonfuls of marmalade.

Persimmon

While we ate we talked about Frank’s time in China, Italy and elsewhere, and considered my Italian itinerary.  The conversation skipped from the cultural and sociological differences between China and India to the importance of social dialogue and the raw sensuality that lies just above the surface of nearly every Italian interaction.

I sat in shirtsleeves in 80 degree weather on frank’s terrace for an hour and a half and I felt something I have felt very rarely in my life.  While I really enjoy learning, I rarely am able to learn from others.  My ego gets in the way, and I charge forward, knowing I’ll blunder along, wanting to make my own mistakes.  But, I would have sat for the whole day, asking questions, and learning from this man I had just met.  I’m interested to see what this might mean – whether it’s a new time in my life where I will be able to better accept contrary opinions as proffered rather than wielded, or whether it’s a mentoring friendship that can be built.  Or whether it was a beautiful day on a hillside with a stranger.  Either way, it feels a beautiful gift.

And makes me wonder what tomorrow will bring.

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October 31, 2009   15 Comments

A walkabout

Today was another good day.  I started a little moody, probably because I haven’t really worked out in a couple of months.  So I decided to go for a bit of a walk.  Deb had pointed out a beautiful hike from back above old Barga into the town.  I started out at the studio and walked the opposite direction than I usually go, out through the downtown and into the more residential parts.

I honestly don’t know how to use words to describe how gorgeous it was.  Here are some pictures.

Grapes and parapetBarga GateBeautiful old Barga door

As I snaked my way further and further away from Barga, along the inside of the hills, so that I was directly opposite the backside of the Duomo, I was treated to more and more beautiful views.

View from BargashinglesDuomo backside

I picked a place on the side of the road to meditate a bit.  I thought the quiet stillness would be good.  As I cleared a space in the grass and went to sit down, I saw a strange movement in the grass.  I almost brushed it aside, when I realized it was a praying mantis!

Meditating mantis

How fantastic!  I have really early memories of seeing these.  We don’t have them in Idaho and Oregon, and I always heard they were good luck.  So, I sat down close enough that I could watch this little guy, but far enough that I wasn’t stressing him.

Together, we sat and looked at the world.  He watched the aunts walk around him and shuddered in the little breeze.  I stared at the amazing views of Barga and the mountains behind, and tried to concentrate on my breathing.  It wasn’t easy today.  I was very easily distracted by things like the olive tree next to me and the brilliance of evolution (I know, gasp!).

I’m quite sure I’ll have more walks around Barga.  There are so many beautiful little places that make me tear up with their sheer beauty and possibility.  But I might have to stick to meditating downtown.  The beauty of the countryside is too distracting.

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October 30, 2009   2 Comments

Monday in Barga

My first Monday was spent in Barga.  Sandra went off to teach art to middle-school kids, and I tagged along with Debbie to Barga. Mind you, each of these little snippets merits its own full post, but that will have to wait until a bit later.  The days are so full that I’m settling for recaps at this point.  More to come.

I spent the first while exploring the gallery, and then joined her, her mother and Andre for the second cappuccino of the day.

Monday cappu

The gallery is great.  Even more abundant and beautiful than I remember.  The warmth of the women whose work hangs on the walls emanates powerfully throughout the space.

Arteimmagine sign

Coffee with Deb’s mom and Andre included an instructive session in how to run from the police.

Running with Andre

And a terrific mess.

Breakfast Mess

It seriously looked like a tornado had hit by the time we left.  Tornado Andre!

The rest of the morning consisted of some sitting meditation at the duomo, and a great deal of wandering and picture-taking.

Steps to DuomoDuomo DrainBarga Duomo

Lunch was with Deb’s mom and this time her eldest nephew, Luigi.  Luigi was doing his homework, if a bit reluctantly.  Excellent!  The night before, Sandra gave me some preschool books of Tommy’s, so that I can improve my Italian language.  Sitting with Luigi was wonderful practice.  Sadly, he started in September, so he’s quite far ahead of me.  In fact, the dogs know more Italian than I do.  Talk about humbling.

While I’m totally thrilled to be practicing vocab, Luigi isn’t super excited to be teaching me.  When we left, his grandmother was standing guard to make sure he got his homework completely finished.

Homework time

What Luigi doesn’t know is that I’m set to be his babysitter when needed.   I’ll be using the axe.

We then headed to the next installment of the photo shoots for Deb’s humane society calendar.  This time, we ended up at a beautiful villa overlooking the river.

Italian Menageria

The owners had quite the menagerie, including:

Brown catFluff catWhite cat

a cancerous cat, an overly vocal cat, and a cat who had been run over (note the not-quite-right jawline), as well as two dogs (both shelter) a stray donkey – and they had recently relocated a stray chicken.  Wow.  Oh yes, and these people are also from England.

After the photo shoot, it was back to Barga where Deb met with a friend from the “Equal Opportunity Commission,” an engaging woman (in Italian only) who pored over the computer with Deb for several hours while I ventured out again.  This time, I headed to the Vodafone store, to pick up a wireless internet drive.  I was able to speak enough Italian to tell the woman I was sorry that I didn’t speak well and find that she spoke perfect, Scottish, English.  Bonus.  Unfortunately, they were out of drives.  Bummer.  So, it’s another week, maybe,  but that’s alright, really.  I hear the library has free internet access, and it looked like there was a pretty nice internet café across from the Vodafone store.

On the way back to the gallery, I realized I was in need of a mid-afternoon pick-me-up and had never gone to the Barga Gellateria when I was here last time.  Due to my extensive wandering early in the morning, I knew right where it was.  So, I gathered my euro and my vocab words and headed there alone.

I’m pretty sure the woman behind the counter could speak English, but she was kind enough to humor me as I asked her what went well with “amorena,” winter cherry.  She rattled off a list of flavors, and the only one I really heard was ricotta.  “Ricotta?” “Si, con figgi.”  Figgi!  I learned that word last time when we had the most amazing fig tart ever.  So, I ordered a cup of amorena and ricotta con figgi.  My first fully Italian interaction.  I even understood the cost as she said it to me the first time. Brava!

Gelato number 1

Mom, this one’s for you.

I cruised on up the hill to the memorial for some dude (Deb told me his name, but I can’t remember, but he must be important, because he has a park and a statue.  Together, we enjoyed gelato.  I think I enjoyed it more than he did, frankly.

Once back at the studio I sat down to write a bit.  After maybe an hour, Sandra appeared on her way to a “political reunion.”  She asked if I wanted to go with her, and after a moment’s hesitation, I jumped up.  More politics?  Perhaps.  More politics where I really don’t understand the language, and don’t have any requirements?  Absolutely.  The women who had run in the last election were getting together – from two opposition parties – along with the head of the library and the head of culture for the reason, to talk about ideas for recognizing violence against women day.  This meeting really will need its own post.  Suffice it to say that it was fascinating to watch and listen.

Deb joined us toward the end and the three of us headed home for a lovely meal of homemade minestrone, beans and more.  Climbing into bed, I saw that Sandra had rearranged my sleeping quarters, decorating my bed with cozy pillows and making more room.  Va bene.

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October 27, 2009   5 Comments