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It’s morning in the foothills of the Dolomites. Thunder roars like some grand medieval beast above our heads as we climb, step by lumbering step, up the cobblestone pathways toward fortress Rocca. Carmen’s silver bejeweled flat sandals slide her backward across the rocks until they too finally catch her stride. She leads the way as we walk straight up into the forbidding clouds that threaten to open up and wash us down again. Down past the small vineyards that stripe the hillsides. Down past the farmhouses and olive groves to the valley floor. I feel like I’ve already been washed away in a landslide recently. I’m determined to make it to the top of this mountain today. It was not our intention to do this virtual trek when we started this morning.
We walked out of our lovely Villa Vega in summer dresses and earrings on our way to the village Asolo, but were detoured by newly paved asphalt on the one and only road. If we hike up to the fortress there might be another path down the other side, we reason. Off we go. It’s much higher and steeper than we think. We are nearly at the highest point, the fortress just looming above us. The air feels both thin from the altitude and heavy from the impending rain. It’s difficult to inhale. I think of the last song I wrote, the week my husband went away on business to NYC and never called. The time before I knew about his lover. “All the weight of your silent streak. Heavy as granite lying over me.” I try to sing it, but cannot catch my breath. Green figs crush between my feet and the stone. I imagine the purple pulp that will smear like jam under someone else’s sandals next month. I think of the grief she too will likely feel in the future. I squash another fig. This time on purpose and with feeling. In photography I look for patterns that repeat. I haven’t been so good at seeing them in men.
Earlier in the morning Carmen sleeps behind the green shutters on the third floor of our villa. I sit at the picnic table on the clover lawn and think of language. How I slow down my cadence and select my words carefully here. I learn the English words Elisabetta or my other friends know and use those selections when I speak to them. I also listen for their translations, butter – burro, and repeat them to myself. I practice rolling my R’s in a trill, but my tied tongue fails me. When I was young I worried that this flap of skin that connects my tongue to the base of my mouth like the webbed foot of a duck would keep me from French kissing. I spent most of my fifteenth year mortified by the possibility until one night, from out of nowhere, it happened. Imagine my relief!
Now I sit eating dry cornflakes with my tongue-tied tongue. Dry because there is no soy or almond milk, and I’m absolutely intolerant of dairy. No milk, cheese, butter/burro, yogurt, milk-chocolate or real gelato for me. Nothing good! Italy tortures me daily with delicacies I can’t eat and would surely have gobbled down otherwise. But this morning there is brioche. I know it’s full of butter, but it is warm and soft and calling me. I take one small bite very quickly. Perhaps I can fool my body if I eat it fast. Oh, the taste, the melting in the mouth goodness, the cinnamon-sugar apple goo, the pain I’m going to feel in five minutes. I throw the devil back into the breadbasket and cover it with a napkin. Damn temptation! The rest of my dry cornflakes and toast taste worse than before.
I finally push away the breakfast and watch the sugar ants on tiny legs scurry in unpredictable patterns across the long woods slats of the table. The gold and blue painted dishware says, “Made in Italy,” not China, on the bottom and is written in English. I think about the sweet foods I’ve missed here, but also the savory foods I’ve tasted. I eat bread, pasta, olive oil and green olives and watch as the hollows of my cheeks and the lines around my eyes begin to fill in again. Over the past four months I have become as thin as the professional bike racers who train in the Dolomites and travel the narrow valley roads I see below. Their brightly colored costumes of purple and red spandex stand out against the green fields. They, too, scurry like sugar ants as they pedal the zigzagged roads leading to the mountains. We’re all awkward climbers today.
This night ends with Amarone wine. Quite possibly the most delicious thing I’ve ever experienced. Our waiter for the past two nights here in Asolo, at Da Nino E Antonietta, swirls a small amount in bevel-bottomed glasses, then pours it out again, prepping the glasses for their most important hour. I put my nose into the glass. It’s so fragrant – chocolate, earth, something from my childhood I can’t quite put my finger on. You don’t have to drink this wine to become intoxicated, simply inhale. But the taste – the taste only enhances that amazing smell. It is like being transported to another level. I’m feel that dizzy, dreamy intoxication of love after only one sip. And there are many more sips after the first.
To Venice tomorrow.
Part 9- Asolo, Italy
My friend, Carmen Jones, is Betty Boop reincarnated. From the adorable round face to the pixie haircut, Carmen is the epitome of cute. She has flown from her new home in London to Venice in order to escape the rain and spend four days with me. We have taken the $10 train ride an hour northwest of Venice to the town of Castelfranco Veneto. Along the way we pass through industrial towns and family-owned cornfields that line the train tracks. From Castelfranco we are supposed to take an inexpensive taxi ride to the picturesque town of Asolo where Villa Vega, “our villa” is waiting. Unfortunately, I have do not have an exact address to our villa. I do have directions, but only in English. In my mind, the handsome taxi driver would know exactly where our very special villa is in this land far faraway and in addition he would speak English. Our driver knows neither, but is indeed handsome and smiles at us in the rearview mirror while driving us around and around and up and up to the base of the Dolomites. $90 later we arrive at our villa.
Our villa sprawls alluringly across the hillside like a lover observing the vineyards and valley below. She stands a proud three stories tall and claims her place in the countryside like a prima donna, entitled and indulged. From the silver-plated antique hand-mirror that beckons from the entry table to the jasmine that climbs up her garden walls. Our Villa is the perfect Venician courtesan. Quiet, worldly, detached. Her backyard, a blanket of lush clover, a carpet for the hammock strung between two grand pine trees. Love me if you must, she says. And we do love her.
Since our Villa is just outside the village of Asolo, which crowns the hilltop, Carmen and I walk ten minutes uphill along the narrow country road. We scurry off to the edge when the occasional car passes. There are no sidewalks to save us from Italian drivers here. Something that sounds like cicadas buzz. We round a corner to find a spring and spigot with free flowing mountain water in front of the small church. Inside the church walls are covered with the remains of frescos. A candle and the low light of afternoon bring out the dulled pinks and apricots in the paint. We walk past doorknobs that remind me of a man accessorizing. The way some men chose a good pair of shoes or a watch to show glimmers of their personality, whereas a woman can don a red dress or wear fishnet stocking. The doorknobs may go unnoticed unless you look for their magnificence. Solid and strong, unique to each doorway along the walk. This one shaped in a horseshoe, this one a cross. The more we look the more we see. All those stylized knobs on very similar looking doors and houses. It’s as if each was trying to shake your hand and invite you in before the neighbor gets to you first.
We walk past the small shop windows where wide flat wheels of aged parmesan jockey for your attention with low hanging air-dried salami. When we enter the doors the smell is so strong we can nearly taste the red pepper, salts and spices. The Parmesan wheels are so valuable that banks sometimes hold them as collateral on debt here. We climb to the old castle and up around the back gates where we find a café with outdoor tables and no customers. Perfect. We order a glass, then change it to a bottle, of the best Prosecco we’ve ever tasted. It’s so nice to see one another here in Italy. Using lovely long English words and talking fast. No translation required.
We sit together, drinking our wine and looking out at the valley below. The green and red shuttered windows of the village houses are mostly closed against the directness of the setting sun. The church bell high in the tower rings and rings. There’s no telling time by the bell, it simply rings for the sake of hearing it’s own tone. Hundreds of pigeons roost in the abandoned house just below. Their cooing and purring melds together into a low hum. Like the foundation of paint that washed over my blank canvas, their sound settles everything around it and allows the other sounds to be brighter. Layer upon layer – the pigeons, the echoed ring of the church bell, the tizzied twitter of the swallow feasting on mosquitoes. The voices of Carmen and I as we talk in a carefree way of flirty girl things. We sound like we are reading aloud from the same trashy magazines we took to Mexico four years ago for poolside sun. Later in the evening the pigeon sounds also support our voices through more weighty issues and events. We are the kind of friends that do not need to be in constant contact. We pick up where we left off regardless of the time or space between. Carmen was there at my wedding and is here now. How did we get here, I suddenly wonder. To her I am the same, before and after. To me I am not. Carmen says, “I wish could fast forward your life four months.” I’ve been saying I wish I could rewind my life four months. I think about this long into the night. Fast forward.
June 24, 2009 by Kimberli, under Alps, fibromyalgia, grief, Italy, love, photo, Uncategorized.
Part 7- Italy
I am remembering Mark Andres’ painting class back in 2006 again. We’ve practiced seeing our straight lines and curved. I am looking at a blank canvas when he stops us and introduces the concept of dark and light passages. I am not an impressive painter by any means, but I am amazed at how often I process the world as if I were painting. Since I was twelve and started taking adult lessons, I’ve observed life in terms of what colors I would need to mix to paint it. When I met my biological grandmother at 18, I learned she did the same. We still will look at random things and both say something like, “It needs a dot of red, right there. To anchor it.” So my instructor Mark, with his thick gray hair flopping in his face, tells us to prime our canvases with washes of dark and light paint. He asks us to notice how the darks in the picture connect and form passages, even when they are not literally touching. How the lights do the same when you squint or let your vision blur. How the darkness of the earth ties to the shadows on a tree and moves upward and out of the frame through the browns of the roof on the house. How the light swirling clouds in van Gogh’s Starry Night connect with the stars and move horizontally across the top two-thirds of the painting while the darks cover the bottom third and streak up into the left vertical third. Like the idea of straight lines and curved, I think of these light and dark passages as I shoot photography and as I try to process my life. The lightness of love and trust – melon gelato, prosecco bubbles, sweet strawberries. How they connect to one another and tie together easily once they begin. The darkness of infidelity and disappointment – aged balsamic vinegar, black truffles, blood sausages.
Here in Italy I’m reading a book called the Grief Recovery Handbook. I read it twenty years ago after being diagnosed with Fibromyalgia and spending over a year in bed. At that time I followed the exercises and drew timelines of my first twenty years. Now, at age forty, I’m doing the same exercises again, but have an additional twenty years of life, love and loss to cover. I look at the timeline and see that there have been dark and light passages flowing through it all. The darkness of illness that cycles, the death of a brother that is called up again with the loss of another brother that is brought back by the death of a friend and then another and then another. The lightness of music and periods of good health, friendships and travel. Bright passages of hope and love that connect the lovers and family members to one another and bring them all together in a marriage ceremony. Darkness that inks out everything as the timeline covers the past four months. There are periods that hold together like graphic blocks, bold and decisive with only general memories. Black or white. The are other years that are cluttered with details and whirl together like marbled paper. I am all of this, I think. The timeline becomes a painting in my mind, and the painting becomes a photograph I capture in the uneven doorways and electrical lines of the Venetian Jewish ghetto. The textures, the entryways and exits, the cumulative effects of it all.
Grief and four days
I don’t sleep well these night in Italy. I dream of houses collapsing, the walls falling outward while the family sits silently at the chrome kitchen table. “Move on.” “Put it behind you.” “You’ll find better.” “Time will heal,” are the things people say. I know myself, however. The hole not deep enough to bury, the distraction not sweet enough to sugarcoat and the mask not opaque enough to pretend. I have to process, regardless of well-intended advice. Tonight I was envisioning the past six years as a tall stack of wrapped boxes I carry around. The straight edges of the creased wrapping paper and twirly-twisty ribbon on top. I had taken a walk along the harborside and set my camera on the ground to shoot slow shutter photos of the sailboats in the water. In my mind I took my tower of boxes down and sat it next to me. I imagined the ways in which I could deal with these boxes. I considered several options. 1) tie the boxes together with rope, firmly attach a sailboat anchor to the end, along with my ankle, and push it into the ocean. 2) find one hundred helium balloons, I can’t yet see if they are all black or all colors, and watch the tower float off into the Italian Alps 3) open each box carefully and photography the contents. I know that some boxes will contain gifts, others grenades. Some will hold beauty, others bombs. I wonder how strong I will have to be to do it. How flexible I will need to be to discover what was not as I imagined. “Strong like a memory, strong like a willow in the wind. Strong as you’ll ever be, you will always need to bend.” Singer-songwriter, Craig Carothers
Is it final now? Four days since the paperwork was to be submitted. Four days for the judge to sign. Four seconds – a name on the Blue-toothed dash. Four days of silence. Forty days to move out. Fortieth birthday. Four month in a shocked coma.
Four minutes to book a flight to Italy.
Am I better yet?