italy.

date. 2021

cities. lenno, perugia, rome, sorrento, capri

Image by Xavier  Coiffic

September 11

My train left Como this morning, speeding south on its way to Perugia. I transferred twice; once in Milan and again in Florence, but chose to stay on the train, preferring the quiet solitude of a small town over the bustling cities.

I spent the last week with some friends up in Lenno, a mountainside village sprinkled down the slopes of Lake Como. It bore a striking resemblance to paradise.

But as our vacation wound down I found myself unable — or in any case unwilling — to return to the US. So, onward to Perugia.

As I speed further and further from my friends (both in time and space), that familiar loneliness begins to set in.

I’ve noticed that my travels often become infused by the book I happen to be reading at the time. I planned ahead and brought Dante’s Divine Comedy along for the ride, but instead found myself listening to Kanye’s new album, Donda, on repeat.

An album about loss to guide me in my own losing.

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First Impressions of Perugia:

 

Entering the city takes work. It’s situated on the peak of a steep hill, so there’s no way around it. I like that. I’ve always felt that New York has a way challenging its visitors, but then rewarding you with something special for your efforts.

 

And God cursed Adam and said, “By the sweat of your brow you will eat your food until you return to the ground, since from it you were taken; for dust you are and to dust you will return.”

 

I want to work for my bread. I like to sweat. I’m good at it. One of my favorite aspects of Lenno was the morning runs I would take with Liza. Up and down the mountain. Back and forth along the lakefront.

 

When I arrived at the Airbnb on Via del Pepe, I was greeted by my host Giovanna, a piano student at the nearby conservatory. She doesn’t quite speak English, but she more than makes up for it with her kindness and laughter.

 

I set down my bags, take a deep breath, and feel myself arrive in Italy. No friends. No work. No Americans or tourists or English. Just Italy.

 

For the first time since Covid broke out, I find myself alone in a foreign country. Travel is back, baby. Ready or not, here I come.

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September 12

I woke up pretty late this morning. It’s my first morning, so I don’t yet have a routine. Each moment is spontaneous, demanding my full attention. There’s discomfort in freedom.

 

Giovanna prepared some breakfast for me (typically Italian: a few crackers, jam, and espresso). After eating, I left for a long walk through the awakening city. Sunday mornings hit different in Italy. Perugia’s countless churches accompany me in my solitude. I appreciate the company. The toll of their bells create a soundtrack, like some sort of urban mood lighting.

 

(Side note: I think that every neighborhood should have its own sound track that they play over outdoor speaks.)

 

I have too many swirling thoughts so I sit down in the Giardini Carducci (the first of many such sittings), where I’m surrounded with playing children and imposing statues, and write a poem:

Sunday in Perugia

 

“More churches, more churches!”

The people, starved of space to rest and moments to bless,

beg for more churches.

 

O Perugia;

Drown out my thoughts,

With your deafening silences.

Awaken my heart,

With the tolling of your bells.

 

Sweep aside my effort

With a force

Born only

from the depths of your love.

 

Your gentle breeze

Chuckles at my ignorance.

 

In the absence of war

I’ve completely forgotten

This feeling of peace.

 

I trace the contours of your stony silence, with bloody fingertips

stained in the battles of progress.

Forever barred,

Like the ancient psalmist,

from entry into your holy of holies.

 

O Perugia, throw up your walls!

Barricade your gates!

Man your ramparts!

Against the bombardment of history.

 

How indecently does truth expose herself!

Freezing everything

In the gaze of cold reason.

 

Wrap yourself in layers.

Spread the warmth

of your flowing robes,

Woven from the threads

Of your most tantalizing tales.

 

The future

dissolves itself

In the laughter

Of your children.

 

Cover your nakedness.

Prolong the mystery.

Please,

won’t you leave something

to the imagination?

 

One never strolls in Perugia.

Casual encounters are forbidden

on this fortress of the spirit.

 

I climb your highest hills,

Ascend your spiraling stairs,

Mount your tallest towers.

 

Without the slightest trace of success.

 

I find myself lost.

 

You’ve seen through

My hopeless attempts

To penetrate your mystery.

 

O Perugia,

keep me forever breathless.

I remain on edge

Searching for a foothold

Within your elusive embrace.

 

Gasping, grasping

Reaching, pleading

I fumble with the keys.

I sleep on the couch.

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Afterwards, I felt a burst of loneliness, so I went back to the apartment, swiped unsuccessfully on some dating apps, and watched TV.

 

Just as I was getting ready for dinner, I got a text from Giovanna inviting me for some drinks with her and her friends. Since she can’t speak English I thought it might be a bit awkward, but whatever, I said yes.

 

We met at a small bar just outside the center, and luckily her friend Allesio spoke English and was happy to chat. After drinks, Giovanna went off to meet her parents for dinner, leaving Allesio and me to fend for ourselves. At this point, it was nearly 10 and I wasn’t quite sure we’d find anything open. But (of course) Allesio once owned a restaurant nearby so he knew exactly where to go. A few minutes later, we took our seats in a tiny alley, at a place that his friends run.

 

Crammed into an alley that looked like something out of GoT, we gorged ourselves on ham, prosciutto, cheese, red wine, and of course, pasta! Leave it to an Italian to turn an afterthought of a meal into the most delicious, and dare I say romantic, dinner I’ve had in a long long time.

 

Over dessert, Allesio told me about how he still dreams of teaching art history. How the stones around us carry centuries of love, hope, and conquest within them, and how there’s a simple joy in simple living. The stones tell their own stories.

 

Interestingly, Allesio’s favorite period of art history is the point just after the Renaissance. The dreamers who came too late, who were overshadowed and overlooked. How does one follow Michelangelo? Raphael? Da Vinci?

 

How does one worship after the messiah has already arrived? And left.

 

According to Allesio, these artists didn’t have an established framework or method. Each one just followed themself, and tried now to focus too much or become overwhelmed by what came before them.

 

After dinner, I met with the chefs, and waiters, and cleaners. It was now well after midnight, so they had just come off duty and were standing around smoking. They welcomed me to their city, just as much as to their restaurant. They welcomed me to their little world. I was utterly confused by their mix of English, Italian, and body language. It was wonderful.

 

We met up with Giovanna for some gelato and then went back home.

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September 13

Today I’m writing from a medieval Franciscan temple, Chiesa di San Michele Arcangelo. It’s not like the other churches I’ve seen. It’s not tall and mighty. It’s not colorful or filled with beautiful murals. It’s empty. It’s just me here. And Jesus? Just kidding. I like it here. It’s a nice spot for meditation. Or writing.

 

So I pulled up a wooden bench and opened my journal. I hope no one throws me out. It feels sacrilegious to use the church benches as my desk. It feels sacrilegious to use this church at all.

 

(This reminds me, I’d like to send Slava a copy of Rudolph Otto’s The Idea of the Holy for his birthday.)

 

I guess I already defiled it all when I ate some Chinese takeout out in the courtyard.

 

“It’s a beautiful place to eat lunch,” remarked a passing pilgrim. I totally agree. I wrote a poem after lunch.

The Meaning of Life

 

The meaning of life

Is Umbrian sunshine

Aglow on the hillside

 

The meaning of life

Is the groom’s face

Aglow with his bride

 

The meaning of life

Is the child’s tears

Aglow with lost pride

 

The meaning of life

Is the virgin’s glance

Aglow and wide-eyed

 

The meaning of life

is right

on the surface.

 

I don’t really like it. But I don’t know how to fix it. Besides, I like the idea of meaning being on the surface. Like the text is all you need. No need for interpretations.

 

September 14

I went to sleep early last night and slept late into the morning.

 

Been feeling mentally over-worked. This tends to happen when I spend too much time alone, drowning in my thoughts.

 

Sleep and lots of it, seems to be a good antidote.

 

I arranged with Giovanna to stay a few more days in Perugia, and then I’ll head to Rome.

 

I picked up a sandwich for lunch and ate it in the shade of the serene Chiesa di San Francesco al Prato. I want to keep track of all these spots. I guess the churches have been my friends here, and I don’t want to forget them.

 

I’ve noticed that as I stroll around aimlessly, my mind is often at work, sometimes in the background sometimes in the foreground, composing poems.

 

Here are a few more from this morning.

 

 

Lies

 

All words are lies.

Especially these.

 

 

I Woke Up

 

I woke up one morning

From my eternal daze

And went out to search

For the one true way

 

I thumbed through ancient scrolls

clambered up snowy peaks.

I descended into deep damp caves

And laid starving for weeks.

 

I kneeled before masters

followed my yogis

prayed for some sign

And wept for some mercy.

 

I filled months with meditation

years with dedication.

I tasted of eternity

And sung of salvation.

 

I achieved Nirvana

Bathed in Dveikus,

 

Until that fatal day

When along came

a fucking toothache

And swept it all away.

 

 

I am the Taliban

 

I am the Taliban

And I am Jesus.

 

I am the Donald

And the Buddha.

 

I am all the deceivers

And all their believers.

 

I lead only myself

into the darkness.

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September 15

I returned to Sant’Angelo’s church this morning. On a whim. I sat quietly in the corner for a while, taking in the solemn aura, the ancient columns, the soft colors, the wooden crosses, the somber statues.

 

This is a truly beautiful place. Simply and objectively.

 

So different than the Jewish synagogues, where all imagery and objectification are forbidden.

 

Christianity provides objects of love, of devotion. Judaism forbids it.

 

In a sense, Judaism is not of this world. Equally so, it is not of this time.

 

While Jews remember our past and remain hopeful about the future, Christianity remains firmly rooted right here, right now, in the present.

 

Jews kneel before no one, Christians kneel before all.

 

With all of our laws, stories, and performances, Judaism sanctifies the subject, never the object. Well, we do have one object we find holy… our vast sprawling library of books. And the land from which we’ve been exiled.

 

But hasn’t that already begun to change?

 

Since Jesus, no Jew has broken the cardinal sin of idolatry (literally, worshipping an object) until Theodor Herzl, the father of Zionism. And look what Zionism brought with it…

 

Christianity, take control of the here and now. Take all the objects, and all the facts, and all the answers. After all, it is your birthright, your specialty.

 

All I ask is that you leave the dreams, the stories, and the questions to us.

 

You take the body, just leave us the soul.

 

Amen.

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September 16

I often find myself in strange situations, with only a vague idea of how I got there. But today was particularly strange.

 

Back in college, I made a spiritual about face, and completely turned my back on the religious extremism of my youth. It took everything I had, and then some.

 

So, how is it that over half a decade later I find myself on Yom Kippur morning kneeling in front of St. Francis’s tomb? This was never the plan. I came to Italy to soak up some sun on Lake Como and some fun in Rome. Along the way, I got trapped in a church. I am on my knees in Assisi. I’d like to think that one thing simply led to another. But that can’t be the full story.

 

Something deep inside me is drawn to the sacred and the holy, like a moth drawn to fire. (Luckily for me, I’m equally drawn to the dirty and the sinful. Keeps things interesting.) Perhaps I’m only looking for an escape? And I’m just not particularly picky about the route?

 

Assisi is a funny place. Like a Disney Land for the Catholic Church. St Francis is dead, his bones have rotted away long ago. Today, tourists fill the streets with laughter and selfies. Monasteries have been replaced with gelato shops, and squares where heretics were once burned at the stake are now precariously crammed with cafe tables and souvenir stands.

 

It’s only fitting after all, that the man who rejected the ‘holy establishment’ and their refined melancholy for a simple life of poverty and love, should today be embraced by silly joy, and laughter, and the excitement of tourist-pilgrims.

 

On the way down into the tomb (which lies beneath the Basilica Superiore di San Francesco) repeated signs kept reminding visitors to be quiet. At first I found this annoying (“why are you so afraid of noise? It’s not like it’s going to wake him up. I think he can handle it.”), but while I sat kneeling, I began to feel the purifying effects of silence. Not only silence from without, but a silence that grows from within. I wrote this poem:

 

Silence

 

All my life

I keep moving

deeper

and deeper

into the silence

 

Like the tourists around me,

I also take my selfies.

 

Only I use my pen,

instead of a camera.

 

Along the road

 

At some point

Along the road

I fooled myself

Into thinking

 

That if only I wrote

about my life

I’d be spared

 

From the task

Of living it.

 

Oh, almost forgot. Last night, Alessio brought me to a nearby lake, Lago Trasimeno, where we continued our discussion about the tradeoffs between a life of comfort (a la Italy) and a life of work (NYC). (Spoiler: A dedication to comfort can hide its own sorrows and anxieties, while a working life often generates hope and creation). Afterwards we went back to his gorgeous house to smoke a j before I headed home.

 

There was a tremendous amount of satisfaction in that walk home. I arrived in Perugia less than a week ago, alone and confused. Tonight, I walk the same streets, but now I’m returning from a friend’s home, with a full stomach, light mind, and a sense of belonging.

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September 18

The first thing I did when I got to Rome today was shave off a week’s worth of stubble. It had been pouring rain as I left Perugia, and I guess that getting drenched succeeded in washing the religion off of me as well. I’m in Rome now. No need for ascetic performances. Rome is not a Church. It’s the Coliseum. Fun, gore, and flesh.

 

 

September 21

Rome comes alive at night.

 

I spent the other night out in Trastevere (the Brooklyn of Rome) with Francesco. He also studied philosophy in Luxembourg, but he’s moved on to pursue a career in music. I love philosophers who still have lives. Ex-philosophers. We stayed out until 2, drinking, talking about life, love, god, drugs.

 

Tonight, I’ll have dinner with Stefano, an old friend from Penn. But our reservation isn’t until almost 10. I’ve had jet lag many times in my life, but never within one time-zone. I guess Rome is it’s own time-zone.

 

I start my days with a run.

 

Today is the first day of Sukkot, but I had no plans to celebrate (what’s a holiday after all, when you have no family or friends to celebrate it with?). But this morning, just as I was wrapping up my run, I saw a lulav go past! I shouted “chag sameach” at the man carrying it, he responded with a surprised chuckle, and then we each went on our way.

 

At the last second though, just as he was passing out of sight on the other side of the piazza, I thought wtf and ran after him to ask if I can shake lulav. I mean, if I’m truly as lonely as I think I am, why would I pass up this golden opportunity to meet someone, make a connection, and taste a bit of home. Beggars can’t be choosers, right?

 

He greeted me with a warm smile, walked with me to the synagogue (of courseee there’s a synagogue two blocks from my apartment), and introduced me to everyone as his “American”. It really made my day :) I think I’ll go back tomorrow.

 

 

One Hour Later

I had some free time before meeting Stefano, so I walked over to the Pantheon, sat on the base of one of those glorious marble pillars, and read some Dante.

 

Dear Casella,

in order to come back

Where I now am,

that’s why I am making this journey.

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September 22

I went back to the shul this morning for Shachris. The first time in years.

 

I put on a yarmulka, draped a Tallis over my shoulders, grabbed a siddur, and stepped inside. Cool as a cucumber.

 

I found that I really enjoyed reciting/chanting/singing the ancient Hebrew words.

 

I even teared up at moments. Ancient rituals are so much fun. Even better, jewish prayers are mostly composed of poetry from Psalms, so there’s that bonus. A few passages stood out:

 

Why should the nations say, “Where is god?” But our god is in heaven, all that he wanted, he has done. Their idols are gold and silver, the work of man’s hands. They have a mouth but do not speak; they have eyes but do not see. They have ears but do not hear, they have a nose but do not smell. Hands, but they do not feel; feet, but do not walk; they do not make a peep from their throat. Like them will be their makers, all those that trust in them. Israel, trust in the lord; those that fear the lord, trust in the lord.

 

The heavens, the heavens are for god, and the earth he gave to humanity. It is not the dead that praise god, nor those who fall into silence. We will bless god from now and forever. Hallelujah!

 

I call out to the lord out of lack; and the lord responds out of abundance.

 

Finally there was the reading of the Torah. It was a warm sight, seeing how devoted everyone was to that scroll. Handling it with such love and care. Dressing it up in a gown, placing a crown on its head.

 

But the thing is that although there were many wonderful moments today, and I thoroughly enjoyed reconnecting with my religion, my community, my history, I just can’t see it lasting long.

 

Even just one hour into the prayers, I started to get bored.

 

Ancient stuff gets boring quickly.

 

September 24

I don’t really have friends in Rome, so I’ve been spending most of my time alone. Too alone.

 

So after another evening of swiping through dating apps and refreshing all of my chats, I decided to be a bit more socially proactive.

 

I joined a couple Facebook groups for expats in Rome and posted the following:

 

Hi! I just moved to Rome (from NY) and have been trying to work on my writing while I'm here (taking advantage of all my free time!). Does anyone know if there's a club for writers or perhaps a cafe/bar that holds poetry readings or the like?

 

Thanks! Have a wonderful weekend.

 

I must have struck a chord because, just hours later, I received so many comments from people asking me to start a group, that I caved to the pressure and just did it.

 

I now run a group of like 30 writers here in Rome. Let’s see how it goes.

 

But I’m feeling excited.

 

September 26

The story goes that on his way to be crucified, Jesus made 14 stops (called ‘the stations of the cross’.)

 

I’ve been in Rome for a week now and have only made it to the Vatican this morning. I guess that I also needed to make some stops along the way.

 

I arrived this morning at Piazza San Pietro without much of a plan. I passed through the metal detectors, lingered in the square for a bit, and then made my way, along with hundreds of others, into the main cathedral.

 

What a room. Perfectly overwhelming. I lose myself to St Peter’s.

 

Of course I didn’t do my research into it at all, so I guess some of that is my fault.

 

But some angel up in heaven must have been smiling down upon me, because barely 5 minutes after I arrived there was a tinkle of a bell and a procession of candle and incense bearers, along with a dozen priests in green and red cloaks marched through, followed by a red cardinal.

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Mass was beginning.

 

They had some empty seats up front, so a young docent ushered me through to the very front row. Yup, there was the cardinal, the weeping pilgrims, solemn worshippers, and then little old me. Gta love it.

 

While the organ belched out its lingering notes and the incense wafted through the sun beams, and the choir recited their latin verses, and this was all watched over by centuries of dead popes, sculpted marble and enough gold to make a billionaire sob, well, it dawned on me that this surely was mankind’s greatest achievement.

 

This was immediately followed by the thought that this was mankind’s greatest delusion.

 

I suppose there’s no conflict there though. After all, our greatest achievements do tend to be our greatest delusions.

 

At its very best, religion is humanity’s great monument to our own eternal ignorance.

 

 

October 1

Sometimes I experience a single moment which justifies an entire day.

 

This is a moment is like that.

 

In the midst of a dark day, I went to a cafe around the corner from my apartment, sat on the patio while dusk settled in, felt the cool breeze on my cheeks, and just as the waiter placed my coffee on the table, I glimpsed it.

 

“Even if you are not ready for the light, it cannot always be dark.”

 

Why did I come to Rome? Why am I staying here? It’s been nearly a week since I last wrote. I’ve been waiting for something to happen. Something worth writing about. Something worth reading about. But here I am, Friday evening, and I just want to write.

 

I had a nice dinner with Stefano last night in Prati, one of Rome’s oldest neighborhoods, set just beside the Forum. Stefano tells me that back during the Imperial days, the poorest people lived in Prati. But today its narrow alleys are crammed with trendy restaurants, elegant churches, and noisy crowds.

 

Just like last time, we didn’t sit down until nearly 10 and didn’t stand up until past midnight. And just like last time we plowed through more courses than I care to recall, lots of wine and brandy, and stumbled off quite drunk and happy.

 

I wish I’d have dinners like these more often back in NY. In Italy, dinner is a work of art and therapy.

 

What else has been going on? I go on a run most days. Those have been a high point for me. Also continuing to read Dante. I’m deep into Purgatory now.

 

The pilgrim has passed through hell and is now on his way to paradise. Here’s a line I liked:

 

The heavens call you, and revolve around you,

Displaying to you their eternal beauties,

And yet your eye looks only at the ground.

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One Hour Later

Still sitting at the cafe and came across the following line in Dante:

 

And Daniel despised food,

And he acquired wisdom.

 

Lol.

 

October 3

Yesterday, after my run, I took the tram to Piazza della Madonna die Monti to meet up with my writing group for the first time. We had a long lunch filled with the usual small talk.

 

I ended up walking back to the tram stop with Nana. She just graduated from university in the UK, where she studied Classics. I really enjoyed spending time with her, so I made sure to accidentally miss the tram so we could walk and talk some more. We ended up walking over the bridge to Trastevere where we got drinks at the most adorable bar, Nannarella (no pun intended).

 

It’s just around the corner from the drop-dead gorgeous Basilica di Santa Maria, and as we sat sipping our drinks, a jazz band set up shop nearby and showered us in lovely music.

 

I could’ve stayed there for hours. What am I saying, we did stay there for hours.

 

Afterwards, as the darkness set in, we picked up some smokes and headed over to the stairs at Fontana dell’Acqua Paulo, a popular spot overlooking the river.

 

Yet another band set up nearby, this time playing traditional Italian pop music. They had so much enthusiasm that a crowd soon gathered around. It turned into the strangest sing-a-long I’d ever seen. The chaotic dances of mischievous children, drunken drifters, shuffling grandparents, high-heeled girls, and everything in between. All swirling together. Nana and I sat right in the middle of the celebration, feeling lucky to be included, swept up in a wave of perfectly Roman life.

 

I kept thinking about the conversations I’d been having with Francesco, Stefano, Allesandro, and Allesio about the hopeless dreaming of the Italian people. Decades of political disappointments, military embarrassments, false promises, broken trust…

 

I looked out over the singing crowd, the glowing faces and twirling torsos and I saw something triumphant in all that.

 

A refusal to be dragged down. In spite of everything, a commitment to life, to light, to love. It burns ever brighter in the dark windy night.

 

I glanced over at Nana, smiled in my heart, remembering once again the reason why I travel.

 

Purgatory XXIV, 4:

And the shadows, who appeared as things twice dead

Looked at me through their sunken eyes, and wondered

When they perceived that I was still alive.

 

When I woke up the following morning, I returned to the Vatican to watch the pope give a speech. I didn’t understand anything he said; so I just watched.

 

Afterwards, I went to visit the Roman Forum. I wasn’t sure whether I needed to buy a ticket, so I just snuck in through one of the exits.

 

The weather was drizzly, so the forum was quiet and empty. I strolled through the ancient paths, ran my hands along the toppled pillars, and tried to soak in the spirit of Ancient Rome. I spent some time at Titus’s arch, with its engravings of the Menorah and the Jews marching into my exile.

 

I finally ended up in the Vestal Temple, with its trickling pools of water, proud statues, and memories of better times.

 

Back in the day, an eternal sacred flame burned in the center of the temple, and was tended to by the Vestal Virgins, who lived in a beautiful 3-story palace just behind the temple. The Vestal practices were considered crucial to the safety and continuity of the entire Roman Empire.

 

I wanted to spend some quality time with these priestesses of fire, so I sat in the corner of the garden and read some Dante for a while.

 

It was so peaceful. It felt holy.

 

Afterwards, I wrote a poem:

 

Absence

Or: At the Roman Forum

 

A bright candle

Once extinguished

Sends its smoke up

into the waiting sky

 

Your absence

Fills my gaping heart

With the presence

Of your love.

 

And I, like the bleary eyed

citizens of sunken Rome,

Crawl through the ruins of your glory

Enchanted by your shattered dreams.

 

Your memory looms

Larger than life.

 

After all our games,

Are well and over,

I find no need

to pick up the pieces

Or clear the board.

 

I let everything rest

Just as it was.

 

 

October 8

I spent all morning and early morning in the Vatican Museum, and then walked over to the Bibliobar, a cafe just outside the Castel Sant’Angelo, to ruminate on what I saw there.

 

I was completely overwhelmed by the size and prominence of the Vatican’s Classics collection. As I overheard one tour guide saying, “Remember, this is the Pope’s home. Do you see any images of Jesus Christ? No. It’s filled with pagan relics.”

 

Apparently the church saw itself as the inheritor, not only of the semitic religions, but also of the greek and roman traditions. The crossroad of church and state. It embraced both.

 

This is a far cry from the modern (American) perception of the church as the enemy of culture, the enemy of science.

 

In Italy, churches seem more like art galleries than houses of worship.

 

My audioguide said something interesting about Michelangelo’s theology, as depicted in his Last Judgement on the walls of the Sistine Chapel. The fresco is divided into three layers, mirroring the three world’s depicted in Dante’s Divine Comedy: Hell (Inferno), Purgatory, and Heaven (Paradise). In the center of the mural stands Jesus, and beneath him sit the Final Judges.

 

According to Michelangelo, man’s fate is essentially hopeless. Condemned to sin, reliant on grace, living through cycles of torture and repentance. The story of life.

 

The single redeeming factor, the only thing that adds any meaning or purpose to this Comedy is not the soul, but the body. The flesh. Our physical life on a physical earth. For Michelangelo, our existence as physical beings is not a mistake, but an essential display of god’s will, which, in the body of Jesus, also takes on a physical shape.

 

“God saw all that he had made, and it was very good.”

 

If you take a step back and look at the Last Judgment (the most famous work of christian art, in the most famous room in the christian world), all you see are bodies. A swirling mass of bodies. From Jesus’s angelic figure to the flayed skin of St. Bartholomew, all of the forms of the human body are depicted.

 

“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us.”

 

And who is as obsessed with the human flesh as the Vatican? The Greeks and the Romans.

 

Naked bodies. All around. That’s what you see in Athens, Rome, and yes, the Vatican.

 

The human body, not as a source of shame or sickness, but as the supreme form of beauty, hope, and holiness.

 

“The word became flesh.” And the word became art. And the word became architecture. And the word became law. And the word became politics. And morality. And science.

 

The word came to life. And the word is life.

 

On the way to the Sistine Chapel, I passed through the so-called Raphael Rooms, which Raphael (at the age of 25) was invited by the Pope to decorate. The most famous of these rooms is split into three sections, corresponding to the three human virtues: Goodness, Truth, and Beauty.

 

On two opposing walls (equal in measure) are depicted the history of the church (divine truth) and the school of Athens (rational truth). On a third wall is Parnassus (beauty), where the world’s greatest poets gather. And finally, on the last all is the law (goodness), both as a moral code and as a justice system.

 

All of which is to say that there is a clear and consistent message throughout the Vatican that inspires the viewer to notice that the world is not the source of our wretchedness, but rather our only chance at salvation.

 

I rewatched the movie, The Two Popes, after getting home. Mainly to see those scenes which were filmed in the Sistine Chapel.

 

Toward the end of the film, the outgoing Pope Benedict tells the incoming Pope Francis:

 

“I’m just going to tell you one little thing. We all suffer from spiritual pride. We all do. You must remember that you are not god. ‘In god we move, and live, and have our being.’ We live in god, but we are not of it. You’re only human. But… [and here the camera pans over to the wall and centers on Jesus’s bloody hand in the middle of the Last Judgment] But… there he is. Human.”

 

Christianity insists that god, through Jesus, reveals himself in the world. In the human body. In flesh and blood.

 

And, for those who search for god, that is the only place where they’ll find him.

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Art

 

Art is nothing

But a translation.

 

Like those ancient explorers,

Who skirted the edges of the earth,

Only to find an endless horizon,

Stretching back to home;

 

The artist lingers on that foreign soil

Which has no space nor time,

Learning the local language

Which has no words,

 

And brings something back

To life.

 

 

October 18

I woke up at 5:30, packed my things, and made my way to the train station in the chilly pre-dawn darkness. I met Nana there and we caught a train down to Naples.

 

We stayed in Naples for about an hour, just enough time to grab some breakfast and watch the Napoli people in all their craziness.

 

While we sipped espressos, we watched this one guy carry entire frozen pigs from a white van  to a sketchy storefront. Another group gathered around a tiny table, threw down some money, and then just shouted at each other. A few teenagers ordered two large pizzas and a bottle of coke. For breakfast.

We arrived in Sorrento in the early afternoon; a cliff-side community famous for its lemon groves, Roman villas, dramatic vistas, and sparkling blue sea.

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Also, let’s be honest, Sorrento is one of the most romantic spots on the planet. Love is literally in the air.

 

I tried to drunkenly read Nana some Dante last night. Thank god I gave up after a few stanzas.

In the morning, we took a quick dip in the sea, and then headed out on a hike along the coastal road in the direction of Bagni Regina Giovanna.

 

In ancient times, this was a swanky roman resort, and you can still walk through some of the ruined villas.

 

But the very best part was a natural pool of water that is completely enclosed by tumbling cliffs, and fed through a small gap that leads out into the sea. It almost felt like swimming in a toilet bowl, albeit one fringed with green forest, crumbling limestone, and roman ruins.

 

Next, we climbed to the top of the hill, and back down the other side to another bay. This one on the open sea. There were several people sunbathing on top of the huge stone boulders and swimming in the sparkling water. We joined them for a while before slowly, regretfully making our way back into town.

 

On the way, we stopped to buy some local wines and a bar of chocolate, and as we sat drinking and munching our snacks, we watched the sun sick into Mount Vesuvius.

 

At dinner, the waiter advised us to visit Capri the next day. So that’s what we did.

 

Legend has it that Sirens (mermaids with voices so beautiful that sailors would drown themselves just to hear them sing) once inhabited Capri. These are the kinds of myths that hang over the storied island.

 

The third Caesar, the terrible Tiberius, made the island his home after he’d grown too old and paranoid to rule from Rome. On Capri, he’d host wild orgies, plot against real and imaginary enemies, and even invited Caligula there (whose family he’d recently murdered) to crown him as the next emperor.

 

Visiting Capri from Sorrento is particularly intimidating, since the view of the island is cut off by the coastline until the last minute. Thus, Capri thrusts itself out on you.

 

Celebrity, lore, and pure drama all combined.

 

Once on the island, we made our way through the marina and took a chairlift to the tallest peak, Monte Solaro. We sat there for a while. Each lost in our own thoughts.

 

I felt grateful. In many ways, Nana and I couldn’t be more different, but we somehow made it into each other’s lives, and created this special moment together. We shared a salami mozzarella panino, and hugged each other for warmth.

 

Before returning to the port, we visited the Giardini di Augusto which looks out over the stone skyscrapers which plunge down into the bright blue sea. Sail boats and yachts hug the shoreline, enjoying the last few days of warm weather.

We stayed just outside the city, in an adorable little fishing village. To get there, we had to climb down like 100 stairs right to the edge of the sea, an area called Marina Grande. It contained one small street, a dozen or so fishing boats, and 1000s of years of history.

 

We spent the day eating, drinking, talking, and sipping limoncello.

 

I’m not sure how to say this next bit, but when we arrived in Sorrento, Nana and I were just friends. But by the time we woke up the next morning, groggy and hung over, we had developed something of a fling. Thank goodness. Not that I wasn’t happy with being just friends (Nana was the only real friend I’d made in Rome). She’s funny, smart, interesting, curious, fun… but it’s nice to finally share our hearts and bodies, and not just our minds.

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There’s an energetic laziness to the island. Too  much pride for work, but too beautiful to just relax.

 

We caught the 5 o’clock ferry back to Sorrento and sat out on the top deck, craning our necks as we watched Capri slip into the sunset.

 

Before dinner, we sat out on our little beach, drank another bottle of wine and smoked another pack of cigarettes. This was our last night, and the slower we moved, the longer it would last.

 

Rome and Perugia had been so religious, but Sorrento has been pure hedonism. Wine, food, sex, sun, beach. But in the best of ways. Not a hint of greed or desperation. Just love and joy. It wasn’t an escape, it felt like an arrival.

 

Yet another side of Italy.

When we arrived back in Rome, Nana and I spent my last evening together. Before dinner, we watched the sun set from the Belvedere del Giancolo. A band was playing and an old couple began to dance. It reminded me of that night back in Trastevere, when we sat on the stone stairs. I turned to Nana to tell her about it, and then realized, wait, she had been there with me! I told her that I guess that’s the reward of friendship. All our memories become shared memories.

 

 

October 22 8:45 am, FCO Airport

I woke up in Nana’s apartment this morning. For the first and last time.

 

We sip coffee out on the balcony, gazing out over the red rooftops. It’s peaceful up here.

 

When I arrived at the airport, I sat down to write, but I couldn’t quite gather my thoughts. Maybe my emotions will be enough.

 

I feel sad to be leaving. But I feel grateful for my time in Italy and the people I’ve met. Alessio, Giovanna, Nana, Stefano. Even the pope.

 

I feel excited for the next ‘Rome’. Cuz there’s always going to be a next. I feel proud of the things that I’ve learned.

 

Nietzsche subtitled his autobiography as: “How to become what one already is.”

 

Spinoza says that god is the world and the world is alive and life is love. And love? Love is the desire to let things be just as they are. A willingness to let go and embrace the eternal mystery of constant change.

 

Sam Harris always says that enlightenment consists of the realization that nothing needs to happen. That every thing is already fine, already perfect, already beautiful just the way it is. He says that each moment always contains everything you could ever want. And isn’t everything enough?

 

I learned that the body doesn’t need to be elevated to be holy. It already is holy, just the way it is. By the fact of its very existence. We live an embodied existence. The body contains everything that was, is, and will be. The rest of it is just mind games.

 

As I strolled through the waking city this morning, taking my time saying goodbye, I fell in love once again with this magical city and its magical people. I fell in love, once again, with life. With myself.

 

I have a habit of doing that. Growing tired of a city, running off, and then falling more deeply in love upon my return. But there’s something special about ‘returning’, isn’t there? Returning home. What could be better than that? The Eternal Return.

 

Friends

 

Can I become friends

With a city?

 

Can I visit her

Date her

Hate her

Forgive her?

 

Can I learn from her

Laugh with her

Drink with her

Cry with her?

 

Why do I feel so close to Rome

Yet so far from the romans?

Am I jealous

Of her other lovers?

 

But I too

Have others.

 

New York

Bangkok

Jerusalem

Munich

 

Our cities are

mothers to us all.

My metropolitan

Oedipal Complex.

 

My fingertips

Linger on her cold walls.

My feet

Traverse her warm roads.

My tongue

Drinks from her flowing rivers.

 

Ani l’dodi

V’dodi li.

 

I make love

To the city.

 

Hegel believed

That we are found

In the face of the Other.

But the truth is

That the city

Creates and recreates me

In her own image.

 

Like my forefathers

I’ve been converted

Into a wandering Jew.

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