(Pronounced: SanGimin-yano, the gn sounds like ni in onion)
19 October 2002
Early on this cool autumn morning, the laundry my neighbors look for, imitating the old Italian custom of hanging out the sheets the day after a marriage, is pegged on the clotheslines in the backyard. John Fucile, my 87-year-old neighbor, whose yard I tend and who drove me to the Newport Art Museum on the 9th, with my one overhead-sized suitcase and my backpack, will be relieved.
Believing that others like to hear of one’s experiences and travel vicariously motivates me to collect pictures, receipts, postcards, and journal notes — essentially, all the details necessary to write about a trip. I get home, have the pictures developed, and dutifully file all the details into a folder, expecting someday to write about them. Someday when I make the time. Someday when I am no longer able to take trips myself and can relive my travels by writing about them via these folders. I may not have the ability to record, then, and will certainly not have the immediacy of the aftermath from which to pull together the pieces that make a journey that, a growth along the way, before the memories are muted by obligations and time.
I wanted this trip to be different. So, the house, mail, yard, newspapers, et cetera, now wait on the writing — but only the writing that I wish to share, although I suspect it will spark asides among those described in it about details that I will leave for the stories behind the story, regardless of their juiciness. Writing all is like painting all: it leaves nothing for the reader to imagine.
In August, I did a little homework. I investigated WGBH’s trip to Italy for seven days for a hefty sum. I learned that the Newport Art Museum (NAM) was sponsoring a trip to SanGimignano for nine days for a bit less, but around $4,000, including air, transfers, single supplement, some meals, and a course to indulge my recent interest, painting watercolors. I always said that I knew no born brain surgeons and that anyone could learn anything. I’m entering my second year of this diversion and have much practice ahead, and I continue to find learning satisfying, giving life a purpose.
So I mailed in a deposit and continued mailing installments to Voyagers International, because I wanted someone else to arrange the details as I had done so often as a travel agent (’83–’87). I wanted to pack frugally, get from flight to flight, place to place, and have less responsibility than I usually assume. My friend Mary Bourne gave me house peace by taking in the mail and newspapers and watering the plants. After re-viewing Tea with Mussolini, I knew I had committed the “right” extravagant act.
Perhaps I appeared less impulsive than I felt. When Francesca Russo, the scheduled interpreter, was unable to participate, I was complimented with requests to share and add vocabulary to my rudimentary Italian. Though also helpful to others, it was something I would have done regardless, il piacere era mio — the pleasure was mine. In addition, the space allowed Pam Stanek, the museum’s curatorial assistant, to come along.
In September, I hosted a gathering on the tenth so the participants could meet. NAM preceded the time with wine and cheese (5:30 p.m.), at which Cora Lee Gibbs shared her slides of SanGimignano (south of Firenze; northwest of Siena), enriching them with commentary that made us wish she, too, could have joined us. We met: Libby Gilpatric, Maggie Chadwick, Maryanne Duca, Lorraine Farrar, Leslie Maher, David Barnes (our tour leader/instructor), and myself. Lee Stinchcomb, the other watercolorist, lives in New York and would meet us in Boston on the ninth of October. Jeff, knee surgery impending, Lorraine’s husband, joined us at my house, where physical characteristics and names and voices sculpted images.
Maryanne, engaging smile, enthusiastic corporate demeanor, light olive skin, glossy hair with henna highlights, classic features, with a shawl could be the Italian version of The Girl with the Pearl Earring, without, check Elle, or Vogue…
Libby, short hair, shorts, short, long on connections, words, advice, La Nonna who gave up smoking so she wouldn’t be Dragon-Breath-Gran’ma…
Maggie, fresh, vibrant, blond, had to have been a cheerleader, wholesome American looks…
Leslie, quiet, porcelain skin, athletic, looked about as old as her 25-year-old son…
Lorraine, blond, marble blue eyes, youthful, vibrant, alert, La Donna dei Negozie, The Lady of the Shops…
David, quiet, goatee, blond, gentle, surfer-dude, few but meaningful words, “try this… that’s a keeper…nice… I like… mix your palette… doesn’t work… works,” listens…
Pam, a willowy, bespectacled, freckle-faced blond, a girl at heart, and a Beatles fan, able to envision her erect on a horse...
Days before our departure (September 25, 11:30 a.m.), the “Fans o’ Nan” met, a group of women with whom I take instruction from Nancy Gaucher-Thomas. We meet for lunch, to paint, and for workshops, one at Mary Kane’s, who joined us at the Glass Onion for a meal, though Nancy could not. She asked if I would try to change some lire into euros for her as the Banca d’Italia is now the only source. She gave the mandate that it only be done if convenient. I said I’d try, taking every possible opportunity that gave the venture a quest thread, akin to finding tea in Italy, more difficult and more expensive than wine or a martini. Another friend, Bill Hall, who had visited SanGimignano earlier in the year, asked for a hat with the outline of the town — another quest.
A few calls, a few emails, and some of us assembled at the museum for the trip to Boston.
My neighbor John dropped me off at NAM for the 1:00 p.m. departure on 9 October; David appeared after working the morning; Jim drove Pam in, as John did Libby. In the bustle, Leslie and Lorraine arrived. Jeff would join us on the last night, for the farewell dinner, and he and Lorraine planned an additional week on the Amalfi Coast. Lee would take the shuttle from New York and meet us at the airport. Maryanne, who lives in Boston, would also meet us at Logan. Maggie would join us in SanGimignano, taking advantage of a British Air frequent flyer program.
Our numbers adjusted constantly, but we kept track, and as the group assembled, as when it dissipated, we knew who was missing — not by number, but by personality, because each added a dynamic that affected the group as a whole.
[19 October, while writing: Time to walk and pick up what I think is another publisher’s rejection at the post office. As with painting, a rejection, a disappointment, means practice, practice, practice, learn, learn, learn.
Well, I’m moving up the rejection letter ladder with advice on revising.
20 October, Sunday, to the Rhode Island Watercolor Society (RIWCS) for Jackie Riley’s show. Mary there. She leaves for Spain Thursday for two weeks. Christine Montanaro had called her to tell her she had seen me walking, and thus she knew I was back and wondered about the money and whether she needed to get traveler’s checks.]
The driver loaded the van with weighty luggage of varying dimensions. Just after Tiverton, a young, blond, pony-tailed girl in a silver car started to wend into the left lane. When too close, our driver hit the brakes, and David’s bag slid, forcing Libby’s head forward. The girl in the car, startled, reentered her lane. No cell phone, just elsewhere in thought.
We met Maryanne, checked in without delay, and proceeded to the gate for our two-hour wait. No Lee. As Libby called John, Lee appeared, looking casually professorial, gray hair in a bun, slight, black-rimmed glasses, and a cockroach pin on her sage green jacket. Libby said, “You’re going to love her.” She was our Fair Lady, our Audrey Hepburn, a fisherwoman who commingles with “my guys in the park” and is able to span Eliza before and after her makeover with an interesting dignity and awareness of the world around us.
Our luggage checked in, I assumed responsibility for “the box,” a cleverly routed container for the panels to be used by oil painters in two sizes, secured with Phillips-head screws and a dacron strap, because I carried only one bag and could thus save a projected fee.
AF 337 left at 5:40 p.m. and served coq au vin or halibut, and some watched My Big Fat Greek Wedding. I sat in seat 32G. We were served a “snack” and arrived in Paris, Charles DeGaulle, before 6:30 a.m., and waited until 9:55 for the snugly packed AF 5040. I sat in seat 7A, next to a mother and daughter visiting the grandson/son who worked at a vineyard near Firenze. An overly efficient, stern, viperish mite of a flight attendant, who had not one blond hair in a chignon free, took my backpack containing a fanny pack with my passport and wallet on the descent “in consideration of other passengers” and left it where it could take flight behind a seat in the rear of the plane. She did the same to others.
I obtained La Box, spoke a few words in Italian to a questioning agent, and walked out into the rain with our bus driver, who spoke no English. About an hour later, we arrived at the parking lot outside the SanGiovanni gate of SanGimignano, where a small van took our luggage to the hotel, and we made the first of many walks up the hill to Albergo LaCisterna. Towers dominated the walled town, and the shops along the street beckoned. The stone of the buildings in varied autumnal yellows, browns, and grays loomed. The broken-brick pavement of the square led to shops, cafés, gelaterias, and vendors of souvenirs.
I bought cards ($4.00 for 10) and stamps ($0.77 each), attached my address labels (29), freed myself of a task I knew others would appreciate, and hoped the greetings would arrive before I returned. They did. Room 85 was a corner room with a balcony that offered a panoramic view worth the single supplement. The sky went from solid blues and grays to a canvas that sported dark rolling clouds with breaks of sun, to white cumulus clouds tinged with yellow. The range of dark purple and deep gray hills in the background occasionally broke for lolling cypresses. The patchwork of land, a pastiche of earth tones, browns, greens, yellows, furrows, and roads, meandered in the distance. Tuscan orange houses with tiled red roofs sat at a jumble of angles the closer one looked. Towers with vines, windows, birds, roof gutters, window boxes, chimneys, in full sun, at dusk, at sunset, in the dark, and in the rain and fog, were a magnetic attraction that pulled us to the light and shadows and geography altering before us.
Maryanne had room 84, Pam, 83, and we made acquaintance with the couple from Illinois who had the last quarter of our shared balcony and whom we saw again in the Firenze airport when we left. We settled in. I sought a bank to exchange Mary’s lire and was told the ability to exchange lire for euros expired 30 June, and from then on, only Banca d’Italia could make the conversion. I searched for hats without success. We met for a welcome dinner of excellent food (we ordered from the menu, vegetarian was limited to a spinach omelet), where the waiter told me tea was not part of the cost but wine was. When I offered to pay, in Italian, the waiter immediately waved me off; we looked forward to our rooms: David in 98, Libby and Lee in 58, Maggie and Leslie in 74, and Lorraine in 61.
Most of us slept well and awoke to a chilly morning: rainy, raw, but spots of sun. Daily, the hotel buffet breakfast consisted of coffee, tea, Sicilian orange juice (red), grapefruit juice, rolls, crossaints, yogurt, packaged cookies, breakfast rolls, cereals, cake, cheeses, prosciutto, salami, fruit, water, and milk. Maryanne borrowed a pair of sox to use as mittens. She and I took every weather-encouraging opportunity to wear shorts. Pazzi Americani — crazy Americans! I searched for hats again; no luck, and I wouldn’t find any, so I bought pot holders with the embroidered impression of the outline of the town and, if pushed, could snip it out and sew it to a baseball cap.
For lunch, Maggie, Pam, and I split off from the group and went to Bar Firenze for a hot chocolate that hit our tummies and warmed us up. The waitress mixed cocoa and milk in a pot then added the pressurized hot water. Mm, mm good!
We painted from the balcony and spread out there for a critique; the couple from Illinois joined Rupert and Ann Barnes to see our work and hear David’s commentary. Lee and Libby went to dinner with the Barnes party, and Lorraine, Maryanne, Pam, Maggie, Leslie, and I also ate at LaPerucá, but at a different table. I ate one of the few fish dishes of the week — sword. The maitre d’ caught a whiff of Maryanne’s hair, and after the waiter took a picture with Lorraine, he came between Maryanne and Lorraine for a photo, perhaps to send to his wife. A fun shot. This was Friday the 11th… we would leave in a week; already the time seemed short.
Saturday, October 12th, rainy, we met Nicolà, who drove us in the rain to Firenze for a magnificent whirlwind sampling of the Uffizi, L’Accademia dell’arte, and the central environs with Marco, whose knowledge and selection fed our artistic cravings. While viewing a Michelangelo framed with heads of Christ and prophets, he began a story of a former tour in which he quoted Neil Armstrong, “One small step for man, one giant leap for mankind,” unaware that Neil and his wife were before him. It was a moment for him, and as we “ahhed,” he was “shhed” by a tour leader and, more loudly, by a woman in a nearby group. With characteristic aplomb, he approached the scolding woman and said, “She [pointing to the group leader] ‘shhs’ me, not you,” and walked away. The surrounding museum personnel shrugged at his manner and said, “That’s Marco.” Indeed. He had put the woman in place, a posto, as the Italians say.
At lunch, he left us at a wine bar (no tea) where we devoured cheeses and cold cuts followed by a velvet rich chocolate cake drizzled with chocolate sauce that still clings to the roof of our mouths with some imagination. We meandered around Firenze. The Banca was closed. It was Saturday. David followed me through hordes of people, keeping up pretty well, but we had to end our quest for frescoes at the Medici Chapel since we promised to meet at the train station by 5:00 p.m. And we did. Maggie was in the front of the station, but there on time.
Sunday October 13th, stunning sunny weather; we spent it lazily near Il Ristorante delle Mura. I experimented with oils, following the number one rule of watercolor: don’t use white, I didn’t take any. The palette was a dark coffee. Maggie loaned me a container for turpentine, and I split my throw-out-shorts-rag with her. My image consisted of all dark tones. By lunch, I figured it was time to return to the element I prefer, aquerelli, watercolors.
The top of my turpentine container separated from the bottom, which landed upturned on my oil painting. I took it as a sign. Give up? No. I had bought a set of oils at Job Lot before I left, and Libby gifted me yet again with a canvas, so in due time, in fresh air, I will try again. I did the same scene in watercolors in the afternoon. Walked the passegiata delle mura. Drank a tea and ate a gelato before going to dinner at the Ospita del Carcere (Host of the Jail), where I managed with a Tuscan soup and tea.
On Monday the 14th, sunny, David and I shared carrying La Box to the bus (Luciano) for a trip to Monteriggioni, a small town with wonderful vistas and arches. We ate lunch at Il Piccolo Castello, a place Lee had been and for which I had made a reservation the night before. Lovely courtyard lunch, Pici macaroni with truffles and a light white sauce. Here, the ladies use the men’s room. Spent the afternoon painting before hopping on the bus. Outside the SanGiovanni gate, I slung the box onto my waiter’s shoulder and trudged up La Hill. David met his folks, and they came in for the critique and had dinner at La Cisterna; the rest of us dispersed as lunch still hung heavy.
Tuesday, October 15th, shared sunrise with Lee, met an Englishman taking pictures; foggy; thought there must be a better way to transport the box, so I enlisted my Eddie Bauer suitcase. On the return, going up the hill and into the square, the wheels were scraped off. Fortunately, I had bought another, smaller suitcase from Job Lot a month before. Luciano took us outside SanGimignano to see it from a new vantage point. From every site, we could not escape the enveloping fog, la nebbia, that made our views surreal.
After we’d circled the road again, the fog began to dissipate, and most of us took over a field. Lee sat up in the muck of an olive/grape site, and I combed the area looking for a spot for an hour and a half. Finally, looking like the Fuller-Brush salesman with luggage and luggage rack borrowed from Room 85, I set my sights on a column that contained a cassetta, mailbox. Realizing how quickly dark descended on the balcony, we had our critique earlier, with fine cheeses, fruit, lots of wine, and Rustichina, a flat bread Maryanne had found that came in a rosemary or olive variety. Lorraine bought a pomo, a persimmon, and we awaited the nightly flight of the bats. Throughout the hour of dusk, birds flew and darted and punctuated the sky. Ate at La Mandragola, my best meal, ricotta and spinach gnochetti with a red sauce and mozzarella, followed by a ricotta chocolate pie and tea — hold on the cholesteroli! [Yeah, I made this one up. The word is colestrina, but who’d get that?] Libby ordered a tomato salad and was told, “Madame, you can get something else.” So she did. La Mandragola is a large, clean, sparse space with artwork.
Wednesday, October 16th, cloudy, to Siena via Poggibonsi, where there was no Banca d’Italia. On entering Siena, Luciano and I spied posters indicating a general strike on Friday. Our apprehensions soared. Yes, we were on Air France, but what about baggage handlers and personnel? Maggie was taking the train to Paris, and Jeff and Lorraine were heading south to Naples after riding to Firenze with us. Our guide, Jane Nyhan, an American married to an Italian, took two years to master the language and has been in Italy for 22; two boys, 9 and 12.
We toured Siena on another artistically rich tour, culminating in Il Campo, a medieval square where the seventeen sections of the town compete in a horse race twice a year. Dirt is trucked in, and the politics are typically Italian. Viewing is costly and based on being in the center of the ring or some other viewable place. Lunch was sumptuous and wine-laden at Osteria del Ficomezza. No tea, but I got a pot of hot water, and since I carry my own bags, heeding the advice of my Aunt Florence and a New York Times article by Madeline Drexler, “Holding the bag in Italy” (p.TR19, September 15, 2002), I was content. The vegetarian salad and pasta plates were excellent, only to be excelled by the samples of three desserts.
Found a Banca d’Italia… closed for the afternoon! That was it, I thought, my last chance. However, Jane being an American, I felt comfortable asking if she could, at her leisure, convert the lire to euros. She would try and would try also to pass it on to Luciano before our departure on Friday. The ladies wanted to shop, so David and I sketched near the bus lot.
In SanG. I flew through the duomo and took the audio tour. The frescoes were magnificent and the graffiti abondanza, sorry to write. Ate at two tables, a five and a four at the hotel, Lib, Mag, Leslie, David, and I at the five, and Maryanne, Lee, Lorraine, and Pam shared a slab of meat from the table for four. I didn’t feel I should eat another morsel, but David convinced me his gnocchi with truffles and pumpkin/asparagus sauce was the best meal he had eaten. All my walks around the mura didn’t work off the indulgences. Daily, the sunrises stunned, and the Englishman was out there photographing before 7:00 a.m.
Thursday, October 17th, a different sunrise walk, higher and pinker, fewer lakes of fog. Last day to paint. We walked around the mura (again, for me). I stayed at the foot of the SanGiovanni gate and this time quickly focused on a black fountain. The wind came up; it drizzled; women of all shapes and sizes straddled the stones that formed the basin to drink the water from the spigot. They are not in my painting/sketch. Guess they figure if a guy sketching doesn’t look like he speaks Italian, he can’t see Italian. Right! I did put in a bird but may not in the final.
Wind blew every which way, and I returned to the room to work on the mailbox painting. Extended critique in Libby and Lee’s room. Maryanne got the most-improved award; Lorraine talked about brush strokes; Maggie ventured into a conventional composition and rendering; my rehearsals were better than the performances, which means maybe a transfer of one to the other is possible… practice… practice… practice; Lee’s oils and watercolors were exemplary; Libby’s sketches were lessons in themselves; Leslie’s works were real adventures in abstract, yet focused, “signs.” Pam exerted nice control; David had great success with skies.
Walked up to LaRocca again — expansive view. Gathered for our departure meal at BelSoggiorno amidst rain, lightening, and heavy winds. They wished they had known about the vegetarians (Leslie, Lorraine, and me), but they managed a lovely meal. The others had a steak that looked good enough to scrap vegetarianism — and they made the wine seem good enough to trash that discipline, too, but the wine never tempted as much as the food. Dessert consisted of two slabs of raspberry mousse, one covering a corner of the other, on a shallow lake of chocolate sauce, garnished with autumn berries: chokecherry red, deep purple, and transparent sage. The restaurant exuded class and provided a perfect complement to the trip. Jeff had arrived and joined us. Libby and Lee gave me brushes and a Fabriano pad for acting as translator and being Siamese twinned to La Box. Bed, up to leave hotel by 6:30 a.m.
Friday, October 18th, dark, cool, Luiciano arrived and gave me an envelope from Jane. The lire had been cashed into euros. Her 21 October reply to my thank you note of 19 October indicated she cashed in the lire in Florence on Thursday and gave the envelope to Sabine at Torre Guelfa, our contact in Italy, who gave it Luciano. We packed the bus and drove to Firenze. The autostrada was free; the collector was on strike. We hugged Maggie, Lorraine, and Jeff, and our departures began in earnest.
Our flight was set for 10:15 but rescheduled for 9:45. Through customs, a few Italian words and La Box and I were separated without incident. Lee took Maggie’s bag; Maryanne lost her palette knives; and Libby was forced to check in her bag with the Swiss army knife that she thought was elsewhere. She became Lite Libby or Libby Light and did feel less encumbered. Those two bags plus Maryanne’s large one did not make it out in Boston. We boarded AF 5039; I took seat 6D and escaped the strike in Italy.
In Paris, we walked from terminal D to F, met Pamela Anderson and her bags… and carriers, two scruffy flunky bodyguards who tripped over Dior bags… and navel… and “headlamps” housed behind a green (made with size 14 knitting needles) short-waisted sweater that enhanced a tattoo just above her black thong band, a tattoo for those who attend her. The sunglasses inside the airport were a necessity, of course, and the hair had to have been constructed in Cranston, RI, courtesy of hair club for [wo]men, the before version. Thankfully, her flight left from another gate.
We had a delay on the bus to the plane but boarded AF 332 near scheduled ETD. From seat 30B, I sketched a Frenchman then did a watercolor, putting his ear too far back. I wanted to use the gifts Libby and Lee gave me, and he seemed to be a perfect model — he was stuck in his seat for the flight and had an interesting face. The meal was a choice of duck or cappelletti, followed by a snack before landing. I didn’t finish William Trevor’s The Story of Lucy Gault. And Tim O’Brien’s July, July didn’t make it out of the Island Books bag.
Upon my arrival in Boston, the handlers grilled me about the box, but a few English words, and they released us. We reported the missing bags and headed to a waiting van. Lee took the shuttle to New York. Maryanne grabbed a cab. David, Libby, Pam, Leslie, and I ate biscotti on the ride home. By 6:00 p.m., we were at the museum. Lauren and Jim greeted Pam; Mike came for Leslie; and David, still the tour guide on duty, drove me home and dropped Libby in Portsmouth, I hope. She may still be riding with David like Charlie on the MTA. Reentry was welcomed, a box of newspapers, a box of mail, and my own bed to make up for the incomplete nights I spent painting at 3:00 a.m in Italia.
The trip was a great success: we bonded well, and we wanted more, but David was probably right to say that our patience with each other may have strained were it any longer, though a wise woman said, “I’d like to get along with my family this well.” Jane Austen wrote, “It was a delightful visit — perfect in being much too short.” The trip offered a balance of activities and sights, with excellent accommodations and food and luck we marveled at. The painting gave us time alone and an adjunctive focus for the pleasures of fall in Italy.
CNN kept us apprised of the
news regarding the bomb in Bali, the Congress’s vote on Iraq, and
On to the show and hanging the works. [We expect to meet at Maggie’s for brunch and have painting sessions on our own whenever we can make it happen.]
Saturday, to Boston for a family birthday; Sunday to RIWCS in Pawtucket, where I gave Mary the envelope of euros, which I’d taken just on a possibility that she’d be there, for her trip to Spain on Thursday the 24th, in an envelope that had touched many hands and traveled many miles. I wrote Mary a note in case I did not see her and had to hand the envelope over to someone else.
The ladies in my writing class
appreciated being thought of with the Pinocchio Pens, and some of them
plan on accompanying me to Ireland in March.
|© 2003 Timshel Literature|