29th March-6th April
It is hard to know where to begin to sum up my 9 days in Italy. I was booked to run storytelling workshops with teenagers in aschool in Udine, NE Italy, by a fellow teacher, Silvana Muzzati, whom I met when she attended my creative writing classes at the University of Bath, where she was teaching Italian. Now back in her native Italy, she teaches English to pupils at Liceo Scientifico Statale Giovanni Marinelli, a scientific college. Last year her recommendation got me a couple of days workshopping in Asti, in the Piedmont region. This time I had longer – a full seven days to run workshops for the whole 4th Year -13x2hr workshops, plus a teachers’ inset in creative writing – making a marathon 28 hours teaching in total (to approx. 300 pupils and teachers). This was always going to be a test of stamina, but it was undoubtedly worth it. The kids were great, the response was positive – so it felt like it had ‘worked’. And every afternoon and evening I had free to enjoy Italian cuisine and the delights of the region, courtesy of my wonderful host, Silvana. I stayed at her place in Spilimbergo – a lovely house built by her father, next door to her sister – and she was extremely hospitable, making me feel comfortable and feeding me up like a typical Italian mama! I had never eaten so well for so long – each meal was another epicurean pleasure, as Silvana took my palate on a tour of the province. During the week I was treated to lovely local fare, including Fricco – a delicious cheese and potato dish; a yummy ‘peasant bean stew’; grilled polenta with fabulous cheeses; gnocci; porcini & truffles; the best risotto and best tortellini I’ve ever had. Italians enjoy good food, slowly. Lunch can last a couple of hours – it certainly did for us, as school finished at 1 o’clock. Evening meals normally are served around 8pm – a little later than I’m used to and my body clock needed to make some adjusting to the diurnal rhythm, starting with an 6.15am alarm call to get to school for an 8.05am start. I have never been so active so early for so often! …But I soon got used to it. What I like about Italian culture is the way meal-times involve ‘slow food’ and are family affairs when possible (some must grab a quick bite depending on their job, but most shops shut between 1-3pm and everything goes quiet as the nation takes lunch!) Also, I like the early evening stroll when folk wander into town for an apertif – often taken standing up on the pavement at tall tables, for the focus is on people watching and socialising. Everyone it seems goes for an evening constitutional – teenagers, young parents with bambinis, workers, the elderly – it’s the time to ‘see and be seen’. Even a smallish town like Spilimbergo comes alive at such times and the atmosphere is pleasant. Unlike Britain, there isn’t a booze culture. Drinking always revolves around food – and many bars serve ‘starters’ to go with the early evening aperitif. As soon as you order you get a bowl of crisps or other nibbles. In the trattoria you get a basket of bread. There’s no chance of starving in Italy! I was starting to feel like Homer Simpson by the end of the week – as Silvana put it, a bit ‘Michelinos’, after the Michelin man! But my workshops kept me on my toes – as they involved quite alot of movement and energy. I don’t know how teachers keep going – I was wiped out after each morning, but I guess I was putting my all into a 2 hour ‘blast’ rather than a slow burn term-long approach. Still, I have respect for teachers who have to do this all year long! I spent most of the week spaced out with fatigue – not really having a chance to recover from travelling. And everything being different – the language, the culture, the country, my diet, my working week, & domestic arrangements – made ‘the basics’ tiring. Everything required more effort than if I was, say, in my comfort zone back home – and of course it’s healthy to be pushed beyond that zone, but it made the week a tiring one.But it was nevertheless, a pleasurable, memorable experience. Not only had I a lovely host who was good company (but knew the importance of ”time out’) but most afternoons I was taken to somewhere interesting.
Here’s some dispatches written in situ…
Tuesday 31st March, Bottega del Caffe, Udine
Sitting at a cafe in the centre of Udine, Northern Italy, watching the proprietress sweep the floor in the wind, the leaves swirling about her skirts, her long sienna hair teased into gorgon tendrils of terrible beauty. Fiercely, she sweeps, like the Spring winds, magnificent, proud. The spirit of Spring, of Autumn, of Winter. Of change – life’s inexorable cycle. The spirit of youth – as irrepressible as Spring’s sap – and even perhaps the spirit of death – katabolic, cathartic, the dark crone of dissolution, the stern widow who will suffer no fools gladly. Who sees through the lies of men. Who attracts the eyes of men. The dark sickle of her cleavage every time she bends to sweep draws the gaze like iron filings to a magnet. A grey nun on a bicycle rides by, men on motorbikes joust traffic, chic shoppers hustle and bustle, young mothers – bambinis dangling between their breasts or in pushchairs. Scooters buzz. Wheels turn… The fresh wind swirls the trees, snaps off a branch that falls on my table, brings new weather as old as the hills, relentless energy moving forward forever, the Spring tide of life, a wave ever building, never breaking. Onwards! Tidal wave of tomorrow. The boot of Italy – a leg allegro, striding forward. Best foot. A country of movement. A verb nation. Reverberation. A seismic rumble from the gods of industry and fashion. Chic business. A Catholic work ethic – work hard, play hard – focussed flamboyance. La dolce vita. The opera of life.
Civvidalle 4th April
Sitting outside the Caffe’ Longobardo in Civvidalle – a town on the border between Italy and Slovenia – and still enriched by its Longobarda heritage. It straddles the Natisone river, which courses through a gorge dramatically splitting the town. This is crossed by the Ponte el Diavolo, the Devil’s Bridge. My host Silvana kindly brought me here after school finished – 4 more to go! We had a nice lunch in the trattoria opposite the school – crespelle with spinach and ricotta. It was a hot afternoon – the temperature in the car when we left was 24 degrees. We were both tired after our classes. We parked the car and walked to the diabolic bridge – stunning over the turquoise waters. You could see trout basking a hundred feet below. Swifts darted under the tall arches. We crossed and sat in a park facing the bridge, enjoying the view of the town, river and mountains facing East to Slovenia. We talked for a while and then happily sat in silence – enjoying the peace. Silence at last after alot of talking. A week of words. A river of words. I thought about languages flowing into each other here at this crossing place – Slavic, Italian, Friulian (the local ‘language’), English, German – flowing together and flowing to the sea. Mother tongues into mother ocean. Becoming one again – after Babel.
Afterwards we visited an incredible underground temple – L’ipogeo Celtico. When Silvana mentioned there was a Celtic temple in the town my ears pricked up. A must! To gain access you have to collect the key from the local bar. We let ourselves in and flipped on the lights from the fusebox. A stone staircase lead downwards. We descended into the dripping darkness.
The rockcut catacombs immediately reminded me of the Hypogeum in Malta and it had a similar acoustic ambience. I tested this by intoning in different parts of the ‘temple’ – starting low like a Tibetan monk. Eventually found a pitch which harmonised with the space according to Silvana. A higher register. I awenned and asked for peace to the ancestors and the genius loci. Silvana found the atmosphere slightly creepy and sad – as though something had happened here … not murder, but suffering of some kind. She imagined people hiding here. Although it has been long associated with the Celts (the Longobarda were the local tribe) the latest idea is that the Jewish community used it (it is close to the synagogue) and maybe they were forced to gather here in times of pogrom. Perhaps in the Second World War? The town is very close to Austria. I imagined them singing their songs of sorrow and solidarity. I imagine the place was used by different people over the millenia and cannot be claimed by one culture. It is a negative space into which people have poured their feelings or projected their fears. I felt that whatever S. had picked up here could be released by singing. Vernon Watkins wrote in ‘The Feather’: ‘Unless I make that melody, How can the dead have rest?’ I could imagine the Celts bringing out the skulls of their ancestors at sacred times, eg Samhain, placing a candle within them and communing. Placing offerings of food, liquor, song. S. was relieved when we left. Three masks had been cut into the rock – I had found two. Returning the key Silvana discovered from the barman there was a third. She asked me if I wanted to return to see it. I said to ‘leave a little bit of mystery for next time’. When we emerged from the subterranean temple I stood in the narrow street in an epiphanic glow, my senses on fire after being ‘deprived’.
We visited an oratory when local nuns sang – the Christian equivalent of the sounding chambers of the L’ipogea – but my soul was still underground. I didn’t want to listen to some turgid commentary on a dodgy ipod. It seemed rather sterile after our visceral experience and after a week at school I wanted to ‘bunk off’. I feel Silvana is so used to being a teacher that she forgets adults aren’t school-children sometimes! I don’t want to be spoon-fed history lessons. I prefer to enjoy the ambience in my own way. Hearing some boring recording is not the best way to really experience a place.My ‘rebellion’ caused some hilarity anyway, and in good spirits we carried on our way – passed the oldest house in Civvidalle, and going down to the river side where I bathed my feet in the icy mountain water.
We decided to stay in Civvidalle until it was time to go to Udine for dinner. We found a lovely cafe in the central square, Caffe Longobardo appropriately, where we enjoyed an aperitif and the pleasant atmosphere. My hearing seemed sensitised after the L’ipogeo. I listened to the bells peal. Pop music from the bars. Children laughing, pedalling their small trikes across the cobbles. Friends talking. Clatter of crockery. Loose change. Mobiles. A froth of noise in a sea of sound. I wrote in my notebook as Silvana went into her own space – both in companionable silence. I have felt a greater connection with this place than anywhere so far – probably because of the Celtic connection (this was a pleasant surprise, but shouldn’t have been with Austria so close. Hallstat, cradle of Celtic culture was just over the other side of the mountains which dominated the northern skyline). The L’ipogea was an exciting discovery – an unexpected treasure (S. had not visited it before, so it was a first for her too). The fact that the region is associated with the ‘Longobards’ endeared me to it! Something I could relate to. After a week immersed in another culture I felt yearnings to connect to my own – not out of homesickness, but to stop myself feeling completely ‘drowned’ out. To regain a sense of self. Watching a couple of British movies at Silvana’s gave me a temporary fix (Elizabeth: the golden age & The Other Boleyn Girl). I have enjoyed this ‘different life’ but such experiences make us appreciate our own even more. For me feeling connected to the land in which I live is essential. Iain Sinclair said: ‘We are never more than an extension of the ground on which we live’. We can be ‘universal citizens’, travel the world, enjoy different cultures, geographies, but to flourish you need roots.
5th April, Isola di San Michele, Venice
I write this on an Isle of the Dead in the sun – the funerary island of Venice, which reminds me of Bocklin’s famous paintings of the one in Florence. It is thrilling to be here – walking in myth. I was keen to visit this ‘lost island’. Silvana reluctantly joined me on this visit to another ‘spooky place’, as she charmingly called it. We took the vaporetto across – a very busy ferry service full of distinctively alive passengers! Alighting at the wharf, we got a map and discovered there were various ‘celebrity’ graves. We made a beeline for Stravinsky’s grave in Rec. Greco and Brodsky’s in Rec. Evangelo, but could not find Ezra Pound’s, not matter how much we wandered around (‘he was a Nazi anyway’). His grave, like his work, remains obscure to all but acolytes.
The place is peaceful – a sanctuary away from the hustle and bustle of the most beautiful city on Earth. It is noon and I am light-headed with hunger (breakfast, at 6.30am seems along time ago). I have snacks but there is a taboo here against eating – the living should not partake of the bread of the dead. In many stories there is a taboo against the food of the otherworld – for it can force you to stay, as it did Proserpina/Persephone who partook of the pomegranate seeds of Hades, Lord of the Dead, and is forced to spend three months every year under the Earth. In ‘Thomas the Rhymer’ the Queen of Elfland warns: ‘All the plagues that are in Hell dwell in the fruit of this country’. No photographs can be taken in the cimitero either – out of respect for the dead (and no doubt their living mourners). Ironic, perhaps, since tourists often take photoes to remember – it is a place of remembrance. I was surprised by how many contemporary burials there were – the cimitero is still very much in use. Rows of ‘high-rise’ mausoleums stretch out in every direction – death’s council estate. Italian cadavers are rarely cremated – as Catholics believe in the resurrection, for which mortal remains are required. The often opulent graves – thick slabs of marble, plinths, pedestals – are adorned with a photograph of the deceased, who beam back from beyond the veil, smiles fixed like the bloom of plastic flowers, bouquets of which festoon the cenotaphs, rendering the chic kitsch. Most touching are the graves of children whom death took too soon – from the dates some are evidently stillborns. Time stands still here. … But we must return to the land of the living before we fade. The dead can keep their peaceful sanctuary, the tranquility broken only by birdsong and footsteps on gravel. With almost palpable relief we saw our reliable Charon approach.
By the Grand Canal, Stazione Venezia di Santa Lucia
Sitting by the Grand Canal,
hypnotised by blue and gold ripples.
A fabulous tapestry. The warp and weft of
vaporetto, river taxis, shuttling to and fro,
disgorging snap-happy tourists in ridiculous hats.
The farting boats pass
ochre palaces, mustard, pink –
architectural confections the colour of ice-cream,
a gelatteria of mouth-watering delight.
A thousand accents jostle in the campo.
A city of dreams and desires,
of remembered wishes,
Here we project our happiness,
a classic movie – flickering phantoms overlap the view –
we experience the real through cinematic sunglasses.
The Bridge of Sighs is obscured
by a massive fashion billboard,
advertising designer bling.
The heat of the day eases.
The Earth breathes.
The stones exhale their warmth.
Shadowy Calla keep their shuttered secrets.
Temples and churches, mansions and penthouses.
Months of honeymoons,
romance laps against the seaweed steps.
The world is benign today.
The moon, a newly formed pearl,
hangs in the sky, waiting
for a daring Eros to snatch it.
Love sighs from every bridge.
Venus waits in the waves.
Trieste & Duino
My final two workshops finished I was free! It was another gloriously sunny day (the weather has improved over the nine days I’ve been here). We grabbed a pannini in a cafe opposite the school frequented by staff and pupils alike – and run by ex-pupils, so it had a mildly chaotic air. And I tried a ‘strong ale’ called significantly (to me) Ceres (7.7%!) I wouldn’t normally drink at lunchtime – I don’t at home (otherwise I wouldn’t get anything productive done in the afternoon) but here it became part of the ritual of lunch. After four hours of workshops it was a good way to wind down – by then I was often hot and dry-throated. We set off for Trieste – about 90 miles away. The feeling that ‘school was out’ put us in good spirits, even though we were tired. The riding there was pleasant, through a shifting geography – we crossed an altiplano of dramatic carsiche rocks before descending into Trieste along the stunning coast road. Parking up along the seafront we hit the town – an impressive place. A university town, it has a sophsticated air about it. It drips culture, as well as being a busy urban centre. I’ve never seen so many bikers – on modern fat scooters pretending to be bikes and real bikes. There’s a factory here apparently – but its also part of Italian culture. A nation in love with speed and business, in the industrialised north anyway. The Futurist dream that came true. We didn’t have much time so we headed swiftly for Cafe S. Marco, Joyce’s favourite haunt, on the other side of the centre. Unfortunately it was closed (many do on a Monday), but my disappointment was somewhat compensated by coming across Joyce’s statue (we had passed one earlier to a local poet, Saba).
Photo opportunities out of the way, we decided to go to the cafe frequented by the intellectual elite (the wealthier caste, as opposed to Joyce’s impecunious crowd and the political agitators who frequented the cafe on the square). Here we hoped to imbibe its cerebral ambience, but both felt too shattered to do more than share inanities. ‘I would be happy to watch a cartoon!’ I joked. After a week’s teaching and intensive communication this was all I was capable of! Still, it was an elegant place, even though it took so long to get served I had to go and buy another parking ticket (we’d been stung for one the other day, day-dreaming in Civvidalle). I felt revived after my Earl Grey tea (an Englishman needs his tea – and it’s been devastatingly rare this week). We set off for our final site visit – the Rilke walk in Duino. This was a simple pathway through a stretch of woodland straddling the cliffs of exquisitely eroded carsiche rock. It was a moving experience, to walk in his footsteps, to breathe the ‘same air’ as he had done, enjoy the same noble vistas over the Adriatic. We walked up through the shady resinous woods to a view point, where we simply sat and soaked in the magnificence. It was a peak experience. We were both filled with the sublime grace of its genius loci. It provided a epiphanic ending to our week and my time in Italy. We didn’t feel the need to go far – just ‘stand and stare’. It was good to be still after so much travelling (S. had done alot of driving this week, commuting back and forth between Spilimbergo and Udine, and ferrying me places of interest – it was a shame she hadn’t got more help from her colleagues). Earlier in the week I had posted on Facebook that I was off to ‘walk in the footsteps of Rilke’ and a German friend asked me to read out a poem for him (‘Say one poem for me for Rilke, one of the worlds truly bardic poets. Now this is one of the few Germans where i am glad I can read the original…nothing like his language…makes speric music out of the old teutonic brawl.’ Karola). We didn’t make it that day because S. was wiped out (it had been pretty much 24/7 for her). But I read out an extract of the First Elegy today. It was moving to read out Rilke’s words in perhaps the very place he had composed them (the Duino Elegies – he stayed at the nearby castle, the guest of the fabulously named Princess Marie von Thurn und Taxis-Hohenloe). The section I had selected seemed deeply resonant:
Yes – the springtimes needed you. Often a star
was waiting for you to notice it.
A wave rolled toward you out of the distant past,
or as you walked under an open window,
a violin yielded itself to your hearing.
Weren’t you always distracted by expectation,
(Where can you find a place to keep her,
But when you feel longing, sing of women in love;
Sing of women abandoned and desolate
Begin again and again the never-attainable praising;
But Nature, spent and exhausted,
Rilke’s words strike seams of fundamental truth. They are a draught from a deep cool well. A cry from a lofty place. My words were carried out to sea. We let the silence settle. We walked a little further, our senses delighting in the Spring woodland gilded by an early evening light. White hawthorn flowers shone like stars in the fecund shadows. S. told me of the places dark past – the deep defiles were infamously used in WW2 by internecine partisans, who would cast unfortunate rivals down them. This chiaroscuro – unbearable beauty tinged with unbearable tragedy is so perfectly Rilkean. We can to another viewpoint, looking out over jagged cliffs – like Easter Island giants ready to topple into the sea. A helicopter buzzed overhead. I tracked a seagull far below across my field of vision, out of sight. I savoured this moment of stillness before my long journey home. Everything was numinous with poignancy. Perhaps because I was tired and it was the end of a long, hard week, but I felt quite emotional – but in a satisfying way. The release of relief, I guess. It was accomplished. My work here was done – the coast stretched tantalisingly into the haze of the east, but for now, it was time to return. Further discoveries awaited for another trip.
On the Rilke walk, Duino
TS Eliot famously wrote in ‘Little Gidding’::
We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.
This sums up so perfectly the experience of returning home after a long journey. I remember how I felt when I wandered my home town after seven months abroad travelling around South East Asia. Nine days in Italy was not in the same league, but I still felt deeply appreciative of my own neck of the woods the next day, as I went for a walk in the late afternoon sun, my senses keenly aware, and one of the real benefits of such a trip is that it resensitises you to the wonders on your doorstep:
An early evening walk on Bathwick Hill
the familiar transfigured
by a traveller returned.
Scruffily ambulating passed
the dignified Georgian architecture,
the uxorious blossom of magnolias,
crocuses, budding bluebells. The sun,
a medallion of butter,
melting into evening.
The pale dubloon of the moon
rising over Smallcombe’s ghosted groves.
A kestrel hovers above the hedgerows,
dancing a tarentella with the wind,
a flamenco femme fatale.
The April wind is a cold hand,
shaking the grass. A biting contrast to
the swooning heat of an Italian afternoon.
The subtle shift of palette – golds, ochres,
dusty olive to a rainbow of greens.
With inexplicable pride I behold
an oak tree with leaves of flame.
A Union Jack untangles its crosses in the breeze,
defiant on a flagpole – and for its first time its colours,
its design, seems beautiful.
Is it strange to love to the country you live in?
Browning’s words echo in my head. Yes,
it is good to be England now that April’s here.
To awake and behold my walled garden,
hear the sweet birdsong. The joyousness of Spring.
To savour it like Odyssesus, senses renewed.
Every homecoming makes an Ithaca of the familiar.
PS A sad post-script to this is the 6.3 earthquake which hit central Italy in and around L’Aquila on Monday night – which came to light when we touched down at Bristol International, near midnight. The news was just breaking on the rolling news that sleep groggy passengers watched while waiting for their luggage on the carousel. Today, Good Friday, is a national day of mourning in Italy for the hundreds dead and all those affected. The British Red Cross has set up an appeal and you can donate via this link: