Wednesday, May 31, 2023

Scene dall'Italia

The arc of anticipating, having, and losing while traveling
Amy and I returned recently from an eleven-day visit to Italy. Given the country's abundance, its clash of epochs, its noisiness, its colorfulness (Rome's brown-grays, Sorrento's blue-yellows, Naples's exploding reds), and throngs of hustling, chattering people, writing about our visit feels kind of futile—I'm pressing my nose against an oversized painting and I expect myself to describe the whole thing. 

"It's not the destination that matters. It's the change of scene," Brian Eno says about traveling—that's all well and good, but the scene's enormous. Where to start? In fragments, maybe.



ROME: Raising a fist in solidarity at the statue of the philosopher Giordano Bruno at Campo de' Fiori, who was burned alive for heresy. The monument was dedicated to him on the exact spot of his death, where he’s now staring down the Vatican, a badass martyr to freedom of thought. We also dug crossing the Tiber River and enjoyed quite possibly the best pizza of our lives at Forno Renella.

Visiting the Terrazza del Pincio, where in the summer of 1929 the Italian poet Antonia Pozzi strolled, and, inspired, later wrote "Terrazza al Pincio" ("From the avenues, running into the open space: / a bitter aroma of oleander. / Rome, immense, gradually darkens, / glazed with chimes").

That morning we'd gotten up at five thirty to make our way via subway to the Vatican, neutral about visiting but for my long-standing desire to see the Sistine Chapel. It turns out the the tour was much longer than we'd expected, and, aghast at the monstrous excesses and endless halls of vanity, our soles (and souls) cranky, we found a surprising, bracing antidote later that afternoon in the Cerasi Chapel, into which we'd ducked to see Caravagio's Conversion of Saint Paul and where we were struck by the dark, cadaverous, spooky interior, with its lurid momento mori art, underground tombs, and dangerous skull-and-crossbones iconography, a very public, rawer, and truer testament to the agonies of flesh and faith than the self-important, sealed-off Corporate Vatican, Inc. could ever be. (The spiritually conflicted Luke Ripley, in Andre Dubus's "A Father's Story," on The Vatican: "I have rarely, and maybe never, come across saintliness, but I feel certain it cannot exists in such a place.")

“Mio nonno รจ nato qui": we rented a Fiat and drove two hours southeast of Sorento, up narrow roads and along the Gulf of Naples' high, steep cliffs, finally hitting a toll highway through what seemed a hundred tunnels to the small, hilly village of SANZA, where my paternal grandfather, Alessio, was born and raised and where he left at the age of sixteen, alone on a steamer ship, to sail to New York City to provide for his family. We cruised up the town's winding, conical hills surrounded by sprawling mountains, parked by modest monuments to Giussepe Garibaldi and Carlo Piscacane, two revolutionary patriots and free thinkers, picked some wild berries to send back to my dad, and planted our feet on the soil and inhaled the aromas of my grandfather's place of birth. Back in Sorento I raised a pint of Peroni in his honor.

Yet despite the cheery deer statue welcoming us at the town square, we found the village vaguely unwelcoming. The day was blustery and gray. The craft beer bar we'd planned to visit was shuttered, we inadvertently drove up behind a drug deal going down between two cars in a narrow alley (Amy: "I don't think he's borrowing Mamma's cornstarch"), and, leaving the village, chanced upon a picturesque herd of sheep gamboling by the side of the road, only to be hurried along, and out of town, by the mordant face of the sheepherder who was decked out in military gear, whose glare said, Cosa stai guardando? Vai via!

And tilting, chaotic NAPLES: with its nightlife, noisy processions, wedding photographs in the jostling, jam-packed Spaccanapoli, tolling church bells, cats, dogs, restaurants, epic cab rides, hotel roof views of Vesuvius, gorgeous light....
Hit my socials if you want to see the photos. I posted (too) many.


At No Such Thing As Was I mostly write about music, finding my way in and out of my experiences via songs, and vice versa. Surprisingly, music did not factor in a big way during my visit. I shopped for records in Rome and Naples, allowed myself to drift along with the local and national music wafting through various stores, cocked an ear from the roof of our Naples hotel to a frightfully-howling hardcore band playing in a venue in a narrow alley somewhere below us near the sea, one morning nearly welled-up in pride at the Motown hits playing in the hotel's tea room. At some point during our stay I'd caught a burst of the Clash's "Rock the Casbah," and, prowling the streets on my own, started  singing it to myself; I felt vaguely foolish. You should be humming some romantic Italian number, I thought as I strolled past thick, ancient buildings, rakishly-parked scooters, and crowded espresso bars, dangerously beautiful locals all around. Yet my inner jukebox malfunctioned. All I could come up with was "'O sole mio" which, naturally, within a block or two, evolved into Elvis's "It's Now Or Never," which I stupidly sang to myself all afternoon.

One musical moment stood out for me on this visit, yet it wasn't a song. In the middle of the trip I remembered the mournful Doppler effect that Brian Wilson employed at the close of "Caroline, No," the last track on the Beach Boys' Pet Sounds album. Wilson alleges that he has no idea what he was thinking when he tacked on the sounds of barking dogs and a passing train, but to my ears the gesture was a perfect, moving evocation of anticipating, having, and losing, that eternal triumvirate of the human condition (suffered no less by surfin' teenagers), and an ideal way to close a bittersweet, introspective album. Maybe the chaotic traffic swirling around me, the careening drivers and the insistent police and medical vehicles put me in mind of that moment. 

It struck me as an ideal metaphor for traveling. The present moments of visiting—the immersion into a different culture, the disorientation of a different language, the bewilderment of jet lag—feel cruelly brief; the anticipation of the visit and the bittersweetness of landing home again are much longer stretches. They feel that way, anyway. The days and weeks one spends in a foreign country concentrate down into a deep, rich absorption of time, a black hole of experience that's so intense in its newness and freshness, the equivalent of a cinematic cut from black and white to color. Its fleetingness only increases its intensity, especially in retrospect.

Here and gone. The Doppler effect occurs when sound waves move toward you, each successive crest of the wave moving closer at higher and higher frequencies, bunching together as a choppy sea; as the sound moves away, the crests grow wider, the frequencies reduce, the waves tame. When the sound arrives in front of you, or next to or behind you, you're in the present tense of sound, the immediacy of experience—and yet it's transient. The mournfulness comes in the stubborn hold that the present has on the past, it wants to stay, and we want to stay in the bliss of it, in Rome sipping an espresso, lingering after a meal, or gazing at the Gulf of Naples, still coming to terms not only with its sublimity but with our surprise at having stumbled onto the vista, emerging from narrow, down-leaning streets. We want to hang forever. Yet our check-out times and train departures are stubborn, too.

The approaching and departing train horn that Wilson added to the end of Pet Sounds is, in musical terms, a B♭7 trichord that alters to a G7. A song after all.
Somewhere over the Atlantic


Alyssa said...

This: “The mournfulness comes in the stubborn hold that the present has on the past, it wants to stay, and we want to stay in the bliss of it..”. It’s why I keep traveling, I love that bliss of Elsewhere than Here. Great read, really enjoyed the photos.

Joe Bonomo said...

Thanks, Alyssa! And yeah, that keeps me moving, too.

Graham Knight said...

A great piece of writing. Loved your description of "doppler".

Thanks - almost as good as Jerry Lee Lewis Lost and Found :)

Joe Bonomo said...

Haha, thanks Graham!