A Race

The rumpled folds of the middle of Italy. An undisclosed hour in the night. The thick shutters are locked back against the villa. The big-paned windows, slightly wavy with their slow, liquid sink through time, invite the racing wind into the room,  rattling the narrow heavy doors in their frames. The air is cool but carries no news of rain. The low clouds are full of silent summer lightning, always flaring out of sight, as if Vulcan were arc-welding something up the valley, frantic to be done by morning, his sweat uncooled by wind.

There are olive trees up the hillside. I arrived in a flurry of evening, so though I smell lemon verbena and basil in the garden, I don’t know where it is.

I nearly fled Rome the first morning I arrived. The high, close buildings towering over the narrow, orderly streets near the Termini, the place where


all railroads lead, and end. I tried the 3 recommended hotels. They spoke English. They were very helpful. They had no rooms. September is high season. Summer is ending, the heat is mostly kind. I figured I could come back to Rome, that there would be less people in Florence (Firenze). These are the kinds of things you think when you travel, that you can put a bookmark in the world as it’s running by. It might even seem to agree, like some amiable athlete stumbling slowly along with the Olympic torch, but it doesn’t really speak your language, and was only being polite, anyway.


Florence is the source of the Renaissance, seat of the power of the Medici family, home to unimaginable beauty squeezed out in such a short time as the good, civilized people of Italy fought to push together the repellant poles of reason and religion. The red dome of the Duomo, the great basilica of Florence is coded into our DNA. You may not think you’d recognize it, but when you walked into the great square, the huge tide of humanity thicker than anywhere in Rome, breaking against you like the hot mediterannean breaking on your hips, when you look up the face of the basilica striped in marble of Italian colors, when you see the little red dome and think, “ah, wow” and walk forward, suddenly aware of all the people and the idea of pickpockets, and then you emerge a little into the


sunlight that is never as hot as it is in California, and you see the great dome, red herringbone bricks marching above everything in Florence, then it’s the old part of the brain that wakes up, that sees all these people everywhere, sitting, milling, waiting, lost and there’s no words that far back inside the animal experience.

It’s the big lion lying quietly in the savannah near the watering hole, and all the hyenas are circling, nervous of the water-truce. It’s the beautiful woman in a room of older men who can’t bring themselves to go back to their wives, who are orbiting, like old cherubs stuffed into suits, around the throne of her loveliness.


It’s also crowded, it’s dirty, and if the Italians invented sewer systems, why on their gods green earth does every one of their cities smell, at almost-predictable intervals, like unprocessed shit?


The night wind was an anomaly, a northern cousin coming down to visit her poor relatives by the sea, and all the friction that family generates fluorescing the sky.

The mosquitoes fly very high here, or maybe because we’re in the hills, they’re flying normal height. My second-story window, the one with no screens (didn’t the Egyptians have mosquito netting in the 2nd millenium BCE?), invites them in. They have their little feasts. I consider changing my answer to the Jehovah’s Witnesses, who asked if I could change one thing about the world, and they meant world peace or an end to wickedness and I said, “Mosquitoes, definitely I’d stop mosquitoes being able to bite people. They can bite other stuff, just not us.” I consider in the nameless hour of sleeplessness many, much darker revisions. I hope it’s God they have, and not the monkey’s paw to fulfill that wish.

Ireland has villages, each a discrete island in a green sea. Italy is California’s source drawing, just… greener. Suburban sprawl came from here. There are plenty of farms and fields, but there’s a constant thread of human habitation. It spills down from mountaintops, runs along its own channels.


We went to Sienna today with a tour group from New Orleans (older folks).
Saint’s bones on display behind glass. Just a thumb and a skull, but holy. On the bus, I was thinking to myself, “hehe. Sienna. I bet people are always asking them if they have Burnt Sienna, the crayon or the paint.” A few minutes later, the lovely Italian tour guide who proved that having an Italian accent does really just mean you stop erratically and add “-a” to the end of everything (thanks, Kim!), said, “and if you look around at the bricks here, very cheap in the medieval-a time-a, you can-a see the-a color-a called burnt Sienna, which-a you might-a know from-a crayons-a or-a paint-a.”

We stand in a huge clamshell-shaped square and hear about the


Palio, a horse race, and the 30,000 people of 17 town districts who cram in here twice a year. There is a horse being built in a square below for a party for the winners. Everyone is invited. The winners, the Waves, are hard at work, even during siesta. Everyone is invited, but their neighbors, and bitter rivals, the elephants, will not come, and the waves, with their dolphin insignia, they dare not use the elephantine half of the square.

The clouds scud overhead, spatting down on the earth, wanting connection. The churches and icons all point that way, reaching for the silent lightning, and the quiet stars.

One Comment

  • Tiphani commented on 2012/10/03

    What an adventure! I can imagine being on the journey, the light the smells, the insights……lovely, funny, beautiful.

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