Changing Temples – Pt. 20 Women of Venice

What is true of two very special women of Venice may be true of any woman one is attracted to – they are known only by representation. The first I spotted on the island Cemetery of San Michele in Venice. She emerges in high relief from what I swore upon seeing her for the first and second time was green alabaster or marmo verde more precious than many a gemstone. In reality, she is cast from mere bronze, but some how made alabaster or marble scrumptious by the patina of oxidation and the startling detail: obviously gorgeous hair piled, piled, circled, and pined; slender, oh so very appealing body draped in a gauzy, but permanent negligee sufficiently modest for a tomb. She lies upon a divan, the almost breathtaking beauty of a young woman in light repose; head turned toward you with lips that practically speak: “kiss me”, “wake me, Dear Lover”. She makes one believe the story of Pygmalion, where the poor fellow chipped, chiseled, and sanded so much love and beauty and heart into ivory that even Venus took pity and gave it a life of womanhood, motherhood, and death. Or the story of Daedalus using quicksilver to give his statutes voice. One aches to hear her voice, to know her womanhood, to age with her into death.

The representational facts are sparse: “Sonia” is engraved on the stone accompanied only by “Born 20 Febbraio 1885 a Za Bomgewka, RU. Died 6 Febbraio 1907 a Venezia”. Below, on the flagstone is Russian writing. Merely sharing her story and a picture was sufficient to convince several Italian University friends to join up for a second trip and to bring along a Russian speaking colleague to help ferret out more facts. Miscommunication prevented the rendezvous, but a mid-twenty something Italian woman named Mariagrazia accompanied me. She was intrigued by my effusiveness and desirous of visiting the grave of a recently deceased friend for whom she had made all the arrangements.

Mariagrazia looked at Sonia while I was waxing eloquent about all the poetic, romantic possibilities. She looked for awhile and said: “she committed suicide and drank something to do it”. I was not dismissive, but it did make me laugh for its ingenious inventiveness. I was skeptical, but it was an intriguing idea. Given all my predilections, this Sonia and that scenario seemed just too implausible. The next day I received an email from Mariagrazia with Google search results showing the astounding, surreal nature of her intuition. Sonia Kalinskey was, by one account, of Russian aristocratic origins who came to Venice during carnival and died from a self-administered dose of laudanum in the magnificent, Five-Star (then and now) Danieli Hotel “due to a disappointment in love”.

There is another whole story about the deep intuitive soul of Mariagrazia, but best left for a separate episode. I now wish I had asked her who she thought loved Sonia so much he dedicated his own, smaller version of Taj Mahal riches in order to realize such a careful, oh so very loving, homage. I say “he” because I was convinced from the first glance that no one but a lover would have scoured the Venezia Terra Firma for a modern Pygmalion. Perhaps that lover was the sculptor himself, though the evidence speaks against it. We know he was Enrico Butti (1847-1932). His age, the other sculptures he was creating throughout Europe at the time speak of solely a commission. Some patron, someone ensured that mere bronze was imbued with something so close to Sonia, so very close to a woman who would break any man’s heart that, like the Ivory Girl, she too emerges almost capable of being palpably touched, kissed, and very tenderly loved; A beauty who would otherwise have merely taken her forgettable place in that common parade of aging, birthing, laughing, suffering and disappearing into just another Mausoleum shelf – the kind of shelf where her long gone, loving representer resides unknown. But, his caring and his obvious love has left her to me these one hundred years hence – a dynamic specialness, a ravishing hint of companionship.

It is entirely possible, of course, that my conviction was entirely wrong. Perhaps longing obscures the deeply loving father or mother wounded the wound that life will never cure; parents forever diminished at the loss of so precious a child, at the loss of their young Darling on the cusp of bringing those deeper joys adult children bring into the life of the aging. Perhaps their sorrow was the love that gave her her last form from which she might well be saying: “Wake me to the day Dear Papa”. “Oh Mama, kiss your girl into life”.

Continued . . .

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Changing Temples Pt. 19 – Magical Exceptionality

Magical Exceptionality

I did not know what else to call it but a gift from the Gods – in this case the Roman versions. A fine, life-loving Venetian named Davide, did a much, much better job than I – he called it “the magical side of an exceptional moment”. That moment was an electricity failure. Usually not an event one would categorize as auspicious or a gift from Olympus. That moment was an out door cafe in a broad street of three to four story 16th and 17th Century buildings, green window shutters thrown open to catch even the faintest of breezes on a 93 degree evening with high humidity. The various pastels of the buildings are nicely toned by the soft street lights and ever softening light of day. The cafes all have full tables spread out on either side of the street; one just down the way filled with a family and friends crowd of at least 40. The street is filled with many casual walk-abouts. Everyone is drinking something! The ambient sound is the buzz of laughter and talking, good humored social engagement.

Then, as middle dusk is settling in, the Spritz before me is mellowing my jitters from having just finished a long travel day from Odessa. I remember distinctly my breathing deeply and observing with consciousness yet one more time the deep ambience of Via Garibaldi and thinking about how much I love that particular scene and how much I want to imprint it into my memory. That moment was eliciting a pleasure in my soul that escapes the poet’s best efforts. Then the lights in the long street flickered, flickered and disappeared. All of a sudden, I felt ever so deeply a part of an exceptional out of time moment that returned me to what I believed in my heart Venice of 500 years ago would have been like with her beautiful pastels and greens and marbles highlighted by the fading daylight.

I extricated myself from friends whose interest was in finding artificial light. I wandered abroad in the now early nightfall neighborhoods. Stunned is the only word I have for it. In the last fifteen years or so I utter the word “Wow” when seeing something or hearing something of extraordinary specialness – Titian’s “Assumption of Mary”, Rembrandt’s “Saint Anne”, an exceptional moment where light and flower and shadow combine into absolute beauty. It is not a particularly intelligent expression, but it usually jumps out of my inner self unsolicited, untainted. Occasionally, I will catch myself repeating it because I can find no way of letting the joy loose from my heart. It is a weak, New Age, burned-again hippie kind of word, but it is my way of acknowledging a beautiful Zen moment, of reveling in this beauty that surrounds our daily existence. That street light deprived night was the first time I have ever caught myself saying “Wow” again and again and again and again; the complete sensory overload of antiquity, history, artistic sentiment in marble and mortar and architecture, softness, and ancestral humanity knocked that word out of me over and over again.

This was the Venice experienced by Lord Byron or Albrect Durer or Rousseau or Edward DeVere or Goethe. As I wandered the streets, I felt I was wandering with them, particularly with their sensibilities. Interestingly, our way would be lit by someone with a torch, with a “link boy”, who would be paid a small sum for the task. Shakespeare’s Falstaff makes reference to such a lad when teasing Bardolph about his shining red face: “Thou hast saved me a thousand marks in links and torches, walking with thee in the night betwixt tavern and tavern.” (Henry IV, Pt. 1, Act III, scene 3).

Occasionally people hurry past me, modern link boys, but oblivious to all but their modern torch being used to get to somewhere else. They leave behind them the last twilight showing steps of a bridge inviting one to say “Wow” and to keep walking in the midst of the Ancien RĂ©gime or any period when this city was what it has been for so many hundreds of years.

There was also an additional stillness – no air conditioners, refrigerator condensers, a lessening of foot traffic. Restaurant tables now dotted the way with candles. People were subdued, not so much by the lacking but by the magic of antiquity totally unadorned, unaltered, unfiltered, lighted by the last remnants of day. Windows showed the flickering of candles finally able to cast their shadows in complete abandon. A woman sits on a bench in a now near dark Campo. I am totally in the middle of the hundredth “Wow”, so I say, “Fantastico, Non?” “Yes”, she replies in English, “it is extraordinary”. How tempted I was to sit and share with this stranger who understood and who could speak English! But I did not want the apprehension of a strange man to unsettle such a divine moment; on I walked.

While I happen to cherish my own Romanticism, I think it is fair to ask whether this was truly such a unique experience aside from the cries of joy and pleasure in my soul? The first power plant in Italy was built in Milan in 1883 for the purpose of illuminating La Scala, the famous Opera House. Soon after, Molino Stucky coverted his giant flour mill in Venice from gas to electricity. The Arc lights used at La Scalla would have been in the range of 2000-3000 candle power. Modern, ordinary street lights are 250-440 candle power while an “ornamental” street light is around 400 candle power. So, for at least one hundred years my romanticism would be misapplied.

The torch light of reality also shows that romantic misapplication for many hundreds more years. According to one source, the oldest system of street lighting in the world was established in Venice during the 12th century. The Doge declared the lighting of the streets necessary due to the rash of robberies and murders which were easily carried out in the dark and twisting alleyways of the city. At first devotionals to various Saints held candles at each corner, later followed by oil lamps at the state’s expense. Another source has it that the Arabs had street lamps in Cordoba, Al-Andalus in 1000. Neither source noted the Chinese who, of course, beat everyone, and the word lamp is from the Greek meaning torch, so “lighting” by humans certainly predated even my romantic projections of a “natural” evening.

But I think it fair to say that even a few candles or torches here and there would not have rendered my wild imaginings less romantic during that brief twilight time. All in all I guess it just sheds a little light on something I find more and more convincing as I experience this city. It is best expressed in Davide’s final thought, “we don’t have the quality as humans to forget Venice”.

Continued . . .

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Changing Temples Pt. 12 – Deportation Pt. 2

Changing Temples – Deportation, Pt. 2: The Anatomy of Panic

Grab your coat and get your hat
Leave your worries on the doorstep
Life can be so sweet
On the sunny side of the street
On The Sunny Side of the Street, 1930

There is a form of incipient panic in travel that I cannot but dread. Particulars: Because my Deportation Avoidance Behaviors were all undertaken within two hours – beginning at about 7:45 a.m. and me across Venezia and on the train by 9:12, there were things that had to give. No soap and shampoo with me. The little apartment I have in Pula has WiFi and nice space, but no soap or shampoo!

It also happens to be in the middle of suburban nowhere in Pula. A consequence of having to use an Internet cafe half way through the journey to try to get a reservation in advance. Foreign computer and internet usage is mostly . . . well, foreign. While the clock is ticking up Euros, you are trying to figure out which combination of keys will give you the @ sign. Seems simple, but I can tell you from the perspective of Costa Rica and here (my two experiences), it is not!

As I mentioned, the booking company map showed 4+ miles to city centre, which distance, of course, was only genuinely visible after booking. The landlords’ son speaks reasonable English and barely explained how to find the city bus but a great job of explaining which bus number to take. He failed to mention that the bus number coming back is not the same!

So, thanks to a nice fellow sitting by the side of his house this a.m., I found the bus stop. Thanks to very friendly fellows at the bus stop, I got off at the right spot. One of them, Swedish by some connection, so with a grasp of English, took the time to show me the bus stop to find when I was ready to return. He then proceeded to walk about with me to orient me. That was such a nice gesture. In part, however, it got me a little panicked about truly NOT being oriented, because we were making turns upon turns and he was using a vocabulary of one-third English to say “you can’t miss it”.

When I am faced with a totally unknown city (my iPad maps would be wonderful, but I do not have a Data Plan for Croatia – especially for 3 days) and only one orientation point for getting myself back to where I am sleeping, my pattern is to do a slow, circular or perpendicular walk about to get familiar.

At any rate, this friendly soul left me at a spot where I had some comfort about a return route, so I walked on thinking that the Roman Amphitheater this town is famous for would be near the water. Sure enough.

So, I whiled away the day (the Adventure of the Amphitheater is the subject of another edition). I decided I would eat an early supper to try to get the best time advantage in finding my way back to my abode.

But, incipient in the background was this panic about where I was to actually exit the bus on my return. It would have helped if I hadn’t had what appears to be the latest in an increasing number of moments of inadvertence on the inbound bus. When I sat down on the bus, but, limited seat availability notwithstanding, I completely forgot that I am supposed to somehow identify this one particular suburban bus stop within the repetitive, unidentifiable sameness of the streets and surroundings. I sit down “going backwards”, not the best for instilling something in memory about landmarks. Several blocks on I remembered what I was supposed to be about. Good luck. This suburb is like every other you have ever seen (especially one that, according to the landlord son, was all built in the last three years), winding streets not well marked. Everything looks alike. I took the kind fellow’s advice and got off at the spot recommended. But I recognized niente! I did not see the bus stop I had used in the a.m. The uphill street looked promising or memorable, but who the hell knows.

There was a nice old lady passing by. I showed her my address on a piece of paper (why try to pronounce a language I can’t). Sure enough she said the uphill street. Here I am. Unnecessary incipient panic, but only in retrospect. I have been in many a situation where it was not nearly as seamless. Dare I tell you about this time in Berkeley CA, full bladder, full failure to take any replica of the address, the phone number, or anything, and taking the wrong exit out of the subway?

Continued . . .