Never can say good-bye….

I’m back home after 33 days of if not total bliss, daily doses of beauty on the Italian riviera, the part known as the “levante.” We all know the drill of return: everything is so real. And in New York everything is not only real but more real: loud, dirty, unforgiving. Even if I can force myself to acknowledge some good aspects to being home―a performing washer/dryer (that dries socks in minutes, not hours), a stellar printer/scanner (with long enough memory to print a whole manuscript in one go)―more pieces of clothing than the ones you’d been wearing (and washing) for 33 days. The list is not long, though, at least not for me, not this time. Oh, let’s see: drinking morning tea in bed―a forbidden pleasure at the Fondazione. Watching movies at night on tv in bed (ditto). Reading The Times on paper (had to make do with the recycled news of the  Herald Tribune.) I guess I could come up with a few more if I really tried.

But I thought I should try harder.

So I made an experiment. Instead of the gorgeous passeggiata along the Mediterranean, now consigned to memory, I took my daily walk on the Promenade along―well, parallel to―the Hudson River, on the Upper West Side where I live. I decided to take my camera as I did daily in Italy and see whether I could focus my eyes on pieces of beauty in the streets, enough to cheer me up. I pretended I was visiting the city as an enthusiastic tourist, instead of a lifelong, grouchy New Yorker.

I made a first stop walking down the hill to the community gardens at 91st Street and Riverside Drive, where spring was edging its way into existence.

trees1

Then took a shot of the river with a freighter in the mid-ground―recalling the freighters that sat on the horizon of the Mediterranean waiting to dock in Genoa. That didn’t quite work, mainly because of New Jersey’s dreary architecture in the background.

river2

I looked for another angle but was defeated by the highway. Lordly as the Hudson is, it was not going to give me sublime.

I left the park and wandering home, I was surprised to see a plaque on the wall at 160 Riverside Drive that I had never noticed, in honor of Brooks Atkinson, the drama critic for the New York Times. I even remember reading his columns when I was growing up.

plaques

And a few steps farther, on the same block, 88th Street between Riverside and West End Avenue, a plaque to Babe Ruth. They seemed new. I couldn’t have been more surprised.

So I walked up to 94th street to compare with a much larger tribute to Elizabeth Cady Stanton, that’s been up there for a while.

Could New York be on its way to becoming London and recognizing its writers and artists? Rumor has it that our own building is going to have a plaque in memory of the painter Barnett Newman.

My excursion cheered me up slightly, but I can’t help feeling that this neighborhood tour, whatever its charms, will not console me for my sense of paradise lost.

photo (8)

 

Paradise almost lost….

In a few days we will be leaving our beautiful temporary home, where even on stormy days the seascape that surrounds us is sublime.

2002-12-31 23.00.00-43Now, after what seemed like endless cold and rainy weather, the sun is out, and everything is in bloom. The beauty of the landscape is almost unbelievable, especially the view from our bedroom window where the horizon of Golfo Paradiso is framed and crisscrossed by the bending boughs of parasol pines.

It will, I fear, be excruciating to return to New York, where the usual noise and grime will be accentuated by the scaffolding that was wrapping our building when we left a few weeks ago. Sigh.

Meanwhile, I’ve been collecting last signs by which to remember our time here:

Another love-inspired example of graffiti, this time in English, carved on a thick cactus leaf on the path we took between two of the villages of the Cinque Terre, Monterosso and Vernazza. So we say that we have seen the “due terre” and from a staggering height. I thought the walk would never end, as I clung on to whatever vines, fences, rocks, and the occasional bannister available. We were by far the oldest people taking the path, and that fact was not comforting; nor were the signs warning us of falling rocks.

2002-12-31 23.00.00-34
“Nel blu dipinto di blu”: irresistible reprise from ‘Volare’ (only people over a certain age will recognize the music and the words from the late 1950s)

It’s all about blue.

2002-12-31 23.00.00-8

I realized on one  excursion that a favorite scarf matched the sea, as well as the color of the railings and the benches It’s also the color of my new website―so many variants of teal.

2002-12-31 23.00.00-58

Even a blue kayak:

The town itself –walls, shutters, roofs–is color coordinated in warm earth tones, but the rules of décor do not seem to apply to laundry:

2013-03-20 12.26.06

Was everything perfect then? Nostalgia will make it so.

But that would be too simple. In addition to the proliferation of dog poop (see earlier posts), there are cigarette butts everywhere, as well as discarded cigarette packs:

sidebyside

The warning label reads on one side: Smoking gravely damages you and those around you, and on the other: Smoking causes deadly lung cancer.

The messages, alas, seem to have no effect. People smoke everywhere outside where smoking is permitted. The fact that the packs contain 10 cigarettes makes them especially appealing to the young: notably the pre-teenagers…who think, as we did when young, that smoking is cool.

The government has not succeeded in banning the tempting packs.

(Too bad the packs come in a lovely a shade of blue…)

It would be churlish, however, to end on a…blue note.
A few days ago, on a trip to a Genoa marketplace (we bought pesto and porcini), we saw this

2002-12-31 23.00.00-54

strange sight: a levitating monk.

Any ideas of how it’s done?

Reading the signs in Bogliasco, continued

It continues to rain and the sun remains an iffy prospect, but there have finally been signs of spring. On the passeggiata there are buds and leaves where before there were none.  It would be curmudgeonly not to feel hopeful that our last days here will be warm and sunny.

spring

I’m still collecting love graffiti, and one of them, written on a bench along the passeggiata, finally exposes the mark of gender: “The first time I saw you, the first time I truly fell in love”…innamorata―the woman in love…and further to the right, after the declaration, “to follow”….Stay tuned.

bench

On an excursion to another village along the coast, I spotted this classic at the bottom of a staircase: I Love You and the date. I couldn’t help wondering if the love made it to the second anniversary, which had just passed. That’s the thing about graffiti, you just can’t know whether the sentiment remains, whether to feel warm and fuzzy or sad.

tiamo

And adjacent to this classic, a more playful one:

amoresale

Love climbs every staircase—“sale” rhymes with “scale” in Italian….

Finally, in the town of Bogliasco, there’s a more lasting tribute to love and the winds of time inscribed on a kind of wall sculpture.

noname-1

Here is emended version of the poem:

More than the Grecale

little lines
short scratches
time proceeds with you
discreetly

More than the Grecale
that reinforces
and wears away cement and ornament

uncovering the stone
the white skeleton
of the wall

Grecale is the wind from the northeast. Here are the four winds in a mosaic compass by the sea..

compass

Poetic as all that is, the question of dog poop is never far behind.

doggraf
The colorful poster clearly explains what dog owners should do, but the evidence on the ground suggests that the locals do not read the writing on the wall.

Reading the signs in Bogliasco

Walking to and from the passeggiata, in and out of the tiny alleyways between the main road and the sea, I encountered these interesting examples of graffiti. The first one, dated and signed with a heart, says:

graffiti3

“Believe in my love. I love you truly, I swear.”

graffiti2The second one is brief and to the point in dark black letters says, depending on context:

“You please me,” literal translation. 
“I like you,” “I find you attractive,” not to mention, “you turn me on.”

There are no marks of gender in the pronouns, nothing to reveal the sex of the writer. I first assumed that the long message was written by a woman and the short one by a man. But then I thought that since Italian men pride themselves on being romantic, it was not impossible that the more flowery one had been written by a man, and the short expression of desire by a woman.

With those assumptions in mind, I asked the question at a group lunch with several Italian speakers. I was surprised to learn that “mi piaci tu” might have come from song lyrics or publicity for some product, and was used on Facebook to mean: “I like,” as in thumbs up. In other words, “mi piaci tu” seems to have less of an immediate sexual overtone than the French, “tu me plais.” Another of the Italians commented that nowadays the difference in behavior between boys and girls was not as rigid as it used to be―girls acted in ways considered taboo in the past. And therefore that either a girl or a boy might have written “mi piaci tu.” It wasn’t gender specific.

But most seemed to think that the flowery declaration of eternal love was written by a man for a woman and that it could have been used with the hope of seducing her. Ensued a long conversation about graffiti, especially love graffiti―in Italy, Spain, and the United States.

graffiti11

The third instance of graffiti is less lofty. It’s about dog poop, of which there is a goodly amount in town. Well, it’s not strictly speaking graffiti since it’s a message typed on a piece of paper, but still.

“Look carefully. This piece of shit is identical to the shit who brought his dog to poop here.”

A lot less romantic, but no less Italian.

I’m not sure when I can use any of this information, but at least I’m learning things.

 

La Passeggiata

The high point of the day for most of us at the Fondazione, as well as for the inhabitants of the town of Bogliasco, is its famous passeggiata a mare. The passeggiata as a phenomenon means two things: going for a stroll, an activity typical of most Mediterranean cities, and the place along which one strolls, in this case, a boardwalk made of narrow bricks laid out in a herringbone pattern (to protect against slipping in this very rainy climate), alongside a stretch of sea called Golfo Paradiso.

2002-12-31 23.00.00-5I’ve taken this walk every day since we arrived here, and I probably will continue (given my daily consumption of pasta and grissini), and I’ve been cataloguing the population, trying to decide what is distinctive. Dog walkers and runners are not. Nor are women pushing strollers, or mothers (often grandmas) urging toddlers to get a move on, couples, men or women in pairs, tourists with backpacks. What is most striking to me, though, but again it’s not so much an artifact of this tiny town on the outskirts of Genoa, is an Italian look (the French come close, but this is a bit more specific). The most interesting specimen is the well-dressed, middle-class, retired man.

Now what I would like to have put here is a picture of this elegant creature wearing a three-quarter length jacket, a cleverly knotted wool scarf, pants with a crease (even if they happen to be jeans), slender shoes, often made of brown suede. I have not yet figured out a way to take his picture discreetly, but believe me he exists, often sitting on a bench, reading a newspaper in the sun. At the risk of making an invidious comparison, I can’t help wishing Sandy would model himself on one of these exemplars of masculine dress, but it is highly unlikely (think about it, brown suede shoes on the promenade along Riverside Drive?).

Although by definition the passeggiata is about walking, this one is also designed for sitting and contemplating the sea; and also sitting (waiting for customers) and selling: the familiar stock of African street vendors (here, maybe Nigerian)—inexpensive pocket books, wallets, and small paintings.

2002-12-31 23.00.00-9 (1)And there are invitations to sit, my favorite this café where I’ve succeeded in ordering the equivalent of a bone-dry, superfoamy cappuccino delivered in a real cup and, mercifully, in no way reminiscent of Starbucks. Standing on line in my neighborhood branch, waiting for a so-called grande, seems a distant memory. When I dip my focaccia (speciality of Genoa) in the foam, looking out at the water, still or agitated, and in the distance, the snow-capped mountains on the horizon, it has the opposite effect of a madeleine—I remember nothing (as Nora Ephron wonderfully said, writing of old age).

It’s all very well, you may say, but didn’t I come here to work? Amazingly, despite the morning passeggiata and the afternoon stroll into town, I am working steadily, if not always happily.

desk

I’m doing daily battle with my copyedited ms. and cringing at my lack of talent for creating dialogue that doesn’t sound wooden and stilted (I will not give any examples, and can only hope I’ve deleted the worst ones).

Monday was Passover, and instead of attending my cousin’s Seder I went into Genoa with a small group of fellows and heard a concert in a monastery. I confess it felt weird, as we sat there shivering in our down jackets, listening to an orchestra of young people play mainly 17th and 18th century works for strings, to be spending Passover in the company of suffering Jesus on the walls and ceilings. But it is Italy, after all, and I gather that there are many processions to come (more crucifixions), as Pasqua unfolds (as I write, it’s Maundy Thursday, and one will take place in town tonight).

It’s also pouring down rain.

doublepic

 

Bogliasco

After a long, long plane trip—including 3 hours sitting in the plane on the ground at JFK as we waited for de-icing, and 4 hours in Roissy airport because we had missed our connection to Genoa (at least we got an economy meal voucher—economy meant literally, alas)—we finally arrived at Bogliasco, the location of my working paradise for the next 30 days. That oxymoron is also a challenge: can I get any writing done in such a beautiful setting?

bagliasco

My fellowship project for this precious residency at Bogliasco was to continue work on the “feminist friendship archive” I’ve been developing , and I hope to do that.

I am mesmerized now, for instance, by the following, daunting passage in Simone de Beauvoir’s Memoirs of a Dutiful Daughter. It’s the moment when 10-year-old Simone meets a new classmate Zaza, the childhood friend whose death will close this first installment of Beauvoir’s four-volume autobiography:

I needed her presence to realize how much I needed her. This was a blinding revelation. All at once, conventions, routines, and the careful categorizing of emotions were swept away and I was overwhelmed by a flood of feeling that had no place in any code. I allowed myself to be uplifted by that wave of joy which went mounting inside me, as violent and fresh as a waterfalling cataract, as naked, beautiful, and bare as a granite cliff.

I can’t say that I have ever experienced that violence in discovering a friend, but I am fascinated by its erotics and what it might mean in the evolving emotional shape of Beauvoir’s life.

A charming photograph of the two friends as young women appears on the cover of the fairly recent publication of Zaza’s letters and notebooks that I’m about to plunge into in order to read the other (equally passionate) side of their poignant story.

zaza

At the same time, just before I left New York for Italy, I received the copyedited manuscript of my new memoir, Breathless, due very soon.

And so I find myself happily torn between these two projects. Where to begin?

Solution, since the sun has miraculously appeared: go for a walk by the sea.

2013-03-20 12.23.43