Travel as Metaphor

The blog of novelist Sue Swift.

Wednesday, September 27, 2006

Tuesday 20 Sept...another stunning day in Matera...morning at the provincial library working followed by lunch, then the first day of the WFF RS briefings, these on human trafficking (slavery) and counterterrorism. Both were very interesting, thought-provoking and stimulating to the writer's mind. I don't exactly know how I can use the information yet, but really, one just shoves it into the cranial hard drive and waits until something pops out of the mental stew. Sometimes that can take months or years. It's OK.

Weds, Thurs and Friday much the same...workshops on pathology, the mafia, investigation and so forth.

On Friday morning the 22d I awakened a little depressed. Colin warned me that I'd experience a variety of emotions while away, he states that he started to truly feel the pain of Keith's death. I feel that I am also mourning my past life. I am also feeling a general sense of displacement. I am also tired of living out of one small suitcase, wearing the same clothes. I want to put on my skates and play some hockey. I haven't had decent exercise for weeks even though I am living in a town that is like a giant stone Stairmaster.

The lack of exercise is probably what's getting to me the most. The walking is good and I'm stretching lightly. But it's not enough.

It is also Rose Hashana today and I wonder if that's affecting me, even though I'm not religious. I got up at 6 a.m. and phoned home to talk with my mom and Wendy. My mother is obsessed with the smaller details of her life, as usual, mostly her frustration with Surewest's inability to get the TV in her kitchen to work. She is unimpressed with the fact that I have only Italian language TV.

Wendy is super as always. She always has something smart and insightful to say. She reminded me that the journey IS the destination and to be patient with myself. Routines, she pointed out, do not make us grow. I deliberately created my situation, so enjoy it to the fullest.

And write in my journal.

So I did. Seated in the central square, Piazza Vittorio Veneto, I watched the city awaken. I drank a cappucino in the Café Centrale as dawn brightened the sky. Men wielding bamboo brooms with long straws bound with metal sweep the square. A small dog barks from a balcony overhead. A streetsweeping machine hums and belches diesel, a modern contrast to the old-fashioned brooms. Though a cloudbank lingers in the east, it's another perfect day in Matera.

The streetsweeping machine becomes oppressive, so I wander to a kiosk. I don't find my books but locate another by a friend, Jennifer Skully's Quando il Nemico e l'amante. I feel sure that Skully didn't get to pick this title.

I go down a jagged flight of steps into the Sassi, the Barisano section with which I am not familiar. I can't figure out how to get to the Piazza Sedile, so after a few abortive attempts up winding stone staircases to nowhere, I walk east to the road that rims the Sassi to the east. I will follow it south to Il Vicinato.

I walk along the parapet over a gorge bottomed by a stream. I mean over a lichen encrosted wall, breathe the scent of greenery, see purple flowers clinging to cracks in the stone. Joggers pass. Birds warble morning songs.

Wendy's the best :)

10 a.m.: Had a chat with Bruna and her colleague Michaela in the Viaggo Lionetti office. They, and Liz, will help me find a place and language lessons.

12:15: met Tony, who knows Liz (he says everybody knows Liz). He teaches English for €7 per hour. He says that the Sassi Caveoso is preferable (more light) and that €400 per month is realistic. Are utilities included?

I think I will stay until 15 April. My return to the States is on 1 May from London. I can go home to California, see people, attend a hockey camp and decide where I next want to live. If I am happy in Matera, I can return. If not, then not.

Monday, September 25, 2006

Tuesday 19 Sept...amazing how much noise can seep through two-foot-thick stone walls...useless to try to sleep with Materan partiers wandering the streets. The place quieted down at around midnight. I read until then, and slept well, awakening at about 6 a.m. Best night's sleep in days.

I doze for awhile. By 7 a.m. the sun has dramatically backlit la chiesa Madonna d'Idris.

7 p.m.: The rain that has been threatening for the last few hours started, and I mean torrential, Rome-style rain. With most of my clothes being laundered by the nice lady at Il Vicinato, I haven't many choices. I haven't the slightest idea how I'm going to go out to tonight's cocktail party except uncomfortably...I wish I hadn't been so stubborn about not buying a €3 umbrella from one of the many fellows selling them outside the Vatican, except, dammit, I already have three brollies in Europe. Unfortunately all of them are in my auntie Roberta's flat.

On top of that I haven't seen anywhere to buy one in Matera...I can't find the superemme I shopped at last time. Plus the UPIM department store has closed. Damn. However, this is a great place to work, i.e., write. No English language TV at Il Vicibato. Raining cats and I lonely? A little, I guess. Am I discouraged? A little...when I left SacTown, the weather had been perfect for weeks, and here in Italy it's been rain rain rain for an effing week. Intellectually I know this is freaky--the last time I was here it was HOT--but I'm feeling down all the same and wondering if I have made a monumental error with my life.

11 p.m....A rainy night so the streets and walkways of Matera are quiet. Actually, it hasnàt rained for awhile but it's quiet anyhow. Went to the Women's Fiction Festival cocktail party, ate, drank renewed friendships (Liz, the Dottore her husband, David her son, Fredericka and Deanna, other writers) and made new ones (Barb, Jan, Shannon). Met Hilary, an editor, again...can't quite believe that she's 52, older than me, GORGEOUS and way cool. Snared an entire bottle of champagne for a small group of us. Lovely wench.

Tomorrow I plan to get my clean clothes (YAY!), find a store, work til noon, nay then take a course on suspense writing.Then PARTAY! which is of course the main point of all writer's conferences.

Tuesday: Learned from Jean that there's a supermercato near the Piazza Lanfranchi, near where the conference is...wonder if it's the same one I couldn?t find yesterday? Last nite learned from David that while there isn't ice hockey here in Matera, there is roller hockey at a rink near his home. There's also a health club there.

I have formulated a workplan: finish current edit for Liquid Silver Books, then finish WIP (need two more scenes, should be able to knock them out shortly), do some promo for the books coming out in October. Then assess which book I want to write next. I have to finish the edit of Fashion Victim, and then...I have a wealth of proposals sitting around, and I think the one set in New Orleans attracts me the most. It's hot, has a great plot and characters I love, which is really the most important factor, since in essence I will be living with them inside my head for some months.

Saturday, September 23, 2006

Monday, 18 September: At 7:15 I walked auntie to a taxi which will take her to the terminal, then went back to our room for an extra bit of sleep. The glow of "I'm in Italy and never have to leave" is somewhat dimmed by the unbelievable level of street noise. Even in our tiny little alley, the Via Margutta, building projects resume early Monday morning. As I mentioned, Rome is an ancient city undergoing constant renovation.

11:40: I've checked out of the hotel but left my bags there since my train to Ferrandina doesn't leave until 3:45 (1545 around here). It's a gorgeous sunny day, the kind of day I anticipated all weekend in Rome...oh well...I'll have a wonderful scenic train trip to the south today.

I'm kickin' it in a café on the Via Sistina, book open, nibbling pistachios and sipping a latte. Life is good. 1:30 it was raining again...

3:30 p.m.: Though the rain had stopped, I nevertheless took a taxi to the Termini. The terminal is massive, covering several city blocks. It contains an upstairs shopping mall, plus countless restaurants, snack bars, newsstands, clothing and other shops. The USA could take some hints from the Europeans about transportation, that's for sure!

Or not.

I talked to three different employees of Trenitalia about my e ticket and got three different answers. I decided to take the word of the signor in the first class lounge and just got on the train. He assured me I could get a proper ticket issued on board.

A girl on the train showed me a full-page spread in an Italian mag called Tu
about Matera, calling it "trendy Matera" with a sidebar about the Women's Fiction Festival. Liz will be pleased.

5 p.m.: the sun is out for the train trip across Italy. The terrain is varied and quite lovely. 5:30 and we're pulling into Naples. The approach is disfigured by scores of apartment blocks, square, ugly and uninspired. Why are the postwar buildings so atrocious? The European tendency to make everything beautiful doesn't exist near the Naples train station, but the views of the ocean are gorgeous.

As we leave Naples I glimpse a beach through an unattractive metal barrier. We pass a villa with statues. There is a breakwater and islands off shore, and the volcano looming over everything. The sun is still high and bright.

6:30 p.m.: We enter Salerno. More choppy apartment blocks, but the station itself looks aged and charming, with arched recesses framing windows and doors.

Some guy sits next to me. Honestly, the train is half empty and he's gotta crowd me...why? The fact he looks like Viktor Krum in Potter 4 doesn't make up for the stupidity.

7 p.m.: Sunset, with enough clouds in the sky to make it interesting as we roll through the countryside. Italy at its best, a pastiche of cultivation and wildness, dotted with solid, square houses clad in warmtoned stucco with red tile roofs.

11 p.m.: Arrived in Ferrandina at 9, met promptly by Signor Eletti and driven to Il Vicinato, my B&B in Matera. As we descended from the hills into the valley that cradles Matera, we saw a lightning storm flashing over the Sassi--the third such storm I've encountered in the few days I've been in Europe. In fact, every time I have gone to a new city, there has been lightning in the sky the first night. What can that portend?

We drove through the less attractive, modern part of Matera to the Sassi, with me wondering if I've made the worst mistake of my life. When we were not immediately met at Il Vicinato, I worried some more.

But no problem...we had tapped at the wrong door. We left #2 for #3, and Luigi promptly met us. He led me up an angular, twisting set of stone stairs to my rooms--a vestibule, a nice bath and a bedroom with a tiny kitchen alcove. I have a balcony and a huge window with a view of the chiesa. Tiled floors and a huge bed. Places for all my stuff. Huge vaulted ceilings...A gorgeous space, three times the size of our little room in Rome for less than a quarter of the price.

When he left, I cried, it is so perfect.

Thursday, September 21, 2006

Sunday, 17 Sept 06: Another day of sights to behold. The highlight was the Trevi Fountain, really amazing. I promise I'll get some photos up, but as it was raining, nothing I took came out very well. We checked out yet another church, Santa Maria dei Populi, where they've stashed a couple of Caravaggios on an obscure chapel's side walls. Weather continues dismal. Right now, at 5:30, a cloudburst has us trapped in our winebar...under the circs, can't feel too sad about it!

Found an English language bookstore, The Lion, on the Via dei Greci. Great place to spend a rainy afternoon but auntie clearly impatient. I picked up a couple of books for the five-hour-long train trip to Matera tomorrow.

Not many restaurants open in Rome late on Sunday, so we ended up eating Chinese (Cinese). It was really good. Who wouldda thunk it?

Read in a SI article about Pat Tillman:

Fear is what stands between a man and an extraordinary life. The surest way through it is to stare it down over and over, until that gaze becomes habit.
Nite of ten thousand burps, Sat nite 16 Sept...All the rich restaurant food finally caught up with auntie Bert. I came to the rescue with good ol' American Alka-Seltzer, which she was glad to have despite her usual contempt of everything from the states.
Friday 15 Sept 06: We made a reservation for a Vatican City tour which was supposed to start at 8, requiring a 7 a.m. wake up call. The phone rang at 6:45, with the caller asking up to come down for our tour. Roberta exclaimed, "What, in our knickers?" It turned out that the reservation was wrong and the tour at 7:30. We declined, instead taking a taxi to the Coliseum at a more civilized hour.

It is indeed colossal, and we exhausted ourselves walking around it. We then went to Chiesa Santa Maria della Vittoria and, finding it closed, ate lunch and returned later. The church exemplifies the over-the-top Rococo style. Literally every inch of it, cinluding floors and ceilings, is elaborately adorned, painted, inlaid, carved or sheathed in gorgeously colored and veined marble, except the pews, smooth, hard and uncushioned. Bernini's famous sculpture of the Passion of Santa Teresa is the main attraction, with Teresa in an almost obscene orgasmic transports as she's pierced by an angel's "spiritual" dart. Not only is the sculpture itself fascinating, but the carved friezes on each side depict male spectators entranced by the soomewhat pornographic spectacle.

Sat 16 Sept 06: Though I loathe standing in lines, here in Rome I seem to spend a lot of time doing something I loathe. I have been in line to see the Sistine Chapel for three quarters of an hour and the fellow ahead of us reckons we won't get in for another ninety minutes or so.

And it started to rain. Hard.

Only for Roberta would I suffer through this. Not worth it IMO for a sight that is probably deserted in November.

3:45 wait of 2 hours to hang in the Vatican Museum for 1.5. Everything up to the Sistine a total disappointment except for a long hall with gorgeous, fascinating hand-painted maps of Italy and its various provinces, painted like giant murals on the walls. Despite the crowds, I knew I could spend hours finding familiar places. However, I had imagined the Borgia apartment and the Raphael room to be much nicer, but I have to say that the Sistine itself is quite amazing. I wonàt bother with describing it since there are about a gazillion other sources to draw upon.

Peculiarly enough, once out of the chapel, no crowds. It's as though the Sistine's walls absorb tourists. Everything is striking, beautiful, not only the painting and sculpture but the decorative artifacts as well. Lecterns and altarpieces of lapis and marble trimmed with gold and jewels, elaborate furniture...even beautiful wall screens and cupboards.

Topping it all off is the Vatican Pizzeria, really a bargain when we both got pizza and birra for a mere eight euros...a bargain for expensive Rome.

I'm writing this in our fave winebar getting a snack before checking out the Villa Borghese...a full day of sightseeing.

The Villa Borghese is OK, wonderful Berninis, especially his Apollo and Daphne. She's turning into a laurel tree, and the carving of each leaf is amazing. One slip of his chisel and...whoops, there goes a month of work!

Raining cats and dogs, or maybe wolves and tigers, as we left.

Monday, September 18, 2006

September 11, 2006, or as Europeans would put it, 11 Sept…while the rest of the world is commemorating the WTC tragedy by watching TV, I chose to celebrate freedom by traveling to Europe to begin a new life. It’s 3:30 in the afternoon and I am tucked into a love seat in United’s Red Carpet Lounge at SFO sipping a Bloody Mary…it’s not as luxurious as Heathrow’s but it’s certainly more comfy than the public areas of the airport, with free booze and food, cozy chairs and lots of space to stretch out in.

I had an overexcited moment or two on the way to the airport, Oh-my-Godding a lot, but that quickly dissipated as I stood in the line for business class. One other fellow was at the counter, and he seemed to have some sort of problem that was beyond the grasp of three United ticket agents. I tapped my toes for twenty minutes until finally another agent came on duty and checked me in. Security was a breeze—thank you TSA!—and now here I am, contemplating the step I am about to take.

Eight months. Longer, if Europe welcomes me to a new way of being.

It is literally breathtaking.

6:20 and I will board in 20 minutes. I’m down in the waiting room at the gate, having noticed an immediate change in the ambience: a crying child of course.

I used to think I liked other people’s children. Right now I’m not so sure.

The jittery excitement in my belly contrasts with the tedium of waiting, which never changes even if one expects to wait. I often say, inaccurately, that I love to travel. In reality, I love to have traveled and arrived in someplace new and different.

Tomorrow I will arrive someplace not new, not different but greatly loved: England. People don’t use that term much anymore; it’s been replaced with the UK, but there’s something about the traditional placenames that thrills through the blood in a way that “The United Kingdom of Britain and Northern Ireland” cannot. The UK is a political entity; Britain is an island and England, tradition incarnate. The pull of family and home draws me like nowhere else on earth.

More people, including the flight crew, are descending the escalator to the gate area.

My excitement mounts.


14 Sept 2006...As the days flow by, I continue to be overwhelmed by the knowledge that I'm in Europe and I never have to leave.

London was London, wonderful but lacking, for the first time, the feeling I was home. Too many cars and people for my taste. Today in Rome I have the same sense.

But I skipped ahead. The flight over was okay. Business class isn't as nice as first class no matter what anyone tells you. The difference is the chair-bed thingie. In first it's flat and wonderfully cushioned but in business it's more like a very uncomfortable chaise that doesn't tilt all the way. I did not sleep well.

But the first glimpse of England, with its green fields laid out in neat oblongs and squares, brought tears...I needed to leave my old life and create something new, and England was the first step.

One of my uncles picked me up in Heathrow, loaded me and my four enormous bags into his Peugeot station wagon and on the way to the west end, subjected me to a kindly but complete interrogation. Uncle Maurice has missed his calling. He should have been a detective. After I arrived at my auntie Roberta's flat, she followed suit, though taking her time because she knew we'd spend the next week together. Calls from my cousins followed...need I say more? I was embraced and supported, as always by my family.

Issues of life and death pursue me. One of my British uncles had a quad bypass the morning I arrived. When Roberta and I ate supper at an Indian restaurant that evening, we talked everything over...she voiced what I believe, that Keith's death was the worst thing that's ever happened to our family.

I still mourn my brother every day and think of Wendy and the boys with love, concern and pride.

Berta's flat is in St Johns Wood, a tony area in London's west end. The guest room, which also serves as her office and painting studio, opens onto the garden. It is quite lovely. When I figure out how to do it, I will add photos to this blog so all can see the garden.

I had hoped to sleep through the night but was awakened by a cranking great thunderstorm. I wrapped myself in my duvet and watched it. It was gorgeous.

The next day we went to Kilburn and bought a small case for me to take to Italy. Ryanair has imposed tight new restrictions on onboard luggage, and I hate to check bags if I can avoid it. Kilburn is different from upscale St Johns Wood, more cracked sidewalks, shabby looking immigrants and trash on the street.

We got to be early because I stupidly booked the flight for 7 in the morning from Luton to Rome's Ciampino airport. we had to leave home at 315 to get a bus from Victoria Station to Luton. I had sworn after my last early morning trip from London to Italy NEVER AGAIN but in my distracted state I booked a ridiculously early flight.

Luton's much nicer than Stansted, though, and we arrived early enough to grab a bit of breakfast at the aairport Pret à Manger. The place was full of exhausted travelers, plus a baby who screamed for at least a half-hour while we waited on the tarmac before takeoff. When we landed in ROme, we were trated to another bus ride into the city, and were deposited at Romeàs Termini.

Having sat for eight hours, Roberta and I decided to walk to our hotel. Easier said than done. Rome is not set out in a logical fashion. No grid ssytem. Few streets run for more than a few blocks before disappearing into a piazza or a roundabout. The place is full of ruins, most of which are undergoing renovation. Plus, the transit workers were out on strike, so no buses or metro...the streets were jammed with people and cars. We finally got to our hotel at 215, about the time we awakened that morning.

Exhausted, we showered and tumbled into our beds only to be awakened by another thunderstorm. How lucky can one get?

Monday, September 11, 2006

'Tis the night before takeoff, and all through the house,
I wandered, so sleepless, nervous as a mouse.
My suitcases were all packed, set near the front door with care
In hopes that my big travel day would draw near.

OK, enough of that. I'm no poet, and I know it.

Yep, I'm all packed and ready to go...another night made sleepless from anxiety and sheer excitement as I open another chapter in an life that has often seemed overly exciting.

But I go to seek a calmer life in a town, not a city, in peaceful southern Italy. I'm flying out of SF in the evening and will arrive in London midday on the 12th...then on to Rome. After a bit of sightseeing, on to the Women's Fiction Festival in Matera.

I promise to post photos after I learn how to operate the digital camera I just got.

Wish me luck, as I wish all of you, my friends, the best that life can give.