(Journal from 7 November)
I’m on the train waiting to depart Milano Lambrate Stazione for Vicenza—my first (and I suppose, my only) home in Italy. I spent the summer of 1996 studying architecture there. As I mentioned in a previous entry, our professor, Dr. Jones (aka Dr. J), brought a group of about 18 of us from the Texas Tech University Architecture program to live in Vicenza and travel about, studying the seminal works of Andrea Palladio, Carlo Scarpa, and others. I have not returned since then, and I wonder if I’ll be able to retrace my steps to all my usual haunts.
I recall the hotel, Albergo Italia I believe it was, where we lived on what seemed to be the outskirts of town. It was not far from Palladio’s Villa La Rotonda, said by some to be the most beautiful home in the world. I went running some mornings on a path that started near the hotel and led up to and past the villa. More than once I teared up as I ran past, reveling in the simple fact that I was alive and in that breathtaking place. The hotel had quite a story behind it as well. It ostensibly functioned as a destination for men needing to satisfy their urges for…ehem…physical pleasure during the day. During our stay, we learned that the very kind woman who owned and operated the hotel had enjoyed a brief respite in the local jail for her unwholesome practices and was released not long before our arrival. Several in our group became convinced their rooms were occasionally hijacked for these antics during the weekdays as we worked at school, and they complained ardently about it. I found it quite amusing, but then, it wasn’t my room—as far as I knew.
I was quite fond of the building that functioned as our school, and I enjoyed the walk we took to get there. It had originally served for many years as living quarters for monks. Ah, the irony of it all…we spent our nights in a part-time brothel and our days in a former monastery. The building was used during the winter and spring semesters by the architecture program of a university somewhere in the southeastern USA, a detail I’ve since forgotten. The main classroom was a single large hall with high ceiling and tall, expanses of mullioned windows gifting the space with plentiful diffuse light of the most pleasing quality. Simple white canvas window coverings, slightly yellowed from a life well lived, wafted in the breeze when we let the windows open. The way they danced softly in the sunlight was surreal.
Dr. Jones had arranged with the owners of Pizzeria Vesuvio for us to eat there each night during the week. We walked through the Piazza del Erbe after class with our meal tickets in hand, and these granted us choices from a particular set of items from the menu. I remember the charming vine-covered patio for dining all fresco, as well as the oversized pizza oven as you walk inside the main entrance. I don’t recall the name of the proprietors or its exact location, but I believe I can walk to it. I’ll explain who I am. If they’re the same owners, perhaps they’ll recall our group, we can enjoy some conversation, and I can have one of their delicious pizzas, just like old times.
There was another restaurant where we ate our very first meal one our first day in Vicenza. Also dining outside adjacent to the sidewalk, we enjoyed the beautiful courtyard and buildings surrounding us. The waitress came to take away my almost empty carafe, and I shuddered, grabbing it from her to shake the tiniest final drops of my first Italian Prosecco into my glass.
I also remember Allen’s bar, though I can’t recall its actual name. Allen was an Irishman, perhaps in his thirties, who owned a bar near the center of town. I’m not sure I can retrace my steps to find it again, but I will certainly try! This was where I spent a fair number of my evenings, chatting and drinking wine with the assortment of nationalities there. Caserma Ederle is an important US/NATO military base and is located in Vicenza. Many NATO officers and troops from different countries spent time in Allen’s bar in addition to the American soldiers, so the diversity of people was delightful for me. I become close with one man a few years older than my 22 years at the time who was a captain and pilot in the US Airforce. One weekend we took an overnight train from Venice for an unforgettable weekend in Paris. For my last night in Vicenza he drove me to nearby Verona for a final meal together, and a visit to the castles of Romeo and Juliet (nevermind that it’s fiction). The rest, the details, I will keep for myself with a nod and a wink. I must leave something for the book! We stayed in touch via postcards and letters for a few months after I returned to the states, but life soon filled up and we moved on. I have fond memories of my time with him and still wonder occasionally how and where he is.
The train is well on its way now as I write this, and it occurs to me that the landscape speeding past is the very same, excepting whatever change the passing of time may have brought, as that first train ride I experienced. I recall being unable to take my eyes away from the glass separating me from the world beyond it. I absorbed every sight. The farms, the villages, graffiti, bridges, power plants, factories, apartment buildings and homes boasting a great deal more color and architectural consideration than those I was used to seeing at home and adorned with sagging rows of laundry drying in the sun. Unused open land seemed to exist in great scarcity if at all. And in the distance to the north rose the snow-capped Alps. I was instantly in love with this mode of travel. I particularly enjoyed seeing the farms and rural areas. I grew up in an agricultural family in northwest Texas, so I am always fascinated to observe farming and ranching practices in other places. Only 13 years had gone by since that first train ride which is no time at all, but if I weren’t able to rely on math, I would have told you it was a lifetime or two ago. The growth I’ve done since then can’t be quantified. The things I’ve observed, the experiences I’ve had, the relationships, the lessons that can only be learned by rolling up the sleeves of the deepest parts of your being and getting a little dirty in life, have changed me. It is said that you can never step into the same river twice. The same can be said of people and places. Time and its effects have flowed full and strong in those 13 years. It will be a fascinating experience to visit Vicenza again after all the changes within, and to see that place, certainly having undergone its own transformation, through new eyes.
(Journal from 8-9 November)
I’m making myself fat!!! Tutti cappucino, panne, pizze, e pasta. Basta!! Enough!! Too much! I consume these things only rarely at home, and the excessive carbohydrates, cream, and milk are distributing themselves liberally on my hips, thighs and belly despite all the walking. As for the upper body, my arms, back, and shoulders are getting quite the workout with this luggage. But I’m enjoying it all immensely and will do my best to keep the guilt at bay. It’s not that I necessarily eat more in quantity but that it’s a great deal more of what sticks. I will have incentive to train for next year’s big walk when I return home and can’t fit into my clothes! I seem to recall a little extra weight on the return flight the first time I visited Italy, and when my father met me at DFW Airport, he welcomed me home with a very candid, “Well, you blew up, didn’t you?!”. His name is Frank. And he typically is.
It is a very rainy, cold day in Vicenza. Despite this, I have walked all over the town visiting the places I remember spending time when I was here in 1996. As if the course of Vipassana continues and has followed me north…anitya!...everything has changed! [anitya: the impermanence, transience, and instability of all things, including self.]
Albergo Italia where we lived is now vacant and the building for sale. It looked different than I remembered, so I couldn’t be sure it was the same place. I inquired with a group of policemen standing in front of the pizzeria across the street. They said it closed 12 or 13 years ago, so it must have happened not long after we left. Perhaps the madam’s activities finally put her out of business once and for all! From there, I retraced my steps along the streets I walked each morning to the building we had classes in Monday through Friday. Scaffolding enveloped the front of the building and blocked the entrance, so I couldn’t visit it either. I kept walking back to the center of town and located the restaurant where we ate each night, Pizzeria Vesuvio. It is still in operation but is closed from October to December for renovations, the exact duration of my travel! I found this amusing and slightly disappointing. Then I wandered and wandered all the little streets north of Corso Andrea Palladio searching for the Irish pub I frequented in the off chance it would still be in operation and Allen, the owner, would be there to welcome me with a glass of wine or a beer. No luck. You can see in the photographs that the colorful blue and red entrance of the rounded building has been closed up for quite some time, evidenced by broken glass and generous graffiti. No person, place or thing can escape the inevitable effects of passing time.
I recall Allen the Irish with great fondness. He told me of the dream he'd had to own and operate an Irish pub in Italy and the sacrifices he'd had to make to see it through. I lived in his dream that summer. Dreams come and go, and they can exist only in our hearts and minds…but he lived his, if even for a few years. I wonder what dream he’s living now and where?
Visit the RETURN TO VICENZA photo gallery.