On a steamy July morning, I followed my phone’s GPS to the coolest spot in Parco Sempione, Milan, Italy: the public library. The small, modern building sits on a knoll surrounded by mature evergreens and a bright flower garden; this particular day, dozing elderly rested on benches nearby.
Though Milan allegedly empties in the summer, the library at Parco Sempione and any number of other libraries I visited were full of silent patrons, intense in their concentration with books, periodicals, and at computers. Often I found myself looking for a seat, which surprised me because of the usual advise to avoid Italy in July and August “because no one is there” and “everything stops.”
But July and August is the only time I could spend five weeks away visiting family in the city, so July and August it was. And while I deeply respect the city’s overwhelmingly impressive art and culture and made sure to spend contemplative hours in Pinoteca Brera and the Duomo as well as hundreds of other significant heritage sites, I made a decision early to visit as many libraries as I could. My library-themed tour gave me a refreshing alternative view from opinion of the city found in guidebooks.
Because the selections librarians make for their collections reflect the interests of their patrons, I was particularly interested in displays and featured books and magazines. But on the day I climbed the knoll to Biblioteca Parco Sempione, I had walked several miles in the heat to get there and my first priority was one of the scarce seats, and the only one open was in the back corner. I plopped down and gulped some water, I glanced up to a propped copy of a volume of poetry that made me feel like the librarians here knew my tastes and saw me coming: Ballistics, by Billy Collins.
Essayist William Hazlitt (1778-1830) observes in “On Going on a Journey” that “the world in our conceit of it is not much bigger than a nutshell…the mind can form no larger idea of space than the eye can take in at a single glance. The rest is a name written in a map, a calculation of arithmetic. For instance, what is the true signification of that immense mass of territory and population known by the name of China to us? An inch of pasteboard on a wooden globe…”
Hazlitt makes the case for several sorts of journeys; if you are headed for a long walk in your own country, go alone, because those who know you will spoil the change of scenery by bringing up the very topics of life you need to escape; when you wander into a new town and meet a stranger, that person is a nonjudgemental part of the scenery who comes to you without preconceptions. But headed to a foreign country, he advises us to take a close friend with whom we can find close relief from the pressures of immersion in everything strange. He closes saying that he wish to have a life of travel abroad, but also want another whole life to spend at home.
Hazlitt would have loved, I think, listening to This American Life’s episode about ex-pat American Kaiser Kuo and others who have lived in China for long periods. Hazlitt would probably begin by being amused at how much we can know about one another today, yet how little we thoroughly process how that information should inform how we view and interact with one another.
When I drove a tiny car with a standard transmission up the narrow, winding road to Tripi, Messina province, Sicily, Italy two weeks ago, I felt I was paying a debt to the great-grandmother I never knew. Guiseppa Rao married Rosario Cicero and had 13 children, 12 of whom left their tiny town for Rome, Pisa, Argentina and the United States. The idea that a woman from a culture that treasures family would have so many children, yet so few grandchildren around in her old age, has long made me sad. I suppose my great-grandfather would have shared her pain in some fashion, but as a mother myself, I feel as if I might understand her feelings better than I might understand his. When I actually knelt by her grave, I was struck by the softness of her image, an image I had seen in photos many times before, but which seemed so much more compelling as my fingers traced its rim.
Tracing not only her image, but her journey compelled me to make the trip. Now two generations removed from those who left, the contacts, the houses, the memories of those still there are swiftly fading. Yet the place itself with its profound silence, its stunning view of the sea miles away, and its current population carrying on their lives reminds me that places are living organisms. For those of use with roots in far away places, the people who live there today are not part of a living museum to our past, but are elements of their own vibrant present: moving, changing and growing with the times. The “old country”/”new country” dichotomy that we heard around the holiday table left me with the feeling that there was an unchanging “old” that owned an authenticity I would never have as a new world hybrid. Instead, I found people hybrids in their own ways, and whose stories released me from an internal label as a cheap knock off. I hope to share some of those stories in the coming days.
Silent alley in Tripi
Writing is hard enough, but writing to sound like someone else really takes concentration. I was asked to write a blog entry for an international group and I found myself holding back, re-phrasing, perhaps struggling because I knew other people would hold me accountable.
My post is not through the approval yet, but when it does, I will be relieved.
So when my son told me he had gotten me a book by Roy Peter Clark for Mother’s Day, I was ecstatic. No matter how much you write, you will benefit from his tools.
National Grammar Day is March 4. I am still not sure exactly how I will celebrate, but even as a devotee of good grammar, I am cautious of celebrating too wildly. It seems grammar loving may have become somewhat of a cult:
We owe much to our mother tongue. It is through speech and writing that we understand each other and can attend to our needs and differences. If we don’t respect and honor the rules of English, we lose our ability to communicate clearly and well.
English has a long story (ever see Beowulf in the original?), so I do have concerns about waxing too poetic about “respect[ing] and honor[ing] the rules of English.” Grammar rules did not come on tablets of stone on mountain top.
Just when I was about to worry that these grammar day folks were getting a bit too strict and stuffy, I scrolled down far enough to see that they will celebrate with Grammartinis.
I was a bit surprised to hear “okay” so many times on RAI. I decided to look it up to see where it came from and found that the folks at Oxford wondered, too.
Take your pick of origins. After looking at the list, I decided it is okay to use “okay.”
Dave W’s blog Killing Time “Writing This When I Should Be Writing That” is my latest online discovery. I suddenly felt alright about the fact that I secretly like The Apprentice, but even more so when I learned that The Donald is not the only mogul who gets to do the firing. Apparently, one Alan Sugar across the pond challenges a group of the overly ambitious to prove their business mettle through a variety of mundane challenges relating to coffee and dog food. See what is great about The Apprentice(s) Anglo or American is the utter resourcefulness required to triumph in the world of the ordinary. It soothes me to know that what I need to do to get through my life below the radar is actually talent that were I more ambitious would earn me millions.
What makes the find of Killing Time even better than all that is the Dave W the author teaches writing in what I am guessing is a more prestigious setting than an American public high school (one of the places I teach writing). So, #1, it is possible to be a serious writing teacher and watch The Apprentice. And #2, I find agreeable Dave’s musings on things like the predicted “Death of the Blog” (not). As Dave puts it, “Am I bovvered, as actor Tony Blair might say, that Theresa May MP hasn’t posted since December? Do I give a damn that Melanie Griffiths abandoned the good ship blog in March 2005 (hey, that’s news!) or that Mariah Carey has even been obliterated from the Google cache? No, I couldn’t give a flying proverbial – these people have nothing to say so it’s no surprise that they’re gone.”
My point, to bring this altogether, is that whether it is The Apprentice candidates or celebrity bloggers, there are lots of folks who get attention who don’t really merit it. Thoughtful, worthwhile ideas can come through the quills or keys of unknowns; at least online we get the megaphone for a while. Without the web, we are not heard.
I am off to give a hearing to Are Words Enough, mostly because her item on Peyton Place is on a place I have actually been in a state I know really, really well. AWE playwright wonders, “If only the author (a suspiciously named Grace Metalious) had had the courage to push the envelope even further. The book was going to be banned anyway for many years and she must have known this as she was sitting at her typewriter, so why not stand up and be counted?”
Peyton Place author Metalious was born the same year as my father in the same state in an even smaller town. Standing up and being counted was just not something you did. FYI, she went by Grace Metalious because Grace Marie Antoinette Jeanne d’Arc de Repentigny Metalious was a bit long for a paperback cover.
I am sure AWE and KT will have more great insights for me in the future.