Friday, April 5, 2013

Paper crowns and lemon trees

Then we work up.

I knew what lay behind the thick curtain; we hadn’t seen anything but blackness when we arrived, a sort of nothingness unique to the nighttime sea. A glow framed the curtain, and the wee hour on the clock couldn’t keep me in bed. I had to see the waters of the ancients, that amphibious spirit that has possessed me for so long, the realm of Poseidon.

In Lebanon, we had witnessed the sunset over the Mediterranean as we ate dinners of fresh fish and plates of hummus and fattouch. Now we watched the sun rise over the same body of water, and it took us mere hours (minus the calamities from the previous day) instead of weeks as it had when the Romans had sailed those waters. It’s funny to arrive to a new place at night. You awaken to the surprise and wonder of a world that had been invisible under the cloak of darkness. A thin ban of red and another of yellow was visible beneath an incandescent blue of dawn’s early light. At that moment I was right where I was supposed to be, in line with the cosmos, mind, body, and soul unified in the present.

Maybe I slept a little after that, but when the sun rose far enough to turn the sea into a glittering disco ball, I was out on the balcony with a pen in my hand, intent on capturing as much of the moment on paper. Even at 7am the Mediterranean sun is intense; I soon stripped to a t-shirt and felt the natural warmth on my skin. That was happiness.

Chris still slept, but as I could no longer contain my lust for adventure, I grabbed my camera and set off to walk the coastal road. I had hardly begun my wandering when I came upon a winding stairway that beckoned me to descend it. Perhaps it would lead to the sea, I thought, but we were too high up, and it turned out to be a deadend. The vistas were worth it, though.

I climbed back up and continued down the road with some of the sharpest curves I’ve ever encountered. Mirrors have been placed on many of them so cars know when oncoming traffic approaches, and even walking the curves felt harrowing, especially when buses passed. But the views were incredible, almost fantasy-like. Spring was in full force; flowers bloomed from every crevice and the sunshine gave radiance to everything beneath it.

There was too much to miss by sleeping. I returned and tried to get Chris out of bed. Eventually he did meet me downstairs for cappuccinos by the sea, and then we set off on a leisurely walk that would eventually take us to the town of Amalfi. Trepidation followed me for a bit; I was unsure if Chris would partake in the wandering nature of my travel style. But when I spotted a stairway that went straight up the mountain, he was right behind me, puffing away as we both struggled to make the ascent. Some men worked on a house up there, standing on the narrowest of scaffolding and carrying building materials from a truck somewhere above. It looked like tough work.

We were searching for the small church whose belltower we had seen from the main road far below, but in those narrow passageways we could see nothing but walls – we had no idea where the church was, which proved to be funny because as we were talking about trying to find it we were literally standing next to it. A man making a delivery to the church brought the pastor to the door, and he was happy to let us look around.

St. Michael the Archangel was its name. Michael carried a sword in his hand and presided over a church that reminded me of a one room schoolhouse, only the art was sophisticated and the learning was rote. The small organ in the back was broken and probably always would be, since the price tag to repair it was 40,000. I noticed someone had put paper crowns on the painting of Jesus and Mary behind the altar. We later discovered this arrangement in all the churches we visited.

Chris and I like to visit old churches for mostly different reasons, he being interested in the religious part of it while I like the history and mythology part. But we both appreciate the art, the architecture, and the appreciation human beings had for beautiful things – soulful things – in building such structures. Today, buildings are constructed with concrete and glass and right angles. Our sculptures are giant balls and piles of scrap metal someone pretends is an emotion or a metaphor for the human condition. (Ironically, it could be a metaphor for the state of art today.) Our paintings are blobs of colors or blurred landscapes or profane images meant to offend. Our music…my god, don’t get me started on the music. Atrocious. Noise. With scientific studies to prove it.

The ascent to the church was an adventure on which we embarked simply to have a destination to reach at the end of our climb. What followed was one of our favorite experiences of the trip, with Chris talking to the pastor (in Italian) and him offering us posters of St. Michael the Archangel and showing off his collection of homemade booze and giving us a sampling of the lemoncello, which tasted like lemon drops candy.

Ah yes, candy! What better metaphor for the sweetness of that day next to the blue honey of the Mediterranean! The priest gave us directions to the town from the church, though we would have made it there eventually on our own. We continued on through narrow passageways, down steps, and past thousands of lemon trees. Lemons! There aren’t too many things in life that excite me as much as locally-grown produce. Not kidding. Those lemon trees were gorgeous; they complimented the sea as a natural work of art. And the SIZE of some of them! Lemons as big as our heads! I’ve never heard of such a thing and could not get over the wonder of it all.

We winded our way around the meandering curves, stopping at a cemetery that had caught our eye from a distance, a respectfully sad, hauntingly beautiful, and sincerely thought-provoking final resting place for fishermen, lemon farmers, business people  in the tourism industry, and others from all walks of Italian life.

Not far from the cemetery was a fish market with some fun fish and more varieites of clams than I had known existed. Just like produce, I love fish markets. So fresh, so natural, and you know a local fisherman made the catch from the sea and not some factory farm. It’s the essence of living. Small businesses rule! (Or I wish they ruled instead of the mega-multinational corporations that have enslaved the minds of humanity.) If we had had access to a grill, no doubt we would have purchased some fish.

Seafood is fascinating, coming from the mysterious depths of a place most of us will never see. Aquariums intrigue me; a whole other world exists away from that which depends on breathing air to survive. Beneath the surface of the water lies species alien to us land dwellers, often of wild colors and shapes and anatomies. Under all those tons of water is an inaccessible beauty, pure, divine.

Too bad we destroy it with garbage, oil spills, overfishing, and global warming.

After the fish market, we stopped at a roadside café for beers and a break. We’d only walked about a mile but it had been up and down the mountains and more importantly, the café was located at the intersection of the road that goes up and the road that stays down, so there was plenty to watch in addition to the vistas. We only had about a mile to go and enjoyed every step, even with Chris’s blistering feet. It wouldn’t be long before we arrived to the town of Amalfi…

To be continued...

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