Thursday, May 26, 2011

When I was a girl growing up in Pennsylvania, my earliest dreams of Europe were defined by Julie Andrews and “The Sound of Music.” For me, it was a place bathed in soft Technocolor, where the mountains were tall and the meadows were green, and where people of a rosy and cheerful disposition wore dirndls and lederhosen as they sang folksongs and ate strudel. Such, it seems, is the power of movies.

Once I grew up and fell into middle age, I finally visited the Europe of my imagination.  In London, I communed with the orphans and scoundrels of Dickens’ novels, and in Bath with the heroines of Jane Austen.  In Paris, I walked the damp streets and cafés once haunted by Hemingway, and in Italy I breathed in the Rome of Julius Ceasar, the Florence of Michelangelo, and the Venice of Casanova.  Along the way, I thought—more than once—that it was time to see the Salzburg I had longed for in my youth, but for five long years other scenes had beckoned.  Now, at last, it is before me, and I feel a familiar thrill of anticipation as I page through an itinerary that will soon be filled by Alpine lakes, medieval villages, and fairy tale castles. To quote Julie Andrews, these are a few of my favorite things.

It’s a Thursday evening in late spring and I’m at the Philadelphia International Airport waiting for a U.S. Airways flight to Frankfurt, which will be the start of my 20 day trek through Germany and Austria. We depart the gate on time and as we taxi to the runway I find myself amused by the bilingual admonition against the use of portable electronic devices.  For weeks, I’ve been practicing the basics in German—ja and nein, bitte and danke sehr, guten morgen and auf wiedersehen—but the words “computer,” “laptop,” and “iPod” are all the same in German as they are in English, which makes for a comically disjointed translation.

Once in the air, we are served a late dinner on tiny plastic trays with impossibly tiny plastic utensils, and I listen in as two strangers behind me causally begin to flirt.  I’m sitting next to a socially inept engineer with a stack of blueprints and a bad head cold, but all things considered, things are blessedly uneventful and for this I feel fortunate.  I look out the window at the nighttime sky, where there are flashes of lightening arcing in the distance above the clouds.  As I pull the shade, close my eyes, and pray for whatever sleep may come while sitting upright on an airplane, I feel big and small in the world all at the same time, which is as it should be at the start of a great adventure.

Monday, May 31, 2010

It makes me smile to think that I can close my eyes and remember the moment exactly.

I made the decision to go back to Italy almost one year ago on a rainy afternoon in Paris, on a day that was—like so many others on that trip—unseasonably cold and damp. I was at the Musée d’Orsay, a stunning space on the banks of the Seine where 19th century art is displayed in an old railway station under a soaring ceiling of paned glass. I had been to the museum before, on a pilgrimage to see the Monets and Manets, the Van Goghs, Renoirs, and Cézannes. This time, I was drawn to a special exhibit called Voir l’Italie et Mourir, which in English means “See Italy and Die.”

At the time, that struck me as a strange motto for a country best known for its zest for life, but I was assured that the sentiment, with its “lofty hyperboles” intact, could be traced back to the poet Johann Wolfgang von Goethe and a journal entry about the city of Naples he wrote in 1787. As I stood contemplating the round robin translation from von Goethe’s original German, to Italian, to French, and finally to English, I knew only that I understood its meaning, deeply and instinctively. I had been to Rome, Florence, and Venice the previous year and I could no more quarrel with the old adage “See Italy and Die” than the generations of other travelers who had been to the Colosseum, the Ponte Vecchio, and Piazza San Marco before me. As melodramatic as it might sound, once I had witnessed the beauty of Italy with my own eyes, and felt myself transformed by it, I knew that was possible for someone to breathe their last, happy and content in the memory of such a place.

As I wandered that day through rooms full of Italian photographs, prints, and paintings from the golden age of The Grand Tour—that venerable trek that aristocrats used to make across the European continent—I felt strangely distant from my surroundings. Here I was in Paris, one of the most wonderful cities in the world, but all the while I yearned for the sea and the sunshine of Italy. Standing before a Friedrich Nerly painting of Venice in the moonlight, the sky breaking just above the column of St. Mark, I resolved, right then and there, to return.

After a few sodden weeks in France, Belgium, and the Netherlands, I came home to Vermont and settled back into the quiet routines of life. I watched the months slip by, as autumn leaves fell and were buried by blankets of soft, white snow. And in the darkest days of winter, I bought a fresh Italian guidebook, sent away for maps, finalized airline and hotel reservations, shopped for a new camera, and prayed that an Icelandic volcano with the unpronounceable name Eyjafjallajökull, wouldn’t ground my best laid plans with its plumes of drifting ash.

Thankfully, it did not.

So now, with the arrival of lilacs and spring irises, it is time to pick up where I once left off, to fulfill a promise, to have an adventure.

It’s a Monday night and I’m at the Philadelphia International Airport waiting for a U.S. Airways flight to Rome. I bide the time by recounting the plan for the next seventeen days in my head. Itineraries are complicated affairs, the endpoint of a tug of war between reality and desire. I had a long “wish list” for my return to Italy—one that included Da Vinci’s “The Last Supper” in Milan and Giotto’s frescoes in Assisi and Padua, as well as a hike along the cliffs in the Cinque Terre, and a stroll through the villas and gardens that line the shores of Lake Como. Through a herculean effort at planning, I’ve managed to fit nearly everything in, including the timing of several key events—the Republic Day festivities in Rome on June 2nd, a major exhibit of paintings by Caravaggio at the Scuderie del Quirinale, a weekend antiques show in Arezzo, and the procession of the Holy Blood in Orvieto on Corpus Domini.

For all of that to happen in an order that works using public trains and buses, this particular Monday night happens to be Memorial Day. While others are grilling hamburgers at backyard picnics, I’m playing musical chairs at the airport, until flight 718 finally settles on Gate A20 and we begin to board.

I’m in seat 14A, a window seat next to a globe-trotting Sicilian grandmother named Josephine. She’s a charming woman whose conversation lives up to all that description implies. I find myself enjoying her company, and before long dinner is served and stowed, the cabin lights are dimmed, and passengers are queuing at the restrooms in preparation for bed.

I close my eyes in satisfaction, knowing that in the morning I’ll be a world away.

Monday, July 18, 2007

Here I am again, sitting at the airport waiting for a red eye flight to London. It been a year since my first trip overseas and with those memories still fresh in my mind, I am eager to get back. But as I sit and wait, 8:55 PM comes and goes. I remind myself that I am at the Philadelphia airport flying on U.S. Airways. What were the chances I would actually leave on time? Never good. As the minutes slide by I can’t help but mentally subtract from the time I’ll have tomorrow.

I can see the plane sitting at the gate. It’s tantalizing, and yet one hour passes, then two. The young boy sitting behind me (whose behavior has been far better than mine) is getting restless. He leans over to his Mom and announces that he would rather be in school than sitting here at the airport. He would rather be in school taking a test, he says, adding the second part slowly for dramatic effect. I tell him that I feel the same way and he grins.

Finally, as we board the details trickle in. When the plane arrived from Las Vegas no one on the ground crew remembered to hook up the ventilation system that keeps the cabin cool while the engines are off. No one else noticed either as the temperatures inside soared. That’s all been taken care of, we are assured. But actually I don’t feel assured. A mistake like that does not instill confidence.

Everywhere around me weary and defeated passengers stir, pull out their passports, and prepare to board. We come to the sinking realization that we have another long wait ahead of us when we hear the pilot’s voice on the intercom telling us we are number sixteen for takeoff. It’s midnight by the time we do.

Once in the air, I become conscious of the fact that I have fallen into some luck at last, and it is not inconsequential. I am sitting alongside of no one. It is a perfectly empty seat. I have hit the seating lottery! I can claim two seats, two pillows, two blankets as my own. I push up the armrest between and curl sideways across both. It is not exactly comfortable, but I doze off believing that things are finally looking up.