Tag Archives: Venice

Commonplace Thoughts of a Residual Welshman: The Nervous Traveler

Fortunately, I wasn’t actually next to the woman, for she seemed very nervous to me. Yet though there was an entire aisle between us, it provided no comfortable hiatus, as an airplane’s aisle, even that of a Boeing 787, is more like one of the narrow canals of Venice than the vast Adriatic Sea that feeds that city’s beautiful system of aquatic thoroughfares.

Yet I’m not going to Venice, not this time. Rather, via a layover in Madrid I am Bologna-bound, where I will meet up with a dear friend, Piergiacomo, and his lovely family: Anna, his fine wife, and Margarita, their beautiful daughter. There we shall spend four days discussing art history—the early Renaissance, specifically, for that is what we most often discuss. Coffee in the morning, wine in the evening, and a day spent enjoying the hint of Piergiacomo’s pipe smoke in the air, testing one of his home-grown red peppers, talking about Italian food (for there is no better place in the world to do that than Bologna), and art of course, art and literature, and occasionally spiritual things to boot.

But I am not there yet. Rather, even as I write this I am in an airplane very near that nervous traveler. I can only imagine that she is nervous, for it is the middle of the night when everyone is sleeping or, in my case, trying to sleep. And while we are occupied with the vain pursuit of mental inanity, aka restful repose—nay, rather, sleep—she is furrowing her bag. Or is she rifling it? Or is it that she is rifling through her bag? I prefer furrowing, for she keeps digging into it as if she were making a furrow in the soil. And she seems to have found a vein not of flint or clay but of plastic, noisy plastic. And here’s the weird part: she keeps going back to that vein of plastic like a miner trying to hack into a vein of copper or iron. She keeps picking at it nervously, seemingly entirely unaware of how shrill crinkling plastic can be. Indeed, it’s not a soft plastic but rather the kind of annoying plastic that some brands of muesli are packaged in, the kind that, when you try to open them without a scissors, causes the muesli to spill either all over the table or, at best, into the cardboard box, and in either case is not capable of being put back into the plastic bag as it is now split too badly. Why? It consisted of that nasty, crinkly plastic, the very plastic this woman kept mining for, so it seemed.

All that to my right, across the aisle. To my left came some redemption, but not until the morning. Then, once the coffee was safely delivered to my seat, my nearby seatmate and I struck up a conversation about literature. Now, if you’ve read previous blogs, you know that I don’t normally engage in conversations on airplanes. But this time providentially, so it seems, I did, just a few minutes ago now as I write this. Mercedes is a teacher in Spain, at an international school with a good deal of Asian, and a generally diverse, body of students. She adores them, and it is easy to see that she is a good teacher. She is, too, a good role model for them, seeking to make them aware of the global crises that confront our world today. How can we just stand by while we are inhumane to our fellow men, while our planet dies of pollution poisoning? She seeks to know the motivations that allow some people to stand by and watch while others do seemingly heroic things, taking on causes not their own, making the welfare of one’s fellow man a priority higher than career or monetary gain or, in some cases, even the comforts of family life. All good questions. All questions she wants her students to consider, to take to heart.

And Mercedes has not only asked the right questions but rightly connected them with what so few do nowadays—framing of the world in spiritual terms. So many would accept a two spheres approach: God’s in his heaven, all’s wrong with the world. Or put another way, science is one thing, religion another. One frequently hears that formulation, as if it were a mantra. But Mercedes intelligently and counterintuitively connected the actions to spiritual outlook. It can’t explain every action, of course, and one knows that sometimes religious viewpoints produce disastrous outcomes. Terrorism motivated by religious fervor is one obvious example. But Mercedes was digging a bit deeper, considering teachings that don’t suggest such an outcome: loving your neighbor as yourself, praying for those who persecute you, asking God to do His will on earth and let His peaceful kingdom come, not the political or military kingdoms of men.

Wow, now there’s a not-very-nervous traveler; rather, there on my left I found in Mercedes what I call the thoughtful traveler. Meanwhile the woman with the plastic in her purse had fallen asleep, but all in vain, for now we were landing. We had come back to earth, the way one does after a good prayer, though with less bouncing around on the tarmac. And now on to Bologna. I can almost taste the food already, and I’m equally looking forward to friendship, reflections on art, and trying a few good home-grown peppers.

Commonplace Thoughts of a Residual Welshman: On Books and Travel

hunt-stok-book
To order click on the image above.

Well, there’s nothing like curling up with a good book. An old dictum, and perhaps there’s none truer. My friend is writing a new book now, one that will be out this summer. Actually, he’s cowriting the book with a colleague from Italy, whom I also know, a certain professor from the university of Tor Vergata in Rome along with another American colleague. What seems to me to be weird about the book he’s writing is that, though it is a scholarly book, it is one that I think—for I am helping him proofread it—will be accessible to the general public. So it’s a good book in a different way than, say, the Curious Autobiography is said to be by its Amazon reviewers. Of course, my friend’s book, which can already be ordered is still in production, so it hasn’t any Amazon reviews of its own (or other reviews) just yet, though perhaps some “prodigiously famous” scholarly polysyllabricator will write a virtually unintelligible blub for the back cover. But I want to say that that book, which I am reading this weekend, seems to me to be really a good book, an interesting one that anyone could enjoy at home or abroad, for the only thing better than curling up with a good book is reading one in transit.

9781480814738_COVER.indd
To order click on the image above.

I very much like doing that—reading while roaming—not only because it lightens the burden of travel and luggage transfer but also because the movement of one’s eye over the page often whets that same eye’s appetite for scanning a new vista, studying every store window, admiring architecture, or considering the quaintness of each town on the journey. I’ve got a trip planned for a group of friends this summer, a group of friends who have never visited Bologna or eaten at the Osteria Broccaindosso, number 7 on Broccaindosso Street. There, you may recall from a previous blog, one finds the world’s best lasagna (thankfully my Aunt Lee Ann is not alive to read this, for she boasted the best lasagna, made in the Bolognese style), a truly scrumptious antipasto, which I devoured when I was there, of course, befobologna-foodre the lasagna came to my plate, not to mention the procession of smidgens of insalata al balsamico, egged-up zucchini treats, superb slices of ricotta and mozzarella, all served alongside high-quality local wine, Sangiovese. Dare I mention the dessert, the incredible mound of tiramisù? All that awaits my traveling friends’ lip-smacking palates, but that is not what is really amazing about Bologna: it’s the seven churches, Asinelli and Garisenda towers of the city center, the endless porticoes, and the chance to walk over the grounds of the oldest university in the western world.

venice-canalAnd that’s just the beginning of what will be a wonderful adventure. Next comes Venice (need I quip at all?), then, after a bus ride through the Alpine foothills, we’ll go on to Salzburg (the home of Mozart and the Opernfestspiele where, if we can get the tickets ordered soon, we shall see Mozart’s La Clemenza di Tito); salzburg-cityscapethen on to Augsburg, Germany with a stop on the German side of Lake Constance, which in Teutonic is known as Bodensee, for dinner. St. Gallen beckons next, where we shall visit a superb monastery and library, and where, I hope, we shall all be inspired to curl up with that proverbial good book, for that town is tranquil beyond belief and the library pure inspiration. A stop at Zurich’s Altstadt follows before the trip winds up in Geneva, where there is so much to do and see that the mind boggles.altstadt

I’m hoping to read a good book on that trip, or maybe to write while in transit, for I much enjoy that, too. Perhaps I will begin writing the next installment in the Curious Autobiography series—something I’ve put off too long. So, while I am not certain about what specifically that trip will hold for me, I am sure that it will offer a sense of wonder to our entire group of wayfaring friends, who all will experience the overwhelming joy of grasping new cultures, shaking new hands and making new friends. And it will offer, too, inspiration, for one learns through travel what one cannot learn from staying home, even when curled up with a good book.