I am sitting in the inner garden of the 15th century (not 16th, as I first thought) palazzo in which we have lived, these last few weeks, watching the palazzo’s white cat sharpen his claws on the narrow, twisted trunk of the climbing rose bush. On April 19th, when we first arrived here in Orvieto, the peach-colored flowers of this particular bush were in full bloom — little Umbrian sunsets, flush against the mottled stone wall. Now they are shriveled, and the neighboring bush, with its palest of pink roses, ghostly white at night, have come into their season. Time has passed, and quickly.
We leave Orvieto in a handful of days, our few wonderful few weeks of teaching finished. I have come to love this garden as I have come to appreciate the students with whom I have worked. My fiction writing class has a mix of people from various colleges, who are as different in their stories and experiences as this garden’s mix of roses, azaleas, potted palms, rubber trees, and the white-flowering shrub that was blooming when we first arrived — that wasn’t jasmine, but was as intoxicating as jasmine in its scent, if not more so. One of the things we talked about today in class was being with characters in a situation as fiction writers, instead of writing about characters in a situation. And I feel like I’ve been with this garden, these roses, the white-flowering bush that has no name — not at a distance, but here, inhabiting the space, in a way I never have had the pleasure of doing in my previous travels.
I long to know the name of that scented, white-flowering shrub (named for a Greek or Roman mythological figure, perhaps? hyacinth, neroli, or camellia?), but I have to accept the fact that I may never learn it. I’ve asked, to no avail. So instead of knowing and trying to supplement the scent somehow, in the Zone 5 that I inhabit back in Illinois, I will smell this white flower and that white flower, trying to locate the scent here and there for the unforeseeable future.
The way I smelled orange blossoms in Venice the last time Greg and I were in Italy, way back when in 1991, and I have only smelled orange blossoms once since, those first days when we were back in Rome again—a month ago now, this time with our children. Orange blossoms. Oh, orange blossoms. Again and again, enveloping our little family as we made our way around the many-layered city—a city which I once wanted to inhabit for the rest of my life, but now, more realistically, have been simply grateful to visit.
It is deeply satisfying to long for a smell for twenty-some years, and finally come upon it. Will I wait until I’m seventy-something, to smell this palazzo’s nameless, flowering shrub again? And what will it be like when I am seventy-something, navigating cobblestones and steps and twisting, narrow streets? Let alone another language? I have watched elderly tourists this time with awe. Stunned and really, truly admiring, I have watched visitors in wheelchairs and supported by braces and canes, making their way. Local residents, too, who are other in their enablement. How they do it? How do they do it! But they do do it, and they would probably be irritated with me fixating on this fact, reflecting on their presence here, which has proven as noteworthy to me as any gorgeous and anticipated antiquity.
I am so much more mortal now here in Italy than I was when I was just at the beginning of my third decade.
Seventy-something, if God wills.
At thirty, I fell in love with Rome, and thought: this is the city in which I would spend the rest of my days, if I only could (if I only knew the language; if I only had the wherewithal—i.e., the job, the money, the connections, the willingness of my husband, Greg). Now that I am fifty, Florence has proven more appealing. But I wouldn’t want to live there, I decided this past weekend, when we visited Florence from Thursday to Sunday, and explored its museums, churches, and markets. Oh, beautiful Florence! The light of you. The bells of your Duomo. Curve of marble. Depth of fresco. We didn’t have a room with a view, but who needs a room with a view when you simply have to step outside?
Still, I can step outside when I return to Wheaton. This trip has reminded me of that. I have a bike, too, just like so many of the Florence folk. There are windows where I live. Once I wanted to live almost anywhere but here; now I simply want to be here — in this palazzo garden in Orvieto, on my back patio in Wheaton, on my front porch, wherever. It has been wonderful — a gift — for Greg and me to share this part of the world with our children. We have loved the look of things together, and laughed at differences and misunderstandings. We have had hard times too, just like we sometimes do at home. Here, the dollar is anything but strong; the world is not ours for the taking. Nor should it be — here or at home. We are not entitled; instead we must continue to remember to be grateful to simply be. Safe, together. (What a gift: safety and shelter.) And present. We haven’t had nearly the Internet access we have in Illinois — not much at all, in fact; nor cell phone communication either, due to our “plan.” Oh, what a lesson. What a necessary lesson (if sometimes surreal and a bit challenging and inhabiting.) How to be present, here, with each other.
Like last night. We returned late last night from Florence. We took the train, and had one of those little cabins in second class — “It’s like Harry Potter!” the kids said; and we determined what house each of us would be in. (For some reason, I am in Ravenclaw, Magdalena and Teo agree). At any rate, the ride was long after a long day of walking about Florence — the Bargello was yesterday, as was the Duomo Museum, and the Duomo, and the Market Centrale and the San Lorenzo market, where we bought Teo’s long-anticipated soccer jersey. We got on the train back to Orvieto, and had some kind of argument about money (how much should be spent and when and for what), which led to a discussion of family dynamics — how we each deal with anger, or don’t. Sounds horrible, I suppose. But actually it all turned out okay. We learned some things about each other, thanks to our trip to Florence, and our return to Orvieto.
Then we got off in Orvieto, and it was late and dark and empty at the station. And lo and behold: the funicular was closed for the night.
The funicular is fun. We joke about it all the time. Up the steep, steep incline from the lower to upper regions and down again it takes us. As if we are on our way to ski. As if we were are retinue for some pope seeking refuge from marauding attackers in the Middle Ages. Which popes did once upon a time way back when, fleeing Rome for the relative inaccessibility of Orvieto. Only popes no doubt made their journeys by horse. Or on a pallets borne by servants.
But late last night, there was no funicular, or bus, or cab, or, of course, servants. Only our feet, which were already tired and sore.
So late last night, the four of us made the journey on a narrow path up the side of the cliff into the upper reaches of Orvieto, one step at a time. The children INSISTED that they pull the rolling carry-on bag, which up until then I had been pulling. (CostCo, by the way, makes a great, cheap, hard-sided rolling carryon bag. I will testify to this at any time. The little wheels survived the mountain. Rolling, baby, rolling, all along the bumpy, arduous way.)
Because of your arthritis,” Magdalena and Teo said. “Because of Mother’s Day. We take it.” “Because we are young and you are not. And you are even older,” they said to Greg.
Oh it was a long, lonely, dark walk and I thought: most people who bring their children to Europe don’t subject them to this. This walk to a drafty palazzo after a long train ride where we argued and made peace, and where the man in the other car behind us — Slytherin, surely — screamed wildly on his cell phone in a language we did not recognize and will never be able to name. There were creatures on the steep and narrow path; they appeared, startling and wild, and only some minutes later turn out to be one among many village cats — perhaps the white cat of our palazzo was one of the paler shadows that streaked by. What 12 and 16 year olds from Zone 5, the Middle West of North America are put through their paces like this?
But in the end, we got home safely, and went to bed.
Now, here again is that white cat, prowling. And here is the one of the palazzo’s owners, with his dark mustache and hair — a gentleman, a gentle man, who speaks to the white cat as to a friend, and lifts it high into the air, playing. They spar with each other; they make their peace. They go their separate ways and settle down again, resting.