Tuesday, July 5, 2011

A Question of Settling

I suppose the logical question is what did we do for the Fourth of July yesterday.


I worked, trying to finish a rambling, disjointed post (see above) before moving on to my German lessons. Himself was at the office, playing mediator between his European team and the expectations of their American counterparts who, of course, were all out of the office. We roasted potatoes and a sea trout for dinner and afterwards took a walk in the fading light, walking first under the trees along the pale green-blue River Saalach as it tumbled northward toward its convergence with the River Salzach, then turning back along the Salzach to home.

There were no fireworks. There will be a splendid display during Salzburg’s Rupertikirtag festival in September. We’ll wait for those. Nor I did not pull out the U.S. Marine Corps Band CD. No Stars and Stripes Forever for me, not this year. It was day like many others, a day on which we were grateful for dry weather, a comfortable place to live and loving companionship.

All this seems to answer another question, one that was put to me all the time while we lived in Ireland: ‘Are you settled yet?’

An unsettling question, that. A question that’s nearly impossible for me to answer. I suppose I’m a kind of unsettled individual, at best. I’m a drifting sort of person, unsure and aimless at the best of times, a girl who is still waiting to grow up, fighting all the same growing old.

An American acquaintance in Ireland, someone I knew causally over the two and a half years we were there, told me as we were preparing to leave that it was just as well. ‘You’ve never settled here,’ she said.

When I told him, Himself was indignant on my behalf. After all, we had our house, which we had designed and furnished with care. We lived among a network of a large extended family. We attended weddings, christenings, First Communions and, particularly, funerals. We voted. We had gym memberships and were greeted on the streets and when we went into shops. Who was to say I had not settled?

Yet, in a way, she was right. Such intimacy as we developed with others remained within the family. In some ways, we were waiting for life to begin. And then, almost suddenly, we uprooted and moved to Salzburg.

Have I settled in Salzburg, then? Can I even define what that would be?

Skirting the question yet again, I think back to when we moved to our house, our first house, in Thousand Oaks. Himself envied me, he said, because I seemed to take to our new neighbourhood at once, in a way he never did. It was the archetypal California ranch-style neighbourhood of irregular blocks punctuated by cul-de-sacs, neat sidewalks bordered by grassy ‘parking strips’, a neighbourhood very much like the Sunnyvale, California, neighbourhood I grew up in. It was so like our childhood home that my sister said on seeing it for the first time, wonder in her voice, ‘You live in Beverly Cleary’s house.’

That suburban community with it tidy, mid-century stucco houses surrounded by rectangular lawns and patios was far from the dwellings in the small Irish towns where Himself spent much of his youth. It was further still the rolling farmland where he spent the rest of it, the same countryside where I, apparently, failed to settle during our time there.

And now we live in a flat at the edge of a central European city, in a neighbourhood that cannot be termed urban, rural or suburban, having elements of all three. When we arrived, we had few reference points, architectural, social, cultural or familial. My circle of acquaintances is small; it is through good luck or magnanimous fortune that we have wonderful neighbours who speak fluent English, else I would have been cut off nearly completely.

And, yet, oddly, I have settled, if by ‘settling’ one means a sense of feeling grounded in my surroundings. More and more, when I look out the window of the flat or of the bus, or take in the landscape as I cycle to the market, I feel at peace with the scene around me.

I struggle, naturally, with learning German. Even though I make my way around the city comfortably, being unable to speak fluently affects me at odd times. When the phone rings – which it does rarely – I answer wondering whether I will be able to understand the purpose of the call. If it is Himself on the other end, my tension immediately relaxes. I put off making appointments, wanting to avoid those awkward exchanges in stumbling German with the receptionists who answer the phone. (Once one woman, frustrated with my incomprehension, hung up on me. I took a deep breath and called back to begin again.) I worry about what could happen if I found myself in a real emergency.

Sunday I participated in a 5K Frauenlauf – a fun-run – as part of a team from The English Center, an English bookshop and language school. Standing in line before the start of the race, I asked the woman in front of me, in German, the time. Disconcertingly, she answered in German, and I was too ashamed to admit I didn’t understand what she said. I am used to hearing German over loudspeakers, but I long for the day when rather than sounding merely interesting, it will be also comprehensible.

But still, simply participating in the race, albeit as part of a team of English speakers, created another tie between me and the community. All along the route, Salzburgers stood and cheered as we passed.

‘Bravo, bravo’, an old man shouted as I turned the corner on which he stood. That I certainly understood.

I’m not suggesting that by doing the Frauenlauf I am now settled. It was a single morning; afterwards I came home and slept, nursing the hip I’d thrown out along the way. I rose the next morning – the morning of the Fourth of July – and went about my business. Alone, as usual, for most of the day, I limped, my hip still sore, and wondered how I will manage the medical system here to have it adjusted. In America, in Ireland, I would know how to find a chiropractor and how to make an appointment. It’s not so simple here. It’s an example, however small, of how I have not ‘settled’.

All the same, that the Fourth of July, a date that should have resonated and made me homesick, passed without much more than a ripple in my awareness suggests an important, if subtle, shift in my consciousness. Being settled, like being happy, is a fluid state. I can’t define or describe it; I’m not sure I even know it.

All I can do is refer to the lightness in my being when I see the sun brighten behind the green wood outside the window. Feel the rightness in the sight of the corner of a familiar door reflected in the wardrobe mirror. Or know comfort in hanging heavy clean towels on the line. Sometimes, this simple peace is enough. 

Monday, July 4, 2011


I don’t know why I bought that copy of the then-recently released Jan Morris edition The Stones of Venice in 1980. I found it at Cosmic Aeroplane, a quirky, counterculture booklovers paradise (and headshop) in Salt Lake City and, beguiled perhaps by the enthusiasm of the book dealer, paid money I couldn’t afford for the lovely hardbound edition, its jacket a wash of pale blue, a detail from a watercolour of Venice.

Studying Victorian English literature, I had been reading, after a fashion, John Ruskin and trying to incorporate Criticism as one subject in a faltering doctoral programme. But I never made much progress with Ruskin’s dense, meandering prose. He remained an icon to be wondered about rather than a companion of the mind.

For years, though, the book, rarely opened, sat under a stack of ‘art books’ in a pile, strategically placed on a living room table to signal our ‘good taste’. Occasionally, I thumbed its pages, looking at the exquisite drawings and watercolours, but its thick ranks of type remained unpenetrated.

In truth, I never thought much about Venice. I remained nearly completely ignorant of its history, its location at the moon-shaped curve of land at the top of the Adriatic sea, of the fact that it is a series of islands, filled in by early settlers in the mouth of a broad lagoon, its buildings constructed on timber piers driven into the sea bed. I thought of it, when I thought of it at all, as merely another Italian city, shorthand for Art. Thousands of miles from where I lived, Venice was as remote as Asia, another stop on the tourist cruise I was destined never to take.

But I kept the book, one of many reminders of a part of myself I had hoped for but failed to nourish. Its dust jacket faded, developing tiny tears that lengthened as the years passed. Its edges were no longer smooth; dog-eared corners flared outward, spoiling the elegant coated paper, midway under the pile of disregarded books.

Preparing to ship our goods from California to Ireland, I culled a couple of hundred books – perhaps more – that I had kept since my university days. For some reason, though, I packed The Stones of Venice. From there it made the journey with us to Salzburg. So it was, when we decided to visit Venice, I unearthed it from the boxes still stacked under the stairs to take a look at what Ruskin was up to. I had no idea what I would find when I sat down to read it. I thought only that I should try, at long last, to justify the long-ago impulse purchase.

Ruskin had taken his new wife Effie to Venice in 1851 for their honeymoon. While she immersed herself in its social life, Ruskin took measuring tape, pen and paper and set out to catalogue its Gothic architecture, writing as he did a treatise, ‘The Nature of Gothic’, on why he considered the style, which was to be displaced by Renaissance, the apotheosis of artistic achievement. The Stones of Venice is his painstakingly detailed accounting of Gothic architecture in Venice, in which he minutely describes arches, windows, balconies, columns and capitals, backed by measurements, charts, sketches and diagrams.

Soon I was immersed in a welter of detail in Ruskin’s attempts to classify stylistic differences in architectural details.  Reading, I took notes. I looked up definitions. I made lists of his criteria for the Gothic. I relied on him to set the guideposts for what to see in Venice – and how to see it.

And, when I first saw Venice, I tried to view it through Ruskin’s lens. But his attempt to classify and explain the mystery of Venice succeeds only partially. For Venice is surreal. Meticulous as his drawings and measurements are, they capture only a sliver of its presence.

Coming out of the train station into the haze of a summer’s day more heated than clear, we found the air dense with noise. Following instructions sent by our hotel, we wheeled our luggage over uneven pavement and up a steep bridge over one of the smaller canals amid crowds of other tourists and ordinary people of all ages, some stopping to talk or to take pictures or gaze in windows.

After checking in, we again set out, using the Blue Guide – my top choice of guide books for depth of information – exploring the Canneregio district, where our hotel was located.

Finding our way out of the crowds and into narrow, less-travelled calles and campos, crossing narrow canals and walking along the fondamentas, we wandered narrow lanes, at times only wide enough for three or four to walk abreast. From one window high overhead, an old woman leaned out, spitting, aiming for those who passed below her. From most, thought, it was laundry that hung, strung in colourful pennants across the passageways. Bright sun cut swaths of nearly colourless light in otherwise shadowed corners, arching and slashing designs on the pavement, sometimes cutting through iron railings to etch curling motifs. The walls were worn, bricks exposed, stucco peeling like old wallpaper, discordant colours jarring.

Then, at the end of a low archway, half in shadows, the wall would suddenly fall away and water lap at the edge of the pavement. We would find ourselves at the edge a narrow rio, the smallest of waterways that run between the canals. Sun glinting from the waters’ surface dazzled. Rippling light danced across walls, shimmered gracefully on walls, floated like thistledown on air currents.

Alleys led to narrow, high-ridged bridges that fed us onto fondamentas paralleling narrow rios, that, around corners opened onto Campos. Everywhere was the noise of motors, shattering the air between buildings as boatmen and -women navigated the passages, revved engines, puttered, idled. Boats of all sizes lay moored along the edge or, heavily laden with machinery or goods or people, churned the green water, which frothed effervescent with white. Then, around the next corner, we would cross a bridge and stare along glass-smooth water, its surface swelling, flexing solid yet fluid, reflecting the blue of the sky or of a boat cover.

Everywhere, colour overwhelmed with its garish brightness. Deep ochre and faded yellows, deep forest-greens were cut across by brilliant fuchsia and cerise. Dingy, neglected churches, walls faded to cream, were slashed by the shadows that cut diagonally across the campos they fronted, obscuring the statues that surmounted their facades. Walls were broken by balconies and punctuated with worn inlaid medallions; bronzes ornamented doors; small statues perched over doorways. Everywhere the walls and pavements seemed ancient enough and porous enough to conceal the minutes, hours, days, months, years and centuries they contained, their history swelling inside crevices, time enveloped by their depths.

These depths threaten to spill out through peeling layers of faded paint and eroded stucco, revealing worn brick and stone. Ruskin recalls the splendour of the city at the height of its glory in the 14th century, this jewel, ‘The Most Serene Republic of Venice’, its palaces glittering with white marble, gilded and inlaid with porphyry and serpentine. The centuries passed; its surfaces decayed; its beauty lies now not in precious surfaces but in its contrasts of surface and colour, of light and shade, its rough textures slashed by bright graffiti or startlingly brilliant flowers tumbling from window boxes and over walls.

With its mass pinned into the surrounding lagoon, the city seems to float. And, after several days of boarding crowded, lurching vaporetti that criss-crossed the canals’ churning waters, or waiting to board on bobbing, moored platforms, and, on the third day of our visit, the longer boat journey to the outlying islands, I seemed to feel it float. I had the sensation of rocking, even when I was at rest, especially while lying flat on the bed. (This phenomenon, is apparently associated with frequent boat journeys and, fortunately, it subsided in me about three days after we returned.)

‘The city of mirrors, the city of mirages, at once solid and liquid, at once air and stone,’ writes Erica Jong of Venice. It does seem reflected in a thousand fragmented mirrors. Everywhere you turn, water reflects the city’s colours, textures, buildings and people. So more than most cities, Venice seems never at rest, never static. Its pavements teem with people; its waterways churn with vessels of all descriptions. The disparate colours and textures of its buildings jostle so the eye roves restlessly over them. Intense light drains colour from near-deserted calles that then slide under shadowed archways; either way, spaces seem mysterious. Nothing is clear; nothing reveals its true being. There are no straight lines; all is distorted by time or light or water.

Experience seems to fragment too. Light, colour, noise, the interminable rocking of vaperetti, shifting crowds threading through thronged streets, beggars and hawkers in their midst, delivery men wheeling trolleys, all combine to shatter continuity. Life flickers, shattering, like the flickering effect one feels while moving under a flashing strobe light. Unlike Ruskin, I could not contain the experience; no more than I can catalogue its buildings, can I catalogue the days and night we spent there. I could write of the art we saw – the magnificent Titian Assumption of the Virgin at the church of the Frari, the jewel-like Bellini altarpiece in the same church, so lovely I felt a physical tug of the heart when I saw it, the lively and beautiful canvases of the Stations of the Cross in the church of San Polo by the younger Tiepolo, and, of course, the soaring mosaics of San Marco.

I could recount of disappointment at what we could not see, especially at the Accademia gallery, under restoration, where many of the most remarkable works were not on view. As with all of our trips, there is more to tell than I can write, more beauty than I can capture. But, especially with Venice, the experience is refracted through a hundred thousand bits of colour, movement, light, texture, and image, a week-long mosaic of being, irreducible, impossible to discipline into an orderly march of words marshalled into ranks of sentences and paragraphs, grammar and syntax. It shimmers, it moves, it metamorphoses, and, as with life itself, what one would say about it in one sentence would be a lie in the next.