Forum Holitorium

Nice Mon Amour

The first Christmas I spent away from my family was in Nice. I was 34 and my aunt and godmother had died of pancreatic cancer in April, a handful of sand slipping through our fingers in the short span of three months. When someone you love fades so quickly, when you look into the face of death, it shakes you and questions you can’t afford to ignore start haunting you. What do I really want? What have I always dreamed of and still haven’t done? What will I regret not having done if death were to come calling on me soon? One of my answers was spending time on the French Riviera in winter. So I bought myself a train ticket to Nice.

Sometimes you need to do things for yourself that the people you love do not understand at the time, things that are connected to the private realms within you that normally remain out of sight yet steer you along your path through life. That year was a year of transition and often painful transformation, and it was clear that I needed a time out to nourish my soul. Nice symbolizes a time I dared to take care of myself and make a dream become reality.

I started my day with a coffee and a stroll along the Promenade des Anglais, appreciating how winter felt and envying the Niçois who could do this every day, sitting and staring at the Mediterranean in all kinds of weather.

Christmas on the Riviera was so markedly different from what I had known before – palm trees decked out with white lights, oranges ripening on the trees, the Christmas market serving up socca, the ultimate in street food, a chickpea flour flatbread baptized in olive oil. This ancient city has a remarkable wealth of art and I was able to go to museums devoted to two of my favorite artists, Henri Matisse and Marc Chagall. No city on the Mediterranean would be complete without mosaics, and this mermaid and merman are still working hard to keep things in balance.

Nice has recently been catapulted into limelight because of the painful events of Thursday evening. I feel it is important to revisit and share my positive memories of Nice to affirm the beauty of that city and to prevent all the negative images flooding the media from sticking to it. My heart goes out to those who were on the Promenade, those who lost someone they loved, those who stared into the face of death and are now asking themselves those important questions.

A few years back, I had a conversation with an unhappy, grizzled, chain-smoking man who stated that the world would be a better place if more people listened to the music of Georges Moustaki, the great French singer-songwriter who died in Nice in 2013. I agree. Here are the original French lyrics to one of his songs followed by my English translation.

 

Le Temps de Vivre

 

Nous prendrons le temps de vivre

D’être libres, mon amour

Sans projets et sans habitudes

Nous pourrons rêver notre vie

 

Viens, je suis là, je n’attends que toi

Tout est possible, tout est permis

 

Viens, écoute ces mots qui vibrent

Sur les murs du mois de mai

Ils nous disent la certitude

Que tout peut changer un jour

 

The Time to Live

 

We will take time to live

To be free, my love,

Without plans and without habits

We will be able to dream our life

 

Come, I am here, I’m just waiting for you

Everything is possible, everything is allowed

 

Come, listen to these words that vibrate

Against the walls of the month of May

They tell us of the certitude

That everything can change one day

 

Listen to some Moustaki and take good care of your soul!

Giving Words Away

My American history teacher in high school was one of my favorites. He was a small-framed Greek-American man who rode his bike to work every day (very odd in my hometown) and wore short sleeve button-down shirts and a bow tie. He taught us as if we were college students already and refused to set the bar lower. The history of our country was important and you were expected to learn it. I can still remember my two term paper topics. The first was the Chicago race riot of 1919. At the time, I was incredibly disappointed that I had been assigned that topic, but in retrospect I am happy because it taught me something about an important event that had happened close to home. The second topic I chose myself: the Peace Corps. I interviewed my high school principal, a former Peace Corps volunteer in Iran, and my mother, who had served in Thailand. I remember my history teacher telling my class how important poetry is and that he always read poetry before he went to sleep at night. I have always been more of a prose person, but a part of me has always thought it would be good for me to devote more times to the lyric literary form.

Another of my favorite teachers in high school was my English composition teacher. One of his favorite quotes was by Kafka: “A book must be an axe for the frozen sea inside us.” (…ein Buch muß die Axt sein für das gefrorene Meer in uns.) This weekend I heard an axe of a poem by Rose Ausländer. Instead of violently chopping through the ice, it rapidly warmed up and melted something frozen within me. Here is the poem, first the original German and then my English translation.

 

Noch bist du da

 

Wirf deine Angst

in die Luft

 

Bald

ist deine Zeit um

bald

wächst der Himmel

unter dem Gras

fallen deine Träume

ins Nirgends

 

Noch

duftet die Nelke

singt die Drossel

noch darfst du lieben

Worte verschenken

Noch bist du da

 

Sei was du bist

Gib was du hast

 

You are still here

 

Throw your fear

into the air

 

Soon your time will be up

Soon

the heavens will grow

under the grass

your dreams will fall

into nowhere

 

Still

the carnation gives off its scent

the thrush is singing

You may still love

give words away

You are still here

 

Be who you are

Give what you have

 

The next step is to make more time for poetry, a type of writing I have always found challenging because it isn’t as linear and logical as prose. You can’t go directly from point A to point B; like an onion, you have to keep peeling away the layers to get at the meaning. You can’t gulp down poetry, you really have to savor it as it melts on your tongue like a piece of bitter dark chocolate. Since the pace is more relaxed, summer seems like a good time to get into the habit of reading poetry. This summer a friend and I are attempting to read through Rilke’s The Duino Elegies at a rate of one elegy per week. We are up to the third of ten elegies and I am confident we will finish by fall – unless I get too distracted by the two volumes of poetry by Rose Ausländer that I found at the public library.

Hope you find a good poem or give away some words of your own!

Happy 240th Birthday

There have been a string of Rundgeburtstage (round birthdays) as they say here, where the second digit is a 0. A bicentennial baby, I’m preparing to celebrate one myself in a few months. The circus part of “bread and circuses,” the European soccer tournament, has been overshadowing life here for the past few weeks, feeding off of the abundance of nationalist feeling surging across the continent and its surrounding islands. When forced to squeeze myself into this simplified framework, I default to supporting Italy, who was unfortunately eliminated from the competition by Germany on Saturday. But soccer is not real life, and the country whose citizenship I have by jus soli (citizenship granted based on being born in a country) and – just in case that wasn’t enough – jus sanguinis (citizenship granted based on your parents’ citizenship regardless of where you are born) is celebrating a round birthday this year too. The United States of America is generous in granting citizenship; it is possible based on either jus soli or jus sanguinis principles. In contrast, no European country currently grants citizenship by jus soli. We are a nation mostly made up of immigrants, our multiple identities and different backgrounds strands of myriad colors that when woven together form a thick, rich tapestry. Our diversity is not just a reality: it has the potential to be our greatest strength. If we decide to let it be.

The Fourth of July, Independence Day: the day each year that my parents packed up a blanket and lawn chairs and me into the green Plymouth Volaré station wagon, drove the short distance to the lake, and set up camp near the Veterans Memorial Fountain to watch the fireworks over Lake Michigan. (This unseasonal picture is the only one I could find in my files and does not reflect the reality of any July in Wisconsin I have ever experienced.) Though it is an inward looking holiday about celebrating pride in being a citizen of a specific country, as I frolicked about the fountain, my thoughts reached outward into the future. I dreamed of being old enough to travel and explore the world represented by the fountain, wishing I could go to every country and learn every language. In Water and What We Know, Karen Babine describes her own personal songline, in allusion to the Australian Aboriginal songlines, encouraging me to reflect on where my songline goes, what locations along the path I travel are loaded with meaning. My songline goes by the fountain, where a seed named wanderlust was planted and took firm root. Perhaps it is significant that the fountain was dedicated less than two weeks after I was born. We are the same age.

Dharma gates are numberless

I have a birthday wish for my country as it navigates its way through the turmoil of 2016. Speak softer as you carry that big stick, knowing that exercising restraint can be a compassionate and effective use of power.  As you sift and winnow through the daily flood of information, keep a clear head so you can separate fact from fiction, truth from lies. Remember that part of your mission is to insure domestic tranquility and that a gun is not the right tool to get this particular job done. Preserve jus soli, which literally means “right of the soil,” and protect the ground beneath our feet and all our natural resources from pollution and exploitation.

May you live up to your ideals!

Spreading My Wings

Europe is like that: go a mere two hours away in any direction and you may find yourself in an entirely different landscape and climatic zone. Head northeast from here and you end up where the Alps give way to the Pannonian steppe. Forming part of the border between Austria and Hungary, Lake Neusiedl, or Neusiedlersee, is the westernmost steppe lake and is located in a closed drainage basin. Unlike most lakes, whose waters flow into rivers that ultimately meet the ocean, it loses water only through evaporation and seepage. Most of its periphery is protected by a layer of reeds within which a rich variety of birds feel at home. The small town of Rust touts itself as the “city of storks and fine wine.” Intense sunshine and headache made me focus on the former, not the latter.

An association in Rust works to maintain adequate habitat for storks, and near the main square where the town meets the lake, benches in the shade face a protected area where you can sit and admire the birdlife. A stork taking off, flying, and landing is a sight to behold. Egrets, ducks, greylag geese, and many other birds I am not expert enough to identify go about the business of their lives here.

Before I spent two years living in Poland, I was mostly indifferent to these birds who showed up in folk tales dangling babies from their beaks. During my travels around that country, I encountered these birds in the wild, spying them flying above or strutting their way through fields, and their lanky grace and staccato clattering call delighted me. When they clatter, they often bend their heads back to touch their bodies (contortionist storks, anyone?), and like with swans, I envy their suppleness. Though their numbers have diminished because of pesticide use, loss of habitat, and encounters with electrical wiring, they don’t seem to hold it against us and choose to live side by side with humans, often nesting atop houses. They are thought to bring luck in many parts of central and eastern Europe including Austria and Germany, where they are humorously referred to as Meister Adebar. A Storchbiss, or “stork bite” is the word for a birthmark on the back of the head.

Yes, Lake Neusiedl is a fine place to be a bird, especially a migratory one. When you migrate, you depend on the wind to blow you where you want to go to conserve your strength. The wind constantly rustles and rushes through the reeds, furnishing a soothing soundscape that the still, shallow water does not. The sound reminds you that come fall you will shake your feathers and fly off to warmer climes. In the meantime, the screen of reeds hide so many attractive spots where you can hide from the gaze of stork cameras and humans, who mostly prefer not to sully their shoes tramping through the wetlands.

Trees play a supporting role in the landscape, and their shade is much appreciated as the sun beats down. The air is much drier and more pleasant than in Graz. Despite being underneath the final approach path to the airport in Vienna, the air at the lakeshore energizes and invites you to take a deep breath. Water, then reed belt, then vineyards as far as the eye can see – which is not too far because the foothills of the Alps lurk on the horizon to the west and north. To the south, where the storks will head in a just a few months, the eye rests on blue sky, puffy clouds, and shapeshifting dreams.

Hope you can spread your wings under a blue sky!

Musings on the Mur

This week I decided I would be better off spending less time bellyaching about not being where I would like to be and more time actively engaging with where I am. To use the language of the book I just finished by Karen Babine, Water and What We Know, it is time to stop regretting my not being in the homeplace, “where you return, no matter the occasion…where you go to remember who you are and where you will find those who will remind you of where you come from…where you go to remember what is really important and what is chaff.” It is time to start asking the two central questions of her book: “What does it mean to live in this place, on this particular day? What do we see when we look?”

The Mur River flows through the center of Graz, yet I have always felt the city is divorced from the Mur; it doesn’t feel like it is a true river city like Budapest or Paris or Ljubljana. Is it because the river is so much lower than the streets that you need to walk down a flight of stairs to get to its banks? The paucity of cafes and restaurants at river level? The strong current that makes you think twice about dipping your feet in it? Last summer a 15-year-old drowned in the river after he went in to cool off.

There was a time when I used to bike into the center every day on the riverside bike path. There was another time when I used to stroll along the path on the opposite bank. I do not spend much time in that part of the city anymore and forget that I can get close to wild (river) water whenever I like. This past week I took two walks along the Mur. As soon as I walked down the steps to the level of the river, the rush of water drowned out the traffic and city noise immediately.

The first walk was Friday evening. Even though the path was crawling with people of all ages out enjoying one of the first summery evenings this year, it was still possible to find a peaceful place where I could contemplate the river. The second walk was yesterday morning, when I was the only person out and about.

Babine makes a distinction between lake people and river people: as a lake is self-contained and complete, lake people don’t seek anything beyond the shore and have found what they need. River people are always looking for more and are compelled to keep walking. When I gaze at the Mur, I think of how all the water rushing by that started up in the Alps will ultimately reach the Black Sea. I imagine how it first flows into the Drava in Croatia, how the Drava then flows into Danube in that same country, how the Danube finally empties into the Black Sea. Rivers are the circulatory system of Europe, ensuring cultural and economic flow. Or at least they used to. When I look at rivers, this is what I see: source and confluence, past and future.

At heart, I am a lake person; maybe it is the influence of all these rivers I have lived near over the past 15 years that has kept me moving and looking for more: the Vistula, the Rhône, the Saône, the Moskva, the Mur. Crossing a river has always been an exciting experience, yet more exhilarating is how the wind off the lake sweeping down from the north whips my face, chilling me awake. But I digress.

What does it mean to live in Graz on this day? Summer has finally arrived, neatly coinciding with the solstice and full moon on Monday. Out with the summer dresses and skirts. What do I see? Sun warmed tiles that kiss my bare feet. Thriving strawberry plants that yield luscious berries. A linen bag taking shape quickly. A small lake in a glass of organic wine from the Penedès region in Catalonia. A fascinating new book on the history of women producing textiles.

 Enjoy seeing and being exactly where you are!

Silver Lining

Clouds generously sharing rain everywhere, every day, every time it starts to warm up and it seems like I am finally going to catch up with summer, who is still in the lead. The gap widens, so I tell myself stories to keep up my spirits. I pretend that I live in Scotland, where this would be normal summer weather. Or project into the future to autumn when I will wear an incredibly heavy cardigan I have nearly finished knitting, one that will keep me very warm. Or wrap myself up in a wool blanket and end up taking a nap. Or stuff myself silly with strawberries topped with a few grinds of black pepper and a splash of balsamic vinegar. Or ponder the allure of Minnesota and the north for Karen Babine, author of Water and What We Know: Following the Roots of a Northern Life. Nearly halfway through the book, I stop and catch my breath. Babine tackles topics that move me, that excite my interest. One’s relationship to the place we are from. The legacy of our grandparents. The power of water. The stories we tell ourselves about who we are, where we are from. The color green.

I have been to Minnesota four times. The first time was on a road trip with a friend while I was still in high school. What remains are memories of listening to a Nina Hagen mix tape on the drive up, of touring Minneapolis’s art galleries, of eating delicious Ethiopian food with my hands. The second time was a perfunctory visit to check out the University of Minnesota. The third time was an afternoon side trip from Superior to the delightful city of Duluth, a city lucky enough to be perched on Lake Superior that I hope to return to some day. The fourth time was to attend a seminar on posterior cortical atrophy at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester. All urban experiences of Minnesota. I know nothing of the landscape Babine passionately describes. Reading this book is taking a journey to a real place filtered through her perception, and I am having a good time on this vacation. The name Minnesota comes from the Dakota language and means “somewhat clouded water.” It’s fitting to read these essays under a very clouded sky.

Yes, on a rainy day like today, I’m forced to accept the terms and conditions for living intimately and in harmony with this element. Babine writes: “We want to be surrounded by all the forms water can take because humanity is not predictable and constant. We want the ice, we want the snow, we want the rain, the hail, the flood-even when the presence of water is destructive, it still reminds us that water is a give and take, and we can’t always have it good. We want the humility that water brings. It reminds us that things can always be worse.” In another chapter, she narrates her experiences “on the fringes” of the major 1997 flooding of Fargo-Moorehead and Grand Forks-East Grand Forks by the Red River. We tell stories to make sense of events larger than ourselves and to put a finger on what has changed in us as a consequence. I think of what just happened in Orlando and how important it is for those who survived to tell their stories about what they experienced in the hope of making sense of it all.

Hope makes an appearance in this book as Babine seeks to understand the effect that the mythology of the American West had on her ancestors who lived in South Dakota. As I type this line, hope resurfaces with the sun, which has already started to dry the tiles on the patio. One day the tomatoes will ripen into a blushing red and it will be warm enough for me to wear this cotton sweater and and attempt to blend in with the sand.

Don’t lose hope as you wait for the sun to come out again!

The Orange Road

This week I finished reading two books received as gifts. In a previous post, I talked about The White Road by Edmund de Waal, a sprawling story of the obsessive quest to make porcelain. I have zero interest in porcelain, but the book vibrates with de Waal’s enthusiasm for the subject. The most interesting parts were those in which he talks about why and how he creates his art and what he associates with the color white. Porcelain, he concludes, comes at a great cost, and he honors those who have made it possible to work in this finicky medium by telling their story, describing one of his motivations for writing this book as a journey to pay dues to those who have gone before him.

Inspired by his exploration of white, a color I associate with paper, rice, swans, the moon and snow, I am knitting a new sweater for myself. My first striped project will alternate two cotton yarns of different off white shades. Earlier this year, I described why I associate certain colors with different months. May is orange, and June is blue, but it wasn’t until June 1 that I finished my previous journal (green for April) and started writing in a new orange notebook. Though I am a little off with coordinating month and notebook, I have been very drawn to this warm color lately: my journal matches my v-neck and the cover of the second book I just finished reading, Amazonen der Arena: Zirkusartistinnen und Dompteusen (Amazons of the Arena: Circus Artists and Female Animal Tamers) by Stephanie Haerdle.

One of my secret dreams has always been to run away and join the circus as a contortionist/trapeze artist/tightrope walker. Knowing this, a friend presented this book to me last summer. It profiles strongwomen, female animal tamers, female circus directors, and stuntwomen in the circuses of Europe in the 19th and early 20th centuries. I started it but soon put it aside, disappointed because my desired circus careers weren’t highlighted. Fast forward to a week or so ago. One of my projects this year is to read biographies of women who have done unconventional and extraordinary things. Restarting the book, I was captivated.

The world of the circus, writes Haerdle, was probably the first where women were able to work on an equal footing with men. All positions were open to women, who were able to earn a living as well as escape from the strict social control of the day and live however they wanted: on their own or with a husband, partner, or children. One of the strongwomen profiled, the Belgian Athleta, performed feats of strength with her talented four daughters, while most of the animal tamers remained single, preferring the company of their troupes of lions or polar bears to human society. The fearlessness and audacity of women like Hélène Dutrieu (stunt driver and pilot) and Mauricia de Thiers (stunt driver of Autobolide fame who suffered numerous injuries but kept performing) are phenomenal even by today’s standards.

So now I’m dreaming of the circus again, the circus as a symbol of unrealized visions I have for my life. We all have them collecting dust in a corner. Instead of the white road to porcelain or the yellow brick road, I am seeking out the orange road, the road to my inner contortionist.

Hope you dust off some of your idling dreams!

Putting Two and Two Together

Yesterday I read about a film on Wendell Berry, a writer on farming and being rooted to a place whose works I really should have read by now. He is quoted as saying in the film: “Things that belong together have been taken apart. And you can’t put it all back together again. What you can do is the only thing you can do. You take two things that ought to be together and you put them together. Two things. Not all things!” This idea grabbed me. Isn’t this creativity in a nutshell? Isn’t this the key to writing? The key to life? The key to effecting a change in the world? We can’t do everything – not at once, of course, and actually not at all. We are beings with limited time, energy, and materials. But we still can do an awful lot that can make a difference. We have two hands, two knitting needles, two cymbals to crash together and start there. Integration occurs: from the Latin integrare, to make whole. Then we have one again, which can be combined with another one. And so it goes on and on, this process of organization and unification.

The poor dead mole (one) was alone when a passerby chose to honor its life and passing with a sprig of lavender (two). This integration had already occurred when I happened to stroll by with my camera, and now the picture of the mole’s sidewalk wake (one) reminds me of the dead mole I saw this weekend (two), leading me to worry there is a virulent mole illness going around because in my whole life, I have never seen two dead moles within a four day period. As much as I delighted in being able to examine the polydactyl paws of the mole up close, they do more service to the world underground. Most likely it is just coincidence and there is nothing wrong with the mole population; I’m just paying better attention: from attendere, to give heed to, to stretch toward.

It is a good thing I paid attention, stretching toward that mole when I embarked upon my walk because by the time I got back, no trace of it remained on the sidewalk. My thoughts too had meandered on to flowers in various stages of blooming and decay, to blackbirds digging under leaves searching for dinner, to the lack of cows in the pasture. Perhaps I should have lit a candle for the mole in the little chapel down the road, but the thought didn’t cross my mind in the afternoon sunshine.

Ripples of roses

Flowing over wood fences

As they peak in June

Happy integrating!

Lake Therapy

The smell of the lake woke me up with a start from my torpor. Hell-oo! Reunited after months apart, we smiled in delight at each other, taking stock of how we had changed and where we now stood. An old friend, a very old friend. She is older than me, thousands of years older, and I am confident that despite all the turmoil yet to come as the climate changes, she will outlast me thousands of years more.

Michigan simply means big water, great lake. And that she is, the yardstick in my mind against which no European lake will ever measure up. Sunrises are more joyful when mountains don’t function like blinders, distorting your view and cutting you off from the infinite promise of light on the horizon.

Her closet is completely empty, yet every day she shows up in a different color, wearing new wave forms as accessories. Sometimes when she is feeling more introverted she even disguises herself as the sky. The newspaper tells me she is thriving again, her waves reaching out and lapping the beach after her retreat and all time low in 2013. This makes not just the birds very happy.

A scrap of paper is in my journal. On it is the quote: “Water will always find cracks it can flow through.” It is written in my handwriting, but I no longer remember where it came from. I find this saying comforting. Nothing is stagnant, everything changes, only patience is required. Put your trust in eternal movement. On the first page of my current journal, underneath where I wrote the date and place I started keeping it, I copied down these words: “Stop running after the waves. Let the sea come to you.”

It was just too far, though, for her to reach me. The cold stone mountains encumber and divide, you lose your perspective, you choke on the fumes that accumulate in the valleys. I had to run to her; I ran so hard I started to fly, tacking against the jet stream. Safely on her shore, the wind blasted my face, meaning business, rushing by, reddening my cheeks as I took my daily walk. I can be happy with so little: a friendly greeting, a strong espresso, a good book, a notebook and pen, a stroll along the harbor, a deep breath.

When I am doing lake therapy, I often ask myself what could possibly compete with this beauty, why I walked out on all this. The natural world is truly amazing. I am tired of people spending their time ignoring this. Be astounded by the dazzle of sun on the blue mirror of the harbor, the vibrant moss colored grass, the pointed call of a blue jay, the gnarled bark of a tree. This is the starting point for everything else: our ability to resonate with beauty. When we forget this, things go askew.

Po Valley or Bust

One of the beauties of traveling is not knowing where you’ll end up. It is often the places that you don’t plan to visit that leave a more lasting impression on you that your official destination. In the run up to this trip, I caught myself telling people that Torino was my main goal. It is a city I’ve been to numerous times before but mostly just popping in and out for a few hours to visit family. This time, I told myself, I would take a few days to devote myself to the city and truly discover Torino. As it turned out, I saw very little in Torino that I hadn’t seen before. The real discoveries lay along the road.

The first stop on our journey was in East Tyrol, a forgotten area of Austria with stunning views of the Alps. We stumbled upon Aguntum, a Roman settlement in the former province of Noricum. The museum and archeological site have been added to our list of places to return to another time. We had to continue on to keep our date with Ötzi, the Iceman, in Bolzano, a little ways over the border in Italy in the parallel universe of South Tyrol. The mummified corpse of a man who lived around 3200 BC was discovered in the Alps along the Italian and Austrian border in 1991. This was a sensational find because it included remnants of clothing, tools, and other objects he had with him – for example a goatskin coat, an axe with a copper blade, and birchbark containers.

What I find most fascinating is that Ötzi is covered in tattoos that correspond to the meridians used in acupuncture – and the tattoos were made thousands of years earlier than when acupuncture is thought to have been developed. Whenever I visit an archeological museum, see the range of tools, and think about what people were capable of doing thousands of years ago, it worries me how few of these skills most people learn today. Can you start a fire, make a shelter, make your own clothing, gather wild edibles? Why are these skills not deemed important enough to teach children anymore? Ötzi died because he was shot with an arrow and bled to death. He was found in an awkward looking position with his arm across his chest. According to the signs at the museum, this position is apparently one that could be used to stop the flow of blood, a kind of DIY tourniquet. Though it didn’t work, it shows that Ötzi had a certain amount of medical knowledge and knew what to do to try to save his own life. Why don’t we learn these kinds of things about our bodies anymore?

With all those questions reverberating in my head, it was good to take a walk on top of the Sacra Monte on Lake Orta, the westernmost of the alpine lakes in north Italy. What a peaceful place, one of those green and lush places where it is hushed and calm, where a stranger moves his motorcycle to make more room so you can squeeze into the only parking spot available for miles. It’s a place intricately tied to water, the most valuable gift of the Alps. Here I must confess: Torino is not really for me. It is a monumental city, a city built on secular power: the former capital of the Duchy of Savoy, reunified Italy’s first capital. Within Italy, Torino is an industrial center of power, the home of Fiat (cars), Lavazza (coffee), and Nutella (sweet hazelnut spread); all of these products fuel modern life for better or for worse. Yet I was happy to see the city pay homage in its own monumental way to the waters that nourish it, that make settlement and everything that comes afterwards possible. Two statues represent the most important rivers in the history of the city.

Near the confluence of the Po (above) and the Dora Riparia (below) rivers, the Romans built their colony Augusta Taurinorum.

What the Po actually looks like you can see below. Without it, there would be no risotto! We bought 6 kilos of risotto rice and have eaten it nearly every day since our return. The risotto highlight of the trip: risotto with leeks and apples. The risotto highlight of the week: risotto with bear’s garlic and walnuts.

Just as the journey there was full of delights, the journey back was too. We stopped in Asolo, a small village situated on a hill in the Veneto region that charmed us a few years back. It has attributes of many a pleasant spot to spend the night: a few streets that converge on a central square with a café from which you can watch all the action, a good trattoria with regional dishes, castle ruins at the very top of the hill that you can reach by walking along a path bordered by an orchard full of olive trees, and magnificent views of the snowy Alps to the north, the Po plain to the south, and cypress trees in all other directions.

British writer, traveler, and centerarian Freya Stark made her home in Asolo for years. Garden tours at the villa she called home are regularly available but require registration, so now we have another place on our list to examine more closely. I was relieved to return to Asolo and not find it turned into a tourist trap. The danger is there. We observed a loud group of Austrians from uncomfortably close to home descend upon the village (or rather ascend since they had to walk uphill to get to the center). About forty minutes later they were on their way down again, having “done” Asolo. It is a place that is perhaps a bit too beautiful for its own good but welcoming to the lingerers, to those who have the patience to wait out the day tourists and watch the sun set over the Po Valley.

Hope you know a nice spot to linger and enjoy the sunset!

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