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Noticing Italy

Updated: Aug 14, 2022

“One’s destination is never a place, but a new way of seeing things.” – Henry Miller

I am the Mayor of Les Combes!

Well, I was for a brief period. A week maybe. More like five days.

I was appointed by Arsène Riblan, owner of two homes in Les Combes, Italy. He has no real authority and there was no election but nobody else wanted the job. Among the fifteen or so inhabitants of Les Combs are two old women and one young woman who I assumed is the daughter of one of them. They prepared the most delicious pasta dish I have ever tasted in my life, but they have no interest in being mayor. Nor does Franco, an old man and an artist, whose sculptures I viewed as I hiked the surrounding mountains. He is a retired professor of art at the University of Florence and spends most of his day in the garden or working on another piece of art. He is a gregarious fellow, and I met his sister, cousin, and niece. We conversed using Google translator, a bit tedious, but it works. Most of the other residents were away.

As part of my appointment, Arsène, accompanied by his lovely wife, presented me with a ceremonial head of lettuce taken straight from the village garden. It was a small ceremony which took place on my patio. There were no photos other than one of the head of lettuce. I was honored and humbled. It is, perhaps the reason I made this trip.

To be sure, there were other reasons, some I was aware of, and others I discovered as the trip unfolded. One reason is my self-absorbed journey to know myself more completely, to see myself more accurately. I believe we suffer more from our illusions than from our vices and weaknesses. I say self-absorbed in a mildly pejorative way; everyone is challenged as such but not everyone answers the call. There are a thousand easy answers one can substitute for the journey towards knowing oneself, but they will inevitably, in my opinion, fall short. I have also heard promises that, traveling a spiritual path, self-seeking will invariably slip away, but I’m pretty convinced that happens only when the “self” slips away.

Getting to know one’s inner nature, one’s patterns, fears, and desires can be foreboding but it’s not dangerous. The real danger lies in not taking the journey. The journey is inward but can be augmented by an outward journey with new vistas and a break from routine. In order to connect with myself, I must sometimes step out of the play/drama of my life and observe the performance. Watching from outside, I can perhaps see something and learn. This requires me to actively cultivate the state of being alone and apart. Growing fruits and vegetables is child’s play in comparison to this sort of cultivation.

In this pursuit, I made a leap to Italy, and this is what happened.

My first discovery was the many and subtle ways one disappears when traveling alone, particularly when you don’t speak the language. In a country where you can’t read anything, you are ignorant of almost everything, and you lack a basic sense of how things work, you become an alien as you struggle to make yourself understood. I began to feel as if I existed on the periphery of society, one that sprang to life only when I met another person who spoke English or made an extra effort to understand. That other world, peopled with laughter and conversation, seemed safer than the one where I stood outside, alone. There were moments where I imagined myself interrupting and saying something witty in Italian just to gain entry to that world.

Traveling alone, you open yourself to possibilities that reside in uncharted segments of the map, an unknown that might herald a transformational moment as easily as it could lead to disaster. It takes a hardy soul to travel much. I am not such a soul. It wasn’t easy.

But the traveling revealed that I really do exist on the periphery of the world, and I realized, despite my bravado, how vulnerable I am and how little I know of other cultures, other ways of being in the world. I also learned a valuable lesson in recognizing my kinship with fearful, needy humanity, the need to belong. Les Combs, at times, was too quiet. I would have been hard put to find a more sparsely populated place in Italy. I oftentimes tell myself that I am good company and don’t mind being alone, but this was too much. I was torn between seeking tourist spots to amuse/educate, or staying “home” reading one of the five books I brought along.

But, I could have read the books at home and adding experiences to the trip to make it “mean something” doesn’t sit well with me. Invariably, I will have the experience and then feel compelled to share it on social media to make it more meaningful. One hopes the experience would be enough in and of itself. Of course, it is sometimes quite appropriate and wonderful to share these experiences and, no doubt, some of you witnessed my many travel postings, although I tried to keep them to a minimum. It reminds me of those days before social media when one was invited over to a friend’s house to watch a three-tray slide presentation of their most recent vacation. Back then, they at least provided drinks, popcorn, and a narrative track, however boring. Nevertheless, in these interconnected times, there is a tendency to share every moment, every experience, with the world. And truth to tell, the world generally doesn’t care nor need it care. I hope to be my own validation.

So why did I travel? Was it yet another exercise in self-seeking? I suppose it’s not inconceivable that I was scratching some long quiet existential itch, but that seems much too heady. More likely is the fact that I find a distinct benefit in occasionally exploring situations where I am uncomfortable. It’s not some sort of test, a masochistic tendency or a thrill-seeking adventure. But, by periodically moving out of my comfort zone, I have a chance to expand. Much to my chagrin, I am nothing, if not a creature of comfort.

It was a major accomplishment to overcome my inertia and undertake a trip that might be “uncomfortable” for an extended period. With all the logistics of travel planning and preparation behind me, I arrived safely in Milan. I navigated the linguistic challenge of renting a car and then a larger challenge in the three-hour drive to Les Combs. The bulk of the drive was toll roads (replete with agonizing about how to pay), but the last leg was five-miles on a narrow winding alpine track that had me, once again, questioning my sanity.

I arrived at Les Combs tired, but with a sense of accomplishment. That was followed by a triumphant trip to the grocery store where I was able to purchase sufficient food to survive despite acting like the village idiot! “Capisci l’inglese?” became my most oft uttered words accompanied by a lot of gesturing and pointing.

But, by far and away (love that phrase and it so fits the trip), my most cherished success was just learning to be okay where I was, no matter how unfamiliar and uncomfortable the surroundings. It was different than being alone at home. Even the wind was still. The birds, although plentiful, were generally silent. The only regular bird call was a cuckoo, which sounded amazingly like a Black Forest Cuckoo Clock, or is it the other way around? There were more butterflies than birds. I couldn’t hear them sing, but my hearing is bad and, I suspect, they have tiny voices if they have voices at all, or perhaps they sing with their wings.

And there were wolves.

Wolves make me uncomfortable. On one of my hikes, while looking for a spot to rest and meditate, I left the path to sit on a rock under some firs. As I sat down, I noticed fresh scat. Franco had told me about the wolves in the mountains. But there are wolves everywhere. Wolves in Texas schools. Wolves in the Ukraine and Yemen. Wolves of misperception and wolves of regret. Wolves that travel with us and, I suspect, killed Anthony Bourdain. They howl for our misfortune and remind us that we shall die. Whatever fear they evoke is meant to awaken our sensibilities. We see better and hear more because of them. My senses came more alive on this trip.

I had my fears and a sense of being apart, but I also savored warm almond and lemon cream pie with licorice ice cream at the Hotel Silvio. I saw spectacular mountain vistas and closing my eyes, felt the gentle breezes. And there was love. A young teenage couple, on a train station platform, lean in to each other as they light cigarettes from a single match. An elderly couple, sitting at the next table at the Castigo restaurant in Somma Lombardo, chat and laugh with the owner as their dog rests at their feet under the table. The kindness of a young woman who took my picture at the Duomo Plaza and wished me a most enjoyable trip.

What I discovered is that my joy is not found so much in doing things, going places, or having adventures as it is in just noticing things. I found myself immersed in an elegant universe that only asked that I see it. Seeking invariably implies intention, a looking for something. Noticing is without intention, it is awareness. If I learned anything on this trip, and I did, it is my constant seeking and my all too often failure to simply notice. As St. Francis observed, “It is by self-forgetting that one finds”.

I am grateful to my brother Bart, for reminding me that we are more often saddened by the things we didn’t do than by the things we did. I am grateful to my friend Kathryn and our conversation which helped fortify my desire to travel. I am grateful to Barney for driving me to and from JFK airport. I am also very grateful to my niece Becki, who so kindly looked after the farm while I was away. And finally, I am grateful for all of you, my friends, who indulge me on these posts and flatter me with your kindness. I have not always noticed how extremely blessed I am to have such friends but my senses have improved because of this trip. Perhaps that was the entire reason for going.

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