Artist Dates 91 and 92: Schooled

How do we know this is David?

I never thought about it. But here I am in front of him at Galleria dell’Accademia in Florence – Artist Date 91.

David is a boy and this is a man. David is a Jew and this man has a foreskin.  And what is he holding anyway?  And why do we have to walk around him to find out?

Paul, the tour guide from Walks of Italy, lobs the questions rapid fire until I feel like my brain might explode, but instead, cracks wide open.

I purchased my first walking tour – my first tour ever – last fall, in Dublin. It was my friend Steven’s idea.  And, much to my surprise, I enjoyed it.  Even looking like a tourist.  Which I was.

Which I am.

Paul takes me and 11 others to the Galleria dell’Accademia . To the Duomo.  To Piazza San Marco.  Ultimately dropping us at Ponte Vecchio.  Stringing us along with juicy bits of history.  Linking them together, telling a linear story.  Ultimately letting us know why we should care about these tourist attractions.

Ponte Vecchio
Ponte Vecchio

It is like Jeopardy – Italian style. Where everything comes in the form of a question.  Or at the very least, begins that way.

And it works. It is sticky in my grey matter.  Days later.  Weeks later, when I write this.

I learn that in religious art, the one wearing fur is always John the Baptist.

That Michelangelo considered himself a sculptor and was pissed off when asked to paint or to build.

That he never had sex, slept in his clothes – to save time – and thought art was for the people – and sculptures, the newspapers of the day. But that as a reporter with a chisel he was never neutral — a Michael Moore of Renaissance Art.

Outside the Duomo I learn why Renaissance Art was born here. A simple Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs.  The temporary capital of Italy, Florence was flush.  Issues of survival were no longer issues here, so the people of Florence could turn their attention to things of intellect and beauty.  They could build the largest church known at that time, its dome an architectural quandary.

And it is at this basilica that christening changed from a dunk to a sprinkle.  Seems while no one was dying of the plague, newborns were dying in record numbers following baptism, and someone figured out that while the water might by holy, it wasn’t particularly sanitary.

duomo1700
The Duomo, Santa Maria del Fiore Cathedral in Florence

I learn that families claimed turf by marking corners of buildings with the family crest. An early form of tagging.  And a series of balls is the sign of the Medici family.

That Ponte Vecchio survived World War II, while all the other bridges in Florence were bombed by Nazis upon their crossing, because of a Medici. That in 1565 Grand Duke Cosimo de’Medici had a private passageway built into the bridge for the occasions when communication with his estranged wife, living across the Arno River at Palazzo Pitti, was necessary.  He filled it with Renaissance Art – art that remained there.  Art that Hitler commanded be “saved,” along with Ponte Vecchio.

A few days later in Rome, Cecilia (also from Walks of Italy) similarly schools me on the Colosseum, the Pantheon and the Sistine Chapel, as well as Trevi Fountain, the Spanish Steps and a killer gelateria. Artist Date 92.

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Getting schooled at the Colosseum.

 

Suddenly I am a history nerd, walking at her hip, never losing sight of her umbrella – the raised symbol moving us forward as a group. I think about how much I missed in high school.  In college.  Because I was hung over, hanging out or just plain disinterested.

About how much I surely missed in Madrid and Barcelona, Amsterdam and Brussels, Paris and London. Because I didn’t believe I needed someone to school me in their city.

I receive my final lesson leaving Vatican City when I ask Cecilia the way back to Trastevere – the neighborhood where I am staying – either via foot or cab. She offers me another option, inviting me to take the bus with her instead.

On our ride, Cecilia tells me I am brave. That she noticed me traveling alone.  Heard me talk about volunteering in Umbria.  That for all of her education and seeming worldliness – she is terrified to travel alone.

I hear her.  I believe her – that I am brave. I own it.  And share the greatest lesson I have learned.  That I am terrified too.  Of getting lost.  Of looking stupid.   Of…insert fear du jour here.

That I am terrified…but do it anyway.

Looking for Ladybugs

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My friend Kerry told me to look for ladybugs while I was in Italy.

He was referring to the part of the movie, Under the Tuscan Sun, when the sexy, older ex-pat from London tells Frances, a recently divorced American reinventing herself in Italy, that looking for love is like looking for ladybugs. That when she was a child, she would spend hours looking for them, eventually tiring and falling asleep in the grass.  And when she awoke she would find herself covered in them.

I wasn’t sure I was looking for love in Italy. Or even a romance – although I assured him and others that my heart was open to the possibility.  However, as the days to my departure date grew more near, I was more than certain I was here to do something.

I saw my first ladybug when I arrived in Umbria, 24 hours after arriving in Rome.

After I nearly took the wrong bus from Arezzo to Cita de Castello – twice – and a young man named Leonardo approached me, offering help in English. After we spoke for nearly 45 minutes – talking about writing and language and being “black sheep” – and friending one another on Facebook.

After Giulia and Elide – my contacts for the AltroCioccolato, the “other” chocolate festival I came to volunteer for – picked me up at the bus station. And after bringing me to Roberto’s house – one of the festival’s founders – where I sat in the sun while he plied me with buffalo mozzarella, tomatoes – shiny with olive oil, and espresso.

It was a few hours later, driving to pick up groceries at a biological food co-op. A large ladybug graced a sign announcing that our destination, The Happy Worm, lay ahead.

The next day, I saw three more. One embellished a pizza parlor sign.  Another, actually a mess of them, covered a car steering wheel.

The final one landed on another of the volunteers – Duncan, the youngest of the group and the only other American. He asked me if I wanted it, knowing nothing of Kerry and our conversation.  I told him I did.  He put his arm next the mine and the ladybug crawled over to me without any prodding.  And refused to leave.

That night, I found myself in the city’s hospital. What had merely been a health nuisance while I was in the states had escalated enough for me to make contact with healthcare professionals back home at .99 a minute.

I was fairly certain I would have difficulty getting a live voice at Northwestern Hospital, so I called my physical therapist to ask her advice. She told me to call my doctor.  That she wasn’t comfortable giving advice on this matter.  When I told her I didn’t have an internet connection, she looked up the number for me.

Several holds, disconnects and phone calls later, I was advised by a medical assistant to seek attention.

I knocked on Giulia’s door and told her I needed to go to the hospital. As she dressed, my roommate Ingrid, from the UK, offered to join us for moral support.  In the piazza at midnight in this sleepy village Giulia – a native of Italy – asked around for a cab.  A stranger offered to drive us, dropping us off at the hospital and wishing us buona fortuna — good luck in Italian.

Ninety minutes later I was warmly assured by a doctor that I was in fact, ok.  I received a bill for 25 euros which I was instructed to pay the next day.  And Elide – whom Giulia had called – drove us home.

Earlier that evening, in the hospital, I broke down in tears. Overwhelmed.  Afraid.  And aware that my ex-husband, a doctor – was no longer “my person.”  That I was “alone.”  Giulia responded, wrapping her arms around me and saying, “We are your family.”

And I realized that ladybugs weren’t just on signs and steering wheels and the arms of volunteers. That ladybugs – that love – followed me everywhere.  All the way to Italy.  To Umbria.  Just south of the Tuscan sun.

 

Artist Date 88: Tied

rcfIt’s Sunday and I’m not at dance class…which feels really weird. I’ll be away more than here – to San Francisco in September and Italy the following month – so it didn’t really make sense to enroll this session.  Except it’s “what I do.”  Except today.

The sun is hot, the air is crisp and the sky is a perfectly blue sky blue. The kind of day I would lament missing if I were in the dance studio.

I jump on my bike and pedal to Wicker Park for the Renegade Craft Fair: Artist Date 88.

There’s a DJ spinning records and it’s all I can do to not spontaneously bust into dance. Although I’m pretty sure no one would mind.

There is leather and pottery. Fibers and lithographs.  And lots and lots of jewelry.

I strike up a conversation with a young jewelry maker from Wisconsin. We talk about art school – where she went, my desire to go.  She is flanked by her mother who notes the wholehearted support she offered her daughter in following her bliss.

For years I blamed my parents for my not going to art school. Truth told, I don’t think I had the drive, let alone the chops.  I fancied myself a fine artist but I didn’t have the discipline.  A discipline I only found later in life – much later, in my 40s, when I took on Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way for a second time.

Feeling desperate, crazy and on my knees, I embraced the book as others might the Bible or the Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous. Viewing it as a salvation.  The keys to the kingdom.  The yellow brick road.

I took on nearly every suggestion – most noteworthy, the bogeyman – the Artist Date. That hour or so alone each week to fill my creative coffers.  Scheduled.  Planned.  And penciled in to my calendar.

A commitment to myself and my creativity.

It changed my life. And I’m pretty sure saved it.  Or at least my sanity.  It forced me to focus on me.  Not in a navel-gazing way, but more in a “What have you done for me, lately,” Janet Jackson kind of way.  Except I’m not asking some no-goodnik while dancing at a diner…I’m asking myself.

When I speak of it, I feel like the Pied Piper.  And today I should have brought my flute.

I run into my friend Whitney, who introduces me to a colleague, who innocently asks, “What brings you here?”

The answer seems obvious. The art.  The weather.  The promise of Black Dog Gelato.  Instead, I tell her about The Artist Date.

As I speak, I become excited by own story. Almost as if it is someone else’s story.  And I am reminded that my life is really quite magical.  That I AM the woman I always wanted to be.  A cool, creative, urban chick.  Like the women I saw in photographs when I was 12 – waiting on line for a shave or a Mohawk on Astor Place in New York.

It is the same feeling I have talking to the boys from San Francisco – where I lived for 14 years – who make and sell tea, T-We. We talk about what took me there – a job.  And what brought me here – love.  For my then husband, when I followed him to Chicago for medical residency.  And later for myself, the people, and the place itself – when I returned by choice, alone, a little more than two years ago.

It’s the feeling I have trying to put a ribbon into an old manual typewriter – part of a salon set up on Division Street by a woman renting vintage furniture. I tell her I learned to write on a typewriter – an IBM Selectric – when I was in journalism school.  About editing the newspaper on boards.  Printed stories rolled on to glass with wax and hacked at with a blue marker to fit the page.  It is the work that took me to San Francisco.  To Germany and Israel.

It’s the feeling I have talking with the woman who make shoes with ribbon laces – MOPED. I am lacing up a pair with gold ribbons and wonder aloud if they might not serve me well in Italy.

We talk about volunteering overseas. My upcoming flight of fancy at a fair-trade chocolate festival in Umbria, where I will live in an apartment with other volunteers from around the globe, and play out my “I live in Europe” fantasy.  I tell her about volunteering in Rwanda and in the South of France.  How traveling this way allows me to go alone without being alone.  How it ties me to people and place and purpose.

Like the ribbons I pick to take with me – seven in total. Purple.  Black.  Grey.  Pink stripes.  Navy stripes.  Silver glitter.  Gold.

Ribbons that tie me to these shoes.

To the ground.  To myself.  To this life.  The one a 12-year-old imagined – right down to the shave.

Artist Date 86: On a Scooter, With a Boy in Front and Chocolate in my Pocket

Final moments in St. Victor la Coste, France.  I hiked up to this crumbling castle every day.
Final moments in St. Victor la Coste, France. I hiked up to this crumbling castle every day.

I leave for Italy in 39 days.

I only recently bought my plane ticket, and just last week decided exactly where I will spend the days following my volunteer work in Umbria. I have not booked a single night at a hotel, pensione, hostel or airbnb.

This is highly unusual for me.

By now I would have secured a room for all of my nights, and outlined a rough itinerary of my days – making certain I knew when each museum closed.  I learned this from my friend Tim, who saved the Louvre for his last day in Paris, not realizing it closed on Tuesdays.  He has lovely pictures of the outside.

I would have purchased my train tickets and made copies of my passport.  My travel books would be dog-eared and yellowed with highlighter.

I have done none of this.  I’m not sure why.

And so I find myself tucked into a big chair in the back of the Book Cellar, pouring over travel guides – more out of necessity than anything.  Fodors.  Rough Guide.  Lonely Planet.  Thick books on the whole of Italy.  Thinner versions on Rome, Florence and Tuscany.  Artist Date 86.

I recall my first travels overseas – press trips to Germany and Israel.  I was in my 20s and had dreamed of traveling abroad.  Everything was handled for me.  Flights.  Hotel.  Itinerary.  And yet, I sat at San Francisco International Airport before each trip – terrified.

Flying out of SFO in 1999 to Spain – my first overseas trip with my then boyfriend, now ex-husband — felt wholly different.  I wasn’t alone.

One Saturday morning we somewhat impulsively bid on Priceline tickets to Madrid.  By afternoon, we were sprawled out on the floor of Borders Books – leaving a few hours later with copies of Frommers – Europe on $100 a day and Madrid, Barcelona and Seville.

We traveled overseas together several times over the next few years – me carefully crafting an itinerary each time.   Yet, a part of me longed to travel alone, as so many of my friends had done after college.

And at 37, I do it.

At the time, I feel too old to throw a rucksack on my back, sleep in hostels and shower in train stations.  I find a trip volunteering in the south of France, building walls as part of an architectural restoration project.

I spend a few days in Paris by myself when I arrive.  It does not feel glamorous and exciting as I had imagined.  It feels scary and lonely.  I wander the streets alone, slightly drunk and call my then husband — crying.  A few days later I join my team in Avignon.  Surrounded by volunteers from around the word, ranging in age from 21 to 73, I feel joyous and free.  I have found my place, my role.  I am the friendly American who drinks too much and gives massages.

Building walls in the South of France. 2006.
Building walls in the South of France. 2006.

Eight years later, (I will turn 45 in Italy) I do not drink anymore.  I do not have a husband anymore.  These things that I leaned into ceased to serve me long ago.  This time, this trip, I must lean into myself.  My hesitation in planning suddenly makes sense.  I am afraid.

And yet, I have a plan, a purpose – I am again joining volunteers from around the globe.  This time, at the Altrocioccolato Festival – known as the “other chocolate festival” – outside of Perugia.  This time, my alone time is on the back-end of the trip – and I will have a better sense of place.  This time I have people, “waiting” for me in church basements.  People who also used to drink too much but don’t anymore – people like me.

My friend Pam says I will go to Italy and meet a boy on a scooter and never come home.  She tells me that I am brave.  That she doesn’t know anyone else our age doing what I am doing – traveling, alone.  I do not feel brave.

And I remember what I’ve been told, that bravery isn’t the absence of fear, it is walking through it anyway.

Or perhaps flying through it – direct from Chicago to Rome on Alitalia.  Or riding a scooter through it – an Italian boy in front, and chocolate in my pocket.

Artist Date 77: Rekindling the Romance

I am writing my morning pages – one of two “core practices” in The Artist’s Way, my unofficial roadmap through the past two years of transition – the daily purging of random thoughts taking up real estate in my head.  It is Saturday, the end of the week, and I realize I have not planned an Artist Date (The Artist’s Way other core practice) for myself.

2014-05-24 15.20.01A part of me rejoices in my loosening the vice grip I seem to have on everything.  A part of me laments.

Am I entering the transition from passionate love to either compassionate love or break up?   The six-month mark in a relationship when partners finally rouse themselves from bed and can think of something other than sex and one another.

If it is, I’ve had a hell of a run – 77 weeks of Artist Dates and only recently have I become somewhat bored, lazy with the idea of planning a solo excursion for myself.

Trouble is, I am the type that loves to be in love – the first six-months girl, as evidenced by my blogs.  The Southern Svengali.  Mr. 700 Miles.  My Divorce Buddy.  Ridiculously romantic stories with heartbreaking endings.

My lament is about wanting to hold on to my ridiculously romantic story with myself – with my Artist’s Dates.

——————–

Italy – quite possibly the sexiest, most romantic place on the planet – calls like a siren.

I Google “volunteer, Italy” and in minutes am poring over possibilities.

I have volunteered overseas twice before – in the South of France and in Rwanda (the trip that gave form to this blog).  Traveling this way gives me a deeper sense of people, place and purpose.  It is cost effective.  And I meet other unaccompanied adventurers I might not otherwise know.

I find “my trip” through Volunteers for Peace – two weeks with the Milano Film Festival.  Only seven volunteers are accepted, and a letter of motivation is required.

I get writing.

I send my short essay to my friend, Melinda for feedback.  She likes most of it, and gently offers, “Is this an opportunity to introduce yourself as a creative, fun, movie-loving, gelato-eating event coordinator who is a world traveler and wants to visit Italy without referencing your divorce?”

Yes, it is.  And so I do – removing the reference to my divorce from the essay before hitting “send.”

——————–

And so this morning, noodling over my morning pages, I settle on a trip to the library or bookstore, to pour over travel books.  Artist Date 77.

I think about Powell’s and flash on a date I treated my ex to when he completed his first year of residency – a bike tour of Chicago, highlighting book stores, record stores and pastry shops.

Recalling what I have done for someone else but am not doing for myself lights a fire in my belly.

2014-05-24 15.20.08It is warm and stuffy in the library – a small, neighborhood branch.  I am surprised how many people are inside, considering outside holds the promise of the spring we Chicagoans have been waiting on.  Most of them appear to be studying – determined.

I find the Italy section in the stacks and am disappointed to not find a single travel book.  No Fodors, Frommers, Lonely Planet.

I pull La Bella Figura: A Field Guide to the Italian Mind, Traveling in Italy with Henry James, and D.H. Lawrence and Italy from the stacks.  I finger through the first, I am somewhat amused but it is not what I want to read.  I am distracted by the underlining and highlighting that mars the second.  I put them back, hold on to D.H. Lawrence and check out – unsatisfied.

At the Book Cellar I grab three titles and settle into a somewhat comfy chair wedged in the corner of the shop.

I am quickly overwhelmed.  My plan is to travel on after the Film Festival (I am already assuming I am going.).  But where?  Venice? Rome? Florence?

The Amalfi Coast? Sicily?

Too many choices.  Too much for a single trip.  Too much to consider.

This was supposed to be fun.  It isn’t.

I close the books and return them to the shelves – still unsatisfied.

Perhaps it is enough to know they are there when I am ready – tomorrow, next week, next month.  When I know more, like if I am in fact going.  (I will receive notice in three to five business days.)  Or if I am going somewhere else.  Like to Reykjavic for its film festival, or Portugal to help restore a traditional, community bread oven – other possibilities.

Perhaps all that really matters is I took action to rekindle this romance – the only one I have any control over.  I recall our couple’s therapist, Robert insisting that even if only one of us is doing the work, the relationship will change.

Today I did the work…and wait for the change.