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Donigan Merritt

So we went to Lago Maggiore

To escape the heat of Rome … and got only one and a half pleasant days, before Stresa also climbed into the 30s.

Stresa is the principal Lago Maggiore resort town along the Italian coastline of Italy’s 2nd largest lake. (Lago Garda, to the east, is the largest.) There is a string of lakes running north-south in a row above Milan, the three largest are Garda, Maggiore, and Como. Locarno, in Switzerland, is at the northern end of the lake.

View from Stresa of Lago Maggiore.
View from Stresa of Lago Maggiore.

(Clicking on photos enlarges them.)

Stresa is known to Hemingway fans as part of the setting for A Farewell to Arms; it is the lake Frederic Henry and Catherine Barkley row across to escape to Switzerland. (We took a ferry down from Locarno to Stresa — with a few stops along the way — and it took more than four hours, so rowing would probably take four days, not overnight; but hey, it’s a novel.) During Hemingway’s recovery from wounds at a hospital in nearby Milan, he visited Stresa and stayed at the luxurious Grand Hotel des Iles Borromées, seen below.

Grand Hotel where Hemingway stayed while in Stresa.
Grand Hotel where Hemingway stayed while in Stresa.
Memories of Hemingway in the hotel bar.
Memories of Hemingway in the hotel bar.
Funky elevator in the Grand Hotel lobby.
Funky elevator in the Grand Hotel lobby.

We did not stay in this hotel, which ought to go without saying. We, instead, spent the week in a perfectly fine and comfortable hotel directly across the street from the lake and the ferry pier: Hotel Milan Au Lac. This is it, and our room was above the M in Milan.

Hotel Milan Au Lac, Stresa, Lago Maggiore, Italy
Hotel Milan Au Lac, Stresa, Lago Maggiore, Italy

 

View of the lake across the balcony from our room.
View of the lake across the balcony from our room.

The waters off Stresa are characterized by the four main “Borromeo” islands: Isola Bella, Isola Madre, Isola dei Pescatori, and Isolino San Giovanni. Isola Pescatori (Fisherman’s island) is also known as Isola Superiore. I had never heard the name Borromeo before coming to Stresa, but the family dominates the entire area, and in fact, owned the area around Stresa and all the island (I think they still own the islands) since the 16th century.

View of Isola Bella, with Fisherman's Island behind. Isola Madre is not seen to the right.
View of Isola Bella, with Fisherman’s Island behind. Isola Madre is not seen to the right.

The end of the island seen in this view is dominated by the massive gardens of the palazzo.

View back to the shoreline from the end of the gardens.
View back to the shoreline from the end of the gardens.
One of the small boat docks on Isola Bella.
One of the small boat docks on Isola Bella.

Stresa is a beautiful little lake town. It exists primarily in service of tourism, and essentially closes down in winter months. It is a fine place to relax, slow down, enjoy clean air and water (and escape the chaos of Rome), and gorge on scenery. The Borromeo palazzo on Isola Bella is one of the gaudiest, most luxurious, over-the-top displays of wealth (it pays to be a Catholic Archbishop in Italy) I have ever seen. (Although Popes grab most of the wealth.)

Restaurants in Stresa are typical of restaurants anywhere in Italy, except for the fresh fish dishes. One exception is Il Vicoletto. It is worth seeking out. We had the best meal of any during our week in Stresa, including a fine but massively overpriced lunch in Locarno, Swiss prices. A surprise finding in Il Vicoletto was a grappa that was smooth and actually did not taste at all like moonshine. This one:

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And visit Cristina Ferri’s amazing porcelain / ceramic shop, where we blew the budget and bought this lovely one-of-a-kind, handmade mirror.

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Finally, sunset from our balcony, our last night in Stresa.

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The Reality of Rome

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Go out the rear door of our apartment building, turn right, walk 20 meters, and this is what you see.

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Walk down the street one block, and there’s this.

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Along the lane just beyond the Piazza S. Maria in Trastevere, one of the most famous and oldest of Rome’s basilicas.

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As you walk out of the Piazza S. Maria in Trastevere.

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In front of the restaurant across the street from our apartment.

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Behind one of Trastevere’s iconic churches.

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Just outside the Piazza S. Maria in Trastevere.

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Wall of the apartment building across the street from our building.

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From a distance, Rome looks like this. Up close … .

Random Musing

Local Street

I took a photo with my iPhone of a lane near where I live. Computer software, an app, did this to it. I wish I had this talent, among other talents I wish I had (music, painting, come to mind), but don’t, and won’t. This is the new world. Now some sort of electronic thing can do this. I read, or heard, that there is an app that will write a story, maybe even a novel. No human necessary. Some sort of electronic thing (I do not understand any of this, so must resort to ambiguities), makes music, no human necessary. In the near piazza (Santa Maria in Trastevere) there is a woman with a cello, which she plays very well, but all the music she plays along with comes from a small box, and sounds like an orchestra.

The new world.

I guess the world is always new. Tomorrow it will be newer. And so forth. Yesterday was older, and so forth. It is a tad insane to wish it not so. I suppose I am inclined toward the tad, and I am sure that is because I am, astonishingly, old these days, and will be older tomorrow. Maybe I would like to have hit the pause button around age 30, most especially when I am sitting in a cafe watching the girls in their summer dresses stroll by. Now I am in fast-forward toward the running out of the tape, except nothing uses tape anymore. Maybe I am about to use up all my gigabytes.

When I was born, television did not exist, big fat radios had glowing tubes and a station in Del Rio Texas would sell you an autographed picture of Jesus Chris, for a buck-fifty, there was no rotary dial on the big black telephone (into which one only had to say a number, or in the case of our small town, I could just tell the operator who I wanted — “Hi, this is Donny, can you call Mike across the street?”, airplanes had propellers, bicycles had fat tires, terrorism consisted of the big boy who wanted to beat you up after school … there were plenty of bad things, there always are, throughout time, but mostly they were localized, now they are global — the global village.

In one way or another, I always wanted to be a writer. I’m not sure I actually wanted to write, but I definitely wanted to live like one. Writers were adventurous in those days. Think Hemingway, but many others, nearly every one you would hear about. The writer’s life was unique. I also, about age ten, wanted to be a surfing beach bum whom girls would call Kahuna, although I lived at the bottom southwest corner of Arkansas; I covered a wall in my bedroom with taped-up pages from magazines with tropical places and beaches with surf. That passed.

The notion of writing persisted. I wrote all the time, practicing, I suppose, though I didn’t think of it that way. Early on, I wrote poetry, because I made the startling discovery in mid-teens that poetry could get you laid … not being a jock type, that was my best shot. Then there was a stint of journalism, which I was not good at because I knew I could make up a better story — an editor for a newspaper in Michigan I worked for said to me, in the process of letting me go, that I was a very good fiction writer, but sucked as a journalist. I did not disagree.

I went to school for a long time, far beyond my intellectual means. I just kept going because it was better than working. So I ended up with three university degrees, two in philosophy (because it was better than studying) and one in creative writing, which gave me enormous artistic pretensions. It took many years to outgrow that fucking MFA degree.

Then, at the age of 36, my first novel was published. Well, not my first, as every writer knows, but the first to get published. Then another and another and another, until over the next 30 or so years, ten of my novels were published. Look at me, Mom! I is a author. I did my best to walk the walk, too. Besides the years spent stretching my thin intellectual rubber band, I flirted with alcoholism, drug addiction, worked on newspapers, spent a few years as a big game fisherman in Hawaii, drifted around on sailboats, vagabonded, went through women like Pringles … and somehow survived to this advanced, high-mileage age.

Having lived long enough to find myself in a time where I am embarrassed to say I’m a writer. Everybody is a writer, anybody is a writer; it is a meaningless notion. Anything everybody can do is trivial. I have lived long enough to see the way I spent my life, the thing I could do, the skill I possessed, the one talent I do have, become as commonplace as dirt. Anybody with a computer can “create” a beautiful watercolor painting, or oil for that matter, without ever touching a brush. Anybody who can sort of type can write a book, and publish it, and maybe even sell a few copies. The computer printers (Create Space, for example), will happily print up decently bound copies of a “book” with nothing on the pages but one’s name typed over and over and over.

I am happy to have had my time, although at the time I didn’t realize that it was my time and there would be an end to it. I just made it under the wire to be an author when it still had a shred of meaning left. Born too late, although if born at the best of times, I wouldn’t be writing this, I’d be long dead. Sic transit.

It has come to this. I am embarrassed to tell people how I spend my time, that I am a writer. So I don’t. I am of an age to get away with saying, simply, I am retired. From what? From being unemployed.

But still I write. I can’t stop. I just do it in the closet now.

Vagabonding

click on the picture to enlarge
click on the picture to enlarge

The pins stuck on this world map point out the places we have been during our 30+ years of marriage. Initially, the pin colors were to indicate places Holly went alone, places I went alone, places we went together, places we lived, and places we visited. But we didn’t have enough pins in each color, so there really isn’t a pattern. The only criteria for a place getting a pin was that we could not have just passed through, but must have stayed more than a few days.

We have gotten around. But I can’t help but notice the vast areas of the planet I have never been. Notably Australia, where once a long time ago I seriously considered living. Another life, of the many, that did not happen … and the more than many that never will happen.

This vagabonding will end in a few years, with decidedly mixed feelings. Rome will probably be the last place we live outside the United States … yes, could be worse.

In the years since we married, in 1984, we have lived in only two places in the US — Coronado, California, and Washington, DC. We’re coastal. Outside the US, we have lived, for periods ranging from two years to more than six years, in Bratislava, Pretoria, Berlin, Buenos Aires, Mexico City, and now Rome.

It is difficult to decide where to stop when the time comes. We don’t own any property. Everything we have, our stuff, goes with us — we are pack animals. We own nothing outside of what is in this Trastevere apartment. We have not owned a car since 2002, when we left South Africa; we only had a car there because, like California, it was impossible to survive without one. That car was a necessary aberration, prior to those two years in Pretoria, we had not had a car since 1993. Knowing that if we live in the States again, we will probably have to buy a car, makes us a bit sad. We have become used to the world where public transportation is better than private.

We have become used to the world where …  That will be the dilemma, I fear. The reverse culture shock of living in the States again. A topic of its own.

Mostly we talk about connecting the circle. Our life together began in San Diego, and it was (is?) a very nice place to live. If we went back for our retired years, it would be a sort of symmetry. Maybe that’s where we will end up when the vagabonding era comes to a close. We also dream about Hawaii … but doesn’t everybody? Maybe our retirement investments aren’t big enough for that, maybe not even for San Diego. (Notice, no places are mentioned where ever might appear a flake of snow or a crystal of ice.)

Frankly, I am tired of vagabonding. I think Holly is, finally, too. Wherever we settle eventually, you can plant my ass in the garden at the end of days. I intend to never pack-out again. What we hang on the walls stays on the walls, the books on the shelves stay on the shelves, closets stuffed with four seasons of clothes can be culled to a minimum, we can paint a wall or two in any color we like, we can make friends who don’t move on (as we do) every year or two or three, be grandparents with a reality beyond Skype … .

Yeats wrote:

He has lost what may not be found

Till men heap his burial mound

And all the history ends.

He might have lived at his ease,

An old dog’s head on his knees,

Among his children and friends.

It will probably be a cat in the lap rather than a dog’s head on the knees, but I am ready to live at my ease.

(And write … which I am not able to not do, even in these times, when it is an activity more akin to self-abuse.)

Further Considerations of Rome

In Rome, death is always there, but if you drop a few coins in the slot, maybe you can get a few more days.
In Rome, death is always there, but if you drop a few coins in the slot, maybe you can get a few more days.

That is the dichotomy of Rome: Life and Death. It is a dead city, very much alive. Maybe the frenzy of life in Rome are the continual reminders of the old and the dead. Live today, for tomorrow you die.

One of the nicest hearses I have ever seen, and I wondered who it is/was who got a funeral in the Basilica S. Maria in Trastevere, one of Rome's iconic churches.
One of the nicest hearses I have ever seen, and I wondered who it is/was who got a funeral in the Basilica S. Maria in Trastevere, one of Rome’s iconic churches.

We had a difficult, sad entry into our life here, in Rome. A most loved, most treasured, member of our family became sick and died not long after we arrived. Maybe that is why these momento  mori. Sophie Charlotte, our stone deaf, half-blind, beautiful pure white Turkish Wan cat, with her one green eye and one blue eye, became sick not long after we arrived and put away our things. We found a good Vet only two streets away from our place — a helpful thing for people without a car, needing many visits to the clinic — but after two weeks of brutal treatments, surgery, and an all-out struggle to save her from feline lymphoma, we decided to end her unrelenting and pointless suffering. The Vet, Dr. Paini, came to our apartment that terrible evening and put her into permanent sleep where she lay in our bedroom, on the rug, by the radiator, where she had gone … as animals do. So we could hold her in the moment of death, and she was not in a strange place, a place she had feared all her life.

So maybe that has colored our entry into the Roman world. Or discolored.

Sophie Charlotte. Died in Rome, 9 December 2014, age 11 years. She lived in Berlin, Washington, Buenos Aires, Mexico City, and Rome.
Sophie Charlotte. Died in Rome, 9 December 2014, age 11 years. She lived in Berlin, Washington, Buenos Aires, Mexico City, and Rome.

It is not fair to express feelings about a place like Rome within such discoloration. Maybe, for us, Rome will always be the place where Sophie died. Pets are, in so many ways, like our children — we take on the responsibility of caring for them, and they, who cannot take care of themselves, put their trust in us, even tacitly, that we will take care of them, we will protect them from harm, we will love them and let them love us, in their way. When we fail, when no matter how much they trust us, we still fail, it leaves us devastated for a long time. No matter what … we did not save her.

Okay. I am done with that.

I enjoy how so much of Roman life is lived on the streets, and in the piazzas. It is an endlessly looping movie. One of my favorite buskers in our piazza is this woman. She manipulates this puppet to paint a portrait on a small canvas, using paint and different brushes. I, to my regret, have no artistic skills, so it is not much to say that the puppet paints the portrait far better than I could, but not bad, considering it’s all done with strings.

The puppet painter of the Piazza S. Maria in Trastevere.
The puppet painter of the Piazza S. Maria in Trastevere.

I do not understand how Italians can eat they way they do. I have a prodigious appetite and am not a small person — I weigh too much at 192 lbs, on a frame that should carry 175 lbs. In spite of that, even should I want to, I am unable to sit down for a meal and consume as much food as the typical Italian. Bulimia must be rampant here, there is no way these svelte Roman women can eat the thousands of calories at once, as I see often, and not wobble around like a Butterball Turkey. The Romans I see actually do eat all those courses you see on the menu — an antipasti, a pasta course, a meat or fish course, and a desert, all washed down with ample wine. I rarely eat more than one of the courses, usually the pasta course (with ample wine, of course), and I have gained 5 kilos in three months.

A typical lunch for me: a pasta course, a glass of wine, a bottle of sparkling water. For an Italian, this is only the beginning!
A typical lunch for me: a pasta course, a glass of wine, a bottle of sparkling water. For an Italian, this is only the beginning!

I am fascinated by the open market at the foot of our street, in the Piazza San Cosimato, which is open all mornings, everyday but Sunday, regardless of the weather. Everything farm fresh, or fresh-caught, and so delightful to see in such abundance that I have from time to time sat on a nearby bench and simply stared at it all. There is a fish stall, a meat stall, a man who sells only fresh made pasta, the cheese man, the flower vendor, and a dozen stalls with any fruit or vegetable you could want. What there is not, and I wish there was, is a baker, a bread man.

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When this little girl has a kitchen of her own, she will know what to do in it.

I have always loved to walk, although the decrepit state of one’s body after so many decades of … well, life, has shortened the length of my walks. Even into my 50s, I had no problem walking for hours in a city, or hiking for a day in the mountains. In those heady days of youth (40s, 50s, even into the 60s) I did not bother taking a bus or a taxi or a car if the destination was less than a 90 minute walk. Oh well… . But I relish walking in Rome; it is an endless string of astonishments. You can point a camera in any direction, at anything, and have a postcard shot. Does one get jaded with all this over time?

This sort of things is everywhere, especially in Trastevere, where I live. There is nothing particular about this, I just liked the juxtaposition of the old and newer on one wall.
This sort of things is everywhere, especially in Trastevere, where I live. There is nothing particular about this, I just liked the juxtaposition of the old and newer on one wall.

There are annoyances, but they are the fault of my own lack of experience, or rather, a different set of experiences. I am still unable to figure out where to buy common things, and often walk all over the place trying to find a certain type of nail, or, lately, a pair of brackets to hang a painting on the wall. There is a sort of supermarket in our neighborhood — Conad, which I am now unable to call anything but gonads — that is like a well-equipped 7-11, or a poorly-equipped Safeway. At least by now I have figured out where to find basic food items in there, and it does have a nice deli. I also buy wine there. I am unable to understand the labels on Italian wine bottles, only recognizing key words (like chianti), so it doesn’t much matter where I buy wine, since it’s all the same to me. In fact, for daily wine consumption, I have the fruit and veggie vendor down the street fill up a plastic water bottle with wine from the big barrels he has in back — 4 Euros a liter.

I am getting used to Rome now. I am slowly resolving my feeling of having failed Sophie’s trust in me, so I can almost enjoy the daily routine. There is a café in the piazza where I go regularly for a cafe coretto and acqua frizzante. Caffé Marzio. It fronts the fountain and the basilica. I am not used to it, sitting in a café with that view.

This is that view. It is the Piazza S. Maria in Trastevere.
This is that view. It is the Piazza S. Maria in Trastevere.

Ah, but then, to the question. Am I working? Not much. Okay, let’s be honest here. I have not written one single new creative sentence since leaving Mexico City at the end of July. Erasing Rose sits locked at the same 75,000 words that existed in July. Oh, I do things with it, but all in the category of editing, sparkling, jiggling around. The last sentence I wrote back in July is the last sentence in the mss today.

But I have come across a cover idea I kind of like. This:

A cover without a book
A cover without a book

I really do hope one day I will be able to fill in the space behind this empty cover.

Arrivederci

First consideration of Rome

A reasonably clean and not well-lighted place
A reasonably clean and not well-lighted place

We had a good lunch here one day. We haven’t yet had a bad meal in a restaurant in Rome, although some are better, a few are superior. That’s my first consideration of Rome — people eat well here, people value food and the time for eating. (As an aside, I have gained about 5 kilos since we arrived, putting back all the weight I lost in Mexico City.)

But, you know, what can you say about Rome, really. That’s at all new. Rome is probably one of the 5 top most written about cities on the planet. How do you write anything about Rome without tumbling into a pasta pot of cliches?

Everything you know or have heard about Rome is true.

This is what I like, so far: Food and wine, being surrounded by really, really old stuff, and the weather, sort of.

This is what irritates the crap out of me: The pure and unadulterated and never-ending chaos (quite a lot of which seems almost manufactured, as if appealing to some notion that it’s in the culture to have everything fucked up, whether or not it’s natural or necessary. Really. You get the idea that if a moment of calm or tranquility works its way to the surface of daily life, Romans will stomp it to death in a cacophony of mad gesturing and incoherent shouting — how dare you allow such a thing! The poverty you see everywhere, a lot of people are very poor here (causing me to wonder where they live, with rents at obscene levels). Romans live in a selfie bubble. They do not see you unless you have failed to get out of their way, causing them to crash into you. But I suppose this is understandable. Romans live smack dab in the middle of an antiquities Disneyland, a theme park of old shit, and throngs of camera-faced, gawking, oblivious tourists would make anyone myopic.

This is the fountain in the piazza down the street from where I live. This is the first time I have not seen it packed with seated gawkers.
This is the fountain in the piazza down the street from where I live. This is the first time I have not seen it packed with seated gawkers.

Living here is exhausting. Rome is for the young and energetic. It is wearing me out.

More later.

My first amico

Been living in Rome 9 days now, and finally made a friend.

My first friend in Rome
My first friend in Rome

Tweedly-dee, tweedly-dum

I intend to work this morning, but not until 4 loads of laundry are finished, some clothes and things are resorted in preparation for moving (again), and maybe a little trip to the market in there. It remains the case that whatever switch there is that turns off and on whatever creativity I can muster is in the off position. I wish I wasn’t so flaky about this, but I always have been, so get over it (as they say). My standard pretense of work is to make some sort of radical change in whatever there is of it already. In this case, there’s about 75,000 words of whatever it is. Sometimes I change the whole thing from a 3rd person narrator to a 1st person narrator, or vice versa, depending on what person it’s already in. Sometimes I change it all from past tense to present tense, or vice versa. That’s what I’m doing now — changing the thing from past to present. I end up with lots of versions, so ultimately I may be able to actually decide on the one I like best, the one best suited to the story being told.

Here’s a picture.

The 400 block of East Capitol St. NE
The 400 block of East Capitol St. NE

This is the view of the backside of the US Capitol building, taking standing in the middle of the street in front of the row house we’ve rented during our DC stay. We’re here two months, but almost half of that has passed … not enough, though. I would prefer to be in Rome already.

Another picture.

A street in Trastevere
A street in Trastevere

This is our street in Trastevere, our place on the right side of the street, near the fountain, which is at the bottom of Gianicolo hill. It is a bit dismaying looking at all those scooters and predicting the noise level.

This novel, which is continuing to be called “Erasing Rose,” could very well be the best thing I’ve written (for publication), although the main competition will always be my 2005 novel, “Possessed by Shadows.” It may also be the last novel I am able to complete in the narrowing span allotted to my living days. Dead days last much longer, so it is too bad you just can’t do anything productive with all that time. For that reason, as well as the usual ego demands, I am almost desperate to finish the book. I had expected … rather, intended, to finish it before we left Mexico. Didn’t happen. Then I thought I might finish it in DC, before leaving for Rome — unlikely. The problem is, I don’t know how to end it. I don’t know what to do with Rose, how much of her to erase.

But whatever happens to it, it does seem to feel better, more comfortable, in the present tense and 3rd person. (Oddly, while grammatically it is a 3rd person narrator, that voice sure seems happy sounding like it’s 1st at heart.

I hear and must heed the call of the laundry.

I’ve been tagged

I don’t think I’ve been tagged before; if so, I must have missed it. Something about it feels odd, but also sort of flattering. Kate tagged me. Kate writes beautifully, and I do wish she did more of it publicly, or Internetly. I also wish she would keep her promises. She keeps promising to visit, but hasn’t shown up since leaving Buenos Aires a while back.

It’s called a blog hop, which also seems odd, don’t you think? Like a dance craze from the 50s. Do the blog hop, do dah. Kate was tagged by someone she knows named Rebecca Brooks, who has exceptionally nice hair. I am asked to tag some others, but actually, I don’t know any other writers, or at least none who wouldn’t think me crazy for “tagging” them, so I’ll skip that part. She proposes four questions, and here are my four answers.

What am I working on/writing? What I hope will be, if I can manage to figure out how to end it, my tenth novel. It’s called “Erasing Rose,” with Rose being, or discovering herself to have been, the child of one of the Disappeared from Argentina’s “Dirty War” between the late 70s and early 80s. She is in the story a self-destructing adult, unable to make a life going forward while brutally tethered to the reality of her history. It takes place about half and half in San Diego (where she escaped to from Buenos Aires) and Baja, Mexico, where she escapes to from the troubles of her life in southern California. About 75,000 words are good enough to keep, but I keep floundering around the end, after about two years work. Being right now in awkward transit between Mexico City and Rome, I’ve not been able to give this work the mental energy all writing demands. That’s about it. At my age, this could be my last novel, so I feel more than compelled to finish it, but to finish it well and good.

How does my work/writing differ from others of its genre? Well, let’s see. I don’t know that I write within a genre. My previous published novels are, with the exception of the first, which was called a psychological thriller (to my dismay), are usually categorized as literary fiction. Is that a genre? I can’t answer this question because I don’t really understand it.

Why do I write what I do? I write what I read. I mean, I write in something of the manner of the kind of novels I have always read, which are more or less referred to as literary fiction. I don’t think I have ever read a novel that fits squarely into one of the usual genres. I don’t read romances or spy stories or thrillers or detective mysteries … . Whatever else, I can’t think of. I do read travel non-fiction a bit, and a lot of political and historical works, especially essays. I like a limited range of memoirs. In other words, the short answer is that I write what I know from what I read and have read, in that style and that manner.

How does my writing process work?  Um … I would answer that quite differently at different periods in my writing life, which has now been ongoing steadily for almost fifty years. There would be me as the novice in my late teens through mid-twenties, when the compulsion to write damn near all the time was strong; then the me of undergraduate and graduate school (in philosophy) who was overwhelmed by the necessities and parameters of serious academic writing; the me of Iowa years, when artsy-craftsy writing and writerly socializing dominated; then the me of the professor years (thankfully brief) when I hardly wrote a creative word because of the demands of professing on a daily basis; finally the aging me, post-50, settling into a natural work rhythm, with few mind-distractions, writing most days for as long as I felt like it, and with, at that time, already five or so published books, off the pressure-to-publish treadmill wheel, when I learned how to write entirely and exclusively for myself and my own desires and demands (which dramatically improved my work, while at the same time dramatically decreasing my ability to be published) so that I could indulge myself as a writer … and now, when I can go weeks without writing a creative word, not worrying too much about it, knowing there will be those fine days when it is nothing to come out with two or three thousand words in a morning. I do, by the way, only write in the mornings. I am a morning person, I relish the light hours and hibernate in darkness. I have never written anything much post-lunch.

There it is. Are you happy, Kate. (You are missed!)

Stairs or ladder?

Entrance stairs to our 2nd/3rd floor flat rented for two months in DC. Try dragging your damn suitcases up this!
Entrance stairs to our 2nd/3rd floor flat rented for two months in DC. Try dragging your damn suitcases up this!

A Semi-Final Consideration of Mexico City

Our two years in Mexico City came to an end a few days ago; we are for the month in Boulder, Colorado, then on to Washington, DC, for two months, and to Rome by the end of October. Maybe it is too soon for a distanced and dispassionate look back over the two years, but here are a few preliminary thoughts.

First, this construction fiasco (photo below) made it so much easier to leave; in fact, desperate to leave. When we moved into our Polanco flat, there was an abandoned two-story office building (that may have begun its life as a house) directly behind us, sandwiched between two high-rise condo buildings, low enough so from our 4th floor balcony we had a decent view of trees demarcating the eastern edge of Chapultapec Park. A month or so ago, a crew of guys wielding mostly hammers and picks began knocking it down. Then, a few weeks ago, a gaggle of big construction machinery arrived and began this:

 

Thus it begins ...
Thus it begins …

The last two weeks we lived with constant construction noise, from early morning to sunset, that will last for more than a year, according to the sign on the construction fence. We escaped just in time.

This is what I am sure to miss:

The weather. Even though we left in the rainy season (and it has been an unusually rainy one), generally Mexico City has the best weather of anyplace we have ever lived, or visited. Pretty much eternal spring.

The frank friendliness of Mexicans, even to strangers. (Unless they are in car, when friendliness abruptly transforms into vicious madness). They are quick to smile, to offer a helping hand or advice, and go out of their way to help a stranger on the street.

I will miss the feeling of security. Yes! I never felt even a shred of threat in Mexico City, never had one encounter with crime, and never felt unsafe. Unlike Manhattan, or Los Angeles, or DC, for example, which seem to me to be virtually crime-ridden.

Having seen photos of our Rome apartment, I am certainly going to miss the clean, large, well-lighted place where we lived in Polanco. This is the dining room from the living room:

 

Comfy-cozy
Comfy-cozy

And this lavish, large office:

The office (shared with Holly from time to time) Now the view is to the construction site below.
The office (shared with Holly and Sophie from time to time) Now the view is to the construction site below.

We are definitely going to miss our housekeeper, Tere, who came in and took over, in the most wonderful way. She also happened to be the best cook in Mexico, unarguably. She is a once in a lifetime person, and we will never again see her like.

All the trees and flowers and parks, not only in our colonia, but throughout the city.

Inexpensive and ubiquitous taxis, making it easy to get anywhere in the (massive) city without needing a car. (Only a masochistic idiot would drive a car in Mexico City.)

This is what I will not miss:

Food. I know it’s a surprise, but I found out that I don’t like much of the Mexican cuisine. To my taste, there is a certain underlying sameness, a similar flavor, in much of the food, no matter what. An underlying current of corn flavor, mainly. Although Poblano chiles dominate many flavors. I will probably never eat another taco again, ditto guacamole.

Bacteria-laden water. Not only can you not drink the water, but you cannot wash fruit and vegetables in it (unless you add a Clorox like solution to the water), cannot brush your teeth or rinse your mouth with it, and have to be careful not to open your mouth in the shower. (If Mexico City had clean, drinkable, useable water, the country would own the hemisphere.)

Traffic and the insanity of Mexicans in cars. (Maybe Rome traffic will necessitate a revision.)

A never-ending, no matter where you are, crush of people.

The nonsensical continual stream of protests, most of which are indeed for nonsensical reasons, that block major avenues for hours, and sometimes close access to the international airport. They are weekly occurrences. And they don’t make a bit of difference — except to the people simply trying to get from A to B on a bus or in a car.

The dubious skills of medical practitioners and the sometimes primitive hospital facilities.

So there it is —

Two years, it’s over, and I can’t imagine a circumstance that would bring me back to Mexico (or anywhere else in Latin America) again. It was better than I thought it would be, but I find very little to miss about it.

So as the sun sets over the city and Popo plumes, adios Mexico.
So as the sun sets over the city and Popo plumes, adios Mexico.

Random blogging

When I started “blogging,” some seven or eight years ago, like any new toy, I played with it to total distraction; also like a toy, I wore it out from overuse. It, blogging, seems a terribly self-indulgent activity, don’t you think? With the exception of writers (and others) who use blogging for restrictive and distinctive purposes — political journalism, for example, or to share one’s particular hobby or pastime with like-minded others — the rest of it seems like a written form of Selfies. Me! Read me! Look at me! Feel me! Let’s share me! We ought to be embarrassed. I often am.

For quite a while now, I have used this blog to post photographs that interested me, of places that interested me, and maybe a little of bit of “look where I went.”

Like this:

The place on the upper right side
The place on the upper right side
The street
The street

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

We leave Mexico in less than three weeks, and after a lengthy holiday in the States, will move to Rome. Our apartment is in the west bank of the Tiber neighborhood of Trastevere, once the Bohemian quarter of Rome, but has lately been discovered. It is on this street, in the building on the right side of the street, near the end, with some greenery on the roof. Don’t you envy me? That’s what Selfie blogs are trying to get.

I’ve been thinking I should have a photo web site, and drop the pretense of this kind of thing, this pseudo literary blogging thing. I have noticed in the statistical page for this blog that to a great extent most of the readers who find this blog have Googled something about Buenos Aires or Mexico. An extraordinary and unusual number found it by Googling something to do with rain: rainy street, rainy day, etc. Because once a long time ago I wrote a post about how I was spending a rainy day (in a café, of course), decorated with a nice oil painting of a street market in the rain. Probably a dozen times a week someone comes to this blog because of that post. Yet most arrive looking for something about Buenos Aires, Patagonia, Argentina, Mexico City, Yucatan, Berlin, Slovakia, and the like.

So maybe I will come up with some sort of photo-based place blog. It would be less self-indulgent, at least.

If so, I’ll put a mention of it here.

Then we went to San Miguel & Guanajuato

San Miguel and laundry
San Miguel and laundry

Last week we traveled by bus (a rather luxurious one at that) from Mexico City to San Miguel de Allende, about four hours, the “we” being Holly and me and our long-time foreign service friend Dick, who is presently posted in Washington. We stayed three days, then bused over hill and dale to Guanajuato; both towns are world heritage sites. It was our second time in San Miguel; previously we were there in February and it was really, really cold. This time is was really, really rainy, but not cold. We also visited with another old friend, the writer Sandra Cisneros (House on Mango Street, et. al.), who has been living in San Miguel the past year or so. Sandra and I were both at Iowa, but a year apart, and quite a long time ago.

Photos will be blown up full-size by clicking on them.

Holly on the patio of our room at the B&B Casa Calderoni -- where all the rooms are named after painters. We had the Gauguin room.
Holly on the patio of our room at the B&B Casa Calderoni — where all the rooms are named after painters. We had the Gauguin room.
and had a fine Italian supper with Sandra, and a great view. See next.
and had a fine Italian supper with Sandra, and a great view. See next.

 

the view from our table
the view from our table
This must be the house where Jesus lived when he was 17.
This must be the house where Jesus lived when he was 17.
Dick & Holly on the bus, one of the rare moments they weren't both doing the Blackberry tango.
Dick & Holly on the bus, one of the rare moments they weren’t both doing the Blackberry tango.
View looking down onto the center of Guanajuato. That cheese wedge patch of green in the center is the Zocalo, or El Jardin, the tiniest promenade I've ever seen, and the most European.
View looking down onto the center of Guanajuato. That cheese wedge patch of green in the center is the Zocalo, or El Jardin, the tiniest promenade I’ve ever seen, and the most European.
Dick and Holly at the overlook.
Dick and Holly at the overlook.
A hot game of dominoes.
A hot game of dominoes.
This worker's partner, who had just walked away carrying two of these stones on his back, with a cigarette dangling from his lips, was probably near 70 years old. I am near 70 years old and couldn't even lift one of these stones an inch off the ground. A tale of two lives.
This worker’s partner, who had just walked away carrying two of these stones on his back, with a cigarette dangling from his lips, was probably near 70 years old. I am near 70 years old and couldn’t even lift one of these stones an inch off the ground. A tale of two lives.
Laundry day in Guanajuato
Laundry day in Guanajuato
Another overview of the center of Guanajuato, using a camera app that imitates film from the Sixties.
Another overview of the center of Guanajuato, using a camera app that imitates film from the Sixties, the way pictures are supposed to look.

This was the last holiday trip we will take while living in Mexico City. We leave at the end of July; first a month of home leave in Boulder, Colorado, then two months of this and that in Washington, before continuing to our next post — Rome. We should be there toward the end of October.

My plan (and hope) was to finish the novel I’ve been working on for the past two years, Erasing Rose, before leaving Mexico, but now I think that won’t happen. I thought the end was close, but it is not … it is far, far away. But then, what difference does it make? It’s not like I have a deadline (if advancing age doesn’t count as a deadline), or any publisher wanting it. Those days are over for me, but I admit it was a good run while it lasted. If I do finish this story, it will become my 11th novel.

When I was twelve years old, in a car with my mother driving me to school, she had asked what I wanted to do when I grew up. Without hesitation, I said I would be a writer … like Hemingway, some of whose stories I had read in magazines. Imagine the impact of Hemingway stories on a ten year old boy. That was now almost sixty years ago. My first novel (One Easy Piece / Coward-McCann) was published in 1982, when I was thirty-seven years old; I wasn’t ready much before that. It seemed to me that if I was to write “what you know,” it would help to know something first. So, although I was writing essentially everyday from my teenage years, it was just warming up, practicing the elements of craft … but mostly it was living: the Army, the vagabonding, working as a diver, then as captain of a charter fishing boat, then the years spent academically learning how to think (that’s why I worked my way through two degrees in philosophy — the only one of the intellectual disciplines with the sole purpose of learning how to think), writing three total failures while marrying and having children, trying to be a good person when it was so easy and compelling to be a bad one … then I was ready. More or less.

 

In days of yore

What is yore, anyway?

Doing computer housekeeping today, cleaning out an abundance of photos, putting them on a storage desk; I need to store about 10,000 photos somewhere, because they are bogging down the iPhoto program. Not making much progress because some photos have me drifting off on a nostalgia wave. Here some of those are.

With my climbing buddy, Laura (in purple), 1992
This would have been in the spring of 1993, in Paris, with my climbing buddy, Laura, on our way down to Sintra, Portugal to scamper up a rock or two. George Whitman, who owned the place, took us up the little spiral stairs to show me where I could stay for a while, if I wanted, long as I was working on a book.

 

At the office of the Czechoslovak writers club, 1989, Prague.
At the office of the Czechoslovak writers club, 1989, Prague.
Speaking of Prague, 1989, here I am with a group of Russian soldiers, about a month before the fall of the Wall.
Speaking of Prague, 1989, here I am with a group of Russian soldiers, about a month before the fall of the Wall.
Continuing with the subject of Communists, this is in front of the empty, burned out US Embassy in Saigon, summer of 1993.
Continuing with the subject of Communists, this is in front of the empty, burned out US Embassy in Saigon, summer of 1993. My favorite shirt of all time! Got it in Bali.
Inside the tunnel complex near Cu Chi, Vietnam. 1993.
Inside the tunnel complex near Cu Chi, Vietnam. 1993.
In the imperial summer palace of the last emperor of Vietnam, Bao Dai, near Da Lat in the Central Highlands.
In the imperial summer palace of the last emperor of Vietnam, Bao Dai, near Da Lat in the Central Highlands.
Waiting for the breakfast delivery at Poppies, Bali. This cottage, which was larger than some apartments I've lived in, with breakfast included, costs about $25 a night -- in those days of yore.
Waiting for the breakfast delivery at Poppies, Bali. This cottage, which was larger than some apartments I’ve lived in, with breakfast included, costs about $25 a night — in those days of yore.

In the category of things I used to do and cannot do anymore …

Running half marathons. At this point, through Balboa Park in San Diego. 1986, I think.
Running half marathons. At this point, through Balboa Park in San Diego. 1986, I think.
Scamper up and down rock walls. This one near Pajstun, Slovakia, around 1990 or 91.
Scamper up and down rock walls. This one near Pajstun, Slovakia, around 1990 or 91.
Running a charter big game fishing boat, which I did out of Kona, Hawaii, in 1970.
Running a charter big game fishing boat, which I did out of Kona, Hawaii, in 1970. Oh, yes, I also had some pretty nice blond hair in those days.
Blue water sailing. This shot is heading out of San Diego -- Point Loma in the background. 1983.
Blue water sailing. This shot is heading out of San Diego — Point Loma in the background. 1983. The boat is a Westsail 32 staysail sloop.

I lived in Coronado, California between 1983 and 1991. I finished my second and wrote three more novels there.

I wrote four novels on this typewriter in this room in a tiny bungalow on 4th Street in Coronado, during the 80s. The beer and tequila and full ashtray helped.
I wrote four novels on this typewriter in this room in a tiny bungalow on 4th Street in Coronado, during the 80s. The beer and tequila and full ashtray helped.
Having a whisky at the end of the work day with my old friend, the novelist, Ken Kuhlken. 1984. Coronado.
Having a whisky at the end of the work day with my old friend, the novelist, Ken Kuhlken. 1984. Coronado.

My wife, Holly, has dragged me (sometimes under great duress) all around the world — literally. Most of the time I’d just as soon stay wherever I am and write — novelists often have more vivid mental lives than physical ones. But she wouldn’t hear of it, so around the world we went, and around again. I don’t even know how many countries we’ve spent some time in (not counting ones we only passed through for a few days): twenty, thirty, forty? Here are a few of my favorites. (Slovakia, which is my favorite country on the planet, is not here, because it feels more like home than a place I’ve traveled to.)

At the Raffles Hotel in Singapore, about as literary a place as one can get in that part of the world.
At the Raffles Hotel in Singapore, about as literary a place as one can get in that part of the world.
The train station, Saigon. Best food I ate in Asia was in Vietnam. And some of the most beautiful, classy women.
The train station, Saigon. Best food I ate in Asia was in Vietnam. And some of the most beautiful, classy women.
My temple outfit. In rural Bali. You had to cover your legs, so this was my ensemble. Love the color contrast. Oh, you also can't go in if you're menstruating, but that wasn't an issue for me.
My temple outfit. In rural Bali. You had to cover your legs, so this was my ensemble. Love the color contrast. Oh, you also can’t go in if you’re menstruating, but that wasn’t an issue for me.

Finally, some random pictures that induced significant waves of nostalgia.

Hussong's infamous cantina in Ensenada, Baja, Mexico. This must have been 1985 or 86.
Hussong’s infamous cantina in Ensenada, Baja, Mexico. This must have been 1985 or 86. That’s my exceptionally gorgeous wife to my right.
On the Grand Canal, Venice. I think this was 1989.
On the Grand Canal, Venice. I think this was 1989.
With Holly, overlooking Portofino, Italy. 1989.
With Holly, overlooking Portofino, Italy. 1989.
Overlooking the rocky beach at Nice, France. I forgot when. Late 80s.
Overlooking the rocky beach at Nice, France. I forgot when. Late 80s.
Sweating my ass off after a jungle hike on the windward side of Oahu. Maybe 1986 or 87.
Sweating my ass off after a jungle hike on the windward side of Oahu. Maybe 1986 or 87.
In downtown Murten, Switzerland. My wife's namesake town.
In downtown Murten, Switzerland. My wife’s namesake town.

I will be 70 years old next year, so figure I have only about another 30 or so years of life left. Where to next? What to write next? Who to meet? Only 30 more years! I need three times that. But it will be hard to compete with the last 70.

Edo’s Shangri-la

Today, 15 April, is the second birthday since my friend Edo transformed his substance into pure energy, leaving behind we substance-burdened, earth-bound creatures to wait our turn. We miss him as we wait. Edo was a fan of Mark Knopfler’s music, and especially liked this song: Shangri-La. Which, as much as any other place, is where he is now. Happy Birthday, Edo.

 

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