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:


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


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


The Reality of Rome


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


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


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


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


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


Behind one of Trastevere’s iconic churches.


Just outside the Piazza S. Maria in Trastevere.


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


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.


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.


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.


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.