Friday, October 23, 2009

I thought that I would write

I thought that I would write after my daddy died in mid August. But with planning his memorial service, celebrating his life and speaking at several back-to-school convocations that very week, the only things I wrote were heartfelt thank you notes.

I thought that I would write during my two remarkable weeks in Italy in early September. My second day in Lucca, I wrote about trying to figure out which hotel bathroom buttons flushed, which washed, and which turned on the lights. And then I wrote some post cards.

After seeing Robert Mapplethorpe’s photos in Florence, along side Michelangelo’s David, I thought I would write. What exactly could I say, however, about the unexpected infusion of good luck into my life where two sacred art forms converged in the same place? I was too wiped out to write down anything except directions back to my hotel.

When I saw Saint Catherine’s finger in a jar in Siena’s Church of San Domenico, I was moved to write, but I didn’t. I simply reveled in the memory of my mother’s account of seeing Jesus’ grandmother’s elbow in Canada. Saint Catherine may not have been as well known as Jesus’ grandmother, but she was surely popular in Siena.

I thought I would write after walking around Rome for three days with only a city map and my newly acquired Italian phrase, “Ci è un'automobile.” Indeed there were many automobiles, and I became a pro at dodging them as I walked to the Vatican and other historic landmarks.

Other writers might have carved out time to write while they traveled. I thought I would, but I spent all of my time feeling, listening, eating, drinking and soaking up everything; writing seemed a long lost art. Because I quickly tired of Frances Mayes’ Under the Tuscan Sun, I left the book in the nun-run hotel where I stayed in Siena. I realized that nobody’s commentary, including my own, enhances my travel experiences.

Cool temperatures welcomed me when I got back to Austin, and I thought I’d begin writing immediately. Instead I took lots of naps, stared at my blooming crepe myrtles, ate Austin-purchased Italian foods and wines, and reread the Italian guide books.

Something has happened, however, that has led me to the keyboard—a miracle of sorts. Maybe my taking the forbidden picture of St. Catherine’s finger has brought me good luck.

I had accidentally left my lawnmower in the backyard while I was on vacation. And then I accidentally left it outside for several weeks after I returned; I had given it up for dead. Just for kicks, several days ago, I primed the neglected hunk of metal and turned the key. After fiddling with it for a few minutes, this Sears Craftsman, self-starting, self-propelled lawnmower kicked into gear, and within 30 minutes, it had pulled me across my backyard where I took down weeds and grasses that had grown higher than an elephant’s eye.

I called the president of Sears with this stunning news, and I’m including a picture of my lawnmower among the ones I took of the Leaning Tower, kegs of wine, and the Pantheon.

Lots of magic and miracles everywhere—how can I not write?

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Banking for Grownups

“Thanks, Mary,” the friendly bank teller said to me this morning after I handed over some money to deposit. I always hate it when people call me Mary; I liked it even less today. As a serious customer with some unexpected money from my daddy who died in August, I should have been Ms. Spence this morning—that’s how serious I was feeling.

I then moved over to meet with a friendly banker to open up a savings account. Patricia, the personal-banker-in training greeted me politely. “Hello, Mary.” I told her that my first name was Mary Gordon.

“How was your weekend?” my new personal banker asked me as she looked at my accounts online. “Weekend?” I repeated in disbelief. “Today is Wednesday; I don’t much remember the weekend.” That’s when Patricia giggled and told me that today was her first day back from the weekend. “It’s so great to have time off,” she told me with a smile. “You know, you can get so many things done. Oh, and I don’t have to work this Saturday—that will be great.” I didn’t reply.

“What are your plans for the rest of your day?” Patricia asked me with a smile as she was retrieving some forms for my new account, “and your plans for the coming weekend?” I looked at her and told her I didn’t know. “Maybe you’ll get to go home and relax,” she said. “How has your day been so far today?”

I ignored that and wished that she would take care of business instead of continuing this idle chitchat. She busied herself for a few minutes, and then asked me, “So, are you from Austin?” Trying to be polite and hold up my end of the conversation I told her I had been here a long time. Then, Patricia, my new way-too-personal banker asked me about the weather. “It’s really cloudy outside, isn’t it? Do you know what the weather’s going to be for the rest of the day and for the weekend?”

Maybe it was because I was sad about my daddy’s dying and maybe it was because I had come to my bank to talk about my money, and maybe because I was feeling way too grown up and yet at the same time like a child—for whatever reason, I acted like an adult instead of like Patricia the child was acting. “Look, Patricia, this money transaction is a very big deal to me, and that’s what I’m focused on.”

I didn’t say another word, and neither did she. Within seconds, Patricia was transformed into a professional banker who seemed to take her work and my situation seriously. Soon, she had done everything to complete my banking transactions. I thanked her, stood up and shook her hand. That’s when she told me to have a good weekend.

I sat back down. “Patricia,” I said in my most serious voice. “I imagine that you’ll make a really good banker, but there’s one thing you need to be aware of. People talk to you because they need your help—your professional help. We don’t come to talk about the weather or the weekend, and we don’t want to hear about how you would rather be away from work rather than helping us. So my advice to you is that you focus on the professional needs of your clients.”

I was as shocked as she was that I had said those things. But I meant it, and I could tell that she got it. She thanked me for my advice. I could hear her talking to the next customer; she sounded all grown up and professional.

Still, I’m wondering what she’s been doing the rest of her day, and what her plans are for the weekend. Growing up is hard for all of us.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Italy Travels: “Ci è un'automobile.”

“Ci è un'automobile.”

That was the only complete Italian sentence I knew when I headed to Italy in early September. And it was a good one to know since indeed there were lots of cars—on highways, byways, curbs and what I perceived as impassable alleys. Smart cars everywhere, and creative parking was the name of the game in Rome! I hadn’t planned to pay so much attention to cars, but then I had no idea how fascinating the traffic scene would be. I actually rode in very few cars during my two weeks in Italy.

The most memorable ride was in a taxi from La Spezia to Lucca, less than 50 miles away. My friend Veleda and I had headed out early that morning for Riomaggiore, the first of the five spectacularly beautiful towns along the northwest Italian coast in what’s called The Cinque Terre. When we bought our train tickets in Lucca, the folks at the station said that many trains across Tuscany weren’t running--something about a strike!. “If we can get to Riomaggiore,” I figured, “then we can get back.” So, we hopped on the train.

We gasped in awe as we got our first view of the little town nestled among the cliffs on the Ligurian Sea, and we explored as long as our knees would allow. The train back to Lucca arrived a few minutes late; we boarded as happy, tired travelers.

The stop in La Spezia turned out to be our final destination. “No trains until 21:00 hours,” we found out. Two Texas women who were staying in La Spezia heard the news and invited us to share their room for the night. Another woman from Australia invited us to hang out with her.

But I wanted to get back to Lucca, my new home away from home. After learning that there were no buses at all from La Spezia to Lucca, I found a cab driver who was delighted to drive Veleda and me to Lucca. For a mere 150 Euro, more than $200. We didn’t bat an eye, and within the hour were back in Lucca.

So much for “Ci è un'automobile.” I’m going to write about WINE soon!