It has been pointed out to me that during my first extended vacation in Italy, last spring, the folks back in the States got the unexpected news that Osama bin Laden had been taken out. And that during my second vacation, from which I returned just last week, they were told that, finally, Moammar Gaddafi was done as well. It has also, I must add, been pointed out to me that digital photos can easily be altered, and that while I’ve been posting shots online of myself in Rome and Florence, these really prove nothing about my true whereabouts.
Vacations, Kaze . . . or assignments?
Well, I must confess that I read once again a favorite old spy thriller while I was away—Charles McCarry’s The Tears of Autumn, in which master spy Paul Christopher solves the Kennedy assassination—but that’s about as close I got to wet work. Mostly, I sought out the kinds of warm and contemplative pleasures toward which I’ve been inclined since my nerdish youth. There is something to be said for these. Here are just a handful of new memories.
I’m staying with friends in the little town of San Benedetto Po, in Northern Italy. A Sunday morning. Brilliant, clearest sun. I’ve come out into the garden after a late breakfast and am sitting on the ground with my back against the hot white wall of the house. One of the five cats who lives here—he’s got a face that looks as if he’d dipped it in a puddle—strolls over and hops in my lap. Then I see, beyond the hedges, our neighbor climb a ladder, shears in hand. I’m thinking: Just like my neighbor back home. But in a few minutes, absorbed in pruning branches, he’s . . . singing an aria!
Later that week, I’m in the same garden. No tenor next-door this time. Instead, I’ve borrowed my friends’ Italian-English dictionary and a volume of Keats’s poetry, in translation. It’s a warm October day. I read aloud:
Stagione di nebbie e morbida abbondanza
Tu, intima amica del sole al suo culmine . . .
Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness
Close bosom-friend of the maturing sun . . .
I’m alone one night in Venice. It’s dark, I’m lost, and my Italian is just a long disappointing tale. But in a little restaurant I’ve stumbled upon, the waitress knows a few words of English. I am fed gorgeously, sumptuously. Venetian food—a rich creamy pasta with crabmeat and radicchio, pouring out of a crab shell; a glass of white wine from Friuli. Soup? Si, grazie. A grilled zucchini, perhaps? Another glass of wine? Of course. And a colorful platter of grilled shellfish gleaming with oil and sweet vinegar—razor clams, mussels, scallops and prawns. More wine? Maybe just one more. But un dolce? No, grazie, ma un caffé. By now it’s been two hours. The owner, with a nod for me from behind the bar near the door, sends over a glass of grappa. He and I, my friend, we know this life. Outside, I buy a gelato and walk along the quay. The Adriatic Sea is somewhere out there in the dark.
I’m in Florence, a rainy day. I’m staring into shop windows in the Piazza Pitti, a block or two from the Ponte Vecchio. I see a leather jacket. I’m idly wondering—I, who have been wearing the same decrepit bomber jacket for 15 years: how expensive can it be? I go inside and experience true shopping. The shop is called “Anna,” and buying a jacket here is comparable to dining someplace elegant, insanely expensive, unforgettable, and worth it. I spend an hour. I even meet Anna, who opened the shop in 1955. She is 82 years old, white-haired, flawless. I am standing before a mirror in a leather jacket so soft that it’s practically purring when Gianna, who’s been helping me make a choice, ties a cashmere scarf around my neck. I am instantly Italian. I decline the scarf—here I would look at home, I say, but at home I would look like a visitor—but I do buy the jacket. And then another. Gianna packs them in tissue paper and I carry them home in a bright yellow bag that says “Anna,” wondering what hit me.
One more from Florence. I am in the Uffizi Gallery, so huge, so crammed with treasures that you want somehow to pay the ransom that would guarantee its safety. It thrills and worries you, so much that is irreplaceable all in one place. But “irreplaceable” is just a word till you’ve been there. I’m in the room with the Botticellis. Here is “The Birth of Venus,” and there is “Primavera.” But here is his “Madonna of the Magnificat.” I look at her face, at her skin, her hair. I am reminded on the spot of what Keats wrote in his “Ode on a Grecian Urn”—
‘Beauty is truth, truth beauty,—that is all
Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.’
In the face of the “Madonna of the Magnificat,” I believe this.