creative ramblings & reverie

Saturday, July 21, 2012

Writing Spaces

image:  A Roman Milestone in Bourg St.-Pierre, Michael Krier

Meditations on a Roman Milestone

The Roman roads, that covered some 56,000 miles of the ancient world and connected the firths of Scotland with the Euphrates, were marked off every thousand paces with a milestone.
        The roads were written out like mathematical sums, solving the insoluble spaces.  They added themselves to language and to mental landscape as surely as to geometry, to sciences of measurement and motion.  “To lay out a road, the linesman set out with a surveyor’s poles, a line which was called rigor was laid down, and the straight line was corrected by the surveyor until it was ‘in line.’”  Thus rigorously in their laying and their going they delineated the journey.  Mile by mile by mile, they measured out the chancy mountains or lands silvered with olives.

        But one day in a consequential July we find the twenty-fourth mile moved—casting the whole equation into doubt.

        We went down into Switzerland this morning (I wrote on a page of fine blue squares torn from the lab book I'd brought for the archaeology) after our breakfast of dry bread and jam, following the descent of the Roman road out of the clouded mountains of the Grand St. Bernard Pass to the nearest village, Bourg St.-Pierre.  A town fragrant with wet hay, wild thyme, camomile, and fennel, which grow wild there; where I crushed herbs with my clunky hiking boots wherever I stepped.  A town made for photography, with shutters the ice-melt green of the lichen on the stone crags next to them, and splendid red-headed chickens in a grand old stone structure with a screen door, grand as what is left of the Norman castle and Charlemagne’s impossibly high bridge spanning the cloud.  A hospitable town where we were given homemade cassis and local cheeses late in the morning in a room above what was at one time hospital, jail, and stables.
        In the middle of town is the Roman milestone, a white column capped with marble and inscribed with Roman numerals and Latin that I can’t read anymore.  Latin!  Who ever would have thought I’d come across Latin again one day, outside the schoolbooks I labored over back in seventh grade in Santa Fe in that sunny low-roofed classroom with box elder bugs on the windowsill, sure it had nothing to do with life or love or who I’d come to be.  I remember thinking of it (dry old Latin, all about phalanxes and footsoldiers and decorum) pressed between pages like brittle flowers that have lost their color.  But all these years later I’m sorry not to have teased out a little fragrance.  XXIIII [sic] is all I can make out.

        And even that turns out to be wrong.  It turns out that the milestone has been moved down from the Pass.  It marks the distance not from Bourg St.-Pierre, where it stands, but from Mons Jovis, back up the steep drop where we’ve dropped from, back up into the clouds, where the temple was to Jupiter, storm god of the mountains, before the Christians chased him out and built their monastery with appropriated pieces of temple marble and carted off the column too.  (The phalanxes powerless to prevent it.)
        The roads all crossed there:  Celtic, Roman, Medieval, Napoleonic.  But the roads are gone, now, except for the modern highway for the bright red tour busses which is closed by snow ten months out of the year, and the scars of avalanches which too look like ways down from the mountains.  The bedrock is a cicatrix of vanished roads.  The exact course of the Roman road—the one we’re looking for—can only be guessed at, in the tumbled fall of rock like a dry river bed, like the arroyos in New Mexico that carry vestiges of thunderstorms and  flash-floods.

        And so the displaced milestone measures something other than linear distance now.  It marks a different kind of journey, into ambiguity and flux and loss.


Friday, July 20, 2012

Writing Spaces

Oh don't I wish!

image:  Tradizionalmente Marche, Foto di Valentino Di Stazio

Friday, July 13, 2012

Writing Spaces

Writing fortunes in coffee foam, as in 
tea leaves . . .

image:  Slow Italy

Notes on Santorini

When you're standing at a high point on Santorini looking out (which is what you're almost always doing there), the magnitude and consequences of the volcanic explosion four thousand years ago become clear.  You see at once what's there and what isn't and why; the blackened bones.  What is now called Santorini consists of five broken islands circling 84 "square" kilometers of sea which was once solid land.  This is the caldera of the volcano.  It is so deep—as much as a mile—immediately offshore, that no ships can anchor.

The two bits of land in the middle are called the burned islands, and were formed by lava in 1508 and from 1707-1928.  The largest, the New Burned Island, holds the crater of the still-active volcano.  We went over by boat and climbed it:  a strange, bright procession streaming up the black mountain.  No molten lava is in evidence, just a few steaming sulphurous patches and heat coming up through your shoes.

There is room for only one boat to dock at the volcano, so the three or four that came after just tied up to the first and we disembarked by being handed across all the boats in turn—a bridge of boats.

After climbing we sailed around to the other side of the New Burned Island and went swimming off the boat, in thermal waters.  There was a small white church in the cove, and above it a cave with an outhouse in it overrun with goats.

Boats only run from Crete to Santorini if there is no wind.  The hydrofoil goes once on Fridays, at 8 in the morning.  If there is wind, it doesn't go again until Sunday.  The ferry, on the other hand, which costs less but takes half an hour longer, runs on windless Saturdays, but not Fridays of any complexion.  This might be a problem if you've already paid for a room on Santorini for Friday night.  When you ask the ticket sellers whether it's usually windy once a week, or only once a summer, you're answered by a shrug.

The crossing is monstrously rough, even without wind.  Everyone gets seasick on that passage, including Theseus and Zorba!  Several people on our (Friday) hydrofoil were deathly ill.  But dolphins accompanied us alongside, and with the elastic wristbands I felt strangely well, blithely writing and drinking black Greek coffee (the boatman, who looked like Gene Wilder, taught me to say "without sugar" in Greek when he wasn't collecting seasick bags), and sympathizing with those who felt as awful as I normally do.

Planes may or may not fly to the island when it's windy.  They are little prop jets (baggage claim is a hand-lettered sign stuck in the earth outside by the exit gate), and nearly as rough as the boat.  A big, strapping young man practically had to be carried off feet first when we landed in Athens.

The Santorini airport ambiance is casual.  We waited twenty minutes in the Olympic Airlines "Check In" line while the single attendant helped wash the windows behind the desk.  (Cleanliness is important in an airline, don't you think?)  When the building was entirely filled up with waiting passengers, they sent some of us outside to wait.

Nor are taxis entirely to be depended on, though that was the only way to get to our hotel outside of town.  If the drivers don't feel like going where you do, they won't.  At the taxi stand in town everyone stands around calling out their various destinations, and should one of the drivers hear one that catches his fancy, he'll whisk up that fortunate passenger while those who have been waiting maybe hours longer glare or call out nasty things in Greek or German because they figure you've slipped him a thousand-drachma note or something.  Luckily we were a hot commodity with taxi drivers, since they could make lots of money off us and be back in no time to (not) pick up someone else.

Just past the taxi stand was a run-down carnival featuring a "German Animal Show."  We passed it a dozen times in our cabs.  The evening we left we saw that they had covered the bumper cars, as if they too were leaving.

(July 1993)

Friday, July 6, 2012

Writing Spaces

Overlooking the Italian coast, on an idyllic summer's morning—

On the other hand, how much writing would actually get done?

image:  Slow Italy, Alvaroig

Ostia Antica

Ostia Antica is immense, overgrown, like a greener Pompeii.  The vast shipping complex at the mouth of the Tiber, silted over and excavated.  Wildflowers are everywhere, now, and the lovely cross-hatched patterns of brick.  In the Forum of the Corporations, astonishingly extensive black and white mosaics pave the open court—elaborate constellations of mythological beasts and swimmers, sinuous sea creatures.  Neptune in his chariot, horses with sea serpent tails, and then more ordinary ships and dolphins, and even an elephant or two.  The mosaic images were the equivalent of signboards advertising the shipping companies doing business there, carrying their cargoes between Ostia and the far ports of the Empire.  Constantinople, Alexandria, Carthage—and up the river into the voracious mouth of the imperial city itself.
     It’s not a holy place, though it is hushed and redolent of other worlds:  here were bars and restaurants, shoulder to shoulder with the temple of Isis.  A working port.  There are stone mills, and rounded clay ovens that look like the adobe hornos of the New Mexico pueblos.  (I heard once too that the Navajos glaze their pottery with piƱon sap, as the ancient Greeks did their amphoras—there are always these connections, these reverberations.)  Not empty beauty, but a feeling of significance beneath it all.  That’s what charms me, I think.  The charged fascination of the ruined places (lime kiln, baths, shops, laundry), the poignant traces of lives (fragments of frescoes, inscriptions).  I follow happily the narrow cobbled passageways running between still-standing walls and under gentle arches, their foot-polished stone rippled and glistening as lapping water, as wet to the eye as if the ancient shopkeepers had that morning again sluiced off their doorsteps.
         There is a grassy space that seems to be planted with the broken mouths of storage jars, stone rings with grass and myriad tiny white daisies growing up through, the jars themselves buried or decomposed below, their contents spilled or sprouting.
         And then the broken columns, the umbrella pines.  The hush of the silt over all—until a bevy of Italian schoolboys comes, shattering the trance.