Basketball

So we’re in Toronto … Olivia, Baziel and me. Eight hours after lifting off from Brussels, we nestled into the joys of Terminal One in Toronto. Adventure was in our six eyes.

We had to wait a fair long time for our shuttle bus to Scarlet’s temporary abode. Pas de problème. We all knew that we were about to be on a mission: to buy a basketball. You see, these kids are fanatics. They play on teams in Belgium. They dream of the future.

After we corralled Scarlet at Skyway Park, it was off on the 401 freeway to Yorkdale Mall, the home of SportChek, and hopefully many basketballs.

The ceilings were high, the glitter of wealth surrounded us and the people of Toronto flowed past in all their glory of multiculturalism. The store was full of athetic achievement, many sports represented in their clothing and equipment. Downstairs was the home of NBA devotees.

Ahh … the b-balls. Baziel settled on a Wilson Crossover model, and all was right with the world.

We wandered the mall in search of NBA jerseys but few were to be found. We had our treasure. It was time to play.

First to Anne and Ihor’s bed and breakfast. Anne glowed as she welcomed us in the door. The teens got it. They were glimpsing a new home.

Google Maps showed me a nearby school and we bounced our ball along the sidewalk. Around the back of the building were four hoops, all without nets, but that didn’t matter. Olivia and Baziel dribbled beautifully, laid up the ball gracefully, and nailed lots of long-distance shots. I … threw up the basketball in the general direction of the hoop. We had fun.

I was hungry, and convinced the kids to take a break for chicken. Yum.

Anne had mentioned that there was a basketball court near the local arena so we decided to explore in that direction. And lo and behold … there it was. Three young men crowded around one of the three hoops, testing each other. Baziel and Olivia did the same at another one.

Magically other teens and kids appeared. I just stared at all the athletes. One young boy in a red shirt was so skinny and so skilled. All those between-the-legs dribbles! At another basket, a supremely powerful young man was coaching a little boy who had gorgeous braided (?) hair and an everlasting smile.

A fellow came over to challenge Baziel to a one-on-one game. Olivia and I smiled as the contest unfolded. Then it was three-on-three. Baziel was beaming.

For the last hour it was a full game – five against five – as the sun declined. Belgium saying hi to Canada and Canada welcoming Belgium.

I loved it all.

Ghent

Let’s go back in time and still enjoy each other in the present moment. Shall we meander together through the streets of Ghent? I think so.

Belgium offers many places to sit and talk. Like Italy, families come out, filling the squares and their sidewalk cafés. There is much to discuss and many people to watch.

We sat on a terrazza at lunch. Old men chattered away merrily in Flemish, which is incomprehensible to me. No matter. At the next table, a black woman with a delightful British accent hurried her family along. Perhaps there was a lot of shopping to do.

I wanted to pay for the meal and saw once more that in Belgium there’s really no tipping. It looked like the friendly young man serving us could have used some extra cash for school. It’s still mindboggling to me that a meal of ninety Euros would be paid with exactly that. I pulled out a five Euro bill and the fellow’s eyes widened. I told him that such a tip in Canada for his good service would be considered an insult. All at the table listened in wonder.

We sat near the canal for a long time. Two women dangled their feet over the water, their arms around each other. Young boys chased back and forth. Across the way, a island stage was being dismantled, now that the Ghent Festival had said goodbye to 2019. And many, many folks strolled by with their loved ones.

Lydia and Lore wanted to visit their favourite jewelry shop, and I tagged along. Jo and Baziel took their traditional position on a nearby bench. Inside, the hostess looked familiar, and so did the displays. After she was done with a customer, she looked at me and said in English “I remember you. You’re Bruce.” Indeed I was. “You sang your national song to us.” Indeed, I had … in December. A few minutes later I repeated the performance. Two of the three women I met back then were there in front of me. “Our friend will be sorry she missed you.” Ahh … So lovely to be seen.

I ate a Belgian waffle slathered in chocolate. An hour later, my stomach protested. As we explored downtown Ghent, I watched the dull pain. It was large, but not as large as the old city and its human beings. And I’m glad that’s true.

Bye, bye Ghent. Until December then, and another rendezvous with lovely bejewelled ladies.

More Than One

We’re home in Belgium, having said goodbye to our home in Italy. And then there is the question “What makes these places home?” The roll of the land is very beautiful, as is the grandeur of the old buildings. Tourist attractions abound, as do fine hotels and B&Bs. Still, the answer isn’t there.

It is very simply people who beckon me home. Perhaps we meet in the cool of this baguetteria in Roma. Maybe in our car today on the way to Oudenaarde. We gather. In the evening, Lore, Lydia and I watched The Notebook. It was the first time for me, maybe the twentieth for Lydia. She cried. My eyes were also moist as we watched a true love unfold over time. The three of us shared such a human experience. We all want to touch and be touched.

In a few days, Jo and Lydia’s son Baziel, and Anja and Curd’s daughter Olivia will fly with me to Canada. We will see wondrous things. We will go to wondrous sporting events. The true wonder, however, will be in sharing moments together, caring for each other, hanging loose in a most delightful way.

San Gregorio Matese

The view from San Gregorio Matese

***

There is a place at the top of the world
where our Peugeot wants to run
back and forth on the roads.
Will you come with me?

And you did

***

The family had been to San Gregorio many days ago, when I’d been sick in bed. They wanted to include me in the majesty so we climbed again. We moved above the Autostrada, the roundabouts and the t-shirt shops. Into the clouds.

Jo smiled as he remembered the restaurant at the tipping point of the world, where the pasta was also close to heaven. We approached the ristorante sign in San Gregorio … and the smiles ended. Closed. I could feel how much my friends wanted me to experience the ecstasy of this particular Italiano cuisine.

We stepped out of the car and padded our way downhill. An old man smiled with us … “Buongiorno.” As we curved, a few chairs came into view. Two tables were full of old men playing cards, and there was also a spot for us. It was a gelateria, and I chose choccolato and caffè. Soon spoons and tongues were united in delicioso sweetness. All was right with the world.

We waved at the locals and they waved back, across the permeable boundaries of language. And then we just sat, saying something or nothing, just being together.

Across the way, two sweating men were removing a temporary stage that no doubt had been the centre of an evening celebration. Their banging with hammers seemed right at home with it all.

Also over there was a bar. I saw several men around a table, tiny bottles of beer at the ready. I yearned for such a brew, but it is not to be in the short while. Antibiotics and alcohol are not tender bedfellows. On Friday I’ll have an Omer or a glass of wine.

I could feel the pull. “Go over there and sit with them.” So I crossed the street. I went inside the building and indicated to the young server that I’d like the piece of sweet cake that was on display. Without words, we knew. One Euro and the dessert was mine.

I sat outside, at some distance from the gaggle of men. Six older fellows were joined by two male police officers for a round of talk. I loved seeing the officers lingering with the customers, laughing and gesturing broadly. Relationship … what our countries so dearly need.

It was time. I got up from my lonesome stool and walked over to the table. O offered “Buongiorno” and it was offered right back to me. A few of the guys looked at me a bit funny but I warmed them up by singing “O Canada”. A search was soon on for someone who could speak English, but no one showed up. No matter.

Half an hour later we the family left and I shouted goodbye to my high altitude amici. Ciao!

***

I see skies of blue and clouds of white
The bright blessed day, the dark sacred night
And I think to myself … what a wonderful world

Napoli

Lydia and me in Napoli

***

I had heard lots of negative stuff about Naples: it was dirty, smelly, and so congested with traffic that you couldn’t drive into the city. So why go? Lydia was interested in seeing the catacombs – underground burial sites from as long ago as 200 AD. She and Curd figured out that we could drive to Caserta, take the train to downtown, and then the subway to the resting place of the ancients. Okay, let’s do it. I’ll hold my nose when the time comes.

We climbed the steps out of the Metro station, and just like my first view of New York in January, I was blasted with life – tall buildings with their laundry flapping off balconies, surges of smiling faces, cobbled streets. “Oh my God … where am I?” I just stood.

We headed up an incredibly narrow street, with five levels of balconies looming above, and cars squeezing by as we hugged the walls. Sadly, we were in destination mode, and I wasn’t fully being with my world. Soon we were at the gate of the catacombs and descending many stairs to the dark entrance. Stone walls said “Come on in” and we walked where the flesh and bones of thousands of people had come to rest. There were large holes in the walls for adults, small ones for kids. It was quiet and we were quiet. Only the tones of our tour guide broke the spell.

What did I want down here? It wasn’t holes in walls. There were many frescoes painted in recesses, showing wealthy folks. I wanted their eyes. And so I wandered around, seeking communion. Eye contact with those who have been dead for centuries … it was magical. There were messages coming towards me but they were just beyond my conscious mind.

We meandered through Napoli for hours. Little cafés welcomed us in. Servers smiled. Lovers kissed. Folks walked through the squares hand in hand. The descending sun shone golden on old stone. Life rippled around us and through us. Alleys hosted tiny bars with a couple of tables. I looked and looked and was everywhere mesmerized by the beauties.

I’m coming back, dear Napoli, hopefully with a new life partner. Together we will join the smiles, the pizza, the light on the harbour towards sunset. Such a home for celebrating love. All of us human beings deserve to be here.

Walking Alone

I love my Belgian family. We laugh together. We explore together, often wandering off the beaten path. And we support each other: Curd getting tired after so much driving in unknown areas, me coughing over here and over there. Etcetera.

And then there was a time for me to go out and about … alone.

I wandered along the Viale della Repubblica towards downtown Riardo. A narrow street beckoned upwards to the right and I followed my raised eyes. Beyond a tiny square stood a stone shrine to Maria. I thought of the thousands who have stood there.

The cobbles launched again, so steeply. Soon I was at the base of narrow steps that soared above the world. Balconies and potted plants greeted my climb. It was just like in the movies, and like a painting of an Italian piazza that hangs in my home. I stopped … stunned. I was really here.

The beauty of the scene embraced me, and yet a niggling feeling came my way: there were no people. Closed wooden doors told me that there were homes here but no one came out to say “Hi.”

I stood in the loneliness. It was so clear that ancient architecture and grand vistas only go so far in the creation of happiness. I need eyes meeting mine.

I ventured up and around and up some more till I saw the shade beside the castle approach. The gate was closed but I enjoyed resting in the lee of the stones. Just me. Just what I needed.

***

In the evening, we decided to eat at a restaurant a couple of miles out of town – the Masseria delle Sorgenti. I wanted to walk some back roads to get there. I believe my friends found that strange. They drove. My old friend Google Maps showed me the way, through a neighbourhood of Riardo and then out into the countrywide of vines, rows of small plants and huge bushes overflowing with white and pink flowers.

Once again, I wanted to be alone in the world.

The light was fading and I’d agreed to meet the folks at 8:30. All was quiet over the fields and part of me lounged in the solitude. Sadly, the other section of Bruce was well-scheduled, and so I didn’t give myself fully to the fragrant moments. Didn’t even take any photos.

Mr. Google told me that taking this road, that one and then the other would take me safely to my destination. And then I spotted a twinkling terrasse across the flowing land. Perfect … only about ten minutes late. That’ll do fine.

As I turned into the driveway, I noted that the sign said “Villa Ida” rather than “Masseria delle Sorgenti”. Not a problem. I pushed my chest out and strolled onto the patio, seeking my kin. There were little knots of humans spread across. I made my gracious rounds of the tables but there wasn’t a Jo or Lydia to be seen.

Huh? How could they have got lost? Google said I was here. You’d think that in a car they’d have been able to achieve that as well.

I spoke to a chef. I had just uttered the word “Masseria” when he threw his arms in the air, aiming his outstretched fingers way to the left.

Well … Back to the road. Down to the highway. A large sign announced my restaurant but I had no clue about how to find it. Two young men in a car pointed down the way I had come.

***

Just so you know, thanks to WhatsApp, and Curd picking me up amid the darkness, I was reunited with les Belges. The pasta was delicious. The company was better.

Ciao until tomorrow.

Pompeiian Friends

In 79 AD, Mount Vesuvius erupted, sending a pyroclastic flow of 250 degree Celsius gas and ash flooding down the slopes at 200 kilometres an hour. The force coming from the top of the mountain has been compared to 250,000 elephants being spewed out every second. About 2000 residents of Pompeii died, the theory being that their blood boiled before they could perish of suffocation. How horrible.

We went to visit Pompeii and Vesuvius. Much of the ancient city has been unearthed from its 25 metre covering of ash. We walked the cobblestoned streets and I felt into the lives of people who had similar joys and sorrows to me 1940 years ago.

I could have bought the audio contraption that would tell me about all the buildings but I knew that wasn’t the right choice for me. I needed to be with the spirits of people who have come before. Someone built these walls, these ovens, these theatres. Their lives were likely shorter than mine but no doubt just as rich. I wanted to walk the narrow streets with old friends.

Through a window hole, I glimpsed a tiny semicircular theatre. “Please, may there be a way that I can get in there!” And there was. A passage opened up to the simple grandeur of the stage and stone seats. There were maybe twenty of us standing and sitting in the space. I heard an English-speaking tour guide say that if you stood in the very centre of the stage and spoke, the sound would come back to you. And yes, it was true. A rich vibration returned.

I knew what I wanted to do. I wanted to sing Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah to the Pompeiians. Folks came and went from the theatre and I despaired that I would never be alone there. I didn’t want to intrude into the well-being of the ones who were already present.

Maybe half an hour later, a family of four walked away from me. “Ciao.” No new people entered. It was time.

I pulled out my phone, found the lyrics and lifted my head to the gallery of ghosts. I sang … the whole thing. I felt the sweetness inside of throwing myself into their world. My peripheral vision told me that I had visitors, but I kept going. I felt the contraction and I let it go.

As the last “Hallelujah” hung in the air, I turned to see smiling faces and brief applause. Thank you, dear audience. It wasn’t a performance, however. It was a communion.

Together

Dinner in Riardo with the birthday folks behind

***

It was just a ten-minute walk from our B&B to downtown Riardo. I had asked my family to go ahead towards dinner since I had an appointment with an antibiotic needle. So now it was just me, on a dark residential street. I could hear the music of Italian voices on the higher floors of the homes I passed. Just like Flemish, I didn’t understand a word … and that was fine. Kids played in the muted light of a side street. All was well.

As I reached the main drag, I came upon a restaurant full of folks on its streetside patio. Two men were yelling at each other, gesturing wildly. I loved the energy, even though I’m not the yelly type. It reminded me of Roma and New York.

To my left, I heard “Bruce”, and there was Lydia in the street, waving me on to the pizzeria. Thank you, my friend.

The blackboard by our table told all, except I needed my friends to tell me. I knew I wanted pasta. After all, when in Riardo … Spaghetti porcini (with mushrooms) sounded fine and “Oh my God!” it was. What was that sublime flavour on the noodles? I told my gracious hostess that it was the best pasta I’d had in Italia. Her smile was all I needed in reply.

Behind us sat a large family. At least twelve folks, young and old and in between. Lots of gay chatter, again unknown to me. I loved it. My birth family was small and I wanted to borrow some energy from the humans at the next table. Mission accomplished.

The swimming family was tucked into a corner and three other groups soon sat down at the remaining tables. Wow … together indeed.

The big family started saluting the woman of the hour with the familiar tune of “Happy Birthday”, although naturally the words were Italiano. I zoomed to Google Translate and found “Buon Compleanno”, which I said to the woman when she came over to us, offering two plates of cake and other sweeties. She smiled and said something enthusiastic. Soon other desserty plates were being placed in front of all the other diners. I whirled around to the partygoers and yelled “Buon Compleanno!” Laughter erupted.

Ahh … there was such contact, across permeable boundaries of tables and languages. Just human beings, laughing in the night.

Home comes in many flavours.

Choosing a Castle

I’m sitting by the pool of Il Casale di Riardo, reflecting on my life. Nearby a couple and their teenaged daughter are frolicking in the water, laughing together in French. It’s lovely to behold – a family truly enjoying each other. The resident swallows aren’t perturbed by the swimmers. They swoop and dive for bugs on the water’s surface.

The doctor told me yesterday that I have bronchitis. Bummer. Giovanna is a wonderfully enthusiastic employee of the B&B and one of her tasks is to stick me in the butt once a day with a one-inch needle containing antibiotics. I took one look at that length and the quantity of liquid that was about to enter my body, and flinched. But Giovanna does it expertly … and somehow painlessly. Her care of me, and Lydia’s, and everyone’s, has been a blessing.

I sure didn’t want to spend another day in bed so I headed off with the folks in the car to visit a 250-year-old castle that the King of Naples had built. A mere 1200 rooms! The Reggia di Caserta.

First on the menu, however, was a visit to the Mediterranean Sea. My first time. As we walked to the sandy beach, a broad expanse of sky and sea wrapped around me. The far shore was far beyond my eyes. And then the warm water was tickling my toes. As I walked the shoreline, happy tanned people were everywhere. So cool. A young woman was shepherding a bunch of three-year-old kids, all decked out in pink waterwings. Oh, how those kids loved splashing around! A few metres away, here came a girl cradling her younger brother in her arms. Smiling together.

The family sat in the shade by the snack bar, assorted drinks at the ready. Along came a marvelous variety of human beings, in various states of undress. Old, young, fit, not so much, outgoing, shy. It was lovely, even as we retreated from the 35 degree Celsius heat.

On to the castle. Inside, there were two huge courtyards separating wing after wing. We entered one labelled “appartamenti”. As it slowly sunk in what was surrounding me, I just about felt sick. Thirty-foot ceilings, some adorned with gold, others with paintings that would feel right at home in the Sistine Chapel; marble floors; stone walls and staircases that could have been on the Titanic; statues that looked so morose to me … but then again, maybe I was the morose one.

The rooms were so large and so empty of feeling. There were uncomfortable looking benches for sitting, but they were behind ornate ropes. Finally I found a simple chair where I could legally drop myself down. My main thought was the egos that created this building. “Look at me. I’m so rich.” And what of the thousands of ordinary folk who helped construct this monstrosity, some of them probably struggling to survive? Okay – end of lecture.

***

There’s the physical building
There’s the life building
What shall I construct with the time that’s left?

Riardo Just Out Of Reach

The family has headed into Riardo to poke around. I’m in my room. Another life opportunity.

One reality is that my body isn’t working right. Coughing, tired, some dizzy, vague nausea. It’s nothing spectacular but it’s there. When I go into figuring out mode, I see the 35 degree Celsius heat, the amazing quantity of food I’ve been eating, the “new to me” foods I’ve been eating, and … beer. I especially suspect that last one, even though I enjoy a brew at home.

So, what is bigger and what is smaller? This morning after breakfast, as the crew were planning for the day, I realized I could do something unusual for me. I could rest. I could say no to the streets of Riardo, the ancient buildings with bricks of volcanic ash, the open-air ristorantes. I love venturing forth into new life, meeting new people, gazing in wonder at the previously unknown. But that love need not define me, need not put me into a box of identity. This morning I simply chose differently. Sleep came upon me … and then I awoke.

I gazed up to a sublime curving of light coming through the wooden shutters. I lay in a cathedral, a flow of beauty far larger than physical ills. So I sit, feeling the woes of the body, seeing art on the ceiling, waiting for the family to return.

It is enough.