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

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?

Painting Churches

This is the title of a play I saw this afternoon at Procunier Hall in London.  It’s about the impact of Alzheimers on a family.  It’s also about longstanding emotional dysfunction and how there are no winners here (or are there?)

A reviewer sets the stage for us:

A last remnant of the old-money, socially elite WASP families that used to be Beacon Hill’s principal inhabitants, the Churches are an artistic clan.  Gardner Church is an aging poet, now going dotty, whose eminence is suggested by a library that includes gifts from Robert Frost and Andre Malraux.  His wife, Fanny, long used to running the household and serving as her husband’s real-world anchor, is easily recognizable as the type of upper-class woman whose own suppressed artistic instincts find fruition in her consciousness of clothes and furnishings.  Sharp-eyed and even sharper-tongued, Fanny also functions, with supportive intent, as a kind of critical nemesis to both her husband and their daughter, Mags, an aspiring painter, now living in New York, about to have her breakout solo show.

Mags has come come home to help her parents move out of their too expensive Boston townhouse, and into the cottage they own on Cape Cod.  She wants to paint them sitting together.

There is such sadness in this play.  Such a sense of loss in each of the three.  It’s far more than dementia.  It’s about how imperfect we all are.  We achieve something and then life seems to conspire to take away the satisfaction, to drop us down a bottomless pit for awhile.  Perhaps ending it all would be a good plan.

Through the tossings and turnings of relationship, though, a light shines.  There’s a recognition of who the other really is, even if that’s usually buried under a blanket of low self-esteem and woundedness.  There is a dance to this.  There is a tiny smile, as each person at least momentarily sees beyond the condemnations, the status, the fame, the need to have the other do what you want them to do.

As Gardner becomes more and more disoriented, as he grapples with his inability to write anymore, as he loses his awareness of the moment, he can still tell his daughter how beautiful she is.  He can dance with his wife.  He can quote the most memorable poems of Yeats, with a faraway look in his eyes.

Mags seems to have had a young life of “not good enough”.  Mom lets her know right between the eyes that her dyed hair is an abomination and that she’ll never get a man wearing clothes that look like discards.  What ills of the past still live in her mind?  They appear to be embedded in the walls of the home place.  She needs to paint her parents, and when they finally see the finished work, they smile, they comment on the stylistic beauty, they’re proud of her.  Mags’ eyes widen in wonder, hearing words that never flowed before from her mother’s lips.

Fanny is all knotted up.  She remembers the joys of courtship with Gard, how their lives flowed effortlessly as his fame and income surged.  The parties, the fancy clothes she could afford, the sense that their peers thought well of this well-appointed Beacon Hill couple. Why, or why, couldn’t their daughter see the wisdom of staying within the fold of tony society?  Perhaps a reprimand or thousand would have her see the error of her ways.  In the end, though, there is the painting Mags created, showing the sweet togetherness of decades.  There is the dance with her dear one, as wobbly as he is.  Gard and Fanny’s eyes meet in love.

***

I sit here now, thinking of a song written by Stan Rogers, telling of a ranch wife looking forward to Friday night, when she’ll be dancing with her man at the Legion.  It’s called Lies:

Then she shakes off the bitter web she wove
And turns to set the mirror, gently face down by the stove
She gathers up her apron in her hand
Pours a cup of coffee, drips Carnation from the can
And thinks ahead to Friday, ’cause Friday will be fine
She’ll look up in that weathered face that loves hers, line for line
To see that maiden shining in his eyes
And laugh at how her mirror tells her lies

Here’s to Gard and Fanny, to Mags, and to Friday evening dancers everywhere.

Day Twenty-Two: Belgium Briefly

As we collected our luggage in Brussels Airport, I knew a moment was coming. The family called Anja, Curd, Camille and Olivia would be taking a different van than us to get home. The same would be true of Lieselot.

I asked myself how I felt about these five folks whom I’d spent the last twelve days with. I had laughed with each of them. The truth was clear: I loved them.

Someone once said that the greatest “withhold” in life, what we avoid saying to another, is “I love you.” I’ve been in that place and it hurts not to be true to who I am. So … I said it to each of my friends. They all smiled as we hugged. Only one said “I love you” back to me. And that’s okay.

What’s supremely important to me is expressing – “energy out”. “Energy in” – what comes back to me – is marvelous to receive, but I don’t need it to be happy. I welcome love incoming when it happens. It’s a bonus. It’s not the essence of life.

***

After sleeping in to 11:00 am or so, I had a slow day at Lydia and Jo’s place. The big news is that after we four go to Italy for ten days in July, one kid from each family will fly with me to Canada for two weeks. It’s Baziel, Olivia and me! I get to be grandpa.

I’m thrilled that both teens are eager to explore some of Canada with me. I’ve threatened to focus on “old people stuff” but they’re too smart to believe me.

I’m looking forward to sitting in the Belmont Diner with Olivia and Baziel, at the horseshoe-shaped lunch counter. The regulars would love to chat with two kids from Belgium.

Then there are the grand events. Niagara Falls beckons. Plus Toronto. How about a baseball game between the Toronto Blue Jays and the New York Yankees? Baziel says he’s never watched baseball.

I was scouring the internet yesterday, searching for Toronto rock concerts in August. I found Iron Maiden, who the kids don’t know, but Olivia’s father Curd is a major fan. He’s wringing his hands because on August 9 Olivia will be rocking to their music while Curd consoles himself with an Omer beer in Belgium. Oh … the three of us will have fun doing this, that and the other thing in Canada!

I sat with Jo and Lydia in their living room last night. We took turns finding favourite YouTube songs for each other. Jo played some blues guitar. Lydia cuddled the family cat. We were together … in peace.

***

Now it’s today, and I’m about to get on an eight-hour flight from Amsterdam to Toronto. Stay tuned …

Day Eighteen: La Soirée

Every year, Lydia and Jo host a New Year’s Day lunch for the twenty or so kids they support. Parents and friends come too. Lydia expected that between 30 and 40 people would show up.

My life has mostly been about small groups, about Jody and me, and about being alone. Thirty human beings together in celebration! The mind boggles.

We from the B&B arrived around 10:00 am and began blowing up balloons. Oh, those life skills that are a challenge! I knew that the arthritis in my right hand would make tying the little suckers an adventure, and I was right. But truly, so what? Once I allowed my balloons to be a little smaller than the norm, life worked just fine. Maybe that could be a koan for my life: “A little smaller is okay.”

And then the arrivals. Little girls in yellow dresses … red, blue and green too. One young boy in a dress shirt, complete with bow tie. A few in flowing robes, a typical Muslim way of dressing.

The balloons were hanging on the walls between triangular banners. Splashes of colour adorned the tablecloths, which were also sprinkled with glitter. Plus smiles were everywhere.

The local school teacher led us in a clapping game, with the kids sitting and the adults standing around the big table. He would call out a rhythm and we’d clap once, four times or ten times, except when some adult got it wrong (such as me!). If you missed, you were out. I think Baziel eventually won.

Then the children sang. I feasted on their glowing faces. Oh my. Where am I? In a very good place, I think.

Time to eat – a delicious vegetarian meal. Was this couscous? Was that cabbage? And a yummy onion sauce. The names of the foods didn’t matter. We were together. There were three big tables, and other folks ate around the coffee table. With me at table were black kids, white teens, black adults and white ones. Basically the world. How I was blessed to be in the presence of them all.

After eating, I joined a table of young Senegalese kids. We made faces at each other. We made silly sounds. I picked up some bits of glitter and rubbed them into my face. Soon many arms and faces were shining red. Balloons were punched into the air at each other. Six-year-olds, ten-year-olds, a fifty-year-old – it didn’t matter. F-U-N.

A girl at home in Belmont, Canada named Sam had given me two bags of chocolate bars for the kids. Another named Jayla had created yarn bracelets. I had the joy of distributing both, and of seeing the smiles in return, with Louisa taking photos for the girls at home to see. Making a difference from many thousands of kilometres away. Thanks, kids.

Such a large human family, spreading its wings from Belmont to Toubacouta, and infinitely beyond. Thank you, dear friends, for sharing the journey with me.

Day Sixteen: A Market Like No Other

Lydia promised us something special yesterday morning. We would go by bus or moto to an authentic Senegalese market, in a village that rarely sees white people. Bring it on … give me the real deal.

We gathered at Lydia’s house. I sat across from Aziz in the open air, both of us in living room chairs with wooden arms. He did a bit of drumming and I repeated his rhythm. Then I started a new one, and the young fellow followed my lead. Soon we set up a frantic pace. I leaned across the coffee table to him, reaching with my arms. Our hands touched and then released. And on we went – Aziz forward and me back, Aziz back and me forward … a dance.

We were off. Some of us in a little bus and six of us on motos. I was on the back of Curd’s bike. We rolled through the streets of Toubacouta and then onto the highway. Way ahead a monkey scampered across the road, but I wanted more. I scanned left and right for the big red fellows. And I thought back almost fifty years, when I worked at a hotel in the Canadian Rockies. Deer were everywhere in the townsite and we employees loved laughing at the tourists who got all giddy when they saw one. Now I was the tourist and I wondered what my new Senegalese friends thought about the Canadian who went ga-ga over monkeys. Ha! What a good lesson.

Curd and I turned off the highway onto a sand road, which often narrowed to a strip of beach between two tracks. Lydia had told me that I needed to stay very still on the back because balance was essential. We could fall if the front tire dug deep into the sand.

I let go. I trusted the universe to care for me. I trusted Curd to be the best moto driver. It was one big exhale as we streamed through villages and across dry flats. I told myself not to look ahead, to just focus on the back of Curd’s ball cap, but I’ve never been good at following my own advice. So I watched the ruts ahead, the sidehill dips, the imaginary sand castles looming high. And the universe said “Thank you.”

In the little villages, kids would come rocketing out from behind walls made of branches or concrete blocks. They all seemed to be waving and screaming “Bonjour!” Occasionally I heard the word that sounds like “hallal”, which means money, but mostly the kids seemed to be waving just for the fun of it.

The market was completely, radically, new to me. Imagine a very narrow dirt street packed with human beings, with the women wearing outrageously colourful dresses. Donkey masters sat on top of loaded carts urging their beasts on with whips, and motioning wildly to get us out of the way. Live chickens, vegetables, jewelry, brightly coloured fabric, Islamic books, clothing – all were on offer.

I took three photos, two of a family and one of the street scene. Then Lydia came over and told me not to take pictures. The people don’t like it. So I put my phone away.

Everyone was black except us. Some responded to my “Bonjour”s with a smile and a “Ça va?” (How’s it going?) Others stared. People were jostling into me. Suddenly Yo stopped and Iced Tea was beside him in a flash. Someone had picked Jo’s pocket and his wallet was gone. Red alert zapped through our group and I moved my backpack over my chest, with cell phone and wallet inside. Iced Tea confronted the thief. The fellow dropped the wallet and ran. Nothing was missing except a few hundred heartbeats.

We slowed again as life for us in the street turned gentle once more. I went into a stall with Lydia and a few others to purchase some fabric for a tablecloth. I found an explosion of red and green circles on a blue background that shouted “Senegal!” to me. Eva coached me on being vigilant at every moment as I dipped inside the backpack for some francs CFAs. Bill out of wallet while wallet is inside backpack. Wallet stuffed back in. Bill out of backpack in a closed hand. Other hand zips up the pack. Piece of cake.

Now we were in a long line through tiny passages, ducking under hanging clothes and passing close by hanging carcasses. I hardly noticed for awhile but our friends Yusefa and Mamadou were always bringing up the rear, watching for thieves and making sure none of us got separated from the group. I told Louisa that I loved being in massive crowds. She smiled and said she felt the same.

The energy of the market was intense. All those voices crying out in languages I didn’t understand. Local folks moving fast when there was space – on foot or on donkey carts. The squeal of chickens who were tight together in large mesh bags. The tooting of moto horns. The braying of donkeys. The dust blowing over our faces. The sun doing its job. Wow! A world beyond my life, and yet I was a vital part of it all.

I rode home in the bus so that others could experience the wind on the bikes. I sat beside Yusefa. “Merci pour me protéger dans le marché.” (Thank you for protecting me in the market) He smiled. It was a fine moment of communion.

More to come …

Day Thirteen: A Little Sick, A Lot Happy

My day started with breakfast at the B&B. The group of us had the chance to taste baguettes with onions and potatoes, or with beans. I had one of each. They were both yummy. When in Rome …

Lydia wanted us to experience a far older village than Toubacouta. Secouna (I think) was eighteen kilometres away, and we doubled up on four motos. I was sitting behind Eddy, our B&B host, and was thrilled to see carts pulled by donkeys, crowds of folks seeking shade under wide-spreading trees, and even a couple of large red monkeys bounding across the road.

At one point, Eddy and I passed a fellow carrying a load of wood on his back. Eddy gave him a toot and the guy raised a couple of fingers in response. Beautiful. It reminded me of Ellwood Irwin, my former father-in-law. He was a wheat farmer on the vast Canadian prairie. When Ellwood was driving his truck and another farmer was approaching, he also would lift a couple of fingers in salute. Senegal … Alberta … just folks.

We were about halfway to Secouna when the urge to upchuck rose within me. Oh, no. Surely I wasn’t going to puke all over Eddy’s back! Oh, God, please help me here. I was also getting dizzy, and holding on to the bar behind me for all I was worth. “I can do this!” And I did.

We finally reached the village and stopped at a store. I ungracefully lurched off the bike and rested my head against the doorjamb of the entrance. The next thing I knew, there was a chair underneath my butt and a little container of water was in my hand. My friends were there in a flash to take care of me. Love lives.

As we sat on the patio of a restaurant with a big bottle of water, I looked across the street to see four fellows working on a bicycle. They were all so intent on the task and were chatting together, I suppose about what needed to be done. One guy worked for at least ten minutes, trying to get a tire off the rim. He didn’t have the right tool but no matter.

On the way back to Toubacouta, I felt much better. Eddy and I rolled past twenty or thirty monkeys who were running full out across the dry land. What athletes! We went through two tiny villages and I waved to the folks gathered under trees. Most people waved right back. I thought of the ride to Secouna, where I didn’t wave to anybody. Yes, I wasn’t feeling well, but it’s so strange to not be friendly.

Lydia and Jo invited me to have lunch with the family at their home. And she had a surprise for me: a large bowl of pasta was placed on the table accompanied by … a jar of pesto! My favourite flavour in the world. Mareama, the woman who made sure I got Senegalese pantaloons, was wearing a gorgeous pair of gold heart-shaped glasses. I asked her if I could wear them, and she tried mine on. We looked great, as you’ll see from the nearby photos.

A large group of us went for a walk later on a flat stretch of land that reveals itself at low tide. We felt the mud under our feet and walked into a watery area where snails lay on the intertidal floor. We could see the tracks they made in the sand. Partway, Lydia took my arm as we strolled along. We reflected on love and the beauty of the land. She is truly at home in Senegal. I can see myself feeling the same way.

Thank you for accompanying me on my journey.

Day Nine: We’re Off!

More human beings to enjoy on my travels, and they’re all coming to Senegal with us. Last night, at The Wizard of Oz, I remet Anja and Curd, the friends of Lydia and Jo who were with them on that hiking trail in Alberta. They didn’t seem to speak English so I didn’t get to know them back then. I wonder if they were surprised to hear that Lydia had invited me to go to Senegal, and that I had said yes.

Along with their parents, Olivia and Camille were also enjoying Dorothy, the Tin Man, the Scarecrow and the Cowardly Lion. We said hi and gave each other cheek kisses right away, as they do in Belgium. So different from how we greet each other in Canada. I like it.

This morning at the airport, I said hello to Sabrine and Lieselotte, both friends of Anja and Lydia. Simpatico. So we are eleven, now flying from Brussels to Lisbon, Portugal.

How many times have I said this? I feel so included, that I deeply belong. Some of the new folks have very limited English, and that’s okay because I have very limited everything else! We make funny faces, we laugh a lot, and already, I believe, we see each other. We’re each part of the tapestry that is the human family.

As we waited in the Brussels Airport this morning, four soldiers walked by in camouflage uniforms, toting machine guns. Oh my. Someone in our group told me that maybe three years ago, just down the concourse from us, terrorists ignited a bomb that was hidden in luggage, killing many people. I walked over to the approximate area where it happened. I stood. I mourned. And then I went back to my family.

I’ll write some more in the Lisbon Airport and then send it to you. I figure that’ll be it for today. There’s a long road ahead to tomorrow morning and I don’t expect to have any internet access. Ciao!

***

I’m so proud of myself! On arrival in Lisbon, we were channelled into a narrow passage which soon opened onto a grand vista – behind a left to right railing stood perhaps one hundred folks waiting to greet their loved ones. I found my right arm rising naturally and a smile curling my lips. I waved to them all. In return were a good many stares and perhaps ten hands raised in response. Perfect.

Lydia lent me her hat for the day. I consider myself very pretty. Folks strolling through the airport seem to have a different opinion. It’s all fun.

Until the next time, dear friends …