A Summer Evening in the Piazza del Popolo

The singer’s deep and throaty basso floated on the wind of the orchestra, bouncing off the sides of the 16th century Piazza del Popolo. The orchestra, seven violins, two cellos and a double bass were joined by a lead and bass guitar, drums and a keyboard. It all combined for the soaring, operatic genre of popular music Italians have always loved. The Festa di Pesaro was under way in all its sound and color.  

Young families with small children, teens, grandparents and every age in between strolled the cobblestone piazza, enjoying the moon lit night. We were impressed by the sight of teenagers, walking in pairs and groups, as they stopped to converse with elderly ones. There seemed to be no problem communicating across the years. It happened a few times and we realized it wasn’t a fluke. Grandparents were not separated away, not in housing developments and not in the life of the community or the minds of young people.

Earlier in the evening, at dinner in a local restaurant, we had begun to adjust to the slower pace of everything. As in many places in Europe, in Italy it is understood that when you sit down for dinner, the table will be yours for the entire evening. Turn-over is like take-out, it simply doesn’t exist. When the food arrived it was worth the wait.  We finished our delicious meal, asked for the check and noticed the waitress looked a little put off. What had we done? When she returned with a bottle of limoncello, the wonderful and popular lemon liquor, we understood. Where were we going before the dinner was complete? The after-dinner drink was just part of the service. It was the owner’s home-made version and it was delicious.   

Amid the sound and bustle of the Festa, at a small stand next to the post office we bought some pignoli gelato. We marveled that the small, sweet nuts had been so delicious in our pasta dinner and here they were, perfect in our dessert. Standing in the middle of the piazza, listening to the orchestra it seemed I had wandered into a movie. If Sophia Loren and Marcello Mastroianno had been the next two people to glide by, it would not have surprised me at all.

In the fountain at the center of the piazza four white marble pipers held up a clam shell that shot water straight up into the night and in front of each figure a horse fought mightily to escape out into the square. I scanned the scene and willed myself to remember all the sights, sounds, smells and sensations. Two months on, if I close my eyes I’m there. I can hear the music and the splash of the fountain, see the crowds and taste the gelato. The best thing about travel is what you carry away with you. In an instant you can return to those places by memories so vivid and easily summoned.


Under the Roman Arch

Nothing stays with us in quite the same way as the stories we hear from our grandparents. Even as children we realize these stories are important. As they transport us to a different time and place, they make the ground under our feet feel more stable.

My grandmother told me about Fano, the small town on the Adriatic coast where she grew up.  She left there on a September day in 1922, departing from Genoa aboard the steamer Giulio Cesare and arriving in New York October 1. The record of her arrival in her new home is scant, listing her name, age (21), her residence in the US (her brother’s home in Newport Rhode Island) and the fact that she was carrying twenty-five dollars.

She was afraid as she left the harbor that day. Who wouldn’t be? The trip from Fano to Genoa was probably a combination of horse cart and steam train. It was certainly the first time she had been so far from home.

Why did she and so many others of her generation cross an ocean? Why did they leave their homes and families, many times never to see them again? What made them so brave, so willing to venture into the unknown? I thought if I could see the place they left I would understand them a little more.

As we drove along the sea on AS 16, I wondered if changes in the town would make it impossible to walk in her footsteps. It was an unfounded worry. Across the new road that passes at the north of town, entrance to the old part of town is through an arch that dates from Roman times. A few steps in, across from a small café where two gentlemen enjoyed their morning espressos there is a statue of Augustus Caesar. It was at his behest the arch was built in 2 AD.

We passed under the arch onto Via Arco di Augusto. On a Saturday morning it was a bustling scene. Furniture, racks of clothes and tables of food, shoes, linens, hardware, blankets and sweaters lined both sides of the cobblestone street. Following the winding stone road between 17th century buildings, we came to the town center. I imagined my grandmother, a girl of ten crossing the square holding her mother’s hand. A  tower in the square dates from the 12th century, so she could have passed under it on a September morning like this one, and looked up to marvel at its height the way children do.

When we left the main road and ventured onto the narrow side streets, I felt her presence even more. She was at my shoulder as I strolled the narrow lanes. I stopped to watch two elderly women in conversation and realized she was all around me. There she was, the way I remember her, talking with her friends about…husbands, children, grandchildren, the passage of time and the price of groceries.

This is a time of instant everything, which is sometimes a good thing, sometimes not so good. A wonderful byproduct of our right-now society is the ability to see photos you’ve just taken. As my husband snapped photos of it all, we saw them immediately. In a shot of the arch he caught part of a shoulder that looked familiar.  The shape of the arm, the curve of the shoulder, the posture and stride made me think we had caught one her relatives. But how could we ever find that woman again? She must be long gone, swallowed up by the crowd.

With a start, I realized it was my shoulder. The strong presence of hers that I felt as I walked was me. I was her. I had returned with her memories, her genes, all the stories and lessons she had taught me. A circle had been completed.

We drove back to our apartment that morning my head filled with thoughts of how brave and full of hope was the act of sailing away on that September morning so long ago…and how much I miss her.


Clearing a Path Down Memory Lane

According to the Online Etymology Dictionary the word nostalgia is derived from the Greek words “nostos” meaning homecoming, and “algos”, meaning pain, grief or distress. In 1688, after observing a tendency in soldiers stationed abroad to focus on memories of home, a Swiss doctor named Johannes Hoffer described nostalgia as a “neurological disease”.

If you’re like me you have no trouble understanding what this discussion is about. I readily admit to spending time strolling down the tree-lined path of those sweet days gone by. Is this an unhealthy thing, as Dr. Hoffer defined it? No, in fact a recent New York Times article lists some distinct benefits to those journeys of heart and mind.

In an article titled “What is Nostalgia Good For? Quite a Bit, Research Shows”, published on July 8, 2013, John Tierney discussed research that has changed attitudes toward time spent enjoying memories of the past. Dr. Constantine Sedikides of the Centre for Research on Self and Identity, The University of Southampton is quoted as saying “Nostalgia makes us a bit more human.”

 In 2011 Dr. Sedikides and colleagues published a study entitled “Nostalgia: The Gift That Keeps on Giving”. Nostalgic feelings are said to typically involve interactions between the self and close others such as family members, friends, and romantic partners. These social interactions occur in the context of momentous life events such as reunions, vacations, anniversaries, graduations, weddings, and childbirths.” Dr. Timothy Wildschut says the stuff of nostalgia is the same everywhere. “The defining features of nostalgia in England are also the defining features in Africa and South America.”

Not surprisingly, the researchers found that music is a good way to induce nostalgia. They can say that again. Who hasn’t heard just the first few bars of something from ‘Sgt Pepper’s’ and been hurtled right back to the summer of 1967? “She’s Leaving Home” is the song that’s most evocative for me.

 So do we have permission to spend our days lost in reminiscence while ignoring the here and now and making no preparations for the future? No. Dr. Sedikides mentioned the need to be cautious about the kind of remembering that causes us to think the past was better. This can rob us of our initiative and hopes for the future. Think of nostalgic thoughts as a little vacation, a long weekend so to speak. Those warm, pleasant memories can bolster our sense of well-being and strengthen our feelings of worth at having our own personal history and roots. “Experience it as a prized possession,” he advises. “When Humphrey Bogart says, ‘We’ll always have Paris,’ that’s nostalgia for you. We have it and nobody can take it away from us. It’s our diamond.”

 And here’s my favorite part. Dr. Sedikides encourages looking to the future. “I don’t miss an opportunity to build nostalgic-to-be memories,” he says. So think about the features of nostalgia, warm memories of family, friends and special occasions; and lay the foundation for tomorrow’s nostalgia. Today’s good times will be tomorrow’s wonderful, sustaining memories. We can delight in the past, enjoy the present and look to the future.


A Mania for the Lads from Liverpool, Times Two

     Mania can be defined as an excessive enthusiasm or desire; an obsession. The one that stands out in my memory was elicited by four young men from the British seaport of Liverpool. If you don’t remember the Beatles, the word mania may seem like a stretch. If you do, you know exactly what I mean.

     Although it’s a sweet and amusing memory now, it was serious business then. My friends and I spent many hours hunched over our transistor radios, just about bumping heads. (Those radios were not very big.) Beatles music was a source of unending happiness, each new song or album convincing us we knew them better than we did before.

As if the music, the fan clubs and the Beatles cards, (which came with bubble gum) didn’t get us worked up enough, in August, 1964 the roof just about caved in. A Hard Day’s Night was released. It was a madcap romp through a few days of their lives, punctuated by song. As soon as we heard it was playing in our local movie theatre, we knew we just had to see it or we would die.

Do you remember local movie theatres? At the Rivoli Theatre on Campbell Avenue in West Haven, Connecticut the tickets were 35 cents if you were under 12 and went up to 50 cents if you were 12 or over. The best part was we could walk. It was a five or six block walk to the theatre so we didn’t need a ride for the 2:00 showing. We were thinking we were about as cool as we could be.

     The front of the theatre was a mob scene. People were pushing and yelling, trying to get in the door to get the best seats. My friends and I clasped hands and pushed toward the ticket booth with all our might. We made it and ran inside to get as close as we could. The place was filled to the rafters with very excited children, and the atmosphere was almost as out-of-control as the sidewalk out front. And then the movie started.
     If you’ve ever seen the shots of the Beatles on the Ed Sullivan Show, you’ll know what I’m describing. It was a little hard to actually hear them sing over all the screaming and claims of love everlasting. There was nothing else to do but to join in. We yelled and jumped and sang along like people in the midst of a true mania. By the time it was over, our throats were raw but our hearts were full. We couldn’t have imagined it, but they were cuter in a movie than on TV or in photos.

     When the movie ended we sat for a few minutes while some kids filed out. The manager of the Rivoli, an elderly fellow who, I’m sure had never seen anything like this crowd, came out to see how things were going.
“How did you like it?” he asked those of us who had stayed behind.

 “We loved it!”
“Well, I’m glad. But you made so much noise and commotion I thought the roof would fall in.”

“’But we love the Beatles!”
“O.K. I’ll tell you what. If you promise not to scream and go crazy, I’ll play the film again. How’s that?”

We all started to scream and go crazy. And he really did play it again. That Saturday afternoon in 1964 was Beatle mania times two.


A Wonderful Life in the Neighborhood

A few days ago I was driving on the new, wide boulevards of the town where I live, and it got me thinking about neighborhoods. It’s been a trend in the last 20 years to build towns from the ground up. This is one of those towns. The up side is that the roads are new and wide and ready to accept the volume of traffic that will surely come. The down side is that no matter how artfully designed these places are, they will only be a pale imitation of neighborhoods that have grown up over many years.

There’s something intangible about history. The passing of years gives a place some weight. You can stand on the street and feel the layers of life that have built up over time. You can imagine the generations of children who ran, bicycled and skated over those sidewalks. In the town where I grew up, many young parents have brought their children to the beach to escape the summer heat. As the years passed crowds of teenagers gathered on the sand to get some sun and some attention.

My favorite memories are the people. They were a collection of ages, backgrounds and personalities whose regard for each other made it a true community. On summer days we ran through each other’s back yards, swam in each other’s pools and piled into our parents’ cars for rides to beaches and parks. After a heavy snowfall, shoveling the sidewalks was combined effort. When someone was sick, their family ate very well, thanks to the efforts of the other mothers.

No one had a lot of money. Most families survived on one income. It would be difficult to replicate that now. It’s almost impossible for a family to survive on one job these days. So the houses have gotten bigger and the lawns have gotten wider. The pools are in ground and instead of running through yards on both sides children are driven to activities of one sort or another. Were things better then or worse now? Not really, just different. In either case, children make their way.

So it’s just a bit of nostalgia that keeps me thinking of the way things were in my old neighborhood. It’s fun to think of those streets and sidewalks, above ground pools and games of touch football under the street lights. We played from telephone pole to telephone pole. There were usually ten to fifteen people on each team, boys, girls and every age. No one cared who won. It was just a chance to feel part of the group, to run and yell, to feel the strength in our legs and enjoy the sweetness of a summer night. Life was good.

Life still is good. Children still play and run and feel how strong they are. We still watch them and relive how much fun it was to be alive and have unlimited energy on a summer night.

What were summer nights like in your neighborhood?


It's All There in Black and White

In preparation for a recent move I took two boxes of photos down from the shelf in the hall closet, determined to place the yellowing pictures in albums. I figured it would take me two hours at the most. Well, that was a silly thought. I guess I spent about twice that and I wasn’t even half way through. I had to take the half empty boxes with us, hoping to finish the job in our new location.

You can probably imagine the reason why this has taken so much longer than I had planned. As I pick up every photo, I look at it. There’s no way I can just place it under the clear sheet and move on. These are all people I’ve known my whole life. Some are still around, but most have died.  So I sit and gaze into the photos trying to relive their presence.  

It might be a trick of the memory but they all seem happy. Everyone is smiling, of course. Many are taken at family events, like weddings. Others show family and friends relaxing, eating and drinking together. I think the black and white pictures have something to do with it.

The shadows seem to hold emotions. The sun-kissed faces are alive, as if, frozen in those frames, they would always be alive.  The surprising thing is how vivid the memories are.  I can hear their voices and laughter. It’s like it was yesterday that my brothers and cousins and I ran around outside, oblivious to the conversation of the adults. I want to believe that, even then, we knew those times were special.

But time moves on. People grow up and move to different parts of the country, even other parts of the world. Our grandparents, parents, aunts and uncles are part of our lives for a limited time. So we carry the memories of those days in our minds, hearts and boxes of pictures. It’s always nice to take those black and whites out and gaze into those contented faces. It’s the least we can do, really. All of those people deserve to be remembered. It’s only right that we sit and ponder the part they played in our lives, giving them life again in our memories.

So make the time soon to take down those boxes, or take out those albums if you’re one of those organized people. Black and white photos are the perfect memory aid. The vivid color that is possible in modern photography is certainly stunning. But sometimes it gives you too much to look at. In a photo of people on the beach, you’re more likely to stare at the water if it’s a beautiful shade of turquoise. In an old black and white, you focus right in on the person’s face. The images have a timeless feel, as if you must have seen them in Life Magazine back in the day.

Happy memory hunting.

Are You Ready to Tell Your Story? No one else can.

Do you have a story idea percolating just below the surface of your everyday routine? Is there an idea that has been tumbling around in your head for a while? There are some steps you can take to get your writing dream off the ground.
First, be the best writer you can be. Writing is a craft. If you practice you will develop expertise, technique and skill. Think about it as you would think about learning to play the piano. You wouldn’t expect to play a Bach concerto after a week of lessons. The good news is with writing, you don’t have to start at the beginning. You’ve been writing your whole life. You just need to bring your game up a few notches.
Second, be a student of writing. Take the subject on with gusto. If a classroom environment is the best for you, look at the catalog of your local community college. Chances are you’ll find a class that’s right for you at a reasonable price. If you don’t have time for a class or you enjoy a more self-directed approach, there are a lot of good books on writing you can use to sharpen your skills. Many great writers have been generous with their advice to developing scribes.  We’ll talk about the best books on writing in a future post.
Third, be a professional. Even if you don’t plan to quit your job to write, you’ll benefit from treating your writing as a professional does. What does that mean to you? If you wanted to turn those piano lessons into a concert career, what would it take? You know the answer. You’d have to practice, practice, and then practice. You’ll be amazed at how comfortable you’ll become with the English language. The more you write, the more that part of your brain will develop, until you’ll feel confident of your ability to put your ideas down on paper in an accurate and engaging way. By the way, many famous writers had day jobs, so don’t let the need to make a living stop you. Robert Frost was a newspaper boy and worked in a light-bulb factory. Kurt Vonnegut, who wrote Slaughterhouse-Five, was the manager of a car dealership, and Joseph Heller, the author of Catch-22, worked as a messenger boy and file clerk.
 So whether you’ve always wanted to be a writer or you’ve caught the bug as an adult, there is a process you can follow to arrive at your destination. You might already know what you’ll write about or maybe you know how much you want to write but wonder where you can find stories and characters. We’ll kick around some ideas in another post.


The Town Green

It doesn’t matter where you grew up. It could have been the plains of Kansas, or the dusty fields of Texas, or the corner of New England I come from. For the rest of your life, no matter where you go, that place is still home.  Even if you haven’t lived there in many years, a song, a taste or a passing thought can bring you right back there in an instant.

For me, the memory came back recently as I drove passed a town green. If the place you grew up had one, you know what I mean.  That two block parcel of grass and trees crisscrossed by concrete walkways was literally the center of town. Every year the old growth maples and oaks signaled spring’s arrival, first with small, tentative buds, then tender bright green leaves. Finally, all the glory of summer days flourished in the deepest shades of green and shadow.
Of course, fall was a spectacle. The cooling air and shortening days gave the Green a stunning bonnet.  The colors deepened and faded, and finally the leaves fell. And there were amazing piles of leaves! You could get lost in them. Until you were eight or nine, they were taller than you were.

Every winter, as soon as it was cold enough, the Parks Department would build two-foot high berms of sand around each section of grass. The Fire Department drove two blocks from the main station with a pumper truck to fill the basins with water. Most years it took at least over night for each level to freeze, and there was no skating until three levels had frozen. Sometimes the wait seemed like forever.
On Saturday mornings we ran out right after breakfast and we were skating by 9:00. At lunchtime we hurried home, ate and ran back to skate until the sun started to set.  I can remember walking home after a day of skating on the Green feeling as tired as I’ve ever felt in my life. It was wonderful. Some days we hurried home after school, changed and grabbed our skates.  That only gave us an hour or so to skate before dinner, but it was worth it.

On my first weekend home from college, there was a rally on the green before a football game at the high school. I remember standing in the noise and activity and being glad to be there. The energy of the gathering, the smell of earth and fallen leaves, and the crisp fall night was an intoxicating mix. I knew this was something I would want to store away for future reference. I told myself to remember it. How amazing is it that I did?
What do you remember most about your hometown? It’s always good to visit, even if it’s an armchair trip.


One Hundred Years of Solitude

Gabriel Garcia Marquez’ writing has the depth and force of childhood memories, your own. His endlessly captivating novel, One Hundred Years of Solitude shines with prose so rich and nostalgic you’ll think you’re remembering things instead of hearing them for the first time. What can you learn from this master of the art of fiction? 

Have the courage to let your imagination run wild. Garcia Marquez is a wonderful example of unfettered imagination. His ability to get aloft and take you flying with him will remind you of Ray Bradbury. The stories are astonishing but you are drawn in because they are so masterfully told. His grandmother was evidently a great storyteller. She told fantastic stories, he says “…but she told them with complete naturalness. She did not change her expression at all when telling her stories.” While your imagination soars, your feet need to stay on the ground. “I discovered that what I had to do was believe in them myself and write them with the same expression with which my grandmother told them: with a brick face.”

Make the place a character. Macondo grows from a small village of adobe houses by a river to a thriving settlement, and then it falls and finally disappears. Successive generations of the Buendia family are the founding architects and principal residents of the town. And what a town it is! A colorful progression of characters finds their way to this isolated place. Troupes of gypsies demonstrate fascinating trinkets and processes, Arabs with the latest inventions from the wide world over, settlers from Europe bringing their books full of classical culture, a two hundred year old traveling minstrel named Francisco the Man, and more mix with native tribesmen to make the main street of Macondo a parade of delights.

Don’t be afraid of emotion when you write. In fact emotion is absolutely necessary to good writing. You need a mix of the mental process that lets you drive the story forward and strong feelings about what you’re writing. If you don’t feel anything, neither will your reader. The first sentence of One Hundred Years is a good example. “Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendia was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice.” Whoa! You’re in up to your eyeballs right away. You feel distress and want to know how he got into this situation. Then you feel the fascination of a small boy in a tropical village experiencing ice for the first time. You just have to know who this person is and what led him to this point. You are emotionally involved.

If you are a writer One Hundred Years of Solitude is worth your while. We have to note that the book was written in Spanish. If you can read it in the original language, it will surely add to the experience. If you cannot read Spanish, Gregory Rabassa’s translation will do just fine.

Happy reading and writing!