The Three Pietas

“All-changing time now darkens what was bright,
Now ushers out of darkness into light” 
                                                                Horace

For much of his life, my father managed an appliance store called General Electronics at 4513 Wisconsin Avenue in Northwest Washington DC, just up the street from American University. There's a Starbucks there now I think.

They sold primarily General Electric appliances for local residents. But a large part of their business was selling appliances for export.

In DC, this was a booming market. My father knew the procurement officers from embassies, consulates, and military posts all over the world, as well as many of the staffers from foreign embassies in DC. I remember one of the staffers from the Norwegian embassy would bring us lefse from the home country, a boyhood treat Dad craved.

I worked at the store most Saturday’s from age 12 or so, as did my three brothers. After a few years, I knew the electrical specs for pretty much every nation from Japan to Jordan. I wasn’t as introverted then and enjoyed being on the sales floor, meeting people from all over the world,  surprised to find how much they valued things I took for granted, like washing machines and refrigerators.

The General Electric company offered sales incentives, and Dad often brought home new televisions or appliances, including the microwave my mother wouldn’t use at first. But their favorite incentive was travel. GE would host trips for groups of top salesmen (I suspect back then they were all men). Often the same people would go on subsequent trips, and they made  some lasting friendships and stayed in touch long after my father retired.

So once every couple of years, my parents would fly off to Europe and other destinations that seemed so exotic to me. The world felt larger then, yet despite the nuclear threat of the cold war, somehow safer.

I don’t remember all the places they went. Paris for sure. Madrid. Mexico City (twice I think). Acapulco.  Italy. Probably others.

I could figure it out. They took hundreds of photos, now stored away in a box until I get around to digitizing. They also kept matchbooks from all their travels, and my mother bought dolls from many countries.

And they bought other souvenirs. A painting of the Madonna from Spain. A silver ring (two actually, on different trips) from a Mexican silversmith. A replica of Michelangelo’s David. And three miniature marble Pietas.

I’m guessing the Italy trip was my mother’s favorite. A devout Church-Every-Sunday-Sodality-On-Saturday-Make-Your-Children-Go-To-Sunday-School-Even-Though-Its-On-Monday Catholic, she must have been enthralled by Rome. She visited the Vatican, saw the Sistine Chapel, had an audience with the pope (John or Paul, I’m not sure which) (and I don’t mean Beatles). And bought three copies of the Pieta, Michaelangelo's statue depicting Mary holding the body of Jesus.

They are sitting side by side now in the china cabinet, with the other curios she assembled, like the girl and puppy porcelain statue I have written about elsewhere. The Pietas differ in size by maybe half an inch, and have slightly different shades of white, from snow to cream. Perhaps the color has aged, or the marble is just different.

I have often wondered why she bought three. I never thought to ask while she was alive. Did she intend them as gifts? Did she plan to give them to her four sons? (I got the David, so maybe the three Pietas were for the others, who obviously needed more spiritual help).Did she want to help the artists who carved them? Or was she just so overwhelmed by the spiritual experience?

I don’t know. I’ll never know I suppose. The three pietas will always be a mystery, unless she was right in her belief, and we will all be together someday, and I can ask her. It would be like her to think that far ahead. She was a great planner, with a wry sense of humor. I can see her smiling as she bought them, thinking of how puzzled I would be many years later.

If she was right, one day (or no day) I will know the answer. And be overwhelmed by the spiritual experience myself. 

Yet, in some sense, it is the wondering that I crave. Keats had a phrase, negative capability, the willingness to live (and create) in a state of irreducible not knowing. In a state of wonder.  

Those who reduce belief to a kind of knowing may be missing this point: the gift of wonder is the essential condition of religion, of art, maybe of sentient life, essential because it impels us forward, closer to that now unreachable truth.

So I wonder about those three pietas. I really do wonder.

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Smitten!

In the South of France.

Second time around, the love gets stronger!

Thousands of miles away, her mind is able to switch off from reality.

Her heart beats with excitement each waking moment.

Oh! how the smell of the ocean invites delight!

There is no ending, only beginnings.

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Milan: Behind the Façade

I guess it was appropriate that my first conversation in Milan should have been about fashion.  H. and I just had lunch at Stazione Centrale and were leaving the restaurant, trolley suitcases in tow, when I noticed a young woman oscillating her head as I passed, to follow my feet with her gaze.  She was sitting on a high stool, and turned to mutter something to the young man next to her.  I did a sharp U-turn.  "You're talking about my socks, aren't you?" 

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She raised her eyes to mine, evidently assessing my tone on the friendliness scale.  "I was just telling him –" she began, cocking her head towards the young man.

"I was talking about tights – not socks!" he stammered, blushing.

"No, you weren't!" she almost snapped, outraged at this evident betrayal.

"Well," I said, "normally, I would never wear white ankle socks with this kind of shoes but, firstly, I come from England, and in England fashion is not a priority, and, secondly, I've just been on a train for several hours, wanted to be comfortable, and the socks stop my sweaty feet from sticking to the insides of my shoes.  I know, the white  ankle socks give it a little girl look –"

"– and the actual shoes are also little girl shoes," she added with organic seamlessness until her face suddenly froze with the realisation she had dispensed a gram of honesty too many.

The young man was looking away, his entire body expressing an unequivocal desire for a hole to open beneath his bar stool and swallow him up.

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I glanced at my shoes.  Sand-coloured leather with flat, white rubber soles, a T-bar with a buttoned strap and oval details carved out at the level of the toes.  It hadn't occurred to me but, now that I studied them, yes, they did look like little girl footwear.  I looked up at the couple and burst out laughing.  The young woman ventured a smile of relief and I walked away, wheeling my suitcase.

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I had never been to Milan before.  I pictured high fashion, risotto with gold leaf and Northern Italian efficiency.  I had read Caterina Bonvicini's exquisitely incisive portrayal of upper middle-class Milanese women in her brilliant (sadly not yet translated into English) novel, Tutte le donne di("All His Women") and an article in the Corriere della Sera that presented Milanese ladies as a bouquet of beige outfits, fish and salad lunches, private views at art galleries and operas at La Scala – but never on opening night.

After a week in the city of unbridled sensual splendour that Rome is, the relative austerity of Milan's imposing, chunky buildings felt like a foreign country.  With a foreign language.  When I used the word stampella (entirely common in Rome)to ask the hotel receptionist for more coat-hangers, he did his best not to stare and, with composed politeness, asked me to clarify, then, with equally measured politeness, communicated to me that a perhaps more easily understandable noun would be grucciaand that I had, in actual fact, just requested a walking stick.

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As we walked along Corso Buenos Aires, then Corso Venezia, every building offended my baroque-spoilt eyes.   The massive palazzi, the lack of finesse in the stucco and carvings – everything seemed to stand witness to the slight vulgarity of 19th-century industry-generated money that has to prove itself.  The Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II struck me as rather glitzy and vulgar, not a patch on the genteel, if a little worn, Gallerie de la Reine in Brussels.  Even my first sight of the Duomowas a disappointment, like an over-decorated cake, with sculptures filling every available space – even at the top of the tall gothic spires.  Every building in Milan seemed to antagonise me.

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On our first evening there, I e-mailed an Italian writer whose books I have translated. "Milan is not Rome," he wrote back.  "Its beauties are hidden.  Give it a little time..."

There was a festival of Baroque music the next day, and H. and I went to a concert of sonatas by Arcangelo Corelli by the Ensemble Estro Cromatico at the church of San Bernardino alle Monache.   As it was some distance from our hotel, H. suggested taking the metro.  Frequent and swift, the Milan underground transport system is light years more efficient than the one-down-one-across metro network in Rome.  We emerged in an area quite different from the one we had walked around until now.  Older, friendlier-looking buildings that had more history and more heart.  That were not in your face.  Buildings that whispered.  I approached the makeshift box office outside San Bernardino alle Monache to pick up our tickets. "Ah, Gregor," the lady behind the desk exclaimed as though she'd heard the name before, and rummaged through a stack of envelopes.  "Benvenuti!" she said, smiling and handing me our tickets.  

For a second or two, I was puzzled by this unexpected welcome.  Then it occurred to me that mine must have been the only non-Italian name on her list.  "Grazie!" I replied, suddenly feeling unaccountably cheerful and glad to be there, in this initially aggressive-looking city that clearly had a warm side.   

 We sat at the very back, by the doors that had been left open for the air to circulate in the 35ºC heat.  Everyone sat fanning themselves with either fans or programmes in this enchanting, 13th-century church with frescos, filled with the haunting, gentle emotion of period instruments.  I could get used to being here, I thought.

As though the evening of the concert had unlocked a door I had been walking past without realising it, I began to see a different side to the city.  I remembered my Italian writer acquaintance's advice.  Yes, Rome opened its arms to you.  Milan required a little courtship.  Along the very Corso Buenos Aires and Corso Venezia that had so offended my eyes on the first day, I began to notice small gates leading to magnificent courtyards with hidden gardens and – in one case – a small pond with flamingoes.  Yes, flamingoes.  Who – what kind of individual keeps flamingoes in their garden? I wonder if I shall ever find out.  All over Milan, behind chunky, thickset façades, through elaborate, wrought-iron gates, lurked these alluring, elegant courtyards made of arches, a single lantern and sprawling foliage.  Intimate spaces shielded from prying eyes.

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The view from my temporary "office"

Freelancers aren't free.  Fifteen pages of translation editing – a couple of hours' work – had to be done every day, holiday or no holiday.  Not wanting to stay cooped up in our hotel room, I went in search of somewhere with a table, a view, tea, and where I could linger undisturbed for as long as I needed.  The ideal spot presented itself at the Mondadori bookshop, in Piazza del Duomo.  A corner table by the window.  A view over the Gothic cathedral looming over a square swarming with tourists, spires challenging the Heavens.  A cathedral which, as the days went by, began to look less aggressive to my eyes.  Its whiteness less glaring, its size less daunting, its spires less defiant, more inspired.  More inspiring.

I could get used to being here, I thought once again.

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Scribe Doll

 

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In Praise of Old Hotels — Part 8: Faunbrook Inn

FAUNBROOK INN - WEST CHESTER, PA 

James Baldwin was a local millionaire in the 1860s who had the need for a fine home so he built himself a very impressive place in West Chester. The home later belonged to GOP Congressman Smedley Darlington (what a name) who was also, of course, a wealthy oilman. The house is now the Faunbrook Inn. It's not exactly a hotel -- it is clearly a house -- but the Inn is very impressive. The house is constructed in a Federal-Italianate style with three floors and a large wrap-around porch with ornamental ironwork. There is a large parlor, library, dining room and sitting room/bar on the first floor and very nice bedrooms on the second and third floors.

The rooms are spacious and furnished with antiques. Each guest room had a private bath. The house was extremely quiet considering that it was 150 years old. Apart from the sound of someone using the stairs you could not hear anything from the rest of the house...not even water running or toilets flushing. People seemed comfortable congregating in the library. The porch was also very inviting since the weather was mild and the first floor windows and doors were open. There were large windows in the parlor that converted into doors so people could drift in and out as they pleased.. We were there as part of a wedding group so there was about a dozen people mingling throughout the Inn.

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The breakfasts were excellent - French Toast strata with apples, berries and cream, apple-flavored sausage, scrambled eggs, juice and coffee...that was day 1. Day 2 was just as good and included an extra sample of the local "Scrapple" which is apparently a Pennsylvania thing -- sort of a sausage made up of butchering leftovers that tasted like bland sausage mixed with sawdust. Must be an acquired taste. The group managed to polish it all off.  I was so busy eating I forgot to ask if this was the standard breakfast or something special for the wedding guests. It seemed like it was a normal breakfast based on how it was served.

 

The wedding took place at the Inn in the garden on a brick patio next to the porch. The garden has a natural look to it but sort of a faded glory feel as if it was there when the inn was built.

What to do in the Brandywine Valley? -- Go to Baldwin's Book Barn

The thing to see close by is Baldwin's Book Barn -- a five story barn built in 1822 by the Darlington family (remember Smedley?) that was converted into a book store 75 years ago by William Baldwin (must be the son of the guy that built the Inn). It's only a short distance south of the Faunbrook Inn. A person could spend a weekend just roaming around in the stacks. Books are arranged by categories, more or less, and then shelved by author, more or less. The special first editions and rare books are on the first floor. Apparently they sell books by the foot. You can purchase refurbished leather-bound books at $300 per foot for your executive library...if you have one.  We spent about an hour wandering around. I like Joseph Conrad and got a couple of his novels while there.

 
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