Back from Italy. How necessary it is for me to get out of my comfortable cocoon and into the world now and then. My husband and I have visited Italy four times. We have climbed the rocky hills of Sicily, held our breath on the terrifying roads along the Amalfi Coast and wandered in awe through the ruins of Pompeii and Herculeum. Now the splendours of the lakes of the north have been added to our experiences. My head is full of images, impressions, thoughts and ideas. I could write reams, but I’ll content myself with just a few highlights.
We visited villages such as Ascona on the northern shore of Lake Maggiore in Switzerland. A lively, picturesque town. Once a small fishing port, it is now a favourite destination for tourists, but still retains its cloisters and frescoes. I happily succumbed to the risk of getting lost in its winding cobble-stoned streets. The town was home base of a 19th century colony that attracted Carl Jung, Paul Klee, Herman Hess and many other writers and philosophers. Reluctantly finding my way back to the lakefront, I discovered it was lined with buskers and performers. I found myself watching the watchers more than the performers, however. Especially the children. What is touristy to us is still a source of wonder to them.
Then there are the churches. The 14th century Duomo of Milan is, of course, awe-inspiring both outside and in. You enter the ornately carved entrance under the gaze of scowling gargoyles and find yourself transported from a hot, sunny, crowded square, into a majestic vastness. Light filters in through tall, gothic, stained glass windows; candles in the many alcoves burn in front of ancient portraits of saints. I found myself more drawn to the smaller churches in the smaller towns, however. Plain, almost austere on the outside, you enter and your breath is taken away by the splendour of the frescoed interiors.
On Lake Orta we boated over to the tiny island San Giulio, which is really nothing but the rocky tip of an underwater mountain. There, in the 4th century, the saint built a basilica despite severe opposition. The island was supposedly home to dragons, but he was a stubborn sort and he persevered. Referring to the exceptionally clear colour of the water in the lake, French writer Honorè de Balzac called the island a “grey pearl in a green jewel box.” The island was also the hideaway of artists and writers such as the philosopher Frederick Nietzsche and the poet Robert Browning. Seventy nuns are cloistered there, forbidden ever to talk to or be seen by anyone for the rest of their lives. As we sailed back to the shore, we saw a young woman windsurfing around the island. One of our group joked that maybe one of the nuns had escaped, but I wondered if perhaps one of the nuns was looking out the window and watching that girl. If she was, what was she thinking? I could not help wondering, of what use to God or to the world are seventy women shut away for life?
As I was jotting down these notes, I turned a page my notebook and happened across this quotation from Forest Whitaker, the actor/producer/director:
“How can you be a creative person if you’re not living in the world?”
More serendipity. I just finished writing up this blog and walked into the TV room where my husband was watching a movie starring Forest Whitaker. Sometimes life scares me.