Category Archives: travel

Four Seasons in Rome

Only a few pages into Anthony Doerr’s Four Seasons in Rome, and I was enthralled; I began to want very much to make my own visit to that most historic and colorful city. But a chapter in, I realized that Doerr had brought me with him, and that my vicarious travels were so much more exciting and satisfying than anything I could accomplish in real life — all without the huge expense and strain of international travel.

Energy pours off the traffic, off the sidewalks; it feels as if we are pumping through the interior of a living cell, mitochondria careering around, charged ions bouncing off membranes, everything arranging and rearranging. Here is a pair of stone lions with crossed paws; here is a Gypsy sleeping on a square of cardboard. Down the white throat of a street a church floats atop stairs.

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Stone Pines, aka Umbrella Pines, of Rome (internet)

Doerr’s year in Rome was certainly stressful, but he was young and strong, and was able to take his adventures, which any of us might know in the present moment as anxieties, dilemmas, pain and suffering, and turn them into prose that conveys not just a complainy travelogue, but his own engagement with the sensory overload of living in Rome, combined with being a new father. Fatherhood alone is such a transformative experience, it would give such a writer plenty of material for a book, but to have twins, and then to take them at six months of age to live in Rome, where you don’t even know the language, is exciting to the point of crazy.

What did Columbus write in his log as he set out from Spain? “Above all, it is fitting that I forget about sleeping and devote much attention to navigation in order to accomplish this.” Henry wakes again at two. Owen is up at three. Each time, rising out of a half sleep, it takes a full minute to remember what I have forgotten: I am a father; we have moved to Italy. All night I carry one crying baby or the other onto the terrace. The air is warm and sweet. Stars burn here and there. In the distance little strands of glitter climb the hills.

Last year I read Doerr’s 2014 novel All the Light We Cannot See. All I did was run my eyes along the words and lines, and the author did all the magic of transporting me to another place and time, to rooms in Germany and houses in France, to the beach and along streets and into human hearts beating with fear and hope. I couldn’t help but love them, we were that close – and it was the writer who had brought us together.

It seems that he was already working on All the Light ten years earlier, while in Rome on a literature fellowship at the American Academy. It was a good thing he didn’t have to show anyone a progress report, because Rome and twins were all-consuming. He did write a lot of journal entries, which eventually became this delightful book.

During the Doerr Family’s year in Rome the twins didn’t let their parents sleep much. They also were very sick for weeks, and then Doerr’s wife Shauna ended up in the hospital. Pope John Paul II died, and a new pope was elected. The seasons changed, the husband and wife went on outings to Umbria, and the babies learned to walk. They watched the pines out the window:

Mediterranean pines, stone pines, parasol pines, and umbrella pines—all the same thing: Pinus pinea. Regal trees, astounding trees, trees both unruly and composed at once, like princes who sleep stock-still but dream swarming dreams.

In another place I read that Anthony Doerr likes to quote Victor Shklovsky, who wrote 100 years ago: “Art exists that one may recover the sensation of life; it exists to make one feel things, to make the stone stony. The purpose of art is to impart the sensation of things as they are perceived and not as they are known.”

And this is what Doerr tries to do – but first he must shake himself out of the habit of not seeing, this habit that he explains is quite necessary:

Without habit, the beauty of the world would overwhelm us. We’d pass out every time we saw—actually saw—a flower. Imagine if we only got to see a cumulonimbus cloud or Cassiopeia or a snowfall once a century: there’d be pandemonium in the streets. People would lie by the thousands in the fields on their backs…..

“Habitualization,” a Russian army-commissar-turned-literary-critic named Viktor Shklovsky wrote in 1917, “devours works, clothes, furniture, one’s wife, and the fear of war.” What he argued is that, over time, we stop perceiving familiar things—words, friends, apartments—as they truly are.

If I did go to Rome, I’m sure I would be shaken out of my everyday way of seeing things. This has happened to me many times, being in a new place without The Usual surroundings and schedule and people in my life. Even the air smells different, and seems to wake up the brain. Reading Doerr makes me want to take off the blinders more often and really be attentive to what is bombarding my senses.

It could be scary, I know – or exhausting, as he warns:

The gaze widens and drifts; the eye is insatiable. The brain drowns.

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“The Big Fountain” near the Doerrs’ apartment. Completed 1690.

So Anthony Doerr is very good at what he does, but he is more than a skilled observer and wordsmith; as he imparts to the reader what he receives from the world, his own warmth and humanity come with the package. He is a grateful and caring man who reveals his humble likableness in this very personal account. As he tells you what he sees, he can’t help but tell you who he is. When he looks at his little son:

…his entire four-pound body motionless except his eyelids, it seemed he understood everything I was working so hard to understand: his mother’s love, his brother’s ceaseless crying; he was already forgiving me for my shortcomings as a father; he was the distillation of a dozen generations, my grandpa’s grandpa’s grandpa, all stripped into a single flame and stowed still-burning inside the thin slip of his ribs.

When it is time for the Doerrs to return to their Idaho home, Anthony tries to put the experience of leaving Rome into words:

I know nothing. I lived in Rome four seasons. I never made it through the gates between myself and the Italians. I cannot claim to have become, in even the smallest manner, Roman. And yet I can’t stop myself: a pen, a notebook, the urge to circumscribe experience. Roma, they say, non basta una vita. One life is not enough.

I was grateful to visit Rome by means of this book, but of course, it was enough for me. I don’t have a bucket list of books or places to see or experiences to have, because if I ever start to think like that, I am reminded of the example of our Lord’s earthly life that was on the surface quite confined — He didn’t go to Rome, either — but was the expression of the best human life ever lived.

I could also be content not reading another book for the rest of my life, but I did just order Doerr’s collection of short stories, The Shell Collector, and in that way hope to see more wide views through his brain-drowning gaze.

Walking Pennsylvania woods and gardens.

It was fun to be in a different climate zone with lots of plants I’m not used to. All my cousins appreciate my love for the flora of their world. Elise has this huge tree in her little back yard, a pawlonia or Japanese Empress tree, which I remembered from three years ago. I took a picture of a small portion through my bedroom window.

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Renée and I walked in the woods twice in two days. Even the rotting leaves smell different in her woods from the ones at home. A different recipe – and the aroma is delicious. p1060017-beeches-euonymous

There are also a greater quantity of leaves than I’m used to, what with all the deciduous hardwoods. In the middle of one woods our path ran alongside a clearing where leaves collected from neighborhoods are dumped into big piles for composting. In my part of California the disposal companies might make mulch from the contents of the green bin, but leaves are just a small part of the mix.

Many of the trees were already bare, but birches and Japanese maples were still colorful.

And an invasive species of euonymus that is pink right now. It’s called Winged Euonymus because of the little rectangles sticking out like flags along the stems.

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Renée is such an accommodating host that she was willing to go down to her garden just to pick greens for our breakfast — in response to my answer about what I usually eat. We did this again for dinner, and I took pictures of her garden.

< One of the things she grows is Kalettes, a cross between Brussels sprouts and kale. We enjoyed lots of those in our stir-fry!

 

 

 

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p1060066On my last day in Pennsylvania, my cousin drove me to Longwood Gardens, a property of over 1,000 acres with several conservatories that make it possible to grow exotic plants all year. Right now they are having an amazing chrysanthemum show.

It was novel, the propagating they do with mums, such as grafting 100 varieties on to one stem. That plant was more freakish than beautiful; maybe it had also passed its prime. The 100-bloom domed plants were prettier:

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They have an intricate system for supporting the flowers in such a strict form.

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In 1906 Pierre du Pont purchased the land that has become Longwood Gardens. Previous owners had been farmers, and by 1850 the arboretum they planted had become an expansive collection covering 15 acres. Du Pont bought the 202-acre farm in 1906 to preserve trees that were in danger of being cut down. Then he proceeded to restore and develop the gardens, to grow fruit trees and plant a long Flower Walk, build a chimes tower, install fountains… many features that we didn’t have time to see on this visit, given the early sunset of November.

When Pierre du Pont died in 1954, the Longwood Foundation that he had put in place made possible a transition from private estate to international treasure. Trying to find if there was a connection between Kate’s Dupont Circle neighborhood in D.C. and this gardener, I did discover that Pierre was the grandfather of the Civil War soldier for whom the traffic circle was named. It is fascinating to read about this large and prosperous family through the generations.

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sea oats

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I loved the orchids, and the mandarinquat tree, and hanging gardens and succulents. Of course I won’t show you pictures of everything. But this Silver Garden was an especially lovely and soothing display.

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I must end my travelogue; though it seems incomplete in that I have had to leave out lots of experiences I might ramble on about, it is also a little too delayed for me to want to delve any more into those events. Now the pink leaves are no doubt fallen, and soon snow will be covering them along the forest paths. I came home and have returned to my everyday life that is never the same from one day to the next, so I will get back to writing about that.

Happy December!

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Last images of D.C….

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I had spent five nights with Kate by the time she needed to return to work,
and I was ready to proceed on the next leg of my trip.
Many images of Washington, D.C. had been imprinted on my mind
and recorded by my camera.

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The Navy Memorial, showing western North America.

It looked like winter down by the Potomac, where in Georgetown
they were building up the ice rink for skating, “Coming Soon!”
A man was spreading the freezing water around with a sort of push broom.

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We had been out for a yummy dinner in that neighborhood,
where I was surprised to see, next to buildings along broad sidewalks,
people bedding down for the night on the red bricks.

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Unidentified building with square theme.

My time was up, I had my ticket in hand already, to depart on Train 86 – Northeast Regional Line, to visit my cousins in Philadelphia. Tom drove me to Union Station where I was immediately transported into a compartment of my mind where emotions linked to other train stations throughout my life seem to be stored all together.

My primary experiences of rail travel, thoroughly positive and exciting, were my childhood trips to see my grandmother. Then there was the year that I rode trains from Munich to Istanbul, and back to Amsterdam, young and alone and meeting strangers who were sometimes like angels. That was also my first experience of a huge railway depot like Victoria Station in London, where the first angels appeared.

Mr. Glad and I had a blissful train ride down the coast of California long ago, the day after becoming engaged…and with Pippin I experienced English railways in modern history. God only knows how to sort out all the train events, and speculate about what rivulets of that stream were running through my heart as I entered Union Station gawking. It was early enough that I could wander around a little and feel the vastness of space and excitement — though I think for most people it was routine, and for me the excitement was probably largely drawn from the well of memory.

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When I went through to my gate, I had some trouble finding the right queue to get into. I think I was just a little early, and after the earlier 8:10 boarded things were easier to figure out, partly because I asked people for help.

I should have put my suitcase in the floor-level storage area at the end of the car, but before thinking very long I just hefted it up, balancing it for a second on my head, and it landed in the overhead bin okay. Then I had two hours to look at the scenery, and to read or pray. I was a little downhearted for the first while – probably because I had left my dear daughter and son-in-law behind. Parting is the uncomfortable side of train-station drama.

Soon I was meeting more family and hugs at the other end of my ride and being taken care of again. And that will be the next happy chapter of my travel story.

The Library of Congress

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Ceiling of the Great Hall

The Library of Congress, the Thomas Jefferson Building, was a joy to visit, primarily for its architecture and design – which is not what I had anticipated. Before I had left home, when Kate suggested that we go there, I had naturally thought first of books, and exhibits about books.

We heard a story about how it ended up so beautiful: The first two construction attempts failed at the level of the foundation, and a third person was called in to complete the project. His son, who had recently graduated from the University of Beaux-Arts in Paris, took over the design and completion of the interior ornamentation. Or so our tour guide told us 🙂

When I was trying to review these facts online for this post, I discovered another version of the story in a book about “German Achievements in America.” That story does not mention any failure on the part of the original (German) architects, but rather emphasizes that they spent twenty years perfecting the design and were never given adequate credit for it.

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Main Reading Room

This page on the LOC site gives broader detail about the drama of these events — involving “the selection of the proper cement for the foundation” — and eventual completion in 1897 of the main building of the library, which was not named for Jefferson until 1980.

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Thomas Jefferson deserved to be honored this way, because he offered to sell his whole personal library to Congress after their collection of books was destroyed by fire in the War of 1812; at that time the library was stored in the Capitol. He said he would accept whatever price they decided upon. Previously they had owned only law books, but Jefferson persuaded them that “…there is, in fact, no subject to which a Member of Congress may not have occasion to refer,” and they bought his 6,487 books for $23,950. That amount was based on the number and sizes of the books.

Jefferson’s generosity was not because he no longer needed what he named “unquestionably the choicest collection of books in the U.S.” He used the money gained to pay some of his debts, and began right away in a “frenzy” to assemble a replacement library for himself, saying, “I cannot live without books….”

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(A little part of) Thomas Jefferson’s Library exhibit

Two-thirds of the new Jefferson library was destroyed by another fire in the Capitol, in 1851. In the last decades efforts have been made to restore all the books that were in the original collection bought from Jefferson, and by 2008 replacements had been found for all but 300 of the original books; together with the volumes not destroyed by fire, these all comprise the exhibit of Thomas Jefferson’s Library which has been on display since then. Though we wandered through a couple of other exhibits in the building, this one is where Kate and I spent the most time. I had been to Jefferson’s home at Monticello ten years ago, but through this unhurried perusal of his books I felt more connection to him than ever before.

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Librarian of Congress Ainsworth Rand Spofford, an appointee of Abraham Lincoln, had wanted the Library of Congress to be not just a resource for legislators but a library for the whole nation, and he was responsible for the copyright law of 1870,  which required every author of any copyrighted map, book, piece of music, etc., to deposit two copies in the Library. This method of acquiring materials worked very well, and soon Spofford was pressuring Congress to approve a separate building dedicated to housing the collection, and to do it quickly, because books “were being piled on the floor” and he could see that his job would soon devolve into “presiding over the greatest chaos in America.” Though it took 25 more years before the new building was ready to store the books in a more orderly fashion, Librarian Spofford stayed on all that time, presumably presiding over chaos with hope.

In order to fully appreciate all of the art and architecture of the Library, someone who knows as little as I of fine arts and literature would need days of viewing and background studies. Many short quotes decorate the walls, without reference to the work quoted, and I was curious about these. I did look up this one that I liked (below), and found that it is from a Shakespeare play. Though it is a statement about what we can learn not from books but from nature, I will close with it, as I myself must leave the Library and go now to explore some other good things.

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Tongues in trees, books in the running brooks, sermons in stones,
and good in everything.

-William Shakespeare, “As You Like It”