Just Being There

Each June, as the winter continues for what seems forever, I make plans to visit Italy. In the beginning, it was the single event that kept me going through the winter. Now I wonder if it will be the last time. It is also a chance to recharge the muse after finishing a project and I begin floundering around for the next one.

I do not speak Italian and have little appreciation of its artistic treasures. I have no business or research to undertake. It is enough to simply be there. It is also a stroke of good fortune that I can fly away to Florence, where I spend most of my days simply wandering from place to place, listening to the people, astonished by their energy and the beauty that surrounds them. Then there is the warmth, the warmth each day, all day and throughout the night.

It is reassuring to walk into a place to find the same individuals you recall from previous years--the strong and beautiful woman at the laundry; the quiet one at the kiosk, who retrieves the morning papers for me; those who serve me coffee or tea at the bars. There is something comforting about the people who are familiar in this far off place.

As part of warming up for this month long retreat, I’ve been reading Alastair Reid’s Whereabouts: Notes on Being a Foreigner.

Reid was a poet, staff writer at the New Yorker for several years and translator of many works of South American poets. Among other places, he lived in a remote Spanish village during part of each year. Here he took up residence among the villagers who had kept the modern world at bay.

Communication in the village depended on word of mouth and, as Reid writes in Notes from a Spanish Village “are at the mercy of memory. In the store, Dona Anna tells me that Don Anselmo wishes to see me, though she cannot remember when she got the message.”

There are two, no doubt more, ways to travel—to observe a place and to live among its people. I prefer the later. Upon returning to the unnamed village each year, Reid said he “looked forward keenly to picking up the long, unfinished conversations, the view from the inside.”

From his very first visit to Spain he realized it was going to matter a great deal to him and become a part of his life. “I found it recognizable at once, in the way that something one has been looking for subconsciously is recognizable.”

He bought a small home on a hill above the village, shopped in its few stores, helped the neighbors when needed, and lived a simple life, a life that was possible then in such a village where the climate was warm and where the people took pride in being self-sufficient. He had no car indeed, there were few cars in the village, although the bus did trek up the hill a couple of times a day.

He returned each year, in part, to confirm the village, even though as he says, it doesn’t care. But he wonders if “perhaps we come back to confirm ourselves?”

“From my first visit on, simply being in Spain has always occasioned in me a kind of joy, a physical tingle, which comes from a whole crop of elements: its light, its landscape, its language, and most of all its human rhythm, a manner of being that graces the place. It comes, however not from any such abstract awareness but from intense particularities: bare village café’s loud with argument and dominoes, or else sleepy and empty except for flies; sudden memorable conversations with strangers; the way Spaniards have of imposing human time, so that meals and meetings last as long as they need to.”

As I approach my return to Florence, I share many of Reid’s sentiments. It is warm there, the light is sparkling, as are its people, and while I am a foreigner who doesn’t speak the language, I do not feel like one. There are even times when I am recognized on the street or in a café and that, of course, always surprises and delights me both.

As he prepares to leave once again, always a difficult experience, Reid comments, “…the urgencies I have created for myself elsewhere seem trivial by now, and the timelessness I have grown into is something too rich to leave cursorily.”

Yes, always.