2006 Europe Trip Journal
How I am now is not so much specific things that have happened in the last twenty-four hours as a transition in the identity and meaning of everything.
Itinerary details in being lived—abstract and incidental beforehand—turned out to be radically different from any imagining of them:
•We took three successive flights. encompassing almost ten hours in the air or sixteen-plus counting layovers.
•We were in four different countries in a span of fourteen hours.
•We paid premature visits to two places (Reykjavik and Frankfurt) to which we will return as our trip unwinds back.
In addition, I had my longest stretch ever of being awake. I did not sleep or, for that matter, eat much for about thirty hours. Even now, I have slept one hour of the last thirty-four, but I feel on a second wind after an Italian dinner at a dreamlike rural crossroads.
(Lindy’s experience was similar to mine but less extreme, as she ate on the planes and slept in fits and starts.)
It was not planned that way for any reason other than logistics. Yes, I had Iceland in mind. It incubated as an image for me as far back as 1968-69 when I read the Sagas and other texts about pre-Columbian crossings to northern meadows. Picturing floating ice, cloudberries, and Skraeling natives, I wrote The Continents, a book combining the birth of our son, Norse exploration of Iceland and Vinland, astral talismans, and the lunar landing. These parallel journeys imbued that Ann Arbor spring with a poignancy I still recall as seminal to my subsequent life.
We were poor and domestic then, without the slightest impulse to travel. For over twenty years thereafter we continued on the margin, raising our kids, trying to make a living. Only after they grew up and left the nest (and we had a viable publishing business) did we make our first trip out of North America in 1993. By then both of us were 48 years old, almost 49.
Our initial journey was mostly conventional—five European cities: Amsterdam, Berlin, Prague, Munich, Paris. Berlin and Prague were perhaps a bit daring at that time. In 1969 we traveled around England, and in 2004 we went to Mexico. The journals from all of these trips are on this website.
By 2006, I was ready to think more outside the box. Here was the lay of the land: Lindy had her heart set on Italy, particularly Tuscany, Cinque Terra, and Venice and, though I was not particularly drawn to those (nor particularly undrawn, as anything is potentially new and fresh and exciting), I was attracted to Slovenia, an Italy-bordering country along a hard become soft interface that used to be Western and Eastern Europe or Italy and the Yugoslavian outpost of the Soviet bloc.
We had made a Slovenian friend in Maine; Eda had charmed us with stories of the radical art scene in Eastern Europe and also offered us her circle of friends in Ljubljana—an opportunity to go somewhere unusual and not just be a tourist there.
Iceland had been reignited in my consciousness by a 2002 French documentary—Jean Michel Roux’s Investigation into the Invisible World, about spirit people, trolls, ghosts, fairies, and ETs in the Icelandic countryside. Ordinary people had seen them on a regular basis. During interviews, children and their teachers routinely pointed out sites where they had observed extradimensional beings. Even police constables gestured matter-of-factly to rocks where the invisible folk congregate. Roads had been redirected to skirt their habitats and avoid disturbing their activities; villages were situated so as not to interfere with their mysterious movements.
In the French ciné Iceland came off as a kind of unfinished landscape, a volcanic Dreamtime in which elfin cities lay camouflaged between frames of everyday reality.
Yet even as I charged ahead with plans and collected travel literature, Lindy felt Iceland was one country too many, and so I agreed to drop it. From past experience we knew that it was better not to overcrowd an. Then a residual factor intervened: with our Europe trip in between, we were making a transition from our residence in Maine back to our house in Berkeley, and Icelandair turned out to the only carrier willing to let us leave the States from Boston Logan and return to SFO as a normal round trip without a fare surcharge. Plus, they provided, in fact required, a week’s excursion in Iceland. In addition, the fare with excursion was the lowest by far that I could find, embarrassing even the best on Expedia.com.
We were required to fly into and depart from the same European city (as well as into and out of Reykjavik, the Icelandair hub). Since we were going to the Frankfurt Book Fair at the end of our trip, the choice of the second city was obvious. We were beginning our trip at Damanhur, the spiritual community in northern Italy, so we had to get to Turin (Torino) first. Return flight aside, the closest alternative, among those that Icelandair offers, would have been Milano, but Icelandair had no Milan flights on our departure date of September 13.
Once committed to Frankfurt via Reykjavik, we preferred an hour and twenty minute connecting flight over the Alps to ten hours on the train between Germany and Italy across the Alps, which meant changing airlines in Frankfurt to Lufthansa. What clinched the week in Iceland then was the fact that the Book Fair ended on Sunday, October 8, and Icelandair’s next flight from Reykjavik to SFO was October 14, a perfect interlude.
We made these reservations without a sense of how the whole unrolling would feel. United States to Iceland to Frankfurt to Turin is not at all like a four-stop Southwest Airlines flight. The most obvious difference is that it is longer. But there is more. The language changes. The mood and landscape switch dramatically three times. You have to go through security all over again three times (although we had to show our passports only once, in Reykjavik, for entry into the European Union). And we twice had to leave a whole culture before we even got out of its airport.
The day was endless. It felt like one of those old faxes on rolls that just keep running in error after a page-long transmission has ended. It had no shape at all, no sense of beginning or end as usually determined by meals, sleep, brushing teeth, appropriate intervals of light and darkness. What I am left with mostly are vivid, deeply felt images from the air: flying almost motionlessly in a lens of moonlit clouds, the Dipper always comfortingly there; the impact of the dawn an explosion of light like fire across the East; the literal fact of Iceland lying in the sea up ahead like a map, layers of clouds rushing over it, waves splashing on its shores, the contour of the island visible with its jagged fjords, unfinished volcanic geography, and rashes of urban lighting (6 AM local time).
Then on our second flight: the islands above Scotland seen through clouds; the coastline of Europe with its surf after the Atlantic and North Sea; the boldness of Frankfurt after scrabble of Dutch and German farmlands, as we circled twice over the city with its stadium, skyscrapers, and auditorium in a circuitous route to the airport.
View and visions on our third flight: the black barren tiers of scag mountains in the Alps like a moonscape except for the snow on some, probably above timberline, shaped like humungous irregular cinders; the redness Milan and its old European labyrinths and turrets, the cohesiveness of its architecture like a make-believe city and how it went on for a comprehesnive urban stretch as our plane descended rapidly through cumulus with enough bumpiness and sudden swerves to feel almost reckless with such a vast city beneath.
The central fact of the day was finding a way to tolerate that much airtime.
I am not even close to a comfortable flier. Though I get on planes only a few times most years, I am known to comment that any day I don’t have to fly is a good day. Up in the air I barely ever relax my vigilance or get minimally at ease with the situation. My tendency toward counterphobia (engaging obsessively in thoughts about disaster) synergizes negatively with my lack of tolerance for sensations of claustrophobia and anxiety. I can’t lose the sense of being 35,000 feet up in a metal canister with tanks of flammable liquids, an intense flame, and unknown companions, or stop imagining how the canister might come apart and deposit us in the sky and what that would feel like.
The incipient claustrophobias include a sensation of being trapped and omens of doom everywhere. I have to reassure myself that I have not made a fatal mistake getting on this plane (some of a portent that seems left over, at least topically, from an episode of The Twilight Zone viewed in childhood in which a nightmare of a fatal flight suddenly merged with an approaching reality, and the dreamer, upon seeing his dream stewardess greeting the boarding passengers in real life, fled from the line leading to the plane).
I am not alone in this madness. I have a few friends who would never get on a plane. Another friend once told me of having the sensation that if the plane did not stop bumping she was going to let loose a scream. Stephen King doesn’t fly because, as he puts it, “there are no breakdown lanes in the sky.” Sam Sheppard doesn’t fly; John Madden doesn’t fly; they go by land.
I have never considered that an option, though I certainly feel the same urgency. I at least I get myself up there, though I am totally borderline throughout the flight itself. I withdraw deeper and deeper into myself and become incapable of human contact or solace. I absorb waves of my own anxiety, sometimes approaching panic. I prepare myself for death so that I can be done with it and move on to other thoughts. Over time this becomes a profound as well as a gloomy rumination.
On the long cumulative trip I had to keep moderately optimistic and cheerful, reminding myself that I was here indefinitely and could not afford a descent into terror. I told myself I had a great opportunity for practice in the sense that Buddhism defines practice. It was a chance to get comfortable with unbearable sensations and transmute them into new forms. After all, the parts of myself aroused by the experience of being in a plane and particularly by turbulence are generic and with me all the time at some level. The plane merely exacerbates ancient and core anxieties. By addressing them nakedly in their own terms and going into them rather than trying to throw them off or escape them, I can learn important stuff and get far deeper and deeper far more rapidly than under ordinary conditions. I can progress in my overall understanding of myself and the conditionality of my existence—any existence.
Yes, an opportunity! When the existential situation is most unbearable, the possibilities for real change are greatest,
Intellectually I know that turbulence is no worse than the chop felt in a boat or car, in which manifestation it doesn’t bother me at all, and also that no commercial jet has ever been blown out of the sky. This helps only a little bit because fear is not susceptible to reason; it is about sensation and my minimal capacity for it in certain forms.
So that’s what I worked with: using “chi gung” exercises to breathe into anxiety and tension, pulling in fresh energy from the cosmos and releasing stale stuff through my pores. Each breath taken that way was momentarily liberating and showed me how profound the universe was, how absolute my own presence in it. My position seemed irrelevant, my fear no more than a knot of immense energy. Any breath could be euphoric or alarming; the choice was mine.
I tried to probe my reasons for lack of faith in the plane’s capacity to motor through wind and clouds, a capacity in which most of the other passengers seemed to trust implicitly. This related to an old story—perhaps my oldest from childhood—not trusting anyone, preparing myself for anything so that I would not be duped or startled.
I tried to practice faith. I tried to practice normality, from the standpoint that plain old normality was priceless and different and challenging to achieve here in flight, so had to be worth it. At the same time, I continued to try to defy my superstitions by reminding myself that life and death are both inevitable, that they are not so different from one another as we imagine when alive, and that I need to be aware of all bardo states and their transitions, especially while in a body. The details of this practice would take a much longer exegesis than a trip journal, so I’ll just leave it at that. Suffice it to say I spent hours on the above lessons, and they had a healing effect.
I also tried to sleep, it being the most practical option and a way of killing two birds with one stone. But I found that the unavoidable sensation of descending into oneiric trance fused with even the slightest turbulence in such a way that my dreaming suddenly felt as though it was causing a crash that would then not just be a dream—so I would awake with a hypnagogic start each time.
I didn’t stop trying, as I realized I was nearing the measure of a full night awake—but I didn’t stand a chance. So I listened to the novel Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro on my CD player, and that helped pass some time, though it never completely distracted me. Ishiguro’s writing is perfect for such a situation—exquisite attention to detail and nuance with a slow-moving plot, in fact one of the slowest-moving plots ever. This is a strangely compelling story of cloned children growing up in a world in which they will eventually have to donate their bodies by part.
As I said at the beginning of this account, adapting to the long flight changed my sense of everything. On the morning of the 12th I was heartbroken at leaving Maine just as the leaves were beginning to turn, the mornings getting nippy enough for regular fires in our new woodstove, and a few weeks before the Common Ground Fair. I was disappointed at not (as long as I was leaving) getting back to my life in Berkeley with its own amusements and social distractions and the crew at North Atlantic Books. And I was yearning after the Mets and Jets with whom I would now have to break long, addictive attachments. Add all this to being terrified of the plane and other imposing aspects of the trip, and I was not happy about much.
Little more than a day later, with only one hour of sleep, I am ecstatic to be doing what I am doing. Both Mount Desert and Berkeley seem a million miles away, and the newness and strangeness of everything here in Italy holds my interest fully and makes me feel very alive without diminishing my positive feelings for the things I am giving up. They seem able to coexist inside me. I can miss Maine and the Bay Area but be glad to be on the trip.
Tonight we were driven to a restaurant out in the valley past Damanhur and left there with the stated hope that someone would drive us the couple of miles back to the visitors’ center where our room is. We had pizza from a big wall oven, spaghetti with a delicious sauce too, plus an after-dinner wine the owner insisted upon as a gift (though I don’t ordinarily drink), as well tiramisu and pannacotta with berries and bitter currants you would never taste in the US. I was standing outside the building in the quiet Italian boondocks, realizing how everything was old and interesting and different.
I adore simply being in another country, listening to the sounds of its language, not being able to understand the meanings, staring at detail after detail, because many of them are unexpected (the decay of the side of a building, the shape of a window, what the flusher on a toilet is, e.g. a big flat square panel or long pulley that returns as on a spinning top).
We began the endless day by driving down the coast of Maine, six hours into Boston, stopping for lunch at a deli in Freeport with Roger and Eda, in part to get advice on traveling in Slovenia. We learned then that Eda’s promised apartment would not be available, as her old boyfriend was using it as an office. But Roger and she set us up with her best friend, Irena, and Irena’s novelist partner, Miha. They were to be our Slovenian contacts and guides.
We had four hours in the airport during which we made friends with a woman from Vienna, an erudite and entertaining pixie who had a fanatical enthusiasm for everything Icelandic, a quirk that mirrored my own. Once you get this idea of Iceland in your head, it can breed a sort of loyalty and enthusiasm. Iceland as icon was lurking in me for such a long time as a strange, out-of-the-way island that didn’t fit any context, geographical or historical, before it was sated somewhat in the French documentary about undines and gnomes. Our Austrian friend laid out a large map of Iceland for us and began pointing to fjords and volcanic fields that she was going to try to cram into five days after an academic conference. It was like a parchment of one of the Jovian ice moons.
The first “hit” of Iceland after boarding was the language inside the plane—the speech of the stewardesses and pilot. Icelandic is Germanic in its long compound words and intonations but lighter, a little like Swedish in its flow. It is Scandinavian in accentuation and sound but not sharply Danish or Norwegian either. It is actually Old Norse, and it plays as all its own. It has a music and a dignity; something in it recalls the Sagas and other ancient languages of the Earth: Sanskrit, Mongolian, Aranda, Aramaic.
As I attended closely, the dialect was haunting and pleasurable and gave me chills; it took away my fear of flying for a second: how could one not want to sail with Leif Eiriksson, not trust him and his descendants totally with to fly among the stars?
Listening to the stewardess was also the first moment that Lindy, who was mainly imagining other parts of the trip, got the reality of “the Iceland thing” as more than just a word describing what we were doing to get a better fare. I could sense her appreciation and surprise.
She sat next to a Canadian “invasion biologist” who reminded me a little of Kevin Costner. He was heading to eastern Iceland to complete an experiment that had to do with flushing the bilges of ships with seawater and seeing what was killed between the Great Lakes and Europe. She and he talked for many of the five hours of that flight about not only his experiment (Lindy was determined to understand it), but family, schools, politics, geography, and so on. Overhearing that for idle stretches made some of the time pass more quickly.
The first thing the plane did was apparently retrace our route back along the Maine Coast, probably over our very house (so that, as I imagined during the summer, I was on one of those remote lights passing overhead toward the vast Atlantic, a long way from my destination). We proceeded across New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, out into the sea. I tried not to pay attention to the time. It was too long a trip for counting just yet and we were only on the first leg. (Later I checked the route map in the pouch, and it seemed to challenge the assumption that we flew over coastal Maine, showing on its Iceland-centric polar projection of the Earth a trajectory over interior Maine, but the endless coastline out the window refuted that.)
Turbulence was by far at its worst near the flight’s beginning. That was hard, with so much to go that there was no hope of terminus, only endurance. The body does get used to it, as in an initiation. Over time, bumpiness comes and goes and is not so much a disturbance or dismay. You know it will get better, but you also know that, as soon as you think it is smooth again, it will get worse—so you work on your mind that is doing all the overthinking and you interrogate the turbulence there.
After a long while I overheard Lindy and the biologist discussing resetting their watches, and the times they exchanged had us fifteen minutes short of halfway, and that was exciting. I then listened to a 72-minute CD from the novel, so I knew we were getting close.
With just about everyone else on the plane asleep, including Lindy, I was searching the sky ahead for the dawn and kept wondering if this or that slight increase in light was the slow suffusing of sun. Yet it was ever moon and stars. I had forgotten that the appearance of dawn is like someone blasting a hole in the sky and letting in a gorgeous rainbow across the whole creation. There could be no mistaking sunrise. And then there was Iceland lying in the sea, the precisely shaped puzzle piece on any map. At last the Sagas had become real. I felt an epiphany of relief and awe.
The Reykjavik airport was charming. Not only was it small, but it seemed like a building in which constitutions could be signed and people could actually dwell, a house with rooms and old panel hallways. It was peaceful, even with all the people milling and jostling about, and impossibly clean. Though there were many nationalities, I spotted an Icelandic presence, particularly those tall young women looking like queens of Narnia or something from Valhalla. These girls are descendants of Vikings and even the ones not obviously beautiful are beautiful. A few look the way Athena must have appeared to mortals, well over six feet with large facial features. One or two were among the stewardesses who traveled down the corridors in gaggles. There were also Viking warriors and human trolls and dwarves, wild hair and beards, unabashed in their own airport.
Lindy can sometimes be quite as much an enthusiast as me, and she exclaimed in a burst of joy. “I love this country. The airport is beautiful. The people are beautiful. Let’s do a book about it.”
I said, “But you’ve only seen the airport.”
She said, “Then let’s do a book about the Iceland airport.”
I was starving from foregoing meatballs or chicken on the plane and, when I saw a store with slabs of smoked salmon from the waters off Iceland, I was filled with poetic as well as cuisinary desires quickly bought a pack, sliced into it with a plastic knife from where there was coffee, put it on some Ak-Mak crackers from my backpack, and made a feast. I loved eating Icelandic fish, being amid Icelandic words, snyrtingar for bathroom, jokull for glacier (on an ad), flugvullor for airport, hlio for gate. Then I realized it was not hlio because the “o” was actually a “d” with its tail bent backwards and tucked down into its body. I kept sounding “hlio” in my mind only because I had nothing to put in its place. It was more like “hli-migraine-aura.”
I took my first photograph at Lindy’s urging, a college-age kid curled up in the deep-set alcove, a foot or more of round ledge inside a stylish giant circular window that seemed like something from an art museum or aquarium rather than an airport. Outside were not fish but lit hangars and a ghostly dawn.
Leaving Iceland, I saw the barren fields with buildings like sheds in clusters, a blackness punctuated with silver streams, a jagged coastline, then ships of various sizes.
On the flight to Frankfurt Lindy sat next to a cherubic physicist from Madrid, reading Jonathan Livingstone Seagull in Spanish, and she told him how great it was to be out of the States. This is what I felt too. Existence grows larger and more textured just from not being surrounded by Americans, also by hearing so many other languages than yokel and stockbroker English. I enjoyed eavesdropping on two men behind me going back and forth between Icelandic and English, only the latter understandable to me of course, talking about not even so much what a moron Bush is, but precisely why he is a moron and how everyone in the world knows except some bible-toting Americans. They were nailing on the head, nail by nail, the idiocy and sure looming disaster of the Iraq War. In their soberly outraged volleying of the facts, the state of absurdity seemed even more obvious than it had, and I was relieved that the whole world was not caught up in either our fanatic righteousness or the jihadists’ retribution. Another reason for choosing Icelandair was that it was about as far removed from the World War—the terrorists on either side—as you can get.
The wind over the ocean was intense, and the entire crossing to the Continent was bumpy, more so ironically where the ocean was visible below, less so when we were above clouds or broken cover. I imagined that high winds had blown corridors clean of clouds and we were encountering them up high where we were. Two other jets came from the horizon at right angles to us, leaving their trails at enormous speed, crossing a little above us and a few seconds before we got to the same spot, their shadows quickly over our plane. It was bit of a rush to observe, though I realized I had to assume everyone was on course and this was how crowded Euro routes worked.
The Frankfurt airport was everything discordant that Reykjavik wasn’t. One exited the plane to chaos and cigarette smoke. You could not escape it anywhere, though it was much stronger some places than others. Even though I was prepared for it, after years in America it was a shock, a plunge back in time of about thirty years.
Our immediate chore was to retrieve our bags from Icelandair’s carousel and cart them to Lufthansa in the other teriminal. It was totally our responsibility; the system didn’t do it.
Far too many Germans are brusque and rude, especially this soon after the debacles of the last century. They bump into you and just glare or keep moving. They shove their way through without looking back. There is a lot of punk mixed with fascism in this nation. I felt it when a woman in a motorized wheelchair, seriously deformed, not only a dwarf but with short twisted legs and undefined toes, stumps for arms, completely prone, forced her way into our shuttle train to Terminal 1, grumpily running people over and shoving as best she could. She lay in a glory of disablement, a cigarette in the corner of her mouth, rings in her lips and on her toes, moving coins with her toes and giving everyone who even glanced at her a completely assured look, like “Asshole, don’t even breathe my way.” She was great. Yet that same look on suited businessmen was the height of unearned arrogance. Take the guy who occupied the outer seat on the crowded bus we had to take to our Lufthansa plane; he wouldn’t move over so that anyone else could sit in the one empty spot, just held his place like a sumo wrestler, no inclination to accommodate, in fact the opposite.
Finding our flight and getting our bags checked ran the full gauntlet of German incivility. First of all, Lufthansa in its various departments fills much of Terminal 1, so we were dragging our suitcases back and forth trying to find a line for ordinary international flights, not just Israel and the U.S., which was all there seemed to be. Information booths were useless; that is, gave only wrong directions, probably because the personnel could not conduct successful exchanges in English. Finally, by trial and error, we got to the correct zone, but they offered customer service there only for an emergency. You were supposed to check yourselves in with the vague assistance of three young guys more involved in wrestling and regaling one another than helping. Each of them had mastered the curt grunt or throwaway syllable in response to any decent question. Lindy gets particularly aggravated in situations like that, and I watched her duke it out with one asshole, though she was way overmatched because he just repeated the same English words, which were unacceptable to her, shortening his sentence each time until it was just a very skillful syllable that said in essence, “Fuck you, dumb American lady.”
What was unclear to us for quite a while was that you had to insert into a machine the same credit card with which you booked the flight, for identification only (not to pay) to get a seat assignment and a luggage tag. Then you had to understand that the x-raying of the baggage was a totally separate matter and got you nowhere toward checking your bag or even making you a potential customer rather than just some guy passing through who wanted his bag x-rayed for unknown reasons. They were x-raying everything with bored expressions and then tossing it aside so that you had no idea what to do next. In other words, your suitcase would get x-rayed and then go nowhere. You had to retrieve it for the next step.
The other thing was that the computer system was new and had many malfunctions. In our case the malfunction was that it recognized me but not Lindy, so she had to be sent to a totally different place with her bag to get it checked and receive a seat assignment. The young guy whom she sought out when the machine rejected her name told her to ask for 11E, next to me, but the entire scenario was unclear to her, and she didn’t grok his logic. Feeling personally insulted by the machine’s rejection, she took to arguing about why I got to have my bag checked right there but not her, which was really a bad idea because after a while he just ignored her and kept wordlessly pointing in a direction, so she got more agitated and even I was unable to convince her it would be okay; our bags would both get to the right place. She then got angry at me for taking his side.
Finally we achieved everything at this stage, but then we hit an hour-long sweaty snaking line through security. It was a case of needing incredible patience, on little sleep. The crowd was global, and the scenery was rundown and falling apart, in far more disarray than say the New York City Subway at a bad station under eternal repair. The smell of nicotene smoke was suffocating, coming from everywhere, and yes, a number of Germans in suits just pushed ahead.
When that was all done, it was not reassuring that they couldn’t find a jet and so put us on the afore-mentioned ten-minute bus ride across the tarmac to a smaller plane in a remote corner of the airport, loaded us on, and then went looking for a pilot. Lindy said, “It doesn’t give you a lot of faith they know what they’re doing.” No, it doesn’t.
But they found someone willing to fly the plane, and the flight was seamless,. The little machine was like a German hotrod over the Alps, only bumpy when we had to descend through multiple cloud layers over Milan.
What a change in national character just crossing the border! Italians were lively, gregarious, cheerful, and generally in a good mood. Our driver from Damanhur, a young guy named Argo, was particularly delightful, launching at once into a soliloquy about the four “what-do-call-them” that mark only Damanhur and a place in “Teebet” (Lindy supplied “lei lines,” and he said , “yes, yes”), and how it is not the Earth that is in need of healing, the Earth is quite big enough to handle anything; it is us who are in need of healing from the Earth.
Damanhur is fifty kilometers from Turin, so we got our first wild ride on an Italian highway. I guess it was okay. We were in a small Damanhur-marked bus, and Argo came up behind other cars really close, at high speed, used the shoulder as if it were a lane, and waited till the last minute always to pull in after passing. It was a case of “trust and let it be.”
Initially Argo apologized for parking so far away, but it was the equivalent of a mere block, far closer than at most American airports. After we started driving, it became evident his windshield had a ticket for his proximity to the loading zone, but he just let it blow off, celebrating the moment with a fist and a cheer. He was talking about the Damanhurian community and his own role in it and how his life led him there, discussing the particular type of spiritual development that existed in the community, at the same time sharing (after spurning) my organic American pistachios with me (once he found out they were organic), idealizing California where he had never been.
He kept asking for help on English words, usually right before coming up with a perfect if odd choice of his own. While commenting on our account of the long journey, he took to making grunting noises to show how little tolerance he had for idle time on a plane. He made a one-hour grunt and an even worse two-hour grunt. He said he never took any flight that required three hours or more. When I asked him if he had seen the famous Italian movie about the guy who takes the ticket off another car and puts it on his own, and the cop comes and tickets the other car again, he said, “What year?” When I told him mid sixties, he said, “I didn’t see it. My mother was only ten.”
He delivered us to the Welcome Center where we were met by numerous friendly women who served as customs agents for the community. We filled out many forms about our lives and had our pictures taken. Then we were escorted to our room where I got my one hour of sleep before a woman deposited us at a local cafeteria (big pizza oven, gelato bar, and a few tables); she was in the process of going home from work (8:30 pm) and sure we would get a ride back. The owner took special care of us, apologizing often for his English (we ugly Americans are so indulged!), translating the menu with unnecessary gusto and then, as he delivered the order, telling us about each piece of food in detail and hanging around to see if we enjoyed it.
Our hosts were right about the ride, even though we had to wait twenty minutes after dessert for a couple to haul us back—but in that interim we took a pleasant circular stroll in the Italian night. Then they appeared down the steps, introduced themselves and shook our hands, though spoke no English. Us in the back seat, they chatted away in Italian, swerving wildly down the road and screeching around curves.
On the verandah typing near midnight local time, I can hear the brook.
September 14 (Day Two)
We went to bed yesterday knowing next to nothing about Damanhur except that it was a community involved in esoteric practices and that there was a temple somewhere inside a mountain. I was vague on whether the members were resident or dispersed, autonomous practitioners or obedient devotees; to what degree their system was Buddhist, Hindu, Sufi, qabbalistic, Gnostic, New Age, eclectic, or completely idiosyncratic. I didn’t know if they were authoritarian or democratic, sophisticated or credulous, devotional or millenary, a sociopolitical entity or a ceremonial church. Most important, I didn’t know if their iconography or occult practices would match anything familiar to me or, for that matter, be something I was attracted to.
Usually I mistrust newfangled or reborn spiritual groups—and that includes fundamentalist Christians, Muslims, and Jews these days—by the rule that it is near impossible to invent or re-codify a religion without turning the faithful into menial drill sergeants and robotic partisans. Craving open-minded inquiry and bridling at sanctioned rituals, I am ever on guard against the spiritual bully and the fanatic in their many guises. Even some sincere Buddhist groups seem to me trapped in unexamined rituals and mudras without honoring the improvisational and divine novelty of the universe and without conferring on their practitioners the means to think and act on their feet. I am all for guru worship and the authenticity of thousand-year-old practices, but it’s hard for me to accept sacraments or regimens when I don’t perceive their profundity. If something doesn’t feel conscious and truly wise or even legitimately internal, I won’t go there. In that sense I would take crazy poets and artists any day over divine squadrons.
Yet Damanhur quickly read as special and unique; it allayed my concerns and exceeded all of my expectations. By the late afternoon, I had experienced the rudiments of a far-flung intentional community, a federation with a thousand citizens, its own currency, schools, shops, social services, and a sacred art, architecture, and technology that rivals anything on the planet. That’s a strong statement, but I don’t believe one could come here and see it with his (or her) own eyes and not be affected. Astonishing that such a thing exists and most people on the planet have no inkling of it!
Entry, though, was thorny and unpromising.
After we woke up a bit groggy and spaced out, we went down to the cafeteria from our quarters in the guesthouse and discovered that we had no lira or Damanhur coins to buy dishes from the counter, and the food provided free for breakfast on the table along the wall was more minimal than a list of its ingredients would reveal: remains of granola, stray slices of bread, yogurt, a few old oranges. No sooner had we begun to gather items when a young woman arrived from the office to announce with chagrin that Lindy’s and my group had already begun to learn the sacred dance and we were late. She all but scolded us, warning that we had to complete this lesson in order to be prepared to enter the Temples.
I knew nothing about such a dance provision and was unhappy to find that we had a formal schedule, let alone were assigned to a group. I had hoped that, as the distributors of the forthcoming book on the temples at Damanhur, we would get an honorary bye or at least an informational tour. Nothing about a group or a course had been mentioned in our email correspondence. Plus I found it hard to believe that in our state of evident weariness and disarray we would be herded into a class first thing in the morning. We needed at least half a day of adjustment. Jet-lagged, irritable, barely awake, I was not in the mood for sacred or any dance, and Lindy was nursing her own grim prognosis. But, good campers, we hurried through a semblance of a meal and got ourselves down to the basement. We were too late. The group to which we supposedly belonged was already en route to its tour. Whew!
Not so fast. On our way back upstairs we were intercepted by the same lady and led like truant children to the teacher who was waiting to instruct just little old us. She was right from central casting: the Italian New Age schoolmarm, tanned, jellylike, and jolly in a sort of dissociated way. She behaved like someone who could have been instructing seniors in the tango at Grossinger’s forty years ago.
I tried to be receptive and to keep an open mind, but the lesson was pedagogical, smug, and ingenuous. It was, in a word, humiliating. The basic protocol was that the teacher gave directions in Italian, and the liaison from the office translated for the two of us. We then had to mimic the steps like obedient students. There was no apparent spiritual or internal content, no explanation or visualization, just a requirement of submissive mimicry and declarations of the great power of what we were doing.
We were told right off that the dance was complicated and we should master whatever of it we could. The teacher, continuing to prattle merrily in Italian as though to an invisible stadium, was translated to say that the feeling of the dance was much more important than its choreography. That got me briefly hopeful, but then she didn’t teach in a thoughtful or feeling manner. She was too gay and giddy as she swung her arms forward and back with showy faux abandon (a move called net, or “we dance” in Damanhurian). Then we did one called notaar, “to prepare”; it involved a closed fist coming down on an arm, then reaching up to the heavens for energy (rajl, “our body”), and so on through bav, jae, ela, tat, and et (“inner towards the knowledge of the place sacred”), all illustrated in felt pen on a large paper pad set on a music stand. A combination of modern dance and New Age theater, it was actually a kind of superficial eurythmy in that the movements spelled out words in Damanhurian ideograms.
I tried to integrate “chi gung” consciousness, picturing a chi ball and distributing its contents with my motions in an attempt to make my actions minimally meaningful and internal. But the pace was too fast and aerobic and the gestures too—in truth—external. It was indoctrination and ritual habit, not practice.
After seeing the rest of Damanhur, I have to believe that there is a powerful sacred dance somewhere within these mudras, but what Lindy and I encountered that morning was a parody of a couple arriving at a New Age center in Italy (or anywhere) and being taught exaggeratedly celebratory cheerleading. It came off as silly and inflated, though nothing else at Damanhur subsequently read that way.
My feeling after the lesson was: how quickly can we escape from this joint before the next embarrassment?
That came soon enough. I won’t go into details. Suffice it to say that a certain confusion hovered around who and what we actually were: students, tourists, guests, or associates— mere egglings or potential peers? We had been advertised as friends of artist Alex Grey as well as distributors of Damanhur: Temples of Humankind, the forthcoming book by Alex’s new press, COSM (Chapel of Sacred Mirrors). Yet, beyond that, it was uncertain to them why we had showed up or what we understood about esoteric matters. For instance, they didn’t think we knew about alchemy; yet our whole publishing company began with an Alchemy Issue of Io in 1967 before many of them were born. They didn’t realize that North Atlantic was a spiritual, consciousness-oriented publisher, not just a distribution functionary like Baker & Taylor. They didn’t know that over decades Lindy and I had investigated or actually studied tarot, astral projection, sacred geometry, hands-on energy work, and radionics, among their key topics.
In our setting up of the visit and then our arrival and interview, we had engaged in a classic “lost in translation” dialogue in which we and they each assumed that the other knew what we were talking about. I assumed, for instance, that they had been briefed at least minimally on who we were and what our rough level of knowledge and engagement with them was; that they got it that we were seekers with some degree of training. Meanwhile, they assumed that, if we had earned a level of respect, we would have presented ourselves that way and spoken up from the get-go. As it turned out, we were being led into a full, expensive neophyte student program because I had inadvertently said “yes” to the word “program” at some point, assuming it was a euphemism for something else. And so and so on.
Over the next hour we were able to straighten matters out and get started anew with a clean slate.
As things evolved, Esperide Ananas, a long-time Damanhur resident and author of the COSM book, was prepared to conduct us through Damanhur—like Vergil through wondrous and otherwordly tableaus. Dante couldn’t have had a more enthusiastic and instructive chaperone. From the time we met her around ten until six o’clock, we were in a state of incipient revelation, as we were introduced to the community at many levels.
It was raining very hard that morning, as it would be all day, ranging from a steady downpour to sheets of windblown water. From the failed dance, a friendly office worker, Luchetella, volunteered to chauffeur us on the short journey from the welcome center to Damunhurcrea, the old Olivetti factory that is now a multimedia studio and community hall. The drive, like all car trips in this valley, was hair-raising—sharp curves, hairpins with huge drops off the sides into a gorge, only one lane so that our driver had to honk before every blind curve (meaning almost every curve) and, if we met another vehicle, someone had to back up. Honking had become automatic and stylized for locals, like shifting gears, a kind of series of dabbed blips. It was done as three or four quick notes in an automatic sequence seamlessly involving steering wheel and brake as well.
Esperide, whose name I remember to pronounce correctly by thinking “asparagus,” met us inside the door. She is a compact, fashionable Italian lady in her early forties, a pouty New Wave face (Esperide has lightly objected to this odd word choice of mine, so I have removed it from various serializations of this section of my travel journal, which appeared later in Elixir Magazine and a Damanhur travel guide, but which I leave here as a traveler’s quick take). She also had long curlicued blonde hair, lots of sacred jewelry (neck and fingers), a pink suede jean jacket with white fake-fur trim and bushy cuffs, a black floppy over-the-shoulder bag, and tireless spunk. Her most serious aspect; she is an advanced practitioner of Damanhurian sacred methods. As she attended NYU and teaches occasionally at Esalen, her English is excellent. After introductions and pleasantries (and our expressed relief at escaping our “group”), she led us at once into a gallery of Falco’s paintings.
Falco, AKA Oberto Airaudi, is the founder of Damanhur. He is traveling this month or we might have met him. An avatar who invented an entire culture and political system, he is an innovative painter as well as, for lack of a better title, an Atlantean alchemist. The gallery at Damanhurcrea consists entirely of his work, and it is so unlike anything else that I am going to have trouble characterizing it in words.
The first impression, approaching the room at a distance, is of florescence. Esperide told us to experience the paintings energetically, characterizing the exhibit as a kind of intelligent transmission of metals, an alchemical message intended to impact our chakras as well as deep organs we did not know we had. The sigils hanging on the walls in the guise of paintings were essentially alchemical stations broadcasting singular and collective messages into our cells. Okay, here we go:
The lights are turned down and variably progressive floodbeams falling on the paintings illuminate colors in details as complex and wild in their own way as Jackson Pollack. As we enter, we are surrounded by their glow like an electric jungle. This illusion—and I emphasize illusion—of abstract expressionism applies to many of the panels, but others are clearly figurative rebuses in inimitable Damanhurian ideographs; they throb like neon too. Some have a distinct Australian Aborigine look: dot-constructed roundish shapes inside soft meandering borders inside an overall creature or geography. Some look like “Picasso meets Bosch meets Escher,” cubism overlapping moebius space. Others look like a combination of hermetic and Egyptian hieroglyphics mixed with complex meta-alphabetic characters not unlike a very elaborate extension of what Pawnee Indians once inscribed on rocks and horsehide. Others in the same genre tend toward a hybrid between a schematic for an electrical system (with pluses and minuses) and the sort of hieroglyphs that might be inscribed in colored paints on rocks on distant worlds with no connection at all to terrestrial calligraphy. Some look Mayan; some look Chaldean; some look Polynesian. Some resemble hypothetical Paul-Klee-painted astrological charts. Others could be Hubble telescope renderings of astral fields, galactic and bursting with primary colors. Some look like polarized images of planetary landscapes: river systems and lagoons in bright false colors. A few look like Lascaux cave creatures amid Greek trigonometry. Half a dozen or so are particularly reminiscent of Jean Cocteau and Jean Miro, especially the hanging globes, partial globes, and sections of cones, with stars and glyphs painted on them. All of them, even the full abstracts, are organized under a kind of metaphysical regime which flirts at spots with traditional occult designs. Florescent paints shine from everywhere so that it feels like being in an aquarium of phosphorescent creatures or floating in a space of moons, comets, and double stars.
Much of the art in the gallery draws explicitly from alchemy, tarot, and qabbalistic magic. In fact, probably a third of the paintings comprise more than one complete deck of major and minor arcana. Several of the major trumps appear multiple times with wide-ranging variations and occasional jokes; for instance changing an “r” to a “p” in Italian makes the Emperor (imperatore) into the pepper-shaker (impepatore). The Tower card depicts a millennial moment wherein old belief systems are shattered so that new ideas and knowledge can burst through, an interpretation that is not applied seriously enough to 9/11 in which a tower is likewise struck by a form of fire, people fall, and planetary consciousness shifts forever.
Many of the canvasses could be thought of as the insides and outer matrices of a cell with bright shades of blue, yellow, purple, and orange and semi-biological or atomic patterns all rushing in intersecting fields. Some were biological, dense, and oozing; others were more astronomical and shimmering or radiating. I call them astronomical because Esperide, while joining us for brief elucidations, described them as planetary landscapes viewed after preparations by methods that Falco teaches. Their color fields, she said, include “patterns that come from extraterrestrial and cosmic transmission as well as past-life memories of Falco.”
The works have “titles” that go on for paragraphs in a book Esperide handed us with English translations like “stories never told, dreams that were never lost, with those never dreamt… details that have not been told but intensely lived in the silence at the center of everyone…the ancient stellar message repeated by life itself…” and so on. She explained that the images also contained hidden stories at different esoteric levels, codes of Damanhurian philosophy and belief systems.
The images, it gradually became clear, are not visionings so much as training manuals, actual communication devices to achieve direct knowledge from nonhuman intelligences. Their designs are achieved as links for sending and receiving information between dimensions. More than that, the paintings are precise wireless devices that can be accessed like ouija boards by tiny alchemical tools created by Falco to adjoin their edges.
The most distinctive feature of the exhibit, other than its luminosity, is the ubiquity of geometries and topographic outlines, the crowns and hand shapes applied in metallic overlay as though soldered onto the canvasses at the last phase of construction. Fields of raised gold leaf that trace connected heraldic designs of glyphs and esoteric patternings are not so much ornamental as what they look like: psychic paraphysical wiring that can be used to enter and receive information from the intelligence of the painting. We were not initiated to engage in this mode of dialogue with the networks, so we did not get to use odd triangular devices fashioned for communication through them.
When I passed Esperide again in front of a series of circular energy fields, I remarked that the paintings were very different from Alex Grey’s work, yet I imagined he would appreciate them. I thought that if the imagisitic energy within the atoms in Alex’s sacred anatomies could each be enlarged as through a microscope (or the psychic equivalent of a microscope), they might look like Falco’s whole paintings. Each was like an Alex Grey pixel blown up, operating at a related frequency.
Esperide then pronounced, in a flourish of three differently-stressed syllables, her favorite English word: “Ex-ac-tly.” (in fact, we would discover that many Italians adore this particular Anglophonic ESL invention). Then she added: “Macrocosm and microcosm. Falco is the microcosm.”
“It is not quite that linear or simple,” I said; “Falco is the point at which the inside of the atom…”—“the quark,” Esperide corrected at once—“meets the spiraling galaxies.”
As the lights changed in the room, layers that had been invisible manifested such that the viewing began to have a profound psychedelic effect. Lindy and I wandered in this maze separately, gazing about, stopping to observe myriad details of bottomless landscapes. It was dizzying and transforming to occupy such a space. The luminosity and galactic qualities gave rise to deep sensations of trance and mystery.
After we had gazed for a half hour or so, Esperide sat us down in front of a canvass of huge gleaming galactic corridors and instructed us in sounds to resonate with our chakras and massage our organs. We went sequentially through three counts each of a deep “ah” to “o” to “u” to “i,” passing up from the solar plexus to the throat to the third eye and ending with one beat of a very high “i ” through our crown chakras. A sound was initiated as classic in-breaths through the nose and out-breaths through the mouth and, during each of them, our thumb made a mudra circuit with a different finger from index to pinky and ultimately lay atop a closed fist. Rarely does one get much of an effect from exercises like this on the first try so, despite her earnestness, I had to be satisfied with the mere external performance of the deed.
The chanting complete, we spent another half hour rewalking the gallery, as our internal experience of it should have been deepened by the exercise. I began to have a nostalgic sense of a planetarium while imagining actual travel through starry clusters to exotic worlds. Only here it was seeping into my body on a subliminal level. Perhaps I was made receptive by jet-lag, or perhaps we were being prepared and altered by the art and chants and mudras—or maybe both….
From the gallery we were taken on a tour of the rest of the top floor of Damanhurcrea, which included a cafeteria, a Damanhurian supermarket, a sacred jeweler, an auditorium, and a school. The supermarket offers products manufactured by Damanhurians here in the Valchiusella Valley and elsewhere in Italy, including organic soaps and detergents, wines, cookies, oils, and biodynamic vegetables and fruits.
Damanhur educates its young before sending them to high school in Italy, and we visited a number of classrooms in session, all grade-school level, none with more than four very bright-looking Mediterranean children amid maps, posters, tools, and a teacher. They each stopped and welcomed us and then continued with their lessons as we observed them (of course in Italian). I felt energy, intelligence, and attention. The teachers were formal and enthusiastic, and I don’t feel it was an act. As we walked between classrooms, Esperide explained that the students also apprentice in community foundries, agricultural plots, woodshops, bakeries, wineries, etc.; she emphasized that these are tutelages that “they love.”
Mr. Olivetti built this factory himself in the 1960s to keep jobs in his home valley, but once he died, it was abandoned by his heirs as an idealistic and impractical folly. That extended decision left the Valchiusella community with high unemployment and poverty. When Damanhur colonized the valley, they tried to buy the building, but the Olivettis viewed the newcomers as cultists and pagans and initially refused to sell to them.
Valchiusella is a conservative valley in the most Catholic of countries, and the introduction of such a strange “religion” was fiercely resisted on all fronts. At some level, the whole affair is still resisted, particularly by the Church. Thus, for instance, non-Damanhurian schoolchildren are not allowed to see the Temples despite many invitations and offers of generous prizes for the best artistic work by a child reflecting the chambers.
Yet acceptance has come at other levels, for Damanhur has brought jobs to the area, erected new homes, and rebuilt the emergency (fire and police) systems. Now, twenty-five years or so after settlement, the mayor himself is a Damanhurian.
Eventually Damanhur swayed the Olivetti family by its bounty of good deeds for the whole community, non-Damanhurians as well, and the factory was sold to them. Damanhurians restored it with respect to its history and architectural legacy. Part of the entry to the building celebrates Olivetti history in old black-and-white photographs blown up onto panels with accompanying text. (The Olivettis were pleased enough by the result that they allowed their name to remain on the refurbished center.) Damanhur now uses part of the vast space to offer computer skills and other job training for locals, running almost a full community college for older workers displaced by the Olivetti closure as well as (more manageably) for the new generation of their children.
The lower floor of the building contains a series of about twenty shops and businesses, all Damanhurian: solar and voltaic energy, fashion accessories, mosaic work, art restoration, selfic technology (which I will discuss later), painting, ceramic sculpture, baking, glass-blowing, green and alternative architecture, chocolate making, and computer training, all serving the community and beyond. For instance, art restorers from Damanhur work on churches and old statues and paintings throughout Europe. Mosaic artists prepare luxurious floors and walls for their customers in many and unexpected nations. This very day they are shipping finished tiles and mosaics to Israel and India. Silk painters are preparing exquisitely lovely high-end screens to go to Japan and Quebec
As we walked through the building, Esperide narrated more Damanhurian history and philosophy. The community is widespread with different families in the Valley and others throughout Italy. All contribute to the meta-nation and participate in its industries. Some of the families farm; others operate factories, foundries, woodshops, bakeries, wineries, etc. Some live in apartments in cities, some in large communal houses locally; some even climb to their treehouse homes—all proudly fly the Damanhurian flag and use Damanhurian currency for their internal transactions.
After an hour’s tour of the building and question-and-answer visits with a school teacher named Anaconda and a jeweler named Walrus (other Damanhurians we met were named Barracuda and Cobra), Esperide drove us to her communal family for lunch in a house further up the mountain where we shared a buffet with the group: cheeses, pastas, tomatoes, and wonderfully bumpy and irregular non-cosmetic peaches and apples from local orchards. But before eating, we were asked to walk the labyrinth in final preparation for entering the Temples.
Ordinarily those about to enter the Temples are required to wander and meditate for at least an hour in the labyrinth. Its basic grid surrounds the house with many intricate branches defined by paths of yellow and blue and unpainted stones leading to dead ends or spiraling into and out of centers. The entire geometry, Esperide told us, was laid out by Falco spontaneously, and it stretches, unseen from the alcove, for miles through the woods and includes nodes for healing and esoteric transmissions of knowledge. Falco had no prior map for this mega-circuitry. He apparently saw an energy field that was already there and had someone follow him with string, tracing lines as he pointed out its path.
Because it was pouring rain, we were only expected to stay in the grid briefly at our discretion. Pendants with wooden glyph-inscribed rhomboids were hung about our necks to activate the circuits and we were dispatched into the downpour, babes in the woods. Esperide said not to get lost or to cross a wall because that would be harmful after activation.
I had long had a desire to walk a labyrinth, so I stayed in for about twenty minutes in the heavy drenching rain, eventually taking off my shoes and socks and walking barefoot, carrying them in each hand, as they had become soaked. My pants and shirt were also sopping wet and dripping where my rain jacket didn’t protect me.
Strange and forgotten feelings arose, and I made space for them in my heart. I walked in sometimes dizzying courses, corkscrewed into three tight centers to avoid crossing stones. Tiny thin Italian grasshoppers reminiscent of Pinocchio hopped out of the way as I clomped along, trying to avoid them. I meandered, or was led by the labyrinth, behind the house and to its side and might have traveled longer; instead I was relieved to find myself in a yellow exit branch, so I took it straight to the door where I joined the meal in progress.
After lunch amid a cacophony of Italian, a fair amount of time was spent trying to make my socks wearable with a hair drier. Then things got chaotic; one young family member was watching Italian cartoons before turning to loud American rap on the television, and everyone was sort of hanging around in mid-day break. Eventually Lindy and I were given blankets and sent to an upstairs studio to take a half hour siesta before the Temples. This was quite necessary, as we were jet-lagged zombies by then.
How to characterize the Temples? My images and fantasies beforehand were vague and inaccurate, much too minced and tiny, a textbook instance of misplaced as well as depleted concreteness. Without realizing it, I had pictured a sort of “B” sci-fi flick: a giant mountain, a secret society carving out its inside and creating a temple with Alex-Grey-genre sacred anatomies, hiding the whole affair from the government, then having it discovered and almost destroyed by the authorities before it was accepted. I knew that the Italian judiciary and constabulary were outraged when they learned of this megalith and wanted it eradicated as an illegal structure, a heathen worship site for, god forbid, a cult.
From Esperide we heard a more nuanced version of the whole geographical preamble and political and legal metadrama: Falco had searched the world from Japan to Africa to Peru, looking for a place where the planet’s four main synchronic lei lines come together and would allow him to tap into their energy field and implement a vision with which he was incarnated from another time and place in the universe (“Falco brought the basic plan of the Temples with him here from elsewhere,” she explained). He came to this world to give the human race a device for a different form of communication, energy, and healing, and for getting back in touch with the cosmos, but he needed to plug it in somewhere.
Not entirely coincidentally after all this journeying, he found himself back in his native Italy where he discovered one of the two places on the planet where four synchronic lines cross deep under the earth (that’s too long a story to recount here). For the place he would build there he took on an Egyptian name, Damanhur, City of Light, an ancient temple and metropolis apparently also constructed partly underground and lit alchemically.
In 1978 he and his colleagues, the original Damanhurians, started digging into the mountain, hauling out the rock, bucket by bucket, using only hand drills and picks to carve their way in. The point was not merely to create an architectural tour de force but to be altered by the process, to be transformed by the elements, spirits, and energies in the mountain, to engage them slowly and be exposed to their intrinsic qualities and ancient messages. Once they hollowed out spaces inside, they sculpted pillars and painted walls for the first of the temples. Then they just kept going, for years. By the time the government discovered the existence of this catacomb in 1992, there was already a vast underground temple complex in place, a virtual city.
When the carabinieri couldn’t figure out how to enter through the hidden doors and tunnels, a judge threatened to have the whole mountain dynamited unless they were shown the way in—the Papal authorities wanted the abomination blown up regardless. Falco is said to have gone into deep meditation to consult with the assembly of higher intelligences who surround and supervise the Earth. He asked for permission to open the structure to the secular world. The various mages and spirit beings debated, some of them opining that the Earth was hopeless and headed for disaster anyway so the Temples should be destroyed before the idiots who run things got their hands on sacred technology; others averring that the chambers hold the key to cultural transformation and are a perfect way to lead humanity on another path. Like Moses, Falco came down from the intergalactic council and, on cosmic majority vote, let the authorities into Damanhur.
Even then, it took a four-year campaign with international signature-gathering and a grueling court battle before the Italian Government changed the law to legitimize the structures and rescue the Temples of Humankind from the danger of destruction and the long arm of the Vatican.
The world at large has yet to understand or discover this situation or placement. That is, the world has yet to understand that a second Atlantis has already been built.
In reality, the mountain is a large wooded hill, pretty much out of the way, ordinary, obscure. A house sits up against it, an ordinary residential villa, a bit rundown in appearance though, on its far side beautifully stylized, photorealistic sunflowers are depicted, arising from a wild garden. There is nothing unusual or promising about either the house or the hill. The hill is just a big mound in one of many valleys, in no way centrally located or obvious. You’d walk right by it, and soon you’d pass bigger hills and similar houses, even with lovely art (this kind of decoration on otherwise unspectacular outer walls is not uncommon in Italy).
Once you enter through the tunnel, everything changes.
Before seeing them, as I said, there is a tendency in the mind to minimize the complexity and vastness of legendary landscapes or inaccurately exaggerate them along the wrong parameters. Damanhur cannot be foreseen. Inside the hill is an architecture and series of rooms that defies imagination. I can try to get you there, somewhat. Imagine New York City’s entire Metropolitan Museum of Art taken apart and then reassembled in underground chambers leading up through a mountain. It is not, of course, that immense but, unless you think at that scale, you don’t get it. It may not be that vast in terms of pure accession of space, but the Metropolitan Museum is a tomb of cultures, a dead repository for tridents, prayersticks, and chalices that were once powerful. The Temples at Damanhur are a living organism that is so massive on an astral plane that it dwarfs the Metropolitan or any other terrestrial museum. And the temples are quite colossal and complicated in an ordinary sense too.
Picture the imaginary inside of the Face on Mars in which the legacy of a whole Martian civilization is preserved room by room.
These are what a journey through the Temples feels like. You are viewing the entire Earth, an Earth you know in your heart but have never actually seen, an extraterrestrial planet. It is our world not as historians and scientists depict it but as a spiritual karmic event on a cosmic plane. Damanhur is a gallery meant for visitors 500,000 years in the future or from other solar systems and time-space continua.
Yet one never has the sense of visiting a mere museum, even a transgalactic one. Imagine instead being in a time machine in which past and future take on different meanings, and nonverbal communication encompassing the whole creationary whorl, independent of temporal or spatial location, is possible through sacred structure and active code.
The Temples at Damanhur are far, far more than a gallery or an exotic sculpture garden; they are a message from humankind to the Galaxy, to the future—a direct calling card to (and from) ET and to diverse intelligences wherever in space and time. The complete Buddhist canon or the annals of physics and biology might also be such calling cards, but they require a diffuse syntax of one sort or another. The Temples are more like a concentrated transcultural time capsule, a glyphic and geometric compilation of the cumulative wisdom and memory of humanity.
Here is the key fact: The entire complex is linked by 900 tons of intricately and carefully laid copper wiring plus large amounts of gold and silver, a mostly camouflaged circuitry that can be viewed in some of the chambers as golden metal filaments and knotty assemblages. With its magically-connected independent radionic rooms, the whole is a vast sending and receiving device, like a radio telescope qua activated crop circle.
The Temples are also networked by “wireless” globes of alchemical salts in fluids set into nodes cut in walls, culminating with an array of them in the Hall of Waters, each glowing with a different spagyric color. In addition many designs and shapes at sites throughout the catacomb carry instructions or transmit information in a secret language. These receive transgalactic and interdimensional messages, as they heal body-minds and transform consciousness.
The cumulative feeling is also of walking through a gigantic UFO or the etheric body of a crop circle, instructions engraved on and into its morphology. The very structure and shape of the machine are cuing one constantly to the higher dimensional space and time through which it is passing.
A super-alchemy runs this complex, Falco’s informally branded selfic technology, culminating in an operating hermetic city as might have been pictured by Pico della Mirandola or Robert Fludd. Falco uses the word “selfic” instead of “radionic.” Radionics is a discredited nineteenth-century meta-science for transmitting energies through grids and geometries and for healing at a distance. It generates a kind of metaphysical electricity that does not require direct electronic contact. Falco intends something slightly more discrete: the release of the intelligent alchemical properties of metals for transmission of energies across dimensions without reference to limitations of relativity, ordinary terrestrial currency, or the speed of light. In this cosmology metals are given to humans primordially and purely and archetypally as devices that can be converted to spiritual transmission but thus far have been used at large only to imbed a lesser secular technology into the molecular memory provided by each distinct metal’s intrinsic shape—e.g. its capacity to hold form and transmit primitive kinetics in the download of electricity and magnetism. What is crucial to the Damanhurian belief system is that all metals are also individually intelligent in another, more animistic way at a level that has not yet been discovered by mankind as a whole. One does not have to run voltage through them to get them to transmit information and force.
We as a civilization and a world (among the many worlds) have missed the point. We have lost the operating manual inside our own planet and inside our beings for our planet. Thus alienated, we are running a minor gas station when living alchemical theater and free-energy technology are close at hand.
There happens, in fact, to be an actual alchemical laboratory in the Temples, just off the Hall of Waters with its glowing globes. This is accoutered with thousands of minerals, compounds, chemical solutions, and ancient liquids and salts, a smattering of them visible. We had to stand in it in darkness because of the sensitivity of some of these to light, but the space resonated and smelled of John Dee and Paracelsus—an indefinable musty pungency.
Near the laboratory is one of many zones within the structure where its intricate selfic wiring comes together visibly in big golden copper tangles and octopuses that look as complex as the circuitry for an oil refinery or the electric power plant for a city.
The original paraphysical charge for this grid comes off the synchronic intersection of the four lei lines drawing on Gaia’s energy and transfusing it in concentrated form from black asteroidal mylonites inside the mountain. Government geologists visiting Damanhur to check its stability reported that these Temple-girding bedrocks are among the oldest formations on the planet, going back to our original mantle congealed out of the solar disk.
In principle, everything esoteric in the Temples runs through the radionic wiring and alchemical globes. All the site’s devices except the lights, the elevator, and the drawbridge and moving panels (which have to obey instant secular toggles and commands) are proposed as selfic, employing circuits of sacred geometry rather than electromagnetism or radiation. What enterprises or functions these machineries activate or release an outsider can only guess, but (for instance) I later heard a rumor that the reason no one knows where Falco is presently is that he likes to time-travel through the temple complex. That, however, could be the Damanhurian equivalent of an urban legend.
One temple in the Hall of Water is covered from ceiling to floor on every wall with symbols and ideograms in Damanhurian, written by Falco not only to provide the history and esoteric science of the human race to date, but to offer numerous alternate outcomes for our species. Esperide describes it as “ancient alphabets, ancestral symbols, signs from the future, and selfic patterns.” These flow together in an unbroken diagram-like drawing that blankets the entire room. It looks like a zany gameboard for something far more complex than Chutes and Ladders or even advanced chess or tarot, and it also suggests a hermetic circuit-board, the kind of thing that might be the control panel for a Martian if not an Egyptian pyramid. This secret library was inscribed in an acknowledged time of peril as the memory chip of the entire alchemical structure, set deep within a chamber in case the outer Temple was obliterated.
Adjoining the laboratory is a room where the illusion of an apartment has been created, as though this were merely a room someone might live in with a cozy table and chairs. A giant selfic machine looking like an MRI device from the 1930s, a virtual boll of copper wiring entangling and falling from it like Medusa’s hair, hangs over a bed from which Dracula might arise. It is “electric” without electricity. Esperide says that it is a prototype healing device of a sort that has since been vastly improved upon since, so is used now only for experimentation and archiving.
Imagine that you have entered one of the Egyptian Pyramids, one called Damanhur, and find laboratories and giant murals with mathematical formulas that go on and on beyond a seeming plausible scale of human endeavor (let alone beyond the hammers, axes, trowels, chisels, and brushes of a mere thousand people—maximum— over two and a half decades).
I am not saying that I know the machine at Damanur works. I am simply saying that it has been built comprehensively, piece by complicated piece, and tattooed meticulously and confidently as if it absolutely works. There is no escaping the fact that everything In the Temples is devoted to the faith that this proposition is real. An unbelievable amount of work went into building a replica of a time machine, an imago of a cosmic transmission device, and making it look and track like exactly that rather than like just the most ambitious and heroically illustrated New Age temple on Earth. (As even a science-fiction set, Damanhur is stunningly convincing, at no point lapsing into mere decoration or genre.)
The experience of walking through the complex gives the flatout sense that its builders were confident a functional astral temple could be erected and they were preparing formal metaphysical conditions for it. Why else bother at this scale and degree of precision and detail? A lesser vehicle and presentation would have sufficed (for anything, that is, except the real thing). The Temples are actualized on a scale grand enough and meticulous enough to allow interdimensional transmissions—interstellar, intergalactic, transpersonal, and transtemporal flows of intelligence—if in fact there are such things under any heaven and earth. So why not for real? Falco made the presumption of such a reality his context for the entire assemblage, and his boldness and surety (sustained apparently by his memory of other such cities and devices on other worlds) rings from every quarter of every chamber.
The primary impact of Damanhur is, “This machine works,” but more than that: “We are men and women willing to place our lives and our deaths at its service and conveyance.” That is why the various temples are populated by little clay replicas of every Damanhurian, living and passed, his lares or wairua (to cite Latin and Maori terms loosely), set in mysterious portals and strewn willy-nilly along the floors like discarded voodoo dolls. Each Damanhurian has a clay statue of him- or herself and a handprint somewhere in the Temples, and these are used in death ceremonies to guide passed ones through zones of the after-life.
The Temples are also a sarcophagus behind whose walls the ashes of the Damanhurian dead are stored and in whose galleries photographs of the dead sit in unlikely places as if spontaneous shrines, “to keep their images before us,” Esperide says, “to remind us that those who have passed are still part of the community.”
Every Damanhurian is additionally painted into the temple’s grand murals photographically, so that each actor represented in the landscapes is a real person, with some blanks to be filled in by new members. That is, the paintings are inhabited not by idealized or composite humans but actual, picture-perfect humans, much as the Face of Mars might, hypothetically, contain a face-by-face census of the citizens of the last Martian city or as the temples of Atlantis, somewhere beneath the water, might show the faded priests and officials of that kingdom in its last months.
Now imagine going through the Metropolitan Museum and seeing your friends and neighbors and various storekeepers, bus-drivers, and assembly-line workers in various giant artworks at epic, religious, historical, and iconographic scale.
To get a sense of our afternoon journey, you need to know that the physical Temples at Damanhur comprise maybe a dozen separate gigantic rooms with mazes of hallways connecting them. Even if these were just halls and displays of a museum, they should at very least be honored and admired for their elaborate and magnificent artwork and stunning realization of sacred architecture. Yet, unlike any museum complex, each specific temple serves a different esoteric purpose, each one is entirely different from all the others—different in shape, different in mood, different in hue, different in energy, different in light and vibration, but most of all different so absolutely as to seem to be part of an entirely different culture and conceptual scheme. In passing from room to room, one is changing planets, suns, cosmological dimensions, and root languages. It is not like a smooth transition of cultures within an imposed context as at the British Museum or Metropolitan in New York. Meaning begins utterly anew at each portal.
The rooms are connected to each other by a kind of Egyptian magic amplified by ordinary but complexly employed electronics. Sections of seamless wall suddenly part to allow you through. A drawbridge uncoils like a moebius snake and, after seeming in motion to be a staircase up or down, ultimately settles into a bridge leading to the next room. Wherever there is an exit and entrance, a clue is painted into the artwork, a child pushing in the right direction, or Egyptian figures with hands against the panel on the wall that you must gently push.
The art in the Temples of Damanhur is as epic and detailed as in great Mediaeval and Renaissance cathedrals and mosques. That is an overstatement, but it is not an overstatement, for what it lacks in scope it makes up for in concentration, internal reference fields, and cohesive energy. It is painted on all the walls of immense rooms and it includes sculptures, pottery, mosaic work, inlaid marble, terra cotta, and abundant stained glass. The Hall of Mirrors is capped by the world’s largest Tiffany dome. Other Temples have stained glass and ornately carved pillars and three-dimensional inlays in walls. Still others mix selfic circuitry with artwork like Falco’s paintings. It is beyond my capacity and the scope of a travel journal to give a sense of what we saw in our three hours in the Temple complex, but here is a brief summary:
We come first through a tunnel and a secret door. We descend for about ten seconds in a tight little elevator, the only part of the edifice not created by Damanhurians. Then we enter at the bottom, the newest temple, with a plan to work our snail’s way up and around the structure. In our journey we are accompanied by not only “Vergil” but “Beatrice,” one of the keepers of the Temples, who graciously carries Lindy’s coat and later assists Esperide in changing conditions of light from control rooms in each chamber and, when appropriate, providing musical and atonal sounds.
We step into the lower chamber of the Hall of Earth where the species, tribes, geographies, and habitats of Earth, including the ocean floor and sky, are represented in super-realistic detail. We see exquisite depictions of forests, mountains, volcanoes, rivers, and savannas. Among the leaves of large painted trees, hundred of the creatures of the Earth are realistically portrayed, with an emphasis on endangered species, as a reminder of our responsibility to the planet. It is a giant Linnaean family tree.
A central marble column in the room has been sculpted into a man and a woman emerging out of each other and holding up the heavens. Above the marble, an illuminated stained-glass capital unites the column to the night sky of the ceiling. This rainbow-like abstraction, distending to meet the dome, represents, Esperide says, “the Big Bang.” When the lights are turned off, the room becomes a planetarium, its dome lit by the complete summer sky over Dananhur 22,000 years ago (a millennial pivot point). All the zodiac signs and myths are elegantly drawn with constellations fleshed out to the point of appearing three-dimensional.
Intricate floor mosaics show the various games and talents of humankind, ranging from a baby and a child in separate play, to jazz musicians in dynamic motion on drums and saxophone, to a communications satellite beside a flying woman with a camera around her neck, to an crone using her wisdom to defeat her younger self in a chess match. The latter is Falco’s mother pictured as a young lady playing chess against herself as an old woman, with wisdom triumphing over youth. The stand under the chessboard is a clock, for the convergence of physical and metaphysical time is a critical aspect of this room. The woman’s wrinkled hand is in the process of reaching to a castle or knight while her younger self looks worried.
Eight steps up from the lower chamber one enters the totally different upper chamber. Eight white ceramic columns highlight the room. Somewhat resembling Falco’s paintings and also quite distinctly Egyptian, they are embossed with high-relief glyphs in gold leaf, depicting in sacred Damanhurian language the religious and philosophical doctrines and philosophies of the planet. At either side of the room are alcoves with Gothic arches and intricate stained-glass doors with complex mandala-like designs. The Sun Door tends to orange-red with feather and sunburst motifs referencing the subtle metamorphic interaction between the Solar disc and the Earth’s physical atmosphere. The Moon Door has a silver-lavender, slightly yellowed glow with crescent motifs; it embodies the divine feminine radiance dissipating into the blued planes of night.
On the ceiling seven childlike, wide-eyed male and female masks form a circular mandala within a dozen or more complex wheeled designs that comprise a kind of giant Persian metaphysical rose with white snowflakes and gold photon droplets (among other motifs) within it. Esperide says, “The Sapphire Masks represent the hidden memories of every human being.”
In the paintings on the wall of the upper room of the Hall of Earth the masculine principle in both men and women is celebrated. This concept segues into a history of the divine embodied in humanity, which morphs over the wall into the internal human struggle over our divine origin as it has been lost and regained throughout civilizations. In one zone the war between the spiritual side of oneself and the side denying the spiritual is vividly represented in murals showing, among other things, a battlefield in which each individual soul-being skirmishes with a mirror image of himself—that is, with his own limitations—like something out of Hieronymus Bosch. Men and women of all ages, though at war, show joy and laughter as well as grim determination.
Giant naked figures of both men and androgynes dominate the hall’s vistas like gods on Olympus. One huge warrior treads a cosmic landscape of planets and quasi-stellar objects, a bird with active wings on his right shoulder, his left hand extended in a mudra. This is the pure Androgyne, but his superimposed female aspect is visible only in ultraviolet light. Out of his torso and upraised hand, a Demiurge with galaxies for glowing hair blows the light of the universe into existence out of her illuminated palms. Heavenly bodies from comets to suns and quasars emerge out of a floating white-hot disk in the upper fold of one cupped hand, while tresses of cosmic energy spill below both hands, and their energy collects in a luminous shell and forms an occult, quasi-astrological sign across a gap beneath it.
Around the curve is a huge robotic figure embodying denial of our divine origin and devoted to scientism; it is caged in Damanhurian ideograms (to indicate that its damage is inherently limited), and it is fused in dynamic duality with the androgyne of humanity. Included within this section of the mural is an esoterically configured history of universe, imbedding the Earth within worlds across the galaxies and joining humanity by a DNA ribbon to entities and landscapes of other dimensions and planets of the cosmos. These remote cultures are depicted ideogrammatically and energetically as tiny landscape sectors.
On the other side of a stained-glass alcove, duality in the form of a muscular two-headed being lifts the sheets off a beautiful garden entangled with esoteric symbols and vines that represent the essence of creation.
Next comes the Hall of Metals, an entire temple dedicated to the metals, their astrology and alchemy, their metallurgy and atomic states, and their relationships to the different stages of human existence, e.g. the esoteric seasons of life from conception to death. The ambiance of the entire room is gold and copper with a kind of solar light. This converges from ceiling, columns, and stained-glass windows.
Each of seven metals has its own deep-set stained-glass window shaped like a Gothic arch and divided into three sections. An individual shrine incorporates a metal’s entire alchemical, chemico-physical, and astrological spectrum in a blithely cross-referential manner that would have amused Michel Foucault. The windows are: iron (early childhood), lead (late childhood), sulfur (adolescence and early adulthood), copper (prime of life), mercury (middle age), tin (transition between middle age and old age), silver (old age), and gold (over eighty years old). Each of these generates landscapes of flowers and meadows, woods and springs in ancient lands, as depicted luxuriously in the stained glass.
The panoramas are lyrical and nostalgic and draw me into a richness of the milieus of life, so that I feel young and then adolescent again while I stare at successive windows. Memories and actual states of being flood back.
Between the vistas are stained-glass doors in Gothic arches representing the meeting zones between two metals and the alchemical element in which they are linked (as copper and iron in water).
The Hall of Metals is highlighted by an embossed central copper column culminating in a lit capital. Representative of living fire, it is carved with two masculine and two feminine naked figures amid vines, indicating it is a human tree. Four outer embellished columns indicate aspects of the greater Tree of Immortality. The polished floor has a solar corona near the central column with anti-clockwise spiraling figures orbiting it. Reflecting symbolic sunlight from the ceiling, it transmits it as cold nocturnal fire. The gold ceiling is illustrated with elaborate terra cotta knights and dancers in a clockwise solar spiral of mankind’s evolution.
As Esperide narrates the particulars of this room, it is clear that it has esoteric aspects beyond the scope of our tour. The most I can grasp is that the metals represent their divine potential as alchemical portals and signaling devices at a very high level of intelligence as well as their more secular uses in the creation of objects that preserve civilization beyond human lifetimes in memory-shapes of utensils and cities.
The room also is a symbolic door to the Afterlife, and the outer rim of its floor under the stained-glass windows is populated with those motley throngs of clay figurines of Damanhurians. Then in the recessed windows are more conventional photos of passed Damanhurians.
We pass from the Hall of Metals through hidden panels into the Labyrinth, a great hall of three principal naves connected to each other by corridors in such a way to create a baffling maze of multiple pathways. In one of naves is represented the union of divine forces, the gods and goddesses of forty-two different traditions, each with its own elaborate stained-glass portal, ranging from Egyptian to Celtic, Hawaiian to Australian Aboriginal, Ainu to Sumerian, Norse to Sumerian, Zulu to Aztec, etc., including Hebrew and Arabic ones in which no god or goddess is shown but the tradition is represented in symbols and glyphs. Giant divine figures are carved into the wall between the arched niches of the windows, curving with the rounded nave so as to seem to be bending down from another realm. Going one by one, we stand before mosaic multicultural images of Astarte, Balder, Athena, Cybel, Ganesh, Huehetecotl, Osiris, Mithra, Pan, Ra, Sin, Poseidon, Tengri, Thoth, Bran, and so on, each with his or her own window. It takes at least five minutes to appreciate all the details in each window, to do it even minimal justice.
Paintings on the walls depict civilization after the destruction of Atlantis, with masculine and feminine principles getting more and more out of balance.
On one wall is the history of Europe, leading from the Crusades through the industrial revolution, Communism, Guernica, the Berlin Wall, and culminating with a suit-wearing globalized businessman carrying his empty briefcase, trampling on life, with money and gold spilling out of his satchel. On the opposite wall is the New World with the ships of Columbus, slaves, conquistadors, and various Indian shamans and sand-painters and indigenous families being trampled in the foreground. These vast complicated historico-political murals morph from vista to vista through historic time.
Across a hallway in a separate alcove is the future. On the side of it corresponding to the New World, you see blue sky melding into night; spaceships are ascending, fuel shooting out of them in white streams; men are walking on the Moon; others are orbiting a space station, and so on. At their base are biotech tubes and clones of babies in flasks. But is this our real future or an esoteric parody of the present world’s obsessive projections of itself into fantasy techno-comfort zoner? The opposite wall is unpainted and will eventually be imprinted with the actual unknown future of humanity. This entire sector of the temple shows the Damanhurian belief that Atlantean and Western science are branches of a greater cosmic system.
As we pass from chamber to chamber, the cumulative message Esperide transmits is: “We don’t want tourists trampling through here, but we mean to draw people from all over the world to come, prepare spiritually, and experience it. This is a hope for mankind, that a small group of people with intention could create something like this. We want people to have hope.”
After about four rooms, we felt that we had seen a tour de force and were astonished when she said there were many more temples to go and we had just begun. If those four rooms had been the whole thing, it would have been remarkable enough, but the tour went on another hour and a half. We would view each room, Esperide would narrate its symbols, tell the stories pictured on the wall, allude to many more, esoteric ones that we did not have time to hear or were not ready to understand, then change to alternate lighting and/or make the sound appropriate to the sacred shape and acoustics of the room.
Most rooms had a gong or a drum or chimes, and a vibration was released that filled its shape with mind-altering resonance. In the Hall of Mirrors the noise from a hanging gong grew so loud, as it was drummed on by Esperide, that it sounded at once like the dawn of creation and 9/11, as it reached its terrifying, vanishing-point crescendo.
What followed the Labyrinth was the Blue Temple, historically the first room of the edifice with its huge mosaic of the Star tarot on the floor and color allegories of the five alchemical elements on the walls. Then came the Hall of Water with the selfic healing structure at its center and on whose walls Falco painted the whole system and the future Earth. Next was the Hall of Spheres with the afore-mentioned transparent balls functioning as alchemical nodes in the greater selfic mechanism, the chamber itself covered in gold leaf and dark red marble and glowing with a kind of ruby alchemical luminosity. “Four times a year,” Esperide explained, “the Hall of Spheres is activated to contact different parts of the Galaxy through the core mylonite network of the Synchronic Lines. Actual extraplanetary conduits of paraphysical energy and intelligence link the entire universe and all its populated worlds. We simply patch in.” The Hall of Spheres is thus Damanhur’s answer to NASA: you can use its selfic technology to go inward into astral space and meet intelligent life in the universe; you don’t need futuristic rockets to travel light years from Earth.
Damanhur is an alchemical, selfic laboratory, perhaps the only one on the planet. It is an intentional transmission of the Earth to the Galaxy, not from without like SETI’s mindless beeps through the external circuitry of radio telescopes aimed at the sky, but from within, as an expression of human essence into the microcosm. It is a reception point for the Galaxy to the Earth.
After the Hall of Spheres comes the alchemical laboratory adjoining it; then the stageset of the “normal” apartment room with its machine, the so-called selfic cabin; and, last, the Hall of Mirrors with its gigantic cathedral cupola, making it almost a traditional temple. Light through the crown of stained glass is dispersed among the mirroring surfaces to produce an endlessly re-emanating kaleidoscope, a holographic rendering of divine fragments shattering in order to enter to material world.
As you might guess, in the Hall of Mirrors, you see mainly yourself under the great Tiffany dome. Because the room is holographic like a blastula, you are who is depicted in many sizes in blocks of polished volcanic rock, caught by the mirrors. Just as every shard of divinity contains the absolute nature of its source, so every cell in you holds the genetic possibility of your entire being. That is the plain meaning.
The Hall of Mirrors, at least compared to the other temples, is simple, representing the fragmentation of light and divinity from moment to moment. Reflected in changing holographs as we pass through this chamber, we see our own present being now and at last within the pantheon of the Temples. We look at ourselves in black stone. Then our mind is cleansed and transmuted by the gong, which harmonizes the hall’s geometry and activates its esoteric aspects.
We sit there exhausted. The myriad complications of the journey have been sublimated and transmuted into singleness—one deafeaning roar, one clonal image of ourselves and our lineage. We are made pure, single and whole, before being released back into the Italian rain. From the esoteric temples of humankind into the exoteric temple of creation….
In the book we are distributing for COSM you can look at many photographs of the paintings, marblework, stained glass, exotic pottery and sculptures, inlaid landscapes in various mediums, terra cotta eaves, and carved columns. Those are pretty wonderful, and you get a faint sense of Damanhur from them, but don’t kid yourself that anything of the real psychic and aesthetic impact is there. The art alone would have been worth the visit, but add the selfic technology and the overall intention to communicate with higher intelligences and other races through the cosmos, and you have something more than your benchmark New Age Italian cathedral.
What is harder to convey, as I indicated earlier, is the sense of being inside a crop circle, inside a living Temple of Giza, of having flown in a UFO, of having visited an alchemical laboratory, of having participated in a séance, of having shared a funerrary ceremony on a community scale, of having walked through an underground basilica of seemingly limitless dimensions. And even this does not bespeak the aura of promise, the feeling that humankind could build different things than it has, entirely different, not as “maybe we can” idealisms but in actuality, in full understanding of the duality of our existence, representing suppressed parts of ourselves in creative irresolution with other, emerging parts, all in ravelling and unravelling toward a new awakening.
At the same time, you realize that so few people on Earth have been here and, statistically speaking, hardly anyone in the Earth census knows of the Temples’ existence. How many Koreans, Alaskans, Indonesians, South Africans, Somalians have heard of it? Even the art critics of Italy have not come flocking, though I would put Damanhur up against the churches or galleries of Rome or Florence. It is a different kind of thing, but its scope and ambition and meaning are equivalent.
There is an experience awaiting each Terran here, for you cannot go through these Temples without being changed forever. I defy you. They alter the shape and context of the planet we dwell on and the life suit in which we each dwell. The Temples at Damanhur intimate a “possible” Earth that explodes so far beyond W. Bush and Jihad, beyond computers and cloning and cyclotrons, in fact beyond the entire history, philosophy, and technology of Western civilization, that we become a mere interlude between one Atlantis and another.
I keep returning to the notion that the Temples are the proposition of another order, another science, another planet, constructed with something more committed than mere hope or idealized archetypal representation. The commitment is a demonstration of man and woman as divine beings with infinite compassion and capacity, with innate membership in a cosmic community, whether they know it or not.
When you walk through the Temples, you feel as though you are released from the confines of terrestrial culture and transposed into a fraternity and sorority of creatures and entities everywhere, imaginable and unimaginable, now and forever. And here is the strange sense: in the Temples of Humankind, you know both that they exist whether they exist or not and that you are on an open-ended journey to find out not only whether they exist or not but who you are among them. The visit to Damanhur establishes one thing absolutely and irrefutably: this proposition is the central mission of our existence on this planet, of life in this benighted civilization. We don’t know it, but it is. We act out pretty much every opposite and antipode and fake contradictory models of reality. Yet we are in touch with millions of other creatures and sentiences through creation, even if we don’t know how to tell ourselves this is true or to make it real. The Temples at Damanhur first and foremost exist to remedy that problem, at least in intention, at least in commitment and spirit. Whether the telephone system operates literally, and how its transmissions are run and decoded, are other matters.
Yes, the Temples could have been dynamited and could still be dynamited. Look at what is presently happening to Mesopotamia, to Babylonia. Look at what happened to Atlantis, or don’t look at it because you can’t any longer. Look at North Korea, at Darfur, at the Pentagon, what elapses when the purpose of existence is lost, betrayed, and perverted beyond recognition—when we forget who we are. The Temples at Damanhur are proof that you can blow the universe up, obliterate any trace of life or matter, and it will come back, somewhere, somehow, pure, immaculate, and perfect again. They are a demonstration that ordinary people carry the entire cosmic plan, the soul-map inside themselves and, if they are willing and committed, they can enact it from a single stone or molecule into an entire flower, a mandala containing hundreds of diverse flowers inside it, millions of others emerging inside those. They can engrave the mute dark inside of a mountain with the inner history of a planet and the cosmos.
The journey through the Temples is a lesson in this ineffable, unerasable deed. Once you have walked them, however desultorily, however distractedly, however imperfectly, you will not forget the singlemost fact: man and woman could not have made such an edifice without cosmic collaboration and a divine origin.
By the time you have passed through this cinema, you are in a waking dream. In fact, when Esperide roused us for our tour, she said, “Wake up, but don’t wake up, for it will be a continuation of your loveliest dreams.”
I usually get tired after half an hour in an art museum; yet traveling through these Temples, my interest was held by a cliffhanger of a plot, by the sense that there is cruciality here, that everything is being put on the line for all of us, is hanging by a delicate and exquisite thread. And that’s not only a dream; that’s every dream, as Falco proposed, remembered and forgotten, dreamed and transmuted together.
This epistle is meant, yes biblically, to be “good news.” If Damanhur isn’t for real, it sure looks like what the real thing would be if it ever happened. If this isn’t Atlantean technology rediscovered and reconstructed on the modern Earth, what is? Whether this vast machine and library, plugged into synchronic lei lines and packed with magical wiring and ideograms worthy of Ficino and Bruno, actually works, I can’t tell you, obviously. Yet I don’t believe that Falco and crew would have dug such a gigantic hole and carved and embossed such an elaborate edifice and machinery to plug it into a mere alchemical metaphor or affectation and perpetrate a fantastic hoax. People don’t invest that sort of time wiring a Trojan horse. We are talking about almost thirty years of intense labor to assemble a paraphysical laboratory, to build a time machine, to write an ideographic code in the form of an entire language, to wire an intelligent device, to hollow out an underground palace wherein the divine origin of humanity could be reclaimed, to establish communication with other dimensions and extraterrestrial beings in this dimension. There are plenty of New Age hoaxes, frauds, and self-delusions, none at this scale. It is either a singular living manifestation of the possible, or it is collective madness and betrayal in the form of a hermetic theater, a ruse the size of a small city.
I believe in what I saw and felt. Damanhur was elating and overwhelming but, most of all, after an exhausting day, it gave me hope for our species, the kind of brave hope that cannot be dashed by anything short of what swallowed Atlantis, another mythic or real federation which is probably the best model for what Damanhur is or might be. Even assuming that Atlantis once was and now is gone without a trace, Damanhur exists as proof that the Atlantean proposition remains—another science, another wisdom, another fundamental human identity, another journey through space and time that does not end in towering machines, casual armies, and worship of a golden calf. It will probably remain or be recovered on this planet as long as beings are incarnated here.
At dinner time we postponed the meal and went to the community meeting where we dialed to an English version of the evening’s discussion on a multilingual headset, Esperide and Luchetella being its translators into English and French, respectively. It was a rather tedious exchange about “living in the present,” true enough in its particulars but rather workaday after our magical tour. Once the crowd dispersed, we were driven by Luchetella back to the nearby Italian restaurant where, among other things, we shared with her a pear and garlic gorgonzola pizza, which tasted far better than it sounds.
It was a pleasant scene, a nondescript Italian restaurant in Italy, a singsong din in a strange language, local people enjoying the tables and the bar, the kind of small pleasure one travels thousands of miles to experience in its sheer simplicity.
The rain did not stop. It increased through the night with lightning and thunder and made an incredible racket, filled the brook to a roar, pouring down roads, crashing against the windows, rolling down the roof, dripping at various distances as trickles or waterfalls, ricocheting through the rustling leaves outside our window. This was a storm across Northern Italy and France, and at least locally the wireless went out, leaving us pretty much isolated in the Valchiusella Valley. It gave me time to recount an incredible day. Lindy was amazed that I could just go on and on into the night, but I was stoked by the energy of the Temples. She reminded me that we were supposed to share the computer. Yes. Any day but this one.
September 15 (Day Three)
In the afternoon Esperide takes us on a tour of the ground floor of Damanhurcrea. The overall feeling is of an entire community producing artifacts for the Temples and, at the same time, working for hire in the commercial world. We go from business to business, studio by studio, starting at the art restorers, where one woman is working on a sixteenth-century statue of Christ and another on a faded painting of a Renaissance landscape—objects for museums. We see architects among solar and photovoltaic cells, men casting clay statuettes, women tinting silk arrases, and so on. There are so many offices and workshops it is overwhelming to keep track of them, and as interesting as the tour is, it is exhausting to follow Esperide’s pace: now a studio full of painters of pottery, now seamstresses sewing dresses, now men and women coloring panels, now a room of architects planning an extension of the Temples at the same time that they are drawing plans for a commercial building in Florence.
In the midst of this tour Esperide takes a break to use her cell phone, and we shop for fifteen minutes at the supermarket, using up the remainder of our recently acquired Damanhur currency to stock up on snacks for tomorrow’s journey across Italy: apricots, raisins, almonds, cashews, coconut, rice crisps, sesame strips, all grown on Damanhurian farms and packaged in Damanhurian plants.
Two visits stand out. We visit Pangolino, the painter who is working on a comic strip of the history of Damanhur, an Italian graphic novel that Esperide would like us to publish in English. The artist is a human version of a pangolino, a fluffy, sinuously moving large creature. As we are handed strips of his current work, we see the whole metadrama: the judge ordering the door to the Temples to be opened, threatening to demolish the whole affair; then Falco, trickster coyote look on his face, heads up to the heavens to discuss the matter with the intergalactic council, a full page panorama of them circling the Earth in another dimension in a merkabah.
Both Esperide and Pangolino are delighted that we like the comic and want to publish it in English—and we are equally delighted.
We visit a selfic studio where an alchemist jeweler with a face like Dante is at work fashioning objects of intricate copper wires and loops. There are bracelets, brooches, pyramids, rings, and tightly wound coils that look like miniature shock absorbers. These are intended variously for protection from radiation, relief for insomnia and stress, healing organs, and other radionic applications. On a glass shelf sit little radar/ray-gun statues out of a 1950s sci-fi set, meant for purifying rooms and offices. The storefront is packed with diverse other implements and machines, from tiny to chair-size.
I question the alchemist about his method and procedure, but he explains that it is Falco who decides the shapes and the wirings; he just executes them. In fact, he was hanging out in northern Africa when Falco found him and set him up in this trade.
There is no way I can leave my first alchemy shop without a purchase, so I get an all-purpose combo bracelet, several selfic designs wound around one another into golden coils, strands, and knots. The golden cords are all touching and, if this were a standard electrical device, it would be one big short. The overall design looks like a combination of the inside of a pinball machine, a child’s bad job of making double knots in tying his shoelaces, dental braces, and an old wind-up toy that got crushed on the way to the dump. Yet the whole apparatus is fashioned as a malleable bracelet with an open end for getting onto a wrist.
I have never worn a bracelet in my life but, after buying the copper device, I twist onto my right wrist and try to establish an energetic relationship with it all day, understanding that such things never feel like what you think they will. Esperide says that it will find my shape in a few hours and bend to my field. After that, no one else can ever wear it.
She has such limitless zest and enthusiasm for all things Damanhurian, and we are weary. For instance, late in the afternoon she suddenly remembers that we have not seen the original sacred plaza just up the hill from the guesthouse, so up head go there under umbrellas. In fact, she is beside herself with the realization, proclaiming that it is as though we have come to Damanhur but not seen Damanhur, only the Temples.
The plaza is a three-minute walk up a hill, past Olympian and mythic statues of nature gods; it includes a raised circular outdoor stand with a long entry corridor flanked by nine or ten huge pillars, a small pond, a Stonehenge-like structure, and another labyrinth. The plaza with its decorated columns is where Damanhur’s famous solstice and equinox ceremonies are held four times a year.
There are also houses for extended families and, despite our protests, Esperide pulls aside a curtain across the front door of one so that we can view the occupants. This moment is haunting because we find ourselves suddenly standing in an unpleasantly pungent aroma, two young women working on what looks like a giant flat slab of dough hanging over the edge of a table. They are making noodles not pizza, Esperide corrects Lindy. There are children playing on the floor with cars and trucks. Another woman is cutting greens, her legs providing them tunnels. Someone is firing a brick oven. They look at us as if through glass, continuing their activities while observed. Now the elders enter from another room, a little old man and woman with glasses. Pointing them out, Esperide narrates that these units are set up so that the older parents of Damanhurians can be cared for.
The intimacy of standing in an extended family’s dining room, staring into their pantry, watching the women make dinner, while a voice-over explains everything, feels a bit too much like an anthropologist peeping at natives. I feel that I do not want to put these Damanhurian citizens in a museum, with me the distinguished outsider privileged to stare at their lives. Esperide has crossed a certain line here in her enthusiasm, though who am I to presume the basis of Damanhurian etiquette?
Lindy manages to escape further initiation by heading for a nap, but I am summoned en route to a meeting for visitors to Damanhur in which a teacher will answer questions. In fact, I am told it won’t begin until I arrive, so I allow myself to be led back to the plazas by one of the women in the office. About to fall asleep, I struggle through fifteen minutes of depressing discussion of the harmful effects of cell phones and other radiation on the human body before I quietly remove my earphones and slip out.
We turn down an invitation to dinner in a treehouse. This is enough initiation for now, and we are not even packed to go. It is better to eat our dried fruit and nuts from the organic Damanhurian supermarket.
Nine o’clock is time to sleep in the sound of the endless rain and brook until we are done sleeping. And that will be morning.
September 16 (Day Four)
Lost (and Found) in Translation
Getting out of Damanhur means that now we will be on our own in Italy. In fact, we have not really been in the real Italy yet, just the Federation of Damanhur. We have not begun our independent travels.
The arrangement for departure is that Luchetella will drive us to the train station in Chiavasso, further away than Torino but on a line involving three rather than five changes to our destination. Our goal is Ravenna, the home of Elena Battista and Giorgio Pozzi who publish Fernendell Books, a company that buys Italian rights from us. This means taking the train from Chiavasso to Milano Centrale, another one from there to Bologna Centrale, and then one to Ravenna, five hours and twelve minutes in all if we make our connections. We are briefed many times by both the ladies in the Damanhur office (and Rick Steves in his Italy book) about how to do Italian trains, but nothing is a substitute for experience.
We leave Ravenna at 10:30 in the morning for a 12:14 train, travel through farmlands, most of them growing corn. It could almost be Iowa, except that something is very different, perhaps the wild stretches between cultivations, perhaps the old stone buildings of various bright but faded tints, certainly the Italian words everywhere. We pass through a few small towns, one of them squeezed down to a narrow main street reminiscent of a Mexican village. No American habitat would have buildings on either side of a road leaning so close to the traffic. It is like going down a slot in a shadow, as we zip through the alley in a blink. I wonder how people could live hovering like owls just over a highway.
Chiavasso is a small city of some complexity, enough that Luchetella has to ask directions twice before we find the stazione. I keep trying to grasp what this city looks like. At moments it resembles the Bronx or Spanish Harlem, people hanging out of windows of large apartments, their clothing on lines. Then it looks like Holbrook, Arizona, or some random town in the American Southwest—sparse and indigenous. At other points it is Mexican in its abandon and debris. Then a plaza is spiffily Munich. The cobblestone streets are classic old Europa. The inhabitants are Italian daguerrotypes, here and there gaunt bearded old men, dressed-to-the-nines fast-walking women, sparkly children.
Once Luchetella cuts us loose at the doors, we are in for a number of lessons, most of them about language and what it is. Up till the moment that we are standing on the street, her car making its u-turn, the sound of Italian in the air has been a sort of enjoyable music, a nonverbal cacophony of rising and falling intelligent syllables unintelligible to us, a pure entertainment. Now we have to contend with the reality of not comprehending or making local speech. We have arrived in Italy itself with a thud.
We were assured that everything involving the train is in both Italian and English, e.g. the ticket-sellers speak both, but this was the first letdown in a day of misadventures by Italian rail.
If, in fact, you arrive, as I did, at a ticket window speaking only English and expecting at least a broken form of the same in return, it is a surprise when the grizzled old guy on the nether side of the booth speaks only Italian. And there is an impasse. I grew agitated as he kept chattering away in Italian to me, and rapidly at that, even after it was clear I didn’t understand what he was saying and was responding in a different language. He brushed that off, not even meeting my gaze, and continued his dialogue, actually a monologue, with some exasperation.
I realized that the complexity of our route was eluding him, as he wanted to ticket us just to Bologna. I had a printout of the full itinerary generated at the Damanhur office from the Italian Rail internet site, but he wouldn’t look at it long enough to see that the place of destination was not in the same columns as the starting point or points of transfer en route.
Gradually it dawned on me that he must be irritated at me for the same reason I was at him, because all I did was continue to fire English back, pointing at the printout. I was doing the identical foolish thing he was doing: imagining that if I spoke with enough intention of being intelligible in my own native tongue something would somehow get across (which is the Latin root of “trans-late”). I had his same illusion—that intentional breathing and mouthing of thought would lead to meaning sooner or later because it was intrinsically signified. But it didn’t.
Language is not meaning; it is a cultural set of signs, that’s all. Change the culture, change the signs, and we cannot understand each other, period. Intention toward intelligibility does not produce intelligibility in the way that effort toward lifting a suitcase, for instance, eventually raises it. Or at least not until the telepathy of Damanhur is pulled out of latent space and made functional and real to folks who have suppressed the proclivity entirely.
At this point a young boy standing behind us on line stepped forward and asked Lindy, “Deutsch?”
She said, “No, American.” And then she made my mistake of telling him our whole dilemma in English.
Storklike with sweet dark eyes and black hair strafed almost across his vision, he listened very patiently, repeating an occasional English word, and finally managed enough appropriate language to purchase our ticket to Ravenna, the railroad clerk raising an arm with a relieved “aha”-like sound, as if he was about to solve it any second anyway but a little good old Italian never hurt.
Then the boy tried to point the way for us, first taking Lindy’s arm and leading her to the yellow stamping machine, a requirement of putting a date and hour mark on your ticket or risking a fine. Then, after that was barely accomplished with a loopy exchange questions and incomprehensible explanations until dipping into Rick Steves for catch phrases bailed us out, he summoned us all the way upstairs to the correct tracks.
He was generous and selfless. At each crossroads he seemed to point and depart for good, his mission complete, bounding off like a frisky dog, but as we were slow to follow or comprehend, he returned to lead us until at last he had made himself our formal guide. Delivering us all the way up and then down stairs to the necessary tracks, he left with a nod and a ciao. We had about an hour wait for our train.
After half an hour, astonishingly our young friend returned. Without explanation for why he didn’t continue to his own destination he proceeded to stand there with us, very carefully working out English sentences that were perfectly structured even if occasionally missing a word or using a distinctly wrong quasi-homonym. We learned that his name was Alberto, he was fifteen. I forget his hometown. He found out that Lindy and Richard lived in both California and Maine. His father was a chemist, and he wanted to be a chemist too. He had been to Orlando and Miami (age six) on a family vacation. Through a mixture of English, Lindy’s Italian phrase book, and pantomime, he figured out what our jobs were and what our children did. None of the information we exchanged was striking or above the smallest of small talk; what was striking and poignant was the intention to communicate, the willingness to serve another person’s articulation and to offer one’s own in return as a gift. This boy was as intrigued by us as we were by him, so we all found excuses to keep talking, to keep exchanging tender in our own proud languages.
The event was not primarily about conversation or information; it was about finding words to allow us to continue our fragile participation in each other’s presences. The lapse of common language actually made for a closeness and connection that flowing speech would not have. Having to work to make each other’s simplest intent intelligible led to a friendship among three people who otherwise would have had nothing to say to each other. What we shared was the desire to create meaning, any meaning; perhaps to celebrate our success in getting us all the way to the right platform, now that the crisis at the ticket window was passed. Then he bowed, said ciao, and was gone for good.
The train came and we boarded. It was more like the Long Island Railroad than European trains I remembered from the Netherlands, France, and Germany, fairly grungy in second class (what we were urged to buy at Damanhur, though not by Rick Steves who said “first all the way”). It was hard to get seats or maneuver our bags down the aisle of the moving car. Soon a young man jumped up and not only gave Lindy his berth so that we could sit together, but helped with our suitcases. After a while we were just sitting in the enjoyment of Italian countryside rolling by: old stone buildings, farms of corn and maybe wheat and rice, snow-covered Alps on one side, gradual urbanization outside Milano on the other not unlike the build-up of concrete and structure ringing any large city on Earth, which increases by degrees as one enters. This is what travel is meant to be: pure flow of adventure, relaxation, novelty.
We spent some of the trip listening to Slaid Cleaves and Dave Insley on the CD player, trading earphones. The blasting of Austin country and western—good songwriting boys as well, with good bands—background changing Italian landscape, was ecstataic.
Milano was chaos. Emerging from the train meant stepping into an exhaust of tobacco smokes that was both blinding and cough-producing. The train tracks had so many extinguished cigarettes on them that there were more butts than rocks, for smoking is not allowed on Italian trains but is embedded deep in the Italian psyche. As one walked along the platform, the smoke became denser and thinner in spots, but never vanished, not even close. After a while you give up and accept it like MacDonald’s perfume or car pollution, part of the ecozone.
The train station was filled with people moving at impossible vectors in crowds, and I knew I had to be careful of both the laptop and my wallet, which meant both my hands were tai-chi alert. I asked the guy who had helped us with the suitcases for directions to the Bologna train, holding out my ticket and gesturing to it. He said quite fluently, “You speak English, no?”
I had made a false assumption, not wanting an embarrassment of beginning to talk in English to someone who didn’t.
I did plenty of that soon enough. A Bologna train wasn’t on the board he said to consult, and the clock said that we were about to miss it. It took much time and many questions and embarrassed petitionings of non-English speakers to get directed properly. One man said to me in perfectly candenced and pronounced syllables, “I do not speak English,” and I quickly realized he had issued this like a machine without comprehension. That sentence was such perfect English I was tempted to ask more, but it would have been like talking to an electronically enhanced statue, and he was already walking away.
The way a stazione works, an English-speaking Italian explained, is that you don’t just look at the big electrified board for your train; you read the printed yellow departures (not white arrivals) on the wall, which list intermediate stops like Bologna. Then you check the track number against those on the big board, not going to your tracks until an announcement appears, usually about ten minutes before boarding as the departures roll along, bottom appearing as top disappears from the screen, because the actual gates often vary from the printed lists.
What we needed, it turned out, was the train for Firenze, which had Bologna as one of its stops. It was all but finished boarding as we arrived, dragging our suitcases, me with laptop and backpack strung around me, Lindy carrying her purse and briefcase. I breathlessly asked a conductor if this was to Bologna. He answered with a flurry of Italian that didn’t include the magic word Bologna, so I asked him two more times, getting him more and more aggravated, before realizing to show him my ticket. He quickly drew two short parallel lines along its back without explanation and pointed us aboard.
It was immediately obvious that we were in first class: separate compartments of travelers out of a Hitchcock movie. As the train began moving, we slid into one and hoisted our suitcases aloft. Then Lindy made my mistake of presuming that the two women in the six-seat booth didn’t speak English by addressing them with just “Bologna?” as though emphasizing “foreign speaker.” The woman who didn’t speak English nodded, but the other woman, an Indian biochemist from Albert Einstein in Manhattan headed to a conference in Parma, enunciated immaculate American. Unfortunately she had just gotten off a plane from JFK and had no idea where anything was or whether we were allowed to be in first class, our follow-up question. We reasoned (with her sincere approval), wrongly as it turned out, that we were okay because the conductor had directed us to that carriage. In fact, he had meant for us to begin walking through the train from there to second class. He only wanted to get us on a moving object before it moved.
We had the briefest visit with the New York biochemist before the conductor reappeared—and he was truly from Italian central casting: stocky, mustachioed, rather bovine-looking, as if he could play either a menially anal conductor or a keystone cop. He was outraged to see us sitting there with the legitimate first-class clients, and he motioned us in a spate of Italian, pointing forward, his last words the sarcastic “Prego, prego,” which I take to mean, roughly, “Please, if you will…” or “Pray tell, get the fuck out of here….” I asked him how far, and he registered that meaning enough to hold up one, then two, then three admonishing fingers.
We said goodbye to our friendship and headed down the narrow corridor. It was an uncomfortable trek. The train rattled like loose teeth and swung like a snake. People were coming the other way with purpose and suitcases, and where we met them, there was no option except for one party to squeeze temporarily into a first-class compartment, although a big beefy guy in a football t-shirt carrying a huge sports bag did manage to get by me in the aisle such that our bodies were closer than lovers, though with no acknowledgment of each other’s presence.
Then it got worse. We reached the third car, apparently the last first-class one, and found the entire passageway to second class blocked by people with suitcases who had given up and were just sitting in the aisle.
Unsure what to do, Lindy and I lurched in opposite directions. She entered the next car, while I was starting to get motion-sick, so just sat down. When she returned, I suggested that we go back into first class because there was no way through. She agreed and we started down the aisle in the reverse direction when a tall young man with a gigantic metallic suitcase approched from the other direction. As we backed up and he came through, we found ourselves face to face in the alcove by the bathroom, and then, once it was evident he spoke English, we discovered that our plights were identical, we the dumb American tourists and he the spiffy, well-dressed Italian. We advised him that there was no way to get through. “Good,” he said. “By Italian law then, they have to let us stay in first class.” He was a lawyer.
We had a brief discussion standing there and learned he was in fact a corporate barrister for an industrial firm doing lots of business in the States. He had just flown Newark-Milano from meetings in Orlando, Miami, and Bloomfield, New Jersey. Declaring he was now our attorney, he led us back to first class, promising he would stand up to the conductor if necessary. With a smile he told Lindy he would collect his fee at the end.
We picked a compartment populated by two raggedy-anne grade-school kids, a boy and a girl doing homework and, after we helped each other loft our bags into racks, he added that his fee had just gone up. Lindy said he had earned two euros so far. He laughed, and we sat down and picked up our discussion.
Sergio was curly haired and Greek-looking from the south, plus he was quite a conversationalist. He started out by complaining about the prices in America and what a waste it was to pay $169 for a motel in New Jersey with a swimming pool he had no time to swim in, to buy Italian wine at a bad restaurant, to make cell calls overseas at outrageous rates, and so on. He rattled on about Bush’s moronic economic and military policies and how they were impoverishing America by comparison to Europe. He asked us, as Americans, how such an idiot could be in charge of anything and why he kept saying the same thing over and over, even after it was obvious to everyone with a working brain it was wrong. Eventually he asked us about ourselves and, hearing we were publishers, produced every book he had bought at the Newark Airport, four of them. He then explained why he had purchased each item, two novels, a history, and an economic critique, respectively. He wasn’t married. His job was boring. He’d like to visit us in California. His favorite things were reading and running.
Soon enough the same conductor returned, and he peremptorily ordered us out, “Prego, prego.” Our guy jumped to his feet and immediately delivered an unexpectedly impassioned oratory that had the rail guy a bit startled, even stunned. Sergio was used to impressing judges, and now he had a special audience for his florid petition. The two kids in our booth had dropped their homework and were staring wide-eyed as our barrister and the conductor went head to head for at least two minutes. Finally the conductor charged out of the compartment with the lawyer a lamb’s tail behind him; then they headed down the aisle together, a sequence we couldn’t interpret. At first we started to leave the compartment too, but then we realized his giant suitcase was still aloft above us, so we decided to wait to see what would ensue. After five full minutes the lawyer returned alone and explained that the conductor had asked for proof that the way was blocked. I was relieved to hear that we were not bearers of false tidings and that, yes, they could not get through. But then I wrongly assumed that, according to previously cited law, we could stay. We couldn’t. We were supposed to leave at the next stazione and walk along the platform to second class. That wouldn’t be for twenty minutes and by then half of the two-hour ride would be over. “He just likes herding people,” Sergio said.
“There are dogs that have genes for doing that with sheep,” I added.
He chuckled. “You wait and see. We will defeat him in the end.”
The schoolkids fell asleep over their homework, and our conversation continued. The train stopped and started again, so we were formally in noncompliance. At about that point Lindy got jumpy and said she wanted to upgrade to first class to get rid of the problem, but Sergio insisted that we not break rank and hold out on principle. He explained that it was impossible to upgrade directly with such an official anyway. “You could try bribing him,” he said. “That’s an Italian upgrade.”
Lindy then wondered aloud why a corporate lawyer wouldn’t just pay for first class, and Sergio insisted that that too was a matter of principle. The Italian trains were dangerous, full of gypsies and thieves. His laptop was stolen just a few weeks ago; who would reimburse him? Not the treno. “At the next stop, smell the smoke,” he declared.
“I thought there was no smoking?” Lindy asked.
“No, not cigarettes. The brakes. They don’t maintain or repair them. I would never give them any more of my money. On principle, mind you.”
“But what will you spend your money on?” Lindy asked. “You’re single and…”
“It’s not about money; it’s about value. It’s about principle.”
While this turned into a longer philosophical discussion about economics between Lindy and him, the kind she likes to have, his two earlier predictions were borne out. Gypsies did come through, and we shooed them out of the compartment. At the next stop, the smell of the brakes was acrid. Meanwhile we held our ground and awaited the conductor’s reentry.
He came about twenty minutes later, not that much left of the trip now, and went into conniptions. He virtually threw us out into the aisle, reaching in and gesturing two inches above our bodies. It was hard to know how to act during this exchange of raised voices and repeated circuits of the conductor’s arm. Lindy and I were mere accomplices, after all; not understanding a word that was being said, continually looking about for cues. We never would have attempted such blatant defiance and slapstick on our own.
This time Sergio lost. As we followed him sheepishly down the aisle while the kids stared, he declared a moral victory for the amount of time we had won in first class. We returned to the space between cars where we perched near the bathroom and adjusted our positions for passers-by. We even got to see our New York friend again, though we had to reassure her we hadn’t been sitting on the floor outside the bathroom the entire time.
When the train stopped at Parma, Sergio led us back to a different compartment, this one with a man reading the newspaper. “Maybe this brings better luck,” he announced. It did for a while and he chatted away about politics and economics and how we would put him up when he came to California, but soon enough the conductor returned. This was becoming a full-scale farce.
He ranted and yelled at Sergio, getting redder and redder, but Sergio rose to full height, assumed the docket, and took him on mano a mano. As our lawyer shouted more and more excitedly and pointed here and there, seemingly irrelevantly, the conductor finally cracked the slightest smile. I heard him say the word “computer,” then throw up his arms and walk away.
“We have prevailed,” Sergio announced.
“Is it because you told him about your stolen computer?” I asked.
“No, no! He said, ‘It doesn’t take a computer to know how to get from first to second class.’ Then he said, ‘I give up. You win. Stay.’”
At the Bologna Centrale station we arrived much too late for our connection to Ravenna, so we figured out the system by trial and error—how to read the train schedule on the wall for the next departure to our location and then to watch the electronic board for confirmation of its track. On that bullet ride of little over an hour we had a whole car to ourselves, second-class.
Elena had attached snapshots of her and Giorgio to her last email to us in Damanhur, which we printed out on an office computer. These odd mugshots were well wrinkled from transport in my back pocket, but still useful. We picked her out at once, a sweet-looking, doll-like Italian woman with black hair. She met us in pouring rain and drove us to their house.
Now we encountered “lost in translation” of a different sort. All along, we had assumed we were coming to Ravenna to visit a consciousness-oriented publisher that had purchased rights to many of our health and spiritual books. However, we had misread the enthusiasm of our licensing person Sarah back in the office. Fernendell was, in fact, a tiny, though prestigious, literary press, which had purchased only one title from us, Phoebe Gloeckner’s Diary of a Teenage Girl, a radical graphic novel—and that translation just a few months prior. The misunderstanding really didn’t matter, since the point was to visit with an Italian publisher while traveling in Italy, but it did take switching gears to our purely literary identities to be with people who had no interest in Buddhism, bodywork, or martial arts, and would have no knowledge or curiosity about Damanhur. Instead they were involved in young avant-garde Italian writers.
Ravenna discourages cars, so its one-way streets involve multiple spirals to get most places, often progressing slowly behind bicycles and elaborate bikelike conveyances of older people with basket and wagons. Thus, it took fifteen minutes to drive from the stazione to their house at Via Carraie 58, probably longer than it would have taken to walk it.
Dinner was a domestic Italian meal. I picked at my pile of melded rice and cheese and did better with a salty fry of vegetables, olives, and capers, though watch out for the pits!
Giorgio understood little English and spoke virtually none, whereas Elena is a professional translator for events as well as texts, so for hours, beginning before dinner, through the meal, and then after it, Lindy and I spoke in bursts and spurts and then had to be restrained while Elena caught Giorgio up and, when relevant, supplied his contribution. Often, though, we got going too fast, and he was left staring into space.
We learned that they had met in 2000 after she had called the press as a customer looking for a particular book. He was very friendly on the phone, so they kept talking, and finally he went to Bari, below Rome, to see her. Not long after their successful “date,” she had taken the train to Ravenna to see him there, and soon after that visit, they had moved in together. Till then he had been running Fernendell pretty much by himself from his mother’s house, but Elena threw in with him, and now, with her linguistic acumen, she handled all acquisitions and many of the translations from other countries.
Small and round, clad professionally in a black one-piece suit, Elena tended toward a generous and expansive southern Italian Earth mother. Tall and studious-looking, a bespectacled ibis, Giorgio wore an informal black t-shirt and white khakis. He reminded me of many South American and European intellectuals. One moment he was mild-mannered Clark Kent; the next moment he was filled with exuberant passion; then he was Clark Kent again. He seemed alternately a Brazilian businessman and a left-wing student. They were around forty, far closer to the age of our children than to us.
I liked Giorgio’s quirky manner, even without language to help me understand his meanings. He smiled bashfully, deferred graciously to Elena, and was precise and forceful in his insertions, often defiantly protective of his own press and literary standing. The talk was mainly publishing nuts and bolts, but constant interpretation gave it a special quality because we had to work hard to get everything to everybody without having it change nuance too much in the process.
At one point Elena remarked that Giorgio spoke French pretty well and communicated successfully with French visitors. In fact, she said, he spoke a smattering of English better with their Swedish friends than with Americans because they went too fast for him to hear the separate words. That was a surprise, a surprise too how hard it was for me to slow down and separate my words from each other.
Then Giorgio suddenly announced in four widely-spaced words, “I speak French very well” in English!
That night in a small guest apartment on the ground floor (their bedroom was on the third floor and the dining room and living room in between), we fell asleep on a bed that occupied most of the room, but we were awakened at 2 A.M. or so by a TV blasting in the rear courtyard so loud with Italian slapstick and screeching music that I stumbled around our room for the source, assuming that some radio alarm must have gone off.
When the noise didn’t subside, I tried a pillow over my head. That didn’t work. I strayed out into the courtyard in my nightshirt, but the lit shade marking the source, while very near physically, was culturally very far. I had no language or protocol with which to proceed on a remedy for this noise, especially in the middle of the night.
It reminded me of a Donna Leon novel that was set, as they all are, in Italy (Venice): an old lady who irritated everyone by playing her TV too loud is murdered, and the police go on the assumption that she kept one person too many awake that fateful night. However, such proved not to be the case, as she was blackmailing another party and simply got greedy.
Murder being out of the question, I settled on Dalai Lama chants on my CD player. I had never tried to sleep with music or chanting before, and I didn’t succeed this time either. What I did succeed at was changing my mood. The anger dissipated as my mind fell into the Tibetan calls. These were words I didn’t understand either, but their serious and compassionate meaning (life and death and rebirth, disease and healing) was emotionally and energetically conveyed by the sound and calmed and deepened me and gave me more internal space. I became less irritated.
Mantras transcend language, even as bird calls and grasshopper chirps do in another way. So sacred Tibetan replaced profane Italian and, though there was no position to lie in without the earphones biting, I absorbed it for twenty minutes or so and then, more tolerant, took the earphones off and fell asleep despite the racket.
In the morning I told Elena about it, adding that I had a temptation to go upstairs, get an apple from the refrigerator, and throw it.
“That’s what I might have done a few months ago,” she said, “but she’s an old lady hard of hearing, and I doubt she would have even noticed.”
When the same thing happened again the next night, after momentary dismay and outraged, I tiptoed carefully up the spiral staircase in the dark, got an empty can from the garbage, stepped onto the patio, and hurled it. It was a very satisfying strike. Not only did I hit the window dead-on, but it made a much louder thump against it than I had thought it would, and then it fell clattering into the alley. A moment later the sound lowered. It was still irritating, but not as loud. I had at least found a way to communicate with her. Though not direct in the usual sense, it was linguistic and had a meaning. It got her to adjust her dial a little to the left. Then I went back to sleep.
September 17 (Day Five)
Italian breakfasts are small; Lindy has some toast and fruit provided by our hosts, and I get by on my kelp crunch from Maine and apricots and prunes biologique from Damanhur. Then, on Elena’s suggestion, Lindy and I head out for our own Ravenna exploration. We are expected back for lunch in an hour and a half.
We set off down Via Carraie and head for town. Even this short stretch of random street is filled with its own assortment of small treasures. Half a block away across the road it is unclear for a moment whether we are looking at a lush pile of pears or apples on the ground. Then I look up and see a quince. This variation delights me, especially as I favor the letter “Q,” even more so here in an ancient land echoing Robert Graves’ white goddess and the original alphabet tree whose apple was called a quert (the grapheme Q resembles an apple with a stem and asks basic existential questions in old Italian, e.g. Latin: Quare? Quis? Qua? Quid? Qui? Quo? Quomodo? Quando? Quorsum? Quoties? Quantum? Quot? Quidni? ) That’s a lot of free association for one quince tree.
A little further down the block on Giorgio and Elena’s side, amidst otherwise proper, tidy stone homes, is an absolute wreck of a decaying housefront at number 12, many layers of stone crumbling off it, different levels and fades of bright Italian colors of graffiti (Venite Quando ci Sono, one seems to say, although it might be two running together and worn to the same layer of white on blue on cement.) The graffiti in and around the archway and on the wooden door are so varied in style, color, and design that it makes the wall a work of found iconography, halfway between a three-year-old’s scribbles and a semieology that could hang in a museum of modern art. Add the various scrawls and paint on the façade, the intricate black lattice like a montage of dense crisscrossing codes to the right of the door, a few odd circular and octopus designs in navy blue, the texts and subtexts washed out and covering one another (does it say Ti Rovina – L’Arte L’Investimemo, or is that only what I make out of it with no Italian?), and the different irregular layers of stone surrounding a barred glassless window, and you have a masterpiece of assemblage art in various shades of blue, poster black, splattered milk white, brick, cement, and one yellow dot the size of a softball.
Continuing down the quince side of the street, by the doorpost of number 3 we discover a small shrub flush pomegranates, pink and nubile, almost translucent, too young for eating.
We have used up a half hour and not even gotten off the block.
Our walk takes us toward Via Roma, and we make it only as far as the giant stone gate leading into the thoroughfare before dark clouds sail in from the direction in which we are heading and begin flinging droplets. We stride promptly back to Via Carraie for umbrellas and then start out again on the same route. Elena extends us an extra half hour till lunch.
It makes no difference where we go, as it is all different and holds our interest. The joy of walking in strange cities is unparallelled.
We visit a small nondescript park; then go by the Basilica of Sant’ Apollinare Nuovo, an immense, partly eroding building surrounded by tourists and pigeons. We continue along streets and sidestreets, lots of cyclists, central-casting Italian families out with carriages. Most storefronts are closed on Sunday but, as we cross a mall-like strip, shoppers flock into clothing marts as music blares from a CD store. The twenty-first century is cutting across Papal Ravenna here with an indifferent fury.
We return a little late for lunch, which takes an unexpected turn. A curious conversation centers around Giorgio, in which the man at hand, exhibit A, offers himself as a willing subject and participant.
We learn that Giorgio has pretty much spent his whole life in and about Ravenna, leaving at most to go to book shows and literary conferences in northern Italy. He feels no need to travel; this city is his comfort zone. He doesn’t drive a car and doesn’t like to sleep in other people’s houses. The key to his agoraphobia, however, is a fear—nay, terror—of flying. This phobia occupies a large swath of conversation, for it needs to be gotten clear just how profound it is. Yes, Giorgio has flown, once to Paris at Elena’s insistence, to visit a villa in Normandy in which she maintained a time-share. She pretty much insisted on that. After initially refusing, he took sedatives from his nurse sister and got on the plane. They didn’t help and, according to Elena, he was white and on the verge of panic during the brief trip.
“Was it bumpy?” I ask.
“It was the smoothest flight ever. Not a single bump. Giorgio said he could not get over the fact that there was only air below him. He said he will never get on a plane again.”
The next forty-five minutes are spent imagining different ways to help Giorgio overcome this phobia. With her inveterate sunny fixit compulsion, Lindy invites him to come to visit us in California as if this will solve it instantly. She proceeds as though the opportunity should be a breakthrough enticement, and Elena plays along, not from any real hope that Giorgio will relent and suddenly shout, “Eureka, I always wanted an invitation to California. I am cured!” (in Italian of course), but to maintain the recreational propriety of the conversation and perhaps out of her own hankering for a perfect world in which it would in fact be nice if they could come like any other couple and stay with these friendly colleagues in Berkeley and tour their publishing. See, Giorgio, aren’t they gracious to offer?
If Venice to Paris was impossible, Milan to San Francisco is ridiculous. They’d clearly have to shanghai and then drug him to get him on that flight. Visiting America is clearly something Giorgio has no interest in doing. Or, if he does have any, it has no weight compared to his fear of flying.
Lindy and Elena continue to play along as if getting to America is the goal and the phobia the sole impediment. They consider a boat, but it would take the better part of a month to ferry Giorgio there, plus he gets seasick. I mention facetiously that he could try full anesthetization as before an operation. I have no idea what he is declaring back, but he is clearly enjoying the entire conceit a great deal, nursing and embellishing the nuances of his intransigence. After all, we are addressing a life of agoraphobia with the resident expert, the agoraphobic himself.
His response to all suggestions in the negative with theatrical mirth says we all must be crazy. Why would anyone, once in Ravenna, ever leave? It gradually becomes clear that his courtship of Elena and their marriage were a dramatic departure from his prior habits. That in itself was a radical enough step for one lifetime.
I finally introduce my own fear of flying and, as my words are translated and Giorgio hears my methods for coping on planes, he is astonished both that I have his same problem and that I would still go by air. He considers me nuts to challenge my fears and reaffirms his own determination not ever to get on a plane again.
Giorgio’s provinciality and agoraphobia have become the sole mainstay of our exchange and an increasing source of wit and jollity. For instance, when we are out alone with Elena, we learn that her husband dropped out of a college program in philosophy and has no degree (though is renowned around Italy for his knowledge of avant-garde Italian literature, a genre that is only now coming into a renaissance)—“fifty years behind the U.S.,” she adds.
I keep this conversation in mind, and at dinner that night when we get back on the matter of planes—I forget why; I think it is because Lindy is again inviting Giorgio to Berkeley, or exclaiming how much he would enjoy the States—I suddenly throw out the notion that, as mortal beings, we are never supported by more than air.
Elena translates. I watch the philosopher’s amused reaction. She says, “He prefers the metaphysical void to the real void.”
I say, “The metaphysical void is more terrifying.”
After passing that on, she reports back, “At least in the metaphysical void, you have your feet on the ground.”
I say, “It only seems that way.”
Giorgio’s response: “The metaphysical void cannot kill me.”
After lunch Elena suggested a siesta. Her participation in it lasted till almost five, so we set out quite late for what she called “the mosaics” and the guidebooks refer to as the Basilica di San Vitale. We arrived at door just before closing, and Elena made us her guests by paying (she herself gets in free as a resident of Ravenna).
This is a magnificent church from the mid-sixth century A.D., over 1,400 years old. It marks the time when Rome was slowly but surely falling, its great millennial empire at an end. Justinian, emperor of the East, had made Ravenna the capital of a briefly reestablished sovereignty.
The octagonal church looks anything but transitory, for it stands as Ozymandias-like today as almost a millennium and a half ago. Its dome sits so far above the ground that the images on it are barely in focus for me inside. The stone walls are massive. Their builders clearly thought in terms of timeless time. Without either the machinery to do the work easily or a scientific world-view that would have diluted their enthusiasm for cosmic grandeur, they threw themselves into eternity and deification, donating their labor apparently willingly to God and his kingdom on Earth.
San Vitale is Justinian’s church, but it faces more into a Middle Ages that haven’t yet happened than back to the glory of Rome, albeit the latter was Justinian’s intention, his manifest text. Luminous mosaics of tiny gold and glass chips cover the inside like primeval cinema, representing a world unknowingly stuck between milieus; in the words of Yeats: one dying, one not yet born, a sphinx imagining itself immutable, once as forever.
The illustrations within depict both the Emperor’s political reign and the more transcendent kingdom of Christ, the two bound together in symbology that casts Jesus as a Roman emperor; Justinian himself wears both a halo and a crown. His military leaders congregate naturally with prelates and the Bishop, for there is no war that isn’t sacred (yes, forward into the darkness). The entire space resonates with Byzantium and Constantinople, the Middle Ages, not Caesar, not Cicero, not Gaul, as Bible scenes foretell a sacrosanct culture beginning to descend over the Mediterranean. Yet the Emperor’s mistress Theodora, a former dancing girl, still wears her Roman jewels and pearls. This culture obviously could not tell its own foreground from its background, and the church is a giant artifact of cultural ambiguity, as boldly as it states itself, pretending everything is clear and will be clear and unaltered forever. It would be interesting to see Now through its eyes: a blink at the iconography of its most forbidden dreams.
(An odd footnote: Lindy and I both note a figure labeled Mechesidel, likely related to the surname taken on by Drunvalo, the interdimensional character In our books by New Age pilgrim Bob Frissell.)
We cross the courtyard to the Mausoleum of Galla Placidia where the legendary mother, daughter, and sister of emperors is ostensibly buried (450 A.D.) in a gigantic sealed stone coffin approximately the size of twenty ordinary ones. There are no windows in the mausoleum, but in their place a haze of light pours in through alabaster panels that look like slices of fossil wood.
Above the coffin we get to see St. Lawrence martyred on a grill, defiiantly telling his executors to turn him over because he is “done” on one side. Stars fill the dome while, clad in imperial gold and purple, Jesus receives lambs representing the faithful. The mosaics on the floor are textbook Byzantine design, whether they knew it or not at the time.
This tomb marks the difference between modern and mediaeval worlds. Here in old Ravenna the body of one lone figure occupies a vault of stone inside a mortuary the size of a house. Nowadays people’s ashes are scattered into the wind. The world is still the world, but secular time has taken over from eternity.
To get to the Church and Mausoleum we trekked from a parking space a good twenty-five minutes away, so we head back through greatly increasing rain under our umbrella. It was difficult to park even that close, as the streets were jammed with traffic, and vehicles had been left in “fuck you” positions willy-nilly about a quasi-legal parking zone that was way overfull yet continued to accrete cars as if still functional. Without a care Elena improvised her own spot in a mere five seconds adjacent to a full row of cars, extending the parking area a little further into the street. Now I am surprised we are ticket-free. No one, in fact, seems to care about parking formalities and no one gets tickets, which is nice in a way.
There is a huge yard sale going on (Elena generously calls it an antique show), covering a nearby block—people offering lace, old fabrics, globes, books, and assorted junk on tables. When we passed through the first time, they were happily presenting their wares to a good-sized throng. As we pass back through, some are hastily gathering items up in the rain while others are putting transparent tarpaulins over them. The streets between the yard sale and the mosaics are bustling with economic and social activity, cafés and workout studios, each blaring their own bottled sounds. The eyes of the church would not recognize Catholic Italy on Sunday.
We drive back to the house to gather my laptop and then head for Fernendell’s office, which is in Giorgio’s mother’s house. There we will visit him at work and we will also visit Elena’s cat.
When Elena moved from Bari to be with Giorgio, he was as astonished by her pet as if she had brought a cobra. “He made it clear then that he would have me, but not the cat,” she laughs. The first night the cat was in the house, Giorgio could not sleep, asking constantly where it was. “It was under the bed,” Elena sniffs. The next day she moved it to his mother’s house, the publishing office, where it could at least be kept company during daytimes.
Far from disliking the cat, Giorgio adores it, just can’t be at ease with a wild creature in the house. “And wouldn’t you know,” Elena adds, “the cat now prefers him to me because he won’t forgive me for moving him here. And Giorgio keeps holding it up to me: ‘See, he likes me best.’”
Forty-five minutes of effort and Giorgio’s tech expertise cannot get me on their DSL, so another day without sending and receiving email from my laptop goes by.
Giorgio’s mother never appears.
We look at pages of Phoebe’s book in Italian. It is touching to see the care that Giorgio is taking with it.
In the next hour and a half Elena and I go around together on errands while Lindy rests back at the house. The main errand involves my clothes, which have been washed but are not nearly dry, as it has been pouring all day. Few people in Italy have driers, and my laundry is on rungs on a wooden stand under a plastic overhang in the courtyard so, while the various articles are not accumulating much new water, they are also not getting any drier. The dilemma is: we leave in the morning.
A drive-by shows that the one laundromat in Ravenna is unexpectedly open on a Sunday evening, but it is mobbed. Elena has a long discussion with the proprietess (a job that wouldn’t exist in the U.S.); this includes almost ten minutes of instruction about the machines and their means of receiving coins and a promise to reserve a drier if we come back in fifteen minutes. “At least I learned something,” Elena announces back on the sidewalk.
We use the intervening time to purchase Lindy’s and my ticket at the stazione, a transaction that is a snap with Elena’s help. Then she graciously tells me to join Lindy resting; she needs to go to the automatic teller, the gas station, and some other places, and will do my drying in medias res. I take her up on it.
We pick Giorgio up at the office at nine and go to dinner at their regular restaurant where we are served by their favorite waitress. She is a bawdy bundle of red-faced banter and jibes, occasional body whacks at Giorgio’s person. Right out of Shakespeare, she returns regularly to perform her slapstick. Realizing that these guests of theirs are American, she does a mockery of English speech in a kind of slow singsong as if putting on airs. “We are happy with our food,” she says at one juncture, sashaying her head back and forth with each syllable. Elena explains that this is her way of teasing Giorgio. “She knows more English than he does, and she wants to flaunt it in front of him. She is saying, ‘I can talk to your guests better than you can, and I haven’t even gone to school.’” Another time she returns to discuss marital statuses, declaring herself an ex-Mrs.
I alone have the fish platter, while they all order the carne. We also get a marguerita pizza to share. My dish includes slices of squid, potato gnocchi with shrimp, and a nondescript whitefish. It is passable fare, and the company and spirit are good. I drop all and any scruples about nutrition and health and eat away, though I consign the doughy dull Italian bread to a single bite of an end, after which a nervous gesture of my finger hollows it out into a perfect tunnel, an act that Giorgio surreptitiously observes because few things elude him. For instance, earlier he insisted that I use a knife and fork on the pizza rather than my hands, a request he pantomimed with his own. It was such an unexpectedly public signal of propriety that I wondered if lifting pizza slices is particularly vulgar in Italy.
The meal was capped by a liqueur-like drink that Giorgio and Elena have every time: something they call limon, made by distilling lemons and their peels in a sugary water until the brew turns alcoholic. This is lemonade with a bite, bitter and dry, and two sips of Lindy’s were enough for me.
Giorgio would not allow anyone to take him to dinner in his town. In fact, no formal check ever came.
After we said our goodbyes and headed to separate floors for sleep, I got one of their apples biologique and sat with Giorgio on the living room couch watching the news about the Pope insulting Islam and then a documentary on modern China. I wondered what he was thinking about Beijing, yet another place he would never go, as he stared intently, mysteriously. How did he imagine other parts of the planet, this sophisticated literate guy bound to Via Carraie and Ravenna? Did he wonder what it would be like to walk those streets, or was it all vicarious? He was wonderful silent company, and finally I said goodnight, and he said “Buonanotte.” Then “Prego,” which in that context is more like “Peace go with you.”