The Pace of Life and Italy Notes
I knew this was coming, but this is ridiculous. New York moves fast. I feel like I’ve stepped on a moving sidewalk that’s being operated by a meth freak. It’s like the Loony Toons: as soon as my feet touch the moving walkway, they zip forward. My body streeeeeetches out in an attempt to keep my body together, and my head, complete with momentary quizzical expression, lags behind only to be whipped forward and off the screen in order to catch up with my body.
I kind of like it.
Only kind of, though. I do happily suspect that it will slow to a more tolerable level of insanity once I get an apartment of my own and a normal routine. This is all my way of saying that I realize I’ve been neglecting my blog. And it’s a shame because I have this notebook full of sketches and notes from my trip to Italy. I had hoped to distill it all into a brilliant essay, but in the interest of actually posting something, I’m going to start placing the notes up on the site in no particular order. Here goes:

Instructions for a credit card operated gas pump in Taverne d’Arbia (SE of Siena):
To insert notes aligned to the right in any verse.
To wait the accreditation in the display.
To select the wanted bomb.
Out to the spy of the select bomb, to take the supplier.
[Everybody got that?]

Sitting on a delayed train to Piombino in Pisa Centrale Station by myself with nothing to read, I stick my head out the train window and look up and down the tracks hoping to catch a glimpse of the Leaning Tower. No dice. I am surprised to hear, however, large numbers of people singing raucously, but in unison, in the distance. It is loud and it is getting louder. The source? A train pulls up at the next platform over and it is packed – PACKED. And it is rocking back and forth – not just one car, but the entire train – full of soccer fans on their way to a Sunday match. Newly promoted Livorno? Does Pisa have a team in the top division? I don’t know, but just as I’m getting my mind around what I’m seeing, the train pulls away, a moving can of ebullient sardines.

The anglicized version of Livorno is Leghorn. Obviously.

Walking around Portoferraio at night in a chilly breeze and under a near-full moon, I meander around the old city, past the Renaissance fortresses and down the crooked alleys. I hear families sitting down to dinner, a boat’s horn, and then, in the distance, I hear it: someone is listening to the Macarena. God bless the Macarena.

Exploring the village of Marciana on the island of Elba, I’m struck by how similar it all looks to the villages of Cinqueterre, with the cubes of homes stacked on top of each other in no discernable pattern. It’s as if a giant has stood at the top of the mountain and dropped a handful of rectangles down the valley. The rectangles – the homes – careen down the mountainside to the shore and collect in an exhausted heap at the bottom. Shazam: a village. Roofs double as alleys, stairs are cut into the walls of homes, train stations are in the middle of mountains and the tracks zip right past restaurants. It’s insane and it’s beautiful.
And it occurs to me that this is really bad planning, at least the planning as defined by what they beat into me in grad school. It could not possibly be less efficient. It sprawls in all available directions with no thought for its next step. Yet people come from all over the world to see its design, its shape, and its communities of mixed generations.
This leads me to ask the radical question of: is it possible that all of our efforts to create efficiency and order in contemporary cities and towns are just an attempt to fill the void created by a meager social network? I spend so much time thinking of ways to design places that make sense to residents to give them a feeling of rootedness, when maybe the real source of that feeling of belonging and permanence ought to be from social interaction and not physical design. Has urban design become a study in the creation of ersatz community?


Travel Notes I: Roma
Riding the train from Rome's Fiumicino Airport into Rome, I watched the little towns zip by, high density satellite communities with five-story, pastel colored apartment blocks hunkering down in the arid countryside. To me it looked like a cross between Stockholm (for the density) and Jerusalem (for the aridity and pervasiveness of age). Then it occurred to me that those were the only two foreign cities in which I had spent appreciable time. I wonder if I had only visited Managua and Hong Kong if it would have reminded me of that as well.

Sitting in Trastevere Piazza eating my seventh gelato of the day (oh nocciolo, I miss you so), an older man shuffled by. He was wearing loafers, black socks, hot pink capri pants, a hawaiian shirt, and a heavy winter coat. It was a balmy 85 degrees outside. He muttered to himself incessantly. It was then that it occurred to me. Forget love, crazy people are the true international language.

Rome is just dizzyingly beautiful at times. The piazzas, the churches, the little alleyways. My travelmates and I agreed that it was the prettiest place we'd been, perhaps in our whole lives. But then, just two and a half days later, we were desperate to leave. How the hell did that happen? Tourists. And we were three of them, so it would be hypocritical (or at least self-deprecating) to be entirely disdainful, but the city is just mobbed with visitors, even in late September.
What is it excatly that is so awful about tourists? The lines are annoying, the lack of solitude and quiet is not exactly a dream, but those aren't the dealbreakers for me. The problem, and this is something that I spent a lot of time thinking about on this trip, is that when surrounded by tourists - even tourists from other exotic places - I end up feeling that the place's personality is diminished, hidden, overrun by what we've brought with us.
We talk about home, we yammer on in foreign laguages, we carry the baggage, culture, and social idiosyncracies with us. And the more of us there are, the more noise it makes. I don't mean audible noise, although that is definitely one ingredient, I mean cultural white noise, the pervasive background static that exists everywhere in America and the world. We don't hear it so often because, having lived within it our whole lives, we are thoroughly desensitized to it. It's like the sound of our heartbeat, we would only notice it if it disappeared. It's so pervasive that it's seeped into our physical bodies so that when we travel it comes with us like headphones.
And when we go to new places hoping to learn, it requires a concerted effort to make the white noise fade away, to stop repeating the jokes and pop culture references that roll off the tongue, to dress differently, maybe. It's difficult to see what's in front of us.
I know that part of this argument is based in an asburd puritanism - that snobbishness of the inveterate traveler who disdains all popular non-third-world destinations and wants only to fit in quietly in his culture, regardless of the fact that he or she is white and carries a huge backpack. I know this. You can't leave it all behind and on a trip as short as this one, you certainly can't expect to fit in or learn the culture through osmosis. But there ought to be a certain amount of hushed observation and acceptance of the culture in which you travel.
The real question, and this is something I'm still toying with, is how much of your self/your culture are you supposed to leave behind? If you leave all of it, then learning becomes impossible. New information in and of itself isn't so fascinating. It's how it relates to what I already know that has weight. Bring too much of yourself with you on vacation, however, and your ability to see new things and learn is greatly reduced. Too much white noise.
The equation is complicated by your travelmates. How many should you bring? It depends on how loud they are, I suppose. Are they pop culture entertainers or quiet observers? What kind of place is it? Visit a loud, in your face city like Manhattan and you can probably travel in a group of five. But travel around the smaller hilltowns of Tuscany and more than three people feels like a battalion.
Part of the frustration with Rome for me is that the old city, with its piazzas and alleys, is an intimate landscape of pockets and corners and narrow spaces. Walking through these places with thousands of other visitors beats the life out of the place.

I have been absent for awhile, off sniffing the skunk in Italy. Over the next few weeks, I'll try and catch up and post on the trip, as well as what it's been like to go on vacation and return home to a city I've never lived in before.

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