mercoledì, ottobre 26, 2005

This week's Rambler Article

The Land of Milk and Honey (and Wine)
Part II

By Romulus

We are late for lunch. This is not a good thing. It is a terrifying thing.

At the wheel is Sergio Mionetto, world-renowned maker of some of the finest wine in all of Italy, and arguably clinically insane (though, of course, I put little faith at all in the classifications of clinics; I only mention this as a desperate attempt to put the man into some sort of perspective). He drives faster and tries to whistle carelessly, but is unconvincing.

We haphazardly wind through the pre-alps, speeding on concrete roads that frequently and unexpectedly fold into sudden hairpin turns. Every so often we break out through the trees, at which moments we are firmly hit, flat in the eyes, with a vision of the whole gigantic panorama of the verdurous, sprawling valley of Venezia, before it is snatched away as we again speed back into the dense forest.

Of all of Julian’s relatives to leave waiting Zia Pia is, by a large margin, the one about whom a wise man would say, “never, ever, ever…ever…ever!...stand up Zia Pia.” She too, I am quite sure, could also acquire the classification of clinically insane, and she knows it, and, I think, would look upon such a prognosis as something of a trophy. I suspect she would frame the doctor’s official diagnostic forms, and place them in a prominent spot in her house for all to admire, and point it out when visitor’s came over to lunch as anyone else would proudly showcase their child’s honour roll certificate.

We are keeping Zia Pia waiting. Sergio, a man of infinite assurance, has begun to surreptitiously sweat blood. “No wine!” he says, turning about to the four terrified squires. “Traffic!”

The four of us look uneasily at each other. It is a Saturday afternoon, in a remote region of Venezia; we haven’t seen another car on the road for ten minutes. Traffic, it seems, is an excuse that may border on untruth, and is, to boot, quite unlikely to get by the shrewd Italian matron who is Zia Pia.

The simple fact is that we are late because of wine; albeit very, very good wine, though I suspect that fact won’t serve to mitigate the guilt. We wonder just how far mental reservation will get us in this case. Sadly there is no Mr. O’Herron around to answer the conundrum. For a moment I stop and wonder how any man can ever safely navigate this life, in all its infinite variety and flavour, without a personal moral theologian standing close by. I knew I should have brought one with me.

Today has not been a typical day. It began at ten o’clock when I gently and pleasantly slid into consciousness. Sauntering over to the blinds, waiting for Geoffredo (Geoff Turecek) to finish showering, I thought I might give them a tug. I did. They slid open, and for the second morning in a row I was stunned by the blaze of light that afforded me a distant view of the tips of the spires of Venice, sixty-something kilometers East; I breathed a sigh of satisfaction.

After an enormous breakfast served by Bicche, one of Julian’s great aunts, who is so accomplished in the practice of Xenia that she makes one feel as if one is doing her a favour by eating her food and staying in her house, Sergio picks us up.

As we weave in what some might consider a slightly-too-rapid fashion through one or another of the dozen towns we pass through, Sergio explains that he has been pulled over four times on the main drag of this town alone. Each time the police officer has let him off the hook. That’s the sort of man he is. He is Sergio Mionetto; his very name graces the bottle of one of the most affordable, finest, and most delicious of the effervescent wines the region affords.

We arrive at our morning’s destination. It a large warehouse wallowing in a sea of vines. The parallel lines of the vineyards that race along the mountainsides give the impression of a long series of Mesopotamian ziggurats, and one can’t help but wonder if the ancient architects of those mystic constructs took their inspiration from such vineyards. The vines here all produce the prosecco species of grapes. This rare species can only be grown in this relatively tiny region of Italy, with the Alps on the West, and the Mediterranean on the East, one producing the moist and mild air needed for the grapes, and the other acting as a colossal trap, catching the precious air in its Westward movement, and forcing it to stick around long enough to breathe life and vitality into the vines.

It is our difficult task, for the next hour and a half, to follow Sergio through the towering rows of twenty and thirty-thousand liter tanks of vinifying, divine liquid. With each new tank we purify our wine glasses by pouring a little of the wine into them from a tap in the side of the tank. We swish it about a little, and dump it into a bucket carried about for the purpose. And in this manner each new wine, all with their own distinctive flavours and nuances, all at a different stage of the process of vinification, is poured over our palate, unsullied and pure.

Americans, North Americans (to include my native turf), I feel compelled to point out, do not understand wine. They do not understand drinking on the whole really.

I once had the pleasure of working at a five star restaurant in Toronto. It boasted one of the most accomplished sommelier’s (professional wine-tasters) in the country, and was filled with the sort of men who know at what temperature wine ought to be served, and in what type of glass, and all such sorts of cryptic etiquette.

And yet I am not sure that even they understood wine; more than anything, they seemed to think it was the focal point of a game, or a pseudo-religion, with ornate and secret, Masonic-like rituals. More than a drink they seemed to think or imagine it a deity, and often these men appeared to me, with all their posing and posturing, as very silly people. I often laughed at them in secret.

But to experience the sincere joy with which Sergio uncorks a bottle of Mionetto wine at the dinner table is itself a an experience; to note the evident pleasure with which he sniffs the cork (a sure means, so I am told, of assuring the quality of a wine for a wine-taster in the know) is itself a pleasure. “This is my spirit,” he says about the bubbly liquid. He smacks his lips, and gleefully pours you a glass. And his strange claim is easy to believe. Especially since, as I have said before, the bottle declares in plain, block letters: SERGIO. It is his wine; it is, truly, in some mystic fashion, his spirit. It is his genius that has created it; he has poured his whole self, and the whole accrued stock of knowledge of the last hundred-and-something years of his family’s wine-making tradition, into crafting it in all its glorious inimitability.

I have known many an alcoholic, and in North America I think there are many alcoholics, and that, because, as I say, North Americans do not understand alcohol. To see an alcoholic drink is like seeing a man having an asthma attack, gasping for air and unable to force enough into his lungs. The drunkard drinks for the drink itself; his body craves the drink, and his sole end is to satisfy the thirst of his body. But the true drinker is concerned with something altogether different than that.

As we make our tour through the wine-making facility—or cantina as it is called—enjoying the varied and delicious wines, one of my fellow squires turns to me and mentions how strange it is that wine seems to have such a muted effect upon him here in Italy. All of us agree; we have noted the same effect. And certainly it is strange at first, but not, I think, entirely inexplicable.

This evident phenomenon, I would argue, is certainly not as a consequence of any lessened potency of the alcohol here. Rather it is a direct consequence of the fact that the act of drinking is here inextricably and always intertwined with greater things than the drink itself—with camaraderie, with tradition, with family, friendship, and yes, with religion. For there are two ways to treat a thing unjustly; one is by lifting it above its rank and worshipping it, and the other is by debasing it and treating it as a mere servant or slave when it is greater, both of which make us, and the thing, look foolish.

But in Italy wine is not as my North American connoisseur friends, or my alcoholic friends, have made it: as an end in itself. It is neither the deity nor the tyrannical slave. It is, rather, the happy, humble steward.

This is, after all the continent in which some of the finest liquors have been distilled and brewed and vinified by monks and priests. This is the continent on which once flourished the Catholic religion with all its love of the good things of this earth as gifts to Man and foretastes of the kingdom to come. I would like not to have to quote the oft-cited fact that Christ’s first miracle was the transformation of water into what, we are told, was a spectacular wine, but the fact is that those are the facts, and I think that they mean something. I think Christ knew what he was about when he did that. And I think that Europe, with its thousands of years of Catholic tradition, is, despite its reckless pursuit of its greatest apostasy yet, still steeped through and through, inescapably, with deep spiritual undercurrents that inform everything its inhabitants do.

Sitting about the dinner tables of the remarkable relations of Julian’s, savouring three-course meals that extend for two, three hours, or more, the wine, which flows abundantly and continually, is something other than alcohol. There is something spiritual about it, a deep river of tradition that informs its consumption, and there is something natural in its plentiful presence; in fact, I only really stop and take notice of it and ponder it because I am a writer, because it is my job and my vocation and my passion to notice things, and, better yet, to delve into their significances.

I feel that I could go on at much greater length about this topic yet. I believe in many ways it touches on some truly fundamental questions about the spirit of Europe, and especially Italy, the spirit with which I have had the chance to commune for the last month and a half. But alas, I am out of time, and probably long ago out of space.

Perhaps I shall end this segment with this significance. In the introduction to my last article I promised to delve into to the origins and the secrets of Julian, to try to come to some conclusion or explanation about the strange creature that is my roommate and my friend. And I think I have discovered something. I think I have discovered that, just as the effervescent wine fermented from prosecco grape flows through the veins of Sergio and Zia Pia, and all the others of Julian’s relatives, filling them with a passion for life that I have rarely, if ever encountered, so too has it made its way down through Julian’s parents and into the blood of Julian himself.

Julian’s heart pumps blood that is infused with the effervescent prosecco liquid and it bequeaths to him the sweet insanity so common here in the mystic town of Valdobiaddene.

(All comments, questions, concerns, personal insults or slurs pertaining to Ramblings from Rome may be e-mailed to John at, or Julian at Again, John and Julian’s blog address is

St. Peters - 6:00AM Sunday

What St. Peter's looks like at 6:00AM. I don't know why these panoramas load so small on blogger. Anyway, perhaps it's for the best; what with no tripod and all a few of the photos I stitched together are a little blurry.

martedì, ottobre 25, 2005

Saturday's Traditional Race Around the Circus Maximus

On the way to the traditional Circus Maximus race.

The start of the men's race.

The start of the women's race.

Dannilu takes the women's race despite being wrapped in a mean toga.

The official coronation ceremony of the victors. Strangely enough, I think this is the first photo that I have posted of our dearly beloved Mr. and Mrs. Akers. For those Rome students who are considering the Rome program, I'm sure all us Romans can assure you that this beautiful couple is more than enough of a reason to come. Anyway, we will write much more about them in the future.

Julian's Rambler Article

Swiss Cheese
By Remus

I woke up at 5:15 AM at the oppressive dictatorship of my alarm clock, but as the reign of passion had dethroned my reason, kicking it down the stairs in a heartless regicide, I stabbed the meddlesome clock in the dark, silencing the prophet and his admonitions, closing my eyes to its lifeless corpse to enjoy a day of quiet, to refuse such undue demands of penance. An unseen hour passed. I woke up again in a gasp, veering my eyes again to my advisor’s silenced pleas, seeing for the first time the error of my ways, but it was too late. He was dead.

“John,” I addressed, this time to my roommate, another advisor and moreover my master. “John. When were we suppose to wake up to go the Vatican?”

In lethargic resistance, similar to mine, with his head engulfed in a pillow, characteristic of Jalsevac’s sleeping posture, he answered in a muffled filter, “Uh ... 5:40.”

“Oh, no,” I noted, in peril seasoned with a pinch of despair. “It’s 7:15. We’re late. They’ve left without us.”

I can’t remember if I started to freak out or report this with an unnatural drone of indifference, though the subject dealt with serious matter for our experience as tourists, students, and Roman Catholics. The plan was to attend Mass at the Vatican, and then to tour its secret archives and gardens, a privilege somehow acquired for us by the graces of Mr. and Mrs. Akers, our generous teachers and deans. This gift, so exceptional and once-in-a-lifetime, now stood in danger of death.

John, knowing exactly what to do, said, “We better call them.” But then remembered: “Oh, they’re probably in Mass right now. Here’s the plan: we wake up, wait 20 minutes, and then call them on their cell phones.”

Passion still had its grip on the sceptre, and to my lips, these words came with such a fearful harmony of nature, it scares me now to think on, “Well, we could go back to sleep in the meantime.”

This made so much sense for some reason.

“We should probably get up and get ready to leave,” spoke logic, using John as His instrument, but alas, even the Jalsevacian, the demigod of motion and energy, a second later, fell victim to this beautiful slumbering seductress, even after issuing this protest so sound, so sane, but then so asleep.

Then I had a dream. I dreamt that I was with the rest of the group, gathered in tourist formation around a tomb in St. Peter’s. Mr. Akers was talking about it with great animation, while I took a good look around to see where they were. I turned to one of my classmates, Emma Fritcher, and asked her to tell me exactly where they were going to be and how to get there. Strangely, I knew full well that I was dreaming but pursued this experiment nevertheless. I wondered maybe, just maybe, through talking to Emma, though in a dream, somehow, in some way, I could actually get some fragment of a true answer, whether it happened by preternatural contact to her real self or by talking to her phantasm whom I really knew to be myself, by which by some dumb but lucky logic I might find out the true and helpful response.

But I knew the futility of this course of action even in my irrational unconsciousness and turned my attention to John who also stood in the group. “John,” I said, “This is just a dream. None of these people are real. This method is not going to work.” But even when I spoke these words to him, I knew in the back of my mind, that John wasn’t real either, and that made me sad. These mental clones gave me pleasant company, and I enjoyed talking to them, but I confessed finally to all of them that none of them existed.

Eventually, I abandoned the catacombs of sleep.

Forty-five minutes later, reason, as violent, and vengeful as it was in the French Revolution, took up arms and overthrew the long oppression of the appetites and roused us from our beds – John first, and I second. We phoned the Akers, who, as we had planned, were right in the middle of Mass, threw on some purposeful accouterments, and charged out the hotel, stopping only for breakfast and coffee. This preparation heroically took only forty-five minutes.

In haste, did we reach our destination by underground railway, arriving without cell-phone or clue what to do next at St. Peter’s Piazza. We had to regroup with our class already stationed somewhere in the Basilica, but as this is the largest church in the entire known universe, we needed further contact with them before our assault commenced.

We consulted pay phones to contact the lost souls of our group. We bribed the machine with coins and told it the numeric names of the desired individuals. But as this was the first time John and I had employed such foreign diviners of telecommunication, misunderstandings arose, and continuous failures to conjure up the desired cell phones dampened our efforts as well as our own spirits. The telephonic mediums had high prices and did not refund us in their failures, and pocket change was running low. Suddenly, providence put to death these pagan pan-handling practices, and a man accidentally walked off without his phone card. Seeing it thus abandoned, we adopted it as our own, figured out the problem, and made contact with the spirit of Mr. Akers without fear of bankruptcy. To our dismay, the group had already passed through the Secret Archives of the Vatican and were now walking the gardens. Though he told us where he and the rest now resided, he could not tell us how we could enter there ourselves, as it required special escort which was no longer available to us. We thanked him, hung up, and went forth.

Passing through metal detectors, armed guards, and occasional Swiss guards, we approached a non-threatening kind of worker and asked him in clear diction, “How do you get in to the Vatican gardens?” The man, a peon of the Basilica, looked at us as if we were clinically insane. “Vatican gardens forbidden,” said he in accents and gestures Italian, “You cannot go. Impossible.” With an Italian gesture of our own, fashioned to function like a Jedi mind trick as well, we told him the plain truth that we had a group already in there, which we were suppose to join. As he had as much authority in the Vatican as a Doric Column, he told us to walk to the other side of the Basilica and plead our case to the Swiss Guard.

As the strangely clad guard was without his trusty spear at the moment, we approached him confidently, and explained our desire to enter upon the Vatican gardens. He looked at us as if we were clinically insane. But with little effort in explaining further our plight, he let us pass with surprising ease. It was too easy. We knew somewhere deep down that the weasely French guy from the airport would pop up suddenly and have us guillotined. So far, however, it looked good.

Jalsevac and I crept inconspicuously behind the Basilica, passing by guards and officials with an air of confident but low-key strides. Then, a guard with a gun stopped us, and asked us what the heck we were doing. We said that we intended access to the papal gardens, which sparked a look, this time, that suspected severe clinical insanity, finished with a quick and nervous laugh of disbelief. It was the highlight of his day no doubt. He told us to go no further as he called security. And so we did.

After a few minutes of self-controlled anxiety, he put the telephone down and surprisingly asked us, “Is the head man of your group named ‘Akers?’” We decided to tell the truth and say yes. This satisfied him. He hung up, shrugged, smiled, and motioned us toward the vast expanse of greenery that lay before us. No problem, we thought.

We literally searched the entire country, one end to another.

The Vatican, however, is luckily the smallest country in the world, although much bigger than I thought. I thought it only consisted of the Piazza and the Basilica and maybe some apartment buildings. Nope, that’s only about a fifth of it. We walked through the gardens of the Vatican, lost in this paradisal labyrinth where no soul accompanied us, alone in the papal trees and fountains where numerous Popes had passed in silent meditation. We had infiltrated the Vatican and no one was there. How did this happen? These people are suppose to protect the Pope but we just walked right in. We suspected Vatican snipers watching our every move.

Somehow, we found our group, and strutted manfully down the sidewalk in triumphal glory. We spoke how the Swiss Guards were after us, and how we made Swiss Cheese out of some of them in order to get in. But we were there. A bit late, yes, for sinful passion got the better of us at first, but we repented, we had fought, and we had arrived in the gardens of the Church.

domenica, ottobre 23, 2005

Two Poems

In Subiaco

Within the world of men there are
(Or so the rumour goes)
Some men who love the motorcar
The way its fuel explodes
The angry pistons’ rumbling
The screech of spinning tires
And smoke and flame and bubbling
Combustion’s fumes and fires.

Of others yet I have been told
Who fly into a rage
At mention of the things of old.
The prophet and the sage
They’ll bind and flog and crucify
Within the marketplace
And all the while they’ll shriek and sigh
And curse the fickle fates.

With these I’ll hold no concourse now
Perhaps some other time
For now I’ll bend my head, and bow,
I’ll not commit the crime
Of shallow men, of hollow men
Of men who desecrate
The dead they cannot understand
Who can but curse the fates.

Here is a silence, and a peace
We cannot replicate.
Our music our motorcars
Cannot approximate.
For all this blessed hallowed ground
Once looked upon the face
The silent boy whose searching found
Our God within a cave.

These ancient stones I’ll lean against
I’ll smoke a quiet pipe
I’ll close my book, put down my pens
And bask within the light,
The double warmth, of sun and Son,
Joint guardians of these graves
And marvel that the greater one
Was found within a cave.

A Translation of a 16th Century Inscription on St. Benedict's Cave

Lumina si quaeris, Benedicte. Quid elegis antra?
Quaesite servant luminis antra nihit
Sed perge in tenebris radiorum quaerer lucem:
Nonmisi ab obscura sidera nocte micant.

If you are searching for the light

Why do you choose the darkened cave?
The cave shall never offer you

The light for which you crave.

But, Benedict, stay in your cave

Keep searching for that shining light
For stars, they never shine above

But in the midst of blackest night.

sabato, ottobre 22, 2005

Pilgrimage to the Monasteries of Sts. Scholastica and Benedict

In the town of Subiaco, home of the papacy's former summer residence, the ruins of Nero's giant villa, and the monasteries of Benedict and Scholastica, and ten others, we came upon this unexpected place of worship. The headquarters (or maybe midquarters or footquarters) of the Communist Party. I think the party's office workers were slightly taken aback at the evident glee this find caused our entire group of thirty students.

Walking the steps that lead from the bottom of the mountain up to the monastery of St. Scholastica, and then, a couple thousand steps beyond this first place of meditation, that monastery named after her famous brother, St. Benedict. At the head of this group is our beloved Dublin-native chaplain, Fr. Mark.

Halfway up the mountain. Subiaco is laid out before us, built at the base of, and all the way up a mountain, the whole amazing thing culminates in the fortress of the papacy's ancient and now abandoned summer residence.

Leaving the monastery of St. Scholastica.

The monastery of St. Benedict. The whole fortress-like building is built on the edge of a cliff that houses the famous network of caves, and especially the one cave, where Benedict spent three completely solitary years in meditation and prayer, unknown to anyone but for one man who every day lowered a basket of bread into his cave. The network of caves has since been turned into a intricate series of chapels and frescoes that wind down four or five levels.

Monastery of St. Benedict.

The cave where Benedict spent those three years.

mercoledì, ottobre 19, 2005

At today's audience.

The Mouth of Truth. Legend has it that if you tell a lie and stick your hand in its mouth it will bite you. Apparently Julian is just so full of falsehood that it has even seeped into his very clothing. He did not win this battle for his sweater.

sabato, ottobre 15, 2005

Julian's family. Now our adopted Italian family as well. Generous beyond belief, welcoming beyond understanding, and a heck of a lot of fun.

venerdì, ottobre 14, 2005

What can one say to this? The photo stands alone.

The kings of pigeanity.

In Venice,

In Venice

The cover of their next album. Just as soon as they learn to play some instruments. Here we are some many thousand feet above sea level. It was cold, very cold. And if it weren't for the mist Venice should have been distinctly visible about 60 kilometers to the East.

Halfway up the cross, what may look like clouds are not clouds, but are the Alps. I won't try to describe them; go there and you'll know for yourself.

Looking out over Valdobbiadene.

Drinking wine straight from 30,000 liter tanks is not an experience to be lightly passed over.

Mine and Geoff's adopted Italian family. Two of the loveliest, kindest, most generous people I have ever had the pleasure to meet.

The view from the room at the house where Geoff and I stayed. It looks East, straight towards the Meditteranean, looking out over the entire valley of towns and villages and how many thousands of vineyards. And so many dozen Church spires along its length.

In Class in Rome

In Class in Rome
By Romulus

Something of the Renaissance
Is on that page, inside this book.
Such lovely, lifelike lines, you see?
You’d like it if you’d only look.

Across the flowing Tiber
Begins to swing a booming bell
As if to say; “Here is the spot
Where wept the painter, Raphael.”

The voice drones on
I think to yell:
Why don’t you show
Instead of tell!

mercoledì, ottobre 12, 2005

The Land of Milk and Honey (and Wine)

Ramblings from Rome

The Land of Milk and Honey (and Wine)
(Part I?)
By Romulus for The Rambler

I once had the pleasure of corresponding with my roommate’s father. In conducting the little literary business at hand (he has something or other to do with the American Chesterton Society) we exchanged a few e-mails between the two of us. At the end of our correspondence I found it fit to complement Mr. Ahlquist on producing a son of the sort as Julian, who has become a great friend of mine in the last year and a half, and with whom I am most sorry you freshmen have not have the pleasure of making an acquaintance.

And then, as I drew towards that spot in my final bit of correspondence, the point where one traditionally affixes one’s name beneath one or another courteous phrase, I paused, and I thought a bit. I thought to myself that it is certainly a time-tested truism, a truism sadly forgotten in the West, that a knowledge of the origins of a man contribute much to the knowledge of who, exactly, he is. I asked myself who Aeneas would be without Troy; who Alexander without Aristotle; who Augustine without Monica. And in the face of this argument I yielded. I confessed to Mr. Ahlquist, in the faint, glimmering hope of a solution, my bewilderment over what sort of family and father could and would produce such a thoroughly odd, yet oddly venerable creature as Julian.

Mr. Ahlquist responded graciously. For my compliments on his eldest and heir he thanked me. And then he firmly disassociated himself from any responsibility whatsoever, concurred that Julian was a through and through enigma, and then added the terrifying suffix that if I thought Julian was strange, I should try meeting his father.

At first I suspected something of paternal pride, the sort that leads a father to believe that his own son won’t and can’t surpass him, who has always been the teacher and not the taught. But now I confess that I’m not so sure; the rug has, as the saying goes, been pulled out from under my feet.

For while sitting in a Valdobbiadene pizzeria two nights ago, at a table overflowing with Julian’s relations, a very strange and unexpected thing happened. Julian, the best friend who still appears to me as a mythical creature with two heads, with a laugh as strange and mysterious as the shape of the platypus, and as large in life as any colossus, was suddenly transformed before my eyes into something as complacent and sane as any man ever was; while any number of those whose blood he shares grew ever larger and expanded until the room seemed quite unable to contain them.

But I see I am starting all wrong.

* * *

One not particularly fine October morning four young, impetuous squires struck out from the Eternal City in search of adventure. The names of my protagonists are squires Giuliano (Julian Ahlquist), Geoffredo (Geoff Turecek), Adamo (Adam Wilson) , and Giovanni (me). For this embryonic plot-line it is true I take no credit. It is the creation of one of my fellow squires. If I recall correctly my fellow squire told this imaginative and imaginatively apt version of our story to me as we drove through a particularly verdurous valley in search of particularly good wine and good company in a Northern Italian town whose name I cannot now recall. Our hostess and driver at the time was the natural heroine of such a romance; a fair and lovely native who we calculated after some measure of violent debate and any number of relational algorithms to be the third cousin of Julian’s, and who added just that aspect of believability to the claim of medievalism of my fellow adventurer.

On this October morning these four squires of a strange diversity and varied skills (bow-staff skills, computer hacking skills, numchaku skills) clambered on the back of a colossal, armoured serpent that they found awaiting their command; it awaited silently, there in between the basilicas and towering pagan monuments of The City. At our bidding it bucked and writhed its way for four and a half hours (or what seemed as many days) across the mountains and plains and through the valleys and rivers of the land called Italia.

All the while above our four heroes hung an ominous table of mist that encircled and strangled the mountains called the Apennines; it swallowed their peaks in an impenetrable and mysterious shroud. Under this table they sped, in frantic haste towards they knew not what, but that it was unknown and new and exciting.

Great rivers were as tiny rivulets to their metallic monster. Foreign towns and villages flew past their astonished vision in a haze; towns of plaster and stucco and brick that squatted on top of hills, crowded buildings huddling together, seeking warmth and comfort amidst the eerie landscape, as though overcome by a nightmare memory of the Gauls and the Visigoths whose spear-prickled armies had once marched by their feet in search of blood; towns with church spires penetrating through the table of mist that seemed less like mist and more like an entire seething ocean suspended just above the surface of earth by an inexplicable act of black magic or impossible providence.

And to the squires all of this, with all its heavy gloominess, was better than a midday sun and blue skies, for it spoke of witches and dragons, and such evil things to be slain, and ideals and damsels to be fought for.

And when at last the mist was suddenly lifted they came to what is called the sea; and they saw it shine like a jewel of great promise, blue and sparkling. When saw they could go no further, and the beast would not swim, they dismounted. A signpost told them that they had entered the province of Venezia.

Then one of the four squires looked to the East, towards the sea, and then he looked to the West and the setting sun, his eyes following the straight, deep valley that furrows swiftly towards the Alpine mountains, and he said: “Here is my home. Here live my flesh and my blood.” And it was true. For a man called Lorenzo stood at the spot where the four seekers-after-adventure dismounted from their metallic serpent, as though he had prophesied their arrival, and he looked at the one squire who had spoken, and he said “you are my nephew.” And that too was perfectly true. The two embraced then as the uncle and nephew that they were.

Now, a very wise and prophetic man by the name of Gilbert Keith, in whose hands language was always as a wizard’s staff, once said that he hoped “that the four rivers of Eden were milk, water, wine, and ale.”

With him I agree very much; and now it strikes me that perhaps we four happy squires have now felt beneath our feet the moist, rich earth of Eden. For though I have seen many a river of water, I had never before known a river of milk or ale, and certainly not so divine a thing as a river of wine. But in this land of Treviso, bordering on the province of Venezia, guarded on one side by the Alps on another by the Mediterranean, in which floats a whole city, magically suspended on water; there, in the town of Valdobbiadene, I first encountered a river of wine. For, you see, if you can believe it, wine of the highest quality flows in the town of Valdobbiadene as abundantly as water, perhaps even more abundantly.

But that is certainly not the end of the story; for of wine there are infinite varieties, of various qualities, brewed according to various secret, strict, monkish recipes, and in spite of which each brew assumes new and unexpected qualities with each coming year. Yet, of the infinite varieties of wine flowing between the banks of Eden’s most refined of the four rivers, it seems to me that God would have at least fretted and paused over the possibility of pouring forth a deluge of that wine that is squeezed from the juice of Prosecco grapes. And that is exactly the wine that is produced in abundance in Valdobbiadene. It is the wine brewed in its finest form by a jovial, inexplicable man by the name of Sergio Mionetto, whose spirit is so much like that of the wine he brews that a certain brand of it bears his own name.

Of him, and others, I will have more to say later.

mercoledì, ottobre 05, 2005

The Re-Annexation of Innocence

The Re-Annexation of Innocence
By Romulus
For The Rambler
It had been my intention to write this week about my adventures of this past weekend, immersed in the glories of the island of Ischia, just off the Western coast of Southern Italy. But the day here in Rome has been cold, and rainy, and dreary. And I have spent it in bed, suffering the pains of a particularly unusual, and particularly painful headache.

Further, today as I lay tossing and turning in my bed it happened, as is often the case in illness, that certain current anxieties appeared to me magnified and vividly. I woke several times from terrifying dreams, and found myself unable to return to sleep. And with the specter of several tests looming over my head, and the obligation of composing an article before the end of the night, the sand and the sun and the blue sea of Ischia seem as a distant, and not very believable dream.

Thus are my thoughts unable to focus on Ischia long enough to translate the beauty of the reality to the art of writing in any worthy fashion. And rather than the beauty of Mediterranean islands, I instead find myself thinking a lot about the beauty of St. Francis of Assisi, which strikes me as much more appropriate, and a whole lot more comforting. So I will write a little, a very little, about him.

As I sit down to write the sun is just setting on his feast day. I have just returned to my room after attending Mass in the chapel of the half religious house, half hotel where we Romans live out our days and do (or, as is more common, not do) our studies. The celebrant, a priest originally from Dublin, delivered a quiet, penetrating, peaceful homily on St. Francis, and I am afraid that the best I can do is to do my best to plagiarize a little of it.

I am only sorry that whatever I do I will not be able to do it with anything of the quiet joy, and the sly smile that perpetually emanates from out our already beloved chaplain’s youthful face. Perhaps the good father did not know it, but as he spoke of the joy and the innocence of Francis, his words were only a secondary lesson to his own sparkling eyes and gently laughing self. And that right there, I might as well note, in all its wordless simplicity, is already found one of the profoundest lessons one can take from the life of the Assisian saint.

“Though he only ever slept on a wooden board,” said Father in his homily, during which he must have made us all laugh a dozen times, “St. Francis always slept like a baby. And we, with our electric blankets, and giant pillows, and feather beds, we find ourselves unable to sleep, because of all of our anxieties.” After a day like today that struck home.

Perhaps, indeed, at some time the question has tormented you, as it has me, of whether or not it is possible to regain one’s innocence. I have long thought about the question, but been unable to resolve it in my own life; because, despite my burning desire for the peaceful, quiet rest of the innocent, I don’t think I’ve ever truly known it. Perhaps as a child I did; but I don’t recall that, so it hardly counts.

True, I have sometimes known tastes or grasped at hints of such a preternatural state; sometimes following a good and particularly needed confession, and at others in the mere contemplation of something good and beautiful like a sunset or the face or voice of a loved one. But the poison buried in the mind of a sinner inevitably oozes through to the surface again, and one is aware of the presence in oneself of something dirty and dark and sickly and undesirable. The desire to wash it off is sometimes there, but one is unsure of how, or what soap will ever do to scrub away such a stubborn filth.

It has often been easy to give in to the despair of our age which, besides saying that innocence of this sort isn’t a thing to be desired in the first place, further twists the knife in the heart of hope by telling us that even if it were, innocence of the kind for which I yearn isn’t at all possible. I of course find it very strange that the same age that tells me I am divine, and that I can do whatever my heart pleases, qualifies by saying that on second thought the one thing I can’t do is that--the one thing that my heart truly pleases with a tearful fervour.

But in my greatest moments of clarity I know it has often been easy to believe these things only because it is in this age that I am immersed; it has been easy to believe because we humans have terrible memories.

St. Francis is, I suppose, something different for every age. As Father said in his homily, St. Francis is everything to everybody; everything and everybody was his brother, from all of humanity, individually, to brother wolf and the birds and the moon and the sun. But for our age, the age that has disbelieved in innocence itself, the joyful saint is most of all a reminder that innocence is truly good, and desirable, and best of all, possible. For it is clear St. Francis wasn’t always innocent, but that by the time he died he most certainly was to an extraordinary and unbelievable degree, and that, therefore, at some point he must have become so from not being so. It is clear that he very well knew sin and its insidious and poisonous and dirty pride, and that it was really only after that day when he walked out of his house, and shed all of the finery, all of the silks and fabrics of his father’s that he wore, and claimed God in Heaven as his Father, and unabashedly embraced the lepers and Sister Poverty in the perfect act of conversion, that he washed himself clean and knew innocence.

That, I repeat, is the one lesson that the modern man studying the life of Francis ought to walk away with: innocence, which every man at some time or another knows he wants more than anything in the world, may be regained.

“In Assisi,” said Father, “even the buildings give off this sense of innocence. It is everywhere in the whole town.” And that is good and exciting to hear, because we are slated to have a three or four day retreat in Assisi later this semester, that I am greatly looking forward to.

In asking how this miracle came about, it is obvious that the innocence of Francis could only have been a result of the fact that in nearly every way he imitated and became and was another Christ. So much so was he another Christ that he became the first known saint in history to bear the marks of the stigmata.

Perhaps my favourite passage from all of scripture is the opening of the book of Job. God has allowed Satan to take away so much of what is precious to Job, so the faithful man falls on his knees, sprinkles himself with ashes and prays: “Naked I came from my mothers womb / naked shall I return. / Yahweh giveth, and Yahweh taketh away / Blessed be the name of Yahweh!”

Being a Catholic and averse to Scripture I never read the book of Job until some time in the last two years. But I will always remember the feeling that washed over me when I read that profound and unexpected and impassioned cry of faith, such that tears sprung to my eyes. This cry that erupted from the depths of Job’s soul, that flies in the face of all of the logic of the world, was, I knew, exactly the sort of childish faith that Christ talked about in the Gospels, when he encouraged men to be like little children. This truth touches something so fundamental in the soul that it cannot possibly be described, only experienced.

It is interesting then, that, just as Christ entered the world as a lesson in and as a fulfillment of these words of Job, naked in the manger, and exited it in the same way, naked on the cross, so too did St. Francis enter and leave this world, free from attachment to all things but the Creator of all things.

It is told that when he knew he was going to die, St. Francis removed his robe, and lay on the floor, curled up like a baby, naked and happy and peaceful and ready for the hands of Sister Death to take him into the embrace of his bride and the loving gaze of his Father. And in some mystical fashion, he did so nailed to the cross with Christ, with the marks of the stigmata still on his body.

Francis died innocent and happy and free.

Here, it is so undeniably clear to any man with any vestige of moral vision left, was a man who was free. Of course, I think that that is why St. Francis is so popular, because most people do have the vestige of a moral vision left; they recognize and thirst for his freedom. It is true, though, that so many, or rather all, of the saints are lessons in freedom; but the simple truth is that it was so exactly purified in the case of St. Francis.

As is usually a good rule of thumb when one feels that one hasn’t expressed one’s topic well, in the least, I close with a quote by Chesterton that I’m not sure directly relates to what I have said, but that I love very much:

“The whole point about St. Francis of Assisi is that he certainly was ascetical and he certainly was not gloomy… It was not self-denial merely in the sense of self-control. It was as positive as a passion; it had all the air of being as positive as a pleasure. He devoured fasting as a man devours food. He plunged after poverty as men have dug madly for gold.”

lunedì, ottobre 03, 2005

Ischia. Need I say more?

The Perfect Weekend

In what can only be described as the perfect weekend, we somehow found a hostel that was more akin to a private house than anything. Internet access, fully equipped kitchens, and a lovely balcony that looked out over the city of Forio, on the Western side of the island.

My birthday dinner. The girls made an absolutely splendid dinner with all the trimmings. And a cake at the end, which was very thoughtful.

The rich colours of sunset, with Caitlyn and Emma leaning on the railings of the balcony of our hostel.

Nobody could possibly ever believe what it is like to be driven through the "streets" (and I use the term loosely) of Forio on the island of Ischia, by a twenty-two year old Italian who has lived there all his life, and knows the streets much, much better than he knows the back of his hand. This is how wide the streets were. And there is a 90 degree turn to be navigated just behind our backs. Now do that in the pitch black, at thirty-five miles an hour.

Italians are crazy, but do they ever know how to drive.

Our poor, poor bursers. One with two years of engineering under her belt, and the other with a purported high-school calculus credit. They did good work. I take this moment to thank them very, very much for their good work.

Arguably the highlight of our weekend was travelling to the very top of the mountain that is the volcanic island of Ischia. There we encountered Restaurant Olimpi, with a breath-taking view of the whole of Ischia, the Mediterranean, and surounding islands. 5 Euro each for a giant bowl of homegrown, home-made pasta, and another 5 Euro for a litre of delicious local red wine.

Even for us it is difficult to believe that it is real, and that we were just there this past weekend.

Oh well. Two less mouths to feed.

The whole group of us, with one of the two brothers (Lorenzo...Emma's sweetheart....or was that Giuseppe?-one can hardly keep track of them) who ran the hostel with their mother and father and grandparents. Four generations of their family had lived on the island making wine and running a hotel. Mamma makes rather good food.

The Journey To Ischia

The bus-station in Naples. Alright, so it's not that exciting. Unless of course you take into consideration the fact that this is Naples, in the South of Italy, sitting comfortably on the Mediterranean. Then I suppose it's a little exciting. Anyway, it is for all of us. We enjoyed it.

In actual fact, we always knew precisely where we were going at all times. Unless, of course, we didn't. But other than that...

The portent that we encountered minutes after leaving the port at Naples, clearly proving that God favoured our journey. And considering how unbelievably well the weekend worked out, in every possible way, that's not too much of a stretch really.

We encountered some rain on Friday. But it was actually quite lovely. And the following day we had pretty much cloudless skies and everything else that could possibly make Ischia as beautiful as possible.