by Scott Allen
Some days Claire would teach in the mornings and I would have afternoon and evening classes and I would get up and walk with her in order to not stay in bed all day. We were beginning to feel that we had moved to Italy only to work. There wasn’t enough time off to travel, and anyway we were too broke, still converting dollars to euros to pay rent. We each made a thousand euros a month, but our first checks were half that and we were living in an expensive short-term apartment for half our combined income. We had found it outside of the city center with a forty minute walk to the school.
During our first few weeks there the apartment was cold at night but in the day the weather was mild and we could enjoy the bright colors of the city while we walked to work and walked all around town trying to find a place to live.
One morning I jogged with Claire to the viale where we kissed a quick goodbye. I watched her run briskly with her heavy teaching bag beside the busy street towards school until she was out of sight. It was bizarre to see her disappear into that utterly foreign scene. This side of town, the northwest corner, had been heavily bombed in the war and so had ugly, modern architecture, and the light mounting in the sky made little difference on the drab walls and sooty streets and walks. I turned south to find the square with the help of a map we’d gotten from the friendly women at the Ufficio Turismo the day before. I walked there amidst the buzz of the morning commuters on bikes and scooters and the swelling crowds of the bus-stops as the sky above cycled though every shade of pink. It felt good to walk, to be free of a car and to travel at a speed where one could notice everything.
It was twenty minutes or more before I arrived in Piazza Maggiore in time for the first rays to shine down the long boulevard, where Via Ugo Bassi changes its name to Via Rizzoli, part of the famous Roman Via Emilia, from which the region, Emilia-Romagna, gets half its name.
The road crosses the Po River Valley, from Piacenza to Rimini on the Adriatic coast. The main square sits just south of the road and I was lucky to catch the sun peeking between the two ancient towers, the famous Il Due Torre, a few blocks down. One tower was twice as high as the other and they stuck up into space in the middle of the city with its major streets shooting out from there like bicycle spokes. I clearly remember the sounds of my shoes moving across the stone piazza and the honking breaks of the busses in the already thinning traffic. The city greatly restricted automobiles from the medieval center so that besides the viale circling the town where the ancient walls once stood, the streets were surprisingly empty, and at that hour when the people had found their posts in the offices, banks, cafés, bookstores, and markets, the morning became still and the streets seemed swept clean. I felt fresh from sleep and was determined to experience the day before I had to catch a bus in the afternoon out to Imola, a neighboring town ten or fifteen kilometers down the Via.
This morning in the piazza I sat on the steps of the library and watched the colors change in the square and wrote in my journal which I carried in my old leather backpack which had held up so well through a decade of daily use.
To my right sat the great Basilica di San Petronio towering over the square, its lower façade glowing in great white marble slabs over layers of steps. The top half was gothic criss-crossed brick and it was only much later that I learned that this duel church face was not intended but that the project had been underfunded and the façade left unfinished some centuries ago.
In those early days the face of the basilica glowed filling the entire square like a bowl of light. But the day came quickly when the north facing church remained in shadow. I would sit on the steps on the opposite side of the square observing her face month after month, reading and writing and watching the light and the people and waiting for the sun to return. On one of those gloomy days, I caught a man in a suit contemplating the basilica just as I was.
I noticed the grand fountain of Neptune and his four erotic mermaids glowing from sunlight pouring beneath the arches of the fortress-like Palazzo del Podestà and could feel those first rays of sunlight on my back through the button-down cowboy shirt and down vest and blue jeans I was wearing. I was fascinated by my shadow then and snapped a shot of it against the fountain in that place that felt utterly bizarre compared with all my experience of life before then.
Seeing my shape on the stone outlined in light like that was proof to myself that I was, in fact, present. I was living literally a world away from everything I had known in life and felt anonymous as you are in relation to a film you are watching. Time seemed to thicken as I felt that I could easily forget everything I’d known till then up to and including my own name. I walked in a waking dream and the few people I passed seemed to me as unknowable as ghosts.
I needed to get my morning taste of that wonderful Italian version of coffee and wanted to find the city’s best cafés, a desire I always have wherever I live, and I had heard of a café from our colleague Rachelle, an American who had married an Australian of Italian descent and who had taken up permanent residence in Bologna. I found the spot on my map that she had marked in red ink and wound my way through the narrow back streets past steep churches including the Basilica di San Francesco with its windows of thick colored glass and, hovering beyond the fence near the sidewalk and the apse of the great church, three freestanding thirteenth century marble tombs containing the remains of some noted lecturers and legal scholars, Rolandino, Odofredo and Accursio. Claire and I had passed by this way a few days previously when we had been frantically searching for an apartment to rent and she informed me, having had previous experience travelling in Europe, that those strange monuments were tombs, containing actual human remains. It’s fascinating the way that cultures treat their dead and I was delightedly shocked that these men now some seven centuries dead should be entombed out in the elements with buses and pedestrians continuously flowing by.
I took my time walking to the café, stopping to inspect the many historical placards, using my little English-Italian dictionary to penetrate their meanings, and trying to remember the locations of anything I found interesting so that Claire and I could return to it later: a hidden trattoria down an alley with vine-covered walls and unlit lanterns bookending its sign, a birrieria advertising dozens of French and Belgian beers. It was in the windowed doorway thorough the bar’s half opened gates that I saw my reflection that morning. I felt relief from that first familiar sight since Claire and I had said goodbye for the day. I looked at my clothing and my hands wrapped around the straps of my backpack and tried to wrap my mind around the idea that I was actually living in this city, thousands of miles east, and thousands of miles west, of home.
Scott Allen is an MFA student at California College of the Arts. He welcomes your comments on “Bologna Morning” at scottderio[at]gmail.com.
by july westhale
it is presumably peach season
the air smells like roasted cumin seeds &
there are frowns in the stray dogs the kind of
concentration brought on by dented copper money
& summersong’s identical seasoning box
(if we could we would play pool mix drinks spit
off balconies and kick the ball foam lip
up from the orange flowers
in the country hairline fractured from the coast.
if we could we would take the B14 combi anywhere
& everywhere except nowhere/a useful place)
in the split of this sea peach, bolivia,
with the constitutional pocket linting
& waxing administrative— a mountain-swagger
is brandishing la paz
hip-holster cocked ready to nape
the curls of shore’s clandestine underskirt
the bed ruff of dualistic intention
& grass roots green with unwilling
hegemony & marine discontent.
drop the eggs i carry here.
they come in gray plastic which can be accounted
for in the pink of altitude sickness spun in yarn
i am not so much asking to stay
for breakfast as to drop my anchor in the sea
my country stole away from you.
july westhale is a poet, activist, archivist and femme shark with a weakness for botany and hot air balloons. In 2004 she won the Out! Redwood Lesbian Rainbow Literary Award for Prose and was published in College of the Redwood’s literary journal, Poets and Writers. In August 2010, she was invited to participate in and publish with InterDisciplinary’s International Conference on Performance Theory in Prague with her article “Entrails and the Bedroom: Sexual and Geographical Borderlands in Queer Bodies”. Her poetry has been published in Spork Literary Press, Bitch You Left Me, Samizdat and Grad(e). Her fiction has published in Full of Crow (forthcoming). She is a graduate of Mills College and is currently working on her MFA in Poetry. She lives and writes in an attic in Alameda with her two cats, z and blue.
photo by lndhsf72
by Donald S. Booth
Varanasi is the holiest city in the Hindu faith. Estimated to be settled since 1200 B.C., it is also one of the oldest continuously habituated cities in the world. It is situated on the banks of the Ganges River, one of the most famous rivers in the world, and a vital lifeline to millions of Indians. If you have seen photos of people bathing on the steps on the bank of the Ganges, that’s Varanasi.
There are two Varanasi: One is the regular city, noise and bustle; the other, a mystical place of pilgrimage, unknowable in totality, a dense maze of streets and alleyways where I could happily get lost. Pick an alley off a main street and spend an hour or two twisting through the hidden city, ripe with merchants selling all manner of items, little food stalls vending the ubiquitous chai for 5 rupees, or tiny propane-fired grills cooking up dosas (savory pancakes cooked with fresh sweet onions and tomatoes and a liberal dollop of ghee). Or perhaps indulge in a little “sweet treat”—surprisingly heavy with sugar and butter, but oh so good. If fried foods weren’t bad for your heart, this would indeed be heaven on earth.
But back to the first city: Huge trucks, cars, taxis, rickshaws, pedal cabs, ox-drawn carts, motorcycles all share the road with Wright Brothers-era bicycles, cows, people, bricks and trash. The sidewalks, if any, are jumbles of concrete, huge slabs of stone, gaping holes filled with trash. I can’t space out for even a moment when walking here. I could be mowed down in an instant.
Little known fact: there are actually two—yes, two!—passing lanes on every single-lane stretch of pavement. That means the little taxi I’ve hired (sans seatbelts, of course) can not only pass the ancient tractor filled with coconuts, but can also pass the rickshaw that is attempting to pass him at the same time. If this forces an oncoming motorcycle to the outer edge of the road, well that’s his problem! Might makes right and the biggest vehicle trumps all. It’s the only force that will bring my taxi driver back into his rightful lane. Headlights don’t come on until it’s quite dark, and even then, it’s optional. The beeping horns are constant. Passing gaps are measured in inches. (Actually the beeping isn’t too annoying. It’s a “FYI, I’m on your left” sort of honk, rather than “I would shoot you if I could” which is what I used to hear in California.)
And yes, there really are cows in the streets, amazingly immune to the cars and people flowing by. Cows, oxen, goats, dogs and geese, all making their way to wherever it is they are going. Most are unfettered and appear to belong to no one. Others are kept with their owners, or are put to work pulling carts. All leave their fair share of shit on the road and the ghats. I may get used to it if I’m here long enough. A constant nasal assault brought on by legions of it.
After the monsoon, the receding Ganges leaves a thick layer of mud and debris on the steps. Some places clean it up before it dries. Otherwise, a thick layer of mud bakes into dust in the heat. Usually paths are treaded but I have to pay attention when walking, looking out for mud and pools of shit. The big turds are obvious but the little ones can be very slippery. And trash. There is trash everywhere. Chewing tobacco is common, comes in little plastic wraps. Left everywhere. Plastic chai cups and one-use clay cups strewn about. The banks of the river are natural traps for all this flotsam.
There is a haze of exhaust and smog everywhere; little motorized rickshaws are two-cycle engines exhaling a thick blanket of exhaust. (However, many are converting to natural gas.) Busses are ancient and polluting. Motorcycles weave through narrow streets as if they are on an open highway, people be damned. Due to an antiquated power system, power outages are common and scheduled. To combat this, many shopkeepers have generators in the entrances of their stores. These huge machines belch out fumes and make the narrow streets deafeningly cacophonous.
In these backstreets, beyond the main alleyways, further alleys lead to apartments and small areas, open doors and windows, offering a brief glimpse into the life of Varanasi’s residents. It’s impossible to guess how old these buildings are. Near the river, the oldest part of town, they could be fifty years old or 500. Much like Venice, ‘elegant decay’ is an apt description. The city is old and ill-kept, but with tinges of unexpected grace that make it beautiful: There’s a Hindu design on a barely painted wall. And far more colors than one sees in most cities. Many buildings are vibrantly colored, even as they list with age. It’s a photographer’s wet dream. Among other things, I could do an entire series on:
• Brooms sitting in corners
• Fading rowboats
• Paintings on walls
• Flowers on altars
• Beautiful children with huge smiles
• Farmers market stalls
The people are friendly. Everywhere I go, I’m greeted with smiles and stares, a tall stranger. “Where are you from?” or “Which country?” Everyone speaks a little bit of English and many speak it fluently. Answering “America,” which used to get a response of “John Wayne,” or “Michael Jackson,” now gets “Barack Obama” and many “Very good country!” “What is your good name?” is their respectful way of asking your first name and the remnants of the British Raj make themselves known when you hear “thrice” or “treble” for “third.” Any semblance of a reply will lead to “I have a silk shop. Please look. Five minutes. Looking is for free!” I might spend an enjoyable half an hour, walking the ghats with a child practicing his or her English. Inevitably, it leads to a ‘come to my shop.’ I want to either be good to the kid, because, as he puts it, “I get money for my school if I bring in people. Only look, no buy.” So I usually go.
The shop is small and dingy. I sit on a mat that used to be white. The owner shows me photos of Goldie Hawn and him together. She is quite famous in this town. Everyone knows her. After presenting me silk of various qualities, none of which makes me go “wow,” and all outrageously priced, I get up to leave. The shopkeeper is grumpy. I never see the friendly kid again.
The children are beautiful, though. Bright white teeth and shining eyes. “Photo, photo” they say, striking poses. I show them the results on the camera screen, which elicit smiles, often turns into a mini photo shoot as other children join in the fun, howling with laughter at the instantaneous results.
With everyone trying to get into your pocket, honest interactions are rare and missed. A friendly local is really a silk shop baiter. Varanasi is famous for its silks and there are innumerable shops selling a wide array of saris, pashminas, table clothes, bed sets and clothes, ranging from cheap to very expensive. The owners of the silk shops will spend hours showing the gamut of simple to very complex patterns: single-sided, double-sided, thread counts. It’s all about the silk worms! Meline and chartreuse, bright yellows and greens scorned in the West, are elegant and easily worn here. The women dress in a full spectrum of color and style which makes the city pulsate with vibrancy and grace. The men are not adorned so colorfully but when they do dress up, they wear long kotas, modish and formal.
The streets are packed with shops. A dense framework of commerce that is dizzying in its array. I can get everything at any time (well, almost). Need a straight razor shave and a quick massage? Do it on a stand in front of the Ganges for a grand total of 20 cents. Food and drink? Everywhere and cheap. A hot samosa? 10 cents and good! The shaver guy is persistent, even if I shaved that morning. The shoe shiners want to polish the small visible rim of rubber on my cheap canvas sandals. Every rickshaw driver will give you a tour of the city for 30 rupees an hour. “Maybe tomorrow?” “No.” He will find you tomorrow and the next day and the day after that.
In the food market area, corn husks, vegetable cuttings, old fruit and whatever else, is thrown to the ground, making a huge compost pile that is shoveled away by hand each day. Trash is just thrown by the side. As a westerner, I find it’s hard to throw trash on the ground. But a search for a waste bin is almost pointless folly, like trying to find a trash bin at the garbage dump.
It does get quieter as you get closer to the river.
As a holy city, bathing in the Ganges is key to a complete life. All day, but especially in the mornings, the people head to the ghats, a series of steps and landings leading to the river, to bathe. Some are cleaning their bodies and others are cleansing their souls. It’s communal and social. Some doing rites. Some kids doing back flips into the river. Dipping my feet in, I feel part of an ancient tradition.
Tourists come out at sunrise. “Boat ride, Sir?” Every other person on the water has a boat and wants me to go for a ride. Just 300-500 rupees an hour. They’re performing a service that is easily worth 100 rupees. Boats are of varying quality and construction. The morning bail-out routine isn’t too heartening. But I suppose if I sunk, I could walk back to shore.
People row up and down the river as the sun slowly brightens. The skies are hazy from the dust and humidity, and this makes for a long, lovely sunrise. The eastern sky slowly turn red and the sun comes up like a glowing ball. You can look at it directly and watch it rise up over the east shore of the river. The haze also grants us photographers a longer time to record the amber city glow, watching as it slowly grows into daytime. It can be blazingly hot afterward. High 90s and not a breath of wind. I pray to one of the gods for a cloud respite or a gust of air to move the smell along.
To sit on the ghats and try to get your head around 3,000 years of history is something. To know that you are taking part in a tradition, an experience, which goes back to when the pyramids were only 1,500 years old, is, to say the least, humbling.
Soon enough, the Ganges River turns into a busy street, with the southbound boats staying on the starboard side facing the city and the northbound boats passing on the left. Photos abound. Salesmen in boats come by, hawking their wares. A place and time l will always remember.
Generally, the boats only get as far as the burning ghats. Here, an old Hindu tradition of burning bodies is performed. Huge stacks of wood surround the pyre and all day, the bodies of those to be burned are brought there. It’s a quiet but busy, respectful place. No photos allowed. It’s an honor to die in Varanasi and a great honor to be cremated here.
There are little temples or altars of one of the many Hindu gods located throughout the town. Picturesque sites of devotion, usually adorned with fresh flowers that abound here, grown, cut and prepared for such blessings. The devout will not pass one of them without a quick stop to pray. It adds a calmness and serenity to the place and reminds me of the many ways in which faith is infused into everyday existence.
Bring the two sides of Varanasi together and you get an inimitable Indian experience: hectic, crowded, colorful, tasty and mesmerizing.
Donald S. Booth is an old soul, world-class photographer and itinerant world traveler. You can view his photographs and read his blog by pointing your browser to www.dbooth.net.
photo by Donald S. Booth
by Stefia Maxwell
Stefia Maxwell is an MFA student at California College of the Arts. She welcomes your comments on “Things I could do in my very own apartment that are off the table now that I have roommates” at stefiahelain[at]yahoo.com.
photo by Louise