Here be dragons

1552 Comet Illustration

(Augsburger Wunderzeichenbuch, Folio 28, c. 1552)

The drive from Toronto to this patch of land in Vermont takes about nine hours when you follow the “northern route,” which skirts the northern shore of Lake Ontario, follows the St. Lawrence River east, and then bangs a right at Montreal, south to the US border.

At least half of the drive is on a single road, officially called the Macdonald-Cartier freeway, but which we grew up knowing as Highway 401 (“the four-oh-one”). You don’t need a GPS or even a map to get from Toronto to Montreal. And, really, you can make it all the way to Vermont by just following the road signs (even if they are all stubbornly in French only once you enter the gravitational pull of Montreal).

We turned the GPS (affectionately named “Garmina”) on as we approached the border between Ontario and Quebec. Just in case. We followed the signs that said “Vermont.” Garmina concurred and ticked off the kilometers and kept steady watch of our estimated arrival time.

And this is how we passed the day, singing along to E.L.O. and The Eagles, until we came to a fresh highway, a highway that neither we nor Garmina knew, a highway with no signs (not even speed limit signs) and no exits. It was freshly paved, clear and empty, bordered by shivery shorn November farm fields. Not a tractor or cow in sight.

Garmina’s screen cleared. It showed the lonely icon that represented our car, and nothing else. She patiently recalculated and recalculated as we traveled, her internal maps older than the terra incognita we traveled through. Her compass read South. The sun, hazy behind thick clouds, was to our right. We were reasonably sure we were headed in the right direction.

And yet, even with all that evidence, we were nervously giggly with uncertainty. Where were we? Where would we end up? We were lost in clouded daylight on the only road that could possibly have been right. And then, maybe 20 miles later, signs appeared pointing the way to the border crossing and the highway home.

It doesn’t take much to be lost. Or found. You can be driving down a seemingly unknown street in your own city, turn a corner, and then suddenly the whole scene resolves, snaps into place and you know exactly where you are, the map in your mind completed in a new way.

This morning, the lander Philae undocked from the Rosetta spacecraft and touched down on comet 67P (Churyumov–Gerasimenko). Rosetta traveled 10 years to rendezvous with that comet.

She wandered her way through space, following the mathematical road map she’d been programmed to follow, somewhere, but nowhere, for years, while we rose in the mornings, ate our breakfasts, commuted to jobs, met friends for lunch, watched our children grow up, attended funerals and weddings, cried through long nights, watched the fire until it was just embers, forgot our keys, said the wrong thing at the wrong time, showed up just when we were needed, made plans for uncertain futures.

Ten years and now we know where we are. For at least this split second. And then we move on.

Italian Folktales ~ Day 5 (June 29, 2011), Bolzano and Cortina

We rented a tiny car at the Verona airport on a bright, hot morning and drove the A22 Autostrada through the Brenner Pass from Verona to Bolzano.

A22 Autostrada - Verona to Bolzano - Brenner Pass from Verona to Bolzano

Bolzano - Dietrich fighting Laurin

After Verona, Bolzano—which bills itself as “the gateway to the Dolomites” and is the capital city of the South Tyrol—was like a foreign country. Although everyone could speak Italian, we were just as likely to overhear German conversations, see Austrian-influenced architecture in the old city, and to see beautiful seeded pretzels and Austrian pastries in the bakeries.


Our final destination for the day was Cortina, but we had a reason to stop at Bolzano: a date with Ötzi (the Iceman). Ötzi, the mummified remains of a man who lived 5000 years ago, and whose body was discovered high in the Tyrolean Alps, is cared for by the South Tyrol Museum of Archaeology, which is celebrating the 20th anniversary of the discovery with a special exhibit until January 2013.

Bolzano - Otzi sign

Ötzi, himself, rests in a special, environmentally-controlled vault. He’s visible, as he lies on his ice-glazed table, through a small, thick window in the heart of the museum. Viewing him is an eerie experience. He is so utterly, obviously human—his fingers curled as if gripping his bow or a axe handle—but time and the elements have taken a once living person and turned him into what looks like a human-shaped piece of amber: slick, shiny, golden. An object.

This is your first glimpse of Ötzi in the museum and it leaves you feeling a bit torn: fascinated and yet slightly embarrassed to be seeing something so defenselessly private. Like overhearing a conversation about people you know, but not meant for your ears. Is Ötzi a person, or an object? If he’s a person, what gives us the right to line up in a museum to gaze on his naked body? If he’s an object, what connection do we feel to him?

But the body of Ötzi is a seed, or a core, around which an entire leafy life flourished, and the rest of the museum beautifully introduces that life to you, piece by piece. A coat and pair of leggings, made of small patches of goat hide, meticulously pieced together with straight, even, tiny stitches of sinew. Deer-skin shoes, insulated with hay bound by twisted grass “ropes”. A bearskin cap fitted with leather straps to tie under the wearer’s chin. A pouch containing a dried fungus that could be used as portable tinder, and two birch-bark containers in which Ötzi likely carried smoldering embers from camp site to camp site. An axe with a copper head, a dagger, a long bow (unfinished) made of yew, and a quiver full of arrows (only some ready for use, others notched but unfinished). A set of tools for repairing his clothing and equipment, and a kit of fungus and herbs for healing himself (or others?).

And a backpack with a hazel wood frame in which he carried many of the above items, and more. An entire floor of the museum was filled with his possessions.

After having agonized for weeks about what to put in our packs to carry on a four-day hike through the South Tyrolean mountains, the coincidence was not lost on us. Ötzi was as fully human as we are, and acquisitive to boot, although he was infinitely more self-sufficient and prepared than we would ever be. He had places to go, and a never-ending “to do” list (“finish making three arrows this week”). He had friends, and enemies, or perhaps someone who mistook him for game and shot him in the shoulder with a fatal arrow.

We can’t know his real name, or hear his voice. We don’t know his favorite color or food. Did he have family? Could he sing? What made him laugh? Even still, there’s no doubt at all that he was just like us, and that, somehow, is comforting beyond measure.

I was reluctant to leave Ötzi behind, but Cortina and the Dolomites beckoned. On we drove in our little Fiat Panda, loaded with backpacks, boots, pocket knives, food, protective clothing, and everything else we hoped would carry us safely through the mountains.

Italian Folktales ~ Day 2 (June 26, 2011), Verona

From the airplane window, we saw the Alps.

We’d flown all night from Canada to Paris, then had 45 minutes to run from one end of Charles De Gaulle to the other, through customs, through security, onto a shuttle bus, and then onto our little plane. We were out of breath, a bit disoriented from the overnight flight, and distracted, wondering if our luggage had successfully made the same journey we just did (it didn’t).

But the Alps startled us out of all mundane thoughts. We pressed our faces to the windows and gaped. This is how vacation starts.

Alps - From Paris to Verona

Crossing the Alps

Verona is lovely. The 2000-year-old Verona Arena is the city’s centerpiece. You can tell yourself how ancient it is, that Romans built it and filled its stone seats, but it’s hard to comprehend how old it really is.

Verona Arena with roses
Verona Arena

Verona’s people are friendly and helpful in ways that only non-Italian-speaking visitors who are new to town and have been separated from their luggage can fully appreciate.

If you’re new to the country, Verona will instruct you in the color schemes of Italy: rich brown, ruddy terracotta, delicate pink, subtle yellow. You’ll see flowers everywhere.

Flower balcony

If it’s hot, you might just have to eat gelato four times that first day because, well, it’s really hot, and the gelato is a revelation of flavors: bacio, gianduja, fior di latte, stracciatella, melone, fragola, limone, frutti di bosco, cannella. The servings are piccolo, Italian-sized. Go on, have another.

And then, just before dusk falls, when the later afternoon air is still steamy, but you have an inkling of what cool might begin to feel like, you line up at your gate at the arena, because the opera is getting underway in just a few hours and you want to enjoy every leisurely second of it.

Full stage
Parade with horses

June 26 trip diary
M ~ Thomas Mann evidently knew something about human nature, which worked out very well for Leiber & Stoller when they turned a near-verbatim ripoff* of Mann’s 1896 short story “Disillusionment” into the song “Is That All There Is…?” which was about, well, disillusionment, and which became a big hit for Peggy Lee in 1969.

Samuel Johnson knew human nature too, and he knew that because the world is what it is we often spend more time anticipating an event than actually experiencing it, and the experience itself can end up as a coda, nothing but a springboard to “ok what’s next?”. Johnson pointed this out many times but perhaps best when he wrote “The natural flights of the human mind are not from pleasure to pleasure, but from hope to hope.”**

And yet life doesn’t always have to work out that way, and for me, for each of us I think, the Opera in Verona ended up easily better, and more satisfactory, than our long anticipation of it might have led us to think possible – but not, for me at least, in the way i would have expected.

“Aida outdoors in a Roman ampitheatre, huge production, spectacle, a bigger performance maybe than we’d ever seen before!!” was where I was at. Given the venue, i was expecting I suppose, literally, a circus. And it was big, and it was over the top and yes there were even real live horses. But its effect was something very else.

The vast performance merged with, rather than overpowered, the Veronese night– so much so that at one point well into the second half of that big Verdi opera all that big Verdi music and those big Verdi voices slipped away almost entirely into the background — actually it was me slipping away, as two days of travel and no sleep and 80 degree heat and sitting still and wine and cheese and salami and bread and H and R and me on those rented cushions high up the hot stone bleachers all came together to reduce the noise and spectacle and drama to a lambent part of a greater whole as my mind and eye wandered from the deep blue night in the east to the barest ember-orange in the west, all along the busy line of campanile bell towers, terracotta rooflines and cable dish/antennas pricking the horizon just above eye-height beyond the stagelights necklaced around the vast rim of that old marble bowl. Even with my eyes closed the music would not take over. I may have slept, or nearly slept, at least for a few minutes at some point. Or maybe not– it was that hard to tell.

Great handfuls of swallows had come out as soon as the sun had dipped, and though it was quite dark by the time I’m talking about many of them still darned the air over the city, and even months later sitting at a desk it doesn’t feel particularly silly to say that with the sky so low and clear it seemed like the swallows were dipping and banking for the early stars rather than competing for bugs, invisible to us but not to them, floating in the cooling air.

People who’ve taken LSD often say that they’re different, or see things differently, long after the trip is over. That they’ve been changed or realigned for good. It may be too much to ascribe that same level of alteration to having attended a late outdoor opera jetlagged on the first night in a new country right after your lost luggage has been all but found, but then again it may not. I have to say that that feeling, the realization that a gigantic mannered art form had suddenly bowed like a practiced and smiling courtier and stepped back into the crowd without seeming ever to have moved, was new then and is with me still. But then again what am i talking about but something fitting in, Belonging– and it was Italy and it was opera, after all.

ps – Peggy Lee has two signature songs. The early one is “Fever” and the later one is “Is That All There Is…?”. You could make a good argument that taken together and in that order those songs sum up the arc from anticipation to experience better than Mann or Johnson ever did.
* i didn’t know this until today, either.
** So far as I know, no one has ever incorporated this sentence into a pop standard.

Italian Folktales ~ Day 1 (June 25, 2011), Vermont to Somewhere Over the Atlantic Ocean

Michael and I first saw the Dolomites when we were backpacking through northern Italy, on our way to getting married in Norway. “Let’s come back and hike those mountains someday,” we said to each other.

My, how 20 years can flash by.

Four months after we returned from that long dreamed-of trip, I find I haven’t written much about it. It’s now or never. I have sixteen days of NaBloPoMo left; just enough time to write a little something about each day of the trip. A mini challenge within a challenge.

I don’t really have a plan. All I know is that I’ll post something each day that represents one day of the trip. I’ll also try to include a thought or memory from each of us, so that we can look back on this in another 20 years (via our embedded blog viewer contact lenses) as a sort of trip diary, written after the fact.

Oh, and here’s a handy travel tip: If you’re produce shopping in Montréal, you can find GIANT carrots at Trudeau Airport.


June 25 trip diary

H ~ Welcome to your gate, ladies and gentlemen. Please enjoy sitting in the filthy seat at least 200 other people have sat in, with no cleaning, while you wait for an equally dirty plane to arrive so you can get on it and sit uncomfortably all night! Our airline is the best; we have MINIMAL LEGROOM! Personally, I can’t stand planes. Uncomfortable, crampy, bad food and (worst of all) my ears really really really hurt when we descend. The only thing that livens up the trip for me is having a personal TV. At our house, we don’t actually have TV (gasp!) so the only way I can watch something I’ve never seen before is through a DVD or we can stream it instantly. But that doesn’t really fill the empty gap of TV-lack, so the little screens on airplanes are the only things that can lure me on the flying monstrosities. Unfortunately, on this particular trip, out of 350-odd seats on a massive airplane, very nice TVs, guess who got the only–I repeat, only–TVs that do not work? Wrong guess: it was us!

3 screens out of 325

What a pretty little message. All-night flight (rhyme!) with no TV for poor little me (another rhyme!) . Whee. Luckily, the flight back was better, since–oops. You’ll hear about that in TWO WEEKS! Mwahahahaha (cliffhanger).

M ~ Having planned, replanned and over-planned the whole trip — over years — and having pointedly picked Montreal over 5 other possible airports to fly out of, we subsequently learned that Montreal has, or had, a huge stolen car industry — the airport is on the St. Lawrence itself and multiple rings of thieves work the city, particularly the hotels near the airport and at least in the old days, the airport itself; the stolen cars are often freightered and headed for out of the way corners of the world within hours of having been parked and locked by their owners, never to be seen again. Is this something to worry about the whole time we’re gone? No. The first step in letting go after so much planning is to say “we’ve done the best we could, now what happens happens”. And really in all likelihood our car would not be stolen (nor was it) and even if it had been, what can you say? Give it up and let it go. Fine. Only to have the smiling and friendly Canadian customs officer at the border ask us not only where we were going and how long were we staying abroad, but… what parking lot were we using at the airport. Wait– what? Which lot? Who’s ever been asked anything beyond “Where you from, where you headed”? Why would she possibly ask such a question unless she was part of one of the gangs — what clever thieves, getting one of their own right in the customs booth — thought we — well, thought I, as she waved us through (no doubt looking after us just long enough before texting her confederales up ahead– “grn hnda elmnt, gone 2 wks, vt plates number xxx xxx, lot b”). Argh! The car would be halfway to Kurdistan (you can get a lot of rolled up rugs into an Element, if you really mean to) before we even reported it stolen– why else would she possibly ask such a question? Is it going to be THAT kind of trip? Stolen car, Lost Luggage? Missed Connections? Lost in the mountains? Stomach begins to churn as I (perhaps for the last time) accelerate the Element to highway speed and point it toward Montreal. I can be absolutely no fun to travel with, at the start of a long-planned trip.

R ~ This is my favorite part of any trip. Everything that we can plan in advance is planned. The pets are in the care of others. The house is as clean (or dirty) as it will be. The mail is stopped. The chores are done. From the time I sit down in the car until the moment we arrive in Italy, I’m in limbo and nothing much is expected of me aside from moving from gate to gate, selecting my entree from the uninspiring Air France menu, and figuring out how to sleep while sitting upright. I can handle that.