Thursday, December 8, 2011

Cigarettes & Opera

I almost walked right past him.  

Providing the standard “Sorry, dude” shrug of a person unwilling or unable to provide a beggar with a little change while not wishing to be unkind, I almost kept walking.  I was, after all, on a budget, and Rome is not a cheap place to be.  But as I tucked my hands into my pockets, I paused.  I did have something to offer.  I turned to him and asked, “You smoke?” along with the universal charades action for smoking.  He nodded.  I pulled my shoulder bag around, fished out a few cigarettes, and handed them to the man and his younger friend.  The small black puppy that sat between them declined.  I asked his name.

“Franco,” he replied.  

He was, I would have guessed, in his early sixties, slim and relatively clean-shaven for someone living on the street, keeping himself as clean as he could, combing back his black hair neatly.  He had thoughtful eyes that seemed to inspect the world from an acquiescent distance.  His friend, Antonio, was much younger, probably in his early 30s.  He had a round Roman face, a brief moustache and goatee, and a serious look accentuated by dark hair.  He spoke no English.

Franco, however, asked where I was from.

“Canada,” I said, “but I usually live in California.”

“Oh,” he said, “I live in San Jose for almost 20 years.  I have family there.”

We chatted a little longer, and I learned that he was from Sicily, and that he had a daughter that he had raised in California who remained there.  Finally I shook his hand.

“It was good to meet you, Franco.  Ciao,” I said, and smiled.

“Ciao,” he said, and I walked on.

Jaspar was around the corner.

He lay in front of the little cove in the wall that held a small collection of vending machines which sold everything from bland biscuits to bad espresso.  He thoroughly looked the part of a homeless man.  His pants drooped from his waist.  His dark hair fell messily from the sides of his cap.  And he muttered in Italian something that seemed to have no connection with his outstretched, begging hand.  His eyes scanned the world around him, a world which may have had little to do with the world of the passersby.

I held up a cigarette, and raised my eyebrows in offering.  He smiled and continued his inspection of his world as if to say, “What’s this guy up to?  Yeah, I’ll take a cigarette, you weirdo!”  I gave him two, and offered my hand.

“Uh… Mi nomé ‘Aaron’,” I said in my best accent.

He smiled again in an oh-what-the-hell way and shook my hand.  “Jaspar.”

“ ‘Jaspar’?”


“Mucho…” I almost said, ‘Mucho gusto’, which would have been the wrong latin-based language.  “Nice… Nice to meet you.”

He shook his head and smiled, and I walked on.

I came out of my hostel in the morning, and made my way toward what was quickly becoming “my” little coffee shop, for what had become my morning routine: a cafe latté, a Bible, a journal, and a pen.  My coffee shop stood on the bend in the corner, just beyond Jaspar’s Cove, with a lovely view of the Basilica Papale di Santa Maria Maggiore that stood across the street.

Jaspar saw me coming, and started smiling and shaking his head.  I gave him two more cigarettes.

That night, , along with Antonio and his puppy, I saw Franco again.  He was in one of his two usual spots.  I greeted him with a handshake, and asked him if he and Antonio wanted a coffee.

“Sure, yes,” he said.  He asked Antonio, who looked at me seriously and nodded.

Espressos, with cream and sugar.  I strolled over to my coffee shop and ordered two coffees.  I returned, hot espresso in thin plastic cups, and hunkered down next to Franco.

“Grazi,” he said, taking a first tentative sip.

“De…”  And I almost said, ‘De nada.’  “Um… Prego.”

Small cars whirred through the street in front of us.  Open-roofed tour buses drove back and forth, shuttling people with sunglasses, large cameras, and larger hats.  I sat with him there for a while, sipping on espresso and watching the cars and the people.  Business men with a Very Important stride, smoking cigarettes, having Very Important conversations on Very Expensive cell phones.  Teenagers with the same giggles as the ones in North America, smoking cigarettes and being boisterous.  Hip young lovers, joined at the hip.  They were smoking, too.  A few priests (some of these also smoking).  Nuns.  Even a monkly robe or two.  And a lot of chubby middle-aged people in socked sandals, holding tourist maps and having a tendency to pointing.  One or two of those people smoked cigars.  

Some people, usually girls, smiled apologetically toward Franco’s begging cup.  A few, both men and women, stopped and gave change.  One or two even stopped a moment and talked and laughed, as if they knew each other (Of course, I couldn’t understand enough to tell).  A few looked disgusted.  Most, however, walked past at a high speed, somehow aware of everything on the street but the outstretched hand below them.  Their world had little to do with the world at their feet.

Franco and I talked a little.  I learned that he was 70 years old, and had no family here.  

Only his daughter in California.  

I spent the day at the Vatican.  I waved hello to the Pope.  I was blessed by a bishop.  I ate the most delicious sandwich in history.  I climbed to the top of St. Peter’s Basilica.  And at the end of that day, I sat down with Franco.  People strolled past, and a man stooped to drop some coins in Franco’s cup.

As the man went on his way, Franco inspected the change.  He took a coin and held it between his fingers.

“Where is this from?” he asked.

I looked at it closely.  “I think that’s from… Australia.”

“Australia?”  And he looked at it with some interest.  He reached behind him for his bag, and pulled out a small plastic container that once held butter.  “I collect these.”  

He opened the plastic lid and handed me the collection.  I smiled as I inspected coins from all over the world.

“Ah, this is from Thailand!” I said, holding up a coin with an image of the beloved king of Siam.  “I think I have some change from Canada,” I told him, “back in my room.  I will bring you some coins next time.”

“Si?  Thank-you.  Grazi.”

And the cars rolled by, and the people walked past.

I walked into my coffee shop, and pointed at a pack of cigarettes on the wall behind the counter.

Around the corner, Jaspar sat, back against the wall, legs outstretched and crossed and owning his little piece of the sidewalk.  He saw me coming.  He chucklemuttered under his breath, and shook his head, and smiled.  I handed him a pack of cigarettes.

“boyohboywhoisthiscrazysumbitchAmerican,” he said as we shook hands.  At least, I think that’s the translation.

“Pacé e bené, Jaspar,” I said.  I saluted a casual goodbye, and he smiled and shook his head, and I walked on.

I came back later that evening to Franco’s spot by the wall.  I handed him a small collection of Canadian change.  He smiled and inspected the goods with curiosity.  He held up the coin with the stag’s head.

“A quarter,” I said.  “Twenty-five cents.”

He held up a silver coin with a small rodent emblazoned upon it.

“A nickel.  Five cents,” I told him.  “These here are pennies.  One cent.  And this is a dime.  Ten cents.”

He nodded thoughtfully, and placed them in the container with the rest of his collection.  We sat quietly for a while.

“Franco, do you play music?  Do you…?” and I mimed a guitar.

“No, no.”  And he shook his head, and shook his cup for a passerby.

“Do you like music?  You have a….  A favourite music?”

The corners of his mouth went up just a little.  “Opera,” he said as his eyes met mine.  “I love opera.”

“Opera?  Really?  Wow.  Do you have a favourite opera?”

His eyes showed a spark.  “La Traviata.” And he smiled a smile of rapture and memory.  “Placido Domingo.  Teresa Stratas.  Very beautiful.”

And he began to tell me the story of La Traviata, of the nobleman who fell in love with the woman who strayed.  I don’t know if there is any music that could sing the story better than his eyes.  They were alive with the sadness and the joy of the telling.  He held the story like his first love’s hand, like a child in his arms, and spoke it with abiding affection, with great tenderness.  I felt each moment of love, each moment of heartbreak, like a song; I was present at the lovers’ first kiss, and their last embrace.  When the story came to its end, my own eyes were as misty as the storyteller’s.

And Franco smiled, and the song stayed in his eyes for a while, and he shook his cup of change to the passersby.

Friday, December 2, 2011

Brother Wind

Be praised, my Lord, for Brother Wind,
and for the air and the clouds,
and for fair and every kind of weather,
by which you give your creatures food.

It was cold on the mountain, and not at all like the town of Assisi, which seemed to live in a kind of eternal August afternoon.  Here, several hours north at the mountain of La Verna, the wind was chilly and the mountain covered in cloud.  I was grateful for the thin wool gloves I’d obtained from the friary thrift store, grateful for the sweater (and several layers underneath) I’d brought along from Canada, grateful for the cane which still steadied my gait, and grateful for the quality hiking shoes that covered my feet.  I’d purchased a little guide book from the retreat centre, and it told me there was a trail to climb to the top of the hill, with some interesting sites along the way.  My goal was to reach the chapel built a few hundred years after the time of Francis, the chapel of La Penna, at the top of the rise, 1283 metres above sea level.

I made my way from the friary to the wooded area above, finding the trail which rose and wound its way along the edge of the wooded mountain.  The air was of the kind that seems to freeze your nose hairs in the most invigorating way, and my breath huffed in plumes of white.  Soon, swirling, scattered snow came, carried on the currents up the face of the mountain, so that the snow didn’t seem to descend from the sky, but ascended and whirled among the trees before twirling back down and landing in my beard.  I held out my hand to catch it, and saw that it didn’t come in flakes.  It was soft, and melted in a moment, but it looked like little, white, rock candy.  As if the angels had spilled a heavenly box of Nerds.

The trail came close to the side of the hill, and I veered away to inspect the view.  Trees clawed their way through the rock, holding on to the side of the mountain for dear life.  The cliff, grey and somehow at home in its colour in this kind of weather, descended dramatically as I looked out on the green, roiling landscape below.  This green, too, was somehow alive under this sunless sky; not dreary at all, but vibrant in a different way.  As if the green which bursts with joy in the sun was now in prayer and contemplation.  I put my hand to a gnarled tree, and breathed deeply of the cool, grey sky, and it fed my senses like hungry children.  

But the trail went on, and so did I.  A stirring wind set the tall trees to scattered bursts of applause as my feet snapped the tiny twigs of the forest floor.  The cane steadied my way over slippery patches of stone and up the dubious rises of dirt.  Soon I came to a strange rock that jutted from the side of the mountain like a giant spike.  The head of the spike lay several feet away from the side of the hill, and a confident jumper might have been able to leap across.  One look below, however, and his confidence would fade quickly.  A small, white sign stood with a simple cross on the mossy rock.  In childlike script was written, “MASSO DI FRATE LUPO”.  

The Rock of Brother Wolf.

Saint Francis used to come to this mountain, far from Assisi, for times of retreat with only a few brothers.  Here, a modest church had been built for him by a wealthy count, and he would often spend weeks here in fasting and prayer.  But he was not the only one on these hills.  A thief roamed the mountain, and with him a small band of his own ‘brothers’.  He was violent, and greatly feared, and became known as “Lupo”.  The Wolf.  The Wolf terrorized travellers of the area.  He was known to take people captive, rob them, and toss them out on this small, jutting rock, keeping them there for days or weeks until a ransom was paid.  When The Wolf heard that Francis and his brothers were praying on “his” mountain, he was not pleased.  The Wolf came prowling down to the friars’ chapel, threatening to kill them if they didn’t leave.

But Francis had experience with robbers, and especially with snarling wolves.  He was known to admonish his friends about such men.  “Our Master Jesus Christ, whose Word we have promised to observe, says that the healthy don’t need a physician, but the sick.  He came not to call the just, but sinners to repentance.  This is the reason he sat down and ate with them!”  

And so, when he spoke to The Wolf, he spoke as no one had before.  He spoke without fear.  What exactly Francis said isn’t known, but when the outlaw saw the serenity of Francis in the face of such threats, when he saw that these threats of violence were meaningless to the frail little friar, he also saw something else.  For the first time in his life, he saw love.  Francis looked into the soul of the thief, and saw not a criminal, not an animal, but a brother.  The Wolf fell at the feet of Francis, and wept.  Francis took him tightly into his arms, and welcomed him as Frate Agnello: Brother Lamb.

And a simple cross and a simple sign now stood in simple testimony to a life remade.  

The wind began to blow harder, even through the buffering trees, as the trail continued upward.  I found the rhythm of breath, step, and cane, stepping over knotted roots, treading through fallen leaves and grass.  The rock candy snow had now become a steady rain, falling through the holes in the green canopy above, or blowing straight through the columns of trees.  It fell in drops on my fake tweed cap, and splattered on my face like a spit take.  And it felt good.  

I knew there was supposed to be a chapel at the crest of this hill, but each time I came to what I thought must be the final rise, the trail went further up and further on, teasing me onward, daring me to take chase.  At last, I stepped between a knot of trees and looked ahead.  The rain had turned to mist, and there, standing in majesty and modesty, was the small stone chapel a little known man named Carlo built in 1580.  I smiled and shook my head, and took my cane to a near sprint up to the fabled chapel.

It stood just a few feet back from the precipice of the mountain, nestled like a little brother into the shoulder of flat rock which lay beyond it.  I approached the humble little holy place, placed my hand on the old stones, felt their cold roughness under my fingers.  I have a strong affection for old things, and whenever possible, I like to touch them.  (Though of course here in Italy, a chapel that’s only 430 practically has that “new church smell”.)

A metal door now stood in place of the old wooden one, and it was locked.  But I peeked through the small, square window in the door, into the darkness of the sparse chapel, and imagined the crazy little man who built this place at prayer inside.  I imagined him carrying these blocks of stone from God-knows-where, to this crag at the edge of the woods.  Or did he hire men to do the job, and did they simply shake their heads and thank the Lord that they were getting paid?  

“Clearly, you were quite insane,” I remarked to the long dead brother.

I turned toward the outcrop of rock, which was patiently waiting for me to take in a spectacular view.  I stepped out, my hat now tucked into my bag as the wind grew stronger, pulling at my beard and mussing my hair like an over exuberant uncle.  I opened my arms wide and let the mountain gale play.  I looked out before me.  The view did not disappoint.  Below me were the rolling hills, the valleys, the fields, and beyond it all, the crests of the mountains of Romagna and Umbria.  Small smatterings of houses with white walls and terracotta roofs dotted the earthbound knuckles of the mountains.  To my right, and far below, tiny tufts of white were sprinkled about a meadow of brownish green that lay amongst great swaths of trees.  .  In time I realized the tiny tufts were moving.  A flock of sheep grazed the grasses of a shepherd’s field.

I looked above, or rather to what was now eye-level, at the clouds that came rolling and breaking away from the mists.  They turned and rocked, and patches of sunlight were beginning to break through.  A cloud rolled liked dough over the peak of the mountain on the other side of the valley, slowly but surely making its way over the jagged ridge.  I looked down toward the shepherd’s field again, and my mouth fell open at what I saw.  There, descending from the clouds like a bridge from heaven to earth, was a rainbow of red and yellow and blue and every colour in between.  

Once again, He was being ridiculous.

The wind came again to tussle my hair, and I felt as Adam must have felt, rising from the dust, awakened by the breath of God.