Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Notes from Roma, Lecce and Albania



Notes from Italy and Albania

Shakun and I recently returned from Roma, Lecce (Puglia, southern Italy) with a three day side trip to Albania.  Ancient new worlds for both of us...  I attended a conference on 'Sustainable Religious Tourism' where my paper, 'Buddhism, Sacred Art and Pilgrimage Travel Contested' describing a range of cultural and tourist quandaries in Lo Manthang, had been accepted for presentation.  

This was the first conference I'd attended to deliver a paper from my own personal interest.  A few years ago, I presented at a Himalayan Studies conference in Madison, Wisconsin on the Federalism Dialogues as part of my UNDP constitution drafting work.  

But, of course, this was Italy...

We arrived in Roma after our long nearly 24 hour's journey into night from Kathmandu to Italy via Abu Dhabi and Milano.  W
e took a taxi from the Roma airport to Suey's apartment in the heart of the old city, right around the corner from the Pantheon -- one of the world's greatest and oldest architectural marvels.  Suey is a kind-hearted friend from Smith who has made a life and career with FAO in Rome.  She has a walk-up four floors in an old Roman building behind a massive gate off a cobble-stone lane built around a central stairwell with marble pieces of the old Roman world plastered into the walls.  Simple elegance and refinement all around!  

Sunday night after we arrived Suey took us on a tour of her charming neighborhood. First, of course, was the impressively world-weary Pantheon, dark marble and immense columns fitted tightly among the narrow lanes.  A temple to the pagan gods so refined that its coffered dome has stood for two thousand years while Ionic temples or early basilicas have collapsed over time.  A space so graceful and sublime with proportions so exact that a perfect sphere would sit below that gentle dome. In front a small piazza centered on a Bernini fountain of an elephant holding up an obelisk.  (After a few days, I began to think that there are more ancient Aegyptian obelisks in Rome than in Egypt...  Suey says it may be true.)  

Near her apartment were a few baroque churches, including the French Church, w/ magnificent Carvaggio paintings.  Truly wondrous, original paintings of sacred Christian faith with the soul of the common man.  For the first time, Carvaggio painted simple humans with their innocent expressions, bare and dirty feet, individual faces, old clothes, simple postures and humble rooms.  It was a dangerous revelation at the time of such opulence and worldly power.

That first night, there was the feel of Roma, the eternal city they say, under the darkened sky w/ the classical and baroque buildings silhouetted by city lights and the colorful refined Romans strolling their beloved city or sitting at cafes watching us watching them.  This is a city of many charms, not the least the ambience, the comfortable lanes, the lack of haste, the piazzas, embellished facades of the buildings, the gelato, and understated or even in many cases the absolutely overstated and fudge-like carved sentimental beauty. there is a European history and refinement in these cities that we, temporarily imperial Americans, appreciate all the more b/c it is so warm, aged, cultured, historical, vivacious, cool, attractive and well-lived.  



Monday Shakun and I walked some seven hours through various piazza, churches, chapels, sites and gardens.  Rome is an easily walkable city, especially in the 'historico centro', where most of the various empires, emperors, kings, popes and cardinals made their mark.  We strolled the stone streets w/ limited traffic and endless cafes free to stop for a coffee at any nearby corner.  We found an inexpensive place for a pasta for lunch near the Tiber, a few blocks from the Aris Pacem, where other Romans seemed to gather, after a few hours meandering.  Belle!



Then, as we approached the Piazza Populi, we saw, so out of context, an enormous installation of the UEFA Champions League football trophy set up by the old walls of Rome.  Almost like a carnival in a Fellini film.  Of course, we went in and had our pictures taken by the world's most famous football trophy to share with the boys.  



That evening, we had drinks w/ Dave and Claudia Sadoff (who've recently moved to Rome from Bangkok after a couple years in Kathmandu) at Suey's apartment before going out to dinner at a neighborhood restaurant.  There is such an ease and joy in sitting out at a restaurant on streets of Rome in the evening, even in late October, as if the world were your oyster and life is sweet and beautiful...  'La dolce vita', as they say...



The next day we were more serious about our tourist responsibilities.  We went directly to the all-consuming, vast Vatican museums, the Sistine Chapel, the Raphael rooms, St. Peter's...  But the corridors of the museum are so crowded, it's not really an aesthetic experience, more like an endurance race.  I much prefer to be in one of the scores of magnificent catholic churches in the city where there is less 'art', but a more personal experience...

Fortunately, we stepped into a few of those, away from the hustle and bustle, to sit quietly below those massive images of saints and prophets, glimmering in mosaic or pastels, the glittering gold embossed on the ceilings, the side chapels still used for penance, where it is possible, just slightly, to recall that these were once places of profound worship, where the Church was manifest and manifold in its power and glory, where the tithes of the world came to rest within these solid columns and ambulatories, where Christ had arose to cleanse the sins of man, but Peter and the Apostles placed so much sacred and secular authority in one Papacy that it dominated the lives of hundreds of millions for over a thousand years.


Then, at last, after making our way through those 100 meter lanes of Vatican riches in the museum, we reach the piece d'resistence of Christian aesthetics in Rome: the Sistine.  There, unlike the rabble of the museums, I could have spent the whole afternoon.  So awesome, magnificent and ethereal!  There are wooden benches by the side walls where one can sit and admire the enchanting panels of paintings that contrast the lives of Jewish Moses and Christian Jesus by the most famous of Italian Renaissance masters.  Then, after a time, when one feels the moral strength, one looks down the chapel at Michelangelo's exhausting, triumphant, ein-believable, almost unredeemable Last Judgment with its vivid, haunting, transcendent blues and trance-like impression of the end of days, the end of life, our own mere mortality... our individual deaths.

"His will be done on Earth as it is in Heaven!"

When the three walls of the Sistine have filled one's restless mind, at last, there is the chapel ceiling, the ceiling, those Renaissance images, the Gnostic seers, the Hebraic prophets, the fearsome creation, the beginning of time, the mythic force of our own existence, the gentle countenance of a legendary male god-figure with Adam and Eve receiving the source of life...  The source of so much of our religious and literary Western culture, the grandeur of our dreams and fears, the hopes and aspirations in the celestial and mortal worlds.  The beauty and yet, today, the ignorance, the superficiality, the cosmetic, ephemeral world of fame and fortune...

How little we allow our gaze to drift unabashedly skywards these days...

Truth be told, we did join a tour when we arrived at the Vatican as we were told it was the only way to avoid the long lines -- but the guide was almost useless.  I listened to many other tour guides and clearly we got a poor one.  Others were more insightful and passionate about the art and architecture.  Next time i'll have to do more research to get a better guide.  We sort of fell into ours by the front of the Vatican which was a poor choice.  Lesson learned...

Still, I'm not a good tour person b/c I like to sit and observe for long periods.  Usually I listen in on other guides while they are near me, as there is so much to learn of the history and significance of the frescoes, paintings, sculpture and architecture.  It's precious when you hear a skilled and knowledgable person walk one through a painting, like a Carvaggio.  Or staring jaw adrift in front of a Bernini or Bramante masterpiece...  such deep insight and wonder about the art and lives of the artists or the time in which they worked...  time slips away as the past opens up...

That night we watched the presidential foreign policy debate with Suey at the American University of Itay.  Afterwards we walked to dinner at a busy and popular pizzeria with friends of Suey who have lived and worked in Africa.  The British husband was born in Uganda when Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda were all one country, then taught at the University of East Africa in Kampala before it became the University of Kampala.  He's editing an encyclopedia of african wildlife -- no small matter, indeed, while she still travels the world for FAO!  Quite interesting and our type of folks!

The next morning, unfortunately, Suey's apartment didn't have internet, so we went downstairs and around the corner to a gelato cafe (such trouble...) to have a 3.5 euro coffee and use theirs.  While sitting, i heard Shakun say, 'tashi delay' and looked up to see a gaggle of Tibetan men at the table next to us.  It turns out that one of them, Lobsang Sangey, the Prime Minister of the Tibetan government in exile was among them in Italy for meetings w/ Italian  parliamentarians.  We chatted awhile about Nepali politics and the situation of Tibetans in Nepal.  Sangey invited us to visit them in Dharamsala, India to continue those discussions.  All at the corner gelato shop in Rome...

We also finally connected with Luigi and Samanta, our two lovely friends who have been doing the restoration of the Lo Manthang Thubchen and Jampa gompas.  Luigi has been there fourteen years already and has been in-charge of the project for the past few years.  What they have accomplished in that remote outpost of humanity and kulture is little known, but among the most inspirational and beautiful Buddhist religious sites I've ever seen.  Those 15th C. wall paintings from the Sakya tradition have been brought back to near their original vitality and sanctity by the careful, detailed work of these dedicated Italian art restorers.  Without their long-term commitment, and the funding of the American Himalayan Foundation, those temples may have continued their rapid decay and deterioration, leaving no trace of the brilliance of their era.

To make the rendez-vous easy, we met at the Piazza Navonna, where it's nearly impossible to hide, and then went around the corner to a more sedate, cultured and calm Piazza Pace (naturally...) for lunch.  Such a joy, of course, to be with these gentle and yet enthusiastic souls in their own country in the world which fostered their imaginations, artistry and creativity.  It's a gift, as well, for us, living in the international world of Kathmandu, to find such precious friends in Italy and around the world...

Early the next morning we took the express train from Rome to Lecce, direct, for the religious tourism conference which started Friday evening through Sunday.  The six hour ride passed through the countryside train reaching Puglia in time for us to find our cosy B&B just outside the old city walls, a superb meal across the street and only slightly late for the opening ceremony.   On the train, I re-read Lama Govinda's famous Tibetan Buddhist travelogue 'The Way of the White Clouds' -- one of the first books i read when i came to live in Nepal in the early 80s-- in order to take my mind out of the Bernini's baroque Catholic Italy and put myself, once again, in that Himalayan pilgrim soul spirit that animated my paper... 


The conference itself was curious and stimulating.  The people were slightly outside my 'comfort zone', not uncomfortably, but in a fresh, new perspective.  no longer development, INGO or UN folks, but academics and tourism specialists.  In this way, the whole event was a new experience, not merely the sumptuous, baroque surroundings of Lecce, but, in particular, the types of people who attend conferences on academic tourism.  Most of these were professors in their specialized fields (tourism, architecture, urban planning, economics...), as well as young academics making a name for themselves, as well as some modern Renaissance souls who seem to dabble in an array of fields, mixing history, art, travel and pilgrimage.  Of course, there were more than a few Italians, with their elegantly raffish airs and love of beauty, with a range of other northern Europeans, an odd American, a few Israelis, two or three Asians and us.  

Unfortunately, there was not enough time to get to know more than a few of them in two+ days b/c the workshop sessions lasted all day -- swelled at meals by exquisite classical musical concerts in various Lecce churches.  After all, as I noted, this is an exquisitely baroque town.   

Of course, me being me, I was still editing my powerpoint during the lunch before my session.  I added some more photos, given that few, if any, of the audience would have been to Nepal, much less Lo Manthang.  Plus I wanted to remove some of the unnecessary historical facts and personalities that were not germane to the presentation.  Since each presenter was only given 15 minutes, there really wasn't much to be anxious about, although that logic doesn't completely subdue all such emotions.  Not to mention, each specific session was divided into a couple of sections, so only 25-30 people attended any one talk.  

My presentation was preceded by two women, a Greek who spoke on the Compostela di Santiago pilgrimage in Spain and a Korean, studying in Paris, who presented an intensely political and brave case study describing how the Japanese conquest of the Korean peninsula sought to exploit the Korean cultural heritage to justify their Asian colonization in the first half of the 20th C. -- a subject that has resonance for many conflicts in the world today... 

I was fortunate to have almost a full half hour for my power point presentation and a discussion afterward, as one person didn't arrive for their talk.  From what I could observe, my audience (those who weren't nodding off after lunch...) enjoyed going for a ride to the edge of Tibet and across the Himalaya, to consider 'pilgrimage travel contested' in a living Buddhist context.  Since most of the participants were Europeans, they were less familiar with our part of the world.  Although one kindly Brit (of course!), Ian, has been everywhere in the world, and Prof. Rana Singh, rom Benaras Hindu University, who, oddly, took exception to me saying that Muktinath is one of the sources of the Ganges.  For time's sake, I presented my conclusions, but not recommendations.  Then, the beleaguered American who runs the Bahai Center in Haifa asked me to discuss those, as well, which I was more than happy enough to do as the those spoke more to my development background in managing a remote cultural heritage site.

Shakun gave me high marks for my presentation.  I'm not sure it changed anyone's life, but it did mine.  We never would have gone to Puglia or Albania if my dear friend, Prof. Lauren Leve, who worked with me at Save the Children decades ago, had never sent me that advertisement for this conference.  Not to mention how chuffed I was to see my paper in the book of the conference proceedings that we were each given when we signed in on the first day.  

An almost published academic...  imagine that...       

As for the essential subject of food in Lecce, the official lunches were a bit thin, to be honest.  Too little time, too many people and an understandable effort to keep costs down.  Fortunately, there was a wonderful antipasto and seafood restaurant across the street from the lovely courtyard B&B where we stayed in Lecce, as well as the gelato at the corner by the movie theater is to die for.  I found my way past the gelataria every night after the conference sessions while Shakun admired some winter boots in a nearby window I ordered another two euro gelato cone.... 

On Monday, after the conference, we took the overnight ferry from Brindisi to northern Greece, just near Corfu, for our pre-arranged Albanian tour. There were three other visitors from the conference with us, plus Romeo, our Albanian professor.  We left Italy about 8 pm, on a ferry full of itinerant Romas who made the extensive dining area their family sleeping quarters.  We had simple but private cabins with a basic shower/bath to comfortably spend the night.  But the horn and announcement went off while we were still sleeping as arrived bright (well, dark...) and early at 3:30 am in Greece.  As expected, the driver Romeo had arranged met us and take us across the border to Albania...

Romeo, our kindly, Albanian professor-guide, was an excellent host and friend; a true gentleman.  his love for his country and deep understanding of its complexity gave us many insights into the present world of a modern Albania.  From the magnificent Greco-Roman ruins along the coast to the rich Orthodox Christian history in the interior, our three days of travel were a wonderful opportunity to see and appreciate the country from the inside. 

One of our first stops was right over the Greece-Albanian border across the bay from the historic island of Corfu, trading port and vacation spot for empires through the ages.  On the mainland, along an estuary, is Buthrotum (Butrint), an ancient site sacred to the Hellenic god of health and medicine, Asclepius.  Later, under Roman rule both Julius Caesar and Caesar Augustus planned to establish a veteran's colony for their loyal soldiers.  

I could have stayed hours there...  

On a few acres overlooking the sea and miles of agricultural fields, one can imagine the life of a thousand years of early Adriatic culture, see the rough hewn stones arranged by the pre-Hellenic Epirus people for defensive walls below the finely trimmed Hellenic construction, then sit in the now-flooded Greek amphitheater, touch the 3rd C. BCE Greek inscriptions, imagine King Pyrrhus battling the Romans, walk by the oldest and largest (and among the most beautiful...) surviving  Baptistry mosaics and stand amid the ruins of the community's monumental early Christian basilica.  

But, for me, amid all those ages, the most evocative moment was standing along a rock face where a well had been excavated as an offering to the nymphs who made their home in the nearby forests.  Along the stone rim of this ancient nympheum there were finely cut depressions where for a thousand years women had been hauling up their water from the depths.  As I stood there, feeling the cool edge where ropes had carried fresh water to those distant peoples, my thoughts fell back into those pools, as well.  

Looking up at Romeo I said, "Romeo, I hope that when it is my time to depart this world, I am not in a modern hospital bed attached to machines, but in a quiet, peaceful sanctuary like here where one feels a part of man's long history, where the idea of our individual passing is simply to join those who have lived and gone before us, pulling water from the wells of life..."   

In the brief days we were there, Albania proved to be an amazing adventure, particularly b/c of Romeo.  Of course, Albania is not Italy, but then where else is?  but w/ Romeo, we had a non-stop seminar on the politics, culture, history and geography of Albania from Hellenic or Illyrian times to the present.  The country has been on quite a roller coaster in the 20th C., from Ottoman satrapy to principality to royalty to republic to war, revolution and fifty years of Stalinism before the democratic dam broke in the 90s.  Since then it's been an agonizing path back to their European roots that were cauterized under the ever Hoxha Stalinist regime.  

On a hillside outside one of the towns there were large white letters where Hoxha's first name, 'ENVER', had been inscribed visible from a few kilometers away.  A few years after his downfall, some local students rearranged the letter 'n' at the beginning as a reminder: 'NEVER' again will they live under such an isolated, controlling, paranoid Marxist state, never.   

For your sake, I'll avoid a lengthy history lesson here and leave the complexities of the nation's Muslim (60%), Orthodox (20%) and Catholic (20%) relations for later.  Although, just to note, that given the 50 years of imposed secularism Stalinism, compared to many other states in the Balkan region, the diverse religious relations are rather tame today, fortunately.



Not surprisingly, given our eclectic fortune, our 3 day excursion was equally ecumenical as it included two devout, Orthodox Israeli Jews and a modern American Mormon.  Really nice folks.  Although we spent more time w/ Shaul and his wife, as Dallan, the U. Arizona State cultural tourism professor had to leave a day early,  I enjoyed Dallan's stories.  Coming from a rural Utah broken family he knew from age 8 that he wanted to travel the world.  Dallan's made a wonderful career of it, as the keynote speaker at many international tourism conferences while meandering the world taking photos of border crossings and exploring the curiosities that define cultural boundaries.  

Shakun, of course, bonded w/ Mazar and may be moving to a kibbutz in the Negev soon.  She has a way with Israelis and many others that has them feeling she's one of them.  Curious that!  



The one day we were in Tirana, Hillary Clinton descended from the sky (with the rains...) for a three hour visit.  I doubt she came to greet us, specifically, but Romeo said that she is highly respected in Albania for her work in the Balkans, especially on behalf of the Kosovars and other minorities.  I was happy to hear that!  Although it was our last day in Albania and it poured, alas.  but no complaints as we had two beautiful days driving around before the rains began. 

The return overnight ferry from Durres, Albania let us off in Bari, where I'd pre-arranged a rental car at the airport.  Unfortunately, there was no car, but the Dollar rental folks arranged an even better car through another agency (Sixt) for our last day and a half.  

From Bari, we stopped in Trani, up along the coast, to see a magnificent, towering 12th c. Romanesque church by the sea.  Trani is one of those charming seaside Italian towns with a harbor full of fishing vessels and yachts where the cafes ring the waterfront and the light is exquisite.  At such moments I wonder why I had been destined to grow up in Upstate New York, instead of here...  

After a filling 12 euro set lunch w/ a table of antipasto, pasta and a glass of white wine by the cathedral, we drove north between rows of parasol pines on a two lane highway along the sea.  We circled around the rough, cliff-like Gargono peninsula that juts out into the Adriatic sea the top of Puglia.  But, alas, since it was November already, the beautiful, incandescent, Mediterranean day light was gone by 5:30 pm.  My last 3 hours of our last full day in Italy were driving in the darkness from the coast along the Appenines in order to be within a few hours drive to Rome the next day.  

We spent that last night at Campobasso along the spine of Italy.  In fact, I think we found a town in Italy that's famous for almost nothing.  Nothing of great consequence, at least.  Even some students asked us, "why are you visiting here?", as if we were the first tourists to arrive in the new millennium.  But when we did get there, it was late as i'd been driving since 11 am, so we only needed a nice play to sleep and eat and sleepy Campobasso was as good as it gets.

After such a long day, unfortunately, even in such a small town, after dinner I got lost trying to get back to the hotel.  It was almost one of these trying marital moment for Shakun and me w/ the not unheard of 'if you'd only listened to me' vernacular...  But, good on us, we avoided that trap.  then Shakun with renewed energy asked some young Italian students (the ones who asked what exactly we were doing there...) who ever so kindly got in our car to take us to the doorstep of the St. Gorgio hotel we'd somehow misplaced.  

As they say, 'the kindness of strangers...'  which is one of the reasons for travel -- to open ourselves up to the eventual and all-to-common cultural or linguistic or geographic disorientation that puts as the mercy of strangers to offer us their generosity of spirit and friendship.  Such moments always linger, as long as the awe-inspiring cultural heritage sites, with memories of the, at times, uncomplicated goodness of people...  Prego...

Saturday morning we woke with only having to make a 5:30 pm flight from Roma.  We had time.  we had been told it was only 3 hours from Campobasso to the Rome international airport.  Which, of course, left us time to find a nearby grocery store for parmesan, proscuitto and prosecco and a few kilo of olives -- although our bags were already overflowing with four saplings (a juniper, a cedar and two olive trees) we bought at a nursery outside Tirana...  

Since we didn't want to get too much Albanian soil on the parmesan, we bought a 20 euro suitcase in which to pack the food, as well..

ahh, Italia... 




2 comments:

sari said...

Beautiful! Was definitely able to walk through Rome with you. Like how you randomly stumbled across the Tibetan Prime Minister in exile :-) Thanks for sharing.

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