The Lost Years

Stranded on the side of the road in the Palouse

Over the past eight months, I’ve heard Tom Kundig reference a period of his life called “The Lost Years” quite often. He spent much of that decade exploring the outdoors, deepening his skills as a climber and skier, unsure of how far he’d go as an architect or if that was even the direction he would ultimately pursue as a career.

Though his father, Moritz, was an architect whose friends included a circle of accomplished artists and craftspeople that Tom grew up with, he felt compelled to define his own path. Rather than accepting this heritage as a birthright, as some might have, Tom questioned it. He felt so drawn to science and tectonics that he needed to test himself — to arrive at architecture on his own in order to know that this was really where he was meant to be.

When Tom discusses his work today, he talks about built structures as frames for nature. At his UW lecture last Monday, he moved his pointer around the screen, which depicted an idyllic wintery scene from Mazama, Washington, noting that, “This is why you come out here,” before circling the award-winning cabin that he designed, “not this.”

After hearing his personal story, I realized that Tom and I have much in common, in addition to the strong influence that Astra Zarina and Omer Mithun had on our lives. He mentioned that, though he became a registered architect at 24, he didn’t feel like that he was “practicing architecture” until he was 36. 

Having finished my first book at 36 after moving towards and away from writing several times, I feel the same. 

Tom’s “Lost Years” remind me of my own early wanderings, wavering this way and that between science and writing, real estate development and design, travel and language — the whole time questioning where I wanted to –or thought I could– take it.

Looking back, these meanderings were essential to becoming the practitioners we are today — as was our self-doubt and even the resistance we placed in our own paths. In rare moments, I wonder if those winding roads were necessary — they make me feel somehow behind

When those thoughts arise, I remind myself that all anyone can do is shape the future, not lament the past, which –for better or worse– has brought us successfully to the present. Even those choices that we might not make again or the extra twists and turns have contributed some richness to the tapestry.

This morning, as I reflected on the phrase “The Lost Years,” I diagrammed the eras of my own life, surprised that they did indeed form measurable periods held in common by distinct themes. After my own “Lost Years,” which spanned over a decade, there have been two distinct four-year cycles, the second of which I call “Demolition and Adaptive Reuse” is now coming to a close.

The new year will herald the beginning of the next great era, whose name will be revealed only near to its completion. It has become clear that “Hidden City Diaries” is the vehicle for and physical expression of that shift — the jumping off point for whatever happens next. 

On that eve of that transition, I feel exhilarated to have finally recognized my path, just as Tom found his. One could say that, while it seems to have come later for people like us, it has, in fact, arrived right on time.

It came when we were ready for it.

Rumbling at the bottom of my gut is a Christmas Eve-like impatience at the impending good: encountering new people who will influence me, diving deeper with cherished supporters of old, meeting unforeseen challenges with previously hidden resources, and discovering surprising beauty and richness in places I would never have thought to look. I even look forward to the skinned knees that I know I’ll have from time to time because they, too, are part of the process.

These weeks ahead are a gift — a slice of time in which I can watch the last four very formative years fossilize into the past. What had seemed like a far-off or impossible future –my life as a writer– will crystallize before my eyes from the adjacent possible into the present. 

The impatient part of me, the one who daydreams dangerously far ahead, wonders how I’ll remember this time when I look back years from now, when these periods of intense questioning will seem vague and gauzy, perhaps even slightly misguided. 

That’s just how time bends: eventually, all of our years become lost — along with the potency of our stories, struggles, and experience as human beings. We lose our old selves, our memories, until something historic like a song, a journal or a letter reminds us of what our lives –what we– were like.

That is why I write — not to spin yarns or sell a million books, but to capture, preserve and connect with the precious natural resources of the human experience.

While I do write for self-discovery –a reason to explore the world, to reflect, to inquire– underneath all of that, writing is a means of locating this trail of breadcrumbs from the past to the present.

Writing lets me return to extinct moments abandoned in all stages of forgetting, from memories that have been merely smoothed out to others completely misfiled or inaccessible, trapped in amber.

Within that, there is another type of “lost years:” the times when significant things occur that go unrecorded. They’re lost forever under an ocean of ever-focused waves of the present, caught in the undertow of the growing past that tugs on our heels from the dark below.

Like Tom sees his work as frame for nature, so I see my words as a tuning fork for experience. One by one, I seek out notes that attract and sing universally, aiming to capture tones of importance in a symphony so big that it takes a thousand notes from as many stanzas to even begin to tap into it.

Without each other, these human lives we share are intrinsically lost, which is why as a species we’re so intent on finding and being found — whether through science or nature, architecture or words.

Civita Stands / Civita è

While rules and directions tend to be vague in Italian culture, Americans prefer handbooks, product manuals, and time tables. We like to research our vacations with countless guides, on-line ratings, and advice from our friends on where to go and what to see, planning each moment months in advance before we leave our homes.

Watching this week’s influx of American tourists invade Civita’s bloodstream has reminded me of how deliciously removed I’ve been from all that until now. My first six weeks of English blackout were an important gift: I spoke primarily Italian and was able to detach from the world of Seattle in order to focus on my work here. Even listening to the European tourists was a learning experience, since visitors spoke mostly Italian or German, which I also speak.

On Sunday night, when Gaia exclaimed with disappointment, “What happened to your Italian?! Why are you speaking English?” it became apparent that I had unwittingly emerged from the purity of my Italian immersion. So true, too, that the percentage of American tourists has greatly increased over the past week.

Contrasted with the Italian chatter I’ve heard since August, the American commentary tends to grate because I know everything that they’re saying; for instance, when someone uses the word, “cute,” to describe Civita, I cringe. (Italians use much richer language: bello, tranquillo, meraviglioso, paradiso…)

As a self-appointed ambassador of the U.S., I dislike seeing how many Americans come here without preparing to speak even simple requests in Italian. They rarely venture further than their travel guides, which seem to provide an invisible bubble of assurance of well-managed fun. When things go awry, they appear virtually paralyzed without instruction from an authoritative source — very different from most Europeans who prefer blurry lines and will explore anything anywhere (including my hanging laundry.)

I heard one group fervently complain about a server not accommodating their lack of Italian language skills without displaying a hint of embarrassment –or acknowledgement– of the fact that they were actually the foreigners. As they kvteched about better experiences in other countries, I realized that they are the type who will never have an authentic experience when they travel, no matter where they visit. They continually seek to bring their home town with them everywhere; they have enough means to feel entitled –and perhaps are so uncomfortable with their own shortcomings– that they will not deign to bend.

As I considered these behaviors, I thought back to Tony’s favorite line, “Nature IS,” which absolutely fits Civita. Nature is neither good nor evil; it just IS. In the same light, Civita is; Civita stands.

The finality of that statement hints at the imperious immovability which is not so much defiant as it is purely strong, eternal. Civita has withstood earthquakes, floods, landslides, wars, time, and extreme weather. If it can manage to shrug off these awesome forces, it should be a signal that we may need to bend to this experience rather than expect Civita to submit to our control.

Civita does attempt to defy us at every turn –and in different ways– to see if we’ll resist or fail her tests. She tries to deter us with the topography of the initial climb, where we find ourselves sweaty and gasping for air. She presents herself as a town of seemingly locked doors and private gardens — the facade of a “cute ghost town,” as one tourist remarked.

Unable to completely tune out their endless commentary, I’m tempted to correct statements like, “Guess we’ll turn around; there’s nothing here,” or, “That piazza would be nicer if they’d fix it up, but I guess nobody lives here anymore. Wanna get a bottle of olive oil before we leave?” Then, I realize that these people aren’t so terrible; they just didn’t qualify for the next round.

Compared to the tourists who don’t dare to venture down the bend past my rock without say-so, Jerry’s courage in crawling through a tunnel to discover a 2,500-year-old Etruscan oubliette where a Civitonici once hid from the Nazis seems an evermore rare example of an open, yet self-guided person. When others bring so little sense of adventure –or self-reliance– with them, no wonder they leave Civita somewhat perplexed or disappointed.

Admittedly, living here is what really changes one’s experience, and Civita erects such illusive roadblocks that the average tourist cannot fathom hauling her cookies all the way uphill to stay longer than an afternoon.

There it is again: Civita stands.

We often confuse bending to great powers –Nature, Love, Civita– with weakness or surrender, but it is in bending that we actually discover our own strength. Only by approaching new places with a sense of curiosity, flexibility, and openness can one gain access to greater depths that may not initially reveal themselves.

The more rigid we are, the more we insist that people speak our language rather than trying to learn theirs, the more that we desire familiar food or products from back home, and the more we hesitate from exploring unmarked paths, the farther removed we become from the possibility of exploring the world and each other. We might be able to say that we’ve been there physically, but with that approach, we can never really know places, people, our even ourselves very well.

When I count how many of Civita’s seemingly closed doors have opened for me, how many locked gardens into which I’ve found entry, and how many fests that I’ve witnessed in our piazza, the more positive I am that the answer rests in learning to close our mouths and open our hearts, minds, and senses. This takes time, patience, and the humility –and strength– to bend to the experience.

Civita stands, indeed. Of course, it takes a little research to know that.

The Feminine Mystique / La Mistica della Femminilità

It’s Sunday in Civita, a day for traditions, including mass at 11 am.

Before we enter, Tony rests momentarily on the long stone bench facing the piazza, while Josè introduces me to Marcella, who is perhaps in her 60s, with blond coiffed hair, gold-rimmed glasses, and a pearly smile. Marcella uses both hands to shake mine, and I do the same. I like her already. As more join the circle, I sit near Tony to observe the Italian women in their finery.

Last night, Josè dazzled with a yellow skirt, blue patterned blouse, two-toned ink-blue sweater that she knitted herself (she’s always cold, even in the oppressive heat), and a beret — topped, naturally, by her tinted glasses. The arcs of leather on the sides serve to block the harsh light from her sensitive eyes, but they also succeed in appearing oh-so-stylish and, therefore, quintessentially Italian.

Today, Josè is swathed in a delicate pigeon gray dress flocked with lavender-pink flowers, over which she has draped a pashmina of the same pink, a small kerchief-scarf around her neck and string of pearls with earrings to match. After the pearls catch my eye, I then pick up the small flecks of white in the pattern of her dress. Details never escape Italian women – they know exactly what they’re doing from the time they wake.

During mass, as my eyes skip from the statue of Mary to la bella figura de Josè, I begin to wonder about the gender of cities – are places like Civita inherently masculine or feminine?

After the service, I ask Josè if she would like to continue our other tradition, “Posso comprare a Lei un cappuccino alla piazza?” We take our seats and our coffee, diving deep into conversation. (Pero, naturally, she won’t let me pay.) Before walking home, we help Gaia send guests off from Civita; I again enjoy the sensation of being warmly known, as Gaia lightly rests her hand on my back.

We opt to walk home along Civita’s edge to enjoy the breeze and the view of the valley – a clearer path than dodging tourists on the main street. Sweetly, Josè links her arm through mine as we walk slowly, step by step, two women in possession of themselves and one another. In alternating English and Italian, we conclude our discussion of careers, men, divorce, Rome, Venice, and music to focus on Civita.

Josè invites me to see her home, which I discover was renovated by Astra in the mid 1960s – her first renovation here. She and Josè met through another architect, though they quickly realized that they had seen one another on the ship to Italy when Josè returned from university. Secondo me, their meeting was fated.

The footprint of Josè’s home is tiny – perhaps 450 square feet – but it contains four stories. Dining room, kitchen and bathroom on the first floor, Josè’s bedroom on the second floor, a sitting room on the third floor, and a fourth floor bedroom loft. The white-washed walls and wooden doors and window frames are familiar – it is, after all, an older sibling of Il Nuovo.

She stops to point out a myriad of repurposed components, like the tall skinny window on the third floor that was once the means for residents to go the bathroom. (I shudder at the thought of sticking my backside outside a third-floor window on an icy night, but they were tougher people back then.)

My favorite detail is the curved, deep sink built into the corner of the sitting room wall; once used for washing clothes, Astra restored it as an elegant architectural detail. She also punched interior windows to increase the flow of light and air, and small nooks for shelves. Like Il Nuovo, one immediately senses a palimpsest of fresh feminine thoughtfulness atop age-old masculine craft in this home.

On my afternoon walk, I happened to meet Josè again, now outfitted in a blue scoopneck sundress, espadrille sandals, and a light straw hat banded with a dark ribbon. We greet each other with cheek kisses, another tradition, her skin soft and smooth against mine, as she said, “Prendo il sole,” – I take the sun.

We discuss the homes next to hers, grand palazzos owned by wealthy men, both of whom are rarely in Civita to enjoy their Edenic gardens or sweeping views. I considered how much of Civita’s history -past and present- rests in Josè’s mind; not only details and dates of architectural and cultural importance, but knowledge of her fellow Civitonici and their families, especially Astra and Tony.

As I returned to Il Nuovo, I heard a woman punctuate a sentence with, “Mama mia!” and her friend respond, “Madonna,” (always in two syllables: MAH-donna) at the news. At that moment, Civita’s utter femininity revealed itself to me…

…In her grottos and hidden places, a series of wombs.
…In her fertile gardens, whose crops nourish and shade us, like a mother.
…In her church where the statue of Mary is revered center stage, and in whose name the main gate is christened.
…In her soft green edges, clinging vines, and flowers that soften even the hard, ancient stone.
…In her tempests, an exasperated woman who cries furious tears, then is tender and soothing again.
…In Astra, who was pivotal in restoring and rebuilding a place abandoned by men.
…In Josè, an active part of Civita’s social network, who bridges the worlds of yesterday and today.
…And, I realize, in women like me, who pick up where Astra and Josè leave off.

Perhaps, we fellows and our work can be considered the progeny –and renewing legacy– of these potent feminine forces: Astra, Josè, Gaia, Alessandra, Ilauria, Priscilla, nature — and Civita.