In celebration of Helen’s last full day in Civita, we set off on our final Bagnoregio adventure: for me, an investigation of religious iconography, for Helen, unique doorways. We found countless treasures in the quiet alleys that I’ve longingly passed for weeks — old and new portals, inset sculptures in relief, painted tiles, and photographs of saints. We learned that some alleys connect at the cliff’s edge, offering a breathtaking view of the valley below, while others lead to quiet, cool courtyards draped in vines.
Driven by the powerful curiosity of two, this walk was actually an extension of last night’s after-dinner stroll, which began on Civita’s decumanus maximus under a nearly full moon. Luminous yolky lamps and milky pools of moonlight transformed our bella passagiata into a secret garden exploration under the watchful eyes of the Madonna. We experienced a similar sense of covert thrill as we discovered each icon today, squealing softly with delight, our hushed voices echoing gently in the alleys — as if each found edifice earned us a point in a scavenger hunt.
As I snapped a photo of my favorite icon –one that NIAUSI fellow Bill Hook has rendered with watercolor, in fact– I relished the irony of people “finding” religion, and the fact that Helen and I were quite determined and successful in doing just that. That thought also brought to mind a comment she made yesterday, about how the Civita’s setting has the effect of a convent or monastery, providing an unparalleled amount of space to quietly reflect on life in a manner not unlike prayer.
I realize now how lucky I am to have had the opportunity to inwardly expand into that monastic seclusion during my first six weeks. Those deliciously solitary days provided the time necessary for intense observation and complete immersion, which now allows me to bloom outward and enjoy the delicious fruits of the relationships I’ve made and my intimate knowledge of Civita’s form.
After a chance meeting with Luca and Ito in Piazza Cavour, Helen and I stopped for a cappuccino at Massimo’s Bar. Tucked into our plastic red chairs, I felt suddenly compelled to ask if our server was indeed the famous Massimo, and sure enough – we had found our holy grail. I shared greetings from Stephen and Lucy, after which Massimo insisted on bringing us something in addition to our cappuccini; knowing that it’s unwise to refuse when Italians offer food, we remained to enjoy spritz, chips and olives — an offering for which Massimo wouldn’t allow us to pay.
Our pilgrimage home led to lunch with my newly arrived family, Sue and Kirstin, where we enjoyed bruschette, gnocchi, pollo and stracceti at Manuela and Raphaele’s osteria — followed by her gratis tribute of espresso and biscotti. We kissed and hugged her goodbye, leaving with instructions on where to find heavenly gelato during our trip to Orvieto tomorrow.
Beginning with Helen’s arrival, and compounded by Sue and Kirstin’s visit, I have quickly come to witness a sudden and profound sense of cohesive generosity in my life here. It derives partly from my new role as tour guide, partner, and emissary –a position from which I can karmically repay the innumerable kindnesses that I’ve received during my stay– but I also think I’ve hit that sweet spot of knowing enough residents for long enough to begin taking my relationships –and working knowledge of Civita and Bagnoregio– a bit farther.
Tonight, we gathered at Peppone’s Bar on the piazza to meet new friends Ed and Judy just as we wished Helen a pleasant journey to Firenze and beyond. Helen and I agreed how unexpected and welcome this whole experience has been — meeting each other here, cooking meals with Tony, the conviviality of a chance crossing with our divine friend, Luca, in town today, long conversations over cappuccini at our favorite bar, the generosity of everyone we’ve met, midnight walks, and planning for the future here and in Seattle.
These Civita adventures do seem to spring to life spontaneously, as if some resident power recognizes someone who brings with her a deep desire to connect and reflect. Over time in this small place, we become more obvious to each other rather than strange; with each chance meeting we become more revealed rather than protected; with every meal and glass of wine we discover something new, even about old friends; and in the company of each other –even in the dark of night– we find courage to seek out new paths in ancient places.
I can’t say that I’m religious, but encounters like this do bolster my sense of faith…although, to be sure, what Helen and I are taking from this experience is a reflection of what we’ve brought to the table. As much as we two have been transformed, and will carry that sensation with us when we depart, it’s also possible to come here, click photographs, and leave happy but measurably unchanged. To enter this place with a sense of openness, to listen to Italian opera, to discuss –and listen to others speak of– history and politics, to read a bit of poetry, and to share in just a few weeks of these decades-old friendships has helped to intensify our experience.
In fact, we’ve been quoting bits of Shakespeare lately, as I’m in the middle of reading an Italian version of “Romeo and Juliet” to improve my language skills. With a similar sense of faith that our friendship –and our relationship with Civita– will continue long after we find each other again in Seattle, I felt my breath catch at the end of last night’s walk.
Turning to blow a kiss down as I ascended my balcony, I felt a new dimension of a familiar phrase as Helen called up to me, “Goodnight, Gabriela. Parting is such sweet sorrow.”