The train pounds alongside the deserted platform and the door gasps open. Contrasting with the darkness surrounding the station, the railroad car is an empty fluorescent tube, bright as a laboratory. I struggle aboard with all the baggage feeling scrutinized under the lights like a specimen in a jar.
After a 13-hour flight from LA combined with a forced landing in Dublin where we sat on the runway all night, a three-hour drama claiming baggage due to the power outage, and several hours wait for the train because of transport strikes, I’m finally here. It’s tomblike and rainy, but I made it. I am in Italy now.
It will be 33 straight hours of traveling by the time I get to the image that’s been in my dreams since it first appeared on my computer screen– that picture of a monastery on a hill that sustained me during the long hours in hospital waiting rooms. But it has taken the better part of a lifetime to actually arrive in this kind of place. I’ve traveled all my life for work, filming planetary hotspots, hopping to and fro then rushing towards that inevitable deadline looming at the end of a trip. There was never time to stay and explore any one location. Had to keep moving to keep up.
A filmmaker sees the world in 24 frames per second, images that are designed to move too fast to focus on a single picture. A photographer on the other hand, captures a piece of the world, preserving a moment like magic. Dad spent hours coaxing an image from his Hasselblad. He would stick his pictures up on a wall, or in an album; he liked studying them. “You should get back to your photography,” Dad would lecture. “When you move too fast, things get lost.”
He always adored Italy. “It has the best light. Amazing light”, he’d reminisce. “Italy is the closest thing to heaven on earth.” I’d been intrigued by this, and had always planned to try a photographic safari there, to see if he was right. Lately I’d spent too much time on redeye flights juggling caregiving and career and as a result, life had fast-forwarded out of control. After the last few painful years, Dad’s version of heaven sounded like a good place to visit. It was time to look for that amazing light and slow down the viewing speed. To freeze-frame time and maybe figure out what all the frantic flying around the world meant. Mostly it was time to find a place to nest for a while.
There is nowhere to hide in Casperia. A pedestrian-only medieval town, you must walk up and down and around and around the beehive shaped village where eventually, in the circular way of things, you run into everyone in town each day.
Imagine a stranger arriving to stay in this village. This stranger is not one of the daytrippers tired of Rome’s traffic and noise. Lost on the blue roads of the map, these tourists see the town rising from a green tide of mountains. They are drawn to see the hilltop novelty, but leave before sundown.
Picture this solitary pilgrim residing here for weeks and weeks who has chosen this place for the very reason that most others leave. This person seeks the quiet ordinariness, the lack of glamour. She is awkward, tongue-tied and knows no one. consequently is viewed with suspicion. This stranger is someone the villagers will have to deal with: pour her wine, nod at her greetings, sit with her in church. And such is the delicate balance of the beehive. The villagers hum along as before, but the new bee knocks around, forever bumping into things.
Last Saturday, in the sad silence of the alone-at-heart, picking my way down the rain slick cobblestones, I noticed the wine bar on the piazza was open for business. Two old ladies were inside, leaning on their canes, ordering prosecco and chattering about the bluing sky. The proprietor began carrying tables outside into the sudden sunshine and I jumped in to help him. After the ladies were settled with their sparkling glasses, I took a table for myself and perched in the sun, the chair tipsy on the uneven surface of the rocks. For the first time since arriving in Italy it was warm enough to sit outdoors.
Here I was, finally able to linger in the charming square, living the dolce vita of my fantasies, and I wanted to burst into tears. I was sick and tired of feeling conspicuous. My room at the monastery was frigid, it had rained continually for 13 days and I hadn’t spoken aloud in a week. Lost on a misguided mission, I hadn’t found Dad’s amazing light, hadn’t learned to freeze-frame beautiful images.
But the sweet heat crept down from the clouds and rather than retreat to my cloister, I stayed in the piazza. Presently, along strolled an Englishman named Philip who was rumored to be buying a ruined castle in the neighboring village. He pulled up a chair and we told each other stories while basking in the balm of an Italian afternoon. Telling tales while sitting at the table I helped move onto cobblestones that were beginning to shine with hope. In the golden light underneath Michelangelo skies, the entire town buzzed by speaking in songs I couldn’t understand but some day, I hoped, could learn to sing.
Chiesa S. Giovanni Battista reaches from the Sabine Hills like a lighthouse. Using bells instead of lights, the cathedral warns several times a day of the rocky shoals to be negotiated below. For 600 years, seekers have circled this beacon, negotiating the storms of life. The church and the bells were omnipresent and undeniable; so on my first Sunday, I joined the entire village spiraling upwards to the top of town to attend mass.
The stone façade of the cathedral had a huge carved word over the entrance in letters ten feet tall, B E A T O. Stopping a passerby, I pointed up and asked, “Che cosa Beato significa?” -what does it mean? Spreading his palms skyward and leaning close to my face the man shouted “Beato, beato, beato!” He then smiled with all his teeth and walked away.
Slipping into the church early, I watched a man-bony, bald and bent as a paper clip, shuffling around the sanctuary wearing a thick navy cardigan that looked as old as he was. Holes in his tartan slippers exposed an arthritic toe twisted like a claw. With shaking hands, he fiddled with the microphones shooting feedback sounds that bounced off the walls. He seemed not to notice. Perhaps he was deaf. Or mad. While puttering with the altar candles, and muttering to himself, the church slowly filled.
The grayhairs arrived first wrapped in warm wool. They had struggled up to the roof of the village, aided by canes, walkers or the arm of a loved one. Three precise kisses (right side, left side, right) were exchanged with pew mates, and then began a fluffing onto family benches like hens ready to drop eggs. The hard pews and narrow kneeling boards must have been painful on the old bones of this generation who’d managed to survive the Great War, revolution, poverty and were now spat out into the confusing prosperity of the new millennium.
Young mothers with children attached to legs, arms and handbags entered next. The women looked exhausted in their worn shoes and sleep-flattened hairdos while the children were boisterous and ecstatically handsome. The mothers, too distracted for the three-kiss greeting, managed wan smiles towards the advance troops of the elderly while the bambinos, holding on to Mommy’s coat sleeves, fidgeted in the cold.
Finally, trailing the musk of cigarettes and hormones came the teenagers. Timing their arrival two seconds before the massive doors clanged shut, they slithered in and sat at the back, in obvious need of confession. The cathedral was now full, all of us watching an altar boy fussing around with an immense Bible and chalice. A choir warbled a tune, the voices rising, mingling with the chipped angels high above. Then silence. Warm up act over, the crowd waited with a sense of expectancy, as if for a rock star to appear.
Suddenly a hidden door opened and the priest sprang from his lair wearing creaky satin robes that trailed behind him like the train of a wedding dress. His face was inspired. His plumage was magnificent. His stride was regal. As the congregation stood in reverent silence, I looked closer, then closer still. The priest was the shuffling, muttering old man in the navy cardigan and torn slippers. Transformed by his splendid raiment, he proceeded to guide his flock. Gesturing emphatically, using a fluidity and body language of a much younger man, he admonished, he purred, he smote us. When he whispered, the congregation leaned forward to catch every nuance. With pitch perfect timing, he would then blast us back with a shout of “Amen! Hosanna!” whereupon we all would cross ourselves enthusiastically. He was Olivier, he was Caruso, he was Shakespearean, this doddering old man in the tattered sweater who became the voice of God when he donned his uniform. I didn’t much understand what he said, but I took in every ounce of his meaning.
Then it struck me how much he reminded me of my father. At the end of his life, Dad had seemed diminished and quavering, but when he wanted to make a point he was formidable. He used the same techniques as the priest, converting himself by force of will into a powerhouse of strength. I remember one of the last conversations we had as he was being fed lunch. “Never underestimate the power of joy,” he preached, pounding his wheelchair. “Joy can give you wings.”
As the service went on I began focusing on the bits of the priest’s message I could understand. He spoke about the concept of life everlasting, counseling that faith is a kind of savings account for the afterlife. He expounded on the belief that all of us will take the same journey into a new existence.
The congregation all rose and sat and kneeled as one. We chanted our prayers as one. The potion of incense floated in little clouds, the smell of age and wisdom, the scent of ghosts. I looked down at the brass plaque on my pew. Bench dedicated to Giuseppe Anselmo Gaspacci and Maria Angelina Adelaida. I felt their presence and their entire family history. Giuseppe and Maria were sitting with everyone in church, singing along as the bells rang wild in the air.
As the priest shouted his benediction, the cathedral doors were flung open. The sun had emerged after a long bout of unseasonable sleet and cold. Geraniums danced in window boxes. As the townspeople all retreated to lively family lunches, I loaded the cameras into the backpack and took a long, lonesome hike. Later that night, warming aching feet by the fireplace in La Torretta, I looked up the meaning of Beato in the Italian-English dictionary.
Beato, it read- Blissful.