Two hulking ferries rest at port below us, cars already lined up and dozing in the bake of the afternoon. Just nineteen miles from Naples, we are constantly reminded of our proximity to it, imposing and alive, drawn even on this island to its mania. On Ischia, the real constantly intrudes: those ferries with their sleek black hulls and anchors as they rattle and splash, the constant paring of the water by pleasure boats, the noise and lushness of the port town as it arrives mixed with the scent of bougainvillea, oleander, and motorcycle fumes, and the startling, sincere blue of it all.
We started our first day with a jog down the coast to the village of Lacco Ameno and then to Montevico, a rocky promontory above. Just a few miles, but the end was steep, a climb to a cemetery and thermal bath complex—competing desires for a cliff top. A month and a half in Italy now, and I have lost my running legs. Two months ago, I finished my fourth marathon. Now I run three miles and am winded, light-headed.
But this essay isn’t about running. It’s not about my guilt or overeating. Not about Italy, not exactly. Not that nagging sense that I’m getting older, that I have to try twice as hard to stay in shape, and for half the results, or that I’m in danger of losing something—an edge, we say, in fitness, in writing, in anything—only achievable through hard work. Well, maybe it’s that final one, a little.
I spent the better part of two years in my twenties studying and teaching in Bologna, birthplace of early twentieth-century painter Giorgio Morandi, though I didn’t know that then. And Morandi’s art, too, might just be easily overlookable. We remember him for a life pretty much devoted to still lifes, and not just any. Morandi painted bottles. That’s it. Bottles on a table, over and over. Bottles in this order, bottles in that order. A few at a time, a lot at a time.
A few years back, I read a brief review of a retrospective devoted to Morandi and could not get those images out of my mind. Initially, they seemed utterly unoriginal, like many other still lifes I had seen: things on a table. In fact, at first blush, they didn’t even compare to those lush, hyperreal baroque ordeals with the pheasants and the fishes and the dying Hydrangea blooms. Bottles: that’s all you get with Morandi. Maybe a chalice, the occasional bowl.
Still, those spare images in the magazine almost seemed to shimmer, like a roadside gas station in the blur of summer. The things themselves—a ragtag group of bottles and vessels and such—were less important to me in those initial canvases. Rather, the paintings themselves seemed to pulse slightly, not as if inspired by some throwback form of animism but rather by breath. Human breath. They were breathing. They were alive.
Most any weekday, you are likely to spot me running around the lake we live on. 3.3 miles, unless I tack on a bit extra and make it an even 3.5 or 4. Running in the age of GPS makes me somehow passionate for numbers like those. The mind shrinks from a readout that says 3.28. I know the route to the tenth of a mile; I know, am convinced, that my usual loop around the shoreline (because I abhor the out-and-back) is easier counterclockwise; I pass the time inventorying houses that fly American flags in early July, give virtual awards for the tackiest Halloween and Christmas yardscaped mise-en-scenes, anticipate the Gingkoes as they shed their bright yellow leaves late fall.
Weekends, when friends join me for longer runs, I have a new route prepared, never the same—perhaps around the university, deep into the greenbelt, into the housing north of the lake, always different than the last. Or is that just a story I tell myself? Maybe these attempts at creating new routes simply emphasize the routineness of it all: the same movement, the same exercise. But running is not about exercise. Not exactly. Running, for those who have crossed over into obsession, is not about time or distance or health, at least not for me. Running is about routine, the same movement over and over. The so-called runner’s high, then, is the euphoria evoked by pattern, simplicity, ritual.
Two days on the island, and we—John, Ben, and I—have already fallen into a routine: rise at 7:30, run at 8:00, followed by a quick swim. Then pastries and coffee at Bar Calise, where we just can’t seem to figure out the pattern. (Do we pay for the pastries before or after we sit? Should we choose our pastries and then order coffee?) After breakfast, we work for the rest of the morning and into the early afternoon, John and I scribbling in notebooks and on our computers, Ben editing his photos. Here for some writing and photography and a good bit of enjoyment, we take our work semi-seriously; we work until it’s time to visit Gino in his shack on the beach.
Our rental owner told us that Gino served the best bruschetta in town, and after one visit we were believers. Gino also helped us score some scooters (the best means of transportation on the island) and offered sound advice on local restaurants. In the afternoon, after bruschetta, we swim again, then work until the sunlight turns pink and maudlin, and we grow thirsty for Prosecco and Campari.
Then we’re out the door, in search of the next best bar in all of Ischia. First, we took to the volcanic bluffs of Monte Epomeo, the highest point on the island, with 360-degree views. We drank German beer out of mismatched glass steins; no Campari, sadly. Next, Castello Aragonese near the port, a castle possessing roots back to Hieron I of Syracuse, and sporting a somewhat dubiously intentioned torture museum. We drank Campari perched on its parapets, and we are not sorry. Today, we visited a tiny winery in the hills, which traffics in tart, minerally whites, the best of which called Biancolella. We sat around a table sipping it with an American family now living in Beirut. You should totally come and check the city out, the oldest girl told us, gesturing with her wine glass, a few fingers lightly holding it near the rim. The Lebanese like their drink, too.
Friends back home hate us. They see our photos online and seethe. We talk about the way their comments almost fall into a pattern, and we plot their vectors: from “Wow, that’s amazing!” and “So beautiful!” to “I’m jealous!” and “You’re living it up!” down to “Stop it” and “I can’t take any more.” Then they just cease commenting altogether. Radio silence. And yet, they see at best a quarter of our experience here, albeit the flashy part, the extraordinary—the unreal blue of the Tyrrhenian, the homey winery dug into foothill caves bleached and musty, the brilliant red (bloody, almost) tomatoes piled on the bruschetta. The other part we spend sitting on this terrace, each of us working, committed to our self-imposed structure, arbitrary, silent, and loving it.
Does pattern simply make possible the breakage of pattern? Does ritual remind us of non-ritual and, so, offer (strangely) variation, from entropy, from chaos, from the bland everbodyness of a spinning globe? And if so, is tourism anathema to pattern? We are not tourists, we tell ourselves. We live here for a week. Rather, we play at living here. We already like one waiter over the others as Bar Calise, the witty one, the nice one. (He knows us, we think.) We are temporary locals, or at least we act like we are.
Flaubert encouraged artists to be bourgeois in habit, and wild and imaginative in their art. I’m not sure wild leaps to mind with Morandi. I’m not sure any adjective does. Morandi’s painting is as ordinary as the saltshaker on the table each morning, and just about as necessary. And the sincerity, too. If there’s any irony in Morandi, it’s not easily visible. The thrill I get from a Morandi comes in shear number, the same still life over and over, the monastic servitude, the resilience.
At yet, the more I look, the more each painting assumes a completely different attitude. Some are sullen, recalcitrant in color and form, with scarcely a sense of depth to the table, no shadows to speak of. They look as ancient as cave paintings and nearly as primitive. Others are bright, almost lit from within, with knifed edges, stark lineations. Some are spare: a few isolated chalices and cups on the table. More space than content. (Space as content.) Some are crowded: fat-bottomed jugs and asymmetrical bottles—he “made” one himself out of a tin can with an upturned funnel on top—all those vessels crammed on a long, rectangular canvas just tall enough to hold them, and often not even that. Some are precise: watercolors and etchings. (He employed a range of media.) Others feature paint applied thickly, crudely, like cake icing by a toddler.
What bounty in sameness, what lush familiarity. I look at a Morandi and I am confronted with the fact that he could paint the simplest of objects over and over, and I would be hard pressed to tire of it all.
Il solito—the same, in Italian, the usual, the old hat. Il solito? Gino asks us, after just two visits to his little restaurant on pilings above the sand. Yes, we say, to the half-liter of cold, crisp white wine, to the bruschetta heavy with otherworldly tomatoes. Routine, particularly when it involves running along the coast of Ischia, eating this amazing food, writing on a terrace overlooking it all, routine is a lovely thing. We know, though, that he’s toying with us. Whatever usual we lay claim to is doomed to end, and soon. He tells us what we want to hear, that we are remembered, recognized, that our being in this place has left a mark, that we broke through, and that we have somehow earned our sense of belonging. We have transcended the tourist.
But we don’t belong. When we arrive now, running our scooters right onto the sidewalk like the locals do, when we enter, and all the staff, in turn, greet us familiarly, everyone else—perhaps the real locals, those who actually do live there, or at least Italians, most likely from Naples, who speak the same language, who follow similar routines—they all turn to us with quizzical looks. Who are these guys, obviously foreign, foreign in the way not only we look but in how we move, what we say? Ben and I met in language school in Bologna twenty years ago and see each other now and then. We get by well in Italian. John is no slouch when it comes to foreign travel and knows Italy pretty well himself. Still, with the first words out of our mouths, we’re noticeably different, significantly other, hopelessly not of the place. Playing games is one of the oldest rituals. And Gino, all of his staff, too: they all play the game exceptionally well. They allow us to feel at home, to feel ordinary.
Strange thrill, feeling average. Strange, too, how far we travel, to what lengths we go to feel that way. Twenty years in the making, this week. We are, for that brief meal each early afternoon, on Ischia, la solita gente, the usual people, which, in Italian, is singular. That must be meaningful. We are, for the time being, a known collective.
First night on the island, we stopped near sunset for a drink in the port town. We walked along a quay of pastel-painted restaurants to the very end, where a little bar clung to the side of the rocks. Beyond that, the Tyrrhenian, already deepening, oil-like, and smooth as suede. We ordered anything with Campari.
If you haven’t tasted it, Campari is difficult to describe, a bundle of paradoxes: syrupy sweet yet bitter as the pith of an orange; an unreal red color constructed purely in the imagination, reminiscent of cherry-flavored children’s slushes and sodas, all red dye and stained lips. And yet, when you taste it, no hint of fruitiness, no wisp of childhood. Instead a bizarre chemical experience. Campari is medicinal, metallic, and initially forbidding, like licking a penny. Once you gain a taste for it, if you do, you crave it.
John positioned his glass on the end of our table for a photo, the bay of Ischia in the background. I asked if he wanted me to hold the glass above the wrought iron railing, the only substance not instantly pleasing, instantly photogenic.
No, he said. You need the railing.
Ben and I looked at one another, uncomprehending.
You need a little something ugly.
Pattern, to many, is that railing, that something ugly. It’s what we try to avoid. We’re living well, for sure, but that iota of the real—the rusty iron railing that bisects this grand vista—tells us this is not a paradise. People live here, eat and drink here, even—it must be—die here. (We know. We saw the cemetery.)
People need a railing, regardless of what it’s keeping them from, or in. For us, on this island for a week, that railing—the one John wanted in his photo—that railing keeps us from falling too deeply into reverie, into tourism, into the synthetic perfection of a completely imagined place.
A friend once told me about a former colleague who lived by strict scheduling: the same foods, the same reading hours, the same rituals each day. This guy swore he was the happiest he could be—enmeshed in the particularities of repetition, a way to live one’s life without the frustrations and annoying interruptions . . . of life. To which most of Western culture seems stridently opposed: the cults of novelty, the restless searching, from Gilgamesh and Odysseus to the latest rover on Mars. The first ever, the exclusive. New photos of Pluto. This just in. Best new Italian destinations. The three most important words in advertising, a friend once told me, are free, improved, and new.
But what was new about Morandi’s Spartan canvases? And why do I linger in front of them? What did he improve upon? While surely no major rebellions, those paintings almost force me to stop and stare. I cannot look at a handful of his still lifes without feeling an enormous sense of sadness: the same bottles, the same table, at slightly different angles, with slightly different lighting. I imagine him painting those arrangements over and over, at first sunlight, during late morning, right after lunch, a few hours into the afternoon, at dusk, after dinner, late at night with a bare bulb glowing.
And then sometimes I imagine all the other things—drinks with friends, vacations on beaches—all those wonderful things he wasn’t doing.
Training for a marathon, even at my modest, barely respectable four-hour pace, requires several months of consistent running. The schedule’s apex includes a few weeks at close to fifty miles each. I remember one run vividly. March, at some point, not yet spring, overcast sky. One mile into an eight-mile route. You do a lot of running, I remember saying to myself. What do you think you’re running from?
I could have been at home writing. I could have been preparing myself for the day’s work or tending to the house, which always needs it. I could have been doing a lot of useful things. Instead, I was out running, fulfilling arbitrary mileage goals in order then to pay money to run another arbitrary distance (26.2 miles) with thousands of arbitrary people in excessively cheery and fiercely non-arbitrary outfits, kitted out with bandoliers of gels and energy beans and nuts and protein in myriad sweet concoctions designed in laboratories for easy digestion, to get out of the way, to keep us running our self-elected marathons for no other reason than to run them.
My favorite marathon roadside pep sign: Way to go, random person!
I’m amazed that you do that, friends and family often say to me. How do you find the will to keep running? To which I always want to respond, How do you not? It doesn’t take much will, really. It actually takes some restraint or (in the case of Italy this year) a prolonged disruption of routine to keep from running. And I don’t mean that in some macho way. I mean it in the way an alcoholic needs a drink. (“Not that we need liquor,” Frank O’Hara says in “Steps,” “we just like it.” What’s the difference?) For me, it’s difficult now to imagine not running. I fear injury, have silly dreams close to marathons that involve twisted ankles and cheeseburgers. When I go anywhere for more than two days, I research running routes. I manage my packing carefully, with an eye always for the space that running shoes take. Running in foreign places: now that’s living.
Morandi hardly left Bologna his entire life. He considered Florence—now just a half-hour away by high-speed train—almost exotic. He seldom visited other Italian cities and scarcely any farther afield. (He may have once seen Paris.) We each live with our patterns, but how much do we control them? Do we set them, or are we, in some way driven to fulfill them. Who is in control? Do we self-impose our rituals—our morning cup of tea or coffee, our daily runs, our work in photography, in writing, in the meticulous rendering, over and over, in paint, in ink, of bottles on a table? Do we own our patterns, or do they own us? And does it matter, either way? These rituals, they’re just places to store our obsessions, bottles of sorts, like Morandi’s assortment.
And bottles: they hold all sorts of things.
I recoil a bit from the word work when it’s in reference to one’s writing or art or anything creative. The work didn’t go well this morning or My work focuses on x and y or My new work explores the blah, blah, blah. Something pretentious about it all and at the same time dismissive and generalizing. Work. If you have the luxury of making art for a living, chances are you may not know much about the word. Work: makes art sound both overly important and also monotonous.
Some may consciously blur the line between play and work. Some don’t know the difference. They are either children or lucky, and it’s best, I find, to remember which.
Gino’s restaurant is not a restaurant, if by that term you imagine an enclosed space with actual tables and chairs, perhaps even an inviting atmosphere. Gino’s restaurant, rather, is a ramshackle hut-like structure, open on both sides: on one, a busy thoroughfare, part of the island’s major roadway; on the other, the Tyrrhenian, once you look past the crowded beachfront his restaurant services. In fact, the actual name of his place is Bagno Gino: Gino’s Beach Club. These clubs—often no more than a shack on a small stretch of sand—are fairly ubiquitous in Italy, establishments that rent beach chairs and umbrellas, and also serve lunch fare, ice cream, cool drinks. The chairs in Gino’s place are plastic, the tables covered in vinyl. The entire structure sits on worn pilings under which old men escape the sun. It’s not a foreign tourist destination, by any stretch. Rather, Italian families fill the place each day, kids straight from the sea begging for a gelato, which, they swear, their mothers will be along shortly to pay for; taciturn couples idly sipping beers over the tops of their divided newspaper; some local guy whom everyone calls dottore and for whom they always politely brush the sand off a seat. The place is packed pretty much all the time.
Watching him serve this crowd each day, we wonder: where does someone like Gino go for vacation? If we lived on Ischia, if we lived on (or even near) this beach, with this fantastic food, this gorgeous weather, and fairly cheap rent, where in the world would we go for vacation? And why? Mostly, he tells us, when he can afford to take a trip, he chooses South America, where the weather turns warm just as Ischia closes up for winter, where his euros go further.
He goes a third of the way around the globe to find what is right outside his windows. (He has to, in some sense. He has no time right now.) That sea, just beyond these weathered, wooden railings, above the men—leathery and jovial—who are, for all I know, discussing their next vacation (to vacate, to remove oneself, yes, but from what?); that sea beyond the kids busy building their own makeshift huts out of unused folding chairs, patterning their time; that sea, to Gino, is essentially unenterable precisely when it is most desirable to enter.
Sometimes we find ourselves in paradise, despite.
I hate writing, so the adage runs, but love having written. I sort of hate that adage, that romantic vision of the writer as tormented soul, one who might even detest the calling but adheres to it anyway, tortured by its insistence. I don’t hate writing; I prefer it to the present perfect of having written. Completing an action signals an end—to a poem, a run, a painting, a meal. I like the radical middle, the stringing of words together, of courses in a long dinner in a trattoria in the mountains of Ischia, of miles on a run with a friend, talking about what runners talk about (which is usually running).
Italians, a friend half jokingly told me, spend a third of their life talking about what they’re going to eat, a third of it eating, and the final third talking about what they ate. Right now, on the patio adjacent to ours, a young woman talks with an older woman, her mother perhaps, recounting a meal from last night, the highs and lows. The pasta, it seems, was slightly overcooked, which, the older woman notes, is a common problem with thin pasta, the kind often served with clams, which is what she had eaten. Bisogna stare attenti, the older woman warns. One must be careful. The clams, however, were exquisitely executed, dressed in a light but tart white wine sauce, a perfect accompaniment to those briny little guys.
A girl, from the sound of her voice no more than six or seven, is doing laps around them on her push-scooter. Endless laps. Out there, the beach teems with kids her age, splashing in the water, eating ice cream. We can hear them from the terrace over the buzz of the port. Basta, Angela, the woman says, Perché non vai al mare? We are asking the same thing: why doesn’t she just go down to the beach? The older woman is putting laundry out to dry; the other one, Angela’s mother, we presume, smokes a cigarette. We can almost feel her frustration. Angela, however, is having a ball. She’s doing laps on her scooter. She’s involved in the process, she appreciates the routine.
We’re getting annoyed at her. She’s getting good at it.
A few years ago, I visited the Morandi museum in the center of Bologna. That summer was brutally hot, ferociously humid. And if ever a painter alone could provide an antidote to heat, Morandi might be the one. The paintings seemed calming, cool, refreshingly simple, particularly in that gorgeous, expansive setting: the imposingly tall white walls, tiny canvases spaced far apart.
And yet, for all that coolness and ease, my first impression of the gallery was one of sadness. There are no people in Morandi’s work. There are no children playing (Morandi never married or had kids), no lovers, no revelers in the street, no dandies in full garb out for the cafés, no art admirers, no students, nobody looking into his life as I was doing. That’s the eerie part of Morandi: I felt awkward looking too long at those bottles, almost as if they were desperately important to their owner, and I had no business being there, peering in.
After a while, however, another impression arrived. At first I felt a deep sadness, true, unfathomable isolation. (He lived with his sisters in the same house for most of his life, rarely traveled, always painted the same objects.) Then an overwhelming sense of transgression, that I shouldn’t have seen this, that perhaps Morandi’s work was not intended for us to look at. (Though what would be the alternative?) Yet after sadness and guilt at my being there, I felt an inexplicable wonder, a sense of the whimsy of it all, which is different than absurdity. A man painted bottles on a table, for decades, with little or no prolonged interruption. The audacity of it. The pure, intoxicating rebellion. You want originality? those paintings seemed to ask. We shall give you none. What’s more, those still lifes were not admonishing; they did not flaunt their sameness or ask me to renounce some desire for difference. No, they simply recorded, were given over—as completely as I think they could be—to the moment of composition, of rendering, of putting paint or ink on a stretched, white canvas. They were the record of their own process. They were the ritual itself.
The devil is in the details, we say. On a handwritten notecard, however, above the stereo, which sits on the cooler holding all the beers and sodas and sparkling water in this bar in Ischia, on our fifth day, someone has written the opposite: Dio è nei dettagli. Not the devil but God is in the details.
Details—the particular light playing off the rim of that bottle on the corner as the sun sets in Bologna, the garden outside quiet; the old man I see constantly as I run around the lake, who used to run but who now, with a visible tremor (a stroke? Parkinson’s?), just shuffles, barely moving, still with his bright yellow running gear. Details—how we stick resolutely to our schedule of running and swimming and writing and eating amazing food, and writing about eating amazing food. And the details of that food—the slight hint of garlic on the bread and the very fact that, every time we order the bruschetta, Gino asks if garlic is okay. (Yes, yes, yes.) The bits of roasted rabbit in the tiny gnocchi I ordered last night, like nothing I had ever tasted. The truffle shaved on red shrimp—who does that?—which John ate, and we all loved. The sudden becoming, the immersion in the act of eating or running or writing. If God is there, I might just be a believer.
You guys, a friend of mine said a few weeks ago at a restaurant, clearly disappointed in my colleague and me, as we tasted the Florentine steak and rolled our eyes back deep, grinning just as deeply from its flavor. You get so worked up; it’s just food. The routine of it all, to him—eating, in general—was simply something one does, another sacrifice or at best a way to while away time. To us, it’s the reason. It’s the possibility each evening of sampling an entirely new flavor or at least the best version of a known one.
It’s food, yes. What else is there?
As a kid, I thought my father made enormous sacrifices going off to work each day. To me, it seemed so dull. Now, however, I’m not so sure. The routine of it all—the suit laid out the night before, the coffee in the morning over paper, the serpentine route to work to avoid the traffic, the conference calls and meetings—that routine I know now was probably what made the actual work possible. We build routines because most of us thrive in them. Most of us thrive in them, that is, when we choose them. But do we choose our obsessions—the things we do over and over and never tire of? Did Morandi choose to paint those bottles? How did I, of all the various choices, choose writing or running or going to school in Bologna that fall and meeting Ben, who’s with me now on Ischia, a destination we chose almost at random?
Maybe neither of those silly clichés really works. We don’t find the devil or God in the details. We probably find ourselves or whatever version of ourselves stewards all the miscellany. How we manage the details—the differences, the particulars—probably has to do with our habits, what we do routinely, what we have trained ourselves to do. Morandi chose, I now believe, that sense of repetition and ritual. Some choose monasteries and convents, or any number of modern equivalents. Others choose from a smorgasbord of vice. They’re all potential vices: art, running, writing, eating, drinking. But what do they become when repeated over and over? Or is that act of repeating what we think of as vice?
“The road of excess,” Blake wrote, “leads to the palace of wisdom.” True, but that line appears in his “Proverbs of Hell.” The devil says that.
What am I running from? Entropy, lethargy, the common slump? Heart attack, stroke, the slow decline of my body? I suppose that’s all in the mix, but I can’t seem to think of running in such vividly physical terms. And I’m not one, either, for the meditation angle. I don’t really find running to be soothing or reflective or meditative in any way. Rather, it’s more like conditioning, preparing the body for pain, for discomfort, advancing mile by mile my capacity, my threshold, until the action becomes vaguely pleasant. You learn to manage discomfort, as any runner will agree. (Even the semi-serious, like me.) In that regard, running seems every bit as much of a process-driven activity as writing. The endless strings of words across the page, the miles on the road: the fact that I enjoy these activities and not just the results of them—better health, better sentences—suggests that they possess, in and of themselves, attributes I find, well, pleasant, at least habit forming. If I happen to finish another marathon, even best my time? Great. If I get some writing published? Wonderful. These are not, however, the reasons I keep running or writing. They can’t be.
Then again, I have developed generally what I consider a keener sense of metaphor. And my feet never tire from walking.
So what is this sea called, Ben asks me one morning on the terrace after pastries, this one in front of us? We both know that they’re all part of the Mediterranean, but distinct names exist for various parts. This one, somehow I know, is the Tyrrhenian. I remember some vague reference to the Etruscans, which makes sense, since the region of Tuscany borders this sea exclusively. I also remember Dido, at least Virgil’s treatment of her in the Aeneid. The mythic queen from Tyre, in modern Lebanon, would have reigned—in Virgil’s rendering—in Carthage, just across this sea from Rome, in what is now Libya. Tuscany, Etruscans, Tyre, Tyrrhenian: names so old we forget their origins.
Behaviors, too. Why Italians crave sweets in the morning—elaborate pastries with names that carry only as far as a region—una sfogliatella, una graffa, they say—and coffee and milk in any number of variations, always with sugar, heaped in, from packets or gold chalices or vessels particular to place. There’s a bar in Rome near the Pantheon where they whip sugar into all the espresso, turning it an almost mousse-like consistency. You have to special order it without sugar. And then you’re out of the routine.
In Bologna, in the train station, of all places—next to where a neo-fascist group detonated a bomb and killed 85, wounded 200, in 1980, where a violent fissure in the coolly tiled floor commemorates it—you can drink espresso in a café with sugar dispensers mounted on a steel runner above the bar. You simply position the pod—about the size of an American football—over your cup (the thing must ride on bearings, it’s so smooth) and pull a lever. One single dose of sugar falls into your coffee. I imagine archeologists and celebrity scientists of the David Attenborough type, thousands of years from now, trying to decipher these elaborate apparatuses found in excavation. What were they used for? And did those who built that café, with its resolutely capricious sugar dispensers and bright, cellophane-wrapped boxes of chocolates on display, when they hatched the idea for this place, did they think of the incongruency? 85 people died nearby in a bomb blast. Now I can sweeten my espresso without negotiating an unseemly glass shaker, an individual packet or, evil of evils, the communal spoon.
I remember a freakish Baudelaire poem about men who carried chimeras on their backs. Weighted down by the enormous beasts, they didn’t even seem to mind and instead “went along with the resigned look of men who are condemned to hope forever.” It’s awful what we get used to, sure, but what we forget to get used to? That might even be worse.
The oldest of the daughters of the American family living in Beirut, the family with whom we spent that afternoon at a winery in the hills here, I keep remembering her, not exactly pretty, not exactly not pretty: bit of acne, very fair skin, long dark hair, pronounced but not heavy makeup deeply incised. The wine was average mostly, the tour slapdash but sympathetic. When I asked where the restroom was, our guide pointed me to a door on the right. Careful of the toys on the floor, she said apologetically. My son is a monster. (The restroom was in their house.) That afternoon, however—sitting around a table as our guide explained each wine and offered some lovely bruschetta and eggplant as accompaniment—seemed infinite, capacious enough to contain even the most disparate conversation shared among complete strangers. We had nowhere to be but there.
The younger daughters and the adolescent boy mostly looked down at their plates and ate slowly, deliberately, out of boredom, I suppose, but also out of a sense of decorum—that a bunch of grown-ups were now engaged in what grown-ups do: sit around, drink, and talk seemingly about nothing and everything. The oldest daughter, however—all their names escape me—was a talker, with a slight and attractive Arabic accent and manner of speaking. She trilled her r’s and often hesitated before longer English words, those perhaps a little shaky from not having been used for some time. She had a habit of speaking that placed emphasis, a shallow spotlight, on words otherwise common. That was attractive, out of the ordinary, uncommon.
You should really come to Beirut, she said again, this time looking directly at me. We were drinking the second dry white, the Forastera—fruitless, thin, but not entirely unrefreshing. A slight gray tint to it, the color of ash at the core of a burn. She studied art and was interested in the Lebanese Civil War, which plagued the country from 1975-1990. She came across old photos, she said, during her research at the university, horrible scenes that have become routine in such conflicts: mass graves and burned-out buildings, charred timber and smoking rubble. Among those gruesome, depressing, yet shockingly familiar scenes, however, she uncovered another group, incongruous, decidedly unfamiliar. They featured people waterskiing, right there, off the coast of Beirut, even as bombs fell in the background. It was, I don’t know how to say, so strange, so beautiful. Now nostalgia crept into her voice. These people, they don’t care if it’s dangerous. She swirled her wine a bit, then downed it. Screw the bombs, they say. We are going to have fun.
This sense of disregard, of audacity in the face of almost certain danger, this is what she pinpointed as characteristic of the Lebanese who live in and around the capital. These are the people she has grown to admire, being among them, these people who say, Screw the bombs. I can’t decide if I agree with her, if I find it heroic or life affirming or whatever she probably intended. Is boldness, even when horribly misguided, heroic? Were they breaking the monotony, the fear, the constant watchful gazes, by just standing up and boldly going about their duty of having fun, being frivolous? Or was it a sense of renunciation. So be it, I can almost hear. If I die, I want to die waterskiing. If ever there were a strange pronouncement to make.
And I still debate the scene in the Odyssey when Odysseus traipses up the mountain and invades the home of Polyphemus, the one-eyed giant. Our homesick captain, after finding plenty of food for his men, figures he will just go check things out, see what there is to see. Just because. Even when his men suggest that they should set sail and head home, Odysseus persists. We all know what happens next. Polyphemus, angry at their ill manners—who just waltzes into a home uninvited?—pens the Greek soldiers in, wolfs a few of them down, and threatens to eat the rest, until Odysseus—master of all ways of contending, we know—tricks Polyphemus into getting drunk, stabs him in the eye, and out he and his men go, grasping onto the underbellies of the giant’s sheep. Odysseus begins his telling of that tale by remarking that the Cyclops are louts, with no sense of culture. Who’s the reprobate, here, I want to ask?
This brazen display in the face of immanent threat, bombs exploding while people ski: I try to imagine the scene but just can’t. You can come to Beirut, she says, and see it. It’s amazing what we get used to, I think. Fifteen years of civil war, and maybe I, too, would say it. Screw the bombs.
Besides, those images—they must be extraordinary and, yes, beautiful. And I have to admit, she spun a mean tale.
Last full day on Ischia, John left yesterday, and Ben has talked me into rising at 3:45 am, in order to reach the east coast of the island as the sun rises. At the castle yesterday, Ben rhapsodized over the light he knew would arrive there, lighting the backside of the ramparts, and then igniting the entire port town in its various yellows, pinks, and oranges.
Traveling with other artists, particularly photographers and painters, you tend to see the world not in terms of imagery and language (as I do) but rather in terms of light and composition. We have to come back tomorrow, he said, so I can shoot that. And when I responded with Shoot what? Those boats and that road? He gave me a puzzled look. No, the light. The water. And I realized just then how the sun, even at that afternoon hour, played off the slight chop, a feast of color. Who cares about the boats?
And yet, just after 4:00 am here, on a stretch of coast nostalgically called Spiaggia dei pescatori, or Fishermen’s Beach (we see decidedly few fishermen, unless you count all the kitschy silhouettes on the bars and restaurants and boutiques around), I first notice all the little dinghies bobbing like toys in the calm water. Castello Aragonese looms to the south, a few lights still burning inside it, remnants of the Ischia Film Festival, which we never got around to attending. Below the castle, on the narrow causeway that connects it to the island, street lamps throw their orange on the water, creating little splotches of sunlight in a blue almost sky-dark. I think immediately of van Gogh’s Starry Night, my go-to, my stock image of a mottled, hopelessly naïve (yet beautiful), heavy-handed rendering of the firmament. I think of it out of habit.
Already the sky over Naples to the east is bruising. Where the sun begins to cast a deep crimson on the mountains, however, scarcely any difference remains between the sky above and the sea below. A man in a kayak cuts a swath through it all. Just visible above him, the mass of lights in the port at Naples winks at us, and the ominous form of Vesuvius presently takes shape.
Ben has walked onto the deck of a closed restaurant, one much like Gino’s, called Bagno Lucia (Lucy’s Beach Club), with his gear. And because I dedicate this dawn trip to light, I think of Santa Lucia, Saint Lucy, patron saint of the eyes, of the blind, of vision itself. Seeing. Already Ben has unpacked his tripod and huddles in the chill outside the restaurant’s backroom. Two black cats rummage through trash on the one public beach to our right, but look up, startled by our presence. A gang of churlish gulls disturbs the calm, swarming to the cluster of rocks a stone’s throw off the beach. They’re looking our way. We are all waiting.
We are all waiting for something that occurs each day, no matter where we are. And it’s always different, which is why we are here, on the east coast of Ischia, photographing it, writing it down, setting it, establishing it in our ritualized ways. We perform this ritual not as taxidermists might—who must first kill to preserve—but rather as the Mariner in Coleridge’s poem, who is doomed (or blessed, I could never tell which) to repeat his story to the merrymakers. To repeat his story, which is, for all of its otherworldliness, a story about ritual or, rather, a story about breaking one.
And then the story he must retell? Turns out that it’s penance for breaking the first. Turns out we break our routines only by starting new ones.