(More than…) Two Years in Torino

"Le cose belle sono lente." –Pane e Tulipani

Category: solitude

In which I buckle down and get to work

I’ve been sort of a hermit lately. Well, I did go to the Langhe wine region with friends last Sunday, and I’ve been chatting with people on the phone, and I’ve been to mass, and I’ve gone to various appointments. But in general I’ve been leading a very simple existence and using the time and headspace created to get some art done.

Scenes from the hermitage: Watching illustration tutorials while eating leftovers. The flowers are my overgrown chives. I also made pesto from my balcony basil. 

On Wednesday night I printed out over 50 pages of documents for a patronato appointment. Perhaps I can get my carta di soggiorno (long term immigration card) in time for my trip to the US in August. And unlike the permesso di soggiorno, it doesn’t have to be renewed. You have no idea how glad that makes me.

As part of the carta process, someone had to come to my apartment to make sure it was big enough for me to live in. Such an odd concept. Next I have to get a document that shows I’ve never been in jail. And then there was the three-month-long process of getting American documents officially translated and stamped by the uncommunicative Italian consulate in Miami. The carta di soggiorno has opened up new horizons in bureaucracy.

But mostly, I’m sitting at home with my new Cintiq (which I have never figured out how to get to run at 4K, by the way), lassoing my way through three iterations of Princess Carla of Spaniel. I set myself a deadline of today, which means I’ve had to let go of a good bit of perfectionism, but it does make me feel good that I have set a goal and accomplished it.

My first color comp is the scheme of the original painting. The second one was inspired by a Downton Abbey still. (I think I haven’t realized the potential of this scheme yet.) The third? Grand Budapest Hotel! I’ve discovered there’s a whole world of color study via film stills, which I’m pretty sure was part of the point of this assignment. That and learning to use the lasso and gradient tools. And I learned a third lesson as well: If you want to get something done and move on, don’t choose an iridescent Velasquez dress.

To muff or not to muff? That is the question…

There’s more to do on this project, for sure. But one thing at a time. Maybe soon I’ll even get around to posting some photos of the most famous wine region in the world outside the Loire Valley.



Habits for a new season of life


Today’s lunch: squash soup with pancetta, and a salad with oil and balsamic vinegar. (The salad green is called valeriana in Italian, but I don’t think it’s the same as the herb valerian.) I’ll have some fruit, too.

Good morning! I have a lot more time to myself than I used to these days, and the circumstances are such that the most of things I always had in mind to do when the time came either aren’t an option any longer or no longer seem right. So, what to do? That’s the subject of this post. These are things that have worked for me, and I hope they might help someone else as well.

The first thing I say might sound abrupt, but that’s because I’m leaving out a big part my own period of adjustment on purpose. It’s this: I can’t just sit there and think, “Woe is me!” Sometimes big changes in life can come as a surprise and take some getting used to. There may be mourning to be done, relationships that need wisdom to handle, or a very blurry linguistic and cultural landscape to navigate. But I have noticed that any tiny steps I can make in a positive direction to tend to pay off eventually, even if I can’t see how it’s going to happen and it feels forced instead of pleasant. There has been genuine difficulty in my life over the past few years. But the best advice I got, at least for my circumstances, seems to have been, “Have a really hard cry for about ten minutes. Really give it over to God. Then get up and do something.”

So, in that spirit, here are some of the things I’ve been doing:

Meeting new people. I am used to making myself talk to people when I don’t feel like it. Yes, I’m an introvert. I’m even shy and easily embarrassed. And I fall on my face every time I try to speak Italian–I don’t even want to know how many mistakes I’m making or what rude things I unwittingly say! But I keep telling myself to get over it. I have found that many people have been willing to extend kindness and affection, even if I can’t speak well enough to easily forge close friendships. For this I am truly grateful. I have made friends with people of all ages and walks of life, and I trust that one day it will feel like I am really part of a community. But I won’t know if I don’t try, eh?

Good routines.  I notice that when I’m alone a lot, it’s easy to take the path of least resistance, so I’m trying to make sure I am disciplined. I read the Bible lectionary readings daily and have a regular prayer time. I make a to do list, and while I’m not driven by it, I do try to make progress with it. I try to eat attractive, healthy meals with a certain ceremony, as I do when I have family and friends around to serve. I ride my stationary bike, since I’m not close to a park. I walk a lot and use the stairs in my daily errands. I do housework and secretarial tasks, and balance between doing introspective activities and more expansive ones. Making sure I go out, and making time for friends, are part of this routine.

Putting out feelers. I don’t have a job right now, and I’m not sure what sort of job is appropriate and forthcoming at present. But I do think I have time for some purposeful activity that touches others, and so I try to take steps to figure out what this might be. I’ve talked to people in various programs, talked to people who might need art or English lessons, and I trust that putting out feelers will make the way clearer eventually, even if at first I go down some dead ends.

Getting outside myself. I love the merenda. And in general, I have remembered what I used to know well before I got so towed under, which is that looking other people in the eye and really listening to what they’re saying is a genuine pleasure, not just a duty and a means of charity. What a relief!


A recent New Yorker cartoon by David Sipress

Do goofball things that make you laugh! Sometimes when I find myself at home alone during the evening, I put on some old movie, whether in Italian or English, and I don’t worry about whether it’s a “smart” film or not. It helps that I’m beginning to be able to understand enough Italian that a whole new world is opening up. While walking around town, I take photos of clothes I’d never wear and play with the bokeh button on Instagram. I don’t care how lame it is!  I put smiley faces after my text messages 🙂 🙂 :-). I send Facebook stickers. And yes, I even watch cat videos! Yes, I know that art is ever moving, and not sentimental. But life is too short to be overly serious.

Seek God’s will. This is huge, too huge to describe here, and it includes all of the things above, of course. But I’ve sought intelligent guidance, and benefitted from it. Among other things, I’ve discovered a blog and radio program that I really like, hosted by Greg and Lisa Popcak. Here’s a recent radio program they did on forgiveness. (It’s long, but I really like what they said all the way through.)

I’ve looked at where I did things wrong in the past, and tried to change them. And since not every circumstance or relationship is entirely within my own power, there are a lot of things still up in the air. But that doesn’t mean I can’t live in God’s will. And as Peter Kreeft says, seeking God’s will wholeheartedly never fails to bring joy (not giddy happiness mind you, but joy.)

And so there you have a few things that a person who is a bit at sea in a new stage of life can do to make things better.  I know that a lot of my friends are going through similar things. They may still have children at home, but maybe they’ve sent their eldest off to college and are surprised to find themselves in mourning.  Maybe they’ve had to move when they didn’t want to. Maybe they are facing disappointment or difficulty with work or in relationships, or facing serious illness in themselves, friends, or family members. All of these are serious things that require acknowledgment and sympathy. But at some point, we all face that moment when we’re alone and we say to ourselves, “Okay, what now? How to start moving forward again?” That’s what this post is about.

Pilgrimage, sacred and profane

Sunday was a fine day, what our family used to call a “boaty day”: Clear deep blue skies, with a light breeze, temperatures warm but not hot, and that extra sparkle that makes even ordinary buildings and trees look magical.  The main ingredient in a boaty day, though, is wonder.

Unfortunately Sarie and Bob were busy, but I went out by myself. My main thought was to get a good view of the mountains. I have a hobby of finding ways home that take me from east to west, facing the Alps. But to come home west, I had to first go east. So I headed to one of the busiest, most eastern spots in town: Piazza Castello.

On the way, I ran into a bike parade.  Families and singles were gathering near Piazza Solferino to bike together through town, no doubt to publicize alternative transportation.  New people were heading from every direction, and every few seconds a couple more riders would ring their bells as they joined the parade.  I saw a friend of mine, in a chartreuse hat and riding a yellow folding bike, join the parade.  She was too far away to hear me call, though, so I walked on.

When I got to Piazza Castello, there was a children’s festival going on. Dozens of white tents with activities crowded the piazza, and young volunteers dressed in white coats with clown motifs–a striped sleeve here, brightly-colored shoes or hose there–wove through the crowd.  Once I got past the mass of tents, I headed towards La Chiesa Reale di San Lorenzo.  I’d noticed a while back that although this church has no facade to call attention to it, people are always going in and out.

Inside, there was a long vestibule with a pietà at one end and a door at the other.  It was not your typical Italian church entrance.  But immediately the splendid sanctuary drew me inward. Enormous, ornate, and octagonal, it immediately drew the eye straight up to a cupola far above.  I took a seat towards the back and slowly accustomed myself to the regal atmosphere of a Baroque interior.

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La Chiesa Reale di San Lorenzo has a plain facade outside and a startlingly spacious inside, topped with a dramatic cupola

Images from Wikipedia Commons

My intention had simply been to have a look around, to see where the interior took my thoughts, perhaps to pray.  I find the interior of an Italian church to be an easy place to concentrate on prayer, even if I can’t participate in the mass.  But after I had been sitting in the church for a few minutes, I noticed that there was a woman giving a tour.  My interest was piqued even though I couldn’t hear clearly what she was saying, so when she finished and she started another tour for a Frenchman, speaking slowly in Italian, I asked if I could join them.

She started the tour with the history of the church and why it was named for San Lorenzo.  A former Savoy ruler had won a battle on S. Lorenzo’s feast day and promised to build a church in his honor.  After the war, however, he didn’t have enough money for major projects, so he consecrated an existing church (now the long vestibule) to the saint. It wasn’t until the next generation the Theatine priest Guarino Guarini built the present-day church. The resulting style was so distinct that it’s now called Guarini Baroque.

The Theatine order specialized in math and science, so Guarini filled his creation with 17th-century architectural wonders and symbolism.  Suffice it to say that nothing in this riot of trompe d’oeuil architecture is random. The cupola draws the eyes heavenward, geometrical shapes symbolize Biblical numbers, a chapel of the Nativity faces one of the Crucifixion, and even the colors of the materials are significant. But there are two effects in particular that I like. One is a skylight above the altar, surrounded by sculpted white clouds and golden putti interspersed with golden rays. The other is a series of curved paintings hidden in dark niches above the four chapels.  On two days each year, from 9:00-9:30 and then again from 12:00-12:30 , the sun hits portholes above these chapels and illuminates the paintings inside (on the left side first, and then on the right).  The next such day will be September 21.  If at all possible, I plan to go!

It was evident to me after a while that the docent wasn’t merely going through the motions, but really found the church inspiring and spiritually significant.  I sat down for a long while after the talk, looking at the entire space with new eyes.  I was glad I had taken the time for the tour.

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The Palazzo Madama is a Baroque palace in the front and a medieval castle in the rear.  The first photo shows the view from La Chiesa Reale di San Lorenzo

Images from Wikipedia Commons

Leaving the church, I walked across the piazza to the Palazzo Madama, a.k.a., the Queen Mother’s Palace.  The Palazzo Madama is a fascinating hodgepodge of a building styles at the very center of the city.  In fact, at its core is one of the original Roman city gates. There are at least two other stages of architecture built into the palace, including an medieval castle (in the back) and a Baroque façade (by another famous Torinese architect, Filippo Juvarra) added so that the Queen Mother could make a proper ceremonial appearance. Apparently medieval spiral staircases did not provide adequate drama for the later Savoys. Originally Juvarra’s design was to have replaced the old castle entirely, but since the new palace was never quite finished, today the palace looks like some kind of archeological exposition, with all its successive renovations exposed. In the interior courtyard, you can stand on a glass floor and survey the castle’s foundations and crypts. In one interior stairwell, you can see remnants of four or five phases of building, including the original Roman wall, on a color-coded map.

Knowing that the main staircase is open all day, I walked up to the second floor of the façade and stood by the front window, the one where the Queen Mother would have made her appearances. There were only a couple of people standing around, so I had one of the best views in town pretty much to myself. Directly in front of me was Via Garibaldi, the original Roman decumanus, or main east/west road. Now the main pedestrian thoroughfare in town, it runs straight from Piazza Castello towards the Alps like a textbook study in two-point perspective.  The street is lined on either side with elegant four-story buildings similar in style to those in Piazza Castello, each with stores on the ground floor.

Down below, the festivities were still going strong.  A rock band was playing a children’s song (in Italian) in which each verse was punctuated by a squeaky toy.  Via Garibaldi was crowded with shoppers making their passaggi.  I really didn’t see how anyone could even move down there.  Above the crowds, a flock of pigeons would senselessly startle and fly from one side of the street to the other, and above the whole scene an escaped pink mylar balloon jerked ever higher to the right. “Squeak-squeak!  Squeak-squeak!” I looked towards the Alps and towards the setting sun, and felt satisfied.

This was my Torino, the sublime and the ridiculous, the sacred and the profane.  This was what I had come to see.

Bits, snappy and not-so-snappy

I stood out on my kitchen balcony before 8 a.m. this morning, listening to swallows, which I could see circling above, and traffic, which I couldn’t see circling my block outside the courtyard. I had gone to hang out a towel and been charmed into staying. The sky was utterly clear, and the temperature was cold for late May (48/10 degrees).  I was (and am) wearing a pink wool sweater set as an homage to the two seasons between which the city is choosing.

Then I went inside and made a second caffè macchiato.  The sun is now slanting golden on my fake birch cabinets from IKEA. It looks warm despite the fakery.

I wonder, when I go outside our courtyard and cross C.so Matteotti, will I have a clear view of the mountains?

I’m alone. I am frequently alone now, and I’m coming to terms with it. Last night I sat down and taught myself the first of the Goldberg Variations, which I have loved for years. It’s not performable yet, but I practiced with interest for two hours. I also drew a quick sketch Virgin statuette from the Cloisters--twice, because the first time I botched the structure. The one below has problems as well (as pretty much any 15 minute sketch will), but I’m putting it in as an incentive to make myself practice.

Virgin. Sandstone, polychromy and gilding, France 1247-52, from the cathedral of Strasbourg (47.101.11) Metropolitan Museum, Cloisters.


Yesterday in Italian class I learned the congiuntivo imperfetto and the congiuntivo trapassato.  So now, if I could only remember how to conjugate even the most basic verbs in the present tense on the fly, I would be able to say the most complicated things in Italian–statements of possibility and emotion that occurred and continued in the past. I think you can make poetry with those!

On Tuesday I made a chicken broth (with the feet, of course) and yesterday I made a potato leek soup for Sarie and Alberto with some of it. We talked about film ideas and told viola jokes in two languages. Bob is in Vienna.

I’m continuing to read Psalms every morning, and often I sing traditional hymns. Sometimes I literally sing them in the closet.

I’m reading The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien again.  Of course I read them for the insight into how he wrote The Lord of the Rings, but what I really like about them is the inclusion of bits of side trivia, such as the following from a letter to his son Christopher:

“When fermentation was first managed, the beer was only in birch tubs and it foamed all over the place, and of course the heroes cam and lapped it up, and got mightily drunk.  Drunk was Ahti, drunk was Kauko, drunken was the ruddy rascal, with the ale of Osmo’s daughter-Kirby’s translation is funnier than the original.  It was the bullfinch who then suggested to Osmo’s daughter the notion of putting the stuff in oak casks with hoops of copper and storing it in a cellar.  Thus was ale at first created…best of rinks for prudent people; Women soon it brings to laughter, Men it warms into good humour, and but brings the fools to raving.  Sound sentiments. Poor old Finns, and their queer language, they look like being scuppered.*”

Italians traditionally don’t drink to drunkenness.  They consider that something that American tourists do, especially college students.  (In case you were wondering what their stereotypes of us were.)  But in this generation, things seem to be changing.  Sarie had to enter some data from an anonymous survey on various consumption habits for a school project.  Only two students whose data she entered had not gotten drunk. Some were as young as 14. My Italian teacher thinks this is an attitude imported from northern Europe. Of course it has been a problem in the US at least since I was a teen.

Some of the lines from Tolkien’s letters, such as the following, stand quite nicely by themselves:

It is a curse having the epic temperament in an overcrowded age devoted to snappy bits!”

Which begs the question: Is this a snappy bit?

*The last line is in reference to the Finns’ tendency to be dominated by other countries.

Waiting for Easter


Seems my mind doesn’t know what an easy winter is anymore.  So I’m implementing the gratitude cure as strongly I can.  Here are some of the things I’m grateful for:

Narcissus bulbs glowing in the late afternoon sunlight (see above)

Old C. S. Lewis favorites, such as “The Weight of Glory.” 

Listening to free music on Spotify, such as Antonio Bertali and Guillaume Dufay.

Occasional crystal clear days during which it appears that one can see every snow-covered crevice in the Alps from the end of C.so Matteotti (and other avenues).

My new Italian class, twice per week.  I’m going to speak this language!

The appearance of early spring fruits and vegetables, such as strawberries, favas, and even a little asparagus, at the outdoor markets.

Sarie’s Sibelius concerto practice sessions.  And talks (not necessarily about Sibelius).

Regular exercise. If nowhere else, on a stationary bike.

My new, inexpensive bistro table by the kitchen door.  It’s my new favorite place to sit for my morning devotions, and best of all, it draws more people into the isolated kitchen.  (See below)  Thanks for taking me to the store, Rachelle!

New herbs on the balcony.  (See same photo below)

Every single friend who has invited me somewhere or prayed with me during the past two weeks.

That the Lord has demonstrated his love for us, decisively, in sacrificial action beyond what I can ask or imagine.  May my mind be better able to comprehend this unfathomable love and translate it into actions of my own.




This morning I was cleaning up the kitchen and listening to a lecture on You Tube.  Oh, you know me–it was Tim Keller talking about The Crossing of the Red Sea as a metaphor for salvation. I was, as I am so often lately, alone, and know I will be for the entire day, except when I go out and buy food for dinner. But since my Italian is limited, so is my conversation.

As I was putting on a second cup of coffee, Dr. Keller got to the part about the crossing proper (about 35:00 into the video).  There’s a wall of water on the left, and a wall of water on the right, and the Israelites start crossing.  Some of them are confident to the point of cockiness: “The Lord is on our side!  Eat your heart out, Egyptians!” and they swagger across.  Others are looking at the walls of water (maybe thinking about the physics they learned while building pyramids) and thinking, “I’m gonna die I’m gonna die I’m gonna die…!” But of course the point is, they get across.

I know which one I am, temperamentally-speaking—the latter. Whether the proximate cause is February, too many mid-life changes and reminders that the world is broken, or a mild chemical glitch, I don’t know. It could be worse, I’m sure, but there are days when all my best counsel, which I truly believe, doesn’t make a dent in my mood.  And what I like even less is the effect of my moods on others.

On Sunday, a chance conversation with my pastor got me reading about the poet Cowper. William Cowper was an 18th C. poet, a friend of John Newton’s who not only wrote the well-known Olney hymns, but he was also an early-Romantic inspiration to Wordsworth and Coleridge.  Yet he was orphaned, bullied, forbidden to marry his first love, and though he became a Christian, he was haunted his whole life by fear of damnation.  After his wife Mary Unwin died, he sank into a depression from which he never recovered.

Does this mean he didn’t believe the gospel?  Not from what I can tell. More likely he had clinical depression, brought on by his early traumas or his genetic makeup.  “Oh! with what a surprise of joy,” wrote Newton a few days after Cowper’s death, “would he find himself immediately before the throne, and in the presence of his Lord! All his sorrows left below, and earth exchanged for heaven.”

So when I heard Dr. Keller talking about the fearful Israelites, I laughed out loud.  Alone, in my kitchen.  Because if my witness depended on my faith, and on my mood, it would be in big trouble: I collapse under a lot less pressure than Cowper. But it doesn’t depend on my faith; it depends on the object of my faith, God in Jesus. Good heavens, what a relief! And yes, I knew that, but it was good to get a reminder.

Now, that said, the sun is out for the first time in days.  I’ve made my confession.  Now I’m going to the market, to do the next thing.

Losing myself on the Collina

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Ballerina bianca (White Wagtail), regolo (Goldcrest), and cardellino (European Goldfinch)

Yesterday I took a long hike. Torino has a lot of trails on the Collina, the large hill across the Po, but I had never hiked any because I couldn’t find the trailheads. But this week I found a place that sells trail maps, got directions, and so I was determined to try one.  It was February and I just wanted to be outside for as long as possible. My goal was La Colle della Maddelena, a park at the top of the Collina.

The day wasn’t gorgeous. In fact, it was sort of typical Torino winter weather, 30s-40s and overcast, with a damp cold. I put on my layers, packed the map, binoculars and some lunch (and my documenti, of course), and took a bus just across the river to the trailhead.

The first part of the trail was along the Po.  There I saw a tree full of cormorants, a river full of gulls, a few ducks, and the usual people rowing.  As I looked more closely, I also saw little black and white birds that flew in scallops and pumped their tails up and down. I remembered them from a sign I’d seen in the park–ballerine bianche (white dancers, or in English, White Wagtails). Later I saw a flock of small birds feeding along the path. At first I thought they were just sparrows, but then noticed that they were more delicate flyers, with touches of bright color. Goldfinches!

The European goldfinch is more exotic-looking than its American cousin.  I recognized it from a coffee table book that I used to look at growing up, which had a copy of Rafael’s Madonna of the Goldfinch in it. Of course it was a local bird. In Italian, it’s called a cardellino, a little cardinal.

Soon the trail left the river and started to climb. The paved trail went past a ruined villa and then ran out.  My destination was about 3km of trails and 715m in altitude away, but that wasn’t the main challenge.  Soon I realized how much snow was still on the ground.  And mud from melted snow.  I briefly wondered if I was getting myself into something foolish, but then kept going.

I went by a church, through a park, and along some roads that were labeled “antica strada,” which means they are old (usually medieval) roads that have been superseded by modern ones. Often they’re just footpaths that join a paved road here and there. After the roads on the outskirts of town, I spent a long time walking through the woods. Some of the trails weren’t clearly marked. Sometimes the mud caked on my shoes and made the going slippery. I lost some time. But I kept going.

Two hours later, I saw the last switchbacks before the Colle. They were lined with the names of war dead. At about the same time, I heard a very tiny and familiar “seep.”  It sounded like kinglets!  (My favorite birds.) And that’s what they were–Goldcrests, the European cousins of the Golden-crowned Kinglet.  In Italian they’re called regoli, or rulers. These had a slightly more pronounced pattern on the backs of their wings than American kinglets do, but they were very similar. It was nice to see one again.

And then I heard an even stranger noise, and looked up to see a small black and white bird waving its long tail in the air and making a strange tsk. A codibugnolo. In English, Long-tailed Tit.

Finally I reached the top. The only other time I’d been up to the Colle, in a car, it had been bustling with dayhikers and cyclists. Now there was not a single other soul around. You couldn’t see the Alps across the valley because of the clouds. And the bar that serves the park was closed. The weather, in fact, was so inhospitable that I decided against my original idea of a picnic lunch. Instead I went across the street, drank my requisite afternoon macchiato, put all my warm wraps back on, and started downhill while munching my piadina.

Given that they way up was so muddy, I decided to try a different route down. This one was snowy and muddy, too, but at least I was going faster now. Occasionally I even descended in a controlled skid. This path was even more deserted than the other one, and the trails less marked, but with my map, I recognized enough landmarks to keep going.

Just when I had been alone and away from farmsteads for so long that I began to feel I was hiking in the wilderness of Oregon, I came to an intersection in the path, where I saw another woman my own age, walking along so calmly and in such civilized clothing that she seemed to be on her way to a city bus stop. We greeted one another, but at first she didn’t seem to want to talk, so I went on ahead. But as I got around the curve and hit another slippery downhill, she started calling out some instructions.  Then we started talking.

She was on her way home from work and said she often took the trails instead of the bus, because it was more relaxing. She preferred them in winter, when there weren’t so many people (I’ll say!).  And she had the right kind of shoes. (Here she pointed to her feet.)

I mentioned that I was surprised the trails were so deserted, and that I’d asked some friends if they’d wanted to hike, but no one could.

“I know,” she commiserated, “They think you’re crazy.  They do that to me too.”

I told her where I was going and showed her my map. About this time, we came to an open field and she said we were supposed to walk through it. I decided she must have been my guardian angel, because there was no trail or sign anywhere. But walk we did, and then we came to a road, where she pointed out a lovely square, white manor house.  “The house of my dreams!” she confided. Her name was Anna.

We went along together for about thirty minutes before she turned off to where she needed to go, and by this time, we were back in the hilly outskirts of Torino, where there are lots of large homes surrounded by land and walls. I kept following the map, managed to get myself lost a couple more times and once found myself amidst donkeys and sheep. But eventually I made it down to the intersection where the bus stop back home was.  I plopped gratefully into a seat, vaguely aware the I was alarmingly dirty.  In fact, when I arrived home and Sarie saw my muddy jeans, she said, “You walked down Corso Vittorio like that?”

“Yeah, I know. I’m sure I looked pretty odd,” I admitted. Most women on Corso Vittorio wear elegant down coats and boots. I was wearing a Patagonia pile zip jacket, a hand knit  cap, and an ancient backpack with the straps hanging down. And a considerable amount of mud.  But I was satisfied.  I’d given myself a challenge and completed it.  I was tired enough to sleep. I’d seen some birds.  And I’d maintained my American independence, or something like that.

375px-SchwanzmeiseCodibugnolo (Long-tailed Tit)

Early spring evening

I am on my kitchen balcony this afternoon watering my new herbs in bare feet.  It’s 75 degrees and the concrete feels warm on my feet.  As I walk back inside the kitchen a bird sings with variety and enthusiasm.  Later, sitting at the desk, a blackbird lands on the railing outside the open door.  That’s a first.  Is it the same bird?  I don’t know.  I go about my tasks with a sense of well-being.

At six o’-clock, as the sun sets and Sarie starts her online class in the US (one hour earlier this week), she calls, “Come look at the clouds!”  So I go out on the living room balcony and see bright orange pink strips of clouds streaming across the sky to the west, between the buildings.  The back balconies face into a sort of open courtyard, because one building was partly torn down. (Wartime bombs, maybe?) I can imagine how this sunset must look in the mountains just west the city.  And I can see Sarie on the next balcony, with her laptop, watching the sky turn pinker as about six bats dance around. (The class is discussing Boethius, who was Roman.)  I can still hear varied and complex bird songs.

Down below, a man comes home on his motorcycle, which he has on low gear to quiet it, and parks it in a garage, then walks into the building with his helmet under his hand.  There is a faint smell of cigarette smoke, but this is to be expected in Italy.  I can also see people packing up to go home in the office opposite and below. One person has a glass desk with a modern chair, but two rooms away is a large desk made of dark wood.  In the office between, I can see black feet and hose as someone stands to chat before they leave.  Heads pop out and shut balcony doors here and there as the sunset fades. People gather up laundry from clotheslines.  Now and then I hear the sweet sing-song voice of a child.

A few minutes later, I am in the kitchen again, cooking kale, cabbage, and beans for dinner.  My doors are all still open.  I can hear pots and pans rattling in other kitchens, and a few people talking.  A block or two away I hear the European siren sound, which is very prone to the Doppler effect, so different from its NYC equivalent (Bonk!  BOOONK!) and reminds me of old movies.  I stop to consider that I know two worlds intimately.  No, three!  And suddenly the bells start to peal.  First one set, a few blocks away, starts its special Lenten seven-o’clock song, a tune made from only three tones, but jaunty.  Then the set one block away starts, very slightly off key in relation to the other set, but repeating only one note.  We’ve noticed that they always peal the longest at seven p.m., perhaps for mass.

As the bells fade, I notice it’s completely dark.  There aren’t any lights on the other balconies, just one in the courtyard that leads to our back stair, and one in the driveway of the building across the way, and some in various kitchens and stairwells.  Soon the stars will be out.  I hear a plane descend.  The scene is like a piece of music that is resolving and fading as it should.  For the first time since this morning, the breeze coming in the open door seems a little cool.  I am happy with things as they are.

The Value of Solitude

Though Susan Cain’s current Amazon ranking suggests I should have heard of her earlier, I recently enjoyed her NY Times article The Rise of the New Groupthink. The title pricked my interest immediately.  But I’ll have to keep my comments brief, or I’ll never post them at all.

The article is about the value of introversion.  I think labels can at times box people in, but this one is useful to me, because it explains so much about how I see the world, and helps me to feel confident that there is a value to seeing it this way.

I was the kid who waited until the block table was empty so I could construct what I wanted to.  I had grand dreams, and I can still remember the palpable irritation (which I knew even back then to hide) when after I began a building, a group of kids would soon swarm over, crying, “Ooohh, we want to help!”  It meant there would soon be not nearly enough blocks or the freedom to build anything I wanted to.  This is probably why I repeated pre-K for not “socializing.” And the lesson took. Even now, writing this, I feel sort of scrooge-ish about it.

But the article confirms that introversion has its benefits, particularly where creativity is concerned.  Ms. Cain says:

“Research strongly suggests that people are more creative when they enjoy privacy and freedom from interruption.  And the most spectacularly creative people in many fields are often introverted, according to studies by the psychologists Mihaly Csikzentmihalyi and Gregory Feist. They’re extroverted enough to exchange and advance ideas but see themselves as independent and individualistic. They’re not joiners by nature.”

She then goes on to offer the story of Steve Wozniak, often left in Steve Jobs’ shadow in the Apple Computer story.  But he’s the one who actually built the first Apple compter: “If you look at how Mr. Wozniak got the work done–the sheer hard work of creating something from nothing–he did it alone.  Late at night, all by himself.”  Mr. Wozniak was going to give away what became the first Apple computer for free, until his friend Steve Jobs convinced him otherwise.

Mr. Wozniak says of his work,

“Most inventors and engineers I’ve met are like me…they lived in their heads.  They’re almost like artists.  In fact, the very best of them are artists.  And artists work best alone…I’m going to give you some advice that might be hard to take.  That advice is: Work alone…not on a committee.  Not on a team.”

Words to make an introvert’s heart sing!

Of course, most introverts do know they need a Steve Jobs or two in their lives.  And they’re grateful for them.

Susan Cain says,

“Some teamwork is fine and offers a fun, stimulating, useful way to exchange ideas, manage information and build trust. [Honestly, sounds like management-speak to me.]

But it’s one thing to associate with a group in which each member works autonomously on his piece of the puzzle; it’s another to be corralled into endless meetings or conference calls conducted in offices that afford no respite…open-plan offices make workers hostile, insecure and distracted.  They’re also more likely to suffer from high blood pressure, stress, the flu and exhaustion. [Thinking about Apple’s Chinese factories at the moment.]  And people whose work is interrupted make 50 percent more mistakes and take twice as long to finish it.

Most introverts seems to know this instinctively, and resist being herded together.”

[Comments in brackets are mine.]

A lot of the article is about business management, but solitude is also better for learning. Only when you’re alone, can you “…go to the heart of what’s challenging to you.  If you want to improve, you have to be the one who generates the move.  Imagine a groups class–you’re the one generating the move only a small percentage of the time,” says psychologist Anders Ericsson.

Furthermore, the article says brainstorming is actually one of the least effective ways to generate ideas, because people in groups tend to sit back and let others do the work, or instinctively mimic others’ opinions and lose sight of their own, and succumb to peer pressure.

I can remember thinking exactly that in the third grade, and when I read recently about teamwork being all the rage in schools, I wondered how well I’d do in the newer classrooms.  (And immediately after wondering this, I succumbed to peer pressure and felt that something must be wrong with me.)

But there’s hope for introverts: Reading, and also (if done well) collaboration on the internet.  C.S. Lewis once said, “We read to know that we are not alone.”  And the internet is a place where, as the article puts it, “We can be alone together.”  When you read this post (assuming you’ve read this far down) you are perfectly at leisure to comment or not, and to think about your comment for as long as you like. Or go write a post of your own. Because it’s not that introverts want to be forever isolated.  They just want to share their ideas with someone who appreciates them.  At least they want to share them some of the time.

If you like, you can join the masses and read Ms. Cain’s book, Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking.  I may.  But it may be enough for me just to know that someone sees the power of solitude.

And I also suspect that Ms. Cain has an extroverted publicist.