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Amber Paulen

Bracciano, a Portrait

Why have I left my beloved Rome? A lament for the city whose eternity has in it the accumulation of every pope and Bernini, of ancient civilizations and modern Italian ferment. Well, it all started with that Israeli roommate wanting more than he deserved, demanding more then could be given, such as my right to an independent choice and my strongly held free-will. Denying and declaring himself to be the landlord in one phrase, at least be consistent, you bastard! But anyway, Rome is much too expensive for us poor artists. Onward! To Bracciano! I again glance at the map to ensure that I am in fact going in the correct direction. Always as the wind blows. Whoosh! There goes the bloody map! Carried off by the gusty wind that descends from the castle to the lake. It lands with all the dexterity contained in the feet of a duck into the epicenter of this lake, which was once a volcano and is now a blown-out crater. The map sinks to its core, where the rumblings of the earth can still be felt spewing hot exhales in discomfort. A submerged volcano is not a happy thing.

Meanwhile, we have found a place to live. A little apartment with the kitchen in the cupboard and the shower poised in the middle of the bathroom, between the toilet and the sink. The historic center of Bracciano hails from the medieval days, its castle looms in defense, a mighty barrier for anyone who dared to pass. I guess there is still a princess and a countess living behind those heavy brick walls, one fairy tale that persists, buttressed by the downflow of ancestors’ money. The historic center is a labyrinth of cobbled vicoli, too small for cars to pass through, it is quiet by default. The doorways and the windows are laden with flowers and vines of deep purples, fuchsia pinks, light lavenders and every variegation of green, which cascade over the terra cotta pots in praise of earth, air and water. There are stray cats that make their home within the cantinas, dirty and wore cats who have toughed-out more than one battle of hunger or of humans. Their one-eyed kittens play by the garbage can and I must assert my will to resist carrying one home. The innate pull to nurse one of them to health is of a magnetism I have not yet reckoned with and probably never will.

Bracciano is a languidly paced place, as most small and latin towns are. The afternoon hours are dedicated solely to the pleasurable past-time of eating and resting. If you do choose to pass through the streets at this time, despite the suns’ smooth persuasion to retreat back into your home, you will find the streets strangely deserted. There are those who are returning to their home, from a large and late lunch, to digest it fully before again taking up their work, but that’s about it. Empty and echoing, the metal shop doors are all chained down in silence. One might suspect the knowledge of an impending catastrophe, everyone has retreated inside and locked tight their doors. Fright has flooded through the streets like the days of the final plague and passover. But no, it is their daily rest and it is the silence of the peaceful and plentiful.

The transition from the idle to the bustling is unfolded in increments, first the opening of some shops and then the opening of some more. By five-thirty the main street, via Principe di Napoli, is completely awash with bodies. The small sidewalk can only be squeezed through, the street is a jumble and a horde of cars. Some miscalculation must have befallen the genius of this city’s planning, causing him to direct every vehicle that passes through Bracciano through this particular street, whether one is headed to the north or to the south, to the east or to the west. It is every morning and late afternoon that two guards must stand with a whistle, directing traffic out of this casino or else, something unforeseen and violent may happen. Horns honking, Italians cursing “Va fanculo!“ and the genius rolls in his grave.

I am able to pass through both the cars and the bodies with ease. I am going to the Caffé Grand’Italia for one of their magnificent deserts. I have been dreaming of such a treat all day, of walking through the doors and being assaulted by the filled and glowing glass cases. There is mousse in any flavor or color, there are elaborate cakes whose peaks rise under a crisp layer of chocolate, there are flakey and buttery tarts whose fruity innards are revealed under an intricate lattice, there are cream or chocolate pastries, little biscuits, cups of tiramisú. My head is all a-swirl. Gelato is lined in the trays, a host of flavors poised for tasting, oh! how my tongue demands satiation! My choices abound as if in a gluttonous dream. My choice becomes frozen, I cannot decide. I think I’ll take a cappuccino instead.

Across the street is the piazza, the main gathering place. Where casalinghe come to allow their children to run, giving them some space and some breath with which they may converse with their neighbors, where old men sit in the shade to meet with their friends, as they have done for years, adolescents cooly line the periphery smoking cigarettes. It is the gathering place for the young and the old. This is a tradition that has ceased to exist in the States on this simple scale. The fault cannot fall completely with the people, for the city square is as natural as is the desire to converge with your fellow citizens. Where I worked in Oakland, the neighborhood of Fruitvale, which is a predominantly Latin American community, had, from one summer to the fall, removed the benches in the most popular gathering spot. The demographics between here and there are for me the same. The reason for the removal of this leisurely past-time? Perhaps one too many terrorist plots have been conceived on benches, perhaps those congenial meetings were seen with hostilities, perhaps there were one too many Mexicans on one bench. A European city without at least one square and benches is a violation of human rights. Why don’t Americans demand as much? Sure, there are more issues then this one, but just imagine, a town square with benches in my native Howard City. Where one gets up and turns off the TV to see what is going on outside, where one can go and discuss the latest gossip (an important gear in any small town), where one can sit quietly in serene contemplation of the splendor of the world and ones inexorable self. “The cities are spread too far,” you say. “That’s why we have shopping malls.” Va bene! I’ll just move on.

To go down to the lake I take the forgotten dirt path. The slope is severely slanted so that I must step carefully in order not to slip. This sharp incline tends to throw me past precisely managed gardens, hidden houses, one olive grove and a row of fragrant jasmine, to the shore. The lake forms an almost perfect circle surrounded by forest studded hills. On most days this panorama is the color of purplish-blue as if it has been punched in the eye-socket one too many times. The beach itself is peppered with bars and is either of grass or fiery black sand. Not such a pleasant beach, but the water is cool and engulfs my body when I dive in. The sun is hot and it penetrates me with an intensity that I have come to savour, though when the beads of sweat start tickling my forehead and my back, the water is cool as it engulfs me.

To go to the beach one must have tolerance for adolescents. They are louder then screaming infants and they are demanding the same thing, attention. Though theirs is the attention wanted from their peers and more likely, those of the opposite sex. The lanky and tan boys splash and attack, the consciously curvy girls swing their hair, the boys make loud guttural noises, sending the girls into a mass stutter of hypertrophic giggling. This is the madness of adolescents. Adults stuck in children’s bodies, children trapped in the bodies of adults, as if they are given an instrument with a whole societies worth of instructions. Later at night, Simon and I see them out at the bar. One group orders a bottle of Prosseco and four glasses, in five minutes they are standing at the register to pay so they can leave. Another group has already sat down and has ordered one coke, one blue drink and three shots. One guy takes the shots in rapid succession, boom, boom, boom, he pounds the glass to the table before sending the liquid down his throat. In seven minutes every drink has been consumed and they too, hurriedly leave. Are they simply playing at being adults, moving on to bar after bar? But there aren’t that many bars in Bracciano, I don’t get it. The awkwardness of adolescence seems to be everywhere here, making me sigh in exasperation and relief.

It is nearing sunset and I sit on the couch that faces out the window. The sky is of a bright and fading yellowish-blue. The colors are diffused by the angle of the sun and as it gradually lowers, pinks begin to interfuse with those already present, creating a subtle spectrum framed in the window. The tiled roof seems an arms reach away, but it is not. Between me and it is a drop of stone on stone, divided by the cobbles, whose pattern is that of the multiplying rings of a stone dropped into the water. Arching outward into the great spiral of infinity. The roof is a cascade of faded cone tiles, it is also a garden of white and yellow flowers, it is a lawn of scorched grass, it is the nest of the ravens and the past-time of the pigeons. These roofs of the historic center are the playground of the starlings. As sunset nears, they begin their aerial drama by announcing it with their shrill calls, for theirs is an escapade reenacted at the closing of each day. Their silhouetted figures streak the sky in great curves and maneuvers, in heralded high dives and blind climbs. They plunge towards our window in rapid succession, bam! bam! bam! They jostle to the right, flip to the left and pull up when the blatant inevitability of a beak in my forehead faces me like a lance. It is prime entertainment, that is, if one can manage the suspense.

Bracciano is an idyllic place. Especially now as the dead of summer nears and the thoughts of Rome are those of a blazing oven. The quiet and solitude it provides is good for my soul. Here, I tell myself, I will really get some work done. Here, I may enter great adventures in the split of a second. All that has been seething in me for years, this novel I have inside me, a fecund conception for it is no longer a germ, will come forth in the stampede of my fingers. I have this firing passion, it bubbles inside like an immense and boiling sea. This the life inside me, these the words I build. To create is to live a holy life. All is well, with my soul.

Bracciano, Italy
June 2007


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