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May 2001

2001-05-31 / Whereabouts Update

Note. In lieu of actual news from Public Works/The Tape-beatles, I offer the following, a brief synopsis of my journey to my new base of operations, Prague.

Right now, I am in the Czech Republic, staying at the home of dear friends John Heck (who has just interrupted me to ask if I’d like a sandwich) and Lucie Hecková, his wife. They live in Prosek, atop a bluff overlooking the Vltava River valley and the fabled city of Prague.

The journey to this center of Central Europe was a long one and I made several extended stops, the first of which was in London. During my short stay there, I expressed my inner tourist and ascended in the London Eye with friends Maria Elliot and Anton Angelo, who were my generous hosts. I also enjoyed moments walking along the Thames and taking in a show of medieval Armenian manuscripts on display at the British Library. Another high point was a visit to the marking line of the Prime Meridian in Greenwich, the holding place for a certain kind of certainty, where the map becomes the thing itself. I also sampled the cuisine in a Georgian restaurant — lovely.

A midnight journey across the English Channel brought me to France, and thence to Bordeaux, where I was once again the guest of Philippe Billé. Together, we drove around the Aquitaine and Charente-Maritime regions of France, sampling the charcuterie and ogling the curiosities. In St.-Jean d’Angely, we gawked, for example, at two massive church steeples, the only elements standing of a church left uncompleted some three centuries ago. On another day, we paid a visit to Aulnay’s 2000-nest dove-cote, as well as her lovely 12th-century romanesque church. Philippe’s friend Danielle Berton was also kind enough to host a small party for the people in Bordeaux who knew me when I last stayed there, in 1994-95.

Over the last weekend of my stay, Philippe and Dany drove me from Bordeaux to Perugia, in the Umbria region of Italy, for the next leg of my journey. It took us three days, with occasional stops, to do a drive that is approximately the distance from St. Louis to Tallahasee. Progress is generally slow on the car-choked highways of Western Europe, at least in this region. The best speed is made if you are willing to pay a toll, which we did for part of each day.

The first night, we stopped and stayed overnight in Sète, on the Mediterranean Coast, at the home of a friend of Philippe’s, Frédéric Roux, who is the director of the International Museum of Modest Arts (MIAM). But just before arriving, we could not resist a stop to put our bare feet into the in the surprisingly warm, true-blue waters of the sea. It is not hard to see why they call this the ‘Côte d’Azur’ (the ‘blue coast’). The weather was indeed picture-perfect.

The town of Sète is a crowded little resort crammed with tourists eager to take advantage of the first warm days of the season. The Roux’s home was anything but crowded: it is a roomy villa on a narrow street up the hill and around the corner from the city center. Dominique (Mrs. Roux) made us a wonderful dinner while we visited the museum under Frédéric’s directorship, and had a look at the waterfront and some of the public spaces of the town.

The next day we took the coastal road through one coastal resort after another. Cannes, Monaco, Monte Carlo, Antibes, Menton, etc., all glittery, rich and clean. Beach after beach of people sunning themselves like manatees. Roads that climbed steep cliffs that gave amazing vistas of a coastline punctuated with land-juts into the sea, with the dim ghost of the Alps discernible in the background, to the northeast. Then our pace would drop to a crawl as we slithered back down the cliffside into another sea resort packed with early vacationers.

At about nine o’clock we crossed the Italian frontier into Ventimiglia, an ugly gray border town that smelled of piss and was overhung with the presence of teenaged boys with not-much to do. Famished, we stopped in a park to make a supper of the bread, cheese, olives, and whatever else we had purchased that day, and to see the sun go down over the Ligurian Sea. In the next town, we found a hotel in which to spend the night.

Driving to Perugia the next day we realized that we had to make tracks, having dawdled so pleasurably along the coast, so we drove most of the day on the ‘autostrada’, a nifty four-laner that plies the Italian hillsides and ducks constantly in and out of tunnels. It seemed that a significant fraction of our route was underground, and each such loss of our view of the countryside felt like robbery.

We made a stop in Pisa to see the famous Leaning Tower. I had seen it before with my brother Roger in 1984, when we had, and took, the opportunity to climb to the top. That is no longer allowed; in fact, you can’t even get very near the thing. It’s as if it could just topple over any minute: the top is now about 18 feet off of true perpendicular, and it looks like a very, very tired tower.

Philippe and Danielle left me in Perugia, to continue their own explorations of Italy, in the good hands of my friend Vania Battistoni. Her own home is undergoing remodeling, so she and I both stayed in the home of her parents nearby. They live in a three story stone building that overlooks a green and broad valley in Umbria strafed with tidy rows of vine and olive. According to Vania, her parents love to have guests, but I have no way of knowing this directly since Mr. and Mrs. Battistoni speak no English and I no Italian.

They kept offering me things to eat and look at me and say, e’ buono? and I say sì, e’ buono because I know enough to know that they are asking me if it is good and I am saying yes, it is. Because it always was. Vania and her mother are both wonderful cooks.

The old city of Perugia, like so many in the region, is up on a hill, formerly a fortified stronghold. I spent many hours there poking around in old churches and admiring the art, or passing through one old gates after another, or sitting next to the unusually beautiful fountain the in the main square.

At the end of the week, I took the train to Florence to see that famous city, not wanting to miss the opportunity, since it was so close. Although early in the season, the city was nonetheless crammed with tourists. I don’t feel like complaining about that, though, because being present among things known theretofore only through their reproductions, divulges facts and shakes loose perceptions that cannot, in fact, be reproduced neither in description, nor photography, no matter how excellent. In spite of my ‘familiarity’ with its many works of art, a visit to Florence is, in fact, an unceasing series of revelations.

It was from Florence that I departed for Prague one hot afternoon, on a bus nearly filled with Czech schoolgirls returning from their own Italian sojourns. The overnight journey passed through Padua, Venice, and Udine on the way to the Alps, which most passengers slept through, myself included. In the morning we reached and passed through Vienna, and several hours later, we made our first stop of the day in Brno, an hour over the Czech border. Around noon, we pulled into Prague’s Florenc metro station, where John Heck’s smiling face greeted me.

And so I had passed from Florence to Florenc (pronounced like ‘Florence’) in the space of 18 hours.

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