San Giacomo per tutte parte / St. James everywhere

Saint James and I have been friends for years.

Meet my personal patron saint.

Almost 25 years, to be precise.

I first met him at nineteen, when, as an unchurched Protestant Midwesterner, I found myself in the the middle of Santiago de Compostela in January 1993, the clouds socking in the city so that none of the surrounding hills were visible, rain pouring down in buckets by the hour, rendering umbrellas useless and jeans that stayed wet for days.

I was on a study abroad program, in the spring semester of my sophomore year in college, and I had arrived alone. I was rocking that pilgrim gene hard. I am pretty sure I walked down to the church in my first day or two on scene, to feel the worn marble at the foot of the tree of Jesse, to eyeball the enormous bota fumeiro used to stream incense high above the pews at high mass and on feast days, to meander among all the chapels, and to duck into the crypt of the saint.

Santiago means “Saint James” in Spanish, and it is in the crypt of the cathedral that his relics are buried. Martyred in 44 CE, his followers were forbidden to bury him. Nine centuries later, it is said that his remains were found. In various fantastic stories, he is pulled on a ghost ship made of stone from the Holy Land, and a white steed leaps form the foam to pull him to land in Galicia. The name Compostela itself alludes to the star in the countryside which some shepherds followed until they arrived at the granite barge (sound familiar…) His remains received a proper burial almost a millenium after his martyrdom, and Santiago de Compostela was branded thenceforth as Saint James of the Starry Countryside.

A bit of sloppy internet research just revealed that the town may have been called Compostelum in the Roman era, referring to the camp of stars – the orienteering by astronomy that led pre-Christian pilgrims to its rainy northwestern corner.

In any case, Santiago was the third top medieval pilgrimage destination, after Jerusalem and Rome, and while Jerusalem is a tourist destination as well as a pilgrimage destination, and Rome the same, they are large cities, giants on the historical landscape. Santiago, in turn, is a small town of under 100,000 tucked into the Spanish countryside, yet it has bloomed in popular imagination as a destination for those undertaking some sort of personal visionquest, grappling with midlife, or any number of reasonable justifications. I think the hot thing now is to fly to Peru and trip on ayahuasca, but the Camino provides a more natural, even blistering, mortification of the flesh that also leads to insight, transcendence, and epiphany.

Note that, in the medieval era, a pilgrimage to Santiago could be meted out in court as penalty for some severe crime, since the highway robbers along the route were so fierce that hardly anyone would be surprised if the convict was thrown off a stone bridge to his death well before he saw the cathedral sires from the peak of Monte de Gozo, outside the city limits. Pilgrims who did return home often took a name to denote their survival, much in the way that Muslims today append Hajj or Hajji after their name to convey their successful hajj to Mecca. Pilgrim groups to Compostela elected a leader from among the group, whom they called King, and today many people, especially Catholics, who are named Rey or Del Rey or King or Le Roy or Leroy carry the traces of this family history.

1993 was an Año Jubilar Jacobeo, meaning the city was streaming with pilgrims who had made the journey, or part of the journey, on foot to receive a Compostela – an indulgence for the forgiveness of sins. They often looked like they had paid handsomely for those sins on the trail, as they limped in with staffs topped by scallops, their ginger hobble betraying blisters upon blisters, shin splints, and general wear and tear. They walked in groups or in lines down the Rua do Franco, named for the medieval tax, or frank, that pilgrims paid to enter the city. (Not Francisco Franco, as a teenaged me naively assumed for months after I arrived.) “Franco” derives from the same Latin word that gives us English “franking,” which today, as far as I know, is only used to in congressional contexts, such as when US senators and representatives sign or rubber stamp an envelope with their signature in lieu of a stamp. In the last 25 years, the Camino de Santiago in in its many routes has been increasingly popular, the subject of a film by Emilio Estevez and his father Martin Sheen, numerous books, and general wide entry onto bucket lists, regardless of religious affiliation.

I have never officially “done” the Camino – in today’s understanding, this means the Camino Frances, although there are many others. In 2005 on my own (Jason was working in Italy – we were engaged then), I did realize huge parts of it on the narrow-gauge FEVE train system of northern Spain, as I worked my way from Bilbao, backtracking to San Sebastian, then across the northern coast through Lekeitio, Castro Urdiales, Cudilleiro, Santander, Viveiro, Padron, Oviedo, and back into Santiago. I met many pilgrims on the train who were taking a day break from walking or biking on the FEVE routes that wound through the forests of oak and birch that cover that part of Spain. It is still on my bucket list, but now even college groups of students complete the Camino in whole or in part in groups with faculty leaders.

In 1993, I was intrigued by the idea of travelling with the Compostela passbook, getting my various stamps at the pilgrim refuges along the past, eating simple meals in refectories with strangers. Then, as one completes the Camino and arrives at the Porta da Gloria, the completed passbook is presented, all sins are absolved, and there is also a cute gift shop where one can buy bookmarks or paperweights to commemorate one’s newly immaculate soul.

In any event, my introduction to St. James and the pilgrim culture took hold all those years ago, and has stayed with me to this day. I identify strongly with the pilgrim archetype, a traveler with a purpose, even if a distant one, and one so far-flung from home that trips are measured in years, or even decades. Even now, every time I see a scallop, or a cross of Santiago, it is like seeing an old friend, feeling his welcome handclasp.

In Florence especially, just before the Ponte Santa Trinita, at Chiesa Santa Trinita, there is a statue of San Giacomo in an alcove, hat jauntily propped, scallop on his shoulder, staff topped with a gourd for water, missing a hand. I smile involuntarily every time I pass by there, whispering a warm, “Hi, James.”

Basilica Santa Trinita
Credit: Archdiocese of Florence
Note St. James in alcove on far left

And, even more coincidentally, he is the namesake of the American Episcopal church in Florence, where I have been singing in the choir for over a year now. St. James Episcopal has welcomed us a family in a way that particular to Florence, indicative of the many aspects of expat support in the city.

St. James Episcopal Church – portico

Yes, St. James has come full circle for me, as the friendly saint of my first year in Europe has reappeared again as the welcoming patron saint of travelers and pilgrims (and Spain) here in our new life. My pilgrim gifts (and welts) are welcome in St. James, which was founded in the nineteenth century by a rather Gilded Age cohort, led by none other than JP Morgan himself. The foundations he endowed for St. James thrive today, and provide a solid ground for the many programs of outreach that we do. St. James welcomed me by allowing me to warble on in their choir alongside professionals from the Opera di Firenze and the Opera di Livorno, as well as freelancers with incredible gifts of voice and music, and Riccardo, our Buddhist organist and pianist who can sit down to play any piece with a natural ease and fluency that takes my breath away. In March, I came onto the vestry – their governing body for the parish – and soon agreed to secretarial responsibilities for the group. In May, I trained to serve as an LEM (lay eucharistic minister), and have served the wine from the chalice at a half-dozen masses or so since then. I love that the leadership within our church weights in favor of women, and woke men. I cannot count the many opportunities St. James has given me to more fully become a contributing member of the community. As we are here for the long haul, that is a high priority for me.

In the vestry, fresh off mass this morning.

It’s a truly diverse congregation, comprised of all walks of life, class, origin, nationality. It gives me the deeply transnational American experience that I so craved in Arezzo five years ago, and in Oklahoma in general. (Funny side note – in Arezzo I used to lurk at the southeast asian market just to buy curry ramen or seafood udon and or masala in small tin cans, to be among a mix of people, so homogeneous did Arezzo feel with its scores of well-heeled, well-bundled bourgeois Italians trotting up and down the Corso d’Italia in their new shoes every evening at the passeggiata.)

St. James, I am glad we met when I was so young, and am more grateful still for our evolving friendship, and the many ways you continue to surface in my life, reaffirming my recurrent themes and challenges.

Firenze: A Different Life, Part 3


I do not need a car in my life to feel happy. In fact, the opposite is true.

They cost a lot. Don’t like shopping for them. I have bought three cars in my life – in 1997 and in 1999, as a single person, and again in 2006, when Jason and I bought the Forester. I hate buying gas. They get wrecked into, and stolen. They are rarely the transparent user interface that I long for in personal transportation.

I have not regularly commuted to work since early August 2004, when I moved from Seattle to Oklahoma. I had been confronting the commute from Seattle to the Eastside for four years – across the 90, down and up the 5, and in one insane year, across the 520 bridge, back before it had the toll.

I drove to work, stuck in lines of traffic, in the rain with red brakelights refracting, at on ramps and exits. I parked in corporate parking garages, or in huge lots. But, then, there were no tolls. I will confess I was clearly a part of the problem when I drove singly – the first two years I worked at T-Mobile corporate headquarters. A couple of other years I did carpool to Microsoft in Redmond, from Wallingford, or to T-Mobile in Bellevue from first Wallingford, and then Capitol Hill.

(Wait, now that I am thinking about it, I actually carpooled a LOT in Seattle, with Kelly and Laura, then Jen, the Genji, all in different years. Full review of historical facts complete.)

Even in Seattle, though, the life of the flaneuse was easy to access and maintain. When the weekend rolled around in the 9810x zip code, I often hung up my keys and did not drive again until Monday morning.

Seattle is a city made up of small neighborhoods, quartiere, if you will. They each center around their own nucleus of things to do, a few main grocery stores, residential housing. (I fully realize I would not be able to buy a house or re-access any of this in any kind of future, barring miraculous and very lucrative turns of events.) A main advantage of this was that, had you no plans, you could step out your front door, and walk around, to just look at stuff, buy a thing or two, and happily bump into friends and people you knew.

In short, a European lifestyle.

Never have I been happier than when living in such a mode. I had this kind of life in Seattle, briefly in Manhattan, in Santiago (Spain), in Strasbourg, in Arezzo even more recently when Victor was a year old. I could literally walk out the door with no plan at all, and come home with a small bag of groceries, a new book, three or four conversations with friends, a coffee taken, time in a park, some edifying walks around the surrounding blocks to admire houses or gardens or dogs or whatever. I did not have this kind of life in Arlington, VA, or in Issaquah, or in Edmond or Oklahoma City or Norman. In these places, one was at home and bored, until one got in a car and drove somewhere to do something with planning and forethought, and coordination with other people. (Granted, we had a bit more of that in Norman, which made those many years possible.) Now that I have had many life chapters in which to broadly compare these living situations, I will say unabashedly: I am a bit of a city mouse.

Sure, there are drawbacks to city living. And I have been known to say, from time to time, and even on weekends, I need some contrast. But let me step out more door to notice the sky, walk around, take the pulse of a neighborhood. Let my memory be jogged that I need to buy some small thing when I walk past the stationer’s or grocery store, let me admire a labradoodle on a leash, and see a mom I know pushing a child on a swing. Let me notice both the buses lumbering up and down a street, as well as a wrecked bike’s carcass chained to a pole. These things make me so happy.

Courtesy: Etsy

In an example from yesterday, I was going a little nuts in the apartment in the afternoon, and finally convinced Victor to go out with me, on the premise that we might find an open newsstand (edicola) where he could peruse decks of Pokemon cards for sale. His regular edicola, on Piazza Sant’Ambrogio, was closed on Sunday afternoon. This is totally normal. I knew full well that no edicola would be open in any quarter on a Sunday afternoon. I am the mom and pressed this advantage to get out of the house.

We walked to one caffe, and then to an edicola – both closed – on Via della Colonna, our street. We jogged over to Via Laura and walked up the length of it, past another stationer (closed, and probably would not have had Pokemon cards anyway). Victor thought, then helpfully suggested, “Mommy, you could use your phone maps. You could put it in Italian mode, and tell the lady … edicola aperta … and she will tell us which one to go to.”
I conceded he had a point. I spread my arm forward into the block and said, “Victor, do you know why it is so quiet here?”
He wrinkled his nose. “It smells bad.”
“It is quiet, because Italians … do you know what Italians do on Sunday afternoon?” It was 4:30 p.m. “They do nothing. They are all sitting around, talking about the latest Fiorentina result, and the rientro headache of returning to school and work from their seemingly endless summer vacation, and what they’d like to eat this week and how the kids are doing and who has a cough. They might be watching TV. They are sitting and just talking kind of lazily and quietly about nothing.”
“Boring,” Victor said.
“You will come to appreciate it,” I replied. “Italians know how to get ready for the week, by becoming Sunday sloths.”

In America our Sundays are frenetic as we rush to complete all our errands.
In Italy, the errands are completed on Saturday, to preserve the slothlike nature of Sunday, where you are not permitted, by cultural edict, to accomplish much of anything.

We turned toward Santissima Annunziata, and ran in our American friend Susan, who was our strolling as we were. We chatted with her for a bit, then Victor wanted to see the European Food Festival that had been set up in the piazza. Polish brats, Sicilian aranciate (fried rice balls stuff with meat and cheese), Spanish paella, Dutch stroopwafels (crepes), and more all crowded our senses with the sounds and smells of cheery food. Benches had been set up in front of a few of the stalls to enjoy a beer with the snacks.
Susan had visited the Mexican booth and said they did not know the difference between a burrito and a taco, so she took a pass. We had a good laugh over this. The European interpretations of Mexican food are weak at best.
There was also a huge truck of gummi candy.

“Tiger! Tiger!” Victor said, pulling my hand toward the cheap Danish enterprise that is every kid’s 4 euro dream. We entered and reviewed the latest Halloween merchandise, t
hen selected some small items for Victor and Eleanor (paper airplane kit; air dart set) and mom and dad (face scrubber; travel pillbox set.) I threw in some chocolate, and we left content.
I was still jonesing for my espresso, so we stopped into Caffe Robiglio. It is busy at all times, due to its position within shouting distance of the Duomo. Victor selected a small pastry that he said tasted just like birthday cake (butter pastry, cream filling, red jam, sprinkles). I had an espresso and a mini beignet. (Note that Victor had just had a snack with Jason on his quartiere tour just an hour or two before, down Pietrapiana, as they had stopped in La Loggia dei Albizi not an hour before.)
We walked back through the food festival and goggled a bit more, remarking on a baby, and a coppersmith who was making jewelry on an improvised bench with a small hammer.

Santissima Annunziata was open, and I begged Victor to let me go into it.
No, no, he said. No. 
Please, I begged. Come on – I just bought you a mini birthday cake!

We went in. It felt like a scene from 1690. Mass was in progress in the twilit sanctuary. From the sounds of it they were intoning the prayers of the people in Italian. A bored-sounding priest with a very nasal voice was at the altar in the first shrine to the left, the one full of all manner of iron lamps and lit candles to the Madonna. His congregants sat in the pews facing the entrance of the church.

Santissima Annunziata, courtesy: Google Images.
That’s the dreamy, almost Muslim shrine on the right, with the iron candelabras and oil lamps.

“Mama, mama! A candle!” Victor wanted to light a candle at a shrine.
At first I demurred, saying I had no more money, then felt guilty (we were, after all, in a church). I gave him a euro, and helped him light and place a candle.
“Who’s it for?” I asked.
“For my grandmas,” he said. “They they are safe and we love them.” I swear he said this unprompted.
We quietly made our way out of the church, turning toward home on Via della Colonna as the lights around Piazza d’Azeglio began to come on.

No plan. No car. An hour of quality time, mamma and Victor. Chatted and walked. Ran into friends, ate some snacks, bought some small things, ogled at stuff, attended 5 minutes of mass, lit a candle. Walked home. Everyone happy.

Le lingue, cont.

I now wonder if I front-loaded too much language in my life, prior to 32, and now, like old data on floppy disks that are now kept in one’s top right desk drawer, their access becomes an increasingly remote possibility. “But all that email from 1995 and 1996,” one thinks. “It’s practically a book, and now I’ll never be able to read it again. I know it’s in there. If I saw the files, and read them, I would recognize them.”

I know that working full-time remote in a position like mine keeps me tethered to English, and unable to snap and enter a truly Italian orbit. I love English. I am writing a lot. I’m a verbal person. English is a transparent user interface to this superuser. Spanish has come very close to that for me, in my life (a bow and a sincere thank you to all my Spanish teachers ever), especially when living in Spain or traveling in Latin America. French has been close. Everything lower than those three on the list have been mere flirtations of my frontal lobes, in Broca’s area. La Discoteca Broca, late at night, dancing to EDM with foam and an extra roll of duct tape in the hours just before dawn – okay, that never happened. Well, maybe it did here.

The four-week hiatus from Italy was interesting, from a linguistic point of view. Jason headed straight to Spokane for work, and so Flavia was traveling with me and the kids. The kids know her so well and always stick to Italian with her. The first and second weeks Flavia and I were all Italian, all the time, and I would break into English with the kids when I was in a hurry, revising into Italian if I needed them to really listen to me. When we met back up with Jason in Portland, the family lingua shifted to English, with occasional dips into Italian a cinque. If the five of us were in the same place, the kids were more often yammering on with Flavia in Italian, while Jason and I sorted out logistics in English to the side.

That’s normal – he and I both grew up monolingual. We have no childhood memories associated with chatter in other languages, save the exception of my estival migrations to Upper Michigan with my mom and brothers, where conversation, especially in the evenings as guests arrived, and all day Sunday, moved into Finnish. Especially if they were over fifty in the seventies. In any case, no one was giving me any orders in Finnish. It flowed as a small stream of language on a distant border of our childhood field, where I was free to dip my toes in or not. I often did, for the sheer pleasure and shock of those syllables, watching people’s faces as they chatted. When I explain my affinity for foreign language to people who don’t know me, I frequently cite those seminal experiences as sparks to my tinder. I had to learn a code. I simply had to have new sounds and new words. I wanted to speak to someone who understood my alternative sounds and words. What new heights might we explore together! what different person might I be with new words and new thoughts running through my brain! what might become clear to me that was now wholly unknown! It would be like sailing a ship to a new land, with a rough paper map drawn from dreams alone.

church in the U.P. where I heard a ton of Finnish as a small child –
my grandfather interpreted at the services

(I digress on this point because I am so often surprised when people ask me if Jason and I have given up English at home. How? I want to ask them. How? We speak a lot of Italian at home, but English is the reversion language of clarification and confirmation.We both grew up with two English-speaking parents in the US; we cannot rewrite our early years, or where we went to school, with teachers who probably all spoke English only, save the foreign language teachers.)

On the flight from Seattle I flipped through the movie options in my in-flight entertainment module. There was a ton of content in other languages, many Asian – Chinese, Japanese, Korean original cinema. O were I to have binge watched everything in a mini-SIFF festival, high over the Atlantic.

I oped instead for two junk-food documentaries: one on Brangelina, the other on Oasis, plus two episodes of Silicon Valley, season four. But I paused on one title in particular, which must have been Argentine, I thought: “I Married a Dumbass.” For “dumbass” they gave “boludo.” I looked at the word again, and again, and thought, holy crap, Spanish slang I have not heard or used for at least nine years, and maybe sixteen. The back of my brain started heating up. (It’s my eyebrows that feel hot when I am learning language – I am not kidding. And I don’t think it’s because I am scowling.) I was whisked away to Argentina.

Like a key to memories, 2001 was suddenly unlocked. I suddenly smelled the heated flagstones of Plaza Dorrego, saw the street dancers’ shirts stained with sweat as they tangoed for tourists in front of tables piled high with dusty, rust-covered chandeliers and candlesticks. I felt the heat of January sun at noon as I scurried for shade. I remembered half a dozen new friends, and our shared hilarity.

Plaza Dorrego, San Telmo, Buenos Aires

I saw the face of the young man talking to me in a bus station in Mendoza, who said, incredulously, “but you speak Spanish with no accent.”  It must have seemed so to him, as Spanish was transparent to me then, and I wielded it with calm joy, as though a lifelong friend were always accompanying me on my adventures, keys at the ready. I think I responded something along the lines of, “my accent is a complete mix, but thank you.” I had gotten to the point by then with Spanish that I cared less and less what I sounded like, and so rambled on, and in my insouciance (and acquisition) became more fluent. My palms didn’t sweat. I didn’t taste adrenaline as I skirted among verb tenses. I wasn’t even thinking about the grammar. I just thought it was fun.

I was surprised at how much Italian I understood yesterday on the bus as the
chatty driver caught up with an old friend, or perhaps a sibling, or an amico coetano, on his hands-free from the driver’s seat. Italian did seem more like an old friend to me too, in that moment. I am regarding that Italian orbit with a new energy and perspective.

Is this the feeling of my brain breaking, or being rebuilt? or both?