Frankincense and Oranges

 

 

IMG_0656The old man, Gos the dog, and I drove up the hill. Our conversation simple. The lack of understanding between us standing out like a blaring siren. Gaps of silence whilst I searched for a different way of conveying myself. Sometimes there wasn’t a different way. He would just get frustrated. His English vocabulary limiting him. The only word I managed was, “pericoloso!” which somehow had remained in the recesses of my mind for years, until this moment when he overtook a slow-moving Fiat on a sharp bend. Pericoloso means dangerous in Italian. I held onto the seat and looked the other way until the pericoloso! moment was over. Gos, the dog, barking and breathing his awful breath all over us. I wound down my window and took a big gulp of fresh air.

We stopped at the public spring to fill our glass bottles with water whilst his slobbery dog ran around like an unruly monster, rolling around in the dust, drinking from the pool of spring water then shaking and spraying us with a mixture of water and saliva. I’m definitely more of a cat person.

We got back in the car, Gos barking in excitement, as he knew what came next; a walk through the forest and up to the monastery. Again, we walked in relative silence. I tried to comment on this and that, making small talk, mentioning the trees and the view. Asking which villages were in the distance. I was happy it was warm and that I was getting some exercise. The old man had remarked before we left the house that I would not be able to walk up the hill in my sandals but with every step, I proved him wrong, overtaking him and waiting for him at various intervals. I was strong. I had walked all over India for six months in those sandals. Do you think a 30-minute walk up a small hill is beyond my scope of capability without proper walking shoes?

We got up to the monastery and I was eager to look at the architecture and peek inside the church. The old man said he wasn’t into Baroque architecture so he and Gos stayed outside whilst I climbed the stairs and into the sanctuary. Sunday mass was just coming out and there was an energy of peace surrounding the entrance as I entered. The Baroque interior was gorgeous and a heavy veil of frankincense smoke hovered in the air.

The smell reminded me of my childhood and Catholic mass. My mother wanted us to go every Sunday and my sister and I would sit in the pew, bored out of our minds. I looked forward to communion when there was some movement and we could get up and have the ‘body and blood of Christ’ and I could give my knees a rest from all the kneeling. I loved when the priest and altar boys would walk down the aisle with the burning frankincense. That was my favorite part; being enveloped in the sweet and pungent smoke.

I sat in a pew and said a short prayer, knowing that the old man was waiting. Usually, on visits like this, I’m on my own and I like it that way. I can take as long or as short a time as I want. I can sit and stare at the artwork on the ceiling and the sculptures on the altar and watch the light as it passes through the stained glass windows, with no urgency to leave. I don’t like to be waited for or to wait on anyone else. Traveling alone has ruined me in this regard. Very seldom do I like to travel with others, especially inexperienced travelers. It’s extremely frustrating for me. I feel like a bird that’s had its wings clipped. My pace is severely hindered. I’m selfish with my freedom.

I made the sign of the cross with a half kneel, walked down the aisle and out of the huge wooden doors and back down the stairs to meet Gos and the old man and we all walked back down the hill. The old man handed me the lead with Gos at the end of it. I was not impressed.

“This is your dog”, I thought. “Not mine”.

If he was trained properly it would be a different story but this Gos is unruly and disobedient and meanders all over the place, pulling whoever is leading him wherever he wishes.

Back in the car, Gos and his excited signature bark accompanied us down the meandering hill. I was relieved and excited too, although I knew we’d have another pasta dinner and my belly was starting to look and feel like a bulging beach ball. This was not going to be a sustainable diet for me. I needed to investigate the produce markets once back in Florence and I was counting down the days until my return.

Of course, I’d miss this little world in the hills, in the stone house. One of those houses that you always see when you’re traveling and wonder what they’re like inside. Well…they have heavy wooden shutters, inside and out, stone stairs and floors and uneven walls and can be quite cool in the mornings. If you use too many appliances the electricity will go out and it’s quite a puzzle to figure out how to fix it.

In the mornings I woke up to opera, birds and spring blossoms and squeezed Sicilian blood oranges for the old man every morning. We would sit quietly – each in our own worlds, trying to communicate when we could, over sweet biscuits in the morning or raw fava beans and pecorino cheese in the evenings.

I realize that my time there was an exercise in listening to energy when you can’t understand words. I realize how I want to please and how I wanted to be liked and understood and in those moments when words were useless and the old man was stern and frustrated, I learned to be OK with the silence. To be comfortable in my skin, in this foreign land, in this foreign home with this foreign old man.

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