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Travels in Tuscany: the blessing of fathers

I’d just stumbled from a mountain town in central Bosnia  at the height of the war. Cornered  by a military unit during a local offensive I was told in no uncertain terms that I needed to get out-of-town. After marching the better part of a dozen miles in full pack and putting up with a quick ride by a couple Italian smugglers, the scorching sun taking a toll, I was hoping to scrounge a bit of food, refill my water and perhaps get a bit of news on the larger offensive I was heading into farther down the road. Outside of town the road climbed higher through some of the highest passes in the Bosnian range. Headed into the thick of battle alone, and out of  water I was at my lowest point.

I paused in the shade of an outcropping to gather myself and figure a plan, but the more I thought the more hopeless it all seemed. Just then a little yellow  Audi pulled to a stop in front of me.

Idesh?” where are you headed, a little white-haired fellow asked.

I stared dumbly at him for a moment. But for the country and the language he was the spitting image of my father back home in America. A friendly smile painted a long working calls face.

Sarajevo,” I replied.

I’m not going that far,” he laughed, “but I’ll get you a little closer.”

He rearranged several apple crates in back to accommodate my pack. As I scooted in beside him I tried to tell him in his language just how much he looked like my father, but stumbled over the words. It was easier to ask why he stopped.

How could I not,” he said matter-of-fact. “You looked like you needed a hand.”

I sure appreciate it.”

His badly aged Audi was struggling against the steep mountain passes, almost to the point of quitting. The engine whined and jerked as he expertly worked the well-worn gears. Each time the engine seemed ready to quit he would gently stroke the dash and say, “Come on baby.” Then, as if the old car could not bear to disappoint him, it would roar back to life.

How long have you two been married?” I joked.

Sharing a couple of apples with me, he filled me in on the fighting up ahead as best he could. I was with no small amount of sadness that I watched him leave.

In  Tuscany the owner of Hotel L’Fiorino all but adopted us. ana had become friends almost instantly with his daughter, Elena, who worked the desk most days.With kindly features and a hospitable nature he took care of us as if we were family. The night our flight home we said our goodbyes, as we were leaving before dawn the next morning. As we came down that morning, struggling from the elevator with our bags, Ana lamenting that she would get coffee until we were at the airport, we were greeted with an unexpectedly ebullient “Buongiorno!” 

Hotel l'Fiorino in Tuscany. Photo courtesy Hotel l'Fiorino


Elena’s father had stayed up all night so that Ana would have a cup of coffee before leaving.

If there is one thing I’ve learned travelling around the world, and especially in war, is that there is a river of goodness that runs through the world. There  are souls who seem to appear from thin air, along mountain roads or wherever you might be in trouble or forlorn. They are the good salt-of-the-earth folks, the men who do the back-breaking tasks and then return to home and neighbors to reaffirm their belief that goodness is the best and truest mark a man can leave on the earth. they are the standard bearers for morality and ethics in the world, not for  what they judge but the example they set and the neighborliness they abound in. They are the first to an accident, first to soothe a skinned knee, and the first with a beer across the fence. It is an example I have sought to continue as best I can. And for that, to fathers everywhere I can happy fathers day. 

Travels in Tuscany: Two Churches

Ana was falling in love. She walked ahead of me, down hill along Via Roma. She was celebrating the moment, strolling along a European street, and redefining her European identity in the context of her American reality. I paused at an artist’s studio, lamenting that the artist was gone for the way, and so wishing I could get closer to the naive but vibrant paintings I could only see askance through dust-streaked windows. Along Via Giovanni XXIII I couldn’t help wondering what happened to the previous 22 Giovannis, and thought I had some catching up to do on my Giovannis!

I caught up with her near a small church at the bottom of the hill, where three roads met in an iconic way, the town bending through narrow lanes and rustic buildings, or dissolving among sun-drenched fields. It seemed the perfect place for the unassuming little church, a  place of coming together. This place was a poem, the beginning of a novel or the end of a story.

Santuario Della SS Anunziata was indeed a sanctuary, at least from the growing midday heat.. It was cool, with a soft earthy scent, dust and warm wax from votives near the altar. It was a curiosity to me, exploring it like it was some sort of  forgotten and simple museum. Ana took a seat in a pew, a pillar of light falling across her hair and upturned face. Near one wall, set back out of reach,  a beautiful old sketch book filled with pen and ink studies.The place appeared well cared for, if gently succumbing to the centuries.

Outside of town, among the orchards and poppy fields, where Via Amerini meets Via di Sant Ansanto, sits a small forgotten church. It stands upon a hill in sight of Vinci, waded in deepening weeds. The name has long been erased, with only part of an inscription still visible.

A metal cross beside the narrow door rusts, throwing a shadow across the crack and pitted wall, and offering a bit of shade for a pair of lizards, which scramble away as I near. Inside, the air smells forgotten. The door is locked, but the window is broken enough to see clearly inside. On the back wall, no doubt once a part of a small and simple alter, a painting of the Madonna still adorns the wall, offering a surprise of color that almost feels miraculous in its own right. It would have been crowded with a half dozen worshipers.

I wonder about the place. I wonder about its history. There is no date to be found, but late Eighteenth Century is  easily possible. I want to imagine simple peasant weddings, stormy funerals, sheltering American soldiers or lovers stealing a moment. Empty and uncared for as it is I find a closer connections to god or the spirit or something here than at the tourist besieged cathedrals in Venice or Florence. I am endeared to its forgotten nature, creating a symbiosis with the land, as if the church was not an amendment to the land, but an organic outgrowth of it, beyond men’s holy words and assertions. There is a threat, a river that runs through this place deeper and more resonant than any religion, and yet informing that religion and all religions about something truer and more universal to the Human soul.

Travels in Tuscany: Vinci and the meaning of place

The old town and church steeple of Vinci straddles a hillside on the slopes of Monte Albano, the brown ochre buildings clustered tightly, the southern approach protected by high ivy covered walls. The rest of town pours into the valley, spreading out fan-like among small shops, local eateries, small businesses galleries and artist workshops.

Ana and I, both artists by training and passion, are enthralled and silent, mostly, absorbing the sights and smells and essence of the place as if it was water over parched earth of our hearts. Without a doubt, this, this place for all of its history and namesake is religion for us. In it we are focused for some insight into the brilliance this very place inspired. Buildings have come and gone. It’s easy to imagine the countryside is little changed, but the landscape, the ebb and flow of the land, the rise and fall of the hills and valleys, the wind distant off the Tyrrhenian Sea, and the light above are unchanged. And to understand a man like Leonardo d’Vinci it is imperative to be here and to imagine how all of this must have informed his inspiration.

The approach to the

Vinci in the heart of Tuscany

 town is  simple. It might be said, in an often used cliché that in these parts all roads do indeed lead to Vinci. Following the Via Ripalla, a soccer pitch hidden among a line of trees beside the road, we cross a shallow canal over a small bridge hardly wide enough for a single vehicle. There are tourist busses parked along the Via Guisseppe Rossi, beneath the high walls shielding a strengthening morning sun.

Turning a corner, a blue and white caribinieri patrol car slipped in behind us. Instantly Ana stiffened in her seat and announced in an alarmed whisper, “There’s police behind us.”

With equal anxiousness she pushed a bag of potato chips under her seat, as though she was hiding contraband. I couldn’t help but laugh, especially as she breathed a sigh of relief when the patrol car turned down a small street.

“Are you wanted by Interpol or something?” I teased. “Something you need to confess.”

“No,” she smiled, “I just get nervous sometimes.”

Finding a place to park beneath the old church, Ana and I got out to stretch. We were not discovering this place. If there is a road or a trail or path somewhere it has been discovered. No, we were coming to a place. We were coming to someone’s home, and not giving that place value, but rather finding value in being there, which is a fundamental difference. Any discovery on our part was surely in the way we came to each place we visited We had made Vinci a destination to enrich our souls, to re-affirm our good hearts, to deepen our knowledge of things that only previously existed for us in books and to make the world a small community. We’d come for our own humanity with the  hopes that it might be reaffirmed and our natural hubris deflated just enough. That, I believe, is what the meaning of place is.

Travels in Tuscany: Time as the greatest distance

Time is a thief. It robs us clarity and the perspectives of history It lulls us to complacency with mundane assertions, then rushes away towards the end of the day, and of our lives. Time steals from us, and we are its very willing accomplices.

That was all too apparent as Shevko stepped from his  little black sedan across from the hotel. We had both changed since the war, our lives carried upon their separate courses, but always bending back to this moment. I couldn’t contain a smile. A part of me felt like coming home. A part of me, the part always lost in the war, at last believed that something good had come from all that, besides Ana and I of course. Friendship, real honest friendship had outlasted and prevailed against 20 years of tumultuous history. Perhaps most of all, we had transcended a decade of animosities between religions, both of us wise and strong enough to parcel the foolishness and ignorance of the world to a proper place.

UNPROFOR Peacekeepers on patrol in Mostar, October 1994

Shev had grown a thick but well-trimmed beard, obscuring that boyish grin I’d recalled from our first meeting. Despite a recent divorce, he seemed happy and settled, no doubt the consequence of two young sons that he loved deeply. The last I’d  seen Shev was shortly after the war. He was still in Mostar, Bosnia. He seemed deeply hurt and unsettled then, which was absolutely a consequence of all he, his family and community had survived. Crossing Via Salvador Allende that evening in Montelupo I wasn’t embracing a long-lost acquaintance, but a brother.

He was a bit heavier now. Tuscan food and wine…and girls…had been generous to him. There were hints of gray at his temples. But for that he was the same. He held the same smirk, the same whimsy and devil-may-care attitude, the same swagger, and the same inability to keep from falling instantly in love with every beautiful woman who passed. It wasn’t as potent as when we were both younger, but the spirit was just as I recalled.

Ana joined us a moment later. She’d not seen him since the war when she arrived in the dead of night with her mother and baby brother, having escaped Sarajevo during a brief ceasefire in the summer of 1995. Detained at a Bosnian Army checkpoint on  a desolate stretch of road skirting the frontline. With a Serbian last name (she was from a mixed marriage) things might have turned out tragically if not for Shevko. His name was enough for her to pass through the checkpoint.

Ana, Shevko and his son, Leonardo in Florence

They hugged warmly. The quality of a life is in the moments that come as rare and valuable as a jewel. This was certainly a  moment I would put away and keep in a safe place, saving it for darker days for perspective. I was savoring the moment, holding fully to it, and cataloguing every detail. Time would not steal this moment from me this time. And though the moment past, swept among the torrents of time, this one I would never relinquish, now nor forever.

Travels in Tuscany: The truth about American exceptionalism

I was thinking a lot about this travelling through Tuscany. It is a simple thing to make comparisons about life at home and different cultures. Back home President Barack Obama’s comments that America is exceptional to Americans just as Belgium is exceptional to Belgians, or Japanese or whoever set off a firestorm in the Right wing media, which now dominates the radio and TV airwaves. It is outrageous in the era of growing American nationalism that anyone should be as prideful about their lives and their cultures as Americans.

We wrote a Constitution 220 some years ago that was a monumental moment for Human Rights. But some would have us believe that our work and responsibility to those high ideal ended then, and that all that was promised in that simple document was achieved. One only has to look back through our history of Native American rights, slavery, women’s rights, labor rights and gender equality and Gay rights to see that America is not a destination ut a journey, and we are very much in the middle of that journey. We have evolved from the waning days of the Revolution and dark days of slavery and the civil war. Blacks  and women can vote sure enough, but racism and bigotry and sexism are hardly settled issues, illustrating that America is not  panacea of virtue and freedom, and grudgingly wrestles with issues of freedom , justice and equality by virtue of persistent pressure by the oppressed and through a constant struggle to maintain a government and legal system that protects the rights of the minority. It may be said, in that regard, that the true blessing of America is that it does not rest on its laurels, but constantly assails its shortcomings, and that the desire by some to eschew those shortcomings are hardly acting in the true spirit of the nation.

Th idea came together for me finally as Ana and I were driving the sundrenched back roads of Tuscany and hour or so west of Florence. These were the hills and roads around Leonardo d’Vinci’s home, little hanged in glimpses through the centuries. Among pale green olive groves, poppy fields and the scent of wild mint still wet with morning dew I finally realized succinctly why the assertion of so-called American Exceptionalism bothered me so.

Say you have a neighbor, a big loud neighbor. And maybe he’s done some great things for the neighborhood, but he’s also been a bit obnoxious and arrogant at times. And he comes up to you, pokes you in the chest and says I am the most exceptional person on the planet! Fair enough. Pride is pride, and to an extent pride can be a good thing for each of us. And you look up at him, and look him straight in the eye and say, well I think I’m pretty damn exceptional too. Rather than take it at that, he has to belittle, and maybe even bully you. He starts telling you why he’s the best and you’re no good, and for good measure shakes his fist just to give you reason for pause. Anyone would think of that person as, well, a bit of a dick. Depending on how hard he pushed the issue, and how bad a day you were having, you might even take a swing at the guy.

And that’s the key. If you believe your exceptional, that is reflected in the humility surrounding your good deeds, not the tactic of bullying others into admitting something thy may or may not really believe. Truth is, countries are like people, and I have met some incredibly exceptional people travelling around the world. What makes them exceptional is that they allowed me to rise to my exceptional abilities as well, and weren’t annoyed or intimidated by the exceptionalism of others.

The air through the open car window carried the scent of Tuscan fields warmed beneath a cloudless blue sky. It was an exceptional day, in an exceptional place. I laid my hand on Ana’s knee and glanced at her in th passenger seat beside me. Her eyes were closed, face turned towards the sun, her satisfaction hinted in the slightest smile. She was exceptional, and I doubt that I would have turned out to be half the man I am without that exceptionalism.

Travels in Tuscany:Best laid plans…

I like to think of myself as the consummate traveller. I watched the opening scene in “Up in the Air,” with George Clooney as if it was a documentary or a How-to film. If you haven’t seen it, he swiftly navigates an airport security line, deftly avoiding parents wrestling with toddlers in strollers, hapless once-a-year tourists, saps with alarm inducing piercings and hidden metal and mopes who think their ten pound Keep-on-Truckin’ belt buckle won’t attract a cloud of rubber gloved spiteful TSA workers hoping to give redneck joe something to blather about how they  should be worrying about the real terrorists(personally, stupid is just as terrifying to me).

I want to be through that line as quick and quiet as possible. When I get to the table, my shoes  are off, laptop out, belt off, change, pens and sunglasses out of my pockets. On the otherside I am dressed and gone while others are still trying to recall for a squad of miffed screeners what is in, on or around their body that is setting off the alarm for the 7th time.

I can live for a week in one garment bag and a small tote, or a laptop bag. From that I have a suit, something for a club or dinner, something casual and something for working out with clean socks and undies for everyday. Files and paper are strategically place in specific pockets for car rental, important documents, hotel reservations, contact information, maps, miscellaneous notes, a journal, charging cords, MP-3,  sundries and a camera. I even have a little pocket for salt and pepper and various little condiments-that’s CONDI-MENTS. I have it all down to a science. Ana thinks I’m nuts.

When we arrived in Italy I’d done my homework in researching every aspect of the trip. Notice I didn’t say plan, as the essence of any good adventure is in the unexpected. I knew the vaporetto schedules in Venice, the highway numbers between Mestre and Ravenna, and had even made a trial run on the Autostrada between Bologna and Florence using Google Maps Street View, but there was one thing I’d forgotten. There was one thing I’d left behind that threatened to sink the entire trip. Standing in the lobby of the Hotel L’Fiorino, having crossed two continents and ocean to see a de ar old friend and war buddy, I realized I’d left his telephone number at home.

The lobby was cooler than the  busy street outside. It was small and modern, but with an intimate feel. There were comfortable chairs near the front window. Beside the small but  cozy dining room was a table brimming with colorful maps, pamphlets and menus from local establishments. Greeting us was a lovely young woman who seemed politely dismayed over the two guests that arrived like something of a storm, babbling in a foreign tongue about this sudden and unexpected crisis. Her name was Elena, the daughter of the owner.

“What are we going to do?” asked Ana, looking every bit as exhausted from the day’s journey as I felt. She sighed and swept a lock of auburn hair from her face. Her emerald-green eyes still sparkled as perfect and brilliant as the day we’d met in Sarajevo 18 years earlier.

Discouraged and aggravated I only shrugged and remarked, “Walk the  streets calling his name.”

“Is your friend on Facebook?” asked Elena. “You are welcome to use my computer to send a message.”

It seems like such a simple thing, but we were just coming to discover true Tuscan hospitality.  In an instant Ana was tapping out a quick Facebook message to Shevko. The only question was whether he would see it in time.

Ana and I were barely in our second floor room when my phone rang. It came up  as his picture.  Though he’d changed(who hasn’t) somewhat over the years there was no mistaking that mug.

“Shevko!” I exclaimed. “Where are you?”

“Where are you?” he replied.

“The Hotel L’Fiorino.”

“I’m just down the street. I’ll be right there!”

Travels in Tuscany: A thousand years at war

It feels like a thousand years since the war. It never feels as if it actually ended. Wars never end, really. It is only peace that ends, and with the last bullet or shell is forever transformed, like the innocence of childhood. It never escapes memory, and though the burdens of today take precedent, it is always there, like a cold shadow haunting the soul, awaiting a smell or some odd trigger that will pull it from its dark hiding place.

I had gone to Bosnia as a witness. I was an artist, not a journalist who was raised during the 1960’s on Martin Luther King’s message, inspired by the anti-establishment Woodstock generations belief in standing for a better world, and by the post-Holocaust never again idea, whether it was Jews, Bosnian Muslims or Tribal Tutsis in Rwanda. I prided myself on seeing a very different war than Western Journalists in Bosnia. Travelling as an Artist, I could go places on  every side of the civil war few journalists could go. Dangerous as independence often was, the true character and potential of humanity revealed itself each time I stumbled alone and forlorn through the war. Good souls revealed themselves everywhere, whether Serb, Muslim or Croat. Without them I could never have travelled through the war, not once or twice, but three times. It was one of those good souls that would carry me to Tuscany 18 years later.

To say that Shevko Jakirovich and I ran into one another on the frontline in the besieged Bosnian city of Mostar in October 1994 is an understatment. He was hardly 18 then, and already a two-year veteran of a brutal urban war against former Catholic Croat neighbors. His dishwater blond hair was uncombed, a  ready smirk on his unshaven face. He and his cousin, in threadbare khaki uniforms, rifles laying casually over their shoulders, had every right to arrest me that close to the frontline. Who was to say I wasn’t a spy for the besieging Croats, or a journalist who might foolishly blab details about defenses on the Muslim side,  but that ignores the intangible nature of human relationships. Something about my  story endeared me to Shev, and I found reason enough trust this swaggering ad hoc soldier.  

 Shevko was my key to the true Mostar under siege, a meeting so inexplicably fortuitous that I wrote a book attempting to understand just what it was. After a few days I pressed on to besieged Sarajevo. And contact with Shevko might have ended there. He might have remained a memory from the war, a face in a picture that hangs upon a wall or is forgotten in an album on a shelf, but fate is a very curious thing.

You see, I was married in Sarajevo to a Bosnian artist. Forced to escape the city separately, my new wife arrived one night with her mother and baby brother as refugees, Catholic Croats saved and sheltered by a Muslim kid. The story brought tears to my eyes when my wife finally reached relatives in neighboring Croatia. How does one ever repay that favor?

And so, after 18 years Ana an I had come 5000 miles to Montelupo Fiorentino, not to repay that favor, but to reaffirm a friendship. Looking along Via Salvador Allende, the setting sun painting warm colors upon the walls of homes clustered at the edge of the two lane street it felt much less as a thousand years at war than a thousand years from war.

Travels in Tuscany: (Part Three)Why we travel

Travel is less about the places than the people we meet

It isn’t about pretty buildings or breathtaking views. Those  are window dressings to the real reasons we travel. They are stage props to the purpose of leaving the safety and security of our own lives in favor of the opportunity for growth. It is that fundamental principle that separates “tourists” from true travellers. Indeed, the tourist, by definition, stumbles from place to place as if they were in a zoo, arrogant in the belief they  are “discovering” something new. Practically no place the tourist goes on Earth is undiscovered. If there is a hotel or a gas station or a windowless hovel there it was already discovered. The tourist is simply following a trail already forged. The traveller, well, that is something altogether different.

It seems at first a little cynical. We all proclaim the desire for discovery, but here’s the rub. What is it we wish to discover truly? All that is left for any of us not employed as an Astronaut or a researcher on the frontiers of science are journeys of discovery at least as important as reaching outer space, or diving to the darkest depths of the oceans. That is the journey of self-discovery, and by that I mean a truly critical analysis of the heart and soul.

For Ana and I, the most precious discovery on any journey are in the people we meet. And when we  are lucky, truly lucky, it is in the lasting friendships and renewed awareness of the complexity and immensity of humanity that we come away with. And in that complex world the traveller must develop skills that opens the prospects for growth and self discovery.

I’m terrible with languages,  but I’ve learned valuable skills over the years to overcome that. The first lesson is that context is everything. That is, by paying attention, being humble, and above all patient, overcoming most any language barrier is a minor impediment. It comes down to this: we  are all human from the same ancestors. Languages are historical, cultural and customary, but  buried within all of them is the desire to communicate and to be valued as a person. Make the effort and pay attention and language barriers become less a canyon between people as a bridge to be forded.

The second lesson I’ve learned is that a little goes a long way. You  are in someone else’s home. Respect it. Understand that they love that home as much as you love yours. 9 words in any language will carry you a long way. That’s all, just 9 words-Yes, No, Please, Thank you, Sorry, I don’t speak…People appreciate the effort, and by virtue of simple human nature, will bend over backwards to help, or at the very least, bridge the gap.

And so, when Ana and I travel, it is  as pertinent to the trip that we step outside our lives back home, and step outside ourselves as purchasing plane tickets or having a passort. More treasured is when we meet someone new, whom we can keep with us forever. Well, not literally of course. That would be illegal, but the memory and friendship, which can only be forged between people who are equal, whose lives and history and experiences are equal in one another’s eyes. That i the greatest blessing for the true traveller. 

As we pulled into the unassuming little Hotel L’Fiorino in the heart of Tuscany that warm May evening  we could hardly have imagined the blessings that lay before us.

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