50 Sights in Italy

Impressions

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1. I saw a man on a motorbike driving on the sidewalk right at me.

2. I saw dueling street accordion players, one short and one tall, arguing over a prime section of a crowded, tourist-dominated piazza. Soon two other performers, a guitarist and perhaps a singer, joined the taller accordionist. Together the three drove out the shorter accordionist, who never stopped shouting as he walked away and exited the far side of the piazza, his fist shaking in the air.

3. While on a bumpy bus at the ancient city’s edge I saw giant puffs of pollen softly drift past tall and stately groves of cypress and umbrella pine.

4. On a hot day I saw a large shaggy dog stick its ass into a continuously flowing public water fountain whose iron spout depicted an ancient pagan god with wild hair, the water a thin stream from his blowing lips. The dog kept its ass there for awhile, happily panting, until a man shooed him away and filled up his dented plastic water bottle.

5. I saw a woman singing while crying as she walked across a sun-blasted piazza before she sat on a bench, lit a cigarette, and rested her head on a sympathetic friend’s shoulder, the singing now muted but still audible, a sweet despair. 

6. Down a hectic alley I saw long brilliant red prawns placed as eyebrows, or perhaps ladybug barrettes, on the head of an enormous fat fish packed in a tray of ice, one among many such trays of silver gleaming fish, though this sea creature was featured, a centerpiece of the stall so it might stand out among nearby rival stalls, all selling similar catches. 

7.  I saw an angel of bones. 

8.  I saw a soldier, one of two, both of whom were guarding a large striped cathedral, take his hand off an automatic rifle and blow a kiss to the attractive young woman across the piazza who was taking his photo. The woman was slow about it, like her focus, or her framing, had to be just right. The soldier flashed his teeth in a confident grin beneath his low-slung beret.

9. While walking down a narrow, crowded, stone-paved passageway I saw a father pull up his young daughter’s dress, strongly grab both ankles with one hand, this while swinging her legs up level with her head, like he was about to place her on a shelf. The man then positioned and lowered the panty-less girl directly over a drain to pee, which she did, giggling the entire time. 

10. I saw two big, burly, hard-looking men in leather jackets get off their respective motorcycles, remove mirrored wrap-around sunglasses, embrace, and then kiss each other on each cheek.

11. I saw finely collared priests with expensive leather briefcases and satchels comport themselves like businessmen on their way to important, high-stakes meetings. 

12. Along a beach of fine pebbles I saw an awkward pubescent girl lounging on a large green towel. The girl wore a florescent orange bikini and was trying to take the best possible selfie, which involved several attempts and repositions, an assortment of smiles—happy, gleeful, sassy—and yet upon reviewing each photo she frowned at the results. And so it continued.

13. On an underground metro train I saw a thin, elegantly dressed woman eating from a large bag of Cheetos-like snack food. The bag had been carefully opened, its top neatly separated and made wide so that her fingers wouldn’t touch the bag’s sides. Before plucking an orange puff on which to munch, she gave the bag short little shakes. She deliberated upon the remaining snacks: Which lucky puff is next?

14. I saw monumental, bright white fascist-era architecture that still looked futuristic, even appealing.

15. I saw a beautiful but sad bartender—I am in love-pain, she said— activate her smartphone flash while intensely looking for an I Ching coin, one of three, which she had lost behind the bar. There were no paying customers in the music-bar, and no band, only a drum kit, which was handsomely lit in bright neon blue on an otherwise empty stage, and they were about to close up even though it was still early. Jung, she explained, had turned her on to the I Ching, and the lost coin was very important to her. Three of her friends were also sitting at the short bar, eating boxed pizza, their backs to me, talking like I wasn’t there. This is a very strange night, she said, her voice druggy, her eyes wet curved glass. Then she leaned down to peer under a stack of rubber mats, her shirt falling loosely, revealing smooth bare shoulders with a large unclear tattoo (scales? claws? talons?) on very tanned skin. 

16. I saw the train’s destination and realized I was going the wrong way, but it was too late: the doors were shut.

17. In the middle of the night I saw a man clad in well-worn denim with a wild mane of long gray hair pulling wheeled luggage across an ancient piazza, one of the city’s largest. The luggage was unzipped at the top and stuffed with bottles and assorted junk. Because it was late and the piazza nearly empty, and because he quickly changed direction, angling directly toward me, I altered my own course and walked right at him, a defensive measure. This startled the man, like I’d appeared from nowhere, a ghostly apparition. He swooped his hand across his face as if to cast a spell, to unfurl an invisible protective shield, accompanied by a strange cooing sound. He passed and, looking back, I saw the overflowing trash canister the man had spotted, his reason for changing direction.

18. At a piazza-side café table I saw an older man with red glass frames and a full head of shock-white hair dozing off, his chin drooping toward his chest. It was warm but windy and his large, knotty hands clamped a magazine to the table, the pages fluttering like they were eager to get someone’s attention.

19.   It was night and when I turned a tight corner I saw five young men with slinking and crooked postures smirk at me. The passage, which felt close to collapsing between high, graffiti-covered walls, was lit by creepy curry dust yellow lamps. The young men were silent as I passed. The young men watched me, and I passed.

20. I saw a scowling rubenseque woman with a black T-shirt that said KILL DIET and depicted a cupcake with elaborate swirled frosting and a cherry on top as she walked through the iron gates of a tranquil hilltop palazzo, its manicured and spacious surrounding gardens a stark contrast to the tall, tilting, closely built, vibrant slums below.

21. On a mostly empty beachside resort, among rows and rows of red and yellow striped beach umbrellas fastened shut, I saw a thin middle-aged man, shirtless and deeply tanned—were his muscles, ligaments, bones also tanned?—with a cigarette dangling from his mouth, order another man to shovel sand (technique, volume, placement?) from here to there.

22. I saw laundry of all shapes, sizes, colors, and lifecycles of use rippling in the sea breeze on clothes lines across dark and cramped alleys, the smell of detergent vying with the odors of fresh seafood: white and dark fish—some like small cigars, others elongated watermelons—clams, mussels, prawns, sea urchins, crabs, eels, and the occasional jarring wafts of sewage or fetid rain water. 

23. Upon a high terrace I saw two smartphone-absorbed women with large sunglasses leaning beside idealized marble heads that seemed to bob like white buoys on a true blue horizon.

24. I saw what seemed like a hummingbird, wings blurred as it dipped and circled along a clutch of vines with fragrant white flowers (honeysuckle?), but then realized it was a type of colorful moth, almost a butterfly, as it quietly jerked past my face and over a white-washed stucco railing toward the soft blue sea below. 

25. I saw crowded café tables all around me—groups of friends, families—dense with lively conversation, wine, food, as I sat alone. It felt like I was on a movie set, a solitary figure with a purpose, a reason for his solitude, perhaps a spy or a grieving son, only my purpose was simply to be far from California, here in this foreign country, at this crowded café, sitting alone, where I did not feel lonely, only separate.

26. While walking along a bright, breezy, desolate port highway, I saw a wiry man on a motorbike pull up beside me and psst through crooked teeth and repeatedly try to sell me first a scratched tablet and secondly an outdated smartphone. He ignored my disinterest, pacing me, then sped up and parked his motorcycle, trying to shake my hand. Finally, as I continued walking, he circled up past and blocked my passage, and I thought: this is trouble. But it was fine: he laughed and said something in Italian before zooming away in a circus-like zigzag, as if his motorcycle was designed to drive crookedly.

27. I saw a novelist with a bottle of whiskey wander into a midnight cemetery, his form diminishing among the pale gravestones.

28. I saw an elderly woman with a bandana over her head prone in supplication at the entrance of the metro station—a dark, dirty, menacing concrete tunnel—her hands at once begging and in prayer. Even though the area was crowded and I was a good distance away, she looked right at me. 

29. I saw two thin boys enthusiastically kick a soccer ball against a tall concrete wall for at least an hour, the steady plunk and skipping sounds like a kind of youthful music. 

30. I saw a newspaper with large urgent type and photos of overcrowded boats, some capsized, small shapes that were people yet didn’t look like people but spilled cargo. But they were people. They were either about to drown or be rescued when the photo was taken, which was yesterday.

31. At dusk I saw a woman sitting near an empty piazza-side discotheque, its doors garishly lit with large red bulbs festooned along a wide double-door entrance, around which giant black and white posters of older men, perhaps singers, were displayed. An energetic young girl leaned against the woman, her arms around the woman’s shoulders, as the woman slowly caressed the girl’s butt in an affectionate, calming motion. Then, like a blast, too-loud ‘80s pop music began and the girl jumped up, laughed joyously, and started awkwardly but freely dancing out into the darkening piazza. 

32. I saw a confusing cone of freshly caught deep-fried sea fish like French fries or cheese sticks. I wasn’t sure if you were supposed to eat the heads too.

33. I saw two laughing teenagers sprint along the street, one carrying a woman’s blue handbag like a football. The owner of the handbag followed the lanky teens in remarkably swift pursuit—this despite her business dress suit and heels—as the teens jumped onto an overcrowded city bus’s rear stairwell just as the doors were closing. The boys looked out the windows, laughing, as the woman yelled and shook her fist and banged on the door. Soon the doors opened and the teens handed back her bag as the woman continued to berate them. After a moment the doors closed and the bus pulled away, the teens still on it, still smiling, like the whole thing was a game.

34. I saw a piazza vendor, one of hundreds across this sprawling ancient city, take a lime green selfie stick and deliberately swing the long handle toward my abdomen, stopping just short of whacking me. Having secured eye contact he smiled and said, selfie, selfie, selfie?!

35. I saw a tiny bubble-like car drive out of a cracked stucco wall, or a doorway, but indeed it was a street, though hardly an alley, more a passageway.

36. I saw a group of young girls on the beach return from the sea, plop themselves upon gaudy movie-photo towels, and begin banging their heads in exaggerated heavy metal style to dry their hair. They laughed as they tried to outdo each other, one inadvertently scooping up sand and flinging it across now-shouting fellow sunbathers, but the girls were having too much fun to care, the sea breeze carrying their laughter toward the rocky cliffs beyond.

37. I saw two young children lay limply in the arms of a woman and man (parents?) who were begging for change. The children’s faces were slack and wrong and even looked drugged, one boy’s arms dangling as the man shook and held him aloft like a performance of destitution.

38. While driving along a narrow, curving, cliff-side road—really no place for a road, where only a short stone wall marked the asphalt’s edge before it dropped dangerously into the sea—I saw two back windows of a public bus shatter as we scraped up against a rocky outcropping, our bus attempting to avoid another oncoming bus, this one larger, whiter, private, each bus now wedged along the narrow turn, all passengers effectively trapped: the falling sea on one side, a steep rock wall on the other. I looked over to a passenger on the private bus, her face about a foot from mine, and she shrugged her shoulders and smirked: Well, now what?

39. I saw university walls covered in artless anti-capitalist graffiti. 

40. Disappointed by another closed music venue, I came upon a dark piazza surrounded by crumbling buildings, many unlit, like they’d been bombed out, where I saw someone setting up a microphone and a small amplifier. Soon a crowd gathered, followed by a five-piece folk band in traditional black dress, along with two dancers in sleeker black costumes with red tassels. The crowd was mixed, young and old, including a group of university types refilling small plastic cups with red wine from a family-size water container. The music began and it was frolicsome yet intense, as the dancers moved through and with the crowd. An older woman in her plain dress crooned with a kind of controlled passion late into the night as the crowd danced and joyously clapped.

41. Atop a high, walled city I saw skinny feral cats claw at a discarded pizza box beside an overflowing, too-slim trash canister. In the distance, beyond a stone wall, a hillside castle shimmered unreal, like something that would disappear if you got too close.

42. I saw an unsmiling elderly man in a torn and stained light blue V-neck sweater standing on a small second floor balcony covered with plastic leafy vines, apparently affording some privacy among the crowded multi-story buildings. The man blew his nose and threw the snotty tissue into the narrow alley below, which was hardly larger than a passageway, whose sides were junky with low drifts of litter: cigarette butts, beer bottles, water-logged newspapers and magazines, partially burnt chunks of wood and, of course, scattered and crumpled tissues. 

43. On a narrow sunless street near the base of a hectic hillside I saw a great splash of water—a bucket’s worth?—land at my feet and looked up to see a woman on a fourth-floor balcony looking down. Others nearby yelled up at her, and she yelled right back. Only moments later torrential rains began and filled the old street with rushing water like the woman had planned her disposal—just slightly mistimed. 

44. On a hot hillside I saw broken pieces of ancient marble ruins lying like disused logs amid blood-orange wild flowers.

45. On a fine moonlit night, while strolling across a moderately crowded bridge, I saw a wide river’s surface that was so still, a near-perfect mirror of lamps and building lights along the riverside. I was admiring this sight when I heard a close, brutal clap. I turned to see a man withdraw his hands as he continued walking, soon passing a couple taking photos of themselves and the view behind them.

46. After buying two books I saw an eager bookseller reach for a third, a book I did not want. 

47. I saw old dark concrete passing by from a funicular without a view—it was a narrow tunnel, the wall only inches away—that terminated near a spectacular view, the hills and buildings and the bay like a beautiful vision that at once concealed and glorified the old city, the great volcano beyond with its blown top obscured by storm clouds.

48. I could not see, only hear, a rapidly flowing river under the street as I walked toward cliffs, vertical and green, where colorful homes were stacked on slopes like a drunken dare. 

49. In a visibly poor neighborhood in the ancient port city—through which my grandmother’s family immigrated to America 100 years ago—with congested apartments near the hill’s base, where the rooms were tiny, at least from street view, rooms too small and over-crowded, for the briefest of moments as I passed by, this is what I saw: an older but not elderly woman with long gray hair carefully brushed down across her shoulders, arms not visible but at her side, cocooned under a tightly wrapped soft blue blanket, beside which stood an oxygen tank and tubes, as her son, only a few feet away in a small kitchenette, washed dishes. She looked right at me, the occasional passing object as she lay sick and likely dying, and in that moment she offered a strange and beautiful affirmation of the journey.

50. I looked down from steep stone steps and, as beautiful and violent storm clouds separated, I saw the sea become an impossible blue. 

 

[2016]