Monday, April 19, 2010

Flying- A Five Step Program

I love flying.

The first time I flew in an airplane, (well, I haven't flown any other way) I was traveling between the exotic locales of Cleveland and Boston. I was hooked and glued to the window. The flight attendant had to try three or four times to get my attention to offer me some peanuts; I took the bag and put my nose right back on the window. Now, this is pretty much standard procedure for me; but, probably soon, the airlines will be charging for the peanuts and I won't be distracted at all.

But, there is another side. No, it isn't a love/hate relationship I have with flying, it is a love/scared-shitless-I-may-not-make-it-alive-time-to-make-it-right-with-everyone relationship. I experience this every time, but only during take-off and landing. Especially take-off, though. The business people around me (all two of them who fly coach) are completely unfazed after logging ten-thousand hours in flight; the kids are too busy doing the inevitable bouncing on and kicking the seat in front of them to know the difference; other people have ingested enough alcohol through their ten dollar drinks at the airport that if something really bad happened, they would be immolated so fast they wouldn't know what happened.

Me? I go through a real quick version of the K├╝bler-Ross model for facing death.

1. Denial
a. I tell myself about how infrequent a plane crash is.
Of course, it can happen as infrequently as the Chicago Cubs winning the World Series; it only has to happen once to moi.
b. I tell myself driving a car is much more risky.
Yeah right. I've been in car accidents. Hell, I've been in a six-car pile-up in Maryland and, as far as I remember, it didn't involve falling thousands of feet.
2. Anger
I usually skip over this pretty quick, unless a kid is behind me doing the inevitable, well, you know. The last time I flew to Rome I saw an elderly gentleman (one of those adjectives is being used quite casually) fly into a jaw-unhinging rage because someone was talking too loud near him. Funny, I didn't hear the other people talking at all; the, uh, old man was yelling at decibels that would match a jackhammer. I guess he was just going through stage two.
3. Bargaining
Oh, yes. Big time. Then I feel really stupid.
4. Depression
I'll spare you the details. Which brings us on to-
5. Acceptance
This is, basically, most of the process for me. Sometimes I don't have much time for the others, so I have to go through them in rapid succession. I may be distracted reading, or we've been waiting forever to taxi to the runway and I don't see what's happening until it's almost too late. Then I spring into action, moving as fast as I can to stage five. This is where I start to say goodbye to everyone I know and love. I ask them to forgive me- "I'm sorry I didn't appreciate that" or, "I'm sorry I'm a pain in the ass", or one of the many variations on a basic theme. I tell them I forgive them, if there is anyone I think fits in this category, then I take a deep breath, hold onto the armrest with a grip that would strangle a wolverine in two seconds flat, and pray.

When the plane has reached a height and speed that seems in keeping with a nice, fairly smooth flight, and not fiery terror, then I take another deep breath, stare out the window, completely enjoy myself and look forward to the in-flight selection of alcohol. From my experience, Air France serves champagne for free on transatlantic flights, and that sure can help me forget all about those five steps I've just completed. Until we are about to land.

Saturday, April 17, 2010


The small plane arced over the countryside and descended toward the Arno river valley, preparing for its landing at Peretola, outside Florence. There were streaks of rain on my window and I looked out, trying to get my bearings in a place I'd never been to before. Wreathed in fog, the shapes of buildings took form- first, red tiled houses, then concrete industrial buildings ahead. A quick view of the river and then looking up, there it was! In the rain and fog I could only see its silhouette, but nothing more than that was needed. I immediately recognized the Duomo with a clarity that was matched only by my ability to remember that split-second now.

All the photographs did not prepare me for how the cupola of Santa Maria del Fiore dominates the city. I don't know why not. The pictures I had seen in art history books show very clearly the scale of the dome in relation to the buildings surrounding it. I had read about its construction, had diagrams projected before me in a lecture hall and remembered Alberti's pronouncement how the dome was "ample to cover with its shadow all the Tuscan people". A bit metaphorical, of course,... herringbone brickwork,... capomaestro,... Sir John Hawkwood,... "Oh my God, LOOK at that!"

But this foreknowledge was something of my mind, this sight was tied directly to my heart.

With gracious thanks to Francesca Birini for allowing me to use her photograph here. You can see her fantastic work under the name of Firenzesca on Thanks Francesca!

Friday, April 16, 2010


Before I went to Florence for the first time, I had studied art history, seen photos of the major architectural sites and looked at maps. From this information I started to build a conception of the place, bit by bit. I imagined the place and saw in my mind small scenes, vignettes, patterns and shapes that bridged the gaps and connected the received facts. The images of particular paintings, sculptures and palazzi took root and held. My imaginings of streets, interiors and landscapes remained as concrete as smoke.

There is a distance between the reality of desire and the reality of experience.

Flying in over Tuscany, the countryside was hidden from view with a thick layer of fog and cloud. The cover broke for a moment and I first caught a glimpse of the landscape with its shapes of fields dotted by groves of trees accentuated by lines of cypresses far below, all rising and falling with the undulations of the hills. I remember seeing farmhouses and roads down below and my breath caught suddenly at its beauty. I couldn't help it. It didn't look real. Here I was seeing it out the window and I wouldn't have been any more surprised to see a child's hand come down from the clouds to move the toy farmhouse to another hill. I had memorized representations of this landscape by artists like Ambrogio Lorenzetti and Balthus and thought the paintings had taken some liberties. Their views looked abstracted and slightly childlike in their depictions, with an emphasis on the elements of the land forming designs, much like my imaginings. The land as patterns, shapes, lines formed of dots all held within gold, green and earth tones.

Now I knew they had seen it as it is. My imaginings also had held this reality.

The distance between desire and experience had merged.

Space - Over the Ocean

The first time I flew over the ocean, my flight left from Boston on a May evening. I was traveling to Florence through Brussels on, what was then, the cheapest flight available on the airline that was known for packing in budget-conscious students- SABENA. Later I heard that according to some flyers the name of the airline was actually an acronym for Such A Bad Experience Never Again. I had no problem. I was sitting next to a window on the left side of the plane riveted to the view.

I was experiencing the shortest night of my life. Even though the flight left at around 7:30, the light went quickly as we headed northeast toward Nova Scotia. Shortly after, out of the darkness below, I saw the lights of a city reaching out to the edge of the land. I recognized it as, most likely, St. John's, Newfoundland, and the tiny dots below were showing me the last habitation of fellow human beings before going over the edge. It was suddenly blacker than black below me, in my seat, inside the shell of sheet metal with engines.

Yes, I'm one of those people who open the shade of the window to see the sun rise while others are trying to sleep. But, I did use my blanket to cover the window and myself and peered out, like a photographer using an old studio camera. The view seemed more like that of someone in space, seeing the sun rise above the ocean, than in an airplane relatively close above the waves.

Ireland followed with its patchworks of greens, and after a bit to eat, England followed where I could make out the oval of the metropolis of London, stretched out below.

Then, when we were flying over the English Channel, the last portion of the journey, I had a strange experience. It was still early morning, the sun rising up in front of us and its light hitting on an angle on the surface of the waves below. I could see the bottom of the channel, the ground below the waves, as the light palpably illuminated the distance between the surface of the water and the undersea land. I could see this underwater land rising as I could visually discern the changing of this distance, bit by bit. It was like looking near the edge of a lake, or a bathtub, and seeing that in one place the water is ten inches deep, there, maybe five inches. The land continued to rise under the deep until there was created an edge, as cut by a razor- here
"water", here "land".

Within minutes we landed outside Brussels. Although it was all new, I dutifully left the plane, found the bus to the proper terminal, showed my passport. I handled it all well. But, inside I was overcome with the beauty I'd just seen. If an airport official had approached me and informed me that there was some mistake, I'd have to leave and fly back to Boston, I would have nodded my head and quietly gone back. Just the flight over the ocean was beyond anything I had experienced before.

Saturday, April 10, 2010


The best way that I can describe the passage of time when I first went to Florence (it actually was my first time across the ocean) was that I was living a parallel life. It was much like dreaming, where you may doze off for only ten minutes, but, it seems that hours have passed as all manner of events take place in the dream world. I took the airport shuttle bus to Boston, took my bags inside Terminal E at Logan and went through all the necessary steps. When I went through the passageway into the plane my regular life stopped, held almost with a click, shifted to one side and this very separate life moved into place and started running. A transition so smooth and seamless that I had no idea at the time that it was happening.

Friday, April 9, 2010

Countdown - Thirty days

In less than an hour it will be Saturday.
Then my countdown will be thirty days before I go back to Florence.

I will be taking eight students for a university summer study abroad program, going to the art historical sites and drawing all over the city and beyond. The students will be staying in apartments in the city center, shopping at the markets, cooking their meals (at least part of the time), exploring and just having fun.

My rental apartment is on Via Palazzuolo, west of the very center of Florence, but still in the middle of it all. For me, returning to Florence will be a mixture of the familiar with always so much that is new. But, in bringing my students with me, I always get a taste of my first experiences of the place.

I want to give you a taste, too.


There may be 140 or 150 million blogs out there. Here is another drop of water. Like almost anyone doing this, I'm interested in making a connection with friends and, hopefully, new friends, who, like me, love to travel. But, if you're like me, you see travel as more than going to new places and having new experiences.
Not that there's anything wrong with that.

There is something about the process
of traveling, of moving from one point to another, of coming to know a place as it unfolds before you, that resonates with me. It is the sense of our moving through our lives in compact, intensified form. It is living deliberately.

The Embarkation for Cythera by Jean-Antoine Watteau, Musee' du Louvre