One great blessing of my work has been the privilege to travel, but very often travel can be a burden. A jumbo jet is not nearly as comfortable as your own home, no matter how much the advertisements dress it up. Also, much of my travel is to places lots of others would not particularly want to go. And the things I do there are often hard and painful. Physically and emotionally.
Nevertheless, if you travel from Melbourne, you will often find yourself 'in transit' through a tourist destination. I have had many such interludes. A few hours or a day or two. Sometimes I pack things into an overseas trip to try to get the most value out of the considerable cost. During such trips, a day or two break in the middle is essential for the health of the body, mind and soul.
Here are notes from two such interludes, the first in London, England, the other in Assisi, Italy.
At first it may seem unclear why I include these in a book about an inner journey. There is a reason. I don't want to give the impression that my inner journey towards justice was planned and organised. In truth, I did not seek it. Nor did I willingly embrace it as I discovered that something was going on in my soul. Often I was in denial.
Besides, there were many easy distractions. It was easy, as I did in London this day, just to switch off, enter the present and fully enjoy it. These accounts are included to show how much I enjoyed the opportunity to escape. There was nothing bad about this; indeed, it was necessary therapy. Yet too much of this kind of sheer tourism could become indulgent.
The visit to Assisi began with the same escape motif. Yet I realised that more was going on in my soul. I could not simply be a tourist in a place which commemorated the life and work of this great saint of the Christian faith. My diaries fail to record the mystical nature of this visit, and perhaps that is inevitable; nothing specially different happened, and my diaries tend to record only what did happen. Yet later I saw the Assisi visit in a special light. The souvenirs and books I bought are prominent around our house today, speaking to a special and needed kind of spirituality.
Begin in South Kensington
It was the fourth or fifth time I'd stayed at the Alexander Hotel, which was really just a series of tenement houses that had been converted. I presumed they were built sometime last century in South Kensington, not too far from Harrods and the Kensington Palace. You could walk into London from there if you were not in a hurry, but the tube was handy and only 80p.
The hotel had three stories and my room was on the top, with a window that peeped over the wall into the street. It was not well ventilated and rather humid, so I was sweaty soon after my morning bath.
I sent a long fax to Judy and wrote some postcards, then at 10.30 went to the tube. I had no particular aim for the day. Originally I thought I would go to Windsor Castle, but that could wait another time. After a week of being organised almost every second of the day, it would be good to waste time productively.
I looked at The Maze (otherwise known as the map of the London Underground) and decided to buy a ticket for Piccadilly Circus.
En route to the station I bought a paper and looked up the movies. The Swiss Centre was showing a mixture of foreign films. They had a new print of Belle du jour and a 1991 film La Double Vie de Veronique. This won the Best Actress award for the lead, Irene Jacobs, at the Cannes Film Festival. I thought I might see one of these in the afternoon.
Go Directly to Piccadilly. Do Not Pass GO.
The Underground disgorged me at Piccadilly Circus by the 'Eros' statue. Actually, it isn't a statue of 'Eros' at all, but of the 'Spirit of Charity' in the likeness of some bloke who used to own all the land round these parts. But the locals had clearly placed a more carnal interpretation on the statue and it had stuck.
I was surprised at the huge number of people around It was obviously the height of the summer tourist season. All day I kept hearing accents from European countries, and from America, Japan and Australia. Hardly a Brit in sight.
I wandered into a huge fun parlour with a galaxy of video games. Among them was the latest rage, 'Virtual Reality'. For 3 pounds you could put on a thing like a motor cycle helmet and be transported right inside a game. In one of them you 'drove' through a video city shooting at huge robots. The action was visible on six television monitors so you could see what each player could see. Everyone played against the others. I remembered watching the Natalie Wood movie Brainstorm in which they predicted this exact phenomenon.
At midday I sat at a table in a pizza restaurant and ordered mushroom pizza and red wine for lunch. I watched the passing parade of tourists and young people. The youth of London looked like the youth of most other places. But then, maybe they were the youth of other places.
Attack of the Killer Pigeons
After lunch I wandered down the Haymarket and soon found myself at Trafalgar Square. What a crowd! There were more people than pigeons.
The vendors with the bird seed franchise were cleaning up. For 5Op they gave you a little cup of seed so you could tempt pigeons to come and excrete on your shoulders, claw holes in your cashmere and peck blood out of your fingers. The tourists were lapping it up.
I wondered why I hadn't brought my camera. Perhaps it was that it had been three years since I'd been in London during the summer, and all I remembered was grey boring streets, none of which I wanted to photograph again. Here there were wonderful shots of people all over the place.
You're Asking ME for directions?
I sat on the rails opposite the National Museum and consulted my map. A woman in her twenties came up to me and said, 'Excuse me, do you know the way to Oxford Street?'
She had a German accent (or was it Icelandic? I always get them confused) and another woman hovered in the background with one of those I'm-not-game-to-speak-English expressions on her face. I recognised it immediately since I have seen a similar expression from the inside when I've been in places where they don't speak my language. I was tempted to say, 'No, but I know the way to San Jose'. However, valour conquered indiscretion, and I said, 'Yes', pointing out on the map where I was sitting and where Oxford Street was.
'You just go down there to Piccadilly Circus, then keep going around to the right.'
'I go Piccadilly Circus?' she asked, looking at the map as if it were instructions for assembling a nuclear accelerator.
'Just down there', I said, pointing down the street.
'Sank you', she said and wandered off in the general direction of down there explaining things to her friend. I'm sure they got lost.
I wandered into the first of half a dozen book stores that I poked around during the day. I found two interesting word books. One was a dictionary of problem words and phrases that are often misused. For example, Hamlet says, 'Alas, poor Yorick, I knew him, Horatio', but for some reason everyone says, 'Alas, poor Yorick. I knew him well'. The other was a book of difficult words, like imbroglio. Did you know the 'g' is silent? Nothing to get into an imbroglio about.
Next I found a market with lots of craft shops selling local and overseas crafts, including the same things you can buy in World Vision International Clubs handcrafts program but much dearer. Things looked cheap until you realised 20 pounds was really $52. A Gaelic trio played music that sounded like it was being dragged through a tea strainer.
I stepped into a lane of seventeenth century houses and found a peaceful place away from the tourists. It was only about two metres wide and all the houses had bay windows bending outwards. I guessed they were all offices now.
At the end of the lane I was back among the crowd, and heading towards Covent Garden. I could hear music and applause. I could not have planned a better place to go on a summer Sunday.
Covent Garden was pulsing with vitality. Here people of all types, colours and designs mingled like cassatas. A shirtless guy had green, yellow and red hair that stuck half a metre in the air. A giggle of Japanese girls squashed into a doorway eating frozen yoghurt. A girl with a French accent (or maybe it was Icelandic) said, 'Sir, can you make a picture for us please?' Fortunately her camera made the picture. I just pointed it and pressed the button. Beautifully framed.
Little kids were having their faces painted. Bigger kids were having multi-coloured strings woven into their hair. All sorts were having their profiles sketched by sidewalk artists. And everyone was flowing past hundreds of street stalls with every imaginable kind of craft. Ceramic animals. Jewellery made from anything. Pens lathed out of wood. Even baskets woven by Kurds out of telephone wire.
There were food stalls and restaurants, but few places you could buy a Coke.
In and around all this was street theatre. Robotic dancing. A Glynn Nicholas type doing all sorts of indescribable things with kids in the crowd. A man who twirled on his head (wearing a crash helmet). Jugglers. A man who picked pockets and whipped a bra out from under one lady's T-shirt (not her bra, although she wasn't sure for a moment).
Shop Lifting and AIDS
In another book shop I stood beside a woman who folded up a soft cover book she had been inspecting and put it casually into her handbag. I wanted desperately to turn her in. I watched as she walked out of the shop to join her husband and daughter waiting outside. If I'd been sure that I wouldn't be required to appear at the Old Bailey later, I would have said something. But I was too selfishly concerned for my own unimportant agenda and let the crime go. Why do people do this? Unfathomable.
I bought an ice cream from a counter where a shop assistant cut her finger as I waited. A drop of blood stained the Rocky Road so I asked for plain chocolate. Can you get AIDS from ice cream? I wondered.
I decided to make for the Swiss Centre in Leicester Square. The square was always a hive of activity on the weekend evenings, with its cinemas and many restaurants. Drunks and ordinarily happy people sat around, with foreigners arriving on the hour to see the Swiss Centre clock play its many bells. Extremely kitsch, but that brings in the tourists.
Dinner and the Movies
It was now almost six o'clock, so I found the cinema with the Bunuel festival and decided to see The Double Life of Veronica. It was most mysterious and very spooky. I really enjoyed it.
I joined the madding throng at the Bella Pizza restaurant and had Tagliatelle Bosciajola and a small bottle of Valpolicella. Thus fortified, and feeling like some real escapism, I went to the nine o'clock screening of The Universal Soldier, an entirely gratuitous and megaviolent movie about robo-soldiers manufactured out of dead Vietnam vets.
I crammed into the eleven o'clock train to South Kensington with the rest of the Saturday night movie crowd. You certainly can't be alone in London on a Saturday night, although you can still be lonely.
It rained during the night and I awoke to a grey, rainy day. Ahead of me was a flight to LA. A hire car took me to the airport for around A$65. I think London is the only place in the world where hire cars are cheaper than taxis.
I arrived at Rome around 8.15 p.m. and the fun began. I had to pick up a rental car then drive to Assisi, about 120 kilometres away. I had been studying maps and reckoned I knew the way. The problems turned out to be of a different kind. I knew one road was a tollway. I had on my person 6,000 lire, or about A$6.00. Someone had told me the tolls in Italy were big, so I was hardly sure if this would be enough.
No problem, I thought, I'll just change some money. All the automatic Cambio machines were out of order. At the one teller open at the bank there was a line of at least fifty Japanese waiting for change. I decided to go elsewhere, found the rental car courtesy bus and proceeded to Hertz.
They gave me a Fiat Uno and informed me that if I wanted change I would have to go back to the airport. I got on the bus again and retraced my steps. Eventually, after walking around the terminal, I found a machine that was operating and got some lire. Back on the bus to Hertz, into the car and off.
The little Fiat buzzed along efficiently and reasonably quietly. It would sit on 110-120 except on the steepest hills. I went towards Rome, found the ring road (a huge motorway that circled Rome about twenty kilometres out) and about thirty kilometres later found the Al north towards Firenze. Soon I came to the toll gates, took my ticket and drove on.
For the next sixty kilometres the slow lane was a constant stream of semi-trailers heading north at around a 100 kilometres per hour. I had never seen so many trucks in one place. The stream never stopped. It became mesmerising. Just as remarkable, there was a similar stream coming south on the other side of the tollway. Clearly goods moved by road in Europe, and at night.
After a while I came to one of my scheduled turn-offs and the exit toll gates. Fortunately this was just like those in France, where they ring up your toll on a display, so I didn't have to try to translate Cinque mille cento loggio autelegniatto quadriphonico ravioli, gracie.
It was 4,500 lire, about $4.50, so I would have had enough after all. Never mind; it saved me changing money later.
Assisi, This Way. But Where Is My Hotel?
Now I was on an ordinary highway of good standard, sign-posted with logical signs that were easy to read. I went for about seventeen kilometres before coming to a sign that said Peruggia/Assisi and turned off. About eighty kilometres further on another sign said Assisi and I was almost there.
Although it was dark I saw plenty of civilisation on the way. Towns and commercial areas hugged the road in most places. Occasionally I would break free for a few kilometres but soon I'd be in the next town. The compactness of Europe is always a surprise to Australians.
Eventually, I saw ahead of me, up on a high hill, the Basilica of Saint Francis at the edge of Assisi. It was still flood-lit at 11.45 p.m.
Now the hard part began. Although I had a map of Assisi and thought I had committed it to memory, I was soon bamboozled. The road was full of twists and turns and hardly any street had a name on it. I drove around for fifteen minutes, stopping about four times to reorientate myself Each time I thought I had it sorted out, but then got confused again.
Eventually I asked a man who was closing some shutters on a hotel where the Hotel Giotto was. He took three steps back and pointed up over the top of the nearby buildings. High on the hill, about 200 metres away, was the roof of my hotel.
He explained how to get there. 'Out the gate, the road turns around a bit until you get to the traffic light. Then go straight ahead and up the hill.'
I found my way out the gate (the city is walled) and down a stretch of road that twisted like spaghetti for 200 metres. At the traffic light (just one, permanently red, next to a sign which I translated as No Entry) there was a narrow fork. Both directions seemed 'straight ahead', but only one went up; and since I had actually gone down the other one twice already that evening, I went up. Beyond the No Entry sign (which fortunately also said, in English, Except for residents and hotel guests) I found my hotel.
The night porter took my passport and car keys and gave me a room key. The check-in procedure at Italian hotels was the fastest in the world. The room was simple. It had a painted concrete floor, a single bed with a teak laminex bed-head, a wardrobe, a desk and a vinyl covered lounge chair. There was no room for a second bed. The ensuite had a shower but no screens or curtains, so when you showered, the whole bathroom got a spray.
It was 12.30 a.m. by now so I didn't need encouragement to sleep. Although the bed was banana shaped, I slept well until noises on the solid floors outside woke me just before my alarm around 7.40 a.m.
I pulled up the shutters and the view took my breath away.
I looked over the roofs of Assisi. In the foreground was a jumble of stone buildings in local pink and white stone, tiny gardens and a few tall, slim pine trees. Beyond was a wide, wide valley with farms and towns spreading into the distant haze. Just beautiful. I wanted to stay forever.
I spent the morning bringing my notes up to date. It seemed a shame to work rather than go sight-seeing, but I felt better getting my responsibilities out of the way first. Every now and then I could look out the window and say, 'I am really here'.
By the time I'd got everything done and faxes sent, it was almost noon. I wandered out and found my way to the Basilica of Saint Francis. Not surprisingly it was just closing for lunch, to re-open at 2.00. I bought a local guide book and wandered along until I found the city square.
On the way a man in a black trench coat looked at me as if he was trying to get my attention. A few minutes later I spotted him again and he made eye contact with me. A minute later I was standing by a stone wall admiring the view when he came up beside me. He was in his early 40s.
'Lovely view', he said in an American accent. Where are you from?'
'Melbourne', I replied, then added 'Australia' in case he hadn't noticed the word written in 500 point type on my cap.
'Yes, I saw the word Austria and realised it was in English.'
I thought this a funny thing to say, and I noticed he was looking at me in a decidedly funny way. In fact, he was leering at me. Suddenly I became convinced he was trying to pick me up!
I was surprised at how revolted I felt by this. If you'd asked me whether I would have been disgusted by such an approach, I would have said yes; but I was really disgusted. My stomach turned and I felt deeply insulted that this jerk would think whatever he was thinking about me. [A later note: Some readers have asked what I meant by this paragraph. So here goes: I had thought of myself as having a liberal view towards homosexuality. My intellectual position had been, and still is, that homosexuality is one of the many expressions of sexuality. Certainly my views on the matter are not in line with many conservative Christians, but I prefer a position that is non-judgemental. God loves all his creation, so why should I not be tolerant, and even welcoming to all its interesting manifestations. However, I discovered in this little encounter that I had a physical reaction that was quite homophobic, inconsistent with my intellectual position. I found that disturbing and hard to explain. So I didn't try to explain it, but live with the interesting contradiction.]
I had attained an insight into another aspect of injustice.
I said, 'It is a lovely view' and turned and walked away. Out of the corner of my eye I saw him follow, but when I turned down a side street, I saw him no more.
Travel Is Wasted On The Young
The rest of Assisi was magnificent, wondrous, inspirational.
I had lunch at a restaurant on a first floor verandah overlooking the main town square. Many buildings were from the time of Saint Francis, the eleventh century and before. The place was full of tourists and so many teenagers. It seemed that every second person was carrying a back-pack.
After lunch I found the Church of St Clare. She was a follower of Saint Francis and began an order called the Poor Clares. Her tomb was downstairs. As usual, the relics of the saint were buried under the high altar, but steps led down to a crypt from where one could view the coffin.
I meandered back in the direction of the Basilica and stopped briefly in a church which had been built over another church that dated from Roman times. Unfortunately the steps leading down to these Roman foundations were closed.
While walking I realised that I spent a lot of my life writing things to Judy in my head. Whenever I travelled, I was constantly shaping things I wanted to tell her. I hadn't realised how much this made me think about my family. This was therapeutic for me. Another way of being with loved ones when not actually with them.
Around 3.00 p.m. I came to the Basilica of Saint Francis itself and spent the next hour and a half looking it over. There were two churches, one built right on top of the other. That meant there were actually three, since there was also a crypt under the lower one.
Soon after Saint Francis died in 1232 they built the lower church to house his tomb. By 1239 the Pope had arranged for a larger church to be built on top of the first one. Last century, the Pope arranged for a crypt to be excavated under the lower one so that the coffin of Saint Francis could be viewed. They also checked the contents and confirmed (they don't say how) that the relics were indeed those of Francis of Assisi.
Naturally, the lower church was gloomy. Like many old churches it had a bunch of extra chapels leading off left and right, each with its own elaborate decorations. There was no doubt that regular worship in such a place could be a rich experience. So much had been put into the surroundings that you could reflect on different elements of the artistry every time you came. My see-it-all-in-one-afternoon approach couldn't do justice to the work of the builders and artists involved.
Downstairs the crypt was bare. The sides of a stone coffin were displayed behind glass. Upstairs the upper church was tall and light by contrast. Around the walls were twenty-eight large frescoes, mostly by Giotto, depicting events in Francis' life. It was quite interesting to make the life journey, even if some of my reflecting was interrupted by a monk explaining the frescoes to a German tour party.
I bought some souvenirs and wandered slowly back to the hotel.