The last couple of days have been extremely busy, beautiful and sometimes frustrating. We have been using our rented car to make wonderful little day trips to the smaller villages and cities outside of Perugia in Umbria. Each of these has its own feel or character and is different from the others but they all share in common a medieval foundation and a history that seems integrated into the modern matter-of-fact lives lived by the Italians in these cities. Additionally, all the cities we’re visiting are located on hillsides or hilltops. Usually you park outside and then walk up to the hill on cobblestones to begin your visit. Each of the cities is visible from miles away with peaks of fortress towers, domes, stone walls and red tiles set against the green hills. You’re always looking up at these places. Then when you get there all the buildings, whether churches or historical government buildings, are designed to make you look up again as you stand at their foot. The Italians are clearly a vertically oriented people. As you know I’m not a church-going guy but I do wonder what would it be like to have the choice of dropping in daily on these settings that invariably include amazing frescoes and paintings by Giotto, Donatello, Michelangelo or any of the other ultra-artists of this period.
For some strange reason, I found the visit to Assisi touched me in ways that I hadn’t expected. Assisi is of course known as the home grounds of Saint Francis, the monk who, although never ordained as a priest, is considered one of the holiest of the big rollers. He eschewed the pomp and riches of the church and after hearing a revelation from a talking cross (and idea more fully realized by all the talking objects like Chairy that lived in PeeWee’s Playhouse) decided to give it all up and live in simple robes and be kind to all people and animals. Later in life he went on to become the founder of PETA. The church built to honor St. Francis is one of the most beautiful we’ve seen. I wouldn’t call it simple by any means, but it does lack a lot of the overkill gold and gilt of many others. The inner walls are covered with 26 (I think) amazing frescoes telling the life of St. Francis done by Giotto. Frescoes are naturally muted in color so maybe that’s why it can be both elaborate and calming. Strolling through the streets of Assisi you encounter many monks all dressed simply in robes and jackets.
On the other hand I felt compelled to stop in my tracks and give an on-the-spot “What part of St. Francis Don’t You Get Award to the guy who runs the St. Francis of Assisi jewelry store, where you can buy all the St. Francis bling you want.
Anyway, Assisi and St. Francis touch me in a way that other Christian stories dont. I’m not sure if I feel the connection because I worked in St. Francis Lutheran church in San Francisco for five years and I cut my professional teeth at Friends of Saint Francis Children’s Center in the Castro/Duboce Triangle part of that city. That experience working with those families profoundly shaped my whole career.
Also notable in Assisi is the church dedicated to another homie, Santa Chiara (Claire). Besides the usual mix of miracles Sta. Chiara was declared in 1959 (I didn’t make this up) the patron saint of television. She was selected for this honor because one day while lying ill in her bed, wearing her favorite hair shirt (true) and unable to see the mass being celebrated in another church she was able to see the whole service on the wall of her room. This was before they had wall-mount TV sets. St. Claire lived on bread and water and wore hair shirts until St. Francis, her contemporary, talked her out of that. I’m not really clear whether or not St. Claire ever saw anything else on her wall. But Assisi is that kind of town, the crosses talk to people and the walls show premium visions
I kind of imagine her up in heaven sitting on a cloud watching TV (tuned to some televangelist) surrounded by hovering angels all with the face of Lucille Ball and Vivian Vance (Ethel).
That said, Assisi is a beautiful town where it seems we can all participate in miracles if just show up and be grateful.
So, what’s up with the title of today’s opus? When Karen and I first started living together she bought a great little Fiat sedan. At that time Fiat’s had a questionable rating regarding their reliability and the common joke was that FIAT stood for Fix It Again Tony. Nowadays Fiat owns Alfa Romeo, Lancia, Maserati, Ferrari, and the Chrysler brands. Anyway it was a great little car for us and worked well until the day we traded it in (and pulled up to the car dealer with smoke billowing out from under the hood.) Anyway, we rented a car here for our time in Umbria so we could easily get to the various hill towns. Given the all the options of cars we could have rented they gave us a Ford Focus. To put it mildly Karen struggled with the Italian traffic, or as we call it the Not-So-Dolce-Vita. Let’ say she was tense. My favorite part was the way the giant trucks drive on the two lane roads which they by their fiat (couldn’t resist) they have turned into one lane roads. Any they’re coming at you. Anyway, on our way back to our castle the Focus died on the freeway. It lost all power. We managed to get the car off the road and standing in front of us was a Fiat dealer with a mechanic. So we kinda-coasted in. Fortunately for us there was an employee there who had lived in the US and spokevery good English. He couldn’t have been more helpful. It turned out that he had done research at the University of Texas in Austin. He’d also received a PhD. in chemistry from the University of Bathe in England. He spoke four languages. He’d moved his family back to the Perugia area to be near his family. I think it is a sign of Italy’s financial times that someone with his background worked at Fiat dealership. Anyway we’ll always be grateful to him for helping us get the rental agency to come and pickup the dead Ford and get us to the rental agency for a new car.
We took the taxi into the rental agency and they issued us a new car that worked without pedaling it or using the Flintstone’s technique. We all piled in and Karen backed it up a few feet into a crosswalk and a traffic sign. Oh well. In the dark there was no apparent damage. We did finally get back to the castle and said a grateful prayer to Saint Johnny Walker.
The next morning we said good by to Molly. Our trip with her was wonderful. She had energy, curiosity, and general wonderfulness. She tolerated us pretty well. It had been our intention to drive her into the Rome airport and then turn around and drive through the rain to the farm in Tuscany where we’re now ensconced for the week. Instead we opted to give her the world’s most expensive taxi ride into Rome and we packed up and headed uneventfully to Chiusi in Tuscany to drop off the car at the rental agency. When we got there no was in the office (of course) so we left the keys in a drop box. OK, all that aside here are a couple of pics along the way.