Halifax is not my destination; Delta Airlines takes me there anyway. It had been an uneventful flight from Venice to New York until now. Smooth, quiet, leaving me time to reflect before the diversions and all the other ADL’s set in. After all this time, medical lingo lingers in my head. Activities of Daily Living (only a scientist could lump what it means to live in one phrase.) “The patient is cleared for ADL or the patient is discharged but needs help with ADL.”
“Signori e Signorae. Ladies and Gentleman,” the pilot announces, “Some one on board is sick, has difficulty breathing and it is necessary that we re-route to Halifax. Is there a doctor or a nurse on board?”
I sit bone still; someone else can tend to the ailing passenger. If I wait, someone else will. The noble claims of practicing medicine over the years had dissolved into the day-to-day anguish of helplessness. Maybe I should have known that oncology would take a part of my soul. What was the catalyst? I try to recall. Was it the eight-year old girl and all the decorative fish in the fish tank in the pediatric ward dying all at once?
Chicken pox invaded the leukemia-ridden body of the child; she faded away. The fish died of something called “ick.” It was all ick if you had asked me back then. No one did; I walked away. I gave in to the “Call of my Wild.”
This new calling of mine beckoned me to travel to Italy in search of a muse, but the lure of the Italian landscape with its perfumed air, ancient ruins and culinary sensations inspired me not to write, but to laze around gazing at the scenery. I walked the ancient streets, thinking about writing but not once did I put pen to paper. The weather was hot with an unrelenting intensity; I strolled along, unbothered by it, letting Italy cast its spell.
Rome, in particular fueled my procrastination. It was tourist season; they were out en masse, in lines following flag carrying guides, or on tour buses driven by skilled natives who could maneuver the cobblestoned Roman streets with ease, or they could be found in the early morning standing having Cappuccino at cafes, or in the heat of the afternoon, sitting, occupying every square inch of the marble surrounds of every fountain.
Coming to Rome in July to work among the crowds proved futile. I took in the sights, the sounds, the smells, absorbing it all, storing it up, with the hope that I could resurrect the experience when I could create some distance. This was my justification for not writing while traveling. Yet, I carried a notebook, jotted ideas down as I perused Italy’s antiquities, imagining life in the early Roman Empire, as a true writer should.
I was troubled by sleepless nights, haunted by clever linguistic diatribes swirling overhead in half dreams. I woke most mornings to the sound of church bells resonating up to the heavens over the kaleidoscope of tile rooftops that were visible only to those looking out of hotel balconies. I recognized the tunes from childhood, from Catholic school, the memories of enforced rote worship.
I woke exhausted, tainted with feelings of overwhelming guilt for not having what it takes to be a writer. “To be a writer, one must write every day, be disciplined,” or so it says in every writer’s journal, in every how to and by everyone in the know about writing.
Writing isn’t exactly the reprieve I was looking for; it’s cathartic when it flows freely, when it doesn’t, it proves to be painful, leaving me feeling as powerless and inept as before. But writing is haunting; it too never leaves me; it follows me on dog walks, doorbell and telephone answering. I’m always thinking, “Why am I not doing it and why does one neighbor never pull his shades down and why does the other one never pull them up? Distractions, all of it! Venice will be different, I tell myself; that is where I will find my muse.
The train to Venice took four hours; it was enough time to soak up the flavor of the countryside. I assigned myself a window seat. It was from this seat, I decided, that I would make a conscious effort to put my abilities to the test. From this seat, I would watch from my writer’s point of view as the exotic otherness of Italy unfolded before me like an unwinding spool of newsreel.
It was gifted material there for the taking. Farmers tilling the soil; people driving in teeny vehicles speeding over modern highways like characters in a cartoon, rows and rows of sunflowers swaying in the slight breeze while bathing their sunflower faces in the warmth of their namesake; a once thriving medieval village that lay in towering picturesque ruin left me in its wake with the overwhelming desire to research its history as well as its eventual demise. I could imagine it, if nothing else.
But the train stopped in Florence for a brief layover, and distractions seeped out in the form of an English speaking couple. They were debating over who would be the one who would leave the train to buy a magazine that the wife could read for the rest of the trip. The window of the train surely offered a world of entertainment far more spectacular than any rag magazine could even hope to provide. Yet, there they were squabbling, causing a commotion, a distraction diverting my attention.
That’s all it took; ideas vaporized, gone like the fleeting landscape I had been looking at. I hadn’t written a word; as usual, I’d merely been an observer.
The woman, it was decided would be the one to leave. The husband had no idea what magazine to buy, what if there were none in English, then what? All of it distracting banter that seemed to reverberate off the walls of the train seeping into my thoughts at the same time, erasing all that came before. She left, he stayed behind, seated but watching for her return like a dog suffering from separation anxiety. Time was up; conductor announced what I assumed was: “All aboard,” in Italian and off we went out of the Florentine station. The husband turned pale and panicky; his business became my business since I was a compatriot. His wife, in a no doubt robotic move, had taken her purse, and along with it, all monies and tickets. He was, in a word, stranded. Stranded in a foreign country without the language, without money, without a clue.
“Just about everyone speaks English,” I told him in my most sympathetic tone before handing him a substantial amount of Euro to tide him over until he met up with his wife. I hailed the conductor, gave him a rendition of the husband’s plight in bad Italian before attempting to reset my writer mind. It was no use, the conductor, now assumed that I was either the traveling companion of the distraught husband or an interpreter of sorts. “Tell him,” I think he told me, “He would get word to the station in Florence and would tell them that the husband will be waiting at the Venice Station.”
Allora bene! All taken care of even though it would be hours before the reunion took place. “Something to tell your grandchildren,” I joked. “We don’t want kids,” he fired back. I rolled my eyes at that and with a firm conviction made a vow not to engage in anything other than an internal dialogue for the rest of the trip.
There is something otherworldly about Venice. The stone steps of The Santa Lucia Stazione lead out onto the Grand Canal. It’s an impressive sight, unlikely to be replicated anywhere else. Private taxis drivers stand at the foot of the steps, with offerings of an expensive alternative to the crowded Vaporetto, aka the Venetian city bus. Their boats adorned with padded seats, promise a helping hand with luggage and the possibility of canal-to-canal service should one’s hotel be situated within boating distance. I chose the Vaporetto, hoping once again to immerse myself in the culture. What better place to do it than on the city bus.
The Vaparetto cruised the canal, stopping along its scheduled route to load and unload visitors who seemed to be herded in a state of collective exhilaration while in search of their Venetian guidebooks suggested sites, while native Venetians boarded and disembarked with expressionless faces unaware or unaffected by the tourist invasion.
I exited at San Marco, the mecca of Venetian tourism, and dragged my meager luggage up and over one after another of the archaic stone bridges connecting the 118 small islands that comprised the city of Venezia. Between bridges, were neighborhood children playing in the campos around 15th century cisterns modernized by Italian graffiti. Antiquity meets street art.
I confess this was not my first visit to Venice. Once checked in to my hotel, an unpretentious pensione, centrally located but securely tucked away in a medieval alleyway, I would find my way to inspiration. First stop, the “Palazzi Barbaro” where I hoped to place myself in close proximity to the hidey-hole of Henry James. If divine influence was anywhere, surely it would be present there where James penned the short but brilliant, Aspern Papers.
The palazzi stood in regal splendor, abutting the canal, seemingly unaware of any importance. Both retained their Moorish façade, both were altered only by the centuries of flooding waters eroding the foundation with daily battering, but both held on to the ambience that had inspired James to write his dark tale. The Palazzi Barbaro was itself a character in James’ story. Yet, I was alone in the realization. People around me went about their business, showing no sign of recognition, no expression of awe, not a glimmer of interest. I, alone, put my hand discreetly on the outer wall, first one then the other palazzo in a desperate attempt to absorb the creative atmosphere that once permeated this locale. Was it in this air or was it something ethereal bestowed upon James and the other writers who found their muse lurking here in Venice?
From the corner of my mind’s eye, I envision Venice after hours when the hint of medieval ambience resurfaces if only until sunup; I walk solo, watching as the gondolier’s bed their boats for the night before the spectral fog rises up from the lagoon creeping catlike through …The mist co-mingles with muted voices…distractions on the horizon.
”Miss, Miss,” it’s my seatmate, an elderly gentleman dressed to perfection in a tie that sat perfectly straight over his chest all the way from Venice to Halifax. He leans over towards me and whispers, “You were talking in your sleep.”
“I’m sorry if I disturbed you,” I answer while turning my ring around, stone facing in, hoping it will hold my memories long enough for me to jot them down.
The pilot comes on the overhead speaker giving inaudible but god-like instructions to the crew before addressing the passengers, “Signori e Signorae. Ladies and Gentleman. We are awaiting emergency help and should be able to depart shortly.”
The Canadian EMS enters the plane looking more like cub scouts than medical professionals. They feign competency, and I tend to my thoughts.
From the window of the plane, I see trees, lots of them and nothing else. Not even another plane, no telephone poles, no hospitals either, come to think of it. Is a tree less beautiful growing here where no one notices it? I wonder. Should I too, consider feigning shortness of breath and seek asylum amongst them in this nothingness where writing will be a sure thing? Is it better to write where everyone is or where no one is?
The EMS boys pass by, dragging an obese, slightly jaundiced looking woman in a wheel chair. Good move, stopping in Canada. Diagnosis: Gallstones, I’m quite sure. I used to be good at this, diagnosing.
Two hours pass. The cabin door is about to close. Last chance my head says but my feet won’t move. The wild blue yonder beckons and the plane takes off too fast on a too short runway erasing Halifax. The flight attendants put their mechanical smiles back on and scramble to serve the obligatory, almost forgotten snack. Protocol!
The plane circles in from the coast and heads back up north. The New York skyline, in its from up above tranquil splendor, is too far to the south. Connecticut lay below. The same passengers who rushed to be the first ones on now push ahead to be the first ones off.
Outside, the July temperature teeters on cremate. Horns are honking; people are using outside voices, and the distractions are readied in their places.
Joni Marie Iraci
A fictionalized diary of the slave poet, Phillis Wheatley will be published in the December issue of Review Americana. I am on Facebook. Joni Iraci
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