Thoughts of Socks, Socks and Thoughts

At one of the London Undergound stations, maybe Knightsbridge, across the tracks from the platform, a huge sign advertized the famous bookshop Foyles. That poster stuck out in the midst of countless images of handsome men and glamorous women sporting very white teeth, coiffed hair, and heaving bosoms promoting whiskey or airlines or movies.

The Foyles ad (or advert as the Brits would say) was about gift buying – more text than image – two fat paragraphs and the image of a row of books against a green background.

You could read some of the titles: Donna Tartt’s new book “The Goldfinch,” a Bill Bryson book “One Summer,” a book with a title, “Demon Dentist,” I didn’t want to consider too carefully. Something by Neil Gaiman, “The Circle” by Dave Eggers, and “Sounds Like London,” which I am curious about. Appropriately, the front cover of the last book reads: “The Novel Cure.”

The poster pushes books, of course, but the fat paragraphs discuss the giving of socks as a gift, and offers “interesting things you ought to know about socks.” (Somebody clever at Foyles – or its ad agency – had a really good time.)

“No sock groups meet on a Tuesday night over wine and nibbles,” “A sock has never been turned into an Oscar-winning film.” “The greatest minds in history have not expressed the contents of their heads and souls in a sock, nor do you recognize your own life in a sock.” “You don’t place socks on your coffee table to impress your guests.” There are many more. “You do not think about a sock long after, perhaps even years after, you’ve put it down.”

All these familiar and well-known phrases turned on their heads (or heels). Just under the row of books, it takes you a minute to catch on, is the cliché most associated with gift giving.

At first glance it says: “It’s the thought that counts.” But it doesn’t say that, it’s talking about why we cherish books beyond all the sock-suggested reasons. A red strike-through eliminates the “the,” so it reads: “It’s thought that counts.”

life's socks

Joy – and Happy Happy!

One day during my early December visit to Downtown Abbey, Lady Baby and I sat at the kitchen table, slowly eating bowls of white bean soup and reading “Three Stories You Can Read To Your Cat” by Sara Swan Miller. In the first story, it rains and rains, and the kitty wishes for sun, so we started calling out to the gray Anchorage sky for “snow pease!” (badly needed).

Sure enough, when we finished the book, I looked up and pointed outside and asked Lady Baby what was happening? “Snowflake!” she said, and the “l” in snowflake or “mommy’s hair clip” is as amazing as the strong “s” at the end of “Yes!” which has replaced the everyday “yeah” – so precisely said. (I wish I could insert a sound bite here of how the word angel sounds in Lady Baby speak, it’s like her words for thank you, which melt my heart.)

She has some linguistic shortcuts for fact or emotion: “house” means just the living room, “happy happy!” loudly repeated in a pre-bath runabout, wearing just tennis shoes and nakedy body speaks for itself, as does performing a “happy happy” dance while holding the photos of her world’s important people.

You realize, or think you do, how related consciousness and language must be – or maybe it’s just like Mrs. Hughes said at Thanksgiving, Lady Baby’s been thinking all along, but now we understand better because of language.

And, in a difference even from Thanksgiving, something clicked with books this trip, and Lady Baby truly joined her family of readers. Revisiting so many books that had once seemed too long or complicated, we read and read.

“What Pete Ate” the delightful Maira Kalman book in which Pete the dog devours pretty much the whole alphabet became a huge favorite. (Lady Baby would request “Pete ate, Pete ate!”) Listening to Christmas music, we read Christmas books learning the iconography and vocabulary of rooftops and trimming and twinkling, of Dasher and Dancer, and covered the basics – the night before Christmas, the Poky Puppy’s skunk friend, and Clifford, the giant red dog’s first Christmas.

But we also learned a little about sad, the bittersweet part of loving to be with someone, loving someone. She takes me for granted during our weeks together, and then I disappear. The morning I headed to the airport was very hard for Granny Katy. I try to remember Virginia Woolf’s words to a very sad friend “Remember what you have had.” I’ve had joy.

And I wish you Christmas joy!

christmas tree

Florence, Rome, Footwear and Tea

Piazza Santa Maria - Florence

30 May 2013 Florence

     This weather is so strange. Yesterday a fierce and very unpleasant wind.

     Arrived Florence about 11 a.m. – Hotel Santa Maria Novella, easy to find and beautiful, walked here from Santa Maria Novella train station.

     We are tired. Walked forever but not so productively as usually. Walked a route through Piazza della Signoria (Michealeangelo’s David and zillions of tourists), past the Uffizi, over Ponte Vecchio to Pitti Palace, and the Boboli Gardens.

     & back. Battling wind around the Duomo. Overwhelming.

Tea

The overwhelm came from getting sick, admitting to being sick. A bug – Tuscan or Alaskan or who knows what nationality – took residence in my upper chest. I don’t think I’ve ever had a virus quite like that one. Nothing more boring than telling cold symptoms, but it hurt.

Yet what’s one to do? Florence is the best of the best. I knew this would be just a quick visit – a return for us, a taster for the young people who will be back – and I kept going, because of tea (and Italian pharmaceuticals).

Most often tea came in a white china teapot full of really hot water from an espresso machine. Tea bags, yes, but generous amounts of hot water, making such a difference to a tight chest!

It was also cold – really cold – making the tea even more welcome.

Tea at Palazzo Strozzi

31 May/1 June 2013 Trastevere, Rome

A very different feel on this side of the Tibur, more a neighborhood, the routes and ways the trail boss finds are less touristed. In a hotel that used to be monastery, rooms were monk’s cells.

To the Borghese Gallery yesterday which we loved completely – a thrill. Bernini sculptures stop your heart.

So cold. The outdoor tables here are optimistically set with yellow cloths and flowers each morning and then dismantled when rain threatens.

Trying to ignore the throat and chest and soldier on. Still really fun. Don’t want to infect the others.

Grateful for this weekend without obligations, be late for breakfast.

Doing a bad job of writing about this.

Handkerchiefs

Footwear

Only one’s passport matters as much as footgear on a long trip with much walking. Sandals and hiking boots, of course, and at the last moment leaving home, I traded running shoes for little shoes made by Jambu. They have unnecessarily beautiful soles – an incised pattern one never sees.

My sandals spent the trip in the suitcase, but those Jambus pounded miles and miles of cobblestones without a complaint from my feet!

The trail boss and his sweet bride did a little shoe shopping in Rome – blue suede for the trail boss – and the latest fashion in Europe (maybe here also, I am not up-to-date) short, cute, leather boots for the sweet bride.

The best shoe purchase provides a transition to Istanbul next week – shoes from there for Lady Baby!

Turkish Shoes for Lady Baby

Via Francigena

Colle Val d'Elsa

No Naps

Cold wind dogged us in parts of this trip, that familiar-from-Washington feel of a damp, barely 50° day, and frequent rain squalls (a sideways downpour just as we left San Gimignano). Scarves brought along to cover our heads in mosques became everyday wear in Italy, and I was grateful for my down vest and wool socks.

Looking at photos from our other trip to Italy, I realize how very different this walk was. Several photos show three of us, all in a row, sound asleep on a riverbank, hats over faces – the routine nap after lunch!

Not this time. The first rain day we ate standing up under a tree, sharing a straw-wrapped bottle of Chianti (not a great idea but really fun at the time) while it hailed. Even on sunny days, the grass was wet by the sides of the trail. But those days were perfect for walking – cool, with the afternoon sun at our backs – through forests, stepping on stones at creek crossings, past castles and churches, and fields red with clover.

26/27 May 2013 Colle Val d’Elsa, Monteriggioni

     All day fair skies, big clouds, claps of thunder, but no downpours or even drops. We got, for us, an early start, felt good to walk in crisp air with sunshine. Farm tracks still have mud but strada bianca perfect. We spent a lot of the day following signs for Via Francigena – for hundreds of years the ancient pilgrim road from Canterbury to Rome – past Roman baths with still intact stones and clear water (must be really appealing to walkers on a hot day).

     Oak trees of all sizes, many olive groves and vineyards. Red poppies, tall scabiosa, Queen Anne’s lace. Lost my pen or I might have made some notes yesterday. Beautiful pastoral vistas of fields and forest, much walking through shaded forest, then next to plowed fields. Plenty of water taps along the route. We have a little rhythm now, not so desperate feeling as the rain day.

     Sweet little grocery store in Val Colle d’Elsa, bought apples, bread, chocolate, blue cheese, and nectarines. We ate Lara bars (thanks to Mrs. Hughes’s gift before the trip) at first morning breaks. Sandwich of Nutella and bread for me.

Dante (and Mud)

While reading Joan Acocella’s recent review of Dan Brown’s new book “Inferno,” I had a sudden vision of mud on the bottom of my boots so thick that it curled up and over the toes and broke off in big wads.

Because we were heading toward Siena and walking through the landscape of Dante, and because we asked, my good-natured husband told us stories from “The Divine Comedy.” During several straight and level patches of our route, he described Dante’s circles of hell, tales of betrayals and bad choices, actions and consequences – still so entertaining and instructive after 600 years. Clay-larded mud might make a good early hellish circle.

The rain and cold weather reduced the Tuscan farmers we met to lamenting, as tractors sat idle and fields stayed wet from days of rain. Small farm tracks, usually hard-packed and pleasant, became puddle-laced mud holes. We grew obsessed with the mud, trying to peel it off with poles, tired by walking on boots layered with heavy, spongy mud.

Acocella’s review is funny – she, like my husband, knows Dante – and in spite of herself makes the heavily plotted Brown “Inferno” sound a good junker read.

Fellow Travelers

The image of a little pilgrim – with staff and bundle – marks the route along the Via Francigena. Sometimes the image appeared on paper decals or proper signposts, but most often it was stenciled on fence posts or rock walls, black on a white splash of paint with blazes of red to either side. I always smiled at the sight, and we’d call out VF! Or Via Fran-chi-gena! to each other. I walked the pilgrims’ path thinking how it would be fun to carve a stamp with the little pellegrino.

Via Francigena pellegrino

Weather

Hotel Campo d'Fiori

22 May 2013 Rome

     Great room just off the Campo De’ Fiori in a hotel with terrace on top that we are not likely to use because so much rain! The guys who usually sell purses and gewgaws like flashlights with shattered laser beams now tout arms full of umbrellas and do a brisk business. Umbrellas and awnings that normally provide sun protection now shed rain. Tourists cover their heads with maps and look startled by this version of Rome as they splash along the cobbles. Nobody eats gelato.

     The front desk here has keys on tassels in little boxes, but the charming Roman who brought us up in a tiny elevator handed us a key card. All is gilt – chandelier and mirror frame – high wood-beamed ceilings.

24 May 2013 San Gimignano

     Train to here from Rome. A miracle we caught it. Rome buses and subway on strike so traffic a snarl, and cabs hard to get. We managed because of heroic driving by cab driver.

     So cold! We met our ATG person who will transport our bags to the next town, and she warned of muddy trails. Walked around San Gimignano’s walls, including a tower climb with 360° view and freezing wind.

     All my drawing notions going to pot as they often do on trips – becomes a matter of staying warm and hydrated and not footsore.

     Such fun at dinner fueled by a liter of house red. We are good travelers together – I am glad to turn over the on-the-ground navigation to the young people!

San Gimignano

 

En Route

AlItalia JFK to Rome 2

Sunset from plane 2Notebook or journal notes:

22 May 2013 Daylight brings a glimpse of the Alps as the plane skirts the east coast of Italy. Early Mediterranean blue in the north is turning to slate gray as we near Rome’s Fiumicino Airport.

I’ve been reading a Niccolo book all night, the 14th Century adventurer, thinking how different his Mediterranean from mine. Even from the air the sea looks vast – not limitless like crossing the Pacific or Atlantic – but big for a ship powered by wind or men.

Lady Baby – Mobile Edition

In early November on my visit to Downtown Abbey, Lady Baby was a few days into her new job as a crawling investigator. For two days we ignored the toy boxes in the living room, as I followed her hands-and-knees progress around the house. But on the third day she figured out how to clutch adult hands and cruise upright – a position she seemed to prefer!

Selma Freiberg wrote “The Magic Years” a long time ago – but her description of a child’s “periods of equilibrium” exactly named Lady Baby’s equanimity this visit.

Her teeth, six so far, are not only through – they are functional. She picks up with her fingers bits of avocado or cheese or Os – puffy circles that seem made of vegetables and air. She captures each one between her front teeth and carefully crunches.

She varies the volume of her concentration hmmmm as she eats, and leans over companionably when I sit next to her at breakfast. While I offer her a spoonful of oatmeal and take a bite of my own, she holds my wrist and investigates rings, watch, bracelet, humming all the while.

The humming sound must have to do with language, she does it as she “reads” books. Approaching an adult bookshelf, Lady Baby pulls out a volume, lowers herself, sits, and, while humming nearly an ohm sound, opens the book’s cover, and concentrates on turning pages. Then she selects another.

Real words come sometimes. She said “book” twice one morning to her mother. And to the surprise of all of us – while looking at grandpa – said “grandpa” twice.

She’s learned that we respond to her shiver of delight – a look of glee that tenses jaw and arms as she lifts them and smiles – and we react with the same movement. The shivers seem to be excitement – spotting her mom, a cat, the dog, or shoes. To get a shoe in hand with buckles and laces is a coup!

Crawling is functional, but guided walking was the big thrill – round and round the downstairs of Downtown Abbey – a circular route, not at the level of a carried baby, or the low down reach of a crawler, but a new height. She stretches one hand out for cabinet handles and drawer pulls, but mostly keeps moving. Walking fast, walking slow, delighting in direction decisions, executing U-turns. Every morning, and after each nap, we started all over again.

A very particular right foot first and straight out lurch-step gave way in a couple of days to an efficient right foot/left foot rhythm. She practiced periods of supported standing – reading books while leaning against a footstool between adult knees, or listening to cheerful songs her mom turned on for us – her little knees bending in time to the music.

It’s a whole new world!