A childhood year living in a medieval Italian city has haunted – in a friendly way – all of the other places I've ever lived.
When I first arrive it will look remarkably like the upper city – Città Alta – in Bergamo, Italy.
Bergamo was the walled medieval town where I lived for a single year as a child. It had cobblestone streets, a piazza with a fountain littered with coins that were free for the taking if you’d only stick your skinny bare arm into the cold fountain water. It had a bakery that pumped out the fresh crunch of early-morning bread – which was then buttered carefully, European style, the knife held awkwardly in the right hand like our mother showed us.
It had an actual blacksmith with a forge that would burn your retinas when you stared at it from the shop doorway, and it had its grave, Latin-speaking churches with tearful old, bundled-up women. In an open-air laundry beneath magnificent chestnut trees those same women, laughing now, did their weekly washing.
Bergamo had its fantastic funiculari that traversed the city hills at Seussian trajectories. You could buy carrots from a cart hauled by donkey into the upper city, and those carrots would squirt at you with an organic mischief when you bit into them.
Half-buried fresco Madonnas right out in the open streets, hundreds of years old, waited placidly, their fingers limp, their necks delicately exposed. They waited for the holy child in their arms, obscured by another century’s plaster, to be born again from the crumbling layer-cake of the city walls. Fastidiously dressed old men ordered cappuccinos from golden-piped espresso extravaganzas. These men talked intensely to each other, at each other, leaning forward — to an American child, as if in anger — and their hands ran feverish subtitles. Then they laughed and hugged each other at parting.
If you plant a seven-year-old American boy there for a year and let him run free in the streets with his brother after school, you create something more Italian in that child’s heart than anything you can demonstrate with a passport from Rome.
It was beautiful. It was home, and it has haunted all the other places I’ve lived.
Upon my return, she will be as breathtaking as her memory but now her streets will be deserted and silent. The espresso copper that gleams from the empty funicular café will be unblemished by a single smear of a barista’s errant finger. Her shop bells will jangle on entry, but her tills, stuffed full with coins and beautiful paper notes, will be untended; the elaborate window displays of the shops, terraced more beautifully than Balinese hillsides, will be arrayed as if for the stillness of a Christmas season. Exotic candies in golden wrapping will beckon from every storefront. In the air will be the rich Bergamo smells that – even when I’ve caught the scent of them again years later in faraway places – have stopped me in my tracks and moved me to announce to anyone at hand that “that is the smell of Bergamo.”
Bergamo’s cars. Bergamo’s kerosene. Her wet leaves. Her rain.
By day I will wander this museum of my heart. I will hike up past the courtyard where I roller-skated and then around the park that looks out from the security of the ancient city ramparts. I will walk over the cleanly-tended, grey pebble gravel, stopping at the Stations of the Cross vignettes that make up their solemn tour. In the evenings, the city’s gaslights will burn with a soft hiss during my evening strolls, reflecting off of the shop windows. At night I will sleep in the soft Italian sheets of my childhood.
And having found my way back there, I will not yearn for new places. I will put down the guidebooks of the soul and be still.
Then gradually, like a kind of dawning, they will start to appear. I will be sitting by a fountain or walking by the city gates, and I will meet them. One-by-one, the people from my life will come forward from around the corners of Bergamo’s streets like welcome, but unexpected old friends. Sometimes they will appear passing outside the bakery window or beside me while watching thunderstorms from the piazza bell tower.
Sometimes they will arrive triggered by a thought. Sometimes they will come unsummoned. And these visitors will come, the near, the dear and the more distant, always miraculously, and always at the perfect time. My wife, my children, my parents, my brother, my friends, will be there, of course, but also the forgotten minor players of my life, the chance strangers with whom I laughed on long bus rides or for whom I held the door as they struggled with their shopping.
These people in my life, all of them so utterly precious, all of them part of me, show up at perfect intervals to sit or to walk or to talk, or sometimes to simply nod in recognition as they pass by in Bergamo’s empty streets.
No God Incarnate walks the streets here or answers pent-up questions or stops to entertain my desperate, calculated praise. There is no figure before whom to bow, no idol to fear, no sacred altars or thresholds now, no one for whom to offer the highest hosannas.
And yet, He is here.
He’s here in the perfect unfolding of people and place and beauty, timed so exquisitely, so knowingly, so intimately to my very self. Who could possibly know my heart this well but its own creator? If I look back on my life as the lovely face of a Swiss watch with its precious tick and gold sheen and handsome Roman numerals all vying for attention, then this place is the same watch, but the back has been delicately removed and laid on soft green felt and the unseen ticking heart of the watch is exposed now beneath the round magnifying glass and the bright lamp. Now I simply marvel at it all. The Watchmaker is present in this genius – His evidence is everywhere – and it seems enough to be one particular cog shifting so precisely in this dance.
The years pass with the steady spiritual momentum of a vast, swaying pendulum, and the visitors come and the visitors go, their memories endlessly drawing and redrawing lines in the sands of thought. The water runs down over the medieval city walls as time runs over my heart. Things – even, and perhaps especially, the heart – change with this flow, but imperceptibly and without a hint of labor – just as the frescoed Madonnas, unnoticed, crumble free and give birth once again to their buried children.
And then I notice one day, almost as an afterthought, that there are longer and longer stretches with no visitors – sometimes spanning years now – but these gaps raise not a trace of apprehension. When I want to talk to the others, they are there. When I do not, they are not. It is an effortless surrender into something else, something bigger.
My heart – your heart – is finding its completion now and the part of me that needed to share so deeply with others in those earlier times has altered. The hunger for the visitor – for the misplaced treasure buried in the Other – has worn through. The clinging sense of a self that completes with another’s presence has emptied out and washed away. There are no places now besides this one and no heart besides your own.
Bergamo’s work is nearly finished.
And then, just exactly before the true end, she reveals her secret to you. Wandering her ancient streets one evening, you see in a shop window, looking straight at you, simply and directly, the familiar reflection of the Watchmaker.
Feel something. Twice a week.