The Watchmaker - I
A childhood year living in a medieval Italian city has haunted – in a friendly way – all of the other places I've ever lived. Part 1 of II. (with audio narration)
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.
Feel something. Twice a week. For free.*