Or I could perhaps take you through this tiny town of Asolo through their poetry and letters. First, I'd have to tell you that it's pronounced Ah–solo, accent on the first syllable, since if I can dig out anything either Browning actually wrote on the place, metric rhythm could well be vital. Then I'd narrate their escape from enraged parents in England, the way the Italian sun burnt out their eyes, how, for the first time in a life of living in mist and draft, two–foot walls of stone warmed over the course of a summer seemed as graceful as the sigh of a lover.
I might even quote Eleonora Duse here as an appropriate local: "If the sight of the blue skies fills you with joy, if a blade of grass springing up in the fields has power to move you, if the simple things of nature have a message that you understand, rejoice, for your soul is alive." I'd tell you how Robert and Elizabeth dreamed of living inside these walls insulated by vines with flowers like punctuation marks. And then maybe I'd speculate on what this spot sounded like to them—the birds are nearly deafening here, but somewhere in the valley below, a chainsaw or a cheap motorcycle has been revving for hours, a sound the Brownings never would have known.
But that's not an article I feel like writing. When I think about writing it anyway, a test of the self–discipline I have always lacked, I remember that brilliant line by Italo Calvino, Italy's greatest novelist of the 20th century and a man who most likely once sat right here: "Books That If You Had More Than One Life You Would Certainly Also Read But Unfortunately Your Days Are Numbered."
I simply don't have the days left—no matter if the doctors are wrong or right or if I live another hundred years, a brick of proof to the truth that statistical odds are meaningless to the individual, that n of 1 more common than a parking ticket—to write an article that includes the number of trunks the Browning's carried, how they planned to decorate this house in the century before it was turned into a hotel.
I'm having enough trouble with my own life leaving; I can't find room to care about theirs, long gone.
However, since we've come this far down a road we will travel no more upon, I might as well offer up a Browning quote. And so this, from Robert:
Oh heart! oh blood that freezes, blood that burns!
For whole centuries of folly, noise and sin!
Shut them in,
With their triumphs and their glories and the rest!
Love is best.
I came to Asolo after a week of staying in extremely swank hotels with an extremely beautiful woman. We walked through Venice before anyone else was awake, before the town threatened to sink under the weight of tourists wearing their backpacks on their fronts. Strolling through a world of red buildings and green canals, of courtyards that shielded the day's only shadows, we tried to come up with a structural anthropology based on The Things They Carry: that whole front backpack thing are the new and frightened; the thirty–pound backpack on the back are people who've maybe been on a cruise before, but never unescorted in a land where people are so crass as to not speak English. And on, through categories of lightness.
I had a pen, notebook, and wallet in my pocket, nothing more. But I am honestly not sure if that's because I'm a very experienced traveler, or if I'm lazy, or if I just know I can buy anything I might need, and why worry about credit card bills if I'm not going to last out the year anyway?
In a certain kind of article, here's where I'd tell you that to get to Asolo from Venice, you should board a #1 vaporetto (or a #5 if in too much of a hurry to enjoy another leisurely trip along the Grand Canal) to the Ferrovia stop. That would give me a chance to tell you, if using the vaporetto for sightseeing, start at St. Marks before 7 AM or P. Roma after 7 PM. Between those times, all boats are packed asses to elbows. From Ferrovia, I would tell you, the train ticket to Asolo costs only 3.40 euros. A dozen runs a day or more, so timing your departure is highly flexible. Just show up at the station. You won't have to wait long.
Waiting, of course, is a learned skill, as risky as getting that backpack off your front for the first time.
When the train does pull out, you will find that it has impossibly uncomfortable molded blue seats, and stops roughly every hundred yards.
I used to write that sort of article. I also wrote nearly a dozen guidebooks with that kind of stuff in them, six or seven hundred pages of just the facts. However, when you have been told you only have so long, no matter how vaguely defined that time period is, to live, you don't really want to write that kind of thing any more. What's the point? By the time anyone reads it, prices have gone up, schedules have changed, the blue seats have been changed to red. Writing that expires faster than a carton of milk in the fridge, writing worse than writing in water; at least then, your finger feels the coolness, the tiny sparks of moss flowing downstream.
That said, I am willing to concede those guidebooks might have been some of my most important work: I tried to hold the world up like a prism, said, Look! And if I did it right, I justified trust: a person who had dreamed, who had saved, who had gone on vacation with vulnerable hope came to a place, a moment they wouldn't have found any other way.
As for myself, today, I can't even be bothered to go look at Freya Stark's grave, although long ago I had lusted madly after a woman who had met and worshipped Stark. We—me and the woman, not me and Stark—shared a pizza once. I got violently ill with the kind of ailment that usually happens after drinking unfiltered water abroad, and we never saw each other again. We became an irrelevancy in each other's pasts.
I spend far too much time thinking about time, and Europe is hopelessly old; we all learn that cliché on our first trip from a land where everything gets torn down every twenty years. But here, some of the olive trees in the valley below were probably first harvested before my own ancestors fled places that rain on this continent and settled in places that rain on that continent much less weighed down by time.
Yet the olive trees, planted by hands of people whose gravestones have now worn smooth with time, are hardly a blink of time. Asolo holds relics that date back to the Neolithic.
I should be able to give rough dates for the Neolithic, but can't. I spent so much time in school that I have three fucking college degrees; what was I doing when I should have been listening to the professors? Or did I too early find out that the various lithic ages—stone ages, just a step from the caves and women in fur bikinis fighting mammoths that we all learned studying Saturday morning TV—have no fixed date, but like the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle, depend on an unfathomable intersect of knowing place and time?
If I keep moving, so no one knows where I am, can time ever truly catch up? Or have I found a loophole shaped like an infinity sign?
Books from the Author:
Buy Under the Protection of the Cow Demon at your local bookstore, or get it online here: