Here, snails crawl out from under gelsomino, a plant that throws white flowers like fireworks; despite looking somewhat like small honeysuckle, at night, gelsomino blossoms carry a ginger tang in their scent. As far as I know, gelsomino does not grow where I live, but then, I can't name the species of a fraction of the flowers that bloom in my yard because I try to be there as little as possible.
Visible under the cuff of my pants is a tattoo that shows a map of the world, a copy of the first map printed in a book in English, by Isidore of Seville, a man far from home, around 1489. The map form is called a T–O, because that's what it looks like—a T inside an O. The O is the great waters of the world; the T, rivers. The space divided is the continents. In Europe, the T–O was enough, upwards of five hundred years ago, to get you where you were going, because you weren't likely going anywhere. Most people lived and died within a twenty–mile–or–less radius.
Asolo is a bit more than thirty miles from Venice. A world that must be learned anew, like waking up to the sounds of a new lover's dog prowling the living room, keeping you safe only as a side effect.
In almost any story I might write about this place, I would now tell you about the shop in Via Browning, where a man with the voice of a thankfully recovered throat cancer patient rules over a much loved kingdom of local foods. Trust him. He'll whisper, "Asolo," as he ladles out fat olives, as he cuts hunks of cheese with the scent of cows raised on hills—a parmesan with flavor as concentrated as a black hole, a veined blue so strong even starving cats are frightened by it—as he delightedly grabs you a picnic of fresh bread and local salami, as he tops it all off with a jar of Asolo honey for desert, the taste of sun and flowers, the taste of this very landscape itself.
In absolutely any story I'd write about this place, I would need to tell you about this man's clear love and pride of and for his home. And the rasp of his speech would make me wonder what it was like to be exactly where you want to be, to have come through a storm and found yourself still home: still and still exactly where you want to be.
Thinking about that will raise this question: between now and the moment the doctors prove themselves right, or the later moment when they prove themselves wrong but inevitability catches up anyway, is it better to hunker down, learn that last concept of home in a scent, the depth of a taste? Or is it better to go out and see everything, burdened by nothing but memories and a wheelie suitcase with a broken handle?
Which is more likely to make one's last breath a yes, thank you, instead of a no, please?
If this were a different kind of article, perhaps here's where I'd be tempted to bring up Thomas Mann's book Death in Venice. But if I did, honesty would also make me tell you that you should stop reading immediately. Pulling out the Mann card is a cheap trick, not worth your time or mine. A purely hack move like a film where the kid's estranged parents come back together in the last reel, saving his future like they were Lassie dragging Timmy out of a well.
Screw that noise.
Instead, let's consider using Marini's sculpture "The Angel of the City" at the Peggy Guggenheim Collection. There, near the Grand Canal's incomprehensible wave patterns, a naked man with a hard–on, arms spread wide as if to hug the hold world, rides his horse straight for the water.
If I were writing that article, I could work well with Marini, a symbol that's been sitting in the garden for fifty years waiting for the right story to come along.
The look of pure joy on the naked man's face. A sculpted smile that will last forever, that will not fade away in a Buddy Holly backbeat.
I could make you cry with that article.
Right now, it's noon. The first church bell starts to go off. Other churches take up the call, like barking dogs in twilight, chasing the sun around the 3–D ripples of the earth with their yelps, insisting it return in the morning fresh with memory, Rilke's hurled ball coming back heavier. The world abides, and it calls out, calls in this complex yet pure tone that rings down the mountainside, slowing like a sleeping heartbeat on a night you've waited for all your life.
Henry James, who came to Asolo in 1890, said, "Try to be one of those people on whom nothing is lost." He also said, "Experience is never limited, and it is never complete; it is an immense sensibility, a kind of huge spider–web of the finest silken threads suspended in the chamber of consciousness, and catching every air–borne particle in its tissue."
In a different article, one far more self–aware than I probably have energy for, I would tell you that, once one gets past the dull gasping and passing out parts of being told your days are numbered, once you've woken yet again and found out that the sun's still there, 93 million miles away and as warm as toes under covers and you're actually feeling quite well, maybe even better than in years, you will probably develop an overwhelming urge to Do Something. For me, of course, that Something is flee, run away, perform the Schrodinger's Cat experiment in a thousand hotels. Or, failing that, at least try to overwhelm my senses with beauty and wonder—the taste of fresh pears and brie, the sound of love sleeping, the feel of a good pair of hiking boots on a trail haunted by leopards—before they shut down once and for all.
And so tomorrow, I will go to Freya Stark's grave. Or anyway, to the cemetery where it's supposed to be, a beautiful graveyard stretched out over a knob of hill. Graves are decorated with pictures of the departed dear, with flowers that do not remind me of any of the flowers that grow by the lake where I live but do not call home.
Some covering stones over the graves have neat holes in them where holly grows. Old detergent bottles are lined up next to a spigot for visitors who want to water the plants, pour ablution on memories.
I will straighten a couple vases of almost fossilized plants, blown dry by the evening wind.
I will not find Stark's grave, but that's okay. Last year—interesting phrase, that, in and of itself—I made the mistake of going to Sir Richard Burton's grave. One of the greatest travelers the world has ever known, he's interred in a ratty suburb south of London. His tomb, shaped like a tent, has a window on the top, a ladder that lets you look in.
Don't look in. No. Do not look in.
Instead, here in Asolo, listen to these bells, the wind in the trees, the way the birds wait for the final strike, the final bong, before they pick up their songs again.
I'm going to look at all this.
I'm going to look at all this, because, really, nobody knows anything for sure except that beauty, the fine moment of the day, is worthwhile enough. It has to be.
So I'm going to sit here and write an article about the prayer of attention.
I want to write that article.
I have plenty of time.
Edward Readicker–Henderson is a frequent contributor to National Geographic Traveler, Budget Travel, Sierra, Modern Bride, AARP, and dozens of others. Edward has won a Lowell Thomas Award for cultural writing, a Northern Lights award for the year's best travel story on Canada, and has been short–listed in Best American Travel Writing.
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Other Europe travel stories from the archives
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