Zen and the Art of Chaos

The cello is my favorite instrument. I adore it just as much as the piano, which I desire to play on a regular basis. I still remember the sad little drop in my stomach — like a coin in a pool — when I sold my piano before moving away from Dillon, Colorado. Although piano music is delightful, someone once told me the gorgeous timbre of the cello most closely resembles the human voice. Close the eyes and listen to a Johan Sebastian Bach concerto as I am doing now; it’s not hard to pair the deeper tones to what I remember of my grandfather Lynn’s voice or the higher pitches to the Italian woman in the same cafe as me giving her fidanzato (boyfriend/fiancé) an earful.

My beloved cello is played quite skillfully by a woman I once considered a close friend and who for some time has been my ex-husband’s girlfriend. I have no desire to recount the past and I know now all of us were only doing what we could to survive a tumultuous time period; that is enough. The fashion in which these two came together unfortunately soured my relationship with both persons — I point this out because it helps me illustrate a point. This bitter unfolding did not ruin the cello for me, in the least. We can’t let life devour the things that give us great pleasure and even comfort, as cello music does for me. Despite what it occasionally reminds me of, I retain much more good than bad from my relationship with the cello. In just a bit more time, I believe I will also be able to see this particular cello player and my ex the exact same way.

A tiny vicolo in Bologna, Italy.

But this sort of thing takes patience — patience with ourselves, others and the world. Patience with things that are imperfect and things go wrong. That’s what we say when stuff heads the opposite way than we’d imagined: it went wrong. And let me tell you, I am in the perfect locale for mastering the delicate art of patience: Italy. Italy, where for the first week, I assumed a daily commute via train (45-60 minutes one way). Then an additional 20-30 minutes more on my own two feet, depending on how many lights I stop for, how many buses and bikes cut me off and whether or not I can resist stopping for another caffe. Then, I find myself at the flower-laden door to my language school in Bologna, Italy.

The door of ARCA in Bologna, Italy.

Italy, where my train the first week was only 25 minutes late. While I waited, I had plenty of time to note other trains which were 35 minutes, 45 minutes and over an hour late. Or cancelled — like trains were the following Friday morning until 0830 because of a(nother) sciopero (strike).

Italy where I quite suddenly became — in the second, third and fourth weeks — an English teacher, but that’s another story entirely…

Faenza, Italy.

Italy where io sono americana (I am an American), and I’m staying in Italy for more than three months. As a foreign national, I need to obtain a permesso di soggiorno (residence permit) within eight days of arrival. On arrival day plus seven, my Anglo-Saxon upbringing won and in a truly non-Italian fashion I began to stress out. On day eight, (following instructions online) I marched over to the CAF office which I was told might help me with the process. I carried a pile of frighteningly official, completely in Italian documents handed to me by a pinched woman at the post office. At the closed CAF, I discovered the hours online were, not surprisingly, inaccurate. I called a few of the numbers posted on the door and managed, in fledgling Italian, to make it known I needed help with the permesso di soggiorno.

Faenza, Italy.

The third woman I talked to explained the CAF does not actually offer help with the permesso in question. She gave me a number to call “after eight-thirty in the morning.” When I called post-eight-thirty (during the obligatory coffee break at 11 o’clock observed by the entire Italian language school), the office was closed. A message greeted me, but the message man spoke faster than a caffeinated bus driver in Bologna. I hailed the ever-approachable Serena (the school’s director) for help. Serena explained we would probably have to call again and try to schedule an appointment. Should we succeed, I would at least know if I need to show up at the Questura (the agency responsible, a branch of the police) in Faenza, Bologna or Ravenna…

Italy, Serena pointed out, has problems which benefit some and negatively affect others. The world, in other words, is farther from fair than an Italian pizza is from the frozen DiGiorno variety. And let me tell you, that pizza gulf is one that cannot be crossed…

Speaking of pizza: lunch in Bologna, Italy.

First, Serena said, applying for a permesso within eight days of arrival is more “what they say.” Other Americans staying longterm, she said, figured out how to complete and send off their paperwork (how!?). Following this, they lived in Italy for several months before receiving a  permesso; the standard wait is three to four months. Some Americans never even received one before their visas expired and they returned home. In other words, Americans aren’t the ones they’re “worried” about, Serena said. Maybe it helps I also look like an American — or at least, not like an Arab or an African. She said this with a hand gesture and an expression that described perfectly the utter shame and total stubbornness of this unchangeable situation in Italy (as much of the West and the world). Everywhere has its problems.

So: I reached a standstill, a muro di mattoni (brick wall). Now what? Allora (so)… a gelato?

I sat in the sun outside uno di due torre al centro di Bologna (one of two towers in Bologna’s center — I prefer the leaning one). The permesso was just the tip of the iceberg: although I didn’t know it yet. I had time now to reflect on how nothing had been particularly smooth since I left my parents’ house in the Utah desert on May 29. My first flight from Las Vegas, Nevada to Los Angeles, California was smooth. The flight from LA to London, however, was delayed eight hours. Of course, this shoved me down the travel rabbit hole from which one never quite recovers…

The delay meant I’d miss my connecting flight from London to Bologn; there wasn’t another I could make until the next evening no matter if I waited 8 hours for the London flight or flew to Boston first or Chicago or New York. First, I completed the waiting-in-line-for-hours-while-also-calling-American-Airlines part of the rabbit hole. Then, I actually left security and went back out to the American Airlines check-in counter to talk to a very helpful agent named Gabe. Gabe’s birthday just happened to be three days after mine (making me three days his elder) and he hooked me up with a first class red-eye flight to New York. When I got there, the airlines would get me a hotel near the airport so I could sleep and shower before catching a flight to London around 6:30 p.m.

Entirely my fault, of course, that I then decided to drink champagne, eat caviar and stretch out on my entirely prone bed and watch a show than go directly to sleep. Besides, I figured I’d catch some shuteye at the hotel. But of course, there didn’t for a while appear to be rooms available when I stumbled off the plane at eight o’clock in the morning, New York time. After the agents sorted things out, I walked to a shuttle, took it and arrived at the hotel where they also appeared to not be an available room. By then, it was 10:30 a.m. Once they found me a room and internet that worked (I needed to check my flight and let my parents and friend in Italy know what was up), it was after 11 a.m.

Hiking in and around Brisighella, Italy.

When I got to Italy — jet lagged all to heck and disheveled to boot — I discovered my bags had been lost in the shuffle. Not surprising after all that rabbit-hole-ness, but I was immediately traveling the next day to meet a certain Italian guy. With the help of my friend Lisa, I decided to have the bags delivered to the Farm (the headquarters of the bike tour company I’ve worked for on and off since 2009). When I got back from Bologna and Venice in a few days, I’d figure out how to reunite with them.

When I burst out the doors into the arrivals area, Lisa greeted me with a bottle of Aperol and a bouquet of tulips. The tulips were wilted from waiting for me in the heat and they perfectly matched what I probably looked like. But I was in Italy! I breathed a sigh of relief that had hurricane strength and we marched off for a suitably delicious bowl of fresh pasta.

Except on the van to Venice a couple days later, Lisa had a massive change of heart and managed to tell me that — unlike we’d talked about until then — she didn’t want to share her space and instead needed me to move out by the end of July. I knew she’d been going through some personal trials, so I tried to be sympathetic but was completely unprepared. I was also jetlagged, sleep-deprived, still lugging around the same heavy backpack I’d carried from Utah and coming down with a cold. I needed a moment to breathe and recover. But the pace of this new life I’d gladly signed up for (and gladly still would!) marched on anyway.

Canal in Bologna, Italy.

So it was beneficial that here, between Bologna’s ancient towers, I acquired patience as an orchestra acquired cellos. Patience which allows us all to deal with situations we don’t understand and can’t control. Patience to continue anyway — despite what life throws at us, including bureaucratic nightmares, untimely transportation, unexpected news, relationships with loved ones that change overnight and all the other countless things that go awry.

But do they actually go wrong? Dipende (depends)… I think if we learn patience the right way, we also begin to learn forgiveness. Forgiveness — which is a continual process — can release us from a lot of unnecessary suffering. For example, if I make a mistake and it hurts someone, I can ask for their forgiveness and learn how to be more patient with myself. If someone hurts me and they apologize, I can learn to forgive them and let my anger go. Even if they never apologize, I can use patience to temper my anger and eventually I will be able to forgive and move forward with more lightness.

Fresh flowers to celebrate summer in Faenza, Italy.

Of course, we must also sometimes just forgive the way things are. In being patient with and forgiving ourselves, others and the world we can begin to understand something else which is very important: each of us is not so alone as we imagined. We are all instead connected. What happens to one affects the whole; what harms one, harms all. What helps one, helps all. So it’s best to move through life with the most important ingredient of all: love.

But back to forgiveness, so difficult yet important. We can even begin to cultivate forgiveness for the littlest things, in order to prepare ourselves for the big ones. Say, forgiveness for the hot Italian sun that melts gelato just a little too quickly. Sure, I (the graceful one) dripped half of my bacio e pistaccio gelato all over my light blue top. It’s ruined, right? And my gelato, too!

Montese, Italy.

On the other hand, I don’t buy expensive clothes (because I know I might ruin them!). So no big deal. As for the gelato, I think this means I owe myself another… This illustrates how there are always two ways to look at every situation, two songs that can be sung as we move through this crazy world. Yes, this is the music I’ll play back for myself. It is sweeter than gelato and every bit as wonderful as the cello.

8 Replies to “Zen and the Art of Chaos”

  1. Thank you Sylva.
    Just what I needed to read this morning. The photos are lovely.
    All the best,
    Gurkamal (Jacumba Hot Springs)

  2. Very nice. I hope you find a place to stay and your life smooths out soon. Love you!

  3. Well put Sylva. Patience and love are my mantras for the week. Thanks for sharing. Love you always.

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