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Food of Ancient Rome

The first essay is about my summers in Umbria. The following one is about, actually, 9/11, and how it changed my son's experiences in Italy.

The House inside the Wooden Gate


It is so easy to go there now. I hop in the car, take the Autostrada del Sole, the Highway of the Sun, I leave Rome behind and in a couple of hours I see the town perched on the solitary rock in the middle of the fields. Then I go up the hills until I enter the gates of the place of my childhood. Nothing seems changed. The streets are frozen in time, flanked by houses with tile roofs, behind which the hills offer the same greetings, you came back, you finally came back. On the street a boy asks me “Are you looking for something Signora, you look as if you are searching.” From his eyes I know who he is. I used to play with his mother. But she died of cancer, he tells me, a few years ago. At my father’s grave in the cemetery a woman asks me if I knew the man. “He is my father” I say. And then she starts to cry, “You are the little one” and embraces me. Her name is Lucrezia, she knew my father when he was a young man and she was a little girl. Nobody has called me “little one” in a long time. It feels comforting, somehow. Back in town I see a small lady bent with age. I walk to her and ask, “Are you Ida Locatelli?” Yes, she answers, her yes implies clearly “and you are you” but then I smile, and the light in her eyes sparkles again “Lucia, Lucia, you smiled, and I knew you”

This is where I came from, where people know me when I smile. Now it’s so easy to get here. But it has been a long journey.

In the old days it took an entire day to get there.

That was when we lived outside the city, and in the morning we had to take a bus to the train station and then change trains in Rome. The train ran into the Campagna Romana, and even when there was a seat, I would stand with my nose on the window, each year reaching up a little more, looking at the ancient aqueducts running by, and the sweet rolling hills gradually changing to a sharper landscape, steep hills each with a town perched on top, the clay tiled roofs chasing each other up to meet a tall campanile, the bell tower of a church, or the forbidding bastion of a castle. Each year, armed with the new knowledge of year of schoolwork, I would know a little more. The towns were Etruscan strongholds, and in the beginning of their history they would fight each other from their hilltop fortresses. To me, speeding by under them, my cheek in my hand, all these ancient bickering seemed silly and unreal. But here I was, in the train running deeper into this land where each hilltop used to be somebody’s enemy, and friends were only the ones within the walls, tall, forbidding walls whose gates closed at night.

Finally I saw it, the great tufa rock, the impregnable bastion standing alone in the river flatland, surrounded by the hills already turning golden. Here she was, with its medieval cathedral and the towers reaching up to the brilliant blue sky, Orvieto, the intimate town with its narrow streets flanked by brown stone buildings, each doorway disclosing hidden gardens or small shops full of treasures.

We would get off the train at the station below the tufa rock, and pile up our bags in the cable car that took us up to the town. In the middle of the ascent the rail split in two ways to make room for the descending car. Each year I felt the same jolt of wonder, seeing this car emerging from the green tunnel of wild vines, that combination of jasmines, bamboo canes and blackberry brambles that would welcome me into my summers. At the last moment the car would swivel to the right, and each year somebody would smile at me from the passing car, the kind smile one gives a child, and later the smile young men keep inside their eyes, smiles I had learned already to ignore.

Then I was in the tunnel myself, a dark tunnel speckled with flowers, and finally we were inside the city walls where another bus awaited us. This last part of the trip, down the winding road to the bottom of the rock and then up and up to the distant hills, became with the years a pilgrimage of joy. We went down the road hugging the rock in a slow descent, crossed vineyards speckled with hamlets, just a few stone houses with red clay roofs and grape pergolas shading the doorways. Then we started climbing, the road winding up around more vineyards and clusters of woods filled with chestnut and hazelnut groves, crossing little bridges over deep ravines, a torrent sparkling between the stones down below.

And then I saw it, the castle with its one turret perched on the edge of the deepest ravine, the old reddish brown tiled roofs cascading down, and the gate, now always open, and I was home for the summer, where everybody knew who I was, where every color and every smell would enter my blood to remind me always of who I am.

The road to our house went sharply down, opening up the view of the town perched on the next hill. In between there were fields and farmhouses rolling along in an endless chase. Halfway down the narrow road flanked with tufa walls there was a little stairway of smooth uneven stones taken from the riverbed. It was a small stairway, easy to miss; it went up to a small courtyard where a large wooden gate stood closed, barely revealing the never-ending garden inside. Each year my mother took out the old key to my father’s family house, and we stepped in. The gate closed behind us, and I was in the shade of the ancient pergola leading up around the stone house build over the old caves in the tufa rock. Up the steps dug in the rock I went, to the open loggia, shaded by the tangles of grapes, jasmine and roses that climbed up to the stonewalls. Later in the summer, during our walks to the distant farmyards, we could always spot the splash of red and white among the brown walls. That was our house, waiting for us.

The edge of the loggia opened up to the lower part of the garden, a mixture of vineyard and orchard and rose garden. On one side a little path flanked by jasmines led to the upper orchard, more vineyards and walnut and almond trees, and down to the far end, the end I could not see from the loggia, there was the chestnut grove, where each fall shiny brown chestnuts peeked at me from their spiky encasements.

Deep inside the loggia stood the house. My mother had taken out a second key, and the door to the kitchen was open. There was a big bustle of opening windows and airing blankets, but for me, the child of the household, this was the time to say hello. I went to the huge fireplace where we would roast chestnuts and barbeque sausages and steaks, and where a pot of beans or stew always bubbled in a corner. I went to the recesses under the stairs where my toy clay pots and pans were kept, and to the side room where the balcony opened up above the pergola, and I was greeted by the rooftops and the hills in the distance, each with its town or a least a bastion to defend it.

Stairs lead to the bedrooms way above the rooftops, where I was up in the brilliant sky, near the nests of the swallows under the tiles. This was the home of my ancestors, where each stone of the massive walls remembered the people who was born and had died there. Each one of this people had given me something, the color and shape of my eyes, the curls of my hair, the little birthmark below my ribcage, same as my father and my brother.  I belonged there as much as the almond tree belonged to me. I never saw its flowers, because we were never there in the spring. But its branches were just right for a child to climb on them, and up on the top branch, swaying like on a seesaw, I would smell what the wind would bring, cool tufa rock and ripening figs and peaches, the fragrance of the jasmines and the roses when the wind ruffled them on the walls, and the stew bubbling deep in the coals of the fireplace. Why bother with the stove, when this deep, wide fireplace build across the central walls of the house would chase the morning chill and radiate heat to each and every room? In the morning, when I waked up, the wall behind my bed was warm and cozy, and I knew my parents were up.

The side room downstairs had a little window facing the courtyard. With the sunny balcony over the pergola that window wasn’t really needed, so my grandmother had covered it with a print of Raphael’s Madonna of Pompeii. The deep recess behind the print became a little closet where I would hide a few coins, or a candy bar inside a cracked mug nobody ever used and nobody ever threw away. On the chilly evenings when the walk uphill to the church seemed too long, my grandmother and her friends sat in a circle under the window with their rosary beads. Even after my grandmother died, when I was still little enough to sleep in my parents’ room, some of the old ladies still brought their chair with their straw seats and strong wood backs under the window. In the soft dusk their voices would reach me in my little cot. It was almost a chant, Ave Maria Grazia Plena, and as I went to sleep I felt that the chant was for me, a special child in the inner sanctum of an ancient temple. I could barely see the eyes of the Mother, on the wrong side of the print. They were looking at me, comforting, understanding.

On the side of the loggia there was a little terrace screened by jasmines and bamboo canes. This was my domain. Here I made my clay pots that sometimes the brick maker friend of my father would fire in the furnace. At the end of the day out came his bricks and my little pots, my lopsided treasures with which I would play house. Here I sat knitting little dresses for my dolls, and here, one glorious summer when I was 14, I got to paint all the shutters by myself. My mother stayed clear of the terrace while I splattered green paint on the stones, my legs and the shutters, but she loved to sit by me while I knitted. She had taught me when I was four, and each year she coached me on more intricate stitches on smaller needles. Eventually, by the time fall arrived I had my sweaters ready for school. 

The summer I was nine I got a room upstairs. That was wonderful. The old armoires were full of old books and magazines. I found a battered copy of The Count of Montecristo that I read until I knew it by heart. But to reach the rooms upstairs was not for the timid. The only light switch was on the upper landing. That meant that, I, who had clamored I was old enough to sleep upstairs, had to go up in the dark. And to put it simply, the rooms upstairs had seen lots of births, wedding nights, and deaths. At the bottom of the dark stairs, looking up, I knew all those ghosts were waiting for me. My father, who had been a small boy in the very same house, told me in the strictest confidence that ghosts are afraid of loud singing. So every night that first summer, I charged up the stairs shouting at the top of my lungs “Volare”! And perhaps in consideration of his ghosts, or his ears, by the time summer was over my father called an electrician to put a light switch downstairs. The ghosts were still there, transparent in the light, and smiling at this, their last child, coming up, only a little concerned, until she sneaked a finger in the room to switch that light on.

But in the morning I would open the shutters, and look at my garden inside the walls covered with wildfowlers and the jasmines that had taken over the place. My mother never really felt at home with her husband’s people. When we were not hiking in the woods, she spent her days inside the walls, and she kept me there as much as she could. I spent a lot of time in the garden, exploring the cool caves under the house where the wine was made in the fall, and where an entire prosciutto, well wrapped in oiled paper, would keep all summer. But I loved walking along the path to the chestnut grove at the far end of the garden. Here I would look up to judge when the chestnut were ripe, even if that signaled the end of my summer, and the return to school. Wild cyclamen grew under in the shade of the trees, and soft moss, and beautiful, deadly mushrooms.

The top garden was thick with fruit trees. In their branches flock of birds bickered incessantly. I learned to walk slowly and quietly, and eventually the birds didn’t fly away anymore. They kept bickering above me, as I slowly sat down and rejoiced in their chirping and scampering from branch to branch. The top garden was also the home of a nest of vipers. They liked to sun themselves on the little clearing above the lower garden, halfway down the path.  I learned not to disturb them and they let me be. They were part of the beauty of the place, with the old stones, the smells of roses and stews, the cyclamen and the deadly mushrooms.

Summer was the time I spent as much time with my father as my mother would allow. He would take me for long walks to meet our relatives and his childhood friends, either in town or at the farmhouses over the next hills. Our relatives were almost hungry to look at me, to notice how I resembled my grandmother, but the color of my hair was the same as my father’s as a child, to be glad of my progress in school. His friends greeted us with a mixture of friendship and deference.  This gray haired man was no longer the boy with whom they had splashed in the torrents. He was a man who had to go back to his job at the ministry in Rome when the first chills left frost on the grass. But deep inside their eyes there was pity for us who had to leave the only place we really belonged to. During our walks he told me of the hazelnut groves in the wood where we could find good mushrooms, and the stories of ghosts in the castle, and of all the places he had played as a boy. Sometimes we went there, to another town with another castle, and woods and torrents where a boy was almost visible, in and out of the trees, I could see him for a moment, but then he was gone, and the only reality was my father’s hand holding mine.

My father never once mentioned the war, when the towns and the woods were filled with partisans and soldiers, and bayonets and bombs marred the eyes and souls. My mother seldom spoke of anything else. But my father wanted to give me the magic of his summers, and that he did. I came to love the timeless peace of the hills chasing each other along the deep ravines, and the rolling of harvest seasons. Each July the hills were dotted with small figures cutting wheat. From one hill a song rose, taken up from the people in the next field, until the entire sky was full of the chant of the harvest, a chant that wrapped me up with the heat of the sun and the song of the cicadas.

August was the time to pick cherries and blackberries to make jam. I spent days up on the trees dropping cherries down to my mother and father, and then we all pitted the dark fruit and let it simmer for hours and hours in the huge pots in the fireplace. My mother coached me in turning slowly the jam with the wooden spoon until the juice did not drop down in the pot any more, but pearled on the spoon. The jam was finally ready. For days the smell of cherry jam was as pervasive as the dark spots on my fingers, until with fingers finally clean I opened fresh bread hot from the baker and spread warm jam on it. My father looked on. He remembered dark jam and white, hot bread in the same kitchen, given to him by a woman whose eyes looked up to him now in his child’s face.

Then there was the feast of the Saint. Every farmer brought the farm animals to be blessed in the stadium under the castle. The Duke, who had studied Agriculture at the University, was there with his farmhands to bring pigs and horses and oxen to the priest who sprinkled holy water over beasts, men and Dukes alike. Then the races began, first the boys, then the horses, and in the evening there was dancing under the stars, but my mother always took me home.

In September the grapes looked like clear topazes and rubies, reflecting the sparkling sunlight. We had put a table on the loggia to eat outside so now dessert after lunch was above our heads, my father just reached up and plucked a cluster of grapes for me.  And then it was time for the Vendemmia. In the early morning the gate was open to the workers who cut the grapes all day long. We all helped, even my mother, who wanted to learn how to prune the vines and invariably ruined them. Most of the grapes went to the big communal Cantina to be turned into Orvieto wine. Sometimes a worker would perch me on the saddle of the mule bringing the baskets full of grapes up to the castle. I was totally terrified but I could not disappoint this man who had wanted to give me a special treat, a trip on a mule, up the steep hill, with the huge baskets of grapes going up and down on the flanks of the animal. So I held on for dear life on the saddle, looking down to my father who winked at me over and over, a little smile under his mustache. He remembered other mules laboring up the hill so long ago.

But with the Vendemmia came the time of the chestnuts, short precious days in which I gathered the sweet shiny nuts, always pricking my fingers with the sharp spines of their encasements. We made jam and marron glacees, the perfect chestnuts huge and unblemished glazed in sugar, and we roasted chestnuts on the fire in the evenings. By now the nights were really cold, and it was time to go. So we packed our pots of jam in our bags, and I put away my toys, and we closed the windows, even the window of the Mother. She gave me a last look, Until next year, she said.

And then one year I didn’t come back. Life took me away. I left Italy and moved to the US. My parents and my sister died, and the house was just too far away, too remote. My brother sold it to our neighbors, who joined to their house and made it into a hotel. I went back for the first time a few years ago, when I was in Italy for a visit. I went up the little steps and looked up. There was the window on the wall, its newly painted shutters closed. The Mother had vanished. Behind the old gate, I saw the light of the sky. The pergola was gone. The wall that used to enclose my garden opened up to a parking lot. The vineyards were gone. So were the almond tree, and the roses and jasmines, and the chestnut grove. On the top garden, among pine trees in a grassy lawn with Walt Disney statuary, there was a swimming pool. A man was cleaning it. He looked up, saw me, and gestured with his hands “we are closed”. “Don’t you know me?” I wanted to shout “look at my face! It’s not different from many other faces here”.  But he didn’t know me. I had grown apart from my home. I didn’t belong anymore. I nodded and turned back. As I walked on the gravel, I closed my eyes, and the grass was dewy under my feet, and I smelled peaches and cherry jam, and the birds bickered over my head, never flying away.

Which is the real place? The hotel that opens its doors to whomever can pay? Or the house that lives in my soul, where I can go whenever I want, I only have to close my eyes. There the Mother looks serenely on, and the ghosts smile, and the wind ruffles the jasmines.

I go up the street again, where Lucrezia lives. She remembers. Together, we enter the gate, and we are inside the deep fragrant pergola. The wind ruffles the jasmines.

@lucia Clark2002

The towers of my private world


I never saw them again.

But that afternoon, finally on the plane, I didn’t give them a second thought. I just looked down briefly, my mind registered “oh the towers” and I went on to settle down for the long crossing of the Atlantic.

The trip had been difficult even before it started. I was mixing family time and work. Beside going to a family wedding, I had planned a field research among the Roma in Italy. But my darling, funny, infuriating son was going through one of those difficult times many teenagers go through. His father’s solution was vintage if predictable:”you have to cancel the trip because I can’t control him”. So I went to plan B: I took Michael with me. I revised my plans, taking a bigger car to accommodate those long legs, and reserving a larger place in one of my research towns to give both of us some privacy. For the rest of the trip I would stay with my family. We were booked to leave on the Friday before the Sunday wedding, because on that Thursday I was scheduled to spend the afternoon drawing little portraits at our annual Art open house. But Michael had friends to see and CDs to buy, so we were a little late when we finally got in the car. The traffic around Logan was excruciatingly heavy and we arrived just when our overbooked flight was closed, and the rest of us stranded passengers were assigned to later flights. That was still OK, I calculated mentally, we would arrive on the Saturday evening, I would have a little less time to visit with the family and I could do without the hairdresser and do my own hair. We got on the second plane, we taxied out, and we waited. An hour later we were told that the flight was canceled due to mechanical failure. We had no other choice than to sleep at the Hilton and to get on a plane the next day. At that point I was too frazzled even to get mad. The cozy evening with my family, and the happy, noisy caravan up the mountains to the small medieval church next morning was not going to happen. As it stood, we would land in Rome two hours before the wedding, grab our rental car, and hurry up those meandering mountains roads to the church some fifty miles away. At that moment the small medieval church in the tiny village up the mountains lost all of its charm for me. Michael was so chagrined that I could say nothing. We went to dinner at the Hilton, courtesy of American Airways, and then to bed. Next morning we flew to New York and then, finally, we were on our way to Rome. It was a golden sunset by the time we took off. The towers sparkled in the light.

When Michael and I landed in Rome the following morning, we discovered that our car did not have a radio, but we were so rushed that we didn’t have the time to ask for another car. I was to spend the next 3 weeks in the same car with a teenager deprived of a radio. The baboom baboom of his Discman would drive me to desperation.

Half way up the mountain we found a Macdonald’s, the only time I was to be happy to see one in Italy, one of the few places open on a Sunday morning, and I grabbed my silk suit, marched into the ladies room in my jeans, and came out as bedecked as I was able to after a night squeezed between a plane window and a 6’3’”, 200 pounds boy. The very same boy chose to squirm his 200 pounds into his suit inside the rental, out there in the parking lot. The kid behind the counter watched this woman in jeans march into the bathroom, come out in a smart little dress and jacket, and walk to a swaying car with large feet and elbows jutting in and out of the windows.

So up the mountain we went, finally reaching the dark, cool church with the tall nave, smelling of incense and orange blossoms, giving everybody a silent hug, while at the altar the young bride and groom told each other “si”, yes, I do.

While we rejoiced, happy to finally be together, men were making last minutes phone calls, ready to meet in Boston in a few days. It was Sunday, September 9, 2001.

On Monday it was back to work for me. I made my phone calls, and arranged to meet with the spokeswoman for the Roma affairs, with whom I was to visit the Gypsy camps at the outskirts of the city. It was also a time to reach out to Michael, to help him connect again to my part of his heritage, a place where love is there when he needs it, where his uncle, even taller than he is, can grab him with his fingers by the cheeks and tell him “Mike you behave or I make boiled duck out of you” I could never explain to my brother that “boiled duck” really means nothing scary in English, and it seems to work anyway. That light half mischief and half gratitude began sparkling again inside my son’s eyes. He was part of this family too. We made plans to celebrate my brother’s birthday with a few friends after my visit to the camp.

On Tuesday morning, September 11, I got together my professional equipment, my tape recorder, my camera, my notebooks, and a smile that is friendly without being familiar. I met with the lady in charge of the Rom affair and off we went to a small camp of mobile homes, where friendly, destitute and proud people maintain their way of life. Soon I was surrounded by chattering, smiling barefooted children and their mothers, ready to talk and to open their cramped homes to me, while some of the men eyed my cameras and recorder with a mixture of greed and suspicion.

Back in Boston, the men were coordinating their plans with two other teams.

At about 2, happy and tired, I left the camp and went home to lunch with my brother’s family. The smell of spaghetti and the barter of good-natured insults told me I was home at last. 

While I was having lunch with my family, the men were boarding the plane out of the same gates I had walked through only a few days before. After lunch I sat quietly with my notebook.

While I was going through my notes, the people working in the tower watched in disbelief as the plane lurched toward them. While in my brother’s house the phone rang and somebody told us to turn the TV on, desperate, doomed people choose to jump out of their burning windows, 100 floors down. Michael and I watched the second plane explode in the second tower, and New York rumble and collapse as the billowing smoke chased people down the canyons like a famished monster.

My first though was for my other children.  Mira is in Ohio, Stephen in college in Ithaca. Gabriella, my eldest, a physiotherapist, has moved to New Jersey from New York, She is safe. My mind blocked out the fact that she still works in New York. Later in the day, when the Internet functioned again, I received her email   “I am fine, I was due to work with a client near the towers but she cancelled” and the horror hit me. She was to be at the Gym at 9:30, which would have put her at the subway under the towers at 9. I sat reading her words on the screen, utterly unable to get up. Then the relief that we were all safe swept over me. In the following days, when all air traffic was suspended in and out of the US, stranded tourists flocked at the American embassy sobbing, desperate to go back home for a funeral, or a desperate vigil. And nothing could be done. I called the embassy in Rome and gave up our return seats.

Mike and I stayed in Italy for an extra ten days. Everywhere we saw sign of solidarity: the flags at half mast, posters on the walls saying: “we suffer with the American people”. With Mike in tow, I completed my field research. We talked, I listened. Trouble was not to be over, but the seeds of healing were sown.

September 11 is my brother’s birthday. He will be forever robbed of his celebration. That day he was the one that could not face going out. We had a quiet evening home, trying to make sense of the madness. Acts of war affect Europeans in a different way. We are used to them, in some ways. For us, an exploding building brings to mind other buildings on fire. We put it in the context of our memories. But to see New York in flames was a different thing. We all grew up with the idea that the US is impregnable. In some ways, it makes us feel safe. Now the impossible has become a reality. We are all the more vulnerable for it.

A few days later we did celebrate my brother’s birthday. We went to a restaurant out in the country, one of those rustic, delightful places Italy seems to specialize in. Our table was decorated with little Italian and American flags. The owner came to us and gave Mike a big pat on the back. Nothing more needed saying.

The last time I saw the towers, I was flying home. They sparkled with the last rays of the sun, small as toys, down below me, in the golden sunset of a perfect New York evening.

Now I keep them in my private world, with the other things that are lost forever, where they will never change, two towers in that golden New York evening.

@Lucia Clark 2002