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Report 1204: Zig and Georgia's Trip of Gifts

By zig from Kentucky, USA, Fall 2006

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Page 9 of 18: 9/30/06 We Meet Some Movie Stars

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Portofino from Castle Brown

We’d promised Suor Bianca that we would be in Mass this morning so we set the alarm and were all showered and spiffy when they rang the bell. We climbed four flights of stairs and took our place on a little pew in the chapel. The room was tiny, maybe six paces across and 10 paces deep but with two banks of windows and a patio door it was flooded with sunlight. There were only about 15 of us; 10 – 12 sisters and four or five civilians, plus Father, who looked and sounded like a chubby Sir Lawrence Olivier.

One of the civilians, a sixty-ish gray-haired woman with a radiant smile was talking earnestly with one of the elderly nuns. The sister was saying “sure, sure” and making deprecating hand motions. The woman moved to the lectern and smoothed her dark patterned dress nervously. Public speaking coaches always tell you to stand for a moment where you will be delivering your speech and “own” the room: see how the space feels, and know that you are going to do fine. She looked at the book of readings in front of her, took a deep breath, smiled uncertainly at us all, then returned to her seat by her old friends. They patted her hand and whispered encouragement.

And then the Mass began: Even though it was conducted in Italian we could follow each step in the familiar ritual. First comes the sign of the cross and the greeting, then the exhortation to remember your sins and shortcomings; then the father’s prayer for God’s mercy. Then we sit and wait for the lector to read the day’s readings. The first is always from the Jewish Scriptures, then comes a Psalm, either sung or spoken, then the second reading, usually from a letter of St Paul, then the priest or ordained deacon reads from one of the four gospels: Matthew, Mark, Luke, or John.

As we sat after the initial prayer, I saw our gray-haired cherub sigh deeply, smile timidly at her friends, and make her way unsteadily to the lectern. Father was sitting behind her and on the opposite side of the room. He folded his hands placidly and watched her, as we all did. She took her place, just as she had before, though without any air of “owning the room.” She began reading from the Jewish Scriptures in a lovely contralto. The passage sounded familiar to me, even in Italian, but I couldn’t place what it was. “Something of Something” over and over . . . then she stumbled on the word “Qoheleth,” and I knew she was reading the Book of Ecclesiastes. “Vanity of vanities says Qoheleth. Vanity of vanities! All things are vanity. What profit has man from all the labor which he toils at under the sun? One generation passes, and another comes, but the world forever stays. The sun rises and the sun goes down, then it presses on to the place where it rises. Blowing now toward the south, then toward the north; the wind turns again and again, resuming its rounds. All rivers go to the sea, yet never does the sea become full. To the place . . .” Her voice faltered. “To the place where they go the rivers keep on going.” She sighed so deeply, and looked up at us. Tears were forming in her eyes and she saw sympathetic tears forming in our eyes as well, but she pressed on. “All things are full of weariness . . .” Her voice broke and tears began to run down her cheeks silently. It was very quiet in the room. She put a hand up to motion for us to bear with her. No one moved. She smiled bravely, swallowed several times, sighed deeply again, and looked back at the book: “All things are full of weariness. A man cannot utter it; the eye is not satisfied with seeing, nor the ear filled with hearing. What has been that will be . . .” Her voice cracked and she paused again, but she knew better than to look at us weeping with her. “What has been, that will be; what has been done that will be done. Nothing is new under the sun.” “La Parola del Signore,” “The Word of the Lord,” she said. “Thanks be to God,” we replied.

She looked up and saw her little congregation smiling broadly at her, so very pleased for her success. She owned the room, no doubt about it. Now she smiled happily too, and wiped her eyes.

I don’t remember another thing from that Mass, but because I do try to remember at least one thing from each Mass I attend, if I live to be a thousand I will never forget her pure joy at being able to weep in front of us and feel the love of her brothers and sisters wash back over her. When she sat down her friends held and patted her hands all through the rest of the service. It is a wonderful gift to be really loved, and not just a gift for the one who is loved, she gave us a gift by letting us love her. So many people are theoretically willing to love someone, because they remain in control and can give or withdraw that love depending on circumstance. But when you are willing to be loved, then you are vulnerable. I wonder if Qoheleth would think this little roomful of love between strangers “vanity.” Kierkegaard, of course, knew that one Knight of Faith can always recognize another Knight of Faith; they are never really strangers at all.

After the service I had to walk to the lectern to double-check the reading from Ecclesiastes. We were the last ones to wind our way down the four flights of stairs to the hallway just outside the dining room. At the first table on the left of the door our elderly lector was sitting with her friends. They were still patting her hand. I too had to pat it and offer my congratulations: “Brava, signora,” I told her, and she bathed me head to foot with one of those angelic smiles. “Mille Gratzie,” she replied, and patted my hand right back. What unspeakable joy.

At our table by the window there was a stunning sight. Two of the most beautiful people I have ever seen in my life silhouetted by the early morning sun, a young man and a young woman. They could have been movie stars. It turns out they were. With a warm sea breeze blowing in the open window Sofia’s honey-colored hair was mussing slightly. Dark-haired, and dark-complexioned Daniel, sitting on her right at the end of the table, provided perfect foil. The white linen table cloth ruffled slightly. We took our seats, Georgia facing the open window, and me directly across from her but sitting next to Sofia. There were two large bottles of water, a large basket of crunchy bread, one pitcher of coffee and another of hot milk, butter and marmalade, and a very large wedge of aged cheese. “Are you English? Or are you from America?” asked Sofia in a lilting voice. They were from Sweden, but she had very little accent. We introduced ourselves and complimented her beautiful pronunciation. She thanked us for the compliment but turned it aside gracefully by telling us that Daniel was the one really fluent in English. Daniel introduced himself and told us briefly about the two years he’d spent living in Los Angeles studying dancing and acting, trying to break into American films. He’d suffered some sort of leg injury that ended the dancing career. That, coupled with other crises had lead him to re-examine his life and its apparent trajectory. As a consequence he’d restarted his dormant religious quest. As a consequence of that he’d felt called to enter the seminary and was now studying to become a Lutheran pastor. I could tell that the change had left him slightly breathless.

They had a three-year-old son, who was being looked after by grandparents so they could have this holiday alone (after just finishing being in a film together). Sofia was lovely, and lovely in a somewhat unselfconscious way. What I mean by “somewhat unselfconscious” is that she accepted her stunning beauty the way I accept my eye color (her eye color, by the way, was the most amazing pale green!) No matter what Quoleth says I don’t believe there was any vanity in either of them. She hadn’t a hint of makeup, and though her hair was combed, it was put up simply in a French-twist sort of style, and there were many loose hairs to get caught charmingly in the breeze. She told us about the movies she’s starred in and we’ve tried to find them since returning home. As best I can tell, they have not been released in a US-compatible DVD or VHS format. Daniel was dark and more intense, but with a smile as warm and ready as hers. Both of them were slender and the picture of their curly-haired son suggested he was impish and adorable. They confirmed that he was.

We had the best talk and lingered at the table long after the cheese was just a little piece of rind, and every bread crumb had been retrieved with a wetted finger tip. Sofia felt that she’d always been a Christian and was so very pleased that Daniel had come to himself. We marveled together at how we stay the same person we’ve always been when we convert and yet we also completely change, more ourselves than we were when we were trying to do our own thing. It was as though all that was not us falls away, or perhaps more precisely, starts to fall away. Sofia had evidently been in a serious accident too; there was a thin scar running from her upper lip all the way down to her chin on the right side of her face. It had completely whitened, but how could an actress be so unselfconscious as to leave it untouched by makeup? Such effortless grace moved me deeply. She accepted her imperfections with the same equanimity she accepted her stunning beauty and thereby raised herself, in my estimation, far beyond the many beautiful women I have met in my life. I hope to see her movies someday.

The sisters clearly wished to clear the tables. Daniel and Sofia were going to bum around the convent with no particular plans. We wanted to visit Castle Brown, where “Enchanted April” had been filmed, so we planned to meet again the next morning (if not before) to rehash the day’s events.

With our new-found mountain legs we easily walked back into town to catch the bus and wind along the coast to the once-upon-a-time fishing town of Portofino. Since the 1950s it’s become a harbor for yachts and celebrities. Nevertheless it’s still lovely. The onion pizza we bought in a little store on the waterfront was horrible. It was the only truly lousy meal we had the entire time. We couldn’t even finish it. Dry, lifeless crust with mediocre olive oil and over-cooked stringy onions. Ugh! But! We were nibbling at it while sitting on a castle wall looking out over sparkling blue Italian water! It seems really churlish to complain. There were lots of celebrity pictures in the rooms: Eddie Fisher and Elizabeth Taylor, Grace Kelly and Prince Ranier, John Wayne, etc., but no pictures from our movie. Very surprising. It was as though there were no more movie stars after 1964. Then we walked another 300 meters through the woods above the shoreline to the lighthouse. I had the best time taking pictures of everything, near and far, big and little, glorious and trivial. What a place. Then we caught the ferry to the Monastery at San Fruttuosa. We thought we’d hike the three-hour trail but were just too tired and wimped out. The monastery was dark and mysterious but cheapskates that we are we didn’t go in and just poked around on the beach for a while (it was supposed to be topless, but everyone I could see was fully topped) and jumped back on the ferry for the return to Portofino. More poking around there, then back on the bus to Santa Margherita to do some grocery shopping. Things had been going altogether too well, we decided it was time to get lost in a small Italian town.

(to be continued)

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