5th September, 2016
I don’t want the good times to end. So I will put them on hold and continue the feeling of still being on holiday by writing about the last hours in Rome. Our friends met us at our hotel and we walked through the balmy night air, down the narrow streets of cobblestone to a restaurant where we sat outside at a long table and caught up on several years of living and working and also on their children, who accompanied us.
The eldest has grown into a young man who is an intriguing mixture of both his mother and his father, with all their enthusiasms for living and an aptitude for study. My kiwi friends work for the World Food Fund and last night I listened with interest to the stories of despatching and conveying food and people into Syria and getting supplies and aid to people in the most vulnerable parts of Africa and my friend Julie’s involvement designing policies that will empower people on the ground, on their own terms in their everyday lives. We learned about the struggle of achieving goals with never enough funding to cover the needs, too.
And then we engaged in the other kind of conversation that arises when you reconnect with friends at an overseas destination. We talked of home and familiar places, of Ellesmere and the Rakaia river mouth where the salmon fishing happens, and Banks Peninsula and Akaroa and the little bay at Wainui where the water is so cold, and the pebbles so sharp that you hobble in and out as quickly as you can and then shiver as you dry off with your towel while up above the sky is bright blue and the day is a scorcher. We talked about our parents and we talked about living abroad. My friend said that on hearing we were coming, she thought, ‘maybe they’re going to live here for awhile.’ And my head did a leap and I thought yes, I could live in this hemisphere again, although I’m not sure what I would live on. And as we returned through the streets, passing larger than life-size heroic males, sculpted from stone many centuries ago, mounted on carved pedestals, and monuments and columns illuminated in the dark, I was thinking about life choices and how we use our skills to earn a living, yes, but also I think most of us want to make a difference in some way, like these people. We discussed the future too and my friend said she didn’t have a concrete plan and was comfortable with living in the present moment and staying open to opportunity. And although, at my age — she is quite a lot younger than me — I actually do want a plan for my future, so I know I can face the eventual move from my home that I love, I concur with her notion of being receptive, of giving yourself to life.
This morning as we whisked through the centre of Rome on our way to the airport I felt regret over not managing a proper soak in the culture of this lovely city. I had mistakenly thought a taste might suffice but of course it didn’t. So all I could do from the back seat of the car, as it clattered over the cobblestones and swung around corners, was take photos with my iphone in the air, my finger sometimes missing the button. It was a desperate gesture, gulping and grabbing snaps of the buildings and monuments, none of them particularly satisfactory with their odd angles and blurred movement and half the frame filled with the interior of the taxi, the things on the roof and the dashboard. Also I didn’t manage to get a really good photo of a Brunelleschi-influenced Renaissance dome and that was a disappointment because these beautifully proportioned architectural features originated in Italy and then they multiplied and went out to every corner of every European influenced city throughout the world. And that included Christchurch where the bright green copper domes of the Basilica (1905) in Barbadoes Street, designed by Francis W. Petre, lit up the skyline, and made you stop and think how lucky for this city that it got ‘the finest example of ecclesiastical architecture in the southern hemisphere.’ But then Christchurch wasn’t lucky. The domes fell in the earthquakes and although the Roman Catholic Church has plans to reinstate a portion of the cathedral at considerable cost, they lack sufficient funds to reinstate the domes. So where will they go?
I wouldn’t have considered including the photos from this random shooting from a moving car, if I hadn’t witnessed the photographer John McDermott taking photos over his shoulder from the front seat of the rental car, through the back window, in 2013 when I was stopped at the lights. I remember being surprised that a famous photographer would take a casual snap from inside a car like this but of course when I saw the image of the foaming cherry blossoms that line the park, the bright green grass, the outline of tree trunks framed within the curve of the window-frame I realised that this was a master practitioner at work. And I’ve had that image as the background on my home screen of my computer ever since.
Oh dear. Reality sinks in again and I’m not sure I want to return home to work, although in a way I didn’t stop working on this trip, writing in my journal each day. Then again journalling is different because it feels more like a creative outlet. Work to me is a book project that requires lots of research and editing and takes years. And this has been written in three weeks. Initially I’d worried that my family might get annoyed with my furtive activity but instead I found them tolerant and even indulgent, helping me a little too, by listening and saying, I don’t think you should put that bit in.
My sister-in-law had wondered whether the journalling was disrupting the trip but the thing I have discovered about journalling is that in attending to what is happening each day a writer gains a sense of living life more fully. Through making a record, of something that might otherwise be lost, or only dimly remembered the writer has a chance to preserve the experience. And another thing in support of journalling while on tour, or even at home, I think it might be beneficial for the brain because it compels the writer to be observant and to make a mental note to remember. Holding lots of thoughts in your mind at once, and remembering them must be a good thing, I think.
I might not write a travel journal again though, because it did exhaust me, although Fiona Kidman, in responding to this journal, said she wished she’d written one on her recent book tour of England and Ireland. The pace of her trip, however, and the launch of the English publication of The Infinite Air, her novel about pioneer aviatrix Juliet Batten, to a crowd of 200 at Foyles bookshop in London allowed no time for writing. I went into Foyles one morning on my way to the National Gallery and found her book on the shelves in the fiction section, on the mezzanine floor. I saw books by Lloyd Jones too and it was a thrill to recognise New Zealand writers there.
I think of Cleo and another pain like a bang in the chest hits me hard. The thought of resuming a relationship via What’s App and Skype and email, which is marvellous on some levels also depresses me because I think it’s a poor substitute for the real thing where you get to sit right beside that person and can read their body language, whilst also drinking in the soft skin, the light hair, the eyes that startle me because they seem like my eyes looking back.
If I am really honest with myself I realise that I have not adjusted well to the empty nest. The thought of returning there quite sickens me. I see two lost souls and their ginger cats rustling about in a too big house and I think that’s not normal. It just isn’t. Once upon a time humans lived in small dwellings in close proximity to an entire extended family and a village of connected people. They may not always have got along but still they were part of an organism and vitally associated with and defined by one another. Close-knit communities are harder to find now.
We’re still stationery on the runway at Rome airport, waiting for our plane bound for Singapore to be given the all clear to fly. Ahead there is an eleven-hour and fifteen-minute flight to endure with a one hour and 45 minute stopover in Singapore before the final leg to Auckland. I didn’t think to ask my gardening friends in Auckland about their approach to returning home. They had said the moment they board the plane they think, I’m on holiday now and they treat the long, relentless flight as an adventure. I don’t see coming home as so much fun. I’ve got plenty to do on this flight though. I’m going to prepare a journal entry and its photos for posting. I’ve got a book my old sweetheart by Susanna Moore, set in Hawaii and compared with Jean Rhys’s Wide Sargasso Sea which is Fiona Kidman’s favourite, and that is all the endorsement I need to read it because I want to discover what kind of writing inspires her. I’m going to read an article about the songwriter Laura Marling printed in The Times and another one about gardens and roses that Julian saved from the interesting part of the paper for me. I don’t think I will go to sleep because it’s lunchtime and I can’t sleep during the day. I greatly admire those people who can. I think that must be a very handy skill to have, to be able to switch off and let go.