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Where Nothing is Everthing


"You must be cracked or a Catholic," a friend said. The prophet who spake thus was an ennui-ridden ex-wall street type who lived in Europe for most of the year and at other times tried to rid his ennui by coming into India and resisting corruption. "It's very good for my global soul," he said as we sat trying to make sense of a form he needed for a building extension sanction. "But why would you want to go to Assisi? And in April? In winter, you can at least feast on truffles and some good meats...Listen to me, go to a city like Bologna....but this!!!"

I smiled and said nothing. I was disinclined to elaborate. And even if I were to, what would I say. That I was chasing a whim. That very often I went where there was no real reason for me to go to....

When we boarded the train from Florence, the train compartment was empty. There were just three of us. My husband, son and I. And then, just as it was getting ready to pull away, two women entered. One large and in her forties and the other, frail and in her seventies. "Is this the train to Assisi?" The younger woman asked, her mid-western American accent resounding in the silence.

"Si," I said. My son shot me an amused glance. In two weeks time, I had almost completely learnt to replace 'si' for 'yes'. The flip side of that was it usually unleashed a torrent of Italian which was incomprehensible.

"Is that where you want to go?" I asked. The woman smiled. I could see the relief in her eyes. I had my 'si', she had even less.
"Sure," she said. "We are doing this great Europe hop. We were in Rome two days ago. Mom wanted to go to Assisi for at least a day. Something about having made a vow when she was a young girl. She's catholic. So I guess you must be Catholics as well..."

I sighed. Somewhere in the Holy Bible, I had once stumbled on a line: 'there is a path which no fowl knoweth, and which the vulture's eye hath not seen: the lion's whelps have not trodden it, nor the fierce lion passed by it.'

If trusting my instinct to seeking that path in the course of my travels made me a Catholic, then I was one....

Again I did what I was getting to be quite good at when our reasons for going to Assisi came up. I smiled and said nothing.

So we crossed the mountains to Umbria whose olive oil is only one shade less green than the landscape it has been pressed from. When the train pulled into S.Maria degli ANgeli station, we were in Assisi. A quiet and empty station with no escalators or lifts or even baggage trolleys that usually are in all European rail stations. You send a prayer upwards to perhaps the saint of heavy weights and take a deep breath and heft the baggage....

Outside we found perhaps the only taxi driver in all of Assisi who spoke a smattering of English. 'Si, si, si, I take you there," he said jabbing at the sheet of paper we showed him. It was the address of the apartment we had rented and which was in the outskirts of Assisi. A hotel would have meant anonymity, a farm house would have meant having to blend with the family....an apartment would let us be who we were in a setting that wasn't ours. For a week we were to retreat to where neither art nor tourist was present. "India...eh, I have a friend in Bombay...a capuchin...he's there." En route we passed several capuchins, the Franciscan fathers so called for their brown habits.

The city of Assisi (43° 04' 00" N 012° 37' 00" E ) is situated on a hill. With a population of just 25000 (although there are only 6000 people living in the historic center), this is a tiny medieval city where every cobble stone is a textbook of history.

From its Umbrian-Roman and medieval origins to the present, Assisi is a unique example of continuity. Of Umbrian origins, the settlement became a Roman municipium under the name of Asisium. Until the 13th century the extension of the town coincided with the Roman one. Bishop Rufinus evangelised the inhabitants in 238 A.D. Taken by Totila in 545, it then became part of the Longobard and Frankish Duchy of Spoleto. In the 11th century a free commune is constituted: being of Ghibelline faith it always lived in opposition to the Guelfish Perugia. In 1198, taking advantage from the absence of the imperial vicar, Conrad von Lutzen, the inhabitants of Assisi attacked his fortress.

As Perugia tried to interfere with the liberation struggle of Assisi, the latter marched against Perugia and was beaten in a battle at Ponte San Giovanni.

As I trudged through the streets of Assisi, there is a certain sense of time stilled. It feels as it must have in the times of Assisi's greatest export. The Franciscan Order and the Order of the Poor Clares. Francesco born between 1181 and 1182 was the child of a wealthy textile tradesman, Pietro di Bernardone, whose family came from Lucca, and his Provençal wife Pica. Francesco decided to change his life, renouncing the riches and the eases of his family fortune and praying at San Damiano had the vision which ordered him to restore the Church (1205). In 1208, Francesco who had in the meantime received as a gift from the Benedictines the chapel of S. Maria degli Angeli, called as well the Porziuncola, founded his order of the Grey-Friars. After his encounter with Chiara di Favarone di Offreduccio, daughter of a noble Assisi family, in 1212 he founded for her a second order, the Clarisse's. Finally, in 1221 he founded in Cannara the Third Order (a lay-order). In 1224 he received at La Verna the stigmata and in 1226 expired at the Porziuncola. Only two years later he was proclaimed saint and the day after Pope Gregory IX laid the foundation stone of the church and the convent planned by Brother Elias, a companion of the Saint. And then the saint's body, which had been resting in the church of San Giorgio (the future church of St Clare's) was brought here in secret for fear of looting by tomb raiders and buried in the unfinished church.

I had a book. Nikos Kazantakis's God's Own Pauper which was about Francis of Assisi written from the point of view of another companion, Brother Leo. In the lower basilica where the tombs are, I find a niche in the wall where Brother Leo is said to rest. It is this that clutches at my throat more than anything else. An acolyte even in death inspires more awe than the saint himself.

Most mornings, I woke up to see the mountains wreathed in mist. I would make myself a cup of coffee and sit by the window with a plate heaped with Bruschetta. A slice of local toasted bread rubbed with a clove of garlic and soaked in olive oil. The olive characterizes the landscapes of the Umbria hills and extra virgin olive oil from Umbria has a distinctive green colour, with a full fruity taste, and an aromatic scent without any defect. Perhaps the best way to taste this olive oil is with the humble Bruschetta.

Later in the morning, we would walk down the road to the little village store Giovanni's that was also both trattoria and bar. Giovanni, the old man sliced the Piccante Salami which we feasted on, sliced the pane, measured the butter and the olive oil, helped us choose local wines [prized vines growing in hundreds of rows are one of the most common features of the hills in the province of Perugia], poured grappa in the bar and lit the huge wood fire on which his wife and daughters in law cooked the various dishes on their menu. They spoke no English and we had a dozen words of Italian between us. But that didn't prevent us from making a feast of every mealtime.

Perhaps it had to do with the ecumenical air but I knew that I would have to pay my dues for taking a vacation from reality. I chose as punishment an obligatory round of churches and frescoes. And then, I was free. To stare at a niche in the wall and wonder what it had been before. Or to take an alley that led nowhere. Or to get lost in a maze of lanes. To caress a wall or pick a pebble. To walk into a gelateria and heap a cone with three scoops of different flavoured ice creams. To buy Grappa by the bottle and drink it through the evening. To do nothing....

Later in Milan someone wanted to know, "But what did you do in Assisi?"

I smiled and shrugged. "Oh nothing really..." I said. And for the first time the word nothing meant everything....a world of gold and green, quiet moments, of standing and staring, not at masterpieces but at sheep that dotted the mountains or at a curl of smoke that spewed from the chimney of a well worn stone farm house…

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