Darkness and Thoughts on Two Continents

6 10 2017

 

 

It is 11:27 p.m. in Iowa, which makes it 6:27 a.m. in Rome.

It is dark in Italy, as it is here – I don’t imagine this. I can watch the early morning unfold in darkness there via webcam broadcasting from the Campo dei Fiori just as easily as I can see the night outside my own window.
It is so quiet in both places. I feel like I am alone with my thoughts on two continents at once.
When I first click on the campo’s camera feed, the market square appears empty. Then I see a solitary person, like me, wander into view. All in white, he or she walks silently along the market stalls, then disappears underneath an awning. I am suddenly alone again.
Alone but for a figure in the very center of the market square – a statue of Giordano Bruno, last convicted heretic to be burned alive by the Roman Inquisition in 1600, here in the Campo dei Fiori. He looms over the square. In the dark, I cannot tell if he looks my way or has his back to me.
As I watch, the day begins to break: trucks and handcarts arrive, people appear with them to unload merchandise. I see flats of produce (tomatoes? eggplants?), and a man passes through my view with heavy, oblong bags slung over both shoulders. More stalls are erected, I begin to hear people calling to one another, glass bottles clink loudly one against another. Birds caw out raucously.
By 6:47 a rosy sunrise is just visible over the roofs of buildings that enclose the square, slowly revealing a skyline that is both foreign and, somehow, familiar. Once I read a book in which Giordano Bruno was a character. The day after I finished this novel, I browsed a local bookstore, discovering a book containing a cycle of poems about his life. I thought that was an interesting coincidence, until later that same day, I picked up a thick volume of poetry by the Polish writer, Czeslaw Milosz. I opened the volume to a random page and the title staring up at me was “Campo dei Fiori”.
This string of coincidences has stuck with me. Tonight, I wonder if it holds a message. Giordano Bruno: scientist, heretic, believer in an infinite universe, burned alive for his convictions. I told a priest friend this story and he said, “I won’t discuss him and I heartily encourage you to stay away from him.” As if we still live in a time when ideas are worth dying for; are worth killing for.
In his poem, Milosz imagines Campo dei Fiori on the day of Bruno’s death. A bustling marketplace, full of people engaged in their daily business. A pause as the pyre is lit. “Before the flames had died, the taverns were full again.” Bruno’s burning is juxtaposed with Milosz’ own time, where a carnival delights while the Warsaw ghetto burns. In both scenes, the people “of Rome or Warsaw/haggle, laugh, make love/as they pass by the martyrs’ pyres.” He imagines the loneliness of those dying, aware that the world and the living simply go about their days, barely noticing. The poem ends with a vision of the future:
Those dying here, the lonely
forgotten by the world,
our tongue becomes for them
the language of an ancient planet.
Until, when all is legend
and many years have passed,
on a new Campo dei Fiori
rage will kindle at a poet’s word.
Try as I might, I can’t quite get there – to this new Campo dei Fiori. It feels like we are living in the same old marketplace, a carnival to distract us from the fires in which people are dying. Some days we pause to notice ashes from the burning float past us, but most days we just keep keeping on. We might think “this isn’t right”; maybe we’d like to stop the world and get off this sicko ride, but the ferris wheel keeps relentlessly turning and our choice is ride or jump. We fear the free-fall that follows the jump more than we fear the impact of the ground (though, to be honest, we don’t relish the thought of either). So we ride, around and around mumbling the same argument, the same complaints.
 As night deepens where I am sitting, day is already moving on in Rome. I check the webcam and note that there are shoppers beginning to drop by the market stalls. I hear the murmur of their voices, though I cannot make out any words. My eyes follow a bird that swoops in above the awnings, flying straight toward the towering figure of Giordano Bruno. Just in time, the bird rises, avoiding a collision.
That is when I notice it is bright enough to see that Bruno is facing me. Even though his face is shadowed by the hood of his robe, I imagine that our eyes meet. Behind his shines the light of a thousand thousand stars. Right or wrong, he stood his ground; is standing there still.
Campo dei Fiori by Czeslaw Milosz
In Rome on the Campo dei Fiori
baskets of olives and lemons,
cobbles spattered with wine
and the wreckage of flowers.
Vendors cover the trestles
with rose-pink fish;
armfuls of dark grapes
heaped on peach-down.
On this same square
they burned Giordano Bruno.
Henchmen kindled the pyre
close-pressed by the mob.
Before the flames had died
the taverns were full again,
baskets of olives and lemons
again on the vendors’ shoulders.
I thought of the Campo dei Fiori
in Warsaw by the sky-carousel
one clear spring evening
to the strains of a carnival tune.
The bright melody drowned
the salvos from the ghetto wall,
and couples were flying
high in the cloudless sky.
At times wind from the burning
would drift dark kites along
and riders on the carousel
caught petals in midair.
That same hot wind
blew open the skirts of the girls
and the crowds were laughing
on that beautiful Warsaw Sunday.
Someone will read as moral
that the people of Rome or Warsaw
haggle, laugh, make love
as they pass by the martyrs’ pyres.
Someone else will read
of the passing of things human,
of the oblivion
born before the flames have died.
But that day I thought only
of the loneliness of the dying,
of how, when Giordano
climbed to his burning
he could not find
in any human tongue
words for mankind,
mankind who live on.
Already they were back at their wine
or peddled their white starfish,
baskets of olives and lemons
they had shouldered to the fair,
and he already distanced
as if centuries had passed
while they paused just a moment
for his flying in the fire.
Those dying here, the lonely
forgotten by the world,
our tongue becomes for them
the language of an ancient planet.
Until, when all is legend
and many years have passed,
on a new Campo dei Fiori
rage will kindle at a poet’s word.
Warsaw, 1943
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Night Joyriding

19 09 2013
Today’s post was written jointly by Mike Beck and me. Since my arrival in Minneapolis in early July, one of our favorite activities together is cycling at night throughout the city. While we both enjoy nighttime riding, we came to it from different places, and our experiences are our own – hence the format of the post. In the end, we hope you’ll be encouraged to get out on your bikes – especially after dark!  
          –Jenion
Minneapolis By Night, photo by Mike

Minneapolis By Night, photo by Mike

M: I love riding my bike – I always have.  When I was a boy on the farm in Iowa, my siblings and I escaped into made-up worlds on our bikes.  As a father of young boys, meandering on suburban trails with the tots was always pleasurable.  Now, biking is more than just fun; it’s a way to get outside, be active, and a key component in my quest for a healthier lifestyle.   But, with a full-time job, and other activities that often book weekend days, the ONLY time I have to ride is in the evenings.  And it’s still fun, especially when I have someone to ride with.

J: Biking has been such a significant part of my life these past several years that I considered a bike-friendly culture one of the “must haves” for any city I finally chose to settle in when I left Cedar Rapids. By all accounts, Minneapolis fit the bill. When I arrived here, I couldn’t wait to explore the bike trails and greenways I had read and heard so much about. And I looked forward to doing so with Mike – we had talked about cycling for years, but living in different states made it impractical for us to ever actually ride together.

M: Introducing Jeni to her new city has been one of the things I enjoyed most this summer.  I have lived in Minneapolis since 1993, and I know the town quite well.

J: That’s an understatement, by the way!

M: But, as I was saying before I was interrupted, biking in Minneapolis is relatively new to me.  I started riding my bike last fall, after a long hiatus, and I usually stayed close to home.  But now that Jeni lives here, we want to ride as often as possible.  As I mentioned, the only time in my busy schedule is late evenings.  This posed a difficulty though:  Jeni was adamant that if we were going to ride in the evening, we were going to stay put on designated bike lanes and trails.

J: I had my reasons for insisting. If any of you have ever lived in a city that is unfriendly to bicyclists, you’ll understand my reluctance. I had been shouted at, honked at, and had motorists purposely swerve toward me only to pull away, laughing, at the last moment – all as I crowded as far into the gutter or alongside parked cars as I could. Other times, motorists were just so unused to cyclists that near-misses occurred. In that environment, why would one EVER get on the street – especially at night when visibility is even further reduced?! It was a sign of trust that I allowed Mike to talk me into it.

M: We live on Franklin Avenue, a busy street morning, noon and night.  For us to get to a designated bike lane, we have to maneuver off our own street first.  Fine.  We can do that!  Just a few blocks west we can catch a dedicated bike lane on Blaisdell Avenue.  That will take us to the Midtown Greenway, a bike “freeway” that connects to just about every trail in South Minneapolis.  From there, we can connect to the Chain of Lakes where the trail is not only exclusively for bikes, but also one way.  Thus began our foray into night bike rides!  We could get a short ride in just by circling Lake Calhoun, or if we had enough time, we could also ride around Lake Harriet and Lake of the Isles.  This was quickly our routine, and safe and easy for my reluctant partner to navigate.  Plus, it gave us a few opportunities to “practice” street riding.  We had to obey traffic rules on Blaisdell, lest we get taken out by a right-turning vehicle.  We had to leave the comfort of our dedicated lane so as to make a proper left-hand turn onto 29th Street to get on the Greenway.  As beautiful as the lakes route was to ride, though, it quickly became as boring as it was routine.  But I was patient, and that patience paid off!   Imagine my excitement the night Jeni said “Let’s head downtown instead of to the Greenway.”

J:  I won’t lie: that first ride in the dark, guided only by the spot of light offered by my headlamp, was scary. But it was also strangely exhilarating. Like all new experiences, it took a while to develop a comfort level with riding after dark. The night city has a very different look and feel than the day-lit one. On our second circumnavigation of Lake Calhoun, Mike nearly collided with a silver fox, its coat irridescent in the moonlight reflecting off the water, as it streaked past. Where, during the day, you smell suntan lotion and picnic lunches, at night the exotic scents of flowers and rich soil are noticeable. It wasn’t long before I was hooked. And I wanted to experience much more of the city than just the chain of lakes, as wonderful and beautiful as they are. We began to take different routes about the city, revisiting spots we had both seen before, but not at night or by bike. One wild Friday night we headed to the newly opened Dinkytown Greenway and, with road construction and detours, ended up in unexpected neighborhoods. We didn’t have a map, but somehow a bike lane or part of a trail always opened in front of us. In one incident of serendipity, we were in what I would describe as a “sketchy” neighborhood and we hadn’t a clue what to do next. We found a sign for the Greenway, but when we followed it we discovered the trail gated and locked securely. Suddenly, I saw a  woman emerge from a weedy lot about a block ahead of us. I felt certain we would find a path there – what woman walks alone in a random weedy lot at 10:30 p.m. on a Friday night in the city? Sure enough, it was a paved trail, and it took us over the interstate and back downtown…

M: … where we navigated traffic departing the Metrodome after the first pre-season Vikings game.  The streets were clogged with drunk suburbanites, most of whom didn’t have a clue what a bike lane was.  (That’s the first time I heard Jeni actually yell at a motorist!)  Our dedicated lane wasn’t remotely passable, so we zigzagged through the traffic jam and found a cross street out of that mess…and straight towards the Guthrie Theater where the evening’s show had just ended.  Now our nemeses were taxi cabs picking up theater-goers dressed in tuxedos and evening gowns.  Dodging that mess, we headed into the heart of downtown, where out-of-towners apparently assume people riding bicycles on a Friday evening must know their way around.  We were stopped and asked directions several times.

J: And, of course, Mike always knew how to direct them!

M: Anyway, that evening sealed the deal for Jeni.  She had now grown fond of our night bike rides, and had taken it off the trails and into the streets!

J: Ok, so that makes it sound like I went from a Nervous Nelly to an Adrenaline Junkie in one crazy night! The truth is, I had learned some important things about riding in this city. First, with the exception of the out-of-towners, assorted cab drivers and pizza delivery persons, motorists here both understand the laws of sharing the road and they respectfully adhere to them. Second, you develop “eyes” for night riding – essentially, you develop a comfort-level with using the combination of your headlight and ambient light available from the city. Third, most of our night rides end with a stop at our neighborhood Spyhouse Coffee. I love the arc of these rides – the excitement of choosing a new path, riding and spontaneously adjusting as we go, then – whether we’re refreshed or sweating buckets – a coffee and chat before the last blocks home.

M: For me, night riding is about getting outside after a long day at work.  It’s doing something active, and it’s sharing time with a friend.  It’s an opportunity to bond with our city, from a perspective we don’t see from our cars.  And it’s being part of a unique, vibrant community.  We are never alone on our night rides.  Minneapolis cyclists are loyal and dedicated kinfolk and it’s not uncommon to share a greeting or a brief conversation with fellow riders when our paths cross.

J:  Agreed. But some nights, riding is for the pure experience and adventure of it; a celebration of the spirit of biking. It makes me feel the way I did in junior high when I raced my sunshine-yellow ten-speed all over the small town of Hastings just because it was fun, and I could. In adult life, those reasons are rarely considered sufficient for activity – which makes me wonder: why not? We night joyride – because it’s fun and we can. You should join us sometime!

A night ride must: Spyhouse coffee before heading home, photo by Mike

A night ride must: Spyhouse coffee before heading home, photo by Mike