I’ve been traveling since I was a toddler. My mother and father and sisters and I took an ocean liner from New York City to England because my parents were afraid to fly. Young as I was I still remember little things. I remember that two of my sisters got sea sick out in the middle of the Atlantic, the great boat bobbing about and my sisters throwing up into bags tied to the bed posts. My sisters were green. On the deck we wrapped in blankets and listened to the ocean. It was April and cold. In London we had tea at Brown’s, tiny, crustless sandwiches presented on a tiered, silver tray. And after I recall believing that my mother was going to drive the taxi because she got in that side of the car. Somewhere we picked up the red VW bus and drove it to Spain, then to France, then to Scotland, to the Island of Colonsay where the McPhees come from, farmers originally — the island’s poorer folk. We lived there for six months while my father did research and wrote The Crofter and the Laird and my sisters went to a one-room school house and made little Scottish friends. I remember sitting on my father’s shoulders and tapping him with my heels as if he were a horse and saying, “Run, Daddy, run.” And he would run, at the edge of the sea, across the moors, thrilled by my delight and adventure and curiosity, and I’d kick him just a little bit more if he dared to slow down. “Run, Daddy, run.” I was traveling. I remember nothing more of the trip, but have been traveling ever since.
Out of the blue, as I was writing the above, my father emailed me the following — brief notations, a scribbled itinerary:
1967, April through September. Six months in Europe with entire
family, researching “The Crofter and the Laird”, “Pieces of the Frame”,
“Josie’s Well”, “From Birnam Wood to Dunsinane”, “Twynam of Wimbledon”, and
“Templex” (these pieces were written over the next couple of years). To
Bath, April 25. To Colonsay, May 1. May 6, climb Kilchattan hills (“Run,
Daddy, run.”) May 11, Balaromin Mor. May 23, Donald Garvard. May 24,
Oronsay — Andrew Oronsay. May 25, the Ardskenish Peninsula. June 4, Martha
baptized in the Church of Scotland. June 6, leave island. June 12, Loch
Ness Phenomenon Investigation Bureau. June 13, Dame Flora McLeod of McLeod,
Station Hotel, Inverness. June 14, Captain Smith Grant, Glenlivet. Then
George C. Harbinson, Macallan, Cragellachie. June 15, Donald and Jean
Sinclair, Dunsinnan. Later Sir Ian Moncreiff of that Ilk, Easter Moncreiff.
June 19-26, London, Wimbledon, Robert Twynam. June 27, France. July 4, by
ship from Valencia to Mallorca. July 25, leave Mallorca. August 1-4,
Madrid. August 5, La Granja, Segovia, camped Avila. August 6, camped
Salamanca. August 9 to September 7, Suances. August 20, arrive New York.
My three-year-old’s memory was a little off – – Colonsay first, etc. So much for memory generally. Memory is fiction. My father, 36 at the time, makes a mistake even with the final dates. Details aside, of their daughters our parents made travelers.
Dragging ourselves away from the pool at Villa Zinna and from the abundance of music at the Ibla Festival, we decided we had to make a pilgrimage to Scicli to see Christ in a Skirt. Scicli hides in a gorge in the Val di Noto and you come upon it like a surprise. In one way or another the town has been hiding there, mirage-like, since 300 BCE. In 1693 an earthquake leveled the town, killing 3000. It was rebuilt by the ruling Spaniards in their Baroque style — a maze of palaces and churches with San Matteo looming above it all on a rocky outcropping.
Scicli (pronounced SHE KLEE) is lovely to drift through as Jenny and I and our families did.
At high noon no one but us was foolish enough to be on the streets. The town was empty, the temperature hovering around 100 degrees, but dry and cool in the shade. Too hot for a gelato even.
Above, Santa Maria La Nova in background.
The palaces and churches brim with gargoyles and decorative fancies and crazy faces.
Chiesa del Carmine
Cristo in gonnella: Christ in his skirt
(I’m not sure why he’s wearing a skirt, but it is very rare. There is one other in Burgos, Spain.)
Visit Jenny McPhee for more on Sisters in Sicily.
Entertainment at Maho Beach Resort, St. Marteen
The Maho Beach Resort was an unlikely end to a gorgeous Caribbean vacation on Anguilla, but that’s where it ended in a massive hotel with over five hundred rooms, a casino, a vast pool with a bar in it, people sipping cocktails, playing bingo, smoking cigarettes, relaxing. On the beach next to the hotel, a beautiful white sand crescent, jumbo jets roared in from Paris and Amsterdam, 747s, 767s, 757s to touch down just on the other side of a barbed wire fence, one after the next, glinting in the sun on the horizon, growing bigger and bigger until they were right above, so close it seemed you could jump up and touch their bellies. When they weren’t landing they were taking off, blasting several hundred tons of thrust from both engines, blowing sand ferociously like thousands of small needles piercing the skin, making waves in the sea, causing people to hang onto the fence. Planes have never seemed possible to me somehow, like extraordinary, potent magic. Here the show was free; you watch it from your beach towel.
Check out Josef Hoflehner’s photos.
IN GOOD COMPANY
(from More Magazine — November 2007)
On a corner in Fort Worth’s Southside, my friend Donatella Trotti (known as Dodi) has opened a tiny trattoria. It is called Nonna Tata, after her grandmother, and is in a 500-square-foot cinderblock building on a seemingly lonely street. The cozy interior is completely designed by Dodi, the walls sponged a pale yellow, tables and stools laminated with flowers and photographs and old Italian adages: LIFE IS TOO SHORT FOR BAD WINE. AT THE TABLE YOU FORGIVE EVERYONE, EVEN YOUR RELATIVES. Now widely popular, Nonna Tata took nine months to open. “Like a baby,” she says to me in her strong, exacting Italian accent. Of course, I had to visit. Dodi is one of my oldest and closest friends. I am who I am because of her. She is who she is because of me. We met, as I like to say, when I was 16 and she was 17. “Yes, I am a year older,” she admits with a roll of her eyes when I tell our story. A Rotary Club exchange put us together.
I met Christina Ball first day of freshman year at Bowdoin College. She was my roommate and she arrived in our room with an entourage: a sister, a brother, a mother and father, a grandmother. They crowded in, inspected, turned over pillows, looked out windows, absorbed us — my father and me. We’d arrived first, in time for me to haul in a suitcase and a lamp and to realize the two small rooms would be even smaller with three people living in them. After Christina had surveyed the room, she went to my lamp and, not knowing that it was mine (a brass floor lamp that was now dark with age — it had been my grandfather’s at prep school), said, “This is ugly. We’ll have to get rid of it.” I wasn’t sure what to make of her. She was tall and had lots of dark hair and big dark eyes. She was gorgeous and self-possessed and had an eager curiosity that made her seem ready to alight. I was more introspective and quiet, happy alone, in love with an Italian across the ocean and to whom I corresponded endlessly. At first glance we were opposites, and what is it they say? We attract? It didn’t take long. We bonded over our desire to get rid of the third roommate, mainly because she was unhappy with us and because we wanted her space. After that mission was accomplished we became unstoppable. We labeled ourselves the Cosmo Bohemians and wore clothes that caused us to stand out on the rather preppy campus. We wore plastic high heels in electric colors (snow or shine), started wine tastings and a catering business to make some extra cash. She loved that I spoke Italian and that I’d been to Italy many times, that I’d lived there the previous year. She wanted to know all about it and dreamed that she’d be able to go with me the following summer. That was our first realized dream, paid for with our catering money. I took her to Italy, to Greece and to France. She had never been to Europe before. And, as my life was changed by a chance summer exchange with an Italian girl three summers earlier, her life was changed too, Italy creeping into it to take it over quite miraculously. She would marry an Italian, have an Italian daughter, run a thriving language school, Speak Language Center. She wouldn’t live in Italy, but that is just a detail; she was surrounded by Italy all the same. Now some thirty years later she has invited me to dream with her again, this time in Todi with writers longing to have time with their craft. She’s arranged a workshop at a boutique spa hotel with sumptuous food, Roccafiore. It is my honor. And I can’t wait.
Unforgotten Italy (an article I wrote for More Magazine on Christina)
Creative Writing Workshop with Martha McPhee
JUNE 9-16, 2012
Italianist, Christina Ball, is hosting a writing workshop at the luxury spa and wellness center, Roccafiori, in Todi, Italy in June 2012. She’s invited me to lead the workshops and I would love you all to come.