Tuesday, February 9, 2016

Italian Postscript: One Year Later

"I feel like my entire life has
been leading up to this moment."
A year ago today I was riding a painted horse up a volcano in a snowstorm. I was eating mysterious vegetables in a historic village by the sea with a stranger, and I was drinking wine in the middle of the day. But days like that can last a lifetime, so Emily will forever be my bff on the ninths of Februaries. She said, just as she took her first bite of Neapolitan Pizza, "I feel like my entire life has been leading up to this moment." I felt the same way.

My actual bff has no memories of that day. Floating in a haze of brain trauma and heavy medications, in the hands of skilled American Doctors, Italian food was the last thing on her mind. It took us months of wobbly walks and emotional talks before we could grasp the true horror of the alternate universe, in which her brain had waited a day to start leaking. The timing of her stroke was nothing short of miraculous. And what's more, finding those bonus aneurysms will someday save her life... plus a lot of headaches.

A year after our ill-fated departure date, drinking Prossecco.

Jenny is well again... as clever and bright and beautiful and goofy as before, showing off the lumps under her hair to anyone brave enough to feel them. When she misspeaks or makes a wrong turn (as we all do sometimes), she glares and says, "Don't judge me, I'm brain damaged!"

As you can see by this picture, she looks good, but I know you're wondering: does she see good? When half of her field of vision desaturated, she thought her career as a painter in classical realism was gone forever. But on the one-year anniversary of our ill-fated departure date, she returned to her Atelier to paint.


The beauty of Jenny's brain (and the beauty of all brains, really), is that her brain tissue may be
permanently damaged, but her mind has made up for it. The right side of her vision can now completely convince the left side of her vision that it is seeing color, and she is no longer seeing a washed-out world. I am rejoicing of course...but I am also not surprised. I had so much faith in her. I had great faith that the prayers I sent up with all the candles I lit in all those amazing churches would be heard, loud and clear.

We have not made plans to go back to Italy together... it's almost too scary, still...but she hopes to visit there with her daughters this summer.

As for me, my traveling experiences set up some resonances in my life. I kept some of the new friends I made (hi Fabio, Fabio, & Paolo! Hi Stephanie, Berrak, Davide & Emily!) and became closer friends with the Italians and Italianoids right around home (hi Amos & Giorgia! Hi Erin, April, Autumn, Sorrel, Gayle!). I kept my promise to drink wine with meals, eat better food, keep finding pleasure in the little things, and to learn more words (though sometimes the wine keeps them from sticking.) And darn if it doesn't seem like Italy is everywhere now. As one ex-pat (hi, Ron!) says, "It's not a country... it's a disease." (One that you go out of your way to catch, and whose itch hurts so good...)

Alexa at the Florian, blooming with happiness!
I confess it hurts a little to be so far away now that I know what The Real Carnevale is all about. (Is it just me or has every event in the past year had a Carnevale theme?) I am again filling my eyes with the luscious costumed escapades of my reveler friends on Facebook. Alexa got to go this year, preparing half a dozen incredible costumes...and I am so very sympathetic to the painful emotional/artistic hangover she is about to face. "Le Febbre."

As for Vesuviette, she's made a few more appearances since I've been home (see above), plus she stars in a new story about a hot Venician romance between a volcano goddess and a wind god, which was incredibly challenging to write. (Hi, Shari!) The Vesuvian Affair is currently in line to be read by a publisher... (I must light more candles!) At the end of the story, the adventurer laments the rising sea levels, and asks the wind god if he can help out with the drought back home. Well, at least that part seems to have come true!

Life is a masquerade, tee hee! 


Wednesday, March 25, 2015

An Acceptable Level of Ecstasy


Above the Alps
There are three parts, I always say, to a vacation, all enjoyable: planning it, taking it, and then remembering it. But there's another part you forget about, like you forget labor pains: re-entry. Some people may be able to unpack and develop their photos in a week and put their experience neatly into the past, but I was not expecting to feel so different when I returned. I needed time to incorporate my new sense of myself into my world view.

When I got back to California, I was so happy to see my family again! They descended on me as soon as I was past customs (the Kinder-Egg is home!). I was welcomed with hugs and chocolate and roses, it being Valentine's Day and all. I had managed my sleep so that jet lag was not a problem... but the culture shock was intense and disorienting.

The toilet paper aisle at Walmart
First: sitting in traffic in San Francisco. No one honking or shifting out of lanes. All these huge cars. Next: the loud music on the radio - so familiar, so insular, so much the same. And then: the great shock of going from a gal on her own in the world to a familiar context... (Who is this "mom" person you keep mentioning? The one who annoys you today? The one around whom your life revolves?)

I saw my normal life, as one does after an international experience, with new eyes. But after so many nights socializing in other worlds, my wonderful life as a consumer of entertainment felt detached. On my list of urgent items: catching up on Downton Abbey, The Walking Dead, Parks & Rec,  and The Daily Show.

I drink wine with my mac & cheese lunch now.
(Here's to Jenny!)
It took me weeks to stop floating out of my body every time I was alone with my memories, feelings, and imagination. I slid around town feeling inappropriate levels of happiness.... Was it my new Italian leather boots? The way I now tasted each bite of food? The new vitamins I was taking? The wine I was now drinking with meals? My kiss-the-world fantasies faded, but I was still looking at the world through what I now think of the Crema Catalana filter... seeing the world in terms of a sexy YES or an indifferent NO. My instincts were finely tuned. I wanted more from my life. I felt volcanic and amazing. I literally felt too WELL for housekeeping, doing taxes, or struggling with technological troubles at my desk. Over the past weeks I had built so much strength by fighting through my obstacles—the loss of my buddy, the sinus infection, #@$%& Mercury, the (also #@$%&) mountain. After a religious experience, the paperwork battles before me felt unworthy of my mightiness, and time at my desk was stultifying.

My last bite of Italian chocolate
But I was also grieving. No one ever has time to look at the 600 pictures you took while traveling alone. Stalking my fascinating Facebook friends when I should have been working, I returned to Carnevale again and again, friending people I hadn't even met. Talking to my friends who had been there, I learned that post-Carnevale blues are universal and hard to handle. “You are ruined for all future parties,” Autumn laughed. Fortunately Amos, who occasionally lives in Italy, helped me work through la febbre. “It's a real thing,” he sympathized—the fogginess, the heartsickness, the strange physical symptoms—and he poured me a glass of Prosecco one afternoon when I was close to losing it. To the detriment of the other projects I'd put on hold when I left, I immersed myself in blog therapy.

Et voilá. (I know. That's French.)

Back on my own path
The question now is, how am I to return to my normal life, wanting the new things I now want? I was already running at high speeds before I left. I've got books to finish, bills to pay, a house to repair, a kid to get to college, plus lots of souvenirs from my entire life to organize. But I have achieved something, at my ripe old age, that tells me I can do more with my life. I want to put all my talents to use, connect with stimulating people, make meaningful change, help the world stay good and become better, and—goddess willing—find ways to travel more, maybe even with my beloveds.

Italian mamas
picking up bambini
in the rain
Back in the PTSA, I'm unreasonably thrilled by things like the new food-separation program in the cafeteria, proud to accept an award for our Centennial book, and devastated by the senseless shooting of one of our dear students. This last one brings me fully, sadly, home, as I order butterflies to release in his honor. But even though disasters continue, San Francisco is nearby, and is as charming as any European city. And every day, the view of the bay from the Oakland Hills is as beautiful as the Bay of Naples was from Vesuvius. Indeed, you should come visit... (new Italian friends, I'm talking to you!)

Moving forward and moving on, I will drink wine with meals, order order artichoke hearts and zucchini on my pizza, and keep learning new modi di parlare. But today I have come to the end of this blog. Until Kristen and Jenny try again.. Arrivederci! And multi bacio. 

Thank you for reading along on this mindblowing trip. Especially you, Jenny. xoxoxo

In the meantime, if you want to keep in touch, follow me at www.kristencaven.com or Facebook or @krs10bc. If you want to read more of my writing, find books here

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

In Thin Air

On the trip home, completely punch-drunk on lack of sleep, and still over the moon from my Carnevale fantasy, I laughed my ass off with my last new "single-serving" friend. The food on Lufthansa was warm and wonderful (and did you know they serve wine on Lufthansa, for free?)—but Fabio from Milan would cringe when the German flight attendants served us, whispering, "Why are they yelling at us?" I wondered, out loud, how Germans and Italians can possibly exist in such proximity, with their different approaches to life. He wrote "Frontaliers" in my notebook, a YouTube comedy series (Portlandia-like) about Northern Italians trying to cross the Austrian borders to work each day. "This will explain it," he joked.

He also wrote a lot of Italian swear words in my notebook, which I have blurred out so as not to singe your eyeballs, and I did him the same favor, since he was bound for a week in California with a girl he'd met on the Internets. Technology, like so many other preconceived notions, had pretty much failed me on this trip. But a pencil and a page will take you where Google Translate dare not go!

After the (perfectly polite) flight attendants came by again to clear our meals, the last ones of my journey, Milan Fabio stretched out his legs as far as he could (about six inches) and muttered something about just like after dinner at home when you loosened your pants and switched on a screen. "Did you say Limoncello?" I asked. "No, I said porno channel," he giggled. We both lost it, and then came up with the million-dollar idea for bottled Pornocello™.

I tried to sleep, but, having finally fallen completely in love with my vacation, was just too excited, and wanted to enjoy every precious moment out here in the wide world. I surfed the cool video selections on the screen in front of me, and browsed movies (including The Fifth Element, coincidentally) in Italian, Spanish, German, French and English. I SPOKE Italian, Spanish, German, French, and English to the people around me...amazed at my facility, now that I had tapped into the forgotten mind I'd built in my college days. Fabio and I compared notes on languages. I envied his native ability to roll his r's—my genetically German tongue can't do that—but he has the same trouble with glottal stops. "It hurts me to speak English. When I say 'er' I have to swallow my tongue." Funny!

When conversation turned to politics, we reflected on the situation below us; flying over Greenland and seeing so much green. Just a few years ago, and for hundreds of thousands of years before that, it was covered in ice. Looking down on the earth, it's so easy to see how we humans are all in the same boat. And how fragile everything is. On the first hop this morning from Venice to Frankfurt, the Frenchman next to me, the one with the adorable daughter, had written in my notebook, "En ce moment, nous devons croire en l'humanitie." In this moment, we must believe in humanity. Our language barrier kept us from going into detail, but everything swirls together for me up there, in the sky: a climate turning hostile, terrorists enchanted with the apocalypse, crashing, intertwined economies, strung together by oil and ideas of freedom.


En ce moment, Fabio the Milanese and I order more Pornocello, bitte schoen, from the flight attendants (just kidding), and he reflects on how the economic crisis that Europe faces today is the rolling after-effect of what happened on Wall Street in 2009. "Americans should remember they are voting for the world," he sighs, surprisingly serious. I wrote that in my notebook. Hashtag pencilparty.

As someone who saves every drop of water and every drop of gas, someone with a Cassandra complex who gave up her childhood dream of being an international something when she realized just how harmful air travel is, I felt, for a moment, that maybe it's worth it for us all to be together for moments off the earth, citizens of incompatible nationalities with everything common to try to talk and laugh and take off our cultural blinders. I finally doze off, dreaming of ways to send every voting American on a trip overseas, On thorium-powered planes.


Saturday, March 14, 2015

Commedia Dell’Arte

Jenny picked up a paintbrush today.

And an orchid blossom.

Not a plain colored one that would be, one would think, an easy first step for getting back on that proverbial horse.

An intricately veined one, fuschia on pale yellow, like, I dunno, veins on a bruised eyeball. But do I really have to point that out?

She's been out of the hospital for two weeks now. Her brain is healing so well she doesn't need physical therapy, but the damage to her vision persists. We made a date last week to spends some time making art, to create a space for her to face the process again. She set out plastic and unwrapped a new canvas pad, her motions sure from habit but still somehow tentative. "I've been so nervous about this," she admitted. "I don't know how this is going to go."

She holds the orchid in her hands, turning it this way and that, pressing the thin petals, feeling their edges, seeing it. Sounds start coming from her mouth as she gets lost in the generous beauty of the colors. "Oh wow. Smashing." She crumples up a paper towel and sets the flower gently on it, the delicate fuscia lips opening into her field of vision.

Doing the pencil sketch, she observes how little it matters, with art, that one be exact. What you make of a thing is separate from what it is in reality. She complains about her bad brushes—she can't find the good ones—but forges ahead, blending colors and moistening the paper.

"The best thing about watercolor is how it's partly in your control and partly not."

"Like life," I muse.

We listen to Capriccio Italien by Tchaikovsky as she paints, as I write. I am trying to figure out how to finish my blog. I've been home for a month and am trying to make room in my daily life for the expansive feelings I brought home with me, which both are and are not part of the story. My writing is as ungrounded and tentative as her experimental strokes. I am nervous for her, as well. Hoping this won't end in tears, paints thrown around the room.... I have faith.

As Jenny paints,  she becomes more and more excited and relieved. "I can do it," she breathes. "I can see color. " She is pleased with the results, even delighted.  I am impressed. We both relax.

We take a slow walk afterwards, ("I feel like a dog," she says. "I need three walks a day.  And a nap.") But her memory needs jogging. I tell her about our meetings before I left, oranges and a love-fest. She remembers telling me to go, and is glad I went, but admits she feels jealous when she reads this blog. I was glad we could talk about our less-than noble feelings (which don't diminish our noble feelings, by any means), and I unburdened myself of my feelings of guilt, for leaving her to seek my own happiness as she took her journey through pain.

As scared as I was to go on my own, I was truly more scared to stay. A lot of people don't survive AVMs bursting. Jenny's family went through it, especially her sister, who had to face this fear with strength and a smile, every day. And her devoted partner Sandy, who surrounded her; he deserves a mountaintop reward. I told Jenny I wanted to believe, deep down, that the spiritual energy and momentum we created with our planning and our drama helped her be a better statistic. (Not to mention all the prayers and good wishes from everyone who has followed the story!)

The world of art opens up again. And the friendship goes on. And best of all, today we began the conversation again: let's go to Italy, shall we? So she can see for herself.



Tuesday, March 10, 2015

In My Element


I finally found the place marked on my map for the party, but there was nothing there but a church with yet another color/grayscale apparition of the goddess and her kid. I lit my last candle for Jenny.

Three cloaked figures approached down the calle and I said two words to them: "Quinto Elemento?" They responded in rapid French, which I couldn't understand, but I knew to follow them, since the woman had butterflies in her whipped-up hair, and one of the men was dressed like a merman. They turned corners and swept over arched bridges, leading me deeper though the labyrinth until I was completely lost, off the map, as far from my known life as I could be.

Vesuviette and her minions
Through a stone archway, we turned into a courtyard and entered a room breathing with light. I swapped out my low Italian leather ankle boots for my high-heeled boots that are shaped like Italy (a useful prop when asking people where they live), and made my way up the red-carpeted stairs into an empty Renaissance ballroom. A wine bar was set up near the french doors to the terrace, and the floor in front of the fireplace was littered with gigantic beanbags.
Paolo (yes) Massimo (yes) Donfrancesco
(I shit you not).  One should practically put

a flirty bacio from this international
time-traveling bon vivant on one's resumé. 

My mouth hanging agape, I stepped cautiously past a group of menacing but beautiful Aliens and Predators with spines, glowing eyes, springy stilts, and long dreadlocks. The bathroom was occupied by an artist covering a model in silver body paint and wiring her hair with lights, so I checked my lipstick in the powder room mirror and made two American friends—military twins as surprised to be here as I was. At the coat check I turned my head and caught the eye, for the first time, of a young Roman nobleman who looked like he'd stepped out of a painting in the Borghese Gallery. It was Carnevale, but it was also the Fifth Element. A past and future mashup of a unique moment out of time. (Oh, and the fifth element, in the movie, after fire, earth, air, and water, is love.)

My memories of the night are dissolving into patchwork pieces, threads of motion and conversation barely connecting the crystaline images: statuesque blondes in clingy gold lamé, Zorg wigs and haircuts, antlered girls in diaphanous dresses dancing around columns, Victorian beauties, bearded monks, hors doêvres that looked like space shrimp, a giggling male Leeloo, and a seven-foot-tall schwa with glowing fingers that probed the faces and bodies of women who stood still for it...

See for yourself...




Vesuviette é Milla

Throughout the night, art was being born like, well, like new rock being formed on the slopes of an active volcano. More and more painted bodies swirled the room, more and more faces appeared, and the walls were pulsing with light.

But in a corner of a more serene parlor was someone I knew, who I'd met once on my home turf. I delivered a gift from Alexa to Stephanie, and we got to know each other, eventually divulging our secret passions for horses and robot porn. She helped me begin to understand this avant-garde art party within the context of the Carnevale traditions.

What a forceful hand the universe had taken in getting me here tonight...but it all seemed gentle and natural and congenial now. Stephanie introduced me to some of her interesting, creative, beautiful friends. Paolo handed me a glass of Prosecco.






I love the truly great parties. You arrive knowing hardly anyone, but as the night wears on and you chase around from one conversation to another, as you stop and really look at what people have brought, the assembled crowd becomes recognizable.

Strangers become friends, and by the time the party winds down, you are bonded and sad to say goodbye. Whatever happens the next day, when you see these people back in real life, you know they are truly magical because you saw them that way for the first time.

As always, my life has a Cinderella theme. I knew I would have to be packed and out of my hotel at 7:30 that morning, to be on the 10am plane.

So I danced. And conversed. And played with the beautifuls. I suggested the painter working on the enormous canvas add some yellow. I set the twins on a quest to find the best kisser. I helped Paolo look for the elusive DJ. The visual artist who had created the projected environment took me on a tour of his special effects behind the scenes of the palazzo—a ballroom on the third floor, enormous parlors filled with art, moonlit terraces. On the top floor, windows wide open over the sleeping city, the rooms where the creative team stayed. One of them liked me and gave me a precious souvenir: a bottle of wine from his family's vineyard. I may also have been slipped some of the science-fiction drug Chew-Z, which for weeks or months blends dreamlike hallucinations into the fabric of reality. 


Moving light flickers on enduring colors of paint

Dancing Robots

Erin arrived late, and everyone kissed her fondly—for in this loving circle of creative friends, in this passionate country, this is what they do, they lean in and kiss you. We languished deliriously on the beanbags and I offered her a piece of lava to thank her for drawing me in to her out-of-this world world. I was so filled with happiness (and Prosecco) that I decided the souvenir I should really bring home for everyone was kisses, pure happy energy from my adventure. And this would change America, and the world would be a better place. (If you love this blog, then please, when you see me again, feel free to lean in and collect.)

photos on this page by: Alain Trinkvel, Steph Selmayr,
John A. Moustache, PaSca
The gentleman artist helped me find my way safely back to my hotel in the wee hours. I had almost forgotten who I was behind the mask, who I had been before Carnavale had created Vesuviette. I absolutely hated to close the door on this experience—and this dashingly handsome Italian man who was making my heart race—but my time here was over, and somewhere in my heart, real life was calling me back.

Monday, March 9, 2015

Being Vesuviette

I cannot quite explain what happened to me that last night In Italy. (Certainly not when my family is reading this blog.) (Hi, Dad.)

But you know me. You know I love my moments. All my life I have felt there is so much that happens in a single second that reverberates through time, through the web of stories that connect us, one to another, that it is often hard to explain myself. 

And so much converged on that one night in Venice, away from my normal reality, and being completely on my own, my memories and imagination are in constant negotiation. But it was a night of pure celebration, of pure art, and, as those who are not spectators are artists, the city gave me permission to create my own story.

My dress was an olive green taffeta ballgown that hit below the knee, with a foot-wide sash that I wore in an enormous bow in my hair, pinned with a brass star. Under the dress I wore a clingy sheath, cluttered with color, and over it a blingy steampunk corset. As I dressed for the party in my layers of sensuous fabric and structure (putting on a corset single-handedly is not recommended), color, sparkle, and texture (five necklaces, dangerous lips), I honored the hard journey behind me by constructing a new persona: Vesuviette the volcano nymph. I pulled my black gloves up my arms, wrapped myself in faux fur, and left the hotel with a few lava rocks from the crater in my evening bag. 

Reflections masks... Calle Fiubera 946
My only task, that day, had been to find a mask. The ones along the canal, near the main piazza, were all so similar. I had met a group of teenagers who looked like they were wearing art. They pointed in the direction of the shop where they'd found the store, and told me to follow my nose... there was incense.

Somehow, in the labyrinthine canyons, I walked right into the store.  The owner and her husband helped me try on a dozen masks. We found one with a spiral, like a question mark, a little music in it, and some volcanic crackled red gold. A little glue was all we needed to affix a lava pebble.

When I stepped out in the mask, Venezia seemed to embrace me. I turned a corner to find a parade of revelers following a horn, and a drum, and swept me along with them for a few blocks until they diverged from my map. The city unfolded before me... and then I got lost.

A man in uniform approached me and I held out my map and asked him, Dove sono? Where am I? He was happy to point me on my way, but then told me he was a fireman at the opera theater and would I like to see it?

A fireman in an opera theater. That's like a horse on a volcano. WHO WRITES THIS STUFF?* Vesuviette said yes.

Soon I realized I was all alone in this historic building (I still don't know which one) with a strange man who was walking very close to me as we moved past the velvet chairs. Just as when I chose to hack the volcano, no one knew where I was.

For less than an instant, undefined artistic terrors flashed though me...coming on stage unprepared...bringing The Awesome to an empty house...being worthy of my dreams...but then they were gone, replaced by a longing to contribute...and a dream of future spirits in the empty seats, enjoying the opera (plural of opus) that might still issue from my now-stifled muses... I asked them to help me rise up, somehow, to this exquisite, unexpected moment. 

At the door back out to the street, Jean-Luc scooped me in by the waist and pulled me close (more interested, it seemed, in starting fires than in putting them out....) (He was dealing with a volcano nymph after all....) Startled, I thanked him and said goodbye, but noted his invitation to return. I floated towards my planned destination, feeling like I just might erupt.

* newspapers





Sunday, March 8, 2015

The Floating City. City of Small Canyons. City of Glass.

Campanile di San Marco...from the ferry.
Il Campanile, up close.
That Basilica. Starry-eyed tourists.
The "street" my hotel is on. Grafitti is Italian for "little graphs"
My hotel lobby. Unphotographically lovely chandeliers.
A high-end eyeglass store across the street,
no bigger than a closet.

Around the corner: the door to my apartment, on the left.
Typical, but ridiculously romantic bridge where that street crosses a canal.

Hotel Danielli chandelier

A whole herd of them
Waiting on a friend...oh, to stay here!

Venice is famous for floors, too.


So much art everywhere, it almost hurts the eyes.

Kinky glass

Random pizzeria

Gondolas waking up in the morning as I leave