Friday, December 07, 2012

Today is the Feast of St. Ambrose

In honor of today's feast, I'm posting a memoir piece I wrote in the year 2000 after my trip to Italy, because it mentions the tomb of St. Ambrose and two early Christian martyrs whose burial place was revealed to Ambrose in a vision.

Three clothed skeletons were lying side by side.... This was my first sight of the bones of St. Ambrose [and] the remains of the martyrs St. Gervais and St. Protasius

Going to Italy and Coming Home


We flew Air France. It was my first time on that carrier. On the flight to Rome via Paris everything seemed better than on any other airline I'd ever flown on.

Before serving dinner, the attendants gave us a menu written in French in one side and English on the other. The food seemed far above ordinary airline food. It was French! There was pate! The creamy stuff that looked and tasted like raisin pudding was called mousse!

Liberty didn't share my enthusiasm, but then he was glumly pondering the upcoming 12 or so hours without a cigarette. I, on the other hand, was in some sort of delusionary state in which the melamine cups seemed to be china and the coffee served in those cups was the best I'd ever had!

I was delighted that, after serving the meal, the attendants passed up and down the aisles again offering extra bread. How sophisticated of them: They were speaking French! It was French bread!

"Plus du pain?" "Mais oui, s'il vous plait!" More bread! Yes! Please!

A happy blond baby girl of about a year old sat quietly on her mother's lap across the aisle from us a few rows towards the front of the airline. She never made a peep. (Liberty conspiratorily whispered a joking comment to me, "I think the baby's on drugs.")

When it was time for the little girl to sleep, an attendant hung a cute little bed with mesh sides for her from the ceiling. The baby went to sleep without protest, and she awoke calmly in the morning as we neared Charles de Gaulle airport. The mother lifted the smiling child out, and the attendants then came and unhooked the little bed and put it away.

The stewardesses and stewards were friendly and smiling as they gave out free wine and beer along with the soft drinks.

The seats had more leg room than usual on a transoceanic carrier. Each seat had its own personal video screen on which you could watch one of four movies in French or English, or you could play games.

As the trip went on, I was amused to find on the menu on my personal video screen a show about exercises to do in your seat without disturbing the other passengers. A slender woman, who was more serene than any human I have ever seen, demonstrated the exercises. As she spoke, she sat absolutely erect in a white gauzy sleeveless top and pants, with her blonde hair tied back. She was barefoot. Her chair was placed on the front deck of a small green wooden boat that was drifting on a tranquil blue-green sea. You could see nothing except the woman, the chair, the drifting boat, the anchor rope, and the sea.

From time to time, the camera would shift away from her to a collection of actors of all ages seated in airplane seats following her instructions.

The camera zoomed in closely as she showed how to shift your weight to one side and tighten one buttock. Now shift to the other side and tighten the other buttock. Now the first buttock again.

The camera moved away to a shot from the back of the actors in the airplane seats, who were rocking from side to side as they tightened one buttock and released, tightened the other buttock and released . . .. I just had to laugh.

The exercise show came to a close with the perfect woman sitting cross-legged on a beach. Rows of white candles in glass hurricane shades formed a half circle in front of her. Palm trees and the ocean were behind her. Her soothing voice led us through a breathing exercise as the camera did a tight shot of her rib cage and as it rose and fell, rose and fell, up and down with her breath. . ..

What a charming airline, I thought. I must fly it again if I ever have the chance. All was well.

Then impressions started to sour a little. Liberty and I were supposed to meet with our tour group in Paris after their flight from LA. We were supposed to fly with them the rest of the way to Rome, but their flight was delayed. The Air France attendants would not give us any advice about whether we should continue on our connecting flight to Rome without the tour group. When I pressed one of the attendants who had been so friendly on our flight, he glared at me and said, "Madame, I have work to do."

We got on the connecting plane reluctantly, not sure that we had done the right thing. As it turned out, we were taken care of. We were met at the airport by a Japanese woman holding a sign with the name of our tour group "Littleways." When we told our greeter that the rest of the group was delayed, she sent us ahead of the group in a van with our luggage to the hotel. After check in, we were pleased to find a balcony in our room, and when we leaned out and looked to the left we could see the dome of St. Peter's. All the hours during our stay there we could hear St. Peter's big, deep bells.

Coming Back

Before leaving Italy 20 days later from Milan, we changed our reservation to return a day earlier than we had planned. Air France, like all of the airlines in Europe, and like Hertz and other companies, does not have a 24 hour 7 day a week phone number. Companies have what they call a "green number," which is toll free. But the toll free phone is answered only during business hours and not on weekends or holidays.

Antonio, our tour guide, told me that even if it wasn't Saturday, no one would be answering the phone. That day January 7, was still part of the holidays. He explained, Italians are at home with their families for the holidays.

The Italian Christmas greeting gives a clue about these matters: "Buon Natale, Buone Feste" literally means "Happy Birthday (of Christ), Happy Feasts!"

The plural word feasts is used because they don't just celebrate one feast at Christmas. They start celebrating eight days before Christmas and end some time after the feast of the Three Wise Men, Ephiphany, on January 6.

Everyone was going back to work on January 9, the next Monday, but on the 7th the feasts were just not yet over yet.

In order to call Air France to make the change in our reservation, I had to first use my AT&T direct card to call the United States and then dial the 800 number for Air France. Because the call was being placed on a phone card from Italy, it was billed at the standard AT&T direct rate for calls from Italy to the US, at around $7.50 for the first minute and about $3.50 for the next minutes. I recently got the bill. That call cost me $24.00!

During that expensive phone call, the Air France clerk told me to be 3 hours early at the airport to go to the counter and pay for the ticketing change and get the new ticket. Fortunately for us, Antonio, the tour group leader, also advised us that 2 hours would be more than enough.

To get to the Milan Linate airport, we ordered a limosine because it cost less than a cab. The driver, another Antonio, was friendly and talkative. We conversed all the way to the airport in a mix of Italian and English:

He was taking the city streets, he said, because the freeway would be jammed that time in the morning. Milan traffic! Boh! Yesterday when he went to the airport, a cab driver crashed into a Volkswagen. He smashed his fists together to show the head on collision. When he repeated the story a second time, it started to dawn on me how painful it must have been for him to witness such a thing. "How terrible," I had to agree.

"Yes," Antonio said, "I saw it!" He mimed the head on collision again. "The cab driver--Kaput!" He paused. But, he said, rallying from his compelling memory of the death to his professional duty, I shouldn't worry. Not with him. He is Number One driver.

No, he doesn't live in Milan, but near the hotel outside the city. Milan proper has problems, he said, pollution, immigrants, crime . . .. In its favor of the old city, I offered my enthusiasm for the cathedral in the city center, with its white lacey Gothic spires and the gold statue of Mary as a young girl on top of its highest pillar. La Nascita della Maria. Que bella chiesa! We had toured it the day before.

Just then, with a pang I remembered a site I had meant to see, and now couldn't. I told him that I was sorry not to have seen the basilica of San Ambrogio (St. Ambrose).

Neither Antonio's English nor my Italian were up to my desire to talk about my interest in St. Ambrose. Ambrose is the highly-venerated patron saint of Milan. His patronage is so deeply rooted in the public mind that even the Communists call themselves "Ambrosini."

I'd learned from my Catholic schooling that in the fourth century St. Ambrose had influenced the conversion of St. Augustine, who in turn had profoundly affected the philosophy of the Roman Catholic Church.

But I'd gotten truly intrigued by Ambrose and his relation to Milan only the previous summer while I was reading a story in a collection of writings from travelers in Italy.

The story "Mediolanum" (which is the Roman word for Milan and means "in the middle of the plain") is by a writer named H. V. Morton from his book _A Traveller in Italy_, which was published in 1964.)

Like Alice in Wonderland, Morton started by doing an ordinary thing on an ordinary day and then was drawn down an unexpected opening into another, mysterious world. The place that Morton chanced into was an antique, sacred place, immensely significant in the history of Milan, a place that exists on another level and almost on another spiritual plane below the present-day bustling streets of Milan. The mysteries in Morton's story were sacred ones.

Morton wrote, "During one of my early-morning walks, I came unexpectedly upon the Ambrosian Basilica. .... Crossing the atrium, I entered a dark Lombardic church, cold as an ice box. As I stood shivering I noticed a glimmer of light under the high altar." Morton followed the light, descended a set of stairs and found himself in a crypt with a number of old women dressed in black who were waiting for early mass to begin.

A man hurried in with a ring of keys. He used four different keys to unlock four different parts of an altar piece, and then he cranked open four metal shutters to reveal what Morton called "one of the world's most awesome survivals.

"Three clothed skeletons were lying side by side upon a bed or bier within a crystal shrine, the central skeleton resting upon a higher level than those its right and left. This was my first sight of the bones of St. Ambrose whose remains have been preserved in the basilica since his death in Mediolanum in 397. . . . The skeletons on either side are the remains of the martyrs St. Gervais and St. Protasius . . . Roman soldiers who died for their faith long before the time even of St. Ambrose."

In the tomb, St. Ambrose is in white, and the martyrs are in red

Another book I read later placed the martyrdoms of the two Roman soldiers in the mid-2nd century A.D. They are lying on either side of St. Ambrose because St. Ambrose had been led by a vision to find their bodies. At the time that St. Ambrose lived nobody knew where their bodies were.

When Morton was writing about his discovery in the 60s, he was surprised to find that most citizens of Milan were not aware either of the presence of the ancient relics of their patron saint Ambrose in his basilica. Since then the word has gotten around.

The editor of __Italy: True Stories of Life on the Road_ notes that nowadays no one is allowed within 4 feet of the glass case, "for security."

It is too bad, I said to the limousine driver, I had so wanted to see the bones of St. Ambrose.

Antonio said "We have time. I will take you there." I should not worry, he assured me. He would accept my Visa as payment.

No, I said. It's better if I do what the airline told me to do, get there early. "But," I said, "if I ever come to Milan again, I will call you." I couldn't miss St. Ambrose a second time. And I would call him, but the second he gave me his last name, I forgot it, I think because I know deep in my heart that I never will go back.

At the airport Antonio parked the limousine and we all got out. After he took out our luggage, Antonio ran my Visa card through his card reader in the trunk of the cab. Liberty gave him a tip.

"What do you feed him?' the driver said about Liberty. "There's nothing to him. Not like me." He gestured at his belly. "Not like me either," I agreed. For a few moments, we shared a comfortable camaraderie between two ample-bellied people, a man and a woman of a certain age.

Then the little credit card machine chirped and typed out its okay. The receipt came out. I signed it, and we had to go.

"Speak Italian," Antonio said to Liberty as a final word of advice.

At Milan's Linate Airport

Both Antonios were right about there having been no need to hurry. The Air France counter was closed for still another hour after we got there. When I inquired, I was told the clerk was having her breakfast. I wished I had known so I could have stayed at the hotel longer to relax and enjoy my breakfast too. Or maybe a side trip to see Saint Ambrose . . ..

I put the time to good use by stopping for a visit at a chapel featured prominently in the airport newsletter. After helping me find the chapel, Liberty went to find someplace to smoke.

The airport newsletter showed pictures and brief biographies of four airline employees of all ages who had recently died from natural causes, along with pictures of priests vested to officiate at their funeral masses. This was unique, the official organ of Milan's Linate airport dedicated to honoring the work and lives and deaths of ordinary people who work there. Maybe this respect for workers is one effort of those Ambrosian communists?

At the chapel entrance was the last of the manger scenes I saw in Italy, which is a country with many, many, mangers on display during the holidays. Mangers are little scenes that portray the birth of Jesus. They always include the baby Jesus, his mother, Mary, and his foster father, Joseph. Almost always they include an ox and lamb, angels, shepherds, sheep and the three kings. Sometimes they include an assemblage of other characters who might have lived in the village near where Jesus was born.

Churches and civic groups vie with each other to see which one can have the biggest or most elaborate manger scene. In my 500+ photos from our trip, I have photos of every manger I came across wherever cameras were allowed. I even have a photo of a sign pointing to a manger from the basilica of St. Anthony in Padua. It reads "Presepio," the word for manger, above a black pointing hand.

Because cameras were forbidden, I hadn't been able to photograph my favorite presepio, the one in St. Mark's duomo in Venice made of murano glass.

Murano, one of the islands in Venice, is reknowned for the skill of its glass blowers. The best hotels and homes around the world boast Murano chandeliers.

I already knew I had found a treasure when I came across the manger scene in St. Mark's and saw its figures are made up of hand blown colored glass.

The Venetian presepio was in a dim area behind the altar rail on a side altar. It's presence was not advertised, and it was mostly unnoticed by the tourists who go through the church by the hundreds. I knelt for over an hour at the altar rail gazing at the nativity scene and praying.

The figure of Our Lady was blue, I remember, and one of the three kings was purple with an orange crown. I felt privileged (as I think Morton had felt privileged by his discovery of the relicts of St. Ambrose in Milan).

As Mark Twain wrote in _Innocents Abroad__, the traveler's greatest joy is to see something not previously seen. Even though the glass manger scene is no secret, it is usually seen only by Catholics attending mass.

Along with the joy of discovery, the beauty of the craftsmanship, and the moment in time that the manger scene portrays when the omnipotent God put aside his glory to be born as a poor child, all touched my heart.

At the Linate airport the day we left Italy, the presepio was set up as a village about 6 feet deep x 8 feet wide. The figures of the 20 or so villagers were about 6 inches tall. A mill wheel revolved in a stream of water. The villagers were motorized too. An old lady drew water from a fountain.

This manger scene was unique in my experience because a 10 inch volcano in front of the stable gave off smoke and red light!

Inside the chapel a sign indicated two divisions, Catholic and other, but there was no physical barrier dividing the two rows of pews. In front of the pews on the Catholic side was a tabernacle with the Blessed Sacrament. The tabernacle was a bronze globe with a tiny red laser light beaming from its center.

As I sat there praying my Morning Prayer from my Liturgy of the Hours, I was pleased that I had a sacred place to come to while I waited for the Air France clerk to get back from her breakfast.

The Last Lap

From the start, even the Air France flight back to Paris didn't seem as nice. The nasality and unintelligibility of the English instructions were now more annoying to me. "Ladies and genylmenn..."

In Paris again, we had to wait 2 or 3 hours at de Gaulle airport. I bought two American magazines with photos of the fireworks at milennium celebrations (which I'd watched on CNN like most of the other people in the world 8 days earlier-- while I was sick with the flu in my hotel room in Rome.)

While I leafed through a French magazine with photos and articles about the freak storm that had taken down hundreds of ancient trees at Versailles and all over France, Liberty found a place to smoke, then came back to the gift store to buy candy to use as a pacifier during the long non-smoking hours to come.

The plane that was taking us back across the Atlantic was smaller than the one that brought us. So much for the extra room between rows. When I lowered the tray, it wouldn't lie flat because it rested on my (ample) stomach.

My mood on the return trip was so changed that the cups no longer seemed at all like china. The coffee was now mediocre at best.

No personal video screens on this flight either: There was a single video screen for every 10 rows, so we all were going to watch the same movie together. My ear phones worked only when I held them pressed into each ear with my index fingers. And even so I had to strain to catch any dialogue.

The attendants were unfriendly. The food this time was below-average for airline food, placing it in the almost-vile category. I only remember a wilted piece of butter lettuce lying limply underneath a scoop of pea and carrot salad dressed with mayonaisse with a metallic taste to it.

When I finally slept, the angle I slept in put a kink in my neck. I woke up with a painfully dry mouth to find I had missed the movie. On the far away video screen I could see the beautiful woman from the exercise video surrounded by candles. I couldn't make out her relaxing words with my crummy ear phones, but I had missed most of the exercise tape anyway.

Long hours later, just before we landed in San Francisco, we heard a hissing sound we'd heard before and hadn't thought much about. Liberty and I discussed it and decided it was the fumigants that the airlines spray before landing an international flight. A minute later, a big blob of white foam plopped down onto my right shoulder on my black wool blazer!

For lack of another option, I used the airline blanket to wipe the foam off. When I looked up and saw more foam dripping from a seam in the overhead compartment, I wiped that off too.

I keep meaning to get around to writing Air France a letter of complaint.

At SFO, a customs officer asked me if I had any meat or fruit. I thought about the mortadella (which in our country is otherwise known as baloney) that I had almost bought as a gift in a roadside stop--near the city of Bologna--and I said no.

The officer must have seen my hesitation; he waved me into the aisle where they look for contraband agricultural items and food stuff. In that aisle an officer asked me again what I had, and I said nothing except chocolates (chocolates are okay). We had to lift all our baggage off the cart from where we'd recently loaded it up onto the belt to go through their x ray machines. Then--after all that--attendants were talking among themselves and didn't inspect the bags as they went through.

To get the rest of the way home from San Francisco, we took the shuttle van that was waiting at the traffic island outside the baggage claim. There were three other passengers.

Our driver must have been well into a double or triple work shift because he kept nodding off and swerving while he was driving. Trying to drop off a journalism student newly arrived from Spain at Hayward State college, the driver couldn't find his way to the student's dorm. Even though we asked him to several times, the driver wouldn't ask for directions from his dispatcher or look at a map. I decided not to report him but I wanted wanted to try to prevent him from putting anyone else through the same ordeal. I also didn't want him to kill himself.

I resolved that when/if he got us home I was going to say to him, "Look I don't want to get you in trouble, but I insist you go home. You are dangerous to yourself and others. If I call the shuttle company in a half hour and find out you are still on duty, I will report you."

But I fell asleep before we got there and was foggy brained when I had to wake up to get out of the shuttle. Liberty politely paid the man and tipped hin, When he got upstairs, to my surprise, he went to the phone immediately and called the shuttle company to report the driver. After he hung up, he said, "I hope I didn't get him fired." I told Liberty what I had planned to do. He said he thought that would have been the better thing to do, but it was too late.

The inattention of the custom's officers turned out to be the proverbial blessing in disguise, because the next day I came across what I thought was a pine cone, which I'd forgotten about in my luggage. I had been fascinated because from the looks of it, I surmised that Italian pine cones are quite different from ours, and without giving it any thought I brought it home from the Borghese Gardens in Rome.

When I showed the pine cone to Liberty the day we got home, we both experienced all the emotions you can imagine as we thought about what might have happened if the customs people had found that in my bag!

When I moved into my house here in San Jose the next year, I saw that the neighbors have a magnolia tree. And on the sidewalk I see many examples of the "Italian pine cones," which turned out to be magnolia cones after all.

No comments: