Friday, May 21, 2010

Italy: the lakes

As we flew south from Dusseldorf to Milan, the thick clouds broke over the Alps, just as we must have passed over the high point of the range, maybe over Piz Bernina. It was stunning to see these peaks, below us but not very far below. The ground, so far away when we were up in the lowlands of the Rhine and Dussel valleys, was suddenly rising to meet us.

The plane followed a valley south from the high peaks, narrow and twisting and with what probably was a torrential stream in the center of it, then gradually widening and including some farmland. We were probably in Italy by then; in a moment we started seeing on both sides of the plane the Italian lakes -- Lago Maggiore and Lago di Como. (I'm writing this on the roof garden of our hotel on Lago di Como, looking north at sunset to the still-glowing Alps.)

Then, as we approached Milan's northern airport, the land flattened dramatically. It was that rich farmland of Lombardy, fields squared off with lines of those dark Lombardy poplars, rich old tile-roofed barns. The fields were flooded: we guessed that it might be the rice fields where that wonderful smooth arborio rice grows that we use for risotto.

Now, spending two days in the lakes, I've been thinking about the relationship of the mountains, the lakes, and the plains. Here is a mountain range that is practically impenetrable, until modern days: where the trucks now cross the St. Bernard pass on an autostrada, until very few years ago there were only winding roads. When Wordsworth walked across the Alps in 1792, there was only a track (and he got lost).

The Alps are the great defense of Italy -- along with the sea that surrounds the rest of the peninsula. They are the divide of the continent, Italy becoming the "Cisalpine" -- below the Alps -- region of Europe.

Then there are the lakes, long north-south lakes carved by the glaciers. They remind me of the other north-south lakes I've been around -- the Finger Lakes of New York, our Lake Dunmore in Vermont, Windermere and Wast Water in the Lake District of England. Going about here in the past two days, I've realized how wonderful they are as highways. Driving around them here is terrible -- narrow roads, suddenly made one-lane by jutting-out corners of houses, twisting and dangerous. But on the lake, in a ferry, you're on the level and in the wide-open spaces.

It's in The Last of the Mohicans that the north south lake of Oswego figures so strongly -- the canoes sweeping down from the north onto the barely-tenable fort at the south end (if I remember it rightly). My image may be wrong, but every time I look up a lake like this of Como to the north, I imagine boats paddled by folks who would rather that they lived in the place that I currently inhabit.

Lake Como is y-shaped like Lake Keuka in New York. At the crucial juncture is the town of Varenna, across from Bellagio where we are staying. Above Varenna, a pretty fierce half-hour climb for us (the guidebook called it "a brisk 20 minutes"!) is the Castello di Vezio: a fortress to defend this lake-highway against marauders. Sometimes thought to be Roman, sometimes Longobardian (that is the name of the post-Roman migrants who settled this area, now called Lombardy after them); certainly it's medieval in the form we saw it, with crennelated battlements, a high watchtower-keep, and curtain walls.

So the Alps, I was thinking, are a great wall to the north. But the lakes are highways that -- if you could breach that wall -- take you right down to the goodies to the south: fields, factories, river power, ports. No wonder you work hard to build a fort like that: you need to keep the access control.

And I was thinking, too, about directionality around here. Does the threat come from the north, usually? I was thinking about Napoleon coming down from Paris to "liberate" Italy from the Austrians (they welcomed that, for a little while). I was thinking about the Emperor Charles V, I think (I don't have internet access, so I can't fact-check very well), rampaging down to sack Rome in the 16th century. And the Germans in the mid 20th century, moving south when their incompetent partner Italy folded, to fortify the Appenines against the Allied advance up the peninsula from Sicily. Maybe even Hannibal, who brought his elephants around from Carthage (through France?) and crossed the Alps south to attack Rome.

Where the threat comes from probably depends on where you are at the moment. If you were a Gaul in 40 BC, you probably saw the threat coming north from Rome in the form of Caesar's army.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Italy: mapping our flight

During the night on our flight to Dusseldorf, we hit some rough air and the pilot took us up to 39,000 feet. When the sun came up, i opened the window and saw the curve of the earth, bending down in front of us and again behind us. . It was a gentle curve, not like the beachball rotundity that the astronauts see, but a curve nonetheless. I'm not sure I'd ever been up that high. It made me feel a long way from the ground. (the picture is one from 90,000 ft up, not mine).

As a map fanatic, I like to know where we are while I'm flying. It gives a (fictitious) sense of groundedness, of connection to the real earth, while my suspended life consists of this bizarrre cigar-shaped polystyrene cabin shared with a few hundred others including the screaming 2-year-old in front of me.

Earlier in the flight, while we were still over North America and the sun had not set, something went wrong with the plane's entertainment video system. That meant not only that I couldn't watch episodes of Friday Night Lights, but also that the cool flight map that some flights give you was not working. So, with a lot of cloud cover and only intermittent views of the ground, it was harder than usual to figure out where we were.

At one point, we were launching out over lots of water, with a curving peninsula to the south of us that I thought might be the Gaspé just where the St. Lawrence River meets the North Atlantic. Then the clouds hit again; an hour or so, later we saw ground again that was obviously still the farmland of Canada. The water had been, I'm guessing, Georgian Bay, off Lake Huron. Oops.

Knowing where you are on the map is nice, but the accuracy of that "knowing" really doesn't make any difference, except for the folks in the cockpit.

Eventually, the mapping system was working again, as we ate breakfast over the Irish Sea and started sloping southeast across England. I watched it of course, while also hunting for breaks in the clouds to corroborate what the map was telling me about where we were (as if it could be wrong!).

I love that instant mapping screen. For one thing, I love the stolid repetitiveness of its numbers: distance to destination, 3,204 miles; a few minutes later, distance to destination, 3,125 miles, our inevitable progress (we hope) plotted in sequential announcements, like the daily sextant readings in a China clipper's log book.

I also love the way the screen flips through various views, from local (maybe 500 miles) to regional (maybe 2,000 miles) to global (our plane, a tiny dot, on its trajectory across a screen that flattens the earth, a great ice cap on top and bottom, continents and oceans striping vertically across, and the big waveform that indicates night finally running away from us at 1,000 miles an hour or so.

And I love even more the grounding that comes when I turn from the screen to the window, glance ahead of the wing, and identify the curve of the Norfolk coast as we head across the Channel. [again, not my picture, but it is Norfolk].

Yes, I know where we are! And yes, apparently so does the pilot!