On exactly this day last year, this is where I was:
In front of an amazing chunk of history, an effect of architecture, a monument of achievement. A cathedral like this one is not just a cathedral, a building: it's lives and deaths, laws and mystery, religion, belief, families and locality. Ego. Perhaps baser impulses of envy, pride or greed.
This time last year we took the train from Rome to Orvieto. On the tourist trail, I was suspiciously holding myself aloof, even while we piled out of the train station and whooshed up the funicular carriage, climbing the rock to the town.
Our self-catering place was in the unpopular end of town. It required a bumpy journey on a little bus with our big bags - all of which made us grin with glee because it cut out the loud Americans. And I hate loud American tourists in Italy. Sorry. But it's true. Luckily, they won't -- or don't -- walk, so we were spat out by our surly bus driver at a nondescript little square, some judicious directions in improving-but-rusty Italian leading us down an alleyway, to a door, a long dark staircase upwards, and some negotiation.
'You talk into the speaker phone.'
BZZZ>>crackle-crackle<< -'Eh, umm, Buon Giorno....' We explain. We think we are understood. We start to rattle and babble along in broken words, but she understands: we are the Australianos, but he lived here in Italy, when he was small. Short. Little. Piccolo. The Italian flows around us, long streams of which we gather, 'How lovely! You are welcome. But you were once small! (a poked finger toward his tall frame, and much laughter) My daughter comes soon. She speaks English.' The creased old face of a nice woman, late in life meeting and interested in strangers, much though they present a difficulty of language, perhaps slightly worrying. We're all right. Paying guests who are no problem and who even understand Italian. We get big grins.
Late that night, still jetlagged from the flight from Australia three days earlier, we drift through the deserted town. Sit on cold stone benches. Sigh at the soft light. Stare intently at scultpured reliefs on the cathedral front, carved when the world was young, over 600 years ago. Hands were once alive.
It's like filling up on a long drink of water - or milk, and feeling the sustenance of the art and the power of the images filling you back up again. Yes, this is why I studied art history. This is the Renaissance and its tangled precedents and the master artisans of Europe. The Christian history and its worldly remnants. Myths and legends: of the master craftsmen, now, as much as of the religious rites they depicted.
It's hard to explain my love of Italy and how I feel more alive there, but this comes close. It's something in the comfort of inspiring but understood old friends: art works that I have loved and studied with curiosity since the first days when I heard of them, and saw them in books.
Sometimes life is quiet and sometimes it's loud. Some days, like the day exactly a year before today, it fills you with a richness you can feast on for decades.