Who cut down the moon''s
(Left us roots
How easy to pluck flowers from
This infinite acacia.
--Federico García Lorca
January, old Janus face looking left at the past year and right
toward the new. I''m for the new--no mournful backward glance.
, I write one night on the steamed kitchen
The year began with a break-in at my house while my husband and I
were finishing dinner. Ed had just tipped the last of a vino
into our glasses. Laughing, we were talking about the
turn of the year, with Nina Simone crooning "The Twelfth of Never"
to us. We''d cleared the plates, the candles were burning down, and
outside the dining room window we saw only our potted lemon trees,
swaying snapdragons, and yellow Carolina jasmine, for January in
California is a blessed season.
In a flash, everything changed. A man crashed through the living
room window, screaming that he wanted to die, then loomed on the
middle of the rug, his bundled body in ski jacket, droopy pants,
and homeboy hat pulled down around his moony face. Even as I write
this, my heart starts to pound.
"Give me a knife," he shouted. "I''ve never done this before, but
I''m doing it now." I thought, not does he have a gun will we
, but he''s goofy
. Then terror pumped through
every vein in my body. This can''t be happening!
we''d stood up. Run.
My chair tipped over. He lunged into
the dining room. I threw my glass of wine in his face, and as he
wiped his eyes, we ran out the back door. "I want to die," he
shouted to us as we fled into a street darkened by conscientious
neighbors in the middle of the latest corruption-engineered energy
crisis. Our house was blazing like the Titanic
flared in every window. Our intruder had been drawn to us like a
fluttering moth toward the screen door on a soft southern
Ed grabbed a phone on the way out and somehow called 911 as he
sprinted across the street. We ran to separate neighbors, hoping to
find someone at home on Saturday night. Startled new Chinese
neighbors brought me in and handed me the telephone, though they
must have thought I was mad, while the intruder followed Ed across
the street to our neighbors Arlene and Dan. Interrupted in the
middle of a dinner party, they pulled Ed in and slammed the door.
Then our intruder broke through their door--just as the police
That was the beginning. The drugged young man was on the street
again in a month. I found his sunglasses in a flower bed.
Expensive. I threw them in the trash. The year rolled on and
doesn''t bear thinking about. Suffice to say the words
. As the
sublime September weather arrived, we all experienced the
mind-altering, world-shaking attack on America. Go, bad year. May
the stars realign.
Now, Janus, my friend, I am going to Spain for a winter month in
Andalucía. Andalucía, land of the orange and the olive tree. Land
of passionate poets and flamenco dancers and late-night dinners
with guitar music in jasmine-scented gardens.
Ed flew to Italy a week ago because, as always, we have some
complicated building project in progress. En route to Spain, he has
detoured to Bramasole, our house in Cortona, to see about the
drilling of a well for a nine-hundred-year-old house we have bought
in the mountains. We want to accomplish a historic restoration on
this stone house built by hermit monks who followed Saint Francis
of Assisi. When I last talked to him, the dowser had felt his stick
bend in exactly the spot where I did not want a well and had
drilled down a hundred meters without finding a drop. We are
planning to meet in Madrid.
From San Francisco, I board a flight to Paris and am happy to see
my seatmate take out a book instead of a computer. No white aura
and tap-tapping for the ten-hour flight. She looks as if she could
have been one of my colleagues at the university. Is she going to
Europe to research a fresco cycle or to join an archaeological team
at a Roman villa excavation? I take out my own book, ready to
escape into silence for the duration. She smiles and asks, "What
are you reading?"
"A biography of Federico García Lorca--getting ready for Spain.
What are you reading?"
"Oh, a book on John three thirteen."
"Three thirteen. I don''t know that verse. We used to sing ''John
three sixteen, John three sixteen'' in rounds at Methodist Sunday
The flight attendant comes by with champagne and orange juice.
"Just water," my seatmate and I say in unison. We begin to talk
about travel and books, chatting easily, though I am, at first,
waiting for a chance to retreat. We know nothing of each other and
will part when the scramble to exit at Charles de Gaulle
She asks a lot of questions. I tell her I am a former university
teacher, now a full-time writer. I tell her about living part of
the year in Italy, and that Italy has given me several books,
written with joy. She probes. Are my books published? Are they
popular? And if so, do I know why? What do I try to accomplish with
my writing? How do I feel about people''s responses to my books? On
and on. I tell her that I''m embarking on the first of many travels
and that I hope to write a book about my experiences. Why? What
will I be looking for? I am drawn into lengthy explanations. I say
I''m interested in the idea and fact of home
. I''m going
to places where I have dreamed of living and will try to settle
down in each, read the literature, look at the gardens, shop for
what''s in season, try to feel at home
. I''m talking more
openly than usual with a stranger. Is she a psychiatrist?
"And you''ve never felt God''s hand on yours?" She looks
quizzically at me.
"No. I''ve felt lucky, though."
"Maybe you are bringing happiness to people through the will of
God. Maybe." She smiles.
She answers my own questions evasively. She is holding something
back, even in the basic exchanges, such as whether she is on
vacation, that simple opening into conversation. Our little
equation is out of balance. Finally, I ask bluntly, "What do you
"I . . . I guess you could say I''m a speaker."
"On what subjects?"
Silence. She is gazing out the window. She is a very still person.
"I''m part of a foundation. We try to help in communities with
Vague. She sees my questioning look. She frowns. "We''re involved
in education, and orphanages, and churches."
"Oh, so it''s a religious foundation? What religion are you?" I
assume she is a Presbyterian or Methodist, a good volunteer for
good works, or is involved in Catholic charities.
"I know this is strange, but I have a strong sense about you. I''ll
just tell you my journey." She then describes the surprise of her
conversion, her subsequent adoption of six children from all over
the world, her work in Africa and Russia. Her husband, a prominent
lawyer, eventually had his own revelation and joins her in her
missions. Dinner is served and we talk on.
"You''ve probably never met anyone like me, anyone who hears the
voice of God."
"I think I haven''t. You hear the voice of God?" Oh, mamma
, I think.
"Yes, he''s talking to me right now, all the time."
"What does he sound like?" I wonder if she is speaking
metaphorically, living out a grand as if
She laughs. "He''s funny sometimes. Sometimes we dance. He''s
telling me about you, but I don''t want you to think I''m a psychic
with a neon sign in the window!"
I start to ask sarcastically if he is a good dancer and what kind
of dances he leads her in--rhumba? But I don''t. As a doubter with
strong spiritual interests, I''m tantalized by her big holy spirit
visitations. I imagine it feels like a mewling kitten being lifted
in the jaws of an enormous mother cat and taken to safety. I''m
ready myself but have never felt the slightest inkling that
anything out there in the void is the least bit interested in the
hairs on my head or the feathers of small sparrows. "If God is
talking about me, I''d like to hear what he says because I''ve
never heard from him before tonight." Where''s the flight
attendant? I''d like a big glass of wine. This is getting surreal.
I''m thirty-five thousand feet above terra firma with someone who
dances with God.
"Well, I will tell you that He says you have the gift of divine
humility. How did you get that? It''s so rare."
"Maybe it''s a lack of confidence!"
"No, I''ve seen it in one priest, someone I consulted when I felt
the urge to prophesy."
Whoa! Prophesy? "Oh, you''re a prophet?" I toss this off casually,
as though it were Oh, you''re from Memphis
She looks out the window. Sighs. "I know how it sounds. It''s so
." I see her struggling to explain. "I just wait to
speak. I wait for God. Sometimes it''s just sounds."
"Glossolalia?" She nods. "I''ve seen that. My friends and I used to
peer in the windows at the holy roller and snake-handling churches
way down in South Georgia." I don''t say that those people fell to
the floor writhing and drooling. That we ran away, scared out of
our socks. This woman in her Dana Buchman suit and good haircut
seems as sane as the United pilot of this plane.
"Have you ever heard of a Charismatic Prophet? That''s my calling.
I knew I was going to sit beside someone on this flight who would
change my life. I always wanted to write. Now I hear how you do it
and it frees me to try. God put me beside you. Someone, he says,
with a holy approach to writing."
Now I''m really fascinated. Someone who not only hears the voice of
God but speaks in the tongues of angels and knows what''s coming
toward us. And I like hearing God''s perception that my approach to
writing is holy. No one ever has talked to me about the nature of
my involvement with words. I''ve heard plenty about the words
themselves but not about the vocation I have. Turbulence starts to
shake the overhead compartments. A queasy flyer, I begin to wonder
if maybe she is an angel sent to accompany me to the afterlife when
the plane spirals down into the Atlantic. But soon the seat belt
light flicks off, and the long flight across the waters, black,
then leaden, then streaked with sterling light, continues.
As we start our descent into the rainy skies of Paris, she says, "I
don''t do this. I don''t like to debase my gift, but I will tell
you something. You are travelling with three angels. One is
ministering, one is protecting, and I don''t know what the other
one is for."
"Oh, no," I say, instantly pessimistic. "Angel of death."
She laughs. "God tells me you are too fatalistic. The third angel
is something very good."
Maybe it''s the skipping across time zones or the cabin pressure or
the lack of sleep, but I willingly close my eyes and try to sense
the presence of three angels. Privately, I''m shaken because when I
first went to Italy and bought my house, I had a dream that the
house held one hundred angels and that I would discover them one by
one. Metaphorically, that came true. Starting my travels, I have
been given by a stranger three angels to go with me. Without a
shred of belief, I can''t deny that I am touched.
I give her a list of books I''ve mentioned and a card with my first
name printed on it. I start to write my address but decide that if
she wants to reach me, God will direct her.
Madrid. All the connections worked. I find Ed waiting in baggage
claim. He looks forlorn--he has arrived with a sinus infection,
exacerbated by the changes in pressure while landing. I touch his
forehead and find him hot and clammy.
"When I left Bramasole, I was feverish but determined to go. I had
to--you''d be waiting. At the ticket counter in Rome, I discovered
I''d left my passport at the house. I wanted to climb into a
luggage cart and go to sleep. I couldn''t face a two-hour drive up
to Cortona and two hours back--besides, Giorgio had dropped me at
the curb. I asked about the next flight and it was in three hours.
I was totally screwed. Then--I don''t know why--the woman handed me
a paper to sign. And she said, ''You''re going on this flight.''
"You mean. You flew. Out of Italy. Without a passport?" I''m so
shocked I can''t utter a whole sentence. This seems impossible, but
here he is, his steady eyes smiling at the thought that he slipped
freely across international boundaries. We''re waiting for my bag,
but the remaining ones looping around the claim belt are fewer and
"Scary, isn''t it?"
"After September 11 they let a man on a plane with no
"Maybe it was because I was wearing an Italian suit. Another guy,
badly dressed, was trying to get on, and they didn''t let
My bag has definitely stayed behind in San Francisco or Paris. And
I can''t find the envelope with the claim check tacked on. Where''s
my damn ministering angel? I have been travelling twenty hours. We
queue with a dozen others. Because I changed carriers in Paris, the
pouty-mouthed Air France clerk assures me they have no
responsibility for my lost bag, especially since I have no proof
that I even checked a bag. A big Spanish man with a Zapata mustache
takes my side, and two Australian boys start chanting "Air Chance,
Air Chance." Finally, Miss Cool decides she''ll take my hotel
number and send out a tracer. As our taxi spins out of the airport
on two wheels, Ed says, "Not for nothing is that etymological
connection between travel
." The rain
looks sooty falling on lead-gray buildings. Suddenly the driver
swings around a circle with an enormous fountain; then we''re on a
tree-lined street along an esplanade lined with one grand building
after another. Ah, Madrid. The hotel lights, blurry in the rain,
look festive and welcoming. In our room we find a chilled
, Spanish sparkling wine, sent by Lina, a thoughtful
Ed falls into bed after stoking himself with various
antihistamines. I pop open the cava
, pour a glass, empty
both little bottles of bubble bath into the tub, and immerse
myself. Since dinner is late in Spain, we planned to drift out at
ten-thirty, but we''re exhausted and instead decide to order room
service. Ed feels dizzy. At eleven, the miracle of my suitcase
occurs--there it is, wet, dirty, but delivered. I want comfort
food. My first meal in Spain: spaghetti with Bolognese sauce.
From the Hardcover edition.
1. Mayes opens her book with this quote from W.S. Merwin: "…we
are words on a journey not the inscriptions of settled people." Why
do you think she has chosen this quote? What does it mean? When you
read it how does it make you feel?
2. Throughout the book, Mayes talks about her lust for travel,
using the German word Wanderjahr (their year of wandering in their
youth). Do you think everyone should indulge in a year of youthful
travel? Would it be better to experience this type of travel while
young and impressionable, or at an older age, with more experience
3. Even though this is a book about travel, the concept of home
is a consistent theme. Mayes writes, "The need to travel is a
mysterious force. A desire to go runs through me equally with an
intense desire to stay at home. An equal and opposite thermodynamic
principal." What does she mean by this? Deep down, do you consider
Mayes to be a traveler or a homebody? Do both of these driving
forces coexist within you? If so, how do you balance them?
4. Mayes describes Andalucía as an "ancient quest" for her
because some of the music and poetry she enjoyed in her youth
conjured up strong images of this place in her mind. So Andalucía
is the first place she visits on her journey. Do you have a "first
memory" of a place that you have never visited? Do you have
preconceived notions about places, based on experiences or
conversations you've had? Does a song, book, or poem "take you
away" to a particular place?
5. While in Andalucía, Mayes falls prey to a scam. She is
surprised but not outraged. Would she be so tolerant if this
happened on her home turf? Have you ever made allowances for
behaviors or attitudes while traveling that you would not normally
have tolerated if you were at home?
6. Mayes describes herself as "a doubter" and yet she is
fascinated by churches and other religious customs. She wears an
ivory horn and other religious amulets under her skirt to ward off
the "evil eye" and lights candles in Catholic churches for her sick
friends. What do you make of this? Is Mayes a religious person deep
down? How much do you think growing up in the American South has
shaped her religious outlook? How has where you are from influenced
your spiritual self?
7. Favoring to live like a local when she travels, Mayes makes
obvious her disdain for tourists and how upsetting it is to her
when a place is geared so obviously towards tourists. Isn't Mayes
herself a tourist? What makes someone a tourist? What makes someone
8. Mayes talks about being driven to visit places by the books
she reads. How do you decide where you'd like to travel?
9. Mayes says she fears retirement "in places where the climate
is the lure." What do you think she means by this? Would climate
play an important role in your choice of where to retire? What
other factors would play into your decision?
10. Naples has long been typecast as dangerous and corrupt.
Mayes scoffs at these stereotypes. Have you ever felt discouraged
to visit a place based on its bad reputation? Have you ever ignored
a city's bad reputation and visited there anyway? Did any of the
stereotypes hold up? How did your preconceived notions about the
place affect your experiences once there? Whose advice do you trust
in choosing where to travel?
11. People love to buy souvenirs to help them remember a place
they've visited. In Naples, Mayes buys a Neapolitan cookbook and
her husband searches for a CD of local music. What do these
purchases say about the buyers? What souvenirs have you purchased
in the past that evoke special memories for you?
12. Mayes spends a lot of time describing food and drink. We
hear in great detail about fabulous meals, Ed's search for the
perfect coffee, desserts that are unique to a certain location, and
the wonderful marketplaces they encounter. Does experiencing the
local cuisine enhance your visit to a particular place? Would you
choose a lace to visit based entirely on the local fare?
13. Mayes and her husband choose many of their lodgings in order
to more fully experience the local flavor. Some of the places they
select turn out to be fairly undesirable-cold, cramped, sometimes
even hazardous. When you travel, do you prefer to stay in a local
dwelling or a touristy hotel? How much do your accommodations
enhance or detract from your enjoyment of a particular place?
14. Why do you think Mayes chooses Georgia for the location of
The Yellow Café? What did you think of her reaction when her
daughter asked her about this? What do her answers and explanations
tell us about Mayes and her ideas on home vs. Rome?