When I first arrive it looks remarkably like the upper city – Citta Alta – in Bergamo, Italy. Bergamo was a walled medieval town where I lived for a year as a child when I was seven. It had cobblestone streets, a piazza with a thick-chained fountain filled with coins that were free for the taking if you’d only stick your skinny bare arm into the cold fountain water. It had a bakery that pumped out the fresh crunch of early-morning bread – which was then buttered carefully, European style, with the knife held awkwardly in the right hand like Mom showed us. It had an actual blacksmith with a forge that would burn your retinas when you stared at it from the shop doorway, and it had its grave, Latin-speaking churches with tearful old, bundled-up women. In an open-air laundry beneath magnificent chestnut trees those same women, laughing now, did their weekly washing.
Bergamo had its fantastic funiculares that traversed the city hills at Dr. Seussian trajectories. You could buy carrots from a cart hauled by donkey into the upper city and those carrots would squirt at you with an organic mischief when you bit into them. Half-buried fresco Madonnas right out in the open streets, hundreds of years old, waited placidly, partially exposed. They waited for the holy children in their arms, obscured by another century’s plaster, to be born again from the crumbling layer-cake of the city’s walls. Fastidiously dressed old men ordered the occasional cappuccino from golden-piped espresso extravaganzas. They talked intensely at each other, leaning forward (to an American boy, as if in anger) and their hands ran feverish subtitles. Then they laughed completely and hugged each other at parting.
If you plant a seven year old American boy there for a year and let him run free in the streets with his brother every day after school, you’ll create something more Italian in that child’s heart than anything you can demonstrate with a passport from Rome. It was beautiful. It was home. And it has haunted, in a friendly way, the rest of my life and all of the other places I’ve lived.
Upon my return, she will be as beautiful as her memory and then some. Her streets will be empty, deserted. The espresso copper that gleams from the funicular café will be unblemished by even a single smear of a barista’s errant finger. The city’s shop bells will jangle on entry, but the tills, stuffed full with coins and beautiful paper notes, will be untended; the elaborate window displays of the shops, terraced more beautifully than Balinese hillsides, will be lovingly arrayed as if for the Christmas season. Exotic visual candies in golden wrappings will beckon from behind every storefront. In the air will be the rich Bergamo smells that – even when I’ve caught the scent of them again years later in far-away places – have stopped me in my tracks and moved me to announce to anyone at hand that “that is the smell of Bergamo.” Bergamo’s cars. Bergamo’s kerosene. Her wet leaves. Her rain.
At night I will sleep again in the soft Italian sheets of my childhood and by day I will explore this museum of the heart. I will hike up past the courtyard where I roller-skated and then around the park that looks out from the safety of the massive city ramparts. I will walk over the cleanly-tended, grey pebble gravel, stopping at the Stations of the Cross vignettes that form their solemn, but charming tour. The city’s gaslights will burn with a soft hiss during my evening strolls, reflecting off the shop windows. It will be, as I have tried to make so abundantly clear, utterly beautiful. And having found my way back there, I will not yearn for any new places. I will put down all of the guidebooks of the soul and be still.
Then gradually, like a kind of dawning, they will start to appear. I will be sitting, perhaps, by the fountain or walking by the city gates and I will meet them. One-by-one the people from my life will come forward from around the corners of Bergamo’s streets like welcome, but unexpected old friends. Perhaps they will appear passing outside the bakery window or beside me while watching thunderstorms from the piazza bell-tower. Sometimes they will arrive triggered by a thought. Sometimes they will come unsummoned. And these visitors will come, the near, the dear and the more distant, always miraculously, at the perfect time. My wife, my children, my parents, my brother, my friends, will be there, of course, but so also the forgotten minor players of my life, the chance strangers with whom I laughed on long bus rides or for whom I held doors as they struggled with their shopping.
These people in my life, all of them so utterly precious, all of them part of me, show up at perfect intervals to sit or to walk or to talk, or sometimes to simply nod in recognition as they pass by in Bergamo’s empty streets.
No God Incarnate walks the streets here or answers pent-up questions or stops to entertain my desperate, calculated praise. There is no figure before whom to bow, no idol to fear, no sacred altars or thresholds now, no one for whom to offer the highest hosannas.
And yet, He is here.
He’s here in the perfect unfolding of people and place and beauty, timed so exquisitely, so knowingly, so intimately to my very self. Who could possibly know my heart this well but its own creator? If I look back on my life as the lovely face of a Swiss watch with its precious tick and gold sheen and handsome Roman numerals all vying for attention, then this place is the same watch, but the back has been delicately removed and laid on soft green felt and the unseen ticking heart of the watch is exposed now beneath the round magnifying glass and the bright lamp. Now I simply marvel at it all. The Watchmaker is present in this genius – his evidence is everywhere – and it seems enough to be one particular cog shifting so precisely in this dance.
The years pass with the steady spiritual momentum of a vast, swaying pendulum, and the visitors come and the visitors go, their memories endlessly drawing and redrawing lines in the sands of thought. The water runs down over the medieval city walls as time runs over my heart. Things – even, and perhaps especially, the heart – change with this flow, but imperceptibly and without a hint of labor – just as the frescoed Madonnas, unnoticed, give birth once again to their buried children.
And then you notice one day, almost as an afterthought, that there are longer and longer stretches with no visitors – sometimes spanning out years now – but these gaps raise not a trace of apprehension. When you want to talk to the others they are there. When you don’t, they are not. It is an effortless surrender into something else, something bigger.
My heart – your heart – is finding its completion now and the part of self that needed to share so deeply with others in those earlier times has altered. The hunger for the visitor – for the misplaced treasure buried in the Other – has worn through. The clinging sense of a self that completes with another’s presence has emptied out and washed away. There are no places besides this one now and no heart besides your own.
Bergamo’s work is nearly finished.
And then, just exactly before the true end, she reveals her secret to you. Wandering her ancient streets one evening, you see in a shop window, looking straight at you, simply and directly, the familiar reflection of the Watchmaker.