Monday, December 28, 2015

The One And The Many

Ah, the great paradox: can an extravert who thrives on people, yet needs time alone to center oneself, achieve the necessary balance between exploring the wide, wide world of possibilities while focusing on keeping centered? Well, that is the trick, isn’t it? This past year provided plenty of both: but more on that in a moment.

For millennia, humans have had to track a seemingly infinite number of objects and phenomena. Many cultures believe that the infinity of things and their constant changes can ultimately relate back to a single entity: in monotheistic religions, it’s the concept of one God. In the physical world, it’s the problem of “the one and the many.”

Simply stated, the problem assumes that the universe is one thing, with a unifying aspect behind it all: spiritual, certainly, but also physical, as in water, atoms or air. Or an idea, such as a number, or “mind.” In China, it’s “tai chi,” or Great Ultimate, which maintains balance between opposite forces: the “yin and yang.”

My “zen spot” between the yin and the yang is a matter of finding balance between people and self. My primary mode is focused externally (yin), absorbing things mostly through intuition. My secondary mode is internal (yang), where I can evaluate things based on my feelings about them, or how they fit into my value system.

If the "yin" is my compelling need to interact with people, the "yang" is the time needed to focus on keeping centered. Nothing can provide that sense of balance -- that state of zen, if you will -- like solitude and some quiet time to reflect on the past year at our mountain hut near Leavenworth, Washington in the North Cascades.

So, after visiting with family in Pasco, we took the scenic route on a bright and sunny December day up the Columbia River through Priest Rapids and Wanapum to Wenatchee. We saw our first signs of snow in Cashmere, and were greeted by about a foot of snow on our property in Shugart Flats (above, from our front driveway).

A nice road trip to end the year, and also an appropriate time to reflect on the year passed, as well as ponder the year ahead. Reviewing 2015, notable events include locating our Italian family in Isolona near Genoa, Italy, completion of our "capanna montagna" in Washington, and one of the worst fire seasons ever in the West.

The highlight was the trip to Italy to find relatives that my family left behind just over 100 years ago. Having tried and failed twice already, I was eager to give it another shot. Armed with new information on how to find the correct town in the foothills near the Italian Riviera, daughter Gina and I departed for The Motherland in July.

Thanks to sheer persistence and the help of many people -- including my brothers and other family members, hotel proprietors who adopted me as one of their own, and a cab driver extraordinaire who not only spoke English well, but also a obscure dialect of Genovese that came in handy -- we succeeded in our quest.

The 27-hour sojourn included a long layover in Munich, so we rested for a day before absorbing the sights, sounds and smells of the Italy. We started with a boat excursion to Portofino, where rumors of Johnny Depp sightings were rampant, and a train to Ventimiglia, the westernmost town on the Italian Riviera on the French border.

Next, it was down to the business of finding the Sanguineti family, our cousins who remained in the old country when my grandmother, her siblings and my great-grandmother escaped Italy prior to World War I. In hindsight, I was woefully unprepared on my first attempt in finding family in the foothills of Liguria back in 2010.

Yet an important connection had been made: the Sterlocchi family, proprietors of the Hotel Colombo in old town in Genoa. On our second trip to Genoa in 2013, we were better prepared, hiring a cab driver who spoke English to help us find Isolona in the little hillside community of Orero. Sadly, we went to the wrong Orero.

This time, I asked Libero Sterlocchi if he still had contact with our cab driver, Andrea Giovaninni, from our trip to Italy in 2013. He replied in the affirmative and once he placed a call, we were set to venture off to Isolona in the hinterlands of Liguria to search for family. This time, we would simply not be denied.

My brother and his family, having been there the summer before, came exceedingly close: they found a shirttail relative, Massi Ratto, the city administrator in Isolona. Massi was married to a Sanguineti, but my brother and family had to leave before they could meet our cousins. Arriving in Isolona, we quickly located Massi at city hall.

Good news, he informed us, as Andrea interpreted our conversation: his mother-in-law was home and available to speak. More good news, the Sanguineti home was only a few steps from city hall. Arriving at the primary entrance on the backside of the house, Andrea would explain to the woman in residence who we were.

“Tell her we are the descendants of Giovanni Brichetto, and that we have come from America to find our cousins,” I told Andrea. When she understood what we were saying, the woman -- Anna Sanguineti -- became quite animated and rather emotional. “You must come back in two days to meet the rest of the family,” she pleaded.

Although we had just a few days left in Italy, and had planned to take the boat to Cinque Terre and Portovenere, we readily agreed to return. Before we left, I asked Anna about my great-grandfather, Giovanni Brichetto. “Oh, he’s buried just up the road at a cemetery near Orero,” she replied. It didn’t take long to find him (above).

Taking an alternate route back to Genoa through Rapallo, Andrea told us about some of the more notable Italian-Americans who hailed from these hinterlands near Genoa: Brian Boitano, Olympic gold medalist; Amadeo Giannini, founder of the Bank of America; Natalina Sinatra (mother of Ol’ Blue Eyes); and chocolatier Domenic Ghirardelli.

Parting ways back at the Hotel Columbo, we agreed to keep in touch by phone in order to schedule a return trip to prior to Isolona. Handing him my University of Oregon business card, Andrea commented: “I had forgotten that you were an instructor at a journalism school. Now, I have a surprise for you.”

The appointed day actually provided several surprises. First, we learned that Andrea was a professional videographer. “I will document our trip,” he noted. En route, he showed us examples of his work. Using a road-cam for drive and a hand camera for the rest, we arrived at the Sanguineti home and were greeted warmly.

Present were three of four cousins: Anna, Iva and Andreino Sanguineti. They had family pictures and much to our delight, they pulled out portraits of my mother and uncle -- as well as my grandfather and grandmother -- that I had never seen. Graciously, they offered several of the pictures to take home for posterity.

After two hours of fast-paced conversation in Italian, English and Genovese, we bade farewell. Andrea announced he would produce a video for us to take home. “How will you be able to do it before we leave?” I asked. “I’ll work on it tonight,” he replied. “You’ll need a cab to the airport, and after all, I am a cab driver.”

The next morning, he showed us his handiwork. He produced a nine-minute video and a 90-second trailer: both were well done. “We should pay him for his work,” offered Gina. I concurred, so in addition to cab fare to the airport, we tipped him about 75 euros, which pretty much drained our funds for the moment. It was well worth it.

In the Christmas card we sent to the Sanguinetis, I wrote that meeting their family was a highlight of our lives, and I thanked them for their hospitality. In an email, Iva responded: “Come again and we will welcome you with joy. Many, many good wishes from all of us. It will be a fond memory for Regina.”

Shifting gears, the other noteworthy stories of the year included a fire season like none in recent memory and the completion of our mountain cabin. With severe drought affecting the western U.S., the fire season was the worst ever in the State of Washington, and the Wolverine Fire came to within 12 air miles of our property.

Because of the long fire season, backcountry hiking was a bust. The entire Chiwawa River drainage was closed for a month during prime hiking season while the Forest Service instituted a new 300-foot firebreak from Fish Lake to the top of Entiat Ridge. We were left to watch the smoke plumes billow above Shugart Flats (above).

The best hiking in 2015 was early and late in the season. In June, it was a trip to Four-In-One Cone near McKenzie Pass and in September, a late summer junket to Crater Lake. The National Creek Fire near with park entrance continued to burn as a “natural fire,” but prevailing winds kept the smoke away from the lake.

In March, our little mountain hut was complete, and we quickly filled the small space with bunk beds and housewares. We enjoyed several trips north to the Upper Wenatchee Valley in 2015, in addition to travels to PRSA functions in Chicago and Atlanta. In retrospect, the year provided a good balance of both yin and yang.