Florence is just a weekend, a quick train ride up on a Friday morning to visit my Uncle Terry and Aunt Deb, who have flown in from Connecticut to visit Italy for the first time in their lives, and to see their niece, of course. It is evening when they arrive, and I take them on a walk to look at the Duomo, always such an impressive sight, as evidenced by my uncle's reaction:
"Oy vey!" he says, then pauses and adds, "Or maybe that's the wrong word for praising a
Catholic church . . ."
We watch the Sabines getting raped right there in the middle of the sculpture garden with nobody doing a damn thing to stop it, and pay our respects to Michelangelo, to the science museum, to the views from the hillsides around town. Then I leave my aunt and uncle to enjoy the rest of their vacation without me, and I go on alone to wealthy, ample Lucca, that little Tuscan town with its celebrated butcher shops, where the finest cuts of meat I've seen in all of Italy are displayed with a "you know you want it" sensuality in shops across town. Sausages of every imaginable size, color and derivation are stuffed like ladies' legs into provocative stockings, swinging from the ceilings of the butcher shops. Lusty buttocks of hams hang in the windows, beckoning like Amsterdam's high- end hookers. The chickens look so plump and contented even in death that you imagine they offered themselves up for sacrifice proudly, after competing among themselves in life to see who could become the moistest and the fattest. But it's not just the meat that's wonderful in Lucca; it's the chestnuts, the peaches, the tumbling displays of figs, dear God, the figs . . .
The town is famous, too, of course, for having been the birthplace of Puccini. I know I should probably be interested in this, but I'm much more interested in the secret a local grocer has shared with me--that the best mushrooms in town are served in a restaurant across from Puccini's birth-place. So I wander through Lucca, asking directions in Italian, "Can you tell me where is the house of Puccini?" and a kind civilian finally leads me right to it, and then is probably very surprised when I say "Grazie," then turn on my heel and march in the exact opposite direction of the museum's entrance, entering a restaurant across the street and waiting out the rain over my serving of risotto ai funghi.
I don't recall now if it was before or after Lucca that I went to Bologna--a city so beautiful that I couldn't stop singing, the whole time I was there: "My Bologna has a first name! It's P-R-E-T-T-Y." Traditionally Bologna--with its lovely brick architecture and famous wealth--has been called "The Red, The Fat and The Beautiful." (And, yes, that was an alternate title for this book.) The food is definitely better here than in Rome, or maybe they just use more butter. Even the gelato in Bologna is better (and I feel somewhat disloyal saying that, but it's true). The mushrooms here are like big thick sexy tongues, and the prosciutto drapes over pizzas like a fine lace veil draping over a fancy lady's hat.
And of course there is the Bolognese sauce, which laughs disdainfully at any other idea of a ragu.
It occurs to me in Bologna that there is no equivalent in English for the term buon appetito. This is a pity, and also very telling. It occurs to me, too, that the train stops of Italy are a tour through the names of the world's most famous foods and wines: next stop, Parma . . . next stop, Bologna . . . next stop, approaching Montepulciano . . . Inside the trains there is food, too, of course--little sandwiches and good hot chocolate. If it's raining outside, it's even nicer to snack and speed along. For one long ride, I share a train compartment with a good-looking young Italian guy who sleeps for hours through the rain as I eat my octopus salad. The guy wakes up shortly before we arrive in Venice, rubs his eyes, looks me over carefully from foot to head and pronounces under his breath: "Carina." Which means: Cute.
"Grazie mille," I tell him with exaggerated politeness. A thousand thanks.
He's surprised. He didn't realize I spoke Italian. Neither did I, actually, but we talk for about twenty minutes and I realize for the first time that I do. Some line has been crossed and I'm actually speaking Italian now. I'm not translating; I'm talking. Of course, there's a mistake in every sentence, and I only know three tenses, but I can communicate with this guy without much effort. Me la cavo, is how you would say it in Italian, which basically means, "I can get by," but comes from the same verb you use to talk about uncorking a bottle of wine, meaning, "I can use this language to extract myself from tight situations." He's hitting on me, this kid! It's not entirely unflattering. He's not entirely unattractive. Though he's not remotely uncocky, either. At one point he says to me in Italian, meaning to be complimentary, of course, "You're not too fat, for an American woman."
I reply in English, "And you're not too greasy, for an Italian man."
I repeat myself, in slightly modified Italian: "And you're so gracious, just like all Italian men."
I can speak this language! The kid thinks I like him, but it's the words I'm flirting with. My God--I have decanted myself! I have uncorked my tongue, and Italian is pouring forth! He wants me to meet him later in Venice, but I don't have the first interest in him. I'm just lovesick over the language, so I let him slide away. Anyhow, I've already got a date in Venice. I'm meeting my friend Linda there.
Crazy Linda, as I like to call her, even though she isn't, is coming to Venice from Seattle, another damp and gray town. She wanted to come see me in Italy, so I invited her along on this leg of my trip because I refuse--I absolutely decline--to go to the most romantic city on earth by myself, no, not now, not this year. I could just picture myself all alone, in the butt end of a gondola, getting dragged through the mist by a crooning gondolier as
I . . . read a magazine? It's a sad image, rather like the idea of humping up a hill all by yourself on a bicycle-built-for-two. So Linda will provide me with company, and good company, at that.
I met Linda (and her dreadlocks, and her piercings) in Bali almost two years ago, when I went for that Yoga retreat. Since then, we've done a trip to Costa Rica together, too. She's one of my favorite traveling companions, an unflappable and entertaining and surprisingly organized little pixie in tight red crushed-velvet pants. Linda is the owner of one of the world's more intact psyches, with an incomprehension for depression and a self-esteem that has never even considered being anything but high. She said to me once, while regarding herself in a mirror, "Admittedly, I am not the one who looks fantastic in everything, but still I cannot help loving myself." She's got this ability to shut me up when I start fretting over metaphysical questions, such as, "What is the nature of the universe?" (Linda's reply: "My only question is: Why ask?") Linda would like to someday grow her dreadlocks so long she could weave them into a wire-supported structure on the top of her head "like a topiary" and maybe store a bird there. The Balinese loved Linda. So did the Costa Ricans. When she's not taking care of her pet lizards and ferrets, she is managing a software development team in Seattle and making more money than any of us.
So we find each other there in Venice, and Linda frowns at our map of the city, turns it upside down, locates our hotel, orients herself and announces with characteristic humility: "We are the mayors of this town's ass."
Her cheer, her optimism--they in no way match this stinky, slow, sinking, mysterious, silent, weird city. Venice seems like a wonderful city in which to die a slow and alcoholic death, or to lose a loved one, or to lose the murder weapon with which the loved one was lost in the first place. Seeing Venice, I'm grateful that I chose to live in Rome instead. I don't think I would have gotten off the antidepressants quite so quick here. Venice is beautiful, but like a Bergman movie is beautiful; you can admire it, but you don't really want to live in it.
The whole town is peeling and fading like those suites of rooms that once-rich families will barricade away in the backs of their mansions when it gets too expensive to keep the maintenance up and it's easier to just nail the doors shut and forget about the dying treasures on the other side--this is Venice. Greasy streams of Adriatic backwash nudge up against the long-suffering foundations of these buildings, testing the endurance of this fourteenth-century science fair experiment--Hey, what if we built a city that sits in water all the time?
Venice is spooky under its grainy November skies. The city creaks and sways like a fishing pier. Despite Linda's initial confidence that we can govern this town, we get lost every day, and most especially at night, taking wrong turns toward dark corners that dead-end dangerously and directly into canal water. One foggy night, we pass an old building that seems to actually be groaning in pain. "Not to worry," chirps Linda. "That's just Satan's hungry maw." I teach her my favorite Italian word--attraversiamo ("let's cross over")--and we backtrack nervously out of there.
The beautiful young Venetian woman who owns the restaurant near where we are staying is miserable with her fate. She hates Venice. She swears that everyone who lives in Venice regards it as a tomb. She'd fallen in love once with a Sardinian artist, who'd promised her another world of light and sun, but had left her, instead, with three children and no choice but to return to Venice and run the family restaurant. She is my age but looks even older than I do, and I can't imagine the kind of man who could do that to a woman so attractive. ("He was powerful," she says, "and I died of love in his shadow.")
Venice is conservative. The woman has had some affairs here, maybe even with some married men, but it always ends in sorrow. The neighbors talk about her. People stop speaking when she walks into the room. Her mother begs her to wear a wedding ring just for appearances--saying, Darling, this is not Rome, where you can live as scandalously as you like. Every morning when Linda and I come for breakfast and ask our sorrowful young/old Venetian proprietress about the weather report for the day, she cocks the fingers of her right hand like a gun, puts it to her temple, and says, "More rain." Yet I don't get depressed here. I can cope with, and even somehow enjoy, the sinking melancholy of Venice, just for a few days. Somewhere in me I am able to recognize that this is not my melancholy; this is the city's own indigenous melancholy, and I am healthy enough these days to be able to feel the difference between me and it. This is a sign, I cannot help but think, of healing, of the coagulation of my self. There were a few years there, lost in borderless despair, when I used to experience all the world's sadness as my own. Everything sad leaked through me and left damp traces behind.
Anyhow, it's hard to be depressed with Linda babbling beside me, trying to get me to buy a giant purple fur hat, and asking of the lousy dinner we ate one night, "Are these called Mrs. Paul's Veal Sticks?" She is a firefly, this Linda. In Venice in the Middle Ages there was once a profession for a man called a codega--a fellow you hired to walk in front of you at night with a lit lantern, showing you the way, scaring off thieves and demons, bringing you confidence and protection through the dark streets. This is Linda--my temporary, special-order, travel-sized Venetian codega.