Chapter Five Wherein the Poet Comes Back to Life...
Caro nome che il mio cor
festi primo palpitar,
le delizie dell'amor
mi dêi sempre rammentar!
Col pensiero il mio desir
a te ognora volerà,
e pur l' ultimo sospir,
caro nome, tuo sarà.
Rigoletto- Giuseppe Verdi
Sweet name, you who made my heart
throb for the first time,
you must always remind me
the pleasures of love!
My desire will fly to you
on the wings of thought
and my last breath
will be yours, my beloved.
Translation by Guia K. Monti
I came to after a short rest in the back of the bus. I dragged a brush through my hair, and pulled a lipstick out of my pocket, rubbing a little color into my cheeks. In my resourcefulness I kept a small tube of toothpaste in my pocket, and put a little on my tongue. I couldn't remember when I had last brushed my teeth.
“Where are we?”
“Coming up to the border,” Julia said.
I looked out the window where a dawn-tinged landscape flew by. I could see the outlines of clustered towns in the distance, across carefully laid out fields. There were tall, oval trees flanking the small, jewel-like towns. Suddenly I caught a glimpse of an expanse of water.
“What is that. Is that the ocean?”
Lake Garda. We're too far inland, “ Julia said, pulling over to let someone in a Ferrari roar past, generating a tail wind that shook the bus.
“You'll have to talk to them,” Caroline said. “You know Spanish-- that's close to Italian-- “ She handed me the Berlitz Guide to Traveling In and Dining Out in
I paged through the book, where useful phrases such as “Where is the train station?” were set forth in Italian. The language was half-familiar to me, from art songs taught to me by a voice teacher in high school, arias that I loved and imagined I could one day sing, from being in a few local operas back in Colorado. Still, the lyricism, the fusion and blurring of words inherent to a line of spoken Italian, what has often been referred to as its own messy Latin, was daunting.
“We're going to stop in
Florence, and then we'll go on to ,” Julia said. “You'll love these places, Jen.” Verona
I knew I would. I pulled the curtains, spread a towel on the seat, sat down and took a sponge bath in the back. I tamped myself dry, rubbing a talcum powder underneath my arms, putting on a fresh top and jeans.
“Are we going to do laundry soon? I'm running out of underwear again.”
“I'm sure we'll find a campground at some point, Caroline said. “We're out of wine and hearts of palm too.”
I poured water into our small dishpan and briefly submerged a bar of soap in it. Then I took three of my pairs of bikini panties that I had tucked into my duffel bag and rinsed them out, and hung them to dry on the cord that held the curtains we pulled across the rear window of the bus. They swayed there like pastel flags as we chugged down the Autostrada.
“Get ready,” Julia said. “Get out your passports.”
We pulled up to a toll booth, where several men in border patrol uniforms were waiting.
One came up to us as Julia rolled down the window.
He was gorgeous and when his face broke into a grin, he was even more gorgeous.
“Ah, regazzi Americani,” he exclaimed, motioning to his friends.
His cohorts came over to the bus.
American girls! They peered into the bus. One of them saw my panties hanging from their makeshift clothesline. He nudged his friend. They all laughed.
We handed them our passports. They pretended to frown over them, as if there was a problem.
I was frantically paging through my booklet.
“Dov 'e... dov 'e
. Va Bene. Il piu bel citta nel mondo.” Verona
“What's he saying,” Caroline asked.
“I think he said
is the best city in the world,” Julia replied. Verona
“No, I think he said it's the most beautiful one. Piu bel,” I said, assuming the authority of the would-be linguist. “Bel. Bel canto. Beautiful singing. Mondo. World.”
“Ha buon viagge,” our new friend smiled. Buon viagge, American girls.
“Wow,” I said, as we pulled away. “He was edible.”
“Certainly was,” Julia said, keeping her eyes on the road.
In twenty miles, we came to a sign that read,“Firenze....
... 100 km.” Pisa
Now Caroline was rapt.
“I want to see the David again. And Jen, you've got to see the Medici palace.”
We zoomed up the Autostrada, turning off to the road to
. Florence Firenze. Va bene. Firenze, . I liked the sound and heft and inference of these words. I took out my journal. Verona
“I got us over the
Alps,” I wrote. “I have no idea how, but we're in now, just came across the border... they're going to drag me into some museums....va bene. That's good.” Italy
We pulled into
at noon and parked near the Duomo, the great domed cathedral built by the Medicis, towers glittering with gold inlay rising up against indigo sky. Pigeons wheeled in the air from their perches under the rococo tile roofs. We found a cafe and sank gratefully into small chairs with striped damask cushions. Florence
We ordered white wine-- un biquieri di vino bianco, I had practiced.
Julia and Caroline ordered small salads with shaved carrots and radiccio.
I ordered a loaf of bread and some cheap brie.
Caroline looked at me askance.
“I came to
Europe to eat,” I said.
We set out with a map of
, and found our way to a museum. I was wearing a cream wool poncho from Florence my mother had given me one Christmas. It had kept me warm in New Mexico as we walked in the Zirl graveyard, and on cold walks while we waited for Caroline to come back from her Tyrolean tryst. Austria
It was warm in the museum and in my eagerness to view the paintings, I threw my poncho over a bench.
We wondered through the galleries and even in my consummate exhaustion, I was spellbound.
At one point, we stood before Raphael's The Madonna of the Goldfinch. I tried to imagine the hand that had painted this masterpiece of the Renaissance: a marrying of a living, natural being-- a small, fine-boned bird, with a sensual spirituality. Everywhere, there were feasts for the eye-- Botticelli, Michelangelo.
Someone had once said to me that I had a Botticellian body; looking at the paintings I was ambivalent. In the end, the great painter had captured the quiescent, erotic spell cast by the flesh while not masking its imperfections, bringing to the fore the inviting bread of the womanly body, its fullness exaggerated.
People were walking quietly through as if they were in church, in the great cathedral of art, on sacred ground.
I turned around and instantly saw that my poncho was gone.
I grabbed Caroline's hand and took her off in a corner.
“Someone stole my poncho.”
“It'll turn up. They'll realize their mistake and turn it in; we'll check in the lost and found.”
I knew I would never see it again. Everything I had brought with me was still a source of security for me in this new, uncharted, terrifying and exhilarating journey. I needed my poncho. I needed to feel its softness against my cheek, to curl up against it.
We went out into the courtyard where the Michelangelo David stood, magnificently burnished by sunlight, a paean to virility against a courtyard boundaried by walls trellised with pale pink wild roses.
I found myself at eye level with the best part of the David.
Punch-drunk on exhaustion I led Julia over. “Look. Right here in the open air,” I teased.
“It's art, Jen. This is a work of art.”
Indeed it was, but I was tired and longed for the safety and security of our bus.
“We should have left you in
,” Caroline said. Salzburg
We sauntered in the sun through throngs of tourists and Italians back to the bus, and pulled out onto the Autostrada again. It was mid-afternoon.
,” Julia called. Pisa
“Don't you want to see the
?” Leaning Tower
“Sure,” I said, swaying in the back, spilling wine into my lap. “Absolutely. Wouldn't miss it.”
My travel-hungry companions switched places; Caroline at the wheel, we sped toward fading light, where the lights of a small town glittered in the gathering shadows of afternoon.
We drove up to the Leaning Tower of Pisa to see, to our complete astonishment, lights on in the base of the tower.
More astounding was that there was a sign jutting out above the door. The sign read, “Disco.”
Oh, God help us, I thought.
“Yay, look. A disco, in the
,” Julia exclaimed. Leaning Tower
“It's too early to go dancing,” I said.
Europe it's never too early to go dancing,” Caroline said. “You can stay in the bus and sleep and we'll check on you, or you can come in and sit in a corner; I'll just keep buying you wine.”
Now we were at odds, and I felt badly.
“It's o.k. Keep our purpose in mind; to have fun, fun fun. Think adventure.”
I was thinking exhaustion, of my bed back in
, of snowstorms, wondering about my parents, with fleeting thoughts of how my problematic lover was bearing up. St. Paul
I brightened. “Is there a shop? I'll buy some postcards. My mother has probably been beside herself since the day I left.”
We went in to the
discotheque; this time there was a jukebox, Italian pop songs pouring from it. Young, plaintive voices were singing the hit du jour: “Il mio piccolo grande amore....” against soughing over-orchestration: “My little big love.” Pisa
“That's me,” I said, sinking into a booth at the edge of the tiled dance-floor. “I'm your little big love”.
Now our ritual had taken shape.
The waiter came. “Ah. Regazzi Americani. Buongiorno. “
“Buongiono,” we said. To me we didn't look unlike some of the other girls in the disco. How could they tell we were American?
“Mi piace biquieri di vino bianco, prego, grazie,” I said, in my first complete utterance of Italian.
The waiter was surprised.
“Parla Italiano? Brava.”
Brava. This was illuminating. Brava. How nice that there was a feminine version of “Bravo”.
Suddenly I was alone at the table; two Italian men had emerged from the shadows and taken my friends out onto the dance floor.
I sat and watched, trying to fathom yet again that we were here in the midst of antiquity with a slice of
embedded in it. America
Abruptly, I was taken by the hand. A diminutive Italian with a mustache half-bowed to me, leading me out into the middle of the parquet.
Someone turned on a makeshift strobe light over head, a little ball with rectangular mirrors glued to it; the ball spun in the low lamplight from old sconces on the white walls.
My partner was wearing very tight white pants against which he bulged, and when he turned, swiveling, that revealed the outline of bikini underwear.
Finally I too became caught up in the dancing. More 45 rpm records of Italian pop songs dropped down on the spindle of the jukebox; we danced on, gyrating, laughing, swinging our heads, unbinding our hair.
We took a pass and returned to our booth, toasting each other.
“See,” Caroline said. “You joined in and had fun.”
“I've been having fun,” I said.
We went back out into the night and drove the bus to a campground.
I made up my bed in the back of the bus and put new batteries into my small flashlight, and opened my journal.
Caroline and Julia put on their t-shirts and unrolled their sleeping bags, pulling down the seat.
“Why are you writing,” Caroline asked. “I thought you were tired. We're all tired. We have to rest. Tomorrow we'll drive the rest of the way across
Tuscany to .” Verona
I'm just making a quick note.... I never want to forget that there was a disco in the Leaning Tower of Pisa.”
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