We are in Italy and have travelled two and half hours through olive groves, vineyards, oleander and the occasional maize crop. The road from Milan to Malcesine is a drive on roads sandwiched between the Alps and the country and then between the Alps as backdrop and Lake Garda on one side and the dramatic granite upswing of land. We arrived well before sunset at our well- appointed dwelling, with balcony looking out to the hills, brushwood and olives carpeting the hillside. There was a magnificent fleckless blue sky acting as the dome of the known world.
I am writing this as I sip from a glass of Pinot Grigio, golden to the eye, to the palate only the slightest hint of bitterness and to the nostril a whiff of innocence, pre-pubertal innocence. A Lagos-type breeze is blowing and banana plants alien and lonesome in this climate edge the boundaries of our dwelling and swing in time to the breeze. There’s a lone bird, white like a cattle egret in the far distance, but it must be lost or being impersonated by a local bird of prey or a greater sea gull.
Last night in Milan, our bellboy was Senegalese, Ahmed. He was tall, maybe 6 foot and had a round, handsome face. He was that sheen of black that shines in darkness. I imagine him to be Mandinka. He told me that he earns € 700 per month and after paying his rent he has little left to send to his parents in Dakar. His tip was all of € 2.50! Our waitress, in the restaurant next door was of mixed heritage. I asked her point blank whether she was African, I had reckoned that she was East African given her European features but was caught off guard when she said “My dad’s from Congo and my mother’s Italian”. I responded “From Kinshasa?”, “No, Congo Brazzaville”. I hadn’t realized that there were that many Africans in Italy, or should say I in Milan.
This morning, at the Milan Duomo, an elderly black man of my age, rather shortish, approached us with his books about Conakry. I thought he was Guinean but no another Senegalese. And at the square many more Africans trying to sell pieces of colored string. Who would want to buy colored string? And at street corners, other Africans loitering or “liming” as the Trinidadians would say, and looking lost and aimless.
We are on our way to Verona via Malcesine. We are here for the opera and love is the subject of both operas that we are due to see. In literature as in life, there are varieties of signals of love. There’s the yearning and longing in the eyes that pools, a bottomless dark lake, wistful, and sorrowful. But, it’s the stillness of the face that frames that kind of love. Then there’s the sudden lurching at the ankles, even when seated, the hip slumps to one side and then a hurried, embarrassed exit to powder the nose. I’ve heard quavers in the voice, a loss for words, and asthmatic in-drawing of breath matched only by a stutter. Finally, there’s the studied indifference.
Chekhov’s style is to examine the relationships and their awkward processes rather than the minutiae of gesture or expression. In “A Misfortune” Sofya Petrovna says to Ivan Mihalovitch
You follow me about like a shadow, you are continually looking at me not in a nice way, making love to me, writing me strange letters…
and she went on
Let us be as good, true friends as we used to be, and give up these sighs and groans, which really don’t suit you…
and he responded
I’m not in the least tempted by friendship with the woman I love.
Yes, the signals are important for Chekhov but it is the complexities of relationships that matter most to him. In “Terror” The signals of love are concealed and revealed in the use of language-
You are dull without your friend. We must send out to the fields for him
You only come here on account of Dmitri Petrovitch.
This story deals with the inexplicable- Dmitri Petrovitch told our narrator that his wife on consenting to marry him had said
I don’t love you, but I will be true to you.
But, what can it mean not to love someone but be true to them?
I love her, and I know that my love is hopeless. Hopeless love for a woman by whom one has two children! Is that intelligible? And isn’t it terrible?
Here is Chekhov at his best exploring sexual love, lust, betrayal, and friendship.
I can imagine a casual, polite hug turn into a clasp that like a vice squeezes the air out of the loved object’s bellows. Surprised at the feeling carried in the muscular grip that he almost loses balance. In “Terror” the heroine says
I can imagine how miserable you would be if you were in love with me! Wait a bit: one day I shall throw myself on your neck…I shall see with what horror you will run away from me. That would be interesting.
Last night we walked along the lakeside path to Malcesine. Starting just before dusk, the sun was dropping into the lake and leaving a reddish, pinkish afterglow, like the wake of a boat. The sky was broad and blue, the lake pinioned between the two arms of the mountain range, vanishing into the distance. And, Malcesine was brick red against the slope of the hill, our goal.
We stopped for dinner at a pizzeria. Our risotto della mare was more clams, prawns, mussels, than rice. We had to search for the rice! The sauce was delicious. Our cappuccino was bitter. The walk back was under a starry sky, the Plough close and large, perhaps a hint of the Milky Way too.
Yesterday we went up Monte Baldo. The cable car queue was 30 minutes long. And if like me you have sciatica that’s a very long queue indeed. The ride was two-staged: the first stage was probably more than halfway up, then we changed cable cars for the second stage. These cars turn as they move, so that you might for instance, start looking back down at the lake and then face upwards towards the mountain by the end. At the top there was a glorious view of the Alps and back down at the lake. It was a hot, impossibly hot day. Even I, am now brown as a nut!
Later back down in Malcesine, we walked to the castle or should I say around the castle. There was an artist’s gallery next door. He had photos of females posed in such a way that suggested their heads were missing. These black and white photos were strange, disturbing but yet beautiful.
For dinner, I had spaghetti carbonara and Jan a salad. Then it was time for a free jazz concert by ‘Swing out Brothers’ doing classic big band Cole Porter, Gershwin and some more contemporary numbers such ‘Fever’, ‘Save the last dance for me’, ‘Johnny’s Mambo’, and ‘I’ve got you under my skin’. The woman keyboard player was also our host. She spoke in the most sensuous Italian accent you’ve ever heard, swaying this way and that like a blade of lemon grass in the wind as she announced the next song. Her long arms and her slim torso in a black long dress cutting a fine figure in the artificial harbor light. The band was in an old caravel moored and lit up for the show. The audience was made up of a crowd of revelers, late diners, families waiting for something to do, and people like us, fools for any free concert. It was a tolerable evening, not spectacular, not memorable.
Along the lakeside path from our hotel, about halfway to Malcesine you can stop and, directly in your line of vision will be the aperture between the Alps and the town itself. It’s a tight waist before the upper body. At dusk a misty haze settles like netting over the giant’s head as she lies down into the distance.
One evening we went to the opera, La Boheme. The castle theatre was in a marquee. All in all there were perhaps 50 of us tourists. It was a cut down version of La Boheme. The choral pieces were missing. It was the most memorable opera we had even been to but not for the singing even though that was fine too. The whole opera was accompanied by a riotous tropical storm. The set rattled, the curtains billowed and the lightening lit up the stage in spectacular unplanned fashion. Thunder roared and clapped, sometimes appropriately as emotions rose but at other times, ironically accenting humor where none was meant. If you’ve seen James Bond, Quantum of Solace, there’s the murderous scene carried out against the backdrop of Puccini’s Tosca. Well this was a real life example of the elements and drama interacting, combining in the most unique and extraordinary manner. Mimi’s dying scene amplified and exaggerated by the roar of thunder and the wind rising and rising, pulling at the marquee, swelling the curtains and competing with the singers to be heard. Well I never!
We walked back to our hotel along the lakeside path. The lake thrashed against the shoreline, it might as well have been the Atlantic at Lagos, pounding the beach. We walked briskly hoping to avoid the unavoidable downpour. We just about made it. As we approached our hotel doorway, giant raindrops dropped out of the sky!
The journey from Malcesine to Verona was punctuated by a stop at Mantua. We had lunch (we seem to spend most of our time eating) at a pizzeria. We sat outside, alfresco style, on the pavement. The market was just closing and we had a wonderful view of the traders shutting up their mechanized motor stalls. It was quite something to see these large contraptions fold and retract into the roof of the vehicles.
Mantua is a small town of 50,000. At its height, Mantua was ruled for 400 years by the Gonzaga family. It is still an enclave even today, separated off by an artificial lake that acts as a moat and a well- preserved city wall. The young Mozart played in Mantua at age 9 years. Virgil and Dante are both commemorated with statues. The library is worth seeing, as is the theatre. I could very easily live in Mantua part of the year in a flat.
Verona is a different place all together. We are here for the opera, on Friday Turandot and Saturday Il Trovatore. We are staying within the courtyard of Giullietta’s house and famous balcony! We have a studio flat decorated in the Renaissance style of painted ceilings. Even though we were in the heart of the city you could hardly tell. There was no early morning bus noises, no trams, and the human voice was at a human level. We have a view of the balcony directly from our own window. We had to force our way through the entrance to get to our front door. There was a massing of the young and old, both sexes, wanting to catch a glimpse of the balcony. The passageway into the courtyard had graffiti of the expected kind- so and so loves so and so, with various sized hearts colored in.
Dante’s connection to Verona was more substantial than that with Mantua. There was a statue of Dante not far from our residence. Catullus is the real poet of Verona. I can’t say that I’ve read him and I have now added him to my to read list.
On Friday we hired city bikes and rode first to the church of St. Zeno, an African nicknamed “Moro” (The Moor) because of his dark skin color. He is the patron saint of Verona. Then we rode along the river to two bridges, Ponte Petra and Ponte Scaligero. Also the cathedral and Chiesa Anastasia with its magnificent arches, painted ceilings, Old Masters, and chapels.
At night at the Arena we saw Turandot, a Zefferelli production. It is unbelievable that the unamplified human voice can be projected, naturally to a vast audience in an arena where in Roman times gladiators would have fought and be killed whilst being cheered, or booed off. The arena is open to the sky, there is a half moon and a few stars, and in the company of thousands of other souls we heard Puccini’s music given voice. It was a triumph of music, movement, dance, color and song.
The following night we saw Il Trovatore. We are having a slow lunch in a cafe next door to the Arena. The props and set from last night, the Emperor’s palace, his audience room, are all outside the Arena walls, just next to us in the cafe. Very surreal, this ordinariness of what last night constituted the illusion of splendor and grandeur, now, merely plastic and tacky.
In opera, love is a drive to action. In Puccini’s Turandot, we find the slave girl (and she is nameless) who sacrifices herself in order to both save her Lord as well as secure him Turandot’s love. This is sacrificial love that accomplishes something grand and ultimate for the other. It is selfless in the extreme. In Il Trovatore, Verdi develops a story of a woman, Leonora, who gives up her life to save her lover, Manricho, from certain death. But, in the end this is to no avail. Her deception of the jealous Duke is found out and Manricho is still killed whilst she dies of self-administered poison. The semiotics of love here are not microscopic behaviors but grand gestures.
Now we are on the way back home. The sunset as seen from our plane was to our west and, was blood red through to yellow and then sand colored before turning to an unblemished sky blue that went all the way to heaven. Below was the dense mass of earth, dark. Where this darkness merged with the multifold forms of clouds, all imaginable shapes rose like dark islands in a sea of red gold.
We’ve had two glorious days of Franco Zefferelli productions, Turandot with a show stopping Emperor’s palace and Il Trovatore with its Cathedral of light and sparkle that drew a tumultuous clap from the audience and the colorful gypsy camp of streamers, flags and inspired dance movements.
The river Adige in Verona is muddy brown. We crossed and re-crossed it at various bridges, cycling and stopping to admire now a tower, there the bend of the river in the sun, and then again, the red, brown, ochre of the houses skirting the river and turning towards the center. Roman, Christian and Renaissance commingling everywhere. The beauty and character of these Italian cities resides in this smooth transition from antiquity to the present. Everywhere you have the most eyebrow arching golden skinned women, smartly dressed and elegant. Somehow all the food hardly does any damage to the exquisite female form.
The spoken Italian word is like lovemaking. Syllables are caressed by the tongue, held for a moment and tasted by the lips, kissed and fondled whilst being lingered over. It’s not that it’s a language for romance and sensuality but that speech is itself an act of adoration of the words themselves. I could listen forever and no matter that I have little or no understanding. One is both enthralled and entranced!
Photos by Jan Oyebode
We were staying at the Custom Hotel, a boutique hotel. It was an ash colored building on Lincoln Boulevard. Our room had the double bed in the center. And there was a light that changed color according to our disposition- red, blue, green or via an interactive program into a color that spoke to our mood. At last a mood-color coded habitat.
On the 8th floor was a gallery that, unfortunately, was closed. Nextdoor was LA fitness. It was on the ground floor of a condominium that boasted a sauna and steam room, a rooftop Italian garden, etc.
Across the road were a traditional diner, an Italian restaurant, a Mexican and a Japanese. The boulevard was as broad as a landing strip, the pedestrian crossings changed in the blink of an eye as if pedestrians were just about tolerated. Well, this was America, after all. The motorcar was king.
We were having drinks at the bar. I was drinking a Chardonnay and Jan a Pinot Grigio. A cool breeze was blowing and the flags at the tops of buildings were flying. A dull haze hung over the city like a pall. This was a smoky pall from the bush fires that had been raging in south California over the past week.
The descent into LA showed a city that was flat and dusty. The earth was between grey and ash. And, there was a way that these cities that are exposed to the glare of the sun seemed somehow bleached and pale. There were trees but they seemed somehow invisible. It was probably the size of the roads, the impossible sprawling infestation of the houses, like ringworm encircling and pushing the vegetation further out into the desert.
The noise of this city was much like the noise of other cities in the New World but not in Europe. It was brash, abrasive, a congealed cooking oil of car exhaust, airplane, and sprinkled with bird noise and human chatter. Music, the blues, some jazz, soul music like fire that licked at the cooking pot to smoke out some fluidity, to liquefy the noisy sediment that coated the air like plaque on unbrushed teeth. There was an electric guitar in the background, music that seemed clawed out of the strings, an ethereal but very modern noise that marked the outdoor bar as American and genuinely so.
Venice beach was only 10 minutes away. The last time I was at Venice beach was at least 15 years before. I had gone to the American Psychiatric Association conference in San Diego, a city that had surprised me. It was the first time that I thought that I could live in the US. San Diego was beautiful and relaxed. The race relations seemed reasonable. You could see black and white walking together down the street, something that was definitely not true for the East Coast in the late 70s and early 80s. And given that my wife is English and my kids are like Obama, of mixed heritage, it seemed plain that living in America was off the cards.
That same year, elsewhere in the USA, I had experienced some of the crudest racism that America can throw at you. In Minneapolis, at the end of a two-day meeting, at the hotel, the staff were passing the luggage to their owners but subtly and without others noticing, a woman refused to assist with mine, I had to carry mine personally. This was a minor matter. I was used to carrying my own load. But it was the being treated differently that mattered. I came fully to understand the murderous instinct in black Americans. I was filled with fury. And I was thankful that I did not live in America and that my children were not being brought up there. The previous year in Washington at the Four Seasons Hotel, whilst waiting for a taxi, I was summoned and peremptorily ordered by a white American to bring his suitcase in: “Boy, bring my bags in”. He was as surprised as I was when I responded “Pardon me” in a non-American accent.
But San Diego was different. It seemed more liberal, more tolerant of difference. I hired a car with 3 others and we drove to LA, stopping at Hollywood, and doing the usual trips to the Chinese theatre, etc. it was a great and, memorable trip.
In LA I should have been thinking of Easy Rawlins, Mouse, Fearless Jones, Jackson Blue, Bonnie Shay. But no, my mind was set on Fernando Pessoa and Lisbon his home town. I should have had in mind Easy Rawlins’ statement
In West Los Angeles, when people looked at their TVs they saw themselves and what they wanted to be: James Arness and Lorne Green, Mary Tyler Moore and Lucille Ball. They had their own jokes and music and interpretations of right and wrong in the world. People in Watts saw the same shows but not their faces, their dreams, and the hard facts of their lives. In Watts, they spoke the same language in different dialects and at separate schools. For darker-skinned citizens employment was synonymous with toil.
But, I was concentrating on Pessoa’s Book of Disquiet. I was not far off the mark. When Easy Rawlins had a drink of Mama Jo’s potions he saw things more clearly, a phenomenon some term depressive realism. Pessoa had this in abundance
My soul today is sad to the very marrow of its bones. Everything hurts me – memory, eyes, arms. It’s like having rheumatism in every part of my being. I remain unmoved by the light autumnal breeze that still bears a trace of unforgotten summer and lends color to the air. Nothing means anything to me. I’m sad, but not with a definite or even an indefinite sadness. My sadness is out there in the street strewn with boxes.
It was this Pessoa that caught my attention. The tone was a sharp contrast to the brazen, unyielding light of LA. Pessoa was all time asking us to be cautious, to look beyond the obvious, to be skeptical of the façade of kindness and generosity, questioning all the time what that kindness hid, what sins lurked beneath the neat rows of housing, and the kiss and hand holding. This brutal confrontation with things as they were was fraught with risk, as Pessoa well knew
It is as if the draw-bridge over the moat around the soul’s castle had been pulled up, leaving us with but one power, that of gazing impotently out at the surrounding lands, never again to set foot there.
The loss by the soul of its capacity to delude itself, the absence in thought of the non-existent stairway up which the soul steadfastly ascends towards the truth.
In LA, Pessoa without saying anything about Hollywood or even ever having been aware of it, had recognized the need for it, the urgency with which make-believe held sway, creating an unreal and unrealistic world, because the real and actual world were bleak and indescribable by comparison. For Pessoa
A marked talent for self-deception is the Statesman’s foremost quality. Only poets and philosophers have a practical vision of the world since only to them is given the gift of having no illusions. To see clearly is to be unable to act.
In LA I needed all of Easy Rawlins’ patience and Pessoa’s dictum
To move is to live, to express oneself is to endure. There is nothing real in life that is not more real for being beautifully described.
Photos by Jan Oyebode