I’d like to introduce you to my lover. He’s foreign. His language is thick and rich. I wade through his sweet swamp of words, feeling them stick to my skin like chocolate mud. My lover feeds me cheese and pasta and wine. I have an insatiable appetite when I’m with him, my hunger is bottomless. My lover shows me how beauty is in everything. She surprises me with cracked facades and dark alleyways – unconventionally stunning visions. She teaches me how to appreciate what would ordinarily go unnoticed.
My lover’s name is Italy.
We were together for a week this Spring. A week that deliciously dawdled, a week where time slowed to a lazy, smell-the-roses pace. Although, it’s not roses one smells in Italy, it’s the honey suckle. The scent is alive and clings to the edges of the breeze. A smell as intricate and pretty as lace – patterned and complex. Caprifoglio. The Italian translation. Far more beautiful a word to say than honey suckle. The tongue makes indecent movements as the letters prance across it. You’re saying it out loud now, aren’t you? Caprifoglio.
The languorous pace began in the morning, when Italians stop, motionless, to drink a coffee. A ritual to be relished. Cafes are devoid of to-go cups. There’s no dashing away with a tightly clasped cappuccino, drinking on the run, go, go, go. One must sip and savour a beverage. Enjoy it. Taste every flavour. Watch the world pass by. That is Italy. Enjoyment in the moment. Even the man I witnessed at 9:30am nonchalantly sipping from a glass of red wine, newspaper spread before him on the counter, seemed a perfectly respectable scenario.
Our port of entry was Venice – a detour on the way to a family wedding in England. (My mum and I are establishing a routine of pre-wedding trips to Italy. Three years ago, it was Rome and the Amalfi Coast before a marriage in Positano. I have great hopes this custom will continue. Yes, we are available for your European wedding.)
We arrived to the island from airport by boat – a spectacular introduction to a city still locked in the past.
I wasn’t particularly prepared for Venice. I knew it was this wondrous place entombed and idolized in books and film, but nothing I read or watched fully encompassed the magic. The maze of narrow lanes and crumbling bridges and sprawling piazzas led me round and round the floating city, making it appear both intimate and grand at once. Every path revealed a new treasure. Even when walking the same steps, my eyes found something different to land on – artful graffiti, seaweed-encased steps, a line of laundry.
There is always a sense that someone is watching. Someone who is not really there. A mist of all those someones who have ever walked the pavement. They’re still lingering there – nudging you along, pushing you down passages, encouraging you to get lost. Much of the city has halted in time. So it’s not a stretch to imagine Casanova fleeing from an affair. Or Hemingway hulking away from Harry’s Bar or Gritti Palace. I visited each establishment. Yet felt the opulence of Gritti more welcoming than the plain pretension of Harry’s – plus, the Palace had a superior Bellini and a gold typewriter and this society called the Drop Dead Letter Club. It was a clear winner.
I have an unhealthy romance with that long ago era when literary icons took up residency in Europe. Fitzgerald, Hemingway, Miller – I inhale their sentences like an anteater does six-legged creatures. More so than any contemporary writer. Their old-fashioned prose seems so relevant. The romance of it ties my hair in knots. The words find their way into all the arteries leading to my heart. The authors’ own writerly personalities appear to be contrived characters, leaping from the pages of real life. And so I have a habit of timidly visiting those places they have been, hoping to steal a tidbit of talent, of thoughts, of stories. I sat there, at the bars, pen in fist, wiating to stream a spirit through the ink.
It rained as I walked home that night, the midnight moon not physically visible through the clouds, but there in its weighted presence. Venice felt most alive in the rain. And at night. Mystical. The water from the sky awakened the past, the night dulled the present day. And, most enchanting, when the rain came, the tourists fled.
Verona was next. Not an island, but a town, where vehicles and pedestrians shared the space. The bee buzz of scooters was a motorized opera. A lullaby that coaxed me into siesta. It was another destination heaving with tourists – they were there vying to spy Juliet’s balcony, a throne that (contrary to their beliefs) never really held the fictional character in its concrete palm.
But, like anywhere, there are always pockets where tourists don’t tread. I am drawn to those spots. My radar for those quiet, local zones is honed. I walked along the marble, blushing with salmon pink, my neck angled up, where there are buildings with ancient frescos still kissing the walls. Buildings that people actually live in. Buildings that have managed to retain their historic glory.
Those were my mornings. Staring skyward. At the shutters that act as eyelids to a home, at the ornate balconies, at the estate on the hill. My afternoons were trained to where my feet touched the pavement. Wine with lunch was obligatory – it was vacation, after all. A misstep on the cobblestones was more likely with red or white grapes in my blood.
We left Italy with an extra chamber in our hearts dedicated to that soulful country. And a pinky swear to return.
After Italy, my once love, London, felt like a stranger. For the first time, I was disconnected from the city. We are on a break. No telling how long the estrangement will last. I blame Italy, who was still winding her affections in a vine around my neck, Caprifoglio intoxicating my senses.
These trips are a reminder of my need to travel. The kind of need associated with breathing. I require a steady stream, no gulping, slow and deep. A regular heartbeat of other places, different scenes, new people.
In the process, I always discover another part of myself.