Nightfall In Verona, Memoir

I decided to publish the entire work in blog form.  It has been enjoyed by a number of discerning people.  You can find it here.  xj


From Nightfall in Verona: An American Poet In Italy — begun January 2010, completed May 2010, under submission as of September 2010.

Chapter 6 – Wherein Natural Laws Take Effect

This is the soul of the Italian since the Renaissance. In the sunshine he basks asleep, gathering up a vintage into his veins which in the night-time he will distil into ecstatic sensual delight, the intense, white-cold ecstasy of darkness and moonlight, the raucous, cat-like, destructive enjoyment, the senses conscious and crying out in their consciousness in the pangs of the enjoyment, which has consumed the southern nation, perhaps all the Latin races, since the Renaissance..”.

from Twilight in Italy, D.H. Lawrence

We woke in the campground on the outskirts of Pisa to a soft golden light breaking over clustered cypress trees. At the height of summer tourists from every corner of Europe and stateside crowded the campground. There was a multilingual river of language like the buzzing of honey bees. There was a line to the low-to-the-ground partitioned toilets, and to the shower.

Rested, we patiently stood with our caches of shampoo and soap, running in to duck under freezing water; there was a tarnished button you pressed and water jutted out in a thin stream. As it was timed water with others waiting, we had to act fast, soaping upward from our ankles and twisting, turning, bending in every direction to rinse.

Then we stepped out into a curtained area and toweled off fast, pulling on our clothes.

We sat in a tangle of trees and sunlight, combing out our hair. We made a small pot of coffee on our campstove, and ate fruit, bread and cheese we had picked up and kept in our cooler on the way through Pisa.

Caroline got out our map.

“It’s about a day’s drive to Verona,” she said. “We should be there by dusk.”

“I’ll drive for awhile,” I said, rinsing down a piece of bread with the coffee.

We were going to Verona on our way to Rome, we thought. Our guidebooks touted the Arena di Verona and it was opera season. There were sidewalk cafes and museums, a conservatory, and a central piazza where there was a sculpture of Dante. This was a poet’s city.

Again, I longed to rent, just for one night, a little pensione, a little room, in one of the time-faded villas that seemed so exquisite; they reminded me of the pueblos where I had played as a little girl and imagined having my own clean and spare room, looking out over the desert, solitude and private space, yet with others close by.

I had begun to fall in love with the music of the Italian streets and the community of people walking arm in arm at all hours of the day. I longed to somehow penetrate Italian culture, merge with it, abandoning my worn identity as someone in pain, a flower torn asunder in a break up.

In this state of mind I gratefully took the wheel of the VW bus I now regarded as trustworthy. It had gotten us through the blizzard high in the Tyrol. It had become our home on wheels.

I lost track of the hours, measuring time by the hues of the sky I could see as we flew along the Autostrada. On the flat I pushed our bus to the limit. Still, we were passed by Alfa Romeos and Ferraris shooting past like silverfish bugs, barely catching glimpses of someone in sunglasses hunched over the steering wheel.

As the sun rose we crested a hill, and pulled over. All of northern Italy was spread before us as if a curtain had lifted over a grand opera’s opening act.

Small towns lay in the center of fields and olive groves spread out around them. Rows of ancient villas stood clustered together, their stucco sun-bleached shades of pink and beige. I wondered if hallways connected families to each other, if generations of Italians lived together this way– cloisters of families, people at every stage of life.

Perhaps at that very moment, two lovers were embracing in the shadows of one of the rooms, or someone was breaking eggs into flour in a rustic kitchen.

I caught a glimpse of a woman in long black dress, wearing a bright red scarf, taking a bucket to a pump. I opened and closed my eyes to try to focus, to take in, as if I were taking a snapshot and storing it in my mind. I hungered to remember every detail.

We pulled off the Autostrada to eat lunch and sip wine. We breathed a calmer air that didn’t take our breath away like the Tyrolean ether. Julia photographed the towns in the distance. Caroline journaled. I looked down at the ribboned highway disappearing into a glittering, unexplored mist, trying to find a strand of imagery with which to begin a poem.

I was silenced by the beauty of antiquity, a holy quiet, a sense of prescience overwhelming me, as if something as rarified as an aria, yet with the purity and simplicity of the village life so beautifully chronicled by writers that had come before me, were about to unfold.

We stopped briefly in Rapallo to buy vegetables and bread. Then we sped along again, under low clouds that cast shadows over the road.

Off in the distance, late in the afternoon, I could see the spires of a cathedral; the traffic picked up.

“Il piu bel citta nel mondo” lay ahead.

Julia at the wheel now, we exited the Autostrada and the road curved past small farms and olive groves, terraced up the hillsides on either side. We descended into a valley, and there, bathed in late daylight, was Verona– a radiating jewel of antiquity, cut into cypress-covered hills.

Julia expertly drove along the Pontevecchio, the historic bridge into Verona, until we were at the center of the city, on its roundabout. Now there was teeming life all around us.

I couldn’t help myself.

“Where are we going to stop?”

“I don’t know. I’m going to drive around another time, to see if I can find a way to get across town. Watch for signs for parking.”

It was no use; we drove around and around, police blowing their whistles at us to allow swifter local traffic to pass.

Then, abruptly, we veered off the road into the parking lot of what appeared to be a monastery– an austere building built against a cathedral which faced away from us; between the church and a row of shops I could see a teeming piazza.

Julia pulled in between two Fiats and braked to a hard stop.

“We can’t park here. They’ll tow us,” I said.

I went to the clothesline where my panties hung and took them down and pulled the curtain.

“Really, we shouldn’t. What does the map say about a campground.”

“Nothing,” Caroline said. “We’ll have to go to the piazza and relax, and find someone to ask. “Here.”

She handed me the Berlitz Guide.

“We mustn’t stay here,” I said again. “It’s not fair. What if all of the other tourists came and parked here?”

At that moment two men in long robes and skull caps came out of the monastery, stopping short when they saw our bus. They looked at us, one shaking his finger. They walked away, around the corner.

“See. They don’t care. They’ve seen it all, even if they are monks. Look, we’re just going to park here for a few hours while we get our bearings. Come on.” Caroline tucked lire into the pocket of her jeans.

We got out, locking up the bus. We walked around the corner of the cathedral into the square.

Now it was nearly dusk. We found ourselves standing on an immense piazza boundaried by storefronts and cafes. Caroline took our hands.

“Let’s go over there.” She had seen a picturesque spot: a small cafe out of the way, with white wrought iron tables and chairs outside, under striped umbrellas that each read “Cinzano”.

We sat down. A waiter appeared in a snowy shirt with carefully buttoned cuffs, slicked back dark hair.

My friends looked at me; this was my true debut.

“Ah, grazie.”

He stood patiently.

I looked at them. “The usual?”

“Yes. Si.”

“Prego, biquieri di vino bianco,” I said, in my best Italian.

He smiled, and bowed. “Bene.”

I was relieved; I had again made myself understood.

He came back with a white porcelain pitcher brimming with cold white wine and three long-stemmed glasses. He filled each of our glasses.

“Cin-cin,” he said, bowing away.

“Cin-cin,” I mused.

“Cin-cin, then, I said. We lifted our glasses. Then it made sense: Cinzano Vermouth, written on the wine card, must be the signature drink in Italy.

“To us,” I exclaimed, refilling our glasses.

“To life, to art,” Caroline laughed, lifting hers.

Julia reached for my language manual.

“We better figure out where we’re going before we have any more wine.” Her cheeks were rosy in the fading light.

Suddenly, someone began to sing “Volare”, from another cafe. His voice carried over the square.

Pigeons wheeled around us. We were already giddy.

“Give me that,” I said, grabbing the guidebook, furtively looking around to see whom I might approach to ask about a campground.

The tables around us had filled up. I listened for the sound of English, but all I heard was a river of Italian, barely audible in moments as “Volare” blared across the air.

I turned around to see who was seated behind us.

Three young men were stretched out in their chairs, lounging at their table, drinking wine. When I looked at them, they each raised their glasses.

“Cin cin.”

“Cin cin. Seguia. Salud.” I was a bit tipsy.

I turned back around and thumbed through the Berlitz. I found again the phrase “Dov’ e… for “Where is…”. I could not find an Italian word or idiom for campground anywhere.

I turned again, working up my nerve.

“Dov… dov e’ camping, I asked, smiling.

They laughed. Then they looked at each other and me, and over at Caroline and Julia.

One of the men was older than the others; he seemed our age. He had dark, close-cropped curly hair and a mustache and sideburns. His shirt was unbuttoned part way, and a crucifix gleamed from his chest, nestled in dark profuse hair.

The other two seemed to be about seventeen. One of these leaned eagerly toward me.

“I speak Anglish,” he said, smiling. “I study language in la scuola.”

“Va bene,” I said, “Bravo. Dov e’ camping.”

Now we all laughed. They stood up without further ado and turned their chairs around, joining us.

“Buona sera, regazzi,” one of the two younger ones said. “Mi chiamato Fortunato…Lucky”.

I quickly paged through the Berlitz.

He said, ‘Good evening, ladies, my name is Lucky,’ “I said to Caroline and Julia.

The man our age sat down next to me. “Guiseppe,” he said, smiling at us, pointing to himself.

“I am Francesco, Franco,” our  self-appointed interpreter said.

Lucky stood up and gave a brief whistle, startling us. “Vino ancor,” he called across the tables.

“Si,”came the waiter’s faint voice.

“Wow,” I said. “You just stand up and call for more wine.”

“Only man do this,” Franco said, turning to say something to his friends.

“Everyone go camping?”

Uh-oh. “No.” I said. “We have a bus.”

He looked puzzled.

“Ah. Autobus. Autobus. Ah.”

They looked impressed. “Where is autobus?”

I pointed in the direction of the cathedral.

“Monastery,” I said. “Church. We parked there until we find a campground.”

“Ah. You park for Church?” He looked incredulous.” He translated for his friends. They laughed again, toasting us, ordering more wine, this time ruby red Valpolicella, Verona’s signature wine; Caroline had touted the virtues of this wine, with its one-glass suffusion of recklessness.

We huddled together as a few raindrops spattered down on our umbrella. Should we excuse ourselves now, or stay. I looked at my friends, who continued to toast nearly everything, ever more voluble and laughing.

3 thoughts on “Nightfall In Verona, Memoir”

  1. Fun excerpt. I love meeting other intrepid women travelers and hearing or reading their tales. I’m definitely familiar with bathing fast under a stingy, timed, cold stream of water, and could easily picture your gyrations, as I’ve been through them. Nice cliffhanger: I can’t help wondering what happened to the bus you parked at the monastery, and what happened next with the three young Italian men. What daring young women!

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