We sat on metal chairs, hung from a wire, ascending steadily into a cloud of mystic white. A literal cloud, as we were, at that point, about 1,800 feet above the town of Anacapri, on the Pearl of the Mediterranean. A sixty-five degree day had dropped to forty. Behind me, Mike Lillis spouted ejaculations, which seemed a bit premature, as we had yet to reach the summit. Ahead, Shannon Tierney kicked her feet in the air like a girl of eleven or twelve.
And then we stepped off into the ice-white thick of it. We weren’t on top of the world; but the rest of the world – Canisius, Buffalo, the United States, the rest of the Italian Peninsula – had fallen away just as easily as the island below us had disappeared in the clouds.
This seemed to be a recurring experience on the Italy Trip. Again and again, my definition of beauty was challenged and changed – not imposed over some old notion, as a palimpsest, but handed to me complete, like a new world, obliterating all that was.
I found it there, on top of Capri, in the belly of a cloud.
I found it again, on the side of the mountain, overlooking an expanse of water with as many shades and facets as a jewel, Queen Marie’s sapphire replicating itself ad infinitum and stretching off unto the pale blue horizon.
I found it walking the slanted streets of Assisi, every time I reached a gap or a plateau where the houses fell away and the green expanse of Umbria, flecked with brown clusters of buildings, lay spread out like a poem, my own Tintern Abbey, to which I knew I would return, in memory, to sip and take inspiration from again and again.
I found it in the Sistine Chapel, where, with a rather un-Christian impulse, I wished to wipe away all the chattering bodies with their cameras and their earbuds and to stretch out on the floor, alone, and look up.
I found it in Florence, at night, in the rain.
And for this, I thank the anonymous donor who made our trip possible.
. . .
I didn’t sign up for the Italy Trip expecting to spend it in rapture, staring gape-mouthed at this painting or that sunset. We intended to learn something, to get a hold of “Italian culture,” whatever that meant. I remember when Dr. Kathryn Williams, our intrepid elder and spiritual Bedouin-chief, asked us what we hoped to see and do in Italy.
“I want to shop,” said someone.
“I want to eat,” said everyone.
Needless to say, we held rather conventional views.
That said, we were a group of Honors students hailing from different majors, different classes, and even different parts of the U.S. We shopped. We ate. But, more importantly, we explored.
My quest for the unconventional actually began with a cliche. We all came to Italy with certain purchases or souvenirs in mind, many of them cliches: Florentine leather, blessed rosaries from the Vatican. Well, I wanted a gondolier shirt.
A tourist in Venice can, for 10 or 20 euro, purchase a blue-and-white striped shirt, embroidered with the word “Venezia,” in cheery golden letters, at any number of kiosks along the waterfront, or in the Piazza San Marco. I thought this was BS. All the gondoliers wore the same shirts – high quality stuff, I might add – and they had to shop somewhere.
I hailed a gondolier.
“Seventy-five euro,” he said, gesturing to his craft.
“Dammnit, man, I just want your shirt. Where can I find one?”
He looked puzzled for a moment; then a knowing smile flickered in his eyes.
“Ah,” he said, “the shirt.”
Well. Without getting too hopeful, I assumed that we were on the same page. He proceeded to give me directions, which consisted of a few rights, a smattering of lefts, and a trip down a dank and narrow alley. I set off at once.
Unsurprisingly, the alley took me nowhere fast. I wound up facing one of the innumerable canals criss-crossing that streetless city, with no stripe-shirt-selling shops in sight. Luckily another gondolier was docked down the canal.
“Excuse me,” I said. “Your shirt, where can I find one like it?”
“Eh?” he said. Completely puzzled.
“Your shirt,” I said. No reaction. I wondered: was I allowed to touch Italians? Would I find myself in some dingy INTERPOL cell, facing sexual harassment charges? My mother’s side of the family is Italian – we’re pretty affectionate. And I vaguely recalled something about European cheek-kissing. I decided I’d risk it, and I pinched the fabric on his arm.
“Your shirt,” I said, “The real deal. You guys all wear the same thing. I want one.”
Again, that knowing smile. I hoped he didn’t think I was hitting on him.
“Eh,” he said, “follow this to the Rialto. It’s on the other side, a shop.”
“Thanks, brother,” I said. And I set off once again.
I had to ask about four more gondoliers before I got any answers that made sense. The common thread was the Rialto, but I kept mistaking minor bridges for this “Rialto,” having no inkling of the scope, the bustling grandness, of the real thing.
Worse still, Mike Lillis kept having sudden flashes of faith in himself. “It’s this way!” he would shout, and then we would find ourselves at someone’s back door, or in a deserted square, ringed with barbed wire.
Eventually, though, we stumbled upon the Rialto. “Oh wow,” said Shannon. That about summed it up – the Rialto was massive. In the canal, gondoliers poled with cool authority, deft navigators suddenly of narrow straits suddenly in open space, with all the water in the world. The sun was setting. We paused for a time, and looked at all the colors. Then, after asking a confused asian man “What news?” we set off on an impulse, confident that, though we didn’t know what we were looking for, we were in the right area.
On the far side of the Rialto, tucked in a sort of grotto, in a spot unfrequented by tourists, I found the shop. There were a few Italians. They smiled at me, patronizing but not unfriendly. I had found my long-sought gondolier shirt – a piece of the real Italia.
I’m not sure if all Honors students have a nose for dive bars, but it wasn’t long before Jeanette Baker and I found ourselves facing an intoxicated Rasputin look-alike and downing flaming saucers of absinthe not a stone’s throw from St. Francis’ Basilica. While I didn’t find Oscar Wilde’s tulips, or his truth, I did find a cat, and chased it.
The wily cat disappeared, of course, and left me alone on the slanting coble street, and when I looked up, I saw the Basilica, lit in white-gold and standing sharp and massive against the blackness of the midnight Umbrian countryside. It was incredible. The scene that had stopped and stunned me in the afternoon sun, with its greens and blues and stone-whites, dropped my jaw again in this new light and absence of light.
Culture is a living thing. It exists in the gutters, in the coffee shops, and in the lines on old men’s faces. We went to Italy to study frescoes and churches and statues, certainly – and while this is large part of Italian culture, it is also history. The real, vital, living culture – of which these painted ceilings make up only a part – was not written on our itineraries. No local tour guide could point it out. We did stumble upon it, though, in each city, whenever we got lost.
Other times, we sought it out deliberately, chased it down and wrestled it to the ground – as I had done with my gondolier shirt in Venice. This was also, more or less, my experience with the Nigerian purse-buskers in Rome.
For those of you who haven’t been propositioned by a tall Nigerian man holding eighteen purses in his arms, or by a shifty-looking Turk with a whistle in his mouth
and a rose in an outstretched hand, go to Rome. It’s quite the experience. Some travelers are afraid. After all, these men can be fairly aggressive. They don’t leave you alone, they’re full of tricks and unsettling smiles, and you get the sense that even standing too close to them might land you in some kind of trouble. Not everyone runs away, though. Some get aggressive, and tell these street-sellers where they can shove their roses. Particularly native Italians, when mistaken for tourists. Or Natalia Kuklich. That girl is fearless.
I remember one point, at the Spanish Steps, when we decided to have some fun with one of the rose-peddlers. The fellows have a trick. They’ll approach with a rose, get a woman in the group to take it, and then demand money, refusing to take the rose back.
“Five euro” they’ll say, smiling idiotically.
“What?” the unsuspecting woman will say.
“Flower, pretty lady,” they’ll say.
“I . . . I don’t want . . .” the woman will say.
At this point the male will either get aggressive – “Hey pal, she doesn’t want a rose” – or become completely overwhelmed by the situation, by the language barrier, and begin to turn ineffectually, like a top, on his own axis.
We were having none of this.
“Flower for the ladies?” this poor, unsuspecting Turk told us.
“No,” said Natalia, “I don’t want your flower.” And then she began to spit Ukrainian fire at the man; and I swear his rose started wilting on the spot.
I jumped into the fray with what little German I remembered from a previous trip abroad – amounting to little more than two phrases, “Keep it dry,” and “Beware the Vagina Police,” which I repeated over and over, in a loud voice.
The man ran away, and no one tried to sell us anything again.
Fresh off this victory, though, I started wondering where these men got their Gucci and prada purses – how many were fake, how many were stolen; if fake, who made them, and if stolen, who stole them? So I began to ask every criminal I met.
“Where do you get your purses?” I would say.
“Good price,” they would say, and smile uneasily.
“No, I mean where do you get them.”
At this, they would clam up. One man said, “You don’t want to buy? Ok. We done.” And he clapped his hands, packed up, and left. The buskers who would follow you for blocks, chirping, who wouldn’t leave you alone, we literally fleeing from me, as if from a vision of death.
After a while I stopped playing softball.
“Who do you work for,” I’d say, before anything.
One trio of Middle Easterners began to look very nervous, and I kept pushing. The sun had almost finished setting, and the lights had come on, painting the street yellow and pale blue. There were ample shadows into which they might slip, and spirit away, should I push further. And then a thin-faced Nigerian man, lounging on the steps behind them, spoke up.
“What does the boy want?” he said.
The standing men parted like dry brush.
“Where do you get this stuff?” I asked, expecting more of the same. The man smiled, though. He nodded slowly, and I saw that he was different; I entertained the thought, even, that he was higher up the chain of command, if such a chain existed.
“A boat comes into Napoli,” he said. “Gucci, Prada. We get them there, bring them here.”
I felt at once exhilarated and rather silly.
“Alright man, cool . . . thanks.”
He nodded. I didn’t know where to take the conversation from there. We were hungry, and someone noticed that Mike had gotten himself separated from the group – again. So we left. The man hadn’t answered all of my questions, but I felt nonetheless that I had come a little bit closer to that abstraction I sought from the beginning – the real, concrete, Italian culture.
And then I had the best lobster of my life.
So it goes.