Italian Pleasures

By MARK MITCHELL DAVID LEAVITT

CHRONICLE BOOKS

Copyright © 1996 David Leavitt and Mark Mitchell..All rights reserved.
ISBN: 0-8118-1227-8



Chapter One


ARRIVAL

The traveler arrives late at the station. Trainstrikes, delays: no one ever gets to Italy ontime.

"I'm here."

"Great. Where is here?"

"At the station, actually. In--. Or rather,below--, since at the moment the town ishovering over me like a vision of heaven in a paintingof purgatory--"

"Spare me the description, I'll be there in tenminutes."

His friend, the resident, hangs up, the travelerthinks, with surprising ferocity, no doubt fatiguedby such tourist poetry. He takes off his raincoat. He'sstanding on an empty platform in a tiny station inthe middle of a plain. Above him, on its hill,--looms and shimmers. Pale green meadows leap togreet it. The air has a yellowish cast, as if the sun hasmelted and been absorbed into the fabric of the sky.

In the bar, an indolent red-haired girl arrangescoconut slices on a three-tiered revolving tray: listlessly,listlessly trickles of water pour from a spoutat its tip, then spill over the staggered tiers. In everybar in every station in Italy there is such a tray, andin every one of them coconut slices are what itdisplays, though the traveler, in all his journeys tothat country, has never seen a single person actuallybuy one.

Italy, he thinks. Somewhere else. And waits, injet-lagged somnolence, to be fetched.--D.L.

HANGING LIKE DAYS

A friend of ours grew up in the Isle ofCapri trailer park in South Carolina, andthough the name had nothing to do with the magnificentisland in the Bay of Naples it had everythingto do with the desire almost all people have to livein a place that acknowledges the existence of thebeautiful. And what a beautiful place is Capri. Toread in a guidebook that eight hundred kinds offlowers grow here is no substitute, no preparation,for seeing eight hundred kinds of flowers: gardenscomposed only of rose and cactus, and fumarolesof bougainvillea. A restaurant near the Arco Naturaleserves grilled buffalo-milk mozzarella on a whiteplate covered with leaves from a lemon tree, the wayto the Villa Fersen is lined with poppies and nasturtium,and in the heat of summer days lavenderand rosemary perfume the steep walk down to thesea near the three Faraglioni. Finally, there is theMediterranean; cold and profound and glittering--oneshade of which colors the acute eyes of theCapriotes.

Capri seems like many other places--its narrowwalks remind me of Venice, the style of architectureof Palm Beach, the sheer cliffs of the Monte Solaro ofYosemite, the older men and their kept boys of FireIsland, the winding Via Krupp of Lombard Street inSan Francisco, the small bakeries of Salzburg--butwhat makes it unique and whole is color. Mostthings in human life are notable for their physicalcolors (holidays, uniforms, ceremonies) and for eachof these I can think of--the red and green ofChristmas and the orange of Halloween, the blueand yellow of Cub Scout uniforms, the white ofweddings--Capri has its equivalent: red and greenare the colors of hibiscus blossoms and foliage andorange that of Lantana; blue and yellow those of theGrotta Azzurra and clematis; white that of honeysuckleflowers.

All this is to say that Capri reminds the visitor,through color, of all he has ever known and all hewill ever know. After coming here, can fuschia everbe anything other than those petals that seem madeof brittle Japanese paper and that hang like days onthe wall of the little square in the center of theisland?--M.M.

PETALS

Each June the village of Spello, just around thehill from Assisi, celebrates its annual infiorate,or dried flower festival. Here is what happens: thenight before the infiorate the men and women of thetown, having divided into groups, begin tracingchalk outlines (planned months in advance) on thepavement of the piazza and surrounding streets.Meanwhile children and old widows in black sit onthe sidelines in wooden chairs, separating by colordried and fresh petals: fiori del melograno (pomegranateflowers), garofolini (sweet william), ginestrella(greenweed), tagete (marigold), cedar of Lebanon,rose, fiordaliso (cornflower). Boxes and boxes of color,deep golds like curry powder, royal blues, hot pepperreds, that as dusk approaches the Spellini begin,very carefully, to scatter inside the traced outlines.(The color scheme, like everything else, has beenlong foretold.) Until dawn Spello is an enormouscoloring book in which nature provides the crayons.(Strict rules prohibit dyeing or in any other way artificiallyenhancing the petals.) Then, around sevenin the morning, the infiorate are finished.

The most elaborate infiorata features actualnewspaper headlines about the war in Bosnia, aslaughtered lamb, and, in white and blue, some barsfrom Beethoven's Ode to Joy. Every detail is flawlesslyexecuted, so much so that from a distance you'dswear the picture was drawn with chalk. Anotherinfiorata recounts the plight of the American Indians.A third brings together the emblems of the principleworld religions: Buddha, the Koran, a Torah, anda Bible. None of the petals are glued down; instead,to keep them from blowing away, the tired-lookingSpellini must pace all day alongside their infiorate,dampening them with water.

In the afternoon prizes are awarded; the infiorateare faithfully photographed. Finally at duskeveryone goes home, relinquishing their labors ofa year, accepting the inevitable demolition that thewind, the streetcleaners, the tromping feet oftourists will insure.

Sometimes the Spellini, in their zeal to achieve,each year new levels of technical excellence, forgetthat artistry is needed to bring craftsmanship alive.It is a little bit sad (especially this close to Assisi,where Giotto painted) to see such immense masteryas they have achieved resulting only in sermonizingand sentimentality. Then in a corner I encounterthree little girls who have made of their petals thesimplest image of all: flowers (why not?) accompaniedby a white cross. These little girls in red, yellow,and green jumpsuits kneel next to their work,faces full of--no, not pride; instead a kind of oddembarrassment, stubbornly proprietary withoutbeing in the least gloating; what I can only call thetrue artist's nervous devotion, wincingly consciousof flaw, yet nonetheless unwilling to abandon a workthat, for all its inadequacy, is still a child, illuminatesthe faces of these little girls.--D.L.

D.L.--It is the overabundance, the excess, of Italy thatamazes the foreign visitor. D. H. Lawrence recorded theamazement of his wife Frieda, the "queen bee" (or q-b) ofSea and Sardinia, upon visiting a Cagliari vegetable market.

We went down to the little street-but sawmore baskets emerging from a broad flight of stonestairs, enclosed. So up we went-and found ourselvesin the vegetable market. Here the q-b washappier still. Peasant women, sometimes barefoot,sat in their tight little bodices and voluminous,coloured skirts behind the piles of vegetables, andnever have I seen a lovelier show. The intense deepgreen of spinach seemed to predominate, and out ofthat came the monuments of curd-white and blackpurplecauliflowers: but marvellous cauliflowers, likea flower show, the purple ones intense as greatbunches of violets. From this green, white, and purplemassing struck out the vivid rose-scarlet and bluecrimson of radishes, large radishes like little turnipsin piles. Thin the long, slim, gray-purple buds ofartichokes, and dangling clusters of dates, and pilesof sugar-dusty white figs and sombre-looking blackfigs, and bright burnt figs: basketfuls and basketfulsof figs. A few baskets of almonds, and many hugewalnuts. Basket-pans of native raisins. Scarlet pepperslike trumpets: magnificent fennels, so white andbig and succulent: baskets of new potatoes: scalykohlrabi: wild asparagus in bunches, yellow-buddingsparacelli: big, clean-fleshed carrots: feathery saladswith white hearts: long, brown-purple onions andthen, of course pyramids of big oranges, pyramidsof pale apples, and baskets of brilliant shiny mandarini,the little tangerine oranges with their greenblackleaves. The green and vivid-coloured world offruit-gleams I have never seen in such splendour asunder the market roof at Cagliari: so raw and gorgeous.And all quite cheap, the one remainingcheapness, except potatoes. Potatoes of any sort are1.40 or 1.50 the kilo.

"Oh!" cried the q-b, "if I don't live at Cagliariand come and do my shopping here, I shall die withone of my wishes unfulfilled "

D. H. Lawrence, Sea and Sardinia (1921)

"CENA"

The first time I came to Italy alone, I lackedthe knack for meeting strangers. Once inBologna, out of desperation, I tried to have a chatwith the stout padrona of my pension, who happenedto own a little Pekingese dog. Although I couldspeak only two sentences in Italian--"per favore,parla inglese?" and "per favore, parla francese?"--Ithought to myself, the word for dog in French ischien; and since Italian words are basically Frenchwords with an "a" on the end, I pointed to the animaland said, "cena?" at which point the woman'seyes bulged in horror as she grabbed the beast protectivelyto her breast.

As I learned later, cena means dinner.

This was by no means the last of the mistakesI made in Italian; in fact, ten years later, when I'dactually studied and begun to learn the language, Istarted making even more. Once in Sestri Levante,for instance, my friend Giovanna and her verycorrect Milanese parents and I were talking aboutthe various resort towns near Genova, one of whichis called Chiavari. "Ti piace Chiavari?" I asked Giovanna'smother, who went white. Later, Giovannaexplained to me that by mispronouncing "Chiavari"as "chiavare," I had asked her mother if she likedto fuck.

Mistakes go in the other direction, too. Acharming example of awkward translation is theEnglish menu we were handed at one of those placesone goes to once. In this case the imaginative author,knowing that primi piatti means "first courses" andsecond) piatti "second courses," sensibly renderedantipasti as "course d'oeuvres."

Finally this: Italians (like Spaniards) have greatdifficulty hearing the difference between certainEnglish words: "chip" and "cheap" sound almostidentical to their ears; so, too, "pip" and "peep," or"dip" and "deep." Thus you can imagine the surpriseof an Italian friend when he went to an Americansupermarket and found a toilet paper roll that proclaimed"1000 SHEETS."

"America is a wonderful country," he said.