The Invisible City

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Just below the surface of consciousness I am hanging in suspension, occasional muffled sounds and flashes of dappled light reaching me. I can hear people’s voices – a crowd, all talking. There’s a cry of a vendor in a three-bar song, distant laughter, a child’s fluting call. It is the sound of a street full of people, all going about their business, and there’s something timeless in it – we could be anywhere, at any period in history. I do not recognise the language, but there’s a rhythm to it, vaguely discernible above the babble. There comes the rattle of shutters, somebody whistling, a softly muted glassy chime – some instrument, perhaps – and the patter of quickly running feet. I could swim upwards towards it, or drift down again into unconsciousness. Caught somewhere in between I become aware of the clamour going on in my own inner world – an endless cycle of conversations, sounds, people and imagery: the faces of strangers, so familiar somehow and yet unknown to me as individuals – and simultaneously I can hear the world outside. Treading water, suspended, slowly I begin to float upwards, detaching from one world and heading towards another, until I break through the surface, opening my eyes.

On the wall before me is an enormous picture – a drawing, an ancient map. In each corner are the heads of four gods emerging from the clouds, each one captured in the action of blowing: Septentrio, god of the north wind, bringer of winter, is wild-haired and angry looking, a chilling blast emanating from his mouth which scuds the waters into a malevolent chop. To the west Favonious is a youthful god, half-smiling as he ushers in spring and the light breezes of summer, lips pursed as if to bestow a kiss. Auster, from the south, is forceful – head back and cushioned by waves he brings the gales of autumn. And Subsolanus, looking on benevolently to the east, fans his breath softly across the map. Four lesser ‘venti’, or wind gods, occupy the north-east, south-east, north-west and south-west winds respectively, as back-up. The distant mainland towers with boiling cumulus clouds… or are they mountains? Land merges with sky, city with water.

The map across which these gods waft their zephyrous airs was created by Jacopo de Barbari in the year 1500. It is of an ancient fantasy city set upon a shallow littoral, ringed about with smaller islands, guarded by a forest of masts and spars belonging to sailing ships that lie at anchor festooned with rigging. It is bisected by the sinous twist of a grand waterway through its heart, along which progresses a fleet of smaller vessels. The houses are densely packed together in crooked streets overlooking canals, a hump-backed bridge joining the two halves, domes and spires of dozens of churches punctuating the skyline. In the foreground a triton straddles a gigantic fish, a sea monster, having just speared it. And right in the centre of the map is a large piazza, surmounted by an enormous clocktower, measuring out the pace of the inhabitants’ lives in a timescale of centuries. But this is no fantasy city, no dream-island of the imagination. This is Venice.

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It is a floating city, blurred at the edges with liquefaction, the wash of watercolours fading as the palette runs together. A mackerel sky with a sheen of bluish-silver fish scales, houses picked out in shades of sea-pink and lemon. The green sea mutters to itself, jostling its waves together, becoming calmer at the edges as it turns over, softly respiring. The suck and gurgle of water heavy with sediment around the dark pontoons causes the prows of gondolas, etched like hatchets in black and gold, to nod in mute agreement, tossing their heads like horses. The babble and ripple of wavelets, lapping the edge of an ancient stairway, sipping at beige-grey stones which descend in darkening shades of green, stepping carefully downwards into the depths as currents swirl across them. A sparkling, iridescent, Canaletto morning marked by the low growl of marine diesels as small white craft nose into the jetties, then raise their voices in a snarl as they bound away across the waves like excitable dogs.

Down the zig-zagging cobbled alleys in the dark, through small windswept piazzas – tiny squares with shuttered houses, following the quick clip of heels from two girls ahead of us. As we turn a corner they come briefly into sight before disappearing round the next one. Lost in the Venetian labyrinth. Pools of light from streetlamps overhead fading into the night, glowing orbs with halos of golden mist that seem to visibly fizz in the air. The distant sound of a violin – a lone busker in a square. Echoing laughter and the rattle of shutters descending. Fallen leaves chase each other round in circles, then are suddenly swept away by the wind – a cool hand placed upon a brow, smoothing worries away. In the background the endless sigh of the rise and fall of the sea.

We arrive at a junction that we recognise – the yellow sign high on the wall indicates San Marco and Rialto with a thin, straight arrow. Turning into another narrow alley, just wide enough for two abreast, we meet groups of people coming the other way, and all smile apologetically while passing; in Venice pedestrians unthinkingly drive on the right. Then suddenly there is the canal before us, and Accademia bridge. Lights are winking into life along the water, the sky a thin glimmer behind the blue underwash of clouds. There is the cafe where we had lunch a couple of days ago. Together we stand at the rail of the bridge looking along the canal, shivering in the wind. I imagine myself being here alone, and it feels like the loneliest place in the world. We have become used to distance, you and I, have we not? Some lines of Rilke come to mind – Rilke who loved Venice and visited many times:

You must not be frightened if a sadness rises up before you larger than any you have ever seen; if a restiveness, like light and cloudshadows, passes over your hands and over all you do. You must think that something is happening with you, that life has not forgotten you, that it holds you in its hand; it will not let you fall. Why do you want to shut out of your life any uneasiness, any miseries, or any depressions? For after all, you do not know what work these conditions are doing inside you.

Rainer Maria Rilke – Letters to a Young Poet

I could inhabit this dreamscape until the end of time and you would still be with me. This city is suffused with a beautiful melancholy, elegiac as a shift to minor key, notes falling like tears.


When Luchino Visconti chose the Adagietto of Mahler’s 5th Symphony as the soundtrack for his 1971 film Death in Venice, he captured that atmosphere perfectly: the shimmering strings of reflections on the water, the tremulous longing that beauty can inspire. Thomas Mann, who wrote the novel upon which the film was based, modelled the physical description of the lead character Von Aschenbach on that of Mahler, also giving him the first name of Gustav. The two had met in Munich previously and Mahler had made a strong impression on the novelist; Mann is said to have been deeply moved on seeing Mahler break down in tears when departing Venice by train.

In the novel Von Aschenbach is a writer himself who, suffering terribly from writer’s block, takes a holiday to Venice in search of curing it. Observing a Polish family at dinner one night in the hotel, he finds himself mesmerised by the beauty of their son, a youth of around 14 dressed in a sailor suit, called Tadzio. In his mind he likens Tadzio to a Greek sculpture, and feels a rekindling of, as he sees it, artistic passion. Gradually, over the following days, he finds himself seeking out the family in order to catch a glimpse of him, transfixed by the boy’s looks. When, one evening, Tadzio glances at Von Aschenbach and smiles openly, he is so discomfited by the ensuing emotional turmoil that he rushes outside into the garden, and furiously whispers to himself under his breath, in a mixture of reproach and astonishment, “I love you!” For the hitherto ascetic and repressed von Aschenbach, locked into a state of tension where he is unable to create, this sudden allowance of sensuality begins to spin out of control, and he becomes enslaved by beauty and desire.

Increasingly besotted and tormented by erotic dreams, he takes to obsessively following the boy – who seems aware of the admiration and even flattered by it, but without perhaps fully realising its form, nor indeed its danger. The culmination is when von Aschenbach takes to a deck chair to watch Tadzio standing by the sea, gazing out at the sparkling water, and as the music swells Tadzio turns, extending an arm, seeming to beckon to von Aschenbach. He attempts to rise, to join Tadzio at the water’s edge, but collapses into the chair and dies. Tadzio, standing in the waves, is blissfully unaware, and turns to look out to sea once more.

Von Aschenbach had justified his interest in Tadzio to himself in the Platonic ideal of beauty, taking refuge in the cerebral coolness of Apollo – god of restraint, form and the intellect. If there was love, it was a rationalised appreciation of aesthetic beauty to him – nothing so base as an erotic charge that would threaten the idealised, internalised romance. But it is Dionysus, god of passion and unreason, who takes over and dictates a destructive obsession. In Von Aschenbach’s attempts to dye his hair and use make up lies a clumsy vanity to compensate for the total loss of dignity in the throes of his hapless love; in his adoration of a boy he never speaks to we see the timeless story of age mesmerised by the beauty of youth, confronted by its own inevitable decrepitude.

The novel had its genesis in actual events. In a 1974 book, Mann’s wife Katia revealed that they had travelled to Venice together in 1911, and that there had been a family of Polish aristocrats at the next table, whose young son was wearing a sailor suit:

On the very first day, we saw the Polish family, which looked exactly the way my husband described them: the girls were dressed rather stiffly and severely, and the very charming, beautiful boy of about 13 was wearing a sailor suit with an open collar and very pretty lacings. He caught my husband’s attention immediately. This boy was tremendously attractive, and my husband was always watching him with his companions on the beach. He didn’t pursue him through all of Venice – that he didn’t do – but the boy did fascinate him, and he thought of him often.

Katia Mann – Unwritten Memories

The young Polish boy was the Baron Wladyslaw Moes. Just nine years after the Venice holiday with his family he volunteered in an Uhlan regiment in the 1920 Polish-Soviet war, taking part in a cavalry charge at the Battle of Komarow against Soviet troops on horseback – the last entirely mounted engagement of the 20th century. Captured by the Germans in the Second World War, Moes was held prisoner for six years, and on his return to Poland found that the Communist regime had stripped his family of all its estates. He became a translator at the Iranian Embassy in Warsaw, and died in 1986.


In Venice I found I had some sympathy for Evelyn Waugh, who in an uncharacteristic moment of self-effacement, felt himself utterly unequal to the task of describing it:

What can I possibly write, now, at this stage of the world’s culture, about two days in Venice, that would not be an impertinence to every reader of this book? Perhaps if I made my home in Venice for twenty years and attained a perfect command over its language, history, art and culture, I might decently contribute a chapter here to what has already been written by those who have mastered those accomplishments. Meanwhile, since there seems no probablility of my ever becoming anything more considerable than one of a hundred globe-trotting novelists, I will pass on to Ragusa.

Evelyn Waugh – Labels

Ragusa seemed drastic. After weeks of not writing anything at all because there was too much to say and I couldn’t choose what to leave out, I close my eyes briefly and see the invisible city, offer up a plea for literary mitigation and turn to the keyboard once more.

In the Piazza San Marco at dusk, rival orchestras competed – one outside the Grand Cafe, and another outside Florian’s, both establishments boasting countless luminaries that have patronised them over the years, too tedious to list here. Tonight most of the clientele were Chinese tourists photographing themselves with selfie sticks over €10 coffees. Out in the main square little green lasers flickered over the stones, and occasional glowing parachutes fell to earth: the vendors from Goa’s Anjuna beach had moved in to colonise St Mark’s – this, the heart of the loveliest city on earth, which Napoleon once described as “the drawing room of Europe”, turned into some tawdry parody of a tripped out tropical beach.

We stopped at a small bar for cicheti – a kind of Venetian tapas of small, bite-sized snacks usually involving fish. There was smoked eel, hard-boiled egg decorated with anchovies (the Italian word “acciughe” somehow conveyed K’s expression at the prospect of eating one), fresh tuna and baccalà – dried and salted cod, which I’d seen hanging on wooden drying racks in Norway’s Lofoten Islands. I’d tried it there – one revolting mouthful from a packet labelled “Fisksnaks” which was proffered to me by a local with a dark sense of humour. It was disgusting – like a lump of wood which slowly softened and became slimy, while releasing a powerfully fishy flavour tinged with ammonia. Happily the Italians, as always, had made a much better job of creating something edible out of such inauspicious material – the baccalà was delicious, if powerfully salty.

These different sestieri, six distinct districts, had their own individual mood and atmosphere. San Marco was busy, armies of tourists endlessly streaming past designer boutiques, the outlets of global chains with these flagship stores in this, the most exclusive of addresses. In one monstrous act of consumerist vandalism, the exquisite outline of the Rialto bridge was hidden by an enormous billboard for a brand of jeans which was draped over its parapets. To the north, across the Grand Canal, lay San Polo and Santa Croce – smart neighbourhoods with hidden pockets of local colour, where tourists tended to stick to well trodden routes. Castello felt poorer, more lived-in – small convenience stores and kebab shops, housing estates, and the functional outline of the Arsenale naval base. Dorsoduro was narrow and crooked, authentic and more solid underfoot – its very name means “hardback”. Cannareggio was quieter, prettier and residential, and from its Fondamente Nuove small craft set sail across the lagoon to their final destination – the cemetery island of San Michele, Isle of the Dead.


As a birthday treat I bought two tickets to the opera. Not the famed La Fenice – it was sold out – but a smaller production to be held in a palazzo overlooking the Grand Canal. Given the labyrinthine nature of Venetian navigation, we decided to do a reconnaisance that afternoon, and found ourselves repeatedly coming back to a small junction marked by a little bridge. According to the map it was just here. We nosed speculatively along a kind of wharf which appeared to be nothing but the backs of warehouses. There was the streetname, however. Spotting an elderly gentleman with shopping bags fumbling with his keys at a doorway nearby, I approached him for directions. He was tall and slightly stooped, with a patrician mane of swept-back silver hair.

“Scuzi Signor, dov e Palazzo Barbarigo-Minotto?”

He looked round and blinked. “Il palazzo?” he replied. “Ecco!” he gestured with his chin to the building next door.

I looked up at the blank wall along which we had walked several times. A small alley appeared to lead off to one side of it. “Down there?”

“Si, si. Musica! Musica a palazzo!”

“Yes, that’s the one. Molto grazie.”

We followed the alley, which was dingy and lined with old wooden pillars. It didn’t look terribly promising. But then, on a door set into the wall, I saw a small flyer advertising that evening’s performance. This was the place alright. Retracing our steps we headed back towards Dorsoduro, mentally marking the turns. Right at the cafe, left at the church, over the bridge and along the canal.

That evening we dressed up as best we could in a mixture of ethnic chic left over from the wedding in Sardinia. I wanted to be in plenty of time, and we arrived back at the junction with half an hour to spare. A glowing doorway nearby advertised itself as the American Bar, so we decided to have a drink beforehand. Despite my forays into the medicinal powers of brandy in Sardinia, I didn’t intend to make a habit of it, and ordered a non-alcoholic cocktail called a Shirley Temple, which was aptly named: genderisation aside, it was the kind of thing a young girl might enjoy, being bright pink and sweet and fizzy and bedecked with clusters of berries. K ordered a double Jameson’s, no ice. The barman, entirely understandably, placed the whiskey in front of me and the Shirley Temple in front of her. There you go dear, your first grown-up drink. The sweetness of it made my teeth jangle, but a sniff of her whiskey gave me the shudders, so I sucked at the elaborately curling straw while keeping a gimlet eye on the clientele.

I was trying to spot fellow opera-goers. I recalled an entry from The Road to Oxiana by Robert Byron: “After inspecting two palaces, the Labiena, containing Tiepolo’s fresco of Cleopatra’s Banquet, and the Pappadopoli, a stifling labyrinth of plush and royal photographs, we took sanctuary from culture in Harry’s Bar. There was an ominous chatter, a quickfire of greetings: the English are arriving.” They were arriving in the American Bar too – respectable pensioners in cords, beige anoraks and shoes like calzone, treating themselves to a small sherry or a G&T.

Heading back out over the little crooked bridge we made our way back along the darkened wharf, past the spot where the old man had given us directions, followed by a small platoon of Home Counties retirees. Turning once more into the alley we saw that the doorway we had noticed earlier was now open, and a line of candles marked out a path across a courtyard and up a flight of stairs. There were other people there already, smartly attired in dinner jackets and evening dress. We queued on the stairs, everyone speaking in low, reverential voices – it’s not every day one gains admission to a 15th century palazzo by candlelight.

The opera – The Barber of Seville – was organised by Musica a Palazzo, a club which one became a temporary member of in order to attend a performance. We duly filled out forms at a low table and were presented with our membership cards by a young man in black tie. Taking our places on small wooden chairs in a long, gilded room, the lights dimmed, the four-piece orchestra struck up, led by a large, bearded figure who was so enthusiastic in his playing that he had trouble remaining in his seat, and then, suddenly, from behind us, a powerful baritone voice. Coming down the aisle was Figaro. He passed within feet of us, making his way toward the front of the room, singing all the while. The effect was extraordinary – to hear these voices in a relatively small room gave them a power and resonance entirely absent from larger performances. It was magnificent.

Each act was in a different room, and for the next we made our way into a small drawing room, taking our places around the edges. In front of a tall rococo mirror Rosina laced her corset an arm’s length from where I sat, the vibration of the high soprano notes creating an extraordinary fluttering sensation in the room, like the wingbeats of a trapped bird. Paintings lined the walls, and my eyes were continually drawn upward towards a vast painting across the ceiling – The Triumph of Virtue over Ignorance, by Tiepolo, who had decorated the entire room. We moved again, to a baroque boudoir for the finale. Cherubs cavorted overhead upon ornate plasterwork that exhaled the cool damps of the Grand Canal outside, the room heady with the scent of powder and perfume. And then suddenly it was all over, and we all filed out, back down the candlelit path of the stairway, and out into the alley, only to find ourselves in another stage set of moonlit canals and spires, with soft voices passing in the darkness and the endless, lapping water. Serenissima.


On a thin, grey day spattered with flecks of rain blowing in from the Adriatic, the ferry across the lagoon to the airport was full, the passengers all slightly subdued, clutching their luggage, smiling grimly or looking sombre, trying to put a brave face on things as they headed back to other, less lovely destinations and lives. Off to the right lay San Michele, and it felt appropriate; take this channel to the airport and the world of the living, that one past the line of buoys and the mournfully clanging bell that leads to the Isle of the Dead. The narrowest of lines separated the two. Behind us, beyond the corkscrew of the white wake, the crooked rooftops and spires began to sink slowly beneath the waterline. Say goodbye to Venice as she is leaving, as Cavafy might have said.

I knew that part of me would somehow always return to inhabit those same narrow alleys, those small windswept squares, and that various scenes would repeat themselves in my mind: a girl in a white lace dress sitting on the parapet of a bridge as she brushed out her long red hair; the nodding gondolas beneath a lighted window full of music and laughter; and you would always be standing beneath the last lamppost on the promontory of the Salute, lost in wonder at the view. The lights would still spring up along the Grand Canal at dusk, the paintings would hang in Ca’ Rezzonico and Accademia for centuries yet to come, only the crowd that swirled before them like the tide changing slightly in manner or appearance, and operas would continue to be sung in the old palazzo by candlelight before a rapt audience. Others would come to discover the invisible city, and it would be a different city for each of them, but I knew that it had become one of those places that had established itself in the vast gallery of my dreams, to be revisited over and over again.

Isn’t it time to free ourselves, with love,
– from the one we love, and,
trembling, endure…?
For to stay is to be nowhere at all.

Rainer Maria Rilke – Duino Elegies


 

 

A Cold Wind off the Arno

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The sea is high again today, with a thrilling flush of wind. In the midst of winter you can feel the invention of spring. A sky of hot nude pearl until midday, crickets in sheltered places, and now the wind unpacking the great planes, ransacking the great planes…

Lawrence Durrell – Justine

Although we were far from the sea, and it was a golden day in late summer, there was no better evocation of the weather and landscapes we were passing through, travelling across the spine of Italy. The tops of the plane trees were swaying in the wind that swept down from the Apennines, the sun a nacreous glimmer behind the white sky, the sound of cicadas on the platforms of drowsing train stations. The Tuscan landscape slowly unveiled itself to reveal low, undulating hills upon which stood the small stony outcrops of villages, with square church towers punctuating the skyline. It was a local train on a Sunday afternoon and we stopped frequently, picking up passengers who were heading to Florence.

Florence… there was something lovely in the name; something flowering or flourishing, with perhaps a promised ending of romance. The kind of city that you didn’t consciously decide to love – you just found that at some point you had begun to. It was as if the banality of various practical civic functions went on as a backdrop to a place governed by aesthetics, where art was steeped in the very atmosphere. Everywhere you looked there were statues, buildings of extraordinary beauty, galleries. It seemed, in some respects, the very pinnacle of human civilization.

Our taxi nosed along cobbled streets that were thronging with people, where it felt as if the mass of pedestrians dominated the spaces rather than vehicles. Through the open window I heard snatches of conversation as we passed people at little more than walking pace. There seemed to be lots of Americans. We entered a small square and the taxi halted. “You have to walk from here,” said the driver. “Just down that street.” A short way along it, past a bicycle shop and then a flower stall, who seemed to have combined their interests with a bicycle parked outside full of flowers, we found the address of our apartment. It was an old building which had been converted into separate flats, just across the street from the Palazzo Vecchio – the imposing town hall. The rooms were huge and airy, exquisitely furnished, with tall windows that looked out across the rooftops. Across the walls of our bedroom hung dozens of paintings; it was like being in a gallery. Everywhere the eye came to rest there was something beautiful.

If Florence inspired romance, however, there were many suitors vying for her attention. Everywhere you went there were hordes of them: a line of sightseers stretching round the Duomo and off down a side street; huge queues for the Uffizi; a wait at the viewpoints on the Ponte Vecchio as people took turns to photograph themselves pulling silly faces before the River Arno. Even in early October the city was groaning with tourists. They marched about in phalanxes following tour guides who had little coloured signs held aloft, sometimes emblazoned with their national flag. Sometimes, incomprehensibly, a group broke into a trot; perhaps they had got too far behind their leader, someone had panicked and the herd galloped to catch up. I saw one couple walking up and down a street repeatedly, nose in their guidebook, until on their third pass they spotted the building they were supposed to take a photograph of, and duly did so. It put me in mind of Lucy Honeychurch in E. M. Forster’s novel A Room With A View, who, having forgotten her guidebook, wanders around Santa Croce wondering which of the many tombs she passes is the one really worth seeing and whether she has missed it. With no authority to tell her what to see, she has to fall back on the uncertain reserves of her own personal taste: “Of course it must be a wonderful building. But how like a barn! And how very cold!”

It’s not easy to be a traveller these days. On the one hand it’s easier than ever – international flights  deposit you anywhere in the world in a matter of hours. Local currency is easily available from cash machines. The notion of spending weeks in considerable discomfort just to get somewhere is, for most, inconceivable. But what this has done is blurred the line between travel and tourism, as the industry is known, into a seamless elision with nothing left between them. Whether you are on a week-long tour of Italy’s cultural artefacts or a six-month fully-paid-for expedition into the rainforest with a side order of volunteering at some worthy cause, you’re a tourist, like it or not.

You don’t have to be a good tourist, however. We were not. We missed the Duomo entirely, put off by the queues. The Uffizi was closed – it was a Monday. We failed to muster the enthusiasm to line up to look at Michelangelo’s David – the original one in the Accademia. Instead we admired the replica of it in the Piazza Signoria, which is where it was originally intended to stand. Ironically by moving it indoors and placing it behind a glass barrier for protection after one of its toes was smashed by a hammer-wielding vandal (reminiscent in many ways of the mummified corpse of St Francis Xavier in Goa having its toe bitten off by a devotee in search of a mouthful of holy relic), David is completely out of proportion for the space he currently occupies in his Accademia alcove: huge-headed, with overlong arms and a posterior which, frankly, was not exactly as pert as the rest of him. He was in good company in the piazza – there was a veritable crowd of statuary along the alcoves – and Bandinelli’s Hercules and Cacus was designed as a companion piece for David in its original location. Cellini was unimpressed, describing the muscles in Hercules’ bulging back as looking like “a sackful of melons” – a description so shrewdly acerbic that once you’ve heard it it’s impossible to see in any other way.

Lucy Honeychurch, presumably, hadn’t noticed. Forster captures all the yearning, all the longing, of a young woman on the brink of something without quite knowing what she wants or how to set about it:

“Nothing ever happens to me,” she reflected, as she entered the Piazza Signoria and looked nonchalantly at its marvels, now fairly familiar to her. The great square was in shadow; the sunshine had come too late to strike it. Neptune was already unsubstantial in the twilight, half god, half ghost, and his fountain plashed dreamily to the men and satyrs who idled together on its marge. The Loggia showed as the triple entrance of a cave, wherein dwelt many a deity, shadowy but immortal, looking forth upon the arrivals and departures of mankind. It was the hour of unreality — the hour, that is, when unfamiliar things are real. An older person at such an hour and in such a place might think that sufficient was happening to him, and rest content. Lucy desired more.

E. M. Forster – A Room With A View 

Naturally it is romance that Lucy desires, and naturally enough, having thrown away her guidebook and begun to actually enjoy herself instead of continually striving for self-improvement, she finds it in the end. By literally falling into its arms, as it happens.


The notebooks:

Wandering hand in hand along a street after dark we suddenly heard the most beautiful singing. We halted entranced outside a church. Through the open doorway we could see twelve girls in long black gowns, standing in a semicircle, singing in a choir. The interior of the church seemed full of golden light, their voices high and pure and clear, echoing around the interior. Gradually other details came into focus: there was an audience before them, sitting in rapt attention on folding wooden chairs. We stood listening… and then, suddenly, a small group of tourists rushed over from the street and began crowding around the doorway. One man took out an ipad and began filming, blocking the view. I twitched in annoyance. K looked at me, slipped an arm through mine, and we walked back down the steps and into the street. I could still hear the singing behind us, and smiled, determinedly recalling their angelic voices, not allowing the boorish tourists to ruin it.

Just around the corner, not five minutes later, we came across a small crowd in the street gathered in silence around a television set outside a restaurant. The diners had abandoned their meals, and sat craning their necks to see. Chefs in their whites stood in a line, watching, arms folded. The security man from a nearby bar was a head taller than everyone else and oversaw proceedings from the back. What could have happened? Some disaster? The mood was tense. I squinted and made out… an expanse of green. Small figures running. The camera panned over a crowd of spectators. And at the top of the screen: Fiorentina 0 – Inter 0. It was the football, and it seemed as if the entire street had come out to watch.

Round the next corner we heard music. The limpid plucking of a lute, the hoarsely mellow baritone of woodwind, and then, soaring above it, a violin. A chamber orchestra, playing baroque instruments, seated beneath the colonnades. It sounded like Albinoni. From behind us came a sudden roar, cheering, car horns: Florence had scored. Seconds later, with a slight delay, another loud cheer from a nearby apartment. The conductor gave the faintest of smiles, paused the fluid movement of his hands just for a moment as the cheering died away, and then the chamber orchestra played on. How could one fail to love such a city?


 

A friend in London had long been extolling the virtues of Italian leather jackets, and claimed that Florence was the best place to buy one. There certainly seemed to be many shops selling them – we passed dozens on our walk that evening. However, none that I saw looked particularly inspiring – they were all in a similar ‘bumfreezer’ style, rather short and cut very slim. But then, just around the corner from our apartment, I stopped in my tracks. There in a shop window, adorning a mannequin, was the nicest leather jacket I have ever seen. It was in a kind of mid-brown or dark tan, and looked very soft. I hadn’t planned on buying one, but took a picture of it, just in case, noting down the street name. On we walked, up to the Ponte Vecchio – the old bridge which was lined with buildings just as the bridges of London used to be in Elizabethan times. Sitting on the low wall we looked out at the lights of the city as their reflections swam in the dark water. A cold wind was blowing off the Arno, scalloping the surface, the river burnished gold in the setting sun.

I couldn’t stop thinking about that jacket. Turning to K I said: “Would you mind if we go back for another look? They may still be open.”

“Sure, OK.”

We walked back towards the shop. There it was again in the window, just as I had remembered. I wondered if it would look anything like as good on me as it did on the mannequin. We went in.

The shopkeeper was Jordanian, it turned out, and had the bustling sales patter familiar from countless souks, which somehow implied an understanding that you, the customer, clearly appreciated quality merchandise, and that for someone with such heightened aesthetic sensibilites, something as sordid as money shouldn’t be of paramount importance.

“Here, try these on,” he said, laying out jacket after jacket upon the counter. He rather casually flung them down, just as I had seen carpet sellers do in Marrakech, and then fingered the material lovingly. “So soft! And sir, admire please the quality of this stitching. This is only possible to find here in Florence.”

“How much are they?”

“Sir!” He looked shocked. I had, indeed, committed a breach of protocol at this stage in proceedings. “What value does one put on something? I could send you to this shop, that shop, who sell factory jackets” – he pronounced the word with a moue of distaste – “but I can tell that you are an admirer of fine products, beautifully crafted. Where from sir?”

“London.”

“Ah, London. Welcome in my shop sir. Now, this one is very latest Italian style. Here. Let me assist you.” He held it out behind me and I slid into it. It was nice, certainly. K looked me up and down noncommittally.

“I’m not sure it’s me, really. How about that one in the window? On the mannequin?”

“That one sir, is our finest quality. Very beautiful jacket.” He took it off the mannequin as if helping a lady out of an evening cape, every gesture solicitous. I admired his act immensely. It was working on me alright. Then I caught a glimpse of the price tag, and recoiled.

“€780! You’re kidding. That’s way over my budget.”

He batted away such technicalities with a wave of his hand. “Sir, please! Budgets… We can make discount. If this is the jacket you desire, we shall do everything to accommodate you.”

“Yes, but still! I’m not spending that.” He slipped around behind me and held it out. I put my arms in. It really was a very nice jacket. Looking up I caught K’s eye. She slowly nodded, suppressing a smile.

So now the work really began. As far as he was concerned, I was English. He didn’t know the extent to which I had been trained by the vendors of India. We took our places for the theatricals that were to follow. I took off the jacket, and he twitched. I laid it on the counter and picked up another cheaper one in a sort of hideous dung-brown. No – they really don’t have anything we like, do they dear. Shall we go back to the hotel? What time is it? Fancy some dinner? He picked up the jacket again and helped me back into it. “Look sir, you can roll up the sleeves! So soft! It is made of goat! Mountain goat!” K, poker-faced, turned to inspect the street outside. I knew she was trying her utmost not to laugh. If I caught her eye we’d be sunk. Bakri, bozak, buzechini. A crazy old goat in a goatskin coat. I had to have it.

The calculator came out. He typed in a negligible discount. I took off the jacket. He picked it up again and knocked a significant chunk off the price. Mollified but playing hard to get, I put it on, and stabbed out an outrageously low price. He looked insulted. I took it off and made for the door, pursued by him, brandishing calculator, this time with another figure. Better. But still. I made another offer, prompting a long lament. I began speaking to K in Hindi, which unnerved him. He tapped out another price, and laid the calculator gently on the counter for my inspection. I began to unzip the jacket and he hit Clear and knocked off a bit more. I visibly became attentive. It was already a tremendous bargain now. But then, with the full ruthlessness of Chandni Chowk bazaar, K intervened. For the sake of 30 euros. I was pretty much set to take it then and there, but no. She wanted a number and would get it. He begged. I demurred. She curled her Parsi nose at him and rolled her eyes at the door.

At that moment, with wonderfully serendipitous timing, two Americans walked in and began browsing along the rail. His attention was torn – he wanted to go over to them, you could tell, but we weren’t going to budge. I tapped out 250 on the calculator. He looked at the Americans desperately – they showed signs of leaving.

“Cash?” he said.

“Sure. Cash.” I counted out the last of my money, and borrowed more from K. He stuffed the jacket unceremoniously into a paper bag, I gave him the cash, and that was that – he went over to the Americans and started work on them. We glanced at each other and left.

“Did we just get a leather jacket priced at €780 for €250?”

“Yah.”

“How the fuck did we manage that?”

“Teamwork.”

“Haan. Teamwork. Would a high five be appropriate?”

“I believe it would.”


 

Rising early in the grey half-light of dawn the next morning as K’s warm shape slept on beside me, I went out onto our small balcony to look out over the rooftops. You could tell it wasn’t a place that got much rain – the tiles were full of gaps and wouldn’t have withstood one decent autumn gale. In the bathroom I inspected myself in the mirror, stooping over the low sink as I washed my hands. Then, turning to take the towel off the rail beside me, there was a sudden loud snap in my neck and a bolt of pain along my spine. I let out a gasp of surprise; I knew something had just gone seriously wrong, and fervently hoped it would right itself in a minute or two. It didn’t. Carefully I straightened upward, then ducked again, wincing, as a spasm shot through me. I couldn’t stand up.  It was 6.45 in the morning, K was asleep next door, and we had to pack up, check out, get to the station and catch a train across half of Italy to Venice that morning. I wasn’t sure if I might in fact be going straight to hospital instead. Was my travel insurance still valid? I tried to remember what date I had gone to Australia the year before. I had a nasty feeling it had run out a week earlier. I tried to stand upright again and there came a series of cracking sounds like a brushwood fire, each sending off little sparks along my neck. This was not good at all.

Painfully slowly I made it along the corridor, opened the bedroom door and crept into the room. My stealth was betrayed by a loud groan as I tried to turn my head. Keeping it dead level as if I were balancing a book on it I sank to my knees and lay down on the floor, trying to find some relief. It was no good.

“Hun? You awake?”

“Mmmmf.”

“We’ve got a problem. I think I’ve broken my neck.”

Long pause. Then, flatly: “Again?

This was true. I had technically broken it years earlier, sustaining a small fracture in a rock climbing accident. I had been carried off the mountain and transported on the flatbed of a truck along a dirt road to the nearest hospital. It had never been quite right since.

She sat up blearily. “What happened?”

“I dunno. I just turned round and it went snap. I think it’s quite bad.”

“I’ve got pills if you need some.”

Like all Indians travelling in parts of the world with dubious healthcare systems, such as Europe, Australia or North America, or indeed anywhere outside Mother India, she carried a small suitcase full of medications which listed their ayurvedic credentials. And, open-minded as I am about these things, I wasn’t sure it was going to cut it. Still, worth a try.

And so it was that dosed up on “Combiflam”, which sounded like something out of the 70s cookbook, and slathered in enough Tiger Balm to make anyone’s eyes water within a 5 metre radius, we somehow managed to pack the bags. But I couldn’t lift it. It was pathetic – I was helpless. What is a backpacker without a backpack? A tourist, I suppose. I thought of the octogenarians I had seen bravely shuffling around assorted piazzas the day before, and sympathised with them wholeheartedly. Fortunately the owner was solicitude itself: she recommended that I try shiatsu, which had helped her back problems, called a taxi for us to the door, and carried my bag down the stairs herself (no small feat for quite a small lady), seeing us safely into the cab. The route the driver took led around the back streets towards Santa Maria Novella station, which naturally were all cobblestones. I groaned periodically as we bumped over them, and received reassuring pats from K.

Pulling up at the station, nose in the air like a governess, I minced carefully across the concourse towards the information board, checking what platform we needed. As I did so, there was a voice at my elbow. A girl with a big backpack decorated with the Canadian flag:

“Hey, do you happen to know which platform for Venice?”

“Aaaah!” I went, as a spasm shot through me. “Aah. Um, no – I’m looking for it myself. The 1255?”

“Yeah.” She looked at me a little strangely. “Are you OK?”

“Faaark! Sorry. It’s my back. It’s busted.”

“Oh wow, sorry to hear it. Hey, are you Briddish?”

“Yes. If you find out what platform it is, would you mind coming and telling me? I don’t think I can move.”

“Sure, no problem. Hey, feel better.”

“Let’s hope so.”

It was now 1240 and our train still wasn’t listed. Then the pixellated letters flipped through their cycle and there it was: the 1255 Italo to Venezia. But there was something not right. The train number didn’t match the one on my ticket, bought weeks earlier. Surely there couldn’t be two? What if the original train had broken down? Did they base the numbers on engine, or was there a different code? Through a mental fog of pain and Combiflam I fretted, wincing occasionally. Two Chinese girls with enormous wheeled suitcases barged into me, and I snarled at them. They fled. This was not the time to lose my temper. Seeking consolation in literature as always, I recalled an entry by Robert Byron in The Road to Oxiana:

BANDAR SHAH (SEA-LEVEL), 26 APRIL 1934
Under arrest! I am writing on a bed in the police-station.

We are in the wrong, which makes it the more annoying. Having waited at Gumbad-i-Kabus till four o’clock, when there were still no horses to be had, we decided to go back with the car, and avoiding Asterabad, reached here at ten o’clock. There was nowhere to sleep but the station, and the station-master, a wilting young man, was not pleased at our disturbing him so late. The train this morning was due to leave at seven. He told us to have the car ready by the siding at six. It was. But the truck for it did not arrive till ten to seven, and we suddenly saw that the station-master, out of spite, had sent the train off without us. The pent-up irritation of seven months exploded: we assaulted the man. There were loud shrieks, soldiers rushed in, and pinioning Christopher’s arms, some struck his back with the butts of their rifles, while their officer, who was scarcely four feet high and had the voice of a Neapolitan tenor, repeatedly slapped his face. I escaped these indignities, but we share the confinement, to the bewilderment of the police, who find us a nuisance.

They threaten us with an ‘inquiry’ into the ‘incident’ in Teheran. We must grovel to avoid this at all costs. It would take weeks. I wonder—we both wonder—what madness came over us to jeopardize our journey in this way.

Robert Byron – The Road to Oxiana

Well, it happens to the best of us. But no, in my condition I didn’t need slapping by a four foot high Neapolitan tenor, of which there seemed to be several about, nor indeed by anyone else. Reasoning that since they travelled along the same track, that there could only be one Italo train bound for Venice at 1255, we decided to get on it.

The problem was, there were people already in our seats – a pair of sun-wizened rustics, man and wife, who showed no inclination to move. I showed them my ticket and sighing, he dug his out. We both had the same seat number. Then I saw his departure station. Napoli. They must have been on this train for hours. Was he in fact four feet tall? Could he sing? We tried two more seats but another couple arrived, profusely apologetic, and claimed them. I certainly wasn’t going to stand for three-and-a-half hours. We spotted two empty seats in the next carriage, and stole into them surreptitiously. I plugged my ears with headphones, stuck my shades on and put my hood up. Do not disturb. We slid silently out of Firenze SMN station, the train pouring through a tunnel until the sudden reappearance of apartment blocks sliding by the window. We picked up speed steadily, until we were whizzing almost soundlessly through the Italian countryside in air-conditioned comfort. A speedometer on the TV screen overhead indicated we were travelling at 250kmh.

After halting briefly at Bologna we resumed our flight across the fertile flatlands of northern Italy, the speed now showing 280kmh, briefly crossing the River Po, longest river in the country, in a flash of water and a whoosh whoosh whoosh as the bridge went by beneath us. The conductor entered the carriage and began making his way down it. I hoped there wasn’t going to be a problem with the ticket; being kicked off the train at some tiny hamlet, unable to carry my own backpack, was something that I wasn’t really in the mood for, although it did fit our general pattern of spontaneous adventures. He reached us and I proffered our tickets.

“Grazie,” he said, checking us off against a list of names. His pencil paused. He looked at the ticket again, and switched to English.

“You are in different seats?” Clearly our names were hopelessly unItalian compared to the ones on his register.

“Yes, there were another couple in our seats, so we moved here,” I said.

The train was half-empty by now anyway, and he gave a slight but clearly visible shrug, ticked us off the list and moved on. We were in the clear.

The train halted again at Mestre, the unlovely industrial city on the mainland overlooking the Venice lagoon. At that moment the music changed on my headphones and I found I was listening to Scheherazade by Rimsky Korsakov, played by the St Petersburg Philharmonic, who I had seen perform it at the Proms a few weeks earlier. The wonderful, lyrical longing of the strings tightened around the heart, accompanying us as we made our way out onto the bridge across the lagoon, over green water flecked with whitecaps. My first sight of Venice was of a low smudge on the horizon transforming itself into distant spires which grew in size as the music swelled, the city assembling itself before my eyes. There was a quickening sense of excitement; which of the invisible cities would reveal itself to me first? I knew there were many.

I was reading Jan Morris – her wonderful book Venice is essentially a long love letter to this most extraordinary of cities, or perhaps a romantic, impressionistic painting of it, and one particularly interesting given that she first visited as a young man named James Morris. As she put in a preface to a later edition, “It is Venice seen through a particular pair of eyes at a particular moment – young eyes at that, responsive above all to the stimuli of youth”.

It is very old, and very grand, and bent-backed. Its towers survey the lagoon in crotchety splendour, some leaning one way, some another. Its skyline is elaborate with campaniles, domes, pinnacles, cranes, riggings, television aerials, crenellations, eccentric chimneys and a big red grain elevator. There are glimpses of flags and fretted rooftops, marble pillars, cavernous canals. An incessant bustle of boats passes before the quays of the place; a great white liner slips towards its port; a multitude of tottering palaces, brooding and monstrous, presses towards its waterfront like so many invalid aristocrats jostling for fresh air. It is a gnarled but gorgeous city: and as the boat approaches through the last church-crowned islands, and a jet fighter screams splendidly out of the sun, so the whole scene seems to shimmer – with pinkness, with age, with self-satisfaction, with sadness, with delight.

The navigator stows away his charts and puts on a gay straw hat: for he has reached that paragon among landfalls, Venice.

Jan Morris – Venice

 

The Eternal Traveller

I was walking up a hill in Assisi, dragging my case behind me. The rhythm of its wheels on the cobblestones seemed familiar. Da-Dah da Da-Dah da Da-Dah da Da-Dah. The wheels jolted over the ruts and set up this continual refrain which I couldn’t quite place. Then it came to me slowly: I had the couplet in my head for years, but couldn’t remember the words – only the sound and rhythm of it, and the rough English translation of what it meant. It was a description of the sacking of an ancient city by the Mongols. Where had I heard it? I thought it Persian, and very old. I walked up the hill, mentally chanting nonsense words: “The hatstand the milkman the brassband the land!” I couldn’t get it. Into the mental archives it went. Later, after we had found our accommodation, a small cavern owned by a poet, built into the hillside and beautifully furnished, I took out my notebook – a battered black moleskine – and wrote down: hatstand, milkman, brass band, land. Persian? Balkh? Bokhara? 

Hoping the language hadn’t changed much since antiquity, I messaged a Persian-speaking friend. “How would you translate something like: ‘They came and they destroyed and they burned and they looted and then they vanished?’”

He came back with a line of text in which some of the words were familiar – amdand, kushtand, sokhtand – but the rhythm was missing. Round and round in my head it went. Virgil wrote a Latin equivalent in hexameter: “Quadrupedante putrem sonitu quatit ungula campum” – “The qua-druped’s gall-oping hoof shakes the ground”. Da Dah-da-da Dah-da-da Dah-da-da Da! But what was it in Persian?


The Notebooks:

In France these notebooks are known as carnet moleskines: ‘moleskine’, in this case, being its black oilcloth binding. Each time I went to Paris, I would buy a fresh supply from a papeterie in the Rue de l’Ancienne Comedie. The pages were squared and the end-papers held in place with an elastic band. I had numbered them in series. I wrote my name and address on the front page, offering a reward to the finder. To lose a passport was the least of one’s worries: to lose a notebook was a catastrophe.

In twenty odd years of travel, I lost only two. One vanished on an Afghan bus. The other was filched by the Brazilian secret police, who with a certain clairvoyance, imagined that some lines I had written – about the wounds of a Baroque Christ – were a description, in code, of their own work on political prisoners.

Some months before I left for Australia, the owner of the papeterie said that the vrai moleskine was getting harder and harder to get. There was one supplier: a small family business in Tours. They were very slow in answering letters.

“I’d like to order a hundred,” I said to Madame. “A hundred will last me a lifetime.”

She promised to telephone Tours at once, that afternoon.

At lunchtime I had a sobering experience. The headwaiter of Brasserie Lipp no longer recognised me, “Non Monsieur, il n’y a pas de place.” At five, I kept my appointment with Madame. The manufacturer had died. His heirs had sold the business. She removed her spectacles and said, almost with an air of mourning, “Le vrai moleskine n’est plus.”

Bruce Chatwin. 


My notebook copy

My own moleskine lay open on the table before me, broken-backed, its flyleaves speckled with a kind of international grit. Unlike Chatwin, in twenty years of travel I’d never lost one yet – although I often kept several in circulation at once, rotating them. The opening lines of this one began: “New Delhi, Christmas Day 2010. Pigeons are landing on the maidan playing field in small, ochrey puffs of red dust. They are thin-looking creatures, as are the Indian crows. Call of mynah birds overhead. Faint tang of drains, incense, sandalwood soap, Wills Gold Flake cigarettes. It feels like a long time since it last rained.”

In the small pocket at the back were: a ticket to the Proms at the Albert Hall in London; a sun-faded postcard from Kyneton, Victoria, showing the bank, the old mill and the hotel known as ‘The Swinging Arms’; a pass for the Annapurna Conservation Area; an entry ticket to the Durbar Square in Bhaktapur, Nepal; ten Indian rupees, and a twenty Afghani banknote. I began to write some first impressions of Assisi:

Hollow metallic tontin of tongue-lolling churchbells. Crucifixes for sale and T-shaped Tau signs. Small religious figurines of St. Francis and enormous, head-sized meringues in the cafes. After the hordes of Gore-tex clad tourists vanish at dusk, the alleys become the preserve of huge cats in residence beneath battered Fiats – the only cars small enough to negotiate the narrow bends. The Basilica of St. Francis of Assisi stands overlooking the plain below. A sense of something spiritual – a special place.

We walked along the dark and winding streets in search of dinner. Down towards the Piazza Communale we found a small restaurant which was almost deserted, but seemed nice. It was run by two brothers, and had only recently opened. They specialised in local cuisine; very local – they could tell you the provenance of just about everything on the menu. For antipasti we selected a cheese platter, which came on a long, olivewood board. There were four kinds of pecorino, all at different stages of maturity.

“I suggest,” said the owner, “you begin at this end, with the mildest, and try it with some honey. Then progress towards the more mature ones, which you should try with either the fig jam or the chilli preserve.” He was right – it was a delicious combination. Then, another Umbrian speciality: Papardelle con Ragu Cinghiale – wide pasta like tagliatelle with a wild boar sauce. The sun was dipping behind the distant hills in shades of vermillion and purple, silhouetting the poplar trees. Lights began springing up across the darkening plain, and in the distance a lone church bell began tolling, melancholic and solitary in the evening chill.


It was a wild November night on the Suffolk Coast – a gale in the autumn of 1989. Rain spattered the windows and the TV aerial on the tiled roof of the Red Lion pub across the road was swaying back and forth in the wind. The pub sign squeaked on its hinges. On the wall by the yard was a sign that said: “Private Property – No Access. Rights of Way Act 1942”. The sign looked like it had been there since the war. And in the distance, out in the blackness, the sea boiled and roared, the crests of the waves whisked into sprays of silver in the light of the moon. It was easy to imagine a U-boat in 1942 waiting for clearer weather just offshore, lying calmly just beneath the surface, and the captain peering through the periscope at the shimmering lights of the town as the waves washed over the lens intermittently in their remorseless progression towards the land.

In the tall, thin house that smelt of wood polish and echoed to the slow tick of the grandfather clock in the hall, we sat in a small pool of golden light on the second floor, my grandfather in his armchair doing The Times crossword, my father sitting on the sofa nearby, reading another section of the paper, and myself, aged 16, listening to the storm outside and half-watching the TV that was on in the corner. It was an arts review programme, I remember, and the presenter was talking about a new book – a novel about Meissen porcelain – “Utz”, by Bruce Chatwin. It was the last interview he ever gave, explained the presenter, before his death from AIDS at the age of 48.

On the screen a gaunt figure, skeletally thin, sat with staring, bright blue eyes. He never blinked. His hair had almost gone. In an eerie, high-pitched voice, plummy as an old lady, he spoke about Meissen, and a man he had come across in Czechoslovakia who couldn’t bring himself to flee the Communist regime because it would mean abandoning the art collection which he loved – a man who was also in love with his maid, who looked after the small porcelain figurines. “And the maid wins!” he cackled. His nose was running, and he sniffed repeatedly. It was pitiful to see, and utterly haunting.

I’ve almost finished my big book – there’s a terrible old character with a twisted gut called Hanlon – and now I have a whole novel growing in the notebooks too. I can see almost all of it. It’s set in Prague and I shall call it “Utz” – “Utz!” Anyway, one day you must tell people Redders, but not now. It’s a fable. It’s all there, ready-made. And the moral is simple: never kill yourself. Not under any circumstances. Not even when you’re told you have AIDS.

Redmond O’Hanlon – Congo Journey

Chatwin had considered taking a trip to Switzerland, to the top of the Jungfraujoch, and jumping off. Or of going back to Mauritania, to the nomads there, and just taking off all his clothes and walking off into the desert. But he couldn’t do it. As Hermann Hesse says in Steppenwolf: “Suicide cases… are those individuals who no longer see self-development and fulfilment as their life’s aim, but rather the dissolution of self, a return to the womb, to God, to the cosmos… They see death as their saviour, not life, and they are prepared to jettison, abandon and extinguish themselves in order to return to their origins.” Chatwin, though, knew deep down that he wasn’t prepared to give up like that. That self-development and fulfilment was something to follow to the end, to be “defeated and laid low by life itself, rather than by one’s own hand”.

Dad looked up from his paper and frowned. “Poor chap. He really does look ill.” Grandpa’s paper came down and he peered at the screen. There was something mesmerising in this ghoulish spectacle – Chatwin’s passion for his subject, his enthusiasm and the fire in him despite his failing body. He spoke, in that strange, slightly querulous voice, of art, and Patagonia, of Aborigines going Walkabout, and nomadism, and the aesthetic imperative that leads to the mania for collecting, possessing that which cannot be possessed. “Of course, art always lets you down.”

Chatwin died soon after that interview. I didn’t know who he was at the time, and hadn’t read any of his books, but I have never forgotten it. In the writing of this piece, to try to confirm the accuracy of my own memory of the event, I searched for the interview online, and found a clip of it. I wondered whether to include it; people should remember him as he was when he was well, remember him for his writing, his beauty, his manic intelligence, his adventurous spirit and his extraordinary journeys. Not as a gaunt and haunted figure with so much still to say in the few remaining moments of lucidity left to him. His mind was going. But it was him, unquestionably, and still there, and still bursting with ideas and enthusiasm.

https://youtu.be/aN3tyNfVzjI

Though he was very weak and so thin you could see the white bones in his arms, his telephone was still plugged in to its socket. He was making and receiving calls, talking to his friends all over the world.

 Redmond O’Hanlon – Congo Journey    


Assisi was all about Saint Francis, and in numerous shops small plasterwork figures of him stood in rows in cabinets, styled in various poses. One of seven children born to a prosperous cloth merchant, he had a fairly wild youth, and had gone off to war against Perugia in 1201, when he was taken prisoner and held in captivity for a year. On his return to Assisi a serious illness led to what has been described as a spiritual crisis, but the following year he joined another military expedition to Apulia. On the way a strange vision convinced him of the need to return to Assisi at once and devote his life to God. He took a vow of poverty and spent the next years living essentially as a beggar in the surrounding countryside, wandering.

Reading the account of the saint’s life, I was put in mind of another soldier called Francis who had experienced a revelatory vision, but one who couldn’t have been more different. Sir Francis Younghusband, imperial soldier, diplomat and explorer, pioneered a route into Tibet on an espionage mission, and became the British resident in Kashmir in 1906. He became increasingly absorbed in mystical religion after an experience in Lhasa which he described as “a curious sense of being literally in love with the world”. He published a number of New Age books on his return to Britain, and became a proponent of free love, “the freedom to unite when and how a man and woman please,” as he put it, and wrote to his friend and lover Lady Lees saying: “I have made the discovery that bodily union does not impair soul union but heightens and tightens it”.

The Basilica of St. Francis was perched on a hill at the far western edge of Assisi – a site that used to be known as the Hill of Hell, as criminals were put to death there by being flung off it. Now it is known as the Hill of Paradise. The basilica itself consists of two churches, one on top of the other. The Upper Church was Gothic, the interior decorated with frescoes thought to be by Giotto. Overhead a cross-vaulted ceiling was decorated with golden stars on a deep blue background, and induced a light and airy sensation of soaring aspirations. Below, the Lower Church was an enormous crypt, entirely in the Romanesque style. It was dark and lit with the flickering flames of long, tapering candles. The atmosphere was one of introspection, contemplation.

In a nave off to one side there was a small chapel to St. Mary Magdalen, and at a bench before the altar a priest was praying with his eyes shut – a man in his 50s, with tight-curled iron-grey hair – his hands clasped before him, lips moving silently. As I entered the nave soundlessly on my rubber-soled shoes he suddenly looked up, startled, and saw me. I wondered what psychic field I had brought into the church to interrupt him so. What was the state of my soul, to have this effect? It meant no harm. We held each other’s gaze, deeply and questioningly, wide-eyed as if seeing something in each other for the first time. Then, embarrassed at disturbing him, I dipped my head, placed my hand over my heart in apology in the Islamic manner – a gesture I have always found touchingly respectful, however automatically ingrained it may become – and retreated. He closed his eyes and resumed his prayer once more. Perhaps I could have gone and prayed next to him. But I didn’t have his faith, and felt no urge to – no Franciscan revelation impelling me to do so.

I’ve always been interested in accounts of life-changing revelations. As humans we walk along our familiar pathways too often with eyes half-shut, and have at times to make a deliberate effort of will to notice things. Travel can introduce a kind of artificial jolt to the system, where you are physically transported to a different environment which sends you into a kind of sensory overload, where everything is unfamiliar so you are forced to see with new eyes; not just physically transported but also spiritually. And yet you can’t induce the pliant and open state of mind that is necessary to achieve this artificially – merely travelling somewhere different is not enough; one has to endeavour to see differently too. A concert can do it, music transporting you, manifesting itself in great emotion – your hair stands on end, your eyes fill with tears and you feel unable to breathe, filled with love. It leaves you changed somehow. Art can do it – I remember standing before a Caravaggio and having that same sensation, of a great pressure building up within me, right in the centre of my forehead, and I felt deeply moved and filled with tenderness. It transports us in time and space and we are not the same afterwards; we have altered our gaze and induced a new perspective, become beautifully broken.

I read a review the other day of an art exhibition in Goa: Julian Opie’s landscape prints titled “Winter”. Reviewer Madhavi Gore described the artist using satellite imagery and Google mapping to convey the wintry French landscape, there in steamy, tropical Goa, and spoke of the tradition of landscape painting as being rooted in the desire to possess, to inhabit those landscapes, in a claim of ownership: “Opie’s installation reminds us of humankind’s constant and consistent need to plot and map our footprint or location, and acquire a position of perspective – visual, aural, existential.”

http://www.huffingtonpost.in/madhavi-gore/julian-opie-brings-a-fren_b_8366440.html

It made me think about that action of plotting and mapping. What was the one group of people who did this to a greater extent than anyone else? People who actually described their world as it occured, footstep by footstep, mapping its features and by doing so, bringing it into being, constructing their own creation mythology in the process? It was the Australian Aborigines. The Songlines.

In the early 1980s Bruce Chatwin travelled to Australia, inspired by a book he had read, Theodor Strehlow’s Songs of Central Australia. Chatwin had been trying to write a book on nomads for years, but had got bogged down in the weight of research and had to abandon it. Now, Strehlow’s account of Aborigine traditions and mythology suddenly shone a new light on the subject. For Chatwin it was the missing piece in the jigsaw, or rather several missing pieces. He couldn’t quite see how it was going to fit together, but knew that this was an important area that was little understood, and felt “it might answer for me, the question of questions: the nature of human restlessness”. The book he ended up writing, The Songlines, described how the Aborigines, despite belonging to many different tribal groups, dispersed across vast distances and with often no language in common, nevertheless had a similar series of creation myths or ‘songs’, which connected together. In their songs they had created not just a physical map of their immediate surroundings, but also a moral universe, and these formed a network that spread out across the continent of Australia:

Every song cycle went leap-frogging through language barriers, regardless of tribe or frontier. A Dreaming-track might start in the west, near Broome; thread its way through twenty languages or more; and go on to hit the sea near Adelaide.

“And yet,” I said, “It’s still the same song.”

“Our people,” Flynn said, “say they recognise a song by it’s ‘taste’ or ‘smell’… by which of course they mean the ‘tune’. The tune always stays the same, from the opening bars to the finale.”

“Words may change,” Arkady interrupted, “but the melody lingers on.”

“Does that mean,” I asked, “that a young man on Walkabout could sing his way across Australia provided he could hum the right tune?”

“In theory, yes,” Flynn agreed.

Bruce Chatwin – The Songlines

“Walkabout.” As a term it is still little understood. Merriam-Webster traces it back to 1908, making reference to “a short period of wandering bush life engaged in by an Australian Aborigine as an occasional interruption of regular work”. Wikipedia adds that “the only mention of ‘spiritual journey’ comes in a usage example from a latter-day travel writer” – that travel writer being none other than Bruce Chatwin. But The Songlines was published in 1987. Was it really possible that there had been no deeper understanding of the term in all that time?

A film called Walkabout [spoiler alert] was directed by Nicolas Roeg in 1971, which was the story of two white children – a teenage girl and her younger brother – who become lost in the Australian desert where they are rescued by an Aborigine boy. Together they travel through the Outback, in a landscape which author Louis Nowra described as being: “of an almost hallucinogenic intensity. Instead of the desert and bush being infused with a dull monotony, everything seemed acute, shrill, and incandescent. The Outback was beautiful and haunting.” But it’s also a film about the mysteries of communication and cultural incomprehension. The Aborigine boy, increasingly drawn to the girl, paints his body with white clay in ritual and performs a courtship dance outside the hut where she is. He dances all day, and then all night, but she ignores him. That is to say, she cannot bring herself to look; we get the clear impression she knows what is going on, but lacks the equivalent language to be able to process it and respond. In the morning the body of the Aborigine boy is hanging from a tree outside. Rejected, he has taken his own life. And, years later, in an apartment block overlooking Sydney harbour, the girl stands in the kitchen as her tired husband comes home from work, loosening his tie, complaining about his boss, and her eyes over his shoulder seek out the distant horizons of the Outback again, and a memory of her and her brother swimming in a billabong together with the Aborigine boy, laughing and naked:

For we never hold hands, nor kiss,

Nor were we ever more than children.

Ricardo Reis – Come sit by my side, Lydia


In a caravan somewhere near Cullen, Australia, trapped by a storm that had turned the roads to mud, Chatwin settled down to write. He describes having a presentiment that the travelling phase of his life might be passing – a tragically accurate prediction, as it turned out – and wanted to reopen his old moleskine notebooks before the malaise of settlement crept over him. Twenty years of travel, questions, quotations and encounters, with the theme of restlessness and nomadism running through it all. Pascal, he remembered, opined that all of man’s miseries stemmed from his inability to remain quietly in a room.

“Could it be,” Chatwin mused, “that our need for distraction, our mania for the new, was, in essence, an instinctive migratory urge akin to that of birds in autumn?” (O’Hanlon recalled Chatwin telling him a story about a female southern albatross that wandered into the wrong hemisphere and built a nest in Shetland, waiting for the mate who never came.) The notebooks ranged far and wide, both geographically and metaphysically. And then, reading The Songlines again, in the section where he is leafing through the notebooks, one entry leapt out at me off the page:

Amdand u khandand u sokhtand u kushtand u burdand u raftand

They came and they sapped and they burned and they slew and they trussed up their loot and were gone.

A survivor’s account of the sacking of Bokhara by the Mongol cavalry in the 12th century. The rhythm of the Persian words describes the thud of horse hooves over the plain.

Bruce Chatwin – The Songlines

There it was. I had read The Songlines years earlier, and the line had embedded itself in my consciousness, the rhythm of it thrumming away until suddenly it surfaced again in the rumble of wheels over cobblestones in a small Italian hilltown, rather than hoofbeats across the great plains of Asia. The contempt of the nomadic Mongol horde for the settlers of Bokhara, undone by a sedentary life. A similar divide occurs amongst African tribes between the hunter-gatherers and the farmers, the cattle-herders who go in search of fresh pasture and the cultivators across whose lands they pass. Here, in these pages, was the book on nomadism he never wrote. And at the end of the book, in another eerie presentiment, which I find haunting and yet strangely beautiful at the same time, he describes being led to an ancestral site by his guide Limpy and coming across three Aboriginal men:

In a clearing there were three ‘hospital’ bedsteads, with mesh springs and no mattresses, and on them lay the three dying men. They were almost skeletons. Their beards and hair had gone. One was strong enough to lift an arm, another to say something. When they heard who Limpy was, all three smiled, spontanously, the same toothless grin.

Arkady folded his arms, and watched.

“Aren’t they wonderful?” Marian whispered, putting her hand in mine and giving it a squeeze.

Yes. They were all right. They knew where they were going, smiling at death in the shade of a ghost-gum.

Bruce Chatwin – The Songlines


Bruce Chatwin died in Nice on the 18th January 1989. In the last months of his life he had astonished friends by converting to the Greek Orthodox faith, and his ashes were scattered near a Byzantine chapel above Kardamyli, in the Greek Peloponnese. The chapel was near the home of his friend and mentor, the writer Patrick Leigh Fermor, with whom Chatwin had stayed for several months while working on The Songlines. “There was never, not a word about God,” said Leigh Fermor reflecting on their conversations. But the notebooks told another story. “The search for nomads is a search for God”, read one entry. Another: “Religion is a technique for arriving at the moment of death at the right time”. Writing of a journey to Stavronokita on Mount Athos, he wrote: “The most beautiful sight of all was an iron cross on a rock by the sea. Just below the monastery the dark cross appeared to be striving up against the white foam of the sea.” And finally, one last entry: “There must be a god.”

IMG_9480

When Spirits Rise

We reached our bed and breakfast that evening in a considerably more subdued state than we had left it that morning. Wet through, freezing cold, with numb hands and a stiffening neck that meant I couldn’t turn my head, all I wanted to do was lie down. But we couldn’t stop – we had arranged to meet friends for dinner in Alghero. We scrubbed up as best we could – I thawed myself under a hot shower for a while, flexing my tingling fingers – changed into dry clothes, and then we had to get back on the bike for the 15-minute ride into town. Alghero had a rather strange parking system, whereby spaces that were marked out in white were free, but others had to be paid for at a machine. What the rules were for motorbikes wasn’t clear. Along the promenade I found a space that looked more or less white under the sodium streetlights, and rolled into it. We walked along the marina, beneath the large gate into the old walled town, and turned into narrow cobbled streets full of shops selling jewellery and T-shirts for tourists, heading up to the restaurant, Osteria Barcellonetta.

The name was a legacy of the long Catalan rule in Alghero. Pedro IV of Aragon overthrew the ruling Genoese Doria family in 1353, and embarked upon a policy of Hispanicization for centuries which became known as “barcellonetta”. Even today Catalan is widely spoken, and uniquely in Italy, it has recognition as an official dual language. The restaurant was pretty full, but they found a table for four in the corner. For much of the week we had been attending dinners for 20 people in a series of restaurants around the town, so it was nice to have a smaller and more intimate gathering. I felt rather underdressed, however: my only clean clothes happened to be a turquoise kurta shirt, a blue checkered Cambodian scarf, and a Nehru vest over the top. We were definitely bringing a more multicultural dimension to Alghero – especially when N and M turned up in their ethnic scarves.

The food at Osteria Barcellonetta was a fusion of Sardinian and Catalan influences. Normally in Italy we found that ordering antipasti to share, and then a couple of primi or secondi dishes was enough for us. But tonight we were pushing the boat out, and somehow ended up having a five course dinner: bruschetta with marinaded fish, black ravioli with seafood, trofio pasta with aubergine, and steak with green peppercorn sauce (the best I’ve ever had). There may have been a tiramisu or two as well. After an hour in the restaurant I was starting to feel warm a little, although I kept getting periodic shivers – as did K. We had both been showing the signs of mild hypothermia, but were recovering well. We regaled the others with accounts of our horrendous ride; they had been in a car on the road to the south of us, and with the rain deafening on the metal roof had looked up at the mountains and wondered how we were coping on the bike.

This in turn led to an exchange of outlandish tales from around the world – stories of improbable driving, hazards negotiated, and assorted adventures. I mentioned nearly dropping the bike earlier that day, and how it had happened before with K on the back – that time at Anjuna Saturday Night Market in Goa. The traffic had been insane, the main road in gridlock, vehicles facing in every conceivable direction as policemen blew whistles futilely, adding to the clamour of honking. A small white van driven by a young Sikh had crept remorselessly closer and closer on my right, until we were inches apart. I actually rapped on his door, but it had no effect; closer it came, and I had no more road to move out the way – just the soft sand of the verge. As I hit it, the tyres slewed and the bike toppled. “Jump!” I shouted to K, and she somehow vaulted off the back. Just as the bike started to fall I glanced down and saw a woman with a baby sitting in the shadows, right where it was going to land. Somehow I held it – the full weight of a 500cc Enfield, as she sat a couple of feet away and watched. While I wrestled with the bars to try and get it upright to avoid it landing on her, she mutely extended a hand, asking for change. “In a minute, lady,” I snapped at her.

A story came to mind of a border crossing between Hungary and Romania undertaken by Patrick Leigh Fermor in his walk across Europe in the 1930s:

This borderland was the most resented frontier in Europe and recent conversations in Hungary had cloaked it in an additional shadow of menace. Well, I thought, at least I have nothing to declare… I sat up with a jerk in the corner of the empty carriage: what about that automatic pistol? Seeing myself being led to a cell, I dug the little unwanted weapon out of the bottom of my rucksack and undid the flap of leather case; the smallness, the lightness and the mother-of-pearl plated stock made it look like a toy. Should I steal away from these bare wooden seats and hide it in the first-class upholstery next door? Or slip it behind the cistern in the lavatory? Or simply chuck it out into No-Man’s-Land?

Patrick Leigh-Fermor – Between the Woods and the Water. 

(In the end Leigh-Fermor solved his dilemma by “hiding it in a thick fold in the bottom of my greatcoat, fixing it there with three safety pins”. Well, we’ve all been there. “What about that automatic pistol?” Damn! – I knew I’d forgotten something.)

M told a story of one night in Kabul, when we had come across a guy pushing his broken down car as he tried to steer it. Spontaneously we went over to help, the three of us taking up position against the boot. We got it rolling and he jumped in and tried to drop the clutch, but it wouldn’t turn over. After a couple more attempts we gave up and left him to it.

“And we have no idea who he was, or what was in the car,” I said. “We were just being helpful.” It had been a red Corolla, the type featured in all the security alerts as being the popular choice for a car bomb.

“Our fingerprints will be all over it!” he laughed.

“Not planning a trip to the US any time soon, are you?”

“No, but I’d like to get home to London without getting taken away at the airport.”

We were all laughing quite hard now. I realised that a couple at a nearby table, who I had heard speaking English to each other earlier, were looking at us rather strangely.

(Those icy Kabul nights… empty streets beneath the white glare of the security lights, our breath smoking in the chill air. The weather was oddly familiar, somehow like April in London, bare trees just coming into bud… but everything else was different. We walked past high walls and razor wire, exchanging low “salaams” with loitering men carrying machine guns to establish our legitimacy. You had to watch your step in Kabul – quite literally. The manhole covers had all been removed and gaping holes revealed a long fall into the drainage system beneath the road. Car headlights cutting twin shafts of light through the clouds of powdery dust, silhouetting muffled figures swathed in blankets walking along the verge. The little yellow lights from the houses that climbed the hillsides, and the forest of antennae on ‘TV Hill’. The twin-rotor ‘whump’ of Chinook helicopters on patrol. How long ago it all seemed.)

Sitting in the pool of warmth and light as we laughed in the restaurant, I found myself thinking about the improbable routes our individual lives had all taken to bring us together. From such different backgrounds and cultures we had all found something – a sense of connection – which spanned any such superficial geographical divide. The chance circumstance that led me to do a degree in Norwich – a city which I had never thought I would go back to, where after the bereavement of leaving Africa I had fallen into a pit of depression and heavy drinking which took years to get out of, rebuilding myself – then deciding to go back to university, and then changing my degree course after just two weeks, and overcoming all manner of obstacles, both bureaucratic and personal, to do so… It felt as if it was somehow meant to happen. Perhaps we look for patterns retrospectively in order to fully appreciate the true depth and meaning in our friendships. People come and go, friendships can run their course and you can grow gradually apart, but some remain, even if only as a memory, and the strand of them, the thread of their character, becomes interwoven with our own and makes up the tapestry of our lives.

In this wistful, grateful state of mind we wandered arm in arm along the battlements of Alghero’s old town, with the sound of the waves breaking on the rocks below us in the darkness. It reminded me of Essaouira. The streets were full of people, walking together in small groups, sitting in cafes, just spending time together – young couples, families with children, old people; locals and tourists mingling. I realised it was Saturday night. There was no infernal babble of dissent trying to make itself heard above the roar of traffic or the quick heart-jittering alert of sirens – just a low, melodious hum of conversation. Nobody was walking along fast, head down and defensively hunched, staring at their phone – their postures were open and comfortable as they ambled along, their laughter easy and natural. Although many people were drinking, nobody was visibly drunk. In this culture people drank without guilt, without the theatrical casting off of inhibitions that is so much a part of having “a good time” in more northern cultures – without the shrieking raucous laughter that resembles a shout of pain from a distance. They took wine with dinner, a digestivo afterwards, not to get drunk but for the simple pleasure of it.

Descending again into the narrow labyrinth of streets, we paused occasionally at the lit windows of jewellery shops. In the main square, although it was after midnight, a cafe was still open with many people sitting outside beneath a trellis of vine leaves. “Anyone like a coffee?” I asked. We found a table and took a seat.

“I might have a brandy,” K said. “Do you think they’ve got some?”

“Bound to.” I looked at the menu. There were some Italian brandies listed, and then cognac, for €4. “I’m almost tempted to have one myself, for medicinal purposes,” I joked.

“Will you have some of mine?” she said. “I don’t want a whole one.”

She does this with dessert all the time. But brandy? I don’t drink! But if there was ever a time – in the convivial company of friends, after a fine dinner, with my pins-and-needle fingers and spasming back and a lump of ice at my core that was only slowly starting to melt…

The waiter came over. “Quatro macchiati, per favore,” I said. “E un cognac.”

“Prego, signor.” Off he went.

Four small cups of espresso with a dash of frothy milk arrived, and were set before each of us. Then from his tray he took a huge balloon glass with a good inch of amber liquid in it, and placed it in front of me. It glowed like fire. I picked it up cautiously and put it in front of K, who inspected it then took a sip, pulled a face quickly and recovered. It seemed to go down well. I busied myself with my macchiato, which didn’t take long. She took another sip, smiled, then pushed the brandy across the tablecloth towards me. I picked it up, cupping my hand around the base of the glass to warm it, and sniffed:

The cognac was not to Rex’s taste. It was clear and pale and it came to us in a bottle free from grime and Napoleonic cyphers. It was only a year or two older than Rex and lately bottled. They gave it to us in very thin tulip-shaped glasses of modest size.

“Brandy’s one of the things I do know a bit about,” said Rex. “This is a bad colour. What’s more, I can’t taste it in this thimble.”

They brought him a balloon the size of his head. He made them warm it over the spirit lamp. Then he rolled the splendid spirit round, buried his face in the fumes, and pronounced it the sort of stuff he put soda in at home. So, shamefacedly, they wheeled out of its hiding place the vast and mouldy bottle they kept for people of Rex’s sort.

“That’s the stuff,” he said, tilting the treacly concoction till it left dark rings round the sides of his glass. “They’ve always got some tucked away, but they won’t bring it out unless you make a fuss. Have some.”

“I’m quite happy with this.”

“Well, it’s a crime to drink it, if you don’t really appreciate it.” He lit his cigar and sat back at peace with the world; I, too, was at peace in another world than his. We were both happy. He talked of Julia and I heard his voice, unintelligible at a great distance, like a dog barking miles away on a still night.

Evelyn Waugh – Brideshead Revisited. 

I quoted the passage as I slowly swirled the brandy, deferring the moment. I still wasn’t sure. Then, like stepping backward over a cliff edge and putting your trust in the rope, I raised the great glass tentatively and took a small sip. The pins-and-needles moved from my fingers up to my lips. I tasted it experimentally, rolling it around my tongue – the slightly powdery residue of it, the numbing anaesthesia, the sudden fiery flush of it coursing throughout me. I exhaled carefully through my nose, scenting it – the age of it, the wood of the barrel, the eye-watering, mustard-like sting that mellowed into something warm and glowing. The intake of spirits. A slow smile lit my face. So ended 15 years of being teetotal.

Carefully I placed it back in front of K, shooting occasional cautious glances at the glass out of the corner of my eye. It was certainly medicinal – it seemed to be healing my assorted woes on the spot. I quite fancied another sip, but I wasn’t going to rush her.

The philosophical paradox known as The Ship of Theseus, first outlined by Plutarch, poses the question whether a ship that had been restored by replacing every part of it is in fact still the same ship. Aristotle argued that it was, because the design, the “what-it-is”, or formal cause, of the ship, was unchanged even though new materials might be used. If it is true that the human body renews itself almost entirely every seven years at a cellular level, then after 15 years I have renewed myself twice over. I am not the same person. My formal cause may be the same, but we can change our opinion, our philosophy and even perhaps our personality in the same way that we renew ourselves physically. In drinking cognac I was not going to suddenly regress to where I was 15 years ago, lost and hurt and angry. I had evolved. There might be loss, hurt and anger again, but I knew now how to deal with it, not be consumed by it.

And moreover, I had become greater than the thing itself. My sobriety had become a cornerstone of my personality – something that set me apart, perhaps, as an exercise in self-control. But it was an edifice which was top-heavy; each year that passed by its height was added to, until it was this monumental looming feature. I knew I was playing with fire. But drinking was something that, if I shunned it, would always retain that element of danger to it – that possibility of the loss of control. And yet, as with riding a motorbike where you clutch on to the bars too tightly for fear of coming unstuck, and ride more jerkily as a result, this was an illusion.

So I confronted the thing – the anachronistic beast in the lair that lurked in the darkness of my consciousness – by throwing open the door and allowing the light to flood in. I realised I could take it or leave it – it didn’t merit anything more than that. I picked up the balloon glass and took another sip, and in doing so, in some very fundamental way, I loosened my grip on the bars a touch, smoothed out the ride and regained control.

We walked, fingers intertwined, along the promenade beneath the palm trees. Ahead of us were the other two, small figures in the distance, also hand in hand. The moon turned the outline of the clouds silver, and there was the chink of rigging from the yacht masts in the warm breeze off the sea. A cat began to follow us, trotting alongside, then halting, looking round, and following us once more. I examined myself cautiously for any trace of tipsiness, any effect of the brandy, and found none. I merely felt deeply happy – and as Kurt Vonnegut once wrote: “I urge you to please notice when you are happy, and exclaim or murmur or think at some point, ‘If this isn’t nice, I don’t know what is’”.

“This is nice,” I said aloud. “Main khus hoon.” I’m happy. I wondered how long it would last, then laughed at myself.

“Me too,” said K.

IMG_9415e

Rainriding

The road is silver and jumping with water, a shimmering aquatint of slick, sinuous curves. Treacherous patches as smooth as mercury lie where the camber levels out, and the tyres glissade across them with a thin zipping sound before regaining the purchase of the rougher asphalt with a dull roar. The hillsides are smoked with rain, thickening and dispersing as the clouds lower down their flanks, tissues of mist that are slowly torn away to reveal folds of wet valley. Small, battered farm buildings hunker down against the weather, red tiles shining, gutters cascading with twisting streams of tinsel, drowned by the rain.

The minimalist titanium spiderweb of my Scandinavian glasses offers no protection against the onslaught of droplets, and I experience the curious sensation of raindrops bouncing off my eyeballs at high speed. It stings my face like a dozen needles. I narrow my eyes to a squint and try to scan the road ahead, finding the line for the curve, avoiding the standing water which could carry us sideways over the cliff, and shudder as another rivulet of rain trickles down my neck. I’ve got the big shivers, a tremor beginning, rippling outward in fluttering muscle. The world is a blur through my smeared lenses, my shoulders hunched, face set in a grimace, roaring round the bends in low gear, with hands as white, dead and cold as a pair of flounders on a slab.

There’s a small track off to the right which I scan quickly, processing in a kind of mental shorthand – synaptic telegrams dispatched to save energy, warmth: no good, soft sand, bike’ll fall over. Another bend, double hairpin, click down to first and don’t touch the brakes, lean it over first this way then that, left eye is closing now, right one is down to 25% vision, find a layby urgently, don’t take your hands off the bars however much it hurts. Gurning mightily, jaw working like a ruminant, one eye shut, I make out twin tyre tracks off to the right and a heap of abandoned construction equipment, and steer towards it, clunking down through the gears like a learner with my non-functioning fingers, jolting the back brake because I can no longer remember left foot from right. Roll to a halt, into neutral, try again, into neutral, green light on, ignition off, sidestand down. Time to stop.


Colonel Bogey and Penguin Pillion

Colonel Bogey and Penguin Pillion

We were woefully unprepared for bad weather. We had left Santa Maria de la Palma in bright sunshine earlier that morning, and the forecast had been set fair. After a few days of temperatures in the high twenties there was no reason to expect a sudden change. As a result I was wearing a Haglofs Gore-tex jacket as a windbreaker – 15 years old, but reproofed earlier that summer – jeans and Blundstone boots. No gloves. K wore a couple of jumpers like an Indian aunty, jeans and trainers. Nothing more. Fortunately I had packed the Outward Bound hoodie as an emergency layer in the top box, so she put that on. We had passed numerous German tourists on big BMW touring bikes in the previous days, and laughed at their stiff-legged gait as they sweated in all their armour while waddling around sunstruck towns. Now the laugh was on us. The Indian style of bike touring makes no concession to protective equipment – even helmets are only used on main highways. But now I found a serious flaw with my helmet, as it lacked any kind of a visor. Riding with my huge sunglasses on this wasn’t a problem; I had ridden through the Himalayas with the same setup, over 18,000-foot passes. But as the day darkened I had to take them off and swap to my regular, non-tinted glasses, which offered minimal protection.

All the way south along the coast road from Alghero to Bosa the weather had been overcast, though there was a glimmer behind the clouds and occasionally sunshine broke through. The road was superb – bend after bend as it curled around the headlands with views of the open sea beyond. We took it fast, the 700cc Honda engine powering smoothly through each bend. It was a great bike, the NC700 – a little stolid and unadventurous, perhaps, but stable and forgiving of my elementary mistakes. We did some quick overtakes of caravans and other four-wheeled objects, and I noticed that above 90kmh my eyes started watering significantly, so after that we kept the speed down a little.

Bosa Marina was windswept and out of season. Palm trees whacked dully back and forth in the breeze along the promenade, and few people were about. We found a cafe open and sat outside with cappuccinos and a couple of paninis – the usual prosciutto and cheese, and tomato, basil and mozzarella. Although we’d planned to continue down the coast to Oristano, given the change in the weather we decided to cut inland and head through the mountains before returning to Alghero. By the time we left the cafe the sky was darkening, but I hoped it might be clearer conditions in the mountains, following the brightness to the east. We rode through the backstreets of Bosa until spotting a sign for a place that was familiar from the map: Montresta. The road climbed steadily upwards, and round one bend revealed the imposing bulk of Malaspina Castle draped along a spur overlooking the town.

The last few buildings fell away behind us and the landscape changed to a rather desolate hilly scrub. We roared our way round the bends, climbing steadily the whole time, until we passed a sign saying Altitude: 550m. We had climbed half a kilometer in perhaps quarter of an hour. It felt colder too, and I kept an eye on the ominous clouds that were looming off to my right over the hilltops. Montresta wasn’t far – perhaps 20km – but on these hairpins our average speed was 40kmh at best. The occasional farm buildings we passed looked like miniature castles themselves, with a rough-hewn, walled-in look and strategically small windows. Occasionally, small, battered-looking Fiats came hurtling down the road towards us, doing double the speed limit (which are all ludicrously low in Sardinia), disappearing round the bends with a twin dab of brake lights. But soon we had the road to ourselves. I hit a large pothole which caused the bike to jump sideways, and heard a groan from behind me. “TK?” I called out: Thik hain? Alright?
“Oof! Yaar,” came the answer.

I felt the first spot on the back of my right hand. Snatching a glance off to my right on a brief stretch of straight road I saw bruise-grey clouds advancing down the hillside across the valley from us. Then I had to snap out of it and concentrate on the next bend, following the metal ribbon of the crash barrier which had an ominously large dent in it. I clicked down into second and raised revs, until the limit point at which the barrier disappeared around the corner matched our own speed, neither advancing nor retreating – the perfect speed for the bend. Information, Position, Speed, Gear, Acceleration. I noticed small dark spots begin to appear on the road surface, and felt more droplets. “Rain coming,” I called over my shoulder. But it might just be a small shower, I reasoned, and we were getting closer to Montresta with every kilometer. Soon, though, a thin, steady drizzle began, and I had to periodically wipe the lens of my glasses using only my left hand to clear them. Then, suddenly, it got heavy, a curtain of falling silver water. I was taking the brunt of it on my chest, and acting as a shield for K, but the Gore-tex was holding up well. It was my vision that was the problem – I just couldn’t see properly, and on each of these tricky bends I needed every ounce of concentration. I was also becoming very cold. I remembered the words of the police biker who taught the advanced motorcycle training in Suffolk: “No matter how much training you have had, or how good a rider you are, you are only as good as the next second of the next minute of the next hour of that particular day. A second’s lapse in concentration could be your last.” It seemed prescient.

After powering through for longer than was probably wise, I could hardly see the road any more. That was when the layby came up with the construction equipment, so we rolled into it. There was no shelter at all, and the rain had settled into a thick downpour. I was concerned about K in the Outward Bound hoodie; if it soaked up the water, with an ambient temperature of around 12 degrees, moving at speed on the bike she was going to quickly become hypothermic. Spotting a ditch partly covered by branches we headed towards it. On the far side the hill fell away and we clambered down a few feet over a low wall to take shelter under some foliage. It was not the most scenic of spots. Discarded tyres lay around, with occasional pieces of plywood and other debris. Across the valley, I could make out small fields intersected by drystone walls and a little farm building. In the distance a dog barked, the sound muffled by the hiss of the falling rain and the drops pattering on the carpet of leaves around us. K’s teeth were chattering.

“Right, we’ve got to keep warm!” I announced.

“Oh god, it’s gone into military mode again,” she said.

“Yass!” I jumped up and down a few times, under the dripping trees. “Come on!” We jumped up and down a bit. I began harrumphing various marching tunes, of which the British are historically favoured with a great abundance. “A Life on the Ocean Wave” with the band of the Royal Marines – the record of which we used to have as children when we lived in Eastern Europe. As kids we just enjoyed marching up and down in time with the beat. It only occured to me retrospectively that playing British Military Music for hours on end in the living room with the secret police’s microphones hidden behind the wallpaper was in fact a not-terribly-subtle two fingered salute at the Communist regime. “Tipperary” – the most extraordinary song, really, written by two Brits (one of Irish descent) before the First World War, which became widely adopted by all the troops in the Trenches – including the Germans. And one night in Frankfurt in 1990 I met a man from East Germany walking his way west after the wall had come down, sitting on a park bench with a couple of other guys, sharing a bottle of vodka. On hearing that I was British he pulled out a harmonica and started playing “Tipperary”, and then we all joined in, between swings of the bottle, serenading bemused passers-by: a young Brit (of Irish descent) and three old German guys, singing a British wartime song, drinking Russian vodka after they had escaped from Communist East Germany. Historical ironies.

But in the ditch in the rain the tunes in my head all kept turning into Colonel Bogey, from “Bridge on the River Kwai”. Marching on the spot we began whistling it tunelessly, flapping our arms. I had pins and needles in my fingers from the cold. The only lyrics I remembered were the kind familiar to generations of British schoolboys:

Hitler has only got one ball

The other is in the Albert Hall

His mother, The dirty bugger

Cut it off when he was small

Himmler had something similar

But poor old Goebballs

Has no balls at all.

Just then, we heard the sound of an engine. A big bike. Then another, then a third. BMWs. You could tell by the clunking gear changes. They slowed, perhaps on seeing our bike in the layby, but then carried on along the road. I wondered aloud what exactly three touring Germans would have made of pulling up in a layby somewhere in the mountains of Sardinia in a downpour and hearing “Hitler has only got one ball” being bawled lustily from a nearby ditch. We stopped singing. We had to – we were laughing too hard.

A Sardinian friend had assured us that it only ever rained for an hour at most, at this time of year. One hour and fifteen minutes later, under the tree, we considered the full momentous import of the weather having disobeyed her. To one side we had a dismal view of the soggy hillside under the downpour; to the other, through the boughs of the hedgerow, we could just see a glimpse of the road and the slim silver bars of rain. It fluctuated in intensity, noticeable by the changing sound as it fell; it would become lighter in patches, raising our hopes, the patter of droplets more noticeable on the canopy of leaves above, and then it would strengthen again into a thick, steady hiss which drowned out the individual droplets. A pale sun sat behind stubborn wads of grey cloud, growing no brighter. We had run out of songs, exhausted our comedy routines, and now just glumly watched and waited, occasionally giving theatrical shudders. We were getting too cold.

The problem was, getting on the bike again we would be colder still, the minute we started moving. It was a judgement call. I gave the rain another ten minutes to stop, and when it showed no inclination to slacken off whatsoever, I looked at K and said, “Alright, let’s give it a go.”

We clambered back up the hill and through the gap in the hedge with a few feeble, bedraggled squawks, and stood in attitudes of general misery by the bike while we got helmets on again. Mercifully the engine started. Shooting a parting glance at our miserable ditch, I clicked into first and we nosed our way out of the layby and back onto the road.

The rain had eased a little, it seemed. I could see better now, and it didn’t sting as hard on my face. My hands were a problem though – my fingers seemed to be moving in slow motion. I had a strange burning pins-and-needles sensation in both, and when I went to pull in the clutch it seemed to take my hand five seconds or so to carry out the decision after I’d made it. Not a good sign. I looked hopefully ahead for signs of Montresta, but there was nothing – just mile after mile of wet scrub. Stiffly we rode around the bends, on and on, until I made out the shape of a farm off to the left. Then more sog and dismal heath. A few kilometers further on we rounded a bend and I blinked in disbelief: there below us, spread out across the hillside, were dozens of little pale-yellow houses with red roofs. Then a church. This was it! Montresta.

The town looked abandoned. It was three o’clock in the afternoon and everyone was very wisely staying indoors, given the weather. We rode up and down narrow winding streets, past a pharmacy (shut), past the church, looking for a cafe, a pizzeria, anything. Coming down one street we saw two enormous murals covering the wall of a building. It looked like Belfast. Just opposite, up a slope, there was a sign that said “Bar Cafe”. I squinted at it and saw the door was open. We roared up the hill towards it and pulled in next to two or three small cars parked outside.

From within came the din of a rapid-fire Italian commentary which emanated from a large TV on the wall. Several men sat around talking in raised voices to make themselves heard over it. At the appearance of two sopping wet bikers leaving individual puddles in the doorway, all conversation stopped. Slowly everyone turned to stare. There was an oddly sectarian feel to the place – and not just because of the murals outside – rather like walking into a pub in a small town in Northern Ireland as an outsider, where you don’t really know the rules or the background. I stepped over the threshhold, announced “Salve” (as opposed to the more distinctly Italian “buongiorno”) to the room in general, and squelched my way over to the bar. Only the blare of the TV continued. The waitress was pointedly pouring out two shots of something transparent, took them over to the men at one of the tables, and slowly conversation resumed. On her return to the bar she favoured me with a glance for the first time, and inclined her head at me. What did I want?

I had no idea. Something hot and wet. “Due té, per favore,” I said. Then I saw a row of biscuits and cakes off to the right under the glass counter, and made out a brand name on one of them. “E due Fiesta”. I had no idea what a Fiesta was, but it looked more edible than a small car. She found a couple of mugs, and two Lipton yellow teabags. It clearly wasn’t the sort of place many people dropped in for tea.

I had a sudden thought. “Um, té con latte, per favore.” I got an upward jerk of the chin in acknowledgement, and then she said something in Sardinian I didn’t catch. “Dov è…” I think I caught. Where?

“Outside,” I pointed. OK. She’d bring it over. Although it was cold, there were umbrellas on the terrace, and we could smoke out there.

The tea came in two tall china mugs with lids, and the Fiesta turned out to be some kind of orange spongecake covered in chocolate. It was very good. The rain fell steadily, pattering on the umbrella above, with the view from the terrace dominated by the house-high mural opposite. It was based on the Sardinian flag – a St. George’s Cross which usually has the head of a Moor with bandaged forehead in each quarter. Originally a sign of the Crown of Aragon, which the Kingdom of Sardinia became part of in 1326, the quattro mori are thought to represent four major victories by the Aragonese against the Moors in Spain, and the cross of St. George, itself a Crusader symbol, supports this. But interestingly the design changed subtly over time, and during the Savoy House Domain from the mid-18th century, the Moors were turned to face the other way, leftwards “to the luff” – a nautical term meaning mast – and the bandage on the Moors’ foreheads changed position, moving downwards to become a blindfold. Whether this was an error by a copyist or a deliberate protest is unclear, but the blindfolded Moors remained on the flag until as recently as 1999, when a special regional decree changed the design back to the original, returning the blindfold to the forehead as a bandage, and changing the orientation of the Moors’ heads to facing “away from the luff” once more.

In the mural on the house opposite, the artist had painted the portraits of two women over the upper quarters of the flag. One wore a high-collared blouse and had her hair done up tightly in a bun, in a style which might have been early 20th century. The other’s hair cascaded downwards, her eyes were half-closed and she held a microphone, as if to make a speech or to sing. Both had very striking features, and looked strong, proud and fiercely independent. There was a small caption beneath the picture: “Omaggio a Grazia Deledda & Maria Carta”. Grazia Deledda was a writer from Nuoro who received the Nobel Prize for literature in 1926, and whose novels described life on the island. Maria Carta was from Sassari, and was a folk singer, songwriter and actress (she played the mother of Vito Corleone in the film Godfather II), who also brought traditional Sardinian music to a wider audience around the world. Above the mural was the inscription:

A SAS FEMINAS SARDAS

EROICAS FEMINAS DE TALENTU

ASOS SARDOS AZZIS DADU FAMA ET GLORIA

SU TEMPUS NO CANCELLAT SU MEMORIA

DE CANTU AZZIS LASSADU IN TESTAMEN


TO THE SARDINIAN WOMEN

HEROIC WOMEN OF TALENT

TO THE SARDINIAN PEOPLE YOU GAVE FAME AND GLORY

TIME SHALL NOT CANCEL THEIR MEMORY

OF THE SONGS YOU LEFT AS A TESTAMENT

It was a strange mixture of defiance, independence and pride. I realised that my initial perceptions of sectarianism weren’t entirely wide of the mark, but were prejudiced by my own cultural baggage. This wasn’t a divided community like Northern Ireland. Who was the enemy here? It felt like there was one. Italy? The next village? Outsiders generally? I didn’t know. A few days earlier, talking to a young Sardinian man in a restaurant, I had rather clumsily asked whether, as a European Union citizen, he felt Italian first or Sardinian. “There’s no question!” he replied forcefully. “I’m Sardinian first, always!” The others round the table nodded in agreement. “90% of our problems here are because we are colonised by Italy, stuck onto this banana republic run by mafia and idiots like Berlusconi, hanging off Europe. Look at Scotland. If they can have a vote on independence, so should we.”

I had noticed, too, that many street and place names were written twice, often with the tiniest difference between them; perhaps only a single letter. One was Italian, the other Sardinian. It was an assertion of ‘otherness’, but still subject to Italian approval. The road the cafe was on was called Carrera de s’Alighera, in Italian, and beneath it, with just one letter different, Carrela de s’Alighera in Sardinian. The Italian was in capital letters. I knew that in Corsica, the neighbouring island to the north which was part of France (and which had that same Moor’s head on its flag), they had long had a pro-independence movement that bordered at times on outright insurgency, with bombings and kidnappings. Could the same happen in Sardinia, or had Europe’s own internal boundaries shifted somehow to incorporate more semi-autonomous stances, as the continent turned inward on itself against perceived threats from outside?

So there were undertones here. I couldn’t argue with the premise of the mural – indeed I found it heartening that the contribution of these daughters of Sardinia was being lauded, in a place – Mediterranean, southern Europe, or whatever – where an outsider might reasonably assume that the role of women was very much relegated to second place, as indeed it was just a few hundred kilometers to the south across the Mediterranean in North Africa. The mural posed something of contradiction in many ways; a positive message, delivered in a manner and style which seemed slightly ominous in this dismal hilltown in the rain: something insular, clannish and tribal. I noticed that there was still plenty of space on the flag for more portraits.

My tea had grown cold. K had found a cat to play with on a doorstep. The rain seemed to showing signs of abating a little – there was a brightness off to the west, and even a watery patch of blue: “enough to make a Dutchman’s trousers”, as my grandma used to say – a phrase that I think originated with the wide-legged trousers the Dutch sailors wore during the Third Anglo-Dutch war off the Suffolk Coast in 1672. Looking at the sky they were more skinny jeans than bellbottoms, but it was vaguely promising. I headed in to pay the bill, and we readied ourselves for another cold, wet ride. Turning back onto the main road we had gone several hundred metres before the presence of a roadsign on the other side of the road reminded me that in Sardinia – as in the rest of Italy – they drive on the right. The first time I’d made such a mistake on the trip. I told myself to focus – it would be stupid to make a slip-up now. But I was deeply cold, and kept getting muscle spasms in my back. It wasn’t far to the next town, Monteleone, and perhaps we could stop there again for another tea.

The rain, though, hadn’t gone away at all – it had just retreated to round the next bend. We got soaked once more. But there was no way I was going to stand under any more trees to wait it out – I had run out of marching songs, for one thing. I remembered all the times that I had pushed my limits, gone way past the comfort zone, into a place where there was nothing left but to endure, and hang on and I felt a flicker of residual warmth at the thought: these are the times that you look back on, I thought. Not the easy days when nothing much happened, but these times when it got rough, and somehow you got through. Wait until you are sitting back in your flat in London, with the heating on and a cup of tea at your elbow, looking out at the lights of the city, warm, comfortable and dry – you’ll look back on this and laugh. Just another adventure. So we just gritted our teeth and hung on. “I take you to such interesting places!” I laughed over my shoulder, and got a kind of gibbering “Brrrrr” in reply.

Monteleone was larger than Montresta, by the look of it. A small one way street nosed down the hill into the town, and we spotted a neon sign saying Bar Tabacchi with a few parking spaces nearby. The rain was falling in stair-rods again, so we jumped off the bike and ducked in through the door. The warm fug hit us and my glasses immediately steamed up. Four men in their 60s sat at tables near the entrance, and the atmosphere couldn’t have been more different to the previous place. “Ay ay ay,” one cried. “Molto aqua! Sta freddo!”

“Molto freddo,” I smiled, looking molto freddo. Very cold. “Motobike e aqua not very bene”.

I ordered a pot of tea from the girl behind the bar and we went to a table a short distance away to drip quietly on the floor. On the television overhead a kind of talent show was taking place, of syrupy Italian love ballads together with videos that looked like ice cream adverts. The tea arrived and I wrapped both hands around the cup for warmth – my fingers were numb apart from the prickling and burning pins and needles.

The door opened again and two more bedraggled figures came in. Cyclists. They clipclopped across the linoleum in their special shoes, then the woman spotted our pot of tea, and said to her companion: “Look – they do tea.”

“Super. I’ll get a pot.”

They came and sat at the table next to us.

“Lovely day for a ride,” I said.

“Isn’t it. We’ve come 70km in this.”

“Are you British?” I asked.

“Scottish,” announced the woman in a distinctly English accent.

“Looks like you got a bit wet yourselves,” said the man. His accent was definitely Scottish – the softer brogue of the far north. We swapped general Anglo-Scottish pleasantries about the weather for while, talked of cycling in London, the night ride from there to Suffolk known as the Dunwich Dynamo, and how, fun though motorbikes might be, the world would be a great deal better off without the internal combustion engine.

A patch of glowing sunlight suddenly appeared on the wall opposite. We all stared at it, basking in it. The rain had stopped! Hastily we packed up, bade farewell and fair riding to the Scots, and set off once more. The road was steaming gently in the sunshine, and we followed a convoy of small cars up and over the escarpment. Coming down the other side the wind hit us, and I began shivering again. Then, suddenly, the sea came into view. The curving coastline made the shape of an old man lying on his back in the waves, his rounded head at Capo Caccia, the swell of his belly forming the hills further inland, and his feet pointing towards Alghero – dark rocks set against a shining sea crumpled like tinfoil. I remembered the Poor Knights Islands off New Zealand that resembled a knight in armour lying down in the deep blue Pacific, and also Cabeça do Velho in the middle of Mozambique – the old man’s head, surrounded by bushland and visible from the town of Chimoio; dusty, fought-over, blown apart Chimoio, a liftetime ago. Now there were elephants again in the bush around Cabeça do Velho, I had read, and Gorongosa National Park had been nominated as one of the world’s biodiversity hotspots. The world turns, heals itself.

We entered the outskirts of Alghero in fairly miserable shape, damp, chilled and shivering. The road into town led through backstreets in a neighbourhood that looked run down and impoverished, like a suburb of Tunis or Tripoli. Huge potholes lined the streets. I thought about the course of a life, the countless, random experiences that make it up and the threads running through it that connect us to each other, the people who we love, and whether we meet them through mere chance or some larger design. But mostly I was thinking about what to have for dinner.

My back was spasming again and I groaned periodically – I had trapped a nerve somehow. Halting for a red light just outside a petrol station I became aware of a noise behind me: high, clear notes. K was singing. I couldn’t quite place the tune. “It’s singing!” I exclaimed tiredly, delightedly, and received a rather soggy pair of arms wrapped around me in a hug in return. The light changed to green, I did a shoulder check and accelerated away.

It was “What A Wonderful World”.

The Eternal City

Relentless sentimentalist that I am, the aftermath of a trip manifests itself in a snowstorm of tickets and receipts which I can never quite bring myself to throw away. I can pack in ten minutes, but take weeks to unpack. These tickets are in fact tabs to a mental filing system, their curious hieroglyphics sometimes prompting a furrowed brow as I endeavour to recall the event that each represent. That indecipherable, looping script with abundant double consonants could only be Italian… cappuccino, palazzo… but what was it for? A hotel? Two coffees and an aqua minerale? The Italians love their receipts. It gives the Guardia Finanza something to do.

My wallet bulges with reminiscent litter. A small pink counter ticket with the number 253 – nothing else. That was the queue for a concert in London. The bewigged and powdered portrait of an 18th century young man, which has gone into the transparent pocket where one might reasonably keep a photograph of a loved one, is the ticket to an art gallery in Venice. The blue cardboard folder marked SNCF contains the stub of a train ticket: Roma Termini – Assisi. Do you remember the Filippina nuns, who went to sit down then spotted the sleeping man on the concrete and developed expressions of dismay, deciding instead to stand further along the platform? We are not so squeamish. Or was that Assisi – Firenze? And the Middle Eastern guy with a quick, jittery manner who asked me for a cigarette then complained there was no filter? I remember we hadn’t eaten all day, the bags weighed a ton, we weren’t sure if it was the right train, and you could smoke on the platforms. We did, furiously. The factory opposite had a hole in the roof like it had been bombed. Von Ryan’s Express. Colonel Bogey. All this from a ticket stub.

Vueling Airlines, which I had assumed to be Chinese, turned out to be Spanish – the budget arm of Iberia. And it was, in many ways, a very European airline: the German stewardess welcomed us to “Fooling” Airlines, the Spanish pilot pronounced it “Wailing”. We fooled and wailed our way around the runways of Gatwick for a while to an Ibiza dance music soundtrack as rain spattered the portholes, then took off and within a minute pierced the characteristic murk of overcast that hangs above the British Isles. Suddenly the cabin was filled with sunlight in a premonition of the Mediterranean weather we were heading towards. It was a little over two hours to Rome Fiumicino, but we touched down in a different season: 27 degrees C on the ground.

I walked into the terminal and there was K, waiting just before immigration, as we had arranged – just the same. Passengers flowed around us as we hugged for a long time – it had been six months, a sleepy parting in the hot darkness of a Goan dawn as I climbed into John the Taxi’s car for my flight back to London. At that time we had had no idea when we should meet again; now here she was, and all the stresses of travel arrangements, the tedious bureaucracy of obtaining Schengen visas for non-EU citizens, were behind us.

But after just a few minutes together we were separated once again by our passports – I had to join the EU queue, and K went into the non-EU line. I kept an eye on her progress and we approached the adjacent desks at the same time. The immigration official before me could’ve doubled as a male model in his spare time – olive skin, chiselled features and a tremendously smart navy blue uniform (unlike the UK Borders Agency who have kitted out their staff in shapeless sag-assed black combat fatigues like a SWAT team). I proffered my passport together with my first Italian sentence – a very English “buongiorno” – and he glanced at it and waved me through. On the other side a group of African nuns stood together with arms folded and expressions of inexhaustible patience, waiting for one of their number. A couple of soldiers loitered nearby in shades and designer stubble. I waited. Five minutes. Ten. No sign of K. People I recognised from the queue behind her began to emerge from the same booth. What was going on? 15 minutes. Perhaps she had gone on to baggage reclaim? 20. I walked to baggage reclaim, trying to keep the expression of anxiety off my face. No sign of her.

My mouth was dry and I bought water from a machine, gulping it greedily down. Half an hour had gone by, and by now I was feeling sick. What if there was a problem with the visa? What if they just stuck her in a holding room before the next plane back to Delhi? I saw a lady wearing a yellow Fiumicino Information vest and approached her. “Don’t worry,” she said. “There’s always a delay for non-EU. Maybe 15 minutes.” By now it had been 45, I told her. She pulled out a phone and called a friend in Immigration, who also said not to worry. I asked her what I should do if K didn’t come through. “Well… you could try the police?” she said uncertainly, clearly with no great enthusiasm for my prospects of success with them. I paced up and down the baggage hall, wondering what the hell I was going to do. The phone didn’t work. The free airport wifi wasn’t connecting. It was all going wrong.

Then, suddenly, there she was, flip-flopping her way across the concourse, looking harassed. “Surrey!”

“What the hell happened to you? I was worried sick.”

“They took me out of the queue and I had to wait. Then I had this interview and they wanted to see all the hotel bookings. I told them you were waiting and tried to message but they told me to put away my phone.”

“I’m sure. They don’t want people causing a scene. They’d have just quietly deported you and I wouldn’t have known anything about it. Anyway, you’re here. Viva l’Italia. We’re in.”

There was a small booth outside the airport terminal where you could book a seat on one of the many buses heading to the city centre. We chose Terravision, largely on the strength of the name, and took our place in a crowd that couldn’t properly be called a queue in the British sense of the word. A forest of arms reached over the shoulders of others, proffering tickets to the one girl who was wearing a Terravision tabard. A group of Germans who had been patiently waiting were shouldered aside by a phalanx of Chinese who used their enormous wheeled suitcases like a battering ram. Realising that we were playing by Delhi Rules I dived in, somehow getting the big orange backpack into the luggage hold while clutching K’s hand so as not to lose her in the crowd. It was an interesting cultural introduction – neither the orderly queueing of northern Europe nor the free-for-all melee of Asia, but something in between. The Chinese tutted at these Indian upstarts with their underhand techniques such as the Casual Footplant, the Accidental Rucksack Blat or the Art of Becoming Immovable Unhearing Object. But it got us on, and we got seats. Looking out of the window as the door closed I saw a disconsolate group of Deuter rucksacks and Jack Wolfskin anoraks still standing on the pavement. The Germans would have to take the next bus. “Surrey!”

Roman traffic, too, was a strange kind of hybrid; there was some desultory hooting, but not too much. Cars raced towards zebra crossings, but then did actually stop at the last minute for pedestrians. The personal space measure had shrunk, but not too much: if a pedestrian comes within a metre of a moving vehicle in London the driver is likely to have a panic attack; in Delhi it’s more like a centimetre or two. Rome’s yardstick was a good 30cm – ample room by Indian standards, but disconcerting for Brits and others. Despite the ominous warnings of the guidebooks it all seemed quite orderly really.

And Rome was beautiful. I had been expecting traffic-snarled streets and the occasional ruin surrounded by scaffolding with bits dropping off it periodically like carious teeth, as gangs of moped-riding youths – scippatore, my guidebook helpfully explained – lay in wait for unsuspecting tourists to relieve them of their handbags. But instead there were wide, tree-lined boulevards, with turn-of-the-century apartment buildings. The mopeds were mostly ridden by smart young women in designer clothes. Sometimes we’d pass walls or arches with narrow terracotta brickwork that looked ancient, and the street names were large stone rectangles carved in an elegant, Romanesque font, unlike the functional metal placards in much of the world. The metal signs that did exist, such as for traffic signs, all had a tall and skinny, slanted font – the very definition of Italic. Another sign, on a billboard, left me nonplussed: “Study for British School – Via Rhodesia”. It took a moment to realise Via Rhodesia was the street name – surely the only one left in the world. We passed an enormous ruin of walls and archways – the Emperor Caracalla’s Baths. Then, suddenly, turning a corner the view was dominated by the unmistakeable outline of the Colosseum, prompting a series of oohs and ahs from the passengers, swiftly followed by the assorted clicks and chirps of dozens of cameras. It was, I’ll admit, all very impressive.

Neighbourhoods adjacent to main train stations are rarely salubrious areas, and I had some misgivings about our hotel’s proximity to Termini, recalling the shooting-up gallery round the back of Oslo’s Sentralstasjon or the seamy backstreets around London’s King’s Cross. But this too was unfounded – it was a pleasantly central location off the Via Merulana, heading towards Vittorio Emmanuele park. The hotel itself, Auditorium di Mecenate, was on the third floor of an apartment building serviced by the type of ancient elevator where you have to pull an iron grille across to shut yourself in. Next door was a cafe, across the road a pharmacy, and there were many small shops about. Over the next three days we gradually got to know the neighbourhood, and later, at the end of the trip, we returned there out of sheer familiarity – although to another hotel as the Auditorium was fully booked. Indeed the next time I’m in Rome I’d probably stay there too. Of course there’ll be a next time.

Dawn makes any city unfamiliar. Even if it’s the one you live in, the first grey light of daybreak throwns different features into relief, and the dimensions of the streets assemble themselves naturally without throngs of people to disrupt the view. The birds begin to stir, singing the day into being. The occasional passer-by, huddled against the cool air, walks with the furtiveness of an urban fox, away from the retreating night – heading to work, perhaps, or home from the night shift. The first shutters begin to rattle up on the cafes and a yawning waiter wipes down tables before unstacking the chairs. Four cops draw up in a car, the bubbling blue-and-white Polizia sign on the side looking like a toothpaste advert. They climb out and adjust their uniforms, smoothing their hair, settling caps on heads – two men and two women – before heading to the counter for coffee. A priest in long black cassock cinched with a wide leather belt goes in, and greetings are exchanged.  He bestows a benevolent smile upon the pastries behind the glass counter, finds one he likes in particular and points it out to the waiter. Two African men carrying large bags go past, their eyes swivelling quickly over the cafe’s customers before moving on. Nothing to see here.

I hadn’t appreciated how small Rome was – the historical center, at least. The hotel receptionist furnished us with a map of the city centre, and drew swirling italic rings around various sites of interest in ballpoint pen. Over the course of the day we managed to visit most of them simply by ambling about in pursuit of a series of coffees – the kind of sightseeing I like best. From the Piazza Santa Maria Maggiore, dominated by the church of the same name from which issued ethereal singing at certain times of day, and clanging clock chimes at others, it was a 15-minute walk downhill to the Colosseum. Thronging with tourists even in the early morning, it loomed over Constantine’s rather diminutive Arch nearby. A series of Bengali men lining the stairs offered selfie sticks to the descending tourists, and nearby a Roman Legionary in helmet, tunic and sandals peered glumly at his iPhone before perking up at the approach of a group of girls who wanted their picture taken with him. Two ladies, each with their own selfie stick, took pictures of themselves repeatedly, only halting at the approach of a vendor who offered them… a selfie stick. “I’ve already got one?” said the taller of the two in distinctly Australian accents. “So has she? Why would I need another?” It was a fair question – or series of questions – and the vendor sloped away, saw me watching and half-heartedly lifted one before deciding it really wasn’t worth it, nothing was really worth it, and he might as well just go and sit down on that rock for a while and watch all the other vendors get rejected too.

There was a kind of vendor hierarchy, with selfie sticks lowest of the heap. Above them were the flower guys – all of them also Bengali – who would approach a couple with a bunch of roses and offer one to the lady. They had cultivated an expansive air of Italian romance – “please, take it for free, beautiful lady” – but would then hover around until paid to go away. They tried it on couples seated outside cafes too, laying a rose on the table before lurking round the corner and coming back to extract payment. There were Africans – mostly Senegalese, it seemed – who sat on small stools along the pavement selling wooden items: little, hideous giraffes, the kind of intricately carved folding bowls such as the one I bought in Afghanistan, and various other trinkets. Some of these, too, would ambush customers in cafes, lurking in the field of vision with a repeated, questing refrain of “Buongiorno? Buongiorno?”, until dismissed with a wave of the hand or an impatient jerk of the head. Tourists tended to get into conversation with them, which was inevitably a mistake; on more than one occasion I saw British tourists (“Bon jaw know,” they would fatally reply) doing that mildy exasperated apologising that the British do so well: “No, I really don’t want one, thank you… sorry, no, not today… no, well not tomorrow either, because we’re going to Pisa, haha… sorry, no thank you”. And the vendor would hear: “sorry… thank you… sorry… thank you” and think: “Aha! If I just keep on standing here and guilt-tripping them into a state of grovelling abasement I’ll wear them down”. After one of these encounters, our waiter – who was Punjabi – rolled his eyes and said to us (in Punjabi): “These guys just try to make everyone feel like wankers”.

And they did. But it wasn’t really their fault, either. All summer columns of refugees had once again trudged back and forth across Europe in search of sanctuary, to a wall of monumental indifference; a wall whose height was added to by each passing, hateful headline. Migrants desperate for a better life – or any kind of life at all – had risked everything to get to the final, glittering citadel of the EU. Now they were in, legally or otherwise, and what they found was indifference, resentment, hostility. Nobody would give them a job in a country with 50% youth unemployment. No-one wanted to buy their tat – no-one had any money anyway. The Bengalis sold the same green laser lights and glowing parachute toys that they sold on the beaches of Goa; the only difference was that here, when they did occasionally make a sale, they got paid in Euros. And in a street just next to the Colosseum, at an ancient, cast-iron pump set into a wall, an African clad only in his shorts stooped splay-legged like one of the giraffes that he sold, and with the quick, deft movements born of long practice, soaped himself all over, sluiced water over his head, scrubbed his teeth vigorously, washed his socks under the stream of water, and then dried himself off with a small towel and repacked his daysack before trudging away down the street towards the crowds of tourists once more.

The hotel was on Via della Statuto, and at the end of it, past the kebab shop on the corner, lay Vittorio Emmanuele Park and the metro station. The pavements outside the shops were colonnaded, with canopies offering shade from the sun, and each morning stalls selling cheap clothing were set up, again mostly manned by Bengalis. They seemed to do a roaring trade – there were nearly always people looking for a bargain, whether tourists in daypacks with cameras slung about their necks or smartly dressed housewives leafing through the racks of clothes with a vague air of distaste. A staircase descended into Vittorio Emmanuele Station, which was fairly grubby, with bare concrete walls and a distinct absence of the advertisements that line every London platform. Rome’s metro is essentially just two lines – A and B –  and looked a little knocked about. Machines on the concourse sold tickets for €1,50 which were valid for 100 minutes of travel – which would probably take you to the end of both lines and back, if you were so inclined. We were bound for Ottaviano and the Vatican Museums, a few stops away across the River Tiber.

Emerging into the heat on what looked like just another Roman boulevard, it slowly became clear that the demographic had changed: the streets were full of nuns. They went past in groups, of all ethnicities and languages, the colours of their habits varying a little from one group to another, and yet there was a drab uniformity to them all. All seemed to favour sagging grey ankle socks worn with sandals. Sometimes they hurried, sometimes strolled, and they, too, became impatient with all the tourists, following each other in their little groups round clumps of daytrippers who had stopped en masse in the middle of the pavement for no reason at all. I eavesdropped on the conversation between three nuns ahead of me, who were speaking in English: two who I took to be Irish from their accents, and a younger African one. I only caught a fragment of it, but one of them said to the African nun: “And did you receive absolution this morning?” For what? I thought.

I sat down on a rock in the shade of a nearby wall and rolled a cigarette as the column of nuns went by. As I sat there, five German girls in tight denim hotpants came and stood in front of me. More arrived – clearly a school group – all of them in these cheeky Daisy Duke shorts. I wondered how they were going to get into the Vatican dressed like that (the answer was, by using temporary sarongs to cover bare legs and shoulders). Soon I was surrounded by 15 or 20 blonde teens who seemed completely oblivious to my presence. They had a heavyset, milk-fed kind of manner to them – rather clumpy and big-boned, for the most part – a small herd of nubile Teutonic heifers. Their teacher, a harrassed-looking thirty-something man with a prominent Adam’s Apple and razor burn, addressed them all from an adjacent rock. They scowled, looked at the floor, played with their phones. Their shorts looked terribly uncomfortable. There was a lot of furtive wiggling and readjustment. The nuns slopped by in their orthopaedic sandals and baggy socks, smiling sadly.

The Vatican, a miniature state-within-a-state, didn’t require a visa, at least. But there was security to be cleared – airport-style scanners and X-ray machines for the backpacks. Notices warned of a ban on objects such as scissors, penknives and hammers, which had been introduced after an incident in 1972 when a mentally disturbed man, Laszlo Toth, attacked Michelangelo’s Pieta statue with a hammer in the Basilica of St Peter’s. Although I didn’t anticipate having such a visceral reaction myself to any art I might encounter, I realised that my penknife – an enormous, inch-thick Swiss Army Knife with 42 blades (apparently) – was in my backpack, and wondered what to do with it. In the end I just left in in the bag as it went through the scanner, and they never picked up on it. (Thai Airways, Air India and Singapore Airlines have also missed it in security checks over the years, which is a little concerning I suppose.)

St Peter’s Basilica was immediately cool and dark after the broiling sun. There was a low sussurus of murmuring as the crowd of tourists endlessly perambulated anticlockwise with necks craned aloft. Crepuscular rays descended in tapering columns of light from the windows around the high dome, creating a suitably heavenly atmosphere. From far above came the triple-clap of pigeons’ wings and a faint cooing. Sculptures of assorted saints in heroic poses lined the walls; Saint Veronica appeared to be attempting to escape from her dress; St Andrew reclined upon the X-shaped cross that came to be named after him, hand outstreched and eyes turned aloft beseechingly. Over the altar was a baldacchino, designed by Bernini, oddly reminiscent of a four-poster bed. Dark wooden columns twisted and fluted their way aloft, rising to 20 metres in height. At the base of each was a marble plinth, and upon these were carved a heraldic shield containing three bees in triangular formation – the coat of arms of the Barberini family, Cardinal Maffeo Barberini having become Pope in 1623 and taking the name Pope Urban VIII. The removal of ancient bronze beams from the Pantheon to provide material for the baldacchino led to an anonymous critic of the time writing the Latin pun: “Quod non fecerunt barbari, fecerunt Barberini” – What the barbarians did not do, the Barberini did. 

But it is only on closer inspection of the plinths that one can detect that Bernini’s monument has an extraordinarily graphic detail, given that this is the most sacred spot in the Roman Catholic world. Each shield is enclosed by a woman’s head, and while initially appearing identical, when viewed from the front left plinth it is possible to discern her changing expression. As Witkowski (1908) writes:

The scene begins on the face of the left-hand front plinth; the woman’s face begins to contract; on the second and following plinths the features pass through a series of increasingly violent convulsions. Simultaneously, the hair becomes increasingly dishevelled; the eyes, which at first express a bearable degree of suffering, take on a haggard look; the mouth, closed at first, opens, then screams with piercing realism. … Finally, comes the delivery: the belly subsides and the mother’s head disappears, to give way to a cherubic baby’s head with curly hair, smiling beneath the unchanging pontifical insignia.

Interpretations vary as to Bernini’s message. Some believe that the faces illustrate the labour of the papacy through the symbolism of childbirth. Others maintain that they were commissioned intentionally by Urban VIII at a time of his niece’s problematic pregnancy in gratitude for the successful delivery of the child. But perhaps the most entertaining account is that it stems from a piece of Roman gossip at the time – that this was Bernini’s revenge on the Pope for having disavowed a child illegally born to his nephew Taddeo Barberini and the sister of one of Bernini’s pupils. Even Popes are not above the morality of Vox Populi in the Eternal City.

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