8 August 2015
Arriving home to Gargnano in the dead of night, I wished I was a child again so that my mum or dad would carry me in while I pretended to sleep on their shoulder. Sticky from the sweat of a 37-degree day and with a dull thrum pounding in my brain from the lack of caffeine, the dark was a luxury.
Mostly, we walk back to the Palazzo in silence; each step an effort in and of itself. One foot after the other, flip flop, shuffle, mutter. The lakeside town is quiet except for a bar still open – men sit around drinking spritz, ogling the stream of mostly girls & women shuffling along the cobblestone with cheap opera cushions in hand, while their waitress looks ready for bed.
Today seems as if it was 3 days in one – the boredom of a sort-of daily grind, the excitement of a new city and then here. The church bell tolls 3 and the wind has picked up at last. We’re home, and sleep rolls into the room one slow blink at a time.
In Verona, the city of Romeo & Juliet, the great love tale of our culture, life seemed slow but fast but… fake. Unreal in the lighting, balconies, slippery marble walkways and grand drinking fountains in tourist-filled piazzas. Tourists jumped in eagerly to assault the statue of the famed lover under the guise of finding their true love and women posed on the balcony of Juliet while their boyfriend, partner, husband stood below, camera at the ready.
The waiters weren’t interested in our group of oddly-accented wannabe-Italian speakers, and the shopkeepers looked bored. The joy really is in the part where we’re here only for a few hours before we go to witness the grand ‘spettacolo’ that is the opera at Arena di Verona.
Tanned youth cart their 30L backpacks laced with sleeping bags and hiking boots into the arena arches alongside stately, white-haired regulars, dressed in linens and silks to fend off the slimy, sticky heat.
Vendors yell ‘1.50€ per un cuscino’ but of course then charge you 3€ instead, and inside, men sit stoically while women cool themselves with crackling fans.
A voice rises over the loudspeaker – Italian, English, German – and we all chuckle at the accents that prevail. “It’s so Italian” fast becomes the favourite phrase of the night as lights dim, and the spettacolo begins. There’s melodrama, booty shaking and humour, and we coo and chuckle at the beauty of it all, most of which we don’t even understand. Che bellissimo, che divertente.
The dancers move jauntily, the stage is full, and some kind of laugh-out-loud medieval robot dancing rounds out the first half. The audience clap & cheer, pause & stretch, and we head off in search of toilets.
Outside the crowd wonders slowly around, half just there to stretch their legs after 2 hours of stiff seating, and the other seem to make their way to the nearest fountain in a small piazza dividing Verona’s high street. They take their time, filling, drinking, filling, drinking, and eventually the three of us take our turn. Water bottles full, sweat washed from our faces and necks, we head back in search of a public toilet. Closed. And closed.
We stop. Stand. Glance around us and there it is, looming, il Palazzo della Gran Guardia fronted with bold banners, “arte e vino”.
Youth dot the grand stairs that announce the building’s entrance, drinking, flirting, talking. “I’ll literally do a shot so that we can use their bathrooms.”
“Shall we do it?”
“Let’s do it.”
So across we go, through the steaming warmth of an Italian summer night. Inside, we follow more stairs to discover Italian men loitering, entrances to a toilet and a door behind which music pounds.
A discotecca inside a grand palace, lined with art and marble. I gape.
We use the bathrooms and then move in to order a drink. They weren’t lying about wine and art – red or white, e basta. I’m glad for the lack of shots as I watch the one dancer move his body to the music, enjoying his confident air as my knees begin to bop.
But we must go for the spettacolo will already have begun and so we leave with our wine in plastic cups. On the far end of the room, I stroke the cover of a book. Art, wine, a discotecca and a book store.
My mind is whirring with possibilities and the calamity of culture. For this is truly La Dolce Vita of Federico Fellini – all of us taking a part of the world around us while staunchly aware of our own stories. We talk and laugh and tell tales full of joy and truth and reality and utter nonsense. The real world exists only in the imagination of the people who think they know better, and this we all know, but who cares because this… this will only happen once and so we partake of it all in our own way, alone or together, understanding that culture is subjective and full of desire. Life may be sweet, but it is also bitter and sad and truly, wonderfully bizarre.
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[Updated 11 July 2017]