The motherland, the second time

17 Sep

With a hundred billion involuntary twitches of excitement that made me look alternately like I’d had a stroke and like I was on some sort of seizure inducing recreational drug, I took another trip to the mother country, this time with Simon in tow.
We were to make a whirlwind tour of a few of Italy’s northernmost cities to fit in with Simon’s extended weekend of Friday to Tuesday, the time off work being nail-bitingly approved only on Monday, giving us only a few days to put some solid travel plans in place.

Our trip deliberately co-incided with a visit from my Australian aunty, Carmen, and my Australian nonna, Nonna, who lived in Italy until she was 10 before emigrating to Australia and becoming frustratingly officially naturalised leaving me with no hope of any Italian priveledges like a passport or the right to eat pasta for lunch every day.
Nonna is 88 years old, and it was awe inspiring to see her make a 24 hour trip in a plane where she has to bring a spare stool to rest her feet on because her feet don’t reach the ground. She is much smaller than I am, and though no-one could ever suspect such a thing without witnessing this woman’s diminutive stature first hand, I completely, totally dwarf her, which is a very very strange feeling for someone who has spent her life looking into people sternums and the space between their shoulderblades. Nonna is the kind of woman who fusses and worries about a lot of things, a delightful and endearing neurotic habit I have had passed on to me in lieu of the aforementioned passport. So if this doll-sized 88 year old grandmother of mine was going to just casually go to Italy for a month it sure as hell was not something I was going to miss out on, especially since her destination was a mere five and a half hour train ride through Austria and straight through the alps from my home in Munich.

The day we left was grizzly and cold. We were disappointed because we had been very much looking forward to getting some close up views of the alps, and the misty fogginess of rain and clouds seemed like all we would get to see was a thick white blanket and maybe, if we were lucky, a few outlines of mountains.
The track was undergoing maintenence and so we had to swap from the train to a bus and then back onto a train. Somewhere in the process we ended up on the last train, squished into the aisles, perched on the “oops we’ve got too many people” fold down seats where we had to stand up every time anyone with a small dog or a suitcase of even just wearing clothes would want to pass, which was often. I balanced on the seat, getting angry and huffy, not believing this was Europe when it felt like we were in India.
Fortunately the rain added some wonderful drama to the mountains and my huffiness evaporated. The enormous misty apparitions which sometimes popped gaspingly into full view were cuddled and cloaked by icy clouds spreading over them like wandering aimless ghosts of marshmallows. Sheer cliff faces with the texture of hessian bags, a fine brown network of eroded crevices and lines woven into and over and across one another were marauded by looming clouds and expertly placed whisps of white. It was spectacular, creepy and mysterious. It felt like the kind of movie scene where a white horse would come galloping out of the trees with a dead princess slumped over it’s back, her ruby blood staining it’s coat.

We arrived in Verona, which is the nearest city centre to my Italian aunty, Sonia, who I met for the first time and stayed with when I was last in Italy. Simon and I stayed in Verona in an airb’n’b apartment instead of staying at the family house, just for kicks. We were picked up at the station by the guy we were renting the apartment from (very gratefully because it was pissing down) and delivered to our new apartment for the next few nights, an old kind of grubby place which had searing red feature walls and had been decorated with primary coloured IKEA furniture and Keith Haring stickers.
The weather still mumbling bad things under it’s breath to itself, we found an umbrella in the cupboard and went exploring. We walked past Juliet’s balcony, which Simon refused to look at, which is kind of fair enough- Juliet was never a real person and correspondingly nor was there ever a real balcony that she pranced upon- it is just a random balcony that someone decided could make them a lot of money, at 5 euros a hit to go up the stairs and sit on it briefly while your Romeo begrudingly takes shitty photos of you.
We kind of just wandered around, spying awesome striped churches and unearthed ruins, but keeping our eyes mostly open to the opportunity for afternoon drinks, which we found soon in the Piazza Erbe.

We drank aperol spritzes, northern Italy’s signature drink- which shows up to your table as a deep orange glistening wine glass filled with a combination of bitter citrussy aperol, prosecco and sparkling mineral water. It, and all other drinks ordered at cafe/restaurant/bar type places, always come with a plate of olives, or potato chips, or both. We ordered spritzes at a few different places in order to maximise our abuse of the chip olive system.

By the time we were pretty drunk we had had enough of potato chips and olives and went for dinner at Verona’s only vegetarian restaurant, run out the front by a guy who can only speak Italian and and out the back by his wife who can speak English but never came to my awkward rescue. We ordered a bottle of wine and got even more drunk. I talked with the waiter in Italian, which Simon and I both thought was awesome at the time, and which I’ve avoided thinking about since because I’m sure the mistakes I made would come rushing back to me with a crippling case of Drunk Italian Regrets. The meals were pretty average but between our bottle of wine and my bold attempts at Italian conversation, it was one of the most fun, satisfying and jovial dining experiences I’ve ever had.

On the stumbling, dancing way home we passed by the Verona Arena, the centrepiece of Verona, an enormous ampitheatre just shy of a few thousand years old. Just prior to ariving at this monolith we passed a woman, leaning up against a statue of a man riding a horse, yelling to anyone who would listen. Although I’d been pretty confident with my restaurant Italian I had no idea what this woman was saying, except that whatever it was wasn’t full of cheer. As we walked past a few metres away, it became evident that she was violently maturbating as she yelled.
Giggling, I tried to take a sly photo of her as we hurried along to the arena which these days, instead of hosting weird medieval games now hosts concerts and is famous for opera spectaculars. We had arrived right smack bang in the middle of opera season and we could hear some booming voices being belted out of lungs. Huge props waited inside their roped off areas on the street next to the areana waiting to be changed- there were enormous Tutankhamun busts, huge dogs, heads that seemed as big as hot air balloons and various other oversized, towering, styrofoam objects. In combination with the eerie quiet on the streets, the still audible masturbation scene 100 metres away, the wet shining slick to the ground and the drunkeness we had a very surreal, Alice in Wonderland gone wrong walk home.

It was raining again the next day and so we found some indoors entertainment at Castel Vecchio, where there is a museum of artefacts and hundreds upon hundreds of ancient religious paintings. Religious paintings aren’t usually my scene, but given the rain and the lack of more appealing galleries, I made the most of it by pointing out baby jesus’ penis everytime it popped up in a painting, which was remarkably often. Simon and I delighted over the paintings made before perspective had been discovered, and over the paintings made before anyone knew how to draw eyes, or, indeed, a face. We saw some sweet swords and armour, some awesome ancient jewellery, a stone cold babe with no face and more depictions of small boys penises than I would ever like to see again.


In the afternoon we met with Nonna, Carmen and Sonia, got some coffee and went on a Sonia-guided walking tour of Verona. We meandered through the shopping strip, where a busker had his head stuck through a pram pretending he was a huge creepy baby crying with a piercing, screeching authenticity that I could not stop laughing about. We went to a mobile phone store and hung out there for an hour or so in everybody’s way while Carmen had her locked Australian phone attended to.
We went, to the amusement of both Simon and I, to Juliet’s balcony. The balcony is in a small courtyard which is constantly writhing with people. Our three ladies fussed over some business amongst their bags like they were about to do a “GOOOOOO TEAM!” while women appeared briefly on the balcony, had their photos snapped and then were replaced with other women.

What looked like a hen’s party started making a fuss and when a woman wearing an elaborate beaded headpiece emerged on the balcony they shushed the crowd and everyone went silent. The girls in the courtyard were holding a life sized image of a man, and the headpiece girl started talking to his image in English, proclaiming her love for him, before launching, giggling and embarrassed, into a fine, of not mildy interrupted by nervous laughs, rendition of “I Will Always Love You” by our dear departed Whitney.

Our walking tour took us back to Castle Vecchio. Simon and I felt like in the past few days we’d walked through the entire city at least three million times over. We amused ourselves at the castle by taking photos of people having their photos taken.
We parted with my relatives and spent the rest of the evening much like the previous evening minus the ballsy attempts at Italian, before taking the train to Bologna the next morning, where it was also raining.
It was a Sunday and nothing was open so we went to a church, Santo Stefano, which is actually a sprawling, labrynthine building made of many churches which were tacked one after another until it finally became a long, twisted building composed of 7 churches. We mooched around inside and in the cloister for a while as the sun finally began to shine. Right next door to the church we found a conveniently located aperol spritz supplier and set to drinking ourselves stumbling once again. We sat in a large cobbled piazza and watched people and their dogs go by, as well as lots of people shaking and jiggling and guhguhguh-ing as they rode their bikes over the rough surface. On the other side of the piazza we saw a group of about 20 teenage school boys settle on a step while their trusting teachers popped into the church complex for a peep. We heard a dog barking wildly, and it was beginning to become quite distracting. It became even more distracting, though, when we realised it was one of the schoolboys who was doing the barking, his face hidden behind his hands yelping out an extremely realistic impression of a dog. The boys sitting on the step thought it was the funniest thing that had ever happened in the history of the world and one of them was crying, doubled over with breathlessness in a fit of hysteria. Sometimes a real dog would walk across the piazza on a lead, and the boy would start slyly barking at it. This would cause muffled choking eruptions of laughter amongst the boys and soon we started finding it almost as hilarious as they did.

Not long after we witnessed the greatest window shopping pose in the world.

The next day it rained again as we walked through the Quadrilatero, a small district of streets crammed with fruit, vegetables, massive swaying ham legs and pretty tarts. We walked some more, on our way to the art gallery, through the university district, a gritty, piss smelling, political grafitti-ed area that made us feel oddly comfortable. After lots of looking around for the right door to enter, pulling on random doors to see if they’d open, and deciphering photocopied signs, we found the art gallery was closed for the day. Luckily we had an informative tourist map with landmarks helpfully pointed out, and we chose next to go to the university museums whch promised fossils and old medical equipment. Again, closed.
We tried our luck with the tourist map yet again, following it to a spot named intriguingly “window to the canal”, which was exactly that and did little to alleviate our feelings that we were hopelessly useless failures at being tourists.

Not bothering to fight the fact that it was Monday and there was not really anything to do, we found a place that miraculously offered soy milk cappucinos, outstayed our welcome loitering over the tongue blisteringly hot cups, and went back to our hotel to have an afternoon kip, which wasn’t at all helped along by the coffees.
More fizzy bitter drinks followed and we got stuck in a bar when the rain started belting down and lightning started streaking through the sky. We talked to a nice Bolognese guy who couldn’t believe us when we said we thought it would be a great place to live. He was jealous of us being Australian. During the entire trip there was a lot of talk about financial crisis and this was just one more to add to the misery, although he was an upbeat cheerful guy and it was fun talking with him about nothing really.
When the rain cooled off we headed towards dinner- a place I’d read about out of the centre of town, a Roman restaurant with vegan food where we were greeted by a shy girl who seemed a little afraid of us, even though I was trying my most charming Italian on her.
The place was dead empty. There wasn’t even any music. There was Totti memorabilia everywhere and that was about it. We considered leaving after we’d been seated, given the bizarre, kind of morbid atmosphere, but couldn’t bring ourselves to do it. We ordered wine, hoping at least we could create a two person atmosphere with it’s aid. Then in waltzed a very large, charistmatic man who appeared to be the owner evident by the way he was sitting at the office desk situated oddly at the front of the eating area checking facebook. He came over to talk to us and would not speak anything but English with me even though I was trying hard to practice my Italian. He asked where we were from and how long we were staying. He said he was sad for us about the weather and he’d see what he could do, whereby he pulled his hand out of his pocket, put it up to his ear like a phone, and started brrrringng his lips to make a ringing sound. God picked up the phone on the other end and our lively host asked if he could please do us a favour and quit it with the rain. He indicated to us that god had obliged and we’d be sunbaking within minutes, even though it was night. He let us be, except to tell me, somehow kindly and jovially, that it was my own mistake that my vegan meal was delivered dusted with parmesan. The restaurant filled up with Italians, a relief after being in so many tourist places for the past few days. I got drunk and spilled wine and pasta sauce all over the tabelcloth but artfully folded a flap over the blushing stain so that no-one would ever notice.

We went to the train station together the next morning- Simon was heading back to Munich and I was going back to Verona to squeeze in some quality time with my relatives. I’d been twitching with excitment before we left and so far I’d had no power to stop the twitching. Our whirlwind tour had been amazing, even in the pouring constant rain, and I was about to do something possibly even more exciting: visit my Nonna’s tiny mountaintop home town.

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