Even a couple of weeks traveling abroad is quite an inward journey; another step towards discovering one’s true identity. I’ve always felt somewhat of a cultural platypus with my feminine first name, my Portuguese last name, my strange accent, my Indian roots and European literary background, my own brand of Americanism, having been raised Catholic yet finding much to respect and despise there as well as in other religions and philosophies, my love for theatre and physics…
Wandering through Italy was as much an exploration of art and culture (I never really know what that means except as an investigation of my own responses to monuments, artworks, and people) as it was a new page in this new chapter which began with the advent of 2011, as I emerged from my cave. It came on the heels of my first acting gig in five years, when I played an Indian for the first time, one that forced me to think about why and how I left India all those years ago, with renewed feelings of guilt that I copped out to find a better life (such a relative term, I’ve come to believe)!
Florence is in so many ways a tourist city, as is much of Europe once the EU opened visa-free doors to nomadic youth throughout the continent; it is enlightening to walk through the Piazza del Duomo in front of the awe-inspiring Santa Maria del Fiore Cathedral and listen to the myriad of accents from all over the world. Crowds are fascinating to watch and my son Kieran and I stood there one day as he said, “Dad, we’re the only dark-skinned people here!” So we waited a while and watched and, yes, he was right; even the ubiquitous Japanese tourists didn’t qualify. We speculated about it a bit but couldn’t come up with a reason. Then up, up, up the winding stairs of the Duomo itself to emerge above and embrace the city…
We then walked up to the top of the Piazzale Michelangelo to watch evening sweep over this most romantic of cities and came upon a Parisian guitarist singing to the sunset; a nice conversation followed and he said he would sing us an Eagles song because “you’re from America.” A huge Eagles fan, he brushed aside “Hotel California” as just “populist,” preferring to sing “Desperado.” Hey, we were being serenaded; who was I to argue? But he relented and then sang “California” superbly, tapping his guitar for all the effects—quite a virtuoso performance!
So many street musicians—the old man at our street corner scratching out Over the Rainbow and other barely recognizable standards, the really good Russian classical guitarist in the Piazza della Signoria under the gaze of the Fountain of Neptune (he played Asturias by Albeniz, but, surprising, didn’t know Recuerdos de la Alhambra by Tarrega), and the other guitarist in the Piazza Novona in Rome by Bernini’s Fontana dei Quattro Fiumi (the Fountain of Four Rivers that Dan Brown popularized). I put money in all their hats, for “music is the food of love…it must be played on…”
Sunsets are gorgeous, but also nostalgic affairs, forcing sometimes (for me, at least) uncomfortable questions of identity, dislocation, and liminality! I suppose the vastness of the universe, particularly from atop a mountain, dwarfs one, demanding such introspection: Where do I really belong? Does one need to belong anywhere? What does home mean? Here in this foreign land I feel quite comfortable and yet a stranger. No different from how I feel in America—and, strange to think it, even in India: a Catholic in a Hindu country, English school… What does it mean to be a citizen of the world?
But back-to-back days seeing La Traviata in a lovely opera house and then a soccer match between Fiorentina and their hated rivals Roma were unusual treats—one fed our souls, the other stirred our testosterone. Early one morning to see Buonarroti’s David, which has pride of place at the end of a long, wide corridor lined with marble statues. It is indescribable, I realize. The detail of muscles throughout the body and the veins in his hand are fascinating enough, but it is the overall effect that startles the viewer—breathtaking to gaze at the idealized version of a human being. A few days later I went in search of that other Michelangelo—Caravaggio, who in some ways represented for me the flip side of the coin from Buonarroti: not idealized humans but realistic images of us ordinary folk; in many ways, the father of modern painting. And I found him in the Ufizzi, the grand museum in Florence—The Sacrifice of Isaac and the compelling head of Medusa; in the same building in which the gloriously nude figure of Botticelli’s Venus finds the breath of life! And in the square, poised on a great pedestal, exposed to sun and wind and rain stands the proud figure of Cellini’s bronze Perseus trampling on Medusa’s headless body, her bloody head in his left hand, his flashing sword in his right, the whole thing covered in a patina of green. Ah, Benvenuto! Someday I will go to Vienna and steal your wondrous gold salt cellar, retire to my basement, and waste away cradling it in my arms. It’s been stolen before!
I have always found a strange sense of peace in the fact that Michelangelo died the same year that Shakespeare was born—1564; comforted that the universe had decided the world should not be without an artistic genius!
Rome, the Eternal City, was a treat. Our fellow hostel inmates gathered at a bar downstairs—Janina from Germany, Emile of Sweden, Soverio from Milano, Marissa from Tampa, and Maddie and her three friends from California—the scintillating conversations laced with wine and beer and laughter as we all tried our Italian, much to Soverio’s delight as he corrected our pidgin versions in his own broken English! Then we walked everywhere—to Trevi to sit at the fountain, throw coins not to find love but to bask in the memories of our loves back home and gaze at the waters gushing from the gods as we delighted our taste buds with kiwi and mango gelato—ah, gelato, that piccolo italiano capolavoro (little Italian masterpiece). Someone asked me if was better than our ice-cream and I said, ‘who cares? I ate it in Italy!” Enough said, right? Such delicious flavors—pistachio, tiramisu, limone, and all kinds of chocolate, especially bacio, the kiss!
I made the mistake of wearing an A.C. Milan soccer jersey in Rome, which is about as unpardonable a sin as one can commit. The guard at the entrance of St. Peter’s Basilica shook his head, laughing at me and said I was excused because I was Brazilian (I had on the jersey of Pato, the young Brazilian soccer star). Even the guard inside the Sistine chapel, as he was shushing everyone into silence and directing traffic, looked at me and said, with a half-grin, “No Milano, no-no Milano.” But they forgave me, probably because they didn’t want to spill my blood in so sacred a place.
We sat for an hour in a corner of the Sistine as I gazed upwards at the panels birthed by a god, oblivious to the crick in my neck. He painted those creatures lying on his back; I’m not going to complain in their presence! And finally, my favorite, The Pieta, the sublime creation of a sorrowful mother and her dead child—it has enthralled me for decades and when I finally saw it (Kieran literally had to drag me away) I marveled that the dangling lifeless hand is not dead but alive in marble, a paradox only art permits!
Rome is a city of hustlers—touts eking out a living wherever they can, many of them from Bangladesh, my former brethren—refugees seeking a better existence as I had done and foundering against the rocky realities that life is often unfair and that an accident of birth can be so unforgiving…
So I ask myself—do these pieces belong to Italy or to me? When you see them for the first or second or umpteenth time you feel a sense of kinship with them. Can I not revel in the ownership of discovery? Don’t great artistic masterpieces belong to all of us, in the way that Hamlet is my brother and not some character in an English play? Are the museums and churches, even though they take our money and treat us with impatience, not temporary custodians in our service, for without an adoring public there may be no art? Maybe! I ask myself these questions for I have traveled several times around the world to get here. And the answers are clear—they belong to no-one, they exist in no museum or behind no glass panels or in no secret crypts, except in that great realm of truth—the imagination! All except Cellini’s salt cellar; that’s mine!!
Walking through the Forum and the magnificent Colosseum, I couldn’t help thinking of how many slaves died building those marble and stone glorifications of corrupt rulers—just like the Pyramids and the Taj Mahal…how many men and women spent how many years from dawn to dusk breaking and lugging stones under the overseer’s lash and then slipped into oblivion, their broken bodies cast aside, but their indomitable spirits whispering in the breezes that waft across the arches and steps glued together by their blood? All for the glory of effete emperors and generals. Think of the hapless artists in Iraq who were permitted to work as long as they built Saddam’s palaces!!
Then to Milan and the disappointment of not seeing The Last Supper, protected from our gaze by a “sold out for two weeks” sign—we’ll have to plan it better next time; coming within a hair’s breadth of spending $450 for tickets to the Magic Flute at La Scala (we were misdirected to the same-day window that afternoon); also an experience for another time! But the Milano Duomo enchanted us with its endless spires glistening in the sun, appealing to our better angels and to the pigeons circling in the piazza, even eating birdseed out of my hand…
In another ironic and amusing note that seems to follow me, a tout outside Milan’s train station yelled and jeered at my Milan jersey as he waved his Napoli scarf at me—I guess I couldn’t catch a break even in the city of A.C. Milan!
The best treat of all was to spend these two weeks with Kieran, who cooked for me, arranged all the train tickets and hotel bookings with no help from me, and shepherded me around those three cities—in two months he knows his way through Florence like a native and, with the instinct of a homing pigeon, would unerringly lead me along winding vias and stradas back home everyday—often by a new route! He knows where to find the best kebabs, the best wine, the best gelato, the best pizza, and, love him, the best sunsets. Thank you, my son.