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The Dashing Life and Exuberant Times of Brian Harrison....And Other Rare Anecdotes

Thursday, December 11, 2008

My Imaginary Love Affair in Venice

I was just leaving Venice. I had bought my train ticket and everything. All I had to do was wait the 30 or 40 minutes until time of departure. So I sat myself down on the front steps of the Venice train station. A remarkable thing is this train station for it carries the train straight across the gulf separating it and the mainland of Italy and brings one straight to the canals of that island the world will forever know.
And sitting on those steps I could see so much of the enchantment that is Venice. A large canal pierced through the front of the train station. A big arched bridge hopped over the this canal. People in brilliant situations passing here and there on the bridge some staying some going, some in love, some wishing to be, some festive, some solemn, but perhaps all, all seeming to be happy. It is a difficult thing to be in Venice and not feel a spiral rising of the spirits. As though it’s some bubbling stir in the soles of one’s shoes. Sometimes, if it rains a lot this could literally be the case. They were busy taking down the platforms from the flood a few days before I got there.
But in any case, the world is perfect and picturesque when one is in Venice. I don’t think this comes as a shock to anybody. You have only to bound through the little alleyways, up and down these little arched bridges from ages ago, over and across canals taking in the little masquerade shops, the gondoliers as though float by, sometimes if lucky, they are singing. Venice is one of those cities where it is highly recommended to get lost. (And if you venture about this magical city then you will find what little effort it takes to do just that, as I did and every non-Venetian, in fact, floating by like beaming ghosts of bliss and bright indulgence.) For to know where you are going exactly is to miss the point in Venice. Oftentimes, it is enough to go bounding through some narrow alley, ancient bricks leading you about as in a labyrinth of pure song, of voluptuous intrigue, only to come out in delicate, little piazzas, a towering church nearby with the sign of Saint Mark, a winged lion etched in the architecture, the rich tones of Vivaldi’s violin echoing out of unseen doors or windows. Then you glimpse around the corner and you see the mystical little rivers lapping by in a subdued sort of melody. If you are as fortunate as I was and it is a sunny day then the river is sparkling gorgeous in the sunlight, alighting the windows, and the domes of old, old buildings, and the rivers skirt on matching the deep blues of the sky. If it is night, then you catch a hold of the entire scene as though you are in a dream for everything has this hushed gleam to it. Yes, these are Casanova’s old stomping grounds…full of charm and seduction. It would take all my metaphorical powers to construct for you the feel of such a city. So I will stop. I will get to what the title here suggests.

But first let me recount briefly what happened the following few days. Randy and I had ventured out from Tuscany and went clear to this quaint, remarkable little city called Verona. As some of you may raise a brow at that name, yes, that is where the entire Romeo and Juliet incident took place noted by a certain Bill Shakespeare. Now, let me reiterate this and make it fine and clear. Yes, Randy and I did go off to two very romantic cities together that most couples could have wished their own grand honeymoons to be at. But no, there was no monkey business here. Just two straight guys going to randomly see two remarkable cities. They just happened to be the place where stories of star-crossed lovers abound. In Verona, we did make a pilgrimage to where it is believed the “real” Juliet Capulet stood on the balcony and asked where her Romeo was at. They had this statue of Juliet down below. And Randy pointed out that it was the superstition to rub the boob of this immortal, ill-fated lover for good luck. I thought he was joshing and that all he wanted to do was just rub the boob of a statue of a female. But after, he did so, I really couldn’t keep myself away. I mean why should he be allowed to grope the statue…for good luck that is, and I not? So, yes, I rubbed the boob of Juliet,…all for good luck in one’s love life, not for some sick kind of perversion with statues.
So there. Let’s establish two things here. 1) Yes, I did venture to two romantic cities with another guy. 2) However, one of the highlights of the trip consisted of rubbing a bronze boob. Such a feat annuls the 1st point. Making it A-okay to roam into localities of lovers with another male when groping about heterosexually.

The next day we took a train to Venice. We wandered around that city a good bit. On the 2nd day Randy’s knee started to hurt. And as with most cities in Italy, a hurt knee is just no good. So Randy went back to Prato. And I stayed longer in Venice. But I wasn’t alone exactly. Oh no. It is amazing how many times I bumped into the Smith family and the two AIM students. Yes, there were people I actually knew that came to Prato for a little reunion that I had attended and they visiting Venice the same time that we were. I must have bumped into them 5 times in various places through the island city. Even visited a floating cemetery with them by taking the water taxi. But pretty soon, they were going to dine out at the illustrious McDonalds, and I just couldn’t bring myself to do it. Eat McDonald’s in Venice. Well, I don’t blame the Smith family. I mean they would eat something Venetian, but the two students with them had been living in Albania and so craved anything western. So I could kind of, sort of,..with much straining…understand. But I departed from them. Went and ate a pasta dinner all by myself. And it was Thanksgiving dinner too. But the thought never cross my mind then, why? I was in Venice. Far, far away from turkey and stuffing and deer hunting cousins.

And so now, I come back to those steps that I was sitting on just before I was about to leave. I was sitting there lost in contemplation. I can’t remember precisely what I was musing about. I do recall this thought sometimes cropping up about Venice..how when romantic couples do come here. They sort of rob themselves of a full impression of the city. I imagine Paris must be the same way. It must be sort of unfair to the city. I mean, being in love and all, only so much attention can be divested outwardly. How many lovers actually notice all the gems and rare things that are in every nook and cranny? I guess the question to be asked is “How come cities that are so rich with mood, aura, and spirit, where Heaven seems to be in the details, why are these the cities to go to with a lover?” Where your real attention is going to be invested in the person next to you? Why not go to Iowa instead? Ah, but perhaps if all the Venices of the world only attracted meticulous, solitary travelers that would kill the spirit of the place…for maybe that it is the soul of such places. Besides, I am too ignorant of long relationships to understand the word “share”…Perhaps.

I was musing upon something of the sort when out of the corner of my eye I saw a figure, an African male, abruptly sit down next to this cute girl that wasn’t sitting too far away from me. It’s funny, I hadn’t noticed her before. The African sat down next to the girl as though clearly hitting on her. And the girl seeming to be offended exclaimed, “Excuse me!!?” The African guy spoke back, “I’m sorry, are you alone? May I sit here?” I could see her eyes widen, worrying.
Immediately, like a flash of lightning. Some unknown reaction, I knew just what to say,
“No, she is with me.” I smiled kindly and glanced at the lady.
“But you guys are not sitting close together? Nah, I don’t believe you.” The African grinned this out.
And then the girl spoke up,
“Yes, we are together. We just had a fight so we are sitting apart.”
“Yes, a heated argument.” I assured him, “I don’t know what got into me.” I shook my head all worrying. “I mean it’s not her fault. Yes, I’m to blame. It’s my pride and my anger and…,” I slapped the African on the back, as though he was a long lost buddy.
“You know how it goes? You just get carried away.”
“Well, this isn’t good.” Said the African.
The girl shook her head and huffed as though she was sulking. She was brilliant.
“Yeah, it’ll be mended soon though. That’s how we are”, I sighed. “We just fight and make up, fight and make up. But there is some health in it. You know every couple has to fight it out. The unhealthy couples are ones that never fight and bottle it all up.”
“How long have the two of you been going out?”
“Much too long.” The girl breathed.
“Yes, I guess I deserve that. You would think that being in Venice..this marvelous, romantic city that the two of us would get along, even here. But no, back to the arguing and so forth.”
All the while, I kept looking over my shoulder at the train times for my departure was coming up shortly. Also, the girl would always glare playfully at me when the African’s head was turned from her. We sat for awhile talking this sort of charade. The African was all for the 3 of us getting up and going someplace to dine or for a walk. Maybe he could patch up our relationship. Get us talking freely with one another. The girl and I both sensed that he was after something.
About 5 minutes til, I decided to exit this little theatre we had going on the steps of the Venice train station, but how to do so without giving up the truth…well that was going to be difficult. I had two scenarios I was musing over. Both of them every bit crazy. The first was to stage some sort of mock fight and storm off angrily. (I’ve been through a real one; I wonder what the fake ones look like.) The 2nd was the opposite extreme and try to tell her that I must be leaving now and that I still cared so much for her and…then all of a sudden go in for this huge kiss. I was curious to see if she would let me. Why not, it was Venice after all. But, I did none of these. I merely told her that I had to meet my aunt and that it was time for my departure. She said okay, and rose with me as though she was leaving with me. We said goodbye to the African and as we both walked together inside the train station, I asked her under my breath, “So where are you from?”
“Croatia”, she said.
And we had a light conversation right then. She was leaving for her country in a few hours. She came to Venice very often. Spoke Italian. I asked her if she came here by herself. She said with a look of supreme confidence that she always traveled alone.
I only had a few minutes til my train took off so no real, in-depth conversation took place. I just merely from a distance, chimed out affectionately, “Good bye, my dear.” She smiled and winked. And I can’t really remember but perhaps I blew her a kiss. Or perhaps my imagination is fabricating that part. I wish that I would have had a white handkerchief to wave at her as the train tore out of that magical city of Venice.

You would have thought my meetings with notable females would have ended right there. But this would be wrong. Immediately upon entering the train, I was feeling magnanimous about everything. Very gregarious. I sat down in a chair facing this really cute, Italian girl. Couldn’t help myself. Isn’t it ironic? All of a sudden I became the African. But, I was a bit more successful than he. Well, successful in the sense of not being duped around. I mean…I wasn’t probably after the same thing that he was. I conversed freely with this young lady. She spoke fluent English and German and was highly interested in the literature of both languages. So our conversation rose to such great heights. I even caught myself quoting Shelley to her. Ha, that is the mark of true infatuation. If I quote Byron to you then you are indeed ravishing. But if I quote Shelley to you, then there is something soul-binding about you.
But none such binding was to take place. She was getting off in 30 minutes in the city of Padua (another Shakespearian place.)
So I rode on. Seeming to have a crush on her for the rest of the ride back and a day or two after. I went to Venice and all I brought back with me is this cough and this story.

Wednesday, December 03, 2008

Fragments of Florence

There are several ways to take Florence, Italy. One is innocently and for the first time on virgin foot. The other is with a random friend that you just happened to bump into in another Italian city, someone that has taken an educational tour of the city and all its highlights and can dispense with you all that he learned in various lectures. The next way is by bicycle. A rickety terror on two wheels rolling over talking stones of ancient rumors, and the interrupting puddles from the night before. The last way is with a female model who is taller than you and whom all the Italian men turn around to catch a look at.
I’ve had the privilege of trying all these. Let me expound on a few. But first…

Florence has held its sway over me ever since I didn’t go to it the last time that I was in Italy. Yes, we completely skipped out on a visit to Florence. Instead, stuck to the southern parts. Hung around Sicily and Rome for a long while. So ever since then, I’ve been meaning to come back and gallivant about the place. Where else can you point to a single city and say so much of the world has changed because of it, except for maybe Jerusalem, Athens, Rome, or possibly London.

My desire was simply to walk down the same streets and alleyways that so many great and inspired men had walked down once upon a time. Florence was one of those golden places in history where the world transformed itself and gave birth to something staggering and magical. Beauty and grandeur were actual themes of God back then. It all tied back to man and his place in the world, the universe. His understanding of the order of the cosmos and the turmoil of life, yet the divine celebration, the impossible mystery captivated humanity and he went about the walled cities next to cold rivers enflamed with some sort of mission. From the marketplace to the banquet halls hovered a spirit of Genius. This was back in the day when genius was regarded not as the acquisition of knowledge as it is today, but as an incomprehensible fire of bright, uncontrollable movement. -As some wild, untamed spirit creating sacred effigies out of paint and stone and verse. I wanted to know what inspired these men. To drink from the same skies and the same fountains that they drunk from. This was a land sprinkled with artists and poets. Da Vinci, Michelangelo, Raphael….Dante, Petrarch, Boccaccio. Something wholly divine was taking place on the street corners, in the echoing cathedrals, and in the riotous taverns once long ago. I wanted to see if I could catch a spark of it. Maybe it was in the way the sun looked when it hit a field of olives, or maybe it was in the luscious wine they sopped with their unbuttered bread. Maybe it was in the song of some lost canticle being raised to the tops of cathedral domes amidst candlelight.


My first visit to Florence, I was almost as determined on seeing the house of Dante as the statues and paintings of the High Renaissance Masters. But what I found on the way to this great poet’s house was this little chapel hidden away in the alley. This little church was where Dante was said to have first sighted his beloved Muse…Beatrice. Then, poem after poem flowed forth causing quite a stir among the medieval society. In those days, poets would talk to one another in sonnets. They were conversational pieces. One inspired poet would send his work to another poet about a ravishing girl. This 2nd poet would turn around and write a response. Mostly to the point of “Well, you think your lady is magnificent…let me tell you about mine.” And he would jot down some outrageous, fluffy things about his Muse and shoot it off to the other poet. Of course, I must mention that these poets probably would hardly have even spoken to the girl that they are writing these sonnets about. In some cases not even been acquainted with the female in verse. That’s just the way it was back then with their courtly love conventions. I’ve tried to revive this convention a time or two in my life…with little effect.
But Dante went on. Not just making fancy rhymes about his Muse. He started to hang entire theological concepts on this tradition. Pretty soon, his sweet Beatrice, who had died many years before most of his poems were alive and kicking, she was used as a vehicle in one of the major works this world has ever known. Dante after climbing out of hell with Virgil and up a mountainside, meets Beatrice who takes him up into the Heavens towards the Light of God. Beatrice a vehicle of Pure Love, Agape,…having this tremendous role in the cosmology of the universe. But I should stop here, I am getting all professorial as my English major proves and I'm actually revealing that school loans is not the only thing that can drag on after ones degree.


I ran into him in a train station in Siena. I knew that he was in Italy. But didn’t know his exact location necessarily. He also knew that I was in Italy but my whereabouts as they tend to be, were up in the air. I was realizing the mistake I had made in coming to the train station. Getting edgy and wondering that I had gone to the wrong place for my planned trip to San Gimignano. Right when I turned around I saw David before he saw me, acting entirely on impulse, I grabbed his collar and shook him, laughing in the amazement of actually running into someone by accident in the most random places of the world. He freaked out not realizing that I was me, but some mugger being excessively open about my intentions. Until he actually looked at my face and realized it was me…his older brother’s roommate…that’s right, “The Ruskie” as they call me. His eyes widened as he yelled that. All the other students from the same group noticed this also. But they are were Harding students…they just had this blank, sheepish look on their faces. The same faces that they probably wear in chapel, in the student center, in class, in probably half their life spans. My indecision and annoyance was cured right then, I would be catching a train to Florence with David and we would wander the streets.
And that was what we did. Our feet took off through the main piazzas in the early night. Crossing the Ponte Vecchio we just headed up hill making our own paths as we did. And finding the most brilliant viewpoint of the city. Descending back again, across the Arno while the rain drizzled and our feet got sopping wet and sore. We dined at this little Trattoria back behind the Accademia. One of the best meals I’ve ever had in a long time. Then we wandered the streets again getting ourselves lost on the way to the train station. Oh yeah, I actually saw the statue of David with David. Really impressive. Michelangelo’s marvelous masterpiece. I’m almost ashamed to mention as a side note as though it was insignificant. I think its just that there is so much to be said about Michelangelo. It would take an entire article.


A bicycle in Florence is ideal. It’s very much akin to renting a gondola in Venice (okay not that romantic; and certainly not that expensive. Maybe more like renting camels in Egypt or elephants in Thailand) Well you get the point. Its one of those vehicles with an idyllic sparkle to it. Little did I realize that the bicycle that I was to be given would be the most cumbersome, rickety, piece of machinery. Da Vinci could have invented a better bicycle out of discarded picture frames. But nevertheless, it got me around. Making lots of mechanical rattles and whirring. I guess it kind of let people know I was coming their way. No interesting story here. Except maybe the fat Italian man who tried to elbow me as I squeezed around a corner with him. Bicycles in Italy are better kept on the roads dodging cars rather than people on the sidewalks. Also, a stop every now and then for a coffee or a gelato is to be expected.

The Amazon

She was living in Prato where I was staying with a friend of mine. She was an American. Tall, athletic. Really fun. Some other Americans showed up whom I actually knew. And we all went to Florence for a day. By this time I was a veteran on the streets (I had gotten lost enough times by now) and could look like a pro. So I escorted her around various places. We even tried sneaking into the Boboli Gardens…old Medici palace grounds. And then I took her up on this rooftop hotel. Well, we had to sneak up there. Where you could see Brunelleschi’s Duomo towering over the city like a Mother Goddess of Nurture and Compassion. We even had to clamor on a roof for a short while to get to this magnificent spot in the nighttime.
Above all when in Florence, or anywhere in Italy really, you must breathe everything in. Don't rush. It's very unItalian. It takes awhile for Chianti to ferment, for King David to be born straight out of marble, and for all beauty to hit the eye so sublimely like Dante saw when he finally, finally made it to Paradise.