Friday, November 22, 2013

Poets and Playwrights

We open in Venice,
We next play Verona,
Then on to Cremona.
Lotsa laughs in Cremona.
Our next jump is Parma,
That stingy, dingy menace,
Then Mantua, then Padua,
Then we open again, where?
We open in Venice,
We next play Verona. . .

Our last day of biking saw us heading from Lazise on Lake Garda to Verona. Harvey and Phyllis had been primed for this part of the trip even before we left New York and New Jersey. Harvey had loaded the song “We Open in Venice” from Kiss Me, Kate onto his iPhone, and began playing it at full volume in the courtyard of the hotel while we got ready to begin biking. The opening lyrics are printed above. But a warning: If you start singing the song, it will stay in your head forever.

Not all of us were beginning on bikes that day because of a different warning. The first part of our route was going to be mostly uphill, we were informed. Carlotta and Claudio didn’t even sugarcoat this by referring to “rolling hills.” We were going to be climbing for most of the first six kilometers. Audrey wisely joined a number of other tour members in choosing the van over the bike for those six kilometers. I foolishly decided to gut it out.

I found myself in the lowest gears on both wheels much too quickly. So I wasn’t making a lot of progress distance-wise or speed-wise. My psyche took an even bigger hit a few minutes later. In the midst of a climb, an elderly woman turned right in front of me from a side street. She was wearing a dress, raincoat, and street shoes and carrying a load of groceries in a basket on the front of her bike. She was even smoking a small cigar. Those proved to be no impediment for her. She quickly left me far behind. I was a little mortified. Probably sensing this, several of our group members later said they thought the woman’s bike had been motorized, and that’s why she left me in the dust. I think they were just trying to make me feel better.  Nevertheless, I’m choosing to believe that version. It’s what I told Audrey when we met up with the van at the six-kilometer mark.

The rest of our trip to Verona was pretty flat and really scenic. Then, we hit a snag. A bridge we were scheduled to cross had been washed out in recent rainstorms. Our guides had to improvise, and they planned a new route that took us mostly onto city streets once we reached Verona. We weaved our way through traffic and just ignored some of the blaring horns and threatening hand gestures that “encouraged” us to get out of the way. Our entrance had been a little nerve-wracking, but we were ready to “play Verona” for the next few hours. (I wish we could have spent days there.) One of the first sights we took in was the Arena, which is similar to but older than the Coliseum in Rome. In Roman times, gladiators had fought in the Arena; the night before we arrived, Cher had packed the house there. This probably deserves a witty comment, but I think I will pass.

We just missed seeing Cher at the Arena.

We ate lunch and wandered around the city on our own for a few hours before we were scheduled to have a guide meet us and give us the real tour. During our explorations, Audrey hoped to find the perfect Italian leather pocketbook, but time was short, and prices were too high. Oh well. . . .

From the beginning, we had referred to this bike trip in north-central Italy as “Our Shakespearean Tour.” After all, we began biking in Mantua and ended up in Verona. Both cities play prominent roles in Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, and both cities use that play prominently in their marketing to tourists. It is next to impossible for visitors to Verona to pass up a chance to stand beneath Juliet’s balcony and be thrown into a romantic trance, and why should they? Even if Juliet was just a fictional character and her story was based only loosely on a real feud in Renaissance-era Verona, she comes alive in Verona, and she sparks “lovely (and loving) thoughts” in all of us. When our tour guide led us to the purported Capulet courtyard overlooked by that famous balcony, she urged us to “rub the boobies” of a statue of Juliet there, so we would have good luck in romance. It had worked for her, she noted. After rubbing the boobies, she had been able to win the affections of her new boyfriend, a 35-year-old male she was convincing to finally leave his parents’ home. “You know Italian men are never able to leave their mothers until they get married,” she joked. But the power of Juliet was helping her win him over. Somehow I resisted the urge to “rub the boobies,” but we have a photo of Harvey doing the deed. He is clearly more romantic than I.

A modern-day Juliet stands in the balcony.

This man is preparing to "rub the boobies."
Then, moments after we left Juliet’s courtyard, I spotted a sign on a doorpost in downtown Verona that identified the headquarters of the Accademia Mondiale della Poesi, the World Academy of Poetry. The sign made me realize that our tour had really been more about poetry than Shakespeare. We had covered only a small portion of Italy on our trip, but there was poetry and poets everywhere we went.

How great would it be to work for the World Academy of Poetry! 
We had spent our first two nights in the tiny town of Portovenere, perched on the Gulf of Poets. Byron had swum in those waters, and Shelley had written many of his poems while living in the area and had died tragically nearby when a boat he was aboard sank during a storm. In later days, we also rode past the birthplace of Virgil in Mantua and viewed the house where Dante lived in Verona. And now I had spotted the World Academy of Poetry, which, of course, makes me think of a story from my past. Bear with me. . . .

A grotto on the Gulf of Poets where Byron swam.

When I was in high school, I was both precocious and pretentious (no surprise). I also decided that I was a poet. I wrote a lot of poems, and, looking back with a more critical eye, most of them were not very good. I even joined the Poetry Society of Georgia, which was based in Savannah. A friend’s mother, Anita Raskin, convinced me to join. Like many of the members, she was a librarian and teacher; like very few of the members, I was a kid. I would attend meetings and even submit some of my poems for competitions. One made it into the organization’s 50th anniversary anthology. I don’t think anything literary I have accomplished has made me prouder. I found that anthology when we were cleaning out my mother’s house last year and reread the poem. No Byron or Dante, but a pretty good Goodman.

But back to Verona and poetry. I went looking for a good Dante quote about love, but Dante tends to be a little depressing even on that subject. Virgil, on the other hand, has something good to impart:

Omnia vincit Amor; et nos cedamus Amori. (Love conquers all, and we must yield to Love.)

 I think that’s what our tour guide in Verona was trying to tell us, too.

Audrey, Phyllis, and I (but not Harvey) joined six other tour members in deciding to take the van back to Lazise rather than brave the bike paths again, even if those last six kilometers would be mostly downhill. Our hearts were filled with love, but our knees and butts were filled with pain. Our riding days in Italy were over—at least for this year.

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