An innocent abroad: Part One

A semester in Florence shapes a young writer's life.

Published December 20, 1998 8:00PM (EST)

I am on a cruise ship bound for Italy. I am 20 years old, a wayward student escaping from a small snowbound all-male college in upstate New York. I have never seen so much snow before, in fact. It starts falling in October and continues through the winter and into the spring. Our classrooms border a frozen quadrangle students must reach by hiking up a steep, icy hill. Only young men desperate for a formal education make the climb on a regular basis.

I am in rebellion myself, desperate to be educated but in a different, less punishing way. Maybe I can find out what I need to know by exploring, through trial-and-error. The world is big, and I want to see it. I imagine my future as a great romance. I have read too much Hemingway and not enough Dostoevski.

The sea has been very calm so far. I stand for hours at the rail and watch the wheeling birds and the spume-dappled water. There is nothing else to watch. We haven't seen any land for days, not since leaving Manhattan. This creates a curious sensation of being outside time, without a particular destiny.

When the Azores appear on the horizon at last, every passenger comes out for a look. The islands are hunks of rock in the ocean, nothing more, but everybody looks and comments. One man even sighs. He will write a postcard home that begins, "Today we saw the Azores ..."

Lisbon is our first port of call. A beautiful beach at Estoril, actual Portuguese people on the boulevards. That excites me. "Yes, I've been to Portugal," I say to myself, practicing. We stop in Morocco the next afternoon, in Tangier. Huckster merchants in fezzes ring the shore, shouting and waving. Oranges, parrots, a tempting strangeness. I wish I could follow them down a dank alley to taste forbidden pleasures, but I am too wary, still too American, unwilling to commit experience.

Not so Gregor, my roommate. I share a cabin with him and two other guys, all of us headed for Florence and a semester abroad. Gregor grew up in Chicago. He is hip to the streets and the first truly cool person I've ever met. He has a wonderful voice and sings wherever he is, performing gorgeous front-stoop doo-wop tunes. In Florence, he will sing to the swans in a park one evening, and the swans will rise up and flap their wings in tribute.

Gregor smokes marijuana. It is 1963, so he keeps this a deep secret. He will later turn me on in Arezzo, after our failed attempt to see some famous frescoes by Piero della Francesca. I will ask him, accepting the joint at a crummy pensione, "Am I going to become an addict?" I am still too wary, too American, etc.

I don't know about the marijuana yet, not in Tangier. I do know that Gregor is unaccountably happy and singing his brains out as we sail away. He has made some friends among the crew, fellow druggies, and he invites me to join them at a party that night. The prospect thrills me. I, too, am dying to be cool and need all the help I can get.

The crew deck is down below. Gregor leads the way. As we descend, I hear dance music echoing from a portable record player, some kind of rumba or cha-cha. It's a merry scene, all right. The crewmen have hung colorful paper lanterns from overhead cables and put out a cut-glass bowl of punch. They have swapped their uniforms for casual clothes, Hawaiian shirts and neatly pressed khakis. They dance with women in slinky dresses, who have elaborately styled hair and painted, doll-like faces.

I move closer and see that I'm mistaken. Those aren't women. Those are crewmen in wigs. In drag! I've been at sea for less than a week and already the scales are falling from my eyes. Life in its amazing fullness is reaching out to me, so I grit my teeth and try not to run.

Beer bottles clink, the engine rumbles. The indigo sky is alive with stars. When a tall sailor in a Rita Hayworth-style wig asks me to dance, I decline politely. I expect to be tossed out for being a spoilsport, but instead the sailor pats my cheek, calls me "honey," and urges me to enjoy myself. And I do.

This worries me a little. It goes against my upbringing. My mother, through her psychic powers, can probably see me now. I sense her disappointment. A man in a dress is supposed to be depraved, a monster. So why am I having a good time at a party where half the men are wearing dresses? Because it goes against my upbringing? Yes, it's possible. Fun may be had in new and unexpected places. That is the traveler's first lesson.

- - - - - - - - - -

The ship rolls on. We pass through the Strait of Gibraltar and along the Algerian coast to Naples, where we tour the harbor. Cobbled streets, the Tyrrhenian Sea blue and implacable. Sunshine, cottony clouds riding the breeze, a pervasive smell of salt. The city looks ancient to me, historic and filled with mystery. I am aware of barnacles and rotting wood.

The glassy-eyed fish at an open-air market are arranged precisely, as in a Dutch still life. The fat market women wear wedding rings, the shapely ones do not. Men huddle in doorways nearby and smoke cigarettes with a furious energy. They argue, they gesticulate, they stomp their feet and comb their hair. Their only job is to observe.

They are the fabled ragazzi, boys forever, even at the age of 45 or 50. They visit their mothers every Sunday unless they live at home, as many do. Priests -- black crows -- spook them. They're behind in going to confession. Their fathers work as barbers and listen to opera on the radio. The music drifts from shop windows, sublime arias I hear floating above the racket of the crowd.

I eat at a pizzeria. I eat a real Italian pizza -- no cheese, a sauce of fresh tomatoes, herbs sprinkled on top. The red wine is raw but good. Gregor is still happy. He imitates Frankie Lymon and sings "Why Do Fools Fall in Love?" to a tattered bunch of urchins, who ask him for coins and pretend to steal his wallet. In England, the Beatles are busy being born.

We get off the ship for good in Genoa, dragging our bags behind us. In the morning, we will go by bus to Florence and settle in for the long haul. The thought of impending study fills me with dread. Professors, classrooms, dead air, responsibility -- but there won't be any snow, at least. That's a plus, I tell myself. Meanwhile, we have a last night free to wander. I plan to make the most of it. I am a youth with a mission.

I walk from our hotel at twilight, into another ancient city that seems in a state of perennial decay. The colors are muted and faded, touched with an ashy pallor. Everything human has already happened here, I realize, and it will keep happening, infinitely repeated. The idea is new to me and comforting somehow. Genoa has already witnessed every mistake a young man can make. I count this as a blessing.

It's nasty out. The clouds open and rain batters the old stones, but I ignore it. My mission is to find a woman -- a prostitute, to be more accurate. This, too, goes against my upbringing, but in Europe, women are part of the deal. It says so in every novel. The hero is always ducking into a bordello with some sleazy tart. I almost expect to see signs that read, "This way to the whorehouse."

Cafes, narrow alleys, the reek of gutters. I feel anxious and high on adrenaline, like a thief about to pull off a crime. I check the railroad station and the waterfront without success. Maybe it's too early for the girls to be on duty. What do I know about the rules of whoring? Soon I am hopelessly lost. The rain drenches me to the bone. A driver hurrying home toots his horn and shouts at me, "Cretino!"

I am about to give up the search when I bump into a friend. It's Gregor, of course. He is also on a mission, same as mine. We laugh about this and order espressos at a bar, where old men in fedoras are playing cards for money. Gregor takes off the beret he bought in Lisbon and wrings it out. Water splashes on the counter, it forms a tiny lake on the worn linoleum floor. You wouldn't think a swatch of wool could hold so much liquid.

Then we spot them, two hookers on their rounds. Miracolo! They are dressed alike, in tight red sweaters and short black skirts, and they carry shiny little purses of patent leather. Their stiletto heels click on the paving stones. Our mouths must be agape, because they pause by the bar and stare at us. The petite one is attractive in a hard-bitten way, but her partner is huge, built like a professional wrestler.

We have a problem, obviously. Gregor, being a man of the world, will solve it, I assume. He'll do me a favor and choose the wrestler. But no, he wants the petite one, too! We stand in the rain and debate the issue until he has a bright idea. How about a coin toss? OK, I agree. I flip a lira coin. I lose.

I'm sick at heart, reeling with envy. I watch Gregor disappear with my beloved, wishing I had a knife to stick in his back. The hooker has become immensely desirable in the moment, a prize, a trophy. Yes, I would gladly kill on her behalf.

The wrestler chews gum and stands waiting with her arms crossed, but I send her away. "I'm sorry, signorina," I tell her, adopting a forlorn expression and gripping my stomach to show that I'm indisposed. I keep an eye on her purse. For once, I'm lucky. She doesn't hit me with it.

I sit on a dry ledge and mope. I can return to the hotel, or I can go second. There isn't any other option. I remember my father, who's paying for this trip. I remember how my mother, a devout Lutheran, stuffed me with religion. My sense of sin is deep and Gothic, stoked by fire-breathing preachers from the Middle West. Clearly, I am a fallen being, a wretch. I belong in one of their sermons.

There is no justice in life. That is the traveler's second lesson.

Our bus the next morning is a drab Mercedes. It rattles and belches as we proceed along the coast. Suitcases are strapped to a luggage rack on top, and the driver seems to be hung over. Firenze, it says on a little destination card above his head. Florence, the city of flowers, kingdom of the Medici, where we will live with local families for the next few months and my new freedom will surely be compromised.

We follow a road that overlooks the Ligurian Sea. Fishing boats can be seen in the distance. The view is dramatic and inspiring, but I have the blues. Gregor is sitting up front, his beret at a jaunty angle, as dry now as an autumn leaf. He even has the nerve to whistle, unconsciously celebrating his victory.

The Riviera di Levante is below us. There are resort hotels and pleasant beaches, along with some spas where you can indulge in a hot sea bath. I imagine skinny rich women in bikinis lounging under the September sun and tanning to a buttery bronze. They are lovely but hairy. Their husbands are titans, industrialists, technocrats. They all resemble Carlo Ponti, who won the hand of Sophia Loren. Stubby men radiant with power, endowed with an acute sexual energy.

I'm daydreaming. Portofino, a fishing village, is as lovely as a postcard. Houses in subtle tones of gold and rose-red, their window shutters closed against the heat. Balconies hung with laundry, a good clean scent of soap on the wind. America is all primary colors, a giant kindergarten. I like the softness of the Italian palette, the flaking paint, the disrepair, the palpable presence of the past.

How does the song go, that one about Portofino? Just a little moonlight, a little serenade. Mandolins, violins. I picture Dean Martin crooning it, or maybe Perry Como in his avuncular cardigan sweater. His brother Al was my high-school basketball coach. When he got angry with our play, he'd shout, "Boys, I don't have to put up with this. I can make more money carrying Perry's bags!"

The bus chugs up a hill, and a suitcase slips from its binding and lands in the road. The latch springs. Clothes go blowing about. Underwear, socks. Che peccato! What a pity! It's among the only phrases I know, having skipped the shipboard language lessons to stare at the ocean. Mi chiama Bill. Hello. I am a kindergartner from America.

We stop for lunch in Portovenere, on the Gulf of la Spezia. It's called Golfo dei Poeti, because so many poets have sung its praises, including Dante and Petrarch. Lord Byron once swam from Portovenere to San Terenzo, across the Bay of Lerici, to visit Percy Shelley at his rented digs. An incredible swim, really, for a wastrel.

Shelley's house, Casa Magni, still stands. It has an open ground floor and seven arches in a sort of loggia. The sea washes up almost to the front door. Shelley was as mad as a hatter at the end, pursued by horrible visions. He died in a sailing accident when he was 29. His boat, a schooner, had lounge chairs and bookshelves built into it.

Casa Magni has a plaque to commemorate Shelley's stay, I learn from my guidebook. The plaque says, "Sailing on a fragile bark he was landed by an unforeseen chance to the silence of the Elysian Fields." Shelley did not write the words himself.

I am touched by these facts, anyhow. I have
never been to a village where poetry matters, where it has worked its way into the fabric of everyday life. Those British Romantics, they lived like hippies, strumming their guitars and fathering children out of wedlock. I'm all for them. Am I not slightly Byronic myself? I believe there might be a poem or two in me, if I can just get them out.

Portovenere marches up a mountain slope, toward a fortress wall. There are olive trees, dark-green pines and a bell tower with a clock. Tables are reserved for us at a trattoria by the harbor, on a vine-covered patio. We dine on pasta and roast chicken. The white wine comes in liter carafes and helps me to forgive Gregor. After a glass, he's not such a bad fellow. After two glasses, he is my bosom pal again. We are a couple of poets on the loose in Italy and decide to chat up two women in our group, Jessica and Cynthia.

Jessica has the severe but compelling manner of a campus intellectual. She uses words like "deliquesce" and "ramification" and bites her nails. Her clothes are often black. Jessica scares me a little, but Cynthia has the opposite effect. Blond and guileless, she will be barefoot on Haight Street in a few years, her hair threaded with wildflowers and a curly-haired cherub on her back.

We talk about poetry, of course. Gregor quotes a line he swears is from "The Divine Comedy." I think he's about to sing, but he doesn't. The wine goes around. Is it Jessica who mentions the famous grotto? The place where Byron launched his epic swim? It becomes apparent to us all that we must visit this grotto, and right away.

Into the hills we go, without any idea where the grotto might be. Jessica speaks the best Italian, so we elect her to ask for directions. Byron? The swimmer? Heads shake, people give us strange looks. A big silence hangs over Portovenere. Most shops are closed. Lunch has ended, the peasants are bedded down for their siestas.

The grotto remains elusive, but we don't care after a while. Our search loses its importance as the wine wears off. The afternoon is bright and warm, and the bay is sparkling. Such beauty! We are young and optimistic and wildly poetical, so we tumble to earth on a grassy hillside, where Gregor promptly falls asleep.

Time passes. A lot of time passes, in fact. We roust ourselves at last and stroll back to the harbor, but everything seems different. There are shadows where the sun once shone. The village is awake again, citizens are bustling about. The waiters at the trattoria have moved the tables from the patio, and it's as if we've never been there. We've been erased.

"The bus is gone," Jessica says.

This is true. We've been erased and left behind! We will not be in Florence when our families come to claim us. We are orphans. We will have to pay some hideous price. Cynthia is crying. She's afraid she'll be sent back to Delaware. What could be worse?

Gregor swings into action. We'll pool our money, he says, and hire a taxi. I throw in the ten-spot I hide in my wallet's secret compartment. There go dozens of espressi, bottles of Chianti, books of poetry and fateful assignations. We find a taxi stand and negotiate a fare. Thirty bucks, plus tip. The cabbie is a scoundrel, but he has us where he wants us.

In a cramped little Fiat, we turn inland from the bountiful sea and race toward Florence on the autostrada. Cynthia has stopped crying and sits on my lap. That would be a positive turn of events, if we didn't have so far to go. I feel her weight on my thighs. My feet are getting numb, plus I'm tired and mourning the loss of my $10. The literary life can be costly. That is the traveler's third lesson.

By Bill Barich

Bill Barich is the author of numerous books, among them "Big Dreams: Into the Heart of California" and "The Sporting Life." He has written extensively for the New Yorker, as well as Playboy and Sports Illustrated. He has been a Guggenheim Fellow in fiction. Barich lives in Dublin, Ireland.

MORE FROM Bill Barich

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Travel Writers And Writing