by Peter Byrne
(Swans - August 10, 2009) The puppeteer poet Guido Ceronetti brought me to the Italian port of Bari in 1990. He'd insinuated that the city was "sulfurous," and that was enough for me. Ceronetti ranked Bari only just above the "truly infernal" cities of Naples, Catania, and Palermo. To his other-worldly eye, Bari had a "dirty face." It was ugly in continence and graceless in speech. But I saw Italy as being all too full of grace. I wasn't going to set up house in a museum. Genteel hordes of Brits led plump Northern Europeans to Tuscany. They called it Chiantishire, with their tongues not quite in their cheeks. That put the kibosh on "spiritual" Umbria as well. Full-time contemplation of restored thirteenth century grain bins, with breaks for smirking over food and wine, they could stick up their brochures.
That's how I found myself on a rooftop in Bari. It was bottom rung real estate. The renting agent had dropped the keys loudly on his desk and told me to go have a look if I really wasn't interested in any of his better product. Two similar studios were islands up there on a flat roof. When I came out of the stairwell, blinded by all that light, I knew one of them was for me.
I couldn't even dislike the drawbacks. The studios, quite symmetrical, were set into the roof. From the inside, their small windows were so high in the walls I couldn't see out of them. But when, exploring the roof, I looked out over the elegant iron railing I saw that a produce market filled a blocked-off street going off to the right. Flower sellers had set up at the near end. That sealed it, and I moved in the next day.
The whole roof was mine. I set up a card table and worked in the warm breeze. Safety and privacy? No one was going to climb all those stairs for what I had that was worth stealing. I'd regularly push aside my translating or whatever and tour my perimeters, inventorying the views.
Bari had an old -- or older -- town. It was a horn woven of mediaeval lanes that stuck out in the bay. True to form and Ceronetti's adjectives, Old Town hadn't been touched up for visitors. It was full of crumbling baroque monuments, casbah housing, and even a Romanesque cathedral. Modernization had got no further than putting its youthful muggers on Lambretta scooters. In no time I'd learn that it was a perfect amalgam of family values and a thieves' den, pious old ladies with foul mouths and ex-con sons.
Old Town was overshadowed, however, by a not-so-old central neighborhood. This dated from Napoleon's takeover of Italy. In 1808 the Emperor installed his brother-in-law Murat as King of Naples. His kingdom stretched to Bari where Murat, in tune with the family megalomania, indulged in some radical urban renewal. He set about rebuilding the whole city center on a gridiron pattern.
It's hard to exaggerate the novelty for a European of a right-angled city. What's taken as a law of nature for, say, a Chicagoan, can strike a Florentine, for example, as a gross human intervention. Ancient cities have always had trouble getting out of their mediaeval ruts. On his post-WWII trip to New York Jean-Paul Sartre went all metaphysical as he peered up the endless vista of Fifth Avenue. He'd spent his life on Baron Haussmann's boulevards, which always came back to him like a dog on a leash and never went off on their own to infinity.
From my rooftop it was still "the dandy king" Murat's Bari all around me. Sober three or four storied neo-classical houses lined up in uniform street fronts. Main arteries ended in a barricade of something worth seeing in the way of a monument. In Murat's secular thinking these were rarely churches. There were scene-stoppers like the Teatro Margherita, a wedding cake balanced on the water's edge. The star attraction in an Italian city is the opera house, and Bari's Petruzzelli was as imposing as a beached whale. It was the kind of place you went out of your way to pass by when, as often happened, you needed a shot of local grandeur to raise your spirits. (Local boys, surely from Old Town, would burn it out in October 1991. But that's another, probably Mafia, story.)
Up on my rooftop, or for that matter anywhere at all, curtains were not one of my concerns. I left the sky-full, dollhouse windows as I found them. When the light kept me awake I hid under a pillow. Checking out the roof one day I found that the occupants of the other studio shared my good sense in letting the transparency of window glass have its say.
The windows, above my head inside the studio, only came up to my kneecaps when I stood on the roof. It was natural enough for even someone only mildly given to voyeurism to have a look in. The brilliant light at my back meant I had to peer and stare a while to make out the dim scene. The studio was half filled with a vast baroque bed that Italians call a matrimoniale. This held two figures, a grandmotherly one with its eyes closed and another, gray and gaunt, eyes wide, that returned my stare unperturbed. It was my first meeting with Angelo, who would become my Bari friend and absent-minded confidant.
Montaigne said that friendship was a happy collision of singularities. Maybe. But I think I got along with Angelo because he differed so much from the other townspeople I dealt with. They were devastatingly concrete, intent with a kind of fury on their particular role in the universe be it ever so humdrum and often, to my way of thinking, a total waste of time. That Angelo's wife was dying of something nothing could be done about -- except running errands up and down the stairs for her -- did much to detach his mind from the trivial. But the fact that he had been a sailor all his life was what put Angelo in a special category. He had his own sense of time and space.
The denizens of a port city are anything but rootless. Bari people had acquired a decidedly Levantine manner in their centuries of commerce with and servicing foreigners. The Appian Way that the Imperial Romans took to Brindisi, their gateway to the East, passed near Bari. But contact with outsiders only seemed to have narrowed the Barese's view of himself. He was like an airport employee who had a taboo about lifting a foot off the ground. Now Angelo's charm was that he always floated skywards. It wasn't by chance that he lived on a rooftop.
We often strolled in the Sunday morning market by the quayside. The Bari people bustled around making a racket. As always they obsessed on immediate aims. They pushed ahead at a stall to get the best mussels going, lashed the seller over the price, and withdrew with their plastic-bagged loot as if it were pure gold. They were always careful to tread on your toes as they hurried home to get Sunday lunch moving. Not Angelo. He'd sit on a bollard looking over a sea urchin for a long time as if it were an old friend before he'd squirt it with lemon and slurp it down. He could have been in a ship's galley somewhere off Tahiti.
We dragged out those Sunday market mornings. Bari people kept to strict programs. It's a mistake to believe that because southerners can't keep an appointment that they have no idea of time. Southern darkness falls without twilight like a guillotine, an example of perfect punctuality. As if in reply to a signal, the core of the market, deftly dismantled, would evaporate, and Bari manpower head for home. A sputtering of traffic, much of it two-wheeled, left in a swarm, drawn to the steam and smells of busy kitchens. The immigrants who had been timidly trying to sell their baubles on the fringes came into their own. Some of them even dared deliver a spiel in Polish- or Bangladeshi-flavored Italian. But customers were only the slow afoot at this stage. Bari was an early rising town rewarded by a long digestive sleep in the afternoon.
Angelo and I ended up at the far end of the market out on the Mole St. Nicola. Here the surviving local fishermen had a row of lead-colored metal counters. Even at times of market frenzy their offerings were sparse: A heap of sea snails or a bucket of the blue small fry the locals like to boil in oil and down from head to tail. Any larger fish were presented in isolation like stuffed trophies on a wall, never in the plenty favored by fish markets in travel magazines. We were down-market and into reality here. The fishermen weren't dressed for the part either. They could have been factory workers of the 1930s who wore threadbare business suits on the job. These were men who had been up all night for little profit. Now they looked too woebegone even to go home. Sleepwalking, they scraped the leftovers together to distribute, at give-away prices, to the deserving widows in their home patch.
As a real sailor, with a past on the seven seas, Angelo had an aura that the coastal fishers honored despite themselves. They were tough and mean, smuggling cigarettes and worse on the side, but fell in under Angelo as if he were a guru from another astral plane. Not that he spun them yarns of Finnish fjords or Surabaya nights. Angelo was not a storyteller, which was probably the secret of his authority. We told stories about him. The world was visibly all there under his soft grey brows behind eyes that only saw things of a certain dimension and significance. He and I would ramble back toward our rooftop through a deserted midday city. Angelo's ailing Mrs. would be helped out by a niece. I'd smell the leafy stuff boiling up that so pleased the locals and ritually refuse another invitation to lunch that would be accepted with a ritual nod.
I left my aerie over Murat's Bari to settle some unfinished business in Venice. Going through the newspapers in the train I found that Saddam Hussein's move on Kuwait had not much troubled Italians. Boredom with the trek north finally produced a sliver of conversation in my compartment, and Italians in the flesh proved even less warlike then their editorialists. Eastern Europe, still on the boil, interested them more. So far the Communist Parties' monopoly of power had given way. These Italians liked the idea, but there was a certain worry whether the new regimes would complicate, i.e., inconvenience, their own lives. In Venice this is exactly what was happening.
Venetians had been milking tourists for centuries. The quintessential Venetian was a hotelier closely backed up by a restaurateur and serenaded by a gondolier. The trio had been complaining since the 1890s that guests were no longer worthy of their elite servility. There was an undying nostalgia for the days of the Grand Tour when visitors actually enjoyed having their bills cooked. The twentieth century brought the middle classes with their pocket calculators and, noblesse oblige, the inn-keepers lowered themselves to re-do their sums. But the organized groups with all-in prices were the last straw. Surely customer quality could sink no lower and still dare to leave home on vacation?
That was before the Eastern Europeans came to town. The dissolution of the Soviet Empire meant that citizens of the satellite countries could cross borders how and when they pleased. It became immediately clear that a half-century of suppressed wanderlust had suddenly been unleashed. There was of course the black hole of crisis between crashed economies and whatever was going to replace them. Weak currencies couldn't take travelers far, but some ingeniously managed to get to iconic destinations like Venice. Rattletrap Czech and Polish buses would wheeze over the causeway and deposit their passengers at Piazzale Roma, which was as far as road traffic could reach. Dazed after a night on the road the neo-tourists would stagger toward San Marco. Though they carried stale sandwiches packed in Danzig or Bratislava, they had a lust for culture in their eye. If they stayed the night, they would spend it in the bus parked illegally back on the causeway.
Venetians, including the working-class that had jobs in the tourist industry, felt that the times were definitely out of joint. Murmurs of scandal wafted from the waterbuses: "They can't even afford pizza by the slice!" Hotel dishwashers gloated with wonder: "They sleep in their clothes on coach seats with their hats on!" The city fathers, moneygrubbers to a man, refrained from comment as they would from an obscenity in a pile on the canal bank.
Venice had waylaid me. I didn't catch a train back to Bari till January 1991. The nine-hour trip began, as always, with a compartment full of strangers, heads buried in feigned slumber or newsprint. But below Ancona our chosen façades broke down. For a while we strained for glimpses of the sea on the left. The ice broke when we exchanged our newspapers. This was a ploy to open discussion since we were all fed up with reading. In no time the floodgates creaked open. A skinny medical student opposite, after a timid beginning, quickly moved toward crescendo. He'd been awed by the buildup for "Desert Storm" that had used Italy as one of its transit points. The sternly done up woman in the corner had been reading a Bologna paper. I put out a feeler about how the Italian Communists were explaining the snowballing crisis in the USSR. She spit out something about them doing a fairground juggling act. I'd forgotten that if Bologna passed for a Red stronghold it had always had a nest of neo-Fascists. But the small-town lawyer by the compartment door held up his hand for silence and attention. He meant us to put aside international abstractions. He said, "Look, an Albanian."
Candid was not enough to describe the figure in the corridor. You would have to add that he moved in a candescent mist. His clothes were a lumpy parody of Italian sportswear. He was obviously entranced by the mechanical marvel of the art-deco ashtray beneath the corridor window. His worldly goods were stuffed in a shiny plastic bag from an Italian supermarket. He held it proudly as a Milan burgher would a piece of Louis Vuitton luggage.
1990 had only been the first act. 1991 in Italy, and especially its south, would be the year of the Albanians.
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