Posts Tagged ‘Meaning’

The Souvenir


Read Part 1 and Part 2

Part 3

I woke up early to catch up on pending work. As I pored over my course assignment on Dante and Voltaire, my thoughts went back to the old man. Today I must ask him to give an explanation for his behaviour. Who was he? What was his story? The questions resurfaced again and again while preparing for the day.

Later at the Institute, I realized I could squeeze in a couple of hours break before my afternoon session. Hurriedly finishing my presentation, I caught up with a few students and instructors before heading to the restaurant. I had not told my colleagues of my rendezvous as I feared they would stop me.

It was past 12 when I reached and the place was teeming with early diners. It was a quaint corner with seating arranged on the cobbled street over which the awning stretched protectively. There were little pots of bright red flowers arranged tastefully to render a spritely look. I saw him sitting in a corner, poring over an Italian book. I greeted him and sat down. He acknowledged my presence and went back to his book.

“Were you not expecting me?” I asked timidly.

Before he could reply the waiter appeared from inside, writing pad and pen in hand.

“Spaghetti with Bolognese sauce, mushroom and ham pizza are our specialties”, he offered helpfully when he saw my blank look.

The stranger asked for some house wine too. It was funny how we were sharing a table like family, and sat comfortably in silence. No questions were asked. No explanations given either. By now he had put down his book and was keenly watching a couple at the opposite table. I fidgeted, wondering how to question him. Obviously he had no intention of giving me the portrait.

“What’s your name?” I asked suddenly.

He shifted his eyes to meet mine, “Amedeo, What’s yours?”

“Anna,” I mumbled.

“How long are you here?” His voice was not curious but matter-of-fact.

“I’ll be here only two more days. I will be returning to Florence to complete the course.”

After a pause, I added, “So, have you something to give, an apple perhaps?”

“The apple!” he exclaimed suddenly.  “Why, your thoughts are still stuck on that apple. It was never yours, you know. It belonged to a farmer once. Afterwards, it belonged to the street vendor. You were just a temporary steward. Before it came to me,” his eyes twinkled.

“I paid for it,” I could not keep the resentment out of my voice.

“But I ate it.” After a few moments he resumed, “If it is the portrait you want, I cannot give it. My art is my joy. It will be of no use to you, don’t you realize? You enjoyed the process, I will take the reward.”

I ogled at his nonchalance. In the ensuing silence, the food that appeared disappeared quickly. All the while, he kept humming softly.

What actually did I want from this strange man? The more I thought about it, the more it occurred to me that it was I who had been following him, even though he had invited me on both the days.

How could I explain to this stranger that I was chasing something I did not understand? Life was a perpetual chase – relationships, skills, beauty, knowledge, ideas, even God, to make sense of the chaos we are born into. We all run till death overtakes us.

He looked at me keenly, “You cannot chase God or run from him, you know. It’s He who holds it together while you run. ”

Caught off guard by his comment, I did not reply. I got up to pay the bill at the counter. I was getting a stipend from the exchange programme, luckily. Use it on whims and fancies like him, I thought sarcastically. He was eccentric. He was kind. He was …

I turned around –

Gone.  So were my novel, street map, hat and the new coat, still unopened, that I had bought for him, to let him know I was extending my hand in friendship.  Though it was not my fault that he had behaved strangely, I was the one who had felt an apology was due on my part. In spite of this, he had taken my things and his gift and walked away.

Disappointed and upset, I sat down. Across from where he had sat, the wine bottle stood like a silent monument to his presence there a few moments back.  Had I let go of that apple, I wouldn’t have had to face this moment I thought miserably. How could he break a naive heart? And spill the last ounce of cherished trust? Was he just a common thief?

The realization, that he gave much more than what he had taken, came much later in life. It was so, that I returned to Venice many times as a professional and with family. Yet, for me, one of the most beautiful memories of the place was that first ferry ride with him. And that one hour when he turned my sadness into beauty through his art. But the biggest gift he had for me was a series of paintings he made with me as its subject. I chanced upon these at a sponsored exhibition in Rome, titled The Traveller’s Search, by Amedeo, ten years later. I finally let go on that day, when I understood.

For now though, as I poured myself the remaining wine, I wept – I was a stranger in Venice with a broken souvenir.

 

 

The Souvenir


Read Part 1 here.

Part 2

By 4’o clock, I was ready in a pretty dress that I picked out at a street market. Leaving my hair in loose waves, I grabbed my clutch and put on heels. I loved the feel of freedom but would it be wiser to have a few acquaintances know where I was? No, I’ll just go, I decided. This was my adventure.

Your choices are often wrong a voice reminded me. Not my instincts I reminded myself as I tried to inject myself with courage, which had waned, as evening approached. I was anticipating the meeting, never doubting for a moment that he would come. I took a train to the nearest stop and walked down to the imposing masterpiece of the Florentine architect, seen from across the canal.

The Doge’s Palace, the seat of the Venetian Republic in the past, was majestic with its marble facades and grand sweeping view of the surrounding. But I was not amused that the floral columns and pillars reminded me of the Mughal architecture of my homeland. The Mughals were plunderers and greedy. All they did was kill people, build palaces, marry women and leave behind obsequious verses and a boring history for posterity to pore over and spit out at exams. That’s what all men did, across time, I thought as I looked about me.

He had asked me to meet him at the corner pillar which looked out on the waters of the Rio de Palazzo. He was already there with his easel and brush. I was slightly disappointed to see him wearing the same shabby coat from yesterday.  But to his credit, he had on a fresh white shirt and a tweed coppola, a favourite of Picasso’s, I had read somewhere.

He tipped his cap in greeting and pointed me to the steps with a compliment. A trick used by artists, but which relaxed my facial muscles into an easy smile. I was trying to hold the smile for as long as I could but only after some time had passed I realized, this was stupid on my part; he wouldn’t have been working on my smile all that time.

To distract myself I looked about and saw the Bridge in the distance. I wondered why it had such a peculiar name. Perhaps lovers parted here when fate beckoned men to battles. Perhaps lonely souls hung about here to grieve their loved ones. Perhaps poets and writers were drawn to ponder on the meaninglessness of life here.

“Why is it called the Bridge of Sighs?” I called out to him.

He barely glanced back and said dismissively, “They probably couldn’t think of a better name.  If you look at the water long enough you’ll sigh.  The beggars and tramps of Venice have pitched tent there since many years now. Adds colour to pity, huh.”

Seeing my annoyance, he said apologetically, “It has something to do with the water’s gentle movement forward, out of sync with the strong breeze that blows backward, creating an illusory effect. Much like life that pulls you backward and forward at the same time.” I was struck by his comparison and relapsed into silence.

When he finally finished and gestured to me, I stretched and immediately cringed at the calf muscles waking from sleep. Limping to the wood easel, I eagerly looked around. He had not used any defining lines but let the colours spread on the canvas to take the shape of my face and torso. A pretty smile. A dreamy faraway look. And shining eyes.

“What? Why are there tears in my eyes? I was smiling the entire time.”

Anger was bubbling up within me. He seemed surprised at my reaction.

“There is sadness in you. Your eyes are not quite lively,” he mumbled softly.

How could he be so presumptuous? Is that why he called me here? To analyse me? Who was he anyway?

He continued, “But that’s what is beautiful in you. You have a certain depth to your beauty.”

I glared at him, “How much should I pay you for the portrait?”

He did not answer me. Instead he folded up his stand and put the brushes into his tool box. And slowly but carefully he started putting the canvas into a large wooden box with a soft lining. I saw that he had many others canvas papers in that box. Once again I grabbed his hand,

“What are you doing? You can’t take that. I want it,” my voice had risen considerably.

I looked around helplessly. How was I to negotiate with this man?

He was unmoved. Closing the lid and locking it with a padlock, he next picked up the stand and the brush holders. There were so many things to carry. I watched him defiantly without offering help.  With the same crooked grin from yesterday, he said, “You can help me carry it to that bus stop around the corner. I can go from there.”

My irritation turned to incredulity. Was he really senile as I had thought? Or had I played into his hands?  He would sell that painting and make money. Yes, that was how he lived. Now I was sure.   Grabbling the extended stand and assortment of brushes from his hands I weighed my options. I could run. But what would people think? That I was robbing an old man? I had no money if police arrested me. It would be shameful if someone at the Institute had to be called. How was to explain this random art appointment with a stranger? I was held in place by the fear of what people would think. He on the other hand could care less.

I looked out of the corner of my eye at the strange man. He looked old and tired. Resigning myself to the unfortunate predicament, I decided to tag along.  While waiting for the bus, he asked me about my morning. I was sullen and angry and did not answer him. Resolutely, I kept my eyes on the bus pulling into the bay.

Just before entering, he turned around, “Come to Castello Pizzeria, north of Doge’s Palace for lunch tomorrow. It’s a good place for a taste of real Italian food.”

Without waiting for confirmation, he disappeared into the bus.

Feeling bruised and angry I went back to my room. After a light sleep, I passed the evening walking across Rialto Bridge looking down the Grand Canal. There was so much to take in, so much to see, so much to make sense of around me. Why worry about some stranger?  For some time I sat and watched the street musicians on accordions and clarinets playing soulful Italian tunes. With their heavy accents it was difficult to catch the lyrics when they sang; nevertheless I spent an enjoyable evening. After a pizza I walked back to my makeshift place, where roommates, exchange students themselves, were catching up on their day.

Tomorrow is a long time away, I whispered to myself, as I tried to join in the conversation.

(Read Part 3)

The Souvenir


(Writing a story after a long time. I hope you’ll overlook the wordiness and the errors. Since it’s way too long, I’ll post this in three parts.)

Part 1

The late evening sun poured a golden hue over everything it touched. I slumped down on a restaurant chair facing one of the larger fountains at Piazza San Marco and looked around. That feeling of having stepped into a picture-history book had not faded even though I had arrived a month ago. Every dome and marble and brick talked to me of something I had missed, because I was born at the wrong end of history.  Julius Caesar, frescoes, Hemingway, the Vatican, Raphael, orchestras, Godfather, the Colosseum, Charlie Chaplin, Gladiator, Pizzas, Toscanini, wine  … my thoughts were tumbling one over the other as it had been for the past few days.  As though in slow motion, a hand came into my field of vision and dived into the bag of groceries I had left on the table. Grabbing an apple from the bag, it started to move away.

Startled I looked up. An old man of 60, shabbily dressed with unkempt grey hair, the owner of the hand, was dawdling off into a crowd of pedestrians and motor cyclists. I jumped up and started running after him.

“Excuse me, sir? What do you think you are doing?”

He threw back a glance but didn’t stop. I ran up and reached for his hand. Angry words were frothing up but no sound came out of my mouth. Dumbly, I looked at him as if he was just another scene from history that invited me to take a look without allowing me to participate. After what seemed like a few moments, he shook off my hand. In a low bass voice, he responded,

“Yes, miss?”

I realized immediately how ridiculous it was to raise an alarm. He had taken just one apple. Was he hungry? Mad perhaps? Too dangerous to follow him. Simultaneous voices were screaming within me. Unfortunately, no one else had noticed the peculiar man.

“Sir, you have no right to take my apple”, I said cautiously.

“Your apple? Can you prove this is yours?” he asked in perfect English before biting into it. I was taken aback.  After taking a few steps forward, he paused, turned back and added,

“Perhaps I should carry that bag for you? You seem to be struggling under its weight.”

Incredulous, I stammered, “Are you mad? Do you think I will give this to you?”

With a crooked grin, he replied, “You look like you are new here. I can be your tour guide.”

I sized him up. Although his accent was without fault, his heavy jaw line and sharp inset eyes belied his Italian ancestry.

“Is this how you get customers, sir? If that’s so, I doubt you’ll have much by the end of the day. Perhaps that’s why you stole that apple.”

He chuckled. “You cannot forget your apple. Let me make it up to you. I’ll ferry you down the canal. It’ll heal you of much.” Catching the look in my eyes, he added, “They are expensive to hire unless you are rich. I don’t think you are though. Why would you grudge one apple, if you were rich? “Anyway,” he added, “I have a friend whose ferry I can borrow if I carry passengers for him in the morning.”

I was offended but surprised at the ease with which he spoke to me, his accuser. He was a con man for sure, a smooth-talker. But his offer was tempting. I hadn’t had the time to explore the canal with my busy schedule. To have someone who knew the canal take me on a near gondola ride was a glorious opportunity. I worked myself up into a reckless mood.  There was nothing much he could take from me except the groceries. I had left my passport and belongings in the room before walking down to the market. Besides, he didn’t look like he would attack me. My instincts had never failed me before.

“You are not going to lead me into a trap, are you? I asked a little naively.

He shook his head, “I won’t harm you. I need to take the ferry down anyway. You’ll have to come back by the vaporetto if you choose or take the train back.”

We had reached the end of the Piazza San Marco Street by now and were looking out at a vein of the Canal Grande of Venice. I looked about me while trying to imagine his story. Maybe he took this canal every day to get home. Maybe he was just a hungry and frustrated tour guide. And I – the rich tourist in his eyes.

I had dreamed of the gondolas and the romance of Venice’s waterways as a young girl. A chance to enjoy it without having to pay a fortune made me feel like a princess in a Venetian fairy-tale.

“Do you have 5 Euros?” he called from the bottom of the landing steps.

I gaped at him as he balanced himself onto an old and worn ferry, which had a few sacks and provisions arranged on the far side. That was half a month’s spending money, he was asking for. If that’s what it takes to enjoy Venice, I’ll part with it, I mused.  I handed him the money after counting out the 2 Euros for a train ride back. First he had taken an apple. Now he wanted 5 Euros. Robbing me with my permission, was he?

I climbed carefully into the long, narrow traghetti ferry (he told me the name) which would carry us down to St. Lucia’s Station.  It was not quite a gondola, but a cheaper version like a canoe and badly maintained. As he pushed off with the long oars, I ventured timidly, “You could have taken a tourist for $20 or more. Why me?”

“I wasn’t planning to use the ferry for service,” he shrugged.

I did not press further and looked across the canal. It was breathtaking all around me. The sun hung low on the western horizon and the waters shimmered golden green. The famous San Marco Basilica loomed high in the east and the Campanile’s pealing bells resonated through the waters from where it stood proud and tall.

The buildings further down that fringed the murky waters were like toy houses, colourful and at once surreal. Along the streets that lined the canal walked tired tourists, wayfarers returning home with their booty, street vendors – there was so much more than my senses could take in at once.

Sometime in, as he was navigating through the dark, mossy alleyways of the canal crammed in by red brick buildings on both sides, I noted that he was keenly watching me, so I asked him, “What do you do for a living?”

“I am an artist. Street artist.” I started.  A street artist in Venice who was also a ferry man and a thief was surely a find.

“What do you make?” I asked a bit too rudely as though I didn’t believe him yet. The sun’s rays were streaming in at the end of our alley forming a light bridge that we could pass through. Venice was pure magic.

“Portraits and landscapes” he replied.

“Do you earn enough to call it a livelihood?” the question came out before I could stop myself. I was being too inquisitive as was my habit with strangers.

He seemed to think about it for a moment before saying, “It’s what makes me happy. My art.”

A man who could not provide for his family could never be happy. So I asked again, “What about your family?”

“I have no family. I married once but that was not for me.”

“Ah the artist. Quite enjoy the free fare, and women, don’t you?” I bit my lip.

He gave a strange, even hurt look at my judgmental tone.

“What are you doing in Italy?” he asked after a long and awkward pause but his tone didn’t match mine. It was rather kind.

I averted his gaze, “I’m doing a short course on literature of the Renaissance period. I came as an exchange student.”

I tried explaining when he pressed me about my interest in the subject but he probably found me unconvincing for he didn’t bother me again till we reached our stop.  The programme had just been an excuse to escape from reality for a time, although, I didn’t tell him that. I watched the narrow waterway open into a wider section of the canal. It was already getting dark but I could make out the landing station in the distance. I felt sad for some reason unknown to me.

“So will you do a portrait of me? I would love to take back a souvenir,” I smiled.

“The light’s too dim. Come back to the piazza early tomorrow, to the eastern side of Doge’s Palace. That way you can see Giuseppe Poggi’s masterpiece and even enjoy a view across the Bridge of Sighs.”  After a pause he laughed, “The place reeks of Renaissance.”

He was already pulling the ferry onto the landing place. He gave me a withered old hand to step up.

“I will be there tomorrow for the art appointment, “he called in parting.

That should be my line if this were a movie I thought as I watched him struggling to climb out with an arthritic leg that was almost immobile. I wished him goodnight and walked down to the station.

“Hope he won’t charge me a lot,” I whispered aloud to myself in amusement. Maybe he was trying to redeem the apple.

(Continue to Part 2)

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