Escape from the Mountain: Part 1

When I last left you, we were plotting our escape from out weekday mountain prison, for a weekend anywhere that wasn’t where we were. We had been researching a trip to Verona, which was only an hour away and had found a Friday evening train there from the small town our school is located in. While the train company website said there was a train, there was no station in the town. At least according to Google Maps there was no train station in the town. After asking around we discovered there actually was. The fact that the station wasn’t on Google Maps only increased our feeling of isolation. We were living up the side of a mountain, over a two-hour walk away from the nearest big town, a “big” town so unimportant that the internet wasn’t entirely clear whether or not it was escapable from.

We told the owner of the school (our Italian “Mammy”) that we were going away for the weekend. Somehow the message didn’t get through and our Italian “Daddy” rang the school on Friday, wanting to know what time we wanted to be picked up.

Joyously, we didn’t need a lift. We were free. We were walking to the train station. We asked for directions in the staff room. One of the teachers, who hadn’t been in the town very long said, “Surely there’ll be signs.” The two locals shook their heads. “No. There won’t be any signs.” They were right.

It was OK. We found the elusive station easily, a little two-platform place, and got the train. We had to change trains in Vicenza. Vicenza station had six platforms. We were both genuinely excited by the urban feeling of it. Six platforms! Yay!

We arrived in Verona and were met by the owner of the AirBnB we had booked. Accommodation in Verona is expensive and we had explored a few different options. In the end, we found a 2-bed apartment all to ourselves for a surprisingly low price.

The price was surprisingly low for a a reason. The place we had booked had been wrongly listed on the site, and we had booked a double room, not a whole apartment. Luckily, he gave us a second room for no extra cost, when we made it clear that we weren’t familiar with each other in the biblical sense.

It quickly became clear that this was not in any way our own space. The elderly man owned the apartment and would be living in it with us, puffing his cigar smoke throughout the whole apartment. It doesn’t matter where I go in Italy. I have a parent figure living with me. After the week in our mountainside prison, this was the last thing we needed.

However, it was an amazing amazing flat. If Marie Antoinette lived in Italy in the 1980s, this is how she would have decorated her flat. It was entirely over the top, with giant elaborate mahogany headboards on the beds and golden fittings in the bathroom. And I don’t just mean golden taps. There were golden towel rails and golden toilet roll holders and golden toothbrush holders and golden bidet drains.

We had arranged to meet a work acquaintance of mine who lives in Verona. We hurried into town to meet him. And we unleashed. The floodgates opened. We told him everything about our mountainside prison, all the frustrations that had built up inside us, all the madness of the last week. It was like he was our counsellor. He was suitably horrified.

We returned to our smoky royal apartment and went to sleep, sleeping better than we had done in a whole week.

I had arranged to interview a potential candidate for a course I’m running in Vietnam over Skype and I did that before we went out the next day. Unfortunately, I couldn’t accept her and I made her cry. I was glad to escape into Verona city centre, where I wouldn’t make any Vietnamese girls cry.

Verona is stunning. Stunning. It’s far more beautiful than I expected. There are beautiful balconies and terraces and piazzas and churches and bridges. It’s one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever been. You should do a google image search. Seriously. Lovely.

If people know one thing about me, it’s that I love One Direction. If people know two things about me, it’s that I love One Direction and I’m a whore for stripes. I just love stripes. The ancient churches of Verona are the stripiest churches I have ever seen. The massive basilica in Verona is entirely done in horizontal stripes of red stone and white stone inside and out. If I have to spend time in a giant 13th century church, then a stripey one is best.

We went for lunch in a little restaurant. Having spent the whole week locked up at our host’s pleasure, this was my first taste of actual Italian food. It is everything they tell you it is. So much flavour. NOM. NOM. NOM. NOM. NOM. I had a multiple foodgasm. NOM. NOM. NOM. NOM.

The most famous site in Verona is Juliet’s balcony. Of course, this is totally fake. Juliet was made up, so she never stood on a balcony. And anyway, the balcony scene wasn’t all that romantic. It’s all “lazy-puffing clouds”, “doff thy name” and “stumblest on my counsel”. None of those are romantic lines. Not in the slightest. However, in spite of the fact that the story is made-up, and is about early adolescent sex and suicide, Verona has capitalised on its popularity by calling a random balcony “Juliet’s balcony”.

Clearly, we had to visit.

Love is gross. As we entered the archway leading to the balcony, there were sticking plasters stuck to the wall with messages of love written on them. At least these (presumably) were unused plasters. I didn’t see any blood on them. Love got grosser when we got through the archway to the garden where the balcony is located. Everyone had stuck wads of used chewing gum on the wall. To symbolise their love. Gross. Gross. Gross. We saw the balcony.

Under the balcony is a bronze statue of Juliet. We had been told before we arrived in Verona that it is traditional to fondle Juliet’s boob. We didn’t have to wonder which breast tradition dictates we fondle. The statue is hilarious and icky in equal measure. The bronze has turned brown, like all bronze does. Except for Juliet’s right breast, which shines like a lighthouse of gold in the midst of the brown, polished by thousands and thousands of hands. There was a queue of people waiting to grope her breast and be photographed. It is a bizarre tradition. There were lots of timid older Asian men, who shyly patted her breast, middle-aged women who stroked her just above or just below the breast, making sure not to have any nipple contact at all, and young Italian teenagers who pawed it with glee. Everyone who groped her had their photo taken by their husband/wife/friend/mother/classmate. My friend and I had no desire to be photographed groping a metal breast so when our turn came, we simply pretended to pose for a “photo” our “friend” was taking and made our way out of the gross den of love.

On the way away from “Juliet’s balcony” I bought the ultimate Italian souvenir. It’s a fridge magnet with Romeo and Juliet on a Vespa. I shall treasure it forever.

The weekend continued to be awesome. We saw beautiful buildings. We walked home along one of Verona’s swankier streets and fantasised about living in all of the houses. We dreamed of never having to return to our mountain and to captivity.

Everything was gloriously Italian. We sat down for a rest by a Roman arena and about forty beautiful and shiny Alfa Romeos from throughout the last hundred years pulled up. We had accidentally happened on a meeting of the Alfa Romeo Club beside an Ancient Roman amphitheatre because that’s just how Italy rolls.

I had spent a week hating on Italy, but Verona swept me off its feet. Beautiful buildings, beautiful food, beautiful people. At one stage on Sunday, I asked my friend what the feeling I was feeling was. There was pleasure inside me. Then I remembered. This was happy! I had forgotten happy. I’d jumped on a plane to Italy straight from having spent two weeks awake all night and all day doing PhD, having spent four years being haunted by it, and then spent a week in my mountainside jail. Verona was my first taste of actual post-PhD relief. It was my first letting go. It was amazing.

Coming soon: We escape to Padua, and even manage to find accommodation that doesn’t involve being “minded” by an older Italian man.

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