San Gimignano is a beautiful hilltop town in Tuscany, famous for its old towers, the tall, straight-edged ‘medieval skyscrapers’ that jut skywards from the sloping, winding lanes. Having wandered around watching the sunset scrape down the town’s yellow ochre walls, I decide to settle in a small open-air bar tucked into a corner of a tilted square. As I perch on the wobbly high stool I notice the other four tables are all having the same thing with their wine: a large plate of different kinds of salame and cheese. I’m greeted by the man who runs the place and I point to one of the plates. As he places before me the luscious-looking mini-carpet of meat and cheese the man explains that all this stuff is locally sourced, organic and unique to his little enoteca. As I start to nibble, a thought that has traversed through billions of tourist heads makes its way into mine — “Aah! Italy!”
It doesn’t last long. An acoustic guitar starts on the bar’s sound system, a progression so familiar that I need to hear only the first three notes to identify the song. The sound system is high quality and Robert Plant’s scratchy voice separates quite nicely from Jimmy Page’s guitar as they climb into “Stairway to Heaven”. The Led Zep track is followed by the Stones, then Bowie, then the Beatles. Even as one part of my brain savours the previous two days and my first exposure to the crazy Tuscan landscape, another bit takes me straight back home to Calcutta in the 1970s. Absently watching other tourists stumble up and down the cobblestoned square, I taste each of the four different kinds of roomali pig draped on my plate. In the cheese and wine I imagine I can taste the Tuscan earth itself, with its colours, contrapuntal textures and punctuating lines of pointy, dark green cypresses and poplars, the trees resembling upside down exclamation marks when close, like kantha stitches joining land and sky when further away. All through the evening the bar owner keeps up the schizo-making Cal soundtrack, ending perfectly with a succession of Pink Floyd numbers just before he starts to stack chairs upside down on the empty tables.
The next day I work my way out of the gravitational pull of Tuscany and Florence and make the entry into the atmosphere of a different planet in the Italian constellation. Venice starts to envelop you the moment you cross into its hinterland. Everywhere, seen and unseen, there is the presence of the sea. A passing line of deep blue between industrial buildings on the outskirts, a pair of seagulls wheeling, the smell of vast water somewhere over there. The whole unreality of it hits me when I take the first water bus, one of the world famous vaporettos, from the edge of town to the centre. As we pass sight after typical sight, canal, bridge, gondola, rickety jetty coming out of old palazzo, I realize how difficult it is to really ‘see’ Italy. I realize how much I’ve been struggling with a feeling of déjà vu across my time in this country. The understanding drops that a lot of the paintings, sculptures, churches and landscapes are something one has experienced before, but at a remove, in books and magazines, in films and on the net; this actual viewing has often been an act of confirming, an audit of the memory of imagining, a tallying of visual accounts.
As happens sometimes, this realization begins to be countered and dismantled just as it is sinking in. Across my first evening in Venice something shifts. I’m meeting a close friend here, an Indian artist from Delhi who’s come in from London to see the Biennale, and we rendevous in a square near my B&B. After a few drinks and a long conversation I offer to walk my friend back to her hotel. We enter the maze of narrow galis and bridges curving over tiny canals. As we go past we marvel at the small nooks and apparent cul de sacs for which the city is famous. “It’s a city of secrets,” my friend observes. After about fifteen minutes we find our way to the vaporetto stop of Zattere, which is right next to where she’s staying. I say goodnight, turn and try re-trace the way back to ‘my’ square. Within minutes, I’m completely lost. In the light of lamp-posts everything looks familiar and yet everything looks different. Heart pounding, a low-level despair mounting, I finally trip back into the square I need. The walk outward took fifteen minutes, the walk back has taken me forty. Suddenly it feels as if some covering layer has cracked open and I’m finally in a real, tangible Italy.
The next morning I open my window and look down at the canal just below. The channel is perhaps no more than twelve feet wide but this early morning it supports a slow-moving circus of boats. First up is the garbage barge from which men jump off into the square and start loading a flimsy-looking metal trolley with rubbish. Once the trolley is full the boatman operates a small crane that lifts the thing up and brings it above the open hold in the middle of the barge. Here the trolley is slammed against a contraption, clanging open its bottom and releasing the kachra into the hold. As this performance continues another boat nudges past and berths. This is the delivery man bringing supplies of milk and bottled water to the cafes just opening up on the square. As these two boats block the canal a speedboat putters up, wanting to go past. In it are six young men, all looking much the worse for wear after a long night of revelry. As I look at them I suspect this might have been the crew that took their time going past my window late last night, disco music blasting from their speakers. After ignoring them for a bit, the working class boats shift a few inches, creating a path for the hangoverites.
Mid-morning I head out to my vaporetto stop and I notice a spring in my step in spite of the heat. As the boat-bus waddles out into the big canal, I look at the parade of palazzos, hotels and churches we’re passing. Yes, I’ve seen it all before, read about this great maze of a city, connected it in my head from Marco Polo to Italo Calvino and his great book Invisible Cities, connected it also to the films set in Venice, but now is when I start to see other echoes: of Amsterdam, of the knotted galis in the poels of old Ahmedabad, of the floating villages around Inle Lake in Burma. It’s a city of secrets, sure, but on this crowded, hot, early August morning it’s quite clear that this is also a city that’s been designed, over centuries now, to receive visitors. As my vaporetto heads to the Arsenale and the Giardini where the Biennale is mainly located, a twelve-storey tourist liner sails into the canal, obscuring the grand old church of Santa Maria della Salute, underlining the point about visitors. As my vaporetto bullies past a school of gondolas, I realize two things. One, just as when a foreigner visits India, the only way to break through the ‘covering layer’ of a place and culture familiar through pictures and words is to spend time there. Two, since arriving the previous evening something has been niggling, a different register added to my collection of déjà vus and I haven’t been able to put my finger on it; now I do; what the old buildings almost teetering into the canals actually remind me of is north Calcutta in the monsoon, when the rain has flooded its lanes.