And old and rather Zoolanderish friend of mine from my university days recently posted some modeling shots of himself from some years ago. One photo caught my eye – of him sitting next to a Vespa with a smoldering look on his face in jeans and a loose-fitting shirt. The caption he wrote was: ‘The photographer said, “Think you have just got out of bed and you are fixing your Vespa on a sunny morning in Rome.”‘ It’s such a cliche, but it’s so true. I lived this experience. I didn’t make it to Rome this time, but I did spend a fair amount of time on the back of two different Vespas, being driven around by one very handsome Italian, clinging to him like a koala. I spent time at the Vespa repair shop too. I learnt about the trajectory of the brand and the different models and heard all about the intricacies of finding and buying old parts and the quasi-communist payment system it entails. This was all a part of my Italian dream.
I slipped in and out of this dream in the two months I spent there. Sometimes the dream took over reality, like the first time I visited the shabby port city of Livorno in Tuscany and walked along the narrow canals, watched lovers kissing on the bridges and had my first taste of ponche, a local speciality which consists of espresso mixed with spirits. As I gazed up past the sheets hanging out to dry from the windows of four storied terracotta buildings built decades, if not centuries, ago, and scanned the stars in the sky, I wondered if I was on a movie set. As rain fell and we sought shelter under the canopy of a pizzeria, watching the ubiquitous lone African hawking umbrellas, would Fellini come chasing after me and swipe me with his pudgy hands and yell at me in Italian to VATTENNE (go away)?
I walked along Roman aqueducts hidden in a forest, through Roman ruins on the coast, around crumbling castles, in and out of monasteries, stood high atop a fascist-era tomb. I trudged through city centres where nuns and monks, beggars and merchants have walked for centuries, listening to the chime of church bells while licking gelato made from lavender. I observed meadows of sunflowers nod off at sunset, all witnessed from the back of a Vespa, zipping through the narrow back roads of Tuscany. I heard the waters of Venice lapping against the ancient, sinking piers as an orchestra played in Piazza San Marco, in almost complete darkness, apart from the moon and the silhouette of Venetian arches. I swam in the same clear blue lakes as nobility and old monied families on vacation from Switzerland. I took in the view of an old Tuscan village from a restored farmhouse high upon a hill. I was literally under the Tuscan sun. And I stood in awe of many a dazzling Tuscan sunset – like the hottest, reddest fire burning into gold and then blackness.
And yet, while these moments are perhaps too beautiful and perfect to adequately describe or recapture in words – moments I never thought I would be lucky enough to experience in this lifetime, moments of reality seeped in. The gypsies who try to swipe your things at the train station. The young prostitutes standing on the side of the road. The mentally ill who want to fuck them in broad daylight in public. The shops and supermarkets constantly being closed. The fact that it’s so difficult to communicate and so easy to feel isolated. The realization that it’s your own fault because you were too disbelieving in your Italian dream to study much beforehand. The way that public transport doesn’t make any sense and doesn’t run on time. The astronomical cost of said public transport. The whining and justified pessimism of locals entering middle age who feel that there’s no way for them to get ahead. The tenacious clinging on of nepotism and a Byzantine bureaucracy designed to make your life a living hell. A youth disillusioned and/or brainwashed by twenty years of rule by the vacuous iPod Nano that is Berlusconi. A culture of immediate gratification and materialism, and hypocrisy.
And yet La Dolce Vita triumphs. I met her in my dream and now she haunts me while also comforting me. I close my eyes and dream of once again riding on the back of a Vespa, zipping through not only dreams, but also reality.