Edward Alban was born Luis Eduardo Albán in Ecuador, (1938) and has lived in Savannah, Georgia since 1952. He has taught Economics at Auburn University, SUNY Potsdam, Armstrong State University, and Savannah State University.
Since his retirement in 2000, he has traveled throughout Europe and South America and pursued his new avocation for languages and literature, publishing poetry in regional literary periodicals, as well as two larger works, which include Stories that Words Told Me, (Authorhouse 2007), and a novel Dialogues of the Sleeping Mind, (Dog Ear, 2011).
A big fountain dominates Piazza Ferrari. Its spewing jets of water and its cascading streams had a cooling effect on a hot July afternoon. The piazza was full of people: teenagers milling around; parents walking their toddlers; lovers walking hand in hand and old people huddling together on the few benches in the shadows out of the sun. Quite a few of the strollers were licking an ice cream cone. The gelato stores abounded all around.
Squares such as this hark back to the simpler days before television when people took to the piazzas for fresh air, for escape, for entertainment, to see people come and go, or to meet friends. This is where life was. Because people attract people, in a short time at all sorts of performers came to do their thing: amateur clowns, wannabe musicians, mimes and jugglers. They saw a ready-made audience and flocked there to perform –some for money and some just for laughter and applause. The piazza became a live amateur hour.
While there, I felt that rare and unique contentment when one realizes that one is precisely where one wants to be for the moment, doing nothing more than just walking, idling and watching people. A song by Andrea Bocelli kept playing in my mind and echoed my feelings exactly.
Voglio restare cosi I want to stay like this
Magari fino in fondo Maybe even till the end…forever.
I sang these words till I drove my wife nuts. But at least she learned the word “magari” from that. This word, meaning maybe or hopefully, would become the word of our trip. I would hear it a thousand times and every time I did, I would nod my wife and say: “Magari. Someone just said magari.”
We walked aimlessly, exploring the city leisurely, keeping an eye open for a good restaurant for dinner, something especial for our first meal in Italy. But all we saw were gelato stores and pizzerias. We did buy an ice cream cone eventually, telling ourselves it wouldn’t spoil our dinner.
We came to a souvenir store which was very, very small. I picked out two calendars with pictures of Liguria, a book of Genova, maps and some postcards. JoAnn kept admiring an apron that had a picture of Michelangelo’s David in full frontal nudity, and blatant uncircumcision. But she didn’t dare buy it. The lady spoke some English, but deferred to Italian to humor me. Sadly, when it came time to pay, she could not accept my credit card. She apologized, but explained that the credit card companies scoop out all her earnings. American Express is the worst one. For her small operation it was not worth it.
No problem. I sympathized with her and promised her that I would get some cash and come back the next day.” Yeah, yeah, sure,” she mumbled as she picked up her merchandise. I don’t think she believed me. But true to my word, I did come back the next day and bought everything I had picked and then some. The lady was incredulous and most grateful. JoAnn got her X-rated apron. We haven’t figured out who to give it to or what to do with it. I refuse to wear it. I imagine it would be perfect for a shy nudist at a nudist camp.
We walked on. By chance we came into the church of San Donato with its dark and white layers of stone that give such a neat effect, like a layered cake striated with chocolate layers. They must have had fun building that church. On the shady steps leading to its entrance were several high-school youngsters all sprawled out, resting, cooling themselves, taking a break. They looked like foreign travelers. I threw out a question at no one in particular, asking in English where they were from, knowing that somebody would respond. I was not disappointed. From the back an alert and ruddy blond girl blurted out: “Slovakia.”
This is so common in Europe now. Kids from distant corners of Europe, from different cultures, speaking different languages venture to other nearby worlds within their own continent, broadening their minds and becoming truly cosmopolitan.
We ended up at a restaurant called Rune which, as it turned out, was our hotel’s restaurant even though its entrance was on a side street that made it seem separate. The décor inside explained its name. It was adorned by Celtic letters. I don’t think we could have found a better restaurant. It was superb. I had pasta and clams. JoAnn had a huge salad, but she nibbled some of mine. For dessert we had parfaits that were recommended by our waiter and were just lovely. The waiter was a young Italian who spoke Spanish and cheated me out of my Italian. I would speak in Italian and he would respond in Spanish. Fair enough.
Best Westerns in Europe have no resemblance to the motels of the same name in the US. The motels back home are nice enough and they belong to the same company, but there are several differences. For one thing, these are not motels, but hotels. Secondly, this is Italy. We’ve stayed in a Best Westerns in Madrid and it was also warm and charming, elegant without being ostentatious.
We were still half zombies on this first day and needed a good night sleep in Italy to get up in sync with the country. By tomorrow, our second day, our bodies will be on Italian time.
Second Day: July 23, 2015
We began the day with a magnificent, three-course breakfast consisting of juice and fruits, followed by eggs and bacon, and culminating with pastries galore and coffee. Back home we usually have what you might call a truly Spartan “continental” breakfast. But here in the “continent” we are tempted by such a cornucopia of irresistible goodies which, incidentally, are included with the lodging. We can’t resist pigging out. We compensate for our excesses by skipping lunch.
The first thing we did after breakfast was to get cash. We were running on fumes with empty pockets. But I never go to the exchange places anymore. They tack on fees upon fees and a commission. You leave feeling like you’ve been to a blood bank. I go, instead, to a regular bank with an ATM inside. There, I insert my bank’s debit card and suck Euros right out of my hometown bank in the States. The whole operation is much quicker and costs less.
At Piazza Ferrari we hopped on one of those red double-decker buses for a tour of the city. They are well worth the money. You get the lay of the land and hear the informative commentary. You see and learn a lot about the city. From that tour, for example, we discovered that Columbus’ house was only two blocks from Piazza Ferrari. We could easily make it there on our own. And we did.
Columbus house is a small stone structure, halfway up a hill near a cluster of Greek columns which they call the Chiostro. A few feet up the hill are two tall round towers. They are all that remains of the city wall that surrounded Genoa in Columbus’ time. Between those two towers is the gate to the town. It happens that Columbus’ father was the gate watchman, so he had to live in a house near the gate. Sometime later, he lost his job and went on to become a tailor. But by then his son had become a sailor and had gone to Spain to talk Queen Isabella into financing an expedition with three ships to worlds unknown. The rest, as we all know, is history. But if Italy had financed him instead of Spain all of South America would be speaking Italian today instead of Spanish.
It was gratifying to recognize the influences of Italy on my hometown of Guayaquil, Ecuador. I hadn’t realized how much of that influence was Italian. One particular architectural feature that hit home with me was the inner sidewalks that go by various names. The French call them “galleries,” as in the galleries of Rue Rivoli in Paris across the Louvre. The Brits call them “arcades.” Others call them porticos. I will call them portales because the entrances to the building –or portals if you will –are there. Guayaquil is full of them. In fact, all of the structures in downtown Guayaquil (old and new, big or small) as if by law have this feature. They provide shade from the sun to pedestrians and they provide shelter from the monsoons in the rainy season. You can walk around a whole city block in a monsoon and not get wet. I can’t think of a single place in the U.S. where I have seen them. Interestingly, Quito, the capital of Ecuador does not have them because the weather is so different from that of Guayaquil, being 9000 feet above sea level. Milan had several buildings with this feature. I have also seen them in Bern, Switzerland. The ones in Genova had beautiful marble floors, which also brought back memories of Guayaquil. Here’s a picture.
The Italian influence in Guayaquil should not be surprising. After all, the City Hall is patterned after the Victor Emanuel Gallery in Milan and it was finished in 1928. Among its architects were these Italians: L’Abate, Lignarolo, Ruffili, Russo. The head architect was Francisco Maccaferri. The glass for the dome was brought from Milan. I thought again about Don Esteban. Although Guayaquil was not Genova, it had plenty to make him feel at home.
At some point in the afternoon I went out on my own in search of a bookstore and found it in the portal shown above. I was looking for novels or short stories in parallel text –one side Italian, the other English or Spanish. I was looking for a book by the Spanish author, Ramón del Valle Inclán (1866-1936) who happens to be one of the great masters of Spanish literature and a favorite of mine. I had read his Spring Sonata which, incidentally, is set in Genova, a city which he must have loved. Valle Inclán is poetic, lush with vivid description. The book made quite an impression on me and planted another seed that worked its magic on me, pulling me here. Unfortunately, that book was not available. The book they did have by him with parallel Italian-Spanish was Summer Sonata. But it was set in Veracruz, Mexico. Still, I bought it.
Genova does not fare well in movies. Two recent ones I have seen do not do it justice. Days and Clouds (2008) with Margherita Buy and Antonio Albanese is an Italian movie and has good shots of the city. But the movie is dark and depressing as it deals with unemployment and hard times. A Summer in Genoa (2008) with Colin Firth is British and has a few good shots of the city, but mostly it portrays the city as a risky dangerous town, with narrow ominous labyrinths. You are glad to see Colin Firth finally take his teenage daughters out of there.
But I did buy a great book about this city: Genova, Davvero Superba (Genova, Truly Superb). I treasure it. It has magnificent photography that shows how rich this city is in art, architecture, gardens and beautiful scenes. It is written by Genovese writers, who write critically at times, honestly, but always lovingly and poetically.
Here are some tidbits about Genova. Jeans, or Levi’s as we call them in the US, the blue cloth so popular around the world, came from this city. It was made for the sailors of its merchant marine. The reason they are called “jeans” is that the French were the first to popularize their use, and the word for Genova in French is Genes, which Americans turned to “jeans.”
So, now at last the mystery is cleared. Now I know why they say that diarrhea is hereditary. It is because it runs in the jeans –I mean the genes.
Besides Columbus there are two other well-known sons of Genoa. One is the devilishly difficult virtuoso violinist and composer Niccolo Paganini. The other is the well-known Italian actor Vittorio Gassman.
We never found another restaurant, but we liked the Rune so well that we went back tonight. The food was still superb. But tonight they were busier. Our Spanish-speaking waiter had to double up and rush, but he still gave good service. On a table next to us was a young couple. She was tall and blond, strikingly beautiful. He was okay, unremarkable looking, just a lucky dude. They were speaking in a language I couldn’t decipher. I guessed it was Swedish, but it wouldn’t have surprised me if it was Hungarian.
At one point the lady went to the bathroom and then, while he sat there twiddling his thumbs as the sun walked out of his life, I addressed him. “Excuse me. What language were you speaking?” “Norwegian,” he answered.
I was not far off. I told him the sentence that I carry around in Norwegian for laughs. I said to him: “Je skulle likke o laere Norsk, maj je hae ikke penger til bokker.” (Don’t bother to criticize the spelling. I concede it is probably all wrong). In any case, the Norwegian fellow understood it and he laughed heartily. That made us bosom buddies. We talked and talked.
When his lady friend returned, he introduced us to her and told her that I spoke Norwegian. She was incredulous. Oh, my God! He encouraged me to tell her my Norwegian line. I did, hesitantly, but she didn’t get it. He rephrased it for her; “I would like to study Norwegian, but I don’t have the money for the books.”
This time she got it, but she didn’t laugh. In fact, she chewed me out. “Ah, but you have the money to come to Italy,” she said chidingly. She was a no-nonsense gal who spoke her mind like a blunt Vikinga.
“Well,” I began sheepishly, trying to attenuate my fib, “but we also used the money to go to Norway.”
I told her we took a tour in 2013 that began in Oslo and took us to Lillehammer and then Bergen. I told her I knew bits of lyrics to songs by Edvard Grieg, that I love, but that I would spare her the torture of hearing them in my Norwegian. But she encouraged me. “Like what?” she asked.
“Like: En Svane, with music by Grieg and lyrics by Ibsen.” These are among the most notable great sons of Norway. That got her curiosity. She tested me: “Go ahead.” I swallowed hard and prayed as I intoned.
Min vide svane. Du stumme, du stille, verken slag eller trille. Lod sangrost ane.
That got her. She understood my lines to Grieg’s The Swan. We were friends again. JoAnn told them how much she had loved Norway, the trolls, the wood maidens (Huldras) that pop out of the spray of the waterfalls in the mountains and wave at the passing trains like loony spirits of the forest.
We joked and laughed. I showed them our wedding pictures where I look like a twelve-year old. Then our Spanish speaking waiter brought us cordials. I had my usual lemoncello (a cold, lemon flavored liqueur). JoAnn passed on hers, but Brita tried it, liked it and kept it.
She was young, in her early 30s and she was an MD, but I forgot to ask her what branch of medicine. Rolf was a man of the world, probably in his early forties. He had been everywhere: to China four times; to the U.S. coast to coast; to Spain, everywhere, and then also to South America and Russia. I never did quite catch what he did other than that he was in oil and in politics. They had driven up from France through the French and Italian Riviera to Genova, but they weren’t married. They had met only five months ago and were having their honeymoon first. It’s a brave new world.
We were the last ones at the restaurant. It was late. They had to practically kick us out. It had been a lovely evening.
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