A little something I remembered, the other day.
My French school in Rome used to dedicate 10% of the academic year to guided extra-curricular activities. That year – the year I was sixteen – among our options was a three-day trip to Venice, Florence or Verona. I chose Verona. I cannot remember why.
I woke up early on our first morning there. The two girls with whom I was sharing the room at the Hotel de’ Capuleti were asleep. After tossing and turning in the dark, bored, I got up, got dressed, and slipped out. The February chill hit my face as soon as I stepped out of the hotel. White powder. Light as dust, it floated in the air and landed on the navy blue shoulders of my anorak. The cars were all covered in a dusting of white. The street seemed wrapped in a mist of flour. Not snow, not hail, not fog. I had never seen anything like it. Beautiful. It was beautiful.
On a whim, I turned right, and walked along the Via del Pontiere. I saw a sign indicating Tomba di Giulietta and followed it to an old monastery. There, under the 17th Century arches of a cloister, a stone tomb, with wilted flowers inside. The tomb of Juliet Capulet, said the plaque on the wall. I stood for a few minutes, alone, absorbing the smell of stones, damp air, and history. It was almost time for breakfast, and I retraced my steps. There was magic in the whiteness of the street. I imagined spending the rest of the day with my school mates and the teacher, chatting and laughing. My heart sank. I did not want this delicate spell to break. I wanted to keep drifting down the quiet streets of this new city, undisturbed, my imagination free to explore.
“What’s this white powder?” I asked the hotel receptionist.
He smiled. “E‘ la brina. E‘ tipica di Verona, Signorina.”
Brina. Hoar frost.
His voice had the Veneto sing-song quality. After the flat tone of the Romans, my ears had grown up with, I loved the Veronese modulation. There was something jocular in its character. In the lift up to my room, I repeated his sentence to myself, trying to memorise the accent.
After breakfast, I feigned a headache, waited for the school party to be out of sight, then went out again. In Piazza Bra, near the Roman Arena, I stopped by a frozen fountain. A sparrow was engaged in winter sports, flying up to the edge of the fountain, landing on the ice. His thin legs would give and he would land on his behind and slide across the ice. Thereupon he would chirp enthusiastically, fly up again to the starting point, and repeat the procedure. I watched him for a few minutes.
In Piazza delle Erbe, green parasols covered the market stalls. I strolled around, fascinated by the Mediaeval towers and walls. In Piazza della Signoria, a statue of Dante stood in pontificating attitude, in honour of his visit to the city. Dante, who referred to long-standing enmity between two powerful Veronese houses – the Montecchi and the Capuleti. Further along, the Tombe Scaligere, with their gothic arches guarding the family tombs of the Scala princes of Verona.
A sign indicated Juliet Capulet’s house. On the stone wall, by the entrance, the coat of arms of the Capulets – a helmet. In the courtyard a statue of Juliet, standing alone, and a plaque with a text in Esperanto.
I was the only visitor. I walked up the creaky timber stairs, my heartbeat the only other sound in the stillness of this ancient house. I imagined the ghosts of all the Capulets whispering their stories to me.
Every building, every stone, and every breath I took of the cold foggy air, seemed full of stories about this mysterious, austere city. I have always been rather indifferent to the brazen luxury of Rome Baroque. This was the first time I felt deeply touched by architecture. The pride of Gothic spires was awe inspiring. Its solemnity spoke to me.
* * *
In the evening, the others decided to go to a discotheque.
I had never been to one. In fact, I had never danced with a boy. I sat minding bags and drinks, while my schoolmates bopped in a bath of flashing colours, and shards of silver reflected by the large party ball on the ceiling.
At the table next to ours, were sitting four young men – probably in their late teens-early twenties. Their exceedingly short haircuts suggested they were soldiers but they did not look Italian. It turned out they were U.S. Marines, posted near Verona. The girls at our table kept glancing at the Marines, especially at the tallest one who – even I had to admit – was very handsome, in a quiet sort of way. That clean-cut, wholesome, earnest, North American look, which appealed to us, girls from a French school in Rome, used to more self-assured, politically aware Italian boys, or slightly too cerebral and self-righteous French boys. His friends came up and asked the girls to dance, but he sat still, apparently unwilling to take his chances on the dance floor.
The fast song that was playing wound to an end, and Richard Sanderson’s voice filled the club, intoning Reality. That song was the soundtrack of the year. The song from the French film La Boum, which we all saw, and all bought the 45 rpm. A film about French teenagers, marking the debut of actress Sophie Marceau; her character, a schoolgirl, far removed from the “bad” Bond girl in The World is Not Enough. Excitement and giggles started when the handsome, tall Marine finally stood up and walked to our table. Eyelashes fluttered and smiles beamed. I watched, mentally placing bets with myself on which of my school mates he would address. He bent his tall frame towards me. I stared. He repeated the question, in broken Italian. My brain could not quite add this up. He was asking me to dance? Me?!
I stood up dodging darts fired at me by the eyes of the girls. They, like I, felt something had gone against the natural order of things. They were the girls who danced and were invited to parties. I was the girl who gave other girls advice about boys, and who tried to impress boys by talking about Plato and Confucius (strangely, my tactic had not been successful, yet, but I persisted, knowing it was just a matter of time). I wrote slushy poems during Maths and Physics classes. I did not dance with the best-looking man in a Verona discotheque.
“Dreams are my reality…” sang Richard Sanderson.
We swayed to the music. He was delighted to discover that I spoke English. I was too shy to look into his eyes – were they blue or brown? I could not bear to meet the stares of the girls. I did not know what I was supposed to do. Surrounded by all those people, I did not know how to be myself, or what this myself was, or what was expected of me.
So I spoilt my first dance.
“Don’t worry, I don’t bite,” he said.
I tried to smile. Instead, I was shaking.
When he led me back to my table, I absolutely and wholeheartedly hated myself. I cannot even begin to describe how ashamed I felt.
He did not dance for the rest of the evening. Neither did I.
Just a little something I remembered, the other day. Silly, really.