I should have known something was wrong when the performance started five minutes early. Nothing ever starts early in Italy. And I mean ever. I know from personal experience. Two years ago I was singing in “Die Goetterdaemmerung” at the Teatro Petruzzelli and the opening night began so late that the function afterwards had to be cancelled. The restaurant where it was to be held had closed for the night and the staff had given up waiting and all gone home to bed. It was so accepted that the performances would begin late that singers themselves would arrive well after their scheduled times so as not to be waiting around unnecessarily. We often left the theatre well towards one o’clock in the morning. At Saturday night’s performance of Aida in Verona some people hadn’t even taken their seats when Placido Domingo entered the arena and began the overture. The heavens opened exactly five minutes later, right on nine o’clock, and the orchestra left the pit to the sound of rumbling thunder and with an impressive display of lightning rending the sky in two behind them. It was an extraordinary atmosphere for a couple of minutes with the huge Egyptian pillars of the on-stage set lit up theatrically. If the rain hadn’t been pouring down one might have thought it all part of the action. The only action thereafter however was of the off-stage variety. There was certainly plenty to see and observe, some of it highly dramatic and far more entertaining than many Verdi operas I have seen.
The arena seats around 22,000 people and it was almost at capacity on Saturday. When the rain started bucketing down the audience divided automatically into two groups. The first group was of the “let’s get out of here as quickly as possible” way of thinking which meant that around half the audience began running for the tiny exits around the perimeter. There they got stuck in a bottle neck of pushing and shoving, succeeding only in getting wetter and wetter. Imagine trying to squeeze a wet sheep into the top of a coca cola bottle and you get the idea. The second group were of the “we are going to wait here and see an opera no matter what happens because we have paid for it” mentality and they decided to sit it out in the hope of an improvement in the weather. They had come prepared with rain coats, umbrellas and plastic hats, none of which was remotely successful in keeping them dry. But I admired their optimism. Even when water was cascading down the aisles, the programmes had turned into nothing more than sodden wads of paper and loudspeaker announcements were being made to the effect that “there will be no singing in the rain,” they held their ground.
Half an hour later we were all taking refuge in the catacombs. Squashed, saturated and stuck. Unable to move forward, unable move back. But at least it was dry. The lady pressed up against me in a thin and sodden sequinned gown looked askance at me and said “I can’t believe it can you?” My reply, something along the lines of “Well, it is an outdoor event and it could be worse I suppose,” did nothing to appease. I probably shouldn’t have added conversationally, “Pity though. It hasn’t rained here all summer so it’s very bad luck. Just like being in the UK isn’t it? This sort of thing happens all the time there.” She stuck her face right up against mine and said quite firmly, “NO. It doesn’t actually.” Umm…O…K… no, I guess it doesn’t then. It’s a bit difficult to be overly intimidated by a middle aged woman in a see through evening gown with her wild, rat’s tail hair stuck at angles all over her face and her mascara clearly not of the waterproof variety, but I was pleased the arena is a place of entertainment now and no longer a venue for fighting your enemies to the death.
At 12.30am, long after my friend and I had called an end to our anticipated evening’s entertainment and finished a delicious dinner nearby, we passed by the arena on the way back to our hotel. Thousands of people were still waiting. Optimism had turned to desperation. There was the occasional shout and even a “boo” or two to be heard. Kids were fast asleep in their parents’ arms. The rain was still pelting down with no sign of abating. The problem is that if even one bar of music is performed then no refunds are given. And therein lies the answer to the unusually early starting time!
Breakfast the next day in the hotel was a bit like going to a wake. Long faces everywhere. One lady had saved up to buy her husband a 60th birthday gift of a ticket to his favourite opera and had flown with him from Vancouver for the occasion. Travellers from as far afield as Australia, America and Japan were despondently saying things like “it was a once in a lifetime thing,” “we won’t ever get back here again,” “it’s just so disappointing,” and so on. It was difficult not to be sympathetic. Then a lady from one of the tours says in a big loud voice with a hint of superiority, “Oh, I am SOOOO glad I didn’t pay for the option of the opera performance. I was tucked up in bed in the warm last night with a glass of wine by 9.30.” There’s one in every group isn’t there? How to win friends and influence people on your vacation!
For my part, I have no idea if I will ever be in Verona again. But it doesn’t matter. These days I am fairly philosophical about such things and I think I have a pretty good idea of what’s worth worrying about and what’s not. I got to spend a memorable weekend in a beautiful place with a wonderful old friend from my school days; worth so much more than any night’s entertainment. And as a singer I am reminded that, on the rare days when it sometimes seems like just a job, when I think I would rather stay at home than drag myself off to the theatre for another night on stage, for some people a night at the opera is much, much more than an evening out. It’s a passion, an event, an occasion, a financial sacrifice, the realisation of a lifetime’s ambition even. And when I think of that, I feel like the luckiest person in the world.
Villa Oleandra, a large mansion on the shores of Lake Como in Lombardy, currently belongs to George Clooney. I have walked past the luxury home several times this summer on one of the hiking trails between Moltrasio and the pretty village of Laglio. The Hollywood actor has bought not only the lakefront property but also the house and land across the road behind. He has built a bridge and covered walkway between the two. There are curtains at all the windows to prevent gawking passersby such as myself catching a glimpse of the famous resident. But if I can’t see him then he probably can’t see me. This will certainly work in my favour. It means he is unlikely to be watching when I deliver my goat to his garden. Yes, that’s right. I am going to deliver a goat to George Clooney’s garden. A goat I hear you ask? A goat in George Clooney’s garden? Don’t panic. I haven’t imbibed too much of that divine Italian chianti I am so fond of. I merely think it is the best way to ensure that I become the new owner of Villa Oleandra in ten year’s time. Allow me to explain. If a goat belonging to you eats the grass on a property belonging to someone else for ten years, then the property automatically becomes yours. George’s garden looks fairly substantial and I am told that he spends a lot of time away from home, so I am confident of finding a nice, grassy corner where my goat will go undiscovered for a decade. It is clearly the quickest, least complicated way for me to become a property owner. I know. It’s a very silly scenario. But it’s also a very silly law.
From goats to goldfish. In 2005 the municipal council of Rome passed an exceptionally well considered law stating that it was illegal for fish to be kept in private homes in conical bowls. Apparently round bowls cause fish to go blind. The law stated that rectangular shaped full-sized aquariums must be purchased by all fish owners. The Roman council began patting themselves on the back for preventing cruelty to fish. “It’s the kind of thing a civilized society is judged on,” one local politician was quoted as saying. The local council indeed had so much faith in the city’s residents that they could never have anticipated what happened next. Most fish owners in the capital refused to purchase new homes for their beloved fishy friends and many of Rome’s aquatic pets met with a ‘flushing’ end. Not necessarily a better option than life going blind in a round bowl I wouldn’t have thought. I also can’t help thinking that local law enforcement must have been pretty chuffed at the amount of faith people had in their ability to uphold this law, which also stated, out of necessity one assumes, that it was no longer permissible to offer your fish as a prize at a fairground or circus.
Some of Rome’s luckier fish were simply relocated. This is not a novel idea. Every year hundreds of Italian fish end up taking a summer vacation of their own in the fountains of local towns, villages and major cities. The fish lovers among you must be ready to throw your arms up in horror and start protesting. But I think it is worth taking the time to look at this from the perspective of the fish themselves. After months, maybe years of swimming around in a tiny bowl without company or any source of formal entertainment, (and going blind into the bargain), you are suddenly delivered for four weeks break at, for example, the Trevi Fountain. For those of you who don’t know the Trevi Fountain I can tell you it’s a pretty impressive place. I imagine that in terms of accommodation for fish it might rate five stars. You get a large swimming pool, lots of goldfish friends to mingle with and the added bonus of hundreds of tourists throwing money at you all day. Sounds good to me. If you are a really fortunate fish your owners might even forget to pick you up at the end of the holiday and you can spend the rest of your life living in luxury with twenty twenty vision. The chances are good. Apparently it happens all the time.
If you feel are feeling a bit depressed after flushing your fish down the toilet then think about travelling to Milan and cheering yourself up there. The city seems an obvious choice perhaps, what with being the fashion capital and offering shopping, culture and food to rival any in Europe. But in fact you will be required to smile when you are there because a local law says it is illegal not to. Council has, very considerately, exempted people at funerals and those visiting hospitals.
If however your murderous guilt really gets to you and you are considering doing away with yourself, for goodness sake don’t do it in Falciano del Massico. Since March 2012 it has been illegal to die in the village fifty kilometres from Naples. The mayor issued the decree because the town has no cemetery and the death of it’s citizens was creating “a logistical problem.” The next village has a cemetery but because of a feud between the two towns it is not available for the use of the people of Falciano. Recent reports in the press state that the law has been generally well received by locals in theory but that in principle “two residents disobeyed this week alone.” If you can’t avoid dying there at least make sure your friends know that your coffin must be made out of nutshells. If any other material is used they will face a hefty fine.
The list of illegal activities in Italy is quite lengthy. It’s illegal to wear wooden clogs in Capri, illegal to have a picnic on the steps of a church in Florence, illegal not to walk your dog three times a day in Turin and illegal to open a kebab shop in Lucca. In Eraclea it is illegal to build sandcastles and in Lerici it is illegal to hang a towel out of the window to dry. In Eboli it is forbidden to kiss and have sex in a moving car. In Rome’s historical centre you may not sing, eat or drink in groups of more than three. Don’t think about feeding pigeons unless you have deep pockets; in Bergamo the fine is three hundred and thirty three Euros and in Venice a whopping five hundred. Painting your gondola in any colour other than black will incur a fine of a similar amount as will feeding a cat that does not belong to you in Cesena. Being naked near any public fountain is even more costly, so if you chose to dispose of your fish in the Trevi I hope you were fully clothed at the time.
All over the country it is illegal for a man to wear a skirt, illegal to tell a man in public that he “has no balls” lest it damage his reputation, illegal to attach a padlock to a public statue or building, illegal to serve cocktails containing eggs, and, my favourite, illegal for a man to touch his genitals in public. I guess I don’t have to point out that some laws are more successful than others.
You may be starting to wonder how on earth one has any fun in Italy. That’s easy. You grow marijuana and go out and pinch girls’ bottoms. Pardon me? Yes, go on, it’s just a bit of harmless fun. The Italian High Court says you can do both. But only if the marijuana is grown in small amounts and the girl has given you permission first. Oh, and I nearly forgot. Don’t forget to buy a few goats.
I have often found it difficult as an opera singer to find colleagues who share my love of sport and the great outdoors. Lovers of food and wine, no problem. Lovers of music and culture, of course. Lovers of carrying back backs and sleeping in mountain huts, somewhat more difficult. So Imagine my delight when I am introduced to an American opera singer who agrees to undertake a two day hike with me from Brunate to Bellagio.
We agree to set out on Ferragosto, August 15th, an Italian holiday originally celebrating the festivities of Roman Emperor Augustus. There are long queues for the funicular ride up to Brunate from Como as families seek the cooler mountain air or go to the restaurants for an extended, festive lunch. The path we are going to follow begins at the top of the ride and we quickly climb up to the pretty square of San Maurizio. It’s a hot day and the gelato man in his mobile shop is doing a roaring trade. I ask my companion, only half joking, if it’s already time to stop for an ice cream. But we continue up through welcomingly shaded woods, quickly leaving behind the holiday strollers with children and dogs and meeting from then on only the “serious” hikers; the ones with sticks, boots, maps, determined expressions and an overnight destination to get to. Three hours later we stop at a junction for a rest. We strike up a friendly chat with a guy named Roberto and his group. He asks us where we’re headed and we tell him the Rifugio Riella. “That’s great,” he says. ” We all stayed there last night. Fantastic food. They roasted a pig. It was sensational.” Our mouths start watering. We are starving and still an hour away. Roberto leads his group off down the path then turns back and adds as an afterthought “but we didn’t leave any for you!!” Ha ha ha….we laugh along with him. Hiking humour. But the thought of dinner means we cover the next four kilometres surprisingly quickly.
We arrive at the Rifugio Riella hot and tired and feel like we may as well just have just checked in to a five star resort. Even the cold water showers are bliss. Set high above Lake Como with uninterrupted views we drink plastic cups of local wine for the next hour and have dress circle seats for a truly spectacular sunset. I don’t know if I believe in heaven. But if I did I imagine it would look like the sky did at that moment. And there’s the added bonus of not having any mobile phone reception which helps contribute to my own idea of paradise. Roberto wasn’t joking when he said there was no pig left but it is difficult to be disappointed with what arrives at the dinner table. We dive into baskets of fresh bread with big, fat green olives and a platter of cured meats. This is followed with a heaving dish of the area’s famed polenta with butter, cheese and sage accompanied by a sausage casserole and a beef stew. After massive slices of home made apple cake we are offered a myrtillo digestive. We are full but feel like we’ve earned it. We are asleep in our bunk beds by 9.30.
After breakfast next morning we set off following the “dorsale” track number 1. This turns out to be more challenging than we anticipate. Within forty five minutes we are confused. The sign posting is dreadful. We try a few different paths and decide they can’t be the right ones. A young French couple who appear to have spent the night in a tent on the track study our map with us over coffee and chocolate biscuits. It sets the tone for the day. At every junction there are hikers standing around chatting in their native tongues about which is the correct path. So, not just a physical challenge but a navigational one too. One wrong turn turns out to be a bonus. We ‘accidentally’ climb the crest of the mountain which affords us fantastic views of Bellagio in the distance and the sparkling waters of the lake. Friendly cows wander around with their huge neck bells clanging. Just like Switzerland. Also like Switzerland are the strategically placed mountain huts catering to walkers . Cute little places with a scattering of tables with red and white checked cloths they seem to appear just when you want them to. You are offered a glass of restorative wine for fifty cents and a home made hot dish for a couple of Euros, all accompanied by divine panoramic views. You are then sent on your way with a smile and a “buon continuazione”. Very civilized.
Just down the hill I slip on the scree and take a tumble. I land on my back with my heavy pack preventing me from getting up again without assistance. I feel like a stranded turtle and can’t stop laughing once I assertain that only my pride is wounded. Maybe the fifty cent wine wasn’t such a good idea! We can see our destination all afternoon but we never seem to arrive . The last two hours take forever. The descent is steep and requires concentration. You know you’re over it when the conversation stops and you focus solely on putting one foot in front of the other. We come across a natural spring and my friend practically dives in. I stand there and watch. I imagine doing the same thing but that requires extra steps and I am incapable.
Later that night I am eating a huge bowl of pasta in a local restaurant when the friendly waiter tries to take the plate away before I’m finished. I practically snatch the plate back and tell him I am hungry because I have just walked thirty five kilometres from Como. He sweetly thinks I have confused the verbs camminare (to walk) with guidare (to drive). I tell him no, I didn’t drive here, I walked. He turns to his colleague and passes on this information which causes much mirth. Even the chef comes out of the kitchen for a good laugh. They put their forefingers to their right temples in a gesture which makes it very clear they think I am a crazy foreigner. Then, because they obviously feel sorry for me, they bring me a complimentary glass of wine.
As I leave after dinner the same waiter asks me how I plan to return to Como tomorrow. I tell him, with a perfectly straight face and anticipating a further free glass of wine, that I am going to swim.
Ever felt like you wanted to kill someone? I mean, like, really strangle them. Out of sheer frustration. Ever felt like screaming? Giving vent to your inner two year old? No? Obviously you have never been to an Italian post office. Going to an Italian post office is an activity only the truly sadistic, highly motivated and time-rich person should undertake. Be warned. It is not actually an easy thing to do. Oh no, no, no. Why? Because the Italian post office is most often closed. Closed for siesta. Closed on Sundays. And Mondays. Closed at Easter and Christmas. Closed in the summer. Closed in the winter. Closed for Saints’ days. Closed for employees’ birthdays. Closed for all kinds of holidays no one else in the world has ever heard of. And my personal favourite…’closed because our fire hydrant is leaking.’ I actually saw that written on the post office door in Bologna. At first I thought I had lost something in the translation. But no. Closed. Closed. Closed. Finding an Italian post office that is actually open when you need it to be is therefore an exhilarating feeling, akin, I imagine, to buying a lottery ticket and discovering you have just won a million euros. There is about as much chance of one as the other.
The thing is that when you find a post office that is miraculously open your problems have only just begun. You now have to go inside and conduct your business. I use the term ‘business’ very loosely. First decide what it is that you require. Then take a number. You will, of course, inevitably take the incorrect number and spend the next five hours waiting in the wrong queue. When your turn finally comes an employee will actually smile at you (probably with secret delight) whilst they inform you to take another number and stand for another five hours in a different queue. No, they cannot possibly help you. With anything. When you have taken the correct number you may be lucky enough to secure one of the five plastic chairs made available to the five hundred people waiting to be served.
My time does however eventually arrive. On the day in question I have have come for postcard stamps. I know. No one except me actually writes postcards. I assure you that after today I won’t bother anymore either. “Six stamps for postcards please,” I say. “For Australia.” Post office staff love to talk. With each other I mean. “Australia!” the man exclaims to his colleague behind the desk. “My cousin went to Australia in 1976. Melbourne I think it was. He took the whole family to live there. He owns a restaurant.” He asks the colleague if she has ever been to Australia. “Noooo,” she says, “it’s much too far away. And they have a lot of dangerous things in Australia: sharks, spiders, Crocodile Dundee.” She jokes that she is safer staying in Italy. This is all most informative I think. “But my stamps,” I prompt helpfully. The man isn’t finished. “But you have kangaroos down there too don’t you? They aren’t dangerous.” And just in case I need some clarification on what kangaroos actually do he does a little bouncy/hoppy action up and down on his chair. I don’t know whether to laugh or cry and wonder if in fact I am part of a candid camera episode for Italian television. “Do you really eat them?” he continues. “Ooooh, I could never eat a kangaroo,” puts in the colleague. When I finally get a word in I tell them both “Yes, we really eat them. And very tasty they are too.”
Suddenly the man gets up and disappears through a door out the back. I entertain a vague hope that stamps will materialise with his return. But he is gone so long I wonder if he has in fact gone home for the day. Or maybe he is so traumatised by the thought of eating a kangaroo that he is having a calming cigarette in the back alley. Or, perhaps having remembered he has a cousin in Melbourne who owns a restaurant, he has decided to make a long distance telephone call and suggest he puts kangaroo on the menu. The possibilities are endless and I have plenty of time to think about them all. Eventually he returns with, miracle of miracles the stamps, but without an explanation as to his long absence. He arranges my cards on the desk in front of him in a neat pattern and studies them carefully, as if he is pondering his next move in an all important chess game. Except that would have been quicker. Suddenly he loses concentration again and addresses the group of people behind me. “She’s from Australia you know!” They all smile at me and nod their heads and I wonder if any of them are going to start hopping up and down to demonstrate their full comprehension. Thankfully I am spared. “My stamps?” I ask again perhaps more forcefully than I should have. “Signora. You will get your stamps but please do not raise your voice at me.” Contrite, I tell him my voice is not raised; that I just have good projection. “I’m an opera singer,” I say by way of unnecessary explanation. He gives me a long look. Clearly he thinks I am more of a comedian than an opera singer. He finally takes one of the large stamps and tries to place it horizontally in the upper right hand corner of the card. Not satisfied he then tries it vertically. Then diagonally. “Sorry Signora,” he says, “the stamps are too big for your cards and I cannot help you.”
I am desperate. “Haven’t you got any smaller stamps?” I beg. “No Signora. These are the only stamps for Australia.” Incredibly he then hands me back the six postcards. I am surprised I manage to say “thanks very much,” but not surprised I add “for nothing” under my breath. I accompany these words with one of those forced smiles where your teeth grind together at the back and your jaw aches from the tension. As I turn to throw the bloody cards in the waste paper basket under the counter he has the last word. “Signora Kangaroo,” he says and winks at me. “Next time it might be quicker to send an e-mail!”