Thursday, 30 March 2017

A Milanese Supper

There was a large crack, off centre and running vertically, as if a lightning streak had left its mark on the tinted windscreen. The Italian taxi driver's eyes in the rear-view mirror a mixture of hatred and shock. The poor man as angry with himself as much as with my cane, which was, of course, the still-intact instrument of damage. Pantomiming again, he looked at it murderously, picked it up from the foot-well on the passenger side and violently shook it, before attempting to snap it in half. Well, it wouldn't yield; wood is unbending in the extremest of conditions, which made him reach that point we all dread to reach, whereby he flung it at me, sloughed and shaken as I was in the aftermath, on the back seat, though the jolt had also caused the fuzzy brain I'd complained of moments before to vaporise.
The second me that had, in weariness, become separated, had bolted back into my body, as soon as the driver's foot heavily pressed down on the brake, as if it were a rabbit and I were a rabbit hole, which is a strange sensation and not how I've heard it described. Usually, in emergency situations it's reported as being the other way around i.e. there's an upwards escape, not a dive for cover underground, but then, I've often done the reverse to what's expected.
That being the case, however, I immediately felt it was my civilian duty to compensate the driver, for my incomprehension of his language and his accent was largely to blame, and well, it was my cane. He had since calmed down, somewhat, although his gesticulations were still bigger than necessary, and of those I understood I refused in almost as wild a manner. I would not let him take me directly into the city centre, preferring a short walk and the Italian air, yet I paid the fare in full and contributed too to the windscreen repairs.
Having gathered my belongings, we shook hands as if it were a successful business deal in which both had got the outcome they wanted without letting on to the other, before parting company just as swiftly as we'd found one another outside the station: he pulling away with a squeal and me with a sway, assessing my coordination: a spindly tree in a Mediterranean breeze, which in my head I gave a 6.5.
There were no nagging pains that was the main thing, and I judged my gait to not be too far off what it ordinarily was considering all that had passed, and so with my wooden stick in my customary grip I advanced at a pace somewhere between tortoise and hare as my tired eyes skimmed the landscape for a seductive restaurant. Food, then hotel, I'd decided, not knowing what I might find when I reached the accommodation my friend had booked for this leg of his itinerary. No pun intended. My brain, when on an adrenaline high is reduced to picture-word association: Italy, shaped liked a boot, and so on, which in the past has made some frightful situations, but these days I use the excuse that I'm senile.
Shortly, lights beckoned on the right and up ahead, which as I approached grew into an alfresco area with flickering tea-lights, centrally placed, on tables set for two. It was a little early for romance with daylight still only fading, but you could see through into the main restaurant and in there a celebratory feast was in full swing: an animated table of twelve men swapping tales whilst sharing food and clinking glasses. It all looked so amicable I almost wanted to claim I belonged to their party, a late addition whose absence had been noted earlier and who would now be welcomed into the fold of laughter and back slapping. That, not to delude you, was mere fantasy: I knew nobody there, nor indeed in Milan.
Travel-drunk and mesmerised by the winking lights and the dying light of day, I chose to dine in the open-air, but sat facing in so I could continue to observe this band of brothers. Amused by their liveliness, the server attended to me but I barely attended to him: I had only water and declined parmigiana on my rigatoni alla Norma, yet the aroma from the steaming plate caused me to take my glance, for an instant, away, and that's when the fight broke out, over, as I was informed much later, a knocked-over salt cellar. It doesn't bear thinking about, even now.

Picture credit: The Last Supper, c 1520, Giampietrino, after Leonardo di Vinci

Thursday, 23 March 2017

A Couple of Isolated Incidents

The umbrella on track wasn't mine, could never conceivably have been mine, for there's no way I would own such a distinctly feminine article, one that wasn't even delicately floral but screamed psychedelic: a permanent Summer of Love in spite of the dreary weather it afforded protection from.
How did I see this poor victim? I saw it carted off, after a lot of bother, by an overzealous rail officer, who obviously thought he was the star of the show and not the psychotropic umbrella, to be, I imagine, either returned to its distraught owner, or to be bagged and tagged as lost property and held with all the other paraphernalia, some valuable, that somehow gets left behind on public transport; though equally it could be that it was instantly and cruelly disposed of by officers higher up the chain of command. The latter possibility made me feel quite sorry for this collapsed, and now bedraggled, item, for though umbrellas can't be described as innocuous, they cannot act alone, accidental or otherwise, as in potentially poking out eyes, tripping up passers-by or stabbing someone in the guts. Everything has a deadly use if you think, long and hard, about it, if you have the time to do so that is. And that, I've had plenty of over the years. Decades, even.
Although, never in my life have I wanted to lay on rail tracks and wait for an approaching train. Or throw myself or push somebody else into the path of one, though, in a weird way, I can understand that urge, that snap to do it. The rage that can't be contained spilling out, towards yourself or others. And certainly there were those around me, that day, that were less sympathetic. I know it was just an umbrella, but would their attitudes have changed if it was a person? Would they say it was 'just' a man, a woman, a homeless guy, a troubled girl? Nobody I knew, so that's okay?
Situations like this, even defused, create confusion. Clearly, for I was still ruminating on it on the TGV, and that was some hours after. The train hurtling along, at top speed, my mind racing with it: how exactly did it end up on track? why did it recovering it take so long? and why the judiciousness – the area sealed off by ticker-tape? You wouldn't believe the mayhem it caused if I told you, on London Underground, sure, but in Paris? I guess I expected more efficiency from the network than I perhaps would have done had I been in London.
And, as a consequence, I'd been bruised by hail. The commuters evacuated into this period of unsettled weather, which added to the enervating atmosphere. The complaints escalating and intensifying, issued with the same force as the stones thrown from the darkened skies, as we sought shelter like cattle without dogs or ranch hands to herd us. My soft flesh still stung even though it was over, done, and displayed a weird mottled branding.
The seven hour journey pointlessly swallowed up in this way. I tried to read a book: a collection of stories by Annie Proulx, and couldn't, the environment in which they were set being so very different to my own; I tried to sleep, already knowing it was useless trying as I never can when I'm inactive, yet in motion; I had a cup of herbal tea and even that didn't relax me; and so, as a last resort, I walked carriages, swaying, my cane signalling my unsteady passage, and it was only then that I could think ahead to Milan and the sights I wanted to see: the Piazza del Duomo, the Cinque Vie historical district, Leonardo di Vinci's Last Supper in the refectory of Santa Maria Della Grazie, and possibly, a day trip to Lake Como.
Naturally, in this blue sky burst of anticipation, I had conveniently forgotten (again!) my friend's exacting schedule, which wouldn't occur to me until I jumped into a taxi outside the Milano Porta Garibaldi station, and even then it was fleeting, my mind wanting a hotel room and supper, or something disguising itself as that for my concept of time was, by then, completely shot. The taxi driver talking to me in what seemed to be fast Italian (or was it flamboyant English?), eyeing me occasionally in the rear-view mirror to see if I comprehended; I didn't. And so, in a last stab at communication, he pantomimed to me, and for a second let go of the steering wheel and had to brake hard; the jolt forcing my inclined cane to act like a bird, trapped, and frantically beat at his windscreen.

Picture credit: Railroad Train, 1908, Edward Hopper

Thursday, 16 March 2017

Umbrella on Track

I got called away from the Parisian wonderland by a message left at the hotel desk. My convalescing friend, having not received a picture postcard from me for some days had at first fretted, then grown irritated, and then concluded, rightly, that Robert D had interfered in his carefully laid plans, none of which had in fact gone entirely to plan, but well, he was still the Controller wasn't he? and so, now chose to do a little intervening of his own through the mouthpiece of the telephone and the hotel receptionist's unsmiling lips.
These cupid-bow lips, fascinating as it was to see them on a man, mumbled an apology which I had to lean in to catch, then conveyed in a more audible authoritative tone: This isn't a holiday! Leave right away and stick to my schedule! After which, the lips relaxed and grinned, almost like a Cheshire cat in that it reached the eyes and two neat rows of white teeth showed, though I think the grin was more from embarrassment than laughing at one, that one, of course, being me: a lone traveller whom had lately come out of the rigid closet, not as gay, though what better place to do so than in Paris, but as someone finally ready to embrace the world and expand the circle in which they usually dwelt.
So, yes, I felt cheated from my own liberation, as well as justly reprimanded like a puppy who chews the furniture when their owner's out, for this wasn't my holiday, it had been his before misfortune struck, and was still. I had agreed, unwillingly, to be his envoy, but somewhere in Paris, as I hit my stride, I'd unthinkingly misplaced his shadow, probably left it behind at a tourist spot or in a metro station, so excited had I been that my confidence was beginning to assert itself in foreign lands. And so, I was guilty as charged.
I quickly scribbled on the back of a postcard of the Notre Dame: Going to Milan! with my benefactor's address and asked the same receptionist as before to post it off tout de suite. I scrambled up the stairs rather than wait for the elevator, and once in my room hastily ransacked drawers until everything was back, not as neatly packed, in my holdall, which owing to my travels unattractively bulged. I'd given away my umbrella earlier that day to a busking musician, who had no protection from the rain and I had no change so it seemed like a fair transaction, though I realised as I continued my promenade, that one, it was foolish, and two, my subconscious had recreated a Robert D picture, and proved, yet again, art lives on though the artist is gone, and so, in turn, the artist lives on through his art.
I'm fond of circles, those I draw around myself and those that are evident in life situations. Anyway, the umbrella was gone, which left my trusty walking aid as the only external baggage, and which when used I held with a bird-like claw, not only to steady myself but also to welt any would-be assailants. I had heard the probability of that was high if I went to Barcelona, not that it featured on the itinerary, yet naturally after learning that I'd attributed this opportunist act to other European cities, albeit on a lesser scale. Cities are judged like people: pockets of crime, where to avoid, where to go, which was another fact I'd hadn't known before I was made to step out of my comfort zone.
And yes, I realise I've wandered farther from the point, the point of my departure, which in reading this seems to have been onerously delayed. Well, that's a lie - it wasn't, I did go, with less haste than when I scrambled, which was rather untruthful of me as I couldn't really scramble with a cane, up the stairs, though it is true going down is worse on the knees. The elevator, just so you know, was in use, stopping everywhere but the fourth floor, and so, stairs it was, followed by shallow breathing having reached the lobby and refusing help as if I were swatting flies, before issuing a final and cheery bye-bye.
I exited to unseasonable weather and made for the nearest metro station. The 87 bus would have been more direct, but the metro, though more inconvenient, seemed quicker, if I was to make the high speed train departing from Paris-Gare de Lyon, Diderot, and the architecture of this station, I'd been told, was sublime. Unfortunately, my plans, once again, got scuppered as there was an umbrella on track, which I hoped, in some bizarre way, wasn't mine.

Picture credit: Musician in the Rain, Robert Doisneau

Thursday, 9 March 2017

Robert D's Paris

And so, which just so you know has become my favourite saying, as it has of others, and which I believe could even be attributed to the broad and continuing appeal of Kurt Vonnegut for its pause-making similarities, I find myself in Paris.
I arrived by boat and train, less than three days ago, after the usual mishaps which have dogged me ever since I stepped outside my provincial town.
What befell me this time around? I shall tell you, in a succinct manner for this is not the objective of this narration.
First, the berth assigned to me on the boat was not sound for I was plagued by a trickle of water which the boat's engineer tried to tell me in heavily accented English was 'no-fing to vorri yours 'ead 'bout' and that it came from inside not out. This, however, did little to alleviate my worries, and, in fact, only increased them. Then, after this worrisome but largely uneventful voyage, I was not met by my friend's friend whom had offered a guided tour and one night's bed and board, admittedly to my friend whose place I filled, but still, I had expected him to show, and so, when he didn't, I had to board a shuttle to the harbour-town, and there, track down reasonable accommodation, where I passed a fitful night: two tom-cats yowled, I presume, at each other or the full moon that split my room into zebra-like stripes.
The next day, however, passed off as planned: the train to Paris came on time, and so, here I am. In this Picture Post world.
In a piece of the globe I've primarily viewed through the lens of other, less risk-averse people, who are now, for the most part, decreased, though their art has by no means neared its last breath. Their classic black and white images of Paris existed when I wasn't even a blob of cells, and then, when I was more material than blob, I came to them a quarter of a century late. I actually wailed when I realised these pictures and I had existed side by side for twenty-five years and that fate had not intervened sooner. Now, a further quarter and seventeen years on, is that Paris still there?
That, is what I've been hoping, rather naively, since I arrived in this great city to discover. I'm almost scared at what I might find, for I don't want my Paris bubble to burst, nor for the back-catalogue of images I retain to be ripped to shreds, and yet it would be a waste of my friend's money if I stay holed up in this hotel for another day, trying out my dismal O-level French on the staff who answer me with an insufferably quick tongue. I have no idea what they're saying and can only reply with the following: Non, Oui, C'est combien?, Merci; or if I'm really struggling with whatever lamentation they're telling me, their mouth a stream of foreign words, a sympathetic or indignant C'est la vie! All, however, seem to suffice and they either grin broadly at me or go away with their frowns smoothed.
But today, after what has become my habitual croissant with apricot jam, I steeled myself to leave my current abode armed with a map and a compass, because, as you might have guessed, I'm..., well, I don't easily throw caution to the wind, not even if the direction it's blowing in is favourable, unless I'm pushed by a pig-headed friend or some 'strike while the iron's hot' force. In this case, it was the latter, and quite frankly, after staring at walls, as well as wooden doors and patterned floors, I was bored. The slow elevator was even failing to excite me.
Paris called! And I was determined to trace, at a walking pace, Robert D's pictorial twentieth century representation. The D stands for Doisneau, but my pronunciation is poor and, has at times, been a laughing matter, and so, to save my blushes and stammers I shortened it. Robert D. makes him sound like a friend, a very good friend, and he has been to me, unwittingly, but still. And so, of course, the first place I headed to was the big open space of the Champ de Mars, where the world's first hydrogen-filled balloon was launched by Jacques Charles and the Robert Brothers. A little fact I gleaned in my teens from a history doc, that would in time lead to Robert D. and this famous backdrop, which is where I now stand watching a very French-looking man take the air with a leashed white rabbit.

Picture credit: Champ de Mars, Paris, 1943, Robert Doisneau

Thursday, 2 March 2017

The Representatives

After my discharge from a foreign hospital, I was directed to the nearest bus stop, in my slightly crumpled suit leaning on my wooden walking stick, carrying my battered holdall and umbrella, where the Head Nurse had said I could resume my journey on an intercity bus. What she neglected to tell me was whom I might come across, but then, perhaps my myopic eyes were still growing used to such spectacles of humanity.
I come from a very provincial town, where people don't move around – out or in – so that the families that are there date back centuries, which as you might imagine, limited my experience of humankind, and which is how, in some ways, I came to be here: at this bus stop.
Actually, I tell a lie, as that's more of the why and not the how. How is an entirely different and lengthier story, one which involves an illness and an inheritance, both unrelated to me, then a cancelled flight and a twelve hour delay, which is to say I missed all the pre-booked arrangements that the person whose place I'm in had originally and carefully made.
Why it fell to me, in the autumn of my life, is yet another, though far shorter, tale: it was proposition put by him to me. All expenses paid, on the proviso I would send him postcards; he's a collector.
Who is this he and what is he to me? An old, old friend, much older than me for if I'm in autumn, then he's in winter. Both of us are old-timers at any rate, but up until recent problems with his ticker he had far more energy and zest. He put me, quite rightly, to shame, and so, actually, I'm rather a poor stand-in for this planned adventure. Yet, here I am: having unscheduled ventures into the unknown.
Which is all well and good for an courageous type but not for someone who'd rather dream and sit at home; the fact that I agreed is a human kindness and a miracle. Like a prospector, he struck gold on that particular day. And I don't default on promises made, never, especially not when, as with this friend, it was his dearest wish to see me go. He even advised me on what and what not to pack, though I drew the line at him accompanying me in the taxi to the airport, which was certainly fortuitous considering the mind-numbing hours I spent at Heathrow.
Nothing has been as I expected or imagined, which I think of as two very different things, although you, I know, may not agree; nor has it been restful, so far, not even with the five-star hotels and minor hospital stay. The former, which my friend had scrupulously researched, I felt out of place in, and the latter, well, it all happened so quickly. And anyhow, just as I begin to adjust, it's time to leave. To move onto the next stop, though I am now a few days behind, which is why to make up this time I'm about to step aboard a rickety bus that's just turned up in a cloud of dust and exhaust fumes.
One observation I have made, which waiting for this bus again confirmed, is that queues are universal, though the etiquette in joining one or being part of one may vary. This one, it was clear to me immediately, was like those in England, by order of arrival, and so I took the last spot on the end of the bench, nearest the phone booth and furthest from the timetable, placing my holdall and umbrella securely between my planted feet until such a moment when I needed to rise. All buses, I had been told, that went from this stop were intercity, and so I let my anxieties disperse in the sun for a while.
Until, as I previously said, the bus turned up in a plume of dust, and then gave a long, low sigh as it opened its door to admit us, where, inside, to my surprise, each class of society, as I've never in my life seen together, was represented: a female student, a businessman, a small boy, a mother, a manual worker with his tools, and a housewife with a shopping basket in which nested a live chicken; these, I found myself riding alongside, lost, as ever, in thought yet with still-seeing eyes.
My passage of time as distorted as the weaving of this bus, as if the universe is split in two: one where time runs according to clocks and calendars, and one where time overlaps and bounces me forward and back at random.

Picture credit: The Bus, 1929, Frida Kahlo