A curious old town

[Part 2 of the Como series]
In 1867, during his travels in Europe, Mark Twain visited lake Como. He writes, in The Innocents Abroad, that he reached “the curious old town of Como, at the foot of the lake” by train from Milan, and then took a steamer to Bellagio where, along with his co-passengers, he was locked in a cell and exposed to “a smoke that smelt of all the dead things of earth.” The locals resorted to this method of “fumigation” to “guard themselves against the cholera, though we hailed from no infected port.”

After this pungent beginning, he settled down and took in the beauty around him:

A great feature of Como’s attractiveness is the multitude of pretty houses and gardens that cluster upon its shores and on its mountain sides. They look so snug and so homelike, and at eventide when everything seems to slumber, and the music of the vesper bells comes stealing over the water, one almost believes that nowhere else than on the Lake of Como can there be found such a paradise of tranquil repose.

Mark Twain stayed in Bellagio for a few days, before journeying further to the town of Lecco. Later in the book, in a passage that pokes fun at the Italian obsession for Michealangelo, he says the artist “designed the Lake of Como.”

The Italians spared us the fumigation. On the second day of our visit we drove, again along the SS583 (there was no alternate route), to the city of Como. Our first stop was the S.Giovanni station, a small railway terminal set next to a hill. The first platform was awash with tourists, mostly American, boarding or alighting from the train to Milan, chattering loudly. The train in the other direction, from Milan, arrived next, and soon we spotted Wife’s cousin, D. She was in Italy on a short business trip and had agreed to join us for the weekend. D hugged us both and said, all in a single breath: “You know, as the train slowed down I was standing near the door wondering if this was the right station, and guess what? I spotted Parmanu at the edge of the platform with his camera shooting I have NO idea what. I couldn’t have hoped for a better sign. You’ll send me that picture, no?”

“Of course I will.” I replied.

“Of course he will – next year.” Wife said. “He’s given me his digital camera and now he uses only film, which gives him another excuse to delay sending you the pictures.”

This beginning set a light, bantering tone for the day. A third person can bring in a variation in the order of things, a welcome counterpoint to the established routines Wife and I follow, the way a new character revives interest in a long novel descending into tedium. (Do not read too much into this; it is the writer speaking here, in search of a narrative, not a bored husband seeking adventure.)

We drove into the city, parked, and walked towards the center. There was no plan, except to play the tourist: walk around, absorb the atmosphere, eat, drink, take pictures. The weather, sunny at about 25 degrees Celsius, was ideal for a day spent sauntering around, and as we entered the center it was clear everyone else had seized upon the same idea. Near the Duomo an African man carrying a pile of books approached us and held out his hand: a handshake offer. Wife and D, a few steps ahead and deep in conversation, ignored him, and a moment later I stopped and shook his hand. It was soft and warm. He was a young man with a squint, but I was never in doubt where he was looking. He wore a half-sleeved shirt, cotton pants, leather shoes; on his shoulder was a backpack, heavily laden, perhaps with more books. He said something in Italian that I did not understand.

“Do you speak English?” I asked.

“No. Italian?”

“Only English. And German – Deutsch?” I asked. He shook his head. I pointed to his pile: “Do you have English books?”

He flipped over a few books. They were all in Italian: children’s books, recipe books, travel guides. I shrugged. He held out his hand again, we wished each other, and I continued walking. I spotted a few more African men that day, approaching tourists with an outstretched hand. Some were engaged in a conversation; an Italian woman even stopped her car in the middle of a street to exchange a few sentences with one seller. One of them told me he was from Senegal.

African men selling you stuff is not an uncommon sight in European cities, but I had never before seen anyone sell books in this fashion. Their manner – gentle, and inviting conversation – seemed well suited to their ware, and I hoped this practice would spread.

We avoided the waterfront, and roamed instead in the city’s labyrinthine streets. The old buildings here – and in other Italian cities with old town centers – aren’t beautiful in the conventional sense: their facades expose water and sewage pipes, electrical wires, peeling plasters, grimy corners. But their charm lies in just these qualities that call attention to their age, to their medieval origins, and in the thin layer of the modernity, evident in the glossy storefronts and the fashionable outfits, that presents a striking contrast. In such a setting, beauty can arrest you at unexpected places, in surprising forms.

For lunch we stopped at an outdoor restaurant, set in a half-open square enclosed on two sides by high walls. Wife and I quickly chose the usual Italian fare, Pizza and Pasta, but D wasn’t sure yet.

“Do you have Tabasco?” she asked the waiter.

The waiter, a middle-aged Italian with a long face and a busy manner, looked confused. “Scusi?”

“Tabasco? Chilli sauce?”

“Yes. But we no sell Tabasco.”

Wife and I knew something the waiter didn’t: D has a craving for Tabasco — the sauce made of Tabasco peppers whose heat can burn your insides — that borders on addiction. We had, on other occasions, seen the effects of this charming little oddity, so we looked on, watching the scene play out. D explained, and the waiter nodded: he would bring the sauce. She then proceeded with the order, repeating her request for Tabasco a few times. When her drink — a glass of tomato juice — arrived, she reminded the waiter about the Tabasco. He nodded again, and drifted away. A few minutes later she called him and asked again: she wanted the Tabasco for her juice, she explained. He scratched his head, nodded, and returned with a bottle. By the end of our lunch the bottle stood empty, so she asked for more when desserts were ordered. The waiter refused, shaking his head sideways, mumbling something in Italian. D persisted, trying to catch the attention of a waitress nearby; in the end she received another bottle, this time almost empty, which she went on to finish. I expected to find Tabasco on our bill, but the Italians were more stunned than broke.

We continued our walk, crisscrossing the network of streets, stopping at a roadside cafe for another round of coffee. It was late afternoon, and what had been exciting in the morning — watching people, looking at the streets — was now tiring. Full to the brim with material delights, I needed something for the soul. I left the two ladies chatting and walked to Museo Archeologico, which promised “Roman statuettes, Greek vases, and Egyptian antiques”. There was no one in the galleries, not even guards, which was ideal, but I was frustrated by the Italian descriptions that accompanied all artifacts. In the Roman section there were broken sections of pillars depicting scenes from the Roman period; I wanted to learn more – Where did these pillars come from? What were these scenes about? – but found no help. (Como came under the Roman empire around 50 B.C., during the reign of Julius Caesar; Pliny the Elder, author of the encyclopedic Natural History, was born in Como, and the 18th century lakeside villas we see today were apparently inspired by similar villas in the Roman period.) The Greek vases carried red-figures in a ceremony, but without a context I could gather little.

Before we left Como we went shopping, not for clothes or handbags (fortunately), but for groceries we needed at the apartment. Back at Lezzeno, the ladies prepared an Indian dinner for themselves, chicken curry with rice, and served me, the vegetarian, with more pasta. Outside, the placid lake seemed like a large void, dark and formless. There was no music of vesper bells stealing over the water, but it did feel like a paradise of tranquil repose.

[To be continued]

5 thoughts on “A curious old town

  1. What a lovely way to sell books. I wish they’d been in English though. Very frustrating to see books in languages you don’t read or understand.

  2. ohh you forget our very own kids selling books at the traffic signal…except that all are pirated. but considering that most are uneducated, they are well aware of what sells and what doesn’t 🙂

  3. This is beautifully put down… the man selling books… the tabasco… Now I have the day for ever 🙂 Thank you! (Enjoying the writing is a double bonus!)

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