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In a few days my wife Susan and I will be flying to Italy, not so much for old times’ sake as for a small amount of harmless October therapy.
For all of its other endowments, a visit to Italy can be a renewal. Make that particularly true for older traveling folks who have seen their share of a troubled, but somehow still marvelous, world. It is youth restored. Something always to carry away.
For me, it is the virtually unchangeable Venice.
I experienced Venice the first time 50 years ago, traveling alone, at a time when I was stationed in Germany with the U.S. Army, early during the Cold War. One of my buddies and I planned to spend a week’s leave in Venice. But my friend had to back off because of illness and it was too late to cancel my plans. So I took a train from Stuttgart into Italy to the city of Venice. Like the rest of Europe at the time, it was still recovering from nightmare of World War II.
But still it was Venice, with all of its history, reaching back into the centuries to the power struggles, the canals, the boatmen, Marco Polo, the bridges, the music, the steeples.
This was not a time of tourism. Europe was then in the beginning stages of recovery from the ravages of war. There weren’t many operating hotels, but I found one for seven dollars a night, clean and almost empty.
After checking in and enjoying a tasty Italian supper, I stepped outside to examine my surroundings. There were few street lights functioning, not many folks out walking and virtually no shops open. But I thought I would explore and began walking down the nearest street not far from the canals. There was virtually no traffic — a few couples hand in hand, some peddlers. Then I heard a strong tenor voice, and I recognized the music. The tenor was singing a love song from Puccini’s opera, Tosca.
From my limited experience with international opera I recognized the aria “E lucevan le stelle,”one of the showcases of the opera culture. His voice carried, and I searched the surrounding buildings trying to locate its source. I thought it had to be one of the local professionals practicing in the early evening. A second scan of the neighboring buildings turned up no clues. So I walked a little further down the almost deserted street.
Nothing much stirred. I passed two ladies on their way to the late markets and nodded politely. The unseen tenor approached the culminating finish of this now timeless aria and did it with a style that the masters themselves would approve.
I stopped to offer my applause.
Still nothing from the nearby shops or surrounding buildings.
I looked down the street for some clues: A few kids were at play with soccer ball. Nearby a man hauled in the groceries house to house. Here in the deepening gloaming of this city for the ages, the only other figure in sight was a handyman, pushing a mix of piping and electric equipment down the street. So I turned to leave, and in a minute or two heard one more of the Puccini arias. It could have been Pavarotti himself. I applauded but he couldn’t hear. He was too tied up rearranging all of his pipes and shovels before wheeling them home.
Where else but in Italy? To the stranger, always a new beginning.