It’s Saturday night and my high-speed train glides across northern Italy. We’ve just passed through steely Milan and are setting out to catapult into Helvetia and across the Swiss Alps. I’m about halfway through an eight-hour train ride on ItaliaRail tracks, and the romp that was Venice is fading fast. I open an art history book, flip through a stack of glossy magazines, fake working on my laptop.
But the inevitable is a blank stare out the window, the now jet-black landscape an inky reminder of last night’s tagliatelle al nero di seppia in quiet Dorsoduro.
I’ve just spent five days in La Serenissima, with my home base at the sumptuous 18th century Bauers Il Palazzo, its terraced windows overlooking Punta della Dogana and the distant Giudecca island. On rainy afternoons, I admired dusky Tintoretto masterpieces and studied at the hushed Biblioteca Nazionale Marciana, just a stone’s throw from Piazza San Marco where locals ploughed through knee-high acqua alta in tall black rain boots. There were tête-à-têtes with Venetian friends at cosy, slow food gems, an evening of Rossini at Teatro Malibran and an espresso-powered morning with De Chirico and Severini at the Peggy Guggenheim Collection.
But there was something in this evening’s sunset as I hailed a boat to the station that has me homesick for Venice – and tells me I’m heading in the wrong direction.
Italy, after all, is a delicious utopia in my mind that both fascinates and beguiles. Its contradictions between infrastructure and legacy fuel an unabashed love that has undoubtedly tagged me as an idealist more than once and garnered its fair share of passionate fights. The country’s economic and political landscape that lies parched and cracking under a rainless Mediterranean summer sky falls in stark contrast to its lush cultural heritage. I shop Salvatore Ferragamo and eat baccalà while indulging in la dolce vita vaguely reminiscent of my native West Coast, only to have my Italian friends throw up their hands and raise their voices in protest. Words describing the messy, seemingly unsolvable state of things punctuate the conversation; words like mannaggia! and casino! It gets ugly.
My coming from California to Switzerland twenty years ago has been likened to a switch from peaches to coconuts. In Los Angeles, you bite into the soft sweetness of the cultural peach – an accessible, laidback and generally tolerant attitude – and hit the hard pit only after having savoured the flavour for a while. Things are quite the opposite in Switzerland, where close connections are more elusive, but once the hard shell is cracked you’re in the club. Can you blame me, though, that I just like peaches?
Where Switzerland rules in efficiency, Italy owns the catwalk in grandeur. Take Paolo Sorrentino’s new, Oscar-winning art-house film ‘The Great Beauty” (La Grande Bellezza)– a sumptuous Felliniesque affair that explores the supremely puzzling question of how Italy went from being a prosperous paradise to a crumbling republic standing on the threshold of ruin. The country has long been the cultural envy of the world. And while Italians are divided in their reactions to the motion picture, Sorrentino is disarmingly convincing. In an understated closing stroke, he deftly if not vaguely responds to a question of national urgency: Italy – if nothing else – is a great beauty.
My train pulls into the industrial-era Swiss station and I disembark into the world of ticking regularity. It is a world you can count on. But the magnetic lure of the Italian Republic’s menefreghismo and Venice’s languid lagoons nearly pull me back onto the train. Italy may be riddled with an ailing infrastructure, but it throbs with splendour and warmth. Born and bred on Hollywood’s celluloid brilliance, I’ve got an appetite for beauty that won’t be satiated. And the blood red sunsets I knew at Huntington Beach have been rivalled only by those I’ve witnessed on Italian shores.
Article & Photo by Allison Zurfluh