Upon buying my tickets to go carve marble in Italy, I also bought a language system called Sybervision so I could study Italian. It was the easiest language system I’ve ever used.
By the time I landed in Rome, I could ask where’s the city center, what street is my hotel on, where to eat, how to find the train or bus, what things cost, and more.
Sadly, I didn’t have to time to get the more advanced versions of the system, for more complex vocabulary and a deeper understanding of philosophical ideas – or even the simple difference between plain espresso and the local morning favorite, espresso-con-grappa.
It was good enough, though, to get me on the train going on up past Pisa to Lucca, and to my reserved hotel room. Which, oh we’re so sorry, had been given to someone else.
They put me up in a huge suite for the night. I do mean huge – it was at least the size of three bedrooms, with 12 foot ceilings, a gigantic bathroom with toilet and bidet and a bathtub big enough for two (!), an enormous canopied bed, and baroque-to-the-max decor.
I was so jet-lagged I could barely function, so all that didn’t really hit me until the next day. Made my head swim to see all the fancy scrolls and cherubs and useless extra decorative garfoo. At least the bathroom wasn’t just a small empty closet with a hole in the floor like a lot of places were!
The next day, they put me into a large, well-furnished two-bedroom apartment down the street, in a complex filled with grannies, babies and screaming matrons. My new place was on the third floor, overlooking a central courtyard. Much better than that awful room.
I remember trying so hard to understand what they were all saying, catching bits here and there, trying to figure it out.
After a week of this straining and striving to understand, I suddenly realized that they were probably shouting, “Maria, where’s the fkn laundry soap!” and “Get down here ya lazy tat!” and “Is that wanky husband of yours coming home ever?”
I gave up trying so hard after that, and suddenly it was easier to understand even the fastest speakers. Even at the telephone exchange, where it seemed they had a secret agreement to only speak with as little lip movement and as rapid-fire as they could.
The only immediate drawback to that apartment was the church tower right across from my bedroom window. With the 6-foot-tall bell. That rang off the hour, every hour. In my ear. If anyone ever set their time pieces by it they’d be in red hot peepee trouble – it was virtually never on time.
It’s funny – at first it was so loud I thought I’d lose my mind. Then I got so used to it that it seemed like simple background noise. And then I didn’t hear it at all! And I actually missed it when I got back home.
Lucca had a few quirks I loved. It was first known as a banking town. Merchants would go there and ply their wares and keep their money stashed in local banks. Which is why they built the massive walls all the way around the town.
At one time, Lucca was the capital of Italy. It was wonderful to take walks on top of the walls on the wide, flower and tree-lined avenue that went all the way around the town.
There were constant improvements going on all over the place. A block away from my apartment, a big burly guy sitting on and maneuvering around on his three-legged stool simultaneously tore up and replaced the cobbles in the street. It was mesmerizing to watch. He’d take his hooky tool and pull up a few rows, plonk his butt down on his stool, reach out and level out the underlying layer of sand.
Then he’d get into a rhythm of artfully grabbing, placing and arranging row after row of square-cut cobble stones. All neat and tidy in an intertwined arc pattern. Then he’d kind of squat stand, move his little stool, and do it all over again for new rows. I stood in the shadows for hours watching. Pure humble every day artistry. In a style probably hundreds of years old.
It was summer, and steamy hot. At the corner bars you could sit outside of, most had not just coffee, but also their own version of a shaved-ice dessert called frutti-di-bosco – fruit of the forest. A mix of wild berries, smashed with just a touch of sugar, mixed into crushed ice, presented in layers in a tall parfait dish. Purple ecstasy. This was heaven. To absolutely die for. My lips were permanently stained blue.
On my walk to the school every day, I’d pass a construction site, teeming with delicious examples of beautiful, tanned, rippley-muscled italian men.
I guess they thought as well of me, because as I passed by in my tank top and shorts, they’d call out, “Ehhh, Bella, caldo oggi! Veni qui, veni qui con me!” Hey beautiful it’s hot today, come here, come here with me! Mmmm, thanks, guys, but, I don’t think so. Way too easy to get myself into trouble I didn’t need! (Pardon my rusty Italian…)
There were a few people who wandered around town endlessly. I couldn’t figure out what their deal was.
I was told, finally, with accompanying swirly-finger gestures by the temple, that they were “un po loco a la testa” – a little crazy in the head.
Two were the results of incestuous overload, two were just barmy. They were well taken care of – well-dressed, harmless, always smiling.
I loved that the people of the town took such good care of them and did their best to protect them. They had no-rent places to live, free food and clothing.
One guy, looking to be in his mid-40s, clean-shaven with perfect hair, wore a really nice, perfectly pressed, brown pin-striped suit and carefully shined matching shoes. At a distance, he looked like a slick businessman. Up close, you could see how, although clean and pressed, those clothes were a little ragged and frayed. He wore them every single day.
He carried the biggest boom-box I’ve ever seen in my life on his shoulder, wherever he went. I think it must have been super-glued on, because I never, ever saw him without it there. He’d sit on the top steps of closed churches, playing the same song, day in and day out – at top volume. Right next to his ear.
One of the women always had on every mismatched but brand-new piece of clothing any nightmare could dream up, in bright neon colors.
She rode her beautiful Schwinn bicycle that was straight out of the 50s in a daily route that circled around the entire town from one end to the other. Grinning, her eyes just this side of vacant, waving at everyone, happy as could be making stops at the same places each day like a dependable train, stopping here, and here, and here –
One day some older teens from out of town shoved her down, beat her up and stole that beautiful bike and the bags with all her precious tattered possessions. They left her to die, lying alone and broken, crumpled up in the deep shadow of one of the churches, heavily bruised and bleeding pools of blood.
Everyone was outraged. Every last corner, every nook and cranny of the town was searched. When the kids were found, there was chaos – most wanted to beat them up right then and there. There was a nasty shouting match between keep-it-legal folks and vengeance-seekers.
The kids ended up safely in jail. It was finally decided that when the woman was healed enough to walk again, she’d be given a big stick and the chance to beat them with it. When it came time, and the kids were led cowering into the same piazza, she refused and walked away. She didn’t have the mental capacity to understand what was going on.
I was surprised at the set up – seemed a bit barbaric, but in the end it turned out well. The kids were sent back to their town, tails between their legs, promising to never do anything like that again. They knew they’d been close to terrible beatings themselves and it scared them pissless.
Lucca will always remain special to me because it was the first place in my life where people didn’t tell me I was “too much,” or that I should get a ‘real’ job, or that I was “too masculine.” All of which I had almost become used to hearing since the time I decided to follow the path of art.
Instead, local folks – who were used to having and enjoying excellent art in every last piazza, church, gallery, and in the biggest to the smallest niche and crevice all around them – upon seeing my portfolio, they’d pat me on my back vigorously and cry out, “Brava, Angela, brava! Bello! Magnifico!” Even my teacher, who would wave friends and other experienced carvers over to see the photos.
The first time that happened, I burst into tears and sobbed uncontrollably for a good solid ten minutes/eternity. All the terrible repressed pain of being so disrespected and mocked and put down by people for so many years just poured out of me like a gushing spring flood.
Brava! Magnifico! I can still hear it in my head. It still brings me to tears. I was so grateful and so shocked. It gave me a sense of validation I’d never felt before. I felt myself standing taller and holding my head up higher.
These people – not just the other artists and instructors, not just the art experts or gallerists or art critics – but the normal, every day people – could tell good from bad sculpture in the blink of an eye. And they thought my work was good! My belly eased and gratitude filled me to the brim.
I had lunch with a bunch of folks one day after our morning carving session, one of whom was a friend of Roberto’s. He invited me over to his place to see his own carvings. Uh-huh. I got there and – no carvings. I was furious.
He somehow calmed me down and convinced me to stay for a home-cooked meal. You’re probably guessing where this is going. But you’d be a little off.
See, he did want to do the dirty with me, but he and his apartment were so weird I couldn’t stop giggling – his walls and ceilings were totally covered in (wait for it) aluminum foil!
When he realized I really didn’t want to slide under the sheets with him, he changed tacks and decided he wanted hire me to stay with him and give him art lessons, promising to set me up with a carving area in his back courtyard. Ummm … no.
So then he invited me to spend the night in his guest bedroom - also completely covered top to bottom in foil , a living Faraday cage- since it was now too late to walk across town to my place. I spent the entire night fully dressed, even shoes on, with my eyes wide open, sweating bullets in anticipation of immanent attack. Which, thankfully, did not happen.
Continued in Part 5, where I become a living light bulb.
STONE CARVER, Part IV
text and indicated images © Angela Treat Lyon
Originals and prints: https://LyonArtandDesign.com
Recent tile designs here: https://instagram.com/angela.treat.lyon
More about my carving adventures: Carving My Life: Volume I
The Inside Secrets book series: Stories I’ve Never Told Anyone, plus my audio book and many free ebooks: https://atlyon.gumroad.com
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