“On our way to Verona today, ladies and gentleman,” our tour guide began, “we will be stopping at a town dear to my heart. I love this town. And I will be buying you all a gelato.”
The bus erupted into whoops and clapping. The slightly morbid woman we met on Day 1 turned around. “Gelato at 10 in the morning!” Her eyes rose to heaven.
“Sounds very good to me!” the cheery Malaysian woman beside her responded with a wide smile.
Bus tours are a perfect little microcosm of all spectrums of life. I think a lot of travelers pride themselves on trekking around alone and meeting locals (though I find most of my friends just meet other travelers) but if you really want to meet a lot of people from all over, get on a bus. Ours had:
- an HR manager from Sydney (“it’s wonderful that we’re pushing for diversity but it’s the people who need to hear these things who don’t come to the seminars! I feel like I’m just preaching to the choir!”
- two expat British couples resettled into Canada (who stayed up until 5am watching the US debates)
- former military
- an AIDS outreach fundraiser
- a Harvard-trained Taiwanese horticulturist and his wife
- Amos, a wonderfully thoughtful British man of Indian descent (who sighed heavily whenever anyone asked where he was really from. “Manchester but I live in London now.” “But no, really…”)
- a lady who carried her husband’s ashes with her in an vial (Day 1- Her: I take this with me everywhere I go *pats vial*; Mom: *awkward laugh* Is it like a good luck charm? *awkward laugh*; Her: It’s my departed husband; Mom: Where’d he go?; Me: Ma! *facepalm*)
- two Singaporeans psychology in London
- and an elderly British man with his very eccentric Vietnamese companion (head to toe Louis Vuitton and both so kind)
- a former school counselor who looked like Paul Simon who loved to talk education and politics
- a Malaysian oncologist who was fascinated by retinoblastomas and sarcomas in the US (as well as healthcare coverage and the cost of chemo – sometimes 15k a pop sans insurance! Really!)
- two forever-late pensioners who had recently moved to Dorset. More on these two later.
“But why, you may ask, do I love Sirmione?” our guide continued. “Well, when I had finished my history degree at Oxford, I moved to Italy. And I lived near Sirmione for a little while and I met this girl. So I impressed her with my Italian and my knowledge of Sirmione and that convinced her to go out with me. Now, I had to do something bigger than just coffee or dinner because if you’ve noticed, the lads here are quite good looking and suave. More charming than a pasty English bloke, at the very least. So I took her out on a boat and we sailed around Lake Garda at dusk and then after, I took her to the best gelato shop in town- the same that we are going today. Now, to own a boat is quite a big deal and she thought that I must be quite something to have one when, in fact, I had borrowed it off a friend! So, all in all, the whole thing only cost me two quid! But she was quite impressed and three months later at the very same spot, I proposed and now we have a little boy who just turned two. So it’s quite special to me.”
We parked along the lake and began a winding walk into town past lake homes and stately stone walls. A medieval castle loomed in the distance. We wound past the castle in its lagoon to crowded Gelateria Mirkoz with about thirty different options to tempt us.
I opted for a passion fruit cone and ambled back to Castello Scaligero. For whatever reason, I failed to take any pictures of the castle or anything else, really. I was too enamored with my ice cream. The top of the building was edged with little scallops- like rounded V’s. These, we were told, were typical for the Venetian area- 1., as a V for Veneto but 2., as a snub to the papacy. A V is an upside down papal hat (a major diss) and symbolically showed the independence of the Veneto region from the Roman papacy. This subtle dig is also present at a Vatican building commissioned by the Venetians as a way of proclaiming political independence while maintaining religious ties (this distinction was often in response to threats of the Vatican curbing/taxing- or trying anyhow- Venetian trading with the East and their more free-wheeling habits).
The elderly couple from Dorset sidle up. “Has anyone told you that you look exactly like Michelle Dockery? It’s all we’ve been talking about this morning. Just the spitting image.”
“Is it the Lady Mary scowl?” I joke (I’m told I have Resting Bitch Face). I look over towards a guy in a beige linen suit with a mop of curly hair. “Actually, speaking of doppelgangers, I almost thought that guy was my brother,” I mention, pointing.
“Really? He looks awfully Italian.”
I explain that my brother is half Sicilian whereas I’m 99.9% super-white. It’s a ritual I’ve grown accustomed to. “Yes, he is quite tan. Olive toned, yes. And yes, I am blindingly white. No, as far as I know, no affairs were had. He’s my half brother. Yep, that does explain it. No, I don’t tan. Neither does he. He just stays tan.”
We go over genealogy: mostly Scots English which traces further back to Denmark with a tinge of Icelandic on one side and Alsatian, Danish, and a hint of Polish on the other. A curious familial streak of Yiddish speakers but no Judaism and the odd percentage point of Moroccan and Japanese to boot.
They remark that genealogy for most English people is no fun at all- all that work just to find out…you’re English. Surprise! Whereas Americans are always going down the rabbit hole of family trees. “Moroccan and Japanese!” they cry. “Where’d that come from?!”
“Probably the Danes. I can trace back to the late 900s so it’s probably just trade routes.” I don’t mention that its the Yiddish question that interests me more (though I’ve found this is a quick way to uncover a bias if there were any doubts of character). We talk work and education. They were former special educators in York who moved to Dorset to retire (“Just rolling hills for miles and a little stone cottage with roses!”). They tell me I should move there and come visit and we discuss the state of immigration- chiefly, the difficulty in immigrating at all. “I am 87 years old and I’m a pretty good judge of character,” he says. “I say we let you in.” He winks and steadies himself on a wooden cane with one hand, smoothing his thin white hair and replacing his grey tweed flat cap with the other. His spotted skin is like paper. His wife cups the elbow of his white shirt sleeve and smiles. She has aged in a way that I hope to- with grace and warmth and love that seeps through. Her hair is a white bob tucked into a broad straw hat. She has ice blue eyes lined carefully with brown; a hint of pink swiped across her lips. She wears brown sandals with a midi skirt, soft top, and a colorful scarf. Elegant and self assured.
A short jaunt later and we are in Verona. We hike into town amidst the groans of those unaccustomed to walking (a strike against bus tour culture). I pass a stocky bearded man in a smart suit who eyeballs me and makes a face as if to say, “Eh, you’ll do.” I find the closer I am to the guide and the farther we are from the group (i.e. when we look like a couple), Italian men ignore me. Or if they don’t ignore me, they send some sort of mental high five to the guide. When I’m alone, they comment, gawk, and catcall. I do some philosophical acrobatics. It’s a different culture, I reason. No, it’s kind of shit, I counter. Machismo culture is kind of shit. The girls from Singapore mention this to me as we walk into town. “Have you noticed the men?” they ask. “Very aggressive. Men kept trying to touch us in Rome. They looked so surprised when we yelled at them. One said, ‘Aren’t you supposed to be submissive?’ so I shouted at him some more.” The other tsked.
We continue our amble behind a large herd of Disney people. There were hundreds of them- all teens- it black Disney uniforms with giant mouse ears on, all looking embarrassed and forlorn as they marched along.
Down Via Guiseppe Mazzini were rows of little shops. Verona was quite wealthy and had paved its streets in large granite tiles. Even the less impressive streets were paved in a fanned pattern of granite cube stones.
The buildings had that aged look that only seems to look good in Europe. Goldenrod plaster crumbled away from stone and mortar in a charming wabi-sabi sort of way. In America, we would call that dilapidated. I wondered if the locals saw it that way too or if they saw it as character.
In Juliet’s courtyard, teenage girls paid a few euros to do a performance from the balcony. They took turns leaning out over the crowd with wistful faces. Below, a bronze statue waited for a continual parade of gropers. To squeeze her breast is good luck – such good luck that they replaced the original statue with a less important, more grope-able version. Pink locks and permanent markers were on sale in the gift shop for ten euros. Every few months, they would replace the chainlink gate lest it fall from the hinges. Down the alley, lovers smushed sticky gum onto the walls. No one could quite explain the symbolism but people participated enthusiastically none the less.
The horticulturist waved me up for a picture. Amongst a throng people, I fondled the statue, too distracted by the flash and the crowd to actually make a wish more specific than my default wish / prayer: whatever it is, make it happen. I might as well just say, “Positive vibes, please” and leave it at that. He took about seventy photos, most of which (I discovered later over many tiny bottles of limoncello) were of the ground, the gate, and his wife.
One was of me and only me:
Up next: Limone on Lago di Garda!