In “Me, Myself and Lord Byron”, Juliette Jameson an Australian journalist and travel writer follows the path taken by famed poet Lord Byron when he leaves England in disgrace in 1816. He travelled and lived in Switzerland, Italy and the Mediterranean. To retrace this journey, Juliette leaves Australia not in exile but in want of herself and with a suitcase of unanswered questions about the life she is leading. This excerpt depicts a conversation with a local Italian women following Julietta’s visit to the Cathedral of Sant’Antonio di Padova.
Mornings in Padua are idyllic. There is a buzz at Piazza delle Erbe, overlooked by the magnificently colonnaded medieval Palazzo fella Ragione with its arcades of providores underneath selling cheese and meats and crusty breads. Red cherries and strawberries and fresh white asparagus and those wonderful corrugated tomatoes from Sicily were on sale at the stalls in the square. At the cafes surrounding Piaza dei Frutti to the back of the palazzo, rosy cheeked bambini ate little snacks of gelato while their mamas rested a while with a coffee after the market.
Padua is also home to an ancient university where Galileo taught hense all the students. Part of it comprises the Conservatorio Statale di Musica “Cesare Pollini”, where some outrageously talented person was playing piano when I wandered by later that day. It made it impossible for me to walk any further and, as luck would have it, there was a cafe right there so I sat down.
I didn’t know what they were playing. It had that swirling emotional landscape of Shostakovich. Everyone else at the cafe was chatting. The man inside had his radio on. But I was in raptures.
An elderly lady, thin, fine boned, her straight, thick, once-black, now steely hair, cut into a long fringe at the front and hanging down her back in a ponytail, smiled at me as she approached on foot, the crags of her face drawing into a map of the joy she had obviously collected in her life.
“You are enjoying,” she said and nodded her approval.
“Si,” I said, “bellissima.” Why I insisted on speaking a snippet of Italian to Italians, I don’t know, because all it did was create an awkward moment. She began showering me with lilting phrases of pure Italian. And I had to apologise for the deception. I did not speak her language, mi dispiace.
“Ah,” she said, and laughed melodically, before sitting down at my table. “So what are you doing here in Padova?”
I told her I’d just come from the Scrovegni Chapel, where one of the most important pieces of art in the world, Giottos astonishing Biblical cycle – widely recognised as kicking off the three dimensionality of Renaissance art – adorns the walls and roof. It is a series of intricate frames, each fresco depicting a story from the New Testament.
‘I was so moved by the picture of Jesus washing the Apostles feet,’ I said. ‘But not the main part of the image. I liked how Giotto captured this sense of deep humility of the old Apostle undoing his sandal off to the side, getting ready to accept the gesture himself.’
I like that too,’ she said, in a congratulatory tone.
‘The look on his face is completely stripped of guile but full of the magnitude of the moment,’ I said.
‘Accepting the gifts from God, this is what this picture is a message of.’
‘Ha, absolutely,’ I said. We have such resistance to accepting gifts from God, don’t we? Believing they are gifts and not things we have earned through through manipulation, anticipation, bullet dodging, compromising and settling.
‘Oh Signora.’ She shook her head at me. ‘In Italy, our bambini are taught that they themselves are Gods gifts to us and so, like Christmas, there will be an exchange. Gifts will be given to them. From us, from God.’
‘I had to work hard for affection, for any kind of attention,’ I said, surprising myself. It is amazing what comes out of your mouth to complete strangers when travelling.’Or at least, I felt I had. Don’t misunderstand me. My mother was a great woman. But when you are the youngest of a large family with much drama going on around you, and your mother, working her hardest to keep things afloat by herself, relies on your older siblings to help raise the babies, well you know, all the adult rationale in the world is not going to fix the fact that babies see the world two ways. Either connected to Mum, or not. We are strange creatures, human beings. So susceptible. I guess I did not, never felt I was a gift.’
‘Are you married?’
God, that question. ‘No.’ There. I said it.
‘Has man never treated you like his gift?’
I felt winded. ‘I honestly do not think so.’
“So you thought they were the gift, and you the receiver of small mercies. My dear you must think of yourself as this gift. You must think of Jesus washing your feet. Whenever you have thoughts of not being this gift, think of that picture.’
You know those moments when the show reel of an aspect of your life starts to run? The projector suddenly whirrs like someone kicked it into action? This was one of those.
My mother probably did not pick me up a lot. Not out of negligence, she didn’t have much time to. That didn’t make her a bad woman. It made her someone who had six people – seven including herself – to keep sheltered, clothed and fed. Acknowledging that as a probability, i saw strange conga line of men, all unavailable in one way or another, that Id attracted; saw them so clearly. And myself so clearly. I had this intensity, this clinginess, this terrible fear of loss, and a burning need for physical closeness with a lot of them. one of these men, a jazz musician who, when all is said and done, was always honest with me, actually once said, ‘You poor affection starved girl’ during one of these episodes of clinginess. He didn’t say out to put me down; in fact, he said it sympathetically. But it was a succinctness that was way too much for me at the time. i t frightened and belittled me. Bless him. He was bang on the money. I wish id had the maturity of insight then to consider that. Instead I retreated form his friendship embarrassed, and moved onto some more unconscious, unattainable object of adoration.
Now not much less than twenty years later, here was this elegant Italian lady and the painting of Giotto illuminating the lesson for me. Maybe Saint Anthony heard that prayer of mine after all. Maybe that bella donna in a sidewalk cafe in Padua was another step in my miracle of the heart.
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