Saturday, 9 June 2018

A minor ontological breakdown in Giardini Margherita (saved by Gill and Dobbin the spirited).

I have just been checking the previous post for the usual grammatical howlers. For some reason I can only spot them on the laptop screen, not on my phone. Even then I keep coming across the odd dangling comma months after the initial post; it's something that grieves me inordinately. 

The other thing I noticed - I announced yesterday that we were heading into the Bologna to visit Café Vettro in Giardini Margherita on Sarah's recommendation. Then I never mentioned the place again and wandered off into effusive outpourings about the wonders of the city's vibrant street life.

Giardini Margherita - on the southern edge of Bologna's encient centre.
In fact we did have an afternoon coffee in Café Vettro, I understand why Sarah rated the place, it was as she described, 'full of students revising'. It's not that I did not like it, but I felt a little out of place. 

The seating booths are slightly subterranean amonng shrubberies - very greem.
We were undoubtedly the oldest customers by a matter of a few decades. Most others were under-nourished but serious looking twenty somethings with iBooks, textbooks and open notebooks full of bullet points underlined or highlighted in day-glow pink and orange. This pleased me, I am a big fan of scholarly activity. It also made me feel very old.

The whole place exuded a youthful, millennial vibe. Partly it was the almost obsessive focus on sustainability - that it was not only a question of being eco-minded but also being seen to be. So, not only were there plenty of recycling bins, but they were all 'old school' styled zinc ones, each carefully hand painted in pastel shades. Where I felt the place's focus on youthfulness edged towards discrimination was in the design of the seating. It's tricky to find words to describe them - half buried picnic tables, or expresso trenches. Whatever they were they required a level of perkiness to get into them that neither of us now possess. I had only just clambered in and assisted Gill to do the same when we realised it was self service. We struggled to spot the counter. Gill nobly offered to find it. I provide a helping hand as she struggled to go over the top in pursuit of two macchiata. 

Either she wandered off for a surprisingly long time or I had one of those moments when your brain goes into overdrive and all kinds of stuff occurs to you all of a sudden. It began when two lines of poetry floated through my head -

"That is no country for old men. The young
In one another's arms, birds in the trees"

- the opening of Yeats' 'Sailing to Byzantium'

Maybe the fact that I am reading Bettany Hughes' 'Istanbul' at the moment provoked the thought. More likely though it was the way I was feeling; the poem is a meditation on being trapped in a modernity not of your making. I googled it. 

There are some lines in Bob Dylan's song 'Tangled up in Blue' about how poems can speak to you profoundly - prophetically almost.

"And every one of them words rang true
And glowed like burning coal
Pouring off of every page
Like it was written in my soul"

That's how 'Sailing to Byzantium' felt to me as I read it, momentarily alone in the garden café among the flowers, birdsong and surrounded by beautiful young things.

Gill returned with two macchiata. 'You've been a while,' I observed 

'I have?' she replied quizzically. 'It's a bit odd here,' she continued brightly, 'the water came out of a jug with petals and herbs in it, the brownie is vegan and the toilets gender neutral.'


This did little to lift my mood. In truth I did not have a problem with any of those things. Perhaps herbalised spring water is pleasant, beneficial even; though sceptical of the health benefits of veganism, I admire its commitment to more sustainable global food supplies; in a rational, gender equal society then what would be the point of having separated 'Ladies' and 'Gentlemen'? However, all three taken together simply reinforced my sense of being a twentieth century kid marooned in the twenty first.

The 'old crock' manages a weak smile
'If I was a car, I would have a dodgy carburettor, a starter motor that constantly jammed, only three forward gears with no synchromesh on first.' I concluded. We drank our coffees, shared the vegan brownie and made a noble attempt with the herbal water. Time to go. Scrambling awkwardly out of the macchiata bunker, Gill lent me a steadying hand as my arthritic knees creaked a bit. The young woman opposite glanced-up from her laptop and gave us a kindly smile. You could almost hear her thinking, 'Poor old souls, at least they are giving it a go.'

Gill deftly attempts to avoid the 'new crock' lampshade while exiting the macchiata bunker
We wandered.across the park. Groups of students were lying about on the grass; thinking can be an exhausting business. We headed for a bench in the shade, the sun was strong and the temperature hovered in the mid-thirties. Our seat was interestingly positioned at the bottom of a short hill near the San Stephano entrance gates. A procession of cyclists swept by us, a mixture of ages, shapes and sizes, some riding sleek racing machines, but most wobbling along on rusty bone-shakers.

study groups


Our attention strayed from the cycling fraternity to the large equestrian statue immediately opposite us. There followed a conversation concerning men on horseback sculptures. Surprisingly this was the second such conversation of the day, especially so, as it's not exactly an everyday topic. Indeed, I cannot recall that we have ever expressed any interest in the subject before. Gill may well have regretted that it now came up, for I soon discovered that I remembered much more than I expected about the topic; I have a plethora of completely useless arty facts tucked away in my head's dusty attic thanks to the years I spent as an undergraduate art historian.

In fact, though our earlier conversation had been provoked by a man sitting on a horse, it immediately became political There is a large equestrian statue of Garabaldi in the city centre. When we passed it we decided that aside from the fact there was a biscuit named after him, our knowledge about the great Italian statesman was minimal.

Not A Garibaldi (that's a biscuit), THE Garibaldi...
So, a Wikipedia moment ensued. What an amazing life! Especially the early bit in South America when he and his wife led a revolutionary army, fighting side by side. He got full marks from Gill for his later efforts back home campaigning for a unified Italian state that gave equal rights to women, universal suffrage and the destruction of the Vatican, which he called the 'worlds most successful and longest running secret society'. 'Good man!' she exclaimed.

However the identity of the chap on the horse opposite us remained a mystery as the plinth lacked the usual inscription. Perhaps it was his anonymity that led us to concentrate on the horse. It was posed as if about to rear, slightly back on its haunches a front leg raised, tail fluttering like a frayed pennant. This latter detail caught our eye. Had it been bolted on later, we speculated. It could hardly have been cast as one piece.The energy of the beast led Gill to name it - 'Dobbin the Spirited'.

Dobbin the Spirited
Perhaps, we wondered, we had misinterpreted equestrian statuary all along. None of them were really about bumptious blokes sitting in the saddle, it was all about 'Dobbin the Spirited' beneath them. In one pithy observation Gill entirely wrecked my appreciation of equestrian art. Delacroix's writhing steed in 'Napoleon Crossing the Alps' Stubb's gormless nag portraits or the magnificent ensemble atop St Marks, now they would be nothing more than pale imitations of an archetype - 'Dobbin the Spirited'.

Now I was feeling cheerful, in much better spirits. Gill is the best travelling companion ever, curious, unpretentious, level-headed, clever and fun to be with. I am unsure that you could ever say the same about me. Back across the city towards the bus stop, we had reached the sauntering stage, it had been a hot afternoon and according to the app on my phone we had clocked up 8km already. Gill consultd Tripadvisor looking for somewhere to take break. A few metres up Via Santo Stefano, the road we were walking along, she found a gelateria that people were raving about. It was rated as the the 17th best place to eat in the entire city despite the fact that it  only sold ice cream. It had to be good.


All made from fresh ingredients

In the beautiful kitchen at the rear of the shop

The Emperor of Ice cream!
Pistachio from Bronte and Chocolate
'I wish I had gone for limone,' Gill immediately decided - we will have to go back.


Today has been one of those days where we say to ourselves - this is why we travel. It's not simply about seeing new places, but being inspired and changed by them. The world at street level, or viewed from a footpath or hill is far more interesting, contradictory and intruiging than it can ever appear to be on screen. Yet we allow the mediated, on-screen version to shape our thinking and validate our preconceptions. The message is very simple - we need to get out more.


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