It’s your man in Verona, sitting on a park bench with the laptop open doing some on-the-spot reporting. It’s evening and the outdoor restaurants are full and buzzing with conversation. Some walk by savoring their gelatos, others with cameras out. Remarkably, hardly anyone is talking on a cell phone, a rare sight in modern civilization and refreshing. To my right is the Arena, the open outdoor Coliseum-like stadium where almost nightly operas are staged. If it rains at any point during the performance, the Opera is cancelled and no money is refunded. Fascinating that in this day and age, no one has suggested a ceiling that might roll out at a push of the button and things are left to the whims of weather. From a distance, I find it refreshing. If I had paid 25O Euros for a primo seat, I might find it less so!
The first opera I saw here was actually 41 years ago when I toured here with the Antioch Chorus singing the masses of Renaissance composers Guillame Dufay and Johannes Ockeghem. I was 22- years old on my first trip to Europe and about to begin my adult life in San Francisco. WE toured through Amsterdam, Belgium, France and then Italy, including a couple of nights in Verona, where we saw an opera in the Arena (pronounced Ah-ray-nah which means “sand,” but yes, the root of our English “arena.”). It was La Giaconda by Ponchielli and truth be told, few of us Americans, including me, were familiar with the genre. But we all perked up during the Dance of the Hours and exclaimed in amazement, “They’re playing Allan Sherman’s 'Hello Muddah, Hello Fadduh!'" Hopefully, no Italian opera buffs noticed.
Then I was a starry-eyed young man with the future twinkling in my eyes, lifted up each day by all the new sights and sounds and the comradery of some 35 hippies touring on a bus. Now I’m on the cusp of 63-years young, having just led another 35 on a bus through the Volta region of Ghana singing a different kind of music. My long hair is long gone, but the spirit of that other guy feels alive and well, both amazed by the beauties of this world and disgusted by the newspaper headlines, wanting to both savor and change the world and organizing my life around a vision of human health and happiness. At once failing miserably and succeeding brilliantly, both the savoring and the change part of each workshop with adults I teach, each class with children.
And there is a lot to savor in Verona, a city that is a pedestrian’s delight, with countless car-free cobblestone streets, uplifting architecture and history oozing out of each tower and cathedral. At dinner last night, with one of the best pizzas I’ve ever had in my life, we talked with our Italian host about the long illustrious list of famous Italians, from Dante to Sophia Loren, to see if any came from Verona. Didn’t come up with much, but still it is a city worthy of any traveler’s itinerary and the throngs of tourist prove my point. Of course, Juliet’s balcony (of Romeo and Juliet fame) and the statue with her gleaming gold right breast is a tourist mecca, made shining by all the folks who cup the breast for a photo with that mischievous look in their eye to bring good luck in love. But the whole thing is a fake, the balcony built just for the tourists with no correspondence to real history. Still the walls are covered with officially sanctioned graffiti where all leave their mark for posterity— “ I once lived and I once loved (even though years later I might think, ‘Who was that girl again?’”
Time to go to dinner and as I pass the postcards, I feel the sadness of the passing of Vero, my postcard penpal. In the last card I wrote to her, I said I would think of her every time I passed a postcard and though it’s only three months since she died, it in fact is true. I would have loved to buy her a card with the word Verona and crossed out the “na” to address her. She would have gotten a kick out of that.
A cool breeze wafts through the twilight streets, a remarkable bruschetta awaits me and the phone-free conversation of my colleagues and Italian hosts. Jimmy Stewart, I’m sorry you never got to travel the way you dreamed of, but in the end, I agree with you—it’s a wonderful life.