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Peter J. Oszmann

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Romeo and Juliet, Aida and some other fine madness in Verona.
By Peter J. Oszmann
Posted: Saturday, July 22, 2006
Last edited: Tuesday, August 22, 2006
This short story is rated "G" by the Author.

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Recent stories by Peter J. Oszmann
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Describing the events of a day, within a five-day tour in Italy, with one of the main attraction of an opera performance in the Roman Arena in Verona.






My wife has some very good ideas. She is also a very good organiser, which is a powerful combination. That from time to time this “chemistry” gets me into situations I would much rather not be is not entirely her fault. Her intentions are good, but sometimes other incalculable factors interfere and wreak havoc with her best plans.


How can a woman guard against slipping on a well polished marble floor – for instance – within hours of arrival to a holiday destination, and spend half of the first night in the casualty department of a hospital with a broken arm, and the rest of the week with her right arm in a tight sling? Unfair?… more than that… maddening, not to mention painful, uncomfortable and a few more adjectives that you could throw in for good measure. For most people it would be enough to slow them down and declare a moratorium on further travelling, at least for a good few months…. But not for my good lady wife – bless her – who, in addition to having good ideas and more than average organising abilities, also possesses a larger than average dose of stubbornness. Did I mention a certain amount of shortfall in common sense? No? Well, I mention it now, at the risk of having a heavy object thrown in the direction of my head if and when she reads these lines.


Whilst I cannot blame her for breaking her arm on our trip to Budapest in May (no pun intended using the word trip!), I am not going to refrain from some mild criticism, when it comes to her planning and booking yet another trip – this time to Italy – in the hottest month of the year, and all that before allowing enough time for her arm fully to heal. After all – she reckons – if she can sign on the dotted line for a credit card payment, that is a sure sign that her arm is fully functional, furthermore if she can pack her suitcase, it is an absolute guarantee that I will carry it, no matter what… That she takes me for an absolute fool is no surprise to me either, after all that is what I am, but even an absolute fool deserves a little reprieve, between trips, from acting the role of a mule. Well, I would have liked to have the luxury of a little holiday at home between trips, but obviously I don’t deserve it… after all I am an absolute fool…


Now, before I am accused of being ungrateful, I have to admit that this short trip to Italy was planned with the best of intentions and I should go down on my bended knees to thank her for thinking about it, planning it and booking it. It was, after all, intended as a consolation price for a missed fiftieth anniversary celebration of a three weeks trip to China last year, which – sadly - we had to cancel, owing to her health problems. This year’s Italian trip was to fulfil a cherished dream of mine of attending an opera performance at the Teatro alla Scala in Milan, combined with her dream of seeing a performance of the opera Aida in the Arena at Verona. Not an experience to miss, or to scoff at.


Well, it is certainly not her fault that the timing of these two venues were scheduled for July by the Travel Company; there were very few choices and under the circumstances we certainly had a very good deal. Neither is it her fault that July – August are the two hottest months in that part of Italy and when I say hot, I mean really and truly hot and humid… Neither can I blame her for the heat being absolutely relentless for the entire duration. In fact I cannot blame her for anything… (it would not be safe or wise!) After all she was neither in charge of the weather, nor could she have foreseen that the Italian football team would be in the World Cup final, raising the already high temperatures into the regions of the intolerable… but I am jumping the gun… so to say…


That the flight to Milan would be delayed by well over an hour and a half was predictable… after all we flew with Alitalia… an Italian airline… which is a guarantee that things never go smoothly… Take for instance the midday snack served on the airplane. After an our and a half delay in starting and an absolute lack of information about the departure time, one would have expected at least a half-decent meal served… instead a soft roll, wrapped in cling-film, with some none descript filling that tasted and looked like toothpaste and a bon-bon size soft fruit jelly, wrapped in flowery foil, served in a box. For consolation prize there was a scented refreshment paper-towel included in that box…. Luckily…. They must have known that the filling from the soft roll would extrude like toothpaste at the firs bite and dribble down your face and hand…

I think they must teach the art of how to spoil a sandwich in a higher educational institute for airline caterers in Italy, because even a complete, non-interested beginner would have been hard pushed to make such a bloody mess of a humble sandwich. It was pretty nigh inedible…


That the four star hotel in the little town of Paratico on Lago di Iseo (Lake Iseo) would not be up to the standard of a four star hotel was predictable too. After all in Italy almost everything is predictable… predictable that is if you have ever been to Italy before… Not many four star hotels around the world can boast about torn and peeling wallpapers on the main corridors, and air-conditioning that works in some rooms but not in others… In Italy it is predictable…


None the less I am not going to complain about the hotel accommodation; we were given a spacious two-room apartment, with all mod cons, and although the air-conditioning was not working in the bedroom, the over-efficiency of the system in the other room compensated for the lack of cool air in the bedroom, providing we left the door open. Icicles forming on my eyelashes, whilst sitting at the table near the outlet of the air-conditioning system, was only a minor inconvenience…


The continental style buffet breakfast, laid out in a large room for self-service and consumed on a covered veranda, was edible… and that is the best I can say about it… It was not the quality of food that one would expect in a four star hotel… but… compared to previous experiences, it was predictable… after all we were in Italy…


Don’t take me wrong… Italy is a wonderful place and the Italians by en large are charming and hospitable people… only they have their own ways of doing things, which is not doing a thing, unless they absolutely must and then they do it slowly and in a methodically muddled way… or not do it at all, because it is siesta time… and food, vino and siesta has priority over everything…


What could not have been faulted by anyone was the organisation and smooth running of the coach tours, thrown in by the travel company into the package. There were a number of conducted tours, under the expert guidance of Patricia, a charming and knowledgeable half Italian, half Irish lady, born and bred in Glasgow, speaking with a strong Scottish accent and now permanently living in Italy. She was a walking talking encyclopaedia. She had a formidable knowledge of Italy, architecture, art and history. Her tours were organised and ran like clockwork… seemingly the only thing that runs like clockwork on the entire Italian peninsula… She was a breath of fresh air in a hot and dysfunctional country… but even she could not entirely save us from some of the fine madness that we encountered in Verona.


Verona is a fascinating city, with a mixture of ancient and modern architecture, a rich cultural and artistic heritage, and a history that goes back to Roman times and beyond. Amongst the many attractions that draw the crowds of visitors to this beautiful and fascinating city, there are perhaps two that stand out. One is the romantic fascination with the legendary and tragic lovers of Romeo and Juliet, which Shakespeare’s play placed firmly in the medieval streets and buildings of this city; and the other is the annual Opera Festival, which is housed in the ancient Roman Arena, built in the first century A. D.


The first attraction is focused on the Casa di Giulietta, or Juliet’s House, with the famous balcony and a handsome bronze statue of Juliet by N. Constantini, set in the courtyard of a medieval building, but where neither the statue’s likeness to the heroine, nor the building itself can be authenticated historically as the actual location of the drama. The legend lives on here and, like a magnet, attracts the romantically inclined visitors, who by en large are disinterested about historical authenticity. They come to absorb the atmosphere, the aura, to immerse themselves in the romantic legend of a “true and tragic” love. Men and women leave love notes, love letters and graffiti on the walls of the arched entrance vestibule to the building, proving that an approximately seven hundred years old woman can still attract admirers and also proving the closing words of the play that there ”never was a story of more woe, than this of Juliet and her Romeo.”

Here, in this romantic setting, crowds gather all year round… and for good luck men climb the short pedestal of the statue, to give a cuddle to the bronze image and rub their hands on her bronze bosom.

Juliet’s right breast and her right arm shines like gold, compared to the rest of the statue’s darker shades… If this fondling goes on much longer, there is a chance that she may, eventually, end up armless and breastless…


The other outstanding attraction, the Opera Festival, which is housed inside the majestic setting of the Arena di Verona, is more seasonal; nonetheless it attracts visitors by the tens of thousands every year. This magnificent and imposing monument to Roman architectural genius has an authentic history, going back to the first century A.D. and must have witnessed colossal events. It is believed to be the best-preserved Roman amphitheatre. Certainly, despite of the third level of arched walls having all but disappeared, the stone terraces and seats inside are all almost intact. It is an absolutely magnificent, almost breathtaking venue for the annual festival, which was initiated at the beginning of the last century and, with the exception of the war years during the first and second World War, continued to be held there to this day. The current year’s session is the 84th Festival held in this auspicious setting. It attracts visitors from the world over and since the Arena has a seating capacity for some 25,000 people, Verona is bustling to the brim with people every year, from early June to the end of August.


This year was the exception… it wasn’t just bustling to the bream, it was absolutely swamped and overflowing with people… at least on the day we arrived there for a performance of Verdi’s Aida.

It was on that day that - from our point of view - the incalculable happened. When my wife booked the trip, with the opera performance uppermost in her mind, she never for a moment thought that football’s World Cup final would be played on the same evening. After all those events were hosted by Germany, miles and miles away from Verona.

But even if she knew that the opera performance we were to attend and the cup finals were on the same evening, how could she have forecast what was to come? Nobody can make an accurate forecast of which team would win the world cup, and the possible consequences.

The realisation that the Italian team would be playing in the finals only dawned on us the day we arrived to Italy. As neither of us is the slightest bit interested in the world cup, or in football in general, we were unaware until the day before the event that the world cup final and the performance of Aida we were to attend were on the same evening. We still did not quite know what to expect, should Italy either win or lose. Celebrations on winning the game, or riots if they lost?… but, by the time we arrived to Verona, we had the first tinges of apprehension. A World Cup final and an opera performance in the open air do not mix well… whichever way the outcome of the final would be…


Verdi’s opera Aida was composed for the opening performance of the newly built opera house of Cairo

in 1871, at the request of the Khedive of Egypt. It soon became a hot favourite with opera lovers the world over. Since the beginning of the Verona Festivals it had been featured in the yearly festival programs 46 times out of the total of 84 festivals, with a total of 484 performances over the years. By comparison Bizet’s Carmen, the second most frequently performed opera there, had “only” 167 performances so far. I’ve seen Aida several times on stage and in a film version; and I lost count of the number of times I listened to various famous recordings of the opera. It happens to be my wife’s favourite and she always wanted to see a live performance of it in Verona.


It was a steaming hot day. We arrived by coach and were dropped off mid afternoon, very near the Piazza Brà, one of the largest of the open places in the city, where the Arena stands. Coach-loads of people were being dropped off to join the many thousands already jamming the streets and squares. Ordinary tourists from the world over mingled with locals, opera fans and football fanatics, under the hot sun. The air was supercharged with excitement, anticipation, perspiration and noise… oh, the noise!… Would we be able to hear a single note of the music to be played inside the Arena?


We had plenty of time to spare before the performance, which was not due to start until 9 p.m.

There was time for sightseeing, shopping, even for a leisurely meal, providing we could push our way through the crowds and find a table to sit down at. We headed towards the medieval part of the city, behind the Arena, for a little sightseeing and ended up at Juliet’s house. We have been to Verona before, but only for a very brief visit, when we stayed at lake Garda for a summer holiday, many years earlier. We knew about Juliet’s house and knew that we can find at least a little shade there from the sun.


The little courtyard was packed with people, and so were all the narrow streets leading to it, as well as all the squares. I overheard a couple of remarks made at Juliet’s courtyard that gave me an idea for a poem. ** I took some photographs and pushed our way to the Piazza delle Erbe, where we sat down for an espresso and a glass of cold water. We paid an extortionate price for the drinks and felt ripped off, but stayed for a while, sheltering from the heat and the crowds. Everywhere noisy football supporters, draped in the national colours, some with painted faces, some dressed in the colours of the national football team, many of them waving flags, kept marching up and down the narrow streets and around the squares. The atmosphere was vibrant with expectations. After another short bout of sightseeing, and exhausted from the heat, noise and the crowds, we set down inside a small restaurant, about 7.30 p.m. for a snack and a cold drink. We decided to sit it out, until it was time to make our way to the Arena. Just before eight o’clock the streets – magically - almost emptied. It was kick off time for the world cup final. All eyes turned and were glued to the television sets inside the restaurant. The waiters stopped waiting, the customers stopped eating, the chef and all the staff congregated around the television. We could have easily walked out without paying; nobody batted an eyelid away from the telly. With some difficulty and insistence we finally managed to pay our bill and left, through the by now almost deserted street, to the Arena. Occasional shouts and cheering, audible from inside the buildings, gave an indication of what to expect later, should Italy win the cup.


In front of the Arena a much more subdued crowd started to make their way inside. We joined the queue, entered the Arena, rented some cushions for our seats and were ushered to our places. As we entered everyone was given a small candle, to be lit just minutes before the overture.  Finally we could relax a little and absorb the magnificent, awe-inspiring stage setting for the forthcoming performance, and waited, with keen anticipation, until a gong signalled the beginning of the show. With thousands of flickering candles, lit all around the terraces, turning the inside of the Arena into a fairy-tale setting, soft strings introduced the first theme of the overture to the opera… a magnificent awe inspiring experience… Unfortunately – despite the relative calm and silence - I only heard the music inside my head; not a single sound reached through my ears. I have a hearing problem that is slowly but surely getting worse, and in a vast uncovered place sounds dissipate readily into thin air. One needs near perfect hearing to hear soft music in the open air from a distance. I began to realise that I was going to miss a great deal from the musical enchantment…. But there was more disappointment in store…


As the performance progressed towards the interval, even with my diminished hearing, I became aware that greater events than the opera were unfolding outside the Arena. It sounded like that Italy was heading for victory. As we reached the interval the news broke inside that Italy had indeed won the world cup… whereupon all hell broke loose… When Italians celebrate even the dead cannot rest…

Italians amongst the audience, and all those with Italian connection, erupted into wild cheering, jumping up and down, many of them waving the Italian tricolour. The noise was deafening. Members of the orchestra too started jumping up and down, embracing each other and cheering wildly. Numerous members of the cast ran onto the stage, wearing their Egyptian theatrical costumes, many also either draped in the Italian flag, or wildly waving one. The stage was rapidly filling up with people… God only knows where from… joining the wild celebrations, which went on and on, making us all wonder if there would ever be a resumption of the opera performance. The powerful spotlights, normally lighting up the stage, were now focused on the terraces beyond the stage and on the upper section of the arched walls, painting them into green white and red. This wild orgy of joy went on for some 45 minutes, before the orchestra reassembled in their proper place, those on the stage lining up like a chorus, and the conductor marched in, draped in the Italian flag, raising his baton. The cheering hushed into a brief silence… then almost the entire Arena, following the orchestra, erupted into singing the Italian National Anthem, which was followed by another outburst of wild cheering…

Slowly, however, some normality returned, the stage emptied, the audience returned to their seats, and it looked like we were going to have a peaceful resumption of the opera… The music indeed resumed, but got no further than about ten-fifteen bars into the score, when fireworks just outside the Arena started going off with laud bangs… The conductor dropped his arms, the music stopped and he stormed out… The fireworks continued for some 30 minutes and the audience stayed put, undecided weather to wait or disperse… but finally a semblance of normality returned, as we sat, hoping against hope that the conductor would return and continue with the performance.


Eventually he returned and the performance continued, only to be interrupted yet again by whistling rockets and exploding fireworks. Against all odds, and ever increasing noise invading from outside, the performance eventually resumed once more and slowly came to a conclusion amidst more of the chaos from outside invading, and ruining the second half of an otherwise magnificently staged, high class musical performance.


I cannot vouch for the feeling of others; I left disappointed at the end, bemoaning the ruination of a satisfying visual and musical entertainment, caused by an overenthusiastic mob, celebrating a hollow victory – won by a penalty shoot out - in a world cup that itself was tainted by abominable behaviour, both on and off the field. If it was a victory, it was a sour victory of mob rule over culture… a sad reflection on modern day society and life.


As we left the Arena we realised the large-scale madness going on outside on the Piazza and the surrounding streets. It seemed that that the entire population of Italy jammed into the neighbourhood, as thousands of people thronged and milled around, jumping, yelling, waving flags, throwing objects, accosting people who just wanted to walk through the Piazza to a destination. The road surface and pavements were littered with broken glass, discarded beer-cans, and other rubbish, small fireworks were set off, firecrackers thrown, hand-held sirens blasted the eardrums and, at some points, crowds of people danced like Indians round and round some heavily smouldering rubbish.


We had to fight our way through the mad crowd to our coach and there were moments when we thought that we would never make it. On leaving the Arena we met our tour guide outside, but in the noise it was impossible to make out what she was saying and it was almost impossible to follow her, leading some thirty plus people, through the crowds. Miraculously, eventually we all made it to the coach, but as we finally made it to our seats, we were wondering how the coach would ever be able to push its way through the chaos on the streets. The piazza was reserved for pedestrians only, except for Police and emergency vehicles, and we “only” had to fight our way through the crowds of people, whilst on the streets pedestrians, cars, scooters, and motorcycles were all running amok and one could have easily be run over by almost anything on wheels, or on feet. Because of all the interruptions during the performance, the event finished much later than expected. It took us about 30 minutes to fight our way through the crowds to reach our coach parked near the Piazza and it took almost a half an hour for the coach to get out of Verona and on to the motorway.


We arrived back to our hotel – some 100 kilometres from Verona – after half past two in the morning.

Even then the streets of the small town were still crowded with loud and cheering and somewhat inebriated youngsters. The air was still hot and humid and it looked very dubious if we could settle down to a well-deserved slumber…


If I wanted to be charitable, I could put the day’s events down as an “experience”… well, certainly it was an experience, but maybe not necessarily the kind I would have wished for. At the risk of sounding like a grumpy old man, I would be more inclined to describe it as a fine madness…


As I finally turned out the lights, climbing into my bed, I kissed my good lady good night - and recalling some previous and far more serious experiences fifty years earlier, when a day of exhilarating demonstrations turned into bitter and bloody fighting, and my young wife and I finally made it - through gun fire - to the relative safety of our bed - I had to smile and admit to myself that this experience was just a bad joke…


…and the best way to end a bad joke was to whisper to her: “Another fine mess you got me into”…


Fortunately the object she threw missed my head and landed with a loud bang against the dysfunctional air-conditioning apparatus… a fitting end to a hot, humid and madcap day…




© P. J. Oszmann (2006)

© Illustration: Photographs arranged in Photoshop



** Footnote:

I posted the poem simultaneously under the title of “A Romantic Yank in Verona”

Web Site: Jew Be or Not Jew Be  

Reader Reviews for "Romeo and Juliet, Aida and some other fine madness in Verona."

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Reviewed by Amira van Kerk 8/12/2006
Dear Peter,

I decided to come to your site to see the photos you took.
Just some small advices regarding further journeys:
1. Next time fly Lufthansa !!
2. Before planning your next trip, talk to a football expert !!!
3. It's the mediterranian mentality - I personally think those people lead a better life than we do!
Great article - love it. Made me laugh.
Thanks for sharing.
Reviewed by m j hollingshead 7/23/2006
well done

Books by
Peter J. Oszmann

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