The Best Trip You’ve Ever Heard

Oh, right-I’ve got this blog to write. Sorry, I’m not really all here; my brain and heart are still somewhere in Italy, which is where I’ve been for the past two weeks.

Wouldn't You Rather Be Here?

Did you miss me? I do hope not, because while I’m happy to be back in touch, I must admit that I didn’t miss you, not even a little bit. Even if I’d felt like writing, do you have any idea how much it costs to send data back from Europe? Here’s a clue: My friend sent her mother a little picture of herself on the train between Rome and Florence. For that, AT&T sent her a bill for, get this, $98!!!! (I’m not a fan of multiple exclamation points, but if that doesn’t deserve a whole colonnade of them, I don’t know what does).

I don’t write much about music in this blog, because I’m mostly a movies and TV guy, but it seemed to me that my entire time in Italy was defined by the music that was playing on my real-life soundtrack. Admittedly, I did go prepared-on that same train to Florence, I plugged myself in to an IPod full of Puccini, and I reveled in the vision of hilltop Medieval towns floating by like stony clouds while the strains of “Musetta’s Waltz” filled my head. Puccini was written to be heard in Italy; anyplace else he’s oddly out of context, I think. To burst from a railway tunnel, into the brilliant sunlight of a Tuscan spring day, while Leontyne Price exalts in “One Fine Day” from Madama Butterfly is to be transported not by train, but by magic carpet. You’d never get that same Puccini chill while riding the California Zephyr (but I suspect some Aaron Copland music might do the trick).

Even with my earbuds out, music was everywhere (and that may come as a surprise to the under-20 set). In Italy, there is evidently not one second of the day, not a single black hole of silence, where music does not find a way to penetrate the moment. Jump into a Rome cab and listen to the wonderful singer on the radio, gravelly voice and haunting guitar (until the driver realizes he’s driving Americans and switches to a selection of U.S. and British oldies on something called “Virgin Radio”– curse you, Richard Branson!). Sit outside the best gelato place in Florence (there are dozens of the best gelato places, as it turns out), and soak in the busker across the way strumming his guitar and blowing on his chest-mounted harmonica, a’la Bob Dylano.

Afternoon Organ Music

Step into the smallest of churches in Florence and Rome any time of day, and you may find the dusty air swirling with the waves of an impromptu organ recital on an instrument that in all likelihood dates back to Mozart.

Rowing in Roma

Row a boat lazily on a pond in the Borghese Gardens, negotiating your way among the ducks and turtles, and from beyond a stand of trees you’ll hear a classical guitarist softly picking some centuries-old piece. And at night, with the windows flung open to your hotel room, music floats from a distance-always from a distance, it seems-each new tune fading in and out with the passage of a car, or a change of wind from a far-off dance, or the momentary inspiration of a full-throated passer-by.

Between musical interludes comes the white noise of human voices in conversation, and occasionally in conflict. In Florence my particular open window was on the second floor of the wonderfully located and appointed Pierre Hotel, halfway between the Duomo and the Ponte Vecchio-close enough to the street to eavesdrop on some crowded bar where an increasingly intoxicated crowd voiced its alternating delight and disgust with a televised Italian Football game.

Florence's Ponte Vecchio--Hear the Music?

In Rome, a top-floor window at the Delle Nazioni Hotel was high enough to dull the roar from the nearby Trevi Fountain-not the sound of splashing water, alas, but the chatter of thousands of tourists jostling to throw coins into the pool while evading street vendors who pursued the sale of bubble-blowing toy guns with the grim determination of Donald Trump sealing the deal on the Empire State Building.

There is, of course, music in our lives back here in the U.S.; but why do I appreciate it less? Somehow, music here comes at me more aggressively, demanding a position central to my life whether I want to partake or not. In Italy, music gently taps on my shoulder and whispers in my ear; here, it seems more likely to punch me in the face and make my eardrums bleed. We crave music in America, and we consume new songs like hot dogs, but they come at us in disjointed, isolated bursts. I sense we don’t listen to our music as part of a cultural continuum. The Italians know better.

I am reminded of the most lovely taxi cab ride of my life, and it happened to be right here in Washington, D.C. I’d worked late, and the buses had stopped running between the subway stop and my house, so I was forced to squirm into the back seat of a waiting taxi. The driver was listening to a CD of something unlike anything I’d heard before-stringed instruments tuned impossibly high, a vocalist singing with a range and dexterity that seemed unattainable without computer enhancement. Quickly, he went to switch off his music and turn on the radio.

“No, please, leave that on,” I said. In the mirror I could see him furrow his brow, a little confused. Hesitantly, he pulled his hand back from the CD player.

“What is that?” I asked. “Is it Indian music?”

He laughed. “No,” he said, “it’s Egyptian.”

We went on a block or two, and for the first time in my life I actually listened to Egyptian music.

“I can hear some themes being repeated,” I said. “But they play so fast, it’s hard to pick them out.”

He laughed again, but this time it was that of a music professor, amused by a student’s obvious ignorance.

“Yes, you’re right,” he said. “It’s very fast. It’s totally different.”

“Is he a famous singer in Egypt?” I asked.

“She is a superstar,” he answered, his gentle correction, phrased delicately so as not to insult a complete idiot, passing almost unnoticed.

The speed of the music didn’t change, but the tenor was clearly taking on a more ominous tone.

“She has suffered a broken heart,” the driver said softly. “She loves a man who cannot love her in return. She would rather not live.”

The ride to my home is a short one; just five minutes or so. My music appreciation teacher flipped on the blinker to turn into my driveway.

“Wait a minute,” I said. “Let’s ride around the block once. The song’s not over.”

Even from behind, and in the dark, I could tell he was smiling.

“Okay,” he said, and he turned the meter off.