Paradise, Purgatory, and Hell: A Dantesque Journey through Northern Italy, Part 1

Readers of these pages will know that, at Priceton.org, we reject the model of the contemporary “blog”. We recognize, that is, that the quotidian trivialities of a trivial life will be of interest only to those few whose lives are even more trivial than that of the blogger. Accordingly, we don’t tell you what we ate for breakfast, how we are faring on our New Year’s pledge to reduce our daily intake of candy-cane lattes, or the salacious details of the conversation we just had with the friend we happened to run into at the Botox salon.

In what follows, we will recount, as faithfully as our senescent memory allows, the (sometimes daily) misadventures, agonies, and ecstasies of our recent trip through Northern Italy: a “blog” of sorts, but with a difference. First of all, our trivialities will be of interest to anyone who has ever undergone the dispiriting ordeal of modern travel—anyone who has been squeezed into the Procrustean bed of economy class, sucked into the Charybdis of a European roundabout, or seduced by the Siren-song of hotel advertising (“Come hither to our B&B; enjoy its quiet; recreate amidst the bucolic splendours of ancient olive groves…”).

The travelogue is, after all, the archetype of the contemporary “web-log”, and unlike its internet offspring retains some of the authentic power it has had in Homer, Virgil, Dante, Chaucer, Bunyan, and Swift: as an allegory, that is, of the soul’s inner struggle against temptation, hardship, and despair, whilst prosecuting its quest for safe harbor in heaven.

For a European tourist, as for a pilgrim on the highway of life, it is hard to achieve the Beatific Vision; one can be certain, nonetheless, that the inebriating beauties of the churches of Verona, the palaces of Vicenza, and the Barolos of the Piedmont, are a rather more proximate earthly type of it than any candy-cane latte.

 

It is an intractable paradox that, the more advanced technologies become–the more comfortable and affluent the human population–, the more miserable is the lot of man. I can think of no more pathetic image of human servitude than that of the hordes of young men and women who obstruct our sidewalks, their heads bent downward, their eyes fixed on the screens of their mobile devices, and their senses completely benumbed to the ambient beauties of nature or the comforting society of their fellows. In classical antiquity, there was a standing–perhaps we should say falling–joke about Socrates, his head stuck in the clouds, going topsy-turvy into the marle-pit. Today, our young philosophers, their heads in the marle-pits of simulated reality, careen off one another like billiard balls, trip over curbs, and step out into traffic, all in order to “stay connected” with the Narcissistic banalities they have recently posted on their Facebook pages.

Homo, wrote Ovid (rehearsing an already ancient topos) was created Erectus, so that he might better be able to fix his eyes and attention upon the invisibilia Dei in the celestial region of his soul’s birth. Mobile Device Man is a kind of Homo Dejectus. His posture is that of Boethius before his cure, who “forever stares downward at the dull earth”, as Lady Philosophy describes him, a pose that is the traditional moral emblem of the worldly and un-philosophical spirit.

We saw too many of these self-absorbed worldlings during our trip to Northern Italy, walking past ancient olive groves or Palladian palaces, texting, sexting, or taking selfies. But I have gotten too far ahead of myself, and quite distracted from the main point, which is the difficulty of modern travel, in spite of the miracle of jet propulsion, or the democratization of the erstwhile privileges of the wealthy.

 

The depressing reality is that the luxuries of travel are rather less accessible to those of modest means than they once were. Members of my generation can still remember boarding airplanes in the late sixties without having to wait for hours in serpentine lines whose eventual destination promised only the indignities of removing one’s belt and shoes, seats with room for no more than infant appendages, and food served in Styrofoam containers that tastes like, well, Styrofoam. Any traveler who aspires to the level of comfort and service passengers once took for granted in economy class would need a first class ticket today.

In the early seventies, moreover, the publishers of travel guides were still putting out titles such as “Paris on Twenty Dollars a Day”, for which one could in fact expect a decent, if unpretentious hotel on the Left Bank, and three satisfying meals washed down with some perfectly drinkable plonk. Adjusted for inflation, twenty 1970s-era dollars translate to about one hundred twenty today, for which one can expect a backpackers’ hostel in the Parisian suburbs and a petit dejeuner at McDonald’s.

Having been to Rome a few years ago and finding ourselves solvent again, we decided that we would spend a month and a few days in Northern Italy, visiting Milan, Pavia, Bologna, Ravenna, Ferrara, Mantova, Vicenza, Padova, and Verona. But unless you are as rich as the proverbial Croesus, a vacation in Europe in the year 2014 can leave one in desperate need, not only of an unlooked for legacy, but of a post-vacation vacation.

There is, first of all, the exhausting preparatory labour that modern travel entails: the search for an affordable flight; the search for an affordable rental car; the search for accommodations on agriturismo.it, bnb.com, sabbaticalhomes.com, vrbo.com, and the innumerable other dot-coms that offer relatively inexpensive studio apartments in town, or bed-and-breakfasts in the countryside.

Finding the right place to stay, as we have learned from long experience, is the sine qua non of a survivable trip. It is heavenly to commune all day with the incomparable glories of quattrocentro painting, sculpture, and architecture, and hellish to be kept awake all night by noise, creeping damp, and bed-springs protruding through the threadbare coverings of ancient mattresses. To forestall such tortures requires real vigilance. It means beginning one’s search months in advance; meticulously scrutinizing the photos posted on websites (including trying to imagine what lies beyond the borders of the frame); looking carefully at maps to ascertain if the apartment really is only (the universally advertised) “ten minutes’ walk” from the centro istorico. It means sending emails expressing interest, and waiting days or weeks for a response. It means finding the perfect place only to discover that it is already booked for the period. It means calling the 800 number on the rental car website to ask someone in Bombay to confirm that the car you will be picking up in Milan from a rental agency headquartered in Texas does indeed come fully insured, with no deductible, and all taxes paid. It means, above all, tracking down hosts by telephone, and asking futile questions (to which the answers are monotonously cheery): does the apartment have heat? (of course); air conditioning? (assolumente); shutters on the windows? (new ones just fitted); are the neighbours in the building quiet? (neighbours? what neighbours?); any construction going on in the building? (completely renovated just last year); affordable parking nearby? (just around the corner).

Of course, these are all lies, and one knows that they are lies, but tries to reassure himself that his host isn’t lying outrageously. If he is told that parking is available around the corner, the prudent traveler assumes he can count on finding a place, after some assiduous searching, somewhere within a six-block radius; if parking is said to cost fifteen euros per day, he budgets for thirty.

 

One can drive oneself mad trying to obviate all of the possibilities for disaster, and we did. It is not only that a traveler can never guess the true limit of his host’s mendacity, even if he is being generous (generous in his estimate of advertising hyperbole, ungenerous in his appraisal of the human character); there is, besides, the nagging awareness that what will inevitably go wrong is something he didn’t think to ask about. Two weeks before our departure, an inalienable sense of foreboding thus began to settle over me. I felt myself looking forward to Northern Italy as I looked forward to my next bout of diverticulitis.

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