The city was new to me. Or rather, I was new to it. It wasn’t my city yet, though I was arrogant in that new-traveller way that makes one think they know a place simply because they’ve found one bar with mismatched furniture and live-music some nights. I was in one of those bars this night.
The neighbourhood was Santo Spirito, and the bar Volume. There was something that always seemed magical to me about this particular piazza. Perhaps it was the stark, bold and bare facade of the basilica, unapologetically observing the behaviours in the square below; never passing judgment, or perhaps doing so silently, allowing the late-night party-goers to continue sipping and smoking without inhibition.
I was with two friends, and we squeezed ourselves onto a wooden bench behind a large wooden banquet table, already occupied by several groups, enjoying the live Italian music and vying for the attention of the elusive bartender. This bar, once being the workshop of an artisan, a wood sculptor, now paid homage to the locale’s former life with tools, black-and-white photos, and intricate pieces of word-work incorporated into the rustic decor. We chatted over the music, sipped wine and munched crostini we weren’t sure were intended for us, but were nonetheless within reach on the large communal table.
The crowd was thick, and escaping our seat to use the toilet was a fierce battle, the return even more so. I was feeling the rhythms, feeling happy to be alive, to be in this place, to be wearing a dress I loved and a lipstick I had recently acquired, and I reveled in the freedom of being here in this city with no responsibilities, as is the way when you are a twenty-three year old au pair. I felt a warm glow from this happiness, or the wine, or the music, or a mix of all of these ingredients.
I fought my way to the bathroom for the second time, after the third glass of wine, and seeing as there was no clear path back to my seat afterwards, I paused near the bar for a moment to stand and listen to the music, watching the band sweating on the tiny stage. I must say, you are the most beautiful girl in this room, said a British accent into my ear. I turned to see a man retreating, smiling over his shoulder as he did.
My friends came to join me. We’re going for a breath of fresh air. We made our way outside, the cool night air a shocking relief after the stifling atmosphere of the bar. I kept the compliment to myself. Nora took out a cigarette, then turned to a group standing nearby and asked in stilted Italian, hai fuoco? while making a lighting motion with her hand. They passed her the accendino and she lit her cigarette. Grazie.
After chatting for a few moments, the girls decided they would call it a night. It’s too sweaty in there!
I said I would stay a bit longer to hear the music.
Are you sure?
I went back inside and stood near the back of the crowd, enjoying being anonymous. No one would notice I was alone, as we were all pressed in so tightly it didn’t matter who was with who.
Your friends left? British accent again. I turned.
Yes, they did.
Thanks for staying. I turned back to the music, and began to sway slightly with the tune. I’m going to a party…would it be terribly strange to ask you to come?
This was one of those clear ‘no’ moments that somehow escaped me, and I accepted with little hesitation. The freedom of being here, that lack of responsibility and the potential Sunday sleep-in had me reckless. I desperately needed to pee, but the battle to the bathroom wasn’t worth it.
He started for the door. I’m coming with you, I said, my voice drowned out by the music. Because why not? He turned to see if I was following.
Outside, the absence of music was awkward and the silence grew as we wound our way down side-streets unknown to me. To fill the silence, I learned he was in Italy marketing wine. A British man marketing wine in Italy.
We arrived at a large wooden door in a tall palazzo. The gold panel of doorbells shone in front of us as we came to a stop. Hmmm, he said, regarding the many names on the panel and scratching his head. Ring them all, I suggested. He did. When nothing happened, he shouted Oi! towards an open window on the third floor. A head appeared. Oi Dario, you wanker, get up here, who’s that?
On the way up the stairs I was full of adrenaline for this unfamiliar situation, my confidence fueled by curiosity. Are you ready?
A door swung open and we were pulled inside. There were several girls, faces and arms covered in glitter, swaying on a Persian rug in a high-ceilinged living room. Who’s this?
Allie, she’s from Canada. Another fact exchanged in the intermittent silences during the walk from the bar.
Hi Allie from Canada.
I was lead to the kitchen where there was more wine, and the remnants of some sort of a cake. The girls hugged Dario and eyed me suspiciously. They’re jealous of you, he whispered to me later.
Why? I asked.
Because you carry an enigma.
I peeked through the curtains of a window which I remember being floor to ceiling, out into the street below, the golden glow of the street lamps falling on the black stones of the marciapiede. I drank wine. I asked people where they were from and why they were here. There was a surfer from Australia, who my cloudy memory tells me still had sand and seashells in his hair.
British accent walked me home at the end of the night. I don’t remember what we spoke about, but it doesn’t matter.