Saturday, November 26, 2011

The Art of Something Beautiful

Having an espresso in a bustling piazza and watching the world go by is one of the oldest of clichés in the book. Tradition dictates that we go on to discuss how peace and equilibrium can be found in the busiest and most unlikely of places and although many a lost soul’s story starts with this quest, that isn’t how I started my travelling days. My story begins in a rather dingy, unremarkable pub in Cardiff. My friends and I had gone to the pub because it was the day the smoking ban had been introduced and we needed to know what it felt like; an olfactory assault of stale beer and sweat which, as evangelical smokers, we took to be an affront. Only beer could save us so we sank pints and toasted the demise of the tabletop Marlborough packet. Not many good things come from a sentence that starts with a drunken slur of “You know what we should do?” but that is exactly what happened.

The answer to this question started as a trip to Europe but as the pints sank we became more ambitious and added Australia and New Zealand to our plan. If you'd asked me at that point why I wanted to go travelling and what I wanted to achieve, I doubt I could have told you. The hunt for adventure and stories to tell was enough to guide me. In fact, if you had asked at that point about drinking an espresso in a piazza, I probably would have admitted to my desire to watch fabulously stylish Italian women walk past and the roguish Italian men riding Vespas. I was convinced that all of Italy was like something out of a chocolate advertisement. I daresay that in my mind’s eye, the entire scenario included a floppy haired man playing the cello somewhere nearby whilst I drank.

I found Rome to be every bit as romantic, inspiring, passionate, exhilarating and artistic as I dreamt it would be. The Roman Forum drove my imagination insane with sights, sounds and smells and filled my head with a hundred quotes from Shakespeare to Monty Python. The Pantheon immobilised me. I stood with my hand resting on the wall, almost as if I was trying to channel the centuries of violence, pomp and solemn religious fervour. Chocolate advertisements and clichéd stories, however, were surprisingly scant amongst the crowds of bumbagged tourists. They descended in their multitudes upon the Fontana de Trevi and the Spanish Steps, in numbers that made it impossible to achieve that postcard perfect photograph. This is the Italy I saw as the café owner brought me my coffee. She asked if I too was a tourist and I proudly replied that I was travelling with my friend. Her reaction was remarkable; she was positively overjoyed and cooed with delight at my choice to visit her bustling home. She caught my attention by announcing that she would pray to God to protect me as I travelled through Italy. I don’t think a stranger has offered to pray for me before or since and it struck me that Catholicism, so scarce in Cardiff, ran so deeply through the pulsing veins of Rome. I thought about the nuns walking down the streets in Rome attracting reverence and respect, rather than the odd and fearful looks they would draw in my native Cardiff.

My fervent host dutifully furnished me with more coffee as I thought more about the differences between nations. I asked myself what we would do with the Colosseum if it were in England. Would we also use it as a roundabout? Would it replace Swindon's magic roundabout?

I drank many more espressos in cafés and watched as Rome unfurled before me. Not the Rome I was expecting - the street-playing cellists of my dreams were remarkably few - but I think that’s the wonder of travelling. Each country we visit conjures images and expectations and while some of them are met, others reveal themselves to be dreams. I found that taking the time to see a town, city or country for what it is, and not what you expect it to be, can take you by pleasant surprise.

Written by Cate Hopkins

See Cate's full profile here.

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