Birth of a Poet 3: Florence Nightingales

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Continuing Damian Beeson Bullen’s retrospective adventure through the journey that made him a poet…


TUESDAY 14TH APRIL 1998

So I woke up, a little shivery, but otherwise excellent for a good ten hour sleep (a rare thing on the road), pack’d up & stepp’d out of the train. An old Italian guy gave me a funny look & a smile – to be honest, I must look a little strange to people. I appear a sort of noble scruff, my guitar being carried in a stretchy jumper, & my sleeping bag sticking out of my pack. This is even after halving it in bulk with some wire I found in Villach.
Bought some bread rolls & milk, then caught a train that would take me near to Ravenna – the place of Dante & Byron, two of my favorite poets. The ride was pleasant (easily jump’d) & went thro’ the flat Italian lowlands. These constitute acres of farms & seem quite slow. A more rural pace of life, dotted with young boys or shawl’d women tending the land. Even the stations I pass’d thro’ had chickens by the side.

I chang’d trains at Ferrara, where I bought a beer & cadg’d more fags (like I’d been doing all day) & realised the Italians don’t speak much English. The ride to Ravenna was another jump, & when I arrived I did a quick walk around the streets, saw Dante’s tomb (quite impressive but his bones are in Florence) & a glorious exhibition of metalworks in a beautiful column’d garden. Each piece was based on a section of the Paradisio, & some had come from as far as Australia. The detail was amazing, but I didn’t have time to soak it in properly as I felt fluster’d. I didn’t want to spend any money on a hostel, so decided to head to Florence instead.

Distant Riviera di Levante
My heart’s destination, mine art’s true call,
But first, the mausoleum of Dante,
To tap into a predecessor soul,
Overgrown with moss & creeping ivy,
My man, you were the wildest of us all!
Ravenna, this may be a swift sojurn,
But one day, with my wife, I shall return.

I had a couple of hours to kill, so I went searching for more bread. I found a supermarket, got a big roll & some orange juice – & lifted some sausages & fish. I know stealing is morally bad – but my poetry is all-important right now. I may be a rogue at times, but have a good heart.

I ate a hearty meal, then caught the train to Bologna, but disaster struck! I got caught (too slack!) & paid 15,000 lira (tho’ it could have been worse)! However, it cannot be too bad to pay just over a fiver for a journey around Europe. Chang’d trains again (by now its 9-30 in the evening) at Bologna. I didn’t have time to see the city, so stay’d on the station, sharing some food with a tramp & being quite impress’d by the uniforms, all shiny, of some Italian policemen.

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Bologna Station

My ‘instinct’ help’d me get pass’d the police on the intercity to Florence, which was full of slick young Italian guys, well dress’d & wearing shades – we even had a little strum together on my guitar. Then we arrived in Florence, & after dashing back on the train for my journal just in time, I entered the capital of Tuscany.

So I stash my bags in some bushes & start to look around Florence. I have an hour or so before the train to Pisa. I saw the main cathedral, which was breathtaking at first, then as I walked around the building it began to remind me of one of those cardboard cut-outs you build yourself with glue. Very surreal.

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So I was just about to return to the station when I came across an Italian busker singing a Verve song (The Drugs Don’t Work) to some young Germans, accompanied by an old looking North African on harmonica. Of course I sang a song, then decided to fuck Pisa off & go get a pizza with my new mates instead. They all had sleeping bags & whatnot, so I would spend the night with them.

We had a beer & pizza in a bar, where I got offer’d some hashish off an Arab, who kept talking to me in Arabic & would not understand that I didn’t speak any Arabic. Just as I was about to buy it, the Germans decided to leave – they were mostly 14-16 year old girls (with a young 12-year-old lad & a mid-twenties German guy) as they were being hit upon. I follow’d, passing the house where Shelley had written Prometheus Unbound & Ode to the West Wind – the Palazzo Marini – & we chill’d at the station, where Louisa, a 16-year-old, began to take a rather uncomfortable shine to me.

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Two more German girls then arrived, in the same situation, & wearing flares! Cool – some hippy brethren! One was half-Turk, half-Yugoslavian, & look’d like a full-on gypsy – Romany hair, beads, head-scarf & string features. Her name was Eva & I took an instant shine. The other girl was a red-headed German, quite nice & calm. She was call’d Mia, & they both spoke quite good English.

We all found a park & huddl’d up in our sleeping bags, broke out the food & had a small shindig. Me & the German guy play’d guitar, I read some poetry & so on. Eventually they all left, just leaving me & my new friends – Mia & Eva. I manag’d to sleep in the middle (I can’t wait to get a harem one day) & we went to sleep after chatting about life, magic & fairies. I told a story (Fairy Exodus), then we all had sweet dreams & morning birdsong.

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The poet in Florence, 2013

WEDNESDAY 15TH APRIL 1998

Woke up feeling quite nice at about 10-30. We slowly got ourselves together, play’d a little in the park, then went for cappucinos. As I sipped mine in the street outside the cafe, I saw how Italy is so very stylish, but the people have somehow lost their sense of dignity.

Afterwards we meander’d about town, dodging the occasional rainstorm (we got gradually wetter), seeing more nice buildings & doing some shopping! We all got on very well as we carted our stuff round the streets like a mini-hippy tribe, with Florence gaining a definite sense of romantic character in the daytime. Full of Americans, but old & calm.

We bought some food – our plan was to find a place to cook some veggies – lots of fruit & veg, a huge loaf, some water & a big bottle of dry Italian white. I also bougth a new string for my guitar & tried haggling down a hat on the market, which only cost 5000 Lira. Then it started to rain so I bought it to replace the one I lost in Belgium.

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Then, in a beautiful stationary store, with amazing azure blue pens & ink, I bought a bound book for my poem, The Death of Shelley. It is going to be excellent, & Mia did the front title page as we sat in the street.

We then wander’d to the other side of the river, over a bridge where jewelers shops lined the road, climbed a hill & made camp near the top. I then made a fire thanks to last year’s woodsman’s summer in Bournemouth.

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Altho’ we were next to a road, only one police car pass’d by, saying ‘no fire’ & threatening us with imaginary handcuffs. I pretended to put it out, then Eva went full steam ahead with the cooking.

The view of Florence at sunset was beautiful – no highrises, a sea of red rooves – & after dark we eventually had some home-cooked vegetable soup, assisted by my very own Knorr spice cubes. We then drank the wine & I sang some songs – new string sounds good – a special moment indeed on a Florentine hillside at dusk.

We wake in arms, after cappuccinos
Wander moped streets, O sacred city
Where argent-sheen’d Arno ardently flows;
I buy a book to fill with poetry,
On the title page Maya draws a rose,
Then buy fresh foods & climb a hill where we
Build a fire, cook dinner, watching sunshine
Fade over Florence with a sweet red wine.

After, at about 11PM, we wander’d thro’ drizzle to the fabulous city square, with statues of famous Italians every where. I could sense Shelley & Byron, who must have walk’d in these very streets. Indeed, Florence seems to have hardly changed in those two centuries.

Then, a kindly Tunisian call’d Karmel found us, scored us some cannabis from dodgy North Africans in the street, & we all proceeded to get stoned. It blew us all away, & the girls began singing, the acoustics in our coloumn’d corridor being amazing. Unfortunately, as I was playing along I snapp’d my brand new string!

Karmel’s French was worse than mine, but we still had a great life, him just babbling in Italian & me giggling along stoned off mi nut. Eventually, after 3 or 4 reefers, Karmel left & the girls huddl’d into me to get to sleep. Our clothes were quite damp, but it wasn’t too bad. It rain’d all night, & we were lucky to have shelter.

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I now have 100,000 Lira (10,000 a day) & £10 sterling. The tests of my virtues & willpower begin tomorrow.


THE BIRTH OF A POET

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Chapter 1: The Orient Express

Chapter 2: The Grand Canal

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