What does one do if the rain continues to beat relentlessly outside one’s windows, when the garden becomes a mini-swamp and when the sun is only a faint memory excluded by yet more heavy-leaden skies?
By the time I’d scootered down to Bagni di Lucca station yesterday I was thoroughly soaked but I knew that something better would come soon.
At London’s Drury lane Theatre, until 1999, there was an extraordinary musical based on a modern re-take of that eternal cultural triangle so wonderfully put to music by Puccini in his Madame Butterfly. Perhaps, if I visit London this year, I’ll be able to see it again since, from May, at the Prince Edward theatre, Miss Saigon will be back on the stage.
And now here I am in that self-same city, officially re-baptized Ho Chi Minh City, and spending my first night there in an old friend’s exquisite French colonial house.
The journey from Longoio after that first wet start just got better – it certainly couldn’t get worse! The Freccia Bianca train from Pisa sped through the sodden countryside of the Maremma and landed me at the Eternal City’s pioneering Stazione Termini with four hours to spare before my flight from Fiumicino airport.
What to do in Rome with this time? I decided I’d visit the church of Santa Maria Vittoria where, in the Cornari chapel, there is one of the most inexpressibly sweet sculptures to be encountered anywhere in the world.
The Ecstasy of Saint Teresa (or, more exactly, Transverberation of Saint Teresa – transverberation meaning an altered state of consciousness characterized by greatly reduced external awareness and expanded spiritual insight accompanied by visions) is to sculpture what Wagner is to music – a total experience, in which sculpture is married to architecture into one whole to produce an exalted and all-enveloping effect.
The extasy was designed and completed by the great Baroque sculptor, Gian Lorenzo Bernini, who also planned the chapel’s setting using marble, stucco and paint, and it is rightly regarded as one of the sculptural masterpieces of the High Roman style. The work precisely illustrates the passage in the great saint’s autobiography where she writes:
I saw in his hand a long spear of gold, and at the iron’s point there seemed to be a little fire. He appeared to me to be thrusting it at times into my heart, and to pierce my very entrails; when he drew it out, he seemed to draw them out also, and to leave me all on fire with a great love of God. The pain was so great, that it made me moan; and yet so surpassing was the sweetness of this excessive pain, that I could not wish to be rid of it. The soul is satisfied now with nothing less than God. The pain is not bodily, but spiritual; though the body has its share in it. It is a caressing of love so sweet which now takes place between the soul and God, that I pray God of His goodness to make him experience it who may think that I am lying.
More cynically, a great French skeptic, upon seeing this ecstatic group, remarked: “if this is spiritual love then I’ve already experienced it!”
At Fiumicino I got back to the business of continuing my journey to the Far East. Although the Etihad (a great and economic company to fly with after the minimalist rigours of Ryanair) plane flight took me across almost half of the world I was not able to see very much of the Persian gulf, the Deccan of India and most of Burma, Thailand and Cambodia since they all were clothed in an unfathomable haze.
At HCMC’s airport (or Saigon as so many still call it) I (eventually) picked up my multi-entry Vietnam visa which had been applied and accepted on-line (one can’t get a visa just by landing in Vietnam) and met my friend. By this time it was already evening and my recollections, as we travelled by taxi through the streets of district five, was of a multitude of scooters, large open air cafes with a distinctly Montparnassian atmosphere, and some streets still displaying the Tet new year lights.
My friend’s house is surprisingly quiet; it’s in a courtyard, well-insulated, from the hectic traffic of this great oriental city. There is a roof-garden and the rooms have very high ceilings.
After a great supper, which included coq-au-vin with rice, I literally crashed out with accumulated jet-lag.
As I write this in the morning of a new day I’ve got the air conditioner on since temperatures are rather above 30 degrees centigrade and am keenly looking forwards to explorations on my first complete day in this (for me) completely unknown city.
What a welcome change after the miseries of that particularly miserable winter in Longoio!