It’s been more than a year since I went to Padua. Natale, a friend of mine drove me there from Milan and ensured I got a clear understanding of the city’s past. The present was all mine to figure out. But it’s taken me so long to write about it. In fact, I had forgotten the question of Padua, until this morning when I woke up with a pincering pain in my stomach. The type which sucks the blood from your face and dims colours. I was used to this pain. It came to me often. But coupled with my anxiety of leaving Romania, I qualified it as the worst I’d ever suffered. I moved inch by inch to the bottle of water, gulped it down with some painkillers and fell back to the wide bed.
The wooden ceiling slowly developed a curvature, lost its freshness and looked like an ageing dome in a chapel. Faint thoughts of death swirled in patchy hyperboles on this domed ceiling of my mind. Not any death. Death of familiarity. Crudely formed familiarity. Something.
I went to Padua on the 6th of July, a few days before leaving my life in Milan last year. I had no friends in Milan – I knew 4 people of whom 2 were my landlords and one my tutor. I didn’t know the city inside out. I was dating but for unhealthily short periods. I had given up on my Italian, remembered and forgot the city’s history and wasn’t on any friendly terms with its expensive stores, restaurants and extremely flawless youth. In spite of being well dressed on most days, I never felt on par with them. On the metro, I was a bit scared of the powerful older women who scanned me top to bottom and smiled only after five stops in curt restraint. I didn’t find one café where I could sit and write. Or a park where I could just sprawl out and read.
In spite of all that, I had the same crude familiarity with Milan which made leaving it difficult – a kiosk near Bisceglie where I bought a croissant every time I took the metro, the same woman who tried to steal my change every time I bought a ticket, a couple of shortcuts from Duomo up to Porto Genova, Pizza Stop near the central piazza, the university near Romolo, the languageless flirtation with Dom, the pizza delivery guy, cheese and honey, wide windows that turned into terraces, suburbia, canned corn, cheap meat, Saint Apollinaire’s bells and the hanging Cross of Christ…
The prelude to any leaving is distress and discomfort. In my case, it’s characterised by extensive sleep or an aggression towards the place I’m about to leave. I’d deny myself fresh air of the place, shut myself in and drown in white swathing sheets. If a radiator was involved, it would be turned up to 5, keeping the room fuming hot. I’d read four or five books at the same time, not willing to finish any. To me, leaving was a sign of rejection from the place, and in those last few days I knew only to show anger.
Then, with just a day to go, before leaving, I’d become desperate – no time could be wasted on this last day. I’d lose my reserve and decide that if not now, it would never be. The city/town/village had to be walked from top to bottom, familiar faces had to be greeted one last time and wild romances visited again. But I’d get nothing of this done in just a day. Ashamed of my self-inflicted isolation which I could have used in more resourceful ways, I’d scramble around in panic of impeding loss.
This was exactly what I was going through when Natale took me to Padua from Milan. A few quick steps from the car park and my head was opened. The space and whiteness of Padua is Saintly, the air trapping mellow heat and faith onto our otherwise incapable minds. Spritely fountains adorn it here and there, with statues of Saints and other Padovans endlessly keeping watch. Prato della Valle is a 90000 sq. mt. elliptical piazza but it doesn’t take this piece of inftinbey ormation to tell it’s one of the biggest squares in Europe.
The vastness is heavenly. I’m shrunk, along with Natale and our worldly worries. The ellipse has an outer and inner ring separated by a stretch of blue water. I know that one of the statues in the inner ring is of Galileo. It was a hot summer’s day but something made me think that Padua looked so white otherwise too. Its streets were empty but for a few stray tourists like us. I knew where the rest were – with St. Anthony or with St. Justina, inside the Basilica or the Abbey.
We head to the Basilica of St. Anthony where 8 cupolas rise above – two pyramids and the rest domes – in a nonchalant welcome. Inside is the city, in mourning, reconciliation, desperation, affection and even love. Stifled screams are in the bones of those kneeling down in prayer. The contrast is striking – the whiteness from outside hasn’t crept in here. The aura remains nonetheless. This, I tell myself, is the room of last resort. Where St. Anthony’s bones lay, we line for our turn to touch or be touched…
But on my convoluted dome this morning is nothing of this. Giotto’s handiwork in the Scrovegni Chapel is what I remember, is what flashes above my pulsating body. Judas’ kiss of betrayal on Christ’s cheek. Golden but not subtle. Christ staring him down, with a look that affirms the betrayal. Is it betrayal only if it’s affirmed? Do you ever feel you didn’t use all you were given? Is it betrayal even then?
On the main wall of the Scrovegni Chapel is the fresco of the Last Judgement – flanks of angels, disciples, Christ in the middle… The saved on one side, the unsaved on the other. It’s difficult to ignore the unsaved. A black demon sits amidst them, bodies held in every possible way and tinier demons ripping them, torturing, almost tickling them into misery. Everyone on this side is naked. Can torture never be inflicted with clothes on? And amidst all this is Scrovegni himself, presenting the chapel to the three Marys. This perhaps is why I don’t pray in Scrovegni’s Chapel. It’s Scrovegni’s chapel, not mine. Inspite of all that Giotto’s done to make this a historical wonder, it doesn’t stand to the name of a Chapel.
We head out next to the Abbey of St. Justina near the piazza. There are questions here too but now is not the time. In this Abbey – nothing in comparison to the grandeur of St. Anthony’s Basilica or Scrovegni’s Chapel – Natale and I sit down to pray. For the time in Milan. For the regrets of Milan. For all that I could have and didn’t. For the many roads left untravelled. For the words I could have written, the ones I could have read. I’m no longer hunting for words to make this apology. I crisply end it with a plea for a new home, for familiarity and longer stays. Longer homes. But many more.
When the painkillers finally kick in, I fall back to sleep. But only after ridding myself of the image of Giotto’s frescoes. I remember Natale’s words to me – May you have good inspiration, careful hearing, precise observation of the heart of life around you. I wish I’d have this blessing from the Romanians too.