A love letter to Lucca

Back in 2008 I visited Europe for the first time. I joined a tour from Rome to Paris, and along the way I saw sights that I remember fondly and some that I have been lucky enough to return to and see with new eyes. There is one place that has haunted me the most, and which was always on the tip of my tongue when asked about my favourite place in the world to travel to. The danger with having a favourite place and returning to it is that over the time that you’ve been away you will have changed. Time never stands still, and there is no one out there keeping your memories of a place in pristine museum condition for your return. Once towering trees are shrubby, beautiful old temples blackened with soot. This is what I feared when I insisted that we visit a particular town, that my loving memories would pale in the face of its mediocracy.

We boarded the first of 3 trains in Nice, bade France farewell and crossed over into Italy. The first stop was Genoa, where we had a few hours wait till the second train. We spent it exploring and eating overpriced icecream, and dodging pushy trinket sellers. After they grabbed my arm and started to corner us we stayed away from the tourist centres, and were very careful about our valuables. Genoa is a city still tied to trade, as it has been for so long, and with the streets that still lead to the harbour and old tenement buildings, seems to look to its past, though our stay was too short for me to get a nicer impression.

At a small town that I’ve forgotten the name of we changed to our final train, a local 30 minute one, and descended into the lush valleys of Tuscany. I was glued to the train window, watching out for familiar silhouettes, my pulse rising as I imagined the town plastered with tourists, worn down and without any charm left. Would my partner be disappointed that we’d decided to go here, rather than Ravenna or Venice?

The train pulled in and we dragged our luggage out onto the small platform, orienting ourselves with the partial view of a tower in the distance. Before long we were facing the walls, as tall as I remembered, encircling a town of peeking terracotta roofs and elegant towers, with the hills around the valley in the distance. The path lead through the walls, doubling back with the defensive structures intended to trap invading armies, and then we were in. The old cobbled streets, marble churches, gardens and little shops were just as I remembered them. I had returned to Lucca, and still found it wonderful.

A Lucchese canal

A Lucchese canal

We stayed in an old apartment, decked out with antique furniture and with a window overlooking gardens. From our bedroom window we could look down into the street where locals and tourists mingled and hear the chiming of church bells.

View from the kitchen

View from the kitchen

Within 2 minutes of leaving our apartment we were on the main street in town, where cafes, craft stores, fashion boutiques and fancy beer shops jostle for attention, and tourists jostle for gelato. If you take a detour at the café selling mascarpone gelato, and follow the alley for a while you’ll notice that the wall to your right is curving outwards. There will be an opening in the stone and bricks, and above it the outline of an ancient stone archway. Stepping through you’ll be in a large, circular area rimmed with restaurants, the walls covered with flower filled balconies. This used to be the town amphitheatre when this was a Roman town, but rather than cheer on animal hunts, locals and visitors sip wine and tuck into pasta, watching the sun go down over the rooftops.

The amphitheatre in Lucca

The amphitheatre in Lucca

It’s the first place we visited, and I hope that if I ever get to return to Lucca I can go during the spring festival when it’s filled with flowers.
Roman trivia #1: Lucca is the site of the second meeting of the triumvirate, the ‘secret’ political alliance between Pompey, Crassus and Caesar. 200 senators also came, which would have made it less secret and I’d guess a bit of a burden on the little town.

We spent a few nights in Lucca, only leaving the bounds of the Renaissance era walls to get groceries. On one day we walked the circumference of the town on the walls, which overlook the city and hills around the town and gave us a peep into the gardens backing onto it inside. Most of the path on the walls is lined with trees, with grassy parks and cafes on the bastions, and cyclists and other tourists passing by. It took a couple of hours of strolling, including a short nap in the sun, to complete the circle.

Tree lined walls

Tree lined walls

Then more strolling down the main street and climbing up one of the towers. Guinigi tower was built in the 1300s as a status symbol, along with many others in Lucca and other Italian towns, though few now remain. As well as offering an amazing view from all sides, the tower has a garden of oak trees on the rooftop terrace, where I can imagine hours could be spent with a good book and a glass of local red wine.

Panorama from Guinigi tower

Panorama from Guinigi tower

On one of the evenings we attended the nightly Puccini concert, part of a series celebrating the composer and others from Lucca, that is held every night of the year. It was in Chiesa di San Giovanni, and featured 3 opera singers and a pianist enchanting the audience of tourists with their soaring voices and music. Followed by dinner at a restaurant I’d visited in 2008, which employs people with disability, it was a perfect day. Including the karate class in the old square as we ate dinner.

Chiesa di San Giovanni

Chiesa di San Giovanni

The fine weather couldn’t last forever, so on the day that we visited the botanical gardens we had to dash into the shade of trees and tunnels, coming out to watch fish and turtles swimming in a tranquil pond that, according to legend, an adulterous woman was dragged into by the devil. There were even rare trees from Australia, that felt like old friends after a long time away.

In the botanical gardens

In the botanical gardens

Without plans on most days we wandered around, taking in the charm and flavours of the ancient streets that someone manage not to become stuck in the tackiness of tourism, though there are many tourists. Perhaps because Lucca is so small, bounded in as it is by the old walls, that there is little chance for the expendable, cheap shops and cafes that you can’t get away from in so many touristy places. Walking down alleys with craft stores and old restaurants selling local food on rickety tables, craning your neck to see the towers as you pass by and coming across the amphitheatre that still continues to shape the town after thousands of years, Lucca is unlike anywhere else.

Lucca

Lucca

We left Lucca wishing we could stay longer but looking forward to our next destination, and now as I remember dragging our suitcases along the cobbled streets and through the twisting passages through the walls, I wonder when I’ll go there again. It’s a matter of when, not if.

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Songs of revolution, joy and home

It’s perhaps an inevitable part of the immigrant experience that you spend a lot of your time noticing other immigrants. Sometimes it’s just a flicker on the street, or it could be heading to the local watering hole for an expat get-together. Or you may even find yourself at a concert, watching performers from around the world singing of love, politics, joy, revolution and home in a mix of languages. All the things that make us lift up our feet and head out the door, and someday find a place to take off our shoes and put our feet up.

My fella and I had spent the afternoon walking around slightly dazed in the sun, savouring ice-creams and the warmth that I still can’t take for granted. When we had finished a snack at a Greek restaurant I got a message about a free ticket to a concert. Without really knowing what the concert would be, other than that it would feature Syrian and Iranian music, I said yes. Which is how I found myself in the Stora Teatern in the centre of town on a Saturday evening, as the compere introduced us to a night of music that would show us how many world class musicians there are driving taxis or living anonymously in Sweden, and the music they have to share with us. And how much joy we can return to them.

The concert was billed as a showcase of artists who have found a home, even a temporary one, in Sweden. It seemed that often they found their way here after running away from something – as with all expats and immigrants there is a reason we leave. Two had been tortured and another had grown up in a country where love songs had been forbidden for generations, and where he secretly sang forbidden songs. There was sadness in the songs, and joy but the strongest emotion that ran through all of the songs, and through the audience as the night went on, was defiance.

Naser Razzazi dancing with the violinist

Naser Razzazi dancing with the violinist

The first performer was a tall, elegant man from Kurdistan, who sang folk songs in a deeply resonant voice. Of all of the artists Naser Razzazi was the most charismatic. He had the audience in the palm of his hand each time he stepped on stage, and what sticks in my mind now, almost a week later, was his neat white mustache, tall frame and complete confidence.

Habib Mousa was another man with a presence, who sang about love and dreams, and spoke about his old homeland of Assyria. He was quietly spoken, with a powerful voice.

The next man is known as the Elvis Presley of Eritrea, who brought rock and swing to his country and then to us. Osman Abdulrahim grooved, grinned, sang and spoke briefly about the war and dictatorship he had escaped, and told the daughter of Dawit Isaak that he hoped her father could be returned to his family soon.

Elvis of Eritrea

Elvis of Eritrea

Throughout all these performances, people coming on stage to cheers and then departing for the next guest only to return a bit later, a band had played behind and around them. Drummers, a bassist and guitarist, keyboard player and a very enthusiastic violinist accompanied all of the performers. The next performer brought his own instrument, perhaps the one he’d brought to Tahrir Square 4 years ago. Ramy Essam is one of the most well known faces of the Arab Spring, who played rock music among the crowds as the revolution swept through Egypt. He’s currently living in Malmö, having been granted safe city residence, and while there he continues to write songs about the revolution. When asked how he is enjoying Sweden, he said he liked it very much, but would always want to return to his homeland and continue the fight.

Ramy Essam, face of a revolution

Ramy Essam, face of a revolution

Finally there was a young woman originally from Iran, who grew up in Sweden and seems to me to combine the two cultures. Safoura Safavi sings in a mix of Farsi, Swedish and English, her music a mix of punk, reggae and soul and very infectious. She bounced around the stage and the audience bounced along with her, even more so when her sister joined her for a duet. She sang about pretension, life in Iran and in Sweden and was joined by the rest of the performers for a final song in Farsi that brought the audience to our feet. After they had left and the calls for an encore were answered she stepped back on stage and sang a song about Sweden, as blue and yellow lights shone on the stage.

Safoura from Sweden

Safoura from Sweden

The music had taken us all around the world, through war, revolution, oppression and hope, and then in the end it brought us home.

Sending music into the night

I get the impression that my antipodean friends and family believe that a Swedish winter consists entirely of cold, darkness, dreariness and staring mournfully out of the window in between chugging down beer and eating potatoes to drive away the misery. I want to make it clear, here and now, that this is not entirely true.
Yes, the vitamin D deficiency gets us down sometimes and comfort food is tempting (oh wedges and mash, what would I do without you?), but those of us who choose to live up here find ways to cope and sometimes even drive away the darkness.

Way back in November, all of four months ago now, we were invited to a concert across town in Majorna. We were unclear as to what sort of music there would be, but trusted the inviter’s taste enough to assume it would be interesting. After passing rooms full of billiards, young men smoking on the street and closed nail-art shops we found an obscure door and were within seconds enveloped in warmth and the smell of incense. The concert had already started, so after hanging up our thick layers of jackets, beanies, scarves and mittens we shuffled and apologised our way to the corner where our friends had already taken up position.

The band

The band

On the stage was a band of six men, a guitarist, two drummers, a cellist, a saxophonist and a bassist who treated us to cross-cultural melodies that I couldn’t begin to guess at the origin of. They seemed to twine from the east to west, and probably north and south too, and had all of the feet in the house tapping along. A lady from India then joined them, singing traditional songs in a style I’d never heard before being joined by an Iranian woman whose presence took up the whole venue. She was amazing, and managed to provoke the room into breaking into a veritable orgy of dancing. Fellow audience members who had seemed typically reserved and quiet were bursting all over the stage, a long line and then circle of dancers twisting around along with the music. Or in the case of some people, along with the music in their heads which seemed to have a different tune. Being Australian, and therefore reserved in a different way, we sat and watched and sipped our wine, as I at least tried to ignore the itch in my feet.

Once started the dancing can't stop

Once started the dancing can’t stop

We followed the concert with a few drinks at a local pub, claiming paintings of vintage aircraft, dancing, guessing the names of songs and staying until closing time.

When the year had turned and we’d returned and mostly recovered from the excitement of Jul and visitors, another celebration arrived. This time is was a housewarming at the home of a good friend of mine. We turned up late, due to getting a little bit lost, and arrived to find an apartment full of Swedes, warmth and talking. We bobbed around between rooms, chatting and listening, and finally found a space in the living room to enjoy our dinner. I had seen on the invitation that guests were invited to bring their instruments, as the girlfriend of my friend is very heavily involved in music, and it seemed as though most of the others who had come to the party were as well.
As the night drew on we became the slightly stunned but gleeful audience of a sudden orchestra of violinists. A guitar and banjo joined in at various times, plus little people dancing among the legs and chairs, but for the most part violins were coaxed into life, belting out folk music and dances. They all seemed to be speaking a language I couldn’t understand, switching between styles and songs with cues I couldn’t hear or see. At the high point, there were 7 violins playing at one time, and I’d guess about 9 in total passed in and out of the apartment. Though I can play music to an extent, these people had the ability to play in the other sense of the word, in the same way that I sometimes like to do with words – throwing them around to make patterns and for sheer enjoyment.
We left late, or early, with the music following us down the street.

Keeping away the cold

Keeping away the cold

So my advice, if you want to take it, is if you are feeling cold and miserable on a winter’s night, follow an invitation for a night of talking and music. Even if you don’t bring your own violin, you can sit amid the music and forget the cold.

A party in Göteborg

In the week that we’ve been back, we were lucky enough to be part of a great national event here in Göteborg. An event that had about a 10th of the cities’ population singing and cheering, lining the canals and having picnics on rooftops. People spent the day in costumes and sang in public and the sound of the celebration and the fireworks of the finale reverberated around the city.

No, I’m not talking about Swedish National Day. I’m talking about a concert performed by someone who may not be known outside of Sweden, but is adored in his homeland – Håkan Hellström.
Brief backstory for those not in Sweden – Håkan Hellström is a rock/pop musician from Göteborg who was a drummer and bassist in a couple of Swedish bands before he decided to go solo and has since released a number of records, all in Swedish. Months ago a concert was announced in Ullevi, the biggest stadium in the city, and sold out pretty quickly. I heard snippets about it from Swedish friends who were either going or wished they could go, but it wasn’t till I saw fans in sailor outfits wandering around the city, overheard people singing his most famous song in a park and heard that the venue had reached a record breaking capacity that I realised how important the event was for a decent percentage of the population of Göteborg.

Relaxing by the canal

Relaxing by the canal

My partner works in a building near the stadium which has a balcony, so our plan was to view the concert from high above. (Unfortunately we couldn’t get access to the top floor, but at least we know more for next time) We set off from our apartment with a bottle of wine and some glasses, just in case, and strolled along the canal that leads to the stadium. From the moment we stepped outside our apartment we could hear the concert, and as we got nearer it got louder, covering the screams from Liseberg and the rush of traffic. The volume of Göteborgare also increased as we got closer, from people sitting on benches with picnics, or on the grass lining the canal, standing around with their arms around each other or sitting on the wall of the canal, feet dangling down above the water. The rooftops nearby had new residents, and the road near Ullevi had been closed off and was packed with people singing along or just standing and smiling. It was a city celebrating and vicariously sharing a few hours of music. I’ve never seen anything like it.

The contrast to the concert was National Day, which seems to have been popularised within the last few years and the mention of which was greeted with ‘what? Oh yeah, that thing’ from the Swedes I questioned about it. Hoping to get some sort of cultural experience, even if it was manufactured, we headed to Slottskogen on Friday, to listen to the orchestra and watch some folk dancing. Unfortunately the weather didn’t seem to have realised that it’s summer so it poured from the moment we stepped outside. While I do love a bit of Ode to Joy, standing in a crowd feeling the rain seeping through your jacket is not the ideal way to enjoy it.

Orchestra in the rain

Orchestra in the rain

The folk dancing seems to have been rained out (though why they weren’t more prepared baffles me – I take it they of all people would know they are in Sweden), though I did enjoy the costumes.
Speaking of which, a question for readers: Does anyone know why ‘folk’ outfits seem to date from the 17th centuries? Why not the 14th, or 19th? I suppose the equivalent nowadays would be a suit or cocktail dress.
There were of course crowds of people at the National Day celebrations, and those who can stick around in the rain must have some good reason to do so. However I didn’t get the same feeling of love as at the concert the next day. Perhaps people have to decide what to love.

Prior to checking out the concert, we had a picnic in a park, a long and relaxing affair in which we ate, drank, talked and I got slightly sunburnt. Now that summer is beginning to show its face I hope it stays for longer.

Picnicing in summer

Picnicing in summer

Life has otherwise been settling down to the usual routine, or classes and chores, looking for work and another apartment and reconnecting with friends. The holiday in Australia is passing away and life is returning to normal, back in step with the city around us.