By John Iremil Teodoro, Contributor
I have never been to Italy, but lately I would visit it in my dreams after reading Alice M. Sun-Cua’s new book, Golden Kumquats in Trieste and Other Travel Tales (Ateneo de Naga University Press, 2018). This book is a collection of delicious essays about the author’s various sojourns in familiar and not-so-familiar places in Italy.
Alice is a dear friend so take this “review” not with a grain of salt, but with a piece of candied golden kumquats.
Italy is woven into many Filipino culturati’s—whether old money, nouveau riche, or plain social climber—landscape of imagination, or pretentions, what with all the movies set in this country that is home to world-famous structures and fashion brands. Films with Italian settings include The Godfather series, Cinema Paradiso, Il Postino, and even Eat Pray Love and Milan starring Piolo Pascual. Alice’s essay about Teatro Massini in Palermo opens with the assassination scene of The Godfather III. For lovers of good music, Italy is associated with Luciano Pavarotti and Andrea Bocelli, and the grand operas.
For literati, like me and Alice, Italy is special because of literary pieces like Thomas Mann’s short novel Death in Venice and in Cirilo F. Bautista’s poem, “Among the Fountains of Ville D’este.”
Alice, in fact, has an essay about her experience wandering the Tivoli Gardens, outside of Rome, lost in the beauty of the surroundings and the magical music of water gushing from hundreds of fountains. When she was there, she even called the poet in his house in Santa Mesa Heights in Quezon City to let him hear the sounds of water of Tivoli again.
“Sir Cirilo laughed out loud and sounded incredulous when I told him where we were and that I called him because I was standing in front of the incredible fountain, in a place where he once was,” Alice writes. Then she, “held the cellphone near the fountains, although later I realized I didn’t need to, as the splashing was quite loud and audible, even from a distance. Poet(s) and fountains were reunited, even only for a moment.”
Another poem of Bautista about Italy that I like is “Pag-ibig sa Amalfi, Italya” from his book Sugat ng Salita (De La Salle University Publications, 1986). Here, the persona who is, of course, the poet, is overwhelmed by the beauty of Amalfi: “Umiikot ang utak ko/sa ganda ng Amalfi,/ang aking mata’y kinukulayan/ng kanyang karilagan./Hindi ko naiisip ang hirap at sakit ng puso./Puno ako ng kaisipang tila di akin, ngunit/nagbabaga.”
Alice, in her essay “The Cliffside Houses of Amalfi,” validates the awe that Bautista experienced: “We were on the blue SITA bus from Positano to Amalfi and so intent on watching the changing moods of the Tyrrhenian Sea to our right. After about 45 minutes, when we turned our heads to look at the other side, we caught our breaths. Whitewashed stone houses, hundreds of them, it seemed, looked defiant, clinging to the cliff sides of Monte Cerreto. We were in Amalfi!”
Alice, who is an obstetrician-gynecologist by profession, would always travel around the world with her husband Alex who is a pharmaceutical company executive. They would go backpacking, and both have talent for finding cheap or reasonable but beautiful accommodations wherever they are. Most of the time they make their own healthy sandwiches that they would eat under a tree, contemplating the beauty of a place they are visiting. I once told Alice that her essays are actually their love story disguised as travel narratives.
My favorite essay in the book is “A Quiet Venice,” the city built on 100 small islands by the Adriatic Sea, with its canals and vaporettos and Instagram photos by that famous bridge by the Grand Canal with the background of Saint Mark’s Basilica. I love the detail about the apartment where they stayed away from the touristy crowd that is the bane of Venice.
“We turned to a small narrow street, turned right, then left, seeing beautiful small houses filled with flowers, until we arrived at Casa Capitello, #1842. Alessandro proudly showed us around the fully furnished one-bedroom apartment, from the well-appointed kitchen, to the washing machines, bath, and the large bedroom with comfortable cushioned sofas for lounging. Our host added that this area of Venice, called the Castello, was where most Venetians made their homes as it was far from the tourist area.”
There was a painter, whom I was in love with a long time ago in Iloilo, who promised me that someday we would go backpacking around Italy. We were eating pizza with generous mozzarella cheese in a restaurant in an old house by the Iloilo River. We were looking at the antique floor tiles and we were convinced they were imported from Italy.
The two of us—a penniless painter and a poorly paid literature teacher—dreamt of seeing the famous artworks of Italy, the Bernini Fountain, the statue of David, and of course, the treasures of Vatican.
I am not that poor anymore. Perhaps, one day, I will remind him of that promise. And in case it will happen, I will surely bring along Alice M. Sun-Cua’s Golden Kumquats in Trieste. This beautiful book will be my guide for writing my own love story in and about Italy in its eternal beauty.