Culture

The Last of the Perugians

Davide Berretta
Photo: John Cochran

In the wee hours of the morning, in a plaza set in humble Perugia, a lovely little slice of Italy, a drunken 20-something party boy kicks at the empty beer bottles at his feet and curses into his mobile in crude, raw dialect. Modern man, as embodied in this raging fashion case, hardly compares to the historial and architectural grandeur that surrounds him.

Bong. Bong. Bong. Bong. Bong, tolls the bell in the bell-tower, chipping away the quarters, the halves, and the full hours remaining before environmental services will start cleaning up after this mess. It's 3:30am and I'm drunk. I'm sitting on the steps outside of the Cathedral, Perugia's social epicenter on early Saturday nights, amid the empty beer bottles and cigarette butts. I'm not feeling swell about myself either, since an hour ago I came back from a trip to some watering hole just to find out that my friends had left the club without waiting for me. My cell phone, with its dead battery, has disappointed me again. Finally, I was turned down an ego shattering three times by members of the opposite sex at the club and only now I realize the big yellow pineapples on my Hawaiian shirt might have something to do with those rejections.

At least, though, I'm not alone. About 50 feet from me stands a young man with kilos of gel in his hair, wearing a T-shirt that says SEXY BOY. Shitfaced and aggressive, he's yelling something lewd into his mobile. It's a sorry sight that makes me think a bit. But before letting myself be dragged into reflections on modern man, particularly Perugian men, and the rest of the world, let me give you some background.

I'm away from Perugia most of the year. Two years ago, I left this city of my childhood to attend college in the US. No regrets. After 19 years of cohabitation, Perugia and I had grown sick and bored of each other, like you get sick and bored of a friend, once you can predict what joke he is going to tell the next person that comes along. Perugia and Perugians is an open book to me, as I am to them: shops are closed on Mondays, and people hardly ever say "thank you". As for me, ask anybody and they'll know which bar you'll find me in on Saturday nights. Plus, this provincial city didn't seem to offer me much in the way of drugs, fornication, and publication opportunities. So I thought it best to pack my stuff and sail off to a snotty New England liberal arts college, where I might have a better chance at such things.

Once at college though, instead of engaging in the above activities, much to my surprise I found myself feeling trapped in a state of malaise: I spent most of my spare time playing Tetris in my room and the little fun I had on weekends seemed fake and unsatisfying come Monday. Only later I realized what ailed me: I was homesick. It's not like the longing for my hometown brought tears to my eyes or anything like that. But during the wintry Pennsylvania nights — bored out of my wits and with the Internet connection down — I would allow myself to indulge in brief imaginary tours of the city where I had grown up. In my mind I would leave my tiny apartment in Pennsylvania and find myself walking Perugia's narrow, stone-paved alleys. I enjoyed my recollection of the gentle curves of the centuries-old arches and vaults, delighting my retinas at the sight of so much authentic medieval stone.

At night, before sleep descended upon me, I would try to recall the best names of the Vie, Perugia's very streets and avenues. Narrow Via would indeed offer only a clove of sky above it, and Closed Via would, sure enough, end at an ancient stone wall. I would sneer at Philadelphia's grid system where 1st Street comes right before 2nd Street, when remembering how Via Bear, Via Wolf, Via Joy, and Via Silence would intertwine into some meandering, unpredictable shape.

So every summer I finally fly back to Perugia, and I remember why the city my mind draws during those virtual tours is devoid of people. As I come back by car from the airport I am never ready for the abyss of moronism about to open up before me. I make my way up the hill the city is built upon and enter the old part of town, hugged tightly by the Etruscan and Roman walls. Driving along the gardens, I rush through the unexceptional via Battisti to finally arrive to the main square where the orgy of capitals, vaults, and stairways awaits me . . . and there they are. Packs of 30-somethings, their hair ranging from greasy to completely absent, wearing Prada pre-wrinkled shirts. They're on the hunt for young girls to prey upon. Said girls move about in skittish clusters. They wear bold, black and white stripes — the dreaded zebra pattern that is popular here — running wild around their skirts. At the other end of the square there are the ever-terrible hordes of red-capped kids on a school trip, swarming about every surface they can climb upon or crawl through. They kick footballs and chase the baffled pigeons, which foolishly fly back, only to be chased again, and again.

At that moment I would not mind if Attila and the Huns stopped by Perugia for a quick sack.

But this very same square is empty and quiet at 3:30 in the morning, and by now even SEXY BOY has calmed down a bit. The bits and pieces of his slurred monologue I have been able to decipher help me understand why he's so angry. Apparently Pecora (literally "Sheep" in Italian — don't ask — explanations could range from accusations of bestiality to the main industry of his native city) and the rest of his friends are now at the real club, the one in the outskirts of town where the music is loud and the party won't end until 7am. Without him. Our shared chagrin of being left behind, along with a reevaluation of his shirt in light of my pineapples and the tame, begging tone his rage has shrank into, shapes my newfound feeling that he's probably a good soul. "Yeah man, but shit. You could have waited for me man, come on. I'm alone in the fuckin' square man, you knew I wanted to come. Yeah man. I understand, but I wanted to come, man. Come on."

You see, this is your average young Perugian: not too literate, gelled like no tomorrow, wasting his parent's middle class income on expensive mobiles and clubbing; but all in all, he's got a good heart. As far as indigenous people go, after months in which Perugia shone in the back of my mind like a distant Valhalla, SEXYBOY is a bit of a letdown. Movies, high fashion magazines, cool MTV clips and artsy cologne ads would indicate otherwise, but looking at SEXYBOY, I realize how all over the world the imbecile youth fail to live up to the beautiful cities they populate.

So is it modern man who is out of tune with the world? I appraise the status of mankind, championed, in this case by, SEXY BOY, against the wondrous square where he stands. In the square, three gorgeous caryatids hold up the balcony of the magnificent Tribunal. I compare his taste in attire to the exquisite dinner I had but hours before; pesto garnishing fine pasta, a delicious products of skill refined over the centuries. Compared to such stone and pasta sauce, we youthful mortals don't look so good. Not to say food and architecture are perfect in this city, but looking at Perugia from the Duomo steps, the what stands before me is beautiful, but the people who populate it, less so.

But as I sway and SEXY BOY swears, who's to say such decadence as ours is not timeless? The late Roman Empire, Victorian England, hell, even the good old Louis XIV's times sound like places where debauchery mingled gracefully with culture and thought. And what if SEXY BOY, hair gel, crude vernacular and all, perfectly embodies 21st century Italy? Would his medieval counterpart be any more charming? Maybe SEXY BOY is not as skilled in the art of fencing, but he's free to work in the profession of his choosing, and he knows for sure the earth is not flat. Also, he doesn't smell like fish, or dung, and his preferred form of entertainment does not involve the hanging of poor farmers who steal out of necessity. Take that, Machiavelli.

What I realize is that Perugia reminds me of everything I am missing when I am in Pennsylvania, or Laos, or the French Riviera. In Perugia, there is a modest grandiosity permeating every building and every little street. It's precious and poor at the same time, built in a way today's Godless architects wouldn't understand. Its architecture celebrates the city, the rich families, and the Pope, but Perugia knows that all this is of the earth; heaven is upstairs.

There is also something purely human in Perugia's capacity to humble your spirits. The local dialect, prescribing all "O"s to be closed, as in brodo (sounds like "braw-duh") and most words to be half as long as they should be (lo vedi is shortened to 'l ve), makes any conversation with the locals endearing but also coarse. And if you walk the street, making your way to the latest exhibit of some fine XV century painter, and you pass the old man sitting in front of his garage, raking down his throat for that last glob of spit, you will smile and know that you're not living a contradiction; that's just the way things go in Perugia.

Bong. Bong. Bong. Bong. There goes the bell again, telling the last two Perugians in this square that it's 4:00am, and it's now time to leave, for real. SEXY BOY gets the cue, gives me a last, scornful glance and shuffles toward home. Good night, sexy.

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