Beatrice Buonaguidi – The Two Goliards

Sior (Mister) Alvise Zanatta was never seen at home and many of those who knew him,  and would see him around the “calle[1] both day and night, asked themselves if indeed he had a home or whether he lived in all the corners of Venice.  Every evening, when he entered a “bacareto[2],  there were not many who did not know his name or who were outraged by the triumphal manner with which he lit his pipe, indignantly, right in front of the “NO SMOKING” sign and who, in general, were not even old enough to order a gin and tonic.  The innkeepers would let him have his way and were even glad to see him hold forth at any hour with all those who stayed there to listen to him. With his flat wool cap pulled over his head, which he wore in all seasons, he stood out like a black chick among the bare heads in the room.
People said that during the course of the week  he would systematically visit several bars of the city, starting from eight o’clock in the evening up until an unspecified hour and averaging at least five bars a day.  The innkeepers seldom heard him order anything other than a white “Spritz[3]. When he grabbed it with his calloused hands, which were covered in chilblains and far too big for such a tiny man, you could invariably hear him say that the spritz was the only aperitif invented in Venice and that all the rest were evil, foreign concoctions. Then, when he raised the glass to his lips he would plung his nicotine and age stained moustache into it with verve.  All his gestures were like that:  when he talked his bright blue, child-like eyes peeped above the tortuous ravines of his wrinkles;  they disappeared and opened wide at a fast pace following the rheumy blinking of his eyelashes.  Not even the waiter who served him at the best table could guess when and how, but Alvise, all of a sudden would stand up, say good bye to everybody, pay with who knows what money and leave for another establishment, leaving the pub a little more empty. There were many old habitués with a spritz in their hands and a quick tongue, but he was the most famous perhaps because he knew everyone’s business but without ever revealing anything of himself.  In fact, neither his waistcoat, which was old but well made, nor any other detail would lead people to guess what was on everyone’s mind:  was he a rich man or a beggar.
One Tuesday, the closing day for all bars,  Alvise was strolling around as he used to do whenever he was free from his bar visits.  Even in the streets, he would stop to greet his acquaintances and so you could see him tip his hat every few steps; he never took it off and rumour had it that the reason was an almost bald head.  As usual, that piece of gossip was not confirmed. He went towards Campo Santa Margarita, the place where university students gathered. He went there only when all the other bars were closed:  he did not like noise, nor the gangs of young drunkards who mooched around the square. He liked to enjoy the peaceful air, the empty benches, the fourteenth-century building fronts that looked silently at what was left of the morning’s market with its shutters rolled down. For one evening a week, he was alone.
That night he noticed a big black mass on a bench. He moved closer in order to see what it was, trying to muffle the noise made by his soles, with light steps.  With no sounds from his steps, he was terrified by a silence that he had not heard for a long time.
He stopped at a few metres from the bench: he could make out a black material which reflected the light from the streetlamps. Had it been a foggy night, like the evening before, he would have run away.  Under what appeared to be a heavy coat, something moved. Alvise felt a little hollow in his stomach, but he walked up to the bench. Wrapped in what looked like old fashioned designer clothes, a young man was lying there on the anarchic and trivial graffiti etched there by the university students. He shook his shoulder lightly: he looked drunk or sick. Under the heavy coat he saw a silk shirt with a large collar;  it seemed new, but there was a stain on the lapel.
“Sir, sir…wake up!”
The man grunted and tossed about as if he was trying in vain to sit up.
“Come on, what happened to you?  There now, I think you have had too much to drink.  But It’s Tuesday, so where have you been?”   It was more a comment Alvise made to himself than to the stranger. He lifted the man by his shoulder which was leaning on the bench and sat him up.  The man was motionless and as light like a doll.
He saw his face for the first time as, up to that moment, it was bent down towards his chest. It looked like a mask: his skin was as pale as baked clay and his gentle womanlike features were marred only by a large and slightly hooked nose. His soft jaw showed no sign of a beard and his fleshy lips were closed tight, waxen like the rest of his face.  The old man gently slapped his cheeks and he realized that they were lightly sweaty, in spite of the cold weather:  his long and dark curls fell loosely over his shoulders. Perhaps he was a homosexual, maybe even a prostitute. Alvise felt a little disgusted by this thought but he did not feel like leaving him there.  After slapping him a little harder, the young man began to open his eyes. They were big and dark, with black eyelashes; an expression of feminine mischievousness transpired under a lost and surprised glance. As soon as he became conscious his face was overcome with fatigue.
“So, what is your name? What are you doing here, fio[4]? Alvise asked him with a voice rougher than he would have liked.
“I, je ne suis pas bourré,  look I’m… I’m…., I’m not drunk”. He spoke in a broken way with a very strong French accent.
“Oh, yes ok, what is your name?
“Oliv…Olivier d’Icarie. And you, who are you?”
It looked as if he was almost recovered.  Perhaps he was trying to pick him up.
“It’s none of your business. What are you doing here?” Alvise was a bit sorry for being so rude.
“I fell asleep. It’s the tourists’ fault…they offered me a drink because they wanted to steal my violin”. He started to look around like a madman; he was looking for something in the bare flower-beds of the square. “My violin! And now what am I going to do? Putain!”
“But, fio, did these tourists take advantage of you?”  The French man began to make him feel more sorry than disgusted. “Mais non, no, I’m not a pédé, a queen. I’m a street artist, I came to Venice because I liked it.  First I left my place in France and then I played in Rome, in Florence. Here I used to play in front of San Giorgio and San Pantalon, but there are already a lot of people there and it’s too damp  to sleep there;  they close those low streets, how do you call them…?”
Sotoporteghi. But, then, if you don’t…well if you don’t sell yourself then why do you dress that way? You look like one of those disgusting creatures who went around in the eighteenth century”.
He hesitated for a moment. “No, excuse me, I should not say that. I’m sorry, though it’s true. I never saw violinists dressed like you here.  In Venice you don’t earn money without decorum”.
“But I hired these clothes because I thought that they were very Venetian in style, like at Carnival.  I wanted to spend Carnival here, but without my violin I don’t know if I can stay”.
Alvise was taken over by an  instinct to butt it.  It was that same silence that had frightened him so much when he walked up to Olivier that suggested what he was to do.
“Listen, come, come and onwards.  There is another job that somebody who wants to be a drifter can do”.
“What would that be?”
“The bacaretaio: I invented it”.
Alvise saw the suspicious look in his eyes but just like the customers who revealed years’ worth of intimate details only after a few words, he did not consider him a stranger. Most probably he was the one who looked like a madman now.  But that was the game.
“All you have to do is entertain:  you are going to be like a street artist, but in a warm place, with a spritz in front of you.  Even if you,  young man, appear to be more a glass of red wine type.  Spritz is for old men like me. There are many lonely and bored people or groups of people who don’t know what to talk about. I make them tell me their stories and  let them talk.  They gossip and they are happy”.
The boy’s mouth curved in an amused grin. He clapped his long and elegant musicians’ hands that, up to that point, had been hidden under his coat because of the cold weather.
“If you’re  not a queen, you look like one and that will give them a nice puzzle to talk about”.
On Wednesday evening the two goliards were sitting at the table of five different bars in the city, starting from eight o’clock in the evening up until an unspecified hour.  People asked themselves the usual things:  did Mister Alvise have a bald head under his cap and did Mister Olivier like men.

[1] narrow Venetian streets
[2] typical Venetian bar
[3] spritz: typical Italian alcoholic long drink, made with prosecco, bitter and sparkling water or soda, popular in Triveneto
[4] venetian way to call a young boy

Translation by Paola Roveda (edited by Ester Tossi)