II: Big Sea
In July, with business very bad, the management of the Grand Duc decided to close up entirely until September; re-decorate, get a new band, and figure out how they were going to build up their former de luxe trade again. The night before the Grand Duc closed, Romeo asked me what I was going to do until the place re-opened in the fall.
I said: “Just stay in Paris, I guess.”
He said: “Why don’t you come to Italy with me and Luigi? We’re going home on a vacation. You can stay at my house.”
I said: “How much is the fare?”
Third-class, it turned out to be very little. I had saved several hundred francs, so I decided to go with them. I wanted very much to see Italy, especially Venice, where I had read that all the streets were streets of water. Luigi lived in Turin, so we stayed there a day or so with his parents. Then we went on to Dezenzano, where Romeo lived.
Dezenzano is a very old village on the shore of the Lago di Gardo, not far from where d’Annunzio died. It is a postcard village, with a lake so blue that in any other land it would only be a picture lake—not real. The village itself begins with the fishing port and runs up a slight rise to end in flowery fields, crossed by an ancient aqueduct bringing water from the mountains. The fishing boats had red sails, and orange-colored sails, and brown sails billowing softly in the wind, as the landward breeze brought the boats to dock with their catch of silver fish.
The girls were black-haired and pretty. Romeo had a nice girl in the village near the port, by whom he had had a child. But Romeo’s patrician mother lived in a big, old, stone house on a cobblestone square at the top of the town, across from a church and near the town’s sole moving picture theater, which had pictures only on Sundays after the angelus.
The night we arrived was Sunday and the whole village had gone to the movies. There was no one home at Romeo’s house and he had no key, so we left our baggage piled in the doorway and went to the movies, too. It was one of those theaters where the screen is at the front of the house beside the front door, so you come in facing the audience. Just as we came in, the house lights went on between reels, as they were changing the film. The place was crowded, but as we entered and the people saw us, the whole crowd arose and began to make for the doorway. Soon they became a shouting, pushing mass. I didn’t know what they were saying, for they were speaking Italian, of course, and I didn’t understand Italian. But Romeo and I were swept into the street and surrounded by curious but amiable men, women, and children. Finally, Romeo’s mother got to him through the crowd and threw her arms about his neck. I gathered that almost all of the people of the village were Romeo’s friends, but I didn’t know why so many of them clung to me and shook my hands, while a crowd of young boys and men pulled and pushed until they had me in the midst of them in a wine shop, with a dozen big glasses of wine in front of me.
Later that night Romeo explained to me that never in Dezenzano, so far as he knew, had there been a Negro before, so naturally everybody wanted to look at me at close hand, and touch me, and treat me to a glass of vino nero. Romeo said they were all his friends, but hardly would the whole theater have rushed into the street between reels had it not been for me, a Negro, being with him. They would have contented themselves with simply shouting greetings at him from their seats, except for his bosom friends, who would have hurried down the aisle to throw their arms around him and pat him affectionately on the back.
For a week I was the town curiosity, and the town guest. It seems that the darkest person they had ever seen in Dezenzano had been an East Indian, who had come through there many years before. But the curiosity was kindly, and their hospitality simple and well meant.
The men would take me with them to the village inns near the port and ply me with wine, or to the village dances on the sandy lake shore under the moonlight, or on picnics to the ancient olive groves, where Virgil used to walk. And the boys would often lend me their bicycles to ride in the bright sun, down the fine paved highroad that led to other villages around the shores of the lake.
Romeo’s mother prepared the best of pastas and minestrones and dishes of mixed wild birds for her son and me. So I had a marvelous time in that postcard village by the too-blue-to-be-real lake. And I forgot that soon I would have to go back to Paris and look for another job—or trust to luck that the Grand Duc would reopen before my remaining francs were gone.
Then, one day, I had a note from Dr. Alain Locke, saying he was coming to Italy for two weeks before sailing for the opening of his teaching year at Howard University. And since he had heard me speak of wishing to see Venice, he would be glad to guide me through the museums there and show me the Titians and the Tintorettos. So I decided to go to Venice and see the streets of water. On the way, I spent a night in Verona, where I saw the amphitheater and looked at the cards the tourists had dropped in Juliet’s tomb.
Venice, the Rialto, and the Doge’s Palace, and the Bridge of Sighs and the pigeons in St. Mark’s were all that I had dreamed they would be. The night I arrived, there was a band concert in the Piazza San Marco and fireworks and somebody in the band playing a marvellous trumpet, sweet as a human voice.
Dr. Locke knew Venice like a book. He knew who had painted all the pictures, and who had built all the old buildings, and where Wagner had died. He also knew the good restaurants for eating, and was gracious enough to invite me to dine with him.
But before the week was up, I got a little tired of palaces and churches and famous paintings and English tourists. And I began to wonder if there were no back alleys in Venice and no poor people and no slums and nothing that looked like the districts down by the markets on Woodland Avenue in Cleveland, where the American Italians lived. So I went off by myself a couple of times and wandered around in sections not stressed in the guide books. And I found that there were plenty of poor people in Venice and plenty of back alleys off canals too dirty to be picturesque.
Dr. Locke told me that the fine Negro poet, Claude McKay, was then living in Toulon on the Riviera. Since I liked his poems so much, I wanted to meet him and talk to him about poetry and about Russia, where he had lived shortly after the revolution. So I wrote Claude McKay a card and told him I would return to Paris by way of the Riviera, and would stop off to see him then.
On the way back across Italy, in a very crowded third-class carriage, I went to sleep in the train. I had pinned my money and my passport in my inside coat pocket—the way my grandmother used to tell me to do in order to protect my valuables when, as a child, she put me on the train in Lawrence to go visit my mother in Topeka or Kansas City. For that purpose then, I kept a safety pin always handy when travelling. So I slept deeply and soundly, sitting up in the train. When I awoke, the safety pin, my passport, and all my money were gone! Someone had picked my pocket.