I was rummaging in my massively disorganized bookcases and a battered sketchbook fell out, and opened, on the floor. It was the sketchbook I carried as a 21 year old art history student at the University of Siena. The page was dated February 22, the day of Carnevale, the Italian answer to Mardi Gras. On that long-ago night I was at the art student’s ball at the Palazzo Chigi-Saracini, the seat of Siena’s famous music school. I’d been trying to catch the eye of a reddish-blonde with almond shaped green eyes, to little avail. Most of the crowd was in the Palazzo’s grand ballroom, a rococo confection of crème and gilt plaster swirls and mirrored doors catching the flickering light of its enormous chandeliers. In the courtyard just outside was a clock on a tall platform, about to play its part in the evening’s ritual of turning its hands back from midnight to postpone the arrival of the first day of Lent.
One of my pals dragged me over to a squirming human pyramid and indicated it was my turn to climb up and delay the arrival of the new day a little longer. I managed to step on several fingers and collarbones on the way up, and, having accomplished the task, fell to the bottom of the pile as the would-be acrobats came tumbling down onto the very hard, very cold bricks that paved the court. As a frequently sacked high school football player, the sensation was entirely too familiar. When I opened my eyes the first thing I saw was an inverted face, almond shaped green eyes framed by reddish gold hair. “Cretino!” (imbecile) she exclaimed. “Mi Chiamo Michele,” I replied.
We danced every dance for the rest of the night until the student orchestra had finally had enough. It was five in the morning, no more re-setting the clock.
The apprentice conductor tapped his bow on his violin drawing all eyes in his direction. “Un altro di piu, e, poi, vai a letto” (One more and then let’s go to bed). The entendre of the double entendre wasn’t lost on any of the guests.
Thanks to being forced to take dancing lessons at the age of 12, I was the possessor of a completely archaic skill: I remembered how to waltz.
The conductor turned to his orchestra and struck up Johann Strauss’ “Roses from the South.” All of the European students began to twirl around the candle-lit parquet. My partner was a little surprised that I could do it too, and, for the first time, gave me a wide smile and a laugh.
No one wanted to leave, but eventually we all did. We were walking home as couples, drawing close for warmth under the icy cobalt sky of the Tuscan night. As we passed a bakery, the baker emerged and started handing out steaming rolls to the famished party-goers who made a circle around his door. We looked up past the arcs of the swinging street lamps and saw what seemed to be fluttering silver stars. It was starting to snow.
- Michael Guarino