Many of you have asked me how I came to move to Italy and what triggered it?
Well, seven years ago, in the dreary Irish summer of 2014, after six years of relentless slogging to develop and sell my marine and landscape photos of Ireland, I still was not earning enough to make a living from my beloved photography. And so, in addition to my regular transit forecasts, I booked an extra consultation with my astrologer, we got the map of Europe out to see where I could travel to, with the aim of having an overseas exhibition and increasing my profile on the continent.
I still remember the frisson of excitement that trickled down my spine during that consultation.
Milan – yup!
Udine – yup!
Genoa – for sure.
Monaco, Cannes, Nice – absofrigginlutely.
A few months earlier I had done my first ever vision board workshop which ended up being 80% replete with images of Italy. And so during the consultation, my ever practical astrologer Andrew Smith made several suggestions as to how to go about making arrangements, such as getting in contact with galleries beforehand via email. And I had good friends in Udine, so I knew I could always start there. And I had done business in Milan so I knew that city very well. Ditto for Cannes, Nice and Monaco. And I spoke both Italian and French.
Ahem. No excuses so.
Looking back on that life changing consultation with a big smile seven years later, how hard could it be? The recession was finally over, the banks were lending again, so I formed the nucleus of an idea that maybe I could borrow whatever money I may need to have a larger exhibition. The bank needed a business plan. Cue hiring someone to do it for me.
I quietly decided to tell no-one what I was doing. Which I have noticed I often do when making major decisions. I decided to target Milan and contacted both Tourism Ireland and the Irish Consulate there to arrange in-person appointments three weeks later to see what assistance they could offer me. Most importantly – where were the likely galleries that might be interested in arranging an exhibition of high quality Irish landscape photos? And did they have other contacts anywhere else?
And then, just as I was about to book my cheap-as-chips Ryanair flight to Milan, I found myself looking again and again at my vision board. Ah, there. There it was. The image of the Puccini Opera Festival, an open-air yearly event dedicated to Puccini. Held at Torre del Lego. I had no idea where that was. I discovered it was not a million miles from Milan.
But surely the ticket prices would be sky high for such a prestigious festival? Well, maybe not. Italy was the home of opera after all and I had been to a free open-air opera staging of Verdi’s ‘Aida’ in Siena several years before. I looked at their website. There were the tickets. Starting at a mere €20.
That was one of many life changing evenings that year. I booked two opera tickets, then my flight to Milan for a five-day round trip in late August, cheap hostel accommodation in Lucca for two nights, plus two nights either end in Milan to coincide with my business meetings.
Four weeks later I landed in Milan. I still remember the wave of heat that greeted me as I descended the plane, the babble of being surrounded by excitable Italians chattering non-stop about anything and everything. Above all, the vibrancy, the sheer aliveness, the ‘in the moment’ feeling, The casual yet so sharp elegance of such a beautiful nation.
The next day I held my two meetings and was given several useful gallery contacts. I remember as if it was yesterday the grace and interest with which both Irish government offices and their staff greeted me. So helpful, as I now had concrete contracts I could follow up on.
Early the next day I got the train to Lucca, arriving late afternoon. I knew nothing about the city, other than that it was Puccini’s birthplace and the closest city to Torre de Lego. As the Italian rail system is so superb, I had assumed there would be a late night train bringing people back to Lucca after the opera.
So, what to do? I got a taxi, checked into the hostel which turned out to be a beautiful old monastery, with friendly charming staff and an exquisite garden overlooking the walls of Lucca. I then wandered around the city getting hopelessly lost, despite my map.
I meandered into a bookshop and was thrilled to discover Elizabeth George’s latest thriller in English which I promptly bought. I had been mulling over what to do about that night’s opera ‘Madame Butterfly’. Would I get a taxi there and back? Would I get the train there, then a taxi back? Would I even be able to get a taxi back? Were they all already booked?
I decided to give all that overthinking Mercury energy in my chart a well needed rest and I reluctantly gave that night’s opera a miss, as I by then only had two hours or so to arrange everything. I went instead for dinner in the l’Anfiteatro.
En route to the l’Anfiteatro, I stumbled on a small gallery and, taking a chance, I walked in and asked if they were looking for artists to exhibit. They told me yes and that they were exhibiting at two major exhibitions later that year and would be happy to include me. Then came the cost – almost €4,000. Yikes! I took a deep breath, assured them I would exhibit and said I would return the following day
Dinner was average, as was to be expected in what I later discovered was the prime tourist spot in Lucca. So, after dinner I took myself to a nearby café, ordered another generous glass of wine and re-engrossed myself in my book.
So beautiful he thought I was an actress
A few minutes later, I heard the words “Posso” (meaning “May I?”) and looked up to find a tall Italian man looming over my table. He clearly wanted to sit down which annoyed me slightly as there were other tables free near me. I replied a sharp “Si” and returned to my book. Then after a few minutes something inside me made me decide to acknowledge him more and I started a brief conversation with him, trying to make it clear that I was being merely polite.
He reacted to the fact that I spoke Italian which clearly impressed him. Then he commented on my Canon 7D camera, my pride and joy, which was in a prime location on the table, telling me he was a photographer too. My interest in him ignited. And so, the conversation meandered back and forth between his halting English and my even more halting Italian, between Ireland and Italy, photography and our day jobs.
Something deep inside me said, as the conversation continued – go with it! When for God’s sake had I last had fun, lived so in the moment? Then, he looked deep into my eyes and told me he had been looking at me from afar, and that I was so beautiful he had thought I was an actress. Bowled over, I laughed, about to dismiss this outright flirting.
Then again, something deep inside me said – “but Martha you ARE indeed an actress. What about those shows you did – Jesus Christ Superstar and Chess and how you loved acting, singing and dancing in them?”. So, I smiled brightly at him and replied, “In fatto, e vero, sono anche attrice” (yes, in fact I AM an actress as well as a photographer).
And so, he offered to take me for a walk around the walls of Lucca, saying how famous they were, how they had protected the city from two World Wars and several other invasions throughout the centuries. He told me about Torri Guinigi, a tower in the centre of Lucca, which had trees growing out of the top. We walked for what seemed like hours, stopping to view the city from various parts of the walls.
We stopped, we kissed, we walked, we kissed again, we walked, we stopped, we kissed. I felt a frisson of nerves I had never felt before. This somehow was different. This was deeper than what might be a casual fling. So much deeper.
We could not go to his place, nor mine. Nor was I sure I wanted to just yet. Most unusual for a woman who has her natal Mars in Aries. When I am attracted to a man, I usually go for it!
Not this time however.
He walked me back to my hostel abode, tentatively having arranged to meet the following day, as I was damned if I was going to cancel a second opera to see him!
Image – Lucca e le Montagne © Martha Clarke
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