Tuesday, September 17, 2013

A grave pilgrimage - part 1

Earlier this year, I found out I’d been accepted into the La Mama Umbria playwriting retreat. I was quite excited about the prospect of 10 days to write and experience the Italian countryside.
(I could rave for days, but I’ll simply say that it was pure bliss and far beyond my wildest expectations. The people, the creative nourishment, the obscenely large home-grown tomatoes atop delicious food and the beautiful surrounds, in part mythic, rugged, and tranquil; all had me in a kind of mad bliss. Inspiration grows in the hills of Umbria. After almost two years working on the Pyjama Girl, and more than two years working on my play before that, Widowbird, I’d spent so much time on revisions, I wasn’t sure I could remember how to tackle a first draft. While I was with La Mama I wrote the first draft of a new play, and somewhere between Dubai airport and the train back to Albury on the way home, I finished the first draft of another project I’d been struggling with.)

At a creative development at HotHouse Theatre, I was talking to the Pyjama Girl cast about my plans for Italy and one of the actors asked if I planned to visit Tony Agostini’s grave. The thought hadn’t even occurred to me. Within a few days—after figuring out the difference between the islands of Sardinia and Sicily—I had booked my flights to visit Cagliari, the town where Tony Agostini lived the final years of his life.

Sardinia is a strange place. D.H. Lawrence thought so too:
“Cagliari: a naked town rising steep, steep, golden looking, piled naked to the sky from the plain at the head of a formless hollow bay. It is strange and rather wonderful, not a bit like Italy. The city piles up lofty and almost miniature, and makes me think of Jerusalem: without trees, without cover, rising rather bare and proud, remote as if back in history, like a town in a monkish, illuminated missal. One wonders how it ever got there. And it seems like Spain or Malta: not Italy. It is a steep and lonely city, as in some old illumination. Yet withal rather jewel-like: like a sudden rose-cut amber jewel naked at the depth of the vast indenture. The air is cold, blowing bleak and bitter, the sky is all curd. And that is Cagliari. It has that curious look, as if it could be seen but not entered. It is like some vision, some memory, something that has passed away." (D.H. Lawrence, Sea and Sardinia - 1921)

Closer to Tunis than it is to Rome, Cagliari, the port-side capital, is a melting pot of culture. North African street traders try to entice you to buy cheap sunglasses or knock off bags beneath ancient white buildings. The city is built into cliffs so steep there are elevators for pedestrians in some parts. Narrow cobbled streets sometimes have vast gaps where part of a building has crumbled away, allowing a view of the sky between tall stone apartments where people go about their lives. There’s graffiti, but not as much as Rome. Hardly anyone speaks English. The bus service is efficient and has live information on the next bus at almost every bus stop—far more sophisticated than public transport in Canberra. There’s a lively shopping strip where I stumbled upon a street band playing steel drums, banjo, cello and trumpet. Nearby, there’s an excellent gelataria I visited multiple times for lampone e limone—raspberry and lemon—gelato. At night, the moon hangs bright and enormous. From the top part of town, the ancient Castello area, it seems like the moon is lower than you are. The whole experience made me think vaguely of the Star Wars cantina where Han Solo blows off that guy’s arm. Bizarre and vibrant and otherworldly.
A street in Cagliari.

My journey to visit Agostini’s grave was both simpler and more challenging than expected. My host at the Bed and Breakfast had helpfully printed me a Google map with stop locations, line numbers and schedules. Using my best Italian, I bought a daily bus ticket from the nearest Tabacchi (news stand/cigarette/bus ticket vendor on almost every corner) and jumped on the bus. There my Italian failed when I asked the bus driver if he could tell me when we reached Cimitero San Michele. It turns out I was mispronouncing the word for cemetery and he wanted to let me off at the San Michele markets a stop before. But, with the Google maps telling me I had another stop or two, plus a group of old Sardinian ladies carrying flowers and wearing black who figured out what I was trying to say, the whole bus agreed that I needed the next stop, taught me how to pronounce it properly (CHimitero), and we smiled and laughed, and then the old ladies walked me across the road to the Cimitero lest I get lost.
Cimitero San Michele, Cagliari, view from main entrance.

At the Cimitero, another challenge. I’d checked before I left Australia the opening times for the cemetery and the information office, but once inside the vast cemetery I couldn’t find the information office. Finally, I found the groundskeeper’s office, and inside, among 1970s décor, two men smoking and listening to the radio. Neither spoke English. One went off to see if they had a map for me, while I tried to explain to the other that I was looking for a grave. ‘Dove la tomba per Antonio Agostini-‘ I began while he waved his hands and shrugged and said something about a computer. I wrote down Agostini’s date of death on a piece of paper, because I never really managed to learn how to count past 10 in Italian. He pointed to a piece of paper. The computer with grave locations was in the information office. They didn’t have a computer here (of course they didn’t have a computer. It was still the 1970s in their office). And the information office was only open lunedi, martedi, mercoledi, giovedi and venerdi.
And today was Saturday.

(Now that I think about it—that was probably the perfect opportunity to use a new Italian swear word I’d learnt a few days before, but I didn’t).

I said okay and explained (with the aid of universal pantomime) that I would just go looking. He shook my hand and wished me luck.

So, slightly panicked, I set off to look for a needle in a haystack, anxiously checking my watch, and kicking myself for poor scheduling. For some reason, even though it was the most important activity—indeed, the very thing that had brought me to Sardinia, I had left it to my last day. I’d already toured pristine aquamarine beaches along Sardinia’s rugged south coast, visited Phoenician ruins near the town of Pula, seen wild flamingos in a lagoon near a windmill farm, and eaten sardines in Sardinia at a fancy seafood restaurant. Now, I had six hours before I needed to go collect my bags and get to the airport and I had no idea where to start in the huge cemetery. If only I’d come yesterday!

I told myself to calm down. ‘It doesn’t really matter if I don’t find the grave. It’s about the journey. I’m still here.’ I tried to be Zen about it. At the playwriting retreat, which I had just left the day before, Erik Ehn, playwright, facilitator, sage, had told us that we were always in the middle of the process of writing a play. We learnt to embrace ‘being in the middle’ (again, I could write a thesis on this, but I utterly agree. As a playwright, my creativity shrivels when I spent too much time thinking about the end point, rather than being busily engaged in the creating).

I started walking. In the centre of the cemetery are large walls of tombs—an outdoor mausoleum, in some sections two stories high. Early on, in an L-shaped wall, I noticed the tomb of a woman called Guiseppina, which was the name of Agostini’s second wife, a widow he had married upon settling in Cagliari. I wasn’t sure if she had the right surname, but her date of death was just three weeks from his. (I later found out that it was the wrong Guiseppina after all.)

Certain he would be interred nearby, I started exploring all the nearby walls. I found many tombs from 1969, but there also didn’t seem to be a logical order of dates.

‘Surely he won’t be far away,’ I thought. But he wasn’t in that large L-shaped wall, nor the next, nor the next after that. My neck began to hurt from craning to read inscriptions. I was sweating (it was about 35 degrees that day at 11 am) and I was starting to get sunburnt. I was starting to worry that he wasn’t in one of the mausoleum walls at all but in the vast burial grounds, where I’d seen handmade crosses and graves that weren’t marked at all. But then, 45 minutes later, having resigned myself to the possibility of not finding him, and after covering about a third of the walls, I found myself looking at the name Antonio Agostini. My B and B host, who I’d told about my quest, said that Agostini was not a Sardinian name, so he would be easy to find in a cemetery. She was right; I didn’t see anyone else called Agostini. Now, I did a double take to confirm I wasn’t imagining it. It was him. Strangely, I felt like I was about to start crying.

Tony Agostini’s tombstone is simple, unadorned, and almost illegible. The engraved letters in the rock haven’t been filled with gold or lead like most of the other inscriptions, so in direct sunlight, the stone appears blank. I pulled a ladder across and climbed to get a better look, although I stopped a few rungs from the top, because I’m scared of heights and I was more than 10 feet high, because it was windy, and because the ladder was on wheels and I was on a gentle slope.
Mausoleum wall. Agostini's tomb is third from the top, near the centre of the photo.
I left a small piece of metal that my Mum had given me before I left Albury—an offcut from a plaque, I think—engraved with one word: Australia.
Then I caught the bus back to the B and B to collect my camera.

‘Did you find him?’ my host asked, ‘Did you find your man?’
She was delighted I had. I felt shell-shocked. I think because I had spent so long talking about, writing about and reading about this man that he had passed into mythology for me.

After some time sightseeing and eating gelato, I went back to the cemetery again and found my way to Agostini’s tomb easily this time.
I wondered if I was doing the right thing by leaving the small Australia badge. Would he want to be reminded of his time here? Would he want to be remembered?

Antonio Agostini's tomb.

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