Monday 21 September 2020

Chapter 7 - London, Saturday 8 September, 1990

Yes, John, you did seem particularly happy that day - as if everything you saw filled you with a kind of special energy and intensity.  It also meant that you ignored the rest of us pretty much all the time - except when you were doing your duty, telling us about what we were looking at.  But even then, you seemed to be talking more to yourself.  I'm not begrudging you this; it's simply a bit of a shame that you couldn't take the trouble to talk to your group more.  I think you would have been surprised at them - I know I was.

Alekko, for example.  His story about his youth, and his first love, and his flight suddenly made me see him in a different light.  I mean that until then I'd somewhat patronisingly seen him as this jolly old man.  It is hard for someone who is much younger to see the old as ever being our age or being passionately in love.  So Alekko made vivid for me - in part, of course - how he felt, what it was like then.  And he lost nothing of what I first saw; instead, he gained - his past filled out his present.  But perhaps I am projecting what happened later; perhaps it was only when he told me some of the other extraordinary events in his life that I realised this.  Perhaps I should have kept a travel journal, too, so that I could pinpoint the exact moments when things happened.  But there again, does it really matter exactly when or where they occurred?

Anyway, that day we - Alekko and I - first talked, our first day in Luxor, I decided not to press him further.  And I felt that I had been selfish again, concentrating just on him, and more or less leaving the others in our party to their own devices.  So over dinner I chatted to them.  I liked the dining hall at the Savoy.  Such lovely waiters, really proud of doing their jobs - despite the indifference of the all the tour groups in there.  Food was reasonable, I thought, quite light even though filling - which we needed after the day's exertions.

And which we would need the next day as well, as you have described.  Yes, it was a bit of struggle getting up so early and staggering down to breakfast.  But it was worth it - that fresh bite in the dawn air, the peacefulness of the Nile as it moved past effortlessly.  The bustle of the ferry - even if it was 'only' the tourist one - it was still fun to be out on the Nile.  And that sense of crossing from the land of the living to the land of the dead that you explained - the vastness and majesty of the water separating them seemed appropriate somehow.

But what can I say about Hatshepsut's monument?  I thought that I was impressed with the Great Pyramids, but this - I was bowled over.  It was so beautiful to look at, so stunningly sited against that great rearing up of stone.  And especially - you will doubtless say this is irrelevant John, but it is what I felt - especially because a woman had done it.  Although you did point out that it was exceptional for her to have done so, you didn't actually say what the implication of that was: that this was the first historical woman to rule a mighty nation (who knows what great women ruled tribes in the dim and distant past?).  The name of Queen Hatshepsut should be inscribed on every schoolgirl's heart.

Here was a woman who dared to rule not as a faithful consort helping her husband, not as some all-powerful mistress who dominated her weak pharaoh lover behind the scenes, but as a woman, confident in her abilities, and strong-willed enough to use them.  All this, a model of her kind - and not some a modern 'feminist' precursor of the last hundred or even two hundred years, but fully thirty centuries, a hundred generations, ago.  Is it any wonder that I was impressed?

As was Alekko - who put up with my excited gabblings along the lines of the above remarkably well.  He then uttered the fateful words:

"Yes, you have right, of course.  A great woman, a strong, magnificent woman.  Truly, she reminds me of the Contessa...."  And once again he smiled that small, distant smile of his, as those scenes from the past began to pass before his inner eye - but said no more.

"Alekko!" I said.  "You are a cruel man: you cannot leave me hanging like that.  What Contessa - if I may - ?"

"But certainly, of course.  - But I fear it is a rather long story - if I become boring, I beg you that you stop me."

But I knew now that Alekko was one of those people who can never be boring - either because so much has happened to them, or because they see much even in little, or possibly because they just know how to tell a story.

"So," he began as we walked back to the coach for our visit to the Valley of the Kings.  "I think that we spoke yesterday of my flight from Paxos, and of my poor, beloved Nafsika, no?"  I nodded.  "What can I say?  I was heart-broken.  I had lost what was most precious to me - almost before I knew how precious.  Did I think of madnesses?  Of course - I wanted to rush back, face the father.  I wanted to throw myself into the black sea.  But I was sensible.  Perhaps even then I remembered an old Albanian saying: 'the heart is like a mirror - though it is broken, its pieces are still mirrors.'  And so I was happy weeping.  I lived.

When I arrived on the land of Greece, I decided to go to Athens.  I had never seen a big city before - Albania had not one then, I know not now - perhaps not now either - so in my youth I was interested.  I arrived in Athens and was amazed at the size - and the people.  Everywhere, people, people.  I decided that it was necessary for me to see lots and lots of people, so I went to the biggest hotel in the city - the 'Great Britain', Sindagma Square - and asked for work.  I became a messenger there, taking letters and telegrams and messages.  

I had a beautiful blue uniform - a good thing, because I had little clothes.  Every day and night I ran with letters and messages, I was quick, I was a tidy young man - I looked good with the suit.  The ladies, they tipped very well, and sometimes - but that is not in this story.

I worked hard, saved some money - I did not drink or gamble like the others - I ate in the kitchens where I helped sometimes, extra to win friends, and there was this beautiful chambermaid - but enough.  I was not happy.  When I was in Albania, and my tongue was forbidden, I dreamt of talking Greek every, every day.  Here I talked Greek, heard Greek.  But I was not happy.  Why you ask?  Is this not foolish, all these good things?  But that is why, lady.  In my heart all my Greek words were for her, and for her alone.  All the beautiful Greek ladies, all the kind ones, they only reminded me of her.  And in my good things there, I was unhappy because I was not with her, and she was - who knows? - in pain.

So, I decided: I must leave this hotel, this Athens, this Greece - the land of my tongue, I thought, but I must give them up because of her, perhaps as a punishment to myself - I must leave and go away somewhere.  Perhaps too - I will be honest with you, I will try that I say how it was - I wanted to see the world.  Athens was a great city - but it was not the world.  I talked with those in the hotel - many had been in the world.  They knew places - Rome, Paris, Germany, London - and told me marvellous tales.  My heart beat as it beat when I saw my lovely one.  It is necessary that I travel.

And so with my money, I said farewell to my hotel, to my chambermaid, to the fine ladies, to my Greek tongue.  I went down to the harbour, and walked by the ships.  I asked where they were going.  Some said Greece, some said Africa, some said America - and one said Venice.  Now Venice was a name that people said.  They told me it was a land built on the water, and that no man had lived until he had seen this wonder.  And I decided then that this was where I would go.  So I paid the money for a passage there.  You see, perhaps now a Contessa who is coming, true?" he teased.

We had parked the coach by now, and were walking from tomb to tomb in the Valley of the Kings.  It sounds so, well romantic - 'Valley of the Kings'.  I don't know quite what I expected, but I was rather disappointed with this, this quarry, unnaturally white, and getting hotter by the minute.  The first few tombs were fascinating, stepping down into the earth, entering a magic kingdom.  And the paintings were beautiful - where they survived.  But after a while it was hard to see differences - apart from obvious things like shapes.  Perhaps they would have looked more personal - if that's the right word - with the kings in them, particularly with all their treasures.  But then obviously we couldn't have seen them.

I suppose also that what I disliked about them fundamentally was their obsession with death.  Yes, I know John, that you said they Egyptians were very affirmative about death, but to my eyes it just looked like death.  But you, you were like a schoolboy exploring some pirates' cave.  Also, we were all exhausted long before we finally broke for lunch.  But of course nobody dared say anything because, after all, they were on a tour, and so felt obliged to see everything that they were shown.  But what's the point if you are too tired to take it in?  I'm being unfair; I suppose what I am saying partly is that I was impatient to get to Venice - with Alekko.

It was strange sitting there in that resthouse place, with blinding sunlight outside, and 60 ancient pharaohs' tombs, listening to this wonderful old man talking about Venice in his youth.  I have to admit that Venice won against what was around us.

"I do not know if you have seen Venice?  No?  Ah, you have such a pleasure that will come then.  I cannot describe with my poor words the sight which greeted me when we arrived.  It was as they said - no, better, more everything.

We arrived a little way from the great square of St Mark's.  They were rows and rows of great ships alongside the wooden quays, and then near them, rows and rows of black boats - the gondolas - tied to old trees in the sea.  I got out where it was the Riva degli Schiavoni - the Bank of the Slavonics - and I thought: this must be me, I am almost a slavonic.  Is this home, then? - you know, I was always looking for a home.  But it was not to be.

I go to the square of St Mark's, and what do I see?  A Greek church, St Mark's is a Greek church.  At every step my heart grows bigger - it will break my body with joy.  And the women - I stand by the church and watch hundreds, thousands of beautiful young women go by.  I think that I am in heaven again.  And this time, the language is not Greek - it is music, Italian.

I do not know where I am going, but I do not mind.  I am so happy, it is of no importance - and I know that something good will happen.  And it is the truth.

I walk, and it is a confusion of roads and bridges and squares.  I am lost, but I cannot be lost because I have no home - yes, you have said it, another saying from my old country.  I find myself in a square with a church and a tower.  I remember the name because my life changed there - and because the name was a name for me.  It was the square of the - not beautiful, well, yes beautiful, but there is a better word for the Italian  - " Alekko searched for the word " - yes, the square of Mary with shape, of the shapely Mary.

It is late in the afternoon. Now I am hungry, and wish to sit.  I see tables and shops in the square.  I buy some food - bread and cheese with wine - my last money.  What will I do?  I speak no Italian then.  I cannot ask except with signs.  I decide to sit and think and watch.  I sit and think about the beautiful young Italian ladies I see.  And as I sit and think I smile, and they smile back sometimes.

And then what do I see?  I see a man dressed in a hundred colours, and wearing a mask.  He is running around us, around the square.  He is making noises like a bird, like a dog.  Now he has a bell - he rings it, and shouts something.  Then, I do not understand, but later yes.  He is shouting to the people to come and see the Comedy.

And people start to come, they move up to something I had not seen before, away from the church, a stage with a curtain, in front of a big wall.  The crowd gathers round.  Lights are put around the stage - it is dark now, the sky coming down black.  People - and me - stand around the stage and the curtain.  There is a drum, a trumpet, a pipe.  It is a noise, and suddenly the comedy begins.  The curtain opens and there is the man with the bell, but without the bell.  He is with another man, very big, a fat man, with a mask too and a long great nose.  They argue.  I cannot understand, and yet I can understand, I understand the hands and the bodies.

And then something strange.  A young woman comes on, with no mask.  She is beautiful, but with much make-up on her.  Suddenly everybody goes off, but the man with the bell - and a clown comes on too.  They start talking - and talking to the audience.  The audience laughs at the noises of their words, but does not understand.  The crowd shouts back, but not Italian, nonsense.  And now suddenly I can understand - because these nonsenses for the crowd are not nonsense; they are my old Albanian.

I stand there with the mouth open.  Then I shout back - in the Albanian.  The men on the stage fall down.  The crowd laughs.  The men stand up, jump off the stage and run up to me.  They do jumps and rolls as they come.  They ask me - in the Albanian - where I am from - making jumps, with the crowd laughing and laughing.  But I am young, I too can jump and roll.  Now there are three of us jumping up and down and around through the crowd, shouting questions and answers to us, the crowd crying with laughter.  We have to stop while they are so happy.  The men say never have the people wept so much.  Then all the actors rush out with hats for money.  The crowd gives and gives - it cannot help themselves, even though the Comedy is so short - it is so good too.  As we say: 'who looks at a clock while he laughs?'.

Behind the stage the men count the money, and ask if I need money.  I say yes, and I need work.  The two men talk in Italian with the others.  They ask me to jump and roll with the Albanian for their Comedy.  And so look I am an actor.  But yes, soon, the Comtessa, I can almost hear her.  But did I not say it was a long story?  You wish that I stop?"  he asked with mock seriousness - knowing that I was now hanging on his every word, jump and roll just like that poor, happy crowd, laughing helplessly in Venice.

Now we were at the Ramesseum - your beloved Ramses.  One thing that was troubling me increasingly was all the little children at the gates of these monuments.  Tiny, tiny children - some only four or five, hair dusty and tousled, dressed in mere rags, with their little statues of mummies wrapped up in a dirty cloth, a few crude brooches, bits of papyrus.  I found their appeals hard to resist, their plaintive little cries of 'baksheesh'.  It is so demeaning this whole baksheesh business, this graciousness of the master to the servant, slave almost.  It must sap the spirit of the whole nation, having to beg so shamelessly to all these foreigners - however much they may despise us, they must be affected in their self-esteem by all this.  And yet there seems no way out.  If we fail to give baksheesh they are understandably angry - and financially losing out.  But if we give baksheesh - or, even worse, if we are generous or simply ignorant in giving it - we support the system, and perpetuate it.  It is hard.

And the Ramesseum?  Yes, evocative ruins - perhaps more 'typical' than many in Egypt, which are, as you say, almost too good.  But I cannot agree with your comments about Shelley's poem.  Yes, much remains of Ramses' achievements; but as you yourself point out, his tomb was robbed, and his body dumped in some hole somewhere.  Surely we should despair when we look on his works, but as Shelley meant it: because nothing really endures of even the mightiest works.  It is pointless pinning our faith - our lives - on this kind of thing.

To which you will probably answer 'but look at the temple of Ramses III, which has endured to this day.'  But to me it just looked bombastic.  And you yourself observed that it was a sham in many ways, a monument to battles hardly fought, a lie in stone.  It is undeniably impressive in a basic sort of way - but only in the same way that equally gross office blocks are in London.  They do not really lift the spirit.  Why can't there be more monuments to some of the positive things in life?  Why is it always war, death, destruction?

Anyway, it was pleasant enough wandering through all these ruins in the lovely afternoon sun - a bit hot for you, though - listening to Alekko tell his story.  But I suppose that is just another of saying that I didn't pay that much attention to what we looking at, that instead I was caught up in the world Alekko was creating with his words.  He continued:

"So here I am actor.  The two men - the man with the bell and the clown - were Albanians, who had escaped long years ago.  Their names were Leka and Sarif.  When I went back to their lodgings, an old palazzo, surrounded by water - ah! happy me - and with big dark rooms and candles, they asked me a hundred questions about our old country.  They shook their heads, tears rolled down their faces.  They knew they would never go back now.

The actors were here for the Carnival celebrations.  They wandered over all Europe.  They had Albanians, Italians, French, Swiss.  They became my friends.  Apart from Leka and Sarif, there was Miele, who was the beautiful lady, Samuele - who was strong and silent - Monsieur Leboeuf, who played the fat man, and was the leader of the actors, and was very good to me, helping me, and there was Frau Heckli, who played the mothers and the bad wives.

We were so happy in our place there.  After each day's performance - we gave two on Saturday - we would walk the streets of Venice in our costumes, making noises, making jumps and rolls.  Because you know Venice is the heaven for such acting - there are no cars or horses, just people and boats on the canals.  So we could go everywhere as ourselves, with no sounds but the talking of people, the boots on the stones, and our crazinesses.

We would walk and walk and walk, but never could get lost.  We always hit the great square with the Greek church.  But it is impossible to lose yourself in Venice.  All roads lead somewhere.  And so we would walk, find a place to eat, sit, eat and drink and be happy.  I learnt a little Italian - my friends helped -  and soon I was laughing and joking too.  Once again, I wanted to die I was so happy.

But Fate was watching me, it did not want me to rest there in this heaven of water.  Because it was Carnival time, there were many balls.  And anyone could go to these balls, if they were in costume.  But actors are always in costume.  We put on our masks and we were there.

So one day we decided after dinner after the Comedy to go to a ball.  It was easy - we walked and watched for people and listened for the music.  It was not long that we found it.  It was a huge palazzo - I do not know which - by the Grand Canal.  There was a small square with many people, all in masks - some over the eyes, some over all the faces - mine was over only the eyes, perhaps I am vain.  From the square there is a courtyard with a fine staircase rising up.  At the top, bright lights, much happy music.  People outside were going up, some were coming down laughing and happy.  We looked at ourselves, my friends, and we said 'this is the place, yes?'  And joining arms, we went in a line.

The hall was big and bright - candles everywhere hanging from the ceiling, mirrors on the walls making a thousand more candles.  People dressed in beautiful costumes - the ladies in great dresses, full of flying cloth, diamonds, jewels.  And the other side, tall windows with balconies looking at the Grand Canal - a great darkness below us, except for the gondolas going past with more people, lanterns on both sides, some singing sad beautiful songs on the water.

The musicians were at one end, on a raise.  They were playing and playing, melodies and melodies.  We had to dance - our feet were forced.  So we danced, and did not stop.  I danced with Miele, with Frau Heckli.  I danced with Leka and Sarif, I even danced with Samuele and Monsieur Leboeuf - and these do not dance, but tonight they danced because of the music and the Carnival and it was good to be alive.

And then I danced with others.  Now because of our masks it is very strange and exciting dancing with others at Carnival.  You do not know who they are.  Perhaps they are your friends, perhaps your enemies.  Perhaps they are your wife.  Perhaps they are young and beautiful, or not so young and not so beautiful.  No more you can choose.  Instead, you let Fate take your hand, and lead you to a partner.  You learn to accept as it comes, because otherwise you cannot dance, you cannot love the music.

And now it was late in the night.  Many dancers had gone - some home, some not.  My friends too were going - I saw Miele and Leka and Sarif and I waved as I danced.  But I wanted more.  I was young, I was strong, I was happy.  And I was dancing now with a woman - a wonderful woman - who was dancing and dancing.  Like me, she could not stop.  And she smiled as she danced - I could see half her face only, but her mouth smiled, and her body too told me that she smiled.  Her hands were light but firm in mine.  Beautiful hands, not the hands of a not young or not beautiful woman.  

Finally the musicians could no more.  Their faces were red, their arms shook.  They played a final dance, a final long note, then must stop.  We clap their great efforts.  Then - what then?  This is the interesting.  I ask my beautiful lady if we shall take some air.  She bows, we go to the balcony.  We talk for a while - with my poor Italian - but already I know the important words, I can survive in the language.

We watch the dawn in the sky.  A few lonely gondolas below us, but all very quiet, just the lovely Venice, the water of green glass - and us.  And somehow - but how do these things happen, I have never understood - somehow we kiss, and we kiss, and we stay kissing as the light comes.  I feel her warm body against mine and I know, mask or no mask, that she is young and fine.  And so that is how I met the Contessa."

"But Alekko, this is still only the beginning of the story, not the story itself.  Who was she?  What did you do then?  What about your actors?  What happened?"  It seemed the more that Alekko said, the more he left unsaid.  Or rather, the more I knew, the more it revealed there was to know.

"Ah lady, is it any wonder?  Life is so full and rich, it must take life to tell all of it.  But you are right, there is more, and I will try to tell it quickly so that you can hold it all at once.

I had luck, I had reason - she was beautiful.  Her name was the Contessa Arabella dei - but it does not matter, her family name.  I of course called her Bella, and that she loved, for she was proud and of fire as I found.  But she had the face and body of a goddess.  Her hair was long and dark golden and with waves like water, her eyes were like honey, her lips wet and sweet like water and honey together.  She stole my soul with those lips.  And she held it with her perfect hands, and held it against her body which had waves too, long waves.  

She was married to the Conte when young, by her family.  She did not love him - but she loved his title, his palace, his wealth.  She ruled him.  She did as she wished, but was by his side when his duties needed her.  They seemed a perfect husband and wife, but it was all a lie.

But what did I care of this?  I was young, I was stolen by her kisses.  That night, we went down to the floor at the Canal.  There was a kind of cave there, the water came in under the house.  It was cold and dark and smelt of the sea and sea plants.  There was a gondola tied up there, swaying with the waves as they came in.  My Bella rang a bell, and a little later a man appeared, stretching and yawning.  She told him to take us to the island.  The man prepared the gondola for us.  Inside it was covered in blood velvet, soft and lovely.  We closed the doors of the gondola, so that the wind and waves did not come in.  We swayed with the boat as the man moved it out through the entrance on to the Grand Canal.

Then it was magic.  I lay in the arms of my beautiful Contessa as she played with my hair and kissed me and whispered Italian to me - music.  And outside the great line of palaces went past, sleeping nearly all of them, a few with a light at the window.  And were they as happy as me?  I thought.  We carried on, the boat moving forward in gentle pushes, past the great church by the customs, past the great tower, past the Greek Church, past where my boat from Athens had arrived so many months ago - but so many years it felt.

And now we were out in the water.  We passed the island of St. George with the tower and the most beautiful church in the world - I went there with my friend, Miele - past that, between strange logs, old and cracking, in the water like marks for a path.  The man pushed the boat still, and we went past little islands with little churches on them - who went there? - past islands with a tree only.  Finally we came to an island with a wall and a house.  The gondola stopped at the bank, where there was a stone part, and the man tied it up.  He helped me out, and then Bella.

'Welcome' she said to me, squeezing my arm as we walked towards the house - palace in truth.  'This is one of my husband's old castles.  We will stay here.'  Would I argue?  My friends the actors - I could not tell them - they would worry, but I knew they knew I was young and could live.  Also, they would change the play - it changed every time.  They did not need me.  I knew also that they would understand when I told them.  They too would do the same.

We went straight to bed.  We were tired.  We rose later, in the afternoon.  I sat on the edge of the great bed - with a tent over the top - Bella still sleeping beside me, her hair like little gold wires on the sheets, her skin very pink, and I looked out of the window.  It was raining.  A heavy rain that falls in Venice, but a beautiful rain.  It fell on to the water, shaking it everywhere.  The sea was grey and moving all the time.  It was good to be inside, warm with my Bella.

We got up, and Bella found some fine clothes for me of her husband.  I have never been proud.  I take what is given.  I looked like a prince she said.  And I did.  We went down to eat - was it breakfast or lunch or supper?  I do not know.  Servants hurried around us, as if frightened of the Contessa.  And they had reason.  As I knew her a few weeks, I learnt that she was a tiger.  She became angry, and then quiet like little child.  And she was passionate.  I felt as if drunk on her, drunk on her kisses, drunk on her body.  

I did not count the days, I did not worry, I did not even think of my friends.  I could not.  My mind was full of Bella, Bella, Bella.  Outside it rains and rains, but I am glad.  We never leave the castle.  Sometimes we sit and talk, we eat, we drink, but mostly we lay in our arms, for days and days.

How can it end?  I do not think but I do not have to.  One day, when we are still in bed - morning, afternoon, the words lost their meaning - I hear a huge shouting and banging of doors downstairs.  I listen, unable to think what it might be.  My Bella moves beside me.  Then suddenly like an animal she runs out of bed, puts on her gown, then runs downstairs.  'Stay!' she commands - and I do not disobey.

I lie in the bed, watching the rain against the window, hearing the wind beat at it.  I do not think of anything.  I lie and lie, waiting for what will come.  And I hear voices downstairs - my Bella, and a man.  They are shouting, screaming - it is like a song in the opera, now one, now another, their voices rising and falling, in and out.  It is music - even shouting Italian is music.  Bella comes back.  'I am sorry, you must go now.  My husband - the fool! - is returned, and waits for an important visitor.  His stupid politics - what do I care for politics?  And yet, and!, let us go, it must be done.  Alekko, my prince, it is time for you to return to the land of the ugly people, the land of politics, the land of my husband's great friend, the great Leader.'  And her face had such a look of hate as she spoke this.

I was still in a dream.  These weeks - surely I was still at that ball, still dancing - surely I would wake up there again?  I felt nothing as I put on my old poor clothes.  My heart was not breaking - but I knew that I would wake up tomorrow and be sad.  I looked at my lovely Contessa, she was pacing the room, an animal, angry, muttering to herself in her beautiful tongue.  I could not tell what she felt - apart from her anger.  I felt sorry for her - I who was leaving this magic castle, I felt sorry for her, for her life, for her being married.  It is a sad thing such marriages.  I have seen it so often, and yet men and women still marry, I do not know why sometimes.

I went down to the bank again.  The servants stood and watched me with silent eyes.  I did not see the Conte.  At the bank, there was the gondola and the man.  He was wet and tired.  Bella took me in her arms.  She wept now as she saw that I was going.  She kissed me, just as she had kissed me that first time.  I felt a tingle on my head - perhaps she gave me back my soul then.  'Addio!' she said, and let me go.  I could say nothing but 'Addio!' too.  I went in the gondola, and watched her as she stood on the bank, shivering in the wind and the rain, her cloak pulled tight around her, her golden hair going wet, going darker.  Then I could see no more."

"Did you ever see her again, Alekko?"  I asked.

"No, never, but it is best that way.  She was from a different world, a world of contessas and magic.  We have an old saying: 'you cannot enter the same room twice.'  What was past was past."

"And your actors and friends?"

"Ah!, lady, it was the end of the Carnival.  They must move on.  They could not wait for one actor.  The Comedy must go.  At our lodgings they left a message that they were going to Switzerland and that they would see me there.  But no, I thought, I will not go to Switzerland with them, with my friends.  I had been an actor long enough.  I would go somewhere, somewhere warmer.  

And so I left that wonderful Venice, that land of the water and of Carnivals and of Contessas.  But to Venice I have returned, because it is too beautiful to see only once.  And as I walk down its roads, it seems that nothing changes, the roads, the waters, the gondolas, the balls at Carnival.  And sometimes I think I will see her again.  But I also hope that I do not - she would not recognise this fat old man as her dancer.  And - who knows? - perhaps her hair is not so golden now either.  It is better so."

We were sitting on the terrace at the Savoy by this time, a glorious sunset unfolding before us - the same one you tried to capture, but which can never be captured with mere words.  But it was a lovely end to the day.  It was peaceful sitting there, the birds flying around us, the sails of the feluccas drifting slowly past.  And after Alekko's simple and moving tale, I felt suspended somehow, between what I had seen during the day, and what my mind's eye had drawn from his words.  It was a strange feeling, but not unpleasant.  At dinner, with the babble of tourists' tongues around me, I felt again that sense of dislocation.  I was no longer exactly sure where I was.  But like Alekko on his island in the lagoon, I didn't really mind.  And as it turned out, the following days would help me resolve myself - as I hope to explain to you, John.

Egyptian Romance - list of chapters

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