Every small town has some claim to fame, or at least tries to drum up tourist business based on a white lie or thin connection to celebrity. Georgia Clooney slept here. Or Thom Hanks. Or J.Lo would have slept here, except she told her driver to keep driving.
Fontaine de Vaucluse has a genuine connection to celebrity. Francesco Petrarch, a giant of the Italian Renaissance, did indeed sleep and live here for several years, starting in 1339. His family followed Pope Clement V, who was at the time enthroned (or are popes installed, like dishwashers?) in nearby Avignon.
Our hotel, Hôtel du Poète, is dedicated to Petrarch. But, then, so are cafes and restaurants throughout the town. The Petrarch column, marking the 500th anniversary of the poet’s birth, in 1804, stands in the town square, alongside a pizza truck. There’s also the Petrarch Museum and Petrarch Park.
Dedicated to Laura
To be honest, I didn’t know much about Petrarch before we arrived at Fontaine de Vaucluse. It was a name I absorbed at university: a founding spirit of the Italian Renaissance, an early Humanist — something like that.
As well, I had a vague sense that he wrote sonnets dedicated to an inaccessible Laura. (Of course she’s inaccessible: once accessed, there’s no more reason to write love sonnets.) I looked into this and discovered some satisfying ambiguity. Scholars debate Laura’s identity, as they do Shakespeare’s Dark Lady. Did Laura even exist? Was she an amalgam of several women? Was she a man? Actually, no one suggests she was a man, but it’s fun so.
The leading theory is that she was Laura de Noves, married to the Count Hugue de Sade, an ancestor of the famous pornographer. The French hotly dispute that de Sade was a pornographer, but they also believe Jerry Lewis was a comedian.
The Italian papers
A huge Greek weddings at a downtown Montreal hotel. A guest list north of four hundred. A whirling, deafening crowd of dancing, kissing, hungry Greeks. As usual, the kids are unattended, and soon a gang of us is downing screwdrivers like there’s no tomorrow.
These are delicious, I remember thinking. We should have these at home.
In his little red jacket, the accommodating bartender barely glances at the children harrying him for “One more, please.” His orders are to drive up the bar tab by any means.
I don’t know how many drinks I down, but I soon find myself in a corner with a Greek girl from Philadelphia, telling her about my dream to become an explorer. I don’t like the cold, so my explorations would likely be limited to temperate lacustrine plains and savannahs. Geography is my favourite subject.
She might have relayed her own dreams to me, but I’m not paying attention.
I remember, instead, staggering to the bathroom for a much-needed pee and staring into a red and astonished face in the mirror, into which I splash cold water.
Drunk and in love for the first time. Or drunk with love, or in love with drunkenness. One of these must be correct.
The next day, in the grip of my first-ever hangover, I meet the girl and her cousins at Greenshields Park. We exchange awkward words, don’t refer to the previous night’s declarations. Leave it at that.
But after she returns to the States, I spend half a day downtown looking for writing paper. Eventually I settle on an alarmingly expensive box of creamy Italian-made sheets, decorated with extravagant swirls of colour.
Then, the better part of a day in my locked room, composing draft after draft of a letter, which I finally transcribe with my best fountain pen to the precious sheets.
My handwriting embarrasses me. It has the crabbed, jerky look of a letter the authorities release after some psychopathic outrage. But worse, as if the psychopath was writing it while driving a bumper car and getting bashed at random intervals.
Nevertheless, I send it off and begin haunting the mailbox the very next day, and for days after. Eventually, the girl dutifully replies on a small, pastel-coloured sheet. Just one. And with noticeably less heat.
I write back, and then she writes in return, but eventually the letters peter out and that’s that.
For years, the box of stationery sits in my bottom desk drawer: too expensive to throw out, too embarrassing to even open.
I showed up beneath her window, in a sequinned toreador jacket and Mouseketeer cap. Opening my mouth to sing, a toad leaped out.
Here is something better, by Petrarch, from a translation by A.S. Kline.
Breeze, blowing that blonde curling hair,
stirring it, and being softly stirred in turn,
scattering that sweet gold about, then
gathering it, in a lovely knot of curls again,
you linger around bright eyes whose loving sting
pierces me so, till I feel it and weep,
and I wander searching for my treasure,
like a creature that often shies and kicks:
now I seem to find her, now I realise
she’s far away, now I’m comforted, now despair,
now longing for her, now truly seeing her.
Happy air, remain here with your
living rays: and you, clear running stream,
why can’t I exchange my path for yours?