An evening with Rocco Iacopini

Updated: Jan 28, 2020, 07:38 IST | C Y Gopinath | Mumbai

How to have a holiday where the unexpected happens - go there with an intention, not an itinerary

Rocco Iacopini at his Mago Merlino Tea House in Florence, Italy. Pic/Facebook
Rocco Iacopini at his Mago Merlino Tea House in Florence, Italy. Pic/Facebook

C Y Gopinath Now listen carefully, children, I am going to tell you the biggest secret I have learned about having vacations where the unexpected may be expected. In one sentence: travel with an intention, not an itinerary, if you want magic to happen.

Last week I counted the number of cities in the world I have visited more than once. There were 97 cities, covering America, Canada, Europe, China, most of Asia, Australia and one tiny country in South America.

One of the cities was Florence. And this was where the magic happened.

My friend and I finished the main sights in half a day — the Duomo (12 minutes) and Michelangelo's David (47 minutes). Exploring Florence's cobbled back alleys took the rest of the afternoon.

"Let's stay a day more," I pleaded. "Something will happen, I'm sure."

Several things did happen within the next few minutes. We ran into Moji, an Iranian architecture student who sold chess sets in one of those alleys. We knew no Persian and he knew no English but since Iranians love Indians, our relationship blossomed at once on mutual misunderstanding.

Soon we were in his college canteen, eating a sumptuous government-subsidised student lunch with wine, lots of cheese and meatballs. We grinned at each other a lot.

"Time to leave," hissed my companion as lunch ended. "Shouldn't overstay our welcome."

But Moji heard only the last word and misunderstood joyously. "Welcome!" he cried. "Bus hill Thursday hair money supplement. Welcome indeed!"

Turned out Moji sells trinkets on Thursday at the Piazza Michelangelo, up on the hills girdling Florence to supplement his income. He was inviting us.

It was in that vibrant square, with the energies of a whole generation and a guitarist somewhere playing Non Dimenticare that I met a distinguished-looking Italian selling hair braids exactly like something in Dadar.

"They're not Indian," said a deep bronzed voice, reading my thoughts. "They're Tunisian. You must be Indian." And so I met Rocco Iacopini, last of his name, tourist guide, speaker of languages, connoisseur, trader, raconteur.

"You must be Capricorn," I noted, lapsing into astrology as I often do.

"I see," he said, inspecting me. "Another one. And you must be Gemini?"

We spent the next hour killing a bottle of Chianti and drawing astrological glyphs on the dust of his car's bonnet.

"I run a tea shop in Florence," said Rocco. "Mago Merlino. Merlin the Magician. We serve tea there. Intellectuals visit sometimes. Please come tomorrow. Perhaps about 4 pm. At a corner of via dei Pilastri."

A teashop where intellectuals come to drink tea? It was irresistible.

We missed the train, of course, and stayed the night. Next afternoon, it seemed silly not to see if Rocco was waiting for us at his tea shop. He was.

"I thought you'd forgotten," he said, letting both of us in.

It was a long, carpeted but gloomy hall. On the wall hung ancient arms and shields. A Steinway piano stood in the far corner. Nailed to the wall was a metal menu, with old hand-lettering listing the various types of tea and only tea that Rocco served there: Camomile, Cantharis, Ambergris, Cardamom, Cinnamon, Darjeeling, Lopchu and so on.

Then Rocco showed us his spice rack. Cardamoms the size of almonds, hand-picked from Cairo. Richly aromatic cinnamon sticks, each one broad and generous. Fragrant camomile. In a third room, we met his perfume rack where, in clear unlabelled bottles, stood oil of sandalwood, patchouli, jasmine, tuberoses, jacaranda and other pent-up essences from tourist expeditions.

After tea, Rocco withdrew a pouch of a particularly popular herb — from Marrakech, he said — apparently best folded into cigarettes and smoked.

I'm game for anything, I cried joyously.

Close to 10 pm, stoned and bug-eyed, I lazily drifted into the arms of the Steinway piano. I have never played at a bar, especially in a foreign country. Here was my chance. I began singing old Beatles songs to a crowd of none.

Time passed. My friends passed out. I began to hallucinate that I was an undiscovered talent. But matters were evolving rapidly outside, where couples from everywhere were strolling hand in hand. At that time of year, it is light till well into the night.

They heard my rich voice singing, in words they didn't know — but old Beatles songs required no language. Two by two, they invited themselves in. Mago Merlino, thitherto closed for the season, re-opened itself and a sky-high Rocco began serving exotic tea.

The last thing I remember before I passed out was two pretty German college students sipping white wine out of slender stemmed glasses, one adoringly on either side of me. I heard a whisper in my ear.

"Und now, you will play for us der Hey Jude, yes?"

Here, viewed from there. C Y Gopinath, in Bangkok, throws unique light and shadows on Mumbai, the city that raised him. You can reach him at cygopi@gmail.com Send your feedback to mailbag@mid-day.com

The views expressed in this column are the individual's and don't represent those of the paper

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