Rosalyn D'mello: Queens of the Italian night

May 11, 2018, 07:28 IST | Rosalyn D'mello

There's something deeply thrilling when two women venture out after dark in a foreign land, exploring the streets without any restraint

On the ferry, leaving the island of Burano at dusk. pic courtesy/Rosalyn D'mello
On the ferry, leaving the island of Burano at dusk. pic courtesy/Rosalyn D'mello

Rosalyn D'melloBecause the high chairs and tables extending onto the pavements are arranged like invitations; because the indigo sky greets us with its distinct hue, informing us that though the sun has set and it is past 8 pm, the evening has only just begun; because our feet, so tired from daytime explorations, miraculously find the strength to continue their march; because Mac's Ruby Red lipstick enhances our personalities, making spectacles of our skin tone; or maybe because we are not alone, by 9 pm, unfailingly and with impressive regularity, Mona and I become Queens of the Italian night. There are travellers who tuck themselves in early so they can restore their bodies for the future that awaits them when they awake. Not us.

We are nocturnal explorers, un-bound by the limitations of cartography. We find tentative destinations and then walk the streets like we own them, like they belong to us. We allow ourselves to get distracted by the sights we suddenly stumble upon; we make commentaries on street signs, we take pleasure in seducing policemen into smiling sheepishly at us, we keep ourselves open to conversations with strangers. During the day you could ostensibly call us tourists. We visit monumental sites; pay entry fees, download audio guides and take photographs of everything that impress us. But at night, we are uninhibited.

Because we come from a reality that is both condemned and celebrated as third world, we have few filters about what constitutes safe and unsafe European streets. We trust our intuitions that have been fine-tuned through years of navigating streets that ought to be friendlier towards women's presences, that could do much more to encourage women's loitering. Online guides tell us to be wary of specific areas, but because Napoli feels like a somewhat seamless city with one street urging you on to the next, one inviting façade leading you to explore another, we do not exercise too much restraint as we navigate a city that feels overwhelmingly familiar. We walk through gritty and un-pretentious streets, walk into dive bars and surprisingly cheap restaurants. On our first evening in Napoli, for example, we followed a cyber suggestion and found ourselves at an institution where every drink on the menu was priced at one euro. It was teeming with as many people as could be found in a single Mumbai local compartment, all elated and happy drunk. We had a few Apero-Spritzes and proceeded towards a jazz bar, stopping in between because we were lured by a boutique shop on a wayside street.

There we had excellent red wine, and the choicest green olives. The jazz bar was a bust; it turned out to be a pretentious speak-easy where the bartenders wore white coats like mixologist doctors. Yes, there was what sounded like Billy Holiday singing in the background, and plush red sofas and a superbly well stocked bar, but it was cosmetic, and expensive, and after a small moment of indecision, we decided to simply walk out and go elsewhere. It wasn't a disappointment because on the way we had encountered so much of the city's past by way of arcades, historic fountains, grand edifices and random ruins.

This behaviour of ours hasn't been confined just to Napoli. Even in Firenze and Venezia, our nightly excursion was the day's highlight. In those cities, more than in Napoli, night-time turned out to be the only time when we weren't part of a swarming mass of tourists; when we didn't have to wait in extensive, un-ending lines to get in somewhere. It was surreal, navigating the canals of Venice at 2 am, when the water-borne city feels like an abandoned ghost town, when there isn't a single tourist for miles. Our friends and us had no compunctions being the last to leave a bar. Our friends lived just around the corner, while we, for cost-effectiveness, had chosen an Airbnb in neighbouring Mestre. We were undaunted by the prospect of finding our way to the 24x7-hour ferry to Piazzale Roma, then taking the night bus home. There was something deeply thrilling about having the luxury of public transport at that hour.

I always remember the feminist Shilpa Phadke when I've had a successful late-night out. She speaks frequently about the significance of the feminist claim to 'fun'. "Fun in public spaces cannot be quantified or sometimes even explained," she says. "How does one communicate the pleasure of asphalt under your feet; the rush of finding the bus you want at a traffic signal and managing to jump into it… the exhilaration of wandering in your city at night laughing with your friends. This is not simply fun, it's belonging to your city and having it belong to you." I could argue there's something similarly exhilarating about doing all of that as two women in a foreign land. When our male friends in Venice caringly offered to let us crash in their spare bedroom because it was past midnight, we politely declined. "Are you sure you want to go back so late?" they asked. "Yes," Mona replied. "Because we can!"

Deliberating on the life and times of Everywoman, Rosalyn D'Mello is a reputable art critic and the author of A Handbook For My Lover. She tweets @RosaParx Send your feedback to mailbag@mid-day.com

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