An unexpected invitation
On February 12 of this year, Armando Corridore, owner and publisher of the firm Elara Libri in Bologna, Italy, e-mailed me an invitation to attend Italcon 39 – “the annual Italian congress of fantastic literature” – as its sole American literary guest.
Armando explained that the convention would be held in Bellaria, “a quiet seaside town on the Adriatic coast,” from May 23 – May 26. It would run simultaneously with the 27th Italian Star Trek convention and the annual meetings of Italy’s Star Wars and Doctor Who clubs.
Armando declared that most aficionados of “fantastic storytelling in literature and other media” regard this joint convention as their major event of the year. He said that my friends and colleagues Paul Di Filippo and David Gerrold had served as special guests at Italcon 38 and that these joint conventions would foot all travel, lodging, and meal costs for me and my wife, Jeri.
Talk about an offer a guy can’t refuse.
Still, I hesitated. We had a trip to Puerto Rico planned for early June, mere days after our scheduled return from this Italian jaunt… if we accepted it. Also, as a less than prolific (of late, at least) science-fiction writer with no Italian and no easily available new book to shill for, what sort of guest would I make?
Bedeviled by such thoughts, I asked Jeri if she wanted to go. “Of course,” she said from her laptop across the hall. “Why wouldn’t I?” Thus chided, I e-mailed Armando back expressing amazement, gratitude, and excitement. I also asked if he could consent to our flying in a few days ahead of the convention.
I stressed that until the SF-related festivities actually began, we would pay for our own bed and board. We had never visited Italy before and wanted to take this chance to see a little of his lovely country – beyond, that is, the poster-hung walls of the convention center in Bellaria.
Armando said that this was no problem. He would obtain a quality room for us in Bologna – our pre-convention base of operations – at a discounted price and see to it that we flew to Catania, Sicily’s second largest city (behind Palermo, its capital), for two days after the event, just as our friends Paul Di Filippo and Deb Newton had done in 2012. He further told us that we could reach Venice, Florence, Verona, and Rome by train within forty minutes to a two and a half hours, depending on our selected destination, and return the same evening to Bologna to sleep.
Bologna and Florence
And so, as anyone but an irredeemable idiot would have, we accepted Armando’s invitation and eventually wound up – after flights from Atlanta to Amsterdam and from Amsterdam to Bologna – in northern Italy, in a bustling, history-laden city with the oldest university in Europe.
Indeed, we spent six nights there. Bologna has many fine ristoranti, trattorie, or osterie, and even more historical places to visit, nearly all accessible by foot from our hotel near the train station, if one doesn’t mind walking.
Jeri and I like to walk. We climbed over four hundred stairs in a bell tower called the Torre degli Asinelli, visited several good museums, including the Museo di Palazzo Poggi devoted to art, natural history, and medicine, and the Pinacoteca Nazionale di Bologna featuring work from the tenth century onward. Many of its paintings are huge in size, detailed, and breathtakingly executed.
On Sunday evening, May 19, Armando and his wife Rosa invited us to a concert at the Church of Santa Maria della Vita. Armando, who also composes music, had friends participating in this event, which featured a men’s chorale, the Schola Gregoriana, and a small orchestra, the Blumine Ensemble. The bold interspersing of Gregorian chants with striking modern compositions made for an unforgettable evening and a conspicuous high point of our time in the city.
The next day, we made a round-trip, high-speed rail journey to Florence, ruing the fact that the Uffizi Galleries and the venue showing Michelangelo’s original David were closed that day. (Unwisely, we had bought our tickets before learning that both places are ordinarily closed on Mondays.)
We also dealt with patchy showers, but still had a fine time, largely because, by prior arrangement, we rendezvoused with SF writer Luca Ortino and four of his friends for a classic Tuscan lunch: Walter Catalano and Gian Filippo Pizzo, writers and editors, and two brothers, Lucio and Vladimiro Noce. Two or three of these men at the Trattoria La Gratella on the Via Guelfa had read at least one Bishop novel in Italian translation – a happy but humbling discovery – and we wined and dined and chatted hilariously in their passing-good English and our pidgin-poor Italian.
Afterward, having already seen the Duomo and the Straw Market, we visited the Ponte Vecchio, the Palazzo Vecchio, and the Museo Nazionale del Bargello, a sculpture museum displaying early work of Michelangelo’s along with pieces by Giambologna (L ’Architettura), Giovanni Bandini (Bacchus with Barrel), Pietro Francavilla (Jason, or, in Italian, Giasone), and many others. In fact, our sightseeing exhausted us.
Bellaria and Italcon 39
As it turned out, our jaunt to Florence proved our only pre-convention venture away from Bologna. We used Tuesday to recover, and on Wednesday Armando’s friend Fabio Quarato drove Jeri and me to the Eden Hotel in Bellaria, where we had a first-floor room facing the Adriatic. (In Europe, “first floor” generally means the first storey above ground level.) Armando described Fabio’s contributions as “invaluable.”
We spent five and a half days in Bellaria, which is a delight to walk around in. Although we stayed in the Eden, a yellow building on the corner of a beachfront avenue and a street leading inland to the convention center (a walk of less than ten minutes), we took breakfast each morning in one of two hotels to the Eden’s right, the Hotel Piccadilly or the Hotel Foschi. All three have the same owners and shared employees.
Many convention attendees were Trekkies or Star Wars aficionados, and in the dealers’ room, Armando had an Elara Libri table beside that of Jeremy Bulloch, a British actor from the Star Wars franchise. Bulloch was selling photos of himself as Boba Fett in The Empire Strikes Back (1980) and other Star Wars memorabilia. He and wife Maureen proved altogether companionable people.
So did David Prowse, who had the table to Bulloch’s right. Famous as the actor who plays Darth Vader in the first Star Wars film, Prowse, now 78, walks with crutches but still exudes bulk, power, and facetious menace. He told us that he had just released a commercial edition of his autobiography, From the Force’s Mouth, replete with pictures, although not so many as in its self-published predecessor.
Working at the Elara Libri table were Armando’s wife, Rosa (who makes a to-die-for tiramisu), and two young women, Sabina and Francesca, each of whom occasionally acted for us as translators. One item on sale was an Italian edition of my Nebula Award-winning novelette “The Quickening,” a pamphlet titled Dislocazione (“Dislocation”). Its inside back cover depicts the first cover of the new Italian edition of Fantasy & Science Fiction, which Armando Corridore is editing for Elara Libri.
I signed 150 of these and hand-corrected a mistake on the copyright page stating that the story’s original English title was “The Changeling.” I crossed out “Changeling” and inked in “Quickening.” Earlier, Armando had threatened to destroy the entire edition and reprint it with a corrected copyright page. My penned changes, which he approved, kept him from having to act on that threat.
My two program sessions went fairly well, insofar as I could judge. In the first, on Friday afternoon, I had an hour in the main auditorium. Armando asked his questions in Italian, and Paolo Attivissimo, a journalist and translator, deftly turned the questions into English and translated my answers for our Italian audience. Laughter and nodding heads I interpreted as approval. Frowners I earnestly courted with moronic grins.
In the interview, I spoke of fiction writing as an amusing way of creating empathy in readers, I recounted a story about a ten-year-old boy who had told me he liked to read novels because they were the only place he could learn exactly what another person was thinking, and I took mild issue with a questioner’s assertion that New Wave writers of the 1960s were “angry” with their more popular predecessors.
On Sunday evening, I had a smaller session in a downstairs venue, and Armando asked his questions in English and then translated them and my answers into Italian. He did this adeptly, minus the show-biz flair of Paolo, who was busy translating upstairs for such Star Wars or Star Trek stalwarts as Jeremy Bulloch, Dave (“Darth Vader”) Prowse, Robert Picardo, and Robert Duncan McNeil.
In this intimate (i.e., ill-attended) session, I compared my novel Ancient of Days, which has no Italian edition, with a later book, Brittle Innings, which does. Both books, I explained, deal with outsiders – a whip-smart specimen of Homo habilis and an immortal quasi-human, respectively – struggling some 40 years apart to assert their humanity in two different manifestations of American society, neither of which wants to concede that ostensible honor.
Italcon 39’s artist guest was Maurizio Manzieri, and its featured Italian writers included Donato Altomare, Luigi Cozzi, Giuseppe Lippi, Gianfranco De Turris, Gianni Montanari, author of the new novel Ismaele (whose two parts are printed back to back and upside down as in the Ace Doubles of yore, but much more handsomely), and Ugo Malaguti, an editor at Elara as well as a writer.
In the same downstairs venue where I held forth on Ancient of Days and Brittle Innings, my friends Luca Ortino, Claudio Chillemi, Gian Filippo Pizzo, Walter Catalano, and Francesco Troccoli, among others, discussed recent Italian SF anthologies that they had edited or in which they had published stories, if not both. To show our support, Jeri and I sat in on these panels, but grokked little of what was said. Even so, the participants’ enthusiasm for these projects made itself abundantly clear.
The convention wound down on Sunday evening with a banquet in the top-floor restaurant of Bellaria’s convention center, an expansive circular room with a panoramic view of the town and the surrounding countryside. It concluded with a ceremony in the center’s main auditorium.
At the banquet, white-shirted waiters served us, as they had at every midday and evening meal since Thursday, and the centerpiece of the evening was a huge rectangular cake decorated with the faces of the special guests for 2013, those of the Star Trek and Star Wars actors across the top and those of featured artists and writers in a smaller tier below. My face shone in icing there along with Manzieri’s, Malaguti’s, and Montanari’s, etc. It was my first time being frosted without feeling anger or outrage. Folks crowded in to take pictures, and when the cake was cut, I admired Gianni Montanari for finagling the only slice that let him devour his own visage.
At the closing ceremony, the screen above the auditorium’s stage showed a series of funny video blackouts and then a tribute to Alberto Lisiero, who died on Jan. 2, 2013, at age 48. The founder of STIC (Star Trek Italian Club) twenty-seven years ago, Lisiero also organized many earlier editions of STICCON, which Claudio Chillemi defines as a “large multi-convention, with room for Italcon, this year number 39.” I never met Alberto Lisiero, but his video tribute revealed a bearlike, big-hearted, good-humored man with an enormous appetite for life and endless affection for the Star Trek worlds created so many decades ago by Gene Roddenberry.
When the video ended, everyone in the hall stood and applauded. The lights came up, disclosing his long-term partner Gabriella Cordone in the projection booth at the rear of the auditorium. Alberto and Gabriella had married about a year past, but had not been fortunate enough to live together long as husband and wife.
Applause built and built, all of it directed toward Alberto’s widow. It would not stop. Gabriella sought to dampen it with wistful “down, down” gestures, but it continued, and despite our never having known this couple, Jeri and I were moved by the remaining fans’ heartfelt – indeed, insistent – love for STIC’s late founder and for his gamely coping life-mate.
The applause finally ceased, as it had to, and the convention ended with people expressing their bittersweet joy dancing on stage to up-tempo music from the hall’s PA system. Jeri and I, worn out, said our fond goodbyes to everyone we could and walked back to the Hotel Eden holding hands.
Our stay in Italy concluded with two bonus days in and around Catania. With writer Claudio Chillemi and his wife Rosaria, both natives of Sicily, Jeri and I, along with Armando Corridore, took in many of the city’s main sites (Castello Normanno, Castello Ursino, the Teatro Greco-Romano, the fish market, etc.) and ate shameful quantities of tasty local food, including even the arancino (which Rosi called “Sicilian fast food,” although done nowhere else as well as in Catania).
On our final day, May 30, Claudio drove us up Mount Etna (Aetna, in English), where the view was even more eye-exploding than it had been from the battlements of the Castello Normanno on the Mediterranean coast in the village of Aci Catello. Along the way, in the town of Pedara, he showed us the Basilica di S. Caterina d’Alessandria, a building with ornamental facings made of black volcanic stone. He also bought us some cookies from a nearby shop in Pedara.
Near the summit, where the temperature was at least 25 degrees F. cooler than it had been at sea level, we joined a host of open-mouthed tourists in walking down into a crater that has been dormant for a couple of thousand years. I even got up the gumption to “ski” down the granulated black-lava slope in my hiking shoes and to climb back out by slogging up that same previously unmarked route.
On our way back down, we stopped at the Trattoria della Nonna (Grandma’s Café), a place we had virtually to ourselves. Here we ate a variety of vegetables and pasta and then some meat dishes that Jeri and I had to forego. At the end of the meal, Claudio, using his smart phone, put through a skype call to Paul Di Filippo in Providence, Rhode Island, and shared with us the almost surreal technological experience of allowing Paul to talk to us from the screen of his palm-held phone. Although by far the smallest human being in the room, Paul still stole the show.
Back in Catania, we visited the Castello Ursino, now a museum featuring statuary and paintings, and at length returned to the Hotel Bellini for some rest before meeting at 8:00 p.m. for a last supper together. This group included, in addition to Jeri and me, the Chillemis, Armando, Antonino Di Mari, Enrico Di Stefano and his daughter and a friend of his daughter’s, Francesco Spadaro and his wife Paola Porto, Fabio Viglianisi and his wife, and Salvo Toscano and his adult son, Luigi.
After striking out at our first restaurant (because it was holding a karaoke evening and we wanted to hear our conversations with one another), we wound up at the Taverna dei Conti (the Count’s Tavern), where fresh seafood was our company’s preferred fare and where Jeri and I, still replete from Grandma’s Café, picked like preschoolers at the exotic chitinous entrees set before us.
Talk ricocheted among us. Some of it centered on a literary contingent in Milan that objected to Italcon’s affiliation with the media phenomena powering its attendance figures. They also objected to news that Italcon 40 would return to Bellaria in 2014 with its links to its current movie and TV partners intact. Other talk centered on books, food, travel, and people, either present with us or absent or deceased.
Frankly, I could not stop thinking that we had a 7:00 A.M. flight to Rome to catch and that to make sure we arrived in time to obtain our boarding passes and clear security, Jeri and I must get up at 3:45. Meanwhile, the clock was ticking. Something midnight-ish this way came, and came inexorably.
Weary and anxious, I excused myself, wove my way among the clearing tables, and stepped outside. The heat of the trattoria gave way to a soft sea breeze. During most of the day, Catania’s one-way streets display their character in the vehicles parked hood to trunk along both curbs, often with their same-side tires on the sidewalks. Traffic must negotiate these narrow defiles with agility and caution, although some drivers inevitably dare collision to get through. But that night, that late, the facing sidewalks and the street between them had just about cleared. I could walk the wheel-smoothed cobbles with no fear of a crazy motorist cutting me off at the knees.
Like the traffic, my head began to clear. I exulted in the vibrancy of this living Italian city and in this chance to reignite my burned-out nerve ends. Then I heard music, wheels rolling, and a pod of mostly youthful Catanians came sailing up the street toward me. They came on rollerblades, in three or four intermingled flights, maybe thirty skaters in all. Even the clumsiest had grace, even the clumsiest floated, and so did I, for this was Sicily, and at that instant I, too, was Sicilian….
– Michael Bishop