"Beauty is an experience, nothing else. It is not a fixed pattern or an arrangement of features. It is something felt, a glow or a communicated sense of fineness." D. H. Lawrence
Ostuni, Puglia, 2016 - lunch in a tiny restaurant in a tiny alley. We - 6 longtime friends - sitting at a table to the right of Vivienne - one of our group, who is looking at a young woman - a model perhaps?, taking a selfie of herself. The sun shines. The flowers are stunningly bright, the leaves a scintillating green, the walls a shining white and Vivienne's died pink hair and red dress perfectly match the scene. It's all sort of mysterious - what is she thinking as she photographs herself - that young girl? Dressed in black on a bright - and as we shall see - a very happy day.
I love this photograph, I think because it is such a vivid moment in time. I came across it the other day - I cannot quite remember why and have brooded on it ever since. It seems to hint at stories and connections. If you were talented you could probably write a novel from it. Or is it all just a sign of banal times? So let me tell you more about it and the reflections it has caused in my head.
We were holidaying for a week in the Puglian countryside, as the guests of friends of many, many years, in a typical Puglian whitewashed house. The narrow lane leading to it was a bit of a nightmare for David as one section was walled on either side and was barely wider than our car. We all held our breath every time we traversed it. Were we going to scrape the sides, or worse, somehow get stuck? We had many entertaining meals on the balcony/terrace, ambled around the surrounding countryside and sat around the pool. So many happy memories but also tinged with great sadness as another pair were supposed to be there, but had not been able to come because Julie had just been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, from which she died not long afterwards. And so the house brings memories of people, whom we have not seen for some time now - I must rectify that - and one who is now long gone.
Of course, being on holiday in a foreign land, we also made excursions to tourist sites - and on the particular day I am talking about we went to Ostuni - one of Perugia's white towns, perched on a hill looking out to sea. Blue, white and green could be said to be the colours of Puglia - blue of the sky and the sea - at least in summer - white of the towns and green - mostly a dull green - of the acres and acres of olive trees. Puglia produces most of Italy's olive oil - and tomatoes and many other agricultural things as well for it is mostly a flat plain, with mountains to the west and hills dotted here and there, on which perch the towns. And the sea, the beautiful sea.
So Ostuni. We did the tourist thing and wandered the streets, snapping the perfectly arranged flowers and objets d'art here and there.
Until it was lunchtime. We chose a tiny, tiny restaurant - a small niche in the walls of the alley in which were just a very few tables - maybe three because we took up all of one wall. The kitchen and another couple of tiny tables were further along the alley. You can just see the spot where we sat at the end of the street on the right, with the sign for the restaurant on the left.
I cannot remember what we ate, but I do remember the sheer pleasure of the occasion -heightened by conversation with the other customers on the other large table. And I think there was a tale from the waiters as well - as there often is. But then came the surprise that really made the day - beginning with the young girl and her selfie. For suddenly up the street occurred this amazing photo shoot. A bridal couple and a whole team of people making the whole thing look perfect. A cameraman of course, with at least one assistant, a stylist, and maybe a make-up artist too.
It was almost as if they were making a film, although I think not, as we came across them later strolling through the town still looking unbelievably beautiful. Almost unreal. But yes a real wedding I think. There were signs of this at the big church in the centre of town. We were so intrigued we thought they might be famous, and were told that they were Albanian. Albanian! A country that will forever be in my mind as one that, I was taught, at school, had a mere 25 miles of railway, and that was completely cut off from the world until the iron curtain fell. Possibly the poorest European country and here was a couple so obviously wealthy and of the modern world. So stage managed - we wondered whether the girl in the long black dress taking a selfie was part of this occasion in some way. A bridesmaid, a guest? If not, what a coincidence that somebody else on the same day was wearing unnaturally beautiful and inappropriate clothes and focussing so fixedly on beauty.
A memory was being created for all time. I wonder if we feature in the photographs, because, and I was not alone in snapping away, we would have been in the background? Doubtless I zoomed in - I would not have been just behind the couple, but still. Do I feature in a photograph hanging on their wall, or gracing some expensive piece of furniture in their mansion across the water from Ostuni? What a thought. In the central photograph they turn to look at us. Were we told to get out of the shot? I cannot now remember, but if not, how gracious of them all. I mean would you want your expensive bridal photo shoot spoiled by gaping, snapping tourists in the background?
I think I would hope that the photo on the left below is the killer shot, and also, for their sakes that we are not in it. Such a beautiful couple on a perfect day - as they walked through the town - no longer with their entourage, they look so perfectly at ease with their beauty - well he perhaps a little less, but she yes. It's her day.
"Nothing makes a woman more beautiful than the belief that she is beautiful."
Such a beautiful memory for us at least. But who knows - maybe it was all a fiction, either literally - it was actually a shoot for a film? or really. I wonder are they still married? Who are they? As I said Albania is not noted for its wealth. Maybe the lovely couple are from corrupt or criminal families. Maybe there is some dark tale beneath the glamour and glitter. They do say that you can't judge a book by the cover. But I do thank them for bringing a further touch of magic to that day, which was already rather magical.
It takes work to create this kind of constructed beauty. A team of four or five to take the photographs and many, many more to have made the whole wedding day work for them. Those glittering white towns and houses are apparently all whitewashed - and here is the proof. An unacknowledged worker keeping them blindingly white. I wonder how many hundreds of such people, over so many hundreds of years have added layer upon layer to the walls of their town to make it shine in the sunlight? And below, stretching to the sea and Albania beyond, are those acres of olive trees.
That one photo that started me on this ramble has also reminded me of our visit to one of those olive groves below - after our lunch I think. We got lost on the way and were a little late for our guided tour of this ancient vineyard. At least one of their trees - I think this one - has been dated at at least 2000 years old. They are twisted and deformed and yet beautiful and still bearing olives, which is made into the spicy olive oil of Puglia. Nature is always beautiful, even when dangerous and bleak.
Almost a whole day and an entire holiday, people, places, tastes - of that olive oil - from just one photograph.
But a last few thoughts on beauty. Sometimes ugly is beautiful. The French have a saying for a certain kind of female beauty - 'une jolie laide' which is really untranslatable but literally means a pretty - ugly woman. Not pretty as an emphasis, but pretty as a juxtaposition and clarification almost. When I think of this paradox I think of places like Stoke-on-Trent in England, outside whose conurbation my university sat on a hill. Below are some photographs of the town at the height of its industrial ugliness. And yet, possibly because of the skill of the photographers it is beautiful. Although sad. To me anyway.
"Beauty is simply reality seen with the eyes of love" Rabindranath Tagore
Beauty is all around us and it is much desired. So much so that it leads to many uglinesses and exploitations - particularly with the young and the unsure, the unconfident and the poor. These are all major worries. And yet beauty lifts the soul, and it is indeed all around us - even in the dirty, crumbling streets of Stoke-on-Trent.
My final word belongs to food. Well I've barely mentioned food. Although this probably needs an entire post of its own. The natural beauty of the elements that make up a meal; the workaday beauty of the people - and their actions - who grow, manufacture, sell, and cook that food; and the constructed beauty of the food on the plate. All these are beautiful. We seem to be increasingly focussed on how the finished/cooked food looks - and I count myself as one of the major suckers here - but does it matter really? Another day for that thought perhaps. Although perhaps I've gone on about that too much already.
In the meantime:
“Everything has beauty, but not everyone sees it.” ― Confucious
Well I think everyone sees the beauty of a bride and her man - it's a sign of hope an expression of a perfection which will inevitably not last. And I do remember that day as one of the beautiful ones in my life. And yet - I don't remember what we ate which just goes to prove, it's the ambience not the food.