Extract from The mandolin Lesson
This is an extract from Frances Taylor’s book The Mandolin Lesson, which draws on her experience of studying in Italy.

I am profoundly grateful when I enter the safety of the overnight train to Venice. I easily find my carriage and compartment. The compartment is divided into six couchettes, three on each side. Each berth is provided with a small pillow, a blanket and a plastic bag containing a clean pillow case and a sheet. My bed is at the top, which I had thought would give me even more security and privacy once I had made the journey up the ladder. I quickly take up my belongings and arrange them in a recessed shelf near my head. I then set to work making up my bed. It is neat and cosy and I look forward to collapsing on it. But I feel I cannot collapse just yet. It is so odd sharing one’s bedroom, my compartment, with five complete strangers. The train moves out of the station and everyone mills around in the corridors looking out of the windows at the illuminated city melting away into darkness.

A lady in uniform passes through the corridor informing people that the buffet is ready to serve supper. The thought is tempting: a thin, moist steak accompanied by French fries and a glass of red wine. I wish for a moment that I hadn’t eaten earlier but I console myself with the thought that it was a better plan. I am now better organised. I don’t, for example, have the hassle of taking all my belongings with me to the buffet car. I have, as it is, to take a small calculated risk by leaving my stowed away belongings whilst I visit the bathroom and clean my teeth. I feel uncomfortable about it but I am exhausted and it is too complicated. I think, anyway, that taking my mandolin to the bathroom will only attract unnecessary attention to it. I also have enough trouble keeping my balance in the short walk between the compartment and the bathroom. The train seems to move about considerably more than I remembered from the spring rehearsal.

At last I am tucked up in bed and I try to relax and rest. I am not wearing night clothes. I wear instead the underneath layers of my day clothes: a long sleeved cotton polo neck sweater and cotton leggings. They are chosen for comfort and their quality of being non-creasing. It is the most practical solution to the problem of travelling in this way.

I do not sleep well on the train. I am restless. At times I become too hot. I remove the blanket a little but I leave the sheet in place. I have arranged it to be folded in half with the fold on the outward edge of the bunk. In this way I feel I will be contained and less likely to fall out of my lofty bed. I hear the voice of the customs official at the Swiss boarder. I handed my passport to the carriage steward soon after boarding the train. Passengers are re-issued with their documents in the morning. This ensures that passengers are not disturbed from their sleep. I lie awake on the still train thinking that I have just arrived in Switzerland, the second foreign country of my journey. I also think about the Calace Preludio I have to play for my audition. I run the opening bars over in my head imagining how my fingers feel to play it. This should send me to sleep but it doesn’t. I remember how once I had found that listening to my own imagined playing of this piece had comforted me in hospital. When I was very ill it soothed me and made me soporific. Now it only served to increase my anxiety because I worry that I haven’t been able to practise on the journey. Then I worry that I have had insufficient sleep and I will be too tired to play properly.

I stir. I realise something is happening. The train has stopped and I must have finally fallen asleep. A deep loudspeaker voice announces ‘Verona Porta Nuova’. I have arrived in Italy. I look at my watch. It is a quarter to seven. I snuggle under my blanket, feeling its warmth and comfort. Now I don’t want to leave the place of my repose. It seems that all night I struggled to be in a place as relaxing as this and now that I have found it I must abruptly, abandon it. Sluggishly and somewhat resentfully I make an effort to prepare myself for the day. I put on my boots and my jacket. I tidy the bed. When I have retrieved the ladder, there is only one per compartment, and descended by it, I run my fingers through my hair. I glance in the window at my tangled hairstyle and strategically place a hair band on my head. I feel fractionally more civilised. I join other people in the corridor to watch fields and farms flash by in the ever increasing daylight as we speed towards Padova.

My first priority at Padova station is to make for the station buffet in order to have breakfast. Lots of commuters are taking their coffee at the bar but I need to be a little more leisurely, so I sit at one of the small round tables. To my left there are huge glass doors which look out onto platform one and afford me a generous view of the station’s comings and goings. I order a cappuccino, a brioche and a glass of water. The brioche is warm and contains apricot jam. It is delicious. I am so thrilled to have arrived and to be sitting in Italy eating my breakfast.

Next I find the ladies toilets. The lady attendant indicates a particular door. I pass the first open door and see the continental ‘hole in the tiled floor’ model of toilet. I am pleased that my cubical contains a proper toilet. I am feeling a little soiled by this stage. I knew that this trip would be like a camping expedition so I have come prepared with individually wrapped baby wipes for intimate and difficult cleaning. Outside I go to the large sinks to wash my hands. I also need to clean my teeth and wash my face but I feel self-conscious. I look at the attendant and engage her eyes. I ask her if it is okay for me to wash my face and teeth quickly. I explain that I have just arrived on the overnight train from Paris and that I have, in fact, been travelling for twenty-four hours from my original point of departure in London.

The attendant becomes animated and is most accommodating. She asks me about the purpose of my visit and as I smooth some moisture cream on my face I tell her that I am going to study mandolin at the Conservatorio. She seems very impressed and wishes me good luck. I happily leave some money in her little bowl. I feel I have had very good service.

I leave the station and make my way towards the historical centre. There are many other people walking purposefully with me in the same direction. Some are dressed smartly in suits and look as if they might be going to an office. Others wear trousers or jeans, casual jackets and fashionably coloured rucksacks, and are probably heading for the university. Founded in 1222 the university is one of the most distinguished seats of learning in Europe. The list of alumni includes such famous names as Petrarch, Dante and Galileo.

The crowd of people I am walking with finds it difficult at times to make its way along the pavement. There are all types of obstacles: ladders leaning against windows being washed, people unloading boxes from cars into shops and cordoned off excavations of the pavement’s surface. To the right is a main road full of chaotic traffic. Buses, cars and vespa motor-cycles all compete with each other to be first. People have to take care not to enter into this competition with the traffic by stepping inadvertently off the pavement. The crowd also has to stop occasionally at intersections to respect the traffic lights. On the corner of one intersection is the hotel where I stayed on my last visit. As I wait for the lights to change my ears are assailed by a high pitch siren. Within seconds a police car screeches through the intersection with an officer leaning out of the window waving something that looks like a table-tennis bat.

At the other side of the road the pavement widens out making my progress much easier. To the left is the Piovego Canal, which runs beneath the pavement and the main road. I notice a barge tied to the bank of the canal. As I continue past the public gardens I am pleased that this time I know my way to the Conservatorio. I look at my watch and realise that I am far too early. It is only nine o’clock. I decide to seek refuge in the Chiesa degli Eremitani.

The church is dark, cool and peaceful. It is almost empty of people. One lady kneels and prays. A couple, probably tourists, wander along the sides of the nave, looking intently at everything. I sit down in a pew glad of the rest. For a short space of time I am able to be myself. I can think, pray and reflect on my forthcoming day. Even if I had no religious conviction the church would still provide a safe retreat to hide in and to be myself. There is no need to react to people around me or to the situation I find myself in as is necessary out on the street. There is always the tension of having to be constantly mindful and aware on the street. But here all I need to do is just sit and be. It is a wonderful release.

After a period of quiet I am restored and I begin to feel intrigued by my surroundings. A great treasure of early Renaissance art the Church of the Eremitani was sadly damaged by an air raid in 1944. Its jewel, the Ovetari chapel frescoed by Andrea Mantegna in the mid fifteenth century was devastated. A mini exhibition tells the story of piecing together the salvaged fragments. I suddenly remember that I should be continuing on my way to the Conservatorio. The frescos are absorbing and I resolve to return another time in order to respond fully to them.

Two minutes later I am at the door of the Conservatorio. The building is salmon pink in colour. To the right of the imposing entrance is a plaque, which reads: ‘Conservatorio di Musica Cesare Pollini’. The stone framework of the entrance, the height of about two tall men, is filled with dark panelled wood. At the top is a decorative grill and in the centre are two enormous doors, which are unlocked and left open. As I pass though the doors there is a porter’s window to my right and huge glass doors in front of me. The other side of the glass doors is the vestibule proper.

The entrance hall is palatial space with a marble floor and lighting suspended from on high. In the first third of this space there are notice boards on the walls of either side displaying notices about forthcoming concerts, and the arrangements for various classes and examinations. After the notices on the left-hand side is a stairwell encasing a grand marble staircase with ornate wrought iron railings. In the remaining two thirds of space there are several doors. The first two after the staircase are for the female and male lavatories respectively. The next leads into a modernised room containing vending machines, which dispense drinks and snacks. The other doors, towards the end of the hall lead to teaching rooms. Between these various doors are long benches covered in brown leather. At the far end of the lobby are glass doors, which mirror the front doors and lead onto a courtyard.

I place my mandolin case and bag down on one of the benches. Almost immediately I am approached by a young man carrying a mandolin case. He is from Naples and is here today to sit his diploma exam. I tell him that I am from England and that I have just arrived today by train to take my admission exam. We chat as if we have known each other for years. I tell him that I had read about him in Corriere della Sera. In a short article the newspaper outlined the plight of those wishing to study the mandolin. It said that it was impossible to study the mandolin in Naples, the birth place of the mandolin (the Neapolitan mandolin). As a result one young man was having to make an unprecedented lengthy journey for his lesson. Every week the young man commuted the round trip between Naples and Padova. This was surely the longest trip anyone has had to make for a mandolin lesson the newspaper claimed. That is until today. We both laugh. The idea of travelling between London and Padova seems at once both wonderful and ridiculous.

Other mandolinists are attracted to us. It is a strange experience being part of a group of people who are seriously studying the mandolin. Our common interest is a unifying force. I feel immediately at home and comfortable with these complete strangers. Two others, both young men, are taking their diploma exam today. A third is a young lady called Deborah who, like me, has also come to take her admission exam. They have all brought friends and companions so we are quite a crowd. They chatter extensively and nervously. They ask each other what time their exam is, where Ugo is and what is happening next. No one knows where Ugo is, neither do they know what is happening next. But they are all certain, like me, that their exam is at the fast approaching 11 o’clock. At this moment it becomes clear that we all have the same appointment!

A rival group becomes manifest. A ripple of awareness moves through our group. The rival group is a collection of Maestros lead by Ugo. They are the examining panel and they make their way to one of the teaching rooms. At intervals we are invited in to listen to the recitals which form the basis of the final diploma exams. In addition each candidate has to execute an orchestral passage for mandolin, undertake some sight-reading and answer questions put by the examiners.

The recitals consist of three pieces: two with piano accompaniment and one unaccompanied. Each recital is about forty minutes in length and so each exam, taking in account the other requirements, lasts about an hour. It will be teatime before the admission exams. Deborah is concerned about catching the train home. She has to return to Piemonte, Piedmont, where she lives close to the French border. I assure her that my train will leave mid evening so I am happy for her to have her exam first. She is happy too and we go to the nearby Caffé Eremitani for lunch.

Deborah talks a great deal. Her Piemontese accent, influenced by hard French sounds, and the quickness of her speech make it almost impossible to understand. But she is so patient and kind, taking care to slow down, repeat and clarify when ever I ask her to, that I am drawn to her. Her companion is a lady of about her mother’s age, a family friend, who has accompanied her on the long journey. I thought the lady was her mother but her own mother is unable to make the journey today. As we eat our panini, rolls, and drink mineral water I tell my new friend about my journey and my family. After a quick espresso we return to the examinations.

The afternoon passes happily listening to beautiful music. Some of the pieces I have never heard before. One of these is the Concerto in A minor by Raffaele Calace. It is a real treat to listen to such a richly romantic work. I am transported by the most luscious sounds, the most exquisite nuances, to the Neapolitan coastline. I feel the warmth of the sun on my face, I smell the scent of the lemon trees and I visualise the sapphire blue sea as I look over to the island of Ischia. Absolute paradise!

Later I am intrigued by another piece of music, which is new to me: La Fustemberg by Antoine Riggieri. It is a theme, a simple tune, with a set of ten intricate variations on the theme. I am fascinated by the complex patterns and shapes of the music formed by string crossing. The plectrum dances backwards and forwards, often between two strings, with the left-hand fingers changing constantly to alter the pitch of the notes. Sometimes the two strings are close together, next to each other. Other times the strings are far apart with one or two strings between them which the performer must take care not to touch. In my analysis of this music I assume, as usual and for the sake of simplicity, that the mandolin has just four strings like the violin. In fact it really has four pairs or courses of strings. Each pair of strings is tuned to the same pitch and when playing it is essential to think of each pair as one thick string.

At the end of the afternoon the candidates are recalled individually to hear the amount of marks they gained and whether they have succeeded in passing the exam. I am a little shocked to learn that one of the candidates has failed and that there is no possibility of re-taking the exam. Seven years of study is crowned by glorious success with the passing of the final exam and receiving the diploma certificate. Alternatively seven years of study is negated by the failure to pass the final hurdle and the lack of a piece of paper. It seems a harsh system compared to England where it is possible to re-sit such exams. I am touched by the devastation that the failed candidate feels. There is nothing appropriate to say.

I wait for Deborah to sit her exam. Now it is my turn. It is half past five and I am totally exhausted. I am physically tired from travelling. I am mentally tired from listening to a foreign language all day. And I am aurally tired from listening to so much music. I am worried because I haven’t found a moment’s privacy to warm up or practise. I am anxious because of the diploma results. I begin to doubt myself, thinking if one who has lived and studied here can fail then what chance do I have? I try to ignore the great tension in my body and I begin to play. I give a performance of Calace’s Preludio number two. It is not bad, especially considering the circumstances. But it certainly isn’t good. Ugo asks me why I chose something that is so difficult and complicated to play. I thought the piece was a good vehicle to exemplify various aspects of my technique. He advises me to study something simple, the solo sonatas of Francesco Lecce, and tells me to come back for a lesson next month.

At least I have passed the exam. I cheer myself up with the thought of an Italian supper. I return towards the station to find a pizzeria that I had noticed on my way to the Conservatorio this morning. It is in a parade of shops, which are near to the station. I decide that the most sensible plan is to relax eating a meal somewhere close to the station. Then I don’t have to worry about the time because it will only take a few minutes walk to the station. The pizzeria is small, plain and simple. The pizzas are reasonably priced and their quality is excellent. I have a pizza ai funghi, a mushroom pizza, with a salad. I also have a quarter litre of local white wine, brought in a hand made pottery jug, and half a litre of mineral water.

I feel a little naughty ordering wine when I am eating alone. I justify myself by remembering that the significant word is eating and not alone. Alone is academic because I am amid other people eating. It is just that some people, like me, have a table all to themselves. Drinking wine with food is the culturally accepted norm in Italy. It compliments and enhances food, and is meant to be made use of in conjunction with food. It is not something to be consumed by itself for its own sake. I come from a culture in which drinking is traditionally something separate from food. For the majority of ordinary people drinking is something which happens in the pub. Although it is often represented as a social activity it is also often presented as something medicinal. I remember as a child that a person who had suffered a shock would always be offered a good stiff drink to steady the nerves.

I enjoy my wine and water, mixed, mezzo e mezzo, half and half, just as the Italians do. I had learnt from my many Italian holidays that I enjoy drinking wine much better this way. The pizza is also fantastic. It is such a pleasure to be eating an authentic pizza with a wafer thin base and fresh simple ingredients. Although I have had some good pizzas in London they are never quite the same, despite all the claims, as those made in Italy. They are usually complicated with too many ingredients and often a tomato sauce, which is uncharacteristically spicy. In Italy most pizzas have only one ingredient in addition to the bread base, tomato sauce and mozzarella cheese. If it is a pepperoni pizza, for example, it will only have pepperoni sausage added to the basic ingredients.

After a healthy bowl of macedonia, fruit salad, and an espresso, I return to the station. The overnight train to Paris doesn’t come too soon for me. It has been a long day. A second long day. The station is cold and the waiting room hosts quite a lot of people with disturbing behaviour. I walk up and down the platform in order to keep warm and to avoid contact with unwelcome strangers. As soon as I am able I board the train, hand in my passport, arrange my bed and settle down to sleep.

In Paris I am not restored by my night’s sleep. I feel pretty ghastly and I would love to have a bath. I am, however, delightfully distracted at the Bastille station by a young lady playing a harp. It is a large harp, the sort found in an orchestra. I am amazed at its presence amongst the throng of early morning commuters. The frame of the harp flashes gold and the celestial sounds of the strings echo all around. The buskers I have encountered have portable instruments and live in fear of being moved on. This one is ensconced in the centre of the platform. I know nothing about the French attitude to busking or of the likelihood that this one will be moved on or even prosecuted. I know only that the Parisian commuters seem respectful of this precious instrument and that perhaps they are even thankful for the inspirational music encouraging them on their way.

At Gare du Nord I embrace the comforts of a civilised society by hiring a bathroom for a modest fee. The bathroom is just a small room containing a toilet and a hand basin, but it is perfect for my purpose. With a flannel, a bar of soap, hot water and privacy I am able to carry out my ablutions in an old fashioned but most satisfactory way. I am so grateful for this opportunity and I am so grateful for hot water.

Breakfast is good, fresh croissant and milky coffee. Soon I am on a train heading for the English Channel. The return journey is slow and tedious. The channel crossing is uneventful. Kent is also tiring, all the more so because, although we are not far from London, the train is particularly sluggish. I hit the London rush hour. I take the District Line from Victoria station to Mile End. I change there onto the Central Line because I just have to walk across the station platform, which is easier with my luggage. I walk the five minutes walk from the central line station to arrive home in the early evening. I have been for my first mandolin lesson and I feel in a state of collapse.