Towards Italy

Tuesday I travel on, taking an early morning train that departs at 7:21, towards Italy. The journey, The Tape tells me, is “fairly pleasant,” with the exception of one incident. This sits ingrained on my brain, and whilst most of the other experiences of that August 1988 are a haze with only the occasional moment or image in any kind of focus, this one is sharp and clear, and it still makes me squirm, to this day.

I was tired. I had slept for two hours. Monday night we’d decided to go to the cinema: Anne and some of her friends had gone to see some American movie I evidently did not rate or care about and so I had gone to see Le Grand Bleu: “one of the most stunningly beautiful films I’ve ever seen,” I now hear myself rave, and I remember that vividly too, though not only from this screening, but from another, much more thrilling one, later, in Paris. Jean-Marc Barr. “He is fantastic; he’s certainly a name to remember.” After the cinema, a crepe, and then to bed really late.

So, with very little sleep, I’m on a train that is completely full, though I do have a seat, by the window, near the end of the carriage. I mostly daydream and possibly doze off a bit now and then, and everything is going fine until the train stops at a spot where there seems to be nothing at all. It’s not a town, it’s not a village. It’s barely a hamlet. There’s a platform and a small building and some signs that to me in my state, which is not comatose but not alert either, are meaningless.

On board come two customs officers. I see them appear at the other end of the carriage, quite far away from where I am, and as I look up at them, I semi-consciously give a sigh of profoundest ennui, just exactly at the moment that one of them catches my eye. I think nothing more of this for the next five minutes or so and continue gazing out of the window thinking my nondescript thoughts. My sigh and my facial expression had lasted for maybe a second. But I do remember distinctly allowing that gut response to just come out: an aversion to officialdom. Almost, but almost not quite, wanting to show them I held them with a sizeable degree of post-juvenile contempt, not as human beings, of course, but as uniforms holding up the train’s so effortless glide through the artificially delineate countryside.

The two officials make their way through the carriage, checking passports, not hassling anyone. They work quite fast and I’m almost beginning to like them for being so efficient and quick about their monotonous task. Then they get to me. I am sitting by my window, resting my head on my hand, and I look up at them with an extremely tired and bored look on my face. I am wearing all black. I am twenty-three, with peroxide dyed hair. I had reacted to spotting them from a distance with a look on my face and body language that to them must have signalled not so much ennui as ‘I’m in trouble’. I am their prime suspect. Certainly of the carriage, probably of the train. Possibly of the day.

Granted, it could have been worse. They could have taken me off the train and subjected me to a strip search. Which they didn’t. They went through everything I had on me. They opened my luggage (I seem to recall this being a big holdall bag), searched through my clothes, opened my toiletry bag. They found a tiny tube of something and demanded to know what it was. It was a cream for mosquito bites. They thought that hard to believe, which was ridiculous, because it smelt like medicine and we were on the border to Italy, in the summer. My brain was not willing to argue. My Italian register brought forth: zanzare. It took about twenty minutes, it felt like two hours. It was not even humiliating so much as it was unnecessary and, I felt, vindictive. This, I now know today, is what profiling feels like, if you match the profile. This is what being exposed to low-level authority feels like if it turns against you. I understand people who complain about stop-and-search policies, or who are tired of being the ones picked out at airport entry points because of their skin tone or what they are wearing. It was, by comparison, harmless, and yet I wanted it just to end. I felt exposed and hard done by. And maybe I was.

Still. I had never in my life purchased or carried any illegal substance and so I had nothing on me and they did not find anything. They left, we departed, I arrived in Milan, where I did something really stupid. I got off the train and went into the station concourse to look at the board where all the trains were displayed. Vicenza, this told me, would next be up at 2pm. It was now getting towards half one, but, for some to me now unfathomable reason not trusting that, I decided to go to the information desk to make sure. There was only one window open: ‘Money Exchange & Information’. After queueing for half an hour, I arrived at said window, only to find that this was the wrong one. Nonetheless, they asked me what I wanted to know and I told them I wanted to know when the next train would leave for Vicenza. At 2pm they said, glancing idly at a timetable. I ran, as best I could with my luggage, to the platform, where I saw the train pull out of the station. What, I wonder, was that all about? Sometimes I just didn’t trust myself. At all.

I phoned my friend Stefano in Vicenza from a public phone box, which cost me 600 lire, I record, to tell him I’ll be arriving one hour later. Stefano, once I’d arrived and had settled, took me to the beautiful piazza in the town centre, where we also met up with Giovanni.

Thus begins about a week in Vicenza, and at the hands of Stefano’s mum, I tell The Tape, I’m being fed to the point of bursting. I spend one day in Venice, at the Peggy Guggenheim Collection, and, passing one of the many small shops, I see a leather jacket I particularly like the look of. I go inside and casually ask the shop assistant how much it costs (there being no price tag). Five million lire, she tells me, which at the time is about two thousand pounds. I see, I say, as matter of factly (or so I think) as I can, and I do this unnecessary thing of looking at it in a little more detail to signal that I’m really not perturbed at all at the price. I’m really perturbed at the price. Then I do that even more unnecessary thing of looking around the shop a bit further before I leave, just to make sure the middle-aged woman whom I will never meet again in my life and who has long since sussed that I’m in the wrong shop understands that the prices here are really no big deal for me, at all. They’re a really big deal for me…

Vicenza, I tell my self of the future, is incredibly quiet, but I like the Teatro Olympico, calling it “stunning”. Built like a Greek arena, but all indoors, I describe it as “absolutely beautiful” and venture that it may be the only one of its kind in Italy (though where I get that from I don’t know).

At one point we go to a party together which I confide to The Tape reminds me of the time when we, I and my gschpänlis from the Gymnasium Münchenstein, had our parties: the ease, the freedom. I feel charmed, I put on record, and delighted by the friendliness of these people.

I also go back to Venice on “various occasions” (there can’t have been many, unless I stayed there for much longer than I recall), and on one of these get to see a Pier Paolo Pasolini film at the festival, apparently as a matter of extreme luck: “How I ever managed to get there and get there on time, I will never know, but it worked, and it worked to the minute.” I seem to have walked into some post office (presumably having got to the Lido first), and asked where the auditorium was that I needed to get to, only to find that it just so happened to be that particular building where the film was about to start. What the film was I don’t put on record…

There are two more moments that stick in my memory from Vicenza, and although I don’t talk about them on The Tape, I am as certain as I can be that they belong to that same trip. (I’ve since been back to Vicenza a number of times and there was most likely at least one more visit within the next year or two, but the way things fit together – especially with the amount of time I seem to have on my own whilst staying with Stefano and his family – make me think that this is all one occasion.)

The first one involved me attempting to make coffee with one of these typical two-part Italian coffee maker jugs. I took the thing, which I myself had just used and which was still hot, off the hob and, wearing oven gloves, unscrewed the top from the bottom. At that point there was a loud bang and ground coffee splattered all over the immaculately clean small town kitchen. Stefano was grace personified and just helped me clean up before his mum got back home.

The other one takes place in Vicenza town. I go up to a small church which is either closed or about to close and there’s a young, good-looking, guard at the gate. This makes me think it might have been a museum or some other historic site, since churches didn’t usually have guards, as far as I can remember. He wears a uniform of the nondescript probably charcoal or dark grey variety, and to my surprise he opens the door for me and shows me around. We get to the end of a short tour at the lowest part of the building, a crypt or a vault, of which I do not recall what it contained, and there is this moment that stays in my mind. This moment when something is meant to happen. And nothing happens. I wasn’t sure then what it was that was meant to happen and I’m not even entirely sure today. Looking back I wonder: was he about to make a move on me? If so, why didn’t he? I was, then, I now see, quite attractive, though I didn’t think so then. We were alone. He had keys to the building, he had, most probably, locked the front door. I liked him. I think I would have wanted him to make a move. I certainly wouldn’t have made a move first, though. I was on foreign territory, I was far too shy and too gauche, and also nowhere near conceited enough. I never assumed people fancied me enough to want to make a move on me. Sometimes until long after they did. Maybe I was too aloof too. Looking at me now, sitting opposite me at the Limonlu Bahçe, I think I understand why he might not have made a move even if he had wanted to and had felt that I possibly wanted him to and the conditions were well nigh perfect for, well, at least a kiss, just to see how and where that would go. I was quite aloof, quite distant, remote. Is this a double tautology?

The moment lasted – not very long – until it was over and he led me back upstairs into the Italian sunlight. I thanked him, I said goodbye. And I wondered: what was that? Did I miss something here? This feeling, this question: did I just miss something here, that was happening or should have been happening or could have been happening had only I been alert to it, perhaps less naive, perhaps less insecure, perhaps more attuned: it followed me for years, for decades even. Until recently. It doesn’t do so much any more: I miss things occasionally, still, but not so much as a rule. And I make mistakes, of course, who doesn’t. And sometimes I’m just not brave enough. In fact, I often, I think, am probably just not quite brave enough…

Then on the way onwards, in Milan, I actually went to some nondescript building in the outskirts of somewhere and tried to talk to somebody from Reteitalia. What on earth about, I have no idea…

120664 Loss

How grown ups ruin things. 

The little boy on the District Line is giddy with insight, aglow with love, his voice alive with excitement. Swinging round the pole he’s meant to just hold on to he tells his friend, ‘sometimes I think that everything is just a dream.’

The slightly taller but still little boy, his friend, says: ‘so do I!’

It’s a moment of sheer wonder. A wonder dad has lost. Dad says: ‘That’s the question my dad likes to think about, how do you know that everything isn’t just a dream, that we’re not in someone’s brain…’

The boys try to ignore him, they’re not quite ready for his existential, inherited angst. But dad now has the upper hand: ‘How do you know,’ he insists, ‘how do you know you’re not dreaming right now?’ There’s a smile on his face, but it doesn’t look as benign as he possibly means it to be: there is power at play now, it’s a smirk.

Slightly older but still very young boy has no answer: ‘I just know,’ he says.

Dad – to the younger boy, they don’t look like brothers to me – is like a dog with his bone: ‘But how can you be sure? Have you ever had a dream?’

This strikes me as near-cruel a question. These boys are maybe seven, eight?

Older, slightly taller, but still nine-years-old, I imagine, at-the-most, boy is now unsure: ‘Yes…?’

The uncertainty infuses a slight quiver in his voice now.

My heart breaks, I want to hug him and say: everything is all right, and you’re quite right too, and your little friend: sometimes everything is just a dream, but not in this cynical, clinical way your little friend’s dad now makes you think and worry about.’ Still dad won’t let go and instead pushes on with his inquisition, until: ‘you start freaking me out,’ the little boy says.

At last dad relents, sensing the fear he has just poured over his son and his son’s gschpänli, who were just a moment ago so excited that everything could still be a dream, and to whom until just a moment ago it probably was…

The tear I shed for these boys is as heavy as the joy was light that I felt for their innocence. If only dad had had a wiser father. The prism of your childhood casts the world in colours that but slowly fade…