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…

52 The Silk Route

How did I get here? To this point where, Sedartis by my side, I find myself gazing out of moving trains, over picturesque lakes, wondering ‘how did I get here?’ This is a change of mode, this pondering. Is it my midlife? Is this my crisis?

If so it is mild in the extreme. Contradiction in terms. My overall state is snug, within myself. My friends, my family. I live to love not to loathe, so I tell myself and so I feel and so I largely, modestly, believe, I do. I anger slowly, forgive fast. I sense the present, now much more than I used to; I used to ache for the future, and be in it too. I may just have caught up with myself and that is the keenest source of surprise: hello, here I am. How did I get here. . .

The route my father took. From Thalwil where he was working for a textile company making specialist threads and yarns, I believe (not silk, as such, it’s more of a metaphor, this…), to Manchester where I was born to Goldach where I have my first faint memories of a long balcony and Aldo our dog, to Arlesheim where I went to Kindergarten and Basel where, from Arlesheim, I commuted to school, then Münchenstein where I finished school and made friends I love to this day, to London where I’m at home.

(Or does it start with Berlin, whence my grandmother left at the age of eighteen, crossing into Switzerland and to Zürich, where she met my grandfather. That may be the preamble: there’s a separate story and it’s beautiful, but it needs to be told elsewhere.)

The question perhaps is not ‘how did I get here’, the question perhaps is simply, what next: whither wilt thou, now thou art here? Not geographically speaking, geography matters less and less, I am at home in London, but I can be and be happy almost anywhere, as long as I have my laptop and a decent WiFi connection.

I find myself sitting next to a beautiful woman called Karmen, spelt with a K, at a film festival in northern Italy, and she asks me what my next project is. I list four that I consider ‘current’. It strikes me that this is maybe a lot. Then again, I have always conducted my journey along multiple tracks. Even when I decide to just concentrate on the one, my curious mind and my eagerness to experience tend to open up another soon. I am fine with that too.

It may be that the journey that follows many roads is bound to go on many detours and therefore takes longer to reach any kind of destination, but then: what is the destination? Is there one? Ought there to be one, even, or is it not much more, as many say and know, the trip alone that truly matters.

As I talk to Karmen and tell her what I’m up to right now and in the very foreseeable future, I realise that everything I have done and written and directed and made and learnt so far has been, most likely, not much more than the apprenticeship, because I sense, so I tell her, because I do, that the real task, the real challenge, the real mountain to climb and the real work to do, lies just ahead.

We’re in the chink of an exponential curve that is about to go virtually vertical, and this means we’ll not only have new stories to tell, we’ll want, we’ll need, whole new ways of telling these stories and to make sense of them. Serious Story Telling, that counts.

I never get bored, I tell Karmen, because if you watch a wall of paint dry close up enough, it’s actually riveting. But what I’m really most excited, most thrilled most ecstatic about is that we’re on the verge of understanding ourselves and how we’re connected completely afresh. That the dimensions that hitherto have been considered effectively spiritual and esoteric are coming in touch with the principles of quantum mechanics and we’ll find, so I’m sure, that we can explain things that until less than a generation ago we thought either unfathomable or simply hokum. They will turn out to be neither.

‘Look at me now and here I am’, I say to myself, in the words of Gertrude, and I take a sip of the wine that fills me with a glow of happiness. These people, these good souls, this world that we live in, these paths that we choose or think we choose, these connections we make and that make us.

I’m in the right place, at the right time. I may not know it yet, but I  sense it, for sure.