98 Irk

The elderly lady with silver grey hair and a formidable bosom corners the festival’s Programming Director and demands that he explain himself.

Her hair is tied at the back in an elegant bow of silver and black, and her glasses suggest literacy both cinematic and literary. Her lips are glossed red, but the upper lip is quite thin and the lower lip is quite full, and at the corners these lips pull somewhat towards eighteen past eight, which gives her a permanent expression of ever so marginally lopsided vexation. She bears an uncanny resemblance to Mrs Richards who pitches up in Episode One of the second series of Fawlty Towers. This lady though is not unhappy with her view, nor is she hard of hearing; she hears all too well, and what she objects to is English.

What irks – so as not to say angers – her (anger seems too uncouth a term for her form of displeasure) is that here in Locarno, the picturesque lakeside town with the second oldest international film festival in the world after Venice, an announcement (or was it a speech? I am not entirely sure now) was made not in Italian (the language of the Canton Ticino, where we find ourselves), or any of the other official languages of Switzerland, German, French or Rumantsch, but in the language of the global village, English. She had no problem understanding it – she probably has a Swiss education and her English is likely to be better than that of two thirds of all native English speakers around the world – her objection is one of principle. One of culture, even. And a concern for what is being cultivated, the unstoppable advance of the current lingua franca (obviously, and as the term reminds us, not the first one to sweep the globe, and it won’t be the last), or for the multilingual diversity of parochial Europe, specifically Switzerland.

This diversity has real charm and, when witnessed in action, can be seriously impressive. It’s not just the trains here which routinely make all major announcements in three languages (one of which is always English, although English is not an official language in Switzerland), or the packaging of consumer goods, which mostly (but not always) eschews English but finds room, on such everyday produce as butter and milk, for all four national languages; it’s when you see and hear people actually using their languages seamlessly and matter-of-factly across their spectrum that you realise how capable we can be if we try.

Not long before this ‘incident’ in Locarno, I’d been to the other major film festival in Switzerland, Solothurn. This, unlike Locarno, is not an international affair but focuses entirely on Swiss film making; it is therefore not of global significance, but really important to Switzerland. My friend had directed the opening film. He’d also fallen out with the producer and his erstwhile best friend over it, and so it was this not an entirely happy occasion. It was nonetheless memorable. Not least for the opening speeches. I don’t remember their exact sequence, but: one was held by the then Artistic Director of the festival, who happened to be from the Ticino and therefore spoke in Italian. One was held by the then President of the Federal Council (this, in the egalitarian direct democracy that is Switzerland is a nominal role rotating on an annual basis through the Federal Council, which consists of seven members who are elected by parliament and who form the government of the country as a joint cabinet; the President of Switzerland therefore only ever is in office for one year as a primus inter pares, or first among equals), who happened to be French speaking and therefore gave her address in French. And a third was held by some dignitary from the Swiss film making community, who spoke German. There were no translations, no subtitles, no surtitles, no captions. The expectation was – as it is in the chambers of the national parliament – that everyone in the audience (which here, this being an open event, is the general public) speaks at least two, but preferably three, of the four national languages.

And they do. Mostly. But you are talking about a film festival going audience with a particular interest in Swiss films. You are talking about Solothurn, not Locarno. Locarno is one of the most important and quite possibly the most beautiful film festival for independent film in the world, and so obviously not everybody attending it speaks either Italian, or German, or French, or let alone Rumantsch. (Hardly anybody in Switzerland speaks Rumantsch: it has a native speaker base of some 36,000 individuals with about another 25,000 people speaking it ‘regularly’. It’s a lovely language, though, and not at all impossible to learn, especially if you have Latin.)

The irony for my Swiss Mrs Richards in particular, and for us all, is that the one language almost all Swiss people speak to at least basic level – many to near perfection – is English. Professors often lecture in English at universities, there are kindergartens and pre-school groups conducted in English (also in Chinese, now, as it happens), and it is not unheard of for high school students to deliver their papers in English. And with so many people living and working and travelling in Switzerland from all over the world, the one language you know for certain you’ll get by in is, of course, English.

The festival’s Programming Director is patient and polite. He gives a somewhat resigned looking smile – resigned more, I think, to the fact that being accosted with these kinds of grievances is simply part of the job, even if he’s really just here tonight outside this cinema to see a film at his festival, than to the realities of globalisation – and explains the situation to his interlocutor in her seventies not unlike you would to a child of about seven. I half fear me she may feel patronised. She doesn’t. Her eyes light up, and she feels taken seriously. Her lips, at first reluctantly, but then giving themselves over to reconciliation, flatten out into almost a smile of her own. I wonder has he just charmed her. He is very charming, in a slightly headmasterly way: the kind of person who daily has to deal with unruly students and their impossible parents alike, and who just takes it all in his steady, slow-paced, long-suffering stride.

My queue starts to move, and I lose track of them both and their conversation. I don’t think it was his perfectly reasonable argument that won her over, I think it was just that he managed to signal to her for three minutes or four that he cared. And I’m almost certain he did, for three or four minutes. Which is probably about as much as it merited, after all.

What the film was that I saw, or what language it was in, or how it was subtitled (all films at these festivals are always subtitled), I can’t recall…

16082015 Perfection

That day the universe was on my side, because for the first time it gave me not just a second chance, but a third; and that really had never happened before, I never even normally get the second chance, and for obvious reasons, it’s just very unlikely to come about; so to be given a third chance: imagine how lucky I felt, and how happy.

I was on my way to the party, that was on Monday. I was in a good frame of mind, I had just arrived in town and seen two decent films, and I’d picked up my invitation and I was determined to go to this party even though I knew nobody there and I thought I might leave it again very soon. But in my good frame of mind I started chatting to a woman on the shuttle bus that the festival laid on from the last screening in the grand piazza to the party, and after seeming a little distant at first she then, as we arrived there, almost grabbed my hand, and we went to the bar and had our first few drinks together, talking a lot about this, that and the other, and I thought this is great: I’m already not alone at the party.

When she left I spotted a good looking man with a beard who was on his own and, buoyed by my success so far, started talking to him, and for a while we had more drinks and chatted about this and that too (though not so much about the other), and he met some people he knew and I talked to them as well, and I quite liked him but I also realised he probably wasn’t that interested in me, and that was fine too.

We’d by now drifted back towards the bar, and then suddenly out of nowhere the handsomest, friendliest, loveliest of all the men at the party – and it was a fairly big party – stood next to me and looked me in the eyes, and we hugged and we kissed, and I don’t know why that happened so quickly or how, I only know that I’d seen him before, when he was working, taking pictures, and he had pointed his camera at me and the woman from the shuttle bus, and I had raised my glass to him and said cheers, and now here he was and we were kissing and hugging and I didn’t know how or why: we must have been into each other, I suppose.

It was now nearing the end of the party, coming up four in the morning, and people were already leaving and he simply said, “so to Locarno?” and I said, “yes,” and on the way to the car he told me he was staying in a flat with ten people in it and some of them needed a lift, so we may have to wait for them, and I said that was all right, but in the end nobody wanted a lift, those who were there at the party decided to go by other means, maybe walk, so we took his car, a convertible, though he didn’t put down the roof, maybe because it was coming up four o’clock in the morning.

He told me he didn’t have his licence at the moment, but that that was all right, and I thought, well he’ll be driving carefully then, and he did, and we got there without problem, but with a little help from his phone.

As we entered the flat it was dark and already quiet and we walked through a room with nobody in it, into another room which had a large double bed with two people in it, a man and a woman, both young, maybe the same age as he, and there was a narrow mattress on the floor and he said: “this is me, but it’s all right,” and it was all right.

We lay down on his little bed and within seconds we were undressed and were what used to be called making love and it felt like that, it felt like we were just making some love, and the couple in the bed did not seem to notice or mind and then we both fell asleep in each other’s arms.

Now and then the man from the bed would call my young lover’s name because he was snoring and that wouldn’t help, so I would hug him closer to me, and that would.

In the morning we woke up and he said: “dormi – sleep,” but he had to get up and go to work and I got up too though I didn’t strictly have to go to work, but I did have to go to the flat where I was staying, and do some work there. He made me a coffee and we kissed again and hugged and said goodbye and he disappeared, I assumed into the shower.

I got dressed in the room with the big double bed and the little single bed, and a young woman there was also getting dressed, and I left my card on the window sill and let myself out and I walked home in the happy sunshine.

He didn’t phone me or text me, or send me an email, or friend me on Facebook, and I thought, well that’s fair enough he’d told me how much work he’s got on during the festival here and he was young, so maybe that was just that, and that’s fair enough. But a little part of me wished and hoped and believed I would see him again; I would bump into him, I reckoned, at some point during the festival, it’s not that big a town, after all.

Nothing happened till Friday, except I was happy all week, doing some work and watching some films, and then Friday I was out with some friends and we’d just had something to eat and decided to get an ice cream before watching a late film together, and from the ice cream stand I could see him walk towards the Piazza Grande and I thought there he is, but he didn’t spot me and I was too far away to call him and I didn’t know whether he’d want me to call him since he hadn’t called me, and he was gone and I thought, ah well, that’s a pity, but maybe there will be a second chance (even though I don’t normally get a second chance).

Once everyone had their ice cream, we realised we were running late for the film so started to make a move towards the cinema, and there he was again, coming my way now, with a plate of food in his hand and passing at just a couple of feet distance: again I didn’t call him or stop him or say hello, it happened too quickly, we were late for our film, he had his hands full with food and he didn’t see me, again. And again I thought, ah what a pity, but maybe there will be a third chance, even though I had never had a third chance before, or heard of anybody who had.

We went to see the film and then on the way back we passed a bar with a big garden where sometimes they play live music, and one of the group said let’s not go in here, there’s another one which is nicer, but the other one was already closed, so we returned to the one with the big garden, and it’s a huge garden with different sections separated by old stone walls on different levels, and it would be impossible to get a view of it all, especially at night when it isn’t that brightly lit, and usually very busy, and we were going to stand in the courtyard nearest the bar, but then the same member of the group said let’s go up there, and we went up a flight of steps, past another bar, and into another little courtyard and we sat down at a table, and no sooner had we sat down at the table than I saw the back of the head that I recognised.

He was on the phone, stroking his short bleached hair with his free hand, and I recognised his short bleached hair in an instant as I had stroked it too and so much liked the feel of it against the palm of my hand and I recognised the little wrist band that looked like it had come from another festival, probably music, and I thought I should get up now and say hello to him, but he was with a group of people and so was I, and I thought, ah well, he’s here and at one point I’ll get up and say hello or he’ll get up and turn around, and then he finished his conversation on the phone and got up and turned around and there he was.

I said his name, and he said: “Sebastian.”

And we hugged and gave each other a kiss and he told me he had a problem with his flat which he needed to sort, but how long was I here for now and what had happened to me Tuesday morning and I told him I’d left him a card and didn’t want to hang around as I knew he would have to go to work and he said he hadn’t seen the card but now that he knew where it was he would find it, but I gave him another one and he looked so glad to see me and we held each other’s hands and we hugged again and gave each other another kiss and then he had to go and sort his problem with the flat, and I knew that today the universe had been kind to me, because it had given me not just a second chance but a third, and I had taken not the first, not the second but the third chance, and I don’t know if we will see each other tomorrow or ever again, but just knowing that he was glad to see me again today and to see that spark in his eye and feel that hair and hear him say “Sebastian” and smiling at me his broadest of smiles, that alone completely made me happy that day.