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They may know how to make waffles in Belgium, but they fail spectacularly on coffee. I am sipping the horrid ban extract at the train station in Ghent, of which I have seen the street my hotel was in, and an interior of one restaurant. There my coffee was a cup of warm milk with a vague burnt taste to it; at breakfast I went through three variations of the awful liquid, light brown and machine-generated, before resigning myself to lukewarm tea. Fortunately the land of espresso awaits me, with its chrome coffee monsters and happy stove-top percolators.
In the beige 70s van the three guys start singing – singing their pieces, note by note. I doze off in the strange folk medley as we drive though the suburbs of Milan. When we get there, they chuck the speakers and scatter around, hunched over their instruments lovingly. Separate pieces, separate instruments, separate sounds. Than the flute sits next to the harmonica, than they're joined by the sax, finally the guitar comes in, the band comes to life, like someone waking up and taking a deep breath. Suddenly they're strangers to me, all as one, far away on the scene.
There is a gentle powder descending from the sky around midnight. Happy happy, snow dances in the light of a street lamp. Early in the morning I must have heard the silence of snow, I look out, blueness comes down upon us, and the snow is so thick, like a curtain. It's heavy, wet; trees bend down like old men, sweep the white ground with strained branches. Disoriented little birds twitter nervously in the hedge. When I step out the soft snow is up to my knees, feels warm, ridiculous really, I bend down and take a big, satisfying mouthful.
It was his birthday yesterday, our dear vineyard-master. We grabbed a bottle of fizzyness from Lucille's and headed over. After I was done embracing the stove, I had a look around. The house had a nomadic feeling to it, perhaps thanks to the curving walls of beige sand, with random wood-lined holes through which to peek; or maybe because of the knitted draperies, or maybe the massive trees growing straight out of the corners, bare and smooth. Or maybe it was him, sitting quietly and contentedly on a wooden chest, smiling, with a coconut shell for an ashtray.
Again I dreamt I was having a baby. My stomach was swollen and perfectly round in front of me, cotton top tight around it; I held a hand on it protectively, as I moved around. It hurt. In my dream, I felt it hurt, a clenching, low-level pain, like a memory of pain, or a premonition. I knew I was going to give birth soon. At the time though it felt good, it felt still and right and whole. When I woke up I was surprised to feel the numb pain go away, somehow I thought it would stay.
I challenge you to speak up. I can see you, all of you, tiptoeing around me, tiptoeing around questions, whispering in the corners, or when I go out of the room. I hear the echoes of your suggestions in your mouths, I smell them in the stagnant air, I see them reflected in your half-smiles. Your whole body language shouts – tell me! - and you yield, and bend, and gravitate towards me; but you pull away, who wants to cut the chase, once it'd done it's done, no more bitter-sweet half-truths to suck on in the empty hours.
Ode to Stracci the Smelly Dog of Piemonte
In the farmyard, a dog can be seen
Those who see him turn away and scream
That his stink is so strong
They feel they're going bald
Or live in an Eastern regime!
This dog is a creature of style:
White dreadlocks, bold patches, one eye,
Always covered in mud
Boldly strides this old stud
His look determined, mischievous and sly.
It's three times he's been hit by a car,
But in dying he does not get very far.
And I do wonder why
He refuses to die;
It's a creature awfully bizzarre.
Not near enough to get close. A kitchen table, Great Flood, a coffee getting cold, vegetables and water and cotton. The sounds unite, the space separates, but of course there is more than space, between people so much more than space and skin and tissue, there is just no way you can communicate. No way to get under the skin. And oh maybe this is it, finally I'm on my own. And I like this crashing into a wall of someone else, someone different, makes me turn around and look at where I actually came from, where I actually am.
Manual labour makes the mind wonder, hop-hop, from thought to thought. In the meantime the hands pull at hard branches, a part of the mind is busy with disentangling the branches, which come and smack you back in the face if you're not careful, breaking the trance. By the end of the afternoon I move about in a daze, the others are like this as well, eyes blank, looking inward, quiet. Finished the last row we stand for a moment, suddenly aimless, and than start walking back slowly, waking up, warming up, re-surfacing from meditation, recognising one another.
Quarter of a century – it does sound good, somehow. Especially as lately I have been made to feel so young; when you think about it, it's just ten years since I turned 15, and my goodness, if I think that I am a different person to the one I was last month, what is there to say about that girl? Would we even have things to talk about if we met? Yes, of course we would, and that is the funny thing – I have not changed all that much, that is the point, goodness me, I have barely begun living.
'At this point I'm only interested in money, as there is nothing else left between us.'
The house stands on the corner, wall to wall with the company. She peeks through the kitchen windows to see if he is out there before going out herself. You can see how her skin crawls when she sees him. He feigns indifference, goes on about his business as usual, working, always working, but when he passes the house where he no longer sleeps I see him looking at the kitchen window, inside at where his wife and three sons go on without him.
Just an unlucky day. The machinery kept bleeding red wine like a wounded animal, we were forever looking for more containers to collect the precious drops into. When the filter gets blocked Severino empties the tubes and beds to take off the cover – woosh, a fountain of red wine covers him head to toe, at least ten litres of Barolo directly down the drain, fortunately swearwords sound better in Italian. Moving the tubes we bump into a bucket full of wine and all over the pavement it goes, we're so disheartened by that point we don't even stop to look.
When I enter they sit contentedly in the kitchen, on three colorful plastic chairs, and smile three toothless smiles at me – the triplets. I am bemused. I had no idea. I approach them with enthusiasm verging on exhilaration. Triplets! Dylan Moran said women look at babies like men look at breasts – what I had before me was a woman with three gorgeous smiling toothless breasts. I mean babies. Ooh. Throughout lunch I kept feeding them bread, pulling faces, tickling and cooping and doing all sorts of silly things that make babies laugh. I was their parents' hero of the day.
You would have never knowing from looking at him, the big farmer's hands, the tan, messed up hair, wolfish expression. He stands in his woolly socks and checkered shirt in the middle of a beautifully laid wooden floor and explains to me why they chose this particular shade of red for the walls, and put the windows in to look at the moon, and I have to throw my prejudices out of the window. Than his wife sits on his knee as we chat, and he cuddles her with a warmth that makes me want to be a better person.
Northern Italians' weekend. Women in ridiculously high-heeled boots, shiny and new, walk along the street in skinny jeans (Dolce and Gabana or Armani only), meticulously made-up faces nestled in fur of their coats, in puffed-up hair, framed by massive eye-shades. Men in smart jackets and expensive shoes talk, smoking, glancing at fashionable phones and watches. Dressed up little girls and boys go with whole families for a coffee and cake at the polished cafe, with the obligatory garish colours and fancy glasses. Greasy teenagers spread out on the benches of the piazza to gossip and snog.
Who will she grow up to be, this little girl in a grey woolen dress, running around the cafe, black shoes shining, tapping the marble with the tiny heels, she must be three or four, her blond hair, curly and pale, held by a pink ribbon, on her wrist false black pearls, her family drinking coffee, smoking, eating small cakes, checking their haircuts and makeups in the mirrored walls, she takes the handbag from her grandma, she's a little lady now, a little privileged lady, will she have this look soon, of ownership, of supremacy, the look of the chosen?
I was observing a group of children playing at an Italian 'carnevale', samurais and princesses and knights and clowns. The rules of the group are transparent, personalities are so strong,. After a few minutes you can tell who has the power and who has the charm and who is independent; children enforce normality with a fierceness mitigated only later in life. The rules don't change as we grow up, they only become hidden, but it's all the same – you can't play with us, you're not dressed as a princess, you're too fat, too slow, not normal, long live The Norm.
The disruptive force of illness. Reminds you of utter vulnerability of your thought, linked to the soft sick hardware of your organs. Great mind? Hah! Let's see how you deal with life when all you can force down your throat is a biscuit and some tea. Got work to do? Hah! I don't think so, curl up on the bed and think again. The days go past in a daze, but the mind is strangely lucid, although self-centred, cannot communicate, cannot express itself, but inside in the torment changes occur, invisible until the illness passes and something hew emerges.
A perfect flying day today, the soft light of spring dissolves in a gentle mist of the earth's warm breath, but still the island's coast can be seen as we leave England, a river estuary extends its shiny tentacles like an underwater creature, ships and ferries scurry off like insects, perfectly formed and self-contained. The surface of the sea is a tightly stretched textile, from up here I can see its patterns, the way it's woven from waves and wind. Sadly France pulls a fluffy blanket over its face, and all gives way to whiteness of thin insignificant clouds.
As I'm lying in the big bed feeling trapped, I suddenly realise – I could go to Rome! It's just two hours on the train, it's perfect! I can meet friends and change scenery (again), and most of all not be alone. What incredible freedom. The more nomadic I become, the more I like it. When we were working in the vineyard once Andrea asked me if I ever feel nostalgic. I gave it a good long think and answered – no. Never. Lonely, yes, but never nostalgic. Places are just something that happens, and settling in is a talent of mine.
They just have no idea how lucky they are. Take – a quarter of the city wedged in between two train stations, both of which are clearly visible from this roof-balcony. Add – building with the paint and plaster falling off, rubbish on the streets, cars blocking the pavement, washing hanging ut of the windows. Apply rain – utter misery. Apply sunshine – you've got Rome. And suddenly life is easy and full of ice cream, drab turns to picturesque, poor into noble, loud into vivacious, obnoxious into colorful. Damn the Italians and their stupidity, this could have been such a great place.
He's to tall for that chair really, he would make such a beautiful photograph if only he'd allow me to take one, but I dare not ask, he's finally relaxed and at ease in the kitchen, tanned face, long grey-blue hair, speaking with animation of wines, experiences, obstacles. His friend, so frail, with hands broken and twisted like old wood by arthritis, smokes another cigarette, listening. He withdraws when his wife comes in, I wish he wouldn't, it takes so much time to get him back when her presence dominatea the room, but he does, and we all relax.
It is amazing, the generosity of those people. It is only the second time they see me, and we are already talking like old friends. It is of no importance what I do, why I'm here, the important things are my interest, their willingness, I can see they enjoy this breath of fresh air from the outside, we drink glass after glass of their amazing wine, complain and laugh and chat, just like old friends, and it feels so natural I have to stop and think, catch myself thinking – this is too good to be true, remember this, cherish this.
Viva la vida, muera la muerte. I'm on the train again, heading east towards Veneto – I am loving the freedom of these days, meeting friends in one city, sleeping in another, working somewhere else, anywhere, in a cafe, under a tree, as long as the battery is alive, because the mind, lately, is. I could do this for a job, this rushing about! No such luck, I'd better enjoy the chance given me now. Still, I feel so alive lately, I am so glad I will be able to continue this lifestyle for a few months, butterflying around the peninsula.
Their house is always so quiet, they are such quiet people, they seem repressed at first, but perhaps they're not, just different to you and me, maybe bottled up, but maybe at peace. The parents, the children, they speak softly, eat with hardly any noise at all, and never speak with their mouth full. And than there is me, with my coughing and sneezing, and joking and talking and laughing out loud, I feel I am violating their space, but than they don't seem to mind, and they still open the door the me the day after, and smile back.
The longer I live (ekhm) the more I realise my native country remains at the bottom of my heart, the ultimate point of reference. Take the walk in Colli Tortonesi yesterday. Yes, it was nice. The trees (too thin, too sparse), the road (muddy, without smell), the hills (sandy, falling apart, eroding and exposing their sterile insides to the elements). There were even deer (poor things, in a field of rotting remains of last years' sunflowers). And so, a victim of my upbringing, I miss the pines and old oaks and their shade, and the smell of rich fertile soil.
Sit on trunks of wood outside the house. The wind is coming from the sea, I'm told, and I lick the skin of my hand to check for salt, and convince myself I can taste it. We're having soup and bread and radishes and cheese and toast, and there is a bottle of wine only me and the Uruguayan are sipping at, good strong heavy red wine that feels like another dish. The chickens circle us with hopeful cooing at the sight of bread. It's still beige and brown around us, but the sun is hot and kisses like spring.
Who knew that Polish cuisine would come to be so important to me? Cuisine in itself is a big word, he he, it's just cabbage really. Still, my friends seem to like it, so there is goes: all the boring, typical dishes I associate with Sunday dinners, eternal weddings, failed New Year parties and an array of other sitting-down celebrations, well, I'm becoming proficient. The magician of sauerkraut and mushrooms, and I can make it vegetarian too, my aunt would be scandalised, not a gramm of animal fat in my whole birthday dinner party! Thank god someone brought salame.
The tragedy of this cold is, I cannot smell or taste absolutely anything! My palate recognises only sweet, sour, salty and bitter – an ice cream, a coffee, and most of al (buu!) wine have been reduced to these primitive parameters! Yesterday I was invited to the local enoteca – I could only sit and nod politely, crying inside. I remember I had a similar cold ten years ago, in Paris – we went to an Albanian restaurant with my aunt and ate a whole pot of super-spicy fermented cheese, blissfully unaware of the terrified looks I was getting from the waiters.
Never have I expected the death of anything with quite so much hope and desire as I am now, looking forward to the extermination of the bacteria hitching a ride in my sinuses. It's been a week now they've been feasting on the stagnant ponds of mucus inside my skull, letting me know how much they enjoy it by giving me furious headaches and a visage of a pumpkin. As I pop the first pill of antibiotics, I wriggle with glee – die, die you bastards! Long live mindless chemical violence, death to the non-humans, trash peaceful conviviality of species!
It is so easy to get locked back into the old routines. The mind so active when travelling slows down, the old worries and fears re-emerge, can it be that geographical location changes so much? Just a day before I had wind under my wings and the whole world to explore, now the sky is grey and I want to escape into sleep. Pure escapism, that's what it is, reality hits back hard. Momentary freedom is just an illusion, the daily bread needs to be earned, your worth needs to be proved, etc. etc the same old hamster wheel.
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