Monday, June 9, 2014

The city of wives

For seventeen years I was a rubber band stretched across the world, pulled between the two places I called home. It was a privileged life, in many respects, that of the migrant who never quite left, but also complicated, expensive, uncertain and – especially towards the end – physically and mentally exhausting. Seventeen trips, an almost exactly yearly ritual (two years I didn’t go; two years I went twice), which required having to learn and invent a whole system for navigating places and relationships. It settled into the time I spent with Mum in our old apartment; the two of us visiting the old village where Dad and her parents were buried; and a weekend away on my own, or with my eldest son – who got to come on three or four trips – to see one of my dearest friends. There was a hierarchy of things to do and people to see, as well as an etiquette about the order in which they were done and seen.

It’s over now, broken, and will have to be reinvented.

The view from my hotel in Camogli.
After we buried Mum and spent a week in Milan settling her affairs, I decided to leave the city for a couple of days. I needed somewhere to grieve on my own – perhaps for those seventeen years as much as for my mother – and took the best advice that was given to me: met with a friend in Genoa, then left for Camogli, stopping just short of the Cinque Terre. Beautiful places I had never seen before, speaking through their landscape and buildings a language I was unfamiliar with.

For instance: trompe-l'œil. They can’t get enough of it over there.

Some windows are painted, and some are real.

Some windows open inside other windows.

The effect is very pleasing and harmonious, almost making you forget that it’s a trick, a cheap alternative to still being one of the great powers of Europe. Not even the Duke’s Palace was spared form the artifice.

At first glance Genoa is all about the past grandeur and the five-century decline, its heart comprising the famously ill-reputed bassi, a labyrinth of tiny streets and alleyways that you’re supposed to enter at your own risk.

I didn’t have any trouble but recorded some of the graffiti.

Why do we burn, why do we destroy?
Because we are goods, and we don’t like it at all

May fear switch sides (the word campo, in silver paint, is invisible in the photo)

A sky this dark cannot clear up without a storm

The world burns
Lou Reede (sic)

This can either mean ‘Fear love’ or ‘You fear love’.

Don’t vote: drink!

A tobacconist's sign stood out.

More colour. Fridge magnets outside a newsstand.

A gryphon, the symbol of the city.

One for my collection of statues of Garibaldi.

In Nervi, the gates of Eden.

And a poster for the same hotel, at the wonderful little Museum known as the Wolfsonian.

On the passeggiata, where every ten metres there’s a plaque commemorating one of the many famous writers who used to come here for inspiration and the lifestyle.

I felt that I was properly getting away then. Three more stations down the coastal railway line was Camogli, the town that in the English guidebooks is said to derive its name from the phrase ‘casa delle mogli’, therefore house or city of wives, meaning the wives of the fishermen out at sea. This likely isn’t true, but what’s the harm? Besides, the town is really beautiful, fitting of a made up poetic name, and on a Monday night in early summer it bustles quietly, just enough to make you feel that you’re not completely alone. You go out and you’re just this tourist. It was perfect.

This metallurgists’s shop opened in 1924 and if the owners aren’t there, it means they’re working somewhere else. Therefore, ‘No parking, I have to come in at all hours’.

You can’t play football here.

If taking pictures is a way of seeing, then writing is a way of thinking – and both are ways of remembering. So I look back now not just on seventeen years of travels, but also on six years of writing about them on this blog, through a series of near-identical posts grappling with the same, narrow set of issues: what constitutes presence and absence; the transmission of memory through places and objects; above all, the slow unwinding of Mum’s life and of our time together. And I realise that it helped me immeasurably to write them, and to have someone read them. So, if you're reading this: thanks.

The next day after breakfast I embarked on the three-hour hike – through a forest and over a hill – from Camogli through to San Fruttuoso. The connection with my mother was by way of FAI, the Italian Fund for the Environment, of which she was a long-time supporter. It was FAI that rescued the abbey from its state of abandonment, in the 1980s, and thereafter it graced the cover of every one of the brochures that we got in the mail. However for complicated reasons, ultimately boiling down to how difficult it is to reach, Mum and Dad had never been to the place. Yet I knew I would find them there.

Beauty can heal you, can it not? But it was something else as well, the sense of being somewhere new yet shaped like so many other places we had visited together: the monuments that Mum and Dad had taught my sister and I to appreciate on our holidays when we were children. It was our learned behaviour, to move around the cloisters and the crypts, to read the arrangement of the stones, like amateur archaeologists. There, in the ordinary perfection of a day in early June, was my peace.

I made my way back to Camogli by boat, and then, a few days later, by a series of planes, to what I am now quite certain is my home.


Di said...

My eyes filled with tears reading this. It's beautiful, as always but more beautiful than usual.

Andrea said...

Ciao Giovanni,

I read this and, while reading, once more I realized how much Italy has lost and how much New Zealand has gained by having you there.

I am happy to read you managed to find some peace in your trip to Liguria. I am sorry that I was, as always, unable to convey how deeply saddened I was for your loss, while you were here.

Un abbraccio.

Shannon said...

Here from a link from Di. I am sorry to hear about your loss of your mother and of the annual trips home.

I say this as a fellow person who rubber bands between countries who is on her last day of ordered visits on my annual trip home, well the home of my parents. Genova and New Zealand are my other homes. Well Genova was... and your photos today brought me joy.

And on a much less deep note, thank you for the translations. I have been puzzling about the graffiti on several of those walls and it is amazing when you see something translated well you go 'ahh yes, that it is!" Particularly the walls where words are falling off the stone.

And I send up my gratitude that the San Frutoso abbey was saved. I hadn't know that detail before... There is no place in Italy that has touched me so.

Best wishes on your journey.

Sarah Jane Barnett said...

Beautiful, Giovanni. I'm very sorry for your loss, and glad that you're finding ways to move through it.

Barry Thomas said...


merc bink said...

Questo è bello.