I know this house. I have seen it like this, in the early afternoon sun, more times than I can remember or count. I have seen it without looking, as you do with your surroundings and the all-too-familiar.
This is an ordinary day: the air is still, the sky is sunny but without depth, as it is so often on this vast plain encircled by the Alps, and so instead of looking up you look down and around, at the road, the trees, the houses and the fields. There are few cars and even fewer people out. The lowered blinds on the sun-facing side of most houses tell you it is a hot day. It seems that everyone in this village of 2,000 is inside.
I turn right and proceed down the long stretch of road that leads towards the railroad tracks. There used to be ditches on both sides, and here by the bend frogs used to congregate in the summer and with my friends sometimes we would catch them.
The ditch has been covered now and the road no longer crosses the tracks, ending instead before a clump of trees. The old keeper’s house, which hasn’t served its original purpose since my childhood when the level crossing was automated, seems now completely abandoned. I would like to walk up to it but I can’t push my way forward. It’s like this is a videogame and I’ve reached one of its hard boundaries.
I turn back. Back to another house, the one my grandparents built and that in my memory is always intact, unchanged. In my memory, it’s nearly always summer as this is when I stayed with them the longest, and it’s nearly always sunny. And hot, hotter than on this day (I can tell). In my memory I am older than this, closer to ten years of age. But still I’m on the street in front of that house.
Here during the summer at night we used to play football. Two teams both aiming at a single narrow goal marked by the lamp-post directly across from the house and the big blue barrel for the recycled glass, which made a rather wonderful noise whenever the ball hit it. Under the cone of light from the lamp above you could see the swarms of mosquitoes, because there used to be marshes here and five miles to the north-west, along the river, there are marshes still.
From down the street as we played football came the sounds of the café, of the adults playing pool and cards. Always in summer those sounds would be loudest, as everyone kept their windows open. Sound of laughter and swearing. I ‘walk’ towards the café now: it’s still there. But as I reach the end of the street, the picture changes. It’s a grey day now, and the trees have suddenly gone bare. I look again down my grandparents’ street, through the invisible curtain of a changed season. We’re in late autumn or early winter now. I’m looking back, or forward, through time.
I cannot say that I miss this place, in the sense that there is no place for me there. Not in my grandparents’ house, that was sold over twenty years ago; not in the village, where I couldn’t build a life if I wanted to. I have a fondness for it that is reserved to distant things and for the past. I miss the people in it, but especially those who are no longer there. I miss my childhood, or maybe more precisely the idea of it: those interminable summer days and weeks, all identical to one another yet always charged with the remote possibility of adventure. I do not subscribe to the current fashion for romanticising boredom, but I wouldn’t trade that sameness, my few friends, our games for excitement and travel.
To visit now, if only electronically, to see that light again and the shallow sky, is to relieve the migrant’s grief for places and a life left behind. This may not be exactly what Google intended when they set about mapping the world at street level (or maybe they did), but in spite of its pervasiveness and consumer appeal I’ve never ceased to be awed by the technology. I love that I can do this and I marvel at the convergence of factors that made it possible to conceive of such a project: its scale, the sheer hubris of it.
I say I love that I can do this, yet each visit is a source of melancholy comfort. It is not like looking through old pictures, which are static objects. To move through space makes me feel as if it might be possible to connect through time. It is enough to create for the briefest moment the illusion that I might turn a corner or peer through a window and see a loved face, still present. But that is the boundary and I can’t push my way through.