There is a famous passage in Paul Bowles’ Sheltering Sky about how life appears to us as an inexhaustible well of experiences, whereas in fact everything happens a fixed – and diminishing – number of times. It’s the realisation that made me ask myself, upon leaving Venice a few days ago, if I would ever be back. For who’s to say? Sooner than I think I may run out of opportunities to travel there or children to show it to. Finally, of the very desire to go to Venice one last time. Back when I lived three hours down the railway line, such thoughts would have seemed quite absurd.
In their final years together, my parents were keenly aware of this boundary, and that every chosen holiday destination foreclosed another. Every year they had to decide whether to revisit a cherished place or venture somewhere new. They weren’t morbid about it, they had just come to terms with the obvious, the inevitable.
Yet sometimes the opposite occurs. And so it’s the third time now that I’ve said my last goodbyes to the house I grew up in. Every time I think it’s the last, while the apartment becomes emptier and dustier, and the procedure more drawn out. Every time there are new things for me to do around it, acts of arcane bureaucracy that I didn’t know existed, each requiring two appointments: one so I can understand what is required of me, another one to do the thing.
I took my eldest son this time – hence, among other things, the trip to Venice – but we spent little time in my hometown of Milan, while the days between all those first and second appointments were scheduled elsewhere: just enough time to see my friends, and for Joseph to buy his weight in comic books at the same shop where I gambled so many of my weekly allowances three decades ago. But Milan holds few other attractions for me right now. They did it up for the Expo, and a new, ghastly corkscrew-shaped tower is going up next to the old place. These daring (read: boring) buildings are a sort of tax on cities that still aspire to global recognition. Here’s an artist’s impression. The horseshoe building three quarters of the way up the tower on the right is my primary school (or, as I call it, ‘the compound’).
The rest of the city is more or less where I left it, heightening the sense that I’m stepping back into nowhere, or my past – which are one and the same. I suspect it is a common experience for the migrant, that of looking for confirmation that things haven’t changed and gradually losing the ability to locate the new. It’s a state of affairs I contribute to engineering, for instance, by doing rote, ritual things such as attending the Liberation Day march on the 25th of April. The day was beautiful and the march well attended. Mr Bowles, if you have a say in these things, I’d like this not to have been my last.
|Anti-fascist beer Eur 2|
Partisan water Eur 1
Support communist publications! Hammer and sickle Eur 3
Sometimes it’s other people who conspire to make you feel like you travelled back in time. At the march I buy an issue of Communist Struggle (that’s another sort of tax). Under the headline ‘The class basis of revolution from above’, the front-page article begins thusly:
The bourgeoisie needed Prussia’s political and military might, but so too did Prussia need the economic might of the bourgeoisie…Oh, do piss off, comrades.
Elsewhere, political banners ahead of the upcoming local elections intone a familiar litany of reactionary slogans. ‘Stop home invasions - self defence is always legitimate.’
It may be the fear of crime that has led the council to install a second set of lights on my street, aimed not at the road but at the sidewalk. Walking there at night may be safer but has become decidedly eerie, as if an invisible crew were shooting a film.
Under those lights I trudged back to the apartment on the nights we spent there, retracing old steps, feeling like the street had become a Möbius strip, and my fourteen year old son was a younger me – which I suppose he is – and that it would never end, this returning made painful by the absence of loved people and things.