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The air is heavy in Venice, humid, sky pearl white, with a pale circle of a rainbow around the unblinking sun. Some look up hoping for rain. The heavy weather is making it hard for the tourists, children cry and complain, adults quarrel.
'My balls are full of your shit, you hear? Full. Full! I mean full!'
'If I had known I would have bought the tickets, I swear it seems like you've never been to Venice before, stand in a hour's queue like the foreigners, I mean, really...'
'C'mon, we'll take a photo! Why not? Always the long face!!!'
Such freedom, we're just intelligent meaty packets of energy that actually need very little to survive and thrive and be happy, one bed is as good as the next one, one can work eat sleep literally anywhere. I get all giddy now when I think my life could well continue like this if I wish so... So who knows, if I don't get a job after the PhD maybe I go around the world from one organic farm to another and then write a book, how about that for a career break? Not dissimilar to my current research, is it?
'You didn't know I've been to Istanbul? It was still a small city then. It was when I was working as a civil servant, I did that until '91, I was very important, responsible for all the public works contracts. There were two people at my office who knew this Turk, we caught a train, a plane from Schonefeld, got to Sofia, and sold tools, umbrellas, all sorts; we stayed at the house of this Turk, we were eating and the women were standing behind us, waiting for us to finish. We brought ten bags of jeans back to Poland.'
What were the odds? We are just entering Campo de Fiori, dad puffing and huffing and complaining behind me, Svietlana in a sulk as usual, and suddenly those two guys stop me – their faces familiar, but for the love of Jove I can't remember where I know them from. Sophia's party, of course! Baci baci, two minutes later we're being led to a restaurant - 'I know the owner, it's just around the corner!' - the cook is Polish and explains everything to them, the food is great and throughout the delicious meal I keep chuckling to myself, what were the odds?
Dad on the '89 Polish election over a glass of fizzy, Peschiera. 'I never thought communism would end – no-one did. A liberalisation, a relaxation perhaps, yes, but not the end. And the Party did not expect that so many people will want them out. They only allowed Solidarność to take part so that they would take part of the blame for the terrible situation – economic, social, the constant strikes were having an effect. Not only did they lose, the 'free candidates' that were to back the Party changed their minds – and all of the sudden Solidarność was the majority!'
It's windy back in the Valleys, trees suffering under the strain, wheat, already golden, moving like animal fur. I run down the road and feel liberated, wind wildly strong. There is the familiar smell when I lie down, familiar warmth, I snuggle and breathe in deeply, so comfortable, magical, heavenly moment this, comforting touch, warmth and safety as the house shakes as if in fewer, the windows ring; the wind howls in a low, brutal voice on the staircase. Every so often a door bangs close, and I half-open my eyes, sharp mid-day sun, warmth, and the wind.
The river valley is deep, unnatural, concrete look to the walls. Green hills tower over us, catching the setting sun. If it were still out and there were no wind nothing would stop me from jumping into that crystal-clear, blue basin and gasping from the cold. I play with pebbles instead, sandy and wonderful to the touch, put them against my lips and rub them in my hands until they're all dry and soft. On the way back we stop in the middle of the dark road to watch the moon be born from behind the mountains, enormous, bright.
She used to like spending time with her, talking about everything; but recently it was becoming more and more difficult, like she wasn't listening. Always on about the new projects, the recent trips to institutions and friends, the parters/lovers/companions, she never knew exactly how to think of them considering the uncertain status of those relationships. Did she not see she was missing out on, that investing in one person, one place, one career was important, that only then you could hope for real happiness? That she needed to focus, stop running after insubstantial ideals, make her life meaningful?
She used to like spending time with her, talking about everything; but recently it was becoming more and more difficult, like she wasn't listening. Always on about the work, the career, the recent exotic holiday, the husband. Did she not see she was missing out on, that investing in personal development was important, that struggling to create freer, more trusting and open relationships with other people was worth the fight, that only then you could hope for real happiness? That she needed to focus, think about herself in the world, take responsibility for her life, make it into something beautiful?
She is not far off when she says that Birmingham is one big shopping mall. We meet only one independent story in our day's wandering – but then actually buy clothes from one of the major chains. Doh! Brands notwithstanding, I like it – the crazy architectural mixture, from ultra-hyper-modern already looking dated to timeless Victorian classics; the phallic Sphinxes in Victoria Square just win me over. We walk along the canals until cafes and pubs give over to glazed-eyed teenagers and bottle-sucking adults. It starts raining, and we rush back through the concrete maze of 50s urban utopia.
The train stops just outside Sheffield at 16:50.
'We are sorry to inform you that we are unable to access the Sheffield station, due to flooding. Umm... We have no further information on how long it will take to resolve this situation, so.. Umm.. We're going to wait.'
Every fifteen minutes for the next two hours we are informed there is no new information. Every new 'we are sorry for the inconvenience' is a nail to my coffin.
Finally, at 19:15, there is a voice from the other end of the carriage: 'I can see a platform, and it's beautiful!!!'
Getting on is the easy bit, especially as he's already lying on his tummy, pretending to be tired. Giggling commences, right into the left ear, the effect is guaranteed. The most difficult thing is holding on when he does start getting up. Arms first, and I close my eyes, its better than a merry-go-round, the earth is spinning so far below me, I grab with knees and hips and arms as we get up to see if it's the moon making the sky so bright, no it isn't! Back into bed, laughing so hard I strain my jaw.
Perhaps it's just me, but I have this impression that work is a taboo subject in English academia. Whenever try to bring it up, instant awkwardness commences: I lose eye contact, people start muttering, shrugging their shoulders, making bland comments about the general state of things, and at the end I am no wiser for having asked, but feel vaguely guilty about something or other. You'd think people would be comparing, exchanging information and resources all the time – but no! Workload's like a shameful disease – we all know it's there, but it can only be spoken of in hushed voices.
The place is a secluded paradise, just five minutes up a steep path from the busy road, but completely cut off from reality – there is a forest, a wide meadow, and the mountains towering over us, deep blue in the evening light. A table is laid out outside, in front of the house green with vine. When it gets dark I leave the pool of candlelight for the meadow, and for the first time in my life I see lightning bugs, they pass me like cars in the night, lights flashing. I run after them, hands outstretched, like a child.
Twenty five years of life and not once a lightning bug. At first I nearly think I'm imagining them, but no – in the blue-grey of the summer night their flashes are distinct, I didn't realise they move so quickly, it takes serious effort and a lot of stumbling in the dark before I catch one and nurse it in my palm. What have we done? Where are the evenings of lightning bug catching, what material object can possibly replace the sensation of walking a meadow in the night, under the stars? Without nature, we are nothing, less then nothing.
The man is small and inconsequential. His partner grows out from under a storm of locks dyed blond, her eyes and puffy, pasty face adorned grotesquely with blue glitter. She is a human hoover, I watch in horrified fascination as plate after plate of food disappear into her scowling mouth, between the pale pink lips. Hunched over the table, she is focused when eating, elbows working as she cuts through the meat. The waiter, who arrives with the dessert, is the only person that merits her smile; it takes minutes for half a pineapple to disappear under the blond locks.
I've been reading Bauman again, he knows how to fill one with seething desperation. To his list of modern ailments I would add: the disappearance of skills and knowledge. Only a hundred years ago the world was full of people capable of working with raw materials; now we are ever more the extension of multinationals. Especially in agriculture, producers are little more than minons of the chemical industry. That means a complete loss of control over how future knowledge is developed, which path food production takes. Not enough is done to safeguard skills, losing liberty that comes from self-dependence.
Life is easier in this climate, I enjoy the bodily freedom. We go to the river, I think it's genuine, I think she really doesn't mind my company, or maybe even enjoys it, maybe I shouldn't have taken the bra off, she's a teacher after all. I escort the girls across the cold, blue water, the current is so strong we all struggle to stay upright, fascinating to watch their bodies, to see them becoming women. My sandals stay wet for a while. After dinner I sit down directly on the warm stones of the piazza and pet a cat.
Later that evening the meeting that does not take place, so we go to a festa instead, he tells me he's feeling a bit out of place, I'm a married man after all, I've not done this for a while, but he's enjoying himself, it's warm and full of young people, we chat and drink beer and the concert starts and music takes over, but I'm still here, we stroll in the warm air, the music carries on, bounces off the church walls, his life has been and is so full, I swell inside thinking of the possibilities world gives.
Like in a bad hard metal video, the moment they started playing the skies opened with thunder, lightnings and a flood of mad rain. I stared into the sky and burned the flashes into my retine, if I had drunk more or been just a bit madder I would have ran into that rain in hopes it will dissolve me, make me disappear. Instead I avoided myself and everything else, only partially awake I danced and chatted although what I would have really wanted then was to be on my own, erase everything and everyone with a big rubber eraser.
Valleys were steep and green, road winding, finally I found a song I liked on the USB of this borrowed/stolen car, the mad female choir was suitable for this mad day of repressed emotion and negotiated freedom. Attention wondering, I drove fully respecting speed limits, lazily feeding the knot of anxiety. In the afternoon some of us danced on the terrace with a strange view of the highway and green hills, the mess inside my head was taking over even as I admired the strange house and talked, smiling, with the couple whose 50th wedding anniversary we were celebrating.
Solstice! Such a strangely tranquil atmosphere for a celebration of such an important event. The massive fire was so hot we all had to step back, the guys were playing boring old songs, it was difficult to find joy in spite of wine, everyone seemed to be lost in their own thoughts, talking with people in low voices was not what I would have liked it to be, too personal, too intimate, what a surprising lack of freedom in that place, at that time. Later the sky was wonderfully clear, I watched it lying on my back, feeling sickly sweet.
When I have the first glimpse of the sea, from the train, between the buildings, the misty blue, I feel the string that has been tied around my heart break, my shoulders drop and peace comes over me. We reach the rocky shore, slipping on the steep path, when the sun is going down, the sea is dark blue and red with reflected sunset, waves crash violently and come in over the rocks, I pop up and down like a cork in the bay, the salty water supports me effortlessly, the absolute, inhuman power of the sea make me ecstatic.
Certainly, whatever happens, there is the music, that will remain. The moody melodic stairs were first, the world was still cold then, listened to that one again and again until it all started, and the snow was falling. Then there were the dances, the five provinces, the acordeons and pifferi when the snow was melting, and later the southern tones that 'spaccano tutto'. Then the pounding drums and the techno intensity of chacra meditation, still make me explode, helped to live through the grey. Finally, the mad Finnish female choirs, a solitary finding, that one. Oh music, make me smile.
'Life is so difficult. Beautiful, but so difficult! My parents are worried about me. But I'm happy. Before this, my life was – perfect, job, family, but – boring. Now, it is difficult. I don't know what I will do. But now, I feel pain, I feel love, I feel – alive. Ah, this man, I could look at him – all day, just look at him. Does he even know? We will see, our deadline, see what happens..' Gets up, goes to him and holds his head, but soon he walks away. She stands there, looks at me and shrugs, smiling, vulnerable, loving.
He said: you never thought you would be doing a job like this, did you? We were standing knee-deep in straw, stripped to the waist, covered in sweat, straw and dust, sun burning, skin prickling, eyes hurting, soul singing. No, I said, it has never even passed through my mind. We were spreading straw in the vineyard, massive bails on a steep slope, falling over, panting, rubbing our eyes, looking up to the coming thunderstorm. Angiolino and two of his sons, all muscle and bone and golden-tanned skins and blond hair, like an idyllic ad for country living.
In the end I always manage to forget how suffocating that house is, one on top of the other, the loving/controlling mother, the dominating father, the sons all sharing one room, no privacy. As long as we're working it's fine, but the weekend becomes unbearable, and he never shuts up, the neurotic man, can't stand silences, and in the end I react like his sons, clam up, close up, create a space at least in my head where no-one can enter. Material circumstances matter so little in the end, if you're head is not in the right place.
The house stands on top of the hill, windswept, exposed, overlooking the Pianura Padana – she says you can see Modena, up to the Apenine, and if you have binoculars and the day is really clear – the bell-tower in Piazza San Marco. Blond, tanned red, with the toothy English smile, she's surrounded by thin horses, nervous dogs, shabby ponies, her small house decorated with modern, soulless objects, bizzarre posters of puppies. The place breathes an air of sadness, desolation, withdrawal, negation, can't find anything positive to grab on to, only our saddled horses prancing about promise we'll be leaving soon.
'I've always wanted to travel, even my studies – English, Russian – I was going in that direction. But then with the situation at home, it would have been better if I had studied medicine, not linguistics! So we live, dad, grandma, and my brother and his family, yes, four kids. He's made enough children for us both, I've used up my maternal instinct on my nephews! I'm sorry, I've probably brought you to the ugliest part of town! It's an awful place. And this year they've cut all the funding for cultural events, so there is nothing happening, nothing at all.'
'No no, it's nice for me to spend time with you. I like how you present yourself to people. The fact that you shook his hand, even though it was dirty – you won the man over this way. Because you were not afraid of the dirt. When I first started coming here, there was a lot of distance – 'aah, dottore..'. So once, he was mixing sulphur, in a bucket, and I came by and put my hand inside, my whole arm, saying – it's important to make sure it's dissolved well. Since then, he's accepted me, and there are no problems.'
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