Authors: Ilja Leonard Pfeijffer
I loved speaking Italian. I wasn't very good at it, but I liked to, which seems to me to perfectly fit the definition of an amateur.
Whenever I was on a roll, or at least thought I was, it felt like swimming in the waves of a warm sea. I could bob on the rhythm of the long and short syllables. I would stretch myself out on long, clear vowels and then make a playful, thrashing sprint across the staccato of consonants. I'd dive down into a daring construction, knowing I'd need a subjunctive sooner or later, but would come up spluttering. It didn't matter what it was about or whether it was about anything. It was a game. I didn't need to swim anywhere; it was enjoyable enough just to be in the water.
Although I loved Italian and tried my best to learn it, I didn't really take it seriously as a language. It's a language for children, a language that tastes of rice with butter and sugar. The language is perfectly suited to a month at the seaside in August with the whole family, when the world can be easily organized and divided into clear categories like
. The language is also exceptionally suited to shouting at children the whole damn day that they shouldn't do that, whatever it is they're doing, and to say that's enough. You can also say goodbye to each other the whole day in it. It's a language that makes a racket and that's the only thing that counts, like when children are happy, weeks-on-end happy, drive-you-crazy happy with a rattle.
But I was, too. I was happy. I wanted to make a racket. And the fact, the more than obvious fact, that I had to practice and improve my Italian gave me a wonderful excuse to address complete strangers on any random subject. I would never do that in my own language because those people don't interest me, let alone what they have to say, and because my own language isn't a toy.
And if I accidentally say something insulting in Italian, I can always add a few grammatical blunders and then sit there smiling naively like a screwball foreigner. I could get away with anythingâthat was what was so fun about it.
So that was how I spoke to Viola's grandmother. She was so Italian and so
come si deve
I thought she'd prove entertaining training material.
“My name is Franca. But it's better that you call me Signora Mancinelli and use the formal mode of address because you have to practice your Italian and the formal modes are more difficult. And you? What? Giulia? Giulian? Gigia? Leonardo. That is a bit easier, indeed. Like Leonardo da Vinci. I can remember that. Or, if you asked today's youth, Leonardo DiCaprio. I'm an elderly lady of the upper class. They still had education in my days. I know who Leonardo da Vinci was. See that man over there? Look hard.”
He sits on the terrace at the Bar of Mirrors almost every day, a bon vivant, suffering from some subsidence, who acts too young for his age. He has white hair and wears brightly colored Hawaiian shirts from the plastic boxes of remainders at the market. When he comes shuffling along with his plastic bags from the Di per Di, he looks like a tramp. But once he's sitting down he orders a mojito. Tramps don't drink cocktails. And he has plenty of chitchat. Everyone who says hello to him is treated to an undoubtedly priceless anecdote, freshly plucked from the riches of his daily life. He bares his teeth as he smiles and draws passersby and waitresses into his
monologue. He wears glasses on his forehead, which are supposed to give him the air of an elderly intellectual. But I don't fall for that. He has holes in his shoes. His eyes are deep-set, his cheeks have caved in, and his stubble sticks to his chin like the frayed edges of an unwashed bathmat. He nods briefly at fellow tramps passing by over the gray paving stones.
“Watch out,” the signora says. “He's a very important man. Bernardo is his name, Bernardo Massi. He's rich.” She leaves a meaningful silence. “Very rich. Although they say his wife left him. But I know he still has a palazzo on the Piazza Corvetto.” I nodded to show I'd understood how significant that was. I tried to get a better look at him but some tourists had sat down at the table between him and me. They were seriously blocking the view with an excess of cameras and sticky body parts, peering at a map. The waitress came and they ordered a beer and an iced tea. The waitress asked whether they wanted anything to eat. They have the charming habit here of serving a range of snacks with the aperitif, with the compliments of the establishment. But the tourists became acutely suspicious, suspecting it was a dirty trick to make them pay for more than the two drinks they'd ordered and which would certainly be too expensive, here right in the center, and you know, you have to be very careful in these southern countries because they'll rip you off right in front of your nose, and in any case we're never coming back here, it's much too expensive, but why am I fussing about it, are you fussing about it, we're on holiday, so we'd better enjoy it, otherwise you don't really have a life do you, that's what I always say, it's pretty important to enjoy yourself in life, even on holiday, so let's just drink our drinks.
I don't know whether it's shamelessness, indifference, or a cultural code. But why in God's name do tourists have to wear their dirty underwear as soon they sit down in a southern country and block my view? He was wearing a stained t-shirt from a German football club and shorts that had been washed to shreds; she was wearing comfy, baggy holiday shorts. They looked like intelligent, wealthy people to me. No doubt they had a house in Dortmund and a delectable DVD collection in their designer shelving unit, a car with fancy wheel trims in the garage, and evening wear for their work's New Year's reception in their recessed wardrobe.
In the PrÃ© quarter, where Rashid lives along with the rest of Africa, every underprivileged illegal immigrant spends the first sixty euros he earns on a fake Rolex with imitation diamonds so that he can begin to fit in a little bit with the respectable Europeans, and those heirs of the
were just sitting there in their underwear. What kind of an impression do you think that made? And what do you think it means? What did they mean to say by this? If you're on the beach by the Deiva Marina or at a campsite in Pieve Ligure I can understand it. But this was right in front of my view, on the most precious terrace in the city, in the shadow of centuries, in the historical center of Genoa, La Superba, the heart of the heartless one that had allowed them to penetrate to the roots of her pride. Does it mean they don't understand or they don't want to understand? Or are they sending out a special message? Like: We just happen to be on holiday here, nice to get away from all the stress, and that's why we're doing what we want, just having a lovely nice time being ourselves for those three weeks a year, you know. Or: Those Italians don't know a thing, it's just one big
hip-hip-hooray beach from the Costa Brava to Alanya. Or is it actually intended as a status symbol dressing like that, does it mean you can permit yourselves to go on holiday without caring about anything whatsoever?
“Don't be fooled by appearances,” the signora said.
“My apologies, signora, I was distracted for a moment.”
“He looks like an unmade bed. He dresses as though he has shares in the illegal sewing shops in the PrÃ©. It wouldn't surprise me if he did. I must ask Ursula some time.”
“Who are you talking about?”
“Ursula Smeraldo. She has a countess in her family. By marriage, though. And just between you and me, she's rather down on her luck, if you get my meaning. But we're practically neighbors on the Via Giustiniani, and it would be strange if I didn't greet her. What's more, she knows what's going on.”
The tourists' shamelessness reached a new low. They'd unfolded their map and asked the waitress where something was. They had the goddamn guts to speak to her! Probably about something ridiculous like the aquarium. She stood bent over their table for minutes on end, giving them all kinds of explanations. My waitress. She was sacred. No one can ask her the way to the aquarium in their underpants. She's not allowed to reply, and certainly not so extensively and sweetly and prettily. Not so sweetly and prettily. Not so extensively. Not so bent over and so much in my line of vision it hurt.
“I know about her, too.”
I gave the signora an irritated look.
“Ursula told me that Bernardo Massi broke up with his wife. But everyone knows that he's powerful and important, that he's
rich, I mean, even though he dresses like a tramp. Don't be fooled by the exterior. Everything is hidden in Genoa. We don't have any squares with fountains, no palazzi with fancy faÃ§ades. All the gold and art treasures are hidden away behind incredibly thick walls of common gray limestone. A true businessman stashes away his fortune in an old sock and goes out onto the street wearing tatters in the hope of receiving alms. In Milan and Rome, everyone wants to show off everything,
fare bella figura
, with a flamboyant display of good taste and excess. In Genoa everyone understands that it doesn't give you an advantage. To the contrary. The man who splashes his wealth about ostentatiously has far too many friends, as the saying goes. The saying is a bit different from that, but you understand what I'm saying. Do you understand what I'm saying? You have to learn how to behave in this city. It's a porcelain grotto.”
“I think I can only see the exterior,” I say. Only then did the waitress turn around. She asked us whether we might like something to eat. She asked it coolly, unapproachably, and proud, like someone with a countess in her family, like the marble duchess herselfâLa Superba.
If I think about these notes, my friend, and think about how I'll turn them into a novel someday, a novel that needs to be carried along by a protagonist who will sing himself free from me and insist on the right to his or her own name, experiences, and downfall in exchange for my personal confrontation with my new city, which is more like a triumphal tour than a tragic course toward
inevitable failureâand, on the grounds of that alone, is not suitable material for a great bookâthen I think about how crucial it will be to make tangible sense of the feeling of happiness that this city has given me time after time, even if only as a sparkling prelude to the punches of fate. Happiness, I say. I realize you could no longer repress a giggle when I said that. I realize that it's strange to hear such a weak and hackneyed word come out of my mouth. Happiness is something for lovers before they have their first fight, for girls in floral dresses at the seaside who don't see the jellyfish and the ptomaines, or for an old man with a photo album who can no longer really tell the difference between the past and the present. Happiness is basically a temporary illusion without any profundity, style, or class. The candy floss of emotions. And yet, for lack of a better word, I feel happy in Genoa, in a golden yellow, slow, permanent way. Not like candy floss, but like good glass. Not like a carnival, but like a primeval forest. Not like the clash of cymbals, but a symphony.
It is also remarkable, or I daresay unbelievable, that happiness is dependent upon location, on longitude and latitude, city limits, pavement, and street names. I've read enough philosophy, both Western and Eastern, to realize that wisdom dictates you should laugh at me and dismiss my sensation as an aberrance. So be it. That's the point. The more I think about it as I write these words, the more I become convinced of the importance of putting into words this impossible, undesirable, unbelievable feeling of happiness.
Street names and pavement. That's the way I formulated it. In the first instance as a stylistic device, of course, sketched with the
that characterizes my writing. But in the second instance, it's true, too. I'll give you an example: Vico Amandorla can make me so happy. It's an insignificant alleyway that runs from Vico Vegetti to Stradone Sant'Agostino. It's a short stretch, and you don't encounter anything of any importance along the way. The alleyway isn't even pretty, at least not in the conventional manner. Normal, ugly old houses and normal, smelly old trash. But the alley curves up the hill like a snake. A little old lady struggles uphill in the opposite direction. The alley is actually too steep, built wrongly centuries and centuries ago or just sprung into existence in a very awkward manner. The alley is pointless, too. You come out too far down, below the Piazza Negri. If you want to be there, at San Donato, it's much better to just take Vico Vegetti downhill and then turn right along Via San Bernardo. That's faster and more convenient. And if you want to be in the higher part of the Stradone Sant'Agostino, at Piazza Sarzano, it's much quicker and more convenient to follow the same Vico Vegetti in the other direction, past the FacoltÃ di Architettura straight to Piazza Negri. All of this makes me very happy. And then the pavement. This alley isn't paved with the large blocks of gray granite you get everywhere in Genoa, but with cobblestones as big as a fist. You can't walk on them. There's a strip of navigable road laid with narrow bricks on their sides. Half of them have sunk or come loose. There hasn't been any maintenance here since the early Middle Ages. And then that name. Who in the world wouldn't want to stroll along Vico Amandorla? It's a name that smells like a promise, as soft as marzipan, as mature as liquor in forgotten casks, in the cellar of a faraway monastery where the last monk died twenty years
ago one afternoon with an innocent child's prayer on his lips in the cloister gardens, in the shadow of an almond tree, as happy as a man after a rich dinner with dear friends. Say the name quietly if you are afraid and you won't be afraid anymore: Vico Amandorla.
From Piazza Negri you can walk, during museum opening hours, through the cloister gardens of Sant'Agostino to Piazza Sarzano and the city walls. The passage through the cloister is triangular, undoubtedly as an architectonic compromise with exceptional topographical circumstances. The tip points toward the tower, which is sprinkled with colorful mosaics that clash with the strict and sober gray of the cloister. What's the statement? What must the monks who wore away the pavement of the cloister passage with their footsteps have thought at the sight of their own festive tower? That it was Mardi Gras outside? That the gray life in the cloister clashed with that path upwards to heaven, a path as garish and variegated as a rocket, ready to be fired so that it can burst out into a cascade of colors?