“Rock ’n Roll Suicides” echoes slowly, and then explodes in the cavernous multi-sensory room at the end of the V&A-curated David Bowie’s exhibition, the hot ticket now in Bologna. My friend Silvia managed to snatch two of those hot tickets and, braving the throngs of elbowing pilgrims, we meander inside the Museum of Modern Art.
In the dark, surrounded by giant moving images of David Bowie, by the ghosts of his stage costumes and by kids barely half my age, two lonely tears stream down my cheeks. Maybe I am mourning my irreclaimable past. Maybe it’s what good music does.
I had arrived early at the museum and my feet, instinctively, walked me to number 5 of the square where I watched the snow fall and flowers bloom for the first 18 years of my life. It’s lunchtime: the heavy glass and iron door hasn’t changed, only more polished it seems to me, and the mailboxes look fancier. The doorman is no doubt enjoying a bowl of pasta in his apartment. The door is locked but I can see the rickety elevator is still the one that used to ferry me up and down. Most of the apartments have been converted into offices but the penthouse, that my family occupied, is where the building owner now lives. I recognize his name.
I walk to the corner for a cup of tea and stumble upon an old bakery advertising sugar-free cookies. I walk in and the baker, an older lady, delights me in explaining how the cookies are made. “I have been a baker for 40 years she says – this bakery has been here since the building was built in 1920.”
“I know” I tell her “I used to buy the bread here, when I was a kid.”
Whenever I go back home, I am asked all the time by friends and family if I miss it (I don’t) and if I would ever live there again (I don’t think so).
They are my stock answers. But they are not as black and white as I lead people to believe. The reality is more nuanced. I am grateful I was born and grew up there but now I struggle to recognize my city: the brown and black faces that beg at every corner or talk incessantly on the phone in languages I don’t understand, I am not able to frame them. The graffiti marring the centuries old walls don’t belong in my memory bank. The American stores look like a blight.
Yet, every street, every door frame, every building, vomits ghosts of things, shops, people I used to know. I walk around and let them come to me, unbidden. On the bus, I look absent mindedly out the window and see a plaque proclaiming that “The artist Andrea Pazienza lived here ”. Andrea Pazienza was an artist, yes, but long before the documentaries on his life and oeuvre, and long before a plaque, he was my friend’s love, and he was real, alive and perpetually enveloped in cigarette smoke.
Sitting behind me on the bus, a chatty med student glued to his phone, utters that “god can see you but Stalin cannot”, as if he owned the sentence. I smile. He knows it all. Like I used to.
I am neither ready to claim these ghosts as my past nor to hand them over to the ones who have come after me, like the kid on the bus.
That is why I couldn’t live in my hometown anymore. The ghosts will always stay ghosts here. My absence never gave them the chance to morph into experiences and life lived.
My days were lived elsewhere, where I am not haunted, where I became a woman and nothing scares me.
Would you be able to live where you grew up after a long absence?