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A city of ghosts

Posted in Life & Love

bologna“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).

Bologna
Bologna

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?

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11 Comments

  1. Ellie
    Ellie

    I would definitely live in Bristol again !! And your lovely piece of writing made me think…….
    May I be allowed a few words in praise of Bristol !! – it has been voted one of the top ten cities to live in anywhere in the world. Although I was born in inner-city St. Paul’s on what you might call the wrong side, I thoroughly enjoyed my life there and went to multi-racial schools – we moved 3 times so I got to experience the city more by living in different areas. It was and is full of art, music, culture and history, which I thoroughtly benefited from. People generally smile and look happy to live there.)
    I haven’t lived there in years, but whenever I go back it makes me feel good – and that’s the main ingredient. My parents moved from Bristol when they retired – and I don’t associate a sense of loss with it.
    Your words ‘now I struggle to recognize my city’ might have to do 50% with the fact that Italy in general has changed, it has caught up with the Britain I was brought up in, and that you experienced. it now has the racial problems that I was used to, and more besides.
    I may be wrong of course, but I also feel that the remaining 50% if not more has to do with the special melancholy that goes with returning to the place of one’s birth when it is deeply accentuated by the sadness at the loss of a parent. The world has changed, A void has been created. I feel this may have a lot to do with the way you looked upon Bologna this time.

    December 2, 2016
    |Reply
    • camparigirl
      camparigirl

      It is true this latest trip was bittersweet and full of memories but, even before my father’s death, I never felt I could live in Bologna again. In Italy, absolutely. But going back to Bologna would feel like a giant step back. I can’t really explain it even to myself.

      December 3, 2016
      |Reply
  2. Beautifully written piece.
    Yes, I would definitely be able to live in Cape Town again.

    December 2, 2016
    |Reply
    • camparigirl
      camparigirl

      I think I could live in Cape Town too!

      December 3, 2016
      |Reply
  3. Gawd, I hope not. While it was a nice place to grow up in with typical small town ‘charm,’ the lack of culture and sophistication which permeates it now is disqualifying from my going back. Color me as a snob, I suppose, but I’m sure I wouldn’t be happy back ‘there’ again.

    December 2, 2016
    |Reply
    • camparigirl
      camparigirl

      And where do you hail from? I also feel like I have outgrown the city I come from – not that it lacks culture nor sophistication – but it is forever the place I chose to leave.

      December 3, 2016
      |Reply
      • Originally from Frankfurt, Germany but went to school in a small scrabble town in southern Colorado. 😇

        December 3, 2016
        |Reply
  4. Meri Mastro
    Meri Mastro

    Double wow!

    December 2, 2016
    |Reply
    • camparigirl
      camparigirl

      Way too kind.

      December 3, 2016
      |Reply
  5. winstonmoreton
    winstonmoreton

    Wow.

    December 1, 2016
    |Reply
    • camparigirl
      camparigirl

      Too kind.

      December 3, 2016
      |Reply

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