Italy — The B-Sides


It's hard to remember feeling baked like stone in summer. I'm a cicada skin. I shake when I lift the shovel trying to spread the dug-up dirt around, left over from the new plants.

Yet a few blocks back from the shore-front in Split, up the hill, we sit in sofas on a paved terrace out front of a dark bar behind a low green hedge drinking Becks. We hum with warmth, so much so that we wanted to get out of the sun and away from the crowds — can you imagine? We are full of colour. In our blood, the orange of Dubrovnik's walls, the blue of the Adriatic, the grey heat of the rocks, the white burn of the beach stones, juice from the tomatoes from the dim grocery store, dust on our shoes from its creaking wooden floor, the taste of fish and white wine in our hair still, and salt. Somewhere in our bones the bullet holes in the walls of homes south of Plitvice, driving through the broken and bruised towns, and the turquoise of the lakes in the rain. There was an alpaca at the house we stayed in, and a garden with a rope swing. We overdid the starch. Ate red-pepper sauce on noodles and walked up through the abandoned countryside to a hill-top town and ate truffle-sauce on noodles on a patio curtained in geraniums. There was no-one else about.

If you look closely crossing to Ancona you'll see all the particles of time join hands. Entering the tilting deck of a boat on our way to the New World on the Auckland waterfront where I stand with our children in front of the ghosts of a mother and her children passing days in the darkness on a bunk bed; entering the red-gold cabin of a dead passenger crossing Cook Strait in the Wellington Museum of City and Sea and the small high bed looks so inviting; shielding our eyes from the sun at four in the morning on the Barents sea, breathing ice and new birch. The Ancona cabin before all this is red and yellow too, but claustrophobic below the water; we lie in the tiny beds choking on fumey air then go above with the others to eat and drink and watch the coast come into view.

Ancona climbs out of the sea like the b-side of Italy. Backstage; the tails-side of a coin. Free from eyes and signs and anything trying to encourage purchase or experience we take it or leave it, the dirty streets and local fruit shops. Look, there we go, into the car and away up the hill.

Where we come to a very white resort with very green lawns. We ask at the reception, the price, and — here — in the Shimmer Side give up caring over cash and here are the keys in my hand. Keys lead to curtains breathing in the breeze, white walls, wooden bed, tiled floors, bathroom with the fluffy towels and the antique bath feet, brass tap-ware and many small bottles of luxury liquids. We step out through patio doors into a tiny rectangle of courtyard with a view of the very green lawn and of the ocean, where we drink espresso and take in the blue sky.

We don't. We drive on into the afternoon and the evening and the roads go from bright green to dark, tangled with branches; into the coin it's so sheltered; Le Marche. Obscure inn, eating our way in Italian through multiple courses of maroon, white and brown, dark green and a carafe of watery wine. Along the bank outside, the dirt falls away and a plethora of yellow flowers grows.

The cards in 50 Adventures on Foot Village Walks Tuscany are printed in a warehouse. Orange, blue, yellow, black and white ink jetted onto shiny surfaces. Dried, boxed, packed. The box is unpacked in Kirjakauupa Akademia, Helsinki and later I take it to the counter still wrapped in plastic. I open it at home and am delighted by the cards and imagine a wall in the future where they are displayed as art and memory. That was a while ago. Now, our daughter takes the box from the shelf in Wellington and opens it and the cards become songs, instructions, maps to the treasure. She reads them in ways I cannot. Maps are worlds I cannot see and she travels in them to places we can no longer go. I find them under the sofa cushions and tidy them away.

Torino might be the home of the original Shimmer Side. My friend was there who explained it on a piece of paper at our dining table in Helsinki; points of time and lines of space and vice versa like a chequer board, converging on each other and spinning out far and wide, the edge of the paper existing and disappearing at once. He is in Turin and his letters come from there to me in England. I want to go to Turin and I mean to but I don't.

Sometimes everything moves so fast. Companions and competitors rush up and past and the intensity of concentration just to stay in place moving at such speed is immense, and then it's not, because we become a part of it and there is no need to think any more.

The thrill of entering Rome on the ring-roads, circling and dipping and sliding without blinking as you narrate the navigation, paper map wired to your eyes, (days before g-maps), the folds disappearing into your iris's golden trees the black threads of both connecting and taking us over the lines on the earth; around we go, and exit.

This blur slows and the stone, dug, formed, sculpted, held, passed under by thousands of hands, comes into view. It is magnificent, this belching elegant dirty ancient city.

Some rooms I can enter, and some I can't. Florence, for example. There we are, with Tom deFanti and Tom the younger in the Palazzo Vecchio in the Salone de Cinquecento, the Hall of Five Hundred, beneath four stories of scaffolding, looking up.

Vasari's soldiers swarm the hillsides dying and killing, his horses rear and thunder and fall. A sword breaks through the bones of a man's throat, another tears apart the stringy muscle of a man's back. The helmets are ten thousand thousand silver orecchiette dull with dust and bright with blood. Vasari's workers hang by ropes from the ceiling, their brushes wielding pigment to the wall; someone below mixes the colour to the paste; someone else is sent out for more dye. The hall is silent with concentration. It clangs with feet on scaffolding and someone clearing his throat. There is the tiny sound of a micro-drill as it bores through a solider's knee, and the scrape of the endoscope going in. All eyes turn to the screen. Behind the soldier's knee, dust particles, and then the pitted surface of a second wall. 450 years and perhaps when there was last light in here it rendered the pigments of Leonardo's lost Anghiari, another battle, another massive feat of work by hundreds of hands, for all to see, their skeletons now disintegrated. But perhaps there's only dust.

Near the Cinque Terra I draw back the heavy curtains and open the window on a garden, a lawn, a trail to an elevator that descends through the rock to the sea where there are deck chairs and ladders off the shore so you can climb into the blue Mediterranean. We leave the room with the window up, the muslin curtains moving slightly and while we are gone the song of the cicadas comes and fills the dark.

Near the Orongorongo river there's a cicada on a tree trunk. I see the gold threads woven in its wings which clack, together every three or four seconds, clack against the hum its seemingly still body produces by moving minutely against the air. Heat beats on the path, the scrub is dry, the cicada a green jewel. When my daughter observes the insect I have no idea what she sees or whether she will see this again or whether it will be gone like the light at the end of the day.

In a hill-top town we buy two prints and in Jeddah opposite the Saco World next to the dive shop, hand them over to a man in ghutra.

The prints are on the wall in our sea-weed bedroom.

The prints are wrapped in plastic and cardboard and placed on a truck, hurtling down the freeway, sitting by the Red Sea, placed in a container, lifted onto a ship, moving through the water in the darkness.

Place to place, time after time, we pass them by, and now in the stairwell of our Wellington house, the one of the blue flower and its roots excavated by the artist, hung high up by our Italian almost-brother-in-law, and the one of the hill-top town from a distance, where the print was made by old hands, and where we are still looking for something.