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In Italy, I became very, very ill.
A bit of housekeeping: apologies for neglecting my bloggerly duties the last several weeks! I’ve been traveling more or less non-stop since mid-August, finishing my fellowship and assembling its final project, a roughly one-hundred page collection of essays, photography, and art. I’ll be sending out a PDF copy to my paid subscribers at the end of the month as a thank-you for your patience! Physical copies will be available soonish. This piece is one of five essays included in the book.
The sickness set in before my beer had even arrived at the table. I drank two sips out of the bottle, probably a crass behavior since the waitress (very tattooed, very pretty) had also given me a glass to pour it into, but by then I was unconcerned with etiquette. It took thirty-five minutes to walk to the restaurant, first through the wide industrial road by the train station where the asphalt emits a throbbing heat and the smell of falling down on the playground, then through the old Roman ruins that I didn’t pay enough attention to, then a wide shopping street populated by teenagers and gelato shops and fast-fashion retailers and the stray puddle of urine, then through the Piazza Maggiore where some protestors hang out of some church window and demand someone’s release from prison while the cops and the tourists watch on. When I finally got to the restaurant, I asked if it was okay if I was an hour early to my reservation and if it was okay for me to sit inside, rather than the outside table I had reserved. I asked, they acquiesced, I felt bad for asking. I sweat.
After six bites of salad and a liter of water, I knew I needed to leave for the restaurant for the safety of my hotel room and its blackout curtains and my crocheted Miffy. I ask for a box for the food and pay the bill, I wonder if I look pale and know I do, I seal the box shut, I bump my hip too hard on a chair on the way to the door. I feel too clumsy and gangly and strange. There are no taxis to be found nor buses to take, and in all my desperation I refuse to ride a bike without a helmet, a justified familial anxiety stemming from a cycling accident suffered by my cousin the year I was born (a mountain in Michigan, two decades of paraplegia). The blood has drained out of my face and I know I’m paler than the Roman marble statues in the Victoria and Albert Museum and their plaster-cast doppelgangers in Italy. I walk fast, even now, or at least faster than everyone else. Sometimes I’m proud and sometimes I’m self-conscious of my wide gait, now I have no time to moralize my footsteps, but they certainly set me apart as a foreign body in the meandering machinery of Bologna. I always forget my European shoe size. In America, I’m a ten or a ten-and-a-half, the top edge of mainstream retail in-store offerings, here I’m something like a forty-one or forty-two. Big feet. Short legs, though, stout and white and thick. I carry my height in my waist and neck, proportioned like an American Girl Doll, giant front teeth and all.
Stumbling, pale, disproportionate, and unwanted, I feel like a stray greyhound on a losing streak. Too skinny in some places, too wide in others, gambling on my odds would be cheap and stupid. I can feel my canine teeth stick out when I open my mouth. All day, I pant like my heart is about to explode, which it might; I keep waiting for someone to take me off the streets and abandon me in some chain-link enclosed parking lot. I walk past good-natured grandmothers with their leathery kneecaps and their melting green eyeliner, shiny men in wrap sunglasses with oversized watches, teenage girls with black hair and cackling laughs like ravens. I’d be convinced they were walking, living in a different frame rate if it wasn’t for how fast they were talking. I wasn’t built for Southern Europe. There’s too much ham.
There’s no real easy way to get back to my room. There’s nothing I want more. I spent several days on Lake Como and in Milan before that. It’s beautiful, so beautiful, and everyone is so nice, and all the food smells amazing, and there’s a lot to do, and I’ve never been more miserable. It’s no fault of Italy or the Italians. I’m trying to get back to my hostel room, but it’s a forty-minute walk, and I will later learn I have heatstroke, and like all illnesses its immediate symptoms are compounded by my stress about having heatstroke. And there are no taxis. And there are no buses. And there are no bike helmets, let alone bikes. In Milan, I spoke with some Australian strangers (aren’t they always?) around my age, having to explain to them that I don’t do well in the sunshine and I don’t do well when things are slow and that I miss to-go coffee and a world that’s open by eight in the morning. Only when I revisit the conversation on this walk do I realize how awful I must have sounded.
I should have been relaxed, unwound by the lake, but I wasn’t. These giant mountains, the water that is always just the right temperature for swimming, nowhere I have to be and no one I have to see. There is no erratic, frenetic energy; no immediate and obvious violent ambition; no neurotic hare-brained freaks… and it is precisely the lack of these things that only further draws them out in myself. My first full day on the lake, I walked five miles into Lecco to get an iced tea from a small shop, passing some big industrial factory tucked behind a walking trail and a reproduction seven-part map of the Roman Empire dated to 1888. Later research reveals it’s a reproduction of the now-lost eighth century Tabula Peutingeriana made by Conrad Miller, itself adapted from a still-extant medieval copy from the 1100s. This map, half a meter tall and four-and-a-half meters long, sits tucked away in a covered pedestrian alleyway, unmarked from the outside but accompanied by a plaque revealing its installation and preservation are sponsored by the industrial goods manufacturer 3M.
Near the tea shop, another inscription, not in letterpress, but in spray paint: NO G8 NO GUERRE and G8d: GENOVA 2001 VINCE LIBERO! A Wikipedia search reveals that it is referencing the 2001 summit of G8 in Genoa—when Russia was still a member—where anti-globalisation protestors were met with police brutality so severe, it resulted in a European Court of Human Rights tribunal that concluded with Italy’s admission of wrongdoing and a commitment to pay €45,000 to each victim of its violence. It is unclear to me what spurred this graffiti in this place at this time, and I think back to it as I try to return to my hostel room. I see a bus stop whose bus should be heading in the right direction, but when it arrives and I attempt to flag it down, the bus driver just looks in my direction and continues driving. Somewhere between the sunstroke and the isolation I begin to wonder if I’m dreaming or dying. But even if, somehow, I’m not really here, I know I am bound to plot conventions of the physical plane. I know I must continue towards the hostel.
Everyone I’ve met in Italy has been incredibly kind—the older couple operating the hotel in Valmadrera, the girls who make me a peach bubble tea and tell me what it’s like living in a place that is very beautiful and very boring, and the pair of sisters working at Valmadrera’s only restaurant with a vegetarian menu. Everyone except many of the staff at the Museum of 20th Century Art in Milan, who scowl and tell myself and my cohort of visitors that we must exit the museum for fifteen minutes while they take photos, glaring at me and my notebook and my shoes. I spot a beacon of hope in my journey to the hostel—Via Antoni Gramsci, whose name I could recognize from a football pitch away in six-point font. Gramsci’s street in Bologna reminds me of the museum in Milan, where many visitors ran past the art to get to the great big windows facing the Duomo (which, according to a massive screen covering one of its sides, is apparently sponsored by Samsung) and the luxury shopping mall across the square.
So I had much of the first two floors to myself. The first featured prominently many works by Marinetti, mentioning only the first half of his manifesto writing career. Quotes from The Futurist Manifesto appear on the walls, by paintings of cyclists and cityscapes and horses. Quotes from—or any acknowledgement of—Marinetti’s later writing, The Fascist Manifesto, are conspicuously absent. The second floor, which focuses on the interwar art of Carlos Carrà, Arturo Martini, and Mario Sironi, contends that while they “publicly expressed their approval of Benito Mussolini's seizure of power in October 1922, proclaimed themselves fascists for a long time and directly participated in the public decoration programmes promoted by the Regime,” the art shown in this exhibition contains “neither fascist symbols, nor representations of contemporary history, nor overly explicit references to fascism's values of national rebirth and exaltation of Roman identity.” Past this text, visitors will see (or won’t, if they’re rushing to get their photographs with the Duomo) paintings of a Roman bust paired with sheet music and a violin (described as the artist’s “aspiration to the Classics”), muscled men building civic works, and empty, hostile cities. Morandi is depicted as particularly important to Italy, who was “estranged from the poetics of subversion of the past that were contemporary to him,” resulting in “a return to ancient painting in non-nostalgic but modernly conceptual terms.” His paintings “represent the dramatic condition of loneliness and anguish of contemporary man: he rendered it in paintings that were often simple and bare, violently material, with skilful tonal construction,” and gallery text about Valori Plastici, an interwar art magazine which Morandi worked on, informs audiences about the relationship between Morandi’s philosophy, aesthetics, and place in history. It reads: “‘The ‘return to order’, through a more composed and legible painting [...] is another aspect of the modernity of these years.” I suppose it doesn’t really matter what the inscriptions say, given no one seems to be reading them.
As I approach my hostel, I pass by the ruins of the Rocca di Galliera, a fort built by the papacy some seven-hundred years ago. I saw it on the way to dinner, telling myself I’d look closer on the return journey, but I can’t manage to divert myself any further. I need water or darkness or quiet or simply something other than what’s happening now, as I can begin to see a rash that later inspection will reveal occupies around a third of my body. I feel like a failure of a machine, an animal that cannot adapt, a greyhound who can only run one course. The hostel is just past the main train station, the end of a street containing a few blocks of housing, lined with a population of functional and non-functional cars. I’m only a few hundred feet from the front door, standing outside a decommissioned train station. Resulting either from the heat or my overthinking about violent artistic expression, my body decides to perform its own act of biopolitical speech; when I look down, I see I have vomited on a collection of four objects: a rusted hubcap, my own shoes, a weathered poster for the Fratelli d'Italia, and an empty bottle of Birra Moretti.
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