An orgy of swallows swarm over my pre-WWI courtyard every day. From the moment the sun breaks through my blinds, I love listening to them fight and feed. An unseasonable heatwave has seen temperatures reach the early 30s this week. Berlin’s tenement buildings are not equipped for the Anthropocene. I’m not sure we’re designed to work in such conditions.
My flat lies opposite a notorious anarchist commune in Rigaer Straße. Its been described elsewhere as a “squatters Champs-Élysées” with anarchists inked from head to toe running the entire street. As police vans watch them 24/7, the protagonists defiantly hang out banners and clutter the street with mattresses and toilet rims. There are trolleys stuffed full of recyclable bottles, plastic crates operating as seats, and a red Protestant church clattered with Bolshevik bullets.
I’m an invisible tourist in Berlin. Nobody pays any attention to me. Its a bizarre living arrangement in so many ways, but one I will look back upon with intrigue and pride. Like a swallow on a mistimed route, it feels incongruous for me to stay here, with my plain white arms chiming against this riotous display of ink.
We drove to Montefegatesi in the Tuscan hills on a dewy spring morning. A lonely cyclist was struggling up the swirling gradients, and songbirds were in full voice. Meanwhile, in the surrounding woodlands, a forester was cutting down his favourite crop. I wasn’t aware of its existence until today.
Since I can’t survive outside an urban colony, I was astonished by its hilltop isolation – that such a remote place can survive without the phantom economy of tourism. Montefegatesi exists in defiance of the great acceleration. I began to wonder how difficult it must be to obtain the essentials over winter. It takes hours to get anywhere.
I lowered my head as we entered a tiny Catholic chapel together – a bucolic cave that once married souls in black and white. Three rows each for bride and groom. It was a reminder of the smallness of our lives. That we are just passing through. We walked along its medieval slabs as two specks in an ossified landscape, one that doesn’t change as there’s nothing left for us to do. Its over you see.
Carrying satellites in our pockets and with sunshine on our cheeks, we departed into the electric green sea.
I gave Livia a 150€ cash deposit before she went home for Easter. She’s an Italian fashion photographer who divides her time between Rome, Milan, and Berlin. Her flat is rented out to lucky applicants throughout the year. It was the perfect size for me, and I felt grateful to be selected.
I have a fickle fascination with interior design. I am a late bloomer in that respect. It’s only since I moved around Europe that my visual perspective changed. Livia’s place is a tiny artist’s studio with Caravaggio and Don McCullers books nestling beside driftwood, pot plants, and a black vinyl record.
Virgin leaves sing in the courtyard as the first wasp of the year tries to get in. She has bored angels guarding the kitchen door. Her sofa is ruby rouge like a kiss. I sometimes wonder how I would decorate my place. But it’s time for me to go now. To a new place across the street.
Outside I hear the artist rattling her key.
Locked indoors and listening to the sweet cry of blackbirds, the church bell strikes noon. I love the songs of spring.
Ambulances and police vans are wailing in the distance amidst the clatter of twenty-first century life. Alien vehicles warding off death and destruction hour by hour.
Indoors I have two suitcases and a blank page for company. I refresh the screen to avoid working. I am subletting from a Roman fashion photographer. The sun beats behind my curtains as they fly from tree to tree.
I think about my plastic crates sitting in a warehouse in north London. How solemn and lonely they must be. A well organised skip that longs to be on display. Not trapped behind a steel door in the rain.
Writing from Berlin, I listen to a pianist play a festive melody as the snow settles on Arndtstraße. He plays every day while I type into a mute machine. The Bergmannstrasse area reminds me of Upper Street in Islington with its boutique florist shops. It’s a Christmas card looking for a frame. My book shelves are empty, but I have the Neapolitan Novels by Elena Ferrante to complete before the year closes.
There are entire libraries separating me and her prose.
Arriving in a misty haze at Pisa Airport, I took my coach seat and felt a renewed love for nature. With steam rolling off the fields, I remembered being driven around Aberdeenshire as a child, watching herons and buzzards roam in a far harsher playground. Simple moments stirs memories as fresh as the soil. An earthly reminder of who you used to be and what you have become.
Florence marked a departure point for me last year. I gave up everything and nothing to live here last October. It’s an uneasy feeling to leave home without a key. Unsure of who you might meet or anyone at all. It’s a weightless feeling I guess – you are finally free of routine.
Settling into the finest apartment of my adult life, I was astonished by the timeless perfection of its medieval palaces and gardens. Just going to the supermarket and pouring over the sweet variety of fruits, herbs and vegetables became a daily highlight. I can’t cook to save myself but Italian ingredients made it almost fanciful.
Walking around Florence city centre is like entering a children’s picture book. You have to adjust to the Duomo’s scale and size for context. Brunelleschi’s snowy mountain dominates the Arno valley for miles – a majestic beacon of engineering that has glittered for over 500 years. The terracotta temple lends a secular prestige to your visit. Humans with no computers designed the Duomo through their wits and determination alone.
Settling into my Oltrarno home, I became fascinated at how Florentines’ still make things with their hands. Unlike the gated walls of their stately homes, the city’s workshops brim with creativity in full transparent glow. From boutique chairs to bird cages, an artist is sweating in paint and sawdust on almost every side street.
I loved the bookbinding and cartographer shops, many of them so expensive they only have to sell one item every three days to survive. Via Tornabuoni is famous for its opulent displays of garments, watches and leather shoes. No one remotely normal can afford to buy anything here, but it’s another tribute to the city’s self-confidence.
Such is Florence’s timelessness, there is a melancholy in returning this year, and everything is the same. It feels like a parallel universe in that respect. I exist in multiple dimensions through my work and metaphysical friendships, and this epilogue feels uncannily familiar. Like I never really left, but the romantic fable has shifted, and I can’t reclaim the optimism of before.
I have been focusing more on nature than art this time. I took the number 7 bus to the Fiesole, a scenic hillside village near Florence, and felt like a schoolboy walking amongst the vineyards and forests. Almost like I had stepped into an Italian mirror of my Scottish childhood.
Seduced by November sunshine, I walked for miles to neighbouring Tuscan hamlets with my smartphone operating as a map. It felt glorious for the few hours it lasted. For we travel for romance, we travel for architecture, and we travel to get lost.
During my daytime crossings over the Arno, I often wondered what lay beyond Fiesole’s green hills. Even more so when I ran along the riverbed at lunchtimes, pushing my body harder and faster than any inner-city slog, where my thighs would tremble like jelly on the final bend home.
Oltrano is no longer my place anymore. I am currently staying in a small townhouse outside the city’s walls in San Frediano, and it was never going to be the same. On coming back you remember how little there is to do after sunset, and that Florence does exist to celebrate art and life, but it’s a fortress to protect it.
Sitting on the Straßenbahn, I saw The Joker fade into the night. I did not sway from her bloody grin. Her lush cake wound made my night actually. Halloween’s comic orgy lightens the mood as the year freezes to a close.
Every night I see them howling like wolves underneath the railway bridge, forming cross-legged circles and wailing drunken invectives into the Spree. Their brutish chants always put me on edge after dark. My body trembles with fear as I walk past them – the unfamiliarity of foreign darkness.
It’s now almost eight o’clock, and I’ve not eaten anything since noon. I rarely have proper meals unless I have company. I usually forget what I’ve eaten within hours of consuming it. Is that just me? The Balkanisation of fast food has ensured that kebab shops are nearly everywhere. I try to avoid them for undefined health reasons.
I’m on tour this autumn as my constellations live on the continent. With technology as my oracle, I feel compelled to move to stay relevant. To remain interesting. When I walk around I am reminded of how malleable my feelings are and how affected they are by my environment.
I’m currently staying in Friedrichshain, which is like Manchester in the early 1980s – a vast concrete resistance against nature. It’s a former Soviet ideological frontier with an aesthetic brutality to match.
As I frequent local bars and cafes, you notice a riotous absence of decorum in places. From gracing red velvet bars filled with smoke to watching vagrants open tins on the street – the social mores are looser, traffic faster and beers cheaper.
Seeing cigarette packets in grocery stores again is like a cinematic throwback. It forces you to reset your mind to a different period altogether, but it was only a few years ago that the British government banned tobacco advertising in shops.
It then dawned on me that Britain isn’t so liberal after all. You get cleared out of pubs at 11 pm with bells and brooms. Public drinking is tolerated but frowned upon, and in some cities, it’s prohibited by law. If you drink outside of licensed areas, then you are usually condemned to the margins of society.
With the spectre of Brexit looming, I welcome the licentiousness of Berlin and the ugliness of its Soviet zone. For all the grunting noises under the bridge, it feels strangely safer here too. Less on edge than London. For good or bad, I always end up living in a booming dystopia.