Pane of Glass

Mulling over tax forms, pensions and environmental collapse,
rotating dry days with fruit and vegetables.
googling symptoms and running on asphalt with sore knees.
stockpiling food and wishing for rain,
a cool sun and rich harvest.

Buying birthday cards and budgeting every day,
with an erstwhile friend in jail and speculating
on whisky shares, home wins and a political catastrophe.

Reading about illiberalism and new wave communism,
in a sticky hot t-shirt, wondering about rewilding and eco-towns,
unable to switch off and fearful of mistakes.

Taking Italian lessons with a new autumn land to map out,
while watching HBO dramas and crime noir stories,
on whatever pane of glass I can find.

Swallows and anarchists

An orgy of swallows swarm over my 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 30’s this week. Berlin’s buildings are not equipped for the Anthropocene.

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 monitor them in the street, 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 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 the ink.

Fickle fascination

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.

Blackbirds in Berlin

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.

Ferrante fever

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.

Dream across the water

“I don’t like Sliema, the roads are dirty, and the food isn’t so good”, my blonde Italian hairdresser told me. She had set up a salon with her Bologna-born sister here a few years ago. I popped in after buying moisturiser from a pharmacy and a shaver plug at the ironmongers. “In Italy, you are taxed 75% to set up a business. Here it’s much cheaper, and we get to practice our English.”

She charged me fifteen Euros for my haircut and recommended a new conditioner for my scalp. I promised to return before I depart next week. On visiting Malta in a nomadic capacity, I can converse in English without feeling embarrassed like I do in mainland Europe.

The Maltese are bi-lingual from childhood, and many can speak Italian due to the island’s proximity to Sicily. It didn’t declare independence from the UK until 1964, so the Commonwealth’s influence is profound, and going on routine errands here is disconcertingly easy.

With I-gaming companies flocking to Malta for tax breaks, Sliema has become a magnet for Brits, Scandis and Eastern Europeans, with the pouting Russian diaspora not far behind. The Maltese weather is splendid like a dream, and that’s one reason why so many people are choosing to live here.

Sometimes it feels like a 1980s English town, one juxtaposed alongside baroque churches and honey-coloured streets. During my first few days, I didn’t leave the area, and it felt peculiar seeing British high street brands again: Topshop, Clarks, Mothercare, Daily Mirrors, Twirl chocolate bars, and Sky Sports pubs serving pale ale.

Everything feels so easy here you forget how far you’ve travelled. That by coming here to live here, albeit only briefly, you are an agent of social and financial change – whether you like it or not.

Unlike the historic Maltese capital, this giant wall of construction is only a chain store away from Kentish Town. Cement mixers are continually stirring outside demolished nineteenth-century homes. Locals tell me their rents are soaring well above average salaries. For global capitalism is transitory and predatory. It monetises every square inch with impunity.

Some of these new builds are just shy of a million Euros, but despite them offering picture-perfect views of Valletta, they all look the same on the ground. It’s almost like we’ve given up on creating something magical of our own.

Across the bay in the romantic fortress, where Jesus, Mary and Queen Victoria lay encrusted in honeycomb lime, there is a far greater concentration of religion and art – not to mention imperial military might. I go for daily walks along the moon-cracked shore just so that I can take in the skyline. It’s astonishing something so beautiful has survived the torments of time.

Only then do I forget where I’m from – and you need to forget.

Otherwise, what’s the point?

Goodbye to Florence

Florence cloudburst

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.

Duomo

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.

Fiesole villa

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.

Fiesole view

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 home anymore. I am currently staying in a small townhouse outside the city’s walls in San Frediano, and coming back was never going to be the same. On returning to the same town and place, you remember how little there is to do after sunset, and that Florence does not exist to celebrate art or life itself, but rather, it is a fortress to protect it.

Fiesole walk