Ferrante fever

Writing from Berlin, I listen to the pianist next door play a festive melody as the snow settles on Arndtstraße. He plays every day while I type into a mute machine. The neighbouring Bergmannstrasse reminds me of Upper Street in Islington with its boutique florist shops and iron street lamps. It’s 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 international, 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 fresh 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. Gods of engineering and science designed and constructed this 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 or food this time. I took the 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 place anymore. I am currently staying in a small townhouse outside the town walls, and it was never going to be the same. On coming back you remember how little there is to do after sunset, and the seclusion of people’s lives becomes more apparent every day.

Florence’s walls are too grand to be emotionally available. The city if nothing else is a fortress. You can visit as many times as you like, but you’ll never belong in the garden.

Fiesole walk

Friedrichshain

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 European mainland. 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 spirits 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.

Zigzag to Berlin

On departing Dalston Junction last Saturday, I mismanaged my packing so badly I alighted the Eurostar on the station master’s whistle. My violent, sweating omnishambles of a departure saw my finest cotton’s stuffed into Sainsbury’s bags and an elderly Australian couple trampled upon at the platform.

Any romantic notion I had of travelling by rail evaporated at passport control. I could barely breathe for stress and fatigue. Everything had gone smoothly until that point – freelance tasks, new clothes, storage, doctor appointments, dentist bills, direct debits, and pub goodbyes.

My packing mismanagement aside, I loved my continental train journey and miles of leg room. Going on a first-class time machine through spicy red forests, you feel part of something bigger. To be no longer marooned by shoals of mackerel, herring and cod. Moving over land is the best way to travel if you have the time to spare.

Before I arrived at St Pancras, I had been on standby in an AirBnB flat with bourgeois professionals I will never see again. I have no patience for fake relationships nowadays. London is like Zurich with arts and entertainment; terminally transactional with its rising rents and contactless pubs.

With Dalston now a distant din, I will keep moving forward until I am forced to come back for employment. Now deep into the orange fall, the spectre of Soviet socialism is all around me. I zigzag past the Berlin Wall every day and have frequently got lost since my arrival by train.

I have no idea how I managed to get this far.

Disruption

From my cold, solitary desk in Glasgow’s West End to pink orchids and boho lighting in Hackney Downs, a fuse can blow up anything. With my router frazzled by the surge, I remembered a time gone by in the dear green place. How I used to steal Wi-Fi just to maintain my faint connection with the outside world. There were no moving pictures for company back then. No escape into make-believe worlds.

Just words.

That place was so lonesome and cold looking back. I used to wear a jacket under my duvet just to keep warm.

 

The Girl of Disquiet

Automat
Automat, Edward Hopper (1927)

Earlier this year, I moved to Lisbon for a spring sojourn because I’m no longer bound by geography to earn a living. From living in the Tuscan hills to the Atlantic Ocean, I romanticise and decay with indecision, but transport my mind and body to beautiful places.

It was sheer chance that led me to spend time with Gabriela. Like many associations in the modern era, I contacted her long before we first met. With life now reduced to a game of cards, I found myself chatting to an introverted soul; one who took esoteric selfies and expressed bizarre reactionary views.

We chatted intermittently in the weeks before I left London. I forget that at times – my early characterisation of a moody intellectual unable to fit in. Her grainy self-portraits complemented this narrative. From the comfort of my phone, I found myself forming judgements on the little messages hidden inside each picture.

For there were peculiarities with Gabriela long before I moved to Portugal. Such as why did a beautiful, well-educated Jewish-Brazilian girl have no friends in the city? It might be innately sexist of me, but I always assume that women have more friends than men.

“You don’t know me. I’m a horrible person,” she told me one evening long after we first met. I have always remembered the brutality of those words – the mean-spirited emptiness.

During that conversation, I encouraged her to download the Meetup’s app so she could meet like-minded people. From coding courses to gluten free spaghetti lessons – you can find a group for it.

“You need to go every day, every week for people to remember you…it’s easier to make friends that way”, I implored to her on What’s App.

It was an all too regular topic of conversation looking back. Gabriela eventually found one that she liked – an open mic night – and I hope she still goes.

*

After arriving in Lisbon and meeting her in a Restauradores coffee shop, I met a surprisingly upbeat girl (who could never get to the grips with my Scottish accent) who wanted to see music and lights.

With her Bambi chestnut eyes and effervescent glamour, Gabriela’s phone should have been singing with social invites. It made no sense to me why she spent most of her life on her own.

Only for reasons I could never fully understand, she had a childish hostility to Portuguese people, who didn’t like her because she was Brazilian, or they ‘were all stupid’. Then you had the simplistic admiration for Donald Trump and negative social attitudes that would inevitably upset a young urban crowd if she ever publicly expressed them.

I often wondered if her strange views proved to be a barrier to making new friends – it must be lonely and isolating if your outlook on life does not confer to a common consensus.

*

Gabriela’s Jewish faith was enormously important to her, and she regularly attended the city’s two synagogues until she unwisely got involved with two senior members, whom only had lust in their hearts.

She also used to talk about the SS commander Adolf Eichmann’s biography almost every time I saw her. It sounded like a depressing exercise to me, but as a secular Scottish man with no religious heritage, I could never emotionally gauge in her tribal sense of persecution.

If nothing else, Gabriela had the courage of her convictions and would openly criticise something she didn’t like without hesitation.

*

With insomnia causing her to stay awake until 4 am and her days regularly starting long after midday, Gabriela lived a mostly solitary life in libraries and restaurants. She had moved to Portugal to study Edward Hopper as part of an opaque PHD project and previously graduated as a psychologist in Brazil.

But I noticed she never expressed any love or admiration for the American painter, let alone any other artist or art form. That troubled me. I quickly developed an uneasy feeling there were other forces in play when it came to her studies.

*

As I shifted my belongings across the city from the Alfama district to the buzzy cobbled romance of Santa Catarina, I would randomly meet up with Gabriela about once a week. Like many people in Portugal going out for drinks was not part of her vocabulary – she abstained from alcohol most nights.

Over plates of steamed cod and grilled chicken, we regularly spoke about her desire for friends and the nocturnal sleepiness of Lisbon. She loved the city’s soul grooves but found it immensely boring. Surrounded by the Atlantic Ocean, there’s an isolationist romance about living in Portugal’s capital – it feels far removed from the rest of Europe.

Unable to leave the country unless she goes back to Brazil, her loneliness was further compounded by her academic isolation. Gabriela had no peers, colleagues or even classes to attend as part of her library-based studies.

She did have flatmates in her Graca-based apartment, but they provided no companionship at all. Identifying that everyone needs peers as friends, I once suggested that she got a bar job or something. “My father would be ashamed of me,” she stridently told me. “He’s not paying me to work in a restaurant, but to expand and explore my mind”.

I half-suspected her documentary filmmaker father, whom she loved deeply and cited frequently, may have been an overdue influence on her academic career. As I never once detected any ambition from her to teach or write about American realism after she graduated. It didn’t seem to matter, either way, to be honest.

She seemed trapped in her father’s image, a loving daughter exercising his benevolent wishes in a fairy tale land, forever dining alone like one of Hopper’s paintings.

*

I last saw Gabriela walking around the Pantheon complex in the Graca neighbourhood, which I belatedly moved too in April. She said she would miss me at the time but randomly unfollowed me on Instagram a month later.

It must be obvious by now that we had nothing in common. I’m not even sure if she liked me, but in the absence of like-minded friends, we filled the void together. Sitting amongst the city’s jacaranda trees and art nouveau kiosks, just waiting for something to happen.

Detritus

I’m moving again.

Ten plastic crates are neatly stacked against the wall.

It’s a retrospective bank of words. I have read most of them, but many take up space awaiting their turn.

I wonder what trans-humans would think if they were to uncover my possessions in 300 years time.

Locked away in a forgotten concrete basement.

Crushed by layers, layers and layers of time.

cof