Do you remember the Black Office? We are now turning into a cinema. Gaetan and Romain set up a large screen and a stereo. Annique and Stephanie improved the concept and created the layout. Johanna helped with the selection of movies. And we now have a calendar of movie sessions that are somehow related to the bike.
January. Cold, grey, busy Torino. After celebrating NYE with my dear Canadian friends, I fall sick. Marco, Leila and Etta come to my rescue. On Sunday January 6 I move into my new apartment where I will soon be rejoined by Niels. The place is full of books and I profit from it. I read The elegance of the hedgehog by Muriel Barbery, To the heart of the storm by Will Eisner, The hundred-year-old man who climbed out the window and disappeared by Jonas Jonasson, and Novecento by Alessandro Baricco. The first is the subtly humorous story of concierge Renée Michel and her strategies to conceal her intelligence. I am not really fond of it; and I am not hooked by Jonasson’s book either. In the end, I drag along with the former and I leave the latter unfinished. Of these four, I would therefore highly recommend only Will Eisner’s comic novel on 1920s Germany and Alessandro Baricco’s short piece on Danny Boodman T.D. Lemon Novecento. Good stuff.
In February I am often on the move. There are two books, in particular, whose memory remains inescapably linked to the rail-tracks. The Cosmopolites: The Coming of the Global Citizen by Atossa Araxia Abrahamian tells the story of the individuals behind the commercialisation of citizenship by a global business elite. I spend most of my time writing about citizenship as part of my research, so it is not a surprise that I find this story a compelling read. However, it is probably the other book I read while train-spotting that I would recommend to you, my friends: The Courtier and the Heretic: Leibniz, Spinoza, and the Fate of God in the Modern World by Matthew Stewart. What an amazing story this is! When I read a manuscript, I have the habit of underlining the sentences that strike a chord with me; but with this book it does not make sense, for I find myself underlining everything. It is a bit of a heavy story to read, but it talks about philosophy through the virtues, vices and ideas of two opposite characters.
In the rare moments I am in Torino with some spare time away from my monstrous Ph.D. thesis, I volunteer to read at the Mauriziano Public Hospital. This is possible thanks to a fantastic association. Initially I am a bit lost: I stopped reading short novels when I was a child. So in the first week I only include in my repertoire two books by Stefano Benni: Baol and La Grammatica di Dio. The following week I add a series of books that I collect through life’s best strategy for survival: asking around. Our coordinator Sara puts me on the right track with Francesco Piccolo’s Momenti di trascurabile felicità; the unconventional librarian of the café where I go to write together with Teresa sells me Andrej Longo’s Dieci; and the infallible librarians of my favourite place in the city give me Julio Cortazar’s Historias de cronopios y de famas and Daniil Kharms’s I am a Phenomenon Quite out of the Ordinary. All these books are extraordinary, in their own way.
Already quite a bit of reading, eh? Keep in mind that I am finishing my Ph.D. thesis and I am lonely. Reading is a way to keep my brain going.
In March I leave the apartment. I am officially homeless. In the mountains of Trento I read Martina’s present: Le otto montagne by Paolo Cognetti. This is a simple, fetching book about silence, loneliness, and wilderness. In the same period I read another book that was given to me as a present from Dani, although it had arrived to me through the outlandish hands of Giallu: Tim Krabbé’s The rider. Here again, my friends, what an amazing book this is! If you want to understand how I felt when I was racing my bike back in 2016 you have to read this story. Let me transcribe the incipit here.
Meyrueis, Lozère, June 26, 1977. Hot and overcast. I take my gear out of the car and put my bike together. Tourists and locals are watching from sidewalk cafés. Non-racers. The emptiness of those lives shocks me.
In April I hail to Spain for a series of interviews that are part of my Ph.D. thesis in Madrid and Andalusia. In those pre-depression day I read another book courtesy of Martina: Joshua Foer’s L’arte di ricordare tutto. I finish it, but, for once, I would rather have not.
In May I fall into a depressive anxiety. June, too, is a ghastly month. Giallu, who sacrifices much of his well-being to stay close to me, lends me Cormac McCarthy’s All the pretty horses. I dig into it. I read the book sitting on Ponte Santa Trinita unbothered by the gallivant tourists wandering around me. If you do not care about getting this book, try at least to listen Calexico’s homonymous song.
In July, again, I am unable to read. But August is the month when I rebound. During some of the most beautiful days of my life high on the mountains I read Homage to Catalonia by George Orwell. Back home, I read another book from Martina (La casa, written by an old acquaintance of this blog: Paco Roca). She, and he, nail it. Then, on the shores of the lake of Caldonazzo I read a book that will have important consequences my way of living. Magnum: Fifty Years at the Front Line of History. The reason why I read this book is that during the last few months I have visited two Magnum exhibitions: one in Torino, together with Guillaume, upon my very last day before moving out (a sunny day, dawn of Spring time, an yet a feeling of twilight as I bid farewell to the place); and another in Cremona, alone, after interviewing a doctor in the historical city centre. These were remarkable exhibitions that made me think of how photography can be an extraordinary tool to decipher certain customs and conducts that we take for granted. So I read this book and now I just cannot stop. (Note: since August 2017 I visited more than ten photo exhibitions and read countless photography works).
September. I move to Neuchâtel. Fall is coming and I find it fitting to read another book from Martina (You & a Bike & a Road, a comic book by Eleanor Davis), one from J.H.H. Weiler (Un’Europa cristiana), and, as I said, many classics of photography. In my trips to Paris I read Astérix chez les Helvètes, Astérix en Hispanie, and Concita de Gregorio’s Cosa pensano le ragazze. I also read Albert Camus’ L’Etranger – in French! I am rushing through now: I realise this post is already too long. Mercifully the best books of the year are already behind us.
In December I spend a few days in London with Francesca, Marco, Camilla and Isabella. In the occasional breaks from baby-sitting I read Darina al Joundi’s Le Jour où Nina Simone a cessé de chanter. Wonderful present from Giulia. If you want to read about undaunted women in Lebanon, this story would make. I also read 101 Things to Learn in Art School, finally succumbing to a book I have seen in all the bookshops of the exhibitions I visited during the year. (This was The Photography Gallery‘s one: I spent three hours reading in their cafeteria). Not amazing.
My year comes to an end with an eclectic dab, combining Banksy’s Wall and Piece and Hergé’s Tintin in Tibet. Okay, this is really it. You might have expected a grand finale for this post, but I have used all my creativity and spare time to write it. Let us wrap it up and go.
Update, March 2 2018.
Grazie Lore, un gustoso viaggio nel passato recente.
Ecco qui un simpatico aneddoto:
Il libro del Krabbé non era inteso al principio come un regalo, ma come un prestito.
Tuttavia, io sono ancora in possesso del “cavalli selvaggi” di gianlu che considero ormai come un ostaggio.
Si tratta quindi di un chiaro caso di stallo alla messicana letterario.
Go ski touring in Switzerland. Finish the Ph.D. in style. Improve my French. Memorise twelve poems: one per month. Cook. Read one, big classic of Russian literature. Reunite Dani, Jonas and Tosan. Collect whiskey and photography books. Go sailing. Avoid developing an addiction for the pipe. Continue fencing and playing tennis. Race with the bike. Drink alcohol with Anna, visit Tirana. Hike with my parents, with Giallu, with Nicco. Travel outside Europe, meet Thomas. Spend some days with the Canadians, possibly in Istanbul. Get married. Nervous laugh: I was kidding on that last one.
Romandy: it has been wonderful. And think that I was depressed before moving here.
View from my window, balcony, Konstanz with Cata, Giulia, Vevey, Lac Leman, Hugo Pratt, an elderly couple waling next to the harbour, Palais de Tokyo, Arianna, Berna, a Torino con Teresa, Marco Etta e Leila, Chacom e Brebbia, Forte di Bard con Alberto e Marco, snow in Neuchâtel, fencing, Robin and Salomon, tennis.
At the beginning of September I moved back to Neuchâtel to work on a postdoc project with Jean Thomas and the rest of the crew that I had met in the Spring of 2016. I must admit was skeptical about the place – never had I been in such a small and lonely community before. But life unravels in unexpected ways: the first weeks of September have been a real springtime in autumn, as Thomoose used to say.
Back in March. I remember a cold, rainy morning in Torino. Niels was about to leave. We had breakfast together and he gave me one piece of advice: hit the ground running. During my first days in Neuchatel I signed up for pretty much anything one could think of. And to be honest with you, the place has been treating me really well these weeks. Much of it, of course, has to do with the people: not only Jean Thomas, but also the other colleagues whom I knew already, and those who arrived after I left.
A couple of stories about my inburgering. When moving to any Swiss town you have to register with the commune – it really reminds one of 1984. In exchange, you are given a permit, an introduction to the life in the local community, and a voucher to buy some medicines in the pharmacy. True that: since Neuchâtel is next to a nuclear production site the government has decided that all inhabitants must have in their houses a box of pills that will save us in the event of a nuclear holocaust. And until that happens, we distract ourselves with football. Last Wednesday I went to watch the match of the local team, the Neuchâtel Xamas, playing against the Geneva bunch, Servette FC. Those of you who have my age will know both teams, since they played against some Italian sides in the UEFA European Cup during the 1990s. Now they are on top of the Swiss second division. Good match, everything considered. Neuchâtel Xamas won 3-2 with a winner at minute 92’. On the same day, Djanni got a humanitarian permit to stay in Italy, so we celebrated.
I started to train regularly with my bike during the rainy Florentine winter of 2016. Then, in April, I went to live in Neuchâtel for a semester and I decided to bring with me my older bike so that I could still go for a nice stroll every now and then. Those long rides in the countryside are my clearest memory of that period. I usually spent eight hours in the office sitting in front of a computer and then I rode through farms, dogs, cows, big yellow flowers, smell of shit, wind, mud, skin burning under the dry sun, kids playing in the courtyard of the school in the afternoon, trucks, nuns walking down the street. These are the kind of things that stick into my mind.
It was during those rides that I started listening to the podcast of David Axelrod following the kind advice of Giallu. At the time, the podcast was really about the future coronation of Hillary Clinton as President of the United States (turned out to be pretty a inaccurate display in terms of political forecasting). Some more pedestrian topics were touched upon, too. One of these was depression. I remember exactly the day when it first came up. It was a sunny day, a Saturday morning, I was riding up to Chaumont and I decided to give Alastair Campbell a shot. He spoke amazingly about his experience with depression – spiralling out of control – in a way that, I still remember, stroke a chord with me.
The following months, several of my friends experienced episodes of depression and nervous breakdowns. The diseases of modern life: the burden of freedom, self-determination, and choice. Too much choice, in fact, especially for my kind of demographics: around 30 year old, the time when depression usually peaks; and doing a doctorate, one of the jobs that are most likely to conduct to nervous breakdown for a series of reasons that have to do with the loneliness, the lack of a routine, the uncertainty, and the perennial questioning of one’s own ideas. I remember a certain kind of worry was taking shape in me.
I moved to Torino in October and I decided to shut myself from social life so that I could finish writing my Ph.D. thesis. Wrong decision. The build up time. Isolation. Anxiety crept underneath and bursted out in late April, when I temporarily moved back to Florence. Depression has many shades and sets a different story for each of us. In my case, it took the worst out of me; and then it spilled over the people who were around. I spent about a month without sleeping, walking around the city in the night among hordes of drunk Americans. By then I could not fully appreciate the irony of living above a bar called Insomnia. Truth is, I could no longer enjoy watching movies, listening to music, doing sports, eating. I lost ten kilos in the process: I nearly disappeared. People who are close to me know that I tend to be melodramatic, but people who were close to me at the time when shit hit the fan will realise that I am not being melodramatic now.
It is hard to deal with depression for those that are around. This thing is so mysterious and scary. But at the same time, the simple fact of having people who were asking me questions and cared about the way I felt was the most important thing I could wish for. It took them courage, empathy, creativity, and so much patience. I am grateful to them all, but I owe something special to Martina, Martin, Giallu, my parents, Thomas, Iris and Erik, Nicco, Pietro, Fabio, Stefania, Daniel, Dani. I hope they know.
I have been asked if I ever thought of committing suicide: never have I, mainly for the reason that there were these people worrying for me and I felt I could not let them down. The other note I mentally scribbled down from those dark months concerns sleeping. This has always been a natural thing for me. I could sleep anywhere, regardless of the situation. I stopped working the moment I stopped sleeping. I have finally discovered there are very few things that I enjoy more than a night of good sleep. For that, I learnt, I have to treat myself, every now and then.
I am now back in Neuchâtel. This is the place where it all started, but my mind is clearer now than it was then. At least I can say that once again I have started to appreciate the smell of shit when I am riding my bike.
An epilogue, for those of you who read Italian. In June, when I was heading towards the zenith of my sickness, Manuel gave me a poem that goes like this.
Questa è la cosa più bella che dite,
la più bella cosa che dite:
trasformare il dolore in bellezza.
Vale una vita questo.
Dite che sempre qualcuno c’è riuscito
Ci riusciremo ancora? Questo vi chiedo.
After ten full months on the run, I am now heading back to Florence where I will try to settle down and find my compass once and for all. Among many other things I have burned these last two months there was the sense of the changing seasons. When I left Turin in early March it was twenty five degrees, sunny, clean view. I went to Andalusia and it was thirty degrees and running. Then the very same day I arrived in Madrid there was a snowstorm and I spent the next five days freezing my bones off: the only reason I survived was the coat that Pedro borrowed me. In Barcelona it was pretty chill too, then in Trento and in Milan I found that kind of deliciously temporary heath that disappeared the very moment I landed in Manchester. During my days in the United Kingdom, the temperature was down to five degrees for some nice winter time again.
Now in Tuscany I am really, really keen of finding my own Spring time. This usually comes with a combination of sun, stillness, pretty songs like this, Sangiovese wine, olives, bikes, weekend visits to small-size Italian towns, football matches with the smell of grass at sunset, last-minute train tickets, long swims in cold rivers, little notebooks full of drawings.
There is a song that goes like this Can’t hold onto anything / So I will go / Call your friends ’cause I can’t hold anyone / Can’t hold onto anyone with hands full of holes. I have been so taken away these months. Work, and the loneliness, and all that traveling, and the instability; and those those occasional sparks of beauty, little they could do. But! It is never too much unwarrented advice, my good friends. Sometimes I really miss not having someone who slaps me in the face and forces me to stop acting like a theatrical crybaby.