By: Alessio Giussani and Sarah Waring
“Can I ask you a personal question?” Although I barely know the work colleague sitting opposite me, something about this lunchtime moment on such a slender terrace encourages directness. Sharing viral downtime is still a novelty. As the newest member of editorial staff, most of my contact has been virtual and the Viennese apartment-turned-office is only incrementally being re-inhabited. I’m pleased that Alessio’s internship within this small migrant hub has been extended. “Yeah, sure”, he replies with a willing smile.
“Twenty-five”, I reply somewhat disappointed yet amused – “How old are you?” is a more banal question than I had expected. And, maybe for this reason, sure of not being intrusive, I turn it back around only to discover that Sarah has experienced almost twice as many seasons as me. We’re both in Vienna for reasons that have something to do with freedom. Mine, however, vaguely outlines a hypothetical life, projecting into an exciting yet uncertain future. Hers, she tells me almost radiantly meanwhile, is full of awareness for her current life, the space she has carved out for herself.
My overt enthusiasm for describing an age where I’m more self-assured suddenly feels indulgent; talking at length about life that can’t yet be known by another could easily tip a conversation into the prosaic. Words of wisdom aren’t my natural territory; the older I get, the less I think I know. So I change the subject: “See that cat over there? On the top floor. I’ve no idea what it can see, but it’s always looking out from that mesh over the window.”
Idling in the early afternoon-softened atmosphere, I turn my short-sighted eyes to the apartment window opposite. “Oh yeah”, I reply, happy enough to bring greyish contours into focus. Sarah’s distant vision, meanwhile, is excellent; she only wears glasses at the computer. Not long and soon to no longer be colleagues, we would have little in common if it weren’t for our connections to different places in the same country, Italy, where we both feel at home. And where, after several surreal months, we will soon return, each on our own behalf.
“Is this it?” – no checks, hardly any traffic, quite simply ‘open’ – the Val Canale border crossing, despite its apparent ease, tests expectations. I recognise the petulant boy’s challenge, his disappointment, reflecting three long months away from home; like me, he had been constrained to Austria.
I’m fortunate to have this lift. My friend, who has just driven the short distance abroad to pick up her youngest son from his grandma, has accelerated my sense of arrival and its actuality; I’ve missed everyone from the mountain village, somewhat off the beaten track, where I ended up a lifetime ago. Over my shoulder, the recent exile, whose absence would have been felt in both directions, is already scrapping at arm’s length with his older brother over incremental space. The eldest has decided to stay behind with his grandma for a few days.
As we drive past blank kiosks set within T-shaped austerity, my nostalgic lockdown film stream also leaves its trace – I think how much Antonioni would have loved these ghostly remnants of once thriving border trade imbued with recent trauma and concerns for the future.
“In your head, in your head…”, in the half-empty train, a young guy, who boldly produced a battered guitar, has started strumming and singing. “What song is that?”, I ask, more out of boredom than curiosity while we’re waiting for the train to set off again. “Zombie”, my travel companion replies abruptly yet without irritation.
We’ve been waiting for several minutes halfway between two wall signs near the Brennero station – ‘Austria’ on the left, ‘Italy’ a few metres to the right. It’s exactly here, where the border is a physical place and not just a concept, that its immateriality reveals itself. And yet for weeks, months, the very same border – now so insubstantial, so vacuous – had been an insurmountable barrier, an impassable Iron Curtain.
Everyday greetings used to be instinctive here, even if noses often endearingly clashed between different kissing cultures. Now, physical distance is the norm and all touch has become consensual. And yet the regulatory metre is elastic. A hug I receive and give with equal feeling is so heartfelt its beating intensity might never leave me. Other greetings, still using elbows, communicate with playground enthusiasm.
“1m 45” – the estimate, though confident and near, is quickly corrected – “1m 41”. I marvel at both measurements. Although unlikely to ever guess how tall someone is, I can see the sense when you haven’t seen a boy for some time. And I remember the pride of charting my increasing height. The guessing game initiated by my neighbour in his fifties reveals something of the boy in him too right now.
I add my own calculation to the proceedings. I can always gauge how long it has been since I first came here from the boy’s age. His mother, who indulged today’s animated car journey, had conscientiously paced the steep village when he was due. Now, as he extends his length away towards the piazza, it amuses me to think that I’ve come to know and love this place and its people over 141cm and still growing.
For a moment, I could swear that my father’s eyes lingered on me. But his gaze is concentrated on the carriages furthest away, at the end of the line, where he expects to see me get off the train. In peering out from the carriage closest to him, I am doomed to invisibility, the suitcases I’m carrying and the volume of wiry, curly hair left to flourish for months almost aren’t enough to substantiate my presence. I have to wave my arms to make myself known.
I’ve come back on the quiet, almost silently – only my closest friends know of my return. A cool welcome is exactly what I would have expected awaited me, and yet I struggle to shake off the vague sense of disappointment. You reap what you sow, and sometimes I unforgivably let friendships fade into neglect.
“It happened overnight. There was no time to prepare.” The local businessman and councillor, known for keeping a fastidiously neat garden, reflects solemnly on the recent emergency. Although enforced changes have had negative effects, precautions have also kept people safe: the decision to suspend visiting rights at the local care home may have taken its toll on patients and relatives, but no one there has died of COVID.
The care worker, who collects and readily swaps organic seeds, is clearly exhausted by her lockdown experiences. Many preexisting, everyday stresses and strains have been amplified. Residents had to be moved from their rooms to five separate spaces in shifts. The entrance corridor, usually full of wheelchairs being jostled by an inquisitive reception committee, would have reverberated in institutional whiteness. Staff had to take a virus test every 15 days. Visits to hospital with patients were made in full PPE.
Her time in the garden must be all the more precious now. Relatives are allowed to visit again but have to stay behind glass. The home manages the regulation by using its sliding doors. I imagine competition once reserved for the TV is now focused on getting closer to the exit.
The carer’s mother lives in Lombardy. I know she wasn’t able to leave her house for months and hear from someone else that she regularly saw military trucks transporting bodies pass by her window.
A few weeks ago, unable to sleep, I wandered Vienna’s streets at night. A cutting wind consumed my just lit cigarette and insidiously penetrated my coat, as if to expose me. But it was her, the city, that was naked, the faded Imperial capital, now deserted as never seen before.
I relocated myself by walking. I returned a geography between tangible reference points of asphalt and concrete to my body. By day, enclosed within my room, I drifted. I looked elsewhere, far away, to ‘Italy, Europe’s patient’. Data, graphs, headlines, bulletins, statistics, forecasts, possible scenarios, first-hand accounts. “We heard sirens, helicopters, ambulances all day”, a friend wrote. I consumed information as an antidote to absence.
On one of my nocturnal walks, a passage from Lucrezio came to mind, hastily digested by heart, as pieces learnt by rote in high school. Immune to trivial human suffering, the Epicurean wise man was compared to the spectator who, from afar, from the safety of the shore, contemplates a shipwreck on a stormy sea. And he feels heartened, witnessing the misadventure of others, thinking how favourable his situation is.
I, meanwhile, far from home, wasn’t the wise man but the deserter. I was the cabin boy who, while the rest of the crew scurry about lowering sails in the middle of raging wind and waves, secures the first lifeboat and flees to safety, only to realise, once ashore, that his travel companions, his lifelong friends are in danger. He wants to dive back into the sea, turn around, go back. But it’s already too late and so he stays there, though safe from the waves, at the mercy of an even rougher sea of helplessness.
The storm has now passed. Perennial calm? The prelude to a new hurricane? No-one knows.
Everything that would have been done daily has to be condensed into brief time off. Despite the chores still ahead, I rest for a moment on the terrace cleared of debris. With legs outstretched, I find myself facing northwest. It occurs to me that I’m clearly pointing out where I’m from: a straight cartographic line cast across the mountains would dissect London’s river maelstrom before mooring at Gloucestershire’s flood plains.
Despite firm ties strengthened through adversity, desperate to be reunited, I haven’t been back to the UK since it reopened its gates. Family advise me against making the journey, not yet anyway. There are too many unknowns, they say, and few assurances. Redundancies are already taking effect there and they fear I might not make it back to the continent for work; a timely opportunity in Vienna had made me one of the lockdown lucky.
When I left this rural nest, some of my late-teenage anticipation of leaving home to start up independently was relived. Determination and apprehension had focused my intention – I would make it work, wouldn’t I? Without doubt or not, I needed to establish more autonomy at a time of life when many are settled in their environs. I would reposition myself, summoning each and every lithe memory as support. Although I had convinced myself I was being courageous and knew what I wanted, in all honesty, I had no choice but to act. My country of origin had disowned its emigrants to reinforce its prejudice against immigrants and that made me many things – vulnerable, resentful, frustrated, hurt – but above all, resourceful, like so many others the world over.
The pandemic has perversely brought a sense of shared uncertainty closer.
I’m hanging out with my neighbour outside the bar that fronts the piazza-come-car park. The concrete and asphalt circular end to the road surrounded by inclining land and picturesque mountains approximates an amphitheatre. The building, which used to be one of several schools in the village, is now the sole meeting place – a lifeline for a small rural community, arguably more important than the church. We’re deftly positioned along its narrow walkway in amongst a raft of scaffolding; construction work has become as synonymous here with optimistically burying coronavirus under economic regeneration as it has in Vienna.
While engaging in a favourite local activity – gazing at the view – he motions to something up ahead, “See that? On the lamppost?” I adjust my vision to look to the piazza’s central point but see nothing. “You have to look from where I’m sitting.” I move that bit closer, knowing full well that this could easily be a set-up – practical jokes are another favoured pastime. “What?” I have a location, but that’s all. “The spider’s thread.” And, sure enough, sunlight occasionally lines a silk tightrope, swaying in the breeze. The remarkable feat seems to span as far as the next building, a good 7m away, but becomes all the more discreet in shadow.
I promised myself that I would once again observe that which even obsessive consumption of information couldn’t give me when I was on the other side of the border: gestures, expressions, postures, gazes, their grammar, through which experiences and dispositions are filtered. But, instead, sucked in by the banality of everyday life in this part of Italy – the bubble where I grew up – I find my vision is distant. I’m immersed in life but unable to decipher my close surroundings.
Adapting to a new context – country, city, district, home – asks for observation, a preliminary, almost ethnographic detachment for every assimilation, every possibility of feeling at home. Now, instead, I’m without perspective, observational distance. That which surrounds me is much more familiar, all the more blurry and ineffable.
It would be so easy to project an impression of minimal repercussions after the lockdown here. When doors resoundingly closed, anyone living in lower density places with outdoors space had an advantage. As urban variety suffered and new ways of engagement had to be discovered, natural rhythms in rural spaces carried on relatively normally. Those with stable domestic lives settled into even greater continuity. What is often considered a less sophisticated life already had the basics covered. Producing some of your own food is a source of wealth. And, other than having to wear masks in the vegetable gardens, the year’s growing cycle continued as before.
But rurality is also precarious. Few decisions are made locally. The city dictates its rules and regulations from distance. Dwindling public infrastructure is increasingly under pressure. Market forces based on serving high numbers find no profit in smaller populations. And with the entire country recoiling from restrictions, provision will be all the more scarce.
Somewhat everywhere by way of mantra, I repeatedly hear everyone “needs normalcy”, “to return to life as it was before”. These months, which have radically and seemingly irreversibly shattered the everyday, have been transformed into a springboard for diving back into life as was with even more gusto. We could have allowed ourselves to shift paradigm, but an ostentation of the ordinary, a deliberate limbo and, therefore, an obscene, pornographic version of that which once was is occurring. Normalcy, which is maintained through the meticulous concealment of everything disturbing. Phoenix life, how you fade and then rise from your own ashes.
One evening, out of nowhere, I spot the village’s most tenacious, retired gardener sitting opposite me some fifty metres away beyond rows of corn and beanstalks. Our laid-back poses are bizarrely symmetrical. While admiring his stately walnut tree arbour, I wave. He doesn’t wave back. Perhaps he can’t see me. I try again before returning to inanimate correlation.
This landscape, where I’ve often rested my gaze, something of its peaks and troughs, formed in body and beyond, remain, even when absent. Such a panoramic arc of mountains surrounding the allotments never fails to captivate. I remember the early morning light that incrementally strokes the foreground, from left to right, as if enacting black and white film’s transition to colour. Now, with the sun down, I can rationalise such moments. The reveal is always spectacular but should never be surprising – the clouds have either passed or they haven’t.
The incumbent storm, as evening wanes during these torrid summer’s days, promises new life. Branches bending sinuously in the wind, the frightened barking of dogs and blinds shaking announce violent downpours to come, yearned for moments of relief. But the water soon evaporates from the asphalt once more saturated by the sun’s heat, emitting unbearable closeness. Invariably broken, promises of regeneration mutate into frustrated hope.
Until the next storm.
Alessio Giussani is an Italian journalist and freelancer who studied in Milan and Salonica, Greece. Between January and June 2020, he worked as an editorial assistant at Eurozine. Some of his latest works have been published by Reset DOC and Contrasti.
Sarah Waring is a UK-born writer and editor. She is the author of Stray Pieces: Between capture and escape, Farming for the Landless (EN) / Agricoltura per senza terra (IT), edits for Eurozine and manages the zine publication traverzine. Other recent, short-form writing has been published by Broad Street, leading Slovenian newspaper Delo and Materialverlag, Hamburg.