What the interval between the date of the first entry in the diary and the present date makes abundantly clear is that I must have and in fact absolutely did violate one of those… axioms guiding the production of passable journals/diaries. Either the entries were too lengthy or they were too abstract, too far removed from the daily, awkward business of being myself. I suppose I did violence unto both at once. At any rate, here I type, ready to redeem myself accompanied by the clanging of the worst church clocks known to humankind (that of Albori, Costa Amalfitana, exclusive to Sunday’s one would hope).
For the glorious summer of 2018 we decided to visit the Amalfi Coast. As good a decision as that is turning out to be (don’t count your hatched chicks b4 vacation’s end) I am still at a loss to reconstruct it retrospectively. The initial destination was Southern China. But eventually we caved in to the realization that we wouldn’t be able to handle the heat. Which makes me wonder how exactly we imagined a destination south of Napoli to be more clement at the same time of year (which by the way, thus far, improbably, it is). At any rate, we quickly agreed that it had to be Southern Europe. Given our mild penchant for sustainability, the requirement was a location decently attainable by train, leaving in our blinkered view, Spain, Southern France and Italy. The google pics of the Eastern two-thirds of the Iberian Peninsula couldn’t get either of our juices flowing, it’s as if we could see through the thin veneer and right into the black heart of EU austerity. As for the Côte d’Azzure, I’d only just visited it the other year.
So Italy. Personally, having read the first installment of Ferrante’s tetralogy, I was chomping at the bite to check out the environs of Naples. Which looking back again was not the brightest thinking: the combination of summer heat and big city might is a good predictor of infernal temperatures. Thus we ping-ponged around different cities in the vicinity, trying to find a consensus and finally struck mutual-acceptability gold on the Amalfi Coast. It’s funny how compromises can turn out to be such great solutions after the fact.
Friday we geared up with a vengeance or rather with a sense of apt minimalism; travelling light is often made out to be some kind of deal but it is only the opposite, travelling heavy, which is a big deal. In terms of nuisance value, in terms of belly-aching about what one might have forgotten, in the sense that about two hundred meters after exiting your appartment stage right, you, as well as your sore shoulder, start berating your former self about eternally repeating the same mistake, namely lugging along half the household – it turns out, they have certain stuff at the destination too. But that far from the home and with the departure time of the train/plane hollering at you from afar it’s too late for turning back. Next time, surely.
Anyway, however light I decided to travel, an outlandish idea did for some reason occur to me. The siren call of the Mediterranean heavily suggests one should get one’s behind in the water (though nowadays a terrible trivializing aura of western pamperedness hovers over drifting in that particular sea for no particular life-or-death reason) and while, on many previous occasions I’ve let weaseled out of the sea’s magnetic pull, I have yet again decided to do better this summer. But why should venturing into the watery depths be “doing better”? It so happens that the grandiose vista of the endless water inspires in me a profound sense of dread and inadequacy and imminent drowning. What can one body of water amount to in the face of all that vastness? What idea was I referring to at the start of this paragraph? Bringing along my lifejacket, which is voluminous and retina-ending orange and which can only reasonably and also lunatically be transported by wearing it. Fortunately for everyone involved, I didn’t go through with it. Not only did I anticipate a most uncomfortable train trip but also, again, in this age, baselessly wearing a lifesuit is in supremely bad taste.
Early Saturday we jackknifed out of bed, eager for Southern Italy, wine, sun, unlimited, mouth-watering pasta. That’s another good thing about summer, it makes it so damn effortless to get up unreasonably early in the morning: A) the accursed heat makes you wake up in the early morning hours anyway B) It’s bright around 5:30 and if you happen to have to go to the toilet around that time you usually catch such a fist of photons to the head that sleep is far-fetched for the next hour or more. C) it’s summer, you’re supposed to squeeze the last drop of pulp out of every living minute because, as in Westeros too, Winter is on our f###ing asses and closing in fast. Curse these lines in mid-October, why don’t you.
Along came the first big coincidence. There at the far end of the train platform, sure enough, stood my aunt and her boyfriend, two olks in their early sixties to early seventies as eager for the world and its mysteries as a person can ever be. The way I remember it my aunt was literally hopping up and down when she saw us. I wasn’t exactly in a people mood; mornings i prefer refering to myself only, easing into the day and the strangeness of living in linear time. Then as we boarded the train my cousin, his wife and their two young daughters (around 5 and 9ish, the latter effervesenctly precocious, the former somehow fitting my mental image of an adorable raggamuffin, such a strange word). Though all headed for Milano on the same train, we only shared the compartment for little more than an ebullient half-an-hour. Certain kids combine a cleverness and zest for life, so unadulturated, that you get sucked right into that same mood as though just around the corner lay another one of the world’s fantastic gems. And you can find it together, by talking, by laughing, by thinking about the way things are and the way they might be. Which is exactly what we did. Don’t torture me with a topic, life was our topic. Though, to make the account perfectly frank, I thought the wife got slightly annoyed with having a seven-year-old-thirtynine-year-old plunked down next to her on such an early hour in the morning. Also, you probably romanticize children a lot less after you have spent years and years in their immediate, chaotic, sleep-depriving vicinity. Such is not yet my/our lot; though we’ll be opening the factory gates in about a week to see if we can make a splash in the progeny-manufacturing business. A turn of phrase, this industrial analogy, that hardly ever fails to cheer people up. Maybe because it foreshadows the hard work that lays ahead if the pilot model is a success.
Somewhere along the rails in Ticino we started a game of chess with our new set. Hand manufactured in Germany, fabulous knights looking precisely equestrian and highly-defined queens where you can see the goddamn tins [in a fork, yes but what might be the word for this in a crown?] the tin-like regal protrusions in the crown, a board of no loose parts, not a rickety joint, unseamly seam or whatnot, just bonafide Teutonic woodwork perfection; invisible magnets too somewhere in all that smoothly honed wood. It makes a difference, it does. The figures draw your attention and thereby rope you into the game. You don’t want to loose one, they’re simply too nice. And you know exactly where everything is; it seems like suddenly only “mate” in three is possible, not two, you would see two coming from a long way off between all those lovingly manufactured pieces. In Germany. Who exactly in Germany? I imagine a pot-bellied man behind a mustachio, or a nimble spinster, laboring away late nights in an old woodshop in Nuremberg, untroubled by the city’s ghosts of the past. His or her only duty being the absolute perfection of whatever piece he/she is working on at that exact instant. A skill deep inside the hands, centuries old, time-sanded.
We played and it was probably the longest game we’ve played. Neither was willing to give up so much as a pawn.
After arriving in Milano we chilled out on one of the platforms, keeping our distance from the frenzied crowd. You have to pass through a security, airport type gate to get to the cooler cafes and we didn’t fancy risking our connection to Naples.
Have you ever been on a FrecciaRossa? These trains are pure public transport loveliness. They have fine gradations of class which I won’t claim to understand but they appear to be on par with the subtleties of the English social class system. At any rate, Business Special features wide, thick, automatically adjustable leather seats that suggest you ride the Freccia to the tip of the boot and then back into the Piedmont. Back and forth, without cease, in that magnificent cradle of leather. To subtract from the perfection, a group of US boyscouts immediately plunked themselves down across from us. It is shameful but my mind seems to have really hard time dividing out the madness and animus I feel bestir me every time I watch a piece of news on the United States of Trump and Police Brutality, from the actual people. This is in itself utterly crazy but I swear I can sense the afterimages of the Carrot-in-Chief mess with my emotional center as I encounter entirely blamefree, perfectly nice and jovial citizens from the land of severely limited opportunities. And it takes about five minutes or so to sort the mess out and get back into beginner’s mind modus, sociopsychologically speaking.
These were some fascinating scouts I tell you. First thing they wanted to do, withouth having seen our set, was play chess. I associate the boyscouts with strictly practical, outdoorsy pursuits and imagine a little pack of boys that couldn’t be bored more to deathly than by the confinement a train ride imposes. Leather lavishments or no. Instead, the two sitting opposite us immediately took out their books (Ready Player 1, HH’s Guide 2 the Galaxy) and set about reading like two literary fiends, like their very salvation depended on a reading rate of about 20 pages an hour or more. It felt like they were trying actively to demolish all hoary cliches about their allegedly smartphone addicted generation in one cataclysmic bout of hyper-reading. Also, just to cement an old-school notion of boyscouts, they were supernaturally polite, firing off rounds of“Thank you”s and “I do ever so humbly apologize”s the way other kids in their demographic parentheses might shoot off “like”s, “lit”s and “woke”s and whatever other bumfokked empty signifiers might presently be en vogue. They were so nice, they were literally compensating for centuries of humankind’s evil-doing, revoking the ills of the two WWs just by being decent little troopers on their very most oustandingly excellent behavior. It was life-affirming.
And here’s the other thing though. The train trip from Milano Centrale to Naples is maybe five or six hours and the two kids just kept at it till Rome and beyond. At least three hours of solid, I-couldn’t-care-less-where-the-bathroom-is reading. Boyscouts. It eventually eventuated that they are Swiss-American, explaining why one of the patches of the littler boy simply read “Deutsch”, which I took to mean that he mastered the survivalist skill of this forest tribe’s tongue. Indeed, both spoke Swiss-German, and whatever initial air the blonde, lanky kid had at first exuded was instantly annihilated under a carpet-bombardment of good manners.
Again, I think these were slightly strange boyscouts. There was none of those older, father-figureish, what-the-devils-are-you-up-to-now-Franz figures within admonishing shot? Just those two paragons of civility and readerly enthusiasm and seated somewhere behind them, their chess-playing pack comrades. Plus – don’t wait for it – their mother! Fawning over them like newborn pups. It was too strange to even really get a handle on: A) Why were these two entirely unalike looking guys brothers? B) Why was a mother, an ultra-protective and smooch-engulfing one, accompanying these little lads who where supposed to be part of a mildly paramilitary organization, highly specifically established and designed to inculcate in young souls and appreciation of the parent-free wilderness and their ability to survive within it in the absence of the societally sanctioned authority figures. The mother, cooing and kissing, was the antithesis of what this should all have been about, the grand trip to a camp in Naples (imagine!) as one of their kiddie-fist-sized patches (a spewing volcano w the name of the city beneath) proclaimed. At one point, yours truly defecates you not, the mother bent down towards the smaller, sterner of the guys, Seahawks-totem cap pulled down low who squirmed away – whereas she kept relentlessly approaching, puckered mouth outstretched before her like some space-station docking device and the young lad continued his evasive maneouvers, eyes bolted to the pages of his sci-fi novel. To hilarious, comical effect. The boy’s head was eventually solidly pressed against the lower edge of the chair’s arm and, with nowhere else to left to move, the maternal mouth approaching, he launched the ultimate weapon remaining in his arsenal: a wordless, sideways death-stare at the Moms. Who went in for the kill regardless. What a scene! Had I been socialized 15years later, I might have recorded the whole thing on my smartphone.