The summer of my contentment
Now is the winter of our discontent
Made glorious summer by this son of York;
And all the clouds that low’r’d upon
In the deep bosom of the ocean
(William Shakespeare -Richard The Third, Act 1, scene 1, 1-4)
Another winter holiday had passed. We left Sarawak, Borneo and with it irreplaceable memories and sensations…
My eyes rest now on a picture. It is pinned on the wooden wall of the attic, a wide area with a mansard roof sitting on top of my parents’ house. This place has been, for years, my solitary dwelling of well-desired confinement.
It is me, in that picture, taken in the middle of the Borneo forest after a refreshing bath under the waterfalls. You, John, faithful friend and travel companion, took it. You said that the colourful bikini blended well with the lush foliage of the jungle.
I move my glaze and I find myself sitting with the smiling Cuban kids on a pavement of chaotic Havana. I remember taking shelter there, after Alberto the Poet, an entrepreneurial boy of eleven, left us for somewhere yet unknown to him as well. He had smuggled himself, three days before, inside the bus that was taking my friend Sabrina and I from Varadero to Havana. Soon enough, to the inquisitive eyes of the bus controller asking him who he was and why he was sitting on that bus, he firmly replied, pointing at me and widening his stunning blue eyes: ‘Yo soy su hijo’ ( ‘I am her son’). I was 30, unable to reply, and somehow amused to become Alberto’s foster parent for a while: apparently he had no family.
He followed us around the streets of Havana and he could not help telling us incredible stories of many of the Cuban characters he met on his way. Real or invented, it was not for us to judge: storytellers are appreciated for their ability to entertain people, regardless. Very often, he was passionately reciting poems by José Marti. Alberto took lunches and dinners with us at Cuban homes, where he was greeted like a prince, and we welcomed the New Year in his company. I will never forget his cunning intelligence and his gorgeous smile, despite the fact that he had grown up too fast: he was already a sort of man trapped in a boy’s body. Before saying good bye, once he had made up his mind to stay put in La Habana, we asked him why he had decided to follow us, somewhat surprised that he had never even tried to ask us for any money, like many other kids did during our holiday. ‘Hace mucho tiempo que quiería ver La Habana, y vosotros sois mujeres muy lindas.’ (It has been a long time since I wished to see Havana, and you are very lovely ladies’). The thought of Alberto the Poet still makes me smile, as much as his desire to create special stories out of casual acquaintances.
The next thing I observe is a map of India. I retrace my travelling path: the whole of Rajasthan, Varanasi and then Goa. The smell of spices emerges from the map, together with the filthy stench of sewage coming from a ditch at a Jaipur market. Despite that, the Hawa Mahal, the Palace of the Winds, is still standing in all its refined beauty. In glorious past, the women of the royal household could hid behind its facade and observe life going on, without being seen.
A thought also goes to the sacred Gange river and to the daily ablutions in its waters of many devoted Hindu men and women. Suddenly, a body of a little child, unassuming and innocent and therefore not yet ready for cremation, is slowly released into the river. I am sitting on a small dingy that is quietly gliding on the water, in a chilly early morning. Despite ha￼ving the impression that time suddenly has come to a halt, the sun starts rising in Varanasi among the chanting and the prayers, like on any other day.
As I wander around the attic, I can recall all the winters that took me to sunny and fragrant countries, the further away the better, and with a significant penchant for Asia. In my peregrinations through faraway places, I breathed in, absorbed and took good care of all they had to offer, snapshots of people included.
Back from my trips, winters were still too long and chilly to be soon forgotten. All my tokens of remembrance, like precious testimonies of love and promises that were not to be betrayed, created a colourful layer of vibrancy and nostalgic addiction that ultimately was, and still is, a part of me. Submerged by books and papers and in a hurry to get ready for some impending examinations – student’s life was a priority again – the attic was my place of shelter. It was the secret corner of the house where I could dedicate time to study and to recollect time present and past, writing reflections and composing poems of which I have completely lost any trace.
Late in the afternoon – when one of those gorgeous, cold but clear winter sunsets was piercing the sky with hues of pink, cobalt and grayish blue – I looked out of my tiny window, enjoying the enthralling show. In those moments, my Milanese sunset became one of the many exotic sunsets I had the chance to encounter during my journeys. It illuminated the dull winter of foggy northern Italy. It was then, when I cherished my double summers most. In closing my eyes, I was still someplace else. In reality, I still believe that I have never really left any of those countries.
Now, as I walk up the steps that lead to my secret area, the feeling is of infinite contentment and gratitude. I love going back to the attic, once a year, in summertime.
In observing the pendulum tick and all these memorabilia that I know so well but that appear rather new every time I dwell here, I feel discombobulated. My thoughts jumble among maps, posters, postcards, bits and pieces of various sorts and use, musical instruments, chimes and patterns of desire. They are mojos of great spiritual value, prophecies told by some holy man in some holy place I once stepped in with devotional care. Everything is still there, where I placed it long time ago, untouched by time and circumstances. I do not dare to add anything else, nowadays, although my horizon expanded and other weird talismans clutter my home in Hong Kong. But things are different: I feel no longer an Italian in Asia, but rather an Asian in Italy.
Coming now from the land of short winters and long summers, I treasure the powerful grip of all these memories. They do not let me rest. They call me up in the wooden attic, with their strong voice. They invite me to browse my ‘old’ books, too. I enjoy opening these books and going through their pages to read and recall, reminiscing…This time, it was just a hint from ‘Richard The Third’ that gave me inspiration and brought back these nostalgic thoughts. Once I get hooked by something I wish to re-read, I pack it in my luggage and take it home, trying to not disturb the delicate equilibrium of my collection too much. Ultimately, I know that I will always come back to the attic to find my past, even if for short glimpses of time.
It is July and my beloved season ( that I will be spending for a good part of it in Italy) has arrived once more. With it, my contentment for all the past discontented winters of my life, which have been made into bright, enriching, glorious summers by sheer wanderlust. And this is what, all along, has been driving my impending urge and the curious desire to escape from the North in order to discover new places, with the odds of being hit – albeit much later – by pleasant flashbacks…
Flashback of Lemanak River
The frozen clouds are soon forgotten
and hit by a warm sun
as we land
and make our way into the forest.
I hear endless, recurring steps and unfamiliar sounds,
muffled by the weary night.
The blackened skulls are hanging on the pole above the straw mat,
where I am ready to rest my tired limbs.
They are dangling like soundless bells swayed by the wind:
trophies confirmed by tattooed skin,
enemies hit by arrows, poisoned by the sap of the Ipoh tree.
The shaman’s old voice is telling their story.
The little black pigsties are rummaging through the leaves:
their continuous grunting becomes a lullaby to my ears.
At dawn, cocks start fighting and hens cluck,
forcing all nocturnal sounds to unhurriedly shrivel up.
The river is long and I follow its meandering path
guided by your shadow.
How many times have you entered this realm of wonder
like a faithful Sherpa leading the way to the summit?
You turn around.
Your velvety, dark skin will leave no trace
but the sweet, pungent glimmer of a flashback,
reflected from the surface of the water ruffled by the splash of the oar
And back into my eyes.