I try to swallow the lump in my throat and quickly wipe away the tears that are about to run down my sweaty cheeks. There’s no sun in the sky despite the thick air that is cut only by the loud impatient honking of cars. Families and friends rush into their cars at the train station around us.
I inhale, calmly now, still watching Gianni in a strong warm embrace with Gianluca, one of his dearest friends. I start to look around, looking for familiar walls and palms. I see a street lamp that stands at the same place. I see a big clock that stirs up hot dust from the road, and shows two different times from its two different sides.
We’re back “home” in Italy.
Suddenly I can’t find my place here. The past overpowers the now and all I can sense is a deep sentiment of longing filling my veins. As we hop into the car and become a part of the honking game in front of the station, I force myself to stay present. I fail. I try to activate all my senses that are supposed to ‘bring me back,’ from the past, but memories know how to fight and place themselves at the frontline of our brains.
I’m neither a random visitor, nor a person who came here to find the same charm I found in this place before I’m just a traveller who came back to meet her past, and the past of Gianni.
I climb the same old stone stairs to the same flat of Gianluca and Anna where I used to stay eleven years ago. A pink chair on the top of the staircase has collected dust and lost its colour, but it still sits in the exact same place.
An hour later we all sit at the unchanged table we dined at eleven years ago, only now I skip the wine and go for water. The cracks on the wall in the kitchen are covered with different paintings, and the small sofa in the corner where we used to read the newspaper has disappeared.
Italian words mingle with English. Like eleven years ago, I still cannot communicate. I’m listening to the familiar voices of friends, and my mind again wanders to the past—I see myself very much in love, shy and exhausted from trying to catch the gist of the conversation; just as now.
The same evening we head to Anna’s brother’s birthday party in a car via the highway. We pass the small towns that I remember from eleven years ago. I lean my head on Gianni’s shoulder and switch off for a while from trying to understand all words around me.
We arrive to the countryside, where guests begin to arrive. Men hug and kiss each other on cheeks, then later watch football on the patio. Kids chase cats, and women bring fresh food to put on the tables. I walk around with someone’s baby in my arms, and laugh to myself, as I don’t know which language should I speak to the infant.
A few hours later, I yield. I stop sampling everything, and gladly admit Italian food is unbeatable. All the happy faces and full bellies around me prove the food truly is a quintessential part of the Italian ‘dolce vita’.
We get home early the next morning, after driving through empty highways and climbing up the stairs to the pink chair—exhausted.
I try to get some sleep but instead, pictures from the past appear when I close my eyes. I’m sober and I’m confused, because I can’t stop feeling that I’m living the past and present at the same time. It’s far beyond a déjà vu. I learn how to leave past sentiments and not to let them chase me with redundant nostalgic emotions.
But it keeps haunting me. I feel its presence while wandering the same streets I did eleven years ago. It is behind me when I pass by an osteria where I ate horsemeat for the first time (sorry, sister.) It is with us when we enter Gianni’s university and I listen to his stories. I let it stay with us when we get some ice-cream, and Gianni shows me all the places he rented here in the past.
As we walk, I know exactly where I took a photo of a woman peeking out from a window, where we sat in the park, where we bought the best hand made pasta in my life, and where we got some wine for a dinner. I remember it because I was present in those moments eleven years ago.
I want to understand why my mind is blurry and why the past begs for attention so much.
I go for a walk alone and put down my camera. Time to chase the present. That damn present. I long for some present feelings and I promise myself I won’t try to remember them for the future.
The hot empty city puts on her evening gown; the streets and squares get louder, shops fill with passerby’s and people become happier. I sit on the steps in front of the church eating a steamy panzerotto while trying to catch the words of peoples’ conversations. I watch how fast a pizza man can serve a hungry couple and how two friends argue loudly on the street. I’ve succeeded activating all my senses again, not to miss what I don’t want to miss; the present in a vibrant street full of people having their Sunday walk in the centre.
Time to go “home” and get some sleep. Soon we leave and I know that I’m going to be present when walking to the station to get on a train again. This time, dear Lecce, I am not taking any sentiment with me—only the love that I’ve found here.