Unhappy Genes

Her high-cheekboned beauty does not immunize her from feeling just as transparent as any other mate in the line. A quarter past seven and there she stands silent and haughty in this Kyiv summer afternoon light, waiting for her marshrutka. Poor people stand unnoticed on the curbs of the world, she has learnt that long ago as a five-year old would-be violinist clutching Baba’s warm hand in freezing winter afternoons, the small instrument case a carapace for her tiny shoulders.

Her frowned grey eyes sparkle into the melting sun as the yellow minibus pulls up. She gets on board, earphones on – old style ones, nothing like the wireless kind she cannot afford -, Johan Sebastian Bach keeping her company. The eight hrivnas in her hand are gently handed over to the driver who briskly fits them into his rectangular hand-made wooden box. She carefully fits her violin case into the tiny space between her seat and the bus side window. The driver steers into the traffic flow and there the usual parade comes up.

Along the avenue sidewalks Aroma Kava points pop up with their reassuring white, red & blue logo, passersby come and go in their working day pace, an overconfident Favorit billboard takes perfect care of a new building site, a stout babushka presides over her tiny flower kiosk armed with her short broom, untamed kids skim back and forth below a soviet-time tank monument embellished with withered patriotic wreaths. As always what she is more drawn to are the zupinka teeming with single men and women of different ages waiting for their yellow minibus at the end of yet another ordinary day. Bach knows better and the Goldberg Variations give these people a purpose, turn them into her heroes.

True, poor people wait a lot and equal to a silent invisible army to those who ride their fast cars across town, but a superior mathematical order oversees and regulates everybody’s lives, none excluded, each destiny enacted according to a pattern, only with shared sun coming from above and an individual light springing from somewhere inside. That light she totally lacks and it’s not her fault. She has always wondered why she cannot smile. In fact, she is definitely too young to have gone through any of the hardships her parents, grandparents and ancestors had, yet her mind seems to keep record of all the bad her folk have been exposed to in the course of time. All forms of annihilation inflicted on the skin of her nation – pogroms, the Kulaki repression, the scourge of the Holodomor, Baba Yar genocide, any other past soviet mischief – you name them – must have locked down the genes of smiling deep inside the Ukrainian blood. 

“Mom, what’s the matter here in Ukraine, why nobody ever smiles or talk cheerfully on the street?” was my son’s first question when we landed in Kyiv. 

Back to Irina. She has just lifted up her chin to stare at the brand new roof up of a glass-paneled skyscraper being raised on the opposite side of the avenue. She bets they will name it after yet another big American city, people here need very little to dream about America. Up there wind is making clouds almost as restless as her mind. Traffic jam in the rush hour, still plenty of time to indulge in her usual labyrinth of thoughts.

Unaccompanied Cello suite n.1 in G Major. Tomorrow she will be twenty. Will he be wishing her something like “buon compleanno, amore“? Alas, the coronavirus pandemic has cut any hope for her to meet him up again in the flesh any time soon. Will he remember their unspoken mutual bond? What do six months ago equal to in the mind of a young Italian artist? All the couples she has known have never seemed to survive to long distance relationships. In the course of time all of them have split up. What if Giovanni were different?

She is fighting to dispel anxiety and procrastinates the time for feeling hopeless. The thing is she is still too naive to just feel confident and rely only her physical beauty. She actually does not want to: she feels different from all the others, but how different? All she does know right now is how badly she is missing everything in him: his warm eyes, his stern voice asking delicate questions about her childhood, his elegant hands. Will he ever again be coming to welcome her at any train station in the world, will their violins ever play again in the same quintet?

She tilts down her head to check out her phone, the screen has just lightened up. One unread message from an Italian number. An urgent question is surfacing now: which – today – is the exact number of times she has been taking this marshrutka since her very first one with Baba Virochka? Bach suggests that she finds out that number out and in search for the answer she cast a glance to the outside landscape now locked into darkness. The sun has totally decamped, silhouettes of dozing passengers survive onto the marshrutka side windows. Her mirrored image looks different: haughty, on the point of turning and reflecting back the smile that has just flourished on her petal lips.

Tall and Content

Nicole Zeug, “The Tired Labrador”

Long story short, I am a middle-aged expat dog. A well-trained snow-white American Labrador. Call me a WASP dog and I take it in. At an early stage I was taught good manners, basic manners of come, sit, stay, wait, kennel, down and so forth. The idea behind that, you know the codes, you get along fine wherever you end up living. Anyways, you may already know that we Labs are calm and trainable and basically pleasant to be around and trainers can rely on our quick and analytical mindset. So here am I, your family guy, expat version.

Since my owners (or my breeder?) picked me up amid my siblings, I have lived in a number of places and been through an unending gallery of humans. As they walked me along the streets of New York, Turin, Milan, Moscow and Kyiv I have smelled life and its whims to the fullest. Dogs are no poets so I have nothing more to say and that will do.

Actually one thing: I still miss them, my siblings and my caring mom. How many times I have been on the point of believing it was one of their endearing silhouettes that was passing by on the other side of the street. I have ended up adapting, which is no complaining but sheer reckoning. I am quite easy going and respect humans. I play fetch, swim, go on a walk, or keep my owners’ feet warm. If ever, it is in ball games that I get really crazy and slightly out of control. If ever. With peers too I get along fine, I just cannot see the point in challenging any of them. I keep to myself, tall and content just like my image mirrored inside the neat elevator ascending to our share of paradise, up at the fifteenth floor. For sure, all the affable strokes I have been bestowed upon by unknown hands as I was walked here and there, satisfy my long for rewarding. If any.

Now, don’t ask me why, either my breeder or my owners named me after a human language dictionary. By now I have got used to my bookish self,  kind of an omen nomen thing, if you get what I mean. More. Fishing the sound of that exotic word amid the thousand others that gush out from my owners’ mouths gives me a sense of belonging – even of purpose, a confirmation anyway, that I belong to their daily rites, just as much as they do to mine. What else to long for, I wonder as I lay down on the soft king-size mat they bought me at that oligarchs’ pet shop back in Moscow days. 

Surely, humans seem obsessed with words, urine definitely not being an option for them to mark their territory. It is words that they rely upon to make the trick. Not only my owners – all of them. Floods of words are being exchanged by the minute, and the more they flow others with them, the more they are expected to be in control of anything. Almost. Barking is a harsh fallback to them. They have an instinct for playing with words just like we do with sticks and balls. Their apprenticeship with them, though, actually takes their whole lifetime.  Truth is, to catch up with them, all you need is to pick out a few salient words out of their unending stream of blah-blah-blah. We are straighforward and lucky, wired as we are. Take our sense of smell. I just need to take a whiff of my folks’ smell, especially of HER scent, and I am the happiest old pup on earth. 

Can we say the same for them? How can they expect to reach out to one another through all the layers of words that keep on growing on their skin? Still, that is in their blood and there is no point in criticizing. Take it or leave it. Aren’t we called their best friends? Give us a whiff of this and a whiff of that and we figure out the whole world and rarely feel that miserable, anyway. Take expat dogs: every now and then our owners are expected to  decamp and we are asked to adapt into new spots, get exposed to unsmelled scents, put up with misleading new street layouts. That’s nothing compared to their ordeal, including their taming of whole new sets of words – foreign languages they call them – and related new social skills.

Good thing is, I am only expected to understand my owners’ words, which is an endearing blend of American English and Italian. And how much do I love the sound of that latin language (am I surprising you? Not only am I acquainted with the existence of Latin but I am also rather attracted by its rich smell), the singing way she summons me for a walk, “sei pronto, WEBSTER, andiamo?”, my tail wagging from side to side,  to reach for the entrance door never takes me longer than a second. I am there, I am HERS, ready to smell the world all over again.  Long story short, no matter if you are a working dog, a service one or just an expat family guy, you end up seeing them exactly as they are, beneath their invisible coats of useless words.

One of These Things First

I could have been your pillar, could have been your door

I could have stayed beside you, could have stayed for more.

Nick Drake

“LOOK AT YOU”, I hear him saying to my head tilted to one side, “where is your boldness, where is your stamina, where is YOU?” I wish he hadn’t asked me that because I am feeling like a corpse. One glass of wine too many and here I am, unable to articulate an answer. I choose to shut my eyes and take a deep breath.  He is still sitting in front of me behind our scented candles, waiting for my reply but our conversation has turned into a burst bubble. And there IT comes to me to save me once again. Approaching mid air, soon hovering over our dining table – a totally mesmerizing object – suddenly snapping open as if dutifully obliging me.

I am a lucky woman, my imagination always coming to lift me up when needed. More, its appearance in my life has made me the artist they say I am, despite my self-sabotaging attempts. It is a bliss that smooths down things when they get matted. The first time it saved me was the summer my mom got cancer and had to go through major surgery, he had shut me out from his life – at least temporarily -, and my workroom was so full of crap, a much worse version of Sibyl’s cave. Till then I had never really trusted my imagination, always too eager to repel any of its shy assaults.

Call it a minor epiphany or just the effects of the sunlight on an Italian solitary beach, whatever, it proved to be a great experience. Fact is I longed for my share of a smile, that kind of heat that reaches deep into your bones. So it was that I saw him slowly approaching under a heavy sun rain, beaming with his red golf bag which at a closer look turned out to be a bunch of umbrellas hanging on his right shoulder.

He gently crouched down under my shade whispering: “sun is for free, smile is for free and for just ten euros this red umbrella will always shelter you – rain, lonelyness, fear – no matter what. It has magic powers and it will serve you honestly. It will also help feed my six kids back home. In Senegal I used to be a poor school teacher, here I am teaching humour to sad rich people.” Secrets of a little red umbrella and the smile that came along with it. That object colonized my imagination and then my canvases, superimposing infinite backdrops and mazes: it was a statement, IT WAS ME.

“At your age, you should know better, shouldn’t you?” He has more to suggest now and I do agree with him and I do appreciate his observation. I even feel thankful, that’s why I am paying tribute to him with my warmest available smile. In fact, since I first met him up at my hometown train station twenty-something years back, he has gained access to a number of my inner rooms. In fact, my easiness in agreeing with him is a very recent personal achievement, along with my starting to reward him with heartfelt smiles instead of the old regular set of sour or – at best – blank glances. And isn’t that just one more of those silent clicks that contributes to shape us up into updated versions of our previous selves? Or is it just growing old as a couple? Truth is that since I chose to rely on his sharpness of mind instead of blaming him for the way his messages were being conveyed, I have grown into a better self. Also, my suppling by the day does not make me miss so much the harsh girl I used to be. 

I observe him now: he is rewarding me in turn with his ernest smile. He is waiting for my next step, though, keen to detect any actual progress on my side, shrewd enough to dribble any of my narcissistic verbal diversifications, committed to coach me in the art of treasuring the day, ANY DAY. Till I can finally see it: tomorrow I will be back at my easel, ready to pick up my brush and complete this last baffling watercolour still life: a red umbrella floating over our dining table.

Give the Ball a Chance

Regola n.1 Guarda la pallina, non perderla mai di vista

Quando occupi una posizione in campo dietro al tuo avversario è facile vedere ciò che sta facendo, ma quando sei tu davanti devi voltarti e seguire la traiettoria di ogni tuo colpo. Solo in questa maniera si potranno capire i colpi dell’avversario.

Perdo sempre la partita perché non seguo la pallina con lo sguardo. Tutti migliorano e salgono di varie posizioni nella lunchtime league del Polisquash eccetto me, che continuo a occupare la vischiosa parte bassa della classifica. Di qui sono passati tutti, per salir su, chi prima, chi dopo, agli onori della parte superiore della tabella e come una monella di scuola materna nella calca di un distratto pubblico adulto, li osservo lassù, maturi proprietari dei movimenti giusti, ciascuno proveniente da qualche travagliata storia personale ma infine vincente, meritevole di una forma di rispetto a cui non ho animo di ambire. Tutto questo perché non mi concentro sulla pallina e d’altronde lei non aspetta me: se ne schizza via per la sua, taglia l’aria del campo ed è capace di lasciare anche tracce dolorose, se mi trova di mezzo. Perché, mai scherzare con la pallina da squash, massimo rispetto per i suoi poteri pressoché illimitati. Eppure ci sarà un momento in cui diventeremo alleate, se non simbiotiche, e assieme sprigioneremo quel suono giusto e rotondo che acquista il colpo eseguito alla perfezione. Perché, a differenza degli altri giocatori che puntano al profitto domestico della vittoria, io mi attardo alla ricerca del movimento perfetto, rimandando l’incontro col qui e ora, nonostante la saggezza che l’età mi assegna. Intanto, nella vita come nello squash, il gioco va avanti e le regole le detta il caso, che  ti sposta a suo piacimento da una parte all’altra del ristretto quadrato di gioco. Adattamenti continui alle circostanze, imprevisti che si sommano e imprimono una direzione sempre diversa agli affanni del giorno, questo è anche il balletto impossibile dello squash, questo il motivo per cui continuo a perdere ogni singola partita, nonostante le lezioni di Duncan. Quanti i colpi sbagliati e le sconfitte accumulate nelle stagioni che passano, con Duncan che scommette una birra su ogni serie di esercizi assegnata, mezz’ora di lezione dopo mezz’ora di lezione. Cliente perfetta per questa prodigiosa canaglia sbarcata a Milano da Londra. Duncan, che ha compiuto l’impresa più memorabile della sua vita – attraversare a nuoto il Canale della Manica – il mattino in cui dall’altra parte dell’Atlantico le torri gemelle crollavano e io, ancora del tutto all’oscuro delle arti dello squash, giocavo solo a fare la mamma. Duncan, che alza la pinta di birra e brinda, “Lucia, give the ball a chance.”

In Pieces

Piove ed è la ginnastica degli ombrelli aperti e chiusi, piove ed è in ritardo. All’edicola non si ferma, le notizie le troverà più tardi, prima ne deve cercare altre dentro di sé. Il viale alberato è battuto dai personaggi del lunedì: il pensionato che accompagna il suo cane bassotto in impermeabile, le studentesse pelle di pesca che sfacciate sorridono, l’amico senegalese che vende “Scarp de Tenis” e la cinquantenne già affaticata con la sua mantella blue di Prussia.

Sottoterra, sulla banchina della metropolitana, i fantasmi di sempre con le loro destinazioni assortite: l’aula magna dell’università, l’ufficio legale dell’azienda, la segreteria studenti, l’ambulatorio medico. Scegli tu. Il lungo sedile è deserto, tutti preferiscono rimanere in piedi, tra il qui e l’altrove. Soltanto una coppia di anziani prende posto accanto ad Anna che ha bisogno di sistemare i pensieri della notte. Ha le mani nude: ieri, prima della regata, si era tolta tutti gli anelli, fede compresa. Che cosa resta, qui, ora, del piacere di sfiorare l’acqua e accarezzare lo scafo della barca? Soprattutto, quante forme riesce ad assumere l’acqua – elemento vivo ieri, ostacolo al movimento oggi.

Mani abbronzate, fossili di un’altra era. A regata conclusa, vele ammainate e nessuna vittoria da festeggiare, il mare li ha riaccompagnati a terra. A pochi metri da lei, irraggiungibile lo sguardo di Paolo. In mare lui ha occhi soltanto per i filetti e i capricci del vento, amante molto, troppo volitivo: lei non ne è gelosa, anzi, ne prova rispetto. Seduta a poppa accanto alle volanti, le giunge la coda di una delle barzellette demenziali di Nichi, seguita dalle risate a scoppio ritardato dei membri dell’equipaggio. Accenna anche lei a un sorriso, consapevole di non appartenere al pubblico maschile del pozzetto. Ed è stato nel silenzio successivo che ogni cosa è andata al suo posto, come fosse stato il mare a stabilirlo: ciascuno in ascolto del suo respiro largo, il sole sul punto di sprofondare.

La banchina si è riempita di gente, l’odore di indumenti impregnati di pioggia irradia un fitto senso di solitudine. Ora una ragazza più giovane le siede accanto: sta leggendo qualcosa in inglese, In Pieces. C’è un tempo e un luogo in cui tutti i frammenti di sé si ricompongono in unità? Per lei è stato ieri a bordo di quella barca. Paolo che nel suo splendido isolamento scandaglia il campo di regata, Giorgio che sorridente distribuisce tè dal thermos a tutto l’equipaggio; non finirà mai di sorprenderla come il tempo, questo sarto paziente, sappia ricucire ogni strappo e ridare forma agli affetti più lacerati.

“La prossima volta tutto dipenderà da come taglieremo la linea di partenza”: solenne anche quando lo scopo è il puro divertimento, Nichi non rinuncia al sogno, “La classifica è ancora tutta da definirsi.” Come credergli? Col berretto rosso dello sponsor calato sulla fronte – strano incrocio tra un marinaio norvegese e un liceale in gita scolastica, – Giorgio lancia un sorriso divertito ad Anna, per spostarlo poi sul punto in cui il sole sta precipitando in mare. Paolo ha finito di mettere in chiaro le scotte e ora quegli occhi che tre inverni prima le hanno chiesto di sposarlo, la vanno a cercare. In momenti differenti li ha amati entrambi ma soltanto ora vede il disegno dei giorni.

Un sìbilo metallico annuncia l’arrivo della metro in banchina: venti secondi e calpestìo di passi in ogni direzione, venti secondi ed ermetiche le porte si serrano davanti ad altri volti. “Si segnala la presenza di borseggiatori sui treni e sulle banchine.” Una donna con cappello da pioggia Burberry’s stringe nella mano destra la cartella da lavoro e nell’altra un ombrello gocciolante. Anna aspetta il treno successivo. Senza fretta infila i guanti e si dirige verso la linea gialla lungo la banchina. Con la punta dell’ombrello fa piccoli cerchi.

Ha scelto Paolo per le lettere, per la grafia infantile, per i mazzi di fiori a sorpresa e le telefonate in orari impossibili, soprattutto per quel sorriso prodigioso. Per sempre, sì per sempre – ora ne è certa – il loro matrimonio ha intessuto, lettera dopo lettera, incontro dopo incontro, la trama della loro storia. Sull’altra banchina il treno sta depositando la sua piccola marea umana mentre un’altra ne accoglie, movimento infinito di onde che si infrangono su battigia di cemento. Ora la brezza sporca che spazza la galleria avvisa che anche da questo lato c’è un treno in arrivo. Anna è pronta a seguire il flusso: una manciata di minuti e arriverà quasi puntuale in redazione. “Siamo una famiglia povera scappata di Bosnia-Erzegovina, non ce l’abbiamo di mangiare, vi prego tutti aiutare.” Un lunedì milanese è appena iniziato.