Funny how memory works.
One moment you’re thinking of nothing, minding your business, then a song comes up on the radio or on your MP3 and you’re suddenly there, in the place where that song and a memory it’s linked to first met. You can see what you saw at that time, feel what you felt, and nothing you do can save you from going through the same sensations. It’s a force that cannot be stopped: the more you try, the more it overwhelms you.
It’s always kind of bittersweet for me to go back to my home country, Italy. Be it the town I was born or the city I lived in for 8 years, Bologna, my old self will keep popping up, making me feel as if I was back after a long journey to a place I no more belong.
Both cities are filled with all sorts of memories. Both are my past and the reason why I am who I am. And every corner, every street, every glimpse of blue sky I see sitting on top of those red roofs will be part of me forever.
I’ll have but to close my eyes to remember them, no matter how far I am.
Bologna, with its intolerable summer heath, its open galleries in the old town, the students and the tourists crowding the galleries, getting in and out of shops along with a blow of icy cold air. Piazza Maggiore, the Japanese hiding under their massive umbrellas in the boiling heath, the V sign stretched towards the camera. The usual picture at the Fountain of Neptune, but on the side, because from that corner you can see the cheeky optical illusion the artist created.
A slice of pizza in town, a slice of chocolate tart bought at the historical bakery in Saffi neighborhood, an ice cream at the bio ice cream parlor I thought had closed by now, but 15 years on is still there, as crowded and popular as ever.
Then the train heading South, speeding along the east coast, towards the place I was born, me going back to those beaches I love, still half-empty at the beginning of the season.
The hot sand underneath my feet bringing back the same old sensation of freedom I used to feel at the beginning of the summer holidays, when school was over and I had 3 whole months of lying in the sun, swimming and fun ahead of me.
The hot breeze, the sea as flat as a glass and as compelling as a siren’s singing to the sailor.
Different beach umbrellas at the same old place offering shelter to the same old customers placed under different umbrellas.
The old lady going to take a swim walking backwards, flippers at her feet, the flowers on her distinctive swim cap sparkling in the midday sun.
The lady from the umbrella next door, squeezing the years we’ve not been seeing each other in an incessant 1 hour talking, stopping from time to time only to write down another word in her beloved crosswords magazine, wearing the same old turtle print swim suit, as unique as the other lady’s flowery swim cap.
And then the people who not so long ago were teens and now are grown up men and women with kids, a driving license, convictions, depression – sometimes all at the same time.
The morning strolls along the seashore, peaceful and beautiful despite the kids throwing themselves towards the sea, so oblivious to the truth they almost – quite literally – run on top of me.
The songs pouring out of the speakers along the beach, still the same after 20 years.
Everything seems to have stayed the same, and yet everything’s changed.
I have changed, people I used to know have changed in the years we spent apart. There’s now some sort of subtle melancholy in the words we say when we meet and talk of old times. There’s a sheer sadness when we say our goodbyes, never knowing if and when we’ll be seeing each others again.
And, finally, the inevitable homesickness and the sorrow at the thought of being back in the place I live now, the end of my holidays, the farewell to the ever sunny sky and the heath, the grayness outside the windows, the cold and often rainy summers in the city I learned to call home, where half of my beloved ones live and where part of my heart stays each time I get on a plane to go somewhere else.
Life as an expat can be an amazing, marvelous experience, but how many times can we truly afford to pay the emotional price it demands to give us in return such a unique, lifelong reality?