Months of looking forward to this moment, trying not to build up expectations but secretly imagining how it would feel to lick a gelato again or envisioning ringing my parents’ doorbell, twice, with an almost imperceptible pause in between, so that they would know it’s family and they would open the old wooden gates without asking “chi e’?”.
Here I finally am in Vimercate, my hometown in Italy. The town whose cobbled streets held my first steps and witnessed my bicycle crashes. In the house that contained my evolution and framed my memories.
The last time I was here, Fintan and I rocked up directly from London, Supertramp-stylee, in our campervan on our way to Umbria where we were going to get married. That was three years ago.
Going back to Mum and Dad’s always plays this weird trick on me. I seem to regress to the person I was when I used to live there, I pick up old habits by osmosis as if they were part of the make up of the house itself. They come with the gold-rimmed for-special-occasion-only plates, the earthy smell of the inside of mum’s caffettiera that never gets washed, the velvety ever-lasting sage bush and the flutter of swallows in the mossy courtyard.
I even crave food I used to eat when I was living there that I no longer enjoy. My messiness finds its old tempo, the need of wearing make-up creeps up from the bathroom mirror, the fancy of a cigarette punctually follows the lunchtime espresso.
Life at my Mum and Dad’s still evolves around the kitchen whose counter tops seem now so low and foreign and the light in it is still fluorescent-sad. I am paralyzed in it, unable to come up with recipes as if my cooking creativeness didn’t make it through customs. I’d mess around with the pictures on the fridge, I’d go in the sweets cupboard hunting for the pick and mix my mum used to buy for me at the Friday market. She is now buying them for my nephews thus perpetrating this naughty habit. In the unconscious effort of re-living that memory, complete the experience of ‘being home’, I stole from their supply. Bad Aunty.
I do many things for the sake of nostalgia. Flick through our family photo albums, visit the shops I used to go to, stop in the kids section of the library, walk past the houses I loved and even read the announcements of deceased people from the billboards around town and hum the tune of the church bells. This time more than ever.
For it felt, this visit back home, heavy with a three-year absence and in the company of my daughter, was about making past experiences alive and mine again, observed with fresh eyes as if looked through Camila’s eyes. How weird it has been sleeping in my old bedroom with my daughter. The thought that today will be one day Camila’s memory was freaky. I wondered what taste it will have for her as I was trying to identify what taste it has for me.
One afternoon I watched my niece Sara (5) and nephew Alex(6) roam free on the pedestrianized streets of my town centre. I caught glimpses of the raw feeling of their experience, of what makes it so much fun to just race and hide behind a rubbish bin or run their fingers along the church walls or walk on the edge of the pavement making sure not to step onto the breaks in between the stones.
As adults we don’t know how that really feels anymore. We just see a running child who might fall and hurt himself, who would get his hands dirty, who is delaying our purpose, whose screams are annoying. We have lost the ability to feel the pleasure in the small things because they are no longer new to us.
In that moment, with the risk of appearing lost, I tried to shrink back to those young days, when experiences were new, and virgin adventures tingled with bursts of fizzy emotions. In the main square, I watched their bubbly frolicking and tried to match it to my own when I was their age. I time-traveled to the happiest years of my childhood, in the small town in the mountains where we used to go during summer holidays. My siblings and I were left to roam free in a group of different ages children. We experienced everything, played with dirt and insects, explored the woods, picked flowers and berries. I still remember the smell of wild cyclamens and the sweet flavour of wild strawberries, the excitement of going mushroom picking and playing with fireflies in the warm summer nights. The art of entertaining each others by inventing silly games, playing with no apparent purpose.
I felt like I remembered. That feeling was spinning like a dreamcatcher in the wind, faint as vapour. It was a tiny glimpse. Hard to pinpoint. I barely caught in my belly how it felt. A boundless freedom of extraordinary measure and colour. A twirl that touched all senses and whispered to my ear the importance of living your child’s experiences from their own perspective.
I’d go and pick Sara up from kindergarten every afternoon. I kept on practicing this exercise of living her thrills from her small wondrous perspective. It helped that she goes to the same kindergarten I used to go, and chooses to play in the same park I used to frequent.
There were big concrete frogs dotted around the play area of the Villa Gussi park, next to the sandpit and the swings. I used to climb them and ride them as if they were horses. Or even unicorns, who remembers? They are still there. Except they now looked small, ugly and purposeless. When I was little though, I used to like their texture as I stroked them and hugged them in the effort of trying to sit on them. I would admire the moss that would form in the crevices of their legs. They were one of the reasons I used to like that park. They were gracing it with their presence that my imagination had turned into something of a fantastic nature.
How liberating is to lose yourself in delirium. That is the recipe, I realised, that keeps your inner child alive. And how much easier it is to fabricate dreams and fantasy when you are around children, who do it by nature.
I think I am going to love it…
“Some day you will be old enough to start reading fairy tales again.” C.S. Lewis