Once, over an aperitif in Lucca, we had a discussion: how many people in the world know of Picasso?
The sun was warm and orange like it only is in Italy. We smoked cigarettes, whilst a Dutch family next to us had an early dinner; their children left the green tablecloth stained with Bolognese and sticky, sugary lemonade. I think there were olives on the table, perhaps there weren’t. We were both tired, from a long day of heat and dust. We’d also seen perhaps five cathedrals – the Catholics really do take it out of you.
In Lucca, we were in love. Thoroughly, deeply, in love. We were in love waking up in the sweaty bed, sunbeams hitting our faces, to the noise of the café opening on the square below our window. We were in love as we fought over what restaurant to eat at – it felt like all we ate that week was tagliata, seared steak on a bed of arugula – and we were in love when we drank coffee in the morning and ate apricot pastries.
We drove around Tuscany, to Florence, where we wandered the Boboli gardens overlooking the hills surrounding the city, with cypresses casting long shadows on the ground beneath them. In some distant corners, you could spot a blue swimming pool interrupting the landscape. Small cars tooted in the distance; tractors ran through olive groves. As a child I would re-read the same book about a prince obsessively; right now, I can’t remember what exactly the story was about, but I remember the prince lying in the shade of cypresses, lined diligently along a river, staring at the sky, eating fruits.
We didn’t speak of the future then; there wasn’t room for it yet. With nothing to do but be in love, days become centered on the smallest tasks, such as sleeping, eating and drinking. Showering too. Do we nap before dinner? Can we drink at the same pace; do we understand each other? My theory is, that they are a chance to prove to each other that you can be a twosome. Removed from the hectic life in the city, to do nothing together draws out that inconvenient, fear-inducing yet all-important question: are we enough?
These are the concerns of lovers: what to drink, what to eat, when to sleep. Each task slowly fills the day, and time passes by you like airplanes: silently, speedily, crossing the sky above. I didn’t think then of the children I later invented; named after our friends and famous writers, whom we would have shown Italy, the Italy we felt we had discovered together. I didn’t think then, of whether you would want to marry me, or whether I wanted to marry you. I didn’t consider, as I later would, when I was lying next to you in bed and couldn’t sleep, whether I could move to your home country with you, and live in a small apartment, where perhaps I’d keep fresh lilies in a vase on a table between a pair of French windows, which opened onto a busy street. Or of future afternoons in cafés with friends, which would glide into evenings, as empty coffee cups were replaced by small wine glasses and clean ashtrays. Of the nights we would walk through the city home, along the river, arm-in-arm, and it would be summer, and we would remind each other to cherish the time because it passed so fast.
I didn’t think then of all that, for in Italy there were only us and the cypresses, and that was enough. From Florence we drove to San Gimignano, through mountain hills and wine fields. We laughed in the car because I – after a week – still couldn’t pronounce “grazie” correctly, and we listened to Tristan und Isolde. I fed him water when he needed it, and sugared sweets; and I liked sitting there, next to him, looking out the window. We ate ham and drank beer in San Gimignano, and drove home as hot summer rain started to fall, and the sun began to set.
It is hard to say goodbye to the things that never were. Perhaps that is why I clung to a time with no future. Back from Italy, I slowly but surely began dreaming. It wasn’t deliberate (in fact, I tried to avoid it, because I knew he didn’t like it), but I simply could not help it. On cold English afternoons whilst researching in the library, the small flat with the lilies in the vase would appear to me, like a frail song lulled in my ear by hummingbirds. And not knowing whether I liked it, I would follow it. And then I’d be there again: cooking ratatouille, whilst you taught our children piano; or pouring you the last cup of coffee from the pot, on a Sunday morning, whilst we read The Times, or talked about the night before. Dreams tend to stay with you, the songs too addictive.
We drove to Livorno, a tired town by the coast, with no tourists and a beach. Among white and blue striped umbrellas, we spent days lying on daybeds, reading books. Surrounded by Italian children – dark, like only children who spend all day by the sea can be – and their mothers and fathers, who congregated in the shade playing cards, we stood out, but we didn’t notice, and we didn’t care. We drank cappuccinos and smoked cigarettes, told each other to put on more sunscreen, and read, and laughed and slept.
The very tan children clustered in their age groups. The youngest of them played in the shallow end of the covered pool. Some ran around, playing hide and seek, slaloming lifeguards, parents and chairs. The slightly older boys swam in the ocean, with the girls looking on from the shore, and the teenagers stood in the shade, flirting, smoking, and playing Italian pop music off their phones.
As I had finished my book, and having lain in the sun for a while, I zoned out looking at this phenomenon. How did they get so dark? It is a special kind of dark: only children who spend their days by the sea or the pier get tanned like this. Few adults get this dark – perhaps they are too cautious. The wind must make the sun feel less harsh. I wish I could become so dark.
I was pulled out of that thought, by two fingers gently squeezing my elbow. I turned my head and saw you still deeply occupied by your book, but with your arm stretched out, reaching my elbow, squeezing the skin between your fingers. It wasn’t to get my attention; it wasn’t really a question, I think it was just a squeeze. Having your arm squeezed by someone you love, is the greatest pleasure in the world. At that moment, we were enough, and everything I felt, was encapsulated in that teeny tiny squeeze.
On our way back we stopped for apricots at a street vendor (if you haven’t discovered by now, he loved apricots, and I too learned to like them). We parked on the pavement, right after a roundabout, so I jumped out and bought a bag. It was early evening, and the grocer wanted to go home, so I got them cheap. The flowers by the side of the stall looked tired from the sun and flies had gathered on a halved watermelon on display. We drove back to Lucca, had a shower, and went for a late dinner. Sadly, we discovered in the car, that the apricots were no good, and I binned them as soon as we got back to our apartment.
We never settled on how many people know of Picasso. I thought more than three billion, adding together the increasing living standards in the Global South, with West’s pestering cultural exportation, concluding that roughly 40% of the world’s population must have heard of him in some capacity. (Now, whether that simply is his name associated with the connotation “artist”, or his art more directly, doesn’t matter to me). Anyways, he thought less, and after we did a poll, it was clear I was outnumbered.
I continue to ask people that question today because I find it endlessly fascinating. Something that probably cannot be known, or maybe it can, and I am just not smart enough to figure out how, but also, it doesn’t matter. It is an utterly pointless exercise of brain-gymnastics, and yet the question lingers. Maybe we will eat together one day, discuss the question once again, and look back at our trip with joy, but the place won’t be ours anymore. We never saw La Guerre together, and neither did we get to show it to our never-to-exist-children.
The question reminds me of something that was ours, and not the song of a hummingbird: it reminds me of apricots and orange sun; of striped deck chairs and tanned children playing; of coffee and summer rain, and swimming in the ocean: of a time with no future, just cypresses – and us.
Text: Gustav Hagild
Photo Copyright: Oscar Ghiglia Stillleben
In exclusive for: The Flow House