It’s half past six in the morning. I’m standing on the shore, I see my own shadow and an absurd, still sleepy thought comes to me: if I wasn’t on the Tyrrhenian Sea but the Adriatic, the shadow wouldn’t float from the beach to the sea, but crawl from the sea onto the sand stamped with birds’ feet.
I’m alone but for two members of staff I know well. The lifeguard is tidying away the chairs, broken and scattered after a night raid of ‘persons unknown’ that he knows well. “They don’t know how to drink,” he says without anger. “They’re thirteen, fourteen at most, and they’re letting rip after four months of lockdown… Worse than the Swiss who come at the end of September or the beginning of October and drink themselves into a stupor, wine, spritz, beer, but they don’t destroy anything. Their only sin is that they sprinkle fried squid and prawn with sugar, but that doesn’t harm anyone except them.”
The other presence is the owner of the bathing beach and bartender rolled into one. He’s warming up the coffee machine, saying that the day is going to be beautiful, sunny, windless, and the sea – gentle.
In a moment the cicadas will start. First, the sole one that will crack the shellac of silence, then a few others will join the pioneer’s work with their files, and following them – the whole orchestra of grinders, sat silent up till now somewhere high up in the stone pines.
Nobody’s here yet, not even the itinerant sellers, the ‘economic migrants’, as they’d probably be called by many of our political sages. Those same political sages who forget that the highlander from the Polish folk song who departed his homeland for bread was also an economic migrant, that somebody let the highlander into their country and allowed him to earn his bread, and the Polish (i.e. ‘ours-only’) Pope would say goodbye to his homeland after probably every pilgrimage with this song about the economic migrant from the Podhale highlands. I would frequently ask Nigerians, Senegalese, Tunisians whether they have their own songs about people who leave their homeland for bread, for their health and for the lives of their loved ones, and they’d say yes, they do, but they wouldn’t say what’s in them, knowing in their African-Mediterranean wisdom that you can’t explain songs devoid of music, because frequently all that’s left of their melancholy is an incomprehensible, often ominous oddity.
Anyway, I’m alone on the beach, the first runner will appear in a minute, she’ll say buongiorno and leave behind a humanized landscape, the sand blotted by footprints inevitably condemned to be blurred, and, with another wave, completely wiped off the face of the Earth… Incidentally, what a strange expression: ‘to disappear off the face of the Earth’. With its need for precision, with that pedantic ‘face of the earth’ it announces that the disappearance takes place only here, not in general, because somewhere (we don’t say where, although we know perfectly well) he, she, it, something or someone, a human, the footprints, the trail of poetry still exists, and if something disappears, it’s only ‘from the face’, because really it penetrates into the depths and blossoms.
I’m facing the misty phantoms of the Tuscan Archipelago: the large, watery bulk of Giglio, the massive rockiness of Elba, the child-sized pyramids Giannutri and Montecristo. The owner-bartender serves the first people their first coffee, passes the croissants. The itinerant sellers aren’t here and they probably won’t be, like yesterday. Before, as recently as two years ago, when Salvini was defending Italy from them like it was the bulwark of Christiandom, I’d see maybe 40 of them, women and men, with beads, throws, towels, dresses made of Indian cotton. Now probably only the stalwart three or four will come; the lively vendor of books about Africa, the old and limping Ndjai with dresses and string bracelets. And this year’s surprise and boundless joy: the one whose name I gave to the little protagonist of my short book (Nabu’s Journey) about a girl who travels across the sea to find a stone house for herself, her parents and brother. Nabu – today 40 or 45 years old – whom I lost sight of for two years, now again arrives from Pontedera every day. She’s Senegalese and it’s only now that I learn her full name: Seynabou. We speak for a quarter of an hour, and then I watch for a long time as she walks away with the heavy gait of an immigrant mother of many, given bravery and strength by Allah whom she worships, and hard knocks by life.
I won’t meet the sellers at the local weekly market either. Salvini and an antipathy towards newcomers, which he had time to gather his courage to express before he left the government (some say only for a while), is one thing. The fear of the virus is another. Tourists, unaware that these people live in Italy permanently and return home for short stays in winter, frequently assume that they’re dealing with migrants who arrived a few days earlier, in a boat, straight from Libya, where anti-COVID controls are a pipe dream. Either way, the Africans know that the tourists’ additional fear or the distance they keep are caused by fear of infection, which is just as likely to happen the other way around. They don’t hold out their hands: they throw the bracelets from a distance of a metre or two. “Don’t be scared,” says Ndjai to someone who isn’t scared anyway. “Show me from there what you like, I’ll put it in the bag, you give it time, try it on and pay me in a few days if you like it.”
Yes, the Italians obey the rules and restrictions of the state of emergency. No less than the Germans I met on the way in Dresden, more than people in the country on the Vistula. In bars and cafés, there are lines indicating where to stand while in a queue, before entering a bar everyone responsibly puts on a mask. The masks themselves and their designs are a separate story altogether. For a few years, a stall has stood out in the market; it sells increasingly prized scarves and shawls made of bamboo fibre with patterns taken from great artists: Modigliani, Picasso, Botticelli… This year’s novelty, of course, are masks with Van Gogh’s flowers, Renaissance putti, impressionist suns tastefully cropped from famous paintings. An Ethiopian used to always sit in front of the stall with bamboo fashion, selling totems. Today there are no ebony totems, no Ethiopian. “He’s disappeared off the face of the Earth.” That is: he’s somewhere. Like the Tunisian who rounded out the row of stalls with a booth selling tiles, bowls, plates in geometric, colourful patterns. Where are they, if they’ve disappeared off the face of the Earth? Not only this Earth.
For art, one goes to Siena, an hour’s drive away. Tickets to the Pinacoteca and the museum complex of Santa Maria della Scala are free in July, to stimulate tourism. Because tourism – the beach-oriented one and the museum-focused one – needs stimulating. The family who runs an agency says that in the first weeks of the holidays only half of the coastal cottages were rented. The camping was 30% full. On week-nights, restaurants are almost empty. They come alive at the weekends, when the holidaying families are joined by city dwellers who, if they do take a holiday, won’t take it until August. But real sadness, Italian joy extinguished, is felt in Siena. The reason is obvious: the Palio horse race was cancelled. Nobody set up the thick earth ring, which I admired every summer, on the square that is turned into a racecourse twice a year. The drummers aren’t drumming, sbandieratori aren’t juggling the flags of city wards. At the Pinacoteca – in front of Duccio, Simone Martini, Sodoma, Beccafumi – I meet only three people. They speak German.
Maybe it’s a matter of age, but this year I don’t travel away from the sea much, and it’s not the sea that I care about the most, but the forest leading to the beach. Stone pines sanded down by those persistent cicadas until the red sunset. It’s only then that the choir falls silent. Instead of thousands, hundreds can be heard, then a few dozen, then a handful, until at the final moment there’s the one. The soloist. She plays the grating but somehow noble lullaby to the sun, and it shows her a late screening of a movie about stars sparkling on the clear sky. Is she the same one with which my day started? She sounds different now. Like Bach’s finale of the English Suite.
Translated from the Polish by Marta Dziurosz
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