Remembering Bologna

Cheryl Chaffin

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No one taught me how to forget. I wanted to remember, each detail: descending from the train, arriving into the station, the porticoes, the distance to the hotel, strands of fog kissing the streets, anointing our heads, our arms locked together, the bag over each of our shoulders. He shows me the place, the place where the bomb blew. The rip, the tear in the (direction) wall of the station where no one stands now. I was there the other day at the station, waiting for a train to Modena and then to Carpi. Here was the place of the bomb, the opening in the wall made into a glass monument that reads with the day, month, year of the explosion. Who would stand there? For a moment, I did, before I recognized what it was. I wanted to run. I wanted to call out, “Why are we remembering a bomb in the place the trains are still arriving?” It would have been rhetorical. Yet, in that moment I feared memory. I moved away, a respectful few feet—close enough to be reminded, far enough to save myself. The place remains open. I doubt anyone would ever stand there just below, as if cloaked in catastrophe. Everyone avoids it.

Then, checking in at the hotel front desk, just across from the station. Everything so close, so near, we barely walked to arrive. Perhaps there was only a corner, an angle to turn, and we had arrived. Or, perhaps, I remember only the arriving. But, no. I do not remember even that. I remember him saying, “Bologna,” because my mother had left, returned to the United States, and this would be our first time alone, perhaps our first sex. And, why Bologna? Because of the porticoes, because of its red: red architecture, red sauce, red politics; because of the university; because of the bomb and the history of terrorism in the 1970s and 80s. He never failed to remind me that here (at that moment the train was in a tunnel) the bomb had exploded. It could be different places—a tunnel, a station. Bombs had lived everywhere. People could make statements through destruction and murder at any time. He never failed to remind me—or perhaps I did not know, so it was not a reminder but a terrible awakening—that this many people had died. He never failed to remind me that Americans were naïve, that they knew little of the world, of pain. He did not say “pain.” He stated Americans were isolated from the rest of the world. He implied we had our heads in the sand. The country was an island. He knew: he had lived in America, he had attended high school and the university in New Jersey and New York. He spoke beautiful English. He studied medicine. He smoked cigarettes and carried a tattered leather satchel over his shoulder. He carried knowledge with him. He was beautiful; he was everything I wanted, the things I was not.

Yet these things did not make a difference, for we would hardly see any of the city. All that remains, for me, is a train ticket, marking an early day in December and the year, 1985. Neither is there memory of his love—of the city, of communism, of me. All I remember is a sort of desperation, a need to merge, to close the curtains, to drown myself in Italy, in the silence of winter streets just outside, in a man who was to me entirely unknown—except that he loved Bologna and thought that I might like it too, and that I had something hard and new to learn there—that Italy was not a beautiful place to awaken from youth. Rather, it was a real country with real problems and difficult moments. He wanted me to know these things and to incorporate them into my consciousness. He also wanted me—because I was an American. I could engage hours of conversation with him in English, a language he longed to speak. I had something in me—by nature of my birth and my culture, my language and my sensibility—that he missed. And, I was female (am/is!) and could feed his sexual desire and need, as he—beautiful Italian man, fed mine. In this way, we fed one another, but we need real food, too, and we went into the wet winter streets in that dizzy confusion of hunger and love and spent energy and delirious desire that comes in being completely united for a few moments with a beloved. It is so fleeting and so rare and it comes less and less frequently in life. It is almost as if only the young could tolerate these moments energetically and emotionally, these moments that rise to a peak, hit a pitch. So full is one, so depleted, it is a wonder anyone survives these things. This is what is left then: a residue, a feeling, a memory of sustenance and utter exhaustion that makes for a kind of giddy stumbling walk through the streets toward food, toward the warmth of a subterranean taverna in the late hours of a winter night.

Instead, the only thing I remember is the sheer curtain on the window, the dark room, our day of making love, and the dinner, because we were famished, under porticoes—as if we had simply crossed a street, slipped under cover, down stairs and into a taverna with arched brick ceilings, separate small rooms (we were in the second, just off the larger room), a bottle of red wine and lasagna bolognese. Eating from love, eating of love, eating as if we had never eaten and doing it together. Now I am in Bologna alone—to know the city without the lover, to try to remember where those two young lovers stayed, what streets they knew, what was the hotel, where was the taverna in relationship to the hotel.

At night, I research hotels and restaurants close to the train station. This hotel, Hotel de la Gare, looks right—something from the mid-1960s, definitely post-war, sort of modern in a cold, industrial mid-twentieth century way. It is a large hotel and I do not remember if our hotel was large or small. I do not remember walking to the room, down a hallway together. We are voiceless, speechless in that past, as if we merely bump up against one another and recognize nothing. As if: by an accident of decades. And, so, memory disappears. And, so, memory is propped up through story, drawn from the invisible, from the compost heap of decades, wherein (if we are lucky, or afraid) lives the archive of brown and fraying pages, tatters of paper falling from folios, falling to the floors of archives, a burnt siena snow of history.

For a moment, in the Italy of 2018, in Bologna, on the terrace, in the flat cooking spaghetti with a sauce and drinking prosecco in the late afternoon, I feel a darkness move over me. I do not have a past because I cannot remember it. Or, I do and it is gone. I almost cease to exist. I have only this moment. Everything else that passes through I will forget. It is inconsequential, if I haven’t forgotten it already. I think that I will go back to the station and from there retrace my steps to the hotel. That the hotel will look familiar, that if I do not recognize it by sight. I will recognize it in my body, by a feeling, an experience that I know I’ve had there. Then, just across the street, very close will be the taverna. But it is not that way. The station sits on Piazza delle Medaglie d'Oro and on Strada Statale Porrettana. There is a wide space. The nearest hotel is across the way. There are no porticoes just across from this hotel. There are no narrow streets here. No, we stayed near the university, a fountain. Or, we walked one day into the center. It was quiet. There was natural light. No one was there. It was as if no one lived in the city.

The city with the lover is a bed, perhaps a window mostly closed to the world. The city with oneself is a book, writing, a room, the sounds of the street and the day outside, lived in the world. The city with the lover is necessarily narrow, slimmed down to a stretch of breath, a touch of skin, the long day becoming night, foodless and eternally happy. The city with oneself is wide and unknown, its side streets inviting, its boulevards and viale throbbing with noise, pollution, energy, initiation. The city with the lover momentarily opens to a meal waiting, across the street and down a small flight of stairs. The bottle of wine and the sleep-deprived bliss. The city with oneself is a sliver of doubt and the joy of discovery, a street name and a place of destination. It is prosecco, the fluted glass frosted, the clouds greying, sun streaming through, the journal open, blue ink staining profuse pages. The city with the lover is translation, relaxation, others talking. The city with oneself is stupefaction, stumbling through phrases, fear of entering and asking. It is language in the head and desire to speak what has never belonged to this tongue.

I returned to the city in the late-middle of my life. Three decades have passed. What did I expect to find? What is it that I need, that I am looking for? I wanted to understand why Bologna, what he wanted me to know—that man whom I loved and feared and hated and admired all at once. I wanted to feel myself alone, a woman in the middle of her life, always unmarried, now a parent, a professor, a practitioner of yoga, the church many years gone; so many years of life lived, so much more knowledge. A woman who had left the island and the island long since gone, having become something else, a part of the world, because the world had changed and borders were porous and continually complicated and no one could pretend she didn’t know and really live in the world. Because migration was vicious and continuous as people were uprooted and had to leave what they loved when life was no longer tenable. Then, I could be his student. He could pour his desire and his knowledge into me and I was receptive, a receptacle even. My primary relationship to him was not as lover—though, I was a beautiful girl for a while who could speak to him in a language and a life he had once known. As for me: he was Italian, Italy; he could teach me and fill my emptiness with unknowns. What would the city be for me now? What would Italy mean to me in the middle of my life?

If I look too hard, think too much (about the past) I will be sick. Which is what happened when I felt him and found myself alone, without him in the United States again after that year in Italy. If I look for some elusive past, some event that I can barely remember except for a curtain, a dark room, the feeling of hunger, the closeness and warmth, the red tablecloth, the taste of wine after love—I will make myself sick. There is nothing. That was another life. I recognize now the reason I taught Marguarite Duras’ novel The Lover this semester. It was a strange novel to teach. It was short, I told my students. They would appreciate reading a short work. But I did not understand why I taught a novel so full of sex, of a man and a girl who loved each other but only showed it through power and the lack of it. A French girl in colonial Vietnam, poor, her father dead, her mother a teacher at the French school, her older brother abusive, her younger brother slow and abused by the elder brother. The family a mess, the mother depressed. This love, the man looking at her from his car with a driver on the boat crossing the Mekong, was for her a kind of power. She pieces together the novel, as if photos, snapshots of the past that she barely remembers. They are fragmented, small bits of prose, blurry, poetic, sensual, and rough with a terrible internal suffering. I say something like this to my students: “this book is like an album of photographs, without the photos. Each small segment of prose is a memory, broken and separate, flotsam on the ocean of what was once a life.” Duras is seventy, writing this novel in 1984. My students are researching her biography. They find that she has written this novel again and again throughout her life. She has given it various titles and different narrative threads and details. It is a central memory, a turning point. Just as I, too, have written this story before—the one of Bologna and the weekend there.

We write then because we want to make meaning, or want to find meaning. We write as if to discover a secret, a hidden thing that will reveal a truth previously buried. She is fifteen at the story begins. She writes, “Already it is too late for me.” She tells us her face is wrecked, ravaged. She has begun to die, even at fifteen. Is that what being an adult means? Does it mean to die? At thirty I loved that line. I yelled at my live-in lover in a period of deep crisis: “You are wrecking my face! My face is ravaged because of you.” I understood that hardship—emotional, physical—could and would destroy any trace of beauty. I understood my moments had lasted, too long, that my time was up. I understood that beauty is not a right. That it is actually wrong in a world imbued, stuffed and overflowing with suffering. That now my life moved into the vast spaces of a ravaged face. People would read my face, they would know, and recognize me. Just as the Chinese lover recognized the writer as a fifteen-year-old girl, a girl dissatisfied, her life all wrong, her silk slip of a dress, her man’s hat, and her special, ridiculous, highly impractical and rebellious gold lamé shoes. That girl become a man, that girl become a woman. The girl no longer, not ever a girl, but a broken person becoming more broken. People would find me in pain and it was now the pain they would love, not me. Perhaps that is why he told me of the bombs, made me read the newspapers, taught me to love not literature but politics. Perhaps, even, that is why I had chosen to study politics in Italy. I went toward the pain, even gravitated in that direction. I believed I could be made better, stronger, less beautiful, more real for it. He fed me. He told me stories and made me read, while he sat next to me, smoking a cigarette and drinking an espresso, correcting me, giving me the meaning of words.

Now I teach myself. I study Italian for ten months. I begin to read in the language, to more fully immerse myself in the research written in Italian on the writer about whom I’m writing. The language is not mine. I am not fluent, never was, though I used to say that I was—in remembering those years of Italian at the university, how I made it my minor (a secondary but beloved study), how I spoke it. I thought I spoke it well, but I never had command. I knew how to say the same things I say now: the weather, the directions, the places, the questions, the minor comments and responses, the food, the schedules and times, the details of my life. I am much less capable when it comes to ideas and to conditionals. I flail in the face of verbs and their conjugations. My middle-life tongue feels clumsy. I am tired. The streets of Bologna are steamy and crowded. I cannot hear the woman across the table with whom I’m having lunch and, simultaneously, having an Italian lesson. I’ve ordered tortellini (a mano) with burro e salvia, butter and sage. The taste is exquisite. The noise level atrocious, people in line, awaiting tables, two women next to us with whom we share our four-top. Most of the time here I have cooked in my flat. I love walking to the little alimentario on the corner of Via Andrea Massena in Torino and now here in Bologna at the corner of Via Giuseppe Bentivogli (named for an Italian partisan) , and then returning to my flat to cook and sit on the terrace under small dark pink roses that climb onto the red rooftop tiles.


Cheryl Chaffin

Cheryl Chaffin lives in California where she teaches literature and writing. She has published After Poland: A Memoir Because of Primo Levi and is currently composing The Bright Dream: A Writer’s Return to Italy.

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