Places of the Heart

I

don’t think of myself as a romantic. Not in the classic meaning of the word, anyway. Most people who don’t know me very well might mark me as a detestable cynic and though I’m not abominably sour or despicably gloomy, I do have an unquestionable dose of black humor that can be perceived as cynical or, also possibly, downright unpleasant, though in general, I am the kindest person you can come across.

I am not a pessimist by nature, either, was it not for the fact that mankind tries very hard and very capably to convince me that there is no hope for the human race of ever becoming a peaceful and civil inhabitant of this planet and therefore worth of my respect.

I might also be defined by many as an Atheist, which is the quick way for them to deal with a word they don’t understand: Agnostic. Because that is what I am: an Agnostic; and like the majority of the agnostics on this planet, I’m not refusing deity in principle, I just have no proof whatsoever that he/she/it is there to begin with, as well as of the contrary. And even if he/she/it does exist, then he/she/it will most likely not be interested in whether or not we believe in his/her/its existence. That’s all.

You can go on and continue to believe in whoever/whatever you want, as long as you avoid to bother me with it or try to impose it upon my person or beliefs. When it comes down to faith (oh, everyone tries that ace up the sleeve sooner or later to defend their standpoint in matters of religion…), I put my faith in science and knowledge, and candidly admit that neither of them can explain the Universe (yet), or that they can shed any light on the why we hold this almost supernatural place of sentient species on this water-and-rock spaceship of ours (by the way: are we the only one in the whole Universe?). The only conclusion is that we simply cannot prove or disprove the de facto existence of a god/goddess/entity, so why bother? If you live a life as a good representative of the human race, then he/she/it will be pleased, or don’t care the least because the subject is hypothetical to begin with. The final outcome won’t matter either way.

What has all the above to do with me being or not a romantic? Probably nothing. Or everything. I don’t know.

Still, I like to think that I have, at least in part, the soul of a romantic after all. Something in the line of what the German painter Caspar David Friedrich said about being an artist (he was a great representative of the Romanticism movement): “The artist’s feeling is his law”, or what William Wordsworth said poetry should be: a “spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings”.

Caspar David Friedrich – Wanderer above the Sea of fog

Not that I seriously see myself as an “artist” or a “poet”. No way. I can be called a lot of different things, but “artist” and “poet” are not among them. It’s just that I feel an undeniable affinity with those quotes and can apply them rather often to my person, or better, to the way I react to the world around me under certain circumstances.

That said, some time ago (a couple of years, for sure) I was literally swept away by some images while revisiting the places of my youth, even though that had happened only in my mind. The impressions were so strong that I collected them into this post, a while ago.

Then a few weeks later, something weird happened… I was trying to remember the road I used to walk to school, accompanied by the friends of my youth. I had done that five days a week for 5 long, delightful, fearsome years (high school lasted that long in my time), but now I was having some “blind spots”; places or buildings I could not remember anymore with clarity.

I am, fundamentally, a nerd and as such I found a perfectly nerdy solution to the problem of the blind spots: Google Maps Street View™!

I started to “walk” from my old home (where I lived at the time, before permanently moving to a foreign Country) with the help of Street View, taking the time to look around at each corner, or every time I couldn’t immediately recognize a feature or just to admire the beautiful, or altogether degraded panorama.

Obviously, many things had changed after 40-odd years, though Italian cities (especially in the South) do not evolve that much in such a short period of time (short historically speaking, that is).

I came across many things that immediately swept me back in time; vision, smell, hearing and all. Wonderful! And I discovered I could be instantly moved by some sights that brought back the precise images and emotions of a particular moment in space and time.

I was kind of flabbergasted by this accidental discovery, though in a way I think I had always known it was going to happen. I believe that it had been inside my mind for ages, ready to become a conscious mental image.

I had no idea what such thing could be called, if it had a name at all. I’m not a psychologist or anything even remotely related to that, so I coined an euphemism for it and all the others that I soon discovered were in my memories: Places of the Heart.

I created a kind of game about the Places of the Heart. Every now and then I go back to Street View, randomly to a place/city where I have been before and “walk around” like I did when I was physically there and most of the times it’s just a nice but fruitless exercise. But every now and then, I get a hit: a memory so vivid that I’m transported back in time, where I re-live the moment, I am back with the people right there and then, hear their words, feel the emotions.

And this game is just about my stories, emotions, chances taken and not, fragments of what I am and what I was, my friends, hopes, fears, flashes of moments that I thought were lost forever in the tides of time, while they will always be an integral part of my very being, something very close to what I could call my essence.

Fiction or reality? It’s up to you to suspect or to find out. For me, they are a certainty inside my mind.

Most of the times I have really no conscious recollections of the particular moment. It is totally suspended in a kind of time limbo, buried deep.

But not always…

I often walked from my home to the bordering town Portici, descending Via Diaz, so sometimes I take the same virtual walk and I invariably encounter the same memory, time after time.

And I remember sweet Eliana.

I can only remember her first name.

No idea how I met her. There are some vague images of me talking to her in a huge room full of other people. A school party, perhaps. However, knowing myself, going to a school party was probably the last thing I would do. On the other hand, I might have done so just that one time and met her there. Fate, or whatever you want to call it. I truly and honestly cannot remember anymore…

And then maybe an image of myself talking to her on the phone, but I might as well have imagined this. It’s not something that I really remember, but then again how could I have been otherwise on a date with her, if I had never called and asked if she wanted to go out with me…?

Nothing is before or after that moment when I can see us strolling down that street.

I can even remember what she was wearing: a knee-length straight skirt in a light shade of gray and high boots, a buttoned shirt of an intense sky-blue colour and a woollen cardigan.

I was wearing my usual dark blue straight-leg jeans with suede shoes, a t-shirt and one of my father’s old woollen pullovers, a light blue one with leather patches on the elbows (wonderful vintage ensemble, I’d say).

We must have been 16 or 17 and I know we were about the same age, a difference of a few weeks is what comes to my mind, and that we were totally fascinated by each other.

I remember her gentle eyes, behind the glasses that she, just like me, wore without being embarrassed, so used to wear them that she became completely unaware. Just like I was of mine.

I can clearly see her curly brown hair that she wore in a natural cascade of warm chestnut shininess, dancing slightly in the gentle afternoon breeze or when she turns her head to look into my eyes.

And my heart skips a beat. Literally.

Her face is gentle, bright, sweet and playful without banter.

Eliana was the sweetest girl I ever met.

Even though we hardly knew each other, we talked and walked for what now seem hours, arm in arm, or perhaps with our arms round each other’s waist, I can’t remember clearly, without a single care in the world.

I absolutely cannot remember having ever kissed her. Though I should have done that. I know I desperately wanted to, but I probably did not dare, afraid of ruining the moment.

I can only remember that we turned left after the church and walked down what was the official promenade of all the city’s youth who wanted to see and to be seen and  that it was, as usual, packed with other youths in pairs or small groups.

The only difference was that we remained on the left sidewalk, while all the people who were there to see and be seen always kept to the right side in a kind of obeisance to an ancient Royal edict that had lasted for centuries and was still observed, even in the present Republican era.

We never spoke it out, but I’m sure we both wanted to remain undisturbed by a casual encounter with an acquaintance, perfectly happy to be together, to talk and to look at each other without any distraction or interruption. And indeed, whether just one or one thousand people I knew passed by on the other sidewalk, I have no recollection of seeing anyone but sweet, funny and gentle Eliana.

Where we went or what happened after this street also came to an end, I have no idea. Honestly.

I have no further recollection of seeing her again, not even once. All has been completely wiped out and the only certainty is that I have never met her again for the rest of my life.

But every time I wander the digital streets of my youth, I always go back to that particular road and I meet her again, with her sweet face, her gentle smile and my heart skips a beat again.

Sweet Eliana, wherever you are: thank you for just being now in my memories.

 

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