When I was a child, the seafront looked like the only possible space in which you could linger forever. Growing up in a village tucked away on the Tyrrhenian shore, I spent my time seeing my siblings throwing themselves among the waves, a familiar soundtrack that resonated with my parents’ attempts to give us a happy childhood. Then came the high school friends, the first kiss, the never-ending and too hot summer days, and the realisation that the place in which all of my roots were a trap. The sea was there waving goodbye when I left Italy for Glasgow, and it is the first thing you see from the window as the landing plane approaches the region from the west: a swathe of endless blue marked by a series of medieval villages, which the Normans lined up one after the other to prevent the arrival of potential enemies on the other side of the Mediterranean.
I have always found amusing how, in this geographical and historical perspective, I am the enemy. Since I was sixteen, it had been my only, paradoxical purpose: to go away and never come back. And yet, now that I have a few years of cranky wisdom under my belt, it is the return flight that really triggers off the need for reconciliation. During the last months spent there, I had the first bouts of what would then become my love-hate relationship with mental health. Because of many episodes related to my parents’ divorce battle and the limited interest most teachers would put in their work, there was no such thing as a time for opportunities and discovery. The fact that Calabria is also the poorest region in Italy and the home to the second largest mafia group by revenue in the world completes this wasteland scenario, while it provides a good starting point when friends abroad are keen on discovering how much of Gomorra is real.
Saviano’s investigation aside, I came to see my well-being as a distant land that I should strive to reach as soon as possible, and that leaving would give me the necessary step towards emotional independence from a mess. It was the only target I set for myself, and to this day I cannot recall any other feelings which took up my mind as the one of not being in a good – or the right, to say so – place. Would being abroad make things perfect? Not with all the inconvenient truths about my psyche. Would it potentially make a small world bigger and bigger, for better or for worse? Absolutely. I now live in a messy city in which everybody is disgusted by strangers’ sweat and closeness, and yet they defend their sense of community with fierce toleration. I have embraced the spirit and very unwillingly borne with the smell, for the sake of being part of something more.
It has been three years and in many ways I have not yet completely made peace with where I come from, despite my baby steps towards the best version of myself, and some not so easy attempts at self-analysis. I have started to believe that it is due to how sudden and full of hatred the goodbye was, besides realising how badly conceived and overly expensive transportation links to that area are. There was not a single good memory to hold on to as I made my way to adult life, and all of the self-care the transition implies. In the astounding isolation which tends to precede departures, the few friends who managed to stick with me despite my moments of anger and silence moved to the background. They are the same whom I desperately wish to hug more often when Christmas holidays seem too far away, and in this ironically masochistic game called an expat’s life there is only so much of this nostalgia that you can handle by yourself.
I have had the unexpected fortune of realising at a relatively young age that we are imperfect and in need for love, and that no place in the world will be complete when those responsible for channelling that are scattered across the continent. I have now become aware of the struggles my mother faces in not seeing me for nine months because it would take a day and a half to get to her, and yet she still has the strength to encourage me and be proud of where I am. I feel my father’s hugs become tighter every time we meet each other around Europe, his Pink Floyd collection waiting for me in the car so we can go back to the time I was 13 and he only wanted me to become a David Gilmour adulator. I see my siblings getting more mature on a semester-to-semester basis and feel the time pass by, with one of them going into university, one getting his hands on the wheel, and one hitting a Hamley’s xylophone I got her for her third birthday.
In this collage of bittersweet fragments, I see my best friend from back home playing Radiohead on a ukulele as we head to the nearest beach, with the same energy and bright eyes of my fiercely creative Glasgow flatmate. Only a few days ago, my current flatmate has bestowed music upon me by giving me a light blue ukulele in front of a bowl of soup and Dutch chocolate, before chatting for hours about the Christmas holidays. Had it not been for this continuous support, through postcards and endearing thoughts and other forms of affection, I would not now be able to see the bright side of that forgotten piece of earth; even the smaller things have their own logic in the future, considering how easily they accumulate and become some form of moral scaffolding for crumbling emotional buildings. I am one of those buildings.
Should the sense of inadequacy that I felt back then be a rationale for demotivation and depreciation? As I print photographs from recent trips and homemade dinners, there is a feeling that it is no longer the case, but the regret for not understanding it earlier on will still leave behind some turmoil. Meanwhile, I can just hope my hunger for new memories will be an incentive to give a more positive light to that imaginary trap. On the flight to Amsterdam, where I had first landed in December, Florence Welch kept me company as I elaborated on how short the staying at home felt, and the missed occasions of that last year before my atonement. Of all her lyrics, one remained in the corner of my mind and eyes while the salted air caressed the airplane: And every city was a gift / and every skyline was like a kiss upon the lips.
Maybe that is closer than it seems. Little by little, I will probably see the beauty of the Stromboli volcano towering over the orange and violet stripes of a winter sunset, rather than the ugliness of certain behaviours and the dullness of provincial afternoons. And in my mother’s tears at the airport, there will be a reminder of sacrifices and what they can be worth, for they have been the true propeller of a dream machine. Until then, my luggage will keep changing address labels and be ready for the next skyline to be called home: how big, how blue, how beautiful.