From the author: A memory of old times past and good old days in the sun-bathed south of Italy of the nineties.
Iwas fifteen. It was 1997.
I started writing poetry. Reading unknown authors. Listening to grunge music.
My high-school was in a city near Napoli, called Pozzuoli. The school was spread in two buildings; both of them were not built to host a school.
One was a former fire station; the other a residential building modified to be a school.
There were no emergency exits. There were cement columns in the middle of the classrooms, balconies like houses. My classroom was plastered with tiles, covering one entire wall, the last enduring memories of a kitchen of times past.
I would go out to the balcony to smoke a cigarette during breaks, while teachers rushed from one class to the other. The balcony opened on the backyard of the building, onto an ancient Roman temple. The temple was as tall as a three story building and still incredibly well preserved, even though it was half-masked by the green of the vegetation that was eating it.
I would light up a cigarette and look at the temple; think of the people that passed by there, thinking that in any other country that temple would have visitors, would be guarded, walled and respected.
I would inhale the violet smoke and, as the cigarette reached its end, I would throw it on the ground near the temple in a burning arch, because that behaviour was normal for me and the people around me at that particular point in life.
During gym class we would go and play football exactly where the temple was, using the fallen-down opening as one of the goals. We would sweat in the warm Southern European climate, and come back to our class stinking of burnt skin, blood, grass and sweat, because there were no showers.
After school, we would go out into the little park that once was in front of the building. We would stop by the salumeriaand buy prosciutto and cheese paninis while waiting for the school bus. The school bus was a white van stripped of normal seats, with three long benches to stuff more kids in.
The days in school were boring. The ideas we were studying felt stale. So I would sit in the back of the class, hiding my Ungaretti, Yeats, or Thomas in whatever book we were supposed to have in front of us. I would read Hume and Locke while the professor was reading Parmenides from the book.
The system was old and smelled like death.
That year I would often skip class. Sometimes I would join other people from other classes, who skipped as well. If it were summertime, we would go to the beach. You could go to the beach from March until October, that’s how nice the weather was. We would take off our clothes, leave them under our schoolbags, and swim in our underwear. The sun would dry ourselves up in a short while. We would eat slices of pizza and then come back home. Our moms would ask, Why are you so tanned?
I’m sitting near the window, mom.
Possibly, if all of our mothers saw us all together, they would have imagined a classroom which was made up only of windows, almost a science experiment, with kids running like insects inside of it, hiding from the flesh-devouring sun.
During wintertime we would go to the city, Napoli. We would bowl or play video games. We would visit the first fast-food restaurants – McDonalds, Burger King and such were a novelty back then – trying to hook up with teenage girls, trying to understand romance for the first times in our lives.
But my favorite times were when it was only me, or me and my close friends.
We would go to the city center of Pozzuoli and hide in a dark alley. Inside the alley there was a tattoo joint, a hearing aid shop, and a very small bookshop called Il Nome della Rosa, after Umberto Eco’s book.
The owner, Gino, would entertain his guests with delightful comments about books, poetry, literature. It wasn’t long before we started spending our mornings there, talking with Gino and drinking espresso, while watching the whirlwind of customers – lost souls on the lookout for human connection: writers; poets; mothers; sons; fishermen; shop owners; unemployed hippies – the whole of humanity passed in that bookshop, 20 to 30 square meters of enlightened soil, much like the sacred ground of a secret church.
We would pass our time speculating about the weight of the soul, the meaning of life, the search for happiness, the pursuit of love. It was a full-on school of philosophy. I would come back to my regular school, in my kitchen-tiled classroom – with my cigarettes, my Roman temple – and I would recite poems from Catullo that I discussed the day earlier at the library. I would introduce bundle theory to the classroom before our philosophy teacher would explain it, just because it was in one of the books we discussed at the library.
I didn’t pass that year – for reasons other than my grades – one being that you needed to actually be in the classroom for a certain fixed amount of days. And I wasn’t there, too busy understanding life. I didn’t pass that school year, but I did pass a great life year.
The library eventually vanished – you cannot have a place like this one for long because it defies logic, it is a safe haven that sticks out like a sore thumb, a final monument against misery and materialism – it was a gift to live during that time, to live while Il Nome della Rosalived, in that sun-bathed little coastal town, discussing life, the universe, and everything else, while Berlusconi was crafting the next generation of dumb voters.
And I cherish that time I had.
And while I understand the precious moments I’ve lived, I look around and search for the bliss that I’m living in now, the gift from my time, that which I don’t know yet, but that I’ll cherish in twenty years.
This story originally appeared in The Galway Review.