My brother’s laughing on the other end of the phone. He’s been living in Madrid for more than a year. “Try saying at least one full sentence that actually makes sense. Less enthusiasm, more concision,” he chides gently.
“Well, then: the houses in Amsterdam grow upwards, and the inhabitants are the tallest people in the world.”
“And you are the proverbial dwarf among giants.”
“Don’t get yourself trampled on.”
Marco starts laughing again, and it makes me feel good. I realize I’ve been describing Amsterdam to him without saying anything about the spirit of the city, merely listing a set of differences with the geography he and I both shared, as if any account must comprise a perception of discontinuity rather than recognizable similarities or discernible peculiarities. Is our concept of what is unique shaped by whatever differs from the norm?
“Okay, I’ll stop interrupting you. What were you saying?”
“The steps of the houses are narrow and very high, and in the city centre full of bridges and canals, there are very few cars and a multitude of bicycles – fast and fearless; very dangerous for absent-minded passersby.”
“I’m not absent-minded.”
“How many times have you nearly been run over?”
“A couple of times.”
“Yes. But don’t worry.”
My brother is ten years younger than me and he worries about me ten times more than he should.
“So what should I expect?”
“There’s no trace of smog in the air you breathe; it smells of the water in the canals and the cannabis in the coffee shops and the leaves on the pavements.”
“Make sure you don’t slip on the leaves and fall into a canal while you’re rolling yourself a joint.”
“I’m not joking, you know.”
“I know. So when you are coming to see me?”
“The twenty-first. It’s the second time in five minutes I’m telling you that. But you haven’t told me what it is about the city that’s really struck you. It’s the first thing you usually tell me each time you arrive in a new place.”
What does our gaze seek out when we sail into a new port? The unusual? The familiar? “I can’t put it into words.”
Or perhaps it doesn’t search at all, merely waits for something unfamiliar to attract its attention in a seemingly effortless way? And only after our departure will we realize that the real hallmark of the place is the uniqueness of the detail that made such a lasting impression?
“See you on the twenty-first, then. Take care. Wrap up well, and watch out for those bicycles.”
I stand there with the telephone in my hand, torn between happiness and annoyance. I’d have liked to tell him right away what it is about this city that’s really struck me, but it would have deprived him of a surprise – the same one I experienced at sunset on my first day. The large windows of the houses consistently offer up a sight of great beauty and civic sensitivity: a shelf filled with orchids, dancing statues and candles runs along the inside of each window, decorating the home and the street façade alike.
“This is how a sense of belonging to and respect for a place is created,” I’ll tell my brother on the twenty-first; “with these courteous, thoughtful gestures. It doesn’t matter in the slightest that you can see inside each apartment; being able to see inside everything means no longer seeing anything, for everything offers something of itself – a vase, kitchen furniture, a cat sleeping lazily on a sofa.”
And once I’ve rattled off my spiel, I’ll stand aside and let him admire the enchantment of Amsterdam when, shortly before sunset, the lights in the windows come on, like the first notes of a symphony; soft lights that shine out from within, a diffuse glow lighting up the city to which they belong and which belongs to them with the gentlest of touches, slowly and silently leading one another to bed.
I’ll stand there next to my brother, and as we watch Amsterdam’s thousand lamp-lit eyes, I’ll put my arm around his shoulder because he’s younger than me and because I’m a fool who’s ashamed to show his feelings, and this is the only way I know to tell him just how much I love him.
Enia’s blogs are translated from Italian by Lakshmi Ramakrishnan Iyer.
The steps of the houses are narrow and very high, and in the city centre full of bridges and canals, there are very few cars and a multitude of bicycles – fast and fearless; very dangerous for absent-minded passersby.