It’s been so long since you spoke to me about your time in Amsterdam. “It was in 1971,” you told me, lighting up yet another cigarette. “Italy was gripped by violence and Italians were discovering heroin; I was twenty, sick of my country and longing to see the world.”
But there was no mention in your words of the Amsterdam I thought I’d find: no crooked houses, no symmetrical canals, no Vermeer paintings. Your anecdotes extolled your struggle to survive – all the jobs you did and all the sofas you slept on; the taste of a chilled beer and the peace of a joint smoked in the warmth; the eyes of your lovers, youths as down-and-out as you were except for one, an unimaginably rich and generous fiftyish Canadian who continued to send you envelopes with a few notes slipped in for a while after you returned to Italy.
Remember, Totò? When you got to that bit of your story, you would mime opening the first letter he sent you, and your face would once again mirror the astonishment you felt when you discovered the foreign currency in it. Then you’d look at me and burst out laughing, and your eyes would sparkle like a child’s – jewels set in your lined face; the face of a Shakespearean king.
But I must confess I was disappointed when, full of enthusiasm, I told you I too was going to Amsterdam for a while, to be a writer in residence, and you merely replied: “You’ll tell me about the leaves, then, little Davide”.
I couldn’t have understood, Totò, not then; I wasn’t attentive enough to some aspects of life. You were still alive; the tumour had just been discovered, and even back then I couldn’t accept the idea that you might actually die. I still can’t, come to that. Each time I think of you, I still feel like crying. I started bombarding you with questions, because I had drawn up a foolproof plan: “Where did you stay?” I asked. “Is there a particular street, a square, a canal or a coffee shop you remember more vividly than the others? Maybe it’s still there and I can go see it, and when I come back we can talk about it.” I wanted to explore your personal geography, Totò; places I could photograph to show you when I returned. I thought it was a good plan; I was sure it would work: “Look!” I’d say; “here, everything’s changed. And here, it’s the same as it used to be,” and maybe that would soothe your pain.
But life doesn’t go according to plans, however brilliant; it decides its own path entirely independently, and in mysterious ways. Something went faster than the calendar; I never managed to show you the photos, and you left before I did. That’s why I’m in Westerpark now, Totò. I bet you’re here too – it’s that long park, remember?
Today, there are people on bicycles, sunbathing youngsters, old people out walking, people doing yoga, children playing and a tightrope walker balancing on a wire to find the meaning of life. There are trees dotted about wherever you look; their trunks are strong, but not too thick – I can get my hands to touch when I put my arms around them. Their bark is brown, with patches of green moss, and the leaves on their bold young branches are changing colour.
I’m only realizing it now, Totò: I’ve always had a mistaken idea of autumn; it’s not a grey season at all, it’s a symphony of colours blending harmoniously into one another. Green, blue, yellow, brown and red in every possible shade, and the sky alternating between white and blue, and the thousand lights of the city sparkling on the water and the windows. No other season possesses as many colours as autumn. And the leaves, Totò, these Amsterdam leaves are yellow and red and green; they tremble in the wind and dance for us all – for the tightrope walker, the children, the dogs trotting along, me, the old people, and for your eyes in 1971, when you were still twenty and your beard hadn’t turned white. And it would be wonderful to return just to bring you a leaf I’ve picked up here; we’d laugh because you’d have beaten the cancer, and I would feel better.
But instead this autumn full of colours will draw to an end, and winter will arrive, with the rain and the cold, and I’m so frightened because every verb I use when I talk about you will be in the past tense, but here before my eyes the leaves quiver in the wind and now I know the answer, and you know what, my friend? It’s a splendid October here in Amsterdam; youngsters keep on falling in love, the beer is always chilled, the houses stay crooked and as for the leaves, Totò, the leaves are yellow and green and red and so beautiful.
Enia’s blogs are translated from Italian by Lakshmi Ramakrishnan Iyer.