Category: TRAVEL

The Hand of Pablo

“Really? You don’t say!” Evidently our sarcastic taxi driver doesn’t need to be told where to take us — my unmistakeable mid-eighties Club América jersey is a glaring enough clue. We climb in to the back of his Nissan on the edge of Parque España; moments later we are heading south down Nuevo Léon, our destination the Estadio Azteca, where América is hosting Puebla in week three of the Liga MX’s Torneo Clausura.

Calz de Tlalpan is a wide highway leading to the vast forested borough of the same name. Unfortunately it is also susceptible to Saturday afternoon match-day traffic. I watch carriages of home supporters whiz past aboard the Treno Legero that runs parallel to the road. Meanwhile our car has become a stationary blue dot on my iPhone navigation app. I begin to regret not choosing public transport, but our driver assures us that we’ll make it in time for kick-off, which is less than twenty minutes away. I remain skeptical but I’m comforted by the site of more fans packed into cars and buses gridlocked alongside us, none of whom appear as nervous as me.

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Pro-América graffiti tells me we must be getting closer, which our driver quickly confirms. “We’re now entering Aguilas country,” he explains, referring to the club’s most common nickname, as we pass dozens of street vendors selling giant yellow flags and blue novelty afro wigs. Suddenly, I glimpse part of the stadium’s roof out of the right window. Before I’ve time to take out my camera the car has come to a halt. “Here we are,” announces our driver, pointing in the stadium’s general direction. “El Coloso de Santa Ursula!

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With kick-off nearing, I reluctantly ignore the array of stalls offering replica jerseys, more flags and various gold and blue trinkets. Almost immediately our path is blocked, and we find ourselves trapped behind a line of police officers, their riot shields positioned to form a human barricade. Thanks to the initiative of some quick-thinking Mexicans we are able to round this initial obstacle — the row of cops reacts by snaking into an L-shape but is too late to stop us passing. Once beyond the first blockade we become part of a larger crowd of ticket-holders that is are being prevented from entering through the stadium’s old-fashioned subway-style turnstiles. Five more officers perch awkwardly atop the entrance’s sloping concrete wall, one of whom shouts inaudible instructions through a megaphone which she has neglected to switch on. All of this takes place just feet away from Alexander Calder’s giant sculpture, Sol Rojo, which is now silhouetted in the late afternoon sun. Clearly this isn’t the standard procedure at home games, and the local fans’ confusion quickly turns to frustration, which fortunately is expressed through humour rather than violence. The chief source of entertainment is a middle-aged man in a Puebla shirt, who despite his allegiance keeps the crowd chuckling with a series of witty one-liners.

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Clutching my ticket in one hand, my wife’s palm in the other, we squeeze through an increasingly impatient mass of bodies into the calm open space of the other side. Everything about the Azteca is as I’d pictured it, right down to the little stone wall at the base of the stadium’s perimeter. There is little time to marvel at the stadium’s exterior for the match has already started, and collective gasps of anticipation waft at intervals from inside the ground. I follow a group of excited young fans and attempt to fathom the ground’s foreboding outer skeleton, a mid-century maze of sloping ramps and vast beams of concrete. The girl at the gate barely glances at our tickets as we push through a narrow opening and finally walk out into the arena directly behind the goal. Happily the score is still nil-nil, but I always notice that the match itself becomes almost secondary to the spectacle on special occasions such as these.

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“Vaaaa-mos! Vamos Ameeee-ri-caaaa!” The home crowd is already in good voice, and I can barely hear the young attendant as he points us in the direction of Section 201, PAN-2, which stands for Platea Alta Norte. When we reach Row 3 a female attendant politely asks the family sitting in our seats to find room elsewhere. As I finally reach the vacant seat 13 a huge cold cerveza Victoria is thrust into my welcoming hand, which evidently can be ordered quite inadvertently simply by making eye contact with a man in a uniform a few rows below you.

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Our seats are every bit as good as I’d hoped: we sit on the third row of the second tier, slightly to the left of the goal. Not bad considering our tickets were purchased two days before the match for a mere 125 pesos (around $8.50) each. To put that into some perspective, the last time I went to a match in England tickets cost £25 a head. And that was for a pre-season friendly at Leicester City — twelve years ago.

I choose not to dwell on that depressing thought and opt instead to marvel at my new surroundings. Designed by Mexican architects Pedro Ramírez Vázquez and Rafael Mijares Alcérreca and inaugurated in 1966 (the roof was added just in time for the ’68 Olympics), the Estadio Azteca quickly grew into arguably the most iconic football stadium of the late twentieth-century, during which period it became the first venue to host the World Cup final twice. It could be suggested that those two tournaments bookend the World Cup’s golden age. Indeed, so ingrained are those colourful competitions into football fans’ collective psyche that I’ve always considered the Azteca to be the World Cup’s unofficial spiritual home, a notion reinforced by it having witnessed the trophy lifted by the game’s two most revered stars: Pelé in 1970 and Diego Maradona in 1986. If I were to ever lift the World Cup trophy myself (a dream that dims a little more with each passing year) I certainly can’t think of a place I’d rather be.

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From my privileged vantage point I begin to replay the Azteca’s most memorable moments from those two sun-drenched tournaments. It quickly dawns on me that all the goals that immediately spring to mind were scored at the closest end to us, just feet from where I now sit. Gianni Rivera’s winner for Italy in their 4-3 extra-time semi-final victory over West Germany (a match referred to as “El Partido del Siglo” on a commemorative plaque outside the stadium) and Carlos Alberto’s famous fourth goal for Brazil in the final; Manuel Negrete’s spectacular scissor kick for the hosts against Bulgaria in 1986, Gary Lineker’s second against Paraguay, Maradona’s two goals against England (the Hand of God and the “Gol del Siglo”), his two oft-overlooked strikes against Belgium, as well as Jorge Burruchaga’s late winner against West Germany in the final.

Football stadia have changed a lot since then, some beyond recognition. Wembley has been demolished and rebuilt in recent years, while the modern Maracana bears little resemblance to the stadium that managed to contain 200,000 spectators for the 1950 World Cup final. Many of the world’s top clubs now play at new, corporate-funded arenas. In this regard the Azteca is no different. The stadium is now owned by Grupo Televisa, while vast banners displaying sponsors’ logos are rigged to the roof. The off-white benches that once lined the Azteca’s terraces have recently given way to proper seating, whose colours have been arranged strategically so when the ground sits empty the logos of Coca-Cola and Corona — the same logos that are emblazoned across the chest and shoulders of both teams’ shirts — span the entire stand. Of course, these aspects are invisible when the stadium is full, and I’m pleasantly surprised to find that the only other significant change since ’86 is the addition of two large video scoreboards at either end.

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Just below the scoreboard at the top of our tier congregate América’s most hardcore supporters. A wire fence separates them from supposedly “casual” fans, although judging by their incessant chanting and fervent waving of yellow flags the only thing on their mind is to have a good time (and hopefully pick up three points along the way). A small pocket of away fans is nested high in the opposite end of the stadium, surrounded by helmeted police.

So far neither set of supporters has had anything to cheer about. América, captained by Mexican international Paul Aguilar, is dominating possession and creating plenty of early chances. The home side has seen some new arrivals since winning the Torneo Apertura in December. Among these is Colombian winger Carlos Darwin Quintero, who looks particularly lively. His defence-splitting pass finds another fresh signing, crew-cutted striker Dario Benedetto, who drags a shot beyond the far post. Moments later the Argentine gets on the end of compatriot Rubens Sambueza’s dinked cross and head goalwards, only for Puebla goalkeeper Rodolfo Cota to pull off the first of many excellent saves. Oribe Peralta is next to come close to scoring, racing onto Quintero’s low centre only to fire wide from inside the six-yard box. Before half-time the Mexican international spurns an almost identical opportunity, but this time his shot rebounds off Cota, onto his shins and out of play.

In honour of the home team’s nickname — Aguilas — an eagle is unleashed into the arena during the interval. The giant bird performs a couple of airborne laps of the stadium before swooping down into the centre circle and into the arms of its trusty handler. With the half-time entertainment out of the way, a stadium announcer now attempts to further warm up the crowd by conducting fans in cries of “Vaaamosss! Vamos Am-eeeeerr-iii-ccaaa!”

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Early in the second half América’s Uruguayan coach Gustavo Matosas makes three substitutions in quick succession. The third of these — youth team forward Carlos Camacho — wears the number 101 shirt, which is the first time I’ve ever seen a player wearing three digits on his back. The team soon shifts into a higher gear and searches for the opening goal with relentless tempo. Quintero seems to be involved in everything from his advanced position on the right wing. First, his deep cross is met by Benedetto, whose angled header forces Cota to change direction and palm the ball to safety. Moments later, he receives the ball from a corner and shoots from a tight angle, only for Puebla’s rock solid goalie to parry.

Puebla’s forays into the opposition half are as cautious as they are infrequent, their five-man defence appearing more content to deny the Mexican champions from getting on the scoresheet. América are unfortunate not to break the deadlock on 75 minutes. Benedetto picks up a stray cross on the left and pulls the ball back for Quintero. The Colombian takes a touch to evade Orozco’s challenge before bending a right foot shot that rebounds off the outside of the post.

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As the sun sets on the Azteca the sky above us turns a warm shade of pink, creating a dramatic backdrop. The closing minutes of the match are played out inside a now floodlit stadium, and the home fans’ restless anxiety becomes quite palpable. With neither side having found the net the loudest roar of the afternoon is reserved for the entrance of substitute Cuauhetémoc Blanco. Though the veteran international now wears the colours of Puebla, the local fans have clearly not forgotten the fifteen years he spent at the Azteca, and he is welcomed into the game with a rapturous reception fit for a local hero. A survivor of the 1998 and 2002 World Cups, the 42-year-old has clearly lost a little pace and gained a little weight in the ensuing years. Yet his arrival finally sparks life into the away side. Blanco’s cameo performance of positive runs, clever passes (most memorable of which is an audacious 25-yard no-look backheel inside his own half) and all-round creativity constitutes Puebla’s best spell of the match.

América struggles against its re-energized opponents for the next ten minutes, and the crowd starts to finally show its frustration, resorting to a chorus of deafening whistles. A late chance is presented in stoppage time, when a free-kick is won over on the near touchline. Sambueza swings in a deep and inviting cross. The other Aguilar — Pablo — meets the ball at the far post and looks set to score. But rather than nod home a certain winning goal, he opts to fist the ball into the Puebla net. Though the central defender’s technique would have received high praise had he been spiking a winning point on the volleyball court, from where we’re sitting the foul is plain to see even without the aid of a replay. The referee immediately rules out the goal and does not hesitate to show the culprit a second yellow card.

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What compelled Aguilar to use his hand to score into the same net into which Diego Maradona had been assisted by the “Hand of God” 28-and-a-half years earlier? The irony of the situation is not lost on me, and I’m compelled to believe that some strange footballing variety of cosmic force must have been at play. Aside from the infringement itself, the two incidents bear no resemblance to one another — for a start Maradona got away with it! But where Diego jumped speculatively to intercept Steve Hodge’s lobbed backpass, Aguilar was the recipient of a cross aimed towards him. And while the little Argentine would not have reached the ball ahead of Shilton had he not used his left hand, the Paraguayan could have just have easily met the ball with his head. Instead his unnecessary actions instantly recall one of the Azteca’s most infamous moments, and in a bizarre way I feel privileged to have witnessed it.

The disappointment of wasting the chance and losing a man in such circumstances is a blow from which neither the team nor fans recover, and an entertaining match ends goalless. Having lost their previous match at Tijuana, today’s final whistle signals América’s second successive match without finding the net. In no hurry to bring an end to the occasion, we remain seated and watch as the stands empty, slowly revealing the giant logos of America’s chief sponsors. The hardcore home fans are still penned in their section by rows of police, and exiting the stadium proves a more straightforward task than entering had two hours earlier. Once outside we pass a life-size bronze statue of an unknown footballer. There is no plaque to identify him nor his creator, and according to even official sources his origin is a mystery. Maybe they should call him Pablo.

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Liga MX Torneo Clausura 2015
Estadio Azteca, Mexico City
Club América 0-0 Puebla FC

América: 23 Moisés Muñoz, 2 Paolo Goltz, 6 Miguel Samudio (101 Carlos Camacho 64′), 12 Pablo Aguilar, 22 Paul Aguilar (17 Ventura Alvarado 62′), 3 Darwin Quintero, 5 Cristian Pellerano, 11 Michael Arroyo (10 Osvaldo Martínez 55′), 14 Rubens Sambueza, 9 Dario Benedetto, 24 Oribe Peralta. Manager: Gustavo Matosas.

Puebla: 30 Rodolfo Cota, 4 Facundo Erpen, 16 Michael Orozco, 26 Mauricio Romero, 7 Luis Noriega, 18 Luis Esqueda, 19 Flavio Santos, 22 Freddy Pajoy (10 Cuauhtémoc Blanco 78′), 28 Francisco Torres, 11 Matías Alustiza (29 Wilberto Cosme 45′), 21 Luis Gabriel Rey (24 Sergio Pérez 73′). Manager: José Guadalupe Cruz.

Referee: César Arturo Ramos Palazuelos (Culiacán, Sinaloa).
Bookings: Noriega 5′, Samudio 27′, Romero 33′, Goltz 66′, Esqueda 81′.
Sent off: Pablo Aguilar 91′.
Attendance: 62,300.

Watch full highlights of the match here:

Christmas Morning

1:00 a.m. When I awake there is no telling where I am. The last thing I remember is the sight of Manhattan’s white lights disappearing into the distance, then there was darkness. Fields, mountains, desert, sea — at this time of night they all look the same from the window seat. Gazing out at nothing but my own reflection, I am reoriented by a set of dotted headlights winding along an invisible road several thousand feet below me. The highway forks and splits again. Soon the route has multiplied into an elaborate network of light, a gasoline-fueled bloodstream whose main arteries all connect back to a pulsating heart: Los Angeles. Within seconds my view becomes a glowing expanse of electric orange that twinkles and stretches to the coastline, before slipping under the inky cloak of the Pacific. The 737 glides out over the ocean for what seems like a long time, then at last swings into a U-turn and touches down at LAX.

2:00 a.m. The flurry of passengers disperses from the carousel until only a handful remains. I have two hours to kill until my bus leaves, so I wander outside. It’s warmer than where I’ve come from but there’s a chill in the air. The soft rustle of swaying palm trees lining the road is interrupted every two minutes by a stern voice that reiterates the complex regulations of the arrivals area: “No parking, no waiting.” The voice follows me as I stroll back and forth between Terminals 1 through 4, wheeling my half-empty case behind me. Disappointingly I return to my starting point sooner than expected, so I repeat the journey, only this time at an even slower pace. On the second lap I locate a vending machine tucked away inside an alcove. I drop in seven quarters and the machine dispenses a packet of cookies so brittle they barely survive the fall. I perch outside on what passes for a bench and start snacking on tiny pieces of broken biscuit. At the other end a girl removes a ukulele from her luggage and begins to play, singing gently to herself.

4:00 a.m. I can barely make sense of the schedule, so the bus that shows up on time may or may not be there to take me to Union Station. I climb aboard anyway. In the front row two women natter to each other in Spanish; I sit one row behind them on the other side of the aisle. All the other seats remain empty. We leave the refuge of the airport behind as the bus makes its way tentatively through an apparently deserted city. Beneath the elevated road are side streets of two-storey buildings, drooping phone lines, the occasional parked sedan and not a pedestrian in sight. Moments later the bus is barreling steadily up Interstate 110 towards downtown L.A.’s small cluster of skyscrapers, already visible between the slender fan palms silhouetted by a pink and purple sky.

4:30 a.m. The bus drops me off in front of Union Station, which looks like an abandoned luxury gambling resort. I feel like the only person in California who isn’t at home in bed, until I reach the end of a long concourse where I’m approached by several men who haven’t been to bed in weeks, maybe years. I take refuge in a small convenience store where I ask the teenager behind the counter the best way to get to the Greyhound station, but the teenager behind the counter has no idea. The old part of the station is like a vast art deco cathedral, only not as welcoming. Dozens of large wooden armchairs — cordoned-off from non-ticketholders — sit empty, so I’m forced to stroll up and down the dark central aisle alongside the vagabonds and the homeless. A Hispanic man with kind eyes and a heavy blanket over one shoulder politely asks me if I can direct him to the Placita church. He says he’s not from around here, to which I apologize and tell him that unfortunately neither am I. Over near the Christmas tree a Desert Storm veteran asks me where I’m from. When I tell him he gives me a fist bump and wishes me a Merry Christmas.

5:00 a.m. I’d heard that the Greyhound station was even less desirable than the train station, but after an hour spent wandering in circles I decide to take my chances. I convince an idling taxi driver to take me; he agrees on the condition that once we get there I’m to go straight inside. We arrive five minutes later and I make a beeline for the front door without looking up. To my relief the waiting room is well-lit and packed: men, women, children, all in the same boat — soon to be bus — as me. I nibble on some more cookie scraps and wait on a bench made out of metal wire, which is precisely as comfortable as it sounds.

6:00 a.m. It’s still dark as the bus pulls out, but the glimpses I’m offered of the city at dawn are as fascinating as they are fleeting. Fatigue soon sets in, but I’m jolted awake when the bus makes brief stops in North Hollywood and San Fernando, by which time the day is beginning to break.

7:00 a.m. When I awake again the early morning sunshine has completed its morning ascent, and casts a long shadow of the speeding Greyhound across the desert floor. L.A.’s urban sprawl is long behind us, and my view is a barren landscape of crumbling brown rock under a deep blue sky.

9:00 a.m. Though its Spanish style houses and two-story Art Deco grandeur has clearly seen better days, downtown Bakersfield’s faded pastels look beautiful in a run-down, dusty sort of way. One can easily imagine a time not too long ago when dust was all there was around here. We pass the Fox Theater — a local landmark — and pull in at the Package Express. My brother-in-law picks me up in his Toyota. I’m told that spectacular mountains surround Bakersfield. Unfortunately the thick smog that pervades the city has rendered them all but invisible. Still, it’s nice to know they’re there.

9:10 a.m. We pull off the highway and continue down a long road, before eventually turning right. What follows is a swirling maze of streets lined with seemingly identical houses. Presumably the people inside them are all different. Each home appears to have been painted with the same array of colors, ranging from vanilla to parcel paper and comprising all fifty shades of beige that exist in between. This suburban splendor is disrupted by the addition of seasonal accoutrements carefully positioned in every front yard, and the site of a plastic red-nosed reindeer and a Peanuts nativity scene suddenly reminds me its Christmastime.

9:30 a.m. The car pulls up outside a house whose exterior is bereft of holiday ornamentation — perhaps so the owners can locate it more easily. The theme continues inside, where I’m welcomed and offered breakfast. Sleepy but for some reason still awake, I take my coffee outside, where the air is cool and still. I can now begin to make out the outline of the mountain range through the haze. I find an inviting slither of exposed lawn, and lie and wait for the sun’s distant warmth to reach me.

 

Verpiana Memories

When I was a boy my best friend was another boy named Joe. We must have met when we were about four or five, and from that point on spent what seemed like most weekends together. Thanks to this near inseparable friendship, Joe’s parents quickly became close friends with mine. Both were artists — his father a sculptor and his mother a ceramicist — and both were pretty successful in their respective fields. My family and his would often go to the cinema or have dinner together at the weekends, and then one of us would sleep over at the other’s house (Joe and I had met before my brother Alex was born, but once he was old enough to walk the two of us became three). Joe and his parents lived in a large house on the corner of a main road. It had three floors and a separate building that acted as his mum’s workshop, as well as a spacious garden, where Joe and I spent whole days doing what probably amounted to nothing much. In the far corner of the garden underneath a giant pear tree was a two story construction made of scaffolding and planks of wood, from the top of which we could see over the fence and into the street. One day we rested a piece of drain pipe across the scaffolding and the fence and poured water onto unsuspecting passers-by. When one particularly irked middle-aged gentleman asked us what we thought we were doing Joe told him we were watering the pavement. On another occasion we spent an afternoon tossing over-ripened pears into the street, which was fun until the police knocked on the door.

Perhaps in an effort to avoid further run-ins with the law, Joe’s dad used the same scaffolding and wood planks to construct a life-size biplane on the lawn. From his workshop down in the basement he’d fashion toy swords for us out of wood. On another occasion he crafted us a pair of walkie-talkies, equipped with a plastic wire aerial and a knob that turned. It’s hard to imagine what kind of fun could be derived from what were essentially two wooden blocks painted black, but somehow Joe and I managed to keep ourselves suitably entertained for hours on end. Joe’s dad had travelled across the western United States, bringing home with him a number of interesting Native American artifacts that adorned Joe’s bedroom. He even had a wigwam out on the lawn that we never dared sleep in overnight. I don’t know how many days and nights I spent in that house but I can still recall every last detail, right down to the pale green sponge-like texture of the upholstery on the sofa and the paisley pattern engraved into the handles of the family’s cutlery.

When I was about ten, Joe’s parents sold their house and moved to another town, some forty minutes away. The new house was much smaller, but with the money they made on the sale they were able to buy a rustic property in the northernmost corner of Tuscany. Joe’s dad wanted to have access to the stone from nearby Carrara, a town known throughout the world for its marble. I remember them going there that summer to work on the house (which from the photographs I’d seen needed some attention). We’d already begun spending long vacations in Italy, and the following year we jumped at the chance to spend a week or two with them, and did so every summer for the next five years.

While the house itself was located in an area of Tuscany called il Lunigiana, in the province of Massa, it was only a short distance across the Ligurian border to La Spezia. Consequently the local license plates seemed to be evenly split between MS and SP. Exiting the A15 Autostrada at Aulla, it was a short drive to a small town called Serricciolo. From there we drove up a winding hillside road to the tiny hamlet of Verpiana, where we turned left around a large brick barn and into the dusty courtyard. The area was dotted with semi-abandoned pieces of farming equipment, hens clucked across the hay and cobblestones and a cat slept underneath the wheels of an already-vintage Fiat. The house was on the first floor: beneath it were three ancient arches under which Joe’s parents’ Citroën was parked. To get up there you had to walk up a semi-covered stone staircase with a wobbly metal handrail, which brought you out onto a spacious terrace. The house itself was extremely roomy with several bedrooms, some of which you could only get to via the terrace. The other details were as one would expect: terracotta floors, whitewashed walls, painted wooden shutters and iffy wiring.

Beneath the house was a maze of cellars and rooms that had clearly not been inhabited in decades, if not centuries. I remember one day Joe and I entered a secret door behind the archways where we’d parked the cars. If we’d explored further we’d have probably walked in on someone having lunch, as it seemed every home in the village was connected, as if buildings had sprung organically from that central point. A long white tunnel — more in the style of the Amalfi coast or a Greek island — extended out of the courtyard and lead to another road. Inside there were several other homes. Occasionally we’d run into other kids, who our attempts to befriend weren’t met with much success. They were quite unlike the other young Italians I’d met. At the other end of the tunnel was an alimentari, a small convenience store, the kind of place you enter through a beaded curtain and where the owner is a woman in slippers. It was a handy enough place to pick up milk or a box of pasta, but for a real supermarket we had to drive down to the next town, Serricciolo.

* * *

Serricciolo also had a bar next to the railway tracks, where we’d often stop for a morning coffee or post-beach refreshment. Joe and I often spent our time playing a football video game that ran on 20 lire coins. In addition to the aforementioned Sidis supermarket, Serricciolo also boasted a florist, a newspaper kiosk, a wedding dress shop, and a hardware store that also sold nice things for the home. Yet Serricciolo’s most important contribution to its range of local amenities was its pizzeria. The place was everything you want in a pizzeria and nothing more: plastic tablecloths, no atmosphere to speak of, and a pyramid of chocolate-covered profiteroles rotating behind the door of a glass fridge. The pizza was so thin it was almost transparent and its circumference so huge that I don’t know why they even bothered putting it on a plate. Always a purist when it comes to pizza I never veered from the margherita. The mozzarella would rapidly melt into the tomato creating a delicious sauce the colour of sunburn. I’d devour the whole thing in about ten minutes.

Sometimes after dinner we’d drive past the pizzeria to Fivizzano. This pretty hilltop town was also damaged during the war and is prone to earthquakes, but its main square, Piazza Medicea, has remained intact. There we’d order un gelato from the bar and eat it by the fountain (commissioned by Cosimo III de’ Medici), distinctive for its numerous carved fish from whose mouths spring jets of water. I loved the energy of those summer nights and the fact that families would be out together after midnight, kids running around in the dark, illuminated only by buzzing fluorescent lampposts.

On the way to Fivizzano was there was a nearby swimming pool, with a great water chute and high diving boards. It was kept in the shade by a forest of pine trees, and I remember one day a bee managed to sing me underneath my watch. Alex’s thick mop of blond hair (a “thatch” as my mum used to call it) meant he always drew attention from Italians. This was especially true at the swimming pool, where he’d quickly impress local teenagers by showing no hesitation in leaping into the water from the highest diving board.

After Serricciolo was Aulla, a mid-sized market town whose old centre was destroyed by Anglo-American bombings in 1943. The modern town that had sprung up in its place was a lot of concrete and marble, and decidedly unpretty. Aulla hosted a bustling market which we’d go to browse and pick up cheap frying pans, flip-flops or unofficial football merchandise. Meanwhile there were the usual shops: Benetton, Stefanel, plus a somewhat no frills sports store, where I bought my Milan 1990-91 shirt. I also have a photograph of myself standing outside the shop next to a life-size cardboard cutout of Franco Baresi. One day we noticed giant posters of football players (Baggio, Gullit, etc.) on display in the supermarket. The cashier explained they could be ours if we saved the wrappers from 12-pack boxes of Kinder Brioche. So for several days, Joe, Alex and me ate more of these apricot jam-filled breakfast cakes than was possibly healthy, but it was enough to earn us a poster each. (Mine, of a 22-year-old Paolo Maldini, still hangs on the wall of my apartment.)

When we weren’t visiting other towns or picking up provisions, we’d invariably spend the day by the sea. A place I loved to visit was Portovenere, a busy fishing town built into the cliffs and best reached by boat from the elegant port of Lerici. There was no beach, just a long cluster of boulders, with steps down to the water. When a boat sped across the bay the water would bounce up against the rocks. Joe and I used to snorkel around the tied-up rowing boats, trying in vain to catch darting minnows with our hands. We also collected broken fragments of old ceramic pots, which we took home and used to make a mosaic on the floor of the house. In the late afternoon we’d walk up to the gothic church of San Pietro, which offered spectacular breezy views of the Mediterranean. My dad used to always point out the grotto named after Lord Byron and tell us the story of how the poet swam across the bay to see Shelley in Lerici, and that Shelley later died in a boating accident just off the same stretch of coast.

There were beaches at Sarzana and San Terenzo but they were a little cramped, and so usually we drove to Marinella. We’d park opposite an Agip station on a road lined with pine trees, and spend the rest of the day there, sometimes until dusk. Unlike Liguria’s rocky coastline, Marinella was a classic Italian beach, packed with multi-generation families gathered under umbrellas and ragazzi spending the afternoon sunbathing or playing volleyball. I’d often run and get ice cream or bomboloni con crema from a little hut. We’d usually pack our own sandwiches, after which I used to begin to doze off on my towel. Through my dreamy state I’d hear the voice of the man carrying a large icebox filled with coconut. “Cocco! Cocco bello!” it would sing, more loudly as it got closer, before drifting away again, getting lost amid the soothing murmur of unintelligible chatter and gently breaking waves.

* * *

Life at Verpiana revolved around the terrace. Joe’s parents had furnished it with several pot plants and safari chairs and fold-up wooden chairs. There was a large table — or rather, a table top and two trestles — to eat at. It was too hot to eat lunch outside but when the sun had shifted the terrace became a lovely place to sit before dinner. Across the courtyard and beyond a neighbour’s clothesline was visible a spectacular mountain range that would turn pink each evening as the sun departed. I often wanted to believe that the central peak was the mountain featured in the logo of Paramount Pictures. (Years later the mountain I was thinking of was pointed out to me in Piedmont.) In the evening we’d hang our beach towels over the wall to dry and play football with one of those mini plastic balls they sell on the beach (one of the goals was the spindly railing at the top of the stairs, which meant every time a shot went in that direction someone would have to chase down after the ball and retrieve it before it bounced into an old cellar or punctured beneath a rusty tractor). On rare afternoons when Verpiana suffered a brief yet biblical rainstorm I’d hole up indoors and spend an afternoon reading or drawing. There was no television and the only place to listen to music was in the car, so we’d instead engage in epic ping-pong or Subbuteo tournaments, for which I remember creating paper advertising hoardings out of Brooklyn chewing gum wrappers.

I always looked forward to the evenings. I still remember what a blissful feeling it was to be standing in the kitchen under the bright glow of a single light bulb, watching the pasta fall into a vast pot of boiling water. Fresh out of the shower, tanned from the beach, a clean t-shirt and starving from having not eaten since lunchtime, the anticipation of another fun dinner out on the terrace was blissful. Though there were a couple of outside lights, the table was decked with ceramic candle-holders crafted by Joe’s mum, between which Joe and I would try to build wax bridges as the candles burnt down through the course of the evening. In the total silence of midnight we’d be able to spot bats circling around the barn and constellations directly over our heads, which is when my dad would start saying slightly ominous things like, “They’d never find me here.”

One of the neighbours was an elderly war veteran named Guido. He always said hello and sometimes he’d bring us a bottle of his own wine that was probably best described as “rustic”. My dad spoke better Italian than any of us and sometimes chatted with the old man over a cigarette. When my dad told him the route we’d taken to get here Guido opened his eyes with a hint of recognition. “Ah yes, Germany,” he said, as if summoning some vague recollection. “They eat a lot of potatoes there, don’t they?”

I sometimes wondered what Guido and his wife — a typical rural home-keeper who never took off her apron — used to make of us. I’m sure they were utterly baffled why a bunch of foreigners would want to spend summer in a part of Italy that no Italian would ever have reason to visit. Even at a young age, there was something quite embarrassing about it all. In between my fun I felt uneasy being in Verpiana for two sunny weeks when everyone around us had to spend all year there, year after year, and probably hadn’t been anywhere else in a long time. This feeling was exacerbated by Joe’s parents’ other guests, whose visits sometimes overlapped with ours. As nice people as they obviously were, their presence made the house feel like a ready-made facility for middle-class Brits to live some idealized version of a rustic Tuscan lifestyle. Nowhere could have been further removed from Italy’s celebrated tourist destinations. Verpiana, Serricciolo and Aulla were unknown, unfashionable places where real people lived, but have as much to do with my love of Italy as Rome or Venice or Florence.

Our relationship with Joe and his family ended abruptly, the reasons for which I won’t go into here as many details are still unclear to me. I haven’t seen Joe since Christmas 1994, but I understand he’s now married with a young son. His dad died a few years ago, but his mum is still working and as far as I know still visits the house in Verpiana. About six years ago, when I was living in Italy, my girlfriend (now wife) began taking singing lessons from a retired opera singer in Carrara. One Saturday in early summer I went with her on the train from Florence. While she had her lesson I strolled around the town. I had been once before, and remembered how the marble had turned the river water white. It was a warm day, so after lunch we took the bus down to Marinella. We walked past the pine trees, took off our shoes and stepped onto the sand. Many years had past and we were at the opposite end of the beach, but the view of the hills looked the same from any distance. Staring down the coastline I could just make out the yellow sign of the Agip station several hundred metres away, peeking through the haze like a mirage. Then, through the hypnotic sound of the sea I heard his voice, faintly at first, but getting louder: “Cocco! Cocco bello!”. As soon as it had sung, the voice started to fade away once more. And then, it was gone.

 
 
A version of this article, translated into Italian by Elisa Sottana, is on the site of Rivista Inutile.

The Eternity of a Moment

As David Byrne once pointed out, from time to time we’re all inclined to ask ourselves, Well, how did I get here? It’s a universal feeling that strikes the hearts and minds of most adults as soon as they realize that their life is hurtling at a rate beyond their capacity to fathom. Yet as the past begins to stretch away behind me, the easier it becomes to recognize and make sense of the answer. I can pinpoint a moment in my life — a chance meeting with a total stranger over ten years ago — that rapidly sent my life in a certain direction. I can state with some confidence that the ensuing years would have been quite different had this apparently innocuous event never taken place. The funniest part is I wasn’t even there.

The unlikely setting for this encounter was Pisa Airport, officially named Aeroporto Galileo Galilei, where my parents were waiting to catch a return flight home having just spent a long weekend in Florence. If you’ve ever traveled from Pisa you’ll be aware that there’s not a lot to do there besides down an espresso or two and wait to board your plane. My parents were doing precisely that when my father happened to notice a young man across the departure lounge, for the sole reason that he was wearing a Juventus tracksuit. Dad kept his eye on him from afar, and soon discovered he was on the same flight. Though he didn’t recognize his fellow passenger as a player for the bianconeri, he wasn’t about to rule it out either. In any case he presumed he must have something to do with the famous Turin club to be dressed that way. The man in the tracksuit was traveling with another man of similar age. A teammate? A journalist? An agent? My dad usually needs little incentive to strike up a conversation with a stranger, and now his curiosity had been suitably piqued he proceeded to do just that.

Much to my father’s surprise (and perhaps disappointment), the young man did not play football professionally for Juventus, nor did he have anything to do with the club. He wasn’t even Italian. His name was Jamie and he was a former footballer from Wales who had been forced to give up the game because of injury. Now he and his plain-clothed partner, Lee, ran a football academy that offered custom soccer tours to fans and amateur youth teams. They were returning from a visit to Italy where they’d met with former Juventus striker and club director Roberto Bettega. That explained the tracksuit.

This sparked a chat about Italian football, which is when my dad happened to mention me. Evidently intrigued by my apparent interest in calcio and Italy, Jamie gave handed my dad his card and told him to tell me to get in touch. I’d graduated the previous summer and was living back at home without a job or much clue as to how to go about getting one. After hearing Dad’s story I didn’t need much prompting to pick up the phone and rang Jamie’s number. Quite what the purpose of the call would be I didn’t yet know, but the conversation quickly took on momentum when Jamie explained that he might be able to offer me some work in Italy.

A couple of weeks later Jamie and Lee came to visit me at home to fill me in on their project and discuss the idea further. They explained that they had people working for them in Milan and Rome, but their agent in Florence had little time to devote to the project now that she was raising a young family. The pair suggested I go to Florence to help her out, with a view to eventually taking over the operation throughout Tuscany. Having studied in Italy I’d been itching to move back ever since; now I had an excuse in the form of a real opportunity. I could hardly believe my luck that after months of boredom and frustration I was now being handed the possibility of a football-related job in the country I loved.

There was no game plan. Nor had there been any mention of money. Jamie had essentially done little more than ask me to go to Italy and introduce myself to his agent in Florence. Precisely what would happen after that nobody seemed to know, but with appealing alternatives not forthcoming I went along with the idea. Though completely aware that the whole thing could very possibly turn out to be a big waste of time, that wasn’t enough to deter me from finding out.

* * *

Less than two months later I found myself living in semi-rural Tuscany as the semi-permanent guest of a family-friend. When I wasn’t giving ad hoc art history lectures at the local high school or hanging out with the ragazzi at the bar in town, I was attempting to find a real job and a real apartment in Florence, and arrange a meeting with this mysterious agent of Jamie’s. Incidentally she was also Welsh, and her name was Rachel. What seemed a fairly straightforward task proved more complicated than expected, my elusive contact repeatedly postponing our plans for increasingly bizarre reasons. On one occasion she failed to show up at all, later sending me a text with the following as explanation: “I was in my Buddhism class and we were doing our chant.”

Eventually Rachel and I did meet. She came across as a fairly bubbly character, although I sensed an edgier side to her. How she’d ended up working for Jamie I wasn’t sure, but I don’t think it had anything to do with an overwhelming passion for the beautiful game. She seemed wholly disinterested in talking about the job, clearly preferring other topics such as how her husband had written a book about the life of Masaccio and was now in talks with RAI over the film rights.

Though I wasn’t learning much about Jamie’s football academy, Rachel was happy to help me out with other pressing issues in my life, such as accommodation. On one of our first meetings she took me to the American Church of St. James in Via Rucellai. She told me it was something of a hub for Florence’s ex-patriot community (I later found out that it was also where David Bowie married the supermodel Iman). Near the entrance was a small notice board with a smattering of handwritten notes left by people looking for work or roommates. Rachel suggested I leave one myself since I was looking for both. I remember thinking that it seemed a pointless thing to do, that no-one would see it, let alone respond. But Rachel was right. I needed a job and somewhere to live, and the sooner both happened the better. Later, over coffee at Caffé Giacosa, Rachel mentioned she had a friend who was looking to rent out a room in her spacious apartment in the affluent Campo di Marte neighbourhood. Not keen on the idea of sharing a flat with a bunch of students oltrarno I told her to put us in touch. A couple of weeks later I moved in with Rachel’s friend, a divorced doctor named Olivia.

Not two weeks had passed since I’d left small-town Tuscany behind that I received an email from an American student named Jessica. She’d seen my ad at the American church and wondered if I was still looking for roommates. I was amazed that someone had actually read my little handwritten note, and replied explaining that though I’d already resolved my living situation we should meet anyway. Jessica was working at the Biblioteca Nazionale, and the following Sunday afternoon invited me to a screening of Dali’s Un Chien Andalou. I sat through the film waiting for the infamous eyeball scene, all the while looking for my new acquaintance, who’d promised to be wearing a chartreuse sweater. We eventually spotted each other after the film, and after the inevitable exchange about what exactly constitutes “chartreuse” was out of the way) we took a short walk along Via Verdi where we ended up at a café called Riff Raff (I felt this was appropriate since clearly we weren’t). Jessica was not your typical Italian-American: quick-witted, funny and fascinated by the art world, she was a million miles from the provincial types with whom I’d spent the last six months routinely sipping coffee. For instance, during our first meeting she revealed that she slept on a Morrissey pillowcase. After some more correspondence I learned she signed her emails by turns “Jessicroix” and, most intriguingly, “The Director” (a reference that has never been explained to me).

The next time I saw Jessica was a week or two later in her part of town (a ten minute walk away), at a bar called Sant’Ambrogio. She was with her friend Kaitlin, a fashion student from California, who introduced herself however as “a semi-retired contortionist.” Several cocktails later we went back to Kaitlin’s place on Via dei Pilastri, a surprisingly spacious apartment filled with her own artwork, mannequins and various objets. Evidently an appropriate intake of Jose Cuervo was all our wiry host needed to come out of semi-retirement, and we were treated to an impromptu performance. Through the semi-darkness I was able to identify Kaitlin’s legs, which seemed to point in directions that defied anatomical logic. (I grew to discover that shows like this were exceedingly rare, but Kaitlin casually demonstrated her extraordinary flexibility in more mundane circumstances everyday.)

Jessica and I saw each other a few more times, but her period in Florence was drawing to an end. That September she was to embark on a masters degree in museum studies in New York. On her last evening we went to see the Botticelli exhibition at Palazzo Strozzi, and when we parted I became sad suddenly. Jessica had been my first new friend after moving to Florence but now, barely a month after we’d first met, she was gone. Such is the transient nature of international twenty-something relationships.

As for Rachel and the supposed football job, things hadn’t worked out quite as any of us had expected. Jamie and Lee did bring a small group of clients over that spring, a trip that I organized almost single-handedly. I booked their hotel in Florence, scored free tickets to a Serie A match between Empoli and Inter, and even arranged for a private visit to the Museo del Calcio at the Italian FA’s headquarters in Coverciano. Once the group had arrived in Italy I was quickly called upon to act as both guide and interpreter. While the trip was a success, similar occasions never materialized, and I slowly let my involvement in the project fizzle out. I now had a steady teaching gig and was also in the middle of writing a portion of a travel book about Tuscany.

Meanwhile Jamie no longer showed the same enthusiasm he had a year earlier. The previous September he’d flown with Lee and their families to Milan for a Euro 2004 qualifying match between Italy and Wales. After the game Jamie’s brother was crossing the street when a car struck and killed him. That spring Rachel had gone back suddenly to Wales, apparently to attend to some kind of family crisis of her own. My attempts to get in touch proved futile, and I never saw her again. Yet in a handful of short encounters she had — though quite unwittingly and unbeknownst to her — changed my life.

* * *

Kaitlin and I continued to see a lot of each other despite the departure of our mutual friend, and over the next two years she became one of my dearest and most loyal pals in Florence. For someone so outwardly eccentric, she was extremely organized and very responsible. She was an early riser and never stayed out too late, and her ability to always show up on time certainly made a nice change (this is Italy, remember). Even when I made an effort to be early I’d find here there waiting for me! Our meetings invariably involved an aperitivo, dinner, a movie at her place, or some combination of all three. Sometimes we’d go down a tiny side street around the corner to listen to live jazz at a dark and smoky subterranean boite, the imaginatively named “Jazz Club”.

A little over two years after I’d moved in with her, Olivia casually announced one morning that she was selling her apartment. Despite her suggestions to the contrary there seemed no possibility of me joining them in their new place. Not only was it further away from town, it would also be significantly smaller. While relieved to be moving out (domestic life had become strained) I’d been given very short notice to find somewhere new. When I relayed this development to Kaitlin she immediately suggested I move in with her. She was about to spend the next four weeks in Barcelona, leaving vacant her studio on Via della Pergola (where she’d moved the year before). That would buy me a little bit of time to find a place of my own. Yet again the timing had proven perfect, and I instantly took her up on her offer.

Though the two apartments were separated by just a ten-minute walk down Borgo Pinti, they may as well have been different worlds. Overnight, my freedom had been restored. I had regained control of both my schedule and lifestyle, and I found the novelty rejuvenating. When Kaitlin returned from Spain she didn’t kick me out. Instead she patiently tolerated my boxes of clutter and even gave up half of her bed. I was hugely thankful to her but was aware the situation could not continue forever, and I began house hunting with greater urgency.

One Sunday night, following a disappointing weekend of several fruitless visits to apartment prospects, I was feeling frustrated and decided to go for a short walk (we were also out of milk). In the hall I ran into a student stacking large boxes into a pile by the front door. Evidently she was moving out. When I asked where she had been living she gestured upstairs to the first floor, and told me that the landlady there now if I wanted to take a look. I hopped up the staircase and knocked on the open door. “Permesso?” I entered a large kitchen and dining area, where I was greeted by a woman in her late-thirties named Paola. She confirmed that the apartment was now vacant, before giving me a rudimentary tour. The place was beautiful, with high ceilings and old stone floors. It also had four bedrooms, which I would have to fill were I to afford to live there. Paola briefly explained the terms and the deal was essentially settled there and then. I returned to Kaitlin’s with a fresh carton of milk and a new apartment.

When I told her about what had happened Kaitlin asked to see the place for herself, and didn’t think twice about moving in with me. Her studio was on the ground floor and I think she was tired of living alone. We’d now have to find only two roommates. The city was permanently littered with announcements advertising apartments, which were usually designed with those little tear-off strips containing the relevant contact details. So I set about making my own. Rather than risk having our flyer become lost in the sea of tatty typed documents, I hand-drew the poster myself, describing Kaitlin as a “fashion student/contortionist” and myself as an “English teacher/writer/deejay” (I had recently begun spinning discs at a popular local watering hole). I threw a stack of freshly-printed flyers and two hefty rolls of masking tape into the basket of Kaitlin’s bike and set off, stopping every few feet to tape our ad to every lamppost, phone booth or billboard that I passed.

My supply of posters severely diminished and my hunger mounting, I returned home for lunch. I’d finished eating and was about to ignite the Bialetti when the phone rang. I picked it up and an American woman’s voice spoke to me. “I saw your poster,” she said, before quickly adding that she was interested in seeing the apartment. It worked! I asked her a little about herself. She was studying Italian Literature at the university and currently commuting from Bologna. Previously she’d lived in Barcelona, to which I immediately jumped on the fact that had Kaitlin had too. We arranged for her to come by the following day. I took down her phone number but almost forgot to ask for her name. It was Hillary. I hung up and returned to my coffee, blissfully unaware that I’d just had a first conversation with my future wife.

Hillary arrived as planned the next day and moved in the day after that. Kaitlin and I liked her immediately, and a rudimentary online search of her name (more out of curiosity than a need to background check) produced only one result: a photo of her playing jazz vibes taken in Jamaica. Such evidence was enough to reassure me that I’d made a good decision. After living with Hillary for a few days I grew increasingly happier that she’d walked into my life. Out of the rolling mountains of West Virginia she had already packed in a lifetime of exotic adventures. In addition to her recent experience in Barcelona she’d spent some of her high school years in Seville, and had also lived in Hungary and Cuba. We shared a lot of tastes: she sang opera and knew a lot about music, especially jazz. Most endearing of all was her love of cheese and preference for drinking Campari Soda straight from the bottle. As was perhaps inevitable given our shared quarters, Hillary and I began an accelerated journey towards domestic routine. It began with one making the other coffee, or a bowl of pasta for lunch. Soon we started going to the supermarket together. Then one afternoon, as I stood pressing a shirt, she dumped a stack of her own clothes for me to iron.

I was the happiest I’d been since arriving in Florence; in the space of a couple of months my life had once again changed dramatically, and for the better. We had such fun in our new place that we soon nicknamed the apartment “Il Teatro”, both as a nod to the famous theatre a few doors down and to the Felliniesque scenes of rampant intellectual debauchery to which we aspired to play host. We threw a long overdue housewarming party in October, after which Hillary and I stayed up until dawn. As we finally retired to our separate rooms she gave me precise instructions as to when she wanted to bring her coffee in the morning. She may have been only half-joking, but when she saw me place the tray down next to her bed at the requested hour it must have been a turning point.

* * *

In December Kaitlin left Florence for good to return to Barcelona, leaving Hillary and I on our own with two roommates, neither of which — for one reason or another — were the easiest of people to live with. Thank God we had each other. We retreated into ourselves, and decided to move out in the summer. We ended up moving in with an acquaintance of mine who sold leather jackets on San Lorenzo market (he’d also deejayed with me before). His apartment was on the top floor of an old building in Via Porta Rossa, literally around the corner from Piazza Signoria. Moving out of Il Teatro into the next apartment was not easy. I arrived home in the late afternoon having just got back from Rome, where I’d spent the week giving art history tours to a group of Mexican high school students. Hillary and I then spent the night carrying our belongings on foot to the new place, which was in a building so old its narrow stone staircases had been unevenly worn smooth through centuries of use, making them all the more arduous. When we eventually completed the job around dawn, Hillary immediately cracked open a beer. We then staggered into the nearby bar for breakfast. Catching a glimpse of myself in the pasticceria’s elegant mirror I was horrified: I looked like death warmed up, and began to seriously wonder what the hell I was doing with my life.

Though I still loved Florence, I felt like I’d outgrown it, and my life there was becoming a parody of itself. For as much as I enjoyed drinking Campari or reading la Gazzetta with an espresso I was barely surviving. Meanwhile, in New York, Jessica had completed an internship at the Museum of Modern Art. On a whim, I applied to the same program myself, and towards the end of the summer they called me up. The next thing I knew I was armed with a J-1 visa on a jet bound for JFK.

Somewhere over the Atlantic, as I anxiously pondered what I was in for stateside, I started to look back at where I’d been. For the first time I was able to trace the most significant events of the last few years back to that meeting between my parents and Jamie at Pisa Airport. As an ardent Fiorentina fan, it pained me almost to concede the role that Juventus had played in the proceedings:

If Jamie hadn’t been wearing a Juventus tracksuit my dad wouldn’t have spoken to him.
If my dad hadn’t spoken to Jamie I wouldn’t have gone to Florence and met Rachel.
If I hadn’t met Rachel I wouldn’t have met Jessica or Olivia.
If I hadn’t met Jessica I wouldn’t have met Kaitlin (nor would I have had the idea to apply to MoMA and therefore wouldn’t be on the plane now).
If Olivia hadn’t sold her apartment I wouldn’t have moved in with Kaitlin.
If I hadn’t moved in with Kaitlin I wouldn’t have found the apartment upstairs.
If I hadn’t found the apartment upstairs I wouldn’t have met Hillary.

Not to say that any of those things couldn’t have happened under other circumstances, but both Jessica and Hillary only came into my life because they responded to announcements I’d left in public places. The chances of either of them seeing the ad let alone responding must have been only slightly greater than zero.

While thrilled at the prospect of what awaited me it pained me to leave Florence so quickly, and I felt awful for having abandoned Hillary. Rather than join me in New York she moved to Fort Lauderdale, where she began training for a job in yachting, eventually being placed on a luxury vessel in the Bahamas, aboard which her responsibility was to cater to the whims of millionaires and clean what was already clean. That November, halfway through my MoMA experience, I went down to see her. We spent a memorable weekend in Miami staying in a cheap bed and breakfast in South Beach. I loved the colours and the laid-back vibe, but the uncertainty of our situation hovered over us like a cloud. Both of our lives had changed yet again. We didn’t know if we would stay together, or even when we’d next see each other. Two months later we were married. But that’s another story.