The Return

Elena Tognoli
The Return
18th May
I’m dropping everything and going. The palm trees, the tropical sea, and the briny piles of rubbish. I find life on the equator intolerable, with no change in season and no daylight saving time. I don’t recognise my own sweat-drenched skin, I look in the mirror and I see a person whose features are familiar but who has the wild expression of someone hell-bent on destroying everything. During the crossing on the boat to get here, I keep my eyes fixed on the waves, rippling out in little peaks, and they remind me of the mountains. They make me feel good.
I’m dropping everything this evening, mark my words.

17th June
At airports we lose ourselves at the conveyor belts. In showing our passports we showcase our individual identity, but when we put our passports away our identity remains trapped inside them, and we go back to being duty-free consumers, individuals in transit who, carried in the womb of an aeroplane, share one common destiny.
The flight is twelve hours long. At one time it would have taken weeks to make this journey. Maybe it was better that way. Maybe twelve hours aren’t enough to get from the equator to 1400 metres above sea level.

7th July
Maria Dora is the only one left of my father’s cousins. The little valley, diagonally across from the touristy, more important ones, has virtually emptied over the years. I’ll stay here for a while, till I have gained a little weight and have had chance to catch up with anyone who asks after me. These days I don’t know what to say. I can describe the things that I have done, reeling them off one after the other, like diligent little balls along the row of an abacus. And yet I feel like I’m lying. My life over the last few years doesn’t seem to belong to me. I have accumulated qualifications and exotic locations for work like clubcard points at a supermarket.

18th August
I want to wait until autumn, so that I can see the leaves of the birches turn golden. As a child I would peel away the bark on their white trunks, wondering whether they could feel anything, whether they felt pain the way I did when I pulled back the cuticles on my fingernails. Every so often Maria Dora comes to see me. She doesn’t say much, she’s retired and constantly preoccupied with the house and the wood that lies just behind it, as though trying to form some secret pact with the trees. Maybe if I had grown up here I’d know how to speak their language, or at least how to make sense of it. Instead I speak languages that nobody round here understands.

3rd September
The days are shorter, the sun darts behind the mountain on the other side of the valley and the shade it casts bites at my shoulders in the late afternoon. One of my colleagues who grew up in a town by the sea used to say that she felt suffocated by the mountains, by the lack of an unbroken horizon. For me it has always been the opposite, I slip into a valley like a crib, the granite massif guards and protects me, like a friendly giant. This nostalgia has always been the cornerstone of my identity as an expatriate. I’ve only ever been able to define myself by contrasting the dusty heat of the places where I’ve worked with the clean cold of these peaks. I would tell people that everything was clear and clean here, that even from a distance you could see everything conclusively and distinctly. However, now that I’m here and the few tourists of the summer season have gone, I have the sense of being the only foreigner here.

15th October
Maria Dora comes for tea almost every afternoon. She looks at me like she knows something, as though she can sense my guilt. I have gone against the founding myth of family. They were emigrants too, but ones who didn’t lose touch with their roots. I don’t know to re-instate myself here. They all left the valley at the end of the nineteenth century and somehow ended up in France. From le Havre they set sail for the US, first for New York and then California. Years later they all came back, pockets filled with the money made from the mines, and they built a hotel and set up a few other businesses. They stayed put after that, at least until the wave of migration that came with the second world war. In coming back to the village, I have severed the gnarled roots of that family tree which, from afar, I had lain claim to and narrated as though it were a fairytale, a destiny. I no longer feel part of the same stock.

16th November
Finding another mission was easy, they accepted my CV straight away. Once I had the plane ticket, all that was left to do was count down the days, feeling nostalgic for things I hadn’t yet left. I begin to pile things into my case, as if to conceal every trace of my ever having passed through here. I think the spiders have noticed that I’m leaving. I leave them be, it’s more their house than mine. I have invited Maria Dora to dinner, I tell her that I admire her because she stayed, that I admire the way she lives and her rituals. I’d also like to have rituals that change with the seasons. “It’s a matter of organisation,” she says.

20th December
It hasn’t snowed yet, and I am sorry not to have seen the snow. It becomes difficult to imagine it at certain latitudes. I leave tomorrow. The day before is always like this: everything feels remote and unreal, because in reality you’ve already left. I feel lighter, and I tell myself that maybe this time I won’t feel the need to come back. I won’t tell new colleagues about the places I belong to, I’d be bluffing anyway. Stripped of everything else I’ll just be me, aware of my own atopic existence. Maria Dora came to see me off and she pressed a letter into my hand. I haven’t opened it yet.

21st December
The envelope contained two sheets of paper, on one of which was scrawled a brief note from Maria Dora: “Roll like a pine cone.” I read it and smile, and I am aware of having been observed and understood during all those months in which I struggled to embed myself there. The other sheet of paper is small and as fragile as tissue paper. It is dated 2nd January 1988 and the signature is that of my great-great-grandfather Piero, whom everyone called Peter.

“Dear Father and Mother,
I think fondly of home. I’ll see the village in a few months and then what will be will be. If it turns out that I can’t stay in Europe, I’ll come back to America, because if the others can live here then I can adapt as well. Of course I miss taking the cows to the pastures and the Barbione mountains.”

I keep the letter in my hand on the train to the airport, and I have the impression of living through a moment that is at once profound and ridiculous. I look at my reflection in the train window, a pine cone that has fallen from the fir, and rolled away, just like many other pine cones before it. By necessity it will end up somewhere, and it will force itself to assume a solid form, a territory delineated at the expense of other territories so as to limit the threat of invasion. And yet, I tell myself, perhaps my pine-cone essence is not stable but in transit. Maybe that essence is precisely this imprecise rolling between ocean liners and aeroplanes. Maybe it is catching sight of yourself in the blurry reflections of train windows, seeing your own image reflected and, through the transparency of it, seeing the countryside that runs alongside the railways and the sky; and maybe it is seeing all the various landscapes you carry inside you become one whole, and maybe it is accepting that you will lose yourself in their dissolution.

Translation by Rosanna Forte

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