Despondent organ music was droning in the nearby palazzo, and the crowd of people were all dressed in black. The music was filtering up to our balcony, the sound of a hundred voices singing canticles made its way through the green shutters of our apartment, into the kitchen, where I was putting on the tagliatelle to have with the amatriciana. That’s when Anna put her phone down and made an uncomfortable noise. Cascades of Facebook posts on her phone retold the horrifying story of the train crash in sentiments, photographs, and RIP’s. The hard lightbulb was forensic in its clarity, it was unmistakable that Anna was crying.
Anna had been to Hong Kong on the AFS program, too. Hong Kong’s historical subservience to Japan was a cultural link to Francesco. Francesco Tedone, victim of the 12th of July train crash. You may remember seeing it on the news in 2016. As the litanies of prayers rose from the sun-cracked palazzo, the effect was drowning in its inflammable passion. It became too real. ‘I have taken that same train countless times,’ Anna wept as I embraced her. ‘Countless times. He could have died in Japan. But it happened at home. ‘
Corato is a city marked by grief. The outdoor mass attended by the municipality building which we could hear from our terrace was a dedicatory service to Francesco who, exactly a year earlier, had been killed in a two-train collision just outside of Andria. A young man who had, like so many others, been on an AFS exchange. I had gone to Japan. He was known and loved. I had been unfairly robbed of life. 23 people died, including the two geriatric conductors. Tedone had been back home from Japan for a few days. He had been thousands of miles away and survived, only to come back home, to die.
The roads which led to Corato fanned out systematically, precisely, like a spider’s web. But they had to shut down for the festival, whose maintenance was a top priority for the municipality. This created a hushed, unique membrane exclusive to Corato. Everyone laughed with familiarity, grabbed shoulders, and knew each other. I stuck out like a sore thumb. I was given the title ‘The Boyfriend’. Anna thought that was pretty good.
The manifesti mortuari, the flower petals, the hustle of a careful, grieving, excitable mass of Italians – all this the export of a city with a lot of love. Nevertheless, the facts tell us that this collision could have been avoided. Greater safety measures, better communications support, to second train track. Cualquier cosa. ‘Sure,’ Fede had scoffed, ‘they’re building a second track now, but it just goes to show that, here, nothing will get done until there is a train crash.’
Fede and her crew, who we would have been in for a week in her villa, were the organizers of Komorebi. The word came from Japanese, so I was told, in requiem of Francesco Tedone’s exchange country. It meant, «the light that shines through the cherry blossoms» or something to that effect. It was under Fede and Massimiliano’s supervision that Raffa, a pianist, and Stefano, to dance, volunteered to begin Komorebi with a performative dance. The flame of anticipation was effusive on every face. Anna dressed in an African-style dress which hugged her hipbones. I was wearing the t-shirt I’d bought five days earlier in Gallipoli. The day unraveled into glimmers of sweet light; my skin felt tight and saline from the swim we’d had earlier; the craving to catch the proceedings intensified with each passing moment.
So I made tagliatelle for fortification in the kitchen and cheered Anna up by dangling pasta into my mouth like a seal with its fish. That just about did it, and it was important to introduce play to grief, before long, I reckoned. After eating, during which we swiped the bowls dry with bread (an act referred to as «scarpone» in Italian, literally «boot»), we took an espresso to abate the honeyed chains of abbiocco (the state of sleepiness following a grand meal ) and set off. We grabbed the keys and shut the door behind us. The evening was alive with the buzz of mosquitoes, not midges, as I’d become accustomed to back home. We tread through the city of Corato with a wakeful sense of the flash-fry ristoranti, the vending arcade, the hum of mopeds and cars older than me,
A good way off we could hear antic peddlers and music, a kind of magnetic energy field; the people were becoming more involved, busier than before. We neared the epicenter of the commotion. This was Anna’s home. But everything about it had changed for the evening. There was a playful sense of seniority, of noble disorder, that came from honoring a dead friend with a festival inauguration. The first of its kind. The lackadaisical children were waving at us and popping lightbulbs imaginarily with their finger guns. Adults hoisted them on their shoulders, and perused the crowds listlessly. A conga line was herding pocket-fisted spectators into its maw, the shim-shaying line appearing and disappearing randomly throughout the night, throughout the city center. One portion of the city, an inferior palazzo to the main square, hosted at breakdance-athon, where predominantly men propelled themselves onto a twenty-square-foot mat of cardboard at the behest of the Rasta-headed DJ. Sweating, bare-chested, and with a head of black curlicues, was Stefano, who’d been a fastidious guest and cook at Fede’s Salento villa. Only, now, with his full-fledged breakdancing troupe, I barely recognized him. We had stopped to say hello.
‘It is maybe not a good time,’ he said, excusing himself. ‘I have to get ready for the main event. Come by the stage in twenty minutes. ‘
‘OK,’ we said.
Now with some time to kill, we absconded to the makehift gallery. The interior of the town hall was flung open for the occasion, adorned with artworks, which with the passion for the deceased, some with denunciatory emphasis on the Italian transport industry for letting such a tragedy ruin their community. At the doors of the town hall, keeping alert for any funny business, were the unarmed, though hubristically muscled, Carabinieri. Their uniforms were enough to shut people up when they emerged from the frisson of playfulness outside into the serious atmosphere of paintings and sculptures within. After ten minutes Anna and I felt like we’d seen everything, and left.
Back in the main square, a circle had been cordoned off before a propped-up stage where amusements ensued; Here was the gang, Fede and Massmiliano, running about with clipboards. On stage, I could make out, was Raffa, booting up her keyboard.
Played to the soporific melody of Raffa’s fingerwork, Stefano emerged in a cape, which shed within a few steps in an expectedly grandiloquent fashion, and twirled about on a mat. I have contorted himself in an expressionistic dance. It took a moment, but once or twice in Stefano’s gait, something definable came loose. The dance became a story. It was not difficult to project meaning onto the movement. But any interpretative liberties were banished when Stefano threw out his arms as if in flight. Stefano was retelling Francesco’s flight from home, his enjoyment in Japan (here cherry blossoms flutteringly came to the aid of the ensemble, thrown by the omnipresent Massimiliano), and his eventual crushing demise – Stefano embodied Francesco, brought him back to life. I have enacted Francesco’s death with balletic poignancy as I have brought himself to the ground in an aching, fading light. The sun had reclined into the red-soil horizon. Stefano lay down with the ending notes of Raffa’s piano petering out into awed silence, and everyone knew what that meant.
The applause clarified what I’d been thinking. It’s championed the city and tore all other sensations away. The panzerotti fryers dimmed in fragrance; The beauty of the whitewashed terraces hanging above were eclipsed in the sound of the applause. Everyone had seen the glimmers of Francesco again in Stefano. But as the applause too dimmed, we recognized that Francesco was dead, and that there was more music to be heard.
There was no intermission between the acts. Singers and guitarists rolled on stage as the last performance would end, each one an exceptional talent. One of the most salient interests for me was their age group, whose upper limit did not exceed, say, twenty-five. These were all undoubtedly well-wishers, students, and even friends of Francesco Tedone.
After the show Anna held my hand and told me, ‘AFS wants students to fully immerse themselves in the culture of the host city, so correspondence with home is minimized. I would Skype my mom once a month, maybe, when I lived in Hong Kong. So all the storytelling and catching-up would happen at the end. ‘
‘So you’re saying that Francesco did not even have time to catch up when I got home.’
‘Exactly. His parents, they did not even get to ask him what his favorite part about being in Japan had been. ‘
His manifesto mortuary or «obituary placard» was placed with special significance inside the bus station courtyard with a wreath, and the adjoining piazza was pertinently renamed in honor of the victims of the 12th of July – a mouthful enough to piss Anna off: ‘They Could you have just called it the 12th of July, why the need for all that other stuff? ‘
The mosquitos had been ostracised from the bus station grotto with Raid mosquito coils. The photograph of Francesco in the bus station was the first time I’d seen his face; puckish, messy red hair, thick bifocals, a smile that would please the pockets of a dentist, rosy cheeks – this was Francesco Tedone, the Francesco Tedone who lived and died. I was struck by something Mario Praz had said about, that in transit each place begins to live and is spirited away in one unilateral movement, that travel is in effect to string of deaths which widen the eyes and prick the ears for the notes of that which will soon be dead; travel invigorates life through its many deaths. But this death was hard to stomach. Hard to imagine liveliness, that we had, earlier in the day, spent the sun-waning hours at Polignano a Mare, a scenic fortress of cascading cliffside buildings, ruins, and whitewashed facades with acres of crystal ocean frontage. The chalky rockpools of the Salento villa and the many-pointed stones of Polignano, despite my negligent lack of flip-flops, were exhilarating bursts of color, beauty, and heat. And now all was sadness.
That meant it was time for a drink. Congratulations rang out for Stefano and Raffa, and whereas Massi still had a job to do, Fede joined us for a customary Peroni at a chalk-faced dive bar where a collection of students amateurishly debated Marx outdoors on plastic furniture. They clogged up the road as tiny cars tried to manoeuvre through even narrower streets. The whole city was like that, narrow streets, burbling cars. When a car would go past the heat rose off it in gusts of exhaust fumes. We would need something to colder than beer to cool us down. The days were hot and found no respite in the night.
Stefano and Federica became companionably generous, and began sharing with me their experiences on their respective exchange years through the AFS program. It seemed everybody from Italy had taken part in this AFS thing, and each one of them talked about the people they stayed with as their «families», their «brothers and sisters», their «grandparents and parents» as if they were the real deal Massi had a Brazillian family with some dark backstreet tale, and he and Stefano had both learned the martial art of capoeira, which Stefano only too eagerly demonstrated with my volition, sending me into a contortionist’s back-breaking, swiveling duress. After these theatrics, alcohol was brought, and we sat in a ring playing Never Have I Ever, the propositions relayed to me through my translator and girlfriend, Anna.
‘Amazing,’ laughed Stefano to the group in fluent Italian, ‘how The Boyfriend laughs ten minutes after everyone has finished.’ When this was reported to me, I laughed as well, with that accidental lapse in understanding.
‘But do not you know any Italian?’ Fede asked
Put on the spot, I proffered the meager Italian I’d unfortunately picked up in titbits:
‘Ma che cazzo, porco gave, andiamo a mignotte nel quartiere a luci rosse!’
I was relieved that my spume of curses was received with peals of laughter, beer-bottle clinking, and a gushingly ribald expression from Massi, who had turned up just in time to hear this, for what I had said with such ill-bred force was, «What the f ***, God is a pig, let’s go get some prostitutes in the red light district!» Italians have a different respect for curse words. Blasphemies could not be accepted at any villa, but with most, calling someone stupid, or asking «what is wrong with you?», Is liberally infused in the culture of directness and concision. Arguments may seem to flow furiously from Italians, but it’s merely a sign of a healthy libidinal passion. And it usually ends in laughter, anyway. Like I said, it was important to introduce play to grief, before long.
The night was already well-spent, all being merry, when the spectators began to divide and cramp into the local gelateria. Gobsmacked by the sheer array of ice cream flavors, I let Anna pick for me a tricoloured dollop of stracciatella (milk and chocolate), amarena (cherry), and mint-chocolate. It was the all-astounding variety of ice cream flavors which made this area so popular. Each cold milky polliwog I licked off the cone woke my tongue with pleasure. The nights were still as hot as the days. We left just when the final act was finishing up on stage.
The main square was overrun with idlers, children picking up and setting off confetti rockets that strew the moonlit cobbles. It was impossible to make out where the confetti ended and the cherry blossoms began. I fell into a romantic muse of the situation, and everything seemed a lot more significant than it actually was. When we finished our ice cream it seemed silly to stay. Anna and I said goodnight to Fede and the group and took our leave. The walk home was littered by flower petals. We could not escape trampling them, and I thought that was fairly significant in and of itself.