After two weeks of sitting poolside in a holiday home in Chianti, smoking minty cigarettes and surrendering my life essence to blood-hungry mosquitoes, I'm back in the airport and waiting to come on back to Toronto, via London for a few days. Normally when I'd spend a week or two away from home, in a new place, amid a different language, I'd be looking to come back with all sorts of insights and things I've learned about different cultures and what it means to be human and all that, but this one, this one went sort of, nah.
A haze of jet lag erased much of my knowledge of the first day or two. I'm not a sunshine kind of person, seven generations of sunburnt gingers in the family have seen to that, but I found a little shade in the back garden by the pool, and it was there I retreated, neither working nor sunbathing, but just sort of... oozing. My slow, slothlike degeneration continued for days, and I blamed it on the heat and writing exhaustion. The final edits on the book were done, and I'd gotten an early early draft of a new one finished before I came out, so for the most part I was trying very hard to think of nothing. I wasn't looking for inspiration, or rooting about in old stories or writing new scripts. I just read books, and sweated, and covered myself in suncream and mosquito repellent, then sweated, then swam, then covered myself in after sun and after-bite.
After a week or so, my tourist guilt took over and I decided to leave the house. Boarded a train to Florence, a few days later a train to Venice. I looked at the outsides of churches and galleries. Saw some scary statues. The strangest part was the Peggy Guggenheim Museum in Venice. I walked past the graves of all her little dogs, across a rainy patio, and there, inside the gallery, found long corridors of paintings of misshapen bodies and amorphous faces; each one seemed to be watching something. Their gaze fixated either upon me, or upon someone else outside the frame.
And then, it came to me. I remembered back, and realised what had really kept me at the house in the first place, back in my shade, slowly stagnating by the pool. Eerie phenomena I encountered on the first day of my holiday, when I entered a town square in Figline Valdarno, somewhere outside Florence.
Spies. Looky Loos. Watchers.
Imagine, if you will, an entire town of old Italian people, each one looking at you funny. Honestly. A bent-over woman emerges onto a baking hot town square, dragging a plastic chair behind her. She plonks her chair down, not five metres away from you, tourist, drinking an espresso and thumbing through some Elena Ferrante. She settles herself, lights up a cigarette, pulls up her sun dress to let the air at her withering legs, and stares at you. She doesn't check herself, or look away when you catch her eye, pretending she's been caught in a moment of trance looking through you. No, she looks right on back, staring you down so you look away, embarrassed, and then she stares at you some more. At first, you wonder if it's not because you are so clearly a tourist, or that it's your red, red hair, or the fact that you have an assortment of interestingly shaped and differently aged sunburns across your pale arms and legs. Maybe she's doing a class of cloud-watching with your skin, trying to make various figures or symbols appear out of the ambiguous red forms upon your body. Nope. She keeps looking.
You try staring back at her, keeping your eyes locked on hers, but your Irish sense of personal shame starts to kick in, that tuning fork sound in the back of your mind singing, 'You've done something wrong. She knows. Evade. Wink if possible.' Your resolve crumbles away under the force of her stern, unapologetic stare, and you look away. You turn your chair and place your back to her, but then you notice it's not just that one person.
Behind you, another man is watching. He's scratching the grey hair on his arms, fingering an old sailor tattoo and trying to see inside your rucksack. And at a house across the square, a short, round woman opens a sun shutter and leans out. She turns around to someone behind her in the room, and then points a long, accusatory finger at you.
Take a walk. There's a behatted octagenarian sitting outside a tobacconist, looking your outfit up and down. Black shorts and navy t-shirt, Irishman? Really?
And there, not against any sort of landmark or resting spot, with nowhere to lean and nowhere to go, just off the centre line of the street, an old woman in a billowing moo-moo stands with her hands on her hips and her glasses high up on her nose, squashed right up against her pupils so you can almost see her corneas tongue the glass, taking in the whole street. You pass by her, silent, afraid of waking some ancestral beast from deep inside her, of fracturing her Sphinx-like being, her immovable and unknowable stance, so some ferocious judgement comes to pass.
It's zombie-ish, a mix of Black Mirror voyeurists and Pod People, another person leaning, judging, appraising from every street corner and window. Good Jesus you're surrounded, until you hurry back home, sweaty and paranoid, wondering what wrong it was you ever did, what crime you committed, to have the mass judgement of an entire town of people descend upon you. You lie in the shade in the back garden and try to forget about it, to just read and nap. You doze by a shimmering chlorine pool, and think that it was just a result of your jet lagged, heat hazed mind. But at night, you close yourself into your room, turn on the fan, and dream of eyes, eyes everywhere in the dark.
And then you wake, and you think, them Italian museums got it right.