I was fifteen.
It was 1997. I started writing poetry. Reading strange authors. Listening to grunge music.
I was discovering my self, going out from the childhood into a different human being.
My high-school was in a city near Napoli, called Pozzuoli. The school was spread in two buildings; both of them were not built to host a school.
One was an ex Fire Station, the other one was a residential building, modified to be a school, at least according to whoever granted the permit to keep kids in there.
There were no emergency exits, there were cement columns in the middle of the classrooms, balconies like normal houses. My classroom was plastered with tiles, covering one entire wall, last enduring memories of a kitchen of times past.
I would go out to the balcony of the class to smoke a cigarette during breaks, while professors were going from one class to the other. The balcony opened on the backyard of the building, on an ancient Roman temple. The temple was as tall as a three story building and still incredibly well preserved, even though half-masked by the green of the vegetation that was eating it.
I would light up a cigarette and look at the temple; think of the people that passed by there, thinking that in any other country that temple would have visitors, would be guarded, walled and respected.
I would inhale the violet smoke and, as the cigarette reached the end, I would throw it on the ground near the temple anyway in a burning arch, because that behaviour was normal for me and the people around me at that particular point in life.
During gym class we would go and play football exactly where the temple was, using the fallen-down opening as one of the goals. We would sweat in the warm southern-european climate, and come back to our class stinking of burnt skin, blood, grass and sweat, because there were no showers.
After school, we would go out in the little park that once was in front of the building. We would stop by the Salumeria and buy Prosciutto and cheese panini while waiting for the private school bus. The private school bus was a white van stripped of normal seats and with three long benches, to stuff more kids in. How I didn’t die remains a mystery to me.
The days in school were boring. The notions we were studying were old, and the whole system was stiff and far away from what a teenager really wants to learn. So I was sitting in the back of the class, hiding my Ungaretti, Yeats, Thomas, in whatever book we were supposed to have in front of us. I would read Hume and Locke while the professor was reading Parmenides from the book. The system was old and smelled like death.
That’s why that year I would often skip class. Somedays I would join other people from other classes, other schools, who skipped class as well. If it were summertime, we would go to the beach. You could go to the beach from March until October, for how good the weather was. We would take off our clothes, leave them under our schoolbags, and swim in our underwear. The sun would dry ourselves up in a short while. We would eat slices of pizza and then come back home. Our moms would ask, Why are you so tanned?
I’m sitting near the window mom.
Possibly, if all the moms saw all the kids together, they would have imagined a classroom which was made only by windows, almost a science experiment, with kids-insect running inside of it, hiding from the flesh-devouring sun.
During wintertime we would go to the big city, Napoli. We would go there to play bowling or video games. We would visit the first fast-foods – McDonalds, Burger Kings and such were a novelty back then – trying to hook up with teenage girls. Trying to understand romance, for the first times in our lives.
But my favorite times were when it was only me, or me and my friend Francesco, or Alessio.
We would go in the city centre of Pozzuoli, eat breakfast, and then walk into a dark alley. In the alley there was a tattoo joint, a hearing aid shop, and a very small library, called Il Nome della Rosa, The Name of the Rose, after Umberto Eco’s book.
The owner, Gino, would entertain his guests with delicious comments about books, poetry, literature. It wasn’t long before we started spending our mornings there, talking with Gino and drinking Espresso, while watching the whirlwind of customers – friends, lost souls on the lookout for human connection – writers, poets, mothers, sons; fishermen, shop-owners, unemployed hippies – the whole humanity passed in that library, 20 to 30 square meters of enlightened soil, much like the sacred ground of a secret church.
We would pass our time speculating about the weight of the soul, the meaning of life, the search for happiness, the pursuit of love. It was a full-on philosophy school. The days I would come back to the regular school, in my kitchen-tiled classroom – smoking my cigarettes, looking at the roman temple – I would recite poems from Catullo, which I discussed the day earlier in the library. I would introduce the Bundle Theory in the classroom before our Philosophy professor would talk about it, just because it was in one of the books we discussed in the library.
I didn’t pass the year – for other reasons than my grades, which were enough to pass – one being that you needed to be actually in the classroom for a certain fixed amount of days. And I wasn’t there, too busy understanding life. I didn’t pass school year, but I did pass a great life year.
The library eventually vanished – you cannot have a place such this one for long, because it defies logic, it is a safe haven that sticks out like sore thumb, a final monument against misery and materialism – it was a gift to live that time, to live while Il Nome della Rosa lived, in that sun-bathed little coastal town, discussing about life, the Universe and Everything, while Berlusconi was crafting the next generation of dumb voters.
And I cherish that time I had.
20 years after, I still am in touch with the owner, Gino. You can actually find him here.
And while I understand the precious moments I’ve lived, I look around; and search for the bliss that I’m living in the now, the gift from my time, which I don’t know yet I’ll cherish in 20 years.