Leaving Tricase (part 1)
Monday 6 September, 2021.
In which a meditation on leaving the coastal hamlet of Tricase after a two-year stay leads to a perspective on the city of Lecce, and a memory of a friend.
It is Sunday 5 September 2021, and I have begun writing this on a bus heading back to the hamlet of Tricase from the city of Lecce, a distance of 50 kilometres between these two points, a ride or drive of around an hour by the fastest route.
I was in Lecce for a weekend, to get my second Covid vaccination shot, spend some time with a friend and to try to get myself excited again about moving to Lecce.
I’ve been visiting this city regularly over the four years I have been living in the vicinity, working as an English language teacher. Lecce is a relatively small city, but that is part of its appeal. Outside of the summer season, its wide, oak-lined boulevards and small cobbled-stone streets are rarely empty, but hardly ever overcrowded. There is a relaxed and cultured atmosphere about the place, and indeed relaxation and culture are really the city’s main lures.
Lecce is a fascinating city, but unlike the city of Bari to the north, it is not a city of industry and commerce. It has a university, some excellent cultural centres such as the Castromediano museum and the Bernadini public library, and is full of great restaurants, bars, enoteche (wine shops), delicatessens and boutique clothing stores. Mainly though, it is simply great to look at, and is efficiently maintained and policed – the streets are clean, and the average resident or visitor can feel pretty safe walking those streets.
However, in recent years, its appeal to students and the well-heeled has made Lecce a more expensive place to live than it was (I’m informed) ten or fifteen years ago. I’m having a hard time finding a decent flat at a price commensurate to the salary of an English language teacher and I am starting to wonder if I should consider a Plan B.
It was (at least in part) the desire for affordable accommodation that led me to go work in a small town in southern Italy in the first place. Now I feel driven (though with reservations) back to a city.
The reason for this has been a creeping feeling of desolation that overcame me, starting from the last Christmas period onwards.
I had been doing okay up to that point. I had completely abstained from alcohol for six months. I continued my project to read the complete works of Joseph Conrad. I stopped writing random pronouncements nobody was particularly interested in on social media. I went cycling to the coastal point of Marina Serra most days, a ninety-minute round trip. I lost weight, my hair seemed to have stopped falling out, I looked in the mirror and what I saw did not seem too bad, all things considered. I felt I had achieved a certain dignity and equilibrium.
I tried to be content in my roomy apartment… the local church bells chiming melodically….
But then, Christmas got to me. I tried to be content in my roomy apartment, with my soft drinks and coffee and books, and the local church bells chiming melodically, but the total loneliness and a sense of being a redundant individual in the world overwhelmed me like a typhoon.
You ask yourself that question – or rather, you don’t, but that question arrives, when the bells stop chiming: if you were to keel over right now on this floor and die of a heart attack, how long would it take for anyone to notice? This leads to further questions: Once they noticed, how many people would it affect? And for how long would it affect them? And what would be your contribution to this planet? What could anyone point to as something – or somebody – you developed or to which/whom you gave life? In short, would the results of your life so far add up to anything? The answers to these questions were sobering, as they say – and I was already sober, so I got out the bottle of wine that had been idling in the cupboard for six months and opened it.
They say alcoholism is a slow form of suicide, but it could be argued that, considering it’s slow enough to have time to turn things around, like Raymond Carver did in his last decade, it is still better than the fast version. A good friend of mine, whom I’ll call Miranda (as I have never known anyone called that), died in the autumn of 2019. She was an English language teacher like me, except she was a lot better than me. She was an examiner for one of the two accrediting English language exam boards, and when not teaching, she travelled all over the world for her examiner work, a well-paid occupation. She had a cosy ground-floor flat, in a desirable area of southern England, with a garden, and she had finished paying off the mortgage on it many years before. She had a home that no one could take away from her, and the security of being a sought-after member of the higher tier of her profession.
She was talented. She wrote poems and short plays. She did voluntary work helping refugees to learn English. She was intelligent, she was well-read, she was compassionate, she was witty, and she was much-loved by colleagues, neighbours, and friends, of which she had many.
Perhaps she felt it was something that you could learn how to handle, with the use of intellect…
But Miranda was lonely – I can say that, based on what followed. She must have been – deeply, heartbreakingly lonely. Perhaps she was only vaguely aware of it, or perhaps she felt it was something you could live with – a lifelong condition that you could learn how to handle, with the use of intellect, as is tentatively suggested in the title essay of a book of essays by Jonathan Franzen she had loaned me in 2017, How to Be Alone (2002). If my memory serves me well, Franzen’s essay was more focussed on the difficulty of maintaining some private life and private thoughts in the new era (as it was, back then) of internet sharing and “over-sharing” than the actual problem of loneliness. I remember thinking that although Franzen’s intelligence was impressive, and he had clearly experienced some of life’s “ups and downs”, in his way, the author did not strike me as a man who had ever experienced real, extended loneliness. For such people – and I believe I was once one of those people – “being alone” may be imagined something like a holiday on an exotic island – enjoyable, because you know that you are not marooned there.
Miranda had at least one boyfriend in the five or six years I knew her, but the relationship didn’t last long. Her greatest love seemed to be reserved for her dog. I saw a series of posts she made on Instagram about her dog being ill, in 2019, and the last post I saw was posted soon after her dog had died.
She had a funeral for her dog, with several bouquets of flowers, in her garden. It seemed as if it were something she had done alone. I posted a message of support in the thread of that post because I could see Miranda was distraught, but I didn’t realise just how inconsolable. I was busy working for an intense university summer programme some ninety kilometres away, and intended to visit her in the brief hiatus between the end of my job, and my return to Italy. I felt sorry for her loss, but felt she would probably have started to move forward with her life by the time I saw her, in three or four weeks.
Less than a fortnight later I received an email from my former manager at the school Miranda and I had worked at– the email said that Miranda had died, and Miranda’s father and brother were inviting all her colleagues from the school to attend the funeral.
At the funeral, which I was able to attend (fortunately, for my return flight was booked for the very same evening), I saw at least a dozen of my former colleagues and there seemed to be at least a hundred and fifty people in attendance. As I said, Miranda was loved by many. The cause of Miranda’s death was never mentioned and of course, it was not the right time or place to ask. However, as Miranda was only 58 years old at the time of her death and had no health problems anyone knew about, and as I had read her last messages on Instagram, I strongly suspected (as I think did some of my colleagues) that she had committed suicide.
When I researched the facts on the Internet – because I needed to know the truth – the website of the established local newspaper confirmed that this was the case. No reference was made to the death of her dog as the catalyst that led to Miranda taking her own life, just the cause of death, which was reported to have been an overdose of sleeping pills. This led me to believe that Miranda had been planning her suicide for a while, maybe during her dog’s period of illness or maybe even before; it takes time to gather enough sleeping pills to effectively kill oneself, if one only deals with respectable doctors, and I find it hard to believe she knew any other kind.
Miranda’s suicide affected me and continues to affect me. I miss her. But more than that, I wish I could have helped her. There were friends closer to her than me, and yet we were (I believe) close friends.
Miranda was loved by many people, but this was not enough.
Miranda was loved by many people, but this was not enough. It was a sincere love, but it was not a strong enough love. It was what is sometimes called affection, or perhaps gratitude. The hungry heart cannot be fed on this alone, and it led Miranda to focus her strongest love on her pet dog. Pets, of course, love a kind master or mistress unconditionally and unreservedly, with none of the complications or vacillations of other human beings. When her dog died, for Miranda it was the end of hope for the kind of love she needed. She felt, I believe, she was facing slow starvation – and she preferred a quick death to slow starvation.
How did so many of us – intelligent, kind, generous, not-unattractive people – end up coming to this kind of desolation in our later years? This is something I will explore further – and come back to leaving Tricase – in part two.