Road trips have disappeared in a large part of the world during the last year and a half. In Italy regions unpredictably switched colors from orange to red to yellow according to the seriousness of the Covid-19 pandemic, preventing citizens from traveling for leisure through the small country.
I recently came back home vaccinated from a spring in New York City and took the opportunity of a friend’s wedding in northern Italy to drag my boyfriend on a summer road trip. Our drive from Rome to Camogli, and then Marseille and Arles in the south of France, almost felt like a thing of the past.
Spupo, as we’ll call the Roman boyfriend, would have gladly spent the entire summer barefoot on the coast of Lido dei Pini. I forced him to dust a creased jacket that could somewhat work for a wedding, yet he insisted to come to the ceremony wearing run down, perforated sailing shoes.
On July 1st we left the coast of Lazio to cross Tuscany, while the other guests and Carlo, the groom, drove down from Milan, the city where we all grew up and met in high school. At the time Carlo passed me more Greek translations than anyone ever would, and he’ll always have a special place in my heart.
Spupo and I spent the night before the wedding at my friend Federica’s summer home. The following afternoon others joined, including my best friend Valeria, who had worked early in the morning after a night out and resolved to take a nap right before the ceremony. I’ve known Vale 23 years now and I can confidently say that she could sleep in any condition, regardless of noise, light or stress levels.
Carletto was punished for his “happy ever after” prospect with machine-gun rounds of rice outside of the church, and during the wedding party the European football championship crawled for the first time into our trip. Italy was playing against Belgium, and virtually every table during the dinner had a number of hidden screens meticulously following the match. A couple of speeches were interrupted by rowdy cheers when Italy scored a goal, and the Italian anthem followed without fail. It was good to see my friends again. Milan is slowly coming out of a nightmarish year and for many of them that was the first real party after a long time of constraints. Some were happy to finally dress up, others confessed that they were already missing their days in underwear.
The following morning Spupo wore his versatile “wedding shirt” to challenge my friends at ping pong and then to drive, stroll and hang out on the beach for the next four days. The Italian radio turned French as I discovered, bewildered, a backseat driver instinct that he had managed to keep so well hidden up to that moment.
In the late afternoon we got to St. Raphael, a small town on the way to Marseille. Our Airbnb host Tracy was an English teacher from New Zealand who married a French chef. I fell in love with a few details in their apartment: a photograph capturing their naked friend diving from a cliff nearby, a record softly playing Tim Buckley, 17 copies of L’ Étranger by Camus I counted on the bathroom shelf.
24 hours later in Marseille, both new to the city, we just followed the music through the old, narrow streets of le Panier. Flamenco led us in front of a bar called Massilia, where a gipsy band dragged the whole street into a furious dance. After the concert we chatted with the musicians, briefly in town for a tour that would soon bring them to the Alps. The day after we crossed paths again as they sailed, evidently hangover, in our same direction. We were headed to the Calanques, white cliffs just east of Marseille. Notes from our tiny rental boat: an island shaped like the back of a stegosaurus, repeated anchor trouble, a floating watermelon, occasional voyeurs.
As we got back to the city at night I sat outside of a charming little bar to get a drink, while Spupo walked inside looking for the toilet. He got back within 15 seconds, eyes wide open. To my raised eyebrow, he just said: “There are snakes eating on the floor.”
I went in to check and did find two snakes eating dead mice on the bar’s floor. A third one rested in a terrarium nearby. Phil, the owner, told me they were South-American grass snakes that an ex partner, who used to own 15 of them, left him when she moved to a different country. Spupo was mesmerized by the account. He observed Phil as he relaxedly closed the Happy Hour venue right at dinner time and strolled away with a big smile. He resolved to take the graceful man, with his laid back business strategy, wild animals and flawlessly kind ways, as a role model. https://player.vimeo.com/video/584637910?app_id=122963
Arles was next, home to my favorite photography festival. The small, quiet, pastel-colored town on the Rhône river fills up with photographers disorderly partying at the beginning of July, since 1970. This year the festival reopened after a “covid break” and many habitués didn’t come, but the venues felt crowded nonetheless. We first saw a show by Jean-Christian (JC) Bourcart, a French-American artist who collaged black and white archival photos from a little Breton village with AI-generated images reminiscent of a psychedelic trip. The result evokes an alien invasion, metaphorically related to the arrival of Artificial Intelligence in our lives. The consequences of this encounter are as open and mysterious in JC’s work as they are at our present time.
My favorite image features a woman in black and white, presumably a nurse, holding a phallic structure of unmistakably magic, hallucinatory colored shapes. She looks calm and threatening at once, like a slightly crazed wizard about to strike a spell. She frightens me, but I kind of trust her at the same time.
In the couple days we spent in Arles I reunited with some of my best friends from France, danced to bad music until too late and got to chat with our host, Adrianne. https://player.vimeo.com/video/584637099?app_id=122963
A witty, elderly woman living in a beautiful old house with her partner Annie, Adrianne had started her journalistic career at the British Sunday Times as a motorcycle racing correspondent. We first socialized after Spupo, left alone for a couple hours, walked barefoot on a bee and his toe swallowed. She insisted to give him antihistamines and then glanced at the wounded young man shaking her head: “Yah, they’re very delicate”, she stated with a smile. I cracked up laughing and thought of my favorite group exhibition of the festival, Masculinities, where the topic is presented as a “coded, performed, and socially constructed” concept.
As we sat in Adrianne’s living-room before saying goodbye I learnt that painter Alice Neel had once asked her if she could pose for one of her portraits. “I was busy at the time and declined, going back I think I’d probably accept”.
During our drive back home, Spupo and I stopped at the Tarot Garden, a monumental sculpture park that late artist Niki de Saint Phalle built in the Tuscan hills. The artist’s colorful work uses the curves of the female body as a physical vehicle to understand life and death, sensuality and liberation. The garden is a light, joyful, mischievous place, but Niki’s visionary messages aimed at concrete educational and feminist causes, and nothing was more serious than the way she played.
Getting back to my parents’ home on the beach I found my mother splashing and harassing my father at the water’s edge, like a kid. The rest of the neighborhood was psychologically preparing for the football match against England, the final of Euro 2021.
My dad’s face, his eyes glued to the screen, embodied most of the country’s mindset during the evening, after England scored a goal within the 2nd minute of match. Then, the night got painted blue.
By Gaia Squarci
Gaia Squarci is a photographer and videographer who divides her time between Milan and New York, where she teaches multimedia at ICP (International Center of Photography). She’s a contributor of Prospekt agency and Reuters. Her work has been published in the New York Times, the New Yorker, Time Magazine, Vogue, The Guardian, Der Spiegel, among others.
To learn more about Gaia Squarci, visit her website.