The sign said ‘Rome’ and pointed to the left but we pressed right ahead. It was an average circular road with scattered flat houses, advertisement boards, cars rushing in this or that direction, smog, vast expanses of industrial space, empty soft drink cans and rubbish lying on the hard shoulder. Manu was driving, I was sitting next to him, and Mika was at the back, filming everything with a camcorder.
“Why didn’t you turn left?” I asked.
“There was a sign for Rome… I thought we were going to Rome…”
“Easy, bro! Relax!”
Relax… Everybody says that all roads lead to Rome but apparently this is a myth – at least in its periphery. And to make matters worse all circular roads look the same. We could have been driving near Buenos Aires, São Paulo, London, Paris, Kathmandu, Leeds, Johannesburg, Mexico DF, San Francisco, Ontario, Reykjavik, anywhere or almost anywhere. Manu took a right turn and we went over a level crossing. The car slowed down and this guy who was standing by the barrier looked into my eyes – why, I don’t know. Soon we took a narrow street uphill. Manu drove fast and the cars driving towards us drove fast too. Once or twice in the space of a hundred metres we narrowly avoided a crash, but everything seemed calculated, precise – there was a prearranged agreement. Mika was quiet, her mind focused on her camera and the camera was focused on me. Or maybe she was just filming the passing cars – I didn’t turn around to find out.
“We’re not going to Rome,” Manu said.
“Cool,” I said. He was waiting for me to ask where we were going.
More narrow roads, more steep roads, the smell of pine trees. Manu would occasionally point to this or that place. He wouldn’t give any explanation, just point to this or that place and tell me to look. Look there, a typical Italian house. Look there, a church. A path getting lost somewhere. A pig. A mountain. Greenish fields. Vineyards. A convent. A dog. More vineyards, another vineyard, another convent. That’s not a pig, it’s a Great Dane. Twenty minutes later we reached a place called Rocca di Papa. Manu parked the car by a little square.
“Fancy a walk?”
“Sure,” I said.
It must have been three o’clock in the afternoon, the streets were empty and the sun was already weak. We left the car and crossed to the other side, where there was a viewpoint on top of a steep cliff. Manu leaned against the railing and lit up a cigarette; he passed me the pack and I lit up too. Mika was pointing the camcorder at me and I looked down below and saw a dog scavenging food from a bin liner bag. It was full of rubbish down there, on what looked like someone’s back garden. How irritating must it be, to have everyone in town dumping their shit into your backyard. I turned around to look at Mika and instead of seeing Mika I saw a camera lens. She gestured from behind the lens – I passed the cigarettes her way; Manu elbowed me.
“Look,” he said. “Over there, that’s where Rome is.” I looked towards the horizon: a palette of yellows and light greens and grey clouds coming from what looked like small garden bonfires.
“I can’t see anything, only smoke,” I said.
“Can you repeat that again? I forgot to press REC!” Mika said. She nodded and smiled.
“I can’t see anything, only smoke,” I repeated. She gave me the thumbs up.
“Behind the smoke is Rome,” Manu said.
Mika had been with the camera in my face since I had arrived the day before. Cameras feel like guns sometimes and it’s impossible to get used to them and everybody hates a closeup. But I didn’t complain, it’s the direction things are going right now, no point in fighting that. We are constantly observed, photographed, filmed – Warhol’s fifteen minutes of fame taken to its logical conclusion: we’ll all have our fifteen minutes of registered irrelevance, on a daily basis. When Mika finished her cigarette she tossed it down the rock face and filmed it; I looked at the cigarette all the way to the bottom and so did Manu. The cigarette fell on the rubbish but missed the dog. She laughed, a beautiful laugh; she seemed happy and she had this very intense perfume, totally coherent with her laughter.
Soon we started walking again, sloping upward a narrow street that seemed to get narrower with every step. The sun, barely visible, dropped between tall houses, breaking through clothes hanging out to dry from side to side. My eyes hurt from the sun even though it was almost gone. The scene was too picturesque to be taken seriously, too typically Italian, in a way I couldn’t really explain although I’m half Italian, or so says my passport.
“Tomorrow we can go to Rome… If you want,” he said. I didn’t reply but I thought that I would just take the train to Rome and fuck him and his car – he was in control of the situation as long as he could drive me around. I was going to go to Rome on my own; or maybe just stay in bed all day. Or maybe just take the plane back to London and spend Christmas on my own. Or not, I didn’t know. Mika who was lagging a few metres behind, turned back to the little square we had just left, filming, of course; Manu caught me looking at her.
“I bought the camera for her birthday,” he said. “She wants to do films.”
“It would be good if you talked to her about it… Give her a few tips… You know the drill.”
“I thought you worked with films…”
“I do. But I don’t do films.”
“I thought you taught film.”
“Yes… Sort of.”
“I teach film history, and theory. But I don’t do films – I could never do a film.”
“Still. Talk to her about films when you have a chance; give her a list of films to see, a book to read, something. She’s a nice girl; a bit slow, but good with visual things. She’s obsessed with that fucking camera. She says she wants to do a documentary; but she doesn’t have a clue…”
“That’s commendable,” I said. “I mean, documentaries are great.”
“Yeah, whatever; it keeps her busy. Talk to her… I hate documentaries, bro.”
“Manu, can I have your shades, please?”
“No way!” he said. “It’s not even sunny…”
“I didn’t sleep last night; I’ve got this terrible hangover. Lend me the shades, will you?”
He passed me a pair of aviators; I put them on. The sky was nicer staring behind them; the sky is always nicer from behind a pair of shades. We continued walking and soon we reached what looked like the town centre. The streets were empty and all the shops were closed – it was dead quiet.
“Take me to a bar, Manu. This is depressing,” I said.
“Have you seen any bars?”
“There MUST be a bar…”
“Don’t bet on it.”
He was right, maybe there wasn’t a bar. The only visible thing was the end of the hill and a group of teenage girls coming our way. Manu stared at them as they walked past. He turned around and saw that Mika was quite far, filming something high above, probably the clouds.
“They wear too much make up but I’d fuck them anyway.”
“They are too young…”
“They are never too young. They are either legal or illegal.” I didn’t reply.
We reached the top of the hill – there was a church. All town was standing there, on the sidewalk, in the middle of the square. Cars parked everywhere. Old and young, kids running around. A funeral, a wedding, a baptism, something, a reason to put make-up on, to wear your good clothes, to turn up in a shiny car. We walked past a group of young men – I found it striking that several of them had plucked eyebrows.
“Salve,” said Manu . “C’è un bar qui intorno?”.
He spoke with them for a while, then said ‘grazie’ a couple of times and we kept walking.
“There’s a café up there,” he said. Mika caught up with us.
“I shouldn’t be filming you from behind,” she told Manu. “You’re going bald.” Manu didn’t answer. She stopped filming him and directed the camera towards me. I threw my cigarette on the floor and tried to crush it with my left foot but missed it, stumbled, and kept walking to break a fall.
“You missed the cigarette butt. Why?” asked Mika.
“What do you mean ‘why’?”
“Yes… Did you miss it on purpose?”
“Not really… I should have tried with my right foot,” I said.
“Do you want to do another take?” she asked.
“Sure.” We went back some metres and she filmed me trampling on the butt. Manu watched from the distance. I found the second take easier than the first one.
“Cut,” said Mika and we kept walking.
Soon we reached a little square with a fountain, a telephone box, a café, and a couple of tables by the sidewalk. Manu walked into the café; Mika and I sat at one of the little tables. It crossed my mind that Manu hadn’t asked what we wanted to have. He would probably bring a coffee when all I wanted was a large glass of red wine.
“He didn’t ask…” I said.
“He never asks,” said Mika from behind the camera. She was filming the table arrangement, some floral tacky thing. I looked around – there was a fat idiot kid playing with the telephone box, shoving a piece of wire manically into the coin slot. I became hypnotised with him, jerking the wire, completely taken over by his piece of wire and the phone box; on and on and on, making love to it. God knows what he was trying to achieve or if he could even think of achieving anything. He was one with that wire and the phone box. I envied him.
“Film that retard,” I said to Mika and she pointed the camera towards him and eyed me from behind the lens – she didn’t say anything but I felt her disapproval. “Yes, I shouldn’t use that word,” I said and winked at her. She smiled back and then kept filming the kid.
“Fuck!” she said.
“I’ve run out of batteries!” She laughed very loud; I laughed too.
“Just look at him instead. Then film yourself talking about him, at home; about not being able to capture what you see, something like that,” I said. “It would work well – it’s self-reflexive; people like self-reflexive shit.”
“What do you mean by ‘self-reflexive’?” she asked.
“As in a film about making a film,” I said.
“That’s brilliant…” she said and lit up a new cigarette. She stayed quiet, watching the kid. “You know a lot about film,” she added a bit later.
“Yes,” I said.
“Give me a tip…”
“Oh, that’s hard.”
“Just one tip,” she said.
“Hmmm… You mean another one!”
“It’s all in the details.”
“Yes… In the details, like that kid and the phone booth. If this was a film about you and me, let’s say about an affair between you and me, I would pay more attention to him than to you and me.”
“What does he have to do with you and me?”
She stayed quiet.
“I’ll think about it,” she said at last, and smiled, just as Manu came back and placed a tray with three espressos on our table.
We stayed a bit longer, laughing at the kid and his phone box, Manu and I chatting about Christmas, the family back home, about never going back. Mika stayed quiet throughout, smiling at me every tenderly now and then. When we left, the kid was still there, shoving his piece of wire into the phone box in the dark.
Fernando Sdrigotti is a writer, cultural critic, and recovering musician. He was born in Rosario, Argentina, and now lives and works in London. He is a contributing editor at 3am Magazine and the editor-in-chief of Minor Literature[s]. His new book Shetlag: una novela acentuada, has just been released by Araña editorial, Valencia. He tweets at @f_sd.