Carla sat with her head resting against the window of the train, her right hand under her chin – supporting her head – and her left, holding a worn copy of Call Me By Your Name. Her mind, wandering in and out of reality, may have forgotten her destination and considered that she was travelling to or from university (as she had done so often the last three years), had it have not been for her large, red suitcase that was pressed up against her knees. She was travelling from her home on London’s outskirts, into the centre of the city – to the airport. Over and over, she questioned herself as to whether she had her passport, her boarding pass and the euros that her dad had slid into her jacket pocket as they had parted ways outside the front of her house, whilst the taxi-driver had lifted the suitcase as if it were an empty cardboard box.
There were not too many people in the carriage, except for an American couple that were discussing their travels thus far. Their suitcases were much larger than Carla’s. She was unsure as to whether the uneasy feeling in her stomach was due to anxiety, excitement or travel sickness. To distract herself, she reopened her book once more. Aciman’s novel had become an object of romanticisation for Carla, envisioning the Italian architecture, the sweet soundtrack that would accompany Elio’s mindless daydreaming, the innocence of falling in love. She dreamed of the indulgent breakfasts; her eyes not fully opening until the rich espresso had touched her lips. She dreamed of the afternoon Aperitivo, the slightly bitter liqueur and refreshing orange of Aperol and ice, alongside soft, fluffy focaccia and olives exploding with sharp flavour. She would feel the rays on her skin of the serene sun, a similar shade to her spritz, as though an artist had used the remanence of the paint on his paintbrush to complete the sky. She would gaze at the mountains from her balcony, contemplating the intricacy that could create such a picturesque view from miles away. She considered her strolls through cobbled streets, spooning creamy gelato of whichever flavour she fancied: strawberry, mango, plum or biscuit, wondering if this taste had been made to satisfy her particular desire of that day.
And then would follow evenings of fairy-lights and soft jazz music, a glass of red wine that tasted of fresh grapes and the deep red colour lingering on her lips. Perhaps she would be accompanied by people she would meet along the way, like the group of four or five misfit friends from a rom-com, who drink and debate and criticise each other light-heartedly, laughing and loving each other endlessly even so. But she could not picture what these people may look like, and so instead, was content with the idea of sitting alone. Her admiration for the music of the band would result in them asking for her requests, pleasing the intimate crowd with a rendition of ‘That’s Amore’. Like Oliver, she would roam around on her pale blue bike with the wooden basket on the front, which would hold a novel, a poetry anthology and a small, lined notebook. Each fundamental and with its own specific purpose. The novel: to transport her from the Tuscan coffee shop to a murder mystery on the sea, a haunted cottage in England or a train carriage to Edinburgh, alongside a trio of magical school-children. The novel would act as her escapism, although remembering, every two pages or so, to sip on her cappuccino, as, really, she did not want to escape where she was at that moment in time. The anthology would be for short bursts of beauty, romance and imagination, food for thought. Perhaps when sat by some trees playing with the grass underneath her, or by the sea watching the waves travel in and out as they so desired, or on a faded wooden bench, which had seated many an old person that day, sheltering from the warm sun rays or resting their legs to light their cigarette. At last – the notebook. Its pocketsize yellow pages were filled with her most intrusive thoughts, her favourite gelaterias and casual Italian vocabulary that she thought may come in useful. But, most importantly, anything that would take her mind back to that particular moment, so as to withhold the memory long after its brief lifetime. She couldn’t tell if she was dreaming, or if she could already smell the soft tobacco that, for some reason, smelled different than in England.
Her hands now both placed on her lap, clasped together, she watched out of the train window at the trees, carefully graffitied buildings and the rows of clean laundry, hung out of windows and on thin string. Clothes of white linen, loose trousers, dresses and delicate lingerie; she imagined the smell of those white candles, labelled ‘fresh cotton’ that you could buy on the shelves at home. She could visualise the clothing to effortlessly drape over the olive shoulders of an Italian mum, sun-kissed from the summer afternoons and her hair thrown into a rough bun to allow a breeze, if ever there was one, to tickle the back of her neck. The apartments were mostly painted a medium-yellow or rust with green shutters and vibrant Vespas parked outside that were like splodges of colour splattered against the train window. Carla wanted one for herself. She would drive wherever she pleased, no destination in mind, feeling powerful and feminine and free. She was travelling from Pisa, where the plane had landed, to Viareggio – a small, seaside town on the coast of Tuscany. It would be her first time experiencing this side of Italy with beaches and mountains and day-to-day life, working as an Au Pair for a family with two small children. Carla had specifically chosen this family as their profile had said that they were seeking a girl who wanted to play and have fun with the children, and she thought that they sounded like a real, loving family.
The overhead announcement told Carla that she was arriving at her stop. She struggled with her suitcase, her cheeks flushing pink as she did so. All around her she could hear snippets of conversations, some seeming heated until they would flash a marvellous smile or a belly-laugh, suggesting only passion in their tone, instead. The speed at which they spoke seemed infinitely faster than in England. The platforms were large and full of people, even though it was a Tuesday afternoon, and she hovered around, trying to locate the uscita. Unwillingly, Carla flashbacked to the train station in Milano, where she had travelled for her birthday a few months prior, with her (now ex) boyfriend. Milan was not like the Italy that she had known. Only an hour or so away from Crema, where Elio and Oliver would have lay in the green fields and confessed their love for one another, yet it was filled with shops and high-fashion and keyrings for sale. It was beautiful, nevertheless, she just felt herself still longing for that feeling in her heart that she knew she would find here. She always knew that it felt like another home. Perhaps in her past life she had lived there as a baker or a travel writer or a librarian. Perhaps a dark-haired man, wearing thinly-framed glasses and a white shirt, which shone against his skin, had wandered into her library, admiring all of the untouched books with tattered, imageless covers. He maybe became a regular, and she would have nicknamed him secchione (bookworm). Eventually he would invite her to his book group, a weekly meeting in a little café, only she would come to find that this group consisted of him and her only. Naturally, they would fall in love and have a magnificent wedding in Puglia or Sicily, naming their children Giulietta and, perhaps, Elio. Carla smiled and simultaneously wiped a tear from her face, realising that she wasn’t in love anymore.
A few days had passed and Carla was settling in with her host family. She was a strangely introverted person, in some senses, although with an admirable ability to speak to others. Sometimes, she felt too overwhelmed to even contact her friends when she was at home and had grown accustomed to relying on herself since she had come out of a long-term relationship. Although curious about the world with bright ideas and a sensitivity that allowed her to love with no exceptions, Carla often preferred the simplicity of being alone, avoiding any situation that could cause her to question her self-worth. She couldn’t tell if this was a preference or a coping mechanism. Having battled with her mental health for quite some time, Carla had lost the inner-child in her, and would, as of lately, find comfort in colouring books, teddy bears and anything pink or yellow. She had started to dress in baggy clothes, watch football, drink beer and dismiss the female gender as though she did not belong to them, subconsciously to become a replica of her boyfriend. In this process, she had lost herself. She did not know who she was anymore.
The little girl that she was taking care of in Italy was almost exactly like how Carla’s mum had described her to be when she was younger: a princess with an attitude, who loved to dress-up and do hair and makeup, singing and dancing and dreaming of growing up. Imagining herself like this was so strange, it almost seemed wrong. To once have been so carefree and bursting with imagination to now running away from her life, attempting to heal. For whatever unknown reason, Carla had believed that she would heal here. She was able to feel emotions about Italy that she could not feel about anything else. She had been concerned that her expectations would not be met, subsequently leading her back down the path of abandonment and self-destruction. If the one thing that she had anticipated for her whole life had been all for nothing, she almost couldn’t fathom what this would have meant for her. She would have had to have returned home, questioning why she had ever acted on her silly, insignificant dreams. Perhaps it had only worked for Oliver because he fell in love, and that seems to be all anyone cares about.
As the days and months passed, Carla spent mornings walking along the beach, chatting to strangers as and when she could and sitting in nature, reading anything and everything. She found herself wanting to learn and wanting to be curious again. And even on days that were profoundly difficult, Carla would embrace the overwhelming emotions, welcoming them with open arms, knowing that she was beginning to feel things once again. It was a challenge, no doubt. Being thrown into the structured lifestyle of a family, completely different to her own. It was difficult to be happy, and Carla finally began to understand why people had said being happy was often a choice, not a feeling. But choosing to be happy, for the children, meant that she was choosing to be happy for herself. With the little girl, Carla would do crafts, go on walks to find leaves and sticks, finger-paint and read fairy-tales, and she wondered why she had not done these things for herself every day. Why had she let herself grow up, settle and spend her days worrying about the opinions of those who had, also, simply lost their sense of self? In a way, her expectations had not been met. They had completely disappeared, transformed – she didn’t know what. But she felt entirely new. She did not long for perfect days, she did not long for unconditional happiness, she did not long to seek love until it had found her itself. Instead, she longed to learn about herself, she longed to question everything as she had done as a child, and she appreciated every obstacle and every new emotion that she experienced along the way. This was her now, all her.
It was Friday morning and Carla had woken to help the family with breakfast and take the children to school. She reached for a skirt and a yellow tank-top, which she paired with yellow Converses. She had bought these a few months ago but had never worn them in England, as she thought they were too bright. For breakfast, they all shared some cake that they had made together the previous night: chocolate with hundreds-and-thousands sprinkled sporadically over the top like confetti. Once she was alone, Carla decided to walk along the docks. The October morning air was fresh and foggy, and she was surprised to see how different the beach looked at this time, completely empty, except for the birds. From where she sat on the rocks, the boats were stacked next to each other behind her, the sea on her left and the mountains directly in front of her view. The red and yellow buildings along the strip where the sand finished, were like hand-crafted dolls’ houses, in comparison to the backdrop of the soft, white-washed mountains which were ethereally two-dimensional. They were put there with a purpose as though projected or imprinted on a canvas, along with the intricately carved rocks and fine grains of milky-tea coloured sand. How lucky was she to experience such beauty? She pictured elves and pixies, button-nosed shoe-makers with magic porridge pots inside the cottages that looked ever-so-tiny on the landscape. There must be rainbows with bottomless pots of gold and daffodil fields, talking trees and red-topped mushrooms with white spots, pumpkins and freshly baked apple pies, shared by the Grandma Elf in the yellow bungalow. Surely, she thought, there couldn’t possibly be humans living up there. They were far too small from where she sat. She envied the birds that could fly up and overlook this village as and when they pleased, wondering if she would ever find her wings, too.