Updated: Sep 13, 2021
I received a phone call. It was a local to home number, an English number. However, I was in Portovenere, where I’d decided to settle. Nothing had been happening for me back in England. Every Tuesday I’d play for a pool team in the local league, win, drink, go home. Through the rest of the week, I’d work, and then once again, Tuesday came. And repeat. I’d enjoyed it, but something drew me to Portovenere.
The number wasn’t saved in my phone, so I let it ring out. It was a mobile number, so if it was something important, a text was easy enough to send my way. I doubted it was work-related, as I kept that online, with correspondence done through email. I was a proofreader, mainly for academic papers and occasionally fiction. I could take it anywhere with it being mainly online. The accommodation in Italy was cheaper than living at home, so it was a no-brainer moving. It was an enjoyable job—perfect for me. Face-to-face contact was minimal, which was a positive, as I liked my own space and would rather avoid any potential awkward interactions. The work was informative and educational too—I learnt a lot from academic essays; for example, I now know that esomeprazole is the S-isomer of omeprazole, and it is also a proton pump inhibitor. I also know words like ‘benzimidazole’ and ‘anticholinergic’, though, I couldn’t tell you anymore about the treatment of gastroesophageal reflux than the scientific jargon.
Anyway, the good thing about the job was that I could read about NSAID-associated gastric ulcers anywhere I wanted, with an internet connection.
Portovenere wasn’t just a random throw-a-dart-on-a-map choice—it was somewhere I’d visited a few times already.
The weather was glorious. There was a constant blanket of heat, but being on the coast, there was a faint breeze which slid between the gaps, giving that brief relief from being too hot. It wasn’t like in England where the hot weather was clammy—it was clean, unpolluted air. I was by no means built for the Mediterranean climate though: my skin was too English—ghostly white if caught in the wrong lighting, though I was training it gradually to become more accustomed to forty-plus degree heat and the ray-gun waves of the sun.
One issue with my work was that, on occasion, some of the studies made me much, much more aware of certain illnesses, and at times, completely paranoid. Reading about basal cell and squamous cell carcinoma in people under thirty frightened me into investing in 100 SPF sun cream, which I hadn’t known even existed until I researched it. I tried to carry a bottle everywhere I went in Portovenere. The occasional burn slipped through, mainly behind the ears, but I kept on top of it mostly.
My place in Italy sat high up, but this time on the side of a hill, stacked on top of winding roads, greenery, flats, and houses. It was a small studio space, terraced between several other studio flats, which all looked identical from the outside. Each had a small balcony overlooking the road, with a view straight to the sea. It was pillared by rich green trees, the clear blue sky on top. In the middle of the trees was the postcard cut-out of beachgoers just off the main town, with green and yellow umbrellas dotted about, reserved for the tourists who wanted to pay to sit under them, spread across the sand, and wooden jetties stretching into the water, where boats of all sizes sat parked. They looked like toys on a miniature boating lake, small enough that I could pick them up, pinching the sails with two fingers, and delicately place them somewhere else.
I avoided the main beach. Tanned Europeans, locals, visitors, their bodies open to the sun. Toned men and women running around with beachballs and volleyballs, dipping in the sea, being nibbled up by the shallows, then deeper up until their chins before being regurgitated back out onto the cushiony sand. I didn’t like going into the water here, so would always stay back a little way if I was at the beach.
People-watching was fun, but when the people you were watching were having more fun than you, it made it significantly less fun. This was especially true when the people were all in great shape with clean skin, and then there was me, laying there, slim but with a little flab of belly popping over my shorts and wearing so much sun cream that I looked like I was sweating—which I was. It was like I was double sweating.
I split most of my time between my studio and the main town. The balcony was a nice place to do my work. During the summer, for most of the day, the building would keep the balcony area shady, so the laptop screen wasn’t hard to see. When the sun did peek around, or if it got too hot, I’d take my work indoors. It was a small space, with a tiny kitchen, which thankfully included a washing machine; incredibly helpful with the amount I sweated on the hotter days. The living area with a pull-out sofa bed that was pulled out into a bed one hundred percent of the time. When I first moved here, the intention was to fold it back into a couch every morning, and for a couple of weeks I did, but it was one of those things where it just felt like too much effort and inconvenience to do every day, even though it wasn’t much effort at all.
If I fancied a different vibe, I’d shove my laptop into a backpack, along with two bottles of sun cream and three bottles of water, and trek down the steep hill to the core of Portovenere. The view was great the entire walk down, save for the larger houses getting in the way, but even then, the architecture was nice enough that I didn’t mind. There was one house in particular which I liked to look at, perhaps for too long. I’d never seen anyone go in or out, so for all I knew they could be looking out the windows back at me, thinking what is this pasty foreigner doing looking at our house? They had a CCTV camera perched up over their gated entrance, so I made sure to stand out of the way a little. The walls of the house were bright, almost neon white, so white that I was convinced someone must come by after dark and re-paint the outside every night. On each side of the stone archway entrance stood a palm—grand, phenomenal palms, at least thirty-plus feet in height, folding out with leaves which could make hammocks.
At the bottom of the steep hill, the land flattened towards the coastline, allowing the world to open up. The sky globed around the huge empty space full of bright diamond blue. The water spread out, its surface an expanse of glittering gems. The horizon was non-existent, as the two meshed together into a haze. Over the water was Isola Palmaria, a tropical-looking island, buried under trees. A large green heap—but a gorgeous, large green heap. It appeared far away, the heat in between here and there hovering like a fog, making it look blurry. But it was so large that it also appeared so close, and if you reached out your hand, you could be tricked into thinking you could touch it. Maybe it was these views which brought me back. Maybe it was the weather, or the peace of life. This was what I’d tell people.
A missed call notification popped up on my screen after it had rung out, so I put the phone into my pocket and walked down the coastline towards the town.
‘Eyy, tre euros amico!’
This was Mahmut, a Turkish man who stood, all day every day, behind a fold-out table with an Italian flag draped over. Spread across the flag were neat rows of sunglasses. Some frames were simple black, white, or grey, but others were multicoloured, set out in a rainbow pattern. Mahmut was wearing a pink and yellow flowery shirt with blazing pink shorts, with a matching Hawaiian lei around his neck. The dazzling outfit was welcoming to tourists who passed by, especially when he turned up his charm.
‘Amico, look,’ I said, pointing to my eyes. My finger was aimed towards the sunglasses already on my face, which I’d bought from Mahmut during my first week of living here. I’d bought them for ten euros. His prices had plummeted significantly, which I liked to remind him of.
‘Ten euros Mahmut, ten!’ I repeated, tapping them.
‘Ahh, but second pair for only three euros, come on amico,’ he said, holding out a pair of creamy yellow sunglasses, his smile wide and commercial.
I pushed my own glasses up to my forehead, raised my eyebrows and shook my head.
‘Ahh, okay, okay! Ciao Daz!’ he said, and we both gave a small wave as I carried on walking.
Large yachts dominated the view ahead, the marina playing host to the boats likely owned by the people in the bigger houses with the CCTV. The tall masts all together looked like an army. They weren’t an eyesore though, in fact, they only helped add to the feeling of always being on holiday. Just before reaching the ice-white naval flotilla, I turned inwards towards the town. The buildings were long and thin, all misshaped and unbalanced, painted different shades of red, blue, yellow, and pink, like sweets stuck together.
Most of the buildings were bars or restaurants, placed there for tourists, and I’d tried them all at least once. My Italian wasn’t great, in other words, I knew the absolute bare minimum to get by, so I relied on others to know English. Portovenere, despite attracting tourists, didn’t have a huge number of English speakers, so it was largely broken conversations if I were to have any.
I headed for a place where I knew the owner did speak English—Silvio, who owned a small pub-restaurant, called Silvio’s. Inside, the walls were lined with shelves holding hundreds of unopened bottles and cans of beer from years ago right up until now. The shelves were wooden, but looked very unsteady and aged, and it shocked me that in the many times I’d been here, with the many drunk people who left when it came to closing time, that no one had ever knocked anything from the shelves. It was dizzying sometimes to be surrounded by so many individual beers, like little people seated around in a stadium.
‘Daz!’ came a shout from behind the bar.
Silvio whipped a towel over his shoulder and walked around the bar to greet me. He did this every time I entered, and every time anyone else that he knew entered. He approached me, pulling me into a hearty hug, kissing both cheeks.
‘Hungry?’ Silvio asked.
‘Just a drink, per favore.’
Silvio returned to behind the bar. He was an average-sized man, maybe just teetering on the smaller side, but he had a pigeon chest and large arms that made him look bigger than he was. He had a large nose which dominated his face, making his eyes and mouth look small. He was always smiling.
He filled up a glass with the drink he would always give me, although I didn’t know what it was. I had asked once, but he’d replied in Italian, and I’d felt too awkward to ask again for the answer in English. It was free, so it was nice. In fact, the mystery of it created a magical sense around the drink—around the whole place. It was a black liquid, maybe ale, but I’d never found anything close to an equivalent. There was something about the alcohol in Italy. It might have been the hot weather which made the coldness of it so much more refreshing, hitting the back of the throat like ice, or maybe it was how it was brewed, but either way, it tasted good.
‘Drink for you,’ Silvio said, pushing the drink across the bar, the bottom of the glass scraping the polished wood.
Silvio poured himself the same drink. We both raised our glasses.
After a sip, I began taking out my wallet, knowing full well that he would tell me to put it away.
‘Put it away amico,’ he said, ‘right, I leave you to your work—music?’
‘Si, Billy Joel?’
‘Si, bravo, buongusto!’ Silvio said, clapping me. It helped that I knew Silvio had Billy Joel playing in here most of the time anyway, so I remained even more on his good side by the choice of music. From a speaker somewhere that I couldn’t see, Vienna began playing. I picked up my drink, set it down on a table, took out my laptop, and began reading through another pharmacy essay, this one on the effects of lansoprazole.
During the day, not many people would come into Silvio’s, and if they did, it was never crowded until the evenings, so it was a good space to work. Plus, it was one of the only other places apart from my flat where I could get Wi-Fi.
‘Ciao Eveliina!’ came a call from Silvio.
I turned my head briefly to see a woman enter the bar. I hadn’t seen her before. I only caught a small glimpse of her as she passed where I was sitting, but in that brief moment, I could tell that she was beautiful. Her figure was slight and slim, and she was gliding instead of walking. She had blonde hair, so bright that it could even be white, or translucent with an ever-present sun bouncing off it. They shared a couple of kisses on their cheeks, and he served a drink to her. I think I heard ‘vodka’ said in their exchange. I put my head down and carried on working, leaving them to their talk, but a few minutes later, after Billy’s Roberta finished, my ears tuned into their conversation during the momentary silence between songs.
‘So still no good news?’ Silvio asked.
‘All the same. This place is so nice anyway, so I don’t mind being on my own.’
I could tell from her accent that she wasn’t English or Italian. Definitely European though. Her English seemed to be quite good, so I guessed she was Scandinavian, simply due to my preconceived idea that people from Scandinavian countries were very intelligent, and generally spoke English well. I wondered why she would visit on her own. Or maybe she wasn’t here on a holiday. Maybe, like me, she was here permanently, seeking a life with incredible summers and postcard views.
‘Well, you are always welcome here at any time. Ask Daz right there,’ Silvio gestured towards me. I looked up upon hearing my name.
‘Pardon?’ I asked, pretending that I wasn’t listening.
‘I was telling Eveliina that she is welcome here any time. Like how you are welcome.’
‘Si, yes. Silvio is very inviting.’
‘Bah,’ he called out, waving a hand at me, ‘this man is too kind. Si, any time Eveliina. Wait! Scusi, where are my manners. Daz, say ciao to Eveliina.’
She turned to look directly into my eyes. Hers shot a sharp green towards me like a bullet.
‘Yes, si. Ciao,’ I said, holding my hand up, straight in the air and open-palmed. I smiled, but not so much a smile, more the mouth movement where you straighten your lips and almost pull your mouth into your face a little bit.
Looking at Eveliina more clearly, I guessed she was in her mid to late twenties. She was around the same height as Silvio, who was currently leaning with both elbows on the bar, meaning she was slightly smaller than him, meaning she was slightly smaller than me too.
She waved—an actual wave compared to mine.
‘Ciao, er, Daz?’ she asked, saying my name slowly, dragging each letter.
‘Just a shortened name. Darren if that’s easier. But yes, Daz is right,’ I said all this very quickly, but she didn’t seem confused. This furthered my belief that her English was more than sufficient.
‘I will see you both around,’ she said, smiling, before leaving.
Silvio picked up the empty glass she left and went through a doorway, where I heard him quickly wash it. He returned, humming Sleeping with the Television On, which had begun playing during our interactions with Eveliina.
‘New friend Silvio?’
‘Si, si, she’s from Finland—’
I quietly took a moment in my brain to congratulate myself for deducing where she was from.
‘—arrived a couple days ago,’ he continued, ‘and said she would come in for a drink or two during the day, so you will see her a few more times I expect.’
‘That’s a fact you’re happy with, no?’ he said, eyebrow raised. He was teasing me.
I shook my head, letting out a breath.
‘Scherzo, joke, joke. Playing with you. Another drink?’
I walked towards home back along the shore. The early evening sky was fading from blue to a deep, warm orange. I breathed in the air, the slightest trace of salt, sweet on the nose. I took my time, the air wrapping cosily around my body. It felt like someone familiar was behind me, wrapping a blanket over my shoulders.
I could see Mahmut in the distance, in conversation with a figure, no doubt using his charm to sell a pair of glasses. Getting closer, I noticed the white-gold hair, now tied up into a bun.
‘Bella, only two euros! Due euros. So cheap, great bargain!’ said Mahmut, holding out a pair of sunglasses in front of him, nearly forcing them into Eveliina’s hand. I approached the pair.