Turin in July
Picture it: A sweltering July in northwest Italy. Turin, famous for being too hot (and humid) in the summer and too cold in the winter. A beautiful apartment (with no air-conditioning) in the center of town. As you heave the wooden door of your palazzo open (in this case, a single apartment building, not a palace), your senses are filled with stimuli.
You are surrounded. Multi-generational families with roots and accents from across Italy enjoying the center of town on a Saturday. Hikers briefly stopping in Turin as they make their way toward the Italian Alps, in search of breathtaking vistas and cool mountain air. Wine enthusiasts anticipating their visit to the Langhe (Piedmont’s wine country) for the perfect meal. Weekend visitors whose recent drive across the border in Liguria offered priceless views where the Italian and the French Riviera meet. Groups of teenagers, watching and waiting.
Someone is always working…
You notice that these crowds are studded by people working amidst the commotion. A group of children forms an amphitheater around a clown blowing puffs of smoke into large bubbles. Piazza salesmen peddle bracelets, key-chains, and other small, inexpensive souvenirs. What would it take to buy something? One euros, two? The feeling over and over again of not knowing how to help — or feeling like your help wasn’t enough.
Further along, you bob and weave through thick crowds, as you keep a close eye on your own kids, and suddenly, you spot those trademark vests. College-aged volunteers for Greenpeace or UNICEF needing just a second of your time. Apparently, these volunteers speak every language, so there’s no escape. You make an effort to set an example of civility for your children by answering the minimum number of questions.
Once you know your neighborhood well enough, you can avoid the most crowded spots.
The Soundtrack of the Piazza
A wall of sound surrounds you. Voices everywhere. Italian, of course, and some French; many languages you’ve never heard before. Your ears perk up as you catch a bit of English, the go-between language for many young Europeans.
You recognize the song Volare, which an older gentleman is confidently crooning into a microphone attached to the portable speaker he wheels around from one piazza to the next. Across the way, a lean accordionist is smiling brightly as he plays A Media Luz; a song you danced to at the milongas in college. The accordionist looks out joyously at the people passing by, trying to catch the eye of someone who is enjoying the song enough to stay and watch. The performers warmly acknowledge the additions to their collection baskets.
As Evening Approaches…
As the late afternoon wanes and evening approaches, a new crop of visitors fills the center of town, and people excitedly make their way to dinner. Fortunately, the restaurant you have had your eye on is close by, unfortunately, by the time you arrive, there are no tables available. Restaurants in the center of town fill up very quickly. Living in this bustling Italian city teaches you to always make a reservation. For a little while, the city seems to get a little quieter, but once the streetlights turn on and the first round of diners finish their cups of coffee, the pedestrian streets fill up once again and new performers claim their corner of the piazza.
Your day comes to an end…or does it?
After a long day, you return to your apartment and immediately open some windows. For security purposes, you have kept them shut while you were out, as you have been instructed to do. The heat is stifling. You remember the humid summers you spent in Chicago and discover that in terms of average daily temperature and humidity (for the month of July), Turin and Chicago aren’t terribly different. You add “floor fans” to your growing shopping list. You briefly think of the cool, mostly dry desert climate of nights in Claremont. At least that’s how you remember them.
If you are able to get to bed early, it is likely that you won’t stay asleep for long. With your eyes still closed, you are suddenly conscious. It sounds like Italians are on a very loud date inside your head. It is disorienting. Half-asleep, you recognize the smell of cigarette smoke; the “date” must be happening on the balcony of Bar Cavour, just across the way from your youngest child’s bedroom.
As midnight strikes, soon after the last load of glass bottles has been shaken into the recycling bin (for what feels like the fiftieth time that day), a staff member from Bar Cavour crosses the small courtyard that separates the Del Cambio establishments from your palazzo. He unlocks his motorcycle loudly and revs it a couple of times as the remote-controlled gate opens wide for his departure. With a final salutation to his colleagues, he rides into the night.
This same exact scene, night after night.
You never complain. You accept that this is what living in the city sounds like. You accept that all of you will become secondhand smokers while you live in Turin; whether it is because people are smoking outside of your apartment, or on the street a couple steps ahead of you, as you walk your child to school. At least you can keep the windows shut during the spring and winter months.
Back home in California for nearly two years, the sound of emptying glass containers into a recycling bin will cause you to remember. The tumbling, clinking, crashing sound of glass jars and bottles toppling against one another will always take you back to your home in Turin.
That memory that you don’t miss for a second will always go hand-in-hand with a place and a time that you loved so well.
Despite the reference to “Turin” in the title of this piece, it was primarily inspired by the neighborhood of Centro, Turin’s downtown, or more precisely, the area around Piazza Carignano and Via Roma. This part of the city happens to be where my family lived, but it is also part of a concentration of streets and piazzas that boast the history of Turin, Piedmont, and Italy. Living where a city concentrates its gatherings and celebrations was a new and illuminating experience for all of us.
Reading this piece back, it almost feels like a fever dream. I grew to love living in the center of Turin, but it did take time to get used to it. Today, the sounds, sights, smells, and tastes are so vivid in my mind; more so now, than they were six or eight months ago. The more I write, the more I recall. But what is most surprising is the return of the emotions I felt as my family and I first began to be acquainted with this city.
We lived alongside great wealth as well as great poverty. Sometimes one of the last people we might see on our way home at night was the figure of someone sleeping rough; their bed set up on the shiny marble sidewalk. Witnessing these contrasts and discussing them as a family was an important — and sometimes difficult — experience. It was one of the many ongoing discussions of our two-year sojourn, as well as an opportunity to learn and grow. Our exposure to the microcosm of the world that we found in Turin was an important part of our time in Italy.
Thank you for joining me in this brief look back into my earliest memories of Turin.
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