Chiacchierate fra amici, gnomi e fantasmi

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Da piccola parlavo con gli gnomi. Non erano veri gnomi, ma ologrammi mentali di gnomi che facevo apparire, solitamente quando ero in bagno e avevo tempo da perdere. Per intenderci, erano ispirati ai sette nani del film Disney di Biancaneve, ma qualcuno aveva un basco e qualcuno un Akubra, e rappresentavano un po’ tutti i continenti (complice probabilmente Capitan Planet). Con loro potevo parlare di qualsiasi cosa: di mostriciattoli che avevo trovato in giardino di cui non capivo la provenienza, della stellina adesiva datami dal maestro a scuola, di quanto avevo odiato una lezione di danza. Loro mi ascoltavano sempre, sempre muti, sempre attenti. Eppure di amici a quell’età ne avevo (non ero ancora l’adolescente introversa che sarei diventata di lì a qualche anno). Ma immagino ci fossero certe cose che temevo i miei amici non avrebbero capito, e che potevo confidare solo agli gnomi.

Non so a che età ho smesso di convocare i miei gnomi durante le sessioni evacuative. Devo aver trovato altri meccanismi di difesa e di reazione allo stress. O forse hanno cambiato indirizzo ed erano passati ad ascoltare qualche altra bambina in qualche altro bagno.

‘I don’t get how the tuckshop lady expects me to have money for lollies. I’m 6 years old.’
by Nicola Quacquarelli

Ultimamente mi sono tornati in mente, quando mi sono accorta di aver sviluppato un comportamento simile.

Ero approdata da poco in Francia, quando i primi casi d’infezione da Covid19 sono apparsi in Europa. Mi approntavo a iniziare un nuovo lavoro, impegnata a organizzare mille cose – nuovo numero, conto in banca, assicurazione ecc. Poi, all’improvviso tutto si è bloccato. Tutto. Gli uffici erano vuoti, la banca era chiusa, il nuovo numero non mi è mai arrivato (e nemmeno mi è mancato più di tanto in un anno intero). Ma siamo esseri estremamente flessibili e adattabili e con qualche manovra e qualche modifica, ci siamo adattati.

Il mio corpo, per esempio, ha deciso che il sonno non gli serviva più – “tanto stai sempre a casa, interagisci con solo due, forse tre persone al giorno, da cosa ti devi riposare esattamente?”. Ok, hai ragione. Mi sono adattata, come hanno fatto in tanti. E invece di dormire, penso, recito, immagino, osservo, ascolto.

E intanto noto, nei momenti più stressanti, che delle nuove figure vengono a farmi visita in testa, non necessariamente in bagno ora. I volti dei miei amici più cari, quelli che non vedo da mesi e mesi, quelli che da anni mi ascoltano, incoraggiano, consolano, appaiono ora come ologrammi nella mia mente quando ho bisogno di uno sfogo. E il bello è che, a differenza degli gnomi, loro mi rispondono, con le loro voci, quelle delle loro versioni reali. Ma nonostante tutti siano lontani, sono tutti comunque a una telefonata o a un messaggio di distanza, in fin dei conti. Perchè non li chiamo o non gli scrivo? Perchè mi accontento della loro proiezione mentale e delle parole che io stessa gli metto in bocca in risposta ai miei problemi?

Mi sto adattando anche alla solitudine, all’assenza di amici, sostituendoli con i miei ricordi di loro, con quello che conosco delle loro reazioni, delle loro opinioni, dei loro comportamenti. Li sostituisco con fantasmi a loro immagine e somiglianza, ma animati dai miei ricordi. E quindi, essenzialmente, li sostituisco con me stessa?

Forse è il caso che vi chiami ora.

Gnome Friends to Phantom Friends:
A Bluegrass Jitter to Pandemic Crazies

When I was a wee girl, I was in the habit of speaking to gnomes. They weren’t real gnomes, just imaginary holograms that I would summon, usually when I was on the toilet and had time to kill. To be clear, they were sort of inspired by these plastic toy versions of Disney’s Snow White’s dwarves that my brothers and I had as kids, but they had different hats – an akubra, a berret – and they appeared as representatives of each continent (I think Captain Planet was to blame for that). I could tell them anything: I’d tell them about whatever weird animal I’d found in the garden, of the funky star sticker my teacher had given me, of how much I’d hated a ballet class. They always listened, quietly, attentively. It’s not like I didn’t have friends at that age (I wasn’t yet the awkward teenager I’d become a few years later). But there must’ve been things I thought my friends wouldn’t understand, that I could only tell the gnomes.

I’m not sure at what stage I stopped summoning my gnomes during toilet sessions. I must’ve found other coping mechanisms, or maybe the gnomes left to hang out with some other kid in another toilet.

‘I don’t get how the tuckshop lady expects me to have money for lollies. I’m 6 years old.’
by Nicola Quacquarelli

But they popped back into my mind lately, when I realised I’d developed a similar behaviour, now that I’m well into my thirties.

I had only just arrived in France when the first cases of Covid19 appeared in Europe. I was getting ready to start a new job and was busy organising everything I needed: a new number, a new bank account, insurance, etc. Suddenly, however, everything shut down. Everything. Offices were empty, banks were closed, I never received that new sim card (nor did I miss it much over the course of the following year). Luckily we are profoundly flexible creatures, and with a few adjustments, we’ve adapted.

My body, for example, decided it no longer needs to sleep – ‘you’re always sitting at home anyway’, it would say to me, ‘you interact with maybe two, three people a day – what exactly do you need rest from?’. Ok, fair enough. So I adapted, as did so many others like me. And instead of sleeping, I think, I rehearse, I imagine, I observe, I listen.

Meanwhile I’ve noticed that, when stress gets the better of me, a new lot visits me in my mind, not necessarily while I’m at the toilet this time. The faces of my closest friends, the ones I haven’t seen in months, if not years, the ones who have listened to, encouraged, consoled me over the years, appear to me like holograms in my mind’s eye when I need to vent. The cool thing is that, unlike the gnomes, they talk back, with their own voices, the voices of their real counterparts. But while they are all physically far away, they’re all just a phone call or a text away really. So why don’t I call or message them? Why am I content with mental projections of them and of words which I put in their mouths in answer to my problems?

It’s as if I’m adapting to this new loneliness, this physical absence of friends, replacing them with my memories of them, with what I know of their reactions, their opinions, their behaviours. I replace them with phantoms in their image and in their clothes, but it’s my memories of them that breathes life into these phantom friends. So, essentially, I’m replacing them with myself?

Perhaps it’s time to give you all a call.

A quick reflection on Berlin: the Bode Museum

While I puppy-sat with Freddie and worked on a writing commission, Berlin’s vibrant cultural scene provided the break I needed from over-eating and not walking enough in Puglia.

The Museuminsel

A good deal of Berlin’s museums are neatly concentrated on the Museum Island, which seems to be typical of Austro-Prussian imperial designs (I visited the Museum Quarter in Vienna in August, for example, similar in layout if not in concept or design).

The effect of the layout and proportions of the architecture on Museum Island is as awe-inspiring as no doubt was intended, and there is an overwhelming sense of reverence towards the material culture of the past even before entering the monumental doors of the museums.

It was hard not to connect this decadent imperial austerity to Berlin’s glaring twentieth-century past, etched as it is into the fabric of the buildings housing the artefacts, and into the narratives of collection and display.

‘Beyond Compare’ at the Bode

The Bode Museum was hosting the fantastic temporary exhibition ‘Beyond Compare: Art from Africa in the Bode Museum’. Objects from Africa were placed somehow in physical juxtaposition to the more familiar, most often Christian, European objects which make up the Bode collection.

This occurred seemingly at random throughout the entire museum, so that the visitor is suddenly confronted with this unusual pairing, and invited to reflect on differences and similarities, connections and common themes in the cultures which had produced each object.

Themes like beauty, race, power, devotion, protection, life and death were evoked, for example, through a fourth-century marble head of a Roman emperor from Turkey, placed next to a seventeenth-century commemorative wooden head of a king from the Kingdom of Benin in Nigeria.

 

These two figures in particular both challenge our modern concepts of gender, as the beautifully chiselled and carved features of the emperor and king stare ahead with an androgynous quality: I, for one, had mistaken both for female figures as I approached them. At the same time we are confronted with the gentle, easy grace of the Roman emperor, versus the stern pride of the Nigerian king, two different approaches to lordship, power, and protection.

The curators explain:

The implicit process of comparing, separating, and assigning objects to different collections was a fundamental step in the foundation of the Berlin museums and the definition of their respective missions. In the process many objects from Africa were defined as ethnological artefacts, while other objects of comparable artistry from European ritual contexts remained in art museums.

The act of comparing and identifying is therefore not neutral, but charged with socially defined prejudices, conventions, and constructions of history. It [is] also governed by the experiences of the individuals who draw the comparisons. Defining two things as similar or different is often related to power. The process of comparison is thus closely tied to questions of collection history, aesthetics, colonialism, and gender.

This direct attempt at deconstructing and decolonising the museum’s collection through the simplest of solutions is an important initiative which serves to challenge the collection’s traditional objectives and engage the visitor in a thought-provoking exercise.

Public Engagement

One small criticism I am tempted to make is that while the exhibition asks these important questions, any subsequent questions or answers the visitor might have sort of fizzle away into nothingness, as there is no obvious space or tool to continue to engage meaningfully in that conversation.

Visiting the website, I learned that the exhibition is complemented by a series of themed guided tours and a round table discussion which involves curators from Berlin, New York, Cleveland, and Cape Town. These would certainly all be very interesting to attend, but unfortunately I did not stick around long enough.

My recently Berlinified friend Sophie and I agreed that it  would be great to see this as a travelling exhibition, perhaps applied to other traditional collections, as it really breathes new life among dusty old walls!

A three-day pass (€29, otherwise around €12 per entrance) allowed me to pick a few of Berlin’s museums to visit: the Bode, the Pergamon, and the Neue. My favourite by far was the temporary exhibition at the Bode.