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Off Campus

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This article was inspired by the yellowing diploma framed on my wall. It reads—

REPUBBLICA ITALIANA
IN NOME DELLA LEGGE
NOI PROF. DOTT. ING. FRANCESCO CARASSA
RETTORE DEL POLITECNICO DI MILANO
VEDUTI GLI ATTESTATI DEGLI STUDI COMPIUTI
DA [NOME COGNOME]
NATO A TORBOLE CASAGLIA (BRESCIA) IL [DATA DI NASCITA]
VEDUTO IL RISULTATO DELL’ESAME DI LAUREA DA LUI SUPERATO IN QUESTO POLITECNICO IL 16 MARZO 1972
GLI CONFERIAMO LA LAUREA DI
DOTTORE IN INGEGNERIA CIVILE


It was love at first sight. They met at a dinner party in their hometown, Brescia. She was seventeen, he was five years her senior. They got married four years later. They had been married for thirty years. He was a travel enthusiast, partly because of his work, partly because of his curious nature. Her footsteps had accompanied his across the globe. She would recount the journeys when we dine together; her face would soften, and her eyes would light up like a girl.

Apartment-hunting in Milan wasn’t easy. When I got here in late August, I booked an apartment on Airbnb for thirty days, thinking it would be adequate to find an apartment. I had sent out requests to more than fifty apartments on sites like immobiliare.it and idealista.it, as well as small hand-written ads posted on light poles and bulletin boards near Bocconi. My quest ended in vain. Out of desperation, I asked my Airbnb host, Daniela—a warmhearted mother of three, if any of her friends had an apartment for rent. The day after, she told me that c’è una signora molto elegante con un appartamento molto signorile in centro storico[1]. The very elegant lady was in the same English class as her, and the room had been empty since her son left for work years ago. Daniela arranged an appointment for us to meet; the lady was indeed very elegant, and so was her apartment. I signed the contract the week after.

The lady has refreshed my definition of elegance. She wears thick eyeliner almost 24/7; there had only been once when I saw her without make-up: I had to get up early on a Saturday, she grabbed her sunglasses and put it on immediately before I could finish my morning salutation. I had been confused about why she would wear sunglasses indoor when it’s not sunny outside, well, not anymore. I bought a dozen boxes of pasta for the quarantine, but my landlady still goes to the supermarket multiple times a week to get her verdure fresche and prosciutto crudo. I rarely see her eat anything other than prosciutto, salad, and fruits. Although she doesn’t eat anything after 5 pm, she had been diligent in cataloging my dinner items over the phone, “Aiuto! Carboidrati, carboidrati, sempre carboidrati. Mamamia! Diventerà una ragazza grassa subito…” The verdict was accompanied by sideway glances charged with disdain; maybe she really thought I couldn’t understand any Italian when she talked fast.

One morning as I was brushing my teeth in January, I noticed the lid of my less-than-twenty euro facial cream was tilted, and the next day, and the next day…I messaged my landlady asking her why she’s been using my facial cream, she replied in English, saying that maybe she tried it once out of curiosity. I was more curious: I didn’t understand why someone as elegant as she would be interested in my skincare routine. Then later that day, she wrote me a note in perfect English, emphasizing that “she will not become young again.” Her logic was hard to follow. I wonder if this has anything to do with her astrological sign.

My landlady’s birthday is on February 3rd, an Aquarius. I took note of the date before moving in, as it was written on the first page of our contract. While I was having breakfast the day after her birthday, a CD came into my view on the usually unoccupied table in our living room. Initially, my glasses were fogged, but as I put the mug down, I recognized the prism spectrum against the pitch-black sleeve—- it’s The Dark Side of the Moon. At this moment, I heard the key turn with the usual, cheerful “Buongiorno!” I asked her if she likes Pink Floyd too, she told me that it’s her husband’s favorite band. Then she went on about how the songs in this album had been played throughout their road trip across the U.S. forty years ago, and how her husband could sing as well as Roger Waters by the end of the trip…

We didn’t get to spend much time together last semester. My landlady frequents the gym almost religiously, and she told me that she’d been doing so for forty years. She becomes an effervescent ball of endorphin after her daily morning workout. Before the lockdown on March 8th, her schedule had been more German than Italian: she gets up at 5:30 am every weekday and turns on the lamp in the living room at 6:00, starts the day with a cup of espresso and one page of English grammar exercises from her workbook; then she leaves the apartment quietly at 6:45 to take the morning yoga class at VirginActive. Although the day was still dark before 7 am during the winter months, my landlady would have already left by the time I got up, and the living room would be suffused with the aroma of coffee, gently reminding me the time of the day like a clock unseen. I, on the other hand, left the apartment before 8 am to take the morning class, and returned home after 7 pm on weekdays. My landlady had English lessons at Comune di Milano on Monday and Wednesday evenings; she went to the cinema every Tuesday evening and always dined out on Thursdays, Fridays, and Saturdays with her boyfriend, so I only got to spend time with her on Sunday evenings.

However, the lockdown has completely changed the situation. Since early March, my landlady had been playing The Dark Side of the Moon in her bedroom every day at random hours. Sometimes she would start the music at 5:30 in the morning; it was dreamlike when the piercing sound of ringing clocks and tolling bells in the intro of “Time” would sometimes clash with my alarm. While the music is on, it’s loud enough to be heard on the other end of the apartment. I once walked past the living room to fill my kettle and my landlady was sitting on the sofa, with tears streaming down her face. She was still mouthing the lyrics despite her smeared make-up: “You run and you run to catch up with the sun but it’s sinking / Racing around to come up behind you again.” At that moment, I understood why there is a photo of her ex-husband behind every photo of hers in the living room, why his yellowing diploma hangs on the wall of my room, why she had shown me an archived article from Corriere della Sera, twice,that her ex-husband, a civil engineer, had been praised on his work on a UNESCO site in Afghanistan in 2006, and why she had emphasized that his home is located in Via Solferino, 35, which is merely five hundred meters away from hers.

Over the past few weeks, I’d realized that there’s a reason for her to maintain the figure of a 17-year-old even though she is almost seventy—she is essentially restless. My landlady repeatedly changes my sheets to her son’s while mumbling come mio figlio. On several occasions when I came back from grocery shopping, I had found out my clothes had been unfolded and folded. I told her that she doesn’t need to clean my room or anything, as I’d been doing so since middle school, but her presence in my room persisted. My landlady has also restored her pink dumbbells and yoga mat to the living room, and since then I could see her stretching and doing weightlifting at random times throughout the day. I could sense her boredom oozing out from every pore and hanging in mid-air like a leaden cloud: she would mutter pazzesco whenever the telegiornale reads that cinemas, shops, restaurants, and bars, and most deadly, gyms are closed during the lockdown.

One evening, as I was going towards the kitchen area, my landlady stopped me at the corner and told me that she finally figured out how to use Skype. Later when I was having dinner, my landlady was calling her boyfriend on Skype. I could understand most of their conversation by now, and it went like this:
Michele mio amore, I finally figured out how to use Skype. Thanks for introducing this app to me. It’s great that I can see you every day.”
“My lovely lady, it’s so good to finally see you too. I told you Skype was easy to use…”
The chat ended with a stream of baci baci baci baci baci... as soon as it ended, my landlady turned to me and said: “Michele is molto ignorante, he doesn’t even how to use Skype. My husband [2] is ten times smarter.” I was speechless.

Maybe her obsession with being lean and youthful is because one day, she might run into her ex in the streets nearby, and she would look like as if she just stepped out of a time machine, that she had never aged.


[1]  there’s a very elegant lady with a very elegant apartment in historical center
[2] She always omits the “ex-” when talking about her ex-husband


Dal cartaceo di maggio 2020

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