The Return to Modena

It’s strange to think of Modena in Coronavirus lockdown, even though we approach a similar situation here in London. My visit there in early December 2019 was a poignant return to the city where I’d lived with my wife from 2000-01. I hadn’t considered the symmetry of being there at the beginning of the new millennium and returning as its second decade ended. I was absconding into the past, stalking memories.

Coming out of Modena Station was like stepping back through time. I looked straightaway for the cycle shed where we would park our bikes before jumping on the train for Saturday day-trips to the other towns and cities of Emilia-Romagna – Bologna, Ferrara, Parma, Carpi, Vignola. That first view of Modena was almost overwhelming.


I let my feet guide me around the streets after I’d found my apartment in Via Masone. They led me to Piazza Grande and into the Duomo, then eventually out to the edge of the city along Via Emilia. It was close to sunset, I was being drawn away from the Historic Centre towards the busy arterial road. The memories I’d annotated onto the streets those twenty years ago guided me back to the door of the building that’d housed the English School where we’d come to work. Now it was a firm of accountants.

I continued to follow these invisible tracks over the next two days from morning into the night. Enjoying the simple pleasures of a morning cappuccino and brioche in a bar, my Italian slowly, falteringly returning. Frosty nightwalks round those medieval streets dripping in Christmas lights, gazing up at shuttered windows wondering about the lives of the people who dwelt there. It was quiet enough then in the early December build-up to Christmas, quarantined it must be deadly silent.


Although keen to get back to my family, I was reluctant to leave Modena. The election result that broke during the night confirmed Britain would be leaving the EU. I was glad I’d sat out the horror show in this city that still wore the mantle of old Europe.

I gave myself enough time for a drift around the centre of Bologna before heading out to the airport. The first snowflakes floated in beneath the high porticos that line Via Independenza. By the time I reached Piazza Maggiore kids were scooping up giant snowballs and a blizzard blew viciously along the portico. At this point I realised I’d left my hat on the train. At least I’d be leaving something behind in Italy.


Mink City Journals

There is a small red suitcase in the cupboard under the stairs that has been following me around for just over 10 years now.  About half-way down the pile of papers inside are the journals that I scribbled down long-hand in the kitchen of a large house in Via Morane, Modena.

They call Modena The Mink City, due to its wealth derived from a proud Ducale heritage and its association with companies such as Ferrari (my landlord baked the celebration cakes for the F1 team), Lambourghini, Ducati and oddly, Tetra Pak. Most people know it as the place where balsamic comes from, but the thick sweet gloopy liquid that is drizzled over lumps of parmesan in the bars of Modena is a far cry from the thin acidic industrial balsamico de modena you buy supermarkets here.

I find one of the most powerful experiences of place is the way that it unlocks and colonises the imagination. You may be walking along a workaday street but sometimes you are in a different era or location altogether. Almost every Sunday a part of me returns to Modena at some point; why Sunday? I don’t know.

I don’t think I’ll ever publish the manuscript that I cobbled together from the journal entries now – it’s messy and inconsistent – too full of spleen, a necessary ally as I struggled to adapt to life in a prosperous, conservative northern Italian town and about to turn 30 wondering where I was heading in my life. But there are bits that I love, so I’ve decided to share them here – maybe a blog would have been the best place for these ramblings if that had been around at the time.

The journals start eleven years ago in October 2000. Here’s a fragment that I pulled semi-randomly.

I watch the late night football show on TV – my unofficial Italian teachers. Reggina go 2-0 down at home to Brescia and it all kicks off – seats get ripped up and thrown on the pitch, bottles lobbed, the lot. When they go 3-0 down it goes ballistic and the game has to be abandoned 6 minutes before the whistle.
There’s violence as Napoli lose 5-1 at home to Bologna. The police wade in wielding batons, crowd scattering across the half-full stadium.
A player in Serie C is punched in the tunnel after a game by a member of the opposition who he got sent off. His head hits the marble floor and he falls into a Coma. If he dies, the player could be charged with murder.
Football hooliganism seems so un-Italian. It’s ugly, organised, in-yer-face.

Sunday morning riding around on my bike all seems well with the world. Light mist over the streets, groups of families wander around in their Sunday best carrying bunches of flowers. Incredible roasting and baking smells gathering in clouds around the backs of restaurants.
I try in vain to find somewhere to watch the Liverpool – Everton match. After a circuit of the town I stumble upon the public gardens with the Civic Gallery in the middle, occupying what my guidebook tells me was the Summer Palace of the Este.

Lock up the bike and wander into a small exhibition of contemporary photography. Thoughts of football recede, the white walls erase the outside world. I’m all alone in the space, left to summon up images of summer balls and aristocratic garden parties. The gallery is a haven within a haven, the gates to the gardens close out the town, the paths lead you through the shrubs neatly laid-out in geometric patterns to the glass doors of the gallery which bathes you in warmth, light and visual curiosity.

I leave in the dusk heading to the other branch of the Civic Gallery for the continuation of the exhibition this time attended by a small smattering of well-healed middle-aged types and the young alternative-arty set. I move amongst them, like a spy, hoping not to get found out as an interloper, not here so much for the photos as just to be there, in company, observing them, classifying them into groups so that I can understand this society. I imagine them variously as teachers and students, parents and children, members of the gallery, frequenters of the same bar, inhabitants of the artist quarter, the intelligentsia.

I move through them and away as discreetly as I entered. Down the steps into the courtyard of brisk late-autumn air. Out into the streets, clanking away on my machine so antiquated it could be a velocipede, Cinema Cavour catches my eye with its poster for Ken Loach’s ‘Bread and Roses’. Modena is a City of Cinemas; the streets are littered with them. The Raffaello, Michelangelo, Astra, Nuovo Scala, Metropol, Principe, Olimpia, Splendor, Capitol, Arena, Embassy, Film Studio 7b, Cavour’50.  Shining brass door fittings, lush red carpets, purple velvet curtains draped across the entrance. They taunt me with their programmes of dubbed films.

I’m tempted to go into the Cavour to catch Loach’s latest but I know the novelty will wear off soon enough and I’ll regret spending the 12,000 lire on a sentimental whim. Instead I move on to the Embassy, the least attractive cinema in Modena, where I was told they had films in English on Wednesdays. I pop one their tiny fliers in the back of my notebook anticipating the screening of The Wonder Boys in three days time.

To Piazza Grande and the cavernous Duomo di Modena. The amplified sound of a service going on in a brightly lit lower chapel like a ghostly echo bouncing round the walls jumping out of the bricks every now and then when the priest raises his voice; “Recreatione!” These spaces were built to house god himself and the ceiling here seems to stretch up to heaven forever trapping the breath and whispers of medieval minds full of superstition. I came in mainly looking for a carving on the Porta della Pescheria, showing King Arthur fighting Modroc.

Emerging out into the thick mist hanging over Piazza Grande, floodlights marking the farside, military cadets in uniform manifest from the mist draped in cloaks with swords swinging at their sides.

Around the back of the Duomo I find the door I’d been looking for, hidden away in a narrow passageway. A tingle of excitement. A piece of English mythology carved into the walls of this majestic Cathedral by 12th Century stonemasons. It feels like a secret. An indulgence by craftsmen who’d laboured away their lives making into stone the word of the church. In this dark recess they’d strayed from the gospels, King Arthur and the adulterous Guenevere showing the clergy the way to Avalon.

I buy a Guardian from the Giornale on via Emilia just before they shut; it’s the Saturday edition and should get me through the cold evening in my room. The woman behind the counter asks me if anyone had won out of Bush and Gore. I said in bad Italian that I hadn’t read the paper yet, then glancing at the headline of “Allies tell Gore to back down” and wondering how on earth to express that in Italian I say “Nessuno vinto”. The husband looks up, “Sempre loro vinto!”. “Exactamente,” I reply and I almost have a real conversation in Italian for the first time.