« What’s your story? »

Thomas Treadway

Stories by the “Creative Curious Travellers 2017” about the city of Pistoia. Thanks to: Giorgio Tesi Group | Discover Pistoia | NATURART | La Sala | FAI Giovani Pistoia | BrickScape.it | Brandini – Pistoia | Comune di Pistoia | Pistoia Italian Capital of Culture 2017.

PISTOIA The noise of the wheels on the still-warm tile of the patio woke my companions up; it was past 2AM when I reached the plant nursery and the flat surrounded by yuccas, exhausted from a long car drive and wandering around in the middle of nowhere. Pistoia and its asleep villas seemed to be a lookout checking for strangers like me; I rushed in with no other expectation than a good night of sleep and here they were, waiting for me.

Pistoia, Italian Capital of Culture 2017 - illustration by Tom Treadway
Pistoia, Italian Capital of Culture 2017 – illustration by Thomas Treadway

I. At the end of the road: story of an arrival

The first time I met Virginie, I thought: man, this girl is fresh. Giggling, with green eyes like two pinballs and a brown leather jacket. Something airy, something light, something like a naughty child behind a broken window. It turned out that I was right – for the most part.

We’ve know each other for more than 7 years now and this friendship has been like a rollercoaster, punctuated by many trips, many arguments and two marriages: one that turned short, one that never happened. But let’s take a few steps backward.

February 2014, Virginie is visiting me in Michigan, where I study and teach French. She wants to visit Detroit, this sketchy place everybody told me to avoid. Exactly what I should not have mentioned: my friend was thrilled to go. So we did. And met there these two incredible guys we fell in love with. Blue-eyed Midwesterners, dreamy and fun. Very different from each other, just like Virginie and me.

Long story short, we lead our love story in parallel, reminiscent in some surreal way of these bad movies; in which all protagonists are involved in crazy affairs that never happen in the real life. Well, what do you do when it actually happens in the real life? I tell you: you freak out. “To good to be true” as the saying goes, and the dream ended up for me as I came back to France to finish my degree, leaving love across the ocean.

Virginie’s now-husband was not afraid of water or waves and decided to make the big jump, moving to France. They got married a year or so after they first met and each time that I see them together, I’m amazed by the consequences of this very trip. What if Virginie did not insist on going to Detroit?

The story is beautiful, indeed. In real life matters are different, and marriage has to deal with issues that are never mentioned on HBO series. No matter how deep and passionate a love is, it has to go through the triviality of toilet paper rolls, bills and morning breath. For a curious and craving soul, it might not be enough and my friend’s marriage seemed to have reach a crossroad. No indication signs but the call of the world. So she called me.

In a crisis situation, a trip to Italy cannot be a bad choice. As I was hesitating on going to Pistoia alone, Virginie offered to join. What I did not know at that time is that we were to share our flat and car with two American men (Westcoasters this time, but blue-eyed as well), as the project involved the meeting of people from around the world.

In the living heart of Tuscany, under a melting sun and turquoise sky, what could possibly happen?

II. Words, time and space

So here we are, Virginie and I, giggling in the middle of the night while smoking a cigaret. The yuccas are trying to sleep, just like the boys whose open window probably informs that we are not quite ready to go to bed. Except greetings, I do not get to talk to them before the following morning, when we decide to take the car and check the city.

We explored the bowels of Pistoia (some of us, but I’m not giving names, were more afraid than others) and did not understand a word of our Italian-speaking guide; we got lost among countless streets, all narrow and ocher with roof tops and balconies; we went for a trip to Viareggio’s beach and practiced in the car our pronunciation of the language (I pretended to sleep but laughed inside); we spoke about childhood and the meaning of life in a playground on our way to the “ponte sospeso” di San Marcello Pistoiese, a suspension bridge up the mountains; we managed to do a U-turn in a road not wider than an ice-cream store (these are tiny in Italy!). We did more than that: we made a team.

And we told stories. One about a girl taking drugs at the customs of an airport. Another about cherry tomatoes and a pee on a terrace. Another one about a bird being killed by reabsorbing its own egg (or something as weird as this, I guess).

And we heard a story. The one of Anna and Shawn. Love at the first sight. Bang. In front of a concert hall in La Valletta, Malta’s capital city, she was smoking alone and he was checking her out (she was checking him out too, Shawn said). He started to talk to her (southern charmer style, Anna said) and she talked back.

Eventually, he managed to pull his arm around her neck and the thing was wrapped up. A few days later, after a short honey moon, she took the plane to go back to Hungary where she was originally from, with in her bag… a love letter from Shawn. The same day, as Shawn was drowning his sadness into alcohol, he got this text message: “where are you?” The girl was waiting in front of the bar he was in. Six years later, they still laugh about it.

Power of stories. Words can move the world. People. Make them closer. This weekend in Pistoia was full of words and yet, all I can share about it can only give you a glimpse of what was at stake: someone’s figuring out a new love life, someone’s trying to soothe an old grief, someone’s getting a new life in a new city, someone’s finishing a long trip, ready to go back “home”. But what is home other than this feeling of familiarity and easiness?

Something about this weekend indeed: its easiness. Everything, oddly, was just fluid and natural in spite of the fact we all just met. You might laugh, especially if I tell you that I read tarot in my free time, but it really felt as if this was meant to be.

III. Departing, again

So what? Is the story repeating? The two French girls meeting the two American boys and they get along and eventually they all live happily ever after?

That would make another good story. To tell at some point during another trip, maybe somewhere on the beach around a fire place. Or just before the sunset, at the peak of a mountain. Maybe in front of a café latte, near a fountain or after a concert, in the dark streets of another European city. It would be entertaining, it would be fun. But would it be fair? The thing, with stories, is precisely that they are just stories.

Still, you get inspired by them. Because there was the missed train, too. Sunday evening, last moment together. The four of us eating some good Italian food at the terrace of a fancy restaurant called “I Salaioli“, in Piazza della Sala. Time passes and the coach is about to turn into a pumpkin: Virginie and I have to leave to catch our train to Florence. Too bad that I am so absent-minded! It seemed that I forgot to check my watch… Obviously, nobody was fooled. But we got that gift: one more night stolen to reality, under the yellow lights and the deep blue sky.

The return of reality, ouch. 14 hours of bus – almost missed as well (this time, not on purpose) – and a neighbour whose hardcore snoring triggered the laughs of the other passengers; there was the mosquito attack at Milan’s bus station and the 2-hour stop at the Swiss customs. Eventually, reaching Strasbourg, my home town. It is 6 in the morning, the drizzle cries on the asphalt and I feel a bottomless nostalgia. No trace of Italy. Anywhere. Where did it go?

We have to admit one thing at least: present time is not offered to us as a reparation of the past. What is gone, is gone. Whether a failed marriage, a relationship that did not blossom, a country left behind or meaningful encounters vanishing in time and space. Don’t try to catch the wind, just follow its direction.

The same way, I refuse to see the present time as a repetition of the past. This bullshit about cyclic time? Yes, there are patterns; yes, we tend to be determined by our experiences, our family, our citizenship or social origins. But what we do with what is given to us only depends on our free will. We are doomed to be free and this freedom is our greatest responsibility.

You don’t see where I am going? Stories, right? Stories can serve either “evil” or “good”, they can support either our willingness to strive and succeed or to justify our own failure, this “not-my-fault” attitude that we all tend to use from time to time. I decide today that this weekend in Pistoia will not only become a story, but my story. My story of turning the page of an old love. My story of acceding to freedom and adulthood. My story of becoming a storyteller. For I decide that this was meant to be.

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