I invited my friends to celebrate three November birthdays, among which mine, and I prepared a genuine Moroccan dinner because of my recent visit there: harira with dates and chicken tajine. On another occasion I had tried out this particular harira recipe which had turned out above my best expectations and had gathered the unanimous praise of all my guests. I was glad that the flavours resulting from the mix of coriander and unfamiliar spices did not taste too strange to my more conservative friends, and therefore I listed it among the dishes that deserved being offered again. As for the main course I went for something blander that the previous time and prepared a chicken tajine.
Only an Arab sweet was the great absentee, and this lack was especially felt when a friend admitted thinking of getting one ready. She had surfed the net to find inspiration, even set on a recipe, but finally given up the plan because of a busy day. Never mind, she said, she had brought some wine, directly from her father’s cellar. She knew nothing about that bottle, but relied on her father’s good appreciation of wines. I put it in the fridge to cool while we chatted and I warmed the dishes up.
As I left the cinema after watching the Spanish cartoon film Arrugas, I was more convinced than ever of an inconvenient truth: life is a lonely experience. The story depicts the years in a person’s life when this circumstance is felt in the most tragic way, old age. In fact, the film is a pitiless account of the encounter with the retiring home environment as seen through the eyes of an old man whose son and daughter-in-law believe he has become an unbearable burden on their family life. He is forgetful, not independent anymore, and feels alienated from everybody’s daily routine.
If the nursing home was not enough to accelerate senescence, the old man goes through the ordeal of the degeneration of his mind. But before eventually finding out he is actually affected by Alzheimer’s disease, he discovers the existence of a notorious second floor where those patients are confined and cared for. One day, he steals up the stairs and sees with his own eyes people who could hardly be described as humans anymore. They are more like vegetables, and he knows he is destined to turn into one like them.
The economy spins thanks to innovation, this is perfectly well known. Economists have pointed out that innovation can take various forms, product, process and the litany goes on until a given sacred number which is in its turn presented as an innovative discovery, because a new theory also constitutes a sellable product.
All things new have always aroused the attention of customers who rush to come by the latest rage and thus distinguish themselves from those who fall behind or cannot afford it. Often it doesn’t really matter if a novelty is an improvement to the previous situation, because large swathes of the public would do anything in the name of social distinction, a goal they are prepared to attain by investing whatever amount of superfluous money they deem worthy of this. Fashion, hi-tech and every other industry sector are driven by the buyers’ irresistible craving for novelty that only partly brings about a genuine advantage in their welfare. Most products on sale pretend to introduce innovation, but in fact only respond to the manufacturer’s and the seller’s logic of making money. The pandered consumer is not always the victim, but is often the one guilty of uncritical behaviour, apart from being one of the natural driving forces in the mechanism of consumer economy.
I sent him a text message on the occasion of the Great Bairam, but I received no reply. He’s usually slow in responding, so I didn’t take much notice. Then, about ten days later, he called me. The delay was explained by the fact that he’d just got back from his country where he’d spent his annual leave together with his family, like usual. We exchanged our respective news. I didn’t have much to tell – my mind goes blank when the limelight turns towards me and I have to talk about myself, but he had more things to say. He nevertheless sounded evasive, and said that so much had happened since the last time we’d met. Some things were good, and some others were bad.
I didn’t want to enquire with any specific question. My curiosity is easily subdued where someone else’s privacy starts, and I never encourage people to give confidences if they don’t take the initiative by themselves. We ended the call on the promise of meeting soon. The following two days my mind kept going back to that hint at the bad news, trying to imagine what that might be, and how bad it was.
I was dumped at a bus station way before I expected I would arrive. The hour was indefinable. I was only afraid to find out exactly how much time would still have to pass until the start of the day. Some taxi drivers droned around me. Someone said it was 4 but even so, it didn’t make sense to get a hotel – I thought. Then I saw a vague glare in the sky, and I suspected I had been given Xinjiang time. My watch confirmed it was already nearly 7 o’clock.
The bus station opened at 8.30, and I found that the bus to Bayanbulaq only left in the evening. If I took that bus, it would be another long uncomfortable day without a base, but more importantly I would not enjoy the spectacular road across the Tian Shan mountains. The only choice was hitchhiking for the 250 km long stretch.
The mountain top is really extensive, scattered with neat stone constructions. A groups of monks in colourful robes is holding a meeting under a tree on the edge of the cliff. The landscape behind their circle is as vast as the view can be from an altitude of 3,000 m. After removing my shoes and kissing the pillars, I penetrate the church compound consisting of a yard of dry earth and yellowed weeds.
The abbot, whose only salutation upon meeting me was “A hundred and fifty” in spelt out syllables to signify the amount I had to pay in respect of admission fee, hands me a candle, then gets someone to show me into a hay-strewn barn. When I ask about the lavatory, the monk makes a sweeping gesture that I take to mean that anywhere outside is good. As I unpack my bag, I realise how silly it was to bring soap and shampoo to a place that doesn’t even have running water or a bathroom.
11 agosto. È la terza notte che passo nell'appartamento di Pechino vicino alla Biblioteca nazionale. Uscendo dal recinto che è in comune con un albergo, un ristorante e altri edifici, oggi il portiere mi ha fatto un cenno di saluto e mi sono sentito riconosciuto come uno del posto. Ma non così sulle scale, perché i vicini evitano di salutarsi o anche solo di incrociare lo sguardo; a meno di non prendere l'iniziativa, come ho fatto oggi dirigendo un nihao a un uomo che si è affrettato a mugugnare una risposta tra i denti. Deve essere l'effetto della grande città che rende indifferenti, ma più probabilmente sono io a non essere del tutto in sintonia con la sua atmosfera e sono incerto su come comportarmi.
10 gennaio - Sbrigo alcune commissioni prima di partire per Halong City. Per raggiungere la stazione di partenza, mi tocca mettere di nuovo a repentaglio la mia incolumità affidandomi a un autista di moto che si butta a capofitto nell'orribile traffico con il mio ingombrante zaino tra le gambe. Io, come passeggero, sono dotato solo di un ridicolo casco. Attraversiamo l'immenso Fiume Rosso su un ponte interminabile dove il flusso dei veicoli risulta incanalato in corsie più strette.
Subito mi imbarco su un autobus che, dopo 4 ore di penosa marcia attraverso paesini derelitti in un'insulsa campagna, approda alla città o meglio mi abbandona ancor prima della sua periferia. Vaste zone di capannoni e fabbriche hanno segnato la maggior parte di questo percorso, altra prova della transizione di questo paese o per lo meno delle regioni prossime alla capitale, verso forme sviluppate di economia industriale. Ma ora, prossimi alla costa, l'aria è pesante non più di fumi di scappamento, bensì di salsedine e già si vedono alcuni dei famosi faraglioni sparpagliati nelle acque del golfo.
Non ho un buon approccio con la città, innervosito come sono da quel pulman che sembrava viaggiare come un treno accelerato antesignano e accompagnava il suo beato procedere con melense musiche e danze ancor più sdolcinate, che passavano sullo schermo davanti agli sguardi compiaciuti dei passeggeri. Ma su di me hanno avuto l'effetto contrario. Un mio vicino, sarà stato un poliziotto in borghese o un informatore dei servizi segreti? – mi mostra un tesserino di riconoscimento e mi chiede il passaporto, vuole sapere dove vado, ma la sua indagine non può spingersi molto oltre per la barriera linguistica.