And during those drifting years, when the peaks were low and the valleys were deep, my futility found a particular nadir during my stint on Capitol Hill, where I briefly worked for a United States Senator. I believed in government in those days, and in politicians, and in myself and other young people, and—well, you’ve heard this story before. Young idealist goes to Washington, loses ideals. Ho hum.
This is not that story.
Not exactly, anyway. I could say that this story raises some deep issues about personal identity, origins, and longing for the unattainable, the unrecoverable. I could say it’s about the permanent absence we all hold within us, from the moment we leave the womb to the walk across the high school gym floor to receive our diploma…
I could say that, but we don’t need to be that pompous about it. This is a story about fitting in and not fitting in. That’s it.
(Eh, who am I kidding? I wish it was only that. The truth is that’s it’s a story about more than that. The truth is something much worse.) Continue reading →
As a current twenty-year-old soon-to-be studying abroad in Bologna (a whole year early!), I really enjoyed your reflections and your hilariously illuminating recount of class relations.
I was wondering if you could give me any advice or suggestions for doors I should try to find. As you said, there are so many! (I’m still TWENTY.) It’d be fun to have a place to look forward to finding, a challenge of sorts.
Okay, Corra22s, the first thing to say is that you are indeed a very lucky person, because studying abroad in Bologna is one of the very best things a person could ever hope to do. And the second thing to say is that advice from old people like me to young people like you is pretty much always annoying because it always boils down to the same basic thing:
As regular readers know, I’ve been posting a series called A History of Jacke in 100 Objects. These short stories are fictional versions of things that have happened to me. Like most fiction, they’re based on real-life experiences and drawn from people I’ve known, though the characters are typically exaggerations, or composites, or both.
The stories have been popular, and I’ve been pleased by how wide their appeal has been. That was my intention, of course – not just to share with those who were there, but to express something recognizable to those who were not. So I’m grateful when people I’ve never met tell me they knew coaches like the ones in #1 – The Padlock. Or that they’ve felt the same way as the father in #8 – The Burger Car. Or that they were inspired by the teacher’s triumph in #10 – The Spitwad. Even the ones who say they smiled at my battle with Jerry Seinfeld in #3 – The Blood Cake.
One post in particular, #7 – The Keyboard, about a young boy and his burnt-out music teacher, seems to have touched a nerve. And it has led to a couple of follow-up moments that left me shaking my head with wonder.
The first was from a music teacher who, like the narrator, was given a paper keyboard on which to practice as a young child:
Very, very moving, Jacke, and indirectly very nostalgic for me too. When we lived in Hong Kong in the 50s my parents tried to persuade a Russian piano teacher to take me on when I was four, again even though we didn’t have a piano. Too young, she assured my parents; instead, a dummy keyboard made from black and white paper strips glued to a cheap table was advised, on which I practised for a few months. Then we went abroad.
Fifteen months or so later we returned from the UK, and I was interviewed again and allowed to actually play on a real piano. Said teacher was amazed. “Why didn’t you bring him to me a year ago?” Clearly a few thousand miles was no bar to starting lessons properly. I haven’t looked back, and still teach and accompany now six decades on. Luckily for my students, I’m no Miss Steiner in my approach to pedagogy.
I signed the document I could not read and handed my life savings to the stranger. He grunted and held out a silver case.
My cousin didn’t smile.
“Take one,” he said.
“I don’t smoke.”
“Doesn’t matter. You’ll insult him if you don’t. He’ll lose face.”
I took a cigarette from the case and stuck it behind my ear. The man’s mouth formed something between a sneer and smile, his teeth stained reddish-brown from betel nut. Outside the window, traffic poured by, noisy and chaotic.
I was now the proud owner of a motorcycle. There was only one problem.