On the first of January 2019 I left my steady job in Glasgow and got on a plane.
Three months later It was March 2019. I had no idea where to go or what to do when I received an email from an Italian friend of mine saying: “Why don't you come live with me in Genoa for a while?”
Honestly, apart from the question of work, I couldn't think of any reason not to.
At only 31, I feel as if the world has become a place that I don't recognise, or rather I find myself questioning whether I have ever 'genuinely' perceived it in the first place.
The chaos and venom of public rhetoric in the UK, USA – and essentially everywhere thanks to the internet – has, over the years, worn me down to a state of nausea.
I googled Genoa. I can't say anything in specific screamed “come to Genoa”, and yet there was some sort of gravitational pull toward it. Maybe it was the very lack of promotion that created a sense of pull, as I’m a native 'Scot', the underdog, or less popular has a natural allure.
A few weeks later my friend greeted me at the airport as I rolled my suitcases toward his dishevelled Fiat. I've been here three months now as a Genovese resident, watching a world in overdrive through the lens of my laptop, from the safety of my apartment in Castelletto.
With the world as noisy as it is, I take comfort in my temporary accommodation whose name literally translates as “small castle”. Overlooking the port of Genoa from a great height, surrounded by ancient walls, forts and villas, it is in a sense providing me an antidote to the global noise.
The ancient walls bare no head to the absurd utterances, global ignominy and salience of Trump and Boris Johnson.
Genoa is a place where not all is as it seems. With its infinite layers, it throws you into a sort of Alice in Wonderland style adventure; it's a city that seems as if its original blueprint was M. C. Escher’s famous 1953 lithograph print Relativity, sent back in time.
As the ancient walls and terraces defended the city from attack, they've also defended it against the homogenisation of the global travel industry which has ridden on the shoulders of a homologized global commercial ecosystem, from which Venice – the once great antagonist of Genoa – has not been spared.
The city evolved into the very antithesis of tourist destination. Something which echoes from the architectural infrastructure resonating through the personalities of roughly half a million populace. Genoa is not a gimmick in the global theme park, which one idly observes for a couple of days or a week, then leaves without having ever contributed anything other than a bit of their hard earned pocket money to the tourism trade.
Those who indulge in that behaviour are kept within the perceivable confines, with the heart and essence of the city remaining off limits, left open only to those who truly invest their time. When and if you are able to truly invest your time a perception begins to emerge, conceived and born through your relationship with the city, which by necessity only appears after an extended period.
The perception is serendipitous with the legend that the city was named, or founded on; the Roman primordial deity Janus, the two faced God who could see into the future and the past.
Sandwiched between great hills and the sea, not only is one living tightly between great heights and the horizon, but the city itself is so old that it makes you feel as if you are living with one foot in the past, reminding you of what it actually is to 'live'.
It's a detox to the contagion of post-modernity, or as Roy Ascott once described the tech oriented age: the telematic embrace, which today feels less of an embrace and more of a manic schizophrenic episode on a global scale. Which has arguably arisen out of the weaponisation of the fourth and fifth estates, described in Paul M. A. Linebarger's 1948 seminal book on psychological warfare.
The psychosis of telematic age seemed to be something Walter Benjamin and Jean Baudrillard thoroughly grasped well before its occurrence, Benjamin understanding the construct of aura, Baudrillard the loss of distinction between the original and the copy.
Genoa, with its one foot in the past, sheds light on the 'original'; when one listens close enough, one may begin to hear some of the original notes, which lead into the noisy static of today. Whether it's from the art collections, the frescos lining the palace walls, the shipping ports, manufacturing yards or the Bank of St George, you can feel and see that this is one of the embryonic homes of modern Capitalism, which allows you to 'see' it for what it is: a myth.
Contemporary capitalism, or post capitalism, has raised and evolved the realms of palaces into an abstract plateau, whereby the ‘aristocracy’ no longer belong to any ‘place’; they occupy everywhere and are based nowhere. Their realms have moved into a Deleuze and Guattari-esque Rhizome, so abstracted and removed from the ‘real’, that the global political backlash and hysteria this is causing – the grotesquery of which may not instantly strike one – leaves a freight of confused pomposity piled on the pulp left in their tracks. The pulp of which is our language, evolved in a way over the last couple of hundred years or so, to intentionally obscure and defend the system, creating the great dividing gulf separating so many of us today. Security through obscurity. Despite it being entirely cliché, it's fully deserving of the appellation Kafkaesque. As one politician friend of mine, who shall remain nameless, simply said to me: “I don’t know where the power is anymore”. A sentiment I think you’ll find shared with many established politicians. All this is to say, that the vast scale of the 21st century system is waning under its own weight. The stakes are high, for capitalism, climate change and the human race, and here in Genoa the city evokes a natural perception of these issues. Genoa was an economic global power house, precursor and trend setter to contemporary globalisation long before the British discovered the value of sheep and started colonising America (economics joke). One could go as far as to say it wasn't only the flag of St George that England (and Europe) adopted, and as such Genoa's current desire to be twinned with the City of London – not to be confused with London – makes perfect sense. Genoa shares a commonality with all trade and shipping oriented cities, and cultures such as these are the places responsible for the current world we live in. This is one of the reasons so many great artists and writers were drawn here to the city of Janus, which allows one to juxtapose the past and future, thus allowing one to see the present with perhaps a sharper eye than that which has fallen into the realm of opiate for the imagination.
The opiate for the imagination, a phrase which affords me easy transition into the subject of tourism, and Genoa. Usually the tourist views a place as if they were in a zoo, slowly strolling around observing the localities like a rare beast in cage, but in Genoa the tourists are those who are viewed and studied by the locals. The tourist is the beast, and their carefully plotted route their cage.
In a recent article published by the New York Times, Jason Horowitz tentatively toys with the notion of 'tourist inundations” sensibly avoiding what a lot of us are genuinely thinking: that tourists are a scourge, and the perceived economic silver linings will eventually not be enough to compensate for the damage caused (through encouragement) of turning your village, town or city into a theme park.
If we're brutally honest with ourselves, we know that there is a big difference between travel and tourism. Travel is about integration, assimilation and learning, whereas, antithetically, tourism evokes images of McDonalds, AirBnB, brawls, destruction and disrespect.
One hardly looks at budget airlines or a cruise liner and thinks: “Oh, I bet J. Kerouac, Lord Byron and R. L. Stevenson would love that!” The later two authors are both noted for having spent time in Genoa, along with Dickens, Oscar Wilde and numerous other noteworthy characters.
The tourist route (to be fair, many routes in life could aptly be described as the tourist route), is a copy of an authentic experience, re-lived by millions on a yearly basis and far removed from any kind of authentic experience. Something perfectly articulated in Alex Garland's famous 1996 book The Beach: “Tourists went on holidays while travellers did something else”. Never has this been more true, and unfortunately with the current climate catastrophe, and western structural readjustment programs – designed to economically strangle all periphery destinations until they have no choice but to bow to tourism – it is something that requires scrutiny.
After a couple of months I'm plunged into the intense summer heat, a notable heat wave covering the whole of Europe, described by one magazine simply as 'hell is coming'. It's clear, however, that intense heat is no stranger to Genoa. The vast narrow lanes of old town – the largest in Europe – create a cooling blanket of shade. Every window in the city is protected by wooden or steel shutters allowing one to prevent any unwanted direct sunlight, or prying eyes, emphasising a strong sense of individual privacy. With a primarily ageing demographic, the active members of the half million population are in the minority, so the sense of privacy paradoxically coincides with an almost village-esque community awareness.
It doesn't take long before people begin to notice that you are not one of the passing faces off the tour boats. Questions begin to arise, rumours spread at equal speed as the curiosity, and before you know it, the strangers you're introduced to will already have heard about you.
After one month, a new acquaintance said to me: “I'm going to introduce you to my friend”, and ten minutes later: “Ah, it turns out she already knows about you!” Genoa affords you balance between public and private not too dissimilar to the internet, ere Tahrir Square 2011 and what could arguably be described as the post Arab Spring 'lock down' of the 'wild internet' that followed.
The intense heat enforces a slowness, a stillness of being that isn't permitted to exist in the current productivity-obsessed West. Current social commentators muse on the possibility and benefits of a more idle life, as if Bertrand Russell hadn't already argued its merits a hundred years ago – avoiding tautology amidst modern-era demand for content is a worthy yet almost impossible challenge – afraid that, if they take the logic too far, they'll breach the topic of class and wealth.
Genoa with its vast villas juxtaposed with brutalist and antiquate social housing allows breathing space for the topic, and indeed at least a perception of it. Though it equally provides the architectural equivalent to contemporary illusion and deception within its narrow alleys, where a small, unassuming old door can lead to a Doctor Who Tardis-style palace on the other side. One might expect an ancient stone corridor and instead walks into a vast marbled vestibule and a grand staircase leading to gilded halls.
It is perhaps this influence that helped and inspired the Genovese to successfully eject their Nazi occupiers during the war, one of the few cities in Europe who managed to do so without any help from the allies. This achievement was an absolute testament to Genoa's tenacity, again something that seems to be hardwired into the cultural DNA of the city.
During my time here, over many great meals, I have been informed at depth of the city’s historical personality and how it influences those of today, and the anti-fascist sentiment is something that arises again and again. A vehement hatred of fascism and a profoundly more vivid memory of what they had to do to eject it has created a sharp and healthy scepticism of the outside world and the contemporary state of politics both left and right, as fascism can exist on either side of the chasm. They appear to me to retain a somewhat more vivid memory than what's apparently left in the UK and USA, looking in shame upon the Brexiteers turning their back on the EU parliament in the last weeks, or a horrifying echo of the Nazi party – Trump’s creation of mass 'detention centres', or Europe’s treatment of immigrants, Italy included. This all has a terrible familiarity to it. Yet we keep walking toward it with unsettling comfort. Why? Contained high in my sun-drenched, overheated, fortified Genovese room, all of these things become clearer, yet simultaneously more baffling.
As David Rothkopf so eloquently put it in 1997: “The gates of the world are groaning shut. From marble balconies and over the airwaves, demagogues decry new risks to ancient cultures and traditional values. Satellites, the Internet, and jumbo-jets carry the contagion. To many people, "foreign" has become a synonym for "danger."
So now is the time I caution dear reader not to tentatively travel as a tourist, but to explore and immerse themselves as a citizen of a diverse chaotic world – and maybe even start, as I have done, in Genoa.