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When Philippe and I moved to Leuven near Brussels for a year, in 2015, our neighbour Renilde, a nice Belgian lady, asked us where we were from. I said Italy, Philippe said Canada. She observed, and she was only trying to be friendly, “Beautiful! You can go to Italy for culture and to Canada for nature!” I could see Philippe was upset, perhaps more fed-up than upset. There might be a lot of Canada that looks like Narnia, but Montreal has enough culture to keep a person busy for a lifetime. Still, Canada is woodcutting to most Europeans, even if most Canadians have never done it, and Italy is the Sistine Chapel, even if most Italians have never seen it.
In London, I found a solitary way of enjoying art by making of it an opportunity to be alone and grieve, so that I could tell my doctor that I was in pain, but I was also learning something. I have always enjoyed alone time to an extreme degree. Towards the end of my first marriage I used to go to the movies alone all the time, because my husband was often away for work. I particularly loved going to see a movie I was not that interested in, so that I could concentrate on my own thoughts, sitting in the first row, with the images dancing loudly on my face. This is actually the exact thing I did the day my husband broke up with me: I went to the movies to pull myself together. Sometimes I look back to that episode as the last evening of my previous life, the last time I thought I could handle alone what was happening to me, starting from gathering my thoughts in a movie theatre.
I was visiting London a little in the same spirit, as the equivalent of watching a tear-jerking movie when feeling depressed, to let it all out and start from scratch. Looking back, I think I must have gasped at the Salute because the painting perfectly encapsulated what I was feeling at the time: I had lost my clarity of vision under a thick stratum of murky pain.
At SOAS, over the years of study there, my teachers made me read a lot on museums as legacies of colonial and imperial authority, so much that I have now grown to dislike most of them. I now go to museums mostly for gift shops and cafeterias, and to recognise the signs of imperial legacy, and to fight with myself for the right to admit ignorance and not to feel pressured to like what I see at all costs. Of course this does not apply to everyone, some people know what they are doing, but the museum visitors who get especially on my nerves are those who stop for a good number of minutes in front of every single pointless rock, as if genuinely inspired by it. If that same rock were in the street, they would kick it. I think this attitude is particularly widespread in Italy, where people feel obliged to love everything ancient.
I have a way of visiting places that is not much more autonomous. It is, in fact, rigid and self-imposed. But I have perfected it and personalized it over the years, and, as I said, it is partly healing, partly meditation, partly stocking up on inner resources for the rainy days. It is partly fear of missing out, a strong characteristic of mine a long time before it became FOMO, a millennial acronym. Also, I consider myself lucky to travel on a very low income (mine, or my husband’s, or both), and I try to make the most of it.
In the end, I think there is a good part of truth in what my school teachers used to say to us: that if you build an inner repertoire of words and images they come back to you and help you not to feel lost or bored. Also, this method makes you realize that there is very little, if anything, that has not been covered in the past by people more clever than yourself.