On-Screen Nowheres: Video games and provinces

One who hails from the provinces often ends up living in the provinces, even if s/he is not necessarily aware of it.

Those of us who leave the provincial setting they were born into – especially if we do so due to lack of work, culture, acceptance – have war stories to go with it. Once we finally get to the city – and for most of us, that happens when university starts – we exchange them with people (fellow students, new friends, online hook-ups…) whom we recognize as our peers because, like us, they are strangers to this new and foreign place. City folks take everything for granted and they have the smugness to boot, we lament. They never had to fight for everything! (except they did, we are just not thinking of the details: it turns out they are way more streetwise, more versed than us in using and abusing the city while surviving on measly livelihoods). We, on the other hand, had to spend a significant portion of our early lives in plotting our escape from the places where we were born. We had to work for it. That’s the first and foremost thing we have in common as former denizens of the provinces – the will to flee, the lack of identification with the place that gave us our roots, the feeling of not belonging even if we do not really surmise where we would actually belong – we just know it is not here. The word “province” is lodged in a chain of negative associations in a part of our minds that we take for granted knows what is right and wrong for us – the part where our unquestioned value judgments reside, in which the particular and the idiosyncratic might inadvertently slip into the universal (isn’t it a fact that “provincial”, that adjective that left our lips so many times while we were growing up, is almost exclusively used pejoratively? Have you ever heard anybody waxing lyrical about “provincial” arts and culture?).

And so we come to believe that provinces are only there to be escaped from. We do not entertain the possibility that for a good deal of people – some of them of great intelligence – they are a perfectly acceptable backdrop against which to construct an entire biography: a place to work, form families, use as an HQ which they occasionally leave for other places, have straight or gay lovers. As a teenager, I remember shrugging this thought off with a smirk: of course those people might exist, I know dozens of them, I see them every day – and they are exactly the kind of people I will soon leave behind. Just watch me.

I loved my family, but I knew that in their case living in the provinces is as matter-of-fact as their having always lived there; their families before them brought them to the world in this corner of nowhere, and where they were born they opted to stay, maybe skipping a town or two to follow a wife or a husband, but nonetheless remaining in the same cluster of hamlets and little towns, minute and non-descript, rural or suburban, exurban, distinctively (and almost swaggeringly) non-urban.

As time passed, even my own mother tongue seemed to be turning sour in my mouth, after all the great pains I had suffered to learn it well and speak it as eloquently as I could (just to make clear to everyone that I was not one of those slack, inarticulate teenage shambles, I could sit at the table with the adults, if they’ll just let me). Even culturally, I was turning my attention to other places, and I needed other languages for that – so much of the stuff I liked was not even available in my native Italian anyway (and when it was, it sounded wrong). But I could still salvage one word to characterize that peculiar shade of provincialism that my country’s present-day homebrew culture possessed: tarocco, which roughly translates to “counterfeit” but with an added spin of maladroitness in the execution, a “knock-off” that does not quite do the trick.

I took refuge in spending vast swathes of time in constructing my hierarchy of personal taste — the unstable, mostly unexamined metrics by which I would keep evaluating my peers and colleagues well into my mid-twenties. As impatient towards the mere notion of a “canon” as I was at this age already, I knew that these canons were in place – for literature, cinema, even for the loopiest corner of pop music that I was beginning to explore – and I was taking the time out to master at least portions of them because I was convinced they would be my only gateway to get to know interesting people – and to appear interesting to them, offer them something, make it worth their while – once the long-awaited enrolment in uni would offer me the one-way ticket to Milan, the nearest big city (as a commuter, sure, but turning my occasional escapades into daily affairs). The dialect of name-dropping had only taken me so far even with the brightest of my peers at school, who seemed too well-adjusted and happy with their small-town lives to rouse my interest anyway, as much as I felt a certain disgruntled affection for them. But in the lecture halls of a university in the big city – I was sure that all the time spent accumulating references and eccentric tastes would pay off.

Midtown Madness (Source: Moby Games)

All of this had impacted the way I was playing video games too. I had been busying myself with them from early childhood, but I had never thought too much of them besides the obvious and yet slightly deleterious enjoyment they afforded me. But even they now seemed to mean and do more than they used to. They would open up spaces I had not noticed before. I was still playing them for the fun of it, of course; but I was also attuning my perceptions to things that took me beyond the games, their images taking a life of their own and building piece by piece an array of alternative worlds my imagination could inhabit freely.

Most of the games that I played were RPGs or platformers. The former were (and still are) often predicated on a simple alternation between town and dungeon, and the world-building in the urban sections was the most intriguing aspect for me. This was all the truer if the environments of a given game were not realistic, more suggested than realized. I loved games like Fallout, Arcanum, Divine Divinity, and even Elder Scrolls Arena, but I always felt that the possibility of exploring every interior, going through (or forcing your way into) every room, revealed certain limited possibilities of what you could put inside of these shells as a designer, and robbed the otherwise fascinating locales of these titles of their distinct local colour. Certain things were best left to the imagination. Though I would only develop an interest in JRPGs much later – at a time when I was nearer to turning 30 than turning 20! – I appreciated one thing in the glimpses of Final Fantasy VIII I had once caught at a friend’s house: the fact that cities looked luscious and potentially liveable while at the same time not fully explorable, rather presented in almost filmic frames that only captured a sliver of what the “real” version of the place could have looked like. What the player could access was reduced to the finalities of gameplay (inns, shops, casinos) and/or plot, but at least there was no idle waste of interior (and exterior) space. It was not dissimilar from the feeling certain Sega Mega Drive platforms would give me with the landscaping that they did through the horizons in the background of a level – the suggestion of life and bustling activity was (and probably still is) more conducive to my imagination in videogames than any hyper-realistic and detailed world-building. I was at least free to imagine that the characters who inhabited these spaces had interesting lives and stories to tell, instead of actually going through their doors and finding out they had none. I could project myself onto the facades of these blockaded palaces and environments and rehearse stories and lives to fill them with – a kind of novelistic escapism that games made easier to me, since my visually impaired imagination had more talent for words than for images, and the spaces I conjured up in my mind while reading novels were usually based on templates I knew from what I had seen in films and TVs and the outside world, faces and places otherwise blanked out, substituted by blocks of black-on-white text.

Thinking back, the game that might exemplify a certain way of imagining things – the game that more easily comes to memory when I think about that – is Midtown Madness, the wacky 1999 urban racing game by Angel Studios, a title and a genre that was completely alien to my gaming diet then and now. Yet I remember being transfixed as I watched my brother playing it, hijacking the game by refusing to compete in the race to go on an anarchic joyride in the streets of what – according to what I had seen on TV (Friends? Some Christmas film with Whoopi Goldberg in it?) – looked like an average North American big city; the streets completely empty, yet echoing with the disembodied voices of heavily accented bystanders protesting against my brother’s demented driving; the surprisingly detailed architecture of the city (office blocks, brownstones, malls squeezed into galleries, colorful storefronts…) flickering by as my brother whooshed past them, their mass and function carrying no meaning to the driver (or to the game, for that matter), all the more appealing to me as I stood there as a spectator to the whole mess. I could imagine myself at the steering wheel (though with a slightly less murderous driving style), taking in the parade of pixelated yellowing trees on the sidewalk, on my way to the mall, or to a corner shop. My idea of what a city should look like was as abstract as this template of inner-city Americana I could glean from a silly racing game.

Berlin, Zehlendorf borough.

When I did eventually make it out of my hometown, I landed far enough from the tree and skipped country altogether: I did not move to haughty, prohibitively expensive Milan – where most of my university education took place – but to Berlin. As a Ph.D. student, I was given access to affordable university accommodation (though the waiting lists were growing ever longer), which I promptly took advantage of so as not to deal with the city’s messy housing market. I switched hall of residence only once, while always remaining in the same area: the Zehlendorf borough, one of the westernmost areas of Berlin, largely unknown even to people who have lived in the city for years.

On the surface, it was easy enough to justify – to myself and to others – why I was always picking Zehlendorf. All the dorms are conveniently placed near to the campus, and a big enough contingent of one-room apartments is available (I had no intention of living in a bedroom with shared facilities). Compared to the areas where most Berlin residents in my age bracket aspire to live – from Neukölln or Friedrichshain to up and coming Wedding – Zehlendorf is hopelessly unglamorous; it is staunchly West German in feel where it should be (or at least do its desperate best to feel) “Eastern”; it is clearly upper-middle-class where it should go for a proletarian note. In places like Moabit – another area that does not exactly qualify as a top destination – you can at least live off the street cred of a borough that has a working-class history and connotation; even if you are not working-class yourself, living there somehow aligns you by association with a certain legacy; it is “cool” for you to say that you keep your quarters next to the plebs. But with Zehlendorf – even if you dwell in a whoppingly cheap flat of the Student Union – you almost feel that a degree of justification is expected from you: “Yeah I live near Wannsee, you wouldn’t believe how many rich cunts I have for neighbors, and it’s in the middle of bumfuck nowhere.” In the same way the (supposed) class make-up of the area where you live rubs off on you with Moabit, it does with Zehlendorf – the only difference is, you are expected to distance yourself from the uncool hue the latter leaves on you. You must say your rent is absurdly cheap; you must say it is convenient for uni, but impractical for everything else; you must sigh and add that you would gladly move anywhere else if you had a chance, but you know, with this bloody housing market one should feel lucky one has anything at all…

After the first year or so I was living in Zehlendorf, I gradually started discarding the apologetic tone I used to almost unconsciously slide into when talking about my area. I just stopped caring about the effect it would produce on people. I decided that if the folks I met were the kind that would make monolithic value judgments based strictly on one’s area of residence, I could easily do without their company. But it still felt weird to pick up a friend visiting from Italy at the Tegel or the Schönefeld airport, sit him or her on the S-Bahn or the U-Bahn where they would catch fragmented glimpses of the city from the carriage windows, and get off – a full hour later – to an area that had little to no optical relations with the fleeting impressions they might have garnered in transit or from whatever Berlin tourist guide they had consulted prior to their trip. Moabit or Marzahn, as peripheral as they might be, still look like Berlin; they feel like residential footnotes to a metropolis. Zehlendorf very clearly does not. Zehlendorf looks like a wealthy, pleasantly green footnote to Potsdam.

A friend once remarked that Zehlendorf looked like an adequate solution: you still have ready access to “Berlin” – and he was clearly marking off “Berlin” as if it were another place, which it probably is in everything but toponymical design – and all of the comforts and quiet of small-town life, minus the drudgeries of small-town communities. To which I gingerly replied my position was too uncommon to deliberate on the subject; I could detect that living there as one of the many small families that inhabited the borough might bring allegiances and obligations of its own, and as for everyone else, wealth generally tends to atomize lives too much to form any kind of community feeling at all, positive or negative.

And then an off-hand remark from my boyfriend one day, while we were exploring the side streets behind the second Zehlendorf flat I had just moved in: “It’s funny, wherever you go you always end up in the same satellite town.”

I had never really stopped to consider how much Zehlendorf instinctively felt like home to me.

It does not come with the industrial ugliness of my native Lombardy – the interstices between each town filled in with big parking lots, office blocks, industrial wastelands dotted with towering dirty white buildings and red-brick apartment complex that seem to stand there for no one in the middle of nowhere, shopping malls, fields of scrubs and foliage turned a sickly grey. If anything, Zehlendorf is as sprightly and green as an old-time nature boy – almost Heimat im Wald-ish in feel, which is exactly the vision the non-students living here pay high prices for (Berlin sanitized of any inner-city ickiness).

Yet Zehlendorf was the first place in Berlin where I saw bus terminals leading off to smaller locales in the hinterland.

Bisceglie terminus station, outskirts of Milan.

I knew these places from my own time living in the surroundings of Milan – terminus stations like Molino Dorino or Bisceglie. Any kid from the provinces will probably know a bus station like this — a connection between urban and suburban areas, the place you have to rush to around midnight like Cinderella to catch the last night bus lest you get stranded in the city. The ones I noticed in certain areas in Zehlendorf were unceremoniously small in comparison; they were not the multi-platform affairs I knew from Milan, probably because they serve a much sparser hinterland. But they still had the accouterments of their bigger Milanese counterparts: the buses had strange names on them, hamlets in the vicinity of the big city that were probably too diminutive to warrant a train station even in railway-mad Germany – and the teenagers I would see lounging about the bus stop at odd hours, drunken and loud, waiting for their ride home. I was reminded of the cacophony Lombardy towns I would glimpse for years and years on the front of the stationed coaches at Molino or Bisceglie – all those dreadful toponyms ending in -ate (Tradate, Albairate, Arconate…) and the sight of rambunctious teens boarding them while shoving and taunting each other, their Saturday excursion to the city coming to end, arms loaded with shopping bags. I still have no idea whether the teenagers I would see in Zehlendorf consume Berlin in the same way those other teens consume Milan – do they mostly stick to this part of the city, or do they wander further? Where do they go to school? Where do they do their shopping, and where do they go to have fun? But the optics were instinctively familiar, and I do not think it would be possible to get a hold of them in most other main areas of Berlin.

When Animal Crossing: New Horizon came out at the end of March 2020, I had a great opportunity to create my own miniature Zehlendorf. AC is definitely an example of the kind of video games onto which I mostly unload my provincial visions nowadays – not so much titles where fantasies about place and belonging are reflected in the locales the designers have prepared for us (though these still matter to me), but games where a good deal of designing is to be conducted by the player herself. And it is not a vision of escapism anymore, like in my erstwhile brushing with Midtown Madness: now that the escape has actually happened, they are fantasies of revisiting the provinces, as reassuring as my clinging to Zehlendorf is in real life.

You could possibly argue that many of the Animal Crossing locales are more Zehlendorf than Kreuzberg anyway (a possible exception might be City Folks, though as somebody who only started playing the series with New Leaf I cannot really vouch for that). Of course, they’re an idealized version of that template, suggesting a gentle idea of the exurban and the rural, its anthropomorphic dwellers being much more affable and amenable to your casual kindness than the residents of Zehlendorf might be. The Animal Crossing communities are mostly self-contained and do not live in relation to a bigger center from which they borrow part of their toponym, either because they are the last section of a city before the surroundings eventually peter out into other denominations and localities (you always spell the full name of a Berlin borough by attaching it to the city: the toponym “Berlin – Zehlendorf” reminds you that you are still in the German capital, as weird as it might appear, by virtue of the metropolis gobbling up the surrounding conurbations in its expansion); or else, because bureaucratic reasons demand you always state the administrative center to which the town is assigned (it’s not just “Rho” – officially it’s Rho (MI), Rho in provincia di Milano, Rho – the province of Milan). No, the villages you administer and shape to your liking in Animal Crossing are the place to be in and of themselves, they are where the fun happens, where tranquillity turns into bliss and busying oneself with futile and minute tasks of housekeeping and small talk is one’s job and main past-time. Some of the animals you meet move in because – so they say – they have heard that this unassuming hamlet was actually cool. They move to my village of Cornaja for the
same reasons I moved to Berlin.

Smug pillock Lionel bringing gentrification to my town. This screenshot does not represent the author’s attitude when moving to Berlin. (Animal Crossing New Leaf).

An impermanent population is a reality of the Animal Crossing games, and not necessarily an easy one. Villagers leave who you’d very much like to stay; obnoxious troublemakers overstay their welcome even if you do everything in your power to shoo them away. For once, you – former denizens of the provinces – find yourself in the shoes of the person staying back and trying to get people not to leave. Or maybe you welcome the change and wish for a new neighbor with personality traits and a home style you still have not experienced. All the same – you stick around, in full liberty to make what you will of the in-game space allotted to you, a cutesy demiurge under crushing financial bondage at the hands of a dodgy tanuki loan shark.

The (inactive) bus stop I made in Animal Crossing: New Horizons.

All the same, one the first landscaping projects I undertook as soon as I had unlocked enough resources and functionalities in New Horizon was a small bus station – which of course, in strictly logical terms, would be perfectly useless. For one thing, you have an airport on your island – like it always happens in the world of AC, your small paradise comes with some sort of facility (it used to be a train station, but they switched things up this time around) hinting at an elsewhere, at the possibility of leaving – if only to visit a friend’s village. But airports are not exactly something you encounter too early if you grow up in a provincial setting and there’s not much money laying around – trains, buses, cars, and motorways still remain your main signifiers of the outside world, and even then, they never take you that far. So the bus station seems like a good fit, even if in the context of my AC island it is doubly useless because – well – it’s on a bloody island, and a very small one at that. A bus would have no place to go at all. Not that it matters anyway: the non-functionality of the game space is something most players of AC are used to and can cope with quite well. It does not matter if one builds the most elaborate and life-like outdoor café, a horror movie set, or the seedy alleyway of a big city; the villagers in the game will still use these creations in terms of their bare functions, like sitting down at a table or studying a flower patch with a book in their hands (in New Horizon they might acknowledge that you have been “working a lot with fences” lately, or make some other off-hand remark about the general nature of your efforts; but that will be it). Objects like a gas stove, a microwave, or a swimming pool can be tinkered with to produce special effects – like a flame, a light turning on, a dish spinning and seemingly heating up – but these are merely decorative in nature since nothing is being cooked or consumed, no one will don a swimming suit to take a bath, and that cup of coffee on your desk will be eternally fuming as if the beverage inside had just been made. Objects and furnishings in AC, for the most part, are props – the game is best understood and experienced as a virtual dollhouse with adorable characters you can interact with. Besides, my neighbor Sylvia the sisterly kangaroo has remarked on occasion that she is puzzled by the fact that discarded car tires seem to lie in droves at the bottom of the island’s bodies of water – has anyone ever seen a car around? How could a vehicle even get there, wasn’t this supposed to be a deserted island? Riffing off of these moments of (programmed) sentience on part of the game, it is relatively easy for me to imagine my bus station was once somehow operative – or maybe it was transported here from somewhere else, like those tires in the water; I have made sure of putting a construction sign on-site to mean the station has been inactive for a while (Mr. Resetti makes an appearance on it, apologetically courtsing to disgruntled customers; out of a job – LINK – and probably destitute, Isabelle “accidentally” screwing up his benefit payments). After all, the bus lines were never particularly efficient in the Milanese hinterland anyway – even less so as privatization took hold and entire lines, stops, and late rides were canceled, further stranding in their communities all those who could not afford a car or simply did not want to use one.

Skyward social condenser in Dragon Quest Builders 2.
Barren council estates in Dragon Quest Builders 2.

Contrary to Animal Crossing, Dragon Quest Builder 2 does go to great lengths to acknowledge the structures laid down by the player thanks to a wide database of possible buildings, rooms, and combinations: build a kitchen with a pot and some food in a nearby chest, and the NPCs in your village will take up cooking; set down some tables with crockery on them in the vicinity of your kitchen, and they will start serving dishes and turn the whole thing into a restaurant – just to name one of the many possibilities the game gives you. As game critic Jason Schreier has remarked, this vivacity and responsiveness are exactly what sets a title like Dragon Quest Builders 2 apart from its obvious inspiration, namely Minecraft, where NPCs wander around in a stupor and appear oblivious to even the most stunning marvels created by the player. DQB2 thus offered me a very convenient avenue to carry out certain fantasies of imagined “provinces”, because it was a great pleasure to see those places come to life and being lived in and used by a cast of loveable and cutesy NPCs.

As pictured in the screenshots above, those fantasies took slightly different inclinations in two different points of the Isle of Awakening, the main sandbox location in the game to which you return after completing story missions located elsewhere (during which you acquire more and more “recipes” for rooms, furnishings, and food). In the first area I encountered early on in the game – “The Green Plains” – I took advantage of the rural scenery to construct a skyward “social condenser”, easy enough to pull off thanks to the game’s complete disregard of gravity. British writer Owen Hatherley included the social condenser in his comprehensive book about architecture in the former Socialist countries, Landscapes of Communism (Allan Lane, 2015):

The Soviet architect Moisei Ginzburg argued in 1928 that the ‘essential goal’ of Constructivist architects was ‘the definition and creation of the SOCIAL CONDENSERS of our age’, which would, as he put it when describing a specific social condenser he had designed, have ‘certain features that would stimulate the transition to a socially superior mode of life – stimulate, but not dictate’ – through the inclusion, for instance, of corridors wide and comfortable enough to act as public forums, through the mixing up of private and public space, and through connecting public facilities to homes as close as possible. As a notion it is, among other things, the negation of one of the most common ideas of twentieth-century planning, that of rigid zoning. (p. 151)

This was more or less the guiding principle I set out to realize with my own restricted means in Dragon Quest Builders 2 – restricted not because of any limitation inherent to the game, but because of my skill level: you may have noticed from these screenshots that I am mostly very inept in carrying out my visions, they all look makeshift at best, and are not meant to be particularly well-designed or to be admired by others – they are fantasy spaces that I can inhabit through my avatar, virtual notes of certain ideas of locality and place that have left a trace in my memory or my sensibility (that is why I never invite strangers to my Animal Crossing island – I am generally too embarrassed by how poorly constructed my island looks. I tend to only let in close friends who know me enough to complete with their inferences what my designs try to convey but succeed to do so only in spurts – as if they were finishing the second half of a sentence half said in a private language. The screenshots in this article are an exception, and you might have noticed I did not let them rest without a good bit of overexplaining). But coming back to the social condenser: the idea you could create a structure containing both the public and the private, suggesting a close-knit community that does not lack for housing, leisure, culture, and food, was very appealing to me – layer by layer I jotted down a towering labyrinth of flats, libraries, restaurants, bars, playgrounds, and workshops. Though the original idea of the social condenser seems to be more oriented towards the periphery of city spaces, I could still salvage it for my version of the Green Plains: the provincial setting as a building or a unifying self-sufficient structure, bringing comfortably together facilities and places that in the sprawl of the suburban province would require sometimes extensive traveling (mostly by car) to be reached.

The second picture is an homage to a slightly different part of the Milanese outskirts I grew up around. Certain sections of the hinterland do maintain a somewhat visible link to their rural origins – you will find old farms dotting the landscape here and there (some of them conveniently doubling down as rustic restaurants to turn up an extra profit out of their fresh produce), and the motorway occasionally yields the sight of the fated rice fields where the mondine – female rice paddy workers of the Po river valley – would break their backs in appalling working conditions. Yet we are still in what was once – and still is – one of the heartlands of Italian industry. The case popolari (“homes of the people”), the Italian version of public housing schemes known as council estates in the UK and projects in the US, are very well represented in every small city with an industrial area adjacent to it, especially the closer you get to Milan. Exactly as it happens in the UK or – to a certain extent – in the US, these housing schemes are often stigmatized as unsanitary, crime-ridden, and undesirable by home-owners inhabiting semi-detached houses or by renters who live in smaller blocks of flats that are not part of an ensemble of case popolari. The prejudice is obviously classist in nature and one could easily retort the conditions in the more poorly maintained examples of public housing are only as bad as the government and bullshit economy will allow them to get – but that is a much more complex tangent, and we won’t get into it here. The case popolari certainly dominated part of my horizon growing up; I had friends living in them, and visited them fairly often, though my own family lived in a smaller condominium that – though by no means up-scale – had at least a more “presentable” look to it and was swarming with reassuring, if a little nosy, septuagenarians. They came to represent the first step up from the village towards the city – even aesthetically they seemed to represent a unicum that had more character than other types of housing I knew from my area, and they looked pleasing and quaint to me even when others would find them abhorrent. Zehlendorf does not really have them (the analogues to case popolari, I mean – septuagenarians it does have, in droves), except in quirky and more upmarket forms. I have to take the U-Bahn and go due East to see them. But I created my own version in Dragon Quest Builders 2 – they sit comfortably in a zone that is not too distant from the Great Plains, on the site of what used to be a royal castle the game wanted me to expand, and which I instead dismantled to make room for my own case popolari.

“The estates stick up like stacks…” (Cornaredo, looking towards Vighignolo).

I guess that I will always be an inhabitant of the provinces, then, though I can be happy being one because it is only a mental reality. Living it in the comfort of Zehlendorf is alluring because Berlin is just a U-Bahn ride away. Reconstructing it in video game form is so pleasant because – in the freewheeling worlds of Animal Crossing or Dragon Quest Builders 2 – I can freely decide what that fantasy looks like and all complications are simply dropped out of the equation. In reality, it is my singular pleasure to remain a city dweller with roots elsewhere, and no intentions whatsoever to go back – back to depressed hamlets where there often is little work or little culture (and if you want to work with culture, your outlook is even worse), community is a matter of unquestioned loyalty to one’s local allegiances and solidarity is predicated on that, and people are mean-spirited and manically attached to ownership (all of this, by the way, pertains especially to Northern Italian provinces, the part of the country that likes to pretend it is secretly Swiss. All of my brushes with the non-urban areas outside of Lombardy, Veneto, or Piedmont have positively struck me for the more humane attitudes of their inhabitants. The North should just take a grip on itself). I wish that the things that interest me could be housed by those smaller places because I still believe it is unhealthy that the biggest urban centers monopolize the cultural profile of a country, and so much could be offered by more peripheral locales if the attitudes and the resources were there. But that’s mostly wishful thinking – and a desperate effort I have little interest to be involved in. In the meantime, I take pleasure in fancying myself as an outsider in the city – a despondent and sceptic one who can’t believe how the locals can make such a fuss out of absurd fads; a slow, almost bovine foreigner who persistently refuses to buy the self-mythologizing of a city that he can still love on his own terms.

And very often, when a melancholic persuasion brings me back home in a flight of fancy, or I am busy tinkering around with my ideal province in a videogame, a counter melody sounds in my head with words from a prose fragment of Italian author Federigo Tozzi, speaking of his native Siena as he dedicates the following passage to a lark he glimpses in the night sky:

Let us emerge from the narrowness of roofs and houses. The city is closing in on itself as we proceed; the houses get emptier and emptier, and we will not find anything for us inside of them.

Let us leave them here, these people who would shut us both in a nuthouse in a heartbeat! Are these your wings that flutter, or is it my heart? I think death just went past us, looking for I don’t know who. Oh, but we will trap her behind one of these gates, in one of these bottomless alleyways, along with the trash! In Siena there are so many of these gates that no one ever opens, since they ceased to serve any purpose; they shutter off some vegetable garden that no one tends to; on the side of some uninhabited building.

(from “Bestie”, my clunky translation)

Tozzi’s words, as I read through them again, sound like a cautionary tale. His characters, like him, are often Siena natives who are undone by the smothering conditions of their lives there, in a small Tuscan town – squashed between family, mindless work, and unsympathetic fellow citizens. Tozzi himself would eventually die in Rome – one of Italy’s biggest cities, famed to actually be “Italy’s biggest village” in terms of its mentality.

But those alleyways and those inhabited buildings, though. I almost feel I could make them into something to fit into a corner of my Animal Crossing island.

Giorgio Chiappa lives in Berlin and is starting to worry that his Ph.D. dissertation will probably come out on the next Nintendo console instead of the Switch.

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