Monday, October 29, 2012

Sketches from the Campagna: Nino and the Bicycle

When the crisis hit, and no one had any money at all, the roads that lead into Nicosia became full of bicycles. People who worked started cycling to work and people without jobs cycled to wherever they spent their day. Far fewer cars made the rounds on account of the price of petrol.

This pleased Giovanni Catalano, called Nino, who had previously driven to his job in Nicosia and had always wanted to cycle. He hated the heavy, sterile frame of his car. He hated having to roll down a window (it was fairly old, the car) to feel the wind. Every day since the bicycles started to appear he would stare in envy at the people leaning over their handlebars in the full flush of the good clean air, up the hills and down the hills, who could smell the orange blossoms as they passed the orchards. He hated having to find a few meters of empty space in the crowded street when others could simply lock their bicycle to a streetsign or shoulder it into work. When he filled the tank he would swear viciously. “All you do is suck life. A bloody stramaladetto vampire. It's not enough that you suck my wallet dry. You have to leave my bloodless in this miserable box. You rusty old carcass.”

Nino envied the commuter cyclists and admired them. He had seen a TV documentary on Denmark, where it seemed that everyone rode a bicycle everywhere, even politicians and famous people, and he burned up inside. Apparently Holland was the same way. And so was Nicosia once, he reflected, because his grandfather had ridden a bicycle to work for as long as he worked, and even his father – Nino's father – had commuted by bicycle as a young man, before his first car.

He brought this up at the table one night. His mother nearly dropped the pot she was holding.


He told her again.

“What's gotten into you? You want to give up the car?”

His father chewed the tip of his knife, slowly. “I used to ride my cycle to work, before I got a car.”

“Before you could afford a car.” --His wife.

“Right, before I could afford one. It wasn't so bad. The old one-speed. And anyway with fuel prices being what they are.”

“The price is not the point. The point is that a man of almost thirty years doesn't ride a bicycle when he could drive. He simply doesn't. One doesn't do that. Nino, you are going to drive and you are going to forget this bicycle business immediately.”

The father placed the knife delicately back next to his plate. “My old bike,” he said calmly, “is in the garage under a tarpaulin. The tires'll be flat. But that's where you'll find it.

The next day Nino stuck the old singlespeed into the back of his Fiat and, having managed to get out of work early, shouldered it and walked a few blocks to a cycle shop. He waited in line a good quarter hour before he got to the counter.

“Fix it up so you can commute?” asked the mechanic, a bored-looking boy with long hair and a rakish beard. “Right. Give me your number, we'll call you.”

And by the following Monday Nino had a well-oiled, properly pumped bicycle. He left the house early, much earlier than before. He took the same road that he had taken to work for years to school for years before that, past an orange grove, intersecting the highway, over the hill into town; but it was like a new road, a new country, and he felt himself an explorer in uncharted territory. A new old country. A new old world.

He learned. He learned that the stretches he'd always thought were flat were actually on an incline. He learned what gravel felt like under the tires and how easy it was to slide clear off the road, and how the air dries as the sun rises, which he knew but didn't remember ever feeling. As he travelled day by day he began to recognize the rabbits on the roadside and the doves in the cypresses, and they were no longer little flashes of color but real animals. He had found a new country in old Nicosia town and its outskirts.

What new disdain he now felt for his old car, his great rusting life-sucker! When his coworkers complained about petrol prices his smiled. On the road he wondered what a gearshift must be like, to slide easily in and out of the fast-spinning little gear and back into the great slow heaving first, to control the flow as he willed, to make music from the rhythm of the clacking, whispering chain. He whistled at the doves. The rabbits sat on the roadside and and waved. Spring came; flowers opened up for Nino on his ride.

On a Thursday night he sat on the bed of his friend, the girl who worked mornings at the Bar Belfiore, and talked about the bike as he pulled on his shoes.

“I like it,” she was telling him. “Take me some time. Your rabbits sound adorable.”

He stood up to fasten his belt. “I will.”

“I don't know anyone he rides a bike. There's a young guy who comes in for a cappuccino all sweaty and flushed every morning early but I don't know if he rides his bike or a scooter or what. Does that happen to you?”


“I mean does it wear you out. Do you show up to work all sweaty?”

“A little.”

“It doesn't seem to wear you out too much. Not in a bad way, anyway.”

“No, it gives you energy.”

“I can tell.”

“I'm serious, though,” said Nino, “you live when you're on a bike. You breathe. You move... I don't know how to explain it.” She smiled and kissed him.

The next morning was a Friday, and the sky was clear and and Nino saw magpies busy with their nest building. The bees were singing in choirs, and the sky arced wonderfully and the cypresses smelled wonderful and everything lost its dimensions and became like a painted image, all on the same plane and glowing. A little bit faster he pedaled, and a little bit faster; he was the wind that blew the pollen now, the warm spring wind that stirred the grass. His thighs burned with the speed and the hill and sang out to each other in turns, call, response, right, left as he topped the hill, left, right, right, right. Down the hill he sped, blind in the wind. He never saw the truck, and when it caught him broadside he flew forward in an arc, headfirst with his body whipping behind him like a tail. Up, up, up and then down, down, down; and when he smashed into the asphalt it was like he had been swallowed by the curving side of the Earth, and the bits of his body here and there on the road were the only proof that he hadn't.

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