by Daniel Johnson
Cinque Terre is a cluster of five Italian seaside villages along the Ligurian Sea, where the air is a spray of salt and citrus. There are lemon orchards and small castles and hillside villages of clay and terracotta and cobblestone. Cacti cling to the sides of cliffs and purple flowers shaped like long bells line the rugged inland trails through each town’s foothills. Each morning, my two traveling companions and I hiked these trails to work off the previous night’s seafood dinner.
The days were dry. We often rested and watered at the summit of the first foothill, where my friend would gulp mineral seltzer and snap pictures of the coastline with her iPhone. It was always hot and the sky was bold and the sun burned everything, even the distant haze of the farthest beaches, to a certain degree of enchanted brightness that seemed worth capturing.
At lunch, in the cool shade of alleyway cafés that smelled of white wine and shellfish, I would watch as she forgot about her food and filtered the shit out of her photos on Instagram. She would spend her entire primo piatto turning the blues of the horizon the color of Rob Lowe’s eyes. She took the lush greens of the hillside and lit them like lights on an Xbox. She grilled the clay of the terracotta roofing to a salmon pastel and blotted out the black specks of osprey because whatever. Her thumbs swiped the color wheel on her screen in mantid twitches between WhatsApp messages to her boyfriend in Boston.
The photos of the village are simultaneously reminiscent of 1970s Miami and modern candy counters. An orange film oversaturates the dwellings, as if they were drenched in Aperol spritzers and are perpetually sticky.
I’m not sure the Cinque Terre I’ll remember is the one that exists. It will be difficult, at least, to recall the skyline as a particular shade of blue. I imagine I'll remember it as all gradations of all colors in infinite pixelated flux.
One afternoon, the three of us took a boat southward to the harbor town of Porto Venere. We docked, and I broke off to explore on my own. I walked along the ramparts of an old stone watchtower at the western cliffs and bought a small model ship, made of cork and walnuts and newspaper, from an elderly Italian woman who crafted and sold them there. We exchanged some basic pleasantries and she said, or at least I think she said, I should go check out the statue of Mother Nature at the tower’s base.
This interpretation of Mother Nature cast her as rather homely, and whatever metal in which she was originally molded has faded to a sea-green patina. She sits somewhat hunched, with her hands crossed between her legs on the corner of a stone wall at the edge of the cliff. Her face is directed to the horizon beyond the sea. She’s turned her back on the provincial empire of Porto Venere, with all its trade and tourism, all the fishing boats along the docks and the cranes that still loom above the rooftops.
One gets the sense that it’s something terribly grave that burdens her. She slouches in what looks like defeat. It’s almost impossible, as a passerby, to meet her gaze without climbing over the cliff-side railing and risking the long fall to the jagged rocks below. But, if I had to guess, there’s abandon in those oxidized eyes, and probably some sadness, too.