Invisible Places

Creative Voices

By Giulia Leo / Matthew staff || Edited by Jacopo Menichincheri

Memory’s images, once they are fixed in words, are erased,” Polo said.

“Perhaps I am afraid of losing Venice all at once, if I speak of it, or perhaps, speaking of other cities, I have already lost it, little by little.” 

Italo Calvino, “Invisible Cities” 

For a while, I thought Venice was my invisible city, the one you fear to lose if you dare to speak–or worse, write about it. I kept going back to Venice, in the attempt to imprint the distinctive smell of polenta in the streets and the color of the sunset over the Grand Canal on every inch of my skin. Each time, I went, I felt the city sinking into me, I left, and I forgot. Venice took my memory so I couldn’t lose it. She remained visible and memorable to everyone but me. I had to remember Venice though the memories of others, through books, through the faded restaurant receipts I found crumpled in my wallet. “Every time I describe a city, I am saying something about Venice,” says Marco Polo to the emperor. Polo can’t help seeing Venice everywhere he goes, for the memory of Venice never sits beside, but within you.  

Venice owes its title of invisible city to Greece. When the Venetians conquered the Greek land, Greece didn’t neglect her long tradition of xenia, hospitality. So, she welcomed the strangers who knocked on her door and offered them gifts. She gave the conquerors what she had given to Ulysses centuries before: she taught them how to be No-one without ever being forgotten. She showed Venice how to be an invisible city.  

I have only been to Greece once, but it feels like I have been there a thousand times before. Greece owned me before I could even walk on its ground. I belonged to her, although she never really belonged to me. All I have left of her are relics: Euripides’ Medea, placed in a box, somewhere in my childhood bedroom; the prologue of the Iliad, which took me ages to learn by heart, but I can still recite it in perfect Greek metric; a picture on my nightstand of my high school friends, taken on one of those Grecian nights, in 2019. Sitting at the table of a restaurant in Athens, they all hold an Alpha beer–except for Stella, who is sipping orange juice. Some of them look into the camera, their eyes squinting because of the flashlight, others are distracted by the waiters performing a traditional dance close to our table and inviting the people around to clap their hands to the rhythm of the bouzouki

Like ashes, the relics of Greece are scattered around every place I have learned to make mine. The more I learn to navigate Rome, the more I find pieces of Greece in the city. Sometimes, I find it in the people, others in tiny, unknown restaurants, whose walls are painted in that unmistakable shade of cyan. That day, I found it in both.  

Fay had introduced us to three Greek friends, and we all ended up having dinner at Ouzerì, allegedly one of the best Greek restaurants in Trastevere. Being the only Italian speaker, I was used to being the translator of the group, but, that night, my Italian was useless. Everyone in the restaurant spoke Greek. The food was ordered in Greek. The little chitchat with the waiters happened in Greek. After having studied their culture for five entire years, I was not able to speak or understand a single word in their language. Sure, I could recite the prologue of the Iliad, but it wouldn’t have been of much use to order food. 

We let the three Greek girls order appetizers and drinks for all of us. As they spoke, the one word I recognized was “opa!” which I remembered hearing often in Crete and Athens. I always associated it with the Italian “oplà!” without ever figuring out it the two words actually meant the same thing. I tried really hard to pick up on more words, but the more I focused, the less I could distinguish the sounds. That was when I figured that, as much as my heart could belong to Greece, and as much as Greece had been a mother to me, she would always escape my embrace. You can’t hold onto an invisible country. 

The waiters brought to our table six tiny glasses–the same ones you would use to sip limoncello in Italy, filled with a transparent liquid that I originally thought was vodka. One of the girls explained it was ouzo, a traditional Greek distillated spirit that had been mixed with water. Fay, Salma and I, the only nondrinkers at the table, only smelled our glasses before we passed them to Jonathen. I expected ouzo to smell like hand sanitizer. Instead, it smelled like the Haribo licorice candy I used to steal from my mom’s purse when I was little. 

Within a few minutes, there were plates all over our table, containing tzatziki, melitzanosalata, fava, dakos, mousakas, dolmades and, of course, pita bread. I knew from my previous experience in Greece that pita bread was the safest of all foods. It tasted familiar, like my nonna’s focaccia. Salma noticed I was only eating pita, so she pointed at the rolls of vine leaves filled with rice and herbs and said: “you’re eating like a bird, try these.” I nodded and placed one of the rolls in my plate. I carefully cut it into small pieces, but the food never reached my mouth.  

I know much about Greece, especially ancient Greece. I’ve studied its art, its culture; I’ve walked through its streets and swam in its sea; its sun has left my skin burned and painted freckles on my face. I let the Grecian nights lull away the nightmares that pollute my sleep whenever I’m away from home. But mother Greece still won’t let me fully embrace her. I tried breaking my walls for her. During my time in Crete and Athens, I tried to savor Greece through its food, like I had once done with Venice, but she rejected me, and left me with nothing but food intoxication.