Scene: the crowded compartment of a (filthy, need I say it?) Italian train.
A guy in jeans and a casual jacket is trying to cut himself off from reality by immersing himself in the reading of a novel on his e-book reader.
Station Whatever-you-want-to-call-it. A couple of people get off. For a moment, you can breathe. But it’s just an illusion: the three remaining free places are immediately assaulted by a fine trio: husband and wife, both rather young, with her mother in tow.
Problem: none of the three weighs less than a ton, and each of them is laboriously dragging a suitcase that, given the size, contains in all probability a corpse, or a BMW assembly kit.
Excuse me here, excuse me there, a crushed foot, a head down at the last moment to dodge the edge of one of the suitcases, that are somehow hoisted up on to the luggage rack. Finally, the three squeeze their big backsides into the tight space of the seats, place their elbows on the armrests, colonizing them, and start fanning themselves, all breathless and sweaty.
The guy in the jeans, now sitting between the two large women, looks like a slice of cheese between two half loaves of Puglia bread. In contrast, he feels as though he’s shrunk.
A thousand watts of power chat: everyone – including the travellers in neighbouring compartments and those standing in the corridor – have to be told where the trio is headed, why they are travelling, how hot it is outside, and how kind uncle Antonio was to have driven them to the station, otherwise they would have missed the train.
Stay calm. Got to stay calm and keep cool: the riff from Luca Dirisio’s song runs round obsessively in the mind of the cheese-slice guy. It’s fair to point out that like any properly shy guy, he is not disposed to striking up casual acquaintances and, like any proper grumpy old bear, it is absolutely against his nature to chat for chatting’s sake, as a way of passing the time. If there is nothing interesting to say, then let there be silence. This guy loves silence. Silence is the perfect condition for enjoying the things he likes the most: reading, writing, and one other thing which, to be honest, from a certain point onwards, should not take place in absolute silence, or it means isn’t coming on so well. But that is another matter.
He tries to employ the classic technique used by grumpy old bears in these cases (no, I do not mean scratching his back against a tree trunk!) by immersing himself in his reading, pretending to be so absorbed as not to hear the conversations going on around him, in which the exuberant trio is trying to involve the entire world.
Too bad that the reader is devoid of the natural bulwark behind which to take refuge, namely, the book. A book has a repelling effect on the non-reader. Like kryptonite for Superman. The e-book reader, however, not only doesn’t isolate the guy in the jeans from an onslaught of chatting but, on the contrary, attracts it.
“You sure like chatting, don’t you?” smiles the older whale to his right.
“It’s not an iPhone, so man, what is it, a Galaxy?” asks the son-in-law sitting opposite, who’s holding – let’s say wielding – the latest bitten-apple phone model, ready to duel on the topic of my-smartphone-is-cooler-than-yours. In short, yet another technological version of the traditional male boast: mine is longer than yours.
“It’s not a phone …” the bear/reader tries to point out.
“It’s a tablet! Ignoramuses”, scolds the whale on the left, wanting to appear knowledgeable.
“No, it’s not even a tablet”.
A moment’s silence. Bewilderment. If it’s not a smartphone and not a tablet, what else in the world is there that you can hold in your hands and stare into?
“A video game?” asks a boy, hopefully, from the corridor.
It has now become a public debate. The bear sighs.
“An e-book reader.”
It’s as if he hasn’t spoken. Everyone keeps staring at him. Like, please explain, nobody understands a word.
The bear keeps repeating his improvised pop mantra in his mind : Got to stay calm and keep cool.
“It’s for reading books.”
Palpable disappointment. Perplexity.
“Oh … that’s what it is!”
The bear hopes to have put an end to the matter. The object having been identified as a book, the kryptonite effect should now kick in. But no.
“You mean, in here there’s a whole book?” asks the older whale.
“Actually, there could be hundreds, if you want,” blurts the bear, before he can stop himself.
“For real?” Poorly disguised disbelief.
“Can you also watch movies on it?” asks the whale on the left.
“Does it make phone calls?” asks her husband, who seems to have no other god but the phone.
“Do you have Supermario?” asks the boy in the corridor, who now feels part of the group in the compartment.
The bear is trapped in a corner; he has no way out.
“No, this is a Kindle …”.
“A Kinder?” asks another passenger, who half hour earlier had unwrapped and nibbled just such a snack: now it must have taken effect, obfuscating her neurons.
“No, a Kindle! It’s the name of the e-book reader. It’s a basic model, one that’s just for reading books.”
“It only reads books?” repeats the astonished iPhone man.
“Don’t your eyes get tired from all the time you spend on the screen?” asks mom whale.
“No, ma’am. The screen is different from the computer’s, and it doesn’t tire the eyes”.
“Computers have an illuminated screen. This hasn’t.”
“And how can you see it, then?” asks Mr. Apple, doubtfully, ready to quibble about retina displays.
The bear is not an expert on innovative technologies. He only has a vague idea of how the device works. He is interested in reading, and doesn’t give a damn about technical issues. Driven into a corner, he’s forced to try to explain the little he understands: “This device has a system of electronic ink, if you will. When you press a key, the screen is crossed by a small electric charge that polarizes this ink and it reproduces the written page”.
“When you press a key?” repeats the scandalized Cupertino devotee. “You mean, it’s not a touch-screen?”
“No, not this model. I prefer buttons, so the screen remains cleaner.”
“And so you spend the journey reading”, comments the surprised whale on the left, as if the guy in the jeans spent his journey growing mushrooms in his sneakers.
“I would like to” murmurs he, sadly, looking out of the window. “But I’ve almost arrived, and I haven’t even finished the chapter”.
He turns off the Kindle, retrieves his small trolley case, says goodbye, and leaves the compartment.
The train draws into the station. It stops. The guy seems to be following the tide of passengers getting off. At the last moment, unexpectedly, he goes past the door to the platform, through the doors that connect the wagons, and continues walking into the next wagon. Which is packed, but the guy didn’t expect it to be otherwise.
Spotting a folding seat in the corridor, he opens it, manages somehow to sit on it, and pulls out the e-book reader again. He actually still has three more hours to go before he reaches his destination.
Uncomfortable, but finally relaxed, he immerses himself again in his reading.
After a quarter of an hour, though…
“You sure like chatting, don’t you?”
With an alienating sense of deja-vu the Kindle guy raises his eyes. In the compartment opposite, on the closest seat to the aisle, sits a lady well past her prime who, obviously, stubbornly refuses to surrender to the passage of time. A lot of make-up, a lot of colour, a little botox in the cheeks and eyelids, two majestic bags of silicone on her ribcage.
The guy is tempted to answer, instinctively, that he’s not chatting. But at the last moment, he bites his tongue. He reflects for a moment and replies, in as thin and mincing a voice he can produce, “Oh yes … I can’t go even an hour without chatting to my boyfriend.”
The lady instantly loses all interest and turns to look out at the landscape.
As if just casually, two middle-aged men near him in the corridor, who have been animatedly discussing football, move away a couple of steps.
The bear-reader rejoices. The trick was a little tasteless and cowardly, but he had finally managed to create around himself a little healthy personal space.
Satisfied with himself, he is about to settle back again into his reading when, out of nowhere, a guy with bleached hair, eyeliner, and wearing a pashmina in shades of purple, bats his eyelids meaningfully and asks: “It’s not an iPhone, so man, what is it, a Galaxy?”
Translation by Matteo Ciucci (edited by Roma O’Flaherty)