There are about two meters between my nose and the airplanes above my head as I am lying down on my bed.
Yes, I am lying down staring at airplanes dangling from my ceiling. They are toy airplanes made of Coca Cola tins from Vietnam.
My dad has collected a few of those on a recent assignment and gifted them to me. Where were these planes picked up? The one right above my head resembles the shape of a military f-14 and it looks everything to me but a threat.
A kid must’ve made it.
I can hear the sounds of loud horns, frenetic traffic and indistinguishable Vietnamese chatters in my head. For a few seconds I am really tiny. I am flying on that toy plane, there in Vietnam, imagining what it would have been like to be born there.
I am in a cold room in the foggy winter of the hilly Monferrato region of Piemonte, Northern Italy. The place I used to call home.
I am 13 years old and I am still unaware of my future ambitions and dreams. All I know for now is that I want to go somewhere else. Even when I look at the horizon, it fills my heart with indescribable joy. Staring at the smooth ridges of hills fading away and blending with the foggy ceiling of the world. That ever changing distance. It makes me curious, it confuses and excites me to the point that I need to start looking elsewhere or my spine will shake and squeeze a tear or two out of my eyes.
My dad and his wife Alice just left a few minutes ago as they are going into town to run some errands.
They don’t know that my two favourite things to do when I am alone in the house is to steal a cigarette from my dad’s world collection and smoke it in the attic and the other one is to sneak in his photographic archive and carefully peek into his wonderful work.
I walk downstairs into the living room, then passed the library, I enter the magic room. The archive room has a very distinct odour of slightly smoked wood, a hint of the silver halide salts and bleach used to develop film and metal. The archive is my dad’s most important treasure. He keeps it diligently organised. Each film labelled with a title, a date, a location and a serial number.
The archive is also my secret window to the world.
These tiny plastic frames can take me to the most breathtaking corners of our planet. You need a neon lit surfaced table and a special magnifying viewer so you can explore within the slides, in detail, the most incredible and far away places: Thailand, Malaysia, Hong Kong, India, Nepal, Dominican Republic, Venezuela, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Philippines, Borneo, Chile, Afghanistan, Morocco, Yemen.
I shouldn’t be here, but it’s my little secret and it really won’t hurt anyone. Although I am a kid, I know how careful I need to be handling this material. Whenever I take out a file I always put a magazine in between the files in the drawers of this giant aluminium archive, so that I know exactly where to put it back. I also never touch the films with anything. I hold it with my fingers on the edge of the plastic frame with the same attentive care that my dad has when I see him do it while I subtly observe his insatiable passion for his work.
Three of the four walls are filled with these giant aluminium drawers. They reach up to the ceiling and there is a detachable ladder you can use to reach the higher ones. I decide to have a glance at one of the drawers in the bottom of the stack. It’s called “Chandigarh – Serie 1-4” I open it carefully and I slide out a random envelope file. I put one of the hundreds of copies of National Geographic magazines laying around the house in its place. With the envelope in my hands I walk towards the neon surfaced table and I turn on the lights beneath it.
The indistinguishable gentle rattling sound of the neons turning on reach my ears. I am tense, as I am doing something forbidden. But the subtle noise of the neon makes me instantly calmer, I can feel a sense of relief and anticipation. For me it is the sound of discovery, exploration, freedom, far away civilisations and cultures of the world. Frame by frame I reveal more pieces of my dad’s complicated and mysterious life puzzle. I come closer to it but never enough to fully comprehend it.
I open the envelope and take out a first set of slides. They come in plastic sheets divided in 5 rows by 4 columns and contain 20 slides each. I place it on the surface of the table and take out the front slide. At first sight the quality is incredibly crisp and it looks like looking through a miniature lcd screen that you would only see nowadays after retina displays were invented in 2012.
It’s a small magical dimension gate that opens up to another corner of this planet. I reach for the magnifying viewer and I place it on top of the slide. Now, with one eye closed and the other wide open I can properly look inside the gate. There’s a police officer on his motorbike in front of a huge cement wall. The wall behind them features a giant swastika. The symbol well known to the western world to be associated with the most inhumane war crimes of the last century. On the contrary, In India and other South East Asian countries In Buddhism as well as in Hinduism it is an ancient religious symbol of luck and denotes a “conducive to well being or auspicious”. Also, in Hinduism, the clockwise swastika symbolizes surya (sun) and prosperity, while the counter clockwise symbol is called sauvastika symbolizing night or tantric aspects of Kali.
Behind him sits an older woman wrapped in an indian cloth folded around her hair. Both looking right into the camera´s diaphragm with curiosity, she seems shy and not too happy to have her soul captured by this strange black box while the man is standing proud ready for his photograph to be taken. His turban must have been of a very dark green or blue. The motorbike they both sit on is a Royal Enfield.
Little did I know, back then, that one day I would be riding a Royal Enfield in the exact same places. Travelling from Chandigarh all the way to the highest motorable passes of the world in the Himalayas.
To be continued…
Police officer, mother and swastika – Piergiorgio Sclarandis | Chandigarh – India (1992)
Matt Sclarandis and swastika – Alice Bianco | Chandigarh – India (2016)