When our stay at Foundation Hardt drew near its end, we went to the Baron’s tomb in the far end of the garden to say thank you. Baron Kurd von Hardt had been a very present character during our week in his villa. References were made to him frequently, we lived among his works of art and used his furniture, a portrait of his mother hung on the wall in the salon, his diplomas on another wall, and a shortened version of his name constituted the password for the wifi. Some said that the ghost of the Baron used to haunt his old bedroom; I, who stayed in that room, saw no trace of any Baron shadow, apart from that I sometimes woke up at night without knowing why, but immediately fell asleep again. On one of the last days, rumours reached us that someone several years ago had seen a secret art collection of erotic nature in the attic. The secretary claimed not to know anything about it, and that nothing of the sort existed in the attic (though we were not allowed to see the attic). Instead, he suggested that if any unknown art of the Baron’s existed, it would probably be stored away in one of the cupboards in the Baron’s room; that was, my room. I had not noticed before that the cupboard to the left was locked – the other cupboards had been more than enough for my small Swiss wardrobe. At once, a delegation led by the secretary knocked on my door, and the key was put into the cupboard lock. The door swung open, and heaps of framed pictures were revealed inside – though, to our disappointment, they depicted nothing spectacular, only the common Piranesi engraving and other similar things, and the delegation went downstairs again.
It had been very easy to get used to the luxury and beauty of the Foundation. John Steinbeck once wrote about Positano in Italy that ‘it is a dream place that isn’t quite real when you are there and becomes beckoningly real after you have gone.’ With the Foundation, I found it was the other way around. It soon seemed perfectly normal to trot down the wooden stairs, so polished that they seemed slightly golden, for breakfast each morning, to wine and dine on the terrace, to charge one’s computer on a rococo sideboard and to play ping pong in the dark garden after sunset. It seemed quite everyday to chat about catacombs at dinner as the aroma of crème brulée spread from the kitchen, and to lunch on lamb and have berries and lemon sherbet for dessert while hearing the latest gossip about some Roman principe or the Agnelli family. It is now, when we have left, that it all seems but a dream, the villa where we stayed from dawn to dusk and dusk to dawn, the villa hidden away behind walls and yet with the welcoming gesture of a gate always kept open.
When, after the last ping pong game of the last evening, we went in the dark to the Baron’s tomb, we almost expected him to materialize out of the quite Gothic atmosphere – he didn’t, although Sabrina very politely thanked him in good French for his hospitality. Next day, when I packed my things in the Baron’s room, I found a small shell in my suitcase which I once had collected on the beach of Ostia outside Rome. I felt that I wanted to leave a trace of my stay, and so I hid the shell inside the mantelpiece. When I looked up again, one of the doors to a small wooden Renaissance cupboard had suddenly opened by itself, a cupboard which I had not used during my stay. I curiously looked inside, but it was empty. I closed its door again and wondered if it finally was the Baron, discreetly saying goodbye.
We took the train home from Geneva, via Basel and the night train ’Comet’ from Basel to Hamburg. I read in my newly bought La Repubblica about the shooting on the Paris train – I realized that I had not read any news whatsoever during the week in Geneva. My thoughts wandered further to an article I recently read about migrants who have come over the Mediterranean sea to Italy, and continue their journey to the north via train, if they succeed in getting a train ticket from the providers of clandestine journeys. Dressed up as normally as possible and with no luggage, they hope to manage to get to their destination without being stopped by the police on the way. I saw some of these travellers on my last train ride from Rome; they changed trains in Munich and asked me for help about their reservations – they could not decipher a word out of their tickets. A mother and her small child; two young boys. In Fulda, I saw them being led away by police late in the evening, and it hurt to think that the only thing I had done, or could do, to help them was to show them their seats, which turned out not to be theirs at all. And I thought of the very force, when one has nothing, to put one’s body somewhere, on a train, on a platform in Fulda, and even if you have nothing, and no passport, when you are on the ground of a country, that country must act to help you, or arrest you, or send you back, or put you into a temporary shelter. The very presence of a body, whoever it is and wherever it is, is demanding and cannot be ignored.
My thoughts wandered on to tourist hoards in Rome or Venice, irritating clusters of bodies that are in the way, and crowd the street that you wanted to have solitarily and picturesquely to yourself. Bodies that bring with them only sweat and dust (as it was put in an article about the exposedness of the artworks in the Vatican Museums), bodies that noone wants around, if it wouldn’t be for the fact that they may have some money to spend. Places and bodies, bodies whose existence cannot be denied. When you stand before the Colosseum, you are a monument in the same right as the monument you are beholding, and so are the tourist groups around you and the dressed-up gladiators and the panini–bibite–gelati-sellers. Some of us are lucky enough to be able to travel freely, to move from place to place without being arrested by the police, and we may feel as if we tread very lightly on the ground and leave nothing behind us when we go to another place. But the imprint of our bodily presence is somehow left where we once were, whether we want it or not, and whether we place a shell within a mantelpiece as a small token of physical remembrance or prefer to only utter ’merci, au revoir’ in the dark under the trees, words that dissolve and float away like smoke and shadows.