I’ve thought of Genoa as a Portuguese city ever since, in Dublin in summer 2000, I drunkenly butted into a late-night bus conversation in what I thought was some unusual variety of that language, only to find that the two people were speaking zenese, or genovese, which just happens to share some of the cadences and vocabulary of continental Portuguese. The latter may not be entirely a coincidence – history doesn’t record which languages were spoken on Columbus’s expeditions, but as he was born in or near Genoa, prepared his voyages in Lisbon and set off from Spain it must have been a mishmash. The cities thus share a history of maritime expansion, and now live in the shadow of those former glories. Genoa feels to me not so much a city I’ve never visited before as a city I’ve never got round to living in, because back in another Golden Age of Overseas Discovery, that of TEFL, when the mere accident of having been born into an English-speaking environment meant that you could, at the drop of a derisory month-long course, emigrate and earn a decent living pretending to teach English, it was spectacular images of Portugal’s second city, Porto, which drew me there. If the Guardian travel section had instead featured Genoa, I could just have easily ended up in north-east Italy. I might even have ended up marrying an Italian woman*.
Arriving in a new city involves, Marco Polo-style, recalibrating one’s impressions of all the other cities one has visited or might visit. Thus, in keeping with my assumptions, Genoa does indeed strike me as a version of Portugal’s two main cities, which are both port cities with hilltop palaces descending rapidly to medina-style alleyways. In Genoa those alleyways are called caruggi. They’re immediately reminiscent of the steep, twisting warrens of Lisbon’s Alfama or Porto’s Ribeira – and, funnily enough, they also resemble other parts of Italy, for example, the Barrio Spagnolo in Napoli, but without all the vespas which render that area so unpleasant to walk around. The fact that we arrive just before what looks like an incoming squall puts me in mind of when, in 2009, I got to Trieste, another city I’d long longed to visit. I found it to be windblown, sombre, and not all that welcoming, albeit in a way that was sort of interesting in terms of reflecting on its complex history and just what it was that James Joyce found so compelling about the place. In Genoa, after we leave the station, despite Google’s claiming that our accommodation is only 1.3 miles away, the taxi takes us on an apparently unavoidable detour through winding tunnels, and takes me back to that macabre Mexican masterpiece of Guanajuato. There is a connection, in that some of the silver adorning the palaces and cathedrals is sure to have been siphoned from the veins of the new world, as is also the case from Sevilla to Syracuse. Strolling around Genoa, it does feel a bit like a greatest hits of the best bits of large southern European cities. While some areas recall Sant Pere and Barrio Gótico, with their tiny shops that are also bars and tiny bars which are also shops, others are a little like Rome but without all the bloody tourists, with their segways, their Trump hats and their incessant f*cking pointing.
I’ve always been fond of the Spanish word accidentado (uneven, bumpy)**, which describes the layout of Genoa pretty well. Its endless hilly detours make it enjoyable to get lost in. Losing my bearings happens to be my preferred mode of getting to know a city; however, it turns out that things are different when you’re in charge of a pram. Sudden stunning vistas, cutaways though ginormous 18th century buildings right down to the sea are all very breathtaking, but the prospect of another flight of stairs is less enticing. With the skies still threatening to Do A Houston, I’m excited to see a poster advertising a showing of ‘Eraserhead’ serendipitously starting in just four minutes time; however, it proves impossible to find an impromptu babysitter among the passers-by. Later, when we find a nice, quiet place to eat, our daughter starts to behave like the proverbial drunken sailor on shore leave. She soon manages to cover herself in so much pesto genovese she’s almost indistinguishable from Kermit, but with the personality traits of a young Miss Piggy. When, about 20 minutes into this mortifyingly messy and noisy farce, another couple-with-baby arrive, the proprietor quietly sends them back out into the pouring rain, claiming that he’s all booked up for the next month and a half. Then he disappears, possibly to shoot himself in the head.
The following day we explore the Museum of Maritime History, which is so huge and detailed it’s like standing and reading a six-volume series of books, each with 800 pages for each year of the city’s existence. After two hours we’ve managed to cover two of the five floors and are too exhausted to tackle the part about immigration, which is the bit that drew us there in the first place. The captions employ a curious Verfremdungseffekt, in that they present PhD levels of historical analysis written in often purple prose presented in the kind of lighting more appropriate for sending a baby to sleep, which thankfully, eventually, it does. By the time we head off in search of gelati and fasciatoi we’re left in no doubt whatsoever that a) being a galley slave was really not very much fun at all and b) Christopher Columbus definitely did come from Genoa and not, as some have claimed, just outside Swansea.
One more recent person of global significance that doesn’t exactly cover the city in gloria is the renowned comedian/trickster/drunk-driver Beppe Grillo, leader of the at-best-incoherent at-worst-openly-racist 5 Star Movement. His blog has been called Europe’s number one source of fake news stories, navigating us to a brave new world where nothing is true except for what’s published on certain implicitly trusted highly ideological websites. His influence helps explain why newspapers are full of stories about parents withdrawing their children from school so that they don’t get forcibly injected with chemtrails. Grillo emerged in the same decade as a more laudable local character: Fabrizio de André, whose classic album ‘Crêuza de mä‘ (roughly, ‘Crossing the sea’) gives the name to a beachside bar we visit in the picturesque beachside suburb of Boccadasse***. The album, with its genovese-dialect North African-influenced songs about lives lost at sea, resonates; as we walk around Genoa, we see graffiti in support of those who have more recently been forced by circumstances to seek a better life elsewhere.
Such solidarity recalls another famous episode in Genoa’s history: July 2001, when the city played host to massive anti-globalisation demonstrations focussed on the G8 summit. That spirit very much lives on in and around the carruggi. There is some remarkable anti-gentrification graffiti. One such slogan calls for the immediate expulsion of the ‘creative middle class’. There are posters for a Right to the City conference, slogans condemning the immigration authorities and opposing deportations, and graffiti referring to the recent alleged rape by carabinieri police of a young tourist. Genoa sees some cruise ships but not as many as Barcelona, where tourists themselves have been the focus of furious protests. The area (called, I think, Madalena) looks a lot like a busier version of Alfama, particularly because this week I’ve been following Momus’s escapades in Lisbon, a city which some are calling ‘the new Berlin’. It reminds me that in the fifteen years since I left Lisbon it has also changed, with the arrival of new waves of tourists and gentrifiers and the settling-in of new immigrant communities****.
It’s only a few steps away from the emblematic museum-like streets with their 18th-century palaces and ‘lifestyle stores’ that we happen upon some of the more vibrant side-streets. There seems to be more variety of immigrant groups than I’ve found in similar cities, for example Bilbao. Visa services are on offer to quite a range of language speakers: Arabic, Chinese, Vietnamese, Bengali and Welsh (possibly not Welsh); Latin American sex services are available to tutti quanti. There are some African tailors’ shops which seem to come straight from the streets of Kinshasa. We come across one lively bar where there seems to be a very energetic argument going on between Columbians and Venezuelans. It’s our last night, and I never could resist the lithesome rhythms of bachata, so we quickly load up on cheap rum, sell the baby to some passing zingari, and start to make the most of what’s left of our short holiday. Tl,dr: I’ve been to Genoa, it’s good, you should go there too, adesso scappo a cambiare la bimba.
* Piuttosto che una terrona :-P.
**Apparently, unsurprisingly, the word also exists in Italian.
*** I was first introduced to the music of both Fabrizio de André and (much to my wife’s chagrin) Franco Battiato by a visiting friend of a friend around ten years ago. I’m currently passing on the favour to our seven-month-old daughter, who seems to respond positively to the particular melange of melodies, instruments and rhythms of ‘Crêuza de mar’. Or it could just be that she secretly understands zenese. The fact that most Italians had to turn to the translations of the lyrics (included with the original album) in order to figure out what the songs were about suggests to me that genovese is, like a number of regional cosiddetti variations on Italian, not actually a dialect, but rather a language.
**** Dublin has also changed a great deal since I left.