[a short story…qui la versione in italiano]
I talked to an old man once, in the streets of my city in Italy. He had just put his bike against a wall, next to several others. I was cycling by very slowly, and I stopped when we both noticed we had exactly the same old bicycle. He said that his dad had bought it many years ago. I said that mine had been bought by my dad as well, or perhaps my granddad, I wasn’t sure.
We started chatting about our bikes, a tiny bit, but soon realised there was not much point. They were just bicycles, simple, normal, to go out and about. Probably he wanted to say that bicycles of that simple, reasonable quality like ours were not produced any longer, I could read it in his eyes, but perhaps he did not want to sound too old. He could have said it, because I do think the same, and would have added that they also looked extremely cool. He asked me whether I wanted to drink a coffee with him. I said yes, and put my bike on its stand, right next to his. His bicycle was a little less rusty, a sign of better care, or simply better storage. We went in and we ordered our coffees at the bar, where we then remained to talk.
I looked at some photos on the wall, they showed people cycling in the main square, a bit a after the war. He started telling me about when he was very young, and started working, “well after the end of the war” he added. He used to cycle to work, but not with the same bicycle I had just seen. His dad, who used to work in a cheese farm, got it from someone at the end of the war, and restored it for him. His dad kept changing a lot of things on the bicycle over the years. “I am still restoring it”, he used to say. Only many years after he understood why. A mechanic told him the bike was German, and had probably belonged to a German soldier. His father was a partisan, but befriended the soldier somehow, or simply got it in exchange of some cheese, he simply did not want people to know.
He then continued talking about his work, and said that most of his colleagues used to arrive by bike, the others on foot as they lived very close. But then the car appeared. First only for the bosses, than for others as well. All those who got cars did keep their bicycles, and still used them a lot, but the car became a symbol of a country finally booming after the war. He travelled a lot across Italy after that, and could see that bicycles were not as popular as in our region. He lived in some other cities, where the car slowly substituted for the bicycle for almost any trip. He did cycle in those other cities as well, but certainly less than he would have wanted. Too many cars and few other people cycling were the main reasons. He found it difficult to talk to people about how good cycling was, it was too natural for him, like telling people about the importance of breathing or, putting a foot in front first when walking. But then, some friends did join him on the way to work or to the stadium. He came back to live in our city some years later, and while there were a lot of cars, way too many, he was happy to see so many people still cycling around, often with the same bicycles he could see when he was little.
I had not asked him yet where he worked. He was a metalworker at the big factory where they use to make trains, planes, and even some tractors. He smiled when he mentioned tractors, only few of them were built during an occupation of the factory in 1950, before he started working there. I told him my grandad used to work at the factory as well, building “the best train engines in the world”. He said he could remember him, but did not know him well. I then told him that while I could remember seen the factory from outside many times, I could only remember being inside once, in the little chapel. “My family know the chaplain well”, I added. He said he knew him well too. But they were on the opposite side, politically. “But not that much” he added, and we both knew well what he meant. He often used to meet the priest while cycling in the morning, and they used to have intense discussions while pedalling. “Was it about politics and religion?” I asked. “No, it was about football, and the Giro” he replied. Politics was discussed in the factory courtyard and the canteen. He said that they had very different views but they did hug each other warmly the day he retired.
He then told me about his children and wife, and then asked a lot of things about my family and work. When I told him I live in England he said: “oh you must have an old Raleigh”. Indeed that is the case I said, “although recently I have not been using it much”. He asked why and I said it was because I now have a bike with a box in front to carry things and children around. “oh, like the ones some tradesmen used to have before the Ape Car first, and vans after, became popular” he added. “Yes!”, I said, “but a modern version, with an electric motor, disc-brakes…..”. He listened in silence while I proudly took him through the specs of my cargo bike and showed some pics on my phone. Then, when I finished, he looked at me and simply said, in dialect: “Beh, l’e’ po na bicicleta!” (well, that’s just a bicycle, after all). And, indeed, it simply is.