Holding hands along the Seine

There comes a moment; a moment of realisation in a person’s life when a fortuitous event or a person randomly placed on our path, opens our eyes and we finally see what has been there in front of us the whole time. We just couldn’t see it. When that happens, we set ourselves free of emotional barriers and we learn that it’s not the world that doesn’t let us be who we want to be. It’s ourselves.

I still remember the agitation as well as impatience that was spilling out of every pore of my skin on that day. It was a warm and quite humid June’s Saturday late morning in Paris and while I sat at an outside table of a random bar in Le Marais, sipping from my almost empty glass of Jura (ordering an Italian wine in France sounded somehow wrong), I considered how quickly five years of French classes in high school had suddenly gone down the drain. I was left with nothing but basic notions of the language, which wouldn’t get me much farther than ordering a drink, asking how to get to the city centre, and making sure that I wouldn’t be picking any snail-like food from a menu.

“Voulez-vous un autre verre?” asked the petite waitress, pointing her pen at my now empty glass on the table. A little earring was hanging in between her nostrils and long dreadlocks somehow defied gravity staying entangled on top of her head.

“Oui,” I pondered each sound, trying to remember the simplest grammar rules learned many years before. “S’il vous plaiz…” I mumbled, feeling my cheeks turning bright red. She smiled while scribbling something on her notepad before making her way to the bar, taking my empty glass with her.

While I’m writing this, about 10 years after, I don’t remember all the details of that day, but one thing I do remember for sure: picking up my phone every other minute to see if any texts had come through or just to check the time. I was nervous. On top of that, I hadn’t managed to leave back home, across the Alps, all my fears, my guilty feelings and my country’s bigoted and hypocrite beliefs, which unfortunately I had let pollute my life up until then.

I checked my old Nokia’s display again. Three whole minutes had passed since last time. The petite waitress came back with my second glass of Jura. Right when I was about to sip the first gulp, I noticed the guy in cargo shorts across the road, waiting for a green light, who was weaving at me.

Alessandro had arrived, and there was no more going back.

The ball that eventually led me to Paris started rolling down about two weeks before. At the time, I was still living in Rome; I still had my old job; and I was still wearing a mask to hide my true identity like superheroes do, as I used to put it. The truth is, I was no hero.

“Paolo, cut it off!” My friend Fiona once told me, “You’re not Spiderman, you’re just gay, for crying out loud!”

She was right, I was just gay, for as much as that Anglophone word sounded strange in my Italian mouth. Still better than omosessuale though. But if it’s true that women get to understanding things faster than men, then I must be a real (gay) man! In fact, it took me way too long to understand that labels are good for shirts and that happiness should depend on what we make of our life and not on what other people decide we should look and act like.

About two weeks before that day of June in Paris, I was sitting in the usual bi-weekly, after-work meeting of the Catholic Italian Scouts Association where I had been volunteering as a leader for many years. We would discuss anything related to the group; come up with new charity events or, if none of those items were on the agenda, we would simply spend some good time together. Gianni was the guy who had a vineyard and he would always bring one (two perhaps) bottle of his wine. Elena was an undiscussed star at baking and she would always bring a homemade fruit tart or chocolate sponge. They were some kind of spare family to me. I remember putting most of my free time into volunteering with those kids because it simply made me feel good, happy and accomplished. At the time, I was already fully aware of who I was; yet I was still in such denial, trying to hide it from myself first and then from the rest of the world which, had I known this before, was probably more ready than I to accept it.

That night we were meeting up in one of our parish church’s rooms. I think there had been some big ritual celebration the same day or the day before because I could still feel the strong smell of incense filling my nostrils. On the agenda we had “Problematic children and how to deal with them”. Children with a delicate family situation, for example, or children with either mental or physical challenges, or simply children who would appear different from the usual standard of behaviour for their age (8 – 14 years old).

I felt like there was an elephant in the room and I’m sure I was the only one feeling it. I felt I had to deal it with it once and for all and before I knew it, I asked the questions.

“What about gay kids? What about a kid who comes up to us and says that he or she thinks they’re gay?”

The elephant in the room had just dropped a big fart at the expenses of everybody’s embarrassment, and for a few but long seconds, no one seemed to know how to fill the even more embarrassing silence. Gianni, the wine guy, who also happened to be one of the senior leaders and the one who had been around the longest, did.

“A child who says he or she thinks they’re homosexual must certainly be helped.” I think I gave a sigh of relief. But then he added: “The task of a good leader is to bring that child back on the right path”.

My sigh of relief got choked halfway through. Did he really say “back on the right path”? I looked around, seeking help, hoping that someone would chime in and ask what the right path was or simply what he had put in his wine. No one did.

“But… why?” I asked the obvious. He made his answer sound just as obvious.

“Because we must do what we can to guide them to a just life where they may find happiness and we know that there can be no happiness in that kind of life.” I looked around again, sure that this time someone would say something. Again, no one spoke a word.

“But… Why?” I asked again, starting to feel silly with all the why’s. The answer that followed mentioned, among other things, ‘the natural order of things’. That word, natural, again!

All of a sudden, the stink of incense was burning in my throat, almost making it difficult for me to breathe. At that point though I hadn’t realised yet that I had to go. That happened just after the answer to my last question for that night. “And what about a gay leader?”

“If they keep it to themselves, fine. Otherwise, he or she shall be kept away from the children”.

Something snapped inside of me. The sound it produced made me think of a rusty lock that finally gives up under the pressure of its key. It was painful; of course it was.

Later that night, while driving back home, I remember pulling over on a deserted side road of the Rome’s outskirts where I grew up. I stopped the car and then I drove farther up, to a darker spot, where the light of the lampposts wouldn’t arrive and no one could see me. Not even I could see my reflection in the rear mirror. I wanted to cry, but I didn’t. I thought of the children I would meet twice a week, to take them away from the TV that would be looking after them while their parents were trying to make it to the end of the month. I thought of the outdoor activities that the other leaders and I would organise for them and how lucky they were to be distracted for a while from the difficulties of their low-income suburban area where they were growing up. I thought of our charity works that helped the community. I was good for all of that, as long as I kept my mouth shut. If I didn’t, I had to be kept away, with the rest of “those people”.

As I came to realize, at times we need someone to give us a good push or we might spend a lifetime before finding the courage to dive in. That night, Gianni and the rest of my second family had been the push that I needed. I said “Enough” and I drove back home.

I wanted to get away, I needed to talk to someone. Someone who could listen and understand, someone who could be sympathetic to what I was feeling. I remembered this Italian guy who lived in Paris, whom I had met a few months before at a concert where his choir had been invited to perform. After the concert, I went to congratulate them.

He never said to me “I’m gay” when we got introduced. Who does that? Why should anyone do it? People shouldn’t even come out, as to say. Coming out is wrong, and people should not be put in any position where they must call themselves names or tell the world whom they love and why. Somehow though, I knew. That night he gave me his email address and suggested to keep in contact and to let him know whenever I was going to be in Paris.

We never heard from each other again after that night, but I was going to be in Paris soon (or at least, so I had just decided) and that night I dropped him a line as soon as I got home. His answer was in my mailbox the morning after when I woke up. He seemed to be very pleased with my visit and suggested that I should have gone for the Gay Pride march, which was going to be the weekend of the following week. I opened a new page on my Internet browser, I got on expedia.com and I bought a ticket. The ball was rolling.

It felt as though someone was trying to put me back on the right path. And it felt good.

About two weeks after that night, Alessandro was standing in front of me, panting and short of breath.

“Come on, what are you doing here drinking. We’re late!” He cut it off while I was getting up to say Hi, How are you, So nice to see you and the rest of it. I had arrived in Paris the night before and we had made short contact via texts just to decide a place and time where to meet the following day. “

Are we late for what?” Asked I. He explained that his friends were waiting for us and the parade was about to start, while he mimicked to the petite waitress the international gesture of scribbling on a piece of paper, which all around the world stands for “May I have the bill, please”. I was confused, I had no idea what was going on. But boy, was I enjoying it!

“I think I need more time with that.” I said, pointing at my glass of wine. He grabbed the glass and knocked back half of the content. Then handed the other half to me.

“How ‘bout now?” I almost reluctantly took the glass, murmuring something that sounded like Sure and tried to do what he did before. I felt some kind of sparkling fumes going up to my brain. I guess that’s just what I need right now, I thought. In the meanwhile, the waitress had come back with my check. Before she left, he reached for a couple of Euro notes inside the pockets of his cargo shorts and handed them to her.

“You didn’t have to…” I started.

“Never mind, you’ll pay the next one. Let’s go now!”

And off we went. I took my bag and he took my hand.

So there I was. Darting through Paris’s narrow roads, a man holding my hand while he led the way, god knows where. That day I met his friends and I marched in the Gay Pride with the rest of the Parisians. I saw men hugging each other. I saw women holding their children and their wives. I saw folks laughing together, people of any colour, shape, gender, taste, background and I understood why the rainbow flag is the symbol of the gay movements around the world. I saw families who had come over to join us and march with us and support us. What kind of families?

I think this is the other true pillar that struck me that day in Paris and that somehow gave a completely different turn to my life afterwards. There isn’t only one kind of family. There are families, that’s it. And I can have a family too. I can be happy, I can love, I can hug, I can raise my head and stand up and be a citizen, as equal as anybody else. That day I understood how I wanted to lead my life; that is, holding hands along the Seine, in daylight. Not because I had to show anything to anyone, no. Just because that makes me happy, and the door to happiness is open to me as well.

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