Sine Cura

by Giulia Gregnanin

It was the summer of mugginess. Not a tolerable mugginess that softly envelopes and accompanies you. It was a summer of heavy mugginess, the kind that suffocates, fills your throat, and dries the hair in your nostrils. A mugginess that brings sweat to every nook and cranny of your body while turning you into a water diviner in search of the slightest relief for boiling limbs. That summer, Luca was more fidgety than usual.
He thought he had gotten used to the view of the sea. Red roofs, green hills, and a long strip of water fading into the greyish-blue of the sky. A perfect, geological, stratification. From man to nature, to the beyond. Flat, yet viscerally deep, with a power that draws you in as if it were holding forth invisible bait hooked to your navel.

The coffee pot was piping in the kitchen with the TV turned to the local newscast; a balding man in his fifties listed the latest news events, at rhythmic pace, with a drawn out “s” typical of the Sammarinese accent. At that moment he was emphasizing, with the help of charts and graphs, how in the past five years San Marino had suffered a 2% drop in employment with crime falling 80% since 2016, five years ago.

—We have never been so safe—the anchorman said enthusiastically.

Outside the French doors Fanny was whimpering. Jumping up on her little hind legs, the sound echoed.
It was a small domestic ensemble daily repeated.

For many years Luca had hated such strong accent, in this moment amplified by the TV’s speakers. In his university days he had even taken evening classes in Italian diction in an attempt to rid himself of his own inflection. It had become a little obsession. On the occasions when someone would bring it up—particularly at moments when he was nervous and unable fully to control his speech—he felt his mask removed, a violation of privacy that forced him to reveal himself. Like when he first encountered Thomas, recently arrived in the London investment playground: thirtyish, charming, oozing confidence, just like any other identikit consultant with a long-term contract and an enviable salary.

In days gone by, when fellow countrymen met abroad for the first time, they commonly put on shows of courtesy in ways that concealed, though not entirely covertly, the mutual assessment of social standing. Luca and Thomas performed the same ritual. After an initial introduction held in the elegant Boston Consulting Group offices, Thomas dispensed with the pleasantries in order to vanquish his rival.

– You’ve got a funny accent, you know?
– Really?
– Yes, it’s funny. It’s faintly familiar to me. I only hear it in some of your vowel sounds and the way you pronounce your “z” as “s”. You know, Italians tend to soften their accent abroad, but in my view one can never fully escape one’s roots. Also, why should you? Wait. Let me guess. Romagna? My grandfather had an accent like yours. He was from Ravenna. Funny, really. People from Romagna really are nice dudes.

Luca reddened involuntarily. He had been in London for a year by then, but no one had yet commented on his manner of speaking. Not even the Anglo-Saxons had remarked on his English, which was quite fluent with a peculiar Britishness inflection. But now he had been laid bare, his accent deemed: “funny.”

– Yes, I suppose it is funny. Actually, I’m not really Italian. My family’s from San Marino, where I grew up. Then I studied abroad, the Erasmus exchange program, then an internship for a multinational, and now here at BCG as a consultant.
– That’s interesting, Luke. Can I call you Luke? But what’s San Marino anyway but Romagna! Borders are just conventions. You dudes are just the same.

Who knows where in Italy Thomas had ended up. After the Great Repatriation, Luca hadn’t heard from him again. Not that he was especially sad about it. On the contrary. It was one of the few positive outcomes of the whole episode.

The coffee pot was spattering all over the stove. Luca had turned off the burner just in time, carelessly spilling onto his white socks. Another minor obsession was that he refused to go barefoot at home, even when it was boiling outside. 

He poured the remaining coffee into a small glass with ice in it. With his other hand he opened the door and patted Fanny. He then locked the dog outside and returned to the living room window to gaze out at the sea. His vacation had begun a few days ago. The bank he was consulting in San Marino had given him three weeks off. At his previous job at BCG it would have been unimaginable.

How he longed to dive in the salt water. There it was, under his watch, yet out of reach.

He sat down in front of his computer and logged onto His friends had recommended the site, but he was skeptical as ever. He felt resigned to a condition of immobility. Systems of this kind are designed to be palliative, yet they bring about the opposite effect. Instead of appeasing desire, they inflame it. Or at least, that’s what Luca felt. He drank his iced coffee, before it watered down with the ice. 

Driven by a feeling of boredom and self-destruction, he typed “Bagno Graziano” into the web site’s search engine. It had been the beach of his childhood at Bellariva in Rimini. The screen displayed a menu offering various different packages: a half-day guided tour with a young lifeguard of the beach who, through a videocall, would act as a bather, ensuring a delegated experience. The package could be upgraded with a basket of piadine —the kind made by Lella— delivered right to your door along with a cold beer and other assorted local products. The site then offered a day of “immersion” at one of the company’s branches, promising a 360-degree experience complete with augmented reality goggles, temperature controls, and so on.

Luca lowered his Mac screen, rested his hands on his face, and let out a long, deep sigh.

His panic attacks had subsided. The State had forced him to attend support groups at a “consultation centre” to overcome the problem. At the meetings he described dreams in which he was strapped to a bed with thick white ribbons, his wrists and ankles tied, as a nurse extracted a large wad of cotton wool from his throat with a pair of tweezers.

Fig. 1. Valerio Conti
Untitled, 2019, from the series ‘Ex Corpore’ Photography on paper, variable dimensions. 
Courtesy of the artist.
The psychotherapist had calmed him down, while the rest of the group had been understanding. Many of them suffered similar nightmares, but they tolerated them in the name of security.1 Luca had no alternatives.

The citizens were medicated with the concept of security: a container of safe-sounding syllables emptied of meaning. The term derived from the Latin sine cura, meaning ‘without a care’, trouble-free. A state free from danger. But it could equally mean ‘without consideration’, without attention, that is, a state where care for others is missing. The meaning’s very opposite. A state of neglect.

The doorbell rang all of a sudden. Luca rubbed his eyes, quickly getting up out of his chair. It was Samuele at the door, his childhood friend.

– Hey, listen. I’ve come to get you.

The Great Repatriation happened suddenly. Luca had been in London just after Brexit, when the warning signs of nationalist cancer were growing. The metastases were visible, if not fully tangible, but the world was ignoring them. The rise of attacks had unleashed among a certain portion of the population an atavistic, uterine fear toward anyone labelled as “foreign”. European states had begun surveilling those who entered, and passing ever-more restrictive laws. No one really noticed this gradual change. People kept on with their peaceful lives; they were travelling, buying their frozen food at Tesco, and kept jogging: training themselves to live forever.

There was a man in the Plexiglas booth. Luca walked up to it, greeted him, and, as normal, placed his badge over the electronic detector, passing through the turnstile. The offices were in one of the brand new steel buildings of sparkling glass and marble, places that made one feel like one was walking through the desert on a mirror of water; the kind that only appears after a rare downpour, and to which the gazelles rush before the heat dries it all up: a perfectly mundane transubstantiation.

He loved being the first to arrive, just so that he could read The Guardian at his desk while sipping his favourite coffee. This was one of the habits that made him feel secure, that gave his life a veneer of regularity. At that time of day the sunlight entered through the large window in an unrelenting fashion, blinding his eyes and warming his skin.

He had seen a gazelle just once. It was about ten years ago at an archaeological dig at Kharga, where the Egyptian desert borders Libya. He was a college freshman at the time, bent on a career in Egyptology. The dig was a mystical, alchemical experience. An excavation of the universal self. But time turned him to finance, and to an analytics of the present built on numbers and data: profit and loss.

He saw Grace from the glass doors heading quickly in his direction. She was wrapped in a tight-fitted knee-length dress that stunted her stride and made her sway like a Swiss pendulum. Out of breath, she stumbled through the door.

– Luca, listen. I can’t explain. But something’s happened.
– That skirt’s nice on you. Jil Sander?
– Oh, thanks. No, Luca, listen, this is something serious. Oh, yes, it is. Nice, right? Come on, haven’t you switched your computer on yet? Turn on BBC right away, what a mess. 
– What are you talking about?
– I heard Miguel and Bérnard. They’re not coming to work.

It took 10 minutes for Luca’s computer to turn on. Grace stood motionless on the threshold, mouth shut, with her brown eyes wide open. She didn’t fancy playing the messenger to what she’d seen. She would have preferred someone on-screen to speak in her place. But she wanted to see his reaction. Luca switched his brain on, trying to process what the news anchor was saying. His heart began to beat faster and faster. He turned to Grace, by now lost in thought. She left her body at the door, a husk, as her mind moved into the hyperuranion.

– Fuck off, it’s crazy as fuck.
– Crazy – she repeted, emptily.
– Listen, it’s better if you leave.

When he saw the gazelle for the first time, he looked it right in the eyes. He remembered the feeling well, he’d perceived its fear as much as its self-assurance. As if the animal was meaning that he was the one out of place. That was is territory.

Samuele’s car smelled of lavender. But it wasn’t the scent of his childhood. It had something artificial about it. It was an imitation of something natural; a copy exposed as a fraud.

– Did you hear what Chiara did? She tried to cross the border again – said Samuele.
– She’s always been a rebel, never would give up.
– Or just reckless foolish.
– Did you know Andrea’s in Italy? I’ve never seen anyone more in love than those two. They can actually project themselves onto one another. It’s weird. At times when I spoke to Andrea I thought I was looking at Davide.
– Basically this time she bribed a truck driver and hid out in a false-bottomed container. He even managed to hide the chip signal; covered it with lead. But she hadn’t considered the body temperature detectors. Obvious, right? Now she’s under house arrest for four years.
– When Davide broke her right shoulder skiing, Andrea asked for authorization to turn up at work an hour late. He’d devote that time to him. He’d wash his hair, help him getting dressed, and put him shoes on.
– What a load of rubbish. I mean, love’s great, but they won’t be able to see each other again. You should be able to understand that, Luca. You had to put an end with the girl from London, remember. I think Davide just has to accept the situation. He can find someone in San Marino, anyway; who’ll wash his hair if he broke the other shoulder. 
– You’re an asshole.
– We’re on holiday. I don’t want to think about the State. We do that every day. Let the State fuck off just for two weeks.

All I Have To Do Is Dream” by The Everly Brothers was playing on the radio as the hillside rolled by before their eyes and under their wheels. The sun was setting, turning the trees and rooftops  scarlet. They passed the support centre Luca used to visit until last year. A banner was hanging above the door. It read: “The State is here for you. Your security comes first.” Sine Cura.

They reached the Club Colonna. It was San Marino’s new amusement park: a recreation centre with sports fields, four large pools, bars, restaurants, and a disco. A pseudo-pleasure village with sets built imitating different holiday destinations from Sardinia, Thailand, and America’s East Coast. They entered one of the bars. Next to the barista was a sign: “For your security, before ordering at the counter, please show a valid ID.” They followed the procedure. Samuele ordered a beer; Luca a gin and tonic. He wanted to numb his body with alcohol. The music got louder, like the effect of the gin on his senses. Samuele had disappeared, leaving him alone. He despised such situations. Unprotected, he couldn’t escape from the carousel of pleasantries so typical of a small republic of 33.000 inhabitants. A few had already trained their eyes on him. Heads began to nod along with a few shy waves, while the braver among them got up to start chatting aimlessly, talking about the weather and asking about his health. But he wasn’t in the mood. Samuele had upset him. Luca turned abruptly and, as he got up to leave, bumped into a girl carrying a drink, spilling it over her dress.

– Sorry, I was just trying to leave.
– I noticed.
– You came out of nowhere.
– And you landed right on me. Who are you? Why haven’t I seen you around? You’re one of those who’s been repatriated, aren’t you. Maybe I know your mum.
– Listen, forget it. I’ll buy you another drink.

Luca owed her a drink and a small chat. In that way he could avoid to meet other people and kill some time before Samuele reappeared. She was cute. Young, but not too young, in a dress that skirted the limits of modesty. She folded her straightened hair seductively behind her ear while discussing on her cat. She complained about her job in a clothes shop, about how customers always expected to find their size.

– We’re not like Yoox or any other online e-commerce, you know, we only have a few of each item. Do you know how long it takes to get more stock when we’re all out? They withhold it at the border for days just for routine checks. People need to understand.

Luca looked at her, listening distractedly, instead focusing on the movement of her hands, and on the flower-shaped ring on her middle finger that she kept thumbing at. It was a gesture that made his stomach twinge, leading his mind inexorably back to her. To Anne.

Things had ended some time before with Anne, coinciding with the end of Luca’s therapy.

They had met in London just after he’d arrived in the city. He was 26 and she was 28. Both were consultants for rival agencies. Their competition and antagonism had created a deep bond.

Anne was naturally beautiful, and she was sharp. She always smelled crisply clean and had a quizzical, slightly cocky gaze. She grew up in a Birmingham suburb, in a working class family with whom she had little in common except from a lack of culinary mastery.

As soon as Luca heard about the attacks and the Repatriation, the first thing he did was try to call Anne, but all the lines were busy. The city was in chaos. People had flooded onto the streets and there were traffic jams everywhere. Luca headed for her office. When he finally arrived, they met in the hall.

– You should go – she said to him as soon as he’d appeared.
– Do you realize what you’re saying? What about us?
– We’ll manage. They say it’s only temporary, for everyone’s security.
– Do you know what that means for me to go back to San Marino? Even just for a few months? It’s only 60 fucking square kilometres. And if I can’t cross the border anymore? If this thing become permanent?
– Honey, it’s dangerous for you to be here. Do it for me. Go. Things will work out.

She was still right there in front of him, with those hands like flickering light. He reached for his glass. All of a sudden Luca felt an urgent need to get away – from that sense of emptiness, or whatever it was exactly he was feeling. He mumbled an excuse about needing to get an early night and left. He didn’t even feel like looking for Samuele. He sent him a text message, telling him he’d walk home and wishing him a good night.

It was hard to put a name to the enemy. He had spent plenty of time blaming the State for the deviant system they’d created, which as far as he was concerned was based on freezing humanity in strange routine. No citizen from any State was allowed to cross national borders. It was a question of security. The State was the mediator and resettled those forced to return. It also found homes and jobs for its disavowed young. The State championed and guaranteed security. Sine cura.

When he realized the Great Repatriation was a permanent solution, Luca joined a small group of dissidents from San Marino. They would meet in the tunnels of the old train station to hatch escape plans and read books on biopolitical resistance: Haraway, Foucault, Hardt and Negri, Pasolini...

Then there was the period after he’d heard that the State was responding to people’s fears; that that was why no big riots had taken place, so far as he knew (the media carefully avoided assigning importance to such instances). Up to that point a small handful of protestors had been organising self-seeking confrontations without any particular goal in mind. The system was supported by the majority.

But Luca had nevertheless tried to escape, along with two fellow dissenters. He managed to hide out in Rimini for a while, living on the streets, and avoiding police and the ID checkpoints. But it was an almost impossible task, especially without any Italian money with which to buy things. He would have needed a valid ID. The idea of shopping had remained unchanged, supported by a capitalist system that still promoted the circulation of goods and money. A global standard of living.

They soon found him and sent him back. He was kept under house arrest for two years.

That was the worst time of his life: not only trapped within the confines of the State, but also the four walls of his own home.

In the support groups that he was subsequently forced to attend, in order to “integrate” him back into society, he had been told repeatedly that it wasn’t healthy to problematise. The psychotherapist had urged him to rebuild his own inner world, and to cut off any lingering Skype relationships. Because the Great Repatriation had begun for him. For all of them. For the security of all citizens. Sine cura.

Within forty minutes he’d reached the city centre. He wanted to see the Palazzo Pubblico again, that monument scented with artificial lavender. An historical forgery. An 18th century structure in 14thcentury style, home to the administrative and government offices. That was where Giosuè Carducci had given his inaugural address on permanent freedom. But freedom was the price they paid for security. Sine cura. The citizens had made their choice. He wanted to make that clear.

He set to work. He felt galvanised, his soul somehow enriched by amused resignation. He felt weak from too much feeling; from having seen and experienced too much; from having lived too much. This was what he’d done. Sine cura dominated the façade; the writing two metres high, in crooked, trembling letters expressing all the anxiety and emotion of that cathartic moment. He had done his best with the spray paint from his childhood, quietly proud of his effort. Stepping back, his weakening legs forced him against the low barrier lining the square. The landscape below was quiet and peaceful. He took a deep breath. The warm air in his lungs gave him energy and strength: a flicker of freedom.

1.The Italian term sicurezza, here translated as security, connotes two distinct concepts, that of security, the protection from harmful acts, and safety, or safeguarding people, intended as safeness.