“This is for your library,” Carl says, handing the book to me. I look forlornly at my growing pile. He takes another book off the shelf, squints at it for a minute and then, unable to make out the small print, hands it to me. I read the description and then wait for him to tell me which pile to add it to. His interest is piqued, and he eagerly grabs it from my hands. This one is a keeper, this one will go to Norway with him. Thank God.
Going through the shelves of books, one by one, is a tediously painstaking process, and I silently wonder why he couldn’t have just done the separating on his own and called me over when things were ready to be packed in bags. I let out a small sigh. He passes me another and then another and very slowly we work through his stack of books. Most of them are ones that he had started reading but had never finished. He finds the marker – business cards, small pieces of paper – tucked between the pages and pauses to remember why he had stopped reading. The majority of the books are added to my library but some will stay with him. A lot of the “keepers” are ones that he has adopted from Anna.
We think a lot about Anna during the hours that we spend sorting through his books. It has been years since Anna fell in the staircase in the house next door and was moved in to a home. Carl and I had once made the two hour trek by car to visit her, following the steep, never-ending ascent of the mountain curves until we pulled up in front of the cold, grey, lifeless institution that resembled more a prison than a home. What we found upon our arrival was the skeleton of the Anna we once knew. Her grandiose physical presence – her tall stature and outspread arms – that had always occupied so much space was now folded compactly into a wheelchair. Her once booming theatrical voice was now nearly drowned out by the TV that droned on endlessly behind her. We knew that it was the last time we would see her, but we also knew that we hadn’t arrived in time to say goodbye. She was unsure of who we were. Her spirit, the essence that had made Anna Anna was long gone. When we left her that day, the center gave us bags of her personal clothing that she would no longer need and asked if we could contribute some money to her personal care fund. The government funding that they received was enough to keep her alive, but it wouldn’t keep her groomed. We left 40 euros. Anna was a woman of dignity and would certainly want her hair cut.
The day that Anna left her house and our street, Carl had gone out of his way to make sure to save her books. He had lovingly rehomed them on his own bookshelf. But now, 14 years after he had arrived, Carl, too, is leaving the street. During lockdown, his (along with Anna’s) home had been broken into. The thieves had ruthlessly sifted through his belongings, packing Carl’s market trolley full of his antique candlesticks, watches, and countless other items. They had spared some things. They had broken the lock of his treasured cigar box but weren’t interested in the contents and had carelessly thrown the broken box full of cigars – including the hand-rolled one that I had brought back for him from Cuba – on the bed. They had also left his books and his paintings that hung on the walls of his house. They hadn’t understood their value. After seeing how much of his life had been removed from his village house, Carl can’t imagine a future here, and now he is here to finish their job.
I wait patiently as Carl examines the dog-eared pages of one of the books. “Yes, this one was Anna’s,” he says. “I don’t do that to my books.” It takes us an entire afternoon to sort through Carl’s library. He doesn’t have the space in Norway for so many books, so he has to choose sparingly which ones he wants to take with him. “Carl, I’m trying to get rid of my own stuff,” I softly say to him when I have to start a third bag for “my library”. “Most of these books I’ll be taking to the charity shop.” The thought that his beloved library will be pawned off for 1 euro per book must be painful for him, for he quickly tells me to tell Mimi and Linda, both avid readers, to come over to sort through the bags to see if they would like to keep any of them. Mimi appears the next day but doesn’t even look through the bags. She, too, is trying to get rid of stuff. We lure Linda in a few days later. We had run into her by accident while Carl and I were in town getting a snack. Two gin and tonics later, Linda is in prime condition to agree to adopt a bag full of books. Carl is relieved that at least he found a loving home for part of his library. He shows his gratitude by gifting us with a stack of small abstracts that he has painted on the back of cardboard, envelopes, random pieces of paper. He believes in recycling. They are unsigned so, before Linda leaves, we go up to the kitchen on the top level so that he can sign each and every one of them. “Now all we need is for you to keel over so that these become valuable,” Linda blatantly jokes with him.
That entire week, I meet with Carl nearly every day to help him dismantle his home. We work slowly between the different rooms and the different levels of his stacked house. He gets distracted easily, picking up one item after another to tell me about their significance. I’m impatient to get on with my day and try to keep him focused on the mission. It’s only later, while writing this, that I realize that this was Carl’s way to acknowledge and honor each item of his home, each piece of his life in Altea. It takes time to say goodbye. And he wants me next to him not for the physical help but for the emotional support. The break-in has been traumatizing for him, the departure even more so.
His easels, on the top level where he paints, are among the last items that he prepares for shipping. He doesn’t need to bring them, for he has many more in his home in Norway, but they are not among the items that he offers me. He doesn’t consider leaving them behind even for a second. He folds them up and expertly wraps them with masking tape so that they don’t get damaged in the move. I let him do this task. He’s an artist. It’s obvious that he knows what he’s doing. While he prepares the easels, I look out of the arched windows at the street below. AlteArte is on the corner.
“Take the director’s chairs,” he tells me, pointing towards the black, foldable chairs. “They were Anna’s.” I make a mental note to add them to my pile. They don’t look significant to me, but the important title Carl has given them makes me question my own judgement. Later, David sees the chairs and asks me in disbelief, “Those are the director’s chairs? They’re 2 euro chairs from the Chinese shop!” After the shipper has removed everything from the house, and I’m packing our car with the remaining items, I add the chairs on top of the pile designated for the charity shop. I haven’t yet made it to the shop before Carl calls and reminds me to take the director’s chairs from the house. “They were Anna’s,” he reminds me. I will keep them. I don’t have a choice.
In the remaining days before Carl leaves, Carl asks me if I can ask David to remove the antenna, the infamous antenna that Carl had installed when, after endless struggles to connect to our wifi at AlteArte, he had finally signed up for his own internet service. This isn’t the first time that he is asking for help to take down the antenna, but I know that David has his hands full with work at AlteArte. “Is it something that I can do,” I ask Carl. He surprises me by agreeing readily and, together, with wrenches in hand, he leads the way to the rooftop terrace. The antenna is attached to the side of the house, accessible only by leaning halfway off the terrace. It’s a hot day, and the sun is shining relentlessly upon us as he tries to grab the bolts with the wrench. I’m worried about him, about his bad back, and offer to try. He hands me the wrench and I lean out. But the angle is awkward, and I don’t make much more headway. He seems to be determined now to do it himself and takes back the wrench. I sit back helplessly and watch. After twisting and turning for a while, he finally loosens it and detaches it from the wall. It turns out that Carl, despite all the aches and pains that he always complains about, is capable of a lot. He just needs the company. Or maybe he needs the feeling that he’s helping me – even though I’m the one that’s supposed to be helping him.
The symbolism of packing up Carl’s life in Altea hits me several times during the week that we spend in his house, and I experience my own bag of mixed emotions, regularly bouncing between nostalgia and impatience verging on annoyance. Now, while writing this, though, the significance of Carl’s departure has truly sunk in, and I just feel sad, and the tears fall freely.
Just as we felt Anna’s departure, I feel Carl’s. Carl was the last of our neighbors, the last man standing. Our street, once a vibrant neighborhood, is now comprised of either abandoned houses or vacant holiday homes. As much as our neighbors caused stress in those early years of AlteArte, when we would worry about bothering them with the noise or closing on time, they also brought life and personality.
It turns out that, just as Carl was preparing to leave, so was another neighbor who lived just around the corner from AlteArte. Our flute-playing, Altean neighbor who barely acknowledged us and visibly showed his disgust at our tables that blocked (but didn’t block) his way, also left but with much less noise and fanfare than Carl. Unlike Carl, though, he had left his house a mess, (one of the tasks that Carl had assigned to me was removing the nails and patching the walls as well as arranging for a cleaner), and owing months of rent. I couldn’t believe that he could be gone just like that. He had always been such a permanent fixture in the Old Town. I was sure that he would die in that house. I couldn’t believe that he had abandoned his post.
The end of an era has arrived. The only constant thing in life is change. I’m just glad that we arrived in time to experience our street when it was full of life, when Carl would call out “Sara Bird” from his living room window as I took out the terrace tables and chairs to open for the day, when Anna would stand barefoot and greet us from her plant-laden balcony, when Sue and Peter would wave to us before disappearing into their house down the street. Without neighbors, we would have never had the drama the day after our hugely successful Summer party, which, unfortunately, fell on a Tuesday and had resulted in the whole street glaring at us for a good couple of days. Maybe I’ll even miss the hostile looks from the flute-playing musician whenever he would round the corner on his way to his car. Maybe. But probably not.
Meanwhile, the bags of books from Carl’s house are still filling up the trunk of our car. I haven’t had the heart yet to go to the charity shop. One day soon…