It’s fall, darkness over Milan. A telephone rings. Blades of yellowish light filter through a couple of battered shutters leaning on the rails of the Ferrovie Nord, towards the Milano Bullona station. It takes two infinite minutes for Alessandro’s mother to reach the phone, after a struggle with an old dressing gown and a staggering gait. Alessandro sleeps with a semi-open eye in his little room on the railway, a room way too small for his twenty years, his lust for speed and a devouring curiosity about the world. After quick muttered sounds and pieces of sleepy muffled words, mother, shuffling, reaches him into his narrow and dark microcosm; reluctantly she touches his shoulder through a light brown blanket and not without a certain rudeness tells him that those from the Portello factory are on the phone. And this is the word my dear, Portello, the magic spring that projects the wide open eyed boy out of his bed, the three perfect syllables that enclose his dreams and his sense of inadequacy towards the plans of his poor dad that right before passing away extorted from him the pledge to become an engineer. One minute later he’s dressing up and combing, he ties a tight knot and spits on the top of his black and nearly weightless driving shoes. Is he forgetting something? No, simply a last quick look in the mirror, that’s what is needed, for out there the sixties are just around the corner and Alessandro wants to enter the era in good shape.
At the factory they explain that the usual test drivers today are not available.
“S.” is in Belgium, in Spa Francorschamp lucky guy, while “B.” called just in time to communicate that he has just become father of a sweet baby girl and so today he won’t be the one to take the Spider Veloce on the top of the Ghisallo pass. Therefore the new suspensions today will be mercyless tested by the rookie, Alessandro the dreamer, that son of the people whose father was able to send through school only after thirty odd years of back breaking work by the assembly line. Sure, the thin and nervous youngster that knows how to listen: the kid that often talks about the Carrera Panamericana, the one that his mother keeps on anguishing by claiming that he will never be a racing driver while she’s alive, the one who spares all his free time by the factory or in the pit-lane of the Monza circuit, eaten by passion and always ready to lend a hand.
Out of the floor Alessandro listens to the ticking of the fuel pump. Seven seconds of sublime expectation, the close weave of the steering wheel, fresh and steady under his fingers, a shake on the aluminum engine block, a gurgling from the four carbs and the Giulietta is ready, a red sharp shadow rapidly splitting the Brianza plains, up the Valassina hills still sitting in the dark. After a while Alessandro stops the car on top of the Ghisallo pass and blissfully breathes the light air atop the hill, an air so transparent that from the balcony of the Belvedere Romeo it seems easy to stretch out an arm and simply touch the iron wrinkles of the Mount Grigna; every so often he turns his head in the direction of the parked Giulietta and he feels the need of pinching himself on the cheek. He’s drinking the world and he allows his sight to run down the wet crevasses and thicket that fall in the eastern branch of the lake.
What time is it? It’s seven o’clock.
Time for work old boy.
After unfastening the two front hooks at one time, Alessandro folds the black top of the car carefully. Then he fixes his little tie right before slipping on his special gloves. Be focused old boy, be focused. Sum up what you know about the job of testing cars, check your technical file. Here we are. In a bit Alessandro becomes a single solid piece with the wheel, the transmission, the camshaft, the thin tyres. He climbs effortlessly in the direction of the Piano Rancio, a hairpin, two, three, endless hairpins, a clear quick stretch and now down, the weight of the car charged on the left side leaving the tiny Pra’ Filippo valley on the right, then the “flat turns” exploiting all the revs of this strong and honest little engine. Guello comes with his long 120 Kmh straight where the trees and the grazing fields flash in the most daring sunlight. Alessandro is well aware he has to stop when he spots a little white church, he knows that, however deserted are the streets of Italy , there, by the little church, crossing is very dangerous; he also knows that those amongst pilots who are truly smart understand where and when to stop: professionals don’t force when useless, they don’t cross villages on full throttle, they give a good look on right and left, they know their road and the relative perils. In fact, is a no no to collide with the wobbling little hay truck punctually appearing at a steady pace from the broad way to Civenna. The descent onto Bellagio is a fast one and the little car doesn’t let you down even when the rear power-slides a little; it is like the car knows where to go, Alessandro thinks while pulling out of the tight corners. He mentally takes note that these new springs could be loosened up easily for the big production, the set up would not be affected too much and the drive would be much more comfortable. But it’s not the springs old boy, he reckons, no; it’s simpler, it is just the way this our Giulietta is built, it’s the heart, the care, the knowledge of those with a soul that knows how to melt itself in bodywork sheets, rubber and alloys.
Entering Bellagio the sun is already high and approaching the shore a peculiar vivacity clinches Alessandro's attention. In proximity of the Hotel Grande Bretagne, mixed up with smart English and American travellers, what seems to be a team made of a big number of workers operates with co-ordinate efficiency. Alessandro parks the Giulietta by the ferry station and pulls of his gloves while stretching his back. A huge spotlight comes swinging, brought by two panting men swearing in a roman accent. In a crowd of carpenters, warped features, flying papers and new cursing, this time from a young man with a movie camera on top of a crane, Alessandro's interest is captured by a gentleman whose suit must have been cut by a fashionable deity.
Engaged in a fast conversation with the.mmm.hold on a second.but that girl, that girl is Annie Girardot, sure she is, the one Alessandro peeped at the movies, the one he once dreamt about. And that flawless gentleman, that chap with a sharp and aristocratic glaze she's talking to is Visconti, Luchino. Crazy stuff cinema in Italy, a disease, almost as mad as racing to our Alessandro. But look carefully, because by that moment our kid is not the only one gazing at the unknown world with ecstatic persistence. Somebody else is looking toward Alessandro with interest. From a low stony wall close to the set prepared for the first take of the day, sat in her long flowery skirt, a lazy cigarette on the side of the mouth, a girl frames the thousand little sketches around her through the mighty objective of a camera, one of those Alessandro has seen only in American films or in some commercial advertising. Some minutes ago the girl stood up and now she keeps on snapping pictures at Alessandro. She moves a little closer every single shot until she gets to take an oblique close up of the boy. This is the point where our test driver is due to turn towards the lens and to give a shy smile to that girl with big bones and a sharp nose, fair haired as a wheat field dotted with white flowers, as tall as him but with blue eyes as deep as fjords. Benedicte introduces herself in a fluent and surprisingly musical Italian, she extends a hand with an openness and a self-awareness that Alessandro has never met, not only in the very few girls he knows, nor in his most exuberant and smart comrades. Disoriented, he shakes Benedicte's hand and that's the way they get forever immortalized, among the far away elegant extras on the set of Rocco e i Suoi Fratelli.
It is Benedicte's idea to immediately load the Veloce aboard the brand new ferry Stelvio and cross the lake in the direction of Cadenabbia. Alessandro needs to go back to Milan, doesn't he? Great, Benedicte too is expected by a train soon leaving Milan, and then Italy is waiting for her, Greece, the whole Mediterrean in search of the deepest ancient roots.
Alessandro has once studied that the offspring of important families from Northern Europe used to come southward of the Alps to have fun, to study the Classics and to write while drinking wine and sunbathing. Who knows if Benedicte comes from an important family. For sure she's from Oslo and she's got a special camera, but more than a super-rich she looks like a wanderer, easy going and clean, slightly freckled like little remote stars while her skirt flies in the Breva wind that has just hit the ferry deck. Benedicte's voice keeps Alessandro off-balance and takes him away along standards of conversation that sound mysterious to a boy like him, in recent times increasingly used to garages' technical subtleties and toughness and a little neglecting of his friends from school and those boring at the Faculty. Benedicte is like being invested by the wind, she talks about the lake using such words as conscience, rights, transparency, neo-classicism. She points at a villa on the Tremezzina and she praises the wrought iron of the light and clear balconies, she analyses the leather interiors of the Giulietta, she tells stories about Stendhal and Liszt, abuot the fugitive nazis and the smugglers hidden in the mountains of the Insubria. Eating little fried fishes right after passing Lenno she talks of the big Isola Comacina wildfire, when war already was a nasty business.
Alessandro feels the need of renewed pinches when in Cernobbio Benedicte buys him an ice-cream and in the deep of the park of a majestic solemn house kisses his lips twisting her long and thin fingers on his nape. It takes just one second for the girl to naturally return to her thoughts, in the quiet assertion that, according to her opinion, silkworms are really cute. Alessandro blushes and doesn't know where to look; he searches in the distance for the Giulietta's silhouette which, in a light trick, blurs like a brush stroke of red talent in the reflections of the calm waters of the lake.
Ah! If only his life would be like this.
Such a tiny car to escape to the lake on Saturdays, to go hand in hand with a girl of this kind into the splendid variety of the times ahead, towards all that exists, beautiful and deep. It starts to get dark, wave goodbye the peaceful basin of industrious Como and slowly go back to the Portello factory area.
Benedicte disappears in the night of a southbound train, Alessandro clutches in his hands a new piece of the world.