This is getting beyond a joke. You can see clearly enough that anyone re-emerging into 21st century daylight after, say, two decades of wandering blindly through the Borneo jungle or a Glasgow suburb might be in for one or two surprises. Apart from anything else, the putative Crusoe would have to come to terms with the bewildering realisation that in many pubs cheese and onion crisps are now only available in big bags. Or is that just in Sarawak?
Whatever. Twenty years is twenty years. The evolution of fried potato distribution, shocking though it might be, is something that on reflection you may feel you should have seen coming. What is rather harder for a human mind to comprehend is when... well, let us go back in time, to Wednesday last.
The early evening air is crisp (in the non-cheese-and-onion sense) and Bari is purring with the satisfaction of a city that knows it has once again done more than its bit to contribute to the world’s carbon emissions. In the setting sun, a lacquered teenage prole in a tracksuit is revving his blocked-in Ford Ka in a manner reminiscent of a retarded gorilla that hasn’t mastered when to beat its chest. You consider buying a banana to throw to him, but the street vendor is engaged in his own version of guttural sub-communication with a couple of throwbacks whose AC Milan scarves resemble nothing so much as broken leashes. With a warm glow of reassurance in your viscera, you walk on as far as the butcher’s, which, as always, is an oasis of timeless stability: a housewife is buying in meat by the hundredweight for her extended family’s midweek carnivore training, the main macellaio is bantering about sausage quality and the guy on the till looks more than ever like an embalmed piglet. In the piazza an insouciant youth with a healthy disregard for the convention of gear-changing at corners narrowly fails to mow you and your salsicce down on the crossing, and in the window of the TV shop the Serbs are revolting. In short, as you unlock your door and settle down at your computer to translate, the world is at peace with itself.
Some sixty hours later, reeling from over-exposure to the language of prose writers who fancy themselves poets, you emerge pale and twitching into a Saturday morning. At first you take things in your stride. Okay, so the Ferramenta at the end of the road, not content with closing every time you need anything from it, has now metamorphosed into yet another discount detergent store – these are now so plentiful that you can only assume the locals have taken to washing down the carcases they drag home from the butcher’s with goblets of Dash and Mastrolindo. But what is this? A taxi driver braking to allow you to negotiate a pedestrian crossing? Cautiously, and not for a moment letting his front wheels out of your sight, you cross to the far pavement. Your insides are suddenly in turmoil and it takes you all of the seven minute walk to the post office to calm yourself down. The glass door opens smoothly to welcome you in and a smiling employee nods you straight to his counter. As dizziness overcomes you and all your previous queues flash before your eyes, suddenly and instinctively you know precisely what it means to stumble out of the jungle.