WE SAW THE FIRST SWASTIKA just outside of Crema, a sweet little city in the Lombardy region of Northern Italy. My wife pointed it out, leaning forward in our rattling carriage. It was a regional train and not moving that fast so we could both watch, silent, as the tracks jerked past until it faded out of sight.
Crema had a lot of anti-fascist graffiti too. “NO NAZIS” appeared in huge jagged letters at the station; “ANTIFA” was scattered throughout many of Crema’s golden alleyways, cobblestoned streets, and tall apartment buildings. Someone had written “Eat The Rich” at a crossroads although, as my communist wife grimly reminded me, that didn’t necessarily preclude fascism, even if it seemed a hopeful sign. And there was all the Italian-language graffiti that I couldn’t read, untrackable political speech swinging in unknown directions. Still, we saw a lot of swastikas. Now and again someone had attempted to turn them into something else. A flower. A cross.
Anyway, we were in the market for transformations.
I had decided to go to Crema because it was the setting for Call Me by Your Name, Luca Guadagnino’s Academy Award–winning 2017 adaptation of André Aciman’s 2007 novel. The novel is set vaguely in Liguria, some 200 kilometers south of Crema. Though I read the novel before seeing the movie, Aciman’s story seems now completely consumed by Guadagnino’s lingering, loving shots of Crema and the countryside around it, where the director lives. Elio (the film’s protagonist, played by Timothée Chalamet) and love interest Oliver (Armie Hammer) cycle lazily through Crema’s streets or return home to the luxurious villa that is Elio’s family compound in the nearby village of Moscazzano. They sprawl out with newspapers in Crema’s central Piazza Duomo and swim in the river. Their love affair is so rooted in the landscape that — perhaps worryingly — we never see an actual sex scene, just a slow pan out to the villa’s orchard at night.
Stripped of all story, Call Me by Your Name would be an easy and imminently effective tourist ad for Northern Italy. Crema itself saw its visitor numbers jump 50 percent in December 2017, and the internet is full of guides for film aficionados to visit shooting locations in the area. But going to Crema wasn’t, for me, just about dipping into that appealing river and cycling around the town. Call Me by Your Name is a gay love story — not just that, but a happy gay love story, its ending bittersweet without the tragedy we’ve seen too much gay fiction marked by. The story’s romance is dogged by hesitation, by missteps, by poor communication, but the love within it is clear and real and marked with approval. I wanted to live inside it.
The LGBT canon, such as it is, continues to be dominated by gay male writers: Oscar Wilde, James Baldwin, Christopher Isherwood, Allen Ginsberg, E. M. Forster, and Alan Hollinghurst to begin. There are lesbian writers, of course, or lesbian-affiliated writers, like Audre Lorde, Sarah Waters, Virginia Woolf, and Patricia Highsmith. These were the writers whose work I pored over furtively when I was young, and whose work I still obsess over today. When I was younger, in my teens and only tiptoeing around the fact of my own queerness, stories about gay men felt somehow more palatable — even safer. They were subversive, they put gay love on show, providing crucial distance from the hegemony of heterosexual love stories, but they weren’t something I ever had to confront as intimately tied to my own sexual consciousness. Gay male fiction gave me a sense of queer romance that, while rooted in bodies and strange loves, had no reflection in my body, in my own strange loves.
Now, I go after lesbian fiction like a bloodhound, tracking down classics I’ve never read, pouncing on new releases. All the same, when it comes to finding the real-world locations of lesbian fiction, I hesitate, uncertain where to turn or what to look for. A lot of them are simply too broad — Sarah Waters’s London is a dream, but haunted by a hundred other texts; Audre Lorde’s New York is lost to time and impossibly high rents. If I had enjoyed the novel more, I could visit the department stores of Highsmith’s The Price of Salt (renamed Carol in the 2015 film adaptation starring Cate Blanchett). I could go to Knole, where Vita Sackville-West grew up and which Woolf immortalized as a throbbing heart of queer gender identity in Orlando. But I’m a girl, and a lesbian. I’ve long grown used to having to find myself in texts that aren’t explicitly about me, and I wanted something that is hard to find in lesbian fiction: a perfect fantasy.
I didn’t go to Knole. I live in Berlin, and flights to Milan were cheap, and after a long winter we were desperate for some sun. So I went to Crema.
There’s something viscerally satisfying about finding a place so intensely linked to fiction that it still possesses the veneer of the unreal. I went to London for the first time when I was 20, and spent a day turning in stunned circles, gawking, infuriating every real Londoner, unable to believe that this place I’d read about in hundreds of books actually existed. Throughout my childhood and youth, the city had grown with me: A Little Princess, Harry Potter, A Tale of Two Cities, NW, Fingersmith, Mrs Dalloway. London wasn’t always the same, but it was always recognizable. It made the city seem unfamiliar and familiar at once, disconnected from the Australian landscapes I’d grown up in but almost more real to me, having occupied a vast proportion of my literary dreams from childhood.
We like to find the places where fiction and real life overlap. A city like London is good, but better is something small and specific enough to let those borders blur entirely. It’s why Kings Cross installed the magical trolley leading to Platform 9 3/4s for people to visit; why Tintagel feels slightly more of a ruined castle than most, like it’s existing in two places at once; why we look for the shadow of the humpback at Notre Dame.
When you’re gay, visiting the location of a queer story feels like something else. A touchstone, maybe. A hand reaching out from the past, a promise that you’re not alone. We can trace heterosexual love stories everywhere: Juliet’s house in Verona with its walls waiting for a message (or a mediocre romantic comedy), or the great houses that inspired Jane Austen’s novels. It’s harder for queer people. The available landscape narrows in, and the misery rockets up. We don’t have many happy stories. We try to visit them anyway.
There is something lovely and awful about the pilgrimages we make to the scenes of queer death or distress, acknowledging the pain that’s gone before, tapping into the courage that went with it. Steven Reigns’s project The Gay Rub collected these pilgrimages into one exhibition space, displaying rubbings from LGBTQ historical markers, tombstones, signs, monuments, and more, creating a space that draws attention to both the details and the gaps in queer history. And we travel when we can. Queer teenagers leave lipsticked kisses on Oscar Wilde’s grave. Two millenia earlier, according to Plutarch, Alexander the Great paused on his conquest tour of Europe and Asia to visit Troy, where he pays his respects at the grave of Achilles.
[H]e sacrificed to Athena and poured libations to the heroes. Furthermore, the gravestone of Achilles he anointed with oil, ran a race by it with his companions, naked, as is the custom, and then crowned it with garlands, pronouncing the hero happy in having, while he lived, a faithful friend, and after death, a great herald of his fame. As he was going about and viewing the sights of the city, someone asked him if he wished to see the lyre of Paris. “For that lyre,” said Alexander, “I care very little; but I would gladly see that of Achilles, to which he used to sing the glorious deeds of brave men.” (Trans. Bernadotte Perrin.)
We talk about Achilles and his probable lover, Patroclus; we talk about Alexander and his probable lover, Hephaestion. There’s something comforting about knowing that they talked about each other, too, though many of the renowned classics scholars who surrounded me during my undergraduate studies would be eager to yank them out of my hands — ancient sexuality is complex, sources are ambivalent, they’d say. And they’d be right, in a sense. But we don’t have enough queer love stories for me not to be possessive about the few I can grasp at.
Crema, unlike London, has barely any other literary claims to fame beyond Aciman’s novel. Unlike Achilles’ Troy, it’s modern enough for me to stand on the same steps and see what Elio and Oliver saw, perhaps interrupted by the glimmer of a few smartphones. It was a literary dreamscape waiting like an invitation, and I wanted to snatch it up. It felt like a home, waiting for us.
I read Call Me by Your Name for the first time when I was 16, a year after it was published. A friend passed it to me because it was hard to track down in Australia with an Australian high schooler’s budget and access. In any case, it made the rounds in my small, queer circle. Unsurprisingly, we mostly referred to it as the peach book, and several years later, trying to describe it to someone, I half-thought I’d imagined it. But I found it again, and read it again, and before the movie came out, I read it once more, which I suppose is a lucky three.
Here’s a confession that would get me shot in some circles: I don’t think Call Me by Your Name is a very good book. The parts that made it an underwhelming read have made it an excellent movie: the overblown imagery, the purple prose, Elio’s anxious teenage self-obsession are all much more palatable when filtered through the wandering gaze of Guadagnino’s camera.
Yet I’ve read and reread the novel because it was a queer love story, because we didn’t get many of those, and because when I was 16 it seemed impossible that anyone like me would get a love story like this. By the time the film came out I was married and had read many more and better gay love stories, but the film tapped into that teenage longing in a way that the book never had for me. My wife and I saw it in cinemas three times, and then, a little embarrassed, a little shy, we booked our flights and left.
There’s a scene in the film where Oliver and Elio linger in Crema’s Piazza Duomo by a newsagent, trying to make the other understand their awkwardness after they’ve first slept together. Oliver draws Elio down into a more secluded alleyway, their fingers linking and then releasing; Elio, worried he is being pushed aside and unsure why, asks if Oliver is happy Elio joined him in town. “I would kiss you if I could,” Oliver says, boxing Elio in against a doorway, their heads tilting close and Elio’s mouth opening, before it cuts to the famous shot of the peach.
“I’d kiss you if I could” expresses a kind of regret, but Oliver is smiling and teasing the potential of a kiss, not sadly reflecting the limits of queer public expression imposed by a homophobic society. The idea that being afraid to touch your partner for fear of a homophobic reaction could be a lingering, sexy moment rather than a miserable one has a strange appeal. For five days in Crema, though, I only kissed my wife when we were in our hotel room, and if our fingers brushed we didn’t dare grab on. Men stopped us in bars, train carriages, on street corners. They asked us where we were from and how we knew each other. “Sisters?” two separate men asked, scanning my wife and I — clearly different races — with narrowed eyes. I soon stopped hesitating when I said, “Friends.” We extracted ourselves from conversations at bars, were polite to the strangers hitting on us. My stomach was a tight knot of tension. We were up north in a country whose language we didn’t speak and whose politics we were ignorant about. It seemed suddenly both naïve and stupid of us to shoulder our way in and expect a world made for us, like the worst kind of tourist.
We seek out the stories that tell us something true and try to find the traces they’ve left on their borrowed patches of world, and Call Me by Your Name has a lot of truths to tell. The film doesn’t present Crema as a gay utopia, and in any case I don’t think Crema is necessarily any more homophobic than any small town, and may be less homophobic than many. Guadagnino — who is openly gay — lives there and clearly loves it. I was foolish, certainly, and looking back it’s hard to even understand what I wanted, what I was expecting. Not swastikas; not being afraid to hold my wife’s hand. But certainly both those experiences feel more common in 2018 than a rich, academic villa harboring a perfectly preserved gay love story at its center, one that is gently supported and even congratulated by its supporting cast.
One day in Crema we rode our borrowed bikes out of town and through a series of small villages and hamlets, some featured in the film, some not. We followed the river when we could and hacked our way through an overgrown ditch when the path disappeared suddenly. It wasn’t a landscape I could recognize from any text or history.
Maybe it’s these patches of lands that are up for grabs when it comes to lesbian romance: the unwritten, the unnoticed, the unseen. Virginia Woolf and Vita Sackville-West lay claim to properties whose doors you can close, keeping out strangers and dangers; Sarah Waters and Audre Lorde revel in the anonymity of big cities. In Crema, the only place I felt safe was outside the town, along a faintly ugly stretch of tangled dusty greenery where there was no one to watch my relationship and speculate. It’s harder to see and track gay love scenes like this, which breaks my heart a little. After all, I love to catalog. There’s still something there to be bitterly proud of in all the unnamed pilgrimages we pass, the hidden shadows of gay romance we leave behind us. Another one of the stories that we can’t touch, or that disappear, perhaps, as we reach out for them.
Mikaella Clements’s writing has appeared in Lithub, The Lifted Brow Review of Books, Overland Literary Journal, and more. She is currently working on her first novel, a literary rom-com co-written with her wife.