Saturday 27 June 2015

Small russet pies

By chance, I found some russet apples at my local supermarket. They were so especially tasty I thought it was good idea to make pies out of them. Small things were my aim. I prepared a pastry, peeled, chopped and seasoned the apples...and here is the result.
For the pastry you need: 300 g of flour, 50 g of melted butter, one egg, 100 ml of warm milk, 60 g of sugar and half a tsp of baking powder.
For the filling you need: three to four Egremont russet apples, the juice of a lemon, some drops of vanilla essence, a few cloves, half a tsp of cinnamon and one tbsp of sugar.
Prepare the apples, peel and cut into half inch cubes, season them with the lemon juice, cinnamon, vanilla drops, one tbsp of sugar and two to three cloves (which you will remove eventually). Let them rest for half an hour.

Make the pastry mixing flour, sugar, egg and butter in a bowl then all the other ingredients. Roll the dough out. Cut circles of about three inches in diameter (I used poached egg rings). Put some of the apple pieces in the middle of one circle of pastry and cover it with another ring. Press the edges using the tips of a fork and set it on a greased oven tray. Carry on till you finish the pastry and the apple pieces. Bake for half an hour at 150° C. When cool sprinkle with icing sugar and serve with whipped cream.

They are delightful.

Sunday 21 June 2015


My father, who was a doctor before retiring, wanted me to follow his in his footsteps. But I soon realized it wasn’t for me (I fainted every time I saw blood) and opted for something which didn’t involve flesh, bones and jabs. Books were all right. I loved them. As I was so good in English, had attended English courses and had been in England a few times, I chose English literature.
At the time (the 80s) the university of Rome, La Sapienza, had no computers or any electronic data base.  Everything was on paper. To enrol (or for enquiries or to collect certificates) there were long queues at the university offices where you had to hand in the enrolment forms, various certificates and the receipts of the uni fees you had to pay previously at the post office. An ordeal. A kind of natural selection. If you survived this you were in, and you could take from four to twenty years or more to end your four-year course, provided that you paid the fees every year (which were, and are, pretty low compared to the English fees).

I remember fighting to keep my place in the queue which stretched along the uni paths, up the stairs to the office and finally into a large room where several lines queued up in front of their respective hatches. As soon as you were inside you had to dash to the right queue heading to the right hatch (which changed often, some of them dealing with enrolment in alphabetical order, others with degree forms or otherwise) and wait for your turn. Once you were face to face with the clerk you had a few minutes to deliver your requests, hand in your forms and certificates (which he duly stamped and collected), grab the precious handwritten receipt and leave, while thinking: ‘God forbid they lose my file in their immense archives’.
Every exam was recorded on paper as well. The professors had to write the name of the exam on a card called ‘libretto’ (small book), write the mark and sign it. I kept it as a memento for a long time after my degree. You were in big trouble if you lost it.
Most of the exams in Italian universities are oral exams, a gut-churning chat with the professor and/or an assistant. Just before an exam, high adrenaline levels and sudden fears of becoming speechless were common feelings.
In term time we had to attend lectures (once or twice a week for each exam) and take notes, of course. Then read and analyse or learn several books. During the oral, your fate was decided in fifteen to thirty minutes, something similar to job interviews in the UK. It was scary. I survived and finally did very well, but the moment of the ‘interview’ was a little trauma every time. My dad told me once that he still had nightmares about some of his exams after more than twenty years.
In my university years I concentrated completely on reading and studying, spending hours and hours in libraries, attending lectures and seminars. It was all so engrossing and profoundly engaging that I almost gave up any kind of social life. I had a few friends, though, and went to a uni skiing resort in the Alps near Trento every year, where I could meet fellow students from universities all over Italy. But my main focus was definitely on my studies.
Literature lectures were the most interesting ones. English was my favourite subject, of course. The professors in the English department were varied and very different one from the other. The one I remember best, whose lectures I attended for three of my four-year course, was a short lady with short brown hair and a famous surname who always wore trendy outfits. She smoked like a chimney even during lectures (no smoking ban at the time). Her courses were mainly on Shakespeare’s work and though she hadn’t published important books yet, her lectures were stimulating, almost a revelation to me.
What she did was not only analyse the works, explain the critics’ opinions and interpretations, underline the style, etc., but she also made the work alive by linking it to life, life in Shakespeare’s time and today. This is a lesson I’ve never forgotten. Literature is not only beautiful, unique in style and original images, it also teaches you how to live and what to expect from life. Being young and almost inexperienced, this intrigued me tremendously. And this is particularly, though not solely, true of Shakespeare.
My final dissertation was on the images of Venice in The Merchant of Venice and in Othello. It took me a while to complete it but I enjoyed every moment. I hadn’t any computer so I typed it on my dad’s old Olivetti. Every draft was corrected by the professor with a pencil and I had to re-type the whole thing every time making sure I inserted the footnotes on each page. A never ending, massive task which I carried on by myself, with no help whatsoever. It's unthinkable today, when you just correct the file saved on your computer and print it again.
The final dissertation was not just marked. You had to discuss it with your and other professors during a proper exam (an interview again) where they questioned you in both Italian and English. According to your answers and considering also the average from your other exams, your final grade was decided. Chilling. But this was the last thing (there were no graduation ceremonies). You waited outside for a while, went in again, they told you the mark, you thanked them, shook hands and went to celebrate with friends and family. I believe it is still more or less the same procedure today.
Once I got my degree, I decided it was time to look for a job. I started with private lessons, then a few poorly-paid hours in private schools and supply teaching in state schools. Finally I had a stable job in two private secondary schools teaching English and English literature.
In the meantime I didn’t quit university completely. I realized I could enrol in another course to get another degree. I chose Italian literature and went straight into Dante and Italian philology. I couldn’t attend all the lectures this time and having a job slowed down my exam performance. Nevertheless I attained my degree at the end, which became very useful afterwards.

All in all it was a superlative experience, which not only gave me two degrees and the opportunity to teach both English and Italian but also widened my mind and gave me a great boost in life.

Sunday 14 June 2015

Schools, part 2

My high school was a Scientific Lyceum in a posh area of Rome: Amedeo Avogadro was its name.
It had two buildings, one in the elegant Quartiere Coppedè (photos attached) with buildings looking like Renaissance villas or small medieval castles. The school had some classrooms, in a tower attached to the main building, surrounded by bare ground. My classrooms were in another edifice not far from it (probably twenty minutes walk), which was instead an ordinary four-storey building adapted into a school.
The gate and the walls around it were covered with graffiti and ripped posters. It was 1977, a tough political period when right and left clashed one against the other in school assemblies, rallies and protests. The students attending the classes in the main building (the one with the tower) were notoriously right wing and the others were notoriously left wing. In the middle there were the Catholics of CL (Comunione e Liberazione) campaigning against divorce and abortion.
I was with the left and dressed according to the strict dress code of my side, almost a uniform: jeans (possibly not so clean and not so new), second hand t-shirt and/or pullover, trainers or suede shoes (we called them ‘Clark’) and a small square satchel made in Tolfa.
The opposite party wore formal clothes bought in expensive fashionable shops. The girls were usually blond, fresh from the hairdresser, wore make up and had brand new motorcycles. The boys wore sunglasses and had short gelled hair, the polo shirt collar always upright. The whole thing looks funny now, but we all felt serious and deeply committed at the time. I remember two school friends, older than me, a boy and a girl with bushy hair (she was dark, he was blond) who wore the same kind of clothes (blue jeans and blue pullover in winter, and blue jeans and white or blue t-shirt in summer). They were in the same class, always together, and after a few years I knew they managed to work for the same company, maybe even in the same office.
Some of my school friends came back from rallies with black eyes and bruises everywhere. They said they had fought with ‘fascists’. Cigarettes and dope were normally shared. I had my first crush: a short boy with long curly brown hair looking like an 18th century wig, and my first boyfriend I met while we were running away from tear gas and took shelter inside the walls of the university, La Sapienza. He was blond, green-eyed, a year older than me and a physics geek.
My dad drove me to school every morning at first, then I had a bike for my 16th birthday (and I still have it!) so I could cycle to school or, in winter, take a bus. It was a busy, terrible, challenging, wonderful time.
My favourite subjects were philosophy, history, art and history of art and, of course, English. My English teacher was a highly charismatic man, a Sicilian, rather tall, with fairly long, white hair and always smartly dressed. His surname was Craxi (probably a relative of the politician Bettino Craxi). He had a tendency to stray from the topic, getting lost in philosophical soliloquies: the Tristram Shandy syndrome. We enjoyed it because it meant free time, chatting, revising other subjects or minding our own business. He made me love Shakespeare, D.H. Lawrence and the Romantic poets. Although I was in a Scientific Lyceum, maths and physics were not my thing but I managed to pass the exams. My final subjects, apart from maths and Italian which were compulsory, were English and history. And the final results were brilliant!

Sunday 7 June 2015

Schools, part 1

I went to school as soon as I could walk, that is before I was one. My mother was a nursery school teacher and, though she taught children from three to five or six years old, the head teacher allowed her to bring me to school with her. I was a very good little girl, she told me once, and made friends with other children easily. Besides I took part in all the activities: drawing, reciting poems, singing and playing in the garden. My mum was there to look after me but I was pretty independent, could manage by myself and coped with the world of older children very well.

My mum’s school was in the suburbs of Rome, in an area called Pontemammolo, a working class district about half an hour's drive from where my parents still live. I remember she drove an old Fiat 500 along the busy via Tiburtina, then turned sharp right and we were in Pontemammolo. She used to stop in front of a low brick building to buy some focaccia at the baker’s (we usually had it at the mid-morning break), then carried on to the market square. Just along the square was the nursery school, surrounded by a spacious fenced garden with fruit trees, bushes with purple flowers and a mimosa tree in the middle. Part of it was paved but mostly there was grass and there were pebbles, which I used to pick up and store in my pockets, especially the white ones with rusty veins, thinking they were precious stones. We didn’t wear uniforms but white smocks with a blue ribbon at the collar tied up in a bow which I always struggled to keep tidy. Drawing, collecting pebbles and climbing the mimosa tree are the activities I remember best. It was often sunny so we had time outside almost every day. I loved playing with the other children. Hopscotch and hide and seek were my favourites. I also learned skipping games. Two children held the ends of the skipping rope and one or more jumped in. We took turns and sang songs I can’t remember. It was difficult to  jump into the magic space without tripping or, worse, being hit by the rope. The hardest bit was that once you’d started your turn, you had to complete it till the song ended.
When I was six I started primary school. My parents decided to send me to the local school in Pontemammolo as it was easier for my mum to take me there or fetch me home. There were afternoon shifts at the time as there were not enough classrooms for all the children. Most schools alternated morning and afternoon shifts: that is classes attended school either in the morning or in the afternoon taking turns. If I had the afternoon shift I used to go to the nursery school with my mum in the morning, stay for lunch (which was delicious: great minestrone and risotto we ate from bowls; sometimes I helped the cook and the dinner ladies, who were big, round and chatty with huge white aprons). Then I walked to the primary school along an uneven road, more a wide path actually, with gardens full of roses in spring on one side and run-down four-storey buildings on the other side. My mum said that people squatted there and that they should have left because the buildings were unsafe. I thought those constructions were not so bad from the outside and probably some of my school friends lived there. In the video clip my dad made of my first day of school, I rush towards the school entrance without looking back, wearing my dark hair in a tidy pony tail, the white smock  with its blue bow and carrying a big satchel.

I have great memories of my primary school years. My teacher was a middle aged lady with curly brown hair and stern eyes. I adored her. She was strict and probably had an old fashioned teaching approach but I thought everything she did and said was gospel. She had a wooden stick she struck our hands with if we did something wrong or didn’t learn our lessons properly. I tasted it on my palms once when I made a hole on my book by rubbing it too hard to erase a mistake. Looking now at what happened it seems outrageous but at the time I thought it was right and learned my lesson.
My best friend and I were both daughters of teachers (her mum was a primary teacher at the same school) so we were considered privileged pupils and had to get the highest marks. Some of my other school friends were from poor families. For Christmas the school gave them new shoes and once one of the girls, who had beautiful long blond hair, had it cut very short; I still wonder if her parents sold it.

When I was eleven my parents moved me to the state middle school in our catchment area (and  where they still live), a busy middle-class area. It was a shock for me. From the protected, relatively small community I grew up in where everybody knew me, I was suddenly thrown in an unknown, crowded, mixed world where nobody cared (starting with the teachers) and everything was confusing. In Italy if a student doesn’t reach a minimum level, that is a C or a D in all the subjects, they can be kept for one or even two years in the same class. One third of my class was made up of these older students who knew everything about smoking, drugs and sex. One of them had a boyfriend in jail and most of them chatted during the lessons ignoring the teachers, who ignored them. A lawless world compared to the one I had been used to. I felt lost at first, then got used to it. It was a hard time, luckily lasting only three years. I didn’t do brilliantly, but I survived.

Next week: my time at high school.