Saturday 18 July 2015

My summer holidays: the move

It has been an exhausting and glorious year. I’ve been commuting to Woking every week, had two jobs, the new one in Woking and the last bit of the other job in Cumbria, house chores at the weekend, preparing some food before leaving on a Monday, a new house in the south and all the commitments of the new job in an expanding, thriving international school.

It has been challenging, exciting, unexpected, a totally new perspective compared to the ones I was used to both in Italy and in the north of England. At the end of the adventure I felt exhausted but fulfilled. And now we are getting ready for the move in/to Surrey. A beautiful house is waiting for us in a nice quiet village in the countryside.
My husband and I are going to work full time, three of my children will be away at university, Valentina, my autistic daughter, will be with us. I feel that a new phase of my life is starting and I am ready to have it all.
During summer I’m not posting new pieces but I’ll upload my old blog pieces I had posted for four years in Lancashire Life website, now closed. I’ll organize them per topic, e.g. pasta recipes, desserts, holidays 2011, etc. I’ll post some new writing from September, carrying on with opinions, recipes, memories and book reviews.

Have a good summer.

Monday 13 July 2015

Soup recipes

Here are some soup recipes I posted on my previous blog from January 2010 till February 2015.

Soup with asparagus
A tasty soup to warm you up.
If the weather gets cold (you never know, even August can be tricky these days) a good soup is the ideal dish. I alternate four kinds of soups in my dinners. My favourite is the one with asparagus. It tastes exotic without being too unusual.
For four people you need 400 g. of asparagus, 50 g. of butter, three tbsp of flour, one litre of stock, half an onion, three tbsp of thick double cream, salt, pepper and parmigiano.
Cut the hard white part of the asparagus and boil them in water and salt for 10 minutes. Drain them and blend them with the onion. In the meantime prepare the stock. When it is ready mix the mashed asparagus plus onion, the flour and the butter with it and stir. Let it cook for ten minutes, when it gets thicker add the double cream, salt and pepper at your taste. Serve hot with parmigiano and croutons.
Cosy! I feel better already.

Pasta e fagioli or soup with beans
Are you in the Sage or the Rosemary faction?
I had a kind of debate with my mum by phone about how to season soup with beans (pasta e fagioli).  I have always used sage: it gives a full taste to the soup when combined with tomato sauce.  She said she never used tomato sauce (a heresy!) with pasta e fagioli and she’d rather season it with rosemary.  Whether you are for the Sage Party or the Rosemary Party, here is a good-tasting recipe for cold days.
For four people you need:
250 g of soaked Borlotti beans, one litre of water, one peeled clove of garlic, three tbsp of olive oil, four tbsp of tomato passata, 200 g of macaroni, salt, pepper and sage or rosemary.
Boil the beans gently in one litre of water and salt.  When they are ready, pour the olive oil into another saucepan and gently cook the garlic.  When it is pale brown, remove it and pour in the beans and water.  Add the tomato passata, salt (if necessary), pepper and sage (or rosemary).  Let it boil for 5-10 minutes.  Finally add the macaroni and stir.  When everything is cooked, serve hot.
A variation of this recipe is blending half of the beans and mixing it with the rest.  The result is a creamier-textured soup.

New Year’s Day dish
Lentil soup
In Italy we say that lentils make money.  For this reason we always have a dish of lentils in January, usually for New Year’s Day dinner.  A traditional dish is lentils with cotechino (a big pork sausage) but here is a cosy recipe for a lentil soup, ideal for cold days.  And you never know, it may be lucky as well.
For four people you need:
250 g of green lentils, one onion, one carrot, a head of celery, 150 g of double cream, 30 g of butter, 2 tbsp of olive oil, 100 g of bacon lardons or cubes of pancetta, croutons or conchigliette (a small kind of pasta), salt, pepper and parsley.
Cook the lentils in water with the onion, the carrot, peeled, the celery and a tsp of salt.  When the lentils are cooked blend everything in a liquidiser.  If the mixture is too thick add water.
Melt the butter with the olive oil in a pot, then fry the pancetta for a short while.  Finally add the lentil paste, double cream, pepper and parsley.  Let it heat through till it boils.  At this point you can serve it with bread or croutons or decide to have it in the ‘Italian way’, adding 200 g of conchigliette or macaroni  (a small kind of pasta we use for soups) when the soup is boiling. Let it cook for about ten minutes more.
Hope this will make you rich.

Black Bean soup
Warm up
I love Borlotti beans but to change colour and taste I tried a variation on Pasta e Fagioli (bean soup), using black beans.  
Before starting you need to soak the beans overnight in cold water (a thing I often forget and then I’m hurrying to find an alternative dish at 5:30 pm).  
For four people you need:
200 g of black beans, 100 g of tomato passata, two tbsp of olive oil, 30 g of butter, one small onion or half an onion, one stalk of celery, one carrot, 200 g of macaroni, parsley, salt and pepper.
Rinse the soaked beans and boil them gently for half an hour in one litre of salted water.
Melt the butter in the oil and add diced onion, celery and finely chopped carrot.  Let them cook for a few minutes.  Add the tomato passata, parsley, salt and pepper and simmer for 10 minutes.  Blend the beans and add them, with half of the cooking water, to in the saucepan where the tomato sauce is simmering.   Boil for 5-10 minutes then add the macaroni and stir.   Cook until tender and serve hot.

Zuppa Toscana
Soup with beans and Savoy cabbage
This is a traditional recipe, of a soup my grandmother used to make and my mother and aunts still prepare.  It is a simple soup made with the genuine products poor people grew in their vegetable gardens.  It is healthy and delicious, ideal to warm you up.
For four people you need: a small Savoy cabbage, 250 g of fresh or dried,  soaked borlotti beans, half an onion, one stalk of celery, one carrot, rosemary, extra virgin olive oil, salt and bread (a white bloomer would be perfect).
Chop the Savoy cabbage and cook it with the beans, onion, celery and carrot. Add salt and rosemary.  Let it boil for forty minutes.  When the beans and the cabbage are ready, take out the onion, celery and carrot.  Line a large bowl with a layer of thin bread slices, pour a bit of oil on them and then two or three scoops of the hot cabbage and bean soup.  Cover with another layer of bread, then more oil, beans and cabbage and ladle on the soup liquid as you go.  Serve, adding a few drops of olive oil if you like.

Sunday 12 July 2015

Bits and pieces

Here are some articles I posted on my previous blog from 2012 till February 2015.

My Graduation, December 2012
MA in Creative Writing

I had a wonderful day last Wednesday on my graduation. I am now Master of Arts in Creative Writing, with a Merit. I feel very proud of it because English is my second language and because I worked very hard, and I got my reward. At the same time I enjoyed it thoroughly and wish to thank the tutors of Lancaster University, department of Creative Writing, for their invaluable teaching and fantastic support. I also want to thank all my friends in Spotlight in Lancaster who have always encouraged me (by the way I’ll read at Spotlight on Friday 21st December). Especial thanks to Sarah Hymas, Sue Seddon, Keith Lander, Ron Scowcroft, Elizabeth Burns and the Friend of the Stanza, and all my fellow students on the MA course who gave me helpful feedback on my work throughout. Here are some pics of the great day.

February half term trips, 2014
We had a lot of dental and hospital appointments during the February half term. We had to use our holiday week to catch up on what we had missed. My daughter was at home from Art College and my eldest son came back for one day from Manchester to celebrate my husband’s and Valentina’s birthdays. A very busy period, I must say, but happy as well. In spite of the hectic schedule, I found time to have two one-day trips with my daughter: Vettriano’s exhibition in Glasgow (Kelvingrove Museum) and the Wordsworth Trust in Grasmere.

I found Jack Vettriano’s work terribly interesting and very well painted. He develops a world of illusions and dreams, totally artificial, referring to Hollywood glamour of the 1940s and 1950s. It is an escapist kind of painting (he said so in an interview I watched on TV), where clothes, hairstyle and poses are clearly affected. He uses models, clothing the men in high-waist trousers, white shirts, braces and trilby hats and the women in clinging dresses, stockings and garter belts, then takes photos and paints from the photos. This pretentious artificiality mirrors in a way contemporary reality. We actually live in a fake world, in some aspects, so why not create intentionally a fictitious reality for an art work? Isn’t it what all artists have always done?
Vettriano (real name Jack Hoggan: Vettriano is his Italian grandfather’s surname, adopted after changing his painting style) is a self-trained painter. He started copying great masters’ works: Caravaggio, the Impressionists, probably Flemish painters as well. In one of the videos at the exhibition he says he painted Monet’s Coquelicots so many times that he could reproduce it while sleeping. This is the way painters and artists practiced in the past: copying ancient art and old masters, training as apprentices in a workshop where they learned how to draw and use materials, copying from their master. I think his skill in using oil painting is superb, clearly influenced by Flemish art. His Portrait in Black and Pearl refers to Vermeer’s Girl with a pearl earring, and Sweet bird of youth evokes Woman bathing in a stream by Rembrandt. The accuracy of detail, the contrast of dark and light shade, called chiaroscuro, also recalls Caravaggio, and the smooth, sometimes sketchy brush strokes show the Impressionists’ influence. His work demonstrates a long, in-depth study of old painters’ techniques and a brilliant use of colours he developed in his training, thanks to an undoubtable talent.
Some features obsessionally recur: cigarettes (I spotted a figure in a picture holding a cigarette in his fingers and another one in his mouth), women in profile with abundant dark hair, red lipstick and red nail polish, barely black stockings and sleek dresses. But all the artists have recurring figures, or recurring themes, and an easily recognizable personal style (just think of the soft colours and round body shapes of Renoir, or the geometric fruits of Cézanne, the plastic wavering brush strokes of Van Gogh and the muscular bodies of Michelangelo).

At the Louvre in Paris I saw three or four reproductions of exactly the same naked model seen from the back by Ingres. Old masters used to have a well furnished sketch book with drawings and paintings they used and reused, e.g. Botticelli: recurring figures of servants holding a basket or a vessel on the head, and Dutch painters had drawings of flowers and plants from different seasons they used in the arrangements of their still lives.
Besides, Vettriano became famous overnight, literally. After his success at the Royal Scottish Academy in 1989, where he sold two pictures in the opening night, he received so many orders and commissions that it is no surprise if he repeats himself from time to time.
What I specially admired in Vettriano’s retrospective is the dream-like atmosphere in his work, his capacity to invent, create a world, a story, a fiction, that makes the viewer dream too. In common with other painters and artists, he conveys pleasure and his work is appealing.
I also find that his painting technique has improved through time. A work like Portrait in Black and Pearl (2010) shows great skill in rendering the fur collar and making us focus mainly on the pearl, very Flemish-like. I agree generally with what A.L. Kennedy, a critic and writer, says in one of the videos at the exhibition: Vettriano can draw and paint; nowadays some painters can’t.
We also visited the rest of the Gallery, focusing on Margaret McDonald Mackintosh, on the Glasgow Boys and the Scottish Colourists. I found all of them impressive, very much linked to French painters but also developing a personal style in the choice of subjects and use of techniques. We also greatly admired Christ of St John of the Cross by Salvador Dalì, which really enriches the art collection of the Gallery. Alas, the Italian Renaissance paintings were on tour.
Our next trip was to the Wordsworth Trust. I was there several times for poetry readings and workshops, but couldn’t properly explore it. Dove Cottage is so cosy and the rooms are so small you may feel you are visiting a doll’s house. So much reminds of Dorothy and William and their daily life, apparently modest and ordinary, but actually thriving on accurate observation, attentive reading and literary discussion. And bursting in creative work. A humble place, I must say, almost a retreat, where talent put deep roots and grew unceasingly. I bought Dorothy’s journals and made sketches.
Our final treat was a visit to the Heaton & Cooper studio, a Gallery and Art shop in Grasmere. My daughter and I couldn’t stop browsing through the rich display of art equipment, wanting to buy all the gorgeous pigments, expensive brushes and different papers and pens. We eventually left behind quite a lot of money and took away new colours and papers for our art work.

I am British!
Another great event during my Easter holidays was the ceremony for British citizenship. Well, yes, finally I’m British, and very proud of it.

It took more than two years. First we had to collect an incredible number of documents for permanent residency, not just bills and bank statements, but also letters from work, doctors, schools and university for the children, with birth and marriage certificates including translations. After a year we could then apply for British citizenship. We passed the Life in the UK test and also the English language test (in force from last October). We had to collect more documents, each fill in a form over twenty pages long, countersigned by two referees, and then we sent everything to the Home Office with the addition of a substantial cheque. Luckily all went well, our application was accepted and we swore our oath to the Queen and the UK government on 16th April at Preston County Hall (photos attached).
It was exciting and slightly moving. I feel I have finally achieved something important, something I was wanting for a long time. I really hope I will be able to contribute to the progress and well being of this country with my work and my skills.

St George and St Francis
Now that I have two nationalities, British and Italian, I also have two patron saints: St George and St Francis of Assisi. I was curious to understand why England and Italy chose such saints and not others as, of course, they did not happen by chance. I believe that they are linked in some way to the national character and expectations of the country they represent. They are an example set by the church and rulers for the people of a country and in time they have also become one of the symbols that represent the country itself.
We don’t have much information about St George as he was supposed to live in the early period of Christianity (4th century AD), when Christians were harshly persecuted and Christianity was repressed. Two questions come to mind. Did he ever exist? And, why did the English choose a saint from far away when they had so many good saints of their own?
A book about St George which I recommend is Saint George, a saint with three faces by David Scott Fox (Anchor Press, 1983), which in part answers the questions. The author says that St George was probably a soldier in the Roman army in the province of Cappadocia (central Asia Minor, today’s Turkey) persecuted and possibly martyred during the emperor Diocletian’s persecution of the Christian from 303 AD. His body was believed to be buried in Lydda (Palestine), which became a place of pilgrimage. Constantine built a basilica in Lydda in his honour, which was later destroyed and rebuilt (pretty similar to what happened in St Peter’s grave in Rome). The St George’s myth begins here. Miracles such as being cured from disease happened at his tomb and several churches were dedicated to him. He was one of the greatest of the ‘military saints’, who could assist soldiers during a battle. In the 5th century Pope Gelasius summoned a  Roman council which re-wrote many apocryphal legends.  Regarding St George, the council reduced his tortures to five, the miracles to three and omitted any resurrection.
St George’s fight with the dragon appeared in print for the first time in the Golden Legend by Jacopus de Voragine (13th century, from an original story dating back to the 10th century), which was a very popular book, a medieval best seller, as saints were the heroes of the Middle Ages. The dragon is symbolic of the devil. In Revelations St John refers to the dragon as ‘that old serpent called the devil’. St George’s fight is meant to be against evil forces and temptations. During the Crusades, the legend spread, St George becoming ‘the perfect knight who seemed to represent the very incarnation of the spirit of chivalry’. The George and the Dragon legend is also strikingly similar to the story of Beowulf and the myth of Perseus. All of them reflect the eternal struggle of good against evil in humanity's never-ending quest to rid the world of sin and injustice. The image portrays the ideal knight, or ‘propaganda knight’ (as stated in Holy Warriors, the religious ideology of chivalry by Richard W. Kaeuper, University of Pennsylvania Press, 2009) and is far from reality. The knights in medieval times may have sometimes protected the weak, but most of the time were a dangerous element involved in crime and violence, often at a private level, caused by the lack of an effective political authority. The Crusade ideology claimed that the battle against the enemies of faith was redemptive: an idea unacceptable in today's Christianity. Christ was seen as a warrior who ‘laid down his life willingly’, as all valiant knights should do.
During the Crusades, the St George cult reached its peak. It is said that Richard the Lionheart had a miraculous vision of the saint in Palestine and as king he instigated the use of the red cross. Under King Edward, St George was chosen to be the patron saint of England. The king created the Order of the Garter (1348) where the saint stood spiritually at the top. St George and the English monarchy had been linked for a long, prosperous time, representing not only patriotism but also the constant effort to defend an autonomy and independence hard to uphold  in a pre-modern era. Maybe it is for this reason that more ‘spiritual’ or ‘ascetic’ saints would not be suitable for England. They might have inspired an accepting, surrendering attitude, which would have put the English people at the mercy of other conquerors.
The other important aspect in the relationship of myth with nationality is the rescue of the princess (representing people in danger: in this case it doesn’t really matter whether the legend is true or not). This reflects a very English ideal. Being an island, Britain is a place of refuge par excellence, and has held this role during religious and political persecution across the continent, to the present day. It is not by chance that refugees, escaping a threat to their human rights in their home countries, are welcomed here.
The cult of saints is very often linked to the mentality and social structure of their contemporary society (as Stephen Wilson clearly states in his book Saints and their Cults, Cambridge University Press, 1983). This is exactly the case of St Francis of Assisi.
He was born in Umbria (central Italy) at the end of the 12th century and lived during the first half of the 13th century. He died in 1226 and was proclaimed saint in 1228. Assisi was a thriving place at the time, like most parts of central Italy, producing fabrics and trading them all over Europe. A new capitalistic mentality and what we call today ‘middle class’, were rising. Merchants were the heart of this society, new rich whose capacity for accumulating money competed with both a lavish aristocracy and the Church. Their activities were considered immoral by the Church, merchants and their families having no possibility of salvation. At the same time a large group of  deprived people (what we call today ‘lower classes’), exploited or ill, or unable to work for different reasons, was developing. While in the countryside the poor could find shelter and food because of the solidarity of the community, or simply die forgotten. In the city the concentration of poor became more evident, as the rules of survival were ruthless. Religious charities supported them in part but it was not enough. They were often excluded, relegated to caves or shacks outside the town walls. This applied especially to lepers.
Francesco’s father, Pietro Bernardone, was a silk trader and probably a usurer too, a rich merchant who could offer a comfortable life to his family, a life that Francesco definitely enjoyed during his youth. When he was about twenty, he took part in the battle of Collestrada (1202) and was captured and put in prison for more than a year. On rejoining his family, he was still similar to the other rich young people of his home town. He liked spending and enjoyed life but he also had ideals: a romantic, almost aristocratic, wish to gain glory and better his position, to become a knight.  After a crisis, whose cause we don't know: maybe   illness or a disappointment, or perhaps he was bored of his rich, comfortable life, came his conversion. What profoundly changed his perspective on life was meeting the lepers, the excluded, who first provoked his horror but then acceptance and mercy, ‘a sweetness in my soul and body’. After a while he started to practice asceticism and repentance, considering his life before the conversion to have been sinful and vain.
As Raul Manselli points out in his famous and comprehensive bibliography of the saint (San Francesco, (English translation: St Francis of Assisi), it was not only the poverty of lepers and poor in general that attracted Francesco and caused his conversion, but rather the profound understanding of common human suffering, in the body and in the mind (soul, he’d have said), which gnaws human beings like leprosy.
At the time the Church of Rome was troubled by both internal contradiction and external threat. Firstly, the wish to inspire and live in devout adherence to Christ’s words from many in the Church conflicted with widespread corruption and the dissolute life of the Roman Curia and some high priests. Secondly, the Church as a whole was challenged by Muslim invasion of the Holy Land and the heretical movements in Europe. In this climate the idea of ‘holy war’ and ‘just war’ against Muslims and pagans, or heretics, emerged, as well as a forced conversion, in contrast with the previous idea of a slow and pacific conversion. Oppression and war, apart from being cruel and ruthless, were not completely successful. It kept Islam out of Europe temporarily, but the heretical movements flourished. It was clear to everybody that the poor, ascetic and ‘heretical’ preacher was nearer to Christ’s life and teaching than the rich and powerful priests and abbots. In the Middle Ages, religion and spirituality had a paramount importance in social, political and ordinary life, from kings to peasants.
In this historical context, Francesco and his poor friars were, simply by example, both parallel and antidote to heretical movements. St Francis was never ordained priest, challenging the rules of the time by shaving his head and preaching, crossing the strict divisions between lay people and clerics. He was more successful than any threat or persuasive sermon. Besides, Francesco was faithful to the Church, obedient to the Pope (Innocent III approved the order in 2010) and his life was impeccable: committed to poverty, pacifism, chastity and penitence and he shared his life with the poor and the sick. It was a real earthquake in the religious life of Italy and Europe. Was he understood? I am sure he was in great part, and still is, considering that he had a huge number of followers and today the Franciscan order is still strong and spreads all over the world. Still, he couldn’t really change the Church, but this is another matter.
Other important works on St Francis are: Vita di un uomo: Francesco d’Assisi by Chiara Frugoni, Fonti francescane (Franciscan sources), and two films: Brother sun, sister moon (1972) by Franco Zeffirelli, and Francesco (1989) by Liliana Cavani.
Compared to St George, we certainly know a lot about St Francis as he lived in a period when Christianity was widespread and people kept written records of what was happening. On the other hand, it is not so easy to understand why Italy chose St Francis as its patron saint (he was proclaimed patron saint of Italy together with St. Catherine of Siena in 1939 by Pope Pius XII). It seems a contradiction of, rather than a similarity to, what are commonly considered typical characteristics of an Italian lifestyle (his asceticism above all, his harsh life to the brim of madness, contrast with the easy-going, comfortable life of the average Italian). Nevertheless he was chosen instead of other important saints, like St. Antony of Padua,  to name just one.
I think the first reason is the fact that he was Italian and saved the Church from a probable schism. The other reason is his noble example of  humanity and open-mindedness that embraces, forgives and comprehends everybody, especially the poor and excluded, but also the violent, the criminal, the pagan. These qualities are borne out by the story of the wolf of Gubbio, probably a criminal, by his visit to Egypt in 1219, meeting the Muslim Sultan in an attempt to bring peace during the Crusade wars, by his immense humility and, I’d add, cleverness and freedom. This is a very high aim, an ideal almost impossible to reach but very much rooted in the Italian (or should I say Mediterranean) mentality. Mixing with, absorbing, comprehending others is not only the right thing to do, it is also the most convenient way to live a peaceful and rewarding life. This mentality is the consequence of the geographical position of the Italian peninsula stretching into the Mediterranean, where different populations travelled and mixed readily in the past centuries. But Italy is also linked to central and eastern Europe in the north, bringing in even more people to this day. Italian populations had to come to terms with ‘invaders’ all the time.
Certainly St Francis is also the symbol and ideal of a pure, poor Church, adhering to Jesus Christ’s teachings. And the Roman Church, together with the Roman empire, are the most important and powerful achievements in the history of the Italian peninsula, another reason in favour of his choice as patron saint.
So, long live St George and St Francis!

A day in Edinburgh
I spent a weekend in Edinburgh, with my daughter who is currently studying Fashion and Design at Edinburgh University, but we had only one day to go sightseeing. It wasn’t too cold, but very windy and definitely beautiful: the sun shining, the sky deep blue and the air invigorating.
My daughter lives near the castle, within easy reach of the Royal Mile. Of course we did a good deal of shopping. How could we resist the warm tartan scarves, shortbread and Celtic jewellery? I soon gave in, spoiled myself with some presents and started the Christmas shopping.
At Holyrood House I reminded my daughter that we had visited it a long time ago when she was only five or six years old. I remember the children enjoyed visiting the palace by themselves, listening to audio guides. They behaved so well during the whole visit that my husband and I had a well-deserved, relaxing tour for once.

At the Queen’s Gallery there was a massively interesting exhibition on poets laureate from John Dryden to Carol Ann Duffy. There were not only letters, poems and pictures of the poets, but also beautiful works of art by Stephen Raw, a textual artist who created his pictures from poems by Carol Ann Duffy. His elegant writing, reminiscent of Celtic calligraphy,  highlighted words, encircled letters, letting an ‘f’, a ‘g’ or an ‘r’ extend across the page. Around the letters, usually in white, a background of vivid watercolour shades added comment on the words. The books can be considered modern ‘illuminated’ art works in their own right. I couldn’t help but buy the printed version: Ritual Lighting, published by Picador.
Among the poems of the exhibition were The Crown, composed by C.A. Duffy for the 60th anniversary of the coronation of Queen Elizabeth I, Rings, for the wedding of Prince William and Kate Middleton, and Dreams, a concertina art book a few metres long illustrating C.A. Duffy’s poem.
We visited the interior of the palace, following the audio guides and admiring the highly decorated plaster ceilings, the old tapestries and the portraits of sovereigns. The story of Mary Queen of Scots and her secretary, David Rizzio, was the most intriguing and mysterious one, a mixture of passion, politics and possibly adultery. Who knows?
The garden's impressive autumn colours stand out against the distant rocks of Salisbury Crags. On the north side of the palace are the charming ruins of Holyrood Abbey. Ancient history and tradition represented by the palace and the abbey are stunningly counterbalanced by the wild environment and harsh weather.
After this we went back to the Royal Mile and headed to the Scottish National Gallery. Italian painters are well represented (three of Raphael’s Madonna with child; Titian, Veronese, Salvator Rosa, Tiepolo and many minor interesting painters) as well as Flemish and Dutch art (two beautiful Rembrandt and a Frans Hals). There were some insightful portraits by Joshua Reynolds and Thomas Lawrence. Unfortunately we missed the Impressionists and the section of Scottish art because of distractions, running late and catching the train back to Lancaster. We’ll have more time on my next visit.
In the Gallery shop I bought some cards reproducing the C.R. Mackintosh sketches of flowers, great works I added to my collection.
I found my daughter well settled in Edinburgh and happy. She is enjoying the courses (besides fashion, she is also studying Japanese) and is having fun with her new Scottish friends. She is not eager to come back home. On the walls of her room and framed on her desk, she displays family photos including old picturess of great-grandmothers and a wide collection of artistic postcards testifying our visits to galleries and exhibitions. We quizzed each other on the names of their artists. On her pin board I hung a little woollen angel, found in a shop on the Royal Mile, to protect her.

Commuting, November 2014
Every time I leave Lancaster to travel south I feel a sense of adventure: my life is developing. I love the job I am doing there and the place where I am working (I teach Italian in an international school in Surrey). I thought from the beginning it was a great opportunity and I am trying to make the most of it. When I started at the end of August I drove for the first two weeks, but not every day. I always stay in a hotel for three nights. It should take four hours to reach Surrey but it normally takes five to six hours by car, mainly because of the traffic, especially around  the Birmingham area.
Travelling south alone by car gave me an unusual, exciting sensation. I had a sudden feeling of freedom mixed with curiosity, which oddly reminded me of a similar emotion experienced when I used to go on childhood holidays to the Alps with my parents and sister. I even felt I was breathing fresh Alpine air while driving! Proust syndrome? Just a coincidence, but it was breathtaking. Then I decided to travel by train, less tiring though more expensive. Sometimes there were delays or other disruptions such as the hotel forgotting my reservation and all the accommodation in the area being already taken. I ended up at Guilford Holiday Inn after midnight and was lucky they still had a room free. Another time there was a problem in the railway in Carlisle and my train was cancelled.
I always check the weather forecast two or three times before leaving. I pray it won’t snow this winter and floods will be moderate. Or I won’t fall and break a bone (this has never happened to me in my life yet) or sprain an ankle, or any other dreadful emergencies happen in my family. Please no, not this year. We are usually all pretty healthy and haven’t experienced any kind of serious accident in the past twenty to twenty-five years, so why now? I try not to have negative thoughts but just keep going and pay attention to what I do: climb downstairs carefully, check the train timetables, book seats and double check reservations, have enough food and drink. It’s all routine after a while which is why I need to pay attention.
Though I enjoy travelling and look forward to it every Monday, I also want to come back to my family every Thursday. Coming back north means home but also a lot of chores and looking after my autistic daughter Valentina. My husband is tired too, as he works full time and has Valentina. Hopefully next September we should all be together again down south. Maybe I am going to miss my commuting then, looking back with nostalgia to my free time in the hotel: no cooking, no cleaning, and to the hours spent in the train reading and snoozing...a wonderful time.

Buying a house in the south
As I am now working in the south, I am planning to move south too. I know property prices have been going up and up in the London area in the last year and a half, but now they are stagnating, probably going down slightly.
Finding a house I liked was not straightforward or easy. The properties I viewed at first had exorbitant prices and were rather old. They’d have looked sad even after massive refurbishing. I can’t honestly believe that the estate agency really expected to sell them at those figures.
After this shocking experience, I contacted more agencies and tried different kinds of property in different areas. At a certain point I decided I didn’t want to live in town but in a village, and booked one appointment after the other every free evening I had after school. After a month I still had no clue about where we could possibly live down there. Houses were too small or too big and impossibly expensive. Nothing seemed affordable for us except what we didn’t like.
Then one day I insisted on seeing three properties in villages around Woking. I liked two of them and asked my husband to dash south and have a look at them as well. He liked the houses so we decided to not waste time. The prices were negotiable and we made our offer. Negotiations went on for a few days...finally we had a deal. Now we look forward to signing the contract and have the keys, hopefully after Christmas.
My new house is beautiful. It has a modern kitchen, a lounge and dining room downstairs, four bedrooms upstairs and enough space for us all. Though it is smaller than the house we have in the north (my children are less and less at home now that they are at university), it is well built, doesn’t need refurbishing or decorating and there are even a conservatory and a Jacuzzi in the garden. On the whole, it’s a lovely place, well kept, clean and simple, with everything we need and more. A happy ending to my house hunting adventure.

Saturday 11 July 2015

Some Books, July 2015

I read some unforgettable books in the last few months, here are some of them.
My favourite one was The Blind Assassin by Margaret Atwood (Virago, 2009), an incredible six-hundred page engrossing story about two sisters, Iris and Laura Chase. In the background the period between the two wars and after WW II. Different plots interweave making the book very gripping. For example the world of Sakiel-Norn in another dimension of space, it is an extreme vision of our reality where wealthy ruthless people rule and poor semi-slave children, who are doomed to all kinds of exploitation and abuse. A tale told by a mysterious lover to entertain his mysterious mistress after making love in grimy bedsits. The story of the Chases is paramount in this book, we know since the beginning that Laura has a fatal car accident, probably a suicide, and that Iris’ husband and Iris’ daughter are dead as well, but nothing is spoiled. The magic is that we don’t realize almost till the end if everything is happening by chance or if there’s someone leading. It’s like a detective story. The blind assassin is revealed only at the end, it’s unexpected, a cunning, though emotional and passionate character, capable of profound love and terrible vendetta. Vindication seems the major theme of the book, a constant effort to state the right version of the story, to convey a truth that is also a revenge for the wrong doings of others.

Despicable people die as well as innocent ones, only the smartest survive, lonely and forlon. A bitter conclusion where competition and constant retaliation obscure all other feelings or affections. The two women, Iris and Laura, personify the typical dichotomy of ‘sense and sensibility’, the rational and self-controlled Iris and the sensitive fragile Laura, with almost autistic traits I daresay. Well known women’s characters found in the literature of Jane Austin to Shakespeare, Alessandro Manzoni and Goethe. Literary stereotypes renewed by the great Canadian writer who gives them a more extreme and ambiguous twist.
I came to this fantastic book after reading an article by Margaret Atwood herself on the Guardian Book Club, Review section of the Saturday Guardian. The author explains how she conceived the plot and the protagonist Iris (a ‘somewhat fearsome person’, she says). She wished to write about the time of her grandmother and of her mother, the time of the first and the second world war when a lot of Canadian men were killed, then the time of the great depression that caused the failure of so many enterprises and also the flourishing of science fiction, which explored social structures in such a critical time. She also inserted real events like the 1934 Communist rally in Maple Leaf garden, the volunteers to the Spanish Civil war and the maiden voyage of the Queen Mary.
The Art of Falling by Kim Moore (Seren, 2015) is a enthralling poetry collection. The pounding tempo of her poems resound in the reader’s mind like an ancient ritual, repetitions that recall archetypical rhythms. They are about her people ‘who swear without realizing they are swearing’, her father, a scaffolder, her own work, teaching the trumpet. The sequence How I Abandoned My Body To His Keeping is a powerful evocation of an abusive relationship lived in symbiosis with the abuser. The pain of it is touchable as well as the compassion. The memories are revisited in an attempt to heal and maybe understand what had happened without the presumption to give a reason for the unreasonable. It’s an experience which is there, testifies how certain people can be, without judging, in spite of the anguish and sorrow. This shapes us as love does, as education and books do, making us wiser and warier.
The last section of the collection is about poems written for different occasions, witty meditations like the wonderful In Another Life. The image of wolves is a leitmotif since the first poem. It may suggest a wild side, a primitive instinct that links the poet to nature, to a truer self, or simply expresses a part of us, we can be wolves a well. A superb collection, clever, entertaining and profound.
Another book recently published by Seren that I have just read is Terroir by Graham Mort, perfectly crafted short stories stretching from southern France to the north of England, from Africa to South America. Behind every story there is a careful research on themes and language, as in the first one, Terroir, about the long process of making quality high priced wine. This creates a perfect setting and lets the reader dive completely in the atmosphere of the story. The characters are totally believable, so well built we are completely dragged by them. Most of the stories are narrated in the third person using interior monologue rather than dialogues, the style builds up the character adapting to his or her voice, speaking love or frustration with a typical intonation that can’t be mixed with anyone else’s. Each story is a world of its own, perfectly constructed with an overwhelming sense of tenderness the reader unexpectedly perceives. It must be the love for life and people, all different from one another but all important, that inevitably all the stories of this book convey. Nothing major or heroic, just ordinary lives, everyday events made unique by skilful writing and great sensibility.
I also read two Italian books I had on my reading list for a while.
I Sommersi e i Salvati (The drowned and the saved) by Primo Levi is a meditation on the major themes arisen from his first book, Se questo e` un uomo (If this is a man), talking about his experience as a Jewish inmate at Auschwitz. The author meaningfully quotes S.T. Coleridge, The Rhyme of the Ancient Mariner, at the beginning of the book: ‘Since then, at an uncertain hour,/That agony returns:/And till my ghastly tale is told/This heart within me burns.’ The extreme experience of his life at Auschwitz comes back again and again like an obsessive nightmare and needs to be retold in different ways, looked at from different angles, in a vain, but understandable, attempt to find a rational reason to the unreasonable, the totally absurd cruelties men inflicted on men. The book is an existential meditation that brings Levi back to the hell of concentration camps. He compares his memories to the writings of other authors with a similar experience like Jean Améry, an Austrian philosopher. Levi explores the way the inmates made up imaginary reasons or invented news of an imminent liberation to face the cruelty of selections for Gas Chambers or their everyday unbearable life. He recalls the Prominenten, the prisoners who collaborated with the SS and did the dirty jobs in the camp; he locates them in a ‘grey area’ where the dichotomy friend-foe or good-bad is totally abolished. In the Lager the enemy is everywhere, inside and outside, he says. Sadistic and frustrated people wanted to be Prominenten to obtain privileges (typically less work and more food) and humiliate the other inmates till total submission and annihilation. Nevertheless most of the Prominenten were doomed like all the others, their privileges couldn’t save them for long because of the radical plan of the SS, that is to exterminate all the Jews. Another important point is shame, mainly the shame the survivors felt once liberated. It had different reasons, the shame of humiliation, the shame for the rebellion failing against the SS and against the several injustices of the camp, the shame for the loss of human dignity, the shame for being alive while most died. In some cases this led to suicide after the liberation. Other topics are the problem of communication and the apparently useless violence the prisoners had to undergo. But the victim needs to be humiliated before being killed so the killer can’t be blamed/feel the blame. The final chapter is dedicated to letters from German people who read Se questo e` un uomo. It’s impressive how much time Primo Levi dedicated to this exchange of letters sometimes lasting for years. The aim is the same of the book: an attempt to understand why such horror happened. Did German people have an answer? They didn’t, there can’t be a logic in such cruelties.
The other Italian book I read was Va` dove ti porta il cuore (Follow your heart) by Susanna Tamaro, a very popular book by a successful writer. I could link it to The Blind Assassin as also the protagonist of Tamaro’s book is a rich elderly lady writing her memories for her granddaughter. And she has a twisted personality, like Iris (though not as twisted), and causes her daughter’s car accident (as Iris caused her sister’s one) with her final disclosure. The aim of writing her memories is similar as well, that is to explain and justify her deeds and regain the granddaughter affection, at least after death. To simplify we can say that the protagonist of Va` dove ti porta il cuore is a softer version of Iris, she is her Mediterranean sister. The Blind Assassin was first published in 2009 and Va` dove ti porta il cuore in 2000. I don’t think the authors made a conscious link between the two stories, they just happen to be similar and I just happened to read them one after the other. For example in the Italian book there is no vendetta (which seems strange as it is such an Italian stereotype!), on the contrary the tone is calm, there’s no retaliation or anger behind the protagonist’s actions. There’s less glamour, less money and elegant outfits, and less ambition compared to the Canadian story. Lack of love and affection is the major theme of the Italian book and it is the trigger that leads the protagonist to cheat on the neglectful and distracted husband but eventually she neglects her own daughter she so much wanted, just because she becomes depressed after the sudden death of her lover. The positive key and conclusion of the book is that we need to accept who we are at the end, and, as the title says, follow our heart. A beautiful book.

Sunday 5 July 2015

The pleasure of reading

Entertainment, fun and pleasure are basic necessities of life, just after water, food and rest. They’re like bread and butter. We can’t survive without them all.
Reading is one of my greatest pleasures. I can say that my whole being (body, soul and mind) gets totally absorbed by stories and poems I read or hear. It isn’t real life, of course, it’s more. A good book or the story in a work of art draws me into a different dimension, which is not only challenging, amusing, adventurous and charming but also more real. Most of the time, works of art show us in original, engaging ways, how things really are. They explain life to us from a certain point of view with which we may agree or disagree, a perspective we need to take account of. Life, real life, is much more ambiguous, shifting, disappointing and extremely unpredictable. Some authors, especially modern and contemporary ones, clearly write about it. Consequently, reading becomes profoundly involving, not just a diversion but an experience in itself.

Whenever I read a well written, absorbing book, I can’t help taking notes of my impressions and comments and re-examining what I have read: the story, the characters. I meditate on who they are, what they say, how they would react in real life. They can be a shadow that follows me, an entity I can relate to. Memorable characters (like Ophelia, Macbeth, Francesca da Rimini or Don Quixote) become examples we may imitate or whose stories may reflect what we are experiencing. Sometimes during the seminars and discussions I had in my university years, I and my fellow students talked about Shakespeare’s and Jane Austin’s characters as if they were real people. In a way, the world of art is a parallel world that clarifies reality.
When I read poetry it seems to finish so quickly at first, then I need to go back to each line, re-read it again and again, let the music flow and the words penetrate in order to celebrate its whole meaning. It’s so rewarding that it compensates for the frustrations and sorrows we inevitably encounter from time to time. Total bliss is rare. We need to create it, invent it to carry on and justify what is grimy, unjust and unreasonable in our world. Poems are similar to prayers. They unlock a magic world we wish to live in to block out the pain of contradictions and inconsistencies so typical of everyday life. A brief pause we allow ourselves.

Escapism and understanding go together, hand in hand, every time I read a story, a poem, or watch a film, a play or listen to a song. What would life be without such relief? Not only boring, but simply unbearable. Too much crude reality would be so heavy to suffer that it would crush us.