Archive for June, 2009

Mickey the Monkey lived in the jungle, surrounded by trees with luscious long leaves, birds with bright feathers and snakes that slithered over the palms. When she closed her eyes she could hear the caw-caw of toucans, the rustling of leaves, and the trickle of waterfalls. She would play with her monkey friends and family all day long, swinging from branch to branch, dangling from long ropey plants, jumping across rushing rivers.

But Mickey the Monkey was mischievous and curious. The jungle just wasn’t enough for her. She had heard the birds whispering rumours of another world, beyond the forest, where metal animals roared into the night, flashing their big white eyes, where two-legged creatures walked upright all day long and where  the biggest birds you had ever seen floated noisily through the sky.

One day, just before her sister Julie’s 21st birthday, she decided to venture out into this new world and bring Julie back a present that she had never seen before: something that would surprise and delight her – and the whole Monkey family.

Mickey swung to the edge of forest, and then ran, four-legged along the dirt tracks. She soon saw a box laden with bright bananas but as she jumped onto it, the box began to move! The truck took her further and further along the track and, seeing that this metal monster did not want to hurt her,  Mickey relaxed and filled her belly with bananas. Soon she fell asleep, lulled by the rhythm of the truck bouncing along the track.

She was woken by a screeching noise, unlike any bird she had heard before, and opened her eyes to flashing lights: green, orange, red.  The truck stopped moving. She quickly jumped off: this must be it. This was THE TOWN!  

She shimmied up the nearest tree, made of hard, cold stone, with a light at the top! She leapt from here onto a drain, then a gulley, looking for something to take back to her family. Looking for something she never seen before.

The first thing she saw from her bird’s eye view was a hat (though of course she didn’t know its name). She had never seen a hat before. But lots of the two-legged creatures had these things on their heads. She liked them, she wanted one. She swooped down to steal a particularly grand, soft one with a wide brim,  just as a gust of wind blew it off the man’s head. Another man picked it up and started calling, “Sir! Sir! Your hat!” These hats could fly too! But they were very hard to catch.

Mickey would have to find a different present. The second thing she saw, in through the window of a cafe (though of course she didn’t know it was a cafe) was a cup (though of course she didn’t know it was a cup). She noticed that the two-legged creatures were  looking into the cup, talking to the cup, caressing the cup. Then they each put their mouth to their cup and sipped. Clearly the cup was a very special instrument indeed and would bring joy and prsoperity to all who drank from it.

Mickey crept into the cafe through the open door and hid under the table where the couple were drinking their tea. She wondered if she could curl her tail up onto the table and around the handle of the cup without anyone noticing.  

But instead, “Ooh look, mamma, a monkey!” screamed a little boy, and soon all the two-legged creatures were running towards her. Mickey ran out of that cafe as fast as she could and hid behind a rubbish bin.

When she looked out, she saw that she was at a market (though of course she didn’t know its name). Trays and trays of yellow, orange, green and red fruit and vegetables. A man was standing very near to Mickey with a bright green globe in his hands.

“Roll up, roll up!” he called, “Come and see me melon demonstration. Melon demonstration taking place in two minutes”

People started gathering around the stall and Mickey was able to hide in among the legs. She certainly had never seen a melon before. Maybe this could be Julie’s present!

“Alright me lovelies. Fed up with sticky fingers? Not sure how to get the most outta yer honeydew melon? Gather round. This is what you do!”

And with a flick of his knife he cut the melon in two equal halves, scooped out the insides and whizzed them in a machine.

“Da da!” he called triumphantly. “The best melon milkshake for miles round. Milkshake costs just £1 a pop. Come and try one for free!”

As the crowd moved eagerly forward, Mickey was mesmerized by what the man had slung into the rubbish bin. The two melon halves, scooped clean of melon were like two empty cups: or two hats! A cup and a hat!” Thought Mickey. Two presents in one.

Julie will be pleased.

And just as she said this to herself, she saw the truck, no longer laden with bananas, but full of melons, just waiting for her to catch a ride. 

“I’ll be home in time for tea”, she thought, as she snuggled down among the melons and laid her head back to watch the stars.


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Today’s the day we discuss Jan Morris’s Trieste and the Meaning of Nowhere. Reading the book for me now is like having an ongoing conversation with Morris: I agree, and disagree. I’d like to discuss it with her. And in writing about it now, even just trying to quote her, I find I must replicate the dialogue that’s in my head. 

She begins:

I cannot always see Trieste in my mind’s eye. Who can?

[Yes, yes, she’s right there I think now, as I thought then. Except that, if you’ve been, you do see it, unmistakably, I think, the view from the train as it curls around the cliffs]

It is not one of your iconic cities, instantly visible in the memory or the imagination.

[not the general, no, but the personal specific imagination – my own imagination – teems with icons…] .

It offers no unforgettable landmark

[maybe so, but lined along the coast so you can always pinpoint exactly where you are: here is il faro (the lighthouse), always there in the distance is  il castello di miramare looming white on its own personal premonitary like a 3-D Mona Lisa), Monte Grise the chopped-off pyramid that pays homage to the forgotten concentration camp and shines like a massive brieze block across the bay at night); the red and white striped chimney of Monfalcone (‘Mon-fal-cone, Mon-fal-cone, Mon-fal-cone’, we always say, in a sing-song voice, imitating the driver’s announcement as we pull into the train station) 

no universally familiar melody

but for me the African drums pound on the pier beneath the concrete escalator, as I dance and dance barefoot in the sunset, illustrating ancient African methods of sowing seeds and reaping crops, glistening with delicious sweat, healthy and shining and happy.

no umistakable cuisine,

except the disappointing mix of crauti and German sausage,  the ambitious (and foul-sounding) stincho (pronounced stinko) di maiale in trattorias on the carso, the simple but abundant plates of cheese, salami and olives chased down with home-brewed wine from the osmizzes, the  reward of the sfogliatina at the end of the Napoleonica ( layers and layers of thin pastry cemented together with a kind of sweet cream custard)

hardly a single native name that everyone knows.

What does that mean??

It is a middle-sized, essentially middle-aged Italian seaport, ethnically ambivalent, historically confused, only intermittently prosperous, tucked away at the top right-hand corner of the Adriatic Sea, and so lacking the customary characteristics of Italy that in 1999 some 70 per cent of Italians, so a poll claimed to discover, did not know it was in Italy at all. 

Apart from admiring Morris’s erudition and skill here (I love the rhythms of her commas, the accuracy of her adjectives) and mostly agreeing with her observations, I sill want to disagree. Trieste does have an ethnic identity: a strong one that has persisted through all these changes. Slovenian is spoken throughout the city; many of the signs are in Slovenian (TRST, they say,impossibly), much of the food is Slovene, and the scenery of the carso is replicated all the way down to Croatia. It’s an ethnic identity that seems to be denied by the powers-that-be. At the International School , for example, where our daughters will go to school , they offer French, German and Spanish as the third language to English and Italian. Why not Slovene – a language they could instantly put into practice?) 

But the final paragraph of her introduction I can definitely relate to, one hundred per cent, stette

The allure of lost consequence and faded power is seducing me, the passing of time, the passing of friends, the scrapping of great ships! In sum, I feel that this opaque seaport of my vision, so full of sweet melancholy, illustrates not just my adolescent emotions of the past, but my lifelong preoccupations too. The Trieste effect, I call it. It is as though I have been taken, for a brief sententious glimpse, out of time to nowhere. 

While for Morris Trieste is a metaphor for the inevitable slide into old age, the regrets and evaluations a review of one’s life  journey inevitably entails, but for me, at this point in my life, Trieste represents a return, a starting over. The Trieste effect, as I relate to it personally, is that overwhelming sense of longing, of dissatisfaction, a kind of permanent mid-life crisis if you like (what have I achieved? why haven’t I done more?) but that experiencing this crisis in a city that embodies that same sense of listless despair is ultimately comforting (even as Bowie screams, You’re not alone!), and lifts you out of it all, determined to relish the quirks and surprises that the city has to offer. Because more than anything, this city has personality. You have to find your own Trieste. It doesn’t exist otherwise. In that sense, yes, it’s ‘Nowhere’ – but it is, too, somewhere, anywhere, everywhere. It offers its own form of liberation and transformation. Which is why it makes total sense to me that Jan Morris began her acquaintance with Trieste as a man (and not just any man, but that most manly of men, a soldier) , and returned, many years later, as a woman, the memory of the city must have kept her company through all those years of doubt. She changed sides, like the Italians, and, like the European image of the Italians, has found ultimate acceptance, if not near mythical adulation (Morris has apparently been called ‘the Flaubert of the jet age ‘ by none less than Alastair Cooke, and as ‘perhaps the best descriptive writer of our time’ by one who might know – Rebecca West.) 

Trieste is the city where lost souls can find themselves – again and again.

I wonder what the Book Club members (none of whom have been to Trieste) – will make of it?


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So – two reasons for writing this. First, I’m moving (back) to Trieste this summer. Second, we’re reading Jan Morris’s Trieste and the Meaning of Nowhere for our monthly Book Club meeting at The Rocket this Sunday. 

I am loving this reunion with Trieste. As I’ve said in an earlier post, I first lived in Trieste from 1990 to 94. Back then I was teaching English as a Foreign Language at the British School of Trieste, run by the indomitable Peter Brown (who is still there, I hear:  a kind of towering yet bumbling entrepreneur with his fingers in lots of pies, a Brit who has embraced networking the Italian way….). I had never taught EFL before (but had enjoyed teaching Clear Writing to first year  American undergraduates at the bucolic, idyllic Marlboro College in Vermont). I was up for anything – and most of all, wanted to get away from the intensity of academic study (I’d just spent two years writing a Masters thesis on ‘Historical and Sexual Marginalisation’ in three women writers …you understand why I needed a break). And this EFL was hands-on stuff. 

I did a month’s training at another British School in Udine (with the wonderful Richard and Marjorie Baudains – wonder what they’re up to now?) and then it was a baptism of fire – an intensive (as in every day from morning to evening) course for Italian railway men. We practised all the relevant vocabulary (I loved translating the – for some reason – hilarious and ubiquitous E Pericoloso sporgersi…) and rehearsed improbable conversations:

‘What time is it?

‘It is quarter past eleven.’

‘What time does the train arrive?’

‘It arrives at half past twelve.’ 

There was an overtly flirtatious dynamic: a young female teacher and a group of five (fortyish I suppose) Italian family men enclosed in a room for seven hours a day. They would often buy me presents and take me out for expensive meals with spectacular views of the Gulf. I would cruelly mimic their pronunciation (Iya wanta to-a be-a a- pop-a star-a) while they would solicitously praise mine. I can remember three faces (one square face, one moustache, two deep crevasses instead of dimples), only one name (Roberto) but a general sense of their kindness, gentleness, thoughtfulness, generosity. My first surprising introduction to the Italian male en masse

At that time we were living in a flat in Roiano (mid-way between the cobbled promenade and pineta of Barcola and the deeply polluted city). For one month (or was it three?) we shared the flat with our friends Juno Lamb (a student from Marlboro College) and Eric Demers (from the International summer camps Stef and I were involved in – more of which later..). And at some other point we shared the flat with Etienne Schelstraete from Belgium ( we met at the Youth Hostel where we first camped out – he was writing entries for encyclopedias, or translating, or just passing the time) and Michiel Blumenthal from Holland (another friend from summer camp – and guess what – not having heard from either of them for years, Michiel and I are doing summer camp together this July!! And Etienne is coming to visit us in Trieste this autumn…the circle closes).

Anyway, our conversations (with Etienne and Michiel in particular) I remember most vividly. They were all about Trieste and its lost sense of identity. How it was once an important port for Austria, and then switched nationalities (once. twice)..how there was a general sense of emptiness, of faded grandeur, of indefinable longing..both for the past and the future. I know it sounds unlikely (and pretentious of course) but this, truly, was an almost daily topic of conversation between us. Mostly steered by Etienne who had a historian’s curiosity and Michiel who had a dramatist’s sense of romance…and myself who had..a confused sense of identity typified by an overwhelming sense of longing for something indefinable. Stefano was less immersed..being the only one of we itinerants with a ‘proper job’ – and thus proper preoccupations (such as do Lorenz attractors really attract? etc etc How do mathematicians get away with studying this ephemera??!) Insomma, we felt at home in Trieste. This Nowhere was Somewhere to us.

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Book Club news

For the last eighteen months or so, I have been facilitating a book club, first at a lovely local cafe/deli Vanilla (which has sadly since closed down) and now at my local pub The Rocket. It’s an informal gathering of  readers who meet regularly to discuss works of fiction. We choose the books as we go along – often a mix of classics and contemporary – and you can come every month or just when you fancy. The discussion is lively and focused (based around questions circulated prior to the meeting). 

When:   One Sunday a Month;  2.30-4.00pm

Where: The Rocket, 11-13 Churchfield Road W3

Cost:    £3 

On Sunday 7th June we’re discussing Jan Morris’s Trieste: The Meaning of Nowhere (not coincidentally the city I’m moving to in August). You can get a feel for the place through this blog – in the ‘Letters From Trieste’ category. 

I’m going to try now – in a feat of technological engineering – to put each of the books we read onto  a separate page on this blog, alongside questions, etc – and hopefully you’ll put your comments on too and we’ll get a discussion going. 

Books and dates decided on for the next 3 months:

5th July    Barbara Trapido   Frankie and Stankie

9th August    John Steinbeck  The Grapes of Wrath

13th September   Simon Gray  The Smoking Diaries

Books discussed at the Book Club so far: 

Alexander Masters  Stuart: A Life Backwards

Chimamanda Ngozi Adiche Half of a Yellow Sun

A.M.Holmes  This Book Will Change Your Life

George Eliot  The Mill On The Floss 

Marina Lewycka  Two Caravans 

Barbara Kingsolver  The Poisonwood Bible 

Chekhov  Short Stories 

Sara Waters The Night Watch

Evelyn Waugh  A Handful of Dust 

Dostoyevsky   The Brothers Karamazov 

Rose Tremain    The Road Home

Richard Yates Revolutionary Road

Nabakov  Lolita

Azir Nafasi Reading Lolita in Tehran

F Scott Fitzgerald The Great Gatsby

Barack Obama Dreams of My Father

Please e-mail tonya@wordplay.org.uk if you’d like to be on the Book Club mailing list – and also to let us know if you’re coming so we can gauge numbers for seating and photocopies. Thankyou!

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