Archive for the ‘Autobiography’ Category

Apart from the fact that I’m fast coming to the conclusion that it’s impossible to work full time, do all the family stuff AND blog, I am also having to recognise for the nth time that I easily stray from the matter in hand. Strangely enough, in Italy, at least in the circles we seem to move in, you are constantly reminded of how little commitment, dedication and focus you have. Most often, this shows up in the expectations parents have for their children.

Kids should do the best they can in EVERYTHING. If they are able, then they must work and work, practice and practice, and be the best they can be. If you are not being the best you can be, then parents have a right to punish you. These punishments are so harsh… my daughter’s eleven year old friend was telling me that she couldn’t come and play because she had been grounded (I don’t usually like Americanisms but this is the only word that means this in English I know of) – and no friends could come to her house. She had also been forbidden to watch television, use the internet, play games on the computer and read. (Hah! Not reading is a punishment – very cool). I looked at her aghast and asked her what was she doing then at home? “I study a bit, then I play a bit, then I study.”

“And why this punishment povera?”

“Because I only got 7 out of 10 in my test.”

At this point my daughter piped up, “If I get a 7 my dad jumps in the air’. Oh dear, said her friend, is he very angry? “No, she replied, “He’s really happy.”

This whole scene loses a LOT in translation, but never mind.

The downside of not doling out all these punishments is that maybe your kids AREn’t doing the best they can, and they’ll hate you for it afterwards.

Anyway, back to the crowded pavements… I was sat next to a lovely Indian professor on the bus who had just spent two months in Chanai after living in Trieste for twelve years. Now he’s going back to live there for good. Meantime, he’s back in Trieste.

“I really appreciate this” – he said, waving his arm to include the stunning cobbled pavements that line the road that travels next to the sea from the pineta in Barcola to the bivio that leads in one direction to the Castello di Miramare, and the other up the hill to the physics centre.

“I know”, I said, fully appreciating how breathlessly beautiful and life-giving this sea walk can be. “I love it too.”

“Well no, I mean, not this pavement, any pavement will do – just an empty pavement”, he said. “You can barely walk in Chanai. I don’t know if I’ll ever get used to it again.”

I remembered leaving London almost for the same reason – the unbearable claustrophobia of the tube at rush hour, the museums full at weekends, the crowded parks.

Later of course, thinking I might write about this for my blog, I went online to find out more about these crowded pavements. There were some great videos of bobbing heads of all kinds, weaving in and out, colliding on the sidewalks of New York. From New York I followed the weird internet path of connections to videos of the twin towers that fateful day. I had never watched a film of that event. I had just returned from Brazil (to London) that very day – on a long-haul flight myself and was already in a fog from jet lag. I thought it must be a joke. When I woke up later I knew it was true – and horrific and enough. I didn’t even consider watching it.

But now I have.


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Just a quickie because I want to watch yet another episode of Numb3rs (sic)…

Been skyping my lovely Napolitan friend who’s moved to Colorado with her family maybe for a year, maybe for more – photos of frolicking in bikinis in the snow. She said she’s joined a Spanish Book Club, full of wonderful women from all over and from varied backgrounds and professions. This week, Adele got to recommend a book for the first time. She said she was so excited  – a wonderful little book she had read many years ago, that she found funny and that talked of freedom and all things adolescents yearn for. Now, a couple of days before the meeting, she’s finished the book (again) and is horrified: the book is orrendo! At that age, at that time, it offered a specific reading. Just proves that authors are mere mediaries (is that a word?) to our reading contexts.

Films too (like Amadeus) can change drastically over time, watched under specific conditions and remembered with delight, then naively watched years later seem only macabre and pitiful.

And we’ve all probably experienced returning to a childhood space and finding it to be unexpectedly tiny, or setting off on a ‘hike’ we did routinely as kids, making the required serious preparations and taking along provisions, only to find that it’s a stroll up the hill and down again.

Distance, space, size – they can collapse and expand over time.

Almost makes you want to believe in string theory.

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Of all the things that have made me physically uncomfortable over the last couple of weeks (and there have been a few, believe me) the return of Mr. Mosquito comes high on the list. First, I start to awake way too early with a sense of pain on my knuckles (he always strikes there) then I hear the sound of a buzz from afar, getting stronger and stronger, dive-bombing towards my face and I lash out madly, ‘Aaaagh! Gerrofff@!!’ I fumble around madly for the insect repellant, put back in the drawer with relief, a couple of months ago. Can he really be back so soon? Is there no reprieve?

Two things to note here (as I’m sure you have).

1) Male mosquitoes don’t suck blood but ‘Madam Mosquito’ doesn’t have quite the same buzzy effect.

2)  I’m just complaining about a few red welts but these gals are vectors (isn’t that a cool word?) of serious disease. Some say they are the most dangerous animals on earth.

Not a bad reputation for an insect that doesn’t live much longer than 2 weeks.

If you want to know how to cause effective havoc, ask a mosquito.

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Madonna vagone di riso, ogni chicco mille puttane!’

(The Madonna is a wagon full of rice, and each grain is a thousand prostitutes!)

When we arrived at the Nuovo Antico Pavone the other night, this was the last thing I was expecting to hear. It’s always a tough decision whether to accompany one’s partner to a business dinner, but a ‘maths dinner’ offers particular challenges. Mathematicians have a certain reputation, and scintillating table talk isn’t one of them. On the other hand, the Antico Pavone has long been hailed in Trieste as the best place to eat fish and much as I hate awkward silences, I can’t resist the promise of a good branzino.

A couple of minutes after arriving my instinct was to run away. Seated around the long table, unusually elegantly dressed and expectant, were the assembled maths crew: from Argentina, Russia, Italy, America and  India. That’s something that most people don’t realise, that the language of numbers and symbols has made maths a truly international subject and this in itself must undermine the stereotype. But what happened that evening was truly unexpected.

A world famous mathematician began holding forth, and practically didn’t stop the whole evening. But he was intensely interesting, clearly brilliant, funny and a multi-linguist (speaking English, Japanese, French and German and seeming to have mastered Italian just by being in the restaurant). He told us the story of his father, brought up in what was not yet Poland, speaking 8 languages (including Yiddish, Hebrew, Polish, German and a couple of dialects) and then travelling the world as a journalist and then member of the CIA, among other things. The details aren’t private since he wrote a book about them (the father I mean)  – and if I get permission I’ll put a link to it here. His story blended in my fuzzy yet attentive brain with the book I’m still reading, The One Hundred Year Old Man Who Climbed Out of the Window and Disappeared, about (obviously a very old) man who, despite himself, during his life had walked across continents, hob-knobbed with presidents and worked out in his spare time how to build the atomic bomb.

From here we moved on to talking about all sorts of things, including a whole bunch of proverbs which, slighlty tweaking one element, though keeping the sense, somehow change the whole meaning. For example, ‘The sun never rises on the British Empire’.

Next up was the expression, ‘Mathematicians can turn coffee into theorems’ which the brillian mathematician said he found himself desperately trying to reverse in one particular maths institute bereft of that wondrous beverage (‘Mathematical theorems get turned into coffee.’)

The Italian maths professor in front of me, who had listened in most of the evening, occasionally adding a key line here and there, said quietly “with American coffee mathematicians can only create lemmas.”

But the coup came right at the end of the evening, when during another discussion about language, palindromes, whatever took our fancy, we ended up somehow on our favourite Italian swear words, well, swear expressions really, since they can start with a word (usually a holy word, like Dio, or Madonna) and then add on all sorts of foul and blasphemous things that they hope will happen to these sacred figures (including the Madonna getting zits on her fanny for example…) The same Italian professor mentioned the best swear phrase he’d ever heard from a friend in Tuscany (apparently as well as being famous for speaking the most correct Italian in Italy, they also create the most complex and creative bestemmie):-

Madonna vagone di riso, ogni chicco mille puttane!’

It loses a lot in translation, you just have to really savour the pleasure of the syllables….

I’ve since found this great Italian site, http://bestemmia.wordpress.com which helps you assemble your own personalised swear expressions by giving you helpful suggestions for all kinds of collocations. I think my favourite, again purely from the purely poetical point of view is

‘Madonna infiammata puttana troia ladra della madonna!’

As I said, when I walked into the restaurant that night, I certainly did not imagine that this would be where we would end up.

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It’s late, I’m tired, but still the daily blog challenge (and I’m grateful for that).

So I’ve been flicking through the only notebook I have here with me, beautiful handstitched with a William Morris design on the front that I suspected would be too good for me to ever write in. But in the end I have filled it over the years, even though occasionally, with a mixture of poems and quotes and thoughts. There are still lots of pages left…it’s like a pocket without a bottom.

Today I’m putting my hand in and pulling some things out to share with you and see what you make of them.

I copied this quote out of The Times newspaper on Friday June 6, 2008, when sitting in the Jade Boulangerie in Hampstead, where I used to have a cappuccino and an almond croissant after walking on the Heath. Then I’d go next door to Daunt Bookshop, where I would always fall for the covers of books and buy more than I needed.

Here, Emily Eavis is describing why she keeps on running the Glastonbury Festival:

When I was younger, I remember sitting at the window of the house and seeing people walking past when they arrived on the site. It was the oddest thing. There was this real look of determination. An intense look. Like they were going to have the most amazing time. I remember feeling scared by this look. It was like you’re going to come here and you’re going to do something that’s going to change your life. And sometimes it does. I think that sort of…matters.

That was how it felt to me at the time teaching creative writing courses. People’s lives did change – and it did matter.

And here instead is a selection of conversation I overheard while sitting on a train, having returned to England for a visit, a couple of years ago, and just loving my total comprehension of what everybody was saying, no matter how weird the content.

I remember I couldn’t see this person, she was in the seats behind me, but I noted that she had the voice of a 70 year old:

I was dry. It’d been a long time since breakfast. He managed to find me a pint of John Smith’s.

Next I noted a 14 year old (?) daughter to her mother:

So – you talk to sheep?

Yes, but not in public.

Finally, a Brummie accented young man on his mobile:

No, you can’t do my sister. You’re not good enough for her. You’re out of her league….How long you been writing on her wall?

Next stop, fiction.

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(This blog, since I have nothing to say again today, is taking its cue from the ‘daily blog’ themes provided by the wordpress gang – ‘Starting Over’). I’m going to take the title at face value and riff on it for a while and see where that gets me. Free writing in public, as it were. Maybe that makes this a ‘free post’. Phew! Must be crazy…. but here goes. Giving myself a strict time limit of 5 minutes and will not correct, delete or otherwise edit anything while I write. Will only correct typos (there are bound to be a lot of those) afterwards. Whether I decide to publish it or not is entirely up to me, right 😉 ?

Starting Over…

Well, I’m doing that right here so I must be doing something right. Feels like I’m always starting again actually, reinventing myself. I’ve had more jobs (wildly differing in nature too, not just mild mellow shades of difference between them but substantially massively north – south differences). Like wow! that would take you a few years of studying to be able to get your head round that new topic. And just when I get my head round I get bored and move on. Each time you start again of course you’re at the bottom, the newbie, the one who doesn’t know. That’s what it’s like always too being interdisciplinary – never knowing fino in fondo all the stuff that all the others spend their trainspotting time on.

Never was the trainspotting type myself or so I thought. Then have recently realised I’m a stickler for details. Sometimes these details really trip me up, always damage my writing. Can’t just go right in and start from the middle. Have to always start from the beginning, whether it’s interesting or not. Because the cause and effect, tracing those, seem so important. More important sometimes than the story. Or maybe it’s just a question of getting stuff off your chest. Oh oh one minute to go and have only written rubbish. Free writes can be like that sometimes. So here’s a warning: don’t do this at home. Editing is good and necessary and what writing is about.

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today. But, have got to stick to the challenge, a blog a day. So, since I haven’t much to say, I’ll leave it to someone else.

Went to sit in a bookshop this afternoon (Feltrinelli’s on Via Mazzini), which, while the rest of Trieste slumbers even more than usual, is gloriously open until 7.30 on a rainy Sunday evening! I went hoping to find an English version of The Iliad (14 year old is reading it in Italian at school – which seems like a challenge too far) but instead saw a new (for me) title by Jonathan Franzen, Farther Away. Turns out to be a collection of essays, and I went straight to the one ‘On Autobiographical Fiction’.

Writing good fiction is almost never easy. The point at which fiction seems to become easy for a writer is usually the point at which it’s no longer necessary to read that writer […] Unless the book has been, in some way, for the writer, an adventure into the unknown; unless the writer has set himself or herself a personal problem not easily solved; unless the finished book represents the surmounting of some great resistance – it’s not worth reading. Or, for the writer, in my opinion, worth writing.

He says a lot more stuff, about his own struggle to write The Corrections, “much of the struggle consisted – as I think it always will for writers fully engaged with the problem of the novel – in overcoming shame, guilt, and depression.”

There you go, it’s official: writing is painful, personal, shameful. I knew it!

Why do it then?

The rewards, I have recently discovered, are so much bigger than those three small words.

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