Archive for the ‘Letters from Trieste’ Category

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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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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Palindromes, or rather, palindromesemordnilap are the subject of my blog today.

The day began with the number 36 bus to Grignano peremptorily stopping at the bivio rather than going all the way to the ICTP campus, where I work. I understood that this unexpected action must have been the result of a conversation the bus driver had with the other number 36 driver coming the other way, in the middle of the road, holding up a car or two. There was clearly too much snow to attempt the steep road that curves down to the porticiolo. So the usual dozen or so clearly NOT Italian people heading for the International Centre of Theoretical Physics (mostly identified by their air of complete bemusement) had to get off a couple of stops too early and slip and slide through the deep and melting snow (for the several visiting Africans among us, probably their first encounter), walking head on (and heads down) into the indifferent traffic. It was literally hit and miss whether we all arrived intact.

Anyway, later, I was having a coffee break with my ten year old (also at work rather than school since the steep roads up to Opicina were not worth tackling in this weather), and she was excited about the prospect of sitting in the library and finding a book on palindromes. Not a very likely find in a Physics Centre (and about as likely as her managing to sit till in a library for more than 2 minutes) but you never know.

Then, lo and behold, lovely librarian Valerio (also a talented magician) walked into the bar. He’s already taught Micky a trick or two, and so she asked him directly about palindromes. Valerio thought there might just be a couple of lines in a chapter in a book by….But anyway, he said, here is one of my favourites,

i topi non avevano nipoti.

Wow, Micky and I thought, that’s excellent, and somehow quite sad, and possibly the subject of a story or a novel or a poem. The mice don’t have nephews/ nieces/ grandchildren.

Then Valerio told us about the ‘magic square’ palindrome in Latin, consisting of five words, SATOR, AREPO, TENET, OPERA, ROTAS, that can be read backwards and forwards and up and down and…down and up and…in every which way.


No one seems to agree entirely what they mean placed together in this way, and one of the words (Arepo) doesn’t appear anywhere else ever (so must, apparently, be someone’s name). But this square was obviously meaningful to the Romans who bothered to carve it in stone in Pompeii (discovered in 79AD), and it was repeatedly carved throughout Europe until at least the 14th century. The point is, somebody bothered to make it up, and it has been used to ward off spirits, or protect people, or as a secret code for Christians, ever since.

Developing a passion myself now for the wonderfully absurd meanings that can come out of such contorted constructions, I found a forum discussing palindromes in different languages.

Here are my favourites:


“A mala nada na lama”

(The suitcase swims in the mud)

“Socorram-me, subi no ônibus em Marrocos”

(Help me, I got on the bus in Morocco)


“Naai ‘r dan, Adriaan” which means simply,

Screw her then, Adriaan.

My favourite English one has to be:

‘Madam, I’m Adam’

described in the forum as the first palindrome ever. To which someone replied:

And of course, she just answered with her name: “Eve”. (Second palindrome ever).

Palindromes in general remind me of other very constrained poetic forms such as the villein or the sonnet that force you to choose from an extremely limited range of possibilities, but in so doing, you come up with a totally unexpected and sometimes very suggestive creation. The straitjacket of rules can force you into freedom.

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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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Prepare to relax!

Prepare to relax!

I basically put this photo here so I could catch up yet again – on missing the midnight deadline yesterday. Ho-hum. Not sure if it’s harder to write a blog-a-day when you’re on holiday and roaming around the countryside, or up to your neck in hot soothing mineral water, with your biological clock telling you that 10.30 is way too early to be getting up, or when you’re back at the grindstone, with someone else’s urgent deadlines to be met.

Well, only tomorrow left in holiday mode (sigh! – or as the Italians always say ‘sigh-sigh!’ pronounced like cig-cig – which reminds me of how I used to feel after smoking too much – nauseous but still desperately tempted by another one)…..so I’ll have an answer to that tricky question on Monday – (‘Is it harder to blog while working or while on holiday?’)

I digress…

Later today I’ll put in another installment….

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