Archive for the ‘On Writing’ Category

Two things caught my eye in Trieste’s local newspaper ‘Il Piccolo’ the other day. One, the glorious Cafe’ San Marco of literary fame and gold-leafed ceiling, closed down for a month or so since its manager Franco Filippi passed away at the age of 65, is now set to reopen, after much uncertainty, under the management of his wife and daughter.

And two, that ‘la passarella’ over the Canale Grande, meant to  join Cassa di Risparmio to Via Trento has, literally, fallen short. The foot bridge was intended to open another long strip of vie pedonali through the city, so that you can walk unimpeded by cars (or boats I guess) from Piazza Venezian, Piazz Hortis, Via Cavana, Piazza Unita’ to Piazza Borsa, along past Da Pepi’s mythical prosciutto cotto and crudo, wurstel, crauti, mustard and horseradish buffet (the menu hasn’t changed much since 1897), along past the newly renovated and grand Palazzo Ponte Rosso on one side, and another now humbled palazzo inhabited way too long by the carabinieri, with a row of spectacular statues lining the parapets that look on to Via Cassa Risparmio, then tiptoe right over the canal, looking out to the sea to your left, and up to the Chiesa di Sant’Antonio Nuovo on your right, waving in passing at Joyce standing crooked but tall in brass on the Ponte Rosso, then continue on dry land past the lovely but long decayed potential piazza but currently car park where the blackened Lutheran church looms. Once this is all linked up and pedestrianised, the square could become a gem, taking you right into the heart of the Borgo Teresiano, the really neglected part of the city, where Chinese merchants by day (selling incredibly cheap USB cables, padded coats, haircuts and massages) and prostitutes by night, manage to make a meagre but evidently good enough living, on into Via Ghega, the huge artery that curls around to the station. This one road, ahime’, remains as it was when we first lived here in the early 90s and has few hopes of ever being rescued, since its now the main route around and out of the city.

The little pedestrianised bridge (so far only called ‘la passarella’ it seems) was in the news, not because of any grand opening but because a mistake was made in measuring the canal, and the ready-made stainless steel and glass phenomenon, brought intact from Treviso, has fallen a little short.


Now they’re waiting to extend or engineer the big concrete blocks at either side. In fact, this explains the strange antics I passed by the other day, where two tug of war teams were lined up either side of the canal, pulling on a long metal chain, trying futilely to pull the sides closer together. Another publicity stunt I read about, was a magician from Italian TV’s Canale 5, the ‘Mago Casanova’,  who, in front of four young female witnesses, got into a box on one side of the canal, and appeared shortly after in a box on the other, claiming that magic can overcome these kind of shortcomings, and that he had “the gift of ubiquity”. Great!

So what of these two ‘events’? The demise and return of Caffe’ San Marco and the protracted arrival of La Passarella di Ponte Rosso (you heard the name here first)? My feeling is, just cos it’s old, don’t make it right, and just cos it’s new, don’t make it right either.

I can expand on that if you like… but for now, buona notte!


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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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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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Form and Function

Saw this nifty wine rack in a bistro style bar (Leon D’Oro) in Udine yesterday.


It takes a great design brain to come up with a wine rack that really looks nothing like a wine rack – just a bunch of bottles going rock climbing. That’s really thinking outside the box.

But, the question is, does it work? I mean, it looks like the bottles stay there okay, there was no evidence of shards on the floor below. But, isn’t wine, especially posh restaurant wine, supposed to be kept at a horizontal angle (or is that an oxymoron too) ?

But it’s a pretty clever, simple system. Here’s a close up.




Sheldon Cooper would have something to say about this I’m sure.


Anyway, it appears the Udinesi are not the only ones to get creative about their wine displays (by the way, though the bar served the most fabulous proscuito – not difficult being so close to San Daniele – the food and wine were not so great. So only recommended for a quick snack before moving on…)


Apparently in the Radisson Blu Hotel lobby at Stansted airport there is an amazing illuminated wine tower. Waitresses/ somelliers/ trapeze artists ”fly’ up to the top of the tower, grab your wine, fly down again, plonk it on your table and then whip back up again. At least that’s what it looks like in this video.

Which begs a few questions for those of us who would never dream of staying in luxury accommodation anywhere near Stansted: is the wine at the very top the most expensive? Does the ‘wine angel’ only do her thing if someone orders a bottle, or does she go up and down (and around and around) regardless? In other words, what, if anything, is the relationship between the performance and the object and..does it matter?

Thoughts on a postcard please..

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