Monday, 21 December 2015

That was the year that was...

The year, I suppose, revolved around two books. One is by Karl Marx. The other is mine.

   There was going to be a "Venice Project 2". The first one sold quite well, people seemed to like it and I felt I had sufficient material for a second volume. Indeed, by the summer of 2014 I'd put down about 30,000 words. But I wasn't enjoying it. I had a vague idea for a novel in the back of my mind, and I was more excited by the prospect of getting started on that.

   And then I got lucky. Very, very lucky. I was contacted by an agent who'd enjoyed the first book and wanted to know what I was working on next. We discussed the fragments of ideas that I had, and he suggested I send him three chapters.

   I spent the next month trying to write the best 10,000 words of my life. He liked them. He liked them so much he asked if I could add another 70,000 or so, and send him a complete novel. And so, 1000 words a day, every day, for three months, I put it together. Caroline proofread it for me (we'll never agree on the Oxford comma), suggested it might be a little bit sweary (I disagree, so I cheerfully ignored this) and - crucially - pointed out I'd got a major character's name wrong in the penultimate chapter; a mistake that made a complete nonsense of the ending! Phew...

   In short, My Brilliant Agent (as I shall refer to him) liked it; and began the process of trying to find a publisher. It all seemed like a bit of a dream. At times I wondered if some of my friends were actually playing the greatest ever practical joke in the world on me. It should have been nerve-wracking, but those first four months of the year were intensely busy ones for work, and there wasn't much time for much other than teaching and sleeping.

   School broke up at the end of June, and a strange-yet-brilliant job appeared out of nowhere. We'd first come to Venice for the Biennale, and now we had a chance to be a part of it. Isaac Julien's "Das Kapital Oratorio" project would keep us busy for most of the summer, and several times a week we would head off to the Giardini to read Karl Marx. It was tiring at times, and sometimes frustrating (reading some of Marx's most impassioned passages to an empty theatre, or seeing the audience thin away to nothing during the interminable economic formulae of Volume 2). Still, it was a worthwhile experience and we met some great people with whom we hope to keep in touch. It would have been nice to see it through to the end, but my involvement finished in September, with the advent of the new school year.

   Being part of the Biennale did make it difficult to actually see it all. Nevertheless, we saw perhaps 90% of it this time around. Among the home nations, Bedwyr Williams 2013 "The Starry Messenger" was always going to be a difficult act for Wales to follow, but Helen Sear's "...the rest is smoke" was still a beautiful piece of work. Scotland - after a lamentably poor 2013 - redeemed themselves with an excellent exhibition from Graham Fagen. As for the UK pavilion itself, well perhaps the best that can be said is that it might have seemed more impressive in 1995.

   Then, on Friday September 25th, at about 13:20 Italian time, I got The Email from My Brilliant Agent.

   It began with the words "Get the Prosecco out."

   He'd done it. He'd placed the book with Little, Brown for release in early 2017; with a sequel in 2018. We went out to celebrate with our Brilliant Australian Friends (and yes, I am aware that I am overusing the word 'Brilliant'). It's kind of hard to describe how I felt, so I'll just say that everyone deserves a day like that once in their lives.

   Caroline semi-retired this year, something that suits us both. No more bored teenagers, no more screamy infants. Just nice, motivated students. She still seems to find herself with a bafflingly large amount of work though.

   Next year is going to be a busy one. I've made the same mistake as last time, the one I promised myself I wouldn't repeat, and taken on too much teaching work. This means the first few months of next year are going to be a bit grim, but those three months will pay for us to have a good summer again. Then there'll be work to be done on the first book, and another one to be written from scratch.

So Christmas is nearly upon us. I've done quite well for presents, again : a bottle of prosecco from a teaching colleague, a splendid meal with my Intermediate students, an origami swan; and some of the kids made me cards. OK, one of them says "Merry Christmas by you" but (a) prepositions are always difficult and (b) they're only seven. A reminder, at the end of the year, that this is often a lovely job.

Merry Christmas everyone, e Dio ci benedica, tutti!

Sunday, 20 December 2015


Fog lies heavy on the city, and - cold but happy - we arrive back from pre-Christmas drinks with friends. Just a couple of days more work and then the schools will break up and - assuming we can find our passports in the chaos of the spare room - we'll be heading back to the UK for a week.

   We need to be using things up, so dinner tonight is designed to start clearing out the fridge/freezer and the vegetable rack in the magazzino : potato and celeriac mash, roasted radicchio and some defrosted beef and radicchio burgers from the freezer.

   I peel the spuds, rescue as much as I can from the rather sad-looking celeriac, and put them on to steam. I chop the radicchio in half, give them a generous drizzle with some olive oil, and stick them in the oven.

   I put some Bach on the stereo, and pour a glass of wine.

   I go back to the kitchen and unwrap the burgers.

   I blink.

   The packet does not contain any burgers.

   It contains a spleen.

   I think back to two weeks ago. Roberto, at the farmer's market, is a very nice man. So much so that - after buying our usual provisions - he had given us a free spleen. There is, I'm sure you will agree, no greater mark of a gentleman than that. It went into the freezer, in a packet pretty much identical in size and shape to the beef and radicchio burgers.

   Back to the present. The radicchio is roasting away happily, and the potatoes/celeriac will be done in about 15 minutes. Defrosting the burgers is not an option. I need an emergency spleen recipe, and I need one now.

   There is nothing in The Silver Spoon, so I check Fergus Henderson's Nose to Tail Eating volumes. There is nothing to be found. And if Fergus cannot help us, then no-one can.

   In desperation, I turn to the internet. There are a few recipes there, but mainly along the lines of "first, boil your spleen for sixty minutes" and there's no time for that. There's a rolled spleen and bacon recipe, and yet I have no bacon. "Rolled spleen with no bacon" doesn't sound as if it will quite hit the spot.

   What to do? I've only ever had spleen once in my life, at a market in Palermo, served in a bun with a squeeze of lemon. I can't remember much about it beyond the fact that it tasted a bit like liver.

   That'll have to do. I fry up some onions, trim the spleen and slice it into thinnish chunks and - as soon as the onions have caramelised, into the pan they go. A good shaking of balsamic vinegar, I let everything reduce down, and we're ready to go.

   And...well, it's not too bad at all. The radicchio has been roasting for quite a while now, but that just means the outer leaves have gone crispy and that's not a bad thing at all. As for the spleen - well, the flavour is slightly milder than liver, although the slightly spongy texture isn't as nice. Maybe that why the Sicilians serve it in a bun.

   Not too bad at all though for what was basically a free dinner. I was quite pleased with my emergency recovery.

   The burgers are now defrosting for tomorrow night.

Thursday, 3 December 2015


It's Friday evening, and work has finished for the week. Which means beers over the road.

The weather is getting colder now, properly cold, but we sit outside nonetheless. Hats on, coats wrapped around us. At some point in the next few months the weather will drive us inside, but for now it's Friday night, it's cold, dark and foggy and we're sitting outside a bar on the main street in Mestre. We're living the dream.

   Not for us the warming vin brule or hot spritz. No, tonight - as per every Friday night - we sit with cold beers in pint glasses. Sometimes I think we're the only people who use pint glasses, and the bar keeps them just for us. They're never actually filled to pint level, but I don't think that matters. It's the thought that counts.

   We're on the second round when a street vendor appears. He's selling belts, bracelets, necklaces - the usual things. He's from Senegal, he says. He's polite and friendly and - to be fair - the belts don't look too bad. But none of us are really in the market for anything.

   He smiles. That's no problem. Good wishes are exchanged. Fists are bumped. And then he reaches into his bag, withdraws three small elephants and places them in front of us. A present. He smiles again. Well, this is splendid!

   There's just one thing. He's very hungry. Could we perhaps just spare a few euros...

   We look at each other. We look at our elephants. And, for a moment, the only sound is of three liberal white guys wondering what to do. And, of course, there is only one thing to do. We reach for our change.

      He thanks us and goes along his way; heavier of pocket, if lighter of elephants. We call for more beers and proudly regard our new purchases. No more Christmas Shopping for us this year!

   We wonder if we should leave them all on the table. I think they might act as a talisman against future vendors who - seeing we've already bought - will pass us by. Or is it more likely that they'll look at us and think, 'ah, the elephant trick still works'?

   In the end, we decide to pack them away. I finish my beer and make my way home to Venice. Where I will explain to Caroline that, yes, I may be a little bit later than expected but at least I have bought her an elephant.

Wednesday, 2 December 2015


It's late Friday morning. It's a beautiful, sunny autumn day, I've got no classes until 5.00 and life is good. I've had a few chores to do around the town, and I find myself in Campo San Luca with a bit of time to kill. A coffee seems like a good idea, but where to go?

   BlackJack is a decent bar that we've made use of a couple of times (good spritz, good snacks), and Marchini is a splendid pasticceria. And then I think, Bar Torino. I've never been to Bar Torino. I've walked past it any number of times, sometimes late at night when there's been a band on, but never actually gone in. I'll give it a go.
   I seem to remember that it was once regarded as being quite hip, but it feels a bit shabby and run-down, and the Jack Vettriano prints on the wall give it a slightly sleazy feel. An American tourist is trying to gently prod a wandering pigeon back outside. I ask for a coffee. The barista smiles.

- Espresso?

   I nod. Si si. But this is a bad start. Nobody ever asks you if you want an espresso. He thinks I'm a tourist.

   My coffee arrives, a sad little brown puddle that cools instantly at the bottom of an outsized cappuccino cup. It's rare to get a cup of coffee over here that's actually bad, but this is about as poor as it gets.

   I've not brought a newspaper or anything to read, and I'm in no mood to linger anyway. I take some change from my pocket. I know that I'm about to get ripped off. The only question is by how much.

- One euro fifty.

I almost laugh. That's 50% more than almost every other bar in town. And given that the price of a coffee al banco is fixed by law, I suspect it's probably illegal as well.

- One euro fifty? For a coffee al banco?

He shrugs.

- It's the price in Venice.

- No, it's not. I've lived here for four years and I've never paid one euro fifty. I don't even pay that at Quadri.

We stare at each other in silence. I could, I suppose, make a scene but it's not worth it for fifty cents. In fact the sheer bare-faced, we-don't-give-a-!$£* attitude is almost funny. Although I suspect I'd find it less so if I were a tourist being scammed ridiculous sums of money for some dismal-looking food.

I slide the money over the counter.

- This is the tourist price, isn't it?

He shrugs again and turns away.

Whatever. I console myself with the thought that a cappuccino and brioche might have necessitated the use of a credit card. I walk back outside, into the sun, and check my watch. Still a few minutes left. Just time for a coffee at Marchini.

Saturday, 7 November 2015


We sit in the cafe in the Arsenale, and talk about buying a brick. But not just any old brick.

   We've just seen a work by the Argentinian artist Rirkrit Tiravanija. It's a collection of hand-made bricks. 14,086 of them which is, apparently, the number of bricks used in the construction of the average Chinese house. Each one is stamped with Chinese characters which translate as "Do not work." A laudable sentiment to be sure, and one to be encouraged. And for just ten euros you can have a brick of your very own to take away, with the proceeds going towards an organisation for workers' rights in China.

   A limited edition work of art for just ten euros does seem like an unmissable opportunity, even if that limited edition is of 14,086. We're not quite sure exactly what we'd do with it, but Caroline suggests we could use it to wedge the balcony door open to let Mimi come and go.

   There's one problem, however. If we buy it now someone - let's call him "Philip" - is going to have to carry it around all afternoon. If we buy it at the end of the day we'll have to trog back through the entire length of the Arsenale in order to pick it up. And then someone - again, let's call him "Philip" - is going to have to carry it home.

   Caroline thinks it would be easier to buy it now. It'll save us the long walk back.

   I'm not convinced. I fold my arms and do my best to set my jaw in a firm line. I am not carrying a brick around all afternoon. No way. I'm not going to do it. And there is nothing - nothing - that is going to change my mind.

   Thirty minutes later, I find myself walking through the Arsenale. Carrying a brick.


The news of our acquisition starts to spread, and a number of friends express an interest in acquiring a brick of their own. Caroline wonders if she could go back to the Arsenale with a shopping trolley. Why, this might enable us to do all our Christmas shopping in one go!.

And then a week later, Peter and Lou, our Brilliant Australian Friends, come for dinner. We talk about our new work of art. They both agree that it is a very fine brick indeed.

- There's just one thing, says Pete. It's not fired is it?
- Eh?
- It's not fired. It'll slowly dissolve. Although that kind of makes it an interesting work of art in its own right.

We look at it more closely. There is, indeed, a fine layer of brick dust on the floor.

We've bought a brick. But it is not just a brick. It's a very special brick. A dissolving brick.

All in all it's just another brick in our hall...

Sunday, 20 September 2015

La Terra dei Malavoglia

"...di rompersi la braccia e la schiena tutto il giorno, e arrischiare la pelle, e morir di fame e non aver mai un giorno da sdraiarsi al sole....un ladro di mestiere che si mangiava l'anima" ( break your arms and back all day, to risk your skin, to die of hunger, to never have a day to lie in the sun...this thief of a trade, that ate the soul).

- Giovanni Verga, "I Malavoglia"

To English-speaking readers, Verga might be most famous as the author of Cavelleria Rusticana; later, of course, the subject of Mascagni's opera. However, I Malavoglia (in English, 'The House by the Medlar Tree') -  recounting the struggles of a family of fishermen in 19th century Aci Trezza, a small village near Catania in Sicily - is generally reckoned to be his masterpiece,

   Indeed, on entering Aci Trezza one is greeted by a sign stating "La Terra dei Malavoglia" which - given the unrelenting misery of the book - I would have thought akin to the Siberian tourist board deciding to publicise their country as "The Land of the Gulag Archipelago".

   Because there is misery aplenty in I Malavoglia. It's a brilliantly written novel, and - if you have an interest in Italian literature - you should certainly read it, but be aware that even Thomas Hardy would probably have thought it too depressing. And, with its emphasis on the rural landscape (not to mention occasionally making one want to bang the characters heads together), it frequently reminded me of Hardy. The difference being that - unlike Jude Fawley and Sue Bridehead -the Malavoglia  aren't brought down by the constraints of the social, political and class boundaries of the day. They're brought down by the innate capacity of people to be horrible to each other. Visconti filmed a loose (and more overtly political) adaptation, La Terra Trema, in 1948; and he too, is remembered with a piazza and bar (with splendid negronis!) named after him.

Now I may have made Aci Trezza sound rather grim, but that would be unfair. It's a lovely place. So lovely we asked our landlord, upon leaving, if we could make a booking for next year. We were even polite about his dad's home-made almond wine (not actually bad, but we did wonder if perhaps it was supposed to be used as a salad dressing instead of drinking it).

   This was our first visit to Sicily since 2002, and it was good to be back. We did a lot of swimming. We did a lot of lying in the sun. We ate a lot of fish. We ate a lot of granite. We ate a lot of arancini. Actually, now I think about it, we did quite a lot of eating. We also drank quite a few negronis. Indeed, I thought about compiling a list of 'great bars for negronis in Aci Trezza' but maybe that will have to wait.

Anyway, here are some photos.

This is the basalt Norman castle in nearby Aci Castello. Note the beach club in the foreground and the slightly ramshackle wooden scaffolding that is holding it up. There are many such clubs in the area, entrance fees are very reasonable (possibly varying in direct proportion to the solidity of the underlying structure).

Here's a view of Aci Trezza from Aci Castello.

And here's an image from the festival of St John the Baptist, patron saint of Aci Trezza, which took place on our last night.

It was a good week. We'd forgotten how much we loved Sicily. I'd forgotten that I was actually capable of enjoying a holiday on the beach, with the result that it took me the best part of the week to acclimatise; a week that I spent immersed in the miseries of the Malavoglia. 

Until next year! There is still, after all, that list of bars to compile...

Friday, 21 August 2015

Lazzaretto Vecchio

The Dutch Pavilion, hosting the veteran artist herman de vries, (and yes, that is how you write it...he's a lower-case kind of guy) is one of the better ones in this year's Biennale. And beyond the pavilion itself, de vries has also created a number of works on two islands in the lagoon.

Madonna del Monte lies between San Giacomo in Paludo and Mazzorbo and was originally the site of a Benedictine monastery, and, later, a church dedicated to Santa Maria del Rosario. Now in private hands, it seems impossible to visit without the use of a private boat. There may well be some art to be seen there but - passing by on the vaporetto to Torcello - we failed to spot any.

His other works are on Lazzaretto Vecchio. From 1468, it served as a quarantine station. And then, during the great plague of 1576/77, it served as the house of last resort. If you were diagnosed with the plague, you would be brought here in order to isolate you. This island would be the last thing you would ever see; and you would - as likely as not - be dead within a week. Lasciate ogni speranza, voi ch'entrate...

Death might be the great leveller, but money could still buy you a few privileges in the run-up. There was an, if you like, executive wing reserved for those with the wherewithal :-

Graffiti still survives from the earliest residents. Here, you can just about make out the figure of an angel.

There are other examples of a less exalted nature, at least one of which is spectacularly rude. No, I'm not posting it, you'll have to go and look yourself.

Over the years, it was used as a leprosarium, gunpowder magazine, military base and stray dogs' home (not all at the same time) and gradually fell into disuse and ruin, until restoration work began in 2004; during which the skeletons of over 1500 plague victims, in individual and mass graves, were recovered.

The island is now being maintained by the Archeoclub di Venezia. Trees and foliage have been cut back, a basic supply of running water has been restored  and there are hopes of making it more easily accessible by linking it to the Lido via a short bridge. The ultimate aim is for the island to become a museum.

de vries' interventions are subtle ones. The fields have been seeded with herbs, a reference to the plague doctors who wore masks stuffed with aromatics in the hope of some protection against the contagion. And a number of text-based pieces have been place throughout the island. No better way, really, than to finish with this...

Monday, 3 August 2015

Burger King

Venice is hot. Too hot. Everyone is saying it's the most brutal July they can remember. Which means it's very hard to motivate yourself to actually do anything. Going outside in the middle of the day would be crazy. Frustratingly, we find ourselves at the beginning of a three month (albeit unpaid) holiday and yet unable to do very much with it.

   Nevertheless, we're starting to make some progress at knocking off Biennale pavilions. Today we've managed to see the Seychelles at Palazzo Mora, along with a retrospective of mad-yet-strangely-brilliant Australian artist Mike Parr. The space, however, is not air-conditioned. We're soaked in sweat by the time we emerge, and the walk back along Strada Nuova is merciless. The temptation is to go straight back home, and turn the fan and aircon unit up to 11. But if we do that, we know we probably won't leave the house again for the rest of the day.

   No, we have to do something. The nearest Biennale event is Jonas Mekas "The Internet Saga" at the Palazzo Foscari Contarini. Or, if you prefer, at Burger King...

   The palazzo was described by the historian Francesco (son of Jacopo) Sansovino as "...a building of beautiful forms and ornamentations." It was once frescoed with scenes from the legend of the Sabine women, but these are now long gone. And it's now a fast-food restaurant. Disgraced former mayor Giorgio Orsoni stated that his administration had no powers to intervene when it came to the use of the building. The consumer, he said, would decide if the venture were to be successful or not. The Market would decide. As ever...

   The courtyard may once have been used as a small theatre, but today, in Mekas' work, it serves as the setting for a sound installation; playing a recording of the ambient noise from the funeral of Andy Warhol. Well, that's the intention. In reality it's impossible to hear anything over the noise of the air-conditioning units working overtime.

   We go inside. There is the familiar smell of fried food. It's not unpleasant (it is, after all, still quite early in the day), but seems out of place. But the main impression is that it is blissfully, blissfully cool.

   The main body of work is on the first floor. There are some video pieces but they don't leave a big impression. Probably because we're distracted by the sheer incongruity of the space. It's a Burger King. And yet it looks like this :-

   The windows are lined with photographic negatives from Mekas' collection, a nice touch that adds to the dignity of the space, and possibly lends a little more shade as well.

   Truth be told, it's not that exciting as an exhibition. But there's no getting away from the fact that this is one of the strangest Burger Kings you're ever likely to see. And it is so wonderfully, wonderfully cool.

   It's approaching lunchtime now, and there's something strangely attractive about the smell of fast-food. I start to think a burger seems like a pretty good idea. Hell, if we had one we'd have to sit inside in the air-conditioning for, what, perhaps another ten minutes? I fight the impulse off. I'm not a food snob, but there's some proper food in the fridge at home. And how good am I going to feel in near 40-degree heat after a burger and chips?

   We head off. The sound installation is still engaged in an unequal battle with the air-conditioning. And then it's back over the Scalzi bridge, and along the fondamenta leading to our block; a short walk but one that - in the blazing heat of the afternoon sun - seems to stretch to infinity; as if one might expect Omar Sharif to ride out of the haze on a camel...

   And so let me sign off with a recommendation I never expected to make. The next time you're in Venice, make a bit of time to go to Burger King. You don't actually have to eat there, after all...

Monday, 29 June 2015

The Capital-ists

It's a beautiful morning. I take the 5.1 vaporetto from Ferrovia to Giardini. It's not too crowded at this time of day, and I even manage to get a seat outside. It's noisy, like all the smaller vaporetti, but, in the early morning sun of a perfect summer's morning, it's the loveliest of journeys.

When I arrive, I take a coffee and brioche at Paradiso. I check my watch. I'm early. Plenty of time yet. I take some time just to stand and look at one of the finest views in all Venice, across the bacino to the church of the Salute and the Grand Canal. Then I head off to the the gardens, and wave my pass at the guards at the entrance. They know me by now, but they still have to check and, in any case, the system doesn't seem as reliable as it might be. But this morning everything is functioning perfectly, and they wave me through.

There's still another thirty minutes until the gardens open to the public. The Central Pavilion itself has a slightly eerie feel to it. The spaces are empty, except for a few staff, but all the video installations have been set in motion, and play to an invisible audience. 

The pavilion is a maze, but I know my way to the Arena by now. There's no-one else to be seen, so I just sit down and take out my script. Gary Moore's Still Got the Blues is playing over the loudspeakers. I wonder, at first, if it's a new installation that I haven't heard about; but then I realise it's just the technical crew relaxing before the start of another long day. Gary isn't here to make art. He's just here to play the blues.

Francesco, my co-reader, arrives. He usually sports a splendid Marxian beard but he's had to trim it back. He's got a part-time job in a bar, he explains, and his boss didn't like it. Besides, it's a bit hot in the summer. We go through our parts together, making sure they're marked up correctly and that we're in agreement as to when one of us passes over to the other.

Giovanni, our technician, places two music stands on stage and then mics us both up. We take our places on the left and the right of the stage, and wait. Giovanni gives us a wave. It's time. We walk on, and place our scripts on the stands. I start to read. "Chapter 2 : The Process of Exchange..."


The email had come out of the blue. Would we be interested in taking part in a project for the Biennale, with the artist Isaac Julien? A 'dramatic reading' of every last page of Karl Marx's Capital.

Marx? For money? In the Central Pavilion? The Biennale was the reason we first came to Venice, in 2005. We had no idea then that, just ten years later, we'd have the chance to actually be a part of it.

We had to get through a few auditions first. Isaac - friendly, smiley and relaxed - has very definite ideas on how the project is to work. It is not just supposed to sound like somebody reading a lecture on Radio 4. No. It has to be acted. Somehow, we have to find a way to make it live, to make it a performance.

And, somehow, we made it through to the final squad of eleven. There will be three half-hour performances a day, by two readers, until the end of the Biennale; a timetable that should allow us to read the entire work perhaps three times.

Volume 1 is actually quite an interesting read. There's some fine writing in there, plenty of righteous anger and even a few jokes. There's also a great sadness there : upon reading it, one is struck by the feeling that - for all the undoubted advances made  - we have not come as far as we should. And when he rages at the unfair distribution of wealth, and of the exploitation of the vulnerable, of the desperate and of children...well, it's easy to bring to life.

At the moment, however, we're making our way through Volume 2,  a much drier tome heavy on economic theory, formulae and tables. It's difficult to find a way to lift this off the page. My way is just to pretend that this really is the most interesting thing in the whole world and hope this carries the audience along.


A certain amount of preparation is necessary before each reading, as the text needs to be divided between two readers. I sit on the sofa, marking my part up. Mimi, obligingly, comes and sits on top of it. She looks up at me, wide-eyed. I don't know what you're doing, but I do love you. I smile and scratch her behind the ears. She purrs, stretches, and picks experimentally at the spiral binding. And again. Then a little bit more. And then suddenly her claws are out and she's scrabbling away furiously at the pages. In a panic, I tip her off before she can shred the entire volume and she stalks off in a huff. I examine the damage. The top pages are in a bit of a state, but, fortunately, not the bits I have to read.

Our cat is not a Marxist. And this saddens me.

Sunday, 21 June 2015

All the First Lady's Men

It's Friday afternoon, and I've had some good news. My only student this afternoon has cancelled, leaving us free to do fun stuff. So we get the boat over to Giudecca in order to knock off a few more Biennale installations. In all honesty, a lot of it isn't really that great, although Francesco Jodice's Weird Tales (and, yes, it is an HP Lovecraft reference) at the Michela Rizzo gallery is worth a look.

   We're on the part of the island nearest to Sacca Fisola, a mainly blue-collar residential area but one dominated by the enormous Molino Stucky Hilton hotel where none other than Michelle Obama is supposed to be staying that night. We're expecting the island to be in lockdown, but there's no sign of anything special.

   I'm going back to Mestre for some end-of-term beers and Caroline is joining us later; so I get off the vaporetto at Piazzale Roma. As I walk along the fondamenta I notice a police boat going past. No surprise, really, as the Questura is near here. But then there's another boat. And another.

   I'm perhaps ten metres from the Ponte della Libert√†. I stop walking, to take it all in. A cortege of outriders on jet skis emerges from under the bridge. And then there's a water taxi. The curtains aren't drawn and I can just about make out the figures inside. Bloody hell. It's her. It's Michelle Obama, with her daughters and her mum.

   The taxi is followed by a water ambulance. Then another police boat. Then another group of outriders. Every cop in Venice must be here. And then, yet another boat on which a man in a balaclava and body armour is training a gun on the bridge. Well, I call it a gun. It's actually a piece of field artillery that's bigger than he is.

   There's a really cracking photograph to be taken here and I start to reach for my bag. And then I stop. A man with the biggest gun I have ever seen is less than ten metres away from me. I'm suddenly aware that what I want most in the world, right now, is for him to think well of me. I move my hands away from my body. And then I stop moving until the cortege is out of sight.

   Thirty minutes later, I'm in a bar in Mestre and Michelle, I presume, is in a suite in the Molino Stucky. And I realise that I really don't envy her at all.

Friday, 29 May 2015

The Mosque

There's usually some sort of controversy at the Venice Biennale. Last time it was nothing more serious than the Macedonians being asked to remove the live rats from their installation. But it's rare for a pavilion to actually be closed. The Swiss, enterprisingly, have managed it twice; on both occasions at the church of San Stae (in 2005 they were asked to removed a beautiful video installation by Pipilotti Rist on the grounds that the Church found the lesbian overtones inappropriate- overtones which, I confess, had rather passed me by).

   But all these are nothing compared to the anger that has surrounded The Mosque, the official Icelandic pavilion at the 2015 Biennale, and the work of Swiss-born artist Christoph Buchel who has transformed the church of Santa Maria della Misercordia into, well, a mosque...of sorts.

   Some background is required here : the church is deconsecrated and, indeed, has not been used as a place of Christian worship since 1967. In the intervening years, it has been allowed to decay. 

   Buchel delights in the re-use of space : in 2011, he transformed an art gallery in London into a temporary community centre. Now, throughout its history, Venice has been a city where East meets West - indeed, the first typographic edition of the Koran was printed here in 1538. However, there is no mosque in the city, and so the small Muslim population has to travel to the mainland in order to pray. So what better use of space, reasoned Buchel, could there be? However - and this is important - it would only be an installation resembling a mosque instead of an actual one - The Mosque, if you like, as opposed to "a mosque".

   The whispers started before it had even opened : there were, some claimed, still Christian relics in the church. Christian symbols had been overlaid with Islamic ones. The Comune had given permission only for an artistic installation, not a place of worship, and people had been seen praying. Most seriously, the church had perhaps not been deconsecrated at all. Why, even the plumbing had been installed without permission. People, in short, were queuing up to be outraged.

   Within a few days of opening, the police had been called. A member of the public had spotted a visitor removing his shoes. This, he reasoned, constituted an act of worship and of course, he was only doing his civil duty by reporting it. And on the very day we visit, the police have been called out again.

   They, in turn, call out the curator. She arrives, and walks over to a group of men. There has been a complaint about noise, she says. They shake their heads. No noise, they have just been having a discussion. One of them introduces himself. He is a politician, he says, ex-Lega Nord ('but no longer associated with that fascist party', he adds). He is only here because it is his duty to investigate if the law has been broken. He is, he claims, the first politician to visit the installation. He is polite, but has the puffed-up air of the pompous petty bureaucrat given his moment in the spotlight. Foreigners are causing trouble in his city and, by God, he is going to do something about it. More than that, he is going to be seen to be doing something about it.

   The curator sits down. And they argue. He demands to see all the necessary documentation relating to the installation. She tells him that all this information is in the public domain and that she has no obligation to show him anything at all. And then she gives up and walks off.

   A big Icelandic guy comes over and sits down (I believe he's Ibrahim Sverrir Agnarsson, leader of the small Muslim community in Iceland). There is no doubt that the space is deconsecrated, he says. He takes out his iPad and shows them an image. It shows the document of deconsecration. It is signed by Patriarch Albino Luciani, later Pope John Paul I.

   The ex-Leghista shakes his head. No, no, that's not enough. There needs to be a nulla osta from the Curia as well to certify that the building will not be used for purposes contrary to the wishes of the Church. It's nothing to do with religion, of course not. It's just that the law needs to be respected. His friend, however, suddenly goes off-message. How would you feel, he asks us, if an English church were to be converted into a mosque? He smiles. This is a killer argument, he thinks, they won't have thought about this one. He seems genuinely confused when we tell him that we wouldn't give a damn as long as the space was deconsecrated. 

   But we are here, of course, to actually look at the space instead of just getting into a fight. And the revitalised interior, a mixture of traditional Christian architecture and Islamic decoration, is beautiful.

   We take a long stroll around. Elsewhere, Agnarsson is patiently explaining to the politician that, no, of course Christians don't have to remove crucifixes if they enter a mosque. But he's banging his head against a brick wall here. We speak to the curator before leaving. She seems angry, tired and sad. Many people have been supportive, she says. Unfortunately, it's those who are shouting the loudest who are being listened to. Because, of course, it's nothing to do with laws being broken and it's got everything to do with religion.

   We put our shoes back on, and turn to leave. A little girl is playing hopscotch on the patterned carpet. The sight cheers me up, makes me smile. She doesn't care about deconsecration or nulla oste. For her, it's just a pretty space in which to play.

There probably won't be a sadder or more beautiful work of art to be seen this Biennale. I believe that Buchel genuinely thought the installation could be a neutral space in which people could sit down and talk together, without conflict, in an atmosphere of peace and tolerance. Instead of which, all we were capable of was fighting about it. And so, if the purpose of art is to hold a mirror up to life, the image reflected back at us is a profoundly ugly one.

"The Mosque" was closed by order of the Comune on May 22nd on the grounds of overcrowding, and misuse of the space for religious instead of artistic purposes. The organisers are hopeful of re-opening, albeit with the proviso that the space will have to be treated solely as an artistic installation.

Sunday, 3 May 2015

Coming back to life

Saturday starts early, as it has for the past three months, with school classes out in Spinea whilst Caroline is invigilating in Venice. The temptation, upon returning, is just to crawl back into bed; but if we do that the day, and weekend, will be half over before we know it. And that would be a waste, because we would miss the Giornata FAI.

   FAI, or the Fondo Ambiente Italiano, is perhaps best described as the Italian National Trust, and the Giornata FAI is similar to the UK Doors Open Day; when previously closed properties are opened up for the weekend. The guides for this, described as apprendisti Ciceroni are typically young people from local schools. Including, this year, one of the schools where I work.

I arrange to meet Caroline in the Irish bar off Strada Nova. There are just a few of us there. The rest are Italians, keeping an eye on the Italy - Wales 6 Nations game on the television. Wales need to win this one by a cricket score in order to have any chance of the title, but Italy are playing well and Wales are just shading it at half-time by 13-12. Caroline arrives, I pay for my good-but-expensive Guinness, and we leave. I therefore miss the deluge of points that will follow in the second half.

   We walk down to Alla Vedova, only to find it closing up for the afternoon. Damn. I was looking forward to their polpette. We walk back to La Cantina, only to find that food will be a thirty minute wait. This is becoming dispiriting. We walk back down Strada Nova, and find a nondescript cichetteria in a back street. Nothing special, but reasonable value for money.

The students are working at Santa Maria Maddalena, a rarely-open church. We'd previously been there for an exhibition of presepi over two years ago; an exhibition that, unfortunately, prevented us from actually seeing most of the church itself.
   They're incredibly well organised. Each one does a presentation of, perhaps, five minutes before handing over to one of their colleagues as they lead us around the church and its environs. There is no great art to be found inside La Maddalena, with the exception of a faded Last Supper, possibly by Giandomenico Tiepolo. Still, even if it's not the most beautiful church in town, it doesn't matter. The kids are brilliant, and I am - ridiculously - so proud of them. Italy, I realise, is going to be all right. Because they'll be in charge of it one day.

   We make our way back home, pausing for the first ice-cream of the year along the way. It's probably still a little bit too cold, but what the hell. Then we stop at a bar near to us that we've never quite been able to find the time to visit. We order a brace of spritzes and some cicheti. There's a mixture of American and Italian jazz playing. More cicheti arrive from the kitchen. We order more drinks and more food. Cooking, I realise, is not going to be necessary tonight. I have not eaten anything other than cicheti all day and now, frankly, it would be a shame to spoil the 100% record.

   We arrive home, tired but happy. It's been a good day. And I realise that we are going to be all right, too.

Wednesday, 1 April 2015

Joining the undead

I should have learned from last year.

The period between Christmas and Easter is the most difficult time of the year. The evening classes are still there, and the demand for lettori in schools is at its height. There are also - the end of Carnival and the occasional saint's day aside - no holidays to speak of. I promised myself that I would try and take on less. Instead of which, I've taken on more. Which means the weeks are now a hallucinatory blur of fifteen hour days interspersed with half-hearted attempts at cooking and not enough sleep.

There are times when I think it would be nice to see my wife again. I think I last saw her about three days ago, half-buried under a pile of marking. Perhaps I should check when I'm next home? 

Why am I doing this? Seriously, why am I doing this?

Because you're in Venice.

The only reason I know I'm in Venice is the Marangona bell, chiming at midnight to remind me that I'm not going to get enough sleep.

But today is Friday. An early start, yes, but an early finish too, albeit with a slightly difficult class (loveliness:unloveliness rating 60:40, a ratio that only needs a couple of absentees to ensure the week spirals into chaotic miserableness at its end).  And then beers, great foaming pints in the bar over the road, before heading off to a rehearsal.

I get off the tram and notice my friends up ahead. I stride it out to catch them up, and then one of them turns to me...

'Ah! Nosferatu!'

I'm a bit taken aback (although, in my heart of hearts, just a little bit pleased).

Is it because I seemed to appear out of nowhere? Is it the long coat (which, with your eyes half-closed, slightly resembles the one worn by Max Schreck)? Or is is that the 6.00 starts are starting to take their toll?

There are drinks and snacks at the end of the evening, and Caroline has left a pasta sauce for when I get home. I read for a bit, H P Lovecraft's The Shadow over Innsmouth. Still scary after all these years, even in Italian. I hear the bells chiming midnight and decide I should try and get some sleep. Then something plops on to the end of the bed. There's a kick against the mattress, and a scrabbling of claws against wood...

Mimi the cat has taken to sleeping on top of the wardrobe. There is nothing wrong with this beyond the fact that once she's up there we don't know when she'll decide to come down, hurling herself with deadly force onto our sleeping bodies in the small hours of the morning.

Like Lovecraft's narrator, I lie awake, listening for the tell-tale creak, the unexpected movement that reveals Something Bad is About to Happen.

And then the alarm is bleeping for 6.00. I shower and shave, and gaze back at the stranger in the mirror. Three months, I think, has turned me from this...

...into this...

I make a coffee and call it breakfast. Fittingly, it's still dark outside. I make my way to Piazzale Roma, and then it's onto the bus and over the bridge to the Land of Shadows...

Sunday, 15 February 2015


Per fortuna c'è Billa...

But not for much longer.

The Billa supermarket group is withdrawing from Italy. Their strategy was to become one of the Big 3 supermarkets and, having failed at that, they're throwing a hissy fit and withdrawing from the country completely.

We've never known Venice without the Billa on the Zattere. There are a number of others throughout the town, including one on Rio Marin which is our nearest local for 'emergency' shopping. 

And soon they'll be gone, to be replaced with branches of "Conad". I don't know much about them, apart from the fact that the name sounds like a  Robert E Howard-style barbarian hero, and slightly rude into the bargain. 

In the meantime, Billa are selling off their remaining stock at ever more ridiculous prices. Every week Caroline goes to the supermarket. Every week she comes back with her trolley groaning with things that were on offer. Teabags, pasta, risotto rice, breakfast cereals, tinned tomatoes. Campari. Lots of Campari. Our magazzino now looks as if we're storing up against the Apocalypse.

The loss of a supermarket isn't really something to get nostalgic about, but they were there and they were convenient. You don't really need more from a supermarket. And we will remember them, as long as the teabags endure.

And here's something we won't be hearing any more. It's described as a jingle, but that, frankly, is a disservice to fifty seconds of a little bit of Italian pop magic...

The Billa Jingle (Youtube)

Per fortuna, c'era Billa!

Thursday, 5 February 2015


Cafone (nm) : oaf, imbecile, ignoramus (Oxford Italian Dictionary)

Cafone : arrogant little !*$%   (Phil's boss)

Most of the kids I teach are a delight. Some of them are so nice I think I'd actually teach them for free (fortunate really as, given how much I earn, I practically do so already).

The Little Businessman, however, is not one of them.

Every Friday he arrives early, sits himself down in front of la direttrice, and explains his list of demands for the week. The beginning of the lesson then plays itself out as it has for every Friday night over the past twelve months. I will ask the class to get their books, pens and pencils out. He will tell me he hasn't brought them. I will then remind him that although this is an evening class, it is still the same as going to school and so he has to bring something to write with. He will then tell me why he has forgotten again. "My aunt was very busy yesterday" is this week's reason. I genuinely wonder if - having exhausted his supply of plausible excuses - he is now just putting random words together in order to confuse me.

All this, of course, has to be done in Italian as his refusal to speak English verges on the pathological.

Last week's end-of-module test went as expected. Challenged to write down as many English words as possible, the previous class - a class of 8 and 9 year olds - actually seemed to be attempting to compile a dictionary. They demanded more time and more paper until every last word had been dredged up from memory. One of them came up with over 250.

The Little Businessman managed 3. One of them was "Philip". The other two were "etc." and "etc."

My hopes, then, are not high as we turn to homework. And yet, when we turn to the two pages of exercises set, I see my signature at the bottom of the page. More than that, I've written "very good" as well. I've got no memory at all of marking it and yet it seems I must have...and then my eyes scan further up the page. All the spaces for answers have been left blank. I check my writing again. He's forged my signature. It's a pretty good job, to be fair. In fact, if he'd filled in the rest of the page with any old rubbish I might not have checked further.  An almost perfect attempt at cheating foiled only by a basic lack of attention to the finer details.

I have to say I quite admire his chutzpah. In fact, I feel quite well disposed to him for the next ten minutes. And then the refrain of non capisco niente starts up again. I sigh, and wonder how many ways of explaining "The book is on the desk" there can possibly be...

Elsewhere, Caroline has acquired a cafone of her own; an older teenager, suddenly finding himself in need of a certificate that states he can speak English at level B2. During the mock exam, she notices that he is perhaps paying just a little too much attention to the paper of the guy next to him. And indeed, upon marking, it turns out that by remarkable coincidence he has written an absolutely identical essay.

For the exam itself, then, he gets placed on his own, on the opposite side of the room from his pal. He has a go, but he knows he's been found out; although he does at least retain sufficient sang froid to give our boss an insouciant 'see you next term' as he hands over his paper.

A speaker of English at level B2, according to the Common European Framework of Reference, should be able to 'produce clear, detailed text on a wide range of subjects and explain a viewpoint on a topical issue giving the advantages and disadvantages of various options'.

The entirety of his written paper, an example of an informal letter, reads as follows. Hi Jessica...!

It's now pinned up in the staffroom.

Tuesday, 6 January 2015

Cabbages and Kings

The time has come, the Walrus said, to talk of many things...

We passed a nice couple of days with Mum and Dad back in the UK, but spent most of the Christmas period in Venice. Indeed, we're still not quite back at work yet as Epiphany, the 6th January, is a bigger deal in Italy than it is in the UK. Indeed, some of my kids from Eastern Europe tell me that it's more important in the Orthodox calendar than Christmas.
   The importance derives from the three kings (and yes, it's more accurate to refer to them as "the wise men" or "the magi", but if I do that the title of this posting won't make any sense) recognising the infant Christ as the manifestation of God as man. Weighty stuff, to be sure. But if you're an Italian kid, there's also the not inconsiderable matter of La Befana to consider. La Befana has, I suppose, the trappings of a witch in that she arrives at your house on a broomstick, but she also seems to be a rather more benign tradition has it that she gave directions to the three kings (yes yes, the magi) on their journey. In any case, she arrives with presents for good children or a piece of coal or a stick for the bad ones. So Italian kids get a sort of secondary Christmas day in order to brace them for the return to school.

   On the subject of presents, our students looked after us well again this year. I got a bottle and a magnum of prosecco, and a splendid meal out. Caroline got a box of chocolates, a bottle of grappa (huzzah!), some flowers and a block of foie gras (for which we will assuredly go to hell). And I have to mention our neighbours at this point. We have nice people in our block. We may not be asking each other round to dinner every weekend but people look after each other here. And everyone tries to make a big thing about Christmas. We felt we were letting the side down a bit, as the only visible sign of the season that we displayed at first was a poster for a concert I was in, taped to the door. But when we saw the efforts that everyone else was going to, we realised we had to step it up a bit.

   We received this little biscuit for the festival of San Martino back in November :-

   Then some biscuits and a little calendar attached to a tree for Christmas :-

   And these, from La Befana herself, for Epiphany :-

Everyone in the block made a bit of an effort, without exception We just stuck a wreath over the door (and that's something I've never done before) but others pushed the boat out a bit more :-

It didn't stop there. The entire stairwell and entrance hall was decorated.

We didn't have any lights on our balcony either, which many people did. Maybe next year...

    So we're back to work tomorrow, after a long break. It will, I suppose, be nice to get back to slightly more normal eating : we bought a goose as a post-Christmas / pre-New Year treat. We got two roast dinners, a pasta bake, soup, lots of stock and a tub of goose fat off it. Now, nothing goes quite as well with a roast goose as some braised red cabbage. Only this year I got the measurements slightly off. I thought I'd made enough for the two roast dinners, but it turned out there was enough as a side dish for the following couple of nights. And way, way beyond. By the end of the week we were eating it with baked sea bream, not an obvious combination, just to get rid of it. And if we hadn't done that, it would probably have found its way into a sandwich. Oddly enough, it seemed to get better every night. Possibly because I kept feeding it with red wine. There's still half a head of cabbage left...I foresee a lot of borscht in our future.

   It seems like an intimidatingly long time until the next proper holiday. The Easter holidays are no more than a couple of days here, so it's pretty much straight through now until the end of June. Still, it's been a good break. The next thing, I suppose, will be decorating the front door for Carnevale...

Friday, 2 January 2015

New Year's Eve

I didn't know this, but the Freccia rail service in Italy offers 2-for-1 deals on Saturdays, and also on a number of public holidays. So we spent New Year's Eve in Vicenza, just 40 minutes by train from Venice.

   Vicenza is linked indelibly with Andrea Palladio - there are no fewer than 23 monuments attributed to him in the centro storico. But the main reason for our visit was an exhibition at the Basilica Palladiana.

   The exhibition, Tutankhamon, Caravaggio, Van Gogh is one of curator Marco Goldin's "blockbuster" events. Goldin is an interesting character, the curator as celebrity. This has brought him into conflict with a number of critics in Italy, most notably the rebarbative (and thoroughly mad) Vittorio Sgarbi, who see him as something of a vulgar showman instead of a suitably reverent custodian of fine art. His exhibitions, the accusation runs, are not so much curated as much as they are a throwing together of Really Great Stuff.

   It has to be admitted, the linking theme of the exhibition - depictions, figuratively and literally, of the night and sunset - is paper thin; and Goldin's pompous, over-the-top narration on the audio guide doesn't help matters. The explanatory text - light grey against a slightly-less-light-grey background - is almost impossible to read, and is rarely worth the trouble of persevering with. But if the theme is weak, and the presentation irritating, it has to be admitted that Goldin has indeed managed to assemble an array of Really Great Stuff. Lots of it. Too much to mention really, but there are two-and-a-half works by Caravaggio I'd never seen before - Narcissus (which is possibly not by him at all), the Dream of St Francis and the stunning Martha and Mary Magdalene. Stunning in an entering-the-room-and-thinking "whoah, what did I just see there?" way. It's on loan from a gallery in Detroit. I am never going to go to Detroit, and so it may be that I will never see it again...

   The exhibition is on until the 2nd June. If you're in the area, you need to see it. Just ignore the presentation and concentrate on the Really Great Stuff. Oh, and get there early - we were there at 10am, but the crush was becoming unbearable by midday.

   We had a reasonably priced lunch at a nearby bar (which served something called a spritz macchiato which we couldn't really imagine and should have investigated further), and then spent the afternoon working our way through some of the main Palladio-related sights. The Teatro Olimpico is an extraordinary building. Completed after Palladio's death, the first performance - in 1585 - was of Oedipus Rex; the sets of which, miraculously, survive in situ to this day. It must be an amazing space in which to see a performance (with the caveat that, for conservation reasons, there is neither heating nor air-conditioning).

   On to the civic museum at the Palazzo Chiericati - interesting, although there's no particularly great art to be seen - and then to the Tempio di Santa Corona. Palladio designed the Valmarana Chapel here, and was himself buried in the church (although it seems he was uplifted and moved elsewhere over a hundred years ago). There's an Adoration of the Magi by Veronese here, and a magnificent Baptism of Christ by Giovanni Bellini which is reason in itself to make the trip.

   As for the rest of Vicenza...well, it was cold. Very cold. We scurried around trying to find the right stop for the bus back to the station (not so easy, as the one-way system is a bit confusing) and a bar where we could get a hot chocolate or mulled wine to get some heat back into our bones. I became aware that the soles of my boots had worn painfully thin, and that I might as well have been walking the icy streets in my socks.  I'd like to go back when the temperature creeps above zero. And in warmer shoes.

   We arrived home mid-evening, and I made dinner from the remains of our post-Christmas goose. We'd just about stopped shivering but the thought of walking down to San Marco to watch the fireworks was not a pleasant one. In fact, even taking the lift up to the altana seemed a step too far. It had been a long day, and we ended up sleeping through the whole thing. 2014 was a year to forget and remember in equal measure. 2015 will be better. Buon Anno everyone.