Saturday, 27 December 2008

Angry young man

1. I met my little nephew. He really is little, the smallest baby I have ever seen in real life. He's been back in hospital because he's having trouble regaining his birth weight, which was only 6lbs 11oz anyway, so he's absolutely tiny. When he's angry, which is a lot of the time, he looks like an animatronic goblin, and when he's not angry he looks a bit like William Hague. He gets particularly annoyed when anyone tries to feed him. He very rarely opens his eyes, and then usually only one at a time to have a cautious look at us, before closing them firmly again. I have a lot of sympathy with him, and actually he wasn't due until tomorrow. He does at least appear to appreciate effort -- while I was looking after him he went into an arch-backed purple-faced tantrum pulling faces as if the worst thing ever was happening to him, and in panic I tried a rendition of the Frog Chorus, at which he settled back to sleep; this was distinctly generous of him. Hopefully it's all just indigestion, poor soul.

2. My mother is reacting in a very typical way to grandmotherhood, essentially by turning the full beam of her mind's energies onto worrying about it. My brother told me that when they told her back in the spring that she was going to be a grandmother her immediate reaction was "what shall we do about the pond?", rather than the more conventional joy. The next day she went out and bought lots of those plastic things you put into unused electric sockets, so that now whenever we want to plug anything in first we have to prise one of these devices out with our fingernails. The other day she gave my father a stern talking to, really a telling off, that he should never eat berries in front of his grandson. She told me that it's nonsense that grandchildren are better than children, because now she has to worry not just about her grandson but about how my brother and his wife are coping with him, and about whether they're being made miserable by worrying about him too.

3. Actually I remember it did make me very unhappy as a child that, although I knew that you shouldn't eat any berries you found in the wild, on autumnal walks with my father he would insist on eating pretty much all the berries he came across, including ones which I knew very well to be poisonous, like rose hips and yew berries. He said it was OK because he was careful to spit out the poisonous pips, but I didn't see how he could be sure that he wouldn't miss one, and then he would die. Hopefully my nephew will get a useful balance to this sort of thing from his mother's family, who all seem pretty sane.

Tuesday, 23 December 2008

Learned, fat, and red: part I

I've been meaning to post for ages about Bologna. I do miss it a bit, though mostly for the food. The title of the post is because Bologna is renowned for being learned, fat, and red: learned because of the university, the oldest in the West; fat because of its wonderful food; and red partly for the bricks it's built from, but also because it's famously socialist/communist.
Why go to Bologna?
1. Because it is a very nice city. It may not match up to Venice in the amazingness stakes, and I suppose Florence has more obvious things, but it has a very major advantage over those two places in that it is not packed full of tourists. It has far fewer tourists than Cambridge, for example, and at least as much nice stuff to look at. In Venice and Florence you have to book everything you want to see in advance, but there is nothing that needs booking in Bologna. You can get a seat outside at one of the cafes under the portici of beautiful Piazza S. Stefano with no trouble no matter what the weather; your competition will not be other foreigners but Italians. (Probably some will be having graduaton parties, wearing the Dante-style laurel leaf of the laureate.)
2. Also, it is the major railway hub for the north of Italy so a very good place to go to on the way from one city to another.
3. Plus even in Italy people think the food of Emilia Romagna is something pretty special.
What to do there
1. Eat good stuff. Parma ham and Parmigiano cheese are from nearby Parma (nice town) but Bologna is famous for doing things with them. In particular tortellini. (Tortelloni are the bigger ones, usually with vegetarian filling.) I saw a recipe for old-style Bolognese tortellini that had five or six different local meats in the filling. One was mortadella, for which Bologna is famous; it's pleasant enough but not as good as much other Bolognese food. (It's where the term 'baloney' comes from.) It's essentially luncheon meat, or what my mother always called boiled baby, though it's a high-class garlicky boiled baby. You won't find spaghetti Bolognese, but you will get tagliatelle al ragu, which is the closest thing, and very good.
2. Admire the portici. The story goes that townspeople wanted to get in on the lucrative student room-rentals market but didn't have a room to spare, so they would build one onto the first floor over the road, leaving the space beneath as a covered walkway with arches separating it from the traffic. This is now the official Bolognese style of architecture, and it's not only attractive but a real blessing when the sun is very hot or when it's raining. Plus the pavements beneath the portici are usually a little higher than the road so it makes busy streets more pleasant to walk down. In the sixteenth or seventeenth century the Bolognese went slightly mad and decided to build portici all the way out to San Luca, a round church built on a hill outside Bologna. There are 666 portici from the city gate, and twice a year the communist citizens go up there and bring an image of the virgin all the way down into the city. The sanctuary of San Luca is not that exciting inside, but if you get a bus out it's a lovely walk back down into the city. The walk out I would not recommend; in places it's essentially as steep as a staircase, and you feel it in your calves just from walking down.
3. Have lunch at Tamburini's. This is right in the middle of the city, about half-way between the two towers and the main square. It's essentially a delicatessen but at lunch-time it serves its own produce in a canteen style. Hopefully they'll have tortellini on and you can get a great plate for about six euros. Otherwise you can buy raw tortellini to cook yourself; this is where my Bolognese friend buys pasta when she has a dinner party.
4. Have lunch or dinner at Fantoni's on via del Pratello. This has apparently been just the same since the fifties. The roasted vegetables are always fantastic. A Bolognese friend told me that this is an excellent place for a) horse and b) zuppa inglese (literally "English soup", a type of trifle). I know it's a tad wet of me but I have counted horses as friends and I don't feel up to eating them; and I never tried the plain zuppa inglese either. (I did have some orange zuppa inglese somewhere not long before I left, and it was amazing.) This was partly because when I was lecturing on codicology years ago Melvin the lovely conservation man lent me a lot of props to make things more interesting for the youth. The one he was really emphatic about needing back intact was a little plastic bag full of costly imported kermes, the shells of insects which were used to dye alum-tawed skins pink for medieval bindings -- some of those bindings still survive on Bury books, for example, and I handled some while working on my PhD. Apparently the red liqueur used to make zuppa inglese comes from the very same insects, and this rather put me off it as a dessert. (See the wikipedia entry here which explains that the liqueur declined in popularity when people began to realise what it was made of.)
5. Also Tony's has very good, old-style cheap excellent food; popular with the Bolognese. It's on Via Righi, very close to the corner with Via dell'Independenza.
6. You have to do aperitivo. This was explained to me by locals as a very Bolognese thing, but other Italian cities seem to do something similar, like cicchetti in Venice. It comes down to the attitude to food whereby people will happily spend all day at work and all evening on the evening meal, which might explain why their TV is so bad. (They really take food seriously; if you want to make someone from Bologna cry try telling them how you cook spaghetti.) In the evening, at a time too early to start your full evening meal of antipasti, primi, secondi and dolci -- say 7.30 - 8.30 -- the bars all put out buffets of little bits and pieces to eat with your drinks. Some of these are really substantial and could easily stand in for your whole meal. They may charge a minimum for drinks in this period, e.g. when I first arrived and didn't know about the aperitivo tradition I was surprised that I couldn't get a half pint of beer at 7.30 in an Irish pub one time but had to buy a whole pint. (It was a carefully reconstructed "Irish" pub with wall tat placed inside a Renaissance building with frescoed vaulted ceilings.) In my last week there I went to Boa Vista in Via Cesare Battisti, which had really good stuff. It had a very dark black-and-mirrors decor and was playing electro music very loud, in a way which was so 80s and incredibly dated that it seemed really stylish for not caring that even 80s revival is now passé. Eddie Izzard used to do a very good routine about the progression "quite cool, cool, very cool, extremely cool, looking like an idiot" but I don't think that really holds in Italy; it doesn't seem like there's a sense that you can go Too Far. In some ways this is admirable and rather fun, though all those flamboyant young Italian men are a bit disconcerting. Anyway, I thought Boa Vista was great, and just the sort of thing that seemed the epitome of coolness when I was 13, but I'm not sure my companion liked it so much. Then we went on to Tamburini again, which turned out to be just as good in the evening as at lunchtime. Here the food isn't free but an amazing plate of sliced meats and such was only ten euros and the drinks were much cheaper. We ate all the meats even though we were already full from Boa Vista. The problem with aperitivo is that you're unlikely to want dinner as well, and it's a shame to waste a dining opportunity in Bologna if you're not there for long. Still you really should make time. One of the first things my flatmate Federica said to me when I moved in, looking at me very gravely, was "Sai il modo di Bologna?". Aperitivo is the mode of Bologna.
7. Gelati! Where to start? Where to end is also difficult. When the Parker people came out to visit me we were having four or five a day. The only not-excellent icecream I had in my whole time in Italy was at Pisa. (Pisa is a bit of a mess. It has three fantastic things to look at, all close together, and the area around them is filled with tat-selling stalls of a nature that even Rome cannot match. It's a sort of tourist black hole in an otherwise unremarkable Italian town. Walk a few hundred yards away and you're OK, but we went for icecream too close to the tower because we really wanted some.) Still Italians are able to distinguish gradations in icecream quality which escape me, and the two top places in Bologna are Gianni's, which has several outlets but with a particularly famous one just by the two towers, and the Sorbetteria Castiglione on Via Castiglione, not far from the Dominican church. Gianni's is lighthearted and has flavours called things like "Where is Gianni?" or "Beast in the City" (which is chocolate based, and which the Gaylord Donnelly librarian helpfully compared to dog poo -- there are a lot of dogs in Bologna, and therefore quite a lot of dog poo). Their pistachio is truly fantastic. The Sorbetteria Castiglione is a bit more serious, and has leaflets telling you the nutritional values of all its products, which seems to me to be spoiling the fun a bit, but I get the impression that it's the top one for the locals. Walking towards it either way at any time (I first went with some Bolognese friends on a very cold day in February) the streets are full of people eating icecream walking the other way.

I think that's most of the eating things. At some point I will try to get round to posting about the art. There are some fantastic art things to see and I have notes on them somewhere.

Wednesday, 17 December 2008

I had an eye test and apparently I now have to wear glasses when I use the computer. I already have to wear special gloves, called SmartGlovesTM, to keep my RSI under check. I am gradually turning into bionic computer woman. Eventually I will probably just have some complex body-fitting terminal which I just have to slot myself into before computer use -- maybe a bit like those excellent fork-lift body suit things in one of the Alien films. I love the interweb, but, is it worth it? I found it remarkably hard not to choose comedy glasses; there were some excellent pointy pink ones, but in the end I forced myself to go for bland frames since they're a pretty expensive purchase.

When I finished my PhD my mother told me that if I hadn't ruined my eyesight I hadn't been doing it properly, and paid for me to have an eye test then. It turned out I was only a little long-sighted at the time, but I think it was probably my hard work in Bologna which tipped me over the edge -- squinting not just at a computer screen in the usual way but also at online maps, looking for things which might be the remains of ancient lynchets and gores. I should have spent more time eating tortellini and pistacchio gelato.

I found myself surprisingly anxious before my eye test, and I think it's that word test, which still takes me back to school anxiety. Deep down I knew I would fail the eye test because I hadn't tried hard enough. It seems odd to me in retrospect how much pressure I used to feel about these things, because it certainly wasn't peer pressure -- I went to quite an academic school but it still wasn't good to be too much of a swot -- and it certainly wasn't parental pressure either. My parents always wanted me to be kind and honest -- which is asking a lot, it's true -- and school results came under the broad heading of honesty, in that they were things you shouldn't try to duck out of, but not things that mattered in themselves. They generally found it funny when I did well at school. I remember getting 100% in the easier of the two GCSE mock maths papers, and excitedly telling my father, who said "what, left no room for improvement?". I thought this was funny at the time, and still do, but he told a group of people about it at a seminar on Christian parenting and got utterly evil looks as if he'd confessed to some form of child abuse. I suppose they thought he should have affirmed my achievement by saying "I'm proud of you daughter and I love you!" and I would have said "I love you too pa!" and then we'd have hugged and recorded my results to send out in the annual Christmas letter, the fools. So anyway the pressure I put on myself to do well at school must have come from somewhere else. I think maybe I invented it in my brain. Or maybe it's that invidious desire to be honest, which can mean so many things. One of the excellent people of the college here taught me that if a thing's worth doing it's worth doing adequately, which is a seriously good piece of advice. How many things are really worth doing well?

Tuesday, 16 December 2008

Hurray for aunts!

I have a nephew! He arrived a fortnight early, on Sunday, sensibly avoiding the whole thing about having a birthday immediately adjacent to Christmas.

Tuesday, 2 December 2008

Some music stuff

1. I love this La Roux song:

Here is her myspace.

2. I don't usually watch the X Factor but I've seen a couple of episodes of this series. So I'm a bit puzzled to find out that Simon Cowell has chosen Leonard Cohen's Hallelujah as the winner's song. I only really know the classic Jeff Buckley version:

But if cherub-faced 16-year-old Eoghan Quigg sang it and all his granny fans bought it thinking it was some kind of religiousy Christmas thing and then found out it was a slightly tormented song about sex, wouldn't the Daily Mail have to start a petition? Can we start one in advance to stop this? I don't think any of the contestants are capable of not massacring it. Apparently Diana sang it in some earlier round, drawing praise from Louis Walsh, but after whatsername from the Cranberries I think we've had all the cracky squeaky-voiced singers we can sustain. The Cranberries did one good song:

3. I was going to embed the video to the Girls Aloud single written by the Pet Shop Boys but it wasn't that interesting, so here is Pet Shop Boys' extended mix of Here. It seems like quite a Christmas-y song to me, with it's "you've got a home here" message.