Monday, 25 February 2008
1) I wish I had been in Cambridge to hear the archbishops recently, especially Dr Williams.
2) I miss having a variety of intelligent people around. After the stuff Dr Williams said recently about sharia law I wish I could have asked an intelligent lawyer (I was specifically thinking of a particular hard-boiled one I know) about the common law. (Though I would have exposed my ignorance badly.)
3) chat! I want to chat with people about trivial things like TV. Instead my flatmate keeps challenging me to defend vegetarianism or outline Cambridge's admission procedure. It's been ages since I've critiqued one of the lovely ladies in Country Life, and I am not being exposed to enough irony or sarcasm.
4) British TV. When I get back I will make my computer download lots off of 4OD.
5) orange milk chocolate!
I have to keep these things in mind so that when I do have to leave I see the upside. But I'm really enjoying myself here, and I'm not quite as skint as I expected to be, which helps a lot.
Sunday, 24 February 2008
Friday, 22 February 2008
Furthermore although I know I'm way behind the times now that Ann Summers is on every High Street, I do feel that there is potential for a huge amount of inter-familial embarrassment here. When by myself, suddenly encountering sex toys among the Ferrero Rocher and Kinder bars doesn't much fase me, and I doubt it would fase my mother either; but if the two of us encountered them together I should think the resulting embarrassment bouncing back and forwards between us would be like a feedback loop on speakers, quickly rising to a painful and overwhelming degree.
2. To get to "Pam" I walk past the local park, "Parco di 11 Settembre 2001", complete with children's playground and mini funfair. Now, I know that we have plenty of Diana memorial gardens in England, but Diana wasn't just about the death. Diana was about campaigning against landmines, and having a cuteoverload puppy characteristic named after her, and although it seems trivial now it really was pretty taboo-breaking when she actually touched people with AIDS, because at the time it was like they had the ultimate disease. But there's not a lot more to September 11th than mass, horrific death; followed by horrendously depressing ventures into the Middle East by Americans which we were all forced to go along with for some reason we don't understand, resulting in huge and complex suffering which we seem to be powerless to affect. Do Bolognese mammas say to Bolognese papas, "Honey, let's take the bambini to play on the merry-go-round in the Park of September 11th"? Though the Italians do have a fondness for naming things after dates, and maybe if I were less ignorant of modern history I would be unable to pass without a sigh through the Piazza 20th August where the Bologna Saturday market is held.
3. I can't walk home without passing at least one gelateria, and sometimes as many as three. Recently it's been necessary to wear a hat and gloves as well as a scarf outside; it's been quite painfully cold. I like the cold weather, myself, and am dreading the Bolognese summer, but many Italians can be seen absolutely cocooned in furs or those Michelin-man-style duvet coats, but nonetheless they congregate around gelaterie, eating frozen cream from a little spoon. The ice-cream is excellent. I am eating far more ice-cream than I would usually eat in February, or indeed any month. My current flavour is called something like Beast in the City, though I'm not sure why. It's a swirly mix of hazelnut, chocolate and vanilla, with chocolate crunchy bits.
Thursday, 21 February 2008
2. The other day Federica saw that I had bought a copy of La Repubblica and this perturbed her strangely. She spent some time telling me that it's a paper of the left, and saying that some other paper was more central and less political. (I think it was Corriere della Sera, or some such, I forget.) Anyway I had only bought it because I wanted to buy a book that was being published with it. They have this thing here that a friend told me about before I left, where newspapers publish books and you can buy it with the newspaper on the right day for less money than it will be in the shops. It was a book called I Segreti di Roma and I thought it sounded interesting. But I was impressed at how La Repubblica's front page was mostly about things in the wider world, not just in Italy, in a way totally untypical of British stuff. I bought it again today for the sake of reading Italian, and it has this fantastic column on the front, which is basically about how there's a conference going on in Rome at the moment about the Spanish Inquisition; this has made the writer think of more recent examples of torture, and he mentions a film about the use of torture in Eastern Europe in the 90s, and then goes on to talk about current complicity in torture in the "war on terror", and public opinion about it in European countries. Just when I was losing the thread a bit he threw in a quote from Jeremy Bentham! How can you not love a paper that picks up on an academic conference and goes from that to our moral duties to human rights in the world, on the front page? Possibly it could get a bit dull over time, like Tom Paulin in the Newsnight Review always interpreting every play, book or film as a metaphor for the Troubles. But at the moment I am disposed to like this left-wing newspaper.
3. I am still impressed by the bookshops here. On the tables where English bookshops have piles of Shopaholic goes to Manhattan or some such, here they have facing page translations of the letters of Sallust or works by banned Turkish writers. I went to a supermarket last night, and they had a sale on, selling books for 5 euros per kilogram. I bought a book about Nineveh with lots of pictures; a catalogue of an exhibition of the collections of Queen Christina of Sweden, which I haven't read properly yet but which should be interesting because she was an amazing and odd person (and owned one of the most satisfying manuscripts in the world, the Bury Psalter); and for just a few euros a much better facing-page translation of Shakespeare's sonnets. It translate the marriage of true minds as "matrimonio di due animi fideli", which is less annoying, though I would still prefer "menti", I think. Anyway, Francesca tells me that Federica is more or less right about literary culture being engaged in on a higher level here because engaged in by fewer people. There are no tabloids, apparently; if you want a paper you have to read a serious one.
4. Figaro! Polpetta! Actually here he is doing his best Bond villain cat stare.
Monday, 18 February 2008
2. I went to Rome. It's not as easy to be in as Bologna. Like a good medievalist I went to the Epigraphical Museum and looked at epigraphy for a while. There were some truly beautiful Rustic Capital inscriptions, but I have a soft spot for the clumsier ones, like this one showing cursive elements.
3. The Spar chains have shops in Rome but they are called Despar which is a bit wierd, really, and makes you think of those anti-capitalist T-shirts.
4. Federica says the bookshops are great here because so few people read. Only intellectuals read, she says, whereas in England culture is for everyone. I tried to suggest that some people wouldn't call it culture at all when it includes The Da Vinci code, and 25% of all books bought are Richard and Judy choices. (I know one's supposed to find the latter shocking, but I can only sympathise with those who want a straightforward easy read, and who go into a bookshop looking for something cheapish, fat, and reliable. Nor are all the R&J choices dumb by any means, and most of them are worth some time.)
Friday, 15 February 2008
Otherwise I am loving the way Italian often feels rather like cheating; if it's a Latinate word in English, then just slur it a bit and add an Italian accent and you're probably there. Example becomes esempio, adjective is aggetivo, etc. (I've been told you can do something similar with Modern Welsh, by taking an English verb and adding ~iau on the end, but it really winds them up if you do it too obviously, apparently.) Also I like it very much when Italian is like Latin, although it makes it harder for me to spell. The Italian for wife sounds exactly like mulier, though it's spelt moglie.
I'm quite disturbed by the high quality of the bookshops here. I know it's a university town, but so is Cambridge, and there's seriously no comparison. If I could read Italian fluently I'd be buying loads. As it is I've bought quite a few little portfolios of art reproductions, and today I got a cheap hardback facing-page translation of Catullus's Poems. We read them briefly at school, and they were one of those rare things which weren't killed by the classroom (also in this category, Wuthering Heights, and Anouilh's Eurydice). I like best the one that's a translation from Sappho, which starts something like He is more than a god in my eyes. Also I bought a cheap paperback facing-page translation of Shakespeare's Sonnets, but so far this is not pleasing me so much. I looked up one I memorised back when I was a little eleven-year old, the one that starts Let me not to the marriage of true minds Admit impediments, and it's translated as Io non farò ai costanti impedimento Di matrimonio. I think that means "I will not (future) do to the constant ones an impediment to marriage". Where are the minds in that? It's supposed to be about minds! The eleven-year old me would never have memorised this version, it's just about how true lovers should be allowed to get married. I may be being unfair, cos of course my Italian is still pretty rubbish, but I suspect that the pressures of translating into the strict sonnet form are at work here, turning something strong into something banal. (In Italian, banale.)
I didn't buy T. S. Eliot's Book of Practical Cats, but I did buy "Beh, che c'è di nuovo, Charlie Brown?" because I couldn't resist the front cover of Snoopy on top of his doghouse, typing "Era una notte buia e tempestosa". And they had a cheap paperback facing-page translation of Orlando Furioso! That's been on my to-read list for ages. Can you imagine going into Borders in Cambridge and finding a cheap parallel text of Orlando Furioso? (Admittedly, Ariosto is local.) Maybe I should buy it anyway, even though I won't understand either side of the page, just as a sort of celebration of intelligent book-selling.
Small random piece of information: Parker is held to have invented the facing-page translation with his Testimonie of Antiquitie, the first book ever printed in Old English. Diligent googling has failed to disprove this as yet.
Wednesday, 13 February 2008
Lucky for me there is popjustice. This is a tad sub-Goldie Looking Chain, but it's always been a great record, and I like the ending. Maybe it's time to revive harem pants? Yes I know they were ridiculous, but there are so many short men wandering round here making themselves look like penguins by wearing their jeans with the belt nestling under the curve of their buttocks that any increase in volume of coverage could only be a substantial improvement. I don't care if your pants are designer! I don't want to see them!
Tuesday, 12 February 2008
Q. why is Amy Winehouse's No no no song quite sad? (This one was my fault -- she said she didn't like it and I said it was also quite sad now, not realising that she wouldn't have got the general import of the lyrics.) A. because she really ought to have gone to Rehab, obviously. That one at least was easy.
Q. why have you come to Italy? All that stuff about la bella vita isn't true, everyone in Italy is miserable. A. Everyone in England is miserable as well but at least you have nice bread.
Q. why study the middle ages given that we are living in 2008? (she does economics) A. first because I find it very interesting and the manuscripts are beautiful. Secondly (I'd had a few cocktails by the time I tried to answer this one) because it is a good thing to understand humankind. History is not a series of improvements leading up to the present day and an even better future; on the contrary there are things we have lost when we gained certain types of knowledge, and this loss is causing us problems in the way that the religious and the non-religious live together. Then I talked about American right-wing evangelistic Christians for a while.
Q. why is England Protestant? A. I didn't want to over-simplify this one, so I ended up going back to the marriage of Arthur Tudor and Catherine of Aragon, and in this way I may have fallen into the opposite trap. It's just that it makes me annoyed when people talk about Henry VIII as some sort of pragmatic man motivated by lust and the desire for a political heir; I think he was much more complex than that, and dangerously principled, even if he was perhaps a bit self-deluded about the motivation behind his principles. He genuinely thought that his lack of a son was a sign of God's anger at his marriage to his sister-in-law; and it was quite fair for him to get annoyed at his treatment by the pope. Henry VIII was not the first English king to get divorced, but the last (until we get Charles III), and medieval divorces and annulments were common on far far more flimsy grounds. Look at Eleanor of Provence, who had two daughters with Louis the whatnot before divorcing him and marrying the future Henry II. Henry VIII had a team of scholars who tracked down a manuscript of the Old Testament in Hebrew in order to analyse the texts more precisely, and he took it very seriously. The pope at the time, Clement VII, would certainly come out worse than Henry in any comparison of moral behaviour. He was a Medici by-blow, and had at least one "nephew" of his own whom he advanced through his power; he was certainly not motivated by the desire to uphold the sanctity of holy wedlock. Instead, because of some military reverses, he was completely politically under the thumb of Spain, and hence of Catherine's nephew. It's hard not to sympathise with Henry's anger that his scholarly arguments couldn't get a look in compared to political exigencies, that the pope wasn't considering God's laws but the wishes of the Emperor. The forged Donation of Constantine made the popes temporal rulers and diminished vastly their spiritual authority, and it's the best exemplum I know for the need to separate political power and religion. And then Mary's unpopular marriage to Philip of Spain, and the pope's ridiculous bull exhorting English Catholics to assassinate Elizabeth I, sealed England's Protestantism.
Q. Do people in England like the queen? A. She's OK, but we're not so fond of her descendants.
Q. Isn't it strange that England has a royal family when it's a very avant-garde country? A. Not at all, England is very traditional. Then I ended up trying to explain the failure of the Commonwealth and the restoration of Charles II. I may have overmade my point about the need to study history...
2. Italian is great, and having to speak it to my flatmates is very good for me. I think I have learnt quite a lot in a week and a half of the corso di Italiano per straniere. I don't have a natural ability with languages, but I do have a helpful OCD/aspergers-y tendency to become obsessive about things, which means I keep trying to work things out in Italian in my head, and it's making me tired.
3. Oh Figaro! Salsiciotto!
Saturday, 9 February 2008
I really want one of these steampunk keyboards:
Below are some pictures I took of Bologna. They're not very good because they were taken on my little camera phone, and the light hasn't been great, but they give some idea of bits of it.
Inside the courtyard of the building where I work. Eat your heart out, 9 West Road!
Here is the window of a grocer's. Nearby Parma is of course famous for its ham and parmigiano. If you look closely you will see carvings made of cheese!
Here is the Palazzo di Re Enzo, the illegitimate son of Frederick II, stupor mundi. Really it was his prison; he lived here for over twenty years before he died. In front is the fountain of Neptune. It has lots of ladies spurting water from their breasts.
Portici on my way to work:
The church outside where I live. I think it's seventeenth-century, but maybe it's sixteenth-.
Figaro the cat:
Also, I've found Rambaldi, living just below a room I looked at just outside the Porta Saffi:
Friday, 8 February 2008
1. people greet each other with "salve". Francesca says it's just a way to avoid doing an instant evaluation of one's relationship with someone so as to decide between the informal "ciao" or the formal "buongiorno", but it sounds wonderfully Latinate to me. Also it reminds me of starting Latin when I was about 12 at school; when the teacher came into the room she said "salvete puellae" and we all said "salve Mrs Washington".
2. there's this slight air of the 1950s. Everyone smokes, and women have little feet and wear fur. On the buses there are tiny elderly ladies swathed in glossy furs, and I have to resist a terrible, patronising impulse to stroke them. There are two fur shops on the street where I live. One is large and pretty posh. It has things in the window which look rare, leopard-like, but surely they can't be? They cost several thousand euros each. Most disconcerting are the ones made of lots of loose furry bits, looking like a legion of hamsters is clinging to the coat, perhaps as part of some hamster-smuggling wheeze. The other shop is tiny and last time I went past there were two big (alive) Alsatians squeezed in among the clothes.
3. people bring their dogs into shops. I like this, personally. Not sure the dogs are enjoying it much.
4. it's a beautiful city without being at all pretty. Almost everything is built in local red brick, often very roughly finished, and the buildings harmonise because of this, and also because the architecture is quite straightforward. (The picture above is one of the nicest bits of my walk to work.) The city is mostly flat but there are hills all around it, which mean there are lots of beautiful views. Also there are towers. At some point in the late middle ages local merchant families took up competitive tower building. Only a few are left but apparently once there were about 180, all with their only entrances about six metres up, and galleries around them; it must have been like something out of sci-fi. And a lack of anything hugely startling means Bologna isn't really on the tourist trail, not compared to Florence and Venice, so it's rather more like a real city.
5. the people are mostly very friendly. Sometimes an attempt to speak Italian gets a really positive reponse.
6. my flatmates are great. Giorgia speaks some English but is out quite a lot. She looks like Alexa off of Popworld. Federica speaks almost no English but is really friendly. She says my Italian has noticeably improved over the last few days, and yesterday we had a conversation about what I do and I explained what palaeography is, which gave me a sense of achievement. Also we have just had a long talk about Pete Doherty (consensus: over-rated). She has exams coming up, because she is doing some sort of postgraduate degree in economics, but after that she says she is going to cook proper lasagne for me and Giorgia. Figaro the cat is also good; his role in the house is suddenly to do something charming but very inconvenient, so that one of us goes "Oh, Figaro!" like in the Felix adverts.
Wednesday, 6 February 2008
The two girls I live with are very nice and helpful. Figaro the cat has developed a game where he pushes my door open, leaps onto my desk, pats the pens until one falls on the floor, and then chases it round and round until it disappears under the sofa. Then he lies there going "miao" in a small sad voice. He's not a terribly vocal cat, which is probably good, because it makes him easy to ignore when I feel like it. It's nice to have a pet again though, even if only at second hand and temporarily.
They have very formal book launches here. I went to one yesterday for the new volume of the department's library catalogue (specifically of the older books) and the Professor, who is very nice, introduced to me to lots of important people, at whom I smiled inanely and said "piacere". Then we all sat down and lots of men gave speeches. (Our professor was the only woman on the stage, and reference was made at least once to her charmingness in a rather depressing, but very familiar, way.) By the time Francesca and I gave up and sneaked out the seventh such speech was going on, we'd been there for an hour and forty minutes, and there were still people up there waiting to talk. I couldn't follow it much, partly because the microphones distorted the sounds a bit, but someone said there were too many libraries and someone else said there weren't. But the room we were in is amazing; a huge hall with a raised dais at one end, with high vaulted ceilings decorated with beautiful and quite simple floral designs. Behind the speakers was the most immense fresco of some subject I couldn't identify, perhaps the court of King Herod, I'd guess seventeenth century but possibly later. The palazzo which houses all the historical subjects used to be the nunnery of San Giovanni in monte -- the monte is a Cambridge-style hill, i.e. a slight slope, but it's just up from the Gerusalemme church and to pilgrims represented the Mount of Olives, apparently. Then until the 1980s the building served as a jail, possibly the poshest jail in the world.
I probably ought to start doing some of the work I'm here to do... I originally allowed myself a week to settle in but then I decided to extend it because of the hassle of having to find my own place. Maybe on Friday...?
Saturday, 2 February 2008
The problem is that now it is a case of a room of one's own versus the five hundred pounds a year, i.e. financial independence, because the rent will reduce my stipend to the level of a nice gesture. Still it's only for six months so hopefully I won't run up vast debts.
Bologna is otherwise very excellent. There are posters with little tear-off phone number slips on the lamp-posts advertising tuition in Latin and Greek. The department where I will be working is very friendly and surprisingly organised, and it's in a huge sixteenth-century palazzo. Next week I start an intensive "Italiano per stranieri" course. To enrol they made us all introduce ourselves in turn in Italian and when I said was studying palaeography they gave me respect: this has never happened before. So I think I will like it very much here once I've settled in to my new room and unpacked my things.
Obviously I was worried I would have withdrawal symptoms from British TV so I downloaded some 4OD stuff before I left. I have watched the first 3 episodes of Shameless now, and I think it's back to its best. "Well, form is temporary but class is permanent" as Frank Gallagher says. I also watched the first episode of City of Vice, which I quite liked, though there was something rather naive about it somehow. I have read A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary for Lovers by Xiaolu Guo, which is very good, as is Can Any Mother Help Me? by Jenna Bailey, and I am partway through Julian Rathbone's The Mutiny, which is good but odd because I think of him as a very cheeky writer, and this isn't cheeky at all.