Monday, September 28, 2009

This still makes me laugh, two days later

On the way home, I read Nick Hornby's Juliet, Naked, which I thoroughly enjoyed. A fantastic, funny and sad meditation on careers that falter, the idea of wasting a life, and on internet fan communities. Towards the end there is a tense family scene: the previous partner of one of the main characters has taken a child (not her own) to the zoo. People are trying to behave well.

"He was impeccably behaved," said Natalie. "A pleasure to be with. And he knows more or less everything there is to know about snakes."
"I don't know how long all of them are," said Jackson modestly.

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Jet-lag is weird. Italy is magical.

Well, no surprises there. You could hardly expect to sit in three planes over twenty-four hours, cross the equator and who knows how many time zones and not feel weird.

It's just that a holiday is supposed to make you feel rested, and yet here I am feeling not much different than the exhaustion after a work trip.

On the other hand, I have not thought about my work at all for three weeks, and have filled my eyes and ears and, I'm sorry to say, my mouth, too, with sights and sounds and tastes a-plenty.

We did this trip on frequent-flyer points, and with my several weeks' pretty careful planning on the web; and I'm pleased to report all went smoothly. No flight delays; no lost luggage; no dreadful hotels. We stayed in ** or *** pensions and hotels, and while the rooms were always small, they were all clean and quiet, with smooth cotton sheets. The centrepiece of this trip was an eight-day cyling circuit in Italy. We picked up our bikes in Treviso, and every day we'd leave our cases in the hotel lobby and navigate our way to the next town, where the cases would invariably be waiting for us. This was a circuit from Treviso to Venice to Chioggia to Padova to Vincenza to Bassano del Grappa and back to Treviso. J and P did the navigating, and I brought up the rear, day-dreaming my way around the countryside and back lanes of the route. We also gave ourselves a couple of days in Pisa and Florence, a second bite at Venice, an overnight in Milan, and a couple of days in Paris, with visits to family in London at either end.

P took great photos, J sketched in his book and I took a couple of desultory snaps and did some more day-dreaming.

Two highlights.

The first day of our cycling tour was one of the longest: Treviso to Venice. We struggled a bit with the road maps and instructions, and also got a bit lost before heading through the industrial zone of Venice before riding along that long strip of land to the main island. When we got there, we had to find our way through to the Casa San Andrea, on a small lagoon near the Piazzale Roma. When we arrived, we were exhausted and collapsed onto the beds, too tired to get up but wondering if this was going to be such a great idea, if we were going to be too exhausted to see anything of the beautiful places on our itinerary. After a while we regrouped, though, and struggled out to buy vaporetto tickets in time to do the most magical trip down the Grand Canal as the sun began to set. I had not been to Venice for 35 years, and it was P and J's first time. Global traveller that he is, P was still not prepared for the magic of Venice, and it was extremely gratifying to see his amazement. (I can't get the little camera to start at the moment: I'll try again when I'm less tired.) So much water! So many beautiful buildings! I bought myself a creamy guipure lace fan (even the tourist souvenirs are elegant) and for dinner had fresh sea bass with what the waiter called a "sausage": she served my fillets onto a separate plate then mashed up much of the head and other parts with more oil, then strained this extra-flavoured oil over the white flesh. Delicate and delicious.

The restaurant was just around the corner from the piazza San Marco; just near it was the entrance to one of the narrow calles that lead you into the shops and alleys and laneways. People would mysteriously enter or leave in single-file; so as we were sitting and watching we had this tremendous sense of potential: the city both opened up to us, like the fish served before me, along the Grand Canal; but also holding its secrets in reserve.

When we returned a week later, it was to a different hotel, and with a date. I'd found a website selling tickets to a performance of the Barber of Seville in a palace, and had booked, but failed to print off a map. We had a day touring and wandering around, and had planned to go back to the hotel, change, and get directions. Instead we decided just to find our way there. Turns out there is not just one Palazzo Barbarigo on the map, though. We wandered and wandered, and eventually found our way to La Fenice, thinking the main opera house would know where it was (I knew our palace was not far from there). But the box office had closed (they'd had an afternoon performance) and the cloakroom staff had never heard of it. I was starting to think I'd been the victim of a scam. I started desperately asking strangers, as I had enough Italian to ask politely for directions (though my comprehension of the spoken word is only rudimentary). Most people had never heard of it; but one man gave me detailed instructions I couldn't follow... Eventually I strolled boldly into a posh hotel and asked the concierge, who gave me several maps, the brochure from the company and set me straight, also running out after me when I left the reservation behind.

Eventually we did find the entrance, down the darkest of narrow dark alleyways, with a locked gate and a sign with a hand pointing mysteriously around the corner, which seemed to lead only to an apartment entrance. Then we found the button you pressed; and a voice said they would open the door at 8.00. So we went off to eat, and came back in plenty of time. It was a chamber performance — four or five singers; a piano, a cello and two violins — performed in several different rooms in the Barbarigo-Minotto palace; and it was utterly magical. The rooms could accommodate only about 50 people, and the singers were wonderfully engaging, moving amongst the audience with charm and grace. Beautiful strong voices and accomplished acting all round. No sur-titres, no sets apart from the palace itself, but it was perfect for this drawing-room opera to be staged in drawing-rooms with Tiepolo paintings and a palatial bedroom. When Figaro shaves Dr Bartolo, we were close enough to smell the shaving foam. After the first act, we were ushered into a different room, but invited to take in the view of the grand canal from the balcony. When you're in Venice as a tourist, you get glimpses of much wealthier travellers and residents in private courtyards and balconies. For a brief moment, we had our own balcony from which to look out at the water traffic below. Pretty much a perfect musical experience, I would say.

Other wonderful things on this trip: a Chopin concert in a C13 church in Paris; As You Like It at the Globe in London; the artichoke tart served with gorgonzola cappucino followed by potato ravioli with truffles and truffle oil at an unassuming little restaurant halfway between Bassano and Treviso; mint liquorice and morello cherry gelati eaten on the enormous chessboard in the square at Marostica; Giotto's Scrovegni chapel in Padua; being given two huge bunches of grapes by a lovely family as we rode from Vincenza to Bassano; reading A Room with a View in Florence; supper at the Mozzarella Bar, also in Florence; buying a coral and glass necklace in Venice; sneaking into my nephew's choral rehearsal in the Temple church in London; two pilgrimages in Paris: first, to climb the towers of Notre Dame after an hour queuing in the sun to see the chimeres and gargoyles up close; and another to take J to see the Mona Lisa in the Louvre; and a day in London with our dearest, much-missed family friends currently taking a sabbatical in Oxford.

Oh. And in case you're thinking this all sounds too perfect, factor in the horror of waking up in the middle of the night in Bassano, and realising you have developed a case of raging conjunctivitis. Spend several hours lying awake rehearsing conversations in your elementary Italian about locating and talking to pharmacists and doctors. But then when you tell your partner, he reaches into his first-aid kit and pulls out the broad spectrum anti-biotic drops for ears and eyes... Oh. What can I say? It was perfect after all.

Sunday, September 06, 2009

Travel

The general wisdom, when about to head off on a inter-hemispherical, crossing multiple time-zones flight, is to go to bed early. General wisdom also says have a holiday when you are on long service leave.

But it makes me very happy that writing on my book has been going well these last few weeks. My gentle blog readers have received their chapters (thank you, all, so very much). On the other hand, it is now time for a holiday. We leave tomorrow morning for two weeks of mad touring around in Italy, and a few days in Paris and London.

So it also seemed important, tonight, to print out our various hotel reservations and google maps, and opera tickets (the barber of seville, performed in a palace in venice) and tickets to tour the houses of parliament (london) and my sister's phone number and the bus numbers to her house from the tube station, to find the list of hotels our cycling tour has booked us into, to find the Globe tickets for As You Like It. To say nothing of raiding J's music library to put some fresh music on the ipod, as well as, yes indeed, the third CD in the Ci Siamo Italian course.

I've shown my other sister how to feed the fish and the dear little cat, though she's hardly eating anything these days.

I have my book for the plane: Steve Carroll's The Art of the Engine Driver

What's left to do in the morning? Finish the washing; run to the bank and the chemist; pack. And, if I have time, to take up the hem of my new pants... Oh. And pack.

But now it's time for that early night. See you in a couple of weeks.

Thursday, September 03, 2009

Garden fragrance in the city

Many years ago, when the Wednesday afternoon research seminars in my department (the fur on Dr Cat's back has just stood up) used to be a cross between gladiator fights at the Coliseum and episodes of The Office in their intensity, competitiveness and general social malfunctioning, one afternoon in spring a young man who had grown up in Melbourne but who was visiting from some advanced comp.lit. programme in the US, came in to sit behind the desk and laid on top of it a long spray of jasmine, commenting on how it reminded him, more than anything else, of Melbourne.

Today the sky is blue; high clouds are racing by; and the air is filled with the sweet scent of jasmine. I could even smell it when I came out of the gym this morning, which is on a busy road. There are more exotic varieties of jasmine, perhaps, but this one drapes itself luxuriously and expansively over garden fences all over the city, and on sunny, windy days like this, it fills the streets with its extravagant fragrance.



It smells like home.

Tuesday, September 01, 2009

What the Young People are Wearing

My son goes to a local high school that has no uniform, and that prides itself on its sense of style. It's in the heart of Carlton, a suburb close to the university, that was also settled by waves of Italian migrants after the war. It was also a kind of hippie enclave for several decades. The school has a no-uniform policy, and also prides itself on its artistic and musical and creative endeavours, as well as its strong academic record.

One of their former students is the photographer Christian Ghezzi. He's just published a sequence of photos of current students in the Benetton Colors magazine. Click to see what the funky young Carltonites are wearing - and seriously, this is what they do wear to school. They buy second-hand clothes from Savers and the Brotherhood. Don't they look amazing?

Of course, sometimes when I drop J off it's just a sea of jeans and black sweats, but I've certainly seen some remarkable ensembles. I love the way these kids are putting themselves together!