When I saw a flight to Frankfurt selling at just 20 € I didn’t mull things over for long. I booked it on the spot, putting the planning off to a later moment. Somehow, though, I lost the confirmation email for my reservation, and I kept only a vague idea of this upcoming weekend in Germany. The more time passed, the more I grew convinced I was due to leave in June.
Before it became too late, I took the matter into my own hands. I made sure the price had been correctly debited on my bank account just to make sure I had not had a dream, and then phoned a friend who works at the airport. She was able to retrieve my details, and surprise, surprise – I found out I was leaving as soon as the following weekend!
My flight to Hungary was due to leave early in the morning, so I spent my last night in Cambridge because it was easier to reach the airport from there than from East London. I stayed at a great youth hostel which was full of international guests, but retained a quintessential English flavour emanating from the wooden flooring, the staircase, and the brick structure. The moment I stepped in I felt like going hostelling around the country as I did when I was 18.
Cambridge was a far cry from hustling bustling London. A taxi driver who saw my sister-in-law and me at a loss trying to find our way addressed us in a fatherly tone and called us “Luvely”, cracking a joke in perfect English humour after patiently explaining the way we should take. It felt so relaxed and friendly, not impersonal like in the capital where everyone was alien to their neighbour.
When I passed London airport on my way back from Ghana a few months ago, I was bowled over by a confusing mixture of feelings of appeal and repulsion. On the one hand I felt the attraction of the extraordinary place that lay outside the terminal. It winked its eye at me, giving me the come-on to partake of its joie de vivre. Supposing I came here to work for some time? But on the other hand I noticed hundreds of foreign airport workers doing menial jobs and wondered how interesting a life that could possibly be, and would my prospects be anything better?
Maybe that fascination was due to a desire to prolong a galvanising Africa travel experience right at the moment when I was sadly heading home. But somehow I decided that I would return there on exploration and test the waters, and possibly indulge in some more wishful thinking. The excuse was easy to find: a visit to my brother and his wife, who’ve been living in London for a year.
Since I was working at Vinitaly exhibition in Verona on Monday, I had the idea to leave as early as Friday and pay myself a weekend away. My destination was Trieste.
When I was a teenager, my uncle was transferred to work there and in the course of those two years I visited their family on several occasions before and after the school holidays. I accompanied them when they first arrived and were still strangers to the place, but on subsequent visits I found that my cousins had made friends and I was the outsider visitor.
Trieste was fun: we had a seaside resort at Barcola, a great city to explore and the walks on the mountains. Just as I had taken possession of the public transport system in my town and got comfortably around by myself like a grown-up, I availed myself of my experience to ride the whole network of buses and soon felt in control there too. I was young and so eager to discover everything.
An Italian proverb exhorts people to spend Christmas with their family but Easter with whoever they want. Backed by the sanction of popular wisdom, this is what I did this year.
I had international friends staying with me and I’d originally planned to join them on an excursion to LakeComo. However the weather was awful on Saturday, so I let them go to Milan by themselves. The forecast was not bad for Easter Sunday, so when I returned home and found my friends already asleep after their day out, I left them a note to say I would go to the lake with them.
When I returned from my first China trip three years ago, I was convinced that my smattering of Mandarin had been a great advantage in the whole travel experience. Not only had it helped me sort out practical situations, but it had also allowed me to strike up acquaintances on public transport and therefore get a different perception of the country and its people. I was also deeply aware of how much work still lay before me if I had wanted to push forward. But the start had been encouraging, and I was persuaded I should proceed. The next thing to do was therefore get a teacher to consecrate my commitment and make me progress more than by the simple drive of self-study.
A friend of mine, who teaches in a primary school, directed me to the language classes that some of her ethnic Chinese children attend in the afternoon. I had a word with their teacher before the class began. She welcomed me and said she would love to help me in exchange for assistance in Italian, but unfortunately she had no time at the moment. That afternoon I stayed to attend the class with a dozen children of varying ages, only to realise how poor I was in comparison with them.
Today I have taken the fourth Lariam tablet after my return from Africa, so the treatment is finally over. This moment couldn’t have come too early: I have been taking the drug for nearly two months, and it has disturbed me greatly. From the start my sleep was affected with dreams often surfacing to the level of consciousness. Moreover, I spent restless nights – not entirely sleepless to be true – but I wriggled in the bed charged with a nervous energy that exceeded my endurance. Strangely enough, the following day I could attend to my daily occupations without feeling excessively tired.
Lately it’s been a torture. The medicine can’t take all the blame for my state of mind, but it has nevertheless contributed to amplify certain feelings, rekindling pent-up conflicts that were dormant in the deepest layers of my psyche. It has laid bare the rickety structure on which I built the certainties of daily life and showed how precarious an equilibrium it was.
Last night I attended the show of a local festival whose theme are feature films about mountains. I was attracted by one title in particular, Marpha apples, because it talked about a remote Nepalese region, the Mustang, that I nearly visited.
During my Annapurna trek years ago I reached the entry point to Mustang before turning off on a different route. All I saw there was a solitary police checkpoint, unmanned at that moment, but I was tickled by the glimpse of a grandiose valley opening a path into that sensitive area toward the border with Tibet. My gaze dug as deep as it could reach from that spot, but I hadn’t applied for the required expensive permit so I had to content myself with window-shopping. Nothing could stop my imagination, though, and I daydreamed about crossing into Mustang and walking towards unknown goals hidden among beautiful barren mountains.
When he decided to publish in the classified ads online, he was not optimistic. He thought he wouldn’t probably receive the slightest sign of interest. Arabic was a language that had reaped some success among learners some years before. In the aftermath of 9-11 anything related to the Arab world suddenly became fashionable, and the language was among the aspects that had drawn attention from those courageous enough to venture in a challenging learning experience. But more recently it was China, of all world cultures, that had gained the upper hand, and that had gone to the detriment of all things Arab, especially among the young, he suspected.
Although he didn’t think anybody would reply, he placed the ad. All things considered, he was acting more in response to a psychological need, namely continue feeling involved in this field of studies. He had been enthralled by the Arab culture and had lived meaningful experiences, but now his attention too was diverted to other matters, and his horizon had widened to, precisely, China.
He was not an optician like all the others. There was a funny atmosphere hanging about in his out-dated shop that you could perceive the moment you crossed the threshold. Maybe it was the shape of the premises, long and narrow, maybe it was how crowded it could get on a Saturday afternoon. A row of people on one side of the counter attended the always numerous customers crowding along the opposite side. His prices were unbeatable.
It was a family business. The optician was unique, with usually two or three pairs of glasses on his nose – he who, of all people, sold glasses. Besides the optician, there were his wife, a sister and a brother-in-law, who didn’t use to work, but sat on a chair watching the village life pass by outside the shop window.
On Monday 31 December I texted a friend to say I hadn’t been able to contact other people for a get-together, and she proposed I went to a dinner party with her. I didn’t know the host, or most of the other guests, but I didn’t mind. We ate a gourmet meal, but it were some topics we discussed over dinner that struck me most.
A man suggested each should think of something we particularly enjoyed during 2012, or we would like to have in 2013, and in turn tell everybody. Knowing each other well, hardly anyone was afraid to open up their heart with the risk of being judged. I was surprised at the frankness about past experiences, some indeed quite harsh, and the admittance of one’s shortcomings. Being brought together by their common church membership, the other guests had a strong reason to share their experiences that had found a solution in faith.
If I open my window facing east today, it seems as if nothing has changed. And yet, the ominous stillness of the scene portends some great transformation that I am unable to predict. In theory, the yellow buildings, the tall chimney, the water tank are still there, intact. Only the car park is practically empty.
The hospital, which has been my neighbour since I moved into my house, has been recently transferred to brand new headquarters. They took a few years to build and furnish, and once it was ready there was a long delay before the actual removal, owing to an issue with subterranean water leaking into the basement.
This protracted time kept me from worrying about the matter, but I knew all along that things were going to change radically for my district. Now, all of a sudden I see how big these changes will be.
When studying a foreign language at an advanced level a lot of stress is put on learning expressions. Idioms encompass the culture of a nation, and mastering them is important not only in order to understand, but also to produce own authentic material.
At their respective levels of sophistication and education, native speakers will resort to set phrases to express ideas in a powerful way. It is as if one’s own words, themselves a sheer product of convention for the sake of communication, were not enough to convey concepts, and one felt the inescapable urge to add colour by using second-level standardised sayings.
An idiom is a linguistic unit that can be analysed as a fixed phrase, which therefore lives an autonomous life whose usage is generally retraceable over a long time. On closer inspection, though, we can spot other devices used to render one’s speech more effective. For instance, linguists talk about collocation, or words that are often found together, such as “heart-rending grief”. They are not as complete in meaning as idioms and much less than proverbs, but are nevertheless a conspicuous presence in language, and something that satisfies our insatiable craving for set patterns.
This year has been an autumn of opera for me after years of not attending any show. I timidly started with a performance at the theatre, which I liked so much that I immediately made plans to go to the next show while regretting missing the two previous ones by Donizetti.
I have tried with other theatres in Lombardy, but I was not logistically easy and I dropped the idea. Then, at a local cinema they started showing a cycle of opera and ballet recordings, which, without retaining the quality and sparking the emotions of a live performance, have been nevertheless excellent films.
When I was buying a ticket for La Bohème I heard a lady in the queue enquire about La serenata al vento, due to be on stage in Bergamo as a world premiere. The opera had in fact won a competition at the Teatro alla Scala in the 1930’s, but never came to be performed because the composer was Jewish. In 1938 the Fascist racial laws came into force banning public activities to members of that community.
If I can claim to have a private Chinese preceptor, that title certainly goes to Junwei. We have never met (although we came short of doing so last year in Chengdu), but we have been in touch for over two years on the internet. While he was working at the 17th bureau of China Rail, which were charged with digging tunnels in Fujian province, he had plenty of time on his hands and he devoted a lot of it to helping countrymen with their English, as well as foreigners with their Chinese.
His help was certainly beneficial to me, as it was to other young learners who even sent him small gifts in gratitude for the tutorship. I must confess my willingness to tackle the vagaries of the Chinese language has known ups and downs, but at least since the end of the summer I have been highly motivated. I met foreigners who were so proficient in this language that they set an example and spurred me to higher goals. Therefore, I have been in continual touch with Junwei.
Yesterday was my birthday, but with the busy schedule I had, I didn’t celebrate in any way, not even with colleagues at work. Besides, one was on sick leave and I thought it wise to postpone. At lunch break, instead of going for a meal I went for a work-out session. It may not be a special thing to do, but in fact this was my personal birthday present.
I don’t go to an ordinary gym. My training ground is the Lazzaretto, a Council sports field in the open air, accommodated in what was once upon a time a hospital for the plague-stricken. The compound consists of a large grass pitch fenced off by ancient porches on all four sides, like a cloister expanded to unwonted proportions. I have wondered about how patients were treated here, often coming to the conclusion that they must only have been segregated from healthy people to avoid contagion. When epidemics were not raging this place may have been given alternative destinations.
I have been to Spain several times, and I’ve always come back with the desire to visit again (but does that not happen with almost every country I go to?). There are many regions that I haven’t visited yet and, until recently, there were even some famous cities. It was high time I took these off the list, so I booked a flight to Madrid and spent a week around the Castilles: the old and the new, or better said, according to their present denomination, Castilla-La Mancha and Castilla y León.
I packed Madrid, Toledo, the Escorial, Ávila, Salamanca and Segovia into my 8 day tour. It may seem a tour de force, but it all came along quite naturally. As the plan was only a loose one, I kept adding places as long as there was time available until I got to the bottom of my wishlist.
I booked a weekend in Vienna before the summer. I had been toying with the idea of a visit there and when I found low-cost flights on offer I thought the bargain shouldn’t be missed. After the summer holiday, it definitely helped to still have plans to look forward to. It cured the fear to be missing out on too much going on elsewhere at a time when no major trip was in the offing. Besides, a foreign destination was even more enticing. Somehow, I need an international dimension to add spice to my life.
When the weekend approached I realised it was falling in a rather busy period, but never mind – it were only two days and I would be happily distracted from my daily worries. I booked a hostel and borrowed a city guide in order to find my bearings around Vienna’s vast cultural offer.
Every year since the Chamber of commerce has sponsored local companies to exhibit at Marmomacc I have paid a visit to this important event. Verona lies in a marble district and is rich in companies that extract dimension stones and process them. Driving out of town on one northbound road you can see a series of sawmills with tall cranes where blocks of the red local marble are cut into slabs or tiles for the most luxurious uses. Some of Verona’s central streets are even paved with this beautiful stone and look more like elegant interiors than public spaces. What could be a better place to hold this exhibit?
Marmomacc is engrossing. Even for a layman like myself, who has nevertheless acquired some awareness of the sector, it is a pleasure to admire exotic decorative materials coming from the four corners of the globe. Then, there is a pavilion where the most incredible giants of machines with numerical control can perform operations from as simple as cutting blocks to as complicated as carving sculptures. You are left wondering whether craftsmanship still exists today.
Sella refuge lies at an altitude of 2,700 m in the Gran ParadisoNational Park. Every year, at the last weekend of September, they hold the end-of the-season party to mark the moment from which the establishment will be closed for the next 8 long winter months. My friends have been regular attendees for years, and I have gone twice too. This year I joined them once more.
We were a party of over 10 people, some more attracted to the night revelling, others to the high mountain trails that can be followed from the base camp. I went with the aim of a mixed experience, setting myself moderate goals for either moment of the weekend.
My Isreali neighbour had alerted me a week in advance. His nephew would arrive at Milan and the next day he would travel on to the south where he’s studying. Would I be able to pick him up from the train station? And while he was coming, what did I want him to bring over to me?
I remembered delicious baked fritters (called silk) filled with thyme leaves I had eaten at their place. I dreamed of biting into one and sipping a cup of black tea with sugar. That was my wishlist.
When the day came, my neighbour informed me his nephew would arrive pm. I rushed out of work allowing time for the drive to the local airport. Chatting in the car, it dawned upon me the time was not to be intended so literally. It was very naïve of me to have taken it at face value.