We met as volunteers working at the same night shelter but we found out that we had already been colleagues unawares when both of us had served, albeit at different times, at the same institution in Jerusalem. It usually didn’t take long until she talked about her volunteering in Israel with someone new, and it must have been like this that we discovered common ground. She was rather chuffed when it came to the topic of her yearly stays of over a month each time.
From that first day, whenever we did a night shift together we often talked about common acquaintances, the staff, the patients, the atmosphere in Jerusalem, and life in that big house. I promised one day I would show her the photos I had taken the summer I was there. Now there will be no more time for that…
In the internet era Christmas cards have become a rarity. The young have not lived in the heyday of the post, and many older people consider it outmoded or too formal to send cards, but the main reason may be that they are rather inconvenient. Because you’ve got to buy one, write in good hand a well thought-out message parsed with punctuation and capital letters (an insurmountable stumbling block for most email writers), copy the address, buy a stamp, stick it on the envelope, and mail it. Compared to the click of the mouse required to send an email, this takes much longer, involves more commitment and more expense. In most cases it involves a process that is not accomplished in just a few hurried minutes in front of the laptop screen.
But receiving a Christmas card is much nicer than an email that is read as quickly as it was written, and then is destined to be deleted leaving as little trace as the effort it required when it came to life. Luckily, I still have a few friends who I still exchange cards with and this year I even received one from a former work colleague from England who I used to correspond with. It was indeed a good surprise.
I invited my friends to celebrate three November birthdays, among which mine, and I prepared a genuine Moroccan dinner because of my recent visit there: harira with dates and chicken tajine. On another occasion I had tried out this particular harira recipe which had turned out above my best expectations and had gathered the unanimous praise of all my guests. I was glad that the flavours resulting from the mix of coriander and unfamiliar spices did not taste too strange to my more conservative friends, and therefore I listed it among the dishes that deserved being offered again. As for the main course I went for something blander that the previous time and prepared a chicken tajine.
Only an Arab sweet was the great absentee, and this lack was especially felt when a friend admitted thinking of getting one ready. She had surfed the net to find inspiration, even set on a recipe, but finally given up the plan because of a busy day. Never mind, she said, she had brought some wine, directly from her father’s cellar. She knew nothing about that bottle, but relied on her father’s good appreciation of wines. I put it in the fridge to cool while we chatted and I warmed the dishes up.
When I met him in the lift he was carrying a globe in his hands. Across the lands of two continents red and blue lines were drawn that must respectively represent his proposed route and the one already carried out. It was an original way to take note of a travel itinerary and it naturally let me to exchange a few words during the handful of seconds that the lift ride lasted. At the hostel door we said goodbye. I was going into town and he to a bookshop, with his globe.
The day was a perfectly clear one, and warm for December. It was hard to believe that Saturday’s gloominess had been able to transform itself into such radiance of light and outburst of colour. The previous day, a cloudy sky had not allowed me to fully enjoy the harbour view from the overlooking knoll, but today was the perfect weather for no matter what open air activity. I walked to the Sagrada Familia, gasped in front of the formidable unfinished construction from the outside, while the inside literally made me hold my breath. The Gothic cathedral pattern had been updated into a wonderful flourish of modern art where nature-inspired motives were not only the decoration but also the structure. The bright sun filtered through the stained glass and painted a kaleidoscope of coloured patches on the light columns and on the floor.
The economy spins thanks to innovation, this is perfectly well known. Economists have pointed out that innovation can take various forms, product, process and the litany goes on until a given sacred number which is in its turn presented as an innovative discovery, because a new theory also constitutes a sellable product.
All things new have always aroused the attention of customers who rush to come by the latest rage and thus distinguish themselves from those who fall behind or cannot afford it. Often it doesn’t really matter if a novelty is an improvement to the previous situation, because large swathes of the public would do anything in the name of social distinction, a goal they are prepared to attain by investing whatever amount of superfluous money they deem worthy of this. Fashion, hi-tech and every other industry sector are driven by the buyers’ irresistible craving for novelty that only partly brings about a genuine advantage in their welfare. Most products on sale pretend to introduce innovation, but in fact only respond to the manufacturer’s and the seller’s logic of making money. The pandered consumer is not always the victim, but is often the one guilty of uncritical behaviour, apart from being one of the natural driving forces in the mechanism of consumer economy.
I sent him a text message on the occasion of the Great Bairam, but I received no reply. He’s usually slow in responding, so I didn’t take much notice. Then, about ten days later, he called me. The delay was explained by the fact that he’d just got back from his country where he’d spent his annual leave together with his family, like usual. We exchanged our respective news. I didn’t have much to tell – my mind goes blank when the limelight turns towards me and I have to talk about myself, but he had more things to say. He nevertheless sounded evasive, and said that so much had happened since the last time we’d met. Some things were good, and some others were bad.
I didn’t want to enquire with any specific question. My curiosity is easily subdued where someone else’s privacy starts, and I never encourage people to give confidences if they don’t take the initiative by themselves. We ended the call on the promise of meeting soon. The following two days my mind kept going back to that hint at the bad news, trying to imagine what that might be, and how bad it was.
As I left the cinema after watching the Spanish cartoon film Arrugas, I was more convinced than ever of an inconvenient truth: life is a lonely experience. The story depicts the years in a person’s life when this circumstance is felt in the most tragic way, old age. In fact, the film is a pitiless account of the encounter with the retiring home environment as seen through the eyes of an old man whose son and daughter-in-law believe he has become an unbearable burden on their family life. He is forgetful, not independent anymore, and feels alienated from everybody’s daily routine.
If the nursing home was not enough to accelerate senescence, the old man goes through the ordeal of the degeneration of his mind. But before eventually finding out he is actually affected by Alzheimer’s disease, he discovers the existence of a notorious second floor where those patients are confined and cared for. One day, he steals up the stairs and sees with his own eyes people who could hardly be described as humans anymore. They are more like vegetables, and he knows he is destined to turn into one like them.
When I outlined the itinerary for this Morocco trip, as it was going to be my fourth to the country, I knew I’d be seeing places again, but I didn’t mind.
After all, part my first trip had been marred by flu that kept me bedridden for several days just when I was crossing the places deemed to be the most stunning. On that occasion my friend and I hired a car, but I was forced to let him drive around while I convalesced in a hotel room, and even after I felt good enough to get up I still hadn’t recovered enough strength to enjoy myself to the full.
Then I took another trip to the Atlas mountains on public transport with a lot of walking thrown in, but didn’t make it down to the desert or back to Fes via Midelt, so I still harboured the ambition to cover the route I had once plied. Time had dimmed the memory of that hurried passage across the mountains and the only thing I had retained was the disarmingly bleak picture of a snow-sprinkled highland under a gloomy sky.
It’s been a while since the Couchsurfing site started to send out periodically lists of travellers looking for a host in the area. When I travelled to Spain last June and was invited by a local CS member to stay at his place in Roses I was positively surprised. There would be no more need to browse through profiles and send requests – all of the sudden I was fixed up! Last week, when I saw that a Spanish guy was on the list, I offered to put him up, maybe in exchange for the kindness I had received while I was the same situation in his country. I was also excited to meet someone from the places I had visited roughly a year earlier. It would make me feel like reliving the experience.
The day my guest was due to arrive I stopped to buy some sausage, thinking I’d cook risotto, but on the way home, I suddenly realised I had made an invitation without taking the trouble to read the traveller’s profile. Very unwise of me, I blamed myself, even with the reservation that a self-written description may not be fully indicative of someone’s personality and character. Immediately I got home, I logged on the site and gave a read at what I should have carefully considered way earlier. I stopped in my tracks at the first line that stuck out very clearly and imposed a change of plans: the man declared himself a vegetarian. No problem, I soon concluded, my sausage risotto would transform itself into a mixed vegetable risotto.
The plan for my weekend in Vienna was not to engage in tiring, albeit rewarding, visits to museums and mad walks across the centre, but to tell the truth, I nearly gave in to temptation since my coming coincided with the Long Night of the Museums. On this occasion a combined ticket allows visitors to enter a large number of museums until and a good deal of people take this once-in-a-year chance to visit cheaply. There was a drag effect on me, but in the end reason prevailed and I stuck to my original intention. After all, to convince myself it was sufficient to conjure up historical memory: last year I was up until the small hours, legs sore with an excess of standing and walking.
So this time I would shun culture and head for the Prater. The bike-sharing facilities remembered my registration of a year ago and I was enabled to move freely across town riding convenient public bikes. Defying the gusts of wind that swept the sky clean, I arrived at the railway station, crossed an avenue and approached the big wheel that loomed large over the horse-chestnut trees. Walking around the attractions I admitted I had never been a fan of the fair. As I child I was hardly ever taken to these places, so that a friend once saved me from gross ignorance by explaining I’d win a free ride if I caught the brass ring dangling over the spinning seats of the merry-go-round.
The world’s biggest natural stone exhibition held yearly in Verona took me to Veneto again, and gave me an excuse to stay over the weekend to explore new places. I feared I may have run out of ideas, given the restriction that my destination should be reachable by public transport and be within a couple of hours’ journey from Verona. I could have headed north into Trentino, but finally my choice fell on Treviso and two little towns that seemed interesting.
Once more I got confirmation of a lesson I had learned before, that you ought never to rely on other people’s advice for places to see. Everyone has their personal taste and more importantly has lived a travel experience influenced by the circumstances of their particular visit. The reason I mention this is that of the two towns I had picked, a friend dismissively described Cittadella as having only a circle of ancient city walls, whereas in her view Castelfranco Veneto was by far the better. But after visiting the two, I concluded that my opinion was diametrically opposed to hers.
The other day I took part in a meeting in which local representatives met a foreign consultant charged to carry out an international project. As I expected, his speech had to be translated into Italian because none of the mostly middle-aged attendees was able to cope with English. There is no shame in being monolingual, but if you believe that as a consequence Italians are in love with their own language, wait to hear the rest.
The Italian speakers interspersed their speech and their computer presentations with English words in order "not to sound stupid", as one said mumbling a technical term in English with a heavy twang that made it hardly understandable. How hypocritical that was, I thought, nobody was able to master the language and still they liked to delude their hearers, and in fact mostly themselves, by sprinkling their speech with unnecessary high-sounding loanwords.
Last Saturday I went to Turin with two friends. They wanted to visit a photography exhibition, but I was more interested in discovering a city that I’d only perfunctorily seen years back. Back then I’d come with the specific purpose of visiting the Egyptian Museum after my return from that country and I practically neglected the rest of the town. But this time I was curious to know more and find out about its history and modern life, for what it is possible to do in the limited space of one day.
A quick visit doesn’t allow understanding many things, but is enough for inquisitive eyes to get the hang of a place. And so, starting from the avenue through which we penetrated into the city, I received an impression of multiculturalism from the numerous shop signs with Arabic and Chinese script that advertised foodstuffs, halal meat or hairdressing services. By the time we’d got to the market I remembered that the situation was the same on my first visit. On that very central square I had seen sellers offer bunches of fresh mint to brew Moroccan tea, not to mention the various types of Arab bread or other items. It was a clear sign that Italy was already well advanced into an epochal change, and I had felt intrigued as though I was prying around the stalls of an exotic market.
I once read a story in an old issue of the Reader’s Digest that impressed me. In 1940’s war-torn London a man wanted to make a phone call, but by mistake the switchboard operator put him through to a lady answering the wrong number. A hesitant conversation ensued, but they didn’t stop at embarrassed apologies. They found common ground and decided to give each other a ring again, and from that day on they made it a habit of talking every night sharing the worries that came from living under the threat of bombings, the desolation caused by destruction and death all around, and confiding to each other their innermost feelings. They struck up a telephone friendship that lasted several months scanned by this routinely night-time call, but they never met. Then one day the man heard news of a devastating bomb strike that had hit the lady’s district and that night his call went unanswered. Dead, evacuated, or stranded, he never knew what became of his intimate correspondent. It was a moving wartime story.
When I decided to spend a long weekend in Spain, I had the idea to do some hiking in Cap de Creus Natural Park. I initially looked for a host at the seaside village of Cadaqués which lies at the centre of the protected area, but eventually got invited by a guy who is refurbishing an old flat in Roses and puts it to the disposal of passing travellers. How nice!
I spent the morning in Gerona, gadding around the old town, watching the compact wall of colourful houses reflecting into the still waters of the river in the early morning, following the walk along the top of the city walls, and finally heading to the bus station. In Catalonia I know I am in Spain, but in a region with its own language that has become a powerful political weapon in its bid for autonomy. The independence flags that draped many of Gerona’s windows and balconies told me how strong this feeling is and to what high level regional pride has grown. That show of nationalism generated a slight uneasiness that compounded my discomfort with only being able to speak Castilian.
I haven’t read a great deal in the last few months and my statistics show a sharp drop this year. I couldn’t be defined a chain reader, but I still had a yearly average of about 20 books, which is a notch above most people I know. But lately, like everyone else, I’ve been lured by the entertaining power of the internet, which has not only supplanted television, but has also undermined the position of favour that reading enjoyed within the scope of my cultural recreational activities.
I took a liking to reading in my mid teens. I don’t know what sparkled the passion, but something must have happened that made me suddenly sensitive to the world of books. Before that, whenever I had been given novels as present, I had placed them orderly on a shelf without ever falling into the temptation to read them. I occasionally come across these volumes when I tidy up the basement and they make me feel slightly guilty.
All of a sudden I became a fan of Agatha Christie’s mystery stories and in the matter of couple of years, I read her entire production, nearing a hundred books. Then I got to know about the existence of her autobiography and I went up hill and down dale until I found it in a Council library. I borrowed it and read it, feeling it was the coronation of a period during which I had avidly turned page after page of all her stories, simultaneously gaining an insight into a (somewhat outmoded) facet of English culture which was then starting to fascinate me. All along I kept a record of the books that I finished, and although that sheet of paper is now lost, the habit is not, and I still keep track of authors and titles.
The 26 August is Bergamo’s patron saint day and it is recognised as a local holiday. If it falls on a Sunday there is no replacement, but if it’s on a weekday we don’t go to work. In 2013 it falls on a Monday, therefore I would be able to enjoy an extra day off, but this time I won’t profit by the bonus.
That’s because when I booked the flight for my summer trip, I found that fares were considerably cheaper with a return on 25 August. A price increase of about € 200.00 couldn’t justify prolonging my holiday by one day with the sole purpose to include that extra day. So I grudgingly accepted that this once I will return home one day earlier and won’t take advantage of St. Alexander’s day. But the more I think of it the more it seems a shameful waste of time!
I was travelling in Ghana. The minibus, or trotro as it is locally known, pulled into the dusty yard of a station and I sprang out the vehicle to retrieve my luggage and find the next bus. A man spotted me and came up to talk. Something in his words sounded familiar, but the accent and the approximation of the language couldn’t convince me that he was really addressing me in Italian. After all, I conspicuously stood out as a white tourist, but nothing could give me away as an Italian. Still, the man had indeed talked in my language. He explained he had been a resident of Modena with his wife and kids, but lately had decided to spend a stint in his home country because work was not much. And he also wanted his children to learn English.
I felt hurt in my pride that he should consider the teaching of English so poor in my country, but I couldn’t blame him. He was perfectly right. In Italy, like in other southern European countries, foreign languages (now especially English) are taught with a curious attitude: it is as if they were never to be used outside the school walls. Grammar and literature are the main axes on which the syllabus centres and speaking abilities are an optional extra.
When I have a problem, I am not one who seeks advice or comfort from an intimate friend. Actually, I find the very idea of “best friend” rather fallacious, and I can get squeamish when I hear people freely call someone their best friend. Maybe it’s because I don’t believe in confiding my problems to others that I’ve never called anyone my best friend; or maybe it’s exactly the other way round, that is, being sceptical about best friends, I’ve never looked for a listening ear among my acquaintances. What’s important is that I’ve never deluded myself with the possibility of bestowing that privileged status to any of my friends and I’ve always tried to solve my problems on my own.
I am indebted to a culture of distrust that I have absorbed from my surrounding environment. At heart I fear that the more I tell people about myself, the more I am likely to become the object of undesired attention and, in the end, criticism. The repulsion to stand judgment descends from pride, mixed with a degree of shyness surely. I mind my own business and live as independently as I can with the ultimate goal to defend my sublime individuality.
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!
After the first days in Budapest, I had time for a couple of other towns before my week was over, and I chose to head south to Pécs. I arrived there at the end of a threefold journey made up of two train trips with a bus link in between. I lodged at an excellent hostel whose distinctive character was its familiar atmosphere, made palpable by the fact that the premises were in fact a converted flat. The rooms with wooden flooring shared a fully equipped kitchen and a dining-room. The young manager, who had spent time touring Italy and Spain, welcomed me and talked about his cycling adventures. As a result I gladly felt the spontaneity of a warm welcome as opposed to the burden of rules that a bigger establishment has to impose and that can open a gap between the guest and the host.
Pécs is a lovely little town. It has fine buildings and plenty of museums, of which I chose to visit two. The first was the ceramics museum that exhibits beautiful artefacts, some of which featuring a unique research in patterns and styles. Some pieces were meant to be used as exterior decoration and I, being a fan of architecture, couldn’t have found this more interesting.
The second museum was dedicated to the works of the painter Csontváry. His works on exhibit struck me for its vibrant colour schemes and the patches of lights in sharp contrast with shady areas on the same canvas. The museum walls, painted a dark red, made the bright paintings stick out. A couple were works of impressive dimensions that took up a whole wall. I stopped to stare at them and ferret out all the details of a story unfolding under my eyes.