Monday, 16 January 2012

My Cultural Life

Rehabilitated dispensa
Battling hibernation mode. Devouring novels as if books are going out of fashion; which of course they are. Trivial acts, slight mistakes, chance conversations with major repercussions, causing lives to switch tracks. That's this years recurring theme. Last winter, if memory serves, it was missing persons. Themes coalesce around seemingly random choices. Been zipping through the rapids of Anne Tyler, Carol Shields and Deborah Moggach. Lulled by the calm surface of Jon McGregor's flat monotone until pulled by an undertow. Wading through the treacly narrative of an Alan Hollinghurst. Such prolixity: why use two words when ten will do?

Reading novels is partly a substitute for writing them. Had one in gestation for about a year now. Got the structure, got the narrative, characters and tone, completed one section out of three – about thirty thousand words – but have now gone all Rimbaud. Hoped that reading others might be a way to kick-start the process, get back into the mood. I can tinker and meddle about with what's already done, but the first sentence of section two has not materialised. Anyone care to patronise me – in the archaic sense of course? Might help slough off hibernation and block out distractions like the crushing need to get on with painting the apartments and planting the junipers.
Other distractions from the real tasks at hand include renovating the old dispensa – larder cupboard. I've put some pictures of the various stages on facebook and I'm still not sure about the burnt umber finish on the cornice at the top and the bottom. It was all going so well until that point.

Hosted two rabbits at new year. Two rabbits and their vegan companions. Indeed, capodanno – new year – was an entirely vegan affair. All delightful, quirky, cosmopolitan Italians. This meant carte blanche to step out of the straight-jacket of culinary correctness and roam. A Mexican wave for the chimichanga. Raise a glass for an unapologetic mouth-watering moussaka. Sing the pleasures of cous-cous and baklava. That's the beauty of cooking for vegans, ethical vegans at least: no snobbery and no faddiness. Nobody bothered that eating a polenta dish after a risotto was eating two primi, “Due primi – come meraviglioso” Two fingers to convention! Nobody even baulked at English food! None of the usual snorts of derision, outrageous gurning or allusions to fish and chips. Good old Cranks recipe sformata di noci with roast spuds, spinach and gravy – that's nut roast if you hadn't already worked it out. Slips down with a crisp prosecco as easily as penne al'arrabiata.

Spent a lovely weekend with friends at their house, Casa Verde, in Vellano - betwixt Lucca and Florence in the hills north of Pescia. Vellano defies gravity perched on an impossibly steep incline. Civil engineers would demur from building it these days - it's seismic territory, prone to landslides. Health and safety gone mad! Casa Verde is right at the top of the village and so the views are stupendous and take in the Dieci Castelli or Ten Castles, a constellation of hamlets scattered at lower altitudes through the mountains. At night you can see the Milky Way above you and the ten towns ghostly glowing below.

The visit was opportunity to spend an afternoon in Lucca and parade around the park atop the walls. From there we witnessed municipal trucks collecting the recyclable waste bins in the streets below. A pretty unremarkable thing you might think, except that in Lucca the recycling bins are underground – they appear like a small bin on the surface - and like a scene from Thunderbirds, they rise up out of the ground. The bins are such an eyesore in most places I hope other ancient cities will their cue from Lucca.
Vellano - Altopescia

Bigger, better, best might as well be the city's motto because right outside the church of San Michele in the Piazza they've built a gargantuan presepio – nativity scene. It's the new testament myth recast as Italian contadini – subsistence farmers. There's field of vines, mature olive trees – these weigh a ton – and even traditional stone terracing. After all the effort they went to, the Brico style (think B&Q) flimsy lean-to wood store that they used as a cattle-shed and houses the figures of Mary Joseph and Jesus, let's it down somewhat. It should also be noted that one of Mary's arms seemed to be detached and caused Jesus' head to flop over her arm at such a strange angle asphyxiation could be the only result. They're usually a bit more home-spun than this, but these scenes are a feature of every town and they are inexplicably popular... a bit like the grottos that spread across England like a rash from October onwards. Somehow, they make the things they represent even less believable.
Also stretching credulity was the Cowboy Cow – outside Mercato Usato an amazing emporium just outside Lucca. (Sorry, I didn't have a camera) It stands, complete with Stetson hat, bullet belt, holster and gun, in what looks like Steptoes compound, a graveyard of rusting washing machines and fridges. Anyone got a use for Calamity Cow? I can recommend this place, because among the tat and the grey decay there are some genuinely strange novelties and the odd thing of beauty. Gorgeous old armoires, dusty Persian rugs, doors, windows, hinges and locks and a hundred gaudy statues of the revered Padre Pio.

Finished the weekend by popping into the Uffizi in Florence to see the ironically titled I Mai Visti – The Never Seen. Surprised to learn that the Uffizi has another museums worth of stuff in the vaults and this particular exhibition hadn't seen the light of day since the eighteenth century. It was mostly a collection of Roman busts and paintings and sketches that were either records or incidental depictions of the busts.

The tour was conducted in English with an entertaining American guide who brought it to life with a good mix of fact and irreverence. Good crowd too – we guffawed our way around the exhibits drawing the attention of the more staid museum goers. By the time we were ready to go a group of museum staff were gathered at the entrance drawing lots to determine which poor soul should ask us to leave.

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