Sunday, 15 February 2015


Per fortuna c'รจ Billa...

But not for much longer.

The Billa supermarket group is withdrawing from Italy. Their strategy was to become one of the Big 3 supermarkets and, having failed at that, they're throwing a hissy fit and withdrawing from the country completely.

We've never known Venice without the Billa on the Zattere. There are a number of others throughout the town, including one on Rio Marin which is our nearest local for 'emergency' shopping. 

And soon they'll be gone, to be replaced with branches of "Conad". I don't know much about them, apart from the fact that the name sounds like a  Robert E Howard-style barbarian hero, and slightly rude into the bargain. 

In the meantime, Billa are selling off their remaining stock at ever more ridiculous prices. Every week Caroline goes to the supermarket. Every week she comes back with her trolley groaning with things that were on offer. Teabags, pasta, risotto rice, breakfast cereals, tinned tomatoes. Campari. Lots of Campari. Our magazzino now looks as if we're storing up against the Apocalypse.

The loss of a supermarket isn't really something to get nostalgic about, but they were there and they were convenient. You don't really need more from a supermarket. And we will remember them, as long as the teabags endure.

And here's something we won't be hearing any more. It's described as a jingle, but that, frankly, is a disservice to fifty seconds of a little bit of Italian pop magic...

The Billa Jingle (Youtube)

Per fortuna, c'era Billa!

Thursday, 5 February 2015


Cafone (nm) : oaf, imbecile, ignoramus (Oxford Italian Dictionary)

Cafone : arrogant little !*$%   (Phil's boss)

Most of the kids I teach are a delight. Some of them are so nice I think I'd actually teach them for free (fortunate really as, given how much I earn, I practically do so already).

The Little Businessman, however, is not one of them.

Every Friday he arrives early, sits himself down in front of la direttrice, and explains his list of demands for the week. The beginning of the lesson then plays itself out as it has for every Friday night over the past twelve months. I will ask the class to get their books, pens and pencils out. He will tell me he hasn't brought them. I will then remind him that although this is an evening class, it is still the same as going to school and so he has to bring something to write with. He will then tell me why he has forgotten again. "My aunt was very busy yesterday" is this week's reason. I genuinely wonder if - having exhausted his supply of plausible excuses - he is now just putting random words together in order to confuse me.

All this, of course, has to be done in Italian as his refusal to speak English verges on the pathological.

Last week's end-of-module test went as expected. Challenged to write down as many English words as possible, the previous class - a class of 8 and 9 year olds - actually seemed to be attempting to compile a dictionary. They demanded more time and more paper until every last word had been dredged up from memory. One of them came up with over 250.

The Little Businessman managed 3. One of them was "Philip". The other two were "etc." and "etc."

My hopes, then, are not high as we turn to homework. And yet, when we turn to the two pages of exercises set, I see my signature at the bottom of the page. More than that, I've written "very good" as well. I've got no memory at all of marking it and yet it seems I must have...and then my eyes scan further up the page. All the spaces for answers have been left blank. I check my writing again. He's forged my signature. It's a pretty good job, to be fair. In fact, if he'd filled in the rest of the page with any old rubbish I might not have checked further.  An almost perfect attempt at cheating foiled only by a basic lack of attention to the finer details.

I have to say I quite admire his chutzpah. In fact, I feel quite well disposed to him for the next ten minutes. And then the refrain of non capisco niente starts up again. I sigh, and wonder how many ways of explaining "The book is on the desk" there can possibly be...

Elsewhere, Caroline has acquired a cafone of her own; an older teenager, suddenly finding himself in need of a certificate that states he can speak English at level B2. During the mock exam, she notices that he is perhaps paying just a little too much attention to the paper of the guy next to him. And indeed, upon marking, it turns out that by remarkable coincidence he has written an absolutely identical essay.

For the exam itself, then, he gets placed on his own, on the opposite side of the room from his pal. He has a go, but he knows he's been found out; although he does at least retain sufficient sang froid to give our boss an insouciant 'see you next term' as he hands over his paper.

A speaker of English at level B2, according to the Common European Framework of Reference, should be able to 'produce clear, detailed text on a wide range of subjects and explain a viewpoint on a topical issue giving the advantages and disadvantages of various options'.

The entirety of his written paper, an example of an informal letter, reads as follows. Hi Jessica...!

It's now pinned up in the staffroom.

Tuesday, 6 January 2015

Cabbages and Kings

The time has come, the Walrus said, to talk of many things...

We passed a nice couple of days with Mum and Dad back in the UK, but spent most of the Christmas period in Venice. Indeed, we're still not quite back at work yet as Epiphany, the 6th January, is a bigger deal in Italy than it is in the UK. Indeed, some of my kids from Eastern Europe tell me that it's more important in the Orthodox calendar than Christmas.
   The importance derives from the three kings (and yes, it's more accurate to refer to them as "the wise men" or "the magi", but if I do that the title of this posting won't make any sense) recognising the infant Christ as the manifestation of God as man. Weighty stuff, to be sure. But if you're an Italian kid, there's also the not inconsiderable matter of La Befana to consider. La Befana has, I suppose, the trappings of a witch in that she arrives at your house on a broomstick, but she also seems to be a rather more benign tradition has it that she gave directions to the three kings (yes yes, the magi) on their journey. In any case, she arrives with presents for good children or a piece of coal or a stick for the bad ones. So Italian kids get a sort of secondary Christmas day in order to brace them for the return to school.

   On the subject of presents, our students looked after us well again this year. I got a bottle and a magnum of prosecco, and a splendid meal out. Caroline got a box of chocolates, a bottle of grappa (huzzah!), some flowers and a block of foie gras (for which we will assuredly go to hell). And I have to mention our neighbours at this point. We have nice people in our block. We may not be asking each other round to dinner every weekend but people look after each other here. And everyone tries to make a big thing about Christmas. We felt we were letting the side down a bit, as the only visible sign of the season that we displayed at first was a poster for a concert I was in, taped to the door. But when we saw the efforts that everyone else was going to, we realised we had to step it up a bit.

   We received this little biscuit for the festival of San Martino back in November :-

   Then some biscuits and a little calendar attached to a tree for Christmas :-

   And these, from La Befana herself, for Epiphany :-

Everyone in the block made a bit of an effort, without exception We just stuck a wreath over the door (and that's something I've never done before) but others pushed the boat out a bit more :-

It didn't stop there. The entire stairwell and entrance hall was decorated.

We didn't have any lights on our balcony either, which many people did. Maybe next year...

    So we're back to work tomorrow, after a long break. It will, I suppose, be nice to get back to slightly more normal eating : we bought a goose as a post-Christmas / pre-New Year treat. We got two roast dinners, a pasta bake, soup, lots of stock and a tub of goose fat off it. Now, nothing goes quite as well with a roast goose as some braised red cabbage. Only this year I got the measurements slightly off. I thought I'd made enough for the two roast dinners, but it turned out there was enough as a side dish for the following couple of nights. And way, way beyond. By the end of the week we were eating it with baked sea bream, not an obvious combination, just to get rid of it. And if we hadn't done that, it would probably have found its way into a sandwich. Oddly enough, it seemed to get better every night. Possibly because I kept feeding it with red wine. There's still half a head of cabbage left...I foresee a lot of borscht in our future.

   It seems like an intimidatingly long time until the next proper holiday. The Easter holidays are no more than a couple of days here, so it's pretty much straight through now until the end of June. Still, it's been a good break. The next thing, I suppose, will be decorating the front door for Carnevale...

Friday, 2 January 2015

New Year's Eve

I didn't know this, but the Freccia rail service in Italy offers 2-for-1 deals on Saturdays, and also on a number of public holidays. So we spent New Year's Eve in Vicenza, just 40 minutes by train from Venice.

   Vicenza is linked indelibly with Andrea Palladio - there are no fewer than 23 monuments attributed to him in the centro storico. But the main reason for our visit was an exhibition at the Basilica Palladiana.

   The exhibition, Tutankhamon, Caravaggio, Van Gogh is one of curator Marco Goldin's "blockbuster" events. Goldin is an interesting character, the curator as celebrity. This has brought him into conflict with a number of critics in Italy, most notably the rebarbative (and thoroughly mad) Vittorio Sgarbi, who see him as something of a vulgar showman instead of a suitably reverent custodian of fine art. His exhibitions, the accusation runs, are not so much curated as much as they are a throwing together of Really Great Stuff.

   It has to be admitted, the linking theme of the exhibition - depictions, figuratively and literally, of the night and sunset - is paper thin; and Goldin's pompous, over-the-top narration on the audio guide doesn't help matters. The explanatory text - light grey against a slightly-less-light-grey background - is almost impossible to read, and is rarely worth the trouble of persevering with. But if the theme is weak, and the presentation irritating, it has to be admitted that Goldin has indeed managed to assemble an array of Really Great Stuff. Lots of it. Too much to mention really, but there are two-and-a-half works by Caravaggio I'd never seen before - Narcissus (which is possibly not by him at all), the Dream of St Francis and the stunning Martha and Mary Magdalene. Stunning in an entering-the-room-and-thinking "whoah, what did I just see there?" way. It's on loan from a gallery in Detroit. I am never going to go to Detroit, and so it may be that I will never see it again...

   The exhibition is on until the 2nd June. If you're in the area, you need to see it. Just ignore the presentation and concentrate on the Really Great Stuff. Oh, and get there early - we were there at 10am, but the crush was becoming unbearable by midday.

   We had a reasonably priced lunch at a nearby bar (which served something called a spritz macchiato which we couldn't really imagine and should have investigated further), and then spent the afternoon working our way through some of the main Palladio-related sights. The Teatro Olimpico is an extraordinary building. Completed after Palladio's death, the first performance - in 1585 - was of Oedipus Rex; the sets of which, miraculously, survive in situ to this day. It must be an amazing space in which to see a performance (with the caveat that, for conservation reasons, there is neither heating nor air-conditioning).

   On to the civic museum at the Palazzo Chiericati - interesting, although there's no particularly great art to be seen - and then to the Tempio di Santa Corona. Palladio designed the Valmarana Chapel here, and was himself buried in the church (although it seems he was uplifted and moved elsewhere over a hundred years ago). There's an Adoration of the Magi by Veronese here, and a magnificent Baptism of Christ by Giovanni Bellini which is reason in itself to make the trip.

   As for the rest of Vicenza...well, it was cold. Very cold. We scurried around trying to find the right stop for the bus back to the station (not so easy, as the one-way system is a bit confusing) and a bar where we could get a hot chocolate or mulled wine to get some heat back into our bones. I became aware that the soles of my boots had worn painfully thin, and that I might as well have been walking the icy streets in my socks.  I'd like to go back when the temperature creeps above zero. And in warmer shoes.

   We arrived home mid-evening, and I made dinner from the remains of our post-Christmas goose. We'd just about stopped shivering but the thought of walking down to San Marco to watch the fireworks was not a pleasant one. In fact, even taking the lift up to the altana seemed a step too far. It had been a long day, and we ended up sleeping through the whole thing. 2014 was a year to forget and remember in equal measure. 2015 will be better. Buon Anno everyone. 

Sunday, 21 December 2014

Christmas 2014

Well, as you might have noticed, I've taken a bit of a break from the blog.

   There are a few reasons for this. I've been busy at work and I've got another Project on the go, which hasn't left me time to keep it up to date. And, to be honest, when I look back at the past few months of the blog I have to ask myself if the world really needs to be kept informed as to the state of our kitchen or how the cat is doing.

   We'd expected to pass summer in places like Chioggia, Trieste or Vicenza. With the exception of a single day in Florence with out great friends PJ, Claire, Caitlin and Logan, it didn't work out like that. We spent more time in places like Campodarsego (cat), Mirano (swimming pool) and Fiesso d'Artico (very good sushi restaurant with Groupon deals!). We spent rather a lot of time in Padova, but, as that was nearly all at IKEA, that doesn't count. But still, the flat is at least on its way to being sorted out now. Chioggia will still be there next year.

   We went back to work in October. Caroline no longer has to deal with infants or chaotic school classes! This did, however, leave her with late evening classes that meant she typically got back home at 10.30pm four nights a week. Still, that side of it seems to be finished for now so hopefully the new year will be easier. I have my my usual classes of kids and not-very-advanced adults. And yes, I still love it. I had the chance to teach business English at an ultra-posh hotel in Venice but just didn't have the time to schedule it in. I'm not saying where, but if you picked up a newspaper or switched your television on during the latter part of September you'd almost certainly have seen it. On the plus side I've picked up a nice little side job as lettore in a school in town and the same place wants Caroline to start with exam prep classes in the New Year.  This does mean that January to April are going to be insanely busy, but should give us some useful extra money for next summer.

   Finally, there is no use in pretending that 2014, with the passing of my sister, was anything other than a brutal year. It's difficult to write about, but the loss hits you in strange, unexpected ways. A Christmas Card with three names on it instead of four. Her LinkedIn profile, still there, on my page. Posting a picture of the cat,  thinking momentarily that "Helen will like this" and then the sadness that - of course - it's "would have liked..."

   On we go then. 2015, hopefully, will be better. We'll have been here for three years now, come next March. So we don't really have a Project any more, it's just sort of Normal Life and perhaps Normal Life isn't really interesting enough to continue writing (or, indeed, reading) about. We'll see. But in the meantime, for those of you who are still reading, a very Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year!

Tuesday, 23 September 2014


Let's backtrack a bit. When we moved into the flat, most things were in order, except for the kitchen which was, in all honesty, a bit of a dog's breakfast. It looked like this :-

The cooker was spanking new, but the good news ended there. The only work surface was an orange picnic table that required me to bend almost double. I improvised by balancing a chopping board on the sink as a workaround. And then there was the mustard-yellow fridge. It wasn't nice to look at, and its best days were clearly behind it as it no longer kept anything cooler than lukewarm. The landlord, fortunately, agreed to replace it.

It left the kitchen looking like this :-

Better, yes. Not so much of a preponderance of yellow. It still left me with nowhere to work, and the nearest thing to a kitchen cabinet was a cardboard box of pans under the sink.

So we ordered a budget set of cabinets from IKEA in Padova. Caroline spent pretty much the entire summer working on this : what was affordable, how much space it would leave us and - crucially - how to get it home. Because if you order stuff for delivery to Venice, they will hit you with a delivery charge of at least 198 euros. However, if you order your parts in discrete packages of thirty kilos or less, you just pay a courier charge of 10 euros each. A logistical nightmare and a mathematical problem of Hawking-like proportions; but nevertheless she worked it out.  The courier was sympathetic, although after the penultimate delivery a note of desperation entered his voice as he asked me if there were many more to come.

Flat packs then. Older readers will remember the time when you bought flat-pack furniture with MFI. Everything fitted together with screws, dowels and glue. You swore at the doors when they refused to fit, and six months later everything started to come apart anyway. But IKEA stuff is a bit different. There's a bit of weight and solidity to it. And, in the case of a kitchen, you can't just fit it together with an Allen key. Proper DIY, and proper tools are needed.

Still, I'm a bit of a whizz at flat-packs. I can put together a Billy bookcase in twenty minutes, so this held no fear for me. Until I looked at the instructions and came across the dispiriting first sentence First ensure your wall is straight.

A cursory check revealed that the wall was not straight. I have no idea how you go about straightening a wall. It would therefore have to remain defiantly un-straight.

Putting the cabinets together was straightforward enough although, interestingly, you still need to give the doors a good swear to get them on. 

The next step was to hang them on the (un-straight) wall. Not so easy as it involved drilling through tiles into masonry. A friend lent me a drill - not a hammer drill, not a masonry drill, but better than nothing. It worked up to a point. All tiles remained uncracked, but it took approximately 30 minutes per hole. Ten holes were needed. It was a long day...

That just left the work surface. Now, if you want a made-to-measure surface, they have to order one in from abroad. Leading to a delivery cost of another 198 euros. No. We weren't going to do that. We'd order the standard size one, and I'd cut it to size. I'd no real idea how to go about this, but I figured I could just take it along to Ratti or somewhere and ask them to do it. 

And then it arrived. Two metres in length, two centimetres thick, and thirty kilos in weight. It nearly killed me just getting it up the stairs. No way in hell was I going to be able to transport it across town. And cutting it with a handsaw would be physically impossible. It needed a power saw

Fortunately our neighbour lent me a jig saw. Two centimetres was pretty much at the limit of its tolerance but, after nearly ninety minutes I emerged triumphant. The kitchen stank of burning wood and sawdust, which had settled over every last surface in the flat. The blade of the saw was almost worn smooth. The thought of the amount of clearing up involved could have reduced me to tears. It would have to wait until the next day. Right now, Strong Drink in Copious Quantities was called for.

Still it's done now :-

Not quite perfect perhaps but any imperfections, I thought, could be blamed on The Wall That Is Not Straight.  There's still the question of what to do with the sink - a chipped and battered old thing that badly needs replacing - but in the meantime, we have a perfectly functioning kitchen with a splendid new work surface.

The only question now is - how do we keep the cat off it??

Tuesday, 9 September 2014

A New Day Yesterday

In 1971, the rock band Jethro Tull released the album Aqualung, one of the highlights of what would become a near forty year career. At the time, the headline "Jethro - now the world's biggest band?" appeared in the  New Musical Express (and everybody believes what they read in the NME). It has since sold over seven million copies. Not bad for a concept album where the central figure is a slightly-more-than-sleazy tramp, which compares the positive aspects of religious belief against the bad things that happen when such belief becomes institutionalised, and - perhaps most significantly - is performed by a band who would not be allowed on television today for fear of frightening the children.

   Drummer Clive Bunker left the band shortly afterwards. He was getting married and, rather sweetly, wanted to spend more time at home instead of being on the road constantly. It's a fair bet that he never envisaged that, one day, he'd be the special guest star in a Tull tribute band in front of an audience of a couple of hundred Venetian communists.

   The annual festival for the Refounded Communist Party is, I think, my favourite festival in Venice. It's in Campo San Giacomo dell'Orio, the loveliest square in the city,  and you get a serious discussion followed by a band. Chances are you'll buy a bottle of wine for 5 euros as well. There's even merchandise - The Struggle needs to move with the times, after all - so I get a Gramsci fridge magnet, and Caroline a Bella Ciao t-shirt .

   Friday night is a leaving do for one of our teacher colleagues, Chris, returning to the UK after two years in Venice. He was young when the Tull were old, but doesn't object to going along. And the band - for an old Tull fan like myself - are somewhere between fantastic and magnificent. What we get are the best bits from the albums Stand Up and Aqualung along with a suite from Thick as a Brick and, wonderfully, my favourite ever track, 'Hunting Girl' from Songs from the Wood (at which point, I must confess, Extreme Pint Dancing might have occurred).

   The musicians are all first-class, the singer makes a pretty good attempt at Ian Anderson's voice, and Clive - well Clive is a better drummer now than he was when he was famous. I haven't seen him since the Tull's twentieth anniversary reunion in 1998. Today he resembles a dapper Spike Milligan, if you can imagine such a thing. At the end of the gig, he engages in a ten minute Battle of the Drummers with the band's regular batterista  (a very good young lad who, at the end, bows down before the wise old master). I have to be honest and say I enjoy the evening far more than the last time I saw the actual band themselves. All those old, old songs seem fresh and new. Most importantly, there's the feeling that everybody is having the time of their lives.

   I'm trying not to be too much of a fanboy, but I wait for him to come off stage and shake his hand. "That was fantastic, mate" I babble. If he's surprised at my accent, he doesn't show it. "Well thank you very much sir!" he says. And with that, this modest man of Rock makes his way into the night.