Monday, 29 June 2015

The Capital-ists

It's a beautiful morning. I take the 5.1 vaporetto from Ferrovia to Giardini. It's not too crowded at this time of day, and I even manage to get a seat outside. It's noisy, like all the smaller vaporetti, but, in the early morning sun of a perfect summer's morning, it's the loveliest of journeys.

When I arrive, I take a coffee and brioche at Paradiso. I check my watch. I'm early. Plenty of time yet. I take some time just to stand and look at one of the finest views in all Venice, across the bacino to the church of the Salute and the Grand Canal. Then I head off to the the gardens, and wave my pass at the guards at the entrance. They know me by now, but they still have to check and, in any case, the system doesn't seem as reliable as it might be. But this morning everything is functioning perfectly, and they wave me through.

There's still another thirty minutes until the gardens open to the public. The Central Pavilion itself has a slightly eerie feel to it. The spaces are empty, except for a few staff, but all the video installations have been set in motion, and play to an invisible audience. 

The pavilion is a maze, but I know my way to the Arena by now. There's no-one else to be seen, so I just sit down and take out my script. Gary Moore's Still Got the Blues is playing over the loudspeakers. I wonder, at first, if it's a new installation that I haven't heard about; but then I realise it's just the technical crew relaxing before the start of another long day. Gary isn't here to make art. He's just here to play the blues.

Francesco, my co-reader, arrives. He usually sports a splendid Marxian beard but he's had to trim it back. He's got a part-time job in a bar, he explains, and his boss didn't like it. Besides, it's a bit hot in the summer. We go through our parts together, making sure they're marked up correctly and that we're in agreement as to when one of us passes over to the other.

Giovanni, our technician, places two music stands on stage and then mics us both up. We take our places on the left and the right of the stage, and wait. Giovanni gives us a wave. It's time. We walk on, and place our scripts on the stands. I start to read. "Chapter 2 : The Process of Exchange..."

----------

The email had come out of the blue. Would we be interested in taking part in a project for the Biennale, with the artist Isaac Julien? A 'dramatic reading' of every last page of Karl Marx's Capital.

Marx? For money? In the Central Pavilion? The Biennale was the reason we first came to Venice, in 2005. We had no idea then that, just ten years later, we'd have the chance to actually be a part of it.

We had to get through a few auditions first. Isaac - friendly, smiley and relaxed - has very definite ideas on how the project is to work. It is not just supposed to sound like somebody reading a lecture on Radio 4. No. It has to be acted. Somehow, we have to find a way to make it live, to make it a performance.

And, somehow, we made it through to the final squad of eleven. There will be three half-hour performances a day, by two readers, until the end of the Biennale; a timetable that should allow us to read the entire work perhaps three times.

Volume 1 is actually quite an interesting read. There's some fine writing in there, plenty of righteous anger and even a few jokes. There's also a great sadness there : upon reading it, one is struck by the feeling that - for all the undoubted advances made  - we have not come as far as we should. And when he rages at the unfair distribution of wealth, and of the exploitation of the vulnerable, of the desperate and of children...well, it's easy to bring to life.

At the moment, however, we're making our way through Volume 2,  a much drier tome heavy on economic theory, formulae and tables. It's difficult to find a way to lift this off the page. My way is just to pretend that this really is the most interesting thing in the whole world and hope this carries the audience along.

----------

A certain amount of preparation is necessary before each reading, as the text needs to be divided between two readers. I sit on the sofa, marking my part up. Mimi, obligingly, comes and sits on top of it. She looks up at me, wide-eyed. I don't know what you're doing, but I do love you. I smile and scratch her behind the ears. She purrs, stretches, and picks experimentally at the spiral binding. And again. Then a little bit more. And then suddenly her claws are out and she's scrabbling away furiously at the pages. In a panic, I tip her off before she can shred the entire volume and she stalks off in a huff. I examine the damage. The top pages are in a bit of a state, but, fortunately, not the bits I have to read.

Our cat is not a Marxist. And this saddens me.


Sunday, 21 June 2015

All the First Lady's Men

It's Friday afternoon, and I've had some good news. My only student this afternoon has cancelled, leaving us free to do fun stuff. So we get the boat over to Giudecca in order to knock off a few more Biennale installations. In all honesty, a lot of it isn't really that great, although Francesco Jodice's Weird Tales (and, yes, it is an HP Lovecraft reference) at the Michela Rizzo gallery is worth a look.

   We're on the part of the island nearest to Sacca Fisola, a mainly blue-collar residential area but one dominated by the enormous Molino Stucky Hilton hotel where none other than Michelle Obama is supposed to be staying that night. We're expecting the island to be in lockdown, but there's no sign of anything special.

   I'm going back to Mestre for some end-of-term beers and Caroline is joining us later; so I get off the vaporetto at Piazzale Roma. As I walk along the fondamenta I notice a police boat going past. No surprise, really, as the Questura is near here. But then there's another boat. And another.

   I'm perhaps ten metres from the Ponte della Libert√†. I stop walking, to take it all in. A cortege of outriders on jet skis emerges from under the bridge. And then there's a water taxi. The curtains aren't drawn and I can just about make out the figures inside. Bloody hell. It's her. It's Michelle Obama, with her daughters and her mum.

   The taxi is followed by a water ambulance. Then another police boat. Then another group of outriders. Every cop in Venice must be here. And then, yet another boat on which a man in a balaclava and body armour is training a gun on the bridge. Well, I call it a gun. It's actually a piece of field artillery that's bigger than he is.

   There's a really cracking photograph to be taken here and I start to reach for my bag. And then I stop. A man with the biggest gun I have ever seen is less than ten metres away from me. I'm suddenly aware that what I want most in the world, right now, is for him to think well of me. I move my hands away from my body. And then I stop moving until the cortege is out of sight.

   Thirty minutes later, I'm in a bar in Mestre and Michelle, I presume, is in a suite in the Molino Stucky. And I realise that I really don't envy her at all.
   

Friday, 29 May 2015

The Mosque

There's usually some sort of controversy at the Venice Biennale. Last time it was nothing more serious than the Macedonians being asked to remove the live rats from their installation. But it's rare for a pavilion to actually be closed. The Swiss, enterprisingly, have managed it twice; on both occasions at the church of San Stae (in 2005 they were asked to removed a beautiful video installation by Pipilotti Rist on the grounds that the Church found the lesbian overtones inappropriate- overtones which, I confess, had rather passed me by).

   But all these are nothing compared to the anger that has surrounded The Mosque, the official Icelandic pavilion at the 2015 Biennale, and the work of Swiss-born artist Christoph Buchel who has transformed the church of Santa Maria della Misercordia into, well, a mosque...of sorts.

   Some background is required here : the church is deconsecrated and, indeed, has not been used as a place of Christian worship since 1967. In the intervening years, it has been allowed to decay. 

   Buchel delights in the re-use of space : in 2011, he transformed an art gallery in London into a temporary community centre. Now, throughout its history, Venice has been a city where East meets West - indeed, the first typographic edition of the Koran was printed here in 1538. However, there is no mosque in the city, and so the small Muslim population has to travel to the mainland in order to pray. So what better use of space, reasoned Buchel, could there be? However - and this is important - it would only be an installation resembling a mosque instead of an actual one - The Mosque, if you like, as opposed to "a mosque".

   The whispers started before it had even opened : there were, some claimed, still Christian relics in the church. Christian symbols had been overlaid with Islamic ones. The Comune had given permission only for an artistic installation, not a place of worship, and people had been seen praying. Most seriously, the church had perhaps not been deconsecrated at all. Why, even the plumbing had been installed without permission. People, in short, were queuing up to be outraged.

   Within a few days of opening, the police had been called. A member of the public had spotted a visitor removing his shoes. This, he reasoned, constituted an act of worship and of course, he was only doing his civil duty by reporting it. And on the very day we visit, the police have been called out again.

   They, in turn, call out the curator. She arrives, and walks over to a group of men. There has been a complaint about noise, she says. They shake their heads. No noise, they have just been having a discussion. One of them introduces himself. He is a politician, he says, ex-Lega Nord ('but no longer associated with that fascist party', he adds). He is only here because it is his duty to investigate if the law has been broken. He is, he claims, the first politician to visit the installation. He is polite, but has the puffed-up air of the pompous petty bureaucrat given his moment in the spotlight. Foreigners are causing trouble in his city and, by God, he is going to do something about it. More than that, he is going to be seen to be doing something about it.

   The curator sits down. And they argue. He demands to see all the necessary documentation relating to the installation. She tells him that all this information is in the public domain and that she has no obligation to show him anything at all. And then she gives up and walks off.

   A big Icelandic guy comes over and sits down (I believe he's Ibrahim Sverrir Agnarsson, leader of the small Muslim community in Iceland). There is no doubt that the space is deconsecrated, he says. He takes out his iPad and shows them an image. It shows the document of deconsecration. It is signed by Patriarch Albino Luciani, later Pope John Paul I.

   The ex-Leghista shakes his head. No, no, that's not enough. There needs to be a nulla osta from the Curia as well to certify that the building will not be used for purposes contrary to the wishes of the Church. It's nothing to do with religion, of course not. It's just that the law needs to be respected. His friend, however, suddenly goes off-message. How would you feel, he asks us, if an English church were to be converted into a mosque? He smiles. This is a killer argument, he thinks, they won't have thought about this one. He seems genuinely confused when we tell him that we wouldn't give a damn as long as the space was deconsecrated. 

   But we are here, of course, to actually look at the space instead of just getting into a fight. And the revitalised interior, a mixture of traditional Christian architecture and Islamic decoration, is beautiful.








   We take a long stroll around. Elsewhere, Agnarsson is patiently explaining to the politician that, no, of course Christians don't have to remove crucifixes if they enter a mosque. But he's banging his head against a brick wall here. We speak to the curator before leaving. She seems angry, tired and sad. Many people have been supportive, she says. Unfortunately, it's those who are shouting the loudest who are being listened to. Because, of course, it's nothing to do with laws being broken and it's got everything to do with religion.

   We put our shoes back on, and turn to leave. A little girl is playing hopscotch on the patterned carpet. The sight cheers me up, makes me smile. She doesn't care about deconsecration or nulla oste. For her, it's just a pretty space in which to play.

There probably won't be a sadder or more beautiful work of art to be seen this Biennale. I believe that Buchel genuinely thought the installation could be a neutral space in which people could sit down and talk together, without conflict, in an atmosphere of peace and tolerance. Instead of which, all we were capable of was fighting about it. And so, if the purpose of art is to hold a mirror up to life, the image reflected back at us is a profoundly ugly one.

"The Mosque" was closed by order of the Comune on May 22nd on the grounds of overcrowding, and misuse of the space for religious instead of artistic purposes. The organisers are hopeful of re-opening, albeit with the proviso that the space will have to be treated solely as an artistic installation.



Sunday, 3 May 2015

Coming back to life

Saturday starts early, as it has for the past three months, with school classes out in Spinea whilst Caroline is invigilating in Venice. The temptation, upon returning, is just to crawl back into bed; but if we do that the day, and weekend, will be half over before we know it. And that would be a waste, because we would miss the Giornata FAI.

   FAI, or the Fondo Ambiente Italiano, is perhaps best described as the Italian National Trust, and the Giornata FAI is similar to the UK Doors Open Day; when previously closed properties are opened up for the weekend. The guides for this, described as apprendisti Ciceroni are typically young people from local schools. Including, this year, one of the schools where I work.

I arrange to meet Caroline in the Irish bar off Strada Nova. There are just a few of us there. The rest are Italians, keeping an eye on the Italy - Wales 6 Nations game on the television. Wales need to win this one by a cricket score in order to have any chance of the title, but Italy are playing well and Wales are just shading it at half-time by 13-12. Caroline arrives, I pay for my good-but-expensive Guinness, and we leave. I therefore miss the deluge of points that will follow in the second half.

   We walk down to Alla Vedova, only to find it closing up for the afternoon. Damn. I was looking forward to their polpette. We walk back to La Cantina, only to find that food will be a thirty minute wait. This is becoming dispiriting. We walk back down Strada Nova, and find a nondescript cichetteria in a back street. Nothing special, but reasonable value for money.

The students are working at Santa Maria Maddalena, a rarely-open church. We'd previously been there for an exhibition of presepi over two years ago; an exhibition that, unfortunately, prevented us from actually seeing most of the church itself.
 
   They're incredibly well organised. Each one does a presentation of, perhaps, five minutes before handing over to one of their colleagues as they lead us around the church and its environs. There is no great art to be found inside La Maddalena, with the exception of a faded Last Supper, possibly by Giandomenico Tiepolo. Still, even if it's not the most beautiful church in town, it doesn't matter. The kids are brilliant, and I am - ridiculously - so proud of them. Italy, I realise, is going to be all right. Because they'll be in charge of it one day.

   We make our way back home, pausing for the first ice-cream of the year along the way. It's probably still a little bit too cold, but what the hell. Then we stop at a bar near to us that we've never quite been able to find the time to visit. We order a brace of spritzes and some cicheti. There's a mixture of American and Italian jazz playing. More cicheti arrive from the kitchen. We order more drinks and more food. Cooking, I realise, is not going to be necessary tonight. I have not eaten anything other than cicheti all day and now, frankly, it would be a shame to spoil the 100% record.

   We arrive home, tired but happy. It's been a good day. And I realise that we are going to be all right, too.

Wednesday, 1 April 2015

Joining the undead

I should have learned from last year.

The period between Christmas and Easter is the most difficult time of the year. The evening classes are still there, and the demand for lettori in schools is at its height. There are also - the end of Carnival and the occasional saint's day aside - no holidays to speak of. I promised myself that I would try and take on less. Instead of which, I've taken on more. Which means the weeks are now a hallucinatory blur of fifteen hour days interspersed with half-hearted attempts at cooking and not enough sleep.

There are times when I think it would be nice to see my wife again. I think I last saw her about three days ago, half-buried under a pile of marking. Perhaps I should check when I'm next home? 

Why am I doing this? Seriously, why am I doing this?

Because you're in Venice.

The only reason I know I'm in Venice is the Marangona bell, chiming at midnight to remind me that I'm not going to get enough sleep.

But today is Friday. An early start, yes, but an early finish too, albeit with a slightly difficult class (loveliness:unloveliness rating 60:40, a ratio that only needs a couple of absentees to ensure the week spirals into chaotic miserableness at its end).  And then beers, great foaming pints in the bar over the road, before heading off to a rehearsal.

I get off the tram and notice my friends up ahead. I stride it out to catch them up, and then one of them turns to me...

'Ah! Nosferatu!'

I'm a bit taken aback (although, in my heart of hearts, just a little bit pleased).

Is it because I seemed to appear out of nowhere? Is it the long coat (which, with your eyes half-closed, slightly resembles the one worn by Max Schreck)? Or is is that the 6.00 starts are starting to take their toll?

There are drinks and snacks at the end of the evening, and Caroline has left a pasta sauce for when I get home. I read for a bit, H P Lovecraft's The Shadow over Innsmouth. Still scary after all these years, even in Italian. I hear the bells chiming midnight and decide I should try and get some sleep. Then something plops on to the end of the bed. There's a kick against the mattress, and a scrabbling of claws against wood...

Mimi the cat has taken to sleeping on top of the wardrobe. There is nothing wrong with this beyond the fact that once she's up there we don't know when she'll decide to come down, hurling herself with deadly force onto our sleeping bodies in the small hours of the morning.

Like Lovecraft's narrator, I lie awake, listening for the tell-tale creak, the unexpected movement that reveals Something Bad is About to Happen.

And then the alarm is bleeping for 6.00. I shower and shave, and gaze back at the stranger in the mirror. Three months, I think, has turned me from this...



...into this...


I make a coffee and call it breakfast. Fittingly, it's still dark outside. I make my way to Piazzale Roma, and then it's onto the bus and over the bridge to the Land of Shadows...

Sunday, 15 February 2015

Billa

Per fortuna c'è 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

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.