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.
 

Mi chiamano Mimi

'Mi chiamano Mimi, ma non so il perchè' (they call me Mimi, but I don't know why)  - Giacomo Puccini, La Boheme.

Of course, we go for the sad cat.

There was a temptation to go for one of the kittens, but they wouldn't be ideal in a flat where one or both of us might be away for hours at a time. Similarly, it's tempting to go for a rescue cat from the Dingo charity - but a street cat is unlikely to settle to being an indoor cat or to be your pal.

So we bring her home from Campodarsego. She whinges just a little bit on the way but, on the whole she's good as gold. She hides behind the washing machine when we get her home, but not for long.

Anyway, the name. At the cattery they tell us that the previous owner had got her gender wrong, and called her Pippo. A perfectly good name, of course, except that it's a boy's name and the diminutive of mine. To name a cat after yourself would seem an act of extreme egotism, and we'd have to explain the gender mix-up every time we introduced her. So we try to come up with something that sounds just a little bit similar that she'll get used to. I think of Mimi. The sad heroine of La Boheme seems appropriate for a slightly sad cat.

Anyway, here are some pictures.

This is a luxury kitty villa :-



This is a lovingly-crafted piece of art by an Edinburgh artisan :-




You can probably guess where she prefers to sleep.

Here's a picture of Caroline peering out from behind Mimi on the table on our balcony :-



And here's me, with one of my lovely girls :-


Tuesday, 2 September 2014

Blood on the cats

There's still a fair amount of work to be done in the flat. Try to get the kitchen sorted, make the spare room usable, put my Doctor Who DVDs into chronological order. And we want to get a cat. Now there are various ways of doing this (La Nuova used to run a "cute cat in desperate need of a home" feature every week) but we eventually settled on Subito.it, an online equivalent of the Exchange and Mart which led us to a cattery in Campodarsego, a small town on the outskirts of Padua. A town, it seems, that is almost impossible to reach by public transport.  They also seem to have no bus service at all. As we trudge the last two kilometres on foot, on one of the hottest days of the year, I start to think that these cats had better be suitably grateful.

We want a black cat of course. Not for any particular nefarious or sorcerous reason, but just because we wear a lot of black. However, the only one on offer - a kitten of 3 months, described as furbo ('crafty') - really doesn't want to know us. I pick him up, he scrabbles away furiously, I let him drop before any major arteries can be severed. Frankly, he's blown his chance. His brother, however, is possibly the nicest cat in the world. He just wants to be cuddled and have a good old purr. But he's still a kitten. He wants to be running around doing mad stuff and breaking things. He's not ideal for a flat.

Elsewhere, Caroline finds a modestly friendly older kitten. He shows no objection to being picked up. He seems to love it. In fact he seems to love it so much that he never wants to let go and his claws are locking on. Caroline is oblivious but I notice that he's actually drawn blood. Her upper arm is bleeding. In fact she's bleeding on the cat. Not just on a dark part either, but on the white bits. We detach him, and set him down; hoping that nobody will notice.

The final one is an adult of 18 months. Her previous owner has died so, from being an only cat with an elderly lady owner, she finds herself in a relatively confined space and surrounded by a host of strange and noisy felines for the first time in her life. She seems gentle and good natured, and yet terribly sad...

It has to be one of them...but which one...?

And so it was that I found myself this evening walking to the Festa di Liberazione, the annual celebration of the Refounded Communist Party, resplendent in my best Che Guevara T-shirt and carrying a shocking pink cat basket. I think I cut a bella figura.

Tuesday, 12 August 2014

August 7th

Disclaimer: There is nothing about Venice, or Italy, in this entry. You may find the contents upsetting, and the last thing I want to do is upset anybody. But, quite simply, this is something I had to write...


The cars have arrived, says Caroline. We won't be leaving for another ten minutes, but maybe we should go outside and take a look. Maybe it'd be less of a shock.

Mum and Dad have already left for the church. I'm glad of this. There will be friends there waiting for them, they'll be looked after.

I go outside. I'm feeling ok, shaky, but in control.

There are floral tributes from the family. A wreath in the shape of the Welsh flag. I spot ours, with our card attached. I'd initially thought of a few lines from John Donne, but Caroline's suggestion was better : they shall have stars at elbow and foot. Dylan Thomas' "And Death shall have no Dominion." And then, the coffin. Covered in a Welsh flag.

My sister.

I go back inside. I'm still ok. Just about. Not much time for more than a few deep breaths, and to splash my face with cold water. Then it's time to go.

The church is lovely. Her husband, somehow, reads the eulogy. More than that, he does it brilliantly. And then it's my turn. Ecclesiastes chapter 3, verses 1:6. To everything there is a season. The verses, so familiar, can easily sound like a banal shopping list of the obvious. I dig deep into the words, trying to wrest the meaning from them. Because they aren't banal at all, but perhaps the most beautifully concise expression of our journey through life ever expressed.

More readings, more poetry, more personal memories. Everywhere I look faces are etched with pain.
The final hymn, "Guide me oh thou Great Redeemer".

Then to the cemetery for the interment. A beautiful spot. In an adjacent field a man is racing a pony and gig. The coffin, still covered in its flag, is lowered in. It looks so small. Surely she was taller than this? I pick up a handful of earth, kiss the back of my hand, and cast it in. I think I say something, but can't remember exactly what. Then brush the dust from my hands and walk away.


The wake is easier. All those friends and relatives to speak to and lots of happy memories. There are people I haven't seen since our wedding. Fourteen years, and it took this to bring us all together again...

I knew her for 45 of my 47 years. There has never been a period in my life in which I was not aware of her being. Yet I have to admit that I did not know her as well as her friends and new family. They knew her better than I ever did. For the last 25 years we had lived hundreds, sometime thousands of miles apart. She knew almost everything of interest about me yet there were sides of her that I knew nothing about. I should have made those calls, written those letters, sent those texts...


I expect the next morning to be easier. Instead I pass an uneasy night; music and words from the funeral echoing through my head all night long. I drive Caroline to Luton airport. I still feel raw, bruised, fragile. I'm going off to meet some old friends in Wales for the weekend, but it doesn't seem right. We should be going home together. She gives me a hug.  You need to do this. This will do you good. Hugs and kisses and I drive off.

I'm tired, so tired, so I take it carefully. Hours of driving along anonymous motorways. I channel surf between Radios 3 and 4, but nothing is really engaging me. And then something wonderful happens. At the precise moment of crossing into Wales, Vaughan Williams' beautiful, spectral Fantasia on a theme by Thomas Tallis begins. The sky clears, and the hilly landscape of Powys unfolds before me. So lovely. Equal to anything back home. I wipe away another tear. In 30 minutes there will be the company of friends and laughter. And at this moment, at this perfect moment, it feels good to be alive.

Monday, 4 August 2014

Tourists behaving badly

I try not to moan about tourists. It's not nice and it can sound snobbish. If someone has come all the way from Japan to spend 36 hours here, is it really so intolerable that they can't speak Italian and don't know that they should keep to the right? We're not tourists any more, but neither are we Venetians. We're in a sort of halfway state of "people who've lived here for a bit". So I try not to give visitors a hard time. We were in their shoes once, and we probably got things wrong and annoyed the locals as well.

Nevertheless, there are those moments when you look at the newspaper and think...what did I just read?

If there is an award for "We're on holiday, we can do what the hell we like" it has to go to the couple who were filmed having sex on the Scalzi bridge. In broad daylight. Behaviour which is (a) undignified, (b) uncomfortable and (c) likely to result (for one party at least)  in a sunburnt bottom. For those of you who don't know, the Scalzi is not hidden away in a romantic, unknown part of town. It's next to the railway station, and one of the busiest parts of town. You might as well whip your trousers off in the middle of St Mark's Basilica.

But pride of place for genuinely stupid (if, it has to be said, amusing) behaviour goes to the Kosovan guy who - upon discovering he'd missed his boat back to the Lido - decided he could make his own way home by stealing a vaporetto from the depot and heading off into uncharted waters. He was stopped before getting too far, but - even though this is obviously reprehensible and anti-social behaviour - part of me almost admires the mad ambition of his slightly-the-worse-for wear mind. Can't get home? Why, I'll just borrow a boat. And not just any boat but one the size of a bus! It's a shame he was stopped before hitting the open seas, sailing into an uncertain future to become the stuff of Darwin Awards and Urban Legends.

As I said, I try not to moan about "those people". But as a wise man (let's call him "Pete") once said..."the trouble with those people...is that once you stop being one them...they become a pain in the neck."

Wednesday, 30 July 2014

Aubergines

Caroline arrives back from the butcher's having spent more there than I would have thought possible. She usually comes away with sufficient meaty products to get us through the week and change from ten euros. But this time proper money has been spent. We have a rabbit (which will make us a roast dinner, a pasta sauce and stock) and two pieces of beef. This is where it gets a bit difficult. We can't really identify what type of cut it is. It looks a bit like a rib of beef which has been cut into two steaks. Now, this is a bit of a shame, as - had it been kept in one piece - a roast rib of beef would have been a great treat; but, given what we have, I don't think that's going to be feasible without overcooking them.

The butcher said they could be cooked in the same way as a Florentine steak. Now, strictly speaking, these are not the same thing at all; but, after having trimmed away the bone and some of the excess fat (so they lie flat in the pan), I am still left with two fine-looking steaks, perhaps 3/4" thick.  If I had a rolling pin to hand, I would flatten them to a uniform thickness, but the rolling pin is still lost in a random box somewhere, and a look around the kitchen reveals a shortage of suitable battering implements. Oh well, they'll be fine as they are.

Now then, I have two lovely lilac-and-white striped aubergines (or melanzane if you prefer) to play with and some almost-past-it tomatoes (victims, perhaps, of the spectacularly harsh weather over the past few days). Nigel Slater has a recipe for aubergine slices topped with tomato sauce and parmesan. This sounds nice, but harder work than it needs to be. The Nige recommends cutting the aubergines into rounds, and then topping them all individually. This is going to be (a) time-consuming, as there's no space in the oven to bake all the slices in one go and (b) fiddly to plate up, especially if I've got two steaks that need precision timing.

So I decide just to cut the aubergines in half, drizzle them with olive oil, and stick them in the oven at 180 degrees. Whilst these are baking away, I sizzle some chopped garlic in oil, and add the chopped almost-past-it tomatoes. I add a healthy grinding of salt and pepper, and leave them to simmer away into a sauce. Nige recommends adding a chilli to the mix : now, I firmly believe that the chilli is the noblest of God's vegetables, but I really think there's enough going on in this dish already. It doesn't need anything else adding.

After thirty minutes, the aubergines are just cooked enough. They'll yield to the point of a knife, but they're not so well-cooked that they'll lose their shape and collapse. I take them out of the oven, and layer on the tomato sauce (trying to get complete coverage on every one), followed by a hefty sprinkling of parmesan.

Back in the oven they go. I have a glass of wine and a sit down for 20 mins or so.

When the parmesan is starting to form a crust, I start work on the steaks. Just the thinnest sliver of oil wiped on the surface of the frying pan. I heat the pan until it's just about starting to smoke, and throw the steaks on. 90 seconds each side. I then remove them and leave them to rest for a minute or two as I distribute more glasses of wine and dish up the aubergines.

The steaks are just about right : beautifully rare and red in the centre, and cooked on the outside. I failed on getting a nice blackened crust on the outside, perhaps because the steaks weren't quite of a uniform thickness. Or perhaps I should have had the courage to heat the pan even more. Oh well. They're still good. The aubergines are a bit of a revelation, the tomatoes are delicious, and the whole dish is full of flavour. One half each might have been enough as a side dish, but we have no problems with a whole one. Besides, an entire aubergine each probably counts as 7 of your 5-a-day.

A result, then, and "Baked Aubergine with Parmesan and Not-Quite-Past-It Tomatoes" goes on to the list of future dishes.

Tuesday, 22 July 2014

The 3 second rule

The spritz is perhaps the perfect drink. On a hot day, the first half of a beer can seem like the best thing in the world. The second half of the same beer, however, can seem stale and warm (this is a general rule, obviously, and doesn't apply to those "didn't even touch the sides" moments). A prosecco is fine, but not a drink that can really be lingered over. But uno spritz al Campari is is bitter and refreshing to the last drop. And for me, it has to be with Campari. I find Aperol too sweet and akin to alcoholic Irn-Bru. I like Cynar as much as I like most artichoke-based drinks. The slightly medicinal Select, said by some to be the most authentic, is today mainly the preserve of old men; and whilst 2014 may have been the year in which I finally embraced the cardigan, I don't think there's need to hurry things along any more than necessary.

I observed the swiftest of spritz-making masterclasses the other day, in the bar at the foot of the Accademia Bridge, where the ancient knowledge was being passed on to a young apprentice. I admired its almost Zen-like simplicity :-

Put ice cubes in glass
Apply three second burst from white wine tap
Hold bottle of Campari upside down. Keep it there for three seconds
Fill up remaining space with three seconds worth of sparkling water
Plop slice of lemon in

The three second rule seemed almost perfect so I gave it a go at home. Sadly, it doesn't really work without proper bar equipment to control the flow. Or maybe I just needed a bigger glass. Nevertheless, whenever I see one being made in the future, I shall look for the count of three as a sign of quality control.