When I started my new job I was struck by the small touches in how staff are looked after: newspapers in the coffee bar, Bandaid dispenser near the coffee machine on every floor, and thoughtful hand cream in the loos. There are even showers and hairdryers for the cyclists – Cambridge as a cycling city resembles the Tour de France rather than an Italian provincial town. Then in our large, open-plan office there’s a desk known as The Usual Place where people leave edibles for everyone to enjoy . This week we’ve had Iranian pastries, Russian and Brazilian chocolate , and more prosaically, welsh cakes from yours truly. All of these feelgood enhancers soothed me through my first few weeks, but what has especially delighted me is the Secret Scrabbler.
Near the coffee machine cubicle that we share with Research and Validation is a whiteboard on which every day nine letters appear. As you wait the 6 seconds for your coffee you can create words and list them in a friendly competition. At the end of the day the longest word and the one with biggest total are recorded as the ‘winners’. I take issue a bit with this very quantitative way of evaluating the goodness of words, but it seems to be the way Scrabble is played these days. I am trying to persuade my colleagues that we should have a third category for unusual or quirky words; some of my favourites recently have been ‘gawp’ ‘fondler’ and ‘glisten’.
What I loved about this ritual is how the letters magically appeared. I knew there must be a person who discreetly took the trouble to renew the board every day ,and stereotypically imagined a lady with a bun looking after our lexical health. Then I found out it was my buddy Lynn with modern swingy hair. Yesterday she let me do the letters which was quietly thrilling.
Psychologists categorise life transitions into planned and unplanned, and I thought I was a specialist in handling them, even seeking them out. Now I’m in the middle (no, at the beginning) of one of those universal transitions, unplanned by me, but planned by life for us all: the death of your last surviving parent.
My mother was 92 (she would round it up to nearly 93) and so had a good innings, though she was fully intending to go on a bit longer (“they say these days that if you’re looked after well , you can live til you’re a hundred” ” I have to have fish every week as it’s keeping me well “). But despite her best efforts, and regular fish dinners consumed with gusto, it was not to be.
Yesterday’s journey from Cambridge was reminiscent of another sad journey 38 years ago when my father died suddenly, shockingly young, at the age I am now. I got the same feeling of heightened awareness – produced by the adrenalin helping you make the necessary work and travel arrangements (flinching at the walk on price of the train ticket) and the long journey to the town you grew up in. These events unearth all sorts of memories. My mother had been what was euphemistically termed “fiercely independent”‘all her life and maintained this characteristic until the end, calling my sister and me up sharp until well into our sixties.
I arrive at the care home where my sister is waiting for me just as she waited at the station 38 years ago. It touches me how sensitive the care workers and undertakers are in what is for them an almost everyday event.
Sandra and I go to Blanco’s to have a fish dinner in her honour. It has been a long day travelling. On the way home we stop at Hopkins’, open until 11 thanks to two friendly immigrants. We curse Donald Trump as we buy milk, tea, Cadburys Dairy Milk and a small bottle of Teachers whisky: our bereavement kit.
The trouble with linguists is that they get nerdy about the most apparently mundane texts. Academic articles have been churned out analysing the features of blues lyrics, obituaries, press briefings, and service encounters. This is not as pointless as it sounds. Linguistic choices can tell us about cultural values, how language is used to persuade, conceal and much more. This can also help us understand what to teach and assess. In an increasingly mobile world , for example, what do train ticket inspectors need to be able to do in a language and how do we assess that? I recently described my German level as ‘German for mothers-in-law’ and having had two of those, I regard myself as a bit of an expert. I’ll leave you to flesh out what that might be these days, but for my generation it involved a lot of Eintopf recipes , diplomatic talk and childrearing vocabulary.
One particular fascination of mine is the English used in the aviation industry. There is pilot talk, which has clear implications for safety and has in recent years become a focus of interest for both teachers and assessors. Then we have English for cabin crews who need it for much more than serving drinks. Nowadays their linguistic repertoire needs to include polite handling of uncooperative passengers and warring spouses, as well as a bit of hard sell of scratch cards and the like. Once I was taken aback to see a steward giving a pre-touchdown speech inviting passengers to consider her fair city (Las Vegas) for relocation as teachers and doctors were needed.
My favourite airline language is that of safety instructions. I once read a Time article which said that people have a better chance of surviving a disaster if they have mapped emergency procedures on their brain before the event. Ever since, I have become one of those passengers who crane their head to get a better look at how to inflate their life jacket in the unlikely event of landing on water, and possibly the only one who looks around to check the nearest exit ‘which may be behind you’ And on landing I wouldn’t even dream of unbuckling my seatbelt until the crew had completed the safety-related procedures.
Bars aren’t what they used to be in Italy. The simple salami roll of the sixties and seventies has now been ousted by all sorts of truffled concoctions, and you can take your cappuccino with soya milk or ginseng if you like. These days counters are marbled, and the iconic Bar signs of the black and white films have been replaced by gleaming façades. If you have a nostalgic gene, you can still find an old price list with plug in tile letters in some of the old trattorias. One example is Aldina near the covered market in Modena, whose decor and menu have remained gloriously unreconstructed for 30 years.
However, the best panino in Modena is to be had not in a bar, but from my greengrocers di fiducia in Corso Vittorio Emanuele as you walk into town from the station. Mimmo and Franco have been meeting the grocery needs of the older population in this area for years, and Mimmo’s cherry tomatoes and oranges are truly speciali. Once I asked him for some good olive oil, and he searched behind his bottles on the shelf until he found something that his quietly triumphant smile suggested he had been saving for me alone.
Recently Mimmo and Pino have been building up a steady trade in panini, and you can order your filling according to what fresh produce is available that day. If you’re not too much of a control freak, you can let Pino create you a bespoke sandwich, and I guarantee you will not be disappointed. My personal favourite has chunks of chicken, slices of aubergine and a little olio piccante. Pino’s quiet concentration as he assesses your mood and produces a small gastronomic triumph is not to be missed.
But if you want to, skip the fancy stuff and just get a serious salami sandwich. Perché quando ci vuole ci vuole
Italy has changed a lot since my first trip backpacking with friends one hot July in the 70s, fresh from A levels. We arrived sleep-deprived in a Transalpino at Milano Centrale, and I can still remember the sensorial hit – a mixture of poetic train announcements, the smell of coffee, and the arms stretched through train windows to pay vendors for salami rolls. Back then the country was still innocent of the culture of consumption that was sweeping across the Atlantic, and four impoverished teenagers could get by on simple pleasures. Our budget covered lunch in a bar: a Toast of ham and cheese, a glass of water, and a 50 lira gettone for the juke box. Et tu by Claudio Baglione was the summer hit – a triumph of plaintive yearning that reached out and grabbed our 18 year old hearts.
Nowadays Italy has inevitably embraced the culture of TV dinners and hyper-choice. I recently came back after three years to find that supermarkets now do a roaring trade in cartons of readymade broth. 15 years ago every self-respecting Italian mother would make her own brodo di carne, and I learned how a piece of chicken (tip-always a wing for flavour), beef, and bone could be simmered to produce an exquisite broth for tortellini. These days some people pay extortionate amounts for 6 tortellini arranged on a plate in a fancy restaurant, but fortunately here in the heartland of Emilia, some grannies still have time to make their own tortellini and broth for a traditional Sunday lunch. As I overheard a shopkeeper say recently, “ la Nonna ha il suo perchè”
Polentone (polenta head) is an affectionately derogatory term used by people in the south of Italy to describe north Italians. In a country known for its culture of slow eating it is not surprising that a food term should be used to distinguish people from different regions. I live in the north and am a proud Polentone. There is nothing more comforting than a dish of this creamy yellow sustenance on a damp foggy autumn day. Of course, it belongs to the tradition of Cucina Povera, as all the best dishes do.
The other day I was shopping in my corner shop for an easy supper and I saw a variation of polenta that I had forgotten about: Calzagatti. These are made of cooked polenta mixed with bacon and beans to form a thick dough, which is then cut into chunks, and fried. Surprised by joy (as Wordsworth would say), I bought some, along with a piece of deep orange baked pumpkin. That evening, with a glass of Lambrusco, I dined like a diva.
Three years after my move to the US, I have now returned to Europe for a mixture of personal and practical reasons. Not without some lingering regrets. Living in New York was the sustained highlight of my life, a late opportunity I never dreamed would be possible, and one which has enriched me on so many levels. But the downside of being a migrant – because that’s what I have been for a good part of my life- is that you always miss people and places, and that sadness is always there in the background, just as it was when I moved to NY and left family and friends behind.
This sense of dislocation and sorrow has been elegiacally captured in the work of Jhumpa Lahiri, or more recently in the adaptation of Colm Tóibín’s Brooklyn, and anyone who has lived in another country will recognise it well. Some cultures have a word for it.
Someone * once said it is important to travel so that you can look at your own country from outside. So that is what I am going to do now that I am back in Europe. And because I am in Italy, I will start with something foodie.
- “The whole object of travel is not to set foot on foreign land; it is at last to set foot on one’s own country as a foreign land.” – G.K. Chesterton