Sunday, 30 December 2007

Journey to Liverpool: Capital of Culture

You catch a Wirral Line train from Bromborough for the almost Capital of Culture. Two years have passed since you last set foot in the centre of Liverpool and you are breathless with excitement at the prospect of seeing the city’s renaissance.

At Port Sunlight you are treated to a foretaste of the new sophistication: a scally carrying a bottle of mineral water and an apple gets on, sits down and launches into a conversation with a girl with the nouvelle slappère look (rustically-dyed hair set off with a plastic asphodèle the colour of an orange Smartie, stolen Armani jeans and an off-the-shoulder Yves St Laurent tracksuit top); frustratingly, they are just too far away for you to ascertain whether he is trying to impress her with a controversial personal view of the pre-Raphaelites in the Leverhulme Museum, or simply offering her a bite of his Cox’s Pippin.

Drama at Rock Ferry: you watch sympathetically as a skinhead clutching a tasteful reproduction statuette of Michelangelo’s David narrowly fails to board before the doors close. In an understandable fit of pique, the shaven-skulled aesthete hurls the figurine at the departing train, but this time Goliath is not to be toppled, and as David falls to the trackside it occurs to you that he resembles the Moyesie Dolls in the Everton Club Shop rather more than Buonarroti’s biblical hero. You have barely had time to reflect on the poetic potential of your error when the sight of Green Lane Station drives all other thoughts and images from your mind; cunningly sculpted from artisanally-blackened Dank Stone, Green Lane has long been a favoured destination for would-be suicides, reliably informed by their psychotherapists that there is a darker, more desolate hole than the one in their tortured soul. 365 days a year, burnt-out businessmen from Kitakyushu and alcoholics from Rovaniemi can be seen skipping rejuvenated onto trains and chanting merrily to the effect that “Nothing will ever seem so bleak again”. (By a cruel and tragic irony, those unfortunate visitors who unwittingly board trains bound for Ellesmere Port rapidly discover their optimism to be ill-founded, and end up terminating their existence at The Top-Yourself Centre close to the Stanlow Oil Refinery). Today, however, the fresh breath of Culture is pumping new life even into Green Lane: the fenced-off, dungeon-like pen – which you suspect was designed for train-spotters – in the corner of the For Liverpool platform has been converted into an impromptu wildlife sanctuary for dying pigeons, ailing moss and delinquent rodents.

You are now beside yourself with eager anticipation. If the hinterland has been so thoroughly transformed, then just how magnificent is the city itself going to be?

Friday, 28 December 2007

Family Traditions (contd): Crap Presents

3) Since time immemorial, the Christmas Eve family lunch has been synonymous with the Shite Present Forecast. This locally-famous ritual begins with your father offering everybody a generous slice of the ox tongue he knows you all abhor. Once the sounds of gagging and retching have subsided, a sheet of parchment is passed solemnly around the refectory table and predictions (Name of Giver and Shite Present Category) are printed clearly and anonymously with a broken pencil – the writing implement is itself an important part of the tradition, recalling as it does the Yuletide gift of a medieval ancestor to his illiterate mother-in-law.

The Shite Present Categories are, in descending order of crapness:

7) Discount Store Novelty or Joke Books (the kind of thing you wouldn’t even read on the toilet)
6) Cotton Handkerchieves (if you want to keep your snot accessible surely you just leave it in your nose)
5) Scottish Fashion Items (self-explanatory)
4) Homemade Craft Items
3) Craft Items Homemade by Children
2) Painted Paw-prints of Related (or Unrelated) Children
1) Any Combination of 4) 3) and 2)

Armed with inside information gleaned from a misdirected email, you are smugly nominating Sibling IV’s homemade calendar of full-colour photos of his offspring applauding 12 of his DIY achievements (just to give you a flavour: March depicts the aforementioned bin-lids peering with forced merriment into a snowy trench with a freshly-repaired sewer pipe), when a woman who might be one of your sisters-in-law bursts into the room with the news that the competition has been cancelled. It transpires that an early gift from Sibling III to Nephew 14 has rendered the Forecast meaningless: normally a Ben Hur Special Edition DVD and an erudite tome on palaeontology would not even qualify for the Shite Present Award, but the fact that in this case the recipient is four years old has led the Family Elders to annul the traditional ceremony.
Next thing you know they’ll be abolishing the Slagging of the Golden Boy, and, to be honest, if that happens then we might as well just do away with Christmas itself.

Thursday, 27 December 2007

The Shocking of the Till-Girl

It's only Christmas Eve morning, but as the family traditions begin to kick in, you start to notice some disturbing variations.

1) Supermarket Hide-and Seek. It wouldn't be Christmas without a trip to Sainsbury’s with your parents. For years now you've taken to dropping back a pace ore two as they near the entrance. This enables you to appreciate to the full the perfect choreography of the moment when, at startling velocity and in perfect synchrony, they launch off in separate directions. For the next hour, at sporadic intervals, you run into one or other of them chanting the Sainsbury’s Refrain: "Where on earth has your mother/father got to? She/He always does this. You stay here by the tills and I'll see if I can find her/him in the Christmas Card Ribbons/Wine aisle." Eventually they crash into each other right under your nose and your father trundles off in search of the toilets while your mother searches for her Fidelity Card (that’s fidelity to the supermarket, for those of you who are wondering; but, hey, there’s an idea). Now, traditionally at this point some sour-faced youth with LFC acne packs your wine and ribbons into a dozen plastic carrier bags and you look on contentedly, pondering on how in the ideal world everybody associated with Anfield would be employed in menial jobs designed to render life simpler and more comfortable for their Everton-supporting superiors. Today, however, you are horrified to hear your mother refusing the till-girl’s offer to summon a youth and issuing assurances that her son will be more than happy to do the job, doesn’t like standing idle, etc. …. WHAT???!!!! Don’t like standing idle?! I love standing idle, mother, and I have a job. Good God! This kind of talk is sailing perilously close to the wind of “protestant work ethic”, and if there was one advantage to bringing us up Catholic then surely it was to guarantee ease of conscience at the sight of others toiling for our benefit. Even the till-girl was shocked, and till-girls don’t shock easily, believe me.

2) The Bottle of Wine From Your Grandmother. Always red, always Australian and always delivered by another family member two or three days before Christmas, even though you’re going to see your grandmother on every one of those days. There’s an agenda here you haven’t been able to fathom, ever since you reached maturity (I believe that’s the term) and wine replaced socks. And now you’re doubly confused, because this year you got white. Wine, not socks.

To be continued...

Saturday, 22 December 2007

Christmas Shopping, Gruppo K, Everton FC and Seasonal Schadenfreude

For once in your life, you’re organised. You’ve washed enough socks and boxer shorts to get you through Christmas in a state of acceptable hygiene and your Polish cleaning lady, eager to outdo her Ukrainian counterpart (you would never have believed just how comfortable the free market can make your life), has ironed every last crease out of your shirts, even the ones you thought you’d dumped in the laundry basket. You’ve sent off the last of the pre-Christmas translations to the publishers in time to forestall the typesetters’ nervous breakdown. And, for the first time ever, with three days still to go to Yuletide you’ve resolved your Christmas shopping problems: this year, instead of fuelling the inhuman steamroller of consumerism, you will treat everyone on your present list to a generous helping of your quality time: how much healthier for your pre-school nephews and nieces to receive ten uninterrupted minutes of banter and anecdotes than the latest… well, whatever – it ain’t ethical to be constantly updating on the stuff you can buy in the shops.

Feeling rather pleased with yourself, you are settling down with your cappuccino in front of the computer to savour the reports on Everton’s UEFA Cup victory away to AZ Alkmaar, and promising yourself a few minutes gloat-surfing on the Liverpool Supporters Messageboards in the wake of their latest debacle, when Lennie calls you from the Faculty. It swiftly emerges that for the past forty-five minutes thirty Pre-Intermediate students (Gruppo K, Aula VII) have been awaiting you and their written English exam. Fuck it! You really are going to have to start writing things down.

Fifteen minutes later you are springing up the last steps to the first floor of the Ateneo, wondering whether your students will buy the excuse that your imminent departure for Liverpoool had caused your body clock to flick back automatically to Greenwich meantime. By the time you reach the classroom, though, you have decided to opt for truth and humility. And in truth you feel humble, because there's not a word or a glance of recrimination from a single one of them, and before the words "Sorry, sorry, sorry!" are even out of your mouth, the smiles and the repartee are kicking in, and, not for the first time, you remember why you love your job, and suddenly it doesn't matter that you're not going to have time to indulge your Liverpool schadenfreude. You will find a moment to squeeze in the Everton reports, though.

Thursday, 20 December 2007

Come mai Bari?

If I had a euro for every time I’ve been asked “Come mai Bari?” (which, roughly translated, means “What in God’s name possessed you to want to live here?”) I would now be living like a bastard in San Francisco, or Provence, or Via Putignani. Actually, come to think of it, for a couple of years I did live in Via Putignani, but those were the days in which, together with my erstwhile partner in crime, The Baxter, I had taken on the challenge of trying to drink the Taverna del Maltese dry, and my memories of the period are somewhat hazy. I can’t even tell you if we got anywhere near succeeding in our worthy endeavours, though I believe the place does still have a small monument to the two of us, close to the cash register.

Someone once described our quest as “bevvying for England”, but as I remember it we were in fact drinking for Art. Some bird on the humorously-named “Rapido” from Rome had told The Baxter about these 19th century French poets who were only able to produce decent verse after long evenings abusing their bodies with drugs and alcohol, followed by long nights abusing the bodies of beautiful Parisiennes. At the time it sounded like the only truly noble path for aspiring writers – and unashamed hedonists – to follow, and so, wallets in pocket, down to the Tavern we would go.

Down the years I’ve often wondered whether The Baxter hadn’t dozed off at some point during his epiphany on the train: try as I might, I cannot quell the suspicion that those crafty Gallic geysers had lined up the totty BEFORE kicking into their Kronenbourg 1664s. We, on the other hand, honouring that long Anglo-Saxon tradition of crap tactics, invariably timed it so that the beer (and/or Cuban rum, from a dusty bottle on Giovanni’s top shelf) was kicking into US by the time any talent arrived in the Taverna.

I’m not saying we never pulled. One night The Baxter staggered home leaning on a more than averagely attractive sack of potatoes, and I myself can vividly remember waking up with a girl who’d once been a student of mine and who persisted in addressing me as “lei” rather than “tu” over breakfast. I kind of liked that. It felt like Art. And in a funny kind of way it may contain the answer to that eternal question: “Come mai Bari?”

Wednesday, 19 December 2007

Quello che gli inglesi non dicono

Pretty much everywhere you go these days you will come across new and colourful varieties of English. As a rule, you would be advised to avoid the following turns of phrase, which are peculiar to the University of Bari:

1) When I finish university, I will do the teacher. Unless you have violent or sexual intentions towards one of your professors.
2) My boyfriend has a little bird. Unless you are a dwarf and wish to draw attention to the fact. (Disappointingly, it turned out that the speaker here was simply mistranslating "un pò di barba").
3) I don't know how I feel myself. Oh, I think you probably do.
4) Men are higher than women. Only at certain parties.
5) Can you get me off at the station? No, no, no, no, NO! You've no idea where the taxi driver might go from here!
6) She is very beautiful: she has long blond hairs. Whatever turns you on!
7) Do you get on your girlfriend's mother okay? Yeah, but she always pushes me off.
8) Can you make me a pleasure? At least, not in the sense of "do me a favour".
9) I work well in a team and am good at hand jobs. ALWAYS get a native speaker to check your CV before you destroy your career prospects.
10) She came on the stairs. We're clearly talking one hell of a nice staircase here...
11) Our teacher is the biggest in the world! On second thoughts, I think this is fine.