It is not very often that you can come across a place in London that people who have lived their whole lives here have never heard of. It gives the recently transplanted a sort of 'in the know' cache that is rather hard to come by. This happened to me recently when a friend and fundraising colleague invited me to an event at the St Bride Foundation and Library
. This little known treasure trove of graphic and typographic arts, as well as bastion of history of the printing and publishing industry, is tucked away on a side street off of Fleet Street.
The evening was an opening reception for an exhibit of finalists and winners of a unique bookbinding competition featuring incredible purveyors of this artisan craftsmanship from around the world. The competition entrants were given the remit to design a book, from cover, inside layout, to cover, of a Shakespeare play of their choosing. The design needed to reflect both the title and storyline in some way. The results were stunning. I'd really never seen anything like it. The bookbinders used everything from incredible variations of paper, to other materials such as cloth, metal, and gilted gold. I was told that each would then be sold to high end collectors for anywhere from £5,000 to £30,000 each.
Despite having been around since the late 19th century, St Bride's has only relatively recently opened its doors to the public, suffering from what one can only assume was either over-protectiveness of their collections, or simply, British clubiness. Although with Reading Room hours only open from 11-6pm on Wednesdays, it doesn't seem that they are yet throwing open wide the doors. But if you do fancy a walk through some incredible history of the printed word, the library holds some 50,000 books, which include all the classic works on printing technique, visual style, typography, graphic design, calligraphy and more. There are 3,500 periodicals including all measure of typographic journals, and an incomparable record of artifacts that, according to their website, "bring the history of print culture to life." There are also wood blocks, copper plate and lithographic stones to exemplify the various techniques used to reproduce images. Plus, there are nearly 200 special collections comprising discrete groups of material, archives from trade bodies or companies, collections on particular topics, or specialized forms of material.
The Institute is also home to the Bridewell Theatre and Bar which features lunchtime and evening entertainment. The Foundation is embarking on a major fundraising campaign during which they hope to offer more printmaking workshops and training, as well as raise its profile with the public and make it much more accessible than it is now. And if you're wondering, no, I don't work for them! I just happen to think that finding anything off the beaten path in London with this much history, is worth passing on.St Bride Foundation
Bride Lane, Fleet Street
London EC4Y 8EQ
T. 020 7353 3331
Lucky turtle. She doesn't have to pack.
For anyone who has ever experienced long-term travel, either by choice or vocation, or has had to live an itinerant lifestyle for other reasons, you can appreciate how living out of a suitcase can wear thin after a while. For the past couple of years, the boy and I have been packing and unpacking our suitcases at intervals ranging from two weeks to six months. We've gotten pretty good at it. However, there are still times when we can't find the right charger, extension cord, converter, game, book, journal, sock, the list goes on, and it is maddening and can make you feel slightly out of control of your world. Playing with the big girls in Regent's Park.
This is one of the reasons, among many, that we are in the process of trying to create a more permanent home at the moment. A base from which we can make shorter travel excursions around Europe, and eventually, beyond. But finding that landing pad, on a writerly budget in one of the most expensive cities in the world (London!), feels like scaling the Himalayas at the moment.
This weekend we had to leave our temporary lodging, with old family friends, in the posh and leafy neighborhood of St John's Wood where the boy invented the game of how many Lamborghinis and Bentleys he could count each time we went out. Easy access to Regent's Park was amazing and will be missed, but we will perhaps feel more at home in down to earth Ealing, with other old friends, while the flat hunt continues.
Regent's Park was especially good for pick-up football (soccer) games for the boy. He takes his football very seriously for a 12-year-old and is rarely intimidated by groups of adults playing rec games. His tact is to sidle up, size up the number of players on each team, angling for a group with an uneven number, and when a ball goes off the pitch, he runs to get it, and returns with it and a request to join the game. Sometimes he is fobbed off, but more often than not, they let him join. And they are almost always surprised when he holds his own and in some cases, runs circles around them.
But back to the day to day grind of apartment hunting. I have seen more flats than I can count at this point and my answers to the litany of estate agents' questions have become rote and clipped. I am trying to not be too picky, yet I don't want to move again too very soon, so some critical boxes must be ticked like safe, good transport, garden, and the possibility of at least owning goldfish.
As to living out of suitcases and long-term travel, here are a few tips I've gleaned and gathered from time on the road:
- Photocopy all of your credit or bank cards, as well as passport or identity cards, scan and email to yourself so you have a digital copy on your hard drive or phone if lost or stolen.
- If you are planning European train travel, do you take with you more than one backpack or one small, rolling suitcase. Luggage compartments on most all trains are very small and you will regret it, cursing on your grandmother's grave, when you hit Frankfurt at commuter rush hour and the berths and corridors are chock o'block with people. Trust me.
- Pack everything you want to take and can't imagine living without. Now unpack and remove three quarters of that and put in storage. You will not be needing it!
- For tips on how to travel long term with only carry on luggage, visit Never Ending Voyage:
- Despite the title of this piece, if you are staying somewhere longer than a few days, I highly recommend completely unpacking your suitcase, if there are drawers and closets, and moving in and making it home while you are there. It makes all the difference to your mindset, piece of mind, and not to mention, offers some good airing out for clothes and suitcase!
- Finally, for the truly vagabondish at heart, check out 8 Tools to Help You Travel Forever and Live Rent Free.
Hmmm…maybe I shouldn't unpack my suitcase after all.
My son, as I may have mentioned before, is I’m sure a lot like other boys his age (nearly 12) in that he likes to spend as much time as possible doing two things: playing soccer (insert sport of choice) and playing with his PS3 or computer games. Often trying to get him to do anything other than these things involves a form of very slow Chinese water torture (to be endured by me, not him). So it is with some degree of delight that this week I observed that Luc likes to get into the weightiest of topics at the strangest of times – always when we are biking in city streets, usually through challenging traffic, on the way to his soccer practice, which is at least 20 minutes each way.
On the way to practice the other day he posed the question: “Mom, what’s it like to be a woman?” which he has admittedly asked before. But after my initial glib response of “I don’t know because I’ve never been anything else,” he kept pressing for details. Now I know a window when I see one! I will certainly not ever miss the chance to help him grow into the progressive, aware, strong, and good man that I know he will become. So, this led to a discussion of what women’s place has historically been in the world and is today, in some places still.
I have to say it all came as quite a shock to him and in his lovely innocence he couldn’t begin to understand why a woman wouldn’t always have the same rights as a man, why they might get paid less for the same job, or why I have to be more careful going home at night by myself than he will ever have to as a grown man.
On the way back from practice the question was “Mom, what happens when we die?” which sparked a discussion on religion, what some people believe happens when you die, with each of us pitching our own pet theories on what awaits us all eventually, all the while dodging Italian drivers and navigating roundabouts.
I can’t quite figure out this predilection of his for heavy-duty conversations while in motion. It has happened before, sometimes in cars too, anything involving wheels apparently. But all I know is that his curiosity is alive and well and I’ll go with the probably still contrarian theory that gaming makes you smarter!
Check out these great TED talks on gaming:Gabe Zichermann – How Games Make Kids SmarterJane McGonigal: Gaming Can Make a Better World
We are back in Italy after a 3 month hiatus in the US to obtain my work visa. The Italian is rusty but words keep popping up that I'd forgotten I knew, so all is not lost. Nothing like try to learn a language to stretch brain muscles you never knew you had. Luc and I have spent the last several afternoons at Vicenza's Parco Aquatico
. It is baking hot and there is really nothing else to do but hole up inside until it's time to make a beeline for the pool. Thank God there is one! In this case, quite a deluxe public version that makes our beloved local village pool in Ohio look like a neglected and distant aquatic cousin.
The Parco Aquatico has two ginormous twirly slides, a sculplturesque pool with fountains with underwater 'tanning beds' -- places to recline that I can only suppose are meant to increase your tan, a main pool with a huge floaty 'mountain' that kids can climb with ropes or handholds and slide down the front. The pool is so big there are always two lanes roped off for lap swimming cross the width of it, which is the same as the length of most pools I've been in.
With less than a week of living in Italy to go, I will leave you with some parting thoughts. While living here has been both wonderful and difficult in many ways; it is not a cliche to say that it is a place of stunning beauty that time almost forgot and also a place where the business of day to day living and working can be made pretty damn hard. But it has, I can say, also been a very good place to get a lot of writing done. I have finished one screenplay, started another, and am working on a young adult novel. And I cannot close this chapter on Italy without acknowledging that our time here would never have been possible without the incredible generosity and hospitality of my friend, Marta, and her family.
Of course it is not just the inspiring environs, but keeping to a writing schedule that has been key. However, while sitting in my usual coffee bar this morning, I realized that one of the other main reasons is that I can so easily tune out all the Italian I hear around me. There are no English conversations to distract me, the Italian melts into melodious white noise that I cease to hear after a while. And there is also the fact, that because I am pretty obviously a foreigner, a tourist, it gives me a free pass to sit alone in any café, bar, or restaurant, while writing and observing away. I just don't seem to become self-conscious about it the way I would if I were back home.
I have my usual haunts around town by now that I frequent. The staff all know me and greet me like a regular. I am probably thought of as that lonely-woman-with-no-friends who comes in and scribbles in a notebook for hours. All right, I have to confess, when I have had friends come for a visit, I do take them back to these places, with no doubt some subtext of wanting the staff to see that I’m really not so strange after all, I truly am a well adjusted, somewhat normal human being!
The other reason it has been good for my writing is that free, or even paid, wireless service in public places in Italy is still relatively uncommon, at least in this town. All the months I’ve been here I have not seen one – not one – person sitting in a café with a laptop. We are not in Starbucks territory. So this means I must leave the greatest distraction – the Internet at home. A beautiful thing.
On the subject of writing, whenever I hit the wall and find myself stuck, which is often enough, I always go back to the most amazing book I’ve ever read that deals with any act of creativity: The War of Art
by Steven Pressfield. If you aim to compose a song, build a house, or start a business, and get stuck or have any self-doubts, read this book. It always manages to give me hope that maybe, just maybe, if I keep showing up every morning, like punching in at the factory, something good will eventually come of my efforts.
I really didn’t know, when we left home last August, how long this venture would last. I’m amazed and pleased that we have nearly reached 8-months of European living. Unfortunately, we won’t make it to Spain this trip, but I have promised L that will be our next destination. And with his new background in Italian, picking up Spanish shouldn’t be too hard. L came home from school the other day and said “I love my school and my friends there!” I couldn’t believe my ears. An all-Italian, Catholic school. Who could have guessed this would be a good experience for him? I so wish I didn’t have to take him out before the end of the year, but unfortunately the laws of tourist visas are bigger than us. But he has made some very good friends and we will be back.
Now, it is on to London for a brief stop, and then we are Midwest Bound. It will be good to be on home ground for awhile and recharge our batteries with friends, family, and a bit of small town American living. And so it is that now I will put this blog to rest for a while. I imagine it will be reborn eventually, in perhaps a different form. I will spare you any caterpillar to butterfly analogies right about now. The reality is much more prosaic. The months ahead will hold many changes for my superboy traveler and I, and now is the time for me to focus on the tasks ahead: Writing. Living. Work.
Thank you for reading!(L to R: my morning perch; taming the beast, otherwise known as Ralph; late afternoon in downtown Vicenza; a lizard).
Yesterday L played his first official match with the soccer team he’s been practicing with for months. While it may be hard to believe, given Italy’s reputation of being relaxed about so many things, they are uber-serious about even kids having to have resident’s status before they can play in any league games. Not only do you have to prove residency but you have to complete an opus of paperwork to be officially registered with the league. I’ve never seen anything like it. In Germany, it was one sheet of basic information, a copy of his passport and a photo, and he was a full member of the team, and of course the same in the States.
So the reason he was able to play yesterday is not that we are suddenly full-fledged members of the Italian club, but simply that it was considered a ‘friendly game’ and not an official one on the way to the tournament. That said, it seemed as official as any other match I’ve been to. Whatever the game was, it was a true pleasure to get to watch my son play again. This boy lives to play soccer and when you watch him you can understand why. He has a sort of gazelle-like grace with the ball that is hard to miss. I know I’m his mother, but when I heard the Italian fathers behind me say his number “Dieci-siete…” in approving tones, I know I’m not the only one who sees it. He scored the goal that tied the game, thereby cementing the respect of his teammates for his first game out.
The whole experience of watching the game as a parent in Italy was, you could say, amusing by way of just comparing the differences and similarities between cultures. In one way, parents going to their kids’ game is simply universal and looks the same everywhere. You don’t need to understand the language to know what everyone is saying. I of course could not bring myself to cheer, just because I would have been the only one for miles speaking English, and my Italian is not good enough to cheer beyond ‘Vai!’ (go!) and “Dai!” (come on!).
The biggest difference in the whole experience you could point to is the little refreshment hut which naturally, had the requisite cappuccinos, espresso, apertivos (a Campari or Aperol cocktail), and beer, plus candy. And I can certainly attest to everyone being quite expressive during the game, both coaches and parents. The coach for the opposing team yelled non-stop at the top of his lungs at his players. Finally, one kid, clearly in exasperation at one invective from the coach, threw up his arms in a typically dramatic Italian fashion, and yelled back, ‘Ma come?!’ – ‘But how?!’
Personally, I hate coaches who yell constantly. It’s hard to see how it helps them. I was grateful for our lovely, low-key Brazilian coach who kept his sideline instructions to low, concise sound-bites.
All in all, a lovely afternoon out and L was invigorated and proud of himself, as was I of course. And now we have a three-day holiday ahead of us this week as Italy celebrates ‘Carnevale’. The last few days it has gotten increasingly common to see people, mostly very young ones, walking the streets in elaborately painted faces, masks, capes, and various outrageous costumes. Methinks another trip to Venice is probably in order, the heart of it all.
The river we cross on the way to school every morning.
I have been a bad blogger lately and I was wondering to myself the other day why this is. It is true that I entered my flat-out- really-busy season with work, but I also realized that it is because life in Italy has settled into such a normal routine, that I don’t really feel like I’m travelling any more. I think this is mostly an excuse, but I’m going with it.
Our routine, since I’m on the subject, has been to attempt to get L into school by 8:30am, by bus or bike, where he stays until 2pm and I go back down and pick him up. He is settling in well and seems to actually be enjoying himself. He has individual Italian lessons twice a week with Nelly, the English/Italian teacher, and has an assortment of the usual classes while he is there such as math, history, English, music, computer, art, and a real bonus, swimming. He says the food served for lunch is mostly amazing and he enjoys playing soccer after lunch every day. The best part of all is he has made a really good friend – a boy who speaks enough English that they can communicate well enough between them. He went to his house the other day for a birthday party. This is monumental! READ MORE....
We are in London for the holidays and the other night we went to see the spectacle of “Slava’s Snowshow” at the Royal Festival Hall. It is no wonder it has been a hit in over 80 cities around the world. It truly transports every adult in the audience to a child-like state of wonder and glee. The kids don’t need any help – they’re already there. Slava Polunin is a Russian performance artist and clown who, along with his troupe of clowns, is the genius behind several other stage spectacles, including Diabolo, coined a “comical meditation on life, death and the beauty of the universe.”
What makes Slava Snowshow such a wondrous experience in simplicity and beauty is not only the humour in each skit, but I think the audience’s experience of becoming part of the spectacle itself. There is no dialogue throughout, but each segment is accompanied by any amazing soundtrack which is comprised of some familiar yet unexpected pieces – music from the film Black Orpheus, Paolo Conti, and Carmina Burana, for example.
‘Snow’ comes down on the audience, thick, tangly spider webs are passed back by the audience from the first row to the last, gusts of wind, light and snow are blasted at us in a climactic moment of Carmina Burana fervor, and finally, ginormous, brightly colored balloon-like balls are released into the theater and batted around the audience. The culmination of which turns the theater-going experience on its head as the clowns end, sitting on the stage, bemusedly watching their audience become children again and the auditorium is transformed into a joyous free for all where no one is left sitting down.
This might not appeal to everyone, but we certainly enjoyed it and it was oh so lovely to see L, who at times I can worry myself into thinking has become jaded by video games, swept up in awe and excitement at some good old fashioned theatrical spectacle.
Me on a beach in Senegal with two of my brothers
I have been pondering this question more than usual lately as I was challenged on this question at a dinner party not long ago. My reactions in such situations where I feel put on the defensive to explain my choices are akin to running in quicksand. They suck. And I spend the rest of the night and next several days kicking myself for not being as quick and adept verbally as I should have been.
This person’s take clearly suggested that I was not considering L’s emotional life and desires enough in my choice to travel with him and disrupt his stable life. I tried to draw on my own experiences growing up as the daughter of a travelling family, and that in fact I had much more upheaval than L has had, and yet I am still happy and grateful to have had those experiences, even though it wasn’t always easy. I also suggested that it is the natural order of things that kids follow their parents and these experiences shape who we end up becoming. In response to this, the person said that “was bordering on child abuse.”
The view from our apartment
The first thunderstorm we’ve experienced in weeks is raging this morning. Early October winds are blowing the wooden shutters back and forth on this grand, old Italian house. We are living in the top floor flat of my friend’s father’s house in Vicenza, Italy. Her ninety-something year old aunt lives in the ground floor apartment, her father on the next level, and now, L and I, on the top. My friend and her family live next door in their own house, yet to be divided by family needs. And then there is Ralph, the young, enormous and slightly scary German Shepherd, who belongs to her father and lives mostly in the front garden and his doghouse. We use the side entrance to avoid being overcome by his….er….affections.
A few days ago we said goodbye to Berlin, earlier than expected, and entered into Phase 2 of our journey by arriving in Vicenza, Italy. Sad to leave Berlin, but some opportunities came up in Italy, both for living and working, that were too good to pass up at the moment. Vicenza is in the Veneto region, about an hour west of Venice, at the foot of the Dolomite mountain range. The architect Andrea Palladio, considered to be one of the most influential individuals in the history of western architecture, put Vicenza on the map with the many formidable buildings he left behind here and in the region. It is an extremely lovely and navigatable small city. The remains of the city wall the Romans built snake throughout the town, which now leaks far beyond its original borders. To get here, we took a high-speed ICE train from Berlin to Munich, and then what was allegedly another fast train, from Munich to Verona. In reality, it chugged through the Alps, making every conceivable stop, as the train emptied out on its way down. Not that I’m complaining. The scenery was of course stunning and we sat in the dining car, sipping an overpriced Fanta and the last German beer.
We have mostly spent the last few days just getting settled, gradually finding odds and ends with which to further kit out the flat that hasn’t been occupied in many years. My friend’s 11-year-old daughter comes home from school at 2pm, eats her lunch (they don’t feed them at school here), does her homework, then she takes L with her out for the rest of the afternoon – down to the gelateria or to one of the nearby soccer pitches. Having a built-in friend here for L is a very good thing! He has been meeting kids and once again, the lack of Italian is not a barrier to a pick-up game of soccer. And there is my friend’s daughter to translate for him as necessary.
Since I first came to Italy when I was 15, to this very house and very friend in fact, I have long nursed a dream to live here. For many years I put that dream to bed, as nothing but the overly romantic idea of someone too young to know any better. After all, I knew well enough that the reality of living in another country was often quite different. And Italy, of all places, was a land full of mindless, archaic bureaucracy, bad, glitzy TV, and men who spent their lives living with their mothers or visiting their mistresses before coming home to their families, right?
Yet, and perhaps because I have returned several times over the years, it feels both comfortable and familiar to be here. Like I could stay awhile. And somehow I find myself almost surprised to be back here again. I can’t help but think that sometimes, when you are almost not looking, life has a way of granting your wishes. Or else you make those long held dreams happen behind your back. Because now, indeed, finally and for however long, I am living in Italy. And I may just be cursing my son with a long love affair with this country of his own. Allora, adesso dobbiamo imparare l’italiano!