Saturday, May 1, 2010

Foreign Objects Part I: The Bidet

This is the first in a series of who knows how many (probably one) that highlights everyday objects that one might find here in Italy but not where I come from (or vice versa).

There are two kinds of people in the world: those who suffer from a classical education, and those who suffer from the lack of one. Being a member of the second group, every now and then I pick up a book that looks like it might fill in these kinds of gaps (erm, lacunae?), in some vague and vain attempt to upgrade my quiz level from Blockbusters (I'll have 'p' please, Bob) to University Challenge (Here's your starter for 10). The Consolations of Philosophy by Alain de Botton was just such a book, but it had the most unexpected of side-effects. It made me fall in love with a French man. Not De Button himself (who is actually Swiss-born and English-educated) but a certain Michel de Montaigne, an important figure in philosophy of whom I was completely ignorant. Falling in love with a man - and a French one at that - is inconvenient for a married heterosexual father of two. That the chap has been dead for over 400 years makes the whole situation more difficult to resolve - though easier to ignore.

So why did I fall in love with Montaigne? Well for one, because this particular philosopher wrote about farting. He wrote about a great deal more of course, but he considered no subject that was relevant to humans to be out of bounds. On the ceiling of his study, amongst the dozens of other quotes, was a motto from Terence (whoever he is) "Homo sum, humani nihil a me alienum puto": I am a man. I consider nothing that is human alien to me. In writing about every intimate angle of our existence, Montaigne has given us all permission to be fully and unashamedly human, and has freed us from the ugly suspicion that our private lives and thoughts are often beyond the bounds of what is permitted - or worse - what is 'normal'.

And if that wasn't enough, he also gives me the permission to write about that most worrisome of Southern European household fixtures: the bidet. The mere word has enough echoes of titillation and disgust in the Anglo-Saxon world to render it almost taboo. Certainly not a subject for polite conversation. Besides its base function, the main sin of the bidet that it is foreign, and therefore automatically deserving of suspicion. Which brings me straight back to Montaigne.

This was a man who refused to be bound by the narrow confines of nationality. He lived in France but his mind had been influenced from the beginning by the teaching and writings of a host of others from far and wide. "Everyone calls barbarity what he is not accustomed to". For him, the human experience was too vast and too varied to be contained by the laws and morals of any one country. That's not to say that he was a cultural relativist either: Everything could be judged, but should only be judged on its own merits and not one what national borders contained it.

So to my fellow non-Italians, and all other readers who might have acquired a firm though unarticulated mistrust of the bidet, I would like to try to rehabilitate this particular foreign object. Not because it is foreign, but because it is, in and of itself, an item of great and universal value to hairy-arsed humans everywhere.

Consider the problem, and its known solutions.

The problem (and one rather impractical solution) can best be considered through an old joke that I first heard when I was around 10:

A bear is in the woods, doing what bears are famous for doing in the woods, when a rabbit hops by. By way of making conversation, the bear asks the bunny "So. Does the shit stick to your fur when you go for a dump?"
The rabbit, in an understanding tone, answers "Oh yeah man, all the time".
So the bear picks up the rabbit and wipes his ass with it.
I apologise. Not for the crudity but because I'm sure you've heard the joke already.

Where I come from, there is one and only one socially acceptable solution to the above problem (I will spare you another joke about a Kerryman who goes to the city to buy a toilet brush). And we are all the poorer for it. We consider it somewhat louche and Mediterranean to want to transfer, post-poop, from the toilet to the bidet. But we see nothing wrong with scrubbing ritually for minutes, adhering to the long-disproved myth that this will actually result in a clean backside. I am a scientist by both inclination and training and I have a lifetime of control experiments, erm, behind me. I am here to tell you that nothing, but nothing, beats a bidet for that 'fresh feeling'. And all the multi-ply, extra long, fluffy labradors in the world will never change that fact.

So take a lesson from Montaigne, the philosopher who ridiculed the tiny differences in national custom that we like to exalt into profound philosophical divides. He, it must be admitted, knew his shit.


A match made in heaven...

(Somebody's bidet - certainly not mine)

Monday, April 12, 2010

Where was I?

It's been so long since I've blogged here that it's pointless picking up from where I left off. It's been more than eight months since our move to Cagliari, so I'm going to jump straight in and try to give you a feel for the place over the next few posts.

Titles
There's something that I've come to understand after years of moving around: it's easy to like a place enough to want to live in it; it's quite another matter liking it enough to want to die there. There's a cemetery not far from where we live, and absurd as it may sound to some, it's a beautiful place to take a walk. They don't bury folks there any more - it's more of a monument than a functional graveyard - but it contains enough generations of cagliaritani to be considered a museum of personal histories.

The trees and tombs form orderly ranks and files stretching away from the main gate, and upwards along the slopes to the right. In the lower terraces, simple plaques set into uniform walls mark the final resting place of most of Bonaria Cemetary's residents. Further up the south-facing slopes, above the tree line and warmed by the year-round sun, mausoleums and miniature chapels hoist important surnames high above the hoi-polloi.

Italy is considered by many to be a nation of individualists, and I think this is more or less correct. The general disdain in which Italians (as a group) hold other Italians (as a group) is evident in everything from the polemic nature of public discourse to the no-prisoners-taken attitude on the roads here. But Italy is also a place where deference to one's social 'superiors' is evident. Titles and positions are not only prominently on display on letterboxes, business cards - and gravestones - but almost piously observed in communications. It's practically an insult to refer to somebody simply as signore (sir) when you know damn well he's a lawyer and should be addressed as avvocato. The titles can get humourously out-of-hand. Onorevole, meaning honourable, is used to refer to members of the lower house of parliament and is used regularly on TV and in public without any irony whatsoever. My personal favourite, which I discovered only recently, is the title accorded to the dean of a university: rettore magnifico - Magnificent Rector. If you write to the head of your university, it is with this absurdity that you must begin your letter.

Deference and individualism might seem like opposites at first glance, but they can co-exist quite easily when you remember that deference only requires the appearance of respect. Geert Hofstede (hat-tip to Dale Wyttenbach) has compiled country-by-country values of something called a Power Distance Index, which attempts to measure the degree to which people at the bottom of the social heap accept and expect that power is not shared equally. In other words, it is an indication of how willingly those with little power accept their lot.

(In fact if I do a comparison between my own native culture in Ireland, and that of Italy, I find that we are not terribly well suited from the point of view of risk aversion or deference to authority.)

Però
I've had countless animated conversations with Italians in general, and Sardinians in particular, about the many and varied problems facing this region and this county. The dynamics of such conversations follow a consistent pattern. My Italian friends begin by slamming complaints on top of each other, books of evidence piled up against the criminal state of affairs here. Then the pace quickens and the anger deepens into a downward spiral that can sometime end up in absurd or paranoid claims about how this is the worst place in the world to live and how it will never change. And then, in the end and when you least expect it, the diatribe pivots on a single word: però. (But. However. All the same.)

"Però ci si sta bene". (It's a nice place to live all the same.)

I don't know if Bonaria Cemetary (Cimitero di Bonaria) appears on any guide books, but if you find yourself in Cagliari and in need of some respite - and a great view of the city - then you could do worse than to spend some time here. Me, I could happily spend an eternity there.
Però...


Saturday, August 22, 2009

Badly Behaved Children

No less than 6 weeks have passed since we rolled off the ferry in Porto Torres and officially began to call Sardinia 'home'. The last 2 of those weeks I've spent back in Cork for work. My complete inability to blog in the 4 weeks in Sardinia is an indication of how completely and quickly I've settled in. I find that I can blog when I'm on the road (I'm writing this from Cork airport on my way back, erm, home, to Cagliari), but I haven't yet found a place in my normal life's routine for this activity. I will, though. Promise. In the meantime, I'll catch up where I left off.

We left peaceful Brittany and made the 4-hour drive (in five-and-a-half hours) to Paris, a place that by contrast manages to make an awful lot of noise. New York might be the city that never sleeps, but Paris is the city that never shuts up. It even snores. Certainly the Quartier Latin where we were based, has a variety of auditory expressions that would rival a philharmonic orchestra. The morning is announced by rubbish trucks and delivery vans, emptying the detritus of the previous night's excesses, and stocking up for the reprise. They are kept company by the bells of nearby churches, each with a slightly different opinion as to when the hour strikes, and how it should best be announced. The Greek restaurants start their plate-smashing from around 6 in the evening, competing with all the other tourist restaurants for the cobble-weary, knapsacked footfall. The buskers kick in on every corner with a different instrument and genre, which mixes into perfect dissonance by the time it reaches our window on the second floor of Rue Saint Severin. The final movement of the day's symphony includes a clutch of beer-soaked choristers, shouting instructions to each other from distance of 1 meter or less, before rolling in to passing taxis, or passing out in hotel foyers. The curtain goes down. You may sleep now. You have 4 hours before the garbage collection begins again.

Paris was our first city together. Letizia and I met in Dublin, but shared our first address in Paris. We stayed there long enough to know it as a living city rather than a collection of monuments. Paris is one of our horcruxes - we embedded a little splinter of ourselves here. Every time we come back, we experience a familiarity that disarms the foreboding of its features and facades. But we know its disadvantages too. I associate Paris with fatigue. It is a place that sucks the energy out of you - though of course you may enjoy the experience. Paris (within the peripherique) is a relatively small city when compared to say London, and it has a public transport system that works well. But somehow, inexplicably, everything you want to do takes a lot of time, and every joule of energy you spend seems to attract a hefty tiredness tax. (This isn't just me showing my age - I remember the very same effect 15 years ago as a - sigh - young man.) The street drains you with every footstep. It surely didn't help that for our three days there, most of those steps led from one clothes shop to the next or from one Disney attraction to the next.

For those readers who followed us around the world on this blog, I can tell you that my duties as a shopping companion correspond very closely with those of Assistant to Official Tour Photographer. In both roles, the most frequent instruction (by now unspoken, but completely understood) is 'hold my bag and keep out of the way'. Such is my expertise on the matter, I can offer tours of Paris' most authentic shopping experiences, complete with an explanation of where to find a place to sit down in even the most minimalist of shop interiors.

One thing that surprises a lot of visitors is how well and how *cheaply* one can eat in Paris. The high price of beer no longer leaves the Post Celtic Tiger Irishman breathless, but the low price of food - if you go to the right place - still has the power to shock. One of the most enjoyable was a fresh noodle restaurant recommended to us by our Sardinian friend Silvia who came to live in Paris around the same time we did and lives there still. Paris isn't the only thing Silvia and we have in common. Silvia also has a daughter called Nina - though much younger than our own. When dining together with friends and their children, sometimes a little patience is called for from all parties, and the younger the child, the more patience is required. In such circumstances, I would not normally complain about the behaviour of a friend's offspring, and certainly not on such a public forum as this (Silvia is a reader of this blog). But I have to make an exception in little Nina's case, when we met up with Silvia for noodles one lunchtime. Perhaps it was the heat of the day, perhaps the noise of the waiters shouting at each other in French and Mandarin, but this young lady did nothing but irritate her mother from the dumpling starter to the final sip of coffee. At one stage - I'm not making this up - she actually kicked Silvia. I did my best to look the other way, and pretend that nothing had happened, but obviously it was a very awkward moment. All I can hope for is that her behaviour gets better after she is born.

Thursday, July 9, 2009

Afloat Again, Happily

We have just spent our 5th night on the road: one night on the ferry to France, one night in Brittany with our friends the Crowleys (who we believe might still be our friends after our departure - though I might be misinterpreting the nature of their enthusiasm on the morning of our departure as something more substantial than relief), and three nights in my sister-in-law's apartment in Paris (one of which the said sister-in-law was brave enough to spend with us before leaving for the South). Now is as good a time as any to recount some of our travels so far. But in keeping with tradition, it's late and incomplete.

Perros-Guirec is a beautiful resort town on the Northern end of Brittany. It's where Parisians come to unwind, and where our friends Elizabeth and Andrew and their two beautiful and delightful daughters came to live after many years in Cork (Elizabeth is a Breton - or should that be Bretonne?). We woke them up at some unspeakable hour which my watch doesn't even register, and instead of hurling insults and other, heavier, items from their upper windows, they called us in, fed us, and even listened to me drone on and on about how the world was still bobbing up and down after the boat trip. We had driven for an hour to get from the ferry to Perros-Guirec, passing through some very sleepy towns along the way, one of which had a name that demands some attention: Saint-Michel-en-Greve. I happen to know for a fact that this means "Saint Michael on Strike"*. If this kind of stereotypical town-naming is allowed to continue, what's next? An Irish town called Saint Patrick Goes On The Piss. Or somewhere in Essex called Saint George Pines After The Empire?

I digress.

Andrew and Elizabeth took us down to the beach that is the focus of Perros-Guirec, where the girls began to play together in that happily un-selfconscious way that kids of that age still manage. The sun was pleasingly warm without actually hurting, an occasional passing cloud bringing some welcome shade. It was almost perfect. The fly in the ointment was the coefficient, which stood at a disappointing 55 - very low for this time of year, I think you'll agree.

What's that? You don't know what coefficient I'm referring to!? Well, if you ever come to France, and in particular Brittany, you'll want to bone up on this matter, as apparently it forms the basis of some 82% of all conversation you are likely to have with the locals. In fact the best thing you can do, pretty much as soon as you get off the ferry, is make your way to the whiteboard that will be on display somewhere near whatever beach you find yourself on, and memorize the 8 or so meteorological statistics that will be written there. Time of high tide, low tide, air and water temperatures, and of course, the coefficient. It is a very French thing, you will find, to encode all possible facets of daily life into Cartesian co-ordinates. I suspect that the meaning of most of these numbers is immaterial - it is the mere fact that they exist that gives them a sense. They give comfort in an unpredictable world. They tell you that somebody somewhere has a formula, that measurements are being taken at regular intervals, and that answers are being arrived at which eventually find their way onto whiteboards on Breton beaches. And that surely means that the rest of us can relax, or at least restrict our worrying to those results that lie outside seasonal expectations. The other 18% of the time, we can find something else to worry, and converse, about.

After Perros-Guirec we drove to the nearby Ploumanach, a gorgeous coastal town with a particularly unusual setting thanks to the pink granite that forms its border with the sea. Andrew and I settled into an easy dialogue where I would bang on about how, even now, the scenery continued to bob about thanks to my sea-legs, and he would keep mentioning the pink granite. This is the kind of conversational direction that can take hold when two men who don't know much about sports, or indeed tidal coefficients, attempt small talk. As the day wore on, we were forced to abandon the shallow-end chit-chat, and head for the deeper waters of philosophy, software and comparing the Irish with the Bretons. I fear that it is the lot of the ex-pat to continuously compare his homeland and its people with the adopted country of residence. No matter how urbane and well travelled we think we might be, there are some things that will be forever foreign. For Alan, it might be the stuborn French habit of pronouncing 'j' like 'g' and vice versa. For Andrew, the irrational absence of pub-quizes will probably always offend his Irishness. For me? Well, I have my suspicions about what the pebbles on my windscreen will be as I drive towards a new life in Italy. But let's just wait and see, shall we?

Despite their early start the next day, Andrew and Elizabeth kept us company until late, when we all retired to the utter silence of the Breton night. I fell asleep instantly, and slept deeply, rocked to sleep by the last internal eddies of the Atlantic tide.


*Alright - not entirely true. A greve, as well as being a strike, is also the word for a stoney beach. This blog will never let the truth get in the way of a mediocre story, but will at least endeaver to present it as a footnote.

Friday, July 3, 2009

Casting Off

It's our last evening in Ireland.

Yesterday, the cut-rate courier arrived at our address to relieve us of 8 boxes of our worldly goods. He arrived late - hours late - emitting, as one English politician famously said of another, "something of the night about him". It appears that his journey was taking him to West Cork after our house so it may very well be that our 8 boxes, packed and prepped for their new Mediterranean home, will make it no further south than Bantry. This is the risk you run when you go for the cheapest bidder - the suspicion, no, the expectation, of disappointment.

And if we lose the boxes? What of it! According to Nina, we'll just go look for them. It will be an excuse for another round-the-world trip, hunting down the boxes. A global treasure hunt where the prize is a few copper pots, cookery books, stuffed toys, jigsaws, and the occasional old friend.

In managing the move, we have done a triage: What do we need on the road or immediately on arrival? (Packed in car.) What do we need soon after arriving? (Boxes by courier.) What do we need once we have established ourselves in Cagliari? (Removal company.) There is a fourth category, into which I suspect most of our 'stuff' belongs. But it has been years now that making bonfires on one's own back garden has been against the law, so it'll just stay here indefinitely. Perhaps I can get NAMA to take it on?

The trip itself can be broken into three sections (and easily reassembled, one hopes). Brittany, where we impose ourselves for the night with our friends Andrew and Elizabeth, formerly of this parish. Paris, where we impose ourselves for 3 nights with Letizia's sister Giovanna (our New Zealand fellow traveller). And Piedmont in North Italy, where we will impose ourselves on the Biaggi family, who we are accustomed to meet on the beaches of Sardinia (I wonder if we'll recognize each other with our clothes on). If this trip had a theme it could be "How to travel long distances without forking out for a hotel room". Simon and Leah in Brisbane will attest to our ability to make ourselves at home in a place that somebody else already made theirs (guys - I wish your place was on the way too - I could really do with an evening on your couch, drinking your beer, and hogging your conversation.)

In total, we're looking at around 1600km of driving - that's a little less than Santiago de Chile to Iquique, or a little more than Canberra to Melbourne and back (raising the obvious question, why would you go back to Canberra?) But I can't wait to get on the road. The emotion of motion is already clouding my thoughts, to the point where I almost don't care where we end up. A wrong turn could take us anywhere. And that's OK by me. All roads lead to Home.

Even if it turns out to be Bantry.

Thursday, July 2, 2009

Cardboard Boxes and Metal Hearts

Over the last few weeks, I've been asked 'Are you packing?' more often than a buyer at a drug deal. The answer until now has always been 'no' (leading naturally to a quick frisk, just to make sure). And now, all of a sudden, 8 cardboard boxes are waiting silently in the hall this morning, ready for collection and transport. Tomorrow we'll prepare what is to go in the car with us. The day after, we sail.

Nina and Sara are on a disturbingly even keel. They've had their last day at school, their last art class, and a few other 'lasts', and so far they have kept their heads (when many others around them were losing theirs). I'd like to think that this indicates they are emotionally balanced young ladies, but I have to allow for the possibility that Letizia and I have reared two titanium-hearted sociopaths. Or perhaps more tellingly, that Letizia and I are two titanium-hearted sociopaths, and the two girls never really stood a chance.

The last 2-3 months since Easter have been probably the most socially active time we've had in 9 years in Ireland. There wasn't a weekend where we didn't have somebody to see or something to do. And the weekdays weren't slack either. But this oddly enough makes it easier to say goodbye to Ireland (and the mid-Summer rain that's been dampening spirits over here last week doesn't hurt either). Decorum would demand some regret, some sense of loss. But the only effect that the packing has had on me is to give me bags under my eyes.

It might just be that though we've lived here for 9 years now, we never really unpacked.

Friday, May 29, 2009

Life Part II: Back on the Bus

I'll regret this. Probably not as much as you, but I will regret this. I'm going to open this blog up again.

It has been more than eight months since we got back from our around the world trip. That is, we've been back in Ireland longer than we were ever away. The memory of those times is cataloged with all the others of our family life. They weave through the fabric of our family life as easily as we dip in and out of them. Unexpectedly, the memories are sometimes painful. No feelings of regret, just the bruising that comes with seeing how quickly time has gone by. Things happen quickly.

Since our return, I've been to three funerals, one christening and a Holy Communion (that's a lot of church for a heathen like me). My boss nearly got wiped out mountaineering in the Italian Alps (one of his climbing buddies didn't make it). Two uncles, an adoptive grandmother, and a primary school contemporary are no more. And I have finally hit 40. What can I tell you. If mortality were any more in my face, I'd be holding my nose. 

But while I am officially in the second half of the game, there is still everything to play for. If there is one thing I know how do well, it's change. Moving. Starting again. (Running away?) And so we're getting back on the bus. We are leaving Ireland and moving to Letizia's home town of Cagliari, Sardinia. (My long-suffering employers have agreed to let me continue working for them from there.)

This move is the excuse I've been looking for to open fire again on this blog. Sardinia is a place I know well, but have never really lived in. It is a place that I have loved and hated for different reasons and in very unequal measure (on balance it is a place that I believe we can safely call home - for a while at least). For what it is worth to you, and for as long as it might last, I propose to offer a view of life on another island, a diary of a relocated family, and whatever else a brewing midlife crisis will provide. I will avoid, unless humour and a good story demands otherwise, the cliche'd rants on overpaid Italian bureaucrats, crazy driving and endemic gangsterism (in any case, my Irish readers won't find anything novel enough in that). 

If truth be told I'm not sure where this blog is going. But if you enjoyed following us around the world, tune in and follow our latest attempt to escape from reality.