Stet by Ria Bacon

Tuesday, December 28, 2004

On Sontag

I´ve only read her first two novels, The Benefactor and Death Kit, and didn´t enjoy either of them. Too wooden, in contrast with her essay writing which sparkled with wit and erudition. Notes on Camp and Fascinating Fascism both had a big influence on me, spinnng off other discoveries such as Max Beerbohm´s forgotten gem Zuleika Dobson and a new perspective on the Nuba as an extension of Leni Riefenstahl´s glorification of the body beautiful as fascist art. On Photography was a must-read, together with Roland Barthes´ Camera Lucida.

Uh-oh. Coffee time. A sacred gathering in Dutch society ...


Not sure when this word shift occurred, when a tidal wave became a tsunami. Watched The Jungle Book on Dutch telly last night, moustachioed sterling chappies hacking their way through the undergrowth, "Dem this jungle!" Where did the jungles go? Is rainforest a more context-sensitive term?

Semantics is always a bitch.
Places once called underdeveloped
Are now called mineral rich.
- Gil Scott Heron

I was up early on Boxing Day and heard the first reports from Sri Lanka. I e-mailed my younger sister, who, I thought, was actually there. A few frantic text exchanges with family in the UK established that she was in fact still in Kerala and had barely noticed any change in the sea. A relief for us, but not for all those thousands of distraught people searching for their children among the corpses lain along the roadside.

Monday, December 27, 2004

Brass monkeys

Just back from Bal-orig, a warehouse play centre, filled with a huge climbing frame, slides, bouncy cushions and so on. Great idea and one which would make a killing in Italy where there is surprisingly little for children to do. Another myth busted, together with Italian dress sense (for women at least) and interior design. Bal-orig was fortunately not too busy so our kids didn´t get squashed by the pre-pubescent gangs flexing their muscles.

Everything is covered with ice, every cobweb and twig. It´s stunningly beautiful but near absolute zero, it feels, particularly when cycling. It gives you a rosy glow when you back inside, though. Gluhwein anyone?

Friday, December 24, 2004

Cultural differences

It´s only when you get away from what you´re used to that you realize how it could be otherwise. Sure there are the obvious hand signs such as the reversed V for victory gesture in the UK that is equivalent to giving the finger. Other differences are more subtle, such as the Italian habit of not handling money when you pay in a shop. It can be quite annoying at first, when you hold your hand out for the change and the woman steers past it and lays it on the glass dish. This morning, shopping for essential Xmas supplies (paracetamol, rennies, ...) the man waited until I held out my hand until he handed it over.

A Dutch particularity reminds me of a joke:
Patient: Doctor, doctor, I get a pain in my eye every time I drink a cup of tea!
Doctor: Have you tried taking the spoon out?

It´s commonplace to serve coffee here with the teaspoon in the cup. Don´t ask me why.

Thursday, December 23, 2004

To the Netherlands!

We left Rome in the brilliant sunshine and crisp air of a perfect winter´s day. Two hours later we were beginning our descent, sliding over the candy floss cloudscape and watching the shadow of our plane ringed with a rainbow aurora, down to another world of gloom and rain. Oh dear. I told the kids to say goodbye to the sun for the next week.

We flew in to Eindhoven, a former military airport, now equipped with a single baggage carrousel made out of mechanno, powered by a Scalextric motor, which meant that the suitcases shot off the corners just like the racing cars always did. The welcomers were ruddy-cheeked and windswept, striding through the sleet, cheerfully underdressed in T-shirts and fleeces. We were wrapped like a polar expedition and still shivered. We´ve grown soft in the south.

To be fair, the sky cleared shortly after we headed north but the wind is still howling at the windows of our bedroom. I haven´t mentioned it to the kids, but it IS a little scary...

Wednesday, December 22, 2004

"Oh my God, it's just so like totally egregious, you know?"

That was one of my office-mate's (R2 OB1) most frequent outbursts a few weeks back. My dictionary gives the definition of egregious as either (1) outstandingly bad or (2) distinguished, eminent. Given that at the time R2 OB1 was talking about how Elva, the InDesign expert (sic), had re-typed (and mis-typed) random data for more than a hundred tables of statistics, I took it at its worst meaning.

"Craptastic" is still doing the rounds.

Tuesday, December 21, 2004

Pauvre type

Just voted in the BBC's best African song poll. I voted for Mariam and Amadou's Pauvre type. I first heard them singing Je pense à toi on BBC West Africa in 1998 and fell in love with the song. The last verse rang especially true for me at the time:

Certains t’ont promis
La terre
D’autres promettent

Le ciel
Y en a qui t’ont promis
La lune

Et moi je n’ai rien que ma pauvre guitare

Pauvre type tells the story of life for many in West Africa, barely two pennies to rub together, but a mass of friends to help you out for Saturday night fun. The poor guy of the title first goes round scrounging some decent clothes to wear, then negotiates some tea and sugar on credit from the shop owner. Finally he buys a single cigarette and sticks it in an empty packet. Eh oui, c'est comme ça !

Mariam and Amadou have an official website (in French), which has an excellent trailer for a film about the making of their latest album. Manu Chao is also present.

Listen to the sample tracks if you doubt my recommendations ...

Monday, December 20, 2004

Whine anyone?

I didn't attend the corridor festivities and wasn't bothered a bit, although I was touched by the reactions of other bloggers to my post. I've never in fact had an office party as far as I can recall. That's because I've not worked a regular job in a regular office for most of my life. An upcoming post will be my unofficial curriculum vitae, I think. All those jobs that potential employers never see, even though they may have earned me more money or taken up more time than the jobs on the official c.v.

Friday, December 17, 2004


This was the invitation from our director for our Xmas office "party":

Dear colleagues,

We seem to all be very busy and I do understand that few of us can make the time to prepare dishes for a joint luncheon on Friday.

N. and I have agreed to invite you all for a small get together at 15.30 Friday in the corridor outside my office.

Wednesday, December 15, 2004

Before I go to sleep at night ...

Each evening when the kids are getting ready for bed, I close the shutters and curtains in the playroom and their bedroom. And each evening I’m struck by the view from each window. From the playroom I can see the Porta San Paolo, which looks like a turreted castle, and behind it, the Piramide. I never knew there was a pyramid in Rome until we moved here. Sure it’s a small one compared to Egypt but it’s still an impressive sight to see from the window each night – almost 2 000 years old.

Out of the bedroom window I can see the top of Monte Testaccio, a man-made hillock of broken amphorae dumped there over the centuries. What strikes me each evening though is the large crucifix on top of the hill. It reminds me of an engraving in the synagogue here, of a jeering mob rolling a hook-nosed jew down the hill in a barrel. And now there’s a crucifix on top. Makes you think. The hill is, as far as I know, not open to the public, although the summer all-nighters in the (mostly gay) clubs at its base often spill over onto the hillsides.

Tuesday, December 07, 2004

Tools of the trade

My tools of the trade

When I started at the UN, I was taken to the stock room and given one red pen, two pencils, a pad of post-its, a roll of sellotape and a stapler. I didn't have a desk or a computer, and the seat of the spare chair in my shared office tipped over if you leaned too far forward. On the second day I got a desk. After three days I was given a PC on loan. The mouse had no trackball and looked like a gouged eye socket. I still managed to use it by wiggling my finger around its insides...

Monday, December 06, 2004

Rumble in the Aventine

Hey kids! There's a Residents' Association Meeting for the Preservation of Historic Aventino/San Saba going on!

The short walk from my apartment to work is along Piramide Cestia and Via Aventina. It's a cobbled tree-lined boulevard with a tram line running down the middle. On the lower part, there is a park opposite, named after the Resistance uprising of 1942; then comes Piazza Albania. At first no one knew what I was talking about when I said "Piazza Albania" - then they would twig and say, "Oh, Albania!" Like that's a completely different word. What can I say ... we used to give our French teacher hell when she shouted at us "Zis noise is not necessary!"

Anyways, Piazza Albania had no charm; it was bare concrete, exposed to the elements and the pavements were jammed with cars. In autumn weather (like now), it meant a soaking dash to the other side to get out of the rain, and in the summer it felt like you were walking in Death Valley. No more. In a few months it will be transformed into part of a green artery running from the Piramide to Circo Massimo. The too-wide pavements (used for illegal parking) will be narrowed and covered with grass and strolling couples and frolicking children. (They put up an artist's impression of it - so that's how I know). Of course, the architect knew that plain grass would be ground up within days by cars hungry to park, so all along the pavements the flower beds are mounted in concrete walls. The walls are irregularly rhomboid, with the high side, almost a metre high, by the road. That's what the architect figured it would take to keep the cars back!

Try parking on this!

As soon as the first trenches were dug, the first signs of trouble appeared - badly photocopied typewritten ALL CAPS tracts stuck on the walls and shop windows.

[Time out - better do some work....]

What do you know ... no work. Tant mieux.

Back to the tracts ... posted in the name of the Residents'Association for the Preservation of Historic Aventine/San Saba, signed by Professore A. C.

[Deference to one's betters is still such a powerful social force here that no one without a title can take a stand in public. Inginiere, Dottore, Professore are used with the utmost respect, which suits me fine since I often get titled, particularly when I'm wearing my glasses.]

My friendly neighbourhood pharmacists bent my ear for 20 minutes about the aesthetic outrage being committed before our eyes and pressed me to attend the first committee meeting. I signed their petition and nodded in agreement while being non-committal about the meeting. (That's quite a tricky nod to master.) Since then, new tracts have appeared, following the successful first meeting of the local bourgeoisie, unusually épatée and solidaire. The result of which is a second meeting, with the architect and the councillor in charge of the project. I hope they've made some notes, otherwise they'll get eaten alive.

Trenches tastefully strewn with autumn leaves
We shall fight them in the trenches!