(More than…) Two Years in Torino

"Le cose belle sono lente." –Pane e Tulipani

Category: books

New ideas

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One of today’s exercises, on old fashioned pencil and paper. What is going on with this fox’s other leg, anyway? And why can’t I get this photo to load at full resolution? If I thought too hard about these things, I’d never post it, so I won’t!

As perfectionism is a killjoy, I thought I’d post a half-baked update before I figure out how much I don’t know.

I have been looking for a new professional focus for about two years now, but the process is slow, and as usual, it is complicated by the fact that I live outside the only country where I understand how things work. But last year I decided that if I were ever to do art professionally again, it would be smarter to do it digitally. Italian shipping, insurance, bureaucracy and customs are all part of the short answer as to why.

And then last year someone approached me with the idea of illustrating a book. That didn’t work out, but the idea stuck. I had entered college with the idea of illustrating children’s books. I quickly switched to drawing and painting, but that was useful too and by now most of the techniques I would have learned in graphic design have changed anyway.

Finding a local course to learn the new techniques, however, proved difficult. I love the idea of going out daily and interacting with people, but in this case it just didn’t turn out to be practical. First, the Accademia discontinued all individual courses, so I got kicked out of the one I had been attending for the past two years and couldn’t sign up for the Photoshop course I was eyeing. The only other local digital art course I could find was expensive, with inconvenient class hours, and it wasn’t really geared to book illustration anyway.  So I found a course–nay several–online. I found an inexpensive Photoshop subscription. And now I’m studying furiously. I just have to remember to schedule exercise, listening to Italian, and going out with friends!

I know that this is a long shot. The publishing industry has completely turned on its head since I went to art school. Also, it can take ten years to learn all the skills needed, and I’m closer to grandma age than college age. It’s quite hard to break into the market, and for all but a few people, it doesn’t pay that well.

But I couldn’t be happier.  I wake up every morning looking forward to working. I’m not particularly concerned with comparing myself with the thousands of extremely skilled illustrators out there, but more with whether I can accomplish something I can be pleased with. And I can teach English when I have to have money.

One more thing: I’m starting to realize how similar children’s book illustration skills are to film direction skills. You have to know a little bit of everything, and I love that. I used to be quite the Luddite where movies were concerned (I think I watched a bit too much film noir in my 20s), and I still love old-fashioned illustration techniques and paper books, but I have come to appreciate the new overlap with animation, graphic novels, and interactive stories as well.

So, hopefully the learning curve will continue, the work will get better, and I’ll find opportunities to share what I’m doing. But for the moment, back to the drawing board. Have a good week!

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Curiosities

 Am I seeing things?

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There are a lot of clever and brightly-colored products displayed in Italian shop windows. These are only a few.

Admittedly I haven’t seen anyone wearing high heels encased in clear rain boots,

but I have seen kids riding on the animal suitcases.

And then there’s the guy who constructs the city’s landmarks in Lego for a local toy store.

Haarlem

I visited the picturesque town of Haarlem (for which Harlem in New York City is named) twice; once by myself and once with Sarie and Alberto. Unfortunately Sarie didn’t feel well when she went, but she and Alberto did get to visit my favorite thing about Haarlem, the Corrie Ten Boom house. The tour group was crowded that day and I had already been, so I decided to stay outside and allow others to go in. I went to an archeology museum instead.

On the previous trip, when I took the Corrie Ten Boom tour, the docent was a lively and trim woman who was a good bit shorter than the average Dutch person. She had been a little girl during the war and remembered the last, hard winter in which the townspeople ate sugar beets and tulip bulbs because there were no rations left. People starved in the streets. And of course, those were the people who hadn’t been rounded up and shipped off to prison or concentration camps.

She told Corrie’s story with conviction and faith. She was clearly a believer. When she told about Corrie’s analogy of our lives being the back of a tapestry, the front of which is only known to God, I teared up.

And yes, I got to step into the Hiding Place!

It wasn’t just a museum tour. It was really a pilgrimage. Now I can now imagine really well how things must have looked as the story unfolded at the little house on Baarteljestraat. In the museum, they only allowed photos in Corrie’s bedroom, and mine didn’t come out so well, so I’m going to link to the museum’s website instead.

On my first visit to Haarlem, I also went to the Frans Hals Museum.  Frans Hals is the 17th C. Dutch Old Master famous for his quick knife-like paint strokes and his ability to catch a spontaneous smile or gesture in oils (quite a feat before photography, and truly, still a feat).

Below I’ve posted some photos of the characteristic brick buildings of Haarlem (starting with the Corrie Ten Boom house), the Frans Hals Museum, and finally St. Bavo’s, the town church.  I can’t find our copy of Meindert DeJong’s Shadrach at the moment (though it was one of Sarie’s favorite books and the first chapter book she ever read), but I seem to recall that the young protagonist, Davy, talked about St. Bavo’s, and I’m wondering if the book is set near Haarlem.  If anyone remembers or can check, I’d love to know!

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Above: Typical brick side streets of houses and other buildings with stained glass, lace curtains, transoms above the windows, and usually a bit of decorative white trim.  The streets are graced with flowers, and entire families go out for errands on their bicycles. In the second photo down, you can see the exterior of St. Bavo’s Church on the left.

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Above: Scenes from the Frans Hals Museum.  The leather wall covering in the second photo is typical of 17th C. Holland.  The three photos at the bottom are a mock up of the meal painted in Hals’s Banquet of the Officers of the St. George Civic Guard.  All wax, I suppose! Or at least, the food isn’t real!

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Above: St. Bavo’s and its famous organ, on which Mendelssohn, and Handel, and the ten-year-old Mozart played.  Like many Dutch churches, it started out as a Catholic church and then was converted during the Reformation. The white interior with columns is very typical, too. (I think Sarie took these photos.)

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And finally–oh, why not!  Medieval shoes from the archeology museum.  How did they find all these, I wonder?

Bits, snappy and not-so-snappy

I stood out on my kitchen balcony before 8 a.m. this morning, listening to swallows, which I could see circling above, and traffic, which I couldn’t see circling my block outside the courtyard. I had gone to hang out a towel and been charmed into staying. The sky was utterly clear, and the temperature was cold for late May (48/10 degrees).  I was (and am) wearing a pink wool sweater set as an homage to the two seasons between which the city is choosing.

Then I went inside and made a second caffè macchiato.  The sun is now slanting golden on my fake birch cabinets from IKEA. It looks warm despite the fakery.

I wonder, when I go outside our courtyard and cross C.so Matteotti, will I have a clear view of the mountains?

I’m alone. I am frequently alone now, and I’m coming to terms with it. Last night I sat down and taught myself the first of the Goldberg Variations, which I have loved for years. It’s not performable yet, but I practiced with interest for two hours. I also drew a quick sketch Virgin statuette from the Cloisters--twice, because the first time I botched the structure. The one below has problems as well (as pretty much any 15 minute sketch will), but I’m putting it in as an incentive to make myself practice.

Virgin. Sandstone, polychromy and gilding, France 1247-52, from the cathedral of Strasbourg (47.101.11) Metropolitan Museum, Cloisters.

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Yesterday in Italian class I learned the congiuntivo imperfetto and the congiuntivo trapassato.  So now, if I could only remember how to conjugate even the most basic verbs in the present tense on the fly, I would be able to say the most complicated things in Italian–statements of possibility and emotion that occurred and continued in the past. I think you can make poetry with those!

On Tuesday I made a chicken broth (with the feet, of course) and yesterday I made a potato leek soup for Sarie and Alberto with some of it. We talked about film ideas and told viola jokes in two languages. Bob is in Vienna.

I’m continuing to read Psalms every morning, and often I sing traditional hymns. Sometimes I literally sing them in the closet.

I’m reading The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien again.  Of course I read them for the insight into how he wrote The Lord of the Rings, but what I really like about them is the inclusion of bits of side trivia, such as the following from a letter to his son Christopher:

“When fermentation was first managed, the beer was only in birch tubs and it foamed all over the place, and of course the heroes cam and lapped it up, and got mightily drunk.  Drunk was Ahti, drunk was Kauko, drunken was the ruddy rascal, with the ale of Osmo’s daughter-Kirby’s translation is funnier than the original.  It was the bullfinch who then suggested to Osmo’s daughter the notion of putting the stuff in oak casks with hoops of copper and storing it in a cellar.  Thus was ale at first created…best of rinks for prudent people; Women soon it brings to laughter, Men it warms into good humour, and but brings the fools to raving.  Sound sentiments. Poor old Finns, and their queer language, they look like being scuppered.*”

Italians traditionally don’t drink to drunkenness.  They consider that something that American tourists do, especially college students.  (In case you were wondering what their stereotypes of us were.)  But in this generation, things seem to be changing.  Sarie had to enter some data from an anonymous survey on various consumption habits for a school project.  Only two students whose data she entered had not gotten drunk. Some were as young as 14. My Italian teacher thinks this is an attitude imported from northern Europe. Of course it has been a problem in the US at least since I was a teen.

Some of the lines from Tolkien’s letters, such as the following, stand quite nicely by themselves:

It is a curse having the epic temperament in an overcrowded age devoted to snappy bits!”

Which begs the question: Is this a snappy bit?

*The last line is in reference to the Finns’ tendency to be dominated by other countries.

Not-exactly-the-IB-type

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I let Sarie choose, from among several images, how to represent herself as “not-very-IB.”   This is the one she choose.  I’d say a 19th C. medievalist is pretty spot-on!

Our family has really enjoyed the Easter Break.  Bob is home, Sarie has several days off from school, and while Bob unwinds from his trip, Sarie and I are taking time to do the most un-IB things we can think of.  We’ve been spring shopping, we’re cooking, and I’m reading Tolkien aloud while she knits. She’s also practicing violin a lot and tomorrow she’ll will go work on the movie I mentioned earlier, which is based on local medieval history.  At the moment she’s playing Bob in chess.

Yesterday I read Tolkien’s Leaf by Niggle.  If you don’t know the story, it’s about a middling painter who wants to complete one satisfying work of art during his lifetime, a landscape painting featuring a magnificent tree. But he doesn’t always use his time as he should and he’s often interrupted by bureaucratic necessity or piddling requests from others. As a result, his earthly reputation remains obscure to the end. But when Niggle arrives in heaven, he finds that his so-so work has not only been completed as he dreamed of it, but it has been made into a real country that helps others.

As I closed the book, I was thinking of some of Sarie’s frustrations and interruptions this past year: notably missing out on the violin teacher she wanted and having to enroll in the IB program. “Isn’t this a lovely story?” I commented as I closed the book.  “Maybe God has a way of redeeming the IB program, which you’ll only find out about when you arrive in heaven.”

Sarie looked aghast. “Oh, no!  I don’t want to get to heaven and discover that all my internal assessments have been completed!”

We both burst out laughing.  I think we both agree that internal assessments are anything but heavenly.

The IB program is billed as a critical thinking program, because it takes things apart.  What it is is bureaucratic.  It’s bureaucratic in the Swiss sense, that of having a million central procedures.  But apparently here the procedures take on an Italian twist.  Sure, there are standards, but it seems you can only find out what they are by not fulfilling them.

“It’s sort of like that book Epaminondas,” Sarie mused at lunch yesterday. She was referring to a Trina Schart Hyman book we used to read in which a little boy tries to perform various tasks to help his aunt, but since “He hasn’t got the sense he was born with,” he keeps following the instructions from the task before and thus bungling the job at hand.  What’s more, in the IB Sarie is apparently supposed to intuit these instructions. “Once I learn from my mistakes, they’ve moved on to something else that no one will tell me how to do.”

During a parent/teacher conference in February, I saw an example of what she was talking about. The teacher had taken off a letter grade from an otherwise excellent article, written during class in Italian, because Sarie didn’t guess that she was supposed to put her name and the title at the bottom of the paper (her name was at the top). There was another such paper, from January, in which the grade was unusually low. Sarie didn’t remember this grade at all and even the teacher didn’t remember what it was for, so I wanted to see it, but I was told that the paper in question had already been archived.  I requested that it be “un-archived,” since it had cost her yet another letter grade in a subject in which she does relatively well. I still haven’t seen the paper.

Still, Sarie is finding that over time, she understands the IB requirements better, even if they do seem like nonsense.  On a recent biology test, “I put down the same thing twice in slightly different ways, and got both points for the question,” she remarked wryly.

A couple of times a teacher has suggested that Sarie might not have enough of a social life, since she doesn’t hang out with the kids after school.  Little does she know.  But I don’t feel it’s my duty to supply the school with the details of Sarie’s music friendships, so I didn’t enlighten her.  I did say that she’d made a remarkable adjustment to life in Italy.

And then there’s the math teacher.  Every other Thursday, he hands back tests and spends half the class time yelling curses at the class in two languages.  He seems to pick a special victim to provoke, usually a girl.  One, who was admittedly being difficult on purpose, has already left the class. But he banished another student a couple of weeks ago when her behavior was quite reasonable.  That day the teacher was so out-of-control I got a text from Sarie asking me to call the head of the school.  The head was sympathetic and has sat in on the class, but admittedly it’s rather hard for her to catch the teacher mid-rant. Sarie isn’t being picked on personally, but that’s not the point with her. She’s upset at the injustice of the situation and the waste of class time.

Regardless, the reason Sarie was so glad for a break this week was English lit.

Last year she loved Western Lit to Dante with Dr. McMenomy from Scholars Online.  The class read Greeks, Latins, and medieval authors, including, of course, Dante.  Sarie read some of it in medieval Italian.  She had been hoping to eventually take his Senior English course.

This year’s English class seems to be study in how far one can get from Western Lit. When I saw the book list in the fall I gave them (there are only two students in the class) until February to start throwing the books at the wall.  Sarie made it to the end of March, when the teacher showed the movie Blade Runner before Sarie had even gotten past the first chapter of the book version, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?  Sarie’s reaction to the movie was visceral enough that she closed her eyes so she wouldn’t have to watch it.  I know it’s a critically acclaimed movie.  I saw it years ago myself.  But tastes vary, and Sarie felt trapped.

Sarie says next year the IB program will involve writing lots more papers on the material they’ve covered this year, completing their community service hours, and taking mock and real exams.  She’ll also be trying to prepare for a conservatory audition elsewhere in Europe, if she can find someone to teach her the specifics required for a top-notch audition.

The bright side to all this is that the teachers (most of them) do show concern for Sarie’s well-being and patience with her strong opinions.  I honestly think they mean well.  It’s just that they’re dealing with a bureaucratic system and furthermore they don’t really have a clue how her mind works.  It’s not the best fit for Sarie’s interests, but it’s the only option she has right now and besides, she’s approaching the halfway point.

So for the time being, Sarie leaves for school early and arrives home from conservatory late.  I miss her.  Sometimes I regret how she’s spending her last years at home to such a degree that I stand at the window wondering if we’re missing some obvious way to chuck it and make room for things we think are more important–or at least make room for more music. Homeschool habits die hard. But like Niggle, whose time was eaten by annoyances, in the end I just hope for redemption.  We’re obeying what we know the best way we know how.

Meanwhile, last night after dinner Sarie was at her laptop, happily typing away. She  said was writing a passage about coming home to the smell of flavorful cooking. It wasn’t an IB assignment, of course, but it was very Sarie. My once-reluctant writer now can’t seem to stop reveling in words.

The eucatastrophe at the center of the world

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Historiated initial ‘R'(esurrexi) with the Resurrection, angels supporting heraldic arms to the left, in a Missal. Origin: Germany.  Public domain image from The British Library.

In his essay, “On Fairy Stories,” J.R.R. Tolkien explains why fairy tales are so deeply satisfying and, far from being escapist, are instead spiritually realistic. His language isn’t easy to follow, but it’s worth sticking with it. He starts out by defining a fairy-tale as a eucatastrophe, or a tale with a sudden favorable resolution:

“The consolation of fairy-stories, the joy of…the good catastrophe, the sudden joyous ‘turn’ (for there is no true end to any fairy-tale); this joy, which is one of the things which fairy-stories can produce supremely well, is not essentially ‘escapist,’ nor ‘fugitive.’ In its fairy-tale–or otherworld–setting, it is a sudden and miraculous grace; never to be counted on to recur. It does not deny the existence of dyscatastrophe, of sorrow and failure; the possibility of these is necessary to the joy of deliverance; it denies (in the face of much evidence, if you will) universal final defeat and in so far is evangelium, giving a fleeting glimpse of Joy, Joy beyond the walls of the world, poignant as grief.

It is the mark of a good fairy-story, of the higher or more complete kind, that however fantastic or terrible the adventures, it can give to child or man that hears it, when the ‘turn’ comes, a catch of the breath, a beat and lifting of the heart, near to (or indeed accompanied by) tears, as keen as that given by any form of literary art, and having a peculiar quality.

The peculiar quality of the ‘joy’ in successful Fantasy can thus be explained as a sudden glimpse of the underlying reality or truth…But in the “eucatastrophe” we see in brief vision that the answer may be greater–it may be a far-off gleam or echo of evangelium in the real world.

I would venture to say that approaching the Christian Story from this direction, it has long been my feeling (a joyous feeling) that God redeemed the corrupt-making creatures, men, in a way fitting to this aspect, as to others, of their strange nature.  The Gospels contain a fairy-story, or a story of a larger kind which embraces all the essence of fairy-stories.  They contain many marvels–peculiarly artistic, beautiful and moving; ‘mythical’ in their perfect, self-contained significance; and among the marvels is the greatest and most complete conceivable eucatastrophe.  But this story has entered History and the primary world; the desire and aspiration of sub-creation has been raised to the fulfillment of Creation.  The Birth of Christ is the eucatastrophe of Man’s history.  The Resurrection is the eucatastrophe of the story of the Incarnation.  The story begins and ends in joy.  It has pre-enimently the ‘inner consistency of reality.’

It is not difficult to imagine the peculiar excitement and joy that one would feel, if any specially beautiful fairy-story were found to be ‘primarily’ true, its narrative to be history, without thereby necessarily losing the mythical or allegorical significance that it had possessed…The joy would have exactly the same qualiy, if not the same degree, as the joy which the ‘turn’ in a fairy-story gives; such joy has the very taste of primary truth.  (Otherwise its name would not be joy.) It looks…to the Great Eucatrastrophe.  The Christian joy, the Gloria, is of the same kind; but it is pre-eminently (infinitely, if our capacity were not finite) high and joyous.  But this story is supreme, and it is true.  Art has been verified.  God is the Lord, of angels, and of men–and of elves.  Legend and History have met and fused.

The Evangelium has not abrogated legends; it has hallowed them, especially the ‘happy ending.’ The Christian has still to work, with mind as well as body, to suffer, hope, and die; but he may now perceive that all this bents and faculties have a purpose, which can be redeemed.

How very satisfying. Happy Easter!

Ink musicians

img-130316184334-001I’ve been doodling again.  These guys are from the Utrecht Psalter, and although it says they illustrate Psalm 149 (I checked the Latin text), I think these particular figures go with 150.  “Praise him with the sound of the trumpet.”  As Sarie said, “That looks more like a hunting horn to me.”  It almost looks like a shofar.

I just love their hunched shoulders, Dr. Seuss hands, agitated drapery, and expressive gestures.  Look at the group of three on the right.  Their curious expressions crack me up!  The Utrecht Psalter is full of illustrations like these, in a similar Carolingian style to the Ebbo gospels.

As for my technique, it’s still not nearly where I’d like it to be.  I’m still drawing in a Moleskine journal (thus the grid), and I did these in a combination of thick and thin fountain pens, augmented by a few brush strokes.  I suspect I need to be working on vellum, with a longer brush or quill or some sort.  My attempts don’t capture the easy grace of the original, but I’ll keep trying.

Regarding the incongruous notes in the top right corner, I was listening to a Tim Keller sermon from the Redeemer free sermons link and kept spontaneously taking notes as I worked.  The sermon was on Psalm 88, one of two Psalms in the Bible that doesn’t end on a hopeful note.  But the fact that it’s in the Psalter shows that God understands; he knows how we talk when we’re desperate.

There’s a great quote about Sam Gamgee in that sermon, too.

From foreign to familiar

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A gathering of young adults from our church, representing in various proportions and length of residency and with some margin for error: Nigeria, Ghana, the US, the UK, Australia, Swedish Finland, Indonesia, Brazil, and both northern and southern Italy.

My pastor’s wife recently lent me a fascinating book about navigating cultural differences, From Foreign to Familiar by Sarah Lanier.  Lanier is a consultant to foreign missionaries who has lived in many different parts of the world. Upon taking the book from the shelf, I immediately flipped it over, scanned the blurb, and exclaimed, “Sarah Lanier.  Well of course she would be from Georgia!  That’s a very Georgian name.” It gave me a funny feeling to immediately sense that familiar context in a foreign country.

As a matter of fact, I had just confirmed myself as a member of what Lanier herself calls a “hot culture.”  Hot cultures tend to have a strong sense of context, maintain a friendlier environment, value relationships over tasks, feel obligated to invite you if they mention an event in public, feel obligated to share food if they eat it in public, talk delicately around problems instead of addressing them directly and accurately, show deference to authority, have a strong sense of what dress and manners are appropriate for a given occasion, have a stronger group identity, and have a more relaxed sense of time.  The Southern US, at least when and where I grew up, was a fairly typical example of a hot culture, with the possible exception of the group identity.  (Southerners tolerate certain types of eccentricity quite readily, as long as the eccentric has good manners.)

I lost a little bit of this strong cultural identity as I grew up and moved on to larger cities within the South during the 70s and 80s.  I learned to tone down my accent and deal with sarcasm, because it was absolutely necessary in order to attend a big, suburban high school along with transplants from Chicago and New Jersey. But I’ve never quite lost these initial Southern habits and preferences, and in fact, often felt a bit flabbergasted in New York City when I’d try to arrange spontaneous get-togethers for other moms and kids. And I never quite got over my need to chat to sales clerks using colorful idioms, even though I knew better.  Even after fifteen years, I always felt a little too warm and sensitive in the context of that highly structured, achievement-oriented culture.  But I learned a different, more direct and efficient way of dealing with people, for sure.

Then we moved to Italy.

Obviously, not everyone in Italy, or even in Piemonte, is the same. Some people are much more formal and have a more developed sense of organization than others.  Some are warmer and kiss-ier than others.  Some are dressier than others, more extroverted than others.  But still, you don’t know where the assumptions lie until you’ve observed for a while.

Remember my initial frustrations with bureaucracy? I’m now convinced that the reason that, for example, it took me five months to enroll Sarie in the conservatory was that I made a couple of initial and egregious mistakes in dealing with Italian bureaucratic culture. And how could I have known better, since I was in (and from) the United States? Italian bureaucracy is a very high context procedure.  You really don’t know what it’s going to take until you’re right in front of the bureaucrat–perhaps for the third time.

Perhaps my principal mistake was trying to obtain a clear-cut enrollment procedure at all, and especially via e-mail.  Even though I didn’t have the option of meeting people in person, I needed it!  For another thing, there is a definite protocol for writing business correspondence in Italy.  By NYC standards, it seems incredibly formal: using the titles dott. and dott.ssa for just about everyone, using “illustrious” in the greeting, adding lots of flowery adjectives, and ending in “Porgo i miei più distinti saluti,” which the literal translation of “I send my most distinguished greetings,” just doesn’t seem to convey properly.  And furthermore, no one does anything until the last minute.  So no wonder I wasn’t getting anywhere!

But of course, I had no way of knowing this, and to this day don’t really know what the proper solution would have been.  The actual procedure not only required a passable knowledge of the Italian language and bureaucratic conventions, but also of Italian commercial procedures, such as filling out a postal check and having the proper identity information (which isn’t even used in the US). And furthermore, the same procedure that finally worked for us may not have worked for the next person. Sarie is still, to my knowledge, the first full-blooded American to have enrolled in the Torino conservatory.

But bureaucracy was only the initial and most aggravating problem.  I realized after some time here that I would require a different sort of wardrobe, a different sense of time and hospitality, and that I was likely offending people regularly by not following the proper greeting procedures when I entered stores. I’m slowly learning how to do these things, but I’m pretty sure I still step on toes.  Now I try to ask: Do I need to bring something to dinner?  Do I need to pay for that gift, or will that offend the giver?  And I understand, for instance, that even the most professional businesspeople will likely not return my e-mail until they have an answer, even if it takes weeks. Or plan any event more than a few days in advance.

I personally find the Piemontese to be about right on the hot/cold culture spectrum. They have a reputation in Italy for being cold and reserved, but aside from a few apathetic bureaucrats, I usually find them to be not unlike myself, at least in their comfort with emotion.  As I’ve learned how to address them, I find that they can be almost conspiratorially friendly. The nicer manners, the sense of proper dress, the family connections, the indirect way of getting information, respect of elders, and the greetings in stores, all remind me of the culture of the Southern US. But a culture as group-oriented as Naples or Sicily might have overwhelmed me completely.  So, I feel like I’ve landed in the right part of Italy.

I may list more of these “foreign to familiar” differences as I run into them. I certainly don’t have a handle on them yet, but I’m starting to get a little more comfortable, at least. And at our international, English-speaking church we have plenty of Africans and Filipinos, and smaller numbers from many other cultures, who provide yet other perspectives and greater variety along the hot and cold culture spectrum.  Interesting!

Reading year 2012, with a few annotations

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Honestly, sometimes I’m surprised that I read anything at all last year. Moving was quite an adjustment.  But I’m sure that even with distractions, it was therapeutic to read 1) in English, so I could at least feel competent in my native language and culture, and 2) in Italian, so I could learn about the place I’d stepped into.  So without further ado, here’s the list:

No Remorse: The Rise and Fall of the Killer John Wallace, by Dot Moore

About the sometimes violent place and culture my family is from, but not so well-written that I’d recommend it.  Flannery O’Connor is so much better!

Shantung Compound, by Langdon Gilkey

Interesting study of an alternate society and of human nature in a WWII prison camp.  Though he’s not a main character in this book, Eric Liddell from Chariots of Fire is one of the inmates.

The Rest is Noise: Listening to the Twentieth Century, by Alex Ross

I really did learn a lot from this book, most especially why Germany was the cradle of 20th-Century modernism.  I enjoyed Ross’s way of describing the music.  Be prepared: It’s long!

Musicophilia: Tales of Music and the Brain, Oliver Sacks

Sarie likes Oliver Sacks a lot, but I enjoy him less.  His books are full of interesting phenomena, but I prefer more theory and connection between my anecdotes.  Or maybe it was just February.

The Meaning of Marriage: Finding Happiness in Your Most Profound Relationship, by Timothy Keller

When I first read this, I confess I was less encouraged than I’d hoped to be. But I held on, and kept going back to the passages I’d underlined, and now the same parts that hit my ears with a thud the first time around are really starting to sing. Which is no doubt because I’m in a better frame of mind, and that’s part of Keller’s point about marriage.

Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010, by Charles Murray

I never want Murray to be right, but I remain fascinated by his willingness to ask hard questions.

The History of the Medieval World: From the Conversion of Constantine to the First Crusade, by Susan Wise Bauer

Even though we’re not homeschooling anymore, I’ll probably keep reading this series as long as I can manage to get its weighty volumes to Italy.  I probably enjoy them more than Sarie ever did, anyway!

Crime and Punishment, by Fyodor Dostoyevsky (Pevear and Volokonsky translation)

Wow, this book is so much more vivid than I remember it being in high school!

The House of the Seven Gables, by Nathaniel Hawthorne

Good Italy, Bad Italy: Why Italy Must Conquer Its Demons to Face the Future, by Bill Emmott

When I Was a Child I Read Books, by Marilynne Robinson

The Abolition of Man, by C.S. Lewis

Because I’m always reading Lewis.

Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking, by Susan Cain

If you’re an introvert, and you didn’t read this when it came out last year, do so, because you might get along with yourself better.  If you’re married to an introvert or have one in your family, read it, because you might get along with them better.  It gives good reasons to let introverts be themselves and also good tips on when and why an introvert might want to act extroverted now and then.

Un Italiano in America, by Beppe Severgnini

Not the greatest book in the world, but still historic because it’s the first one I read all the way through in Italian.  Il barone Lamberto (see below) promises to be much better.

The Complete Persepolis, by Marjane Satrapi

The Sorrow of War, by Bao Ninh

If This is a Man/The Truce, by Primo Levi

These last three I read just so I’d be able to discuss them with Sarie, since they were assigned to her as part of the IB program she’s enrolled in.  All three were part of a unit called “Victims of War.” I liked Levi the best.  I even read some of my favorite passages in Italian. He’s from Torino and I know exactly where he lived, having visited an accountant’s office next door to his apartment.  My favorite chapter of If This is a Man is one in which, despite the horror of his surroundings, Levi spends the afternoon discussing the Odyssey with a friend.

Some books I hope to read this year: 

Bleak House, by Charles Dickens (deep into it already!)

Anna Karenina, by Leo Tolstoy (Pevear and Volokonsky translation)

Tolstoy or Dostoyevsky, by George Steiner

The Remains of the Day, by Ishiguro Kazuo

Mrs. Dalloway, by Virginia Woolf

Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, Jonathan Safran Foer

C’era due volte il barone Lamberto, by Gianni Rodari

The Dark Side of Italy, Tobias Jones

Every Good Endeavor, by Timothy Keller

Most of these I’ve listed because I’ve already started them, but that’s sort of a cop-out explanation since I must have had some reason to start them. So: I’m reading them because I love the Russians, especially as translated by Pevear and Volokonsky; because I want to keep learning Italian or learning about Italy, or because someone in my family is reading them and I want to discuss what we both thought. In the case of the Keller book, I’m thinking about my own future work.

And in the case of Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, I want to read it because it’s not at all the sort of thing I usually read and maybe it will exorcise a few New York ghosts.  After all, part of the movie was filmed on our old street, with interior shots from the building next door to ours (the one where I think Flannery O’Connor lived).  That likely explains why everything looked so eerily familiar when I watched the trailer.

So, have you read and enjoyed any of the books I’ve listed?  Would you like to join me in reading any of them this year?  What would you put on a book list of your own?

Two books about Italy and Italians

I’ve just finished two books with an Italian theme, so I thought I’d review them here for anyone who might be interested:

Good Italy, Bad Italy: Why Italy Must Conquer Its Demons to Face the FutureGood Italy, Bad Italy: Why Italy Must Conquer Its Demons to Face the Future by Bill Emmott

This book is a primer on Italy’s current government and economic woes by a former editor of The Economist. I picked it up because I wanted to understand my adopted country better.  And given Italy’s status in the news lately, I thought it was important to do so.

It’s easy to read and understand, and it’s seemingly even-handed, though I admit to being a novice in the subject. One of the big take-home points is that self-protection and heavy regulations prevent Italian businesses from being able to grow to world-leader status, despite Italy’s obvious talents in food, design and engineering. I nodded heartily when Emmott mentioned that bureaucracy makes immigration so discouraging that many foreign firms don’t even bother sending people here.  I also nodded when he said that lack of international outlook and merit-orientation stunts Italian universities’ competitiveness, especially in R & D.  Bob works a lot with university patent developments, so he sees this first hand.

Perhaps I’m naive, but I was disappointed in some the examples Emmott gave towards the end of  successful large businesses: Autogrill, who brings us airport catering and the Italian equivalent of quick-stop highway food; and Winx, a cartoon subsidiary of Rainbow promoting scantily clad and not-so-imaginatively-drawn fairies to young girls. (They claim to be morally good, but that’s quite a mixed message for young kids.) Rainbow may disapprove of how Berlusconi’s Mediaset precludes television competition in Italy, but I can’t help but think that the Winx would be quite welcome at Berlusconi’s bunga-bunga parties. I guess Emmott just had to use the most economically robust examples he could find, but it makes me ask myself–are these the Italian products most worth growing into internationally successful businesses?

Overall, though, the book is addressing a more important issue than business success alone: Will Italians look beyond protecting their own private interests long enough to do the long and painful work of cleaning out corruption and building an effective government? Will the innovative, courageous, and idealistic impulses of Italians win the day and reverse current ills? No one knows, but as someone who lives in Italy and shares in its success or failure, I sure hope so.

The second book is much more lighthearted!

Un Italiano in AmericaUn Italiano in America by Beppe Severgnini

This is the first adult-level book I’ve ever completed in Italian, so I’m sure I missed some of the subtleties and the humor, but I chose to read it because 1) an Italian friend gave it to me and 2) because I’ve just completed the inverse of Severgnini’s premise: my first year as an American in Italy.

The book is light and episodic. Italians will find it funny that Americans keep their buildings as cold as a refrigerator in the summer, and that Italians like to complain about it. Severgnini is fascinated with shopping in large grocery stores, American familiarity in manners, e-mail, and of course, fast food. He laughs at the excesses of “political correctness,” circa 1994. He thinks that his Italian name is too difficult for American marketers to spell, not realizing that they can’t spell Anglo names either. And I smiled when I got to the part in which Severgnini took friends to a 4th of July celebration in Washington DC–complete with a well-planned meal, a wicker basket, and summer white linen outfits–and wondered by they were getting stared at. It’s at moments like this that his Italian charm comes out most.

But a lot of what Severgnini recounts in this book is peculiar to the Georgetown neighborhood of Washington, DC in 1994, where and when he was a foreign correspondent. It often reads more like blog posts for the crowd back home than like a true probing of the American spirit. The chapters are vignettes, now dated. Towards the end, he does try for a few pages to seriously assess what Americans are like, he comes up with five English words: Control, Comfort, Competition, Community & Choreography.

Okay. But more telling, to me, was a quote near the beginning of the book:

Per gli italiani che arrivano negli Stati Uniti, la soddisfazione non e’ vedere un film sei mesi prima che arrivi in Italia, scegliere fra cinquanta marche di corn-flakes e leggere due chili di giornale la domenica mattina. Cio’ che ci rende felici e’ combattere con la burocrazia americana. It motivo? Allenati a trattare con quella italiana, ci sentiamo come un torero che deve affrontare una mucca. Una faccenda deliziosamente rilassante.

My rough translation, since I don’t have the English version:

For Italians who arrive in the United States, the greatest satisfaction doesn’t come from seeing a film six months before it arrives in Italy, choosing among fifty types of Corn-Flakes, and reading a two-kilo newspaper on Sunday mornings. What makes us happy is combatting American bureaucracy. Why? Because, being used to the Italian kind, we feel like a bullfighter facing a milk cow. It’s a deliciously relaxing undertaking.

I hear you, Beppe.  Maybe one day I’ll be able to take Torino by the horns. But for now, if wanting to fathom the basics of life in Italy makes me an American control freak, so be it. I’ll give you all the movies, Corn-Flakes, and newspapers you want in exchange–and the thermostat, too.