Monday, 28 May 2012

Milano! Milano!

I went to Milan. Big gritty sexy glamorous Milan. The city that I say on the back of book is 'as unfeeling as a Prada bag'.

Well it's not, always. It was a warmish, windy-ish day and as the train pulled into the iron-girdered cavern of the Stazione Centrale my stomach was writhing with hunger. I had forgotten the novel I am reading and stubbornly refused to buy a useless magazine, so I had been sitting for over two hours trying to furl away my brain, watching the fields, watching co-travellers, enjoying non-thought.

Loverly. Next, I tucked into Milan. There is a scene in DLC where Marilyn walks into the Duomo, walks across part of the Piazza del Duomo, then walks into the chic Galleria Vittorio Emmanuele. It's been a while since I did that. Most of my expeditions to Milan now involve passport renewal at the Consulate, shopping trips or catching up with friends who have escaped the slower provincial life. But today I wanted to see the city - at least part of it - through Marilyn's eyes.

'...I ascended the steps of the Duomo station and came out along the pale flank of the cathedral dusted in fumy morning light. The stonework stretched upward in tiers of ever-tightening pinnacles, that made one want to weep with their divine force. I thought of the construction: men on ladders tied together with rope; men with chisels. I thought of women in strange head garments looking up at the fandangled building at the end of the street. Wispy stone spans bounced between the spires, and the spires themselves looked plastic...'

'...To the right was the spectacular Galleria Vittorio Emmanuele, a luxury shopping arcade funnelling through to the famous opera theatre, La Scala. I walked under the high glass vault criss-crossed with iron girders, pausing beneath the opaque dome with its wintry light. A shiny black Porsche was cordoned off on a pedestal and a girl in gold hot pants handed out brochures with a high octane smile. Pedestrian traffic meandered in every direction... Despite an undercurrent of vendors with football scarves and the unsightly presence of a McDonalds on a corner, all actors were meticulously rehearsed and I was grateful Fiona had pooh-poohed my old jeans..'

It was childishly sweet, standing there in the crowd, amongst the tourists holding cameras and Ipads above them, filming girls posing before the sanctuaries of Prada and Louis Vuitton, to think that Marilyn could have been standing to one side watching too, feeling out of place, wondering how to understand this city. I looked out for her, rather sillily. I think I almost did.

The big HUGE thrill of the day is that the book is now on sale at the AMERICAN BOOKSTORE in central Milan (Via Camperio 16, Largo Cairoli), an elegant stroll away from where I imagine Marilyn was standing.

Monday, 21 May 2012

And the Earth Moved

Some time after my eldest son drove in early Sunday morning my bed started shaking violently. And it wasn’t my secret lover trying his moves. The shaking went on. And on. It took quite a few seconds for me to realise.. Earthquake!

I ran upstairs to check the eldest in the attic who sleeps under the beams of the house. All intact. And saw youngest sitting up sitting up in his bed saying ‘That was an earthquake, Mum. Did you feel it?’

Heart-thumping terror. The siren in the villa above us continued to waa-waa-waa. And then nothing.

There was another strong tremor an hour later. Hours afterwards, I heard that friends in town had gone down into the street barely dressed. My daughter huddled under her cousin’s bed. I knew the epicentre was far away from us (around eighty kilometres it turned out) and that this area lies on a bed of water (la pianura padana) rather than more jolting bedrock, and yet many houses like ours are built with heavy beams and thick, tumbledown walls of stone and mortar, that have weathered centuries of icy winters and baking summers. Even the ancient beams of our house have slooped with age.

Then we saw the real damage on the television. People in small towns like ours, scattered along the plains south of the Po River. Wreckage, toppled buildings, despair. It turned into one of those odd, still days, where you feel you should be doing something, but what?

We eventually carried out our plans to go to the annual flower festival at a nearby Palladian villa that stands in a massive rock amphitheatre at the edge of the hills. It was raining and the mood was subdued. People moved from stand to stand in the noble setting. You could hear a continual murmur: about apartment buildings swaying, dogs howling, people in the streets. It made for a strange cohesion.

On an incline, the grounds of the villa have central tiered stone steps with a low wall marking off each terrace looking over the conglomeration of constructions on the plains below. Ugly houses, pre-fabricated factories. I wonder did the architect foresee this? How modernity would sully the zone and how from behind the scrolled iron entrance gates the brooding walker should be enticed on with a reward. For as one ascends, each level presents a more detached and ephemeral view, and on a clear day one could perhaps see all the way to the spires of Venice. Or at least imagine this to be the case.

Each low wall is lined with a row of Palladian statues. That each statue is so perfectly composed (rumoured to be cleaned with oxidised water and a toothbrush by the scruffily dressed count) makes me think of what will last. This exquisite corner of land, sheltered by the rockface, with some of the austere village houses even dug from its flanks; the yellow calla lilies in a plastic bag in my hand, which will most probably not survive my random plant care this winter; my friends waving me over for a drop of villa vine with their deaf shepherd dog and a batch of umbrellas.


On an entirely frivolous note I would like to invite you to read my guest post with the fantastic (and wildly successful) crime writer Mel Sherratt Thanks for having me Mel and do check out some items from my Italian shoes collection!

Monday, 14 May 2012

Teaching English the Kate Moss Way

If Kate Moss were to rock over to Milan and start teaching English she’d be apples. But then again, so would Madonna. Or la Signora Beckham. Italians love a foreign star and a foreign star speaking Italian with an accent will soon have a string of television commercials and a talk show. (If I hear George Clooney-in-a-cable-knit say ‘Immagina’ one more time on the Fastweb ad I will die.)

When I was a young thing living in Milano with barely a handle on this vocal language, I had to earn my keep. I set out to teach English. The institute where I worked was on a dodgy street where gorgeous Brazilian transsexuals were earning their keep too. My students included bored bankers and insolent teenagers. A big plus was my boss’s insistence that I speak exclusively in English – what else would I have spoken anyway? And luckily, our textbook was little more than a comic strip with characters buying vegetables and asking for the nearest underground stop. I persevered. I made friends with my colleagues, a Canadian woman whose Sicilian boyfriend beat her up and an upper class Somali girl who had flitted about the world.

In my novel my heroine has moved to Milano and needs a decent job. She turns to the second oldest profession in the book – English teaching. This is where Kate Moss steps in. Marilyn Wade has never taught verbs and participles in her life (like most of us pretenders). Immediately after her interview her boss asks her to step in for Stephen, and tells her the class is on page 27 of the Ranger Series.

‘’ll find one on the desk. If not just do conversation. Talk about pop stars and Kate Moss, anyone you can think of.’

Marilyn confronts her first class:

‘As I looked over them I realised they were frightfully different from English adolescents. They had not been raised on chips and Tesco Indian dishes and soggy shepherd’s pie. Rather, they ate risotto while sipping merlot and weren’t afraid of carpaccio sitting half alive on their plates. They had probably learnt how to make coffee at the age of five.

The class continued staring until a boy at the back made a comment and they burst out laughing. I stood there detesting every one of them, about to crumble, wishing I had my riding crop in my hand. I took a deep breath and considered walking out the door and never coming back. I still had a job as Brett’s unlikely leather model for the Japanese and Norwegian buyers passing through town. But my children were coming out for Christmas, so I had only a few short weeks left to cobble a life together and look normality in the eye.

As they laughed, I walked around the desk and sat down, closing the textbook and giving it a shove onto the floor. They became silent. I figured I had about thirty seconds to contain their interest.

‘Anybody heard of
la mia nipotina Kate Moss?’



Monday, 7 May 2012

Dang! What a review!

Divorce, Milan Style By Rome-based blogger aka Erica Firpo, freelance journalist (Huffington Post, NYTimes Intransit Blog, The Guardian UK Rome's City Guide)

A few weeks ago, I received a request to review Australian writer Catherine McNamara’s debut novel “The Divorced Lady’s Companion to Living in Italy”. To be honest and even though I was flattered that finally I was invited to review a book of fiction (keep ‘em coming!), I was hesitant, thinking that perhaps this was a Lombard cousin of Under the Tuscan Sun, where the protagonist would renovate a fashion house instead of a farm house. Then I reread the last line of McNamara’s blurb:

But sexy glamorous Milan is about as unfeeling as a Prada bag.

Dang. That’s harsh. And anyone willing to write that sentence must have a sense of humor. The Divorced Lady’s Companion is fast-paced, snarky and deliciously humorous. In a nutshell, its the story of Londoner Marilyn Wade who post-40 divorce sends her spiraling down to Milan to follow the seemingly charmed reincarnation of an old and somewhat mythic acquaintance. Language problems, fake friendships, a psychic, Italian boyfriends, S & M, shopping and ex-husbands are the expected hijinks, and McNamara writes them quite well. For all the pitfalls, misguidance and naivete as Marilyn traipses through Milan, she is as endearing as she is persistent in getting further away from her divorce. She doesn’t see Milan through rose-colored glasses- if anything, she sees it through the bottom of a shot of grappa: slightly bitter, definitely strong and with a necessary buzz. Divorce and Milan are just supporting cast to showing how a mid-40s woman can grow up and out just a bit. McNamara’s writing had me laughing out loud at Marilyn’s hijinks and their impossibilities. Unrealistic? Absolutely and not at all, remember this is Italy and the impossible does often happen. Combined with exaggerated yet plausible stereotypes of women and men, whether British, Italian or otherwise, the Divorced Lady’s Companion is fun, aggressive and definitely a page turner– with a sneaky bit of “slice of life”, Milan style. The Divorced Lady’s Companion to Living in Italy Indigo Dreams Publishing, April 2012 Read it.


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Read my guest post Living in Translation on Talli Roland's super cool blog and learn when NOT to ask whether there are any condoms in the jam

Friday, 4 May 2012

London capers

Along with the she-boom of the book launch I caught up with many old and newly-made friends who led me into pubs, bookshops and restaurants. I walked in my plastic Gazel boots in the rain, with my trusty trench and a poor Japanese woollen scarf over my head which began to smell like a schoolbus on a wet day. In London it rains. I seriously reached the point of no return, where I accepted rain on my face, squiggly hair, more rain on my face, wet shoulders. Oh well. Had I been on a different mission I may have spent my pounds on clothes and shoes, or my time in museums and galleries, but alas, that was not to be. I bought a handful of paperbacks to take home and the rest was spent on Asian food and British alcohol. Brilliant that. The week sped along too quickly. (How lovely to meet Downith! What a wonderful afternoon!)
I went into many many bookshops. Before I left Italy I had my bookmarks printed, and thought it would be a good idea to leave some with bookshops around town. It worked! For anyone helping out with book promotion who likes to engage with people, it is the best way to put yourself out there and talk about your book. I made a lot of purchases I admit to get me in approaching-the-counter mood, and browsed and browsed and flipped through and read out the opening sentences of many other authors. In Italy I don't get nearly the same vibe or edgy excitement. One bookshop I stayed in for ages was about to close and I was politely asked if I wouldn't mind coming back the next morning. Another had a smashing bar up the top with a city panorama and lovely (raspberry) cocktails (awfully giggly afterwards with Emily, everything a lark). One had a squishy leather chair where I spent ages tossing up between two books, worried about my luggage allowance, as I rested my suffering feet. It was glorious. Plus after over-groomed, foulard-furled Italian men it was lovely to see some bookish delightfully messy samples from over the Channel. Men with heads in books. Mmmm.
But I digress. It seems Waterstones Piccadilly is ordering copies, so do pop in to your local branch if you are in the UK. Or to any independent-spirited bookshop elsewhere. I will soon post US and Australia publication dates. I've also started on promotion in Italy, given that the sunny weather brings English-speaking tourists into the streets and this country is full of wonderful expats. So far I have a reading event in Vicenza, near home, in the most elegant travel bookshop you could imagine. Heels and bells and looking swell. Anyone care to hand out some bookmarks for me in Venice or Milan? Rome or Florence? * * * * * * * * * I have two new articles on The View from Here: 'Promoting a Modern Novel or Trying to Make Sense of the Universe' - an interview with independent authors Charlie Hill, Sue Johnson and Alison Lock **and an interview with short story writer Tania Hershman whose new book of fictions My Mother was an Upright Piano has just been published **I also have a guest post over at Talli Roland's called 'Living in Translation' Do visit!