Thursday, 28 February 2013

Talkin Bout a Revolution

Villa Rotonda
I know you're tired of hearing about it. I am. I am angry. Beyond belief. That Silvio Berlusconi sent last-minute personalised letters to every house in the country. That idiots such as the people in my area were dumb enough to believe his cash-in-hand promises. That this seventy-six-year-old trickster might perhaps represent these people and be what they truly deserve. That this fraudulent vulgar man still wields a stick and people bow to him.

My kids, the next angry generation tired of a geriatric ruling class, of course voted for actor-turned-politician Beppe Grillo, as did so many. 

And now we are in deep shit. With our eighty-seven-year-old President Giorgio Napolitano, stately ex-communist, being called upon to preside. (A thrilling titbit, I once washed up Napolitano's dinner dishes when I was an au pairing on a chic Sicilian island - doubt he remembers that skinny cropped-haired thing).

What to do? Given I risk abusing the villagers if I do my shopping or pay my bills. I realise I've started looking people in the eye and thinking, Did you vote for him? I bet you did! Am I going mad??

A break. Play some Scarlatti. Pull up some weeds. Take a snap of Palladio's divine Villa Rotonda under light snow (don't look the other way where Berlusconi's daughter's ugly new court building is bumbling into shape).

Cat and A
Take your offspring up to the Dolomites and wear a moose hat skiing.

O Italia!

Friday, 22 February 2013

The Art of Writing - a Summer Writers' Retreat in Tuscany

A couple of years ago, when 'The Divorced Lady's Companion to Living in Italy' was accepted for publication, I went to my first writers' event, the wonderful (and scenic) Women's Fiction Festival in Matera in southern Italy. It was here that I met fellow Australian Lisa Clifford, accomplished radio and television journalist and prize-winning author, resident in Florence with her Aussie/Florentine family. Lisa's book 'The Promise' recounts her tug-of-war love affair with her Tuscan boyfriend/future husband and his elegant corner of the world, and 'Death in the Mountains' delves deep into a shocking family mystery.

Last year I drove down to Lisa's for a spot of delicious lunch (Lisa is an excellent cook!) and she revealed her plans for The Art of Writing, a writers' retreat to be held in the inspiring Casentino hills, an area close to her heart, a hidden part of Tuscany where many have gone to seek inspiration (Dante, John Milton; also the setting chosen by Anthony Minghella for 'The English Patient').

Lisa has engaged an array of inspiring tutors and writers including the expert Jim Friels, with a mouthwatering Tuscan menu in place. If I weren't part of the programme with an evening session on grassroots promotion, I'd be signing up right now. Tell us more Lisa!

Why now? Why a writers' retreat?

I’ve lived in Italy for 15 years and had spent 33 years coming back and forth. During that time I wrote three books, two on Tuscany and one on Naples (it’s out with Penguin in November) so I really felt it was time to start teaching and sharing what I’ve learned over the years. I also adore Writers Retreats. The inspiration and good, solid writing that comes from spending secluded time with other writers is invaluable. It had been a dream of mine to set up a programme, my dream programme, based in the Tuscan mountains for some time. It’s an area that has given me so much inspiration and I had wanted to share it for ages. Why do it now? Good question! I suppose I was ready, the tutors (some of whom are friends) were ready too. Everyone voiced such wonderful enthusiasm and support for my idea that it really formed legs of its own and took off. English writers in Italy spend a lot of time on their own, locked in their offices, writing away. I wanted to be with other writers. I wanted to grow and share with emerging writers and spend more time learning from established writers. To set up my own writers retreat seemed like a win win solution!

How long? How far?

The retreat will be held one hour’s drive away from Florence. It is five days and six nights. Every morning we have lectures and workshops and in the afternoons we write, have our manuscripts assessed in private sessions with James. In the evenings we have a good time with guest speakers and wine and yummy food. The guest speakers that cannot come personally are going to live skype with us ie: Michelle Fabio from Gemelli Press and US literary agent, April Eberhardt.

Tell us about your ties to this area.

My husband and his family all come from Casentino. I adore, adore, adore it. Tourists don’t know about it so none of the people there have tourist burn out syndrome. They are friendly and cannot do enough to help you grow to love their Casentino as much as they do. I first mentioned it in The Promise and then I set Death in the Mountains there, amongst the poor Tuscan farming community. My mother-in-law gave me the family farm house when she became too old to look after it. So I have a genuine, profound love of the land and what it produces, also the people who produce it. For me, it was the perfect place to book out an entire agriturismo (b and b farm house that must by law put 50% local produce on the table) and get writers to immerse themselves in their craft.

I'm a beginner/stuck on my second novel/not certain of my plot line. Can you help me out? Will I feel silly?

The Art of Writing’s goal is to help ALL writers with their stories in an atmosphere where they won’t feel intimidated. It’s been so interesting to watch enrolments come in. Many are beginners, there are also those who have half a book written and need help moving it along. All our emerging writers have ideas but are not sure how to use them. That’s where I can help. When I say that I think I have found my purpose in life helping people understand how to translate their ideas, I am not kidding. It gives me enormous pleasure to talk through a plot line and help an emerging writer understand what will work and what’s too much. Emerging writers think they have to have many ideas and that they’ll put all of them into one book. Just one, good, solid idea that can be fleshed out, extrapolated, is more than enough.

I heard the menu is astounding. Could you elaborate?

Delighted to! We will eat the local produce and will have five courses (including the veggies) every evening. Ombretta Stoppioni is the agriturismo’s owner and she has labored over every meal plan. From artichoke soufflĂ© for antipasto to the area’s specialties like homemade tortelloni stuffed with spicy potato and fresh tomato sauce to pork in a fennel sauce on a bed of bay leaf cream, Ombretta has really outdone herself with this menu. It’s exciting to be a part of putting this together as the meals alone give us a chance to taste Casentino.

Go on, tell us.. What's the best thing about calling Florence home?

I never tire of how close Florence is to the rest of Europe. In a little over an hour I can be in London. By car we can drive to France in about 5 or 6 hours. As I write this we are skiing in an area with two names - Mont Blanc/ Monte Bianco. These slopes are right on the border of France and Italy. I love that. Travel is a huge part of my life and being able to access Morocco direct from Pisa airport is so wonderful. I will take the kids to Fez for a week in summer and it will cost a song to get there. How fantastic is that? Florence is so well situated. And the city itself is one of the most beautiful in the world. I will never take Florence for granted and I will never be able to see all that it has to offer.

Lisa thanks for your words and good luck with The Art of Writing. See you in June! Xxxcat

I've just heard that all ten places have been booked for this year's The Art of Writing. So if you think you'd like to take part in Lisa's wonderful venture do keep this in mind for 2014!

Monday, 18 February 2013

Girlfriend in a Coma*

I said I wouldn't. I said I wouldn't give any more air space to this man. But as Italy descends into election frenzy and the options are haranguing you from posters on every street corner, it's difficult not to be absolutely frightened at the prospect of our ex-Leader cramming in some votes.

I heard him speak on the TV last week. Groomed within an inch of his 76 years, newly engaged to some 'carne fresca' in the form of a booby 26 year old devotee (founding member of the group 'Silvio We Miss You' Goldigger anyone?), Silvio informed the public he would reimburse cash-in-hand a disliked housing tax installed by technocrat Prime Minister Mario Monti to help fill the country's empty coffers. What a piece of work! And where to find the necessary 4billion euro? Of course! By taxing Italians working in Switzerland and reducing funding for political parties…

Whaaat? Apart from being dangerous propaganda for minds dulled by years of Berlusca's sparkling promises and lies (do remember that he started out as a sleazy cruise ship crooner), it's just not possible!

Silvio also promised that there would be no wealth tax, and this month the billionaire also managed to haul in bad-boy striker Mario Balotelli to his AC Milan football team. Rake in the votes!

Anything else in your pocket Silvio? Oh yes there were those minor silly comments praising Mussolini (a Fascist who derailed this country and deported Jews during WWII) during a Holocaust Memorial event. And his harmless comment about 'kickbacks being normal in business'. Brush those under the carpet. Oh yes there are even people who are happy to hear these things.

Italy is going to be a scrambling circus this week. Helpfully, Berlusconi's trial for paid sex with an underage prostitute is on hold as he fights what he calls his last political battle (pulling us all down the sink?). He's had lots of prime time to slam all his opponents on his own television stations, and then pound whoever is left to read the newspapers absolutely witless. His values - grinning hypocrisy, law-breaking pragmatism, soulless devaluation of morals - have so deeply permeated a large portion of Italian society that many who aren't with him are lulled into thinking his showy mockery of a democracy is the safest way to go.

Recent worrying figures have Berlusconi's Rightwing Coalition at 28.7%, just 4.9% behind the creaking Centre Left Party of Pier Luigi Bersani at 33.6%, whom Berlusca suggested might be more suited to a job as ‘sindaco di Bologna’ i.e. Mayor of Bologna.

But I am not alone in feeling revolted, shocked and tired of what this man has created in twenty years of national decline. Do look at the link to documentary trailer Girlfriend in a Coma*, co-directed by ex-Economist editor Bill Emmott, whom Berlusconi called the E-Communist (what a joke) when he and his politics were slammed. Silvio was able to block the screening of this film in Rome until after the election carnival.

Even that tells us so much.

***And if you're worried that I don't have anything positive to say about today's Italy do read my guest post Ten Things I Love About Italy on Cathy Powell's great blog An Italophile

Wednesday, 6 February 2013

The Hills are Alive with the Sound of Barry White

This is one of my favourite places. My favourite bar under my favourite mountain of the Dolomites (okay there are two and if you look east you'll see the other one). It is also my favourite ski slope and my favourite time of the week (kids asleep or training, no computers, no driving, great oxygen high, excellent cappuccino).

Last week I went up and had a Barry White moment. Have you ever had one? For me it happens when everything is incongruous, insane and hopelessly beautiful. Come on. How many times have you jived to Barry on a dance floor? I remember once - I swear this is a true tale - myself and the ex who were by then skating on very thin ice, ended up in a club on New Year's Eve in Addis Ababa, dancing the night away. This club played Barry White songs all night. So get this - how I wish I'd had my iPhone - we were in Ethiopia, dancing ALL NIGHT LONG TO BARRY WHITE, on the eve of what was probably the last year of our marriage.

Not the worst way to say goodbye.

And last Saturday this is how it went. I skied a few slopes. Then stopped at the bar. Took off my telemark skis and heard what they were playing. It was grand old Barry, big Barry, who's been singing songs to me since the 70s.

I sat down with my coffee thinking, How Incongruous. How Insane. How Hopelessly Beautiful.

And as you can see in the shot there was a little avalanche tumbling down the mountainside as the earth rocked to Barry's beat.