Tuesday, 25 August 2020

Citizens of the world and the taste of words

Interior of Santa Caterina Church, Galatina

Back from my trip to the Salento region, I am having some time off, before embarking on a new, much shorter trip which this time will take me to the North of Italy, on strict family business.
With time on my hands, I can indulge in reflection, my favourite activity.
I enjoyed revisiting the land of my birth, meeting people I had not seen in decades - now all grown up and shouldering newer responsibilities and yet having retained their youthful charm.  I relished that strange feeling of knowing and yet not knowing, the sense of familiarity and unfamiliarity, which kept on alternating, whenever I met old friends and saw 'old' haunts.
Nothing ever stays the same and I was mesmerised by the changes brought in by the passage of time  and the ubiquitous impact of globalisation. Wherever I went, images from other trips to other lands superimposed themselves on what was before my eyes: I recognised the thrust of tourism, with its network of hotels, bed and breakfasts, Airbnbs, shuttle busses, organised tours and the mushrooming of restaurants and cafés. I saw places that reminded me of other places, because that part of Italy is very ancient and very mixed, with cultural and artistic elements of Greek and Middle Eastern origin, obvious in the architectural details of many of its buildings, in the local dialects and in the local food.
I enjoyed the conversations I had with everyone I met and the overlap of languages in my head and on my tongue. I also experienced a clear sense of belonging to very different places simultaneously,  and it was a joyous feeling.

Leuca, Salento

In this day and age, the idea of being a citizen of the world is occasionally ridiculed, in the wake of an ugly form of nationalism. You may remember former PM Theresa May's contemptuous utterance, at the Tory party conference of 2016,  about citizens of the world being citizens of nowhere. I could not disagree more: like the writer Elif Shafak, whom I deeply admire, I see myself as a global soul as well as a world citizen, it is a condition I embrace. It is possible to love and feel part of different communities and different countries, to adopt a diversity of being, to be rooted and also routed, as explained by Paul Gilroy in his discussion of place attachment and mobility in the context of identity. I have never been an either/or person, I see myself as an advocate of  'and...and', in everything I do - well, almost anything.
Thinking of Elif Shafak, whose prize-winning novel 'The Forty Rules of Love' I have downloaded, led me to watch, this morning,  her wonderful TED talk "The Revolutionary Power of Diverse Thought", a passionate plea for pluralism and diversity - no, I am not going off-topic, among the many marvels I saw in  Salento, I also witnessed, as elsewhere, the ugliness of antagonistic attitudes to migrants and the presence of racism, which revealed itself in small, everyday occurrences.
For example, I was sitting at a café in Lecce, with a friend who, though originally from one of the nearby small towns, actually lives in Jakarta, Indonesia. An older lady with a neurotic little dog sat a few tables away from us. Suddenly, the dog rushed forward and attempted to bite the ankle of a  Pakistani looking man, in traditional dress, who happened to go past the lady's table.  It was one of the waiters who rushed to help the passer-by and apologised, the lady said absolutely nothing. 'What rudeness' commented my friend, loud enough for the lady to hear. We wondered whether her behaviour would have been more solicitous had she not been confronted by 'otherness'.
Elif Shafak opens her talk with a wonderful reference to the taste of words, how some words have a flavour and a smell - some spicy, some sweet and from there she goes on to ask about the taste of the 'motherland', which to her tastes like cinnamon and rose water and yet with a sharp tang. Shafak's motherland is Turkey and to her, it tastes sweet and also bitter. Shafak goes on to remark that many more people around the world share such feelings about their motherland, their culture of provenance, their food,  increasingly frustrated by politics and politicians, who manage to add a bitter, unsavoury taste by manipulating atavistic emotions.

Elif Shafak. Photo reblogged

Inspired by Shafak, I have been thinking about the taste of words in connections with 'my' places - London, my current home, has a complexity of tastes intermingled with delicious smells because London is a truly international hub. When I think of London, I am reminded of the spicy balti of Bricklane or the vivid colours of the Brixton food market. The Salento region has the taste of seafood and olives. But ...xylella has destroyed its olives, metaphorically too.
There are quite a few threads in this post which I would like to explore further, but I shall have to do so in future.
Meanwhile, I have a lot to catch up with and am binge-watching 'A Suitable Boy', the current Mira Nair's drama adaptation of Vikram Seth's long novel, not to mention the several books I have on the go.  'Time keeps on slipping into the future', sang Steve Miller Band.  I shall end on that note.

Saturday, 15 August 2020

Nostalgia or the disease of longing for home

We all know instinctively what nostalgia is because we have experienced moments of longing for the past and for specific places which are associated with our past, often what we think as 'home'.  And yet we do not know the first thing about it.
I am about to embark on a short trip which will take me to the land of my birth and a series of circumstances have heightened my expectations and also increased my nostalgia for virtually unknown places which are meant to be 'mine', part of my 'heritage'.  How do you define that? 
After living in London for over forty years, I have a strong attachment to my tiny home (where I have lived for thirty years) and to this amazing city that never fails to excite me.  I really grew up and wisened up, as a person, in London.  I studied in London,  fell in love in London, met (and parted with) my husband in London, I had my son in London. What else? I taught in London, became a model in London, learnt about life's ups and downs in London, became a grandma in London. Of course, I travelled (and extensively too) but always came back 'home' to London. 
One of my fondest memories is of the one time while doing my postdoc,  I went to meet a young  Dutch professor at UCL, for a one on one tutorial, and he suggested we had it at the Globe, which had just opened. 'I am in love with London' he said. 'You know the saying by Dr Samuel Johnson? He who tires of London is tired of life. I have just been posted here and am exploring'. And off we went, the tutorial unfolding on the District Line and then at the Globe. It was a warm spring day and this was one of the best tutorials I ever had. And no, I was not in love with the professor!

The first 19 years of my life were spent in Italy, in Apulia. I will be going there in a couple of days, I suddenly got the urge to see again Leuca, which my mother absolutely adored,  and something quite peculiar is happening. I am most excited to be meeting people I have not seen since I was 18 with whom  I fortuitously reconnected (I dislike Facebook intensely but there are some good things about it). I think I know them well,  but then again I do not, how can I? None of us is as we were at 18!
 I keep on asking my sister, who knows the area I am travelling to much better than me because she only left it for good when she was about 40 in order to move to the North of Italy, where I should go. She even checked out the places where I will be staying and gave me tips on how to get around, saying wistfully that she wished she could accompany me but unfortunately her work duties do not permit her to take time off at present.
I like digging into things. The peculiar emotion sweeping through me at the moment is clearly heightened nostalgia. I decided to read about it, to understand it - I am a very rational person, I have to know what is going on, exactly. I found the book Nostalgia; Sanctuary of Meaning  (2005) by Janelle L. Wilson very helpful. 

Photo: Jasper James

Feeling nostalgic is similar to being in love, apparently; Harper states that in both love and nostalgia "a wave of presence swirls around with a wave of loss". 
But it was the pairing of nostalgia and home that intrigued me.  Quoting Svetlana Boym, Wilson writes: 'To feel at home is to know that things are in their places and so are you; it is a state of mind that does not depend on an actual location. The object of longing, then,  is not really this place called home but this sense of intimacy with the world; it is not the past in general but that imaginary moment when we had the time and did not know the temptation of nostalgia". 
It's all much clearer, is it not?
So here I am, ready to experience, nostalgia, love and belonging all at once. 
I shall further report on my return.

Sunday, 2 August 2020

Love letters and love in old age

Do you remember Carrie Bradshaw in Sex and the City reading out Mr B's letters from a collection entitled Love Letters of Great Men? Well, the book does exist,  there are two volumes of these letters, one edited by  John C. Kirkland and one by Ursula Doyle.  I recently stumbled on the letter by Ludwig van Beethoven mentioned  by Carrie Bradshaw and I felt an intense curiosity to browse the letters written by the other great men, from Napoleon to Goethe and Lev Tolstoy. So I bought the book from Audible.
As I am writing this, I am listening to the audiobook. These men definitely bared their souls to their beloved with page upon page of stirring prose, revealing the depth of their emotions.
Do people write love letters these days? I am not sure...people exchange messages, emojis and memes, and photos, plenty of them, but old fashioned love letters? I do not think so.
Yet, who would not want to be addressed as Beethoven does his beloved? "Even when I am in bed my thoughts rush to you, my immortal beloved, now and then joyfully, then again sadly, waiting to know whether Fate will hear our prayer — To face life I must live altogether with you or never see you…"

Have I ever received a love letter? Now that I think of it, no, I did not, certainly nothing like one of these missives. (Big sigh).
All right, I did receive billets doux from spotty schoolboys when I was an awkward schoolgirl (littered with mispellings and grammatical errors, which never left a good impression and was the object of endless mirth when I shared them with my girlfriends  - note to would-be love letter writers: please make sure your prose is flawless).
Then as an adult, for years I punctually received on my birthday an anonymous card with a (very bad) love poem, often a rehashing of a Shakespearean sonnet, which had the effect of putting me off entirely and again made me laugh.  I knew who was sending it. I finally joked about such poems with the 'anonymous' author who never actually admitted to being the sender and I never again got another one. I later thought that maybe I had been a little cruel, however, I could not bear getting those cards!
But letters such as the ones collected by Kirkland, no, I never got one. I guess I have never been the object of such overwhelming passion (now I do feel somewhat slighted). And no, I have never met a Beethoven or a Napoleon or a Lord Byron... I am definitely not an exalted muse.
Yet as I read (listen to) these letters, I cannot help feeling that yes, they were addressed to their beloved (in Beethoven's case it has been suggested his Immortal Beloved was actually his music, not a woman) but these men were also thinking of people who might come across their letters in the years to come. In other words, they were written for posterity. And there is a strong element of narcissism, in the way these men announce, often with fanfare,  the strength of their passion and how devastated they are, unable to endure separation.
Then, when you read what King Henry VIII writes to Anne Boleyn whom he subsequently did not hesitate to behead, you feel a little queasy as you think of her fate (incidentally do read the magnificent Cromwell trilogy by Hilary Mantel, it is definitely worth the effort).
"1528, London. My Mistress and Friend, I and my heart put ourselves in your hands, begging you to recommend us to your good grace and not to let absence lessen your affection...For myself the pang of absence is already to (sic) great, and when I think of the increase of what I must needs suffer it would be well nigh intolerable but for my firm hope of your unchangeable affection..."
Thus spake King Henry.

I would like to introduce, as a counterpoint, another set of love letters, the ones written by the octagenarian Mrs Piozzi aka Hesther Lynch Thrale, at one-time a friend of Samuel Johnson with whom she fell out when she married the penniless Italian musician Gabriele Piozzi.  At the age of 80, she fell in love with William Augustus Conway, at least 48 years her junior, and embarked on a one-sided love affair with him, writing him beautiful letters that Conway kept until he died (by committing suicide). Mrs Piozzi was well regarded on the literary scene. When she fell in love with Conway she was always aware of their age difference and wrote poignantly about her feelings. Her letters are wonderful, yet immensely sad. I would recommend reading them.

Even today older women loving younger men are not regarded kindly.  If there is anything to learn from Mrs Piozzi is that love transcends age. Hesther is admirable because she refused to be constrained by social norms. 
Regardless of your own age and that of your lover, it is important to acknowledge that growing old does not imply a loss of feeling. Thank you Hesther Lynch Piozzi, from the 21st century,  for your wonderful lesson.  Love, like beauty, is ageless.