5 Must-Read Books!

If you haven’t already devoured them…

I love the weight of a new book in my hand and the scent of fresh pages. I love the airy stillness of a bookshop, and the shiny new covers of bestsellers or old classics on tables near the front door. People are respectful in bookshops, delicate as they take the book from the shelf and place it away. People don’t bombard you like in every other shop in the world…

‘Hiya what can I get you everything alright let me know if you need anything,’

then a moment later:

‘Hiya what can I get you everything alright let me know if you need anything,’

(Ok I know they have to.)

But we are losing this culture, and according to statistics only a measley third of all consumers buy their books in bookshops, the rest online. Bookshops are being disastrously plucked from the high street, and I think it is quite sad, for I know the next time I go back to my local town up North my childhood  bookshop may be replaced with a grotesque, gleaming pile of dirty hair-bobbles, socks and polyryrinethyroestrine lounge trousers, (aka, Primark.)

So here’s to a cosy Christmas with some recommendations:

1) The Rosie Project by Graeme Simsion

International bestselling romantic comedy, it is warm-hearted where the protagonist encourages us to see the funny side of our own often incomprehensible behaviour.

2) Stoner by John Edward Williams

This vintage classic has been dubbed as ‘the greatest American novel you’ve never heard of.’ Stoner has been described as ‘anti-Gatsby.’ Its prose is austere, the book perfectly constructed and is essentially a mesmerising account of one man’s failure. It is dusty with sadness but will weigh on your mind long after you’ve finished it.

3) The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt

This is a fabulous tome, vividly weaved together and at times unbearably moving. The intricate details picked up by the narrator will resonate within the reader, the protagonist wandering into your mind and tugging at your soul.

4) Tigers in Red Weather by Liza Klaussmann

Ok, a little more of a summer than winter read but all the more reason! Dripping with a Great Gatsby-esque glamour, there is murder, sex and mystery in 1950’s New England. Magnetically delivered through the eyes of five characters.

5) Mrs Hemingway by Naomi Wood

The tempestuous genius that is Ernest Hemingway had four wives. This novel portrays their lives, enticing, mysterious and often heart-wrenching. We are drawn behind the curtain of his lives and the absurdity of the fact that Ernest could not help proposing to his mistresses.

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Eavesdropping, Spanish Steps Style

Busy cafe near Piazza di Spagna (named after the Embassy of Spain). Picture high palms and warm yellow, ochre and rust houses that proudly gaze over the steps. The steps were actually a gift from the French King Louise XV to Rome (should probably be called the French steps in the King’s honour but the Spanish Embassy got there in the nick of time.)

I had time to kill before picking up the piccola Teresa from school and settled in the Piazza with my book and a cappuccino (standard.)

I couldn’t help but notice a bouncy conversation three men in shiny suits on the table next to me started bellowing. Here is a rough translation of their brisk conversation:

Man 1, 2 and 3, let’s call them Riccardo, Luigi and Leonardo.

Riccardo: Ciao! Apologies for the delay – I got caught on a call

Luigi: That’s no problem – I just called you actually

Riccardo: Ah! was on the other line –

Luigi: Yes I gathered, no problem.

Riccardo: And Leonardo?

Luigi: He just called, he’s on his way

Riccardo: Great – did you read the email I sent you this morning?

Luigi: Haven’t had a chance yet

Riccardo: Ah I see – I was going to call after you’d read it to see what you thought before we met this morning

Luigi: I’ll read it after this meeting if that is alright, then I’ll let you know?

Riccardo: That is a good idea – here is Leonardo now

Leonardo: Ecco mi! Here I am!

Riccardo: Ciao!

Luigi: Ciao!

Leonardo: Tutto bene? Everything ok?

Luigi: Everything is fine

Riccardo: Glad you could make it

Leonardo: What a great sun today!

Luigi: Are you going back to your parents this weekend?

Leonardo: That is the plan! If I can get out of that meeting at 4pm. Come to think of it, I could attend via conference call. Or can catch up with the discussion after

Riccardo: We could go though now what we are going to propose?

Luigi: Now?

Riccardo: Why not? We are all hear apart from Filippo but he will be on the call later

Leonardo: I thought we intended to discuss the items for next week’s press release?

Luigi: I agree – that is more urgent

Riccardo gets up: Some caffe’ first guys?

Leonardo: Please – Let me offer you both one

Riccardo: So kind! Thank you

Luigi: I will have a caffe ristretto with pleasure, thanks

Folders shuffled, pens clicked, blackberrys on the table, I-Phone’s buzzing, Luigi answers and speaks for a moment. He frowns and leaves the table. After a moment or so, he returns, despondent 

Luigi: It is with great regret I think I must leave – it appears Mario has had a run in with the Profilo clients

Riccardo: What a clown! He should be able to manage that account

Luigi: I don’t trust the man sometimes

Leonardo returns.

Leonardo: Everything alright?

Luigi: Its the Banca Profilo clients – they have some problems [drinks his coffee with a flick of his wrist]. Thank you for that

Leonardo: My pleasure

Luigi: I don’t know what to do – I think it might be best if we get together in a few days. I am sorry, guys

Riccardo: We might have no choice [drinks coffee and lights a cigarette]

Leonardo: I may be away at the end of this week and early next – for a long weekend

Luigi: Ah I see

Riccardo: We could simplifly the situation and do this by a conference call?

Luigi: Not a bad idea

Leonardo: That’s settled then

Riccardo: I can email across the details

Luigi: Ok, perfect. Get in touch if you need anything in the meantime

Riccardo: Let’s get in touch later today then

Leonardo: Thanks guys, see you soon!

Riccardo: I’ll be in touch later today

Luigi: See you next time!

Business meeting adjourned. Five minutes of chair scraping, cigarette exchanging and texting.

I went back to my book, worried that after all that, nothing much was achieved but confused as to the original aim of said meeting. (I can hear you say, was it my business at all? Essentially not, no but one can’t help but overhear – besides how else can one successfully pick up the language?)

“Peacock Vow”

On another note, here is a bit of history.

Notebooks out! I love this kind of stuff.

During the brutal Medieval era, many knights took the “peacock vow” at the end of Christmas, to “re-affirm their commitment to chivalry” – now that is more like it! This involves placing said knight’s hands on a live, or indeed roasted peacock, to start the ‘re-committing process’. How exciting. Can you imagine? Let me help: A flapping, unhappy, multi-coloured bird (or still, dead and sprinkled with Rosemary and Nigella dust) surrounded by a hundred eager men in bumping, clinking armour, vying to get a handful.

“Can you imagine?… A flapping, unhappy, multi-coloured bird (or still, dead and sprinkled with Rosemary and Nigella dust) surrounded by… men in bumping, clinking armour, vying to get a handful”

On the other hand, if the bird is at the heart of a steaming feast, I’m not sure I’d be too pleased if all the men of my court were touching my dinner with slimy hands, dirty and sticky from hair gel and Halford’s Autoglym ultra deep shine polish. Peacock’s were used because they represented the majesty of kings during the Middle Ages. You can see why: resplendent plumage, glorious nobility, delicious red meat with a glass of your favorite Merlot – what’s not to like? My question is – what would we use today? What would represent ‘nobility’ or ‘pride’ – a horse? Prince’s Charles’ Duchy biscuits? Cath Kidston? Our way of doing things is uniform and, let’s be honest, pretty dull.

“I’m not sure I’d be too pleased if all the men of my court were touching my dinner with slimy hands, dirty and sticky from hair gel and Halford’s Autoglym ultra deep shine polish”

Let me get this straight: our forefathers, who were busy castrating dragons, skinning orcs, seducing maidens from hair adverts, scrubbing armour, were in those days, probably, causing ripples over society and upholding vigilant codes of conduct? This does shed a rather dismal light over OUR New Year’s resolutions. How times have changed, and I only mention because having looked over my friend’s resolutions during a catch up before heading back to Italy, I think we need a breath of inspiration.

My friend’s list: Said in best, Northern English accent and poker face:

  1. Get in shape
  2. Get organised
  3. Stop eatin’ sugar
  4. Stop drinkin’
  5. Call mi’ mum more

Enough said. I think nowadays we should bring back a little graciousness, chill out on the whole self-perfection mantra and know that being flawless at all times isn’t all that necessary, or all that exciting.

French hostess, Dimpled Ivan, After Class Chats

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This Friday morning, I went to the Dante Alighieri language school behind Piazza Navona, for one of my once a week lessons. After dropping off the children and taking the dog for a brisk walk down the river, I gathered my things and trotted off to school. By the end of the first lesson we had learnt the basics.

Our teacher is a jumpy, shrill woman with a dark bob, string of luxurious pearls that dance on her bosom, accompanied by 24 tottering layers of acrylic paint on her face. Unsurprisingly, she got everyone stirring into conversation. The class began with quiet, embarrassed murmurs, but by the end we were all bellowing “Ciao!” and “Where do you come from?” and in Italian: “Where can I find the tram/parking space/nearest post office?” as if our lives depended on it.

        “Our teacher is a jumpy, shrill woman with a dark bob, strings of luxurious pearls that danced on her bosom, accompanied by 24 tottering layers of acrylic paint  on her face…and got everyone stirring into conversation.”

Guess what? I made more friends!

Two sexy, French ladies: Selina and Anne-Sophie: Selina works as a hostess in a posh, French restaurant where she was told off for “not showing enough leg” and where I imagine the stiff, toothless pole of luxury panther hairs, half-meerkat/half Dracula Karl Lagerfeld is invited when in Rome on vital Chanel business: and Anne-Sophie, an enigmatic hippy with a gap in her teeth, who reluctantly came to Rome to get away from “nosy, over-protective parents”.

“She was told off for “not showing enough leg” and where I imagine the stiff, toothless pole of luxury panther hairs, half-meerkat/half Dracula Karl Lagerfeld is invited when in Rome on vital Chanel business…”

There is also George from Lebanon, dazzlingly different to any friends I’ve ever had: training to be a priest and bought all our coffees and pastries as he has lots of money because “I don’t believe in materialism”. Finally there is Ivan from Ecuador: dimpled, slightly too small and soft around the edges for a perfume ad, but charming and I felt like I was on Question Time for all his inquisitiveness, (I think he likes me). His father had moved here under the guise of a diplomat working at the Roman Embassy, so he’d school and country hopped because of this profession.

“…Ivan from Ecuador: dimpled, slightly too small and soft around the edges for a perfume ad, but charming…I felt like I was on Question Time for all his inquisitiveness, (I think he likes me)”

Opposite the school entrance, there is a café constantly buzzing with perky, fashionable students and loud, multilingual greetings and high-fives. We all mainly discussed Rome, our situation and why we were here, who is single or on the pull.

Anne-Sophie and Selina are both au-pairs and are both here for a year like me. George and I had an interesting conversation over our cappuccino about boyfriends and girlfriends. He asked me whether I was single. Apparently, in his culture, a girl would only belong to one boy. The Armenian culture (I learnt) is very strict and choice is often rigidly narrow.  It was very refreshing to be with someone unconcerned by the throes of life that would ordinarily trip me up on a daily basis. All in all, I left feeling heady with glee and fulfilled at the wonderful variety of people and conversation that life can spontaneously toss at you.

“All in all, I left feeling heady with glee and fulfilled at the wonderful variety of people and conversation that life can spontaneously toss at you”

Introduction/ How Not to Sob Into a Cappuccino

It has now been over a month since I moved to Rome.

I want to take this opportunity to take you aside and mention that I did not know anybody before moving here: no family, no friends, not a single sod. As you can guess, the language is unfamiliar and off key to the French and Russian I learnt at school, the city vast and beautiful, ancient and lonely.

“I did not know anybody… not a single sod

This morning, I woke up early, feeling for the first time, at home in the apartment block in Via di Nazario. Our flat is near the top and the kitchen windows look out over the back of the building, to a long, drop down into a tiled hall. Looking up there is a handkerchief of blue sky. The tall apartment was one of many that lined the narrow street, and it was a stones throw away from Piazza Farnese, that breaks out into Campo di Fiori, a very pretty and multicoloured market square.

“Looking up there is a handkerchief of blue sky”

Early in the morning men and women of all shapes and sizes set up stalls of fruit, vegetables, trinkets, treasures, books and oils. The bars brim with boisterous conversation, espresso and freshly baked cornettos. It is here I pass through with the children on our way to school every morning.

“The bars brim with boisterous conversation, espresso and freshly baked cornettos

It is the weekend and I feel relieved. Weekends always have a different rhythm. There is no routine, and although I am expected to still be around for the children I am often free to do what I choose. As wonderful as that sounds, I still had no friends. Nobody I could talk to outside of the immediate family. It is a strange, unnerving feeling and as I rummaged around my room getting ready for the day, I thought how odd it would be if my friends could see me now. Lonely, old me.

This morning Benjamin, the father whom I live with and work for, prepared coffee in a small mocha pot, and the strong perfume filtered through the house. The day was bright and blue, which in Rome was terribly normal. For me though, a born and bred English girl, the day felt full of possibility and fresh.

The house is full of minimal luxuries, my favourite of which are the enormous, white linen curtains that waft about the living room, waving cheerful to passers-by outside. A lady comes to help every day with the cooking and cleaning leaving the place spotless. It often makes me feel inadequate, but I was not there to be the cleaner or the cook. I was the au-pair and taught English to the children who begrudgingly accepted lessons.

I could hear Teresa in the bathroom, and popped my head around the door.

“Good morning, sweetie.”

Teresa was intelligent and angelic. She had long, blond hair that she was exceptionally proud of. Someone had taught her to brush it many, many times to keep it shiny and the bathroom always occupied.

She danced into the hall after breakfast where there was a large table with colouring paper and pens. I was drinking my creamy coffee, and once I started drawing Teresa plopped herself on the chair next to me and followed suit. Anna, Teresa’s mother had already left for work, and Teresa was to meet her at four.

There are a few things I like to do when I am alone in the foreign house– namely, make sure I get in touch with those who love me. This is a small window of time where I make sure I catch up with people back home and touch base with those I miss to ensure that they know I am thinking of them and am still alive. (My mother has a wild imagination). You are probably wondering what happened to the first few weeks, and why this doesn’t start at the beginning. One word for you: homesick. So desperately and surprisingly homesick. Nothing lasts for long, adaption changes everything. I have blubbered over frothy cappuccino, overlooking the view of the golden Colosseum, while waiters hover close by wondering if there is a problem with the coffee? That seems a silly, rather embarrassing memory. Now there is routine, I know where I am with the family, who have been nothing but kind – (well, the boy often looks at me as if he is plotting murder.)

“Nothing lasts for long, adaption changes everything”

It is now beginning to get colder, more autumnal. The sprinkling of tan I had gained upon arrival is being ripped off by chillier weather that only makes the city appear more unique and crisp.

I don’t know if you have ever lived far from home, but if you are english and nodding then one phrase for you when craving comfort: A cup of Yorkshire tea, love? Have a sit down, chat with your granny, and everything will be alright. My own granny has had to listen to some blubbering down the phone more than once since I got here. Not a delicate tear, but full on sobbing that forces me to hide in the bathroom and talk, feigning a normal, chatty voice. Come on! We’ve all done it.

My advice to a lonely soul getting chubby on pasta and feeling sad: allocate time to talk to, write and catch up with home and those far away faces that love you. Other than that, throw yourself into where you are otherwise you will miss it. You will simply miss out on all of it. And that is pretty sad.