What a week!

I normally only write this blog when travelling and usually when travelling abroad. But I haven’t done that since Christmas in Cadiz in 2019 so it’s been a while. However the last week has involved travel and events that hint at some sort of normal life again. The week began with me getting unexpected praise for writing something completely outside my comfort zone so I posted it on my Verbalists blog. It was a piece of music criticism as homework for a short series of webinars from the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment.

So last Saturday I ventured to the wilds of east London (Gants Hill) for a delicious lunch and stimulating discussion with one member of the group BBPC (British Bangladeshi Poetry Collective) of which I am honoured to be a trustee. I was invited by Shamim and Eeshita Azad who I worked with in Bangladesh way back in 2009. My poet and artist friend and I are working on a translation project where she finds my editing experience a help. As I told her she mines the jewels; I just give them a bit of a polish. We made good progress and had a fun time. So why was the day spoiled by taking me nearly an hour to get back through the Blackwall Tunnel? What were all these people doing on a Saturday evening?

Sunday and Monday were consumed by domestic and gardening duties which proved fun in the sun and both flowers, fruit and vegetables are coming on nicely and I have a neat front hedge.

On Tuesday morning the four of us who are the executives and trustees of BBPC were subjected to a 90 minute grilling – not she wasn’t that fierce, a gentle toasting – by a bank manager, making sure we were who we said we were, what we planned to do and I suppose to make sure that we weren’t a front for a money-laundering operation. We survived and hope to have a bank account to go with our newly acquired status as a Community Interest Company. We had a splendid picnic that evening to celebrate becoming a real company. More excellent Bangladeshi food and the company of friends, oh how we’ve missed that!

On Wednesday Eeshita and I attended an excellent British Library streamed lecture by Jhumpa Lahiri about the art of translation something we will be featuring in BBPC workshops. She is Bangladeshi but now an American citizen teaching at Princeton and has just published Thresholds in English which is a translation she made herself from the novel she originally wrote in Italian after moving to Rome a decade ago to steep herself in Italian language and culture. Thought-provoking, informative and stimulating words from a fierce intellect who shared her thoughts with great clarity.

And as that wasn’t enough excitement, in the evening I conducted a Zoom interview for The Watford Treasury a magazine I help to edit. Talking to a Watford striker hero always gives me a buzz but Tom Smith as he is now, Tommy when playing, was charming, thoughtful, generous of time and gave me just what I required for an article I’m writing.

Then the real fun started on Thursday. I actually drove to Putney to pick up my friend Jadwiga and headed off for Glyndebourne to see Janacek’s Kat’a Kabanova. It’s the first time since 2019 and we were blessed with a glorious sunny day and had booked a hotel in Lewes so as not to have to rush back to London after the performance. We arrive in time to change and book a cab. Mad Mike panic – I normally keep cufflinks in the pocket of my DJ jacket, but after its last use it went to the dry cleaners. Taxi imminent, no time to go shopping so quick improvisation required. Has reception got a stapler? Of course and duly sterilised it provided a new way with shirt cuffs as we made our way the Glyndebourne, passed through the temperature checks and venue log in and went to pick up our picnic which we’d booked in the marquee for the interval. Glyndebourne is doing a big thing with local winery Nytimber and, well local businesses need support so drink was taken.

The opera was beautifully sung and played and is a heartening tale of disastrous marital infidelity leading to death – well it is opera. The score is dynamic and exciting and made for a fabulous evening and if you would like to you can read my review here.

It had been such a delight that on returning to the hotel in Lewes we decided a glass of wine would be a suitable accompaniment to discussing our views of the production. So we did that for a while and both agreed that while visual and direction aspects of the production were naff, the music and the experience were wonderful. As we were thinking about retiring two young ladies entered the bar, got themselves a drink and asked if they could join us. They were police officers due to give evidence in court on Friday and proved chatty and delightful companions as bottles rather than glasses were consumed and four people who should have known better struggled off to bed around 1.30 am.

The last time we visited Glyndebourne together it was glorious weather for the opera and biblical, monsoon rain next day, I might have been back in Dhaka. History repeated itself with one significant difference. Last time I’d left my car’s lights on by accident all night and had to call the AA who, after getting it started, advised driving solidly for two hours to recharge the battery. We zigzagged across Sussex and Kent before deciding it was safe to stop for lunch in Penshurst. The car was fine this year and took us through the deluge to Chichester where we had tickets at the Pallant House Gallery to see an exhibition From Degas to Picasso which was very impressive. But it did raise a question of access to art. All the paintings and prints were from the gallery’s own collection and was the exhibit was put together rather hastily once opening dates were known. There were more etchings, lithographs and screen prints than oils, but also a healthy selection of watercolours. We feasted our eyes but were saddened that all these images are normally hidden from view in a vault or storeroom. Here are two lithographs by Salvador Dali that showed a different side of his work – albeit with a few characteristics tics here and there.

Lunch in the café was pleasant and we were ready for a mercifully rain-free drive through the fabulously varied scenery of Sussex and Surrey via Midhurst and Haslemere marvelling that we were out of our homes and having a fine time with a friend. What a great end to a busy week!

Thanks to Farah Naz and Jadwiga Adey for some of the photographs.

Pizzo and beyond

40 sushi pink Our last day today

                can we visit Pizzo

                and not eat pizza?

We’ve had a great time, quiet, nine mainly sunny days by the pool. Eating at home because everywhere else means one of us not having a drink so as to drive home along the roads that cry out “mind the eggs”. But we’ve eaten well on local produce and drunk well on local Ciro wines. There have been a few moments of thunder and a couple of quick downpours but on the whole it was just what we needed. There was a well designed garden area with a stone bench that reminded us of Japan and lots of lizards and a few geckos for company.

By the pool  Dee and thunder  Stone seat  

So we leave our villa today passing what was maligned in a previous post as a wayside fruit stand. It is of course a full blown supermarket with everything we could have wanted and had we looked harder we could probably have avoided our fraught trip to Vibo Valentia last Sunday.

Supermercato MS Supermercato

We are going to spend the day and night in another town up the Calabrian coast called Pizzo. We’ve booked into the hotel for one night and reminiscent of early arrivals in Japan earlier this year we have expectations of leaving baggage at the hotel and wandering about until official check in time at 15:30. Pizzo is a warren of undulating winding streets but eventually we hit a free parking space in Piazza Mussolino (note the last vowel) which is walkable to the hotel. However we arrive – sensibly deciding not to take our bags – to find the front door open but a sliding glass door impenetrable. We ring the bell. Niente. We walk about and knock on windows. Niente.  We telephone and leave a message on the voicemail and so to the Piazza della Repubblica for a coffee. We’ve not quite ordered when the hotel phones and says we can come now. So we apologize to the patrone, head back to the car and pick up out bags and wheel them along a street of roadworks to the hotel.

Magic! Our room is ready. The hotel is beautiful. The staff are apologetic – they were serving breakfast on the roof terrace and couldn’t get the door – sounds good for tomorrow as breakfast’s included. It’s called the Piccolo Grand Hotel and it’s a perfect description. It has all the elegance and style of a grand hotel but in a converted palazzo that only has 12 rooms.

We ask about parking and are advised that we are best where we are and set off to park up for the day as there’s not much call for driving in Pizzo.

ParkingNow you can only buy parking by the hour on a card on which you scratch out the year, day, hour and minute on a foil covered card. And you can only buy cards by the hour. So having decided to stay put we need ten of them at 50 cents each so we sit and scratch and display the whole array in the windscreen. They say it’s OK in the tabacchi where we buy the cards – we’ll see tomorrow if there was a hidden sign saying “No return within one hour”.

Hey ho coffee calls. Il Patrone is pleased and maybe surprised to see us back but we have good coffee and a chocolate croissant for breakfast before exploring the town.

Pizzo harbour Pizzo GV Pizzo street

It is a pleasant place with some nice churches, grand – if rather run-down – palazzi and wonderful views of the sea from narrow, angled street corners. The area is famed for its liquorice so we buy a few packs to take home for offices and friends as well as some limoncello flavoured biscuits we think will go down nicely for Friday treats. We go for a prosecco and a beer in the main square before meeting Beata to give her the keys and retrieve our breakages deposit. She arrives, flustered and with many other visitors to attend to and we decide on a local produce shop-cum-restaurant Le Chicche di Calabria for lunch. What a good choice!

Pizzo lunch Tasting menu

We had the Calabrian tasting menu which kept coming – a plate of four or five different cheeses, then a platter of salamis some mild, most quite fiery. For the first time we were presented with our cutlery and napkins in a paper bag. These first courses were the precursor to four bruchettas again two tomato-eyd  and the others really hot with the chillies they love so much down in the south. Finally there was the steak – almost a comparable tenderness to the Hida beef we’d tasted in Japan earlier this year. Accompanied by a rosato wine from Ciro region just to the north and finished off with coffee it was an excellent way to spend several hours. We buy a few more bits and pieces from the shop and when we decline a large bottle of local liquorice liqueur our explanation “Ryanair” is greeted with a sage nod of acceptance. Their meagre baggage allowances go before them everywhere it seems. We retired to the hotel which has a lovely small roof terrace for some embroidery in Dee’s case and some reading in mine.

One of the great things about this static, relaxing holiday is that for the first time in ages we’ve been able to read all six of the Booker Prize shortlist – well nearly as according to Kindle I’m 18% through the sixth. For what it’s worth here are some brief observations in order of reading just before the winner is announced:

Ruth Ozeki A tale for the time being A bias has to be admitted because it deals with Japan and Canada in both of which I have an interest but it’s an imaginative look at post-tsunami Japan with further insights into zen and the Japanese character. The writing is not always quite as balanced as I would have liked but it was a compelling read.

Colm Toibin The Testament of Mary My winner by a short head. A beautifully crafted novel with a vivid sense of period and the politics of the birth of Christianity. A stunning concept brilliantly delivered.

NoViolet Bulawayo We need new names Startling and distressing but compelling and for me at least very educational, her stories of kids growing up in Zimbabwe are fresh and have an authentic feel. I found some of the US-set chapters a little less well done but it’s a book I’m very glad to have read.

Jhumpa Lahiri Lowland Again I was always going to enjoy the next book from a writer I already admire and with its settings in Kolkata and New England another two of my interests were featured. A heartbreaking series of stories unfold from her silky pen and I loved it.

Jim Crace Harvest How have I gone all these years without reading Crace? This is my second favourite – unusual for me in that it’s historical again set around the time of the enclosures but it’s love of the land, the politics of medieval poverty and the restless energy of the characters made this a wonderful introduction to an author who will be the subject of multiple downloads soon.

Eleanor Catton The Luminaries This will win because I can’t stand it. I must be the one person in the world who just can’t do Hilary Mantel’s Cromwell offerings which have twice won the Booker and this over-researched, over-written introduction to intrigue in New Zealand’s gold rush falls into the same category. The fastidiousness of the writing with immense effort to achieve a sense of “written at the time” I find very alienating. It leaves me completely frustrated with its lack of energy and I can’t say now that I’ll even bother to finish it. So put your money on this one and ignore my opinions above.

La lamparaWe had been told by several people that La Lampara was the best restaurant in Pizzo and the helpful staff at the hotel called ahead to make sure we could get a table as it is a) small and b) popular. It was great with a shared starter of smoked tuna followed by ricciola for Dee and swordfish for me so we had sampled the three fish the area’s most famous for. Wine choice not brilliant, a not quite dry enough local white but a very pleasant evening in excellent surroundings before retiring to the hotel to blog and discover that England had managed to qualify for the World Cup.

Next morning dawned very wetly. A veritable stream flowed by the hotel’s front door and it was impossible to distinguish sea from land from sky as everything was a uniform grey. Good preparation for our return to London.

view in the rain view after rain