Friday, 27 November 2015

To be played loudly

I bet that when the parcels arrive at reception, Liliane doesn’t need to check the recipient names any longer: one look at the flat square box and she calls me. Another vinyl on the way.
Luca calls them “those things that turn around”, followed by a mimics with a finger spinning around (it's either a LP  or a frisbee), his wife has never seen one before starting to work in our office, so one of the last delivery I got caused a lot of curiosity.

Because of the trips of the last month and a half, plus searching for where to buy a new stylus for my Vestax (not the easiest task, when the manufacturer has gone busted), meant that I got a nice pile of new albums to listen to.
And that’s exactly what I did yesterday. I was working from home, so I ditched all the streaming services and plugged my Vestax and started working down the pile: Star Wars, as in Wilco’s latest masterpiece, was the first, followed by a Chet Baker concert album, a live by BÖC and last but not least, “It was triumph we once proposed… songs of Jason Molina” by Glen Hansard.

I’ve been listening to this EP a lot at work, mixed with original recordings of the songs by Songs: Ohia but yesterday felt different. It was getting darker, but I couldn’t be bothered to turn on the lights. As I worked with only the MacBook casting a bit of light from the monitor, Glen kept playing. Once the side was over, I would simply move over and turn the LP and start again. You can play a 5 songs EP a lot of times in an afternoon. Yet, it never seems to be enough: I’m not sure whether it’s just an impression made on my feeble mind, but I seem able to hear more when I use the turntable. So at each new round I grasp something more and feel the need to listen to the songs once more.
Moreover when I read the sleeve for the first time, it struck me as a very well tuned example of serendipity, given I had just finished listening to Wilco.

to be played loudly

I followed the advice of the sleeve: my lovely turntable is extremely powerful even without a amplifying system.
Hopefully my melomaniac neighbour didn't mind it too much.

Wednesday, 11 November 2015

it's only words

When I was 6 years old, my grandparents got me a geography book. It had maps of all the continents and brief chapters explaining how's the word made, what are the geological characteristics of the different part of the planet, what's the position of Earth in the solar system and so on.

It had a page explaining the national characteristics are: well, "stereotypes people have about you because of the place you were born and you have about them for the same pathetic motives" was perhaps too long for the title of a chapter in a children book. It had flags of some random countries and listed things like food, climate, language spoken.

I remember I spent more than an afternoon trying to make sense of this “language spoken” detail. I couldn’t comprehend how was it possible for people to speak different languages. Did they have to learn it at a certain point? I then considered the case of my parents and other relatives: they were all bilingual, as they spoke Italian and dialect. The conclusion I came to, with a degree of intellectual acumen and raw geniality that would leave the likes of de Saussure, Jakobson and Derrida literally speachless, was: people might speak different languages, but they think in Italian and then their brain translates their thoughts from Italian to German or English or Bantu.

That would also explain the reason why wars broke out: too much misunderstandings were due to bad simoultaneous translation made by the brains. If everybody spoke Italian, that wouldn’t happen, reasoned the 6-year-old me.

My political vision is a bit more cynical nowadays, but this small story comes back to my mind quite often: I can almost pinpoint the starting point of an obsession that accompanied me for most of my life, I can see in this explanation I made up for myself the beginning of my interest with words and translation, the curse and blessing that is Babel.

At University, while studying Benjamin & Steiner (which are not an indie-rock band, even though somebody should name his band so) and tried to make sense of their works, I also found another love of mine: untranslatable words. There are so many words that don’t have a full correspettive in another language, because of the many different cultural, historical, geopolitical factor that shapes a language and that can be defined only by the language they influence.

About an year ago, I was wasting time on internet. It happens often: I open Safari with an objective in mind, a website to visit but then things derail. Aside the attention span of an hamster the temptation of wikipedia, rather than online magazine and similar sites is too strong for me to resist.

And that’s when I found the definition of a word, heartworm:

n. a relationship or friendship that you can’t get out of your head, which you thought had faded long ago but is still somehow alive and unfinished, like an abandoned campsite whose smoldering embers still have the power to start a forest fire.

I never heard it before, and when I read it I wonder why. It’s so nice, so poetic, so… invented.

I had stumbled by pure chance on The Dictionary of Obscure Sorrow: it’s a collection of invented words. The author, John Koenig, creates neologisms, he gives a definition and name to an emotion that we might know how it feels but we don’t have a word for it… yet.

I’ve been reading the words slowly, one or two a week, sometimes I alternate them with untranslatable words. Alternating English and Italian every single day sometimes makes me forget the words: I have an image, a thought, a feeling in my head and I know that I know the word that defines it. But I can’t find it; sometimes I forget the Italian translation of an English word and I have to check on the dictionary for it. When I’m tired, my speech become even more garbled, as words from other languages I studied are thrown in the mix. I've always struggled to find the right words to voice my idea, I normally choke midway through, nervousness and anxiety having the best of me; the way languages are getting more and more mixed over the years makes me wonder if I’ll ever be able to separate them again. And I worry if, with time, I’ll become less and less comprehensible to other people.

Funnily enough, at the same time, all these languages piled up, in combination with neologisms and untranslatable words, make my ideas more clearer to me as I can patch up all the spots where one language is not complete with something borrowed from another one.

And if you ever had to learn a word from the dictionary of obscure sorrow, and you’re a bit like me, I think you should start with “fitzcarraldo”.

Tuesday, 10 November 2015

Chess and Tetris

I was obsessed about Tetris. I still am, but I got better self-control on. I used to play it non-stop, borrowing a friend’s Nintendo and on our home computer, on a floppy my dad got us.
I would embark into marathons. I hit bottom rock in Beijing: no class scheduled because of the Sars-induced shut down, personal life in shatters, I started a game of Tetris. I played for about 20 hours: safe for some loo break, it was a non-stop brick after brick frenzy.

I told myself “Just one more game”.
But then I made a stupid mistake. Or beat my record.
So I told myself “Just one more game” once more and started again. I drank hot water and ate that weird supermarket bread that felt and tasted like rubber, because I had nothing left in the room.

When I finally turned the computer off and went to bed I wasn’t feeling completely myself: I could feel my heartbeat in the throat, thumping like crazy and I couldn’t breath properly. Every time I closed my eyes, colored bricks kept on appearing behind my eyelids and I had to rotate and move them to clear enough lines to keep them falling. I didn’t fall asleep easily and, when I did, I dreamt of Tetris.
When I woke up I was still very tired, still with a crazy heartbeat. Tetris brick were now everywhere: in the washroom’s mirror, in the chopsticks holder in the canteen, in the paths and ponds around Tsinghua garden.

Because of the lockdown, foreign student were extremely bored and this brought a surge in consumption of booze and pot. People all over the dorm looked quite stoned and in a perennial state of hangover (with the exceptions of the North Koreans, of course). Having just overdosed on Tetris, I fit in with the rest of the crowd so perfectly, I think I never fit with the crowd so well before, nor I ever did after.

Obsessed and high as I was, I also knew I had reached a limit with Tetris I couldn’t allow myself to go over again. The fascination with the game was (and still is) strong, but so were the alarms ringing in my head. Obsessions find a welcoming habitat in my head, my brain seems to always be waiting for the next one to come along. But right then I had a very physical reminder of the consequences: the nausea blocked my body and thought process. It took me more than two days to go back to normal; I knew I couldn’t let this obsession take over, so after that episode I didn’t play Tetris for about 3 years.

I still play Tetris nowadays, but I got strict rules: there’s no game after 10 in the evening. The Tetris app gets periodically deleted from my iPhone and it’s got to go before I’m about to go on a long trip (which reminds I need to delete it before Saturday: 18 hours of plane travel are waiting for me, I simply can’t afford to leave room to temptation).

Last month, while in London, I bought a book by Stefan Zweig.
I didn’t plan to buy (more) books and the way I justified it to Francesco sounds a bit pathetic.

“It’s only 3£. And it’s a novella, not a novel. And it’s so tiny it fits into my coat’s pocket. So it doesn’t really count as a book, does it?”
No, you’re right. It doesn’t count as a book”, said Francesco, with the kind the kind of tone a nurse of a mental word would use with one of her patients before trying to make her wear a straitjacket.
I didn’t say that I bought it because of a sign:


A small communal garden, a giant-size chess set, a match in progress. Five days later, I was at Foyles holding a small book, aptly named “Chess”: could I have left it behind it? I could have, but it'd be not very in character and I wasn't in the mood of disappointment.

It took me 2 commuting travels to finish it, but the story stayed with me for much longer. It was a discovery from many point of view.

First of all the author: how is it possible I’ve lived until today without having basically no knowledge of his work? For such great and famous writer, I couldn’t remember his name ever be mentioned during literature or German culture classes.
Secondly: how could I have watched "Grand Hotel Budapest" without ever feeling the curiosity to find out a bit more about Wes Anderson's inspiration? Zweig's life and work, everything is tragic and fascinating. Reading “Chess” made me curious about his other books.

The story takes place on a ship headed to Buenos Aires: on board a world champion of chess accepts to play for money against a group of passengers. It looks they're set to be defeated when they're helped by another passenger. The narrator then listen to this man, Dr B, recanters his story: originally from Austria, like the author, Dr B used a stolen book on chess to learn to play the game and used it as mental relief during his imprisonment by the Gestapo. But then chess, turned into an obsession: the game moved from his improvised board to an imagined one and then into his mind only. He started playing both black and white, battling his now self to a game that claimed his physical and mental health.

It’s a fascinating read, no matter the fact I can barely tell a pawn from a knight. What gripped at my soul the most is the description of how something can quickly turn from saving grace to obsession, pushing you to the brink of insanity and perhaps beyond. One could argue that Tetris, a video game, is not the same thing as chess, the Royal Game: true but, as the title of a brilliant documentary suggests, it's the ecstasy of the order. And much more than that.

The sentences Zweig used to describe how the chess matches claim the whole intellect of Dr B rang true to my eyes and ears, as I felt the same for Tetris when in Beijing. I was not in a prison, even though Beijing during the Sars was not (and still isn’t, after it) exactly the poster image of freedom. Yet I felt trapped. Tetris provided me a getaway from a physical prison, but triggered the bars that could and still can shut my brain down.

Wednesday, 4 November 2015

In due time

This morning I was slowly making my way to work: I didn’t hear the first, second and third alarm clock and when I managed to snooze the 4th one, I was already 30 minutes late for work. I woke up asleep: I got up, but brain decided that no no, I’m going to have a lie-in, come back in half a day, thank you very much.

On the way to work, my 30 minutes slowly but surely growing into a 45 minutes delay, I sat on the metro skimming through my Twitter feed and one tweet caught my eyes: it was a news from an Italian magazine, telling the news of a movie going to be in the theatre very soon.

The thing is I already watched this movie, not in a cinema but on DVD: “Grave of the Fireflies” is a 1988 Japanese move, it has a new dub version and that's the reason why it’s finally coming to Italian theatres. It’s being called an event. In a way it surely is: this movie is almost 30 years old and it’s appearing on the big screen in Italy only now. For two days only.

Either you go on November 10th and 11th to the cinema or you buy the DVD like I did years ago.
Yesterday, after dinner at Eli’s place, we watched “My Neighbour Totoro”: we’re both big fans of Studio Ghibli and I, as per tradition and habit, had to wine about how hard it is in Italy to see a Studio Ghibli movie in the cinema. Or any non-Pixar/American animation for all that matters. It’s not the first time movies by Studio Ghibli are released in Italy as a “1 weekend off deal”: it happened with “The wind rises” and “When Marnie was there” just in the last couple of years.

It just makes me mad. Why? Why? Why!?!? It’s not like people are not interested: the cinema was packed for “When Marnie was there”. And why shouldn’t it be so? Not only it’s a beautiful movie, but when you know that if you miss that weekend you might as well start looking for the DVD, you’re surely going to buy a ticket. This time it’s going to be even harder because they’re releasing the movie during the week, which means everybody working will have to go to the evening show.

Looking at the DVD I’m sorting recently and the films I bought on iTunes, I realised I have been to the cinema only twice in the past 8 months. Why should I? Movies are all dubbed and the choice for the one in original language is sometimes non existent. Films I’m interested in don’t last more than 2 days on the billboard. I get annoyed at people munching popcorn and chips and vacuuming up the drinks… cinema looks more stressful than anything else right now. Yet it might not be enough to keep me from getting a ticket for next week.

Tuesday, 3 November 2015

Fast Car

I remember lending “The Hare’s Corner” to Barbara.

I remember she gave it back to me and I brought it back to Milan.
I remember it sat in my office desk drawer for quite some time then: I was not in a hurry to bring it back to the flat. In one of my midnight insomnia induced redesign of the living room I had unplugged the DVD reader, the only way I had to listen to CDs. Plus with the music on my iTunes library I didn’t feel the need for it.

I spent about a year without the DVD reader. It was good in a way: in between TV, DTT box, Apple TV, an uncounted number of lightning cables and the plug for the turntable, my living room is a bundle of cables crossing one another in a lovely electric spaghetti nest… Having 2 cable less to deal with made the whole thing look already tidier.

But, on the other side, what if you want to watch a movie you like and you own? Tough. I did re-buy some of the movie on iTunes, but it wasn’t the same thing, especially when I bought “Grand Hotel Budapest” thinking it was in English and it turned out to be only the dubbed Italian version.

While in London I bought a DVD I wanted to watch (more on that another day) and once back, I went and replugged the DVD into the mess.
Tonight I wanted to listen to “Blue Shoes” but, instead of iTunes or Spotify, I thought I could just listen to the CD. I could, if only I remembered where on earth I put it. But even remembering where in my apartment I put it would do, really.

I dived into the search and lost myself in it; I found some DVDs like “To be or not to be”, and “天下无双“ (this movie is hilarious, plus there’s Wang Fei acting in it), 1 bus ticket and some CDs: Fabrizio De Andrè, Wilco and then “Tracy Chapman”.

Ah. The first time I bought "Tracy Chapman", it was on a cassette: I bought it at "Maschio", a music shop that was more than a shop and that I still miss every day. I listened to it so much the tape eventually gave up on me and I was extremely sad about it. I bought one CD then, but left it as a farewell gift to a friend: it felt bitter-sweet and I do hope he still listens to it.
I re-bought it once more the first time I went to China, about the time I found out that even big French supermarket chain sold not-so-legal (read: downright ripped) CDs.
The copy I found tonight has seen all my moves of the past 10 years, with the other CD of hers. I put it on tonight, playing the song in the order I used to like listening to them as a teenager… no wonder the tape self-destroyed! You can't keep fast forwarding, rewinding and switching sides without the poor tape going a little bit bonkers.

I moved to “Collection”, yet another souvenir of Beijing, even though slightly more legal than the previous one I bought there. At the same time, I've kept searching for “The Hare’s corner” while Tracy played: now I got a nice pile of DVDs waiting to be played in the next days and, if I’m lucky, I’ll eventually find some CD to play too.

Sunday, 1 November 2015

The etymon of a scarf

The Italian word for “sausage” is salsiccia.
I have to confess I was more than 10 years old when I discovered its correct spelling. Before then, I was convinced the word was salsiccia. It made perfect sense to me: “sal-“ as in sale, meaning “salt” and “-ciccia”, meaning fatty. And what’s a sausage, at the end of the day, but salty fat? When I discovered my mistake, I was puzzled as nobody had ever corrected me, possibly because people found it funny or cute; or maybe they did corrected me, but I didn't pay attention, as usual.

For sure I’m not the only one that made this mistake while growing up, even though I’m not sure how many others felt the need to base their spelling on some etymology ground, no matter how partial and non-sense it was.

When I showed a photo of my ongoing scarf project to my friends, the mistake came back to my mind and I decide to name it “salsiccia”.

I’ve started knitting in at the end of March, at the beginning of my streak of concerts. It’s an easy pattern, the kind you learn after 2 or 3 repeats, not too difficult yet not too plain: perfect for traveling. I was planning to knit a shorter version of it, maybe turn it into a cowl, but then I realized I had no pattern to use the eventual yarn leftover. Also, I don’t wear cowls: I decided to keep knitting. And knitting travel after knitting travel, the scarf reached a considerable length and started creating quite a mess in the project bag I carried it around (ok, the supermarket bag I carried it around).

The solution to me was simple: I just rolled it up and block it with an elastic, and voilà, here’s a salciccia. Ok, the original name of the pattern, “Foreign Correspondent’s Scarf” is far more elegant and suggestive, but, really, at the moment the scarf doesn’t resemble much more than a badly spelled sausage!