Friday 17 October 2014

The Poetical Walls of Leiden

For the past year or so, I've been working on a project in beautiful Leiden, home of the oldest university  in the Netherlands.

A couple of weeks ago, we went out for an evening stroll along the canal and I spotted this house.

I assumed the residents were just big Shakespeare fans.  Why NOT paint Sonnet XXX on the side of your house?  Good idea.

But then I also saw this house and realised that it wasn't just a once off, but a project to transform buildings into outsized pages of poetry.

And here's another one.

It turns out these 'wall poems' are part of an ongoing project, and rather than being temporary, they remain for everyone to find and enjoy.

Lovely idea, no?

If you should find yourself in Leiden, the project website has a full list of the poems (107 and counting) and a map, so you can design your own walking tour.

Tuesday 14 October 2014

How Do You Take Your Art?

How do take your art?  Alone or in a crowd?  Fast or slow?  Through a camera lens or in a camera-free zone?

The debate about how people should behave in art museums ramped up recently as the National Gallery in London became the latest in a slew of museums to allow photography in their galleries, leading to many, oh many, columns about how photos - selfies in particular - are Ruining The Museum Experience For The Rest Of Us (see here and here if you're interested in reading more) linking directly or indirectly to opinion pieces that suggest You're Looking at the Art All Wrong (here and here).

Oh.  Really?

In the interests of satisfying my curiosity I decided to carry out my own, entirely personal, non-scientific research on a visit to the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam, one of the most visited art museums in the world.
I spent most of my time in two of the most popular areas of the museum: the Gallery of Honour (featuring big names like Vermeer, Rembrandt, Hals) and the 19th century galleries.  I didn't take any selfies, but I did spend a lot of time looking at art, photographing art and photographing other people looking at art.  

The brilliant Nina Simon points out that one of the main gripes against allowing photography in museums (makes it harder to see the art) has less to do with photography as such, and more to do with crowding.  So even if the museum banned photography of, say, the Night Watch, I'm pretty sure you'd still have to peer through a crowd of people to see the painting.  But while it's true that there's a perma-crowd in front of the work - actually, brilliantly, standing in a crowd (taking photos, talking, looking at their maps, jostling for a better view) helped me to get it.  I'm in a crowd, reflecting a crowd, reflecting a crowd ...

Here, people are gathered round Vermeer's Milkmaid.  I love this photo: it looks just like she's doing a demonstration in a department store.  Hey, check out this great milk pourer I have.  Yours for only €19.99.

Had I not had my camera, I think I would have been more focused on the painting on its own.  Because of my camera, I was very aware of the image created by all of these people gazing at The Milkmaid, nodding as they watch her pouring milk.  A new perspective.  I also liked seeing how respectful people were about waiting to take a photo of the painting, as though a little shy about taking liberties with such a celebrity.

I noticed that the act of taking a photograph seems to give people a sense of agency, an important sense of something to do.  I'm often struck by the flatness of the experience (visual and emotional) in art museums: flat paintings against flat walls with flat captions.  Sure, the idea is that the art should reach out to you in some way, but in practice it often leads to a kind of dead-eyed shuffle through the galleries.  (Just spend five minutes in the Louvre on a Sunday morning and you will see what I mean.)
A recent piece of research (seized upon with GLEE by numerous broadsheets) suggests that taking photographs of objects in museums worsens recall of those objects.  But the research also found that if there's a specific reason to take the photo (to zoom in on a detail, for example), people remembered it better.  So, with the right incentive (whether your own interest or someone else's suggestion) a camera can be a tool that helps you feel like an active participant in the museum experience, not just a shuffler.

My pro-photography stance was tested later on, beside the Van Gogh self portrait.  There was a bit of pushy-shovy as two guys tried to get into the best position for photos.  It made me feel uncomfortable to see Vincent's sad face peeking out through the crowd.

And here, everyone seems to be ignoring him.

But again, the interaction of the people, their cameras, my camera and the painting framed the experience in a new way.  If anything, I thought my appreciation of the painting was enhanced because of this moment when I was acutely of Vincent Van Gogh's loneliness in the middle of a crowd.

So, I think it's safe to conclude that the presence of people photographing in the Museum didn't ruin the experience for me, nor - I hope - did I ruin anyone else's experience (apart from the man who elbowed me as he tried to get into optimal position to photograph this painting).  The crowding wasn't ideal but was mostly limited to the iconic paintings - there were still plenty of opportunities in the museum to have an uninterrupted one-on-one with the art.

In fact, the visit was an important reminder that when artworks are in public spaces, the public - and their cameras - become part of the experience.  The obligation is on the museum makers (myself included) to develop galleries that respond better to the fact that visitors are not just participants in their own visit, but also become part of how other visitors experience the museum.

In other words, while you could say that The Rest of Us Are Ruining the Art Museum for the Rest of Us - you could also argue that the presence of other people contributes to the kind of unique, memorable experience you can only get from visiting a museum.

Sunday 12 October 2014

Time Travels with a Donkey

One last Italian instalment for now, as there's only so much I can write (or anyone else might want to read) at one time about food, wine and family.  

I keep coming back to these photos of two of my nephews, taken on a visit to the donkeys who lived in a field below the agriturismo.  The boys were both thrilled at the prospect of seeing donkeys close up, but when we got near, they drew back.  This guy (the indian chief) told me firmly that his mother wouldn't like it because she's scared of donkeys (slander, but he's six, and projecting.)  

So we talked a bit about the donkeys and I stood between nephews and donkeys as a buffer while we chatted.  I explained that the donkeys were butting the fence because they were curious about us and I leaned over and stroked one of the donkey's noses as I spoke.  And I had the strangest time-sliding moment where thirty years dissolved and reappeared and I was all at once a small girl who had been scared of donkeys and a grown woman who could show her nephews how to pat a donkey and my overwhelming feeling was of amazement and awareness because I am both those people, all at once, altogether.  Somewhere between five and thirty-five, I learnt not to be scared of animals and my five-year-old self is both surprised and delighted.  

These fellas were quite impressed too.

I wonder if he'll remember this in thirty years?

Tuesday 7 October 2014

How Do You Say 'Glutton' in Italian?

Yes, it has occurred to me that writing about Italian food is somewhat redundant - it's not as though I were the first person to record my thoughts on the subject.  That said, I thought I would share a few food highlights and hints from my recent visit on the grounds that I always like reading about or hearing about what people eat on their travels.

My first coffee of our stay was in Milan airport, just after baggage claim.  There I realised a couple of things. First, a cappuccino is greatly enhanced by a ciambella, a kind of lemon-scented doughnut.  Second, there is a particular protocol at Italian coffee bars.  You order and pay at one counter, then take your receipt to a second counter where the actual coffee-maker (person, not machine), reviews the receipt, marks it and then prepares your coffee.

Prima Colazione
Living in Italy, much as I like the idea, might be dangerous to my health.  My ideal breakfast is essentially coffee + cake - what Elizabeth Gilbert describes as the 'Italian speedball breakfast' in Eat, Pray, Love.  My urge to start the day with caffeine and sugar (ideally some chocolate in there too) is one I try not to indulge to often.  But when everyone else is doing it…. At the agriturismo I compromised.  I had yoghurt and fruit every morning and usually a small sample of the savoury 'special' - the mini frittatas and the small cheese pies, like Greek tiropita, were especially good.  And then I had a slice of cake and a cappuccino.  And then I ran up and down several hills, often with a small nephew on my back.

I am a pizza purist.  No complicated toppings, please.  We discovered that my six-year-old nephew shared my exact tastes: we discovered this when his pizza arrived and my pizza arrived and he looked at his and looked at mine and then sweetly suggested I might like to swap.  (I do mean sweetly.  At six, his talent for guile is underdeveloped.)  Instead we shared, and learnt together to say 'pizza con salume crudo, per favore'.  If you like pizza with pepperoni, this is what you should say, too.

Yes, please.  Always.  I loved the roasted red peppers wrapped around a slightly fishy mayonnaise and the raw vegetables with bagna cauda, featuring garlic, olive oil, anchovies and a little cream, eaten fondue-style.

The funny thing is I don't normally eat a lot of pasta.  But when it appears as one course among many - and in a relatively modest portions, not the huge vats that get served up in restaurants elsewhere - why, it seems foolish not to partake.  My favourite were tortelli (similar to ravioli) filled with pumpkin and  a hint of cinnamon and decorated with sage.

I am still thinking about the pork loin with honey and a sauce made from slightly sour berries.  And the small, crispy potatoes cooked under the joint and flavoured with just enough rosemary.  I would never make it as a vegetarian in a world where such delicious maialino exists - nor for that matter would I survive long without potatoes.  You can take the girl out of Ireland, etc.  I see a potato, I eat it.

Even allowing for trends in food fashions, as in everything else, I have never understood why tiramisu fell out of favour.  Sponge fingers soaked in alcohol and coffee, served with mascarpone cream and chocolate.  What's not to like?  In fact, I liked it so much that I had two helpings one night at our agriturismo.  I also have a soft spot for the kind of deconstructed baked Alaska with soft Italian meringue, amazing vanilla gelato and sponge cake we ate one lunchtime.  This may have been the same day as a tiramisu.  I may have rolled home.

In conclusion: try everything; three-dessert days are occasionally appropriate; Italians know their way around carbohydrates; always pack walking / running shoes to work off the indulgence.

Friday 3 October 2014

Details / i Dettagli

In which I continue to wax lyrical about Italy.

From Milan we got the train to the Langhe (for those who don't know it - as I didn't before last week - it's an area of small hills in Piedmont, in Northern Italy).  More specifically we were staying just at the edge of the Barolo region and that, my friends, means wine.  Really, really good wine.  Three generations of family gathered at a wonderful Agriturismo (essentially a farm with B&B) there to celebrate my brother's Significant Birthday.

When I went through my photos of the weekend, I noticed that many of them captured small, lovely moments.  No big monuments, no major events (apart from the birthday cake, I guess), no historic sites ... just lots of beautiful details in a beautiful place.

For example, watching the men pick grapes and then load up the truck - what amazing colours!  One of my three-year-old nephews asked me in his Greeklish, 'pou p├íne grapes?' (where are they going, the grapes?)

These striped deck chairs are where I'm planning to spend my retirement, gazing out over the wine-producing hills.

I spent an hour taking photographs of the small church on the property, looking at the patterns the leaves made against the stuccoed walls.

Roof details also feature frequently in my photographs - I like the little cupolas and the weathervane/cross combinations.

I liked seeing an old lady hanging out her washing: all black, including the voluminous knee-length knickers of legend.  I liked seeing more colourful washing hanging from every balcony in the small, hill-top village of Barolo.

For some of my detail-spotting I was helped by my six-year-old Nephew, who found things for me to photograph and then helped me push the buttons on my camera.  Oh, an auntie's life would be much sadder without small boys who adore gadgets.

Gregory spotted this flower, for example, hanging on to the ancient castle wall.

And this lamp on the Via Roma.

And this fresco of Madonna con bambino.

But I was the one who insisting on photographing this Posta Telegrafo + laundry composition.

Being in the company of small boys is excellent if one is in the business of noticing details.  They are happy to spend hours unpicking things, collecting stones and disassembling sticks so that they are exactly the right length.

They are less interested in shrines, but I love to take photographs of them: small houses erected to protect hopes and desires.  This one is dedicated to Beata Maria.

I liked the way the rosy, ochre-y brick stood out against the green hills.

And I liked the way it framed two small red-headed boys.


And speaking of which:
The place we stayed was Agriturismo Bevione.  Glorious food, comfortable accommodation and the warmest of warm welcomes.

Most of these photos were taken on a walk that starts in the village of Barolo (there's a car park below the castle) and ends up, via a trail that winds through woods and vineyards, in Monforte d'Alba, about 5km in total.

Tuesday 30 September 2014

Four Hours in Milan

I have just come back from four days in Italy and now I have a new to-do list with just one thing on it: ITALIA.

Why oh why have I not spent more time in Italy?  It has all the things I like (food, art, style, scenery, history, great people watching) and it's not as though it were far away.  But apart from a memorable family holiday when I was five (we went to Venice, there was a gondola, I wore a hat, it was fabulous) and a brief trip to Rome a couple of years ago, my Italian adventures have been practically non-existent.      Well, that's going to have to change now, obviously.

In the spirit of making up for last time, I did try to cram a lot into the past few days, starting with four hours in Milan on Thursday with Lady Traveller's Little Sister.  (This post has been brought to you by the number 4 and the letters I and M.)  This photo of a delivery man's bike - and my sister looking admiring - sums up everything we loved about Milan.

Fortified by good cappuccinos on arrival, we headed into the city and our most important appointment: lunch.  We had arranged to go to the Trattoria Milanese on Via Santa Marta, not far from the Duomo.  There are, you might not be surprised to hear, several restaurants called 'Trattoria Milanese' but this came recommended.

We loved it, from the paintings of dead animals on the walls, to the charming waiter, through tortellini and veal Milanese and wine and cantucci and caffe.  We staggered out and walked over to the cathedral.  Wedding cake on the outside, altogether more beautiful on the inside.

We then paid our respects in the Galleria Vittorio Emanuele - a 19th century shopping arcade - but luckily we didn't like anything we saw in the window of Versace (or Prada).

On the other side of the Galleria is the Piazza La Scala and though we didn't have time for an opera, we did have fun at the opera shop (mini opera glasses, yay!)  Funnily enough, although lots of other things in Milan are very bling, the opera house is relatively unadorned.

We enjoyed, very much, watching the glamorous Milanese go by, noting approvingly that the city bikes and trams were colour-coordinated.

We wound up the afternoon at the very grand Stazione Centrale which has plenty of cafes, purveyors of snacks and fripperies.  And then it was time to hop on board our train to Turin.

Friday 26 September 2014

Hints to Travel Writers from a Lady Traveller

A hint today from Isabella Bird, quintessential Lady Traveller and inspiration for this blog.

'I'm convinced that actual letters - merely corrected - are the most vivid and popular form of presenting one's impressions of a country.'

Miss Bird wrote this to her publisher, John Murray, and I heard it in an episode of BBC Radio 4's 'Great Lives' (which is great, check it out).  Isabella Bird's early travel books were based on letters to her sister at home, so they have that immediate, intimate style and are - for a Victorian writer - remarkably fresh and accessible.

But this line caught my attention again because it occurred to me that blogging is really a version of what she described.  I occasionally wish my descriptions were better informed or more profound, but I started writing for family and friends and my posts reflect the true, sometimes confused, sometimes inarticulate impressions I had at the time of writing.

When this posts I will be in ITALY and will return next week with tales of pasta and wine and dolci, oh my.