Monday, January 28, 2013

Between worlds

Is there a standard temperature at which they keep airports? I have it at two and a half degrees too hot.

My head’s full of soup. When I move it from side to side, the soup sloshes around and my temples hurt.

We take off and lots of children cry in unison because their ears hurt. Not all of the parents have figured out the cause and so a couple is trying to reason with theirs. At one point the father shakes her lightly in frustration. I feel like shaking him.

I suppose I could try to get drunk. I could order three Singapore Slings – the airline’s official cocktail – and eat none of the peanuts. They would bring them to me, too. I have seen them bring them to other passengers on other flights. But getting drunk wouldn’t be fun. Nothing is fun.

The comfort in economy class on long-haul flights these days borders on the obscene. I have all the leg room I need. There are hundreds of films, television shows and videogames on the dedicated widescreen entertainment unit in the back of the seat in front of mine. I can plug in my laptop or use a suite of PC applications – to ‘get more done’, as per the system’s promo. The great post-war social transformation in the industrial West was when workers became consumers. Now the consumer is merging with the worker again. I have all of these films to watch and they could help me take my mind off things but the range of options feels not a little like work. I worry that if I don’t watch Taken 2 it might mean I’ve failed to get enough done.

My head’s too sore and I am too tired to read. I start to watch 360. At one point the character played by Gabriela Marcinkova says to her sister, played by Lucia Siposova: ‘You should work on your English.’ Siposova replies: ‘Why? Nobody cares about my English.’ That is a good line. Then the film becomes about Jude Law feeling lonely in Bratislava, which could be okay but isn’t what I need at this point.

I sleep a little. Then I start writing this. Sometimes writing feels like bailing out a rowboat in the middle of a lake: ultimately futile, but it buys time.


My father was a loving man but not one to tell you his feelings explicitly. When he had his first heart attack they moved him to a unit that didn’t allow for visitors, so I had the nurse deliver him a message in which I explained that I had brought him something to read and a pen, that I would be back the next day and that I loved him. I found that note in my parents’ writing desk last week. So now I’m keeping it, this note that I wrote and that I never knew he had kept.

Saying goodbye to Mum was so hard this time.

This is what the apartment where I was born looks like. Except of course I don’t recognise it like that at all. It’s an accurate plan. I got a draughtsman to update the plan last year, to incorporate some changes Dad made in the sixties and seventies and never got consent for. But it is an abstraction. That is not the house I know. We need to draw plans of the house and empty the house so that it stops being ours and somebody will buy it.


In Singapore I have two hours to kill before the window-less transit hotel room becomes available and I can get some sleep.

I write home – wherever that is.

I am ludicrously familiar with Changi airport, but every year I find new additions, extra touches designed to make it even more comfortable. These men didn’t know about all the lounges and free sleeping facilities in other parts of the airport, which must exist also in order to eliminate the unsightly spectacle of travellers caught in such poses.

The quality of the service is monitored obsessively. The wisdom of placing a touch screen in the toilets seems questionable at best, but it’s the inclusion of the name and likeness of the shift cleaner that I find almost physically oppressive.

On any other day I might feel inclined to prat on about the brutality of global capitalism. What hides behind that comfort.

At Changi's terminal 3 there are chairs that deliver free of charge an alarmingly vigorous foot massage. I audibly yelp when the machine shifts from a gentle vibration to the actual massaging action. The older man sitting next to me smiles. Luxury versions of these chairs are sold in one of the airport shops. There is a model by the same manufacturer that is touted as ‘the world’s best selling massage chair and phone’. This thing runs on or with an iPhone app called uDivine.

The sleep in the airport hotel deals with soup-for-brains. I write home again. Justine tells me I’ll be back tomorrow but I feel it can’t be, that it won’t be for weeks. Time dilates and frays on these trips, then I get home and I forget almost everything. Which is why I have to make time to take obsessive notes about conversations with people and arrangements to follow-up on when I’m back in New Zealand.

I have breakfast at my usual place. I take the usual pictures. (How many times have I written this post before?) As always, I document the current advertising campaigns for beauty products. This year it’s Charlize Theron and Brad Pitt, everywhere, multiplied by their sinister reflections.

I log in. My friend Marco has sent me a recording of the commentary from the latest Ottawa Senators game, a distraction I really could use. I am an ice hockey fanatic and we have talked about doing this sort of thing for some years. Now we can. The game is not three hours old. I love Marco for this.

I board the flight to Auckland. This one’s only ten hours long. I feel less tempted to drink. In the spirit of Georges Perec and the infra-ordinary, I record my consumption of braised soya sauce chicken, mixed vegetables and rice for dinner; stir fried fish fillet with celery in garlic sauce, Chinese vegetables and fried noodles for breakfast.

I start feeling that perhaps I really shall arrive tomorrow – whenever that is.

Monday, January 21, 2013

The back of the shelf

I really shouldn’t be blogging. Not this week. And I certainly won’t blog about how much emptying a house is akin to emptying a life. They’ve been days full of heartache, and most of it isn’t even mine. But there have also been some lighter moments and some happier discoveries. Things we hadn’t so much forgotten about as erased from memory to the point of making us doubt they ever belonged to us, to this house where nothing was ever thrown out, to this tiny house that over time accumulated the contents of other houses and other lives. Crammed God knows how. Strategically left in functionally inaccessible places in order to defer the very moment we’re faced with now: what to do with all this stuff, and with each individual piece of stuff.

I’ve talked before about the experience of growing up amongst the books in this house at a time that presented fewer distractions or ways to connect with the outside. But there were other books, hidden behind the ones in sight. The dreaded second row. Almost an entire second library. It comprises improbable books of uncertain origin alongside ones that my mother remembers buying or reading. I had never seen most of these before. Some of them have very appealing covers.

Some of them ask bold questions.

(Is the Marcuse Doctrine revolutionary?)

Some of them offer little posers. Who were you, Eugenio Milanesio, who felt the need to update the inscription on your pocket-sized encyclopaedia every time you rose through the ranks of the Italian army? Lieutenant Milanesio, Captain Milanesio, Colonel Milanesio, General Milanesio. Every time he signed the book.

Mayor Thompson’s Notebook is about the differences between the French and the English. (‘The English taught the world how to sit at the table, but the French are the ones doing the eating.’ ‘French men contemplate women; English men just walk by them.’)

I had never seen this book but I knew of its existence.

The ironworks’ owner, a French pot-boiler that my father was very fond of as a young man. And if you aren’t you intrigued enough by the fate of the woman who stops the duel, the back cover supplies a further teaser.

The back of each shelf is like a previous life. And there are other nooks – sometimes it’s as if the house were nothing but nooks. The false bottom of my parents’ writing desk reveals a stash of photos whose existence I ignored; a set of never seen before wedding slides; childhood photos of mine that I thought lost.

I am adorable
In the false ceiling above the hallway, a collection of old bags, cooking implements for campers, a box pencilled “pinecones” that really does contain pinecones, stupendous board games from the 1960s.

The Pop Songbook Bingo

And then: telegrams from my parents’ wedding, every postcard we ever received, ribbons, a rotary phone. I wish I could reopen this post at Overland to include the covers of my mothers’ school reports form the late 1930s, found inside a shoebox.

For the most part these aren’t the things that it tears us up to dispose of. They’re detritus. They make us smile. What is this? I don’t know! We speculate as to the origins or nature of the mysterious objects. We temporarily forget the grim overall purpose of the exercise.

It makes me wish that I could do nothing but browse the back of each shelf.

Monday, January 14, 2013

First last impressions

Five grey days without a breath of wind or a drop of rain. Five days of a chill that radiates inwards, soaking the bones. On the third day the sun nearly broke through. On the sixth day, it rained.

I left the New Zealand summer for this. Yet it is not entirely inappropriate that I should have come home at this particular time of the year for what is almost certainly the last time, at least in the form that these visits have taken since I left Italy, fifteen years ago. The apartment in which I was born will be sold, ‘home’ will shift to the lands of my mother’s own childhood. And because I wouldn’t choose to visit Milan in the winter, I might as well have to this time. A string of rainless, windless grey days. This couldn’t be more familiar. It’s what I left.

Milan is not an easy city to love. Over the years I’ve grown fonder of its lack of grace, of the occasional, frank ugliness that it doesn’t bother to hide. That is perhaps the closest thing to ‘my’ Milan, but I am no stranger here. In winter, the city looks like a permanent neorealist film set. It’s the city of Rocco and His Brothers, cloaking itself in bleakness to demoralise outsiders, especially those who come here from sunnier climes. (Which is to say, nearly all of them.)

I’m no stranger here, and yet I cannot lay an uncomplicated claim to that naïve possessive pronoun. This is not my city, and in ways more literal than the ones I’ve explored before. Quite simply, somebody else owns it. They, the owners, like to remind the rest of us from time to time, typically during and around Fashion Week. I know it, and yet I wasn’t quite prepared for this.

Image via

This sculpture – which is entitled L.O.V.E. – is the work of the renowned international artist-provocateur Maurizio Cattelan and was installed two years ago right in front of the Milan stock exchange, a formidable Fascist-era building going by the rather poetic name of Palazzo della Mezzanotte (‘midnight palace’). Somehow I only came across it on this visit, so I’ve had to catch up with the controversy: first the business community complained, then some citizens expressed bemusement, finally the artist – who is nothing if not canny – managed to persuade the city council to accept the sculpture as a permanent donation, on condition that it wouldn’t be moved from the current site for at least forty years.

Facing as it does away from the stock exchange, Cattelan’s piece could more appropriately be entitled ‘Wall Street Occupies’, and while it is possible that in four decades’ time it will be read as a fuck you to somebody else, right now it’s a straight fuck you to the citizens. I wonder in how many other cities this would be not only tolerated but actually welcomed.

Downstairs from our apartment is a news-stand that ceased operating and was put on the market over two years ago, yet the advertising that hangs from it is always current. It’s another mixed sign of a crisis that in Italy goes back not four or five but twenty or thirty years, and proceeds at a pace that is glacial but assured. Statistics released last week indicate that consumption is at a multi-decade low, but you won’t easily read this in the urban landscape. At least not in this city. There are no strings of empty shops like the ones I saw in London in 1990, with improvised stalls operating inside of the gutted ones, but an economy that frays slowly. Two years ago we lost the news-stand – it had been around since my childhood – but its constantly updated hoardings remind us that the trade goes on elsewhere, uninterrupted. Closer to the centre it’s fashion stores, everywhere, reminding you that there is still a lot of money circulating in the city, albeit not all of it local. Along Corso Buenos Aires, one of our busiest shopping streets, somebody appears to have decided that the English word for when you discount your stock is not ‘sale’ but ‘sales’, and at this time of the year there are lots of those. Sales.

I am no stranger here, not yet. Over fifteen years of regular visits I have been able to notice the small changes, which is a way of keeping one’s citizenship current. You must know what it’s like to live some place to feel that you still belong. But being away a lot gives you a privileged perspective, too, and so friends and acquaintances, especially the older ones, always ask me: how do you find it? How do you find us? My answer is never very illuminating or even interesting. I feel that I never left.

Monday, January 7, 2013

'It's a map of the world'

During our brief family holiday in Hawke’s Bay, we drove up Te Mata Peak and looked down on Hastings and out to the sea. ‘It’s a map of the world,’ Ambrose exclaimed. He was right.

A map is a vantage point. You climb a tree or the top of a hill and look down on a territory that you think you know intimately only to find that it looks different, is different. A new set of spatial relationships becomes apparent: this is the best way to go from there to there; that is the most favourable ground. A rich layer of information that was hidden from view at ground level can now be read at a glance. From the top of Te Mata Peak you can’t see the whole world, this is true, but what Ambrose understood is that the view that one gets from the top of the hill is already a map. It just hasn’t been traced yet.

As to the origins of this intuition, I can only speculate but it seems to me that it could have come from any number of sources. At four years of age, our boy has been exposed to both physical and electronic maps of various styles. He has learnt that the world is a ball full of brightly coloured nations from an inflatable toy much like the one recently acquired by Scott’s young son. At Te Papa he has run and jumped on a backlit interactive satellite map of New Zealand. At Te Manawa in Palmerston North – a museum that we also visited on the trip – he has walked on a very large carpet depicting a satellite image of the entire course of the Manawatu river. He has been on Google Earth once and experienced how from a view of the entire planet you can zoom in onto a single point and then zoom out again, a powerfully evocative visual effect that wasn’t available to me in my childhood. Consequently, he knows that the world is as small or as large as you make it out to be.

The history of cartography is the history of technologies and ways of seeing that have gradually increased the human capacity to control and manipulate our environment. The maps designed to re-establish the property boundaries along the river Nile following its annual floods are one of the most ancient examples. Today it’s Google Earth, SatNav, the real-time reconnaissance maps employed by drones – take your pick. The English verb ‘to overlook’ is best translated into Italian by the idiom ‘to dominate with one’s gaze’, underscoring how seeing from above is already a form of control. A map is a vantage point and a vantage point – as the military origin of the phrase suggests – is a source of power.

(My own small epiphany concerning the bird’s eye view and geography came during another summer holiday. It was at Cape Palliser, in the southern Wairarapa, ten or so years ago. From the top of the lighthouse I looked down at the road that left the small village, turned into dirt and then disappeared into the tussocks. Then I turned to the promontory to the East.

Recalling a map of the region and of the whole of the North Island, it’s only then that I realised what the end of that road meant. In the hundred or so miles that separate Cape Palliser to Riversdale there is no coastal road because there are no settlements, no people, nothing. The absence of the standard marks of human presence on the map – place markers, place names, the familiar lines that universally denote railroads and roads – only started to stand out and make full sense to me once I captured the real-world image from atop the lighthouse, and it’s only then that I grasped just how sparsely populated and un-civilised – strictly not in a pejorative sense – New Zealand is in comparison to my native country.)

Something else that Ambrose said during the holidays, when beckoning us to look at a cirrus cloud: ‘It’s the breath of the Earth.’ Again, I can only speculate as to where he might have got the image from. The most likely source, to my mind, is a book of Māori legends encountered perhaps at kindergarten, as children of his age group are well served with illustrated versions of local creation stories. Plus I’d be happy if one of those books were the source of that line of poetry. I’d envy him for it, for going through a time in his life when an implicit yet sophisticated understanding of the relationship between the physical world and our technologies of representation coexists with myth-based explanations of what nature is and of how it works. I’d envy him for living in a world at the threshold between geography and magic.