Fighting the good fight: reflections on being an English language teacher in Italy in the aftermath of Covid.

Thursday 23 September, 2021

Last Saturday evening, driving through the city of Lecce, I saw a big billboard advertising the services of the English language school: the school I am going to start working for in about ten days’ time. There was some inspirational photographic image of photogenic students, absorbed in some language-learning activity, and below it in a kind of hip but approachable font, the slogan, “Never stop learning”.

I could be cynical about the commercial nature of appealing to people’s desire to improve themselves through education: to tell you the truth, I am a bit cynical about it – the marketing side, not education itself. I did a degree and a master’s degree, both times in the field of American literature, and though the university in no way guaranteed that a good career would follow, that was the implication.

Okay, it was clear these were not the most commercially oriented degrees one could be doing, but the idea was that the resulting qualifications would be so impressive to potential employers that it didn’t matter all that much what you had studied.  I bought into that, because I was enjoying my course so much and didn’t want to recognize the fact that I was doing something basically irrelevant to all but a handful of people in the world outside my academic retreat. I had a considerable shock when I found, at the end of those lengthy halcyon days, my former tutors were no longer replying to my emails and my extensive reading of the transcendentalists, realists and modernists of American literature was of absolutely no use to anyone advertising a job.  Since then, I have met people who did degrees with more practical applications – psychology, law, engineering – who also found themselves without a way into those professions, or a way to make secure careers in them – some of those people are now English language teachers.  

And that is how education is marketed – with the implication that by doing a particular course, whether a six-week training course or a four-year degree, your future is assured – you won’t ever have to worry about finding a good job (not just “good”, but “satisfying”), or about getting a mortgage, or simply paying the rent on a decent flat in a respectable part of town, or buying groceries.

By signing up for an education, the sales pitch goes, you are building yourself a house of bricks that no big bad wolf can huff and puff and blow down. There’s a “through a mirror darkly” implication too – if you don’t sign up, well, your house is made of sticks, or straw, or maybe even something nonbiodegradable like polystyrene coffee cups– good luck when a wolf or a hurricane comes along.

There is of course a value to education, but it is not automatically a market value. An advanced level of education does not guarantee that you will not find yourself at some time unemployed, poor, disregarded, disrespected, desperate. It may give you the self-respect and analytical skills to deal with these situations better than if you hadn’t had an advanced level of education – I think it has for me, and that has made it worthwhile. This is not how education is marketed and promoted, however – it if was, it would be for a very “niche” market, as they say. Existentialists, perhaps.

But to return to this billboard, when I saw it, I did not think something cynical, I thought instead that I had a responsibility toward any hopeful spirit who had read that billboard and consequently registered for a course that I will be teaching.

It is easy to become demoralized in the English language teaching profession. It is true you can live in foreign countries for extended periods – from six months to a lifetime, depending on your desire and the circumstances – and you can travel the world, finding a job to support you in each different place.

It sounds wonderful, I know; and it can be, for a few years, but if you are in it as your main career, there is a considerable downside. The salary is at subsistence level – the current average salary for an English language teacher in Europe is between 1100 euro and 1300 euro per month. As a single person you can, depending on where you live in Europe, just about survive on that, but you won’t save anything, unless you live like a church mouse. Nor could you think about raising a family, unless your relationship partner has a better paid job than yours. There are, with very few exceptions, no benefits offered to teachers by English language schools – no pension plan, no health insurance, no incremental raise in salary if you stay longer than a year. The employment contracts are usually for eight or nine months of the year, from the beginning of October to the end of May or June – in the summer it’s up to you to find a way to support yourself, and there is hardly any work available in this field in summer – save for working in summer camps, which is not to all tastes – in fact, unless you’re a 25-year -old sports enthusiast who is happy to get four hours of sleep each night, and likes eating all their meals in a canteen surrounded by kids, I don’t really recommend it as a way to spend your summer.

The profession is not unionized, nor can you expect much solidarity from your colleagues should you tangle with management. Some teachers are just there – wherever “there” might be – to have fun no matter what, and don’t care much about pay or conditions, because they are not planning to remain in the game for too long anyway. Why should they get involved in someone else’s dispute? Someone they hardly know and whose issue is not their issue?

Without a union to support teachers… management has just about all the cards in their favour.

Others who might be more sympathetic or in agreement with your point of contention are aware that, without a union to support teachers, or any formal complaints system involving third-party mediation (as with more regulated companies or organisations), management has just about all the cards in their favour. English language schools can always find teachers from somewhere, and their attitude towards teachers who ask for better pay or better terms of employment is, in most cases, “take it or leave it”. They’ll probably also let you know, in various ways, they find it rather distasteful and naïve of you to have asked. What profession do you think you’re in?

If you’re trying to build a life around this line of work, you can start to feel, after a few decades at it, like the ageing boxer played by Stacy Keach in the John Huston film “Fat City” (1972)…

For teachers in their twenties, doing it for up to five years for the travel experience, or at the other end of the spectrum, teachers who had a good career beforehand, then decided to go into this profession at retirement age, to have a few interesting experiences, none of this is much of an issue. However, if you’re trying to build a life around this line of work, you can start to feel, after a few decades at it, like the ageing boxer played by Stacy Keach in the John Huston film Fat City (1972) – an amicable gun-for-hire, a “good sort” everybody is fairly well disposed towards, but nobody really loves or cares much about, never advancing in either his profession or his personal life, and with a future ahead that doesn’t bear contemplation (Keach’s character, like many English language teachers, avoids such contemplation by getting wasted on booze periodically).

Stacy Keach, left, with Jeff Bridges, in the John Huston film “Fat City” (1972)

When you see… they are enjoying the lesson, it’s a great feeling.

Your mind can be taken off all this, at least for a while, by an appreciative student, or class of students. When you have a one-to-one lesson with student who wants to learn, or a lesson with a class of interested students who meet you halfway or more, and you see that you are facilitating some learning, and they are enjoying the lesson, it’s a great feeling. It doesn’t even feel like work, sometimes. In the grand scheme of things, it’s nothing; but you are, at least, for those ninety minutes, succeeding in your role and helping people to achieve their goals, and the effect can be, well, reassuring for a teacher (at least, this teacher) dealing with feelings of the pointlessness of their own existence.

However, we don’t always encounter these kinds of students. English language teaching is not secondary-school teaching – it doesn’t pay nearly as well, have the benefits like government pensions and a year-round salary, and it isn’t nearly as tough. We don’t have to face moody teenagers for five hours a day, do all the paperwork that comes with a public-sector job, and perhaps worst of all, deal with parents who feel that the reason their kids are failing in their formative tests must be due to the school, or more precisely their teacher, failing them (as opposed to them needing a bit more monitoring at home as to their engagement in class and completion of homework, for instance). On our training courses, the CELTA or TESOL, we are taught mainly how to teach motivated students, and in fact our “guinea pigs” on which we develop our teaching skills are adults who are so keen to learn English they come to free classes where they know the teacher is still qualifying (though to be fair, they usually get a good lesson, even if it is delivered with a certain nervousness).

In a typical English language teaching week in a European country, you usually have some classes, or one-to-one lessons, with motivated adult learners. But most of your lessons are with school-age children – the children the secondary-school teachers have been teaching all day, enrolled in extra lessons after school to learn English, sometimes against their wishes – often against their wishes. So, although we don’t have the responsibilities that secondary-school teachers have, we don’t escape the moody teenagers who don’t want to be in our class.

The right way to deal with this is with a shrug and tolerance – what the hell, you can’t expect every class to go like an aria, just do your job, try your best, and at the end say goodnight, and go home – or to the bar. But over the last year, not having much of a life of my own, it got me down. English language teaching is predicated on the idea that students must be interested in one topic or other. English language textbooks tend to recycle a small number of topics with the broadest possible appeal – food, travel, friendship, shopping, sports, celebrities; you try to relate this to your students’ lives and preferences: what kind of food do you like best? Where is the most interesting place you’ve been? What sports do you enjoy playing or watching?

Planets Jupiter (L) and Saturn are seen during the great conjunction from the Griffith Observatory on the same day as the winter solstice, December 21, 2020 in Los Angeles, California. – The great conjunction refers to the astronomical alignment of Jupiter and Saturn, the closest for nearly 400 years. (Photo by Patrick T. Fallon / AFP)

…perhaps demoralized by the restrictions created by the Covid regulations, most students would not get enthusiastic about or interested in anything…

Usually, this gets some enthusiasm – everybody likes being asked about themselves, young people especially. But this past academic year, from October 2020 to June 2021, perhaps demoralized by the restrictions created by the Covid regulations, most students would not get enthusiastic about or interested in anything. I felt that this might be more a kind of collective depression than resentment of being in class, and I  recall trying to inspire conversations based on current events that were not Covid-related, and that were, I suppose, focused on the more fascinating aspects of living on Earth: on 13 December 2020, the new eruption of the volcano  Mount Etna, of which spectacular photos had appeared in all international news sources; on 21 December 2020, the arrival of the Great Conjunction, when the planet Jupiter “overtakes” Saturn in its orbit, an occurrence that happens approximately once every twenty years; but they showed barely an interest in either subject. In the end, there seemed nothing to do but just accept that there was not going to be much brightness in these lessons, and just get through them, delivering the content.

Mount Etna eruption, December 2020 (stock photo, no credit)

It became a massive psychological effort just to take a shower in the morning.

By the end of the last term, I had lost all my enthusiasm for teaching. I did my best by the students and worked hard to help as many of them pass their exams as possible, but I had come to feel that there was nothing to be said for the work other than that it paid the bills and gave me a daily routine essential for keeping one’s feet on the ground. I’ve been looking into ways to get into a more elevated position in the profession, and other possible work outside of it. This summer was for me a summer of depression. It became a massive psychological effort just to take a shower in the morning. A feeling of despair and self-loathing and paranoia overwhelmed me.

At some point, the better part of my nature fought back. I started the blog you’re now reading. I carried through the activities of moving forward with my life even if my heart wasn’t yet in it. I started an online course from the British Council, specifically about motivating learners. It began two days ago, on 21 September, only a fortnight before most English language teachers start the autumn term, and the timing of it makes me wonder if the problems I experienced with student motivation are problems that many other teachers in my profession also experienced, and I wonder if many teachers too are hoping to turn things around in this next academic year. I wonder if many of them also felt depressed by the problems of encountering indifference to the task of learning in their classrooms.

Even before I saw the billboard… I had been thinking about the need to approach this new academic year in a positive way…

Even before I saw the billboard with the photogenic learners and the slogan in hip but approachable font that read, “Never stop learning”, I had been thinking about the need to approach this new academic year in a positive way. I am still looking for ways to get higher in the profession or develop other career strands, because if I don’t, I don’t know where I’m going to end up. But, for now, this is my profession, and for the sake of self-respect, I need to do my best for the students that, at least in some cases, might be coming to me with a desire to learn, or if not a desire, some spark of curiosity or intelligence or ambition that might do as well as desire.

“If you only think of yourself, you’ll only destroy yourself” – Akira Kurosawa’s “The Seven Samurai” (1954)

As we seem to be coming out of global crisis… the role of a teacher, even a simple languages teacher, seems to have some more meaning in it.

As we seem to be coming out of the worst phase of a global crisis that left many people dead before their time, and many others bereaved, the role of a teacher, even a simple languages teacher, seems to have some more meaning in it. The Covid pandemic seems to me something like a war that the world has been through – the casualties certainly justify the comparison – and I’ve recently been thinking a lot of a film I haven’t seen in a long time, The Seven Samurai (d. Akira Kurosawa, 1954). In the film, a group of samurai who have lost their master and have become mercenaries for hire, rediscover a sense of responsibility to others in helping a village to protect itself from marauding bandits. As an older samurai tells a younger one, “This is the nature of war. By protecting others, you save yourself. If you only think of yourself, you’ll only destroy yourself.” I’m not protecting others, but a teacher helps others, which might hold some comparative value. Perhaps also by helping others, even in a small way, you also save yourself. I’m kind of counting on it.

Review: “Vive Le Cinema” film festival, final night, Saturday 18 September 2021, at the Chiostro del Rettorato, Piazza Tancredi, city of Lecce.

Sunday 19 September 2021

It was strikingly clear on my Saturday evening walk through the streets of Lecce that life has returned to something like normality again, including the feeling of vibrancy and elation you get in any good city or town on a Saturday night when the weather is temperate, and people feel free to associate with one another without fear or anxiety.

As of September 2021, at least ninety percent of the population of Puglia is vaccinated against Coronavirus with a “first jab”, and approximately eighty percent have had both vaccination jabs, excluding children under the age of twelve who are exempted (links for the official governmental sources for this information are provided at the end of this article). The introduction in August of stricter rules related to the “Green Pass”, which require people to show proof of vaccination to be allowed into any indoor public space, including open-air events, spurred most people who were sitting on the fence about vaccination to get it done.

There was a palpable feeling of relief last night…

The result of this is that people are socialising with more confidence and in a more relaxed way. There was a palpable feeling of relief last night– a great deal of laughter, an effervescent tone in conversation, and less concern about maintaining physical distance. I felt a little like I had missed a meeting, or maybe two meetings – my perception of the Covid situation was considerably darker, but I was glad to be surprised.

I have always loved going to the cinema, and to film festivals especially. Going to the Vive Le Cinema festival I had an experience something like continuity with other phases of my life. Lately, I have had an unsettling feeling of discontinuity with the temporality of the world and the temporality of my own life. Trying to be logical, I could attribute this to not having had the opportunity to see old friends from England or travel outside of Italy for two years. But I feel also it is something more a matter of the spirit – I am finding it difficult to feel a connection to the world as it is, which I feel, superstitiously perhaps, is related to my trouble feeling a connection to my former self.

I am talking here of a feeling of joy, of freedom from care, that comes from “being in the moment”

My former self is younger of course, and no doubt improved through the soft-focus lens of memory, but the thing I want most from him is that ability – an ability that comes I think from a certain feeling of assurance about one’s relevancy to the present – to be completely engaged in the present. I am talking here of a feeling of joy, of freedom from care, that comes from “being in the moment”. Film screenings and film festivals seem to be the only thing I have experienced in recent years that give me something like that experience, that sense of continuity with my past and – perhaps because of the feeling of substance that feeling engenders – connection with the present. Sharing a space with two-hundred or possibly more people, many dressed to the nines, in front of a cinema screen, with the company of a friend, in the beautiful surroundings of the courtyard of the Chiostro del Rettorato, I was for those three hours living happily in the present moment, with no thoughts of yesterday or tomorrow.

This was the last night of the festival, and the French film they screened was an animated feature called Josep (d. Aurel, 2020) , which like the rest of the films presented in the programme, was fairly new. Josep tells the story of a left-wing Spanish painter , Josep Bartoli, who is forced to flee Franco’s forces in Spain but is imprisoned in an internment camp on the French side of the Spanish-French border by the Vichy French forces. He is treated savagely by the Vichy guards, but one guard, the sensitive and compassionate Serge, decides to risk his own life to help him escape to Mexico, where Josep claims to have a friend, the artist Frida Kahlo.

Josep is brilliantly drawn and animated and its heart is in the right place. Josep Bartoli (1910-1995) was a real-life artist and was interred in a prison camp during the Second World War, though other events and characters seem fictionalized. The story is told in flashback from the present day to the internment camp where Serge meets Josep, but also includes further flashbacks to Spain before Josep’s internment and shifts in narrative perspective from one character to another, which makes it a little hard to follow. There is a lot of brutality in the film, which though probably authentic to the true-life experience of Josep Bartoli, sits a little uneasily with the tender scenes of warmth and humour more typical to animated features, and at times the film seems to lack pace, perhaps due to its picaresque style.

Documentary filmmaker Aissa Maiga (on stage, in dress) receives her prize for “best film” at the end of the evening.

On the other hand, the pace is perhaps suitable for what is a wistful, melancholy film. It certainly deserves an audience and critical respect, and it is perhaps just not my genre. I would have preferred to see the documentary that had been screened the night before, Marcher sur l’eau (d. Aissa Maiga, 2021), which is a documentary about the trek of a tribe from a remote village in Nigeria towards an underground lake, during a period of drought. The director won the “best film” award on the night I was there – no one had told her she was going to win and so she had to be hurriedly called to return from her own trek of the Lecce streets in, as my friend noted, rather beautiful high-heeled shoes.
The event was very professionally done, with a great-looking programme and image for the festival, and the organisers (which runs to a team of around fifty, not including volunteers) deserve all credit and the expansive support they received from various notable institutions including the Apulia Film Commission, The University of Salento, and the Museo Castromediano.

Links

On percentage of population of Puglia currently vaccinated (as of September 2021)

https://www.governo.it/it/cscovid19/report-vaccini/

https://press.regione.puglia.it/-/vaccini-anticovid-aggiornamento-13-settembre

Vive le cinema festival website:

Leaving Tricase (part 4)

In which we return to the subject of the fair hamlet of Tricase, its manifold charms, and why I must leave despite them, in the final part of this discursive (but hopefully interesting) essay.

Thursday 16 September, 2021.

A sight particular to this region – a neighbour fills a water bottle from a drinking fountain, just outside my apartment and “Cafe Freedom” in Piazza Castello dei Trane, Tricase, Thursday 16 September 2021.

“There is something sad and melancholy about trips,” says Dr Soberin (Albert Dekker) in the cult film noir Kiss Me Deadly (1955), “I always hate to go away. But one has to find some new place, or it would be impossible to be sad and melancholy again”.

A few seconds later, the film’s femme fatale, Friday (Marian Carr), perhaps irritated at such showy meditations in what is supposed to be a Mickey Spillane adaptation, puts a bullet through his heart, ending all future trips for him, melancholy or otherwise.

Those lines came back to me as I prepare – well, prepare mentally, anyway – for leaving Tricase. I found, with some help, a decent flat in Lecce – expensive, for an English language teacher, but it can be done. The deposit is down. A job awaits me there. I’m leaving.

There is something sad and melancholy to me about leaving Tricase. I lived and worked here here for two years, from September 2019 to this month of September 2021. I experienced the atmosphere of anxiety and depression that pervaded the town during the worst period of the Covid pandemic here, from March 2020 to May of the following year.

From March to June of 2020, the “lock-down” was so strict that for those four months it wasn’t even legal to travel the four kilometres from my location in Tricase to Porto Tricase, to look at the sea. Fortunately, that only happened once, and from then onward even in the strictest lock-down – of which there were many – it was possible to visit Porto Tricase, because it is officially part of the same comune or municipality.

But apart from those four grim months, when the only trips permitted were essential ones and all non-essential services were closed, including cafes, it really wasn’t a bad place to be isolated in. Tricase is surrounded by countryside, and it was possible to nip out for a solitary walk through the country pathways, usually seeing no one around, or just one or two people. For the majority of the period between March 2020 and May 2021, it was possible to visit the Adriatic coast at the points of Porto Tricase or Marina Serra, and enjoy the expanse of sea and sky. Cafes were allowed to re-open, though for the most part only until six PM. Work continued, either online at home or in the classroom, depending on the decrees from the regional government of Puglia. It wasn’t easy (for one thing, general student morale was at an all-time low), but it was possible.

I was experiencing one of the weirdest and most monumental global catastrophes of my lifetime from a small, almost forgotten, almost paradisial corner of the world

I was experiencing one of the weirdest and most monumental global catastrophes of my lifetime from a small, almost forgotten, almost paradisial corner of the world. I felt, in this regard if no other, a little like the protagonist of Cesare Pavese’s novel The Political Prisoner (1955), a novel I had read in English translation a few years before arriving in Italy. We were affected by Covid, but not nearly to the same degree as the cities, and certain towns particularly in the north of Italy. For Tricase, a modest, cheerful town of a population of approximately 17, 600, that relies a great deal on summer tourism for its economic well-being, the Covid crisis was mostly an experience of isolation, depression, and financial hardship (particularly if you ran a small business or worked for one). However, it escaped the high infection rates and manifold Covid-related deaths that beset other, more densely populated regions in Italy. In the summer of 2021 the tourists returned in droves, and those small businesses able to survive – which was nearly all of them, I’m glad to say – seem to be doing well at this time.

Bona Sciana bar preparing to re-open for the summer, Marina Serra, 18 June 2021

During my time here I became a familiar patron of the local cafes, of which, for a small town, there are many. In fact I just discovered a new one (to me) only a few days ago. My usual places to go, where I was given the warmest welcome, were the small neighbourhood café next door to me, “Freedom Café” (on Piazza Castello dei Trane), run by the married couple Vito and Anna-Maria, and “Golosa” (which means both “delicious” and “greedy”, depending on context), a family-run business. At Golosa (on Via Lecce), which is primarily a pasticceria (bakery/cake shop) but which also serves as a café/bar, I am always greeted with a friendly, “Ciao, Prof!” (for professore, the Italian word for teacher), which makes me feel almost part of the community, at least for the time I am there. I favour the independent cafes (which is all of them excepting the Martinucci chain cafes); some others in Tricase or outlying places I like include the “Café Racer” (on Via Luigi Pirandello), with its motorcycle theme, the “BonaSciana” at Marina Serra, with a fantastic view of the Adriatic sea (though it is only open during the summer), and the “Mename” bar at Porto Tricase. I should also put in a word for Caffe Chinaski (on Corso Roma) which is, as some of you might have wondered, really named after the protagonist of Bukowski’s early novels. It is a small but interesting bar owned and managed by Fillippo, a friendly and charismatic kind of guy, and it is one of the few bars in Tricase where the background music is kept low enough that you could, if the place is not too busy, read a book.

I should also say a word for the Bar Kollo (on Via Leone XIII). This is the café nearest to the school where I worked. At first, I felt I wasn’t too crazy about this place, and went in only out of need for a quick caffeine-fix between classes; I felt I was received a little brusquely there, but I realised in time that it was just that – brusqueness, not rudeness – and by now they kind of know me, and I know them.  It’s a good honest blue-collar café where you often find the workers or retired workers enjoying a vibrant discussion over glasses of prosecco (prosecco not being a particularly “fancy” or expensive drink in southern Italy).

The essential kindness of the man and woman who work there is evidenced by the four of five cats that treat the terrace of the bar like a second (or possibly third) home- there is always something for them to eat and drink there. I’m not saying it is, for a quick visit to Tricase, the best café to go into, but if you wanted a feel for the working people of this region, without actually walking into a “tough” or insalubrious bar (which also exist, though usually found brooding on the outskirts of towns like this) this is the place in Tricase.

For a more sophisticated experience I suggest Café Pisanelli in Piazza Pisanelli, where you can expect to see sixty to a hundred people sitting out at café tables when the weather is good, or even better, the Farmacia Balboa next door, a former pharmacy turned into a wine bar and co-owned, as locals are fond of noting, by film actress Helen Mirren and her husband, film director Taylor Hackford, who have lived in the vicinity for many years. If you are used to being charged exorbitant prices for glasses of mediocre or even unpalatable wines in wine-bars (as you probably are, if you live somewhere in southern England), the kind of local wine you can have for around 5 or 6 euro here will, should you come, delight you.

Countryside photographed on a walk during strict “lock-down”, April 2020.

Besides the places of respite in town, Tricase also has beautiful countryside. I regularly cycled through it, taking the Via Madonna della Serra route through the countryside, past farmhouses and artesian wells to the crest of Marina Serra, where I would get a bibita (non-alcoholic drink) at cafe Bona Sciana and appreciate the view of the sea, then continue along the high winding coast road of Via Per Marina Serra and back towards town along Via Marina Porto, along which you encounter the Vallonea Oak of Tricase, a beautiful sprawling tree of seven hundred years in age and seven hundred metres in breadth, which was shortlisted for European Tree of the Year in 2020 (if you are interested in the prize, and/or the tree, see the links at the end of this essay).

She knows where every book hides Isabella at Marescritto bookstore, 3 June 2021.

If you visit here you must also take time to visit, at least for couple of hours (preferably at dusk) the hilltop town of Specchia, with spectacular views of the surrounding countryside, and the tiny town of Lucugnano, primarily to visit and take a tour of the Palazzo Comi, the former home of the modernist Italian poet Girolamo Comi. In both places they offer regular music events in the main piazza during the summer months. Both towns are within a ten-minute drive from Tricase. I must also give special mention to the best bookstore in Tricase, an independent bookstore called “Marescritto” (“Sea-writing”, I think would be the translation, or perhaps “Written on the sea”), just around the corner from Piazza Pisanelli in Via Santa Spirito, owned and managed by the friendly Isabella and her sister. They have an incredible range of books within their small but exceptionally clean and tidy shop. The books are mostly in Italian, of course, but you can find dual-language Italian-English texts in the poetry section – where the poetry was originally written in English – and there are even a few novellas in dual-language (I found a dual-language copy of Conrad’s The Duel there). If you want something in particular, ask Isabella, she knows where to find anything in the shop, but you might not find it so easily.

Girolamo Comi’s study at the Palazzo Comi, Lucugnano, 3 July 2021

So, Tricase has a lot to offer for a small place, and to an extent, it and the surrounding region is almost paradisial, as I said earlier. The landscape and coast are beautiful, and the people generally friendly and hospitable to strangers. That said, after two years, I am still a stranger here, and I do not see that changing. I turned fifty-one in April (my second birthday in a “lock-down” situation). Despite the kindness I have been shown, I feel lonely and isolated, and anxious about the future. I feel, to quote Andrew Marvell’s famous poem, “Time’s winged chariot hurrying near/And yonder all before us lie/Vast deserts of eternity”.

The hilltop town of Specchia around dusk, 3 July 2021

As I wrote about in “Leaving Tricase Parts 1 and 2”, I had a friend who on the surface seemed to be handling being alone in her later years, seemed even happy with her life, and had a lot of friends who thought a lot of her, but underneath was so lonely that when her dog died, it caused her to take her own life. It makes me think that where one can, one should take active steps to fulfil emotional needs, rather than simply finding strategies to keep them under control indefinitely. I am not at all sure that moving to a city is going to give me what I am looking for – I am not even sure what it is I am looking for – it might be love, or it might just be a sense of purpose, a sense of relevancy or usefulness or significance or agency – it might just be the ability to live in the present moment – it might be all of these things together. But I feel pretty sure that I will not find any of these things staying in Tricase any longer. So although, to quote Dr Soberin, “There is something sad and melancholy” about leaving Tricase, I have to admit it would be just as sad and melancholy to stay.

Links:

https://www.theguardian.com/environment/gallery/2020/mar/17/2020-european-tree-of-the-year-in-pictures

https://www.treeoftheyear.org/Previous-Years/2020/Dub-Vallonea-z-Tricasu#:~:text=The%20Vallonea%20Oak%20of%20Tricase%20is%20the%20oldest,the%20WWF%20elected%20it%20the%20Apulian%20symbol%20tree.

https://it.wikipedia.org/wiki/Girolamo_Comi

Andrew Marvell reference:

https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/44688/to-his-coy-mistress

Leaving Tricase (part 3)

“In which we continue with the theme of love and loneliness, for a while longer. Pull up a beanbag and make yourself comfortable.

Thursday 9 September

Together through life – two mailboxes seen in the countryside outside Tricase, 14 June 2021.

“I say we will have no more marriages”, says Hamlet to Ophelia (Hamlet; Act 3, Scene 1), refuting any hope of them getting married. Well, look how that turned out for them.


There is, perhaps, something to be said for rushing headlong into marriage when young, when you are at the peak of your beauty and vigour, and in your most courageous, hopeful, and innocent state.


It was only recently in history that doing this became optional. It was obligatory in most known cultures for women, certainly, and for most men too (unless they had some exemption, like going on some government-appointed mission or joining the priesthood) to get married young. Many people still do. This is what my parents did, in the early 1960s, when it was still the most typical thing for young people to do (and not exactly obligatory). You’re attracted to someone – they’re attracted to you – you get on all right – why hang about?


There had always been those who played the field, as the saying goes – usually men, of course, and men of the more privileged strata of society – characters such as Alec Stoke-d’Urberville from Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the D’Urbevilles (1892) or Mr Mackenzie in Jean Rhys’s After Leaving Mr. Mackenzie (1931) are fictional representations of the type. But until the arrival of the “sexual revolution” of the late 1960s, most people got married at least by their early twenties. Even after the “free love” era, it seemed as if, after a certain amount of playing the field, most young people got married by the time they were thirty.


It was only actually my generation, it seems (“seems”, I say – I am working from personal memory– I am not a sociologist) where the idea of “doing your own thing” for as long as possible took hold. This was the generation sometimes called, excitingly, “Generation X” – the generation defined as being born between 1965 and 1980. I remember, in the decade of the 1990s, when I was in my twenties, that the focus of our generation seemed much more “self-actualization” than “belongingness and love needs” (see discussion of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, in “Leaving Tricase, Part 2”).


One of the best (that is to say, most interesting) popular romantic films of the 1990s, Before Sunrise (1995) seems representative of the romantic equivocation of many young people of my generation. Two people in their early twenties, Jesse (Ethan Hawke), an American, and Celine (Julie Delpy), a Frenchwoman, are travelling around Europe by train when they encounter one another. They are well-educated and cultured and have a voracious appetite for experience of the world, and for knowledge.

The whole film is about watching these two people revealing their thoughts and becoming attracted to one another. At the climax of the film it is clear that they are experiencing a feeling of love for each other, but – they have their itineraries, and go their separate ways, making a haphazard plan to meet again at the same train station in six months’ time. In other words, although the film leaves the possibility of romance open (allowing there to be two follow-up films about this pair, in 2004 and 2013), this seems a case where “self-actualization” has won out over “belongingness and love needs”.


This is how I remember the 1990s, a decade where the young were presented with an idea of the world as being at one’s fingertips for the price of a low-cost flight on one of the new budget airlines. There was so much to experience, so much to learn, so many ways to realise potential in yourself that you didn’t even know was there – love? Love, of course, was one colour in the kaleidoscope but as for settling down with one person for the rest of your life – are you kidding? There’s plenty of time for that later.


The problem is, when exactly should that time be? At thirty? Thirty-five? Forty? Later?
We like to think that at any age we will still be attractive to a potential relationship partner. The movies help sustain this delusion – we see film stars who don’t appear to age at all, or hardly at all, over the decades (thanks to a lot of expensive maintenance, not to mention the magic of film lighting and make-up) – but here in the real world, time takes its toll. As we get older, we get less physically attractive; it’s a harsh but inarguable fact. Meanwhile, our own standards of physical attractiveness are probably still the standards formed in our youth by movies, pop music and fashion magazines – standards that we generally only live up to ourselves between the ages of say, eighteen to thirty.

If this is not a difficult enough barrier to love beyond the salad days of youth, there is also the element of character. It could be argued that as we mature and develop character, it gets more difficult to relate to other people, even of our own generation, on a more intimate level. We become more ourselves, and we got there without that potential relationship partner (and they also got there without us). We have our tastes, routines, attitudes, beliefs, areas of expertise and experience, fears, hopes, regrets, vanities, emotional scars, and so on – so much ground we covered that the other person wasn’t there for. It is no wonder that, when older people of the same generation go on a date they often turn the conversation, in an effort to connect, to era of their youth, where they hope to find some passion or interest, no matter how trivial to them now, in common. In a way, such reminiscence is a way to turn back time and discard those aspects of character which are such a formidable armour in our lives, and for the same reason such a formidable hindrance to trust, understanding and love.

I don’t want to say that romantic love is impossible after the age of thirty, but it is certainly more difficult as time goes on. It seems to me as if our youth is the port from which we all set sail. Some of us find a relationship partner to sail together with, and others of us choose to sail alone. Those of us who sail alone can come into port later, but we may find the difficulty of making a connection as arduous as that faced by the Ancient Mariner, delaying a frightened wedding guest with his “glittering eye”, in Coleridge’s poem “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” (1834).

“To every thing there is a season,” as The Byrds sang (quoting Pete Seeger, who in turn, turn, turn, was quoting the Bible). There is a season for marriage, or more broadly-speaking, commitment to a relationship, and that season is Spring. It could be argued that it is the tragedy of the so-called “Generation X”, that we got sold an illusion of infinite deferral of tough decisions and infinite discovery of new places and new revelations. We came to believe that there were always options, always a chance to come back later and get what you left behind, when in fact, your options are dwindling from the moment you take your first breath, and whatever you leave behind will probably not be there when/if you return. I take responsibility for the choices I made in my youth, and would agree they are probably largely a result of personal environment and psychological factors, but I also feel that I, and many of my generation, were given a false impression of life as something we could live with less regard for the seasons than preceding generations.

“You don’t miss your water (till your well is dry)” (The Byrds) – artesian well in the countryside of Tricase, 12 July 2020


If that sounds kind of unimportant to you, a “first-world problem” as they say, you should remember that we are all susceptible to the spirit of our particular time, and that it has led some of us to a lonely place. As a footnote, it’s interesting that one of the actors that really defined that generation in film, Ethan Hawke (an actor I admire, I should perhaps add) played Hamlet, the great hesitater , as a Generation X-er in Michael Almereyda’s quite inspired and enjoyable 2000 film version of Shakespeare’s play.


Of course, making your decision on a relationship partner early does not guarantee you lifelong happiness, or even an escape from loneliness. Many couples separate or divorce, or remain in relationships where the love has died – for the sake of their children, for instance. I suppose that the revelation of all this (we members of “Generation X” are hot for revelations) is that one must ignore the siren song that tells us there is always time for another bite of the cherry.

Links:

Coleridge reference:

https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/43997/the-rime-of-the-ancient-mariner-text-of-1834

“Hamlet” – Michael Almereyda film version

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hamlet_(2000_film)

“Before Sunrise” – film (1995)

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Before_Sunrise

Leaving Tricase (part 2)

In which we abandon the fair Pugliese hamlet of Tricase for a while, to discourse on love, lost opportunities, loneliness, despair and other light-hearted subjects. You might want to put the kettle on, and have a Kit-Kat on standby.

Some kind of dog – “Volpino” I think- 20 June 2021, Tricase

7 September, 2021

In part one of this essay, I finished on a question: what leads so many of us, people with qualities – kindness, generosity, courage, intelligence – people with friends, colleagues – perhaps a parent or both parents still living, or a sibling or two– to be experiencing the kind of loneliness in their forties or fifties’ that drains all the meaning and pleasure out of life, and leads some (see part 1) to take their own lives?

There’s no definitive answer, but I can discuss this from my own experience. Until the age of forty-one, it never entered my mind that there might be a time when I would be lonely, or that I would experience an absence of love in my life; and it follows that it never entered my mind what an absence of love in one’s life might feel like. You see, I had two of the most affectionate, doting parents you could imagine, and I could always call on them for advice, conversation, compassion, encouragement, sanctuary, fidelity and all those other things that a human being needs to feel valued in the world. The door to their modest suburban bungalow was always open, literally.

This love was such an ever-present thing in my life that – I won’t say I wasn’t aware of it, or that I wasn’t grateful for it – that’s not the case – but it became something like part of my environment, like the ground one walks on, like the familiar sounds one hears every day in one’s usual habitats. In short, I became as someone who believes a certain resource, like food, or fresh water, or fuel, is boundless, when it is, in reality, finite – at least, it is finite if you don’t leave your familiar lands and sail off to find more of it. The resource I’m speaking of is love.

You have probably heard at some time or another of the psychologist Abraham Maslow’s famous “pyramid of needs”. Maslow’s theory, in a nutshell, is that human beings have a hierarchy of needs, depicted as a pyramid. At the bottom of the pyramid are “basic needs” – physiological and safety needs – food, water, warmth, rest, security, safety. The next level is “belongingness and love needs” – intimate relationships, friends – then higher still “esteem needs” – prestige, a sense of accomplishment – and right at the top of the pyramid is “self-fulfilment needs”, which is defined as “Self-actualization”, which is further defined as, “achieving one’s full potential, including creative activities”.

Well, it’s a long arduous climb to the top of a pyramid (if it is even possible to climb a pyramid, I may be thinking about one of those Mayan temples, but you get the idea), and some people would just like to get to the top and fool around with “self-actualization” as soon as possible, and for as long as possible. You can take a few short-cuts through some of those levels to get up there to the top faster, but you may have to pay for it later.

My attempt at drawing a comparison between Maslow’s pyramid and me might be starting to drift (to quote the title of a Hemingway novel) across the river and into the trees here, and so I’ll put it in simple terms. I underestimated, at a crucial period in my life, the importance of finding love, and did not recognise that it was finally worth the sacrifices that need to be made to keep it. I was not hungry for it. My romantic encounters in my youth, which were sporadic, I viewed – I see now – as temporary detours from the comfortable path of my life rather than as possible roads to a more difficult but also more rewarding and complete life. In other words, I treated these encounters like adventures or experiences, when I should have been treating them – the best of them, anyway – like projects.

But maybe even that isn’t completely true. Some unexamined part of my consciousness understood, I believe, that this was cowardice, masquerading as wisdom.  I told myself that getting too involved for too long would lead, inevitably, to marriage, kids, domestic life, dull jobs, responsibilities without end – how would I ever be able to continue to fool around with self-actualization at the groovy point of the pyramid?

With more insight, or courage, I would have answered that one of my favourite writers, Raymond Carver, had just such responsibilities by the age of twenty. Marriage and the birth of children created responsibilities for Carver that made it a titanic struggle to get work completed (something he wrote about directly in several essays for his wonderful book Fires), but it was that titanic struggle that forged him as a writer. He had so little time to write, due to his financial and paternal responsibilities, that when he did, it really had to count for something. He also had the love and support of his wife, Tess, to shore him up through the years of rejection letters, dead-end jobs, and despair.

My copy of Raymond Carver’s “Fires” (at Marina Serra, 29 October 2020)

If I had had even more insight, as I do now, many years later, I would have realised that the love that shored me up, that allowed me always to fall back from love when I should have charged forward, was not from some eternal source, but in fact was the creation of two people, my parents, who had themselves come from families where one parent either had died or was otherwise absent from their lives. They were providing the familial security and support to me and my younger sister they had never had themselves. They found each other, fell in love, and married before they were even out of their teens, and they stayed together for life, happily, even crazily at times (I mean crazy in the sense that couples that stay together for a long time, if they are happy, seem to give one another the confidence to take huge risks, and live without apology). And so, at the age of forty-one, when my mother died, leaving my father broken in half (there is so much truth in that colloquial English expression for a spouse, “the other half”) for six more years, before he followed his love to “the undiscovered country” (to quote Hamlet), I had my first sense of what it might be like to experience the absence of love in my life.

I am not saying my experience was my friend’s experience, or why she had difficulty finding a lasting relationship. Miranda had been married many years before, in her twenties. For some, the disappointment of a failed marriage or relationship leads to a subsequent caution or ambivalence towards love that is, I believe, fatal to the chances of finding it again. I sensed that Miranda and I had that caution or ambivalence in common. We felt we were independent and self-contained, we felt we knew “How to be Alone” (to refer back to the Franzen essay mentioned in Part 1), and that we could find substitutes for that tempestuous and terrifying thing called romantic love – in friendships, in literature, in work, in creativity, in learning, and in Miranda’s case, in her love for her dog, which became finally the only relationship that came close to the kind of reciprocal love she needed.

Links

Reference to Hamlet – “the undiscovered country”

https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/56965/speech-to-be-or-not-to-be-that-is-the-question

Leaving Tricase (part 1)

Leaving Tricase (part 1)

Monday 6 September, 2021.

The day the beach umbrella died, my apartment, Tricase, early September 2021.

In which a meditation on leaving the coastal hamlet of Tricase after a two-year stay leads to a perspective on the city of Lecce, and a memory of a friend.

It is Sunday 5 September 2021, and I have begun writing this on a bus heading back to the hamlet of Tricase from the city of Lecce, a distance of 50 kilometres between these two points, a ride or drive of around an hour by the fastest route.

I was in Lecce for a weekend, to get my second Covid vaccination shot, spend some time with a friend and to try to get myself excited again about moving to Lecce.

I’ve been visiting this city regularly over the four years I have been living in the vicinity, working as an English language teacher. Lecce is a relatively small city, but that is part of its appeal. Outside of the summer season, its wide, oak-lined boulevards and small cobbled-stone streets are rarely empty, but hardly ever overcrowded. There is a relaxed and cultured atmosphere about the place, and indeed relaxation and culture are really the city’s main lures.

Promontory children’s playground, Porto Tricase, 16 July, 2021, at sunset.

Lecce is a fascinating city, but unlike the city of Bari to the north, it is not a city of industry and commerce. It has a university, some excellent cultural centres such as the Castromediano museum and the Bernadini public library, and is full of great restaurants, bars, enoteche (wine shops), delicatessens and boutique clothing stores. Mainly though, it is simply great to look at, and is efficiently maintained and policed – the streets are clean, and the average resident or visitor can feel pretty safe walking those streets.

However, in recent years, its appeal to students and the well-heeled has made Lecce a more expensive place to live than it was (I’m informed) ten or fifteen years ago. I’m having a hard time finding a decent flat at a price commensurate to the salary of an English language teacher and I am starting to wonder if I should consider a Plan B.

It was (at least in part) the desire for affordable accommodation that led me to go work in a small town in southern Italy in the first place. Now I feel driven (though with reservations) back to a city.

The reason for this has been a creeping feeling of desolation that overcame me, starting from the last Christmas period onwards.

I had been doing okay up to that point. I had completely abstained from alcohol for six months. I continued my project to read the complete works of Joseph Conrad. I stopped writing random pronouncements nobody was particularly interested in on social media. I went cycling to the coastal point of Marina Serra most days, a ninety-minute round trip. I lost weight, my hair seemed to have stopped falling out, I looked in the mirror and what I saw did not seem too bad, all things considered. I felt I had achieved a certain dignity and equilibrium.

House with the perfect view of the Adriatic sea, viewed from the crest of Marina Serra, 27 June, 2021.

I tried to be content in my roomy apartment… the local church bells chiming melodically….

But then, Christmas got to me. I tried to be content in my roomy apartment, with my soft drinks and coffee and books, and the local church bells chiming melodically, but the total loneliness and a sense of being a redundant individual in the world overwhelmed me like a typhoon.

You ask yourself that question – or rather, you don’t, but that question arrives, when the bells stop chiming: if you were to keel over right now on this floor and die of a heart attack, how long would it take for anyone to notice? This leads to further questions: Once they noticed, how many people would it affect? And for how long would it affect them? And what would be your contribution to this planet? What could anyone point to as something – or somebody – you developed or to which/whom you gave life? In short, would the results of your life so far add up to anything? The answers to these questions were sobering, as they say – and I was already sober, so I got out the bottle of wine that had been idling in the cupboard for six months and opened it.

They say alcoholism is a slow form of suicide, but it could be argued that, considering it’s slow enough to have time to turn things around, like Raymond Carver did in his last decade, it is still better than the fast version. A good friend of mine, whom I’ll call Miranda (as I have never known anyone called that), died in the autumn of 2019.  She was an English language teacher like me, except she was a lot better than me. She was an examiner for one of the two accrediting English language exam boards, and when not teaching, she travelled all over the world for her examiner work, a well-paid occupation. She had a cosy ground-floor flat, in a desirable area of southern England, with a garden, and she had finished paying off the mortgage on it many years before. She had a home that no one could take away from her, and the security of being a sought-after member of the higher tier of her profession.  

She was talented. She wrote poems and short plays. She did voluntary work helping refugees to learn English. She was intelligent, she was well-read, she was compassionate, she was witty, and she was much-loved by colleagues, neighbours, and friends, of which she had many.

Perhaps she felt it was something that you could learn how to handle, with the use of intellect

But Miranda was lonely – I can say that, based on what followed. She must have been – deeply, heartbreakingly lonely. Perhaps she was only vaguely aware of it, or perhaps she felt it was something you could live with – a lifelong condition that you could learn how to handle, with the use of intellect, as is tentatively suggested in the title essay of a book of essays by Jonathan Franzen she had loaned me in 2017, How to Be Alone (2002). If my memory serves me well, Franzen’s essay was more focussed on the difficulty of maintaining some private life and private thoughts in the new era (as it was, back then) of internet sharing and “over-sharing” than the actual problem of loneliness. I remember thinking that although Franzen’s intelligence was impressive, and he had clearly experienced some of life’s “ups and downs”, in his way, the author did not strike me as a man who had ever experienced real, extended loneliness. For such people – and I believe I was once one of those people – “being alone” may be imagined something like a holiday on an exotic island – enjoyable, because you know that you are not marooned there.

Miranda had at least one boyfriend in the five or six years I knew her, but the relationship didn’t last long. Her greatest love seemed to be reserved for her dog. I saw a series of posts she made on Instagram about her dog being ill, in 2019, and the last post I saw was posted soon after her dog had died.

She had a funeral for her dog, with several bouquets of flowers, in her garden. It seemed as if it were something she had done alone. I posted a message of support in the thread of that post because I could see Miranda was distraught, but I didn’t realise just how inconsolable. I was busy working for an intense university summer programme some ninety kilometres away, and intended to visit her in the brief hiatus between the end of my job, and my return to Italy. I felt sorry for her loss, but felt she would probably have started to move forward with her life by the time I saw her, in three or four weeks.

Less than a fortnight later I received an email from my former manager at the school Miranda and I had worked at– the email said that Miranda had died, and Miranda’s father and brother were inviting all her colleagues from the school to attend the funeral.

At the funeral, which I was able to attend (fortunately, for my return flight was booked for the very same evening), I saw at least a dozen of my former colleagues and there seemed to be at least a hundred and fifty people in attendance. As I said, Miranda was loved by many. The cause of Miranda’s death was never mentioned and of course, it was not the right time or place to ask. However, as Miranda was only 58 years old at the time of her death and had no health problems anyone knew about, and as I had read her last messages on Instagram, I strongly suspected (as I think did some of my colleagues) that she had committed suicide.

When I researched the facts on the Internet – because I needed to know the truth – the website of the established local newspaper confirmed that this was the case. No reference was made to the death of her dog as the catalyst that led to Miranda taking her own life, just the cause of death, which was reported to have been an overdose of sleeping pills. This led me to believe that Miranda had been planning her suicide for a while, maybe during her dog’s period of illness or maybe even before; it takes time to gather enough sleeping pills to effectively kill oneself, if one only deals with respectable doctors, and I find it hard to believe she knew any other kind.

Miranda’s suicide affected me and continues to affect me. I miss her. But more than that, I wish I could have helped her. There were friends closer to her than me, and yet we were (I believe) close friends.

Miranda was loved by many people, but this was not enough.

Miranda was loved by many people, but this was not enough. It was a sincere love, but it was not a strong enough love. It was what is sometimes called affection, or perhaps gratitude. The hungry heart cannot be fed on this alone, and it led Miranda to focus her strongest love on her pet dog. Pets, of course, love a kind master or mistress unconditionally and unreservedly, with none of the complications or vacillations of other human beings. When her dog died, for Miranda it was the end of hope for the kind of love she needed. She felt, I believe, she was facing slow starvation – and she preferred a quick death to slow starvation.

How did so many of us – intelligent, kind, generous, not-unattractive people – end up coming to this kind of desolation in our later years? This is something I will explore further – and come back to leaving Tricase – in part two.

Community and the individual: Reflections on viewing “The Elephant Man” (1980) at the Ex Convento dei Teatini (Via Vittorio Emanuele II, 34), city of Lecce, Tuesday 6 July, 9pm, 2021.

Image: Ready for the screening in the courtyard of an ex-convent, city of Lecce.

21 August 2021.

It was almost a year to the day (7 July 2020) that I saw my last film, and it was in this same place, the Ex-Convento dei Teatini, which, as you might have guessed, was a former convent.

This elegant Baroque convent (or monastery- in fact I have heard there were also nuns domiciled there at some point) was built as a domiciliary for the Teatini Fathers (or “Theatine” Fathers, in English), before their order was suppressed under Napoleonic rule. Construction began in the last decade of the 16th century and was completed around the mid-17th century.

After the building was closed for good as a Theatine convent/monastery in 1866, it was made use of, sequentially, as a barracks, as a school and as a site of municipal offices. More recently the commune of Lecce has allowed the elegant courtyard to be used for theatrical performances and films screenings.

As a fan of the independent DB D’Essai cinema in Lecce, which presents mainly “art-house” films, I was concerned for the cinema’s ability to sustain itself through the long closure of regional cinemas, decreed by the regional government of Puglia, in response to the Covid pandemic in 2020.

Partly in response, it would seem, the DB D’Essai took advantage of the cloudless and balmy summer nights in Lecce to arrange a series of open-air screenings in this space, adhering to social-distancing rules by placing seats two metres apart, and it was there I saw an “original version” screening of a reissued print of Stanley Kubrick’s classic Cold War satire, Dr Strangelove (1964).

Between that screening on 7 July 2020 and the screening of David Lynch’s The Elephant Man (1980) on 6 July 2021 I really saw no other film, at least by design. The one other film I saw, a few weeks after the Dr Strangelove screening, was a screening of Sergio Leone’s For A Few Dollars More (1965) I stumbled upon in the Piazza del Popolo, in the town of Specchia, presented in tribute to the film’s legendary composer Ennio Morricone, who had recently passed away. However, this was not a “closed” screening – in other words the film was screened at one end of an open piazza where many people were cooling off under the stars, after another extremely hot and humid day, listening to pop music, conversing with friends – so I consider that event more an ambient experience that a film viewing in a real sense.

Open screening of “For a Few Dollars More” in the main piazza, Specchia, July 2020.

You may wonder why I only saw three films in the period of a year, when I clearly have a strong interest in them. The answer to that is that although I love film, and always have, I very rarely watch a film at home. I bought a DVD- player last year, but I used it only a handful of times to watch a half-dozen films during the starkest part of the Covid restrictions in March/April 2020. I don’t subscribe to any film streaming service. A long time ago now, perhaps a decade ago, I started to find watching films on my own a lonely and depressing experience, unlike reading fiction or poetry, where I feel – if the work is good – that I am engaged in a form of direct communication with the author.

“Film, as a medium, is made to be received communally, in relationship to others,”

Perhaps it is the intensity of the level of engagement when reading, diminishing one’s self-awareness or self-consciousness – or perhaps it is the medium itself that makes the difference: fiction and poetry is written to be read by people alone; it is an intimate medium that requires the receptor to be solitary, to disengage from others, in order to engage with the work. Therefore, when reading, one feels one is embroiled in a valiant and time-honoured solitary endeavour.

Films, by contrast, are made with the intention (for most filmmakers, even now in the “simultaneous home/cinema release” era) of being seen in a cinema or public space, but if at home, in company – with family, friends, lovers or spouses. Film, as a medium, is made, in other words, to be received communally, in relationship to others, and in this way, it is closer to theatre or live music performance than the medium of fiction or poetry.

Therefore, when watching a film alone, separated from other people, I am distressingly aware of my own separation from others, and regardless of the artistic merits of the film, the activity seems irrelevant and unworthy of the time left to me on this earth – time wasted. Film, at least for me, needs to be experienced with others for its spell to work as intended.

For this reason, when the opportunity has arisen to see a film with others, between periods of government-enforced social distancing or “lock-down”, it has felt like an especially rare and moving experience.

It made me think about the meaning of “community”. This space was once the domicile of a community of religious brothers; on this night it was the temporary haven of a community of film-buffs. This community of film-buffs were (for the most part) members of the wider community of the city or province of Lecce. That wider community, outside the walls of this ex-convent, were at that moment avidly watching the European cup semi-final game between Italy and Spain with friends and family, either at home or outside the bars and cafes in the surrounding streets and piazzas. A community of football aficionados – at least when Italy is in strong contention to win the European cup (which it did, in the next match). There were communities within communities there that evening.

And even I was not completely alone. A friend of mine was with me. She, like me, is not from Lecce, or the region of Puglia – we were both “sconsciuti” – strangers to the place, trying to find our “tribe” in the city, trying to connect (while trying to retain some dignity about it, reminding me of the lines from an old Bob Dylan song, “I am just a poor boy, baby/ Trying to connect/ But I certainly don’t want you thinking/That I haven’t got any respect”).

Several weeks after this screening, when considering how to write about this experience in a way that made it more than a simple review, I realised this was the connection, thematically, between the narrative of The Elephant Man and the subjective experience of watching the film in this scenario. On the surface, there could not be any more incongruous difference between the stark, vaporous, monochromatic world of industrial-era Victorian London, as depicted by David Lynch – peopled with grimy villains and subliterate barroom desperados on the one hand, and a starchy God-fearing middle class on the other – and the well-educated and broad-minded twenty-first century audience, watching the film under the stars at the peak of summer, within the walls of one of Lecce’s most unblemished and elegant edifices of the pre-industrial age.

However, the story that played out on the screen is also a story of isolation and community. Lynch’s previous feature film to The Elephant Man, his debut low-budget feature Eraserhead (1977), had a Kafkaesque ambience and narrative, and although The Elephant Man was an “optioned property”, as they say in the film business, that was offered to Lynch, rather than from an original idea like Eraserhead, it has a similarly Kafkaesque protagonist and scenario. The material fit Lynch’s sensibility like the proverbial glove.

In Kafka’s Metamorphosis, Gregor Samsa’s feelings of alienation are externalized one day when he wakes up to find he as transformed into a giant dung beetle – disgusting and abhorrent to the world. In The Elephant Man, John Merrick (John Hurt) was born terribly deformed, and at the inciting incident of the story, when Dr. Frederick Treves (Anthony Hopkins) first sets sight on him in a dingy circus freak show, he has never known any reaction to himself from the public but disgust and abhorrence, and an appalled fascination with the “otherness” of him that allows him to survive in a meagre and subhuman way as an attraction in the freak-show of the immoral, cruel and self-pitying impresario, Mr Bytes (Freddie Jones).

For Merrick, communities have always been something to be feared – they are the people that come to stare at him, and who would probably do him physical harm if he were found anywhere but it in the sordid circus that is his refuge. In the course of the narrative, Treves rescues him from Bytes’ control and is able to make him a permanent ward of the Royal Alexandra Hospital, after the personal intervention of Princess Alexandra of Wales (Helen Ryan).

Some of the hospital staff, in particular the chief matron “Mothershead” (Wendy Hiller), and Dr Treves and his wife (Hannah Gordon) become a small protective community for Merrick at the hospital. He opens up his soul in response to their kindness. Although he is physically incurable, he develops as a human being under their influence and the influence of certain people that visit him, such as the stage actress Mrs Kendall (Anne Bancroft). He starts reading Shakespeare, he creates a model of the church outside his window, using his imagination to complete those parts he cannot see from the window. He calls Treves, with strong feeling and conviction, in great contrast to the withdrawn, fearful person Treves first encountered, “my friend”. The value of community, at its best, to the soul of the individual, and the individual’s incompleteness without a nurturing community, is implicit in all this.

At the same time, community can also turn on the outsider viciously, and at the peak of his spiritual victory, Merrick has to suffer being brutalized by a section of London’s underclass, who after guzzling cheap booze in a nearby saloon, are emboldened to enter his chambers at the hospital (“for a price”) by the hardboiled and opportunistic night porter (Michael Elphick).

There are many ways to interpret a film, and my focus on the theme of the fraught interrelation between the individual and the community in The Elephant Man seems to derive from the experience of it that night, where the sense of community felt possible, but also ephemeral and difficult for a stranger to connect with (thinking again of that Dylan song). However, it could be argued, having opened this particular line of enquiry into The Elephant Man, that you can see the same theme repeated, to a greater or lesser degree, in most of David Lynch’s films – but most strongly present, perhaps, in Blue Velvet (1986), Twin Peaks (1990-1993) and Mulholland Drive (2001). I also thought recently of Kurosawa’s film The Seven Samurai (1954) in the same context. At a time when film screenings in cinemas or public spaces seems on the verge of becoming a thing of the past, due to both the pressures of controlling Covid and a general trend toward the convenience of home-viewing options, such events as this one seem precious and profound, almost like the religious services that once took place in that same courtyard, three hundred years ago.

One man’s California is another man’s Khe-Sanh: summer in Puglia.

Heat-struck cat in Specchia, 14 July 2021

Saturday 10 July 2021

The temperature here in Tricase today is 32 degrees Celsius – “feels like 36 degrees” – according to Google Weather. Last week the temperature reached a high of 36, so this is a reprieve, of sorts, but still, it’s hot enough to make the tiles in my courtyard fairly sizzle and even the ants and mosquitoes seem to take a long siesta between mid-morning and late afternoon. Every summer I realise, when it is far too late to do anything about it, that I am not a summer person, and should probably not be living in a region of the Mediterranean famed for its long hot summers.

That same frazzled cat, close-up

I look forward to summer through the cold winter months (because it does get cold here, with strong biting sea winds and even, in recent years, the occasional snowdrift around December/January), and I tend to view spring as a prelude to better things – the Purgatorio to summer’s Paradiso – when in fact, for me, physically and mentally, it really is the other way around. Spring is the best time for me, and I tend to romantically imagine summer – because summer is when, as an English language teacher, I usually have a lot of time free – as simply a longer version of spring.

I tend to romantically imagine summer – because summer is when I usually have a lot of time free – as simply a longer version of spring

I fool myself into imagining the same kind of comfortable temperatures as spring, somewhere between 24 and 28 degrees Celsius, weather that permits me to go cycling, or out for a drive or walk at any time of the day I have free, visiting two or three different towns on a Saturday, maybe a trip as far up as the “white city” of Ostuni, the elegant inland towns of Mesagne, Martina Franca, or Ceglie, or closer to home (or what I call home for now, here in Tricase) up to Porto Badisco, Castro, the sea caves of Zinzalusa or Grotto Verde ( “Green cave”) or down to Santa Maria di Leuca, the vertiginous seaport village at the very end of the peninsula.

However, with the arrival of a heatwave in June, I remember all this becomes impossible for me. My 2009-model Fiat “Grande” Punto, an aging vehicle of modest dimensions, despite its name, but nevertheless – so far, anyway – responsive and willing, my steed, the Rocinante to my Don Quixote between late September and the last weeks of May, becomes in June a seething and unapproachable megalith of black metal under the blazing sun (I do not have a garage, and have yet to discover where one purchases a sun tarpaulin for a car),  and with an air conditioning system more decorative than functional, driving anywhere before the hour of dusk becomes an insupportable concept, like going on a voyage through the desert without water. Road journeys become a thing only of dusk and night.

Although it would be appealing to complete the allusion to Dante’s trilogy by calling summer here in Puglia “the Inferno”, it seems unreasonable to do so, when so many are clearly enjoying it. The various pages I follow on Instagram devoted to Puglia show delightful photographs taken each day of teenage friendship groups, young romantic couples, budding swimwear models in their early twenties, and young parents in their late twenties or thirties with their small and adorable children, all frolicking, swimming, sunbathing, paddle-boarding, pouting for the camera or picnicking by the natural pool at Marina Serra or the Grotto della Poesia (Cave of Poetry) at Rocca Vecchia, or the small sparkling cove of Cala dell’Aquaviva, all within a stone’s throw – or a short drive – from  where I’m sitting, writing this is my shaded apartment, caressed by the artificial breeze and made slightly tense by the propellor whirr of a high-powered electric fan, like a displaced character from a story by Poe or Kafka.

I notice however that in the main the cut-off point of the age range in these photos seems to be around forty. There are exceptions – sun-lovers in their forties or fifties or even beyond. I notice these tend to be either Danes and Hollanders, or Americans. I sometimes wonder if they are genuinely enjoying it, or simply feel that being in the Mediterranean in summer, they have a responsibility to those they left behind to try to enjoy sitting out on the beach half-naked, turning a crisp golden brown in temperatures that could never be imagined in Roskilde, Denmark, or Minneapolis, Minnesota – and of course, post the photos.

Then again, perhaps they really do enjoy it, and perhaps they are made of tougher stuff than I, or are in better physical condition. Probably that’s it. It’s true that, imagining as I do summer as a mere extension of spring, I usually make no preparation, in terms of lifestyle alterations, in that ideal season for the harshness of what is coming, and the experience of the sudden arrival of summer is always for me something like that shocking “direct cut” in Michael Cimino’s “The Deer Hunter”(1978) where Mike (Robert de Niro) and his friends have just finished a day’s hunting in the cool mist and green ferns of the Allegheny mountain range in Pennsylvania (where Mike, captivated by the beauty of a deer in his telescopic sight, can’t bring himself to shoot it), and the next moment they’re covered in sweat, blood and grime, fighting their way through a burning Vietnamese village. Okay, perhaps that comparison doesn’t quite hold up to intense scrutiny, but subjectively speaking, it seems pretty accurate.

That said, there is nothing like the narrowing of pleasant options to finally get down to some writing. As I am now, from around 11 am to 6pm, effectively trapped indoors (by my own human limitations or even weakness, you could say, but trapped nonetheless) there is little to do, besides the usual domestic and professional chores – doing the laundry, responding to invitations for job interviews – but turn to writing, that task that – like summer, in fact – I always imagine to be all roses and flowers, as the Italian expression goes (“Essere tutto rose e fiori”), but in reality is more reminiscent of the summer I spent, almost a decade ago now, digging out the tough and seemingly endless roots of a bamboo tree in my parents’ backyard – a task where an objective must be held in mind, but also to an extent forgotten, for the sake of one’s fortitude – a task which requires great patience and forbearance, as well as single-mindedness, to achieve.

Perhaps it was the limitations the oppressive heat put on daytime exploration that permitted Paul and Jane Bowles to while away the afternoon hours in shaded rooms, carefully crafting their stories

Perhaps it was the limitations the oppressive heat put on daytime exploration that permitted Paul and Jane Bowles, living in the Moroccan city of Tangier, to while away the afternoon hours in shaded rooms, with writing pads or typewriters, sipping mint tea under ceiling fans, carefully crafting their stories, and developing their distinctive themes and literary styles. The optimum conditions for the task of writing, it seems to me, are ones where there is not only nothing that has to be done (or that cannot be put off for another day, or at least for a few hours), but where there seems nothing more interesting or enjoyable to do: a situation of near-zero need and near-zero stimulation – of course, life is not generally like this for most people, and so the effect has to be artificially created – you pretend there is nothing else beyond the limits of the room you are writing in.  As a parallel thought, I’ve decided that my vague romantic notion to try living in Tangier for a period might be best, considering the difficulty I have with a Pugliese summer, remaining a vague romantic notion.

This is in fact my fourth summer in Puglia since arriving in October 2017 – though in the summer of 2019 I spent several months working as an English language teacher for the summer academic programme at Reading University back in England, where the main weather condition that summer was “mild but persistent drizzle”, which could also be applied to the deportment and personality of most inhabitants of that town I encountered, except when drunk (a state of mild euphoria everyone there had to reach determinedly, before last orders at a quarter to eleven, which were always called promptly and with visible relief, if not relish, by the manager or his/her hired hands). When there, apart from the enjoyment of getting to see old friends I had not seen in the flesh for several years, I mainly longed to be back in Puglia.

If that sounds strange or paradoxical, I should say that my affection for Puglia is not for the same reason most tourists come here – that is, for the long hot summers and the impressive beaches. I can’t really summarise such a profound and mysterious feeling, but one element of that affection might be the feeling that I’ve discovered a treasure of a region which, while not unknown to the outside world (to pretend so would be absurd), is less known and travelled than other regions even here in Italy -less than the more famed Veneto or Tuscany, for instance.

Puglia still retains aspects of an older, more traditional and self-contained culture…something increasingly difficult to experience in the Western world….

Another reason for my attraction to the region might be a feeling that though Puglia is certainly connected to the modern world – even here in Tricase you can find a tattoo parlour, natural foods store and frozen yoghurt outlet, for instance, along with all the more basic services – it still retains aspects of an older, more traditional, and self-contained culture – something increasingly difficult to experience in the Western world, where everywhere seems like it wants to be taken for someplace else. For me, the scorching summers here are not the best part of living here (as it is for the sun-lovers), but the price you pay for the cultural and spiritual rewards of living here. Were I not to experience the severity of the summer – if I had the luxury of just relocating to a cooler country or region for the entirety of this season – I feel I would lose something of the authenticity of the experience of Puglia (but don’t tempt me). As Robert De Niro put it in “The Deer Hunter”: “This is this. It ain’t something else.”

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