Strength in numbers

I had the opportunity to spend this Christmas in Italy with my partner’s family. It was one of the last traditional events I had yet to experience over there and I hoped that taking part might enable me to experience a little more of what Italian culture was all about.

After a spectacular flight across the sun-blushed peaks of the Swiss Alps, I landed at Malpensa airport and successfully made my way to meet Veronica at the local train station outside of Lake Como.

As is the custom whenever I visit, we went for a quick aperitivo at her dad’s bar, then it was time to head to the family’s apartment for dinner. Soon after arriving, however, I began to notice a tendency for all members of the family to outwardly express an opinion on everyone else’s business. It’s not the first time I’ve witnessed this and as I discovered, it wasn’t only confined to the Mulas household.

On reflection, it seemed to me that this (admittedly irritating aspect) came down to that most well-known feature of any Italian home; the dinner table. Throughout my stay, every lunch and dinner was eaten around the table with just about every member of the family in attendance from two to 65 years-old. And it was here that anything and everything was discussed, whether it was what to have for dinner the next evening, the best route to take to town or what a certain child should or shouldn’t be doing. No one was safe.

I’m a fairly independent person and am used to making my own decisions, so I initially found this a challenge. Even just getting out of the door was often delayed by an impromptu debate on what we ought to be wearing and if it was this place we were going, shouldn’t we go another day or take so and so with us. Nevertheless, as the days passed, I began to see a deeper reasoning to this approach and I found myself thinking back to something her dad once said.

A few years ago, I went to the wedding of Veronica’s oldest sister in a village near Rome. On the way home, we were sitting in the airport with her parents, waiting for our respective flights. The news was showing on a big screen, flashing up the usual ominous world events and I mentioned how nice it was to have been away from all that. Her dad gave a dismissive wave at the television and said something that stayed with me; “all that matters is that you stick together.”

The notion of the family unit was central to virtually every activity that took place within the home. When the table needed to be laid, everyone helped out, if a child started crying, others were ready to offer a hand or some advice. Inevitably, this attitude spreads out to neighbours and other relatives who, like long lost friends, would stop and chat in the street or the hallway or simply turn up, unannounced.

Not only that, but this group mentality puts everyone on an equal footing, including children who, from day one, are initiated (kicking and screaming) into the etiquette of Italian social life. This was apparent when we went to dinner at a friend’s. Naturally, the evening took place around a large table with a family of six. Everyone helped out with the preparation and, perhaps most crucially of all, every opinion was listened to, including the children’s.

The last notable instance was during a visit to an aunt and uncle’s house. Their son, a reedy man with a grungy biker look, had not long come out of rehab and was now living in an annex at the back of the house. He struck me as a gentle yet melancholy soul who had clearly lost a large part of his life, but with a supportive family network around him, it seemed to me that he couldn’t be in a better place to rebuild his life. I wondered how he might have turned out if he was shoved into a one-bed flat somewhere across town or bunched together with other recovering addicts.

With such loving and devoted family around you, there’s little you can’t get through, even if it does mean having to put up with everyone’s point of view in the meantime. It certainly brought out an affection for my nearest and dearest when I returned home and I hope to hold onto that impression, even without the addition of an enormous dinner table.

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One for the road

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They say it’s the journey and not the destination that counts. But that’s not immediately obvious when you’re driving for six hours up a motorway.

We were on our way from Bristol to Newcastle to attend the opening of an exhibition that featured some of my partner’s work. Normally, I’m all for a good old road trip, but the endless winding grey punctuated by industrial sites and Costa/McDonalds/Subway combinations was starting to get to me.

Things changed, however, when we passed a slumbering power station, dressed murky gold by the afternoon sun. My partner took a few snaps of it and suddenly the road took on a different meaning.
Within the strange, alien landscape we found art. Brutal concrete shapes became contemporary wonders and boundaries walls formed painted lines along with the trees and the sky. Swooping power lines looked dramatic against shifting clouds and there was even the occasional splash of colour, such as the OK Diner just north of Middlesborough.

It made me think that even in the bleakest of locations or the dullest of prospects, it’s possible to find a creative spark. Sometimes all we need is a little shake up of our perceptions in order to see something in a new light. On other occasions, however, it’s more about shaking loose any assumptions we might have to see what’s really on offer.

This was very much the case when we finally arrived in Newcastle. Admittedly, my expectations were limited to a city of smokestacks, bad weather and a mildly irritating accent. But as we crossed the majestic Tyne Bridge, I was faced with a glittering city that was anything but the crumbling industrial hulk it had once been.

Like the transformation of numerous East London boroughs, redundant buildings had been turned into artspaces and studios while brand-new apartments and construction sites jostled each other for space. The gallery itself was situated in a former biscuit factory and the place was teeming with visitors excited to see the new season of work that was on display.

This experience brought home a realisation that, despite being nothing new, seemed pressingly relevant. When faced with something as devastating as the closure of businesses and loss of jobs, buildings and neighbourhoods require nothing short of a complete renewal in order that they don’t crumble and waste away. Much like industry, attitudes die hard, but it seemed clear that we need to be ready to embrace transitions rather than resist them in order that cities and society at large can move into the future in the best possible way.

I got the impression Newcastle was trying to do just that. And the accent wasn’t bad either.

Set sail for a new city

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It was back in the summer of ’14 when I got my hands on the Los Angeles edition of Boat Magazine. The hazy rays that came through the window of the bar I was in seemed to go well with the dusky image on the front cover.

I opened the pages and started to read. Like a good book that you just can’t put down, I quickly found myself  drawn in as discerning articles told of the extraordinariness of ordinary individuals living in the city. But more than that, it was the delicate composition of words that captivated me and a seemingly heightened awareness of the subject matter that isn’t generally found in your average travel magazine. 

From then on, I was hooked and am now the proud owner of six issues of Boat. Not to be confused with maritime glossies, the word ‘Boat’ refers to the ‘floating’ nature of the magazine. Twice a year the team behind it pack up their office and head off to a new city to seek out the stories and the people that help mould a sense of identity about the place. 

The secret to this seems to lie in their approach; by inviting local writers and artists to present their own view of the city they call home alongside visiting contributors, the magazine is able to provide a perspective from both inside and out.  

Invariably, this makes for some pretty diverse reading. My favourite issue on Kyoto, for example, opens with a complex introduction to the city from a resident of 25 years, detailing the intricacies of society and its ability to assimilate new culture. Then follows a feature on ancient forestry practices that are kept alive by a few committed workers while further on, a delicate set of interviews shed light on the hidden lives of the homeless population. 

Yet, for all their individuality, what’s prevalent is a sense of intimacy and sensitivity towards the nuances of place, which threads everything together. The result is a compilation of writing that not only informs, but leaves you with a sense of having glimpsed an inner nature that not many travellers, maybe even citizens, are likely to encounter. This is what keeps me coming back to the magazine rack every six months and its also the reason I’ve kept every issue, so that I might take one out and dip into it, like bottled essence, should life in my own corner of the world become a little dull.