That Smell

Mum and Dad are away on holiday so I’ve gone up north to look after the house while they’re away. Living as far out as they do, I had to catch the bus this time, as the nearest train station is easily a few hours away on foot (with feet being the only reliable form of transport since neither my brother or I can drive).

Arriving in Lincolnshire sometimes feels like stepping back in time. It’s doubly noticeable coming up from Croydon, watching the diversity metronome swing violently to one side. When you live and work in such a cosmopolitan environment, it’s sometimes easy to forget that there are still great parts of this island that are – to take Wilfred Owen out of context – forever England. I think we all need reminding of that from time to time. A lot of us Southerners fall into the trap of thinking the rest of the country thinks like us. I still believe that’s how Brexit caught so many of us off-guard. We weren’t looking or listening hard enough to the folks north of the M25.

It’s been a while since I caught a Stagecoach bus. I used to ride them all the time when I was a teenager; but then, both my parents had full-time jobs, and Kent is pretty self-contained. So it was a trip down memory lane – sort of.

The guy sitting next to me falls asleep in seconds. He’s smartly dressed but his body odour is quite overpowering. Between his sweaty cologne and the leather-clad goth girl puffing sickeningly sweet clouds of vape smoke overhead in the seat in front, I’m reminded my sense of smell isn’t as awful as I always say it is.

Three lads sit with their feet up across one extra seat each at the back of the bus. There must be an unwritten rule that stakes out the rear of any vehicle as the sole dominion of teenage boys, because I’ve never seen any other setup on my travels. One of them is pissed about how there’s nothing to do where he lives, and how he knows nobody, and how not being able to drive doesn’t help. He could be voicing my own concerns, if I were really that bothered about settling for my own company. His mates tell him to come along on a night out, and if he doesn’t have friends out there, “fuckin’ make friends, mate”. A wingman’s life was never easier.

A man gets on at the prison gates just outside the city in matching grey trackies and a baseball hat that’s too small for his head. His eyes are large, dark and staring – it takes me too long to realise it’s his dilated pupils that give him that intense look. A blunt tucked behind his ear smoulders ever so slightly. Now the smell of wet grass (or fox, as I always assumed) mingles with the BO and the indiscernible fruit-something of the vape clouds. He cracks open a lager and the bus driver stops by a bin and tells him his booze needs to go in that bin, mate. You what, he says. That bin. Can’t drink on here. Roll-Up Man gets up – alright, jes gimme a minute – wanders over to the door and necks the entire can. A lady near the front applauds. He ain’t wastin’ that can! Roll-Up Man returns with hands up in mock surrender, or it could be triumph. It’s hard to tell.

Lord Vaper continues to drag on her death stick. Given that she’s the third passenger on the bus to ignore the no smoking sign, I wonder whether anyone can read, or whether they just don’t care.

The Marvel run continues tonight with Doctor Strange. Watched Civil War for the first time last night and actually really enjoyed it. Yeah, I know, I missed the hype of watching them as they came out, but the MCU truly belongs to the generation just after mine, I think. I grew up with Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy, and that remains the gold standard as far as superhero movies go. Perhaps I’ll have changed my tune by the time I get to Endgame. Somehow I doubt it. Like the Joker, I guess I just can’t let go of Batsy. BB x

P.S. I wanted to give the title of this post the full nod to Sonallah Ibrahim’s seminal 1966 novella, That Smell and Notes from Prison, but some references are just far too pretentious to shoehorn in – especially when it’s about a bus ride out of Lincoln City.

Sh!tsh@w: A Recovery Plan for a Rough Year

Sunday 26th June, 12:47pm.
The Flat.

We’ve made it. Blimey, but I thought that year would never end. School years come and go in cycles, and I consider myself an extremely patient man, but this one has been particularly trying. I’m not ashamed to admit that I’ve come close to questioning my career on more than one occasion, and every time I’ve been pulled back up to the light by the trinity: the kids, the music and the torchlight of my ancestors. I’ve never been overly fond of the yawning hole in the year that is the summer holidays – I have a desperate need to be busy that two months puts a serious strain upon – but I did breathe an almighty sigh of relief when the clock struck twelve on Friday night. It’s just been one of those years.

When I look back, I can’t help but label my third year as a teacher as the year when everything went wrong. The year when all my endeavours came to ruin. Consequently, it’s also the year when hope has been even more important than ever – and hope, shapeless and mysterious, has ever been my polestar.

This year my Gospel Choir was disbanded, cancelled on the grounds that I, as a white man, was not the appropriate choice to run such a group. I conceded without a fight. It hurt, it hurt right down to the core of my soul to be told so openly that my efforts – and even my taste in music – were so wholly inappropriate. It wasn’t an attack on me by any standards, but my word, did I take the issue home! My head was spinning for weeks and I took some time out in Spain with my cousins to heal. What had happened flew in the face of everything I’d been taught by my various Gospel mentors over the years, and everybody I spoke to seemed baffled. For my career’s sake I briefly considered abandoning my attempts to dabble in music absolutely, and would have gone ahead were it not for the discovery that my great-grandparents were both musicians. I cannot let them down. It wouldn’t be right. I also owe it to the kids under my aegis to find a way, so that the last three years of hard work will not be in vain.

Rising from the ashes, my new a cappella group has been fun, and I hope the kids have enjoyed it, even if we’ve never been concert ready when the time came. The simple truth is that Gospel music, as well as being eye-opening and soul-enriching, is easy to learn. It’s meant to be, because it was never written with trained musicians in mind. By contrast, a cappella arrangements are impressive when done right, but hard to pull off, even when you have a group of semi-professionals. It pains me that my efforts to instil a genuine love of performing have yet to bear fruit with my current cohort, but the kids rock up each week with big smiles and they enjoy the music, and I guess that’s good enough for now.

December hit me with a one-two punch that nearly knocked me out cold. I wandered out of a five-year relationship and within twenty-four hours I had a head-cold that left me half-deaf – and later, more excruciatingly, under the maddening influence of diplacusis dysharmonica. The timing could hardly have been worse: first the Gospel fiasco left me questioning almost all my choices in music, and then the mother of all earaches made it physically impossible to listen to any kind of music whatsoever for all of two months. It felt like the world was conspiring to bring me down.

I wasn’t especially keen to admit it, but I’ve been in orbit ever since. I tried a couple of times to kindle the sparks of a relationship with somebody new, but my attempts sputtered and died like the fireworks in the rain, and I confess I’ve probably been too proud to bend the knee in full to the world of online dating purely on principle. So I’ve been a family man to my kids more than ever this year, giving them as much of my time as I can muster of an evening and finding opportunities to praise and guide wherever I can. They give me hope and I try to do the same for them. I’m convinced teaching is the best job in the world.

I’ve tried to be more supportive of my brother this year. He hasn’t chosen the easiest path, and there are few people in the world I look up to more. I’ve also kept up with my youngest cousin through our English classes every week, or at least the weeks where he doesn’t have an exam to revise for. Family means a lot to me, squaring well with my dreams of being the best dad ever someday, which is partly why being out of a relationship has been so disorienting. At least if there’s been one success this year, it’s been a closer connection to my kin. Maybe rediscovering the Chronicles of Ancient Darkness earlier in the year helped.

Finally, I know I can be a better teacher. I’ve done well by my kids this year, but I can improve. I know I can. I think all the knocks I took this year left me on one knee, still standing though not as strong as before. I reckon it’s about time I got up on two feet again.

So it’s time to plan ahead and set things in order. Two months of summer stretch ahead, and I’ve got plenty of things to do, starting today.

I’m going to get fit.
Fitness has never really interested me, but a healthier body can only prop up a healthier state of mind.

I’m going to cook for myself again.
I’ve taken advantage of being fed at school for too long. I used to love cooking when I lived for myself. It’s time to rediscover that joy.

I’m going to learn to drive. Finally.
It’s a milestone that I can’t ignore anymore, and I’m finally at the stage in my life where absolute freedom of mobility is starting to interest me. Even if I don’t pass my test this year, I need to make a start. Starting is always the hardest part.

I’m going to read more. And I mean read, not just say it and buy more books.
I’ve set myself a target of a chapter a day, whatever the book, in addition to at least one article.

I’m going to plan ahead.
I want my teaching to get better and better, so I’m going to dedicate some serious time to planning some fantastic teaching methods this summer.

I’m going to write again. Not just on here, but the book.
My journals have been with me to almost every lesson and on every school outing, but I’ve made little progress on the novel since the real teaching life began. And that’s criminal.

Last but not least, I’m going to get out and see the world.
Not traveling – I can’t justify having more than one holiday per year anymore, and I had my holiday at Easter. But I need to widen my circle of trust. I need to allow myself to meet others, and if I’m guarded about making that connection online, the only way to do it is to get out and about.

I’m no fan of coming up with action plans at work, but my future is counting on me to make this choice now. Melodrama aside, I could do with some change in my life. And that change starts today! BB x

COVID & The Classroom: Two Years Later

No two days are the same when you’re a teacher. It’s hackneyed, but it’s true: children are infinitely more changeable than tired and heavily programmed adults, whose desire to rebel and create has usually been all but eroded by the necessities of everyday life. That being said, I guess I expected at least a modicum of routine when I answered the call to become a teacher. How wrong I was… and what a couple of years it’s been!

Two years and two months ago (almost to the day) I remember sitting in my living room with my housemate with the radio on, listening to the Prime Minister’s national briefing. Perhaps you remember it – it was the one where he officially announced a national lockdown in the wake of a sudden surge of COVID-related deaths.

It’s eerie to think how little attention we paid to the scourge of the decade back then. You could certainly argue that when Trump called it the Chinese virus he was only echoing what a great many people were thinking at the time. When I left for my placement school in late February COVID was little more than a minor article concerning the city of Wuhan. When I came back to work three weeks later I had to reprimand a student for refusing to sit near a Chinese classmate. If you want to get a feel for how it felt back then, read John Christopher’s 1956 apocalyptic novella The Death of Grass. Without giving away too much of the plot, it centres around a disease which originates in China (where it may or may not have been engineered) which leads to the starvation and death of thousands of Asians, but does not cause any genuine panic in the West until it arrives on their doorstep a few months later. The parallels are more than a little alarming.

Then came Boris’ address to the nation and the closure of schools – more than a week after other businesses had been ordered to shut up shop. Our kids had already been sent home a few days prior, so I suppose it wasn’t entirely unexpected, yet all the same, I remember thinking we might just make it to the end of the week and the Easter holidays before the portcullis came down.

I was wrong.

For the rest of the summer, I taught my lessons online. Those of us who had been reluctant to shift our practice into the virtual world were given a violent kick into the future. Google Classrooms replaced real classrooms as we moved everything online: first to Google Hangouts, then to Google Meet. The constant low hubbub of the classroom vanished, to be replaced with the two-tone jingle of Google Meet’s “hand raise” feature.

Some students – perhaps at their parents’ request – kept their cameras on at all times, but most disappeared behind their initials or a selected profile picture of this or that image lifted from Google. I caught myself consciously staring out the window and trying to focus on objects in the middle distance as my eyes began to ache from the strain of staring at a screen all day. Exams that might have taken an hour to mark took all afternoon. I tried to keep an eye on all twenty-odd tabs I had open so I could monitor my students’ work, knowing full well that even in a real classroom I couldn’t possibly expect to teach a lesson whilst eyeballing every workbook simultaneously. Saturday school was cancelled, but by the time Saturday came around I only really had the energy to collapse.

As the summer drew to a close and some staff and students returned to the site for a phased return, I remained at my post on the other side of the south, giving mum moral support as she fought to keep her school alive and counting down the days until I could unplug from Google for good.

When we returned in September, it was to a school that had to learn to live with COVID. Social distancing put a definitive end to any interaction between year groups – and, by definition, sporting events and music (singing was outlawed anyway). Lessons were necessarily cut short because of the need to wipe desks down between classes. Students kept to their zones and teachers moved from place to place, as though we’d given the finger to Brexit and decided to follow the European model. The whiteboards were often unusable due to the constant application of hand sanitiser, and more than ever, I was teaching through PowerPoints and digital workbooks – and falling increasingly out of love with both as a teaching method.

Most of my friends who weren’t in teaching were either working from home or operating in new, post-Covid systems that had them in the office three days out of five. We didn’t see changes that drastic in teaching, to be honest, with most families calling for a return to normality for the sake of their children’s mental wellbeing. Be tolerant. Be understanding. So we plodded along, tolerant and understanding. Some people followed the rules about social distancing to the letter. Some didn’t. Invariably, where they didn’t, outbreaks followed.

And while we dealt with the outbreaks as they came – usually by sending classes or year groups home one at a time – we had to deal with an increase in power outages, too. For whatever reason, we were hit by a real spate of them as we hurtled into the second lockdown (and in a genuinely absurd divine prank, one has literally just hit as I was writing this… never mind hindsight, this is just plain spooky). Power cuts meant no internet, and no internet meant no lessons (or email, for that matter). So while “snow days” were forever killed off by the invention of remote learning, the common power cut took its place.

The second lockdown was more tedious than the first: stripped of its novelty, most of us were just waiting for the all-clear. And when we did return, there were so many things to keep an eye on. Which students were on RPDs (Remote Pupil Device) this week? Which ones weren’t (they needed work sent to them instead)? How did you balance your teaching to make sure the ones on the screen were getting your full attention, when the other twenty-odd sitting in the classroom also required the same?

Boarding was even more complicated. Over the course of the year I played teacher, counsellor, test-and-tracer, secretary, waiter, cook and delivery boy. I donned plastic gloves, apron and a face shield and took temperatures with a gun-shaped thermal detector. I took my isolators for walks – codenamed “fresh air” – after putting the others to bed, so there was no risk of them contaminating others. More than once I wondered what this boarding school malarkey would be like without all the myriad responsibilities that living with Covid thrust upon us all.

September 2022 began on a much more hopeful footing. Many of the previous year’s trials remained, such as the boarders’ test-to-fly hurdles and the itinerant disappearance of this or that student from the classroom (for a period of no fewer than 14 days – then 9, then 3). However, as winter turned to spring and a third national lockdown looked about as likely as a white Christmas, we breathed a collective sigh of relief. The jabs had done their job – or rather, the moral panic had abated with the knowledge that more than half the nation was now triple-vaccinated against the menace. Covid became a cold: more of a nuisance than a threat.

If truth be told, I’ve probably forgotten many of the day-to-day details. Things have changed so much over the last two years. With school exams now back in full swing, I’d even go so far as to say that it’s only in the last three weeks or so that things have finally returned to normal – whatever that was.

Over the last week I’ve been asked to support no fewer than three overseas school trips planned for the next academic year. This week alone we bring the summer half term to a close with a practice expedition for the Duke of Edinburgh students, a summer concert in the Abbey, our first Sports Day in three years and a Speech Day that we’ll be able to attend in person, rather than in tutor groups via a Google Meet link. It’s taken a long time, but in the grand scheme of viruses and plagues and diseases, we’ve bounced back incredibly quickly.

I had a great time today standing in as a very willing target in the “Throw a Sponge at the Teacher” stall at the Sixth Form dog show, but more than anything else, I was over the moon to see so many students, staff and parents back on site, mask-free, mingling as though the last two years never happened. Fear did not get the better of us, and we have come out the other end smiling.

I’d still recommend John Christopher’s novel for a dose of reality, if only to cancel out the hubris high I’m feeling right now – because his message is no less relevant now than it was over sixty years ago – or even two years ago:

The scientists have never failed us yet. We shall never really believe they will until they do.

John Christopher, The Death of Grass

Alpha Girls and Beta Men on the 13:07

London Bridge is quietly buzzing. I’m halfway through sandwich two of my Boots meal deal and watching commuters come and go beyond the glass. I can’t see many face masks anymore. The only masks I’ve seen in three minutes were worn by a couple of Asian women who got off the Gatwick train. To look around now, you might be forgiven for thinking the crisis is over. I wonder whether we eventually shrugged off the great plague with the same British phlegm.

Two twenty-somethings on the next aisle crack open a thin-tin of strawberry daiquiri and discuss the “right” way to shake a cocktail. A sweet synthetic hint of something that might once have been strawberry permeates the carriage for a few seconds, somewhere between the strength of a spring flowerbed and a subway urinal. A trendy man in dark glasses phases in and out of sleep a few seats along. A made-up mum scrolls through her Zara app and her daughter waves goodbye to London Town.

Graffiti lines the tracks. It daubs itself on every bridge, every sign and lamp post, every standing stone. Tags and words and call-signs in silver and black that make no sense to me, but mean something to someone, somewhere. Preek. Eo. Prydz. Busta. Cosa. DGMan. Looper. You never see them in the act, but the aerosol artists must work throughout the year, like Reebok-wearing shoemaker-elves.

The conversation shifts. The daiquiri girls discuss their thoughts about their respective partners and the foibles of men. “Don’t forget him, just think of him as, you know, that was a shiny boy you dated for a while,’; “He said that being in love is more important than being right, and that just didn’t sit with me, you know?”; “Mm yeah, that does sound a bit intense,”; “I just want to be in control all the time,”; “Me too!”

A yuppie asked to take the seat next to me on the train up last night. I noticed his face fallen slightly – that slight tightening of the jaw that I think is called emotional leakage in psychological circles. Perhaps I saw in it what I wanted to see, or perhaps I just saw a face I know too well. He was drafting a message in Notes to one “Alissa Bumble”. He struggled with one sentence, writing, erasing and re-writing the same words: “thank you for being honest with me”. His jaw twitched and he stared through his phone to the floor and into the empty space beyond.

In four months of experimenting with Bumble and it’s kin I’m more or less resolved to pull the plug at the end of the month. It was worth a shot, but I feel that yuppie’s frustration on my own level: it’s a soul-sapping task at best. I’ve seen that same quiet exasperation in the faces of many a young Tantalus on the train, now that I recognise that swiping gesture for what it means and read it like a book whenever I see it. Apples bobbing near, but always out of reach.

These social networking sites seem one and the same. One goes into the water like a fisherman and, though you could be sure you felt a tug on the line here or there, when you start to draw in the net you find your hands are empty. Maybe it was a missed encounter, or maybe it was a capricious twist of the algorithm, clamouring for your attention – and your custom. They play you like a lyre; Apollo in Diana’s hands. Even those connections you thought you’d made tend to disappear like so much dust in your hand. Again and again it’s the same hurdle online as it is in truth. Ambition gets in the way. Ambition for work and ambition for looks. It’s a game for the beautiful and the mirror never lies, and for somebody who would rather share stories than photos, the current of the online dating world flows like the Gibraltar Strait: close, tantalisingly so, but vicious and unforgiving. It’s been an interesting experiment, but it’s not for me.

The sun is shining on Crawley Town. A nuthatch twirrups from the canopy and the wind whispers through the alder trees. A robin is singing as the clouds roll in. The bluebells are out at last and a walk home through the woods is the best therapy nature can provide, especially when it rides off the back of a night spent in the company of such honest and kind-hearted friends. The world has been good to me.

Time, I think, for a spring clean. First of the flat, then of the heart. BB x

Rome IV: Popes & Palms

Bloody hell, but that was unnecessarily early start. The trip to Fiumicino Airport (8€ on the shuttle bus from Via Crescenzio 2) was on time and completely hassle-free, so I arrived with four hours to go until my flight – a new record in caution. Still, better early than late! It gives me time to relax and put yesterday morning into words.

All I can say to start with is believe in your own luck for a change. Because Sunday morning’s adventure wouldn’t have happened at all if I hadn’t taken a chance.

One of the main reasons I came to Rome and stayed until this morning was because of the very real chance of seeing the Pope deliver his Palm Sunday Mass in St Peter’s Square. That’s not the kind of opportunity you pass up on if you can help it. Unfortunately, the information on the internet is vague, conflicting and genuinely quite hard to track down. Most of it implies you need to apply for a ticket directly to the Vatican via fax (!!), sometimes as early as three months in advance, to be in with a chance of securing a “coveted” ticket. At least, that’s what all the tour companies say. By Saturday night, I’d more or less given up on the whole affair and planned to go for a morning walk down the Via Appia instead.

Turns out the internet is wrong. So here’s me setting the record straight.

Contrary to what you may find online, you do not need a ticket to attend the Palm Sunday service in the Vatican City. It’s free and there’s no need to book!!!

I rocked up in my casual clothes with my picnic packed for the Via Appia and thought I’d check to see what was going on in VC and before I knew what I was doing I’d followed a whim and chanced the security barriers. They scanned my bag, found only a punnet of olives, a punnet of strawberries, breadsticks and some other snacks… and let me pass.

As it was still only 8.20am, St. Peter’s Square was still relatively empty. Thousands of chairs had been set up overnight, along with the temporary barriers raised around the central obelisk and the wind rose, but other than a small crowd settling into the first block of seats the pickings were good. I found a seat near the front of the second block, just two rows back from the barrier and strategically positioned behind two families who’d put their children in the seats directly in front, giving me a perfect view over their heads to the Papal seat. If I’d planned to come I could have arrived sooner and snagged the best seats in the house, but for a spur-of-the-moment decision I really lucked out.

By the time the warm-up Ave Marias were being chanted (in Italian, the real lingua franca of the Vatican), the seats on either side of me had been taken: by a diminutive group of Indian nuns on my right and a large Eurasian woman and her daughter on my left. I would have been squashed throughout the service had the nuns not seen on one of the telescreens that there were still five empty seats in the front block and gone charging off for a better seat, and my other neighbour left during the Communion after realising she was holding up the entire row by being the only one not going up for communion. By the end of the service, I had more room than I knew what to do with!

The Swiss Guard were quite a sight to see in their full regalia: plumed morion helmets, black capes worn about their landsknecht-esque striped uniforms and, at least in the hands of those guarding the cardinals’ seating area, impressive halberds, their tips flashing in the sun. I’m not sure if they’re more visible if you take a walk through St Peter’s basilica or the Musei Vaticani, but I certainly hadn’t seen them until now, so it was worth coming even if only for that!

And of course, Pope Francis himself, dressed in regal red until the end of the service. Since my wanderings tend to take me off the beaten track, the list of famous people I’ve encountered is downright pitiful, but this has got to rank right up at the top – like Pope Francis did in 2013’s Time Magazine. Seeing the warm smile of the humble head of the Catholic Church at such close quarters was a once-in-a-lifetime event, truly… I couldn’t help taking up the cry of ‘¡Viva el Papa!’ raised by the Colombian family in front of me. His humility is what makes him so inspirational to me – that a man in so important a position should have no qualms making apologies for centuries-old abuses of power by his institution, or reject the majesty of status outright while still holding true to the core values of the church. I might not have gone to such lengths for a different Pope, but for Francis, my feelings were genuine. What an inspiration!

I’ve also never seen a Palm Sunday service quite like it. Multilingual (there were readings in Spanish, English, French, Portuguese, Mandarin and Malayan, as well as Italian) and multifaceted: the song of Jesus’ arrest by Pilate and his Passion was performed by various cantors with the full choir as the voice of the crowd. Faith through storytelling through song… now that’s more like it! It was like watching a passion play of old – and in a very real sense, I suppose that’s exactly what it was. They’ve been doing the same thing here in this square for well over a thousand years.

The Pope ended the service with a reminder to care for the poor – ever at the heart of his urbi et orbi message. When I left, I saw that in the merry exodus from the square, some misguided pilgrims had smashed right through a street vendors’ wares, knocking them in all directions. As I approached, several strangers gathered round to help the man set his little stall back to rights. Just as there are those who profess to do good and look no further than their own backyards, so too are there people out there prepared to help their fellow man, whoever that may be. That gives me hope. To quote a famous film set in and around the Vatican City:

Religion is flawed, but only because man is flawed.

Dan Brown, Angels and Demons

I’ve made it to the pueblo and a much-needed week with my cousins. It’s been fun wrangling with Italian, but these lips were meant for speaking castellano, hombre. Until next time! BB x

Rome III: Respighi’s Quest

For my last two days in Italy, I decided to embark on a rather esoteric quest: to see all the pines of Rome featured in the orchestral piece of the same name by Italian composer Ottorino Respighi. If you grew up with Disney’s Fantasia 2000 – like I did – you may remember it as the number with the flying humpback whales. The symphonic poem in question is divided into four movements, and though I didn’t manage to hit the correct time of day for each one, it was an enjoyable musical challenge to round out my time in Italy!

It’s also a fitting challenge since music provided me (and my mum) with our first Italian connection, and I’ve been scraping by out here on a combination of guesswork from Spanish, DuoLingo and twenty years of orchestral jargon…

So, play the music below and read along as the Chicago Symphony Orchestra takes you through the movements!

I. The Pines of the Villa Borghese (I pini di Villa Borghese, allegretto vivace)

I clocked these pines last night on an evening wander towards the Spanish Steps. Respighi wasn’t wrong to write this movement as the jolliest, most playful of the four: when I was there, the Giardini della Villa Borghese were full of children playing in the evening light. A couple of fairground rides replaced the Roman ring a ring o’roses game in the original, but in all other respects it still fits perfectly. The man knew his source material!

The Borghese gardens also appear to be a favourite spot for Roman romance. As the sun starts to sink behind the trees, the long shadows cast by the stone pines stretch like rivers between the patches of sunlight, where in one corner of the gardens couples clustered like mayflies in the light. A girl in her twenties was picking daisies to fashion into a chain, four Spaniards laughed their heads off as they wheeled up and down the paths on rental bikes, while in the middle of the gardens a priest gave a homily to a small crowd in front of one of the chapels.

If I should find the One someday, I’ll take her for a walk here, too.

II. The Pines near a Catacomb (I pini presso una catacomba, lento)

By the time I reached the catacombs, they were all shut up for the week… but that’s what you get for prioritising the Pope over a blog post. Compared to the rest of the Appian Way, the area around the catacombs was quiet and shaded… though that may have more to do with the lateness of the hour by the time I reached them. Here in Rome, as in Spain, cypress trees mark the resting places of the dead, lining the roads to the catacombs. They’ve been symbols of death since ancient times, since they cannot regenerate when cut back, and so they stand as sentinels outside tombs, cemeteries and graveyards all across the Mediterranean. The Romans’ beloved stone pines tower above them, but I think its the sad and stately rows of cypress trees that Respighi is alluding to in this movement.

III. The Pines of the Janiculum (I pini del Gianicolo, lento)

My first night in Rome was spent watching the sun set over the Eternal City. A girl I once put on pedestal told me to make the most of every sunrise and sunset. I left behind both girl and pedestal years ago, but it’s still a rule I live by when I’m on the road. Snacking on a focaccia from the hilltop, I had a sweeping view of the city, from the Vatican to the distant towns of Tivoli and Palestrina. The pines that grow here are the stone pines of Doñana, the trees of my childhood. The Romans had a special love for this tree and planted it wherever they went, especially along roads like the Via Appia.

Down in the dark branches below the viewpoint, some of the city’s monk parakeets screeched this way and that (oddly enough this South American species began to colonise Rome around the same time the Argentinian Pope Francis was elected), but my eyes were drawn to a tiny black-and-white shape moving up the trunk of the tallest stone line overlooking the city: a lesser spotted woodpecker, the first I’ve seen in many years. The rising and falling flute in Respighi’s movement pairs well with all the birds I saw here: the parakeets racing by, the pigeons wheeling over the roofs below, the tiny woodpecker climbing up and up. But I didn’t hear the nightingale that Respighi insisted on featuring at the end of this movement. Perhaps it’s too early in the year – though I suspect it’s more because it’s much too crowded here for such a self-conscious minstrel.

IV. The Pines of the Appian Way (I pini della Via Appia, tempo di marcia)

This was always my favourite movement – and what a sight! No visitor to Rome should pass up the chance to take a walk on the Via Appia, especially on a Sunday when the road is closed to traffic and the Romans descend upon the ancient highway in their droves for an afternoon passegiata. Walking the forum is one thing, but this is something else. The Via Appia is probably the oldest road still in use in the western world, and you really do get the feeling you’re walking in the footsteps of the ancient Romans as you walk this road. The things this road has seen…! This is where soldiers marched to the port and on to Egypt, where nobles lived in luxury beyond the confines of the city, and where the great orator Cicero was assassinated. I fell into the Romantic trap of many travelers before me as I passed one old Roman sitting on a marble colonnade, with skin of burnished bronze, black, sunken eyes and an aquiline nose that would have looked supreme on any Caesar; and I wondered whether he was the descendant, through many fathers, of Romans who had lived on this road two thousand years ago.

I also heard a nightingale here – he must have missed his cue in the Third Movement.

If Cannaregio was my favourite spot in Venice, the Via Appia takes the top spot in Rome. It’s breathtakingly beautiful, flanked with ancient Roman treasures along its entire length, and absolutely mustn’t be missed. And Respighi nails it with his final movement: it’s heroic, majestic and the perfect finale to both my long walk and my time in Italy.

I’ll tell you the tale of my incredible Palm Sunday experience as soon as I get my hands on a computer, as my phone photos simply don’t do it justice, but until then, arrivederci Italia! Sei bellisima e tornerò presto! And that’s a promise. BB x

Rome II: Vatican Two

13.25. The surging throng of visitors to the Vatican Museums is steadily beginning to thin out. I could still probably count a thousand or more within the pillared walls of St Peter’s Square, but the morning rush is almost over. From my outpost under the statue of St Philip, I can see most of the piazza, except for the part obscured by the Vatican Post Car parked a few feet away. The postman came to pick up the mail around 11.30, some two hours ago. Since then I’ve been watching the visitors, tuning into the various languages around me and observing the interactions of the many thousands who pass through the Vatican every day. You could call it snooping, I suppose. I prefer to think of it as people watching. As I leaf through the first chapter of Triffids – my solo traveler’s Bible – I try to capture everything I see around me.

Two very well-heeled girls have been taking photographs of each other in front of the pillars for at least half an hour now. One of them is kitted out in a striking tea green trouser suit; the other is more noticeable for her red hair. Let’s call them Green and Red. I imagine what they’re trying to do is one of those time-lapse images for this or that social media network, since Red keeps strutting backwards and forwards in a highly artificial manner, flickering her hair over her shoulder and looking back to Green’s phone. The Vatican City seems an odd place for a glamour shoot, but then, what do I know? It’s a changed world.

A toddler is having the time of his life chasing pigeons in front of me. He’s so caught up in the chase that he keeps falling flat on his stomach, but the brave little soldier hasn’t cried once. He just gets right back up and charges headlong into the flock, giggling wildly and scattering the panicked sky-rats in his wake while his parents watch and mum takes a film on her phone.

After the people and pigeons, the next most numerous living thing here in the Vatican is the city’s gull population. Apparently they’re only a recent arrival: until as recently as the 1970s, gulls were a rare sight this far inland. Now they’re everywhere, raiding bins, snatching bread from hopeful pigeons and circling St Peter’s basilica like dirty angels – or do I mean vultures?

Three locals have dropped by with a pizza box for a snack lunch in the square. It seems the obvious spot for a lunch break: the domed sky is immense – you have to really open up your eyes to take it all in – and there’s always something going on here. A few minutes ago a woman was screaming something on the other side of the square – I never did see her face nor did I catch what she was shouting about over the cascade of the fountain, but from her constant used of “ustedes” I’m going to guess she had that evangelical fire that you only find in Latin American Catholicism.

Did you know there were plans to turn the Colosseum into a church? Fortunately they were abandoned many years ago, sparing Italy the shame that Spain has to bear in the desecration of its greatest Islamic treasures of the Alhambra and the Great Mosque of Córdoba.

Well, perhaps not entirely. A casual walk around Rome reveals that many of its ancient churches are carved out of the bones of other Roman carcasses, perhaps most notably the basilica of Santa Maria degli Angeli e dei Martiri, housed in what was once an impressive frigidarium. Still, it’s worth remembering that this fate is probably what saved it from the twitching fingers of the stone-thieves that reduced many of Rome’s treasures, including the Colosseum itself, to the picked and dismembered skeletons we see today.

These days the Church has lost interest in “reclaiming” ancient wonders for Christ. Now it’s faithless corporations like Hard Rock and MacDonalds that play Columbus in the ancient places of the world, stamping their flags as close to the action as possible so as to draw in their customers like spiders. In that sense there’s not an awful lot of difference between them and the hawkers offering line cuts in St Peter’s Square at “special special” prices. They’re simply out to make a quick buck at the expense of the next band of pilgrims. It is a little disheartening that the first shop down from St Peter’s Square on the Via della Conciliazione sells branded British tee-shirts.

Speaking of which, the newest addition to the square is drawing a steady crowd. Timothy Schmalz’ Angels Unawares depicts a muddled group of refugees from every corner of the globe and drawn from across several ages in history: a Syrian mother and child, a Polish Jew, a family of African migrants, even a Native American nobleman. In a square full of righteous saints and martyrs, it’s a necessary homage to the real sufferers around the world: the everyday folk whose worlds are turned upside down because somebody somewhere thinks their world view has the right of it.

It’s 14.30. I’ve kept my vigil here for over four hours, and now I’m getting peckish. My feet, however, are immensely appreciative of the break from yesterday’s constant Roman around (ha ha). Time, I think, for a spot of lunch. BB x

Rome: Marching on the Capital

They weren’t wrong when they called Rome the Eternal City. It seems to go on forever and ever – which is probably why everybody I asked told me not to walk, but get the bus or metro. But I’m stubborn when it comes to walking – years of not driving forces you to master the art – so I spent today exploring Rome on foot. The only foolish thing was that I did it twice: once to scout the city, then once again to visit the Colosseum for my timed entry slot. My heels are aching and frankly I can’t blame them. But if anything should be aching, it’s my eyes… because there’s more to see in Rome than in any city I’ve ever seen in my life.

I’m staying in a cosy AirBnB behind Castel Sant’Angelo, situated within a condominium that’s just a stone’s throw from the Vatican City. I figured it would be nicer to be in a quieter part of the city as I’m not much of a city boy, and I wasn’t wrong… Rome is loud. Somebody grabbed the volume dial on the train from Venice and ramped it up to max. Noisiest of all are the ambulanzas… the way they hurtle down the streets with sirens blazing every ten minutes you’d think the Romans had one of the highest mortality rates in Europe. Given the Vatican’s population growth rate of 0% and the average age of its citizens, perhaps that’s not surprising.

It’s telling enough that between writing the word ambulanza and this line, I’ve heard four go by in the space of two minutes. Ils sont fous, ces Romains.

I started my route by crossing the Tiber over the Ponte Sant’Angelo. A Korean couple posed for their wedding photographs on the bridge while two local men dressed as legionnaires did the same with a family of tourists before bullying them for cash. It’s been a long time since I’ve done real tourism – my usual holiday destinations are well off the beaten track – so the vast number of selfie stick sellers, water hawkers and tack touts caught me off guard. They seem to swarm about the oldest parts of the city like flies around a wound, preying especially on the young, the old and the Chinese. For the first time, as a single male traveler, I passed most of them as though invisible. I guess I’m not prime real estate – nor would I have much need of a selfie stick when I’m armed with my trusty Nikon D3200.

The Pantheon was a little underwhelming on such a cloudy day, so I saved it for later. The famous Trevi Fountain was being cleaned as I walked past, knocking two items off my itinerary early on. Instead, I spent some time in the bizarre Capuchin Crypt to see one of the most alarming sights in Rome: the disinterred and rearranged bones of hundreds of monks, dressed up and set on display in a grisly but remarkably intricate work of art. As a mark of respect to the bodies (which does seem odd when they’ve been played with so) cameras aren’t allowed, but fortunately nobody ever seems to have any issues with sketching, so I spent some time drawing the macabre display instead.

Moving on through the squares and streets, past sharp-dressed polizia and fire-breathing carabinieri, I made a point of dropping in on a couple of Rome’s churches. Not too many – there are so many here one could burn out easily – but enough to get a flavour. Even if you’re not religious in any way, they’re blissful refuges from the constant hubbub of the city.

After four days in Venice, the near total lack of traffic along the River Tiber was hard to believe. And not just on the water – its banks too were almost deserted, but for a couple of joggers and a few clusters of homeless folk. Even the usual river fauna was nowhere to be seen… just a motley crew of gulls and a couple of hooded crows. By contrast, the Guadalquivir is usually heaving with both birds and sunseekers. Perhaps Rome is just too busy to afford the Tiber either.

After an all-too brief recharge back at the AirBnB I trekked back across the city toward the forum, where sadly no funny things happened. I made it to the Colosseum in more than enough time and they let me in fifteen minutes early, so I guess the newly imposed time slots are more guidelines than a point of law.

Standing in line, I watched a German family try to take a selfie where they all try to jump at the same time. Ein, zwei, drei! Ein, zwei, drei! A gang of twenty-something-year-olds sauntered by, and one of them who clearly thought himself a first class joker kept jumping into their shots, sauntering off with an unflattering imitation of their countdown. The same thought occurred to me as it had with the phoney legionnaires: some people are just goons for no reason.

The Colosseum… was it worth the entry fee? I think so. It is without doubt one of the most impressive buildings in the world, and though it’s a lot more imposing from the outside, with all the scaffolding and building work going out around it, it’s easier to get an impression of its ridiculous scale from inside these days. They’re currently building a new metro line that will service the old city, which I saw advertised all over today. Great news for my feet, not so great news for the Colosseum, which won’t enjoy the additional underground reverberations.

I did get one thing right today, and that was my timing: the blinding white clouds that covered the city all morning were gone by five o’clock, which meant my walk home through the Forum landed right in the golden hour. Blackbirds and blackcaps sang from the olive trees and the crumbling walls as they must have done since before the Romans came. Children played leapfrog between the pillars. A British Indian family had an argument about “too much history for a holiday”, while a Turkish girl made her boyfriend take her photo again and again and again and again under the wisteria tunnel. My services as a family photographer were called upon three times between Titus’ Arch and the Temple of Saturn, but that’s what you get for obviously wandering about with an SLR camera.

I don’t really have anything profound or original to say about my adventures today, which is a little disappointing. I guess you could say that everything that could be said about Rome has been said by thousands before me. So tomorrow, after a decent rest for my beleaguered feet, I think I’ll investigate somewhere further afield. There’s something very appealing about spending the day in Ostia Antica – not least of all because of the mild amusement I get as a Spaniard from the name alone. But that’s not set in stone. For now, I should get some shut-eye, and give my blistered heels a well-earned break. BB x

P.S. Oh, and I also had my first Italian pizza this evening. It was… OK. Nothing to write home about. Which is ironic, since that’s exactly what I’m doing right here.

Venice IV: Ghettos, Glass and Gold

The Italo high-speed train races across the Ponte della Libertà, leaving Venice and its islands far behind. I’m bound for Rome, the Eternal City, my final stop in this first expedition to Italy. In what is possibly a crime against humanity, I’m skipping Florence this time, on the pretext that to spend anything less than two full days in Dante’s city would be to woefully undervalue one of Italy’s greatest treasures. Next time – and there will be a next time – I’ll come back for Florence, and Trento, and maybe even Milan. But since it’s my first time here, and my Italian is rudimentary at best, I’d rather depart with a hunger to return.

Far and away my favourite corner of Venice is the Cannaregio district to the north of the island. It’s marked with a Star of David on most maps, and it’s where you’ll find the city’s former Jewish ghettos (not in confusingly named Giudecca which, despite being a mangling of judaica, was never home to the city’s Jewish population). It’s a quieter corner of the city, dark and understated, but take a moment to stop and take stock of your surroundings and you’ll see some surprising sights – chiefest of all being the Jews themselves, hanging on tenaciously in the same corner of the city in which they were once corralled.

My contact with the Jewish world has been ethereal for the greater part of these last twenty-eight years. I played a Jewish tailor in Fiddler on the Roof and Klezmer stalwarts like Hava Nagilah and Tants, Yidelekh, tants (Dance, Jew, Dance) were my go-to violin pieces as a child, but that’s about as close as I ever got. Doubly so after Covid derailed my trip to Israel two years ago. To tell the truth, I could probably count on the fingers of one hand – two, tops – the number of Jews I’ve ever had a conversation with. So coming to Venice and seeing not just a sizeable but highly active Jewish community in the flesh has been nothing short of heart-stopping.

As usual, the Spanish connection was the real draw. Among the Italians, there are a great many Spanish surnames carved into the various memorials commemorating the disappeared and the dead. Morenos. Navarro. Vidal. Grim reminders of the centuries-long fate of the Jews, fleeing from one intolerant regime into the arms of another. At some point in their history, many of Spain’s Sephardim must have been faced with the painful choice: to abandon hope and their homes, or to abandon their faith. If the stories I do so want to believe are true, then my ancestors made the bitter decision to remain under the unforgiving aegis of a Christian God, rather than leaving behind the land that had been their home for generations. Could you blame them for that?

As I wandered through the ghetto nuovo, I saw a Haredi gathering through a window. A boy stood outside the window, shawl at his waist, shuckling at prayer. A girl on the vaporetto at Murano had a gold necklace bearing the Hebrew letter he (ה). Out in the backwaters of Burano, a man sped by on his boat as I ate my lunch, sidelocks flying in the wind. I didn’t expect Venice to be such a centre of Jewish activity, but it’s a miracle to behold.

My eagle eyes were trained on other things than just bird life and Hebrew paraphernalia. If you visit Murano for its glasswork, something you ought to do is go beach-combing by the vaporetto stop near the lighthouse. For one thing, it’s ridiculously easy to spend a week in Venice without ever touching the water once, and this is a very accessible point to make contact. For another, an island whose primary output is glass and clumsy tourists makes for a mudlark’s dream: scattered amongst the lagoon’s mussel and oyster shells you’ll find all manner of glass washed up on the shore. Who knows how old the shards are? Some of them might be decades or even centuries old. A great many more were probably dropped in yesterday by this or that day tripper who was careless in boarding the boats. Whatever their history, there’s a rainbow of debris along Murano’s shoreline that’s well worth a careful investigation, if you fancy getting your hands on some free if highly fragmented Murano glass.

With only a few hours left on the clock, I very almost missed Venice’s main attraction entirely. Despite passing St Mark’s Basilica every time I got off the vaporetto from Giudecca, I confess I hadn’t considered going in to explore at all, until the realisation that I might let my private feud with scaffolding debar me from seeing one of the most beautiful churches in Christendom finally got the better of me. And not a moment too soon – after my island-hopping excursion around the lagoon, I only just made it back in time for the final opening hour.

In short, I’m glad I did. It’s not free to enter like it once was, but 3€ is a pitifully small sum to pay to see the glittering Byzantine majesty that is St Mark’s ceiling. Heathen that I am, I don’t have a lot of time for Renaissance art, but there’s something about the sunken, staring eyes of Byzantine saints that I find absolutely spellbinding. And St Mark’s certainly isn’t short on saints.

Probably the most awe-inspiring part of the interior is the entrance itself – while you’re busy buying your ticket, don’t forget to look up at some of the best lit (and best preserved) of the basilica’s mosaics!

I lit a candle for my ancestors before leaving. My grandfather was a traveler, but I doubt he ever made it this far. So when I travel, I travel for him; just as when I write in my journal, I do so in memory of my great-grandmother. Traditions are everything. Insert your Fiddler on the Roof pun here.

To round out my stay in Venice, I took the lift up the campanile to see the city from on high. It’s worth the 10€ – the views are spectacular and it really helps to put your adventures around the lagoon in context, as you can see most of the islands from up there. There aren’t many cities in the world that aren’t eaten away at by modern cement monstrosities, so Venice is a city you should see from as many angles as you can. And since I didn’t have the window seat on the flight in, this was the next best thing!

The train is slowing down. We’ve cleared the long dark tunnel through the Apennine Mountains and left clouded Florence far behind. The group of four American travellers from Badiddlyboing, Odawidaho (right out of the frighteningly accurate Harry and Paul skit have finally stopped talking about Geoff’s wine tour and are playing Candy Crush in silence. Outside, the sun shines on Lazio, and I’m ready for the next adventure. Andiamo di qua! BB x

Venice III: Spirits of the Marshes

Three days in and I’m already a day behind. I guess that’s a good thing, as it means I not only had a packed day yesterday, I also had a busy sociable evening swapping stories with fellow travellers. It’s travelling done right, and all I ask is your patience, dear readers – such days make for good writing.

Wednesday was another make-it-up-as-you-go kind of day. I had it in mind to visit the smaller islands out in the lagoon – namely Murano and Burano – but as the vaporetto rolled up to Fondamente Nove, I suddenly decided to take a chance on mysterious Torcello, Venice’s predecessor. Most of the guidebooks pointed out it was almost deserted with very little to see other than an ancient church – the oldest in the lagoon – but if you’ve been reading for a while, you’ll know that’s one big fat tick in the box for me.

The lagoon feels truly vast once you’re out on it and Venice is behind you. Wooden struts stacked in threes mark what can only be described as water highways, giving the lagoon the appearance of a race course – until you realise it’s not mere practicality but also a safety measure for sailors, as there are multiple areas of the lagoon that are considerably shallower than they seem. Here and there, large expanses of mudflats rise out of the water, giving the lagoon’s waterbirds a place to retreat from the noise of the city.

The vaporetto chugged into Murano, city of glass, and then Burano in turn, city of lace and paintbox streets, but I spurned both of these for the diamond in the rough that is Torcello, risking a stranding for a chance to see one of the lagoon’s hidden gems. (In hindsight, I needn’t be so melodramatic – Torcello is surprisingly well serviced by the vaporetti, with a boat every fifteen minutes from neighbouring Burano).

Why come way out here? Easy. Torcello is nothing less than Venice’s ancestor, home of the first Venetians who arrived in these islands around the year 422 fleeing the forces of Attila and his Huns as the Western Roman Empire fell beneath fire and the sword. Guided by the visions of their priest, the refugees escaped into the lagoon, believing the great water would hide them from the Huns. They named their new home Torcello, meaning “Tower and Sky” – which is eerily apt today, as that’s almost all that’s left of what was once a thriving city.

In its heyday, some twenty thousand people called this island home, and it punched well above its weight as a centre of commerce and tolerance until at least the tenth century, though you’d never guess to look at it today. All that remains are some twenty residents, a few houses, some scattered allotments, a collection of Romanesque statues abandoned to time and an old church in the Roman-Byzantine style, whose bell-tower still dominates the landscape – the “Sky Tower” that gave the town its name. On a clear day you can just about see it from Venice itself, staring jealously across the lagoon.

Several factors brought about Torcello’s decline, not least of all the lagoon itself. Just as she did during the first COVID lockdown, Nature showed how quickly she can regain control when she wants to. Over time the island began to sink back beneath the water, swallowing up the villages and turning the once prosperous salt-flats into malaria-ridden marshes. Torcello’s disciples fled in the wake of the tide, seeking refuge on the other islands.

And then, of course, there was Venice herself. What was originally an offshoot of Torcello quickly took advantage of its father’s plight, absorbing its fugitives into its own ranks. Eventually, the son far outshone the father, and as more and more citizens abandoned their former home to its fate, the glory of Torcello faded into memory. The many thousands who once called this island home simply disappeared.

I had my lunch on a jetty east of the Roman church with four ducks paddling hopefully in attendance below. Venice is quiet, but Torcello is something else. Sure, maybe not so much that afternoon, as one of the locals had his radio on full blast as he scoured his fishing boat upriver, but I can imagine this place is as silent as the desert most days.

I’ve always been attracted to the desolate corners of the world. A childhood spent exploring Dungeness, Stodmarsh, Elmley and Doñana National Park has left me with a voracious appetite for marshlands that has never really gone away. So when I look out across the mudflats and listen to the cries of the shorebirds, my heart falls into step and I feel calm and content. But marshes are lonely places. I can think of few places in the world with a lonelier atmosphere. The mournful cries of plovers and sandpipers out on the flats give the place an eerie sadness. The gulls almost sound as though they’re laughing at you for losing yourself here. Solitary herons and egrets prowl the canals like watchmen. And of course there’s the mournful curlew, whose bubbling trill is possibly one of the most haunting sounds in nature. What unholy terror drove the first Venetians to such a lonely place? Their fear of the Huns must have been great indeed to seek to build a home out here in the lonely marshes.

As I leave the island, a thin dark cloud appears on the horizon, moving fast toward Burano. As it draws near, I see it is no cloud at all but a raft of pygmy cormorants, thousands of them, flying in a loose formation that surely stretches for half a kilometre in length. Like oversized starlings, they sail over the marshes, moving deeper into the lagoon.

Perhaps these little sea-crows are the perfect metaphor for the Venetians themselves. A creature of the land that took to the water, making himself a master fisherman, building his nest out on the lagoon. I’m not the first to jump to that conclusion either. A sixth century Roman official wrote of the denizens of Torcello thus:

You live like sea-birds, with your homes dispersed, like the Cyclades, across the surface of the water.

Cassiodorus, 523 AD

Standing on the forgotten shore of Torcello, it’s easy to imagine that the thousands of cormorants passing by really are the spirits of those first Venetians, making the same exodus from land to lagoon every morning for generation after generation, like the denouement to a tragic Greek myth: some cruel trick of the old gods, granting the refugees an eternal escape from their would-be oppressors. That such creatures should choose to haunt Torcello, the forgotten ancestral home of the Venetians, only adds to that mythos.

The outlying marshlands of the Venetian lagoon are full of such spirits, if you’re prepared to leave the bustle of Venice and its glass-blowing cousins behind for a couple of hours. If you truly want to see what Venice might have looked like before its canals become cloudy and green from all the water traffic, come to Torcello, whose ancient canals are clear as daylight, revealing a colourful array of sea grasses, seaweed and scuttling crabs on the silt below. And listen, just for a moment, to the ghosts out on the mudflats, knowing you’re hearing the same haunting sounds that the first Venetians defied to make their home here, over a thousand years ago. BB x