Hail to the Home Comforts: Things I Miss When I’m Not in Britain…

I'm packing my (tote) bag and heading off, but I'm keeping home close to my heart...

I’m packing my (tote) bag and heading off, but I’m keeping home close to my heart…

Picture E.T., its glowy finger held high to the skies, croaking out “phone home“. Now imagine E.T. walking into a small supermarket in a backstreet in Milan and emerging with a rare packet of Weetabix. E.T. then returns indoors and tries to fulfill the “phone home” objective, except the phone home is a Skype call on a laptop. If no one answers, E.T. opens up YouTube and starts watching vintage Britcoms. That’s what life looks like for me when I have those odd moments of feeling like a homesick alien in Italy. That was also an overlong and awkward intro to what’s meant to be a brief blogpost and it put me inside the saggy skin of E.T. Right, I’m now taking this skin off and getting to the point with pointed glowy-finger precision, right heeeeeeeere

Very soon I’m going to do that thing where I trip off to Italy for a couple of months. This is excellent news because I love Italy and I’m up for a fresh adventure. Still, even though being in Italy is a great – if not, the best – thing there’s stuff I’ll miss about Britain (and it’s stuff that I always miss). Here is a brief list of things that just aren’t there or just aren’t the same in bella Italia, noted down for posterity so that I and any other British people can savour them and appreciate them while they are so close…

Family

Can’t live with ’em, can’t live without ’em. My brethren aren’t physically near me when I’m overseas and that’s a bit sad. (And the same is also true for other distant friends. Guys! I miss you! Oh, I’m so lonely!) My bloodclan are crackers and drive me up the wall but, hey, I love ’em and miss those clan gatherings where we just share the same room and talk all over each other for ten hours non-stop. Those Skype calls home? They go on for a long, long, long time…

When in Italy: I’m fortunate in that I’ve got a great collection of Italian friends and Italian family units who welcome me with unbelievable generosity and warmth. I then end up making more friends each time I return and the children I teach come to hail me as a hero, so I’m not bereft of affection. As for my real family: long, long, long Skype calls…

Tea

Italians survive on teeny-tiny cups of coffee (real coffee and not ‘overpriced big mug o’hot milk carelessly prepped for you by an underpaid barista’). I don’t like coffee – I’m English so, naturally, I drink tea. Tea is a a bit of a mystery to most Italians and here we find a complete cultural disconnect. Far from being considered essential (the most important household item), kettles aren’t common in Italy. The rituals and regular brews that keep British people surviving and thriving – the habitual hot drink that helps us cope, comforts us and inspires our creative and constructive output – are entirely absent. No, I just don’t know either. I just shake my head – a head now experiencing a slight headache because I’ve not had a cup of tea – and sigh…

When in Italy: With a stash of teabags I can survive. With water boiled on a hob or in a microwave (yes, I know), something resembling regular tea can be made to happen. Needs must…

Curry

Italy may be a diverse country and Milan may be a cosmopolitan city but multiculturalism isn’t as potent as in the UK. What’s more, Italy – quite rightly – has a firm sense of tradition and identity that prevails and cuisine is one area that you can really see (erm, taste) that. Italy has the best food in the world and I eat a lot of Italian food at home (partly because I don’t like what might be considered ‘traditional British food’). That said, when I’m in Italy I do sometimes feel like I’m missing out on the international flavours that are in abundance back in Blighty. You can find ‘ethnic foods’ but, in the land of pasta and pizza, it feels a bit odd to be eating them. Even so, I miss curry and Indian cuisine is scarce and much misunderstood in Italy. When I tell people that the most popular dish in the United Kingdom is chicken tikka masala and that going out for a curry is a social institution I get disbelieving, quizzical glances. “You see, the best curries are in Britain!” I cry, adopting the tones of a batty aristocrat. “You shall come over to see me, chum, and I will make you eat, understand and come to love this hot stuff that we stole from the subcontinent, back in the days of the Raj, what what?!” And then it turns into a outrageously bullshit alternate history lesson in which I whitewash the past and claim that Queen Victoria travelled to Bombay with bicycles and cricket and traded them for tea and curry so that the Empire could become truly great. At the end of this the Italians are still looking at me as if I’m crazy and I’m still hungry for a curry.

When in Italy: Eat pasta and pizza and be happy.

Films

In the UK I can just take myself off to the pictures anytime I please and watch a movie. Most of those movies are American movies starring British actors and everyone speaks English. I can’t do this in Italy where films are, obviously, screened with Italian dubbing. My Italian is nowhere near good enough to follow the dialogue so I don’t get the full experience. Furthermore, I find dubbing disconcerting because I see the face of, say, Sir Ian McKellen but hear a voice that sounds dissimilar to Sir Ian McKellen’s. Altogether, in spite of Italy’s proud cinematic heritage, I feel a bit at odds with regard to this particular personal passion when I’m miles and miles and kilometres and kilometres away from my local multiplex.

When in Italy: There are ways to see original-language Hollywood flicks in Milano and, if I get chance and miss the cinema too much, I may try that. Otherwise I could also just go and watch new movies in Italian for kicks (staggered international release schedules may mean that I’ve already seen the film in English). Alternatively, I could take a Friday night trip out to the legendary Cinema Mexico to catch one of their audience-participation screenings of The Rocky Horror Picture Show. Hot-patootie, it’s pretty groovy…

Accents and Dialects

The anglophone world is vast and diverse. The ways people use (and abuse, misuse and confuse) English fascinates and delights me. Being in a country where English isn’t the first language, though, I find that I start to miss the sound of English in its infinite varieties. I inevitably encounter English speakers from all over the world but the ‘anglophone presence’ obviously isn’t the same. Simultaneously my own English speaking becomes slower, clearer and shorn of quirky colloquialisms in work and day-to-day speaking (when I’m not mangling Italian). Altogether, there’s a deficit of idiomatic language, slang and dialect and my ears start yearning for accents. I’m not just talking about the accents of North West England – I’m talking all parts of the UK, Ireland, North America, the antipodes and Africa.

When in Italy: I end up procrastinating on YouTube, watching videos of people spitting out all sorts of slang and dialect and speaking in an array of accents, lilts and brogues. I subsequently come to find awful sketch shows and sitcoms funny, even though they aren’t funny and trade in ropey-ass regional stereotypes and duff gags. (Hey! There’s amusement in novelty!) I also find myself occasionally slipping into silly voices and bad impersonations of thick anglophone accents when I feel bereft. I sometimes do this for effect when I want to scare children (it’s easy to scare Italian children with a Scouse accent). Allow me this indulgence, guys. I’m a foreign land and 60% of what’s happening is incomprehensible to me. Just give me a moment where I can blast out something like “Eeeeeeyaaah, by ‘eck luv, s’like pea-soup out th’urrgh t’day, like. Summat’s up wit’ t’environment, like. S’at clim’ut ch’haaange int’it? Int’it just, reet?

There are lots of other little things that I miss when I’m in exile: the BBC; British politics; famous British folk that have no celebrity presence or elsewhere (I weirdly end up missing newsreaders, celebrity chefs and BBC documentary presenters); porridge; the moors; Manchester; complaining about crap public transport; and so on. Allora, as alluded to a little earlier, Italy is possibly the best place to be and I’ll be there. In the meantime, this evening I’m going to go out to the cinema to watch Star Wars with my family and then we’re going to go and get a curry. Home comforts, y’know?

Home comforts...

Home comforts…

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Saying Goodbye to the Cinema for Some Time…

Cinemagoer smiles…

A post shared by James Clayton (@jamazingclayton) on

Movies! I love ’em and I write about them. Some writing about movies would be this week’s Den of Geek column: an exploration of the Taken movie series in which I discuss the films’ thematic concerns with wish-fulfilment and how they expound the ‘Be Careful What You Wish For’ maxim. There’s also some stuff about vigilante cinema and a few photos of Liam Neeson looking moody as a bonus.

And that’s that. There’ll be no more Den of Geek articles for a while. That makes me a bit sad because I like writing Den of Geek articles full of personal gushing, offbeat references and spurious film theory. “Why no more?” you ask. Well, I’ll tell you why: in a shade under a fortnight I’m flying off to lands afar and that means that I probably won’t be able to turn in a weekly piece. Even if I could find the time and space to knock out columns, they probably wouldn’t be very relevant because I’m going to be out of the moviescene loop and not watching a lot of new films.

If I find good Italian cinemas that put on VO (versione originale) screenings in Milano (that’s where I’m going) then I will be catching a few fresh blockbusters. In spite of that, I know I’m not going to be getting to the pictures as much and I’ve absorbed the idea that it could be an age before I sit in a cinema again. I take on that kind of view every time I go away to Italy for an extended period and it’s totally cool. I’m not hurt or damaged in any way and, if anything. “absence makes the heart grow fonder”.* Even so, the basic notion of ‘you ain’t going to the cinema, man’ is a bit of an odd one to my mind – a mind conditioned by habit and that’s heavily shaped by years of cinematic obsession.

Right now – less than a fortnight from departure – I’m in a weird place where everything feels extra significant and where I’m really savouring everything I’m about to leave for a while (stuff that just isn’t in Italy). That includes and is not limited to my family (available on Skype), British accents and dialect and curry. Movies are also a really important, ritualised thing to me so I’m currently cramming in as many visits to the cinema as possible before I go for months without frequenting any moviehouses.

Altogether, I could be missing very many awesome films set to come out soon so I’ve inured myself to the hype, excitement and intensive interest. I’m now only really psyched about the films I’m going to see before I travel, plus Avengers: Age of Ultron (which I hope to catch) and Star Wars VII at Christmas (which I will catch ’cause nothing is going to keep me away from Star Wars and I will move planets to catch it on the first day). It’s not so bad, because I’ve already seen the film of the year (Birdman) and because I’ve got great real-life adventures to occupy my imagination (an imagination that relies on very-regular cinema trips for stimulation). If it comes down to a crude choice of ‘La Dolce Vita in Italia for Real’ and ‘Escapism and Fictional Friends For a Couple Of Hours in a Dark Theatre’ I’ll take the former, ta muchly. Still, I’m going to miss getting my movie fix (and my family and the sound of British speech and curry).

So yeah: that’s a cinema aficionado, film studies student and obsessed movie geek saying “Goodbye, darling!” to one of his favourite things for a while. These things aren’t hardship or epic tragedies or anything like that. If anything, it just re-enforces that you should appreciate what you have and live in the moment. I’ll now wrap this up and appreciate the moments I have left in the UK. Some of those moments will be in the cinema…

* Get me when I’m feeling really maudlin and I’ll tell you about the time I was stuck in hospital and couldn’t get out to the cinema then finally got out to the flicks and cried all the way through Real Steel because it was just the most beautiful experience…

Hourly Comic Day, Slice of Life Chronicles from a Relatively Unexciting Saturday…

Yesterday it was the first day of February. Hey February! It’s the month of Pancake Day, Valentine’s Day, Groundhog Day and the NBA All-Star weekend. It’s also the month of Hourly Comic Day. That happens on the 1st of February. That was yesterday. Let’s go back to yesterday…

The objective of Hourly Comic Day is simple enough: every hour you’re awake and functioning you produce a comic to document your day. Slice-of-life diary comics on the fly. It’s a nice idea but I’ve never done it because: 1. My comic drawing skills are not up to much and my fingers can’t realise the awesome pictures in my mind, damn those digits; 2. It always seems that February 1st is an ultra-busy day where I couldn’t possibly squeeze in some sketching every single hour; 3. Diary comics are not my preferred brand of jam (as a later taste test described below will confirm).

(Un)fortunately enough, I’d set aside yesterday as a ‘Saturday where you have absolutely nothing to do except rest back at home off the back of some busy days and just get on with some writing having allocated extra space’. I could therefore fill the extra space with a few really crappy little comic panels jotted down on pink post-it notes. Oh, and then I was told I’d be making a curry for a family dinner so that ended up in the mix as well and added some extra spice to a comic chronicle that’s pretty mundane.

It was a challenging thing to do, and not because I had to knock something out every hour. What I found a bit difficult was the nature of diary comics: they’re naturally self-obsessed, solipsistic and prone to neurotic navel-gazing. I do not dig these things at all and try to avoid them, which is partly why I’m not really engaging with Twitter much at the moment. After drawing a few panels I started to realise that questions about how I represented myself and how I accounted for my time(wasting) were surfacing. This creative action was too consciously self-involved and introspective for my personal taste. The fact that I refer to myself in the third-person is pretty telling. As I say, my favourite jam would be different kinds of comics, though I can, have and do enjoy the autobiographical graphic works of certain artists. I think it depends on the individual person and the circumstances they’re depicting, but I do know that I’d personally rather produce far-fetched fictional than work up kitchen sink non-drama diary strips. Less narcissism, more fun, for sure.

What I’ve learned is that diary comics are definitely not going to be a regular thing, but it was still nice to have a crack at Hourly Comics Day. In spite of my feelings, you may find them intriguing or entertaining and I’m glad I participated this time around. Here’s the outcome of yesterday’s scrappy sketch activity: a run-through of my pretty unexciting day but, hey, it was a pretty good day…

Hourly Comics Day, Morning...

Hourly Comics Day, Morning…

Hourly Comics Day, Afternoon...

Hourly Comics Day, Afternoon…

Hourly Comics Day, Evening...

Hourly Comics Day, Evening…