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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In Search of Pizza Spaceship…

Pizza Spaceship… … and yes indeed, in under a fortnight I'm flying off to Italy… #PizzaSpaceship #LiveLongAndPizza

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Live long and pizza…

Things don’t necessarily have to make sense. Things don’t have to have a reason. Their underlying meaning needn’t be clear or logical. Things can be and happen ‘just because’ and ‘just because’ is okay. In fact, ‘just because’ can be mind-blowingly brilliant when two beautiful things are brought together for no apparent purpose other than to make something even more amazing.

Pizza Spaceship is one such thing. It doesn’t make sense and we don’t know how or why it came to be. We don’t really need to know, because ‘Pizza Spaceship’ is fantastic just because it’s Pizza Spaceship. It is the meeting and blissful union of ‘pizza’ and ‘spaceship’ – two great concepts on their own. Together, their powers combine to make possibly one of the greatest notions that a human mind could conceive of.

For context, my first encounter with the idea of Pizza Spaceship occurred a year-and-a-half ago. Fittingly, I was in Italy and I and a good friend were working at an English-language summer camp in a small town on the outskirts of Milan. The town’s name will remain a secret for security reasons. I’ll refer to my friend as Sandy because her name is Sandy (at least, it is when she’s sober). Regardless, this summer camp proved to be quite a challenge for Sandy and I, for a variety of reasons. We were mentally and physically exhausted, we were often semi-delirious (inevitable at summer camp) and we were singing ‘The Pizza Song‘ every day. Even so, in spite of all that, we didn’t collectively hallucinate or imagine Pizza Spaceship. We didn’t wish it into existence or make it up. Pizza Spaceship was and is real.

We ran this summer camp in an elementary school building and this school had a large hall which we used for big games, art activities and lunch breaks. On one of the walls in the hall was a display showcasing art works produced by school children during, we presume, the academic year. Kids had taken paper plates and stuck bits of coloured tissue paper and card onto the plates to make them look like meals (for example, spaghetti, salad, chicken and chips and so on). On the wall alongside these plates someone had pasted a cardboard rocketship. Instead of a porthole window this rocketship had a pizza. “What is that?” Sandy and I both asked ourselves at exactly the same moment. “It… it’s… it’s Pizza Spaceship” we both responded, simultaneously, the spark of enlightenment catching fire in our eyes, minds and hearts.

It was like a flash of enlightenment or a revelatory ray of hope hitting us from somewhere beyond the stars. We felt blissful euphoria. Our base existence was blasted and our state of mere being was altered and blessed with radical new flavour. We had Pizza Spaceship and it was sublime and spectacular. Mundane reality was swept aside as this fantastical prospect transcending time, space and matter moved into our consciousness and captivated us completely. Post-Pizza Spaceship, life would never be the same again. We paid homage to that corner of the hall every day and showed our gratitude for its sheer awesomeness.

We should pay tribute to this cosmic combo. Space travel is immense and exhilarating and I love the idea of boldly going beyond Earth’s stratosphere into the vastness of the wider Universe. (People who know me know that offworld sci-fi is my jam or, indeed, my pop-cultural pizza.) Pizza is a supreme gastronomic invention and a signature article of Italian cuisine (the greatest type of cuisine in the galaxy, in my humble and quite-biased opinion). Put ’em together and I’ve got two things that get me really excited working together and opening up realms of wonder beyond tangible, imminent reality. I mean, Pizza Spaceship could take us anywhere.

This thing – genius in its simplicity – offers unlimited potential and possibility. Infinite joy is within reach if we don’t question it and Pizza Spaceship is not really something to intellectualise or rationalise. We don’t know who created it and we don’t know why. (Pure imagination? The result of divine inspiration? Is its origin extraterrestrial?) Its purpose is also a tantalising mystery. Is this some kind of pangalactic delivery service? Is it a message from another galaxy? Is it first contact, related to the human race in an appealing format? Is it someone or something telling me that I really need to start writing a kitschy sci-fi novella series about interstellar voyagers on-board a flying pizza? (Working titles for instalments include ‘Martian Margherita‘, ‘Prosciutto to Polaris‘ and ‘The Kuiper Belt Calzone Conundrum‘.)

We also don’t know what a Pizza Spaceship actually looks like. The crude card-and-poster-paint representation we found in that hall was a 1950s-style rocket with a pizza riding the cockpit but I can picture a whole fleet of alternative craft. I see the Starship Enterprise and Millennium Falcon as pizzas. I see a space cruiser made entirely of dough, tomato sauce and mozzarella string. I see a square-shaped cardboard takeout box the size of a small moon spinning through deep space, occasionally flipping open its lid so the living Pizza-Titan inside can survey the stars and work out if it’s travelling in the right direction.

Still, the details don’t matter and we don’t need any definite answers. We just need the words ‘Pizza’ and ‘Spaceship’ joined together and Pizza Spaceship is fantastic ‘just because’ it’s Pizza Spaceship. If anything, to me, Pizza Spaceship acts like a religious icon, Tarot cards or a mandala. It’s a symbolic conduit that transcends reality and opens up the acolyte’s mind, body and soul to something beyond. In times of darkness or confusion, I can fix my thoughts on Pizza Spaceship and instantly I’m transported far away to either Italy (my spiritual second home and the home of real pizza), outer space (a stimulating and fascinating otherworldy immensity) or, indeed, metaphysical and macrocosmic space (where you are liberated from the world of illusion and reality itself, becoming one with the Infinite).

Think on Pizza Spaceship. Feel Pizza Spaceship. Realise the wonder and joy and awe-inspiring actuality that is Pizza Spaceship. This is perhaps the ultimate soul food – nourishing Earthly substance and advanced astro-science transfigured into a totem on which we can project all our desires and dreams. Through this vessel we can escape and travel to another world, another reality and/or a superior state of enlightened being.

All aboard Pizza Starship and full speed ahead. Live long and pizza…

(P.S. In under a fortnight’s time I’ll be flying off to Italy again. In reality, I’m flying to Malpensa on a Flybe plane but in my imagination, I’m going to be gliding towards Milan on Pizza Spaceship…)

Summer Camp Lunchtime Doodles August/September 2015: Drawing Pictures in Padova…

You know what I doodly-do when I do English-language summer camps in Italy every summer? Well, one of the things I do – aside from singing, dancing and struggling to control Havoc Beelzebambini while I teach them essential vocab like ‘tape’, ‘shame’ and ‘toilet plunger’ – is draw diary sketches during the lunchbreaks. Sì, signore e signori! Its time for another round of lunchtime doodles from summer camp! *fanfare*

As it was in Torino in June, so it was again in the countryside near Padova in late August/early September. Technical background and insight into ze process for those interested: this time I had to use standard paper rather than canteen placemats because there was no canteen arrangement at this school. Doodles were therefore done in the public park next door and were powered by packed lunch (mostly tuna sandwiches). Furthermore, I was determined that I’d make these daily diary doodles the most Jamazing yet and I sought to raise my game from ‘Yeah! Alrighty!‘ to ‘Oh Gods! Thor Almighty!‘. More sketches! Better sketches! More imagination and in-jokes and off-the-wall absurdity and semi-topical creative lunacy!

I think I did a decent job of that and rate these as my best batch of lunchtime doodles so far (until next year, if I make it that far and if they have me back). I won’t go into detail or try and explain ’em – just appreciate them for what they are. Then again, if you wish you can always try and dive deep into esoteric theory and try and discover the occult symbolism and the secrets of my subconscious manifest in miniaturised ink dribbling.

Here are the fortnight’s daily doodles from Summer Camp No. 2 collected together for convenience (you can also see them and my other arty bits on Instagram y’know). And stick around after the two weeks are done with – I promise that there are bonus extras…

(more…)

Homecoming, Hailing the Best Summer and Creative Action Ahead, Ma Dai…

Allora, “kingdom of trash, came home at last“. Yeah, I’m home! Home from the latest fresh exile in Italy. It’s been four (quattro!) in total this year and I kept on going away and coming back and going away again but now I think I’m going to stay put for a bit. Though, of course, nothing is certain (everything is uncertainty) I’m pretty sure that I’m going to be based in the UK over the coming months.

So s, I’m home but home is strange after a lot of time away. It’s also hard in the winter, especially right after the highs and sunny haze of the summer. This year was the very best summer so the comedown is brutal. It’s cold! It’s wet! The Italian culture, la dolce vita, all the friends and the amped exhilaration, activity and adoration of summer camps (aww, I miss my pre-teen fans) all feel so far away…

*weeping…*

So , I’m in that strung-out post-summer state of confusion and I can’t stop saying “ma dai!“, “ma perché?!” and “non lo so!” because I have acute Italianitis. Regardless, now that I’m here and not set on flying away for a longish time again, I’m going to get on with doing stuff – namely doodling, writing and wrestling with and through other assorted forms of creative action. (Note: there will be wrestling and my ring names are alternately ‘Jamezilla’ and ‘Miss Apocalypse Sweetheart’).

I’ve been doing a lot of doodling lately, and in coming days I’ll put together a compilation blogpost collecting more lunchtime doodles from another English-language summer camp (this one from the countryside near Padova). Otherwise, watch this space – I have the wish and will to blast out a whole lot of stuff and I’ll let keep you in the loop. Please, feel free to be loopy with me…

I’ll leave it there, because the rest is just me bleating about the weather, bemoaning the absence of decent pizza and altogether turning into a quasi-Italian version of Jon Snow. (“Winter is coming… ma dai!“). For now, here’s to the home where your heart is, kicking out creative jams and, for the final time, memories of the magical summer.

Andiamo, autumn action…

Returning Home So I Can Return to Italy…

Allora, ragazzi! I’m back home. You may remember that I left home to go back to Italy for a month. That month has now passed so, yeah, ecco! I’m here to drink proper tea, watch Jurassic World (dinosaurs fighting dinosaurs! Yay!) and get my regular, essential Captain America-style supersoldier serum shot. (Last time I got said shot I was in Italy and it was delivered by J.K. Simmons’ Italian doppelgänger in a twilight mystery district of Milano and it was an unnerving and absurdist affair conducted without any word of English and I had the disturbing sense that I’d stumbled into a mildly-harrowing Coen Brothers movie. When we’re talking about sticking needles in my arse I think, yes, this time I’d rather go and see my local GP.)

Anyhow, home is nice, home comforts are nice and these things are all good but, hey, I miss Italy. As ever I had a blast and highlights include *clears throat*: visiting and catching up with old friends; making new friends; rocking another all-singing-all-dancing English-language summer camp in Torino and drawing for children and acquiring a fan club at that camp; going to Verona for the first time on a bro-trip with my, erm, bro; enjoying the treasures of Torino all over again; seeing the Shroud of Turin (so, in effect, seeing Jesus); pizza; and so much more in the brilliant heat alongside brilliant people.

It was beautiful, and because I’m missing it all already I’m going to head back next week and enjoy summer in Italy some more. I feel that this trip was cut too short and I’m missing too many things and have left too many things behind (for one, my favourite t-shirt, left behind in Torino) so I’ve got to go back. Then when I return I’m going to get on with working up some creative action and I’m amped to do that. I have some ideas…

I’ll be thinking over those ideas in Italy, but before I bugger off again I’ll put up a blogpost chronicling my daily lunchtime diary doodles from summer camp in the coming days. Also, while I was away this article I wrote on Mad Max: Fury Road – a gushing lovefest exploring the masterpiece’s inspiring philosophy and empowering nature – went live on Den of Geek. It may be of interest. More things that may be of interest will be written up and doodled up in the near future.

For now, though, bear with me because Italy is calling and my soul is yearning and I’ve got to return to the place from whence I recently came. Once more, here’s to Italian summer adventures and la dolce vita. Again then, andiamo

Italy has my heart and soul in a spaghetti tangle grip and is pulling me back…

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