Turin’s Touristy Treasures

Turin is such a subdued, unassuming city that it’s easy to forget its touristy side. But there is a world to see here — if you know where to look.  Which I do. 




Mercato di Porto Palazzo 

‘The Palace Gate’ is Europe’s biggest open-air market. Open seven mornings a week and on weekend afternoons, it’s a sprawling area of folding tables covered with fresh fruit, vegetables, cheese, meat, flowers, clothes, household goods and used items. Wandering with other shoppers gives you a good appreciation of the city’s diversity—Africans, Arabs, Asians and East Europeans and Italians of every regional stripe are all united by a borderless appreciation of bargains. 


‘Big Sicilian Bastards’—a coveted variety of prickly pear



A typical Thursday morning at Porta Palazzo



Piazza Castello

This impressive piazza is the official heart of the city. It is here you will find the Savoy Castle museum and gallery, the Palazzo Madama Christina, the tourist information office, the cathedral of San Lorenzo, the opera house and an excellent focacceria. Today there was also a Christmas market.


Christmas market display featuring these marzipan fruit



The city’s Roman name was Castra Taurinorum, ‘Camp of Bulls’


The Shroud 

The first thing most people think of when they hear ‘Turin’ is the holy shroud—Christ’s linen winding sheet. A strip of fabric 4.3 metres long and 1.1 metres wide, it bears the faint imprint of a face as well as stains that would correspond to those of Christ after the crucifixion. Kept in the Chapel of the Holy Shroud of the Cathedral of San Giovanni Battista, it is rarely on display. However, there is a museum of the shroud on Via San Domenico, where you can view a short video about the shroud’s history as well as copies and photographs.

The first verified owner of the shroud was Geoffroi de Charney (1300-1356), a true and perfect knight and author of a Book of Chivalry. There is a pilgrim badge depicting the shroud for visitors to Lirey, where it was displayed in the collegiate church. In 1453 Geoffroi’s granddaughter Marguerite gave the shroud as a gift to the House of Savoy in Chambéry, where it was damaged by fire and water in 1532, then patched up by nuns. In 1578 it was moved to Turin, where it has remained ever since.

Ever since it first popped up in the fourteenth century, there has been considerable doubt about its authenticity even among believers. In 1389, the bishop of Troyes denounced it as false, calling it “cunningly painted, the truth being attested by the artist who painted it”. Recent carbon dating of the linen suggests that it was created between 1290 and 1390. However, even those who accept it is not genuine value it as a powerful and inspiring evocation of the Passion.


The bell tower of the Cathedral of San Giovanni Battista, where the shroud is kept


Part of the shroud that seems to bear the imprint of a face and thorn-induced wounds



Museum of Oriental Art (MAO)

Just down the road from the Museum of the Shroud is a museum full of breath-takingly beautiful artefacts from the Far East. Chinese pottery, Indian boddhisatvas, Japanese statues, Himalayan textiles– this museum is a repository of rare treasures. Large maps and informative posters help contextualize a bewildering array of objects, though English captions aren’t always provided.




National Cinema Museum in the Mole Antonelliana tower

The Mole Antonelliana, the tallest unreinforced brick building in the world, is such a distinctive symbol of the city of Turin that you can buy liqueur in bottles in its shape.

The building has a pretty interesting history. When Italy was officially unified in 1848, religious minorities gained full civil rights. Accordingly, Turin’s Jewish community allotted a sum of 25,000 lire to have a grand synagogue built, hiring the architect Antonio Antonelli to realize the project. By 1864, the ambitious (not to say maniacal) Antonelli had spent more than three times the allotted sum and the building was climbing ever higher. The City bought the project out and Antonelli kept working at it until his death in 1888, a year before it was finally completed.


Magic lantern with a scene of Venice


The museum includes a huge collection of pre-cinema artefacts, particularly magic lanterns. Thanks to the grand design of the Mole, the exhibition space is rather unusual—there is a vast floor in the centre and a ramp that skirts the walls, winding up and putting the fear of god into museum goers with acrophobia.


The Mole seen from Monte dei Cappuccini


Baratti & Milano Café

When our friend Thierry visited us the other week, he took us to this café, established in 1858 famous for its sweets and chandeliers. We have often walked past its elegant windows and peeked at tea-sippers dressed to the nines. The sweets were dainty and delicious and the atmosphere (velvet ropes, formal waiters, chandeliers) very Old World–you could easily imagine why this was one of the city’s most popular tea halls of the nineteenth century.




Egyptian Museum (Il Museo Egizio)

Turin has one of the world’s largest collections of Egyptian antiquities. We’ve been three times and still haven’t come close to appreciating all its wonders. 


Sarcophagus of Ibi, an Egyptian noble of the 26th Dynasty (664-525 BCE)




Alba: Truffle Town

Walking into a reputable enoteca in Castiglione Falletto, I noticed a strange odor and initially assumed a bottle of wine must have burst and gone bad. But then, I doubted, does wine do that? My nostrils stung, like the time we let our dog in from a midnight pee without knowing she’d irked a skunk. But then there was something creamy about it, too. It was, I decided at last, as if that skunk was relaxing in a tub of over-fermented wine whilst nibbling a piece of armpit cheese.




As I poked around the choice wines and gourmet goods, I felt confused and unhappy. The owner was smiling pleasantly, clearly a friendly man, perhaps a little slow. Surely it was my ethical duty to tell him, tactfully of course, that his pretty shop stank of bad eggs?

Approaching the counter, mustering courage, I caught sight of a basket labelled ‘tartufi’. It contained four or five deformed, light-skinned potatoes. Slowly, it dawned on me. Could these really be those elusive, fabulously expensive fungal treats, white truffles? And were they what was making the smell?

The white truffle is possibly the rarest and most expensive food in the world. It’s rare because it cannot be cultivated and only grows in Italy, mainly in the Langhe and Monferrat in Piedmont. What’s more, there is no way of preserving it so it must be eaten fresh and only lasts for about a week in an airtight container in the fridge. Its Latin name is Tuber magnatum, its fanciful Italian name is Trifola d’Alba Madonna (Truffle of the White Madonna) and its culinary name is the ‘Diamond of the Kitchen’. In 2014 the world’s largest white truffle at 1.89 kilograms sold at Sotheby’s for US$61,250.


Celebrity truffle


What is a truffle? Put simply, it’s the fruiting body of a fungus that grows between the roots of certain trees; the white truffle prefers beech birch, hazel, oak and poplar. It takes 7-10 years for the fungus to develop its mycorrhizal network (the underground network of hair-like tubes designed to condition the environment for optimal growth) before a truffle can appear. Even then, it only fruits a few months a year—October to December and can be found between the leaf-litter and the soil under their parent trees.


Prime truffle real estate


Scientists have shown that, although “truffle fruiting bodies are colonized by a diverse microbial community made up of bacteria, yeasts, guest filamentous fungi, and viruses”,  dimethyl sulfide is probably the most important chemical ingredient when it comes to mammalian noses. This attractiveness is important because the fungus cannot spread on its own; it relies on small rodents and wild boar to eat and eliminate its fruit somewhere else in the bosky environs. What may also add to its appeal, at least in the case of the related black truffle, is a ‘bliss molecule‘:


“Mauro Maccarrone, of the Campus Bio-Medico University of Rome, Italy, and colleagues have revealed the highly-prized fungi produce anandamide, a compound that triggers the release of mood-enhancing chemicals in the human brain, and does so using the same biological mechanism as tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), the chemical responsible for producing the mind-bending effects of marijuana.”


Incidentally, a few insects also like the whiffy treat not because of the fruit itself but because of yeasts on its surface. These include Leiodes cinnamomea and Suillia pallida. In fact, some trifulau (truffle hunters) look out for the presence of these parasites to locate their treasures.


leiodes cinnamom
Leiodes cinnamomea: the billionaire of beetles


Speaking of trifulau, as I was going for an extremely muddy jog along a country trail about 10km from Alba in the twilight, I suddenly saw a bearded man sitting on the ground between some trees apparently cuddling his dog.

“That’s odd,” I thought.

He looked at me and blushed. We nodded at each other, embarrassed, and I ran on. When I came back ten minutes later, he and the hound had vanished. It was thrilling to think I had caught him in a secret truffle-yielding grove, snuffling up smelly gold.

In the old days, I believe, such hunters used female pigs. According to a study done back in the ‘80s, they thought it smelled sexy:


Researchers in West Germany have found that truffles contain large quantities of a substance also synthesized in the testes of boars. In the boars it is secreted into their saliva when they court females. The Germans report that the substance’s musklike scent, ”emanating from the saliva foam, is smelled by the sow and prompts her standing reflex.”


Those stout womanly hearts refused to surrender the loot, tending to eat it. So nowadays it’s dogs all the way. A good truffle-hunting dog has the following characteristics:

  • Highly developed sense of smell
  • Not much interest in game
  • Physical stamina
  • Good concentration
  • Obedient and mild-mannered

The Italian dog that was bred specifically to root out truffles is the Lagotto Romagnola, and a sterling specimen can sell for thousands of dollars.


Super snuffler


On Sunday evening, having a few hours to spare, we decided to visit Alba and stroll along the main pedestrian street for a bit. Little did we know that that was the centre of the city’s annual Truffle Fair ‘Fiera del Tartufo, which takes place every October and November and attracts people from all over the world. The narrow street was bustling with families and a veritable funky cloud hung in air along with the Christmas lights. Vendors touted their wares with gusto and encouraged sniffing and tasting and it was altogether a lively scene. There were other kinds of truffle for sale and all kinds of local specialties including Barolo-flavored pasta and hazelnut cakes (remember, this is Nutella country!).


World Market of the White Truffle of Alba
That’s *euros*


We rounded off the evening with dinner. As we sat in a little Trattoria, I couldn’t help but notice that smell again. I mentioned it to John, who couldn’t smell it at all. Thinking it must have clung to my clothes after our walk at the fair, I shook my sleeve to get it off. Then I inhaled and was suddenly overcome with faintness, as if I’d opened a laundry basket after forgetting about it for two weeks. Glancing behind me, I saw four giant white truffles on a plate behind me, wafting out their odiferous musk. One of our party could not resist the allure and ordered a classic dish Tajarin al Tartufo —pasta with white truffle shaved on top.


pasta truff

Grape Lore in the Langhe

When a dear friend from New Zealand showed up for a visit in Turin last week, we were naturally delighted. How much more delighted we  were when he mentioned he was heading to one of his favorite places on earth, the Langhe, and we could come too! A serious fan of Piedmontese wine, Thierry has already visited the area several times—but ‘visit’ is putting it mildly; he has developed friendships with local winegrowers and producers, he’s memorized the vineyards, knows all the villages by name, keeps up with local news, and has even biked up steep dirt trails between vines. And, of course, he has a mental library crammed with the tastes peculiar to each nook and cranny of the country.




As you can imagine, we didn’t take much convincing when he invited us to accompany him for his latest visit south. As he drove us out of Turin, the thick fog cleared to reveal a series of gentle hills covered with the golds, reds, yellows and bronzes of autumn. Here and there were steeper hills topped with a medieval castle and bell tower. A gentle mist hovered over the scene, creating a romantic, fairytale effect.




Thierry explained that we were going to be staying in between two of the most famous wine-growing areas, Barolo and Barbaresco. The famous grape variety grown here (and almost nowhere else) is Nebbiolo (foggy), which takes an unusually long time to ripen and produces a full-bodied red wine. As he drove, he pointed out the vineyards he knew, the type of wine they produced and a bit of history about the grower.

One of our first stops was one of the biggest wineries of the area, Marchesi di Gresy . Cellarmaster Jeffrey Chilcott, a New Zealand native who has lived and worked here for more than 28 years, offered to show us around. Chilcott is a passionate ambassador not only for the local wine but also for the region.

“People say Piedmontese are ‘closed’ and ‘cool’. It’s just not true. In fact, you’d be hard put to find a warmer, more generous bunch of people.”

He led us through the cavernous cellars full of huge vats, concrete tanks, oak barrels and unlabeled bottles by the hundreds. All the while he explained what they were for. His enthusiasm for the process was evident and impressive, considering how many visitors come to the winery daily.


John pointed a glass vessel plugged into the top of a barrel. Wine was pushing up into the glass.




“Ah, that’s an airlock, to stop the wine in the barrel from getting air inside. It was invented by a Tuscan chap, guy you might have heard of called Leonardo Da Vinci.”

In the next room we saw a strange machine and asked what it was for.

“It’s for gluing the labels on. By the way, we are the one of the few producers still using old paper labels. We source it from a town in Italy that still makes its own paper and has since Medieval times.” [Note: I don’t remember which town it was, but it might have been one of these]. He pointed to a sample with a beautiful off-white color and thick, textured feel.

Jeffrey then ushered us into the tasting room and poured us samples of the wines—two whites and four reds, each made of grapes from a slightly different area of the property. He chatted about his interest in Italy was first sparked by his father’s photo albums—he’d served in Italy in World War II and brought back magical photos, postcards and stories from Italy. Serving the dolcetto (literally ‘sweetie’), he said that it was nowadays often dismissed as a simple wine, but traditionally it was the bottle that every country home had on its table for lunch and dinner. 

“In summer the grape harvesters would get up at dawn, work a few hours, then have have a break–a hunk of cheese, some bread and maybe a third of a bottle of dolcetto. A few hours later, lunch–the same thing.”


Dolcetto grapes


Shortly afterwards, we were joined by Thierry and another local wine expert and all five of us removed to the wine-lover’s native habitat: the dinner table. As the three savants burbled happily about the liquids, John and I listened and munched on local specialties: vitello con crema di tonno (veal with tuna cream sauce), tartare (raw beef finely minced), marinated anchovies and salsiccia di Bra (sausage from the town of Bra), Tajarin (short, fine egg noodles) and plin (small ravioli) with butter and sage.


Plin, plus truffle shaving donated by Thierry


Being what is technically known as a ‘wine civilian’, I understood very little of what was going on. Yet, at the same time, I enjoyed the references to ‘Christmassy, blood orange notes’, ‘New World feel’, ‘caramellization’ and ‘masculine intensity’. Much like Italian, I decided, it is a musical language that you don’t really have to understand to enjoy.





Teaching the Kuwaiti Officer Corps

Candid classroom conversations with students on an undisclosed army base in Kuwait.


Classified chit-chat


Crazy Khalid


“Guys! Listen! Hey!”

Ten minutes into English class and the talking (in Arabic) is still going strong.

“Listen to the tape. Listen!”

The two lieutenant colonels are having a conversation in Arabic. The cadet is sleeping. The airforce man has his ear glued to his smartphone. The major, fat and benign as an African Buddha, is leaning his chair back against the wall with his eyes closed. “Break teacher,” he announces with an air of finality. “I have headache. You have not left us time to breathe.” His tone is pained.

“The listening is not difficult. We have only thirty minutes – then you can have a break.”

“We are tired teacher. Very tough!” Lt. Col. Abdullah interrupts his conversation to explain this to me before easily switching back to his Arabic conversation.

This is killing me!” Captain Ghazi yells gleefully from the back, emphasizing each syllable, delighted to have an opportunity to use a phrase he learned in our target vocabulary this morning.

I try the silent-statue approach to getting their attention. After standing there gawping for a minute, I feel as if I am floating above the classroom and viewing the chaos from the vantage of the in-class video camera, which is possibly being monitored by the General. I am woefully certain the students are not to be cajoled, persuaded, convinced or budged in the slightest degree.

One of the sergeants is now holding court, and all eyes are on him. Every now and then the lieutenant punctuates his speech with a marked gesture, and the room bursts into laughter.

What are you talking about?” I ask, intrigued.

“It is about my friend, Khalid.”

“Can you tell me in English?”

“OK, I will try. Khalid is a crazy man. He does many things. For example, one time he was lined up with other soldiers and the Chief Commanding Officer ordered the company to move. And Khalid said,

‘No, no. I don’t want to move now; I am sleepy. First we will go to barracks, have a nap, then later we will talk about it together to see if everyone wants to go.’”

“Wha–? What did the Chief Commanding Officer do?”

“He just walk away, laugh. Another time, we have radio training. Each soldier must learn to use the radio. The Captain calls soldiers on the radio. When the Captain called Khalid, he used, how to say it, a lady voice?”

“He pretended to be a woman?”

“Yes, and he said…I cannot tell you the things he said. Very dangerous.”

“I bet!”

“The captain – very angry. The captain come to each class to ask who spoke with the lady voice. Khalid – he stood up and just said, ‘Me!’ Like that! Amazing. He don’t have any fear.”

“Was he punished?”

“Yes! He was in jail for two days – he could not leave the barracks. But all the time he doing like this. Once the Chief Commanding Officer changed our start time from 7am to 6am. Everyone came at 6am but Khalid came at 7. The Chief Commanding Officer said, ‘Why you late?’ and Khalid said, ‘Late? I’m no late. Seven is best time! Why you early?’”

“Does he want to leave the army?”

“No, he like the army.”

“Why don’t they kick him out?”

“Because wasta.”

Kuwait o’clock


The Wastafarian


My daily commute


The next day I teach a class of one person, Major Lazam, who is effectively a class of 15 wandering cats.

“So, you see, the verb ‘recommend’—”

My grammar explanation is interrupted by the cheery whistle of his phone ringing for something like the thirtieth time this lesson.

“Teacher, please teacher. I’m sorry,” he shrugs, as if to say, “What can I do?” I nod and prepare to wait.

Officially, mobile phones are not permitted in the classroom. Unofficially, the students are army guys and they’ll do what they want.

Major Lazam, my only student in this class, is resplendent as usual in his snow-white dishdasha that lovingly encases his ample frame. His moustache is carefully trimmed and shaped in symmetrical segments a bit like downward-sloping dragon-fly wings. His face, which reminds me of some comic actor of the 1940s, is framed by the gutra, which is also white and hangs back stylishly like the hood of a cobra. It is held in place by the ogal, a black cord that encircles the crown of his head. I don’t know why he is the only student in the whole school exempt from wearing the army uniform, but I assume wasta –that all-important form of social power– has something to do with it.

After a lively conversation, the major ends the call and explains to me, “My cousin. He is driving lesson today. The teacher say, ‘Very bad, no pass.’ So I say, ‘Pass, pass, pass! No problem.’” The major accompanies this with a scornful purse of the lips and little sweeps of his hand to indicate that the teacher is being extremely petty.

I nod. It figures. Every day on the ride to work you see a wreck by the side of the road – no, but really a wreck – tyres burst, roof battered, with one or more sides so thoroughly smashed it looks like it’s been hit by a cruise missile. A minute later you see an ambulance racing to the scene of a crash. Then, at the roundabout there will be two cars stopped in the middle of the road, drivers standing outside their vehicles gesticulating furiously after a rear-end collision (it is an unusual driver who doesn’t tail gate here).

“So, how about we go back to the grammar now?”

“Teacher! Presentation on Tuesday. I give now:  ‘Hello my name Major Lazam. Today I talk about two people–’

“Woah – wait; hold on! Stand up; come to the front.”

He gets to his feet and makes his way to the front of the classroom. There he stands, looking unusually nervous and vulnerable. I wait.

He coughs, then looks over to me. I nod encouragingly.

“Hello, my name Major Lazam. Today I talk about two people. One my brother—”

A man’s head pops around the door—I recognize him as the colonel’s messenger. He holds up a hand to excuse himself to me, then he says something to the Major in Arabic. Major Lazam’s reply is delivered in his usual deadpan, cracking the messenger up.

“Teacher, I am sorry, excuse me. I must go to a meeting. What can I do?” he shrugs, smooths his moustaches, collects his (still unopened) satchel and the lesson ends early.



The Two Majors


Don’t you believe it.


Sayed and Ahmed are two majors who have the kind of charm and easy confidence one usually associates with successful Hollywood stars. They are urbane, cosmopolitan guys with excellent conversational English, a confident manner and a brotherly rapport. Both are unusually fit and muscular, no doubt due to the gym visits they mention frequently and possibly also to steroids, which they never mention at all (for one thing, it would be haram).

Sayed is impressively dignified and on the pale side. Ahmed is more African in looks and in manner—he laughs easily and adores African-American music–he even has a sidejob as a DJ, with the sobriquet ‘Black Horse’.

“Please turn to page 35,” I say, beginning our first lesson together.

“Excuse me, teacher,” Sayed says gently, “This book is too easy for us. Let me explain. With me and Major Ahmed, we prefer to discuss things ourselves. We choose a subject and have a debate. This is how we like to do it. We need only to practice English, not like the others.”

Ahmed nodded wisely.

“Yes, it is better for us. It is like our English diwaniya.”

The diwaniya is a Kuwaiti tradition in which the menfolk gather together in the evenings to relax, to debate, to create political alliances, to approve marriages…and so on. It is the word from which our ‘divan’ is derived. A lot of my students loathe it because it is so time-consuming and boring.

“But of course, when we make a mistake, you should correct us,” Sayed added magnanimously.

Ordinarily it probably wouldn’t be a great move to let a student dictate the lesson in this way, but the thing was, their English was very good. And, as my colleagues kept telling me, our job was essentially to keep the students happy.

“OK,” I said. “So what’s your topic for today?”

“Today we will talk about Thailand.”

“Oh, I like Thailand!” I said.

“Yes. It’s a good place,” Sayed agreed. “Back in 1995 I went to Thailand and I had a Louis Vuitton wallet. There was a place in the Chinese town of Bangkok; from the outside it looked like a barber’s shop, but inside it was a huge workshop. I showed the wallet to the man and he said, ‘Give me two weeks,’ so I went away to Pattaya and when I came back, the man showed me the copy. It was – you look very carefully, you’ll see no difference! He made it for one dinar. When I came back to Kuwait, I sell them—”

“Sold them.”

“Sold them to another man for three dinar. And he sell, sold it to another man for 15 dinar!”

“Wow! That’s a good profit.”

“Yes,” said Ahmed, “Back then in 1995, Thailand was the best place to find fakes; now is China.”

“It is China,” I said.

Sayed nodded, “After 2000, China flooded it.”

“Flooded the market,” I corrected.

“Yes, flooded the market.”

Sayed said, “Actually, I own a factory in China that makes these copies. I go there with my wife sometimes. And when I go to work in the morning, I drop my wife off at the mall. The mall is only for copies. It is huge – and there are three sections for the three grades of copies. Now I even hear they will make a section for VIP.”

“I hear they will even.”

“Yes. My wife went there and bought shoes copied from Christian Dior – nine dinars she bought them for. Later that day we went to a restaurant in a nice area of town. And there was a Christian Dior boutique. We went in to see if we could find the same shoes. They were there, and I looked carefully – I put the copy next to it and I could see no difference.”

“How much were the originals?” I asked.

“One hundred and twenty dinars,” he said. “No difference. Same shape, same design, same materials even.”

“What do you think about Thailand? Where is the best place to go?” Ahmed asked his friend.

“For me it’s Pattaya. There are clubs and pubs for every nation. The Thailand people are very smart. They copy everything, not just things. For example, in Pattaya there is an Irish pub. They have the Irish beer, the Irish music – the musicians are all Thailand people but when they sing they have an Irish accent. Also there is a cowboy bar, playing cowboy music. Thailand people dress like cowboys, and the people from Southern US love it there, it make them feel comfortable. The Arab bars – actually there are no Arab bars.”

“Yes, the Thai people are smart. They know what everybody likes,” Ahmed agreed. “Really, you can take anything to them. Like this bottle of water. They will look at it, then say, ‘Give me two weeks,’ and when you come back, it’s the same – you can’t tell the difference. Not only with things, but with characters”

“Characteristics,” I said uncertainly.

“Characteristics and movements. There is a new African-American club in Pattaya – all the Thailand people who work there have the hair like this—“

“In corn rows?”

“Yes, corn row and the way of moving,” Ahmed brought out some swagger-slouch gestures, rap-style hand movements.”

“For me, I don’t like Pattaya,” Sayed sniffed. “I prefer Phuket. It is smaller. When I am in Pattaya, sometimes I see people from my tribe, younger people, you know – 20, 21. They see me, they will go straight to their people and talk, talk, talk. All day people will make a meal of you. No! When I am away from home, I don’t want to meet people I know – relations or subordinate soldiers — on the street. I will look them and say, ‘OK, go. You don’t see me.’”

“You didn’t see me,” I said.

“For me,” Ahmed interrupted, “I don’t care. I see cousins and nephews. So what? They see me – for them see me, they have to be in the same place! One day I saw soldiers at a bar. They try to stare me down, make me uncomfortable. I say, ‘Hey guys, how are you?’ I am relaxed. When I am not at work, I am free. I learn this when I was stationed in England. From nine to five there is discipline. After five, officers and soldiers drink together in the bar, play pool…”

“For me, I don’t like this,” Sayed countered. “In US, yes, officers and soldiers drink together. But after some drinks, fights can break out.”






The last class I had before summer holidays consisted of one student, a polite, self-contained young airforce lieutenant who had only just graduated from military school. He was a capable, studious learner so completed the course early. I decided to spend our last day talking about movies; he’d mentioned that he usually watched at least four movies each weekend.

“What’s your favourite movie?”

He spent some time thinking. I wondered if he’d understood the question.

“Or what is a movie you have seen recently?”

“Yes, yes,” he nodded. “My favourite movie is Troy. I have seen it maybe nine times. “

“Really? Can you tell me what happens in the movie?”

“Yes. It is drama. About a war between two countries. First, Troy and Greek are—there is a problem, so two brothers from Troy go there to solve it. But when they in Greece—’

‘When they are in Greece.’

‘When they are in Greece one of the brothers takes the Greek king’s wife, he hides her in the ship when they go back.”

“Uh oh…” (I slyly pretended not to know the plot, to encourage the exposition).

“Yes. It is bad. And,” his eyes widened, “the old brother, he doesn’t know she is there. When he knows he becomes too angry and he fight his brother. Because he know there will be war. Then the Greek soldiers go to Troy and they fight but they can’t catch the town because of the high walls. The brother who take the Greek wife, Hercules–”


“Yes, Hercules, after he die, the Greeks build a big horse with wood. They take their ships around the land but not far far–”

“They hide close by, so it seems like they went away?”

“Yes. They put soldiers into the wooden horse. But Troy people don’t know; they put the horse into the city.”


“Because to win the war. It is something to show they win. But one of the King-of-Troy sons says they should fire it–”

“Set it on fire.”

“If set it on fire, Troy would not be destroy.”

“What did you like least about the movie? Was the…”

“I didn’t like when Paris took the woman. It caused all of the problems.”

“Did you know the movie is based on a famous poem?”

“Poem?” He frowned. “No, no! It is happen in real life. They have found the horse.”

Child’s Play in Kuwait

When we lived in Kuwait, I taught in the mornings but my afternoons were free. Since there are limited amusements in that dust-bath of a country, a lot of my colleagues took evening classes to make some extra money.  My friend Ahmed recommended I apply at a school near our house, saying they needed someone to teach English to women.

The school was brand-new, and the manager who interviewed me seemed very pleasant—a young woman passionate about education and proud to own her own business.

“We have few students right now, because we are new,” she explained. “I am sorry, there are only children. But soon more adults.”

“Oh, but…I’m not trained to teach children though.”

“No matter,” she smiled. “It is easy.”

“Uh…what level of English do they have?”

“They are complete beginners.”

“Uh…OK, I guess I’ll try.”

Without further ado, she led me to the classroom, which contained two small children, a girl of five and a boy of three, both with enormous eyes and no English at all. Not knowing what else to do, I drew a cat on the whiteboard. This got the party started all right; suddenly they both wanted to draw on the whiteboard themselves.




Up they got on two chairs and I hovered behind them, afraid they would fall. On the left side, the girl independently embarked on a column of ‘Aa.’ On the right, the boy formed a magnificent capital ‘H,’ then switched to a circular scribble. Discovering (from his sister’s scornful rebukes) that his name was Hassan, I thought of showing him how to write his name and gently tried to take the pen from him. He had other ideas and a chimp’s grip; his scribbling continued, ever more expansive.

Aiya, with almost manic intensity, forged ahead with a column of ‘Bb’. Meanwhile, Hassan’s scribble gained momentum, growing steadily in all directions. As Aiya began the Cc column, tension mounted– inevitably, the two worlds would collide. Sure enough, as soon as a tentacle of the scribble touched a ‘d’, all hell broke loose. Aiya gave Hassan a slap; he headbutted her in the stomach and immediate intervention was required.

At this point a fat boy of about eight wandered in to watch the proceedings, smiling wonderingly.


The siblings stopped hitting one another and started their ‘work’ again. As I racked my brains planning what to do next, Hassan found the whiteboard eraser and started disappearing Aiya’s letters. Aiya wrested the eraser from his grip and went to work on his scribble.

The fat boy looked at me and tssked.

At this point little Hassan got down off his chair and wandered out of the room. Alarmed, and not wanting the manager to notice this mutiny, I followed him at a distance and tried to coax him back with gentle cooing sounds. Futile. He turned to me and said something so sincerely that I realized he must need to go to the bathroom. Indeed, that was where he went. Maintaining their dreadful symmetry, Aiya went to the girls’ bathroom. Emerging, after a brief whispered conference, they decided to go into a nearby computer lab and do a satanic dance around the desks.

“Stop!” I said in English. “La La!” I attempted in Arabic, adding an emphatic tongue-click.

They responded with laughter and balletic twirls.



Desperate, I switched off the lights in the hope that reduced stimulation would entice them out of the lab, as with moths. This was successful. We were nearly back in the classroom when they suddenly caught a glimpse of a janitor, gleefully yelled something rude at him and stuck out their tongues.

A roar came from one of the females in reception and the pair fled back to the classroom. The director of the school (for it was she) appeared in the doorway and roared some more, so that both of them sat at their desks with straight backs and solemn expressions. The director looked at me, smiled and cocked her eyebrow as if to say, “That’s how you do it.”

Now that the kids were nicely terrified, I proceeded to draw a face on the board, asking them (in mime) to copy it in their books. Aiya, however, was sulking. Her mouth had formed a perfect pout and she gazed straight ahead at the wall, though her eyes strayed now and again down to the board.

Hassan, meanwhile, had his head in his hand and was losing focus fast. I tried to engage him with the ‘Head, shoulders, knees and toes’ song, but he kept saying something in Arabic that I didn’t understand, something like “abeeta”. He said it about a dozen times, and then finally closed his eyes and drifted off to sleep. With long dark lashes brushing apricot cheeks, he looked like a sweet angel.



With her partner in crime out of action, Aiya could be persuaded to pick up her pencil and copy the face. The writing part bored her, though. Halfway through ‘nose’, she decided to pack up all her papers and pens ready to go–there was still an hour of lesson to go.

The next day Ahmed said the director wanted me to come back, she was pleased with my work. I asked him whether “abeeta” means “I’m sleepy” in Arabic. He looked at me in surprise and said, “Uh, no. It means silly, or stupid. It’s very rude.” I told him I unfortunately could not teach at that school anymore because something had come up.

Riddles and Roods in Vercelli


I saw four fair creatures

travelling together. Dark were their tracks, 

the path very black. Swift was their motion, 

faster than fowl they flew through the air, 

dove under the wave. He worked unresting, 

the fighting warrior who showed them the way, 

all four of them, over the plated gold. 


This is an Anglo-Saxon riddle (number 40) from the Exeter Book. Scroll to the bottom of this post to see what it describes! 

Another riddle: what does Old English literature have to do with  rice-growing town in northern Italy? Well, Vercelli is home to one of the world’s oldest English manuscripts, usually known as the Vercelli Book


Rice Worlds


In the late tenth century, about the time of the Battle of Maldon, an English scribe was compiling a selection of Christian writing in the Anglo-Saxon language. This collection included 23 homilies, a prose life of Saint Guthlac of Croyland and six poems. This book stayed in England for a while but sometime in the twelfth century it went for a pilgrimage and ended up in a nice town along the Via Francigena. Vercelli at that time had hospitals (hostels) for pilgrims, and the hospital of St. Brigid was particularly popular with English travelers. Perhaps a rich church official offered the book to the hospital as a gift? In any case, somehow the book stayed and, for about six hundred years, sat in the capitulary library gathering dust. 


Visitors from Over the Sea (1901), Nicholas Roerich


In 1822, Dr. Friedrich Blume, a German law professor and bibliographer, scoured significant Italian libraries looking for material for the study of sources of Roman law. Along the way, being a meticulous sort of person, he also made a list of literary works. Between October 27 and November 19, he stopped at Vercelli and fossicked about in the capitular library, where he found a strange tome entitled Homiliarium liber ignoti idiomatis–‘A Book of Homilies in an Unknown Language’. Blume described it as follows: 


Legends or homilies in the Anglo-Saxon language. This is rather peculiar, as most capitular libraries in Italy contain nothing but Latin or Italian manuscripts; even Greek ones are found only in Verona and in Ravenna.


Blume published his notes in a four-volume collection called Iter Italicum. About ten years later, the secretary of the Record Commission in London hired a German scholar to transcribe the contents. This was Christian Maier, who went to Vercelli and began transcribing away, unfortunately mutilating the manuscript in the process by using gallnut extract on it. 


Stupendous job, Christian.


The Vercelli Poems



Then was there tumult, the sea was stirred; the horn-fish played, gliding through the deep, and above circled the grey sea-mew, greedy of prey. The sun was darkened and the winds arose; waves broke and seas ran high, the rigging moaned. Billows swept them, and water-terror rose with might.


Andreas is a poetic version of a life of Saint Andrew the Apostle that was derived from the Greek story The Acts of Andrew and Matthew in the City of Anthropophagi (Maneaters) from about the fourth century.

Saint Andrew’s main opponents are the ‘Mermedonians’—cannibals who have blinded and imprisoned Matthew in their homeland, presumably fattening him up for their annual pagan feast.  

Andrew is portrayed as an English warrior, a sailor whose crew (unbeknownst to him) are Jesus (first mate) and a couple of angels. This makes for some nice dramatic irony when Andrew talks to Christ about His own life. The full text translated into modern(ish) English is here.

By the way, it’s appropriate that this should be the first poem in the Vercelli Book because one of the town’s most impressive churches is Saint Andrew’s Basilica, an enormous Gothic building built between 1219 and 1224 under the direction of Cardinal Bicchieri, who had just served as papal legate in Cambridge. 



St. Andrew’s Basilica in Vercelli


The Fates of the Apostles


Listen—I discovered this poem, weary of the road,
inside my sickened soul. I gathered it widely:
how these noblemen revealed their courage,
brilliant and blessed in glory.


Cynewulf –one of only twelve Anglo-Saxon poets whose name we know–signed this poem using runic letters within the text to spell out his name. The poem is a list of the twelve Apostles and their deeds and martyrdoms. It seems to be specifically addressed to a pilgrim. You can read a translation here 


Christ and the Twelve Apostles, Museu Nacional d'Art de Catalunya, Barcelona, 12th century
Christ and the Twelve Apostles, Museu Nacional d’Art de Catalunya, Barcelona. 12th century





Constantine was instantly ready —
through that holy command, his heart-box was opened
and he looked up, just as that messenger declared,
the faithful peace-weaver. He saw there bright with ornaments,
the beautiful tree of glory across the roof of the heavens,
adorned with gold, gems were shining;
The pale wood was inscribed with book-staves,
bright and light: “WITH THIS SIGN YOU


Cynewulf likewise signed this poem about how St. Helena, the mother of Emperor Constantine (272-337) discovered the cross on which Christ was crucified. There is some snappy byplay between her and Judas that makes it more interesting than you might expect. Read it here, if you dare.  



Here it is, I got it.



The Dream of the Rood


Yet as I lay there a long while

I beheld sorrowful the tree of the Saviour,

Until I heard it utter a sound;

It began to speak words, the best of wood:

“That was very long ago, I remember it still, 

I was cut down from the edge of the wood, ripped up by my roots.”


The Vercelli Book is the only manuscript copy of “The Dream of the Rood”, though a section of the poem has been found on the Ruthwell Cross, an eighth-century stone monument. In the poem a man relates how the True Cross came to him  in a dream and gave his version of Christ’s crucifixion. Rood comes from ‘rod’ and means cross or crucifix.


Ruthwell Cross


Soul and Body


You are deaf and dumb—
you no longer possess any of your pleasures!
I must nevertheless seek you perforce nightly,
agonized by our sins, and turn away from you
at once at cock-crow, when holy men
sing their praises to the Living God,
seeking the abodes to which you have consigned me,
and that merciless homestead,
and the many mold-worms must chew upon you,
tearing you horribly, darkened creatures,
gluttonous and greedy.


In this poem, a  disgruntled soul comes along to its host corpse every night to nag it about having neglected spiritual matters, and now look at the situation. Read it here. 


Disturbingly detailed ‘Plague Scene’ modelled out of wax by Gaetano Giulio Zumbo o Zummo in Siracusa


About the riddle: it describes a quill pen held with two fingers and a thumb (i.e. four things). The ‘warrior’ is the scribe’s arm and the ‘plated gold’ probably refers to an ink horn (not visible in the picture). 




The Joanna-of-Naples Cure

I don’t know about you but reading about antique hardships really warms my heart. It’s not Schadenfreude exactly; the pleasure comes not from the terrible suffering per se, but from my own near-complete immunity from afflictions like ergotism and death by boiling. An appropriate German compound noun might be Schauderdanke or ‘shudder thanks’.

So, if you’re feeling low, instead of keeping a gratitude journal or undergoing bee-sting therapy, why not take a trip down memory lane back to the fourteenth century? Nancy Goldstone’s book The Lady Queen: Joanna the Notorious Queen of Naples, Jerusalem and Sicily is an excellent source of the unending horrors of life in medieval Europe and sure to put the pep back in your step.




Joanna I of Naples was born in 1328 and died in 1382, experiencing pretty much non-stop crises in the 54 years between. Part of the appeal of her story is that massive wealth and privilege in no way shielded her from what we in the twenty-first century would consider horrific trauma.  Though it seems pretty clear that serfs and slaves had a hard time back in the day, Joanna’s trials and tribulations have opened my eyes to the fact that, by our standards, ‘Queen’ was not such a cushy job either. Reading her story, you are forced to admit that, no matter what challenges you face right now, you should get
down on your knees and thank the universe that you are not the Queen of Naples.


Joanna with her grandfather Robert the Wise


Eight Ways Joanna’s Life was Probably Worse than Yours


8. Vengeful Hungarian Relatives
Joanna’s problems began well before she was even born when her great-grandfather Charles II named as his successor his third son Robert rather than a child born to his older son. The twelve-year-old grandson (also named Charles) was instead bundled off to Hungary (where his maternal family had roots) to claim the throne
there. Young Charles had his hands full setting up shop in Hungary but eventually managed to establish his dominance and to increase royal revenue, largely thanks to productive goldmines.  He had five children with the formidable Elizabeth of Poland and Robert the Wise foresaw that one of them might later attempt to take Naples. He tried to
deflect future conflict by marrying Joanna to Andrew (she was five and he was four).  The Hungarians expected that Andrew would rule Naples jointly with her, so restoring the throne to the ‘rightful’ descendent. However, just before dying, Robert adjusted his last will and testament to deny Andrew any real power: cue shitstorm.


Elizabeth and kids: they’re so cute when they’re young.


As Robert the Wise was safely tucked up in his tomb, Joanna was left to manage the fall-out. The Hungarians repeatedly tried to convince the Pope to overturn Robert the Wise’s decision to deny Andrew the crown. Elizabeth of Hungary even made a special trip to Italy to pursue her case and is supposed to have bribed the Pope. Clement VI finally reversed his ruling and agreed to crown the young blister after all.  Meanwhile, though, Andrew had summarily ordered the release of brothers jailed for murder, rape, pillage, treason and ‘several other offences’, probably with a view to taking the crown by force with their help. Alarmed, the Pope changed his mind again and sent a message to Naples.


7. Her Kingdom was Invaded by a Nose-Chopper

Unfortunately, there was no email in those days, so the papal messenger got there too late. Believing the court was about to be overtaken by a dirty barbarian (the Neapolitans were quite racist), members of the royal court wished to deny Andrew the crown in a more permanent manner, i.e. by killing him. He was strangled after a hunting trip. Nancy Goldsmith doubts that Joanna herself was involved but suspicion fell on her anyway.
Pregnant with Andrew’s child, she recognized the need to marry again to some man who was able to militarily protect the Kingdom on her behalf. She chose Louis of Taranto (uh oh, big mistake!). As soon as the Hungarians heard about this, they were livid; they had expected her to marry Andrew’s younger brother Stephen instead. Although it was months since Andrew’s death, they started calling her a husband-killer and Louis I of Hungary prepared to invade Naples.

While Joanna herself had not initially been too popular with the Neapolitans, Hungarian Louis soon replaced her as the royal everyone loved to hate. One of the first things he did on entering the city was to demand exorbitant taxes. His methods of ‘investigation’ into his brother’s death (cutting off noses, fingers, ears and engaging in horrific torture) were so cruel that most noble families refused to have anything to do with him. Similarly, his men were cruel enough that potential allies closed their gates to him. Eventually he got injured and ran out of money, so returned to Hungary. Joanna returned to Naples, but her troubles were not over yet…


Louis I of Hungary


6. Her Second Husband was the Ultimate Manspreader

Soon after his marriage to Joanna, Louis of Taranto decided to take all of her power away and to keep everything for himself. He confined her to a room of her castle, purged the court of her supporters and made it a rule that nobody could talk to her unless he was present. Eventually Joanna managed to smuggle some letters to Pope Clement complaining about this treatment and Avignon sent two galleys to Naples to convince Louis to back down. While privately he continued to treat Joanna with contempt and violence, this was par for the course in the fourteenth century. Even so, he clearly stood out even by the standards of the time, as Petrarch described him as “violent and mendacious, prodigal and avaricious, debauched and cruel.”


He even had himself printed on the coins


5. The Popes were All Up in Her Business
As soon sixteen-year-old Joanna ascended the throne, the Pope started interfering. He sent a legate, intending to impose his direct rule, but the legate was so inept he ended up alienating everyone and was eventually recalled. From then on, Joanna was expected to inform His Holiness every time she passed wind. Admittedly (as in her problem with Louis of Taranto), a close relationship with popes could be a distinct advantage. However, it didn’t stop her from being spied on, double-crossed or excommunicated later on.


4. People Were Dying Like Flies
The Black Death came along in 1348, when Joanna was twenty. The disease coincided with bad weather, crop failures and an economic crisis, and killed an enormous number of people. Boccaccio, who spent several years in Naples, has the plague as a backdrop for his famous book The Decameron.


Illumination of The Decameron showing plague victims


3.  Her Three Children All Died Young

When Louis I of Hungary invaded Naples, he decided to kidnap his nephew Charles Martel, Joanna’s child born to Andrew before his assassination. Little Charles died soon after reaching Hungary. Joanna’s second child, Catherine, died at the age of one. Her last child, Françoise, died soon after Joanna and Louis were crowned in 1352, at the age of eight months. In her third marriage she conceived but miscarried.


2. Her Third Husband was a Lunatic 




When Louis died, Joanna was still of child-bearing age and time was running out to produce an heir. Her decision to marry James IV of Majorca may have looked good on paper, but he was not the sort of man most women would choose to father their children. From the age of 13, James had been imprisoned in a small iron cage and the experience had affected his mental health. As Joanna writes to the Pope, things went very wrong quite quickly:


“Eight days after I had joined my spouse in matrimony by God’s permission, Your Holiness’s consent, and the necessary exemption, he began to engage in insane behaviors, about which I did not excessively worry, thinking that they were caused by his youth and the filth of a long imprisonment which might have dulled his sensuality. But after the several days, afflicted with a fit of fever, he carried out even more outrageous deeds such that, on the doctors’ advice, I removed from his room the weapons, stones, wooden clubs and all such objects he could lay his hands on. But this too I kept silent, presuming that the infection from his disease was the cause of this. Later and as a result of familiarity caused by a more intimate association I began to notice that every month, sometimes at the change of the moon and sometimes just after the full moon he would have an outbreak of madness, with some clear-sighted moments at intervals.”


Inevitably, James tried to take power away from Joanna but with the Pope’s help she nipped that in the bud. Annoyed, James left to recapture Majorca only to end up captured by King Henry II of Castile. Joanna had to bail him out but  he wandered off again in another doomed attempt to recapture some territory and died of illness in 1375.


1. She Ended Up Excommunicated, Imprisoned and Assassinated

The Western Schism was Joanna’s downfall. To make a long story short, there were suddenly two popes Urban VI in Rome and Clement VII in Avignon. Forced to make a choice, Joanna backed the wrong one—Clement VII.
She ended up being captured and imprisoned by Charles of Durazzo, her relative and a supporter of Urban VI. She was killed in the fortress of San Fele on 27 July 1382. Because Urban VI had excommunicated her, her body was tossed into a deep well on the grounds of Santa Chiara Church in Naples, a monastic complex built by her step-mother Queen Sancha of Majorca.


Cloister and gardens of Santa Chiara


Honestly, I could go on forever, but by this time you should be feeling as light as air and ready to kiss the twenty-first-century ground under your feet. Thanks, Joanna, you made my day!