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Media Blackout

from Friday, May30th of the year2008.

So, I am, as I write this, hurtling quickly from Catania to Rome, on a skinny jet; there is a puppy and a baby and many pink striped shirts. I am just on the last leg of what has been, for the first time in my life, two weeks of devoted music time with basically no other distractions. Antony (correctly) realized that he and I would be most productive if we got away from our constantly plugged-in lives in New York and went somewhere neutral, remote, and isolated.

For a week we were in a small farmhouse in the Camargue, in the south of France. The Camargue, I must say, despite having read up on it online before going, really reminded me of Florida “” flamingos everywhere, strange tchotchkes for sale, the smell of salt water and odd combinations of tomato and anchovy (actually, that last part is less true of Florida). While we were there, the nearby town of Les Saintes Maries de la Mer had its annual influx of Gypsies, who had come to venerate the relics of one of their patronesses.

I must confess that Gypsy History is something I know next to nothing about. There isn’t a whole lot of information available online, and thanks to living in Rome when I was a kid, I have a built in racist fear of gypsy women, whose commitment to petty crime made taking the bus downtown a dangerous adventure “” one strategy involved exposing their mesmerizingly pendulous breasts of Eurasia while their impish dóttir stole your purse. Anyway, I saw a lot of t_sc_gypsy.jpgGypsy Teen Roadtrip Angst in Les Saintes Maries; fifteen year-olds from Spain, dragged by their mom and dad to wash the bones of some saint in the ocean “” squabbling, getting new piercings, furtively smoking cigarettes while their grandmother napped in a folding chair by the beach. Also: buying many single-blade razors; I wasn’t sure what that whole thing was about. I wonder what the way to learn more about Roma culture might be; is it best accessed area-by-area (as in, Gypsies in Romania, Gypsies in Spain) or is it best treated as a comprehensive, if migratory, whole?

Right by the entrance to the farm, a man had set up a farmstand selling local products ““ some fresh, most canned. He also sold a delicious bull sausage, and one afternoon, dispatched to town to buy fennel, I stopped in to ask him a few questions about the bull meat. His accent was so severe and southern ““ and I think that Occitan, rather than French, was his mother tongue ““ that I was completely taken aback; it was similar, I suppose, to the way the woman at the gas station in Phenix City, Alabama had spoken to me a month and a half ago, but, wow. Occitan.

I was thinking about a moment when an Italian composer friend and I were, for mysterious reasons, in North Carolina, and we pulled over at a Dunkin’ Donuts for a coffee. The woman at the counter took our order, and asked me, “Yewanna Lee?” At that moment, my brain went into panic mode: I had no idea what she was saying. I wasn’t sure what the proper thing to say would be ““ if it was just a pleasantry, could I get away with smiling? Should I ask her to repeat herself? She raised her eyebrows expectantly: she needed and answer! She repeated: Lee? Yewanna lee? Horror, mortification. There is nothing worse than feeling like you cannot understand somebody; everybody loses in that situation. Eventually, I figured out through pantomime that she was only asking if I wanted a lid for my coffee (although, come to think of it, I don’t think I’ve ever been asked that before; who wouldn’t want a lid for their take-out coffee?). At least this didn’t happen.

I wish that American accents were more politically loaded; it makes for such interesting relationships. I speak in a very neutral accent that could belong to anybody from New York, L.A., possibly Chicago although in the midwest you tend to hear vowels beginning to flatten in a specific way. My father speaks similarly, although he has a few flagella left from his parents’ thick and honest 1940’s Philadelphia. My mother’s accent is more neutralized than mine, even, although it bears the trace of French in the ends of words, in the rhythms. As the child, there isn’t much you can do with that; it’s sort of the rental car of accents. Growing up in Vermont, my best friends were all raised by English people ““ themselves army children, with partially northern, partially Cornish accents. While I knew people with Vermont accents, it would be pastichey and inappropriate for me to pronounce a word like “pasture” or “tractor” in that fashion.

In Providence, bougie kids like me are shielded from the true Rhode Island Accent, the exception being dental hygienists and the men who teach Drivers’ Education. In drivers’ ed, I would spend hours with my notebook, jotting down pearls of language: “potihuhbodi” (Part of her Body) or “obbligati’by lore” (Obligated by Law). The Rhode Island accent is one of the few American accents of my acquaintance that takes full advantage of an almost Arabic glottal stop, as in “she’s a wicked underrati’ actress.” One of the delights of the universe is the show Family Guy, in which even Lois (the mother of the central family, said to have been born to a wealthy, Old-Money style family in Newport) has a thick, joyful Rhode Island accent. I am secretly jealous of my friends Will, Adam, Molly and Bentley, who have maintained their Southern accents despite years of living in New York.

All of this is to say, nothing quite prepared me for the wonders of Sicilian! After a week in the Camargue, Antony and I decamped to the house of Franco Battiato, a wonderful (and seemingly mad famous) musician from Catania. He lives in a small town 45 minutes from the airport called Milo, which is 800 meters above sea level, and another 1000 meters from the point on Mt. Etna where cars are forbidden, lest they be swept away by slow-moving lava. The lava situation: unreal. All habitation stops, and there are no streets and therefore no light of any kind on the top of the mountain at night. When you drive around at night, you see dark sky all around, with a thin, pulsating scar of bright orange suspended in the air, pulsating: Belshazzar’s Feast, Angels in America: a flaming glyph! I couldn’t take pictures, really, which is probably for the best.

I spent the first few nights falling asleep while reading Thomas Mallon’s Fellow Travellers, which, speaking of Angels in America, deals with a gay couple during McCarthy’s investigations; I picked it up as is my wont in a last-minute book shopping spree at McNally-Robinson near the studio, and I was surprisingly touched by it. How much am I, as an American, expected to know about that period of history? gorr600span.jpgI don’t think I ever studied the 50’s in school, particularly not in high school; I remember my parents making oblique references, but they were just kids then anyway, and who knows the ways in which their memories are clouded by time and their own parents’ political leanings. I recall making it through highschool without ever really studying the Vietnam War, either (partially due to a scheduling conflict one year, and then my own back-door negotiations to avoid having to take it with a particularly officious teacher).

A key narrative device in Fellow Travellers is a series of correspondences between our Eager, Catholic (and also gay) hero and a kindly, possibly communist, straight reporter for The Nation called Wodeforde; the book describes them as “sexless but affectionate;” now that a slightly modified version of the same is true of my life, I have to catch up with the following periods of American History: The Declaration of Independence, McCarthyism, The Korean War, The Vietnam War, Alger Hiss. I wonder what to do now; I fear the American history section of the bookstore so much, with those ominous fonts and embossed pictures of canons on wheels. What I actually want is for Stanley Fish to become like Simon Schama for political thought, and make some genius series of DVD’s covering all my lacunæ vis à vis American History, complete with little blue “closed-caption” bubbles in the lower left popping up with, like, Dinesh D’Souza or similar upp in.

Wodeforde –> Wodehouse. I picked up another book in my last-minute (we are talking “with my bags in hand on the way to the airport) which advertised itself as “P.G. Wodehouse working in an office.” In fact, strangely, Vendela Vida, who wrote Let The Northern Lights Erase Your Name (Great title, great book) blurbed it thus,” If P.G. Wodehouse worked in a modern-day office, he might have written this hilarious book.” Weird blurb, but good book. Personal Days, by Ed Park. It reads in about .2 seconds and is great for short legs of trips, and killing flies (the smudges of six or seven of them are obscuring Helen De Witt’s blurb “” whoever did the PR for this book gets a gold star). How does it work, do people just send shit to Helen De Witt in Berlin and she writes the blurb? I don’t know why they don’t ask writers to blurb music. I’ma ask her to listen to Mothertongue. God knows I thought about The Last Samurai all the time while I was writing it; I also, during the last leg of production for it, fell asleep on the circle line in London on purpose after eating a breakfast that must have cost $200.

Some things I have recently eaten: many fritters. Anna, Franco’s cook, is the Mistress of the Fritter. We had fennel fritters, thick slices of fennel dusted with egg, cheese, breadcrumbs, and fried. We had creamed cauliflower fritters, where cauliflower purée was mixed with egg, breadcrumbs, parsley, and fried. Zucchini fritters. Eggplant fritters. Arancini, which are rice balls filled (in this case) with peas and tomato, deep fried. Zucchini blossom and ricotta fritters, dusted with powdered sugar.

Our host in Sicily is vegetarian, as is Antony; I wish we had reversed the order of the trip, because I was so inspired by all the totally veg meals coming out of Franco’s kitchen (although there was always some random and delicious cutlet being thrust in my direction, and one time, a bowl of poached chicken). I knew it was going to be a good week when our first lunch was whole-grain thick spaghetti with a sauce of mushy broccoli rabe and cheese. The week before, we were very much left to our own devices in the Camargue, and were additionally at the mercy of the old-school Euro schedule of things ““ where supermarkets are open for, like, ten seconds a day and if you miss your window, tough luck. There were a lot of meals in the variety of, “garlic + olive oil + the baking dish + this vegetable” which are, of course, delicious, but basically what I’m saying is that I should have bought more parsley and made more fritters.


  • Wait you were staying in Franco Battiato‘s house?? How was I not informed.

  • Regarding Gypsies, I recommend Willa Cather’s The Bohemian Girl. It’s a short story you can find complete online or published in most of her story collections. It’s a much better characterization than the typical Mediterranean stereotypes. On the other extreme are the gorgeous Andulusian and Corsican stories by Prosper Merimee: Carmen (which inspired the opera) and Colomba are the best. Colomba would make an amazing film…

  • Naming Names by Victor Navasky.

    My father was a special agent in the FBI during the Rosenberg years. Ask and ye shall receive.

  • Dad and I recommend Bury me Standing by Isabela Fonseca.
    Many types of fritters await in VT..see you Sunday

  • I remember the 50s vividly and bitterly; it was the last era in which America easily accepted the division of the world into good and evil. By the 60s and Vietnam, that was still official policy but a protest movement finally got rooted and although it was largely ineffectual in terms of foreign policy it led to great changes in our social policies. Until Stanley Fish gets around to it, read David Halberstam’s The Best and the Brightest.

    But the larger and, to me, fascinating question is how we negotiate the differences in our worldviews. Nico will never know my 40s, 50s, and 60s. I will never know his Iceland or have his exquisite ear. And yet I assume that his Britten and my Britten are the same, that the way I was moved by “It Remains to be Seen” corresponds roughly to the way he was moved to write it. This may not be the case at all, but I would be disappointed to learn that.

    I am off to buy Fellow Travellers and Personal Days to take on my trip to the UK next week.

  • I will deliver you this “Naming Names!” I will also take you to the restaurant where Alger Hiss ate every Sunday. The pasta is more predictable than your broccoli rabe but it’s absolutely drowning in cheese and is delicious.

  • you should have gone to school in attleboro. we had “history in reverse”. you need to know anything about the 1968 democratic national convention? i gots you.

  • The Middle of the Journey
    Lionel Trilling

  • Bury Me Standing is a good intro to Roma culture. The PS section of my book has a bit about the Roma as they relate to the war in Kosovo and its aftermath, and The Roma Journeys by Joakim Eskildsen is a an interest photobook.

    As to the political loadedness of American English, I’d say it is very loaded and your lid story gives some illumination on it. But it is tied deeply to issues of class, racism, and the normative, white supremecist role of the neutral accent. The emphasis on the value of unaccented, dialect free English is part of the nationalist process of erasing unique identities from the mainstream. Luckily, given the nature, these accents won’t go anywhere, but imagine a culture where they were valued rather than degraded or fetishized?

    On a totally different note, check out the first chapter of Helen DeWitt’s Your Name Here in the current issue of N+1.

  • Sandy- I agree with you about the importance and desirability of preserving dialects, but unfortunately I can’t agree with the “won’t go anywhere” part. I think we’ve already suffered a huge loss. As an example, thirty years ago or so I remember travelling in a rural county (Sampson) in eastern North Carolina with a friend who able to tell with ease not only whether people he spoke to were natives of the county but also what part of the county the natives came from. I gather that’s no longer possible and in my view it’s a matter for great regret.

    However, it seems to me that this is primarily a consequence of increased travel (in the old days many country people spent their entire lives very close to where they were born) and the appearance of radio and television. It does not seem to me likely that the “supremacist role of the neutral accent” has much to do with it. Since World War II a number of U.S. Presidents (e.g. Kennedy, Johnson, Carter, Clinton) have spoken with accents that can hardly be described as neutral and that has not prevented their rise to the presidency. Similarly, in the UK it’s no longer politically advantageous to speak with received pronunciation; I notice that on the BBC it’s now quite rare.

    Isabel Fonseca’s “Bury Me Standing: The Gypsies and Their Journey” is indeed of interest as an introduction to the topic but I wish she had more to say about places other than eastern Europe.

  • Re: gypsies–when i was very little, i remember the WORST thing my papou (greek who spoke turkish=cypriot/pogroms/escaped via xtianity to the states to marry my grandmother via missionary match-up) was “szhen-ge-neh” (sounds like??) which meant ‘gypsy.’
    hmmmm. . . wonder what his experiences growing up were???
    too bad he is not around to ask–but this will definitely spark a conversation with my mom, who did not fall far enough from the tree to be able to refrain from using the term as i went out the door in some of my more outre’ hippy couture back in the day! 🙂