The Mystery Scrabbler

When I started my new job I was struck by the small touches in how staff are looked after: newspapers in the coffee bar, Bandaid dispenser near the coffee machine on every floor,  and thoughtful hand cream in the loos. There are even showers and hairdryers for the cyclists – Cambridge as a cycling city resembles the Tour de France rather than an Italian provincial town.  Then in our large, open-plan office there’s a desk known as The Usual Place where people leave edibles for everyone to enjoy . This week we’ve had Iranian pastries,  Russian and Brazilian chocolate , and more prosaically, welsh cakes from yours truly. All of these feelgood enhancers soothed me through my first few weeks, but what has especially delighted me is the Secret Scrabbler.

Near the coffee machine cubicle that we share with Research and Validation is a whiteboard on which every day nine letters appear.   As you wait the 6 seconds for your coffee you can create words and list them in a friendly competition. At the end of the day the longest word and the one with biggest total are recorded  as the ‘winners’. I take issue a bit with this very quantitative way of evaluating the goodness of words, but it seems to be the way Scrabble is played these days. I am trying to persuade my colleagues that we should have a third category for unusual or quirky words; some of my favourites recently have been ‘gawp’ ‘fondler’ and ‘glisten’.


What I loved about this ritual is how the letters magically appeared.  I knew there must be a  person who discreetly took the trouble to renew the board every day ,and stereotypically imagined a lady with a bun looking after our lexical health. Then I found out it was my buddy Lynn with modern swingy hair. Yesterday she let me do the letters which was quietly thrilling.




Psychologists categorise life transitions into planned and unplanned, and I thought I was a specialist in handling them, even seeking them out.  Now I’m  in the middle (no, at the beginning) of one of those universal transitions, unplanned by me, but planned by life for us all: the death of your last surviving parent.

My mother was 92 (she would round it up to nearly 93) and so had a good innings, though she was fully intending to go on a bit longer (“they say these days that if you’re looked after well , you can live til you’re a hundred” ” I have to have fish every week as it’s keeping  me well “). But despite her best efforts, and regular fish dinners consumed with gusto, it was not to be.

Yesterday’s journey from Cambridge was reminiscent of another sad journey 38 years ago when my father died suddenly, shockingly young, at the age I am now. I got the same feeling of heightened awareness – produced by the adrenalin helping you make the necessary  work and travel arrangements (flinching at the walk on price of the train ticket) and the long journey  to the town you grew up in. These events unearth all sorts of memories. My mother had been what was euphemistically termed “fiercely independent”‘all her life and maintained this characteristic until the end, calling my sister and me up sharp until well into our sixties.

I arrive at the care home where my sister is waiting for me just as she waited at the station 38 years ago. It touches me how sensitive the care workers and undertakers are in what is for them an almost everyday event.

Sandra and I go to Blanco’s to have a fish dinner in her honour. It has been  a long day travelling. On the way home we stop at Hopkins’, open until 11 thanks to two friendly immigrants. We curse Donald Trump as we buy milk, tea, Cadburys Dairy Milk and a small bottle of Teachers whisky: our bereavement kit.


Airline talk

The trouble with linguists is that they get nerdy about the most apparently mundane texts. Academic articles have been churned out analysing  the features of blues lyrics, obituaries, press briefings, and service encounters. This is not as pointless as it sounds. Linguistic choices can tell us about cultural values, how language is used to persuade, conceal and much more. This can also help us understand what to teach and assess. In an increasingly mobile world , for example, what do train ticket inspectors need to be able to do in a language and how do we assess that? I recently described my German level as ‘German for mothers-in-law’ and having had two of those,  I regard myself as a bit of an expert.  I’ll leave you to flesh out what that might be these days, but for my generation it involved a lot of Eintopf recipes , diplomatic talk and childrearing  vocabulary.


One particular fascination of mine is the English used  in the aviation industry. There is pilot talk, which has clear implications for safety and has in recent years become a focus of interest for both teachers and assessors. Then we have English for cabin crews who need it for much more than serving drinks. Nowadays their linguistic repertoire needs to include polite handling of uncooperative passengers and warring spouses, as well as a bit of hard sell of scratch cards and the like. Once I was taken aback to see a steward giving a pre-touchdown speech inviting passengers to consider her fair city (Las Vegas) for relocation as teachers and doctors were needed.

My favourite airline language is that of safety instructions.  I once read a Time article which said that people have a better chance of surviving a disaster if they have mapped emergency procedures on their brain before the event. Ever since, I have become one of those passengers who crane their head to get a better look at how to inflate their life jacket in the unlikely event of landing on water, and possibly the only one who looks around to check the nearest exit ‘which may be behind you’ And on landing I wouldn’t even dream of unbuckling my seatbelt until the crew had completed the safety-related procedures.



Mimmo and Pino


Bars aren’t what they used to be in Italy. The simple salami roll of the sixties and seventies has now been ousted by all sorts of truffled concoctions, and you can take your cappuccino with soya milk or ginseng if you like. These days counters are marbled, and the iconic Bar signs of the black and white films have been replaced by gleaming façades. If you have a nostalgic gene, you can still find an old price list with plug in tile letters in some of the old trattorias.  One example is Aldina near the covered market in Modena, whose decor and menu have remained gloriously unreconstructed for 30 years.


However, the best panino in Modena is to be had not in a bar, but from my greengrocers di fiducia in Corso Vittorio Emanuele as you walk into town from the station.  Mimmo and Franco have been meeting the grocery needs of the older population in this area for years, and Mimmo’s cherry tomatoes and oranges are truly speciali. Once I asked him for some good olive oil, and he searched behind  his bottles on the shelf until he found something that his quietly triumphant smile suggested he had been saving for me alone.


Recently Mimmo and Pino have been building up a steady trade in panini, and you can order your filling according to what fresh produce is available that day. If you’re not too much of a control freak, you can let Pino create you a bespoke sandwich, and I guarantee you will not be disappointed. My personal favourite has chunks  of chicken, slices of  aubergine and a little olio piccante. Pino’s quiet concentration as he assesses your mood and produces a small gastronomic triumph is not to be missed.

But if you want to, skip the fancy stuff and just get a serious salami sandwich. Perché quando ci vuole ci vuole



La Nonna ha il suo perchè (or thank God for Granny)

Italy has changed a lot since my first trip backpacking with friends one hot July in the 70s, fresh from A levels. We arrived sleep-deprived in a Transalpino at Milano Centrale, and I can still remember the sensorial hit – a mixture of poetic train announcements, the smell of coffee, and the arms stretched through train windows to pay vendors for salami rolls. Back then the country was still innocent of the culture of consumption that was sweeping across the Atlantic, and four impoverished teenagers could get by on simple pleasures. Our budget covered lunch in a bar: a Toast of ham and cheese, a glass of water, and a 50 lira gettone for the juke box. Et tu by Claudio Baglione was the summer hit – a triumph of plaintive yearning that reached out and grabbed our 18 year old hearts.


Nowadays Italy has inevitably embraced the culture of TV dinners and hyper-choice. I recently came back after three years to find that supermarkets now do a roaring trade in cartons of readymade broth. 15 years ago every self-respecting Italian mother would make her own brodo di carne, and I learned how a piece of chicken (tip-always a wing for flavour), beef, and bone could be simmered to produce an exquisite broth for tortellini. These days some people pay extortionate amounts for 6 tortellini arranged on a plate in a fancy restaurant, but fortunately here in the heartland of Emilia, some grannies still have time to make their own tortellini and broth for a traditional Sunday lunch. As I overheard a shopkeeper say recently, “ la Nonna ha il suo perchè”





Polentone (polenta head) is an affectionately derogatory term used by people in the south of Italy to describe north Italians. In a country known for its culture of slow eating it is not surprising that a food term should be used to distinguish people from different regions. I live in the north and am a proud Polentone. There is nothing more comforting than a dish of this creamy yellow sustenance on a damp foggy autumn day. Of course, it belongs  to the tradition of Cucina Povera, as all the best dishes do.

The other day I was shopping in my corner shop for an easy supper and I saw a variation of polenta that I had forgotten about: Calzagatti.  These are made of cooked polenta mixed with bacon and beans to form a thick dough, which is then cut into chunks, and fried. Surprised by joy (as Wordsworth would say), I bought some, along with a piece of deep orange baked pumpkin. That evening, with a glass of Lambrusco, I dined like a diva.



Ritorno in Europa

Three years after my move to the US,  I have now returned to Europe for a mixture of personal and practical reasons. Not without some lingering regrets. Living in New York was the sustained highlight of my life, a late opportunity I never dreamed would be  possible, and one which has enriched me on so many levels.  But the downside of being  a migrant – because that’s what I have been for a good part of my life- is that you always miss people and places, and that sadness is always there in the background, just as it was when I moved to NY and left family and friends behind.

This sense of dislocation and sorrow has been elegiacally captured in the work of Jhumpa Lahiri, or more recently in the adaptation of Colm Tóibín’s Brooklyn, and anyone who has lived in another country will recognise it well. Some cultures have a word for it.


Someone * once said it is important to travel so that you can look at your own country from outside. So that is what I am going to do now that I am back in Europe. And because I am in Italy,  I will start with something foodie.


  • “The whole object of travel is not to set foot on foreign land; it is at last to set foot on one’s own country as a foreign land.” – G.K. Chesterton

The Strip

The popular image of New York is that of glistening skyscrapers, high end stores, fashionable theatres and chic eateries, and of course, it is all of these things.

However, the city has another side, not the shiny one shown in Sex and the City, but the grittier one of Law and Order, rawer and sometimes primitive, and all the more fascinating for being so. This is the New York I love, the one of coffee bars with 1970s décor and formica tables, Thelma Ritter look-alikes having lunch at the counter in cosy anonymity. You will need to go a few blocks above 59th street to find it, but it is well worth exploring.

Thelma Ritter, circa 1951. (Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images)
Thelma Ritter, circa 1951. (Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images)

One of my favourite blocks is on Broadway between 123rd and 125th, an area which I call The Strip. Here you will find a row of independent restaurants overlooked by the last stretch of overhead subway remaining in Manhattan. Your dining experience is enhanced by the atmospheric clickety-click of the 1 train passing overhead, a gentle pink in the setting sun.

Walking down from the Liquor store on 123rd, you will find a row of Chinese, Italian, Middle Eastern, Indian, and Mexican bistros,  bustling places where you can eat with dignity for less than $20 a head. My particular favourite is an American restaurant, Toast , which provides casual dining at honest prices. The waiters here are friendly, efficient, and attentive without being overzealous. It has a magnificent wooden bar where real people while away the evening over a few beers.

Chatting with friends outside Toast with the subway train passing  overhead, I felt like the world was my oyster.


We are now arriving into the UK


I am carless when I visit the UK, but this has never been a problem for me. To my mind, travelling by train offers the perfect combination of pleasurable solitude with potential for interaction if I feel so inclined. Not the kind of intense conversations between strangers I was up for in my younger days, like the time I met a gentle Vancouver guy en route to Paris, where we spent the day before moving onto our respective connections and futures. These days I value my privacy more as travel has become an opportunity to catch up on reading and writingor simply recreating myself before the next microscopic identity shift between one culture and another

Using public transport also allows me to tune in to my home country and small details in everyday life which have changed over the yearsThings like the way language is used. Changing trains in Reading Station I am soothed by the carefullyenunciated train announcements. Recorded of course, and less personal perhaps, but much more accessible than the unpredictable live delivery of train managers reminding us that we now are arriving into rather than at Swindon. 

In the UK, as long as you are prepared to walk to the end of the train, you can still reserve a seat in the Quiet carriage, where you will be spared tedious telephone conversations of people recounting the daily minutiae of their lives in loud detail. I remember a woman doing this on an Italian trainand as she finally said goodbye, a blind man sitting behind her quipping ‘ Signoraplease do give your friend best wishes from the rest of us’

 My most frequent train journey in the UK is from Paddington to South Wales, long enough to do some productive work,  with time for a trip to the buffet for coffee and Kitkat, reassuringly still available alongside fancier refreshments. This route also has some stunning skies with changing light and cloud formations. 


In the not so distant future I will qualify for a railcard (how did that happen?) but am  excited by the opportunities for train travel that it will bring. I’ve got my eye on a sleeper train to Scotland and a few days in a remote pub in the Highlands. I might even take a John Buchan novel with me.


My mother, myself.

IMG_0701I am now officially my mother. Its been coming on gradually over the last few months, which makes me think it might be a developmental thing connected with a significant birthday I have coming up. Or perhaps my new status as a grandmother.

Whatever the reason, these days I sometimes find myself coming out with my mother’s sayings, mini homilies of morality, wise woman stuff which was layered onto my mind during my childhood and after years lying dormant has started to pop out unexpectedly in my conversation.

Some of the phrases are  connected with childrearing, such as ‘he can’t grasp his sleep’ to describe a wakeful child. Another favourite of hers  is “you wouldn’t stop a galloping horse to notice that”. – a common sense response to dismiss problems of a trivial nature.My mother has always been intensely practical.

Others reflected a time when money had to be made go round, and were perhaps heard from her own mother in the 1930s. Phrases like ‘to be poor and show poor is damn poor,  which always makes me think of Scarlett O’ Hara pulling  down the green velvet curtains to make herself a dress.  ‘Cheap is dear in the long run’ was another warning against false economies. But the one I dreaded most was ‘swank money’ – extra money you would take with you on a school trip to look flush, but which you would bring home without spending.