Friday, January 30, 2009

Vive la Français!

[Image: Painting of a Sans Colettes, Louis-Léopold Boilly, Public Domain]

I've just started an intensive French course at Uni. Two-and-a-half hours a day, Monday to Friday, for one month. Certes, il est très intensive!

To make matters worse, the course is Italian to French, not English to French (in other words, the teacher assumes that everyone speaks Italian, and so she does all of her non-French teaching in Italian).

Luckily, I've learnt enough Italian to follow what she's saying, and the miniscule amount of French I picked up at GCSE level in England is also coming back to me. I can understand (more or less) everything which is being said, and I feel I'm really getting a basic handle on the French language.

Knowing a little Italian alongside English is also useful, because if a French word isn't similar to the English, then chances are it will be similar to the Italian (through their shared Latin roots). For example, the French word "savoir" doesn't sound anything like the English equivilant "to know"... but it does sound similar to the Italian "sappere." An even better example, though, is "quelque chose" (something), which is just a different pronounciation of the Italian "qualcosa."

I really want to be speaking French (at least at a basic level) when my course is finished. So, to this end, my French friend Arthur and I have agreed to meet up once a week for "French Friday" - which will see us converse entirely en français. I've also arranged for a English/French language exchange with a French/Italian girl from my course. Finally, I'm looking around for a possible pen-friend to practice my French writing with.

I still have a loooong way to go before I can call myself a French-speaker, however. Last night, Elle and I watched a French thriller, Tell No One, with English subs. It was one of the best movies I've seen in a long time (reminding me of a less sadistic version of the Dutch movie Spoorloos) but the everyday French they spoke was totally alien to me and my "classroom" French. Sacrebleu.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Olynthus and Greek Town Planning (2000)

[Image: Christaras A, 2006, Creative Commons ShareAlike 2.5]

I read an interesting article yesterday about Olynthus, an archeological site in Northern Greece. The article was Olynthus and Greek Town Planning by Nicholas Cahill, in The Classical World, Vol. 93, No. 5, May - Jun., 2000. Olynthus was apparently sacked by the Macedonians under Philip II soon (archeologically speaking) after it was founded. Nicholas Cahill describes it as one of the best preserved and most complete sites we have from Ancient Greece.

Olynthus is also a fantastic example of a town built according to a grid-pattern, which was passed from the Greeks to the Romans and then into Medieval Europe. Houses in Olynthus were built in blocks of ten, divided into two rows, with a drainage alley running between them. Cahill goes into great detail about the actual houses: they had courtyards and symposium (drunken party) rooms, and were likely two-stories tall. They had kitchens, some had toilets, and some even seem to have had shops which opened onto the street (although it's difficult to say for sure from just the archeological remains).

Cahill talks about how modern scholars (circa 2000) thought there was a uniformity to the design of the houses when they were built, which came from isonomia (equality) imposed from above by the government of the polis. The buildings were later modified by their owners depending on taste and wealth. Cahill, however, rejects this notion, pointing out that the building designs varied too much to be purely the work of later modifications.

Writing about industry in Olynthus, Cahill says that manual labour in Ancient Greece was apparently frowned upon by the wealthy. The aristocratic philosopher Xenophon said that working caused a man to become effeminate and treat his friends badly. Which (unless it's a quirk of the translation) actually tells us a lot about how Xenophon viewed the role of women and femininity. Effeminate indeed.

Despite Xenophon's fear of backbreaking, effeminate work, a lot of industry did apparently occur in Olynthus (although only in some parts of the city). There were workshops and large-scale agricultural processing operations.

Cahill finishes his article with some detailed maps/plans of Olynthus and of its individual houses, which helps flesh out his descriptions. The plans have been labeled as much as possible, but there are limits to how much archeology can be certain about. One house, for example, is labeled as either a mint or a counterfeiter - which I found quite fun.

Rating - 7 out of 12
Review Criteria

Monday, January 26, 2009

Twitter... What is it Good For?

[Image: (c) Twitter, Fair Use - to identify Twitter]

I've been trying Twitter out for a day now, and I couldn't really see the point... until, that is, this morning - when I think I finally "got" Twitter.

Twitter, it seems, does have a purpose. It makes a great little live web feed! I've signed up to "follow" some of my favourite blogs and websites - The Economist, Wall Street Journal, Financial Times, The Guardian, Boingboing, Slashdot, Engadget, Lifehack, etc.

Then, using Digsby, I can get auto-updates every time one of those sites puts up something new.

I can't see myself using Twitter for social networking - but I think it could work as a web feed...

EDIT: And now I've just discovered that Twitter integrates into Facebook - so both status-updates can be linked.

Saturday, January 24, 2009

January Gadgets Plug!

I thought I'd plug some of the random web gadgets I came across last year. So here are my top 5 gadgets from 2008:

1) Twitter

[Image: (c) Twitter, Fair Use - to identify Twitter]

The jury is out on this one. It's a bit of a personal experiment - I've just signed up and I'll give it a few weeks before delivering my verdict. Basically: Twitter is a glorified Facebook status-update bar. Or an enormous chat-room with your friends. How useful it is depends on how many people you know that are signed-up to it, and Twitter doesn't have what marketing types call "high penetration" amongst my friends. This is why I'm plugging it in the number one slot: not because it's great, but because it could be great if more people I know sign up to it. You know who you are... :D (P.S. I'm JosefLitobarski on Twitter [EDIT: I've since changed my profile name. Now, I'm CitizenEurope])

2) Digsby.

[Image: (c) dotSyntax, LLC., Fair Use - to identify Digsby]

This little program is pure groovoir sous forme électronique. It's actually the real number one app from 2008! Digsby lets you access all of your online social programs (e-mail, Facebook, gmail, MSN, and tons more) from one place. Once you've set it up, you can have access and manage all of your different accounts at the same time. I have my Digsby managing 3 e-mail accounts, 1 social network (Facebook), and 7 IM accounts. And it'll manage Twitter for me too, when I get the bloody thing set up!

3) Info-War Monitor

[Image: (c) Infowar-Monitor, Fair Use - to identify Inforwar-Monitor]

Infowar Monitor is an online resource/webzine/smörgåsbord of developments in cyberspace. There are some worrying long-term trends in c-space which I had no idea about, and it's nice to have things summarised by people "in-the-know." It's easy to get a bit tinfoil-hat about this sort of thing, but the people at the Monitor write professionally and objectively. It's also edited by a guy I went to University with, so I've been getting his perspective on what's been going on in cyberspace over the last few months. Interesting stuff, and worth a free subscription to their newsfeed.

4) Questia

[Image (via Adam Smith University of America): (c) Questia, Fair Use - to identify Questia]

Questia is an online library of books, just like Google Books. However, unlike Google Books, you have to pay for access. Once you have access, however, there are no limited previews - everything is open to you to search, highlight and print (you can't download books yet). Access is reasonably priced (something like 70 euros a year [EDIT: Erk... more like 90 euros a year!]) - and it has plenty of rare books useful for students and academics. Many of the textbooks on Questia would cost 30 or 40 euros to buy, so for students it's a godsend! In my quest to hold the cultural roots of Europe in my hand and lick the ends a bit, I also think Questia's history section will be pretty useful.

5) Google-Pen-Scanners

[Image: (c) Google, Fair Use - to identify Google]

Finally, this one isn't real yet (AFAIK) - but it should be.... I've already posted about my newfound love of "wiki-reading." I highlight text from chapters of books I'm reading and then look everything up online (typically on Google Scholar/Books, Wikipedia or Questia). I've been thinking about how to streamline the process - and I came up with a sweet idea! I wish I had a pen-scanner instead of a highlighter, which I could use to highlight interesting text and which (with wireless access to my laptop) would then take me straight to the relevent Wikipedia entry. If any pen-scanner manufacturers are reading my blog: please take note.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Jason and the Argonauts (1963)

[Image: (c) Columbia Pictures, Fair Use - low-resolution version to provide critical commentary]

I can't exactly remember if I've ever watched Jason and the Argonauts before... I'm pretty sure I watched at least some of it, because I remember the monsters. But then, I suppose these vague and foggy memories of awesome monster fights could have come from "top 100" clip-shows I watched about classic movies. At any rate, in my never-ending quest to dig up the cultural roots of Europe and sniff them, I recently decided I'd watch (or re-watch?) this classic Hollywood epic based on the Greek myth of Jason and the Golden Fleece.

Ray Harryhausen is apparently the name in stop-motion monster effects, and it was he who provided the effects for Jason and the Argonauts. Harryhausen himself regards it as his "most complete" film. I actually watched another of his movies recently, Clash of the Titans, which was originally released in the 1980s. I did enjoy it... but found it a bit cutesy.

At least in Jason and the Argonauts the main character displays a bit of arrogance and ambition. One of the things which irked me most about Clash of the Titans was the fact that Perseus was so bloody nice. From what I know of him, the original Greek character of Jason was untrustworthy, power-hungry and manipulative. Jason and the Argonauts shows some of Jason's ambition, but it ends the story at the point when Jason finds the Golden Fleece. It doesn't show his return journey and his tragic fall. The story of Medea, the mother of Jason's children, betrayed by Jason for his own selfish political gain, isn't even hinted at in Jason and the Argonauts.

Apart from this squeeky-clean remixing of tragic Greek themes and plotlines, there were one or two other things which rankled. The costumes and props seemed a bit mixed up at times. At one point, King Pelias was entertaining Jason in what appeared to be a medieval fairground. I'm no expert, of course.

And yet... there was this one scene where a ruddy great bronze man stomps on people! And another bit when loads of skeletons come to life and fight with Jason! Just when your attention is flagging, the Harryhausen effects come along and redeem things. And just like in Clash of the Titans, I was disappointed... but not completely.

Rating - 6 out of 12

Saturday, January 17, 2009

The Life of the Ancient Greek (1911) - Part Two

[Image: Scene of Olive Gathering, Antimenes Painter, 520 BC, Photo by: Steff, 2005, Public Domain]

Today I finished the second of two articles entitled The Life of the Ancient Greek by David M. Robinson of John Hopkins University, published in December 1911 in The Classical Weekly. The second article picks up where the first part finished, with the education of a typical Greek (specifically Athenian) citizen. There follows some description of Greek military service, but more interesting to me was the description of Greek farming techniques which came afterwards.

The Ancient Greeks ploughed their fields, but their ploughs were very simple things. They were often just the forked limb of a tree, with the projecting fork making the actual plough-share, sharpened to till the soil. It was pulled along by oxen or mules (almost never by horses), and the field it ploughed would be used to grow grain, lentils, peas and beans. The Ancient Greeks understood the importance of both fertilizing and irrigation.

Crop farming was vital to the Ancient Greek way of life - meat was rarely eaten (except during feasts) because animals were expensive to rear. When harvest time came round, hand-sickles were used to cut the grain. I imagine all of this work was done by men, as women were kept secluded and indoors (more on this later). [EDIT: I'm currently reading a book about this, which suggests that lower-status women probably were outside, working in the fields]

When the grain was harvested, the farmer would bind it together in sheaves and carry it home (leaving one sheaf in the field for luck or as an offering to the harvest gods). The grain would then be either boiled into gruel or taken to a mill, where it would be ground down into flour. The millers had jolly milling songs they sang while they ground the flour, like this one:

"Grind, mill, grind, for even Pittacus grinds, king of mighty Mitylene."

Admittedly, it must have lost something in translation.

After describing farming, Robinson goes on to describe the fashion in Ancient Greece. Apparently, conical felt hats were popular. I imagine this was despite the fact they probably made people look like they were wearing toy penes on their heads. I'm sure they didn't actually look like this - so I'll have to see if I can dig up some images on Google [EDIT: Actually... they sort of did look like toy penes: IMAGE].

I was particularly impressed, though, by the inventiveness of Ancient Greek quarrying techniques. Quarry-men drilled holes into the marble, before driving wooden shafts into the holes and then pouring water over the wood so that it swelled and split off the desired blocks of stone.

Finally, the last section of the article concerns marriage and death. Yes, the author makes all the usual jokes about marriage and death... and so, apparently, did the Ancient Greeks. Robinson writes:
To put death in immediate sequence after marriage may seem to leave a great gap, or may even seem humorously suggestive. "What!" says one character in Greek comedy, "Married! Did you say he was married? Why it was only the other day I saw him alive and walking about."

Robinson explains that the Ancient Greek marriage ceremony was different from the modern conception of marriage. There were no vows or rings exchanged which might mark the point at which the couple were officially married. Instead, the marriage was a prolonged process of feasting and ceremonies.

Interestingly, when the groom married his adolescent "girl-bride" (who would typically be about fifteen years younger than her husband-to-be) he would not yet have seen her face. Women in Ancient Greece were veiled and secluded from men, a custom inherited by the Byzantine empire, and possibly passed from there into the Muslim world. [EDIT: After reading about this a bit, it seems that the practice of veiling was common all across the ancient world, not just in Greece.]

Rating - 7 out of 12
Review Criteria

Night Skiing

[Video: Josef Litobarski, 2009, Attribution 3.0 Unported]

I hurt in parts I didn't even know existed.

Last night, Elsje and I went night-skiing with some friends. I've never been skiing before, and here I was about to try skiing for the first time... at night.

Norwegian Pal, my Norwegian pal (his name is pronounced "Paul"), lent me his skis for the night. Unfortunately for me, they were special telemark skis - which means only the toe of my boot was attached to the ski. These were not skis for a beginner - but to be honest, even in normal skis I would have fallen over. In the end, I was "skiing" for about twenty seconds before I started going down backwards accidently, and then fell over... and couldn't get back up.

So I took the skis off and had a go at sledging. "That'll be nice and easy," I thought to myself. Hurtling down the sledge-course at about 200 kilometres an hour, my face started to melt from the g-force. I was going so fast I couldn't hear myself scream... And I know I was screaming, so I'm pretty sure I must have broken the sound barrier.

There were these huge trenches cut into the sledge-course, and I would slam into them at break-neck speed and jump up into the air, hanging suspended for a moment or two of supreme calm, before crashing down again with a jarring thump. The only way to steer was to jam my boot into the snow on either side, causing shards of ice to fly up into my face. I kept blinding myself, but it was the only way to stop the sledge lurching into the barrier seperating the sledge-course from a sheer drop down into the icy canyon running alongside.

Why do people actually pay for what essentially amounts to a form of torture?

After the first time, I swore to myself I would never do it again. But, for some inexplicable reason, I found myself drawn once more into the ski-lift and ascending to the top. It didn't help that sitting in the ski-lift, the view reminded me of the opening to Mulholland Drive - with the menacing hum of the engine in the background and the path ahead appearing suddenly from a shroud of impenetrable gloom.

The second time down, something strange happened... I actually enjoyed it! I finally figured out how to steer and started to feel less like I was hurtling out of control to my inevitable doom. It's not so bad when you don't think of it like that.

The third time down, Elsje and I tried to go down together. This wasn't so successful. Suffice to say, halfway down the course I let Elsje go down without me and walked the rest of the way.

We all met at the bottom and went for an enormous Mexican feast at a nearby restaurant - and then back to Trento we drove.

Great fun! Winter sports: awesome.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

The Life of the Ancient Greek (1911) - Part One

[Image: Ganymede Holding a Hoop, Berlin Painter, ca. 500–490 BC, Photo by: Bibi Saint-Pol, 2007, Public Domain]

The University of Trento has access to JSTOR from its library, so I've been looking up some interesting articles. I came across an old article by David M. Robinson in The Classical Weekly, Volume 5, No. 8 (December 9th, 1911) called The Life of the Ancient Greek. The article is almost a hundred years old, and much of what it describes may have been revised by now, but it was nonetheless fascinating to read.

The article follows the life of a typical Athenian citizen (so, a "typical" life for somewhere between 10 and 20 percent of the population of Athens - the rest of the population being composed of slaves, foreigners and women). It talks about the birth, the naming ceremony, the toys and games and the education of a young Greek boy. Robinson mentions the life of girls in passing (saying that boys were much prefered over girls, and that unwanted baby girls were often exposed to the elements and eaten by wild animals). He also writes that some parents, unable to bear the thought of exposing their daughters, would leave them in a basket on the doorstep of a temple where the "tender mercies of the childless or of lovers of children prevailed to take it home and bring it up." I read a book recently on the subject which argued that abandoned baby girls were probably most valued by the owners of brothels, who would adopt them and raise them as prostitutes.

Despite this, much of what Robinson describes is still recognisable today - especially when he talks about the games children used to play and the toys they played them with. Hoop running, spinning tops, baby-rattles, dolls, hobby-horses, see-saws and swings were all used by Ancient Greek children - and their childhood games included varients of hide-and-seek and a version of blind-man's-bluff called "Chasing The Bronze Fly."

I would love to read a more up-to-date description of life in Ancient Greece, but Robinson's article - which was published in two parts (I have yet to read part two) - was still an excellent read. His language and style are modern for an article published almost a century ago, and if you have access to JSTOR it's certainly worth a look.

Rating - 7 out of 12
Review Criteria

Monday, January 12, 2009

The Odyssey (1997)

[Image: (c) NBC, Fair Use - low-resolution version to provide critical commentary]

The Odyssey
was a 1997 TV mini-series produced by Francis Ford Coppola, later cut into a 3-hour movie and released on DVD. It won a couple of Emmys (for best director and special effects) and was nominated for two Golden Globes (best mini-series and best actor). It follows (loosely) the plot of the epic poem by Homer. I'm watching all the films set in Ancient Greece that I can get my hands on at the moment, so I thought I'd give it a shot.

So, what did I think of the movie? Well... In some ways it tries hard to avoid the usual stereotypes. Armand Assante's version of Odysseus is arrogant, ruthless and violent. He contrasts sharply with the likes of the fresh-faced, dim-witted Perseus in Clash of the Titans. Odysseus is a thug in this movie - an Achaean Rambo.

It's true that Telemachus, Odysseus's son, is the typical snotty-nosed, floppy-haired youth - but instead of having an easy time, he's thrown from one humiliation and degredation to another at the hands of the suitors, until finally being transformed into a believably angry ball of rage, actually displaying characteristics other than "pureness of heart" and chivalry.

These things were appreciated, and overall (although it lags in places), the movie is decent. There are two scenes which really stood out, though...

The first is the encounter with the monster Scylla in the caverns. The special effects were fantastic - and this scene was (for what I assume was a primetime network TV series) actually fairly violent. Not that I'm particularly bloodthirsty - but if used properly, the sight of a six-headed monster chewing up one of Odysseus's crew-members in torchlit gloom can be pretty effective.

The second scene was Odysseus's massacre of the suitors. The suitors had been portrayed as a horrible bunch of bastards throughout the film, but it was still a shock to see Odysseus carry out what was essentially a massacre of unarmed men. The movie's producers decided not to include the part from the play where Telemachus hangs twelve of Penelope's maids for sleeping with the suitors. Or the part where they cut off the goatherd's nose, ears, hands and feet and pull his genitals off whilst he's still alive (feeding them to the dogs). You see - this is what I'm talking about when I say that Greek heroes were horrible!

All in all - I'm satisfied with this version of The Odyssey. It's not perfect, but it's still perfectly watchable.

Rating - 7 out of 12

Conversations with the Bishop's Great, Great, Great, Great, Great, Great, Great, Great, Great, Great, Great, Great, Great Nephew

[Image: Josef Litobarski, 2009, Attribution 3.0 Unported]

One of my best friends in Trento, Gio, is the last surviving heir of the 16th Century Prince-Bishop of Trento, Bernardo Clesio. The castle Buonconsiglio, just around the corner from my house, used to be his official residence.

Bernardo Clesio was, as a Catholic Bishop, sworn to celebecy, so he had no children. But Gio is descended from Bishop Clesio's brother's line; Bernardo Clesio is Gio's great Uncle, going back 13 generations.

Gio and I went out for a pint last night and talked for a bit about the history of Trento. He gave me a guided tour of the town, explaining the influence of Bernardo Clesio on the various buildings we passed. Apparently, Trento used to have canals like Venice - but the Bishop disliked how filthy the water was, so he had them drained.

Bishop Clesio was perhaps most famous for organising the Council of Trent, which took place in Trento's Cathedral and led directly to the Catholic counter-reformation.

The Wikipedia page for Bishop Clesio is pretty spartan - so Gio and I thought we might try and add a bit more detail to it.

Friday, January 9, 2009

Clash of the Titans (1981)

[Image: (c) MGM / Warner Bros., 1981, Fair Use - low resolution version to provide critical commentary]

Amongst the mountains of revision I've built for myself to climb, I've cleared a little space to work on my pet-project: learning all about the Ancient Greeks. Apart from discovering that they enjoyed making pornographic pottery, I've been learning all about Greek myths. These are stories I learnt in my childhood, but have pretty much forgotten by now. I remember the Hydra, Medusa, the Cyclops, and so on - but I don't remember all the little details.

So, in order to rectify this, a couple of nights ago I watched the cult-classic 80's movie "Clash of the Titans." The stop-motion special effects were by Ray Harryhausen, who did the effects for Jason and the Argonauts.

It's based on the legend of Perseus, Pegasus, Medusa et al. It started well - very atmospheric shot of the sea as King Acrisius of Argos orders his daughter, Danaë, into a coffin with her infant son to be cast into the ocean. Except, in the movie I think they changed the character of Danaë so she is Acrisius's wife - which is a bit creepy (but very much in-keeping with Greek tragedy).

Then cut to Zeus (played by Laurence Olivier, no less) up on Mount Olympus. He is actually the child's real father and he's pretty vexed, what with Acrisius dumping Danaë and Perseus in a coffin and dropping them in the ocean and all. In the original myth there's a lot more to why Acrisius wants to murder his daughter, but I guess they decided to cut all of that gubbins out.

Where was I? Ah, yes - Zeus is spitting chips, and he asks Poseidon to release the Kraken (called Ceto in the original). This bit is great - it's like a Godzilla movie! There are loads of shots of people running around and screaming and then dodgy shots of someone turning a tap on and splashing bathwater over a model of a Greek city. I kept wanting to shout out "Sploosh!" like a two-year old. There's also a very creepy scene with Poseidon padding about underwater. Today, this would all be greenscreened - but I think they must have actually shot the actor in a water-tank and then superimposed his image onto a shot of a model of the seabed.

Anyway, vengence meted, Zeus orders Poseidon to stop faffing about in his paddling pool and go and rescue Danaë and Perseus from a watery grave.

The movie gets a bit dull from this point onwards. To be honest, the problem might be the hero, Perseus. He's much too clean-cut. In the Greek original (from what I've read) Perseus was cunning and fairly ruthless. In the movie though, Perseus is just some bloke. The gods are essentially holding his hand and walking him through the story, telling him what to do.

Things do pick up right at the end, when Perseus fights with some giant scorpions, a two-headed hound and a satyr-type guy. And, of course, Medusa.

I dug this out because I had fond memories of Jason and the Argonauts, and I wanted to see some more of Ray Harryhausen's old-school special effects. On this count, I suppose I was satisfied. Ultimately, though, Clash of the Titans was mildly disappointing.

Rating - 5 out of 12
Review Criteria

Monday, January 5, 2009

New Year's Resolution

[Image: Warriors, Prometheus Painter, 570-565 BC, photo by: Bibi Saint-Pol, 2007, Public Domain]

I have a New Year's resolution.

I'm going try to read more European history. I'd also really like to read some of the classics of European literature, starting with the Illiad. First, though, I need to understand the context it was all written in.

So I picked up a copy of Robin Lane Fox's The Classical World in Bologna last week, and I'm sort of "wiki-reading" it. I go through each chapter with a highlighter, picking out anything I don't understand (or anything I would like to know more about), then I hop onto Wikipedia and look up everything I've highlighted. It's like a DIY York Notes.

But "wiki-reading" works best online. This article from Portfolio magazine about the sub-prime mortage crisis is the best explanation of the crisis I have ever read, and I gained a much deeper understanding of it because every time I didn't "get" a concept I stopped reading and opened up Google or Wikipedia.

I wish that there was some way to have a "Wikipedia" button on my laptop's keyboard. When reading an article, it would be great to be able to click on text and link straight through to a Wikipedia article, rather than having to highlight the text, copy it and paste it into the Wikipedia search bar. Ah, well... maybe in Linux!

Thursday, January 1, 2009

Hatsuyume (First Dream of the New Year)

[Image: Zombie Flash Mob, Grant Neufeld, 2005, Public Domain]

In the traditional Japanese calendar, 2nd January is known as Hatsuyume, or "first dream". Apparently, the first dream you have in a new year is supposed to be indicative of how well the year will go for you.

I dreamt about zombies.

I was in some sort of school, and there was an outbreak of zombies. I managed to bludgeon away most of the poor fools, but one or two somehow developed speech. I felt very much like the protagonist in Richard Matheson's I Am Legend - the last man on Earth surrounded by horrors.

But the zombies kept asking me not to bludgeon them and promising in return not to eat my brains. It was an impossible situation - because how could I possibly trust them? Also, the zombies kept wanting to embrace in order to show their friendship, which made me very paranoid that they would take the opportunity to suck my brains out through my nose.

The problem was that I, as a human, was such an obvious outsider in this new world of zombies. The only way I could be sure they would stop trying to eat my brains would be, in a Catch-22 sort of way, if they first ate my brains and I became a zombie. Obviously, I didn't feel like having my brains eaten.

Right at the end of the dream I came up with a solution. In a bit of a deus ex machina, I stumbled upon a magical spell which would either turn me into a zombie or grant my new friends the intelligence they needed not to eat my brains. A happy ending.

Now, I have two interpretations. Firstly, that 2009 will pose many problems which I will spend a great deal of effort on despite, actually, a novel and unexpected solution existing. If I can discover that solution then my life will be that much easier. The alternative interpretation is that I feel a sense of displacement in Italy, surrounded by Italians, and that I am looking for a way to better blend into my surroundings.

Either way, I avoided having my brains eaten - which is a good sign.

Happy New Year 2009!

[Image: Josef Litobarski, 2009, Attribution 3.0 Unported]

Having returned from my holidays, I now realise that there are only two weeks left until my first exam. Bum.

But even if I fail all of my exams and exploderise from stress for want of study time and revision - this week away will still have been worth it. We went to Florence, birthplace of the Renaissance! In the middle of winter it was our playground - and I had the opportunity to wander through deserted medieval streets after midnight. Tourists were so scarce that we somehow managed to get in to see Michelangelo's David without queuing - and we were staying in an apartment just around the corner from the Uffizi!

[Image: Josef Litobarski, 2009, Attribution 3.0 Unported]

The Duomo (cathedral) in the centre of Florence is awesome in the original sense of the word... it towers above like a great stone phallus scraping across the heavens, crackling great sparks of wonderous potential; a high-medieval power structure - a Renaissance Wall Street skyscraper for the Medici bankers that built it. As you can imagine, I was absolutely thrilled.

Elsje and I met up with Nitya and her brother Prashant, friends of Elsje's that she hasn't seen in fourteen years. I hope we get a chance to meet up with them again, because they were both really great to hang out with! We rented an apartment and all cooked Christmas dinner together. Elsje and I exchanged gifts - we had decided to make things for each other this year. I gave Elsje a little book which I'm writing for her and illuminating in the medieval style with little cartoons of dragons and roses - a biography of her life as told by me! Elsje hand-made me some tokens which I can use to buy massages, home-cooked meals and breakfasts in bed. This will make the next few weeks a bit easier for me. :-)

After three days in Florence we explored Bologna - the food capital of Italy. We couch-surfed with some amazing people and celebrated New Year's with our friends from Trento. A good time was had by all (although the party's host had to remove baby Jesus from the nativity scene for his own safety).

Unfortunately, however, now that I'm well and truly re-energised I no longer have an excuse not to bury my nose in my textbooks and get studying!