80 Books of 2015

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Action shot of me, mid-book.

I’ve blogged about reading before (please see here, here, and here) and have really enjoyed getting stuck into a good reading challenge. I was aiming for 50 books last year but got carried away and ended up on 70, and so I aimed for 70 this year and got carried away again and went for 80. Next year – who knows, but I think it’s important to say that I haven’t read any of these books so I could get to an arbitrarily selected target, nor have I picked books I thought would be ‘easy’ so I could do this blog. But, here I am anyway, so here is a list of the books I read this year, and my thoughts on some of them.

As a child, I was a terrible reader. It wasn’t that I couldn’t read – it was that I just didn’t want to. I don’t know why this is, but I always make a point of letting my students know that it was the case, if they ask. The reason for this is that I love it now – and when I tell the more reluctant readers just how incredible I find it to be truly lost in a book, I want them to understand that while I totally empathise with their reticence, I don’t want them to miss out. In fact, if I could go back and slap my 13-19 year old self in the face and tell him nearly anything, it would be to READ! (OK, there would be some other stuff I’d tell him too, but reading would definitely be on the list).

Anyway, with that in mind, I thought I’d have a look back at the 80 books (fiction and non-fiction) that I’ve read this year, and talk a bit about some of them.

  • I am Pilgrim by Terry Hayes

First book of the year, a present from my wife at the end of 2014, and a 900 page behemoth at that. I don’t, as a rule, like reading things that are longer than 500 pages. My thinking was ‘If you can’t write a good book in 500 pages, you should have tried harder.’ This, on the other hand, totally blew that thinking out of the water. It was brilliant, absolutely brilliant. Complex, twisting, but somehow tight and focused at the same time, I would recommend it to everyone.

  • The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman
  • The Wolf of Wall Street by Jordan Belfort

I enjoyed the film, a lot, so I thought I’d check out the book, which is equally enjoyable, although you do have to make your peace with the idea of spending a few hours in the company of a thoroughly dislikeable character. An interesting insight into what humans will do for a quick thrill.

  • The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins

Loved by all, it seems. I enjoyed it, but I didn’t find anything in it that I hadn’t read before. Still, perfectly readable.

  • Elizabeth Is Missing by Emma Healey

I really struggled with this one. It’s brilliantly written but hugely upsetting at the same time.

 

7

The unassuming hero of my year.

  • Shakespeare
  • Notes from a Small Island
  • Down Under
  • Neither Here Nor There
  • Mother Tongue
  • A Short History of Nearly Everything
  • Troublesome Words
  • Notes from a Big Country
  • The Lost Continent
  • At Home: a short history of private life.
  • The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid
  • Made in America
  • A Walk in the Woods
  • Bill Bryson’s African Adventure
  • The Road to Little Dribbling by Bill Bryson

This year has been my year of Bryson. I love his style, his tone, his way with words; I have loved every moment of reading every book. If you know anyone who likes non-fiction, get them some of these.

  • Bounce by Matthew Syed

One of the core texts of the Growth Mindset movement, this is a fascinating insight into the mind of a successful person, and while it doesn’t dispel the idea of talent entirely it certainly contexualises it and reminds us how dependent success is on other things.

  • The 39 Steps by John Buchan
  • The Forgotten Holocaust by Scott Mariani
  • An Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth by Chris Hadfield

Brilliant to know that astronauts are actually heroic and wonderful just like I thought when I was a kid. Hadfield’s book was superb.

  • A Night to Remember by Walter Lord
  • On a Sea of Glass by Tad Fitch and J.Kent Layton

I’ve always been fascinated by the Titanic story, and these books certainly helped me indulge my geeky side. Still an intriguing story that echoes through the ages – lots to learn both about it and from it, I think.

  • The Rosie Project
  • The Rosie Effect by Graeme Simsion
  • The Miniaturist by Jessie Burton
  • The Humans by Matt Haig
  • Snow White Must Die by Nele Neuhaus

Having not really loved fiction this year, I must make an exception for this murder mystery which I enjoyed from beginning to end. Perfect length, really well constructed plot, engaging characters that don’t lapse into tired cliché, convincing denouement, all the ingredients came together brilliantly. I loved it.

  • My Take by Gary Barlow
  • The Knife that Killed Me by Anthony McGowan
  • Filth by Irving Welsh

By and large I love Irving Welsh – didn’t like this though. All of the complexity of ‘Trainspotting’ with none of the charm or class.

  • Filthy English – the What, Where, How and Why of Everyday Swearing by Peter Silverton.
  • The Run of His Life – OJ Simpson trial by Jeffrey Toobin

This was a real eye-opener, and a brilliantly constructed look at a case I’d heard a lot about without ever hearing much about it, if that makes sense. Tense, taut and thrilling, the book never feels like it’s moving to a sensationalist tabloid but remains remarkably honest. It’s clear what Toobin thinks about Simpson, but you get the feeling he is casting as impartial an eye over proceedings as he can. Again, a fascinating book.

  • Nightschool 5: EndGame by CJ Daugherty

Ever since first meeting CJ at a school event, I have felt very lucky to have discovered the Nightschool books – and this is a fitting final chapter to a series that has never disappointed. She came to my new school to talk to the students and they were absolutely spellbound throughout and ask me to this day when she will come back, so hopefully we can sort that out soon.

  • Kill your Friends by John Niven.

This doesn’t really count, as it was a re-read, but it’s so funny, I had to mention it here. It wasn’t any less hilarious on second glance, so do give it a look-in.

  • The Surgeon
  • The Apprentice
  • The Sinner by Tess Gerritsen

For all I haven’t enjoyed fiction this year, I’ve really liked the Rizzoli and Isles books. The TV show is great, and the books – while very different – are just as enjoyable.

  • The Long and Whining Road by Simeon Courtie
  • Stress Proof Your Life by Elisabeth Wilson
  • The Year of Living Danishly by Helen Russell

A lovely account of Russell’s year abroad, as she moves with her husband to Denmark so he can take up a position at Lego’s head office. Something important in here for all of us who live our rat-race life at full pace.

  • It’s Not what you Think
  • Memoirs of a Fruitcake
  • Call the Midlife by Chris Evans

As a child of the 90s, Chris Evans was always a bit of a hero of mine via The Big Breakfast, Don’t Forget Your Toothbrush, and (of course) TFI Friday. For all his faults, and he’s keenly aware of them too, he is a phenomenally talented broadcaster, and this likeability and seemingly effortless ability to engage with an audience comes across brilliantly in his writing too. Brutally honest, but utterly charming, all three books were informative and interesting.

  • Is Everyone Hanging out Without Me?
  • Why not Me? By Mindy Kaling
  • Sleepyhead by Mark Billingham
  • May I Have Your Attention Please? By James Corden
  • Mr Mercedes by Stephen King
  • So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed
  • The Psychopath Test by Jon Ronson
  • Go Set a Watchman by Harper Lee

This got a lot of attention this year, understandably, and aroused plenty of controversy. That’s also understandable, but the some of the criticism I saw aimed at Lee was very unfair. I never adopted Atticus Finch as

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Future grumpy racist, Atticus Finch.

my teenage hero the way some readers of ‘Mockingbird’ had, so perhaps I wasn’t as hurt by his characterisation in this book, but at the end of the day, a) he’s Lee’s character so she can do what she wants with him, b) he’s fictional so she can do what she wants with him and c) I think his flaws, imperfections and decline into cantankerous old racist actually shifts the focus onto Scout and makes her a heroine for our modern age – she has to deal with the fact that ‘every fair from fair sometime declines’ and the grace with which she handles it gives her a depth and colour that she never had before. So yes, Lee may have taken Atticus with one hand, but with the other she gave us Jean Louise Finch, who may be a more achievable hero for us all.

 

  • The Secret Footballer’s Guide to the Modern Game
  • The Secret Footballer: Access All Areas by The Secret Footballer.
  • Bad Vibes: Britpop and my part in its downfall by Luke Haines

I don’t remember The Auteurs as a 90s band, and I don’t know whether Haines is being serious or satirical in his style, but I found him thoroughly dislikeable and the whole thing read as a diatribe about how scandalous it was that his incredible talent was disregarded by a shallow and materialistic world. I looked up the Auteurs music and had a listen; like Haines’ writing, I found it tedious.

  • Head Boy by Mark Wilson
  • The Sunshine Cruise Company by John Niven
  • Make Me by Lee Child
  • The Martyr’s Curse by Scott Mariani
  • The Marshmallow Test by Walter Mischel
  • Open by Andre Agassi
  • The Ice Twins by SK Tremayne.

Overall I felt a bit ambivalent towards this, but there was a point as I sat reading it alone in my room where something fell off the chest of drawers and I nearly had a heart attack, so it had obviously ramped up the tension enough to have me on edge!

  • Leading by Alex Ferguson
  • Red by Gary Neville
  • The Martian by Andy Weir

I saw the film twice, and I think it might be my favourite film of the last five years, so my expectations for the book were high, and met easily. A thoroughly brilliant piece of work, I thought. I think it’s rare (it probably isn’t – I’m no fiction expert) to find a book that feels like such an original idea. This didn’t feel like a story that had been done before, even though (of course) it has.

  • Where They Found Her by Kimberley McCreight
  • I never knew that about New York
  • I never knew that about London by Christopher Winn
  • Sampras: Mind of a Champion by Pete Sampras
  • Over The Top and Back by Tom Jones
  • Serious by John McEnroe
  • The Life and Loves of a He-Devil by Graham Norton
  • Outliers
  • The Tipping Point by Malcolm Gladwell
  • Tickling the English by Dara O’Briain.
  • Reasons to Stay Alive by Matt Haig

So there’s my reading year. Can’t wait for the next one! In no particular order, my 8 favourite books of the year are:

  1. I am Pilgrim
  2. An Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth 
  3. Snow White Must Die 
  4. Shakespeare 
  5. Mother Tongue 
  6. The Run of His Life – OJ Simpson trial 
  7. It’s Not What You Think 
  8. The Martian 

What have your favourite books been this year? I need recommendations for 2016!

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#English

I love a poster. I also love trivia. It’s important to establish these two things before I tell you about my new project at school. Right. Let me tell you about a new project at school. It’s called #English.

The premise is simple, but I’m hoping for help from my teaching friends and colleagues out there on the interweb. I’m going to put posters up all around school featuring short, interesting things about English (the subject and the language) with the simple caption #English for students to read as they go about their studenting outside of lessons. I’ve got four so far – they are attached below – and if you like the idea, please feel free to have them, but if you do use them, if you could send me any you come up with as well, we can develop a library of posters for us all to use. The best bit is, you don’t have to be an English teacher for it to work – vocab from any subject could be used, and the facts could relate to any other subject too – so it can be a whole-staff collaboration.

I’m then planning to run a competition whereby students go and find their own interesting #English topics and tweet them to our departmental Twitter page. The best ones will be made into new posters to share with everyone.

Please get involved – I’m very excited about this and hope you will be too! #English

Barbados

To be or not to be

Quarantine

Guillotine

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Synonym Bingo

So this week I used ‘synonym bingo’ – a great idea that I found on the amazing Agility-Teaching Toolkit that I would recommend to every teacher ever.

We were reading Chapter 5 of ‘Holes’, and as every teacher knows, it’s not always easy to get the students to take in the text. Sometimes I read to them, but I’ve done that a few times now and while I take some degree of pride in my narrative skills (and my ridiculous but nevertheless quite fun Texas accent) I thought it was time for a change. I could have gotten them to read it in silence but how would I know they were taking it in? I could have got them to read aloud, but that isn’t always a good idea either. So I adapted (very, very slightly) Amjad Ali’s synonym bingo game.

I gave each student a bingo card with synonyms of key words from the chapter on, and asked them to fill it in as they went. They read in silence, utterly transfixed, and by the very nature of the game, had to pay close attention to what was happening on the page. For the students who finished early, I had a couple of open ended ‘think about these’ questions on the board that I then asked them to share once the others had caught up.

It didn’t take long to set up, and the students really benefitted from it, so a big thanks to Amjad and the blog for the idea!

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It’s got to beeee…imperfect.

We all remember the song, right? Fairground Attraction ride along a canal singing about how it (what ever ‘it’ is) has GOT to be perfect. ‘Too many people take second best/but I won’t take anything less/it’s got to be perfect’ chirps Eddi Reader. Well, it’s a brilliantly catchy song but the message concerns me. ‘Perfectionist’ seems to be held up as a kind of buzz-adjective that high-achieving students seem very keen to apply to themselves, or even worse, seem very keen to have other people apply to them. To be described as a ‘perfectionist’ shows your standards are high, you demand the best from people and from yourself and you won’t stand by to watch the world wallow in mediocrity, right?

Wrong.

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I have taught some wonderful students in my time, some of whom have achieved high, some of whom haven’t, (guess what kids, you can still be amazing without getting full marks in everything or in fact anything) but across the board, the unhappiest ones have been those who aimed for perfection. Like some kind of insidious creeping tendril of misery, perfectionism creeps into their blood until they are not only unable to enjoy any victory, but unable to cope with the stress of what lies before them. As the realisation of either how many plates they are spinning, or the unpredictability of the next step in their lives begins to hit them, they become completely paralysed by it. I’ve seen students who could have the world at their feet break down in tears because they are scared they won’t be perfect in their music concert, won’t score a winning goal in their upcoming match, won’t get full marks on this or that test, that their GCSE/A-Level results will contain an unpleasant surprise, or that they need to know what university is going to be like before they get there. They are driven by a need to control – but there are things in this life that we cannot control, and learning to embrace that and make it part of their armour, not its most vulnerable chink, is not only liberating but necessary if they are going to enjoy this wonderful world of ours.

Now, as for what has made them like this, I don’t know. Sometimes I’ve realised that they have had ludicrous expectations placed upon them from an early age; the certainty that if you want to achieve anything in this life, you had better get A* grades and you had better go to Oxford or Cambridge. Wherever these expectations have come from, it makes me both sad and angry that they have been made to feel this way. Whatever the reason, these kids are scared stiff by the prospect that something is coming up that they can’t control, and nobody seems to have given them any guidance as to how to deal with that.

Control is a difficult thing to give up, especially when you’re young and the pressure seems to be put on you so directly and you have absolutely no experience of it. Having fully signed up to the Growth Mindset movement that seems to be sweeping the education world, and read the four core texts, (Dweck’s Mindset, Coyle’s The Talent Code, Syed’s Bounce and Peters’ The Chimp Paradox), I’ve understood better how to deal with the perfectionism that used to cripple me and hold me back. We need to remember though that our students haven’t read these books, and even if they had, they haven’t necessarily had the life experience to digest and properly apply the advice and lessons therein.

I’m thinking of Tennis at the moment. As I write this, it’s Sunday evening and in soon, Roger Federer and Novak Djokovic will contest the final of the US Open. Federer has long been one of my favourite sportsmen, and with a haul of 87 career titles, including 17 majors, 1047 career wins and prize money of $93m, he has done alright for himself. He is, to some, the perfect tennis player, but crucially, he isn’t a perfectionist.

“I won’t just put the entire calendar just around trying to win the calendar Grand Slam. It’s something if it happens, it does and it’s great, but it’s not something that’s like my number one goal, not at all. It’s the same as I haven’t put a number on how many Grand Slams I want to try to win. Whatever happens, happens.” – Roger Federer.

Federer is an inspiration to millions, and a blueprint for how to maximise your potential in every possible way. His story is a Growth-Mindset Chimp Paradoxing dream come true. He has categorically identified and worked on his flaws, sometimes undergoing what must have been painful self-examination to figure out where to go next, overcome injury, new challengers to his dominance and the changing face of the men’s game, not to mention the fact that for 15 years he has been the Goliath that every other player has tried to knock off his perch. He has had to completely re-invent himself, despite having reached (according to the pundits) perfection long ago. He knows better though. At 34, some say he is playing the best tennis of his life, and yet he hasn’t been World No.1 for over two years and hasn’t won a Grand Slam since Wimbledon in 2012. So things aren’t perfect. Federer, though, knows that these are things he can’t control. You can’t win them all. For the Grand Slams he has won, he has lost 9 finals, and may lose a 10th tonight if the form book is to be followed. He has lost 18 Masters 1000 finals, three ATP Year-End Championships and an Olympic final. Altogether he has lost 51 finals in his career. This is clearly not perfection, and yet pundits and fellow players alike have often said that not only is he the greatest player of all time, but that nobody can get over a loss quite like he does. So how can he do it?

Simple. He doesn’t pursue perfection, he pursues excellence. Everything he can control, he does control. That way, he knows that if he comes off court a loser, there is literally nothing he could have done about it, which means he can get over it. He did everything he could. There is no doubt he feels disappointment, probably anger at times, but before long, he is getting ready for what’s next. Now, Federer’s career path doesn’t make for a perfect analogy with school students, of course, but one thing that’s clear is that not being a perfectionist has helped Federer become the best he can be, and it’s something I think we should be giving our children and our students.

Andy Murray’s a perfectionist. That much is clear. In Andre Agassi’s words, he is a ‘tortured perfectionist’. Personally, I don’t think there can be any other kind. Now, there’s no doubt that Murray has achieved far beyond what most people could dream of, and I’m a big fan of his too, but for all the talk of how many times Federer, Nadal, or Djokovic has beaten him, I am convinced that the person that has beaten him the most is Andy Murray. Belittling himself after every misplaced shot, expanding negative energy over every little detail that may be beyond him, we have all seen him capitulate against mentally strong opponents, worn down and destroyed by his realisation that he is not perfect. It’s something you simply don’t see from Federer. He is almost preternaturally cold on a court, no matter what the situation. He understands that sometimes, things go wrong. What matters is how you react to it.

When I was 12 years old, I read ‘Jurassic Park’ for the first time. It changed my life. People have scoffed at this before, but I don’t really mind – it was a landmark moment in my life, as it introduced me to (I’m sure a very watered-down version of) Chaos Theory. From there, I discovered Murphy’s Law, and was terrified of both things. The idea that there is order in chaos, and that whatever could go wrong would go wrong really got under my skin. I thought that in order to be successful, I had to defy these apparent laws. I was mistaken; I should have been embracing them.

If you are a perfectionist, then you expect that everything will be perfect. So what do you do when it isn’t? That’s where true greatness lies. As teachers, we plan our lessons, but the best teachers don’t plan down to the minute. They know that you can plan a lesson that exactly for a maximum of 12 seconds. After that, chaos theory comes into play. I don’t know what will happen to throw you off kilter, but something will. Once a shackle, it’s now something I embrace. It doesn’t mean that I don’t have activities ready, it doesn’t mean I don’t need to plan carefully, know my subject and my students inside out, or demand the best from myself and those who learn in my classroom, but I don’t demand, expect, or even hope for perfection from any of us.

My least favourite part of Perfectionism is that it stops people from enjoying small victories. Small victories, unless (or perhaps even if) you are competing in the kind of arena that Federer et al are, are wonderful and not to be under-estimated just because they don’t mean you have ‘won’. This is life. You don’t ‘win’ or ‘lose’, you just win or lose sometimes. It doesn’t mean that you have to suffer unless you also insist on being perfect. In the most recent ‘Secret Footballer’ book, a top sports psychologist says that what shocks him most in the modern game is ‘How insecure the best players are. Perfection is an asymptote. It is never achieved and only two things happen when people go looking for it. Either they live unhappy lives because they are unable to find it or they think they’ve found it and then worry every day that they are going to lose it.’ Andre Agassi echoed that sentiment in a recent interview about why he thinks Andy Murray has recently come up short against the world’s best:

“It’s a living hell being a perfectionist but does it make you better? It can be a strength but it can also be demoralising. You don’t accept less and you can be at your worst. It’s the artist taking the knife to the canvas.”

Think of what has been achieved in the grand pantheon of human history. It’s quite staggering. What if those artists had taken a knife to their canvas? The entire accomplishments of humanity remind me of some of the students I’m thinking of as I write this blog, actually. Wonderful, thrilling, impressive, humbling, empowering, inspiring? Yes. Perfect? No.

Having written nearly 2,000 words of this blog, I’ve just discovered this quote that condenses its message far better than I have been able to.

“Perfectionism is the voice of the oppressor, the enemy of the people. It will keep you cramped and insane your whole life, and it is the main obstacle. I think perfectionism is based on the obsessive belief that if you run carefully enough, hitting each stepping-stone just right, you won’t have to die. The truth is that you will die anyway and that a lot of people who aren’t even looking at their feet are going to do a whole lot better than you, and have a lot more fun while they’re doing it.” 

― Anne LamottBird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life

I wish I could have put it that succinctly. Oh well, nobody’s perfect.

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Read Something Improper

People are sometimes surprised that I don’t consider myself a reader, given that a) I’m an English teacher and b) I sometimes blog about how much I’ve read. I’ve given it some thought, and I think it’s still a hangover from thinking (or being forced into thinking) I didn’t like reading when I was a kid. Now that term has started again, and we’re beginning a series of reading lessons with Y8, my own personal ghost of library lessons past has reared its head and so I thought I would ponder a bit on what I think it means to be someone who ‘likes reading’, and ask if anyone has any strategies they’ve employed that would have helped a child like me.

So why didn’t I like reading when I was a kid? Well, the fact is, I did. I quite clearly did. I look back to my childhood and remember burning through certain books with fervour, and often re-reading them again and again to the point of obsession. I rather suspect I could still recite whole passages of the Biggles series (I probably spent longer reading these books than the average WWI pilot lived once basic training was done), or the Billy Bunter books (I was, to put it lightly, relieved to find that boarding school wasn’t actually like that), or Jurassic Park, and various others besides. That said, while I sometimes loved losing myself in fictional worlds, I didn’t develop a true love for it. I wouldn’t just pick anything up and give it a try, for sure. What I did love, though, was non-fiction. I ate it up. I couldn’t stop reading newspapers, magazines, and books about my favourite films, bands, sports and people. So why didn’t I think I liked reading? Simple really. I got told that what I liked wasn’t ‘proper’ reading. People would use the word ‘should’ at me an awful lot. ‘Paul, you really should read this’ or ‘Boys your age should be reading King Lear’ (I kid you not, a teacher actually told me this once) or even worse, ‘you shouldn’t be reading picture books about football.’ Ah yes. The presumption on the part of some of the adults in my life that if a book I had contained pictures, it was a picture book, and picture books are exclusively for children. I was a child, of course, but this seemed somewhat beside the point. Sometimes, when I found a book I really liked, I would read it again and again, rather than choosing something new. Not very ‘Growth-Mindset’ I suppose (though bear in mind nobody had ever used that term before) but I was a teenager so I sometimes needed a bit of escapism, and I also enjoyed the quiet certainty that in a time of great confusion, I could depend on an old favourite book to cheer me up. I was also reliably informed that this was not what I should be doing.

It was odd. I learned how to play the guitar by repeatedly and almost mechanically learning Beatles and Oasis songs, sometimes playing the same songs for hours on end. When I did this, people couldn’t stop praising me, and then asking me to play them again. I was doing guitar right, obviously; but I was doing books wrong. By the time I reached 14, my reading ‘habits’ (if you can call them that) had been patronised and demeaned to the point of no childhood return. I never really did get back to reading for pleasure until well into my 20s. Occasionally I would find an audiobook or a radio programme that I enjoyed, but was soon assured that this wasn’t reading either. By the time we actually did King Lear for A-Level, I didn’t even read the whole thing. I think there’s a storm, a naked pensioner, a deep and meaningful insight about us being like flies to wanton boys, a relatively anti-social ocular extraction and that everyone dies at the end, but I don’t really know.

I am angry that I was made to feel like what I was reading didn’t count. It pushed me to give up on it, and I feel like I missed a lot. Shouldn’t it just have been enough that I enjoyed the things I enjoyed? I don’t know that I would have moved on to ‘proper’ books if I’d been left to my own devices or not; but I know that as a young boy I got bored quickly and wanted new stimulus pretty much all the time, so it’s not impossible. It’s how my reading habits work now, so I don’t suppose things would have been much different in my spottier years.

I wish I’d had the courage of my convictions. I LOVE reading now, and it turns out I’m good at it. I’m still not someone who devours classics, but I decided at some point that simply imbibing language from whatever source I deemed legitimate was going to serve me well, and broke free of the dogmatic chains of ‘proper’ reading. Now I read whenever I can, often firing through several books a week when time allows it. I still have a bit of a love/hate relationship with Fiction, but now I don’t have some idiot teacher telling me what I should and shouldn’t read, I’m free to read it when the mood takes me, and I’m very happy with it too. I have students depending on me, I guess, and I really hope I can pass on a passion for reading whatever makes them happy. Certainly, I hope it’s something thoroughly improper.

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The Alps and Alplets tour – Part VI – Bormio

My wife and I have spent the last 10 days driving around in Europe, so I thought I would blog about the fun we had and tell you all the things you really need to know if you ever find yourself in very specific places in Northern Italy, Switzerland and the tiniest southern tip of Austria.

Part VI – Bormio

The jewel in the crown of our holiday planning was the Stelvio Pass – famously voted by Top Gear as the best driving road in Europe. I’d had an itch to drive it ever since that episode, and now was our chance. Mario had struggled enough with the slopes going up the Alps on the way to St Moritz, so as you can probably imagine, the 48 hairpin turns of the Stelvio pass, ascending 5000ft in 10 miles gave his little engine quite the workout. The views speak for themselves on the pass, so I won’t wax too lyrical about them here, but there is something unbelievable about driving up the side of a mountain while all around you there seems to be nothing but sheer rock face, and snow-capped peaks. It’s certainly beyond what we would consider a normal driving experience in the UK. There’s simply nothing to touch it. Mario, by this point, was becoming my hero – navigating turns well and proving a joy to steer, which was a blessed relief given how precarious some of the roads were. My fear about this particular part of the drive was that it couldn’t hope to live up to my expectations. Well, it shattered them.

The view from Stelvio

The view from Stelvio

There is, of course, one major downside to taking in the views when driving alongside a 2,000 ft drop, and that is that you really have to try to keep the car moving up the mountain at about 40mph, rather than falling off the drop, and moving (well, falling) down it at closer to 100. The views were spectacular but the very nature of driving the pass means that you can’t drink them in the way you might like to. I was alright though, because soon we would be at the top and I could look back over the entire place from the top of the world (sort of). Turns out, of course, that when you get to a certain height (in our case about 100m from the top of the pass) clouds start hanging about. And one was hanging about at the top of our drive, much like a Verbanian or Oggebbioan teenager in front of a supermarket. Still, the advantage of clouds is that by and large you can see them coming, so we stopped early and took in the views from a slightly lower vantage point, and it certainly didn’t disappoint.

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Reaching turn number 48, I was clasped by a sense of having actually achieved a driving feat, if such a thing exists. Looking back on it, it really wasn’t all that difficult; I went in a straight line for a bit and then turned the wheel, but nevertheless, it felt (not for the first time on the roads during this holiday) nice to still be alive. I thought the fun was over as we reached the top, but (of course) once we’d come up, we had to then come back down. Perhaps unsurprisingly, there were another 40 or so turns to negotiate on the way back down the other side of the mountain, which again provided breathtaking views of the landscape. This entire holiday was becoming a feast for the eyes, and I was truly stuffed by the time we arrived in Bormio.

Bormio was described on a blog I read as ‘not the prettiest place in the world at the best of times’. Well, obviously that would be quite a title to bestow, but don’t let the tone of that statement confuse you. It’s gorgeous. We were staying at a small B&B called ‘Il Rustico’ which was located seemingly at the end of all civilization halfway up a rogue Alp that someone had left lying around. Finding the hotel proved a little tricky, but once we were there, we were received with hospitality and kindness, and quickly took to the garden to renew acquaintance with our golden friend in the sky. The Sun was firing on all cylinders again, so it was nice to sizzle for a while and take in the stunning views before us. Once we were thoroughly refreshed, we headed down into Bormio for a meal. We found a nearby café and set up camp for the afternoon, and it was here that I made my final brilliant decision of the holiday, to try a drink called the ‘Virgin Colada’. Not difficult to make – Pineapple Juice, Coconut Milk, and presumably a bit of sugar and crushed ice, but so incredibly delicious I thought I might never stop drinking them and end up as the subject of an Irvine Welsh novel on the subject. After about 6 of these, I was starting to feel like it might be worth my while to walk somewhere, if only to get my blood circulating again, and so we headed into the old town for the evening. We had an extremely pleasant walk around the town, seeing nuns (in Adidas trainers, perhaps in case they needed to run somewhere to do some nunning) walking across the town square, and eating pizza in a charming (not used condescendingly, I hope, it actually had charm) restaurant.

Our second day was cloudy – not least because we were in the middle of the cloud. Apple executives would have been in meta-heaven. Every once in a while the cloud would break, and we were treated to stunning views again, so much so that I was starting to experience that horrible, snobby holiday thing of taking them for granted. As we piled into Mario for the last leg of our journey back to the airport though, I was sad to say goodbye. Darlington is pretty, but this was something else. The road back to the airport eschewed the ‘scenic route up the mountain’ idea and went more for the ‘straight through the mountain’ trick instead. So, there were quite a lot of tunnels over 2km in length, which gave us a direct if less-than-picturesque journey back to Bergamo. Still, by this point efficiency was the watchword of the day so all was well. Before we knew it, we were saying goodbye to Mario, boarding our plane home, and coming back home. It had been quite a trip.

So, here to sum up, and in no particular order, are the 10 things I would recommend to you from our holiday.

  1. Hanselmann’s Ice-Cream in St. Moritz. Very cheap, very generous sizes, very tasty.
  2. Lake St Moritz. Go and stick your feet in it. It’s beautiful.
  3. The Stelvio Pass. 25 miles of driving bliss.
  4. Pizza at Cannero Riviera on Lake Maggiore.
  5. Virgin Coladas in Bormio. Careful though, you might need rehab.
  6. Driving from Lake Maggiore to St Moritz. The Alpine views are ludicrously wonderful.
  7. Croissants with jam from Verbania’s Carrefour. You need to negotiate some teenagers at the door, but these are a quiet revelation, well worth the risks.
  8. Shopping on Via Serlas in St Moritz. Be warned, you will need to rob one or two banks in order to do this, and I can’t actually recommend it as we didn’t do it, but I bet it would be fun.
  9. Driving on Italian motorways. I recommend this merely as a way of giving you an easy way to remember why it’s so wonderful to be alive, and to make you feel better about the way we drive here.
  10. All the hotels we stayed at – in Lake Maggiore, St Moritz, and Bormio – they were practically perfect in every way.
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The Alps and Alplets tour – Part IV – Nauders

My wife and I have spent the last 10 days driving around in Europe, so I thought I would blog about the fun we had and tell you all the things you really need to know if you ever find yourself in very specific places in Northern Italy, Switzerland and the tiniest southern tip of Austria.

Part IV- Nauders

Imagine the most quaint Austrian ski village ever. There you go, that’s Nauders. Nestled just 4 miles east of the Swiss border and 2 miles north of the Italian border, it is about as close to the edge of Austria as it’s possible to get. It’s very nice and very nondescript. We were only there for one night, which was about right as it was beautiful to look at, and offered little else. Still, nothing else was required of it, so I can’t (and won’t) complain.

Nauders - very lovely, very Austrian.

Nauders – very lovely, very Austrian.

Our dinner at the hotel featured some kind of dishwater strained through an oxo cube. It was vaguely beef-like, but perhaps that’s more in hope than expectation. The main course was nice till we realised it was veal and the dessert was actually just nice. More interesting though was the ongoing love story between the girl at the next table and the scruffy ‘bad-boy’ waiter. He might only be a bad boy by Nauders standards, which means he probably once parked his bike in the wrong place or stole a cow’s bell possibly, but she was totally besotted with him, the poor girl.

What else to say? The cats were incredibly anti social, (cats, amirite?) the owners not much more garrulous, and the children who were bouncing on the trampoline were surprisingly palatable. We played cards and I was destroyed at Quiddler, yet again, by my tactically superior and more intelligent better half.

Then we were off again, as quickly as we’d come, to the delights of Bormio, a journey that was windy and windy in equal measure.

Our view as we set off. Rolling clouds and Alps a-go-go.

Our view as we set off. Rolling clouds and Alps a-go-go.

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The Alps and Alplets tour – Part III – St Moritz

My wife and I have spent the last 10 days driving around in Europe, so I thought I would blog about the fun we had and tell you all the things you really need to know if you ever find yourself in very specific places in Northern Italy, Switzerland and the tiniest southern tip of Austria.

Part III – St Moritz

Driving over the Alps to St Moritz was a beautiful, and occasionally hair-raising experience. Mario struggled to get much above third gear on the slopes, so we plodded along at a respectable 40 mph while drivers fresh from Italy sped past looking confused. This wasn’t Italy anymore though, this was Switzerland, where everyone seemed much more amiable and understanding that sometimes, people would rather stay alive than arrive early. The Alps in summer are gorgeous, and we were going right through the heart of them. Well, actually, up the side of them. Before we knew it, we were up in the clouds looking over views that were so gorgeous I suspect it would be impossible to feel anything other than joyous at the sight of them. Maybe it would have been worth taking those teenagers from outside the Carrefour on a trip. Maybe not. Anyway, after 3 hours of weaving through the mountains, we found ourselves arriving in St Moritz.

Upon arriving at the hotel, the lady on reception (who flawlessly transitioned between French, German, Italian and English without a trace of accent or the suggestion of a stumble) told us we could get down to the lakeside by using the escalator. I presumed, because I’m an idiot, and despite her evident mastery of English, that she had got her words wrong. It just didn’t seem likely that there was an escalator from the town centre down to the lake. Soon enough and sure enough, we rode a huge three-storey escalator down and arrived at the lakeside. I had thought the views at Lake Maggiore and over the Alps were beautiful (and indeed they were) but I was utterly enchanted by Lake St Moritz. As we dangled our feet in the water, I felt like a man reborn. I turned to my wife and said ‘I want to live here’ and I’ve never meant anything with more sincerity. Of course, at this point, I hadn’t realised how much money someone needs to live in St Moritz (enough to destabilise a small country’s GDP), but we’ll come to that. I’m sure it’s lovely in winter, but St Moritz in summer is still a pretty stunning proposition.

After escalating back to the main street, we thought we would do some window shopping. I’m not usually a big one for this kind (or any kind) of shopping, but then I started to notice the shops on offer. On one street we saw Giorgio Armani, Ralph Lauren, Louis Vuitton, Jimmy Choo, Tom Ford, Michael Kors, and Harry Winston. Well, their shops, you understand. They weren’t actually there. There was also (naturally) Bulgari, Cartier, Gucci, Hermes, Chanel and plenty of others. I was intrigued by the fact that nothing had a price on it. I was informed by my more shop-savvy better half that this means we couldn’t afford anything. So, if you’re going to St Moritz, try and make sure you’re rich. Also, try and make sure you’re not hungry. We searched for quite a while, in vain, to find a restaurant (all that window shopping can make you peckish) and couldn’t. It wasn’t that we couldn’t find one that suited our tastes or that took our fancy, we just couldn’t find one. I suspect that it’s a careful ploy on the part of the local council. If the population of St Moritz are going to remain skinny enough to fit into all these designer clothes, it probably makes sense not to let them eat anywhere. We did finally find an American Bar hidden (literally) away, which served us a pretty decent cheeseburger. To be honest, it might not even have been that decent, but by the time we found it, I’d have eaten an uncooked human finger, so my ‘quality assurance’ radar might have been a bit off. We wandered back to the hotel, by which time it was getting a bit cold. St Moritz is 1800m above sea level, so that was to be expected, I suppose, but it did get me worried that I might contract a cold, or even sneeze, as that would require me to buy a handkerchief, and I was worried I’d have to remortgage my wife, or sell Mario to afford it. Thankfully, we got back to the hotel unscathed.

The following day, I was reminded of home. It rained. St Moritz gets 300 days of sunshine a year and we managed to turn up on one of the 65 that rains. How very British. Not to be put off, we ventured back into the town and found a café that had been mysteriously conspicuous by its absence the day before. I suppose it must have been there; the Swiss are efficient but I doubt even they could have built a café in the middle of the town square overnight, but perhaps I was so hungry I’d simply lost the ability to see properly. However it got there, we had a most enjoyable few hours there though, engaging in that most ‘Brits-abroad’ activity of people watching…and judging, obviously. St Moritz is perfect for this.

In keeping with tradition of being a British man, every time I saw a man younger than me, better looking than me, and almost certainly richer than me, I instantly decided he was a tosser of the highest order. Maybe some of them were, I don’t know, but to my mind, all of them were. The sort of people who beat up a local homeless person, say ‘banter’ to one another and then get daddy to pay their bail money. That’s not fair, I admit. For a start, nobody is homeless here. It’s the sort of town that can make you feel insecure, I suppose. People are rich here. You can tell; it just drips off them. That said, the prevalence of the gilded classes did leave me scratching my head with a particular question.

Why can’t old, rich people dress themselves? What have any of us done to deserve the sight of someone clearly old enough to know better and clearly rich enough to afford better wearing lime green chinos? There were an inordinate number of multicoloured chinos on offer. I was bemused. Perhaps the tourist board had got wind of my infatuation with the place and, wishing to reduce the number of Primark-bedecked English people coming to live there, had dispatched their secret fleet of horribly dressed OAPs. Probably not, I suppose. For all that the people couldn’t dress themselves, and therefore were pretty horrible (if hilarious) to look at, they all redeemed themselves by having the most gorgeous dogs ever. Dogs are beautiful anyway, and St Moritz is great for a dog. They playfully bounded about being excited, coming to say hello, and generally brightening the day. All in all, it was a thoroughly enjoyable lunchtime. Then the bill came.

Once I’d sorted the bill by slicing one of my kidneys out, we returned to the hotel room to sit in an ice bath and watch the world go by. St Moritz seems to be the kind of place where your pace of life can be as slow as you want. Certainly a lot of the people who amble about the shops seem to be engaging in a competition to be the slowest mover on earth. So it seemed a bit incongruous later when we looked out of our hotel room and saw a young woman power running up the same flight of steps over and over again. I wondered what she was doing, after all – staying slim here isn’t a problem since there’s nothing to eat, but then I tried the ice cream at Hanselmann’s and realised that I could do with a few flights of stairs myself. If you find yourself in St Moritz, please go there and have an ice-cream, for your own sake.

I loved St Moritz. As if it wasn’t already nearly perfect, I looked it up, and the last census suggests there are only 500 teenagers there, which is a pleasingly small number. If only there was a shop somewhere, they could probably have somewhere to congregate, but since there isn’t, they must need something else to do. Being Swiss, they are presumably volunteering somewhere or something, so kind and friendly were our hosts during our stay. I was awfully sad to say goodbye, but was also painfully aware that if we stayed any longer, we would run out of money or kidneys, or both, at an alarming rate, so we rustled ourselves back into Mario, and headed off to Austria.

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The Alps and Alplets tour – Part II – Lake Maggiore

My wife and I have spent the last 10 days driving around in Europe, so I thought I would blog about the fun we had and tell you all the things you really need to know if you ever find yourself in very specific places in Northern Italy, Switzerland and the tiniest southern tip of Austria.

Part II – Lake Maggiore

We arrived at our Lake Maggiore hotel at about 9:30pm, tired, aching, hot and bothered but importantly (and perhaps surprisingly) alive and in one piece. We’d seen the weather forecast predicting rain, and sure enough the skies were looking dark as we pulled in, and before long, the curtain of the night was rent in twain (I’m being dramatic here, but it was quite a dramatic thing) by the most beautiful and violent storm. The lightning streaked across the sky, making the entire lake look like that picture of Nikola Tesla sitting in his lab while electricity sparkles and crackles all around him.

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Lightning hits the sky above Lake Maggiore

We had dared to dream before we left that we might see a ‘real’ storm, and so we were delighted to actually get to do it, and pretty relieved that it had been charitable enough to wait until we arrived at the hotel before getting started. Very decent, that Italian weather.

The following morning (after about 4 hours’ sleep, due in no small part to being woken up by the lightning that lit the sky up every 30 seconds) we looked out on our view of the lake for the first time, and saw that it was good. And boy, was it good. The sun was shining ferociously, almost as if it had seen the efforts of the storm last night and was determined to outdo it, and the gardens of the hotel and lake stretched out before us. It was stunning.

The view from the balcony.

The view from the balcony.

Set back from the lakeside, the hotel provided us with two very comfortable sunbeds, drinks on tap and a refreshing pool, and we proceeded to avail ourselves of these things for the following three days. I am sure there are many wonderful things happening in Oggebbio but we didn’t see any of them, because of our determination to bask in the Italian sun. Actually, I’m convinced there is hardly anything happening there; it’s very picturesque and lovely but a bit on the sleepy side. Still, since we were there to sit still and slowly barbecue ourselves, that was hardly a problem. Of an evening, we rolled our Fiat 500 down the cliff-edge path to the main road (a nerve-wracking experience, though not as nerve-wracking as my constant stalling of the bloody thing on the way back up) and drove to either nearby Verbania or nearer-by Cannero Riviera. Verbania is the nearest small town to Oggebbio, and the ferry that crosses Maggiore arrives here regularly. Our first restaurant was situated right on the lakeside and while the service wasn’t exactly beautiful, the views and the food certainly were. Even more gorgeous though was the moment the bill arrived, and we realised we had just gone through two huge pizzas, half a bottle of wine and a couple of soft drinks for under €30. Even more fortunately, since our waiter had treated us as if we had kicked his childhood pet cat into the lake after stubbing a cigarette out on its paw, we didn’t feel that we needed to add a giant tip to the proceedings. We then made our way up to the local Carrefour to stock up on snacks, and look with interest at the gang of teenagers who had assembled outside the entrance looking generally bored and generally disengaged with life. It was somehow reassuring to see that even teenagers in the most amiable surroundings, with cheap pizza abounding, sunny days and beautiful stormy nights, teenagers still slouch and look gormless outside shops at night. Angst and world-weariness evidently transcend international boundaries. If you find yourself in Oggebbio though, I’d give Verbania a miss unless you want to buy Nutella (seriously, they’ve got tons of the stuff in that shop) and head North to Cannero Riviera, where we had a similar meal with similar views at a similarly agreeable price but still found it somehow more pleasant. The presence of a community at Cannero Riviera was first recorded around 985 AD, and some of the buildings that still stand there seem to date from that distant age. The ‘classic’ feel of the place is relaxing and charming all in one, and the breeze coming from the lake is refreshing. There is an endearing amount of bustle going on at the lakeside without it involving too many children screaming around and generally inviting violence upon themselves. The views are sumptuous, and I bought an almost obscenely big ice-cream for €3, so really there was nothing about which I could complain.

After three nights (with sadly no repeat of the storm, but happily plenty of sunshine during the days) we were thoroughly cooked through, relaxed and ready for a new country. So, we piled our things into our trusty Fiat (now named Mario in a ‘slightly racially insensitive but hopefully on the right side of the barrier because we love Mario Kart so much and we were in Italy so…you know’ move) and headed north to Switzerland. Little did I know, but I was about to fall in love.

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The Alps and Alplets tour – Part I: Arrival

My wife and I have spent the last 10 days driving around in Europe, so I thought I would blog about the fun we had and tell you all the things you really need to know if you ever find yourself in very specific places in Northern Italy, Switzerland and the tiniest southern tip of Austria.

Part I: Arrival.

Milan Bergamo airport is nondescript but perfectly nice. However, upon walking out of it, you are instantly hit by a concrete boxing glove of heat, which is unnerving. The only other time I’ve felt anything like it was in Death Valley, and that, in case it wasn’t obvious from the name, is a valley of death. I like arriving in a hot country, usually. When you step off a plane in Tenerife, the air is warm but fresh, welcoming you with a wink and a smile. Here, it welcomes you with a slug to the stomach, takes your money, smothers you with a heated blanket for a while and finally drives off on your motorbike. I am reminded every time I travel by my long-suffering better half that I need to improve my decision making process when I’m getting ready to leave England. When we left Darlington it was 6am, and cold. Manchester was, as Manchester always manages to be, glum and rainy, and so my long sleeved-top and jeans seemed like a sensible, nay well-informed, decision. I was quite proud of it really, until we stepped off the plane in Milan and two hobbits pottered by and tried to throw a ring onto the runway. This entire situation would, of course, have been made slightly more bearable if we hadn’t had to then negotiate the car hire desk.

Car hire. We’ve done it before, and in my experience, it’s always a nightmare. Sometimes the nightmare is particularly terrifying (we once arrived at midnight in Florida after 12 hours’ travelling to be told that we couldn’t have our car) and sometimes it’s quite benign, but it’s never pleasant. Having said that, it started promisingly. The man on the counter not only dealt with us in a friendly way, and at relatively high speed too, but also entertained me by doing a passable visual impression of Sideshow Bob and a passable audio impression of Borat. Anyway, the reason I hate hiring a car so much is because a) you don’t know what car you’re going to get, except for the inevitability that you will get something other than what you asked for, and b) however much you think you’ve paid for the car, it simply is not enough. Bob was very quick to inform us of the ‘of course you don’t have to buy insurance on top of the insurance you already bought but if you break down or get bumped or a bird poos on your car or someone looks at it the wrong way it will result in the kind of financial ruin that would make Goldman Sachs feel sorry for you’ insurance and asked if we would like to pay it for a deposit of ‘just’ €400 plus €14-a-day which was (obviously) non-refundable. This discussion alone made me regret not being a father; I’m pretty sure selling the children would have been the only way to pay for the car and still feel like I could afford to eat. Bear in mind that at this stage, I hadn’t been confronted with Italian driving, so €14-a-day sounded like quite a lot for insurance. After signing so many bits of paper I began to presume that Italy must recently have been covered in lush forests before they were destroyed to produce car-rental sheets, we took a bus to the rental lot.

The prospect of driving an unfamiliar car on an unfamiliar side of the road is not something that generally fills me with dread. That said, it does take a bit of getting used to, so I was hoping for a relatively straightforward introduction to life on the road in Italy. No chance. We were spat out of the rental lot onto a motorway in full flow, followed by a roundabout with two or three hundred exits and lanes to sort out. The sat nav was spluttering into life somewhat, still trying to come to terms with its new surroundings (and the heat, I imagine) and so was of little use. It was a baptism of fire, to say the least, and it wasn’t long before I had been properly gesticulated at by at least five Italian drivers. Holiday Bingo box 1? Check.

So. Driving in Italy. Now, we’ve all heard the stereotypes about Italian drivers. They are pretty lazy (the stereotypes, I mean) and I certainly won’t be falling back on them if I don’t have to – but my god, it’s about time someone introduced Italian drivers to some manners. Ok, maybe I am falling back on stereotypes, but it wasn’t long before I started to understand where they’d come from. For example, changing lanes is an interesting experience. In England, when you indicate before changing lanes, it is an unspoken request to the other cars. A kind of flashing orange way of saying ‘Hello, I would like to change lanes please’ at which point some kindly soul flashes their lights as if to say ‘Feel free to change lanes, sir or madam.’ In Italy, however, when you indicate, it is an unspoken statement of intent. The lane you are in is about to be annexed, and you are powerless to stop it. Mostly, cars didn’t begin to indicate until they were at least two-thirds of the way into the new lane and their indication was much more a case of ‘Be prepared, puny human; I am moving my hugely important penis extension into your lane NOW!’ I did a bit of googling, and found that the number of fatalities on Italian roads is twice as high as in the UK (and four (FOUR) times as high as in the Netherlands – although I suppose it’s all flat there so they can see one another coming, plus they’re all so chilled out they presumably don’t go much faster than 35) and it’s not hard to see why once you’ve tried to filter onto a motorway. The president of the Road Safety Insurance Foundation described the rate of death and injury on Italy’s roads as ‘a national emergency’, so I was pretty glad to still be alive by the time the traffic thinned out a bit as we got to the base of the Alps. Not least because the view was gorgeous and it was nice to be able to see it without having been decapitated by a stray fan belt somewhere outside Gallarate.

Having said all that, stereotypes may be lazy and generic but they can lead to some wonderful moments. As we waited to go through one toll booth, a guy on a moped flew past. Undertaking, not even in a lane, over the speed limit, wearing sandals, white ¾ length trousers, and a bright pink t shirt. It may have been the most Italian thing I’d ever seen, and I thoroughly enjoyed it. Thankfully, it was not the highlight of the holiday, or even the highlight of that evening. That, and much more besides, was yet to come.

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