How Do You Say…

I have been trying to find the Italian word for great-great-great-grandfather. The closest I can get is bisnonno which is great grandfather. Someone suggested that ‘bis-bisnonno’ was great great grandfather and therefore it would be ‘bis-bis-bisnonno’ but I’m not sure that sounds right.  I’ve resorted to ‘antenati’ – ancestors.

In most of my ‘scritto Italiano’ I have reverted to more obvious phrases such as ‘storia famiglia’ and ‘genealogico’. I’m sure that Italian genealogists have a whole raft of words that fit far better. You are welcome to enlighten me anytime you see fit.

As I work my way through my Italian lessons, it is becoming obvious that the use of language is more generalised. In English words are very specific. It’s a difficult mindset to get out of. Some sentences can only be truly understood in context, so in the confines of an online lesson they are open to conjecture causing endless confusion amongst ‘early learners’, myself included. The very helpful Duolingo discussion sections are testament to this.

In English there is a word for everything and sentence construction is always in the order in which it is said. ‘The’ means ‘the’. In Italian I so far have 7 words for ‘the’. We don’t bother with masculine or feminine. So it’s not simply about learning words, it’s about an entirely new structure and in fact a whole new way of communicating. I find it very difficult but I am very very English with no foreign language exposure and I have a relatively large vocabulary so I am used to specifics.

So, for instance, in Italian ‘proprio’, ‘veramente’ and ‘davvero’ all mean ‘really’ depending on the context. But ‘proprio’ also means ‘own’. ‘Particolamente’ seems fairly obvious except that it also means ‘especially’. And whilst there are many words that are very similar to their English counterparts – ‘perfetto’, ‘momento’, ‘generosità’ – ‘caldo’ means ‘hot’ not ‘cold’, ‘aggiunge’ means ‘add’ (which took me forever to remember) and ‘meraviglioso’ means ‘wonderful’ and has its variations such as meglio – best.

Add to this mish-mash that sentences are not constructed as they are in English and that there are lots of things you say in English (particularly idioms) which just can’t be said in Italian (because they don’t exist) and for someone like me it adds to an already confusing pot of learning problems. And don’t get me started on rolling my r’s (which I cannot do) to sound authentic, or shortened words like don’t, can’t or won’t.

My online counterparts, who are French and Spanish, get it. Because English seems to be the only language that doesn’t work like the rest of Europe. If I ever get to over 30% on Duolingo it will be a miracle. And this despite my 57 day streak.

However there are some quite advanced sections I find really easy. I’ve grasped ‘mente’ as a word appendage from day 1. And I THINK I have good pronunciation. But I won’t know that until I have to inflict it on someone else. At the moment I am too scared to try. I roll endless Youtube videos and Radio24 programmes to make sure I’m getting it. I can read whole passages of text that I might not understand but with an Italian accent because once you know how letters sound you can say pretty much anything even if you don’t know what it means.

Add to this that my preferred dialect will be Venetian (for obvious reasons and because I largely translate old Venetian in my family history research) and I’m almost back to square one. Did you know Venice is trying to get Venetian recognised as its own language? There are many spelling variations. Now try doing that in 200 year old documents and you’ll see how much I love challenges. All I can say is ‘thanks Tita’ – I blame this entirely on you.

To wrap up here are my tips for learning a language when you aren’t ‘living it’ and when you have no language experience:

Convert all your electronics to your chosen language
Stream current news and radio stations (listen to Radio24 if Italian is your thing)
Get tv and films with the subtitles
Join learning pages on Facebook for people learning your language
Subscribe to social media feeds in your chosen country
Join Duolingo


Burn Out

We’ve just about made it through the winter. The nights are drawing out. I’m getting up when there’s light in the sky instead of feeling like it’s midnight. But burnout is catching up on me. An intense work schedule since last August has finally taken its toll and I’m slowing down.

I’m not the only one. A work colleague ended up in hospital the other day. He thought it was a knock on effect from a two day bender (I gave him a knowing look) but all the medics wanted to know was what he did for a living.

It’s a trait of the self employed. You do it because you are organised and self reliant and because the 9 – 5 just does not work for you. But knowing when to stop is all part of the job description. I am the first to admit I am a workaholic. It’s difficult when you love what you do to know what down time is, because every day is great. Why break from something you love?

So I’m taking a look at my work schedule – we all are. TGhe fact is, if you don’t want to work you won’t. And slowly my brain is detaching itself from the routine. I’ve been watching tv. And in bed by 11.30. When I can’t wait to get into bed, there is clearly something wrong.

Space Dust

‘Conservation Cleaning Day’ at Newstead Abbey sounds like a very complicated and high end role at the Abbey. And it is. It happens because every artefact has a place within the walls of that ancient place.

Every item has a history and a value, whether financial or historical. And because they are woven into the story of the building and its inhabitants they all need due care and attention.

But largely it is about dust. Because every room is a dust magnet. And it is a never ending task, keeping it at bay and keeping the rooms in a presentable condition to the thousands of visitors it welcomes every year.


The process is overseen by the Abbey’s curators. Simon Brown is currently Newstead’s curator of artefacts at Nottingham Museums and he is there to oversee a team of staff and volunteers all eager to lend a hand and get up close and personal with some truly beautiful antiques.

It’s about a lot more than simple getting out the polish and a sponge – no chemicals are allowed near anything because they can cause irrepairable damage. Cloths are designed to be as soft as possible – scratches on wood are a catastophe. Each brush (whilst looking like a standard artists paint brush) is designed for a particular surface – from wood, to ceramics, to glass. Some fabrics are lightly hoovered, using special net guards to protect the fragile textiles from damage.

But aside from the dusting and hoovering it is a chance to step over the barriers that keep the artefacts at arms length and get within inches of some incredible items.

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As I stalked the corridors armed with a duster, I had my camera to hand and got a chance to see things I had missed up until now – from carpentry marks in the back of chairs, to the tiny head details on an Italian chest.

It’s an education on its own. And well as being useful, it’s a chance to get to know Newstead just a little bit better.


One of the first things that popped into my head when I first got involved in the cleaning days was a poem my mother wrote many moons ago about dusting. It seems appropriate given that Byron wheedles his way into many of my updates that I should include it. Please read and enjoy. I rather like it.

I’m looking down at a yellow cloth
red-stitched around the edge.
I’ve wiped the coffee table,
the chairs, and window ledge.
It was only done a while ago;
it was clean, it shone
yeah! gleamed,
but now it’s covered in dull grey film
which dropped, unheard, unseen.

A thankless, fruitless task is this;
a never-ending drudge.
For over thirty years I’ve cleaned;
the waste of time, begrudge.
I think of all the things I’d do,
if it wasn’t for the drag,
of shining surfaces in my home,
with a greasy, yellow rag!

And then one morning quite by chance,
I heard on the radio;
a Scientist from London,
who asked us; did we know
that dust is not just flakes of skin,
that drop from hands and face,
but microscopic bits of stars
that find their way from space.

She said it’s not just fluff and mites
that lurk in all our beds.
It’s not just unseen bugs or lice,
that live on people’s heads,
but sand from the Sahara
that’s blown halfway round the world;
or little specks of pollen from exotic
jungles hurled.

It comes from far-off galaxies.
It’s billions of years old.
It’s been there since the first Big Bang.
It’s iron, silver, gold.

It’s all around us everywhere.
It’s in our food and drink.
It’s on the dining table;
and even in the sink.

Since learning of its origins,
I’ve come to think anew;
about the stuff that dulls the shine;
I didn’t have a clue!
I didn’t know it came from space,
or drift of scorching sand;
across the world to the yellow cloth,
I’m holding in my hand!

© Susan C Oliver


The Older You Get…

…the less enthusiasm you have.

That’s a conversation I had with someone not so many months ago as I was trying to revive my archived ‘Jack the Ripper’ script and failing to get a handle on it. We were both at that nasty in between point in our respective literary journeys where nothing was going anywhere. Fast forward a month and I’m completely obsessed and enthusiastic beyond my wildest imagination by my current project.

Maybe if you’re not enthusiastic, it isn’t your age that’s the problem, it’s the the thing you are trying to get enthusiastic about. So change it. I put away my Ripper script and moved on.

My new enthusiasm has already taken me in a whole new direction. I am busy working on projects I couldn’t have imagined back when I thought I had writers block.

But ironically something that happened not so long ago has made me think again about that old Ripper script, and somewhere in the back of my mind there’s a tiny cog turning. And it’s just starting to gain some momentum.

So maybe it wasn’t the project either, but the timing and the realisation of what enthusiasm feels like. And that is what I needed to realise the virtue in the project I thought was as dead as a dodo.

The Illusion of Lord Byron

Byron was under no illusion about the sort of person he was. And because of it he became his own marketing agent. He carefully crafted his public persona, ensured only approved images of him made it into circulation and obsessed about his physical appearance to the detriment of his health. The reason, he wasn’t comfortable with the way he looked.

lord-byron-dorsay-2The extent to which he manufactured his image wasn’t lost on his admiring public. When, in Genoa at the Casa Saluzzo, Lady Blessington finally laid eyes on him she was deflated, as she described in her ‘Journal of Conversations With Lord Byron’:

‘Saw Lord Byron for the first time. The impression of the first few minutes disappointed me, as I had, both from the portraits and descriptions given, conceived a different idea of him. I had fancied him taller, with a more dignified and commanding air; and I looked in vain for the hero-looking sort of person with whom I had so long identified him in imagination.’

At this meeting Count D’Orsay penned his famous sketch which I suspect is equally short of Byronic approval.

But he wasn’t quite in control. His reputation is testament to that. He was too impulsive to be able to keep his natural personality in check. Even so,  he successfully crafted himself into a saleable product, a homage to his awareness of his own failings. He wasn’t vain and he wasn’t a complete narcassist, although others will disagree. He was protecting his own interests and his vulnerabilities. He knew how fickle the book buying public were.  To his publisher John Murray he once wrote:

I am so changeable, being everything by turns and nothing long, – I am such a strange mélange of good and evil, that it would be difficult to describe me’.

It is true he flitted between projects, ideas and causes as often as any man might change his shirt. His letters are littered with sudden interests and plans that in the next missive are lost once he has set his sights on something new or he simply drops the thought as the ebb of his enthusiasm wanes.

He did like a good cause. He was generous with his time and money to a fault, one of his better personality traits. But equally he could discard an individual from his circle like a hot stone if they pushed the boundaries or he became tired of them. If you didn’t hold his interest, you were out.

He is never bragging about his image although he relished in it to a certain extent. But in the same way that he knew he didn’t look quite like his portraits (something which pained him more), so he knew his personality was far from perfect, filled with contradictions and spilt personality.

That said, he made up for it with talent. His fame, his public image and even that tarnished reputation meant he never struggled to find lovers or command an audience with almost whomever he chose. Publicity was never far from reach.

And despite the reputation, he also gathered around him a host of trustworthy and faithful friends and fiercely protective household staff. Perhaps they saw the weaknesses, the vulnerability. Despite the ‘strange melange’.

As Corin Throsby wrote in the TLS with reference to the many letters Byron left behind:

‘These outpourings to friends and lovers may be the closest we get to the “true” Byron: generous, complicated, boastful, opinionated, egotistical, brilliant, quick-tempered, and very, very funny.’

Learning The Language Of My Ancestors

By the time learning the language of my ancestors became a serious bucket list contender for me, I had already mastered a few basics. I knew my 1 to 10, my greetings and a handful of terms that related to genealogy, predominantly through trying to decipher 150 year old Venetian baptism, marriage and death records.

I wanted to learn Italian as it was used, not as it was taught. ‘A presto’ was one of my favourites in the early days. And simple phrases like ‘Come stai?’ are not unfamiliar to non Italian ears. If you want to find out how it’s really spoken there are some great Youtube channels out there. I recommend Tom Weila. It makes sense and you learn great pronounciation as you go.

Essentially it isn’t just about learning for nostalgic reasons. My genetic connection to Venice is 4 generations removed. Unless I’m planning to move there, how will I use it? It’s about understanding the culture, which helps me realise not only where I come from, but what made them tick.

In my work on Tita Falcieri, everything I see of him in the early days is Italian or in Italy or is based on his culture. Understanding why he does certain things, or says things in a certain way is rooted in his upbringing and his language. If you want to understand your past, why would you not try to understand life from their point of view?

The thing is, I am rubbish at learning things. The reason, I cannot do anything by rote or by sitting in a classroom. I learn by living and breathing the skills. I am a doer, not an academic. I learn by trying out, making mistakes, by correcting those mistakes and by trying again. The reason? I am impatient. I want to implement my new skills from the start and make them productive, not theoretical. I don’t do anything unless it has an immediate practical implication. That’s just the way I am.

I became a designer not by going to university or evening classes, but by buying the tools, getting the books and doing it. 20 years later I decided to refine my skills at university. By then, design was a way of life and learning new skills was simply honing my already clear methods.

I always wanted to be good at music. I’ve learned piano and drums. I was rubbish at both of them because I was never able to use it in day to day life and because by sitting and practicing in a classroom setting, it went in one ear and out the other. Drilling simply does not work for me. The reason, boredom sets in and my mind, which is always thinking of at least four or five things at once anyway, goes off in search of pastures new. If the new skills cannot be applied to something, I simply lose interest.

I have always wanted to learn a language and have always admired anyone who is bilingual. School put me off languages very early on. French was my worst nightmare and I had no interest in France anyway. It was a pointless exercise for me. For me to learn a language I have to live in it. Live with it. Be amongst its culture, its people. Be in the country. To have a reason for wanting to know it. So why it has taken Italian so long to become my focus is beyond me although I have to confess to thinking it for a while. I suppose confidence was an issue and finding the right learning strategy.

This last 6 months or so, transcribing old Venetian documents written by and about my Venetian ancestors has galvanised me into action. I’d always asked for help before. Now I wanted to transcribe them for myself. And now that Venice is back on my list of places I am going to visit every year, I don’t want to be a clueless tourist when I get there, especially since I am going alone. I want to be connected to the city by more than distant DNA. I have to understand it and I can’t unless I know the language.

In an ideal world I would move to Italy, maybe for 6 months and take my business and my writing there and see how I get on. But the practical problems with this are numerous. Instead I have an app on my phone, I have subscribed myself to as many Venice Twitter accounts as I can manage in a day, and I am learning it for myself thanks to Duolingo which fortunately happens to be the learning tool that works best for me.

I downloaded some tapes for the car, but it just goes in one ear and out the other. I need to see the words, to understand the structure, not learn to copy phonetically. Instead I make myself read as much in Italian as I can and look up the rest. Informal word usage is better learned than formal ones. There are nights I go to sleep mentally building sentences in my head.

There’s not much use for Italian here in Manchester which is why I surround myself with it on social media. Thankfully one of the guides at Newstead Abbey is fluent. This will give me a sounding board to bounce my attempts off. Pronounciation is important. Understanding the written word is important. Being able to understand someone talking back to you is very important!

And so between Christmas and New Year it began. So far it is going well. Watch this space. Italian sentences are starting to appear on my Twitter. Ciao!