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View from Vitalia: The pre-Christmas theory of relative insanity

The last weeks before the festive season are resplendent with hedonistic-sounding shows and exhibitions, with some peculiar technologies on display.

I love-hate this time of the year – the last weeks in the run-up to Christmas when it feels as if the grey wintry air itself is full of at times unhealthy and rather contagious excitement and agitation. The burden of the forthcoming Christmas shopping has been pressing heavily on your conscience for weeks in advance, despite the firm knowledge that all the presents will be bought in a desperate dash to Oxford Street, or to Milton Keynes, on December the 24th.

It is the time when media, including radio and TV, goes bananas, and your omnivorous email box keeps ingesting missives of the most peculiar character.

It is also the time of shows and exhibitions, mostly of hedonistic nature and with the names like ‘Bella Vita’, ‘Sleep and Eat’ and ‘The European Pizza & Pasta Show’. I had a chance to attend the first two (you can read some of my impressions below), but did not go to the Pizza & Pasta one simply because its organisers bombarded me with dozens of emails a day and did not react to my repeated pleas to unsubscribe me from that incessant pizza-and-pasta marketing flow. So fed up did I become that I tore up my press pass and did not attend. Why did I ask for that pass in the first place, you may ask? Well, it was a moment of madness. And also of curiosity.

In the past, I had one, rather gruesome, experience when a friend gave me a pasta-making machine for my birthday. In fact, it was not a machine in the true sense, but rather a collection of spare parts, which the owner (i.e. moi) was expected to fit together before trying to produce any kind of pasta. I eventually succeeded in joining together some, if not all, bits of the contraption, and yet, when everything: platefuls of flour and bucketfuls of dough – was ready for the production to begin, I had to call my wife to act as my assistant, i.e. to hold the multiple snake-like stripes of dough coming out of the machine, which was held by me, or, as my wife put it later, that flour-covered and grumpy polar-bear-like creature in front of her – a classic case of  a teapot calling a kettle black, or rather white in this case, for she looked precisely like a flour-covered and grumpy polar-bear herself! To cut a long pasta flow short (not an easy task by any standards), the resulting pasta stripes were thick and stiff, like fire hoses, and hence entirely inedible, and everything inside the kitchen – cupboards, shelves with plates and pans on them, walls and even the gas stove – looked as if they had been first white-washed and then covered with a layer of sticky and all but unwashable white paint.

In another, somewhat more successful, pasta-making experience several years ago, I was invited by the Ligurian Tourism Board to take part in a pesto-making competition in London, with the first prize of a trip to Genoa to take part in the world pesto-making championship. We were all given nice green aprons to keep (I still have mine at home), and temporarily (not to keep) – mortars, pestles and the ingredients (basil, pine nuts, garlic, parmesan cheese etc.). For 40 minutes we were squashing the uncomplaining ingredients inside the mortars, using our pestles (blenders and mixers were not allowed), after which a special pesto jury of experienced and imposing Italian chefs in white aprons tasted our pestos and made their judgement.

The chef who tasted mine made such a grimace that I realised immediately: the glorious city of Genoa was well beyond my reach. The competition, incidentally, was won by a London correspondent of one of China’s newspapers. There were unconfirmed rumours that he later asked for a political asylum in Genoa and now works as a head chef in a local trattoria...

As you see, I had all the right reasons, if not all the right credentials, to attend the European Pizza & Pasta Show and would have definitely done so, had it not been for its organisers’ excessive ... how shall I put it ... digital logorrhoea...

And – lo and behold – the other day, I received another unsolicited email from them with a “special thank you for attending the European Pizza & Pasta Show” which made me wonder who was delirious; moi or they? 

As for the Bella Vita Show, it was more or less familiar territory, and not just because it was held, as always, in Islington, and not in Excel Centre (like its Pizza & Pasta counterpart), which is harder to get to than Liechtenstein. Several years ago, I was even asked to be one of judges there (the organisers must have confused me with an Italian chef, for ‘Vitali’ is a quite common last name in the province of Veneto) and proudly brought home a number of delicious ‘samples’ which added some Mediterranean flavour to my meals for weeks to come.

This time, I was not asked to be a judge, but did attend a panel discussion on ‘How to make your wine sparkle’, followed by – you’ve guessed it right! – the tasting of sparkling wines. On the panel, there were some prominent wine journalists and wine editors (I so wish I could be one too) and some no-less-prominent London sommeliers. The panel’s conclusion (before the tasting) was that Prosecco was mass-produced and on its way out (one panellist even claimed that in Italy they have started growing Prosecco grapes in school yards), and other sparkling wines, made using the good old Methode Champenoise, with the second fermentation happening inside the regularly rotated – or ‘riddled’ – bottle itself (like Cava or French Champagne,), are back in. The quality of the mass-produced Prosecco was, allegedly, going down, albeit some of it, as it was universally agreed after the tasting, was still OK. 

The last seasonal show I attended was ‘Sleep and Eat’. That name suggested something extremely hedonistic, if not quite orgiastic, whereas in fact it was simply an exhibition of prosaic ‘hotel innovation’ and interior design. I patiently walked past the stands representing “voice-enabled smart rooms for hotels” (handy, particularly when your electronic key card does not let you in – you should be able to ‘voice-enable’ it by shouting: “Open the bloody door!”) and such like; by the Sleeper Bar and the beautifully designed (by the Russians) VIP Lounge, until my wandering attention was stolen by the catching logo: “The Future of Sleep is Mattress Free!” above the stand of a company called Ammique.

I came closer and nearly stumbled upon a huge triple bed of the type that was known in the USSR as “Lenin is Always With Us”. Described by a young Ammique rep as “the most technologically advanced bed in the world”, the bed was indeed mattress-less, or “mattress-free” if you wish. Instead, its surface was resplendent with a multitude of what I initially took for vertical and rather sharp-looking threaded nails or bolts. My first thought was that it was designed for the yogis who choose to sleep on beds of nails, so when invited to sit down on it, I did so with ultimate caution.

My apprehensions were superfluous: the bayonet-like bolts (as I found out later, they were actually “stainless steel extension springs”) gave under the weight of my... er... lower parts, which suddenly felt nice and comfortable. I didn’t feel like getting up from that highly submissive and, yes, pleasantly soporific surface. The promotional brochure which I picked up from the stand, having reluctantly released myself from the bed’s soft embrace, assured that it was “manufactured to the highest specification and – based on rigorous, independent testing [by a bunch of primary school kids bouncing on it? – VV] has an estimated functional life of 250 years”. Now, that was impressive. I tried to imagine myself on that bed in the year 2269, but couldn’t.

I was even more puzzled by another Ammique leaflet asserting that in that bed “thousands of precision-engineered components contour to the natural curves of the body making sleep a completely new experience.”

But do we really want sleep to be a “new experience”? Call me retrograde, but when too busy or simply tired, I tend to crave not for a “new experience” of any kind, but just for some GOOD OLD snooze in my old-fashioned, squeaky, and yet inexplicably comfy bed!

If to me Christmas is a time for catching up on my sleep, for many it is, on the contrary, a period of increased – and predominantly childish – activity, like, for example, playing charades and board games.

The other day, I was surprised to see in my office email box – just like last year – an entirely unsolicited missive from a PR agency with the heading “Hilarious boardgames [sic- VV] to bring the laughter this Christmas”. I won’t go into details, but will simply reveal the names of the two of the “boardgames” listed in the email: ‘Relative Insanity – Hilarious Family Game’ (£19.99) and ‘Brain Fart’ (also £19.99). No comment.

Amidst all this “relative insanity”, mixed with the usual pre-Christmas drabness, when daylight is no longer broad, but narrow, my dear old friend Clive James slipped away quietly, like a ghostly night-time pedestrian in the thick late-November fog of Cambridge streets. His death after a ten-year-long illness did not come as a surprise. He had been preparing the world for it in his poems and other writings. A literary fighter with an irrepressible wit, he even wrote his own obituary before passing away, or rather simply moving on to another, hopefully less “relatively insane”, dimension.

Clive loved technology and was one of the first presenters who started doing podcasts and then web interviews from his London flat in Bermondsey. In fact, we first met with him via technology, or via satellite TV, to be more exact, when I was a regular in his popular ‘Saturday Night Clive’ TV show appearing live via satellite from Moscow: “Vitali, is it true that you are constantly watched in Russia?” “Not so sure about Russia, but am damn sure I am being watched in Britain at the moment!”

We kept losing the satellite signal, which was unnerving. I was sitting on a wobbly chair, facing the camera, in a tiny studio inside Ostankino TV Centre, with a fly-stained photo of the Kremlin behind my back to create an impression of Moscow (it was, in fact Moscow). I knew that Clive’s reassuring voice would be back in my headphones soon. 

It won’t be there any longer – just the muffled crackling of the space through which he is now travelling astride the evasive satellite.

My favourite Clive quote: “Common sense and a sense of humour are the same thing, moving at different speeds. A sense of humour is just common sense, dancing...”

Bon voyage, my friend. Dance in peace!

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