a curious Yankee in Europe's court

blog about living in Europe, and Italy

SPECK ‘N U (32): Autumn Sonata in the Key of D(og)

Posted on the November 30th, 2013


The falling leaves
Drift by my window
The falling leaves
Of red and gold

Although I know only the English version, the much recorded ballad “Autumn Leaves” was originally a French song “Les feuilles mortes” (1945). This version was performed by Yves Montand in a 1946 French film. The following year it was translated and recorded in English in the US and immediately became a hit (Wikipedia).

One of the most famous versions came in 1950 when Edith Piaf recorded the song using a combination of both French and English lyrics.  Of course (thankfully) it’s on YouTube, listen here.

A recent version came in 2010 on a CD from Eric Clapton. I recommend it! Listen here.

Reader Comments (3) - Post a Comment

SPECK ‘N U (31): Seasons

Posted on the September 16th, 2013

Speck ‘N U is a cartoon series by Rebecca Helm-Ropelato. It is often about books. To see more Speck cartoons, click here.

Tagged with: , , ,
Reader Comments (0) Comments Off on SPECK ‘N U (31): Seasons

SPECK ‘N U (30): An encounter with Negative Capability

Posted on the July 23rd, 2013

To see more Speck cartoons, click here.

Reader Comments (3) - Post a Comment

SPECK ‘N U (29): The Cuckoo Song

Posted on the May 4th, 2013

Speck 'N U 20130504b

* Speck is paraphrasing the first two lines of an anonymous thirteenth century poem, “The Cuckoo Song.” The poem is written in Middle English, so the spellings are odd and the meanings are obscure at times, compared to present day English. (Middle English dictionary here.)

This version of “The Cuckoo Song” is from the textbook “Poems, Poets, Poetry” by Helen Vendler (Harvard University).


The Cuckoo Song

Sumer is icumen in,
Lhude* sing, cuccu!    (loud)
Groweth sed and bloweth med*    (meadow)
And springth the wude nu.
Sing, cuccu!

Awe* bleteth after lomb,      (ewe)
Lhouth* after calve cu,*    (loweth/cow)
Bulluc sterteth,* bucke verteth*     (leaps/breaks wind)
Murie sing, cuccu!
Cuccu, cuccu.
Wel singes thu, cuccu.
Ne swik* thu never nu!      (stop)


Reader Comments (1) - Post a Comment

SPECK ‘N U (28): European Space Agency maps Big Bang

Posted on the March 23rd, 2013

Speck 'N U 20130323

Speck is citing a Guardian newspaper article, “Planck telescope maps light of the big bang scattered across the universe” (March 21, 2013). To see more Speck cartoons, click here.

Reader Comments (1) - Post a Comment

SPECK ‘N U (27): White Heat by Brenda Wineapple

Posted on the March 12th, 2013

Speck 'N U 20130312

Speck is paraphrasing a quote from “White Heat” (2008) by Brenda Wineapple, a literary biography about the friendship between the poet Emily Dickinson and Thomas Wentworth Higginson. The full quote is: “No man can measure what a single hour with Nature may have contributed to the moulding of his mind.” (Higginson)

Speck ‘N U is a cartoon series that I do. It is often about books. To see more Speck cartoons, click here.

Reader Comments (1) - Post a Comment

SPECK ‘N U (26): Soul work

Posted on the February 9th, 2013

Speck 'N U 09022013

Speck ‘N U is a cartoon series that I do. It is often about books. To see more Speck cartoons, click here.

Tagged with: , , ,
Reader Comments (1) - Post a Comment

SPECK ‘N U: (25) Under the Metaphor

Posted on the October 28th, 2012

Speck ‘N U is a cartoon series largely about books. To see more Speck cartoons, click here.

Reader Comments (0) Comments Off on SPECK ‘N U: (25) Under the Metaphor

Bragging rights: How to Live in Italy

Posted on the August 31st, 2012


Notwithstanding the disgruntlement of my beloved Speck (above), I am happy to announce the publication of my new book, “How to Live in Italy: Essays on the charms and complications of living in paradise.”

The book is a collection of essays that I’ve written during the past eleven years of living in this uniquely beautiful and bewildering place on the planet. The book is available in print edition and as a Kindle ebook. Pricing is user-friendly and, of course, it’s listed on Amazon.com.

From reviewers and colleagues some favorable words:

Rebecca Helm-Ropelato’s book is about the enjoyment of differences, of what they tell us about others and, above all, what they tell us about ourselves. This voyage of discovery of her other home looks afresh at everything we take for granted, from landscapes, architecture and clothes, through languages, ways of expressing ourselves and of being with others, to food, drink, and pride in what we are and what we do. From Italy, with love.” Back cover blurb, MADALENA CRUZ-FERREIRA, a multilingual scholar, educator and parent.

Rebecca opens by describing herself as an ex-pat. Literally she is correct, but philosophically she’s wrong. It’s that word ‘culture’ which is the giveaway. Having married an Italian and set up home near Rome she has definitively given up her ex-pat status by embracing her new way of life. This is wonderfully expressed in her approach to learning the Italian language – ‘Sheer hard work’ as Rebecca suggests – ‘it also helps me to see my own language in a fresh light and with greater appreciation. Replace the word ‘language’ with ‘culture’ and you have the essence of not being an ex-pat. From Philip Curnow, “Angels, and No DemonsDelicious Italy blog.

Why another book on the pleasures, oddities, and difficulties of living in Italy? It might seem that every stone, ancient and modern, in Bell’Italia has been overturned by every stripe of writer on earth, but for those of us who love Italy–whether through living there, visiting, or even just reading about it from afar–Rebecca Helm-Ropelato’s How to Live in Italy will stir our interest for the varied, rich, exasperating, wonderful life in Bell’Italia… Helm-Ropelato gives us a wonderfully restrained look at today’s Italy, with a self-deprecating attitude that is winning because it is so honest. From Gregorio, Amazon reader comment.

All this tooting of my own horn has exhausted me so I’ll stop here.

For more information about How to Live in Italy, and where to buy, the book website is here. To see the print and Kindle ebook listing on Amazon, go here  (or see the book’s widget here on the right-hand column for more options.)

Special promotion: How to Live in Italy is available today and tomorrow to download free as a Kindle ebook (USA time zones apply).

Reader Comments (1) - Post a Comment

SPECK ‘N U: (24) Suddenly things seem so much brighter

Posted on the May 26th, 2012


Speck’N U is a cartoon series mostly about books by Rebecca Helm-Ropelato. To see more Speck cartoons, click here.


Reader Comments (2) - Post a Comment

SPECK ‘N U: 23 (“In Defence of Dogs” – John Bradshaw)

Posted on the March 1st, 2012
Reader Comments (1) - Post a Comment

Books I read: “Somebody Else’s Century…” (Patrick Smith)

Posted on the February 20th, 2012

“Somebody Else’s Century/East and West in a Post-Western World” by Patrick Smith (2010)


Why did I choose this book?

I wanted to learn more about Asia, something beyond the usual news articles and television programs that only focus on politics and financial news. From such narrow reporting, it isn’t possible to have more than a vague idea about the countries and people and cultures in Asia.

I didn’t even know precisely which countries are East and why. I wanted to learn more about the distinctions between the Japanese, Chinese and Korean people.

And a blurb on the back cover of the book also sparked interest:

This thoughtful and highly original meditation on the future of Asian societies should be required reading for anyone interested in where our planet is heading. (Chalmers Johnson)

Finally, it was the credibility of the author. Patrick Smith is a journalist who has been a foreign correspondent in Asia since 1981.

Did I learn what I hoped to learn?

Yes, and much much more. The depth and detail of reporting in this book transformed my views of Asia. An unexpected reaction was the anger I felt that our traditional news media does not offer such comprehensive reporting in its daily coverage.  Smith brilliantly demonstrates what a journalist can do if given the chance.

Choosing a perspective from the inside out, Smith writes about the complex reasons a defeated and humiliated Japan (post-World War II) embraced and imitated the priorities and culture of those who conquered it. He traces the historical relationship between China and Japan. He discusses the attitudes of the people in each toward each other. And Smith analyzes a crucial aspect of India and its people that makes the country and culture markedly different from China and Japan.

Most interestingly, he reviews the arbitrary line that divides East from West, questioning exactly what it is and whether it has any validity. Excerpt:

Herodotus concluded that the business of East and West was ‘imaginary.’ The line he referred to was drawn by humans. For a long time we have simply lost track of this. We have erred in thinking the divide is eternal — ever there, ever to be there, somehow (and somewhere) etched into the earth. Now we enter a time when we can see from another perspective and see the truth of things and of ourselves.

Favorite quote from the book:

“The past is made of every moment up to the one we live in, the moment we know as ‘now.’ Each speck of our past is part of what makes us who we are… We honor tradition only when we add to it. The rest is mere convention, unalive.”

Who wrote this book?

Patrick Smith is an American journalist who has written for major publications including the International Herald Tribune, The New Yorker, The Nation, Business Week, and The Economist.  He is also the author of the award-winning book, “The Nippon Challenge and Japan: A Reinterpretation.”


Reader Comments (0) Comments Off on Books I read: “Somebody Else’s Century…” (Patrick Smith)

SPECK ‘N U: 22 (Marcelo Gleiser – A Tear At The Edge of Creation)

Posted on the January 27th, 2012

From “A Tear At The Edge of Creation” by Marcelo Gleiser

Reader Comments (3) - Post a Comment

SPECK ‘N U: 21 (Marcelo Gleiser)

Posted on the December 5th, 2011

From “A Tear At The Edge of Creation” by Marcelo Gleiser

Reader Comments (1) - Post a Comment

SPECK ‘N U: 20 (Carl Safina)

Posted on the October 14th, 2011

From “The View From Lazy Point” by Carl Safina

Reader Comments (0) Comments Off on SPECK ‘N U: 20 (Carl Safina)

SPECK ‘N U:19 (Carl Safina)

Posted on the October 14th, 2011

From “The View From Lazy Point” by Carl Safina


Reader Comments (2) - Post a Comment

What do we mean by language? (Madalena Cruz-Ferreira and Sunita Anne Abraham)

Posted on the September 6th, 2011


If someone asked you, “Do you know what the pro in pronoun stands for?” would you know the answer?

Or, perhaps, “What is the most irregular verb in English?”

Or maybe, “Do you know why (with exceptions, of course) we can add er or est to some adjectives for purposes of comparison but we must use more or most with others. As in:

largest country
most populous country

The answers are nestled in “The Language of Language” (2011), a compact work by two linguistics scholars, Madalena Cruz Ferreira and Sunita Anne Abraham. The origin of the book, according to the preface, was a series of lectures by Cruz-Ferreira to university undergrads.

But as the book assumes no familiarity with linguistics, it’s also an illuminating read for language enthusiasts or the randomly curious. Some samplings: What are the nuts and bolts of how language itself – any language, not just English – is built and developed by its expert caretakers, the professional linguists, and by users themselves? Why do some languages live and others die? What distinguishes one language from another?

The three questions I posed in the opening above offer more examples of the many explored in the book. What is especially fun — works great as a word game — are the dozens of boxed questions running through the chapters. Some are riddles:

The owner of a restaurant, fed up with regular customers asking for meals on credit, one day put up this sign:

Free meals tomorrow only

Can you explain why his customers first became all excited and then very disappointed?

Here’s another:

Can you explain the language play in this dialogue?

Speaker A: Time flies!

Speaker B: I can’t, they fly too fast!

Hint: the play has to do with nouns and verbs.

For those tired of the usual car travel games with restless children, these boxed riddles offer a wonderful and painlessly-instructive alternative.

The most enjoyable features of the book, though, for me are the “Food for thought” sections at the end of each chapter. Here the authors include famous, scholarly and funny quotes about language, and poems on wordplay and pronunciation quandaries.


“We sometimes take English for granted
But if we examine its paradoxes we find that
Quicksand takes you down slowly
Boxing rings are square
And a guinea pig is neither from Guinea nor is it a pig.

If writers write, how come fingers don’t fing?
If the plural of tooth is teeth
Shouldn’t the plural of phone booth be phone beeth?
If the teacher taught,
Why didn’t the preacher praught?”

But lest I mislead by highlighting  the book’s entertaining content, it’s important to emphasize that “The Language of Language” is a substantive scholarly work. In the authors’ own words from the Preface:

Our main purpose in this book is to explore the nature of language, both as a social phenomenon and a human cognitive ability. Our goal is to encourage informed thinking about issues relating to language structure and use, by discussing as broad a sample as possible, in a book of this size, of the kinds of activities that linguists busy themselves with.

Finally, for those who are still stumped by the questions at the top of this post, I offer the answers to the first two, as provided by Cruz-Ferreira and Abraham: The pro in pronoun stands for proxy (as in substitute). And the most irregular verb in English is to be – it can appear in eight different forms: “am, are, is, was, were, being, been and be itself!”

But for question three, I opt to refer you to the book. The first reason being that the answer is rather complex and lengthy (hint – see page 58). And the second reason being that I highly recommend that language lovers and parents of young children buy this book (linguists have to eat too, you know).

Cybershoppers can find the book here.

Reader Comments (3) - Post a Comment

SPECK ‘N U: 17 (Emily Dickinson)

Posted on the August 29th, 2011

* From “Emily Dickinson: Selected Letters” edited by Thomas H. Johnson

Reader Comments (1) - Post a Comment

SPECK ‘N U: 16 (Emily Dickinson)

Posted on the August 4th, 2011

From “The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson” (1960), edited by Thomas H. Johnson

Reader Comments (3) - Post a Comment

SPECK ‘N U:15 (aging)

Posted on the July 26th, 2011

Tagged with: , , ,
Reader Comments (1) - Post a Comment