Archive for August, 2011


Tuesday, August 16th, 2011

Date: Tue, 26 Sep 95 15:55 MDT
From: (Ana Mosterin)

well, you should love wild cooking too
you have to find the right attitude:

you have to be sensitive enough
to feel the fear and shudder a bit at what you’re doing
and to love your piece of fishus enough
to touch it and smell it
with patience and lust
and then aaaaaaaarrrh! sacrifice it
and chop it skillfully
and be matter-of-fact enough
to to act like you’ve done it before
and professionally dry your hands
with your apron
and and have your hands on your hip
as you listen and smell to
the sound of the frying
breath in through your nose
as you watch the pan with love and think
“no, no more garlic,
just a half-cup of wine”
and relax!
it’s the ferocious poetry
of the wild cooking job
and then eating it will be twice as lovely
you’ll see

hey, derek,
cooking is not mary poppins!

La Storia di San Michele

Monday, August 8th, 2011

Image: Villa San Michele

[Written in 2003, as the first of a two-part story of a remarkable connection. Here’s part two.]

Axel Munthe

In 1928, Axel Munthe, a Swedish physician living on the isle of Capri, published The Story of San Michele. Munthe’s villa on the slopes of Mount Barbarossa stands on a site chosen almost two thousand years earlier by the emperor Tiberius, who from tiny Capri held sway over the entire Roman empire. Extraordinarily beautiful, the island passed at various times through the hands of the Greeks, the Romans (Caesar Augustus was captivated), the Dutchy of Naples, the Saracens, the Longobards, the Normans, the Angevins, the Aragonese, the Spanish, and the Bourbons.

On completing his medical studies, Munthe was the youngest physician in Europe. The Story of San Michele describes his time in Paris and Rome, his years as the physician to the Swedish Royal family and later his years as private physician to the queen of Sweden, who had also taken a liking to Capri. Written in English, The Story of San Michele, which remains in print, was an instant success, becoming the best-selling non-fiction book in the U.S. in 1930. Munthe’s novel approach to medicine and the book’s mixture of adventure, treasure, and royalty continue to inspire. The Story of San Michele was the mysterious target of one Henry Arthur Harrington, a petty thief who crisscrossed the UK, stealing 1,321 copies from second-hand bookstores before his eventual arrest in 1982. Even in 2003, Munthe’s contributions are the subject of learned attention: the Second International Symposium on Axel Munthe’s life and work will be held in Sweden tomorrow (September 13).

With the rapid success of The Story of San Michele, the book was a natural target for would-be translators. Editions in several languages were soon completed. Given its origin, it was odd that such a popular book was not more quickly translated into Italian.

Patricia Volterra

Living in Florence, Patricia Volterra was fascinated by the book and was eager for her husband Gualti to read it too. A minor obstacle: Gualti did not speak English. Undeterred, Volterra decided to translate the book into Italian. She wrote to John Murray, the publisher, requesting permission. To her surprise, she received a reply directly from Munthe. From Volterra’s diary, Munthe told her that:

the book had already been translated into several languages and was selling like wildfire. To date he had refused offers for it to be translated into Italian as, he wrote, this language, when written, was apt to become too flowery and overloaded and that he had written the book in an extremely simple style which he wished to retain. However, he continued, he suggested I should translate the last chapter, which he considered the most difficult, and send it to him to the Torre Matterita at Anacapri. He would then let me know whether he thought he could permit me to translate the rest.

Volterra sent off her translation of the final chapter and spent several weeks waiting for an answer. Finally her manuscript was returned “with an extremely complimentary letter from Munthe, telling me to proceed to do the rest.” Later she wrote that at that time nothing seemed impossible to her but that now she wouldn’t have even considered the translation.

While working on the translation, she had lunch with Munthe in Rome when Gualti, an Italian concert pianist, was playing at the Augusteum. Munthe was staying at Villa Svezia, the Queen of Sweden’s residence on the Via Aldovrandi. When Munthe saw her he exclaimed ‘My goodness, how old are you?’ She: ‘Twenty three.’ He: ‘And you are translating San Michele!’ Munthe was over 70 at the time.

Volterra sent the work to an Italian publisher, Mondadori, who refused her. “Their great loss,” she wrote. Another, Treves, accepted. Munthe “had decreed that the entire royalties should go to the Society for the Protection of Animals in Naples.” Volterra was to sell her translation for whatever she could get for it. This amounted to the equivalent of 50 pounds sterling for 8 months work.

Later that spring, Volterra traveled to Capri. In a horse-drawn cab they drove to Anacapri where they visited San Michele. From there on foot through the olives to the Torre di Materita to have lunch with Munthe. A variety of his dogs scampered round his heels as he showed them the old tower which was then his home. They had a vegetarian lunch served by Rosina, so affectionately mentioned by Munthe in his book.

The Volterra translation ran quickly into 35 editions and was still selling well when she left Italy in 1938. Mussolini was so impressed by La Storia di San Michele that he passed a law prohibiting the shooting of migratory birds on Capri.

Volterra saw Munthe one final time, in Jermyn Street, London. Munthe died in 1949, leaving the villa of San Michele to Sweden. Owned today by the Swedish Munthe Foundation, it is home to an ornithological research center and is open to the public.

[Continued in part two, "Bob Arno".]

Bob Arno

Monday, August 8th, 2011

Image: ABC Tasmania

[Written in 2003, this is the 2nd part of the story of a remarkable connection. You’ll need to read part one for the set up.]

For the last seven years, I’ve kept a web page full of people’s email about street scams they’ve been involved in (as victims) in Barcelona.

In the beginning I just wrote down brief descriptions of things that I saw or was involved in soon after moving to Spain. I’d seen hardly any street crime in my (then) 33 years and I found it fascinating to watch for. It certainly wasn’t hard to find. Often it came right to my door or to the street under my balcony. Before long I began to receive email from others who had visited or lived in Barcelona, each with their own story to tell. I put the stories onto the web page and they soon outnumbered my own. I continue to receive a few emails a month from people who’ve read the web page (generally after being robbed, though sometimes before leaving on a trip). I don’t often reply to these emails, apart from a line or two to say thanks when I put their messages on the web page, often months after they mail me.

For whatever reason, I’ve never been very interested to meet these people, though I’ve had plenty of chances to. In general I don’t seem to have much interest in meeting new people – it’s quite rare that I do. I should probably be more sociable (or something) because once in a while the consequences are immediately extraordinary.

Among my email, I get occasional contacts from people in the tourism industry. Lonely Planet, Fodor’s, people writing books or running travel services or web sites. Mainly they want to know if they can link to the web page, or to use some of the content in their own guides. I always agree without condition. After all, the main (but not the only) point is to help people be more aware, and besides, the majority of the content was written by other people who clearly share the same advisory aim. With this attention from various professionals who are trying to pass on the information, I began to wonder how many such people there were. Maybe there were other people with web sites devoted to street crime. So once in a while I’d do a web search on “street scams”, or something similar, just to see what came up. It’s usually interesting.

On July 30th 2001, I went looking around for similar web sites and ran across Bob Arno. I took a quick look around and fired off an email to say hello, and offered to buy him a beer the next time he was in Barcelona:

    Hi Bob

    I was just having a wander around the web when I ran into your
    pages about pickpockets. They look good, very useful.

    You might be interested to see a page of my own:

    All about things that have happened to people in Barcelona. It's
    not too well organized, but there's a lots of it. Most of it falls
    into well known classes of petty crime. Things are getting worse
    here, with the most recent tactics being strangulation from behind
    and squirting a flammable liquid onto people's backs and then, you
    guessed it, setting them on fire.

    Let me know next time you're in Barcelona and I'll buy you a
    beer. I'm also in Manhattan very often.

    Terry Jones.

Bob looked very interesting, and we seemed to have the same point of view on street crime. He’s a seasoned professional, a Vegas showman, and is constantly traveling the world studying many forms of crime and passing on his knowledge. Check out his website.

I sent mail to Derek, passing on Bob Arno’s URL. I said a little of how funny and random it seemed to me, of how over all the years of doing different things and meeting any number of famous and high-powered academics and intellectuals etc., and not really having much interest in any of them, that I’m sending email to this Bob Arno guy suggesting we meet up.

The next day I read more about Bob’s exploits and interests and I guessed that we would probably get on really well. I sent off a longer email with some more of my observations about Barcelona:

    Hi again.

    I sent off that first email without having looked at more than a
    page or two of your web site.

    It's very interesting to read more. I spend far too much time
    thinking about and watching for petty thieves in Barcelona. I've
    thought about many of the issues touched on in the interview with
    you by your own TSJ. The whole thing is very intriguing and lately
    I've begun to wonder increasingly what I can do about it, and if I
    want to do anything about it. I have tended to act to try to stop
    pickpockets, but I've also seen things many times from a distance
    or a height, read many things, seen freshly robbed people weeping,
    talked to many people who have been robbed, thought of this as an
    art (I'm interviewed in a Barcelona newspaper under the headline
    "Some crimes are a work of art" - I'm not sure if they understood
    what I meant), etc. I've never tried filming these people. But I
    know how they look at you when they know they have been spotted,
    how their faces look when the wallet hits the floor, how they prey
    on Western or "rich" psychology, and so many other things.  My
    focus has been Barcelona, after coming to live here 5 years ago
    and (at that time) having an apartment 1 floor up about 100 meters
    from Plaza Real. If I had had a net I could have caught people
    several times a day.

    I recently got a video camera and was thinking of interviewing the
    woman on my web site who was strangled here earlier this month. By
    the way, the papers reported up to 9 cases of such stranglings in a
    single day. I wasn't quite sure what to do with the tape. It hadn't
    occurred to me to film the thieves, but it would be so easy.  In
    Barcelona it's trivial to spot these people, and also feels very
    safe since many of them have been arrested literally hundreds of
    times.  There is basically no deterrent. There are undoubtedly more
    sophisticated pickpockets here too, but there is little in the way
    of evolutionary pressure to make them improve their methods. The
    tourists are too many and too unaware, the police are too few, and
    the laws are too slack. Why would you even bother to improve or

    I also know the boredom that comes with professional acts. I used to
    do a lot of juggling and unicycling, practicing 6 hours a day for a
    long time. But I could never stand to have a canned show that I did
    time after time - it was just too routine to have a routine. So I
    refused and eventually drifted into other things.

    How can I get a copy of your book? It doesn't seem to say on the web
    site. Also, the menu of links at the top left of your pages looks
    extremely garbled under my browser (Opera).


As it turned out, my timing was perfect. I got a mail back the next day from Bob’s wife Bambi (yes, really). She said they’d be in Barcelona in just 5 days time and that they’d love to meet up.

And meet up we did!

They came to our apartment and we all hit it off immediately. As I’d thought, we did have a lot in common, both in terms of what we had done and in outlook. They told me they also get lots of email through their web site and hardly ever reply. Ana and I took them out for food. We sat outside at the nearby Textile Museum. Later, Ana went home to look after Sofia, and I stayed with Bob and Bambi. In the end I was with them about five hours and I had a really good time. We arranged to meet the next day to go hunting for thieves on the Ramblas. In one sense, “hunting” isn’t at all the right word: the thieves are typically very obvious to anyone who’s actually paying attention. But there’s a lot of subtlety in tracking and filming them, so it really is something like a hunt. I’ve since spent many hours, on several occasions, in action with Bob and Bambi in Barcelona. But that’s another story.

After getting home that first night, I went back to Bob’s web site and read more of his pages. He’s had a pretty colorful life. Actually, it’s extraordinarily colorful by almost any measure. “Who is this Bob Arno?” I wondered. Fortunately, Bob has a “Who is Bob Arno?” page, which I finally got around to reading.

Halfway down… unbelievable… I want to cry.

    Born in Sweden, Bob Arno is a great-grandson of Dr. Axel Munthe,
    who is most famous for his novel The Story of San Michele.

Patricia Volterra was my great aunt.