Inhuman Swill : Page 53
Why is my blog called Inhuman Swill? Because you can unscramble the pieces to make William Shunn.
            

[It's Thursday afternoon, and we just boarded our Alitalia flight back to Rome. I'm writing this in a black vinyl-bound journal with a skull-and-crossbones on the cover that I got for my 40th birthday. When I next have the chance, I'll copy this back into my blog.]

Tuesday morning at the Intercontinental, Laura and I opted to have only coffee delivered to the room. My Monday morning order of French toast with cinnamon had been disappointing in the extreme. The four slices were all still soggy with egg batter in the middle. I had eaten around the edges and tried not to gag. The Intercontinental may be a 5-star hotel, but it gets no more than four, maybe three, in my book. The internet connection, via ethernet cable, is not very reliable, and neither is some of the concierges' advice.

I spent the morning working in the room while Laura attended her morning conference sessions. At noon-thirty, I ran into Laura and her colleague Cyndee in the lobby, just as I was heading to the hotel bar in hopes that I could sneak in a pint of Cisk (the local lager, pronounced chisk) before they arrived. They had to run to the rooms and change, so I gulped down a half-pint that looked larger than that. By the time I was done, they were back, and we all took the bus to Valletta.

Valletta on a weekday is far different from Valletta on a Sunday. Very crowded, every shop open, from the tiniest silversmith to McDonald's and Burger King. Our first stop was at a gelateria because our quest for gelato for Laura had ended in disappointment the night before. [Beginning to taxi.] Laura was very happy with her Valletta gelato, but I had already been served my two scoops when I spied the tub of fig gelato. I enjoyed my pistachio and "banofee"—banana toffee—but became fixated thereafter on finding and trying fig gelato elsewhere.

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The Kitchen is open

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Not a huge sightseeing day yesterday. I spent some of the morning writing in the hotel room, working on a new story titled "Our Dependence on Foreign Keys." In the afternoon I wandered around St. Julian's, collecting such supplies as bottled water (a must, they say) and a universal-to-UK adapter that would accept my laptop plug and thence plug into my converter (found it at a photography shop after being directed there by a gruff but helpful ironmonger). I also collected the indelible memory, after turning into a dead-end car park down by the shore behind the Westin, of a couple having sex in a rocky declivity by the water. There were other people on the beach, less than a stone's throw from them, and I watched only long enough to be sure I was seeing what I thought I was seeing. Okay, maybe two seconds longer than that.

Together with her colleague from work, Laura and I hopped a bus that evening to Sliema, where the concierge had promised us we would find a wonderful little inexpensive traditional restaurant on a side street. "No sea views, but good food." Laura specifically asked if it was open on Mondays, because many restaurants are not. "Yes, yes, open all the time." You can guess where this is going, but what you might not guess is that when we tracked down the tiny shuttered restaurant and perused the posted menu of what might have been consumed on a Tuesday through Saturday, we discovered we had been spared a cavalcade of pizza, pasta, and burgers.

Guidebook to the rescue! One of the top restaurants in the area, The Kitchen, was a mediumish walk away on the Triq il-Torri, and on a Monday evening it was possible to secure a table without a reservation. The service was painfully young, surly, and slow, but the food was outstanding. Beef ragout in rolled pancakes with sour cream, pumpkin tortelloni, open pie of seabass fillets, stuffed pork fillets over baked beans.... We shared everything, stuffed ourselves, and topped it off with a nice local blended wine.

At the bus stop after dinner, around 10:30 pm, we saw our bus approaching, the 62. It quickly became apparent that the bus was not going to stop. We shouted and waved, and the bus stopped for us half a block later. The driver did not seem pleased to let us on. Was it an express bus that wasn't supposed to stop there? Was the driver just hoping to end his last run of the night a bit sooner? I don't know. But the gelateria where we'd hoped to score some dessert was closed when we arrived, and St. Julian's was crowded with pretty young people doing their best to get even more drunk, so we cut short our quest for gelato-not-Ben-and-Jerry's and called it a night.

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Cities of sand

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A nine-hour flight east, a four-hour layover in Rome, and a one-hour flight due south brought us early yesterday afternoon to the tiny Mediterranean island nation of Malta. The weather here is a vast improvement over Chicago's. It's sunny, with a bit of haze in the evenings, and just the cool side of warm. North across the water lies Sicily. To the south is Libya. To the west is Tunisia. This island, in fact, lies farther south than Tunis.

Malta belongs to the EU, so passport control was ridiculously easy. In fact, since our visas were stamped in Rome, we didn't have to fuss with customs at all. A harrowing ten-minute cab ride, wilder than any Manhattan trip, brought us to our hotel, but we were distracted from imminent death by the gorgeous vistas of sand-colored buildings crowding every hillside in sight, occasionally topped by spectacular towers and domes. It's probably fortunate that we didn't learn until we reached our hotel room that Malta's rate of traffic accidents is the highest in the EU.

Our hotel is in St. Julian's, a metropolitan resort sort of city on the north shore. We're next door to a multiplex movie theater and across from a bowling alley. Our hotel has a private beach. But slumming on the sand was not our goal yesterday. Once we were settled and changed, we hopped a bus back east a few miles to Malta's capital, the medieval city of Valletta.

Valletta was built in the 16th century by the Knights of St. John, the Catholic military order that ruled the island from 1530 to 1798, and was named for Grand Master Jean Parisot de la Valette. It was, I have read, one of the first European cities built from scratch on a grid plan. It occupies a long narrow promontory pointing northeast between Marsamxett Harbour on the northwest and Grand Harbour on the southeast, with a street plan very reminiscent of Manhattan's (on a rather smaller scale).

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Flying with Leo

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Here waiting at O'Hare in International Departures. Our Alitalia plane just landed. I'm watching it pull up at the jetway outside the windows. The plane has a name. We are flying the Leonardo Da Vinci.

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Our celebrity sightings have definitely tailed off since we moved to Chicago, but Laura and one of her colleagues had a good one the other day. At the same hot dog joint where they were grabbing lunch, they spotted Dennis DeYoung of Styx.

(I'd suggest that he had too much time on his hands, but Tommy Shaw took the lead vocal on that track.)

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Midnight near the oasis

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On our upcoming Egyptian vacation, we take an overnight train to Aswan. We splurged on a sleeper car, because how cool is it to ride a sleeper car in North Africa? And we plan to join the Eight Feet High Club.

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Circus money

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Circus Money | Walter Becker
There's no way on earth that I'm the world's biggest Steely Dan fan, but I like to think I'm up there in the top thousand. This may explain why I'm so stoked that, after 2006's Morph the Cat from Donald Fagen, we're about to get Circus Money from Walter Becker!

Check out the first single, "Somebody's Saturday Night", streamed from Rolling Stone:

We'll be seeing Becker and Fagen together this July at the Chicago Theater....

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THE LIVER IS EVIL.  PUNISH IT HERE.

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ShunnCast #53

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[info]
Epidode #53 of "ShunnCast" is now available, in which Bill combs through the dusty vaults of his cassette collection to unearth a musical gem from his missionary days that might more profitably have remained buried—"The Wenatchee Rap" by No Parking Zone.

http://www.shunn.net/podcast?id=53

See also shunncast.

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On lying, and lying artlessly

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Longtime readers may recall me railing against James Frey and the phenomenon of the invented memoir a couple of years ago. Rather than chilling the memoir marketplace, though, Frey was merely in the vanguard of a veritable explosion of exposed frauds that now includes such "memoirists" as Margaret B. Jones and Misha Defonseca.

The topic of these overly embroidered tales is much on my mind as, again, my memoir makes its way back into the marketplace. I feared two years ago that Frey's escapade would make a memoir more difficult to sell. Now I fear that he didn't make it difficult enough.

Nearly two months ago, Scott Simon on NPR's Weekend Edition delivered an editorial that made me stand up and pump my fist in the air. He made the interesting argument that the phony memoirist cheats in two ways: first, by weaving of his life an epic that never was; and second, by scanting the literary rigor a novel would have demanded. Listen here:

Writing and Truth in Fact and Fiction
by Scott Simon
Speaking as someone who has labored for nearly ten years to produce a book that will hold up on both counts and provoke more than skepticism and cynicism, I can only add my fervent amen.
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