Reflecting Shakespeare: How romance lives on in fair Verona

“Giulietta, Guilietta I’m here” holler passing groups of tourists, eyeing the balcony of Casa di Giulietta, Juliet’s House, from the marble streets of Verona’s Via Cappello early on a Saturday evening. Some stop outside, pasting tiny, heart-covered notes to a fictitious lover with chewing gum to the surrounding walls. During the day, others scribble messages across the tunnel leading to Juliet’s courtyard, emotions unveiled in rough-hewn graffiti that’s torn down every few months to present a blank canvas, and provide the most hardened of souvenir hunters with a small clump of the legend to take home.

Verona seems besotted by the ancient local fable immortalized in Shakespeare’s classic. The city also hosts Giulietta’s tomb (empty), her clothing (generic outfits of the period), Romeo’s house and the popular ‘Club di Giulietta’, whose activities include ‘delivering’ letters to the mythical teenager. There’s a daft element to it, but the lovelorn indulgence rubs off. In the central Piazza delle Erbe endless streams of couples drift hand in hand below towering statues and ivy-draped balconies. The cafes spill out across squares, their espresso and cherry-tinged Valpolicella – wine grown and blended in vineyards surrounding the city – adding to the wafts of bakeries, parmesan and chocolate that flavour the streets.

It’s not Verona’s sights that charm the most, but its atmosphere. Having visited the moderately impressive Roman Arena, explored the fading frescos of the dozens of Romansque churches and climbed the 368 steps to listen to the bells clang and examine fragile rooftops from Lamberti Tower, a pianist stops us in our tracks. He takes his place in a quiet corner, surrounds himself with cushioned hearts and closes his eyes, playing Beethoven from memory while an enraptured crowd gathers around him. A touching moment, in a city seemingly built for lovers it’s not a once-off.

Later, we duck into the tiny alleyways and fairy tale courtyards. These reclusive areas offer quiet contemplation next to the sensual buzz of a city that, in parts, seems to decay elegantly around us. On buildings that cling to their glory regardless, the flaking and fading are hard to miss, but match the unchanged aesthetic of a city that stubbornly refuses to blight its image with mismatched modernity. Around an unpromising corner, we stumble upon Ristorante Greppia, where we turn down the fried calf’s brain in favour of delicately flavoured pastas then horse meat, air-dried and served in tiny strands specked with parmesan.

Grouplove: Shiny Happy People

Good fortune and spontaneity seem necessary parts of the back-story of so many of music’s classic acts. If Lennon’s shambolic skiffle group hadn’t bumped heads with a 15-year-old Paul McCartney in late 50s Liverpool, for example, and Brian Epstein hadn’t later rather haphazardly chosen The Beatles as his play thing, modern music might have gone down an entirely different path. You can apply to many facets of life: sheer good fortune is simply a necessary part of almost any burgeoning tale. Of all the unlikely backstories, though, GROUPLOVE’s chance encounter sits alongside Girls tales of controlling cults and musical escapism as one of the most serendipitous in modern music; not so much ‘Sliding Doors’ as a random encounter of the monkeys/ typewriters kind.

It all started when prolific singer-songwriter Christian Zucconi and abstract painter Hannah Hooper met after a performance from Christian’s former band ‘Pagoda’ in New York. Hannah tells us “We pretty much fell in love at first sight. On the very next day after we met, I was invited to go to Greece for a painting residency, and I just thought, this guy Christian is too special, I’m going to ask if he can come with me. Luckily he agreed.”  The residency turned out to be a total shambles (“they told us to squat in a corner, there was one cold water shower and Sean had to sleep next to a dead cat” – Christian), but they befriended Ryan, (the son of Yes guitarist Trevor Rabin) who stumbled in from an exchange program in Prague to meet his best friend Andrew, and Sean, another musical minded resident. Christian and Hannah’s impulsive love story led to a happy summer with their new friends “We were spending hours riding around on scooters”, Hannah explains, “sitting on our own secret ivy-covered beach and writing music. It was very much a friendship thing, I started off drawing everyone and we slowly started humming and finally singing together. It was a very special experience.”

Ryan describes takes up the story: “It was a lot like a summer camp, basically, but with no running water, and a lot more rustic. We performed at the camp’s music festival before we left, but more as a group of friends than a band. It felt like Hannah arrived as an artist. She’s still an artist, but she also left as a musician.” Things had clearly clicked, but nevertheless, what would become GROUPLOVE headed their separate ways. That looked very much like the end, until a year later an LA reunion eventually led to a successful debut EP. “We wrote the EP on a reunion visit to Ryan’s in LA”, Christian explains. “Soon afterwards, Hannah and I sold everything we owned and moved out from New York.” The rest, as they say, is history. The way things have been going on the European festival circuit this summer, it’s threatening to be music history of quite some note.

24 square feet of nothingness

The heart doesn’t thump. It’s more like pum-POOM, falling at intervals of just over a second, and accompanied by the barely audible pressure of blood forcing its way into a ventricle. In here, it seems to beat at the volume of human speech, though it’s dramatically overpowered by the slight creek of a gentle raise of the arm in the darkness. My surroundings are such an empty nothingness that I can only tell for certain whether my eyes are open or closed by poking at the eyeball. Occasionally, without warning, an anatomical extremity collides with the invisible walls surrounding my half-naked body. It’s the gentlest of collisions, but its unpredictability sends a tsunami of shockwaves through the darkness, bouncing my floating body back into a seemingly static yet endlessly unstable state of suspension.

About 45 minutes pass, and I turn on the light switch. I’m floating in a salty bath in the blindingly dark confines of what’s essentially a blacked out, nicely heated paddling pool. It’s intimidating at first, yet the kind of blackness that descends when the lights flicker out – fused with the deathly silence aided by ear plugs and the gentle two-tone beat of the heart – quickly evaporates any concept of time. Soon afterwards, the head begins to swirl with entirely un-stimulated randomness, spinning between complete consciousness and a day-dream state. After five minutes, virtual to-do lists and ‘thinking time’ are exhausted and overwhelmed. Sheer serenity, empty space and stress relief kick in: I’m floating in a carbon fibre tub in a central Dublin basement, but I could be anywhere, or equally, nowhere.

The Mongol Rally

How two Northern Irish lads tackled three continents and over 11,000 miles in a clapped-out Citroen Berlingo.

Sponsorship. Route planning. Team bonding and fundraising events; van-cramming and graffiti-acquiring. Even the work that goes into preparing for Mongol Rally – a death-defying charity odyssey from the UK to Mongolia – is a mammoth undertaking. Buying up a scrap-heap-ready Citroen Berlingo, which the spirit of the rally dictates should be scrawled all over (read: covered in sticky-taped Tayto packets and welded shopping trolleys) was the first part. Next, Dirty Sanchez star Mike Locke (aka Pancho) was persuaded to aid in the fundraising and promotional efforts by allowing donors to staple notes directly his equally scrap-heap-ready body. This, though, was only the start of a journey that was to take to Belfast lads around almost half the globe.

The aim of the Mongol Rally, ostensibly, is to deliver used cars for auction in Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia, and raise a lot of cash for charity along the way. However, Norn Iron duo Steve Neill and Barry Keenan (and, for a large portion of the journey, Steve’s wife Sarah), tagged on a few of their own personal aims. They live by the motto “For lust of knowing what should not be known”, a quote, appropriately, from early 20th century poet James Elroy Flecker’s ‘The Golden Journey To Samarkand’, and was determined to unveil a ludicrous number of oddities along the way. Aside from seeing far-flung corners of the globe, the team that would be come known as Team Charolastra (space cowboy in Spanish) also intended to cram their sizable van with helpful charitable donations, ingratiate themselves with the local police by handing out gifts of t-shirts from one of their main sponsors Tayto and generally get by on a wing and a prayer.

The AU Magazine Phone Box Experiment

Preview Interview -Phone Box Experiment (Kerry Radio) (click to listen)

“We’ve been watching you all day, and we were just wondering what you’re doing spending ten hours outside a phone box?” To an outsider, clearly my Saturday spent standing on a Dublin street corner looked every bit like a particularly dubious kind of business deal. So much so, in fact, that it took a flash of last month’s Phone Box Experiment article and a few awkward explanations to avoid a premature end bought on by Garda and the use of ‘loitering’ legislation. That one hairy moment aside, though, our ten hours of phone-themed shenanigans went perfectly to plan.

The idea of camping out next to a phone box has its roots in one of the Internet’s earliest urban legends, the Mojave Phone Box. Our own chief influence was a Skype marketing campaign we wrote about last month, fronted by an actor called Rob Cavazos. Having set a our phone-focused day as a (thankfully sunny) Saturday, we started to promote it through a Facebook group, Twitter campaign and the AU forums a mere 72 hours before answering our first call. In no time I found myself chatting about the experiment on two radio stations and controlling a semi-viral Facebook group.

Korea: A Defector’s Experience, North and South

North Korea will always have a problem when it comes to the world’s perspective. With the two halves of the Korean peninsula long embroiled in a bitter propaganda war in which neither side can be trusted to any real degree, South Korea comes out on top simply by virtue of having the louder, more internationally recognized voice. Most unbiased historians would probably come to the conclusion that there’s more truth to the South’s (relatively down to earth) claims, too, but very few people have the kind of genuine perspective – or even the access to it – that allows an honest appraisal of the true nature of the situation.

Tiger and Bear in Jung Gu – South Korean Cultural Cartoon.

I was offered the chance to write a cartoon on South Korean culture, and who am I to argue? This is the result. It’s intended as a commentary on how Korea’s original aims have been twisted into a kind of avid commercialism, something that we’ve used ‘Tiger and Bear’ – the characters in the traditional story of the country’s creation – to show. The artist is a Korean-based American called Matt Broadhurst, and the title ‘Tiger and Bear in Jung Gu’ refers to a major shopping district in Korea. Cartoons aren’t my usual specialty, but I’m all for a bit of variety!

Tiger and Bear in Jung Gu

The Phone Box Experiment

What happens when you put a man next to a random rural phone box, and then tell the world?

Rob Cavazos is an actor, and he’s up for a bit of fun. Not an actor in the 19th century, ‘politer word for a prostitute’ sense, you understand, but a genuine, stage-front, inspiring-speech, standing ovation kind of actor, who’s every day life is about learning lines, perfecting accents and wowing audiences. Every creative profession, of course, has its odder moments in the early stages. For musicians, there’s that awkward early gig in front of a crowd of leaky post-menopausal pensioners at a pub in a far off town. For writer’s, there are the awkward grammar errors that creep into print and somehow stick out next to your name on Google search for the next six months. And for actors – good actors, of course, but ones who are yet to get their Hollywood debut – there are forgotten lines, appearances as the back end of a horse in the Eastbourne City Hall community theatre production of Alice In Wonderland, and becoming the depressingly recognizable face of an unfeasibly humanized product on a local billboard campaign. It’s not the easiest of lifestyles, but occasionally – just occasionally – something comes along that makes it all worthwhile.

For Rob, a typical gig might involve playing the Fool in King Lear, shining as a fascist in a BBC Radio production with a title about making people smile (the natural reaction of the public to fascism, of course), or hopping across the stage at the Old Vic in a play produced in just 24 hours. One day, though, Rob decided to apply for a new position, a role as ‘Wilderness Man’. It certainly wasn’t his first casting session, but while Rob usually auditions for a role, being Wilderness Man is more of a calling. Rob’s recruitment came through a lucky glance at a campaign to find somebody to participate in a viral advertising campaign, with his fluency in three languages and outgoing personality helping him nail down the job. On paper, the role was simple: to sit next to a phone box for as long as possible, and answer the phone to whoever happened to call. Rob had become the newest and perhaps most short-term employee of Skype, and – in line with his exotic new title – would be spending the best part of advent sat in backcountry Spain and living in a tent.

Of course, you don’t get money for nothing these days, and there was always going to be a few less enticing twists to the demands placed on the Wilderness Man. Firstly, the number for the phone box he camped next to was to be placed prominently online, and become the heart of a clever advertising campaign for Skype’s online telephone service. Secondly, the website would be running a live feed of Rob twenty four hours a day, transmitting whatever he happened to be up to (or whoever he happened to be talking too, more often than not), and preventing our intrepid explorer from ever escaping the overbearing eye of ‘big brother’ in the form of a 24-hour international selection of bored web surfers. Thirdly, while Rob was inevitably going to miss the occasional call due to being, well, on a call, he had to answer every dialling tone that came through, a feat that made his chances of sustained sleep fairly similar to those of an agitated troubadour the night before the running of the bulls. No doubt he still hears that funky Spanish ring in his sleep.

The idea – fronted by online marketing stars ‘The Viral Factory’ – was inspired by the once notorious Mojave Phone, a booth that stood fifteen miles from the nearest road in a Californian national park before being removed in 2000. The Mojave Phone was once the temporary home of an international traveller, who believed he was instructed by the Holy Spirit to answer the calls of anyone who might choose – after a few beers, no doubt – to dial it up. He spent just over a month camping next to the booth and answering calls from international mystery men, including odd repeat calls from a man who identified himself as Sergeant Zeno from the Pentagon, and talked only about ‘national security’. When the anonymous, connection-obsessed traveller finally moved on, the phone became a quirky tourist attraction, with people from all over the world dialing up just to see if anyone might answer, and playful hikers making their way to Mojave to take photos and make an outgoing call as proof. In a BBC report in the late 90s, the Mojave Phone was described by a roaming reporter as ‘seemingly arbitrary in existence, and overshadowed by risking life and limb to travel to the middle of the desert and answer it. The thing rang non-stop with people calling from all over earth. I answered a few calls, and the callers were genuinely delighted someone was there to pick up the phone’. In 2006 director John Putch even wrote the movie ‘Mojave Phone Box’, a film about mysterious strangers crossing paths in front of the quirky desert ‘attraction’.

The Mojave Phone itself, though, has been gone a decade now, and instead Rob was instructed to bed down in a remote spot in south Spain. We can’t tell you exactly where it is, mainly because Rob’s most specific idea of the location was ‘up in the hills about two hours North of Malaga’ (The Viral Factory escorted him to the site under cover of darkness). For those with an equally odd an adventurous bent, though, Cavazos does suggest it might be possible to track down his secret location: ‘Very few people (not including myself) actually know where that phone is. Maybe someone will go seek it out and start a new sort of experiment – the quest for Rob’s phone has a nice ring to it’. If you’re so inclined, on arrival you will find a long list of countries, each accompanied by a tally, and a lone phone box branded in indelible pen: ‘The Wilderness Phone’. It marks the small corner of Spain this particular actor knows like the back of his hand.

Once he got into the experiment, and the calls started flooding in, Rob’s callers included a whole host of bizarre pranksters. In amongst pizza orders from Germany and ‘the police’ from elsewhere in Spain, Rob fielded a call from himself: ‘These guys teamed up, recorded four of their conversations with me and made up a soundboard from all of my responses. When I answered, I had a really surreal conversation with myself. It’s the single strangest, most flattering thing anyone has ever done for me’. Most of the conversations were more run of the mill, but did include callers from 82 countries (Iraq, Zimbabwe and Pakistan all popped up along the way, as did a French Territory, while Germany, Spain and the UK provided most of the callers). Ironically, Rob hates talking on the phone, telling us that ‘the only time I spend any length of time on the phone is when talking to my parents. I usually keep phone calls brief, I run out of things to say’.

It wasn’t the phone calls, though, that proved the most stressful aspect of the experiment. Even an average of 18 hours a day spent talking to random strangers can’t compare to the stress caused by spending your entire life in front of a camera. Rob’s already appeared in productions by Channel 4, but brief stints in front a lens playing someone else is an entirely different proposition to 240 hours of live solo webcasting, during which you can only be yourself. On the ground, Rob described himself as ‘oscillating between completely forgetting about the camera and shamelessly playing to it. Half the time I would ignore it, then I’d suddenly remember there were unfathomable amounts of people out there watching me at any given moment, and so I’d overcompensate by jumping on the couch or something. I felt they might get bored, otherwise.’

As an actor, Rob was arguably better prepared for the on-camera experience than most, and certainly didn’t capitulate into Big Brother style ‘look at me’ behaviour under the limelight, but he does admit that preparation for this kind of life is all but impossible. With The Viral Factory taking care of the technical side of things – the webcam, secret location and hefty set up fees – Rob’s preparation was more mundane. ‘You undergo all the practical preparation you might do for any old camping trip: provisions, first aid, lots of clean socks, but I was completely unprepared for that kind of response. There’s no way I could have planned for that’.

The Phone Box Experiment’s website was a quirky and brief web phenomenon, featuring a TV trailer style clip of Rob’s more bizarre moments on the road phone, before feeding through to a live stream, usually featuring Rob leaning against the phone box and rambling away in either English, German or Spanish. In the trailer, his tramp-style cardboard box signs told readers from different countries of his intentions, and invited callers to harass him at any time of the day or night, while a graphic of a phone box – Skype’s clever viral advert – invited people from anywhere in the world to contact Rob in the cheapest possible way through their service. It was a sponsored, corporate trick that worked a treat: most visitors to the site believed the experiment was entirely of Rob’s making, and the Skype connection simply a method to encourage callers of getting in touch. Rob performed to the crowd, bloggers and social media spread the word, and Wilderness Man just kept on answering his anonymous phone calls.

When you’re doing something as patently bizarre as living life next to a phone box, you may as well collect some facts about it all along the way. While the obvious ones about phone calls (1,040 in total), time on the phone (120 and a half hours in total) and international attention during the stunt (radio interviews in four different countries, for example) make for impressive reading, it’s the odder stats that really stand out. Rob’s calculated, for example, that he ate a total of around 16,000 beans over the ten days (which makes you wonder why he bothered to bring a cool box), while – in a twist to bring in more callers (as if they were needed) – many of the assorted belongings that surrounded him on the live video feed were boxed up and posted around the world towards the end of his challenge stint.

On spotting a hidden sign in amongst Rob’s belongings on the live web feed, callers were invited to call and ask for any item on the screen as a gift, with Rob’s random assortment including a ten pin bowling set, oversized lounge lamp, leather couch, guitar, fairy lights that kept the phone glowing all night long, and even a football (we can only assume Rob’s supremely talented, as had he kicked the ball out of the frame at any stage, game over…). Amazingly, Rob’s post-challenge review video shows him walking away from the scene and returning to London with at least one entire set of clothes still intact.

With eighteen hours of phone calls to field a day – and the inevitable onslaught of online viewers determined to interrupt Rob the moment he chose to sit down for a meal, eying the live stream to log their call straight after the last caller or checking in with the Wilderness Man in the early hours after a swift few down the pub – it was exhaustion that eventually signaled the end of the project. Six hours sleep a day is not enough at the best of times, but when that’s the absolute maximum, and interruptions are unpredictable and constant, Rob found himself at the point of no return after ten days camped out. ‘It was physical exhaustion,’ Rob tells us, ‘it really takes it out of you’.

With his time playing to the camera and living by the call of a rural pay phone over, Rob is still haunted by his unusual experience: ‘after I left, I’d find myself having waking dreams in the middle of the night, where everything I did was still in the eye of an imaginary camera watching me. Sure, I could have kept going, but there’s no way I could have sustained my good mood indefinitely, and I felt it was best I left while people still had a good impression of me. I can be quite grumpy when I’m knackered!’ The Wilderness Man eventually – now a phone-a-phobe – recovered by retreating to his native Mexico for some downtime over Christmas, pretending the Internet doesn’t exist, and eating anything that isn’t beans.

In honour of Rob’s ten-day stay in the wilderness, AU writer James Hendicott will be undertaking a mini ‘Wilderness Man’ experience: ten hours camped next to a phone box in Dublin’s Phoenix Park on the 21st of February, fielding calls from AU reader, (or anyone else who happens to get in touch). Keep an eye on the AU forum for info, and pick up next month’s issue for a full report.

As published in AU Magazine, February 2010