Dery and Lecter do Italy

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Mark Dery is guest blogger du jour until August 17. He is the author of Culture Jamming, Flame Wars, Escape Velocity, and The Pyrotechnic Insanitarium. He's at work on The Pathological Sublime, a philosophical investigation into the paradox of horrible beauty and the politics of "just looking."

On a recent flight to Rome, I found my sleep-deprived thoughts turning to the question that has launched a thousand doctoral dissertations: Why is Hannibal Lecter an Italophile?

He wasn't always. When we first meet the debonair, serial-murdering doctor, in the Thomas Harris novel Red Dragon, he's curled up with a copy of Alexandre Dumas's Le Grand Dictionnaire de Cuisine. We can see from the class signifiers he flashes---waspish wit, feline grace, courtly manners, and refined, Old Money tastes---that he's a highbrow degenerate (in the evolutionary, Max Nordau sense of the word), struck from the mythic mold that gave us real-life archetypes such as Elizabeth Bathory, Gilles de Rais, and the Marquis de Sade, as well as their fictional kin (most notably, Count Dracula (with whom Lecter shares many supernatural traits). His unabashed Eurocentrism would gladden George Will's wizened heart, but he hasn't yet outed himself as a flaming Italophile.

By Silence of the Lambs, however, the Lecter of the first book, who was little more than a few memorably zingy lines, glued together with attitude, has evolved into a suave, mordantly witty bogeyman for the age of the branded lifestyle: Milton's Satan in a Prada suit. This is a man-eater who would never use the wrong knife when slicing out your sweetbreads and sautéing them in a beurre noisette before your dying eyes. He's a card-carrying member of the cultural elite, a status that Harris signals through Lecter's exhaustive knowledge of Italian high culture. His tastes in interior decoration, in his cell in a prison for the criminally insane, run to pencil sketches of Florentine scenes: "the Palazzo Vecchio and the Duomo, as seen from the Belvedere." He admonishes Clarice Starling, the FBI trainee who's interrogating him, to look up the early Italian Renaissance painter Duccio if she wants to see an accurate depiction of a crucifixion, and to pay Titian's Flaying of Marsyas a visit, at the National Gallery, if she wants to study the fine points of human-skinning. He famously eats a census-taker's liver with "fava beans and a big Amarone" (a signature Italian dish, paired with an Italian wine) and offers Starling a clue to her case in the form of a quote from the Roman emperor and Stoic philosopher Marcus Aurelius.

In Hannibal, Lecter might as well work for the Italian national tourism board. His manor-born elegance, classical erudition, and, most of all, pitch-perfect taste are inextricable from his deep immersion in Italian culture, which for Harris (and presumably his mass audience) is shorthand for the profound knowledge, as sensual as it is intellectual, of all that makes life worth living---a cultural patrimony bequeathed to the world by the land that gave us the Roman empire and the Renaissance, Verdi and the Vespa, Prosciutto di Parma and Parmigiano-Reggiano, la dolce vita and menefreghismo (the Fine Art of Not Giving a Fuck, according to Nick Tosches). Lecter lives in Florence, where his nonpareil mastery of Dante, Florentine history, and archaic Italian---he demonstrates "an extraordinary linguistic facility, sight-translating medieval Italian and Latin from the densest Gothic black-letter scripts"---wins him the position of curator of the Palazzo Capponi. (Well, that, and the fact that he hastened the former curator's shuffle off this mortal coil.) Lecter shops for exquisite unguents at the Farmacia of Santa Maria Novella and tartufi bianchi at the gourmet emporium Vera dal 1926; reads himself to sleep with the piquant correspondence of a 15th century Venetian; accessorizes his mental Memory Palace with the Riace bronzes. Naturally, his mother is "a high-born Italian, a Visconti." It's all very Ted Bundy-under-the-Tuscan-Sun, Lucrezia Borgia-meets-ladies-who-lunch.

The question is: How did we get here? At what point did Italian culture become the capstone of the taste/class pyramid, morphing seemingly overnight from lowbrow to highbrow? At what specific historical moment, and by what cultural logic, did the fickle alchemy of mandarin taste transform balsamic vinegar into Bottled Essence of Snob Appeal, fetishized by status-conscious bobos who dole it out at dinner parties with the sort of breathless reverence they used to reserve for lines of Peruvian blue flake?

Not long ago, in the racialized anthropology of the late 19th century and the eugenic "science" of the early 20th, the "Mediterranean races" were demonstrably inferior to Nordic man. In 1924, congress passed the Johnson Act, which radically restricted immigration from the Mediterranean countries (as well as Eastern Europe) to forestall further pollution of the Anglo gene pool.

In the '70s, when I was a teenager growing up white and middle-class in the ardently Aryan suburbs of Southern California, "Italian" was a mama-mia, that's-a-spicy-meatball punchline, an ethnic caricature sketched in bold strokes: Mama Celeste frozen pizzas; Dean Martin singing "That's Amore"; the LaBella family, proprietors of the local Italian restaurant, the one with the inevitable rainbow-colored candles in the straw-wrapped Chianti bottles. Squid---no one called it "calamari"---was bait; pasta meant spaghetti---no one called it "pasta"; and radicchio, arugula, and fresh parmesan were unknown, at least to WASPs. (To this day, my suburban relatives obligingly produce a can of plastinated Kraft cheese dust when I ask for parmesan.) When did things change? Their problematic mix of ethnic stereotyping and ethnographic fact notwithstanding, were the Godfather movies (1972, 1974) instrumental in introducing WASP America to an Italian America that, for all its internecine bloodletting and dese-and-dose goombah-ism (as reflected in the Hollywood eye) also preached a conservative gospel of folkways and famiglia values (gangster family values, ironically, but no less traditional for that) and hard work? To a teenager adrift in the suburban badlands of San Diego, whose psychic geography was cratered by divorce and PTSD'd by Vietnam and Watergate and Helter Skelter, Connie's wedding, at the beginning of The Godfather, offered a seductive glimpse of an ethnic otherworld---the Old World teleported to the New World, with all its close family ties and cherished traditions magically intact.

After college, in the mid-'80s, I would go East, to be part of the advancing guard of bohemianization making the Italian-American neighborhood of Carroll Gardens, Brooklyn safe for alt.culture. Raised in the land of puka-shell necklaces and huaraches, where real-life Malibu Barbies and Bitchen Dudes disported themselves in the Endless Summer, I marveled at the studiously sullen young guys (codeword: guido) in the regulation tight T-shirts; equal parts greaser, disco stud, and hip-hop homeboy, they seemed to be channeling John Travolta's Tony Manero, some Italian-Stallion take on Mailer's white negritude, and, incomprehensibly, a collective memory of the Doo-Wop '50s. Shrines to patron saints sprouted throughout the neighborhood; in one front yard, a life-sized Saint Lucy held a plate with her plastic eyeballs glued to it, like a waiter serving canapés. I was enthralled by the thinly veiled paganism of the annual feast and procession of Maria SS. Addolorata, in which celebrants (just like the revelers in the Feast of Saint Rocco in The Godfather II!) carry a sad-eyed statue of the Blessed Virgin through the streets, where the devout festoon her gown with paper money, as they have done since 1948. The parade ends at the neighborhood's symbolic heart, the Mola Di Bari social club, which takes its name from the Southern Italian town to which many of the neighborhood's earliest Italian immigrants can trace their bloodlines. At the same time, there was an ugly side to this picturesque translation of smalltown Southern Italy into Brooklyn's doo-wop vernacular, exacerbated by the culture wars between Italian-American locals and the hipster homesteaders gentrifying the hood. After one too many encounters with carloads of goons yelling "faggot," and a horrifying episode in which a bat-wielding gang attacked a longhaired Asian-American guy, my wife and I joined the bobo exodus to the upstate burbs.

To be sure, Our Friends from Corleone also packed their blood feuds and backwater ignorance in their psychic baggage when they boarded the ship for Ellis Island. But the occasional horsehead in bed seems a small price to pay for idyllic afternoons in the sun, sipping Trebbiano d'Abruzzo while the accordions play "C'é La Luna Mezzo O Mare." Harry Lime had it right in The Third Man: "In Italy, for 30 years under the Borgias, they had warfare, terror, murder, bloodshed---but they produced Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, and the Renaissance. In Switzerland, they had brotherly love, 500 years of democracy and peace, and what did that produce? The cuckoo clock." (Never mind the fact that, as my Swiss friends point out with some heat, the cuckoo clock is a German invention. You get the point.) In the popular imagination, mythic Italy draws its symbolic voltage not only from its relatively newfound role as a bobo emblem of gracious living and good taste, brought to you by Williams-Sonoma, but also from the delicious depravity of all those Borgias and Medicis, not to mention the Caesars, whose sybaritic excesses thrilled the pants off Gibbon's readers. Lecter loves his tartufi and his Amarone, but he also loves the operatic passions and gothic brutality of the Quattrocento, when rough justice for, say, conspirators against the Medici capo Lorenzo the Magnificent meant being hung, naked, from a high window in the Palazzo Vecchio, as an object lesson---and guaranteed crowd-pleaser---for the rabble. The Mythic Little Italy of our multiplex fantasies, from Goodfellas to Moonstruck to The Sopranos, is among other things a wish-fulfillment fantasy for WASPs---middle America's dream of giving its superego the one-armed salute and partaking of the emotional catharses enjoyed by those passionate Mediterraneans. Of course, there are two sides to the Return of the Repressed: heads, you get Anita Ekberg in La Dolce Vita, indulging in a nighttime dip in Rome's Trevi fountain; tails, you get Joe Pesci in Goodfellas, beating another mobster to bloody jelly because the guy insulted him.

All of which is to ask: What does Italy mean? What does it signify, in the dream life of the West? A hopelessly knotty question, too complex to be teased out here. During my recent travels in Rome, Florence, and Bologna, I wondered if I was ever really seeing Italy, or if a million media apparitions---the Italy of The Talented Mr. Ripley and HBO's Rome, Death in Venice and The Monster of Florence---would always swarm before me, obscuring the thing itself, like those transparent overlays depicting the musculature and the nerves and the lymphatic system, in anatomy textbooks. In his masterful 1964 study The Italians, a cultural critique that is to Italy as Octavio Paz's Labyrinth of Solitude is to Mexico, Luigi Barzini is thoughtful on this point. In a poetic, unsettling meditation on the siren song of Mythic Italy, he talks about foreigners who visit the country and never leave, metamorphosing into that liminal being, the expatriate, suspended in that Phantom Zone between cultures. Many attempt to go native; some succeed in becoming more Italian than the Italians themselves, in some paradoxical sense. And many, as Barzini notes,

find, at one point, like Hawthorne, that they can no longer leave... They can no longer face the harsher world where they came from, where they see things perhaps too clearly, and where every word in their familiar language has a precise meaning. They have become hopelessly addicted to the amiable and mild ways of Italy. Many also have nobody left to go back to. They cling to their little lair, the view of the sea from the hill, the view of the Coliseum from the window if you turn your neck far enough to the right, the view of the Grand Canal, the roofs of Florence, the decayed villas of Rapallo... Italy is filled with people growing old, who can no longer think of leaving, living alone, comforted by a cat or a dog, waited on by a servant, an honest person at times but often enough an unscrupulous maid who feeds her family with what she steals. A day comes when these old people grow ill and helpless, far from the familiar sights and sounds of their youth, self-exiled for reasons which have become dim in their memories, in an alien place which they never really saw as it is and quite understood... Many die every year and are buried hurriedly in the corner of an Italian cemetery reserved for heathens or heretics; some bodies are shipped home to practically unknown and indifferent relatives. Many die without having really discovered why they chose to live the last years of their lives in Italy, of all places.

Cue the Godfather Waltz.

Image: Hannibal Lecter, taking the air in Florence. From the movie Hannibal. Reproduced under Fair Use provision of copyright law.


  1. I’m not sure if there’s any way to prove it decisively, but I’ve heard that Italians are the best lovers.

  2. Fair enough, but a few things that weigh on my mind:

    They were a bunch of fascist surrender monkeys in the war.

    Their politics is riddled with corruption.

    And that greasy bastard Enzo down my local cafe continues to schmooze over my missus.

  3. The genealogy of mythic Italy goes back at least as far as the actual Renaissance: look at Webster’s plays, where Italy is a sun-drenched Gothic horrorshow filled with hot-bloodedly murderous operatic types. Or look at Marlowe’s Machiavel, from the prologue to The Jew of Malta

    I count religion but a childish toy,
    And hold there is no sin but ignorance.
    Birds of the air will tell of murders past!
    I am asham’d to hear such fooleries.
    Many will talk of title to a crown:
    What right had Caesar to the empery?
    Might first made kings, and laws were then most sure
    When, like the Draco’s, they were writ in blood.

    who’s definitely a progenitor and fellow-traveler of Lecter: the same predatory stance, the same disregard for law and custom, the same acknowledgment of force and blood as guarantors of power.

    Throughout the Renaissance and early modern period you see similar dualistic views of Italy as a land of refinement and blood, of riches and tempestuous emotions, palaces and murder. I doubt too much of our current Italophilia and Italophobia come directly from this time, but the two approaches to Italy seem similar. (It’s perhaps worth noting in this connection that Coppola based the first two Godfather films on, respectively, Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar and Antony and Cleopatra.)

  4. Not just Italy, Florence.

    The city makes a good setting for a violent thriller because there is a dense urban center full of rich history, cultural elitism (the ruling class once literally looked down on the rest of the city from a series of protected elevated walkways) and visually imposing architecture- all within a short walk.

    Plus you know that after the commercial success of Silence of the Lambs Thomas Harris must have had “screenplay!” bouncing around in his head somewhere when he penned the sequel.

  5. Mark Dery asks “At what point did Italian culture become the capstone of the taste/class pyramid, morphing seemingly overnight from lowbrow to highbrow?”

    Did it morph? Remember that the Grand Tour (see always featured an Italian segment, where members of the English moneyed classes would go to absorb the kind of classical culture that Lecter admires. I’d guess that many of those taking the Grand Tour may have chosen to spend more time among the sunshine and signorinas of Italy than among the weighty philosophers of Heidelberg. Lecter’s personal culture is a throwback to a time when culture meant classicism, and classicism meant Italy and Greece.

    It may also be significant that the cultural centers admired by classical Italophiles like Dr Lecter tend to be in the north or middle of Italy, whereas the mobsters and Italian immigrants that Mark Dery holds up as examples of the ungenteel side of Italian culture come predominantly from southern Italy. I wouldn’t want to say that there’s any truth in the stereotypes, but northern Italians have traditionally viewed southerners as uncouth peasants, just as southern Italians have considered the northerners to be effete snobs.

  6. Actually, Italian culture has been a major influence and centre of “excellence” for a very long time.

    Look back to 1194: “Frederick II – Through the marriage of Constance, heiress of the last Norman king, to Holy Roman Emperor Henry VI, Sicily passed in 1194 to the Hohenstaufen dynasty. Their son, Holy Roman Emperor FREDERICK II, spent his childhood in Sicily. He was a child of four when his mother died and Pope Innocent III governed Sicily until 1208 when Frederick II reached the age of 14. Like Roger II, Frederick held brilliant court and effected important administrative reforms. His first of three wives was Constance of Aragon. She died in 1222. He married Isabella in 1225. She brought him the crown of Jerusalem as a dowry. She died in childbirth in 1228. His third wife was Bianca Lancia of Piedmont. He knew Latin, Sicilian, Greek, Arabic, French, and of course, German. He had his own private zoo, wrote a treatise on falconry. He was even versed in philosophy and mathematics. He unified weights and measures, imposed taxes on everything, abolished gambling. He required the Jews to wear identifying clothing (a precursor to Hitler’s yellow star).” (quoted from — cheap and easy web research —

    So it wasn’t all great! But Sicily, the place where the “goombas” come from, was the centre for learning and culture a very long time ago. I will skip a couple of centuries of learning, earliest Universities in Europe, etc.,for the sake of shortening this comment.

    When travel became easier for the affluent in the seventeenth century, the English tradition (sorry, haven’t checked the actual dates) of sending young (rich) men for a year of education on the continent became a “tradition”.

    No properly brought up young lord could possibly claim to be properly educated unless he had been thrown out of either Oxford or Cambridge and then spent a great deal of time wasting Daddy’s money having a good time in Italy “furthering his education”.

    In the 19th century Italy was invaded by a wave of British artists and poets who, quite understandably preferred the lifestyle and the weather of Italy to that of Britain, especially in the winter. Examples could range from Robert and Elisabeth Browning to John Ruskin to Edward Lear.

    The American obsession with the “bad guys from Sicily” merely demonstrates a peculiarity of immigration patterns to North America: most Italian (the “i” is pronounced as in “it”, not as in “eye”) were poor working people hoping to make a new life without the economic constraints of working under what remained a largely feudal system.

    It is very sad that a bunch of terrorists took over Sicily a long time ago, and then moved operations to the U.S.

    As a sidebar, I would like to add that most of the “high” Roman culture that led up to Frederick II was stolen from Greece: copies of statuary, poems written by Greek “slaves”.

    And the corrupt magnificence of the last of the Roman Emperors, and later the Borghias, cannot do less than fascinate anyone who starts reading.

    By the way I haven’t even touched on the huge historic influence of the Catholic Church, which effectively governed most of Europe for a very long time.

    And in the last century, Italian film and fashion industries have made a huge impact on Western thought and living.

    So I don’t understand the question:

    “All of which is to ask: What does Italy mean? What does it signify, in the dream life of the West?”

    I would guess that Italy means to you whatever you know about it.

  7. American WASPs tend to get their italophilia by way of the English in the 19th century, who acquired it following the defeat of Napoleon, when the re-opening of the continent contributed to the revival of interest in both the classics and the Renaissance.

  8. I bet it’s all good marketing and a certain tendence of us Italians to go incredibly anal about frivolous things: we tend to develop taboos on everything, from cuisine to fashion, and stick to them. You have to take into account the concepts of “bella figura” and “sprezzatura” too. “Bella figura” is paramount. You can be broke but you’ll sign for morgages in order to show off a new stylish car or a set of clothes, no one should think you are not a superstar.

    Of course while in the past the models being imitated by the “bella figura” disciples were nobles and cardinals. Now they are reality-show people and footballers, not to mention the “Veline”, stunning but not cultured, to say the lest, TV starlettes.

    Of course all this competition-driven behaviour can be socially dangerous if not supported by some kind of social infrastructure.
    The country has changed a lot, and to the worst, in the last 25 years. Commercial TV has swept away tradition and social cohesion, political aggregations and the “piazza” life. We are building malls by the dozens and people are afraid of each other a lot now, being indoctrinated alone in their front rooms by commercial and state TV alike, which happen to be controlled by the same man.

  9. It seems to me that Tuscany is where Italy got its class.

    not that the rest of Italy has no class, just that the west’s perceptions of Tuscany in its beauty and food seem to be the driving force behind Italophilia.

    I say this as somebody who was born in Florence in the 70s and spent my youth watching Tuscany gain in fame to the point that the word “tuscan” get thrown onto menus and frozen dinner boxes with as much validity and accuracy as words like “healthy” or “good”.

    And don’t even get me started on people who pluralize the word panini.

  10. “The question is: How did we get here? At what point did Italian culture become the capstone of the taste/class pyramid, morphing seemingly overnight from lowbrow to highbrow?”

    One big distinction that I think your discussion is lacking is the difference between Northern Italy and Sicily. Lumping this together as “Italian Culture” is like lumping together the traits of Ozark Mountain men and Upper East Side New Yorkers as “American Culture.”

  11. #6 ANGUSM…nailed it
    both sides of my family are from the E Valle D’Aosta in Piemonte, the town is called Bosconero, which means dark “wood” forest.
    ..according to my nana’s many stories (died at 99)..there was truth to the stereotypes…gypsies, tramps and thieves found shelter in those foothills.. all part of mia familia…from the smuggling of beef from Colorado to LA markets during the depression (paying off the meat inspectors)and selling salami, to the free-for-all 1970 Reagan years of deregulation… Italians are classy, beautiful and slick survivors

  12. Mark Dery? Awesome, I believe that you’re the first guest-blogger who was required reading for me in college.

    Anyway, I haven’t much to say on this article except that it was a quite riveting read.

  13. Hannibal Lector is an Italophile because Thomas Harris is an Italophile who wants to write about his Italophilism, but knows that it’ll be much more memorable (and marketable) if his Italophilism is expressed through an individual who flambes peoples’ brains and such. Occam’s fucking razor, dude.

  14. Lecter loves Italy. Italian culture is inextricably linked with Catholicism. Catholics believe in transubstantiation, that they are actually eating the body of Christ when they take communion. Lecter loves Italy.

  15. “Italy is known as one of the most racially intolerent nations in the world, where citizens base their opinions of other ethnicities on apperances and stereotypes alone. But then, what more do you expect from a bunch of greasy, filthy womanizers?”

    The Onion – Our Dumb World

  16. Beautifull photo of PONTE VECCHIO in Florence:
    do you need more reasons to understand why is Hannibal Lecter an Italophile?

  17. Bump #8, that’s about the most succinct explanation of it here. The whole Grand Tour business was never particularly American; we were busy with the frontier around then, and mythology showed it.

    There is another factor I’d like to point out, though: immigration. The timing is about right: Italian immigration to the US basically began in 1870, and has declined since, especially as a fraction of the population (Wikipedia numbers). A large influx of poor immigrants, first and second generation, will tend to put the damper on any idealizing. Not so much any more!

  18. I think it’s the same reason Ernest Hemingway’s lead males like booze and a good fight, Thomas Pynchon’s characters ponder mathematics and entropy, Edgar Allen Poe’s beautiful women die tragically, and Adam Sandler characters are retarded.

    Essentially, #15.

  19. W. James Au nailed it, but there’s also the Great Man factor, which Orson Welles summed up in The Third Man:

    Like the fella says, in Italy for 30 years under the Borgias they had warfare, terror, murder, and bloodshed, but they produced Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, and the Renaissance. In Switzerland they had brotherly love – they had 500 years of democracy and peace, and what did that produce? The cuckoo clock.

    Or, to coin a cliche, to make an omelette you have to break a few eggs. And Lecter is definitely a Renaissancophile—he even becomes the curator of a museum, beating out a native Florentine for the job. Thomas Harris, like Trevanian with the protagonists of The Eiger Sanction and Shibumi (and maybe others, those are the only books of his I’ve read) has basically created a Marty-Stu-as-Ubermensch.

  20. I think the poster is confusing the admiration for the Romans/Venetians/Florentines (which was always there) with the disdain for the *modern* Italians that was common in the 19th and early 20th centuries. The same thing was true for the Greeks — everybody thought Ancient Greek art and literature were wonderful while looking down at Greek immigrants who ran hot dog stands.

  21. I think Italy just has a long enough history to be Western Europe’s source of stories (Greece is similarly long-memoried for the East).

    You can take your pick of classical republicanism, republican decay, imperial power, or imperial decadence.

    You can look at feudalism, republican city states, your merchant city states, or faction-ridden city states. Art cultures, craft cultures, food cultures, or religion cultures. Wealth, war, and poverty.

    You can read its history as colonizer or colonized. Religious unification, nationalist movements, and fascism all appear.

    Over 2,500 years, and hundreds of political situations, people can, and do, find any story that’s convenient they want to tell in Italy’s history and culture.

  22. Italian culture has been held in high regard by Anglo-Saxons for far longer than than it has been marred – as you suggest – by Southern Italian immigration into the U.S.

    That being said I remember a quote which must be third- or fourth-hand at this point: “Italy is lovely, but it’s a shame about the Italians.”

  23. Personally I find many of these comments fraught with traditional stereotypes and racial slurs. Italians were among the first to recognize Mussolini and the fascists. The writing and actions of Carlo Levi, Primo Levi, Cesare Pavese, Natalia Ginzburg, Georgio Bassani all attest to this.
    Italy owns 60% of the world’s art–and the artistic sense of things permeates all aspects of Italian life. The notion that the bad guys are in the south denies the fact that Silvio Berlusconi and Benito Mussolini were northern Italians.
    Also of interest, the Italians were among the first to protest the US invasion of Iraq in 2003 as noted by the 3 million Romans who turned out in February of that year to demonstrate for peace.

  24. It’s worth mentioning the there has been a shift in attitude about the south of Italy as well, though you might not know it if you read this article and many of the readers’ comments. A lot of northern Italians who vacation in Sicily and have second homes there, also appreciate the abundant seafood, the lemon and fig trees, the delicious Sicilian wines and beautiful Mediterranean and mountains that serve as a backdrop for these pleasures. And let’s not forget the warmth and generosity of the people. Many of my friends who have traveled and lived in Italy say Sicily was one of their favorite destinations. It is also an intense version of the rest of Italy. In the words of Luigi Barzini, “Sicilia is the schoolroom model of Italy for beginners.”

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