‘No’ Means?

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Rafael: Pope Leo the Great Meets Attila Source: Web Gallery of Art

Rafael: Pope Leo the Great Meets Attila
Source: Web Gallery of Art

The ‘No’ result of the referendum held a few days ago has created political turmoil in Italy. The referendum was on whether or not changes to the constitution should go ahead. As it stands, it is almost impossible to get any laws passed as they have to be approved by both the cabinet as well as the senate in a system filled with small parties of differing interests. The Prime Minister, Matteo Renzi, resigned following the result as he had put in a lot of work to propose constitutional changes in Parliament but hadn’t been able to garner sufficient agreement to unequivocally put them in effect hence the referendum. The possibility of a ‘No’ vote was also of concern to the financial world as the Italian banks are in dire straits and political instability at this time could affect the value of the Euro. As it turned out, the President Sergio Matarella, appointed Renzi as a ‘caretaker’ until an interim cabinet is announced next week and the Euro has maintained its value after all.

Matteo Renzi in Palazzo Chigi Source: Business Insider

Matteo Renzi in Palazzo Chigi
Source: Business Insider

You may be wondering what the picture above has got to do with any of this. I was struck by this image of Renzi which I came across on the Business Insider website, not by him particularly, but more by the fragment of the picture behind him showing a naked rider riding bare-backed on a rearing horse. After some research, I found out that the PM is standing in front of a fresco by Rafael which is currently in the Palazzo Chigi, the Presidential Palace. It depicts the meeting between Pope Leo the Great and Atilla the Hun in 452 AD. Legend has it that the miraculous apparition of Saints Peter and Paul when Attila met with Pope Leo caused him to desist from invading Italy and marching on Rome. Actually, Pope Leo was among a group of ‘Ambassadors’ sent by the reigning emperor Valentinian III and it is not known what exactly made Attila cease his conquest, possibly an outbreak of the Plague in northern Italy. Anyhow, the fresco was originally in the Rafael Rooms of the Apostolic Palace in the Vatican and was moved to Palazzo Chigi but that’s another story. What’s ironic is Renzi standing in front of a fresco alluding to the prospect of an Italian invasion over 1,500 years ago. Historically, Italy has always been politically unstable. It only became a fully unified country in 1870 as a monarchy. In 1946, the monarchy was abolished by referendum and it became a democratic republic but since then, there have been about 63 different governments, clearly none of them lasting for too long. So even if the ‘No’ vote signals a possible takeover by a populist or extreme right government as seems to be the spirit of the times, it will be a miracle if it lasts more than a short period. We are all waiting with bated breath to see what happens next.

1481300702515The other excitement of the week was the official start of the Christmas season yesterday, Dec 8th, the Feast of the Immaculate Conception. By tradition, the Pope lays a wreath on the statue of the Virgin at Piazza Mignanelli near the Spanish steps and Christmas lights are turned on in the city. The church two doors down from me Chiesa dell’Immacolata celebrates the feast of its namesake in style. In the afternoon, a procession, complete with a brass band and people carrying lighted candles, escorted the statue of the Virgin from the church and proceeded down the hill stopping at intervals for prayers and singing.

1481300870453This took a couple of hours and it was dark by the time they returned to the church where there were more prayers and music. The event finished with a show of fireworks which I watched from my window before going to meet friends for dinner. Since I will be returning to Toronto for Christmas, my friends here are kindly inviting me to dinners and other events before I leave which is very nice. Loris would be pleased and so am I!

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More Than Just the Leaning Tower in Pisa

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Campo dei Miracoli, Pisa

Campo dei Miracoli, Pisa

Loris and I never got around to visiting Pisa although we always mean’t to go. The train to Pisa goes from a train station that’s just five minutes from our apartment and we always thought we would do it on the spur of the moment but never did. So, when my sister was here, I talked her into going there.

Arno River at Pisa

Arno River at Pisa

Most tourists go to Pisa just to see the Torre Pendente as it’s called and often don’t even spend the night there. It’s a small city with the River Arno flowing through it and was an important seaport during medieval times. In 1063, the Pisans attacked and conquered the city of Palermo in Sicily returning with a lot of treasure. They used it to show off their importance by building a cathedral complex, the Campo dei Miracoli (Field of Miracles) which was to have a cathedral, a baptistery, a bell tower and a cemetery.

Leaning Tower of Pisa

Leaning Tower of Pisa

Pisa is said to have got its name in 600 BC from a Greek word meaning marshy land so you know what’s coming next! The soil in the area of the Campo dei Miracoli is soft so when the tower was started in 1173, it began to tilt when the 3rd storey was reached. In fact, the cathedral and baptistery also lean very slightly. Luckily, it was a time of wars and instability so building was stopped for about a hundred years which allowed the soil to settle and hold the weight. If it hadn’t been for this, the tower would have toppled very quickly. Building resumed in bits and pieces and wasn’t completed until 1370, almost 200 years after it was started. This too was a good thing as it allowed the soil to settle each time building stopped. At one point, in an effort to correct the lean, an architect made one side of the upper floors slightly taller on the short side which didn’t help and only made it lean more on account of the extra weight. Anyhow, by 1990, the tilt made the tower around 15 ft off the vertical and the danger of toppling was imminent. A group of experts was convened to come up with a plan to stabilize it and the tower was closed for 10 years. Around 2000, through a masterpiece of engineering and much preparation, the  soil was carefully removed from under the tall side while the tower was anchored with steel cables. This worked and the tower is actually beginning to straighten. It is now open and visitors can climb to the top once again though we chose not to.

Camposanto

Camposanto

We did, however, visit the rest of the complex. The Baptistery is enormous as you can see above. The idea was that only the baptized could go into church so baptism took place in the Baptistry and the newly baptized were then taken across into the cathedral. We had the good fortune to experience the wonderful acoustics as we happened to be there at noon when the guard stepped into the centre and entertained us with his fine voice. The  adjacent Camposanto cemetery is particularly beautiful with sarcophagi and burial places in an arched cloister lined with frescoes. The more important frescoes have been moved to the museum though three of the finest are in a little gallery within the cloister. Unfortunately, they’re being restored so we didn’t get to see them.

Camposanto Cloister

Camposanto Cloister

I was interested to see that the mathematician Fibonacci who was from Pisa is buried here.  When I was in Fes in Morocco, I came upon a plaque saying that Fibonacci had lived and studied there and indeed it was he who introduced the Hindu/Arabic decimal numeral system to Europe as well as the concept of zero. As if that wasn’t enough, he came up with the Fibonacci sequence which is like a miracle, really interesting and beautiful to see in nature. I’m glad that he ended up in the Field of Miracles.

In the centre of Pisa is the Piazza dei Cavallieri which has a number of interesting buildings including the Pallazo dell’Orologio (Clock Tower) which is now a library but housed the town jail in medieval times. We were wandering around the Piazza after lunch hoping to be able to go into this palazzo when we saw a few people standing in the foyer. We rushed over and it happened to be a special tour for a few students which they let us join.

Ugolino and His sons Jean-Baptiste Carpeaux Metropolitan Museum NYC

Ugolino and His sons
Jean-Baptiste Carpeaux
Metropolitan Museum NYC

Well, it was most interesting. In 1288, Count Ugolino, the Mayor of Pisa at that time, was accused of treachery and imprisoned in the clock tower with all his male heirs. Not only imprisoned but actually walled in and left to starve. This is recounted in Dante’s Inferno and Dante alludes to Ugolino cannibalizing the children as a result of hunger. The alleged episode has been depicted by many artists including Carpeaux, Rodin, Dore and Blake. I was relieved to find out that this ghastly event likely did not take place. In 2002, an Italian paleoanthropologist, Francesco Mallegni, did DNA and chemical analysis of the excavated bones of Ugolino which revealed traces of magnesium but no zinc suggesting that he had consumed no meat in the months before his death. Poor man, to have achieved such dubious fame through Dante’s imagination.

Tuttomondo Keith Hareng, 1989

Tuttomondo
Keith Hareng, 1989

On the way to the station to get our train, we saw a huge mural by Keith Hareng painted on the wall of the Sant’Antonio church complex. Apparently, Hareng met a student from Pisa in New York and ended up coming to Pisa in 1989 and doing this mural entitled ‘Tuttomondo’ representing world harmony. He died a few months later so it was likely his last major work.

I only went to Pisa because since the train there was so convenient, I thought I should make an effort to see the leaning tower. I never thought that I would see and learn so much in the process.

 

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Troubling Times and More on Morocco

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Chefchaouen

Chefchaouen

I’m back in Rome and have been busy with guests including my sister Florinda since I got back a little over a week ago. It was nice to have people here during these sad and troubling times with Trump elected as the new U.S. President and the deaths of two iconic musicians Leonard Cohen and Leon Russell. I find myself not wanting to read another word about ‘that man’ (and I’m not referring to either of the Ls!) and yet reading everything I come across to see what new madness is afoot. As one of my friends commented, its like watching a horror movie unfold. We can only wait and see how it`s all going to shake out.

RIF Mountains

RIF Mountains

I’m depressed about the political climate and don’t feel like continuing with the Moroccan journey but I shall plow on in an effort to distract you with something less dismal than what we’re facing.

From Fes, we drove north to Chefchaouen at the base of the RIF mountains stopping at Meknes on the  way to see the Royal Palace. Meknes, established as the royal capital by Sultan Moulay Ismail in the 17th cent. is a mixture of Andalusian and Moorish architecture surrounded by high walls and gigantic gates.

Royal Stables, Fes

Royal Stables, Fes

The Royal Stables are truly an impressive sight, built to house 12,000 horses reputedly each with its own groom and slave. Legend has it that Moulay Ismael was fanatical about his horses and cared more for them more than for his subjects! He was a one of Morocco’s more ruthless leaders and treated his labourers inhumanely. Ruthless and bigoted leaders are not a new phenomenon! The roof of the stables was destroyed by an earthquake in 1755 but the structure still stands and is truly a remarkable sight complete with water supplies and enormous grain stores to feed the horses.

Chefchaouen translated as ‘Looking at the Peaks’ is a quaint little village with all the houses painted white and blue. Declared a World Heritage Site in 2010, it looks more Greek or Andalusian than other places in Morocco.

Chefchaouen Street

Chefchaouen Street

Many Arabs and Jews came here  from southern Spain after 1492 when the inhabitants of Spain were forced to convert to Catholicism, bringing the Andalusian style of architecture with them. Chefchaouen is also the region where marijuana can be legally grown (kif in the RIF) and which supplies the majority of the hashish sold in Europe. It is not legal to buy it in the streets, not that we were looking to do so. We enjoyed walking around the streets, seeing the Berbers from the mountains selling their wares, watching the children playing and their mothers chit chatting in doorways, all without the need for mind enhancing drugs!

Our next stop was Tangier where the Mediterranean and Atlantic ocean meet on the bay of the Straits of Gibralter. A modern city with cafes and restaurants but with an ancient medina and a varied and fascinating history. A Phoenician trading post in the 1st cent. BC, it was successively Carthaginian, Roman, Byzantine, Muslim, Spanish, Portuguese, British, and international city of its own from 1912 until the independence of Morocco in 1956. As a result of its international status and mild climate, it became a haven for many writers like Paul Bowles, Jack Kerouac, William Burroughs, Tennessee Williams Jean Genet and Alan Ginsberg. Burroughs wrote The Naked Lunch in Tangier. The French painters Delacroix and Matisse also spent time there.

Hercules Cave

Hercules Cave, Tangier

Despite it being dark in the early evening, I dragged one of our party, Jill, to the Café Hafa which used to be the meeting place for many expats. A lovely location with terraces overlooking the ocean to the Straits of Gibralter and a great place to sit sipping mint tea. We saw lots of young people as well as couples and it seemed that the atmosphere was more relaxed in Tangier than in some other parts of Morocco. One of the sights I was glad to see was the Hercules cave on the coast just outside the city which has an opening in the shape of the continent of Africa reputed to have been cut out by the Phoenicians. Legend has it that Hercules stayed in the cave before completing his eleventh labour which was to get golden apples from the garden of Hesperides supposedly located closeby.

Oudaias Kasbah, Rabat

Oudaias Kasbah, Rabat

We spent a day in Rabat, the capital city but were not up to racing around seeing all the sights so we stayed close to the medina where our riadh was located. I only visited the Oudaias Kasbah and walked around the medina. There were no people trying to push  their wares and though bargaining is the norm in the souks in Morocco, prices here started at a reasonable sum. The Kasbah is on the edge of the city overlooking the ocean. We saw a lot of young people enjoying the views and hanging out with their friends and also young couples showing public affection.

Our final stop was Casablanca, famous for the Ingrid Bergman, Humphrey Bogart movie Casablanca. Here too, the women seemed less traditional and many wore western dress.  Its hard to judge how much independence women really have in this male dominated culture and I wish I had been able to talk to a woman about this.

Hassan II Mosque, Casablanca

Hassan II Mosque, Casablanca

One of the most impressive sights in Casablanca is the new Hassan II mosque situated partly in the ocean and partly on land which took 7 years to build. Its minaret is said to be the tallest in the world. It is the only mosque in Morocco that non-Moslems are allowed to enter. Casablanca also has one of the only Jewish museums in the Arab world. It was interesting to visit as it shows how Jewish and Muslim Moroccans once had a harmonious coexistence. There`s more to be gained from peaceful and tolerant communities than from divisive politics and hate mongering. I hope Trump can come around to that view.

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Fes: A Medieval Time Capsule

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Bab Boujloud (Blue Gate) into Fes Medina

Bab Boujloud (Blue Gate) into Fes Medina

Our drive from Marrakech to Fes provided a good opportunity to observe the changing landscape.

1477737669055We drove from the desert-like terrain of Marrakech, through rocky scrub, to the fertile area of the Mid Atlas region. Here there are olive groves, fields of crops and grazing sheep.

We arrived in Fes and had to walk into the medina to get to our riad, Dar Seffarine, which is situated in the oldest part of the medina. It is next to the Place Seffarine 1477737982816where metal work is done and where all the coppersmiths make their pots and pans. Linden has stayed in this riad many times and knows the owners well so it was a bit like staying with friends since it is small, homely and welcoming. All the guests sit together at a communal table in the garden or on the terrace for meals.

The medina of Fes, reputed to be the largest in the world, is roughly divided into two parts, Fes el-Bali, the oldest, was first established in 789. Fes el-Jdid was added about four centuries later and encompasses the Jewish quarter. Outside the walls is Ville Nouvelle which modern and hip with shopping malls and fashionable stores.

Kairaouine Mosque in Fes el-Bali

Kairaouine Mosque in Fes el-Bali

There are 260 mosques in the medina. Its hard to describe the cacophony of sound that fills the air at the calls to prayer held five times a day. Suffice to say that the first time I heard it, the evening we arrived, it sounded as if dozens of braying donkeys as well as a pack of howling wolves had suddenly been let loose. I think the Imams compete with each other to put out the loudest call. I’m glad none of them are likely to be reading this and hearing of themselves described in this way!

Street in Fes el-Bali Medina

Street in Fes el-Bali Medina

The streets of the medina are very narrow, sometimes narrower than the span of one’s arms, and it is an absolute labyrinth with a maze of streets, many of them dead ends. There is no motorized traffic in the medina, not even bicycles and goods are carried by mule.

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Decorating Clay Bowls

Decorating Clay Bowls

Craftsmen work in clusters in the same way as they might have done hundreds of years ago, with needle and thread, chisels and hammers, paint brushes and other tools used by hand. There is the feeling of having stepped back in time.

What I find fascinating is the difference in style of the houses in the Moslem and Jewish quarters. As in Marrakech, Moslem houses have practically windowless walls on the outside. If windows are present, they are like slits. This particular window below, is curved so that women can look out onto the street without being seen from the outside.

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Jewish Quarter, Fes el-Jdid

Jewish Quarter, Fes el-Jdid

In the Jewish quarter on the other hand, the houses have windows and balconies and the atmosphere is quite different. There was a large Jewish population in a number of cities in Morocco until the 1960s when most of the Jews left to go to Israel, France and Canada. Now, only about 200 Jews still live in Fes.

 

 

 

1477759761165Our cooking experience continued in Fes. We started with a trip to the souk to buy ingredients. We picked a live chicken and while we continued with our shopping, the vendor plucked and cleaned it for us ready to pick up on our way back.

 

 

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Camel meat is also sold and butchers selling camel meat can be easily identified. I haven’t gotten around to tasting it though there’s a cafe that sells camel burgers and I’m told that the meat is very lean.

In our cooking class, we made Pastilla, a pie enclosed in a very fine pastry which is usually bought freshly prepared in the market.

 

 

 

 

14777620904621477759597257Pastillas are traditionally made with pigeon but chicken is more readily available. The base is onion, egg, and crushed almonds with the top sprinkled with sugar and cinnamon. I always think of Loris when I see Pastilla as he was determined to make it once by following a recipe. It took us the whole day and looked nothing like what you see here as neither of us had ever seen or tasted one.  He would have enjoyed learning how to do it and what it should really taste like.

The day before yesterday, we did a day trip to some small towns of the Mid-Atlas, Azrou, Seffrou and Ifrane driving through ancient cedar forests with Barbary monkeys.

14777590313521477759103799We stopped at a place where a few people still live in houses hollowed out from caves, now hooked up to electricity. This old lady was very welcoming and entertained us to mint tea. She wasn’t at all reluctant or bashful to have her picture taken and of course why would she be since she probably makes her living from tourists giving her money!

Restored Caravanserai with Trading Scales

Restored Caravanserai with Trading Scales

In Fes you see amazing craftsmanship, beautiful textiles, leatherwork, metalwork etc. Everyone is looking to make a few dirhams in whatever way they can and bargaining is part of the culture which makes shopping for non-food related items tiring as a whole exchange of conversation has to be undertaken including drinking a glass of mint tea for large items such as carpets. It has always been like this in countries based on trading. Fes was on the trading route between the Sahara and the Mediterranean and the caravanserais which housed the traders as they went on their way had huge scales for weighing goods for exchange and barter.

We have been doing a lot of rushing around but we took it easy today and went to a hammam. First we were taken into a steam room, then we were scrubbed clean on marble tables and given a little massage. Finally, there was a dip in a cold pool to close the pores. It was very pleasant and relaxing and I was glad to have a day of rest as tomorrow we leave for Meknes and Chefchaouen.

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Marrakech: A Feast for the Senses

 

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Marrakech Medina

Marrakech Medina

I flew from Rome to Casablanca where I met three friends from Toronto at the airport. One of them, Lindan, used to conduct food tours in Morocco in the past and knows the country well so she organized the whole trip, a lot of it based around buying, cooking and tasting food. We are staying in riad hotels. A riad is a house (dar) with a garden, in the medina (walled city). In the Islamic tradition, dars are completely unprepossesing and lacking ornamentation including windows on the outside but highly ornate on the inside with rooms arranged around a central courtyard.

Photo: Sandy Wiseman

Photo: Sandy Wiseman

We took a shuttle to Marrakech where we stayed opposite the Royal Palace at a riad called Dar les Cigognes (House of Storks) which is actually two houses joined together. The main house originally belonged to a Jewish family and has windows facing the street while the other originally belonged to a Moslem family, and only has windows facing the inner courtyard. This is a typical distinguishing feature of the houses in the medina which once had a large Jewish population. The name of the hotel became clear when we went up to the beautiful terrace where we could see a huge stork’s nest on top of one of the Palace towers. One evening we saw a stork sitting on the nest which kept us entertained for quite a while. Not that we needed any extra entertainment in Marrakech which is a fascinating city in a desert-like landscape on the edge of the High Atlas mountains.

Marrakech Medina

Marrakech Medina

The day after we arrived, we had a quick tour of the medina to get our bearings. The large central square, Jama-el-Fna, is surrounded by a maze of narrow streets not accessible to traffic where goods are carried by donkey carts. The windowless walls of the houses create the feeling of enclosed and mysterious streets. Each neighbourhood in the medina has five essential places, a bakery where women bring in their bread to be baked since old houses didn’t have ovens, a fountain for water, a hamam (bath house), a nursery school, and a mosque.

Neighbourhood Public Bakery Photo: Sandy Wiseman

Neighbourhood Public Bakery
Photo: Sandy Wiseman

The bakeries are still stoked by wood and function as they did hundreds of years ago. As many as 2,000 loaves may be baked in a day. Every platter of bread is identified by the cloth it is covered with so that it can be returned to the right person after the bread is baked.

 

 

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Next to the hamam, down a few steps, is a wood fire for heating the bath water. The ashes close to the fire are used to cook a dish called tangia, the only dish traditionally cooked by a man. A man goes to the market with an earthenware pot and first buys meat which is placed in the bottom. This is followed by vegetables, water, spices and oil. The pot is sealed, shaken and left in the hot ashes for several hours to cook slowly so that the one-pot meal is ready for collection on the way home.

Dried Fruits

Dried Fruits

Our own introduction to Moroccan cooking started with a trip to the food section of the souk (market) followed by a cooking class. The souks are truly a feast for the senses with their arrays of colourful textiles, pottery, jewellery, spices, dried fruit and nuts, perfumes and oils. In the food section, there is everything you need for daily cooking including live chickens so you can pick the bird you want.

Foosia and Pierre

Foosia and Pierre

Our cooking class took place in the kitchen of our riadh where the cook, Foozia, is a ‘dada’ which means that she was trained to be a cook by her mother who was trained by her mother and so on, going back generations. Foozia only speaks Moroccan and the manager of the riad, Pierre Erve was there to translate. It wasn’t long before Pierre, who is French, opened a bottle of wine  to enhance our cooking experience.

Moroccan meals often begin with a selection of salads made with cooked vegetables. We learned to make a couple of salads including zalouk made with diced sauteed aubergine. Then a vegetable couscous where a selection of five vegetables is put in the bottom of a pot together with spices, oil and water all brought to a rolling boil with the couscous placed in a steamer above to cook. Our meat course was a chicken tagine cooked in the traditional earthenware dish of the same name richly flavoured with ras-el-hanout, a blend of 30 to 50 spices. After all the food was cooked, we sat down to dinner and enjoyed the fruits of our labour.

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Vegetable Couscous and Chicken Tagine

Vegetable Couscous and Chicken Tagine

Apart from cooking and eating the food we cook, Lindan knows all the best restaurants. We had the most delicious lamb shoulder with caramellized onions and almonds in a restaurant called Al Fassia which had to be ordered a day in advance. This restaurant is owned and staffed entirely by women. Unusual in any country never mind in a Moslem one. The King of Morocco is progressive and liberal and has introduced several laws favouring equality for women. Anyhow, to go back to food, at the rate I’m eating, I don’t think the clothes I arrived with will fit me on the way home. I might have to buy a kaftan which is a beautiful but shapeless garment designed such that a woman’s shape is not revealed to the public, and which easily accomodates a few extra pounds.

 

 

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Climate Change

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1476719455433Our Thanksgiving in Canada was just a little over a week ago. I spent it at my sister’s cottage in south west Ontario. A rural area full of apple orchards, pumpkin fields and other harvest crops including tobacco, a perfect place to give thanks for the earth’s bounty.

Ontario Squash

Ontario Squash

Usually, at this time of year, there is an autumnal chill in the air, the leaves have changed colour and one starts to feel the approach of winter. Not this time as the sun was shining and it was warm enough to sit outside during the day.

Imagine my surprise when a couple of days later, I landed in Rome to be greeted by damp, cool and gloomy weather. The temperature was 23C when I left Toronto and 16C when I landed at midday in Rome!  Anyhow, a warm sirocco wind appeared the next day and the sun came out again giving us a beautiful weekend and making me feel like it was still summer. It was warm enough to leave the doors and windows open during the day and not to need a sweater or jacket.

Campo de' Fiori, Rome

Campo de’ Fiori, Rome

The Romans of course are dressed for the season and only tourists are wearing sandals!  Today, it is wet and on the cool side again so maybe that’s why the Romans stick to their seasonal clothing. I’m reminded that one of the effects of global warming is not necessarily that it’s warmer but more that the weather  becomes more unstable and unpredictable so there’s no certitude  what each day might bring, especially during seasonal transitions. 

In a couple of days, I leave for a holiday in Morocco where I’m told it can be warm during the day and cold at night especially in places close to the Atlas mountains. Since I’m only taking carry-on luggage, I might need to supplement my clothing but I don’t think it will be difficult given that a lot of time will be spent wandering about in the souks. 

 

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Changing Seasons

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Toronto Skyline at Sunset

Toronto Skyline at Sunset

We’ve had beautiful weather in Toronto but there are clear signs that summer has come to an end, The nights are getting cooler and there is a feeling of seasonal change in the air. I have been lucky to catch the tail end of some summer activities. One evening, a week or two ago, a friend invited me to join them on their boat for a sunset sail. It was a beautiful, sunny evening and we sailed around the harbour enjoying the Toronto skyline. The sunset was spectacular as you can see above and it was most invigorating feeling the wind in the sails. Afterwards, we had a fine dinner in the yacht club washed down by copious amounts of red wine. A great way to end a memorable experience!

Art Installation, Jonas Stonkus

Art Installation, Jonas Stonkus

Last weekend I visited my sister Florinda at their cottage in southern Ontario. The weather was glorious and there was a studio tour happening so we went from studio to studio in the countryside admiring sculptures, paintings, pottery and such. The highlight for me was actually a garden. A work of art created by Jonas Stonkus who displays his other works with metal and glass in the garden so that walking through it was like wandering around an outdoor gallery.

One of the routines of being in the country is that that the dog has to get his long walk. We went for a walk in the woods where Florinda and her husband, who are expert at picking wild mushrooms, found the first crop of the autumn. 1475198454257

Needless to say, there was wild mushroom risotto for dinner that night. I couldn’t help thinking of Loris who loved hunting for mushrooms with Florinda and who, being northern Italian, made superb risotto. I used to leave all the Italian cooking to him but I followed his way of making mushroom risotto as best as I could remember and it was quite good, even if I say so myself.

Some of my friends have been commenting on how well I seem to be doing what with biking, canoeing, and spending time in the countryside. 1475201956370This is true to some extent as my family and friends have taken the trouble to invite me to things and have included me in their excursions but grief is a strange beast. It does not diminish in a linear fashion so it’s not like walking through a tunnel and seeing the light at the end getting closer. Some days, I feel quite normal, even happy, and some days I feel very sad. The only change is that the sadness is not as extreme as it was a few months ago. I suspect that I will continue in this way for quite some time.

On one of our walks at the weekend, I saw this beautiful butterfly. I was reminded that  1475183384721butterflies are symbolic of transformation going from egg to caterpillar, to pupa to magnificent flying insect in their short lifespan. The seasons also change as do all living things including ourselves. We have no control over the twists and turns that lie ahead of us and we sometimes have to completely change our course. Periods of transition are most unsettling but I’m working on the notion that we can use change to reflect on our lives and try to become better human beings.

 

 

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A Truly Canadian Experience

(click on pictures to enlarge)dscn3025One of the highlights of summer in Canada for many people, is canoeing in the wilderness. I’m a bit of a wimp and a feeble paddler but I’m lucky to have my friends Jocelyn and Jeanette who are intrepid outdoor enthusiasts and who organize a canoe trip every summer for whoever might be interested in joining them.

1473644464711Last weekend was a long weekend here, Monday being Labour Day, and they organized a trip to Georgian Bay along the Key River. We were a group of 10 people in 5 canoes. We drove up the Trans Canada Highway past Parry Sound on Friday and camped close to our starting point. Early on Saturday morning, we set off and paddled down the river to the Bay, a distance of about 10 miles. Georgian Bay is a large body of water sometimes referred to as the 6th Great Lake. It has 2,000 km of shoreline and is dotted with around 30,000 islands mostly consisting of Precambrian rock.

dscn3036The weather was gorgeous, not too hot and not too cold with sunny blue skies, and the scenery was beautiful.  I would be lying if I said that it was an easy run for me. Already tired by the time we reached the mouth of the river, canoeing against the wind in open water a few more miles across the Bay to one of the islands close to the French River Provincial Park was exhausting. However, we found a great spot to camp with good spots for our tents and for swimming and once we got there and set up our tents, it was worth the effort.

dscn3035Jeanette organizes wonderful meals and dinner around an open fire with a couple of glasses of wine left us all feeling relaxed and happy. Before retiring to our sleeping bags, great care was taken to pack away all our food and even toothpaste and toiletries into a sealed plastic barrel to prevent nocturnal bear visits. There is something wonderful about being in total darkness in the wilderness with the stars of the night sky clearly visible and the sound of the wind rustling through the pines and waves lapping on the shoreline.

1473620400358In the morning, seeing the sun rise over the water was spectacular. The air is fresh and clean and it is a good time for contemplation. One has to remember though that it is the wilderness. I was terrified out of my wits coming upon this snake as I walked from my tent to the breakfast area. It disappeared under a pile of rocks as I approached but from then on, I was very careful about where I stepped. The snakes in this area are generally not venomous except for the Massasauga Rattler and the markings on this one did not convince me that it wasn’t one of those, not that I hung around to examine it closely!

1473620554197We did more relaxed paddling on Sunday, exploring parts of the Pickerel River and stopping for a relaxed lunch and swimming.  On Monday, we paddled leisurely back up the Key River to our starting point. By the time we had unpacked our canoes, loaded them onto the cars and organized ourselves, it was almost time for dinner so we stopped at Pizza Hut in Parry Sound. Imagine the shock we got when having spent three days in the wilderness with no sight of any bears, we saw this one on the edge of the restaurant carpark.  Apparently, they wander around the outskirts of the town looking for food. All I can say is that I’m glad we saw the bear here rather than on the island upon which we had camped as between snakes and bears, I wouldn’t have slept a wink.

dscn3044Since I’m on the subject of Canadian wildlife, I’m including this picture of a beaver lodge. Beavers feed on wood, sedges and water lilies. They store sticks and logs in a pile and in winter, when snow comes, it remains on top providing insulation and preventing the water underneath from freezing.

I returned from the trip refreshed and happy that I had been given this opportunity to experience the great Canadian wilderness in a canoe. To Jocelyn and Jeanette, thank you.

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Toronto in August

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1471999383257Apologies to my readers for this long silence. I have been back in Toronto since the beginning of August. The weather here is warm and sunny without being too hot and I have been enjoying seeing my family and friends. So much has happened that I can’t write about each thing individually so here are a few snapshots of things I’ve been doing.

First of all, I’m so happy to be back on my bike again. I bike everywhere but some of the best rides have been along the lake which has a bike path stretching for miles.

1472000505535The countryside in parts of Ontario is beautiful. There aren’t as many mosquitos and flies this year so walking in the woods has been a pleasure rather than a torture as it can be sometimes.

1472001503283I felt the need of some concentrated quiet time so I went on a meditation retreat at Sugar Ridge Retreat Centre put on by a group called the Consciousness Explorer’s Club, a group whose philosophy is ‘Meditate, Celebrate, Activate’. In short: meditate; enjoy/celebrate life; and do good in the world. A good way to live, I feel and something I think about more and more. Today, August 24th is exactly 6 months since Loris died, also on a Wednesday. The retreat made me consolidate my thoughts that there’s no point in dwelling on the past nor worrying about the future. Life brings us things beyond our control and all we can do is try and maintain our equilibrium and live as best as we can in the present.

1472001630696One of the things I’ve really enjoyed is spending time with children in the family. There is nothing more joyful than seeing a child laugh with delight or watch them seeing something for the first time.

1472001860728Summer in Toronto is a time when everybody spends time outdoors. Watching people playing baseball, soccer, and other games which only take place in the summer is fun.

1472002119975I love the fact that Toronto is on the lake. Catching sight of sailing regattas on the lake in the setting sun or seeing the moon rise over the lake is truly a pleasure. I was lucky to see a rainbow over the lake so I’m sharing that rare and beautiful sight above.

1472002309559We are lucky to have various events taking place in the public parks like ‘Dances at Dusk’ and ‘Shakespeare in the Park’. You pay a suggested minimal donation, or what you can, or nothing at all thanks to the hard work of dozens of volunteers.

1472002589602My only regret is that it is nearly the end of August. The evenings are getting cooler and those lazy, hazy days of summer will soon be at an end. It’s not finished yet though and I will continue to enjoy whatever comes my way and I hope you all will too.

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Open Doors

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Porta Santa, St. Peter's Basilica

Porta Santa, St. Peter’s Basilica

This is the Jubilee Year in Rome. The Porta Santa or Holy Door to the Papal basilicas, of which there are four in Rome including St. Peters, have been opened for pilgrims to walk through. These Holy Doors are normally sealed from the inside with mortar and cement and are only opened about every 25 years or so. Pope Boniface VIII in the year 1,300 started the tradition of the Holy Year or Jubilee. During the Jubilee year, pilgrims who walk through the door gain a Plenary Indulgence or in other words, less punishment for their sins in the next life.

Holy Door Detail with Nyah

Holy Door Detail with Nyah

Anyhow, my nephew and family were visiting me and though I don’t usually accompany first time visitors to Rome to see the major sites, I did go with them to St. Peter’s Basilica so that I could walk through the door. The Holy Door is a double door, opening in the middle. Each side consists of 8 panels which depict scenes from the Bible. They are magnificent and of course were polished to a gleaming lustre. To pass from the outside through the door into the Basilica represents leaving the world and entering into the presence of God in order to offer a sacrifice of atonement whether it be prayer or good works. I don’t think this was quite on my niece Nyah’s mind as she strolled through the door. I’m very glad I went but since I didn’t pray when I went in (hard to do in St. Peter’s with all the people milling about taking photos), I will have to come up with some good work to ensure a better chance of a place in heaven!

I also accompanied them to the Foro Romano which is another site I don’t normally go to with my guests.

Frescoes, Santa Maria Antiqua

Frescoes, Santa Maria Antiqua

The reason I went was because this year, the Basilica di Santa Maria Antiqua, the earliest Christian church in the Foro Romano built in the 6th cent. is open to the public for the first time in over 30 years. It houses a rare collection of early Christian art with amazing frescoes, mosaics and paintings, recently restored at an enormous cost and funded by the Italian State and the World Monuments Fund.

1469523756610This depiction of the Virgin Mary is one of the oldest known Christian icons in the world. The church is situated at the bottom of the Palatine hill where Rome’s emperors one lived and was buried under rubble following an earthquake in 847. It was only uncovered in 1900 and thus escaped the alterations which were carried out in other churches during the baroque or the Counter Reformation periods. Consequently, it has remained intact and has been referred to as the equivalent of the Sistine Chapel of the early Middle Ages. I would have liked to have spent a longer time there with less people about but felt lucky to have had this opportunity to see it since it will be closed again in September for further restoration work.

Roman Passageway to Palatine Hill

Roman Passageway to Palatine Hill

Another work in progress next to the church is the uncovering and restoration of a gigantic, covered ramp which led from the Forum to the top of the Palatine hill in Roman times. It is also truly magnificent in both scale and grandeur. As with all the Roman ruins, the marble and decorative elements lining the walls have been stripped but there are little bits and pieces which have been found and are on display so one can imagine what it must have looked like in its heyday. It is amazing to think that there are areas of the Foro Romano that are still waiting to be revealed and I’m looking forward to seeing what is uncovered next. There’s always something more to see in Rome!

 

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