Italy’s New Prime Minister

Matteo Renzi and Foreign Affairs Minister Federica Mogherini (Photo by Andreas Solaro/AFP/Getty Images)

Matteo Renzi and Foreign Affairs Minister Federica Mogherini (Photo by Andreas Solaro/AFP/Getty Images)

I live in a bit of a bubble here since I can’t read the newspapers easily nor can I follow the news commentaries on radio or TV. Its like being on a permanent vacation. However, even I have been drawn into an interest in politics with the appointment of Matteo Renzi as the new Prime Minister. He’s the third PM in a short space of time to be appointed by the President rather than elected. At 39, he’s the youngest PM in the history of Italy and has chosen a young cabinet with an average age of 48, half of whom are women. This in itself is notable since positions of power in the the Italian workforce are still very much male dominated. Sadly, it seems to me that already, the women are not being taken seriously. At their swearing-in ceremony, the media did not debate their capability (some are inexperienced and have heavyweight portfolios) but their fashion sense. Clothing, shoes, make-up and even tights were commented upon. I didn’t come across any comments on the men’s suits, ties or socks!

I must confess that I find Italian politics quite baffling. There are more than a dozen parties with ideologies ranging from extreme right to extreme left and its quite hard to keep track of them. The government is formed by a coalition of nine parties so getting agreement on anything is quite a feat. Then, any proposed change has to be approved by the Senate (upper chamber) as well as by the Chamber of Deputies (lower chamber). Membership of the two chambers is very different so approval by one does not automatically favour approval by the other. Incidentally, for some strange reason, those aged 25 and above can be voted for as representatives in the lower chamber but only those aged 40 and above can be voted onto the Senate. Furthermore, those 18 and over can vote for those in the lower chamber but you have to be 25 or over to vote for members of the Senate.  What I find most confusing is that leaders of the parties are not necessarily in Parliament. So for example, Renzi has never served in Parliament nor will he now that he’s the PM. Silvio Berlusconi lost his Parlimentary seat but remains as head of his party which recently split to create yet another party. Renzi has promised to cut taxes and reduce unemployment which is around 17% among the under 40s and over twice that among the under 25s. How he proposes to do this is not yet clear but everyone is waiting to see how it all shakes out. I hope that his reforms bode well both for Italy’s youth as well as its women.

Palazzo del Quirinale

Courtyard, Palazzo del Quirinale

Just as an aside, the President, the Senate and the Chamber of Deputies are all housed in different buildings.  The Senate is in Palazzo Madama near Piazza Navona,  and the Chamber of Deputies is in Palazzo Montecitorio just off Via del Corso. The President is in the Palazzo del Quirinale which sits on Quirinale Hill, one of the seven hills of Rome. It was once the seat of the reigning Pope and subsequently the Italian Kings. There is a church in the courtyard which one can’t normally enter except on Sunday morning when there is a free concert. Another item on my ‘to do list’!

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Lemon Bars


The lemon trees in our neighbourhood are loaded with fruit right now and it’s there for the taking. The branches hang over the walls of people’s gardens and if not picked, the lemons just fall on the ground and rot. Same for the oranges. Since I love that tart lemony taste, both in savoury food as well as in sweets, we’ve been picking lots of lemons.

1393248564113Last week, I made some lemon bars which were yummy. I found the recipe on the internet in ‘Mel’s Kitchen Cafe‘ but made a few minor modifications (mainly less sugar) so here it is. The shortbread crust was delicious in itself and the addition of the lemon topping was sheer decadence. I did end up freezing some of the bars as I had made an orange olive oil cake the day before so we had a glut of teatime treats, but they taste better when fresh. So make them and eat them, which is not difficult to do!


13/4 cups (~260g) all purpose flour

2/3 cup (150g) icing sugar

1/4 cup (~40g) corn starch

1/4 tsp salt

6 oz (175g) butter



4 large eggs

1 cup (225g) sugar

3 tabspns flour

2 tsp finely grated lemon zest

2/3 cup (160mL) freshly squeezed lemon juice (about 3 lemons)

1/3 cup (80mL) milk

pinch of salt

Sift the flour, sugar, salt and cornstarch. Cut in the butter and mix to form a dough. Press into a 9 X 13″ tin and leave to chill for 1/2 to 1h. Heat oven to 180C (350F) and bake crust until golden brown ~ 20 mins. Lower temperature to 170C (325F).

While crust is baking, beat the eggs, then beat in the sugar and flour. Add lemon juice, milk and zest and mix well. Pour over hot crust (the crust should not be left to cool). The topping is very liquid at this stage and one can’t imagine it thickening but it does. Bake 20-30 mins until topping is firm to the touch. Cut into squares and dust with icing sugar.

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Papa Francesco and Valentine’s Day

1389693535858In honour of Valentine’s day, I’m posting a picture of the above sculpture which we saw on a column in one of the temples in Kanchipuram. Several temples have erotic sculptures which can be quite explicit. Some of the gopurams have a small series of naked figures in one of the corners. We were gazing at these in one of the temples we visited when an elderly man came up to us and explained that they were there as a form of sex education for young people who in the old days would have no other way of finding out about the facts of life. But I digress……………..

 We returned to Rome just before Valentine’s day and heard that Papa Francesco, for the first time in the history of the church, was celebrating the day by blessing couples engaged to be married. The ceremony, originally planned for 7,000 was to be held in the Nervi Auditorium. However, the response was so positive that around 25,000 were expected and the event was held in St. Peter’s Square.

pic20140217153727The weather is bright and sunny here and since we live a few minutes walk from St. Peter’s, we wandered down to take a look. The Square was packed with people holding flags and balloons. There were readings by various people on marriage interspersed with pop songs about love. A bit of a media circus in my opinion but then I’m old and cynical! The Pope tweeted a message saying “Dear young people, don’t be afraid to marry. A faithful and fruitful marriage will bring you happiness.” He later mingled with the couples and gave his blessings.

 1392648089940We did not celebrate the day with anything special but we did go to Lake Bracciano for Sunday lunch yesterday where we enjoyed a fine meal in a restaurant on the edge of the water, with Valentine’s day decorations hanging from the windows. Not that we chose this restaurant because of that but rather for the food. You know you’re getting old when food is more important than romance!





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Travelling and Eating in Tamil Nadu

1391592046726We’ve actually left Tamil Nadu and are enjoying the sunny beaches of Goa. Since I’ve already written about Goa in a previous post, I thought I would describe our travels in Tamil Nadu in general, and tell you something about the food there.

1391933135133We had flown to Chennai with a good idea of the places we were going to visit ( Mammalapuram, Kanchipuram, Pondicherry, Thanjavur, Vailankanni, Trichy, Madura; see map) but with no plan of how to get from one place to the next. Most of our destinations were 60 to 100km apart and we discovered that hiring a car with a driver to cover these distances only cost around $25 – $35. 1391932630332

We figured that this was a good deal and we ended up choosing this means of transport for the most part. Since we arranged our cars on the street rather than through our hotel (more expensive) and didn’t want air-conditioning as we like travelling with the windows open, we sometimes ended up with ancient vehicles and on one occasion, an equally ancient driver who drove in his bare feet and didn’t speak a word of English. Within the towns, we took auto rickshaws which are plentiful and sometimes creatively painted. The roads have all manner of vehicles, bullock carts, bicycles, scooters, auto-rickshaws, cars and trucks, all going at their own pace. Almost all trucks have a colourful painted sign saying ‘Horn OK or Horn Please’. The horn is used to warn the vehicle in front that you are behind them and need to be given way. Surprisingly, this works well and the traffic always seems to flow smoothly despite the narrow roads and variety of vehicles. I’ve been in more traffic jams in Toronto than we ever came across in India.

 1392136453382One of the nice things about having a car at your disposal is that you get to see the countryside and you can stop where you like. Tamil Nadu produces a lot of rice and we drove through vast fields of rice paddies. Because it was the end of the second monsoon, the rice was in the process of being harvested. This is still done by hand for the most part though we did see a couple of mechanized harvesters. It’s a backbreaking job to harvest rice manually and the wastage is enormous. Over 40% of the crop is lost through inefficient harvesting, loss to rodents, and spoilage. Many plant researchers are aiming to develop more prolific rice plants but it seems to me that it would make more sense to find ways of improving harvesting and storage.

pic201402112210371391934712524Many of the villages still have mud huts with thatched roofs. The next step above is a tiled roof and the more affluent have a brick or concrete house often painted in funky colours. Every village has a little market area with vendors selling fruit and vegetables and there’s always a stall selling flower garlands which are placed on shrines or thin jasmine garlands sold by length for women to decorate their hair. It was good to see schools in rural areas and it pleased me to see lots of young girls on their way to school.


pic20140209140723The food in Tamil Nadu is pretty spicy even for breakfast. Breakfast consists of little steamed rice cakes called idli or coconut and rice pancakes called oothapam served with a thin lentil curry and a cocunut chutney, or a spicy type of fried doughnut, or deep-fried very thin rounds of dough called puris served with curried chickpeas. Dosas, paper-thin, very large rice pancakes are eaten at all times of day and are served plain or with various fillings. The coffee which is grown in south India is excellent and just delicious. Fidz thought it was as good as coffee in Italy which is high praise indeed! Lots of street stalls sell coffee and it is served in a little glass together with a little pot so that you can pour from one to the other to make it frothy and cool it down.

pic20140209140810Food, even in many restaurants, is served on a banana leaf and there are vendors in the market, just selling banana leaves. Most people eat with their hands and every restaurant has a wash-hand basin so you can wash your hands before and after dinner. Luckily, they provide foreigners with cutlery which was lucky as we couldn’t bring ourselves to eat rice with our hands!

1391932783073Our best meal was at a seaside shack in Velankanni where we had freshly caught sole and lobster, grilled right there in front of us, and served (at our request) with just salt and lemon. No cutlery, even for foreigners here but we managed quite well with our hands.



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Temples in Tamil Nadu

Ranganatha Temple, Trichy

Ranganatha Temple, Trichy

Ranganatha Temple, Trichy, Rooftop View

Ranganatha Temple, Trichy, Rooftop View

Tamil Nadu has a number of towns where there are Hindu temples going back to the 7th century. Temple architecture in the south is different from that in the north. Typically there is an outer enclosure and the entrance is surmounted by a high decorative tower called a gopuram. Within the enclosure is the main shrine often adorned with a gold dome, and I’m not talking about paint but plated with real gold!

Gopuram Detail, Meenakshi Temple, Madurai

Gopuram Detail, Meenakshi Temple, Madurai

Some of the larger temples have more than one enclosure like the Ranganatha temple just outside Trichy which has seven and which is one of the largest in India. The Meenakshi temple in Madurai has a single enclosure but it has four entrances each with a huge ornate gopuram. The more ornate gopurams are rich with painted iconography with images so packed together that its hard to take them all in.

Brideshwara Temple Detail, Thanjavur

Brideshwara Temple Detail, Thanjavur

I preferred the older Chola dynasty stone gopurams which have spectacular carvings. The detail worked in stone is exquisite.

1389716622554The innermost enclosure contains the main shrine devoted to a particular god and within the enclosures, are minor shrines. Lots of activities going on in the outer enclosures. There is food such as coconuts and rice for offerings on sale. There are areas where food is cooked in some temples which is given out to the poorer devotees. Some people just seem to be sitting around, either waiting for a specific prayer time or perhaps the temple is a more pleasant place to sit than being out in the street. All the priests are men but it seemed that the majority of devotees were women, just like in our churches!

1391564767492Tamil Nadu has churches and mosques as well. What I found most interesting about these is that they have elements of Hindu temple worship. You don’t enter churches without removing your shoes and many have large spaces in front of the altar where you sit on the floor. In a church in Vailankanni which is a place of pilgrimage for Catholics, I saw a man approaching the altar with a small coconut tree with the coconut still attached to the end which he left by the side of the altar. Immediately outside was a large tonsure hall where pilgrims could get their heads shaved which is often done among Hindus as a form of sacrifice and devotion.

Mosque, Nagore

Mosque, Nagore

We visited a Moslem mosque in Nagore whch had an outer enclosure with five turrets, closer in style to a gopuram than a minaret, with both men and women praying at the same time whereas in most traditional Moslem mosques, men and women pray in separate areas. The chants sounded more like Carnatic music than Islamic. Again, there were people just sitting in the courtyard looking like they were just passing time. All in all, religion seems more like a way of life here than it seems to be in the west.


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Ecole Francaise D'Extreme Orient

Ecole Francaise D’Extreme Orient

The Union Territory of Pondicherry (now called Puducherry) actually comprises a small district separate from the state of Tamil Nadu with its own Chief Minister. The city itself is on the sea about 100km south of Mammalipuram. It was owned by the French until 1954 and there are local people who speak French perfectly.

1390321192304Shocking though it seems now, the city was once divided into the French Quarter called Ville Blanche (White Town) and the Indian Quarter called Ville Noir (Black Town). Still referred to by the same names on maps, the two sections are separated by a narrow canal and the difference between the two towns is striking. White Town is closest to the sea and has wide tree-lined streets with French names and colonial style buildings. With its 2km sea wall and Promenade, and high-end restaurants and heritage hotels, it’s a little like a small town on the Cote d’Azure. Black Town has narrow, crowded, and busy streets and is like every other small town in India. Needless to say, people now move freely about the city.

1390321376574The Promenade on the seafront is a busy place in the evenings with people walking briskly for exercise and others strolling about chatting with their friends. The temperature at this time of year is perfect. About 25C to 30C during the day with an ocean breeze dropping to the low 20s in the evenings. We noticed quite a few people walking around with what appeared to be headphones except that they didn’t quite fit into the headphone wearing demographic (granny in a saree). We realized that they were wearing earmuffs for the cold! If you look closely at this photo, the husband is wearing earmuffs and the wife has a wooly hat.

Matrimandir, Auroville

Matrimandir, Auroville

Pondicherry was a trading port in antiquity and interestingly, remains of Roman amphorae dating to the 1st and 2nd century AD were discovered at Arikamedu,  an archaeological site about 7km south of the city. The amphorae contained garum (fermented fish sauce), olive oil and wine. Incidentally, the ones carrying wine were the most plentiful! Presumably, the Romans brought these goods to India and went back with pepper and spices since pepper was worth more than gold at that time. Speaking of gold, just outside the city is the experimental township of Auroville which has a huge building in the form of a gold sphere called the Matrimandir, at its centre. Auroville was founded by a Frenchwoman called Mirra Alfassa (also known as ‘The Mother’) to be a place where all nations could live in harmony and not be separated by race, politics or religion but pursue a higher consciousness. Over 2,000 people from a number of different countries live in Auroville and the Matrimandir is the meditation centre.  The Mother was closely linked with Sri Aurobindo, a philosopher and yogi who founded the Aurobindo Ashram in Pondicherry. No ‘White’ and ‘Black’ towns here but I couldn’t help wondering how many poor Indians could have been fed or educated with the money it took to build the Matrimandir.

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Mammalipuram and More Festivals

Panch Rathas

Panch Rathas

Arjuna's Penance

Arjuna’s Penance

Mammalipuram (formerly called Mahabalipuram) is a small coastal town about 60km south of Chennai.  It is famous for its Pallava Dynasty (7th – 8th century) monolithic, rock-cut temples and shrines.  They really are quite amazing with fine relief sculptures carved out of the granite. There is a small hill on one side of the town with many of these cave shrines and close to the shore is a group of five called the Panch Rathas.

1390225901549The Pongal festival which lasts for 4 days was still on when we were there and as in Kanchipuram, there were elaborate sand paintings outside the doorways.

Many day-trippers from the surrounding villages had come into the town to picnic and celebrate as Pongal is a holiday. The town was teeming with people and it was a challenge to see inside the smaller shrines as everyone seemed to want to take family photographs with various combinations of family members in front of the most interesting sculptures. After a while of patient waiting, we gave up and just enjoyed watching the people.

Krishna's Butter Ball

Krishna’s Butter Ball

There is a giant boulder on the hill called Krishna’s Butter Ball (the deity Krishna was playful and liked to steal butter!). It is about 5 metres wide and is delicately balanced on a smooth surface, apparently defying the laws of physics. Of course, many wanted to be photographed appearing to hold the boulder in their palm and it was quite funny watching these whacky photos being taken.

1390226064020We were lucky to be in Mammalipuram during a classical Indian dance festival. Performances were held every evening outside the Shore Temple and since they were free, we took advantage of that and went every evening we were there. Most of the performances were Bharatnatyam which we love to watch. The dancers performed with live musicians and their movements and facial expressions were spell-binding.

The day we left Mammalipuram, bikers on all types of motorbikes were riding into the town from all directions. There was some sort of a biker’s festival scheduled for that day. Though it might have been interesting to watch, the noise on the narrow streets was deafening. A good time to leave!

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Chennai: Gateway to Tamil Nadu

Fishing Boat, Marina Beach, Chennai

Fishing Boat, Marina Beach, Chennai

It was a wonderful change going from -30C in Toronto to +30C in Chennai (called Madras until 1996) and for those of you struggling through a Canadian winter, I’m sending you a burst of sunshine through the above photo. There are two monsoons in Tamil Nadu and the northeast monsoon lasts until December so this coastal city is green and leafy at this time of year.

University of Madras, Senate House

University of Madras, Senate House

Chennai is large sprawling city which does not seem to have a defined city centre but is more a collection of neighbourhoods, or at least that’s what it seems like to us. First occupied by the Portuguese and subsequently by the British, there are many churches and several grand buildings, built in the Indo-saracenic style by the British. Marina Beach fringes the city and stretches for 6km, from formerly Portuguese occupied San Thome’ in the south to British occupied Fort St George in the north. St Thomas, the Apostle (doubting Thomas) spent the end of his life here and his remains are preserved in San Thome’ cathedral. There are lots of hospitals and medical centres as Chennai is fast becoming a centre for medical tourism i.e. a place where tourists come to get medical procedures done which might be too expensive in their own countries.

1389691786955We found the beach, which is almost 1km wide, fascinating. Fishing boats, fishermen mending their nets, and vendors selling freshly caught fish are to be found on the southern end.  There is still evidence here of the destruction caused by the 2004 tsunami and homes lining the shore are in the process of being rebuilt. Further north, the beach is a social hub and meeting place. We were there on a Saturday evening and it was interesting to watch people enjoying all manner of entertainments, fortune telling, horse rides, street foods and just hanging out.  Families with children, young men and women, grandparents, were all there each enjoying different things.

1389686700713Tamil Nadu seems quite a progressive state. Interestingly, the Chief Minister is a woman and women in general seem more emancipated. Education of women at all levels is promoted by the government. Another thing I found interesting is the large number of Engineering Colleges. On the way to Kanchipuram yesterday, about 70km from Chennai, we saw at least half a dozen and also a slew of manufacturing industries such as Dell, Motorola, Nokia and Honeywell. The opportunities for jobs might explain why we did not see as much poverty in the city.

Decorating for Pongal

Decorating for Pongal

Today January 14th is the harvest festival of Pongal here in Tamil Nadu. We are in the temple town of Kanchipuram. Houses have a design painted on the ground outside the front door and have decorations of sugarcane and turmeric tubers. A special sweet of mashed rice and lentils, wrapped in a green leaf and steamed, is served and also offered to the priests at the temple. Women wear red and don their good jewellery. New clothes and household items are purchased. Its a bit like Christmas. People flock to the temples of which there are many in Kanchipuram and there’s an air of festivity. A great time to be here!1389695710470

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Happy New Year 2014

1389100545294Happy New Year to all my readers from freezing Toronto. The ambient temperature today is minus 20C and minus 40C if you factor in wind chill. Exposed skin can freeze in minutes. We can’t wait to get out of here and thankfully, tomorrow we leave for India (maybe, if flights can take off!).

I hope all your new year’s resolutions have started out well. My two most pressing ones namely eating and drinking less, and exercising more, have not yet begun but soon…………! It seems that every year I make the same resolutions regarding healthy living. However, I sometimes ponder on resolutions to strengthen the spirit and so when we passed the taxicab shown above, I was very taken with the sign. Actually its an ad for a business course at Humber College but also something we should all strive for whether it be in our work or in our hobbies. So on that note, I hope you all get a chance to do more of what you love this year.

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It Really Was A White Christmas


David, Lake Nipissing, Ontario

Terence, Lake Windermere

Terence, Lake Windermere, BC

1388391181875We had the proverbial festive Christmas with too much to eat and drink and we continued the week in this way, staggering from meal to meal. Many were not so fortunate. Toronto was hit by an ice storm and several neighbourhoods were without power for a number of days. Trees fell over, damaging cars and roofs of houses, and blocking some roads. People have been telling me that I bring bad weather as the last time I was here in the summer, we were hit by floods!

1388391085431Despite the chaos that the ice storm created, the landscape looked magical. Tree branches were covered with ice so that they glittered when the sun shone and with the ground covered in snow, it really was beautiful to look at.

“What do with the pictures above have to do with all this?”, you might ask.  My father loved to fish and some of my nephews have acquired his passion. They fish in all types of weather and here are two of them ice-fishing. One in BC on Lake Windermere close to the Alberta border and the other on Lake Nipissing in Ontario. In case you’re wondering the smaller fish is a pikeminnow (squawfish), and the large one a walleye.  In Canada, you have to find a way to enjoy the winter or you would be sitting at home for six months doing nothing.

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