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

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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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Merry Christmas From Toronto

1387739988426Wishing all my readers a Merry Christmas. May joy be your gift this Christmas.

 

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A White Christmas?

1387315507561The weather has been brutally cold in Toronto over the last week. At the weekend, we had the first snowstorm of the year which was earlier than usual. The temperature plummeted down to minus 20C and the lake froze all the way to the Toronto Islands.

1387316137281Undaunted by these freezing conditions, Torontonians are out skiing, skating and sledding. I have become soft after spending so much time in Rome and go out wearing several layers of clothing and only walking to where I need to get to as opposed to strolling around feeling exhilarated by the snow.

 

1387316012264Luckily, there are Christmas indoor events to go to like candlelight carol singing services which I enjoy, especially when there are little children singing. Without doubt, it will be a white Christmas which is very picturesque especially when one is sitting indoors looking at it through a window while enjoying food and drink!  The warmth of being with family and friends makes up for the freezing conditions.

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The Start of the Festive Season

Christmas Market, Piazza Navona

Christmas Market, Piazza Navona

Last Sunday, December 1st, marked the opening of the Christmas market in Piazza Navona. A rather tacky market I must say but the shops around start putting up their lights and Christmas decorations so there’s definitely signs of Christmas approaching. The official start of the festive season in Rome is December 8th, Feast of the Imacculate Conception when the Pope replaces the wreath on the statue of the Virgin at the top of a tall column near the Spanish Steps (see Christmas Preparations).

Royal Ontario Museum

Royal Ontario Museum

Unfortunately, I will not be there to see this event as I returned to Toronto a couple of days ago. Its nice to be back and its such a change to see new and avant garde architecture instead of buildings steeped in antiquity.

I’m enjoying wandering about the streets of Toronto and I find the store displays here interesting and colourful. Yesterday, we walked along Queen St which has lots of funky stores with enticing displays and little art galleries featuring contemporary art which makes walking around a visual feast. The highlight of my day was seeing this headless bronze by Louise Bourgeois at a show at the Modern Art Gallery (MOCCA) curated by David Cronenberg. A beautiful piece if  a little disturbing but then again, the whole show was somewhat disturbing. One of the quotes on the wall said “The silence in the room makes you think that something terrible is about to happen”.  Luckily for us, our next stop was at a micro-brewery so we were able to regain the festive spirit.

Bronze, Louise Bourgeoise

Headless Bronze, Louise Bourgeois

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Chubby Flying Babies

1385823243226Winter has suddenly descended upon us and snow is visible on the peaks of the Appenines. Temperatures have dropped to about 6C during the day and just above freezing at night. A good time to visit museums and galleries.

Domenichino: Assumption of Mary Magdalene into Heaven

Domenichino: Assumption of Mary Magdalene into Heaven

We went to the Palazzo Barberini a magnificent residence now housing a fine art collection. One of the paintings which amused me was one by Domenichino showing Mary Magdalene ascending into heaven surrounded by a host of chubby little angels sometimes referred to as putti (singular ‘putto’ meaning boy or child). These putti are always male, always chubby and usually winged. A few days later, at another exhibition, I came across a funerary urn made in the 1st cent BC which also featured putti. I was surprised as I thought that angels had originated with Christian iconography. Wrong! Its actually the other way around. Putti originally represented Aphrodite’s son Cupid, who mischievously shot arrows of love at unwitting mortals.

1385823385601During the Renaissance, there was a revival of Greek and Roman art and putti came to represent cherubs who are angels. So if you see these winged babies in Christian art, they’re cherubs but if you see them in ancient Greek or Roman art, they’re putti. Rome’s Renaissance churches are filled with cherubs and I have to say that they really are cute with chubby, dimpled hands and knees.

1385732802451In the course of reading about putti and cherubs, I found out that angels who are supposed to be spiritual beings closest to God, are not all equal.  Who would have thought that there are nine hierarchies of angels each with a further set of orders? The highest order are the seraphim who fly above God’s throne and have six wings, two to cover their faces, two to cover their feet (more likely their genitals!) and two to fly with. Then there are the cherubim (not to be confused with cherubs), often with four wings who guard Gods throne and the gates of Eden. The orders below, too many to describe, include archangels, guardian angels and cherubs. So far, all these classes of angels are male so what about the female angels? I couldn’t find any specific mention of female angels among the orders of angels but felt that I had seen them in sculptures and paintings. Fully dressed, I should add so who knows? All I can say is that all the angels are beautiful and many are rather feminine looking but one can’t say for sure that they are female. What gender do you think this one is?

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Rome’s Aqueducts

Parco Degli Aquedotti

Parco Degli Aquedotti

The weather is starting to cool down with daytime temperatures around 15C dropping to around 10C at night. The Swiss Guards have donned their capes and the Romans are wearing coats and boots! There are more days that are cloudy and wet but other than this there are still days of brilliant sunshine, blue skies and temperatures closer to 20C.

Aqua Claudia

Aqua Claudia

Last Sunday was one of these and we went to Parco degli Aquedotti for a walk. This is a large protected green area which is about 8km from the centre of Rome and is part of the Appian Way. It’s like being in the countryside as one can see sheep grazing in parts of it. The park is so named because the roman aqueducts Aqua Felice  and Aqua Claudia traverse a good length of it. Those of you who have seen the movie La Dolce Vita might remember the opening scene in which a statue of Christ suspended from a helicopter is flying along an aqueduct. This was the Aqua Claudia which was started by the Emperor Caligula in 38 AD and finished by the Emperor Claudius some 20 years later.

Broken section of Aqua Claudia

Broken section of Aqua Claudia

The Roman aqueducts are truly a marvel of engineering.  They are fed by underground wells and springs (some, hundreds of miles from Rome) and were designed such that the water flowed constantly and ensured a constant supply of spring water through the city. They work on a system of gradients and gravity such that the water is always flowing down an incline. There are often two water channels so that one could be closed off for repairs. The major part of them are underground and the overhead aqueducts which we see only form a small part.

The Romans built 11 aqueducts but almost all were destroyed  by invading Germanic tribes, who wanted to cut off Rome’s water supply. Many were rebuilt by various Popes during the Renaissance to restore the water supply to the city and also to supply their ornamental fountains like the Trevi which is why you will often see a Pope’s name inscribed over a large fountain. Now there are 6 to 8 functioning aqueducts in Rome feeding all its many fountains (see Rome’s fountains).

1385149517344Although Rome is full of fountains, one rarely knows exactly which aqueduct is feeding which fountain. Aqua Virgo, one of the oldest, was completed in 19 BC during the reign of the Emperor Augustus and is one of the few which remained utterly intact by virtue of being underground for all of its 22 or so miles. Re-named the Aqua Vergine by Pope Nicholas V in 1453, it feeds the Trevi, the fountains of Piazza Navona and most of the fountains in the Campus Martius including a little one which you see if take the path going from the Tiber towards the Spanish Steps. It may be sunny in Rome but its not that warm so it was quite surprising to see this young man, obviously not a homeless person,  stripped to the waist washing himself in virgin water. Perhaps he was hoping to meet a few!

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Canadian Cemetery in Italy

Moro River Canadian War Cemetery

Moro River Canadian War Cemetery

Remembrance day, Monday November 11th, went by with not a poppy to be seen in Rome.  This was not very surprising as the day for paying tribute to soldiers who have died in battle is November 4th which marks the end of the 1st World War in Italy in 1918. However, thinking about the number of young soldiers who have died in war made me remember the Canadian cemetery in Abruzzo. On our recent trip to Puglia, we were driving back to Rome through Abruzzo when we realized that we wouldn’t get back until midnight. Since we were driving along the coast we decided to stop and stay in one of the small towns along the way for the night. We randomly picked San Vito Chietino and as we turned off the highway towards the town, we saw signs for a Canadian Cemetery. I was fascinated and the next day we went to visit it.

1384249709826It was a very moving sight as 1,375 Canadian soldiers are buried there out of a total of 1,600 or so Commonwealth soldiers who were killed in that area during the 2nd World War. After an Armstice was made with Italy in September 1943, the Allied forces were moving northwards towards German lines. The 1st Canadian division went on to cross the Moro river on December 6th and to take Ortona after 8 days of bitter fighting losing many of their men. The site of the cemetery was chosen by the Canadian Corps in January 1944 to hold the remains of those who died in the Ortona battle and in the weeks following it. Around 500 soldiers died in the Ortona battle alone, some of them just 18 years old. It was sad to see these graves of young men who had no opportunity to live their lives and buried so far from home. At least the cemetery is in a peaceful spot and is well kept. Its a good thing to remember and honour those who gave up their lives so that we now have the freedom to enjoy ours.

 

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Venice and the 55th Biennale

Rialto Bridge, Venice

Rialto Bridge, Venice

Palazzi on the Grand Canal

Palazzi on the Grand Canal

Venice is home to the Biennale which was founded in 1895 to promote new artistic trends in the contemporary arts and in architecture. We decided to go there this past week to see the 2013 Arts Exhibition (The Encyclopedic Palace) before it closes in two weeks time. Its a 3.5h journey from Rome on the train which got us there just in time for lunch. The Vaporetto (water bus) leaves from just outside the train station and took us the length of the Grand Canal to Piazza San Marco. Venice is a magical city and this journey alone is worth the trip to Venice as one gets to see the facades of all the Palazzi which face directly onto the water.  The boat goes under the Rialto bridge and suddenly the vista opens up and you see the tower in the Piazza San Marco and the dome of the Basilica of Santa Maria della Salute across the lagoon.1384028927216  I could have just stayed on the boat and gone up and down the Grand Canal all afternoon. My pleasure was most definitely enhanced by the fact that its low season in Venice at the moment so there are less tourists and less activity on the Grand Canal which is the city’s main thoroughfare for boats carrying not only passengers but supplies and  commercial goods. We stayed in a beautiful converted Palazzo right on a small canal and less than 5 minutes walk from Piazza San Marco.

The Biennale is held in two locations, the Arsenale and the Giardino.  The Giardino houses pavilions representing different countries each of which houses a show. Canada’s pavilion built in 1958 has a sort of spiral shape and is built of wood and glass. To me, it had aspects of an igloo or a tepee.  Shary Boyle (Music for Silence) was chosen to represent Canada and since the entire show was mounted in darkness and silence, it did have a feel of entering into an igloo. The Arsenale which was originally the city’s shipyards and armories is a vast complex. It would take me pages to describe what we saw as the exhibition is immense and quite overwhelming.  This year, there were 150 artists from 38 countries represented.

Campo de Color, Sonia Falcone, Bolivia

Campo de Color, Sonia Falcone, Bolivia

There were many exhibits which engaged my attention for various reasons but being taken by colour and smell, I was drawn to one by Sonia Falcone from Bolivia who filled a whole bunch of large clay pots with herbs, natural pigments and powdered spices of different colours. The idea was to represent the role that spices have played in the history of the world’s commerce and also to comment on the ephemeral nature of sensory perception and ultimately the fleeting nature of life (or so the description said!). The fragrance, even after being on display for 3 months, and the rich colours were intoxicating.

Seafood Lasagne

Seafood Lasagne

After spending the whole day tramping around, all we wanted to do was sit down and have ‘un bel bicchiere di vino’. Not a problem as prosecco and other excellent wines are produced in the Veneto region. Needless to say, fish is a major part of the cuisine and I particularly enjoyed the baccala (salt cod) which is made into a creamy paste and is quite delicious. The best thing we had though was an inexpensive seafood lasagne which we got in a small family-run restaurant in a small street where we randomly stopped to have a quick lunch (12 Eur for the lasagna followed by a plate of fried seafood with vegetables and roast potatoes). The lasagne was filled with moist shrimp, baby octopus and small squid in a bechamel sauce. I’m determined to try and make it one of these days though I think it may take a few tries to reproduce what we had.

1384026890965We really enjoyed walking around and losing ourselves in the narrow streets of Venice and seeing how people live. The art and architecture are breathtaking and there is a slightly oriental feel to it as some of the textiles and jewellery still have echoes of its Byzantine past. However, its not an easy city to live in I don’t think. When we were there, rain and high winds were forecast and ramps were already being piled up on the larger streets in case of flooding which is not uncommon at certain times of the year. The shops which don’t cater specifically for tourists feature wellingtons and waders which cover one’s thighs.

Flood Prevention

Flood Prevention

Doors have flood panels at the bottom to prevent water seeping in though I think it gets in anyway.

I couldn’t help thinking of how different (and less pleasant) it must be during the tourist season. The population of Venice is just under 60,000 and the number of tourists are an estimated 80,000 per day, 30 million per year! Massive cruise ships disgorge hundreds of day trippers. There is a move underway to stop the cruise ships which create environmental problems. Tourism has displaced other economic sectors like banking and one reads articles about the city dying as a place where people live. It is a terrible problem and I don’t know what the answer is. It is so beautiful that one wants to go there again and again but yet should we be going to places that can’t sustain visitors in these numbers? The estimated ideal number of visitors is about 7 – 8 million per year. Maybe there should be lottery tickets for who can go at any given time!

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