When I was up to my eyes packing and clearing my house, I mentioned to Fidz that I would need a holiday when I returned to Italy. He stepped up to the plate, as we say in Canada and organized a trip to Puglia, the heel of the boot that represents Italy on a map. Continue reading
Last Monday (Sept 2nd) was Labour Day in Ontario. Labour day is celebrated on the first Monday of September and although created to honour workers and the labour union movement similar to May 1st in Europe, it has come to represent the end of summer and the beginning of Fall and the new academic year. Many people leave the city for a final weekend in the country before buckling down to their daily routines which are often suspended during the summer. After a week of final packing and clearing prior to moving out of my house, I was delighted to be invited to my sister’s cottage in southwest Ontario for the weekend where I was able to recuperate from the week’s labours. On Saturday evening we had dinner with friends Bea and Richard who have a country house in St William built in the mid 1800s. Lovingly restored by them, it is a jewel in the heart of the countryside with a beautiful garden. We dined ‘al fresco’ possibly for the last time for those who live in Ontario as the weather is already getting cooler. My friends (thanks to you all!) have been wining and dining me extremely well for the last few weeks and this dinner was no exception. We started with samosas served with tamarind sauce followed by barbecued lamb sliders and middle eastern Fatouche salad. Now I know why these are called sliders as the little ground lamb patties slid down one’s throat very easily! Dessert was a pear flan made with ground almonds instead of flour. Delicious and of course all washed down by copious amounts of wine! When darkness fell and the mosquitos came out in droves, Richard lowered a mosquito net over the table. Now that’s a brilliant idea!!
Autumn has always been a slightly sad time for me signifying an end rather than a beginning. In many ways this autumn is the end of life as I have known it so far with selling my house and not having a permanent base in Toronto. One is reminded that nothing lasts forever and that one’s life is finite. On the other hand, as they say, nature abhors a vacuum and the end of something marks the beginning of something else. So as I leave my old life with a degree of sadness, there is excitement about embarking on a new phase. I arrived back in Rome yesterday where summer still prevails. Today is sunny and the temperature is 31C. There is no feeling that one has to return to a daily routine and since I spent my entire summer in Toronto packing and clearing, I’m now officially on holiday!
In my frenzy of packing last week, I was excited to take a break and avail of an invitation to see the new Ai WeiWei exhibition “According to What?” at the Art Gallery of Ontario. Ai WeiWei is a dissident Chinese contemporary artist who is presently under house arrest in Beijing. His public criticism of the Chinese government’s authoritarian stance on democracy and individul rights has led to his passport being confiscated so he couldn’t be at the opening of the exhibition. The show was visually stunning encompassing sculpture, video, photography, and more. I was taken by his use of old antique pieces to create something new and dynamic. In the picture above, he has dipped original Han Dynasty vases in brightly coloured industrial paint while the photos in the background show him dropping Han vases to shatter on the floor. My first reaction was horror that something so old should be destroyed in this way but then I began to appreciate his philosophy of having to break away from old patterns of thought and behaviour in order for something new to emerge.
His ‘Moon Box’ is a series of seven 3 m high hollow boxes made of huali wood reclaimed from destroyed Ming and Qing temples. They have little circles cut out of the middle and are aligned in a curve so that if you look through the centre to the other end, you see the phases of the moon. No nails or screws have been used in their construction. There is something to be said for taking something old and re-working it using traditional techniques to create a thought-provoking piece relevant to our modern culture. I found myself examining the boxes much more carefully than if I had been viewing an original temple. By the way, in case you’re wondering what huali wood is, it is fragrant Chinese rosewood!
Speaking of old objects, I have been having difficulty getting rid of some of my antique pieces of furniture as they are not fashionable at the moment and nobody is interested in buying them. I have one cabinet in particular which has decided to remain with me despite my best efforts to get rid of it over a number of moves. Oddly, it has also turned out to be the most useful piece of furniture regardless of where I ended up. Despite wanting to dump it each time, I made good use of it in my house in Dublin, an apartment in London and two houses in Toronto. History is repeating itself and I still can’t get rid of it. My sister kindly agreed to store it for me until I figured out my next move. The cabinet is somewhat fragile and rather than load it into a small pick-up truck and risk damaging it when we were moving stuff on Sunday, my nephews put it on a little cart and wheeled it down the road to my sister’s house. It looks very nice in her living room and I might just leave it there. Alternatively, I could follow Ai WeiWei and paint it in a striking colour to suit my new apartment when I eventually move into it!
In case you’re wondering why I haven’t posted anything for two weeks, its not because I’m having a wonderful and relaxing time and can’t be bothered writing but because I’m very busy and stressed out trying to get rid of all the stuff in my house. I have sold my house to my niece Robin and her husband Ben. For my regular readers, she’s the one who left for her wedding from here when she got married a year ago (Busy Bees and a Wedding). Between living in Rome and only coming back to Toronto for short periods, I’m finding it too difficult to run a house and would prefer to have just a small apartment. Seeing as I don’t have one yet and I’m storing stuff with family members, I’m getting rid of almost everything except for a few pieces which would fit in a 1-bedroom apartment. Its no mean feat reducing a 3-bedroom house with basement, garage and garden to a handful of items.
During the past two weeks I went through clothes, furniture, in fact all my worldly goods. I gave away things to family and friends, sold what I could and finally had a garage sale on Saturday with what was left. Garage sales are a wonderful North American phenomenon. When Fidz first came here in his early 20s straight from Italy, he saw lots of signs saying ‘Garage Sale’ and wondered why so many people were selling their garages! In a Garage Sale, you just put everything out at a low price, put up a few signs in the neighbourhood advertizing it, and people come by and buy what they want. Things can be found at a fraction of the cost to buy it new and everybody is satisfied. Its a wonderful way of recycling used items and making a little money at the same time.
It was quite exhausting preparing for the sale as all the stuff had to be organized in boxes and priced. On the day of the sale, early birds started lining up half an hour before the sale began while we were still in the process of displaying the stuff. We were lucky to have a lovely sunny day, not too humid and though it was busy at times, it was fun. Lots of people came by to check it out and stayed to chat. I couldn’t resist taking this picture of my youngest customer Chloe. She was smiling when she arrived but she didn’t find anything that suited her as there were no toys which is why she looks a little disgruntled!
Summers in Ontario are short so everyone tries to get the most out of them and one of the pleasures of summer is being outdoors. Many people own or rent cottages in the country and since Canada is estimated to have two million lakes, quite a number of them are on the water. Naturally, swimming, fishing, canoeing and kayaking are the usual summer pastimes. Last week I was at my sister’s cottage in southwest Ontario. Though her cottage is not on the water, we spent every afternoon swimming in a creek nearby. I am a poor swimmer and always feel slightly anxious in deep water but even I enjoyed swimming in a calm, freshwater creek with trees all around.
One of our routines is going for long walks with the dog but its been a wetter summer than usual this year and there are lots of mosquitoes around, so hiking in the woods was not a pleasure. Lake Erie which is nearby has a long beach, perfect for walking so I was able to indulge in the illusion that I was walking off some of the calories I had consumed during the days I was there. My sister’s vegetable garden (Turtle Eggs, Edible Weeds and Ginseng in Southwest Ontario) is bountiful at this time of year and in her house, we pay a lot of attention to food and dining. Of course, when you eat good food, it has to be accompanied by wine or beer and rounded off with desserts like maple syrup mousse so all my good intentions of eating less and exercising more fell by the wayside!
Where southwest Ontario is rich in farmland, northern Ontario is a totally different landscape. It is more wild with lots of lakes, small islands, rocky outcrops and evergreen trees. I enjoy canoeing and camping in the wilderness in the Georgian Bay area but given this years wetter and cooler summer so far, I was delighted to have the opportunity this week of joining some friends who rented a cottage in the Muskokas. We were right on the water and could swim whenever we felt like. Being a wimp about swimming unless the sun is shining, I did not do as much as I could have. However my bedroom had a little balcony, sheltered from the rain, with a wonderful view and I enjoyed the peace and tranquility of being there.
It was very hot and humid here last week and I was glad to be in Ajax spending a couple of days with my sister Maura who is blind (When You Cannot See). Ajax is a small town just east of Toronto on Lake Ontario. The area along the lake has been designated a green belt and it is very pleasant to walk on the path along the lake shore watching the ducks and seagulls. Even on the hottest days, there is a slight breeze and you feel as if you are in the country.
One of the tasks I had set myself was to help Maura with her wardrobe. Since she can’t see, it is extremely difficult for her to review whether or not her clothes fit her well and to decide what looks shabby and needs to be discarded. We spent a few hours doing this. A slow process as she had to try everything on, I had to describe what the clothes looked like and we then had to discuss whether to keep or discard. The next day, we went shopping for summer clothes. Her guide dog which she got in April, is still not used to the ropes so this was a new experience for him. He behaved admirably, staying by her side amongst other shoppers in the Mall and sitting quietly and patiently in the changing room. The sales assistant in the Bay department store was incredibly helpful, bringing us various outfits to try on. Happily, we managed to pick up a few things and my sister came home with a new summer wardrobe. By the time we got home, I had already forgotten some of what we bought but imagine being blind and having to remember not only everything you bought but someone else’s description of what that was. Not being able to see, its very difficult for Maura to mix and match her clothes. She used to get little metal braille tags for the colours which could be sewed on but these are no longer easily available. Her son Mike had given her an electronic audio colour reader but it broke down so she has to memorize the placement of everything in her wardrobe. Not an easy task! I wish I could think of some way to make it easier for her and if any of my readers have any ideas, please tell me.
We all care about how we look, albeit some more than others. Not only that, but people often form impressions of us based on physical appearance. So we dress in a particular way depending on the situation, and what impression of ourselves we are trying to convey. I can’t imagine what it must be like not knowing how you look and having to depend on someone else to choose your clothes for you. Then you have to remember exactly where everything is in order to get dressed or associate details like cuffs or buttons with certain pieces of clothing. That in itself is a challenging task and then there are shoes, bags, jewellery, hairstyle and make-up to think about. I came home appreciating what a gift it is to be able to gaze in a mirror and actually see how you look.
I should have known that it was not a good sign when last Sunday afternoon at a friend’s annual ‘girls’ pool party, torrential rain came down to the point where there was more water in our drinks than alcohol! We braved it for a while since we were in the pool and already wet but when it showed no signs of stopping, we dripped our way into the house stepping through pools of water in the garden. So instead of drinking cocktails in the sun by the pool, there we were clutching soaked towels and drinking hot tea!
The next day dawned bright and sunny until about 5 pm when black ugly looking clouds suddenly appeared and all of a sudden a storm burst forth and brought Toronto to its knees. Over 120 mm of rain fell within a few hours, more than average rainfall for the whole of July. Roads and commuter rail lines were flooded. The picture above shows Toronto’s GO commuter train which came to a standstill. People had to be transported to dry ground by rubber dinghy if they were lucky or wait until the water subsided somewhat, a process which took about 7 hours. Drama on the train reached new heights when someone decided to swim to dry ground (he didn’t make it but was among the first to be rescued!) and opened the door whereupon a snake swam in. I don’t know how much additional panic this caused but I know that I would have have been screaming and hysterical had I been there.
The subway trains also ground to a halt as water flooded the underground rail lines and some subway stations filled with water. Needless to say, many roads were flooded leaving passengers in buses and in their cars trapped for hours. Houses got flooded, their contents destroyed and some roofs caved in. There must have been countless cars which suffered irreparable damage like the abandoned Ferrari on a downtown street.
Canadians are a hardy bunch and not phased by freak weather. Some of the young and intrepid stripped down and waded through the water since though raining, it was still warm. A few brought out their canoes and paddled to where they were going. Some suburbs were without power for a number of hours or a couple of days. A few people who suddenly found that all the food in their freezers had thawed out held street parties and invited all the neighbours to help themselves to food.
Since the storm, the sun has come out and we are having glorious weather perfect for barbecuing and dining outdoors. This weekend, I am enjoying entertaining my friends and family on my deck.
By the way, I am sorry to say that this is the first post where I do not have my own photos but got them from news reports and twitter feeds on the internet. Please click on the links below them to see where I got them. I debated on whether to write about this at all as I prefer to use my own shots but it was a phenomenon to remember!
In an effort to escape the heat of July and August in Rome (Rome in July: the Good, the Bad and the Ugly!), I decided to return to Toronto for these two months. Not that it’s much cooler here and in fact it is very humid at the moment but most places are air-conditioned and I can also enjoy my garden.
As I walked down Bloor St. a couple of days ago, I realized how unusual and bizarre one of our bargain stores, ‘Honest Ed’s’ is. A giant bargain store founded in 1948 by Ed Mirvish, it claims to sell everything thing from “wine to twine”. Supposedly the first bargain store of this size in the world, corny slogans, such as : “Welcome! Don’t faint at our prices, there’s no place to lie down.” are plastered all over the walls as well as old signed photograps of celebrities, and copies of newspaper articles featuring the store. The window displays are tacky and the entire storefront which practically encompasses the entire block is covered with lights and signs. For many years, Ed would give out free turkeys before Christmas and people would line up from the early hours of the morning. Ed Mirvish has now passed away but during his lifetime, he would organize a huge street party to celebrate his birthday which luckily happened to be during the summer months and there would be entertainment and free birthday cake.
Interestingly, one of the ‘feature’ window displays this week is for pasta , namely Italpasta, a brand of pasta made in Canada using Canadian wheat.Fidz claims that pasta made from Italian wheat is superior and tastes better. He may have a point as my baking is much better when I use Italian flour which has a higher gluten content.
Did I say that I wanted to be here to enjoy my garden? There was so much rain here in June that everything has grown to giant proportions and there is serious chopping and pruning to be done. However, there is also enjoyment in the process of gardening which I don’t get living in an apartment in Rome so I’m looking forward to working quietly and peacefully in my garden and entertaining my friends and family to barbecues on my deck.
I have been so sad this week that I didn’t feel like writing a post but I decided that perhaps writing about what’s been making me sad would be a good idea. My closest and dearest friend, Stella, died last Sunday due to complications following an operation. Just four days before her birthday which would have been today, June 27th. We knew each other since the age of seven, lived in the same neighbourhood in Nairobi, went to the same school and were inseparable until we went to different universities and our paths diverged. We kept in touch over the years and whenever we met, it was as if no time had passed and we were as close as we had always been. She was fun, loyal, smart, good-natured, beautiful, and had a quick and wonderful sense of humour.
As children, we spent our evenings wandering about the neighbourhood sometimes stealing fruit from neighbour’s gardens, amongst other adventures. She had a red guava tree in her backyard while her neighbour’s tree produced white ones. One of the funniest incidents was when we climbed the shed in her backyard to pick the white guavas from the neighbour’s garden and on the roof met the neighbour’s son doing the exact same thing in order to pick red ones from Stella’s garden. So we all picked from both trees and sat up there stuffing ourselves with guavas. There was a pond close to our neighbourhood and I remember going there with Stella and our other pals to catch dragonflies during school holidays. This would take hours as anyone who as ever tried to catch a dragonfly will know. Once caught, we would tie a piece of thread around them and fly them like kites. Seems cruel now but it was fun then! After the rains, we’d collect frog spawn and bring it home to watch tadpoles emerge. Such innocent pastimes we had then. Living in Kenya in those days, we had no TV and no phone and we amused ourselves in very simple ways. It was Stella who taught me how to ride a bike and thanks to her, I still cycle to this day to get around in Toronto.
Stella was very beautiful, tall with gorgeous almond-shaped eyes. Needless to say, as a teenager, she had many admirers not all of whom met her parents approval. One Valentine’s day as we were standing in her veranda, an Interflora courier delivered a bouquet of flowers. The sender was someone her parents had forbidden her to see. What should we do? Dump them in the bin, hide them? Quick-witted as always, Stella ripped off the card marched into the house and presented her mother with the bouquet. Her mother was thrilled, Stella avoided a battle, the flowers looked beautiful on the piano, and everybody was happy!
Stella had such a positive attitude to life. Despite her first husband Savio dying at an early age leaving her with three young children to raise, she soldiered on, developing a career in education and overseeing her husband’s business at the same time. When the children were grown, she met her second husband Tony, and finally was able to enjoy a few carefree years. I’m so glad that she had this time of great happiness.
Stella, we will miss you so much. Your name is synonymous with light and truly a light has gone out of our lives. One less star on earth but every time I look at the night sky, I will think of you shining up there in the heavens.
For friends who would like to keep Stella’s memory alive and are thinking of ways to do so, her colleagues have started a Stella E. de Wit Memorial Scholarship. Stella was associated with the Chilliwack School District in BC, Canada where she played a leading role in French language education. Contact Jacqueline Taylor (firstname.lastname@example.org) if you wish to make a contribution.
Last week, we moved to a new apartment. When we had arrived here a little over a year ago, we took a one bed-roomed furnished apartment until we decided what we were doing and which area of Rome we would eventually like to live in. As it turned out, we love the area we’re in so when we saw a larger apartment higher up the hill for a small amount more than what we were paying, we took it. There was a lot of paperwork involved and I must say it would have been much more difficult if Fidz wasn’t Italian. One thing I found unusual was that we had to pay the agent who showed us the apartment a fee of one month’s rent. We found the place through an internet search so all he basically did was to show it to us. Apparently, this is the norm here which seems strange to me as it would make more sense for the landlord to pay the agent should he/she find a tenant.
As you can imagine moving from a fully furnished to a completely unfurnished apartment involved buying a lot of stuff. The pressure was on since my nephew and his girlfriend were coming from Toronto on a visit the day after we moved in, a trip that had been organized a few months ago. Thank goodness for Craig’s List, Kijiji and, here in Italy, e-bay which also has a site for used goods with no bidding involved. We were able to find nice furniture in good condition and in the process see parts of the city we would never have had reason to visit. Driving to the outskirts of the city stuck in traffic made us appreciate our neighbourhood which is green and leafy and a stone’s throw from the historic centre, a real jewel. We have wonderful views from both our balconies and a communal rooftop terrace should we decide to have a party. Anyhow to cut a long story short, we managed to get relatively settled by the time my nephew arrived and we were able to entertain and accomodate our guests comfortably. It was a stressful and tiring week but worth the effort as we are now enjoying the fruits of our labour. We can sit on either of our balconies in the early morning drinking coffee and watching the swallows dipping and whirling, with a backdrop of the Vatican city on one balcony and a Russian Orthodox church on the other.
There are beautiful terraces and rooftop gardens in Rome should you take your eyes away from the sights and look up. I had the good fortune to visit one of these yesterday, thanks to our choir. The choir is associated with the church in Flaminio, an elegant area of Rome close to the Tiber and the Borghese gardens. Since the church is celebrating its centenary, parishioners have organized various events to mark the occasion and one was a choir performance on someone’s terrace. A magnificent apartment with a terrace larger than our old apartment overlooking the Tiber and with a view of the observatory on Monte Mario.
We literally sang for our supper as after we (hopefully) entertained our audience everybody was invited to partake of hors d’ouevres, and alcoholic beverages. I was thrilled to have the privilege of a glimpse into how the rich live in Rome.
Just to tell you why we like this neighbourhood, its like a little village. People get to know you and there is a ‘neighbourly’ atmosphere. Last Friday, on our way back from dinner at a restaurant, Fidz pulled of a branch of a sycamore tree to show me the fruit which looks a bit like a chestnut. I was carrying this in my hand when we decided to stop in our local bar for a drink. An old man who is a regular at the bar leaned over and upbraided Fidz for giving me this instead of flowers. Next thing he jumped up from his table, walked down the street and returned with a little bunch of jasmine flowers for me. Now isn’t that sweet? Incidentally, the sycamore fruits have the same vulgar connotation in Italian as chestnuts have in the English language and Fidz’s nterpretation was that it could be construed as offensive and lacking in finesse to present a lady with these fruits!