The Toronto Tempest

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!

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Honest Ed’s: A Toronto Landmark

Honest Ed's, Toronto

Honest Ed’s, Toronto

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.

1373208469348As 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. 1373147732689

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.

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My Friend Stella

Sunset, Hampi, India

Sunset, Hampi, India

Lovely Stella

Lovely Stella

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.

Palazzo Venezia Star Chandelier

Palazzo Venezia Star Chandelier

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 ( if you wish to make a contribution.

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Moving and Entertaining

Our Rooftop View in San Pietro

Our Rooftop View in San Pietro

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.

Russian Orthodox Church, San Pietro

Russian Orthodox Church, San Pietro

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.

Rooftop Terrace,, Flaminio

Rooftop Terrace,, Flaminio

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.

Members of Diapason 440 Choir

Members of Diapason 440 Choir

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. IMG_2013062122529An 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!

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A Day Trip to Ostia Antica

Ostia  Antica  Amphitheatre

Ostia Antica Amphitheatre

The weather has not been typical for Rome in June and until a a few days ago, it was still quite cool and cloudy some days. Given the floods in Prague, parts of Germany and Hungary, I am not complaining and it was actually perfect weather for walking and hiking but when warm weather arrived, we decided to take advantage of the brillint sunshine and visit Ostia Antica on a day trip. Having bought a second hand car for just this purpose (not for going to Ostis but for doing day trips and travelling around Italy), it was easy to just hop into the car and set off.

Shopping Arcade

Shopping Arcade

Ostia Antica dates back to the 4th cent BC and as it was situated at the mouth (ostium) of the Tiber river, it was an important naval base protecting Rome from invasion via the Tiber. Subsequently, it served as the major commercial Roman port. However, the river silted up, malaria struck and this once busy town of over 60,000 people was gradually abandoned. It is no longer on the ocean but about 30km inland and there are ruins of what must have been a beautiful city with shopping arcades, warehouses, baths, a large theatre where performances are still held, remains of houses and a necropolis.

Floor Mosaic, Baths of Neptune

Floor Mosaic, Baths of Neptune

We found it more enjoyable than visiting the Foro Romano in the centre of Rome as there were few tourists and the ruins were better preserved. One could really imagine what life must have been like in Roman times. Because of the river silting up, a lot of the site became covered with mud which protected it from the elements thus leaving some of the mosaics and even some frescoes intact.

Menorrah on Door Frame

Menorrah on Door Frame

One of the oldest Jewish synagogues in Europe was in Ostia and there is this carving of a menorah still intact. We saw it in the museum but I’m ashamed to say that we didn’t actually make it to the synagogue itself. One of the things about living in Rome is that one doesn’t hurry when seeing the sites. So we stopped at the café for lunch and after a couple of glasses of wine and a visit to the museum, we skipped the part of the city that would have been closer to the sea and decided to drive to the seaside. Unfortunately, half of Rome must have had the same idea so rather than sitting in traffic, we turned around and came home instead. Since it only takes about half an hour to get to Ostia Antica from where we live in Rome, we will go another time and take a picnic lunch.

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My Rome Tango Experience

Davide and Marta, Saggio Teatro Nuovo San Raffaele June 2013

Last summer I was bemoaning the fact that I missed tango in Rome because the milongas were far away from where we live and tended to start late at night (Dance, Dance, Wherever You May Be). Since Fidz does not dance, this precluded me from going. Tango ClassLuckily, I discovered tango classes in my neighbourhood and to satisfy my addiction, I signed up. Not being able to speak much Italian, I was a little apprehensive but the people in the class were welcoming and friendly and consequently, I always looked forward to our Thursday evening class. I even made it to a couple of milongas, thanks to the young and beautiful Gloria who came from across the city to pick me up and drop me home.

Our Youngest Tango DancerOur teachers Davide and Marta (Davide & Marta Tango) are talented dancers as well as patient teachers. They bring their adorable baby Matteo to the studio and the whole class loves him. Our classes end quite late and though he’s with a babysitter, he’s tired towards the end and wants his parents so during practice time, they bring him into class and he too dances with us. What a great tango dancer that kid is  going to be!

Our classes ended last week and to mark the event, Davide and Marta organized a Saggio (performance) at a community theatre. We practised for the whole month and it was quite a feat getting our two little performances together as people in class are at varying levels of ability. However, Davide and Marta persevered and quite amazingly managed to get everyone up to speed.  Then there were all the discussions about what to wear and last minute shopping for accessories. Saggio, June 2013

Last Saturday was the big event and we strutted our stuff on stage. It was quite an experience dancing on stage. There’s always the worry that you might slip or fall or worse still that that your clothing might come undone but luckily all went smoothly. I have to say that I prefer to just dance for the love of it rather than to a set choreography but I met people from the other classes and got to know everyone better through our practices. I feel grateful to have met others in the tango community and to have made new friends. Maybe I will end up going to milongas more often now!1370265673299


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Two Days in Tuscany

Rooftop View of Piazza Cisterna, San Gimignano

Rooftop View of Piazza Cisterna, San Gimignano

Last week was Fidz’s birthday and his birthday treat was a two day trip to Tuscany with an overnight stay in San Gimignano. This turned out to be more of a treat for me as he knows Tuscany quite well whereas I’ve only driven through it on previous occasions but he was keen to make this trip. We set out after breakfast and drove to Bagno Vignoni for lunch, a gorgeous spot on top of a hill which has hot springs dating back to Roman times and which is now a spa. The views from the outdoor pool and hot spring at the spa hotel were wonderful and we both decided tht this would be a venue for our next treat! The Tuscan countryside is truly beautiful with rolling hills, cypress trees, olive groves and vinyards.  What better way to enjoy this than lying in a hot spring on top of a hill?

San Gimignano is a walled town with narrow streets and is closed to traffic like many medieval towns in Italy. We had to park the car outside the walls and join the throng of tourists going through the city gates to get to our hotel on the main Piazza (Piazza Cisterna) at the top of the hill.  Our hotel room overlooked the Piazza and it was fun just watching the tourists milling about the well in the middle. There are several tall towers in the town which offer stupendous views over the surrounding countryside.

Walkway in Museo Publico with Luciano Fabro Bronze, San Gimignano

Walkway in Museo Publico with Luciano Fabro Bronze, San Gimignano

To our surprise, in addition to the more conventional sites like the cathedral and museum, we came upon a gallery of contemporary art which was exhibiting works by several artists of international fame and we found out that there is a thriving contemporary art scene in San Gimignano. There was an installation by Anish Kapoor in a small medieval tower as well as one by Luciano Fabro which you can see jutting out over the street to the right in this picture (actually much larger than it seems in this image). It was fascinating to take a walk through the town and see the juxtaposition of medieval and contemporary at various locations.

Breakfast on the Terrace of Leon Bianco, San Gimignano

Breakfast on the Terrace of Leon Bianco, San Gimignano

Dinner was at a homely family-run restaurant where we had ribollita, a hearty soup made with vegetables and breadcrumbs followed by cingiale (wild boar). Not exactly food for spring but the weather here has been cold for this time of year and it was quite chilly. Luckily, when we woke up the next morning, the sun was shining and we enjoyed breakfast on the terrace.

Rooftop View of Piazza di Campo, Siena

Rooftop View of Piazza di Campo, Siena

 After a leisurely drive via Monteriggione, another beautiful, medieval, garrison town with 14 towers we got to Sienna. Again, the historic centre is closed to traffic so we parked outside the town and walked to the Piazza del Campo, a vast semi-circular Piazza where there are equestrian races, the ‘Palio di Siena’ held twice a year. Ten riders representing 10 of the 17 contrade (city wards) in Siena, dressed in the colours representing the contrada, race bare-backed around the Piazza. Must be an awesome sight and apparently featured in The James Bond movie ‘Quantum of Solace’ which I now want to see! We spent most of the afternoon in Siena’s spectacular Duomo with its associated museum. After a while, I get saturated with seeing art so it was nice to climb up the tower of the museum and see panoramic views of the city. Unfortunately, we then had to dash back to the car as our ticket was running out so we didn’t get a chance to see the other sights but its always nice to leave something for the next time!

Crete Sinesi Area Southeast of Siena  We took the scenic route back to Rome through a less travelled part of Tuscany called Crete Senesi, an area of clay hillocks which is more barren (though no less beautiful) than the rest of Tuscany. Here you see fields of poppies and wild lupins with cypress trees planted in long rows as windbreaks. Milk from the sheep which graze here is used to produce pecorino cheese. We really lucked out with the weather as it only started to rain when we go back on the autostrada to Rome. Here in Rome, the weather is unseasonably cold and wet. We are walking around with coats and umbrellas except for the poor tourists who likely came with hopes of sunshine and are shivering in shorts.


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La Notte dei Musei

Bronze of Romolus and Remus, Palazzo SenatorioLast Saturday evening was Museum Night here in Rome. Most of the museums, as well as some other spaces not usually open to the public, were open until 2am and  were free. Last year, the event had been cancelled at the last minute (Saturday night at the Campidoglio) because of a bomb blast in Brindisi so this was our first time. We decided to start at the Piazza di Campidoglio and visit the Palazzo Senatorio (Rome’s City Hall) which is not generally open to the public. On the way there, it was strange to see people in spaces that are usually closed like the little Roman ruin at the base of the Roman pines in the picture below.1369392571061
It was good that we got to the Campidoglio early as they were only admitting about 20 people at a time on a guided tour. The Piazza di Campidoglio sits on the Capitoline Hill where the Tabularium built in the 1st cent BC once stood, to house Roman state records. The Piazza and surrounding buildings, now museums, were designed by Michaelangelo in 1536 at the behest of the Farnese Pope Paul III. Consequently, the main entrance and facade face away from the Foro Romano and towards St. Peter’s, paying homage to Papal supremacy during the Renaissance. The everyday entrance is at the side and needless to say, the dominant feature of the lobby here is a large bronze statue of the she-wolf with Romulus and Remus.

1369393136691What sumptious offices these bureaucrats work in. This ceiling in one of the offices was stunning not to mention the collection of paintings, tapestries and sculptures everywhere. The balcony at the back overlooks the Foro Romano, a spectacular view and I could imagine the staff standing there enjoying the view when they took their breaks. Its no wonder that everything takes so long to get done here!
The Council Chamber is overlooked by a gigantic statue of Julius Caesar dating back to the 2nd cent BC and lined with flags representing the different ‘Rioni’ or neighbourhoods of Rome. One feels the sense of history while standing in these lofty rooms.

1369393412691Our next museum stop did not happen as we met some friends who wanted to get something to eat so we walked to a wine bar nearby. Our stop here became longer than intended due to sampling  of the delicious mozarella and prosciutto they specialize in, not to mention the wine. By the time we left, the line-ups to get into places were absurd and we were tired, so we went home. Our philosophy is that museums will always be there but opportunities to enjoy food and wine with friends should not be curtailed!

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Orecchiette Con Rapini


Orrechiete Con Rapini

When I arrived here a year ago, I was disappointed to find no broccoli or rapini in the market as I like both these vegetables. This is because fresh vegetables are strictly seasonal here and these are fall/winter vegetables. Not having rapini means not eating one of my favourite pastas, orecchiette con rapini. So last week when we saw the absolute last basket of rapini for the year on sale, we bought a bunch to make this pasta.


Recipe (2 large helpings):

1 bunch rapini (about 300 – 400g)
160 g orecchiette
6 anchovies
3-4 tabspns olive oil
1 – 2 dried red chillies
1 – 2 cloves garlic slivered

Orecchiette which means little ears comes in two varieties, a thicker whiter one and a thinner more yellowish one. The thicker one is preferable for this dish.

Remove the stems from the rapini discard any tough leaves and steam the remainder. Chop finely and set aside.

Put the olive oil in the pan, add the garlic, anchovies and chillies and heat gently. Smash the anchovies with a wooden spatula until they break up and melt into the oil.  Remove the garlic if desired but I leave it in. Add the rapini, mix well and set aside. Meanwhile bring water to the boil, add salt and then the orecchiette. Most pasta takes about 9 minutes to cook but orecchiette takes a few minutes more so check but make sure not to overcook, they should be ‘al dente’. Keep some of the water aside, then drain and return to the pot.

Mix in the rapini mixture, add some of the water in which the pasta was cooked if too dry and more olive oil if desired. Enjoy!

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An Unexpected Invitation

Aula Paola VI

Aula Paola Lobby

At choir practice during the week, we were offered invitations to a performance of music at the Aula Paolo VI, the auditorium within the Vatican walls where the Pope gives his public audiences. The performance was being held to commemorate the 96th birthday of Cardinal Bartolucci who taught music composition at the Pontifical Institute of Sacred Music, was appointed ‘Maestro Perpetuo’ of the Sistine Chapel, and has composed a vast array of sacred music as well as an opera. I figured we were being given these invitations because our own Maestro del Choro (My Choral Debut) also teaches music composition at the Pontifical Institute and collaborated with Cardinal Bartolucci on some of his works. How this poor man ended up as our choir master is a mystery to me. It must have been an obligation he could not get out of as our choir is small, amateur, and of debatable talent (which is the only reason they accepted me as I have never sung in a choir before now).

The invitation specified ‘abito scuro’ as the dress code which means dark suits for the men and semi-formal wear for the women. So off we went dolled up in our finery, feeling lucky to enter the Vatican city gates which are manned by two Swiss Guards (see Pontifical Swiss Guards). Aula Paolo VI was designed by the engineer Pier Luigi Nervi who has been described as one of the most inventive exploiters of reinforced concrete of the 20th century. Completed in 1971, it does not look like much from the outside but the interior is vast and seats 6,300 people. The concrete, barrel vaulted ceiling is a marvel of engineering according to Fidz who is an engineer. Two gigantic, oval stained glass windows flank the sides and the lighting changes to cast a glow of different colours over the hall and stage which is dominated by a massive bronze sculpture representing ‘The Resurrection’.

The performance was executed by a full symphony orchestra, a large choir and seven operatic soloists. Needless to say it was spectacular and at the end, Cardinal Bartolucci came up on stage and said a few words. At 96, he is still quite agile and with it. His final words were to give thanks to the Lord for giving him and all of us the opportunity to hear his music in such auspicious surroundings. We couldn’t have agreed more!

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