The Tiber River, Il Tevere

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Summer has arrived. In the last few days, daytime temperatures have been close to 30C. The Romans have shed their coats and boots and donned their sandals. There is also a fashion for funky sneakers with glittery and decorated tops and some with a built-up heel for extra height. No marathons will be run with these shoes I don’t think!

Anyhow, last Sunday, I decided to take a walk along the Tevere. Interestingly, the river does not dominate the city as do the rivers in other cities like Paris, London or Dublin. One of the reasons for this might be because it is about 20 – 30 metres below street level with sturdy embankments on either side such that the only points of access are flights of steps at the bridges. The embankments were built in 1876 to prevent flooding in adjacent areas which until that time was a regular occurrence. Part of the reason being that the mouth of the river at Ostia would get silted up and the flow would be impeded. In fact the mouth of the river was originally at Ostia Antica which was a major port for the city of Rome in Roman times but because of silting, it is now 3 km inland.

Although one has to make a bit of an effort to get down to the river bank, once down there, it is quiet and peaceful. A complete contrast to the two roads called the Lungotevere (along the Tevere) which run along either side of it and which are major traffic arteries for the city. The river is not obvious from the road as the Lungotevere is lined with plane trees and if you’re driving, the only sign that there is a river below are the bridges. Down by the river, it’s a different world. Apart from a few cyclists, joggers and occasional kayakers, it is pretty much deserted especially on weekdays. I once saw somebody fishing but I can’t imagine that there are fish in the Tevere and he didn’t seem to have caught anything so maybe he was practising casting. Nevertheless, it was surprising to come upon this sight in the middle of the city.

‘Triumphs and Laments’ by William Kentridge

It hasn’t always been a pleasant space and was once apparently filled with junk. However, in the past few years, an international organization called Tevereterno Onlus have put money into trying to revive, protect and encourage maintenance of the river. Consequently, every summer, there are temporary marquees put up along a small stretch of it sporting cafes, shops and restaurants. Two years ago, the South African contemporary artist William Kentridge was commissioned to create a mural along the section near Trastevere between the Ponte Sisto and the Ponte Mazzinni, a half km distance. He entitled the work ‘Triumphs and Laments’ and it alludes to Rome’s history and mythology. Completed about a year ago, the piece was created by reverse stencils and are about 9 metres tall. I did not see them close up last year as my leg was in a cast last spring and there was no way I could make it down to the river. However, they were clearly visible from the bridge above. Sadly, now they seem more faded  but are fascinating to see close up. Reverse stencilling involves cleaning the area behind the stencil which obviously gets dirty over time and the artist predicts a life of 4 to 5 years. You get a sense of the scale of the mural if you compare the size of the people alongside. You can just about see the red shirt of the cyclist in the picture on the right. The entire length of the work was surprisingly free of graffiti but I was just lucky as I found out later that the artist had complained  about the graffiti and it had been cleaned up by the city just a week before I saw  it. I had read a little about the piece before I went and even though I couldn’t always decipher what aspect of Rome’s history or mythology the images represented, I knew what it was about. I felt pleased with myself being able to explain what the work was in Italian to two passers by who didn’t know what it was.


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Roman Spring

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View From Terrace of Villa D’Este

Where has the time gone? I seem to have slowed down even more than usual so it feels like the days go by faster. Any how, apologies to my readers for being so out of date with my posts.

I’m now back in Rome where spring is at its peak. It is sunny and warm during the day, with temperatures of 20 – 25C, and the air is filled with the fragrance of jasmine and orange blossom as the flowers are now in full bloom. The orange trees look very pretty as the oranges from last season are still on them as well as the new blooms.

No dinner on the balcony yet though, as it cools down quite a bit in the evenings. The Romans are used to these significant changes of temperature and have not yet shed their coats and boots, myself included, while the tourists are walking around in shorts and sandals. I’m sure they get chilled after the sun sets.


Audrey Hepburn/Gregory Peck in Roman Holiday

My return to Rome was more enjoyable than usual as there was a friend staying in my apartment so I came back to a fridge well stocked with food and a hot dinner. My first round of guests arrived from Dublin a couple of days later and we spent a week enjoying the city’s offerings. The highlight for Gerry was a scooter tour organized by Rent Scooter Roma. He lucked out as he was the only one on the tour and he had two young ladies leading him to the sights, 3 hours for Eur 100 which wasn’t bad. I was very nervous about him going on this tour as the traffic in Rome is a bit of a free-for-all but the girls looked after him well and he came back in one piece delighted with himself. No, that’s not him in the picture on the left but all the scooter rental companies seem to have the picture at their locations.

Artemisia, Goddess of Fertility

We went to Tivoli on a day trip to visit the Villa d’Este. The villa is a UNESCO World Heritage site presumably for its gardens which have extensive water features. It was built by Cardinal Ippolito d’Este,  the son of Lucretia Borgia, in the 16th century. Having failed a bid for the papacy, he was made Governor of Tivoli instead and being an extremely rich Cardinal, he proceeded to renovate his villa and build a magnificient terraced  garden filled with fountains and grottoes.  Tivoli was popular among the Romans and the Roman emperor Hadrian had built a summer villa in Tivoli during the 2nd cent. Ippolito proceeded to strip all the marble and statues of Hadrians Villa and transport them to Villa d’Este so the statues adorning the fountains are magnificent. I don’t believe the one on the left is one of these but it is spectacular. That the Cardinal would pick a goddess of fertility for his garden is surprising but he was apparently full of surprises. The gardens  were green and beautiful and of course all the water features were at their best since the natural water supply has not yet diminished as it will once the weather gets hotter.

Herbs on my Balcony

My guests have left and I’m now catching up with my household tasks some of which involve transferring documents from Loris’ name to mine. Sounds simple but nothing is simple here in Italy and everything involves numerous emails and visits to the appropriate office. To make matters worse, its all in legalese and since I can just about function in everyday Italian, I’m never sure that I’m interpreting things correctly. I’m lucky to have Loris’ brother and my friends helping me because I would have given up otherwise. In between these bureaucratic forays, I’m enjoying going for walks, breathing in the fragrant air, shopping in the market and planting my window boxes which Maggie urged me to do when she was here. Stepping out to pick fresh herbs for cooking is a daily pleasure. A few mint leaves in either hot or cold water makes a refreshing drink and reminds me of Morocco.  I could also make Mojitos to bring back memories of Cuba!

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A Persian Wedding

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Sofreye Aghd

I’ve been back in Toronto for a few weeks where the weather has been dismal and hard to take after Cuba and Rome. However, the gloom was brightened by an exciting event in our family. My nephew Mike married Nikou who is Iranian and they had a traditional Persian Zoroastrian wedding ceremony.

Mobaarak Bad (blessings) in Farsi

The ceremony took place in front of an elaborately decorated spread on the floor called a Sofreye Agdh. It looked gorgeous as you can see above. A beautiful embroidered  tablecloth, handed down from the bride’s grandmother, was set in the centre of a large, lacy fabric placed on the floor. Across from the bride and groom was a mirror with a candelabra on each side representing light and fire which are two important elements in Zoroastrian culture. On the tablecloth were dishes of sweets, nuts and fruit all representing something specific. A basket of decorated eggs to symbolize fertility, pomegranate for a joyous future, a bowl of honey to sweeten life, flat breads rolled into the shape of flowers representing prosperity for the couple’s life, a bowl of rose water to perfume the air during the ceremony. A book of special significance to the couple. A tray made up of multi-coloured herbs and spices including poppy seeds (to break spells and withcraft), black tea, wild rice, angelica and salt (to blind the evil eye), spelled out the Farsi word for blessings ‘Mobaarak Bad’.


When the guests were all seated, Mike took his place across from the Sofreye Aghd. The bridesmaids came down next.  Then two of Nikou’s cousins walked down the centre aisle with the a brazier in which they were sprinkling a special type of incense called ‘esfand’  to ward off the evil eye and bring health.  Finally Nikou and her father followed, at which point all the Iranian guests started kelling (the leh-leh-leh sound people from the middle east make) clapping and whistling, creating an atmosphere of great joyousness and gaiety. Nikou sat down beside Mike and the ceremony began by a canopy being unfurled above their heads signifying  that they are now under the same roof. The ceremony started by Mike dipping his little finger into the bowl of honey and feeding it to Nikou and she did the same for him as a symbol that they will feed each other sweetness and sustenance throughout their lives. Very sweet!


As the ceremony proceeded, various married family members took turns grinding two sugar cones together on the canopy symbolizing showering the couple in sweetness. When Mike was asked by the officiant  if he would take Nikou as his wife, he immediately said ‘Yes’. However, when Nikou was asked, there was a pause and suddenly someone at the back of the room said something about her having to deal with the flowers. We were all taken aback and I thought the woman had burst in not knowing that the ceremony had already begun. Nikou was asked a second time and again somebody at the back interrupted. By this point, we realized that this was part of the ritual.  The third time, Nikou consented (with the permission of her mother and father as is the customary response in Persian tradition), rings were exchanged and serious kelling burst forth. This marked the end of the ceremony and everybody lined up to congratulate the couple with close relatives of the bride giving her presents of jewellery. It was a beautiful ceremony.

Then the party began with Persian dancing where everybody got up to dance including the elderly relatives. Dancing plays a big part in social occasions as it does on our side of the family so we all joined in with gusto. There was singing, laughter and lots of delicious food and drink. Truly a wedding to remember.

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Cuban Farming and Crops

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Farm in Vinales Valley

One of the things which struck me as we drove through the Cuban countryside was the amount of land lying fallow, 2.5 million arable acres sitting idle, I was told.  Given that Cuba imports 70 to 80% of its food, it seemed to me that much of this land could be used for cultivation of crops.

Acacia Tree (El Marabu)

One of the many problems is that much of the land has been taken over by an invasive acacia tree (called El Marabu in Cuba) which was brought to the Caribbean from Africa as an ornamental tree in the 1800s. Quite beautiful as an ornamental tree, the flowers are a valuable source of honey and the seeds are edible. However,  one doesn’t see many of these as mature trees. The young plants grow so fast that they densely infest large tracts of land, choking the growth of endemic species and not attaining maturity themselves.

Vinales Valley Farmers with Acacia in the Background

Farmers have to burn down the trees to stop them spreading and then dig the roots out before they can till the soil which makes for difficult farming. The wood burns slowly and more recently, moves are underway to use the wood as a biomass for a power plant. Also for producing charcoal which can be exported. Thus more land would be cleared for farming.

Vinales Valley



There was a distinct change in the landscape as we drove west through the Pinar del Rio province and the Valle de Vinales, a beautiful valley of fertile, cultivated fields surrounded by karst limestone mountains. Here in the valley, we saw a lot more farms and tilled fields though much of it appeared to be from a previous century  with ploughs pulled by oxen and work carried out manually.


One of the largest crops is tobacco, grown by groups of small farmers in co-operatives.

The leaves are picked by hand with the best and largest kept for cigars, the next best for cigarillos and the remainder for cigarettes.

The leaves are hung on poles to dry in thatched barns and cigars are rolled by hand.

The whole process is labour intensive and not well suited to mechanization. Some of our group bought cigars at a farm we visited, at around $4/cigar which is cheap considering the labour that goes into producing them.

We also saw  small coffee farms but the yield is low and Cuba now imports coffee from Vietnam.  A sad state of affairs since we were told that Vietnam called in Cuban experts to teach them how to grow and produce coffee.

Sugarcane for Home Use at a Small Farm

Sugarcane was once a major crop with huge exports of sugar going at first to the US and after the revolution to the Soviet Union. In the 1990s, demand for sugar fell and prices dropped to below production costs making the government shut down most refineries.  Since the early 2000s, sugar production has dropped considerably and Cuba now imports sugar from Brazil. We saw some small plantations and sugar mills near Trinidad which used to be a sugar-producing area but certainly not the vast fields one would expect from a country that once had a thriving economy based on sugar. Undoubtedly, sugar production could be increased if it was done more efficiently if only to avoid importing it.

Socialism has brought many benefits to Cuba like literacy and better health for the majority of the population. However, between the difficulty of importing machinery due to the US embargo and antiquated State systems, Cuba has not kept up with advancing technology. Some say that the high subsidies once received from the Soviet Union, damaged the Cuban ability to modernize and optimize their economy. The old guard of Fidel Castro’s contemporaries are now all in their 70s and 80s and politically, nobody knows what is going to happen next. There will have to be major changes in how the country operates in order to become more efficient and productive. It will be very interesting to see how the future unfolds in Cuba over the next few years.

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Cuba: Nature’s Delights

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Torch Ginger Lily

The majority of tourists to Cuba spend the best part of their time at a beach resort and so did I, many years ago. One of the reasons I went on this trip was because there was an opportunity to explore Cuba’s wilderness.

Alturas de Banao Reserva Ecologica

From Havana, we made our way south through Cienfuegos and Trinidad by coach. Our guide Onelio had been specially requested by our Canadian contact and I could see why. He had a broad knowledge of Cuba’s history, economy, and politics and he held forth on all our journeys, educating us along the way in a most entertaining manner.  Many of our days were spent trekking along forest paths looking for endemic Cuban birds, and examining the Cuban flora with guides local to the area. Our evenings were spent back on the beach when possible, swimming and quenching our thirst!

Our first excursion was to the Ecological Reserve at Alturas de Banao in the south.  A beautiful area of mountains, valleys, rivers and waterfalls. This area has a variety of plant species and the birders amongst us also got their fill of endemic Cuban birds.

Cuban Trogon
Image: Larry Monczka






Emerald Hummingbird
Image: Bernie Solymar



I got an appreciation of how difficult it is to photograph birds.By the time I even spotted them, they would be flying away never mind being able to zoom in and actually photograph them. Now I understand the truth to the saying “the bird has flown” as you have to concentrate, be watchful and quick. Luckily, there were a number of excellent photographers on the trip so thanks to them for the more difficult pictures.

On another excursion, we took former Russian army trucks to Topes de Collantes in the Escambray mountains where the slopes are covered with ancient tree ferns, bamboo and eucalyptus.




Tree Ferns and Bamboo, Topes de Collantes

I had never seen such magnificent tree ferns ever before never mind hundreds of bromeliads hanging off the trees, exotic flowers, and  trees of medicinal, cosmetic or culinary value.



Annato Fruit




The ‘lipstick’ tree or achiote (Bixa Orellana) produces a prickly fruit filled with little red seeds like pomegranate seeds.

Make-up for Mary

The colour from the seeds is used as a natural lipstick and to produce the spice annatto which is slightly peppery and also used to impart colour to food including cheese, butter, and snack foods. Interestingly, the FDA considers the colour derived from it to be exempt of certification so it has high commercial value in the U.S.

Bay of Pigs, Ibis in Mangrove Swamp


Still in the south, we travelled west to the Zapata Peninsula and the Bay of Pigs, a swampy area of mangrove trees. Apparently, the  inhospitable flat terrain was one of the many reasons that the US invasion failed in 1961 since it provided no cover for the invading troops. The area we saw, Las Salinas, is filled with ibis, heron, flamingos and egrets as well as other birds, a birder’s paradise.

Cuban Crocodiles


The Cuban crocodile inhabits this area but is a critically endangered species and we only saw it on a breeding farm. The crocodiles,  though not very large, have long tails and can jump high distances making them dangerous to humans as they tend to be very aggressive. Hard to believe as the ones we saw on the farm were lying basking and lazing in the sun with their mouths open hoping that the keeper would throw them a fish.


We also saw a rat-like animal endemic to the Caribbean Islands called a Jutia (Capromys pilorides). I was told that they are hunted for food in Cuba and cooked in a large pot with wild nuts and honey.



Thankfully, we weren’t given this delicacy to try out. Instead, while walking back to the lodge for lunch on one of the reserves, we came upon a pig being roasted outdoors on an open fire.





You can guess what we had for lunch and it was super delicious served with rice and beans. Thank goodness there were no vegetarians among us as they would have had a hard time. Although our choices for meals in general, were pork, chicken, fish or beef which I’m sure are not easily available for the locals, there wasn’t a wide variety of vegetables. Onelio actually gave a sigh of relief when he found out that none of us was vegetarian. In my next post, I will talk more about crops and farming but for now and in conclusion, I’m going to confess to you about my moment of shame!

Plaza Mayor, Trinidad


In between our nature excursions, there was very little time to visit Trinidad which is a beautiful town. Onelio left us at the Plaza Mayor with instructions that we should meet at a specific spot about 45 minutes later.



I had been in Trinidad with Loris many years previously and I guess I was a bit distracted seeing the town looking so prosperous and unlike what I remembered and of course I thought of being there with Loris and must have been preoccupied. Anyhow, well before the appointed time, I made my way to the meeting spot to find neither the bus nor anyone from our group there. Obviously, I had gotten confused as to the meeting point.


To cut a long story short, I hurried and then actually ran around the streets trying to find the bus. Stupidly, I had left my backpack containing the sheet of paper with Onelio’s mobile number on the bus.  After 40 minutes or so of frenetic searching, I realized that my efforts were futile. Finally, I went into the upscale Hotel La Ronda and asked the receptionist to call the hotel we were staying in and get them to locate Onelio which they couldn’t do as they didn’t have his number. We told them where we were calling from. Luckily, Onelio did call the hotel, got the message and found me just as I was preparing to take a cab back. He had never ever ‘lost’ a member of his group and was as relieved to see me as I was to see him. There were strong hugs all around including the staff of La Ronda.  My poor fellow travellers welcomed me back on the bus without a word of complaint even though I had ruined their evening.  The plan was to return to Trinidad after dinner and take in an evening of music for which there was no longer enough time. I must say that during all my running around in the streets, I never felt nervous about being robbed or meeting with any violence. It seems to me that Cuba is still a safe place unlike many other Caribbean islands.  Anyhow, I’m using this opportunity to thank everyone in our group for their tolerance and good humour. The Prosecco is on me when we have a reunion!

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Cuba Tour: A Glimpse of Havana

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Cuba’s Flag (adopted 1849)

Several months ago, my sister suggested that I might like to join a Nature Tour of Cuba organized by the Norfolk Naturalists of Southern Ontario. No not the ones who walk around naked (those are Naturists!), but a group of people interested in bird watching and nature. I know nothing about birds other than that they have feathers and wings but I thought it would be a good opportunity to get a glimpse of Cuba before it becomes transformed, as it will, following the death of Fidel Castro and the lifting of the US embargo.

Fincita Cocktail (rum with honey, lemon juice and ginger root)

The trip started in Havana and continued through central Cuba to Cienfuegos and Trinidade close to the Escambray Mountains. From there we made our way east to the Vimales Valley. There were 19 of us in all and needless to say, the bulk of time was spent in birdwatching and nature walks. Oh yes, and drinking rum cocktails sometimes even before lunch!

Havana is a beautiful city spread out along the seafront.  A long boulevard , the Malecon, hugs the shoreline encompassing architecture from Baroque to Art Deco to Modern.  American cars from the 50s, now mostly rented by tourists, whizz along the Malecon, conjuring an air of American gangsters and the high life which is what Havana was like before the revolution in 1959.





View from our room in Hotel Riviera

Before the revolution, Batista had cut a deal with the American Mafia giving them free rein in Cuba in exchange for a cut of their gambling profits. We stayed at the Riviera Hotel, once the kingdom of Meyer Lansky, known at that time as the ‘Mob Accountant’.  This is the Vedado area, the more modern part of Havana with high rise buildings, restaurants and night life. The hotel is virtually unchanged since before the revolution and the bar is identical to what it was in Lansky’s time.

Plaza Vieja

Old Havana, further west, is charming. A beautification program has begun and many buildings have been repainted in preparation for an influx of tourists. Presently, there are supposedly about half a million tourists annually and the government is preparing for a million. The thought of giant cruise ships lining the Malecon is not appealing.

Calle Obispo







Plaza de la Catedral


Chic cafes and quaint shops line some of the streets and the architecture reflects the Spanish colonial heritage.









The socialist structure still holds fast, however, and there is no private enterprise. The bulk of all profits goes to the government.  Cubans are paid in Cuban Pesos while tourists have to pay in Convertible Cuban Pesos (CUC) worth about twenty five times more than the Peso. Needless to say the locals try hard to get CUCs as tips in restaurants, for playing music, and for selling souvenirs etc.

While tourists can live well and enjoy good food and fine accomodation at a price, life is not so easy for the locals. The majority of people do not have luxuries like cars and food is not always plentiful. I passed this Pharmacy and didn’t know what it was at first, as it just had a minimal amount of drugs in paper packages on its shelves. The good thing is that medical care and available drugs are accessible to all. There just isn’t any choice as to what can be had, and what is required is not always available. Supermarkets are not overflowing with food items and even the essentials are not guaranteed. Cuba only produces sugar, rum, tobacco and a small amount of coffee. Everything else has to be imported and the American embargo has taken its toll.

Lack of material goods not withstanding, since the revolution, a major focus has been on education so the literacy rate is high for both men as well as women. We did not see homeless people or beggars or people starving as one sees in many countries based on capitalism.  On the other hand, people are cut off from technological advances and global trade. It was difficult to get WiFi even in high end hotels. I would have liked to have spent more time in Havana getting a better insight into how people live and seeing some of the poorer neighbourhoods but we had to leave for the countryside on our nature tour. More about that in my next post…………


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On the Move

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Italian Coastguard rescues a ship sinking off the coast of Libya

I have joined a bookclub here in Rome and the first meeting I went to, was a discussion of ‘The Optician of Lampedusa’, by Emma Jane Kirby. The book is based on a true story of an optician on the southern Italian island of Lampedusa, who goes out sailing with his friends on a Sunday and comes across a boatload of migrants from Africa, drowning after their ship sank.

Migrants on a boat off the coast of Libya
Photo: Massimo Sestini

The scandal of human traffickers packing unseaworthy boats with migrants and abandoning them at sea between Libya and Italy continues. Last year, according to the United Nations High Commission for Refugees, over 181,000 migrants, the highest on record, mostly from north Africa, landed in Italy. Over 5,000 drowned while crossing. The previous year, there were even more as thousands landed both in Italy and Greece from Syria and other middle eastern countries. This eastern mediterranean route is used less now as the EU did a deal with Turkey for migrants to be held there until their status and documentation were sorted out. The migrant crisis in Europe continues and last week, the EU met in Malta to discuss the issue.  One of the decisions was to try and control the central mediterranean route by doing a deal with Libya.

Many migrants don’t necessarily want to stay in Italy but it is the closest point of entry for them from north Africa. EU law dictates that refugees be given asylum in the country they land in so Italy has to screen them all whether they want to remain or not. This can take a long time as there is no good infrastructure to deal with such overwhelming numbers of people arriving on Italy’s shores so they remain in horribly over-crowded camps until they are documented. Many don’t wish to be documented so that they can gain asylum in the country they want to get too where they might have family or friends. Hence they resort to horrendous things like burning their fingertips so that they don’t have a fingerprint. Apart from refugees,  there are economic migrants looking for a better life. Some might have travelled for months or years across sub-Saharan Africa to get to Libya which once provided work. However, the situation in Libya has changed so the next stop becomes Europe.

The documentation process in Italy can take months and the ones who are finally classified as refugees, are either given asylum or are allowed to make their way to their country of choice and given a short period of time to do so. Many try to get to Germany or Sweden but countries such as Switzerland and Austria have tightened their borders so they can’t actually make their way there. The EU countries are not in accord about how many immigrants each will accept and Italy has been left ‘hosting’ more migrants than it can handle as there is nowhere to send them. Recently, it was decided that those not qualifying for asylum will be deported. However, many arrive with no documentation as to their country of origin and it is not as straightforward  an option as it may seem. In addition to the migrants who have been given asylum or approved as immigrants, there is a large number of undocumented illegal immigrants with no possibility of work, often exploited and forced to enter into prostitution and drug rings. Even the ones who are given asylum have a very hard time. Italy is in an economic crisis with an unemployment rate of 40% and although it tries to provide basic housing and food, there aren’t enough centres to house refugees so they end up living in crowded and terrible conditions and there is no work for them.

Increasingly, I see migrants hanging around outside supermarkets hoping to help people with their bags and get a few tips, or openly begging. I imagine that these are ones who have been given asylum as the undocumented illegal migrants likely stay underground out of sight of the police. I spoke to a young man from Nigeria outside the supermarket last week. He said that he was prepared to do any type of work but didn’t speak Italian and found it impossible to get a job. One of the women in the book club teaches Italian to migrants at a charitable institution. She says that it is very difficult as many of them can’t read or write and try to learn from memory. New people arrive on a continuous basis so progress is slow for those who want to get ahead. The Italian government is trying to come up with employment schemes but it is difficult when people don’t speak the language, have no skills and are likely illiterate not having had the luxury of an education. Despite the number of migrants here, the system is disorganized and there’s a scarcity of resources. I’ve heard that it is also open to corruption as there’s EU money involved.

Human migration has occurred since the evolution of Homo sapiens, both voluntary and involuntary, and for various reasons. Given that the world’s population is increasing and that poverty, climate change, as well as war, are forcing people to move, I don’t think we can stop it. Better if there was a way to deal with it in a humane way though I have no idea how that might be possible. There have been some creative attempts here in Italy but more about that another time. And speaking of being on the move, I am going to Cuba in about a week’s time (but not intending to emigrate there) so you may not hear from me for a couple of weeks.

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Phrase for 2017: Alternative Facts

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Since I don’t have to get up early and rush to work, one of the things I enjoy first thing in the morning is having my coffee in bed while reading the news online. I case you’re wondering, I didn’t make the cappuccino shown in the photo above!

This past week, I have been gobsmacked by the string of chilling executive orders emanating from the White House and I actually feel my blood pressure rising as I read. Last year, the Oxford English dictionary picked the word post-truth as the word of the year for 2016. It is an adjective defined as ‘ relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief’. It seems that objective facts have completely gone out the window as far as Trump is concerned. Nationwide protests are dismissed as as over-reaction by the media, climate change as a hoax and the immigration ban as not having a religious bias!!! As for putting America first and bringing manufacturing and jobs back to the US, DTs behaviour does not appear to match what comes out of his mouth. According to an article in the Washington Post, the newly opened Trump hotel in Washington contains very little actually made in America despite bearing the Trump logo. So much for Àmerica First. How many Pinocchios does he deserve for that? Anyhow, between fake news websites, post-truth politics and a leader who makes up what he wants to believe by calling them alternative facts, my pick for the phrase for 2017 is ‘alternative facts’.

Meanwhile, perhaps I can cheer up those of you in less sunny climes with this photo of mimosa already blooming in my neighbourhood in Rome.  The cold spell we had has left us and we have blue skies and sunshine again. At least after distressing myself reading the news, I can go for a walk and enjoy the beauty of nature even in the city.

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What a Week!

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 Central Italy,

Image Origin: USGS Map, CNN

The earthquakes in Abruzzo, central Italy, have caused havoc coming so soon after the previous ones in August and October. I was pottering around at home on Wednesday morning when I got a phone call from a friend asking if everything was okay at my place. Three earthquakes measuring between 5 to 5.5. on the Richter scale had taken place between 10.30 – 11.30 am about 100 km northeast of Rome. Tremors were more obvious in the east part of Rome whereas I live more towards the west. The Metro was shut down for a couple of hours as a precaution, and some schools and office buildings were evacuated. At 2.30 pm, another tremor occurred which I did feel but only because I happened to be looking out the window leaning againt a radiator and I felt it shake slightly.

Image: Vigili del Fuoco Drone, Corriere della Sera

The epicentre was in Montreale not far from Amatrice which had already been destroyed by the August earthquake. Heavy snow had fallen in the area a few days previously and it slowed down rescue teams getting to people who were left without heating, water or electricity. To make matters worse, it was raining when the earthquakes happened. Luckily, there were few deaths unlike after the one in August in Amatrice. Most of the casualties were due to an avalanche which hit a ski resort at the bottom of the Grand Sasso mountain in the Appenines. It caused the roof and upper storey of the hotel to collapse and moved the roof 10 metres down the mountain. There have been 10 deaths for sure and possibly more.

Italy lies on the edge of two of the earth’s major tectonic plates, the Eurasian and African. The grating of these plates against each other is responsible for volcanic activity of Vesuvius, Etna and Stromboli in the south. There are fault lines along the Appenine mountains which stretch from north to south like a spine and which lead to the occurrence of shallow earthquakes. Abruzzo is in this area so it could well happen again.

Image: Maurizio Brambatti/European Pressphoto Agency, NYT

As if the news of the earthquakes wasn’t bad enough, this was followed by Trump’s inauguration on Friday. I kept hoping that maybe it wouldn’t happen and that he would be impeached but no such luck. The only hopeful thing is the degree of protest. The women’s march on Saturday gleaned solidarity all over the world including here in Rome. Unfortunately, I didn’t find out about it in time so I didn’t manage to go but I gather that there were a few hundred people in the Piazza outside the Pantheon. Now we just have to wait and see what happens next.

Via di Monte del Gallo

On a more positive note, the weather in Rome has warmed up again. Yesterday, as I came home from the market, it was sunny with blue skies and no hat or gloves were necessary. Then I noticed that this healthy palm seems to have survived the palm weevil disease which destroyed the other palms in the neighbourhood a couple of years ago. I found that a hopeful sign.

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Cold in Rome!

(click on pictures to enlarge)

Image: Associated Press

I arrived in Rome a week ago to be greeted by temperatures similar to Toronto. The water in all the fountains had frozen and long icicles were to be seen hanging off the edges. Icy weather had hit Europe and even Rome was was affected. Normally it is around 12-15C during the day and between 5 – 10C during the night at this time of year so to see ice is an unusual event. Everywhere I go, people are talking about how cold it is and I have to say that it’s the first time I’ve ever had to wear a hat and gloves here.

Capitignano. Photo: Renato Nicolai

Other parts of Italy are even worse affected. A friend sent me this picture of Capitigano in Abruzzo where we had once gone for the village feast day a couple of years ago. It looks more like it could be in the Alps.

It’s been nice being back in Rome but with stay-at-home weather, no job and nobody to share life with, there’s no routine imposed upon me. Sounds great but in reality, I have to impose my own discipline for fear that I might turn into a lazy slob. So everyday, I exercise, cook fresh food from scratch, revise my Italian grammar and then plan some outing that doesn’t necessarily include a companion. Luckily, there are lots of art exhibitions and music events so one can keep oneself busy.

Judith Beheading Holofernes, Artemisia Gentilischi

During the week, I saw an exhibition of the works of Artemisia Gentilischi, a little-known female early-Baroque painter who painted in the style of Caravaggio. She had a difficult life but did not let this stand in the way of her work which is magnificent for the most part. Much of the painting of that time was done for churches and has a religious theme. Her work in particular, features a number of powerful biblical woman. This painting of Judith beheading Holofernes is especially striking. Made more so by the fact that Judith is a representation of Artemisia herself while Holofernes is a portrait of Antonio Tassi by whom she was raped at the age of 18. It’s interesting seeing the force and strength portrayed by the women. I was in the Capitoline museum before Christmas where I saw Caravaggio’s version in which Judith looks like she’s slicing through a slab of butter! I was lucky to get a picture of Artemisia’s painting as no sooner had I taken the shot when a guard came by and stopped someone else doing the same thing. Apparently, taking photos was forbidden though there were no obvious signs saying so.

Piazza Navona

The exhibition is being held in the Palazzo Braschi which is a fine building constructed by the family of Pope Pius VI towards the end of the 1700s.  The upper rooms have a wonderful view overlooking Piazza Navona and looking out over the Piazza was a beautiful sight in the setting sun. I feel lucky to be surrounded by so much beauty as there’s always something to enjoy cold weather not withstanding.



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