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!

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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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How Did I Find Myself Here?

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Marcel Duchamp ‘Readymades’. Philadelphia Museum of Art

My flight to Rome involved a stop in Philadelphia. When I got there in the evening, the boarding gate was jammed with people and the airline staff were pleading for volunteers to give up their seats as the flight was overbooked. I thought about it for a while and decided that I had nothing to lose and something to gain as they were offering a travel voucher of $800 US on American Airlines and its partners, as well as a hotel for a night, and a meal allowance. All it mean’t was that I would have to spend the day in Philadelphia and leave the following evening.

Snowing in Philadelphia

The hotel was close to the airport but in the middle of nowhere. However, there is a train from the airport to the city centre so although it was snowing the next day, I set off into the city and took a cab from the station to the Philadelphia Art Museum.


Etant Donnes
Outer Barn Door


What a pleasant surprise. They have a fine collection of works by French Impressionist painters and also a number of works by the Modernists. The collection by Marcel Duchamp is probably the largest in the world. I found one piece almost shocking in that you go into a fairly small darkened space in which there is an old-fashioned wooden barn door. In the context of his everyday objects (Readymades, including a urinal) as art, this is not unusual. However, there are two little peepholes in the door which are hardly noticeable and which I might not have looked through if I hadn’t seen the person in front of me doing so.

Etant Donnes

All of a sudden, you see a three-dimensional image of a nude woman lying on a bed of sticks holding a torch. It feels voyeuristic and somehow invasive which I’m sure is what the artist intended. He worked on this piece in secret for 20 years in his New York studio while his contemporaries thought that he had given up working on art. The work is entitled Etant Donnes and the Modernist artist Jasper Johns described it as “the strangest work of art in any museum”.


Vishnu Temple Courtyard from Madurai, South India

The Museum has reconstructed a number of cultural ‘rooms’ from original materials acquired by them such as an Indian temple courtyard, a Japanese tea house, a Chinese temple roof and a French Abbey church amongst others. They are beautifully displayed and spectacular. On the one hand, I feel that these types of artefacts should be left in their original context but it is probably thanks to museums such as this one that these survive to this day instead of being destroyed or left to fall into ruin.

Liberation of the Peon, Diego Riviera.

There was a temporary exhibition of Mexican contemporary artists with a number of works by Diego Riviera. All his work is striking but I was taken by this one depicting the “Liberation of the Peon” painted in 1923.




Lamentation of Christ, Giotto. Scrovegni Chapel, Padova

It was influenced by Giotto’s fresco in the Scrovegni chapel in Padua which Riviera visited in 1921. I remembered seeing the fresco a little over two years ago when we were in Padova. Although there are many depictions of lamentations of Christ taken down from the cross, the arrangement of Riviera’s figures around the body have a similarity with Giotto’s fresco.

All in all, I had a delightful day in Philadelphia, snowy weather not withstanding. I may have gotten to Rome a day later but what a gift to see these wonderful artworks and to get enough credit for another transatlantic flight. It’s a good start to the New Year.

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Happy New Year 2017

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Robert Indiana Sculpture, New York

Exhibition on Love, Chiostro del Bramante, Rome

Happy New Year to all my Readers. I wish you all a year of serenity, joy and good health.

In these times of increasing uncertainty, I hope for more enlightenment in our world and I also hope that people choose love instead of hate.

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Tidbits on Christmas from Toronto

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Christmas Tree Eaton Shopping Centre Toronto

Christmas Tree Eaton Shopping Centre Toronto

It was 15 C and sunny when I left Rome. The weekend before I left I met a friend for an aperitivo which we enjoyed sitting outside with a grand view of the Valentino building in Rome.

Christmas Tree Valentino Building, Rome

Christmas Tree Valentino Building, Rome

Incidentally, Valentino is now owned by the Prime Minister of Quatar which might explain the showy and glittering Christmas display! In the rest of Rome, particularly in places where the city puts up a Christmas tree, the Mayor, Virginia Raggi, has opted for more meagre offerings.

Piazza Venezia, Rome 2016 Photo: The Daily Mail

Piazza Venezia, Rome 2016
Photo: The Daily Mail

The tree in Piazza Venezia has always been very grand and quite spectacular but this year it was so feeble and sparse that the citizens actually complained with nasty comments on social media sites calling it L’Albero dell’Austerita (Austerity Tree).

Photo: Il Messagero

Photo: Il Messagero

International newspapers such as The Guardian and the Huffington Post, joined the bandwagon comparing it unfavourably to trees in other cities. In shame, the City of Rome added more decorations and placed an enormous star on top. I guess no matter how difficult the times, people don’t want to be reminded of austerity at Christmas time.



Queen`s Park Provincial Legislature, Toronto

Queen`s Park Provincial Legislature, Toronto

Anyhow, I knew that I was in for a nasty shock when I looked out of the plane window as we were landing at Toronto airport and saw a blanket of snow. It was close to -10C when I landed and probably colder with wind chill. I felt I might catch pneumonia while waiting for a cab. However, there is a charm to a wintery landscape and upon passing our provincial legislature building at Queen’s Park a few days later, I got a postcard picture of our decorous Christmas tree which actually grows in front of the building thus not provoking complaints of cutting down trees for Christmas and environmental waste.

Eaton Centre, Toronto

Eaton Centre, Toronto

I’m ashamed to say that with temperatures in the minus digits, I feel like staying indoors as much as possible. I guess this reindeer feels the same and has taken refuge in the Eaton Shopping Centre! The illuminated tree in the middle of the shopping centre is gigantic this year as you can see above. There is something magical about bright and colourful lights in the middle of winter and many people were stopping to admire it and take photos.

Despite the cold, I`m happy to be back with family and friends and I wouldn’t opt to not be here. On that note, a Merry Christmas to all my readers, I hope you have the opportunity to spend it with those closest to you. In these times of hardship and strife for so many people, I feel lucky and grateful to have family, friends, food, warmth and shelter and to be able to enjoy the Christmas season. For those not as lucky as me, I send you wishes for better times.

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‘No’ Means?

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Rafael: Pope Leo the Great Meets Attila Source: Web Gallery of Art

Rafael: Pope Leo the Great Meets Attila
Source: Web Gallery of Art

The ‘No’ result of the referendum held a few days ago has created political turmoil in Italy. The referendum was on whether or not changes to the constitution should go ahead. As it stands, it is almost impossible to get any laws passed as they have to be approved by both the cabinet as well as the senate in a system filled with small parties of differing interests. The Prime Minister, Matteo Renzi, resigned following the result as he had put in a lot of work to propose constitutional changes in Parliament but hadn’t been able to garner sufficient agreement to unequivocally put them in effect hence the referendum. The possibility of a ‘No’ vote was also of concern to the financial world as the Italian banks are in dire straits and political instability at this time could affect the value of the Euro. As it turned out, the President Sergio Matarella, appointed Renzi as a ‘caretaker’ until an interim cabinet is announced next week and the Euro has maintained its value after all.

Matteo Renzi in Palazzo Chigi Source: Business Insider

Matteo Renzi in Palazzo Chigi
Source: Business Insider

You may be wondering what the picture above has got to do with any of this. I was struck by this image of Renzi which I came across on the Business Insider website, not by him particularly, but more by the fragment of the picture behind him showing a naked rider riding bare-backed on a rearing horse. After some research, I found out that the PM is standing in front of a fresco by Rafael which is currently in the Palazzo Chigi, the Presidential Palace. It depicts the meeting between Pope Leo the Great and Atilla the Hun in 452 AD. Legend has it that the miraculous apparition of Saints Peter and Paul when Attila met with Pope Leo caused him to desist from invading Italy and marching on Rome. Actually, Pope Leo was among a group of ‘Ambassadors’ sent by the reigning emperor Valentinian III and it is not known what exactly made Attila cease his conquest, possibly an outbreak of the Plague in northern Italy. Anyhow, the fresco was originally in the Rafael Rooms of the Apostolic Palace in the Vatican and was moved to Palazzo Chigi but that’s another story. What’s ironic is Renzi standing in front of a fresco alluding to the prospect of an Italian invasion over 1,500 years ago. Historically, Italy has always been politically unstable. It only became a fully unified country in 1870 as a monarchy. In 1946, the monarchy was abolished by referendum and it became a democratic republic but since then, there have been about 63 different governments, clearly none of them lasting for too long. So even if the ‘No’ vote signals a possible takeover by a populist or extreme right government as seems to be the spirit of the times, it will be a miracle if it lasts more than a short period. We are all waiting with bated breath to see what happens next.

1481300702515The other excitement of the week was the official start of the Christmas season yesterday, Dec 8th, the Feast of the Immaculate Conception. By tradition, the Pope lays a wreath on the statue of the Virgin at Piazza Mignanelli near the Spanish steps and Christmas lights are turned on in the city. The church two doors down from me Chiesa dell’Immacolata celebrates the feast of its namesake in style. In the afternoon, a procession, complete with a brass band and people carrying lighted candles, escorted the statue of the Virgin from the church and proceeded down the hill stopping at intervals for prayers and singing.

1481300870453This took a couple of hours and it was dark by the time they returned to the church where there were more prayers and music. The event finished with a show of fireworks which I watched from my window before going to meet friends for dinner. Since I will be returning to Toronto for Christmas, my friends here are kindly inviting me to dinners and other events before I leave which is very nice. Loris would be pleased and so am I!

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