Happy Christmas From Balmy Toronto

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1450842525180Santa doesn’t bring joy to everyone as you can see above. He certainly isn’t making Fidz smile much right now. After waiting weeks to get a coeliac plexus nerve block done, in a hope to reduce pain, we were very happy that he finally got an appointment last week. Unfortunately, it didn’t have any effect so he’s still in pain and is now trying out a different drug to add to the pain medications he’s already on. His bedside table is beggining to resemble a pharmacy counter! Lets hope something works and that he can at least enjoy his Christmas dinner.

This is the warmest Christmas season I ever remember in Toronto with temperatures in the double digits. It feels like spring and the ski resorts and firewood vendors are moaning about how bad business is. It is a bit disturbing to see climate change taking place in such a major way but since I left most of my winter clothes in Rome, I’m glad that I don’t have to rush out and buy an entire winter wardrobe. It doesn’t feel at all like Christmas in Toronto but nobody is complaining. Wishing all my readers a happy one and I hope Santa brings a smile to your face.

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Tis The Season To Be Jolly But…………!

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1449838469291We had hoped to go back to Italy for Christmas but Fidz’s illness is not giving him a respite. The tumour on his adrenal gland is growing again and he’s in serious pain as it seems to be pressing on a nerve in his back. 1449836263014He’s on a slew of pain medications which have horrible side effects, ranging from feeling woozy and wobbly to severe constipation. We were very amused by this Christmas card we received yesterday which captures the picture perfectly!

Since the Santa Claus parade at the end of November, the centre of Toronto has become more and more festive with elegant Christmas trees and decorative lights in almost every lobby of the office towers in the downtown core. Some of the Christmas trees are quite creative. The one above was made entirely of pots of poinsettias and was about 15′ tall, truly a remarkable sight.


Poinsettias are not seen in Rome much which is not surprising since they are native to Central America and first became associated with Christmas in Mexico. Legend has it that a poor Mexican girl had no money to bring the baby Jesus a present on Christmas day so she gathered a bunch of weeds and placed them near the altar in church upon which they burst into a bunch of red flowers. The botanical name is Euphorbia pulcherrima (beautiful Eurphobia). They get their common name from Joel Roberts Poinsett who was the first U.S. ambassador to Mexico in 1825 and who brought them back to North America. Apparently, Franciscan monks in Mexico have used poinsettias in their Christmas nativity celebrations since the 17th century as the flower is thought to resemble the star of Bethlehem.

1449835070135Speaking of stars, the tradition among Catholics in Goa where my family is originally from, is to hang a lantern resembling a lighted star in the veranda of the house just before Christmas. Traditionally, they are made from thin coloured paper on a very light wooden frame and people used to vye with each other to make the most beautiful one. I doubt that people still make them at home anymore as now there are paper stars easily available in the market though not the same type as the ones made at home. I love to see a lighted star and I got my wish as my sister has a beautiful one hanging in the front window of their house and it stands out in the dark as you’re walking down the street. There’s plenty to enjoy at Christmas time in Toronto and with the weather at 14C yesterday, we might as well have been in Rome!

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Santa Mitigates the Horror

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1447699019786The events of Friday in Paris really shocked me. I have a good friend who lives in the 10th arrondisment close to where the cafes and concert hall, which came under attack, are located. Her children frequent these establishments but luckily, they weren’t there that evening. Sadly, some of their friends were injured in the attacks. An anti-Moslem backlash is unfortunately inevitable even though the majority of Moslems are just trying to live normal lives like the rest of us.

1447699401601The media have been talking about little else all weekend but the Santa Claus parade was a happy diversion. Yesterday saw a record high of 14C and was sunny so it felt more like spring than winter. People came out with their children and lined the route. There weren’t the usual wooly hats and and scarves but many of the children as well as some adults were wearing Santa and elf hats and reindeer antlers made of felt. The marching bands played, the clowns entertained and Santa must have been sweltering in his warm clothing. I don’t believe I’ve ever seen such nice weather for the Santa Claus parade. It feels weird to see Christmas lights up and the shop windows already displaying Christmas decorations. A big change from Rome where the start of the Christmas season is on December 8th and it’s not Santa but the Pope who parades through the city. Unfortunately, Fidz’s condition is not stable so I don’t think we’ll be able to return to Rome to experience the event this year.

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Halloween Pumpkin Display

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1446582339469Last Friday was the day before Halloween and lots of adults were walking around all dressed up both during the day as well as in the evening. The receptionist at the desk in the hospital where Fidz had an appointment with his pain doctor, was sporting a very elegant black and green spider costume and her coworker was wearing large rabbit ears. It certainly changed the atmosphere in the waiting room. Incidentally, Fidz’s pain is apparently partially neuropathic and an appropriate medication has helped to reduce it, so life is easier than it was.

1446607537690Traditionally, on the evening of Halloween, a lighted pumpkin (Jack o’ Lantern) is set out by the front door and children know that they are welcome in that house to go trick and treating. Its always nice to walk around a neighbourhood and see the pumpkins but we didn’t have this pleasure. Living in an apartment building, close to many other apartment buildings, there wasn’t a pumpkin to be seen on Halloween night in our neighbourhood.

Some years ago, the vendors and people living on Harbord St. in Toronto started a pumpkin display on the day after Halloween. Trestle tables are set up along the street and people from the surrounding area bring their pumpkins. At nightfall, the pumpkins are lit up and some of the restaurants and cafes give out free samples of food. Although I had lived in this area for many years, the practice only started after I moved to Italy and I had never actually seen it so when my sister invited me for afternoon tea at a cafe called Dessert Trends on Harbord St., I was looking forward to seeing this spectacle later in the evening.


Sunday was warm and sunny and on the way to the cafe, people were gathering the pumpkins. One woman had collected all the pumpkins on her street and brought them to to Harbord in her car.


Decorating Halloween pumpkins has turned into an art form. Not satisfied with carving out a space for eyes, nose and mouth and sticking a candle inside, some people use electric drills and the like to create intricate designs. The owner of Dessert Trends is a master cake maker and his creations, like these on the right, resemble pieces of sculpture.1446602006084

It was fascinating to see how creative some of the faces and designs were and quite a sight at nightfall when they were all lit up. 1446607406642





1446604836897The ritual of putting out a Jack o’ Lantern originates in Ireland where a turnip would be carved, lit and placed outside the house on October 31st, All Souls Day, to ward off ghosts and evil spirits. Immigrants to north America brought the practice here but used pumpkins since these are native to north America and much easier to carve. One doesn’t see Halloween celebrated in the same way anywhere else, not even in Ireland, and I was glad to be here at this time of year.


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Give Him Chicken Soup

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1442883508091Fidz’s pain continues and nobody can figure out what’s causing it though the latest diagnosis is that its a nerve pain. When the pain is out of control, he has no appetite and doesn’t even want to think about food. What I’ve found to be a real boon when he can’t eat is chicken soup.

soupsoupsoup1443659443808Almost every mother, Jewish or otherwise, advocates chicken soup when you’re sick and for most of us it’s a great comfort food. Fidz being Italian, likes chicken broth with either egg pasta or rice and a generous sprinkling of freshly grated parmesan. Sometimes, he likes an egg stirred in so that it separates and cooks in the hot broth. This is called stracciatella which comes from the word straccia meaning little shred.

Obviously, chicken soup is nutritious but some years ago, an article in a peer-reviewed scientific journal ‘Chest’ showed that it reduces inflammation as well as congestion in the respiratory tract, so it really is good for a cold! The bones release calcium, magnesium, phosphorus and trace minerals, all of which are good for your bones. The glucosamine and chondroitin released from the tendons are good for your joints. The gelatin is apparently good for your digestive tract. This together with the fact that you’re getting liquid into your system and preventing dehydration makes chicken broth a super food not only for a sick person but for all of us.

1444091394665Needless to say, I make a large pot of broth and freeze it in small containers so it’s always available when we need it. I make it with raw chicken carcasses (which are cheaply available from many butchers), onion, a couple of carrots, one or two sticks of celery, bayleaf, peppercorns and parsley. All are put in a large pot, filled with water and simmered for about 3 hours. The foam which gathers on top must be skimmed off as soon as it forms. The same can be done with beef bones. In Italy, stewing beef on the bone or tongue is often used and the meat eaten with olive oil and capers after the broth is done. This is called lesso and is popular in northern Italy. My niece’s mother-in-law who is Jewish says that the best chicken broth comes from using a whole Kosher chicken and of course the chicken can be eaten hot or cold afterwards. She even told me where to get Kosher chicken so this is going to be my next attempt in the broth department.

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When The Wind Goes Out of Your Sails

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DSCN2146Some of my previous posts have mentioned Fidz being unwell. The truth is that he has Stage 4 lung cancer. My friend Janet remarked that it would be interesting to hear more about our experiences dealing with this and since it’s what occupies my mind almost all the time, why not? So here goes…………

How It Started. Non-specific lower back pains and an ultrasound showed a growth on the adrenal gland (a little gland that sits on top of the kidney). Nobody particularly worried at this point and the recommendation was to have it removed so Fidz went into hospital for surgery.

The Bad News. A routine pre-surgery X-ray showed a small tumour in the lung. An adrenal biopsy showed that the cells had a lung marker. Hence the diagnosis of Stage 4 lung cancer which is incurable, there is no Stage 5! Recently, new targeted therapies have been developed for some types of lung cancer but not the type that Fidz has.The prognosis is poor (statistically 1 year, but every cancer and every person is different so we can still hope).

The Good News. The lung tumour is small and either growing very slowly or not at all and Fidz has no cough or shortness of breath. There’s no spread to the bones or the brain. A round of radiation treatments has shrunk the adrenal tumour.

The Unfortunate News. Fidz has had a gallstone for many years with no problem. And when does it choose to trouble him but now! He was in hospital for a few days with an inflamed gallbladder (very painful) but rather than removing it, they treated him with intravenous antibiotics. He still has abdominal pain but nobody seems to know why. Finally, he’s getting a CT scan to check what’s going on in the abdomen. It’s worse not to know than to know the worst.

 1442108075601Our days are defined by treatments, endless hospital appointments and sitting in waiting rooms. He’s had a round of radiation to the lung tumour since this worked well on the adrenal tumour but of course they’re both still there and the fact of them spreading to another site or starting to grow again is a constant worry. Since the cancer is incurable, trying to maintain quality of life is the main objective so his oncologist has not yet proposed chemotherapy. However, with the abdominal pains, Fidz’s quality of life has been compromised and pain killers offer marginal relief. He never knows how he’s going to feel when he wakes up so we can rarely make advance plans. Luckily, our family and friends are understanding so cancelling dinner plans and outings at the last minute is graciously accepted.

DSCN2162Its not all doom and gloom however. We’ve had great dinners and get-togethers with family and friends. We love the strolls along the waterfront where there have been lots of free concerts over the summer. Even just sitting and watching the boats and people go by is entertaining. One of the highlights of my summer was ziplining. It was a free trial offered during the PanAm games. A 400 ft line which seems quite long but sadly only took about 15 seconds. It was like flying and felt glorious. That’s me up there on the right in the photo with my nephew who I dragged along to keep me company. And so it goes, we live in the present and enjoy what we can. I think of my mother when in her 90s. If asked how she was, she would say “Oh, I just take each day as it comes”. She would be pleased that we’re now doing the same.



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The 2015 PanAm Games in Toronto

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Nathan Phillips Square

Nathan Phillips Square

Toronto was a hive of activity for the last two weeks of July as it hosted the PanAm Games. The US won the most medals at 265 with Canada a close second at 217. Not surprising as these are the two richest countries participating with likely more funding for training than South American countries.

1438540798670The only event I managed to get to was beach volleyball which was a lot of fun to watch. A special sand stadium seating 5,000 spectators had been built on what was once a parking lot. Quite a feat as 3,000 metric tons of sand were used. And not just any old beach sand, it has to have specific size, shape, lack of ability to compact and so on, meeting the requirements of the International Volleyball Federation in Switzerland. So, in this case, it was granite sand from Huntsville, Ontario which was washed, sized and specially prepared for a volleyball court. Who would have thought? Too bad the stadium is only temporary after all that work. 1438542349101I had only ever seen beach volleyball on the beach where bikini-clad women are the norm. Apparently, the sport  demanded that women wear bikinis until 2012 when T-shirts were finally permitted. All the women at the PanAm games were still wearing bikinis while the men wore shorts and T-shirts. I couldn’t help thinking that it must hurt more to fall on bare skin never mind being exposed to the blazing sun. Anyhow, the spectators were in good spirits cheering wildly and generally enjoying themselves. Some had dressed up for the occasion.

1438540890473As luck would have it, the sailing events took place on the lake so we were able to watch them through our window. The Textile Museum had an exhibit featuring artwork from all 41 PanAm countries transposed onto sails. Each evening, 11 boats sailed across the lake in a flotilla. It was beautiful to watch though it would have been nice to see the work up close as well.

Lila Downs

Lila Downs

Every evening during the games, there were free concerts at Nathan Phillips Square in front of Toronto’s City Hall. For me the highlight was Lila Downs, a Mexican singer with a wonderful voice who featured on the soundtrack of the movie ‘Frida’ about the life of the artist Frida Kahlo. She was lively and most entertaining and we would have paid to see her.

There were lots of fireworks every night and of course the final one at the closing ceremony which was held at the Dome stadium next to the CN tower.

PanAm Closing Ceremony Fireworks

PanAm Closing Ceremony Fireworks

Short but spectacular, the fireworks were placed such that they looked as if they were bursting out of the tower. A fitting end to the games!

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Room With a View

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1436707615893Since we are spending an extended time in Toronto while Fidz is unwell, we decided to rent an apartment for the summer. We were lucky to find one on the lakefront. We have a wonderful view from our window as you can see above, and its a most pleasant place to watch the ferries and boats on the water. We face east so we don’t see the sunsets and I have rarely been awake early enough to see a sunrise in my entire life so I doubt that I will start now but maybe that would be worth the effort one of these days.

14367264218251436726715781Toronto’s Harbourfront is a busy place in the summer with music and dance performances, street artists, and people generally milling about enjoying the warm weather. On Canada day, July 1st, it was heartening to see the ethnic mix that makes up Toronto. There was a great sense of enjoyment across generations. Performers on stilts entertained the crowds and then walked around handing out candy to the children.

1436726973814As you can imagine, this is the season for water sports and it’s possible to rent out sail boats, canoes and kayaks. The islands across from the harbour are a popular destination and luckily, there are several ferries which go back and forth all day for the less adventurous. I’m planning a trip in the next few days.

1436726799049Food and beer are plentiful in addition to the restaurants which line the water. Ethnic vendors each have their own cuisine on offer. I have not yet indulged but one of these days, I’m going to get a few Asian snacks and wash them down with a few beers. Sadly, the only thing that’s missing is a good gelato but I guess I will have to go back to Rome for that!

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F Words

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1436706700819No it’s not the F word that normally springs to mind though it has come to my mind frequently in recent times! I’m thinking of F for family and friends. With Fidz being ill, the past few weeks have been difficult for us and I really don’t know how we would have managed without the support of family and friends. From bringing us food, to driving us around, to just being there when we need them, they’ve all made time to help out. We take it for granted that our family will help us out in times of need, but to have friends doing the same is truly a gift.

IMG_20150328_085935There was an interesting article in the New Yorker last October which talked about the work of Robin Dunbar, an anthropologist and psychologist. He came up with a number called the Dunbar number, actually a series of numbers for one’s circle of friends. According to this, we have 150 friends on average (a range of a 100 for some to 200 for the more social). These would be everyone who might be invited to a large party or celebration. Then the number drops by a third to 50 who would be friends we would invite to dinner from time to time or see occasionally. Then another third down, is a circle of 15 who you would see more regularly and turn to for sympathy and support. Finally, the most intimate Dunbar number is 5, which would be your best friends, the ones you confide in and which might include certain family members. With the rise of social media like Facebook and Twitter, people are beginning to challenge Dunbar’s number as virtual friends can number in the hundreds. However, Dunbar has also found that there are physiological responses like release of endorphins in real interactions involving laughter and touch, which obviously don’t occur in virtual interactions, or at least not to the same degree. There is also the concern that if we spend too much time talking to friends on social media, there might not be enough time to spend with friends in person.

For me, nothing beats talking, or doing an activity with a real person as opposed to sharing something with them on the internet. Besides, internet friends can’t hug you or bring you soup when you’re sick!  So on that note, thank you and a big hug to all our friends and family for helping us out in these difficult times.

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Rome, April 2015

Rome, April 2015

Some of you may have wondered why I haven’t posted anything in a long time. The truth of the matter is that Fidz is not well and I did I not feel like writing. There’s also the notion that people only want to read about things that are interesting and positive which is probably true. However, everybody’s life has periods of darkness so why do we feel constrained to keep sadness and worry to ourselves? Okay, I’m not about to pour out my worries on this page but in any case, I decided to continue with this blog even if my posts maybe somewhat erratic and not always joyful.

'My Wisteria', Toronto, 2015

‘My Wisteria’, Toronto, 2015

We’re back in Toronto where spring is about a month or more behind what it was in Rome. When we left Rome, a month ago, all the spring flowering trees were in full bloom and the fragrance of jasmine filled the air. I love spring and now, I have the pleasure of seeing the same in Toronto with the scent of lilac filling the air and flowers bursting forth after a long and cold winter. One of my sources of pride is this wisteria on the left. I planted it when it was about 2 feet tall around 10 years ago. Now, it has covered over a pergola and is laden with blossoms. Truly a beautiful sight.

1432488451611Illness and worry are stressful and I have been feeling anxious and drained of energy for the past few weeks so on Friday, when a friend invited me to join her at a meditation session, I decided to go. It was run by a group called ‘True Peace Toronto’ who follow the tradition of Thich Nhat Thanh, a Vietnamese monk who advocates the practice of mindfulness. Mindfulness is the energy of being aware and awake to the present moment. The philosophy is that to be mindful is to be truly alive, present and at one with those around you and with what you are doing. We started with just focussing on our breathing, letting our thoughts come and go and always returning to the present moment. I am familiar with this form of meditation and I immediately found it calming. Then a few people spoke about whatever it was they wanted to say. One woman commented that through her practice of meditation, she was coming to enjoy, and be grateful for, the small things in life like a sunny day, or a good cup of coffee, or a smile. How true this is, no matter how difficult things are, one can always find something to appreciate and be grateful for, even if only for a few minutes.

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