This year Easter and Passover fall at the same time. Since both of these involve gatherings of family and friends, it is sad that we can’t get together nor celebrate the annual rituals both religious and otherwise. I don’t recall ever being on my own for Easter. I was reflecting on the fact that I didn’t even have a chocolate easter egg to mark the day when I remembered that I had painted eggs from times past stored away somewhere. I was able to find them and I put them on my coffee table. The red and green ones, which are real egg shells painted, I bought in Prague many years ago. Decorated eggs (kralice) are the hallmark of Easter in the Czech Republic. Tradition has it has girls decorate the eggs to give them to the boys on Easter Monday. I hope that now it is a more collective enterprise! The brown one is also a real egg dyed with onion skins which I tried to do a couple of years ago. As I recall, it wasn’t entirely successful so I think the one above was given to me by the person who showed me how to do it. The other two are papier mache from northern India but since they don’t celebrate Easter there, they are more likely to be a symbol of the Hindu belief that the earth originated from a cosmic egg.
Anyway, it has given me great pleasure to see my bowl of eggs on my coffee table and I’m glad I went to the trouble of finding them.
Although it is still quite cold in Toronto, there are signs of spring with crocuses, daffodils and forsythia starting to bloom which are lovely to come upon. We need any sign of beauty in these strange and terrible times we’re in. Despite the fact that we are in quarantine and confined to our homes, there are small pleasures still to be had and you just have to find them. So, even if you find yourself totally alone this Easter, make a nice meal, sit at your table as if there were company, and enjoy. Happy Easter and Passover to all my readers and stay safe.
My self isolation ended a week ago but little has changed as the whole country is now more or less in quarantine in an attempt to flatten the curve. Those who can work from home have been directed to do so. Schools and universities are closed as well as all non-essential services including restaurants, bars and cafes. Physical distance between people has been set at 2 metres and supermarkets and grocery stores limit the number of people who can enter resulting in long line-ups outside. Socializing takes place by phone or by virtual meetings online. Everybody is worrying about getting infected especially now that we know that people who are asymptomatic can also be harbouring virus.
My excitement about being able to go and buy my own groceries when my own quarantine was finished was tempered by concerns about handling the produce in the supermarket and how to disinfect things I brought home. The type of Coronavirus we have is called SARSCov2 and it is destroyed by soap, by 60 -70% alcohol and 0.1% bleach. You may wonder why I’m telling you this but I actually had to search for this information and finally found it in a scientific paper. Since the virus is novel, knowledge about it is limited and even the paper gave this as a prediction based on other similar viruses. It can survive on skin for a few hours, on cardboard for 24 hours and on plastic or hard surfaces for 3 days. I washed my loose mandarin oranges and apples in soapy water as well as an aubergine and a red pepper. I left things in cardboard in a plastic bag for a day and didn’t touch anything in hard containers or bottles for 3 days. Today, I read that itès not a good idea to wash produce in soapy water so maybe just plain water together with not eating the produce immediately is a better idea. I’m not sure that there would be enough virus on most products to cause an infection unless someone had sneezed or coughed on something just before you picked it up but better to be safe than sorry.
Obviously, being at home with no possibility of eating out, means that we all have to cook more whether we like it or not. Many are really enjoying it and I’m surprised at the number of people who have taken to baking. Yeast was sold out in a supermarket my sister goes to. My niece who I don’t believe has ever baked bread in her life, followed an online demonstration and together with her husband and two small children, made a very professional loaf of Challah bread which I unfortunately didn’t have the pleasure of tasting as we all have to stay in our own homes. So while we try to flatten the curve, we are all fattening our curves. Jimmy Fallon on Twitter asked people to describe their quarantine in six words and one of my favourites was “Flattening the curve, fattening my curves”.
There are plenty of online activities to pass the time. Just in case my curves turn into rolls, I’ve been doing Pilates classes through YouTube, in addition to my daily stretching and yoga. Many museums, galleries and concert halls are offering free opportunities for seeing their collections or performances. I’ve attached a list below that someone in Italy sent me if anyone is interested. I am now trying to make cloth masks which I can wash and re-use. Masks are compulsory in some countries like China and the Czech Republic and the US is considering following suit. Other countries like Canada don’t particularly advocate them for the general public believing that they should be left for healthcare and front line workers. Although the most important thing is to keep your hands clean and not touch your face, I figure that covering your nose and mouth offers a degree of protection. Making a mask forced me me to haul out my sewing machine, which I hadn’t used in over 10 years, from my storage locker. Who knows, I might even start sewing other things if the curve takes long to flatten and we have to spend many more days at home.
I have spent a week in self isolation so far only going out for about 30-40 minutes a day to a quiet area near my apt, wearing a mask, just to get some fresh air and exercise. Somehow, the week went by relatively quickly as I was tired from a combination of jet lag and the stress of having to flee from Rome unexpectedly.
So to continue with our trip in Vietnam…after our visit to Hoi An, we went by bus to Hue, the Imperial City which was the seat of the last royal dynasty, the Nguyen kings, founded in 1802. Just outside the city, are the tombs of the kings and we stopped at one of them, Khai Din’s tomb which was finished in 1931 and took 11 years to complete. Outside the mausoleum are stone sculptures of mandarins and soldiers. One of the features of the mausoleum is that the walls are decorated with mosaic motifs made out of ceramic and glass which were ordered from France and broken into pieces to make up the mosaics. It is quite a contrast to the exterior which has become blackened with time.
Since this was an art tour, we had been visiting galleries and that evening, we went to a contemporary gallery New Space Art Foundation owned by the Le brothers who are twins. Among their lacquered pieces, were a couple of Mandarins (carrying guns!) modelled on those at the tomb. The one you see here is supposed to resemble Le Ngoc Thanh who is standing next to it. Hope I got his name right as they are identical twins!
The Imperial City is modelled on the Forbidden City in Beijing which is to say that you go through a series of courtyards and halls before getting to the Palace. It is surrounded by a high wall 4 metres thick. A lot of the interior and the area surrounding the Palace were destroyed during the Tet offensive in 1968 but enough survives to see what a grand Palace it must have been in its time. Hue is on the Perfume River which snakes through the city.
From Hue, we flew to Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) on the Saigon River, the largest port in Vietnam. A city of French colonial architecture which has grown into a modern city of high rises and lots of traffic especially scooters.
A moving experience was a visit to the War Remnants Museum. During the Vietnam war, 7 million tons of bombs were dropped by the US army. Napalm (Agent Orange) was used with horrifying consequences evident to this day in many children born around that time. It was a brutal chemical warfare and a devastating genocide. What horrified me were the reasons for US involvement in the war which you can see in Eisenhower’s statement below in 1953. What’s even more horrifying is that the same scenario is being played out today often for the same reasons.
Unfortunately, we only had a day in Ho Chi Minh City. Early the next day, we went by bus to Chau Doc on the border with Cambodia stopping at Cai Bei on the Mekong River to see the floating market. We had a relaxing trip around Binh Hoa Phuoc island in the middle of the Mekong. We passed sampans with people fishing, stopped at small family run businesses where we could see how paper thin rice pancakes are made as well as various liquors, some made with snakes coiled inside. The snakes are usually venomous but the venom breaks down with the alcohol and is apparently safe to drink. It is supposedly medicinal and reputed to cure many ailments as well as being invigorating and improving virility. I don’t think anyone in our group tried it so its benefits remain as hearsay! We had lunch at a small family run homestay where the food was beautifully presented. The food in the south is slightly different to that in the north with more spices, lemon and coconut milk. This was where I had the pork cooked in coconut milk which I would like to get the recipe for.
That was the end of our trip in Vietnam as the next day we took a boat up the Mekong River to Phnom Penh in Cambodia. I enjoyed Vietnam and would have gladly spent more time there. Despite their painful history, the Vietnamese are tranquil, friendly and welcoming. It is remarkable to see how the country has rebuilt itself in less than 30 years.
I was in the process of finishing Part 2 of my Vietnam adventure last Monday night when The Prime Minister of Italy announced a lockdown on the whole of Italy, to take effect the following morning. The decree not only stopped all travel but also specified that people had to stay at home only leaving their houses, one at a time, to buy groceries or go to the pharmacy, doctor or bank in their own neighbourhood. There were a couple of exclusions including one that permitted travel if you were on your way to your domicile.
I had a flight out of Rome to Reykjavik on Thursday where I was meeting family for a trip around Iceland. I immediately cancelled these flights as well as the trip in Iceland and booked a flight to Toronto leaving on Wednesday. It took me hours on the phone on Tuesday and I also had to pack and prepare to leave the next day. I felt like I was in a science fiction movie fleeing from an apocalypse, wondering why I hadn’t given myself another day to sort things out calmly. By the end of day, it became clear that I had made the right decision as Air Canada announced that the flight I was booked on was going to be the last flight from Italy to Canada. I was so glad that I had gotten a seat on that flight.
At the airport the next morning, I wore a mask as did many other travellers. After getting through security, each traveller was screened for fever before being allowed to go to their gates. The plane was packed and I was more worried about picking up the virus on the plane so I wore my mask throughout the flight except to eat lunch.
I am so relieved to be home in Toronto. I’m in self quarantine for 14 days as there is evidence that people can be carrying virus without showing symptoms. Today is my 5th day back. My sister left me food in my fridge and family and friends have kindly been offering to drop off supplies. I haven’t had time to be bored yet as I was suffering from jet lag the last couple of days as well as getting over the stress of fleeing Rome in a hurry so I’ve been taking it easy. As I write this, Canada has ramped up its containment procedures. I hope that Canada manages to avoid the disaster that Italy is experiencing.
I have plenty of time now to continue with my travel tales and if any of you are in quarantine, you might be glad of another distraction so I will continue with my adventures in Vietnam and Cambodia in my next posts.
Our group, called ‘Sala Uno’ as our co-ordinator manages a gallery in Rome by that name, consisted of ten people including myself. I didn’t know any of them but got to know them soon enough despite my lack of fluency in Italian. Luckily, the co-ordinator was English speaking and the lady I shared a room with also spoke English so I was able to confirm things with them if I was confused. Our Vietnamese guides also only spoke Italian but I had taken my travel guides in English so I was able to read about the places we were in. We stayed in beautiful hotels and ate well with breakfast, lunch and dinner all provided for us in lovely restaurants.
Just to give you an idea of our journey in Vietnam, I’m attaching a map. We flew to Hanoi in North Vietnam where we stayed for two days after which we went by bus to Ha Long Bay near Ha Phong. From there we flew to Da Nang and went by bus to Hoi An which is just south of Da Nang. Then by bus to Hue, a historic town where the Imperial City built Vietnam’s last dynasty stands. From Hue we flew to Ho Chi Minh City or Saigon as it used to be called. Our final leg was a bus to the border with Cambodia from where we took a boat to Phnom Phen.
Vietnam has a complicated history marked by domination by various nations, China, France, Japan and the US. Prior to the second world war, Vietnam was part of French Indochina. After the second world war, communism flourished in the north under Ho Chi Minh who couldn’t secure the south and the country was divided at the 17th parallel just south of Hue. The south was under a Vietnamese leader Ngo Dinh Diem who was strongly allied with the US leading to the Vietnam War. It wasn’t until 1976 that Vietnam was reunified to become the Socialist Republic of Vietnam. This was the time when people from south Vietnam fled as refugees, the ‘boat people’. Pol Pot in Cambodia invaded Vietnam in 1976 supported by China and Vietnam retaliated by signing a pact with Russia. All of this resulted in Vietnam in the 1980s becoming impoverished and isolated still suffering from the aftermath of the Vietnam war which in effect was a genocide, and also dealing with mines and the consequences of chemical warfare. It is only in the last 30 years that Vietnam has recovered.
My first visit to Hanoi was in the late 1990s before mass tourism had arrived. It was grey and dull despite the presence of fine French colonial buildings. People were poor and the major form of transport was bicycles and rickshaws. What a transformation has taken place. Apart from the colonial French architecture, the old Vietnamese ‘tube’ houses, so called because they were very narrow at the front but stretched back with a courtyard in the centre, have been restored and renovated, many with added floors above. The streets are filled with cars and motorbikes though bicycles still abound. Although there are lots of upscale shops, restaurants and hotels, people haven’t given up their traditional ways and it’s not uncommon to see families eating together in traditional street restaurants.
Vietnamese food is delicate and delicious, crispy spring rolls filled with minced pork and vegetables, soft rice paper rolls with salad and shrimp, salads of shredded mango and green papaya, pho soup, a broth with noodles, meat, green vegetables and herbs, pork cooked in coconut milk (in the south), steamed banana leaves filled with minced meat and of course, no meal is complete without rice!
The last time I went to Ha Long Bay, the road was poor and it took us half a day to get there. It was just a small fishing village with nobody around and we had to find a boatman to take us around the bay. Now it is a big tourist resort but luckily for us, there weren’t many tourists on account of the Covid-19 scare. Despite that, the bay was filled with boats and I couldn’t stay on deck for too long on account of the fumes. The price of progress!
Hoi An on the bank of the Thu Bon river was also filled with tourists and I can’t even imagine what it must be like in ‘normal’ times. Nevertheless, it is very pretty with beautiful lanterns hanging everywhere and an old quarter which consists of a Japanese part and a Chinese part.
In Hoi An, we saw how silk is made, from the worms feeding on mulberry leaves, to forming cocoons, to the cocoons being spun into silk. A few people in our group rushed off to a tailor and got clothes made leaving the order in the morning and receiving the clothes by the end of day. I wish I had asked them to show me the clothes but I have no doubt that they were beautiful and well made.
One of the highlights of the trip for me was a trip to the countryside outside Hoi An where we saw organic vegetables being cultivated, did a short cooking class to make crispy pancakes which we ate for lunch, and then cycled back to the hotel. Most of the group passed on the cycling except for myself and another lady. It was lovely biking through the countryside past rice fields and little villages. Everywhere was clean and well kept, no garbage lying about and houses well maintained. An interesting aspect of country life is that families who own land, bury their dead on their land in front of the house and next to the vegetable fields. The idea being that the ancestors are still part of the family and can watch over the land.
Another highlight was tasting durian fruit for the first time. We were walking through the market admiring the array of tropical fruits like dragon fruit and lychees when I saw durian. I had read about it and have seen it both in Asia as well as in Toronto many times but had never tasted it, it smells awful. When I came across a stall selling it, I thought ‘It’s now or never’. As luck would have it our guide happened to come by so I got him to buy us a half and get it cut up so we could taste it. It was creamy and delicious though I personally prefer the taste of jackfruit.
Hue was the next stop on our journey but I think I will continue with that adventure in my next post so stay tuned!
When I published my last post about preparing to go to Vietnam and Cambodia, a friend who is also a microbiologist like myself, left a comment saying that I should have titled my post ‘A Microbiologist Goes A-Travelling’. Indeed when I arrived at Bangkok airport and donned my mask, I looked around and could see people touching the front of their masks, pulling them off and on frequently, taking them off and storing them in their bags for further use and so on. I felt like going around giving instructions on proper usage of masks!
By contrast, Vietnam was amazing in their control measures for Coronavirus starting at the airport. There were signs everywhere advising people of the symptoms and what to do.
Every hotel, restaurant and museum had hand sanitizer at the door and museums were giving out free masks at the entrance. There is a culture of using masks because of pollution in Vietnam so its quite normal for people to wear masks in the street.
In Cambodia, there was less overt concern though I heard that people were avoiding large crowds and that public events had been cancelled. There also seemed to be a notion that Coronavirus doesn’t survive well in the heat and temperatures in Cambodia were over 30C.
We made it to the end without anyone getting sick and returned to Bangkok airport for our flight back to Rome. While we were on our trip, the outbreak had exploded in northern Italy and people were more worried about returning to Italy than travelling in Vietnam, Cambodia and Thailand. Practically everyone on our flight wore masks at the airport and many kept them on during the flight.
Back in Rome, the virus seems to be under control compared to the situation in northern Italy and we haven’t seen a huge number of cases. People over the age of 65 have been told to stay at home as much as possible. In general, people are going out less and many gatherings, even small ones have been cancelled. It’s likely just a matter of time before the virus spreads in Rome as well so there is a great deal of concern.
Now that I’ve updated you on the Coronavirus and mask usage, I can talk about the pleasant aspects of the trip so check out my next posts…
In the Fall of last year, I agreed to join two friends from Rome on a group art tour of Vietnam and Cambodia organized by the curator of a gallery here in Rome. It seemed like an interesting trip at the time and though I rarely travel with groups, preferring to organize my own travel schedule, I decided that this was a once-in-a-lifetime sort of trip.
You can imagine my mounting unease over the last couple of weeks with the spread of Coronavirus. Everyday, the newspapers have been reporting increasing numbers of cases and we were hoping that the trip would be cancelled or postponed. However, no such news was forthcoming so the next best thing was to prepare ourselves as best as possible and to arm ourselves with masks, hand sanitizer and so on.
Meanwhile, the Romans have fallen into a state of panic and have cleared out supplies. Few supermarkets stock hand sanitizer and I went to six pharmacies before I found some. Even though masks are of little protection unless someone is coughing and spreading large droplets close to you, I wanted to have a few for use in airports and crowded places. None of any type were to be found. I eventually found some in my local Chinese dollar type store in the handyman section as the N95 mask, which is recommended, is also used by woodworkers and other workers exposed to dust and inhalable particles. I guess few thought to look in this section for masks. So my stash above consists of N95 masks, a few surgical masks (in case I’m the one who is coughing!), hand sanitizer, disinfectant wipes and foot covers. The latter unrelated to Coronavirus but I hate walking on temple floors with bare feet as one has to remove ones shoes to enter. Foot covers are also useful for when you have to take off your shoes at airports.
Next was the medicines which I would be taking in any case regardless of Corona virus. My doctor did not recommend malaria prophylaxis as we aren’t going to be camping or staying in the countryside. However, dengue and zika virus are of potential concern and there is no prophylaxis for this except to prevent being bitten by mosquitos. Both dengue fever and zika virus are transmitted by the Aedes mosquito which bites during the day. I bought Muskol in Toronto which contains 30% Deet and prevents mosquitos from biting. I found out that Neem oil is also very effective so I tracked down an Indian store here in Rome which had it. Of course there’s the usual array of possible medicines one might need, a course of antibiotics, anti- diarrhoea medications, disinfectant, band aids and so forth. There’s hardly much room in my small case for clothes, with all this precautionary stuff.
We leave on Sunday and will be flying to Hanoi via Bangkok. Then we go on an overnight boat trip on Halong Bay. Following this, we fly to Da Nang from where we visit Hoi An and Hue in central Vietnam. Then a flight to Ho Chi Minh City followed by a trip on a boat up the Mekong river to Phnom Phen. As it turns out an old friend of mine lives in Phnom Phen so it will be nice to see him and his family. Finally, we go to Siem Reap to visit Angkor Wat. All this in only two weeks so there won’t be any time for lazing about which is a shame as we’re staying in very nice hotels. It’s comforting to think though, that should there be more restriction of movement due to Coronavirus spread, it will be no hardship being confined to the hotel.
The unfortunate news is that the friend that I was travelling with has fallen ill and can’t go. Naturally, neither is her husband going. So, now we are 10, none of who I know and the majority of whom only speak Italian. It’s going to be more of an adventure than I had anticipated! I will keep you posted but don’t panic if you don’t hear from me for two weeks as I’m not taking my computer.
For several months last year, there was a space in Piazza San Pietro surrounded by boards. When I returned to Rome, the boards had been removed to reveal a large bronze sculpture depicting people on a boat. The people are of various races wearing clothes of different historical time periods as you can see above. The name of the sculptor, Timothy Schmalz, is not obvious and I didn’t even see it the first time I saw the sculpture. When I did see it, I came home and Googled the name and to my surprise, I found out that he is a Canadian from St. Jacob’s in Ontario.
He has devoted his career to creating sacred sculptures, a famous one being ‘Homeless Jesus’ which shows a man sleeping on a park bench. The one above ‘Angels Unawares’ was inspired by a verse from the New Testament: “Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for thereby some have entertained angels unawares”. Angel wings are depicted above the huddled mass of 140 migrants and refugees. Some look apprehensive, some are crying and some are joyful.
Later during the week, I went to a modern art museum the MAXXI where there was a participation installation by Yoko Ono entitled ‘Add Colour, Refugee Boat’. There were three boats in a small room all painted over with different shades of blue. I believe the room and boats started out white with the blue paint representing the sea. People coming to view the exhibit were given paint and could paint over anything in the room including the floor and walls in whatever way they wanted. We were given dark blue the day I was there but the painting was done in dark blue, pale blue and white so people must have gotten different colours on different days. The write-up said that it was part of a series of works conceived in 1960 shortly after Yoko Ono arrived in the US. The initial effect was quite serene but of course, one immediately thought (or at least I did) of the number of people who have perished crossing the seas.
Seeing the two pieces in the same week reminded me that the refugee situation hasn’t gotten any better. Thousands of people flee their homelands to escape war, famine, drought and persecution. The UN Refugee Agency UNHCR, numbers forcibly displaced people worldwide at 70.8 million with 25.9 million refugees, half of whom are under the age of 18. There are few countries that willingly welcome them and increasingly more countries that don’t want them to enter regardless of the circumstances. Hopefully works of art like these will give more people pause for thought or better yet, some action however small.
I’ve been back in Rome for just under two weeks now. The weather has been beautiful since I got back with sunshine and blue skies except for an odd day of rain. As in previous years, I can’t resist posting a photo of the mimosa tree in my neighbourhood which is bursting with bright yellow flowers, earlier than usual. Cyclamens are in full bloom and it feels like spring.
This year, one of my New Year’s resolutions is to re-use as much as possible, to repair whatever I can, and to avoid using plastic. Last week, my resolutions were put to the test. I had a hole in my sock and was about to throw out the pair when I decided to darn the hole instead. The tap in my bathroom was leaking so I looked up a You Tube video and changed the rubber gasket. Unfortunately, this was not the solution and it’s still dripping but at least I learned how to unscrew the tap.
My local vegetable vendors in the market are getting to know me and don’t put my produce in plastic bags anymore. I’ve even started re-using paper bags and I’m sure they think I’m eccentric!
All of this is completely futile of course as the supermarkets use multiple layers of packaging and me re-using my bags isn’t going to make any difference. I recently complained to the manager in the supermarket that I didn’t buy cheese there anymore as it was wrapped in 4 layers of packaging. Her response was “Senora, we can remove the packaging and give it to you in paper”. She then went on to say that it was a regulation in their chain of supermarkets and there was nothing she could do. The government has tried to bring in a law restricting the use of packaging but the producers of packaging complained that it would lead to loss of jobs and so on, thus affecting the economy so the law didn’t go into effect. Clearly, I’m fighting a losing battle but perhaps I can urge you my readers to follow suit and reduce your use.
Chinese New Year is in a few days time. Surprisingly, Via del Babuino which leads up to Piazza del Popolo was decorated with red bunting overhead. A very pretty sight. Perhaps, there will be a Chinese celebration in the Piazza on Saturday. In any case, I hope 2020 is kind to all of you and that the world becomes a better place for all.
As I walked past St. Peter’s Basilica a couple of weeks ago, the Christmas tree lights were turned on, it was a magical moment. There are two giant Christmas trees in Rome, one at St. Peter’s and the other at Piazza Venezia. After a shamefully, spindly tree that the City put up in Piazza Venezia a couple of years ago, Netflix now donates it and they continued this tradition again this year. A fine one it is too. Thankfully, this year, they’ve replaced the digital screen in front of it with a figure of Babbo Natale (Santa Claus) which is much more quaint.
Back in Toronto, the temperature has gone from – 15C to +5C within two days and all the snow is melting. I’m not complaining as living in Rome has made me more sensitive to the cold and I have to wear layers of clothing to stay warm. Yesterday, people were enjoying a Christmas market in front of City Hall which was nice to see.
As we approach Christmas day and the groaning tables of food, I wish all of you my readers a Merry Christmas with your loved ones or if you are alone, I hope there are rituals that bring you pleasure.