Hello 2018

Jeanelle Modelling the New Canadian Mascara. Photo by Jocelyn Bertheau

A very happy New Year to all my readers.

Brutally cold temperatures in Toronto and other parts of Ontario dampened New Year’s Eve celebrations. The annual outdoor party outside City Hall in Toronto was condensed  and actually cancelled in Ottawa on account of the cold. Temperatures of -30C are not conducive to wandering about in the streets.

Photo: Jeanette Bertheau

However, my hardier friends are out in the countryside cross-country skiing and enjoying the winter wonderland scenery. When you live in Ontario, you have to take the weather in your stride or you could be trapped in the house for weeks. Having said that, I’m not striding about much in this weather and I’m glad to be returning to Rome for the rest of the winter.

It’s hard to predict what 2018 will bring, given the depths we sank to in 2017 with heads of countries hurling insults against each other such as ‘You’re fat’ and ‘You’re old’. It was hard to believe that grown men could behave like this, never mind heads of state. Still, there were some glimmers of positivity.  The MeToo  movement empowered women to speak out against sexual exploitation.  The difficulties of Brexit has slowed down other European populist movements from heading in the same direction. The Paradise Papers publicized how the rich avoid paying taxes. Small things in these turbulent times but we can only hope that 2018 will continue with small battles won if not the big ones.


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Symbol of Christmas

    Queen’s Park, Toronto

The year seems to be ending with remarkable similarity to how it started. In January, I  unexpectedly spent a night in Philadelphia on my way from Toronto to Rome.  I ended up enjoying this diversion as  I got an opportunity to visit the Philadelphia Art Museum.  Two days ago, while flying back to Toronto from Rome, I again unexpectedly had to stay overnight in London as I missed my connection to Toronto on account of bad weather.

With a day before the next flight to Toronto, I went to the Victoria and Albert Museum in South Kensington where there was a very interesting exhibition on opera entitled ‘Opera: Passion, Power and Politics’.  What was interesting about the exhibition was that you were provided with a headset at the start and could hear arias from the specific opera that you were reading about as you walked around. This was without pressing any buttons and the music just changed by itself depending on what you were looking at. I still don’t know how this was technically achieved and it was remarkable.On the way to the Tube Station, I saw the beautiful Christmas tree outside the Natural History Museum surrounded by a skating rink which made me think about this universal symbol of Christmas.

Rome has a couple of locations featuring Christmas trees, one of them being in front of St. Peter’s Basilica which you can see in my previous post. The other one is on Piazza Venezia which got a lot of criticism last year for being small and  unimposing such that the City ended up trying to make it look more impressive by placing a huge star on top.  This year, a taller one was installed but lo and behold, a few days later it looked dried up so that people began referring to it as ‘spelacchio’ which means mangy or bald and remarking that it looked like a toilet brush. It has turned into a symbol of the decline of the city which many attribute to the alleged ineptitude of the Mayor Virginia Raggi of the Cinque Stellae populist party. She has publicly declared that she is not standing again after the end of her term. After the tree being an object of shame for two years in a row and written about in international newspapers, the new Mayor will feel obligated to make a careful choice.

Back in Toronto, we have our own beautiful permanent Christmas tree outside the Legislative Building at Queen’s Park. I passed by it this evening and it looked festive and majestic covered in lights. Three Christmas trees in three countries in a week.  I’m beginning to feel like a Christmas tree judge!

Anyhow, a very happy Christmas to all my readers. This is such a special time for those of us who have families and loved ones to spend it with but let us also remember that Christmas can be a difficult time for those who are alone, or ill or in places of conflict and spare a thought or better yet a helping hand if we come across someone in that situation.


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Christmas Season Starts in Rome

Christmas Tree, Piazza San Pietro

December 8th, the Feast of the Immaculate Conception, is the official start of the Christmas season in Rome. It is a holiday and and on this day, all the public Christmas trees are illuminated and the Christmas lights on Via del Corso are switched on.

Last week there was a flurry of activity in preparation for the big day and people had to work at night to get the lights up on Via del Corso so as not to disrupt traffic during the day. The red fir tree in St. Peter’s square is easily the largest in the city at 28 metres (92 feet) tall. This year, it was a donation from Poland though I’m not sure whether it actually came from Poland and how it got here. Unlike previous years, it was decorated rather than just illuminated. Children undergoing cancer treatments in various Italian hospitals made the decorations which were carefully put up over several days with the help of a crane.

December 8th is also our neighbourhood feast day. The church is two doors down from me and the morning started with bells pealing and after Mass, a brass band playing on the terrace. In the afternoon, the statue of the virgin in the church was carried down the hill in a procession that included the brass band and the choir. I was standing on the sidewalk watching when I saw my neighbours, Anna and Gino who invited me to join them which I did. We made our way down the tiniest cobbled streets in the neighbourhood, with the band playing and hymns being sung, stopping in various places for prayers.

I’m sure the young lads from the bar on our street, who were carrying the Virgin were delighted with the praying as they could put her down. It was quite a load with the statue on a platform of flowers together with lights and likely a battery to operate them. We had to have a police escort at one point, since we actually proceeded down Via Gregorio VII, a very busy main road. All the traffic and buses had to stop and wait until the procession turned around the corner and went up the hill. This can’t have gone down well with the people trying to get to their destinations but as Gino informed me, the procession has been taking place since before there were buses and so much traffic on that street. He was born in the neighbourhood and is now in his 70s. It was fascinating to hear what it was like when he was young.

Anyhow, we made our way back to the church where the Virgin was returned to her place and a Mass was celebrated with organ and choir. Immediately after there was a firework display with a view of the dome of St. Peter’s from the church terrace, very beautiful.  Finally there were refreshments in the church hall which is around the corner in a spacious garden. I often walk on the other side of the garden wall and always wondered what was behind it so I was pleased to finally find out. I’m not particularly religious but I can see how the church cements the social structure of villages and small communities. A blessing or a curse depending on your viewpoint and whether or not you fit within the structure.

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Pain in Paradise

Although I live in a central part of the city here in Rome, my apartment is in a quiet neighbourhood with lots of trees. It is on top of a small hill and I always felt like I was in a little village. Today my haven has suffered a terrible blow.

I usually wake up in the morning to the sound of birds twittering or in warmer months, to parrots squawking. This morning I was awakened by the sound of chain saws. The house next door to me which was almost invisible behind a screen of trees was suddenly brutally visible. Completely gone are a large lemon tree, a pomegranate tree, a large Nespole tree, several evergreens and a slew of shrubs. The house has been largely uninhabited since I came here and I guess it must have been finally sold. I’m afraid that they’re going to convert the garden into a parking area. I can’t stop humming the line from Joni Mitchell’s song ‘they paved paradise and put up a parking lot’.

Image Origin: Getty Images

It feels like every week, there is something new to be aghast about. I was in Goa when the news of the Paradise papers emerged. The extent of the money hidden by the wealthy behind various offshore tax avoidance schemes is truly horrifying. I expected that there would be an uproar about it but not much of a peep in any country as I guess it’s all legal so little can be done. Meanwhile, the EU is on the edge of a turmoil. Nobody knows what’s going to happen now that Angela Merkel is unable to form a majority coalition. Here in Italy, Silvio Berlusconi forged a winning coalition of his centre right and two far right parties in regional elections in Sicily. The 81-year old who is so ‘remade’ that he looks half that age has made a come back despite recent cardiac surgery, tax fraud and sex scandals. He is banned from running for office but has appealed to the European court of human rights and being a billionaire has been able to hire top lawyers. If this happens, there is a chance that he could lead the country again in the next election which is hard to even imagine.

Gian Lorenzo Bernini: Detail from ‘The Abduction of Proserpina’

Anyhow, one has to find beautiful things to cheer one up and there is no shortage of beauty in Rome. There are a number of exhibitions and I went to one of the work of Bernini at the Villa Borghese last week. He truly was an incredible sculptor and his figures look like they’re carved out of some soft material rather than marble. Tomorrow, I’m going to an exhibition of Monet’s work on a guided tour in Italian. I don’t care for guided tours of paintings but a friend has persuaded me to join her and it will be good for my Italian. Thank goodness at least works of art have not been totally destroyed. I wish it was the same for our environment.

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News From Goa

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Cemetery, St Anne’s Church, Parra

It is very hot and humid in Goa right now but there are lots of tourists here nevertheless.

Candolim Beach

The majority are domestic tourists from other parts of India celebrating Diwali holidays when the schools are closed. Lots of Russians too and apparently there’s a Russian Mafia here involved with the drug trade. Next week onwards, until towards the end of March marks the peak tourist season when the weather is cooler. Domestic tourists tend not to visit during this period as prices go up while European tourists abound on account of the more pleasant weather. One nice thing at this time of year is that everything is still green and lush after the monsoon rains. The beach close to where I’m staying is beautiful and though its too hot for me during the day, I’ve been enjoying walks around sunset.


My reason for coming to Goa was to sort out some banking issues. Since my mother passed away and we dealt with her estate about 4 years ago, our accounts have lain dormant and the bank froze them due to lack of activity. The only way I could get them reactivated was to present myself to the bank in person. I found out when I got here that everything is secured by SMS and text messaging so I couldn’t activate my cash card until I got myself a mobile number. This was not as easy as it sounds. To safeguard against terrorism (I think) one has to fill out forms, and submit a photograph as well as one’s passport to get a SIM card. As it turned out, I was glad I had gotten myself a mobile number and data on my phone as it seems that most people here communicate by WhatsApp or SMS anyway. Needless to say there was a good deal of tooing and froing and trips to the nearest big town, Mapusa. The overnight receptionist at the hotel, who I’ve known for a long time, would give me a ride to Mapusa on his motorbike first thing in the morning as it is on his way home so at least my days started out pleasantly. I’m glad to say that I got everything resolved so I’m pleased about that.
On November 2nd, the Feast of All Souls, I randomly went by a cemetery and was amazed to see the graves all covered with flowers. I didn’t know that this way of honouring the dead was practised in Goa as this custom does not seem to have been carried on by emigrants to other countries like my parents. Anyhow, it was a colourful and moving sight as relatives were also there lighting candles. The picture above shows the entrance to the cemetery at St. Anne’s church in Parra bult in 1649. The caption says ‘Aiz Mhaka Faleam Tuka’ which translates to ‘Today Me, Tomorrow You’. A chilling thought but one we shouldn’t forget.

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On The Move

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These are the feet of a presumed royal Egyptian figure dating from the 3rd century BC. It is all that remains of the colossal figure together with the base which contains a hieroglyphic script and which is to be seen in the Altemps Museum in Rome. They were found in what was once a Temple to the Egyptian god Iside in the area of Rome called Campo Marzo close to the Pantheon. There was a fashion for things Egyptian during the time of Anthony and Cleoptra and many artefacts were brought to Rome during this time. You may be wondering what this has got to to with anything. Well, the truth of the matter is that they are symbolic of the fact that I’m on the move again.
I’ve been back in Rome for about a week now. Glorious weather here, in the mid-20s during the day though cooler at night and in the early mornings. Perfect for walking and the city isn’t jammed with tourists so its a lovely time to wander around. All the activities that I’m part of, like my choir and bookclub are back in action again so it was a fun and busy week as soon as I arrived catching up with friends and getting back into to the swing of things.
Not for long though as I’m off to Goa. More of an obligation rather than a vacation but I’m sure I will find time for a few walks on the beach as well not to mention a beer or two. I’ll keep you posted!

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Birthday Adventure

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My sister gave me an exciting present for my birthday, a ziplining ecotour with Long Point Adventure Tours in southwest Ontario. To keep me company, she included her two children and son-in-law, and took on the task of babysitting the grandchildren. Many thanks are due…….

There were seven of us in our group with two guides. After being fitted out with helmets, safety gloves, harnesses and given a lesson on how to slow down and stop, we zoomed off through the tops of the trees.

The way it worked was that one guide went first while the second secured our harnesses to the rope and launched each of us off one by one.  Only one person at a time on the line which was a steel rope, and of course the first guide was already on  the arrival platform to make sure one landed safely. It was a most exhilarating feeling, flying through the air but not much time to admire the views except when you were standing on the platform waiting for everyone to arrive. The longest line was about 400 meters which doesn’t take long when you’re whizzing along. While waiting on one of the platforms, we tried edge walking which was exciting if a little scary.

There were about 14 lines and 8 platforms as well as a suspension bridge and a 40 foot rappel. Definitely not for people who are afraid of heights. The suspension bridge was fun and since we were secured to a rope we were able to hang over the side and get a good look both below us and at the tree canopy above.

I was not looking forward to the rappeling as I had no idea what it was but knew that it involved either climbing or down a rope. In fact it turned out to be easier than I imagined as it is simply being let down a rope and the speed can be controlled. I wished I could have done it again and gone a little faster!

We all enjoyed the morning. When we got back, my niece was relieved to find that her 4 month old baby, had slept in her stroller in the garden for most of the morning. My sister was relieved too! We ended the day with a fine Thanksgiving dinner replete with a bountiful harvest from the garden. A much appreciated ‘feel young’ birthday present.

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Talk About Trees

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Cathedral Grove, Vancouver Island, BC

On a recent visit to Vancouver, I came across a totem pole in the Van Dusen Gardens. Totem poles can serve as monuments, memorials or sign posts and often have stories carved onto them.

Al of the Gispudwada. Carver Arthur Sterritt

This one was commissioned by the Botanical Garden Association in 1976 and describes the origin of the Black Bear crest of the Orca clan of indigenous people. The story is that a long time ago, a man was transformed into a black bear and lived among them (bottom showing bear carrying a human face). After some time, he returned to his people and a healer helped him become human again (top showing man holding the healer). The bears continued to help him and his people so they took the bear as their crest. The carving is beautiful, as you can see, and is done out of a single massive trunk, traditionally red cedar.

Old Red Cedar, Cathedral Grove

A few days later, we visited Cathedral Grove on Vancouver Island where some of the red cedars and Douglas firs are over 200 feet high and some are 800 years old. Tall and majestic with enormous trunks, it does feel like a cathedral. It was awesome and we noticed that people spoke in low voices as if they all felt that they were in a place of worship. It is sad to think of us humans decimating forests like this to make a profit from the wood. Thankfully, pressure to protect the environment has slowed this down on the island.

Back in Ontario, I was in Norfolk county which also has beautiful Carolinian forests consisting of Tulip trees, Eastern Flowering Dogwood, Sassafras and Chestnut, amongst others. Not as majestic as Cathedral Grove but impressive all the same and beautiful to walk in. The more you look the more you see, birds, butterflies, frogs and wild flowers.

Coral Mushroom

Trees that have fallen over provide a home for insects, moss and mushrooms in season. This beautiful coral mushroom was growing on a dead tree stump and is edible.

Forests and trees have been a source of artistic inspiration for many from paintings, the carving of totem poles to wood carvings of various sorts.  I saw a contemporary art sculpture of a tree trunk done by Marguerite Larmand of Six Directions Studio in Norfolk county. She used the natural form of the tree to illustrate that male and female aspects exist in a single being.

Tree Sculpture by Marguerite Larmand

The piece represented a tree trunk cut in two halves and she spoke of actually portraying her own duality. Hence the female half is strong while the male half is less so. Unfortunately, the male half was destroyed while the sculpture was being moved and she now only has the female half. It sits in the hallway of her house and is very striking. You’re probably wondering (as I was!) what the weak male half looked like. Luckily, there was a photo of the piece when it was displayed in a gallery so I took a photograph to show you. An impressive piece of work. Enjoy!


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Toronto Tidbits

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Toronto Skyline from Leslie Street Spit

Apologies to my readers yet again for my long silence. I returned to Toronto about a month ago and have just been lazy about writing. It was a real pleasure to leave Rome as it was 40C when I left and getting hotter. By comparison, Toronto is very pleasant around the mid 20s.

One of the things I like about being in Toronto is being able to travel around on my bike, my preferred mode of travel. The city is bike-friendly and there are designated bike lanes on many major streets which makes it easy to bike in the city. The waterfront stretches for miles and there are areas along it only open to walkers and cyclists. Some weeks ago, I was on one of these, a long man-made narrow peninsula, largely formed by landfill, called the Leslie Street Spit. It extends 5km into Lake Ontario and has been left in its natural habitat which has attracted many species of birds.  In one spot, people have arranged little piles of stones similar to what the indigenous people in the Artic would have made on a larger scale called inukshuks which they used as reference points for navigation. No navigation is necessary on Leslie Spit but they look pretty framing the Toronto skyline and people must enjoy balancing stones.

A few days later, I was walking along a path close to the University of Toronto campus and an artist was doing the same balancing of stones in a dry river bed filled with stones.  He apparently does this almost every day starting afresh each morning as a form of performance art.

Many people like myself stop to take photos after asking his permission at which point he asks for a donation. I can’t imagine that he makes a living out of this but it’s an interesting way to earn money and his skill at balancing stones is admirable.

Yesterday was the solar eclipse which we able to see partially from here.  Many people, armed with protective glasses, were looking up at the sky during the eclipse.  Down on the ground though was a strange sight. I saw this group of birds, mostly pigeons but also other species, as still as the balancing stones.  It was an extraordinary and disconcerting phenomenon. The light had changed but it wasn’t at all dark, and the temperature had fallen slightly, really not enough of a change to warrant a change in behaviour. In retrospect, I wish I had waited until the eclipse had ended to see what the birds would do. I found out afterwards that an ecologist Rebecca Johnson at the California Academy of Sciences is leading a project called Life Responds for which an App called iNaturalist was created  in order that her team of biologists and astronomers can analyse data recorded by the public on animal behaviour during the eclipse. Evidently, animals behave in strange ways during an eclipse. Too bad I didn’t know beforehand as I would have enjoyed recording my observations in a structured way. Once a scientist, always a scientist!

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The Feast of Saints Peter and Paul

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Last week, while Canadians were celebrating Canada Day weekend, the Romans were celebrating the feast of Saints Peter and Paul which is on June 29th.

St Peter and St. Paul

The feast is of ancient origin and there are accounts dating back to AD 258 of the feasts of Peter and Paul being celebrated on the same day. Both were martyred during the time of the emperor Nero. St Peter was crucified in AD 64, upside down according to his wishes as he didn’t feel worthy to be crucified in the same way as Christ. St. Peter’s Basilica, was built over his burial ground. St. Paul had his head cut off by a sword in AD 67 and his remains are in the Basilica of St. Paul outside the walls. Burials within the walls were not allowed in those days.

The feast day is a public holiday and when it falls on a Thursday, as it did this year, those who can, make a ‘ponte’ (bridge) which is to say that they take Friday off as well to give a long weekend. Traditionally, flower ‘pictures’ are arranged in the Piazza just in front of St. Peter’s Square. Made out of flower petals and natural materials including rice, lentils and wood shavings, people work late into the previous night to have the pictures ready for the feast and yet not dried out by the sun. I got there before noon so probably saw them at their best as the sun is pretty fierce now during the day.

Though I live close to St. Peter’s and cross the square frequently, I rarely brave the crowds to get into the Basilica. However, on Sunday I went to Mass there to listen to the Corpus Christi Choir from Oxford. Eric, the assistant leader of the choir that I sing with here, is an English organ scholar and he was singing with them. Visitors cannot access the altar area of the Basilica unless attending a service which is a good thing as the Basilica has become more of a museum than a place of worship. I had my pick of seats when I got past the barrier and plenty of time to admire the altar at close quarters. The singing was, dare I say, heavenly and staring at the glorious altar made me feel in another world. Bernini incorporated what is reputed to be the chair St. Peter sat on while giving his teachings, into a gilded bronze throne on the altar. It is rather grand but I couldn’t quite figure out what might have been the original chair as I’m sure St. Peter wasn’t sitting on anything like what you see in the picture. There is supposedly a skeleton of acacia wood buried in there somewhere which is apparently the oldest piece.

Since I’m on the subject of St. Peter, there is a beautiful statue of him on the right hand side just before you come to the Baldachino and main altar. To me, it is one of the few statues in the Basilica that has a human scale (the other is Michaelangelo’s Pieta). Sculpted in bronze by Arnolfo di Cambio in the 13th cent. he is seated on an ivory throne. Behind it, is what appears to be a brocade screen but is actually mosaic. Greatly venerated, the right foot has been worn smooth by pilgrims touching or kissing it.  On June 29th, it is dressed with a red and gold Papal cape and a gold Papal hat but these had been removed by the time I got there on Sunday. As always when I visit St. Peter’s, I feel that  I should go more often as it is so vast and overwhelming that one would need binoculars and several visits to take in the details.



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