Bangkok, 27 July 2015

Trompe l’oeil is a very respectable art form, with a long and distinguished presence in the world of art, at least in Western art. I am told that the Greeks and Romans practiced it, although I do not recall ever having seen an example. In any event, artists took it up again with a vengeance during the Renaissance, and art thereafter is littered with pieces which “fool the eye”, tricking the viewer to see three-dimensional depth where there is none. We have a beautiful example just up the road from our apartment in Milan, in the church of Santa Maria presso San Satiro. My not-yet wife took me there on my first trip to Milan in 1975 and my eyes were indeed fooled.
What I had taken to be a deep apse behind the altar is actually an almost flat wall. The clever artist in question was Bramante, who painted it in the 1480s. In this case, he didn’t do it just to show how good he was, it was to give a feeling of greater depth to a church which was squeezed in between the adjoining buildings.

I could go on giving other examples from High Art, but actually I want to focus on a lower form of the art found in the province of Liguria. We’ve just come back from spending a week by the sea, near Genova, the province’s capital (and from where I managed to launch several of the previous posts).

One of my recurring pleasures as I walk the streets of any conurbation in Liguria, from Genova down to the smallest village, is to come across houses like these.
This form of trompe l’oeil is only found in Liguria, to the extent that the practice is almost a D.O.C.. In these cases, the painter (I hesitate to call him artist) embellishes what is otherwise the drab and flat facade of a house (you see an example to the right in the photo) with architectural elements which are painted so cleverly as to fool the eye into thinking that they are three-dimensional and “real”. The result is to make an ordinary house look more imposing, which in the old days no doubt (and perhaps even today) raised the residing family’s social standing a notch or two. It is even a way of making up for unfortunate blemishes in a facade, like the absence of a window which mars the symmetry of a house.
What is nice is to see is examples which run from the fresh and new to various states of weathering and finally decrepitude brought about by sun, rain, and more recently pollution.


Of course, one has to ask oneself why this art form is so popular in Liguria and nowhere else. My theory, for what it’s worth, is that it is a reflection of the well-known stinginess of the Genoese (and more generally Ligurians). In Italy, the Genoese have the same reputation as the Scots in England for being tight fisted, and there are loads of jokes about it, as indeed there are in the case of the Scots (“There was an Englishman, an Irishman, and a Scotsman in a pub. The Englishman stood a round, the Irishman stood a round, but the Scotsman just stood around”; sorry, I thought I would just quickly throw that one in). According to this theory, then, the Genoese (and by reflection the Ligurians) preferred to paint architectural elements onto their facades à la trompe l’oeil rather than go with the real things, because it cost them less.

I’m sure the Genoese must feel that this typing of them as scrooges by the rest of Italy is grossly unfair and they probably find it very irritating to be the butt of incessant jokes about it. But as they say, “there is no smoke without fire”. There must surely be some reason why they got this reputation. Curious to see what I could find out, I did an internet search on the topic (in truth, my wife did it since she’s very good at internet searches). Several suggestions popped up. One is that Liguria is in general a very poor land, made up of steep hills and little good agricultural land. People who live in such lands tend to be more careful with their hard-earned wealth scratched out of an unforgiving earth than those of us from richer lands (I’m sure this is the basis for the Scots’ reputation for stinginess). Another suggestion is that the Genoese in particular made much of their wealth in banking (they were the bankers of the Spaniards in the 16th century), and like all bankers got into the habit of not throwing their money around like we foolish non-bankers do. A third, which I like so much that I have adopted it, is a variant on the second (I have to thank Grimaldina, a citizen of Genova, for bringing it to my attention).

In 1586 or thereabouts Philip II, King of Spain, decided that he was going to invade England, to uphold the Catholic cause of course, but also to teach the damned English a lesson for attacking Spanish treasure fleets and shipping more generally. The worst offender was this gentleman, Sir Francis Drake


A great Englishman for the English, but nothing more than a damned pirate for the Spaniards.

To invade England, Phillip was going to need a navy, and a big one. As I said, the Genoese were the bankers of the Spaniards, so he came to them for the funds to build the necessary ships. I suspect the King made the Genoese an offer they couldn’t refuse. In any event, after much hesitation because it was a huge amount of money, and no doubt after extracting juicy concessions about trading monopolies for Genova in England once conquered, the Genoese accepted to fund the venture. Thus was built the Spanish Armada, or the Grande y Felicísima Armada, the “Great and Most Fortunate Armada”, as the Spaniards called it. And here, just for the hell of it, I throw in pictures of Philip II and Elizabeth I (it’s clear already from the pictures who’s going to win; I mean, look at Phillip II, have you ever seen such a nasty scowl?)


Alas, the Spanish Armada was perhaps great but it was not fortunate. After several engagements in the English Channel, where overall the Spaniards got the worst of it
the Armada was driven by the winds up into the North Sea, all the way up to Scotland. At that point, the Spanish commander decided to give up and go home. His idea was to round the top of Scotland, head out into the Atlantic, and then turn south. He turned too soon. His remaining ships found themselves too close to the west coast of Ireland, where, hit by terrible Atlantic gales, many were driven ashore. Of the 130 ships which left Spain only 67 limped home. The English cheered, but the Genoese cried; their fortunes had sunk to the bottom of the sea along with the ships. Genova went into a steep economic decline thereafter, from which it never really recovered. Thus was born the Genoese’s parsimony (and not stinginess, as stressed by Grimaldina). Like all great families which fall on hard times, it had to keep up appearances with less money in its pocket: ideal conditions for heavy adoption of trompe l’oeil.


Santa Maria presso San Satiro: (in
Genoese facade-1: (in
Fake windows: (in
Genoese facade-2: (in
Genoese facade-3: (in
Genoese facade-4: (in
Genoese facade-5: (in
Sir Francis Drake: (in
Phillip II:,_King_of_Spain_from_NPG.jpg (in
Elizabeth I: ( in
Spanish Armada fighting English ships: (in


Sori, 20 July 2016

All those nobbly, horribly hot beach pebbles which I spoke about in a previous post could not stop me from registering the scent of the sea as I finally waded into the waves washing onto the beach. How does one describe that inimitable scent? Salty? Briny? Fishy? Seaweedy? Tarry? All of the above? Whatever descriptors you line up, you know it when you smell it. Of course, what we are actually breathing in is chemicals, which register in our brains as “scent of the sea”. Are we smelling ozone? or maybe iodine? These two chemicals were popular candidates in my youth; my mother-in-law favoured iodine, instructing my wife when she was young and at the seaside to fill her lungs with all that iodine, while my mother inclined to the ozone hypothesis. But actually, if I’m to believe the latest theories, neither of these chemicals are involved. I will not name names; I don’t want to spoil all those rosy memories evoked in us by the scent of the sea with flat, matter-of-fact, totally nerdy chemical names (I cannot resist, though, mentioning that the chemicals in question have to do with sex, death, and natural food additives. If any readers want to know more, they can do no better than consult this website).

Let’s focus instead on those memories, which often first seeped into our subconscious when we were at the sea as young children.
After working my way down the corridors of my memory, opening doors here and there to check what lies behind them, working my way ever further back into the dimmest and darkest recesses of my mind, I have concluded that my Ur-memory, my foundational memory, of the scent of the sea situates itself in Massawa on the Red Sea, in 1960.

I have mentioned in past posts that I was born in Eritrea, where I spent the first six-seven years of my life. We lived in the capital Asmara, up in the highlands. This was one of city’s the main streets

while I remember going to this cinema
and I see that this gas station has become a popular tourist attraction for its 1930s architecture.
During part of the year, when it was less hot – I’m guessing Christmas time – we would take the little train which I’ve mentioned in an earlier post down to the port of Massawa on the Red Sea.
One could also go down by road, but it was an incredibly twisty journey
and it went through countryside still infested by bandits, who were likely to stop you and rob you blind.

Contrary to Asmara, of which I have many memories, I remember nothing of Massawa itself. I know we went to the beach; I have seen the old photos of us children playing and bathing there. The only memory I have of that beach is us passing some rusty barbed wire, a remnant of the War, and my older brother and sisters warning me portentously that there could still be mines hidden under the sand! What a shiver of delighted horror that gave me … But my memory of scent of the sea does not come from there. It comes from the hotel we stayed at.

I have no idea what hotel it was. I’ve looked at old maps of Massawa but nothing obviously fits. All I remember is that our room overlooked a small harbour – the hotel’s, I suppose. The memory I have been chasing through the corridors of my mind is of me one morning, very early – just after dawn – sitting on the ledge of the window with my mother’s arms around me. There is not a sound. Looking down, I distinctly see three sting rays lazily undulating their way through the clear water of the little harbour. This photo captures the beauty of these fish.
As I watch, enthralled, my brain is also registering the scent of the sea rising up to me, to be captured for ever in my olfactory memory bank. Sometimes when I’m at the sea, that scent will register in my memory bank and I will suddenly see in my mind’s eye those beautiful sting rays, undulating their way through the sea.
I invite my readers to fetch up their memories of the scent of the sea. In the words of Van Morrison, “smell the sea and feel the sky. Let your soul and spirit fly”.


child on the beach:
Asmara 1960:
Cinema Impero:
Gas station:
Train to Massawa:
Road to Massawa:


Sori, 18 July 2015

From the balcony of our little apartment in Liguria, if we look a little obliquely to the right we have a view of the sea.


Rather than admiring the sea, I invite readers to focus on the campanile of the village church, which we can see just behind the roof of the house in the foreground. At certain times – I haven’t really fixed in my mind when – the campanile’s bells ding out a rather out-of-tune version of the chorus to the Lourdes hymn: “Ave, Ave, Ave Maria. Ave, Ave, Ave Mari-i-a”. For the musically inclined, I attach a music sheet below with the music of the hymn (along with the lines to one of its many, many verses – sixty, I’m told). The music dinged out by the campanile is the last two bars.
image For those of my readers who are not familiar with the Lourdes hymn, it is the “national anthem”, if I can put it that way, of the pilgrim city of Lourdes, which is located in the lower Pyrenees in France. It is there that in 1858 a 14-year old girl of humble origin, by the name of Bernadeta Sobirós
claimed to have seen visions in a grotto by the side of the river of uo petito damizelo (“a small young lady”; Bernadeta spoke Gascon Occitan). She was to have 18 such visions in the grotto, between February and July. In the 16th vision, after repeatedly asking the small young lady who she was, the lady finally replied Qué soï era immaculado councepcioũ (“I am the Immaculate Conception”).

To cut a very long story short, after a good deal of initial skepticism the Catholic Church accepted Bernadeta’s visions as authentic visitations of the Virgin Mary. Pilgrimages began, cures of sick people from the spring water near the grotto were claimed, some of which were accepted by the Church as miraculous, the Lourdes hymn was penned in the 1870s, a large basilica was built
along with hospices for the sick, another even larger basilica was later built underground. The town itself got into the act, building hundreds of hotels to house the the ever growing number of visiting pilgrims – six million a year and counting; this, in a town of 15,000 inhabitants (as well, of course, as opening hundreds of shops selling religious tat).

Pilgrims flock to the grotto
the sick take baths in the grotto’s spring water
and everyone joins the daytime and evening processions


during which the Lourdes hymn, among many others, is sung.

Two summers running, 1972 and 1973, I was one of those pilgrims. My school organized an annual pilgrimage during the summer holidays, and we students were encouraged to take part. They needed our strength and youthfulness to move the sick from place to place: from grotto to baths, from baths to church, from church to hospice; to literally carry into the baths those who could not walk; to do the night watch in the hospices. And I think the sick were helped by being surrounded by the innate cheerfulness of our youth.
We were brancardiers, literally stretcher bearers, which I suppose was how the badly sick were moved around in the early days of Lourdes, although nowadays the sick are moved around in those nifty little wheeled chairs shown in the picture above. As a sign of our status, we wore “bretelles”, a sort of harness
It was a great honour to be a brancardier. Ordinary pilgrims would look at us admiringly as we walked past, something which at the age of 18 pleased me quite a bit: I was an Important Person! Of course, it meant that any sick person could call us over to help at any time and in any place: the price of fame …

My two pilgrimages were a very intense experience for me, something which I will remember all my life. At the time, I was relatively callow, finding it all great fun like these young people from other pilgrimages did.

But I find that it marked me deeply. I am unmoved by the miraculous side of Lourdes. I have been too steeped in the natural sciences to believe in miracles. These are simply something we do not yet understand but quite likely will when the sciences have advanced enough. No, to me the real miracle of Lourdes is that it is perhaps the only place on Earth where the sick are centre stage, not on the periphery of our societies which is where they are usually relegated. Lourdes is their place, the rest of us are just guests.
So readers can understand why I pause and listen every time I hear the village campanile ring out, even if tinnily, the chorus lines to the Lourdes hymn.


View of the campanile: my picture
Lourdes hymn music:
Bernadeta Sobirós: (in
Lourdes basilica: (in
Lourdes grotto: (in
The baths: (in
Lourdes procession during the day: (in
Lourdes procession at night: (in
Brancardiers: (in
Young man with bretelles: (in
Brancardiers-2:ée/Lourdes/P1030587.jpg (in
Brancardiers-3: (in
A pilgrimage: (in


Sori, 16 July 2015

I’m not a beach person. I don’t much like spending time in places like these.


My fair skin, which I inherited from my Anglo-Saxon progenitors, burns immediately. So I spend all my time wearing clothes, which readers will agree is not optimal behaviour on a beach, or sloshing on 30+ sun cream and darting fearful looks at the blazing sun. In any case, I don’t see the pleasure of spending time in a micro-environment whose closest cousin is the middle of the Sahara desert, where sun beats down pitilessly on sand and pebbles, with no sight of tree or bush to give a pool of shade (beach umbrellas don’t count), or of stream of merrily burbling fresh water to give the parched mouth relief (vendors of bottled water don’t count either).

I should clarify that I’m talking here about the ecology of a Mediterranean beach in high summer; the UK or French Atlantic beaches of my youth are quite different micro-environments, closer to Arctic tundra – at least, my memories of these beaches are dominated by glacial seawater, howling winds, and driving rain.

Back to the Mediterranean beaches. There is also the issue of the pebbles. We frequent a pebble beach.

Nice to look at but agony for me to walk on as the pebbles drive into the arches of my feet – I have quite delicate feet, which is why, when in China, I had a foot massage only once, because after the masseuse’s vigorous manipulations I spent the rest of the week hobbling around in pain. The pebbles are also almost glowing they are so hot. Walking to the sea is like being one of those religious devotees who walk on burning coals to prove their devotion to whatever it is that they believe in.


It doesn’t finish when I get to the sea. As I stand there, hesitating before the thermal shock that I know awaits me when I will plunge into the sea, the ebb and flow of the waves makes me stagger back and forth, stepping heavily on those damned pebbles.

As if all this were not enough, I get so BORED on beaches. I’m past the age of building sandcastles (although I did have fun helping the children make theirs when they were young)

or looking for particularly smooth or beautifully coloured pebbles
or throwing buckets of water on people
or showing off beautifully sculpted pecs (and nowadays tattoos) to admiring girls and jealous boys (even assuming I had either).
The best I can do is to read a book, but even this is difficult to do in the oppressive heat


or find every excuse to escape the beach – cappuccino time, shopping for lunch and dinner, urgent need to pay parking fines in the municipal office … anything to get away from the beach.

I should clarify that I’m basing myself here mainly on my memories of spending summer holidays with the family at the seaside in Italy. Those holidays stopped some ten years ago, when the children, now grown up, were spending their summer holidays with their friends and later with their girl or boyfriend. My wife and I still came to the seaside, but not for the beach. We went for walks in the hills behind the sea

we wandered around the village
we went into Genova to admire the sites
we dined out in the local restaurants


Or we just looked at the view from our balcony.


But we did not visit the beach. At maximum, one evening we would go down and dip a toe in the water.

Yet, as I write this, we are actually on that beach. This year, my wife and I have had the immense luck of having both kids with us at the same time for a week and a half during our and their summer breaks. In an advanced state of gratitude, I was therefore quite happy to tag along when it was suggested that we all go down to the beach and spend the afternoon there. After a dip in the sea, which was surprisingly warm (I am very picky about the temperature of the water), we are now lying in the shade of beach umbrellas, sipping water from a bottle we have just bought at the bar. And I’m feeling surprisingly mellow about it all; the beach seems quite a nice place really, don’t know what I had against it.
All of which proves … what? I suppose that human beings can put up with anything as long as they are happy.

POST SCRIPTUM, 18 July 2015

The mellowness only lasted for another half day. After that, we let the children go to the beach without us.


Ligurian beach: (in
Desert: (in
English beach: (in
Pebble beach: my picture
Walking on coals: (in
Sandcastle: (in
Looking for pebbles: (in
Throwing water: (in
Muscled and tattooed man on the beach: (in
Asleep with book: (in
Walking in the hills: (in
Village: (in
Duomo Genova: (in
Restaurant: (in
The beach: (in

14th JULY

Sori, 14 July 2015

When 14th July rolls around, my wife and I give each other fond looks and, depending on where we are, we will go out to celebrate. Not, as some readers might think, to celebrate the anniversary of the fall of the Bastille, although the French Revolution behind that act of rebellion was, when all is said and done, a great thing. No, we are celebrating the anniversary of Us Getting Together. This momentous event took place in Corsica, in the Year of our Lord 1975 (goodness me, when I write it down it seems so long ago …). I had gone to visit her in Milan at the end of a tour of Italy (my first), and on the spur of the moment we had decided to go to Corsica – well, she had proposed it and, rather startled but willing, I had agreed; this was the start of what would be a common pattern in our marriage: she proposes and I agree. We took the ferry from Genova to Bastia, and during the trip I had felt rather sea-sick; this was the start of the process of my wife learning a lot of unedifying things about me. After a day in Bastia, we took the Trinichellu (“little train” in Corsican dialect)


which runs from Bastia on the north-eastern coast to Ajaccio on the western coast, passing over the island’s wild and mountainous spine. We got off in Corte, a nice little mountain town in the centre of the island.


We must have walked around the town but actually my only memory of the place is of the restaurant where my wife introduced me to steak tartare, the start of many culinary discoveries for me, courtesy of my wife.


We spent the night in a campground where we shared my rather small tent. And the rest, as they say, is history …

The next day, we took the Trinichellu back to Bastia, to catch the ferry to the mainland. It was 14th July, and that night, hand in hand, we watched the fireworks display. It seemed a fitting commentary on what had just started between us.


Which is why we look at each other fondly every 14th July.


Trinichellu: (in
Corte: (in
Steak tartare: (in
Fireworks: (in



Milan, 14 July 2015

In our short time in Thailand, my wife and I have had the pleasure of trying many wonderful tropical fruits. Some are now known enough in Europe to regularly populate the supermarket shelves: bananas of course, coconuts too, and more recently mangoesimage



and dragon fruit


Others, though known to Europeans – primarily through tourism to SE Asia – have not (yet) made it into our supermarkets: the mangosteen, for instance


or the rambutan


both of which I’ve written about earlier, or the durian, that horribly smelly fruit which I’ve also had a rant about in the same post and which I hope never reaches our supermarkets.


And then there are fruits which, as far as I can tell, are quite unknown in Europe. There’s the sala, a fruit about as large as an apricot, which has a ruddy-brown brittle skin covered in sharp scales (these earn it its English name of snake fruit). The white flesh consists of three lobes, rather like the mangosteen, each of which contains a seed. It has a sweet taste with astringent overtones.


Or there’s the sathon, which from a distance looks like a large yellow apple except that the rind has a matt, velvety look to it and which, when split open, is found to house several seeds encased in a very sweet sticky white goo that itself is ensconced in a yellow, very sour flesh: it is the interplay of sweet and sour as you scoop all this out that makes this fruit so interesting.


Or what about the lamyai (longan in China)? It’s the “other lychee”. Longans come in big bunches. When you shuck the light brown shell, you find something that looks, and tastes, very much like a lychee.


We haven’t been through a full annual cycle yet in Thailand, so maybe a few more fruits unknown to us will pop up in the local markets over the coming months.

I have always been more than ready to try strange, exotic fruits, which proudly affirm that even in this era of globalization the world can still offer us the excitement of discovering new foodstuffs in the corner of some foreign land. But then, on a recent trip to Budapest to give my annual training course, I experienced the old rather than the new. I found a couple of raspberries in my salad at dinner one night and popped them in my mouth … Aah, my friends, that taste … Incomparable … As it coursed through my taste buds to my brain, I found myself in seventh heaven; those soft, velvety beads which, when bitten down on, release that sweetly delicate juice, with a slightly musty aftertaste.


It was as much the memory as the taste which had me floating on clouds. This companion of my youth! I was transported back fifty years, to my French grandmother’s house, to that untidy patch of raspberry bushes which had colonized a corner of her vegetable garden. My cousins and I would sneak over there, despite strict grandmotherly prohibitions, and quickly pop a few into our mouths before tearing off to avoid detection and grandmotherly wrath. Sometimes, just to play with fire, we would also grab in passing a few sprigs of red currants. But that was just boyhood defiance; their acidity did not sit well in our young mouths.

As if this wasn’t enough, the next course of my dinner in Budapest was a dish of braised veal cooked with fennels and fresh apricots. Apricots! As I spooned the slices of the fruit into my mouth, yet another series of sensations coursed through my taste buds and set my nerve synapses afiring. Mmm, that … that … well, that apricoty taste, how else to describe it? Soooo good!


Here too I was transported back in time, to my grandmother’s orchard, which stood next to the vegetable garden, and where she had apricot trees, plum trees, peach trees, pear trees, apple trees. My cousins and I would also raid those trees, keeping a wary eye out for our grandmother, who might come around the corner of the vegetable garden at any moment and be instantly transformed from a gentle old soul into a spitfire, running after us, yelling, and threatening to tell our parents.

As I near retirement, as I start becoming the gentle old soul my grandmother was (most of the time), I realize more and more the truth of Oliver Goldsmith’s dictum (and title of one of his poems) “East, West, home’s best”. After years of globe-trotting, of experiencing the exotic splendours of distant lands, I feel ever more strongly with every passing month the pull of home, that part of the world which is in my genes, where there are seasons of moderate heat and moderate cold, where I understand the languages, where the foodstuffs are old friends and not experiences. No offense, but at the end of the day I prefer to be eating raspberries and apricots rather than salas and sathons.


Mango: (in
Pomelo: (in
Dragon fruit: (in
Mangosteen: (in
Rambutan: (in
Durian: (in
Longan: (in
Sala:,_2015-05-17.jpg (in
Sathon: (in
Raspberry: (in
Apricot: (in



Bangkok, 6 July 2015

A couple of river-bus stops downriver from where my wife and I live in Bangkok stands the temple Wat Pho, whose main claim to fame is a large reclining Buddha.

wat pho reclining buddha

It is, I read, 46 metres long and 15 metres high, and walking along it certainly is impressive. But I much prefer the soles of the statue’s feet.

wat pho buddhas feet

These soles have been divided into 108 panels each of which contains, in the form of mother-of-pearl inlays, the 108 auspicious symbols by which the Buddha can be identified, like flowers, dancers, white elephants, tigers and altar accessories.

Wat Pho’s reclining Buddha was the first time I saw this interesting art form. But actually it is quite common for reclining Buddhas to have the soles of their feet so decorated. For instance, I find this particular reclining Buddha in Yangon in Myanmar more naturalistic – certainly the pose of the feet is more pleasing to the eye than those stiff blocks in Wat Pho.


I later learned that the decorations of the feet of Buddha statues are actually a reflection – almost literally – of a much older iconography for depicting the Buddha, that of his footprint. Before anyone made statues of the Buddha, they made his footprints. They were a powerful way to remind the faithful that the Buddha had been present on earth: “the Buddha passed this way”. Quite quickly, the footprints were decorated with some of the symbols used to identify the Buddha. For instance, this footprint of the Buddha made in the 1st Century AD in the kingdom of Gandhara, in what is now the Swat valley in Pakistan, carries the Darmachakra, the “wheel of law”, and the triratna, the “triple gem” of Buddhism: Buddha (the Enlightened One), Dharma (the Teaching), and Sangha (the Community).


As time went on, more and more symbols were squeezed onto the footprints. And then some bright spark came up with the “positive print”, as it were, where the soles of reclining Buddhas carry the symbols of the Buddha.

Buddhism is not the only religion that has used footprints of its religious leaders as iconography, although it surely has used them more than any other (there is an estimate of 3,000 Buddha footprints throughout the Buddhist lands). My wife and I came across a footprint of the Prophet Muhammad in the Topkapi museum in Istanbul

Muhammad footprint

and there is a pair of footprints of Jesus in the Church of Domine Quo Vadis (“Lord, where are you going?”) on the outskirts of Rome.

jesus footprint

It is true to say that footprints are an incredibly powerful symbol of someone passing, of having been close by. One of the best remembered stories in Robinson Crusoe is of his finding a footprint on the beach.

crusoe and footprint

“It happened, one day about noon going towards my boat, I was exceedingly surprised, with the print of a man’s naked foot on the shore, which was very plain to be seen in the sand. I stood like one thunder-struck, or as if I had seen an apparition; I listened, I looked round me, I could hear nothing, nor see anything; I went up to a rising ground to look farther; I went up the shore and down the shore, but it was all one, I could see no other impression but that one. I went to it again to see if there were any more, and to observe if it might not be my fancy; but there was no room for that, for there was exactly the very print of a foot, toes, heel, and every part of a foot; how it came thither I knew not, nor could in the least imagine. But after innumerable fluttering thoughts, like a man perfectly confused and out of myself, I came home to my fortification, not feeling, as we say, the ground I went on, but terrified to the last degree, looking behind me at every two or three steps, mistaking every bush and tree, and fancying every stump at a distance to be a man.”

That footprint struck fear in Robinson Crusoe, fear of the unknown, fear of attack, fear of savagery. But I get a thrill when I see the footprints that some 15 people left 2,000 years ago in the ash and mud on the shore of Lake Managua in Nicaragua.

nicaragua footprints

I get goose bumps on seeing the footprints left 1.5 million years ago by Homo erectus near the village of Ileret in Northern Kenya on the eastern shore of Lake Turkana.

homo erectus ileret kenya

The hairs on my neck rise at the sight of footprints left 3.7 million years ago by three members of the species Australopithecus afarensis at Laetoli in Tanzania, which show that already then bipedalism, such a distinctive feature of our species, was in place.

laetoli footprints

I find these footprints a much more powerful reminder of the Family of Man than a piece of jawbone or a tooth. I can imagine my distant, distant ancestors going about their business, as I will go about mine today.

And within the much narrower circuit of my family, my wife and I have two relics, which currently slumber with all our stuff in a warehouse in Vienna but which we will keep preciously until the end of our lives. These are the footprints which the hospital gave us of our children’s feet, made just after they were born; they look like this

newborn footprints

They will forever remind us of the great joy which we experienced when our two children entered our lives and for a few decades walked with us before taking their own path in life.


Reclining Buddha, Wat Pho, Bangkok: (in
Reclining Buddha’s feet: (in
Reclining Buddha, Chaukhtatgyi Paya, Yangon: (in
Buddha footprint, 1st century, Gandhāra: (in
Muhammad footprint, Istanbul: (in
Jesus footprints, church of Domine Quo Vadis: (in
Crusoe and the footprint: (in
Nicaragua footprints: (in
Homo erectus Ileret Kenya: (in
Hominid footprints, Laetoli: (in
Newborn footprints: (in


Bangkok, 2 July 2015

There’s been quite a bit of brouhaha in the press about the new Encyclical which Pope Francis brought out on 18 June, with the title “Laudato Si’: On Care for Our Common Home”. Normally, I would just read what the press has to say and move on. Although I come out of the Catholic tradition, I fell off the Straight- and-Narrow decades ago and it never occurred to me to read any of the Encyclicals brought out by Paul VI or John-Paul II, and certainly none by Benedict XVI, who always struck me as a complete dinosaur. I remember my father reading the Encyclicals, in the original Latin no less (his was probably the last generation of Europeans who were given a serious education in classics; he read Latin and Greek at University). But me, no way, I wasn’t going to read these letters by old, white, celibate men, most of whose views were diametrically opposite mine.

But this Encyclical was different. It was about avoiding a planetary ecological disaster, brought about by climate change and other environmental catastrophes, something which I’ve been wrestling with all my professional life. And it was different from the kind of work I do, which is technical and scientific. It was bringing ethics to bear on the problem, which have been sadly lacking. So I decided that it was time for me to try this rather special form of literature.

Here’s how the Encyclical starts:

  1. “Laudato si’, mi’ Signore” – “Praise be to you, my Lord”. In the words of this beautiful canticle, Saint Francis of Assisi reminds us that our common home is like a sister with whom we share our life and a beautiful mother who opens her arms to embrace us. “Praise be to you, my Lord, through our Sister, Mother Earth, who sustains and governs us, and who produces various fruit with coloured flowers and herbs”.
  2. This sister now cries out to us because of the harm we have inflicted on her by our irresponsible use and abuse of the goods with which God has endowed her. We have come to see ourselves as her lords and masters, entitled to plunder her at will. The violence present in our hearts, wounded by sin, is also reflected in the symptoms of sickness evident in the soil, in the water, in the air and in all forms of life. This is why the earth herself, burdened and laid waste, is among the most abandoned and maltreated of our poor; she “groans in travail” (Rom 8:22). We have forgotten that we ourselves are dust of the earth (cf. Gen 2:7); our very bodies are made up of her elements, we breathe her air and we receive life and refreshment from her waters.

Whoa! Stirring words, pretty different from the stuff I normally read. Thoroughly intrigued, I settled down to read the whole document, all 246 paragraphs of it. Allow me to rapidly summarize its contents for any of my readers who might be too busy or distracted by other things to read it (by the way, the Encyclical has a message for them: “true wisdom, as the fruit of self-examination, dialogue and generous encounter between persons, is not acquired by a mere accumulation of data which eventually leads to overload and confusion, a sort of mental pollution”).

After a review of the state of the planetary environment, whose conclusion can be summed up in this other punchy quote, “the earth, our home, is beginning to look more and more like an immense pile of filth”, the Pope reminds us that our inability to look after our Earth is reflected in our inability to look after our poor: “we should be particularly indignant at the enormous inequalities in our midst, whereby we continue to tolerate some considering themselves more worthy than others. We fail to see that some are mired in desperate and degrading poverty, with no way out, while others have not the faintest idea of what to do with their possessions, vainly showing off their supposed superiority and leaving behind them so much waste which, if it were the case everywhere, would destroy the planet”, to conclude that “a true ecological approach always becomes a social approach; it must integrate questions of justice in debates on the environment, so as to hear both the cry of the earth and the cry of the poor.”

His main conclusion is that both the environmental ills of the planet as well as the ills which bedevil our societies have their roots in excessive consumption by the better-off amongst us.

  • “We all know that it is not possible to sustain the present level of consumption in developed countries and wealthier sectors of society, where the habit of wasting and discarding has reached unprecedented levels.”
  • “To blame population growth instead of extreme and selective consumerism on the part of some, is one way of refusing to face the issues. It is an attempt to legitimize the present model of distribution, where a minority believes that it has the right to consume in a way which can never be universalized, since the planet could not even contain the waste products of such consumption.”
  • “… poor countries … need to acknowledge the scandalous level of consumption in some privileged sectors of their population and to combat corruption more effectively.”
  • “We may well be leaving to coming generations debris, desolation and filth. The pace of consumption, waste and environmental change has so stretched the planet’s capacity that our contemporary lifestyle, unsustainable as it is, can only precipitate catastrophes, such as those which even now periodically occur in different areas of the world.”
  • “.. given the insatiable and irresponsible growth produced over many decades, we need also to think of containing growth by setting some reasonable limits and even retracing our steps before it is too late.”
  • “… a world of exacerbated consumption is at the same time a world which mistreats life in all its forms.”

All music to my ears! For ten years now, I’ve seen that excessive consumption is the key to all our most intractable environmental problems and have been wrestling with what to do about it. We have to do something to reduce the levels of consumption in the richest countries, or more specifically among the world’s richest people (because as the Pope pointed out even the poor countries have hideously rich people).

But to have this happen is a huge, huge political problem. To explain why, let me borrow a photo or two from the photographer Peter Menzel and others who have copied him. Mr. Menzel went around the world photographing families outside their homes with all their stuff piled up around them (anyone wanting to see the whole series should dip into his book “Material World: A Global Family Portrait”). His idea proved so popular that others copied him. This photo, which is of a family in Inner Mongolia

inner mongolian family

shows a level of stuff-ownership which is typical of millions, if not billions, of families around the world. These families want a materially better life. And why not? There is no reason they should not have it. But if the goal of every family in the world is to end up like this one

developed family

– well, it’s simply not possible, because a lifestyle like this for everyone requires a level of consumption of the world’s resources that would need 4 or more Earths to sustain

four planets

and, except for those of us who live in a parallel universe, we all know that there is but one planet.

But it’s also not possible to have a world where a few families can live like kings while everyone else has to live like the huddled masses or else the planet goes into meltdown. Somehow, those who currently are over-consuming have to accept to reduce their consumption.

What kind of material sacrifice would be required of these over-consumers? To answer this question, let me use myself as an example. A little while back, curious to see how large my personal environmental footprint might be, I used a footprint calculator offered by the Environmental Protection Agency of the State of Victoria in Australia (there are a number of such calculators on-line; I chose this one because it’s easy to use and I reckon that Southern Australia’s climate is quite similar to Italy’s where I intend to retire – I couldn’t find a good Italian footprint calculator). With an eye to my upcoming retirement, I entered data for myself and my wife on our eating habits, on the home we will live in, and the modes of transport we will be using. To put it in a nutshell, the two of us will live in a 120 sq. metre apartment in an apartment block, whose electricity will partially come from renewable energy. We’ll be having several servings a day of dairy, eggs, fish, or meat products, and a quarter of the food that we’ll eat will be either processed, packaged, or imported. Since we’ll be recycling a lot we’ll throw away less than one 30 litre bin-bag of waste a week. We’ll be using a lot of public transportation, but we’ll still have a small car to potter around town a bit, while twice a year we’ll fly to see the kids in the States. I pushed the last button, and the answer came back … “If everyone lived like you, we would need 3.9 planets” Aarrgh!!!! I was one of those guys greedily overusing the Earth’s resources! I could NOT believe it! I had worked in the environmental field all my professional life, and yet here I was devouring the planet! O-M-G!!

Once the shock wore off, I started doing what scientists call sensitivity analysis: I changed my answers one at a time, to see which changes would give me the biggest reductions. That would give me a menu of changes to our lifestyles which we could adopt, with the goal of bringing that horrible figure of 3.9 down to 1.0 – I think it’s OK to have a lifestyle which, were everyone to have it, would use only 1 planet’s worth of resources.

I won’t weary my readers with a full summary of the results, let me just give the highlights. The biggest reduction in my levels of planetary destruction comes from changes in diet. Having only a few servings a week of dairy, eggs, fish, or meat products, instead of several a day, cuts 1 full planet out of my footprint. That’s great, I knew that meat-eating especially is terribly harmful to the environment. I think we can switch to a strongly vegetarian diet without too much difficulty.

So that’s already 1.0 planet’s worth of reduction.

The other big reduction, though, 1.1 planets’ worth, comes from basically cutting out air travel. No, no, this is not possible, we cannot stop visiting our children! And we can’t just tell the kids to come instead, that would be foisting onto them part of our footprint! What to do? I suppose we could cut our trips to once a year … Alright, let’s say that, so that’s half a planet’s worth of reduction.

That gives us a running total of 1.5 planets’ worth of reduction.

The next biggest reduction, 0.7 planet’s worth, would come if we switched from living in a multi-storey apartment building to a free-standing house without running water. OK, we’re not going to cut off our water, but my take-away here is that saving water has a significant impact on the size of my footprint. We can’t stop drinking, but we’ll ruthlessly chop at our three other big water uses, hot showers, clothes washing, and toilet flushing. We’ll simply shower less, wash our clothes less often, and (ugh!) flush less often. Let’s clock that in at 0.35 planet’s worth.

So, the running total is now 1.85 planets’ worth of reduction.

Next on my list is to switch to a green design residence, which would give me half a planet’s worth of reduction. Well, we can’t change apartments at this point. But we can do things to make the apartment more energy efficient: compact fluorescent bulbs (although they will look totally hideous in the chandelier we have in the living room), double-glazed windows everywhere (more costs …), if possible more insulation on that wall in our bedroom, … I don’t know, there must be other things we can do. Let’s just assume that there are and clock this in at 0.25 planet’s worth.

That gives me a running total of 2.1 planets’ worth of reduction.

What else?

Well, next on the list is simply to cut off the electricity to the apartment, which would give me another half a planet’s worth of reduction. Well, that ain’t gonna happen … But we could reduce our consumption of electricity. The CFLs I’ve already decided to install will help here, as will the reductions in the use of the washing machine. We can mostly wash our dishes by hand, which will reduce the use of the dishwasher (which will also help reduce water use). We could unplug all those gadgets with pilot lights so they aren’t on all the time. I promise not to leave the lights on after leaving a room (a bad habit I have). We could climb the stairs rather than use the elevator (which will be good exercise anyway). I don’t know if they offer this in Italy, but if they do I could ask to have all my electricity booked as coming from renewable energy…. OK, let’s assume 0.25 planet’s worth for all this.

Running total: 2.35 planets’ worth of reduction.

I’m running out of options here, and I still need to chop 0.55 planet’s worth out of our lifestyle!

OK, we can switch to riding bicycles around town and walking even more, so as to reduce our use of public transportation (I have us hardly using a car). Maybe we could squeeze another 0.2 planet’s worth out of our lifestyle in this way.

Running total: 2.55 planets’ worth of reduction.

Let me see, what else? … I’m really scraping the bottom of the barrel here … Well, we could have a third person come and live with us. I choose this option with extreme reluctance. One of the kids would be ideal, but they probably have no desire to come and live with their parents. And anyway, they would need a job in Italy, which in this economic climate is not at all a given. Maybe we could take in a student, preferably one who is studying environmental sciences and who would enthusiastically join in the hunt for things to do to reduce our footprint. One more person in the apartment would give us 0.3 planet’s worth of reduction.

That gives us a grand total of 2.85 planets’ worth of reduction, close enough to the goal of 2.9.

That was hard, really hard! I’m making big sacrifices here. I don’t think eating much more greens will be that bad, but not being able to see the children more than once a year, that will be tough. And having to share the apartment with a stranger does not fill me with joy at all.

And therein lies the huge political problem. This all sounds like an intense diet, and as we all know diets are not greeted with joy but with mournful suffering. Who wants to do them? We need to flip this, we need to make people like me feel happy as they merrily throw out of their lives the mountain of stuff that surrounds them.

This is where the rest of Pope Francis’s Encyclical comes in. In the case of Catholics, it’s easy. He’s telling them that it is their moral duty to change their lifestyles, and he strongly suggests this to other Christians too. But to the others amongst us who are not Christians? I can do no better than quote another chunk of text:

We need to take up an ancient lesson, found in different religious traditions and also in the Bible. It is the conviction that “less is more”. A constant flood of new consumer goods can baffle the heart and prevent us from cherishing each thing and each moment. To be serenely present to each reality, however small it may be, opens us to much greater horizons of understanding and personal fulfilment. Christian spirituality proposes a growth marked by moderation and the capacity to be happy with little. It is a return to that simplicity which allows us to stop and appreciate the small things, to be grateful for the opportunities which life affords us, to be spiritually detached from what we possess, and not to succumb to sadness for what we lack. This implies avoiding the dynamic of dominion and the mere accumulation of pleasures.

Such sobriety, when lived freely and consciously, is liberating. It is not a lesser life or one lived with less intensity. On the contrary, it is a way of living life to the full. In reality, those who enjoy more and live better each moment are those who have given up dipping here and there, always on the look-out for what they do not have. They experience what it means to appreciate each person and each thing, learning familiarity with the simplest things and how to enjoy them. So they are able to shed unsatisfied needs, reducing their obsessiveness and weariness. Even living on little, they can live a lot, above all when they cultivate other pleasures and find satisfaction in fraternal encounters, in service, in developing their gifts, in music and art, in contact with nature, in prayer. Happiness means knowing how to limit some needs which only diminish us, and being open to the many different possibilities which life can offer.

We need to start a huge campaign to persuade people of the rightness of the message “less is more”, and to have them actively wanting to drastically reduce their material needs, of feeling bad, almost sick, if they start accumulating too much. If we don’t change this basic mindset we are doomed. As the Encyclical so rightly says, there is no technical solution to climate change and other severe global environmental problems, there is only an ethical choice.

I hope this piece can be one small part of this campaign.


Inner Mongolian family:
Developed country family’s stuff: (in
Four planets: (in