SICILY THE LOVELY, SICILY THE DAMNED

Beijing, 12 June 2013

Two weeks ago, when I walked into the apartment in the evening, back from a business trip, my wife announced triumphantly that she had discovered a treasure trove on Youtube, shows from a series on Italian TV that we never even knew existed: Commissario Montalbano.

Readers will be forgiven if they look blank at this announcement. I will allow that Montalbano is not (yet) a household name. Yet my wife’s announcement filled me with great excitement. The detective stories written by the Sicilian-born writer Andrea Camilleri about Salvo Montalbano, Inspector of police in some modest township in western Sicily, have gripped me ever since I stumbled across one of them some six years ago. I read them in the original, which I must say is not easy. Already reading in Italian is slightly more difficult for me than reading in English, and Camilleri writes in an Italian which has been heavily saturated with Sicilian dialect. The first time I ventured into one of Camilleri’s books I was reading like a child of 5 for the first ten pages or so until I got the hang of it and could stop asking my wife every ten seconds what this word or that word meant. It’s still tough going, but the dialect really helps to drop you into Sicily.

Well that evening, after dinner, we settled down on the couch, poured ourselves a glass of wine, opened Youtube, chose one of the shows, and started to watch. For me, there was an initial moment of discomfort; when you have read so many stories about the same characters you create an image of them in your mind’s eye, and I was finding it difficult to adjust to this being Commissario Montalbano:

Commissario-Montalbano

(too handsome!), this being his two main collaborators, Mimí and Fazio:

mimi-e-fazio

(too tall the first, too handsome the second), and this being the klutz of the office, Cattaré:

catarella

(too much of a clown)

(I also have a very distinct picture in my mind of Smiley, Le Carré’s master spy hero – the spitting image of my Latin teacher at school. But I digress)

Quickly, though, I was drawn into the stories and forgot to mentally tut-tut over the faces of the protagonists, and we have now eased into a nightly ritual of hauling out the computer after dinner, pouring ourselves a generous glass of wine, and watching a Montalbano.

I have always thought that this series of detective stories, inserted as they are so deeply into the Sicilian reality, would have little echo outside Italy. Imagine, then, our astonishment when a few days ago (this coincidence of dates must have some cosmic meaning …) my wife read out an article at breakfast from the Guardian newspaper commenting on the popularity of the Italian Montalbano TV series in the UK. The article also commented on the number of Brits doing Montalbano-themed visits to Sicily! I was gobsmacked. When we did a little bit of web surfing, we discovered that actually people from all over the world love Montalbano (much of this coming from comments left on TripAdvisor about Montalbano’s house, which some canny Sicilian has turned into a Bed and Breakfast).

Is it just that we all love a good yarn well told, and a good detective story has all the makings of a good yarn? Is it the Italianness of the character which attracts people? The relative exoticness of the locations? Something else?

As far as I’m concerned, my attachment to Montalbano goes far beyond the thrill of the detective story. It goes even beyond the characters, marvelous as they are. Through Salvo Montalbano, Camilleri depicts wonderfully well that spirit of contrariness which is very definitely part of the human landscape of southern Italy.  The TV show captures this trait of Montalbano’s nicely, as it does the subtle intelligence and cynical sense of humor – such Italian traits! – which Camilleri gives to his creation. And of course Camilleri injects wondrous descriptions of Sicilian food by making Montalbano a gourmet, something which we see a little of in the TV series by having Montalbano spend a fair amount of time sitting at restaurant tables (but we discovered a web-site which lovingly lists the recipes of all the dishes which Montalbano eats!). My only real disappointment with Montalbano’s TV character (apart from him not looking like I imagine he should) is that I haven’t yet seen Salvo Montalbano’s love of the written word (which is, of course, Camilleri’s). Camilleri has peppered the books with his hero’s musings on various works of literature. I love this about him since I also like to muse (muse to excess, my wife might add) on literature.

But what actually draws me most to these detective stories is the melancholy view of Sicily which permeates them. Sicily the beautiful, damned by the gods and abandoned to its fate. So much my feeling of the island! Camilleri shows it mostly by building in a constant, extensive, subliminal presence of the Mafia – truly like a cancer in the island’s body politic – and exposing the total corruption – moral more than monetary – of the island’s political class. I saw it instead through my work. Fate had it that I had to spend most of my time in Sicily in collapsing industrial zones, built in the 1950s and ’60s. These came into existence as part of a political discourse which claimed to be bringing modernity and wealth to the south of the country by implanting heavy industry there: oil refineries, petrochemicals, agro-chemicals, iron and steel, non-ferrous refining … you name it, there was one somewhere in the Mezzogiorno. It was a stupid idea right from the start. The south had neither the infrastructure nor the industrial culture to digest these huge industrial complexes dumped on them: “cathedrals in the desert”, the Italians aptly named them. This is a refinery in the south of Sicily, with Mt. Etna in the back:

raffineria gela

And the actual implementation of the government’s plans made it all so much worse. Corruption was rampant, with every level involved in planning and construction decisions taking its cut. Many companies only located in the south to take advantage of the government’s tax holidays; it made no economic sense for them otherwise. The moment the holidays were over they upped stakes and moved on, leaving the State to hold the baby. The Government couldn’t afford politically the loss of jobs, so many of these industries were nationalized, which made them even more inefficient and drew in even more corruption (and the Mafia). The Trade Unions fought to remove the only advantage the south had, cheaper labour than the north, by insisting on equal pay for equal work. And then came globalization, which was the kiss of death. It now made even less sense to have these kinds of industries in the south. So I was a small part of a larger strategy by the government to quietly sell off – often in fire sales – the miserable remnants of these industries. The Sicilians I spoke to were so angry, so bitter, so sad about the whole thing. Huge investments by the government, which would never come again, which could have raised the island out of its chronic poverty, but which had just been frittered away … Poor Sicily.

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Montalbano: http://www.blogtivvu.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/03/Commissario-Montalbano.jpg
Mimí and Fazio: http://static.televisionando.it/televisionando/fotogallery/625X0/66329/mimi-e-fazio-fidi-collaboratori-di-salvo-montalbano.jpg
Catarella: http://www.ilbrigante.it/wp-content/uploads/2010/04/angelo-russo_preview.jpg
Refinery in Gela: http://static.blogo.it/ecoblog/IverticidellaRaffineriadiGelaSpaindagatiperomissionedicautelecontrodisastri.jpg

SQUATTING AND CHAIRS

2 June 2013

On our last visit to Hong Kong, my wife and I wandered into an antiques shop to poke around among the offerings. The owner, an ethnic Chinese, struck up a conversation with us. After discovering that I came from the UK, she lit up and became positively garrulous. It turned out that her son was completing a Masters at Oxford University, and she described, lovingly and in great detail, a trip she had recently made to the UK to see him. It soon became clear that she regretted Hong Kong no longer being British. In short order, her misty-eyed regrets over the UK leaving turned into a rant against the “Mainlanders”, Chinese from mainland China. This is a common topic of converstation in Hong Kong, where many of its ethnically Chinese residents determinedly stress that they are different from the Mainlanders. This determination is becoming fiercer as Mainlanders come in ever larger numbers to Hong Kong to gawp, buy, and generally get in the way. For this lady, there were two things which symbolized all the differences between Her and Them. She proceeded to tick them off on her fingers with disdain: “they spit, and they squat”.

I think we can all agree that the generalized Chinese habit of spitting is really quite revolting, particularly when it is preceded by a noisy hawking of the throat and – most disgusting of all – a blowing of the nose without a handkerchief. And it is true to say that you see very little of this in Hong Kong.

Our interlocutor’s hostility to the prevalent Chinese habit of squatting is more interesting. Everywhere in China – on pavements, in malls, at bus stops, in railway stations; anywhere, really, where people stand and wait – you will see people who have dropped down onto their haunches for a rest

squatting men beijing-wangfujing

reading, more often than not these days, their text messages.

squatting woman-5

I have to say that I also find this habit disquieting. It seems such a … humiliating posture, is the only way I can describe it. Every time I see people squatting, I scold them mentally: “Get up, get up! You are not a slave!”

And yet … when you think about it, in a world where chairs didn’t exist, which must have been 99.9% of the time that we have been human beings, it was really quite natural for us to drop down  onto our haunches when we were tired of standing and when there wasn’t a nice log or large stone to sit on. So I’ve come to the conclusion that I think the way I do about squatting because of the chair.

The chair, or rather the throne, was obviously an instrument used by Kings and Emperors, from the earliest times, to overawe their subjects. Here we have an Assyrian emperor lording it over some subject of his

throne-assyrian throne

And the temple of Abu Simbel in Egypt must surely be the epitome of rulers lording it over their lands while sitting on thrones

throne-abu simbel

Shelley’s poem Ozymandias, which I quoted in an earlier post, comes to mind when I look at these statues.

Egypt’s dry desert air, in which buried things do not rot, allows us to contemplate today a real Egyptian throne, this one from King Tut’s tomb (“Tutankhamun, King of Upper and Lower Egypt, Lord of the forms of Re, Strong bull, Perfect of birth, He whose beneficent laws pacify the two lands, He who wears the crowns, who satisfies the gods” to you, mere mortal, and don’t you forget it …):

throne-king tut-1

Even in more modern times have thrones played their part in elevating the splendour of the sitter, as in this case of the Qing emperor Kangxi

throne-Qing Emperor Kangxi

And of course Chinese emperors, along with many copy-cat Asian emperors, liked to have their subjects not just squat in front of them but to really debase themselves by kowtowing:

kowtowing before the emperor

Which led to the famous diplomatic incident of 1793, when, Lord Macartney, King George III’s envoy to the Chinese Emperor, refused to kowtow but did accept to get down on one knee as he would have before his King:

kowtowing before the emperor-English ambassador

Even more recently, thrones have played their part to prop up monarchies. The last Shah of Iran, for instance, was fond of using the Naderi throne to impart some sheen to his tawdry reign.

throne-peacock throne-Shah in front

And of course we in the UK have our venerable King Edward’s Chair in which all English, and then British, monarchs (bar two) have been crowned since 1308 – by the way, King Edward I commissioned the chair to house the Stone of Scone after he stole it (a.k.a. war booty) from the Scots.

throne-king edwards

Those of us who have the seen the film The King’s Speech will recognize the throne, which appears at some point in the story and whose portentous humbug is mercifully taken down a peg or two by the egalitarian Australian speech therapist Lionel Logue (played by that wonderful actor Geoffrey Rush), who slouches around in it provoking a burst of monarchist anger from King George VI:

throne-king edwards-Geoffrey Rush in it

Luckily, Lionel Logue’s egalitarian comments about the chair in question was preceded a century or so ago (not more, I suspect) by a move to make the chair a product of mass consumption, which meant that I (but probably not the Chinese of my generation) have spent my whole life sitting on chairs and not squatting on the ground. I try to remember the chairs of my childhood but fail. A chair’s a chair, some of you might say, it’s a functional object. True, but even functionality for the masses can be beautiful. It took my wife to introduce me to Italian furniture design and to make me realize that a chair could be both beautiful and functional. The moment we could – in the early 1980s – we bought ourselves a set of dining chairs. My wife has scoured the internet for photos of the model of our chairs but has found none. This photo of the spaghetti chair is the closest I can find:

chair-sled based-spaghetti

I designed and put together a dining room table to go with our chairs, the only thing I have ever designed in my life. All slumber in a warehouse in Vienna, awaiting our return to Europe.

Later, when we were living in New York, we came across Shaker chairs (and other furniture) during a weekend trip in upstate New York which took us to an old Shaker colony. Beautiful things.

chair-shaker-2

We would have bought some reproductions if we hadn’t already had our chairs – and if they hadn’t been so expensive.

Over the years, we’ve seen some “trophy” chairs (chairs which don’t just sit quietly around a dining room table) which we wouldn’t have minded buying, if the price had been right (and if we’d had the space).

The Danish harp chair:

chair-danish harp chair

The Mondrian chair (this would have been more my choice than my wife’s):

Chair-Mondrian chair

Chairs designed by the Glaswegian architect, designer and artist Charles Mackintosh (again, my choice I think):

chair-Mackintosh chair

Here in China, chairs from the Ming period:

chair-ming-1

The reader will have noted by now that our tastes in chairs (indeed, all furniture) lean towards the simple and clean line …

I suppose that with consumption on the rise in China, the habit of squatting will disappear, as will – I fervently hope and pray – the habit of spitting.  In the meantime, I will continue to mentally exhort my fellow Beijingers to stand up straight and proud every time I see them squatting on the ground.

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Squatting men: http://mattchalmighty.files.wordpress.com/2012/10/beijing-wangfujing-men-squatting-large.jpg
Squatting woman: http://www.shunya.net/Pictures/China/Beijing/BeijingWoman.jpg
Assyrian throne: http://www.ucl.ac.uk/sargon/images/essentials/kings/sh5-til-barsip-large.jpg
Abu Simbel: http://famouswonders.com/wp-content/uploads/2009/04/abu-simbel.jpg
King Tut throne: http://comeseeegypt.com/images/tutthrone.jpg
Qing Emperor Kangxi: http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/en/1/12/China,Qing,Emperor,Kangxi,Painting,Color.jpg
Kowtowing before the emperor: http://www.mitchellteachers.org/WorldHistory/AncientChinaCurriculum/Images/legendaryemperors/ImperialRobesOfficialsPayingRespect_large.jpg
English ambassador Lord Macartney before the Emperor: http://images.printsplace.co.uk/Content/Images/Products/92648/89219/Reception_of_the_Diplomatique_and_his_Suite_at_the_Court_of_Pekin__c_1793__1.jpg
Shah of Iran in front of peacock throne: http://filelibrary.myaasite.com/Content/26/26343/29921747.jpg
King Edward’s Chair: http://www2.pictures.zimbio.com/gi/Visitors+Look+Coronation+Chair+Westminster+Wk0GK7SFdXnl.jpg
Geoffrey Rush sitting in King Edward’s Chair: http://v020o.popscreen.com/eGhxd3hrMTI=_o_st-edwards-chair.jpg
Spaghetti chair with sled base: http://img.archiexpo.com/images_ae/photo-g/commercial-contemporary-sled-base-stacking-chair-50648-3267845.jpg
Shaker chair: http://www.jkrantiques.com/_images//ShakerCounterChairWeb.jpg
Danish harp chair: http://shard1.1stdibs.us.com//archives/upload/1stdibsA/071607_sb/arensojoldHD/19/xHudJuly07_398.jpg
Mondrian chair: http://www.dorotheum.com/fileadmin/user_upload/bilder/Presse/Gallery_of_Highlights/Rietveldstuhl.jpg
Mackintosh chair: http://1.bp.blogspot.com/-_ZjHHv_Nzls/UOP0yApjC4I/AAAAAAAAAI0/yTahn5EI7q0/s1600/1.Charles_Rennie_Mackintosh_Hillhouse_Chair_rfd.jpg
Ming chair: http://www.easterncurio.com/easten%20curio/Afurniture/ItemForOn-Selling/A1S152101.jpg

DREAM JOURNEY: PART I

Beijing, 8 May 2013

May is a good time to be in the Mediterranean. The weather is good, the temperatures not too high, the vegetation still green, and the flowers blooming. I feel restless, I want to be there. But it cannot be; the rent must be paid, as must the gas and electricity, not to mention the food, the occasional bottle of wine and other sundries. I must earn my living.

The internet is a wonderful thing though. Sitting on my living room couch in the evenings, navigating with my little black mouse and clicking my way through hundreds of internet pages, I can visit all the places I want to be in but cannot. So I have decided.  Riding the surf of the web, my wife and I will take a trip I have long wanted to make: a visit to a string of sites around the northern rim of the Mediterranean which are known for their early Christian mosaics. In an earlier post I have alluded to my fascination with this art form.

It’s time to start. As I sit in front of my computer screen, I have to first wrestle with the question of what car my wife and I will travel in on this virtual trip we are about to make. With the freedom that comes from a trip in my imagination – no cost considerations, no considerations of practicality (is the boot big enough?) – I first think of taking a Smart; I like its cheerfully odd shape and I have never driven one.

Smart-Car

But on further consideration, I plump for an MG convertible, and specifically a model which is as old as we are.

MG car

In my imagination we can have the roof down and enjoy the sun on our faces and the wind in our hair (although the only time we ever drove such a car in the real world it started raining and we had no idea how to put the roof back in position).

So here we are, comfortably ensconced in our little MG. Where do we start our journey? I pick Ravenna, because the city has one of the finest collections of early mosaics still extant. Actually, it’s a small miracle that there are any mosaics left at all, either in Ravenna or anywhere else. Over the millennium and a half that separates us from their creation, they have suffered from the ravages of religion: from outright hostility towards their symbolic potency, to their neglect through changes in artistic fashion. They have suffered from natural catastrophes like earthquakes and fires. And last but not least, they have suffered from the four horsemen of the Apocalypse – Conquest, War, Famine, and Death – sweeping repeatedly across the face of the land; every time the horsemen passed, not only did people die but the beautiful things they had created were destroyed. You only have to see what is happening to Syria’s irreplaceable cultural heritage in this time of civil war to know what I mean.

4-horsemen-apocalypse-1-durer

Ravenna sadly exemplifies what I’ve just described. It became the capital of the Western Roman Empire in 402 AD, when everything was beginning to fall apart there. In 490, it was put under siege for three years and finally captured by the Ostrogothic King Theoderic. In 540, it was captured by the Byzantines after a war with the Ostrogoths. In 751, it was captured by the Longobards after a long war of attrition between them and the Byzantines. In 774, to thank Charlemagne for taking Ravenna away from the Longobards and giving it to him, Pope Adrian I allowed Charlemagne to take away anything he liked from the city to enrich his capital in Aachen. Lord knows how much Ravenna lost, but it must have been a lot. Over the following centuries, lordship over Ravenna swapped hands many times as the papacy’s claim to Ravenna was contested by local families. Finally, in 1275 a local family, the De Polenta, made Ravenna their long-lasting seigniory, which gave the city some stability for nearly 200 years. Then from 1440 to 1527, Venice ruled Ravenna, although in 1512, during one phase of the Italian wars, Ravenna was sacked by the French. Thereafter, Ravenna again became part of the Papal States and stayed there, except for a short interlude during the French Revolution and Napoleonic Empire, until 1859, when it became part of the new Italian State. After that, apart from some bombing by the Austrians during the First World War, Ravenna knew peace. Truly, it is a minor miracle that we have any mosaics left after all this mayhem. And I haven’t even included the natural disasters which the city suffered along the way.

It’s time to start our journey and visit some of what is left. After clicking around a bit, I choose for us to drive up and park in front of the church of Sant’Apollinare Nuovo, where the mosaics date from the 6th Century. Here’s what greets us when we enter the church.

sant'apollinare nuovo-2

On either wall of the nave, runs a line of men and women, saints and martyrs, processing solemnly towards the altar.  My wife and I prefer to focus on the women principally because among them is the martyr who has our daughter’s name. It gives us a comforting sense of connection.

sant'apollinare nuovo-5

sant'apollinare nuovo-4

Originally, the two lines were processing towards a scene of stately splendour in the apse. But it is gone, victim to a desire to modernize; it was removed during renovations in the 16th Century. The apse itself was so badly damaged by Austrian bombing during the First World War that it had to be rebuilt.

Time to move on to the church of Sant’Apollinare in Classe, and in a couple of clicks we’re there. With much the same layout as the other Sant’Apollinare, and with mosaics from the same period, it is its mirror image: the mosaics in the nave have disappeared, victim to the depredations of the Venetians in the 15th Century, but the apse glows with a magnificent mosaic, where the colour of grass dominates: a green and pleasant land for the Christian faithful.

sant'apollinare in classe-3

sant'apollinare in classe-1

This great expanse of mosaic colour makes me decide to visit the Mausoleum of Galla Placidia. So with a click, a hop and a jump we’ve gone from church to mausoleum and are gazing up at the wonderfully dark blue ceiling

mausoleum galla placidia-2

There are other early mosaics in Ravenna, but it’s time to leave. We’ll see them another time.

Next stop: Venice.

As I gaze at Google Map trying to choose which road to take, I decide all of a sudden that it would be in keeping to follow the trace of the old Roman roads. To do this, I will rely on the Peutinger map. This is the only existing example of a Roman map of the Empire’s road network. It now resides in the Austrian National Library. It is actually a 13th Century copy, made by an anonymous monk in Colmar in Alsace, of what was probably a 5th Century original, itself a distant descendant of the original made by one Marcus Vipsanius Agrippa for the Emperor Augustus in the last years BC. It is so rare that it has been placed on UNESCO’s Memory of the World Register. This photo shows one section of the map, showing Italy from Rome to Sicily

peutinger map segment IV

Actually, I find the map very difficult to read; it is not to scale, it is not oriented the way modern maps are, and many of the place names mean nothing to me. So it is with considerable relief that I discover that someone has transcribed the Peutinger map onto a modern map. Studying this map, I decide we will follow the trace of the old Via Popillia, which once connected Rimini with Adria and the Via Annia. My intermediary objective is Fusina, just south of Mestre. I’m driving there because in this trip of my imagination I want to enter Venice the way it was meant to be entered before they built the causeway, by sea. And Fusina is the only place where you can catch a ferry into Venice from the mainland.

So we motor up to Fusina, and in my zeal to follow the trace of the old Roman road (I can already see my wife tapping her fingers impatiently at these signs of anal behaviour on my part) we do so through a complicated series of back roads which take us through a number of small towns and villages and finally along the SP (Strada Provinciale) 53, with us cutting down to the right at some point to get to Fusina. In my defence, the coastline between Ravenna and Venice has changed a lot since Roman times; the silt brought down by the River Po and a number of other rivers in this area has pushed the coastline out quite a distance. As a result, the road network in the area has changed considerably over the centuries. In any event, we’ve arrived; by the way, the website I just used informs me that we have travelled about LXXV Milia Passuum (75 thousand paces, or 75 Roman miles), which in Roman times would have taken us about VI dies (6 days) to walk. We park the car and wait for the next ferry; the timetable available online helpfully informs me that there is a ferry every hour on the hour, so I don’t suppose we need wait too long. No doubt there is a bar where we can sit down and have a cappuccino.

With a click we are on the ferry heading across the lagoon. As we get closer, we see this incomparable picture of Venice before us.

view from ferry

All too soon, it is time to get off at Zattere, to the south of the Canal Grande. We start threading our way through Venice’s maze of alleyways, crossing the Canal Grande at the Ponte dell’Accademia, and then after a sharp right in Campo Santo Stefano walking on to Piazza San Marco. Here, I stop and reveal to the reader that Venice is not actually our destination; we are going instead to the small island of Torcello to the north of the main island. It is true that the Basilica of San Marco is full of mosaics, but most of them are relatively modern, pale copies of the paintings of the time – and the church is always so horribly crowded with tourists! So we turn left in Piazza San Marco and head up to the north side of the island, to Fondamente Nova, where the municipality’s website helpfully informs me that I should catch the N9 aquatic bus. In my mind’s eye, when it arrives the bus is crowded with people going to the small nearby island of San Michele, the city’s graveyard. My wife and I squeeze on, and we wait patiently until after the stop at the graveyard and possibly also the following stop at Murano to be able to sit down. Then there’s a stop in the island of Burano before we finally get to Torcello.

Torcello was a place of refuge in the troubled centuries after the collapse of the Western Roman Empire. It was here and in the other islands of the Venetian lagoon that people came to escape from the depredations of the passing waves of various barbarian tribes. Until the 12th Century or so, it was a vibrant place with a significant population, but gradual silting of this part of the lagoon not only killed off the island’s more important economic activities but brought malaria to its inhabitants. So everyone left for Venice itself and now hardly anyone lives here. It is very peaceful, with just the church surrounded by vineyards.

Torcello Aerial view

This abandonment might well have saved the mosaics which we are about to see. We walk up the path from the aquatic bus stop to the church, go in, and find this in front of us

torcello-8-front

And turning around, this behind us

torcello-6-back wall

We have leapt forward some six centuries from Ravenna, with these mosaics being from the 11th and 12th Centuries. The style has changed, from one which in Ravenna still echoed the Roman styles to one which is much closer to that rigid style we call “Byzantine” as well as to what was later to become the medieval style. We walk forward to get closer to the mosaic in the apse, which is of the Virgin Mary with the infant Jesus.

torcello-5

I love this mosaic, with its gentle Madonna floating in a huge field of gold. I still remember well the impact it had on me the first time I saw it, a decade ago, on a late Autumn afternoon. The memory of that gentle face in its sea of gold has stayed with me ever since.

The mosaic on the back wall, a Last Judgement, is also spectacular, no doubt about it, but it doesn’t hold me as much. There are the usual scenes of naughty people being punished for their sins

Torcello-9-Last Judgment detail

The Middle Ages had a morbid fascination for this kind of stuff. But I find it all rather puerile. It always reminds me of the scary stories we used to tell each other in the dormitories at school after lights out, to give ourselves a delicious thrill of fright.

Onwards!

With a click of my mouse, my wife and I are back in Fusina, driving out of the car park in the little MG. We are now heading to Aquileia (79 Roman miles; 6 days’ marching). True to my promise to myself to follow the old Roman roads, I want to pick up the Via Annia, a major Roman road which linked Padova with Aquileia. We pick our way across the main road into Venice along the causeway and take the SS (Strada Statale) 14, which pretty much follows the trace of Via Annia. We bowl along, with the sun in our faces and the wind in our hair, passing Venice’s airport, and maybe catching sight to our right of Torcello’s tall campanile in the distance. We pass through Concordia Saggitaria, where we meet the Via Postumia, which ran across the whole of northern Italy from Genova to Aquileia, and on to Cervignano del Friuli. At Cervignano, we turn right onto the SR (Strada Regionale) 352 and a few Roman miles later arrive in Aquileia.

Poor Aquileia. During the Roman period it was an important city, guarding the eastern marches of Italy, which was the core of the Empire. A look at a map shows that any tribe from Central and Eastern Europe and beyond necessarily had to pass this way to enter the Italian lands, whether with peaceful intentions or not. When the Empire had its borders along the Danube River, Aquileia was the gateway to the rougher provinces of Illyricum, Dacia and Thrace that backed the frontier. As such, it was the starting-point of several important roads leading to this north-eastern portion of the Empire.

As the Empire’s western half collapsed and its borders were breached, the tribes did come, along those roads so helpfully built by the Romans. And the roads led to Aquileia, which was such a tempting target. It was first besieged by Alaric and his Visigoths in 401, who attacked it again and sacked it in 408 on his way to sacking Rome. Then it was attacked by Attila and his Huns in 452, who so utterly destroyed it that it was afterwards hard to recognize the original site. It rose again, a pale shadow of its former self, but was once more destroyed, by the Longobards this time, in 590. Today, it is just a quiet little village.

Aquileia’s loss was Venice’s gain. After each barbarian invasion, more of its inhabitants, along with those of smaller towns around it, fled to safety in the lagoon’s islands nearby, and so laid the foundations of Venice, but also of Torcello which we just visited, and of other lagoon towns.

We have come to visit the Basilica. From the outside it has all the look of a Romanesque church, and indeed it was built in 1031.

Basilica exterior

But when you go in, you find yourself in front of a vast mosaic floor, which quite takes your breath away

basilica floor-5

basilica floor-6

It was laid down in the 4th Century in a building which was destroyed by Attila’s Huns and around which a new church was built six centuries later. In fact, the builders covered up the mosaic with a new floor, and it wasn’t until 1909, when this floor was removed, that the mosaics once more saw the light of day. The subjects depicted include symbolic subjects, portraits of donors, scenes from the Gospels and dedicatory inscriptions. I show just one detail of it.

basilica floor-particular

These are even earlier than the mosaics we saw in Ravenna, and the Roman influence is clear. We could almost be looking at the mosaic floor of some vast Roman villa.

After admiring the mosaic floor and visiting other mosaics in the baptistery, my wife and I leave and walk around the ruins of the Roman town. As I click around, I am in a melancholy mood. So much destroyed, and for no purpose. We see the remains of one of the Roman roads that led out of the city.

roman road-3

The road beckons. After a rest, we’ll continue our journey north-eastward, from whence came the tribes which destroyed Aquileia.

(Readers who are curious to know how this dream trip continues can hyperlink here to the next leg of the journey)

______________________

Smart car: http://www.kinghdwallpaper.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/03/Smart-Car.jpg
MG car: http://www.msmclassifieds.co.uk/autoclass/stock-images/fliw8myjsf/oilhekvry4/fb173nj5q1.jpg
4 horsemen apocalypse-Durer: http://mcalmont.files.wordpress.com/2013/01/dur_4horse.gif
Sant’Apollinare Nuovo-1: http://apah.lakegeneva.badger.groupfusion.net/modules/groups/homepagefiles/49961-87537-58717-18.jpg
Sant’Apollinare Nuovo-2: http://classconnection.s3.amazonaws.com/256/flashcards/1016256/jpg/22early_christian_and_byzantine_%28student%291351736386614.jpg
Sant’Apollinare Nuovo-3: http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/f/fd/Meister_von_San_Apollinare_Nuovo_in_Ravenna_002.jpg
Sant’Apollinare in Classe-1: http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/thumb/f/fd/Sant%27Apollinare_in_Classe,_Ravenna.jpg/1280px-Sant%27Apollinare_in_Classe,_Ravenna.jpg
Sant’Apollinare in Classe-2: http://pixdaus.com/files/items/pics/9/49/73949_68edee7b4d49d43caa20681b9709f5bd_large.jpg
Mausoleum Galla Placidia: http://www.cittadarte.emilia-romagna.it/images/galleries/ravennaintro/ra-mausoleo-galla-placidia-mosaico-volta-celeste.jpg
Peutinger map segment: http://libweb5.princeton.edu/visual_materials/maps/websites/thematic-maps/qualitative/peutinger-table-map-1619.jpg
View from the ferry: http://farm9.staticflickr.com/8149/7667954390_2eafc258f6_h.jpg
Torcello aerial view: http://www.venicenews.info/Resource/TorcelloAerial.jpg
Torcello-1-front: http://venezia.myblog.it/media/00/00/1215490241.jpg
Torcello-2-backwall: http://d1ezg6ep0f8pmf.cloudfront.net/images/slides/a2/8812-torcello-cathedral-nave-looking-west.jpg
Torcello-3: http://farm7.staticflickr.com/6094/6362159351_0d3fe8a136_z.jpg
Torcello-4-last judgement detail: http://4.bp.blogspot.com/-wKvqFMTU-O8/TuyBuW4hnqI/AAAAAAAAAg8/-L3J_V80UC4/s1600/Last+Judgment+Torcello+Tweede+plaatje.jpg
Aquileia Basilica exterior: http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/8/87/Basilica_Aquileia_1.JPG
Aquileia Basilica floor-1: http://img11.rajce.idnes.cz/d1102/7/7156/7156708_b33224f9e53bf0956558a717bbf58ec8/images/Aquileia_-_Basilica.jpg
Aquileia Basilica floor-2: http://static.turistipercaso.it/image/f/friuli/friuli_qhjf9.T0.jpg
Aquileia Basilica floor particular: https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/thumb/8/8c/Aquileia,_storia_di_giona,_pavimento_della_basilica,_1a_met%C3%A0_del_IV_secolo.jpg/800px-Aquileia,_storia_di_giona,_pavimento_della_basilica,_1a_met%C3%A0_del_IV_secolo.jpg
Aquileia Roman Road: https://lh5.googleusercontent.com/-QkR-yVgM57g/SOy7HQQg_OI/AAAAAAAAYB4/7b6E9opcEuo/w819-h549/Aquileia+-+Roman+road.jpg

FLYING FLUFF

Beijing, 1 May 2013

These last few days we have been suffering from an unpleasant side-effect of Spring: airborne white fluff, which trees around here are shedding in huge quantities in their eagerness to mate and to seed. The fluff drifts down, floats along on the breeze, is whirled about by passing cars, eddies in big clumps around your feet, and – most disagreeably – gets into your eyes, nose and mouth. Yesterday morning, it was so thick that looking up into the sky it seemed to be snowing.

pollen 008

while a few days ago currents in the canal and wind interacted to create a thick layer of fluff along the far bank.

pollen on canal 002

This is the offending tree, photographed in a quiet side street

poplars-Beijing 011

a poplar, a member of the aptly-named cottonwoods, whose more mature specimens carry these very distinctive diamond shapes on their lower bark.

pollen 013

And this is where the fluff is from:

cotton on tree-1

I first became aware of this tree in Vienna, not so much because of white fluff flying around, of which there was a fair amount at this time of the year, but because of some really magnificent specimens growing in the gardens of the posher, greener parts of town. So posh and so exclusive that I have found no photos on the web.

But actually, where the tree really came into its own was down by the Danube, in the last vestiges of the river’s wetlands which land use planners and river engineers of the 19th Century had left alone.

poplars on the Danube-1

Not surprising, really. The tree loves a wet, marshy soil. Which explains why there are so many poplars around Milan and in the Po River plain generally, which is a pretty soggy place. And in Milan, the problem of flying white fluff was truly awful. These pictures are not from Milan but are from that part of the country and give a good sense of the horror of it.

Italian-image-1

Italian-image-3

It’s the poplar’s love of wet soil that makes me wonder what it’s doing here in Beijing. I mean, this city is semi-desertic; lack of water is a constant and growing problem. Yet, there are huge plantations of the tree around the city, part of the reforestation campaigns that the government is so fond of as a way of minimizing the dust storms to which this city is periodically subject. Wise policies no doubt, but surely they could have found a more suitable tree?

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pix of sky, canal, and poplar tree: mine
Fluff on tree: http://www.naturamediterraneo.com/Public/data7/ciuppy/5.jpg_200941622240_5.jpg
Poplars on the Danube: http://www.quax.at/sites/default/files/images/nationalpark_donau_auen_976_Donauufer2_Baumgartner.jpg
Italian-image-1: http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/thumb/9/9f/Fioritura_pioppi.JPG/1280px-Fioritura_pioppi.JPG
Italian-image-2: http://www.parmatoday.it/~media/base/19828483952093/curiosita-fioritura-pioppi-1.jpg

WILD TULIPS

Beijing, 24 April 2013

I am lucky to live close enough to the office in Beijing to be able to go home for lunch. Which means that for the last week I have been walking, four times a day, past the bed of tulips that our buildings management had thoughtfully planted outside the front door and which has finally bloomed.

tulip bed by house 001

The bed has attracted considerable attention from the locals, who have stopped to admire, to photograph, and of course to be photographed in front of.

tulip bed by house 004

I must admit, I am not a huge fan of tulips, especially when they are planted in massed beds like this. These massed plantings are not helped by the strong colours of so many commercially available tulips. I mean, look at the colour combination in our building’s bed: bright red and bright yellow. I’m sure the colours were chosen with very deliberate intention: red for happiness in China’s iconography, yellow for wealth. So, “Happy Spring! Be wealthy and be happy” (as my father was fond of repeating, “money may not be the source of all happiness, but it surely helps a lot”). But it’s just too … much.

I believe that the Netherlands tourist board touts tours of its tulip fields when they are in bloom, travelling around – of course – by bike. I cannot think of anything worse: days of bicycling past acres of strong colours.

tulips in Holland-4-field

It would be the visual equivalent of eating, all alone, a large and very rich chocolate cake.

No, I think I would prefer to be riding a horse and come across this sprinkling of wild tulips on the steppes of southern Russia:

wild tulips-9-steppes s russia

or this carpet of wild tulips in Asia Minor:

wild tulips-3-asia minor

or this scattering of wild tulips in Iran:

wild tulips-5-iran

or this bed of wild tulips in Crete:

wild tulips-2-omalos crete

or this achingly beautiful wild tulip in Cyprus:

wild tulips-8-cyprus

I think it is clear by now to the reader that I prefer wild tulips by far. Apart from being integrated into their environment rather than regimented into artificial beds, I find their shape – coming up into a sharp, delicate point – so much more beautiful than the bulk of commercially available tulips. The artisans in Iznik, Turkey, also recognized the beauty of the tulip in their wonderful ceramics. These are ceramic tiles gracing the walls (or rather the pillars) of Rüstem Pasha Mosque in Istanbul:

tiles-4-Rüstem Pasha Camii Istanbul

The interior of this lovely little mosque is completely lined with ceramic tiles:

???????????????????

The tiles pick up on other flowers, leaving delicate arabesques on the walls:

tiles-2-Rüstem Pasha Camii Istanbul

Several years ago, during the business trip to New York which I mentioned in an earlier post, I stumbled across an exhibition in the Turkish Chamber of Commerce of modern ceramic plates using traditional Iznik designs. I fell for a plate, which looked something like this:

plate-2-with tulip and carnation

and bought it on the spot, cash. It sleeps with all our other stuff in a warehouse in Vienna, waiting to be brought back into the light of day and admired.

I always had the impression that tulips originally came from Asia Minor or thereabouts, but their range is much wider. Here is a wild tulip in a national park in Umbria, Italy

wild tulips-10-umbria

and here is one from southern Norway:

wild tulips-4-tananger coast s norway

Lovely …

___________________________

Tulips in Beijing: my pix
Tulip fields in Netherlands-4: http://1.bp.blogspot.com/-dbs2i3jZ9t0/TbPwj_YIvJI/AAAAAAAAAVI/tMyaQ7M1x40/s1600/Holland%2Band%2BBelgium%2B202.JPG
Wild tulips- steppes of S. Russia: http://static.panoramio.com/photos/1920×1280/35533419.jpg
Wild tulips- Asia Minor: http://www.colorblends.com/img/display/kolpakowskiana.jpg
Wild tulips- Iran: http://icons-ak.wunderground.com/data/wximagenew/p/Photo1224/212-800.jpg
Wild tulips- Omalos, Crete: http://www.west-crete.com/dailypics/photos/1727large.jpg
Wild tulips- Cyprus: http://www.embargoed.org/images/gallery/preview/image_79_1.jpg
Iznik tiles Rustem Pasha mosque Istanbul-1: http://ericrossacademic.files.wordpress.com/2012/05/rustem-pasa-tile.jpg
Rustem Pasha mosque interior: http://sugraphic.com/images/fotolar/2011/08/02/46_1312263234..jpeg
Iznik tiles Rustem Pasha mosque Istanbul-2: http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/thumb/b/b9/DSC04139_Istanbul_-_R%C3%BCstem_Pasha_camii_-_Foto_G._Dall%27Orto_26-5-2006.jpg/800px-DSC04139_Istanbul_-_R%C3%BCstem_Pasha_camii_-_Foto_G._Dall%27Orto_26-5-2006.jpg
Ceramic plate Iznik style: http://yurdan.com/Content/Uploads/ProductImages/39637/iznik-design-ceramic-plate-tulip-and-carnation–1.jpg
Wild tulips – Umbria, Italy: http://farm1.staticflickr.com/62/185332054_d21bcbf611_z.jpg?zz=1
Wild tulips – Tananger coast, S. Norway: http://mw2.google.com/mw-panoramio/photos/medium/16107947.jpg

NORTH KOREAN TRAFFIC POLICE

Beijing, 8 April 2013

My older brother, whom I mentioned in my previous posting, sent me an email yesterday asking me if I would join the lengthening list of foreigners who, according to the Financial Times, are leaving Beijing because of the pollution but also more recently because of the sharp increase in the levels of bellicosity emanating from North Korea. I should explain that I have the dubious privilege of also covering North Korea for my organization and in this guise I have visited the country a few times. My personal view, for what it’s worth, is that all the shouting and bawling by the North Korean leadership has more to do with solidifying support for a young, callow leader than with an actual desire for war. So it is with a certain complacency that I watch footage on the world’s TV programmes of Kim Jong Un showing off his military skills in front of admiring generals.

On the other hand, I am particularly taken by TV footage showing North Korean soldiers marching around Pyongyang’s central square; I am a great admirer of their drilling skills. When I was a boy at school we had to play at soldiers once a week (on Monday afternoons to be precise), and part of the play was learning to drill. So I have a keen appreciation, born from many miserable hours marching about the school parking lot, of how complicated it is to get a bunch of men – and women – to walk in step, goose-step at that, stiff as robots, and have them wheel and turn in precise unison around a square.

north korean soldiers drilling-2

TOPSHOTS-NKOREA-POLITICS-KIM

All this marching around makes me think of one thing which particularly struck me and my wife during my first visit, and her only visit, to Pyongyang: the traffic police. At the time of that first visit, Pyongyang didn’t have any traffic lights and what little traffic there was at road crossings was regulated by women police officers (they were all women). And let me tell you, these ladies were no slouches! They were most military in style. It started when they took up their shift, which saw them marching briskly to their spot in the middle of the crossroads.

traffic police girl-marching into position-1

Once in place, they regulated traffic with a baton, very visible arm signals, and a stern face. My wife and I watched them for a while and we came to the conclusion that this was the code:

“Change in flow patterns about to take place!”

traffic police girl-pointing up-3

“Traffic from my right [or left] can turn left [or right]!”

traffic police girl-pointing forward-3

“Traffic coming from my left [or right] can go straight past me”

traffic police girl-pointing across chest-1

After warning of a change, the policewoman would wheel smartly on her heel to face in the right direction.

It was a fascinating militaristic ballet to watch.

There is also a fashion element in all of this. The first three photos show the ladies in their winter uniform, the last in their summer uniform. Personally, I prefer the winter uniform.

We are not the only ones to have found the traffic policewomen fascinating. There is a whole website dedicated to them! I admire all the photos that were taken. We were told not to take photos, and I meekly complied. But others clearly ignored the interdict. As you can see, the policewomen were Not Amused by these law-breakers.

traffic police girl-pointing up-2

Before boring traffic lights were introduced, I suspect all countries had these traffic police. Italy certainly did. My wife remembers them well from her youth, and I have found a few old photographs of them on the web.

traffic police italy-7

traffic police italy-9

From the makes of the cars, we reckon the photos were taken in the late ‘50s, early ‘60s. I’ve seen the Italian police in action a few times when traffic lights have gone on the blink (or perhaps I should say off the blink). I must say, they were very theatrical: step 1, gaze intensely at the oncoming cars; step 2, raise the hand slowly and very obviously; step 3, snap it into place and accompany it with a short, shrill blow on the whistle.

traffic police italy-4

I am reminded of a story my elder brother told me many years ago – the same brother with whom I started this post. In the late ‘60s, he was staying in Rome for a few months, in the Trastevere district. He recounted that there was a policeman who was particularly well known by the district’s locals for his elegant style in directing traffic. When it was time for his shift, an admiring crowd would gather to watch him in action, and at the end of his shift they would clap – at least, so claimed my brother; but this last part I doubt.

Sadly, I saw during my last visit to Pyongyang that traffic lights have arrived there. As for the traffic police ladies, they were left to slouch about in a most unmilitary fashion at their road crossings, playing no obvious role that I could see. Sic transit gloria mundi.

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N. Korean soldiers drilling-2: http://l2.yimg.com/bt/api/res/1.2/bEb._9Przkk9QLPFPdhNsQ–/YXBwaWQ9eW5ld3M7Y2g9MTk2OTtjcj0xO2N3PTMwMDA7ZHg9MDtkeT0wO2ZpPXVsY3JvcDtoPTQxNDtxPTg1O3c9NjMw/http://media.zenfs.com/en_us/News/ap_webfeeds/b886bb1bad68ea0a0c0f6a706700c977.jpg
N. Korean soldiers drilling-3: http://rt.com/files/online-exclusive/galleries/north-korea/army-plaza-soldiers-marching/i182d25fd3712d679f42df606bce13c57_000_hkg-639412.jpg
Traffic policewoman taking up her shift: http://farm3.staticflickr.com/2754/4380470489_8189781b65_z.jpg
Traffic policewoman pointing up: http://farm3.staticflickr.com/2531/5758279854_5b5d42c09c_z.jpg
Traffic policewoman pointing forward: http://farm3.staticflickr.com/2737/4166260885_fbca4d5637_z.jpg
Traffic policewoman pointing across: http://cfile217.uf.daum.net/image/194F2C234B98B8423417CE
Traffic police Italy-1: http://desk.unita.it/cgi-bin/showimg2.cgi?file=F_NAT_L2_0701/00000029/0000400F.c28b7356.jpg&t=big
Traffic police Italy-2: http://desk.unita.it/cgi-bin/showimg2.cgi?file=F_NAT_L2_0701/00000029/0000396F.1280fd16.jpg&t=big
Traffic police Italy-3: http://termoli.files.wordpress.com/2009/09/vigile.jpg

MY CRUISE OF FIRSTS

Beijing, 5 April 2013

My previous post about chocolate Easter eggs led me to take a page from Charles Dickens and I allowed myself to be visited by the ghost of Easters past. He took me back through memories of previous Easters, some very pleasant and others not so much. One in particular has stayed with me, the Easter I passed on a cruise in the Mediterranean when I was 14.

My English grandmother had decided that she would like to go on a cruise but wanted company. So she took me and my older brother along with her. It was a wonderful trip, one of those golden-hued memories that each one of us has. Easter itself was celebrated without much fuss and bother in Brindisi, in southern Italy – we were just a few Catholics among a sea of Anglicans and so were packed off to a small room on the ship and a local priest was brought in for the occasion.  A surf through the web tells me that Easter occurred on April 14, two weeks later than this year. We were already towards the end of the cruise. There were a couple more stops in what was then Yugoslavia and is now Croatia, at Split and Dubrovnik, and then it was back to Venice where we had boarded ship. Before Brindisi, we had visited Olympia, Crete, Athens, Istanbul, Ephesus, and then finally Rhodes before starting back (there was also a visit to one of the smaller Ionian islands but I no longer remember which one).

For me, this was a trip of many firsts (well, the whole trip was a first but there were certain things which were more first than others, if you get my drift).

It was my first trip to Venice, one which my wife and I have repeated many, many times, sometimes with the children, first from Milan when we lived there and then later from Vienna. What I fell in love with that first time and keep going back to is not the grand theatricality of St. Mark’s Square

venice-st marks square

or of the laguna, which the cruise ship sailed down as we left Venicevenice-the lagoon

No, what always bring us back is the humbler Venice, the alleys and lanes (it’s hard to talk of streets when there are no cars) far away from the tourist haunts, which widen and narrow with no apparent rhyme or reason, which loop and re-loop over narrow canals, which suddenly bring you, blinking in the light, into small piazzas teeming with life.

venice-calle-1

venice-calle-2

venice-calle-3

venice-calle-4

We spent the afternoon before setting sail wandering around, map in hand – a map is always necessary in Venice, although my wife is not really of that opinion: ask people the way, that’s her motto.

The cruise also took me on my first visit to classical ruins. England and the parts of France I was then familiar with don’t have any Roman ruins to speak of; an odd crumbling wall here and there is about the sum of it. Here, we had a feast!

Olympia

olympia-column-2

Knossos

Knossos-palace-1

Mycenae

mycenae-lion-gate-4

The Acropolis in Athens

athens-acropolis-1

Cape Sounion

cape-sounion

Ephesus

ephesus

Actually, it was more a surfeit than a feast. To be very honest, after I’ve seen three broken columns and five fallen walls the experience begins to pall. Many decades later, when I got to know Shelley’s poem Ozymandias I could relate to all these ruins and many others I have seen since all over the world in a different way:

I met a traveller from an antique land
Who said: Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them and the heart that fed:
And on the pedestal these words appear:
“My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!”
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away

But, in all this blur of broken stone one memory stands out, etched for ever more in my mind: wildflowers growing in profusion among the ruins of Olympia. A search of the web shows that I am not the only traveler to Olympia who has been struck by the flowers there:

olympia-wildflowers-6

olympia-wildflowers-5

SANYO DIGITAL CAMERA

The trip was also my first real exposure to Greek sculpture. My grandmother had taken me a few times to the British Museum but somehow we always seemed to end up in the section of the Egyptian mummies – at least, that’s all I remember of those early visits. But the visit to the National Archaeological Museum in Athens was a real eye-opener for me. Two pieces I remember particularly well. One was the statue of Zeus (or is it Poseidon?):

Athense-bronze_statue_of_Zeus_or_Poseidon-1

Look at that face!

Athense-bronze_statue_of_Zeus_or_Poseidon-3

Speaking of faces, the other piece that impressed itself on me was the gold mask which Schliemann dug up in Mycenae (our Greek and Latin teacher had often quoted the phrase “I have gazed upon the face of Agamemnon”, said to have been uttered by Schliemann when he first set eyes on the mask)

agamemnon-1

Another notable first on this trip was my exposure to Byzantine mosaics, in the cavernous interior of Hagia Sophia in Istanbul.

istanbul-hagia sophia-interior-1

istanbul-hagia sophia-mosaics-1

istanbul-hagia sophia-mosaics-4

istanbul-hagia sophia-mosaics-5

This started an interest – an obsessive interest, my wife might observe – in early Christian mosaics, which I have tracked down in various parts of the Mediterranean basin since then.

Istanbul was the site of yet another first, my first exposure to Muslim architecture, in the form of the incomparably beautiful Sultan Ahmed Mosque.

istanbul-sultan ahmed mosque-exterior-2

Since then, I have been lucky enough to admire Muslim architecture in all its wonderfully different variations in many parts of the world – even here in Beijing, where it has taken on decidedly Chinese characteristics.

beijing mosque

Iran and Central Asia await me still …

On a lighter note, the cruise was the first – and probably last – time I saw the foxtrot being danced. Every evening a three-man band played in the dance room. It started with oldies, and a retired English Major and his wife were assiduous dancers. As the band started up, they would step out, glide through a number of foxtrot numbers, and then retire to the bar.

foxtrot-1

They looked surprisingly like this picture, just somewhat longer in the tooth.

After they had left, the tempo changed and us young things would take over the dance floor and dance the night away. Well, I didn’t. I was far too shy. I would look on enviously at the elder young things. At last, one took pity on me and led me to the floor to dance my first modern dance. Another first …

Last, but definitely not least, it was on that cruise that I first set eyes on the Mediterranean. It was love at first sight.

mediterranean sea-3

______________________

Venice-St Mark’s square: http://www.instablogsimages.com/1/2012/04/25/sunset_on_st_marks_square_image_title_upyro.jpg
Venice-Lagoon: http://cdn2.vtourist.com/4/3990973-looking_back_from_the_water_bus_Venice.jpg
Venice-calle-1: http://renaissancerules.files.wordpress.com/2011/01/venice-2009-294.jpg
Venice-calle-2: http://picasaweb.google.com/lh/photo/Vx_htYT8ClwJ1DwCpMcy1A
Venice-calle-3: http://www.cepolina.com/photo/Europe/Italy/Venice/Venice-mix/3/Venice-street-narrow-calle-rill.jpg
Venice-calle-4: http://farm2.staticflickr.com/1265/5186001188_065ec8a290_z.jpg
Olympia: http://images.fanpop.com/images/image_uploads/Olympia-greece-585497_1024_768.jpg
Knossos-palace: http://ant3145crete.wikispaces.com/file/view/Knossos_1.jpg/68392549/Knossos_1.jpg
Mycenae-lion-gate: http://www.civilization.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2012/02/Mycenae-Lion-gate-028.jpg
Athens-acropolis: http://www.limotaxi.gr/wp-content/uploads/2010/10/athens1.jpg
Cape Sounion: http://www.grisel.net/images/greece/sounion11.JPG
Ephesus: http://historyoftheancientworld.files.wordpress.com/2012/09/theatre2.jpg
Olympia-wildflowers-1: http://farm3.staticflickr.com/2245/2331955314_1629efb4ab_z.jpg
Olympia-wildflowers-2: http://farm3.staticflickr.com/2380/2331125289_93eb068ca2_z.jpg
Olympia-wildflowers-3: http://www.touringtykes.com/wp-content/uploads/2010/02/olymipia-flowers.jpg
Athens-statue of Zeus/Poseidon-1: http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/6/67/Bronze_statue_of_Zeus_or_Poseidon.jpg
Athens-statue of Zeus/Poseidon-2: http://cdn.arstechnica.net/wp-content/uploads/2011/11/zeus_or_poseidon_national_archaeological_museum_athens-4ecd0b1-intro.jpg
Athens- Gold Mask “Agamemnon”: http://hernandopages.com/agamemnon.jpg
Istanbul Hagia Sophia-interior: http://hansmast.com/images/istanbul/hagia_sophia/IMG_1846_Enhancer-IMG_1857_Enhancer-2.jpg
Istanbul-Hagia Sophia-mosaics-1: http://www.mosaicartsource.com/Assets/html/artists/lilian/mosaic_hagia_sophia.jpg
Istanbul-Hagia Sophia-mosaics-2: http://www.sacred-destinations.com/turkey/istanbul-hagia-sophia-photos/slides/imperial-entrance-mosaic-c-hbetts.jpg
Istanbul-Hagia Sophia-mosaics-3: http://www.turkey4travel.com/wp-content/uploads/2009/05/hagia-sofia-mosaic.jpg
Istanbul-sultan ahmed mosque: http://www.viitoaremireasa.ro/images/articole/large/2084/Istanbul-Orasul-care-se-intinde-pe-doua-continente-5.jpg
Beijing mosque: http://www.chinadaily.com.cn/cndy/attachement/jpg/site1/20080815/000802ab80450a0f185656.jpg
Foxtrot: http://ssqq.com/archive/images/foxtrot.jpg
Mediterranean Sea-3: http://1.bp.blogspot.com/-4O6DVn4JTeQ/UG6WCS6K7yI/AAAAAAAAFaQ/NHquXzafTsA/s1600/43923144.jpg

HORSE AND DONKEY

Beijing, 1 March 2013

So The Europeans have their knickers in a twist about horsemeat in their beef, while the Kenyans are up in arms because donkey meat is being passed off there as beef. OK, it’s not correct to sell one thing under the guise of another, but horsemeat and donkey meat are actually really good. I first had donkey meat in a little restaurant along the Naviglio Grande, one of Milan’s canals

naviglio-grande

That night, the chef was serving what is a very typical Lombard dish, stracotto d’asino or donkey stew.

stracotto-dasino

And of course, as is de rigueur in a Lombard dish worthy of the name, it was served with polenta.

polenta-2

The combination is vital, because the firm flouriness of the polenta admirably counterbalances the sweet mushiness of the stracotto. Donkey meat, which is anyway sweeter-tasting than beef, becomes even sweeter in a stracotto.

Sweetness of taste is also a characteristic of horsemeat, which I first ate as a boy with my French grandmother. Boucheries chevalines, or butchers specializing in horsemeat, were very common in France when I was young; the French did not have the squeamishness of the English when it came to eating horse.

boucherie chevaline

Horse was also cheaper than beef, so the poorer classes ate horsemeat. My grandmother was poor but had not been so when she was young, so she tried to avoid horsemeat and its suggestion of poverty. But from time to time, when the bank balance was a little low, she deigned to buy it. When we were in the house in the country, the butcher – and the grocer – came to us rather than us having to go to them. One of my boyhood memories is the insistent sound of a horn on the road outside, at which point a great cry would go up “the butcher [or the grocer, depending on the day of the week] has arrived” and there would be a frenzied gathering up of money, shopping lists and shopping bags, as my grandmother [or mother during the summer] was anxious to get to the road before the butcher [or grocer] drove off. I tagged along, loving the noise and drama of it all. I also was fascinated by these mobile shops, which looked somewhat like this:

citroen_h_boucherie

It was a Citroen van, which had been kitted out to open up on the side. The butcher [or grocer] would stand inside exactly as he would behind his counter in the shop. The photo is actually of a miniature model, which has been set up in a very realistic scenery; it certainly comes close to my memory of what awaited us when we got out onto the road. This a photo of the real thing, although this particular example has been gussied up for modern urbanites:

citroen_h_boucherie-2

And when my grandmother did buy horsemeat, she would cook it up as a steak, with home-made frites, or French fries. Horsemeat is a much darker meat than beef, as this photo shows:

horse steak

Well, now that I have confessed – cheerfully, I would say – to the heinous crime of eating donkey and horse, let me come completely clean and also confess to having eaten dog. In South Korea. Very delicious, as the Chinese would say …

___________________________

Naviglio grande: http://farm4.staticflickr.com/3087/2312319399_2401d37b1f_z.jpg
Stracotto d’asino: http://www.piaceredelgusto.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/01/Brasato-dasino.jpg
Polenta: http://www.italianfoodnet.com/uploads/img/news-polenta_taragna.jpg
Boucherie chevaline: http://www.lebouguen-lesbaraques.infini.fr/IMG/jpg/Boucherie_Lubin_au_Bouguen_Pepere_Mamie_Mr_Guyomard_et_Rosie_famille_Regine.jpg
Mobile butcher model: http://www.minitub43.com/IMG/jpg/2280.jpg
Mobile butcher: http://cmvmoto.free.fr/Salon%20Epoqu%27Auto%20Lyon%202011/Citroen%20Type%20H%20Boucherie_03.jpg
Horse steak: http://boucherie-cheval.fr/wp-content/themes/boucherie-chevaline/timthumb.php?src=http://boucherie-cheval.fr/photos-viande-cheval/Rond-de-tranche-de-cheval-viande-chevaline.png&w=600&h=180&zc=1&q=100

TOMATO

Beijing, 28 February 2013

Chinese food is great. No doubt about it. But tomatoes don’t figure very highly in Chinese cooking. In all those banquets I’ve been invited to, I’ve seen a few tomato slices swimming in soups and sauces, I’ve been offered a dish which seems to consist of scrambled eggs drowned in weak tomato sauce, and that’s it. Except for one more thing. Almost uniformly, at the end of the banquets, they insist on serving cherry tomatoes with the fruit! Of course, from a biological point of view they are correct, but everyone knows that tomatoes are a vegetable! I mean, the US Supreme Court decided so, in 1893, in the case Nix v. Hedden. And if the US Supreme Court has decided so, who are we to disagree?

Yet here I am again, faced with a plate of fruit on which sit a number of cherry tomatoes. As I moodily spear at the damned things, my thoughts float off to another place, to another country, where the tomato reigns supreme, cooking-wise.

I dream of pizza, the simplest kind, pizza margherita. Just tomato sauce and mozzarella, with a basil leaf or two, no more.

pizza-margherita

I will accept a few more toppings, in a pizza quattro stagioni for instance. But I quite disapprove of a certain tendency to pour on the toppings. Keep it simple! Because the beauty of pizza is the marriage of the tomato sauce

passata di pomodoro-1

with the mozzarella

And not just any mozzarella. Mozzarella di bufala, mozzarella from the Italian buffalo, found only in the south of Italy

mozzarella-di-bufala-1

I keep on spearing my cherry tomatoes …

I dream of spaghetti al pomodorospaghetti al pomodoro-1

Or of penne al ragù

penne al ragu-1

Or cavatappi

cavatappi

Or farfalle, or maccheroni, or tortiglioni, or conchiglie, or orecchiette

I begin to sweat.

I dream of meats and fish in tomato-based sauces. Ossobuco

ossobuco-1

Pollo alla cacciatora

pollo alla cacciatora-1

Brodetto

brodetto-1

I viciously stab the last cherry tomato on my plate.

It’s time for the final toast. We shake hands all around, we offer each other our gifts, and I head for the car.

Maybe I can persuade my wife to make me a small plate of spaghetti al pomodoro when I get home …

pomodori-1

_________________________

Pizza Margherita: http://www.epocaedesign.it/filealbum/349_1.jpg
Passata di pomodoro: http://static.multipino.pl/photoOffer/p/438910_p.jpg
Mozzarella di bufala: http://www.lucianopignataro.it/wp-content/uploads/2011/04/mozzarella-di-buafala.jpg
Spaghetti al pomodoro: http://www.pearlcafe.com.vn/menupic/SpaghettI%20chay.jpg
Penne al ragù: http://farm3.static.flickr.com/2765/4032992954_fd9232b230.jpg
Cavatappi: http://1.bp.blogspot.com/-Fbwd__6dPZA/TsKuYMX5skI/AAAAAAAAAJM/rxVZS1br_XU/s1600/capatevvi1.jpg
Ossobucco: http://us.123rf.com/400wm/400/400/photohomepage/photohomepage1201/photohomepage120100141/12533926-ossobuco-in-umido-con-pomodoro-e-rosmarino-e-pure-di-patate-e-salsa-di-pomodoro.jpg
Pollo alla cacciatora: http://2.bp.blogspot.com/-p_oIFRg7524/TkJE2h9eAjI/AAAAAAAAHPQ/ZdU5k1OMVl0/s1600/DSCN6153-.jpg
Brodetto: http://img1.2spaghi.it/ristoranti/img/big/al-metro-20091123-235147.jpg
Pomodori: http://www.assesempione.info/images/stories/gennaio2012/pomodori.jpg

PIZZA IN SAN GIMIGNANO

Luang Prabang, 18 February 2013

Some fifteen years ago, my wife and I decided to spend our summer holidays in Tuscany. We rented a house in a small village near Radicondoli (or “Radihondoli” as the locals pronounce it). The marvel of this village, which caps a hill, is that there is no through road so that there are few if any cars in the village’s streets. For the first – and last – time in their lives, the children could play outside in the road without constant anxious parental supervision.

The other wonder of this village is that it is situated in some of the loveliest countryside, and is close to some of the loveliest urban landscapes, that Tuscany has to offer. One of the latter, world-renowned and justly so, is San Gimignano.

San Gimignano-2

One day, we decided that it was time to visit San Gimignano. We thought we could leave our son, the older of our two children, alone in the village in the company of his summer friends, but we felt it would be prudent to take our daughter, who must have been seven at the time, along with us. To keep her company, we offered to take one of her friends along, an offer gratefully accepted by her parents. So off we went, swooping and looping over Tuscan hill and dale, seeing the towers of San Gimignano appear, disappear and reappear around every corner, slowly growing ever taller.

San Gimignano in distance-1

San Gimignano in distance-2

San Gimignano in distance-3

We finally arrived, found a parking not too far away – a minor miracle – and walked up the main street

via san giovanni-1

to the piazza where San Gimignano’s main church, the Collegiata di Santa Maria Assunta, is located. That was where we were starting our visit.

collegiata-san-gimignano-external-1

When you go into the church, you are immediately struck by the wonderful frescoes on either wall.

collegiata-san-gimignano-3

collegiata-san-gimignano-2

For anyone like me who has been brought up a Christian it is easy to understand the layout: one wall – the left wall, of course – has a series of scenes from the Old Testament, while the right wall has a series of scenes from the New Testament.  You can walk down one side, following the stories as you go along, appreciating the artist’s take on each story. Here, for instance, is the story of Moses crossing the Red Sea, frozen at the moment where the Pharaoh’s troops are drowned

old testament scene-1

Whereas here, on the right-hand wall, is the story of the dead Lazarus coming back to life

new testament scene-2

And the whole is teaching us the grand story of the Fall of Man and his redemption through the risen Christ.

As I walked along the frescoes, with my daughter and her friend tagging along, I realized that these pictures meant nothing to the two girls, neither of whom had been brought up a Christian. So I began to tell them the stories, using the painted scenes as the backdrop and giving the tales as dramatic a twist as possible. The other tourists must have thought I was a little nutty but the two girls seemed quite taken. I realized for the first time what these frescoes were really for: to tell the Bible’s story to a largely illiterate population. In effect, because they had never read the bible, my daughter and her friend were illiterate. I’ve since learned that there is a term for a cycle of frescoes like this: the Poor Man’s Bible. A well-chosen phrase.

When we left, I was highly pleased with myself and the somewhat theatrical show I had put on for the girls. I will skip the rest of the visit, although I will note that we had a rest at lunch where the two girls ate a Pizza Margherita and drank a coke. That evening, when we got home and we were gathered around the table for dinner, I prompted my daughter to tell her brother about the scene in the church. “Tell your brother the big thing about today,” I suggested. She looked at me a minute and then said, very carefully,“At lunch, we had a pizza and a coke.”

Which goes to show … what? That food for the stomach is more important than food for the mind? No, probably the lesson is, don’t think you’re such a smarty-pants.

By the way, the reason why I’m telling this story will become apparent in my next posting.

_____________________

San Gimignano from above: http://www.hotelilponte.com/writable/public/tbl_galleria/grande/v961b38120234375.jpg
San Gimignano in distance-1: http://farm3.staticflickr.com/2097/5796974869_0245323ed1_z.jpg
San Gimignano in distance-2: http://farm1.staticflickr.com/109/270633269_1e347d3ea5_z.jpg?zz=1
San Gimignano in distance-3: http://www.ideaweekend.it/imgs/weekend/sangimignano.jpg
Via San Giovanni-1: http://imgc.allpostersimages.com/images/P-473-488-90/24/2425/C8JXD00Z/posters/fraser-hall-via-san-giovanni-san-gimignano-tuscany-italy.jpg
Collegiata San Gimignano external-1: http://25.media.tumblr.com/tumblr_may8bh9sVs1qcwmkyo1_1280.jpg
Collegiata San Gimigano-interior-1: http://1.bp.blogspot.com/-ySDga5CAd1Y/UBFg45AiSmI/AAAAAAAAEcg/vAGNRhz14zw/s1600/IMG_7815.JPG
Collegiata San Gimigano-interior-2: http://farm3.staticflickr.com/2148/2241957275_58d27be89f_z.jpg?zz=1
Old testament scene-1: http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/thumb/2/2b/SG_OT_304_Crossing_the_Red_Sea.JPG/800px-SG_OT_304_Crossing_the_Red_Sea.JPG
New testament scene-1: http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/thumb/9/9c/SG_NT_Raising_of_Lazarus_Lippi_Memmo.JPG/744px-SG_NT_Raising_of_Lazarus_Lippi_Memmo.JPG