Milan, 13 September 2016

It wasn’t until our first Sunday back in Milan that I realized what it was we had been missing all those years we had spent in China and Thailand: church bells. The carillon that pealed out from the campanile of the nearby Church of San Giorgio
for morning mass startled my senses, and I found myself actually listening. Probably Italians, after a lifetime of hearing church bells, simply shut them out: “church bells? what church bells?”

It’s not as if the soundscapes of the cities we have lived in these last seven years have been very different from what we were used to in Europe. Like for everything nowadays, there was a depressing uniformity. ┬áThe noise of traffic predominated; given China’s building craze, construction noises came a close second in Beijing. The one typically Chinese noise which we often heard in Beijing was the machine-gun sound of strings of firecrackers going off to celebrate the opening of a new business.
Since the economy was doing nicely, this happened quite often. The noise of firecrackers grew to a huge crescendo as the Chinese New Year rolled around.


We were always in awe of the massive amounts of firepower, in the form of firecrackers, fireworks, and other noise-making products, being sold on the streets in the days leading up to the New Year.
Bangkok was more interesting, noise-wise. From our balcony, as we admired the view over the Chao Phraya river, we would often hear the local muezzin calling the faithful to prayer from the minaret of a nearby mosque. Muslims are a more-or-less tolerated minority in Thailand and as a consequence tend to be very discreet. The Muslim community in our area was no exception. So discreet were they that I never located the minaret and its associated mosque. Was it this one, I wonder? I saw the sign once or twice but never went down the narrow lane to investigate.
These calls to prayer were counterbalanced by the morning chanting from the Buddhist monks in the temple across the river.
In Thailand’s current politically charged atmosphere, where an aggressive Buddhism is emerging, one has to wonder if the loudspeaker-enhanced chanting was not calculated to remind the local Muslims of who was in charge, just in case they had forgotten.

There was also a period when a government institution across the river would blare out the royal anthem twice a day, at 8 am and 6 pm, to remind the populace to venerate their king.
Mercifully, from one day to the next, the loudspeakers fell silent. We never figured out why. But we were thankful for the respite.

Noises from the new religion of our time, fitness, would assail our ears in the early evening, as an aerobic class would start up in the nearby park at Phra Sumen fort, with the disco music booming out over the river, interspersed with the trainer’s shouted instructions and encouragement.

Memories, all memories now. From now on, our soundscapes will be made up, at least in part, of church bells. Christianity may be fading in Europe, but the bells will remain. They will be ringing out the hours of the day and night (even as I write this, the nearby church bells are striking seven pm). They will call the few remaining faithful to Mass on Sundays. They will toll somberly for our brethren who have departed from this world (“Cold it is, my beloved, since your funeral bell was toll’d: / Cold it is, O my King, how cold alone on the wold!”). I may even witness once more, in a Catholic nation somewhere, the bells of a whole city ringing peel after peel in a mad cacophony to speed the soul of a dead Pope on its way; I heard this in Vienna when Pope John Paul II died.

Yes, these sounds are part of my Christian heritage to which I return after many years of absence.

San Giorgio: http://www.milano24ore.net/cityinfo/churches/church_of_san_giorgio.php
Fire crackers: http://yourenotfromaroundhere.com/blog/firecrackers-evil-spirit-beijing-china/
Chinese New Year: http://chinesenewyearblog.com/cny-fireworks-victoria-harbor-hong-kong/
Sellers of fireworks: http://iainmasterton.photoshelter.com/image/I0000OGZzPAzdPPM
Mosque Masjid chakrabongse?: http://zlynn17.blogspot.it/2010/02/halal-food-in-banglamphoo.html
Buddhist monks chanting: https://monotonundminimal.wordpress.com/2011/07/28/day-240-bling-bling-bangkok/
Thais venerating the king: http://edition.cnn.com/2014/10/06/world/asia/thailand-king-bhumibol-gallbladder/
Aerobic class Phra Sumen Park: http://www.iamwannee.com/a-nice-walking-path-from-tha-phra-chan-to-tha-phra-athit/

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: http://www.lightmediation.net/blog/wp-content/myfotos/train-corse/00000053125.jpg (in http://www.lightmediation.net/blog/index.php/2010/09/27/trinichellu-un-express-bien-corse/)
Corte: http://ajaccio.media.tourinsoft.eu/upload/corte.JPG (in http://www.ajaccio-tourisme.com/commerces-et-services/ORGCOR2AV5008WB-7/detail/corte/office-de-tourisme-de-corte-centru-di-corsica)
Steak tartare: http://pad1.whstatic.com/images/thumb/2/2c/Make-Steak-Tartare-Step-8.jpg/670px-Make-Steak-Tartare-Step-8.jpg (in http://m.wikihow.com/Make-Steak-Tartare)
Fireworks: http://france3-regions.francetvinfo.fr/nord-pas-de-calais/sites/regions_france3/files/styles/top_big/public/assets/images/2013/07/13/artifice_2.jpg?itok=1HvQYr8a (in http://france3-regions.francetvinfo.fr/nord-pas-de-calais/2013/07/13/14-juillet-les-feux-d-artifice-du-samedi-287075.html)