Our daughter has just given birth! Our first grandchild. Everyone is OK. We have been summoned to Los Angeles, where she lives, to help out over the first couple of months, which of course we are more than happy to do! It allows us to drool over this little, little being – I had forgotten quite how small they are at birth.

But that’s not what I want to write about here! No, not at all. It’s about something that our daughter fished out of her fridge during one of our almost daily WhatsApp conversations with her during the months of her pregnancy, during which we offered much moral support and little advice (it had been too long since we had had our two children; we couldn’t remember anything of any value).

I should explain that the time difference between Los Angeles and Europe is such that our WhatsApp sessions took place in the evening our time and early morning her time. So as we talked she would often be preparing her breakfast. And fascinating dishes she prepared for herself! A little bit of this, a little bit of that, some leftovers from the previous day’s dinner, a drizzle of various sauces, and on and on, until she had a little mountain of food in front of her. And it always all disappeared! That baby was certainly well nourished.

One time, she pulled out a large glass jar full of some yellowish substance and plopped a large dollop of the stuff on her plate. Upon being asked what it was, she replied “ghee”.

Ghee … I had until that moment only had one run-in with ghee, many, many years ago, when my wife and I were living in Paris for a while. My wife was taking French classes – she felt that she had to brush up her school-level French, although I always thought it was perfectly serviceable. In any event, many of her classmates were recent immigrants trying to make a new life for themselves in France. Among them was a young woman from Ethiopia. One day, she invited us round to her place and offered us what she said was an Ethiopian delicacy: a cup of tea laced with ghee. What it looked like was tea with a scum of melted butter floating on its surface. It was … disgusting, is the only word I can use to describe it. It gave off an ineffably sickening smell. Nevertheless, we both managed to down the liquid but politely declined seconds. I for one swore that I would never, ever touch ghee again. When I told our daughter that I definitely did not like the stuff, she declared herself surprised and said she found it delicious.

This radical difference of opinion intrigued me. Of course, there is no reason why me and my daughter shouldn’t disagree on things, but generally on food we were on the same wavelength. So had I been wrong all these years? I decided I needed to investigate ghee a bit further. This I have done in between bouts of feeding the newborn and changing diapers, and I am now ready to report back – and I had better be quick, before the little one wakes up and wails for the bottle.

First, for those who, like me before writing this post, have only a vague idea about what ghee looks like, here’s a photo of a jar of the stuff. This is actually my daughter’s jar; as readers can see, it is well used.

My photo

Ghee proper actually hails from the Indian subcontinent, where people use it extensively in their cuisine. In fact, although I swore many decades ago never to touch the stuff, it is more than probable that I have unknowingly eaten ghee in Indian restaurants, perhaps in a chicken biryani


or brushed onto a naan.


But ghee is just one member of the broader family of clarified butters. Just about everywhere in the world where there is a history of pastoralism, there is a history of butter-making. Before the really quite recent advent of refrigeration, one of the big problems with butter – especially in places like India with a hot climate – was how to stop butter going rancid. Clarifying it is one answer, because clarified butter has very long shelf lives, even in hot climates.

Clarifying butter is actually quite a simple operation – or at least it seems to be from everything that I’ve read online (I will immediately confess to never having done it myself). You heat the butter to evaporate the water it contains – it’s this water that makes butter go rancid; the spoiling bacteria need water to do their nasty work. This heating also separates out the whey which butter contains – it floats to the surface and is skimmed off – as well as the casein in the butter – which settles as solids on the bottom. The remaining liquid is clarified butter, or butterfat. These photos show the various phases of the process.


That’s the basic clarifying operation. Ghee makers go one step further. The butterfat and the casein solids are simmered together for a while. This caramelizes the solids, which then impart a nutty taste to the butterfat. It also gives the clarified butter a darker colour. Only once caramelized are the solids filtered out – and often they are eaten by the ghee makers as a yummy snack. We see the two products in the right-hand photo below.


So that’s ghee.

PROMEMORIA: Talk to daughter about trying to make ghee herself. She loves messing around in the kitchen. Maybe this could be a joint project while my wife and I are here.

This being India, ghee doesn’t just play a culinary role. It has important religious functions in Hinduism. For instance, in marriages, funerals and other such ceremonies, ghee is poured into sacred fires, a practice considered to be auspicious. This means, of course, that ghee used in this way can only be made with the milk of zebu cows, animals which are sacred in Hinduism.


That’s fine, but zebu cows don’t produce all that much milk, which makes for a rather restricted supply of ghee. Luckily, given India’s huge population and the latter’s huge appetite for the stuff, ghee can also be made from butter made with the milk of water buffaloes.


These animals give a much more plentiful supply of milk, and – cherry on the cake – their milk contains a distinctly higher level of butterfat than does the milk from zebu cows.

PROMEMORIA: Talk to daughter about her trying ghee made with water buffalo milk the next time (I checked and her current batch is made with cow’s milk). There’s a pretty big population from the Indian subcontinent in Los Angeles, so it’s not impossible that a shop in their neighbourhood imports ghee made with buffalo milk from the Old Country.

Like I said, ghee is but one member of a larger family. The peoples of the Middle East and North Africa also have a great fondness for clarified butter, which they call smen (or sman, or semn, or semneh, or sminn – I have to assume that those transliterating the word into the Roman alphabet have had difficulties capturing its precise pronunciation).


Smen makers go one further than manufacturers of ghee. They will often add herbs during the process, straining them out at the end. This adds further taste notes to the butterfat. Roasted fenugreek seeds are popular, with thyme and oregano also often being added. A lot of salt is often also added, because – again, different from gheesmen is very often aged, which adds a fermenting step to the process and of course new taste notes. The aging process can sometimes be decades long. The Yemenis certainly make very aged smen, as do the Berbers of North Africa. They bury jars of smen in the ground and leave them there for a good long time – it’s a tradition among the Berbers to bury a jar at the birth of a daughter, then to dig it up when she gets married and use it in the cooking of the bridal feast.


I read that a well-aged smen “has a characteristically strong, rancid, and cheesy taste and smell”. I further read that matured smen tastes very similar to blue cheese. If any of my readers happen to be going to Fez in Morocco, they might be interested to know that there is a square in the old city which is dedicated to the making and selling of smen. Much commentary online notes the “funky smell” of the smen being sold there.

PROMEMORIA: Talk to daughter about trying to track down a local source of smen, to compare and contrast with ghee. There must be quite a large population of people of Middle Eastern and North African origin in the Los Angeles area, and they surely will have their shops. And if it’s the Real McCoy, the smen should be made of goat’s or sheep’s milk, which could allow comparison with ghee made with cow’s milk.
PROMEMORIA: Check with daughter if she likes blue cheese. I think not, but in case she does, discuss if it’s worth trying to get a very mature smen. Question: Is there a Yemeni community in LA?? (or Berber community???)

Since a chance encounter with clarified butter in an Ethiopian context was the start of my (negative) involvement with this foodstuff, I feel I have to mention what the peoples of the Horn of Africa do in this culinary space. Not only Ethiopians but also Eritreans use clarified butter (called niter kibbeh in Ethiopia and tesmi in Eritrea). Like the peoples of the Middle East and North Africa, they add various spices and herbs during the simmering process. These can be spices native to the region, such as Ethiopian sacred basil, koserēt, and Ethiopian cardamon, and/or more universal spices such as our friend fenugreek, garlic, cumin, coriander, turmeric, or even cinnamon and nutmeg. I read that these impart “a distinct, spicy aroma”.


PROMEMORIA: Talk to daughter about also trying to track down a local source of niter kibbeh or tesmi. I know for sure that there is a significant Ethiopian community in Los Angeles. Our daughter took us once to “Little Ethiopia”, to eat in an Ethiopian restaurant. Not sure about the existence of an Eritrean community.
PROMEMORIA: Check daughter’s spice racks, to see what spices she has, which – if she wants – she could add to her home-made ghee to turn into smen or niter kibbeh-slash-tesmi.

I don’t think that the young Ethiopian woman of yesterdecade had put niter kibbeh in our tea, or even ghee; there was no spicy aroma or nutty flavour to that revolting drink. My sense is that she had just made her own batch of clarified butter, but for reasons known only to herself omitted the herbs. I should also say that despite intensive searches on the Internet, I turned up no mention of Ethiopians putting niter kibbeh in their tea, so I’m wondering what my wife’s co-student was up to. I did, though, find a mention of the Mongolians (another pastoralist society) putting clarified butter in their tea, or süütei tsai in Mongolian, so someone really does do it. That being said, the Mongolians don’t make their süütei tsai the way I make tea. A basic recipe would be one quart of water, one quart of milk, a tablespoon of green tea, and a teaspoon of salt. Black tea can be exchanged for the green tea. Our friend clarified butter can be added. Another common addition is fried millet. I wonder if Anthony Bourdain ever tried this concoction in his culinary wanderings around the globe?

Other pastoralist cultures use clarified butter, for instance the Hausa and Fulanis of West Africa (who, I note in passing, call it manshanu, which means cow’s oil).


But I won’t spend time on these other versions of clarified butter, because the app which my daughter uses to record all feedings and nappy changes tells me that the grandchild will soon wake up for the next feed and I have one more extremely important topic to cover.

This post was kicked off by my daughter and me having diametrically opposite opinions about ghee, which as I say intrigued me. Now that I know what ghee is, I have no excuse to make the final plunge: actually eat something with ghee in it, to check: could I have been wrong all those decades ago?

PROMEMORIA: Talk to my daughter about her preparing a dish with ghee in it, that I can try.

Uh-oh, I hear a wail from down the corridor. Time for the next feed, which my daughter will do, with my wife and I hovering around to help out.


Los Angeles, 19 April 2018

As we did last year, during our latest stay in Los Angeles my wife and I visited the old house and grounds of Arabella and Henry Huntington, now the grandly-named Huntington Library, Arts Collection, and Botanical Gardens. The arts collection, which we visited thoroughly last year, is well worth a visit. It holds some very famous pieces of European art, such as the Blue Boy by Thomas Gainsborough.

It also has a really great collection of American art, especially early American art, holding this piece for instance.

But this year we ignored the art and headed for the gardens. Because the gardens are equally wonderful. During their lifetimes, the Huntingtons had already laid out several gardens around the house. One was a traditional rose garden (primarily so that Arabella Huntington could fill the house with cut roses). Henry Huntington also started a camellia garden along the edges of the Vista which the couple created in front of the house. He also surfed what was then a popular trend and created a Japanese garden. He was also an admirer of palm trees, so he started a palm garden. And after some prodding from his head gardener, he agreed to start a desert garden. The same head gardener, presumably with Mr. Huntington’s approval, also installed lily ponds in an unsightly corner of the garden.

Some of these original gardens have been expanded over the years, while new gardens have been added: a Chinese garden, a semi-tropical garden, a tropical (“jungle”) garden, and an Australian garden (along with a couple of much smaller gardens: a herb garden and a Shakespeare garden, the latter housing all the plants mentioned in one way or another in Shakespeare’s works). All in all, this complex of gardens give the visitor a taste of the sights and scents of many of the world’s biomes (they also give people a lovely scenography for picnics and general lazing around on lawns).

The desert garden is what interests me today. As we wandered the paths which crisscross it, we marveled at the wonderful cacti and succulents which populate this garden. We are not the only ones to have been struck by them. I throw in here some of the better pictures which other visitors have posted on-line.

If I focus on the desert garden rather than on any of the other gardens at the Huntington it is because of water, or rather – in this part of the world – the lack of it. As most people probably know, Los Angeles and southern California in general is a semi-desert; in fact, the region wouldn’t have been able to develop nearly as much as it has if its politicians hadn’t managed to filch large amounts of water from the northern part of the State. But this grand water larceny has only put off the day of reckoning. Southern California is running out of water. Something must be done to contain water use.

Under the circumstances, it makes eminent sense for everyone in this city who has a garden to stop planting water-thirsty plants, especially those lawns so beloved by Americans. Here are a few prime examples from the swank properties surrounding the Huntington.

The Huntington itself has its fair share of thirsty lawns.

To their credit, the people running the Huntington are now pushing the idea that Angeleno gardeners should opt for water tolerant plants in their gardens. And what the desert garden shows is that a garden of cacti and succulents can be every bit as beautiful as a traditional garden. These poor plants get a lot of bad press, probably because of the spines which most cacti sport and perhaps because they can often look somewhat bedraggled. Certainly, it seems that Mr. Huntington’s initial reluctance to have a desert garden had to do with unspecified bad memories of run-ins with prickly pear cacti from the days when he was building his uncle’s railroads across the country. My guess is that his horse threw him into a patch of prickly pear – but that’s only a guess.

As we walk around the city, my wife and I notice an encouraging trend towards more cacti and succulents in gardens and public spaces.

Among all the drought-tolerant plants on show, the one I am most fond of is this one, which I have been seeing a good deal of this year.  This example, for instance, graced a space near a bus stop which we were waiting at.
These examples, instead, are part of a more general planting of cacti and succulents which we have often been walking by as we stroll along the boardwalk at Venice Beach.

It is called, I have discovered, firesticks (or variations thereon: sticks-of-fire, sticks-on-fire, and probably others). The name obviously refers to the plant’s crown of very pretty red, pink, and orange stick-like twigs. It’s really very lovely. But beware! The white sap which oozes from a twig when broken can irritate the skin and is especially dangerous if rubbed into the eyes. I should know. The firestick is a direct descendant of the pencil tree.

This tree can be found throughout East and South Africa. And in fact it grew in our garden in Eritrea. I still remember my mother’s frantic screams when she realized that my little fingers one day had broken a twig and I was busily spreading the sap on the palm of my little hand.

Even though they don’t have a garden, my daughter and her boyfriend are moving towards cacti and succulents on their balcony. They have planted a bunch of flower pots with them. I’m pleased to see that the firestick is one of their choices.

Truth to tell, they have chosen these plants not so much as a commitment to a more sustainable lifestyle but rather for their low maintenance requirements. Neither of them are particularly diligent in watering and previous planting attempts ended badly because of this. Let’s hope that when we come back next year, they are still flourishing: cacti and succulents rule, OK! (at least in Los Angeles)

The Blue Boy:
Early American art:
Picnicking, Huntington gardens:
Desert garden-1:
Desert garden-2:×1590
Desert garden-3:
Desert garden-4:
Desert garden-5:
Desert garden-6:
Desert garden-7:
Desert garden-8:
Desert garden-9:
Desert garden-10:,_Huntington.jpg
Desert garden-11:
Desert garden-12:
Desert garden-13:
Desert garden-14:
San Marino property-1:
San Marino property-2:–2015
Northern vista:
Rose garden:
Gardens around LA with cacti and succulents: my photos
Firesticks: my photos
Pencil tree:
My daughter’s cacti: my photo


Milan, 18 April 2017

My wife and I landed back in Italy a few days ago. And now, lying on the sofa tired and jet lagged, I’m sifting through the multiple, kaleidoscope impressions of LA careening around my brain after our month’s stay there. Picking out from my photos as well as that of my wife’s, and, where for some unexplained reason there is a gap, complementing them with photos off the web, here is our photo album of our holiday in LA. To be viewed together with my last three posts. Enjoy!


I start at Venice Beach, where our daughter and her boyfriend live.

Twenty years ago, we visited the beach so that our son, at that point in his life passionate about in-line skating, could show off his tricks to the other cool dudes who he had read in his magazine congregated there. That had to be our starting point on Day 1.

It’s got much cooler since we were last here. The skatepark looks incredibly futuristic to my untutored eyes.

An amusing message from a citizen of Venice Beach.

I wrote about public murals in an earlier post. Many of these are in Venice Beach. Not surprising, I suppose, since it’s meant to be a very artsy community. Talking of artsy community, here’s the yellow brick road in the Mosaic Tile House.

This is an otherwise normal house in Venice which an artist couple have been covering inside and out with broken tiles and pottery for the last twenty years.

The Venice High School and an ex-police station nearby.

You find this kind of architecture – 1930s? – dotted all over the city. For some reason, they remind me of Superman and his Gotham City. Something to do with the artwork in the early comics? They also remind me of Shanghai, where a lot of the posher pre-WWII buildings have this style.

At the Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA), up on Bunker Hill.

R.S.V.P., by Senga Nengudi. It’s made of panty-hose weighted down by sand. Still striking.

Better Homes, Better Gardens, by the African-American artist Kerry James Marshall. The museum is holding a major retrospective of his work. It’s fascinating to see these paintings populated by coal-black subjects. It challenges our traditional perspectives, where it is normally white people who inhabit paintings.

Across the road from MOCA, the Walt Disney Auditorium.

It’s rather similar to the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao; not surprising, really, since the two are by the same architect, Frank Gehry.

A charming fountain in the small garden behind the Auditorium, made with shards of blue and white porcelain.

It reminds me of a sculpture I saw in Beijing a number of years ago.

The monthly flea market at the Rose Bowl.

The art of the deal …

A detail of a painting from the Getty Centre’s impressive collection of European art.

It always appeals to the puerile side of me to see saints – in this case St. Stephen – having the objects by which they were martyred – in this case stones – lodged in their heads. There is a Saint Peter, Saint Peter the Martyr, who died from having his skull smashed in by a sword. In paintings, you see him calmly going about his saintly business with a sword lodged in his head.

The view from the Getty Centre, over Los Angeles.

A beautiful view, although unfortunately you could also see the city’s infamous smog, a light brown mist licking up the base of the surrounding hills.

Some of the statues in the Getty Villa, part of its collection of Classical Greek and Roman art.

I am so used to seeing sightless Greek and Roman statues that I find these staring statues slightly unsettling. If I lived in a Roman villa surrounded by statues looking at me so intently, I think I’d get rather nervous.

One of the beautiful sunsets which greeted us in the desert near Joshua Tree National Park, about which I wrote in an earlier post.

Watching a team putting together the next NASA satellite to be sent to Mars at NASA’s/Caltech’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

At the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA), with its widely diversified collection:

Pieces from the museum’s excellent collection of Amerindian art.

An example of the strange Casta paintings which were produced in Spain’s Latin American colonies.

The aim was to show the result of mixing three populations: the Spaniards, the Amerindians, and the Africans. They were based on incredibly racist concepts, with the whites always at the top of the pile, the blacks always at the bottom, and the natives somewhere in between. The degree of mixing placed you somewhere on this spectrum.

From the museum’s collection of American art:
Moonlight on the Water, by Winslow Homer

Angel’s Flight, by Millard Sheets

Chester, by Sargent Claude Johnson

All nice examples of early 20th Century American art before Abstraction became the norm.

A wonderful painting from the museum’s collection of German Expressionist art:

The Orator, by Magnus Zeller. It captures so well the angst in post-WWI Germany. I think it helps to understand why Hitler succeeded.

A masterful Georges de La Tour, The Magdalen with the Smoking Flame, from the museum’s collection of European art.

A 17th Century plate from the museum’s collection of Japanese art. The turnip has finally been ennobled.

A nice example of Japanese lacquerware, a 17th Century writing box.

West meets East. A painting by Roy Lichtenstein, Landscape with Poet, echoing that most classic of Chinese paintings, the scholar contemplating nature.

Contemporary art at the Hauser & Wirth art gallery in LA’s Art District.

Whatever … I much preferred the rose in the courtyard.

From the exhibition at the Japanese American national museum, exploring the shameful treatment meted out to Japanese Americans in the wake of the attack on Pearl Harbour.

It is hard not to see in this exhibition warnings about current feelings about Muslims in certain quarters of America.

I’ve already written about the wildflowers at Joshua Tree National Park and the Antelope Valley California Poppy Reserve. These are some of the wildflowers we came across during a walk we took one weekend with our daughter and boyfriend on Catalina Island.

The marvelous organ in the Walt Disney concert hall, seen here during a concert we attended.

We were lucky enough to hear it being played a week later.

Infinity Mirrored Room, by Yayoi Kusama: installation art at the Broad Museum.

We were ushered into a dark room with mirrors on all the walls and a very shallow pool of water on the floor. Small LED lights hung down from the ceiling, their light being reflected over and over in the mirrors. One had a sense of floating among the stars. Very tranquil. A pity we could only stay in a minute.

The rest of the museum is dedicated to contemporary art. I’m not a Basquiat fan, but this painting, Eyes and Eggs, stood out positively for me

while this Jeff Koons stood out negatively – I find his stuff so damned shallow.

A wonderful painting in the Norton Simon Museum’s very fine collection of European art.

It shows St. Joseph as a doting father cheerfully playing with the child Jesus. In most paintings, St. Joseph usually stands around solemnly in the background, like a piece of furniture.

West meets East again. This is a statue of a bodhisattva in the museum’s collection of Asian art.

It is a wonderful example of art from Gandhara. The region is home today to the Swat valley, a hotbed of Islamic radicalism, but it was for a couple of centuries (180 BC-10 AD) a Hellenistic kingdom, a carryover from Alexander the Great’s conquests in this part of the world. Greek sculptural concepts were superimposed on the local Buddhist faith.

Olvera Street, one of the few traces left from the original nucleus of LA, the Spanish settlement of El Pueblo de Nuestra Señora la Reina de Los Ángeles de Porciúncula, a small market town for the local ranchers.

Transfer of California from Mexico to the US, the area’s popularity with the American plutocrats looking for winter homes to escape the cold of the Mid-Western states, the growth of the movie industry, attracted here by the region’s almost continuous sunshine, the discovery of oil, the growth of LA’s port during WWII, its becoming a manufacturing hub after the war just when car ownership in the US skyrocketed … across the decades these have all deposited layer upon layer of new urban structures. But none of it has masked the essential Latin Americanness of LA – nearly 50% of Angelinos are Latino.

Part of the army of homeless people in LA.

They are very visible there, no doubt because the weather is so clement, but a problem in all developed countries. How can our societies, so rich, accept this shameful situation?

Portrait of Samuel and Eunice Judkins, Ulster County, New York, by Sheldon Peck

Portrait of Cynthia Mary Osborn, by Samuel Miller

Yankee Driver, by Thomas Hart Benton

The Long Leg, by Edward Hopper

Soldier, by Charles White

A sample of the impressive collection of American art at the Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens. It also has an extensive collection of British art, of which this Blue Boy, by Thomas Gainsborough, is one.

As I confessed to my wife, the only paint-by-numbers picture I ever tried as a boy.

The Huntington also has lovely, and very extensive, gardens.


The Dream Machine, masking the essential tackiness of it all.

An exhibition of the artist Jimmie Durham at the Hammer Museum.

A very amusing artist, although you have to wonder if he isn’t taking his viewers for a ride and laughing all the way to the bank.

Seen after visiting the Watts Towers, subject of an earlier post.

It’s the first time I’ve seen the depiction of a real heart in this time-worn phrase, so popular to T-shirt manufacturers.

Art livening up the otherwise dreary underbelly of a highway overpass, seen at a subway transfer station after leaving Watts.

Hollyhock House, the first Frank Lloyd Wright house I have ever visited.

I reserve judgement.

A delightful take on the aristocratic habit of painting palace ceilings with frescoes showing angels, saints, or gods cavorting in the clouds.

Seen at the exit of a subway station, coming up the escalator.

Contemporary art at the Geffen Centre of MOCA.

Whatever … As long as I don’t have to pay for this stuff.

An amusing sign inviting people to come and taste the luncheon delights of a local restaurant.

Resonates particularly strongly with my wife and I, wrestling as we are with the need for weight loss through diet and exercise. We came across it at lunch time as hunger gnawed at our insides.

And with that, it’s a wrap on our stay in LA!

Photos: ours, except for the following:

Skatepark, Venice Beach:
Kerry James Marshall:
Rose Bowl flea market:
St. Peter Martyr:
Japanese internment:
Infinity Mirrored Room:
Basquiat, “Eyes and Eggs”:‐michel-basquiat
Olvera St.:
LA’s homeless:,amp.html
“Blue Boy”, Thomas Gainsborough:
Huntington gardens:
Hollyhock House, exterior:
Hollyhock House, interior:
Carl Andre, MOCA:


Los Angeles, 8 April 2017

There is a town on the slopes of Mt. Vesuvius that goes by the name of Nola. Although very ancient, nothing much of great historical significance has ever happened there. It did play host to three battles between Hannibal and the Romans, there was another battle of some regional significance in the Middle Ages, and that’s about it. Naples, which like all big cities has been growing outwards over the last 100 years, has finally engulfed it so that Nola is now really no more than a suburb of Naples. Sadly, Nola’s main claim to fame nowadays is that of being a hotspot of Camorra activity. On the brighter side, it is also the host to the Festa dei Gigli, the Festival of the Lilies, which, together with several similar festivals in other parts of Italy, has been listed by UNESCO as an Intangible World Heritage.

The roots of Nola’s Festival of the Lilies are very ancient, going back all the way to the 800s AD. It celebrates an even earlier moment in the city’s history, back in the 400s AD. Pope Gregory the Great, no less, relates the story. A poor widow begged the bishop of the city, Paulinus, to help her get back her only son, who had been carried off by the Vandals to North Africa after one of their frequent raids on Campania. But Paulinus had already used up his considerable fortune ransoming other Nolans enslaved by the Vandals. So the saintly bishop sailed off to North Africa and offered to take the place of the widow’s son, an offer the Vandals accepted. Some time later, the king of the Vandals discovered that this slave was the great Bishop of Nola. He at once set him free, granting him also the freedom of all the other captive Nolans which the Vandals still held. When Paulinus sailed back to Campania, the joyful citizens of Nola escorted him to his residence holding lilies.

The citizens of Nola reenact the last part of this delightful, if rather unbelievable, story every year in their Festival of the Lilies, on Paulinus’s feast day in June. They organize a lavish procession which draws thousands of people, once pious (or perhaps credulous) locals but now mostly just curious tourists. When the festival was born 1200 years ago, each person in the procession carried an actual lily. The sixth century mosaic in Sant’Apollinare in Ravenna of the procession of virgins can stand in here for this event, even though the plants in the background are date palms rather than lilies.

Over the centuries, however, those many long-stemmed lilies morphed into eight thin, very tall (25-meter tall) pyramids, each carried by a team of men. These towers are rebuilt every year. The structure’s wooden skeleton is first assembled

and then elaborate decorations are applied to one side of the pyramid.

A ninth team carries an effigy of the boat which brought Paulinus back to Nola.

The teams carry their “lilies” and the boat through Nola, with them swaying and undulating as the teams navigate the city’s narrow streets.

Once the lilies and the boat have been brought into the piazza fronting the cathedral, they are ranged along the sides of the piazza.

The bishop, successor of Paulinus, then blesses the assembled crowds.

Now I must rewind my story more than a century. Some time in the early 1890s (as near as I can guess), a young boy called Sabato Rodia must have witnessed the Festival. He was born in 1879 in Ribottoli, a small village some 40 kilometers east of Nola. What he saw burnt itself into his mind and stayed with him all his life. The romantic in me wants to believe that he witnessed the Festival on his way down to the port of Naples: at the age of 15, his parents packed him off, unaccompanied, to America. He joined his elder brother, who had already emigrated and who was working in the coal mines of Pennsylvania. Tragedy struck when his brother was killed in a mining accident. Sabato, who had anglicized his name on entering the States to Sam, moved out to Seattle, entered the construction business, married and had three children. In 1905, when Sam was 26, he moved himself and his family to Oakland in California. Things were looking good for him, but unfortunately something went wrong inside him. He began drinking too much, lost his job, and I suspect beat his wife, or children, or both. Whatever the case, in 1912 his wife took the children and left him, and he never saw any of them again. Luckily, Sam managed to get off the bottle and to start working again, still in the construction industry but this time as an itinerant tile setter.

All the while, something was gnawing away at him. As he told an interviewer many years later, “I had in my mind I’m gonna do somethin’, somethin’ big”. Finally, in 1921, when he was 42, he bought a small plot of land, sandwiched between the railway tracks and the tram lines, in the working-class neighbourhood of Watts in Los Angeles. He lived in the plot’s small house, while in the narrow, triangular backyard he started to recreate his own very personal take on his vivid memories of Nola’s Festival of the Lilies.

For the next 34 years, until he was 76 years old, Sam dedicated all his spare time to his project, working alone since he had no money to hire help and using nothing but the most elementary tools of the construction trade. He built in reinforced concrete, a medium he was familiar with after all his years in the construction business but also because he wanted his dream to last. Like a magpie, he picked up colorful objects wherever he came across them – broken bottles of green but also blue and brown glass, broken tiles from his tiling business, sea shells which he picked up on the nearby beaches, colored stones – and he embedded them in the wet concrete for decoration. He was happy to be squeezed in between tram and rail tracks since the passengers would be able to enjoy views of his growing creation as they passed.

Recreating Nola’s cathedral piazza in his cramped backyard, Sam built the framework of three Lilies, with an airy interconnection between the tallest.

In the site’s narrow apex, he placed the boat which brought the bishop back from the Vandals.

On the other side, he built his vision of Nola’s cathedral as an airy gazebo.

Outside of it, he placed the font from which the bishop of Nola would bless the procession.

All around the site, he built a wall, decorated inside and out with his colorful finds.

Like all artists, he proudly signed his work, in his case with an SR

and, almost like a Medieval guild member, he showed off his tools of construction.

The local community must have found Sam odd, eccentric, somewhat mad, perhaps touched by God. Certainly, in a gesture of respect, the local Central American community called him Don Simon, which led to his last change of name, to Simon Rodia. In its final years, his project caught the attention of Los Angeles’s artistic community, so we finally have photos and films of Simon at work.

In 1955, Simon decided he had finished and dropped tools. Perhaps it was like the God of Genesis who on the sixth day “saw all that he had made, and it was very good”, and rested on the seventh. Or perhaps he was just tired of arguing with city officials over building permits. Whatever the reason, he deeded the property to a neighbor and moved to Martinez, California, where years before a sister of his had come out from Pennsylvania to take up residence. He lived there for another 10 years until he died at the ripe old age of 86.

As for Simon’s creation, neglect and vandalism nearly destroyed it, but good sense prevailed and the city council listed it as a Historic-Cultural Monument two years before Simon died, in 1963. Simon himself was granted the greatest of all apotheoses, a space on the cover of Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (top right corner, near Bob Dylan).

What more could a person want?

Procession of Virgins, Sant Apollinare:
“Lily” framework:
Building framework-1:
Building framework-2:
Covered lilies:
The boat:
Moving the lilies through the streets of Nola:
Lilies and boat in the cathedral’s piazza:
Simon Rodia’s lilies: our pictures
Simon Rodia’s boat:
Simon Rodia’s church:
Simon Rodia’s font: our pics
Simon Rodia’s walls: our pics
Simon Rodia-1:
Simon Rodia-2:
Sergeant Pepper’s album cover:


Los Angeles, 5 April 2017

While we’ve been in LA, my wife and I have been giving ourselves a veritable smorgasbord of art. In no particular order, we’ve visited the Getty Centre, the Getty Villa, one of the three spaces of the Museum of Contemporary Art, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, the Broad Museum, the Norton Simon Museum, the Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens, the Hammer Museum. And there are still a couple more art museums to visit if we can face it …

I will come back to these museum visits in a later post, to highlight some of the things we saw, but right now I want to celebrate a more popular art form, the mural. Los Angeles is full of murals, covering and brightening what would otherwise be drab blank walls. I put here just some of the murals we’ve spotted as we walk or drive around on buses.

Walls are not the only surface to receive the painter’s brush. These boxes, found on many street corners and that I take to be electrical cabinets for traffic lights or other public uses, are often the easel for urban painters.

Even fences get the treatment, as these photos show.

Sculpture also gets a small look-in.

Even world famous artists have got into the act. Here, for instance, is a mural by Frank Stella, which in my opinion doesn’t hold a candle to what the much more anonymous artists have created.

I have to say, it’s a real pleasure to come across these paintings as we move around town. And I may be wrong but they seem to keep the graffiti in check. Maybe we should think of encouraging murals back home. I can think of a number of corners in Milan and Vienna that could do with a lick of artistic paint and less graffiti.


pix: all ours, except:

Frank Stella mural: