Tuesday, December 27, 2011

The Past Remains

“Cigni, cigni…cigni,  “Swans, swans, swans,” the little boy cried out as he carried his pail holding yesterday’s bread to feed them and their cygnets gliding around the mill pond’s still waters leaving small wakes trailing behind. We were staying at a hotel converted from a 15th century water mill built on a little island and over a small river, the Clitunno.  The hotel was the scene of a wedding reception, with guests dining and dancing in the garden by candlelight until daybreak finally sent them home. We looked down at the scene from our window above the garden and pond while hoping the newlyweds’ life would continue to be as idyllic as it was that evening.


Floodlit and reflected in the mill pond, a small temple rests among cypress trees on a hill above a short stretch of ancient and worn stones of the Via Flaminia. This golden-hued stone building is the lovely Tempietto di Clitunno. It would look at home anywhere in the ancient Roman world with its porch  fronted by four columns, two carved in a spiral design and two with  fish scales. A pilaster on each end completes the entrance. They all have the beautiful acanthus leaf Corinthian capitals supporting the classic entablature and pediment. But instead of sculpted Roman gods, the pediment has a cross, grapevines and flowers with a Latin inscription, “Holy God of the Angels who Made the Resurrection” on the architrave. Faint shadows of frescoes depicting Christ and Saints Peter and Paul still decorate the interior. Like many ancient buildings the argument as to the temple’s origin goes on. One school decided that it is a true Roman temple turned into a church in the third or fourth century, another dated it to the eighth century positing that it was made from remnants of the classical temples surrounding the nearby lake, the Fonte di Clitunno.

Whatever its origins, we were as enchanted with the temple as so many others have been. Andrea Palladio, the great Renaissance architect, as well as the French classical painters Poussin and Lorrain were also enamored and Lord Byron waxed lyrical when he visited in 1816.  In Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage he tells us: “And on thy happy shore a Temple still / Of small and delicate proportion, keeps…”

The setting, so redolent of the past, always made me mindful of the continuity that so characterizes Italy and how I was part of that endless procession, pagan and Christian, rich and poor, native and foreign, who all shared in its eternal beauty. The temple remains my most beloved Italian place – a site where I could become one with those who came before.

The mill pond is fed by the river Clitunno coming from the nearby Fonte, a lake famous in antiquity. In Roman times the sacred lake’s clear waters were used to bathe white cattle before they were sacrificed to the gods. Caligula consulted a nearby oracle. I wondered if the mad emperor posed a question before he made his horse a senator – and what advice the seer might have offered. Pliny the Younger, in his letters written about AD 108, described hills covered with cypress and the lake itself surrounded by ash and poplar trees with cold water so clear that one could count coins tossed in for luck. Earthquakes changed the landscape in AD 446 and the sacred site was abandoned to time.

While the Tempietto is not much visited, the lake is now surrounded by a dusty parking lot instead of temples. Tour buses by the dozens disgorge their passengers who sit under the surrounding poplar trees enjoying their picnics and buying souvenirs, the past out of mind.



Excerpt from Coins in the Fountain


Friday, December 23, 2011

Southern Caribbean Part III

Suriname was the next stop. The contrast between dismal and pewter-colored Georgetown and bright Paramaribo was surprising. (Maybe it was the sunnier weather.) The city hosts many houses of worship reflecting the varied persuasions of its inhabitants, Amerindians, Indian Indians, Javanese, Africans and Europeans. Mosques, a synagogue, Hindu temples, an enormous Gothic style wooden Catholic church and smaller evangelical churches were scattered about the city center. The synagogue with pillars needing paint and sand on the floor to prevent arson was sad - the congregation dwindling and the gravestones in the yard cracked. In a reflection of current events the adjacent building was a very prosperous-looking mosque.


We sat in a spacious Hindu temple to watch the sacred fire burning and listen to the priest chanting to the sounds of a harmonium. Outside well-dressed children chatted while waiting for their elders.

The old red brick Dutch fort has been repaired as a tourist attraction, cannons now silent. The government buildings, left over from Dutch rule which only ended in 1975, sit on a large greensward with adjacent streets lined with beautiful homes in Dutch style surrounding the area. Further away from the center were old homes, dignified even in their delapidated state.
Like the places of worship the local market was reflective of the inhabitants' tastes: curries, noodles, satays, fried rice, noodles and piles of tropical fruits and vegetables awaiting buyers. The vendors were happy to give us tastes. We munched as we strolled along a road lined with stalls.

Live crabs strung on strings, buyers watching them struggle to ensure they were alive and fresh, tiny fish who weren't alive displayed in plastic basins, sad looking parrots sitting in the bottom of boxes waiting for someone to take them home, and sprays of lobster-claw heliconia resting in buckets ready to brighten up rooms kept dark to ward off heat, all competed for customers' attention. A few Dutch wandered around among the mixed crowd. It was easy to recognize them: tall and white blond with lobster-colored skin from the heat and sun.






Our last stop was not part of the original plan: the day we left for our trip the cruise company called to say that they had made an error - we would not be able to make our flight home from Cayenne, French Guiana as planned because they had neglected to consult the tide table to get into the small port. We would have to stay overnight. Strange, we thought, but it was an opportunity to spend a day in a location we would probably never see again.

On the way the ship stopped at Devil's Island, not for sightseeing, but to put about half the passengers on a local ferry that was going to Korou, the home of the European Space Agency. Several hours later we watched a small cargo ship pull out from the single dock, almost everything being brought in from the home country, France.Our ship slid in behind it and we disembarked in boiling heat to get a taxi into town. My feeble French snapped into action to tell the driver where we wanted to go.

In political fact, we were in France, in actuality French Guiana and its captial, Cayenne, are but a leftover from colonial times. A guide book,which had one page about the country, told me there was shopping for luxury French items. But all we saw were a few replicas of French versions of Wal-Mart and tin-roofed stores selling hammocks and supplies for gold-prospecting up-country. A few sweaty colonial administrators were drinking beer. We joined them after assessing that there wasn't anything to see beyond run down buildings.



Warned that there were rush hour traffic jams on the way to the airport we got up extra-early from our Best Western hotel (who knew, said our travel agent). Our driver from the afternoon before was waiting for us in his alarmingly decrepit clunker. The taxi lurched and coughed through a tropical downpour, repeatedly coming to a stop unexpectedly in the middle of the road in pouring rain. Not a single other car was on the road. The airport wasn't even open two hours before our late morning flight. We stood around looking are rocket models of the type shot off in Korou and the warning signs with pictures of items prohibited on flights to the interior: pick axes, machetes, automatic weapons. Finally it was time to board Air France back to Martinique. Champagne all the way.

When we returned I found that a new book had become available: Wild Coast, Travels on South America's Untamed Edge. The author, the well named John Gimlette, turned his perceptive eye on the area we had just glimpsed. My eyes would have seen the landscape differently had I read the book beforehand. He does not stint from describing the horrifying treatment of the slaves on the sugar plantations by the Dutch, the brutal wars between them and indigenous and runaway slaves (marrons), the French brutality toward prisoners on Devil's Island and other penal colonies in this outpost that is technically part of France, the current exodus of Guyanese trying to forget the current miseries of their former home, the Jonestown massacre and the terrifying jungle that makes up so much of this corner of South America.

Monday, December 19, 2011

After the Wall Fell

I just read that Vaclav Havel died. He was the dissident playwright who became Czechoslovakia's first president after the collapse of communism in central Europe. The news turned my thoughts back to a trip to the newly-liberated country a year after freedom arrived in the guise of the Velvet Revolution.

We drove up from Rome and turned right at Bayreuth to cross the border into an exceedingly dreary country, one where time seemed to have stopped after World War II. The road to Prague was dotted by what appeared to be unproductive farmland and deserted villages, the homes hiding their inhabitants behind dingy curtains. Nothing like Germany with its roaring factories, lush farms, and towns where the half-timbered houses had geraniums blooming in every window box.

We had been invited to stay with a neighbor's aunt and uncle, both musicians - she with the opera and he a professor of violin at the conservatory and a member of a well-known quartet. Our neighbor in Rome, a Czech singer, made the arrangements. We asked about payment for the hospitality but she insisted that they would not take money. How about something from the commissary we asked? Perfume, cigarettes or brandy would be welcome was the response. So we bought a selection of each in thanks for the prospective kindness of opening their home to strangers.

Following directions we drove to the center of town and pulled up in front of an apartment building. To our surprise the building had the Star of David among other designs set in tiles on the facade. We saw an old clock tower with Hebrew numbers on the dial up the street and the famous Jewish cemetery with its crowded leaning headstones a few steps away. We were in the middle of the former ghetto.

Our hosts welcomed us into their spacious apartment. The furnishings were modest and it looked like little maintenance had been done to the interior over the years.  We produced our gifts which were accepted with smiles. Later we saw them all arranged in a row on their sideboard - to show the neighbors, trade for more useful goods, or just to enjoy before using?

We set off to look around the city. The scene was lively: Japanese buying  Bohemian glass, the filming of a television production with waltzing dancers in 1850's costumes, youths also in costume passing out leaflets advertising concerts of Baroque music, sightseers from everywhere, and sleazy men in leather jackets and pointy shoes whispering in our ears: "do you want to change money?" We toured the Friendship Store where a few shabby odds and ends from communist controlled countries were still for sale - Vietnamese rice cookers and Russian dolls among them. Shop windows had displays of photographs from the revolution decorated with Czech flags. A few posters of Stalin remained on kiosks. The 15th century mechanical clock was chiming and its apostles were parading when we sat down in a cafe to enjoy glasses of Pilsner Urquell and take a break from elbowing through the festive crowds.

Footsore, we returned to the apartment where we had been invited to dinner. We accepted on the promise that we would take them out the following evening to the Intercontinental Hotel a few blocks away. First, our hosts brought in a bucket of beer from a nearby tavern and poured more that we ever wanted. With a background of Dvorak's music on a record player, he told us about his fears that they would be forced to leave their state-subsidized apartment. He and his wife  had lived there since the end of the War but had recently been informed that they would no longer receive a subsidy, making the rent beyond their means. It seemed that the onset of capitalism was already making changes.

The wife announced that dinner was ready. The table was set for two. To the accompaniment of another recording we sat alone surrounded by more beer, platters of huge dumplings and heavy salads. We could hear our hosts talking softly in the kitchen. Were they too poor to eat the same meal or just finding us a burden - we didn't know. So embarrassing, but we knew that if we didn't eat it would be rude even though we weren't hungry.

That night we lay awake listening to the ghetto clock tower chime, making us think of the fate of the apartment's former inhabitants and all the other souls that had been dragged out of the building only to die in gas chambers or of exhaustion from slave labor. The bloody history of Europe once again confronted us.

The following morning we walked over the Charles Bridge with its soot-stained statues of saints lining the walkway spanning the Vltava River. Our destination was Prague Castle. We inspected the rooms filled with treasures, too much to absorb in one go. We were walking down a long hall when Glenn said, "There's Henry Kissinger." Unbelieving, I said, "It can't be." A woman next to us said, "Is too."  We turned around to see him and Vaclav Havel deep in conversation.  Soon it was time for lunch. We walked out of the castle and saw the pair on the balcony of a nearby restaurant. We decided it must be a good place to eat and walked in. So casual: we were seated at the next table directly across from them and their wives. No security in sight.


My one minuscule brush with history in the making.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Georgia on My mind

No, not that one. I'm talking about the one on the Black Sea.

The day was hot, the bus shabby with no air conditioning. The tour company said that they had scrounged the country to find the best. But what would one expect in a poor country trying to dig itself out of communist domination, suffering from separatist attacks and having the misfortune to be the birthplace of Stalin.

A blast of black exhaust punctuated our departure from Batumi as we headed inland for Kutaisi, the former capital and known to the ancient Greeks as home of the Golden Fleece. Our goal was two UNESCO World Heritage sites, the Bagrati Cathedral founded in 1002 and the Gelati monastic complex founded a century later. The road was long and in many parts steep, narrow and winding, filled with huge speeding trucks bringing in goods from Turkey and oblivious farmers with horse-drawn carts. We crossed a new bridge just built to replace one blown up by separatists.  In the background we could see the snow-capped Caucasus mountains. In the foreground were a few small towns with old women in black and the younger ones dressed more colorfully.



When it seemed that there was no end to our journey we came to a restaurant on the outskirts of Kutaisi. It was easy to see why Georgians are famous for their hospitality when we sat down at the long table. Lunch was served by our beaming hosts: breads; cheeses; chicken and pork dishes with sauces made of walnuts or pomegranates; eggplant, tomatoes, salads and of course local wine from the country said to be where grapes were first turned into a drink for the gods. Plate, platter and bottle kept arriving. Soon there was no room on the table for the largesse. The table was groaning and so were we.


After we managed to finish the baklava it was time to visit the Cathedral. By the time we reached the steep and narrow lane leading upward to the Cathedral it was stifling hot with no way to open the windows in the small vans that were taking us to the site. They could hardly lurch up to the top of the hill. When we finally arrived at a small parking lot we all clambered out, desperate for fresh air.


The Cathedral was built in a distinctive style - rounded arches, heavy pillars and round bell towers set on square bases and topped with conical hats. Unfortunately soldiers of the Ottoman Empire blew part of it up in the 17th century, giving it a melancholy aspect despite the bright icon-like painting over an ancient door, new contrasting with old. The weight of a thousand years of painful history, war and supression, were reflected in the stones. I put my hands on the sun-warmed grey blocks thinking about all the worshippers who must have turned toward God in good times and bad in this sacred place.

As we finished our visit I noticed one of our fellow travelers was vomiting uncontrobally while her husband held her head and tried to comfort her. I realized that I didn't feel well either. It didn't take long to determine that a couple of pink pills weren't going to help my personal situation, which seemed to be a mild case of heat stroke. The  woman who had been vomiting was now slumping on an ancient stone. I occupied the one next to her wondering what to do. She asked to be taken back to the restaurant instead of continuing on the tour. It seemed wise to go with her lest I ruin everyone's afternoon. So there the two of us sat in the reception area of the now empty building feeling sorry for ourselves while everyone else, including our husbands, went off to see the monastery complex set deep in forested hills.


Finally Glenn and the rest of the group returned. He told me me about the strange old priest dressed in white with blood on his gown and about the beautiful frescoes decorating the monastery. How annoying to miss this.


Back on the bus the driver wanted to return home - badly. So badly that he passed every vehicle, on curves, on hills, everywhere. Our minder was  alarmed, arguing with him to no avail. She called the police who arrived to lecture him and then drive in front to slow him down. It got dark, the police decided to head to their own homes. The bit was back in the driver's teeth. Carts without lights were still weaving down the road. People were standing in the road in the dark, jumping out of the way at the last moment. Turkish trucks continued to blast by in the other direction. I forgot about my innards in favor of worrying about my life. When the city came into view far below several hours later I practically burst into tears of relief. I will never be awarded a medal for bravery that's for sure.

Not one of my better travels but better than not going at all.

Saturday, December 10, 2011

A Walk to Taverna Cestia

The most spectacular Roman remains from the Imperial period were in front of my office, but the walk to the trattoria in the opposite direction was an immersion in ever more layers of the complexities comprising Italian history from Rome’s earliest days until the present. On the way I passed a monumental equestrian statue in fascist style dedicated by Mussolini to a semi-legendary Albanian named Scanderbeg who united Albania for a time in a fight against the Turks in the 1400s. The dedication in 1940 was apparently meant to compare Scanderbeg to Mussolini, who annexed the poor and helpless country the previous year. Next were the minimal ruins of the Servian Walls, begun in the sixth century BC when Rome was still relatively small and at the mercy of nearby tribes.
One day a modern attraction stood near the wall’s remains. A statuesque dark-haired woman with a plunging neckline and a mini-skirt was surrounded by four admiring businessmen in sober perfectly cut suits, briefcases in hand, all eager to gain her attention as she held court on the sidewalk. Her gold jewelry glinted in the sun against her tan body. I sighed in envy.

Rome’s only pyramid came next in the historical parade. It was built in 12 BC by Caius Cestius, a Roman government bureaucrat (an occupation that has never waned in Italy). He served in the time of Antony and Cleopatra and was fascinated by all things Egyptian. The pyramid sits many feet below the street level with wild fig trees pushing out between the marble blocks. It always reminded me of a Piranesi etching.
Near my destination restaurant, named after the pyramid’s builder, I could see the monumental Ostiense train station and a post office. The train station was built to welcome Hitler. The post office is decorated with X-shaped lattice designs on the two wings, said to celebrate Mussolini’s tenth year in power, his gigantic ego never fully assuaged.

 Separating the two buildings, the Porta San Paolo, originally a gate in the Aurelian walls on the road leading to the great church of St. Paul Outside the Walls, stands alone in the middle of a traffic circle. Originally it was the entrance to Rome from the port at Ostia. The walls were fortifications begun around AD 271 at a time when the Pax Romana was beginning to crumble. Now it was suffering from a different sort of assault, traffic from six roads coming together in a bumper car scenario as frustrated drivers tried to get around the gate.


A plaque on the part of the wall broken to let the traffic through commemorates the liberation of Rome by American and Canadian soldiers on June 4, 1944. Past the gate where the wall starts again, the quiet Protestant Cemetery holds Keats’ bones and Shelley’s heart. When Glenn and I visited we saw other plaques commemorating the Italian Resistance along with many of Rome’s feral cats wandering around deserted gravestones.

As I walked I mixed my thoughts about history with those of the menu that would soon be in front of me: will I order carciofi alla Romana or zuppa di pasta e ceci to start? For my secondo I'm thinking of spaghetti alle vongle - but then maybe just an insalata will be enough.

(Article based on an excerpt from Coins in the Fountain)

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Book Review: The Pursuit of Italy

A book recommendation for all Italophiles: The Pursuit of Italy by David Gilmour. The author is a British historian who has a long association with Italy beginning in childhood and continuing to the extent that he resided in all Italy's 20 regions to research the book: a revisionist look at the history of Italy as a nation.

When I think of Italy I think of a country where the disparities of culture, cuisine, climate, and geography were more apparent than elsewhere in Europe when I lived there and now when I visit. I wondered why the the Italian flag was so little in evidence - instead it was medieval flags representing the town or modern ones for the local soccer team. The national anthem never seemed to be played either.

This year Italy is celebrating it's 150th anniversary of unification, 2000 years after the founding of the Roman empire. Politicians in the north regularly float the idea of dis-unification claiming to be tired of sending their money to the south. They refused to join the celebrations making me wonder if Italy will become like Yugoslavia - put together by politicians and broken apart by revolution.

Gilmor explains it all in his story of how nationalist myths put the creative regions of the north, the backward center and the forgotten south into a single state when many of the inhabitants had no concept of "Italy" and didn't understand why there needed to be one country.

The book is full of interesting tidbits. One example is that the Tuscan town of San Gimignano so popular with tourists was partly created by Mussolini. He thought that Baroque style was effeminate so he destroyed the nave of a church, added crenellations to the towers and built a vaulted loggia to make the town look more medieval and masculine. So now what we see is somewhat like Disneyland.

A lengthy review was published in the New York Times Book Review Section for those who want to read more.http://www.nytimes.com/2011/12/04/books/review/the-pursuit-of-italy-a-history-of-a-land-its-regions-and-their-peoples-by-david-gilmour-book-review.html?ref=books

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

If I HAD to be out of town for Christmas I'd.....

The Travel Belles asked me where I would go if I HAD (not want) to be out of town for Christmas. Well, this is a real problem: where to go? Italy (too cold); France (probably too cold also); England (too rainy - just like here). That leaves the tropics where if it rains it's at least warm rain. Now: should it be Tahiti or Bali? Hmmmm: Think I'll "settle" for Bali with a bigger variety of food and lots of cultural sites. Best of all would be if my family had to join too!http://www.travelbelles.com

Sunday, December 4, 2011

Grey and Green

SOUTHERN CARIBBEAN PART II
Grey and green became the predominant color as our little ship left sunny Grenada for the north coast of South America. We sailed a short way up the Demerara River bordered by low growing jungle, a few homes on stilts and rusting hulks drawn up on the water's edge. We docked in Georgetown, Guyana.

The only thing I knew about the country was the horrifying episode where the Reverend Jim Jones passed out poisoned fruit drink to his followers resulting in 918 ghastly deaths. The toll included 300 children and one Congressman who was shot when he came to investigate the state of the Americans held captive in the Peoples' Temple settlement deep in the trackless jungle.

The heavy clouds opened up as we started towards two small vans awaiting us - one for the French passengers and another for us and the French who wanted to practice their English. Off to town we went - a collection of mostly dilapidated buildings stained with mold and potholed roads filled with puddles interspersed with a few beautifully kept Victorian-era wooden buildings with boxes for ice below the windows to cool the tender colonialists as they administered the country.


Remains of a rail line torn up in one of the numerous revolutions, a statue of Queen Victoria with her nose shot off - casualty of another time of turmoil were pointed out. A large meeting hall where one of the dictators hosted a conference of non-aligned nations many years ago was on the itinerary. Not exactly gripping but reflective of the country's never-ending travails.



We passed by the Stabroek Market built of iron and steel in 1881 when the British were ascendant. I was ready to hop out and do some shopping. "NO - too dangerous," said the guide as the van sped on to our next destination. Then I looked out the window beside me to see an outrider in full body armor on a motorcycle next to the van with army vehicles in front and behind. Apparently Guyana isn't ready for tourist prime time.

We were finally let loose to visit the musty natural history museum filled with stuffed animals and birds that had lost their fur and feathers years ago, all the while watched by guards. I wasn't sure if they were protecting us or the dusty exhibits. The tiny history museum was more interesting with its few remnants of Amerindian life mostly destroyed by first the Dutch and then the British over a period of about 300 years.

Next was the the most famous relic of the British era, the St. George's Anglican Cathedral, supposedly the largest wooden building in: either the country, the continent or the world, depending on who was telling the story.


It was indeed  large, airy and empty with lovely stained glass windows unfortunately in disrepair and the wood flying buttresses looking like they needed to be buttressed themselves. The plaques on the walls memorialised those who came from England and who often died of tropical diseases in the service of the empire. One cluster of plaques was placed next to the EXIT sign - a fitting reminder of life in this tropical former outpost of Europe.

Our last stop was the tropical gardens, in reality a large open space with a small pond holding a few manatee who slowly came to see if we would feed them handfuls of grass. We did of course. Their faces bore a startling resemblance to the business end of our vacuum cleaner.


The tour over we headed for the dock. Reporters were waiting: it was so unusual to have anyone touring we were interviewed and photographed. Maybe we gave a few laughs to the populace who happened to pick up the paper that evening.

Our motto is good food and wine and a little light exercise. We accomplished the latter in town and enjoyed the French food and wine back on the ship as we floated toward Suriname.

Friday, December 2, 2011

Visiting the Pope

One Saturday when Glenn and I lived in Rome I happened to notice some simple posters tacked up on nearby telephone poles between ads for “French lessons” and communist rallies. The flyer said that the Bishop of Rome was coming to our small local church the following Sunday. After we realized that this bishop was also the pope we walked a block to the church on the following morning. To our surprise, only about thirty people were waiting, some in matching sweat pants and shirts (a tutto or “all”), instead of a huge crowd dressed in Sunday best. Two dogs engaged in amatory behavior to no one’s concern. We surveyed this strange scene, completely the opposite of the pomp and cheering we had expected.

A convoy of five black limos eventually pulled up in front of the church. Photographers jumped out of the first one. The next several limos contained officials and the security detail. The pope came last. He looked just like his pictures, recognizable anywhere. The photographers busily rearranged the sparse crowd to make it look bigger. We were encouraged to join the small group meeting His Holiness, but since we are not of that faith it did not seem appropriate in this intimate setting.  The pope blessed everyone before the parishioners entered their church. We were having a lunch party that afternoon. When our guests arrived we all walked back to the church where he was still communing with his flock, now blessing a few children with beaming parents looking on. But the same aura of “no big deal” remained.

The casual affair in our neighborhood was in complete contrast to a papal encounter with visiting friends. When we arrived at the papal residence, we stood packed in with hundreds of foreign tourists, some dropping to their knees or nearly fainting with joy at their coming proximity to the pope. All the while, we were guarded by soldiers armed with sub-machine guns standing on the periphery of the piazza or crouching on adjacent roof tops. Our friends, who were non-Catholic, had tears in their eyes being overcome with religious feeling. Whatever our own religious persuasions, we too were impressed with the power the pope held over his audience as have so many of his predecessors over two millennia.
Excerpt from Coins in the Fountain