Sunday, July 29, 2007

Traveling again

My sister in law just emailed me, wondering if I've made plans about our October trip. I've made inquiries on the Internet. The net is just great when it works, I went on Air France's site, their multiple destination site didn't work so well, so I couldn't get information about breaking up our journey on our return leg. I want to stop in France for a week on the way back from Sicily. I also know I can take the TGV train from Roissy airport (CDG) straight to Lyon without going into Paris first. France is great in this way, their infrastructure is so terrific, it's amazing. So I found the schedule on the TGV on the Internet. I've purchased French rail tickets before on the Internet. I remember going online, not realising I could translate the page to English, I did it in French. When I was done, I found out I could have done it in English. Duh. I think I have to call a life person on Air France to get more information. Well, it's not till October, I have time. I read the most disparaging book on Sicily yesterday, written in the 60's by some French guy. He went in the summer and in the early 60's. I presume Sicily must have improved because it is nothing like he described. Of course, maybe the politics is still very much the same, the Mafia is still active but you don't see it as a tourist, maybe you see a lot of ugly and unfinished buildings. I presume in summer, if the mafia does not do the job of removing trash, it is going to stink up the place. That is what is happening in Naples, there was a state department warning for tourists going to Naples, there hasn't been any trash pickup for months. The place is stinking and it is unhealthy. I don't know if they have cleaned up their act. I read in the Wall Street Journal last week, the farmers are having trouble with the mafia in Sicily. The government have given land owned by convicted mafia to some private cooperatives. The mafia clans people have been sabotaging the farmers' efforts by stealing tractors and generators and all kinds of shenanigans to prevent the farmers from getting a harvest. Europe, while being very beautiful, has their share of domestic problems. I was at a PowerPoint class yesterday, my instructor is French, he tells of a France without enough jobs for their young people, of a country full of archaic and medieval laws, of how hard and impossible it is for French people without the right pedigree to get ahead. He'll never go back to live in France. France lost, USA won, they've lost a great guy. He's a great teacher. Thanks, Thierry.

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Etna - memories of a volcano

I have visited Pompeii, at the base of another volcano, Mt Vesuvius. In March this year I was starring at another volcano, Mt Etna. The first glimpse of it was on the train from Catania to Taormina. The top of Mt. Etna was covered with snow. It was exciting when it came into view. It is a very active volcano, it has erupted many times in recent history with lava flowing out of it and down it's sides, which later cools and leave a landscape strewn with black blocks of lava rock.
Still there are lots of people living around Mt. Etna. It's hillsides are some of the most fertile in Sicily. On our way back from Taormina to Catania, we stopped at a little town called Acireale. From Sir Anthony Blunt's book 'Sicilian Baroque' he had a picture of the facade of the duomo in Acireale. I was in Sicily on a baroque odessy, so that necessitated a stop at Acireale. We walked the mile from the train station to the duomo. It did not disappoint. On the way back to the train station we stopped at this fruit and vegetable stand, bought some mandarin oranges and pears, all grown in the surrounding area. It was the most luscious pear I've ever eaten and throughout our whole trip we were eating mandarin oranges and pears.
The towns around Mt. Etna produces some of the most delicious stuff. The pistachio from Bronte are famous- they are used in making ice cream (gelato) and pastries. In the pasticerria in Sicily, one can see lots of little cakes with green icing made from pistachio and often filled with a sweet ricotta filling. The list of produce that come out of these towns around Mt. Etna is long - apples, pears, almonds, pistacchio, strawberries, lemons,oranges, olives, grapes, mushrooms, tomatoes and all kinds of vegetables. The sheep raised around here produces ricotta and pecorino cheese.
There is a little narrow gauge train that runs from Catania, round the west side of Mt. Etna to the north, ending in Riposto and stops at all the little towns that dot the sides of Mt. Etna. We didn't have time to see all the towns, we picked Randazzo, some 70 km away for our stop. It rained the whole day and the snow line had fallen. So as we approached the higher towns there was an accumulation of snow. It was a terrific sight to behold. Sicily is a small island surrounded by sea, at the coast palm trees sway and in the hills, snow falls and accumulates. Mt. Etna is an active volcano and has had eruptions frequently in the past. One can see lava fields all over and it is very evident that it is active. It is so wonderful to see the snow on top of lava rock strewn all over the hillside. Each time Mt. Etna erupts, it wipes out some parts of the railway tracks and it has to be rebuilt. It is a part of life, to coexist with Mt. Etna.
Later, back in the hotel in Catania, we talked with our hotel owner about the palazzo that is now the hotel where we stayed in, the Hotel Gresi. It took up the upper 3 floors of the palazzo and was equipped with an exterior elevator and interior staircases. He took us up all the floors, we saw the salon with its original baroque moldings and painted ceilings, really beautiful. Then we went up to the rooftop garden and looked on Via Etna, the main drag in Catania, very impressive. But the creme de la creme was a little raised platform to one corner of the rooftop, from where we saw Mt. Etna, all covered in snow, rising up in the distance. Wow! A view of Mt. Etna, that was incredible. 'Molto bella', I told the hotel owner. I can imagine, as the days get warmer, the snow will melt, the snow line will recede up the mountain. I can also imagine, sitting there, watching the sun set behind Mt. Etna, laying about, sipping some lemoncello and dreaming or dunking a cantucci into a glass of vin santo and dreaming.....
I left Catania and Sicily and brought home with me incredible memories of a beautiful place with incredible food and some of the world's friendliest people.

Sunday, July 22, 2007

Chair glue

In my 'creative writing' class (online) we talk about 'chair glue', something that could affix us to a chair for a certain amount of time so that we'll be forced to write. The best time is early in the morning. It is also good to have a designated area, complete with pen, paper, music and whatever accoutrement we might need to coax that otherwise elusive creative moment. Most of my life's work is done on my feet, I'm a pharmacist, who spends 10 hours working on my feet. Doing things on my feet is what I'm used to, I eat standing up at the kitchen counter, even now, there is a short lull in the business in the pharmacy(I'm writing this while working) I'm writing on my feet. So when I hear 'chair glue' I have to smile.
While I love to write this blog, it's become like a full time job, I'm reading and thinking about what to write all the time. Even at posting 3 times a week is a lot of work. Sometimes nothing comes to mind,'who's afraid of a blank page?'. Every writer is but reading helps. I discover an interesting topic and I write, like the series about my childhood. I have posted 2 pieces of it but there is more. I just need a diversion so I won't get burnout.
The other thing we discussed in class is the 'writer's voice'. I'm still trying to discover mine. Now I'm aware of the 'writer's voice', I can pick them up while reading some of the very great authors. Henry Miller, for one, in 'Portrait of a lady' that I just now started to read.....
'Under certain circumstances there are few hours in life more agreeable than the hour dedicated to the ceremony known as afternoon tea. There are circumstances in which, whether you partake of the tea or not-some people of course never do,-the situation is in itself delightful.....'
It is a beautifully written book, replete with beautiful descriptive writing.
While I had wanted to write for a long time, I didn't seriously write until 4 years ago. When I started I couldn't write beyond a paragraph. I'd look at my work, told myself, 'that's very good, now write some more...' I couldn't, one paragraph on anything was all I could manage. I started reading a lot, especially the genre of books that I wanted to be involved in. I read, not just for the contents but also to recognize the 'writer's voice' and eventually I could write longer pieces.
I sent a proposal to a travel magazine last year. They expressed some interest but nothing proceeded from that initial interest. I think I'm going to approach them again on another piece. Then there's my unfinished manuscript on Sicily..... it's only unfinished because I haven't seen the whole island. Once that happens, the manuscript on Sicily will be completed.
I have ideas for other projects which I am excited about.

Thursday, July 19, 2007

Harry Potter

I was intrigued at the very elaborate scheme that the publisher of Harry Potter, Scholastic Corp. is using to distribute that last book in this series. Retailers can only sell the books at midnight, July 20. The books will arrive by Fedex just before the sale time. Fedex has an elaborate logistic in place to make sure this happens and those individuals who pre ordered the book will receive them July 21 and not before. In spite of this, early copies have been sent out, they have appeared for sale on ebay and can be read on the internet. Amazon has received 1.6 million pre orders while Barnes and Noble has 1.3 million. I'm glad kids all over the world are reading.
It is, to my memory, an English tradition to produce writers of children's fiction like JK Rowling. Somehow they have it in their genes to be able to write for children. I remember my own favorite English children's writer, Enid Blyton. I remember her and her books very fondly. When I was growing up, I devoured them, starting with the Noddy books when I was very young and graduating to the Famous Five as I grew older. Of course we must not forget the Secret Seven and Mallory Towers, America has her Nancy Drew, till today I'm unfamiliar with American literature. Growing up in a British colony, I was raised on English literature.
Recently I tried to obtain a few of these books of my childhood for my American nieces. I want to inculcate in them an appreciation of English writers. One of them liked the Mallory Towers' series but I can't get the complete series, I'm missing one in the series. They're out of print and I can't find it on either. We have scoured the bookstores in London but to no avail. They don't stock Enid Blyton's books anymore, the young clerk has never heard of Enid Blyton, the older clerk knew what I was asking for. I want my nieces to read good and wholesome books. The fact is, to my utter dismay, this 13 year old discovered Michela Kinsella's 'Shopaholic' series and fell in love with it and throughout our trip to London, Amsterdam and Brussels last year, she had her nose in one of the 'Shopaholic' books the whole time.
Of course, I've always enjoyed Jane Austen, the Bronte sisters, EM Forster, Charles Dickens, Dodie Smith, CS Lewis and Tolkien. I must give Tolkien a lot of credit for his portrayal of a very strong woman in 'The Lord of the Rings'. I hate books and movies that portray women as weak, fickle and stupid. I don't watch 'I love Lucy'.
While I did read (and enjoyed) the 'Shopaholic' series with this 13 year old on our trip to Europe, I was more impressed with the author, Michela Kinsella. She quit her job as a banker to write- and very successfully too.

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Growing up in Borneo-food

Food memories. We ate things that I'm not even going to mention here. We were always hungry, we have breakfasts, lunches and dinners but no snacks. So it's mostly in between mealtimes that we were hungry. The neighborhood kids were ingenious, they knew how to forage for food; we followed; we didn't do it for fun; it was serious, to stave off hunger. Today people still forage for food in Europe, its more like a gourmet thing to do; looking for weeds, wild herbs, mushrooms and truffles. We foraged for fern heads, mushrooms and wood ears. Living at the edge of a rubber plantation offers lots of opportunities for foraging. Mushrooms and wood ears can be found on damp fallen tree trunks. The wild ferns grow like gangbusters in the tropics. Sauteed mushrooms, wood ears and fern heads tastes wonderful. Nowadays you can't even pay to get fern heads.
We would shoot pigeons and sparrows with a slingshot, pick off their feathers and roast them over wood fire; they tasted so Good.
After school, we would run wild in the jungle, amusing ourselves and look for whatever can be eaten- guavas, green mangoes, the neighbor's oranges. Pineapples grew in our front yard. We ate them so fast, they didn't have time to replenish themselves and they disappeared.
The village was one big extended family and safe for us kids. We were never molested. It was a very primitive time, money was scarce. We raised ducks for eggs and meat. These were free range ducks and when braised with a black bean sauce, they taste like heaven. We ate a lot of fish, it was cheap, we lived near the sea. We never complained.'What, fish, again?' was never in our vocabulary. Having ducks in the yard attracted all kinds of predators- iguanas and cobras. I remember a cobra came calling one day but ended up on the dinner menu. My uncle had a pet pig once, we played with it when it was little. When it grew too big, he became dinner.
These and many other stories are still being told at family gatherings today, being passed on to the next generation.
My grandparents lived with us. Grandma did most of the cooking. T drink coffee, we had to roast our own beans. We bought raw beans from the store, roast them in a wok, it is stirred constantly till they turned brown. Grandma was the only one who could tell when the beans are ready. As kids we would stir the beans and she'd come and check. Then she would set up the grinder and we had the chore of grinding the coffee beans. It is, to this day, the best coffee. A pot was brewed in the morning and another at 4 pm in an aluminium pot. For those pre-dinner hunger pangs, we poured left over coffee onto rice left over from lunch and ate that. It is the most disgusting thing.
Grandma cooked everything. I remember her steamed buns that we ate for breakfast, she kept some yeast starter in the larder, every night she made a batch of dough, prove it overnight, save some as starter for the next batch, made the buns with a peanut filling in the morning. We had that for breakfast most mornings.
In my early years we had a wood burning stove, the kitchen as always smoky and black from the soot. It was later that we used butane gas from a portable tank. We had to help gather firewood. For my early years, we had no running water, electricity or indoor plumbing. Till today, I don't go camping or trekking. I've come a long way from those primitive years.
I remember the free food from the US government, the free powdered milk and the free cheese. That was our only source of dairy, we loved it.
I remember the 'midnight feasts'. My dad was a gambler and would come late from the gambling den. When he wins, he brings home fried noodles,'chow mien' . He would wake us up at midnight and we would eat and then go back to sleep. A midnight feast in fat America is unheard of.
I will always cherish these and many memories of my childhood. I'm grateful for these memories.

Sunday, July 15, 2007

Growing up in Borneo

Today I will start a series on growing up in Borneo. It is probably better tittled, 'growing up poor in Borneo'. North Borneo, to be exact. To know more about the history and culture of North Borneo, read Agnes Keith's trilogy (all out of print, but can be found on Internet used books sites like,
1. Land below the wind
2. Three came home (was made into a Hollywood movie, movie is available on
3. White man returns
The first book was written before WWII, before the Japanese occupation of an idyllic place in the tropics. The second book documents the author's 3-4 years as a prisoner of war in a camp with her then 3 year old son, her struggles to keep them both alive while still retaining her sanity. It's told with a lot of humor which adds to the poignancy of her story. The third is about them returning to North Borneo after the war even before they fully recovered from the ravages of WWII and POW camp.
I have stories of my father's struggles during WWII and the Japanese occupation. I am compiling stories on the captured allied forces , mostly Australians; very few survived those death marches and that was the whole idea, a kind of 'take no prisoners'. Those who survived and who are still alive today returns to North Borneo regularly to relive those horrendous times and they are feted by the locals who continue to be grateful for the eventual liberation of North Borneo after the surrender of the Japanese forces.
My parents has never seen an airplane in their lives till the first one appeared in the sky over where they lived on a bombing run. This was the start of the invasion by the Japanese forces and the subsequent occupation by the same force.
I am interested in war stories for the stories of heroism and survival. My family suffered greatly together with a hosts of others in this place called Borneo which today is not much known. My father's memory is fast fading. Mine will fade too, so before I forget, I'm going to document those hard times growing up in North Borneo. Love for life and love for each other got us through.

Saturday, July 14, 2007


Suddenly after 5 decades of living I discovered art and I can't get enough of it. Lately when I travel, I have a sketchbook with me and I have been sketching. This is a huge thing for me. A rotten comment from an art teacher when I was 12 sealed my fate, I never touched art or did any drawing again, creative drawing I mean. I went on to do Chemistry, Physics, Math and Biology and of course I needed to draw during these classes. I never drew for fun till a year ago. I've been visiting the art museums in Europe to look but never personally touched a sketchbook or paintbrush again. Now I want to ditch my camera and bring, instead a sketchbook, paintbrushes and tubes of water colors. I want to sit, draw and paint. I was in Monreale, 8 km outside of Palermo, at the cloister of this magnificent cathedral in March this year. There was a group of architecture students from Notre Dam University there; they were sketching and painting the beautiful courtyard of the cloisters, it had a mudajer style of architecture, very common in Southern Spain because of the former Islamic influence. I envy these students; I met another group last year in Naples, Italy.. Italy is a great place to study architectural styles.
While waiting for the cathedral to re open after lunch, I sat outside and drew the outside of the cloister. I am so blessed to be able to see some of the most beautiful places in Europe. The mosaics inside the cathedral is so magnificent. There were bible scenes made from colorful mosaics all over the interior. It is an awe inspiring sight. The Sicilians tend to go wondrously overboard when decorating their churches. They cover every available space leaving no place untouched whether they be working with mosaics, marble inlay, baroque plasterwork.....anything. Some may think it is over the top but I don't. I love such exuberant displays, the more the better.
This note on art all started again after I received the most delightful book yesterday from It is 'My Italian Sketchbook' by French artist, Florine Asch. It is the most delightful art book I've ever owned. As I flip through the pages, I was filled with much glee and joy. I want to do art. I want to emulate her style. I want to draw. I want to paint, even badly.

Wednesday, July 11, 2007


- a rich diet of words that encourage, empower and enable. Each morning, after the coffee is ready, I read the Wall Street Journal, the bible and another 'positive' book, so that I would have breakfasted on a solid diet of powerful thoughts and be equipped for the day's struggle. It has been so needful and a pressing thing to do, that instead of having the alarm clock wake me up at 5 am, it now goes off at 4.45 am. I know,even with all these armament, at the end of the day, I am a mess, for having gone out into the world and having it beat me up.
I work in skid row, Los Angeles and the negativity is nothing like what you see elsewhere. The negativity here whacks at me everyday. I come home with spiritual bruises, I rest for the night and get up the next morning to do it again.
Without a strong belief in God, without arming myself with the word of God, I would not last a day. I have become very strong. I work with my hands, I write, I count pills. My most favorite bible verse is Psalm 144:1, '... the Lord....who trains my hands for war, my fingers for battle...'
In William Barclay's book, 'The Apostles' creed', he quotes, ' God sells goods to men at the cost of their labor'. When the going is tough, I remember this quotation and I'm able to go on.
I love wacky Stuart Wilde's quotation, 'any philosophy that you can't haul down to the bank or up to the airport ain't worth having.'
I am re reading ' The power of positive thinking' by Vincent Norman Peale.
Just as I remember to take my vitamins and eat nutritious food, I feast on a diet of positive reinforcement everyday.

Sunday, July 08, 2007

Money, money, money

I shall be in Paris in October this year. I was only at Charles de Gaulle airport in March this year on my way to and from Sicily. I shall be returning to Sicily in October to finish seeing the rest of the island and to finish my book on Sicily. It is very exciting. I have a lot of work to do till then. I have to save up, not just for the trip, but there are major bills coming due around that time - homeowners' policy and property tax! I have applied for retirement benefits from the union that I was a member of for 20 years. That will help, I figure the money will do more good now than 10 years down the road. I could use it for repairs to the house, re tile my bathroom and to invest it. It's about $953 a month for the rest of my life. It's not much because I've always had a love/hate relationship with my job. I've left this job a few times only to return again to it. It's a weird relationship. I did read somewhere that we don't have to squeeze all our work life into the middle of our life, we can take sabbaticals for an extended period and tag work to the end of it. I'd like to do that. Well, I'm kind of doing it, taking off 5 weeks each year when I only have 2 weeks vacation time. One thing I know, I'm not waiting till I stop work altogether, collect social security before I travel and see the world. I'm traveling now and a lot. I have talked to a lot of retirees who regrets not having traveled more or at all when they were still working. I don't want to have that kind of regrets. I'll travel now and work till I'm 80 if I have to.
I shall be taking my 2 nieces on some of my trips. I'm not waiting for them to be in college or even finish college. Life is for living now. So next spring we'll be in Tuscany.
Just do it, do it now.
P/S: I received my first retirement check yesterday.

Thursday, July 05, 2007

July 4th, 2007

I had a BBQ yesterday on July 4Th. Here is the menu: BBQ lamb, salmon, salad of Romaine lettuce, radicchio and fennel, cucumber pickles, pasta with shrimp, grilled peppers, Blueberry gingerbread, vanilla ice cream and pouring cream. Sophie, my sister in law made the pasta and the grilled peppers. The gingerbread recipe came from an old cookbook that I love and have always cooked from. It's about puddings, crumbles, crisps and pies. I've had it forever. I wanted to take pictures of the whole meal from preparation to the end. I was so busy supervising the grilling and than we ate. When I remembered about picture taking, we'd already finished and
the opportunity passed.
It was a small family gathering, my 2 brothers and their spouses and one of my 2 nieces, the other was at a band performance. Family gatherings are important to me, it is a time for me to influence them for the Lord and to imbue into them my brand of conservatism. I've always been like this, the big sister, the mother hen. I am shameless when it comes to my beliefs, I am not ashamed of the gospel.
I brought up the indiscretion of the mayor of Los Angeles. Of course we all are brainwashed into thinking his private life doesn't affect his politics. I tend to think of people as whole persons, their outer life is a reflection of their inner life. Proverbs says, 'delight in the wife of your youth....may her bosoms satisfy you always.' Psalms says, 'how can a young man keep his ways pure, by living according to the word of God.'
We talked about politics and the choice of a presidential candidate. I am an unrepentant conservative, cut me up and I bleed 'red' conservative blood. I never let any opportunity pass without speaking my mind on religion and politics. I guess this is a dinner conversation taboo. I like to turn all taboos on their heads and I do.
Well, we had a very pleasant family gathering. I gave my 2 nieces $40 each and some books to read during the summer. What are aunts for? I'm taking them to Italy next spring. Again, I'm in the process of mentoring them, I don't want to miss the opportunity, they're 16 and 14.

Wednesday, July 04, 2007

Venice beach,ca

I live in Mar Vista, a city adjacent to Venice Beach. Mar Vista is a laid back and sleepy little town. That was what attracted me to it, it's like a town in the country except this is not the country, it's the westside. There's no fancy shops in Mar Vista so I'm in Venice beach and Santa Monica a lot. Venice, a cute seaside community, a place of contrast, a place full of tiny million dollar cottages and homeless shacks, cute antique shops and kitschy souvenir stalls. The regulars on the beach boardwalk are an odd bunch, welfare receiving 'poets' dot the boardwalk with their 'art' denouncing the government and anyone else in authority, muscular men training in an outdoor gym, they don't call it muscle beach for nothing. It is a fun place.
Further inland is Abbott Kinney street, a short stretch of thoroughfare where the fancy shops are, where the famous 'Bountiful' antique shop is. It's a great place to furnish your house if you are into the shabby chic style, which I am. The prices are way off my budget but it is nice just to go in and browse and come away with ideas. Ideas are free and affordable.
I love to walk and meander through the little streets of cute seaside cottages. Someone is always working on their cottage and sometimes I ask permission from the workmen to go in and look at the new stainless steel kitchen or the perfect white bathrooms they are putting in. It is also a place to dream in.

Sunday, July 01, 2007


All over France right now there are the signs that say "Soldes" which means 'Sales'. The French government regulate when they can have 'sales' and July is the month. The L'occitane store in Santa Monica is having a 'sale' too. I went in and spent $72. It is a pretty store and one is tempted to buy more than one needs, some expensive soaps and creams. They're good stuff, I like their products. I remember being in Paris in July 3 years ago. I bought a pair of ballerina flats by Bally at Gallerie Lafayette on sale for 69 euros. I love them, I still wear them.