Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Two books

I've just finished reading Ann Barry's 'A home in France' and is in the middle of reading Maurice Hertzog's 'Annapurna'. The two books cannot be more different from each other. Both books epitomizes the question, 'Why not'. We ask too many 'Why?'. The poignancy of Ann Barry's book is that it was published posthumously by her estate, in 1996, the year she passed away. Often times we want to know what happened to the authors of the great books we read, a kind of 'where are they now?' For some, they are no longer with us anymore. Where is Maurice Hertzog now? I don't know. His book was published in 1952, some 56 years ago.
'A home in France' by Ann Barry is really just another book about an American who bought a house abroad. A single woman who lived and worked in New York who bought a house in a little village in the Dordogne area. It records her many trips there in the 12 years she owned the house. Even with just 2 weeks vacation each year, she formed a yearly routine where she goes and lives in France for that 2 weeks. She used the place also as a base in which to explore the area of France, many of the places I've also visited. She and an old friend went to visit Rocamadour, a monastery perched high against a cliff. Four years ago, Sophie and I were there, the train station was an hour's hike away and we walked because there was no buses on a Sunday. She wrote about Brive la Gallarde, in fact, rather warmly. It's an nondescript town, we used it as our base because the hotels were dirt cheap, we paid 25 euros a night for a rinky dink room and that was the first time I was so cheap and got to like it and has been desperately looking for cheap lodgings ever since. We stayed 3 nights, I gave the landlady 100 euros and she gave me change back. I said to myself, wow, I can get used to this!
'Annapurna' is a book about the expedition put together by Frenchman, Maurice Hertzog, to climb Annapurna in 1950. They spent months trying to find Annapurna in the Himalayas and reconnoitering the area trying to find it and a way to climb it. Why, I don't know. Why do people go to such lengths, I don't know. They finally made an assault on Annapurna, coming down was the challenge. They stayed too long on the summit, enjoying the joys of that glorious moment. It was too cloudy on the descent, it took forever and many in their party, including Hertzog, were severely frostbitten. He had to have a few amputations, it wasn't just the descent, it was the getting out that very remote area of the Himalayas for medical attention, the consequence of that delay was a huge factor in his recovery. It was exciting when they finally decide they will ascend to the top. I shared their excitement through the pages. Wow! What courage, what raw physical strength, what grit! These days you climb Mt Everest with oxygen tanks but they climbed Annapurna with no special equipment. Amazing! For what, I don't know, who cares, they didn't! For the sheer joy of the challenge.
The last few lines of the book reads.....
'Annapurna, to which we had gone empty handed, was a treasure on which we should live the rest of our days. With this realization we turn the page, a new life begins.
There are other Annapurnas in the lives of men.'

Sunday, April 27, 2008

Flea market

I went to the Santa Monica flea market this morning and went over board on some vintage French linens. This is for my summer project, to redecorate the house and 'frenchify' it.

Giacomo Serpotta

It's been a year since our first trip to Sicily. We went, for the first time, March 2007, with no expectations, just the knowledge that on this little island called Sicily, are secrets, experienced by few Americans. Sophie and I flew on separate airlines, arriving at different times in Catania. We, almost missed each other. I went to bed at 11pm, with no sign of her, she showed up at 1 pm. I'm even surprised the owner of the hostel opened the door, it's a mom and pop hostel, really cheap, so cheap that we stayed there again during our second trip to Sicily. At 45 euros a night for both of us, it couldn't be beat. It rained the whole time we were there (2 weeks) but there were brief periods of dry weather.
It was a trip to remember forever, it was so thrilling that we took a second trip in October 2007 to see the rest of the island. The second trip was as good as the first.
In Palermo, we happened upon the work of a sculptor by the name of Giacomo Serpotta. I had seen pictures of his work, especially his work at the Oratory of S. Zita where his 'whimsical' scenes from the bible and of the battle of Lepanto, decorated the walls. For most sculptors, their pieces are mostly of single person or a small scene but the work of Serpotta in the Oratory of S.Zita is an interplay of scenes from the bible, in 3-d, decorating all the 4 walls of this small chapel. It seems 'whimsical' but it is actually a serious work of art. His work is scattered in a lot of the major churches all over Palermo and in some churches in the other cities in Sicily.
A check of his work on the internet will lead us to a program called 'the Serpotta itinerary' which gives a detailed road map of all his work in Palermo. Our first visit was to the Oratory of S.Zita which is the most delightful. One led to another and before we knew it, we've seen so much of his prolific work and were simply enthralled. While he might have been influenced by artists on the mainland, Serpotta's genius was all his own.
He came from a family of sculptors, his father, his brother and even his brothers in law has their work shown in the major churches in Palermo
It brings home the fact that each one of us has something unique to offer the world. Giacomo Serpotta was not a sculptor like Leonardo da Vinci but if he thought that, we would not be enjoying his genius today. He is different but not diminished in importance.
I have dreams of returning to Palermo and following the Serpotta itinerary again.

Thursday, April 24, 2008


Remembrance day, November 11, the date chosen is the date that marked the end of WWI, a day to remember armed forces of the British Empire, it is called Veteran's day in the USA. One of my first memories of poppies. I never saw a poppy in my life till I moved here. Every year on Nov 11, the English would go out on the streets to sell paper poppies. I grew up in a British colony, North Borneo. The slogan is 'a poppy is to remember' or 'lest we forget'.

I get excited seeing red poppies growing in fields in Italy. Pictures and drawings of red poppies evoke in a lot of people fond memories of Europe. The last trip, in March to Rome, it was too early for those poppy fields but I did see a small patch behind fences at the Teatro Massimo.
Why poppies? It is the time of poppies in Southern California, the ubiquitous orange colored California poppies are every where. Every garden seem to feature Icelandic poppies. I was walking around my neighborhood one day and found these poppies growing openly. These are opium poppies, you can see the seed pods, I don't think they are legal in California but the home owners are just using them as an ornamental plant. Wow, opium poppies up close and personal. I am familiar with the resin of these poppies. My grandfather was for the major part of his life an opium addict. I know first hand the ravages of drug addiction on families. My father at the age of 13 when the Japanese invaded had to be head of household. My grandfather lived with us till he died at 84 or till the day he killed himself. There was never a day of peace, when he needed money for his fix, he didn't stop nagging. We cut our teeth on confrontation. He used to take me to the opium den, I'd wait outside while he went in for a smoke.
Yesterday I went to Youtube to do some research on poppies, found some disturbing videos on poppy growing and opium addiction. The growers of opium are themselves and their families addicted to the resin of the beautiful poppy plant. I watched Afghan women smoking opium pipes and blowing the smoke into the mouths of their toddlers. I saw Asian women smoking with their toddlers with them. I'm not surprised because while growing up, we had neighbors who processed opium resin and had their kids involved. Even today, the many mini 'Meth' labs that operate at home involve their children.
I watched videos of junkies. One thing that struck me was they are so boring, they don't do anything, they just sit there or lie there. They just space out. What's the fun in that. As Julia Child said, 'life's the perfect binge.' Life is the perfect binge.
I had wanted to write about my love for the poppy flower because it is a reminder of Europe and I digressed into a whole different topic.

Poppy fields in Afghanistan

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Rome, de rigueur for the cultured

the Tiber

the ruins

Spanish steps

the Pantheon

the Trevi fountain

the old and the new, the ancient Roman wall, the modern building on Via Marsala, picture taken in front of Roma termini.
I heard on the radio some time back that a guy (any guy) before the age of 40, to be more attractive to girls, must be some what cultured. He must have been to at least one major museum and know a little about art history, architecture and food. It is not about liking escargot (what is that- snails) or truffles as much as knowing what they are and maybe to have tasted them. One should have at least heard of Michelangelo or Leonardo da Vinci and maybe has seen some of their work. They can be forgiven if they don't know who Caravaggio is.
What better place to start being cultured than in Rome.
Rome, more than any other city has squashed in it centuries of civilizations. Art- centuries of art- ancient Roman, Medieval times, Renaissance and Baroque to the modern. Baroque is a product of the counter reformation movement, a time of learning by the Jesuits, a time of Rococo design to bring back the masses to the church after leaving because of the reformation. The same with architecture- from the ancient Roman ruins, the Colosseum to St Peter Basilica, to the Victor Emanuele memorial.
Italian food, from pasta to gelato to great coffee, it's la dolce vita in Rome and in Italy.
Italy was de rigueur for the young Englishmen on 'the Grand tour". They were sent on extended trips to Italy to learn about art, architecture, food and people in order to be a cultured Englishman.
Rome is also a place of pilgrimage especially for the Catholics. St Peter Basilica is always packed with people, Catholics and non Catholics. It is a most beautiful place. I brought my 2 Jewish nieces, even they were impressed. It is more like a museum.
Rome can be daunting the first time but it can be easily managed and enjoyed. Read my posting, 'Rome made easy' on how to get around. Once you have mastered Rome, the rest of Italy is easy. You can come in and out of Rome, go to the rest of Italy and even Sicily and enjoy the whole of Italy. If you've never been , make Rome your next vacation destination.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Sunday dinner

While I'm on the 'Ramen' diet, sometimes I do splurge. How about BBQ spare ribs? Mmmmm.. It is extremely simple. I copied the recipe from a recent Women's magazine. I coined the word, 'Ramen' diet meaning, not so much to lose weight but rather to save money. It's not even about eating 'Ramen' or instant noodles. It means eating more simple and economical meals. It means eating tuna casserole, simple stir fry, tofu and other fast, money saving meals. I have a few staple recipes like beef stir fry with tomatoes of which I make a huge batch and eat it with rice for dinners and also as a sack lunch at work. Right now I'm still working through a big pot of tuna with noodles. I usually cook twice a week, eating leftovers most of the week. It's always fun on the days that I cook. The days that I don't are more perfunctory- I just go to the fridge and eat whatever is there. It's working for me, I've done this for years.
While I'm doing this, I'm dreaming of the great bread found in Sicily, Panini con Porchetta, duck confit, escargot, Cornish Pasties, English cream teas with scones, strawberry jam and clotted cream, fromage blanc.....
When's my next trip....?

Sunday, April 20, 2008

Morandi- Giorgio Morandi

While everyone has heard of Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo, few has heard of Giorgio Morandi, a native son of Bologna. I was at the Morandi museum in Bologna in March this year and was struck by the simplicity of his life and his work. He didn't have the patronage that the famous Renaissance artists had. All the money and influence of the Medici's were long gone. He lived with his sister, had a few objects in his studio which he arranges and paints and rearranges and paints again. He had this white vase which he puts flowers in and paints, he changes the flowers and paints again. He takes walks and paints, he takes another walk and paints again. His paintings are titled (many of them has the same title) ' a walk' or 'a vase of flowers'.
After his death, his sister donated his work to the city of Bologna and a small museum dedicated to Morandi was started.
It is a very humble museum, a depiction of his humble studio is also on display, his work numbers in the thousands. It is so remarkable to be able to work with so little. I have some 50 art books and I have yet to come up with anything original of notable quality. I need to turn the TV off. I need to go to spend more time in Italy, slowly take it all in and draw and paint something.......

Saturday, April 19, 2008


The Eurostar station in London is St Pancras not Paddington as posted. The old station was Waterloo. The new station is now St Pancras and this has shaved about 1/2 hour in the time it takes to go from London to Paris and from Paris to London. I presume it also shaved time off the trip from London to Brussels. The problem was the old rail tracks around Waterloo that slows the train down. I have taken Eurostar to and from Paris and also to and from Brusssels. My first trip to Paris was on Eurostar and I still have the menu for the meal on first class.

Food in Bologna

It is a lot of fun wandering into shops whose array of food is so different from what we have at home. The whole idea of traveling is to experience things that are different. One sees a lot of big whole hams hanging from the rafters, all kinds of cheeses, all kinds of vegetables, cookies and cakes. It is Easter week and the array of Easter cakes is so mouth watering. Wow! It's art, architecture, food and people that will remind us of our time spent in Bologna.
I just received a letter from a friend who is in Paris now and at 60 it's his first trip to Europe and his first trip to Paris. He expressed his thrill of being there and said he didn't think he'll actually in his lifetime be in Paris in the flesh. Europe is easy. I have to say I've become jaded, but not really, the thrill is still there because everything is so different. Even the every day lives of Europeans is thrilling, even their struggles, whether it be trash pick up or lack of in Naples, Italy or the lack of water in Modica, Sicily, whether they are putting Belusconi back in power.....What's going to happen to Alitalia? Will I experience problems when I fly into Terminal 5 at London Heathrow? If I take Eurostar from London to Paris, I don't go to Waterloo station but to Paddington? As Rick Steves' said, 'keep on traveling.'

Friday, April 18, 2008

Enjoying art in Bologna

...and architecture. Bologna is an unusual city in that within the old city all the buildings have covered walk ways that are usually beautifully decorated. Art and architecture is every where to be admired and enjoyed. I'd say it is a very livable city, very genteel, I like Bologna very much.

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Antonio Basoli

The wonderful thing about travel is the discovery of minor artists whose work is major. They are mostly celebrated native sons whose work is proudly on display in their place of birth. Without traveling, one would never have heard of the likes of Giacomo Serpotta, celebrated Sicilian sculptor; Renato Guttuso, another native son of Sicily, Morandi and Antonio Basoli, both born and lived in Bologna.
It was Easter Sunday and we were in search of anything that would be opened that day, knowing in our hearts that we might not be able to find anything. So we walked along Via Zamboni to head over to the University of Bologna, started in the year 1000 and the oldest University in Italy. Lo and behold Pinacoteca Nazionale Bologna was opened to our surprise. It was 4 euros to enter and free for the girls who were both under 18. They have their resident collection of Renaissance painting and a huge collection of Christian Iconic art, it was a very large collection, and beautiful and in very good condition. I don't think I've ever seen Iconic art in real life, this was my first time. I was very impressed.
Then they had, in the basement, a baroque display of a lot of Antonio Basoli's work. I've never heard of him but went down to view it anyway. I loved it, I loved his journals. I love the journals of famous artists, I have Eugene de la croix and recently acquired Cezanne, some of their many journals. I took some pictures knowing I couldn't afford the 50 euros book of all his work and besides it'll be too heavy to bring back. I did buy a second hand copy of a book of some of his work, not all of it. It came in the mail yesterday. Now I wished that I have splurged on that 50 euros book of all his work.
Where ever I go in the world, I love to learn about local artists and maybe take pictures of their work or buy a book or two.

Sunday, April 13, 2008

McDonald's on the road

We've just arrived in Bologna, dumped our bags at the hotel and went in search of food. We found this funky restaurant and sat down to eat. We were not impressed with the food, it was outright bad. The girls didn''t care for it either. I went in search of the Morandi museum, I left the girls to wander on their own with the specific instructions that they hang out around Piazza Maggiore and around Piazza del Nettuno. I enjoyed a little time on my own while they enjoyed playing the adults sans adult supervision. When I got done with the Morandi museum I went back to the hotel and found the teenagers watching TV and eating McDonald's happy meals. We had a more expensive room in Bologna, 125 euros got us an attached bathroom and TV with CNN and MTV. We were living large in Bologna, it was a bigger room and from our third floor window we could see the red roof tops of many old buildings in Bologna. The Albergo Centrale is right smack in the center of old Bologna.
I was glad the girls were having fun, they had already finished their happy meals and were playing with the toys. I asked, 'how much they paid?' 4 euros for each happy meal- what a deal! The next day we went by train to Ravenna, an hour away. I had intended, before we left home, to go to Verona. I changed my mind in Bologna. After Ravenna, it was still early in the day, so we decided to go to Rimini, at least to look at the Adriatic sea. While waiting for the train, we went into the McDonald's at the train station and ordered 3 happy meals. The sweet Italian girl was so helpful. She made sure each bag got the right toy. I don't know if she knew the meals were for the 3 of us. We had a drink, a hamburger, some fries and a yogurt drink and of course, toys! We ate our meal and played with the toys till the train arrived.
Don't knock McDonald's. I know when we see one in a foreign country, we laughed and think, 'which American would go in one?' I don't eat at McDonald's when I'm at home. I have eaten many times at McDonald's while traveling, mostly in Italy. For some reason they are prolific in Italy. I remember my first trip to Rome, my sister and I ate at McDonald's for most of our meals. We didn't know how to look for good affordable meals and we didn't know that coffee, al fresco, cost 4 euros (then) compared to 1 euro if you stand at the bar. Besides we were always sure of a clean bathroom at a McDonald's.
I remember buying a Coca Cola at a McDonald's in Toulouse, France a few years ago. The prettiest French girl with the most gorgeous blue eyes was serving me. She smiled, said, 'Merci, Bon Journee', to which I replied, 'Merci, au revoir.' French servers are not that nice. Only the McDonald's people worldwide. Don't knock McDonald's, it is a great American institution!!

Thursday, April 10, 2008

Blogs on Sicily

A cup of tea and some freshly baked Madeleines and I'm ready to surf. I spent 3 hours on this blog 'sicilyscene' ( It is written by a lady from Wales, who moved to Modica, Sicily to teach English. She details her life there in Modica - of water shortages and other nuisances. Remember the trash problem in Naples? Well, it is now a shared problem, Ragusa (I've been there) is to take 250 metric ton of Naples' trash. It's a fun site, check it out.
The other one I like is 'Siciliamo' ( I think this one is based in Marsala on the Western side of Sicily. I, particularly, liked his posts on 'on a shoestring'. More and more people are turning their homes into a B&B. Likewise there's a small movement called 'at-home' restaurants where private homes are turned into restaurants.
I, also like, his posts on wines of Sicily. On the island of Pantelleria, they plant Zibibbo grapes and makes dessert wines from it. The grapes are harvested and left in the sun to dry. The raisins and more fresh grapes are then made into a dessert wine. A bottle of Passito di Pantelleria goes for 30 Euros in a store in Rome.
I left a comment saying, I've just found reasons to return to Sicily for the third time.
Also please view the youtube video (coming up next) about street food in Palermo. They eat a beef spleen sandwich there. I have to go back to taste it.