Monday, December 31, 2007

Count Your Blessings

Click to play Count+Your+Blessings

A few of my many blessings in 2007 - a year that has seen so many changes - glad and sad.

"And you will find this world a place of love
If you just count your blessings from above."

I've been blessed.

Auguri e buon anno nouvo - Blessings and a Happy New Year

31 decembre - San Silvestro

Saturday, December 29, 2007

Borgo Nights

The first time Laurent and I came to Rome we stayed on the other side of the Tiber in the Borgo near St. Peter's. The area takes its name from the German Burg and was an area of hostels and hospices for pilgrims as far back as AD 725. Given the events of the day we were at a bit of a loss on Thursday evening - comfort food was in order but neither one of us felt like cooking. So a trip to the Borgo and that trattoria that I can never remember the name of for spaghetti alla carbonara seemed the solution. And since we would be in the area we thought we'd have a look-in at the (mildly?) controversial Presepe in Piazza San Pietro.

Presepe in Piazza San PietroTaverna panelSt Joseph and Holy InfantThe Holy FamilyLeft panel
It was only 2000 but there were very few people in the Piazza and most were crowded around the Presepe by a rather phallic looking Christmas tree. Many were, like ourselves, snapping pictures. I wasn't disturbed that the Nativity had been relocated to Nazareth nor the placement of St Joseph at the centre of the scene. But I found that many of the carved figures - some Baroque pieces from the Church of Sant'Andrea delle Valle - are badly placed and the three room structure put a restricting box around the tableaux. Unfortunately the night setting on both our cameras was not working properly so many of the photos didn't turn out.

There's a slightly sinister atmosphere in the Borgo at night - particularly on the pedestrian streets where the cobblestones echo in the chilly air. And the flocks of black-suited and soutaned clergy scurrying through to winings, dinings and lodgings give it an almost conspiratorial atmosphere. Our trattoria was closed so we looked for one with clergy in it - always a good recommendation. The one we choose had a cosy interior, a pleasant waiter and respectable food - we had our carbonara, a few glasses of house white, almond tart and coffee and the world seemed a little warmer if not brighter.

We boarded a number 62 that takes us across the River, through town and almost home. The only other passenger on the idling bus was an elderly lady carting a backpack and two shopping bags. She spotted Laurent and immediately started talking to him. In the five or ten minutes before departure she told him all about her family - her mother was French, they were evacuated from Rome during the war, her sister went to America and after the war when her parents died they didn't have the money for proper headstones. She wasn't rambling she was reminiscing and here was a nice young man who was willing to listen. I've always marvelled at Laurent's ability to talk with strangers - I feel uncomfortable and awkward in those situations, its one of the reasons I hate diplomatic functions. She repeated the story of the headstones but it didn't seem like a plea of poverty, more a repeated regret for something not done right. Then at the first stop she gathered up her bags, waved arrivederci and got off. She seemed too well dressed to be a street person, she spoke Italian beautifully and she did not seem disturbed in any way. Just an old lady on her way home who had found someone to listen to her.

Or at least I hope she was on her way home; it had become colder and damper and so many people are homeless in this city. As we went through Centro I saw several people bundled up in blankets bedded down for the night in doorways. One couple were having a last cigarette, wrapped in their blankets in the doorway of a Ferrari dealership - he leaned down and whispered something to her and she laughed.

I don't pray often but Thursday night I mumbled a few words to who ever listens: a few words about Reesie, a few words for that old lady, those people sleeping in the doorways, that laughing couple and a few words of thanks for what I've had and have.

29 decembre - San Tommaso Beckett

Friday, December 28, 2007


I love Pat and Stanley and this one expresses how both Laurent and I feel at the moment.

For non-French speakers here's a rough translation:

Stanley (the dog): You still feeling down Pat?

Pat: Yes

Stanley: Come on buck up, I've arranged a little surprise.


Pat: Wow! That's great! How did you do that?

Stanley: Its nothing. Just a little imagination and lots of friendship.

Pat: Its real cool - Friendship.

You've got that right Pat.

Thank you to all our friends.

28 decembre - Santi Bambini Innocenti Martiri

Thursday, December 27, 2007

A Domination of Daschunds

I know that is not the proper collective noun - it should be pack - but anyone who has lived with a daschie will know what I mean. This is my favorite photo of my darling Bundnie and my buddy Reesie taken about 10 years ago by our friend John. They both lived long lives - 16 for Bundnie and 15 for Reese. And they were cared for and loved. And God know's they returned that love 10 fold.

I just wanted to share this photo.

27 decembre - San Giovanni Evangelista

The Reese Report

ReeseLast evening Reese slept between the two of us for a short while. It wasn't something he did - he never understood that a bed was for sleeping, he thought it was for wandering around in, fighting with blankets in and once settled down in having your tummy rubbed non-stop - forget this sleep thing.

But last night he was tired, as he has been for the past few months. Tired of the constant itch from skin problems, tired of the pain of arthritis that made walking a chore, tired of not seeing things clearly, tired of being poked and prodded at the vets - just tired. He slept almost all of the time and it was becoming more difficult to wake him up. He wasn't interested in food beyond his treats of poached chicken and yesterday even that had lost its appeal. We think he may have had a small stroke on Christmas morning - he seemed disoriented, his back legs were not fully supporting him and he would bark in a panic if you weren't in direct sight.

This morning, at the Vet's, Laurent and I did the only thing we felt we could do for our Reeser Man (Mister Reese, the Reeser, Baby Reesie, Budfordshire, Buddy - he had quite a few nicknames.) He went to sleep on his blanket as we stroked him, rubbing his tummy telling him it was okay to go "doodoo" and finally he did.

28 decembre - San Giovanni Evangelista

Tuesday, December 25, 2007

Merry Christmas - Joyeux Noel - Buono Natale

25 decembre - Nativita del Signore

The Traditions of Christmas - The Queen's Message

We were a family proud of our British heritage and our Commonwealth membership. My father's family were Welsh brought over to Canada through the beneficence of a group of Ladies from Upper Canada bent on emptying the orphanages of Britian; my mother was from a Monarchist-Orange Lodge family in Northern Ireland. Even our passports declared that "the bearer of this Passport is a British Subject." And in our household we celebrated that fact while being proudly Canadian.

On Christmas Day we would gather around the radio to hear the Monarch extended wishes for Christmas and the coming year secure in the fact that we were her proud subjects. In 1957, through the magic of television, it was possible to see the Queen as well as hear her. We didn't have a TV - my father believed it would be the death of family recreation - but for special occasions we headed over to Ma Ware's, an elderly neighbour whose son had give her a TV for her 75th birthday. And this was special occasion.

I can't honestly say I remember that first broadcast but looking at it today I am struck by several things:

How well stage managed it is: the desk to one side, the family photos crowding the table, the direct approach to the camera. It made the young Queen seem accessible and her slight nervousness made her vulnerable at the same time.

How well she is handling this new medium: occasional glances at her notes (this was before teleprompters), playing to the camera and a real sense of communication. And keep in mind this was a live broadcast - the kinescopes were immediately dispatched to all parts of the Commonwealth by RAF jet. And I love the palpable sense of relief at the end when she knows it is over and has gone well.

How much of what she says still applies today. Remove some of the dated references and attitudes and she could be addressing our current world situation. It is a bit frightening that 50 years later we have made much progress but haven't progressed all that much. And there is a certain poignancy in watching this young woman and knowing what the next 50 years would bring her and us.

This afternoon we will sit down and watch her 50th televised message, still members of a much diminished commonwealth, still constitutional her subjects and still seeing flashes of that young woman from 1957. And still sharing her hopes for a better world.

25 decembre - Nativita del Signore

Monday, December 24, 2007

The Traditions of Christmas - Sharing III

Once again this year Joe - the blog father to many of us - retells The Dance of the Sugar Plum Lesbians. This wonderful New York vignette has become a blogdom classic and if you haven't already read it please do. It always makes me smile and get a little misty eyed. Thanks Joe.

24 decembre - San Delfino

Sunday, December 23, 2007

The Traditions of Christmas - The Nutcracker II

The Nutcracker - Sendak CoverIn his preface to a 1984 translation by Ralph Manhem of E. T. A. Hoffmann's The Nutcracker illustrator Maurice Sendak, who had based his drawings on set and costumes he created for Pacific Northwest Ballet production of the Christmas favorite, comments:
Tchaikovsky, understandably disappointed in the scenario, proceeded to compose a score that in overtone and erotic suggestion is happily closer to Hoffman than Dumas. His music, bristling with implied action, has a subtext alive with wild child cries and belly noises. It is rare and genuine and does justice to the private world of children. One can, after all, count on the instincts of a genius.

I saw my first Nutcracker in 1952 at the age of six in a very traditional production by the National Ballet of Canada. They followed the story that Ivan Vsevolojsky had created from an Alexandre Dumas-père version of E.T.A. Hoffmann's novella: Clara is given a Nutcracker, Christmas Eve the Nutcracker with her help defeats the Mouse King, The Nutcracker turns into a Prince and takes her through the Land of the Snow to the Kingdom of Sweets, she wakes up and it was all a dream. Not very exciting as stories go and certainly no where near the complexity or drama of Hoffmann's original and certainly no equal for that score. Since that first production in 1891 many great choreographers - Balanchine, Cranko, Nureyev, Bourne, Bèjart, Petit - have adapted, changed or completely thrown over Lev Ivanov and Marius Petipa's original dances and Vsevolojsky bland scenario in attempts to match Tchaikovsky's ravishing music.

I'm struck by the phrase "erotic suggestion" that Sendak uses - I have always thought that the two great pas de deux are amongst the most erotic and sexual music every written.

The first act transformation of the Nutcracker into the handsome prince of Clara's dreams throbs with sexual awakening - and nowhere is that more apparent than in this performance by Merle Park and Rudolf Nureyev. Later dancers may perform Nureyev's choreography with more grace but few have the same raw passion.

Equally the music for the Act II Grand Pas de Deux has a startling sexuality for a dance between a spun sugar fairy and her cavalier. When I listen to it I hear two people making love; it builds from gentle foreplay to climax - listen to those almost out of control flutes - to the final shudders of after play. Even in this beautiful but slightly aloof performance by Miyako Oshia and Jonathan Cope I find the eroticism of two bodies in tune with each other and the music highly sexual.

Tchaikovsky may have been writing to an insipid scenario but Sendak is right about "the instincts of genius."

23 decembre - IVa domenica di avvento

The Traditions of Christmas - The Nutcracker I

Our Nutcracker under the TreeOur Nutcracker has been guarding our tree since 1980; Laurent saw him in the window of a German Delicatessen on Slater St in Ottawa and brought him home. This was long before they became a ubiquitous item in every Christmas store and catalogue. Now there seem to be Nutcrackers for every holiday occasion - Halloween, Thanksgiving, Easter and I've even seen a Mouse King nutcracker! How perverse is that? Every one knows that little Clara helped the Nutcracker to defeat the Mouse King one Christmas Eve.

23 decembre - IVa domenica di avvento

Saturday, December 22, 2007

The Traditions of Christmas - A Lump of Coal in Your Stocking

When I was a child - back in the middle of the last century - one thing always appeared amongst the oranges, small games and hard candies in my Christmas stocking: a lump of coal. Why a lump of coal? That was for the times I'd been naughty and to remind me that if I had been good all year there would have been another gift worthy of a good little boy. Sort of a cruel Christmas guilt trip to lay on a kid which frankly didn't work. By the time Laurent and I started exchanging stockings coal had become a thing of the past and impossible to find - though one year I did find candles shaped like a lump of coal. And this year I hit the mother-lode.

Piazza NavonaHigh Altar - St'Agnese in AgoneDome - St Agnese in Agone
Last evening, after one of Signora Paola's dinners at Trattoria der Pallardo, we took a stroll through the Christmas Fair at Piazza Navona with our friends Lorraine and John. It wasn't as crowded as we thought it would be and even though it was early by Roman standards - 2130 - some of the stalls where closing. We wandered into the beautiful Church of Santa Agnese in Agone, reputedly built on the site of the brothel that the Saint had been sold into, and happened upon a chamber quartet playing one of the Corelli Christmas concerti.

Carbonne DolciAfterwards we wandered back into the Piazza and there they were: lumps of coal! A veritable vein of carbon piled into a pyramid amongst the sugared almonds, marzipan and fruit jellies at a candy stall. Carbonne dolci (Candy coal) that the vendor said was for the stockings of Le donne cative (Naughty ladies.) Given the history of the area during Roman times, it seemed highly appropriate. I'm sure its pure sugar and will rot teeth on contact but each of our dinner guests will be getting a lump of coal in their Christmas stocking. And Laurent will be getting an extra big one.

As for me -sadly I didn't buy enough but then I've been a really good boy this year!

22 decembre - Santa Francesca Cabrini

Friday, December 21, 2007

The Traditions of Christmas - Christmas Pudding

Flaming Christmas PuddingThis will be the first year in over 40 years that there will be no plum pudding on the table as a climax to Christmas dinner. Even last year in Hong Kong our darling Diane arranged to have one especially for us. It was set aflame at the table and then enjoyed with great dollops of Custard Sauce.

There was a time when I would make my own and perhaps had I thought about it this year I could and should have. But that's all in the conditional so no point dwelling. In fact there was a time I made Christmas Pudding as gifts - a change from Christmas Cakes but we always left those for our friend John to provide.

In amongst all the silly papers we've kept and brought with us to Rome I found the following letter that went with the puddings in 1989.
This pudding is based on a recipe favored by King George VI and still used at Windsor Castle today. Just think you are eating the same pudding as the Queen and all the little royals. Boiled Pudding has been enjoyed in England since the early 16th century but only became the traditional end to Christmas dinner in the late 18th century.

There are several traditions concerning the making of a Christmas Pudding. It is always prepared on "Stir Up" Sunday. That is the Sunday when the English Book of Common Prayer "stirs up" the people to renew their zealous faith in God. It is also the Sunday when the pudding is "stirred up"; always I might add stirring clockwise for good luck. Also it was the custom for each family member to have a stir so the luck would be evenly distributed to one and all. Because I was alone when I "stirred up" this pudding, I thought of each of you with a stir.

The pudding must then be steamed over boiling water for nine hours. This was one tradition that I upheld for many years, much to the delight of our local Hydro company. This year I have followed a microwave method suggested by Madame Benoit.* I did not use a Panasonic or Frigo-seal but I did use PAM. So I hope that Jehan, as she prepares her tortière for the angels, is smiling on me; and me, I'm laughing at the Hydro company.

Another tradition, a legacy of Queen Victoria, was the placing of a bean or trinket in the pudding. The person finding the treasure was said to have good luck in the coming new year. My own experience with this tradition has been that a guest either swallows the bean or thinks it got there by mistake and quietly hides it on their saucer. An incident involving the bean and a choking aunt convinced me that this tradition could go by the wayside.

One tradition that should always be followed is the flaming of the pudding as it is brought to the table. Though this too has led to several incendiary events in my own kitchen I am sure that you will find that this is one tradition that is worth the odd singed eyebrow. The final tradition is to serve the pudding with hard sauce or custard sauce. I've always been partial to the former myself but along with the pudding I've included recipes for both, courtesy of Martha Stewart.

When speaking with Laurent in Cairo at 4 o'clock this morning I was reminded of one other tradition which was instituted in our household in Mexico several years ago: the eating of cold pudding for breakfast on Boxing Day. I find this a rather revolting tradition but Laurent assures me he enjoys it immensely.

Finally we hope that each one of you has a wonderful Christmas and that you think of us and ours. In Cairo we'll lift a glass to you and yours. And for us that is what Christmas is all about: traditions and remembrance.

Christmas 1989.

Reading it made me wish I have bothered to "stir up" a pudding for our table this year. But in its place I guess panetone will be brought to the table at the end of the Christmas meal - I'm just not sure how well it will flame!

*Jehane Benoit (1904-was a Canadian treasure. She began her life as a cook using a wood stove and ended up writing one of the definitive books on Microwave cooking. In between she wrote cookbooks, had her own TV programme (in French and English) and was spokesperson for Panasonic and Frigo-seal.

21 decembre - San Pietro Canisio

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

The Traditions of Christmas - Sharing II

Silver Snow FlakesSo many memories of Christmas - good and bad - are being posted on some of my favorite blogs this week that I once again must share them. If they aren't on your regular blog visits here are some wonderful additions to your Christmas reading and listening:

Thank you all for sharing.

20 decembre - San Macario

The Traditions of Christmas - Christmas Crackers

Our Christmas traditions are a mix of Laurent's French-Canadian heritage, my English-Canadian background and a few things we've taken from places we've lived or people we've known. Laurent had never heard of Christmas Crackers before our first Christmas Dinner in 1979 but they had always been part of our family Christmas. And their decorative place on the table, the sound of the crack, the useless trinkets, silly hats and sillier jokes preface any Christmas dinner at our house.

But to me Christmas Cracker had another meaning after 1978 - it was the name of the yearly missive from my much-loved Ryan. I wrote about Ryan when he left us in October of last year and all that I wrote then holds true today. His Holiday letter was like no other. It wasn't the endless list of little Tiffany's accomplishments as a budding ballerina/equestrian star/girl scout/Rhodes scholar or stories of Aunt Betty's mysterious sex-change operation - it was funny, it was irreverent, it was touchng but never sentimental (God how he hated sentimentality) and it was Ryan.

Christmas Cracker 2005The Cracker didn't always arrive in time for Christmas - sometimes it was late January before it showed up in the post but Ryan was a busy lecturer, teacher, author and columnist and you knew it would be there at some point. When it did arrive you could be sure it would be filled with goodies: Snippets from The Times of London Obituaries, passages from books read that year, anecdotes from a trip here or there, quotes from favorite authors, comments on CDs heard that year - things that said nothing of his accomplishments (which were many) for the year but much about his experiences. Stupidly I didn't keep all my Crackers but I do have and treasure the last one he sent out in 2005.

Though we will have the traditional crackers on our table again this year, I miss the one that arrived every year in the mail. But not as much as I miss the person that sent them.

19 decembre - Santa Fausta

The Traditions of Christmas - Crèches II

Polish crecheAs I mentioned in my previous post we purchased a new crèche while we were living in Warsaw back in 2000 - a new crèche for the new millennium. There was a little shop, lodged in two small rooms in a cellar just off one of the main squares, filled with the work of Polish artisans - weaving, painting, pottery and wood carving. One day we saw a nativity set that took our breath away in its simplicity. In muted colours with figures, that though still showing the carver's knife, had a more natural look than the more traditional Polish figures around it. It was expensive - by the Mary, Joseph and the Childstandards of the day - but we knew it was something we wanted to include in our Christmas traditions.

I found it an odd coincidence that in both our crèches the Mary figure is clothed in orange rather than the traditional white and blue. I can't find an iconographic justification or reason for this, so it may have just been one of those serendipitous choices by two artists twenty years and 8,000 kilometers apart. The figures are carved in various attitudes of awareness of this child in the manager. Shepherds and townspeopleAnd following the European tradition the carver (we've lost the bill and of course didn't keep any notes so the only thing we know is his initials - CM) included tradespeople amongst the figures - an apple seller and an oil merchant. Unlike many of the Neapolitan figures they are not going about their business but have stopped to adore the new born infant and perhaps bringing offerings of their wares.

And there is a good chance that this is a miracle crèche: the figurines have been known to change position by themselves in the night. Or at least so it would seem if the "I don't know" response to questions like "Who moved the donkey?" are to be believed. Either that or there are two people in this house trying to stage manage The Wise Menthe Nativity.

As a sidebar a bit of Vatican gossip: I have it from a close personal friend of the parties involved (as they say in the tabloids) that the outdoor Presepe in Piazza San Pietro may cause a bit of a stir when its unveiled on Christmas Eve. It's the handiwork of artisans in a small Alpine town near Trent and is nontraditional in several respects including the setting. We must get down to see it over the days after Christmas as there is no way we would even attempt to join the crowds on Christmas Eve.

19 decembre - Santa Fausta

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

The Traditions of Christmas - Crèches I

Tradition says that the first crèche was created by St. Francis when he used a straw manager set between an ox and a donkey as the alter for Christmas Eve Mass. It then became the custom in churches and monasteries to recreate the scene of Christ's birth. As time passed the tradition became more wide-spread and families began to create their own crèches or presepe: elaborate scenes that tended to reflect their own civilization more than Ancient Judea. In the case of aristocrats elaborate scenes in semi-precious stones, enamel, gold and silver and for poorer households painted clay or wood. The tradition spread throughout Europe and each country has their own version - I fell in love with the Provençal Santon on my first visit to the South of France in 1970.

Creche in Piazza San Pietro under wraps
The most popular presepe here in Rome are the two at Vatican City - the one above in Piazza San Pietro awaiting unveiling on Christmas Eve - though each of the 900-odd churches has its own and going from presepe to presepe is a post-Christmas pastime for many. The most elaborate presepe are in Naples and there's a street lined with shops selling everything needed to create your own - my friend Larry reported on his visit with Vin to the shops on Via San Gregorio Armeno to add figurines to their Nativity scene.

The first Nativity scene I recall having as a child was a colourful cardboard one. It came in a book and you cut out the figures and put it together - TAB A goes in SLOT C. After a few years it became frayed and as I recall a little unsteady - the ox had a bad habit of falling over on the baby Jesus if the table was jarred. I don't recall us ever getting another one. It was, after all, a rather un-Protestant tradition.

South West Corn Husk CrecheThat first Christmas Laurent and I celebrated together in 1979 saw the beginnings of a few of our Christmas traditions.Mary, Josepha nd the Baby One was a crèche - Laurent had grown up in Québec where they were always part of Christmas. Thumbing through the Neiman-Marcus Pre-Christmas shopper (they had such great things in those days) I saw a very unusual Nativity scene: it was created at a South West aboriginal co-op and was almost entirely made of corn husks. There was our crèche.

I've always felt there was something endearing about the fact that the baby Jesus is wrapped in bindings the way an aboriginal child would have been and the lamb is made Angel with a sheepfrom pipe cleaners. The figures have no noses or mouths just two black dots for eyes. A wise men lost an eye during one of the many numerous packings and unpackings but a felt pen corrected that - though now he seems to have what I believe is called "a lazy eye." And another of the wise men seems to have trouble standing and tends to topple over - reminding me of that cardboard ox.

So for the next twenty-one years we packed and unpacked that crèche every Christmas - Corn Husk Wise Mennot matter where we lived. The first year I built a paper-mâché hillside for it - that got lost or destroyed in one of our moves. In Mexico City I bought a patch of moss from a street vendor to place it on - only to have hundreds of creepy crawlies of unknown species come running out the minute I put it on the floor under the tree. Other years it sat on a buffet or a side table. There was always a candle burning beside it over Christmas Eve and Christmas Day - and the baby was never put in place until then.

Corn Husk Shepherd and Pipe Cleaner LambThen in 2000 I saw the most beautiful carved crèche at an artisan shop in Warsaw (I hope to have some pictures of it tomorrow) and decided that would be our new crèche. But being sentimental I packed our corn husk Nativity away with all the other decorations that we no longer used - the various soldiers, musical instruments, minature children's books etc from theme trees I had done over the years. Imagine my surprise when that box showed up here in Rome - it hadn't gone into storage. A few of those decorations found their way onto the tree and once again this year we've unpacked our first Nativity scene and we'll find a place for it.

Looks like Christ will be in two stables at our house this year.

18 decembre - San Graziano

Monday, December 17, 2007

A Little Good News

Patricia Pearson, an author and contributor to op-ed pages of USA Today, NYTimes and the Guardian, offers "a gift basket" of the good news stories that go unreported on the CBC (Canadian Broadcasting Corporation) website. I love the comment about the FoxNews scroll.

I've been in a bit of a "I hate Rome" mood the past day or two so taking a page from Patricia's piece I'm going to start compiling a list of all the Good Things here.

Laurent and Reese
Starting with Laurent and Reese.

17 decembre - San Lazzaro

Sunday, December 16, 2007

The Traditions of Christmas - Sharing

Sharing can take many forms and that is what blogs are about. We can share memories, stories, music, thoughts, opinions and observations. A few of my blog favorites have been sharing some great stuff the past few days:

  • On his Jukebox Friday Eric over at Secrets of the Red Seven has a great version of the worlds most popular chorus by a group called the Roches - not roaches.
  • Doralong's music choice is a bit more rock inclined with Brian Setzer giving Rudolph a run for his money.
  • Elizabeth has two things to share: one a musical bombshell from the London Gay Men's Chorus and the other a personal memory and her thoughts as she looks back on it.
  • And though it is not exactly Christmas, Lorraine speaks eloquently of sharing a meal at special times - happy and sad.

Thank you, my friends, for sharing.

16 decembre - 111a Domenica di Avvento

High Days and Holy Days - The Feast of the Immaculate Conception

Our friend Robert maintains that there are four times in the year that it looks like Halloween here in Rome - and none of them come on the last day of October. According to him December 8th and the festivities surrounding the Feast of the Immaculate Conception in Piazza di Spagna is one of those Mr. Dress-up days. So it was hard to resist his invitation to meet him along with Walter and another old friend Yvon, who was in town visiting from Prague, at la Fontana della Barcaccia.
Looking towards Piazza di Spagna

The Statue of Maria Immaculata was erected in 1856 to commemorate Pius IX's declaration of the Immaculate Conception. Its at the southern end of the Piazza just in front of the Spanish Embassy.

The faithful converge around the column to sing their Aves and Salves and present enormous floral tributes to Our Lady. Parishes under her patronage process through the square with banners as do members of various confraternities in capes, caps and plumes. The odd Bishop or Cardinal wanders through with his entourage and various orders of religious join the processions and the singing. I was mildly disappointed that there were no flagellants but was reminded this was Italy not Spain.

And at around 1600 Big Ben and the Boys from the other side of the river come to place a floral crown on Our Lady's head. Well actually Big Ben doesn't do it himself - I'm told one of those brawny brave Vigili del fuoco(firemen) goes up in the cherry picker on his behalf. The Spanish StepsPeople around the base of the statueThen there is just the festive crowd that comes to watch, roam the street and celebrate what is, for most Romans, the first day of Christmas. And of course being Romans they head into the trattoria and restorante for an extended lunch (pranzo.) How could we do less?

Off we headed to Ristorante Mario on Via della Vite. Its a warm, cosy and extremely popular place because of their exceptional Toscana cuisine. For starters two bowls of warm white and black beans in olive oil and a large ball of Buffalota Mozzarella followed by Ribolleti (a thick Tuscan vegetable soup - just the thing on a chilly day) then a remarkably light lasagna (paper thin pasta, a light bechamel sauce, a savoury veal-beef mix, a sure hand on the cheese and not a sign of tomato sauce) and a slice of warm apple tart to finish. All of course accompanied by a very nice white from Tuscany.

The place was now packed - every table occupied by groups of families, friends, colleagues and the two rooms were filled with that now familar sound of Romans celebrating over drink and food - I know it seens odd to say but it is a sound I've never heard anywhere else. As we ordered our coffee the waiter, who had been good but slightly aloof, heard André, a friend of Robert's who had joined us for desert and is currently finishing his Doctorate in Mid-Eastern Studies, speak Arabic with Laurent - suddenly we were his favorite table. He was from Alexandria but has lived in Italy for 25 years. The bottles of grappa and lemoncinni were brought out and left on the table, conversations at this point were going around the table in Arabic, French, Italian and English.

Seemed a highly appropriate way to celebrate a major Feast Day.

16 decembre - 111a domenica di Avvento

The Traditions of Christmas - Dickens' A Christmas Carol (1951 film version)

A Christmas Carol - FrontpieceCharles Dickens wrote five Christmas books beginning with the best known, and best loved, A Christmas Carol in 1843. I must admit that even in my most fervent Dickens phase I've only read the three most popular: Carol, The Chimes and The Cricket on the Hearth. However the summary of the last book The Haunted Man and the Ghost's Bargain on the fascinating Dickens Christmas Books page on David Perdue's Charles Dickens Page has given me an idea for some new Christmas reading.

According to various sources there have been 30 or more movie versions of Carol - the first by Thomas Edison back in 1908. There are on-going arguments as to which is the best but even though I have always enjoyed the 1938 MGM version with Reginald Owen, I go with the majority in putting the 1951 Alastair Sim version at the top. Sadly I only have the DVD in the colourized version (it was all that was available at the time) which robs it of much of its atmosphere and it appears the excellent VCI release is now out of print. But despite the "technical improvements" the brillance of acting, directing, writing and cinematography still shine through.

Back when I was doing movie reviews for a magazine in Eastern Europe I wrote the following observation:
A powerful performance is at the center of the 1951 British adaptation of Dickens' A Christmas Carol: Alastair Sim's Ebenezer Scrooge. Write Noel Langley has let Dickens' story speak for itself, and the crisp black and white cinematography of C. M. Pennington-Richards captures Dickensian England perfectly. Director Brian Desmond Hurst avoids excess sentimentality and surrounds his lead performer with the cream of British cinemas' supporting players - Ernst Thesinger, Miles Malleson, Hermione Baddeley, Michael Hordern, Mervyn Jones - who bring the familiar characters to life

But the true wonder is Sim: he is Scrooge. Listen to the way he delivers the infamous question about workhouses on Christmas Eve - it gives full meaning to the word heartless. And that long craggy face reveals a man whose heart died long ago. Then watch that same face as he questions the small boy about the goose on Christmas morning - it gives new meaning to the word joy. Sim creates a complex character and gives us a compelling view as to how this once loving man had become a bitter curmudgeon. It is this complexity that allows us to accept Scrooge's overnight conversion. This is film acting at its best
As a sidebar: In 1968 I saw Sim on stage at the Chichester Festival in The Magistrate with a very young Patricia Routledge (sadly only known as Hyacinth Bucket to most of the world.) There was a wonderful scene where after being lead astray on a wild night on the town Mr Poskett (Sim) attempted to clean himself up for court. It was a comic tour-de-force as we watched this already beaten man further defeated by a washbasin, a small towel and a bar of soap in his attempts to regain respectbility . Without a word spoken Sim had us holding our sides with laughter for a good two minutes. In 2002 my dinner table companions on the Trans Canada train travelling from Winnipeg to Vancouver were a charming British couple. During our conversation somehow Chichester and Sim's performance came up. It turned out the lady had been assistant-stage manager for that production 34 years before - it was her first job in the theatre. I recounted my memory of the washing scene and she let me in on a little secret, Pinero's stage directions simply read: Poskett washes his face. The entire scene had been Sim's invention. She said she would time the scene each night and no two performances were ever the same length. He always knew exactly when to cut it off. And apparently Routledge said that she learned how to play comedy watching Sim that summer. Well he had started life as a teacher.

Over at YouTube tgs01 is posting the entire movie in black and white in installments - unfortunately it is not available for embedding.

16 december - IIIa Domenica di Advento

Thursday, December 13, 2007

GPV* - Not To Be Confused With GPP**

Realized I hadn't posted a Gratuitous Puppy Video* (not be be confused with a Gratuitous Puppy Picture**) in a while. So here we have our Reese being bathed last Sunday.

His skin condition has returned with a vengeance so for the past few days we've been walking over to the Vets - well I've been walking, he's been carried. Tuesday I met a charming older couple who were in with their dog. The lady - faded blonde but with a elegance that was unforced and a wonderful smile when she talked about her dog - had found her wandering on the street two years ago. The dog was going to be operated on that afternoon for a tumor that they hoped was benign. We talked about our pets and them being what she called "a loving responsibility," which I thought was a great phrase. I checked with Dr. Benvenuti yesterday and it was benign - I would have loved to see the smile on her face when he told her that.

13 decembre - Santa Lucia

Sciopero! Sciopero! - Part 2

Largely unreported in the North America, there has been a major truck strike here in Italy. For the past four days roads into and out of major cities have been blocked by disgruntled truck drivers. Angry at the steep rise in fuel prices and the low wages paid by the major trucking companies the drivers are demanding government action. Though what exactly the government can do at this point is unclear.

Unlike the strikes I mentioned before that were mildly inconvenient this one has had a major effect on the country. Italy depends on trucking for 95% of delivery needs. Little in the way of goods are produced here in Rome or the outskirts most of what we consume in our daily lives must be trucked in. Petrol stations are running out of gas and most are closed - the streets are starting to become strangely quiet as people are afraid to take their cars out. Supermarket shelves are starting to run low on stock items and fresh produce; if it continues very little will be available at the traditional Saturday markets. In other parts of the country shortages have led to factory shutdowns, cancelled garbage collection and stores are showing lower than normal sales for the pre-Christmas season.

In the New York Times today, the first mention of the strike, there is speculation that it may be a political maneuver to further destabilize Romano Prodi's government. What ever the reason it appears to be only the surface of a greater problem that is facing Italy according to an extended piece in the International Herald Tribune.

Other than noticing a decrease in traffic today I must admit the strike has had little direct effect on us. Fortunately we had done a bit of stocking up last weekend as we realized that this week was going to be a bit too busy for daily shopping. Sometimes "too busy" can have its advantages.

Update: A report in the IHT says that two of the truckers unions agreed to returned to work last night. Thing should start returning to normal but in the mean time it is calculated that the food industry alone lost about EUR210 million a day (thats USD 336 million and CAD 312 million.) If though the Italian economy can handle those sort of loses these days.
13 decembre - Santa Lucia

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

The Traditions of Christmas - Visions of Sugar Plums

And those visions of sugar plums and gingerbread are in every pastry shop in town.

Marzipan grapesMarzipan White PeachesSugar PlumsMarzipan PeachesGingerbread Pyramid

12 decembre - Santa Giovanna di Chantal

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

B-Day Ditty

My friends Ian and Scott, who have retired to the town of Banff in the Canadian Rockies - lucky bastards - sent me a Blue Mountain birthday card: its in the style of one of the old Silly Symphonies with a mouse singing a little number called It's a B-Day Ditty. I now can't get it out of my head - thank you on so many levels guys!

In the past I've spent my Birthday in Hanoi, Mexico City, Cairo, Warsaw, Chicago, Montreal, Ottawa, Toronto and several other places that I can't remember because I'm old. However if anyone had told me I'd spend one at a children's theatre in Roma I would have checked for some of that Castel Sant'Angelo weed Aud Hat was talking about.
Alter to the Nation in the rainPiazza Venezia in the rain
It was torrential rain Sunday afternoon and of course the idea of even getting a line through to the radio taxi was absurd. Off we headed five blocks to Via Constanza, umbrellas losing the battle against the driving rain, the 60 Express to Piazza Venizia and a wait for the H Express over to the other side of the river. Our friend Walter was appearing in a production of Oscar Wilde's The Happy Prince (Il Principe Felice) at Tearo Le Maschere in Trasteverre. Its a small (100 seats) but charming theatre with a professional company devoted to presenting a season of plays for children. We joined our friends Vincenzio and Larry and Walter's partner Robert in the back row with three other men - all friends of the actors... and Dorothy.

Il Principe FeliceFour actors presented the Wilde tale of the Statue and the Swallow in a freely adapted version - Walter played among other things a tramp, an animal trainer, a town crier, an unemployed father and a cruise ship sailor. A cruise ship sailor??? Well yes as I said freely adapted: in this version the statue and the swallow become humans when the Blue Fairy from Pinocchio wanders in by mistake. They leave the cold behind to go to Argentina on a cruise ship - don't ask. It was actually a lovely way to spend the afternoon but my heart jumped when they said there were two people in the audience who were celebrating birthdays. Thank god it was a five year old brother and sister (twins) - the little boy was as unimpressed with the Blue Fairy's kiss as I would have been.

12 decembre - Santa Giovanna di Chantal

Monday, December 10, 2007

The Traditions of Christmas - Gift Giving

We are very fortunate that we have established good friendships here in Roma. A few like our friend Robert are long-standing others such as Robert's talented partner Walter and Larry and Vincenzio are recent. We spent a good deal of my birthday weekend with these four wonderful men and other friends and acquaintenaces of theirs. I'll blog more about that tomorrow.

So what does this have to do with the Christmas tradition of gift giving. Well Larry writes about it today on his blog. The smaller children in the school where he teaches have found a wonderful way to reach out to children in Roma who live with HIV. Take a look - and the pictures of Larry are pretty damn fine too.

10 decembre - Nostra Signora di Loretto

The Rest of Friday

Laurent joined Joanne and I at the Piazza Sant'Andrea delle valle around two o'clock and we head off for lunch at one of our favorite Trattoria. For almost 40 years Paola Fazi has been cooking in the kitchen of Trattoria der Pallaro and her husband Giovanni has acted as host and waiter. Posted above the door is a sign: Qui se magna quello che passa la casa (Here you will eat what we want to feed you.) There is no menu, just what Paola has decided to cook that day. It will always be a traditional four course Italian meal - Antipasti, primi, secondi and dolci with the added pleasure of freshly squeezed clementine juice as a palate cleanser.

    Friday's menu:
  • Hot lentils, prosciutto, salami, black olives, potato-cheese balls, white fish fritters
  • Rigate in a creamy tomato sauce with Romano cheese
  • Roast veal with Paola's signature home made potato chips, grilled eggplant and zucchini
  • Freshly squeezed clementine juice
  • Apricot tarte
  • Coffee
  • A rather rough but not unpleasant local white wine

Then Laurent gave us one of his patented Roma antiche tours - Largo Argentino (the old Campus Martius where Julius Caesar was actually assassinated despite what Hollywood may say) and Portico Ottavia (the old Jewish ghetto and south of the Foro.) As a sidebar Laurent has been known for his tours where ever we have lived: his Jarash and Warsaw ghetto tours especially were a must for anyone visiting the Embassies in Jordan or Poland. His ancient Rome tours are becoming equally famous. He just may have another career all set when he retires in a few years time.

Hanukkah CandelabraThe Jewish GhettoThe Jewish GhettoThe ancient ghetto is still a Jewish area and in celebration of Hanukkah there was a nine branched menorah or Hanukiah in the piazza.

The Destruction of the TempleEarlier in the day Joanne and I had passed the Arch of Titus with its famous bas-relief of the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem. A menorah is being take away as part of the booty.

10 decembre - Nostra Signora di Loretto

The Traditions of Christmas - Christmas Fairs

The Christmas Fair had just opened at Piazza Navona on Friday when Joanne and I were on our stroll. It is one of many in Roma, and only some of the booths and rides were operating but families and school groups were already showing up.
Piazza Navona Christmas FairAngels for the PresepeCreches and BuildingsMore Angels

As well as children's toys and Christmas trinkets, stalls are selling figurines, buildings, trees, moss, lights - everything you need for your own Presepe.Coke and Santa

A familiar figure reminds us that a Christmas Fair is after all a commercial event.

Fountain of the Four Rivers

The Fountain of the Four Rivers is undergoing a much needed cleaning and restoration.

Carousel HorsesCarousel Figures

Not sure if its just me, but as colourful as this carousel may be, it needs children to give it life.


And of course, being Rome, there has to be candy and sweet stalls.

10 decembre - Nostra Signora di Loretto