Thursday, September 22, 2022

THERE HAD TO BE CAKE

Like so many all over the world, I devoted Monday to watching, on television, the ritual that accompanied the end of an era in London. I am glad I bought an extra box of tissues! A friend and I lunched, between processions, church services, standing for the national anthem and tears, on Italian stuzzichini (finger food) and a Turkish lahmacun (because it tastes good cold and I had therefore been able to make it the day before, using a pizza base not pitta bread, as it traditional). After that there had to be cake and my local bar made the one you see below for me - a thank you to the late Queen but also looking to the future with King Charles:   



Thus a Welshwoman and a Scottish woman in Sicily bade farewell to this most international of queens and we do not think she would have minded at all. 

Saturday, September 10, 2022

"SOME MORNING, UNAWARE"

 O, to be in England

Now that April 's there,

And whoever wakes in England

Sees, some morning, unaware,
 ...

wrote Robert Browning in Home Thoughts, from Abroad and went on to list, in the poem, some of the things you might see and hear in the English countryside on an April morning. But you see them distractedly, "unaware" because you take them for granted; you are "there" and able to see them every day.

Many words have been written about the momentous events of this week, so, planning this post, I wondered what I could possibly add to what great and renowned writers have already said. I had written about the Queen on this blog only in June, when we were celebrating her Platinum Jubilee, yet that seems a decade ago now. I pondered, wondered again and considered not writing anything at all but then I thought that perhaps I could write about what it is like to be British and hear such news when you are not "there",  do not wake in England or one of the other nations of the United Kingdom, cannot totally gauge the atmosphere "there" but suddenly, although you hope you have become bicultural, feel more British than you have for years. And you reel from the impact of the news you have just heard.

On the morning of what began as an ordinary day, Thursday, 8th September, I was looking at the British newspapers online and following certain developments on Twitter when suddenly I read that Her Majesty the Queen had been advised to rest as her doctors were "concerned". Alarm bells did not immediately ring in my head as we had seen Her Majesty accepting the resignation of one Prime Minister only on Monday and she had appointed the new one on Tuesday. In the photos, she looked frail but happy. She had rallied before; surely she would rally again? But then serious journalists started tweeting that something strange was going on in Parliament; notes were being passed round and Members of Parliament were looking grim. The Speaker interrupted the session to convey the best wishes of the House to the Queen. It occurred to me that the very fact that the Palace had issued a statement meant that things were very bad and, when we were told that first the (then) Prince of Wales and later the Princess Royal had gone to Balmoral, we knew. As Brits we all knew, wherever we were in the world. In the afternoon the Queen's other children and Prince William arrived at Balmoral and the only further news for hours was that the Queen was "comfortable". Again, as Brits, we knew that this probably meant, "Nothing further can be done" but we perhaps did not expect the  news we dreaded to come so quickly. At home I switched on BBC World News and saw that their main royal news presenter was wearing a black tie. 

At seven o'clock in Italy, which is six o'clock in the UK,  I took my dog out and when I came back, I went into the kitchen for a moment with the television still on in the living room. I heard the words "King" and "Charles" and then I knew for certain. I watched the written announcement that was displayed on the screen and a piece of my heart - the fragment that had woken in England "unaware" and had taken the Queen for granted - dropped out of my body. The National Anthem was played and although I was alone I stood up. I thought, "Oh, goodness, I've got to sing God Save the King" (for the Crown passes immediately to the heir upon the death of the Sovereign).

I thought back to the Coronation, when I was three. I've written before on this blog about how, when it was over, I had asked my great aunt when the next one would be and she had replied, "When the Queen dies." I had cried, because I didn't want this lovely young woman with the dazzling smile to die but I didn't want to wait either. And here I was, seventy years later, and I was standing in a living room in Sicily crying my eyes out just like that little girl so long ago.

When you live in a foreign land, you begin to see your own country with new eyes, especially if you have had to explain its ways and traditions to others, which, as a teacher, I have had to do. I have spent a large part of my life criticising the monarchy but over the years, looking at it not from "there" but from "here", I have come to the conclusion that it has its merits. I think I began to soften towards the Queen in particular when I watched a documentary about her, filmed not long after Prince Philip's retirement from royal duties, in which she walked down what looked like the kitchen stairs of whatever palace she was in one grey, rainy morning, perfectly dressed in coat and matching hat as always, smiling and ready to leave for an engagement. It came into my mind that she must have felt very lonely, despite her entourage. Few would have criticised her if she had handed over to her heir at that time but she was her own woman: when she was twenty-one she had famously made a promise to the people of her nation and the Commonwealth to serve them all her life and she was going to keep it. And who will ever forget the photo that went round the world in 2021, in which she stood alone, because of Covid, on what must have been the worst day of her life - that of her husband's funeral? She may have been a Queen, but how she must have longed for a comforting human touch that day. As someone who spent Italy's first, long, very strict lockdown totally alone apart from my dog, I can tell you that her famous lockdown speech, containing the reference to the song We'll Meet Again which every British person understood, gave a seventy-year-old Welshwoman in Sicily the hope that she desperately needed.

Students often ask me if the royals are "snobs" and I always reply, "Absolutely not." On the contrary, they are trained to put people at ease and are supposed to be polite to everyone. (All right, one was gaffe-prone but we have forgiven him.)  It is often said that the Queen met "everyone" and today a photo of her shaking hands and talking to Kermit the frog of Muppet fame has emerged on social media. She is smiling and she would have been as courteous to Kermit the frog as she was to the Archbishop of Canterbury. 

Watching the documentaries shown during the BBC's coverage of the Queen's death, it has become much clearer to me that she did, indeed, meet "everyone" and how hard she worked. I am usually the first to say that it is not "work" as ordinary people know it but I do not think we can imagine what it takes to be constantly travelling (albeit in great comfort), make speeches which you may not agree with at the behest of a government which operates in your name but tells you what to do, to always smile, appear interested and, most skilfully, engage in conversation without really saying anything at all - to be the perfect "soft power" diplomat. It is because of her strictly kept political neutrality that the Queen was, and is, so respected around the world and it is also why the tributes - some of them from unexpected sources -  have poured in.

Of these tributes, two stand out for me, one from a head of state and the other from an elderly Sicilian gentleman whom I do not know but pass the time of day with in the street:

President Macron said,

For you, she was your Queen.
For us, she was The Queen.
She will be with all of us forever.

The Sicilian man said,

I am so sorry about the Queen. I was in love with her. For me it was as if she was Italian.

Her Majesty was, insofar as her job permitted it, her own woman but she was everybody's Queen.

I do not know when I will wake in England or Wales again, Your Majesty, but I do know that I will never wake "unaware" that you have gone.




For those of you who speak Italian, here is a link to a video in which I show and explain the Coronation Crown coin which I have kept for seventy years. (I'm about one second from the end of the clip and you will need some Sicilian pazienza to skip the ads!)





Wednesday, August 24, 2022

TWILIGHT TONES

 You are lucky to be able to capture a twilight image in Italy, as it does not fall slowly, as in Britain. Here, one moment it is there but go and get your phone or camera and it is gone. Our Modican Nobel poet Salvatore Quasimodo's words Ed è subito sera - And suddenly it's evening are true - metaphorically too, of course, as anyone who is ageing (like me) will tell you. 

On Monday evening, however, I managed to reach for my phone in time and here is a view from my bedroom window but this time with the Ferragosto bunnies out of focus!



 

Thinking of this view, and its fast transition into darkness, I was reminded of some words from Colette:

Regarde! Regarde la couleur du ciel au couchant, qui annonce grand vent et tempête. Qu’importe le grand vent de demain, pourvu que nous admirions cette fournaise d’aujourd’hui ? Regarde, vite, le bouton de l’iris noir est en train de s’épanouir ! Si tu ne te dépêches pas, il ira plus vite que toi

- Colette, Journal à rebours,"Sido et moi".

Look! Look at the colour of the sky at sunset, predicting strong wind and storms. What does tomorrow's strong wind matter, provided we can admire this furnace that we have today? Look, quickly, the bud of the black iris is blossoming! If you don't hurry, it will go faster than you...

Wherever you are, enjoy this lovely time of evening!


Tuesday, August 16, 2022

BEHOLD, THE FERRAGOSTO BUNNIES!

I'm not a "Rise and shine, sing in the morning" type of person. I'm more, "Light, go away!" first thing. Nor do I normally gaze out at the view from my bedroom window at that time of day, as it's all I can do to open the shutters and stumble to the bathroom. But yesterday, perhaps because it was the Ferragosto holday, I did and - still being a bit dopey, you will understand - I thought there were some whacking great bunnies coming to greet me! It was only the shape of the fichi d'India (prickly pear) bush in the field out there, but it cheered me up:




Ferragosto, or the Feast of the Assumption, is when Italy virtually closes down and everybody except grumpy old me heads to the sea. For the past two years, during which we have been in and out of various lockdowns, my local bar closed only for the 15th, not for a week, as before, presumably to try and recuperate some of the takings lost during the Covid emergency but this time they have closed for the full week again. There is a quiet in the streets reminiscent of the lockdowns but happily that backdrop of fear in the air is absent and today I had an aperitivo and a plate of stuzzichini in another local bar with a friend, which helped dispel the memory of those grim times.





In the absence of a celebratory breakfast out yesterday morning, I made myself a granita all'anguria (watermelon granita) and very refreshing it was, too. I had bought a traditional Sicilian brioche for the occasion and Bertie the dog enjoyed a doggie gelato.




I hope you all had a good Ferragosto and look after those August bunnies if they come to visit!

Wednesday, August 10, 2022

BUONA NOTTE DI SAN LORENZO 2022

It is mid-August and once again it is the Feast of St Lawrence, followed by la notte di San Lorenzo, the night on which young Italians often stay on the beach, looking for shooting stars or le lacrime di San Lorenzo (St Lawrence's tears). If you see some, they are said to bring you good fortune. As I wrote last year, the only notte di San Lorenzo on which I've managed to spot some was in 2019 and whether they brought me good luck depends on how I interpret 2020! I suppose they did, in that I have been lucky enough to survive the pandemic so far and in 2020 I managed to complete my memoir.

This year. I think I will be disappointed again, though, as it seems that the Perseids will mostly be active on the 13th, but may be obscured by a very bright full moon. Never mind, I love the Sicilian moon! 

Whether or not you see the stars, here is a lovely song for you to enjoy tonight:


Monday, August 01, 2022

A BASKET OF GOODNESS

This is the hottest summer I can remember in Sicily and it seems to be wearing us all down because the extreme heat started early, in May, and I believe it has only rained for about ten minutes since. There are, of course, compensations, such as granita, anguria (watermelon) and myriad ice cream flavours and I certainly perked up when a friend brought me this traditional Sicilian basket of goodies from his garden on Friday. 


There are aubergines, datterini (tiny, date-shaped tomatoes), salad tomatoes, tomatoes for sauce and occhi di bue (bull's-eye) tomatoes, long peppers and a kind of pepper that I had never seen before.These are called friggitelli (from friggere - to fry) and, although they are related to chilli peppers, they are not hot. (I understand they are known in the US.) My friend told me to fry them in olive oil and garlic until browned and to add coarse salt only at the end of cooking. That is exactly what I did and wow, they were good!

Monday, June 13, 2022

JUST A FEW PHOTOS...

 Just a few photos of where I live, in Modica, a Unesco World Heritage Site, from its highest point, the Pizzo.

And what Saturday night is complete without a pizza?  This delicious Ortolana pizza was consumed with pleasure at the smart new Pizzeria S. Antonio , Modica Alta.




Sunday, June 05, 2022

MARKING AN ERA

On the occasion of Her Majesty The Queen's Platinum Jubilee, I'm going to begin with another extract from my memoir, A Place Called Siracusa:

I think we must have got the TV for the Coronation and we had red, white and blue flags all over the house in the run-up to it. I dressed up as the Queen and paraded around pretending to be her for what seemed like months and when it was all over I kept asking when the next Coronation would be.

Not until the Queen dies”,

said Auntie Mabel, disappointing me abjectly.

I did not want Her Majesty to die but I couldn't believe I'd have to wait till I was as old as Mum and Dad, or even Auntie Mabel and Grandpa! But meanwhile we had a new, young Queen with a dazzling smile and a year or two later my class at school was taken to watch her drive through Bristol. All we really saw was a flash of the strawberry-coloured suit she was wearing as she passed but we waved our little flags like mad, and afterwards drew excruciating pictures of the occasion for posterity. The Queen was soon to disappoint me again, however and the reason for this was our new, red sofa. I was so happy because it was red, my favourite colour at the time but Dad quickly decided it needed to be covered and covered it was, in heavy, drab material. I cried buckets and asked Grandpa when the covers would come off.

When the Queen comes”, he replied.

I spent months with my nose pressed against my bedroom window, waiting for the Queen to come, but she never did. I've been disillusioned with the monarchy ever since.




Sixty-nine years on and I still don't want the Queen to die. I'm not even a monarchist but I can't imagine the world without her. In a very strange way, which is hard to explain to non-Brits, the Queen has been a part of our lives, though most of us have never met her, many have never seen her at a live event and a large percentage are indifferent to the monarchy, if not against it. I can only explain this sentiment by saying that she perhaps represents the collective memory of the nation. On this particular Jubilee, I am watching the coverage and celebrating in my little way because I believe it is possible to have doubts about the relevance of the monarchy as an institution, whilst maintaining respect for a woman who has always done what she regards as her duty. I also rejoice because, wherever we are, we have had very little to celebrate together for a very long time. I must say that yesterday (2nd June), as I watched the crowd in London walking peacefully to Buckingham Palace, as the people of Britain have, on important national occasions of both joy and sorrow, for generations, I was able to think, “Yes, that is the Britain I remember and the Britain I continue to love.”

In this spirit, then, I wish Her Majesty and the country that made me a very happy Platinum Jubilee. This little rhyme came into my head the other day:


So here's my Coronation Crown

and I paraded up and down,

a “pretend queen”, when I was three,

yet all things pass – and I, and she. 




Tuesday, May 17, 2022

THE RETURN OF A FAVOURITE FESTA

 It was a great pleasure, on Saturday, to be able to visit the Infiorata di Noto (carpet of flowers) again in person, as it has not been held as a "live" event for the past two years because of the pandemic. This year's theme was the Val di Noto Baroque cities, marking the twentieth anniversary of these eight towns becoming, collectively and deservedly, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. 

For the first time, the Infiorata has been held for five days instead of three, from last Friday until today, allowing many more people to enjoy it. Also for the first time, it has been necessary to buy a ticket - not to enter the city but to walk along via Nicolaci where the carpet has been displayed - at the very reasonable price of €2,50 per person. These could be purchased on site or online, though I have to say that the latter system took some time!

Because you are walking on one side or the other of the display you are contending with some strange angles for photos and also with sun and shadow and having to crop out faces, so I did the best I could:








As always, no visit to Noto is complete without a visit to the Caffè Sicilia, where you can partake of delicious and unique ice creams such as this one. Finally, here is your faithful blogger enjoying the Noto sunshine.



Well done, Noto and thank you for a great day!

Monday, April 18, 2022

BUONA PASQUETTA - HAPPY EASTER MONDAY

This Easter traditional processions are back and Modicans, yesterday, were able to enjoy their beloved Madonna Vasa Vasa, the Easter Sunday procession in which statues of Mary and of the Risen Christ are carried around the town until, eventually, they meet. Other towns have also been able to celebrate in their traditional ways, although there was much polemic about this at first. In the end, I think, it was conceded that people cannot live under Covid restrictions forever and at some point they have to be trusted to be as careful as they can while attending such events. Let us hope that all will be well.

I did not attend, preferring to spend the day here with my dog and perhaps have a day of reflection but I certainly did not lack for food! A kind friend brought me lamb impanate (pies) and cassate (also known as cassatelle or cassateddi) di Pasqua. These last are very different from the iced cassate beloved of tourist magazines and are pastries filled with ricotta and honey. They are a particular speciality of south-eastern Sicily. I made for myself my spezzatino di Pasqua of lamb, onions, artichoke hearts, yellow pepper and potatoes spiced with sumac and flavoured with rosemary and sage. (Lamb cuts are smaller in Italy than in the UK, hence the seemingly vast quantity. I will freeze some.)  The last photo shows two slices of a superb colomba (dove-shaped cake) which was also a gift and it is flavoured with Modican chocolate and amarena (black cherry) icing. Can I make colomba?  I have never tried because there are professional bakers who do it far better than I ever could and have space and equipment for the long, natural rising required, as with panettone.




Happy Easter Monday, everyone!



Wednesday, April 06, 2022

BALMY BREEZES

A lovely day on Sunday with friends who are both book lovers and dog lovers and what could be better after a long and delicious lunch than an evening stroll by the sea in Sampieri?








Blogger in balmy breeze



And the memory of a beautiful sunset
to take home.





Sunday, March 27, 2022

BLOG4PEACE - UKRAINE

 


This evening, Michelle and I will do what I know every parent in America will do, which is hug our children a little tighter,

said President Obama following the Sandy Hook shooting in 2012.

Although the President was referring to a very different situation from the one the world is trying to respond to today, these are words that have stayed with me, for any one of us, through a combination of geographical position and politics, could find ourselves caught up in a war and having to flee. We think it is so far away, and yet it is so near.

Yesterday I read some extracts from the diaries of Ukrainians in Mariupol, and I cannot get out of my mind the distress of a journalist who had finally pushed her beloved dog down the stairs and out of her building, presumably in the hope that the dog would find a way to survive. That could be any dog-owner too, in a sudden change of circumstances.

When Mimi Lenox, the indefatigable founder of Blog4Peace, decided to launch a special Ukraine edition of the project this weekend - we usually do it in November - I, like many bloggers around the world, wondered how I could do it, although I desperately wanted to. How could I put my hands on the keyboard and write about the tragedy in Ukraine when experts on that country and Russia also find their fingers paralysed by horror? But Mimi is right - this is exactly the moment when we must start typing, to show that words matter, that people matter, that peace matters to us all.

My first reaction to the escalating situation a few weeks ago was, "Have we learnt nothing?" but of course it is a myth that we have had continuous peace in Europe since 1945. Man just isn't that wise! And every time, I ask myself, over and over again, "Why?" Every time I see that leaders on both sides of a conflict have at least got themselves round a table, I want to yell, "Keep talking, keep talking! If you can declare a truce for an hour, you can declare a truce for a day, a week, a month, a year or forever. And if you can agree thus far, you can agree to stop it. So stop it!"

I do know it is not as simple as that and I have no idea how you can begin to reason with a tyrant. Yet I imagine that one man does have an idea and that, of course, is President Zelenskyy, for who can fail to admire this brave and inspiring man? Derided at the beginning as "just a comedian", he has defied all the odds. "Just a comedian?" No one is better placed to understand tragedy than someone who has an understanding of comedy, for the two are intrinsically linked. Even in Shakespeare's tragedies, there is often a fool or a clown and much comedy hinges upon a point at which tragedy is (only just) avoided; for example, girl almost marries the wrong man, then something happens that enables her to marry the right one and, to bring Shakespeare into things once more, "All's well that ends well."

Comedians, then, certainly have a role to play, as do the protests of ordinary people and an example of the latter has given me hope today: In the occupied town of Slavutych (Northern Ukraine) citizens continued to protest peacefully as sten grenades and bullets whizzed across the sky above them. They demanded a Russian withdrawal and the release of their imprisoned Mayor. In the end, they got both. Words matter, people matter and peace matters to all of us.

And tonight I will hug my dog a little tighter.








Tuesday, March 08, 2022

INTERNATIONAL WOMEN'S DAY 2022




March 8th, La festa della donna, is widely celebrated in Italy and you see mimosa blossom everywhere. Here's why it is a symbol of this day. Arrangements such as those in the photo above are sold in supermarkets and in the streets (the one on the left containing artificial mimosa, of course but it's a pretty idea) and I bought the one below this morning:




Also this morning in my favourite bar all breakfasts and coffee consumed by women were paid for by a local business and we were each given little gifts of flowers - something to brighten our day after two years in which we haven't really been able to celebrate this day.




The dark times, as we know, continue and my thoughts today are with all the women who cannot celebrate International Women's Day in their own homes or even in their own country and who, unlike me, have had no choice in the matter. I'm sure you will join me in wishing them peace.

Friday, February 18, 2022

CAKE, GELATO AND SAINTS

My birthday on Monday (St Valentine's Day) prompted a trip to Catania with a friend on Saturday, and also led to much thought, principally about how, with a bit of luck, you feel reasonably strong and energetic for quite a long time in your life and then suddenly you are seventy-two and everything takes much more effort than it used to. You also have to start admitting that there are some things you can't do any more and for me these include standing for long periods, standing on ladders or chairs (balance problems) and chopping an onion as if I was on Masterchef. However, being here is better than the alternative, as they say, and, as we have all led such restricted lives due to Covid over the past two years, I was very happy to go to Catania in December for the first time since my birthday in 2020 and again last Saturday when a friend offered to buy me lunch there. It was a lovely, sunny day, warm enough to eat outside and watch the world go by, and this semifreddo agli agrumi di Sicilia rounded off a delicious meal:


The atmosphere in Catania was happy, for, although the processions which would normally take place for the feast of the city's patron Sant'Agata had again been cancelled due to Covid, masses were taking place for her in the cathedral and everyone seemed to be still feeling festive. Sant'Agata's feast day is 8th February but processions are held on the 12th, the ottavo or eighth day after her feast. This brave lady was jailed for refusing to sacrifice to the Roman gods and / or because she refused the advances of the Roman prefect. In prison she underwent several forms of torture, including having her breasts pulled out with pincers and being forced to walk on broken glass and hot coals. Unsurprisingly seriously ill after these ordeals, she is said to have been healed by St Peter, who appeared to her. She was sentenced to be burnt at the stake but an earthquake prevented the sentence from being carried out. Sant'Agata died in prison, probably in AD 251. She is the protector of people suffering from breast cancer, wet nurses, bell-founders and bakers among others and is thought to be able to protect the city from the eruptions of Etna. Therefore, you will understand, she is a most beloved saint.

"Got the fridge magnet"

After lunch and a pleasant stroll along Catania's wide main shopping street, via Etnea, we decided to find the new gelateria opened there by Don Peppinu. This company make the most delicious ice cream and their efficient and cheerful delivery service saved me when the first lockdown continued into April 2020 and I was gasping for gelato. I will be forever grateful to them and, also in lockdown, I ordered one of their cannoli kits to gladden a lonely weekend. The Catania shop is beautiful and Don Peppinu has lots of new and unusual ice cream flavours so, if you're ever in the city, do pay a visit.



On Monday I treated myself to another birthday lunch in my local bar, the Cicara Caffeteria, and when I ordered a slice of their strawberry tart - because you have to have cake on your birthday - it came with a candle, which made me happy.

Then I went home to be with my dog, read and reflect on other birthdays: the seven-shaped cake my dad ordered, obviously, for my seventh, the romantic, padded birthday and Valentine cards I used to receive from my first love back in Bristol, the disappointing birthday when an emotionally unavailable man gave me a gift the day before but didn't want to spend the actual day with me and was totally unaware of how much that hurt, and of how the postman in Cardiff used to think I had many lovers because I always received lots of cards on Valentine's Day. I never disillusioned him. Then of course there were the other milestone birthdays I've celebrated in Modica - my fifty-fifth before I came to live here, my sixtieth when I decorated my house with images and record covers from the 1950s and 60s and my seventieth, also in my local bar, two evenings before the fourteenth and twenty-nine days before the beginning of Italy's first national lockdown. I look at the photos of that night and think, "What if we had known?"

Modica, 1995 - my 55th; Modica, 2020 - cake for my 70th; 
me on my 70th; 2022 - Cicara Bar, Modica


But in the month of love let us end with love: Valentine's Day, of course, is much commercialised but I think the saint - associated with love either because he signed a letter to his jailer's daughter "from your Valentine" or because he secretly married Roman couples who were in love, so that the husband could not be conscripted - has left us something precious if it causes us to remember, and be grateful for, all the love we have in its many forms. I go home, I look at my dog and I realise I have all the love in the world, right here.



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