Monday, August 02, 2021

WELL DONE, LE MAMME!

 

Foto: "La coperta della mamme di Modica"
Facebook page.

In 2019 Arianna Salemi came up with the idea of "clothing" the steps of the San Giovanni Evangelista Church in Modica Alta with knitted or crocheted 20 cm x 20 cm "tiles", worked by the mamme di Modica, to create a beautiful sight and then to give the "tiles" to those who will be in need of them in the cold weather to come. And the mamme did it! The "tiles" were on view on from midnight Saturday - Sunday to midnight Sunday - Monday and people were invited to go and look, and bring along a book to read on the steps if they wanted to. How I wish I could have gone!

I was also delighted to read that Liliana Segre, the 90-year-old Life Senator, writer and Auschwitz survivor, had not only sent some wool to the mamme when she heard of the project, but sent them a beautiful message yesterday:

"L’eguaglianza è un sentimento che fa rima con tolleranza ed accoglienza. Ecco il punto. Quando ci si apre a l’altro, ci si prende cura , si arricchisce il proprio patrimonio sentimentale, sociale, culturale e si diventa biodiversi dunque più umani. Le vostre mattonelle sono un patchwork di tolleranza, pietre d’inciampo dell’accoglienza, fili intrecciati come i destini che si incrociano nel mare nostrum. Grazie infinite care donne di Modica, siete preziose.

"Equality is a sentiment that rhymes* with tolerance and welcome. The point is this: when we are open to the other, we take care of ourselves, we enrich our own emotional, social and cultural heritage and we become multicultural and therefore more human. Your tiles are a patchwork of tolerance, Stolpersteine** of  welcome, intertwining threads like the destinies which cross each other in the Mediterranean. Thank you, dearest women of Modica - you are treasures."

*in Italian, obviously

** Stolpersteine are memorials to Holocaust victims and I think it is to these that Liliana Segre is referring.


Liliana Segre is a heroine of mine and I recently read her book Ho scelto la vita.

Wednesday, July 21, 2021

LOOKING AT THE MOON

The anniversary of the 1969 moon landing always makes me think of my first visit to Italy, which took place in that year and I have written about it before on this blog. However, I could hardly believe that it was 52 years ago yesterday at 10.17 pm Italian time, if you focus on the moment Apollo 11 landed, or 52 years ago today, at 4.56 am if you  focus on the moment Armstrong set foot on the moon.

Here is another extract from my book, A Place Called Siracusa, in which I remember the night of 20th - 21st July 1969. I had been living with the Bianchi family in Bergamo and everything, including Italian food, was new to me. The wife had done a bit of matchmaking on my behalf and I had acquired an Italian boyfriend called Luca:

 It wasn’t only my tastebuds that were singing, though. It was as if all my senses had been awakened:  there were the sounds and the silences – the mad boys as their vespas roared by, the cacophony of sounds in the street, the silence of the convent opposite the apartment, punctuated only by bells. There was the smell of the food being prepared - often the aroma of ragù being prepared for lunch would drift up from another apartment from as early as 8 am. Then there was the delicate scent of vanilla that wafted through the air every time you passed a pasticceria and always there was the aroma of freshly-picked lemons.Touch - there was the tactility of Italy, certainly, but also the joy of touching Martina’s freshly ironed. crisp linen sheets, the velvet skin of peaches and apricots, the coolness of marble when you entered apartment buildings. And what a feast for the eyes this country was! In addition to all that, I had met with kindness everywhere.

When Dott. Bianchi took me to the Duomo (cathedral) in Bergamo I was rendered speechless by its beauty and when I first saw Milan Cathedral it was both its grandeur and its loveliness that stopped me in my tracks. When we went to Riccione and Rimini for a few weeks it was the blue of the sea; and it was the sheer majesty of the Alps when we went to spend a week at the Bianchi house there, in Foppolo.

Luca had followed us to both Riccione and to Foppolo, and it was in Foppolo that I found myself on the night of the moon landing, 20 July 1969.  Italian TV was playing songs about the moon late into the night and when they played "Guarda che luna" we all went out onto the balcony to do just that – look at the moon. We couldn’t believe there were men up there!  I only have to listen to the first bar of that song and I am nineteen again, standing back on that balcony in Foppolo, with the Alpine breeze cooling the night air and Luca's arm around me.





So here's to looking at the moon!

The book will be more widely available soon - watch this space!


Saturday, July 03, 2021

ONE SAD SICILIAN

You didn't have to be watching the match between Italy and Belgium in the UEFA Euro 2020 Championship (confusingly taking place in 2021 because of the pandemic) last night to know that Italy won! I happened to be reading, so just followed the cheers from the bar opposite and the surrounding houses and believe me, it is nice to hear happy sounds outside again.

One Sicilian, however, will have been not exactly sad, but perhaps not quite as exultant as the patrons of my local bar, and that person is the Italo-Belgian singer, Salvatore Adamo. Born in Comiso, about 20 miles from where I am writing now and still in the Province of Ragusa, Salvatore Adamo emigrated to Belgium with his parents at the age of three. He now has dual nationality but this did not become possible until 2010. Now 77, Salvatore Adamo of course became famous as just Adamo all over the world, singing mainly in French but also in Italian and other languages. In 2018 he was awarded the Premio Tenco for helping to make Italian music and culture known in other countries.

Speaking about the Euros earlier this week, Adamo said that, like other Italo-Belgians, he would be supporting Belgium as a thank you to the country he has lived in most of his life, although they all keep Italy in their hearts. He said he was sure Italians would understand and I think he is right.

I followed Adamo's music in my youth as a French and Italian student so it is always nice to hear from him. Here is my all-time favourite Adamo song:

 


Friday, July 02, 2021

ARANDORA STAR 81

Today is the 81st anniversary of the Arandora Star tragedy and I again post part of an article I wrote about it in 2009. I do this in memory of the victims and in solidarity with their families but also because, sadly, the story is a much-needed reminder of what can happen when we designate immigrant communities as "the others". 

At the outbreak of World War 11 "enemy aliens" living in Britain were divided into three categories: those in class A were deemed to represent a high security risk and were interned; those in class B were "doubtful" and were subject to some restrictions; and those in class C were thought to pose no security risk at all. However, following the Fall of France in 1940 Churchill decided, in his own words, to "collar the lot" and the majority of class B aliens were interned. When Italy declared war on Britain and France on June 10th the internment of Italian males was ordered. Many of the Germans interned had opposed the Nazis or were German Jewish refugees. Most of the Italians interned had lived in Britain virtually all their lives and many had sons who were serving in the British military. Others were in Britain because they had opposed Mussolini and later fled their country in fear of their lives. The majority of the men were detained in internment camps on the Isle of Man or Orkney, where they were treated inhumanely.
A policy of deporting internees was in place and on 1st July 1940 the SS Arandora Star, a converted cruise liner, sailed from Liverpool for Canada with 1,864 people on board. Of these 734 were Italian internees, 479 were German internees, 89 were German prisoners of war and the rest were guards and crew, 80% of the crew having been newly signed on that morning. The internees were forced to sail in appalling conditions, packed onto a ship built to carry only 250 passengers and extended, in wartime, to carry 200 more.
The ship was painted battleship grey, making her look like a troop carrier, and displayed no Red Cross flag, which would have distinguished her as a vessel carrying civilians. On her second day out from Liverpool the ship was torpedoed by a German submarine off the west coast of Ireland. There had been no lifeboat drills, the rafts were immovably strapped to the sides of the ship anyway, and few lifejackets had been issued. In addition, the decks and the lifeboats were separated by walls of barbed wire - a measure which the Captain had protested about before sailing. Most of the Italians did not stand a chance , as they had come from mountainous areas of Italy and had never learnt to swim. Those few who did survive the freezing sea were again harshly treated after being rescued and some were then deported to Australia.
When the British media reported the tragedy, the public were told that Nazis on board had dashed for the lifeboats knocking everyone else out of the way. No mention was made of the fact that respectable people who had made positive contributions to British society had been on board, along with refugees who had risked their lives, in their own countries, for the very freedoms the British now claimed to be fighting for.

No apology has ever been made by a British government.

Monday, June 21, 2021

SO I WENT AND WROTE A BOOK

 Yes, I finally did it! I'd like to say that I became disciplined and organised and wrote my book during the first, seemingly endless, lockdown but I didn't, because I spent most of the time just feeling scared. I did, however, plan my book and this time last year, when both restrictions and fear had been lifted a little, I had a long talk with myself and I managed to do it.

It was certainly a learning process and the great plan of course got altered many times. At first I thought I would discipline myself to write a certain number of words a day but as time went on, I stopped worrying about the word count and concentrated on completing chapters, which was much more satisfying. Linking one chapter to another was something I spent a lot of time on and eventually I reached the stage of choosing photos and that was both emotional and difficult; many of them, of necessity, show me on my own, not because of vanity but because it would have been impossible to contact and get permission from other people who feature in some of the ones I discarded. I learnt that, under British law, if the photo is old and there was "no expectation of privacy " - for instance it was a large group photo - then there is probably not a problem but I agonised over this type of photo nonetheless. Then I found out that you have to scan the photos you do decide to include at the maximum size and this entailed much running back and forth to a print shop. I had no idea what "crop marks" were, or that you do not use the double inverted commas on your keyboard for speech but use a code for single quote marks ( a kind friend who is a book editor dispensed a few tips like this) and I certainly did not know that a slight difference in the weight of Italian paper can make two or more millimetres difference to the page size!  It was all a fascinating journey.

I mentioned emotion. As the book is an autobiography which will, I hope, shed some light on what the times I have lived through were like for ordinary people, I had to recall some harrowing moments. I spent some days in floods of tears but at the end of the process I felt that a weight had been lifted. I also had to admit to the many stupid things I've done and I'm not proud of them!

But what was my reason for putting myself through all this? To leave a testimony, yes, but mainly I wrote it for my birth family, with whom, as some of you will know, I was reunited in 2014. (If you do not know this story, there is a page with links to my adoption posts at the top of this blog and it is retold in the book.) I would like them to know a little more about what happened to me and why I made some of the decisions I did, among them choosing to move to Italy at the age of fifty-five. Perhaps I can best explain my reasons for writing, along with my choice of title, with this extract from the preface:

It is August 1993 and my mother is delirious in a ward at the University Hospital of Wales, Cardiff. She repeats to me,

‘I'm going, I'm going.’

‘Where are you going, mum?’

‘I'm going to a place called Siracusa.’

And now, in 2020, I live one hour from Siracusa. But why was my mother, who had never been there, talking about this place as she drifted in and out of consciousness and how did I come to live so near it?

This is the story of my journey and I am writing it primarily for my birth family so that when, in the future, its younger members say, at Christmas gatherings,

‘Remember that strange auntie who used to come at Christmas and wasn't very good at board games?’ they will have something to refer to.

I hope, too, that I have included a little social history here, for the world they will know as adults is one I cannot imagine. Maybe there will be no books at all, but I am convinced that people will continue to read in some form. And if they chose to ignore the book or throw it away, that is their decision, not mine, just as it will be their world, not mine and they will have the right to make their own choices.

It seems such a long time ago now, that I wrote that, yet it has only been a year. Perhaps it is because so much has happened on the world stage since then. All I can do is hope that the little ones do not have their education interrupted again, that they will have no cause to live in fear as they grow up and that they, my birth family, my friends and all who read my blog and / or my book are blesssed with health.

I finished the book and managed to get copies printed for my birth family as a Christmas surprise and  some copies are available in the Mondadori bookshop in Modica. I hope to have copies available online in the next few weeks. I will keep you posted, dear readers.





Sunday, June 20, 2021

TWO FLAGS

Two lovely flags flew from my balcony today, for the occasion of the Italy - Wales match in the Euros 2021 in Rome.  

I love both countries but should confess that I don't love or understand football. However, sometimes you need to go with the flow and even I could see it was a good match. 

For me the anthems were the best bit and I must say the Italian commentator made a valiant attempt at pronouncing Hen Wlad Fy Nhadau.

Well done, Italy and onward, Wales!




Wednesday, June 02, 2021

WE WERE HERE!

Buona Festa della Repubblica, Italy!



June 2nd is also important for me because it marks the anniversary of my arrival, with my dog Simone, in Italy to live - sixteen years ago today.

They have not been sixteen years without trouble, darkness and even despair and of course the Covid situation has brought sadness and despair to us all, wherever we are. Those of us who have our hearts in two countries also worry twice, despair twice and grieve twice, just as we rejoice with both our countries when things go well. So please do not think that, because I have left the UK, I do not care about it, because I very much do.

This day brings many memories back to me and it is perhaps particularly poignant this year, as it was in 2020. I imagined many scenarios, both good and bad, that could happen when I settled here, but never did I imagine a tragedy like Covid - how could I, when the best scientists and virologists in the world did not? Nor can I inagine what the situation would have been like for me if I had lived through it in my country of birth; I can only try to deal with the situation here and now, and be happy that this is one bank holiday - only the second since the pandemic began, I think - which we in Italy are not spending in lockdown. 

And of course, today I think a lot of my little Simi, who "went on", as my mother used to say, six years ago now, though I believe she is still with me. Sometimes when I am out with my precious Bertie I see her there, beside us, and I say, "Walk with us part of the way, sweetheart", and I believe she does. Then she is gone again.

So on this day of many memories, I offer you an extract, recalling June 2nd 2005, from my book. (Yes, I have written a book! )

Three days later, I boarded the bus from Cardiff Bus Station to Gatwick Airport. I would stay three nights in a hotel there, walk around London and bid it farewell – for I didn't know if or when I would be in the UK again - and then, on the morning of 2 June 2005, Simi and I would board our flight to Italy. And that is what I did. I didn't go out to Pinner - Mum and Dad were in my heart, wherever I was or would be. Instead, I lit two candles for them in Westminster Abbey. Then I walked slowly around Poet's Corner to thank all those who are commemorated there, lingering the longest for Tennyson, Browning and his Elizabeth, Shakespeare and of course, Dylan Thomas.

I had, of course, kept in touch with the pet transporter company and they had reassured me that Simi was fine. At the airport, she had to undergo a final health check at which I could not be present. When I arrived there, I asked about her at check-in and was told I should ask at the departure gate. I knew she had been sent there but nothing more. The gate staff told me to sit near them and they would make enquiries. I had to wait until all the other passengers had been checked in and then a kindly ground crew officer approached me and said he had just seen Simi and had given her water. He took me to the window so that I could see her little crate being loaded. (She wasn't allowed to be in the cabin with me and I knew this. I also knew that pets are flown in a special area in the hold. I had been worried but my Cardiff vet had told me it is actually better for them because it's cool and dark and they usually sleep.) Oh, my little baby! As I was watching, the co-pilot came along and said that he, too, had just seen her and that she was a little anxious but otherwise fine. A nice Scottish lady also came over to tell me she had overheard our conversation and knew how I felt as she had previously flown her Westie dog from Scotland to London. Not so far, but it was empathy and I appreciated it. Once I boarded, I spoke to the captain too and he told me Simi was just underneath the spot where we were standing. I felt better then, knowing exactly where she was. By the time I sat down, I was so tired that I slept most of the way.

As we came into Catania, I did not see Etna this time, but felt the familiar surge of emotion as we touched down on the soil of this most beloved of lands that I had decided to make my home.

We were here!


I loved you then, Italy and I love you now.



I will tell the kind readers of this blog more about the book next time!

Saturday, May 29, 2021

NON SE NE PUÒ PIÙ

 "It's been too long", wrote a kind reader of this blog in a message to me last month and it's true - it has been over a year since I last posted here. The reason? The pandemic, mostly. I did not bake bread every day, though I continued to cook, I did not follow an exciting exercise régime online and, though I kept in touch with friends, I did not spend hours on Zoom or Skype. I spent most of my time scrolling through the news, hoping, day after day, to see a hopeful headline and, as you will all know, it was months before one appeared. Yes, last summer in Italy we felt that we could breathe and life returned, for a while, to something resembling normality but the respite was short-lived.  

Then came the autumn and we found ourselves in lockdown after lockdown, all over again. None of these was as strict, or felt as oppressive, as that first long lockdown that began in March 2020, but the restrictions and the uncertainty from week to week and even from day to day began to get everybody down. Italy was again divided into zones, with red zones having the most restrictions, orange ones some and yellow zones fewer, with the white zone, the one we all long for, seeming impossibly far away. 

Non se ne può più - "We can't stand it any more" was the sentence I heard everywhere from Easter onwards and indeed I do not think we could have. Sicily at last became a yellow zone last week, which means that bars and restaurants can open in their outside space and the hated curfew has been moved to 11pm. It had been so sad, in recent months, to pass my local bar and see no one sitting on its terrace and to witness the accompanying silence of what is, in normal times, a joyful and welcoming place. That is why it has been such a pleasure, this week, to be able to enjoy a gelato and an aperitivo there again.




I don't think it is understood by government that small local bars can be much more than places of refreshment: For many people who live alone, they are a point of social contact and I know that if I did not appear at mine for a coffee in the morning, they would worry about me and there would be a good chance of someone quickly coming to find me if I fell, or worse, at home. It makes me feel generally safer.




My dog, who has kept me going and provided the affection and cuddles I have so missed over the past fifteen months, is happy to be patted and spoken to on our walks again and she, like me, senses that the heaviness in the atmosphere has lifted. 


"I'm under here, mummy!"


And yes, I have, I am pleased and grateful to be able to say, received my first vaccine. I know that this alone will not guarantee my safety but compared to how I felt a year ago, it has made a tremendous difference. You will all know the story of how, at the beginning of this year, Italy seemed to be doing very well and was even ahead of some other countries in its vaccination plan. Then it all fell apart when the promised quantities of doses from more than one company did not arrive in the EU as expected, for reasons that are not yet clear. I think many of us became very frightened again then and it was a bleak time. But the country has made great progress following this setback, not without difficulty, frustration and tears, and it seems to me that most of us feel very cautiously optimistic.

Anything that disrupts our routines, the things we take for granted, is hugely stressful and it is usually not  until it happens that we realise this. But it is not only routine that punctuates our lives -  collective celebrations or, sadly, mourning, festivals, public anniversaries and other events also play their part and of course they are missed. Almost every year since I have lived in Sicily (sixteen years on June 2nd, Republic Day) I have attended the lovely Infiorata in Noto to see the "carpet of flowers" which is always on show during the third weekend of May. As I've written here before, such events take place in several parts of Italy and in other Catholic countries and the most likely reason for their origin is simply a desire to create something beautiful for God. And I'm sure that God, like the rest of us, could do with gazing upon some beauty in this situation. Last year the carpet was created but only shown online and this solution had to be repeated this year. Its theme in 2021 was a homage to Dante and the famous words,

e quindi uscimmo a riveder le stelle - and thus we came out to see the stars again

were spelled out in flowers.

Non se ne può più has never seemed more true and the words of the father of the Italian language have expressed the hope of everyone, all over the world.


Image from Quotidiano di Ragusa

I'll try not to leave it so long between posts from now on!


Thursday, April 02, 2020

NOTES FROM THE SILENCE

I begin writing this post on a Sunday lunchtime, a moment when, all over Sicily, a great feat of transportation takes place. It is the movement of happy families off to see other relatives for lunch and it is the movement of food. People carry the antipasti, or the pasta sauce, or the main to their relatives' house, but most of all they carry pastries and desserts - some lovingly made at home, some just as lovingly chosen from the mouthwatering displays of myriad pastry shops. 

But today there is no movement and today there is silence. The earlier sounds, of bells for Mass, of cars full of chattering families going to or from church and thence to the pasticceria or home to pick up the food they have made, of greetings shouted from cars or as they arrive at their destinations, have also been absent.

I go out with my dog for no more than five minutes and only in the street where we live, where she sees none of the people who normally stop and pat her and none of her four-legged friends. I carry a self-certification document, stating for which of the permitted reasons I am out and I hurry, for there are neighbours watching, watching.... I am doing nothing that is not allowed but still I hurry. Besides, every moment outside constitutes a risk and I feel unsafe. Near the post office there is a police car, whose occupants are also watching. They are protecting us, of course and I am grateful. I hurry, not for fear of them but for fear of the thing that terrifies us all - the thing we can't see, the virus.

I am not myself. I look different, too. My hair is tied back - the only way I can tame it now - and I wear no lipstick because of the mask. I am not wearing single use gloves because I can't manage the dog lead well if I do but if I have to go out for another permitted reason - say, to go to the pharmacy for repeat prescriptions - I wear them. 

This is our third Sunday in total lockdown but let us go back a little in order to understand how it came to this, because there is a factor affecting the South that I do not think is generally known outside Italy: You will have read that the most tragic consequences of the virus have been seen in Northern Italy, in particular the region of Lombardy (which includes the great financial and academic centre that is Milan) and in the town of Bergamo. This area, along with 14 other provinces, was declared a "red zone" on 8th March, meaning that there should have been virtually no movement in or out of the area. But one right remained, the right to return home (obviously meaning that essential workers could travel to and from work if they happened to live in another town). The 8th March was also a Sunday but on the Saturday night a newspaper leaked the news that Lombardy was to be totally locked down. This caused 20,000  - yes, you read that right - Sicilians working or studying in Lombardy to rush for the trains South in order to reach home before the decree became law on 10th March. They were all instructed to declare themselves and self-isolate and to be fair, it is estimated that most did. Some, however, did not and most new coronavirus cases I've read of in my area seem to have been caused by contact with arrivals from the North. It was after this event that another decree was quickly issued by Prime Minister Conte on 11th March, putting the whole of Italy on lockdown.

The arrivals, however, did not stop and there has been one very controversial case in my town of Modica. I see that it is now being reported in the British press and I do not want to say more about it here as it may become sub judice. There are now estimated to be around 44,000 people who have travelled to their family homes in Sicily since the night of 7th March. The Mayor of Messina has been on the quayside there this week trying to stop people disembarking. Opinion is divided on this but I am sure we can all understand that the Mayors take their responsibilities very seriously and feel that their primary duty is to protect their citizens. The Mayor of Modica, with whom I do not always agree politically, has had, I am sure, not a wink of sleep since the beginning of the emergency and I salute him here.

I mentioned Bergamo. It was the first Italian city I ever saw and I have very happy memories of it. It is said that a generation of grandparents has been lost in Bergamo Province and the TV pictures of army trucks taking the bodies of  people who had died alone to cemeteries outside their beloved town were heartbreaking. I can only assume that those, in my own country, who have been somewhat cavalier about loss of life to this virus have not seen them.

The British media seem to think we are all still singing on balconies here. I assure them we are not. Do they think we can sing catchy pop songs after we have seen Bergamo? Instead, at midday this Tuesday, there was a minute's silence, with flags at half mast, all over Italy for the victims. I do not see that being reported in Britain. The Mayor of Rome said simply, "We will do it. We will do it for them." We are not singing; we are crying.

How am I? Frightened, like all of you. Finding it hard to concentrate, like many of you. Missing human contact, for we cannot even see friends, or, save for a few exceptional circumstances, family unless we live with them. I miss the tap-tap-whoosh sound of the coffee machine in the bar and the Sicilian  elongated "Ciaoooo" in the street.  I have my books, I have my precious dog and I have both the comfort and the terror of the internet. There are many who have less than me and there are many who are lonelier than me. And I have never felt closer to the wonderful people of my beautiful, adopted country.


"Thy people shall be my people."
"Il tuo popolo sarà il mio populo."
- Ruth / Rut: 1:16

Sunday, December 15, 2019

A LETTER TO BRITAIN


Modica, Italy
13th December 2019

Dearest Britain,


A park in Norwich, Norfolk

I don't live in you now and, though I left you 15 years ago for another country that had captured my heart, that doesn't mean I no longer love you, for it was you that bore me, nurtured me, educated and made me and there will always be a British girl inside the continental me. I write now because what happened to you yesterday was shocking, devastating, frightening and deeply upsetting; its consequences cannot be foreseen at this juncture, but 24 hours on they seem bleak. I may still love you – I always will – but I no longer recognise you.

The country I left was far from perfect and our imperialist past was not something that most of us boasted about. Of course there was racism, as there is everywhere and I witnessed it myself, but it also seemed to me that it was generally understood that democracy means that you cannot impinge upon the freedom of others. When exactly did that change? When did people begin to believe that they could make whatever anti-foreigner, anti-gay, anti-woman, anti-elderly, anti-you-name-it comment they liked with impunity – in one of the most diverse and tolerant countries in the world? I am too far away to know and I doubt you know yourself but it has happened. Tolerance, it seems, has gone and soon it could be followed off our little group of islands by accountability in the “Mother of Parliaments”, the independence of the judiciary and perhaps even the constitutional monarchy.

When you see your own country from afar, you are unable to balance your pessimism regarding events there with a healthy dose of observation of your countrymen and women just getting on with their normal lives, but I would guess that what happened is simply that democracy is fragile and, having enjoyed it for so long, we took our eye off the ball. Then the 2008 recession gave the charlatans the opportunity they had been waiting for to exploit discontent. And you fell for it, my country. Not having known an occupation within living memory, you failed to see the danger when it came and you are failing to understand it now. This tide will turn, of course, whether peacefully or not I cannot say, and I certainly would not hazard a guess as to how long it will take.

So let us think back for a moment to a generation, that of my parents, who did recognise a serious threat to their freedom, for what I really want to talk about tonight are memories. Whenever I fly back to you, Britain, as the plane comes in over the Channel and Kent, I think first of Folkestone, a town of which I have no memory but to which I was sent at the age of eight weeks – to an orphanage there, because my natural mother couldn't afford to keep me. (Do you really want to go back to that, Britain? A narrow, judgemental state in which single mothers are forced to give up their children? It seems that you do, judging from remarks made by the now re-elected Prime Minister.) Seven months later, in the cold November of 1950, two kind, loving people who longed for a baby – a Bristol newsagent and his wife, both of Welsh origin – visited that orphanage in Folkestone and they drove back to Bristol with an extra passenger - me. My bond with the man who had just become my father was instant and I miss him to this day. I was told that I also went willingly into my mother's arms but took longer about it!

As the plane nears London, I look down and try to get my geographical bearings of that enormous city and its outskirts and I remember that somewhere down there I went to school, accompanied my big-hearted, generous but flawed dad to both casinos and Gamblers Anonymous meetings (somewhere near Buckingham Palace), became part-Londoner and grew up. Also down there his ashes mingled with my mum's, in the Ruislip Garden of Remembrance named after the only English Pope, Nicholas Breakspear. I only went back there once after their respective funerals (twenty years apart), on the 25th anniversary of my dad's death and I learnt that they were not there, for they are where I am. If I hadn't known that, I would have been unable to leave.


Westminster Abbey

They sat in their North London Garden, the girl and her dad, and he spoke to her sometimes in Latin, sometimes in French and he bequeathed to her his love and knowledge of books. Without him, she would not have become a linguist. He also bequeathed to her his humour, his quintessentially British irony and his gift for repartee. They served her well as a teacher and they serve her well now, when humour is all there is, she thinks, to help her deal with the situation.

Chronic illness had prevented dad from fighting (much to his frustration), so back in Bridgend, Wales, he had worked in the Arsenal, then in Bristol hosted American soldiers and joined the Home Guard. He and mum had been horrified by fascism and, like many of his era, he had, before what was always referred to as “The War”, been a member of the Communist Party because it was thought to be the only way to stop Hitler. Later, disillusioned, he left it and received threats for doing so. During the war and during our Bristol years he worshipped Churchill. That was a different kind of Conservatism, though – a party of the rich for the rich, yes, but there was a sense of decency and of responsibility for the fate of their fellow-Britons. In London during the Heath premiership, dad switched his allegiance to the Labour Party because, he said, they cared for the ordinary worker.


Dad (second from left) in the Bridgend Arsenal

My journey from the airport usually continues by coach and down we go, towards the South-West. I still have a sense of childish excitement when I see the motorway signs to “The South-West and Wales”. It's best before evening, when you can still see the green on either side, and as we near Bristol I muse that in some of these fields, cut through by the very road I am travelling on, the little girl and her dad used to go mushroom-hunting. Then she became a teenager and suddenly she was hurtling along the nearby country lanes in her boyfriend's car. She wept and wept when they left for London in the spring of 1965.

And now we come to the Bridge - the span across the River Severn which takes you into Wales. And Wales it is which gives me my real British identity. I grew up among its gentle accents, heard and sang its music every day, assimilated its culture and regarded it always as “home”. As you cross the Bridge you can still see the loading point for the old Aust ferry, which (if you were lucky) took you across before the miracle of the First Severn Bridge. (If you are unfamiliar with that part of Britain, you may be interested to know that the Severn has the third highest tidal range in the world. Hence the two bridges across it that now exist are true feats of engineering.) Sometimes you queued for hours, only to be told that they could take no more cars across that evening, either because of the current or because of the time, and then you had to get into Wales by driving “all around bloody Gloucestershire” as dad would bad-temperedly put it. Once in Wales, we were home and we stayed with my uncle and aunt or in the Cardiff Central Hotel owned by dad's cousin Frank. Years later, as a university student, I spent many drunken nights in its bar – Frank, the hotel guests and its staff had long gone – and later still it was all destroyed by fire. Wales was, and is, the sound of kindly, sing-songy voices, the land of the cwtch (cuddle - and believe me, there's nothing like a Welsh one), the aroma of Welshcakes cooking on a bakestone, a carpet of daffodils in March and April and the land of childhood warmth.


In Wales you'll find daffodils even when there aren't any!
Here, daffodil ornaments are on sale
 at Cardiff Christmas Market

But now I make another journey on these rare trips home: from Cardiff to Norwich, or sometimes straight from London to Norwich, another town of which I have no childhood memory, and yet it is where it all began. For that is where I was born and spent such a short time with my natural mother, who already had a three-year-old daughter called Jill, my sister. How we met after 64 years is a story I have told elsewhere but it is in Norwich that my British life comes full circle and yes, I do have a strange sense there, too, of coming home, of having been there before. Sadly I can only visit my natural mother at her graveside and I take her Welsh daffodils or, at this time of year, a little Christmas tree, and I hope she knows that Jill and I are there together. I have come to love Norwich in its own right, too – its lanes, the glory of its Cathedral, which I have found to be welcoming, and the peace of the nearby Broads.


A peaceful morning in Norwich


A Christmas tree for my natural mother
And on the way there I cross London again and remember other times, fashions and events, both in its life as a city and in my own.

To borrow from Rupert Brooke, all these things I have loved in you, Britain and, even though I do not recognise you now in your national life, they endure, for no politician can take my memories, though age may do so. Therefore I set them down now, for I want you to know that I have loved you, and I hope that you will come through this dark period as you have come through others – stronger, more determined to preserve what is good and, hopefully, kinder – and that if I do not live to see it, others will.

Monday, November 04, 2019

DONA NOBIS PACEM - BLOG FOR PEACE 2019


It is never hard to wish for peace - peace in your personal life and peace in the world - but it is certainly hard to write about it when both your life and your country are in turmoil. The turmoil in my country of origin, Britain, is nothing like that in war-torn countries around the world but there are worrying and upsetting events there - things I never imagined happening in Britain, of all places - and I am among an estimated 1.2 million British people in EU countries who feel, to say the least, unsettled and insecure.

I am not displaced; I am not a refugee; I have faced no danger but I do know that it is hard to begin a life in a new country, even when you are there, as I am, from choice, let alone when you have endured a perilous sea crossing and have been tortured, threatened and physically assaulted along the way, only to find that you are less than welcome when you reach your longed-for destination. My heart goes out, as it always has, to all who experience such trauma.

As I have said, I have experienced none of those things but events in my own country have led me to reflect on how quickly things can change, how events which you can influence little, if at all, can destroy your sense of security and take away your sense of control over what happens to you, simply because of where you find yourself geographically at the time. There is, in my case, also a feeling of guilt. I have no way of knowing if this is shared by others in my position but sometimes I wonder whether, I were in Britain, I would be able to help change things by adding my voice physically instead of, or as well as, through posts like this or through social media. But even if the answer to that were "Yes", it would not be possible so I have to ask myself what else I can do:

When Mimi wrote that her climate change theme this year could include our inner climate, I thought about that a lot and I began to ask myself what inner peace actually is. Millions of dollars have been made by gurus who believe that they can tell you, and perhaps some of them can. I can only say what it is for me and I think I find it in appreciating and remembering moments of love because these are the moments that enable us, sometimes fleetingly, to feel safe. So I would like to share with you some of my moments of love, and therefore of safety and peace, of this year: I found inner peace in February, sitting on a park bench in Norfolk, England, with the sister I never thought I'd meet; I found it in lighting a candle for my wonderful (adoptive) parents and another for the birth mother I never knew in Norwich Cathedral's Peace Globe; making Welshcakes for people is always a pleasure and for me, their aroma is that of home and, therefore, of safety and it was a joy to be able to make them in my sister's kitchen for St David's Day this March; and I have many precious moments of love every day with my dog Bertie, who loves me when I'm happy, grumpy, distracted, focused, tearful, energetic or tired and in the latter case she nuzzles me. She's a rescue dog but I always say it was she who saved me.



I am also lucky in being able to love where I am and my spirits were lifted recently on an autumn evening walk in Noto when I witnessed again the beauty of the sunlight on the stone of the Cathedral. I always go to the Noto Infiorata (carpet of flowers) in May and this year, as part of the "Italians in North America" theme, this flower portrait of Gaetana Midolo, who emigrated from her home town of Noto, Sicily to America, only to lose her life at the age of 15 in the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire of 1911, made a lasting impression on me. Gaetana had had a dream of another country too, and I know what it is like to arrive somewhere full of hope and to have your dream shattered. I recovered but poor Gaetana had no chance, in old age, to cherish her moments of love.



To Gaetana, to all who dream of a better life, to all who are struggling to change their inner climate and to all who dream of peace, I dedicate this post. To the big dreamers who are out there protesting to change our world, I send my thanks and I would like to say to them that sometimes, when you are deeply in turmoil or despair, you can only do small things, such as remembering love. But sometimes that is enough.

Dona Nobis Pacem

Thursday, October 03, 2019

INTERVIEW WITH A YOUNG WATCHMAKER

I am so proud of my young friend Gabriele Aprile, a watchmaker from Modica who has created his own watch, the EKWATCH, launching online today. I thought you would like to meet him, so I interviewed him earlier this week:



Gabriele, this week you're launching your own watch. Can you tell us how this project began?

It has been three years in the making. I'd always wanted to design my own watch. I made two samples with different designs and chose the better of the two, the one that was the best expression of my passion. It seemed a natural stage in my life and Kickstarter, which has financed over 11,000 projects and encourages people to create their dreams, made the idea possible.


You were inspired by the concept of an eclipse, weren't you? Have you ever seen one live and can you tell us more about your inspiration?

I've been fascinated by astronomy since I was a child and it became my ambition to put an eclipse on a watch. I saw a lunar eclipse last July in Marina di Modica. It lasted three hours and I felt that fascination and emotion all over again. 



What's different about this watch?

The Swiss Superluminova disc on the watch dial encompasses the idea of an eclipse. The luminous pigment represents the solar crown formed during the event. This is the only element of brightness in an eclipse, as darkness fills the sky inside and outside the edge of the sun. The EKWATCH takes up the eclipse at the moment of its climax, with a single luminous ring illuminating the dial.



Wow! We all want one! Did you always want to be a watchmaker?

Yes, I'm from a family of jewellers. My great-grandfather was a watchmaker, my grandfather was a watchmaker and jeweller, my father is a jeweller and my brother Salvatore is a gemologist.

You now have your own shop in Modica where you sell and repair watches but at first you worked in your family's jewellery store. Why did you open a separate shop?

I think of it more as an artisan workshop than a commercial activity and it gives me the space I need to work on my projects. It's also in a very handy position for people to pop in and have their watch batteries changed!


Yes, I do that often! Modica has a lot of jewellery shops for a small city - more than you would find in a town of similar size in Britain. Why do you think that is?

Well, I think it's because jewellery is handed down the generations in families here, so we have a tradition of giving gifts of jewellery on special occasions.

What do you think the future holds for watchmaking and what are your own hopes for the future?

There will certainly be more smartwatches but traditional, Swiss-made watches will still be in demand. People will always want to wear something beautiful on their wrists. My hopes are to take the project forward and to make more models.

How would you sum up the experience of designing and finally being able to market your own watch?

I've created a watch that I would want to wear myself.

Thank you, Gabriele and I'm sure readers will join me in wishing you all the very best for EKWATCH and all your future projects.




If you are ever in Modica, you will find Gabriele in his shop at:

Via Resistenza Partigiana 42 
97015               
Modica (RG)


Tel:  +39 328 7109 579



He'll be very happy to see you!


Thursday, August 15, 2019

BUON FERRAGOSTO 2019

Clockwise, left to right:
Bertie-Pierrine enjoying some special doggy gelato; interior of Duomo di San Pietro, Modica; appetisers in local bar; Sicilian puppets depicted in flowers at the Infiorata in Noto, 2019.

Wednesday, July 17, 2019

ADDIO, MAESTRO

"When writers die they become books, which is, after all, not too bad an incarnation", said Borges and it is true that we still have the works to console us. However, when a writer as great and as dear to the people of his birthplace as Andrea Camilleri dies, the feeling that something irretrievable is lost prevails and it would not be an exaggeration to say that Sicily is in mourning.

I didn't know until this morning that Andrea Camilleri had named his most famous character, il commissario Montalbano or Inspector Montalbano in English, after the Spanish writer Manuel Varques Montalbán, which I think is a nice touch. I also learned this morning - and I mention it because it makes Andrea Camilleri seem more like someone I'd have enjoyed having a coffee with - that, like me, he had been unable to get through any book by Dan Brown.

Most of us, of course, were introduced to Camilleri through the Montalbano books and TV series and I remember being in Sicily (eleven years before I settled here) when the first book featuring the gastronome detective came out. "This is by a new author", said a friend. "You might find the dialect parts difficult but try it." Now, I am not a fan of detective fiction but I think we can all admit that Montalbano is different and when the series was first shown I have to say it helped that he was played by Luca Zingaretti! 

The stories have certainly played their part in putting Sicily on the tourist map and nearly every town in this area offers versions of "Gli arancini di Montalbano" or "Montalbano's rice balls". Distrustful of food not prepared by a home cook or at least by the  restaurant owner Calogero - who shares the author's second name - Montalbano is witty and also knowledgeable about food, as are most Sicilians I know.

"Mangiarono parlando di mangiare, come sempre accade" - "They ate while talking of eating, as often happens", wrote Camilleri in La forma dell'acqua and in Sicily indeed it does.

Camilleri's sense of humour was sometimes dark, always down to earth and often ironic and, along with his defence of migrants and fearless criticisms of certain politicians, sometimes it made him enemies as well as friends, a fact that sadly became apparent when he was hospitalised in June and again today. Let us use British understatement for a moment to say that there was no love lost between Matteo Salvini and Camilleri but Salvini did have the decency to tweet a brief tribute this morning. Some of the latter's fans, unfortunately, demonstrated little of that virtue. But, as the author said,

"Un autentico cretino è difficile a trovarsi in questi tempi in cui i cretini si camuffano da intelligenti" - "A real idiot is hard to find in these times in which idiots disguise themselves as intellectuals."

The Montalbano books, set in imaginary Vigàta and filmed mostly in and around Ragusa, Punta Secca, Scicli and Modica, combine tales of the commissario's investigations with asides on Sicilian food and life, feature current events and have a cast of characters that all those who read them feel they know personally. 

I would like to add to the tributes by thanking Andrea Camilleri for bringing the place I came to love so much that I have made it my home to world attention in a positive way.

In 2017 Camilleri said of the blindness that had afflicted him in old age,

"Sono cieco, ma perdendo la vista tutti gli altri sensi si riacutizzano, vanno in soccorso. La memoria è diventata più forte, ricordo più cose di prima con molta lucidità e scrivo sempre."
"I am blind, but losing my sight made all my other senses more acute. They have come to the rescue. My memory has improved, I remember more things than before with great lucidity, and I still write."

When asked what he missed, he said,
"Mi manca la bellezza delle donne" - "I miss seeing the beauty of women."

The last Montalbano book awaits publication in a safe, where Camilleri had intended having it kept until the time was right, a decision which is now presumably in the hands of his publishers.

Camilleri recently said that he felt something approaching but didn't know what it was, adding that he liked to call it Eternity. Sì, maestro, let's call it that.

Andrea Camilleri:  6.9.1925, Porto Empedocle, Sicily - 17.7.2019, Rome


Actors' caravans for filming of Montalbano in Modica,
May 2019. The caravans are for Mimi Augello and Fazio.


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