Thursday, January 27, 2022


 A young person asked me today what I thought about this commemoration. I replied that I thought it was essential, as an event in Italy this week has sadly shown us: On Sunday in Venturina Terme, a hamlet of Campiglia Marittima in the Province of Livorno, Tuscany, a twelve-year-old boy was bullied, called names, kicked and spat upon by two teenage girls simply because he is Jewish. They also, appallingly, told him that he should "die in an oven."  The worst of it, perhaps, is that onlookers did nothing. Nothing. And that, as history, we would have hoped, had taught us, is where it begins - when onlookers do and say nothing.

Long ago, as a French and Italian student, I studied what happens under occupations and totalitarian régimes and what defines "collaboration" in such circumstances. We would all like to think we would have been heroes but the truth is that very few of us would have been. Some citizens "collaborated" to keep their jobs and feed their families but on the everyday level of simply keeping their heads down. Others went further and actively helped the oppressors. By this time, of course, the bullies were the ones in power, but how did they get there? They got there because reasonable people let them, listened to their propaganda and cheered them on, even in the most cultured of countries. They did not notice as their freedoms were eroded little by little. They noticed when it was too late and now the bullies were the ones holding the guns. And they were holding the guns because the small incidents were not called out.

Alberta Ticciati, the Mayor of Campiglia Marittima, though, is calling it out. Shocked when the boy's father reported the incident to her and to the police, she has written on Facebook,

"I am a public administrator but first I am a person, a woman and a mother... I understand how complex and difficult it is to bring up a child and guide them as they grow. But there are no excuses. There can be no justification."

No justification and regretfully no surprise. Liliana Segre, the Italian Holocaust survivor and Life Senator said that this kind of incident does not surprise her as unfortunately she is used to it. 

Tonight a torchlit Memorial Procession is being held in Venturina Terme and among those attending is the Governor of Tuscany. Let us hope that the boy and his family are able to take some comfort from the genuine solidarity being offered here.

Depressingly it has been reported that 2021 saw the highest number of reports of antisemitic incidents worldwide - an average of ten per day - in a decade and shamefully Europe accounts for 50% of these. Many more go uncalled out and unreported.

I told my young friend that there are few Holocaust survivors alive today; Liliana Segre, who has spent her life educating young people about it, no longer feels able, at ninety-one, to travel the country to speak in schools; and my generation, whose parents lived through World War II and who conveyed the horror of the Holocaust to us, will soon be gone too. Now it is up to my eighteen-year-old friend's generation to keep the memory alive, call the small incidents out so that they do not become massive ones and, if I may paraphrase a much decried British Prime Minister who did, however, get several things right, "Educate, educate, educate".

Tuesday, January 11, 2022


In Catania at the end of November

Every now and then, in this seemingly never-ending Covid situation, I get stopped in my tracks with fear and that is what happened in December when Omicron blared out its presence to the world. We were so near, we thought, so very near, to having a "normal" Christmas and to living in a way that resembled pre-Covid times. But it was not to be and, although triple-vaccinated, I'm still scared, especially with positive test results rising exponentially in Sicily and elsewhere in Italy - 947 in my town of 53,000 inhabitants today. Although we are not locked down or restricted as we were a year ago, masks are compulsory outside as well as inside again, we are supposed to be social distancing wherever possible, unnecessary mixing is discouraged and school reopening has been postponed from today until at least Thursday. It is not yet known whether teaching will be via distance learning or on school premises. In addition to these measures, you will have read about the Italian government's decision to bring in what amounts to compulsory vaccinations for the over 50s. We watch, we try to be careful and we hope, like the rest of the world.

At Christmas, I am glad to say, we were not required to fill in the hated self-certification documents in order to go anywhere at all or prevented from seeing friends and family and I spent a lovely Christmas Day with three friends who love books and dogs. Yes, I did consider staying at home but we are all vaccinated and at nearly 72 and with the virus raging, I wondered, and still wonder, if I will see another Christmas and whether we will at some point be barred from even small household mixing again, although the Italian government is doing everything it can to avoid having to take such a measure and Prime Minister Draghi has assured the nation this evening that he is not intending to take the country into lockdowns again. 

Having decided to accept the kind invitation, however, things did not exactly go to plan in the run-up and on Christmas Eve I nearly went into full hysterical mode as I was in the middle of making a cake to take to my friends' house when a domestic disaster struck. The recipe was for the wonderful Dame Mary Berry's Chocolate Cappuccino Tart, a cake I have made many times before and which has always been a success here. (I don't use instant coffee granules, though, because I don't buy them; I make myself an espresso and use a teaspoon of it in the cake and I use mascarpone in the filling.) If you look at the recipe, you will see that you have to make the base first, then refrigerate it while you make the filling. Well, I had just popped the base in the fridge and had the chocolate and coffee in a bowl ready to put over the saucepan of simmering water when I happened to look at the floor and beheld disaster in the form of a flood. The water, I ascertained, was coming from under the sink and at 1pm on Christmas Eve I estimated my chances of finding a plumber willing to come out as nil. While controlling my breathing, I did summon enough common sense to switch the hob off and then I went downstairs to warn the neighbour in the flat below. Luckily - phew! - her son was there and informed me that he was a plumber and would come. (I'd had no idea, either that he was home from the North or that he was a plumber.)  He fixed it but it took a while, not least because we had to wait a few hours for the shops to reopen for parts. Thank you, thank you, whoever is up there and to the kind man who happened to be down there!

I finished making the cake at midnight but didn't think the filling looked as smooth or as inviting as it had before (probably because I'd had to put that in the fridge too - I didn't have enough chocolate left to start again) but decided there was nothing I could do till it was set and I could inspect it in daylight. In the morning I came to the same conclusion though, and wondered whether to give up on it and just take some shortbread biscuits I had bought a couple of weeks before in Catania for Burns Night (the first time I had been there or anywhere outside Modica since my birthday in February 2020 - no need to tell you why!) I discussed it on the phone with a friend and his opinion was "cake, cake, every time" but I decided I had to check the taste. If it was OK, I would take the cake and just explain why a small slice was missing and that is what I did, but not before decorating it with some grated chocolate. Then later, at my friends' house, I added some candied orange peel to the top. Now, chef Carlo Cracco of Masterchef Italia fame says you should never garnish a dish with an ingredient it doesn't contain and I'm sorry, chef, but what else could I do? My friends thought it was all rather comical, by the way - which they wouldn't have if they'd seen the kitchen floor - and they enjoyed the cake.

On New Year's Eve I did stay at home, as I have for many years, because I like being at home with Bertie and because I would not risk leaving her on a night when there will almost certainly be fireworks outside. There were not many but when Italians decide they are going to have them they do not hold back! It didn't go on for long after midnight, to be fair, and there was only one episode that I heard of fireworks being let off in the street earlier. On New Year's Eve in Italy you are supposed to eat lentils, which it is believed will bring you money and my philosophy is why take chances and not do it? For years, to honour the Italian tradition while in Britain, I made a lamb dish with lentils, then lentil loaf, and here I have made Mary Berry's Cottage Pie with Lentils  (minus the swede, which I dislike and can't get here anyway and I only ever mash potatoes with butter) and lately Nigella's Bulgur Wheat and Lentil Salad, all of which I can recommend. But this time I wanted to make something different, so I prepared Claudia Roden's Rice, Lentil and Date Salad from her new book Med and I will certainly be making it again. To go with it, I made chicken escalopes with Parma ham and sage (from a very old Sunday Times cookbook I have) and for dessert a mini-semifreddo with candied orange peel. Well, to be honest I made the full quantity - I just put it in mini-tins! I don't believe in not spoiling yourself on special days just because you are on your own.

Then came Twelfth Night last week and Italy's good witch the befana brought treats to good children (that's all of them on that night!) On Thursday I carried out the sad task of taking the decorations down. Sad, for me at least, because I love that period of sitting at home with a book and reading it by the flickering lights of a Christmas tree and because we do not know what will happen in another year. (And it's just as well we didn't on New Year's Eve 2019-20!)  

Speriamo bene - "Let's hope all will be well", as Italians say and Bertie and I wish you all a belated but very Happy New Year

Buon anno a tutti!


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