Tuesday, 30 June 2009


Spoke to my Dad last night, he is coming back from a vacation in Spain he took with my brother and his wife. They had a great time. Upon his return he went to visit Mom at the home where she lives now in Montreal. She entered this facility in January after the Alzheimer had progressed to the point where my father could no longer take care of her at home. When she first arrived at the facility she was given a test to measure her intellectual capacities and see how far the disease had progressed. They (social workers) retested her again a few days ago and her capacities have really diminished. She can still tell what objects are but she cannot tell time or read a newspaper. She can't watch the news but likes to watch programs with animals and flowers.

The result of the test shows that the disease continues to progress and has greatly diminished her capacities, conclusion the help my father got to pay part of the medication prescribed to her monthly is now cancelled, according to Quebec Government Health Department guidelines after a certain point, assistance is terminated because it is judged to be no longer required or of no value. So he is on his own to cover all costs. Just a few weeks ago the Minister of Health of Quebec admitted at a press conference that his government had no strategy and no policy on how to deal with the growing numbers of people suffering from Alzheimer in Quebec. The government already knows that 10 years from now about 5% of the population over the age of 60 will suffer from Alzheimer and most of them will be women.

Every government makes a calculation of what we are worth as individual citizens, remember a few years ago the CIA had made a study of what human beings were worth in terms of parts, tissue, organs, etc... I can't remember the figure exactly but it came down to something like $49.72 cents US. Not a lot, this is the approach of governments, hard nose and pragmatic, you have to govern so you give what you think you should give to keep most of the people happy, most of the time.

So social workers make a decision based on what they are told they have to do and the citizen pays the price. It will make a big difference for my father but he is determined to keep up with the medication my Mom needs because he knows what will happen if it is stopped.
My Mom would decline very rapidly and her life expectancy would be reduced. The social workers did not say anything of course but the message is clear, the State has decided that you are of diminished value to society, based on a series of calculations and policy decisions on what the State is willing to do for you, despite the fact you pay all your life into the tax system. What is more strange in all this is that if my parents lived in Ontario, the province next door to Quebec this would not happen, there would be no cut and more assistance.

Unfortunately this is just one other example of how Quebec short changed its citizens. Always has, it is part of the fabric of governance in Quebec. What is also interesting and is not widely known, is the fact that the political class in Quebec and the Police has given itself privileges, like special medical care and priority access to the medical system not available to the general population, I suppose some people are more equal than others in La belle Province.

The whole thing makes me sad and angry for the inadequate or lack of clear policies to assist an aging population. You can just imagine what happens to those who cannot afford to pay outside the system or who have to make due with what the system offers. It's pretty horrible and I am surprised how thoughtless our politicians can be or should I say calculating because I am sure the day the numbers of cases of Alzheimer become unmanageable in Quebec that day some bright light will present a plan to save us all.

Monday, 29 June 2009

Greed and vengeance

Today Bernard Madoff got 150 yrs in jail. The people he ripped off applauded, they got their revenge but I could not help think of Nicolo Machiavelli (1469-1527) who in is wonderful little book The Prince, dedicated to Lorenzo the Magnificent, Medicis wrote that if you killed a man's father he would forgive you in time, however if you stole his inheritance he would pursue you forever.

I don't think Justice was served, Madoff was punished as a warning to others but those who invested in his scheme were motivated by greed and they to were punished. A lesson for all.

Sunday, 28 June 2009

Dining out in Rome

I love going to the restaurant in Rome. The good restaurants are family owned and have been run by the family on the premises for decades. The owner is always present and he keeps an eye on the room, will come and talk to the regular customers or to new comers. The other family members either cook, wash dishes and serve food, they may also hire someone to wait on tables usually someone they have known for years. The decor is eclectic, very personal to the family who owns the place, you will see family photos.

Someone won a trophy for sportsmanship or the owner support a soccer club or some famous person came or several of them for that matter and they get their picture taken with the owner and his wife. Many restaurants have pictures of late Popes, John XXIII is popular, Jean-Paul II also, a few have the current Pope though mostly in the Borgo which is the neighborhood next to the Vatican and frequented by the Officials of the Holy See. The tables and chairs are comfortable but simple, dishes are good restaurant quality white china and the table cloth is a checkered pattern. You will find some good olive oil also a white wine vinegar or balsamic vinegar bottle on your table. The bread is a whole grain with thick crust bread, sort of country style bread which is used to mop up your plate or the flat crusty thin wafer type bread eaten with a bit of olive oil. No butter and no ashtrays, no fake flowers on the table or other items not related to the experience of eating. A bottle of mineral water is the first thing brought with the wine list, you will not find beer on the menu, this is reserved for the home or for the Cafe.

The menu will reflect the Paese (village) the owner comes from, the Abbruzzo, Tuscany, Puglia, Sardinia or Sicilia. Per example Sardinian restaurants will offer fish and seafood, Tuscany, steaks and grilled meats, Abruzzo will be a mix of meat and other dishes typical of that mountain region. Pasta is always on the menu in central and southern Italy as a first course and the sauce will reflect if the restaurants specialize in fish or meat, in Northern Italy pasta is not part of the habits of the region mostly because of the proximity with Austria and the Balkans. Though pizza is a southern food creation in Italy it is not always on the menu, pizza is a fast food to be eaten on the go, so it is not restaurant fare. There is also no kids menu, they eat like the adults.

Today we are going out for dinner with a good friend of ours who has been living in Rome for 25 yrs. He knows quite a few very good restaurants and we have discovered with him some very nice places.
Here are some restaurants I really like in Rome, some are very elegant and some are more family neighborhood like in decor and atmosphere.

The first one, Ristorante Vecchia Rome www.ristoranteviecchiarome.com on Piazza Campitelli is a truly beautiful place, very elegant and in the old centre of Rome, owned by the Palladino family since 1870.

La Limonaia at Villa Torlonia on Via Spallanzani 1, is located in the old orangerie of this princely estate, it was once between 1923-43, the home of dictator Benito Mussolini. It offers a menu of pasta, salads and pizzas in the beautiful gardens of the estate. It is next door to our home. They have a play area for small children.

Da Franco ar vicoletto is a fish place, excellent food, on Via Dei Falisci 1a. They do not take reservations but it is always packed, very simple decor, family owned and operated for decades by Franco and his wife. Extremely good value and their seafood lasagna is so good.

Ristorante la Scala on Viale Parioli 79 is located in one of the wealthiest neighborhoods of Rome, Parioli, excellent food in an elegant restaurant. A restaurant where French and Italian cuisine marry.

I limoncini on Via del Giuba 12, is family owned and is open for dinner even in August when everything else is closed. A menu of Roman cuisine, with a mixture of fish and pasta dishes. Offering of lobster and oysters and veal and chicken dishes.

Ristorante Stella Maris, is a Sardinian restaurant offering specialty of the island which is seafood on Viale Regina Margherita 225 at the corner with Via Nomentana. Mauro and Giorgio run the place with other relatives. They served at the end of the meal a digestif of ice cold Myrtle liquor and home made jam cookies.

A new addition is Hell's Kitchen which offers a break from Italian cuisine, gay owned it has a beautiful steak house decor with exposed brick and a decidedly American accent. on Via Alessandria 150. It has excellent Tex-Mex food, great nachos and make a very good Mojito cocktail. Open only for dinner. See www.hellsgrill.it

If you happen to be in the Roman Forum area and wish to avoid all the tourist traps of cheaply made pizzas and other horrors served any which way for terrible prices go to Trattoria Valentino on Via Cavour 293. An old fashion Roman style cuisine restaurant owned by Vincenzo and Luciano, good food and honest prices.

Remember in Rome and in Italy in general dinner is never before 8:30 pm unless you want to eat lunch left-overs reheated.

Saturday, 27 June 2009

Vatican Garden stroll

Yesterday we went to the Vatican garden for a private visit. The Vatican gardens are on the hill behind St-Peter's Basilica. The front of the hill facing the Tiber river was flattened in 400 AD to make way for the first basilica built by Emperor Constantine. You enter the garden area by the main gate of the Vatican Museum on Viale Vaticano. The gardens are divided in two parts, one is in the English style (wooded area) and the other is in the Italian style with ornamental piazzas and sculpted bushes and topiary and decorated with ancient statues. Our guide pointed out that the statues and other antique fragments are not museum quality and this is why they are use in this fashion in the garden. You also find a heliport in the garden for the Pope's helicopter which takes him to his summer palace at Castel Gandolfo a 40 minute ride East of Rome near the Villa of Emperor Hadrian. He use to take the train, a train station was built in 1931 by the Fascist Government for the Pope and it links with the Italian railway system.
The elegant beaux arts style train station is today used as a duty free shop for all the diplomats who are accredited to the Holy See. Freight trains come in on the Papal railway bringing luxury goods all duty free. The is also a large radio antenna and station for Radio Vatican broadcasting to the world in several languages and a large palace for the seat of the government of the Vatican which is headed by Cardinal T. Bertone who is Governor of the Vatican and Secretary of State (foreign Minister), the de-facto no.2 of the Papal State. At the back of the garden there is an old tower which rises high above the hill. Pope John XXIII had the tower converted into an apartment for himself in 1960. Pope Benedict XVI uses it today, this is where his older brother lives with 5 cats.
Yes the Pope is a cat person can't be such a bad guy. The guide pointed out that the tower which has a fortress look is in fact very luxurious and has a spectacular view of Rome. We walked throughout the garden and it is a trek because it is all up-hill. Beautiful and serene, with rare trees and plants and numerous fountains and water cascade, 35 gardeners work none stop tending to this garden. There is also 55 green parrots nesting in the garden and you see them flying around.

It is a surreal place, unlike any royal garden I have ever seen. I use the word ''royal'' because the Pope is a Sovereign Pontiff, Per example the Pope does not walk in the garden but is driven around in a black Mercedes Benz limousine license plate SCV 1. How do I know this, well our guide at the beginning of the tour told us that if during our visit we should see this car approach, we should stand back and look meek and mild in the presence of the shadow of God on Earth, or words to that effect.

There is also in the garden a Papal Academy of Science which is housed in a building copied from the ruins of the Palace of Emperor Nero. Lots of gods and goddesses frolicking around and mosaics of birds, fish and flowers. The underlined message is that science is OK as long as it has the blessing of the Universal Holy Roman Catholic Church.

In our little group, there was what I call Taliban Catholics, people who are only interested in things where the Pope has been or has touched. Per example the heliport, it is just a helicopter pad with a statue of the Polish Virgin of Czestochowa. Or the Piazza redone for John Paul II with the original Altar from Lourdes.

On the whole I was not terribly impressed by the gardens, though beautiful. The most interesting point for me was to see the back of St-Peter's and the Vatican government buildings, you realize that the Holy See is much more than a church or a religion. There was also a dose of propaganda in the visit itself, pretty heavy stuff. If you are not Catholic is comes off somewhat offensive.

At the end of the tour someone asked the guide about St-Peter's Cathedral, this fellow was not Catholic, she quickly corrected him pointing out that St-Peter is NOT a Cathedral but merely a parish church for all Roman Catholics though a big one. It cannot be a Cathedral because it is not in Rome but in the Vatican State, the Cathedral of Rome is St-John Lateran where the Pope is the Bishop.

Friday, 26 June 2009

Atomic Hour

North Korea this strange little country supported without fail since the conflict of 1950-53 by China is once again threatening atomic war. In a recent pronouncement by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in the Capital of North Korea, said the dark clouds of total atomic war are gathering and how the current USA Administration is frantically trying to cause an atomic war with its evil ally South Korea. I really cannot see Obama trying to throw himself into total atomic war. The phrase total atomic war would, if it happened, would spell the end of the world for all of us and this should happen over such an insignificant country as North Korea? In the last few years the Six Party Talks held in Beijing have yielded little to no results.
What is disturbing is the troubles of the leadership in North Korea, for the last few years a very serious famine in the country has created real hardship, thousands have died, the economy is dead, North Korea produces nothing and depends on China for everything and on South Korea and other governments like the USA for financing of its daily activities in the hope that it will not produce atomic weapons, it has. The only way it can hold on to power is to use whatever meagre resources it has left to pay off the army and the police. Once that runs out, then the leadership is in real trouble and the Kim family dynasty could easily be eliminated by a disgruntled army.
So the solution is to create a crisis and the excuse is the enemy is at the gate. You keep the army busy and distracted, you create as much commotion as possible within the government and you can assure your survival.

At this time North Korea's Kim family is preparing for the succession, it is more complicated this time than in the 1970's, Kim Jong Jun, is a young man and his father Kim Jong Il the current ruler is said to be sick. Others may have an eye on the throne, this is why a diversion is so important now. This is why we are at risk. I am sure China's leadership are dismayed at what is going on and now appear powerless to do anything. They could send in the Chinese army to diffuse the crisis by removing Kim Jong Il, but I wonder if that is really possible. As for Russia though they do not have any significant population in the border area, they too know the consequence of even only one missile going astray and hitting Japan, South Korea or Hawaii. The response from the USA would be automatic, in fact the protocol was written in the late 1950's and the President would have little to no choice in the matter.

Again all the pronouncements in North Korea are most probably just for domestic consumption and bears no real danger for the outside world. Let's hope so. Oh, yes in the real world Michael Jackson died, now that is serious news.

Wednesday, 24 June 2009

I dedicate this song to Will.

This song from 1932 was first sung by Vittorio de Sica for an Italian film entitled ''Gli uomini che mascalzoni''. It became one of those legendary Italian song and is still a classic today.
I am flying back to Rome tomorrow morning and in the last 6 months I have been away twice, once in April and now. Each time after a few days I really do miss Rome and our lives there. Though it can be a maddening city sometimes, Rome remains a city of style.

Here for you Will.

Come sei bella più bella stasera Mariù
Splende un sorriso di stella negli occhi tuoi blu
Anche se avverso il destino domani sarà,
Oggi ti sono vicino perchè sospirar, non pensar.

Parlami d'amore Mariù
Tutta la mia vita sei tu
Gli occhi tuoi belli brillano
Fiamme di sogno scintillano.

Dimmi che illusione non è
Dimmi che sei tutta per me
Qui sul tuo cuor non soffro più
Parlami d'amore Mariù.

So che una bella e maliarda sirena sei tu
so che si perde chi guarda quegli occhi tuoi blu
ma che mi importa se il mondo si burla di me
meglio nel gorgo profondo ma sempre con te,
sì con te.

Parlami d'amore Mariù
Tutta la mia vita sei tu
Gli occhi tuoi belli brillano
Fiamme di sogno scintillano.

Dimmi che illusione non è
Dimmi che sei tutta per me
Qui sul tuo cuor non soffro più
Parlami d'amore Mariù.

Tuesday, 23 June 2009

Election time Albania

I am in Tirana, Albania for a few days, returning to Rome on Thursday. I arrived in Tirana during what is the last week of the general election campaign to elect a new Parliament. To think that before 1991 Albania was a hard-line North Korea style dictatorship, closed off to the rest of the world, impossible to get in and impossible to get out, it is today a completely different place. On my first night here I decided to take a stroll down the only main avenue of the Capital. In front of the now empty and abandoned pyramid mausoleum of the late dictator Enver Hoxha was an open air Jazz concert sponsored by one political party, good music and a festive atmosphere. Further down the road in front of the Ministry of Defence another concert, Albanian Hip Hop music, again the crowd was happy and jumping up and down to the music doing sort of a wave like movement. Who could imagine such a thing on this Roman Pine bordered avenue built by Italian dictator Benito Mussolini and named after him, which saw parades by Italian Fascist troops in the 1930's and then mass communist rallies for 50 years, that one day you would have such a happy display of free and open elections. Each night concerts, tonight acid rock, last night new age music, all to attract voters and supporters. The Socialist Mayor of Tirana who belongs to the old guard communist pre 1991, has done a good job of cleaning up the city, planting trees everywhere, etc.... the 2 main squares at either end of the renamed main avenue now called Deshmoret e kombit, need to be totally rebuilt. The Scanderberg Square where the giant statue of the dictator once stood is now without giant statue and looks empty. The other Square called University centre where the great speeches of the late dictator where once rapturously applauded now has a broken down giant fountain and a forlorn tiny statue of Mother Teresa who was Albanian. Also running for a seat in Parliament is the grandson of King Zog of Albania, HRH Prince Leka. His grandfather's Palace is today the home of the President of the Republic.

Tirana is very green, lots of trees everywhere and the Dajti mountains looming on two sides of the city. The current government is largely expected to win again a new mandate on 28 June. The big topics of discussions here are accession to the European Union, visa free regime with the rest of Europe and pension reform for school teachers. Albania just joined NATO, 2 months ago.

Of course I made a comment about how people wear T-shirts, capri pants and flip-flops as if it was a national costume, today I noticed how women wear the most impossible shoes, they look so uncomfortable, high heels, platforms shoes with lots of rhinestones, I wonder who makes such shoes. One lady was wearing these very thick platform shoes with high heels, in what looked like pea green alligator skin, her capri pants where also the same pea green alligator skin fabric matching the shoes with a fluffy chenille like black top and too much make-up, this is considered high fashion here. Yes I am in the Balkans.

Sunday, 21 June 2009

Tirana on a rainy day

I left Rome early this morning with one hour delay from our scheduled take off time due to severe thunderstorm. The trip to Tirana is short only about 1 hour and a bit. We cruise down the Italian boot to the heel at Puglia and then turn left, cross the Adriatic and land in Tirana, all very simple. The crew on Alitalia has to be seen, they are not just a crew, they are glamorous people, because flying anywhere even to Albania is an adventure. The male steward all have 5 o'clock shadows or a short beard, they do not merely serve drinks and snacks, no the central alley of the plane is like the catwalk of a designer fashion show. There is a certain style in the way they address passengers, the look, the hair, the manner, the voice intonation, everything is style. Even when they say goodbye at the end of the trip, it is either polite and sophisticated or you are dismiss as unimportant. If you speak Italian and are well dressed, you get a smile and a friendly ''Arrivederci''. If you are one of those Albanians on the flight, wearing capri pants, flip-flops, T-shirt and cheap jewellery, you are lucky if they don't throw you out of the plane, I got the usual Arrrivederci Dottore.

At the airport I was met by our office manager here in Tirana who was complaining to me that the airport lounge was full of loud mouth Northerners, meaning people from Skhoder or the border area with Montenegro and Kosovo, sort of the wild frontier hillbilly area. They have a certain accent different from the rest of Albania, the same with Kosovars who also have a German accent and use german words for car parts. The wealthier part of Albania is the south close to Greece, where many Albanians who are ethnic Greeks live. It's election time here in Albania and the vote is on 28 June. It's Sunday and Tirana is pretty quiet, the hotel appears deserted. Though the staff recognize me right away and I got big smiles. The hotel is in front of Parliament and there is a photo display of numerous infrastructure projects around Albania, amazing the number of big projects going on all at the same time in this small country, from Hydro electric dams, to super highways, to great bridge building and the expansion of the Tirana airport, the old terminal is only 1 year old and they are building a new expanded terminal now. There is so much to do, and so much remains to be done, still coming here is an adventure. Will does not want to come, he probably would get bored, no opera here or get propositioned for marriage within 20 minutes for a fee of $20,000 dollars. That is the new deal or racket for a way out of this place for those desperate enough.
Hopefully he would have the good sense to turn down such an offer.

Athens New Museum Acropolis

Saturday 20 June 2009, Opening of the New Museum of the Acropolis, Athens.

A few months ago Will and I were in Athens and we decided to take a tour of the new 21,000 square meter Museum of the Acropolis, it was still an empty space but it allowed us to see the wonderful modern architecture of this new museum. An idea of the wonderful Melina Merkouri, actress, singer and Greek Minister of Culture, conceived this project 30 years ago. We also saw on display an exhibit of stolen Greek artifacts which have been returned by various museums.

The Acropolis is a rock 150 meters above sea level, a hill in the centre of Athens, from far away in antiquity, it was a citadel to protect the city and defend it. The rock face is vertical and impossible to climb and it dominates the whole area and from the top allows you to see as far way as Athens’s sea port of Piraeus.

In time the Acropolis became sacred, the home of Athena Parthenos (virgin), Protector of Athens and Athena Nike, goddess of Victory, the Parthenon, we see today was rebuilt during the time of Pericles in 430 BC, it was and remains the sacred home of Athena, made of beautiful pentelic marble, (white as milk when new and golden like corn when aged). This spectacular temple has been undergoing a renovation for the past 25 years and the plan is to restore it to its former self, as it was before the accidental gunpowder explosion of 1687 when a Venetian captain fired upon the Turkish troops occupying the temple. I have had the very good fortune of seeing this work in progress in the last 15 years and it is breathtaking.

Below the Acropolis and all around the hill was a sacred precinct of smaller temples, sacred wells, divinity schools, theatres, agoras and religious souvenir shops. The faithful would come to Athens and visit this area first and then climb the Acropolis steps to the great gate Propylaea to enter the sacred precinct itself. All around the hill, trees, mostly olive trees, sacred to Athena for they’re life giving properties and as a symbol of Peace and pine trees representing eternity because they remain green in all seasons. The new Acropolis museum is built in the area next to the Plaka at the foot of the Acropolis. The Swiss architect Bernard Tschumi excavated the whole area so that when you visit the new museum you can see through the glass floor what the ancient area looked like. It has a magical effect, below you and around you the treasures of ancient Greece. The walls of the museum are also built in such a way as to allow indirect sunlight through, giving a natural light to the ancient objects on display.

Of course one of the masterpiece is missing, the famous Elgin Marbles. In 1799 Thomas Bruce, Lord Elgin, Ambassador of Great Britain to the Sublime Porte (Ottoman Court at Istanbul) convinced the Ottoman Sultan that he should sell of bits of old statues, after all it was of no importance to Muslims and represented idols from a pagan past. He was more than willing to pay to remove these objects. The Sultan was not at all convinced at first that he should sell off what obviously belonged to the Greeks, though his troops occupied Greece. But Elgin was a speculator and saw in those marbles from the Parthenon frieze all 160 meters of it, a handsome profit. After much discussion and back and forth, the Sultan agreed to sell off the marbles. With a crow bar and a hammer, Elgin sent his team to hack away at the frieze of the temple, in the crudest manner these ancient statues representing scenes of Greek mythology were wrenched off and carted away to London. Elgin was certain that someone would want to buy them from him for a handsome price. This is where Fate stepped in, no one was interested, Lord Elgin was stuck with marble statues no one wanted. Finally in despair and ruined, he sold them off to the British museum for a fraction of what it had cost him to buy them and cart them to Britain.

With Greek independence 188 years ago, the new Greek nation wanted its 90 marble statues back and this is where Britain, though acknowledging that they were stolen refuses to return them. At first the reason was that the old Acropolis museum was too small and these objects to precious for the Greeks to look after properly. But now with this splendid new museum that argument is gone. The British Government is now saying that in 2012 for the Olympic Games in London, they hope to be able to give back to Greece the marbles stolen by Lord Elgin.
The Museum web site http://www.theacropolismuseum.gr/

Thursday, 18 June 2009

Marinari Via Corso Trieste

When we arrived in Rome 2 years ago now, I from Beijing and Will from Ottawa with our dear late Reesie, we lived quite near this famous Roman pastry shop on Via Corso Trieste. We are not very far from it now and we go there from time to time to look at their creations or to have an ice cream freshly made daily next door at their Gelateria counter.

Marinari makes you think of seafood, like in Mare or shrimp cocktail sauce. It is in fact a wonderful cake and pie shops, they also have pound cakes and cookies and biscotti and well everything you can think of. Even if you are on the street, the wonderful smell of fresh cakes and pies draws you near. Their window is also an invitation to gourmandise. Everything they make is from scratch and even the fruits on the cakes are fresh not canned. They use high quality ingredients, a real pleasure, none of the fillings and artificial sweeteners too often use today. You know that in Italy there is a widespread movement called Slow Food, a reaction to fast food, real discussions often on talk shows about food and quality and how to best prepare it, it is a real obsession in Italy. Marinari is one of those stores where quality is the name of the game. If you are in Rome do drop by, if for nothing else to look at the front window. Marinari on Via Corso Trieste near Via Chiana.

Sunday, 14 June 2009

election and polarized society

I spent 8 years of my life in the near East what is usually called the Middle-East by the media. I had the good fortune to visit Iran a few years back while working in Damascus, Syria. I say the good fortune because, Iran always fascinated me, it is an old and rich culture and it has beautiful hand woven wool carpets, which I love. The only thing I knew about the country was some of its most recent history in the last 100 years and bits of its influence on the Arabs next door throughout the centuries and how Iran is connected to India and other Central Asian countries and their history. A complex and rich history, one that is not always well understood or known by people living in the western world.
I remember flying on Syrian airways, the airline allows you to bring on board your suitcases, why check luggage when you can carry it with you. Forget the fact that it will block the central allay of the plane and inconvenience other passengers. Anyway we flew from Damascus to Tehran arriving at the same old airport terminal that was once use by the Shah when in 1979 he went on a vacation never to return. I remember the scene at the airport of passengers trying to get their luggage out of the luggage carousel and how luggage was flying all over the place, great confusion and commotion, I also remember the rather good looking lady customs agent who very discreetly and quietly with a smile asked me if I had any alcohol in my luggage. The one thing which impressed me most was the mountains behind the city. Tehran is actually built on the foothills of the snow capped Al-Borz mountains, very impressive and beautiful. It was Spring when I visited but still cold at night. I expected people to be hostile to me a western foreigner or to view me with suspicion. Tehran does not have many tourists and foreigners are rare, so I stood out on the street.

Iranians are indo-europeans and not Arabs, it struck me that their way of thinking was very similar to ours and very different from the Arabs next door. Much of the Arab world was conquered by the Persians in the 12 century and as a result the numbering system found in the Arab world is Persian, so is part of the architecture and litterary tradition of poetry. I also realized that if I had a choice between living in Tehran or Damascus, Tehran was by far more pleasant, cleaner and better organized than Damascus, Iranian thinking I could understand more easily. Though a Shia Muslim country run by Clerics I never heard a call to prayer from a Mosque, as is all too often the custom in all Arab countries 5 times a day. I enquired about this at the Office and our Iranian staff answered me this way; Do you think we are like those Arabs, if you want to pray, look on the front page of any newspaper to see the set times.

My hotel was equipped with satellite television and I could watch FOX channel, no wonder the Iranians have a skewed image, FOX News is what they see of the USA. The people on the street and in restaurants and shops were gracious and very polite. Happy to see someone from the outside visiting Tehran. Everyone was very nice to me, including the guards on the street. I remember coming out of one of the Palaces of the Shah in North Tehran and a severe looking guard very nicely asked me if I needed help or if I wanted him to call me a taxi to go where ever I needed to go. The apprehension was on my part, no one was hostile.

We visited with a female colleague an Iranian carpet shop and I bought 10 carpets in one visit, they were so beautiful and so affordable, I simply could not believe how inexpensive they were. The shop owner and his 2 brothers were very nice to us and more than willing to show us whatever I wanted to see and explain the motifs and where the carpets came from and this was before I even bought one. The funny part came when we existed the store, it was snowing, heavy wet snow. The car was across the street, not allowed to make a U-turn. So my lady friend from the office asked the police officer if he would allow a U-turn to help us load up the carpets into the car, she pointed out that I could not drive being a foreigner. The Police officer looked at me and said to her laughing, typical foreign men can't do a thing, go ahead lady just bring the car here.

What I also saw and this without anyone explaining anything to me was how divided the civil society is in Iran. We just saw this in the current elections where to everyone's surprise the current President Mahmud Ahmedinajad was re-elected. Iran is 2 worlds, on the one hand you have the educated class and the middle-class affluent who travel and move the economy of the country and who are supporters of reforms within Iran and better relations with other countries. Then you have the urban poor and the rural areas who are very backward and uneducated who support the clerics and the mullahs, who dominate them and fill their heads with religious nonsense, they voted for Ahmedinajad. The poor see themselves as victims of the rich and educated, the clerics present themselves as their protectors. It is this struggle for power that we see constantly on the streets of Tehran and elsewhere in the country. Wealthy Iranians have voted with their feet, many leaving for Dubai or for Australia and Canada and still leaving, left behind are the poor. Iran like any modern society has numerous problems, drug addiction is rampant, prostitution also, family violence and child abuse, the level of mental illness due to psychological stress and other factors is also prevalent.

How will Iran resolve all these conflicts within its society? That is the entire question of the puzzle. If the current government is foolish enough to defy the world and go ahead with building atomic weapons the reaction from other countries may be terrible. The Arab fear Iran and its influence, they do not want to be dominated by Iran as in centuries past. Israel is also worried and so is the rest of the western world. It really feels like a TV soap and we can only watch for the next episode.

Saturday, 13 June 2009

ladies in a café

Will took this picture of these ladies in a café, in many ways they are very typical of ladies of that age group who meet for coffee and conversation. What is interesting is how they are dressed, look at their hairdo, They are just meeting, there is a certain elegance, I would say a feminine charm about them. They have something young women today have lost in our changing society. They seem to have a certain peace about them. Probably grandmothers, their children are grown up. They went through life and now have time to meet but I suspect they have been meeting like this for some time, it is a tradition here to meet friends in this manner, no kids, no husband, no outside demands.

They are meeting in the Café delle Specchi (mirrors) on the Piazza dell'Unita d'Italia in Trieste, but this scene could be any town in Italy. Men also meet like this, young men, older men and students. What I also like about this scene is the coffee and drinks are served in real china and glassware, no plastic, no carton, no paper, with a real table cloth. It makes a difference in the quality of life, you can easily spend several hours here without feeling that the decor or setting around you is trying to sell you a lifestyle or more products. It is not expensive to meet like this, just a little more civilized.

living in an Imperial Palace in Rome, yes possible.

There is one area of Rome which goes back to the beginning of Christianity and to the time when the religion became official around 343 AD. under the reign of Emperor Constantine, who would become the founder of Constantinople, today's Istanbul.

It is the area between the Lateran and the Piazza of Santa Croce in Gerusalemme. When Emperor Constantine for political reasons after his defeat of his rival Maxentius at the battle of the Milvio Bridge in Rome established that only one religion would rule and that would be Christianity, he decided to built a church and a palace for the new head of the Christian religion on land belonging to the Laterani Family. Thus the Basilica of St-John Lateran and its Episcopal Palace are to this day the seat of the Bishop of Rome also known as the Pope. It is only much later around 1500 under Pope Paul V and for other political reasons that St-Peter's Basilica will become the second home of the Pope in Rome.

Constantine got his entire family into the Christian Project so to speak, his wife Fausta and his daughter Constance and his mother Elena who was an ambitious women. Rome was a city at the time of many religions from all over the world, given the cosmopolitan atmosphere of the Capital of the Empire. Constantine who was Pontifex of the Imperial Cult, simply appointed himself Pope of the Christians and he named a bishop to head the religious affairs in Rome. This is something the Catholic Church always contested because it goes against their official story.

His mother Elena, (also known as Saint-Elena) decided that for the new religion could take root, you would need relics, the ancient religions in Rome had lots of relics to different gods from ancient times for veneration so this new Christian religion also needed relics for people to worship, it did not have any up to this date.

As mother of the Emperor she was a prominent and authoritarian figure, she took several Imperial ships with her and a large retinue to Jerusalem and cruised to Palestine, an systematically went on a shopping expedition. Now the City of Jerusalem she visited in 326 AD had little to do with the Jerusalem of the time of Jesus in 30 to 33 AD. In a Jewish revolt against the Romans 70 AD, the city and the Temple of Salomon had been totally destroyed by Titus the son of Emperor Vespasian and the city was rebuilt along Roman ideas of City planning. The Golgotha was now inside the city walls and all streets had been widened when not completely changed all together. But this did not stop her, she was a woman on a mission, first thing she did on arrival was to create, out of the blue, what Catholics know as the Stations of the Cross by walking in Jerusalem and marking various spots as a station. She also bought the staircase of the Roman Governor's Palace from the time of Pontius Pilate. It is said that this staircase was taken by Jesus when going to his trial.
The staircase (Santa Scala) is today inside the Lateran Palace in Rome, you can only climb it on your knees. She also found large pieces of the true wooden cross of Christ some 293 years after his crucifixion. The story goes that a little jewish man knew where the cross was but would not tell Elena unless she paid a certain price, she got mad at him and ordered he be put into a pit until he revealed where was the true cross. She found the crown of thorns and the inscription attached to the Cross INRI. She found the real nails and so on and the stone column to which Jesus was tied to when he was flogged. She brought all of it back to Rome and installed it all in a museum in her Palace just down the road from St-John Lateran on Piazza Santa Croce in Gerusalemme, where it remains to this day on display.

At the time her Palace was already old it had been built under Septimus Severus and known as the Sessorium with it's own amphitheater Castrensis. It is the only other amphitheater in Rome and it is less known than the famous amphitheater of the Flavian (Colosseum). Today the church occupies what was the atrium of the former palace and a monastery shares the palace area with the hotel, the amphitheater is a huge garden with an incredible array of fruits and flowers all maintained by the monks.

The Domus Sessoriana today is the hotel within the Palace and you can stay there if you wish. It is quite beautiful and well appointed and it gives its clients an exclusive entry to the amphitheater garden. The garden is otherwise closed to the public.
Few people even notice it when they walk by as it is part of the Aurelian city walls of Rome.
Rooms with breakfast are at 100 euros a day which is a bargain for Rome, very central, near all the major sites and in front of the subway station (San Giovanni). See www.booking.com for details.

The photos show the palace hotel and a view from one of the rooms looking at the Basilica of St-John Lateran in the distance.

Friday, 12 June 2009

food and desserts, Italy vs Canada, part 2

To continue on this theme. I notice on the menus of many restaurants in North America or Canada that usually french fries is obligatory and if any greens are offered it will be a salad, usually with wilted lettuce and tasteless tomatoes or if there is another vegetable it will come with a dressing of some kind, like green beans with slivers of almonds or peas with gravy. At home people will be tempted to dress up their vegetables with melted cheese sauce or a creamy sauce. Any meat also comes with lots of sauces even if grilled its bar-b-q sauce with mesquite. Bread is served by the basketful with melted garlic butter or melted butter and garlicky cheese. Portions tend to be over sized, giving you the too much approach to food. Simplicity is not the name of the game. Holidays like Canadian Thanksgiving in early October or Xmas dinners tend to exaggerate the food element so that people get sick with indigestion or feel bloated, how often you hear people say that they ate too much and gained so much weight at the holiday season. Not to mention the desserts and this fascination with chocolate and fudge and excess, a few years ago books came out on how to make those super rich dessert as if this was the only way to enjoy food. We have never had a famine in Canada and even poor people can eat sufficiently, so where does the culture of heavy meals come from. Is it from an association with wealth? In his book on Italian food through the ages titled Delizia! John Dickie explains that poor Italians who immigrated to North America changed their eating habits. Inventing a new Italian cuisine for their new home in the New World in which meat appeared in almost every dish, as an example Spaghetti and meat balls, totally unknown in Italy. Or beef lasagna with heavy cheese sauce also unknown, obviously for these people meat equalled wealth. In French Canada, the hunt was from the early days of the colony in 1608 the best way to survive, so meat in various forms and in great quantity was prepared for the table. Also people use to work hard in the fields all day so a hearty meal was necessary. Though nowadays the hardest physical labour might be to go down to your local coffee shop and lift that mug.

Though in North America the old habits die hard, a big breakfast is still seen as the best meal of the day and a big evening meal is also often the mainstay of our society. Lunch is skipped or people will eat a sandwich or a salad thinking they are dieting, the salad will be covered in heavy creamy dressing and topped with bacon bits and then afterwards a heavy dessert as a reward for being so abstemious. Coffee breaks is another no no, while in Italy an espresso and a cornetto will be your coffee break if not your breakfast, in Canada a huge muffin or a piece of cake with a large American coffee is the rigueur Though many people will tell you that they cannot drink a small espresso because they can't sleep at night, medical studies and studies by dietitians have shown that American drip coffee we drink everywhere has a far higher concentration of caffeine than your average espresso. Again it is all psychological and based on culture or learn behaviour.

Meaning that obesity is stalking a lot of Canadians because of the way they eat while Italians women and men tend to be slim.
Elegance in Italy for men and women is in low body weight and a slim figure.

Wednesday, 10 June 2009

food and desserts, Italy vs Canada

After living in Italy almost 2 years now, I have started to notice some patterns in food habits amongst Italians that are completely different from Canadians. Per example, a restaurant or café serving lunch or any other meal for that matter will always offers several vegetables or contorni with the main course which is called a Secundi or Second course.
Lunch is always a primi Pasta and secundi a meat.
If you are having a serious meal and want to make it your main meal of the day, for any Italian it will be lunch not dinner
nor breakfast. It is the custom in Italy to close schools, shops and work places at 13:00 for lunch and re-open at 16:00, this break offers the opportunity for all to have a leisurely lunch.

The very North American idea that a big breakfast is very important is totally unknown here. Breakfast here is usually a small coffee two gulps like an expresso and a cornetto which is a croissant filled with chocolate or cream, you can have a cappucino or caffe latte which is the size of a cup 4 gulps there are no mugs or super sized mugs like you see all too often in North America at Starbucks and of course we are blessed with no Starbucks or Tim Horton's.

Lunch offers a wide range of salads fixed for you as you simply ask the waiter to prepare one for you, no such thing as self-service. Dressing, the only one available is olive oil and balsamic vinegar. Lots of people like a salad with tuna in it, it seems to be the only meat you can actually have in a salad. Sometimes once a week you will find a pre-prepared chicken salad with shredded chicken and salad nothing else, no creamy dressings or stuff with mayonnaise. If you prefer you can also choose from the hot dishes, again at least 4 green vegetables, spinach is always on the menu, chicory, green beans, and roasted potatoes with rosemary. Certain days of the week will be all fish, Friday and Wednesday. Menus also offer at least 4 different types of pastas, and in winter a soup with beans and vegetables or leafy greens. If it is a meat day then paper slices of rare roast beef, roast chicken usually a leg or veal or pork scaloppine, never breaded always in a gravy.

Everyone drinks water frizzante ( with gas) for digestion sake. No soft drinks like coke or coffee or milk. Mineral water is the only acceptable drink, wine maybe a glass, but no more.

Sunday lunch is the big meal with friends and family, with an antipasto of salami and prosciutto and a soft cheese a few roasted vegetables usually eggplant, zucchini, porcini mushrooms and olives. Then a pasta dish like a lasagna or a spaghetti with seafood or clams, then a meat dish and being Sunday a good bottle of wine. If this looks like a lot of food, it should be remembered that portions are small never large or over sized. On Sunday lunch will be from 13:30 to 15:30

Now lunch on any day is always served at 13:00 or 13:30 never before that time, restaurants are not open. Same with dinner never before 20:30 at night, only again tourists will have dinner at 6pm or 7pm and will get the lunch left over in restaurants located in touristic spot of town and the prices will be high and the food mediocre.

The evening dishes on the menu are never ready before 20:00 hrs. Many people are not aware of this fact but it is true. Even children are use from an early age to have meals at 13:30 after school recess and in the evening at home with their parents around the table at 20:00 or a little later, even as late as 21:00 on weekends. The whole concept of selling food on the run or fast food for families who don't have time to sit for a meal is unknown here. Meals are social events and one cannot hurry such a thing, it would be rude and a sign of not being civilized.

Dinner at night can also be a delightful meal but it will not be a big meal like lunch. Often people may have only one dish or two and skip the pasta dish all together. At the end of the meal there may be dessert but if so then it will be fresh fruits, strawberry with a zest of lemon juice or ananas fresh from the fruit itself and an expresso. Restaurants do not offer the wide range of heavy creamy desserts we see in Canada. There may be tiramisu or a crostini which is usually a biscuit like dough with a jam of fruit on top. But again it seems tourists will go for that but not the locals.

Restaurants do not offer kids meals, or menus with items just for kids like a hamburger or chicken fingers or french fries, again it flies against the principal that children should be taught young how to behave at table and like the same foods as adults so they can be more sociable. Everyone gets into the act of teaching them about eating vegetables of all kinds and sample other foods and eat in moderation. Drink plenty of mineral water with meals, you will not see an Italian mother offer her kids a coke or milk with a meal, more likely a little wine mixed with lots of water.

This way children are not fat and do not seem to have the skin problems so frequent in our society. They also appear more calm.
As an example during our trip to Trieste on the Adriatic, we were having lunch in a Café and noticed 2 mothers with 5 kids come for lunch, the children were between 5 and 12 years old. Moms ordered food for them and to my surprise, I saw them eat green vegetables and veal scalopini and roast chicken with rosemary, to drink mineral water. They were all well behaved and stayed at the table for the whole meal. I was just fascinated to see the 2 mothers able to have a conversation and enjoy their meals with the kids and no fuss. I simply could not imagine the same thing in North America.

Thursday, 4 June 2009

Trieste on a sunny day

The City has been largely spruced up and many notable buildings including all the great buildings along the sea shore and the Citadel and Catherdral above the city have been extensively renovated, lots of good restaurants, there is a feeling of prosperity despite the financial crisis.

We walked for about 5 hours throughout this beautiful city and have been impressed with its architecture and how nice people are.

We stumbled upon 2 monuments to the Hapsburg, Austria controlled this region for a long time often as a rival of the Republic of Venice who also controlled the area in the middle ages. But the monuments I speak of is of a much later period around 1850 when Franz Josef was Emperor of Austria with his wife Elizabeth known as Sissi. She has her monument in front of the Railway Station and the other is to Maximillian of Hapsburg on Piazza Venezia facing the sea. He was the brother of Franz Josef and he was the Governor of Lombardy and the Veneto which included the province of Istria where Trieste is located. He is remembered kindly by the people of the region because he was a liberal and progressive thinker compared to his brother the Emperor in Vienna who was your old arch conservative type. He also favored economic development and built the Palace of Miramar which brought a lot of people to Trieste and made the name of the region. Trieste became an important sea port and naval base for Austria. Captain Von Trapp (yes him again) served in the Austrian navy and was stationed here.
Tragedy struck Maximillian and his wife when a Mexican delegation under French political influence came to see him and asked him to become Emperor of Mexico. He was told that a referendum had been arranged and that the people of Mexico had chosen him by a huge majority. France promised military help and the Pope gave is blessing. Maximillian could out do his brother by becoming Emperor in his own right in what was thought to be a rich country. When he arrived in Mexico in 1865, he quickly saw that no referendum had taken place, the country was in a state of civil war and anarchy. The French troops he had been promised never materialized, in other words in was on his own with a price on his head. His wife returned to Europe, first to Paris to see Napoleon III to ask for help and troops to support her husband by this time Napoleon III had his own problems with Bismarck and the growing new state of Germany. Napoleon was to loose his throne just a few years later in 1870 at the battle of Sedan and go to England as a guest of Queen Victoria for the rest of his life. Carlotta then ran to Rome asking the Pope to please do something as her husband’s position in Mexico was unbearable. The Pope had a rebellion on his hands with Garibaldi and the Italians fighting for their own freedom from Papal rule. In 1867, Maximillian was arrested in Queretaro near Mexico city and shot by a road side. Carlotta went mad and spent the rest of her life locked up in the Palace of Bouchout near Brussels on her father Leopold I of Belgium orders. As for Franz Josef well he was happy to loose a liberal meddling brother, though his troubles in Italy were not over having to fight Italian rebellion against Austrian rule in the North.

Wednesday, 3 June 2009

a day in Trieste

Well after a good night sleep, we got off today by walking in central Trieste in and around the Piazza del Unita d'Italia, we also went to the train station to change our tickets to first class and the direct train Trieste Rome. This way we do not have to change trains in Venice and since it is a long ride be more comfortable than second class which tends to be very crowded at this time of the year. Had to leave my luggage in the car corridor twice because the compartments are full, 6 people to a compartment is more than cozy and not pleasant.
We also had lunch at a lovely cafe called Hydro City, the salad of anis and smoke salmon was very good and my shrimps on a bed of cous cous delicious. We then went shopping for shoes at Bata found exactly what we were looking for at very good prices.
The store manager overcharged me by 50 euros and then he came running after us and found us to apologize and reimburse me for the amount. We visited the Greek Orthodox Cathedral and looked at the mosaics of the Serbian Orthodox Cathedral.
Found out that James Joyce lived in Trieste in 1909 and fell in love with the city.
Tonite we made reservations at Suban an Italian restaurant who specialize in grilled meats and has been around since 1865. It comes highly recommended.

Tuesday, 2 June 2009

Trieste and the Adriatic

Trieste on the Dalmatian Coast of Italy.

We rode down from Udine to Trieste on the small regional train of 4 cars which provides service to the many small towns along this stretch of the Italian territory, all that is left of the once great Roman Empire in the Balkan. Most of it was lost after 1946 when Italy was punished by the victorious Allies for its Fascist past and for its alliance with Hitler during the war. The ride takes about 90 minutes and there are many stops along the way.

We stopped in CORMONS which is a famous wine producing city, I really like Cormons wines mostly whites, dry and light. They have a distinct bottle with a blue tinge to it.

Then we stopped in Gorizia, the train station is actually in Slovenia and the town square to your left in Italy. Strange but there you go.

Trieste is a big port city and has an ancient history, closer to us it was a Venetian city ruled by the Republic of Venice. Many kings and Emperors came here in the summer and lots of Palaces dot the coastline like Miramar.

We are staying at a beautiful hotel called Le Corderie, as the name implies it is about the making of rope, several antique drawings on the walls show this process. It is an all inclusive modern hotel, beautiful décor and very quiet. Free bar and free internet, very friendly staff. As the moto of the hotel says, Eleganza, Cultura, Sensazioni. See web site

Our room is a very modern style Zen like with a fruit basket but a different presentation Apricots in a large glass.

I also ask the Front Desk to recommend restaurants for us to try. Now Trieste is a Port city and you would think that fish or sea food would be famous here, not so, why?
Well apparently the water in front of the city is very deep, it is a natural deep water port and fish stick to more shallow waters usually. But they did recommend a fish restaurant we will try tonite and another with Trieste style cuisine specialties a mix from Croatia, Slovenia and Italy.

It is much warmer here around 25 C. and partly sunny.