Saturday, 31 October 2009

Halloween in Rome

What are you doing on this Halloween night? We went to a concert at the Auditorium Renzo Piano to hear 3 works by Russian composers played by the Orchestra of the Accademia Santa Cecilia, the best orchestra in Italy basically. The concert was over by 08:15 pm just in time for dinner in Rome. When we got out of the auditorium near the Tiber river, there was a definite chill in the air almost winter like. The auditorium is located on the Via Flaminia and this area is just below a hill in a flat area, the river bends at this point and you feel the chill.

Halloween is not a holiday in Italy, it is unknown and considered pagan by the Vatican. People do not dress up and no one carves a pumpkin, they eat them instead in soups or stuff ravioli with pumpkin, it is very good by the way.

I carved my pumpkin, I ordered one from our fruit and veg seller, I told him I wanted a big one as big as he could find at the warehouse. I also bought a second one which Will carved for the office party on Friday. Here the holiday is November 01 which is all Saints Day when people remember their dead and place candles on their graves. I took pictures of my pumkin and places one of those candles in a container which is usually used to light a grave.

Of course this being Halloween, I read an interesting story today about St-Dominic and those fun Dominican friars. They use to be in charge of the Inquisition in Rome, devising all manners of exquisite tortures to make people repent for their heresy against the Pope before burning them alive on a public square, in Rome that was Campo di Fiori. The most famous person to be burned there after years of torture, is Giordano Bruno, 1450, his statue dominates the Piazza. To this day the Vatican wants it pulled down, the argument, he deserved his fate because he questioned the authority of the Pope to act as a temporal sovereign.

Another famous person who also fell into the hands of those Dominican friar was Galileo, who claimed that the Earth was A) not flat, B) was not the centre of the universe but rotated around the Sun.
Galileo had to recant and apologize to the Pope for his errors, everyone knows the Earth is flat and is at the centre of the Universe, so say the Vatican. It took Jean Paul II to admit that the Church was wrong, only 500 years later.

This year is the Anniversary of the invention of the telescope, so the Vatican decided to have a special exhibit on Galileo, now declared to be one of the great Catholic scientist in the service of God. The Vatican explains today that, Galileo got into trouble because, some priest misunderstood what he was saying at the time. A simple misunderstanding, no harm done.

So there you go, that is my Halloween stories from Rome. Stay clear of those Dominican friars in dark alleys, near the Pantheon that is where their HQ is located at Santa Maria Sopra Minerva.

Friday, 30 October 2009

first haircut for Nicky

Today was the first time Nicky went for a trim, he is now 8 months old and had never been to the salon for what is call a stripping. Wire hair Dachshunds have a type of fur that requires that the coat be stripped of dead hair, so it is not just a cut.

He went in one color and came out another, you can judge by the photos before and after. His coat underneath is a blond brown color with some black in it. He is very slim at 8 months but our Vet says that for his size he is the right weight at 4.2 Kg.
He was very good about it all and got biscotties as a reward.

Monday, 19 October 2009

House of Augustus, Palatine Hill, Rome

This week I went to visit the Palatine hill in Rome, it is a very interesting area, the original hill was made larger by the building of huge platforms which extended the overall total surface of the hill so more and more, palaces and temples could be located on the hill, after all the Palatine was the prime neighborhood of Rome. It was originally a small hill but as we can see today, huge arches in concrete and brick were built as foundation so palaces could be built. The Palatine has been inhabited since the earliest time, Romulus and Remus are said to have had their thatched huts on that very hill, today you can still see the foundations markers of those huts built some 2800 years ago. 

This visit took us to the newly re-opened house of Augustus, about 18 months ago, the house in which Gaius Julius Octavius lived as an adult was re-opened to the public after 50 years of restoration.  Gaius Julius Octavius who became known as Augustus first Emperor of Rome was born in September of 63 BC and died at Nola near Naples in 14 AD at the age of 76 from eating too many figs, his favorite fruit. He was the nephew of Gaius Julius Caesar and his heir. He was not in Rome when his uncle was assassinated on 15 March 44 BC but he was waiting for him with the legions in Greece for a new military campaign near what is Iraq today. The reading of the will of Julius Caesar on the Rostra of the Roman Forum declaring Octavius sole heir started his political career and ascension to power.

The house we see today is connected to the larger official palace. This house is very cleverly situated, next to all the sacred site of the foundation of Rome, it is next to the hut of Romulus, the house is also above the grotto where the She-Wolf suckled the twins Romulus and Remus. The grotto recently discovered in 2008 still has to be excavated. It is also next to the temple of the Cybele the Mater Magna, (Earth Mother) and between the Lares, protective spirits of good and evil and the Temple of Apollo, god of music and poetry and so many other things.

The house is small and not the sort of Imperial Palace you would expect. Augustus lived modestly, his wife Livia made his tunic from a rough wool, simple and practical, he ate simple food, slept in a simple little room all his life and wore thick sole sandals to give himself a boost, he was a short little guy, though very good looking. You first enter the house by a service door at the back, you are at the foot of a great staircase which connected the larger palace above, to your left, a door gives into a large room for audiences, capacity about 30 people maximum and next to this room his study, a rather small room with enough room for 5 people no more, one desk and a chair. The rooms are beautifully painted with scenes from mythology, Pompeian red very much in fashion then, dominates, you can see that the best artist worked on the decorations and motifs of those rooms, money was no object. The floors of the most beautiful colored marble. The house was a great political project for Augustus, it was started even before he became Emperor and August, Father of the Country, everyone in Rome knew of the house and its symbolism, all was thought out, no detail was left to chance. It is wonderful to be able to visit for a few minutes these rooms and imagine that Augustus who left his mark on his world, also left us with a large legacy, in laws and concepts that still influence our society, lived and worked there. To me this was by far the best visit ever of any ancient site, a priviledge moment.  
The only photos are by special permission only, I found only these 2 photos of the ceiling in the entrance and of the north wall of the dining room, the paintings on the walls and ceilings are still fresh and vibrant, even after 2000 years. 

In November, Rome will celebrate the 2000 birthday of yet another great Emperor, Vespasian of the Flavian dynasty which succeeded Nero in 69AD who was the last of the Julio-Claudian family. Vespasian was born in Rieti near Rome in the year 9 AD. He is the emperor who built the famous Amphitheater of the Flavians, also know as the Colosseum, for this reason the Forum is alive with his memory and many teams of archeologists at this time busy working on digs everywhere, tourists seem like an unwanted distractions.   

Saturday, 17 October 2009

Returning home

So today I flew back from Tirana, Albania to Rome, a short flight 60 minutes across the Adriatic and up the boot of Italy on Alitalia. On their flights they have either an all male crew or a mix crew with a higher ration of male staff. Their staff all look like models on a catwalk. 

When we entered Rome from Fiumicino airport via the E.U.R. and Porta Capena, I noticed a lot of police everywhere around the Teatro del'Opera and Santa Maria Maggiore. It's Rome and we were having our weekly demonstration. If you live in Rome you come to accept that there will be strikes and demonstrations almost weekly or bi-weekly and the police will come out and the demonstrators will block central Rome, meaning Piazza Venezia and Piazza Reppublica by the train station Termini, this means that if you want to drive across the city it becomes difficult. The demonstrations are always peaceful, it is not about violence or anger, but coming out and marching and flying flags, usually of the CGIL the main trade union and the Communist party, balloons and banners.  The police stand by, smoking cigarettes and drinking espresso and talking amongst themselves while the demonstrators walk past. It is a little like a social event, the left has lots of demonstrations. The right and the Fascists have rallies, where speakers go on and on for hours, usually in some stadium built by Il Duce. Denouncing the left and all they stand for. Today the rally of the Left was to mark Anti-Racism day. 

The weather is much colder now, must be around 9c this evening in Rome. The puppies were happy to see me much yapping and jumping and then this evening Nicky did something he has never done before, he jumped on the sofa snuggled up against me and fell asleep next to me while I was reading. 
Will says he was looking for me all week. When I came in, he came really close to my face and just stared at me for the longest while as if he wanted to say something, like where have you been. 

Glad to be home, I find travelling to be such a chore now. Probably will go back to Albania at end February or early March, work again. Sorry no pictures, there is not much to show. 

Monday, 12 October 2009

Old Aqueduct park, Rome

We took the metro this morning to the outskirts of southern Rome and got off at Giulio Agricola station, this area of Rome was built up in the 1970's and is composed mostly of a very pleasant neighborhood of low condo buildings. At the end of the street in front of us stretches the park with its gigantic aqueducts stretching across the landscape, the low one is the Aqua Felice and Marcia, the tall one is the Aqua Claudia whose arches have a height of 28 meters. It was started by Emperor Caligula and completed by his uncle Emperor Claudius, I still drink water from that spring every day.


The old Via Latina also comes by there, in ancient times you would use it to go south towards the Pontine Marshes, the Via Appia antiqua is also part of this park. We also saw an old Roman Villa which in the year 900 was transformed into a fortified farm house. The Villa is very ancient and no one lives there now, but several others have been bought by wealthy people who turn them into luxury homes, imagine owning a 2000 yrs old house. People are proud of a 150-year-old house back home. It is quite marvelous to see those old aqueducts, at one time Rome had 11 of them stretching 750 Km bringing water to the city. The first one was built in 330 BC and 2 aqueducts still function today, the Aqua Marcia and the Aqua Vergine feeding fountains like the famous Trevi fountain. It is thought today that more clean water was available to every citizen of ancient Rome than today. Enormous cisterns were built everywhere to store water and even wealthy individuals could build their own cistern for their private homes. We saw one near by built by a man who made an enormous fortune selling bricks, the ruins of one of his villas is in the park with the enormous cistern next to the aqueduct. We also heard of the army of slaves needed to clean, maintain and repair the aqueducts, quite the workforce. Considering that mathematics and other sciences were in their infancy, it required quite a lot of ingenuity to devise such a system. The Romans simply built big and solid arches so the aqueducts could carry the load of all this water rushing towards Rome. What we see in the open air is only 70 Km of the whole system, everything else was underground. The Aqueducts functioned until 537 AD and then bit-by-bit the system disappeared, by the year 1000, the system no longer worked and the knowledge was lost. We would have to wait until 1500 to see the system partially restored.


On our way to the park, we passed one metro station called Porta Furba, I thought this was a very odd name, it means traitors gate, I asked Nancy our guide why was it called that, she tells me that Coriolanus, the same fellow who has a play written by Shakespeare, was a hero of ancient Rome, he turned against Rome and went to help the Volci, a people who lived south of Rome about 2300 years ago, when Rome was still a small city and an emerging power. He brought the Volci army to this gate and as he was about to attack the city, his mother appears, she said to him: who am I meeting, my son or the enemy of Rome?

Apparently Coriolanus was so ashamed of what he was about to do that he listened to his mother and turned his army away from Rome. A fitting story for Italy and the power of motherhood. 


Sunday, 11 October 2009

Canadian Thanksgiving 12 October

Auguri! Happy Thanksgiving to all. This is the long weekend of my favorite holiday of the year, I always enjoyed this holiday no matter where I am in the world. In Canada it is a harvest festival, a very ancient feast day, which goes back to antiquity. In Italy, we are into the season of olive tree harvesting and olive oil pressing which will continue until december. Chestnuts have also started to appear on the market and different varieties of apples. Thanksgiving or l'Action de Grace as it is called in French, is a time to reflect on what we have and how we should be thankful. Thankful for being the Citizen of a country which is govern by the rule of laws, by a Parliament and by a modern civil service dedicated to the public good. We may as Canadians complain often and feel we are hard done by and gripe but in the end if you take a good look and reflect on it, you come to understand that we have it good in terms of quality of life. Also in terms of family, friends and my spouse of almost 32 years, I have been blessed. So on this day I have a lot to be thankful for.

We had Sunday lunch, nice half turkey about 4.5Kg just enough for some left overs but nothing substantial. The stuffing was made with prosciutto sausages and a hard grain bread, very good. The bird was moist not one dry part in it. The bird came from southern Tuscany and they are left to roam around, so the meat is nice, plump and light. Nice apple pie for dessert with home made cinnamon gelato. We also had Will's famous Smokey pumpkin soup with smoked ham. This year he added to the soup Madeira wine instead of Marsala wine, it was much better and not so sweet.

Our friends in Italy came to lunch, we were 6 all together on a lovely day, the weather was sunny and around 22C with that blue sky we only get in Rome. Tomorrow we are going to visit the park of the ancient Aquaducts, those great elevated waterways which brought all the water to Rome and allowed the city to become one of the wonders of the ancient world, millions of gallons of water every hour to feed the fountains and the great bath houses, they were destroyed by the barbarians in 410 AD. It will be nice to enjoy the fresh air outside the city.

Enjoy the holiday!

Saturday, 3 October 2009

The debate in the USA about Health care or not to care

I have been following the Health Care debate in the USA from Rome, I am surprised at the level of animosity. The hate in some comments is palpable, racism also plays its part. The ignorance of the commentators may they be private citizens or media personality is astounding. Comparing the Obama administration with Nazi Germany (1933-45) or Soviet Russia (1917-1989) is laughable, do any of these experts or commentators have any idea what life was like under the Nazis, if Obama was a Nazi, he would have physically eliminated all opposition by now, that is what you do, there would not be one Republican left alive and families would have been rounded up, shot or imprisoned. News media closed down, Fox News gone, its commentators would have met a horrible death. Same in Soviet Russia, no opposition allowed, obviously commentators use such example to create a sensation, but it is sad because it preys on the ignorant masses and stirs up hysteria. All the President really wants to do is to allow every citizen access regardless of financial resources to medical help and treatment if required. Any country in the world with a responsible government wants this basic minimum for its citizens.

You cannot have democracy only for the rich, the well connected or the special interest group, it does not work, it creates tensions and social unrest in any country. Socialize medicine works in many countries, Canada, the UK, France, Scandinavia, etc.. citizens of those countries have a better standard of living because of it. What is difficult to understand in the American debate, why all the fear.

An economic study today shows that Norway has the highest living standard in the world, Canada is at no. 4 and the USA at no. 13. Food for thought really. Another fact Cuba, that little island 90 miles south of Florida has better health care overall and lower infant mortality than the USA and it is all free. I would say this is pretty shocking when you think of it.

I am an outsider looking at the USA and I can only shake my head and wonder where is the Land of the Free going with this internal negative debate. President Obama should be praised for wanting to implement this health care policy, not put down. Let's hope that the voice of reason will be heard.

Prices Food, Rome

Helped out Will today with a survey of cost of living prices in Rome. We went to different stores to look at every day items of life and see how much they cost. Doing this in depth survey I realized how much more expensive life is here in Rome compared to back home. There is a huge difference, per example a 4 Kg IAMS bag of dog food is 24 Euros, cat food is double the price. Fruits and vegetables sell by the Kilo and there is nothing under 2.50 Euros, it seems to be the starting bottom price. Many other items like a bar of bath soap is around 4.50 euros, and the list goes on. I was really shocked. Now if you have food allergies to Gluten you need to buy bread or pasta that is gluten free then the cost really shoots up, ordinary wheat pasta a staple of life in Italy is very expensive. We have seen the cost of living in 24 months go up by 56% on everything. Given that the average salary is around 1100 euros per month you have to wonder how people manage. Rents are also expensive in the city and if you cannot afford it then a 3 hour commute in and out every day to work is your option. You can easily spend 70% of your monthly salary on rent, the rest goes to everything else. Electricity rates are so prohibitive that most people do not have air conditioning or clothes dryer or dish washers. People living in apartment blocs which is most everyone, will hang their clothes to dry on the small balcony or put them on a clothes rack in the dining room to dry. In the summer in 40c heat, you have to find ways to keep cool, in winter you keep only the room where you spend most of the day heated, the rest is kept cool at around 18C and you dress warmly.

What we also noticed is that contrary to what we would see back home where fruits and vegetables are graded in categories in the supermarket and you can pay a lot less for bruised or older fruits and vegetable, no such offer here, Italians look for freshness and quality when they shop and so merchants to not offer lower grades. We have also discovered that our Sri Lankan street vendor of fruits and vegetables is a lot more expensive than the supermarket but he does have nicer stuff. As for the butcher well you want to eat meat, may it be pork, beef, veal or sausages it is all very expensive. An example this weekend I wanted to make myself some chicken soup, so I went to see Armando our butcher, he is known by the nickname the Bulgari of Butchers in Rome, he is very expensive but all his meats are top no.1 quality, you never go wrong with him. So 2 chicken thighs and a piece of turkey meat 10 euros for basically a pound or half kilo. The soup was excellent by the way.

I also noticed that in Rome there are 3 types of shoppers based on the 3 times of day you might go out shopping. The first kind is the early morning shopper, 8:30 to 11:00 am, polite, courteous, mostly old ladies and gentlemen or people who are on vacation and have the time, it is a leisurely affair. The second kind, the 12:00 Noon to 13:30 just before lunch crowd is the aggressive get out of my way kind, rude, pushy, hey its lunch time, come on, get a move on. Not very pleasant. The final kind is the 16:00 to 19:30 end of day shoppers who are going home after work and forgot something, tired and bored, just want to get it done and go home, choice is not great and you take what is left. You also have the old lady who comes by around 5pm to talk with the owner of the little shop, just for a bit of conversation at the end of the afternoon, because it is a slow time of day and even if the merchants are busy with customers, they will chat, simply because it is the tradition. Of course the fresh goods markets and the fishmonger are only open until 13:30, in the late afternoon it is shops only who re-open after the lunch break at 16:00. On Saturday I usually try to go early, otherwise everyday a bit of shopping just before lunch or after work on the way home. But now that I am a regular custormer with the Butcher, I can place an order and pick it up later or the next day. Canadian Thanksgiving is coming up on 11 October so I will order turkey parts from Armando on Monday, the oven is not big enough for the whole bird.

Having said all this you have to remember that Italy is a member of the E.U. and NATO and one of the industrial powers, Italians do like other Europeans, they manage.

Exchange rate 1 euro = $1.55 Cdn.

Thursday, 1 October 2009

This morning in Beijing Flag-raising Ceremony

On this October 1, I was thinking of my own memories of China since early childhood, around 1960 I was a little kid and China was a far away place where an Emperor lived and all I knew of China as a small child was stuff found in children's books about a mysterious country and people wearing traditional clothing. Then by 1967 I saw a French movie on television about the Temple of Heaven and the story was about kites flying in the great park surrounding the temple. The temple in this movie and the park was in a very sad shape, no trees and mostly dust all around, very different from today's park and the magnificently restored Temple of Heaven. When I first visited it in Beijing in 2004 it was not yet restored but it was magical because though the park now had trees everywhere as in Imperial times, there were lots of kites flying. Of course I also heard of the Red Guards and the Cultural Revolution but that for me was the stuff of fantasy again about this far away land called China. Chairman Mao was a great benevolent figure always smiling, I would discover later that he was not such a nice man. Then when Canada recognized China and established diplomatic relations around 1971, that was before Kissinger and Nixon, I was excited about it because it meant that Canada was again making diplomatic history. I was in Ottawa the day the first Ambassador of the PRC arrived all dressed up like Chairman Mao accompanied by mean looking Red Guards. I realized much later how much fantasy and propaganda we were fed about China and how it was evolving. When Zhou En Lai and then Mao died, China was still very distant in terms of the knowledge I had but I remember being shocked to hear that Mao's wife had been thrown in jail, how could this be I wondered. But my real knowledge or understanding of China came when I arrived in Beijing in July 2004, this was not how I imagined it at all, this city did not look like and imperial capital, more like a vast construction site, it did not look like a Chinese city more like any city in the world. I was disappointed and I was also frustrated with the fact that I could not have conversations with Chinese people because I knew so little Mandarin. I spent 3 years in China and learned quite a few things about the Chinese Han and the country and its politics.
In 60 years great progress has been made and that is a very positive thing for all living in China. However China as a super power and not a democratic one at that, raises some concerns. Because when you put aside all the propaganda of the Communist party in how it presents itself to the world, you know it does not sound true, there is only one point of view in China and it is dictated by the Party. Only time will tell what will happen.
For the moment it is all about celebration.

China Party (1949-2009)

Today marks the 60th Anniversary of the People's Republic of China's Proclamation as New China by Mao Tse Tung from Tian An Men gate in Beijing. As a country China has come a long way and we can only marvel at their success. However much of this development would not have been possible in a democracy. When I lived in Beijing prior to the Olympics, I saw the city transformed, amazed at how decrees would be implemented in the name of the greater good and things got done.
China today still has problems of poverty and unemployment but no more famine, no more strife and by large a society which is more prosperous. Unfortunate that the Party decided to concentrate on military display instead of people but this has to do largely with communist ideology. It this little clip from Central Television channel 9 in Beijing you can see the similarity with the old Soviet model. Though in Chinese fashion it is colorful. I also like the part where President Hu Jin Tao is fashioned as the New Emperor, like Mao, old symbols die hard.