Monday, 31 December 2012

Wisdom on 31 December 2012

Here is a message from my friend C.P. this morning, words of wisdom on my entering a new phase of life in retirement. Thank you C.P.

To invent the life you want to have rather than the life someone says you must have. It takes time.

And on this note here is the year in photos, not a bad year at all, lots of travelling in Europe throughout the year and then retirement, with photos of the actual site where the decision was made.

The first month of the year was the usual blah, mild winter and not much happening, work was not that interesting and by March I decided it was time to return to Rome and consulted friends to see what was going on in the Eternal City.

The two domes of the Churches in Piazza del Popolo as seen from the Belvedere of Villa Borghese.

I also had my birthday in Rome with friends at a lovely luncheon in Capena just a few minutes outside the Città.

Cake was Linda's creation and it is not on fire.

Because March is Artichoke season, she also made Stuffed Artichoke Roman Style. A favourite of mine.

Now I did walk a lot in Rome, something I truly enjoy doing, the City is built like a theatre set and anywhere you look there is always something to attract your eyes.

Looking down this street that morning in March I was just waiting around for Nancy de C. to start one of her private tours of the Convent at Trinita dei Monti, top of the Spanish stairs. So I was just looking down the street, Via Sistina, this would be around 9:55 am and if you look all the way you can see at the other end the steeple of Santa Maria Maggiore. The street changes names twice before you arrive at the other end, to Via Quattro Fontane and then to Via Agostino DePretis. It was busy that morning like all morning in Rome are and I do not know why, but a little voice told me, you know retiring would not be such a bad thing after all, you had a wonderful career. Rome and it's sunlight can inspire.
That is when I decided that I would retire by year end.

Vincent Lam in Ottawa at Fraser Café at the launch of his bestseller book, The Headmaster's Wager. During the Ottawa Writers Festival. A wonderful book to read. Vincent is a writer but also a E.R. doctor at Toronto.

In early May we had the annual Tulip Festival in commemoration of the Royal Family of the Netherlands who spent the Second World War in Ottawa. Carpets of  tulips everywhere in city parks can be seen, beautiful.

Nicholas and Nora in the morning after breakfast, a little snooze.

Of course this year was the 60th anniversary of the accession of Queen Elizabeth II. The Diamond Jubilee was celebrated in June in Canada.

Then in June we went on our cruise with AZAMARA from Amsterdam to Hamburg to Copenhagen, to the Island of Ronen and on to Helsinki, St-Petersburg and Tallinn finally arriving in Stockholm.

From Kevin M. apartment and B&B beautiful view. We also met M.J. in Amsterdam.

Before coffee in the morning in a lovely café just down the street from our B& B.

Copenhagen Palace Square in the morning.

We then sailed to a small island of Ronen to see smoke houses where fish is smoked like herring. It is very fresh and delicious with a glass of wine.

 A very traditional method of preparing and preserving fish and it was very interesting to see. Such a lovely small island, very green, a beautiful picture of Scandinavia.

 We then sailed on to Helsinki, a beautiful small Capital, friendly people and wonderful pastries.
The excitement was building as we were now approaching Imperial St-Petersburg the city built by Peter the Great, what a jewel and thanks to massive renovations by Vladimir Putin, the city once again shines on the Baltic.

Here we are across from the Winter Palace by the Sphinx on University Embankment. If you touch the Sphinx you are likely to return to St-Petersburg. I wish we could have stayed at least one more day, two days was simply not enough for this magnificent city.

Our last stop was Stockholm, which for Will meant going to Drottningholm (Queen's Palace) to see the famous 17th century theatre. He waited almost all his life to see it and I had heard of it for the last 35 years, so the expectation was great. We were not disappointed, it was magical, to be able to step back in this perfectly preserved small theatre.

My favourite photo of 2012, Will at the entrance to the Royal Park, he was so excited, like a little kid.
Of course Sydd appears in the photo, he accompanied us throughout the trip.

 Talk of green environment in Stockholm Harbour.

But this was not all for my travelling, in the Fall I went for a few days to London to see friends. Wonderful visit and how nice to see the City with a lot less tourists. Staying with C. in the Marylebone area near Selfridge's on Baker street.

 The West facade of St-Paul's Convent Garden, Market area, known as the Actor's Church built by Inigo Jones in 1633. A beautiful Church well worth a visit.

How many times in my career, Will and I said this, so true and it continues to be.

December, the first snow in Ottawa. We have had so far more snow in December 2012 than in the entire winter of 2011. It promises.

On the 29 December, the retirement party with a few friends at home.

and the year ends, on with the new......

It's -22 C. on this photo, Happy New Year to All!

Sunday, 30 December 2012

Senator Dr. Rita Levi-Montalcini, 1909-2012

The Mayor or Sindaco of Rome announced today that Italian Senator Dr. Rita Levi-Montalcini had died. She was the Nobel Prize winner in Physiology and Medicine in 1986 for her research work. She was a developmental biologist. Her discovery with Dr. Cohen of the University of Washington in St-Louis, USA, of nerve growth factor (NGF) and epidermal growth factor (EGF), respectively, demonstrated how the growth and differentiation of a cell is regulated. NGF and EGF were the first of many growth-regulating signal substances to be discovered and characterized.

This discovery opened new fields of importance in basic science. As a consequence our understanding of many disease states such as developmental malformations, degenerative changes in senile dementia, delayed wound healing and tumour diseases.

Dr. Gerald D.Fishbach, a neuroscientist and professor Emeritus at Columbia said her work had revolutionized the study of neural developmental, from how we think about it and to how we intervene.
Previously scientists had virtually no idea how embryo cells built a latticework of intricate connections to other cells when Dr. Levi-Montalcini began studying chicken embryos in the bedroom of her house in Turin, Italy, during World War II. After years of obsessive study, much of it with Dr. Viktor Hamburger, she found a protein that, when released by cells, attracted nerve growth from nearby developing cells.

She was born in Turin in Northern Italy and graduated in Medicine from the University of Turin in 1936 with honours, Summa Cum Laude. Her father Adamo Levi was an engineer and a known mathematician and her mother was a painter. She convinced her father that she should continue and study medicine, not a fashionable idea in 1930 Italy. Her other sisters either married or pursue other paths, her brother was a well known architect.

I remember her from our time in Rome, she was truly an impressive women, despite being 100 years old. She had said at a conference that her mind was much better at 100 than at 20 because of all the life experience and knowledge she now had.
She never married and did not have children. She devoted her life to study and research. The Italian Republic bestowed on her the title of Senator for life in 2001in recognition of her incredible work.

She was an example to many Italian women of what a person can achieve in their lifetime, despite obstacles and she had quite a few during her life, her family were Jewish and survived after 1936 by moving south from Turin and then to Florence and the countryside. All the while she continued her research. Truly an amazing life story, a women who succeeded not because she had some kind of mandated entitlement but solely on Merit. That in itself is very attractive, the idea of Merit instead of entitlement, quotas or reverse discrimination. An example for our time, especially here in Canada, where people much prefer to scream for what they have been led to believe is their right.

We should have more people like Dr. Rita Levi-Montalcini. What a wonderful legacy she leaves us.

Senator Dr. Rita Levi-Montalcini (1909-2012), Rome, Italy.

Friday, 28 December 2012

First Day of the rest of my Life.

Well today marks my official retirement day from the Foreign Service, so I am officially a pensioner now. Would like to join these fellows ( see photo below), smart uniform, nice hat, living in London in Chelsea no less. Apparently I do not fit the bill to become a pensioner at the Royal Chelsea Hospital, pity, I do fancy those tricorne hats.

At any rate I am busy with different projects as a volunteer at the National Gallery of Canada and at the University of Ottawa, Faculty of Social Sciences. I have the dogs to look after and lots of other things, like Mr. W. I have also started to read more books, thanks to our friend in London, D.N. who has come up with lots of nice books I can order on my Kindle. What I like about the Kindle is it takes no space at all and books are a lot cheaper electronically, I love reading so its a good fit. I just started reading Sonechka by Ludmila Ulitskaya, a very popular Russian author at the moment.

What is fun about retirement is that I have no stress anymore about the job and what to say and not say and a million details about policy and decisions. I can also express an opinion now which I could not before since I had to be mindful of Government Policy or position papers. Someone said once that being retired was like getting out of jail, I see what they meant now.

Strangely enough I just learned of the death of General Norman Schwarzkopf who led the American forces in Kuwait against Iraq in 1991, I remember that time well, I was posted to Cairo and we went down to the Suez Canal to see the Canadian Warships cruise down towards the Red Sea. These were events that marked my years there.

So this is my new image now, having lunch in Vienna in the old greenhouse of the Hofburg Palace

Or watching the Tiber flow by on Tiberina Island in the centre of Rome

To celebrate this first day we are going to Al's Steak House on Elgin street, love the place, it is a sort of a Who's Who spot and they have my favourites on the menu like the giant shrimp cocktail served with the spicy sauce and the steaks are always done perfectly, good wines and good friendly service, very much the way restaurants use to be 40 years ago, best of all no families and no kids. Have nothing against children, I just believe they should not be seen.

Blue bird of Happiness!

Wednesday, 26 December 2012

Boxing Day and recipe for leftovers

I for one am always trying to avoid leftovers, I do not like wasting food, but I have to concede that balancing a meal and the courses is no easy task and requires some thinking. Same with the dessert course, I prefer light courses, fresh fruits, I remember the pineapples of Italy on every restaurant menu or white summer peaches in a big glass of Red wine.

Same for the wines you will serve, I try to pair wines with food so they do not clash but accompany each other. personally I do not like heavy big reds unless they have been chilled a little to make them lighter and much prefer lighter wines at 12.5%. In the whites I prefer dry to fruity. Though I do like a nice dessert wine, Italy produces many such wines, like the Moscato.

So for those of you who did turkey yesterday for Xmas here is a quick leftover recipe and easy to do.

Turkey Pot Pie with fresh sage

It is quicker to make than a regular pot pie because the pastry bakes as the filling simmers. If time permits, you can put the filling in ovenproof dishes, cover with uncooked pastry and bake until bubbly and golden.

1/2 pkg (450 g pkg) frozen rolled butter puff pastry, thawed
1 egg, beaten
2 tbsp (30 mL) butter
1 onion, chopped
1 rib celery, chopped
1 acorn squash, (about 500 g), peeled and cubed (about 4 cups)
1/4 tsp (1 mL) salt
1/4 tsp (1 mL) pepper
1/3 cup (75 mL) all-purpose flour
2 cups (500 mL) sodium-reduced chicken broth
3 cups (750 mL) shredded cooked turkey, white and dark meat
2 tbsp (30 mL) thinly sliced fresh sage
1 pinch nutmeg
2 cups (500 mL) fresh baby spinach
1/2 cup (125 mL) 10% cream
On parchment paper, unroll pastry; cut lengthwise then crosswise into 4 equal sections. Brush with egg. Transfer paper with pastry onto baking sheet; bake in 400°F (200°C) oven until puffed and golden, 16 to 18 minutes.

Meanwhile, in Dutch oven or large saucepan, melt butter over medium heat; cook onion, celery, squash, salt and pepper until squash is tender, 7 to 8 minutes. 

Stir in flour; cook, stirring, for 1 minute. Gradually stir in broth and bring to boil; reduce heat and simmer until thickened, about 8 minutes. 

Stir in turkey, sage and nutmeg; cook until turkey is hot, about 4 minutes. Stir in spinach and cream; cook until spinach is wilted. Ladle into bowls; top with puff pastry.

Tuesday, 25 December 2012

Christmas Day 2012

We had a wonderful Réveillon last night at home, fine French red wines from 2005 and 2009 to accompany our Cipaille, which is a typically centuries old Canada traditional Christmas dish. Will made them the day before, it is a huge pie of veal, chicken, beef and Venison meat. The Venison was a gift of a hunter friend, who goes on an annual hunt each Autumn North of Ottawa in the great primeval forests. Mix in with vegetables like carrots, potatoes, white mushrooms and onions. It was rich and excellent, though our Chef Will did not think so. But then again he is never satisfied with his own cooking though it is always very good, I figure about 38,000 meals so far he is not happy with, we all assured him it was very good. Ah, les artistes! 

We started our meal with an very good prosecco, Dessert was a plum pudding that I picked up at Canadian owned Selfridge's on Baker street when I was in London last. I usually have the leftover pudding the next day for breakfast cold absolutely delicious.

Am listening on this day to the Lutheran Mass for Christmas Morning as celebrated in 1620.
Composer is Michael Praetorius, Gabrieli Consort on authentic instruments. It is sung by the Boys Choir and Congregational Choir of Roskilde Cathedral in Denmark.

On this Christmas day in 1066 at Westminster Abbey, William the Conqueror was crowned King of England. 

Monday, 24 December 2012

Mon beau Sapin, Roi des Fôrets, Christmas Eve

This Christmas song, O Tannenbaum, O Christmas Tree, was a traditional song at my grandfather's home and it was sung each year by my Aunt Fernande. It was her song and she had the voice, despite her age to give us children a beautiful rendition of it. She sang it in French which translates to Mon beau Sapin Roi des Fôrets. A Sapin in French is the green pine tree used as the Christmas tree, king of all Forests.  The introduction of the Christmas tree in Canada will come only as of 1765, when the Military Governor of Sorel, a small city near Montreal will make one for his home, he was from Switzerland and working for the English King. This tradition was unknown during the French Regime (1534-1763) in Canada this being a Germanic tradition.

Here is the Robert Shaw Chorale with a nice rendition of this song in German and English.

Sunday, 23 December 2012

A simple recipe for now

I receive daily messages from Canadian Living Magazine, they have all kinds of ideas about cooking, living, health, decorating, etc... I also get messages from Gourmet magazine, remember Gourmet years ago with the impossible recipes. I say impossible because I had to shop for the ingredients so the great one could cook marvellous dishes to dazzle our guests, and he did, not to mention that he also sang and told jokes, ah, the Irish, so talented, that is why I married him.

The magazine is no longer printed but now exist in the internet format. This recipe first appeared in December of 2008. A simple dish recipe which I tried out today. It is quite easy to do, in fact they suggest you put it together and throw it in the oven and go shower, when you are done the dish is ready. It is also delicious and has a classy European look about it, if you read the ingredients.

I do not make pastry and have no idea how to make pastry, but thanks to modern shopping, I bought puff pastry frozen and simply thaw it for an hour. Got my dish out and put all the ingredients together, simple really you only need an onion or two, prosciutto, one potato and some eggs. We all have those ingredients in our Emergency Shelf, right?

Here is the recipe for Egg, Potato and Prosciutto Pie.

1 package of frozen Puff Pastry, thawed.
2 medium onions, finely chopped (2 cups)
1.5 table spoons of good olive oil
5 oz of thinly sliced Prosciutto
1 large potato (10 oz weight)
6 large eggs

Put in a baking sheet in middle of oven and preheat at 375 F or 190 C.

Roll out 12 inch dough into a square dish, the dough should drape on the edges.
Stir in a bowl finely chopped onions and olive oil, add black pepper to taste. and then spread evenly
on the dough in the pan.
Top with Prosciutto.
Peeled potato must be sliced thin, then arrange as one layer over the prosciutto, covering it all.
Crack eggs on top of potatoes, arranging gently the yokes so they do not touch one another.
Season eggs with black pepper to taste.
Then cover it all with remaining pastry, crimp the edge. Cut several slits
Bake for 50 to 60 minutes until pastry is golden brown and puffed.

You may want to let it cool for 5 minutes before serving.
Will feed 4 adults.

Egg, Potato, Prosciutto Pie

This being the ''Season'' our little Dachshunds also get special dinner treats, tonight we had Venison and some beef in egg yoke all cooked up. They being Wire Hair Dachshunds they are hunting hounds, this is their main function in Italy where they come from. The smell of the Venison gave a glow to their eyes a bit like Count Dracula gets when he smells blood. Obviously the food of their ancestors the giant Dashchunds of Europe.

Here is our little Nicholas at dinner.

This being the eve before Christmas Eve here is a little music with Teddy Tahu Rhodes. Beautiful voice, clear pronunciation, which is a must for Georg Fredrich Handel's Oratorio The Messiah, originally an Easter offering. This passage, The Trumpets shall sound, more an Easter piece than a Christmas piece given the topic of Resurrection. My favourite of the Messiah. Strange how it now is so closely associated with Christmas.

Saturday, 22 December 2012

Risqué Xmas Song

Back in the late 1950's lots of Christmas Season songs became more hip and Jazzed up. This one was considered naughty and risqué. Those were the days of women at home, housewives and busy with running the home and the kids, while the husband went to work in the City. This little song implies that mom is having an affair with Santa, and why not he's got all the gifts from Tiffany's and the Mink stole or a nice Cadillac. The kids spied on her and frankly do not seem to care as long as they get their gifts.

Listening to it 50 years later, it sounds pretty silly and funny. It seems that Christmas was fun back then and no one made too much of a fuss about being stressed out or kids on whatever. This was also before  the nonsense about Happy Holidays. Back then it was the Christmas Season and Christmas was all over the world. Ah, a simpler time. There were Xmas Cocktails, stiff drinks, lots of good food, remember Executive Chef Helen Corbitt (1906-1978) of Neiman Marcus, Zodiac Room fame, her recipes were the best, no diets or silly food allergies. Her book was dedicated to the men in her life.

In her time Helen Corbitt was the premier American Chef, The Chicago Tribune described her as the Balenciaga of Food, her food was loved by President Lyndon B. Johnson and Lady Bird. She was often described as the Best Cook in Texas. She won many prestigious food awards.

I like a lot of what Helen Corbitt called Meals from the Emergency Shelf,

Frozen Strawberries in Orange Juice add a little Champagne.
Creamed Chicken over a Cheese Soufflé
Broiled Prunes, Peaches and Pear halves
Melba toast

or her Dinner menu
Hot chicken livers sautéed in wine served with a nice cocktail in the Living room
Baked Ham glazed with jelly
Rum Flambéed Sweet Potatoes
Corn Muffins
Assorted relishes
Chilled Pears with Melba Sauce

She also gives in her book what should be in that Emergency Shelf of yours.
Beats processed fast-food any day in my book.

If you can find that book, her recipes are priceless and classics.

I saw Mommy kiss Santa Claus by the Ronettes. Quelle Scandale!!!!!

Friday, 21 December 2012

Official Christmas photos of our Household

We put up the tree last night and we have so many decorations we collected for the last 35 years from everywhere around the world that we can choose and rotate them from year to year. This year we added decorations from St-Petersburg, Russia and from Helsinki, Finland. I also had the task of polishing the Sterling Silver Christmas tree balls all 30 of them.

Our 2.1 meter Christmas tree 2012 edition. (click for larger view)

Our star which has adorned our tree for the last 35 years. With the figure of Humpty Dumpty below.

The Christmas frog in her sleigh.

Lady Bear from St-Petersburg, Russia.

English Page boy from London with some of the sterling silver balls on either side.

Mother Mouse and miniature book

Carabinieri Italy.

Finally a little bit of music for this Christmas Season.
Dagen är Kommen- Adeste Fideles- Psalm 122 sung by a Swedish Choir.
It is quite beautiful to hear this famous piece in Swedish.

To all a very Happy Christmas! 

Menu for Christmas, Menu di Natale

Here is a typical restaurant menu for Christmas as it is offered in Italy this week.

It brings back wonderful memories of the good quality in food we found everywhere in Italy, from big to small towns. I do not think you can have a bad meal, that is if you stay away from the Pizza joints for tourists or the Tourist menu style restaurants. The Gambero Rosso guide in Italy is very good to helping you find good quality restaurants and gems of Italian culinary perfection. Of course in such a menu you would start with the Antipasto and then depending on your appetite chose either one dish from the Primi (pasta or soup) and then one dish from the Secondi (Meat) the Dolce (dessert) has some typical sweets note there is no tiramisu which is for tourists only.

If you are not sure about this Italian menu I can help you with the translation. I can tell you that most of those dishes I know and they are delicious.

Salame strolghino di culatello, focaccette con il formaggio, frittelle con le cipolline novelle, verdure miste sottolio, bruschetta con prescinseua e pomodori datterini, sformatini di porri 


Zuppa di carciofi e patate

Zuppa di farro biologico e fagiolini albenghini

Pansoti di zucca con fonduta al parmigiano

Lasagne al forno con il sugo di carciofi

Taglierini con il sugo di funghi


Stinco di maialino con cipolline in agrodolce e patatine novelle
Gallo nostrano arrosto
Tagliata di manzo con insalatine e carciofi crudi
Sformato di cardi con fonduta alla robiola
Insalata di erbe e fiori del prebuggiun
Piatto misto di formaggi con biscotti fatti in casa e miele delle nostre api   

Pandolce fatto in casa servito con crema alla cannella
Sorbetto di lampone  con vodka
Torta di pere e cioccolato servito con gelato
Ananas fresco con cointreau
Nocciolato di gianduia con bicchierino di gelato
Salame di cioccolato con ballon di rum

Rome Christmas, 2012 Piazza Venezia in front of the Altar to the Nation. 

Thursday, 20 December 2012

Books I read lately

Lately I have read 4 books on people who lived at the same time during one specific period of history in different countries, Canada, the UK, Germany and Poland, the period 1930 to 1948.
The books are; King: William Lyon Mackenzie King, A life, by Allan Levine, A daughter's tale: the Memoir of Winston Churchill's daughter, by Mary Soames, Letters from Berlin: A story of war and survival by Kerstin Lieff and Fifteen Journeys Warsaw to London by Jasia Reichardt.

As a complement to those books, years ago I read 2 memoirs of the Princesses Marie and Tatiana Vassiltchikoff who were born in St-Petersburg before the revolution and whose father was attached to the Household of Czar Nicholas II.
The family escaped Russia in 1918 on a warship sent by King George V to rescue his Russian relatives and they settled in Germany.

Both Marie and Tatiana will work as secretaries at the German Foreign Ministry for many years and will become involved in a plot to assassinate Hitler, barely escaping arrest out of shear luck. Their books, The Berlin Diaries 1940-1945 by Marie and A purgatory of fools by Tatiana gives their account of Berlin and Germany under the Nazi dictatorship and their comments on some of the Nazi high officials they met in the course of their work.
At the end of the war Marie will marry an Englishman and move to the UK while Tatiana will marry Prince Paul Metternich-Winneburg and live out her life at Joannisberg Palace, her Wine Estate in Southern Germany.

I love this passage from Princess Tatiana's book; When all was over, we learnt that horror was not the sum of human experience. Those who survived would only remember the flashes of light in the darkness: the warm comradeship, the selfless gesture of love or courage which seemed the last reality in a world gone mad, where finally simplicity and gentleness remained the only valid sounds in a man's heart.

While living in Warsaw, I read around 1999 a book by a famous German media personality, Countess Marion Dönhoff, entitled Une enfance en Prusse Orientale. Her family is famous since the Middle-Ages, an old Aristocratic Prussian family, linked to Frederic II the Great of Prussia. She was for many decades the Editor and Publisher of the liberal weekly DIE ZEIT, her nickname was la Contesse démocrate. She was closely associated with the war time history of Germany, involved in the plot in 1944 to assassinate Hitler. Her book is wonderful to read, it gives an impression of life in old Prussia on her family estate in Koenigsberg today Kaliningrad. I remember writing to her after reading her book and getting a very nice reply from her. At the end of the war she rode her horse from Eastern Prussia all the way to Hamburg, an incredible distance, fleeing the advancing Soviet army. Near Berlin she stopped at the estate of the Bismarck family in Varzin, Pomerania and spent just a few hours. She tried to convince the aged great grand daughter of the Chancellor to flee with her. The old lady pointed to the garden of the Chateau and said, I am very old, I would not get far and I asked my gardener to dig my grave, so that if the Soviets shoot me, they can bury me quickly.

Here is one quote from Countess Dönhoff's book on the futility of revenge; I also do not believe that hating those who have taken 
over one's homeland...necessarily demonstrates love
for the homeland. When I remember the woods and
lakes of East Prussia, its wide meadows and old shaded
avenues, I am convinced that they are still as
incomparably lovely as they were when they were my
home. Perhaps the highest form of love is losing without

These books got me interested in what it was like to live under the Nazi regime, they tell their individual story which is quite different from the usual story about that period. As life goes it was a messy time and nothing was simple, some Germans were fooled into believing that since they were a law abiding society, governed by processes, nothing bad could happen, until it did.

What I find also very interesting is that all the writers are all more of less the same age but all from different milieu. All oppose the Nazis and Hitler and by their tales allow the reader to grasp what it must have been like to live in a society dominated by ideology, cruelty and the rule of the arbitrary.  There is also explanations of the beliefs and attitudes of the time which stand in sharp contrast if not total opposition to what we believe today. It is at times difficult to believe that the world in Europe and North America was so very different from today.

I started with the biography of our longest serving Prime Minister William Lyon Mackenzie King, 22 years in office. Based on his own diaries, which total more than 2 million pages, we have the picture of a very insecure man, who could be petty, mean and very self-centered, who never seemed to appreciate those who worked for him and did not suffer the slightest criticism real or imagined. It is well known now, but not so during his life, that he was deeply involved into the occult and spiritualism, his dead mother and his dead dog Pat 1 figure prominently into his diaries. In June 1939 King George VI and the Queen had lunch with Mackenzie King at Laurier House is home in Ottawa and then the Official Residence of our Prime Minister, he apparently gave a tour of the large house to the King and showed him where he held his séance. I can just imagine what the King must have thought.

Mackenzie King was a bigot and an anti-semite by today's standards but then many in his Cabinet and in the general population in Canada had the same attitudes, Fascism was popular to counter the Communist threat and unemployment. Mackenzie King met several times with Churchill and his daughter Mary Soames, who in her book describes him as a bit of an old Aunt. Rex as he was known to his friends really believed that he was a big player in the conferences that were held during the Second World War in Quebec City at the Chateau Frontenac. In 1938 he met with Hitler in Berlin and with Mussolini in Rome. He thought Hitler a nice chap and told him not to abandon his good work for Germany and advised him not to launch a war. Strangely enough at the end of the war when he is told that Hitler has committed suicide, Rex writes in his diary, I told him not to start a war, such a mistake.

The book of Mary Soames is about her life, that of great privilege, of her family and her father Winston and her mother Clementine. Her cousin the Duke of Marlborough and life at Chartwell or at the Admiralty or 10 Downing street. Christmas parties at Blenheim Palace and life for a young girl leading up to the war. Then she joins in the war effort and gets involved manning anti-aircraft guns in the defence of London. It is somewhat surreal to read this book, she describes how while stationed with her company, her father, the Prime Minister, would appear for an inspection tour. She would know he was coming before her Commanding Officer. She will often accompany her father and she is privy to State secrets. She meets FDR whom she likes a lot and many other important people like DeGaulle. Her memoirs are a special more personal access the world of the Churchill family, her father and mother.

She describes her fellow soldiers as nice middle-class people, good mannered. Her weekends are at parties given by friends in high society, much dancing and frivolities. The reader wonders what did her mates thought of all this, they lived in very different world. In Mary Soames world there was no great rationing, her mother always has some specialty food treat. Tragedy did strike during the war years, she writes in her diaries of the sadness and sacrifice of British people, but there is a stiff upper lip tone to it all.

Then the story of one German girl about the same age as Mary Soames and the story of another girl, a Pole living in Warsaw under difficult circumstances due to her family being Jewish.

In the book Letters from Berlin, we have the life of  Margarete Dos, born in Pomerania (Prussia) now part of Poland. Her family was well to do and her life story is told through a series of letters and recollections she gave to her daughter before she died in 2005. She grew up during the Nazi dictatorship and the family moved during that time to Berlin. Her father had in 1933 told the family that Hitler and the Nazi party would ruin Germany, that these people were no good, but Margarete being a child did not pay much attention. Her mother remarried when her father died after falling off his horse. Her step-father was an Officer in the German Navy and worked at the Navy HQ in Berlin.

Like all children she had other interests and pre-occupations centered on teenager concerns, though in September 1939 at the start of the war she becomes aware that the adults are worried and that her mother is frightened of what is coming.  Her younger brother and she will witness from their home the events of Kristallnacht in 1938 and how they as children are uncomprehending and see that the adults around them keep quiet out of fear. At the same time, she describes the life of her school friend Hilde, who is half-Jewish and who remains in Berlin with her family until the end of the war, with the help of friends and neighbours.

She has vivid recollections of being told by her mother to be afraid of the SS and the Gestapo and to avoid them at all cost. As the war progresses she is a University student in Jena and then works as a Red Cross nurse and sees friends die in the bombing of cities. She like so many Germans trapped in this turmoil wish to be rid of the Nazi and their lies but feel powerless. At the end of the war, she and her mother are deported to Siberia by the Soviets and will spend two years in a work camp. Only to return to Germany in 1947 to a new world, at this point she decides to immigrate to Sweden where she has family. This book is interesting because of he detailed eyewitness account of her life and of events, of the terrible sadness and of all the lives destroyed.

The other book is the story of a Jewish girl in Warsaw, who is protected by her parents from the harsh realities of life in Warsaw and then in the Ghetto itself during the war years. This book for me brought back memories of Warsaw, the streets mentioned in her book, I knew well. The family lived around the area where the Canadian Embassy is located. With my knowledge of Warsaw I could see her travels in the city. She also describes life in the Ghetto but appears unaware of the harshness, her parents shielding her from the daily horrors. Like all children she is aware of changes and understands that it is best not to ask questions, it might be dangerous or troubling. Her 15 journeys will take her around Warsaw during the war and the last one to London after the war. She will be hidden by Catholic Nuns and will learn a new identity as a Christian child so that she can hide from the Nazis. In a city like Warsaw which will be totally razed in the course of the war these journeys have an unbelievable quality. Courage, discretion, fortitude, faith in the future, will help her survive. Towards the end of 1943 she says in the book that she knew, she does not know how, that her parents were dead. They had stayed behind in the Ghetto unable to escape. Many friends and family members will also die, some choosing to commit suicide like her grandmother, knowing what the future will bring. She only killed herself after ensuring that her grand daughter would survive.

All these books speak of a different experience of a deeply troubled time, all are interesting for the personal details and descriptions they bring to the reader. They also show that our perception of that period is often wrong or we have jumped to conclusions with the propaganda offered by Hollywood or by people not really interested in understanding history.


Tuesday, 18 December 2012

Xmas puppies

Our little Nora likes to sleep on the small sofa in Will's Office. Like all Dachshunds she will wrap herself up into a blanket and snooze away. When bedtime comes she always looks at us with imploring eyes, please can I sleep here tonight. But she knows, clever girl, that a cookie waits for her if she goes to her kennel for the night. Our Nicky is more practical, come 10 pm he knows according to his clock that it is time for bed and will insist on a cookie as is due before bedding down in his kennel. But he is not patient, you better be quick about it, giving you a fierce look.

Nora sleeping on the sofa.
 She always has one eye open to watch us, in case a big Boar would come into the room. Hunting dogs cannot sleep with both eyes closed, she seems to tell us.

Here is our little Nicky, a funny little dog, he is scared of most things, he is a sensitive soul.

Nora and Nicky

On Via Dei Villini 26, our balcony with the little tree and poinsettia in 2010. If you click on the image you will see one has a pink and white flower, I had never seen that before.

our Christmas tree in Rome in years past. 

Monday, 17 December 2012

Today I went to the Notre-Dame Cathedral on Sussex Drive in Ottawa to the Advent-Christmas Carol Service in the presence of the Archbishop. The weather was especially bad today making the short drive treacherous. There were quite a few Lutheran and otherwise Protestant music pieces in what was suppose to be a Roman Catholic Service. We had 3 choirs, two in front of the High Altar and one in the balcony above the main entrance where the Casavant organ is located. The music was accompanied by the organ, a piano and a brass ensemble. It was a very nice concert-service, unfortunately because of the bad weather is was not so well attended. The Cathedral dates from 1841 and is a magnificent building in high Gothic Canadian style which is somewhat like Austrian Rococo, overly busy.

While listening to Radio Swiss Classic I heard this piece sung by Placido Domingo. It is a Christmas Motet by Austrian composer Johann Ritter Von Herbeck, (1831-1877), Pueri Concinite. The first composition though was by Jacob Handl (1550-1591) Herbeck will rework the music and give it a different tonality.

You Tube has several versions and not of equal value or quality. However this one by the Vienna Boys Choir, is somewhat good. I would have preferred the Domingo rendition but it seems that a Boys Choir is the favoured way of presenting this piece. The other singer who recorded this in concert is Jean-Baptiste Maunier of Les Choristes, the problem I find is his strong French accent which colours the Latin pronunciation, though is voice is beautiful and especially so if he sings a French song.

Sunday, 16 December 2012

Francis Poulenc and Christmas

Francis Poulenc (1899-1963) is one of my favourite composer of the XXth century. I find that his music has a certain signature, meaning that when you hear it you know it is Poulenc. His opera Le dialogue des Carmélites is also amongst my favourites. In the Christmas Motet, Poulenc gives us music that leads to quiet reflection on the meaning of Christmas, it is not about shopping or other commercial aspects or even about people or that false family sentimental approach or focusing about the children or what ever other modern meaning we like to invent for this holiday. It is about leading the individual to listen to the words as they are sung in Latin and reflect on their meaning and that of the events inspired by Faith at this time of the year.

Rome under snow with the top of the dome of the Church of Santa Maria di Loretto (1507)
by the Forum of Trajan.

Here is the Hodie Christus Natus Est. The voices of the Choir are very clear and love the pronunciation, I am also happy that I have some knowledge or understanding of Latin. Sung this way it adds mystery and dignity to the text.

Big snow flakes falling and our neighbour walking his pug. The Canal is frozen now and I saw someone walking on the ice yesterday.

Here is the Videntes Stellam also from the Poulenc Christmas Motet.

The voices are beautiful.