Saturday, October 31, 2015

All Soul's Eve

It turns out that England is haunted. And just in time for Halloween!

To our surprise, this holiday that delights small children and dentists alike (and me, for the chocolate) is celebrated with gusto here in the UK.  Some people even decorate their homes, though we haven't yet seen any giant inflatable pumpkins. Debra, Arnie, Phil,
a ghostly mother holding
her spectral child?
and I were admiring the spooky festoonings on a house on John Street when the owner happened along. She was very pleased that we liked her decorations and pointed out the ghostly figure of a young girl painted on an upstairs window. Debra took several photos...but none of them turned out. Only this photo, which she insists she didn't take, showed up on her camera. We cannot figure out whose shadow that is. We try not to think too much about it.

There are some differences between American and English Halloweens. Mixed bags of tiny milky ways and snickers bars are, sadly, difficult to find in our Sainsbury local. And not only pumpkins are carved into jack-o-lanterns here.

Originally the term "jack-o-lantern" referred to a ghostly flickering light over the peat bogs, also
known as "will-o-the-wisp." The name "jack-o-lantern" comes from an Irish legend about a man named Stingy Jack, who tricked the devil into buying him drinks. When Jack died, God wouldn't let him into heaven, and the devil was too mad at him to let him into hell, so Jack was doomed to wander the earth with only a burning coal, which he placed in a hollowed-out root vegetable, to light his way.

It appears, then, that the custom of carving and lighting jack-o-lanterns began in Ireland and moved to America with Irish immigrants. But those who are historically informed (by which I mean Sue) know that the pumpkin is a North American vegetable. So what did they carve here before the pumpkin invaded the British Isles?

The turnip. Or, as some call it, the swede. Or, as others say, the rutabaga.

But wait, you may point out. The rutabaga is...solid. And hard as a rock. That's why they are more or less inedible.

I'm not saying she eats them, but Sue carves them. She carved one for us, and we have it on display. Several knives, we are told, were harmed in its creation. It is a work of art and a testament to historical accuracy, arm strength, and sheer determination. And it's way scarier than a pumpkin.

Our feelings of being haunted grew stronger when Phil took his class on a field trip to  Charleston, a farmhouse with beautiful gardens owned by Bloomsbury figures Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant and visited by all their many, many friends and lovers.

Guests at Charleston included Walter Sickert, who is reputed to be Jack the Ripper, the serial killer of at least five and possibly more than twice that many women in 1880s London. (The British mystery writer Patricia Cornwall was, for some reason, especially intent on proving that Sickert was the murderer, but she didn't manage to make her case definitively.)

Sickert's paintings, some of women who seem to be dead or dying, adorn the walls of the house  (along with those of Picasso, Matisse, and other slightly more well-known but less Halloweenish artists). One in particular, of a flower girl with a monster's head, freaked the Professor out more than a little. As the tour guide was pointing out this artwork, there was a knock at the door, and when she went to answer it, no one was there. Returning to the group, she noted, a little nervously, that the house was haunted and such knocks happened often.

And one of our pubs this week, it turns out, is also haunted.  We didn't have the pleasure of meeting Charlie, the elderly red-headed ghost that roams the Sutton Arms, but apparently he is relatively harmless, just throwing back his pint or two before returning to wherever it is that pub ghosts hang out. The stuffed otter hanging on the pub's wall, on the other hand, looks like it could do considerable damage.

Our haunted pub:


Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Hanging With Our Homies (Sorry, Ben!)

We've been very social since our return from foreign lands. The week that we got back, Sue was scheduled to give a talk in Phil's class on the role of women in World War I. Her vast museum experience and knowledge of history ensured that her presentation would be seamless and fascinating. She even included interviews she'd done years ago with some women who'd lived through the war and worked in factories at the time. The students were attentive and seemed quite absorbed by the subject.

Dessert. NOT pork belly.

After the class, we took Klauser and Sue to an absurdly sybaritic restaurant called Babylon, owned by Richard Branson of Virgin Atlantic, Virgin American, Virgin Records etc. fame. It's on the sixth and seventh floor of a nearby building, with wonderful views of Kensington, incredible food, a garden with turf trucked in, and flamingos. Best of all, there were two courses featuring pork belly.
Yes, flamingos

On Friday our friends Debra and Arnie arrived from America via Scotland, bringing us a large bottle of the most fabulous, smoky-tasting single malt Scotch I'd ever tried (sorry, Peter!). We fed them beef stew and settled them in the bunkbed room, where they made the best of a slightly uncomfortable situation (sorry, Debra!)

Saturday it rained, but we ignored the weather and walked -- first to the Twinings Tea Shop, where we did a tasting and bought lots of tea, and then to Westminster Abbey, where we were seated in the ancient, ornate choir stalls for Evensong. It was a nearly transporting experience, with the Vicars' Choir singing right next to us, the walls of the Abbey soaring above, and the late-afternoon glints of light shining through the stained glass.

The Professor and the Acolyte
(sorry, Arnie!)
On our way back to Hatton Garden, we stopped at a new (for us)pub, the Olde Cheshire Cheese, and had snacks and beer (including fried cheese). After a brief rest we walked to our Vietnamese place and scarfed down still more food. Debra and Arnie walked again on Sunday, visiting a variety of tourist sites, and then we met them and Klauser and Sue in a pub I'd scouted out that served Belgian beer on draft. Beneath the pub, in the time of mad King George, the queen stored a larder of food that she hoped would help the king in his insanity; thus the name of the pub: The Queen's Larder.

Together we saw the film Suffragette, which got good marks all around, though it overlooked the fact that in the era when it's set, men who were not property owners would not have been able to vote. And thence back to the flat for a relatively impromptu meal of pork stew and apple-raisin crisp.

Monday we set out with Debra and Arnie to the Borough Market, an enormous grouping of food carts and produce stands on the south side of the Thames, near the Globe Theatre. Most of the produce section was closed, but we skipped breakfast on purpose so we could eat hugely from the food stands. Giant sandwiches of sausage topped with bacon, pork, and fried onions, Bosnian phyllo pies, and Thai coconut pancakes made us all very happy, and we brought back four assorted savory pies plus mushy peas, fudge, and brownies to have for dinner. 

We stopped at the nearby Church of the Holy Sepulchre on the way back (if there is an open door, Phil will go in) and were surprised to find that Captain John Smith of Pilgrim fame had worshipped there. There was a panel of stained glass devoted to him. The church also boasted the early seventeenth-century bell that rang to rouse the prisoners at Ludgate and let them know that it was time for their execution.

Debra and Arnie went off to sightsee, and a few hours later we met at our old favorite, the Lady Ottoline pub, where we had gin drinks (53 varieties of gin! Who knew?) and beers and then stumbled back home to eat pies and watch a film about Shakespeare and his lovers of assorted genders.

Now the flat is echoingly silent, but for the occasional howl from upstairs ("Di! Why is the computer doing this again???") and the sounds of hammering and drilling from the construction workers outside. We are slightly lonely and bereft -- but then again, we have fourteen coming for tea on Thursday.

Our pubs for the week:

Dickens, Tennyson, and Twain drank here

creepy clowns and Leffe beer at the Queen's Larder

Tuesday, October 20, 2015

The Key to Everything

On Thursday we awoke to the crash of thunder. The lights in the agriturismo went on, off, on again. It poured for a while, and we decided to go without our swim. The day's plan, thanks to my weather ap's foresight, was the city of Siracusa, where many of the sights were indoors.

We made it to Siracusa with little trouble. I am actually not bad with a road map, though I have some trouble with right and left (seriously aggravated in a car like the one in Malta with the steering wheel on the wrong side. Just ask Phil. No, don't).

The rain had ended, so our first stop was the Latomie, a quarry and group of caves where the Siracusans dug the stone with which they built their city, and where the Greek tyrant Dionysius imprisoned his foes.

Nearby was the fifth-century b.c. Greek theatre, where many of the great ancient  playwrights, including Aeschylus, premiered their work. The plays are still performed there each year, but we were too late for the season. Still, wandering about with very few other tourists, it wasn't hard to imagine the seats full and the stage populated with actors speaking lines from the Oresteia in the original.

Under a lowering sky, we walked to the Archeological Museum, one of the great collections of classical antiquities in the world. We visited several rooms filled with marvels of ancient Greek and Roman civilizations, and artifacts from far earlier times as well. Phil found an urn that he felt evoked the scenes on the one Keats described in his ode, and I was taken by a group of rather creepy statuary faces. There was also a statue of Priapus, strangely missing his defining limb.

Near the museum were the Catacombs of S. Giovanni Evangelista, a series of hundreds of rooms where early Christians buried their dead and met to worship. As the guide took us through, I wondered what those religious services, in the midst of hundreds of decaying bodies, must have smelled like. Among the stranger sights was a stone coffin with three holes bored in the lid, through which mourning relatives funneled milk, honey, and oil into the mouth of the mouldering deceased.

Phil had wanted to see the small fishing village of Aci Trezza, just south of our agriturismo. It's the setting for a film he loves and teaches, La Terra Trema, a lyrical socialist epic and folk tragedy. I directed us there more or less successfully, and we arrived at what are called the Cyclops Rocks as
the daylight waned, the waves battered the shore, and the church bells rang a foul weather warning -- almost exactly duplicating a scene from the Visconti film. Phil was thrilled. And our dinner, at a seafood place across the piazza from the rocks, was delicious, featuring the strangest seafood dish of the trip: sea urchin roe pasta.

The Cyclops Rocks -- in fact, the whole series of villages known as the Cyclops Riviera -- are so named from the episode in The Odyssey. The Cyclops reputedly lived on a nearby island, and when Odysseus landed there, the one-eyed monster ate most of his men.

Odysseus managed to blind the Cyclops and escape from his island, and in his fury the Cyclops threw enormous rocks at him -- but missed, of course. These rocks are the ones that jut from the waves at Aci Trezza.

When we returned to the agriturismo, we indulged in our nightly ritual: drinking a strange local liqueur (a different one each night) as we sat outside looking over the sea. This night, we got to see a show of heat lightning flashing over the water as we sipped.

Our last full day in Sicily was devoted to the astonishing Greek ruins in the Valley of Temples at Agrigento, in the south of the island. It's hard to do them justice in a description, but the camera behaved, so I hope you can get a sense of their magnificence from our photos.

the temple of Hera

the temple of Concord

the temple of Hercules

We stopped at another of the towns on the Cyclops Riviera, Aci Castello, for dinner, and were surprised by the castello of the name, a Norman castle that perched on the edge of coast and loomed over the town. We hadn't realized that the Normans conquered Sicily after taking Britain -- but it took them thirty years, not one. Completely understandable.

Our last meal, at the town square, was as amazing as all the others had been.

On Saturday we had several hours before we had to drop off the car, so we said a sad farewell to Tenuta Santa Tecla and headed to the town of Caltagirone, known for two things: its ceramics, and an incredible seventeenth-century tiled stairway called Santa Maria del Monte Stairs. We climbed the stairs, which were gorgeous, and bought ceramics. In general though, we found the town less  welcoming than other places we'd visited  -- probably because it was less focused on tourism, and possibly also because it's near Gela, reputed to be a hotbed of Mafia activity.

Our final stop (are you tired yet? Imagine my feet) was Piazza Armerina. This town is known for one particular attraction -- the Villa del Casale, a third-century Roman country estate. It was NOT easy to find, but the struggle was worthwhile. The floors are inlaid with spectacular mosaics, almost perfectly preserved because a flood buried them in mud in the twelfth century.

Each of the dozens of rooms has a mosaic floor, featuring scenes of hunting, children playing (or massacring rabbits) and animals being herded onto an arklike ship. The best-known mosaics are called The Female Gymnasts in Bikinis, and have caused us to rethink our attitudes about the inclusion of beach volleyball in the Olympics.

I won't describe the return of the injured car, except to say that the experience involved a great many mosquitoes and an attendant who spoke not a word of English. Nor will I describe the trip back except to say that the hallways in Gatwick Airport are far longer than they need to be. But we're safely ensconced in Hatton Garden, and looking forward to resuming the pub crawl.

Goethe called Sicily "the key to everything," and even after just six days there, I can see what he meant. We are already missing the sunlight, the Greek/Roman/medieval/baroque sites, the kind people, and the fabulous food.

We are not missing the driving.

Sunday, October 18, 2015

Under the Volcano

This is what our agriturismo, Tenuta Santa Tecla, looked like.

yes, that is Phil's foot

And this.

It had goats and chickens living together. Olive and lemon trees. A view of the sea. It was perfect.

We arrived well after dark, and the manager, a lovely woman who spoke enough French that we could understand each other, led us to a seafood restaurant in her car, down dark winding three-quarters-width streets to a place in the middle of what certainly seemed like nowhere. But the restaurant was beautiful, and the food…! We ordered one antipasto and a main course each, and the food – seafood all – started arriving with an enormous amuse bouche and kept coming for at least a couple of hours. Photos are below, for those of you who want to drool. Every bit of it was delicious,
as were the musicians who came in to serenade a birthday gathering and stayed on to serenade us. They made up a song that went something like this: “Diane, Diane, Diane – no no no no no!” Phil now sings it often. The place was filling up as we left, sometime around eleven. We found our way back by mere chance and collapsed, utterly stuffed and happy.

In the morning we staggered up to the enormous breakfast spread, to which we did justice despite the excesses of the night before. Then we swam, trying fruitlessly to work off the calories. Before long we were on the road in our semi-automatic, heading to Taormina, a hilltop town perched on towering cliffs overlooking the sea. It was a haven for many twentieth-century writers, including D.H. Lawrence, who lived and wrote there in the early 1920s. Some critics believe that he formed the idea for Lady Chatterley's Lover when his wife Freida offered herself to (and was accepted by) a local shepherd.
We arrived more or less without incident; it’s a major tourist destination and was well marked, thank god. You park below and take a bus up to the town, and we joined throngs of tourists walking down the main street to the Roman amphitheatre. Unlike the one in Catania, it was almost fully intact and not surrounded by more modern buildings.

We walked down to the  Villa Communale garden, which was created by an eccentric British aristocrat who built a series of Arabian styled towers from which to view the birds she loved. The only birds we saw were pigeons – Sicily’s answer to the mainland’s omnipresent swallows – and a parrot in a cage.
From there we walked around the base of the city and, slightly lost, found our way into a luxury hotel that had in the sixteenth century been a monastery. Many writers, including Thomas Mann and Pirandello, had stayed there. The place was vast, with a beautiful cloister and medieval antiques, and boasted a two-star Michelin restaurant. For the hell of it we looked at the menu and its prices. Then we fled in terror.

Later we admired the thirteenth century Church of St. Nicholas, unusual in its plainness and crenelated top, and the rose windows that can only be seen from the outside. We walked up the main street, stopping for a beer, and then found our way back to the car. We drove on steep roads down to sea level and stopped to dine opposite Bella Isola, a craggy rock in the wine-dark sea that captured the light from the sunset as we sipped our drinks and ate possibly the best pizzas we’d ever tasted (mine was smoked salmon and shrimp, and more delicious than you could imagine).

Our next day, and all the days but one that followed at Tenuta Santa Tecla, began with that huge breakfast and restorative swim. Our destination was a series of small towns ringing Mt. Etna. The 11000-foot volcano looms over Sicily, visible from nearly half the country. It’s often ringed with dark clouds, but when the sky is clear one can see a scary plume of smoke rising from its crater. It hasn’t erupted for over a decade, but that isn’t really long enough for me. (Some of you may be aware that I have a small volcano phobia. It might have contributed a little to some of the ungentle things I said to Phil as we got lost again and again, misdirected by The B*tch the wrong way down one-way streets and once, I swear, up and down every single street and alley in a particular small town only to end up where we’d started. Her combination of patrician haughtiness and just plain wrongness was infuriating. When she told us,  with a smirk in her voice, "Turn left on Strada Provinciale Etna Settentionale o Quota Mille," which took so long to say that we were in another town by the time she finished, we unplugged her for good.)

Our first stop was Castiglione di Sicilia. Wandering around town, we found the Church of Sts. Peter
and Paul, which for financial reasons was decorated exclusively with beautifully realized scenes of the life of the desert father and hermit, St.  Anthony. The whole time we were in the church/museum, Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” played softly, which was both very pleasant and completely inappropriate.

actual national dog
We walked around the ramparts of a medieval castle at the very top of the town and stopped for a cappuccino before driving to the Alcantara River, getting pretty lost on the way (we could no longer blame our ineptitude on The B*tch. Now it was the fault of the inadequate Sicilian signage). As soon as we started hiking along the aquamarine waters, we were joined by a small dog, very excited that we smiled at her and very eager to accompany us on a walk. As Sicily has a national dog, I promptly 
our National Dog
named her National Dog (though the actual national dog doesn’t look like her at all).

National Dog chased lizards, rolled happily in puddles, and herded  us along past waterfalls and calm pools. Then she became so overwhelmed with joy that she leapt into the river. Though exceedingly cute, she was not very smart, and she couldn’t figure out how to climb back up onto the banks. She panicked. Phil, ever intrepid and courageous, clambered over the rocks, reached down, grabbed the fraying rope around her neck, and pulled her up onto dry land. She thanked him by shaking water all over him, then immediately forgot what had happened and pranced on down the path, looking back to make sure we were following.

We left National Dog regretfully and headed to Rondozzo, a town whose narrow medieval streets and buildings are made of black lava. The cathedral is astonishing, a Sicilian Baroque marvel in black and white. Though Rondozzo is the town closest to the volcano, it hasn’t been inundated by an eruption in recorded history. However, it took a pistachio gelato from the town square’s award-winning gelato manufacturer to calm my nerves completely.

That night we dined in the coastal city of Giarre. We searched for a restaurant for at least half an hour. Phil, who unlike other men is not afraid that asking for directions will undermine his masculinity, asked at least four different people, and we ended up two minutes from the car at a lovely rooftop place where, for once, we ate some dishes that were not seafood.
After a wonderful day, The B*tch got her revenge: we dented the car pulling into our agriturismo driveway. Again, and always, hurrah for full insurance!
A few of the courses from our first dinner in Acireale: