A refreshing look at religious symbolism – in Otranto, Italy’s heel

9 Jul

It’s a sad but common ailment when visiting the world’s most beautiful places – burnout.  Whether museum burnout in Paris, temple overload in Angkor Wat or Cathedral overdose in Italy – it’s bound to happen sooner or later.  Yes, although we have a literal embarrassment of riches in the masterpieces in Italy’s churches and piazzas, sometimes you get a bit weary of variations of Madonna and Babe.

If you are in Italy and have reached this point, may I recommend a (lengthy) detour to Otranto, in the heel of Italy’s boot, for a change of pace? The Otranto Cathedral has the most fantastic floor mosaic I’ve ever seen decorate a church, from entrance to altar (the largest in Europe). Built in 1163 (the church itself dates back to 1068), the floor depicts a dizzying blend of catholic, gnostic and pagan imagery – from Adam, Eve & Noah; to mythical beasts consuming each other, to King Arthur, to Greek Goddess Diana – all suspended within a vast Tree of Life.

IMG_5931

The trunk of the tree of life

IMG_5927

Animals with animals snouts on their feet, devouring other animals

IMG_5935

Your standard catholic centaur

These are the just kind of pagan images that eventually would earn their designer a fiery exile from the catholic church (and the early plane) – and in fact scholars are still trying to unravel the meaning and messages behind this remarkable floor.

In fact, that the mosaic has survived at all is a bit of a miracle.  On August 14, 1480, the city was sacked in an Ottoman invasion, and the cathedral was used as a stable for the invaders’ horses.  Oh and by the way, the inhabitants of Otranto were slaughtered in the attack, or sold into slavery or beheaded in a grim religious standoff for  800 martyrs who refused to convert to Islam. This event (“800 martyrs of Otranto) is also memorialized in the church. Go to the back right chapel and as you get closer you start to sense something strange about the the framed images behind the Madonna…

The chapel in Otranto's Cathedral

The chapel in Otranto’s Cathedral

…until you look closer and see….Gah!

IMG_5933

…the actual 800 martyrs

Having endured a lot of interminable Sunday school classes growing up in Canada, I have to say that I would have been pretty keen on attending this church as a kid.

If you get tired of pondering myths and mortality in Otranto, you are only 2 minutes away from a gorgeous beach.  Which is straight where most foreign invaders head these days.

For those not living in Italy what’s at stake in the coming election

23 Feb

For my friends not living in Italy, this weekend marks another national election. With the country mired in a seemly hopeless financial crisis, it’s an important one. And believe me, the day to day effects of the crisis in the USA and Canada pale in comparison to what people experience here. Italians are hurting.

And although it seems inconceivable to anyone outside of Italy, Berlusconi’s party is running a convincing campaign, promising to alleviate the austerity measures – like the much resented property tax increases implemented by Monte – that have in fact caused recent suffering & dissent here.

However, while the charismatic and successful entrepreneur Berlusconi was in power in the 2000s, the only countries that had worse economic growth during that period were Zimbabwe and Haiti (The Man Who Screwed an Entire Country) And of course it’s hard to believe that your prime minister has his focus on the well being of the country when his attention is captivated by “bunga bunga” parties and boasts of sleeping with 8 women in one night.

Beppe Grillo is one of the intriguing upstarts of Italian politics – a comedian who started out making jokes about politicians that increasingly started to look more like reality. Initially blocked by the mainstream media – much of it controlled by Berlusconi, Grillo has become a formidable contender in Italy by virtue of the Internet and town hall style rallies.

“You can’t ask an Italian, an entrepreneur, a family to make sacrifices when the presidency costs about 240 million euros a year. Our president earns three times as much as (U.S. President Barack Obama). An Italian ambassador earns 20,000 euros per month. Merkel earns 9,000 a month. You cannot expect sacrifices right now, because we should all make sacrifices right now or no one will.”

Full article

Sadly, there is a sense that no matter what happens in the elections, nothing will change. “Berlusconi is just another actor in the same play,” says my partner Alessandro. And I understand. What Italy desperately needs is not just new leadership but a new, innovative and creative way to look at solving its significant problems.

It’s true that Italian politicians are vast in their ranks. There are inconceivable layers of government and bureaucracy here, all of them making far more than their counterparts in the rest of the world, while salaries in other all areas – research, teaching, finance, business, etc. are a fraction of what the rest of the western world earns.

But when I comment that Italy would be healthier if it pruned away much of this over bloated government corp that seems to spend most of their time figuring out ways to entrench their power, Italians fret about the fate of the army of support staff…drivers, secretaries, etc. What would happen to the little people if the admittedly useless ranks of government were thinned out?

Many countries have restructured and reinvested funds saved from stagnant industries into development that will benefit the entire country. Italy has promising potential for solar power generation, for instance. What if former support staff of redundant government officials were retrained and deployed in a nascent solar power sector, developing Italy’s clout in alternative energy, while decreasing its energy dependence.

It’s my hope that italians will use their legendary creative genius to look toward the future instead of lamenting the lost glories of the past.

The BEST things ever – Country by Country

30 Jan

My tweet last week about the merits of French croissants versus Italian cornetti (“the crappiest train stations croissants are better than the best Italian cornetti”) and the ensuing flurry of comments and opinions made me start thinking about the foods that you can count on in each country – cheap, delicious, and you have to go out of your way to find a bad version.

So, tell me what are your opinions?

Italy – Coffee

Italy converted me. A lifelong tea drinker, coffee literally made me nauseous. Until my first trip to Italy. An epic journey including a Honolulu – Houston – Newark – Rome flight, then a 6-hour train to Venice where I was to meet a long lost friend at noon for a day of exploring and catching up. I needed more than mere tea and dared for a cafe on the train. Shocked by its diminutive size, I was instantly hooked by the mellow intensity of my first Italian espresso and have never looked back (Starbucks: puhleeez).

No matter where you go in Italy; from the chicest cafes to the lowliest bars (the place in Italy to get a coffee, not a beer) you’d be hard pressed not to find an exquisite espresso. Order one al vietro (in glass) to go Roman style. It can set you back 5 euros to sit at a table in a touristy piazza, but generally you’ll find the delicious nectar for 80 centesimi. Stand at the bar and admire the Italians posing with their brew.

France – Croissants

Flaky, buttery, light….I’ve never managed in France to have anything less than extraordinary pastries. I don’t know why this sacred knowledge can’t be infused somehow in Italian cornetti.

Turkey – Pomegranate Juice

I feel my body tingling with antioxidant goodness just to think of this. On every street corner in Istanbul anyway, you’ll find juice sellers ready to squeeze the juice of your choice. Save the orange juice for back home. I practically swim in pomegranate juice every chance I get.

Hawaii – Raw Fish

Raw fish is one of those things that you need to be careful how and where you buy it. But in Hawaii, you can buy it from the back of a pickup truck parked by the side of a country road and you’ll fantasize about it for months. My favorite haunt for raw fish? Fort Rugers Market in Honolulu looks like the kind of place where you’d wipe of the top of beer cans before drinking them, but has the most divine Maui Onion Poke – raw ahi tuna mixed with sesame oil, sea salt, sweet maui onions and shoyu.

Taiwan – Dumplings

Boiled, steamed, or pan fried….a fancy restaurant is no better than street food and the latter is much cheaper.

Nepal – Chai
It was one of those travel circumstances where I trusted a stranger, and everyone else later thought I deserved to have been kidnapped. In the end, I was right. A polite teenage boy offered to show me around the monuments of Kathmandu so he could practice his English. I tried to pay him money but he refused. Instead, he invited me to the inner courtyard of his family compound for chai, a place few tourists ever see in Nepal. This was the first place I ever experienced chai – spicy, milky and sweet. I sat and drank it while neighbors did their laundry and placed saucers of milk out for roaming cows. From the rooftop cafes of Kathmandu to the trailside guesthouses in Annapurna, chai in Nepal was always a comforting friend, and I’ve never tasted its equal since I left.

Portugal – Bread
My love affair started while at university in London, Canada. The was a hole-in-the-wall Portuguese bakery that sold bread, for about an hour a day. Only bread, 2 sizes, and when it was gone, it’s gone. Heavenly bread – warm from the oven, a satisfyingly crunchy crust with a dense spongey texture in the middle. Swoon….my later travels to Portugal had me forsaking regular meals to just indulge in the bread basket and olives brought to the table.

The REAL Rules You Need to Know – Driving in Italy

17 Jan

I am very fortunate that I don’t actually need to drive in Italy since I have my own dashing Italian chauffeur boyfriend. However, being a passenger has provided me with a front seat view of what drivers in Italy really need to know.  Sure, maybe that international driver’s permit will give you a sheen of legality — but these are the true moves you need to know to get you from point A to B.

1) The Wedge* - Trying to make a left hand turn onto a busy road?  Forget waiting until there is space for you to enter. What you need to do is slowly wedge your car in front of the oncoming lane on traffic.  Yield to super aggressive drivers, but otherwise keep on creeping  your nose out until you’ve essentially blocked both lanes of traffic and  have clearance to go.  People might give you “stinkeye,” but don’t feel bad – everyone does it all the time, and it’s probably the only way you’ll ever leave a driveway.

*Can also be done in reverse!

2) The Straddle – This move finds you driving for long periods of time, straddling the middle line between 2 lanes.  The purpose of this move is unclear to me, but it must be super important since everyone does it, all the time.

3) The Strategic Double Park – Why bother looking for a parking place when you can just park wherever? This move requires nerves of steel and the ability to analyze a parked car’s owner’s motives.  Are they there for the long haul or could they reappear in a moment?  This also requires an appropriately contrite or righteously indignant response depending on the demeanor and/or hotness of the person whom you’ve blocked in.

4) The Highway Reverse - Take the wrong entrance onto the highway?  No problem.  Just reverse on the shoulder and back out of it.  Italians must have learned this from Minneapolis drivers.

5) The Hands Free – How else are you going to talk on your phone and smoke at the same time?  Or convey your heartfelt feelings to your fellow drivers? Better learn to drive with your hands in the air.

6) The Robert Langdon (aka Symbologist) – So you can figure out where this:

Italian road signs

…and this:

Italy Road sign 1

Courtesy FIA Europe Bureau

…will take you.

7) The Sheep Dodge - Just because you are 15 minutes from a city boundary doesn’t mean you won’t encounter local fauna.  My advice?  Relax and take pictures!

The most evocative Italian words, according to me

14 Jan

Personally, I have no doubt that Italian is the most beautiful & affectionate language in the world.  I’ve heard, and actually maybe just read this in “Eat, Pray, Love” (which may or may not be a definitive source), that the evolution of Italian into the national language was no accident.  While many countries had competing regional dialects, the “lingua franca” of most countries was naturally shaped by the language of the primary financial center. So, “Paris-ian” overtook all regional dialects to become the language of France, “London-ian” became the language of England, and so on.

Invecce (instead), Italian was the dialect chosen by a panel from a region of Tuscany to be the official language of Italy, because it was the most beautiful dialect.

Actually this whimsical story makes sense. I am continually surprised at how vitally important “beauty” is to Italians.  It’s part of the fabric of society – you can see how the aesthetic of style is infused into even children (I am still not as style conscious as the average 8 year old here). A speech is not referred to as good or bad, but bella (beautiful) or brutta (ugly). It’s part of what makes Italy as charming as it is, although sometimes you wish less emphasis were put on superficial beauty and more on actual substance.  If you live here you know what I mean, yes? ;)

Anyway, on to a few of my favourite Italian words:

“La Zanzara” – it sounds like it would be an exotic beauty treatment involving spices and asses milk that Cleopatra would indulge in before greeting Mark Anthony.  Instead, it means “mosquito”!

“Lamentare” – this to me is the perfect word to sum up the Italian cultural identity.  In English it just means “to complain”.  But to simply complain is tedious, unimaginative, uninspired.  Not Lamentare! We are talking about a tragedy of epic proportions.  There is love, passion, angst and fire all wrapped up in how you can express your opposition even to, say, someone choosing the wrong combination of gelato flavours or using an inappropriate shape of pasta with any given sauce.

“Fastidioso” – In English this means someone who is slavishly particular to standards, or having a meticulous attitude.  In Italian, it means to bother the hell out of someone, i.e. “David, stop fastidioso-ing your sister while I am driving!” It implies the kind of action when you pinch someone’s triceps repeatedly until they punch you in the face. Which is kind of what fastidiousness makes me want to do. :)

“Il Culetto” – What do we call the end of a loaf of bread in English?  The “heel.”  Ho-hum.  In Italian, it’s the “little bum,” proving once and for all that everything in Italy is just so damn sexy.

“Fango” - It’s not a dance, or new style of stilettos. It’s “mud.” What else do I need to say?

So. What are your favorite Italian words, and why?

Cell phones, compliance & conflict in Italy

12 Jan

It’s been a while friends since I wrote here. But an event last night while landing at Rome’s Fiumicino airport gave me lots to ponder.

First, I fly far more than the average person.  In the last 6 months alone I’ve flown in and out of the following airports (some multiple times):

  • Rome
  • Copenhagen
  • Gothenburg
  • Almaty (Kazakhstan)
  • Istanbul
  • Lyon (which gets my vote as the most beautifully named airport - Saint Exupéry Aéroport)
  • Paris
  • Prague
  • Cannes
  • Berlin
  • Moscow
  • Kiev
  • Boston
  • Los Angeles
  • Miami
  • San Francisco
  • Amsterdam
  • Tucson
  • Seattle
  • Munich

I know a thing or 2 about airplane safety and processes, OK?  And I am pretty good about following them.

Imagine my surprise last night when, after landing in Rome and taxing for 5 minutes (well on the way to the gate), I switched on my cell phone and promptly received a call from Alessandro.  I was astonished to the hear the elegant signore – from across the plane bellowing at me, “YOU are NOT allowed to use your mobile on the plane!” I looked at him, shocked by this fantastically outraged accusation.  “We have landed and we are taxiing,” I explained; getting back to my brief conversation.  He was apoplectic, insistent and stood up in his seat to call the flight attendant (a move much more dangerous in my opinion than using the mobile 5 minutes after landing), and continued to bellow at me until, incensed, I hung up the phone and fumed.

First, the practical side:

I concede that I may be speaking from a singularly personal perspective, but in my experience Italians are remarkably cavalier about following most rules (apart from the rigid dictates of cuisine and fashion).  And “cavalier” is the perfect word to use here – in Italian, a “cavaliere” is a knight, and there is a sense of bold nobility in the way that Italians disregard the foolish rules like speed limits, queues and taxation laws.  So that an Italian would so passionately enforce an outdated rule (what was going to happen on the runway, would we crash into our gate?) to the point that he was ready to make a citizen’s arrest, was perplexing to me.

BTW which country is the most fastidioso about airline safety and perhaps safety in general?  I think we can all agree that it is the USA.  And as soon as your plane wheels touch ground, the flight attendants announce that it’s fine to turn on & use your cell phone. And in fact this is the quote from the FAA website:

“FAA guidance does let airlines allow cell phone calls once the plane has landed and is taxiing to the gate.”

Honestly, if electronics were that dangerous to a plane’s operation they would be collected and confiscated at the gate.

Now, the spiritual side:

Goodness, I realized that I extremely attached to being “right” on this issue.  As someone with a commitment to healing, energetic balance and peace, boy was I ever triggered by this.  Have you every received a full-on righteous Italian scolding?  It’s a humiliating experience that is guaranteed to get your blood boiling.  I thought of all the cleverly insulting things I could say to put this blustering bully in his place. And then fumed again that I didn’t have the guts or the wit at the time.

Really, is this me?

No, it’s not.  Why should it matter that complete stranger chooses to voice his (misguided) opinion of my behavior in front a group of complete strangers whom I’ll never see again?  I can look at his behavior as a reaction to frustrations and disappointment in his own life.  It has nothing to do with me. And yet if I were to reflect his behavior back at him in the same way would perpetuate a cycle of  brutta behavior.  One of the things I have learned to deeply appreciate  a society where people are sensitive to each other’s feelings.  And to treat people in a gentle way has a virtuous circle effect.  It’s not always easy in Rome, but I promise to commit to making each encounter in every day a little more peaceful.  Even at the post office.

Car Sharing in Central Asia AKA Hitchhiking in Kazakhstan

7 Oct IMG_4046

“Don’t go, it’s dangerous.”

While those words may have sounded like my inner voice when I was originally told to develop Kazakhstan as a new market, this actual sentence was uttered by one of my clients in Almaty, the capital city of Kazakhstan.  A very petite, very pretty young blonde women, she would of course have to use caution when she traveled solo.

She was warning me away from Almaty’s fresh and local market, the Green Bazaar. “There are pickpockets there, you have to be careful, there’s nothing to see,” she pleaded with me.  But in all my travels — from Cambodia to Kiev — I’m become accustomed to locals who are perplexed that visitors would ever want to visit the local produce market, and who are further convinced that its simply a vicious den of thieves.

Be very, very careful…these grapes might be over ripe….

After getting over her strenuous objections to the (lack of) safety of my destination, we decided how I would get there.  Naturally, I should hitchhike.

Now Almaty is a big city, and while there are regular taxis, buses and a new metro system; subway stops are incredibly spread out, and regular taxis are few and far between.

So apparently while it could be considered the height of danger to go shopping at the local market (I had no problem there at all except I was sad to see all the horse meat on sale), no one is concerned about stepping into a speeding vehicle with a complete stranger.

If you have to ask what animal this comes from, you don’t want to know

So if you want to go hitchhiking in Kazakhstan, here’s how!

1)     Get your destination written in Russian (more people in Almaty speak Russian than Kazakh).

2)     Make sure you have small bills (100 bills are “small”) 100 = about $2.

3)     Flag down any driver on any street  your preferred standard taxi wave.

4)     Agree to a price – most destinations are between 300-500 KZD; use 3 fingers to signify 300, etc. Average people on the street are not going to try to gouge you, although the regular taxi drivers will.

5)     It was helpful a few time to ensure I had my destination programmed into Google Maps so I could give few prompts to drivers, if necessary.

6)     Wear your seatbelt.  In the 30 minutes total I logged on downtown Almaty’s roads, I saw about 8 accidents.

As someone who considers filling up the tank with gas before its sucking fumes the height of preventative car maintenance, I love the concept of car sharing.  In Toronto, I was a long time user of Autoshare, and I loved how someone else always magically changed the oil. But Kazakhstan (and in fact much of the former Soviet states) takes the simplicity of no car ownership to the next level – without membership, insurance or oppressive expectations to have the car on schedule for those of us who might be time-challenged. Best of all, it’s much safer than shopping at the market!

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