EEYORE AND THE CELESTIALS – PART 2 CHINA

  ‘In the market place there is money, but under the cherry tree there is rest and peace.’ Chinese proverb

We are flying to Kunming, capital of Yunnan province, a two and a half hour journey from Hong Kong by Dragonair, an offshoot of Cathay Pacific. The cabin staff is all female and all pretty. Perhaps Dragonair would be a more appropriate name for Qantas. I am with my son, his friends Chris and Sunny, whose Chinese mother, Mesa, meets us at the airport.

Kunming, so-called ‘city of eternal spring’, is home to the Han people and has a sub-tropical climate like Sydney although, being on a plateau 6,200 feet above sea-level, there is little or no humidity. This totally modern city of six and a half million people sits on the shores of Lake Dianchi with the Shiumennen mountains holding it in a bowl. European cities evolved slowly leaving their historical development clearly visible – the glass skyscraper next to the Roman Forum, the 11th century Tower of London next to Victorian Tower Bridge. In Kunming the past has been bulldozed away. There has been a quantum leap from rough houses to modern skyscrapers in less than a single generation. The streets are broad and straight and lined with trees and shrubs, the plazas spacious. Trees and plants unsuited to Kunming’s climate are wrapped for the winter, making the sidewalks and parks look like an immense project by Christo and Jeanne-Claude.

Tree Wraps not by Christo

Tree Wraps not by Christo

The New Kunming

The New Kunming

The lampposts are all topped with wind turbines and solar panels. Now why didn’t we think of that? What lacks, for European eyes, is the unusual, the juxtaposition of ancient and modern, the bend in the road, the slight architectural deformity that provides interest and creates charm. While we are being persuaded to become cyclists, the Chinese, once a race of bike-riders and took-took drivers, have tossed out their bicycles and took-tooks for BMWs.

We are staying in a house on the edge of the city. It is in a gated community and a smartly dressed sentry salutes us each time we enter and leave. Our neighbour keeps chickens and I wake to the sound of crowing roosters at sunrise; not a bad way to start the day. The days are warm, even though we are in the last days of winter, but as soon as the sun goes down it becomes very cold. There is no heating in the house and I lose two toes to frostbite before we sit down to dinner. Luckily my bed has an electric blanket, which I leave on all night, popping out in the morning like a slice of burnt toast.

The boys have gone clubbing and I am having dinner in a restaurant with Mesa and her friends. We are sitting at the traditionally round table with lazy susan where I have been placed next to Evita, a charming law student who speaks English. The susan slowly revolves, depositing in front of me comestibles previously unknown to science. I pick at a carpaccio of marinated bamboo and some quick fried snail. ‘What is this?’ I ask Evita, nimbly transferring a battered object into my rice bowl. ‘Fried bees and larvae’, she tells me. Risi e beezy![1] After dinner I pose for a photo with Evita. The picture shows me with the slightly dippy, bewildered look of the old and timid. I think of T S Eliot’s poem ‘The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock’.

‘I grow old… I grow old…
I Shall I wear the bottoms of my trousers rolled.
Shall I part my hair behind? Do I dare to eat a peach?
I shall wear white flannel trousers, and walk upon the beach.
I have heard the mermaids singing, each to each.
I do not think they will sing to me.’

Evita and J Alfred Prufrock

Evita and J Alfred Prufrock

O to be young! To walk out in Old England on a May morning with hawthorn in bloom and heart pounding for Maisie Hardcastle behind the counter at the Post Office!

We are taken to visit Lake Dianchi by Yi Fang, the 17 year old son of Mesa’s friends. He drives a big Series 7 BMW Coupe through the city traffic with speed and aplomb. ‘You drive well’, I tell him. ‘I’ve been driving since I was 12’, he replies, and then, almost as an afterthought – ‘my father likes to drink’. The view across the 24 mile long lake is clear; there are no yachts, cabin cruisers, kayaks, jet-skis or windsurfers clogging shore lines and surface. Nor are there any fishing boats as the water is highly polluted. The sky around the lake teems with screaming sea-gulls from Siberia, here for the milder winter and to pose and be fed by wedding couples and their guests.

On the shores of Lake Dianchi

On the shores of Lake Dianchi

That same evening we sit around a restaurant table with Yi Fang, his sister PanPan and their parents. After Yi Fang’s earlier remark I wasn’t surprised to see his father produce a silver hip flask the size of a hot-water bottle, charge our glasses and kick off a series of toasts. If you are singled out to be toasted, you must stand, take a sip, clink glasses and sit down. But if the toaster says ‘Gangbei’, which translates as ‘Bottoms up and no heel-taps’, you are obliged to drain your glass. And so began the first ‘Gangbei War’ between East and West, which I feel I won but at the cost of a serious headache the next morning. Run of the mill Chinese rice wine is only good for cauterizing wounds and pouring into a petrol tank, but the wine of Yi Fang’s father was a match for the very best Grappa. Intent on suicide, I mixed this Oriental rocket fuel with occasional morsels of pickled and chili-infused garlic. If I had breathed down a bowling alley I would have knocked all ten pins flying.

After a 4 hour drive from Kunming, passing through the Valley of Dinosaurs, we arrive in Dali, home of the smaller, darker Bai people. We skirt the new town and enter the old, once the capital of Yunnan province and now a beautifully restored, mainly pedestrian, city of the 12th and 13th centuries, lying on the shores of Lake Erhai and at the foot of the Cangshan Mountains.

The hotel is beautiful, the roofs, with their carved and painted gables, rising at each end in imitation of the Chinese character meaning ‘people’. There are courtyards with ponds and the reception staff is dressed in traditional costume.

Bai people in traditional costume

Bai people in traditional costume

The rooms have all mod cons including -thank Buddah! – proper toilets. At last, within the confines of the hotel, I find a bookshop. So far I had seen precious little evidence of literature, no people reading novels or newspapers in cafes; the only reading matter I could find in our house in Kunming was the instructions for the washing machine. A quick look around tells me that nearly all of the books are communist themed. The owner offers me tea and we talk of Mao, of the Long March and of the Cultural Revolution while a Chinese version of the Carpenters’ song ‘It’s Only Just Begun’ plays in the background. We tend to think badly of Mao because of the tens of millions that died in the late 1950s during the Great Leap Forward when he changed China from an agrarian to an industrial economy. But here he is still deeply admired. Every banknote bears his portrait, the hotel reception is flanked by two fine busts of Mao and many shops still display fading posters of the Chairman in his cap, ill fitting suit and clumsy boots.

The Chairman

The Chairman

I am told that it was during the Long March and the struggle against Chiang Kai-Shek that he won the battle for hearts and minds by billeting his soldiers outside rather than inside the huts and houses of the people. I am more concerned by Mao’s Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution that took place from 1966 until his death in 1976. I would guess the present lack of books and art are part of its legacy. The shop has a large selection of vintage Little Red Books and I choose one with some handwritten notes and a bit of wear so that I can imagine it sitting in some soldier’s tunic pocket. With my change the bookshop owner gives me a two-sided photo of Chairman Mao and Chou en Lai. As custom requires, when a young person serves an older person, he presents change and gift with both hands. I must introduce this at home.

What is the greater good, to have a strong and respected leader, appointed by an unelected council, who permits 4 on a scooter with no helmets, optional seat belts, smoking in restaurants and the purchase of fireworks or the freedom to elect a bunch of self-seeking politicians who appoint a gaffe prone moron (detested by the greater part of the electorate) and who make Australia one of the most regulated societies in the world?

Dinner in Dali and Mesa chooses our menu from the fresh vegetables and mushrooms displayed. There is a choice of slabs of dried pork and buckets of eels from the lake. But what’s this? – a tub of ugly, black toads! No, surely not; Chinese toad in the hole!

Mesa takes us up into the mountains where, after a lengthy drive and hike we settle down on the terrace of a tea-room.

Kangshan mountains

Kangshan mountains

The Chinese don’t buy their tea in the form of tea-bags but in plate-sized hard disks which are priced according to their age and quality like fine French wines. Behind us are snow-capped peaks and below us pagoda- roofed temples and the pale, blue waters of Lake Erhai. Around us, on the slopes, azaleas and tea roses bloom among the rows of tea plants. We take the Cloud Travellers’ Path further up the mountain to see a waterfall, but the snows have not yet melted and the ravine is dry. Turtle doves flap around carp-filled ponds; people doze in the sun.

Choosing Tea

Choosing Tea

Sounds like Shangri-La? Well, in 1933 English novelist James Hilton published a novel called Lost Horizons. His story, concocted without the benefit of a visit to China, tells of a plane crash in a mountainous area of that country. The survivors stumble into an isolated, peaceful Utopia where the inhabitants live to a very old age. The author called this fictitious paradise ‘Shangri-La’ and it has been used to sell the idea of oriental paradise ever since the book’s publication. A 1937 film version, which used bleached corn-flakes for the snow scenes and starred Ronald Coleman, only increased public fascination. After Doolittle’s famous bombing raid on Japan in April 1942, when President Roosevelt was pestered to reveal where the planes had come from, he merely said ‘Shangri-La’. The town of Shangri-La, not so far from Dali, was once the city of Jiantang, renamed in 2001 to promote tourism.

We drive to Shuanlang on the opposite side of Lake Erhai and while the boys go climbing Mt Jizu with a professional guide, Mesa and I take tea and visit the old town.

Lake Earhi

Lake Erhai

Mesa in the old town of

Mesa in the old town of Shuanlang

Lake Erhai

Lake Erhai

Street food in Shuanlang

Street food in Shuanlang

We lunch on the tiny, sweet, lake shrimp and browse the stalls selling antiques, old strips of brocade and various bric a brac. I buy a brass statue of a cheerful looking Buddha, money cradled in one arm, strong drink in the other, and a big silver coin, a three masted junk on one face and the face of Sun Yat-Sen on the other. Mesa tells me the coin is dated 1918, 6 years after Sun overthrew the Qing Dynasty (which had lasted from 1644) and became the first President of the Republic of China. Seven years later he would die and later, Chiang Kai-Shek, Sun’s heir to lead the Kuomintang Party, would compete with Mao and his Communists for mastery of the country. We can read, learn of and imagine historical events but handling Mao’s little Red Book and the coin remove, for me, a whole layer of mystery.

From Shuanlang we drive 160 kms to the city of Lincang where Sunny’s grandpa lives in a walled compound in a quiet lane. In the courtyard is a fish-pond and tubs of camellias, tea roses and palms; birds flutter, agitated, in their cages from the steady stream of friends, relatives visitors and suppliers of sugar cane, rice and fruit. Although there are modern hotels and buildings in Lincang much of the old city remains; chairs on the sidewalk tell me street life still lives here as it does in the South of Italy. But whereas in Italy an Australian tourist would attract no attention, here in Lincang, as we stroll through the market, we are followed and photographed. Younger Chinese try to engage us in conversation and in restaurants the waitresses peek at us around the door and giggle.

The Chinese prefer to call their New Year celebrations The Spring Festival, for it is the beginning of the earth’s renewal, not, as in our case, the first day of the Roman calendar. Festivities have started well in advance of the new year and most houses are already decorated with red lanterns and images of Tao Gods. There are intermittent reports from fire-crackers and large explosions during the day but on the stroke of midnight the whole city erupts making us feel we are in the front-line of a war zone.

Fireworks Stall

Fireworks Stall

Families traditionally spend the first day of the new year together, feasting, drinking, playing mah jong and lighting more fire-crackers. Sunny’s family revolves around 92 year old Grandpa, its oldest member. Old people are well respected in China. I’m invited to inspect a whole pig that has been dismembered on the kitchen porch and which we will eat in various forms (except a pork chop) over the next few days. Someone announces that there has been fighting in Burma between Government and rebel forces leaving 70 dead. The conflict provokes martial law and causes a stampede of refugees across the border. Mesa has a hotel in a town near the border and offers free accommodation to refugees while other hotel owners are raising their rates. Love and you shall be loved. The incident failed to make the news back home as there was a cricket tournament in progress.

Mesa breakfasting at the mah jong table

Mesa breakfasting at the mah jong table

On day two of the festival everyone wears red and each guest receives a gift of cash in a red envelope. Grandpa is kitted out in a splendid red and gold satin jacket and we walk with him and the rest of the family to the Taoist Temple where they pray and make offerings to the Gods.

Grandpa, Mesa and Sunny dressed for the temple

Grandpa, Mesa and Sunny dressed for the temple

There is none of the pious solemnity and discipline of the Anglican Church. Rows of scribes collect cash offerings and write out people’s prayers, which are later burnt, the smoke, combining with the smoke from didgeridoo sized incense sticks, rises to heaven to receive the attention of the deities. Out of respect we decline to enter the temple proper, but through the smoke I could make out the giant sized Jade Emperor and the Pure Ones. Taoists believe in the natural movement of energy (the ‘Way’ or Tao), the sort of thing Stephen Hawking has been trying to work out on a blackboard for the last 30 years. Taoism has given us Tai Chi, Qigong and yin and yang as well as a history free of child abuse. Its Three Treasures are compassion, moderation and humility. Doesn’t this sound like what the world needs?

Day three of the Spring Festival is reserved for paying respects to one’s ancestors. There are no cemeteries as we know them; the Chinese bury their dead randomly on hillsides on plots bought from farmers. The tombs of Sunny’s ancestors are on a hill a short drive from Lincang, grouped in a small spinney. Offerings of cakes, fruit and flowers are placed on the tombs, which are circled with burning incense. Family members trim back the trees to let sun in; sacred music is playing against the noise of firecrackers. A pile of gold and silver fake money is burnt, the smoke trailing heavenward towards the ancestors. A light wind suddenly shakes the tree- tops; are the ancestors responding? There is a joyful atmosphere here, so remote from the morbid silence of Christian cemetery ritual. There is an intimacy with past generations that I never knew with my extant parents. Trying to decide where to dine in Florence is fun, but this has been a truly enlightening experience.

Day four and we are in the car park of a Karaoke club where management is entertaining staff by providing 3 pigs and free beer. I’m not sure how we came to be invited. When we arrive the pigs are being chopped into cuts totally unknown to European butchery.

No pork chops!

No pork chops!

Intestines sizzle in a giant pan; ears and feet are being shaved. Around the car park groups sit on low benches barbecuing pieces of pork and drinking beer from bowls. I join a group and within minutes I am being plied with beer and the best pork I have ever tasted. Someone proposes a toast and before long the second ‘Gangbei War’ breaks out.

Gangbei!

Gangbei!

New Best Friends

New Best Friends

That night we return to a re-opened Karaoke club. Grandpa sings a couple of numbers. My offering of ‘Rose, Rose, I love You’, a 1940 Mandarin song recorded in English by Frankie Laine in 1951 has a mixed reception.

There seems to be no dish recognisably designed for breakfast, lunch or dinner. No restaurant owner will tell you that you are too late for breakfast or too early for dinner. The same savoury dishes bubble away all day. Here in Yunnan nearly all are heavily spiced with chili. Over the Bridge noodles and Congee are popular morning dishes. Congee, made from rice with broth of chicken, onion and lumps of pork, when good, can be very tasty; bad, it is only fit for whitewashing your garage walls. Most chicken dishes are prepared with the flesh and bones of black (Silky) chickens, which can be quite alarming to those of us used to the glad-wrapped, anemic birds sold in Sydney supermarkets, especially when a leg still has the foot attached.

We are spending a night at The Supreme Peoples Hot Springs Hotel; accommodation for 200 guests and 3 billion mosquitoes. After a game of mah jong I slide into a pool of natural, warm spring water. The temperature is perfect and I decide to stay there until I die. I feel both relaxed and exhilarated at the same time. After a while a young lady summons me to a couch where she scrapes me from head to toe as if paint-stripping some old bannisters. I wonder if it’s the first time she’s had her hands on Occidental flesh. If it is, she’s concealing her excitement very well. Flesh not as springy as it used to be, but she can’t have everything. I’m directed under a shower to clean off and I watch half my body weight disappear down the plug-hole. Back to the couch for an oily massage before being popped into a baking sauna. I’ve now been soaked, scraped, oiled and steamed; I feel a new man. I was going to buy Honeybee a pair of jade earrings but I think she’ll be happy with this new body between the sheets. Hmmm, on second thoughts, perhaps I’d better lock myself in the spare bedroom for a couple of weeks.

We are back in Kunming where the magnolia and walnut trees in Mesa’s garden are now wearing white and pink for the new year. We go into the city for some last minute shopping and a visit to one of the few old buildings left in the city. It is a restaurant, but a plaque near the entrance tells us that this was once the headquarters of the Flying Tigers. In the early years of WW2, with Burma and the whole of Eastern China in Japanese hands, President Chiang Kai-Shek asked American General Clare Lee Chennault to help train the demoralised Chinese air force. In the summer of 1941 Chennault organised a group of American volunteers including 90 pilots and 150 mechanics. The Chinese called them the Flying Tigers after the tiger shark teeth painted on the nose of their P-40 fighters. In the first 7 months of 1942 the Tigers shot down 297 Japanese planes and lost 21 pilots in resisting the invaders and protecting the 500 mile long air-cargo route from Assam to Kunming, China’s only life-line. The Tigers must have been happy to get back home to Kunming after their dangerous missions, which they called their ‘Shangri-La’.

Flying Tigers HQ

Flying Tigers HQ

 

Well, I’ve entered Dali by the same gate used by Marco Polo eight centuries ago, taken the Cloud Traveller’s trail in the Cangshan Mountains, bathed in hot springs by the Langcan river and stood by Lake Dianchi to watch newly-weds feed the migrating seagulls from Siberia. I’ve been taught mah-jong and the manners and poetry of tea. Most importantly I have enjoyed the hospitality of a large and happy Chinese family and, for the small inconvenience of an occasional upset stomach, I have had a life lesson in hospitality and generosity.

Just in case some of you are wondering why you haven’t received a post card, there are no post cards. In fact there are no post boxes. To post a letter you must go to a post office. To post a letter to another country you must take the letter to a special post office for international mail. The letter must be unsealed, just in case you’ve written something rude about Xi Jinping or enclosed plans for their new aircraft carrier.

[1] Risi e bisi is a typical Veneto dish of rice and peas.

EEYORE AND THE CELESTIALS – PART 1 HONG KONG

Off to China with my 24 year-old son and his two young friends. I call them the Three Musketeers. Too old to play d’Artagnan any more, I stumble along behind them, their ancient and clumsy manservant, Planchet. Honeybee is not sure who will be looking after whom. Quite simple really, I shall make sure the boys clean their teeth and ring home occasionally; they will make sure I don’t smoke too many opium pipes and am in bed before the sun rises.

First stop Hong Kong and we all squeeze into a small, battered saloon that is masquerading as a taxi. Our driver Ng (his friends call him N for short) sets off for our hotel in Kowloon, unfazed by the amount of luggage, which forces him to leave the trunk open. There’s a No Smoking sign on the dash but the cab reeks of stale tobacco. There are minus air-bags. This, for a frail septuagenarian, is what passes for adventure.

Why the ‘Celestials’? Because in the 19th century that’s what North Americans and Australians called the Chinese who came to help build their railroads and work their mines. The name arose from the contemporary translation of Tian Chao, the traditional name for China, as ‘The Heavenly Kingdom’. I find the term ‘Celestials’ quite charming, but I’m sure there will be some politically correct body out there anxious to take offense on behalf of the Chinese people.
Lunch of half a goose, chicken feet, pork buns, congee, shrimp dumplings, bok choy and tea. Aus$15 each and really good! Apparently the Chinese achieve the crispy skin on their ducks and geese while leaving the meat moist and tender by separating the skin from the flesh.

Dinner in Stanley Street. More goose. I’m eating so much geese and duck I’m afraid there won’t be many migrating North at the end of winter this year. I’m settling in to Chinese street food very nicely. Much more fun sucking the cartilage off a pig’s foot than cutting into a wagyu steak in some air-conditioned restaurant in Central. So far I haven’t encountered a pea or a potato. Not quite so keen on the so-called century eggs, which are preserved in a mixture of clay, ash, quicklime and rice husks for several months; I prefer mine soft-boiled at 4 minutes.

After paying a small fortune for a quartet of Hemmingway Daiquiris in the Quinary bar on Hollywood Road, we retreat, passing similar bars filled with braying European executives and their horsey English secretaries, and moving down, nearer the waterfront, where we settle into a likely looking bar. In no time adrenalin, unavailable in Mosman, is flowing as we order round after round of Caipirinhas while sharing a Shisha, or waterpipe (a sort of industrial sized e-cigarette), taking turns to inhale and exhale the banana-flavoured steam.

Sure enough, I rise late the next day, numb-headed with a palate like the roof of a pizza oven. It seemed a good time to recall Byron’s lament to the time when the restless energy of youth gives way to the weariness of old age.

So we’ll go no more a-roving
So late into the night,
Though the heart be still as loving,
And the moon be still as bright.

For the sword outwears its sheath,
And the soul outwears the breast,
And the heart must pause for breath,
And love itself have rest.

Though the night was made for loving
And the day returns too soon,
Yet we’ll go no more a-roving
By the light of the moon.

Funnily enough, Byron wrote this when he was only 29; but then he did party quite hard.

A man squats outside a calligraphy shop, fashioning pens out of lengths of bamboo. Much of Chinese art derives from the graphic interpretation of the 10,000 or so Chinese logograms, of which the epistolary literate would need to know 3 to 4 thousand. The world’s oldest, continuously used system of writing is no longer morphosyllabic; a character now corresponds to a single morpheme, the smallest meaningful unit of a language. Here in Hong Kong, the most important character is the letter S cut by two vertical lines.

The whole of Hong Kong, from the cut-throat executives in Central to the cut-price tailors in Kowloon, seethes with feverish commercial activity. Even a Big Mac has been renamed Prosperity Burger. The rampant consumerism, the obsession with profit, has its roots in the late 18thcentury when Hong Kong Island contained nothing but a small fishing village. At that time the British were concerned about the substantial trade imbalance with China. While the British were importing porcelain, brocades, silk and tea, Quangzhou (Canton) was the only port open to the West and silver the only commodity the Chinese would accept in return for their goods. The only item the Chinese wanted and did not produce was opium and so the British ‘Hong’ (companies licensed to trade in Canton), decided to even the playing field by flooding the market with cheaply produced opium from Bengal, spreading the habit of opium smoking from the rich to nearly all of the younger men in the coastal regions. In 1839, concerned by the resulting net outflow of silver, the Emperor’s emissary Lin Ze-xu (no relative) reacted, confiscating quantities of opium and closing Canton to commerce. The British sent in the Navy, their iron-clad gunboats sweeping aside the Chinese wooden junks. It was a grossly unfair fight; the Chinese, having invented gunpowder, used it for firework displays; the British with more deadly intent. In 1842, aboard a gun-boat in the mouth of the Yangtse, the British forced the Chinese to sign a series of treaties in which they ceded Hong Kong island, opened 5 ‘Treaty’ ports and paid substantial compensation for the confiscated opium. By 1900 China was producing 22,000 tons herself.

A natural reluctance on the part of the Chinese customs officials to enact the treaties made a second round of hostilities inevitable. The arrest of the Arrow, a Hong Kong based ship and her crew, in 1856 provided the excuse for the British to send an expeditionary force, while the French, eager for a share of the pie, joined in the fray when one of their missionaries was murdered. In 1860, after the coalition had sacked and looted Peking, the Chinese signed a Convention ceding Kowloon to the British, establishing foreign embassies in Peking and agreeing to the export of indentured workers to America and Australia. Naturally enough the Chinese labourers took the opium habit with them and introduced it to their hosts. Those watching the TV series ‘The Knick’ (about a hospital in 19th century New York) will have noticed that Doctor Thackeray relieves the daily stress of the operating theatre with a comforting pipe in a Chinese opium den.

Three of the very early members of the British Hong, William Jardine, James Matheson and John Swire, were quick to establish themselves in Hong Kong, creating substantial trading empires. They and their succeeding family members took it in turns to be tai pan (literally ‘top dog’), the unofficial ruler of the colony. The companies, Jardine Matheson and Swire Group, now among the top 200 trading companies in the world, are still owned by descendants of William, James and John. Assets you will recognize – the Mandarin Hotel (Jardine Matheson) and Cathay Pacific (Swire).

A heavily made-up lady of indeterminate age has attached herself to me, imploring me to visit her massage parlour while thrusting a card exhibiting a pair of poorly drawn breasts in my face, evidently unaware of my feeble resources, both financial and physical. The boys eventually prise her loose; but along with the sense of freedom, along with the knowledge that I had no intention of being ‘laid in China’, remains the faint regret that I would not have experienced that bizarre pleasure of sitting in some cavern of lost hope, among the fading velvet and Chinese lanterns, paying $500 for a bottle of poor quality sparkling wine. Only the French can understand such sentiment, which they charmingly refer to as Nostalgie de la boue.

There is little of expressly Hong Kong literary culture and I take this as further proof of the determinably commercial mindset of the people. If you are interested in the history of Hong Kong I recommend Timothy Mo’s 1986 novel ‘An Insular Possession’, shortlisted for the Booker Prize.

We take the ferry to Lantau Island, able to see the Hong Kong shoreline bristling with cranes unloading container after container of Chanel handbags and Rolex watches. We ride the cable car to a mountain top and climb 290 steps to an immense Buddha. I was a little disappointed to learn that the statue was early 20thcentury and constructed of concrete. There are crowds of visitors; if a toe or finger fell off there would be serious injuries. Standing on the underground light rail journey back to Kowloon I am twice offered a seat by young women. I shall be looking for powdered rhino horn and a wig tomorrow.

Into a tailor and the four of us are fitted up for suits, which we are assured will be ready in 2 days. All happy with the finished products we spend Saturday shopping, surprised to see long queues of Chinese with suitcases outside Chanel, Louis Vuitton and other luxury brand shops. The shoppers, it turns out, are parallel traders from the mainland, taking advantage of the multiple entry visa policy to import luxury and other goods into the mainland. The practice has caused shortages in Hong Kong’s Northern districts and intensified conflicts between Hong Kong and the mainland. Time now for us to see what is going on in China proper.

EEYORE GOES FRENCH – Special Gourmet Edition

Back in the air and bound for Paris via Bangkok and Dubai. The plane is enormous; I’m not sure whether I’m sitting upstairs or downstairs. I’m reminded of the words of actress Talulah Bankhead when she boarded the Queen Mary in 1931 and asked ‘What time does this place get to New York?’ Aboard are lots of young, scantily clad passengers travelling to tattoo parlours in Bangkok, some old duffers like myself on their way to poke around European museums and a few bound for vacation in Dubai. With so many holiday possibilities in this suddenly shrunken world, why anyone would be interested in spending free time in Dubai defeats me, unless you are a worshipper of the Golden Calf and enjoy window shopping for Rolex watches, playing tennis on the roof of a skyscraper or wafting through air-conditioned, marble-clad hotel lobbies. Like Babylon, I suppose Dubai will end up under the sand, only the tip of a broken ski-lift marking its tomb. Unlike Babylon there will be nothing among the ruins that will interest the Louvre or the antiquities department of the British Museum.

I feel a strong sense of home when I come to Paris; after all we were married for close on fourteen years. I loved her then although I’m not sure she loved me in return, certainly not in the beginning, for she had many lovers. But little by little, in her coquettish way, she revealed herself, from her medieval rat holes in the rue Quincompoix to her glassy slopes of La Defense, until she finally came to me completely, nue, toute nue et sans culottes. Now she is an old mistress I like to visit occasionally with no thoughts of marriage for we have both changed. Of course, those that fall in love with her now love her for what she is, for she renews herself continually while we merely age. In years to come her new lovers too will mourn the loss of the Paris they loved.

It was certainly a less busy and less regulated city in 1970. No one paid parking fines in the knowledge that the city had no means of enforcing collection, which it acknowledged by announcing annual amnesties. With considerably less traffic than present and no rules against driving after a couple of bottles of Beaujolais Nouveau, it was quite possible, as I well know, to drive the wrong way around the Etoile at four in the morning. Then, there were only six other founding states in the European Union and our office challenge, to sleep with a girl from each member country, was not unachievable; today even George Clooney would have trouble completing the course. Gone too is the afternoon thé dansant in the café under the Theatre du Champs Elysees where we would light up our elderly dancing partners with a Coca Cola bottle down the front of our trousers. Ah oui, ah oui.

One secret the city yielded up concerns the world’s oldest profession; no, not accountants. While conducting an inventory at one of my audit clients, the minor haute-couture house of Jean-Louis Scherrer, I asked why a rack of expensive dresses had been excluded. These, said the elegant manageress, making me feel like a cockroach about to be speared by her haut-talons, ‘are partly-paid dresses awaiting the final installments.’ In fact, to put it politely, they were the accumulated earnings of demi-mondaines. The scam operated as follows: The lady, declining cash for her services as too vulgar, suggests a little dress instead. The dress, which costs 3,000 francs, is sold, with the connivance of the assistant for, say 500 francs, but left at the shop by the lady for “alterations”. After five more ‘tricks’ the dress is hers. Quelle finesse!!

Even blindfolded I believe I could identify my whereabouts from Paris’ particular smell, a mixture of perfume, disinfectant, beeswax and praline. I’m surprised someone hasn’t bottled it and marketed it as Eau de Clichy. I love it here; shall I seek asylum?

I’m staying with my old friend P-J. We are anciens combattants and have fought our way together through feijoadas in Brazil, raclettes in Switzerland and Chili Crab Cakes in New Orleans. We will spend a few days in Versailles and Paris and then we are off to Touraine and Anjou to see if classic, French provincial cuisine is alive and well after the deprivations of fast food and the excesses of nouvelle cuisine. P-J, a supremely peaceful man, has some very comfortable digs in Louis XIV’s old Ministry of War, a stone’s throw from the Palace. The building, appropriately in the quartier St Louis, is next to the Conservatoire du Musique and on sunny mornings one may wake to the sound of piccolo and violin.

Dinner in one of my favourite restaurants, Le Limousin in Versailles, an old fashioned, no nonsense establishment where the speciality is gigot. While P-J modestly picks at some foie gras frais for starters, I tuck into one and a half legs (or rather three half shinbones) of grilled bone marrow, leaving my finished plate looking like a prehistoric ossuary. For mains P-J takes the gigot with pommes dauphinoises while I choose an andouillette, a sausage of what appears to be compressed, highly seasoned rubber bands but in fact are chitterlings, the small intestines of the pig. The menu informs me that my andouillette is a 5A model, that is to say the top of the range according to the Association Amicale des Amateurs d’Andouillette Authentique, the governing body of this particular species of sausage.

Saint Louis Blues

France is a very saintly country; even the cheeses are canonized; in fact I’m nibbling on a tasty Saint Marcellin as I write. We have a Saint Paris railway station (St Lazare), a saint writer cum aviator (St Exupery) and thousands of sanctified cities, towns, villages and hamlets, from St-Agnan to St-Zacharie. Each day is named for one saint or another, and of these a select few have been chosen as France’s patron saints. One of these, Saint Denis (the first Bishop of Paris), has lent his name both to the Abbey of St Denis, last resting place of French Kings and to the rue St Denis, notorious nesting place for those seeking solace in the arms of a fille de joie.

It is the 800th anniversary of the birth of Saint Louis, aka Louis IX, France’s only King to be honored with sainthood, the medieval equivalent of the Nobel Prize, and, after an unseasonal navarin and a glass of Saumur in the Café des Deux Palais, we pay our respects with a visit to Sainte-Chapelle. On the way P-J shoos away small packs of Romany children who, he claims, under guise of asking us to sign a petition or complete a meaningless questionnaire, will strip us of our purses like a school of hungry piranhas.

I can never understand why the French, and the Parisians in particular, are so often accused of rudeness. They are a serious people and may occasionally tire of the less mannered peoples that invade their country, intent only on enjoyment and expecting everyone to love them for buying a croque monsieur and a café au lait. I understand certain sections of the Inuit people are almost as well mannered as the French, but I would need to see that for myself.

It is Sunday, market day and autumn and the plane trees lining the broad avenues that fan out from the Palace are beginning to litter the sidewalks. Recent rain makes it seem that we are walking through a dish of sodden cornflakes. Past the statue of Louis Lazare Hoche, a General at 23 and mort pour La Patrie at 29. Rain or sun, nothing beats a visit to a French market on a Sunday morning. The market is packed and the same Peruvian pipe band I saw last week in Pitt Street is playing El Condor Pasa. I’m surrounded by yellow, corn fed chickens from Bresse, puck-sized goat cheeses with exquisite labels, resembling a hoard of precious medals, pates en croutes, polished, purple aubergines, punnets of raspberries and stalls sagging under mountains of charcuterie. My taste buds, long dormant, begin to flower again. I hate to be pessimistic but I think it will be a thousand years before Australia can produce a saucisson of the quality one finds in the weekly food markets of France.

We buy oursins sur lit de varech (sea urchins on seaweed bed), crab claws, bulots (whelks) and crevettes grises, the tiny, sweet North Sea shrimp that are eaten whole. In England, peeled and encased in seasoned butter they are potted shrimps and served on toast, one of the country’s finer dishes. That evening we bookend our seafood with foie gras frais sur pain d’epices and fromage blanc a la crème and sink a bottle of Domaine Bel Air 2013, Gros Plant du Pays Nantais sur Lie. After dinner P-J opens a superb 15 year old Armagnac. Poured into glasses that could accommodate several goldfish in comfort, the aroma mixes into the general atmosphere of smouldering Monte Cristo No 3s, leather-bound works of Jules Verne and 17th Century furniture.

For reading matter I have brought ‘Agincourt’ by soldier/explorer Sir Ranulph Fiennes, not to upset the French but because the author, interestingly, had notable ancestors fighting on both sides in the conflict. One ancestor, William the Conqueror’s general commanding the 1066 invasion of England, was rewarded with estates and titles in that country. Among his descendants were a queen of England and Henry V’s captains at Agincourt. Members of the Fiennes family who remained in France also prospered, one ending up as Connetable de France, one dying at Agincourt. Finsbury Circus in London was land donated by the family as a last resting place for the heart of a son killed in the 2nd Crusade. Actors Ralph and Joseph Fiennes are cousins.

On the 20th June 1789 Louis XVI, in an effort to halt the liberalizing program of the Estates General, barred its members from entry into the Hotel des Menus-Plaisirs, their normal meeting place in Versailles. A deputé from Paris, Joseph-Ignace Guillotin, led his frustrated colleagues to the tennis court in the rue du Jeu de Paume. There, 641 deputés, that is to say the Third Estate joined by a few deputés from the Clergy and Nobility, swore ‘never to separate until the Constitution of the Kingdom is established and built on solid foundations’. If you stand in the Jeu de Paume now, you are standing at the birthplace of French democracy. Later that year Monsieur Guillotin, a physician by profession, proposed that all persons guilty of crimes demanding capital punishment should suffer the same clean and efficient method of execution. It was a German engineer, Tobias Schmidt, who actually designed and built the instrument. Obviously, it sounded wrong to be ‘Schmidted’ or to be ‘sent to the Schmidt’ and so it became known as the Guillotine. Personified during the Terror as Madame Guillotine when she operated in the Place de La Concorde, she had a long and busy life. The last public guillotining was in June 1939 outside the Saint-Pierre Prison (another Saint) in Versailles (now the Palais de Justice). The last person to be executed by guillotine was Hamida Djandoubi in September 1977.

Monuments Men

We are off to Touraine and Anjou or Indre et Loire and Maine et Loire, two of the departements established by Napoleon whose size was determined by the distance a horseman could cover in a day. We stay mainly on the left bank of the Loire avoiding the better-known tourist attractions. We are in early autumn and follow the curling road alongside the river, which in the morning is invisible until the sun disperses the damp mist hovering over the surface. The trees are in various stages of advancement into their autumn colours; there are balls of mistletoe in the tops of poplars; crows peck among the corn stubble. It’s like having a preview of heaven, a sort of visitors day, except that I suspect that the real heaven, if it existed, would be rather boring, full of politically correct people strumming harps, while all the interesting people will be in the other place (if it existed).

Our first stop is the village of Meung because it was here, on a spring morning, standing on the banks of the Loire, some 45 years ago, that I had an epiphany – a natural not religious epiphany; I have never believed in the supernatural. Similar feelings of intense happiness have returned now and again, sometimes interspersed with occasional glum periods of leaden depression and debilitating fatigue. I once checked out these symptoms with a psychiatrist, who, after looking at the results of a question and answer test, pronounced me to be mildly bi-polar. ‘Tell me’ I said, ‘how does this make me different from a normal, uni-polar, person, for we all have mood swings’. ‘The difference’ said the Doc, ‘is that you do not know how you will feel tomorrow, whether you will be sad or happy, whereas I, on the other hand know that I will always be the same’. This information convinced me to reject the Doc’s offer of medication and leave his consultancy content with the knowledge that the road ahead was at least unknown. Peaks and valleys have always made for a more interesting landscape then endless plains.

After standing in that same spot by the river, waiting to see if enlightenment would strike a second time, it was time for lunch and the Café du Commerce looked, and proved to be, promising. We both chose le plat du jour, a parmentier du coq au vin, mine with a pichet of cabernet franc, P-J’s with a Perrier because he was driving, although I suspect he drives better after a glass of Jaja. Afterwards we visited the Chateau where we descended into the damp bowels of its prisons or ‘oubliettes’ where poet Francois Villon languished for several months in 1461. From his ‘Ballade des Dames du Temps Jadis’ comes one of the world’s most quoted lines of poetry ‘Mais ou sont les neiges d’antan?’ (‘Where are the snows of yester-year?’). Jehan de Meung, another famous inhabitant, was the co-writer, with Guillaume de Lorris, of Le Roman de La Rose, the bible of courtly love.

Then, in short order, the Chateau of Usse, which inspired a previous visitor, Charles Perrault, to write Sleeping Beauty; the Chateau of Langais, where Anne de Bretagne married Charles VIII, so adding Brittany to the Kingdom of France and Clos Lucé, where Leonardo da Vinci designed helicopters for Francois I. I’m completely Chateau’d out. I’m so worn out with climbing medieval staircases that I have barely the strength to tear apart my bread roll as we sit down to dine at Le Colombien in the village of Villandry. After popping open a bottle of Domaine des Varinelles Saumur Champigny 2010, P-J chooses a Rable de lapin au foie gras de canard extra compote de pruneau de Tours a l’Hypocras. Sheer music isn’t it? P-J is eating so much foie gras the geese and ducks in Perigord have been put on overtime. I’m easing up with a salade de gambas and the fillet de Saint Pierre and finishing with a sorbet. Every restaurant should have a refreshing sorbet on its dessert menu. Le Procope, which opened its doors in 1686 and is still operating in la rue de l’Ancienne Comedie, once offered 80 varieties for the delectation of its clientele.

Our rooms, bearing the scars of multiple reconfigurations since the 14th Century, are perfectly clean and comfortable. When I turn on the taps in the bathroom I hear the reverberating engines of the lost Titanic.

A whizz around the Chateau de Villandry with its Italianate vegetable gardens. A compulsive acquirer of rubbish, I am spending more time in the museum shops than studying examples of Gothic architecture and Gobelin tapestries. A Joan of Arc bookmark, a medieval cooking calendar, a cushion with the embroidered coat of arms of Anne de Bretagne, a fridge magnet with a picture of the Chateau de Chambord, all will be exported to Australia only to end up on sale in one of Sydney’s charity shops. I hesitate over a pair of earrings bearing the heraldic insignia of the Duke of Anjou, trying to picture them hanging from my Honeybee’s lobes. A plastic bassinet and a replica Genoese crossbow secure my interest. But Allo! Allo! What’s this? A plumed musketeer’s hat! A chapeau from the chateau! Alas, lack of luggage space means this tasteful piece of headgear will be unavailable at my local Salvation Army shop.

For lunch, P-J’s intelligence network has fingered Au Chapeau Rouge in the centre of Chinon, where Murielle greets us and we settle in to peruse the menu. I settle for an entrée of Veloute de Topinambour (pumpkin soup), a main of ‘Joue de Roi Rose confite a la Turone Ambreu de Cormery et aux pommes (pig’s cheek with apple) and a dessert of Poire pochée coulee a la feve de cacao (poached pear with chocolate sauce). We tell Christophe, Murielle’s tocque-hatted husband, that we enjoyed the meal.

Worked some of the lunch off with a hike around the Chateau, but must give the liver a rest, it’s been working overtime on all those rich sauces and creams and cheeses, not to mention the wine and the Armagnac. Forty years ago I returned from a trip to Egypt with a violent dose of hepatitis, which kept me bedridden for nearly six months, able only to digest dried bread and peeled and pipped grapes. ‘M’sieur’, said the French Doc when I was finally able to rise from my couch, ‘I regret to inform you that your liver has suffered considerably and therefore you will never be able to drink alcohol again’. Totally wrong of course; I’ve never had much confidence in French doctors since.

Chevaliers de la Table Ronde
Goutons voir si le vin est bon

Last night P-J, a Chevalier de la Tastevin no less, fell in love with an impertinent little Chenin Blanc at dinner, which he felt made a perfect marriage with his Feuilleté de St Jacques à la crème de Cognac and so we are making a detour to the village of Varrains and to the winery of the Daheuiller family. The wines of Touraine are unfashionable and therefore relatively cheap, in fact the most expensive Bourgueil I could find in Nicolas was 8.50 euros. The principal grape varieties of Touraine are Chenin Blanc, present in Vouvray, Saumur and Chinon wines and Cabernet Franc, better known as the minor partner in some Bordeaux blends while Folle Blanche is used in the making of Gros Plant. They all taste of France.

P-J tells me of a grape variety that, distilled, can invoke delirium tremens, a state my mother felt sure would overtake her after a second glass of Dubonnet.

Afterwards, a visit to La Divinière, home of the rumbustious, hard drinking Francois Rabelais, author of the satirical and lewd Gargantua and Pantagruel. Presumably an ancestor of Gerard Depardieu.

Manger à Angers

We’re in the charming town of Angers to visit the Saint Louis exhibition being held in the Chateau. Louis was a manic collector of reliquaries, ornate receptacles of macabre religious ephemera – bits of canonized fingers, splinters from the true cross. Sainte-Chapelle itself was built on Louis’ orders as a giant reliquary to hold the Crown of Thorns. On Sainthood, Louis turned from collector to collected and sure enough, just visible in an elaborate, jeweled container is a minute piece of one of his kingly garments. A coffin-sized reliquary holds the entire body of one nameless, forgotten saint. Missing, of course, is the Holy Grail.

Afterwards, at the highly recommended Creperie du Chateau – a galette of reblochon, pommes de terre et jambon de Bayonne, a crèpe jus de citron et sucre and a bowl of Breton cider. Pas mal du tout.

The royal Abbey of Fontevreauld once held the mortal remains of Henry II, Eleanor of Aquitaine and their son, Richard, although the abbey was ransacked during the French Revolution and only the stone effigies remain. Richard, although King of England spent most of his life in France and travelling to the Holy Land on Crusades, which is why he is referred to as Richard Gare de Lyon in the charming book ‘1066 and all That’. Revolutionaries turned the abbey into a prison which has only been opened to the public since 1985.

Nantes is not a particularly charming town, too little planning and too much grey slate; mind you we are seeing it at its worst in the midst of a rain-storm. Our hotel is basic, which is all one would expect for 51 euros, and P-J has trouble squeezing into the perspex coffin of a shower, especially after what was possibly the best meal of the trip at the apartment of Jean-Michel and Gerard.

A whizz around the Chateau of the Dukes of Brittany and then a visit to the Jules Verne museum overlooking Feydeau island where he was born. Along with HG Wells, a father of science fiction, Jules Verne wrote 62 adventure stories. I suppose his modern day equivalent would be George RR Martin and his Songs of Ice and Fire novels, except that the Frenchman wrote literature, although the stuffy old Academie Francaise refused to recognize this. His yacht was, of course, named after a Saint (Michael).

Back in Versailles it’s time to find some gifts for those left behind and where better than Guerlain, which is strategically located near the point where the tourists exit the Palace and deux pas from chez P-J. Forget Armani, Christian Dior and Old Spice, there are only two real perfumiers, Guerlain, founded in 1824 and Penhaligon, established in 1860, both apparently used by Queen Victoria to keep Prince Albert interested. They both produce unmistakable fragrances but are quite dissimilar. Penhaligon’s Bluebell is an après-tennis kiss in the summerhouse that leaves you throwing your racquet in the air; Guerlain’s Shalimar is the tongue down the throat after dinner at Maxim’s. It is the fragrance that M’Lady de Winter dabs in her ivory cleavage before folding you in her fatal embrace. Habit Rouge was once my eau de choix and brought me considerable success in my salad days. I buy Habit Rouge for my son and Mitsouko for my Honeybee. I decline the assistant’s offer to perfume me; my Honeybee would be upset if I was trampled to death in a sudden stampede by a busload of Polish lady tourists.

One last outing to the antiquarian book market held each Sunday at the old Abbatoirs de Vaugirard (now the Parc Georges Brassens) near the Porte de Vanves. I am fortunate that not many sellers take credit cards and that the market is on the other side of the world. Nevertheless, I exit with several weighty tomes including a Nicolas wine catalogue from 1931 and a charming 1965 cookbook by Michel Oliver, an early exponent of nouvelle cuisine and son of Raymond, owner of the Grand Vefour in the Palais Royal.

Time to leave and give the ducks and geese a rest. Merci P-J. I leave you, (my hand-luggage bursting with unsent post-cards), with a quote from the real Eeyore:

‘This writing business. Pens and pencils and what-not. Over-rated, if you ask me. Silly stuff. Nothing in it.”

EYEORE RUMINATES

Times are hard. No wintering in Monte Carlo this year. Any brightness in the future seems to hang on the weekly disposition of five coloured and numbered ping pong balls blown around by a hair dryer. In fact times are so bad I’ve been forced to remain in employment to keep my Honeybee in hair rollers and coffee-flavoured Tim Tams.

I recently saw something described as being in ‘mint condition’, which got me thinking that I’ve never really owned anything in mint condition. Whereas some items in my childhood stamp collection were ‘near mint’, there was always a small piece of crenelated edge missing from a rare stamp, while storage in damp conditions gummed a whole block of unused Penny Blacks to the album. In spite of thousands of dollars spent restoring and sprucing up an old sports car, it never reached mint condition (or concours condition as the car enthusiasts say). Every bibelot, trinket and art-work I own is cracked, stained, has a finger missing or has been repaired with superglue or Scotch tape. My first wife had already lost her dust-jacket when I met her and my second wife had the name of her first husband etched in biro on her title page. My Honeybee, by contrast, was in near-perfect condition, with only a slight foxing on page 3, which merely added to her considerable charm.

I have no idea why the word Tishomingo came to me this morning on my way to the bathroom. Anyway, exploiting that sense of liberation that old age confers, I said it out loud a couple of times just to savour its pleasing ring. The last time Tishomingo passed my lips was over 50 years ago when buying a 78rpm recording of Ken Colyer playing Tishomingo Blues, a jazz standard written in 1917 by Spencer Williams.

‘I’m goin’ to Tishomingo
Because I’m sad today
I wish to linger
Way down old Dixie way’

The original Tishomingo was a Chickasaw Chief who served with Andrew Jackson in the war of 1812. The town of Tishomingo in Mississippi is named after him but I doubt you’d want to linger, it has 316 inhabitants and sounds pretty grim.

Anyway, to the point. Shortly after my Tishomingo moment I received an e-mail from a friend with an article about the recently deceased American writer, Elmore Leonard. The obituary listed many of his famous novels like ‘Hombre’, ‘Get Shorty, ‘3.10 to Yuma’ and…..‘Tishomingo Blues’! Amazing, that odd word coming up twice in the same day n’est ce pas? No? No. Well, I thought so.

Reading Elmore Leonard’s obituary I was drawn to his 10 rules of writing, which make outstanding common sense:

  1. Never start a book with weather
  2. Avoid prologues, introductions and forewords
  3. Never use a verb other than ‘said’ to carry dialogue
  4. Never use an adverb to modify the word ‘said’
  5. Keep you exclamation marks under control
  6. Never use the words ‘suddenly’ or ‘all hell let loose’
  7. Use regional dialogue and patois sparingly
  8. Avoid detailed descriptions of characters
  9. Don’t go into great detail describing places and things
  10. Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip. That would be the ‘writing’, the stuff we learned in ‘composition’ at school, the part that William Faulkner called ‘Hooptedoodle’

Next time you feel unhappy with the novel you’re reading, I’ll bet the writer has disobeyed some or all of Elmore’s rules.

And Lo and Behold, it was Springtime and I went forth to tidy up the Garden for the Sun was shining and our Firstborn was coming to lunch. And I called out saying ‘Has anyone seen my bloody secateurs’ and I heard a Voice from the kitchen window answering ‘Are they not where thou left them, under the Pear tree’. And I found the secateurs under the Pear tree and alas they were rusted and an abomination to my sight and I cursed mightily. And I heard the Voice from the kitchen window again, saying ‘I hope you have not left the secateurs out all winter to be ruined for they were a Gift unto thee on Father’s Day and I travelled far into the Land of the Cardealers to Bunnings to buy them on behalf of our Firstborn that he might find favour in the sight of his Father’. And I said ‘God Almighty, cannot a son buy his own gift for his Father.’ And the Voice from the window waxed wrathful, likening me to a cockroach and telling me to get my own dinner. And I went forth from the Garden and changed into Sackcloth and watched television and no Voice spoke to me from the window for forty days.

To the Rocks on Saturday for a visit to Parkers, a wonderful art supplies shop, second only to Zecchi in Florence for the range of its products. Before loading up with gum turpentine, hogs-hair brushes and tubes of Cobalt Blue, my Honeybee suddenly collapses from hunger. Conveniently, we are outside a Wine Bar and Restaurant. The place is very smart – exposed stone walls, minimalist furnishings and unsmiling waiters in black. Cristina chooses the fish of the day (or ‘carpe diem’ as I have seen it called), which, as I correctly predict, is Barramundi (two certainties in life: fish of the day is always Barramundi and there is always a clearance sale in a Persian Carpet shop). I select a Salade Nicoise (‘Tuna, olives, French beans, rocket and quail egg’), which arrives in what appears to be an art deco dog-bowl. Inspecting the contents of the bowl’s shallow depression I am able to tick off the beans and rocket but there’s no sign of an olive or quail’s egg and what’s more the tuna, in fat-lined, rectangular slabs, has been no more cooked than if it had been left out in the sun for ten seconds. I summon the waiter. He appears pleased to have something to do (my Honeybee and I being the only diners) but baffled when I ask him to point out the quail’s egg and the olives. I also point out that the dish’s description in the menu is misleading – a classic Salade Nicoise is prepared with cooked tuna, but I think this was missed by someone who grew up in Ethiopia. A five minute wait until our waiter reappears with one quail’s egg in a ramekin. This, together with a couple of string beans, constitutes my whole lunch; still, I do have a couple of kilos to lose. Failed to note the name of the restaurant and so cannot deter others from making the same mistake.

I’m finding a troubling lack of my brand of pulchritude in the current crop of Hollywood leading ladies. I’m not sure how or when one acquires a preference for certain physical features in the opposite sex but it would have to have been influenced by the cinema of one’s youth which, in my case, consisted of mainly black and white films. Monochrome, with its focus on light and shade, might have flattered the appearance of actresses in the 1950s, whereas, in ultra high-definition, today’s mob has nowhere to hide. Screen Divas of the 50s dressed like fashion models because they wanted to look like film stars; today’s film stars feel they are too important to dress like fashion models and, off-screen, look like jobless surfers from Manly. I mention Kristen Stewart (a petulant waif, drained of blood by vampires), Cameron Diaz (small breasts), Angelina Jolie (over tatooed), Kate Winslet (suet-faced) and Julia Roberts (a set of dentures). Now, I give you five stars of the fifties that leave the aforementioned for dust:

Dorothy Lamour, a dusky, dark-haired beauty from N’Awlins, known as the ‘Sarong Girl’ or the ‘Bombshell of Bombs’ (because of her success in promoting the sale of Government Bonds during WW2);

Jane Russell, ‘Mean, moody and magnificent’. Bob Hope once defined culture as being able to describe Jane Russell without moving you hands. Remember the scene in ‘Paleface’ when she kisses Painless Potter (Bob Hope) and the roundels of his spurs start to spin? When he loses consciousness Jane picks him up and hangs him on a coat hook. When she kissed a man he stayed kissed.

Lana Turner, peroxide perfection and known as the ‘Sweater Girl’ for obvious reasons (Bob Hope called it ‘cruelty to cashmere’). Lana kissed a few in her day including Johnny Stompanato, a mafia hoodlum who was stabbed to death by Lana’s daughter, Cheryl. She also got through 8 husbands, number 1 being Jazz musician Artie Shaw who was the second husband of the ravishing….

Ava Gardner – billed as ‘the world’s most beautiful animal.’ Her first husband was Mickey Rooney (‘the smallest of my husbands but my biggest mistake’).

Lastly Olivia de Havilland the romantic Maid Marion in the non-plus ultra of cape and sword films, ‘The Adventures of Robin Hood’.

The Bible (King James edition) was part of every child’s education in Britain in the 1950s and the story of Christ still never fails to interest, even if it’s a sub-plot in Ben Hur, which astonishingly, was written by Lew Wallace, the Governor of New Mexico Territory in 1878 while heavily engaged with range wars and the pusuit and capture of Billy the Kid. Even more astonishing is the film ‘The Passion of Christ’ by Anglophobe Mel Gibson, whose own life could so easily become a film script.

And Mel awoke as from a dream and went down into Babylonia. And after he had journeyed ten days he came upon a damsel gazing in a mirror. And she was an Actorine and her name was Kylie. Her hair was stained with henna, and upon her fingers were many rings. Of rouge and diverse unguents had she used ten measures. And Mel said unto Kylie: Lo, thou art a pomegranate, thy form is exceeding nice, thy perfect garment fitteth thee and thy feet are smaller than mice. There is none like unto thee.

And he put his arms around her and gathered her in, saying: Do we not both worship the Golden Globe; here are gifts of gold, pleasure gel and myrrh and yea, before she was aware, he kissed her upon the lips mightily. And she smote him upon the face saying: Lo because I am an Actorine shalt thou not respect me? And if I wear tights on stage, is there no virtue in me?

And Mel departed from that land and shaved his head. And upon his head he cast ashes, and of sackcloth were his trousers. And the Lord said unto Mel: Blessed are the Filmakers for they shall inherit the box-office; Go forth and preach the Gospel in the manner of Filmakers. And Mel brought forth his film and he was crucified by the critics and was reviled and cast out by Harvey Weinstein and all his brethren. But the film found favour in the sight of a great host of Gentiles and was smiled upon by the uncircumcised. And Mel waxed rich and returned to his family and built a great temple in Bel Air and lived in the land of milkshakes and money all the days of his life.

Australia Day, as always, provides an excellent opportunity to recount our nation’s achievements (Hills Hoist, the Boomerang etc.) and redefine what it means to be Australian, which, according to Bob Carr, is our enduring quality of mateship. But this year the barbies had hardly cooled down when my next door neighbour received a visit from the Rangers, (the Boy Scout uniformed local Militia of no relation to the Texan bunch of the same name). Acting on a matey tip-off from another neighbour, the Rangers found two children, aged 6 and 4, hosing each other in a water fight (unbeknown to their parents) on a “jour sans” and duly handed out a $200 fine. Things could have been worse; my neighbours might have been Jewish and living in Poland in 1942 instead of good old present day matey Australia.

This morning I forgot to take cell and house phone into the bathroom with me, a habit I’ve acquired since finding that most of my meagre phone traffic arrives at that time. Needless to say I was seated when the inevitable call came. Nevertheless I reached for the nearest phone just in case it might be about the Lotto prize for which I’ve never entered or news of a deterioration in my mother-in-law’s health, but it was another of those confounded charity appeals, on this occasion for a local charity. I enquired if it was for the poor of Mosman before silencing the caller. I hate these new telephones, you can’t slam down the receiver into the cradle any more.

Talking of ‘phones, I can’t understand this world-wide obsession with cell-phones. Kids, barely divorced from Thomas the Tank Engine, are feverish to own one, encouraged by their mothers who think they’ll have time to ring for help as they’re being abducted on the way home from school. Starving children in the Sudan would swap a sack of UN rice for a Samsung with 6 pixels. I didn’t own one until I was nearly 45 and I soon learned to hate them as they became smaller and smaller and crammed with unusable and unwanted technology.

Responded to a knock on the door to find two pale young men in black suits on the porch. Like the police, these religion salesmen travel in pairs; there’s always a risk of being assaulted by the customer for selling hot air.

These two were concerned about my stress levels and work/life balance. “Listen” I said, “I’m semi retired. My wife works to keep me in Lego and my mother-in-law irons my underpants. We have machines to boil water, clean clothes and wash the dishes and someone comes once a fortnight to mow our 5 square metres of grass. Stress, along with tuberculosis and good manners, was eliminated in Mosman long ago. Unless there’s some divorcee fretting about the choice on RSVP, you’re in the wrong neighbourhood if you’re looking for stress; try Redfern or Cronulla”. Still hoping for a sale, the guys pressed on. Perhaps I was interested in what the Bible says about alcohol? No, not really; wasn’t the Bible written 2,000 years ago before Scotch had been invented?

Dinner with Honeybee at some local Italian eatery where we were shown to a tiny table wedged between a wall and the end of a counter by an eager Manageress. The restaurant was BYO only so I popped out for a bottle of Santa Cristina, which turned out to be corked. Viva the screw-top. A dish of olive oil appeared while we consulted the plasticated menu. This was not easy given the dim lighting and beige décor – I recommend diners carry a small pocket torch. The olive oil dip, now de rigeur for all Italian restaurants, was spoilt by an over-deployment of vinegar. I was intrigued that the oil, which I thought would float on top of the vinegar, was actually pushed out to the perimeter of the dish presenting a large brown stain of balsamic vinegar ringed by a thin green circle of oil resembling a piece of Aboriginal art. Our antipasti of whitebait fritters and beef carpaccio were classically concocted and tasty. In preparing Honeybee’s spaghetti alle vongole the chef had also resisted any attempt to improve on the original and simple recipe and the result was well, if not ecstatically received. My cannelloni, presented in an oval basin, were not immediately visible, being completely submerged beneath a sea of thin tomato liquid. I tried to locate them by probing into the sauce but the immersion had weakened the thin walls of crepe and the cannelloni disintegrated before I could land a forkful of solid food. No desert or coffee so we managed to escape for a mere $120.

EEYORE TIES THE KNOT (AGAIN)

Part 1 N’Awlins

Well, here we are again, gliding precariously aloft, 30,000 feet over the Pacific Ocean, Vodka Martini in hand. I’m off to meet my Honeybee in New Orleans where we shall be renewing our wedding vows. We first tied the knot in 1986 in a civil ceremony at Juliet’s Tomb in the Italian city of Verona. Always partial to a good outing, anxious to cement this arrangement and to wear a white wedding dress, Honeybee decided, two years later, to add a round turn and two half hitches to the knot we had already tied. This time it was a Church wedding in a Kentish village followed by sumptuous reception in Leeds Castle. Henry VIII bedded Catherine of Aragon there before divorcing her, so the location was fitting. And now the knot is about to grow to Gordianesque proportions. Imagine, after this latest junket, my Honeybee will have had 3 Cecil B De Mille marriage celebrations! Now I know where all the housekeeping goes and why we can only afford a car the size of a dog kennel. I knew when my Honeybee first asked for my hand in marriage that it was other parts of my body she was more interested in. I knew too, when I learned that she was of Sicilian parentage, that divorce would always be out of the question. But don’t think for one minute that I’m still married for fear of ending up in a concrete pillar supporting one of those stretches of Italian Autostrada that start in someone’s farmyard and goes nowhere. No sir! I’m flying, heart willing, into this, possibly conclusive, celebration. What makes this one special is that it will be our son, Jesse, who will be giving away his mother. I’ve never succeeded.

But what’s this? Dinner is being served. As usual it’s only the bread roll (before it cools) and the Snickers Bar that are edible. Have you ever wondered why celebrity chefs occasionally claim authorship for some of the dishes served as food on airlines? No one, wisely, is putting his or her hand up for the dish of over-cooked penne in a sauce of pea-studded, warmed-up cold cream that I have in front of me. I think I’ll see what’s on offer in Duty Free. Hmmm, I’m interested by the Lip Smacker, Coca Cola flavoured lip balm and the pair of La Tweez illuminating tweezers for those hard to find nostril hairs; just can’t think of anyone who might like them as a present.

I’m always happy going to America and that I put down to first impressions. In 1974 on my first visit, a business trip to Cleveland, I’m hardly settled into the back of the cab when the driver asks me where I’m from. England, I reply, even though I was living in Paris at the time. Apparently pleased with this information, the driver tells me at length how he had been based in Devon for several months in 1945 while preparing for the Normandy Invasion and how well he and his fellow soldiers were treated by the natives. On arrival at my downtown Hotel, my new best friend carries my suitcase into the hotel and drops it at Reception. ‘Look after that’, he tells the Receptionist, ‘I’m buying this young man a cocktail’. Americans have always been good on service. Later that evening, at a bar on the Flats, my Englishness alone scores me an invite to a party in Shaker Heights and the offer of a car for the duration of my visit.

I’ve yet to meet an American who is not happy and proud to be an American. Much of their patriotism revolves around respect for the flag. The etiquette regarding the Stars and Stripes is extensive and logical. It cannot be used for decoration. Bunting, with blue stripes upper, is used for this purpose. It cannot be used for advertising, or printed or embroidered on anything that is intended to be later discarded. It cannot be part of a costume or athletic costume (military obviously excluded). No part should ever touch the ground. I contrast these rules with those of some countries happy to see their flags on tea towels, rubber thongs and mens’ underpants.

Why New Orleans? We fell in love with the city on our first visit. It’s not called the ‘Big Easy’ for nothing. The people are laid back and friendly, there is live music everywhere and the cocktails are cheap. It also has HISTORY, currently unavailable in Australia. It’s the only place I know where I can wear a white suit and two-tone shoes AND I can understand the French they speak. Where else in the world can your wedding party, preceded by a marching band, be escorted by police through streets closed to traffic? Yes Sir, we love Dixie; everyone should be sent here to learn manners. Why Dixie? Well, in 1835 the Citizens State Bank opened its doors in the French Quarter and soon after began printing its own bank notes. Although the French had ceded Louisiana to the American government in1803 the French language was still prevalent and the bank’s ten dollar note carried the word ‘Dix’ (French for ten). In time these notes became known as ‘Dixies’, a term that spread to refer to the region. Did the song ‘I wish I were in Dixie’ start life as ‘I wish I had a Dixie’? Nice thought, but the song, reputedly written by a Northerner and enjoyed by Abraham Lincoln, did become the de facto anthem of the Confederacy. Those of a politically correct nature, who like to view history from a contemporary moral outlook, find it offensive and would bar us from our past.

Our guests, except Ralph and Doris who are natives of the city, are all staying with us in the Prince Conti Hotel. My niece has come from England and my friend Pierre-Jacques from Paris. Larry and Bonnie have come down from upper New York State, Gayle and Jim from New Hope, Pennsylvania and John and Susan from Boulder, Colorado. Larry, Ralph, John and I all met for the first time in 1971 in the Paris office of Ernst & Young.

The Four Amigos

The Four Amigos

This is a serious drinking town and, apart from some areas of Bourbon Street, it’s carried out with refinement. ‘Civilisation’, William Faulkner, a native of New Orleans, pointed out ‘began with distillation.’ And so, appropriately, we start off with cocktails in what may be the best bar in the world, The Bombay Club (where happy hour lasts from 4 to 7pm).

After cocktails we all go to dinner at the Palm Court Jazz Restaurant. There’s a five-piece band playing Dixieland Jazz. I don’t remember the food due to the pleasure of reuniting with friends. At some point the band dedicates to us their version of ‘It Had to be You’ and Honeybee and I take to the dance floor and stun the diners with our nimble footwork. A bottle of Champagne arrives anonymously and when I go to pay the bill the waiter informs me that it has been ‘taken care of’ by another table. We never found out who made this generous gesture so I can only make public here my sincere thanks.

Breakfast of beignets and coffee at the famous Café du Monde. As if in a Roman bathhouse, we move from the frigidarium of the hotel to the caldarium of the street and back to the frigidarium of bar or restaurant. Someone asks Jesse where he’s from. Australia. He is asked what language they speak there. It’s the 70th Anniversary of D Day and Private Lynn scales the Pointe du Hoc cliffs at the WW2 Museum while Gayle is an early casualty on the beaches.

Help!

Help!

It’s late afternoon on Saturday, 7th June and we assemble in the courtyard of Ralph and Doris’ home on the Rue Royale. My Honeybee is wearing Camilla and looks like a Princess from Sheherazade; I’m wearing a white, double-breasted jacket and dark trousers and look like a waiter from the Sands Hotel, Las Vegas. Jesse comes as a riverboat gambler in blue velvet and bootlace tie.

The New Orlynns

The New O’Lynns

A saxophonist plays Stephen Foster songs while the guests arrive. Our first marriage was supervised by the Mayor of Verona, splendid in sash of green, white and red, our second by a Protestant Vicar in black cope and surplus of white. Conducting this ceremony is the Rev. Tony Talavera, a tall, distinguished looking African American in straw hat and tan suit. His business card announces him as an ‘Ambassador of Romance’. The ‘Reverend’ whose theological qualifications I would not presume to investigate, runs the French Quarter Wedding Chapel, which contains the welcoming totems of every religion, and God, pagan or otherwise, including my own favourite deities, Venus and Bacchus. Are we about to be blessed by a Snake Oil salesman? Who cares; what counts is what we say and mean. There’s a brief moment of panic when the Reverend asks for the rings. Rings? No one mentioned rings! Besides, my Honeybee has more rings than a shower-curtain manufacturer. Jesse produces a plain diamond number the size of a walnut and I’m seeing myself on the pavement in George Street with begging bowl. He then hands over my ring, a massive gold affair with purple stone, popular with Los Angeles drug barons. Jesse whispers ‘25 dollars the pair’ and I breathe easily once more. After I’m allowed to kiss the bride, I have another, pleasant, surprise when Jesse reads us WH Auden’s poem, ‘Tell Me the Truth About Love’.

Some say love’s a little boy,
And some say it’s a bird,
Some say it makes the world go around,
Some say that’s absurd,
And when I asked the man next door,
Who looked as if he knew,
His wife got very cross indeed,
And said it wouldn’t do.

Does it look like a pair of pyjamas,
Or the ham in a temperance hotel?
Does its odour remind one of llamas,
Or has it a comforting smell?
Is it prickly to touch as a hedge is,
Or soft as eiderdown fluff?
Is it sharp or quite smooth at the edges?
O tell me the truth about love.

Our history books refer to it
In cryptic little notes.
It’s quite a common topic on
The Transatlantic boats;
I’ve found the subject mentioned in
Accounts of suicides,
And even seen it scribbled on
The backs of railway guides.

Does it howl like an angry Alsatian,
Or boom like a military band?
Could one give a first-rate imitation
On a saw or a Steinway Grand?
Is its singing at parties a riot?
Does it only like Classical stuff?
Will it stop when one wants to be quiet?
O tell me the truth about love.

I looked inside the summer-house;
It wasn’t over there;
I tried the Thames at Maidenhead,
And Brighton’s bracing air.
I don’t know what the blackbird sang,
Or what the tulip said;
But it wasn’t in the chicken-run,
Or underneath the bed.

Can it pull extraordinary faces?
Is it usually sick on a swing?
Does it spend all its time at the races,
Or fiddling with pieces of string?
Has it views of its own about money?
Does it think Patriotism enough?
Are its stories vulgar but funny?
O tell me the truth about love.

When it comes, will it come without warning,
Just as I’m picking my nose?
Will it knock on my door in the morning,
Or tread in the bus on my toes?
Will it come like a change in the weather?
Will its greeting be courteous or rough?
Will it alter my life altogether?
O tell me the truth about love.

The Poem

The Poem

 

The truth about love is that life is desperately dull without it. A keen interest in sport, bee-keeping or the stock market can never make up for the deficiency. There comes a moment amidst all the fun and laughter when a note of gravitas is required; it’s supplied by Larry who gives us a short prayer. Then the Champagne is broken out and we all pose for photographs.

Te Wedding Party, sans Gayle

The Wedding Party, sans Gayle

Meanwhile the 5 piece band and police escort have been assembling in the street for our Second Line parade. ‘Second Line’ refers to the members of the general public who join the celebrations behind the ‘Main Line’ – the band, the celebrants and guests. Fronting our column are two Policemen on motorcycles, then comes our Master of Ceremonies and Bandleader, carrying monster orange ostrich feathers, and then the band in traditional costume of white jacket, black trousers and white, peaked cap. A NOPD Patrol Car follows us and our guests as these festivities have been known to get out of hand. The Rev. Tony Talavera is also there, seated on a mobility scooter dragging two cart-loads of coloured beads like a miniature road train.

The Parade

The Parade

The groom

The Godfather

Beads anyone?

Beads anyone?

The Parade

The Parade

The Parade continues

The Parade continues

And then we’re off and for the next 45 minutes we march through the streets of the French Quarter, tossing beaded necklaces to the public on the sidewalks, until we stop outside Antoine’s Restaurant. Antoine’s has belonged to the Alciatore family since 1840, and, apart from the addition of a microwave and a food mixer, not much has changed. Our waiter Chuck, who looks as if he’s been there since the opening, takes us to our private dining room on the second floor. The fare is traditional New Orleans, which leans heavily towards aquatic life and Tabasco – crawfish tails in white wine sauce, Gombo Creole of blue crabs, oysters and Gulf shrimp and baked oysters a la Rockefeller. Pierre-Jacques, a true bec fin, takes the Potage Alligator au Sherry. Then there’s Pompano fish from Lake Pontchartrain, soft-shell crabs and the Delmonico Centrecut Ribeye au Champignons et a la sauce au Demi-Bordelaise, which I was still ordering when everyone else had moved on to the Baked Alaska. I see, on page 4 of the bill, that the evening finished with Cognacs. Jesse and I took ours out onto the balcony overlooking St Louis Street where we shared our first cigar.

Antoine's Restaurant

Antoine’s Restaurant

The dining room at Antoine's

Our dining room


Part 2 New Mexico

Farewelll to N’Awlins. It’s been such a fabulous party I’d like to do it all over again. I suggest to Honeybee that we get divorced on the grounds of my adultery with Scarlett Johansson and then re-marry. The proposal doesn’t merit a response. At Louis Armstrong Airport I’m the only person wearing a proper pair of shoes, the only person, apart from Honeybee, who is not dressed either for the beach, the fitness centre or a Tattooist’s Convention. On the flight to Albuquerque a gentleman from Louisiana engages us in conversation. I say ‘engages’ in the sense that he engages us as listeners. He shows us photos of his wife, children, house, cars, boat, an armoury bigger than Boko Haram’s and a selection of the animals that he had killed in an effort to rid the Deep South of its wildlife. Don’t get me wrong; I like a man who is proud of his family and achievements, it shows he is happy with his lot. Not entirely happy however, for he tells us that he feels Americans are hated in many parts of the world. Don’t worry, I tell him, we like you.

Our destination is the town of Taos, situated seven thousand feet above sea-level, in the high desert of the Colorado plateau. The small town of 5,700 inhabitants, which consists almost entirely of adobe constructions, is surrounded by arroyos, dry riverbeds overhung with cottonwood, hackberry and desert willow. Goldfinches flutter in the branches and goshawks glide over plains carpeted with wild sage and studded with juniper. The plain is bisected in a deep gorge by the Rio Grande, on its way from its headwaters in the San Juan Mountains of Southern Colorado to the Gulf of Mexico.

Rio Grande Gorge

Rio Grande Gorge

In the distance, tiers of ochre and olive hills are capped with the Prussian blue peaks of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains. The air is clear and thin and the altitude leaves us, at first, a little breathless. ‘Touch the country and you will never be the same again’ wrote D H Lawrence when he came to New Mexico in 1922. I know how he felt. Lawrence, who intended to stay, acquired the Kiowa Ranch near Taos in exchange for the manuscript of Sons and Lovers but left for health reasons in 1925 and died five years later in the South of France. But his ashes came back to Taos. Some say they are mixed into the cement of his memorial that stands in the small chapel on the Kiowa Ranch, now owned by the University of New Mexico.

Dinner for six (served on 2 plates) at the Gorge Restaurant on a terrace overlooking Taos Plaza. My Honeybee chooses the Nachos. Despite some determined fork-work, at the end of 20 minutes she appears to have made no impression at all on the loose mountain of corn chips, black beans, melted cheese, avocado, sour cream and tomato salsa. As I pick at a rack of barbequed pork ribs I slowly uncover what appears to be the fossilised rib cage of an adult brontosaurus. A portion of onion rings, like a set of deck quoits, goes almost un-nibbled. Would we like a doggy bag? Doggy bag? We would need a cabin trunk to remove what was left on our plates! My Bud Lite is so cold it leaves a light coating of frost on my tonsils and refrigerates my stomach.

Anyone for quoits? A portion of onion rings

Anyone for quoits? A portion of onion rings

Like many places in America, Taos has no butchers’ shops or greengrocers, no markets selling cheeses and fresh fruit. A stall on the road to Santa Fe offers jerky for sale but it is never open when we pass. Where can one find a nice joint of silverside or a fresh cauliflower? Into Walmart, the nadir of supermarkets. A brown and beige grid of sofas and popcorn, of cheeses the color of Tequila Sunrise, of processed meats, of tubs of ice cream and yoghurt the size of dustbins. Along corridors of frosted windows is everything you need but nothing I wanted. I emerge into the sunlight, look out at the blue mountains and the nightmare is over. Hunger drives us into a fast food outlet. What drink did I want with my happy meal combo? Water. After repeating the word four times the assistant is still shaking his head. ‘Agua’ volunteers Honeybee and I get what I want.

New Mexico is Georgia O’Keeffe country; you need to see the country to appreciate her delicate interpretations of the dramatic architecture of the land and the shapes and textures that the dry wind and warm sun have on its nature. On a first visit in 1917 O’Keeffe declared, like Lawrence, her instant love. ‘When I got to New Mexico, that was mine. As soon as I saw it, that was my country.’ In 1929 she stayed in Taos, visiting Lawrence on his Kiowa Ranch where she painted the tall pine (‘The Lawrence Tree’), which still stands outside the chapel. Later she would spend summers in her house on the Ghost Ranch and winters in her home in the nearby village of Abiquiu. If you have never been to the Ghost Ranch, you might well have seen it on film, as it is a favourite location for producers of Westerns. Among those filmed there: Silverado, City Slickers, Wyatt Earp, All the Pretty Horses, The Missing, No Country for Old Men, 3.10 to Yuma, Cowboys and Aliens, Lone Ranger and, of course, the 2009 film Georgia O’Keefe. More interestingly, there you can inspect the very trees and landscapes that appear in GOK’s paintings and from her house you can see the massive Pedernal mesa in the distance. ‘Pedernal is my private mountain,’ she wrote, and it was there that her ashes were scattered in 1986.

GOK's tree at Ghost Ranch

GOK’s tree at Ghost Ranch

New Mexico is Roadrunner country. In fact the Roadrunner (Geococcyx Californianus, a relative of the Cuckoo) really does move faster than the traffic. Although there are no CCTV cameras, drivers here respect the speed limits; no one seems in a hurry and drivers will slow anywhere to allow pedestrians to cross the road. I sensed none of the suppressed anger you feel on the roads of Sydney. Big Harley Davison bikes are popular. They are ridden sitting upright, which Honeybee reckons is because they are a substitute for horses and a legacy of the Western riding tradition.

New Mexico is cowboys and Indians country. Billy the Kid began and ended his dark saga here. And then there was Kit Carson. Has anyone heard of Kit Carson? No? I thought not. In the 40s and 50s every young American and British boy would be familiar at least with his comic book persona. Unlike Hopalong Cassidy and Lash Larue, Kit was a real person. He started life as a trapper until a change in European fashion determined that gentlemen’s hats should be made of silk, so ending the market for beaver and ensuring the animal’s survival. In 1843 Kit scouted for John C Fremont’s expedition to explore the North Platte River into western Wyoming, returning late in the year to Taos where he married 14 year old Josefa Jaramillo. Outraged? This was a different world; in the early West 14 year olds didn’t waft around in mini skirts and heels listening to Justin Bieber; in any case they had seven children together in a long and happy marriage. In 1844 Kit joined Fremont’s winter crossing of the Sierra Nevadas and scouted for his third expedition to the Great Salt Lake Desert. Back in Taos he started a ranch and led an attempted rescue of a woman kidnapped by the Jicarilla Apache. He was appointed Indian Agent, dealing with the Cheyenne, Navajo, Ute, Arapaho and Apache. When the Civil War began Kit became a Lt. Colonel in the New Mexico Volunteers but spent most of the war fighting the Kiowas and Comanches. At the Battle of Adobe Walls he successfully extracted his small force of 200 from the onslaught of several thousand angry Indians with minimal casualties. His single story adobe cabin in Taos is now a museum. Behind the cabin the Stars and Stripes fly permanently over his tomb out of respect for his defense of the flag against Southern sympathisers during the Civil War. Carson City, capital of Nevada is named after him. He was the embodiment of America’s Manifest Destiny, the dream of Westward Expansion.

Kit Carson's cabin

Kit Carson’s cabin

A few miles out of town is the Taos Pueblo, the Place of the Red Willows. The first living UNESCO World Heritage Site, it is and has been for 1,000 years, home to the Pueblo People of Northern New Mexico. The houses, built in tiers, some as high as five storeys, are constructed from adobe – sun-dried mud bricks made of sand, clay, water and straw. Two communities, separated by a small tributary of the Rio Grande, share the newish (1850) San Geronimo Church and a sadly neglected Boot Hill. While visitors are welcome, there is a pleasing absence of blatant commerce. This is reserved for the Taos Mountain Casino (‘the only non-smoking casino in New Mexico’) on another part of the reservation. Paradise Lost.

Taos Pueblo

Taos Pueblo

Boot Hill

Boot Hill

Uniting Taos, Georgia O’Keefe, DH Lawrence, Kit Carson and the Red Willow People is the remarkable Mabel Dodge Luhan. Born Mabel Ganson to wealthy parents in Buffalo, NY in 1879, Mabel decided to set herself up as patron of the arts, first in the Villa Curonia in Arcetri, near Florence and later in Taos where, in 1919, she bought a 12 acre property on the edge of town and named it Los Gallos. Mabel had arrived with third husband, painter Maurice Sterne, but was unable to resist the attentions of Chief Tony Luhan of the Red Willow Pueblo People, who planted his tepee in front of Los Gallos and drummed each night until she came to him. Sterne left in disgust and Tony became Mabel’s 4th in 1923. In September 1922, at Mabel’s invitation, DH Lawrence and his wife, Frieda, came to stay at Los Gallos. Georgia O’Keefe, Willa Cather, Ansel Adams and Carl Jung, among others, followed. The house, now a bed and breakfast, is little changed since Lawrence slept there, and in Mabel’s tiny bathroom you can see the windows painted by a prudish Lawrence to protect his host’s privacy. Mabel died in 1962; she is buried near Kit in the Kit Carson Cemetery.

Los Gallos, Taos

Los Gallos, Taos

 

Windows painted by DH Lawrence

Mabel’s bathroom decorated by DH Lawrence

EEYORE GRUMBLES ON….

Sometimes a fast food snack just hits the spot, and so…..

‘Hi, how’s your day been?’
‘It’s only 11am, but so far, so good.’ Having completed the pleasantries, I get down to business.
‘I’ll have the Medium Original Recipe chicken with large gravy, small fries and a large Low Carbs Chocolate Smoothie’.
‘Breast, legs, wings or nuggets?’
‘Legs.’
‘Would you like the Jumbo Box?’
‘Just the two legs, thanks.’
Later: ‘Excuse me, I ordered legs and these are breast.’
Later: ‘The Manager says they’re ribs, not breast.’
I’m about to ask the assistant what she thinks the breast is attached to but realise there’s no sense in arguing anatomy with a sulky juvenile with a washer hanging from her nostril, so I select some new a la carte items.
‘OK, give me a Monster Scrunchburger with medium ChiliFries and a large Coke.’
Nothing diminishes a man’s self esteem more than reciting items from a fast food menu.
‘Would you like to upgrade that to a Family Combo Pack and save yourself $.69 cents?’
‘How does the upgraded package differ from my original order?’
‘It’s the same except you get a large ChiliFries.’ Still pondering on the economics of this proposal, I’m tempted with a new offer.
‘Would you like to add a side order of onion rings for $1,25; they come with a set of plastic figures based on the characters in Ironman 3?’
‘Can I skip the rings, pay the $1.25 and just get the figures for my grandson?’
‘Sorry. But listen, if you take our gluten-free tiramisu you get a chance to win a Hyundai.’
‘A high and dry?’

Eeyore’s Italian Christmas

 

Warning: some food descriptions may be distasteful to vegetarians and vegans. 

I know, I know, I said I’d never fly Qantas again (or C**t-arse as a French friend unwittingly pronounces it) but our national airline is in financial trouble, its shares reduced to the level of junk bonds, so time to help out. What’s this? They’re announcing that the catering truck responsible for victualing my flight to Dubai with the usual luke-warm compost has crashed and there will be a delay in boarding of approximately half an hour. Quelle surprise! Once on board I find I’m nicely placed in an Exit row and near a toilet, which, as I’m a Gold Frequent Toilet Flyer, is a Godsend. The in-flight attendants are charming but seem terribly young. I’m worried that when the Captain orders ‘Doors to manual!’ they will open them by mistake and I shall be sucked out of the aircraft and end up in someone’s dining room in Wollongong. Better tighten the seat belt.

Genova

Back in the organized pandemonium that is Italy. I’m on my way to Genova to witness my young friend Andrea’s graduation as a Master in Engineering. I take the coach from Malpensa Airport. It’s cold and a silver dollar of a sun sparkles through banks of mist on fields of frozen stubble and woods of spindly, leafless trees. Incongruously, at a quiet country intersection, stands a beefy Siren with red lips and short skirt waiting for some lonely male on his way home. It’s Christmas time and a little ad hoc prostitution helps to secure those festive extras. My heart goes out to her. Back on the Autostrada we begin the descent off the great fertile plain of Lombardy, winding down through tunnels and viaducts until we arrive in the ancient and pleasant city of Genova. This is the city of a million scooters and should be twinned with Kuta. Narrow, steep winding roads with cars parked half on the pavement half on the road with not even the space to slide a piece of paper between them. An ancient, congested city centre and an absence of public car parks make two wheels a necessity. It’s warmer than Milan with clear blue skies.

Off to the Castello hill, the oldest part of Genova’s historic centre to collect bound copies of Andrea’s thesis. The printer’s shop is located near the Faculty of Architecture from which Andrea’s brother and his girl friend, both graduated. Genova, with some 40,000 students is one of the newer Italian universities, founded in 1481.The Faculty of Architecture, cunningly incorporated within the remains of the ancient monastery of San Silvestro and a medieval Bishop’s Palace, is an exciting mixture of ancient and modern, a labyrinth of lecture rooms and libraries cunningly installed in the irregular spaces dictated by the ancient buildings, including a triangular cloister. On the roof we look out over the port from which Columbus sailed, now filled with ferries and container ships.

Up early for an assemblage of Andrea’s family and friends at the Faculty of Engineering. Francesca, Andrea’s mamma is there along with his brother Simone, Simone’s fidanzata, Eleonora and assorted uncles.  Andrea’s fellow students are all charming young people; you would think that Italy would be in good hands when they are in charge but alas the country always seems to end up in the hands of cunning, self-serving politicians like ‘Burlesque-only’. We sit in rows behind a quintet of examining Professors while Andrea confidently presents a summary of his thesis. Then a wait outside until he is called back in to hear his mark. It is difficult to tell from his expression when he emerges whether the result is good or bad. It’s 109 out of 110! That single missing point is important to Andrea who aims high, although, to me, it’s just a whisker, a whisker that could easily have been influenced by nothing more than one irritable examiner dwelling upon an unfair parking ticket. I would have spent the next five years sticking pins into effigies of the professors, but Andrea, like the man he is, puts it behind him, dons the laurel wreath and gets on with the festivities. I had warned him before I came that, as in Roman times, I would be standing behind him in the chariot as he goes to receive his Triumphus, reminding him that he is not a God and whispering ‘Respice post te. Hominem te memento!’ But for the minute I think he deserves to be feeling like one. Who could have predicted the happy repercussions arising from our decision to take in a young Sardinian exchange student those seven years ago?

I’m waiting with Simone and Eleonora for our transport to arrive to take us to the restaurant where Andrea is holding his celebratory lunch. It’s an up-market part of town and the pavement sports a red carpet in front of some expensive boutiques. I’m trying to figure out whether I’m in front of a jewellery shop or a pasticceria, unsure whether the object in the window is a cake or a large Faberge’ egg (the price suggests it could be either) when a young man asks me for money for a coffee. A coffee? If he’s hard up, why not a sandwich or some fried potato peelings? A coffee is a luxury in my book; but then I’m not Italian. Now a man selling lighters wants a hand out. I give him a couple of Euros. If I stay here much longer I’ll be bankrupt. Chi sono io, Babbo Natale?

Andrea is hosting his family and friends in my favourite restaurant. If you are in Genova and looking for somewhere serving well cooked, classic Italian food, where any combination of antipasto, secondo and dessert costs 10 Euros and where you eat in a charming warren of green tiled rooms, then this is it. But I’m not going to tell you its name or location as I think the place should be left to the quiet enjoyment of the Genovese. In the evening we return to the Engineering Faculty for the graduation ceremony proper when Andrea gives me a copy of his thesis in which part of the dedication is to his adopted Australian family. It’s a ‘hats in the air’ occasion and Spumante corks are popping like gunfire.

After the ceremony I set off with Francesca, Simone and Eleonora whose parents, Ermanno and Marita, have kindly invited me to stay at their home in Diano Marina, a seaside town an hour’s drive west along the Italian Riviera. We arrive quite late in the evening and sit down to a marvelous feast of antipasti, tortellini in brodo, bollito misto, formaggi and Sachertorte washed down with excellent Chianti. Behind Francesca’s petitely innocent façade is one of Sardinia’s major producers of powerful moonshine and we round off the meal with some of her vintage Mirto.

The next morning is warm and sunny and after a breakfast of coffee and biscotti laced with Marita’s marmellata of mele cotogne and a charming audience with Eleonora’s nonna, we walk the through the quiet pedestrian town centre to the beach where the dogs race around like greyhounds on Ecstasy. Simone buys chunks of warm focaccia al gorgonzola, which we eat on the way home effectively reducing my capacity for doing justice to the marvelous lunch prepared by Marita with the enthusiastic assistance of Simone.

One should approach these meals as one would a 10,000 metre foot race; you must know how to pace yourself, to enjoy each course (including the unexpected ones) so that, at the end, you still have that little space for the chocolate and Mirto. Self-control has never been one of my strong points, although I’m not sure if my life would have been better with it.

In the late afternoon Ermanno drives us along the coast so that we reach San Remo as the sun is setting. The streets, closed to traffic, are thronged with Christmas shoppers although I’m not sure if anyone is doing any serious spending. Then on to Monte Carlo where the Piazza bounded by the Casino and the Hotel de Paris is decorated in a black and white theme – white Christmas trees, black Bentleys, white diamonds, black fur coats.

The next morning Ermanno takes us along the coast to Cervo, a medieval village perched on a hill overlooking the sea. The jewel in its crown is the pastel pink 19th Century Church of San Giovanni Battista, built from the wealth amassed by the town’s coral fishermen. The fishermen have long gone, the seabed hoovered clean of coral, but as always in Italy the Church still stands. That afternoon Ermanno takes me to the station where I catch a train to Milano looking forward to being reunited with my Honeybee. I wonder if I’ll be back here for the marriage of Simone and Eleonora; just in case the wedding’s here rather than in Sassari, I’ve taken note of a pleasant little B & B in Cervo.

S. Giovanni Battista overlooking Cervo

S. Giovanni Battista overlooking Cervo

 Milano

A taxi to the Castello and a stroll towards the Duomo, which I come upon suddenly, a great iceberg worked on by Grinling Gibbons that leaves me breathless. The Cathedral is surrounded by bancarelle selling salami, cheeses, panforte, Christmas trees and the traditional, ladies red underwear. Dean Martin is singing ‘Let it Snow’; a pair of Carabinieri Officers, elegant in cloaks of Prussian blue, polished boots and spurs stroll across the piazza; for the first time in many years I feel a sense of Christmas.

 

Il Duomo with Carabinieri

Il Duomo with Carabinieri

A tsunami of salami

A tsunami of salami

 

I slide into the perfumed warmth of Rinascente (Department Store) and am overcome with an uncontrollable urge to spend. Even from 10,000 miles away I can sense my bank manager checking the availability for an increase in my overdraft. Extra personnel take their places in front of their PCs at American Express, fingers poised over the keyboard. I am a magpie, drawn to anything that catches my eye – a nativity scene in porcelain by Villeroy & Bosch, a lady’s high-heeled shoe in dark chocolate, a pair of stainless steel spaghetti tongs. What am I doing? I ask myself as I squeeze into a pair of brightly coloured jeans made for someone half my size and 50 years younger. Perspiration trickles down my temples and my spectacles mist up when I see the price, but the sales lady is young and attractive and I exit with two pairs. ‘Mutton dressed as lamb’ my mother would have snorted. I may be going down but I’m going kicking and screaming.

Into the Galleria Vittorio Emanuele and into Tods, my favourite shoe shop, which appears staffed entirely by Japanese. I’m undecided whether to take the suede lace-ups or the leather slip-ons. The assistant suggests I take both pairs. Of course, how stupid of me not to think of that! The streets are full of busy shoppers and I see no evidence of the frail economy that the press harps on about, pointing to the level of Italy’s national debt, which is apparently on a par with that of the USA and Japan. As I see it, this places Italy alongside the giants rather than among the economic pygmies like Canada and Brazil.

Paolo takes me to the quiet town of Pavia where there is a Monet Exhibition in the Palazzo Visconti. The Palazzo dates from the end of the 14th century and once had Petrarch in charge of its library. The exhibition is wonderful, lots of Monet’s works from his early childhood drawings to his last oils and none of the water lily series that seem to overwhelm most shows. Everybody is out buying boxes of Ferrero Rocher Chocolates and recordings of Nat King Cole singing ‘Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas’ and we have the place to ourselves. There’s not even a security person in sight so I can get very close to the canvases to inspect Monet’s brushstrokes.

On the way back to Milano we stop to look at the Certosa di Pavia, a monastery built between 1396 and 1495 to accommodate Carthusian monks. After a series of monastic takeovers the cloisters are now home to the silent traffic of the Cistercians.

 

La Certosa di Pavia

La Certosa di Pavia

Our final stop is Vigevano, home to the magnificent Piazza Ducale, the work of Donato Bramante the high priest of Renaissance architecture. It is dark now and children are ice-skating in a Piazza once overlooked by Ludovico Sforza, Duke of Milan and his protégé, Leonardo da Vinci. Thank you Paolo for those unforgettable experiences.

It’s that time of year for reflecting on the past 12 months, when every magazine trots out articles featuring the best of 2013, be it film, book, athlete, unit trust or travel destination. The Economist votes Uruguay Country of the Year and Italy’s L’Espresso magazine nominates Constantino Baratta, a 56 year old builder from the island of Lampedusa, Man of the Year. Signor Baratta’s achievement was to save 12 Eritrean refugees when their boat capsized. Surprisingly, but admirably, Italians display an amazingly generous attitude towards refugees in spite of the vast numbers crowding daily into this small country.

Ne’ carne ne’ pesce

Dinner alone in a Trattoria in the Piazza Gramsci. I’m struggling through a Cotoletta alla Milanese the size of Roger Federer’s tennis racquet when in comes the Dottore. Our Host, no longer interested in discussing my request for a second flagon of wine, rushes, beaming, to greet this more important customer. ‘Buona sera, buona sera Dottore! Make yourself comfortable at your usual table.’ Then, after inquiring into the state of the Dottore’s family’s health, the weather outside and the Dottore’s success in finding a parking space, our Host, wringing his hands in pleasure, pops the all important question:
Carne o Pesce?’
After years of trying to accommodate his various clients by reconciling their dubious tax declarations with the exigencies of a continuously changing law, the Dottore has become wary and indecisive and, through habit, indifferent to the unctuous groveling of our Host.
‘Hmmm, what fish do you have?’
‘We have fresh branzino, which we are serving grilled on a bed of potatoes, onions and wild fennel.’
‘Hmmm, do you have any scampi?’
‘An excellent choice, Dottore but unfortunately Beppe neglected to refuel the Ape and by the time he reached the fish market this morning the best scampi had gone’.
‘Hmmm, what meat dish can you recommend?’
At this point I had finally managed to secure the assistance of a sulky waitress and my attention turned to the pitcher of the house red wine she brought me, a vino vivace as pink and delicious as Lady Gaga’s lips.

It’s my birthday and we’re whooping it up in the Osteria del Borgo Antico, with Paolo, Franca and Andrea. My birthday present from Honeybee is ‘The Broken Road’ the last, posthumous, volume in a travel trilogy by Patrick Leigh Fermor. In 1933 at the age of 18, the author begins a walk from the Hook of Holland to Constantinople. Moving through an Eastern Europe still inhabited by a noble peasantry, he sleeps in barns and hedgerows, falls in love with a Rumanian Princess and lives with her in Rumania and Greece until the drums of war summon him back to England. He joins a Guards Regiment and is parachuted into German occupied Crete where, with the help of partisans, he kidnaps a German General, an event dramatized in the film ‘Ill Met by Moonlight’, with actor Dirk Bogarde playing Leigh-Fermor. It is the author’s association with Military Intelligence, his partiality to cigarettes, strong liquor and beautiful women, his good looks and his friendship with Ian Fleming that lead many to feel that he was the inspiration for James Bond. If you read his books, start with the first book in the trilogy, ‘A Time of Gifts’, published in 1977, 43 years after the event it describes. Its title will lead you to Louis McNeice’s poem ‘Twelfth Night’  (‘For now that the time of gifts is gone’) and if you happen upon a copy of the original edition still with its dust cover, you will have an introduction into the cubist art of John Caxton. What makes PLF’s books stand out from those of other travel writers is the stylish prose. Here he writes of those events, unanticipated, their importance unappreciated at the time, which shape our lives.

‘One is only sometimes warned when these processes begin, of their crucial importance: that certain poems, paintings, kinds of music, books, or ideas are going to change everything, or that one is going to fall in love or become friends for life; the many lengthening strands, in fact, which plaited together, compose a lifetime. One should be able to detect the muffled bang of the starter’s gun.’

Sicily

On our way to spend Christmas with my suocera (mother-in-law) in the town of Adrano.

On a clear day the first thing you see as you deplane at Catania Airport is the volcano. Its brooding presence dominates the horizon. To the Greeks Etna was the home of Haephestus, God of Fire, who used the lava to forge Zeus’s thunderbolts. To the Sicilians it is muntibeddu but to my mother-in-law and the others who live on its slopes it is simply ‘a muntagna, the mountain. To the vulcanologists it is the highest (at 10,890 feet) and most active volcano in Europe. In 1669 lava reached the outskirts of Catania and in recent days it blew its top, sending clouds of sulfurous dust into the air and closing down air traffic. What lunatic decided to build Adrano on the slopes of an active volcano? I picture myself in a thousand years, a museum exhibit like those unfortunate Pompeians, a lump of fossilized volcanic ash in a cowardly foetal position. Better pull the bedclothes up tonight.

Etna - 'A muntagna

Etna – ‘A muntagna

Adrano is a poor town, you can tell from the fact that cigarettes and AA batteries can be bought singly. There is no cinema, no hotels or passable restaurants, the buildings, many fine, are chipped and weed infested. In the main Piazza there is a gloomy 12th Century Norman stronghold built in black volcanic rock and the elegant church of Santa Chiara, its façade still pock-marked from the second world war. The municipal authorities have abolished dustbins (since they overflowed) and rubbish piles in the streets since people cannot wait for collection days to dispose of their rubbish. There’s little to do except drink the small, bitter espressos, smoke and hope, which in the short-term is expressed in a scratchy and, in the longer term, in a ticket for the National Lottery.

Orange tree in the middle of Adrano

Orange tree in the middle of Adrano

Poor it may be but the people are kindly and courteous, exhibiting an almost old worldly degree of politeness. The town itself is a genuine example of ‘shared space’. In a town of 20,000 people there is not one set of traffic lights and although there are marked pedestrian crossings, people only use them IF THEY HAPPEN TO BE AT THE PLACE THEY WANT TO CROSS knowing that drivers will always slow to let them pass. There are no public car parks and the people park anywhere without ever resorting to reverse parking. But nobody minds. The roads are clogged with cars the size of dog-kennels. But you never see any road rage. These conditions I also witnessed in Genoa, San Remo and Milan only confirming my opinion that Italians are the most expert and generous spirited drivers in the world and therefore Italy the easiest place for foreigners to drive in.

Sicilian eco-taxi

Sicilian eco-taxi

We come from a city where the seasons are only mildly distinguishable and everything is available regardless of the season. That is not the case in Sicily and when we enter the Caffé Europa for breakfast expecting to see the polished, mahogany domes of brioches and jugs of granita di mandorle we are informed that these are for summer only consumption. Still, some warm, ricotta filled crescents dusted with icing sugar and sliced almonds will do very nicely.

Christmas Eve and we go to the Associazione Nazionale Combattenti e Reduci, an RSL in other words, except there are no pokies. We have come to listen to a quartet (tambourine, guitar, accordion and fischietti, a Sicilian, Pan-like whistle) play traditional Christmas music. While an elderly gentleman recites a Christmas themed poem in Sicilian dialect, I inspect a splendid battlefield mural featuring a mortally wounded WW1 Italian soldier.

Sicilian RSL

Sicilian RSL

Like every shop, building and piazza the club has a presepe (nativity scene) and like all the others, the crib is empty, for all the baby Jesus, from those no bigger than my thumb to life-size examples, are in the Churches waiting to be ‘born’ the next day and transported in processions to their allotted straw cots. In the foyer of my mother-in-law’s apartment block, framed in tinsel and poinsettia, a young man is clutching a whole pig to his chest. He is there to play a selection of Christmas music on what turns out to be Sicilian bagpipes and after wailing for ten minutes moves to the first floor to annoy some other residents.

 

Sicilian bag-pipes

Sicilian bag-pipes

This is a very religious island and its religiosity is evident everywhere. My mother-in-law’s apartment is crammed with religious statues, crucifixes, messages from Popes and pictures of Saints in various anguished or beatific poses. As I lay in bed under a particularly harrowing Crucifixion scene I can look at a plaster statue of the Black Madonna and Child (why not?) and a picture of the new Pope. My Honeybee, a Catholic, asks what is the principal difference between the Catholic and Anglican religions and I explain that Anglicans deal directly with God while Catholics use the Virgin Mary as an interlocutor. Do Anglicans follow the Stations of the Cross, she asks and I tell her that to a heathen Londoner ‘Stations of the Cross’ can only mean Charing Cross and Kings Cross.

Christmas Day and not a turkey or a mince pie to be seen. Most Sicilians seem to eat the same food at Christmas that they eat regularly throughout the year with the addition of a bottle of Spumante and a Pandoro or Panettone. We are beginning with an antipasto of Zozzo (brawn) and baked ricotta. Although customarily a New Year’s Eve dish, we follow with Zampone, literally a ‘big foot’, in this case that of a large pig, emptied of flesh and bones, stuffed with spiced, minced pork and reassembled, complete with toe nails, and ready for boiling and eating with lenticchie nobili (good quality lentils from Ustica).

Zampone ready for the pot

Zampone ready for the pot

To finish we have pere spinelle (boiled, squash ball sized local pears) and prickly pear fruit. Some of my mother-in-law’s friends have joined us for dinner and I’m sitting next to Marcello, a courteous neighbour, who has looked at me on previous occasions, as if I’m from outer space. Tonight however, we are bonding nicely, having found a common interest, first in the inky, Nero D’Avola wines of Etna and now in a bottle of Limoncello. While Marcello cracks walnuts for us I reach for the Limoncello to toast once more the glory of Anglo-Italian relationships and my new best friend but, as so often happens, the ‘League Against Dancing on Tables’ (a movement composed exclusively by women dedicated to saving men from themselves) has spirited away the bottle. I would have thought that so many similar experiences over the years would have alerted me to the danger posed by Marcello’s diminutive but explosive wife, Graziella.  I was disappointed but not surprised to learn that Honeybee, a founding member of the League, supported her.

Palermo

My Honeybee and I are in the Trattoria Primavera in Palermo reading our favourite piece of literature – the a la Carte menu of a new restaurant. Among the primi our attention is drawn to Fettucine alla Nelson. My limited knowledge of Sicilian history suggests that the dish was invented by or (more likely) conceived in honour of Horatio, Lord Nelson rather than Nelson Picquet or Nelson Rockefeller as the English Admiral, at one time, had quite close ties with Sicily. The roots of the relationship lie in the conquest of Sicily and Naples in 1734 by Philip V of Spain ending 20 years of Austrian rule. Philip, a descendent of the Bourbon King Louis XIV, installed his son, Charles, Duke of Parma as ruler of the two separate kingdoms. On the death of his father in 1759 Charles assumed the Spanish throne as Charles III, abdicating as King of Sicily and King of Naples in favour of his third son, Ferdinand, the Spanish constitution prohibiting the holding of more than one crown. Ferdinand (styled Ferdinand IV of Naples and Ferdinand III of Sicily) married the Archduchess Maria Carolina (daughter of the Austrian Holy Roman Emperor, Francis I), who dominated her weak husband, pressing him into actively supporting the Anglo-Austrian alliance against the French Revolutionary Forces. In 1793 Nelson arrived in Naples seeking reinforcements for the British attempt to capture the port of Toulon. It was the first fateful meeting between Nelson and Emma, the soiled but ravishing wife of the British envoy, Sir William Hamilton. In September 1798, shortly after destroying the French fleet at the Battle of the Nile, Nelson was back in Naples for R & R where he and Lady Hamilton began one of history’s most famous love affairs. In November, Nelson tore himself from Emma’s embrace to join with the Neapolitan Army in taking Rome from the French, who soon regrouped, routed the Neapolitans and invaded Naples. Ferdinand and Maria, together with the Hamiltons and other notables, were safely evacuated aboard Nelson’s flagship, the Vanguard, which sailed into Palermo on Boxing Day, 1798. Nelson returned to Naples to help loyal Neapolitans succeed in ousting the French and then to punish those Neapolitans who had sided with the Jacobins. In 1806 the persistent French were back again, retaking Naples and installing Napoleon’s brother-in-law, Joachim Murat, as King, a reign that lasted until Napoleon was defeated at Waterloo in 1815. The British Navy prevented the French from taking Sicily.

In recognition of his services to the kingdoms of Naples and Sicily Ferdinand gave Nelson the Dukedom of Bronte (in Sicily) along with the Castello Maniace. Nelson never lived to see his ducal residence but if you go there now you will see the initials NB (Nelson & Bronte) set into the wrought iron gates and his coat of arms with the inscription ‘Heroi immortali nili’. Bronte lies some 10 miles from Adrano on the slopes of Etna. The Sydney suburb of Bronte is named in recognition of the Hero of the Nile. In 1815, after the final defeat of Napoleon and the execution of Murat, the separate crowns of Sicily and Naples were merged, still under King Ferdinand, into the single Kingdom of the Two Sicilies, although I feel The Kingdom of the Two Volcanoes would have made a more sensible title.

The ‘Nelson’ ingredients accompanying the ribbon pasta are melanzane, zucchine, pomodoro, mozzarella, basilico and parmigiano.

Susan Sontag, in her novel ‘The Volcano Lovers’, provides an excellent record of the affair between Nelson and Lady Hamilton.

Falcons and Pigeons

In spite of a light rain falling, a crowd has gathered in a Piazza, their gaze directed towards the narrow, fourth floor ledge of a palazzo upon which a large dog is precariously balanced. Unable to advance, having reached the end of the parapet, the dog attempts to turn. With paws scrabbling wildly on the wet stone, the dog falls, even as the mournful alarm of the vigili wails in the distance. The crowd now turns its hostile attention to the fire services, called over an hour and a half earlier, and then to the dog’s (absent) owner, who has failed to mend a gap in the railings, which enclose his terrace. This familiar story – a preventable tragedy, the tardy reaction of indifferent authorities, the minimal effect on a better future that public sentiment produces – is a microcosm of the country’s fight against the Mafia.

Of course, there is always a new hero ready to step up to take the place of Carabiniere General Dalla Chiesa (gunned down with his wife in 1982) and Prosecuting Magistrates Giovanni Falcone and Paolo Borsellino (both victims of Mafia bombings in 1992). This time it is Anti Mafia Magistrate Nino di Matteo, recently fingered for assassination by Mafia Boss, Tito ‘the beast’ Riina, currently serving a life sentence for the killings of Della Chiesa, Falcone, Borsellino and a hundred others. Government ministers have yet to announce any supportive measures for di Matteo and there are suspicions that it may have to do with the fact that it is the former Interior Minister, Nicola Mancino, who is accused of Mafia connections when he and Judge Corrado Carnevale released many of the top Cosa Nostra criminals in 1992.

Not that there isn’t any public support for di Matteo and the fight against organized crime. In the Chiesa dei Cappuccini in Adrano we listen to a youth orchestra, part of a foundation formed to honour the memory of Falcone and Borsellino, while Palermo Airport is now called ‘Falcone Borsellino’. Island clergy are in the streets announcing their solidarity with di Matteo, but perhaps the most encouraging sign is the campaign by Palermo shopkeepers to resist paying the Pizzo, literally the lace embroidery edging a piece of material but also the protection money paid to the Mafia.  In the town centre we are handed flyers saying “Paga chi non paga” (pay those who do not pay), referring to shops that refuse to pay the Pizzo. At the Punto Pizzo Free Emporio in Palermo’s city centre the shop owners have banded together, refusing to pay protection money. We wish them well.

Our hotel is in an old Palazzo rich in elaborate frescos and as we lie in bed and look up at the ceiling I feel we’re lying in state in the Sistine Chapel; anyway Honeybee doesn’t have to think of England with all this elaborate decoration to engage her attention.

Bedroom ceiling in Palermo

Bedroom ceiling in Palermo

A baby Jesus, naked except for an enormous gold crown and carried by six elderly Sicilians, parts the Christmas shoppers; behind comes a marching band playing Jingle Bells and in front a quartet of young men collecting for the Confraternita Maria SS delle Grazie dei Pirriaturi Palermo whatever that may be, but I’m sure it’s a good cause.

Baby Jesus ignoring lady's legs in stocking advert

Baby Jesus ignoring lady’s legs in stocking advert

We’ve seen la Cattedrale and the Byzantine wonder of Monreale and I’m ready to go home now and enjoy proper plumbing, but I dread the endless journey back to Sydney and that ghastly stopover in Dubai, a Middle Eastern Mecca of consumerism; people buying Rolex watches at 6 o’clock in the morning; Harrods in the January sales. Can’t understand why it takes as long flying home as it does coming here, after all it’s all downhill going back, innit? I think I’ll just go to Haberfield next time or have a stroll around Prahan Market.

The Lamentations of Eeyore

‘Behold, O Lord, for I am in distress: my bowels are troubled’. Indeed they are and my arteries are also hardening and my brain softening. I am a clapperless bell, a reed swept away in a tsunami of change. My Honey Bee thinks that I live in the PAST but I’m actually living in the FUTURE. I was either abducted by aliens who rendered me unconscious for a hundred years before re-awaking me or, more likely, I fell into a Black Hole as I was driving through Artarmon on my way to Bunnings, then travelled through some time-warp and emerged a century later in Erskineville. I know I am still on Planet Earth as Sydneysiders are still recognisable as humans, although they appear to have organised themselves into several distinct tribes. One tribe is recognisable by their hard, yellow plastic hats, luminous orange jackets and steel-capped boots; another is distinguished by its uniform of singlet, board shorts and rubber thongs. There’s also a tribe that prefers wheels to legs. Members are identified by figure-hugging Spandex worn from neck to just above the knee, a plastic helmet (modelled on Ridley Scott’s Alien monsters) and shoes with the heel located, oddly enough, under the toes. The ancient religions of C of E and RC have been replaced by a new, universal faith called PC; Churches still exist, but Matins and Evensong have been abolished in favour of Blessing of Pets and Sausage Sizzles. Instead of Orwell’s ‘Big Brother’ the World is micromanaged by a triumvirate of faceless Dictators known only as ‘O’, ‘H’ and ‘S’.

..and so I called Vodafone and a voice answered saying if I was calling about my contract, press 1, if I was querying a bill, press 2, if I was paying a bill, press 3, if I was setting up a new number, press 4, but by then I had forgotten the nature of 1 and 2 so I had to start all over again and, as no option seemed to cover my particular situation, I pressed 1and was given a further grid of possibilities from which I randomly selected option 3 which immediately triggered a warning that my conversation may be recorded for training purposes and I’m thinking what if I was trying to launch a missile strike with my i-phone to save the human race from an incoming meteor and had to go through this rigmarole first and then a human came on the line, was I calling about the number that I was calling from, yes, and what was my date of birth and what was my billing address and being a bit of a trivia buff I was able to get the answers right but then she threw me a curve ball – what is the 4 digit Pin I was given when I made the mistake of buying an i-phone, and I said of course I didn’t remember, you are talking to a man with more Pins than a Bowling Alley and so the Vodaperson said she couldn’t talk to me and I had to check a sudden surge of anger I mean what if she was a new Australian from the Indian sub-continent, still disorientated by two years in Nauru and struggling with English and, besides, I didn’t want to ruin the poor woman’s contribution to her company’s training program by being rude, but then it struck me that she wasn’t just FROM the sub-continent she was probably IN the sub-continent, talking to me from some industrial suburb of Mumbai with instructions to make my life as difficult as possible, but when I insisted on talking to a Supervisor I was cut off so I redialled and a voice said if I was calling about my contract, press 1…..

MY WEEK

Mundaneday
Gymday
Binsday
Cleanersday
StephenFryday
WasSexday
Glumday

Hmmm…what’s in the news today? I see the Queen has granted an audience at Buckingham Palace to a brace of Daleks from Dr Who; a Russian performance artist has nailed his scrotum to the cobblestones of a Moscow street and, if you are interested in running up a Sponge cake, London University has introduced a course in Baking Technology Management. On a more serious note, 80 North Koreans have been executed for watching a South Korean soap opera on television. To die for such a cause surely over-inflates the quality of the entertainment. To read that North Koreans preferred to face a firing squad than watch a soap opera would make a more plausible headline.

Not all books are for reading from cover to cover and then passing on to Oxfam; those large format books featuring blown-up photographs of pasta dishes or the Amalfi coast are useful for resting your plate of Singapore noodles on while watching television. Others are there solely for taking out of the bookcase on a whim to handle, to inhale the delicate perfume of ancient, foxed paper and to dip serendipitously into the contents. One of my favourites in the latter category is Gargantua and Pantagruel, or, to describe it properly:

The Works of Mr. Francis Rabelais, doctor in Physick containing five books of the lives, heroick deeds & sayings of GARGANTUA and his sonne PANTAGRUEL together with the Pantagrueline Prognostication, the Oracle of the Divine Bacbuc, and response of the bottle. Hereunto are annexed the Navigations unto the Sounding Isle and the Isle of the Apedefts : as likewise the Philosophical cream with a Limosin Epistle all done by Mr. Francis Rabelais in the French tongue and now faithfully translated into English. 

London : Grant Richards, 1904. Two Quarto volumes, the first of 377 pages, the second of 350. Original full cloth binding with gilt lettering design on front boards and spines. Translation as that of the original of 1653.Copiously illustrated by W Heath Robinson. Minor soiling to cloth. Slight foxing of Pictorial endpapers. 

This is a road book about father and son giants, a Renaissance carnival of grotesque fantasy, vulgar and exuberant, a mixture of Gulliver’s Travels, Mark Twain’s 1601 and Little Britain. Underneath, I understand there is a deeply satirical and humanistic study of the times, but just enjoy it for the bawdy brilliance of the writing, its orgy of debauchery, inventive insults and Heath Robinson’s marvellous illustrations. Catholic Monk and eminent physician, Rabelais succeeded in lampooning the very hands that fed him. He died censured but unpunished and his one line will reportedly stated ‘I have nothing, I owe a great deal and the rest I leave to the poor.’ The book was written between 1532 and 1564 in Classical French but it contains many words of Rabelais’ own fabrication, either in literal translation from the Latin or of his own invention. How did the book’s translators, Sir Thomas Urquhart and Peter Motteux, translate words that had never existed before? I can only guess that they invented new English words thereby enriching the English language as Rabelais had the French.

“Trinc, Trinc, By Bacchus, let us tope,
And tope again; for now I hope
To see some brawny juicy Rump,
And tickle’t with my carnal stump.”

“Thou, who canst Water turn to Wine,
Transform my Bum by Pow’r Divine
Into a Lantern, that may Light
My Neighbour in the darkest Night.”

A curious postscript occurred in 1995 when the four editors of ‘Rabelais’, the La Trobe University student magazine, published an article satirizing the distribution of wealth entitled ‘The Art of Shoplifting’. According to Green Left Weekly, Simon Crean, then Federal Minister for Education, was persuaded by the easily outraged John Laws to cut funding to the magazine and to refer the matter to the Victorian attorney-general. As a result the editors were charged with issuing an ‘objectionable publication’ and faced a maximum of 6 years in jail and fine of $72,000. Other student magazines from Australian Universities supported the editors of Rabelais by reprinting the article without prosecution. It was only after several appearances in the Federal and High courts and five years of campaigning between the morally outraged and the defenders of free speech that the Victorian Director of Public Prosecutions finally dropped the charges. Quel gaspillage!