Friday, February 26, 2010

I can no longer claim to be the mother of two teenagers


IF you can keep your head when all about you
Are losing theirs and blaming it on you,
If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you,
But make allowance for their doubting too;
If you can wait and not be tired by waiting,
Or being lied about, don't deal in lies,
Or being hated, don't give way to hating,
And yet don't look too good, nor talk too wise:
If you can dream - and not make dreams your master;
If you can think - and not make thoughts your aim;
If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster
And treat those two impostors just the same;
If you can bear to hear the truth you've spoken
Twisted by knaves to make a trap for fools,
Or watch the things you gave your life to, broken,
And stoop and build 'em up with worn-out tools:

If you can make one heap of all your winnings
And risk it on one turn of pitch-and-toss,
And lose, and start again at your beginnings
And never breathe a word about your loss;
If you can force your heart and nerve and sinew
To serve your turn long after they are gone,
And so hold on when there is nothing in you
Except the Will which says to them: 'Hold on!'

If you can talk with crowds and keep your virtue,
' Or walk with Kings - nor lose the common touch,
if neither foes nor loving friends can hurt you,
If all men count with you, but none too much;
If you can fill the unforgiving minute
With sixty seconds' worth of distance run,
Yours is the Earth and everything that's in it,
And - which is more - you'll be a Man, my son!

Happy 20th Birthday B xx

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Slightly off balance

The next day, our last day in Rome, we had left free intending to use it for a day trip by train to either Pompeii, to the south east, or to Pisa, to the north. The forecast the night before had been for all day rain which we decided would make exploring Pompeii fairly miserable so Pisa it was. We woke early to a damp, grey morning, rugged up and trudged, umbrellas in hand, the by now familiar path to the tram then the central station where we bought return tickets from the yellow automated ticket boxes for the not quite three hour trip to Pisa.

Pisa, population about 87 000, manages to feel both quaint and working class at the same time. The twenty minute walk from the station to the world famous Leaning Tower takes you through cobbled pedestrian streets dodging bicycle riding locals, past cafes full of university students, through narrow lanes lined with fabulous doorways, balconys and arches, crosses busy 'main' throughfares where Italians drive Italian made cars at break neck speed ignoring both lights and pedestrian crossings- felt right at home we did!- and over the thick grey Arno River.

Finally at the end of the street we saw this...

...emerging like a fairy tale, out of the mist. The tourists, the rain, the cold all fell away muzzled by the dreamlike scene that was unfolding at the end of the road.

The tower is part of the aptly named Square of Miracles, a world heritage site. It's historical name is the Piazza del Duomo, a walled area inside the city walls of Old Pisa that encompasses the Duomo, the Baptistry, Camposanto and two museums, the Museo dell'Opera del Duomo and Museo del Sinopie and of course the Torre pendente di Pisa. Entry tickets can be bought separately or in combinations. Of course we went for the upsized whoppa combo and booked in for the next time slot, in a not too shabby 45 minutes time, for the tower tour. With time on our hands, after a quick stop at the some of the cleanest toilets in Italy, we headed towards the main door of the Duomo.

The heavily decorated cast bronze doors of the Cathedral are incredible and were made by students after the originals were destroyed by fire in 1595. Each of the six doors is made up of narrative panels of biblical scenes like pages of a story book.

The outside of the church, like it's accompanying campanile (the bell tower we all know better as the Leaning Tower of Pisa) and Baptistry, is embellished in exquisite detail like sugar icing on a wedding cake...

...with the delicate columns and fine rounded arches that are characteristic of the Romanesque style.

Inside the nave is all slim striped arches, tall columns and for the size of the church an abundance of large luminous pieces of Renaissance art, huge golden mosaics and colourful wall frescos.

The bronze chandelier, hanging at the centre of the nave, is known as Galileo's chandelier due to an impossible legend that claims that Galileo Galilei's theories relative to the pendulum, came to him while he was at mass and became distracted by the oscillating chandelier. Unfortunately, although it does paint a fabulous image of a pew bound Galileo eyes heavenward, the story of the chandelier can't possibly be true since the light was hung four years after he went public with his theory. Galileo was, however, born in Pisa and even taught at Pisa University where in his notes he uses the tower to dispute Aristotle's theory that objects fall at a speed proportionate to their weight. While Galileo didn't actually drop anything from the tower, as his experiment described, a student of his did only to find one of the balls did hit the ground slightly faster satisfying Aristotle's smug followers who obviously hadn't read about Galileo's theories of viscosity or wind friction.

Amid all the clean simple lines of the churches interior a heavily ornate piece stands out. The pulpit- just seen in the left of the picture- by Giovanni Pisano took eight long years to complete then, considered a gothic eyesore during the renovations after the fire, was dismantled and stored in a crate for the next 330 years. Rediscovered in 1926 it was painstakingly reassembled (although slightly differently from it's original) and placed further from the altar than its original place on the north side of the nave.

The lower supports are a combination of simple colums and sculptured figures. Pisa or Ecclesia is shown suckling two newborns and the female personification of Fortitude holds a lion. Prudence is depicted as 'Venus pudica', with her modesty intact unlike poor Hercules, seen above, who is shown older than his usual six packed form and with a vaguely resigned look about him I thought.

The platform of Pisano's elaborate rostrum has nine carved panels that lean outwards slightly, towards it's audience. Again they depict biblical stories and are packed tight with animated characters. The undercutting is so deep in places the figures seem to animate right out of the reliefs.

Being inside Italy's churches is like being inside a prism with treasure all around. Walls, floors and ceilings all hold eye candy and food for the soul.

Our next stop in the Square of Miracles was the probably the most famous and the most visited campanile in the world.

You are not allowed to take any bags, purses or 'containers of any kind' up the tower so after depositing our one handbag sized backpack at the bag check we waited, as we'd been instructed, in the warmth of the waiting room for the clock to tick slowly past our ticketed time. The 'guide' our small group had been told would meet us in true Italian style never eventuated so with the intention of clarifying the instructions we approached the two guards at the towers entrance. They checked the ticket time and then simply waved us through the scafolding to the bottom of the 294 helicodal steps. The passageway is not really wide enough for the two way traffic it services although it's definately wider than the climb up to Saint Peter's cupola. The marble steps were wet because of the rain, worn away in the middle by centuries of footfalls and tilted outwards and then inwards with the tower's inclination as we spiraled our way to the top. It was not quite enough to make me dizzy but definately left me with a heady sense of pending nausea. The cool misty air at the top was welcome relief.

The main steps come out at the seventh level, the logge, a viewing platform from where the whole of the grassed area of the square can be clearly seen. It is thought that on festival and market days dignitaries and visitors would climb the tower for the best view of the proceedings below. There is another tunnel like set of steps leading to a circular walkway at the very top of the towers apex where you can see J in the photo above.

The platform area also houses the 'bell theatre'. Five big bells hang in a circle tuned clockwise to a rising musical scale though they haven't been heard for 60 years as there are fears their vibrations could cause a catastrophic collapse. The biggest bell, called L'Assunta, weighs in at 3620kgs. It really is no wonder the tower is slowly sinking into the tundra!

The towers first stone was laid in 1173 but it took twelve years to get as high as the third floor and by then the building was already beginning to lean. Built as a boastful statement to bitter rivals Florence (Genoa) it's construction was a stop start affair due to frequent warring with the neighbouring state. It must have made the Genoans smile to learn the tower skite was in fact sinking into the ground.

The problem was pondered for nearly a century while the ground beneath 'settled' then begun again by Giovanni di Simone, the architect of the nearby Camposanto (which we visited later), who made the subsequent floors higher in an effort to compensate. It didn't.

Over the centuries there have been a number of attempts to correct the lean and thus save the tower from it's eventual collapse. In 1990 the tilt was measured at 13 feet and it was promptly closed off while experts from around the world were called in to find a way to rectify the situation.  Straightening the tower enough to make it safe again without completely removing the character that gave it it's name, defacing the globally recognisable building in any way or adversally affecting any of the area in the famous square was a mammoth task. According to the lego animation of the restoration we watched at one of the museums on site; steel stabilising cables were first attached to the tower in a way such that they could be easily removed without damaging the towers exterior then 870 metric tons of counterweight added to the 'tall' side which not only halted the slippage but pulled the tower gently back towards centre. A wedge of soil was then carefully removed from the side opposite the tilt using a corkscrew like action correcting at the rate of about a degree a month and the existing foundation anchored in place with concrete. A complex system of computerised monitors measures the progress over several more months and eventually the tower is slowly, tenuously bought back to an acceptable lean. All of this took ten years. When the tower was reopened to the public again in 2001 it was 'guaranteed' for the next 200 years. Data from the still imbedded computers has suggested the tower has now actually stopped moving entirely.

All this meddling may have saved the tower but it's lesser tilt meant it lost its place in the Guinness Book of World Records to a German church steeple.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Gelato dreaming

I don't usually eat ice cream, it hurts my teeth and I'm dairy intolerant, but I ate gelato nearly everyday while we were away although some days it was more sorbet than a dairy food. We even ate it in negative temperatures in Milan and on what felt like the coldest day on our trip in Pisa which made my lips turn blue and my insides freeze in horror.

Stories of cold icy desserts can be traced back to ancient Chinese Emperors who flavoured snow with fruit, wine and honey and Nero who added spices, leaves and fruit. In Italy gelato has been made for centuries. Those in the north used a more creamy recipe with milk, cream, sugar and eggs whereas the Sicilians, way down at the bottom of the boot, made a water based mixture but used more sugar calling it sorbetto. Over the years the recipes have been played with and refined to create todays gelato, the milky version, which has between a third and a quarter less fat than ice cream but nearly twice as much sugar the proportions of which are responsible for the gloopyness. It is frozen in small batches to expose more surface area (than in traditional ice cream production) to the air which gives it it's velvety, gossamer texture and intense flavours. The Italians are justifiably proud of their luxurious desert.
Incidently it was the Italians who invented the cone too.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Burning money in clay pots

Chinese New Year and Valentines Day are at the same time this year. The streets of Phnom Penh are full of lolly coloured soft toys, stuffed plush hearts and ribbon wrapped bouquets of flowers and the gutters are stopped with pots of fake burning money.

Although not officially a Cambodian holiday many shops and businesses close for the best part of a week during Chinese New Year as anyone who can afford to goes home to the provinces. Like the Chinese and the Vietnamese the Khmer burn red, gold or green printed paper 'money' in various sizes and often in fantastically large denominations, in clay or tin pots on the footpath or in the gutter outside their homes. It is considered a good omen if the wind blows the smoke inside the house.

Valentine's Day isn't a statutory holiday either but that doesn't stop Cambodians from buying flowers and cheesy gifts- for all their loved ones. This year Valentine's Day has got the government a bit worried. The Ministry of Women's Affairs has broadcast ads on Khmer television warning teenagers against engaging in promiscuity. As is common when western traditions are adopted by non western developing societies, based on their superficial presentation rather than any real understanding as to history or purpose, the meaning and even intention of Valentines day has been misinterpreted. It seems many believe Valentine's day to be the day they must offer up their virginity to their partners- if they haven't already- 'without thinking about their furture and the honor of their family and culture.'

A local NGO is more concerned with the spread of AIDS although if the official statistics are correct Cambodia is a kind of poster child for stemming the spread of AIDS in the region. According to the government's statistics, the prevalence of infection rate has declined from 4% in 1997 to 2% in 2006 then 0.9% in 2008 for adults aged 15 and 49, and it is expected the rate will fall even further by 2010. UNAIDS attributes the drop to a political commitment that has seen the prime minister's wife, Bun Rany, personally champion the cause and the Ministry of Health, over the years, implement a wide range of activities and campaigns including a '100% condom use program' which means many of J's staff can attest to having sold or given away condoms during their working lives. AIDS and the affects of AIDS are still major issues in the kingdom with the government coming under frequent fire for their treatment and discriminition of suffers and their families. Late last year Bun Rany was awarded special recognition by the UN for her role which, truth be told, revolves mainly around orphans and the less dirty tasks of supporting access to retrovirals and positive (hands off) PR to help reduce stigma and community prejudice. At the same time her husbands government has evicted and forcibly relocated AIDS suffers to squats outside of town often with no water or toilet facilities making it nigh on impossible for them to get to clinics for daily drugs or markets for food.

This year is the year of the tiger on the Chinese calendar. Sadly Cambodia's wild tiger population is all but gone due to logging activities and the illegal and completely unnecessary poaching of these beautiful majestic big cats for their meat, bones, skin and other organs. WWF has launched the 'Year of the Tiger Campaign- Double or Nothing' aimed at doubling the wild population by 2022. I really hope they can get the active support they need from countries like Cambodia which forms part of the habitat of the Indochinese tiger.

But as George Bernard Shaw once said:

'When a man wants to murder a tiger, he calls it sport; when the tiger wants to murder him, he calls it ferocity. The distinction between crime and justice is no greater.'

He was a wise man, George...

Monday, February 1, 2010

The Living Room of Rome

A short ride in the metro from near the Trevi Fountain is another Roman location often seen in movies. The confusingly named Spanish Steps, officially called Scalinata di Trinita dei Monti, were funded by the French and built to aid access to the twin towered church at the top.

The steps get their nickname from the Spanish Embassy in the piazza at the bottom which also houses the headquarters of some of Italy's high fashion houses and Italy's first MacDonalds- which was opened amid much controversy and protest. Also at the bottom is one of the most understated Baroque fountains I had seen in Rome designed by a teenage Bernini and his father. It seems more than a little odd that Fontana della Barcaccia, meaning the old boat, sits in the middle of a landlocked piazza. The best explanation I could find was that the Pope at the time had it modelled after a boat he admired that had become stranded after flooding on the river Tiber.

Also at the bottom of the steps is the house the poet John Keats lived in for a short time before he died of consumption in 1821. He had made the journey to Rome by boat, as you did in those days, already weak and very, very sick, hoping the milder Italian weather would help. Not long after arrival his doctor began aggressive treatment that included a stingy diet of 'an anchovy and a piece of bread' a day and the common practise of blood letting which may well have hastened his end. Sadly the only thing he managed to write while living in the pink house at the bottom of the steps was a line for his tombstone- Here lies one whose name was writ in water.

The outside of the house is still much the same as it was then although inside is now the Shelley Keats Museum with such treasures as a lock of Keats hair and his death mask.

The top of the 138 steps is littered with portrait artists. It was fun to sit on the balustrade with back to the view and the sun and watch them for a while. Look at all the people, a slowly advancing sea of black winter coats and hats, in the street directly opposite!

The wee church at the top is known as Trinita dei Monte- Trinity on the hill- or more specifically Santissima Trinità al Monte Pincio- Holy Trinity on Pincio hill. Begun by Louis XII, to accompany the monestary beside it, in the 16th century it was 80 years before it was finally consecrated.

Inside is a small simple interior with a wide congressional belly full of wooden pews and niches with canvases...

..a marble sculpture by one of Michelangelo's proteges and some intricate frescos.

Outside, the pièce de résistance is of course the view which stretches all the way to the horizon, a jigsaw of roofs and spires, domes and windowed arches- the shapes of Rome.

On our way back to the metro I could't resist snapping this shot of a Roman fortune teller. It was hard to tell if the news was good or not.