25 Sep 2013

Oh. Venice.

In Venice there's a People Mover, a half mile long funicular-type overhead railway, that connects the cruise terminal to Piazzale Roma, at the western edge of the intricate web of islands, canals and bridges that make up the city of our imaginations. 

My flights of fancy about Venice were first fuelled, in the early 80s, by Pizza Express's Pizza Veneziana (a snippet of the cost of each pizza was given to the Venice in Peril fund) and, in the early 90s, by reading Thomas Mann's Death in Venice as part of my Diploma in Comparative Literature, a novella which is a fetid hothouse of decay and destructive eroticism. Hey, what's not to like?


But Venice has the reputation of being the most romantic city on earth and my first reaction, after stepping off the People Mover and wandering along the minor canals, is satisfyingly predictable. Every bend, every building, every wooden boat dock elicits a sigh. I don't even mind paying 12 Euros for a bottle of coke and an orange juice outside a little bar in one of the out of the way piazzas, although the irony that the orange juice is made of blood oranges isn't lost on me.

But the closer I get to St Mark's Square the less enamoured I become as subtlety gives way to brashness and overcrowding. And, at the risk of being called a Philistine, I just don't get the fuss about the square. It's an ugly stone tundra. 

I suppose September is still considered a high tourist season so perhaps I only have myself to blame. I'm also to blame for not checking my change after buying a couple of water taxi tickets on the banks of the Grand Canal. As I walk away I realise I'm 4 euros short though the hand-written English notice on the booth window telling me, and every other English-speaking tourist, that I should have checked it before leaving means there's no way I'm going to get it back.

It's funny how little things like that can colour your view of a place. Perhaps unfairly. Perhaps not. The man who served us in the bar just clipped the edge of politeness. The ticket-booth guy was fully trained in unarmed hostility.

Perhaps the people of Venice are fed up with all the visitors and tourists. And particularly the cruise ships as recent newspaper reports illustrate. 

Luckily there was something to save Venice for me as I puttered along the
Giudecca Canal back to the ship: a 35 ft inflatable replica of Mark Quinn's sculpture, 'Breath', of a naked and eight month pregnant Alison Lapper, the disabled artist who was born with no arms, on the island of San Giorgio Maggiore. 

It's not something everyone in Venice was happy to see though. The Catholic church said, diplomatically, that it was 'out of place'. Other people think that the inflatable version doesn't have the presence of the original 11.5 ft marble sculpture, made from Carrara marble, the same stone Michelangelo's David was carved from. Some feel that it's too obvious a way of encouraging us to re-examine our attitudes about beauty and the human form. You can read more here and make up your own mind.

For me, it's beautifully brave and honest. 

Hungry Writing Prompt
Write about a time when you were brave. 


18 Sep 2013

Livorno, ti amo

Livorno, I love you. I love your piazzas and statues, your brickwork and pavements, your streets and canals. I love the sound of water lapping against old stone and the musical rise and fall of your language. I love your one legged pigeons. I love your graffiti and your church’s trompe l’oeil murals that convince me I could walk through paint and plaster into light and shadow. And I love your mercato centrale, your fishmongers and butchers, stalls that sell candies and knitting wool, herbed mozzarella and ripe black figs. Livorno, I love your ordinariness, your honesty. The faces of your people. Your grazies and your pregos. And Livorno, perhaps you love me too.

I'm unsure if I have the spelling right but 'la bella signora' at Caffetteria da Lori in the central market
told me this coffee was called 'la marocaine' (pronounced 'marokenna'.)
And here are the rest of my Livorno photos, the city that captured my heart.

Love Lori's coffee bar

Love the old quarter

Love the central market

Love the trompe l'oeil  painting at Santa Caterina

Love the one legged pigeon

Love the street graffiti: the Madonna, Palestine and Claudia.

Hungry Writing Prompt
Write, and keep writing, about what and who you love. 

11 Sep 2013

Excess

I’ve worked out that there are only 30 minutes of each day when I cannot be sitting at a table and chowing down. That’s between 11am when the Waves Grill closes after breakfast and 11.30am when it re-opens for lunch.  And I wouldn’t have to restrict myself to breakfast in Waves; there’s also the Grand Dining Room, until 9.30am, or the Terrace CafĂ©, until 10am.  And I’ve just realised that if I’m really and truly, dangerously even, in need of sustenance during those barren 30 minutes I could always take a trip up to the 12th deck and snack on the miniature rolls and cakes tucked away, with fresh fruit juice, in the corner of Barista’s coffee bar.

Yep I’m cruising. I embarked as a passenger in Venice on 7th September and I’m likely to leave as cargo in Lisbon on 29th.

I’m wondering if people on an Oceania cruise reach an immunity level to the availability, quantity and astonishing choice of high quality, freshly prepared food. A little like  people who start work in chocolate factories and are told they can eat as much of it as they like, as often as they like, and within two weeks have been cured of any desire for the sweet milky drug. I’ll let you know when the novelty of being served, and eating, breakfast, morning coffee, brunch, lunch, afternoon tea and dinner has worn off. Portion control, that’s the trick. Will someone please show me how that trick works?



And if being gastronomically assaulted from all sides on board ship isn’t enough there’s also the food ashore, like this lunch I had in Dubrovnik a couple of days ago: blue cheese risotto garnished with freshly grilled Adriatic shrimp.


The old walled city of Dubrovnik is a UNESCO World Heritage site though that didn’t stop the Yugoslav People’s Army from shelling it in 1991 during the Croatian war for independence, an action that contributed to the diplomatic and economic isolation of Serbia and Montenegro and led to the international recognition of Croatia as an independent state.

Walking through the old city today it’s hard to imagine what it looked like two decades ago.  It’s even harder to imagine the violence and atrocities that took place in the region too, neighbour turned against neighbour, even families dissected and destroyed. Twenty years isn’t a long time. What were you doing in 1991/2? I attended my first ever residential writing course at Ty Newydd in North Wales. I was running my second-hand bookshop, Foxed & Bound, and studying part-time for a Diploma in Comparative Literature. People in the Balkans were living in fear of their lives. They were grieving and dying in the onslaught of racial and religious hatred whipped up by political factions.

Today the ship stops at Giardini Naxos in Sicily, the site of the first Greek colony on the island. In the archaeological museum there’s a display of pots and bowls and amphorae, the ordinary vessels of daily life from the 6th and 7th centuries BCE.



The lived, they ate, they died. Nothing much changes. Even how we treat one another. What happened in the Balkans shocked the world. We didn’t believe that those kinds of atrocities could happen, again, in our post-holocaust ‘civilised’ West. Will human beings ever learn?

Hungry Writing Prompt
Write about excess, going too far, about too much of any one thing.


2 Sep 2013

Like hunger

How to describe this feeling, this physical sensation, that has settled below my solar plexus. It is like hunger in its hollowness, in my desire to feed it. Because what has been feeding me for the last five days has left, travelling away from me, going west along the motorway, crossing the bridge over the River Severn from England into Wales, past the old port cities along the coast towards the smoky clatter of plant and towers of the steelworks that announces Port Talbot, then turning south towards the sea. They're home. And what remains of them here are bright memories, like illuminated shadows stretching across the grass.


My mam and dad, my niece, her husband and their two little kids have been staying with me. There has been pancake flipping, barbecuing and roasting, baking, jam making and wine pouring. There have been darts and frisbees, footballs and bingo games. There have been walks and runs and falling over. Rabbits and deer. Sunrises and sunsets. There has been laughter. Lots of laughter. 

('Iwan gets really upset when I tell him off,' his mother said. 
'I don't,' Ffion, his older sister said. 
'No, you're more resilient.' 
'I'm not Brazilian!')

The orchard fences were sagging under the weight of brambles clustered with plump blackberries. We made a small dent.

Blackberry jam 
Blackberry tart (recipe below)
And now I find myself alone I am attempting to nourish that hollow feeling with a soup made with the home-grown tomatoes and red onions that Mam and Dad brought with them.

Tomato, pepper and hot chilli soup (recipe below)
And then as I'm stirring the soup, my husband, Tony, calls from Corfu where the cruise ship he's lecturing and painting on for 8 weeks has docked for the day and his voice brings me home to myself, our life together.

We all need to be capable of feeding ourselves but the nourishment we receive from the people in our life who we love, who love us, makes us whole. 

Hungry Writing Prompt
Write about the shadows in your life so far. Write about the illuminations. 

Blackberry Tart
This was the first time I'd made this tart, originally served to me by my friend, Mary Vickers, in Florida. I cannot begin to tell you how good the cream cheese and icing (confectioner's) sugar base is within a crisp, sweet and buttery shortcrust envelope. You could pile more fruit onto the top. Next time I will and I'll try a mixture of blackberries and raspberries too.


Detail
Tomato, sweet red pepper and chilli soup 

No real recipe here, just instinct and palate. I used 1 red onion, two long sweet red peppers, a red chilli (all three chopped and softened in olive oil), added a small bowl of chopped fresh tomatoes, some crushed coriander seeds, salt and black and red pepper (for extra heat) and simmered it all for about 45 mins. I pushed it through a sieve for a bright and fine broth but you could liquidise it all for a thicker soup.

I was just on the point of discarding the mash of seeds and skins when I decided to taste it. It is now in a small bowl and will form a tasty little island in the soup along with some creme fraiche.