Simply Ed

The first thing I noticed, apart from the vertiginous stairs leading to my small pew on Level C, was the incongruity of our little group, consisting of five women ranging in age from 68 to 13. I was attending the Ed Sheeran concert along with my daughter, my granddaughter, her half-sister and her best friend. This is probably not the usual demographic you might find at a popular concert: along with our age difference, we probably have little in common when it comes to taste in music or culture generally. So what is it about Ed?

Travelling by train directly to the venue, I noticed other small groups like ours as mothers, daughters and girlfriends piled into the train, chatting eagerly en route to the show. Of the 65,000 attending last Monday night, I would hazard a guess and suggest that women and girls made up more than 70 percent of the audience. Younger girls attended with an older male, father, brother, boyfriend or chaperone. Families of women and girls outnumbered the token male in their group. Ed understands his demographic well and encourages the boyfriends and dads to join in the singing, ‘This is your karaoke moment, dance, sing and forget about the people around you. If you don’t know the words, make them up’, Ed teases. There are many chorus chants in most of Ed’s songs allowing for mass participation without stuffing up the lyrics. Some of these chants come with particular waving actions, not unlike a soccer crowd experience only gentler, tamer.

From my vertical seat in the Etihad Stadium, Melbourne, Ed looked like an unreal creature, or as one of my daughter’s friends commented, ‘like a Ranger Ant’. It doesn’t take long to lose this sense of distance, thanks to the sound and video close-ups shown on screens at the rear. For those who aren’t familiar with Ed’s approach, he plays an electrified acoustic guitar solo, a one-man band, with no pre- recorded choruses, drum machines or tracks. Sheeran is known for using loop pedals in his live performances, allowing him to record his own guitar riffs, verses and chants before ‘looping’ it as he continues to play. After a song or two, it’s intriguing to hear the various elements being laid down, then listening to their reintroduction as the song builds, layer upon layer.

‘He’s up there on his own and he’s riding a wave of being in the moment with the music and every time he puts his foot down he’s either recording or looping or reversing or adjusting a track….It’s like watching a painter live paint a picture while doing something else at the same time – to a global TV audience. The pressure is insane!’

For those who were brought up enjoying singing in rounds, the effect is similar, only more electrifying and complex.

Phone light show. The A Team, a song about homelessness. Photos courtesy of Rachael Morgan.

Ed encourages the audience to turn on their phone lights during the gentle chorus of ‘The A Team‘, 

It’s too cold outside, For angels to fly,  Angels to fly.

It’s a kitsch but magical moment, reminding me of the good old days when we would wave our cigarette lighters about in the dark during the more radical and anti- imperialist Midnight Oil concerts. 

Sheeran’s music is eclectic, popular and non aggressive. While some of the sounds and lyrics might be considered simplistic and banal, as in the popular Shape of You, other genres show more depth and song writing genius. His music skips around most styles, Pop, Rap, Blues, Acoustic, English Folk, Beat Boxing, often incorporating elements of story telling or ballad. My favourites include the gospel R&B Make it Rain, sadly not performed at the Melbourne concert, and the multi layered Bloodstream, the live version added below which demonstrates Sheeran’s loop box recording for those not familiar with this technique.

Ed Sheeran’s concert tour of Australia and New Zealand sold over 1 million tickets. Now that’s around one in 30 people who attended the show, and if we cut out the very young and the very old, the odds get much narrower. His music might be described as broadchurch, but then it’s hard not to admire this gentle and enormously talented force, especially if you’re a woman or a girl.

Lost in the Garden

I lose all sense of time in the garden, and then I lose myself. It’s a common enough experience among gardeners. After the first flurry of harvesting, tying back overgrown tomatoes and moving hoses about, observing life’s cycle from seed to flower to fruit then back to seed, and all the while conscious of my own aging body as it bends and complains within this bounteous space, another state emerges. My pragmatic self surrenders to a semi- conscious meditation on the essence of being. Through silent awareness and invisibility, the sounds and signals of earth- primordial, spiritual, supreme- reinforce the idea of Anattā, that Buddhist concept of non-being.

It begins with a chive flower waving in the gentle breeze, now taller than the blanketing pumpkin leaves, insisting on more light. The delicate white coriander flowers belie the true pungency of their leaves, roots and seeds. Things are not what they seem. Then a strange bird call punctures the silence. High pitched like a creaking table, the sound is urgent but not bleak. I look up and see a flash of yellow underneath a broad wing span of black. It’s the yellow -tailed black cockatoo, an infrequent visitor to these lightly wooded lands. Now one, now two more, followed by a train of rasping sound, they are on their way to a distant pine tree. Word is out that the nuts are ready to strip. The guard cocky stands alert, signalling from the highest branch, a two-dimensional black stencil, a wayang puppet, an inked picture outlined in the early morning sky.

The bluest of blue of the radicchio flower is a call to the bees. I can never find the word for this blue: constructs such as Cobalt or Persian or Cornflower might have to do. And the little gem of a beetle, friend or foe, travels across a furry field that is an eggplant leaf. The mauve and white bean flowers peep from the darkness of their leafy canopy, an arrangement, a posy, a boutoniere. The beans can wait.


Sweet Plums in Summer and an Old Tart Recipe

The orchard, summer’s sweet fulfillment, beckons each morning, before the heat sets in. With the passing of the month, more heavily laden boughs bend with the weight of fruits of the season. Long gone are the peaches, young berries and cherries of early summer: now is the time for slow maturing fruit, apples, pears, quinces, figs and plums. Today the ruby-red fleshed Satsuma plums announced their turn to be picked: not as sweet as the Mariposa plum of early January, but a close relative and a very good keeper.

satsuma plums

Picking fruit is a kind way to wake up. I ponder the efficacy of the netting, and the man who meticulously netted, as I reach in to gently press the fruit, testing for perfect ripeness. An abundant season thanks to good spring rain, purple plums press against each other, nudging siblings for space on the bough, beautiful cheeks full of dark juice. As the basket fills, recipes come to mind- sweets of all kinds and savoury concoctions too, jams to put down for rustic winter crostate, spicy Chinese sauces, and poached plums to eat with yoghurt or labne.

Picking plums in the cool of early morning

I’ve made this tart often, and in the past with pears, apricots and cherries. It’s a seasonal standby. The apricot version is my most popular recipe on this blog. I’ve never had much success with growing apricots and so that version is a rare treat. Commercial apricots are picked too soon and never seem to fully ripen, tasting wooden and sour. This plum version is colourful and not too sweet. When choosing plums, make sure that they are juicy, fully ripe and are red fleshed. I should stress that they are not poached beforehand, but gently pressed into the top of the almond frangipane batter before baking.

Torta di mandorle e prugne

Torta di Mandorle e Prugne con Amaretto. Italian Almond and Plum Cake with Amaretto.


  • 125 g softened unsalted butter
  • 150 g castor sugar
  • 4 eggs
  • 50 g plain flour
  • 1 teaspoon baking powder
  • 375 g finely ground almond meal
  • 2 Tablespoons Amaretto liqueur ( brandy works well enough here)
  • red fleshed plums, such as blood plums, fully ripe, enough to fill the tart
  • 25 g flaked almonds


  1. Preheat oven to 170 FF. Grease a 25 cm loose bottom tin and line with baking paper.
  2. Cream butter and sugar in a stand mixing bowl, then add eggs one at a time and beat for 5 minutes until thick and pale. If the mixture curdles, throw in a little of the measured flour.
  3. Stir in the flour mixed with the baking powder, then fold in the almond meal, followed by the Amaretto. Pour into the prepared tin.
  4. Arrange halved plums over the top and lightly press down so they are partly submerged. Scatter the top with the flaked almonds.
  5. Bake for 45- 50 mins. Cool in tin. Gently un-mould.

    Torta di Mandorle e Prugne

In summer, this tart keeps well in a covered box in the fridge. I reheat the slices a little before serving.

Links to my my previous plum concoctions.

Poached plums with labne and nuts and seeds

Plum Clafoutis

Plum and Semolina Cream Tart

Rustic Italian Plum Cake

Chinese Plum Sauce


Black Saturday Anniversary. Thoughts and Thank yous.

Today, nine years ago, my life changed significantly. I’m sure many people have suffered a life changing tragedy at some point too. These events come our way to remind us that life is precious, to test our resilience or perhaps to jolt us out of materialistic complacency. 

The anniversary of Black Saturday, the Victorian Bushfire of February 7th 2009, is one I need to honour, privately in my local town but more publicly through my rambling posts. I have written about it previously. And now I choose the day to reflect on my post- bushfire life and make myself look at a few more photos from that time, and I can honestly say that these memories are no longer painful.

Painted by fire

After that disaster, the mantra in Victoria sounded loudly- ‘We will rebuild’. It was a battle cry of sorts, encouraging communities to re-group and re-establish as well as rebuild their homes. We didn’t, although we did stay in our community. We decided that rebuilding on our land would be too slow, costly and painful and so, almost on a whim, we bought a friend’s house in November 2009. It helped us re-settle more quickly. In the early days, I enjoyed living in a place that was not quite home: for years it enabled me to divorce myself from possession,  attachment and loss. Things would never be quite the same: the moon rose in a different spot, and the battle with an invasive grass species made gardening a nightmare, the climate was different, the bedroom faced the wrong way. I could come and go and never felt home sick. There was a sense of freedom in that.

Once a wet gully, the bare earth burnt for a week.

Last November, after we returned from a 5 month overseas trip, I finally sensed a deep longing for home, this home. It had taken eight years of re-settlement to develop this love. And today, as I walk around the vegetable garden and orchard and see how much work we’ve done, I realise that we’ve achieved our goal of establishing a small permaculture garden. Years of making compost and creating a micro-climate has paid off. Celery, rocket, bok choy and radicchio self sow in cracks and corners, fennel heads wave in the breeze. Dill, coriander and borage pop up unbidden, while flat leafed parsley, the seed that goes to hell and back before germinating, has finally found home here too. Wild cucumbers ramble along pathways, climbing any structure they can find. Pumpkins, chillies and yet more wild tomatoes arrive after every rain. It has taken these years for the apples, plums, figs and pears to fruit abundantly. An old hazelnut and a quince tree battle for light in one corner while the chooks graze like jungle fowl underneath, tossing about leaf litter or hiding on hot days in dense loganberry patches.

The house itself now seems to have developed an enveloping calm since the intsallation of double glazed windows and better heating. The temperature tends to be fairly even and the front ornamental garden breaks the wind and softens the outlook. There are deep shady patches outside for summer or sun catching windows for winter. There is a sense of peace and calm.

Saving the chimney for the future required an engineer’s report. An old hand made convict brick from my grandparents house at Port Albert features in the cornerstone of the hearth. Chimney by Tony Berry, local alternative builder.
The cottage chimney from the front. This little additional building, illegally built, was loved by the children. When they moved out of home, they first moved here, a stone’s throw away from the main house. Also used for music sessions.

I’ve now found my home, and attachment. It’s been a long journey and perhaps it’s time for a simpler life. I need to let go of the things we’ve accumulated which were so important to us at first. And perhaps I need to let go of this home as well.

Old man gum, favourite tree, did not survive this treatment.

Thank you Tess Baldessin, Helen Hewitt and Chris Warner and Bernie Mace for housing us throughout that year of dislocation. You helped us find our feet within our own community, simply by offering us a place to stay. We feel blessed. If only it could be this way for all those in the world who experience dispossession and dislocation through war and natural disaster.


Over the Bridge to Trastevere, Rome

There’s something very captivating about Trastevere, despite the busy night time crowds and touristy restaurants. It’s just a hop over a bridge to Centro Storico, Rome’s ancient centre, and depending on which bridge you take, you’ll land in a different precinct. Getting lost is part of a good day in Rome as you find new streets and more colours until once again, a familiar piazza or ancient Roman building pops up before your very eyes and you know where you are. Rome is always surprising.

One bridge takes you to the Jewish quarter, a great place to wander about on a weekday morning but avoid the weekends when this district is swamped with lunchtime crowds and restaurant spruikers.

Around the Jewish quarter, Rome

Another bridge takes you to the working class, gritty suburb of Testaccio, with its central food market and authentic Roman trattorie. You’ll pass yet more ancient Roman treasures along the way, some just lying about, and wonder why you hadn’t seen them before. There’s a certain insouciance in Rome when it comes to antiquity and this is part of the charm.

Testaccio, Roma,

Other bridges lead you through some official districts until you wander past Palazzo Farnese and find yourself in Campo Dei Fiori and nearby Piazza del Biscione, with its old style restaurants, another market and a superb fornaio ( bakery) on the corner.

The walls seem to glow in Rome’s cold late Autumn light, an attraction in themselves. Layers of ochre, pinks and reds, some colours when weathered, have no name at all. They are the colours washed by time, the colours that make you keep wandering and wondering, the colours of Rome.


Lombardian Stories. The Visconti Unplugged

Ambitious and successful, cruel and paranoid, the Visconti ruled Lombardy for more than 150 years (1277 -1447), an era marked by political upheaval and instability. Constant battles between warring states, ambitious condottieri with their eyes firmly fixed on a princely acquisition or a better offer from another ruler, callous despotic rulers and outbreaks of the plague featured prominently during this period.

Castello Sforzesco, Vigevano

Histories often dwell on the intricate details and dates of deals, reversals, betrayals and reprisals in the battle for power in Northern Italy: this is hard going and tedious reading for many. It’s no wonder that most Renaissance scholars gravitate towards Florentine history, a safe and fertile ground for research. Florence was blessed with relative order (once the Guelfs and Ghibellines had settled their disputes), prudent and astute bankers, graceful and relatively modest buildings, as well as talented architects, artists, writers and poets. The prolific documentation pumped out by the Humanist writers of the Republic gave rise to an historical obsession with Florence. The Renaissance history books on my shelves reinforce this idea: Milan, one of the Big 5 of Italy during that era (the others being Venice, Florence, Rome and Naples) receives scant attention.

Castello Visconteo, Pavia

During the Visconti era, the following cities came under their rule: Bergamo, Novara , Cremona, Como, Lodi, Piacenza and Brescia, as well as Pavia, and smaller towns nearby. With each new acquisition came more cash flow, more gold florins to spend on castles and palaces. They brought a period of wealth and glory to Milan and, like other dictators and warlords of the period, extracted hefty taxes from the locals, not only to build and maintain their castles and lifestyle, but to continue to pay the condottieri ( mercenaries). Often famous, admired and wealthy in their own right, the condottieri commanded private armies to fight territorial battles as well as providing the Visconti with personal protection. It is estimated that half of all gathered revenue was spent on this. As the saying goes, paranoia is just being careful, and you can never be too careful.

Castello Sforzesco a Vigevano, Lombardia

The Visconti rulers were feared, not loved, and their cruelty was legendary. One of the early Visconti, Bernabò, was passionate about boar hunting: anyone who interfered with it was put to death by torture:

‘ The terrified people were forced to maintain 5,000 boar hounds, with strict responsiblity for their health and safety.’¹

A later member of the family, Giovanni Maria Visconti, was famed for his dogs though not so much for hunting but for tearing human bodies.

‘ In 1409, when war was going on, and the starving populace cried to him in the streets, Pace! Pace! he let lose his mercenaries upon them and 200 lives were sacrificed; under penalty of the gallows it was forbidden to utter the words pace and guerra.‘²

On the side of grandeur, Giangaleazzo Visconti founded the extraordinary convent, the Certosa of Pavia, the cathedral of Milan, considered at the time to be the most splendid of all churches in Christendom and the Palace in Pavia, ‘the most magnificent of princely buildings of Europe’. He became Duke of Milan in 1395 and before his death was hoping to become the ruler of the Kingdom of Italy. The Visconti were extremely ambitious.

La Strada Coperta or the covered road, commissioned by the Luchino Visconti in 1347, part of the Castello Sforzesco, Vigevano. It was built to allow the lords of Milan to enter and exit the castle without being seen by the inhabitants of the village, and to flee  during times of impending danger. 
La Strada Coperta, 160 metres long by 7 metres wide. Massive and intact from the Visconti era.

As mentioned above, a high level of paranoia was another feature of their rule, which is often noted in the behaviour of the last Visconti, Filippo Maria:

‘All the resources of the state were devoted to the one end of securing his personal safety, though happily his cruel egotism did not degenerate into a thirst for blood. He lived in the Citadel in Milan, surrounded by magnificent gardens, arbours and lawns. For years he never set foot in the city, only making excursions to the country….. by flotilla which, drawn by the swiftest horses, conducted him along canals constructed for the purpose…..Whoever entered the citadel was watched by a hundred eyes and it was forbidden to stand at the window, lest signs should be given to those without.’³

Servants distrusted each other while highly paid condottieri were watched by spies. Despite this level of neurosis and court intrigue, he managed to conduct long periods of war and dealt successfully with political affairs of the day.

The Biscione, the viper, swallowing a child or perhaps an Ottoman Turk. The family crest of the Visconti says it all! These shields can be found in all Visconti buildings. Below,a simplified graphic of Il Biscione.

Image result for visconti family crest

Beatrice de Tende, Fillip Maria’s wife, was said to have been an intelligent woman who concerned herself with the current affairs of state. Despite this and her own wealth, territory and military strength which she brought to the marriage, Filippo Maria had her accused, on trumped-up charges, of adultery with a young troubadour, and despite her confession of innocence, she was beheaded, along with her two maids and the young musician.

Window. Castello Sforzesco, Vigevano

If travelling to Milan and through Lombardy, plan to spend at least a day in Vigevano, una città ideale, one of the most beautiful Italian cities in northern Italy, bastion of the Visconti and Sforza, and probably much more accessible than Milan. A tour of the castle takes some hours and can be booked when purchasing your ticket.

The excellent  and informed guide leaves Castello Sforzesco, Vigevano.


Background music for this post: the Saltarello, a dance originally from Italy in the late 14th century, the word deriving from the verb ‘saltare’, to jump. I include this as a reminder that some rather nice things went on during that period also.

Notes of the old fashioned kind.

¹ Jacob Burckhardt The Civilisation of The Renaissance in Italy. 1860. Phaidon  Press, edition 1955, pp.7-8

² Jacob Burckhardt, ibid, p 8

³Jacob Burckhardt, Ibid, pp 23-4

My interest in the Visconti and Sforza was aroused many years ago when teaching Renaissance history. I recall that the Dukes of Milano were not given much time; back then, the Medici claimed all the limelight. During my visit to Pavia, Vigevano and the small towns and villages along the Via Francigena, my interested was reignited. Guided by Stefania and Lorenza Costa Barbé, and the excellent young castle guide in Viegevano who spoke such magnificently lucid Italian, I’m now looking for some modern social histories of that era. Recommendations are sought.


Villa Farnesina, Rome. Who was Agostino Chigi?

This summer throughout January, I’m catching up with some of my unpublished stories from earlier travels in Europe in 2017. Some posts will be light-hearted, centered around food and accommodation, ‘the best of’ reports, while others are research based essays. It will be rewarding to polish them up and give them a final airing. Of course there will be a few cooking posts along the way too.

                                                          Buona Lettura

I’ve been thinking a lot about Agostino Chigi lately, and wondering why there’s not a great deal written about him. Given that he commissioned one of the most elegant and beautiful buildings of the Renaissance, Villa Farnesina in Trastevere, Rome, and was a generous patron of the arts, I find this quite unusual.

Agostino Chigi, (pronounced kee-gee) was a 15th to 16th century banker who was born in Siena then moved to Rome to assist his father, Mariano Chigi in 1487. He became the wealthiest man in Rome, especially after becoming banker to the Borgia family, in particular Pope Alexander V, followed by Pope Julius 11. If there’s one thing that helps a banker stay at the top, it’s having business dealings in Rome and becoming the Pope’s treasurer. The Florentine Medici, Giovanni di Bicci and Cosimo de’ Medici, also milked their Roman and Papal connections in the preceding years. Chigi’s financial interests expanded to obtaining lucrative control of important minerals, including the salt monopoly of the Papal States and Naples and the alum monopoly in Southern Italy. Alum was the essential mordant in the textile industry. With financial and mining interests, like a modern-day crony capitalist and entrepreneur, Chigi was ready to splurge.

The connection between the arts and banking makes an interesting Renaissance study in itself ¹. Banking families were keen patrons of the arts, not only in a bid to show off their taste and refinement, but also to cast off the slur of usury. Usury, making profit from charging interest on a loan, was a crime in 15th century Europe: a usurer was heading straight to hell, according to the main religious thinking of the day, unless he made a few corrections to that practice, through intricate bills of credit requiring lengthy international currency exchange deals. Banker patrons, worried about their afterlife, could buy a place in heaven by financing religious works -perhaps a marble tomb for a Pope, or some fine brass relief doors for a baptistry, or a few walls of religious themed freschi demonstrating their piety and devotion by appearing as genuflecting bystanders in a painting or two.

Chigi, like other bankers before him, was keen to spend time with the literati and patronised the main artistic figures of the early 16th century, including Perugino, Sebastiano del Piombo, Giovanni da Udine, Giulio Romano, Il Sodoma and Raffaele. These artists, and the architect Baldassare Peruzzi, all had a hand in making Villa Farnesina so attractive and harmonious. But the main feature you’ll notice in the painted works is its secularity: no religious themes appear in the decoration at all. Thus somewhere between the mid 15th century and 1508, when this building was commissioned and begun, the subject of the visual arts had shifted. Here, the freschi depict classical and historic themes: there’s not a Madonna or baby Jesus in sight except for those cheeky putti holding up garlands. I doubt that Agostino Chigi was overly concerned with the sin of usury. Times had changed.

Suggestive coupling of fruits. New world fruits appear in the garlands of Udine.

The ground floor room, the stunning Loggia di Psiche e Amore, was designed by Raffaele, though was mostly executed by one of his followers Giulio Romano, and seems heavier in style. It’s not the best secular work by Raffaele: his most graceful works are held in the quiet gallery of Gemäldegalerie, in Berlin, Germany ( more on this gallery later). The decorative garlands and festoons are by Giovanni da Udine, and although hard to get close to, draped as they are on high ceilings and around tall window sills and pillars, they steal the show.

Sensuous and erotic, the total effect of the Loggia is complete in its aim and purpose. This is a pleasure palace, a space decorated with pagan themes of love and seduction from classical mythology, designed to amuse Chigi’s guests. The modern addition of a walled glass fronting the garden allows more light to shine on the rich colours and detail. It is delightful.

Upstairs in a smallish room, the wall panels by Il Sodoma, ( catchy nick name for the artist, Giovanni Antonio Bazzi , no two guesses why), depict scenes from the marriage of Roxana and Alexander. In such a small space, the painted walls are ceilings are visually overwhelming.

At the end of the 16th century, Villa Farnesina was bought by Cardinal Alessandro Farnese ( of course a Cardinal needs an erotically decorated villa) and its name “Farnesina” was given to distinguish it from the Cardinal’s much larger Palazzo Farnese on the other side of the Tevere. Today the Villa is the centre for the Accademia Nazionale dei Lincei, the Italian Science Academy and the rooms are open to visitors. Palazzo Farnese, across the river, is occupied by the French Consulate and is not open to the public.

These small decorative motifs on window shutters and in cornices add to the overall aesthetic of the villa.


Some useful accompanying notes.

Giorgio Vasari, (1511-1574) author of Lives of the Most Excellent Painters, Sculptors and Architects, often simply called Vasari’s ‘Lives’, was the first art historian and the first to use the term rinascita ( Renaissancein print, though an awareness of the ongoing “rebirth” in the arts had been in the air since the writings of the Florentine Humanist, Alberti, almost a century earlier. He was responsible for the use of the term Gothic Art, and used the word Goth which he associated with the “barbaric” German style. His work has a consistent bias in favour of Florentines and tends to attribute to them all the developments in Renaissance art. Vasari has influenced many art historians since then, and to this day, many travellers to Italy are blinded by Vasari’s Florentine list and bias, at the expense of other important works in Milano and Rome. Vasari, however, does recognise the works in the Farnesina.

¹ The nexus between banking and art patronage is fully explored by Tim Parks in Medici Money. Banking, Metaphysics and Art in Fifteenth- Century Florence,one  of my favourite books. I am now re- reading this excellent history: it is written in an accessible style and makes for enjoyable summer reading, for those who like reading about the Renaissance.

² Various papers on the festoons and garlands in the Villa Farnesina in Colours of Prosperity Fruits from the Old and New world, produced by the Accademia Nazionale dei Lincei and purchased at Villa Farnesina in Rome.

Agostino Chigi, 1506. Oil on canvas, anonymous.
 Villa Farnesina is in the quiet part of Trastevere, well away from the tourist hordes in that precinct, and during our visit last November, had only a few visitors. Sadly the garden wasn’t open.
Via della Lungara, 230, 00165 Roma RM, Italy


A Lombardian Christmas Card

As Christmas Day moves closer, a stressful count down for some, I’m finding peace in doing simple domestic tasks. Ironing old linen, making bread, shaping and rolling more batches of Sicilian almond balls to share with others, moving furniture around to create dining space for the day, and draping silvery bling around the Christmas tree. Mindless tasks allow thoughts to wander: the devil makes work for busy hands too. I’m back in the towns and villages of Lombardy. I don’t feel that I’ve really left: I have unfinished business there. I miss the sound of village bells, the simple risotti on every menu, the low-lying rice fields of the Po valley dotted with 17th century cascine, enclosed farm buildings and villas set midst stubbled rice fields, river flats edged with pioppi, poplar trees, remnants of Visconti castles, red bricked medieval fortresses, the wine growing hills above Pavia, and the gentle Lombardi people, my new friends and old. I will return to these stories in January: there are many waiting to be aired.

In the meantime, I’m sending out these Lombardi Christmas Cards. They depict a different kind of Christmas bell, the orange kaki or persimmons that caught my eye as we wandered about a small village in the Oltrepò, near Pavia. Nearby, an old shed housing some antique building materials attracted Mr T. This Christmas card is for shed lovers. Another renovation? A little house in the Lombardian hills? Wishing you, dear readers, many fine things this Christmas: good food, friends and family and a warm embrace. Who could want for more.

Balinese Serenity and Mt Agung

Yesterday I was listening to Raf Epstein on ABC’s afternoon drive time radio. He was interviewing a tourist who was stuck in Bali due to the closure of Ngurah Rai airport in Bali as ash continues to pour from the erupting Mount Agung, Bali’s most prominent active volcano. Like many other tourists whose flights have been cancelled, this chap wasn’t too perturbed. He sounded jolly, amused even and serene. He was sitting by the pool eating chicken. A few more weeks in Bali with glorious weather and tasty Balinese food- what’s not to like. Raf made no mention, in this instance, of the significance of Mt Agung’s eruption to the lives of the Balinese people. It was all a bit of a joke really, ‘enjoy your chicken by the pool’ was Raf’s closing comment. It’s a similar story in the Australian press. Pictures of closed airports, or tourists milling about as airports open once again with only occasional glimpses into the lives of those hugely affected- the Balinese people.

Serene under the water.

While Mt Agung makes up its mind, 44,000 people have left the danger zone and are waiting. Many more thousands have returned to the exclusion zone to tend their cattle and farms. The Balinese economy is fragile: despite the lush fertility of the country, farmers live a very simple subsistence lifestyle. Those who have returned have had to weigh up the cost of continuing with their farms, crops and cattle with the threat of a possible disaster. What a choice!

Mt Agung in a serene mood

Meanwhile, the Balinese economy is completely dependent on tourism. For months now, many sectors have been affected. Those working directly in tourist industries, such as hotels, hospitality, transport, mountain climbing and adventure, have been without wages for some months.

rare glimpse of Agung in the morning.

Gunung Agung, a sacred mountain, is revered by the Balinese. When Agung is active and threatens to erupt, it indicates that the Gods are displeased and something in the world is awry. The Balinese have been praying, or counting their losses, or worrying about their homes and livelihood: meanwhile tourists will either kick back by the pool and rejoice in their lengthened holiday, will be checking their travel insurance policies to see how much they might be financially inconvenienced, or travelling by ferry to Lombok for another flight home. Life’s tough.



I See Fire. Wildfire in Como.

Now I see fire, inside the mountain
I see fire, burning the trees
And I see fire, hollowing souls
And I see fire, blood in the breeze.   Ed Sheeran.

One of my favourite Ed Sheeran songs came rushing in as I watched a blazing wild-fire gain momentum on the peaks of the densely wooded forest high above Lake Como. It was a windy night, following yet another unseasonably warm late autumn day. The dark mountains near the comunes of Veleso and Tavernerio were on fire, the lines gaining speed and the fire front broadening. The few people we saw around the village and in the local osteria in Laglio didn’t look perturbed, and as I didn’t have access to the internet or television, I had to assume that this was a controlled burn off. Or an out of control controlled burn off. If I had been at home in Australia, I would have been terrified.

Il bilancio degli incendi nel Comasco: distrutti 400 ettari di bosco E il fuoco non è ancora domato (Il video)
Photo by Andrea Butti, La Provincia di Como.

The next day we woke to the low buzzing sound of helicopters and Canadairs. The war was on. Not unlike a scene from Apocalypse Now, the planes swooped down into the lake, filled their tanks with water, then rose back into the sky in a circular aerial ballet before dropping their load on the smoking mountain. The mission went on all morning, though I did notice that all action ceased at 1pm: nothing, absolutely nothing, gets in the way of an Italian lunch! After the first day, the fire was still visible and threatening to take off once again. The helicopters and Canadairs kept up their vigilant water bombing for three more days until the area was declared safe.

Coming from a bushfire prone district in the low wooded hills, the designated Green Wedge and lungs of  Melbourne, and having been personally affected by the disastrous Black Saturday bushfire of 2009, I was keen to find out what was going on. This required those old-fashioned and timeless investigative skills- chatting  to locals, asking more questions, and buying the local newspaper in Como from a very happy dope smoking giornaliao. 

The gentle dock master down at the Urio ferry stop was concerned about the lack of rain. It was late October, only a few days before All Saint’s Day, and yet it hadn’t rained for two months. The weather had been warm with temperatures in the mid twenties. The little lakes and sources of water high up in the mountains had dried up, and at night the ‘cinghiali, caprioli, volpi, lepri e cervi scendono per bere al lago’, ( the wild boars, roe deer, foxes, hare and deer come down to drink at the lake). He looked concerned, apprehensive even, like some modern day St Francis. ‘They hide during the day,’ he said, ‘even the wolves come down to drink at night.’

By Monday, the newspaper was full of reports, with pictures of fire fighting scenes taken at the fire front, which was estimated to be around 400 hectares. The local brigade, i vigili del fuoco and the local fire fighting volunteers were praised, and along with the aerial bombardment, the fire was kept away from hilltop farms, ancient trails, and the densely populated small lakeside villages. There was some discussion about pyromaniacs and the careless cigarette butt throwing drivers. The following day, another article suggested that the blaze began as a result of a contadino, a peasant farmer, doing some cleaning up by burning off.

In later discussions with other Lombardi, it was suggested that these fires may have been deliberately lit by those wanting to buy land cheaply. Start a fire, watch your neighbour’s land burn, then snap it up for a bargain price. The pernicious Sicilian mafia are alive and well in Lombardy. This behaviour is well documented in the rural areas of Sicily but in Como?

I raised the issue of global warming and the need for more care and vigilance in summer and autumn. The locals do worry about long, hot and rainless autumns that are becoming the norm, as well as the perennial yellow smog that chokes the beautiful historic towns, villages and hamlets within a 30 kilometre radius of Milano. They are also concerned about the long-term pollution of their underground drinking water, necessitating reliance on plastic bottled drinking water in some parts, about the nuclear waste buried under a recently constructed road in Lombardy that can never be removed (construction contracts have been handed out to the mafia as local government corruption takes hold in the North) as well as a raft of other environmental issues confronting Northern Italy. But global warming? Beh, what can you do? The issues are huge.

The blaze in the Comasco hills cost around €500,000 (AU$750,000) to quell. Let’s hope this fire was an aberration, but also a warning and a message.

And a link to that song can be found here.