Mothers’s Day, La Festa Della Madre, always presents a few dilemmas. To celebrate or not, to give gifts or not. The commercialisation of the day is viewed with suspicion in my family, however for grandmothers and great -grandmothers, this day often has more significance. In the past, we’ve enjoyed small family gatherings with my mother, often in the dining room of the Lomond Hotel. A table for nine, set with white linen and fresh flowers, free bubbles for the ladies, followed by a simple three course meal, it was an easier way to get together than at Christmas. My mother always gave small gifts to her three daughters on this day, recognising that we are all mothers. This year, as my mother is in residential care, visits are not yet permitted. The facility management is adhering to very strict guidelines and has partially opened up: one designated family member may visit her once a week. To err on the side of caution makes sense, given that the elderly are so susceptible to the devastating effects of this plague. And as for my immediate family, none of us are planning to break the gathering rules. I’ll miss her today, but she does enjoy a long phone chat.
My biggest dilemma today is this- sweet versus savoury for Mother’s day? I’ve gone with both. For my daughter, a mother of three daughters and two leggy whippets, a crostata filled with apricot jam, Crostata di Albicocche, and for my caring son, a sourdough Panmarino bread filled with baked garlic and fresh rosemary.
When it comes to sweet versus savoury, I think I’d choose the garlic- laced bread. I may need to steal a slice or two of that loaf. How would you choose, dear reader?
Anzac day always fills me with deep melancholy. It’s that annual combination of personal missing of my father, a WW2 Vet, autumn leaves falling, and that deeper sadness that comes from the stories and legends of the Australian/New Zealand experience in battle, particularly those relating to the soldiers who fought in the Great war, WW1. We can talk about personal sacrifice, the fallen, and repeat the usual psalms on this day but we can’t remember what we haven’t experienced. I don’t attend morning ceremonies on ANZAC day but I always spend time visiting small suburban and town war memorials whenever I’m travelling around the Australian countryside. After reading the list of names of the fallen, it becomes evident that in some country towns, a whole generation of related fathers, brothers, uncles, and cousins were removed from families. And when I think of these young men, I recall the history, again with deep sadness, of the calculated way they were used as colonial cannon fodder for a cause that was not their own- the fallen in the fields of France and Belgium, the slaughtered youth at Gallipoli. On this day, let’s also remember those who returned, the gas poisoned and shell shocked, the wounded, the legless and armless, those who could never love again, or be loved, those who lost their hearing, their sight, the mentally disturbed, the haunted, those with the shakes and post traumatic stress before that condition had a name, the men living out their remaining years in soulless suburbs or country towns, as life moved along often without them, forgotten by the governments of the day, their war medals or moth eaten slouch hat tucked in the back of an old wardrobe, the men whose names are not listed on the shrines of remembrance, and the sadness that they carried deep inside and tried so hard to forget.
And on this day, I often read the poetry of Wilfred Owen.
Dulce et Decorum Est
Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,
Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge,
Till on the haunting flares we turned our backs,
And towards our distant rest began to trudge.
Men marched asleep. Many had lost their boots,
But limped on, blood-shod. All went lame, all blind;He soon died;
Drunk with fatigue; deaf even to the hoots
Of gas-shells dropping softly behind.
Gas! GAS! Quick, boys!—An ecstasy of fumbling
Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time,
But someone still was yelling out and stumbling
And flound’ring like a man in fire or lime.—
Dim through the misty panes and thick green light,
As under a green sea, I saw him drowning.
In all my dreams before my helpless sight
He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.
If in some smothering dreams, you too could pace
Behind the wagon that we flung him in,
And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,
His hanging face, like a devil’s sick of sin,
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,–
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie: Dulceet decorum est Pro patria mori.
Unlike the residents of the nearest village who are offered a plethora of dining options during this period of social distancing and isolation, we have none. Down at that village seven kilometres away, every coffee shop, take-away, fine dining restaurant and catering business has published their menu online to tempt families, couples and the non cooking brigade, setting times for parcel pick ups, sourdough bread days, couple’s date night in, and more. They all seem to have adapted to the new normal, competing for the same disposable dollar. They appear to be doing well enough.
I’m not prepared to brave the queues or drive at night to pursue those options. The last time I went out, everyone was too close for comfort. There’s no rest for the lockdown wicked. I get quite cantankerous in the kitchen these days, especially if I’m the only one contributing to the decision making about meals. There’s trouble in paradise. It usually goes like this:
Me “What would you like for dinner?”
T “Hmmm, what do you feel like?”
Me “No, I asked you first. I’m sick of thinking about food”
T “Maybe a stir-fry?”
At which point I pour myself a glass of wine and turn on Netflix. A stir-fry is not the answer I was hoping for. It’s a recipe for disaster, usually resulting in some hodgepodge dish doused in a collection of pantry Chinese sauces and condiments, the plating resembling a dog’s dinner, with little thought given to ethnic origin or finesse.
I usually cook Italian food, which is second nature to me, but if I’m straying at all, I’ll choose between Indian, Lebanese, Turkish, and Greek cuisine. We’ve now resolved the problem with the advent of cuisine theme nights, where we both test new recipes from my wall of cookbooks. On Indian nights, which seem to be occurring rather frequently of late, we make one curry each, starting quite early to allow the curries to settle a bit before rewarming them for dinner. There’s usually enough leftover to stash in the fridge for another meal, given that most curries improve with age. We rate our new concoctions, and if they get the nod of approval, they’re scanned, then popped into a folder. Our Indian nights include dressing the table with Indian fabric and playing some romantic ghazals by that old crooner, Jagjit Singh. Who needs to dine out? It’s a fine solution for those who take self isolation seriously.
I hope to share our tried and true Indian recipes this week, in case you need some inspiration for some Indian take away made at home. Recipes will include two good versions of pakhora, muttar paneer, prawn curry, dhal, potato, pea and yoghurt curry, pumpkin curry, rajma and naan bread. Stay tuned.
Day 26. Living in the hills on the periphery of Melbourne, it’s always fairly quiet around here. We don’t have neighbours within hearing distance, and the road isn’t close by. There’s one small general store, a primary school, a rural supplies store, a pub, bakery and a pizza place. Most of these are now closed or open on a limited basis. Time has come to a standstill. The nearby flight path is silent, the early morning workers’ cars are few and far between. The kitchen clock tics more loudly, evoking memories of dark, claustrophobic antique shops crammed with heavy wooden furniture, tapestries, Victoriana and mantelpiece clocks. The wooden beams creak overhead, expanding and contracting with the day’s heat; an annoying fly hums about, landing on my arm as I write. This deathly quiet seems like I’ve stepped back in time to another place in another century. On days like this, the black dog hovers too close for comfort.
It’s almost four weeks of self-isolation now and I can count the days of escape on one hand. Simple pleasures- a walk around an oval, a short drive to a nearby township to pick up a special order, or to drop something off from a distance, a long awaited postal delivery- have become the highlights of my month.
One of those outings occurred on Day 10. We left home early as the morning fog still hovered above the creek valley below our place. The drive took us through the hills that form part of our district and followed the steep descent to the township of Yarra Glen, suspended below the road in a pool of blinding light. Travelling along the fertile plains of the Yarra Valley to Coldstream, we passed by vineyards and strawberry farms, fields of dark leafed cabbage and paddocks of sheep and cattle. Our mission was to collect a few day old chickens from a hatchery, a necessary and essential trip, officer, in order to provide future laying hens for my small self- sufficient farm. It is a familiar landscape: I’ve been travelling through these same hills for forty years. Yet on this occasion, the landscape seemed to sing with extraordinary beauty. I discovered new vistas, old railway bridges and distant mountain ranges that I had ignored all these years. Less traffic, the cold, clean air of the morning, the silver sun rising through the glinting frost in the valley, I felt a rare euphoria, a joy that emanated from being immersed in nature.
I made a resolution on Day 10, that when all this is over, I want to go on more picnics in the nearby hills and valleys. To be a part of this landscape while we still have it. To do what our ancestors did on their days off. And when I’m more confident about the state of the world, perhaps I’ll take a longer drive to other beautiful landscapes and bush within Victoria, to visit this land with new eyes.
Time now marches through life like a merciless drill sergeant, or dawdles behind like a whining child depending on how you now find yourself. Days have lost meaning, a weekend for workers fast becoming a redundant notion, as time turns into a series of statistics- the day’s death rate, the increased spread of the covid 19 virus, the daily rise in numbers, the shape of the curve, the waffle and contradictory chatter on the airways clouding all sense and reason. Dear Italia and the people of Lombardy, their statistic is about to become ours. Easter holidays, no longer holy, as longed for days of family gathering will pass without much fanfare. No chocolate eggs, don’t risk the shops. Hot cross buns? Make your own, you have the time now if not the will. Use the ingredients on hand in your pantry. The old Venetian ‘quarantina‘ makes more sense as a measurement of time: forty days, not a fortnight, but perhaps much longer if you’re still living in the land of days and weekends, still congregating at the beach, the river or renting weekend houses, shopping for fun not necessity, still in denial, joining another queue with strangers. Wake up Australia. The time is now.
For those who measure time by the slow drip of quince juice from a jelly bag suspended over a chair, making quince jelly is a seasonal and timeless pastime, resulting in the colour of Autumn’s bounty trapped in a jar. If you manage to score a bag of big gnarly quinces from someone this season, wash your hands after collecting the bag, wash the quinces well, and follow the most simple recipe on the internet you can find. There are only two ingredients required- quinces and sugar. I’m assuming that the toilet roll hoarders haven’t bought all the sugar, but then in my mind there’s a warped correlation between the two.
Let’s lay the cards on the table. Climate change is not only real, but is making its presence felt in catastrophic ways more often. There’s little doubt that climate change is anthropogenic: 98% of world climate scientists agree that this is the case. There are ample papers and graphs which demonstrate this well and I don’t need to add the links here. The debate was over long ago. Once you agree with the science and accept this premise, it’s time to move down the path of action. If you don’t accept that climate change is either real or does not originate from human activity, you either don’t read widely, are ignorant or brainwashed, or belong to a cult. The Australian Prime Minister, a member of the Pentecostal Church, is well known for his climate change denial stance. It’s a handy belief – that God or nature caused this problem- and underlies his irresponsible stance on climate action, and continued promotion, expansion and subsidisation of the fossil fuel industry. The IMF estimates that annual energy subsidies in Australia total $29 billion, representing 2.3 per cent of Australian GDP. On a per capita basis, Australian fossil fuel subsidies amount to $1,198 per person. As Australian voters, we have a lot to answer for and a lot to change.
I’m not going to write about the heartbreaking and catastrophic fires here in Australia. Others have done so very poignantly in the media over the last few weeks, describing the loss of homes, forests, native animals, ecosystems, and more. I’m attempting to harness my anger and sense of impotence by directing it in a very conscious way towards action. During this sad time in Australia, I’ve been reflecting on hope. Not the nonsensical Hope that goes with Faith and Charity in the old Catholic mantras. Today’s hope is more urgent, real and insistent, driving personal action that leads to a change of the current paradigm.
“Hope is an axe you break down doors with in an emergency”
“When survival is your number one priority, the future you need to solve is today”
So what are the goals that emerge from hope? Below is my list. It’s based on where I live, which is in a rural bush setting, 40 kms from Melbourne, my age which is a few days short of 70 years old, my access to time since I am retired, and my political ideology. My list is also a statement of where I stand at present ( the personal is political, as the old saying goes) and the choices I’m prepared to make or not make. I’ll review these goals in one year’s time.
Government and leadership. In terms of urgency, it is essential that Australia is led by a government that is ready to embrace climate action by phasing out the fossil fuel industry. The current government is hell bent on expanding it. This is the first goal: to work towards the removal of the present government and simultaneously encourage alternative parties or independents to honestly address this urgent issue as a priority. There are various actions you might follow in order to achieve this. You may write to your local MP, asking what their stance is on climate change and emission reduction over the next 5 years. You can join a group such as Extinction Rebellion, or Friends of the Earth ( there are many other groups) which encourage a variety of activities to suit all ages and level of risk. You can attend a climate protest demonstration event in your capital city. The era of protest is back- and is growing weekly in Australia. I’ve found that by being with like minded others, my hope has grown.
Boycotts. Primary and secondary boycotts are a useful way to bring about change. This involves a bit of homework. Know more about your bank’s investment activities. Divest funds away from companies that support polluting, especially coal mining, activities. Move your banking and superannuation to companies which support green economies. Boycott companies that are financing or assisting Adani in any way. Secondary boycotts are tremendously effective, so much so, that the current government has moved to make them illegal. Primary boycotts include avoiding all media owned by Murdoch. This includes canceling subscriptions to the usual newspapers run by News Corps Australia, the ‘Australian’ and most of the daily and weekend papers in each state. A comprehensive list of Murdoch owned press can be found here. It includes many popular magazines, websites, as well as Foxtel and Sky News. Murdoch, through his stranglehold of Australian media, promotes climate denial and misleading, if not outright false, information and news. On the positive side, the Australian independent media network includes the following : The Guardian, New Matilda, The New Daily, Indigenous X, Renew Economy, The Conversation, The Saturday Paper, The Monthly, Crikey, Meanjin, No Fibs, Junkee, Buzfeed Oz News, The Big Smoke. Many are free, while others allow you to read a free article or two but require paid subscription for full access. Subscriptions keep independent media alive.
Cars. Use public transport and leave the car at home. Use a car only when necessary or when there’s no public transport available. An ideal stance would be to not own a car at all. At present, I believe this is not possible for most Australians, given the geography of the land, the spread of the suburbs, and the length of travel time to work. It is, however, quite feasible for inner city apartment dwellers who have access to GoGet cars for hire short term, and who live on major train and tram routes. I live 7 kms from the nearest train station and use public transport as often as I can. My current small and economical Toyota is 10 years old: my mechanic suggests it will keep going well for another 10 years. On average I spend $25 a week in petrol which is going down with more frequent train use. I’ll probably hang on to this car for a while. A huge carbon footprint went into the making of it, which is a factor to consider before letting it go. When I do buy a new car, it will be electric.
Fridges and electric gadgets. Check the efficiency and environmental star rating of your fridge and air conditioner. Refrigerants contained in older air-conditioners and refrigerators can be extremely harmful to the environment. Many refrigerants, such as chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs), damage the ozone layer, while others are extremely potent greenhouse gases. “One kilogram of the refrigerant R410a has the same greenhouse impact as two tonnes of carbon dioxide, which is the equivalent of running your car for six months.” Throw away your old shed fridge- it’s bound to be a major polluter. Also check the star rating of other gadgets. For instance, I have a 90 cm wide oven which allows me to bake two loaves of bread simultaneously or lots of pizzas. But on the average night, heating this large electric oven for a meal is extremely wasteful and inefficient. I’ve noticed a large spike in power usage on baking days. So I’m transitioning to weekly bakes and stove top cooking which uses minimal gas. Don’t use clothes dryers, there’s really no need to do so in Australia, and add your excess boiling water to a thermos. This can be used over the day for tea making. The electric kettle is a huge energy user. Wash clothes only when you have a full load.
Air Travel. This is a difficult one for most Australians to address. Europeans are able to commute between cities by train, and what an enjoyable way to travel for the tourist too. If Australians abandon air travel, the country will become isolated once again. Having grown up in the 50s and 60s in a country that was suspicious of foreigners, and extremely insular, I would hate to see our country return to this state. The best one can do is to reconsider each trip and limit air travel, especially longer trips to Europe or America. One way to assuage your guilt is to plant trees. Joining a Landcare group is a viable way of getting more trees into the ground. Sadly though, as Australia happily adopted the 20 million tree programme which is about to conclude, the NSW government allowed 58 thousand hectares of land clearing and native forestry removal over the last two years. If you live in that state, demand a halt to land and forest clearing. ( see australia-spends-billions-planting-trees-then-wipes-out-carbon-gains-by-bulldozing-them ) Other States have similar problems with clearing. NSW stands out as having the worst record.
Diet. Meat eating is not sustainable. “If cattle were their own nation, they would be the world’s third largest emitter of greenhouse gases after US and China.” The problem does not simply lie in methane gas. Forest and land clearing, water usage and fertilizers also have a huge impact on the environment. I haven’t eaten meat for 40 years. This environmental message is not new. One of the most influential books on the topic, Diet for a Small Planet by Frances Moore Lappé, was written in 1971 and had a major impact at the time. I’m not including dairy in my goal statement here- it’s hard to imagine a world without cheese, yoghurt and milk products from small grazing herds of cattle, sheep or goats. I also eat eggs and raise chickens for eggs- their spent straw and manure is a dynamic component in compost making. I occasionally eat fish and carry an App list of sustainable options when shopping for fish.
Shopping. Clothing manufacturing has a huge carbon footprint, it currently stands at 3% of all global emissions of C02. ( air travel currently stands at 2%). This goal is relatively easy to attain- don’t buy new clothes, but if you do, make sure it’s a rare event, an annual treat and not a mindless habit. Every 10 minutes, 6 tonnes of clothing goes to landfill in Australia. My approach is to look for second hand clothing in fabrics that I like or those with Australian designer labels. Refashioning second- hand clothes made from fabulous fabric is a creative way to approach the problem. I also keep an eye out for great trims and buttons on old clothes. I’m not alone in this hunt, I’ve noticed. I think the fashion industry is slowly being turned on its head and many are now embracing individual styling, and anti fashion statements. Let’s hope it’s not a passing trend among the young but a lifetime commitment.
Composting. I’m a great believer in composting. Not only does composting help reduce methane emission from landfill, but the resultant humus enriches the soil and traps carbon at the same time. Carbon farming on a large scale is another great way to reduce emissions. In my own small way, it’s one of my private offsets. “Today there is a revolution in agriculture that recognizes the importance of building healthy soils by replacing the organic matter that has been lost,” says David Wolfe, professor of plant and soil ecology at Cornell University. This new approach is called carbon farming. According to Wolfe, in theory, implementing this method on cultivated lands could slow the pace of global climate change by offsetting as much as one-quarter to one-third of annual increases in atmospheric CO2 for 20 to 50 years, until soil carbon stocks are once again fully restored. Others have argued that a 5 to 10 percent offset benefit is more realistic”. Nothing is wasted in my compost making. I rake mown grass, collect hundreds of buckets of fallen oak tree leaves, collect shredded paper from my daughter’s business and spent straw and manure from the hen house, as well as all food scraps. This is a daily business and often takes hours but it beats going to the gym for exercise. This would not be one of my priorities if I lived in an apartment or house without some accompanying land. It’s not a goal for everyone.
One of the more unusual things on the lists I have read ( and borrowed from) is the Education of Girls. This often appears as Number 4 on world goals to save the planet, but perhaps it should be number 1. You can change the pattern of unsustainable growth through education. Girls education is the single most important thing in reducing the birth rate: at the same time, educated women have a powerful influence over culture and survival. Find a charity that supports girls education in places where it is most needed. If you know of any good ones, please let us know by commenting below.
Recycling. I’ve added this at the bottom of my list as it’s still an important goal to improve in this area. I believe most people do have a conscious approach to recycling and are trying hard to manage their waste through sorting into the appropriate categories and limiting their purchase of plastic wrapped goods. I’m not ready to obsess about scraps of waste that end up in my landfill bin. My waste will not fit into a Mason jar. Waste management also needs further work at the state level.
This is my list of achievable goals. Some things I already do, others are works in progress. The ranking is random, except for number 1, government change. Your list may be completely different, because you are a busy mother holding a full time job, because you need to cross the city to get to work, because your job demands that you fly, because you are much younger or older than I am, because you live in an apartment, because you have a disability or have special needs. My list is not meant to sound preachy or self righteous. If it does, I apologise, knowing there’s nothing more annoying and counter productive than those who signal their own virtue. I do encourage you to make your own personal list directly related to climate action and to review it from time to time. Feel free to share your action list or add good, inspiring links in the comments section.
¹ quotes on hope and ideas of list making evolved from some of the papers written by Diego Arguedas Ortiz, on BBC FUTURE, another informative site to dip into.
I remember the turning point vividly, that year when I decided that enough was enough, which in reality, was far too much. It was the beginning of my awakening about Christmas Day, an ongoing change of mindset, involving rewriting tradition and re-evaluating family, place and gifting.
It was my turn to host the Christmas family lunch in 2016, a rotating event shared by my three siblings. As my mother, the matriarch, was ( and is ) alive and well, an annual Christmas lunch was taken for granted, but it was a tradition that we all began to feel uneasy about as the logistics of hosting and catering for the day became a nightmare. At the age of 93 that year, and still living independently in her own home, it was a grand event involving her four children, their partners, her grandchildren and partners, and her great grandchildren, a cast of 32 people or more. Despite discussions about simplifying the day, it never happened. Along with cleaning, house sprucing, decorating and shopping, preparation involved finding 32 sets of plates, cutlery, and glasses suitable for water, wine and beer, 32 assorted chairs, six tables, and tablecloths to cover them, clearing a room large enough to hold the tables and guests comfortably, the assembling of serving platters, table napkins, and the emptying of fridges to store food on the day. Eskies full of ice were strategically placed around for drinks, extra bins ready for recycling. On that occasion, a pissoir for outside male use was erected so that at least some of the 30 plus people wouldn’t flush away our essential tank water supply. Long lists began in early December, the whole month dedicated to planning the lunch, with inside/outdoors options considered, subject to weather conditions.
On that Christmas day, like so many other years in Australia, the weather turned hot and windy, the north wind blowing at gale force through my property perched on a ridge in the country. The temperature was 39ºc, and along with strong wind gusts of over 50 kmph, an outside garden event was definitely out of the question. The day was declared a Total Fire Ban day, which meant no barbecuing could take place. The day was categorised as Severe under Victoria’s bushfire rating codification system, introduced after the Black Saturday bushfire of 2009. Part of the preparation for the day always involved this unnerving uncertainty about the weather- could we have a BBQ, maybe a picnic outside, what about a buffet on the veranda? None of these options were suitable for a blustery, terrifying total fire ban day.
On that day in question, three Christmases ago, I watched my mother sit quietly, sometimes with eyes closed, on a couch in the only air- conditioned room of our house, which wasn’t functioning very well given the constant door opening by excited children and desperate smokers. On phones and computers, others nervously watched the CFA ( Country Fire Authority) information site and weather reports: my brother received a barrage of anxious calls from his partner about her bushfire fears for her area. The happy young children opened an obscene number of gifts, someone forgot to bring their KK gift, a second- nephew didn’t know our names, younger generation partners said very little and you just knew they would rather be somewhere else, but that invisible hand of tradition forced them to attend. And I cooked, stood on my feet all day, ate very little, orchestrated and at times delegated, spoke to no one much, checked fire reports and found it hard to smile. I should have cancelled the day, my mother was struggling with the heat. One of the most unnerving aspects of the day was the fear of evacuating a large group of city dwellers who had no experience or theoretical knowledge of what to do if confronted with an imminent bushfire. The day did not make sense.
After the guests left, we sat among the mess and debris and breathed a sigh of relief. Slowly regarding the waste of leftover food and paper, discarded tissue hats and bits of plastic landfill from bonbons, dishes and cloths to be washed and furniture to be re-arranged, I realised that I felt deeply upset and exasperated. Never again. On that day, I made a firm resolution that our Christmas traditions needed to change.
Since then, I’ve found some peace and no longer practice self flagellation about Christmas Day. As I was using my last piece of Christmas paper last week, one stashed from years before, I did so with real joy. The empty cardboard roll symbolised the end to another wasteful practice. I turned to my fabric stash and cut into a colourful Indian Sari to wrap a gift. I also discovered another stash of op-shop rolls of ribbons suitable for tying gifts. I assembled a small bag of assorted fabric oddments dedicated to this purpose, tucking it into the linen press. Like the Japanese gift wrapping, Furoshiki, I am pleased to send my fabrics and ribbons on their way- they’ll be reused, they’ll travel, they might even return. I’ve made a few batches of Amaretti biscuits, the spice reminiscent of a more ancient tradition of gifts, perfumed with the scent of orange. My adult children ask what food they should bring and I answer, whatever you like, something simple. Mr T now spends his pre-Chrismas days doing essential maintenance for our survival in the Australian bush, removing piles of fallen leaves and twigs from the front of our house, an ongoing task during bushfire season, a season that now stretches longer than in years gone by. Sadly, the season coincides with Christmas. We’re slowly getting our priorities right.
Today is un giorno festivo according to the bus timetable, which simply means it’s Sunday, a holiday, a holy day, as opposed to all the other working days of the week. I’ve arrived in Castellina in Chianti, a small village 15 kilometres from Siena, after a slow but pleasant bus trip through rolling Tuscan hills dotted with small historic settlements with names that resonate more loudly than they should: Ficareto, Colombaio, Quercegrossa, Croce Fiorentina, San Leonino. I mentally translate every printed word that flashes by: names of villages and rivers, traffic directions and road signs, as figs and doves, large oak trees and Florentine crosses, saints, wells and fountains overload my thinking. This habit is mentally exhausting. Last night’s drift of snow left no visible sign in these hills, but it’s still cold and bleak. I’m wearing a thick brown coat- one that I purchased from the bi – weekly market near the medieval wall just outside the centro storico in Siena. It’s my bag lady coat, coarse and graceless, but warm. I feel like an outsider, an imposter, and terribly lonely: this coat doesn’t help. I’ll blame the coat for my sense of estrangement, given that all the Senese look so elegant in their long, fur trimmed woolen coats, not unlike those well- behaved citizens in a medieval Ambrogio Lorenzetti fresco. Not to mention the local taste for expensive, narrow, fine leather or reptile skin shoes, elegant and totally impractical, which don’t fit my broad Australian feet. The stall holders at the Sunday market in Castellina in Chianti are now packing up: I’ve arrived too late to pick up a little antique hand worked pillow case or vintage ceramic plate. The village looks deserted and uninviting. I’m not sure why I came, or where to go, not having done much research before making this lone journey. A church bell chimes in the distance signalling that it’s already past one pm, a reminder to the secular that it’s time to eat. Distant church bells can be comforting or dispiriting, arousing a sense of belonging or sadness. Today’s bells ring melancholy. A sense of cognitive dissonance overcomes me: it seems that the more I learn this language and bathe in the familiarity of Italian sounds, the less certain I feel about my place here. The empty streets loudly announce that everyone else is already seated at a table, either in a family home or warm restaurant, coats now hanging on pegs by the front door, primo piatto about to be served, a bottle of Chianti Classico proffered, as loud and excitable conversation fills the room.The choice on the menu won’t be novel or foreign: Italians are far more comfortable with regional food, or even more precisely, the food of their paese, the local village or district, food that is cooked simply and according to tradition. That’s what is so appealing about Italian food. At times, I’ll admit, Italian regional cuisine can become stubbornly insular and unbending too. Campanilismo, a word derived from campanile, the village church bell,suggests a rigid adherence to one’s local food, method of cooking, ingredients, dialect and ways of doing things: it’s about local pride. The bell tolls for many reasons.
I’m feeling anxious now and walk more desperately. The town is much smaller than I anticipated. If I’m not seated at a table by 1.15, I may miss out on lunch altogether. I’m looking for a small restaurant or trattoria, one that isn’t too well patronised by noisy extended families in elegant clothes, having attended, or pretending to have attended, church. Pretending to attend church is an art form in Italy, a performance that I greatly admire. You don your Sunday best, make a brief appearance at the church with the family, double or triple kiss your friends at the front steps, enter and sit down for a bit, pop out the front for a smoke (male), or chat loudly with your friends in the mid to rear rows (female), while ignoring most of the action at the front altar. The reverberating monotone of the priest echoing around the walls, ‘Santo, Santo, Santo il Signore Dio dell’universo. I cieli e la terra sono pieni della tua gloria’, produces a ready response from the front two rows of pews. High pitched, croaky voices pray in unison, the pious and the permed: small boned and ancient women kneel, rosaried and devout, as they prepare for their future in paradiso.
I peer through the window of a small and very plain looking trattoria and see a tangle of bright yellow pasta lying on a wooden bench, liberally dusted with flour. A plump middle aged woman in a plastic cap adds more to the pile- pasta freshly rolled and cut for today’s lunch. The menu board says Tagliatelle al Burro eSalvia. ( tagliatelle with butter and sage). I don’t read any further, I don’t need to know what’s on offer for the piatto secondo. I walk straight in.
When the eggs are plentiful and spring vegetables and herbs announce their readiness to be picked before bolting to heaven, I think back to that simple meal in Castellina in Chianti. It was elegant yet comforting, it’s success arising from restraint. Freshly made egg pasta is a joy to make and consume soon after. It requires only 2 ingredients: eggs and flour, along with a bit of kneading, resting, rolling and cutting and that’s all. No salt, no oil, no sourdough starter, no colours, no heavy artisan type flours, no chia seeds and no fuss. The sauce should gently coat the strands. Ideally, you want the fresh eggs to sing, their golden yolks colouring the mixture. At this time of the year, fresh pasta is almost saffron in colour, the eggs are so good. In the case of Tagliatelle with Butter and Sage, the sauce comes from lightly browned butter in which you crisp a few sage leaves. You could add a grating of nutmeg. It is served with grated parmigiano. Authenticity, although a fraught concept, requires you to stick, as much as possible, to the traditions of a country’s cuisine, if you have the ingredients on hand to do so. Once you start fiddling with a recipe, expect the results to speak a different language. Restrained is a good word to describe the elegance of Italian food. I hear those bells ringing. Time to make fresh pasta.
Whosoever offers to me with devotion a leaf, a flower, a fruit or water, that offering of love, of the pure heart I accept.
Krishna tells Arjuna what God expects and requires of an offering in the most famous passage from the Bhagavad Gita, (ix:26)
This passage lies at the heart of the Balinese tradition of preparing offerings : leaves, flowers, fruit and holy water are presented with devotion. Today’s offerings for Galungan, featured in the images below, however, differ in the sense that they are made to the returning spirits of ancestors and are placed in front of family homes in small enclosed palm leaf or bamboo cages.
Wandering the suburban back streets today,I was rather taken with these elaborately decorated cages at the base of each penjor, filled this morning with special banten or offerings. These offerings are more family based and idiosyncratic, with each basket protected from marauding birds and squirrels, so that the little rice cakes and other treats for the dead might survive for the whole of this auspicious day.
Today’s religious ceremonies start at the home temple: each family compound will have one small temple, usually found in the kaja-kangin corner of the compound.¹ Offerings are made here first, before travelling, on foot or by motorbike, to the larger community temples located in each banjar or district.
Dressed in their finest ceremonial clothes, the Balinese are enjoying their holiday. For the modern Sanur based family, this means a cone or cup of Massimo’s gelato after the family prayers: the queues outside Massimo’s gelateria are long, as men in ceremonial white udeng and finely woven sarongs, and women in white lacy kabaya and coloured sarongs queue for a sweet treat.
¹ Kaja-Kangin, two aspects of Balinese orientation, will be discussed fully in a later post.
If you are of a certain age, the title of this piece will ring a bell and you’ll automatically complete the line. The song, A Hard Rain’s a Gonna Fall’, the title of Bob Dylan’s epic ballad of 1962, is perhaps his best known song. Those who recall it will remember the question and answer form, apocalyptic message and length. I feel like I’ve known this song all my life though it’s not a song I care to play these days. But now that old earworm has been firmly replanted, after watching Martin Scorsese’s Rolling Thunder Review: A Bob Dylan Story on Netflix recently. The previously unseen footage of Dylan’s performances during this concert tour is riveting. There are many annoying and fake aspects of the film: I was gullible enough to believe I was watching an actual documentary. In a world where fake news dominates the media and lying politicians are believed, you might say, so what, it’s only a film. What stays with me most is the strong performance of Dylan, appearing in that 1975 road tour face painted as a rock star/clown/kabuki performer, as he energetically belts out a stunning and ominous performance of Hard Rain. No more spoilers, except this small film clip.
In the meantime, I’m wondering how we might rejig this foreboding Dylan ballad, which was adapted from traditional troubadour folk ballads with the same question and answer format, in particular the English- Scottish lyrical song, Lord Randall.¹ Perhaps my new version could go along these lines:
And what did you see, my brown eyed girl,
And what did you see when you opened that URL?
I saw one thousand dead fish, in a dried up old river,
A mountain of plastic, afloat on an ocean,
The ice covered mountains, were crying from melting
I saw ancient green forests, bulldozed for more profit
The skies turned red, the houses were burning
Coal was dug up, the planet was dying
Men who were lying, the people believing
Wise men were writing but no one was reading
And it’s a hard, it’s a hard, and it’s a hard, it’s a hard, it’s a hard rain’s a gonna fall. Add some more verses of your own, at least another 6 minutes worth. The choice is endless and you don’t even need to lie. Time to bring back the protest song.
¹ For those interested in musicology, follow this link to a version of Lord Randall, with lyrics.