Unintended consequences

With this lockdown, people are finding imaginative ways, especially technology, to reach across the world to friends and relatives. I was most touched by this story;

Next week is Pesach, when Jews around the world, religious or not, come together to commemorate the Flight from Egypt; it’s a tender and exotic story to non-Jews and a stirring tradition. They eat what is known as the Seder meal, which includes roast lamb (perhaps the origin of our Paschal lamb for Easter) and bitter herbs, sing songs and tell the story of the Exodus.

One culturally Jewish friend tells me her family is part of a long tradition stretching back before the Second World War.  Pre-war, two families in Berlin used to come together every Pesach for the Seder meal.  Both became refugees to this country, ending up in parts of North London.  Discovering each other after the War, they resumed the tradition, celebrating Pesach year on year, despite the inevitable departure of the original family members.  My friend’s sister-in-law and her family is now in Israel and they keep promising themselves that one year, they would head there to celebrate with her.

This year, having discovered all the virtual meeting opportunities, the North London families will not only be together in London virtually, but also with the sister in Tel Aviv, joining for a Seder meal, an “e-seder”.  How joyous.


A Cathedral Cat

A weekend spent in the splendour of Norwich Cathedral, 900 + years of worship and prayers which we were adding to with our renditions of Ireland’s Greater Love Hath No Man, Elgar’s The Spirit of the Lord, Howells, Dyson, Guerrero, psalms, hymns and Responses.  Such a joy.  Despite the City itself being so full of treasures to explore, it was not a penance to stay inside for rehearsals and services, coming thick and fast; no, Storm Dennis put paid to any thoughts of sitting in sunshine with a sandwich, visiting the churches (one for every week of the year) or pubs (supposedly one for every day of the year) or boating on the Broads – in any downtime we might find.

To jolly us along, we were joined by the Cathedral cat, white with black and ginger markings.  Budge (who has a Twitter account @BudgeofNorwich with lots of photos) wandered around, with clergy and congregation batting nary an eyelid, while we, unused to cats in a church, restrained our hilarity and maintained our focus on the music and the music director. I’ve not sung to a cat before and luckily, Budge didn’t sit in front of the altar (or us) and start to lick clean various parts of his/her anatomy, which might have broken us apart.  No, he/she just ignored us (tells you something about how well we sang) and carried on with his/her exploration of what might be under the seats.

The only other time I’ve experienced a cat wandering around during a service was on a hot Australian Christmas Day,  in a church in the back of beyond; candles wavered in the breeze from the open doors, robes fluttered and the cat followed the “altar party” down the centre of the church to join in.  He/she, too, was pretty well behaved, not lying down or performing embarrassing cleaning rituals, just curling up in the sunshine, so people had to step over him/her.

A curious coincidence – both churches were led by women clergy! In Australia 20 years ago, she was my first experience of a woman priest leading worship; and such interesting, new and different insights were brought to bear on the familiar stories.  In Norwich, the new-ish Dean is also a woman, and excellent, of course.

In neither place did cat or female clergy generate surprise! Hurrah – equality in some senses at last!



A classic jouney

In the street outside sits a cream-coloured Morris 1000 Traveller, lovingly restored, proudly polished and driven occasionally. IMG_1985

In the 1970s, one of its pale green counter-parts was our family car, as it provided an accessible space for dogs and luggage. Seeing that model sparks such memories for me – of learning to drive; of my father leaving it unlocked outside Heathrow, to find it disappeared on his return – taken away by police who must have been terrified when our big dog reared up in the back!; of the car piled high with luggage, bicycle on the top, for my first term at University.

And a very big journey, undertaken in the summer of 1970, when my father and I drove through Europe to Oberammergau for the legendary Passion Play, which takes place every ten years to fulfil a vow made nearly 400 years in thanksgiving for surviving the plague.

Only qualified to drive the previous year, I was not planning on driving much, but my father had left his driving licence at home (“I don’t need it, do I?”, he asked innocently, when we were halfway to Dover for the ferry); so I drove through every border, in case we were stopped and papers scrutinised.  Yes, there were borders then.  To my chagrin, we were waved through everywhere; obviously, I was too innocent!

Another issue we had to address was that the passenger door lock was broken; every time we stopped, we solemnly circled the car, pretending to lock every orifice – and nothing went missing! Perception was all.  Or was it that they saw us and thought it unlikely for there to be anything worth nicking among our possessions? Or was it a much more innocent, law-abiding age?

The AA had organised a route for us, devising a journey without many motorways, going through Belgium and Germany, down the Rhine and returning home a different way, touching Austria, Lichtenstein and Switzerland and dawdling through France and visiting the Battlefields. Hotels were booked for us in major towns, putting map-reading skills to the test; arriving at approximately rush-hour in each town was not a good idea, even though there weren’t as many cars in towns as there would be now. I had a German phrase off pat, well-practised. With what I believe was a good accent, I would ask the way; not so clever when you can’t understand the answer.

My mother, never keen on travelling, stayed at home to look after dogs and farm.  My sister, working, flew out to Munich for the weekend for the play; and what a play! Such an extraordinarily inspirational experience, even though the words were in a German we had no chance of knowing; but of course we knew the story.  Moving, powerfully so indeed, when a clap of thunder echoed around the hills at the Crucifixion.

Audiences now, I believe, stay in nearby towns and hotels outside the village.  We were billeted actually in the village; our hostess had been in the play in 1960 but as a married woman, she could no longer participate – or at least, that’s what we understood. Such a pretty village.  The theatre itself, a huge concrete hall, a roof over our heads but the stage open to the backdrop of the hills and to the elements so the actors had double costumes, one for wet and one for dry weather.

IMG_1989During the breaks (the play took place over two days), you could spot the apostles, wandering around, drinking in the bars, eating in the cafes, St John riding a bicycle; how did you know they were apostles?  They were all bearded.

A six country odyssey in twelve days, thousands of miles driven, seminal and searing experiences daily – a journey of a lifetime – brought vividly to mind seeing the car outside, and because of this being 2020, another Passion Play will be performed to thousands in Germany again. Easy to get to now, with no border checks, at least for this year; perhaps by 2030, we’ll have come to our senses again, and partner Europe once more.



A December week in Sicily (part 3)

Palermo, a city of domes, palazzi, towers – and that’s only the Centro Storico.  Three main streets divide up the Centro Storico, meaning that if you dive into a side street and lose yourself, it is comparatively straightforward to orient yourself again.

Our hotel has a 7th floor dining room and terrace on one of these major streets, which gives a stonking view from hills to shining sea.

Palazzi, domes, towers

Surprisingly, lots of noise reaches rooms on the 5th floor, where most of us are billeted.  The Palermitani seem to enjoy partying through the night, shouting to each other, revving cars, dancing (and presumably drinking)!

Earthquakes, war-time bombardments still not patched up, give the city, close to, a rather scruffy look; many theories are given for why there is still so much needing rebuilding and restoration – multiple owners, without adequate dosh or agreement to rebuild, money siphoned off because of corruption, no desire to improve.  Scruff

We met a Palermitano photographer, showing us photos of buildings with paint peeling, but lights on inside and if you cross the threshold, even luxury!IMG_1787

And public buildings like churches and palaces display unbelievable glories to die for – in paint, stucco, mosaic, gold, marble.

We met two writers who clearly love their native city, but write with clear eyes.  One book concerned Giovanni Falcone, a judge whose name is renowned and celebrated for his stand – to death – against the mafia.

In the Church of San Domenico


The airport is even named after him and his fellow murdered judge, Paolo Borsellino.  Both insisted that they were not heroes as they heard cases and bravely jailed Mafiosi.  The writer imagines an incident in Falcone’s childhood, effecting putting the lie to the hero moniker, demonstrating that ordinary people with ordinary fears can step forward, be counted and make a difference.

We need that thinking in what feels a most alarming period with right-wing conservatives, led by a known scoundrel, winning the election!  This cast a pall over our Sicilian trip.  The weather rather matched the mood, but fortunately briefly.  The mild overcast skies suddenly decided to dump torrents of water on our brilliant guided walking tour.

But as we headed out to see beyond the city, the sun re-emerged, changing that mood. Trips to Mozia, Erice, Segesta and Marsala (with the obligatory tasting of the amber nectar),


so many places that over the years have come and gone in importance and power – Segesta was abandoned completely and its half-built temple left untouched – all these give you a sense of perspective.  It seems so awful now, but there is hope, there has to be – things can only get better!





A December week in Sicily (2)

Palermo, a City of presepi (cribs)

“And is it true,
This most tremendous tale of all,
Seen in a stained-glass window’s hue,
A Baby in an ox’s stall ?”

This afternoon, I put out my own crib, with its French pottery figures, faceless, each one signed on the base; and I add my usual motley crew of various-sized, variously able-bodied exotic and domestic animals to join in; the one-horned Highland Cattle; the 3-legged dog; the donkey with a match-stick repaired leg. IMG_1964

Compare that with Palermo! The city is truly a city of presepi.  Very few Father Christmases, just one or two temptingly blown-up monstrosities outside tourist-tat shops (oh, for a hat-pin!). In the main, however, the decoration for this time of year is the crib. They feature, of course, universally in churches, some in front of the altar, others in a side chapel. IMG_1905

But virtually every shop has a crib of some sort in the window.

We stopped in awe at a mobile one; the ox is chewing the hay, and the Baby and his mother are both opening their arms in welcome.

Then there is a shop where you can buy a crib they have designed from every part of the world.

And there is a Fondazione which I came upon, completely by chance; smart-suited young men and women were standing at the doors of a palazzo.  Going in, I was guided round the exhibition of… what else, presepi! The Fondazione was a social enterprise which gave opportunities to schools and organisations in the towns and villages outside Palermo to display their own ideas about the Nativity scene, including disabled groups, groups using recycled materials, salt, biscuits, fruit.

The City is brightly coloured with brilliant poinsettias and cyclamen everywhere; the poinsettia, such a delicate plant that care requirements insist that it should be kept out of draughts (we call them Mr Woodhouse, if you remember Jane Austen’s Emma) does well in the usually mild conditions in  Palermo. Forget Christmas lights – there were some structures in place over the pedestrianised streets, but they remained unlit.

No, what people are enjoying, during the passeggiata (the evening stroll in so many Italian cities), are the colourful  streets, and not only enjoying them, but perhaps also thinking about the scenes which illuminate the real meaning of Christmas, the arrival of the vulnerable baby, our Saviour, soon to set the world on fire.

To finish the John Betjeman lines,

And is it true ? For if it is,
No loving fingers tying strings
Around those tissued fripperies,
The sweet and silly Christmas things,
Bath salts and inexpensive scent
And hideous tie so kindly meant,

No love that in a family dwells,
No carolling in frosty air,
Nor all the steeple-shaking bells
Can with this single Truth compare –
That God was man in Palestine
And lives today in Bread and Wine.


A December week in Sicily (1)

To Palermo or bust

The last leg of our marathon journey to Palermo, going more slowly by regional train, offers views and distractions.

It’s all very well to say “Build your house on rock, not on sand” but how do you get the foundations dug? From Sapri on, as we travel south, we are passing villages built in the deep soft folds of green hills, with the odd Toytown castle or “big house” balanced precariously on, or growing apparently  organically out of, the peaks above. Could that even be snow on the peaks further inland? With shining sea on our right, insulated from the weather in our bustling train, it’s hard to credit it’s cold enough for settled snow.  We’re one moment heading along the coast, level with the sea, then clinging on to the hillside, looking down on the fertile and farmed coastal strip.

Forget autumn colours; there’s little sign of leaves dropping or changing, but they’re not conifers.  What’s the explanation?

Some towns being built on the hilltop suggests history and a defensive reason – they would be protecting themselves from invasion or perhaps marauding pirates.  The Mediterranean was fertile territory for the maritime equivalent of the highwayman.  Some towns are ring-fenced by fortifications, occasionally just a single tower.

On our journey, we’ve witnessed the deep poverty and dilapidation of Napoli around the station, a shock after the grandeur, some elegant, some monumental, of wealthy Milano, our first “stop-over”.

We were thwarted by the French rail strike from travelling to Palermo all the way by train.  Taking a flight directly to Milan at least gave us a bonus half day in the City – never enough, but it means you know there’s reason to come back.

You really do see so much more, and get a feeling for the distance, when you travel by train.  The train from Napoli to Palermo takes 10 hours – even going – shunting back and forth – on a boat that has railway tracks! At first, I thought it was a gross yacht at anchor in the bay, but actually, it was our “ferry”!

That was the first time we were able to get refreshments of any kind; there was NO bar or trolley on the train, and the boat just offered sweets, biscuits, crisps and beer.  Fortunately, getting breakfast at the station in Napoli, we had bought sandwiches just in case.

The distance between mainland Italy and Sicily seems as short as Portsmouth to the Isle of Wight; our boat was called Scilla so we prayed that the crossing would not be as dangerous as the Scilla and Charybdis of legend.

Reaching our final stop, we imagined we were the last of our group attending a Learning Italian trip to get to the hotel; others were flying directly from London.  But they had had delays (also arising from the French strikes) so we all had journey stories to share as we began our week in Palermo.



Out of London – a brief interlude

Less than half an hour from London, the fields were white – not with snow, not yet, but with frost.  It was gradually melting away under surprisingly strong sunlight.  The frost had silvered fields and roofs too, so you could tell which north-facing houses were well-insulated – almost counter-intuitively, it’s those still white!

Tree colour was bleached out in this landscape – or was it that in London, bright colours – stunning reds, golds, flaming auburns, yellows – stand out more against the background of grey pavements and roads? Or perhaps there’s greater variety of trees in London, even exotic species, than in the country? Or perhaps the winter is further advanced in the country and more trees have faded and dropped their leaves.

My journey was not to the countryside, though dashing through it does lift the spirits.  I was heading to another City, a double City in fact, as it has two cathedrals – Norwich. This City both benefits and suffers from being a destination in itself as well as being on the way to nowhere.  You go to the front of the train so you have only a few steps to leave the station, having “hit the buffers” hopefully gently.

Such a lovely City, sufficient unto itself, a City of churches, of Colman’s Mustard, of Norwich Union, of waterways – and a very cold wind direct from the Urals.  Thank goodness, it wasn’t blowing on this visit!