the heart thrills

there is beauty all around us

Month: April, 2013

MY LITTLE WEED

27 April 2013

After a long, cold gestation, spring has finally arrived with a bang in Beijing. Suddenly, every tree, every bush, every plant is thrusting eagerly out to the sun and warmth. The Beijing authorities have been good enough to plant many flowering plants along and around my piece of canal, so my daily walks to and from the office are currently accompanied by a riot of colour.

flowers along canal 004

flowers along canal 006

flowers along canal 008

flowers along canal 014

flowers along canal 017

But actually, the flower I’m most taken with is a humble weed. It’s that little blue flower in the last picture. Like all good weeds, it grows well on waste land – we saw long swathes of it along roads on the outskirts of Beijing last weekend as we drove past abandoned factories and other land with no obvious use on the way to a restaurant. I found them again, tucked away in a forgotten corner of land along the canal, where a major bridge crosses it – the kind of place I would expect to find used syringes and condoms in Europe.

flowers along canal 015

They’d also colonized a flower box outside a restaurant close by, growing alongside bamboo.

flowers along canal 001

I don’t know its name. I showed a picture of it to my Chinese colleagues and they looked blank. No idea, they said.

At the restaurant, my flowery weed also carpeted the ground under the apple trees in the restaurant’s orchard.

blue flowered weed-restaurant

It’s a bit fanciful but it made me think of bluebells in European woods and for a minute I wanted to be home.

Bluebells 1

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Bluebells-1: http://graymonk.mu.nu/photographs/bluebells/Bluebells%201.JPG

Blue flowers at the restaurant: Robert

All other pics: mine

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WILD TULIPS

24 April 2013

I am lucky to live close enough to the office in Beijing to be able to go home for lunch. Which means that for the last week I have been walking, four times a day, past the bed of tulips that our buildings management has thoughtfully planted outside the front door and which has finally bloomed.

tulip bed by house 001

The bed has attracted considerable attention from the locals, who have stopped to admire, to photograph, and of course to be photographed in front of.

tulip bed by house 004

I must admit, I am not a huge fan of tulips, especially when they are planted in massed beds like this. These massed plantings are not helped by the strong colours of so many commercially available tulips. I mean, look at the colour combination in our building’s bed: bright red and bright yellow. I’m sure the colours were chosen with very deliberate intention: red for happiness in China’s iconography, yellow for wealth. So, “Happy Spring! Be wealthy and be happy” (as my father was fond of repeating, “money may not be the source of all happiness, but it surely helps a lot”). But it’s just too … much.

I believe that the Netherlands tourist board touts tours of its tulip fields when they are in bloom, travelling around – of course – by bike. I cannot think of anything worse: days of bicycling past acres of strong colours.

tulips in Holland-4-field

It would be the visual equivalent of eating, all alone, a large and very rich chocolate cake.

No, I think I would prefer to be riding a horse and come across this sprinkling of wild tulips on the steppes of southern Russia:

wild tulips-9-steppes s russia

or this carpet of wild tulips in Asia Minor:

wild tulips-3-asia minor

or this scattering of wild tulips in Iran:

wild tulips-5-iran

or this bed of wild tulips in Crete:

wild tulips-2-omalos crete

or this achingly beautiful wild tulip in Cyprus:

wild tulips-8-cyprus

I think it is clear by now to the reader that I prefer wild tulips by far. Apart from being integrated into their environment rather than regimented into artificial beds, I find their shape – coming up into a sharp, delicate point – so much more beautiful than the bulk of commercially available tulips. The artisans in Iznik, Turkey, also recognized the beauty of the tulip in their wonderful ceramics. These are ceramic tiles gracing the walls (or rather the pillars) of Rüstem Pasha Mosque in Istanbul:

tiles-4-Rüstem Pasha Camii Istanbul

a lovely little mosque whose interior is completely lined with ceramic tiles:

???????????????????

The tiles pick up on other flowers, leaving delicate arabesques on the walls:

tiles-2-Rüstem Pasha Camii Istanbul

Several years ago, during the business trip to New York which I mentioned in an earlier post, I stumbled across an exhibition in the Turkish Chamber of Commerce of modern ceramic plates using traditional Iznik designs. I fell for a plate, which looked something like this:

plate-2-with tulip and carnation

and bought it on the spot, cash. It sleeps with all our other stuff in a warehouse in Vienna, waiting to be brought back into the light of day and admired.

I always had the impression that tulips originally came from Asia Minor or thereabouts, but their range is much wider. Here is a wild tulip in a national park in Umbria, Italy

wild tulips-10-umbria

and here is one from southern Norway:

wild tulips-4-tananger coast s norway

Lovely …

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Tulips in Beijing: my pix

Tulip fields in Netherlands-4: http://1.bp.blogspot.com/-dbs2i3jZ9t0/TbPwj_YIvJI/AAAAAAAAAVI/tMyaQ7M1x40/s1600/Holland%2Band%2BBelgium%2B202.JPG

Wild tulips- steppes of S. Russia: http://static.panoramio.com/photos/1920×1280/35533419.jpg

Wild tulips- Asia Minor: http://www.colorblends.com/img/display/kolpakowskiana.jpg

Wild tulips- Iran: http://icons-ak.wunderground.com/data/wximagenew/p/Photo1224/212-800.jpg

Wild tulips- Omalos, Crete: http://www.west-crete.com/dailypics/photos/1727large.jpg

Wild tulips- Cyprus: http://www.embargoed.org/images/gallery/preview/image_79_1.jpg

Iznik tiles Rustem Pasha mosque Istanbul-1: http://ericrossacademic.files.wordpress.com/2012/05/rustem-pasa-tile.jpg

Rustem Pasha mosque interior: http://sugraphic.com/images/fotolar/2011/08/02/46_1312263234..jpeg

Iznik tiles Rustem Pasha mosque Istanbul-2: http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/thumb/b/b9/DSC04139_Istanbul_-_R%C3%BCstem_Pasha_camii_-_Foto_G._Dall%27Orto_26-5-2006.jpg/800px-DSC04139_Istanbul_-_R%C3%BCstem_Pasha_camii_-_Foto_G._Dall%27Orto_26-5-2006.jpg

Ceramic plate Iznik style: http://yurdan.com/Content/Uploads/ProductImages/39637/iznik-design-ceramic-plate-tulip-and-carnation–1.jpg

Wild tulips- Umbria, Italy: http://farm1.staticflickr.com/62/185332054_d21bcbf611_z.jpg?zz=1

Wild tulips- Tananger coast, S. Norway: http://mw2.google.com/mw-panoramio/photos/medium/16107947.jpg

LILAC ON EARTH DAY

22 April 2013

I mentioned in an earlier post that when I was young I would sometimes spend Easter with my French grandmother. One of my memories of those visits – apart from collecting coal in the cellar – is the lilac bushes in the garden in flower. Normally, we went to stay with my grandmother during the summer, when the bushes were just boring green leaves separating the proper, formal garden in front of the house from the vegetable garden. But during Easter time, these dull green bushes would come alive with pale purple and white – and would smell heavenly. They looked something like this (my grandmother’s garden was a bit of a jungle):

Lilas buissons

Lilac must also grow in the UK but I have absolutely no memory of any lilacs there. The next time lilacs crossed my radar screen was in Vienna, where it was a very popular bush all over town, from the public gardens in front of the Hofburg, the imperial palace in the centre of town:

lilacs in Vienna-3

To just humble streets nowhere in particular:

lilacs in Vienna-4

During the flowering period, my wife would arm herself with a big pair of scissors and we would go around surreptitiously snipping off a few flowering branches to have in the apartment. For a few days, the house would be filled with the wonderfully delicate scent of lilac.

So it was with pleasure that I noted during our first Spring here, down by my piece of canal about which I have written several times, some lilac bushes coming into flower. At least, they seemed to be lilacs. The scent was quite similar, and there was definitely a family resemblance if you closed your eyes a bit and cocked your head to one side. Yet there was something not quite right. The flowers didn’t look quite the same, and the leaves were definitely smaller and darker.

lilacs by the canal 001

lilacs by the canal 003

I decided to do a little bit of research (well, web-surfing really) and discovered that what was growing in my grandmother’s garden and in Vienna was the common lilac, syringa vulgaris, whereas the lilac growing here was in all likelihood the Yunnanese lilac, Syringa yunnanensis. The photos I found of the Yuannese variety showed a definite similarity:

Yunnan lilac-4

and it makes sense to have a lilac from Yunnan in Beijing.

During my research, I also learned a bit about the common lilac. It was not, as I had thought in that casually cultural-centric way we Europeans suffer from, a European flower. It was actually introduced into European gardens at the end of the sixteenth century from Ottoman gardens. That certainly makes sense since “lilac” derives from the Arabic “lilak”, which in turn derives from the Persian “nilak” meaning bluish. Since I am currently reading a history of Iran/Persia and have just finished the part covering the Arab invasion, in my mind’s eye I can see the beauty of the flower captivating Arabs when they arrived in Persia and their carrying it back with them west of the Tigris and Euphrates; later, when the Ottomans conquered the Arab lands, their falling in love in turn with the flower and carrying it off to their gardens. From whence it came to our European gardens and, after a pause, to the gardens in North America.

Fanciful and probably wrong, but on this day when we celebrate Earth Day a narrative I would like to believe in, seeing as it suggests a certain universal appreciation of the beauty of nature.

Happy Earth Day.

________________________

Lilac in France: http://www.torange-fr.com/photo/5/13/Lilas-buissons-1268053127_24.jpg

Lilac in Vienna-1: http://www.viennatouristguide.at/Quiz/Bezirke/13%20Schoenbrunn/hofb_flieder.jpg

Lilac in Vienna-2: http://www.zeitgedanken.com/weblog/wp-content/uploads/2009/04/flieder-im-april09-01.jpeg

Lilac in Beijing: my pix

Yunnanese lilac: http://static1.plantdatabase.info/plant_imgs/size2/syringa_yunnanensis_var_rosea_I21172P95642.jpg

MANDARIN DUCKS

21 April 2013

One of the funnier scenes for me in the film About a Boy is when the Boy kills a duck after he throws a loaf of bread, which his mother had baked, into the pond. Lord knows what ingredients she had used, but it had the density of a rock and thus the predictable effect when it hit the duck.

about a boy dead duck-1

I laughed loud and long, partly because it reminded me of when I was a boy. During my visits to my grandmother in London, one of her staple ideas for keeping me busy was to take me down to one of the ponds in Central London’s many parks to feed the ducks. She did this with most of her grandchildren who passed through London and kept a stash of stale bread for the purpose. And boy was it stale, sometimes! If I’d been a duck I wouldn’t have touched it with the end of my webbed foot.

As I said, she took me to several parks in Central London. Hyde Park was a favourite with its Serpentine lake. Another was the lake in St. James’s Park. The nice thing about that lake was that it played host to many different types of ducks, some of them really beautiful. One of the most lovely was the mandarin duck:

mandarin duck-1

(I knew its name because the park authorities had thoughtfully placed plaques by the lake’s edge, right where little boys and girls threw stale bread to the ducks, which carried a picture of each type of duck along with its name).

I swore to myself that when I owned a duck pond, I would stock it with mandarin ducks. Well, I don’t own a duck pond – yet (hope springs eternal). But I do live by a pond-like body of water here in Beijing. So you can imagine my excitement when on Saturday I noticed a pair of mandarin ducks paddling peacefully along its surface.

Will they be there tomorrow, when I walk to work? Or will they have flown off to greener pastures? I really hope they’ll be there. Feeding them will be a great way to get rid of our stale bread.

PS:

They stayed! Here’s a photo of the male I took the other day, a month or so after writing this post. It’s not a great photo – actually, it’s a lousy photo – but the duck was careful in not coming too close (no doubt it sensed that it could quickly end up in a pot in a Chinese kitchen), but it is evidence of their continued presence.

duck on canal 001

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“About a Boy” dead duck: http://media.tumblr.com/tumblr_lpks23apyX1qiurmy.png

Mandarin duck: http://blogimg.goo.ne.jp/user_image/2f/0e/202ca598a665e53251ea85d5818715ee.jpg

MAH-JONG

17 April 2013

Spring was in the air this weekend! The temperature was definitely higher, the trees were getting a cover of green fuzz

spring 2013 002

Little violets were blooming along the side of the streets

spring flowers 2013 001

so my wife and I decided to stop hugging our radiator and go out for a walk.

I thought this was a good time to go and visit a small park I had noticed behind our apartment block, which I often pass when coming back from the airport. It always seems to be seething with locals, exercising, chatting, playing, or just sitting. So off we went, past our local 7-11, past the newspaper stand where my wife gets her phone top-ups, past our Chinese supermarket, past the man who mends our shoes, past old (well, old for China) blocks of apartments, until we finally arrived at the park, wedged between the highway coming in from the airport and a local road.

It was good that we went because the fine weather had brought out the local mah-jong players. I had last seen such a group back in 2009 when we took a walk along Qianhai lake on the last day of October – I remember the day well, the next day it snowed. In the intervening years, I had been keeping a weather eye out for other mah-jong players, but no such luck.  I had seen card players, I had seen players of Chinese chequers, I had seen domino players, but I had not seen a single further group of mah-jong players. My luck had finally turned, the good weather had brought them out of hibernation.

So we wandered around, from table to table, watching as the players shuffled their tiles, built their walls, smacked down their tiles, and in some mysterious way won or lost. We watched a few Yuan bills discretely changing hands at the end of games, so the stakes were high!

mahjong player 002

mahjong player 004

I’ve had a certain fascination with mah-jong ever since, many years ago, I read Agatha Christie’s The Murder of Roger Ackroyd. At some point, Dr. Sheppard and his sister Caroline spend an evening playing the game with local friends (a retired Army officer and a spinster) and Dr. Sheppard wins in some rare and extraordinary fashion.

The situation became more strained. It was annoyance at Miss Gannett’s going Mah Jong for the third time running which prompted Caroline to say to me as we built a fresh wall: ‘You are too tiresome, James. You sit there like a deadhead, and say nothing at all!’ ‘But, my dear,’ I protested, ‘I have really nothing to say that is, of the kind you mean.’ ‘Nonsense,’ said Caroline, as she sorted her hand. ‘You must know something interesting.’ I did not answer for a moment. I was overwhelmed and intoxicated. I had read of there being such a thing as The Perfect Winning – going Mah Jong on one’s original hand. I had never hoped to hold the hand myself. With suppressed triumph I laid my hand face upwards on the table. ‘As they say in the Shanghai Club,’ I remarked – Tin-ho – the Perfect Winning!’ The colonel’s eyes nearly bulged out of his head.

This scene has always struck me as so British (of a certain period and of a certain class): here are quintessentially British people in their cosy parlour in the evening playing some exotic game which clearly has been imported from some far-flung imperial outpost – Hong Kong or Shanghai’s International Concession or some such place. It is a world that the recent Poirot TV series admirably captures. This photo from the 1930s gets the atmosphere although these particular people are playing a card game.

Card_game_circa_1930s

Ever since I read that book, I’ve wondered how exactly this mah-jong game is played. When my daughter introduced me to the mah-jong videogame I thought I had the answer and spent many happy hours pairing tiles and watching them disappear in a puff of virtual smoke. But once I arrived in Beijing and watched the locals play, I realized that I had been barking up the wrong tree. So I surfed the web to find the rules for mah-jong. Alas! As everyone knows, you cannot learn a game from reading the rules:

Breaking the Wall: East throws the dice, adds the total, and counts off the players, starting with East, working anti-clockwise according to the number thrown.  The player where the count ends throws the dice again, adds the total of both throws, and uses this total to count along his wall from right to left.  Where the count ends is where the player breaks the wall. He removes the pair of tiles at that point, places the top tile on top of the previous tile and the lower tile in a position two positions further anti-clockwise.  These two tiles are called “loose tiles”.

Eh?

My wife and I have agreed that we need to find an – English-speaking – club somewhere in Beijing, where we can learn the game by playing it. In the meantime, we have bought a set of mah-jong tiles. We found a lovely old set tucked away in the back corner of a shop here.

mahjong box 002

mahjong box 004

mahjong box 005

I can’t wait to announce triumphantly “Tin-ho! the Perfect Winning!”

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Card game 1930s: http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/5/5c/Card_game,_circa_1930s.jpg

other pictures: mine

WHITE AND GREEN

12 April 2013

We were discussing weighty matters yesterday afternoon, the security situation of our organization here in China. It’s a review we carry out once a year, in the Spring. Not unnaturally, the new outbreak of bird flu in the Shanghai area was the first topic on the agenda. After a review of where things stand, we concluded that the new flu virus H7N9 currently represents a moderate threat to our staff members and their dependents, but we agreed that we will need to closely follow the flu’s progress. Next on the agenda: North Korea and the recent ratcheting up of tensions there which I alluded to in a previous post. Conclusion: low to moderate concern for us in China, but the Security Officer to monitor the situation and report back. And so on, down the list of possible threats, both natural, like earthquakes, and man-made, like the outbursts of violent agitation in the Eastern provinces over land use.

All the while, I admired the magnolia in the garden outside the window, with its silky white flowers standing out against the tender green of a weeping willow tree unfurling into leaf. At the meeting’s start, both were picked out with vivid intensity by the sun. But as the meeting wore on and the sun moved in its arc across the sky, the shadows drew in and cast a pall of grey over the white and green.

picture 004

And so our security review was done for another year.

STARRY, STARRY NIGHT

9 April 2013

The thing about my current position is that it requires me to get involved in a lot of issues about which I know absolutely nothing, or close to it. In a previous post I described a trip to Dali, in the province of Yunnan, where I went to discuss with the local government what could be done to increase markets for the prefecture’s walnuts. I am an ignoramus when it comes to walnuts but I can read up on the topic and learn enough to sound intelligent for half an hour’s discussion. But this afternoon, at the request of our Legal Advisor, I attended a meeting about the regulation of internet domains. This was fated to be one of those meetings where I understand the single words that people are uttering but find that when they string the words together it turns into gibberish. Luckily, someone else was leading our group, and my role was principally to fill a chair.  So I let it all wash over me and allowed my mind to wander. For some reason, the organizers of the meeting had put a slide of a galaxy on the screen. It looked something like this:

galaxy-1

I sat there as the meeting droned on, admiring the simple, pulsating symmetry of it all. It reminded me of a book I had bought in Vienna which was filled with photos of the Universe like this one.

Nebula-1

Look at those towering clouds of intergalactic dust. Wonderful …

But actually, the Universe seen from Earth is just as nice. I mean, on a clear, cloudless, moonless night the Milky Way is absolutely lovely

milky way-2

Even simple stars can take your breath away. I remember a night on the shores of Lake Sevan in Armenia, where we were seeing what could be done to get the economy going again and the environment back in shape after the devastations wrought upon both by the central planning of the Soviet Union. We walked down to the lakeshore one night, and the sky looked like this:

desert-sky-2

The tragedy was that we could see the sky so clearly because the economy was bankrupt – no-one could afford electricity so there was no light pollution.

Well, that was a nice, relaxing daydream. Lord knows what I’ll write to the Legal Advisor tomorrow, when I report on the meeting.

___________________________________

Galaxy: http://files.myopera.com/FranklinBR/albums/12602222/Andromeda%20Galaxy.jpg

Nebula: https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/b/b2/Eagle_nebula_pillars.jpg

Milky way: http://cdn1.hdwallpaperspics.com/uploads/2013/01/eso_night_sky.jpg

Desert sky: http://farm8.staticflickr.com/7217/7002623630_a9f14610f3_h.jpg

NORTH KOREAN TRAFFIC POLICE

8 April 2013

My older brother, whom I mentioned in my previous posting, sent me an email yesterday asking me if I would join the lengthening list of foreigners who, according to the Financial Times, are leaving Beijing because of the pollution but also more recently because of the sharp increase in the levels of bellicosity emanating from North Korea. I should explain that I have the dubious privilege of also covering North Korea for my organization and in this guise I have visited the country a few times. My personal view, for what it’s worth, is that all the shouting and bawling by the North Korean leadership has more to do with solidifying support for a young, callow leader than with actual desires for war. So it is with a certain complacency that I watch footage on the world’s TV programmes of Kim Jong Un showing off his military skills in front of admiring generals.

On the other hand, I am particularly taken by TV footage showing North Korean soldiers marching around Pyongyang’s central square; I am a great admirer of their drilling skills. When I was a boy at school we had to play at soldiers once a week (on Monday afternoons to be precise), and part of the play was learning to drill. So I have a keen appreciation, born from many miserable hours marching about the school parking lot, of how complicated it is to get a bunch of men – and women – to walk in step, goose-step at that, stiff as robots, and have them wheel and turn in precise unison around a square.

north korean soldiers drilling-2

TOPSHOTS-NKOREA-POLITICS-KIM

All this marching around makes me think of one thing which particularly struck me and my wife during my first, and her only, visit to Pyongyang: the traffic police. At the time of that first visit, Pyongyang didn’t have any traffic lights and what little traffic there was at road crossings was regulated by women police officers (they were all women). And let me tell you, these ladies were no slouches! They were most military in style. It started when they took up their shift, which saw them marching briskly to their spot in the middle of the crossroads.

traffic police girl-marching into position-1

Once in place, they regulated traffic with a baton, very visible arm signals, and a stern face. My wife and I watched them for a while and we came to the conclusion that this was the code:

“Change in flow patterns about to take place!”

traffic police girl-pointing up-3

“Traffic from my right [or left] can turn left [or right]!”

traffic police girl-pointing forward-3

“Traffic coming from my left [or right] can go straight past me”

traffic police girl-pointing across chest-1

After warning of a change, the policewoman would wheel smartly on her heel to face in the right direction.

It was a fascinating militaristic ballet to watch.

There is also a fashion element in all of this. The first three photos show the ladies in their winter uniform, the last in their summer uniform. Personally, I prefer the winter uniform.

We are not the only ones to have found the traffic policewomen fascinating. There is a whole website dedicated to them! I admire all the photos that were taken. We were told not to take photos, and I meekly complied. But others clearly ignored the interdict. As you can see, the policewomen were Not Amused by these law-breakers.

traffic police girl-pointing up-2

Before boring traffic lights were introduced, I suspect all countries had these traffic police. Italy certainly did. My wife remembers them well from her youth, and I have found a few old photographs of them on the web.

traffic police italy-7

traffic police italy-9

From the makes of the cars, we reckon the photos were taken in the late ‘50s, early ‘60s. I’ve seen the Italian police in action a few times when traffic lights have gone on the blink (or perhaps I should say off the blink). I must say, they were very theatrical: step 1, gaze intensely at the oncoming cars; step 2, raise the hand slowly and very obviously; step 3, snap it into place and accompany it with a short, shrill blow on the whistle.

traffic police italy-4

I am reminded of a story my elder brother told me many years ago – the same brother with whom I started this post. In the late ‘60s, he was staying in Rome for a few months, in the Trastevere district. He recounted that there was a policeman who was particularly well known by the district’s locals for his elegant style in directing traffic. When it was time for his shift, an admiring crowd would gather to watch him in action, and at the end of his shift they would clap – at least, so claimed my brother; but this last part I doubt.

Sadly, I saw during my last visit to Pyongyang that traffic lights have arrived there. As for the traffic police ladies, they were left to slouch about in a most unmilitary fashion at their road crossings, playing no obvious role that I could see. Sic transit gloria mundi.

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N. Korean soldiers drilling-2: http://l2.yimg.com/bt/api/res/1.2/bEb._9Przkk9QLPFPdhNsQ–/YXBwaWQ9eW5ld3M7Y2g9MTk2OTtjcj0xO2N3PTMwMDA7ZHg9MDtkeT0wO2ZpPXVsY3JvcDtoPTQxNDtxPTg1O3c9NjMw/http://media.zenfs.com/en_us/News/ap_webfeeds/b886bb1bad68ea0a0c0f6a706700c977.jpg

N. Korean soldiers drilling-3: http://rt.com/files/online-exclusive/galleries/north-korea/army-plaza-soldiers-marching/i182d25fd3712d679f42df606bce13c57_000_hkg-639412.jpg

Traffic policewoman taking up her shift: http://farm3.staticflickr.com/2754/4380470489_8189781b65_z.jpg

Traffic policewoman pointing up: http://farm3.staticflickr.com/2531/5758279854_5b5d42c09c_z.jpg

Traffic policewoman pointing forward: http://farm3.staticflickr.com/2737/4166260885_fbca4d5637_z.jpg

Traffic policewoman pointing across: http://cfile217.uf.daum.net/image/194F2C234B98B8423417CE

Traffic police Italy-1: http://desk.unita.it/cgi-bin/showimg2.cgi?file=F_NAT_L2_0701/00000029/0000400F.c28b7356.jpg&t=big

Traffic police Italy-2: http://desk.unita.it/cgi-bin/showimg2.cgi?file=F_NAT_L2_0701/00000029/0000396F.1280fd16.jpg&t=big

Traffic police Italy-3: http://termoli.files.wordpress.com/2009/09/vigile.jpg

MY CRUISE OF FIRSTS

5 April 2013

My previous post about chocolate Easter eggs led me to take a page from Charles Dickens and I allowed myself to be visited by the ghost of Easters past. He took me back through memories of previous Easters, some very pleasant and others not so much. One in particular has stayed with me, the Easter I passed on a cruise in the Mediterranean when I was 14.

My English grandmother had decided that she would like to go on a cruise but wanted company. So she took me and my older brother along with her. It was a wonderful trip, one of those golden-hued memories that each one of us has. Easter itself was celebrated without much fuss and bother in Brindisi, in southern Italy– we were just a few Catholics among a sea of Anglicans and so were packed off to a small room on the ship and a local priest was brought in for the occasion.  A surf through the web tells me that Easter occurred on April 14, two weeks later than this year. We were already towards the end of the cruise. There were a couple more stops in what was then Yugoslavia and is now Croatia, at Split and Dubrovnik, and then it was back to Venice where we had boarded ship. Before Brindisi, we had visited Olympia, Crete, Athens, Istanbul, Ephesus, and then finally Rhodes before starting back (there was also a visit to one of the smaller Ionian islands but I no longer remember which one).

For me, this was a trip of many firsts (well, the whole trip was a first but there were certain things which were more first than others, if you get my drift).

It was my first trip to Venice, one which my wife and I have repeated many, many times, sometimes with the children, first from Milan when we lived there and then later from Vienna. What I fell in love with that first time and keep going back to is not the grand theatricality of St. Mark’s Square

venice-st marks square

or of the laguna, which the cruise ship sailed down as we left Venicevenice-the lagoon

No, what always bring us back is the humbler Venice, the alleys and lanes (it’s hard to talk of streets when there are no cars) far away from the tourist haunts, which widen and narrow without any apparent rhyme or reason, which loop and re-loop over narrow canals, which suddenly bring you, blinking in the light, into small piazzas teeming with life.

venice-calle-1

venice-calle-2

venice-calle-3

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We spent the afternoon before setting sail wandering around, map in hand – a map is always necessary in Venice, although my wife is not really of that opinion: ask people the way, that’s her motto.

The cruise also took me on my first visit to classical ruins. England and the parts of France I was then familiar with don’t have any Roman ruins to speak of; an odd crumbling wall here and there is about the sum of it. Here, we had a feast!

Olympia

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Knossos

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Mycenae

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The Acropolis in Athens

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Cape Sounion

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Ephesus

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Actually, it was more a surfeit than a feast. To be very honest, after I’ve seen three broken columns and five fallen walls the experience begins to pall. Many decades later, when I got to know Shelley’s poem Ozymandias I could relate to all these ruins and many others I have seen since all over the world in a different way:

I met a traveller from an antique land
Who said: Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them and the heart that fed:
And on the pedestal these words appear:
“My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!”
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away

But, in all this blur of broken stone one memory stands out, etched for ever more in my mind: wildflowers growing in profusion among the ruins of Olympia. A search of the web shows that I am not the only traveler to Olympia who has been struck by the flowers there:

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SANYO DIGITAL CAMERA

The trip was also my first real exposure to Greek sculpture. My grandmother had taken me a few times to the British Museum but somehow we always seemed to end up in the section of the Egyptian mummies – at least, that’s all I remember of those early visits. But the visit to the National Archaeological Museum in Athens was a real eye-opener for me. Two pieces I remember particularly well. One was the statue of Zeus (or is it Poseidon?):

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Look at that face!

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Speaking of faces, the other piece that impressed itself on me was the gold mask which Schliemann dug up in Mycenae (our Greek and Latin teacher had often quoted the phrase “I have gazed upon the face of Agamemnon”, said to have been uttered by Schliemann when he first set eyes on the mask)

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Another notable first on this trip was my exposure to Byzantine mosaics, in the cavernous interior of Hagia Sophia in Istanbul.

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This started an interest – an obsessive interest, my wife might observe – in early Christian mosaics, which I have tracked down in various parts of the Mediterranean basin since then.

Istanbul was the site of yet another first, my exposure to Muslim architecture, in the form of the incomparably beautiful Sultan Ahmed Mosque.

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Since then, I have been lucky enough to admire Muslim architecture in all its wonderfully different variations in many parts of the world – even here in Beijing, where it has taken on decidedly Chinese characteristics.

beijing mosque

Iran and Central Asia await me still …

On a lighter note, the cruise was the first – and probably last – time I saw the foxtrot being danced. Every evening a three-man band played in the dance room. It started with oldies, and a retired English Major and his wife were assiduous dancers. As the band started up, they would step out, glide through a number of foxtrot numbers, and then retire to the bar.

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They looked surprisingly like this picture, just somewhat longer in the tooth.

After they had left, the tempo changed and us young things would take over the dance floor and dance the night away. Well, I didn’t. I was far too shy. I would look on enviously at my elder young things. At last, one took pity on me and led me to the floor to dance my first modern dance. Another first …

Last, but definitely not least, it was on that cruise that I first set eyes on the Mediterranean. It was love at first sight.

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Venice-St Mark’s square: http://www.instablogsimages.com/1/2012/04/25/sunset_on_st_marks_square_image_title_upyro.jpg

Venice-Lagoon: http://cdn2.vtourist.com/4/3990973-looking_back_from_the_water_bus_Venice.jpg

Venice-calle-1: http://renaissancerules.files.wordpress.com/2011/01/venice-2009-294.jpg

Venice-calle-2: http://picasaweb.google.com/lh/photo/Vx_htYT8ClwJ1DwCpMcy1A

Venice-calle-3: http://www.cepolina.com/photo/Europe/Italy/Venice/Venice-mix/3/Venice-street-narrow-calle-rill.jpg

Venice-calle-4: http://farm2.staticflickr.com/1265/5186001188_065ec8a290_z.jpg

Olympia: http://images.fanpop.com/images/image_uploads/Olympia-greece-585497_1024_768.jpg

Knossos-palace: http://ant3145crete.wikispaces.com/file/view/Knossos_1.jpg/68392549/Knossos_1.jpg

Mycenae-lion-gate: http://www.civilization.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2012/02/Mycenae-Lion-gate-028.jpg

Athens-acropolis: http://www.limotaxi.gr/wp-content/uploads/2010/10/athens1.jpg

Cape Sounion: http://www.grisel.net/images/greece/sounion11.JPG

Ephesus: http://historyoftheancientworld.files.wordpress.com/2012/09/theatre2.jpg

Olympia-wildflowers-1: http://farm3.staticflickr.com/2245/2331955314_1629efb4ab_z.jpg

Olympia-wildflowers-2: http://farm3.staticflickr.com/2380/2331125289_93eb068ca2_z.jpg

Olympia-wildflowers-3: http://www.touringtykes.com/wp-content/uploads/2010/02/olymipia-flowers.jpg

Athens-statue of Zeus/Poseidon-1: http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/6/67/Bronze_statue_of_Zeus_or_Poseidon.jpg

Athens-statue of Zeus/Poseidon-2: http://cdn.arstechnica.net/wp-content/uploads/2011/11/zeus_or_poseidon_national_archaeological_museum_athens-4ecd0b1-intro.jpg

Athens- Gold Mask “Agamemnon”: http://hernandopages.com/agamemnon.jpg

Istanbul Hagia Sophia-interior: http://hansmast.com/images/istanbul/hagia_sophia/IMG_1846_Enhancer-IMG_1857_Enhancer-2.jpg

Istanbul-Hagia Sophia-mosaics-1: http://www.mosaicartsource.com/Assets/html/artists/lilian/mosaic_hagia_sophia.jpg

Istanbul-Hagia Sophia-mosaics-2: http://www.sacred-destinations.com/turkey/istanbul-hagia-sophia-photos/slides/imperial-entrance-mosaic-c-hbetts.jpg

Istanbul-Hagia Sophia-mosaics-3: http://www.turkey4travel.com/wp-content/uploads/2009/05/hagia-sofia-mosaic.jpg

Istanbul-sultan ahmed mosque: http://www.viitoaremireasa.ro/images/articole/large/2084/Istanbul-Orasul-care-se-intinde-pe-doua-continente-5.jpg

Beijing mosque: http://www.chinadaily.com.cn/cndy/attachement/jpg/site1/20080815/000802ab80450a0f185656.jpg

Foxtrot: http://ssqq.com/archive/images/foxtrot.jpg

Mediterranean Sea-3: http://1.bp.blogspot.com/-4O6DVn4JTeQ/UG6WCS6K7yI/AAAAAAAAFaQ/NHquXzafTsA/s1600/43923144.jpg