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Category: Family

HARK! THE HERALD ANGELS SING

Milan, 25 December 2017

I suppose it’s a sign of old age creeping up on me that I recall with ever greater fondness the memories of my youth, and in this festive season no more so than to Christmases past – here, to get us into the spirit of things, I throw in a picture of Scrooge being visited by the ghost of Christmas Past.

There is one Christmas in particular which comes back vividly to mind.  I must have been six years old, old enough to remember things forever more and young enough for incidents to be deeply impressed into my still malleable brain. I can still see in my mind’s eye the living room of our house in Eritrea – this was probably the last Christmas we spent there; we would be leaving it forever within the coming year. The furniture had been moved around to make room for a Christmas tree in the corner and a nativity scene along the edge of one of the walls. Following the cultural divide in our family, my British father was responsible for the tree while my French mother was responsible for the nativity scene, or crèche as she used to call it. The tree was a source of endless fascination to me, covered as it was with those glittering balls and other baubles. This picture of a Christmas tree from the 1950s captures well the glittering fantasy I beheld.

The balls in particular were a magnet for my little fingers, which was a problem because they were incredibly fragile in those days, made as they were of some very thin, very easily breakable material.  Alas, despite numerous parental warnings to keep out of the living room, I could not resist sneaking in and touching those beautiful balls, with a broken ball and a sore bottom being the inevitable result.

The crèche was an equal source of fascination: the little manger, the figurines of Mary and Joseph, the Mum and Dad to that little baby, Jesus, lying in the hay, the donkey and the cow, very much like the ones I saw when we went for drives in the countryside around the town, the shepherds hanging around the manger, who also looked pretty much like the shepherds I sometimes saw out in the countryside, the angel which hung by a thread over the manger, the three old fellows and a camel who, day by day, were brought closer and closer to the manger until they reached it some time after Christmas … all wonderful stuff. The crèche photographed here has the rough and ready look which ours surely had – in fact, it looks already to be one level above whatever it is that we prepared, although to my innocent eyes ours was a work of art.

I had little understanding and, frankly, zero interest in the theological profundities which were being exposed before us. What I loved were all those little figurines which we could move around! Our mother made it even more interesting by allowing us to add our own figurines to the mix. I don’t recall what I brought but I remember that my elder brother came with his toy cowboys and indians which he proceeded to hide behind the various trees and bushes dotting the papier-maché landscape.

In all my Christmases Past, I have had a particular fondness for these Christmas trappings, even though for reasons which are now not clear to me the crèche quite quickly dropped away in my parents’ Christmases, leaving only the tree and its baubles. When my Italian wife and I started having our own Christmases the decorated pine tree also dominated, although my wife remembered with great fondness the crèche, or presepe as she calls it, which her father would create when she was young. As she described it to me, it seemed very much like the crèche of my memory, although her father had cunningly inserted a pond into the landscape using a mirror and had rigged up a little light driven by a battery which would shine in the star above the manger – very clever! Since it was very much my father-in-law’s project, I suppose that after his early death my mother-in-law never had the heart to take the presepe out and set it up, even when our children were young and might have appreciated it. But we took them along to the local churches – every self-respecting Italian church will have a presepe set up in one of the side chapels at Christmas.

This year, as I did my annual trek to the attic to bring down our Christmas tree (made of plastic and reusable; I have to walk my talk, after all, and I can’t stand those piles of dead and dying pine trees on pavements after Christmas), I spied in the corner the box where my mother-in-law had stored the presepe materials, an old box which had once contained a humidifier and which still had her handwritten note on the top of it – a message from the past.

Since it was to be a family Christmas this year, with both our children joining us, I decided on the spur of the moment to set up the presepe. I brought the box down, took everything out, and carried out a general inspection. I decided to drop the pond; I didn’t approve of this novelty. The electrical system was kaput, so I ditched that. The main actors were all there – Jesus, Mary, Joseph, the manger, the ass and the ox, the shepherds and their sheep, the angel, the three Wise Men and their camel. But I was going to need some extra characters, to make up for the cowboys and indians which in my wiser old age I recognized as very incongruous – and anyway I had no cowboy and indian figurines at hand (I had some of my son’s Warhammer figurines in the back of a cupboard, but they would have been even more incongruous).

I decided to check out the greatest of all presepi in Italy, the ones made in Naples, which had brought the art of nativity scenes to heights of splendour. I mean, look at these two!


Now that’s what I call nativity scenes worthy of kings! (and queens) Making one was to be my KPI!

A little research informed me that there are a certain number of stock characters in Neapolitan nativity scenes. There is Benino, the sleeping shepherd, a reference to the line in the gospel that the shepherds were out in the fields at night (and therefore presumably snoozing). There is the wine seller, a reference to the Eucharist, but there is also Cicci Bacco, who is a reference to earlier pagan rites. There’s the Fisherman, symbolizing the fisher of souls. Then we have the two pals Unc’ Vicienzo and Unc’ Pascale, personifying Carnival and Death. There’s the Monk, who is meant to symbolize the union between the sacred and the profane in the Neapolitan nativity scene. There’s a Gypsy Girl, whose symbolism is uncertain but who is fun to have around. There’s Stefania, around whom there is an elaborate tale which I will not relate here. There’s the Prostitute, who is there to form a contrast with the purity of the Virgin and who normally is made to hang around outside the tavern – where else? Finally, there are the sellers in the market, one for each month of the year: butcher for January, seller of ricotta or cheese for February, seller of chickens and other birds March, seller of eggs April, a married couple holding a basket of cherries and fruit for May, baker for June, tomato seller July, watermelon seller August, fig seller September, wine seller October, chestnut seller November, fishmonger December. A rapid comparison of what I had inherited from my in-laws told me that we had a lot of gaps. I had a Benino, a fisherman, a fishmonger, a young girl with a basket who could be one half of the married couple of May, a young girl who could be Stefania. And that was about it. I had a number of other figurines who it seems are not part of the stock players in a Neapolitan nativity scene. There were a couple of figurines of men playing various instruments, maybe referring to a tradition which was still alive – just – when I first came to Italy in the 1970s and which saw men appearing a little before Christmas playing the Lombard equivalent of bagpipes and inviting donations from passers-by for their efforts. There was also a neat little figurine of a fellow making polenta, no doubt part of an effort to defend the honour of northern Italian cuisine. My wife had come across by chance a little shop which sold a medley of figurines for nativity scenes, so we stocked up on a few of our missing characters. We also bought some sheets of coloured paper to use as backdrops, a bag of moss to sprinkle around as generic vegetation, and some little houses to create a nearby Bethlehem.  Then we got to work, my wife on the tree and me on the presepe alla napoletana. The result is not so bad, even if we say so ourselves.

But there is still much to do on the presepe! Luckily, I am a believer in the philosophy of continuous improvement. Next year, we will make our presepe somewhat better, the year after that better still, and on and on. If I’m lucky enough to celebrate many more Christmases Yet to Come we will finally end up with a magnificent Neapolitan-style presepe! – with some tweaks to distinguish ourselves from our southern cousins.

 

Merry Christmas! Joyeux Noël! Buon Natale!

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Ghost of Christmas Past: http://www.wisegeek.com/who-is-the-ghost-of-christmas-past.htm
Christmas tree: https://it.pinterest.com/suehirtle1/1950s-christmas/?lp=true
Manger: http://www.unionesarda.it/articolo/sardegna_agenda/2017/11/29/a_villamar_un_corso_per_salvare_l_arte_del_presepe-122-671332.html
cowboys and indians: https://www.pinterest.co.uk/hajosc49/toy-land/
Parish church nativity scene: http://www.valcenoweb.it/2017/12/10/chiesa-parrocchiale-di-pione-bardi-inaugurato-il-presepio-venerdi-8-dicembre-2017/
the presepe box: my photo
Warhammer figurines: http://www.sickchirpse.com/peta-campaign-against-warhammer-fur/
Presepe napoletano: https://it.wikipedia.org/wiki/Presepe_napoletano
Presepe napoletano-2: http://www.oggiroma.it/eventi/mostre/il-presepe-religiosita-e-tradizione-popolare/27671/
The finished Christmas tree: my photo
The finished presepe: my photo
Ghirlandaio, Adoration of the Shepherds: https://it.wikipedia.org/wiki/Adorazione_dei_pastori_(Ghirlandaio)

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AUTOSUGGESTION

Milan, 9 December 2017

I was recently reading The Lying Stones of Marrakech, a volume of essays by one of my favorite authors, Stephen Jay Gould.

My writing style in these posts owes a great deal to his essays. If any of my readers have an interest in natural history in general and paleontology specifically, I can highly recommend his books. Tragically, he died of cancer at the age of 60.

In any event, I had just started reading an essay entitled “Of Embryos and Ancestors”, which starts by Gould quoting the phrase “Every day, in every way, I’m getting better and better”. He then writes that the phrase was invented by a Frenchman by the name of Émile Coué.

Coué, Gould informs us, was “a French pharmacist who made quite a stir in the pop-psych circles of his day with a theory of self-improvement through autosuggestion based on frequent repetition of this mantra”. Gould mentions in passing that the phrase in the original French reads “tous les jours, à tous les points de vue, je vais de mieux en mieux”. I suddenly sat up – I was reading in bed – as if electrified.

To explain my reaction, I have to recount a little bit of the history of the French side of my family. As I have mentioned in an earlier post, my maternal grandfather contracted tuberculosis in the 1920s. This was in the days before antibiotics, so it was essentially incurable; 50% of the people diagnosed with active tuberculosis had died of it within 5 years, and it was the cause of 1 in 6 deaths in France at that time. Tuberculosis surrounded one on every side. Edvard Munch painted his sister Sophie, who died of tuberculosis at the age of 14, sick in bed (his mother also died of the disease).

Claude Monet painted his first wife, Camille, on her deathbed, killed by tuberculosis.

Literature was full of people who died of tuberculosis: Marguerite Gautier in La Dame aux Camélias, Fantine in Les Misérables, Eva in Uncle Tom’s Cabin.

Coming fast on the heels of my grandfather having lost all his money – actually my grandmother’s dowry – in a failed business, his contracting tuberculosis spelled economic catastrophe. My grandmother was forced to take a job as personal secretary to a rich English woman by the name of Mrs. Green, down in Menton on the Côte d’Azur where the lady and her husband would spend the winters. Mrs. Green stipulated that my grandmother could not live with her husband, for fear that she would contract the disease and – this was the real point – pass it on to her employer. So my grandfather was forced to live hidden away in Nice, where my grandmother would visit him from time to time in secret. In the summer, when Mr. and Mrs. Green returned to England, my grandparents would come up to the house they had managed to hang on to near Mâcon. But even here my grandfather lived apart, away from the children, in a room of his own, using his own sheets, his own towel, his own napkin, even his own plate and cutlery, all in an attempt to avoid infection.

To no avail. One day, my grandmother was diagnosed with tuberculosis. Catastrophe reared its head again. Mrs. Green would fire my grandmother the moment she heard her coughing. But my grandmother was not one to give in to anything. As my mother recounted it, she began to repeat every morning, “je vais de mieux en mieux”. And by God it worked! The tuberculosis was stopped in its tracks. I had always thought that this was just one more example of my grandmother’s indomitable will overcoming yet another setback in life. But reading that phrase in French in Gould’s essay immediately persuaded me that my grandmother had actually been using Coué’s method of autosuggestion.

I was even more convinced of this when I read a bit more about Coué’s method. It was very straightforward. He said that people who wanted to get better should quickly, mechanically repeat the phrase “tous les jours, à tous les points de vue, je vais de mieux en mieux” twenty times, morning and night, while running a string with twenty knots in it through their hands. My mother’s detail that my grandmother had uttered the phrase every morning jibed well with the Coué method.

How my grandmother might have heard about the Coué method is now lost in the fog of time. Perhaps she bought one of Coué’s books, very popular at the time; his best-seller was La Maîtrise de soi-même par l’autosuggestion consciente, published in 1926.

Perhaps she read an article in the newspapers about him. Perhaps she heard the record which he made to reach as many people as possible (I’ve heard it in Wikipedia, a thin, scratchy voice from a long time ago). Perhaps one of her friends told her about it. If she did decide to use the Coué method, she never told her daughter about it; perhaps she was a little ashamed of using something that appeared akin to magic.

Of course, as a scientist Gould is dismissive of the method, seeing it only as an example of the placebo effect. I’m sure he’s right, but it – or something very like it – seems to have helped my grandmother overcome her tuberculosis. Which is just as well. My grandfather died of his in 1936. If my grandmother had also died of it, who knows what would have happened to my now-orphaned mother (and her brother). For sure she would not have met my father, so I wouldn’t be around. So thank you, placebo effect! And thank you, Monsieur Coué, if you indeed helped out here!

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Stephen Jay Gould: https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Stephen_Jay_Gould
Émile Coué: https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Émile_Coué
Edvard Munch, The Sick Child: https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tuberculosis_in_human_culture#/media/File%3AMunch_Det_Syke_Barn_1885-86.jpg
Claude Monet, Camille Monet sur son lit de mort:

“La Maîtrise de soi-même par l’autosuggestion consciente”: https://fr.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Méthode_Coué

LE COUSIN JEAN

Luxor, 11 November 2017

This painting, “A Dawn” by C.R.W. Nevinson, which is coming up for auction at Sotheby’s, was making a splash in the newspapers a couple of weeks ago. It shows tired French troops marching silently to the front on a dawn morning in 1914, those cataclysmic first months of the War when France suffered staggering losses. Nevinson, who was in France as a volunteer ambulance driver within weeks of war breaking out, must have seen these men marching by.

When I saw the painting, it made me think of my French cousin Jean – well, not my cousin, strictly speaking; my French grandmother’s cousin. When I was young, there was this faded oval photo hanging in my grandmother’s living room, of a bearded young man in uniform, solemnly looking out at the viewer. The photo was bordered in bleached purple velvet. One day, when I was nine or ten, I asked my grandmother who this young man was. She became very solemn and intoned, “It is le cousin Jean. He died in the First World War. He died very bravely.” Suitably impressed, I kept silent for a moment before carrying on with my life.

But that photo of le cousin Jean has always stayed with me. It has something to do with his quiet composure in the photo; there was none of that swagger you often see in studio photos of World War I soldiers, with the sitter showing off his uniform and trying to project a military bearing. Jean just gazed steadily out at the viewer. So on this day, the 99th anniversary of the end of the First World War on the Western Front, my memory jogged by Nevinson’s painting, I’ve decided to memorialize his story in that war, illustrating it with other paintings by Nevinson. I should warn readers that his is not a particularly dramatic story. He just did what he had to do.

Jean was 23 when war was declared in 1914, and he was called up almost immediately. He joined his local regiment, the 95th Infantry Regiment, as a sub-lieutenant. The 95th took part in the initial French attempts to retake Alsace and Lorraine. But when the Germans attacked Verdun, leaving the beleaguered city and its string of forts in a deep salient, Jean’s regiment was pulled back and thrown into the furious attacks and counterattacks that took place as the Germans tried to completely surround Verdun and the French tried to stop them. The armies on both sides fought to the point of complete exhaustion.

It was during this period that Jean was wounded in Bois d’Ailly, just south of Verdun, some time in late September-October 1914. He was wounded badly enough to be invalided out. He was probably subjected to the rough and ready medical aid that was available, especially at the beginning of the war.

At some point, Jean had recovered enough to be brought back into active service. He joined a regiment newly-formed in April 1915, the 408th Infantry Regiment. It was created with “elements from the depots”, presumably wounded soldiers like Jean as well as others passed over in the first round of call-ups. He joined one of the regiment’s machine gun sections.


The regiment spent 1915 and the first months of 1916 in a quiet sector of the front. Then in early March, as the situation rapidly deteriorated for the French in the Verdun sector after the Germans renewed their attacks in February, the regiment was shipped in urgently to fight around the Fort de Vaux, in lunar landscapes like this.


The regiment suffered heavy losses, but Jean survived. They were eventually pulled out for rest and refitting. By late September/early October 1916, they were in good enough shape to take part in some small battles at the tail end of the Battle of the Somme. They spent the time thereafter in reserve positions, filling in gaps here and there. They probably did a lot of marching back and forth, from one position to the next.

The regiment’s second tour in the dreaded mincing machine of Verdun came in October 1917, although by then the worst of the fighting was over. By now, Jean had risen to be a Captain, no doubt because everyone else above him was either dead or was filling holes in the ranks even further up the chain of command.

The regiment was out of Verdun by January 1918, moving to a quieter sector. Then, at the end of May, the regiment was sent to the sector just south of Rheims. This was part of the Allies’ increasingly desperate attempts to stop what turned out to be the Germans’ last roll of the dice. In March they had punched a hole through the British lines. In June they punched another through the French lines just west of Reims and had managed to move 14 km south, but now they were caught in a salient, from which they were trying hard to break out. At midnight on July 14th, they abruptly started a bombardment of the eastern wall of the salient, just south of Reims. Their goal was to break through to the town of Épernay and so cut Reims off from Paris. On the morning of July 15th, they began hammering their way through the narrow valley of the River Ardre and the two woods on either side, the Bois de Vrigny to the south and the Bois de Courton to the north. Jean’s machine gun section lay nestled in the Bois de Courton. At some point, Jean went over to his commanding officer to report. While there, he was badly wounded by a shell burst. The family history says that his last words to his commanding officer were, “I’m sorry, Sir, to be leaving you at such a moment” before climbing into an ambulance. Did he really say that? I suppose he could have, but the family can only have known of this from a letter which they received from the commanding officer. Quite often the writers of these letters of condolences tried to make the man’s death more noble than it had been, in an attempt to soften the blow. My guess is that he just crumpled to the ground unconscious, bleeding profusely, and they bundled him into an ambulance.

In any event, according to the French Ministry of Defence’s bureaucratic fiche which logged his death, he died the same day in an Italian dressing station in a small place called Cartière, near Hautvillers, which lies some 10 km from the Bois de Courton. Jean was 27 when he died.

The reference to Italy confused me until I read that the 76th Infantry Regiment of the Italian II Corps had been posted just south of the Bois de Courton on the road to Épernay. The Allied High Command had given the II Corps the task of holding the road, which they managed – just – to do. I suppose the Italian dressing station was the closest to that particular sector of the front.

Jean’s body was brought back home by his family after the war for burial in the family plot; they were lucky, his body could be identified. So now he lies, together with his parents and maternal grandparents, in a graveyard which is a mere 5 km as the crow flies from where the ten year old me stared at that faded photo and asked my grandmother who the young man was with the steady gaze.
______________
CRW Nevinson, “A Dawn”: https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2017/oct/30/first-world-war-painting-expected-to-reach-up-to-1m-at-sothebys
CRW Nevinson, “Troops Resting”: http://www.sothebys.com/en/auctions/ecatalogue/2016/modern-post-war-british-art-l16141/lot.3.html

CRW Nevinson, “The Doctor”: https://www.pinterest.com/amp/pin/362469469989052114/

CRW Nevinson, “La Patrie”: http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p01b6rnx/p01b6qvn
CRW Nevinson, “La Mitrailleuse”: http://www.tate.org.uk/art/artworks/nevinson-la-mitrailleuse-n03177
CRW Nevinson, “In the Trenches”: https://www.pinterest.com/pin/393431717421822995/
CRW Nevinson, “After A Push”: http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/20212
CRW Nevinson, “Column on the March”: https://kweiseye.wordpress.com/2014/09/29/christopher-r-w-nevinson-1889-1946/amp/

PHILIBERT

Milan, 25 September 2017

A few days ago, I was looking for a street on a map of Milan when my eye fell on a road called via Emanuele Filiberto. Now, readers need to know that my third (and last) given name is Philibert, the English – and French – equivalent of the Italian Filiberto. Readers also need to know that the current heir to the defunct Italian throne goes by the name of Emanuele Filiberto – he is the grandson of the last King of Italy, Umberto II, who was kicked out by the referendum of 1946. For the umpteenth time, I wondered why I shared a name with this twerp. Because he is a twerp. He’s the kind of guy who ends up on the cover of magazines you flip through while waiting for your appointment with the dentist.


(will you look at that stupid grin!) He has no obvious source of income. He has a vague career as a TV presenter, and has launched a food truck in LA selling pasta, all of this trading on his royal pretensions.

Finally, I decided to try and find an answer to my question: why do I share the same name with this twerp?

This quest took me up the family tree of the Kings of Italy, which quite quickly turns into the family tree of the Dukes of Savoy; it was the Dukes of Savoy who through the twists and turns of history eventually became the Kings of Italy. I thought perhaps that Filiberto was a family name and that I would find traces of it through the generations. But no. There hasn’t been a Filiberto in the family since Emanuele Filiberto, Duke of Savoy 1553-1580.

But that explains why my twerp carries the name that he does. This first Emanuele Filiberto – or more likely Emmanuel Philibert, for the family was more French than Italian at the time – towers above many of the Dukes of Savoy who came before and after him.

It was he who rescued the family from oblivion. His father Charles had lost all the Savoy lands both south and north of the Alps to the French king Francis I (with the Spanish helping themselves to a few pickings along the way). Refusing to accept the loss of his inheritance, Emmanuel Philibert went to work in the armies of Francis I’s enemy, the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V. He was a brilliant general, winning some key battles for Charles against the French, and earning for himself the sobriquet of Testa di Ferro, Ironhead. In gratitude, Charles V ensured that in the Peace of Cateau Cambrésis which was signed in 1559 Emmanuel Philibert got most of his lands back. It was a new lease of life for the Dukes of Savoy, although it only put off the inevitable loss of Savoy to the French, which finally occurred in 1860 during the reign of Napoleon III. Perhaps it was because he sensed that this would be the long-term outcome that Emmanuel Philibert moved the ducal capital from Chambéry in Savoy to Turin in Piedmont. This is the Royal Palace in Turin.

Obviously, the modern Emanuele Filiberto was so named by his equally twerpish father Vittorio Emanuele to bask in the reflected glory of their ancestor, and perhaps to signal that they would one day emulate his great feat and regain the crown of Italy. Fat chance of that.

But of course this discovery simply reframed my original question: why do I then share a name with Emmanuel Philibert 10th Duke of Savoy? Here, I was helped by a book from 1778 helpfully scanned by Google and available on the internet: “Histoire Généalogique de la Royale Maison de Savoie”.

It’s essentially a hagiography of the House of Savoy, but it was very useful for my purposes. Under the entry on Emmanuel Philibert it has this to say about his two names: “Emmanuel Philibert was born in Chambéry on 8 July 1528. He was given the name Emmanuel in memory of Emmanuel King of Portugal, his maternal ancestor, and that of Philibert because of a vow made by Duke Charles his father to Saint Philibert in Tournus”.

Ah! Now that was exceedingly interesting to read! To explain my excitement, I must now tell readers why I was given the name Philibert. Tournus is a small town – a very small town – in Burgundy on the river Saône, some 35 kilometers north of the somewhat larger town of Mâcon which my mother hailed from. It is famous – and indeed has been famous since the early Middle Ages – for its sanctuary to Saint Philibert. It is a glorious construction from the 11th Century and I would highly recommend my readers to visit it should they ever be in the area.


For reasons that are not clear to me, Saint Philibert is (or at least was) the saint to whom you prayed if you wanted a son. When my mother was pregnant with me, she already had three girls but only one boy. She therefore made a vow to her more-or-less local saint that if her next child was a boy she would give him the saint’s name. I was born and she honored her vow. It may just be a fancy but I suspect that Duke Charles made the same vow some time in the 1520s, especially since Tournus lay just across the river from his westernmost lands.

So there is indeed a link, however tenuous, between me and that twerp Emanuele Filiberto. Which is a pity, but there you are.

Readers might assume, since I have expended so much time on the matter, that I am proud to carry the name Philibert. I have to admit that this is not quite the case. It is, let’s face it, a bit of a silly name. When I was young, I kept it well hidden, only admitting to it when I really had to. Often, when I pronounced it it would elicit a snicker from my listeners. I silently thank the Good Lord that my mother honored her vow but only by giving it to me as my third name. I shudder to think what my life would have been like if I had had to spend my boyhood years in the playground being called Philibert. I would probably have taken to alcohol or drugs or worse.

But let me finish on a more positive note. Saint Philibert’s feast day is 20th August, which happens to be peak harvest time for hazelnuts in England. So people began to call them filbert nuts, or filberts. I rather like the idea of having a connection with hazelnuts, an excellent nut which I enjoy in my morning muesli and from time time in pieces of chocolate. Better a connection with a nut than with a twerp.
___________________

Cover of Gente: http://olgopinions.blog.kataweb.it/tag/emanuele-filiberto-di-savoia/page/3/
Cover of Telesette: http://m.famousfix.com/post/valeria-marini-telesette-magazine-cover-italy-24-february-2015-51840502/p51840501?view=large
Emanuele Filiberto and his food truck: https://www.google.co.uk/amp/www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-3690125/amp/The-prince-Italy-sells-pasta-food-truck-California-truffle-linguine-16-bowl.html
Emmanuel Philibert, Duc de Savoie: https://www.google.co.uk/amp/s/lordozner.tumblr.com/post/89144934533/frans-pourbus-the-elder-emmanuel-philibert-duke/amp
Royal Palace, Turin: http://www.turismotorino.org/mobile/
Histoire Généalogique etc. cover page: https://books.google.it/books/about/Histoire_généalogique_de_la_royale_mai.html?id=GPrH8yauF94C&redir_esc=y
Abbey church of Tournus, aerial view: http://www.tournus.fr/le-site-abbatial-de-saint-philibert
Abbey church of Tournus, interior: http://www.hotel-greuze.fr/test-a-vister
Hazelnuts: https://www.gardeningknowhow.com/edible/nut-trees/hazelnut/when-to-harvest-hazelnuts.htm

RETIREMENT HERE WE COME!

New York, 1 January 2016

2016 is upon us! My wife and I did not stay up to ring in the new year, we let the younger folk do that.
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No need to make any new year resolutions, this year will be one of momentous change! (for me, anyway) I retire in August and finally become a free man again! Yippee!
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What I need to do over the next eight months (apart from ensuring as smooth a handover as possible to my eventual successor) is to figure out what my wife and I will do with all this wonderful spare time given to me. Travel is high on the list. For instance, we are planning to drive across the US, something I’ve dreamed of doing since my student days in the US 35 years ago, visiting the natural wonders of the West
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as well as the man-made wonders along the way.
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Or there’s a little trip I’ve had in mind for a while, visiting stained glass windows across Europe, from the Medieval glories of la Sainte Chapelle in Paris
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or Chartres cathedral
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to the modern take on this art form in Cologne Cathedral.
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Further afield, I have emitted the desire in a previous post to visit Easter Island.

AH2B07 Chili

Or how about Belize? My wife is currently searching the web for places there where our daughter and her beau could go and spend a short vacation. I’m thinking we should go there too and do some snorkeling

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as well as go and visit some of the country’s Mayan ruins
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My wife and I have also talked of spending several months in a number of our favourite cities, cities which we’ve only been able to visit briefly because of our work schedules but which we would like to get to know better. And on and on … There’s so much of the world we’ve not seen! But we cannot spend our whole time just traveling. For one thing, it gets rather expensive and I’m not sure how far my pension will stretch. For another, it greatly increases our carbon footprint, which is currently a big problem.

Which brings me to more serious things that my wife and I need to do in this latest phase of our lives. I’ve already mentioned in a previous post that we are going to have to do something to drastically reduce our environmental footprint.
imageI’m thinking in a confused way of turning these efforts into a blog and/or a website and/or an app to help others do the same. That will definitely keep me busy, especially since the workings of websites, apps, and the like are black holes to me. Time to learn and keep the old brain working!

And then there’s the exercise! We have to continue the good work we’ve started. Joining a gym near our apartment in Milan is a definite possibility (we’ve already looked into the options). But we’ll surely supplement that with trekking in the Ligurian hills behind our apartment near Genova.
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And here we can give back for all the years we’ve been using the trails, volunteering to help maintain them in our spare time (of which we will now have plenty).

And then, hopefully not in contradiction with the last two thoughts, I would like to turn my hand to some cooking. Not common-or-garden cooking but rather out-of-the-way things. For instance, I’ve always wanted to make tomato ketchup from scratch
imageand I want to try (again) to make my own vinegar.
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Vinegar makes me think that I would like to try pickling my own vegetables.
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I know this culinary impulse of mine is strange. I suppose it’s my way of rebelling against all the processed food that has swamped our lives. Maybe I can make this a subset of my website on reducing our environmental footprints, since our current food habits are such a big part of them.

I’m thinking that I could also do a bit of teaching, linked to my professional specialties. One university has reached out to me, let’s see if we can come to a mutually satisfactory arrangement.
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I’m sure there’s a thousand other things we could set our hand to. But of course it could be that amongst all this busyness we’ll be called to do our duty as grandparents. The children are not yet at the point of having their own children, but the moment could come. Have no fear, children, we’ll drop everything and be there in a jiffy!
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What better way is there to spend one’s waning years than in imparting some of one’s experience (I won’t say wisdom) to the little ones in our society?

Happy New Year!
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SCENT OF THE SEA

Genova, 20 July 2016

All those nobbly, horribly hot beach pebbles which I spoke about in a previous post could not stop me from registering the scent of the sea as I finally waded into the waves washing onto the beach. How does one describe that inimitable scent? Salty? Briny? Fishy? Seaweedy? Tarry? All of the above? Whatever descriptors you line up, you know it when you smell it. Of course, what we are actually breathing in is chemicals, which register in our brains as “scent of the sea”. Are we smelling ozone? or maybe iodine? These two chemicals were popular candidates in my youth; my mother-in-law favoured iodine, instructing my wife when she was young and at the seaside to fill her lungs with all that iodine, while my mother inclined to the ozone hypothesis. But actually, if I’m to believe the latest theories, neither of these chemicals are involved. I will not name names; I don’t want to spoil all those rosy memories evoked in us by the scent of the sea with flat, matter-of-fact, totally nerdy chemical names (I cannot resist, though, mentioning that the chemicals in question have to do with sex, death, and natural food additives. If any readers want to know more, they can do no better than consult this website).

Let’s focus instead on those memories, which often first seeped into our subconscious when we were at the sea as young children.
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After working my way down the corridors of my memory, opening doors here and there to check what lies behind them, working my way ever further back into the dimmest and darkest recesses of my mind, I have concluded that my Ur-memory, my foundational memory, of the scent of the sea situates itself in Massawa on the Red Sea, in 1960.

I have mentioned in past posts that I was born in Eritrea, where I spent the first six-seven years of my life. We lived in the capital Asmara, up in the highlands. This was one of city’s the main streets
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while I remember going to this cinema
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and I see that this gas station has become a popular tourist attraction for its 1930s architecture.
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During part of the year, when it was less hot – I’m guessing Christmas time – we would take the little train which I’ve mentioned in an earlier post down to the port of Massawa on the Red Sea.
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One could also go down by road, but it was an incredibly twisty journey
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and it went through countryside still infested by bandits, who were likely to stop you and rob you blind.

Contrary to Asmara, of which I have many memories, I remember nothing of Massawa itself. I know we went to the beach; I have seen the old photos of us children playing and bathing there. The only memory I have of that beach is us passing some rusty barbed wire, a remnant of the War, and my older brother and sisters warning me portentously that there could still be mines hidden under the sand! What a shiver of delighted horror that gave me … But my memory of scent of the sea does not come from there. It comes from the hotel we stayed at.

I have no idea what hotel it was. I’ve looked at old maps of Massawa but nothing obviously fits. All I remember is that our room overlooked a small harbour – the hotel’s, I suppose. The memory I have been chasing through the corridors of my mind is of me one morning, very early – just after dawn – sitting on the ledge of the window with my mother’s arms around me. There is not a sound. Looking down, I distinctly see three sting rays lazily undulating their way through the clear water of the little harbour. This photo captures the beauty of these fish.
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As I watch, enthralled, my brain is also registering the scent of the sea rising up to me, to be captured for ever in my olfactory memory bank. Sometimes when I’m at the sea, that scent will register in my memory bank and I will suddenly see in my mind’s eye those beautiful sting rays, undulating their way through the sea.
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I invite my readers to fetch up their memories of the scent of the sea. In the words of Van Morrison, “smell the sea and feel the sky. Let your soul and spirit fly”.

BEACH BLUES

Genova, 16 July 2015

I’m not a beach person. I don’t much like spending time in places like these.

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My fair skin, which I inherited from my Anglo-Saxon progenitors, burns immediately. So I spend all my time wearing clothes, which readers will agree is not optimal behaviour on a beach, or sloshing on 30+ sun cream and darting fearful looks at the blazing sun. In any case, I don’t see the pleasure of spending time in a micro-environment whose closest cousin is the middle of the Sahara desert, where sun beats down pitilessly on sand and pebbles, with no sight of tree or bush to give a pool of shade (beach umbrellas don’t count), or stream of merrily burbling fresh water to give the parched mouth relief (vendors of bottled water don’t count either).

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I should clarify that I’m talking here about the ecology of a Mediterranean beach in high summer; the UK or French Atlantic beaches of my youth are quite different micro-environments, closer to Arctic tundra – at least, my memories of these beaches are dominated by glacial seawater, howling winds, and driving rain.

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Back to the Mediterranean beaches, there is also the issue of the pebbles. We frequent a pebble beach.

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Nice to look at but agony for me to walk on as the pebbles drive into the arches of my feet – I have quite delicate feet, which is why, when in China, I had a foot massage only once, because after the masseuse’s vigorous manipulations I spent the rest of the week hobbling around in pain. The pebbles are also almost glowing they are so hot. Walking to the sea is like being one of those religious devotees who walk on burning coals to prove their devotion to whatever it is that they believe in.

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It doesn’t finish when I get to the sea. As I stand there, hesitating before the thermal shock that I know awaits me when I will plunge into the sea, the ebb and flow of the waves makes me stagger back and forth, stepping heavily on those damned pebbles.

As if all this were not enough, I get so BORED on beaches. I’m past the age of building sandcastles (although I did have fun helping the children make theirs when they were young)

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or looking for particularly smooth or beautifully coloured pebbles
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or throwing buckets of water on people
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or showing off beautifully sculpted pecs (and nowadays tattoos) to admiring girls and jealous boys (even assuming I had either).
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The best I can do is to read a book, but even this is difficult to do in the oppressive heat

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or find every excuse to escape the beach – cappuccino time, shopping for lunch and dinner, urgent need to pay parking fines in the municipal office … anything to get away from the beach.

I should clarify that I’m basing myself here mainly on my memories of spending summer holidays with the family at the seaside in Italy. Those holidays stopped some ten years ago, when the children, now grown up, were spending their summer holidays with their friends and later with their girl or boyfriend. My wife and I still came to the seaside, but not for the beach. We went for walks in the hills behind the sea

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we wandered around the village
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we went into Genova to admire the sites
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we dined out in the local restaurants

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Or we just looked at the view from our balcony.

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But we did not visit the beach. At maximum, one evening we would go down and dip a toe in the water.

Yet, as I write this, we are actually on that beach. This year, my wife and I have had the immense luck of having both kids with us at the same time for a week and a half during our and their summer breaks. In an advanced state of gratitude, I was therefore quite happy to tag along when it was suggested that we all go down to the beach and spend the afternoon there. After a dip in the sea, which was surprisingly warm (I am very picky about the temperature of the water), we are now lying in the shade of beach umbrellas, sipping water from a bottle we have just bought at the bar. And I’m feeling surprisingly mellow about it all; the beach seems quite a nice place really, don’t know what I had against it.
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All of which proves … what? I suppose that human beings can put up with anything as long as they are happy.

POST SCRIPTUM, 18 July 2015

The mellowness only lasted for another half day. After that, we let the children go to the beach without us.

________________

Ligurian beach: http://media-cdn.tripadvisor.com/media/photo-s/02/1a/a5/46/spiaggia-beach.jpg (in http://www.tripadvisor.it/Hotel_Review-g194849-d1933333-Reviews-Camping_dei_Fiori-Pietra_Ligure_Italian_Riviera_Liguria.html)
Desert: http://static.guim.co.uk/sys-images/Travel/Pix/pictures/2007/10/20/escape.oman460.jpg (in http://www.theguardian.com/travel/2007/oct/21/oman.yemen)
English beach: http://img.dailymail.co.uk/i/pix/2008/05_02/bmouthrainL0505_468x337.jpg (in http://murderiseverywhere.blogspot.it/2012/06/oh-i-do-like-to-be-beside-seaside-in.html)
Pebble beach: my picture
Walking on coals: http://www.slate.com/content/dam/slate/articles/life/explainer/2012/07/120723_EXP_hotcoalsEX.png.CROP.rectangle3-large.png (in http://www.slate.com/articles/health_and_science/explainer/2012/07/tony_robbins_firewalking_injuries_why_doesn_t_everyone_who_walks_on_hot_coals_get_burned_.html)
Sandcastle: http://www.vitadamamma.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/07/castello-di-sabbia.jpg (in http://www.lecivettesulsouffle.it/forum/index.php?topic=11341.15)
Looking for pebbles: http://3.bp.blogspot.com/-IH2N5FaEr9k/T2mr8Pzd_II/AAAAAAAAAhw/joKptZ4mRK8/s1600/Siria+676_ipiccy.jpg (in http://moto-perpetuo.blogspot.it/2012_03_01_archive.html)
Throwing water: http://i.dailymail.co.uk/i/pix/2011/07/20/article-0-0D144F4000000578-229_634x421.jpg (in http://www.dailymail.co.uk/tvshowbiz/article-2016716/Kendra-Wilkinson-Hank-Baskett-playful-beach-outing-son.html)
Muscled and tattooed man on the beach: https://s-media-cache-ak0.pinimg.com/736x/fa/d0/8c/fad08ce895f6a109914fe85059149dc5.jpg (in https://www.pinterest.com/pin/463448617878375391/
Asleep with book: http://38.media.tumblr.com/tumblr_m6ptoftxGM1r2dx74.jpg (in http://lindyandcaitcoffeedates.tumblr.com)
Walking in the hills: http://www.caisezionedirho.it/public/upload/latest/DSCN3681_2.jpg (in http://www.caisezionedirho.it/sito/images.asp?cat=25&id=146)
Village: http://www.iliguria.net/wp-content/uploads/2012/03/iliguria_francesco_robbiano_sori_51.jpg (in http://www.iliguria.net/sori-genova-im-sori-concerto-per-archi/)
Duomo Genova: http://www.chiesadigenova.it/genova/allegati/362159/arte_genova_001_cattedrale_san_lorenzo.jpg (in http://www.chiesadigenova.it/home_page/itinerari/00362159_Cattedrale.html)
Restaurant: http://media-cdn.tripadvisor.com/media/photo-s/07/50/92/62/edo-bar-trattoria-pizzeria.jpg (in http://www.tripadvisor.com/Restaurant_Review-g1807548-d1173493-Reviews-Edobar-Sori_Italian_Riviera_Liguria.html)
The beach: http://www.lamargheritaditeriasca.it/wp-content/uploads/2013/07/sori.jpg (in http://www.lamargheritaditeriasca.it/sori/)

14th JULY

Genova, 14 July 2015

When 14th July rolls around, my wife and I give each other fond looks and, depending on where we are, we will go out to celebrate. Not, as some readers might think, to celebrate the anniversary of the fall of the Bastille, although the French Revolution behind that act of rebellion was, when all is said and done, a great thing. No, we are celebrating the anniversary of Us Getting Together. This momentous event took place in Corsica, in the Year of our Lord 1975 (goodness me, when I write it down it seems so long ago …). I had gone to visit her in Milan at the end of a tour of Italy (my first), and on the spur of the moment we had decided to go to Corsica – well, she had proposed it and, rather startled but willing, I had agreed; this was the start of what would be a common pattern in our marriage: she proposes and I agree. We took the ferry from Genova to Bastia, and during the trip I had felt rather sea-sick; this was the start of the process of my wife learning a lot of unedifying things about me. After a day in Bastia, we took the Trinichellu (“little train” in Corsican dialect)

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which runs from Bastia on the north-eastern coast to Ajaccio on the western coast, passing over the island’s wild and mountainous spine. We got off in Corte, a nice little mountain town in the centre of the island.

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We must have walked around the town but actually my only memory of the place is of the restaurant where my wife introduced me to steak tartare, the start of many culinary discoveries for me, courtesy of my wife.

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We spent the night in a campground where we shared my rather small tent. And the rest, as they say, is history …

The next day, we took the Trinichellu back to Bastia, to catch the ferry to the mainland. It was 14th July, and that night, hand in hand, we watched the fireworks display. It seemed a fitting commentary on what had just started between us.

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Which is why we look at each other fondly every 14th July.

___________

Trinichellu: http://www.lightmediation.net/blog/wp-content/myfotos/train-corse/00000053125.jpg (in http://www.lightmediation.net/blog/index.php/2010/09/27/trinichellu-un-express-bien-corse/)
Corte: http://ajaccio.media.tourinsoft.eu/upload/corte.JPG (in http://www.ajaccio-tourisme.com/commerces-et-services/ORGCOR2AV5008WB-7/detail/corte/office-de-tourisme-de-corte-centru-di-corsica)
Steak tartare: http://pad1.whstatic.com/images/thumb/2/2c/Make-Steak-Tartare-Step-8.jpg/670px-Make-Steak-Tartare-Step-8.jpg (in http://m.wikihow.com/Make-Steak-Tartare)
Fireworks: http://france3-regions.francetvinfo.fr/nord-pas-de-calais/sites/regions_france3/files/styles/top_big/public/assets/images/2013/07/13/artifice_2.jpg?itok=1HvQYr8a (in http://france3-regions.francetvinfo.fr/nord-pas-de-calais/2013/07/13/14-juillet-les-feux-d-artifice-du-samedi-287075.html)

 

EAST, WEST, HOME’S BEST

Milan, 14 July 2015

In our short time in Thailand, my wife and I have had the pleasure of trying many wonderful tropical fruits. Some are now known enough in Europe to regularly populate the supermarket shelves: bananas of course, coconuts too, and more recently mangoesimage

pomeloes

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and dragon fruit

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Others, though known to Europeans – primarily through tourism to SE Asia – have not (yet) made it into our supermarkets: the mangosteen, for instance

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or the rambutan

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both of which I’ve written about earlier, or the durian, that horribly smelly fruit which I’ve also had a rant about in the same post and which I hope never reaches our supermarkets.

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And then there are fruits which, as far as I can tell, are quite unknown in Europe. There’s the sala, a fruit about as large as an apricot, which has a ruddy-brown brittle skin covered in sharp scales (these earn it its English name of snake fruit). The white flesh consists of three lobes, rather like the mangosteen, each of which contains a seed. It has a sweet taste with astringent overtones.

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Or there’s the sathon, which from a distance looks like a large yellow apple except that the rind has a matt, velvety look to it and which, when split open, is found to house several seeds encased in a very sweet sticky white goo that itself is ensconced in a yellow, very sour flesh: it is the interplay of sweet and sour as you scoop all this out that makes this fruit so interesting.

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Or what about the lamyai (longan in China)? It’s the “other lychee”. Longans come in big bunches. When you shuck the light brown shell, you find something that looks, and tastes, very much like a lychee.

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We haven’t been through a full annual cycle yet in Thailand, so maybe a few more fruits unknown to us will pop up in the local markets over the coming months.

I have always been more than ready to try strange, exotic fruits, which proudly affirm that even in this era of globalization the world can still offer us the excitement of discovering new foodstuffs in the corner of some foreign land. But then, on a recent trip to Budapest to give my annual training course, I experienced the old rather than the new. I found a couple of raspberries in my salad at dinner one night and popped them in my mouth … Aah, my friends, that taste … Incomparable … As it coursed through my taste buds to my brain, I found myself in seventh heaven; those soft, velvety beads which, when bitten down on, release that sweetly delicate juice, with a slightly musty aftertaste.

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It was as much the memory as the taste which had me floating on clouds. This companion of my youth! I was transported back fifty years, to my French grandmother’s house, to that untidy patch of raspberry bushes which had colonized a corner of her vegetable garden. My cousins and I would sneak over there, despite strict grandmotherly prohibitions, and quickly pop a few into our mouths before tearing off to avoid detection and grandmotherly wrath. Sometimes, just to play with fire, we would also grab in passing a few sprigs of red currants. But that was just boyhood defiance; their acidity did not sit well in our young mouths.

As if this wasn’t enough, the next course of my dinner in Budapest was a dish of braised veal cooked with fennels and fresh apricots. Apricots! As I spooned the slices of the fruit into my mouth, yet another series of sensations coursed through my taste buds and set my nerve synapses afiring. Mmm, that … that … well, that apricoty taste, how else to describe it? Soooo good!

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Here too I was transported back in time, to my grandmother’s orchard, which stood next to the vegetable garden, and where she had apricot trees, plum trees, peach trees, pear trees, apple trees. My cousins and I would also raid those trees, keeping a wary eye out for our grandmother, who might come around the corner of the vegetable garden at any moment and be instantly transformed from a gentle old soul into a spitfire, running after us, yelling, and threatening to tell our parents.

As I near retirement, as I start becoming the gentle old soul my grandmother was (most of the time), I realize more and more the truth of Oliver Goldsmith’s dictum (and title of one of his poems) “East, West, home’s best”. After years of globe-trotting, of experiencing the exotic splendours of distant lands, I feel ever more strongly with every passing month the pull of home, that part of the world which is in my genes, where there are seasons of moderate heat and moderate cold, where I understand the languages, where the foodstuffs are old friends and not experiences. No offense, but at the end of the day I prefer to be eating raspberries and apricots rather than salas and sathons.

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Mango: http://www.mangomaven.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/02/manilla1.jpg (in http://www.mangomaven.com/tasty-tasty-tasty/)
Pomelo: http://previews.123rf.com/images/norgal/norgal1208/norgal120800007/14768629-Green-pomelo-fruit-on-white-Backgorund-Stock-Photo.jpg (in http://it.123rf.com/archivio-fotografico/pomelo.html)
Dragon fruit: http://24.media.tumblr.com/eb843c799502fd0235accc3efe4f3bd2/tumblr_mh0aj3T6Yn1qg5xklo1_r1_1280.gif (in https://theotheri.wordpress.com/2014/09/16/dragon-fruit/)
Mangosteen: http://www.healthyfig.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/02/purple-mangosteen.jpg (in http://www.healthyfig.com/purple-mangosteen/)
Rambutan: http://www.meteoweb.eu/wp-content/uploads/2014/06/RAMBUTAN.jpg (in http://www.meteoweb.eu/2014/06/rambutan-frutto-tropicale-dal-fascino-esotico-simile-ad-piccolo-riccio-mare-giallo-acceso-rosso/289011/)
Durian: http://ecx.images-amazon.com/images/I/71z16SFzrbL._SL1100_.jpg (in http://steven-universe.wikia.com/wiki/Durian_Juice)
Longan: https://lh6.googleusercontent.com/vqe9GQ0UOugxvtYh4V5Fd5kLV-BdriZsJKb1gb2spvxyCwT0rk1u7U75gXjApDU9598LyLC4_Wnzu8__4ygBcwnDHisDpNzj5_dLq82bRHMZ1ADGdb-i67pBSkQeiXso4Q (in http://share.psu.ac.th/blog/general-sarabun/38151)
Sala: https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Salak#/media/File:Salak_(Salacca_zalacca),_2015-05-17.jpg (in https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Salak)
Sathon: http://previews.123rf.com/images/panda3800/panda38001205/panda3800120500019/13601415-Santol-fruit-isolated-on-white-background-Stock-Photo-santol.jpg (in https://www.123rf.com/photo_13601415_santol-fruit-isolated-on-white-background.html)
Raspberry: http://www.viper-vapor.com/uploads/4/2/9/8/42981083/s165799847266067809_p13_i1_w1000.jpeg (in http://www.viper-vapor.com/store/p13/RASPBERRY.html)
Apricot: http://sabzi.pk/wp-content/uploads/2015/06/Apricot3.jpg (in http://sabzi.pk/shop/fruits/apricot/)

 

FOOTPRINTS

Bangkok, 6 July 2015

A couple of river-bus stops downriver from where my wife and I live in Bangkok stands the temple Wat Pho, whose main claim to fame is a large reclining Buddha.

wat pho reclining buddha

It is, I read, 46 metres long and 15 metres high, and walking along it certainly is impressive. But I much prefer the soles of the statue’s feet.

wat pho buddhas feet

These soles have been divided into 108 panels each of which contains, in the form of mother-of-pearl inlays, the 108 auspicious symbols by which the Buddha can be identified, like flowers, dancers, white elephants, tigers and altar accessories.

Wat Pho’s reclining Buddha was the first time I saw this interesting art form. But actually it is quite common for reclining Buddhas to have the soles of their feet so decorated. For instance, I find this particular reclining Buddha in Yangon in Myanmar more naturalistic – certainly the pose of the feet is more pleasing to the eye than those stiff blocks in Wat Pho.

yangon_reclining_buddha_feet

I later learned that the decorations of the feet of Buddha statues are actually a reflection – almost literally – of a much older iconography for depicting the Buddha, that of his footprint. Before anyone made statues of the Buddha, they made his footprints. They were a powerful way to remind the faithful that the Buddha had been present on earth: “the Buddha passed this way”. Quite quickly, the footprints were decorated with some of the symbols used to identify the Buddha. For instance, this footprint of the Buddha made in the 1st Century AD in the kingdom of Gandhara, in what is now the Swat valley in Pakistan, carries the Darmachakra, the “wheel of law”, and the triratna, the “triple gem” of Buddhism: Buddha (the Enlightened One), Dharma (the Teaching), and Sangha (the Community).

Buddha-Footprint

As time went on, more and more symbols were squeezed onto the footprints. And then some bright spark came up with the “positive print”, as it were, where the soles of reclining Buddhas carry the symbols of the Buddha.

Buddhism is not the only religion that has used footprints of its religious leaders as iconography, although it surely has used them more than any other (there is an estimate of 3,000 Buddha footprints throughout the Buddhist lands). My wife and I came across a footprint of the Prophet Muhammad in the Topkapi museum in Istanbul

Muhammad footprint

and there is a pair of footprints of Jesus in the Church of Domine Quo Vadis (“Lord, where are you going?”) on the outskirts of Rome.

jesus footprint

It is true to say that footprints are an incredibly powerful symbol of someone passing, of having been close by. One of the best remembered stories in Robinson Crusoe is of his finding a footprint on the beach.

crusoe and footprint

“It happened, one day about noon going towards my boat, I was exceedingly surprised, with the print of a man’s naked foot on the shore, which was very plain to be seen in the sand. I stood like one thunder-struck, or as if I had seen an apparition; I listened, I looked round me, I could hear nothing, nor see anything; I went up to a rising ground to look farther; I went up the shore and down the shore, but it was all one, I could see no other impression but that one. I went to it again to see if there were any more, and to observe if it might not be my fancy; but there was no room for that, for there was exactly the very print of a foot, toes, heel, and every part of a foot; how it came thither I knew not, nor could in the least imagine. But after innumerable fluttering thoughts, like a man perfectly confused and out of myself, I came home to my fortification, not feeling, as we say, the ground I went on, but terrified to the last degree, looking behind me at every two or three steps, mistaking every bush and tree, and fancying every stump at a distance to be a man.”

That footprint struck fear in Robinson Crusoe, fear of the unknown, fear of attack, fear of savagery. But I get a thrill when I see the footprints that some 15 people left 2,000 years ago in the ash and mud on the shore of Lake Managua in Nicaragua.

nicaragua footprints

I get goose bumps on seeing the footprints left 1.5 million years ago by Homo erectus near the village of Ileret in Northern Kenya on the eastern shore of Lake Turkana.

homo erectus ileret kenya

The hairs on my neck rise at the sight of footprints left 3.7 million years ago by three members of the species Australopithecus afarensis at Laetoli in Tanzania, which show that already then bipedalism, such a distinctive feature of our species, was in place.

laetoli footprints

I find these footprints a much more powerful reminder of the Family of Man than a piece of jawbone or a tooth. I can imagine my distant, distant ancestors going about their business, as I will go about mine today.

And within the much narrower circuit of my family, my wife and I have two relics, which currently slumber with all our stuff in a warehouse in Vienna but which we will keep preciously until the end of our lives. These are the footprints which the hospital gave us of our children’s feet, made just after they were born; they look like this

newborn footprints

They will forever remind us of the great joy which we experienced when our two children entered our lives and for a few decades walked with us before taking their own path in life.

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Reclining Buddha, Wat Pho, Bangkok: https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/thumb/8/8d/Bangkok_Wat_Pho_reclining_Buddha.jpg/280px-Bangkok_Wat_Pho_reclining_Buddha.jpg (in https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wat_Pho)

Reclining Buddha’s feet: http://s4.perpetualexplorer.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/03/wat_pho.jpg (in http://perpetualexplorer.com/2013/03/03/buddhist-temples/)

Reclining Buddha, Chaukhtatgyi Paya, Yangon: http://www.heybrian.com/lib/images/travels/myanmar/yangon_reclining_buddha_feet.jpg (in http://www.heybrian.com/travels/myanmar/)

Buddha footprint, 1st century, Gandhāra: https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/7/73/Buddha-Footprint.jpeg (in https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Buddha_footprint)

Muhammad footprint, Istanbul: http://www.usna.edu/Users/humss/bwheeler/images/footistanbul.jpg (in http://www.usna.edu/Users/humss/bwheeler/footprints_pm.html)

Jesus footprints, church of Domine Quo Vadis: https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/b/b1/I_piedi_del_quo_vadis.jpg (in https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Church_of_Domine_Quo_Vadis)

Crusoe and the footprint: http://www.bookdrum.com/images/books/92999_m.jpg (in http://www.bookdrum.com/books/the-graveyard-book/16401/bookmark/92998.html)

Nicaragua footprints: http://www.geog.cam.ac.uk/research/projects/eruptions/figures/thumbnails/05_11.jpg (in http://www.geog.cam.ac.uk/research/projects/eruptions/figures.html)

Homo erectus Ileret Kenya: https://nutcrakerman.files.wordpress.com/2014/10/ileret.jpg (in http://nutcrackerman.com/2014/10/14/the-oldest-human-footprints-by-continent/comment-page-1/)

Hominid footprints, Laetoli: http://auth.mhhe.com/socscience/anthropology/image-bank/kottak/chap07/kot37055_0705ta.jpg (in http://auth.mhhe.com/socscience/anthropology/image-bank/kottak/chap07/image7.htm)

Newborn footprints: http://semma.com/Joey/images/Joey/Joey%27s%20Footprints.jpg (in http://semma.com/Joey/photo2.html)