Sunday, 30 October 2016

Norcia Hit Hard by 6.6 Quake

The monks and all our friends are unharmed, but that's the only good news. It's very sad. Architectural jewels completely destroyed, homes and shops destroyed. A lovely little town--an Italian treasure--in ruins.

Saturday, 29 October 2016

Hallowe'en and Culture

Hallowe'en came early to the Historical House, and it will last until November. There is a Hallowe'en Trail in the policies for children, and a "ghost tour" of the House at night. On Thursday I bought a big pumpkin (£2), and as night fell I carved this cheerful fellow:

Various British pundits snarl about the invasion of American-style Hallowe'en, and I sympathize. When Benedict Ambrose was a child, the older, native tradition of "guising" still lingered in his part of Scotland. In England, there were children's parties which included a number of folk traditions, often involving apples. Agatha Christie drowned one of her fictional victims in an apple-bobbing tub. It would be nice if local folk customs were encouraged in place, or beside, the imported American decorations, parties and conveyor-belt trick-or-treating.

However, British children seem to like American Hallowe'en, and after it was reported back to me that children had been delighted to see my nostalgic-for-Canada jack o'lantern, I decided I would keep carving them.

My resolve was a bit shaken by witnessing the Eve of All Saints in Poland, where the entire populace flocks to cemeteries to light candles, tidy the graves, pray and sing hymns. Convicted Catholic Poles (as opposed to go-along-to-get-along Poles) abhor American Hallowe'en, which they think is foreign at best and positively Satanic at worst. Not that they are Satanists, but it is true the the Wiccans adore Hallowe'en, which they call Samhain, and I believe there are various sexual shenanigans involving leaping over fires, etc. Or so I was told by a Wiccan long ago.

But I am a Canadian, and I do not have cultural or religious objections to little children dressing up and hearing ghost stories (or watching scary movies) and going out into the night to collect candy. I utterly loved it when I was young, and when I was too old for trick-or-treating, I still enjoyed going to school in costume. My mother let me get away with murder, incidentally.

Father Tim Ferguson,  guest-writing on Father Z's Blog, opines that he's happier to see children dressing up as "ghosts and ghouls" rather than everybody dressing up as "sexy pirate" or in any other sexy costume." I second that. I think it's atrocious how Catholic girls feel that they have to dress up as sexy-this-or-that to get any attention from boys at college parties. There's only so far you can go to out-sexy everyone else.  Eventually revelers will just wear body paint.

One solution would be that Catholic college students dress up as saints and organize their own saint-themed parties, as some parishes have for children. One of the most brilliant Hallowe'en costumes I ever saw was at college: John the Baptist with his head on a plate. The costume managed to be gruesome but not impious.

It should be understood that everyone at this Saint Party has to come as a saint. I went to a Newman Centre party as Saint Dorothy, and I felt frightfully precious. Possibly it would be a better idea not to go as your own patron saint, so that there is no confusion between you and the person you are not worthy to be confused with. I am not sure what the entertainment would be. Perhaps a film or dramatic reading about exorcisms would be both spiritually fruitful and absolutely terrifying.

Meanwhile, I shall supplement my enjoyment of my jack o'lantern, plus an evening of watching scary films with B.A., with going to the cemetery to visit friends' graves, and going to All Saints' Day and then All Souls' Day Mass. For truly, I cannot see what is wrong with traditional Hallowe'en fun as long as it does not replace actual religious observance.

Update: As a flame can never, ever be lit in the Historical House, the source of light in Jack is a battery operated "candle."

Thursday, 27 October 2016

Safe Space

I am not sure how campus "safe spaces" are a good preparation for adult life. My high school was one big "safe space" for Catholic girls with strict parents who felt that they shouldn't have to know about the seamy side of life, and thus university was a ginormous shock.

Fortunately, there was a Catholic college which was at that time a relatively safe space for Catholics, somewhere to retreat to after listening to anti-Catholic remarks in classes (e.g.  in "Twentieth Century Canadian Poetry") and reading anti-Catholic opinions in other college papers. I distinctly recall one undergrad opinion that a university shouldn't have a Catholic college anyway. Wasn't it obvious that Catholic college was an oxymoron? Etc. A dissident (i.e. anti-Catholic ) Catholic newspaper didn't show up at St. Mike's until my last year, and then I cried.

In terms of getting a breather from men, there was always the women's washrooms and a "Women's Centre", too. There wasn't anywhere you could get away from people of other races, if you were racist enough to want one, like these kids at UC-Berkeley.

Naturally, there were clubs for Serbs and Croats and various other ethnic groups but in theory you didn't have to be accepted as a member of that ethnic group to be accepted as a member of the club. I do not recall there being a student club for white Anglo-Saxons, although  some clubs might have been primarily of interest to white Anglo-Saxons. Unfortunately there were at least rumours of rivalries between ethnic-based clubs--during the civil wars in former Yugoslavia, for example. And half a generation later, I heard that Italian-speaking former child refugees to Italy were not instantly grasped to an Italian Club's bosom.

One great place to be a Catholic on the increasingly Political Correct campus was the Newman Centre. I am hazy on the racial make-up of my Catholic college, but I clearly remember the multiracial nature of the Newman although nobody (to my knowledge) ever dwelt on it. It was life in Toronto as normal; in fact, it was a bit like being back at Catholic high school, only with boys. The U of T Pro-life Club was, of course, multiracial--which we did think about, as this contradicted the pro-ab myth that pro-lifers were "sexist, racist, anti-gay, born again bigots."

Yes, I can see having a "safe space" on campus for those whose religious identity makes them a target for right-on student activists. Certainly the Newman was one of the few places on campus I would feel safe wearing a "pro-life" button. However, it would have seemed rather cowardly to call it a "safe space". It was more of a campus club, a club for Catholics on campus and any non-Catholic (but open-minded, obviously) guests who came to a lecture or for tea.

When I returned to U of T as a graduate student in theology, I was a big fan of "Women Only Hour" in the weight room because during all the other hours the gym was rather crowded. The problem of the male attendant staring at me, the hockey team and the women in hijab was solved when I made a complaint. (His desk was moved so that he couldn't see us. And, yes, he really did stare. It was creepy.)

I suppose "Women's Only Hour" was a way of providing "safe space", and in light of the Berkeley protest, I feel a bit weird about that now.  On the other hand, some young men in weight rooms do behave in rather odd ways around women--mostly to show off in front of other young men, which is distracting and annoying. There is a strong biology-based tension between men and women of child-bearing age---which is why, really, there should be "safe spaces" for women, which used to be called "the ladies'".

No campus "the ladies'" is complete, incidentally, without a comfortable chair (or, even better, a sofa) and a box on the wall providing sanitary napkins. It should always be a place where a woman can have a good cry or respond adequately to hygienic emergencies.  Yes, I am a great fan of the women's loo, and I am frankly amazed that in the age of the "safe space", men are now allowed in.

By the time I was a graduate student in theology, I had twigged that the whole point of being at university was to study and get the best possible grades, so that is what I did. As far as being protected from other people--or thinking about other people--there is nothing like a carrel in a library covered with your books and papers. And this is what I would recommend to anyone who goes to university--especially a university in which some students are openly racist or violently shut down free speech. Find a clubhouse where you can unwind and chat about what you believe in without being attacked by self-righteous toads, but above all, find a good quiet corner of a library where you can study your brains out.

Incidentally, the funny part of the Berkeley story is where the activists demand that the bookstore be evicted. Obviously books--new books that someone can buy--have no place in academia.

Wednesday, 26 October 2016

Various Controversies Revisited

First, the yoga pants.  Never mind the fact the guy was "joking". Most women, young or old, look slatternly in yoga pants. At the moment, I forget what we call them in the UK. It is surely not "pants" which  here means either "underpants" or "terrible."  (Leggings?)   At any rate, some poor chap in the USA wrote a letter to his local paper complaining about  women wearing yoga pants in the same way we might complain about men wearing Speedos, and the result was death threats, a parade of yoga pants and world infamy.

Now, yoga pants are comfortable, and the black ones play into some inner female delusion that tight black leg-coverings somehow render those legs wonderfully attractive. I have some myself, which I confess I have occasionally worn to Tesco, not just for the gym or striding about the Historical Policies in my wellies. I hereby apologize to my neighbours and beg clemency on the grounds that I always wore a longish coat with them.

Keeping inside the law, women "can" wear whatever we want but that won't stop other people from thinking we look like right daft cows when we wear it. It would be loving our neighbours as ourselves if we presented a inoffensive appearance. Meanwhile, wouldn't we rather give off  "kind of girl I'd like to marry" signals instead of "Amsterdam window" vibes?

Second, "scientific" study purported to show that men aren't attracted to smart women. This is old news, but it appeared in my Facebook homepage yesterday, and various women of conservative mien fussed about it in the comments. I wrote something like, "Men like smart women. Smart women know that men aren't attracted to women who need to best them in 'who's smarter' contests." A male friend followed that up, and a woman contradicted him, so I gave him a Facebook "like."

I wish I had known in grade school how socially important it is to give "likes" to boys and men. At this late date, I cannot think of any natural opportunities that arose. I suppose "Hey, great presentation in Famous Canadians class!" or "Boy, you really know how to draw a tank" would have been appropriate.

According to Watching the English, however, English girls and boys flirt by hurling insults at each other. On the other hand, Watching the English stresses that the English are very uncomfortable with bragging and boasting and are wont to say things like, "Well, yes, er, um, I did go to Oxford, but I'm quite thick, really."

Thinking about it, "Yes, I do have all the hallmarks of high intelligence, but I'm quite thick really" is a way of showing a man that you are not in competition with him and are therefore a restful personality, such as he might want to find at home. What is needed is a touch of old-fashioned (and highly male) compartmentalizing and hypocrisy. There's a way to be at work, and there's a way to be at parties. Of course, this is only if you care to inspire affection in male hearts. If you don't, brag as much as you like, Harvard grad. How dare that highly eligible man think he might have had a chance against your mighty brain.

Third, I was asked to join a Polish dancing troupe, but I thought that was a bit too much cultural appropriation for a Toronto woman with nary a drop of polskiego krwi in her żyłach. Also, dancing almost always makes me feel foolish. Still, I was up late browsing this exciting site. There are few circumstances under which I would wear traditional Polish folk dress (e.g. as a disguise while fleeing an assassin), but I have loved Polish folk motifs since I was a tiny child. A folkowy raincoat would be smashing.

Fourth, I see that a Trappist abbot is demoting himself so that his abbey isn't shut down. It is not made clear why his abbey is in danger, but I suppose it is because the monks have returned to pre-conciliar Trappist ways. I simply cannot imagine why certain Catholics hate Catholic traditions so much and want them banished to the past. Fifty years of praying for vocations and harping about "the young", but then when the young discover traditional vocations... Eeek! No! No! It's working! Shut it down!!!!! Apparently a trend is "sign of the times" only when it is ugly, cheap, easy or of interest to an ethnographer.

Monday, 24 October 2016

Where Every Day is Polski Piątek

This will be of interest only to Polish readers and fellow students of Polish: I have started a website for my Polish club here. It will hopefully remain uncontroversial, as club members are united solely by our interest in becoming fluent in Polish. Insofar as this is possible, we don't discuss religious matters, politics or our views on sexual morality.

Naturally, we share an aversion to the partitions of Poland, the German invasion of 1939, the Soviet invasion of 1939, Stalinism, and, I suspect, Soviet-style communism in general.  We also share some interest in Polish Christian holidays. Sexual morality has not come up in club conversations, if only because our reading material has been about a lost dog and then about the Warsaw Uprising. During the Warsaw Uprising, lost dogs were more interesting than sexual morality as they were edible.

If I took a poll, I think we would all agree that the Polish victory over the Soviets in 1920 was a good thing. Indeed, I think we will all participate in happy accord as long as our politics never venture past 1990.

Saturday, 22 October 2016

The Egos of Wannabe Poets

I was at a Polish poetry translation workshop today. Whereas the organizers and presenters were terrific, I was bored by the egos of fellow workshoppers. Of the 18 of us, only five were male, and guess who did most of the talking?  And one of them, during the introductions, needed to opine on "Christian mythology" and how he assumed it was "still imposed" on Poland. For all he knew, the poet could have attended noon-hour mass before arriving at the poetry centre or had a keen devotion to Our Lady of Częstochowa. Mr Sixty-Eighter (complete with white hair pulled back in a ponytail) obviously hadn't heard that Poland was born and baptized simultaneously.

Suddenly I remembered why I gave up going to writers' groups. There's just too much "I", which is why I may give up blogging eventually. The very word blog or "web log" assumes a first-person narrative, so blogging can encourage rampant self-regard. Me, me, me. I, I, I. Margaret Avison advised me not to write in the first person for ten years. Alas.

The wonderful thing about a language group, in contrast, is the point of the group is never "I" and what "I" wrote, or what "I" think but the language itself. It is difficult to speak the foreign language, but everyone tries and is even relieved when it is someone else's turn to talk.

One of the chaps in the workshop was in love with the fact that he could speak Polish. He was a terrible warning to your humble scribe. In fact, I may have tried to show off my own shaky grasp of the piękny język, were it not for him. Instead I asked questions and talked about Polish might best be translated for a North American audience. Thus, I learned something. Of course, I learned more by keeping quiet and listening.

Of the women who spoke, I spoke a fair amount, keeping in mind how ego-jostling is contagious. Good moderators must be able to keep this within bounds, and fortunately ours did. It helped, I think, that the poet was actually there, and so was the indisputable leader of the pack. At least if there was some "Look at me! Look at me!" going on, it was directed at the poet.

The best poets-in-English I have met are humble people who are more interested in the world than they are in being heard. They are also incredibly interested in poetry for itself and so are eager to listen to others, more eager to listen than to speak. I once asked a woman I met at theology school--a woman whose poems were regularly published in the most prestigious Canadian journals--if she ever went to Spoken Word or open mic events, and she never did. 

Meeting Polish poets is a different experience altogether because they are presenting and reading in what is to them a foreign language environment. They usually give the impression that they are on a fun holiday, and that having any English-speaking readers-listeners is a jolly surprise. If they have an ego, none of it is bound up in their facility with English. They read what their translator wrote, and their audience listens in respectfully and claps.

Afterwards a fellow Polish-language enthusiast and I took off for a drink. We ended up having coffee and cake in my favourite hipster café. and while we were there another workshop participant approached to say she had enjoyed our contributions. She is a English-to-Polish translator, which we found very interesting. She said very little during the workshop. Indeed the young, female students of translation said almost nothing. This does not mean that they had nothing to say, of course.

Wednesday, 19 October 2016

A Birthday Tribute to a Friend

Today is Tricia's birthday. I won't tell you how old she is because she is only four months older than me, and ladies in the arts tend to be shy about such information. Besides, for me she is "Forever 21", as she was about 21 when we met in a large shed at the University of Toronto. I believe the shed had offices above it sacred to the memory of Marshall McLuhan, a demi-god to secularists despite his devout Catholicism. It was autumn; perhaps October.

Trish, a tall young woman with long brown hair done up in a bun, was scrambling around the collection of props and scenery owned by the Poculi Ludique Societas. She was wearing a beret. I had been sent to find her, as I had dropped by the HQ of the famous old mediaeval drama society to volunteer as crew of some sort. I had failed in the auditions to get a role in Tricia's play, but apparently she still needed a stage manager.

Tricia had judged the auditions herself, so in truth I first laid eyes on the woman in a long, glass-fronted sitting-room in Victoria College. Same hair, same bun, same beret. Through earlier association with the PLS, I knew about her. In fact, I had a crush on a PLS guy who had mentioned her, so I squeaked out his name at the audition for the sheer thrill of mentioning him, and she said something like, "Ah, [Such-and-Such] that old rogue." 

Such-and-Such was also tall and wore a beret. I thought he was the most fascinating, glamorous man in the world, and Tricia's friendship with him made her instantly glamorous too. I knew that Such-and-Such had been in love with her for years since their break-up, but instead of being envious, I thought she was a kind of superwoman. The fact that she had herself translated this play from mediaeval French did nothing to erase this impression. When I went to the shed, I was primed for admiration, but when the goddess shouted out joyful greetings and gratitude, I fell in love. 

At the time I was failing the transition from my comfortable Catholic bubble--in which the air had grown stale--into the wider world of the university. Despite being enrolled in the Catholic college, I found it extremely hard to "integrate" (as Catholic uni students say now) as a member of the University of Toronto. Frankly, I was so ill-prepared for university life that on my first day I wore high-heeled shoes and a mini-skirt and cringed when I heard my heels click in the corridors full of sneakers and jeans. Surrounded by pro-ab*rtion rally stickers and "Queers are Here" posters, I was constantly horrified. 

I see from my diary of the time that I wore a "Stop Ab*rtion" button all that week. (At U of freaking T. Holy crap.) And on my first Friday I was caught removing a pro-ab*rt sticker from the corner of a bulletin board. My critic, a young women slightly older than me, demanded to know what I was doing. Heart banging, I told her I was "eradicating a pro-ab*rtion sticker". There was a long pause as she got back on her bicycle and then, as she was riding away, she called back, "I hope you burn in hell. You and all your Christian friends."

The malediction followed me through the campus and my undergraduate years. Whenever I failed in some self-directed pro-life protest (like having the courage to wear my button), I mentally beat myself up. At the same time, I rebelled against all this psychological anguish and wanted to join in the mainstream life of the university in a way that would not betray my faith. That's how I came to the PLS.  

The PLS people didn't frighten me too much, and although their conversation was worldly, they were kind. Most of them were much older than me, though: they tended to be graduate students or professors. I was too shy to talk to them much, let alone befriend them, although I admired the handsomer of the men, including the tall, broad-shouldered Such-and-Such. 

Thus, Tricia became more than a friend: she was my integration into the wider life of the university. Although an agnostic, left-wing, pro-choice and (most staggering of all) sexually active, she never made me feel badly about being a Catholic, pro-life and pro-chastity. My whole philosophy opposed many of her beliefs and much of her way of life, but she didn't care.

She liked me, and she liked my Catholicism (without wanting to adopt it herself), and over the early years of our friendship, I got to know her well enough to quit thinking of her as some sort of pagan superwoman and love her for who she really was and  is. That said, I think very fondly of that first year of extreme hero-worship. Having such a mentor kept me from making really stupid mistakes as I met more interesting, agnostic, left-wing university and even started dating So-and-So. 

That year she lived in romantic squalor in a basement flat in Toronto's picturesque Annex whereas I lived at home in my parents' boring then-suburb. She had a hot plate and a perpetually unmade futon bed and Botticelli's Primavera, framed in green, on a wall. She had a hurdy-gurdy, mediaeval costumes and a charming crow puppet. She had busked with hurdy-gurdy through Europe as a teenager. She knew the tune to Shakespeare's "Sigh no more, ladies, sigh no more." She wrote poetry--good poetry that eventually was published by Insomniac Press. She knew a gazillion other poets and musicians. She drank coffee and ate baklava at Future Bakery. She was chatted up by men wherever she went. She had very long straight pond-brown hair the finest comb could have got through; I was sad when she cut it all off. Boo.

She did not, I discovered, have it all worked out. In some ways, I realized, I had  "it" worked out better than she did, and I think in some ways I still do, although for sheer talent, hard work and dedication to her art, I know no-one like her (with the possible exception of Alisha Ruiss).  As undergrads we both lived for romantic love and art. Yes, I'm afraid I squandered most of my intellectual and professional opportunities at U of T, but at least I squandered them with Trish.* 

Back then we drank coffee in the afternoons and sometimes wine at night. We went to Goth bars where we wrote poetry or danced to death metal.  Sometimes we boisterously recited The Love Song of Alfred J. Prufrock while striding through campus:

The yellow fog that rubs its back upon the window-panes, 
The yellow smoke that rubs its muzzle on the window-panes, 
Licked its tongue into the corners of the evening, 
Lingered upon the pools that stand in drains, 
Let fall upon its back the soot that falls from chimneys, 
Slipped by the terrace, made a sudden leap, 
And seeing that it was a soft October night, 
Curled once about the house, and fell asleep. 

I could write a Proustian volume covering over twenty years of friendship, but this is supposed to be a birthday card, so I'll stop here.  I'll end by saying that youth is traditionally described in terms of spring-time, but when I think about mine, I think about  October and Trish. 

Update: Lest my parents be sad, I should mention that my grades skyrocketed. Realizing I was never going to hunker down and do the heavy lifting necessary to a Classics degree, I switched to English Lit. 

Tuesday, 18 October 2016

The Disposal Love Interest in Fiction

Despite his warnings that Philip Kerr's "Bernie Gunther" novels are rather brutal, my husband handed me one that he thought was all right. "All right" in this context means that it doesn't describe rape in violent detail. Although rape is unfortunately a part of this fallen world, I have problems with creative artists making them up as part of someone's entertainment. There was a rape scene in Immortal Beloved that, although short, I very much resented. It was totally gratuitous. It had nothing to do with the plot, which was about Ludwig von Beethoven. There are other ways to make an audience appreciate that wars (including the Napoleonic) aren't nice.

Female characters calculating the possibility of their own--or other women's--rape is something else entirely, especially as it is a mental exercise common to many--if not most--women. Possibly I am over-timorous, but I was a teenager in Toronto when the Scarborough Rapist--later apprehended as Canada's most notorious s*x killer--was active and the phrase "in a wooded area" still fills me with dread. 

Meanwhile I have a problem with reading light fiction when there is a whole world of fine literature to be read. This is not because of  snobbishness but because by twelve I was literally addicted to reading fiction to the exclusion of my homework, chores, etc. It would be all too easy to spend life on a sofa with a thermos of coffee and a pile of novels. 

One of the things about fine literature is that it makes you work. You have to hold different plot threads in your head. You have to read all the minute description (unless you're lazy and skip). You have to enter into real human experience you may know little about, and you have to ponder the author's worldview, which may be one you hate. Benedict Ambrose has read Hilary Mantel's prizewinning novels about Thomas Cromwell, and although he loathes what she has done to Saint Thomas More (Mantel is a fervently anti-Catholic ex-Catholic), B.A. has to admire her writing.  

In case you are wondering, I read the Christies and Heyers to help myself fall asleep. Reading light fiction when I ought to be doing something more important fills me with guilt. Unfortunately, I was born to write light fiction, so this is a problem. Really I should spend my mornings writing and my afternoons reading "Bernie Gunther" and such other novels. And then I could subvert them as I tried to subvert Graham Greene.

What gets my goat about Graham Greene is that he created dumb female characters---almost literally dumb in The Quiet American---when he was otherwise such a good novelist. Shirley Hazzard points this out in Greene in Capri, but she kindly doesn't mention how Greene consumed women the same way you and I consume coffee, or tissue, or other good and useful things. 

I'm not saying Greene was a horrible guy. What is more attractive than a just-opened box of tissue when you have to blow your nose? Aren't you grateful for it? And when the box is empty, and you have a bad cold, aren't you glad when you get a fresh one? Women, like tissue, are comforting to men. Greene liked a lot of comfort from women--physical, emotional, mental. I can't remember an example of Greene being cruel to women. But he used them all the same. 

I bring this up because Greene is a giant in the land of thriller writers, one of the few who has raised the thriller "entertainment" to the status of literature. When I was young, Catholic high schools delighted in The Power & the Glory even though the hero priest is a drinker who impregnated a parishioner, the other priest is a sniveling coward, and two minor characters have sex in public, so that Greene can make the hero priest say it doesn't matter much. 

We Catholics are so delighted that a Major 20th century Novelist was a Catholic, we tend to give Greene a pass on what he actually believed. And one of the thing Greene believed is that women are best when we are simply sources of comfort (physical and/or emotional and/or mental). We are most comfortable when we are young and at least a little dumb. The "priest's woman" in The Power & the Glory is mildly pleased that he picked her, and that's about all we know about her. Well, hell. I have met priests' women, and they are extraordinary complex individuals, let me tell you. Intellectually they are a cut above--which, if I may say so, contributed to their undoing.  

Now, onto Bernie Gunther, literary son of the Great Graham. While reading A Man Without Breath--and by the way, spoiler alert on everything from now on--I waded through pages and pages of a German detective's self-loathing, something probably necessary to make the reader identify with, you know, a guy working for the Nazi regime. 

Self-loathing is also in the tradition of your traditional paperback gumshoe hating himself and everyone else--except innocent children, flowers and blondes who would make a Bischof kick a hole in a stained glass window. 

Self-loathing makes Bernie the lovable tough guy you can forgive for all the bad things he says and does. Incidentally, as a writer I envy Philip Kerr the chance to type out such naughty words as "Fritz", "Ivan" and "Polack" without worrying that hordes of shrieking women are going to come down on him like Dresden in 1945. Kerr has the perfect alibi to play with naughty words since Bernie is, officially if not personally, a Nazi, just like all Germans he works with. Of course Bernie uses words like that.

Actually, Bernie also uses words like that because he's a man of the 1930s and 1940s, and that's how working class men (like cops) used to speak--and possibly still do when women and squealers aren't around. (Now I sound like Bernie, too--light fiction has that effect on me.) I imagine the Allies used just as colourful language. Incidentally I have been called a mangiacake more times that I can count. It's an interesting, vigorous word if rather rich coming from people who ate chocolate spread for breakfast. 

Bernie also has a good dose of class prejudice, as we see when he trashes the German aristocrats who keep risking their lives to kill Hitler but never (plot spoiler) seem to manage it. He also assumes the Polish monsignor who shows up to examine the Katyn site doesn't really believe in God anymore. And although Bernie is willing to murder someone in a good cause, he won't use the enlisted men's brothel because it is a "round-up", i.e. the women in it have been drafted as sex workers. All this will make Bernie more palatable to his English-speaking 21st century readers. In light fiction, it is very important that your audience likes your hero. 

Benedict Ambrose was right: in this novel there are no moment-by-moment depictions of rape, and the worst of the violence is off-stage.  Two violated women are found with their throats cut, and a father and daughter are found horribly mutilated, but Kerr doesn't demand that his readers stand and watch. The stink of corpses is pretty strong, however, because Bernie finds a body in Katyn Wood, which turns out to be only one of four thousand Polish POWs. 

By the way, I am also interested in the moral implications of exploiting historical mass murders for the purposes of fiction. Some Poles were furious about Robert Harris's Enigma, and I can see why although it was a terrific book with a lousy ending, as the Biggest Secret of All is something we already know. It is bizarre when "whodunit" is more of a shock than a heinous war crime. (This is the same problem with the otherwise masterful Fatherland.) 

During my trudge through all the bombings and corpses and new murders and "Ivans" and nasty-smelling brothels, lo and behold a female pathologist comes to Katyn Wood, and I knew that this, at last, was The Disposable Love Interest. 

I knew who she was because Ines is everything that is sexually attractive to men who read thrillers (or Bild): she's a highly educated professional, she's beautiful, she's even an aristo (but despises other aristos, naturally), and the other men fall all over her, which is very, very important. It means that when she publicly picks Bernie as her escort, Bernie gets all the men's respect--even that of other German aristos (save one, presumably, as we will see).

I'm afraid that even in real life a lot of man-woman stuff is not really about man-woman but about men-other men, which is why some men talk trash about the women they sleep with.* "Hey, honey, nothing personal. It's not about us. It's about me and those guys. Wait, how can that be worse? Come back!"   
The stylistic point of Ines is to give the reader a break from the corpses and feel a frisson of sexual anticipation. She even smells nice because she keep dumping perfume on herself, her handkerchief and even Bernie. She is also there to make Bernie look good to the reader and win more sympathy because, of course, he blows it (in a highly unbelievable way) and then is heartbroken. Uh-huh.

I found it very interesting that after Ines puts out, but before the author dumps Ines--or before she dumps Bernie, same thing--she reveals that she was once the lover of her distant cousin, the highly sympathetic anti-Hitler Von Whatsit. This means that, in the mentality of tough guys, Von Whatsit has something over Bernie, and this should rend Ines much less sexually desirable to the male reader. Also, Bernie has been there, done that--and never does it again, actually, as Ines is way too tired from dissecting dead Polish POWs. 

No doubt there will be another Ines in the next Bernie Gunther novel Benedict Ambrose passes me. This one had red hair, so I suppose the next one will be blonde, or have hair the colour of the caramels Bernie used to eat while strolling down Unter Den Linden. 

Why does this matter? It matters because men and women using each other as disposable objects of comfort--be it physical, emotional or mental--does a lot of harm, and I think it needs to be called out as some kind of ideal or something to do with the noble-if-lonely sanctity of the individual. (Bernie is a proud individual in a way a Catholic or any family man cannot be.) 

Okay, I admit that fiction is governed by certain rules. One of the rules of contemporary Noir is that the Virtuous Heroine must be gone by the end of the book, so that (A) the hero be seen to suffer and (B) he can bed a new VH in the next book. And, indeed, part of the fun of writing is turning such rules on their heads--if you can manage it. A lot of it depends on how the reader feels about it. 

In my experience, male readers don't mind a hard-boiled dame as the hero of a thriller (as long as she is easy on the eyes), but they do seem to mind her soft-and-gentle male love interest, if she has one. Of course, part of that may have more to do with envy, as in "How come a wally like that gets such a righteous babe and I don't?" Amusingly, some men have told me they hated Denis in Ceremony of Innocence until he rebelled by knocking Catriona over, throwing her crutches down the stairs and storming off to plot out his little plot. 

I'll say this for Kerr--he does his research all right. He has put in the hard work to write a great period detective novel, so I will read another one and think about it, too. By the way his Big Fat Secret (which always played emotional second-fiddle to whodunit) is also a matter of historical record, but not as widely known as the Katyn Forest Massacre and the Big Fat Secret of Harris's Fatherland. I was actually shocked, and it is hard to shock me about 1930s & 1940s Germany.

*Thus Trump's stupid comments were not about women so much as they were with his relationship with Billy Bush. Why he wanted to impress Billy Bush I neither know nor care. 

Saturday, 15 October 2016

The Cover Girl Boy

As "The Cover Girl Boy" story broke four days ago, it is terribly old news which many may have forgotten. However, it doubtlessly did what it was supposed to do, which was to make us remember that there is such a cosmetics line called "Cover Girl." Personally I am not a fan of dime-store slap and have an annual guilt-laden blowout at MAC. 

MAC has two things going for it. First, my fashionista friend Lily noticed its products actually stayed on my skin. Second, it has acquired high-status glamour, either because it costs a lot, or because it has its own beautifully designed shops in high-status shopping areas. Meanwhile, it already shocked the stuffing out of viewers by featuring a male model--a female impersonator called RuPaul--in 1994, twenty-two years ago. But back to the Cover Girl Boy scandal.

Violent feelings like shock help you to remember things. Various memory guides recommend attaching material to be memorized to violent or sexual imagery. As my mental symbol for the common Polish prefix "wy" (pronounced "vih") is Queen Victoria, a lot of awful things happen in my imagination to the Queer Old Bean.  

Thus, though GC magazine hopes that "The Cover Girl Boy" story will help get the entire US of A to accept the doctrine of "gender fluidity", I believe that all Cover Girl's advertisers were trying to do was shock America into remembering that the drugstore line exists. 

My own thoughts about the Cover Girl Boy have progressed from pity and fear for the  boy and his generation of boys, to horror for the goodhearted person who chastised me for objecting to CG's decision on the grounds that "It's 2016", to interest in the salary of make-up artists (as the Cover Girl Boy is not a professional model but a gifted make-up artist), to a reflection that boys and men have worn make-up before, and not just to signal that they are prostitutes. 

For example, throughout the 1970s and 1980s male musicians used exaggerated face paint to create personae. Sometimes they went with weird designs, but Boy George went with the standard, full-faced multi-coloured look popular with women in 1982. By the late 80s, there was a vogue for black eyeliner among alt rock teenage musicians playing at high school Battles of the Bands. In the 1990s, Goth boys wore white face paint and tons of black eyeliner and lipstick. Meanwhile the "grunge" look included nailpolish for men albeit in dark masculine shades.

And as we know from Georgette Heyer and costume dramas, men of privileged classes once wore thick masks of what we would call foundation, plus powder, rouge, kohl,  and fake beauty marks made of silk patches. They wore high heels and wigs, and you get the picture.  How happy the cosmetics company would be if men returned to wearing makeup--especially as a status symbol.  

I find this article about men-wearing-make-up interesting, for most of it passes what I call the Aquinas Test.  Aquinas ponders the sinfulness of slap, the use of which Saint Augustine considered a species of lying. Saint Cyprian obviously thought it was the devil's paintbox.  However, Aquinas gives married ladies a pass and distinguishes between trying simulate beauty and merely covering up deformities. It is amusing to ponder 13th century students in Paris asking the Angelic Doctor if bags under the eyes count as deformities and if the ravages of age, caused by the Fall, are not deformities, if only in a metaphorical sense. At any rate, I think Aquinas is okay with men covering their zits with pigmented petroleum. 

He is NOT okay with the use of cosmetics to inspire lust.  To return to the Cover Girl Boy, what I found appalling in his use of make-up, and indeed of Cover Girl's use of him, were his sexy painted pout and his doe eyes. The artfully done Tom Sawyer-freckles made him look, if anything, younger, so this added to the overall "boy prostitute" look.  As well-read, intellectually honest people know (paging Camille Paglia), the "cult of the beautiful boy" is an aspect of  gay culture. Meanwhile, at this very moment a cultural civil war  is being waged around the protection of children in light of new fads about "gender." Making-up a 17 year old to look like a boy prostitute and then calling him a "Cover Girl" is certainly provocative--and offensive.

RuPaul was  also offensive, but he wasn't a teenager. He was an entertainer in his mid-30s when he became the MAC "cover girl." He was old enough to take care of himself, and I suspect his influence over MAC's target market was negligible. In the 1990s and 00s, women enjoyed playing with make-up, but we were fearful of looking "like drag queens." I didn't know any women who dressed as dressed RuPaul for his MAC shoots. However, I can easily imagine vulnerable boys--egged on by girls, painted by girls--trying out the Cover Girl Boy look. 

The one man I have met who wore foundation off-stage was the make-up artist who sold me my wedding cosmetics. In my posts on the subject I called him "Albus." I liked Albus very much. He was good at his job, and he flattered my vanity, something which should lead to success in the women's beauty industry. I don't remember if he wore eyeshadow, etc. He spoke in a faux-feminine way which went with his overall Albusness.

So I liked Albus, but I can't imagine Albus having a father-son talk, or browsing for tools at Canadian Tire, or fighting for his country.... Actually, yes, I can, as I have a very active imagination. The father-son talk and the Canadian Tire are just too much, but I can see Albus getting fed up with something or other and signing up to fight. Albus in camoflauge with an AK-47, yes, I can see that. He washes his face first, though. 

Frankly---and I am walking a thin line here, opening myself to critique of being both "a hater" and "a liberal"---I think there is enough room in the world for painted gents with careers in the entertainment and cosmetics industries. What I really object to is the continuing sexualization of children and teenagers and the enormous influence entertainers and celebrities have over society. If young James Charles launches a lucrative career as a make-up artist, all power to him. However, I think a generation of James Charles wannabes would be just as bad for society as a messed-up generation of  Sex-and-the-City wannabes have been. 

Friday, 14 October 2016

Why I No Longer Write About Dating

This article just about sums it up. The author was horrified by what she saw, and I was horrified by what I read. The "Hollywood wax" behaviour is just so sad. I keep thinking about nineteenth century hookers and how astonished they would be. Nineteenth century hookers might have thought there was nothing that could surprise them about sexual behaviour, but if you told them how well-off 21st century women would abase themselves--without being paid a penny--the pros would have been speechless.

There wasn't much of an internet when I was a teenager. (N.B. This was in the twentieth century.) My dad worked for a university, so when I was 19 I could use his computer to call another university's computer and send him emails when he was there. There was a lot of complicated typing involved and the honking and whistling of something called "the modem." I remember I was 19 because I was writing to my parents (my dad printed off the emails) about my very social summer. Thanks to pro-life activism, I had an ever-increasing group of like-minded friends and acquaintances. Not a single one of the boys had ever seen internet p*rn because there was no internet p*rn.*

Back then, when I had finally reached the proper age group for dating and marriage, there were four types of pictorial p*rn: paper, cable TV "Pay-per-view" broadcasts, films at X-rated cinemas and videos. Videos were quite a technological revolution. It meant that p*rn consumers didn't have to face the person selling tickets or sit with a bunch of weirdos. It also meant that boys didn't have to sit in front of a blurry television trying to see what the cable station was broadcasting to subscribers.

Of course, if the boys were under 18, they were not able to go into a video store and boldly rent the stuff. However, there was always the possibility of finding their fathers' "stash", just as their fathers' generation had found their fathers' stash of magazines. That said, I gather that the stash usually took some effort to find, and the chances of someone walking in while the boys were watch the stufft, from sofa distance, on TV were probably high. Finding and consuming p*rn was something of an risk-taking adventure for teenage boys.

I cannot remember a single instance of any girl I knew confessing to watching it; we were the market for erotic novels. Erotic novels were supremely easy to get. I read part of Princess Daisy at Girl Guide camp and never thought of walk-in closets in the same way ever again.  It never occurred to me that women would want to watch pornography, so when a reader got mad at me for heaping shame on the heads of women who do, I realized I was terribly out of touch with contemporary female sexual problems.

Back when I was 19, young women shaved our legs and underarms (or melted the hair off with a product called "Neet"), and some of us waxed our "bikini lines". There was much more modesty of speech among young women at that time. "Bikini line" waxing was considered advisable before wearing swim suits. The idea of returning our "personal parts" to their pre-pubescent state was considered disgusting.

As I was running around with a rosary-praying Catholic crowd, sex was completely off the table for the unmarried. I imagine there was a lot of "How far can we go?" worrying and negotiation for others as there was for me although no girl breathed a word about it except in the confessional. (There may have been some locker room talk among the denser of the boys. In those days boys didn't feel comfortable telling the girls about it.)  We knew that we were in a minority, but as this was Canada, which then was about 49% Catholic, we were a big minority--at least culturally. And everybody knew (or should have known, I grumbled) that the Catholic Church taught that premarital sex was a Serious Sin. Occasionally a priest even said so.

This is the context to my dating life, dear cherubs. Just imagine. The men of my generation did not see internet porn until they were in their twenties. It did not form their sexual expectations. Also, "No thanks, I'm Catholic" made almost as much cultural sense then as "No thank, I'm Muslim" does today (for girls). Naturally instead of being humbled into chastity and admiration, 99% of suitors fled.

Young people did not carry around mobile phones. There was no texting. If you wanted to ask a boy out, you had to ask him to his face, call him up or write him a note. Naturally, this was the feminist thing to do. My mother thought women should sit tight and wait for men to ask, which I now think too. Eventually you develop a radar for which men have a crush on you if you weren't born knowing.

For a highly informative artifact of what dating was like in the 1990s, please see The Rules, which was considered quite the counter-revolution but actually made complete sense. It was a great resource for my dating advice until I found out about Tinder. Tinder broke me, people. If marriage-aged men can get sex from attractive marriage-aged women as easily as they can get dinner at McDonald's, dating is dead. It's time for arranged marriages.

Well, I am mostly kidding about arranged marriages. However, I do think limiting what we called "the dating pool" to those people most likely to share your most cherished values is the only way to go. For the majority of my readers, this means doing your level best to get your post-secondary education at those Catholic colleges that are actually Catholic or to find work among graduates of those schools. Of course, such circles are small, so you must not act like Scarlett O'Hara but be sensitive, reasonable and not gossip about your suitors.

Another possibility--I see I am writing about dating despite the title of this post--is to figure out who the Singles are at daily mass or the TLM (EF) and to get to know them. If they are trads and you are a girl, sit tight and smile, but wait for the guy to make what he thinks is the first move. Actually, you will have made the first move--as women have usually done--by being approachable or going right up to him to chat after Mass, but he will think he has made the first move, which is pretty crucial in trad circles.

Amusingly, I know traddy Singles--male and female--who have gone to the local SSPX chapel just to see what their Singles look like. Perhaps there has been much exaggeration, but it would seem that the Scottish SSPX men are a tough lot, with scars on their close-cropped heads telling of bar fights and smashed bottles. Personally, I have profited from the Anglicans fleeing "progress" to the bosom of Holy Mother Church, so consider disgruntled Piskie circles as potential dating pools. You may have to put up with a lot of complaining about women-on-the-altar, however.

In conclusion: Benedictine Option. At least, I think so. I haven't read the book yet.  But don't settle. Don't marry the first decent Catholic guy who comes along if you realize he is a dead bore. It's not fair on him; it's not fair on you. Some other girl (possibly also a dead bore) will see in him her heart's desire, and they will be happy and boring together.

*Actually, fallen  human nature being what it is, there was probably internet p*rn as soon as there was any internet whatsoever, but presumably only a few professors/scientists/military personnel could see it.

Thursday, 13 October 2016

Two Years Since the Mid-Term Relatio

I will never forget my horror between the release of the "mid-term relatio" at the Synod of the Family and my relief when I read that Archbishop Gądecki, president of the Polish Bishops' Conference, had broadcast over Vatican Radio that the report was a load of hooey.

In between I went to Tesco (not remembering how I got there) and wondered where I was going to go to Mass on Sunday. It was that serious. It had never been that serious before. One understands that priests, bishops, cardinals and even popes commit sins. (I first heard about clerical sexual abuse when I was 12 or so.) Many are deeply sinful men. But one does not expect them to be, collectively, heretics. When the Gądecki news flashed around the internet, I cried with relief. I even drunk-blogged, but B.A. made me erase it.

I see that exactly a year ago, my profile of Archbishop Gądecki was published by Catholic World Report. Hmm, what is it about October 13?

One of the most shocking things about the relatio--quite apart from its made-up conclusions--is that it was a LIE. We were LIED to. It was NOT drafted by the "synod fathers". It is believed to have been written by an Archbishop Forte. 

This is the recent history of our Church. We should not forget it or sweep it under the rug. Please see this, scrolling to the events of October 13 and October 14, 2014. 

But then go back to your usual activities. Before radio, we didn't think about Vatican politics all that much. We lived local lives. Our lives as Catholics revolved around our homes, schools and parish churches. Our leaders were our priests and, perhaps, the nun in charge of our school (or our children's school). We rarely saw our bishop, and when we did it was a big deal. If we had the money to spare, we subscribed to our diocesan newspaper. Those were the days.

UPDATE: Archbishop Chaput of Philadelphia comes out of his corner swinging against the "Catholic Spring" shenanigans. 

Wednesday, 12 October 2016

Excellent Marriage Advice

This still holds even if you're too old to have children.

If you are thinking "Yeah, hoardes of marriageable men are not knocking down my door," take the advice on board anyway.

H/T the very pregnant wife and mother, formerly Single Tess

Norcia Story for Catholic World Report

Here is my essay about visiting the monks in Norcia for Catholic World Report.  When my much shorter article in Scottish Catholic Observer comes out, I will fill in any gaps here. For example, you may like to read about my adventure at the hairdresser. Actually it was more the hairdressers' adventure, for the mother of all dreadlocks had sprouted in my hair. Luckily for us all, I could understand only 10% of what they said about it.

Yes, it is a challenge writing about the same trip for three different publications. Thanks for asking. Fortunately, they all have different audiences: one Canadian, one largely American and one Scottish. And naturally I try to emphasize different aspects. The Scots, for example, are much more likely to be interested in the Scottish monk than Canadian or American readers. They are also much more likely to listen to my siren song of "Come to Norcia and bolster her tourist economy."  Fares are so cheap and the flight is so short, Scots can quite comfortably consider going for a long weekend.

(All the same, Canadians and Americans ought to go, too. There are precise instructions in my CWR essay.)

I am grateful to Catholic World Report for giving me space to really stretch out; my usual word count is 800. On the one hand, an 800 word limit is a good discipline. But on the other hand, I don't get to say that much. Columns are entirely plot-driven, as it were. Lush description goes by the wayside.

Update: In light of yesterday's fuss about my lack of racial blindness, note that I identify the nationalites of all the monks. I didn't, however, note the ethnicities of the Americans and the Canadian. The fact that American and Canadian monks dwell happily in an Italian mountain town was interesting enough.

Tuesday, 11 October 2016

Pyrrhic Packing

Whenever I travel, I pack my latest travel journal. Most of the time, this is a Semikolon Grand Voyage notebook. I adore Semikolon's line. No Moleskine for me!

I make as many notes as possible, writing down train times, bus schedules, names of good restaurants, prices, so that the next time I (or we) travel to a place, it will be easier. It also helps us budget. I know to a penny how much our last three visits to Italy cost. Of course, I also record what we saw, and how we felt, and who said what.

When we are very busy on a trip, I have less time to write about our adventures, and on this trip I filled up the three hour, twenty minute flight back to Edinburgh with memoirs. My writing hand was cramped by the time we were told to refasten our seatbelts. I'm now 36 pages into my new journal.

Because it is a new journal, I didn't have access to all the handy material in the last journal, which stayed at home. However, I did take the time to review and make some helpful notes on the first page. Point one was "pack baby powder, antiseptic wipes, band-aids, deodorant, cotton pants, cotton socks, wide-brimmed hat, SPF50." Every item has a sad story attached to it. Most of the calamities encapsulated in Point 1 had to do with the Italian weather which, even in October, can be darned hot and sweaty.

Breakfast in Italy for two, by the way, should cost not much more than €3.60. This represents two cappuccini and two cornetti (croissants) eaten standing by the bar.

I began my long return journey writing session by pondering our packing. On this trip we managed to get our stuff into two carry-on knapsacks, but B.A.'s mighty Osprey Fairpoint 40 was 0.5 kg over the limit (fortunately nobody checked).  Obviously there is room for improvement, and so I wrote a list of what we packed but didn't use. 

DCM: Two Umbrian hill-walking books; pencil crayons in case; whistle, compass, Italian phrasebook.

B.A.: Irish Murdoch novel, John Carey memoir, one of the shirts, some of the socks, one of  the ties.

That's not too bad, actually.  I then listed what we OUGHT to have had, had we been able to predict our detour and the weather: a map of Florence, a coat or wrap for me,  umbrellas. I sometimes wished we had brought our (small but heavy) missals; however, printing out copies of the readings and propers would have been more practical.

One of our friends in Norcia told us that it was the time of year in which anything you chose to wear was wrong. This is because in early October Norcia is terribly cold in the mornings and at night but hot all afternon. As a matter of fact, B.A. packed many more clothes than I did, and so was prepared for everything, including rain. I had to borrow a warm wrap to go out at 5:45 AM for Lauds and at 5:45 for Vespers. One morning I discovered I had forgotten it at my friend's house and so stole out of the house wrapped in a bath towel. Sad but true.

However, I was very glad of all my Point 1 items when we got to Florence. Florence was blazing, so out came the anti-sweat arsenal. (The anti-cancer materiel was in action every day, everywhere.) Other useful things included the guide to Rome, pens, the band-aids and antiseptic wipes, the "small store of Italian in head", "previous knowledge of Italian life", the money belt, the rosaries, socks (versus tights) and my handknit cardigan. Thank heavens Mum put in pockets.

Rosaries are useful for getting into doors that open only to Catholic pilgrims/worshippers, as at the Duomo. No Italian is needed: you just shake your rosary at the security guard, and all is well. Of course, this means you have to get on your knees and actually pray your rosary. But why not? Most of the art of Florence is all about the Sacred Mysteries of the Rosary. I cannot imagine what post-Protestants and pagans get out of Florentine art collections as they are 80% Rosary, 15% Greek mythology and 5% Garibaldi & Co.  This leads me to my next point: what you pack into your head before a trip is probably even more important than what you pack into your bag(s).

Monday, 10 October 2016

Rain in Rome

I love Rome. I even find it relaxing. I treat the city as if its whole point were lunch. This attitude is relaxing for Benedict Ambrose because in Rome I don't care what we do or where we go just as long as we are in a tried-tested-and-true trattoria by 1 PM. In fairness to B.A. and history, I should admit that this wifely equilibrium was some years in the making. I have been to Rome eight times now, nine if you count just waiting in the railway station.

Even the trips into and out of Rome have improved. We fly to Ciampino, and we take the shuttle bus (4.50 euros each) to Roma Termini railway/bus station: no problem. When it is time to go back to Termini, we find a cab and ask the driver, "Trenta euro?" Thirty euros is the set price for Ciampino, so if the driver argues, we leave. We have learned to ask BEFORE we get into the cab.

On one memorable occasion, I got out of the cab shouting and made the crook take the luggage out of the trunk. This was at Termini, so the crowd of other cab drivers watched the drama with interest and one immediately offered us his services. When in Rome, do as Romans do: shout, refuse to be taken advantage of and embarrass the poor British onlooker with your opera diva antics. Meanwhile, the risk of an argument with a rip off artist is worth the avoidance of the bus back to Ciampino. The timetable confusion and the crowds of anxious tourists is insupportable.

Last Wednesday we arrived in Rome on the bullet train from Florence and had the new challenge of going straight into the city without buying a two-week rail pass. (Normally we stay in a seaside town and commute.) Fortunately, I remembered that you can always buy bus tickets at tobacconists' stands, so I led B.A. to one in Termini. After the signora had finished selling a whole roll of lottery tickets to the elderly person in front of me, I explained that we wanted bus tickets, but only for one trip. (For the first time in ten days, no Polish slipped out.)

The signora understood exactly what we wanted, and they cost only 3 euros the pair. We joyfully sped towards the buses and took the 64 towards S Andrea delle Valle. (We would have taken the 40, but while we hesitated, a million people all crammed into it at once. ) There was some marital comedy as I watched for landmarks and B.A. offered erroneous information as to our whereabouts. In about eight more years, he will finally believe that not only do I know the 64 route, I know the way to the Ponte Sisto and, therefore, Trastevere.

Anyway, after more marital comedy involving a map and the drizzle, we turned up at the door of our two-night rental flat, pushed the buzzer and had no reply. The aged building in which the flat has been carved faced a bakery on one side and other aged flats on the other. The streets were narrow, wet and cobble-stoned. They shone under the streetlamps. It had grown dark, and it was all very romantic except that my phone wouldn't make real calls in Italy, and I was furious at the landlord's agent's no-show.

I began to text a message while facing the stubbornly locked door, and while we were helplessly standing there, along came an African street vendor. He began immediately to chat up B.A. with the opening "Where are you from? Are you from Africa?"

B.A., being Scottish, took this as good-humoured banter. B.A. will banter with anyone. He is a kindly person and hates to appear rude or stand-offish. Also, the ability to banter back is good defense against drunken and/or class-chippy Scottish drunks. I have seen him win over a gang of the latter by bantering with the former. I, having an "American" accent, kept my mouth shut and merely admired.

"No," said non-African B.A to the African vendor last week in Trastevere. "Ha ha ha."

"Where are you from?"

"I'm from Scotland. Ha ha ha."

I have never enjoyed seeing Ecuadorian pan-pipers in the streets of Edinburgh or Africans selling fake designer handbags in Rome. Both have become fixtures, and no doubt someone thinks the Ecuadorians are as Scottish as bacon butties and the Africans as Italian as fear of air-conditioning. I, however, think they are a pain in the tuchus.

"Where are you from?" asked the pain in the tuchus of me--at least, I think he did. His questioning was accompanied by violent poking of my upper arm, which made me see and hear red.

"Non mi toccare!" I snarled without a moment's hesitation or trace of Polish, and to my surprise, the PITT stopped at once.

"Scusa, scusa!" he said and walked swiftly away. I looked after him with rancour.

"Non mi toccare," I said again, rather aggressively.

"Scusa, scusa!" he repeated and quickened his pace.

A South-Asian shopkeeper chatting with neighbours in the street asked us if  he could help, and then did so by shouting "Ingrid! Ingrid!" to an open window across from us, ringing her doorbell, and calling her on his mobile. After some delay, a Far East Asian head appeared in the window, and I shouted at it that we were us. The head disappeared again, and after a suspiciously long delay, a youngish Far East Asian lady appeared. I was livid that we had been left in the street to be poked by a street vendor, so B.A. did the talking (in English), being polite and "paying the taxes", going downstairs with Ingrid to the South-Asian's shop to change our 20 Euro note, the hapless Ingrid having no change.

It was a nice little flat with VIEWS, a big white bed and the latest British Instyle magazine. The rooms were scrupulously clean, with a tiny-but-adequate kitchenette up one step, and a tiny-but-adequate bathroom three steps up from that. Contemplation of its perfections restored my equilibrium, and I was amused by the very Roman shouting up at windows.

B.A. and I soon went out to meet a friend on the Ponte Sisto and be taken by him to some joint back across the Tiber where we had supper. On the way we spied a Scots College seminarian we know eating supper outdoors with two Scots College chaps, one in a collar, and he looked extremely surprised to see us. There were introductions, attempts at plans, regrets regarding busyness, and then we continued on, with waiters shouting "Eat here, Father," at our non-clerical pal.

We had a good bottle of wine, aubergine (eggplant) parmesan and an absolutely delicious amaretto semi-freddo. Then we went back to the Ponte Sisto, said good-bye to our friend, and went directly to bed.

The next day was our one full day in Rome, and we made it count by sleeping in and lying in bed reading. Eventually we got it together and went to the bakery across the street for croissants and to the Piazza Santa Maria in Trastevere for cappuccino and a visit to its world-famous Chiesa. Next we went to the less famous Chiesa di Santa Dorothea so I could have a chat with my patron saint, whose bones are in a little box under the high altar. Then we marched along the Tiber towards Vatican City to have coffee with a curial pal and his wife.

While we were having coffee, the heavens opened and the Mediterranean fell on Rome. Rain in Edinburgh is a half-hearted, drizzly affair. Rain in Rome is vertical machine gun fire. After coffee, B.A. and I took refuge in S. Spiritu in Sasso, the Divine Mercy church, which has a ginormous photograph of St. JP2, and then--when the church closed for lunch--hid in the colonnade of an 18th century ospedale. When the rain let up a little, I marched us straight to our favourite restaurant--in the Piazza Pasquino--and hoped B.A. was thoroughly impressed with my unerring sense of direction.

Lunch was divine.

After lunch we discovered our old internet-printing stand-by across from S. Andrea delle Valle was SHUT (horrors), so after a fruitless search for another, we went back to our flat for a nap. When we emerged, we found the neighbourhood internet joint, printed off our airline tickets with help from the Filipino manager, and went in search of the Tempietto, a bit of High Renaissance perfection over the spot where St. Peter was crucified. We found it, but the gates to the courtyard were already locked, so we admired the structure through the bars before turning around and finding our way to the Extraordinary Form of the Mass at Santissima Trinitá.

After Mass we picked up a few groceries and had a small dinner back at our flat and, being old, did not rush out into the wet darkness to partake of the noisy Trasteveran nightlife, but stayed in and read magazines until we went to sleep.  On the way back, I had noticed an largish young American man who was sitting in bar speaking rapid, fluent Italian to a young Italian man, and I contemplated how many people from different countries now make their home in Rome (especially Trastevere), which is a return--I imagine--to the days of the ancient Empire.

The next day, we got up at 7. I washed the dishes and tidied up, and then we hiked through the pouring rain to the taxi stand near the Teatro Argentina. ("Trenta euro?") The driver, a friendly young chap, drove us down the Old Appian Way towards Ciampino, The traffic was nevertheless so terrible, we tipped him 5 euros.

I was divested of my big bottle of Felice Azzuro talcum powder at security by a tutting guard. "But it's not a liquid," I wailed, but only half-heartedly. I was once caught with a 200 mL of sun lotion, and the lady guard looked at me as if I had murdered a child.

And that was our short and rather leisurely visit to Rome.

In light of Europe's migration crisis, some further observations may be pertinent. Although certainly multiracial, I would not say that Rome is as yet obviously multicultural--at least not when you leave the area around Termini.  There I saw a tall African chap in full Islamic garb--white prayer cap, white thob. I also saw a very ragged looking African man sitting on the pavement with his pipe-cleaner legs stuffed into boots. He had an open box of biscuits to his left and a quarter-full bottle of some orange liquid to his right, so at least he had food--of a sort. Meanwhile, although it was over 80 F the man was wearing a winter coat. His head was huddled over his knees, and I thought that whatever he had expected when he left for Europe, it surely was not this.

Saturday, 8 October 2016

From Firenze to Florence

Whenever talking about Firenze, B.A. and I called it Florence, which is something I would never, ever have done on my first or second trip to the city. I had, after all, studied Italian for three years at high school, taken it up again after undergrad and was the "Italian-speaking" person in my office. It wasn't FLORENCE, it was FIRENZE.

I have calmed down a bit since then. Besides, my allegiances have switched to Kraków, which is always, always Kraków and never drug-dealing cow.  

By the way, I have found my lost youth. When I spent a week in Flor---irenze, I slept at the splendid Hotel Alessandra. Mine was the single room with use of the bathroom down the hall. This bathroom had a real bath, and I remember bathing in it, terrified lest (somehow) the lock fall off and someone come in. 

This discovery is thanks to a Fodor's Guide of the time, which I have before me. From a red ink notation I see that the church I attended every day just to be seen and recognized by someone was Santa Trinitá. Oh how sad: on page 104 blue ink beside the information for "Piazza della Republica" says, "Whenever I see it, I know I'm lost again     possibly because I mean S. Maria Novella." 

Travelling as a very shy Single was certainly a challenge. I'm glad I had such a nice room. 

Skipping ahead several years, the ports of call for Day 1 of  B.A.'s and my Florentine trip were the modest B&B called "Il Maggio", in which we had no view, the excellent trattoria known as "Il Mostrino", il Duomo and a not-so-good restaurant I won't bother to name. Florentine cooking was once famously bad for Italy (except for the steaks), and so ordering the traditional bread-and-tomato soup (pappa col pomidoro) was taking a gamble. The trouble was, the food at Il Mostrino was so good, I was seduced into thinking Florentine cooking had improved overall, everywhere.

Day 2 began with an early morning walk along the river and then meeting up with friends at St Mark's Church to pray and admire the art. There was a lovely Fra Angelico "Annunciation" there that I didn't remember ever seeing before. But of course the real treat was the Museo di San Marco, which was once the Dominican monastery home of Fra Angelico. He painted all over it, and Benedict Ambrose was delighted with the meditative frescoes in the monks' cells. Then we all got into taxis and went to lunch at Il Mostrino again. 

After lunch, B.A. and I said good-bye to our companions and walked to the Piazzale Michelangelo to look at the whole city from above. Then we climbed higher to the thousand-year-old  church San Minato di Monte. B.A. was very pleased with it and disappeared into some dark corner. I couldn't find him so I sat out in the blazing sun staring at the Zeffirelli family tomb and feeling miffed. When B.A. emerged, beatific, from the church, we climbed back down and found S. Croce. It was locked up tight, however, so instead of seeing inside, we sat in the "Finisterra" café on the piazza and had gelato and coffee. Ex-pat friends tell us never to order food anywhere within sight of something beautiful and/or old, but despite being served beside S. Croce, our refreshments cost only 6 euros. 

Trigger warning: discussion of rape of tourists.

A copy of  La Repubblica was on our table, so I read B.A. the news most pertinent to us, which was that there have been "photocopy" rapes of female tourists in Rome. The most recent victim was an Australian 40-something, who was attacked by a Romanian, and before her there had been a Brazilian 40-something, who was attacked by an Algerian and a Tunisian.  The "photocopy" quality is that the women go to bars or dance clubs on their own, meet their attacker(s)-to-be and go with him/them for a walk. They are then beaten up and raped. Yikes. How horrible. 

Although Warsaw is not Rome, that news basically answered my "Should I go to a dance club abroad by myself?" question. Mrs McLean will not be gracing the bars and clubs of big cities on her own. After quiet outings to, for example, the National Theatre, she will go straight back to her monastery/convent/hotel and lock herself in. 

End of trigger warning.

Let's see. Next we went to the Institute of Christ the King's church on the Via Tuornabuoni and went in expecting Mass in the Extraordinary Form. We were edified to see how many Florentines had turned out for it until we realized that they were actually midwestern Americans on pilgrimage and that Mass would be Novus Ordo in American. ( The chaplain-bishop worships a deity called "Gad".) We stayed until the end of the homily--which was about their itinerary--and then split. It wasn't Sunday or a Holy Day of Obligation, so don't be shocked. The first thing we did every time we entered a church was pray, so we certainly prayed a lot.  

As we were walking back to our hotel, via the Duomo--which which B.A. was in love--we found a friend sitting on the terrace of the St. Regis Hotel, so we joined her and drank champagne cocktails until it was very dark and I was hella tipsy--at which point we all moved across the piazza to the Westin Hotel, where we drank more cocktails and ate chocolate cake.

Day 3 began with our visit to the Uffizi Palace. The tickets have to be ordered in advance and then picked up exactly when you are told to pick them up. In our case this was 8:45 AM. The organization is like clockwork, and shortly after getting our tickets, we were allowed into the Renaissance Art holy of holies that is the Uffizi. We started on the top level, as you do, and I raced on ahead looking at all the paintings at once while B.A. dawdled behind appreciating everything properly. 

When I ran out of things to look at,  I sat in the hall and looked at the other tourists and their outfits. People interest me more than paintings, and that is a fact. The best dressed tourists were usually young Japanese women although I was also very impressed by  a knock-out German redhead in a black lace mini-dress. The exciting thing about the Japanese tourists was that I had never seen their clothes before. It may be that Japan has totally different shops in their High Streets. 

Naturally most of the tourists were wearing jeans and trainers (running shoes) although a lot of the women were wearing skin-tight black leggings and trainers, zzzzz. (I wonder what I was wearing? Probably the Indestructible Denim Skirt of Female Traddery, a green long-sleeved T and  a gigantic green straw hat.)  

After two hours or more, we went downstairs to admire the foreign painters, et alia. Benedict Ambrose was dismissive of Titian, and I admit his best paintings aren't in the Uffizi. There are lots of Caravaggios, if you like that sort of thing, and two paintings by Artemisia Gentileschi, possibly the only woman artist represented in the entire joint. B.A. liked the Rubenses, and I admired the lovely shoes on the well-dressed tourist minority. 

Two hours later, we were done. The sun blared down, and exhausted and hungry we marched right back to Il Mostrino. The actual mostrino himself (the chef, a waiter had told us) looked out the kitchen door to see his fans, and suddenly I saw that his was the face in the logo on the door. We had a marvellous lunch, and then went back to the B&B for our stuff before heading for the railway station. 

I have neglected to write about the glorious handbags, the stupendous shoes and the noble clothes. Let us just say that if you suddenly come into money, you should go straight to Florence/Firenze to do your wardrobe makeover. Really, really fantastic. I looked through the windows of  Chanel, which is across from the giant man-on-turtle statue currently in the Piazza della Republica. There was a young lady shopping there. She was beautiful and looked as if her whole vocation was to be beautiful. B.A. observed that it probably was.  

Tomorrow I will write about Rome and how I discouraged an African trinket-seller in Trastevere from poking my arm. I was later told that African trinket-sellers are completely harmless, but I still object to them poking me. 

Friday, 7 October 2016

Home from Rome!

On Day 12 of our wonderful Italian holiday, Benedict Ambrose and I returned to Edinburgh. The first thing we did was check his office for the post, and the second thing I did was brew a cup of good, flavourful, hipster coffee. It was a welcome-home hug in a mug. Italian coffee is good, but it is for chucking back like a caffeine shooter or for flavouring cups of milk foam. It is not for savouring. Italians are good at espresso, but they do not understand the importance of a good old cup o' joe.

No doubt I will blog for the next few days on the beauties of Italy. I won't say too much about Norcia because I have been writing articles about the Benedictine Wonder Town for various Catholic publications. Buy this week's Toronto Catholic Register, or stay tuned for a future edition of the Scottish Catholic Observer and updates to Catholic World Report. I may, however, post of photo of me riding a donkey because the cuteness is just too much.

Meanwhile, B.A. and I spent a few hours in Rome before taking the train to Spoleto and the Spoleto bus to Norcia. We spent a week (Monday to Monday) there before going to Florence (i.e. Firenze) for two nights. On Wednesday we took the bullet train to Rome and spent two nights in raffish Trastevere. This morning we woke up in our highly romantic, all-white rental apartment  (right near the Ponte Sisto), walked to the cab stand near the Teatro Argentina, and took a cab to Ciampino airport--via the Old Appian Way. Now we are home, and I am deeply grateful to myself for having cleaned everything before we left. There is nothing more aggravating then coming back from holidays to a messy house.

When I first arrived in Florence--aged 27, on a Contiki tour bus--I thought it was the most beautiful town I had ever seen. I was overwhelmed. The red rooves, the Ponte Vecchio, the Duomo, the narrow streets, the view from the Piazzale Michaelangelo... I wanted to stay a week, and so the next year I did and stayed in a wonderful room with a view. I was staggeringly, stupendously lonely. Even at 28 I was too timid to strike up conversations with strangers.

This time I arrived in Florence by train with B.A., and I didn't recognize a darned thing for ages. Our B&B (carved out of an apartment comprising part of one-and-a-half or two floors in an old building) was a fair distance from the railway station, which was itself a fair distance from the haunts of my lost youth. When we finally found the Duomo--after a boozy lunch--I wandered about on my own, trying to find my old hotel and, as I plaintively repeated, "my lost youth." When I gave up and sat beside B.A. in the "For Prayers ONLY" section of the Duomo, I remembered how lonely I had been and how maybe I should keep my lost youth lost.

Meanwhile, the old glamour of Florence had disappeared, even though now I had the money to sample all the things I eschewed during my lonely week there so long ago. First, I ate proper meals instead of nibbling pastries. Second, I drank wine at lunch and cocktails at supper. Third, I had male companionship, having got a husband in the decade-plus interval. I dragged him all the way to the Piazzale Michaelangelo---and instead of the glorious cityscape tattooing itself afresh on my brain, I felt a bit ho-hum. I wonder if this is because I have now seen other beautiful cities--Krakow, Bratislava, the restored bits of Wrocław and Warsaw--or because I am older and jaded. Hmm. It could be because I live in Edinburgh, which is truly one of the most beautiful cities in the world.

Amusingly, the most dramatic restoration of memory I experienced was yesterday in Rome when I had my first bite of tortellini con agrumi in Cul de Sac. It was just as good as all the other times I have had it--each time being spaced out by a year or more. It is really the most heavenly foodstuff I can think of.

Tomorrow I will write more about Florence. Although I didn't fall in love with it again, Florence was certainly full of beautiful things: art, architecture, shoes, boots, handbags, notepaper and American pilgrims on Day One of their Saints of Umbria tour. A short stay in Florence was a last minute idea, but I am very glad we went with it, for Benedict Ambrose (unlike me) knows really a lot about paintings and architecture.