Tuesday, January 30, 2007

La Torre Pendente

Said Big Ben to the Leaning Tower of Pisa: "If you have the inclination, I have the time..."

I thought I'd take a breather from my recent political commentaries and return to memories of travel. Whoever said that there was nothing to see in Pisa aside from the tower simply did not know what they were talking about. And even if there was nothing but the famous tower, it really is quite an astonishing accomplishment and worth a peek.

A little history on the tower: The tower of Pisa is the bell tower for the cathedral seen in the photo below. Construction commenced in 1173 and continued (with two very long interruptions) for about two hundred years. From what I can tell, we are still uncertain as to who the architect of this project was, although there have been various speculations.

What seems to be most unusual about the tower, aside from the lean, is that normally bell towers are built along the facade or along one side of the church. Here, however, the tower is a total disconnect to the other buildings in the vicinity.

Back to the lean: The inclination of the tower is what has most fascinated visitors over the centuries partially due in fact that the reasons behind the inclination are still very much a mystery. At one time it was thought that perhaps the lean was consciously desired by the architect. However, it doesn't take long in walking around Pisa to suspect that this is most likely not the case. Just about everything seems to be leaning somewhat in one direction or another.

I absolutely love the picture above as I feel as if the tower is just taking a little peek around the corner. I haven't yet mentioned the workmanship of these buildings. They are made of marble and limestone. Even the sidewalk around the grounds is made of marble. It really is quite stunning.
This picture seems so typical of many side streets in Pisa. The streets are narrow and it really is much more convenient and probably quicker to take your bike. I found the walk along the river stunningly beautiful. Who wouldn't be inspired?

Saturday, January 27, 2007

The Royal Saga Continues

A brief continuation of the Segolene Royal saga...apparently French Comedian Gerald Dahan called Ms Royal on Wednesday pretending to be Jean Charest, premier of Quebec. Of course snippets of this conversation have since hit the air. Dahan jokingly compares Royal's comments on Quebec to suggesting independence for Corsica to which Segolene allegedly replies, "The French people wouldn't be opposed to the idea..." laughs and then adds, "Don't repeat that, though -- it would cause another incident in France. It's a secret." Royal conveniently left the next day for a trip to the French Antilles and has not been available for comment. Segolene's handlers really need to get a handle on their candidate.

Friday, January 26, 2007

Lessons in International Diplomacy

On Monday, one of the leading French presidential contenders, Segolene Royal, told Parti Quebecois leader Andre Boisclair (for those who are unaware of Canadian politics, he is leader of the separatist party in Quebec) that she endorses "the sovereignty of Quebec." Although this may be sweet news to the ears of many Quebecois separatists, it does raise a few issues. First, Ms Royal, has made comments with little or no comprehension of Canadian history, and second, her insensitivity to Canadian internal affairs has now opened the door for Canadians to comment on the internal affairs of France.

Now on many Canadian minds are the regions of France with very distinct cultures, languages and ethnic groups, groups that are fighting to keep their distinct culture intact, protect their traditional languages, and in some cases also have separatist movements. The two that come to my mind are Normandy and Brittany.

Normandy has a long history as a distinct political entity going all the way back to the Viking era. In fact, the fiefdom of Normandy was created for the Viking leader Rollo. Rollo had besieged Paris, but in 911 entered into a vassalage to the King of the West Franks and in this manner legally gained the territory he had formally conquered. The Vikings intermarried the locals and adapted the Gallo Romantic language and became known as the Normans a mixture of Scandinavians, Hiberno-Norse, Orcadians, Anglo-Danish and indigenous Gauls. Since then, this region has been tossed back and forth between England and France, yet they have fervently held onto their language, unique culture and cuisine.

Brittany is another region of France that was a former independent kingdom. It is considered one of the six Celtic nations. Despite its history of being pummled about in wars and loosing its independence, Breton has remained the language of the entire population. This is also despite active efforts by France (through laws and economic pressures) to stamp out this language. In fact, at the beginning of the 20th century, it was forbidden to "spit on the ground, and to speak Breton."

Please note that I am in no way endorsing separitist movements in these areas, I am simply making a point that perhaps Ms Royal should take a closer look at similar political terrain back home before putting her nose into affairs that are frankly none of her business.

For further info on this political gaffe, check out the following articles:
Harper rebukes Segolene Royal for comments on Quebec sovereignty
Vive la Normandie libre!
Maybe Segolene Royal is not ready for the world stage just yet

Wednesday, January 24, 2007

The Meatrix

I listened to an interesting discussion today on CBC regarding the family farm. It was a rather loose conversation regarding the decline of the family farm, land being taken out of the Agricultural Land Reserve and being sold to developers at astronomical prices; farmers (this time particularly in the Okanagan) who can't compete with the subsidized fruit that floods our market, so they are pulling out their orchards and replacing them with vineyards or again selling their farm; and farmers who can't afford to own their land so they either lease it or eventually get out of the farming business. There are many different issues that are at question here, but the one that bothers me most is that we are making ourselves more and more dependant on agricultural giants, huge factory farms that are just in it for the profit, they don't practice sustainable farming, and don't provide the highest quality produce (and by this, I don't necessarily mean the product that looks the nicest, but rather, the one that is fresh, has a high nutritional value and is flavourful). Also, with all of the talk about global warming and individuals changing their lifestyles in an effort to try and make a difference, it seems silly to eat something that travels more kilometres (or miles) to get to our table than some of us travel in a year.

While looking for further information on the Internet, I happened upon these facts: According to Farm Aid every week 330 farmers in the U.S. leave their land. There are now nearly five million fewer farms in the U.S. than there were in the 1930's. According to EPA, 3000 acres of productive U.S. farmland are lost to development every day. Between 1974 and 2002, the number of corporate-owned U.S. farms increased by more than 46 percent.

To become better informed about the major ramifications of this disturbing trend and what we as individuals can do, I recommend you watch the highly entertaining very informative video the Meatrix (available to watch online). Although specifically focused on what agri-farms have done to the meat and dairy industry, they shed some light on the problems of factory farming and provide suggestions for finding healthier food for our families. Or to learn more about sustainable food and the problems with factory farming, check out the Sustainable Table.

Friday, January 19, 2007

Tuscan Treasures

One of the most charming towns I visited while in Italy was Pienza. This little walled town is situated on a hill in Southern Tuscany with breathtaking views of the Val d’Orcia complete with undulating fields dotted with olive groves and farm houses.

This Renaissance town of 1000, with medieval gates still standing at the town’s entrances, has been designated by UNESCO as part of the cultural heritage to mankind. Walking the narrow streets can’t but bring one back to a simpler time, the way I idyllically imagine life should still be.

The narrow streets are filled with tiny family owned shops. Meandering down one alley way, I passed the local barber shop where I could view a local getting a shave through the big picture window. In another shop was the tailor measuring up someone for a suit. Store fronts are filled with locally made delicacies…pecorino cheese aged in ashes or vine leaves, wine, homemade sweets and more. In many ways, one can imagine that life is much the same as it has always been

Pienza owes its position as one of Tuscany’s most charming art towns to Enea Silvio Piccolomini (1405-64) who later became Pope Pio II (1458). Shortly after this he called in one of the more famous architects of the time, Bernado Rossellino to transform this insignificant village in which he had been born into a model town laid out on clear planning principals. The city has conserved much of the remarkable construction which happened during this period.

If you ever have the chance, this is one stop that I wouldn't miss.

Monday, January 15, 2007

Collosal Sights

"While the Colosseum stands, Rome shall stand, but when the Colosseum falls, Rome shall fall - and when Rome falls, the world will end."


The three days I spent in Rome was not nearly enough to fully appreciate this beautiful, chaotic, fascinating city. I guess thus the saying, "Rome, a lifetime is not enough." What inspired awe in me most were it's ruined but very imposing monuments, the top among them...the Colosseum. I was in my element.

The Colosseum was originally known as the Flavian Amphitheatre, after the family name of its builders, the emperors Vespasian and his son Titus. Its construction began in about 70 AD in Rome's Palatine, Esquiline and Caelian hills. Unfortunately Vespasian never lived to see the completion of what became the greatest amphitheatre in the Roman Empire. Titus oversaw the final construction of the amphitheatre and in 80 AD celebrated its opening with 100 days and nights of games. It is estimated that during those games some 5000 animals were slaughtered and 1000's of gladiators also fought to the death.

It is estimated that this massive structure could seat more than 50 000 in 15 minutes. This was due to some 76 numbered entrance arches and a ticket and assigned seating system. Every Roman senator had a reserved seat with his name carved in the marble base and regular citizens received a free ticket numbered with one of the entrance arches as well as a level number and seat number. Sound familiar? This is because the basic structure of the Colosseum and the ticket system is still used today for many gaming events.

The Colosseum was used regularly for almost 400 years. With the fall of the Empire, it was abandoned and gradually became overgrown. Exotic plants grew there for centuries as seeds had inadvertently been transported from Africa and Asia along with the wild beasts. During the Middle Ages, it became a fortress occupied by two of the city's warrior families. Now nearly 2000 years of war, earthquakes, vandalism and general wear and tear later, restoration has begun and this glorious ruin is once again open for public viewing.

Sunday, January 14, 2007

Breakfast Cookies

I call these breakfast cookies as they are not too sweet and they are chocked full of goodness...oats, nuts, seeds and even coconut if you so choose.

1 C Butter
1/2 C White Sugar
3/4 C Brown Sugar
2 Eggs
1 tsp Vanilla
1 tsp Baking Soda
1 3/4 C Flour (I've experimented with Spelt and Whole Wheat flours with good results...just add a little more)
2 C Quick Rolled Oats
1 C chopped Nuts and Seeds (I like a combination of walnuts, almonds and sunflower seeds)
1 C Pure Chocolate Chips

Cream butter and sugar together until smooth. Add eggs and vanilla, beat. Mix in baking soda and flour. Stir in oats, nuts, seeds and chocolate chips. Spoon onto a lightly greased cookie sheet and back at 350 degrees for 10 minutes.

Saturday, January 13, 2007

Fever Hits Record Highs

The Kootenays have been hit by a serious pandemic. Nelson has been the most seriously afflicted area with locals quickly developing a seemingly contagious fever. Many individuals report difficulty sleeping, the jitters and not being able to eat. Volunteers have come out in droves to contribute their services in any way which might be of aid. As this state of emergency continues to mount, large masses of the population are grouping at the local community complex as they discuss what needs to be done next. I went to the doctor and he said that this bug is really resilient. He told me that I’d have to watch at least one match within the next 24 hours to get rid of Hockeyitis. I have got a bad case of Hockey Day in Canada Fever!

Seriously, if you haven’t heard…Nelson is host to CBC’s 7th annual Hockey Day in Canada!!!! For an area that is steeped in Hockey history and has produced a number of great NHL talents, they are thrilled to be bestowed with such an honour. Hockey Night in Canada’s hosts, Don Cherry and Ron MacClean will broadcast live throughout the day. This marathon hockey celebration (13 hours of live broadcast) will feature a triple-header of the six Canadian teams (Montreal-Ottawa, Vancouver – Toronto, Edmonton – Calgary). Okay, now I’ve got to run and deal with the fever.

Thursday, January 11, 2007

Chaos and Complexity

I found the juxtaposition of this very modern statue in front of a very old church in Milano rather interesting. In a sense it sums up much of what I experienced in Italy: a culture steeped in rich traditions with a tremendous history yet a frenetic and almost chaotic movement in the present modern. Even the word Italia conjures up a variety of images: for some it means international haute couture, for others design or architecture, perhaps ruins and of course yummy cuisine...in essence, a unique way of life. More than anything, I found that the Italians have mastered the art of living and enjoying life, a popular formula we all should make more of an effort to embrace.

Wednesday, January 10, 2007

Our Clothes Tell Secrets

Italians love to air their laundry...not their dirty laundry ;), well, at least not in my personal experiences, but rather their clean laundry.

I was recently in on a conversation where a friend was utterly incensed that the neighbourhood into which she was moving had a bylaw against clothes lines. My surprise, however, came when another contributor to the conversation considered my friend lucky to be moving into such an area. This woman said that without fail whenever she had company over her neighbour would have her laundry out hanging, and "who wants to look at that!"

Well, I don't know. I personally find the stockings hanging in the photo above or other delicate unmentionables rather charming when they are strung out on a line. Perhaps it's a voyeuristic tendency, or simply a desire to have a peak into the lives of others. In any case, I don't think it's something to get particularly uptight about. Besides, I am sure that there are many environmental arguments for drying your laundry 'au natural.'

Monday, January 08, 2007

Foreign Driving Adventures

Driving in Italy is scary at the best of times, but none was so harrowing for me than in northern Italy where the winding roads, often single lane, cling to the steep mountain cliffs and cars zip around the corners with unbridled reckless abandon. Hairpin curves, like the one seen below, were common sights, as were mirrors attached to sides of buildings so that one could see what was coming around the corner. Not that it would have made any difference with the speed at which some of the cars were traveling.

Perhaps the narrow roads are why there are so many mopeds and scooters in Italy. Or perhaps the cost of gas is the determining factor. Although scooters wouldn't be comfortable on a long haul, despite the element of adventure they might add, they are probably most practical for quick errands around town.

An additional stress factor to throwing myself into such a chaotic driving culture were my very weak (okay, non-existant) Italian skills. At one juncture I was pulled over by a police officer on a lonely country road in Tuscany. As the officer came over, I rolled down my window. He made some sort of demand, of which I am still clueless, although I imagine he was probably asking to see the car's registration papers or my license...I mean, how many things could he have been asking for? At which point I mustered up my best Italian and spurted out, "Parla inglese? No parlo italiano." To which he gruffly replied with an amusing embarrassment, "Mi scusi." And waved me on as he proceeded back to his car. It's probably police policy to not mess with the tourists ;).

Truth be known, cars aren't the only way to have adventures in Italy. The train is every bit as exciting. But those are stories best left for another time.

Sunday, January 07, 2007


I have recently been introduced to a new acronym which I have since added to my working vocabulary: BWWBs. Any guesses from peanut gallery? If you are a DINK, plan for when you are a BWWB. If you are already a BWWB, then I imagine you are aware of the lifestyle change. This newly coined acronym (at least I think it is newly coined) is already on the internet, see the following link. Does anyone else have any new and interesting acronyms?

Saturday, January 06, 2007

Tales of Rome

Upon arriving in Tuscany, I very quickly developed a fascination for statues of Romulus, Remus and the she-wolf.

Romulus is the legendary founder of Rome. He and his twin brother Remus were the son’s of Ilia, a vestal virgin impregnated by Mars. Ilia’s father was Numitor the thirteenth King of Alba Longa who was disposed of and imprisoned by his evil brother Amulius. So as you can well imagine, these twins were no good news. Amulius thus decreed that they be thrown into the Tiber.

As luck would have it, not only did the basket that the twins were in wash up upon shore, but a she-wolf found them and suckled them until they were rescued by a shepherd named Faustulus.

Eventually the twins went back to Alba Longa, killed their great uncle and restored their grandfather to the thrown. However, rather than staying to eventually inherit the kingdom, the twins set off to found their own city at the site of their rescue. During the laying of the stone for the wall of the city, a sibling spat broke out when Remus made a mockery of his brother’s work by leaping over his “mighty wall.” Apparently this was a great insult and Romulus in his anger struck down and killed his brother. Now try to tell me that there aren’t issues in this family. Romulus called the city Rome after himself (how very creative and humble).

Friday, January 05, 2007

Frozen Beauty

I wanted to share a couple quick photos of the crazy icicles forming off the edge of my roof before I knock them down. As beautiful as they are, I think they would do some major damage if they were to land on someone. Not that I generally find strangers standing under the icicles hanging from my roof...but with the legal system these days, I wouldn't want to be held liable. I don't think you can really tell from the photos how large they've actually gotten, so you'll just have to take my word for it. They're huge!

Thursday, January 04, 2007

Mystery Plant

While in Geneva, a friend introduce me to this marvelous tree. It blooms in winter and emits the most intoxicatingly sweet aroma. I was told the French name...but unfortunately no longer remember it. He thought it was Honey Bush or Honey Tree in English, but when I googled it, I only came up with the African honey bush which doesn't look anything like this. Can anyone help me out?

Wednesday, January 03, 2007

Italian Coffee

Italian coffee definitely lives up to its name, although I must admit, I'm still partial to Swiss coffee. Swiss coffee is so rich and creamy tasting and often served with a nice piece of dark chocolate. Okay, chocolate shouldn't be in the equation for liking it better, but it certainly does help.

Italians tend to serve their coffee "tiepido" or lukewarm. At least this has been my overall experience...although there have been some places where it was served a little warmer than tepid. Lukewarm coffee is not something that I expected, so although the flavour was wonderful, I suppose I was hoping for something that would warm me up and cut the chill a little. I was told that the heat destroys the rich coffee flavour, and perhaps they are right as I have had far too many bitter North America coffees, you know, the type that is rather hard on the stomach, will give you the shakes and keep you up all night. It is interesting to note, that despite the copious amounts of coffee I drank while in Europe, that didn't happen once. Most of the coffee I had in Italy is what we in North America call Espresso, so as you can well imagine, such a small shot would hardly hold the heat anyway and when it's served lukewarm, well, you may almost as well chill it.

Now their cappuccinos (or cappuccinni as the Italians would say for the plural) were amazing. Although not super hot, they were served warmer and the milk was wonderfully frothy (just the way I like it) and the cocoa sprinkled on top was simply an added delight for my already over stimulated taste buds. What a fabulous way to fight off the jet lag or start the morning.

The best cappuccino I had: well, that would have to be at the Jumping Cafe in Milano. The worst coffee in Italy: the hotel where I stayed just a hop, skip and a jump from the Jumping Cafe (typical bad American coffee).

Please note... I do not think all North American coffee is bad and will at some point get around to posting about where you can get some exceptional cups of java in the area...unfortunately, my experience has been that much of what we try to pass off coffee here is simply a poor excuse once you've had the real thing. Okay, I concede, I'm a coffee snob.

Tuesday, January 02, 2007

Veritable Winter Wonderland

I meant to post some "snow" pictures as soon as I had gotten home from my trip as I was greated with copious amounts of the white stuff. Yes, driving home was a real treat! Apparently all the snow that Switzerland did not receive this year is falling right here in the Kootenays (hurray for the ski hills here!!!). We've had a few days that have been so socked in that I haven't even been able to see the mountains, not even Elephant mountain. Just as soon as I finish shoveling my walk, I think I'll build a snowman.

Isn't it pretty?

Sage, who doesn't usually venture out in the snow, gave it her best effort yesterday. It was so deep for her, it was pretty much like watching her swim. She was not nearly as amused as I was.

Monday, January 01, 2007

Happy New Year

Today is January 1st and for many crazy canucks that means a polar bear swim...or dip if you're not quite as crazy. If you are unfamiliar with these terms it basically means taking a little swim outside (yes, that's right) in the middle of winter. It is an annual event in many places throughout BC and as I understand it, in Canada, although I cannot imagine anyone being quite crazy enough in the Prairie provinces, but I won't be surprised if I'm proven wrong. This crazy Canadian tradition is spreading. On the news tonight they highlighted a group of snowbirds that organized a polarbear dip in the Baja. Sorry guys, I really don't think that can count. It really can't be that much of a shock to the system to go for a little swim in Mexico in January.

If you would like to check out some photos...just to make sure I'm telling the truth (that is if you're not from Canada), check out the site for the Vancouver Park board. The Vancouver Polar Bear Swim Club is one of the oldest Polar Bear Clubs in the world with its initial swim having taken place in 1920. This annual swim which initially had about 10 swimmers has now grown to well over 2000 participants annually.

For those who are wondering, no, I did not participate in any Polar Bear Dip this year. But I won't rule it out for future years. As I see it, it's probably a quick recovery for the festivities on the 31st.