Sunday, 13 December 2015

Merry Christmas, Belfast!

A window in City Hall

I've been dodging the rain recently - if at all possible.
I was back in Suffolk, visiting my folks, where it is notoriously dry compared with the rest of the British Isles. While I was there, the In-Charge was nearly washed - and blown - away here on the west coast. I ended up staying on in the UK for an extra few days, not as a deluge-avoidance tactic, but because my Dad wasn't in great form, but it was a sensible decision all round, as it seems doubtful that my plane would have landed - mid Desmond - at our exposed local airport, had I returned on time.
When I did get back, I just about had time to swap the contents of my suitcase over before we headed off to Belfast for a long-booked, three-day break - a wonderful present from a friend.
Gorgeous #2 Son came home to mind the shop, as it were, in our absence, bless him.

City Hall, with the Christmas Market clustered around its walls

I would quite happily live in a hotel, if the Model Dogs could come too.
What, as they say, is not to love? Especially at this time of year.
The Christmas trees were up, the bed was gloriously comfortable, hot water power-hosed out of the taps whenever I wanted a bath, the room was cleaned and the bed made while I was out doing happier things, and we had only to lift a telephone to receive sustenance, night or day. There was also a fridge to chill my prosecco, and breakfast, each morning, catered for every whim I might have had, the restaurant offered dinner if you couldn't be bothered going out, the bar drinks.

We were both tired, and decided to just have a relaxing couple of days pottering around.
At least, that was the plan. But no sooner had we dumped our stuff in the hotel, than out we went for a scrummy - but restrained - lunch at a delectable city cafe up the road, immediately blew that by having large helpings of pudding; staggered off to see The Lady in the Van (wonderful); got caught in the rain, missed the bus (my fault), hailed a cab; steamed in the bath to ward off rain-induced chills; and then settled down to a long, lazy dinner over a bottle of nice red in the hotel restaurant.
(If the Models had been under the table to discretely receive the bits I couldn't manage, all would have been perfect.)

One of the tables in Harlem Cafe - a glass-topped box of shells. Beautiful.

The lovely interior of City Hall

Over breakfast the next morning, which neither of us did justice to (too much dinner), we planned our day. It was miraculously dry, but breezy and cold outside.
At home we'd have been eating porridge, but as we'd both peered separately into the steaming silver vat on the buffet table and decided that we only fancied porridge if we'd cooked it ourselves, we opted for other fare. Porridge, let's face it, is not felicitous to behold.

The In-Charge then went off to catch up with his mate Colin, and see his studio. I went - surprise, surprise - to the Christmas Market clustered around the City Hall, five minutes walk from the hotel.

By the end of our three days, we'd done at least a week's worth of walking, visited most of the shopping  areas in the city centre, wandered around St George's Market, seen the Christmas Market at night, bedecked with fairy lights, eaten and drunk our fill several times over, been to IKEA and an English supermarket, shoved all our festive UK-bound mail into a British post box and seen three movies. We'd also popped in to St Malachy's, the lovely old church the In-Charge helped our friend DodoWoman to restore a few years ago, and visited Colin Davidson's amazing 'Silent Testimony' at the Ulster Museum. It is a superb exhibition - portraits of people bereaved or injured during the Troubles.

St Malachy's Church in Alfred Street, Belfast.

The In-Charge helped our friend DodoWoman repaint the specialist artwork of the interior a few years ago.

St Malachy's Roman Catholic Church, whose foundation stone was laid in 1841. The church is an unusual shape - wide but not deep, as apparently it was decided not to build the nave, but instead to give the money this would have cost to poor relief. The 1840s were the period of the Great Famine in Ireland, in which over a million people died of hunger or related diseases. A further million emigrated, with many more following in later years.

Colin Davidson's portrait of Jeff Smith who was paralysed by a bomb in Fermanagh

Colin Davidson's portrait of Mo Norton, whose brother was killed by an IRA bomb

The In-Charge went for a drink with Colin in his local. It had one of my favourite WB Yeats poems on the wall, put together out of old printer's blocks. He took a photo of it for me. I think it's rather wonderful, but I wonder how quickly, after it was made and polished and put up on the wall, its creator spotted the spelling error?

It was a lovely few days in a beautiful city.
We were almost too tired to drive home, but fortunately the In-Charge is deeply reliable at times like that.
I just about caught a snap of 'Rise', the vast football-shaped sculpture on the way out of town, before I fell asleep and left him to get us home.

Thank you, Clare.

Belfast's sculpture 'Rise' - it looks like a vast football within a football. Perhaps that's the idea!

Saturday, 5 December 2015

The Ghost of Christmas Present

We're Country Hicks these days, the In-Charge and I.
It wasn't always thus - back in the day, we were happy-go-lucky Londoners, but these years there's a good bit of straw in the auld hair and heaven knows what on the boots.
But recently we threw some vaguely respectable duds in the back of the car and headed to Dublin for a couple of days.

Listening to some radio show en route, I instantly resolved to see Matthew Bourne's Sleeping Beauty at the Bord Gais Theatre. I feel very deprived with regard to Matthew Bourne, as I never did see his Swan Lake. It was, the radio said, the last few performances of the ballet, and - knowing the In-Charge would rather watch paint dry, I planned to sneak in a matinee while he visited a friend's studio.
We had several lengthy appointments to work around, but still...

A meeting on the way took a bit longer than anticipated, so we got to Dublin later than planned, too late for that day's ballet matinee, anyway.
After checking in to the hotel, we headed round the corner to Oliver Sears - an obligatory pit-stop every visit. The In-Charge knew that the gallery was showing a Donald Teskey exhibition, so definitely not to be missed. It was fabulous, and if it's still on, go and see it for yourselves.

We play a game in galleries - daft but inevitable.
We separately decide which painting we can't possibly leave without.
Teskey's prices being what they are, it was going to be a picture imprinted on the brain or the phone, but better than nothing.
It took me ages to choose.

One of Donald Teskey's paintings at Oliver Sears

And even so, I'm still not certain.
I loved the Carrowkeel series too, and would have been happy to have left with those under the other arm.
Teskey spent a period of the summer up in Sligo, so the paintings particularly resonated.

One of the Carrowkeel series, Donald Teskey at Oliver Sears

After that, there was nothing for it but to nip into the National Gallery for another fix.
They had a new exhibition of portraits by John Butler Yeats, father of the more famous William.
The In-Charge liked his self-portrait. It makes him look a jovial sort of chap, but I'm not sure that he was.

JB Yeats - self portrait

I preferred the portrait of his daughter Lily (Susan) but on balance I'd probably have chosen a Sargent or an Orpen.
Or a Lavery. I've always wanted Lavery's portrait of Hazel and Alice and Rodney Stone.

Lavery's portrait of his wife

Maybe it's really Rodney Stone I want. He's just so beautiful.

Rodney Stone

After that, of course, we had to go into the National Gallery shop where we fell in love with more dogs.
This time Charles Wellington Furze beguiled us with his fanciful Diana, but there were lots of others too.

Diana and her hounds

We bought a book for a friend and moved out into the streets, slightly punch drunk. Looking at wonderful paintings seems to do that.
But being in Dublin's streets had another effect on us - they time-warped us forward. Although it was only mid November at the time, everything was wall-to-wall Christmas. I suppose that's normal, but not in our sleepy back-water and, to us at least, the 'Festive Season' still seemed a long way off.
The shop windows were spectacular, the pubs and restaurants were decorated to within an inch of their lives, and pre-Christmas sales were in full swing.

A Dublin pub in full Christmas regalia    

A cross between Twenties glamour and Narnia's snow queen

Windows on Grafton Street.

I didn't make it to the ballet. Sadly, our appointments on both days overshot the matinee performance.
We didn't even make it to Suffragette, a movie I'd really wanted to see, as we'd missed it at home. On arriving at the cinema which still advertised the film on its programme, the box office said: 'Not Tonight, Josephine', or words to that effect. It was late by then, so we gave up and went to James Bond.
A bit of a damp squib, but there you go.

Before we knew it, we were heading back to the sticks, and now, several weeks on, our brief Dublin trip is receding into a ghostly reminiscence, but we both feel we've done Christmas.Somewhere along the line, there was even a turkey, ham and cranberry sandwich.

Now I am in the UK, where, amidst the floods and winds, there are Christmas trees and sparkly lights.
It feels rather odd, somehow, because surely by now we ought to be launching into New Year?

Sunday, 15 November 2015

You Have Been Loved

She came to us back in the summer of 2000.
I think I remember the date so easily because, not only was it Millennium Year, but also, most of my family were visiting from the UK to celebrate my parents 50th Wedding Anniversary.
The circumstances of how she came were unusual enough to need no aide-memoire.
Three little boys, classmates of my sons, rang the front door bell.
'Is this your kitten?' they asked guilelessly. 'We found it on the bridge.'

So lovable

I didn't think for a moment that they had found her on the bridge, I assumed she was from an unwanted litter, but the bridge is narrow and sees a constant flow of traffic, and would be a very dangerous place for a tiny kitten, so it made a perfect opening gambit.
We had quite a few cats at the time, most of which had been dumped on us, literally dumped. - just left in sacks or boxes somewhere on our property. Everyone knew we were animal-lovers, and back then neutering just didn't happen by and large - especially for cats.
'Have you tried Denise?' I asked hopefully, although I wasn't counting on anything. Denise, who lived at the other end of the bridge, was another cat-lover.
'Yes,' they replied promptly.

I looked at the kitten and knew that the patience of three small boys wouldn't stretch very far. I guess her future hadn't really been in doubt from the moment I opened the door.

My boys fell in love with her straight away

My own two small boys were thrilled to bits, the In-Charge less so, but he's good at bowing to the inevitable.
Dottie was over the moon, but then Dottie loved nothing so much as someone who needed a bit of mothering, and the kitten was only too happy to be mothered.
We named her Pushkin, but mostly she was called Pushy

Beautiful Dottie was a born mother

Even the puppies loved her.
But then, she was a very lovable cat.

She got on with everybody

She rapidly became #1 Son's cat, and - unbeknownst to me - slept in his bed every night.
When I say in his bed, I mean in his bed. Apparently, she wasn't content with curling up in the crook of his knees or anything external, she would crawl under the duvet and lie against him, playing the piano with her little claws against his tummy.
She was quite happy being smothered under the bedclothes, and he adored her.
She disappeared once - while I was out shopping - and we turned the place upside-down, frantically searching for her. Eventually we found her in the bottom of the sleeping bag stuffed underneath his bed, warm and boneless and fast asleep.

SurferSon adored her too

She was quite a small cat. What the In-Charge calls 'a short wheel-base', but she was a demon-hunter nonetheless, and when she'd caught something she'd come to the back door, yowling like a soul in pain until I went out to be presented with her trophy.
I remember one evening, she was curled up on my lap in the Library, when some movement caught my eye. To my horror, a mouse was scurrying along the bottom edge of the bookcase. I don't mind how many mice live in my sheds, but I do not like sharing my living space with them, I'm afraid. As a sort of reflex action, I threw Pushy off my lap. From fast asleep, to - literally - the mouse firmly locked in her jaws was instantaneous. In cars it would be 1-60 in two seconds.
I picked her up gingerly and put her outside the front door and, politely, neither of us mentioned the incident again.

One of her favourite perches - an old ladder propping up the Solanum crispum

The potager was her private garden

She loved the garden. On sunny days she'd always be out in the potager, sleeping on the bench, or stretched out on the warm gravel - highly camouflaged. In really hot weather, I'd find her curled under a shrub.

I nearly trod on her often, lying right beside me, she just disappeared into the gravel

If I was working outside, she'd always come and roll in the flower bed beside me, and many a time she'd take me on a tour of the whole garden if I'd been away for a few days, as if to tell me that she'd looked after everything in my absence.

Rhubarb from her very own potager

In the house, she was the only cat allowed beyond the kitchen door, because she was the only one who could be trusted never to pee in some corner if she got shut in for too long.
These last few years she's had her own little routine. #1 Son has worked abroad for years now, but if SurferSon was home, she'd usually go to bed with him. If not, she'd go outside for the night, spurning the cat beds I have thoughtfully placed in the turf shed in favour of doing who-knows-what, although in the mornings she would generally appear from the direction of the garden.

Breakfast was always on the kitchen window sill, where she could enjoy the sunshine, if there was any, and, from the comfort of her warm seat, watch the birds on the bird-table outside the window, no doubt catching at least a dozen in between mouthfuls of food. The window-sill was her domain, where she could take as long as she liked to eat, as none of the other cats were allowed up there to muscle in on her. Afterwards, she would wait patiently by the door until I let her into the house where she'd spend the entire day either following the sun, or just sleeping on our bed until supper time.
If we were at home, she'd then spend as much of the evening as possible on my lap.

She helped me knit the pole warmer for Beltra Market

She'd not been in great form, the last little while, and I knew she was slipping, but she was still eating well, and sitting in my lap every evening. But finally I took her to the vet to see if there was anything we could do to make her more comfortable.
So soon after losing my little Pixie, I was desperately hoping she'd be all right for a few more months.
It was such a relief to bring her home with antibiotics and a glimmer of hope that I felt a bit light-headed, but by the next morning we knew she wasn't happy, and that is the only signal I ever need.
We took her in together, the In-Charge and I, and held her, and told her how much she'd been loved.

It is the end of an era, to lose someone who has been a part of the family for so long.
Such a quiet, untroublesome little member of the family, too.
It was only when I drove her to the vet's that first day, I realized that I couldn't even remember when she had last left the property. She has never been sick. And she was as good as gold in the car, not making a sound, just staring at me with saucer-wide eyes while I tried to stroke her through the bars of the cat basket.

Even SuperModel loved her, against all her lurcher principles

It is a couple of weeks ago now, that we lost her, but I haven't felt able to put it down in black and white.  It was so hard, after losing my little Pixie just a few weeks ago.
The house seems empty.
My lap is cold and empty night after night.
I miss her. I see her every day in so many places. I go into our room for something and - before I catch myself - I find I am wondering why she's not lying on my bed in the sun. Her blanket is still on the sofa in the drawing room - I've shied away from moving it.

SurferSon came home for her funeral, and wept with us, but #1 Son was far away, doing exams that day, so we didn't tell him until afterwards. Everyone else came too. They usually do, though it's up to them.
Model Dog sat shaking, pressed against me, and then lay down and put her head into the grave. SuperModel danced around the edges and wouldn't come very close, her eyes big and anxious. In the kitchen, when I had left her in her bed for them all to say goodbye, Model Dog had licked her face and SuperModel had nudged her, and nudged her again, as if to try and make her get up.
Hobbes and Henri, who had circled her and sniffed, and stared, sat near us in the orchard and watched, wide-eyed and sombre.
And Hobbes has been restless and upset since she went, walking round the kitchen crying.
He misses her too.
She was only a little cat, and very quiet.
But she's left a huge gap that none of us quite knows how to fill.

She didn't take up much space, but she's left a massive gap

Monday, 9 November 2015

Sicily: Hot on the Heels of Montalbano

Italy 5

The main reason we wanted to visit Sicily was because - some years ago - we fell in love with Inspector Montalbano.
I know - I know - his fans are multitudinous, but we couldn't help ourselves.
And strictly speaking, I fell in love with Inspector Montalbano, the In-Charge just fell in love with the series.
Many a Saturday night we'd happily stay in with Il Commissario - Il Dottore - Salvo, call him what you will. We felt practically fluent in Italian, and totally fluent in the art of the Latin grunt.
We longed to see his stamping-iground for ourselves.

Inspector Montalbano  Pic online images Italy

So you can imagine how happy we were to wake up on Sicilian soil.
In fact, we were woken long before dawn by torrential rain sheeting off the roof and thunder resounding off the mountains like canon fire. It was all very spectacular.
But the next morning we wondered if we'd dreamed it.
We wandered around San Giorgio Montforte in hot sunshine, had breakfast in a cafe and at length headed off towards Cefalu.

Despite Angelica's renewed attempts to keep us off motorways, we did eventually find one. (We wondered, en passant, if she is just parsimonious and doesn't like paying out? Which would explain why she let us onto the Autostrada through Calabria - it was free, whereas, in Sicily, as further north on the mainland we had to pay.)

Angelica didn't like paying for the Autostrade

The motorways on Sicily are not for the tunnel-phobic, but they are good, and when you're not buried beneath a mountain, the views are spectacular.
So was Cefalu.
It looked Biblical, and Greek. And it was packed.


We wandered around the old town, drank more Prosecco, had lunch and shopped in the market and then carried on to Palermo, but - with hindsight - we'd rather have just headed south east.
We didn't spend time in the capital, but we did at least stop the next day to see the Valley of the Temples, although - the temperature being in the high thirties still - I wasn't sure that I wanted a long walk around a 1300 hectare site in the heat of the noon-day sun.
But the main places of interest cover just a few kilometres, and the area is full of shady olive trees, so it was well worth the walk to see such amazing ruins, many of which date to the 5th century BC.

The Temple of Concordia

The sculpture of Icarus was interesting too.
We couldn't decide whether the total lack of expression on his face lent it more meaning or less.
In one way we felt that his failed break for the stars could only have left him gnashing his teeth as he fell to earth, but on the other hand, who can say what acceptance a close encounter with the sun might bring?
I stood looking at him for a long time, trying to read what might have been going on behind his closed eyelids.

Icarus, fallen and broken, yet emotionally unscathed

I couldn't help but notice how fascinated most tourists were by his eye-level penis. Most touched it, or went to touch it but drew back coyly and simply posed beside it for a photo, or laughed and made some comment. 
What a funny lot we are.

The centre of the island had taken us by surprise. We'd expected mountains and more mountains, but instead were greeted by a dun coloured agricultural scene; and on the south coast, by mile after mile of commercial polytunnels.

Agricultural interior

We did also find ourselves on a road that had somehow been - well, squished. We had to turn around and retrace our route. We're still puzzling over what could have happened to it.

A squished road

In the end, we only had a day to explore Montalbano's 'manor'.
We stayed in a pretty seaside town on the south coast, and set off promptly the next morning for Scicli and the mountainous scenery that suddenly we recognised.
We stopped on the outskirts of the picturesque town to explore the cemetery. We'd passed many on our travels and I wanted to have a look around.
It was beautiful, the older mausoleums as imposing as the British Victorian equivalents in places like Highgate and Nunhead, or Pere Lachaise in Paris. The Italian cypruses could have been bred with cemeteries in mind, they lend so much atmosphere, rather like the British and Irish yews.
One old tomb bore a sculpture of a woman desolate with grief. I could still feel it, 100 years later.
The newer parts reminded me of Spain, the photographs on each plaque lending a particular poignancy, and they were bedecked with fresh flowers, far more so than at home.  

Lots of flowers

Weeping forever on the tomb of her beloved

Scicli was beautiful. After Amalfi, it seemed ridiculous that we could park for free.
And it was weird walking down the street we have seen so often on TV (although I wasn't sure about the large plastic tubs that have replaced the line of police cars.)

 Inspector Montalbano would have had those  plastic tubs removed immediately

Sadly, Luca Zingaretti didn't stride down the steps of the police station (it's actually the town hall) as we approached, but then life is full of disappointments. Still, we did get to see the room that is used as his boss's office in the series.
Not adequate recompense, but there you go.

We went to Modica and Ragusa too, both of which were beautiful, especially the latter.
250 steps down to the old quarter from Ragusa's high town, but you can get a bus back up. 


Ragusa with the blue glassed cupola of Duomo di San Giorgio

We wished we'd skipped Palermo and had longer to explore these spectacular, baroque towns in the south east. I did visit the Duomo di San Giorgio in Ragusa, but I didn't find a place where I could see the blue glass of its cupola properly.

I took a photo of the lovely marble flags on the floor, though, patinated, smoothed with age. But not the dome.
Regrets regrets... 

Beautiful, old floor

More regrets that we had to by-pass Syracusa altogether. 
'Idiots!' I hear you cry.
I know. 
We'll just have to go back.

I had to content myself with photographing a poster outside the tourist office in Modica

We left Sicily the next day, after staying in a little coastal resort nestled under the fuming Mount Etna.
No one seemed in any way bothered by the funnel of wispy smoke emanating from its peak.
I suppose it does that all the time. 

I was conscious of giving it a wary glance or two as we drove north towards the Messina ferry.
You just never know, with volcanoes.

Mt Etna smoking quietly to itself

(My hopes for more dancers on the return journey had been dashed when the In-Charge spotted a newspaper article reporting that the dancers were celebrating the ferry's 50th anniversary. We were lucky to be aboard that day.)

But our regrets were tinged with anticipation too.
We had booked the lovely hotel on the beach at Fiumicello for our last two nights in Italy.
Quite frankly, we needed some down-time after over 2000 km, and before the 5 hour drive to Rome for our flight home. 
We couldn't think of a better place to relax.
And I couldn't wait to be lulled to sleep by the sound of the sea below our balcony

The sea below our balcony

This is the final part of our trip to Italy.
You can read part 4 here: Tango-ing to Messina
Part 3: Amalfi: The Road More Travelled 
Part 2: Sipping Limoncello in Sorrento
Part 1: See Naples and Die