Thursday, February 6, 2020

Reflections From Roma #21

Reflections From Roma #21
07 febbraio 2020

Hello there… Rodger French here.

Well, this is it. Our two-and-a-half years in Roma have passed with inevitable and ridiculous alacrity. So, it is time for the customary short, yet superficial summation of various day-to-day things we will - and will not - miss about this particular posting. Here we go.

Will miss…

The light of the morning sun on the Aurelian Wall and the dome of the Excelsior Hotel.

Fresh Italian bread.

Morning cappuccino. And a toasted sandwich – prosciutto cotto, formaggio e julienne di zucchine pizzetta (ham, cheese, and shredded zucchini on pizza bread) - served at the Elephant Bar, the Embassy café.

Mozzarella di Bufala (fresh buffalo milk cheese) and Burrata (fresh cow milk cheese made with mozzarella and cream). I despair that finding anything remotely like these formaggi fantastici in Alabama will be impossible. At best.

Roma, seen from the roof of the Embassy. With the city to the south and the mountains to the north, on dramatic weather days the view is downright cinematic. The roof is also an ideal place to observe seagulls perched on the heads of defenseless statues.

Roman seagulls. They are big, they are beautiful, and they perch wherever they damn well please. Respect.

Will not miss…

Garbage. We live in Parioli, which is described as a “posh” neighborhood, although our building, “ La Fondiaria” (according to a weathered plaque by the entrance), is decidedly not swankish. Anyway, there are large garbage bins positioned all over the place and most of the time they are full to overflowing. This is a very serious problem for the entire city.

Traffic. As one sagacious taxi driver remarked: “Roma has had traffic jams for 2000 years and we’re still using the same roads.”

Roman buses. A sizeable number of which are evidently manufactured with no suspension systems whatsoever. I keep looking for one to rattle itself completely apart, like some raggedy-ass jalopy in a Buster Keaton movie.

Roman dust. There are only two domestic chores that I utterly detest: Trimming the yard and dusting. Fortunately, we have no yard. But the “dust” that settles in our apartment is pretty nasty stuff - grimy and relentless.

Roman water. There’s nothing, like, poisonous about it, but it is absolutely lousy with calcium that leaves a mineral residue on sinks and utensils. And one’s kidneys.

Noisy neighbors. Between the constant crying of an unfortunate child in the apartment below us and what-sounds-like the moving of furniture late at night by people wearing wooden clogs and stiletto heels in the apartment above… Basta! already.

The ZOTA™. The Zombie Tourist Apocalypse rages on, unstoppable, although gratefully avoidable. That said… fist fights over selfie rights at la fontana di Trevi? Molto divertente.

Will miss…

Trains! We took a bunch of train trips to a bunch of interesting places and, although we experienced a few frustrations (delays, breakdowns, wildcat strikes, etc.), the overall level of service was actually respectable.

Firenze. What a fascinating place. The knowledge that this unique city is a mere hour and a half away by train is somehow reassuring. And the bookstore at Le Gallerie degli Uffizi is fabu.
Winter outerwear. When the weather turns even slightly cool, Romans immediately break out their quilted puffy jackets and coats. Imagine the Michelin Man, but considerably more stylish. I find it strangely adorable.

Church bells. Italia is, of course, supremely fraught with churches and campanili, so bells are a regular and welcome accompaniment to the soundtrack of daily life. But the extravagant cacophony they create in celebration of major religious occasions is both surreal and exalting.

Our famiglia italiana. We’ve known and occasionally visited these wonderful people for many years, but living in their country and having frequent opportunities to see them has been a cherished gift. Such friendships are unyielding to the rigors of time and distance. Now, if we can just get them back to the States…

Next up: “Follow-up From Fairhope,” a multi-part evaluation of our DoS assignments: Six postings on five continents. Should be fun.

Arrivederci, Roma. Onward.


Sunday, December 29, 2019

Reflections From Roma #20

Reflections From Roma #20
31 dicembre 2019

Photo Update Alert:

Hello there… Rodger French here.

Winter tourism in Italia is a tricky business. On the one hand, the ZOTA™ tapers off a bit, so there is less heinous crowding. The weather, however, can be cold, wet, and unpredictable. In any case, we decided to take a Christmas excursion by rail to two of the cities on our endless “must see” checklist: Verona and Venezia (Venice).

Verona- Verona is a picturesque city on the Adige River, with an ancient Roman arena, still used for opera productions, and a very cool and imposing medieval fortress called the Castelvecchio. And, naturally, there are the churches, several of which are both ancient and magnificent. Good sightseeing, even in the drizzle, although, alas, not a lot of photographic opportunities.

For what it’s worth, William Shakespeare, who apparently never visited the place, set not one, but two plays there (“The Two Gentlemen of Verona” and “Romeo and Juliet”). There actually exists a “Juliet’s Balcony,” which is (a) a huge tourist attraction and (b) totally bogus.

In spite of the inclement weather, many people turned out for the Christmas markets and everyone seemed to have a fine time. Verona is a lovely place and we enjoyed it very much.

Venezia- One of the most famous, treasured, and endangered cities on the planet, Venezia has inspired artists and tourists for hundreds of years. The notion of a city with waterways instead of streets is impossibly romantic, but quotidian reality demands diligent tide monitoring. High tides may necessitate the wearing of very serious rubber footwear, which most visitors do not own, and during exceptional tide peaks known as “acqua alta,” tourism becomes a water sport.

Tourist numbers are off about 50% this winter due to the catastrophic flooding of last November. This is, of course, terrible for those who rely on the tourism industry for a living. The upside, if it may be called thus, is that on this Christmas week, Venezia was merely crowded, rather than inundated, with visitors.

Fortunately, Venetians have had over 1000 years to learn how to live with the Adriatic Sea. To accommodate tourists during the acqua alta, the city erects sturdy pedestrian walkways (about three feet high, three-to-five feet wide, with no handrails) across flooded areas. Traffic flows both ways, and caution is essential to insure that you don’t take a header onto an unforgiving surface covered in dirty water.

[Boardwalk Etiquette Sidebar- (1.) Stay to the right, except when - and only with utmost caution and courtesy - passing. (2.) If you’re wearing high-water boots, get your sorry ass off the walkways and into the water. That’s the point of the boots, fool. (3.) Keep moving. Unless there’s an emergency, which taking a stupid selfie is decidedly not. (Selfies are second only to cruise ships on the list of Satan’s contributions to global tourism.)]

But, aside from the inevitable ZOTA™ aggravations, Venezia is absolutely worth the time, effort, and expense (it is not cheap). Time and tide prevented us from seeing all we wanted, but I enthusiastically recommend visiting the Gallerie dell'Accademia and the Palazzo Ducale. And especially the Scuola Grande di San Rocco (named after San Roch, protector against the plague and patron saint of dogs), which is home to dozens of large and fabulous paintings by Tintoretto. 

I also commend to you the light. We sprang for a great hotel room with a spectacular view, and, at dawn and dusk in particular, the city looks like an enormous watercolour. Bellissima. Venezia is an exceptional place with a fascinating history and we’re very fortunate to have had the opportunity to spend some time there.

And thus concludes our major travels in Italia/Europa. A.J. and I have a day trip to Firenze and a weekend in Verbania on our calendar, but that’s it. Which is somewhat stunning, but, as always, the tempus, it has fugited. I’ll be sending one more posting from Roma, just to wrap things up. But don’t imagine that’s the last of it. There’s still an evaluation of our State Department assignments in the works, so stay tuned.

Felice anno nuovo. Onward.


Wednesday, November 20, 2019

Reflections From Roma #19

Reflections From Roma #19
22 novembre 2019

Photo Update Alert:

Hello there… Rodger French here.

As our tour in Italia winds down, and we are busily scheduling all the travel we can possibly get away with, I’m pleased to report that our most recent trip, a week in Puglia in October, was molto successo. Fine weather, great food, and - grazie alle stelle - no ZOTA™. 

LecceFive and a half hours from Roma by train, Lecce is located in the Apuglia region at the “heel” of the Italian Peninsula. It is over 2000 years old and has, of course, been occupied by an assortment of conquerors. It is a beautiful city, sometimes called “The Florence of the South,” with ancient Roman ruins and beautiful Baroque churches and monuments, many of which are constructed with leccisu (“Lecce stone”), a locally quarried limestone famous for its malleability and beautiful color.

MonopoliRiding the rails, Monopoli is located on the Adriatic coast, a short distance from Leece. The centro storico (old town) is small and a safe place to lose your sense of direction as you wander about in search of the perfect seafood restaurant. Lots of churches, all closed, but none seemed to be in actual use. The waterfront was modest and picturesque, with fishing boats coming and going, fishermen mending their nets, and groups of old Italian ragazzi (guys) haggling over the day’s catch.

AlberobelloThis is one of the “must see” sites in Puglia, renowned for its trulli, hundreds of whitewashed stone huts with conical roofs. We had to engage a car to take us there/back from Monopoli, and an English-speaking tour guide as well. The whole arrangement was a bit expensive, but worth it. Of particular interest is the fact that the houses were built without mortar so that they could be easily disassembled, in order to avoid taxes levied by the Spanish viceroy of the Kingdom of Naples. From tax dodge to UNESCO World Heritage site… not bad at all.

Bari- The capital of Apuglia and a major port city, Bari was quite a change of pace. The city has changed hands numerous times in 2000 years, suffering through the usual appalling and inevitable cruelties of conquest. The centro storico is extensive, very lived-in, and a bit seedy. Primo tourist sights include the Hohenstaufen Castle built for Frederick II (and rebuilt several times), and a couple of truly impressive churches.

The most famous of these is the Basilica di San Nicola. Consecrated in 1197, it attracted both Roman Catholics and Orthodox Christian pilgrims whose well-being became central to Bari’s economy. (The Basilica remains an important pilgrim destination.) Inside are interred the remains (hijacked by sailors from a church in what is now Turkey) of Saint Nicholas, alleged hometown boy and patron saint of, among other things, children, sailors, and thieves.

Bari also has a beautiful lungomare (waterfront) and we enjoyed strolling along the strand as we searched for the perfect fish sandwich joint.

Trani- This lovely port, 45 minutes from Bari by train, was a charming place to spend a day. Trani has a rather impressive history for such a small city. During the Crusades in the 11thcentury, it was the most important port on the Adriatic. Indeed, the West’s oldest surviving maritime law code was written there in 1063. Trani also played an important role in Medieval Jewish history. And, of course, there was the inevitable imposing cathedral that, of course, was closed.

FWIW, we’re going to be spending the next few weekends traipsing around Roma, looking at new things. In December, it’s off to Verona and Venizia (assuming it doesn’t get washed away) for the Christmas holiday. Then, in January one more trip to Verbania to see our famiglia italiana. After that, Stateside and retirement beckons. Stay tuned.



Thursday, September 12, 2019

Reflections From Roma #18

Reflections From Roma #18
12 settembre 2019

Photo Update Alert:

Hello there… Rodger French here.

This is our third September in Roma, and the weather is just as beautiful as when we arrived in 2017: Sunny and fine by day, cool at night, less humidity and rain, and lovely breezes. After a typically hot Roman summer, it’s good to be cool(ish) again.

With the change of seasons, and only six months left in the Foreign Service before A.J.’s retirement (five in my case; more on that later), we’re slotting our dance card with Italian excursions. Cue the highlight reel:

Bologna-The seventh largest city in Italia and capital of the Emilia-Romagna region is an easy train trip from Roma. It has the customary scenic piazzas, cathedrals, and museums, as well as something like 40 km of covered arcades (nice). But the big feature is the food. Bologna is regularly touted as having the nation’s finest cuisine.

We arranged to join a small group on a food tour, led by Benedetta, a very knowledgeable young woman, which featured many tasty items, among them mortadella (that’s baloney for grownups), fresh tagliatelle with ragu, and homemade peach/rosemary gelato. Having thus gained critical intel as to where the good stuff was, over the course of the next few days we consumed a reasonably immense amount of meat and fish - cooked, cured, and tartared - and more fresh pasta. Eating well may not be the best revenge, but it is indisputably time well spent.

RavennaFormer capital of the Western Roman Empire (402-476), subsequently ruled by the Ostrogoths, Byzantines, and Lombards, and now home to a UNESCO World Heritage Site, Ravenna is renowned for Byzantine mosaics dating from the 5thand 6thcentury. Situated only 69 km from Bologna, it was the perfect destination for a couple of day trippers. We arrived by an early train in order to avoid the ZOTA™, and so had no difficulty spending some quality time amongst the splendor.

The mosaics, located in various baptistries, mausoleums, and basilicas are simply beautiful (see photo link above). In particular, the panels of Emperor Justinian I and Empress Theodora in the Basilica of San Vitale are, like, National Geographic-ly famous. Ravenna is worth further exploration, but our time was what it was, so we got what we got. We have no complaints.

[Literary Sidebar- Ravenna is also the resting place of Dante Alighieri (1265-1321), poet and author of Divina Comedia(Divine Comedy), which I have actually read. In it’s entirety. Anyway, Dante was Florentine, but naturally there was the requisite dramma italiano, and so he ended up exiled and died in Ravenna. Reportedly, Firenze would like his remains repatriated. (Not going to happen.)]

Capuchin Crypt - Closer to home, indeed, a few moments’ walk from the U.S. Embassy, is this. And, since I really can’t do better, take it away, Wikipedia:

“The Capuchin Crypt is a small space comprising several tiny chapels located beneath the church of Santa Maria della Concezione dei Cappuccini on the Via Veneto near Piazza Barberini in Rome. It contains the skeletal remains of 3,700 bodies believed to be Capuchin friars buried by their order.The Catholic order insists that the display is not meant to be macabre, but a silent reminder of the swift passage of life on Earth and our own mortality.”

Reactions to this sort of exhibit vary dramatically. For my part, I did not have a clear idea of what to expect and so was rather unprepared for what awaited.

The Capuchin Crypt is one of the most compelling places I have ever visited, and moved me to weep openly. To my eyes, the great care and respect that went into creating this work of art from the bones of the dead was obvious and altogether praiseworthy. I am still somewhat taken aback by the depth of my response. Still processing… which is, of course, the point.

Next stop: Puglia, by train, in October.



Sunday, August 11, 2019

Reflections From Roma #17

Reflections From Roma #17
11 agosto 2019

Hello there… Rodger French here.

In case you haven’t seen this latest Italian news item (no, not the one about the imminent - and utterly predictable - collapse of the current coalition government), the city of Rome has decided to crack down on unruly tourists, “including a ban on ‘messy eating’ by monuments, wandering around bare-chested, jumping into fountains, and dragging wheeled suitcases and pushchairs down historic staircases.” Not unreasonable, but…

The new regs also include the possibility of a €250 ($280) fine for sitting on the Spanish Steps. Which is completely ridiculous. Roma is an exhausting place to be a tourist and the picturesque streets of paving stones are a podiatric nightmare, especially for the elderly. A few minutes of respite on some monumental staircase seems entirely acceptable (What, you think the ancient Romans didn’t sit their asses down?), as long as you don’t make a damned mess. This is especially true in the heat of summer.

Personally, I have never found the concept of “summer vacation” particularly satisfying. That’s not to say that, as a kid, I was unhappy to be finished with school for a few months each year. But, while it might have made sense when society was mostly rural and the kiddos were needed to help out with harvesting and other backbreaking farm labor, summer vacation always seemed like something of a cheat to me.

My mother was a school lunchroom manager, so when school was out, she was basically unemployed until after Labor Day. My father, a railroad man, worked 50 weeks straight, with two weeks off for vacation - a brutal business model, in my view. Both my folks worked very hard and deserved a real break, not a frantic fortnight wrangling three aggravating boys into a massive station wagon (with no seatbelts, no A/C, no power features of any kind) and heading down the road to either the “country” or the beach, both of which featured miserable heat, cancerous sunburn, and pestilent insects.

[Nostalgia Sidebar- To be fair, there were many good moments; e.g., playing horseshoes with the grownups behind Lawler’s General Store in Munfordville, KY. Also, walking down the railroad tracks to watch the L&N drop off the mailbag as it rumbled past the depot was a fun daily ritual. And Virginia Beach was much more pleasant when “angels” (cumulus clouds) appeared, bringing shade and blessed relief. That, and more seafood than I could ever seem to get in Louisville.]

But even as a kid, I remember thinking that this ubiquitous leisure system was messed up. What in the world was wrong with vacationing during spring or fall, seasons that are generally cool and comfortable and much more pleasant? And why is the deck stacked liked this? And do I want to let this be the template for my life?

I consider myself most fortunate. Due to a motley synthesis of some actual design and a boatload of dumb luck, I have, for most of my adult life, been able to travel and vacation when I feel like it, more or less. Sometimes you get what you plan on, sometimes you get more than you bargained for, and sometimes you simply get what you get. But it is a gift to be able to see and experience the world on your own terms, più o meno. And if that includes Roma in the summer (FYI, today’s high temperature: 101°F), well, buona fortuna.

And should you feel the need, by all means take a load off your feet. Roma is 2700 years old. Roma does not mind.



Thursday, July 18, 2019

Reflections From Roma #16

Reflections From Roma #16
18 julio 2019

Hello there… Rodger French here.

Once again I come to you in supplication, to apologize for my lack of diligence as a foreign correspondent. And, once again, I can offer only that my life is – for the moment, at least – pretty boring and not worth cluttering your inbox with. True, we’re still living in Roma, but even that becomes routine after a couple of years. I do not, however, expect this to remain so indefinitely. Indeed, we have some pretty cool excursion prospects, and then there’s the whole matter of A.J.’s imminent retirement in March 2020. But, for now, it’s just another summer in the Eternal City.

Which, as I probably observed last year, is not without its charms. Although it gets very hot during the day, Roman mornings are quite often beguiling masterpieces of bright blue skies and moderate temperatures, with the occasional whisper of light winds. And as we get closer to August 15 and the Ferragosto holiday, Roma becomes increasingly devoid of actual Romans, and the city – ZOTA™ notwithstanding – becomes molto tranquillo. So we go about our business, do our jobs, and endeavor to minimize our exposure to Il Duce americano Benito Cheeto, the idiota tossico in the White House.

What else… I recently viewed “Amazing Grace,” a documentary film about the recording of the best-selling live gospel double LP by Aretha Franklin, with Rev. James Cleveland and the Southern California Community Choir, in January 1972 at the New Temple Missionary Baptist Church in Los Angeles. Writers more erudite than I have reviewed both the music and the film, so I will add only this: While the film is a bit of a mess, Ms. Franklin is gloriously not. She is magnificent, a queen in her prime, bringing her majestic musical gifts humbly before the Lord. One need not be a religious person to be moved by that. Behold and rejoice.

[Past Life Sidebar– My first broadcasting gig (1973) was at WGRI-AM, a country music station in Griffin, GA. I worked Sunday mornings from 06:00–12:00; a timeslot devoted to religious programming, some recorded, but mostly live. My duties included announcing, playing tapes and commercials, setting up the studio for local performers (nearly all of whom were Black), and collecting money from them for airtime ($8/15 min., $15/30 min.).

I became friendly with the musicians and was, on several occasions, invited to come to a “Gospel Soul Train,” usually at a rural AME church. These shows featured the people I worked with as well as a “big name” or two. Hundreds of Black folks would come out, sanctified and ready to bring the funk in the name of Jesus, and I was always warmly welcomed. I also had a certain amount of street cred, since I brought a tape recorder and managed to get decent recordings that I would edit, copy, and give to performers for use as demos. These were righteous experiences and I am honored to have had them.

[Breaking MusicalSidebar: I am going to record a fourth solo accordion album. (Pause for dramatic effect.) “Loose Endz” will be an eclectic collection of 12 pieces that have been in the repertoire for years, decades even. My cunning plan is to record/mix sometime this fall at Casa della Musica, a picturesque B&B operated by our famiglia italiana in Vignone, near Lago Maggiore. Haven’t worked out the details concerning mastering, but I do have an album engineer, designer, and photographer lined up, and will be printing a smallish number of CDs in addition to making the recordings available online. For free. Obviously, this scheme is fully half-baked and confidence is high. I will… keep you posted.]



Wednesday, May 1, 2019

Reflections From Roma #15

Reflections From Roma #15
01 maggio 2019

Hello there… Rodger French here.

Even as an admittedly low-level Department of State employee, I consider it my patriotic duty to periodically alert unsuspecting readers to recent department news of a non-classified nature. It is, after all, our tax dollars paying for this and I think you have a right to know what gives with your diplomatic corps.

Therefore, behold: The newly designed, recently promulgated, and very unclassified DoS Ethos (in italicsboldface in the original), presented along with some low-level personal observations.

United States Department of State Professional Ethos 

- I am a champion of American diplomacy.

         [Champion? OK, I see where this may be interpreted as simply an extension of Secretary Mike Pompeo’s fixation with the concept of “getting our swagger back.” But, having been bombarded with fundamental Baptist teachings as a kid, I also understand that the word “champion” is commonly used to exhort the faithful; e.g., “Prayer Champion” or “Champion for Christ.”

It is worth remembering that Pompeo is a fundamentalist Christian zealot, one who believes devoutly in the Rapture, followed by the Second Coming of Christ. All of which, incidentally, is predicated upon (a) the destruction of the Al-Aqsa Mosque (only the third holiest site in Islam) and (b) the subsequent rebuilding of the Temple of Solomon in Jerusalem.

Therefore, question: Is it irresponsible to speculate that the Secretary might, on any level, conflate “champion of American diplomacy” with his belief in an apocalyptic cult nightmare? I submit that it would be irresponsible not to.]

- My colleagues and I proudly serve the United States and the American people at the Department of State, America’s first executive department.

         [That, we do.]

-We support and defend the Constitution of the United States.

         [This is the only damned thing we DoS employees are SWORN BY SACRED OATH to do, and I am more than a little disheartened to see it assigned third position in this or any “Ethos.”]

-We protect the American people and promote their interests and values around the world by leading our nation’s foreign policy.

         [A worthy goal, but undermined on a daily basis by the fact that our “nation’s foreign policy” is ultimately determined by a willfully ignorant man-child who obsessively seeks information and validation from a mendacious and deeply reactionary cable news channel.]

-As a member of this team, I serve with unfailing professionalism in both my demeanor and my actions, even in the face of adversity.

         [This, we also do. Go on…]

-I act with uncompromising personal and professional integrity. I take ownership of and responsibility for my actions and decisions.

         [Acting like a grownup is laudable in a diplomat. But don’t expect any actual leadership in this area from the Champion-in-Chief, who, while “leading our nation’s foreign policy,” dissembles the way infants poop.]

-And I show unstinting respect in word and deed for my colleagues and all who serve alongside me.

         [Unstinting? OK… although if someone wears a MAGA hat to work, all bets are off. To be fair, however, that sort of uncivilized behavior simply does not happen at State.]

- Together, we are the United States Department of State.

         [Big Finish: Cue inspirational patriotic music - possibly unlicensed - and… you’re welcome.]



Thursday, April 25, 2019

Reflections From Roma #14

Reflections From Roma #14
25 aprile 2019

Photo Update Alert:

Hello there… Rodger French here.

A.J. and I recently returned from a four-night stay in the Republic of Malta, a archipelago located80 kmsouth of Sicily, 284 km east of Tunisia, and 333 km north of Libya; that is to say, right smack in the middle of the Mediterranean. Over the course of roughly 8000 years, this geographically tiny place with excellent natural harbours has been inhabited or conquered bythe Phoenicians, Carthaginians, Romans, Greeks, Arabs, Normans, Aragonese, Knights of St. John, French, and British. Currently, the residents of Malta endure and profit from a constant infestation of behemoth cruise ships and their attendant ZOTA™. 

[Nomenclature Sidebar- The Republic of Malta consists in the main of three inhabited islands: Malta, Gozo, and Cosimo. “Malta” typically refers to the largest island of the same name.]

Littered with Catholic churches, megalithic temples, and impressive battlements, Malta is one of those places where History stops by from time to time, throws up all over the joint, and moves on. (E.g., Paul the Apostle - Christianity’s first and greatest PR man - was shipwrecked on “Melita” on his way to Rome, according to the Acts of the Apostles.) Maltese history is utterly, often brutally, engaging.

And in April, the weather is perfect: Sunny, breezy, and comfortably cool. We set up camp in a very nice small hotel in Valetta, the capital, and made use of the mostly reliable public transportation system. The local buses and ferries cost only €1.50/one way. Since the island is a mere27 km long and 14.5 km wide, you can get around pretty quickly. Among the highlights:

- The Malta Maritime Museum- Located in Birgu, across the Grand Harbour from Valetta. A veritable naval hodgepodge, it is enjoyable, though a bit dimly lit. (The memorial plaque dedicated to the Maltese who were among 1519 dead when the Germans sank three British vessels off the coast of Norway in 1940 proved unexpectedly emotional.)

- Marsaxlokk- A small, ancient fishing village in the SE part of the island, with a fine harbour, colorful fishing boats, and excellent seafood. Also, a large LNG terminal.

[Maltese Culinary Highlights Sidebar- Grilled cuttlefish, stewed rabbit, Maltese sausage/pork hamburgers, traditional (Good Friday) hot cross buns, figolli (marzipan-filled Easter pastry), Kinnie (bitter orange carbonated soft drink), dark chocolate “Maltese Falcons”]

- Mdina- A small, fortified city located in the Northern Region founded by the Phoenicians in the 8thcentury BC and the capital of Malta until 1530. St. Paul’s Cathedral (the Apostle left his mark) is a significant tourist attraction. It is Baroque, it is gilded, it is completely over the top. And I especially liked the marble floor. It was also packed with people praying in groups and priests hearing confessions on the go.

- St. John’s Co-Cathedral- Co-Cathedral, you ask? Here you go:

[Wikipedia Sidebar - “Over time, the St. John’s grew to equal prominence with the archbishop’s cathedral at Mdina. In the 1820s, the Bishop of Malta was allowed to use St John's as an alternative see and it thus formally became a Co-cathedral.”]

St. John’s, located in Valetta, is the major tourist hotspotin Malta. It is Baroque, it is gilded, it is completely over the top. And... I especially liked the marble floor. The place was swarming with visitors, but the crowd was pretty well behaved, notwithstanding the idiots who insisted on taking selfies with Caravaggio’s epic painting “The Beheading of Saint John the Baptist” in the background. Good Lord.

I should note that we arrived in Malta on the Wednesday before Easter and departed on Easter Sunday. Naturally, a fair amount of the tourism we experienced was religious in nature. Which I am emphatically not predisposed to, but “Yo, respect.” One should be cognizant of and open to the importance of ritual.

In fact, the high point of our trip came on Holy Thursday night, when, following the sound of a small brass band (complete with matching maroon blazers), we paraded through the narrow, vertiginous streets of Valetta, marching (well, schlepping) from one church to another, mingling with local parishioners and visiting pilgrims. E molti bambini. It was a good evening to be out and about and part of something ancient.

So, if you ever have the opportunity to visit Malta, I sincerely recommend it. Just one thing: In the name of the Saints John and Paul, please, no selfies.



Sunday, March 17, 2019

Reflections From Roma #13

Reflections From Roma #13
17 marzo 2019

Photo Update Alert:

Hello there… Rodger French here.

This is where I suppose I should offer up my apologies for not pulling together a posting in, what, two months? But the truth is that there simply hasn’t been that much to report. Roma may be “The Eternal City” and ground zero for the ZOTA™, but the fact is that day-to-day life here is just as day-to-day as anywhere else; albeit with beautiful art, churches, and ruins.

It also happens that we are exactly a year away from retiring from this peripatetic life and repairing to Fairhope, Alabama on the eastern shore of Mobile Bay (aka “the nice part of Alabama”), there to set up shop and then… do whatever the hell we want, I suppose. We will no doubt miss - and not miss - living in Roma, and I will be exploring the reasons why in a future posting. For now, let’s just say that the joint has lost significant romantic charm due to a relentless tide of heinous traffic and increasingly unreliable public services, notably trash collection.

We are, however, still planning Roman excursions as well as trips of various durations in order to make the most of our remaining time here. The destination list is long and hardly a day passes without someone suggesting yet another picturesque locale we simply must see. Which can be just frustrating as hell. And we still have lists from our African, Asian, and South American tours, so why should Europe be an exception. Sometimes you simply get what you get.

So, be advised that we’re doing just fine and getting on with it here. Those of you wondering about the infrequency of correspondence, well, grazie mille. Your concern is much appreciated. And if there’s anything of real interest to report, report it I shall. Meanwhile, be well, make sure your passport is current, and in case of emergency, don’t panic.



Thursday, January 10, 2019

Reflections From Roma #12

Reflections From Roma #12
10 gennaio 2019

Photo Update Alert:

Hello there… Rodger French here.

A cheery “Buon anno!” to you all, and I’d like to apologize (again) for being such a feckless correspondent. The truth is, my heart hasn’t been in it lately, for any number of reasons, most of them frankly lame. But rather than dwell on the past, let us do a little catching up.

Christmas in Vienna- A.J. cashed in some hotel “miles” and we joined the obligatory Christmas ZOTA™, staying seven nights in Vienna. As with our trip to Salzburg, we elected to book passage on the NightJet train instead of dealing with airports and, although there were some glitches on both ends of the journey, it was totally worth it, especially considering how much loot we stuffed into our suitcases. 

Vienna is a shopping kind of town and the Christmas markets were great fun. It is also positively lousy with music and we attended a couple of classical music concerts featuring excellent musicians performing in butt-freezing cold (but very scenic) churches. And the food was surprisingly good, assuming you’re in the mood for meat, starch, and pastries. We even managed to be treated discourteously by one of the famously rude waiters in one of Vienna’s famous (and, IMHO, overrated) cafés.

It was a lovely being in a city where there was excellent tap water, reliable public transportation, and not one scrap of litter, never mind overflowing trash dumpsters. Given an opportunity, I’d go back to explore further.

America Held Hostage: The Trump Shutdown- I will simply report that I am currently working. Anne is currently furloughed. And “stupid” is the most positive thing I’ve heard anyone at the Embassy say about the whole idiotic thing. 

Ricordando Nereo- A.J. and I typically walk together to the Embassy on weekday mornings, although we return at different times. Our route along Via Salaria takes us through a gap in one of the Aurelian Wallsbuilt between 271 and 275 AD, during the reign of the emperors Aurelian and Probus.

The sidewalk at that intersection was the site of a makeshift habitat for a homeless fellow and his dog. I never really interacted with him (although the dog barked at me once) and, apart from walking the pooch, he seemed to spend pretty much all his time reading. We saw them there almost every day for 14 months.

Today there is a memorial of flowers, candles, and messages in his place. His name was Nereo and he has passed away. But the wall abides, serving no real purpose except to stand a silent vigil for someone who lived, died, and is missed.