An American in a gondola

When I was young, before I was about 17, I used to visit Venice annually with my parents. We used to stay in a pensione called ‘La Calcina’. As breakfast and one meal were included in the room price, we used to take lunch in the dining room of La Calcina. Every year, we sat with other regular visitors, whom we got to know gradually. One of them was a somewhat silent American gentleman…

 

On the Canale Grande_500

 

The Calcina’s neighbour, the Pensione Il Seguso, was located on a corner where a narrow side canal met the wide Giudecca Canal. One morning, we were waiting outside the Calcina, trying to decide what to do. It was a bit later than usual, which is possibly the reason that we spotted something we had never seen before. A gondola with green upholstery and other identically coloured cloth drapes appeared from along the side canal and drew to a standstill at the corner near where we were standing. The gondolier was dressed in a livery the same colour as the upholstery and the drapes. After a short delay, the American, who used to sit silently with us at lunch, left the main entrance of the Calcina and boarded the gondola. The gondolier set his vessel in motion. His American passenger sat reading his newspaper whilst he was rowed across the Giudecca Canal. We watched them disappearing along a canal that passed through the Giudecca Island towards the wide open lagoon beyond the island. Naturally, our curiosity was aroused.

That lunch time, the American sat down in his usual place. My mother could no longer contain herself. She asked the American about what we had witnessed that morning. He explained that the gondolier was the grandson of his late mother’s personal gondolier. Whenever he visited Venice, he would hire this same grandson for the duration of his visit. Every morning, he was picked up just as we had observed, and was rowed out into the midst of the lagoon. When they arrived there, he and his gondolier exchanged roles. The American had mastered the art of rowing a gondola, and took his daily exercise by ‘gondoling’ around the lagoon for an hour or so.

The American introduced himself. My father, a knowledgable amateur historian of art, was most excited to discover that our American lunch time companion was William Milliken, a former Director of the Cleveland Museum of Art in Cleveland, Ohio, and a famous historian of mediaeval art.

Later Miss Steiner, a humourless late middle-aged Austrian who managed the Pensione Calcina, told us that Mr Milliken stayed at the Calcina every year during the month in which his mother had died. He stayed in the room that she used to occupy during her visits to the Calcina. Whilst he stayed there, Miss Steiner informed us, the room was always filled with his mother’s favourite flowers, and furnished with the very same furniture that she used to use whilst she was a guest at the pensione.

 

Mr Milliken died in 1978, at least ten years after I last met him. About twenty years later, I bought a second-hand copy of his book, “Unfamiliar Venice”. This wonderfully illustrated and almost poetically written book, which was published in 1967, describes the magic of Venice beautifully, but makes no mention at all of any of the things we learnt about our solitary American neighbour in the dining room of the Pensione Calcina.

 

 

Venice observed

 

Venice is a special place in many ways. This meeting place of oriental and occidental art is bathed in light of a special quality. Maybe this is due to the fact that there is so much water reflecting the daylight and thereby increasing its intensity. Maybe, it is something else, but whatever it is, part of the beauty of Venice is its lovely light.

Artists have long been attracted to portraying Venice. Canaletto portrayed the city almost photographically in his paintings.  Guardi captures the city brilliantly by using an almost impressionistic technique. Ruskin captured the beauty of the Venetian architecture scholarly yet attractively. Other artists such as Manet, Monet, Moran, and Turner have also portrayed some of the ‘essence’ of Venice’s attractiveness.

Yesterday, I visited an exhibition of new paintings inspired by Venice by the British contemporary artist Joe Tilson (born 1928). Each of his deceptively simple canvases capture several aspects of what makes Venice attractive for me. Architectural details, coloured patterning like tiles or brickwork, and moonlit skies  conspire to evoke the special light an appearance of Venice. His painting is both simple and subtle, and above all visually satisfying.

 

The exhibition is at Marlborough Fine Art, 6 Albermarle Street, London W1S 4BY until 18th May 2019

Paris

Wallace ladies_500

 

The recent tragic conflagration of the cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris and its resultant degradation of one of the world’s best-known buildings evoked a sensation that I had not experienced since 1976. In that year, there was a devastating earthquake in the Friuli area of north-east Italy. 

We had good friends living in that area. They had taken us to see many  unique masterpieces of Longobard art and architecture that existed in the area. When we first heard the news, we were extremely worried about the fate of our friends, who, luckily, all survived. We were also concerned about the works of art and architecture we had grown to love.  Fortunately, most of these were restored eventually.

Ten years before the earthquake in Friuli, there was a terrible flood in Florence in November 1966. About 100 people were killed, and many, many valuable works of art perished in the oil-filled flood waters. Our family was extremely upset because we used to visit the Tuscan city every year to see old friends and to enjoy its rich artistic heritage.

We did not visit Florence the following year because of the damage, but recommenced our annual visits in 1968. For years after the flood, the height of the flood water levels was visible on the walls of buildings where central heating oil from the city’s boilers and tanks had mixed with the water and made indelible stains.

The fire in Paris brought back feelings of horror and disbelief that i had experienced in 1966 and ten years later. 

The picture illustrating this blog piece is a reminder of another tragedy that hit Paris: The Siege of Paris (1871) and the Commune. During those difficult times, there were great water supply problems. The English philanthropist Richard Wallace (1818-1890) built a number of drinking fountains for the people of Paris. Each was decorated with the four sculpted ladies shown in my illustration.

Already, many people are offering to donate money to help restore Notre Dame to its former glory. Had he been alive, i am sure Richard wallace would have been a willing contributor.

Train to Florence

Settebello_power_car

 

Until I was about 17 years old, my parents used to take my sister and I for long trips to Florence and Venice every year. Often, we would fly from London to Milan, and then take a train to Florence. Frequently, our reserved seats were occupied by other passengers, who would only shift elsewhere when we had got the carriage’s conductor to intervene on our behalf.

Here is an extract from my reminiscences of childhood travel in Italy from my book “Charlie Chaplin waved to me“:

“Once we were seated in our reserved seats, we began to enjoy the 3 hour journey to Florence. Within minutes of entering our carriage or compartment, my mother would begin to strike up a conversation with whoever was sitting nearby. My mother and two of her three brothers, one of whom lived in London and the other in Cape Town, were always happy to initiate conversations with complete strangers. Her only sister and other brother were less inclined to do this. Mostly, our fellow passengers were Italian, but once I recall sharing a compartment with an elderly American lady who was considerably older than my parents. After a few minutes of friendly conversation, she revealed that her son was none other but the world-famous violinist Isaac Stern (1920-2001), who was born 3 months before my mother.

Occasionally we were lucky enough to travel on a Settebello train. These high speed streamlined electric trains, which plied between Milan and Rome and stopped briefly in Florence, were the pride of Italian State Railways. At each end of the train there was an observation saloon. The driver’s cabins were located above these. When travelling in the front observation cabin, one experienced a driver’s view of the track ahead. As a child who loved trains, sitting in these was a great treat for me. I still gain great enjoyment sitting at the front of trams and trains. One of the attractions of London’s Docklands Light Railway, which weaves its way through London’s former docklands and other reclaimed parts of the East End, is that there are seats at the front of the train where a driver would normally be seated had the train not been automated.

About an hour away from Florence after passing through Bologna, the train entered a long tunnel. Even the fastest trains took almost half an hour to travel through this. Soon after we emerged from it we sped through the town of Prato, and then the suburbs of Florence (Firenze in Italian) began. I knew that after we had passed the marshalling yards at Firenze Rifredi, we would soon be entering the huge terminal, Florence’s Stazione di Santa Maria Novella.

 

Charlie Chaplin waved to me is available from:

Amazon, bookfinder.com, lulu.com, and on Kindle

 

Picture: Front of a Settebello train showing the observation lounge and the driver’s cabin above it. Source: it.wikipedia.org

Love at first bite

pizza

 

Until I was  16 years old, I always went on holidays with my parents. Every year, we visited Florence and Venice in Italy. When I was 16, I decided that I would try touring on my own.  After spending some time with my folks in Florence, I set off alone on a tour of my own planning: Volterra, Grossetto, Orvieto,  and Cortona, hoping to visit some Etruscan remains on the way.

All went well except for one thing. In those days, I was extremely shy and unable to strike up a conversation with strangers. As the days passed, I travelled through Italy becoming increasingly lonely. I spoke to no one, and, unusually for Italy, nobody spoke to me. I would get very hungry, but often felt unable to step into any eatery. I would wander around feeling a bit hypoglycaemic yet unwilling to risk entering a restaurant or bar.

When I reached Orvieto, I stayed in a hotel that was close to a church whose bells struck throughout the night. One lunch time when I was wandering pathetically from one eating place to the next, I passed a place selling pieces of pizza. I was overcome by the delicious smell of freshly baked pizza. I bought a piece and loved it. This was the first time that I had ever eaten pizza. Being unadventurous in my food choices, such as I was as a teenager, but no more, I had always avoided pizza. However, when I tasted it in Orvieto, it was love at first bite.

I still enjoy eating pizza occasionally, but now I am not shy about entering the first place selling food as soon as I feel hungry.

Curious ‘cookies’

GARIBALDI

In 1860, Giuseppe Garibaldi commenced his famous invasion of Sicily. This led to the downfall of the House of Bourbon’s rule in Sicily and Naples and, ultimately, to the Unification of Italy.

Many people who live in the UK will be familiar with Garibaldi biscuits (‘cookies’ in US English). They consist of a paste made with currants sandwiched between two layers of thinnish baked biscuit dough. Because of their appearance, they are sometimes called ‘squashed flies’.  Garibaldi biscuits were first made in 1861 by the Peek Frean Company in London and have been popular ever since. Garibaldi, who visited England in 1854, became very popular amongst the British at that time.

garib bisc

Garibaldi biscuits (from Wikipedia)

In 1910, the Peek Frean Company designed a biscuit that consists of a chocalate flavoured paste placed between two rectangular chocolate flavoured biscuits. This now very popular biscuit was named the ‘Bourbon Biscuit’.

I wonder how many of the millions of Garibaldis and Bourbons are eaten by people, who know the historical significance of their names.

Espresso in Ealing

Until a couple of years ago, I considered that the very best coffee served in London could only be found in a few coffee bars, all of which were Italian (e.g. Bar Italia, Lina Stores, and The Algerian Coffee House in Soho; the Portobello Garden Café in Portobello Road), Portuguese (e.g. Lisboa Café in Golborne Road and Madeira Star in Lambeth), or Spanish (e.g. Brindisa near Borough Market). I still consider all of these as good choices for excellent coffee, but need to add another to my list.

A Polish born receptionist working at the dental practice where I used to practise dentistry, suggested that a restaurant in Ealing called ‘Sowa’ (means ‘owl’ in Polish) served good Polish food. We visited this place, but were not impressed by the food. Much better Polish food can be obtained at Café Maja in POSK, the Polish Centre in King Street, Hammersmith.

The well-appointed restaurant at Sowa adjoins a café, which is part of the same establishment. Unlike the restaurant that fails to shine, the café is magnificent. The coffee served here in all forms (espresso, cappuccino, latte, etc.) is at least as good as that we have drunk in the best of the Italian, Portuguese, and Spanish coffee houses in London. Having visited Sowa too many times to remember, I can safely say that the high quality of its coffee never wavers. 

Sowa’s café also offers a mouth-watering range of highly tempting pastries and cakes. It seems in general that the Polish have a magical touch when it comes to making these delightful accompaniments to coffee.

So, if you are in Ealing, ignore every other café, and head for Sowa.

PS: Next door to Sowa, there is a lovely Polish delicatessen that offers a wide range of salamis, hams, and other cooked meats, as well as other Polish food items.

Sowa: 33 High St, London W5 5DB

NB: I have no interest financial or otherwise in Sowa. I am simply a content customer!

 

Over the counter

The French philosopher Voltaire is believed to have written:

Doctors are men who prescribe medicines of which they know little, to cure diseases of which they know less, for human beings of which they know nothing.”

I was at a party in Athens, Greece, in the early 1980s when I suddenly became aware of bilateral back pain and nausea. Luckily, there was a medical doctor amongst the guests. He diagnosed a kidney or bladder infection and wrote a prescription for bactrim. The tablets were very effective and rapid acting.

A year or so later, I was flying to Greece via Rome in Italy when I experienced a recurrence of the symptoms. As I had quite a long stopover in Rome, I took the opportunity to visit a pharmacy, but this time without a prescription. To my great surprise and relief, the pharmacist sold me some bactrim without requiring a prescription.

In the UK, it is not possible to obtain antibiotics and most other medications without a prescription. There are also rules determining how much non prescription medication can be bought at any one time.

In India, which I visit often, I have never been asked for a prescription to obtain any kind of medication. One just asks for the medicine or tablets required, and then following payment they are handed over the counter. Quite a few of the medications I have needed in India have been clearly marked as prescription only medicines, but these words are ignored by the pharmacy salespeople.

Having been trained as a dentist I have some knowledge of pharmacology. So, I feel that I am unlikely to abuse the ease of obtaining medicines in India, but I worry about others with less knowledge than me.

The freedom of being able to obtain medications without having to first get a prescription has mixed blessings. On the one hand, if you are certain that you need a particular drug or simply need a repeat of what you have been taking, not needing a prescription can save you time and money that visiting a doctor entails. On the other hand, self diagnosis and self treatment is not without risk.

What Voltaire wrote many years ago is less true today than it was then. But, still, even after so many advances have been made in medical science , a great deal of ignorance about the human body remains.

Marine Ices

Whenever I am in a restaurant and presented with the dessert menu, I often order ice-cream, especially if there are fruit sorbets available. Ever since I can remember I have loved ice-cream, and I continue to do so. Let me tell you about three places where I have enjoyed eating this chilled delicacy. Two are in Italy and one is in London.

Marine 2

During my childhood, we visited Florence (in Italy) every year except 1967, the year the after city was badly damaged by a terrible flood in November 1966. Annually, my late mother used to visit a brassiere maker called Busti Biondi. The owner of this shop was unable to speak English, and my parents were not sufficiently confident of their Italian to communicate with him effectively. Near the shop in the same street, there was a textile merchant called Giorgio, who spoke good English having learnt it from British soldiers during WW2. He helped interpret during the often-lengthy proceedings at Busti Biondi. He also introduced us to one of the best ice-cream shops I have ever visited. This shop or ‘gelateria’ was called ‘Perché No’, which means ‘why not?’ I have not visited Florence since the late 1960s. The gelateria, Perché No, in Via Dei Tavolini still functions, selling ice creams as it has been doing when it opened in 1939.

Bar Cucciolo was a gelateria that stood next to the Pensione La Calcina on the Zattere waterfront (Fondamente del Zattere) of Venice’s Dorsoduro island. It was at the Calcina that our family stayed. Many years before we patronised the place, the Victorian artist and writer John Ruskin stayed there (in 1877). Although the accommodation and food at the Calcina was not great, my parents chose to satay there because it overlooked the wide Giudecca Canal and the lovely waterfront of the Giudecca Island across it.

The Cucciolo made and sold ice creams and sorbets at least as good as those that we enjoyed in Florence at Perché No? Their banana flavoured ices were my favourite. I particularly enjoyed having a cone that contained a scoop of banana and one of lemon sorbet. Writing these words makes my mouth water.

The Cucciolo was run by two men and was always very busy on summer afternoons when the sun shone brightly on the south-west facing Fondamente del Zattere. On one such afternoon we were sitting on the Calcina’s deck that projected over the water when we heard a woman beginning to scream. Her small child had fallen into the canal. Quick as a flash the plumper of the two fellows who ran the Cucciolo dived into the canal fully clothed, and then rescued the small boy. His parents hurried away with their child, barely thanking their soaking rescuer. On the next day when we were buying ice creams, he told us that his watch had been wrecked when he jumped into the canal. Also, the victim’s parents, who were not Italian, had not been in the slightest concerned that he had risked his life, limbs, and clothes, for their child whom they had not been watching carefully enough. My mother was most upset on his behalf. Sadly, the Cucciolo closed many years ago. It had already disappeared when we last visited Venice in 2007.

Marine 1

Very recently, I visited Chalk Farm. There opposite the Underground Station, to my horror, I saw a building site where once Marine Ices used to stand. In the 1960s, when I was a child this was one of the only places in London, where good quality ice-creams and sorbets were on sale. One could sit down in the parlour and eat them, or you could take them home in boxes. As I savoured their ices, I could imagine I was back in Italy either at Perché No or the Cucciolo.  

According to its website, Marine Ices was established in London in 1931. When I returned from my trip to Chalk Farm, I looked on the internet to find out what had happened to Marine Ices, and I discovered that it still exists but at a new address, which is closer to Camden Market.

Today, London is littered with great gelateria’s serving ice cream as good as I remember eating when I was a child. There are already three high quality gelaterias where I live and a fourth (a branch of a firm from Florence) is opening soon.