The stories of my life on a little island in the middle of the Mediterranean sea ... and my occasional adventures beyond these shores.

Tuesday, 27 November 2012

A Thing Of Beauty …

Some days the most random of things can set my thoughts churning; the most mundane of tasks opens up vistas that I had only previously imagined. I have been home these past two days, nursing a throbbing migraine. I could not do much except think; and, now that I am feeling better, to put those thoughts out there.
Valletta on a Sunday (75)
It is the end of November and still warm enough for hibiscus plants to bloom. As I sat and edited one particular photo of a dark pink hibiscus flower, I was struck by so  many emotions. Each different edit brought out the different layers of a flower, the subtleties in colour, the tiny flecks of pollen, the veins.
Valletta on a Sunday (75)-003
I was captivated; as enchanted as a child. Here before me was a wonder of creation. I sometimes get tired of scientists explaining things away and trying to find a reason for everything.
Valletta on a Sunday (75)-002
Technology is great but faced with the sheer grandiosity of creation it just pales into (dare I say it?) insignificance. Nothing that the human mind can ever envisage will ever surpass the simple beauty of the little things around us that we so take for granted.
Valletta on a Sunday (75)-004
On contemplating a Grecian urn, John Keats had written that “a thing of beauty is a joy forever.” The beauty of a flower is transient, it quickly fades away, but just by taking these few minutes to stop and think about it, has left me with an unmistakable  joy and peace that were previously lacking.
Valletta on a Sunday (75)-001
Hibiscus Flower at the Inner Courtyard, Grand Master’s Palace, Valletta, November 2012
Edited in Picasa (except for the first photo)

Wednesday, 21 November 2012

Wednesday Wanderings: The Barbican, The Hoe and Downtown Plymouth

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There’s more to Plymouth than the Pilgrim Steps. The city has a long history which you can read about here. Its most glorious moment was probably the defeat of the Spanish Armada in 1588 by Sir Francis Drake. The entrance to the city’s harbour is guarded by a  fortified citadel on The Hoe (or high ground).
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Cornwall 538Also on The Hoe is Smeaton’s Tower – a lighthouse that was dismantled and later rebuilt in its current location. It is open to the public and is worth a visit – if only for the unique experience of being inside a lighthouse. Another attraction on The Hoe is the Plymouth Eye, a 60 metre Ferris Wheel that offers a different perspective of the city.
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Cornwall 565
Lunch at Dutton’s, overlooking Plymouth Sound, is highly recommended; followed by a walk through Plymouth’s historical Barbican area.
We had a wonderful tour guide with us. My dad lived in Plymouth for about seven years and he walked us through the cobbled, winding streets of this old corner of the city. Interspersed among the many art galleries, vintage boutiques and novelty gift shops, are major attractions like the Elizabethan House and the Plymouth Gin Distillery.
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Before we left, the gutted remains of St John’s Cathedral served as a poignant reminder of the thousands that were killed during the last world war.
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Location: The Hoe & The Barbican, Plymouth, Devon, UK
July 2012

Tuesday, 13 November 2012

Endless Summer

I forget, sometimes, how close to the desert we really are. And not just any desert, but the scorching, infinite sands of the Sahara. So when summer lingers on and on, like it has been doing this year, it should not really come as a surprise to me. But, inevitably, it does; (because the expanse of sea between here and the African continent makes me forget where we’re really located).
Image via Sharkmans World
You see, I am a boots and sweater kind of girl and this year, I have had to leave my beloved boots and fluffy sweaters in the closet. I suppose that, as has happened in the past, prayers will soon be offered in churches for the heavens to pour some rain on us. In the meantime, I am looking on the sunny (literally) side of this and enjoying some leisurely strolls.
Valletta on a Sunday (16)
This past weekend Valletta beckoned. I wandered into some areas that I had never been in before. Yes, in a city that is about 1.5 miles long by maybe half a mile wide, I still have much to explore. I will concede one thing though – the light of the sun is special at this time of year. There is a golden glow about it that brings out the honey colour in all the old buildings. And whereas once I used to shy away from anything that was rusty or crumbling, I have now learnt that these things too have a story to tell.
Valletta on a Sunday (5)
In Valletta, there is no escaping the patina of age (except for our new parliament building - but that a story from some other time). It is just there and begs to be noticed and loved for what it is. In Valletta you sometimes come across the totally unexpected in the most unlikely places. And that is what every city needs – a dose of quirky around a forgotten corner – like these figures created from recycled materials. I cam across these unusual, colourful and fun exhibits in Strait Street (Valletta’s former Red Light District) and they really brightened up this decaying sector of the city.
Valletta on a Sunday (27)
But even in such charming surroundings, bellies still start to rumble. We ate at a restaurant with the unlikely name of Badass  Café. I would say that  they make the best burgers in Malta. They even got my American husband’s seal of approval. So if they are up to US standards, they are definitely delicious; and let me not start about the fries. We all gave them a big thumbs up. Enough about food though …
Valletta on a Sunday (56)
We have recently been trying to teach the Mischief  Maker a little bit about the long history of these islands. I was in panic mode at first. Where to start when the story goes back at least 6000 years? So we decided not to start anywhere in particular (how typical of me) and just teach him about the place we happen to be in. And what better place to start than Valletta? So we strolled across St George’s Square to the Grand Master’s Palace. A short explanation about this building and off he went, our Mischief Maker, – flitting about like a pesky mosquito.
Valletta on a Sunday (17)
Valletta on a Sunday (18)
This building may have been built and embellished by the Grand Masters of the Order of St John but subsequent rulers left their own mark. And that is what I like best about history, that it is made up of many layers, one on top of the other, and you can only get to the heart of the story by peeling back each layer and discovering what lies beneath.
Valletta on a Sunday (84)
Location: Valletta, November 2012

Friday, 9 November 2012

False Start Fridays: A House By The Sea

There is a house by the sea – an empty house; a derelict hose. Its windows are shuttered and its front door is barred. The tall iron gate is rusted and chained. Ivy and bougainvillea have hidden most of the walls. The gardens are a tangle of vines and brambles; the flowerbeds overgrown with weeds; the fountain silent and dry.
But it was not always so. Once upon a time, children ran down the stairs and frolicked in the gardens; an old lady dozed in her armchair and remembered her youth and a young girl lay awake on her bed and dreamt of her future. Nobody in the near-by village could remember who had lived there or why the house had been vacant for so long; but the very old people spoke of one long, hot summer, many years ago, when some tragedy had struck the family that lived there and the father had locked up the house and forbade any of the family to ever return there. Some say there had been a death in the family. Others say that a severe blow had been dealt to the family pride – but no one can say for sure. The true events have become mysterious through the passage of time. But if the derelict house could speak, it would have an interesting tale to tell …
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Nina ran down the wide staircase and hurtled into the waiting carriage where her grandmother was waiting. The older woman smiled indulgently.
“Good morning Grandmama,” said Nina.
“Good morning child. Sit by me and read me some poetry.”
Obediently, Nina picked up the worn book and started to recite Byron in a listless voice. Her grandmother watched her through half-closed eyelids, the familiar words falling between them like the soft petals of almond blossoms. The annual journey to the family’s summer house was always a cause for excitement. But this year, she felt that her granddaughter’s restless more than excited. Nina reminded her so much of herself at that age; which was, perhaps, not altogether a good thing. Marianna Barbaro Pizzani closed her eyes and tried to concentrate on Byron, while reminiscing about a long lost summer.
“Is something troubling you Nina?” she suddenly asked her granddaughter.
“No,” Nina replied as she closed the book and started to finger the ringlets of her long black hair. There was a certain nervousness about her motions that did not go unnoticed but Marianna decided that it would be wise not to pry too deeper.
“It is so hot this year. June has barely started and we are already in the throes of a heat wave. The sea breezes will feel most welcome,” she said.
“Truly Nana,” Nina replied. “I can’t wait to get there …and I can’t wait for Roberto to come back from Rome.” A hint of a smile touched the girl’s lips.
Marianna knew how close Nina was to her twin brother. She had noticed subtle changes in the girl ever since he had left the island to go and study in Rome.
“I heard that this year he is bringing a young friend of his with him.”
“Yes,” Nina agreed.
“Your father told me he comes from a very good Roman family,” Marianna continued determined to probe a little bit deeper.
Nina sighed. “Yes, but is that all that matters?” she asked angrily. “I will have none of it. Help me Nana, please.”
A strained silence seemed to fall between them, broken only by the clip-clop sound of the horses hooves. Then, defiantly, Nina continued, “I will not marry if it’s not for love. No matter what anyone in the family may say. And if you force me, you’ll be sorry.”
With that, Nina turned her back and stuck her head out of the carriage window. The breeze was barely cool and beads of perspiration formed on her upper lick. The countryside was already parched and the few wild flowers that still survived in pockets of shade were fast giving up their struggle. Nina looked at them and a pang of uncertainty clutched at her heart. Would she give up, in the end, like the weeds? It was one thing to talk so openly to her grandmother. But her father would be a totally different story. She pictured his stern face, his well-groomed moustache and his serious eyes - and her heart sank. She turned away from the window and in a low, almost plaintive voice, asked her grandmother, “You will help me Nana, won’t you? You won’t let them make me do something that will break my heart. Please say you won’t.”
Marianna clutched the heavy silver crucifix that hung around her neck, as if willing it to help her say the right words. But what words could she utter? Whatever she chose to say at this moment would only tighten the noose around her neck. Her past had never lain as heavily on her as it did right now. She knew Nina looked to her for direction – her father was too aloof and her mother was too busy with the four younger children and a household to run. Marianna had always been Nina’s rock. But now, when her protégé needed her most, it seemed likely that she would let her down.
Help me, Lord, she prayed silently, help me help this child.
But as the carriage rolled on to its destination, she had a sinking feeling that this year, more than any other year, her past would come to haunt her even more than it did every summer. With an effort, she smiled at Nina and said, in as steady a voice as she could, “Let’s cross each river when we come to it shall we? Let’s just enjoy our time together as we always have.”
Nina seemed content with that. She took her grandmother’s hand in hers and turned her face to the approaching vista of the sea.
Initially, my plan was to turn this first draft into a short novel but I stopped at the end of the first chapter because I was not sure exactly which route to take and because I felt that the story was not that interesting. So, notwithstanding the fact that this is very much an abandoned work in progress, I decided to accept Sue’s challenge and post an unfinished piece of writing in False Start Fridays. It’s not easy to do so, but sometimes you just have to stick your neck out a bit and hope for the best.

Monday, 5 November 2012

The Ten-Year-Old Me

Once upon a time there was a little girl. A ten year old girl. And she had many dreams. But she did not dream big. She loved history and writing fairy-tales with a happy ending. By ten, she had seen a little bit of the world - London and a few other English cities; Catania and her beloved Rome. Enough places to make her realize that there was much more to the world than the little island in the Mediterranean that she lived on. She enjoyed reading, amongst many others, mystery stories by Enid Blyton; the legends of King Arthur and ‘Little Women’ from an old book that her mother had used at school. When she wasn’t devouring books she spent her free time riding her bike and playing with dolls. Her favourite colour was red, with turquoise as second best. She was shy, except with her best friends, and her favourite soft toy was a monkey named Gibbons.
Books (2)
In 1981, when she was 10, the world was in the icy grip of a Cold War, there were two countries named Germany and an impenetrable curtain divided Europe in two. A president and a pope were shot that year, the first space shuttle was launched and the wedding of the century took place in London. Kim Carnes topped the Billboard charts with Bette Davis Eyes and somewhere in the wings, pimply teenaged boys were busy tuning their electric guitars and practicing the riffs that would soon define the music of a whole generation.
At ten she was still young enough to dream of a handsome prince and to believe that adults knew what they were doing and that they would make the world a better place. She made no plans for herself and was not even too sure that she wanted to grow up.
But she did. That ten year old girl was me. I sometimes wonder where that ten year old girl has gone. Whether she would recognize herself if we met face to face. So many things have changed. But her favourite colour is still red; a battered monkey named Gibbons still survives (although in a memory box, tucked under the bed) and she still likes to write fairy tales – except that now,  life has taught her that they don’t always have happy endings. Oh … and she’s still not sure whether she wants to grow up.
My thanks go to Jeanne at Collage of Life who was the inspiration behind this post.
Finally, this coming Friday (or on one of the Fridays thereafter) I hope to participate in False Start Fridays. False Start Fridays, which is Suze’s initiative, will serve as a platform where writers can post snippets that got off to a false start. I’ll see whether I will be brave enough to publish one of mine. Anyone wishing to participate can head over to Subliminal Coffee for the rules.

Thursday, 1 November 2012

Feast Of All Souls

I concur with Heather, Halloween is definitely not our holiday either. We had one group of 5 or 6 kids who came to our door. And that was it for the rest of the evening. We took the Mischief Maker to trick or treat at relatives’ houses. I thought we would see some activity in the streets. But except for a witch and her companion (not sure what he/she was dressed up as, but it looked like Cousin Itt from The Addams Family) the streets were empty. Maybe it was due to the rain. But I honestly think that Halloween is too foreign a notion for this island. It will come with time, I am sure, as everything else does, but it has no roots here, no deep-seated tradition.
St Agatha & Hal-Bajjada (22)
Today is the feast of All Saints; tomorrow, the feast of All Souls. Unlike witches on broomsticks and grinning Jack o’ Lanterns, saints and souls are, very much, a part of our culture. Saints are honoured here. Valletta 152
Every village has its patron saint and the festas in their honour are annual events that are still eagerly awaited by many - and celebrated with much pomp and circumstance. Coupled with this is a morbid fascination with souls and with death in general which seems to form an inseparable part of our southern Mediterranean psyche. The reminders are constant and can be found in the most unlikely of places. Valletta 113
November is, unofficially , the month dedicated to the dead. Flower sellers sit patiently outside cemeteries, in the midst of a colourful display of fat chrysanthemum blooms. Mums – the flowers which in the US are so closely associated with the harvest - are used here to adorn the graves of the dead. Not surprisingly, they are known as the flowers of the dead. Some consider them to be unlucky. Medieval Mdina (57)
I try to remain rational, to stand aloof from superstition, but November has a sad aura associated with it that even I cannot escape from. Perhaps it’s because at this time of year the Earth itself is plunging into darkness. The parallels are  obvious. It should be just another month of the year but tradition and culture have decided otherwise. Deep-seated beliefs die hard, even for those standing on the outside and just looking in.Medieval Mdina (62)
If you are still in the mood for something grisly, National Geographic’s photo tour of Crypts & Catacombs will give you your fill of the weird.
P.S. I promise that next time I will write about something more cheerful.


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