Saturday, December 26, 2009

Rainy Christmas in Kenya (I)

The weather in Kenya is reputed to be stable all year, and in Nairobi in particular (because of its elevation), the days are pleasant and nights are cool – perfect for sleeping.


This December is different, and all of us seem to be a little surprised at the great variation in the weather during the Christmas season. While it’s not quite like London (“if you don’t like the weather wait thirty minutes!”), this time of year has not kept to expected patterns. Indeed since the “short rains” – usually expected to last through December – departed early in 2008, with people talking about how dry and brown everything was by Christmas, for some reason we sort of expected the same for 2009.

No way.

This year, the short rains are still with us and while most of the rain is during the night and the days are pleasant and dry, as Christmas approached we were inundated with what I can only characterize as “extreme” thunderstorms, almost every afternoon and lasting a good couple of hours.

So what to do about the holiday? Shall we stay home? Shall we have an excursion?

We opted for the latter, with our own conventional wisdom being that, with so much rain over the past few days, it was bound to let up and be pretty on Christmas Day. Likewise, being Christmas Day, there wouldn’t be any serious traffic to speak of (driving is very difficult in Kenya, and traffic can stall and not move for hours at a time). Perhaps it would be a good day to get away.

You can see it coming, can’t you?

We were wrong. Wrong. Wrong.

Perhaps it should be stated this way: we were WRONG!!!

So with my friends Dorothy and Marcin Chlystun, we made our plans to drive to the Central Highlands. My driver was prompt – exactly on time – and we were able to get an early morning start. Our idea (and we carried it all through with just a few – shall we say? – challenges from time to time) was to be out of Nairobi in about 30 minutes or so, to head on up the highway toward Nanyuki, about a hundred miles or so to the North. We would come into Mount Kenya territory, have Christmas lunch at a special restaurant in the trees, see some wildlife, and have a leisurely day just driving around looking at the beautiful scenery.

And the scenery was beautiful, and while the skies were not exactly clear, we didn’t have any rain for a long time, and once we got out of the city we were able to view beautiful countryside.

As for getting out of the city. Here’s where our first assumption fell apart. No, there was not to be less traffic. In fact, there was plenty more than usual, and along the “new” highway – being constructed with Chinese investments and Chinese engineers leading local workers – construction was going on as usual, with the usual hindrances connected with road construction everywhere. We had long traffic jams, major stalls, accidents, and despite being Christmas Day, there were pedestrians all over the place, either walking to where they wanted to go (the usual custom in Kenya) or awaiting the private matatus – the private vans that most people use to get about in. Indeed, some assert that the matatus are more a part of the culture than a means of transportation, but however you think about them, they are wild vehicles, careering all over the place and almost as scary to watch as to ride in (which I’ve never done and don’t expect to do).

Finally though, we got beyond the Nairobi suburbs, and once we were past Thika things picked up. We drove through the lush pineapple country, past the many coffee and tea plantations (now most major agribusiness corporations), and further into the lush fertile farmland that supports most of Kenya’s agriculture. All the roadside stands made it clear that the produce from the smaller farms is readily available to take back to the city, and we promised ourselves that we could stop on our return.

As for the countryside, the topography changed considerably as we travelled. Off in the distance, the Aberdare range of mountains was lovely to see, and I was strangely intrigued to find myself thinking I would like to go there one day.

Rainy Christmas in Kenya (II)

As we approached the Mount Kenya area, we could see just how spectacular this beautiful mountain is. It is the second highest in Africa and topped with snow all year (but sadly - on our rainy Christmas Day - it was shrouded in cloud). While driving through this countryside, I was reminded of where I grew up out in Southwestern Virginia, in the so-called Blue Ridge Mountains and among what we called the “rolling hills” of that part of America. The landscape was very beautiful, and while I won’t admit to a slight case of nostalgia or homesickness, I was pleased to see that with all the rain this lovely part of Africa – so dry and brown last year – was gorgeously green. Everything looked healthy and strong, except for the few small rivers we crossed, which looked very brown and muddy to me.

Rainy Christmas in Kenya (III)

Christmas lunch was at what used to be called, when run by a couple of Americans, Trout Farm. It is indeed a business where farm trout is raised, apparently very successfully. Now under new Canadian ownership, the name has been changed to Trout Tree, to focus on the "treetop"-type restaurant. Built in the trees (although not quite of the level of splendor of the famous Treetops Lodge where Elizabeth II received the news of her ascension to the throne in 1952), Trout Tree is a lovely place to have a meal, and Dorothy and Marcin and I had a lovely, leisurely time together, so leisurely in fact that Marcin and I were able to have one of our famous long discussions, as you can see from the bottom photo here


Rainy Christmas in Kenya (IV)

Of course the Trout Tree has its own cat (shown here), and why not? It's a fish restaurant, after all. And while there is wildlife in the trees, we did not see the monkeys we were asked not to feed (that's right: the sign says "Please do not feed the monkeys." We did though, since Kenya is so famous for its many species of birds, have an impressive visitor (see the middle photo) while we were having our lunch. [Enlarge the photos to have a better look.]

Rainy Christmas in Kenya (V)

In fact, it was not until the rains came that we realized it was time to
leave, stopping with the pouring rain behind us for one last Trout Tree
close-up (and, yes, my safari hat has its own silly motto: this one says
"Hakuna matata," Swahili for "Everything's OK - no problem" - an appropriate
tagline for me these days).

Off we went, heading in the general direction of Nanyuki so Mr. Guy would be
photographed at the equator. After all, if I'm living in Equatorial Africa,
shouldn't I have the proof? Fortunately, with this particular roadway not on
the water, I did not have to experience the usual sailor's initiation into
exploration manhood by being thrown into the water!

Rainy Christmas in Kenya (VI)

Our Christmas Day excursion continued - with the rain kindly stopping once we were a few kilometers away from the restaurant - and we drove into the Mount Kenya Wildlife Conservancy. There, with the majestic mountain in the background, we were able to observe several species of wildlife, including my first zebra on this trip. Very special for us today, we were also able to see one of the surviving captive-born mountain bongos (he's the big guy on the left in the photo). The bongo is an endangered and beautifully marked
antelope and, as you can see, they are bulkier than the lowland West African antelope.

Sadly turning our way back to the Nairobi - now some 147 km (about 87 miles) away - we made it to one of the largest communities along the highway and one that, as it happens, has one of the largest roadside markets. We stopped and thanks to Dorothy's bargaining skills (I'm still a little too Westernized to take up any serious bargaining beyond the purchase of the simplest tourist souvenir), we were able to load up the car with local produce (at unbelievably cheap prices!). We'll all be eating healthy meals for the rest of the holiday season.

And no sooner had we left the market....

Oh, dear. Now we had our second assumption shot down.

Big time.

The rains came, this time with a vengeance. I won't go into all the details, and there is no need to write about how long the journey took, how hard the drive was, or even about the multiplicity of police checks, as we found cars (ours included) being stopped left and right all the way into Nairobi. We figured there must have been some sort of tip off (even for my driver and my friends who live in Kenya, this level of police activity is unusual) and in all this heavy rain, it was a strangely demanding trip home.

The best thing I can say about our long return home is to pay high tribute to my driver, Charles Mesese. He was terrific, and in all that heavy rain and with all the situations we found ourselves in, he was our rock. I'm not going out again without Charles!

Llamas? In Kenya?

The llamas at the Mount Kenya Wildlife Conservancy. Perhaps a little far from home, don’t you think?
But perhaps not as far from home as the llamas of Canberra.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Music to My Ears

Mr. Guy’s Introduction to Kenya’s Gospel Music

Here’s what happens when a fellow casually mentions that he likes music, that music is (sort of) the driving force of his life, and that he is specially taken to learn that music is a key element in the religious life of Kenya.

OK. So I didn’t happen to mention the most of my musical focus is classical, and especially opera. And I didn’t happen to mention that in New York I don’t particularly listen to the religious radio stations, or the ones that emphasize gospel singing. I knew gospel singing was big in Kenya, simply because all the guide books write about how important religion is to the Kenyan, and about how in the Christian churches (the more fundamental, that is, not the Roman Catholic or the Anglican Churches) gospel singing is an important part of the religious liturgy.

Indeed, gospel music has become so popular since the mid-1990s that there are now large choirs, competitions, and all sorts of variations on a theme, with many of the choirs using African rhythms and melodies and weaving in European and other Western influences into their gospel singing. So it had crossed my mind that it might be good to hear some gospel music.

It is also, I was given to understand, a major attraction for visitors, which for this New Yorker shouldn’t be a surprise. After all, every Sunday morning tour buses take crowds of tourists – mostly Western Europeans, Australians, and Japanese – to Harlem to attend services and enjoy the spectacle. Why shouldn’t visitors to Nairobi do the same?

So I casually mentioned to some friends that I would like to hear some religious music (not sure I actually used the word “gospel”) and the next thing you know it’s Sunday, 10.00 am, and brought by friends, I’m joining slightly more than 1,000 worshipers at the Nairobi Pentecostal Church – Valley Road for the second service of the day. 

Yes, the services are so popular that three must be held every Sunday, and I can see why. My friends have got us to church just in time, and as luck would have it we are able to slide into super seats in the pews just to the side and with perfect sightlines (as we would say at the opera house) of the altar, the pulpit, and several people standing about on a huge sort of stage as the band tunes up. No choir robes – not this particular choir, although many other churches are famous for the beauty and variety of their robes – and not a lot of what you might call musical preparation, but it is obvious that these singers are getting themselves ready. Out in the congregation the enthusiasm and anticipation are almost palpable, and just after the lead guitarist strikes a chord and says a few words of welcome, we’re off.

Everyone is on their feet, the beat is strong (very strong!), and I hear – and sing – “Joy to the World” like it’s never been heard or sung before. The words are flashed on a huge screen that’s come done above the altar, the singers (I find out later the choir has a name, “The Silver Voices” and it's a perfect name for them) – each with a handheld mike – are moving all over the place, and before we get to the first “And heaven and nature sing” the place is jumping. And so are we.

And it doesn’t stop. The lead singer – a striking woman in a gorgeous floor-length African dress – is all over the place, and with a voice that would put some of the Met’s stars to shame, she comes in with a different obbligato each time we thousand voices sing one of the stanzas. We're all singing in unison (OK - I try a little harmony on my own once in a while), and it makes a perfect line for her to sing above. Wow!

Of course I find I’m now moving a little, too, and clapping my hands along with the others (but don’t worry, I didn’t end up dancing in the aisles like some of the worshippers). And it just keeps going. We segue from one hymn to another – not all of them carols – and every once in a while a beautiful hymn in Swahili comes up. For all the hymns, the words can be read either from the hymnbook or from high on the projected screen. The format is almost always the same, with the melody sung through by the choir (and all the people who know it already – which seems to be everybody in the church but Mr. Guy!), and then we sing it over and over, sometimes to different lyrics, sometimes going back to some we’ve sung before. The lead singers change about, and with each one I am just amazed (which I realize as I write this is a very condescending thing to say, and I apologize) at the beauty of these voices. And their ability to be heard out over the band and the thousand or more people singing in the congregation is equally amazing.

[By this time incidentally, the church is overflowing, extra chairs have been put out, the “overflow hall” is so full it’s closed, and people are being turned away, invited to wait outside for the next service, coming up at 12.30 pm.]

The music goes on for a full 45 minutes, never stopping, just moving from one hymn to another, and of course I’m the only person in the place wiping my face with my handkerchief, because I’m boiling hot, working off so much energy. But the congregation – cool as a cucumber and dressed to the nines every one (especially the women) – are singing and swaying and jumping and making the most beautiful, joyful noise to the Lord I’ve ever heard.

What an experience!

Not over yet, though. Before the sermon, we have the dedication of the babies, and what a dear, sweet little ceremony this is, some twenty or so newborns brought to the altar by their parents and presented to the pastors and the elders of the church, prayed over, and dedicated to a life for Christ. Very moving and very touching.

Then it was time to welcome all the first-timers.

Oh, dear.

I looked at my colleagues and they all looked back, shaking their heads “yes.” There was no way to get out of it – I was expected to stand up and be recognized. I began to aver but then got over it. After all, in this congregation I could hardly be more conspicuous, could I?

So I did. I stood up, received the warm applause of the congregation (well, I wasn’t the only first-timer – there were a couple others but I fear I was the most noticeable!), and sat back down, relieved that that little ceremony was over. It didn’t hurt a bit and in fact, I suppose, it was one of the reason so many hands were offered for me to shake as we left at the end of the service.

As for the end of the service, well, I guess it was just what you would expect. We had a terrific, lively (well, more like exciting really), and altogether winning sermon, all about how we take our Christian values into the workplace. Examples ranged from the most professional to the most humble, and I have to admit that much that was said was of no small interest to me as I contemplate the variations on KM/knowledge services that I must deal with in my work, incorporating all levels and strata of workers. It was without doubt a very powerful sermon (even to my surprise incorporating old faithful PowerPoint, with projections on to that same screen where we had the lyrics of the hymns).

Not only was it powerful. That sermon was long, going on for quite a while. But it did the trick. At its conclusion, the famous “call to Jesus” went out, and I could feel myself pulling back a little (as you've probably guessed, I'm not very religious and in these kinds of situations, well, some of us begin to sort of close down, don't we?). Had to be careful about this one, a small voice was saying to me. As a child I had often been taken to Protestant revival meetings back in Virginia, so I knew what this was all about. And – not to put too fine a point on it or to be condescending or patronizing (for I’m not doing that) – my partners and I often use the phrase to describe our wrap-up and conclusion when we’ve put together and presented a particularly successful workshop or Webinar. So I know a little about the “call to Jesus” and what it's supposed to do.

But this was the real thing, and it was very touching, very serious, and very sincere. While the choir and the congregation sang “Oh come all ye faithful,” – almost sotto voce – the preacher invited people to come forward to show their desire to be saved. And I was blown away.

Where did all these people come from? By the time they had been prayed over and were about to be led into another space (I presume to be prayed over some more, but I don’t know, really), I estimate that some 75 or more people had “come forward.”

Almost overwhelming, this experience. And the church does this three times every Sunday? And several times during the week?

And all the time the choir is singing, singing, singing, capturing the exact emotion of each element of the service. Now we know: if anyone ever doubts the power of music (but no one I know does, when you get right down to it), this proves it once and for all. Music makes us one.

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Socializing and Eating (III)

A Polish Christmas Party in Nairobi

Stay with me here. The Nairobi experience continues, but all the connections get a little sticky with this one, and I’m not sure just as “Nairobi-esque” this particular experience was, or how it fits into the “Guy-in-Kenya” saga.

Nevertheless, it was fun, and perhaps it’s a tale worth telling.

Two good Nairobi friends of mine – he is a biochemist from Poland and she is a native of Kenya, a businessperson and television producer – invited me to join them for the afternoon (and evening) at the Apostolic Nunciature (the equivalent of the Vatican's Embassy in Kenya). The Apostolic Nuncio - the head of the mission - also serves coincidentally as the Vatican's Permanent Observer of the U.N. Human Settlements Programme (UN-HABITAT), which I thought was a nice touch.

We were invited to the mission for the annual Christmas celebration of the Polish community in Nairobi. My friends had came to Nairobi from London – where they had lived for several years – not long before I came to Kenya, and we seem to have been drawn to each other, a situation I like very much. We are having a good time sharing experiences, and we keep finding interesting things to do and interesting people to meet.

Because of their earlier connections with Kenya and their many visits, my friends naturally have much more background in Kenya, and I find that not only are they somehow linked in with the Polish community in Nairobi (approximately 150 people or so, I’ve been told) but through that, there is some involvement with the Apostolic Nunciature as well.

Good connections indeed, but I had a little trouble keeping it all straight in my head, but I’m nevertheess not about to decline when I’m invited to accompany them to such a splendid Christmas gathering. Probably the only American in the crowd, I had a lovely time, met very interesting people, and, not surprisingly, got my fill of Polish Christmas food. The grounds of the nunciature (if that's how you describe the mission) was beautifully decorated for the holidays. There was, not surprisingly, a splendid tree and the huge fireplace opening served as the backdrop for a very elegant and elaborate holiday crèche (although, truth to tell, this was the first manger scene I’ve ever seen that had giraffes in attendance, and this one had many!).

As I say, it was a grand party, with everyone dressed to the nines. The crowd was a nice mixture of clergy, nuns, and members of several monastic orders or – if they were all of one order – wearing different types of religious habits. The nuns were Sisters of the Holy Family and I was given to understand that it was they who had cooked all the food and arranged the decorations (and they did a mighty fine job of it, too). A wide range of non-clergy were present, too, and not just members (and former members) of Nairobi’s Polish community.

Of course there were plenty of children, but not too many. Still, there were enough for me to get to play “Granddad Guy” a couple of times, and when it came time to participate in the little ceremony of sharing the bread – a Polish tradition for wishing each other a Happy Christmas – it was fun to see their faces when this strange American (me) spoke with them. Most of the children – especially the Kenyan children – seemed delighted to have someone from somewhere else wish them a Happy Christmas. And some of them seemed a little sad that we Americans don’t have giraffes visiting the Christ Child in our manger scenes.

While some of the opening greetings and reading in the ceremony were lost on me, of course, because they were in Polish, I was delighted to hear the Apostolic Nuncio, Archbishop Alain Paul Charles Lebeaupin, welcome the guests in English. The Archibishop conveyed his greetings and then made an announcement that obviously meant a great deal to him and to everyone at the party. Noting that the house where we were meeting had received Pope John Paul II on three separate occasions, he announced that just this morning Pope Benedict XVI had signed a decree to put into motion a procedure for his predecessor's beatification.

Archbishop Lebeaupin also announced that Pope Benedict had also approved this morning morning the beatification of Father Jerzy Popieluszko, the "Solidarity chaplain" who was murdered by the Polish secret service in 1984. Needless to say, the crowd was overjoyed with the news, and it was a great thrill to be with them as the announcement was made and to share in their applause and their pride.

When it came time for Polish Ambassador Anna M. Grupinska to speak, she gave special emphasis to the joy of the celebration and the role of tradition in Polish families, particularly at Christmas. She also spoke with obvious pride in recognition of the news the Cardinal had conveyed and she shared her own delight that this celebration was being held on the day when the Vatican announcements – so special to the Polish people – were being made. To conclude the formalities, Ambassador Grupinska distributed gifts to everyone, fancy wrapped presents for all the dignitaries and pretty red hand-carved soapstone hearts – another Polish Christmastime tradition – for all the guests. It was a very kind – and memorable – gesture on her part, and gave the Ambassador the opportunity to speak and shake hands with everyone present. Very nice indeed.

The grounds of the nunciature are beautifully laid out, and the flowers, shrubs, trees, and other plantings – including two very pretty grottos – are a delight to the eye. I had a fine time strolling about with my friends, and when we all moved to the large terrace for a sumptuous meal of Polish Christmas foods, some of us, I fear, enjoyed ourselves perhaps a little too much and ate perhaps a tad more than we should have (but it was so-o-o good). Then the caroling began, and while I can’t say I sang along – Polish is definitely not one of my languages and certainly many of the carols were songs I had never heard before – the sweetness of the moment could not be denied. This was “community” on a grand scale. It was beginning to feel like – for me – this really is an international Christmas after all.

Socializing and Eating (II)

The Staff Luncheon

Christmas is approaching – fast! – and no one reading this post will be surprised to learn that in Nairobi – as everywhere else – the holiday parties, staff luncheons, evening events, and celebrations in general have already begun. My team at the client workplace chose Friday for a group luncheon, and they invited me to come along.

What a good time we had! We drove miles away, to a huge outfit that was put together solely to provide a place where big groups of people could meet (there were ten in our party, but some tables seemed to be set for 20 or 30 people!) and have a celebratory African lunch.

Well, try to keep in mind that in Africa putting the words “celebratory” and “lunch” together means, for one thing, you’re talking about what here is called “Swahili time.” This simply means that – being essentially patient and relaxed people – the Kenyans don’t worry (especially for a social occasion) about exactly when an event is to start, what time people arrive, and – by no means – what time it might end.

So just to give you a quick picture, this “luncheon” started at about 2.00 pm and went far into the afternoon, almost until dark (about 6.00 pm). Did anyone notice? Did anyone care? You know the answers. After our long drive we got to the meeting place, other people arrived in a more or less casual timeframe, and we spent the afternoon visiting, talking, telling stories (again), and just having lots of fun being together.                 

Before the food was served, one of the staff came around with a big basin with a bar of soap and a pitcher of warm water, and each of us washed their hands. There were no towels – not done – so we just let our hands air-dry or we used a serviette (there were many of these, batched all around the table and I soon learned why).

The food was super, all African (of course) and all brought to the table in big batches. In this case, we did not have large portions piled on our plates (as is apparently usual here, on such occasions, because we were all eating together from the food in the center of the table and we simply took what we wanted (my friends spooned mine up for me, since I was something of an “honored” guest). Then we sat back and ate with our fingers.

What did we eat? Mostly nyama choma, literally “burnt animal,” which are roasted meats. I could see the staff slicing the meat off the bone just a few feet away, but there there were plenty of chunks served on the bone as well, and we simply  brought them to our mouths with our hands and gnawed them off the bone. We started with goat, then had mutton, then chicken (which in the conversation I found out was very special – chicken is pretty commonly eaten in Kenya but at home it is for special visitors and was brought out on this occasion because it was a holiday party). We wrapped up with fried beef, served with a sort of thick broth or stew (try sopping that up with a piece of meat or a chunk of ugali, using only your hands!).

All through the meal, we had ugali, a sort of thick maize dough which some people find too bland but I like it (and, yes, I sprinkle a little salt on it, as do most Kenyans, I note). And we had my favorite, irio, which I had discovered at the restaurant at the client workplace and, I have to say, I probably eat it two or three times a week, whenever it is on the menu. Irio is a Kikuyu dish, mostly creamed peas, maize, and potatoes, but it can have lots of other things in it as well, including pumpkin leaves, arrowroot, and even onion gently sautéed. Other different ingredients are boiled or sautéed, and then the whole mess is mashed up together (except for the maize kernels, which being left whole add a nice crunch). A friend made it for me recently, and I was amazed at the things she put in the irio (and it was delicious).

Just as at the Jamhuri gathering, we loved telling stories (although to be clear I was the only non-Kenyan in the group,so my stories had a slightly American flavor). For the others, there were several people whose families had been originally connected (and who still see themselves as part of) the various “tribes” or “groups” or other indigenous people of Kenya. We had Kikuyu, Luhya, Luo, and several others, and everybody had fun trying to straighten me out about all the distinctions between the different groups. Not a success!

Our conversation was wide-ranging. We talked about the need in Kenya for a new constitution, which is currently being formalized, to replace the constitution adopted with independence 46 years ago. People are very open – and very dramatic – in describing the pros and cons of having a new constitution, and it was enlightening, to say the least, to hear all the different opinions (when they spoke in English – much of the conversation was in Swahili but translated for me when someone noticed that I was missing a point.

That conversation led to a discussion of why the Americans should move forward with the new health care legislation, even if it is not perfect (several had read Paul Krugman’s column in Friday’s New York Times, which I find many people here read online every day, or as often as they can squeeze it into their schedule). There was much talk about how difficult it is for Kenyans to understand the political system in the U.S.A., especially the role of the lobbyists, and I tried to explain that it is not the same as corruption (there is a massive anti-corruption campaign going on in Kenya, and has been – pretty successfully, I hear – for several years) but I'm not sure I was successful. A couple of people suggested an analogy with the Kenyan constitution passage and the passage of the American legislation (from Krugman, I think): even if the new Kenyan constitution – or the American legislation – is not perfect, at least get it started and make it better as time goes forward. Don’t look for perfection at the first pass.

OK. I get it.

Then we moved on to how Americans are going to recover from the current economic crisis (a couple of people in the group are economists) and how important it is for the rest of the global community for Americans to lead the recovery. And, surprisingly, Bernard Madoff’s name came up, but as that was at the other side of the table, I’m not sure just how much it had to do with the conversation about the current economic crisis and its impact in the global community.

Again, a really nice way to enjoy a lazy, social afternoon in anticipation of the big holiday.

Socializing and Eating (I)

Jamhari Day

The joys of living in a welcoming society are naturally enhanced when people get together. I was lucky to experience two delightful social occasions in the past week, and I want to tell you about them. So this post is not about the work (which is going well), and as it happens one of the advantages of the good work situation is what seems to be my expanding social network.

The first social event was not work-connected, however. It wasn’t even very Kenyan, although its purpose was probably somewhat influence by a sense of celebration, since last Saturday, December 12, was Jamhuri, Kenya’s Independence Day. There’s lots going on, with a presidential speech and many speeches by local government leaders. I had heard that there would be parades and fireworks and, as one colleague put it, “special dances in the public squares,” but somehow all that sort of eluded me (perhaps as a result of being only a few days back from two weeks in Italy). In any event, although Friday was a holiday at my client’s offices – which I used to go for the drive in the country, described in the last post – I had not anticipated Jamhuri in any particular way.

By mid-morning, though, I knew the celebrating has started. The noise overhead was pretty spectacular and when my hosts in the house where I live told me it was the holiday fly-over put on by the air force and related aviators, I have to say I was pretty impressed. [The house is shown here, with our man coming to open the gate for me.] With the excitement of the air show, I gave a few minutes thought to going into the City Center to see if I wanted to get caught up in the celebrations but the decision made for me by an invitation from our next-door neighbor.

Coming to Nairobi from Spain, our neighbor is a lady who runs her own NGO and has come to Africa to use her private resources to “give something back” (as we Americans might put it). While she herself is very modest about her organization’s work – and would probably be a little embarrassed to have me telling my friends about what she does – I have to say that I was very pleased to meet her. And very impressed to come in contact with someone of independent means who has herself chosen to come to work (with her own hand-picked team, to be sure) to do what they can to help people learn more about health care, nutrition, and the value of education for their children. With her colleagues – all nationals born and raised in Kenya – she is doing very fine work and it was inspiring to hear her speak about the NGO’s work. And to be fair, as I say she was very modest about what she does and what I gleaned from our conversation about her work was mostly in response to my queries.

“It’s just not such a big deal,” she seems to be saying. “I’m just doing what I should be doing.”

And the social occasion. Well, it too, she made clear, was not to be such a big deal.

“Just come for an aperitif.”

Aperitif indeed! Our neighbor laid on such a lunch! All wonderful food that she had obviously spent all morning fixing, and it was all Spanish in origin (although prepared of course with local ingredients). And while I cannot begin to describe the food with any justice, it was lovely and we sort of ate a nice bit to begin with and then spend the rest of our time together coming back to the plates to have a nibble of this or another taste of that. Very good.

As for the party, well I can certainly describe that part of our celebratory day. First of all, we decided to go outdoors and have a picnic (a very un-Kenyan thing to do, by the way, since most folks here prefer to eat at a table, preferably in the shade, and think the white people’s idea of picnicking sort of funny). We spread big cloths on the grass under the trees, surrounded by flowering plants and shrubs (all over the place of course! as I’m finding throughout Kenya), and just had ourselves an entire afternoon talking, telling stories, enjoying the beautiful day, and very, very happy to be together.

The story-telling, needless to say, was wide-ranging, for each of us guests was from a different place: Kenya, of course, Spain, Poland, and the U.S.A. Everyone wanted to know about how this or that is perceived in different places and one theme running though all the discussion was Mr. Obama’s impact internationally and how the “mood” about America seems to be changing (for the better, I perceived). Everyone indicated that they were holding our much hope for the climate change conference and it soon became clear that many people are looking to the American President to lead the charge, so to speak.

Ah, the joys of taking time out just to be with friends. Can’t think of a nicer way to have spent a holiday Saturday not at home.

Friday, December 11, 2009

Re-Entry: Welcome Home to Nairobi

Welcome – the concept – is the theme of this post. The trip from Rome was long (9+ hours, with a too-fast transfer in Zurich) but was considerably eased by being a daytime trip instead of a night flight.

So there were good opportunities for just relaxing and being quiet.

And for reading. I enjoyed Bill Bryson’s sweet African Diary, in which he recorded some of his experiences travelling with a crew from CARE. And I undertook the beginnings of John le Carre’s The Constant Gardener, which would have been completed if I had not been so comfortable I ended up having more naps than I really needed!

I am much looking forward to the continuation of this fascinating saga! A real page-turner.

Now about that welcome. Once in Nairobi and having left the aircraft, everywhere I turned there were welcoming smiles, and the people at the airport – both those processing incoming passengers and the people waiting for the passengers – were all very kind and generous with their time and seemed to be very happy to see us. And the best of all was my driver, there to greet me and see that I got home safely and securely. He made it clear that he was genuinely glad to see me.

The greetings at the workplace, too, were mighty close to effusive, not only among professional colleagues (who include many local people, or professionals from somewhere else in Kenya) but from the general group of workers with whom I interacted on a regular basis in the short time I was in Nairobi before I went to Italy. It was nice to be made to feel so at home in a professional situation.

And that brings me to why I want to say something about the concept of welcome. There seems to be a natural instinct in the people I’m meeting these days to be welcoming, to make one feel at home, relaxed, and ready to enter into dealings that seem built on a sense of shared good thoughts about each other. I’m not sure I can articulate very well what I’m experiencing in this remarkable place, but what I am finding is that people seem to be going out of their way to make me feel that they are happy that I am here.

I am also surprised – based on some of the messages and comments from some of my friends elsewhere in the world – that so little of this attribute of Kenya is known to people in other places. Yes, I know there are the security issues – as there are going to be in any big city where so much of the population is poorer than even the poorest American can imagine – and over the last couple of decades things have been very bad at times. But, as a colleague made clear to me in a conversation yesterday, Kenya has become – or is trying to become – a modern country. I asked him what he meant by “modern,” and he pointed out that with the massive amounts of communication available, things like television, online interactions, etc.), the good educations people are getting (even if they cannot get work after they have their education) and all the interaction going on between the people of so many countries coming here, the local population realizes that no matter how bad things get for them individually they do themselves and their country great harm by engaging in lawless activities.

Is that too simplistic? I don’t know. All I do know is that I meet very friendly people as I walk to work in the morning. I have about a 35-minute walk, along beautiful streets and, yes, the houses on those streets are well protected, many with a man standing watch at the gate, either inside the gate or on the street in front of it. But each of these people greets me, especially if I look at them and simply smile as I walk past. And, yes, my walk takes me past the U.S. Embassy, where the guards have now gotten to know me and greet me before I can greet them, so I recognized that where I live is perhaps not a typical neighborhood but I don't think that explains entirely the welcoming interactions I'm having with people in Nairobi.

So to test my impressions about all this, about the – you might say – “welcoming state of mind” (and to give me the opportunity to see a different part of Kenya), I decided to go out into the countryside, away from the city, just to see what I could see. First of all, of course, was the spectacular scenery (here's one view and that's tea you see growing up the hill behind the tree). Many, many people have written about how beautiful Kenya is, and they have all been right. We drove up into the hills where the coffee and tea plantations are, so many farms, and I saw scenery that looked like it had just dropped out of some fantasy about country life. And a sky and clouds that – were they not real – could have been painted by John Constable.

And the people? The welcoming? Absolutely. And most noticeably in Limuru, a moderately sized city – perhaps just a good-size town – that was full of people, all moving about, all on their way to or from somewhere.

We stopped to do a little shopping and I was amazed to see the greetings we were given. Not because I was a white man (the concept of racism and prejudice based on skin color is not known in Kenya) but because the people in the shop – customers and clients alike – were just nice, friendly people out in the town, going about their business.

And as a little aside, despite the fact that I was not the same color as everyone else in the store there was no attempt to charge me Muzungu prices (which, if I’ve got it right, means something like “white man’s prices”). I’m still working this one out (and I might not be spelling the word right), but apparently in some parts of Kenya there are or have been special – higher – prices for whites, an scheme that seems to have sprung up in colonial times. I’ve not experienced it since I've been in Kenya, but in Limuru I was not only not charged a higher price, but the shoes I purchased – already about 30% cheaper than at the Village Market, the shopping center near my house in Nairobi – had an extra 15% knocked off at the cash register. Why? Because the factory where they are made – employing a goodly percentage of the town’s population – is just about 100 meters up the road from the store!

How’s that for a very tangible welcome?

I will admit that as we drove along – when we left the countryside and meandered into some of the more populated areas – there were some gloomy scenes along the way, primarily because I’m accustomed to business districts in villages and communities in America that are all tidied up and neat and polished. That is not the case in some of the places we drove through today. In many places, the road we were on was the main street (the only street) of the town and there were plenty of shops that were nothing more than lean-tos or sheds or what looked to me like pretty flimsy buildings propped up on cement blocks.

But not always. In other communities there were plenty of nice, recently constructed buildings, with what looked like very nice flats. And, as it turned out, as we approached the city on our return, we visited the town where my driver and his family live, not that far from the part of the city where I live in Nairobi. He told me all about his town, and pointed out people he knew, and I got the feeling that the idea of welcome and friendliness is just as evident in his town as in the other places I've visited. Quite frankly, if it’s appropriate, I might one day ask him to take me back to his town, just so I can walk around with him and get to know some of the people he knows. I’m sure I’ll be made to feel welcome.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

In Rome, Saving the Best for Last: Ara Pacis, the Forum, and the Colosseum

[Posted after the fact due to spotty Internet access in Rome.]

As the Italian visit comes to an end, what could be more appropriate than having saved the best for last?

Actually, it’s kind of hard to speak about “the best” in Rome, isn’t it? The city is just so full of beautiful things, and it seems that every time we turn a corner we are confronted with a jewel that we find ourselves required to fit into the schedule.

As had been the case with the Museo dell’ Ara Pacis, the day before our last day.

The wonderful space, designed by Richard Meier and opening a year or so ago to no small controversy, turns out to be one of the most splendid single-focus museums I’ve ever seen. I want to compare it with the Pergamon Altar in Berlin but that thrilling ancient work must share its space with other wonders of the ancient world, so it isn’t a “stand-alone” monument, you might say.

Not so with the Ara Pacis. With this glorious ruin, Richard Meier has done exactly the opposite. It’s the only thing in the museum (on the main floor – there is a separate display area in the gallery below), and despite the fact that the building is a great glass-and-marble square – indeed, almost the best of modern design – and apparently the first modern building built in Centro Storico since before the Second World War, it is a joy to behold.

Yes, it was controversial when it was built, and some tell the story of the right-leaning mayor promising to move it to the suburbs when he was elected, but that seems to have been campaign oratory.

So here it stands, this wonderful modern building – with most of its glass wall facing the street side, where people walking by can observe Augustus’ altar to peace without paying to go inside (talk about egalitarianism in museum management – how splendid!). Augustus had commissioned the work to commemorate his successes in Spain and Gaul, and the Senate voted for its construction in 13 B.C. And here it is now, still shining forth in the 21st Century and now preserved and protected as one of the great ancient monuments of the city.

And at the Ara Pacis we were twice blessed, as they say, for hanging just behind the altar, in a temporary display, is a beautiful large painting by Giacomo Balla. One of the great leaders of Futurism and of the early modern movement, I gather, this very art deco painting, all red and blue and green, is a sight to behold, particularly in this space. The contrast is splendid.

Then there was our final church, St. Ignatius. No matter how one feels about the Jesuits and their influence in history (the Inquisition and all that), it is hard to stay angry when you find yourself in such a place. As the last of the churches we were to visit (an ambition difficult to stick to in Rome, for no matter how often one utters “No more Baroque churches” another one comes into view, and often better than the last!), we found the church to be a splendid mixture of the sublime and the profane, if I may be permitted yet one more cliché. The decorations in the Chiesa di S. Ignazio – both the recent (not so wonderful!) and the Baroque (guess!) – filled us with something akin to awe. Our Rome friend – accompanying us for this one – was full of wonderful stories about the church, how it has changed over the years, the painting (of course), the statuary, and I even found a new favorite – a splendid angel that I shall have to keep in a printed rather than online photo, just because I’m going to want to look at this beautiful being very often.

Then came the real “best-for-the-last”: we had intentionally waited to visit the Forum and the Colosseum, wanting to take away memories that would be spectacular as well as beautiful, and we were not disappointed. We awoke to one of the most glorious blue skies I’ve ever seen, a day not at all cold, and we headed out to see what Rome is really known for. We stayed hours, so enjoying all there was to see, loving the beauty of all the ruins (I once had a friend – now long gone – who only wanted to visit ruins that are all “tidied up” – ah, she would not have loved the Forum, I fear, but we loved it).

Was there a favorite in the Forum? Surely not, but Trajan’s Column at one end of the Imperial Forum is pretty awesome! But then come the coffered ceilings of the Basilica de Massenzio and the remains of the buttresses (with one at the top of one of the crossings taking on an almost ultra-modern equestrian look). They were nothing less than breath-taking. So perhaps there was a favorite after all.

And, yes, I did love learning about the Senate’s meetings at the Curia, with the space so well preserved that one can almost hear them grumbling and pontificating for one another. So much to love.

OK. Perhaps there was a favorite for me – as for almost everyone else, I suppose. The delicacy of the three columns and the tiny remaining bit of overhand of the Temple of Castor and Pollux keep you looking at them much, much longer than you look at other sites. What a sweet, sweet building that must have been!

The Colosseum? What can one say? It simply must be experienced.

I had read about the Colosseum all my life, seen pictures galore, knew all about its history and the gladiators and the “hunts” with the wild animals, and the supposed martyrdom of the Christians (although, surprisingly, a reference I read recently stated that this last is only legendary, and that there is no evidence that Christians were ever sacrificed there? Oh, dear? What does that do to all our childhood experiences and our reactions to films like “Quo Vadis” and all that?).

Nevertheless, I still was not prepared for the Colosseum and what it is. We were, happily, able to arrive for just the last two-and-a-half hours of daylight on this gloriously sunny day, and it couldn’t have been a better time to be there, to experience this wonderful place. Even as it waned the light just made the place just better and better, and as it turned the stone golden in the dying sun, hard to describe. Again, an experience I shall never forget.

Now back to Kenya.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

The Italian Post - The Ecstasy

Can there be a more interesting beginning to a day than to combine a visit to the Trevi Fountain with a visit to Italy's postal servicet? Well, yes, there can, but a gloriously sun-lit autumn day in Rome can make any experience almost fun.

And since this is all about Mr. Guy's impressions, let's take on a couple of new ones (but the postal service is not the ecstasy part - read on):

Now about the Trevi Fountain. Despite all the all-too-superior comments of the cognoscenti, it is a very pretty fountain. All the silliness about how the fountain isn’t one of Rome’s prettiest, or how the fountain is really a cascade and not a true fountain (?), or how foolish people are for throwing coins in luck (amounting to some €500,000 annually, they say) all add up to a sort of nothing when you’re standing in front of and enjoying the sound of the gently flowing streams of water.

Yes, even the crowds get a little silly sometimes, and there are a lot of people visiting the Trevi Fountain, even in the slow tourist season. But even the memory of Anita Ekberg splashing about in “La Dolce Vita” or Susan Hayward losing her heart in front of it in “Three Coins in the Fountain” cannot alter the fact that it is beautiful to behold, and just as the Spanish Steps as a site to visit is disdained, don’t be part of it. These are sites that contribute much to making beautiful Rome what it is.

On the other hand, a short stroll away is a vast post office that is the place to go if you want to send cards and letters to people back home. Or not. Despite its much-whined-about reputation for being unreliable, most people will tell you the Italian Post does its job. And it is an efficient system, at least in the huge post office we visited. The problem wasn’t the service (we never got to the window) but the wait. When we arrived and finally figured out that we had to take a numbered ticket and wait for our ticket number to be called, the posted number was 290. Our ticket had 433 written on it. Surely the wait must be pretty quick if there are that many people about.

Yeah? You think so?

Then why are there so many places to sit? And why all these people? Waiting? And waiting? And waiting?

Being the smart Americans that we are, we decided to wait our turn and just to be convinced, we started timing the waits between the numbers as they are posted. It didn’t take us long to figure out that no matter how good and efficient the system is, there is still going to be a wait. Number 300 was posted fifteen minutes after we got our number, so we guessed that it would be about 45 minutes to an hour before we got to the window. Then we remembered that – if the cards and letters we were going to mail in Rome could be mailed in New York – which they could be – it would be cheaper and faster (and perhaps even a little more reliable) to have them mailed from New York.

So we left.

Now for a total about face: The afternoon was divided into three glorious experiences, thanks to the good advice of our luncheon companion and friend who has lived in Rome for several years and makes his living taking people about. Our first stop was the Palazzo Massimo alle Terme, the Museo Nazionale Roman which has a wonderful four floors of ancient Rome. The exact antithesis of the experience at the Villa Borghese – where I complained about the combination of too much of both the collections and the venue – this museum brings together some of the most splendid relics of ancient Rome and houses them in an elegant but quietly restrained palazzo that makes the visitor comfortable from the first room.

The museum is apparently not visited very much, and that's a shame, for the collection is almost too good to be described after one visit. The jewels of the collection (that's not fair, but they come close) are two bronze Greek statues (not Roman copies, which is usually the case with these works), two of the very few that are known to have survived: “The Boxer” and “The Prince.” They are themselves worth a visit, as it the huge collection of wall paintings from the Villa Livia depicting all the various flora and fauna of a noblewoman’s luxurious garden. Splendid, and along with more wonderful mosaics (taking me back to the Villa Romana in Sicily) and the many, many remarkable sculptures in the collections in this museum provide a true “taste” of what life was like in Rome at the city’s height.

Nearby, more statuary – and an impressive space as well – in the Diocletian Baths. There’s no question about it: all those boys and girls wanting to learn about gladiators and the beginnings of much of what we refer to as “western” civilization could do much worse than come to see the remnants of so much of it here.

Not far away, at the Basilica of Santa Maria della Vittoria, Bernini’s strongly erotic statue of Saint Teresa of Avila (literally titled L’Estasi di Santa Teresa) is dramatically displayed in the left transept. The basilica is now wildly popular, due to Dan Brown’s use of it in one of his books, and some folks don’t much like the crowds of obvious tourists coming along just to pursue their own limited connection with history. But to be there and watch the visitors (admittedly not that many on an autumn afternoon) is to once again be caught up in the idea of religion and its effects on the people who participate in religious devotion. So many of the people come not just to see Bernini’s magnificent – and strangely ambiguous – piece of sculpture, but to give over something of themselves to a little quiet time with their religion, matching their belief with everything else that is happening in their lives.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

P. del Popolo and Galleria Borghese: Too Much

Is it possible to overdose on Rome? The question only comes up because visits to merely two sites seem to confirm that too much of a good thing is, well, too much. Something along the lines of St. Paul’s (I think) “moderation in all things” seems to be called for here (and not so coincidentally – as we’ll see below – St Paul is part of the problem on this particular occasion!).

Having had an early evening stroll along the Piazza del Popolo (so named because the splendid church on the site was financed by the people of Rome back in 1099), we were anxious to return. It is a beautiful square, and obviously a great entrance to the city, for as we approached it in the early hours today, people were flooding through the Porto del Popolo on their way to work.

We wanted to have a peek in the church – Santa Maria del Popolo – because I had discovered that four Pinturicchio frescoes had been painted for the church around 1510 or so. Having become a Pinturicchio fan when I was long ago affiliated with The University Club of New York, I wanted to see these frescoes if I could. The connection had come about because Charles Follen McKim – the club’s primary architect – had been inspired by Pinturicchio’s frescoes in the Appartamento Borgia in the Vatican to seek something similar for the club’s library. McKim was successful, and in 1904 H. Siddons Mowbray was engaged to paint his version of the Pinturicchio rooms on New York’s West 54th Street, which in and of themselves represent one of the great artistic treasures of New York.

So off we took ourselves to see the church, and to put it mildly, we weren’t quite prepared for the beauty of the church. First, a personal connection for with a sister named for Saint Rita I was pleased to discover a chapel devoted to this holy woman. More to the point of my visit though, we were delighted to discover, along with everything else in this incredible space, the Pinturicchio frescoes I had heard about: The Coronation of the Virgin, Four Evangelists, Four Sibyls, and Four Doctors of the Church. They are splendid, and I was very, very happy to be able to see them.

But wait for it: there’s more. Not only did we have the Pinturicchio frescoes, we discovered that the church was the location for not one but two Caravaggio paintings, both painted 1600-1601. One we already knew was at the church – The Crucifixion of Saint Peter – and it is a stunning work of art. It’s no wonder many of the church’s leaders weren’t comfortable with the realism of Caravaggio’s work (some of which was refused – even though it had been commissioned – because it was indeed too realistic). The depiction of Saint Peter’s agony is clear and pretty scary to behold.

The other painting – which we had not known was at Santa Maria del Popolo (and which I had never known about at all) – was in fact not at the church, although there were references to it at the church and we took pains to find it. As it happened, when we visited the church the painting - The Conversion of St. Paul - was on temporary loan to the Villa Borghese, which coincidentally had already been planned as our next stop of the day (after a slight diversion for some shopping). When in Sicily, we had visited with Miki Borghese at her home – to see the remarkable and world-famous garden built from a drained lake – and had been honored to see a 1625 painting of the Villa Borghese. Although not on my original itinerary for Rome (which was a mistake – every visitor to Rome should probably see the Villa Borghese as a first stop!), after viewing that painting a visit to the Villa Borghese was now required, and we had made our plans to go there following our time at the P. del Popolo.

At the Villa Borghese, I found myself almost completely overwhelmed, a sensation experienced only once before, when back in 1988 - the days of the Soviet Union - I had been taken to one of the Kremlin Museum special collections and simply could not deal with the excess of luxury that surrounded the works of art. This doesn’t usually happen in most museums, even places like the Hermitage or the Louvre, but it happened at the Kremlin and it happened at the Villa Borghese. It’s almost as if the works of art themselves are so magnificent (as they are) they are undermined by the splendor of the space itself. Then there’s that slight irritation with the extreme elegance of the riches on display. I’m not complaining and I’m not opposed to such a venue for art, but I discovered at the Villa Borghese that I needed to spend some quiet time just orienting myself to what was on display.

And such treasures on display, including the magnificent St. Paul! What a painting!  First of all, our prior references for Saint Paul are all wrong. In this painting, Caravaggio had made him a handsome fellow, not the typical older middle-age man we usually think of when we see Paul. He is flat on his back, his horse is amazed and upset with the confusion of the blinding light, and Paul himself, although seen from an almost upside-down perspective, is overwhelmed. He looks good, and he looks like a man who was indeed surprised by the great epiphany that has overwhelmed. Quite a picture!

Of course I can’t possibly describe everything that caught my attention at the Villa Borghese – or kept me from moving on to another object or work of art. There’s just too much. Obviously all the Bernini sculptures are gorgeous to behold, and I found myself spending much time in front of the David, the Apollo and Daphne, and other pieces too numerous to name. Of course I loved seeing Canova’s Pauline (which I had seen only as a plaster cast years ago), and it was amazing to see the folds of the fabric of the cushion on her couch and realize that it is nevertheless carved in marble.

A good visit, but too much frankly. Perhaps the next such excursion – the Vatican Museums, perhaps? – will be given some study beforehand, to ensure that we don’t try to do too much.

Monday, November 30, 2009

Roma: Don’t Try to Choose – It’s the Churches

If the attractions of Rome are too many and too splendid, there appears to be only one solution: don’t try to choose. Don’t try to do everything and run yourself ragged attempting to connect to ancient Rome, musical Rome, artistic Rome, historical Rome, or even shopping Rome. Indeed, perhaps it is the latter that might be considered the eternal of “eternal Rome,” since this is a city that has apparently been designed to lure every visitor into purchasing the best of the best, Italian design being what it is and Rome being its design center (with a dutiful nod of course to any of Italy’s other fabulous design “centers,” each of which could probably claim the title with some accuracy). No, shopping is obviously what is going to draw many people to Rome, and they are smart to make the journey. There are few pleasures that delight the senses like those enjoyed in the shops of Rome, regardless of what one is shopping for.

Yet there is a single “theme,” one might say, that would seem to connect all of the many elements of this splendid place and that turns out to be – accidentally enough – the many churches (far too many to count!) that are all over the city. So far we have limited ourselves to the Centro Storico, not yet having ventured into the other neighborhoods. Before we came to Rome, we decided that we would choose a hotel in the historical quarter and it was a wise choice, enabling my first intimations of Rome’s famous past to link easily and almost seamlessly (except for the shopping of course) to the city’s amazing and rewarding history of nearly three millennia.

And yes, that reference to “first” is correct. Despite all my travels, I have never before had an opportunity to visit Rome, and it made sense to come to this wonderful place at long last. I am not sorry I came.

The churches-of-Rome association or theme might not be ideal for some, but for me – arriving midday on a Sunday and having our first stroll through the city on a Sunday afternoon and early evening, when so many of the churches are open – was a splendid introduction. I had hardly gone outside the hotel before I was confronted with the simple façade (well, when “simple” can be used to describe a Baroque front, however modest) and stepped into a riot of Baroque angels, paintings, overcolorings, and all the other trappings of the style. And all wrapped up in the sweet experience of a student of the organ – working with his or her master – playing hymn tunes in a collection of charming improvisations. This was Chiesa S. Maria Maddalena, and it provided us with a lovely place to start.

I won’t try to list all the churches we visited, but several stand out: Yes, I was a little disappointed to find the splendid beauty of piazza Navona somewhat cheapened by the holiday market, with all the bright lights of the stands and the not-so-attractive items on offer. But the fair did not at all affect the impression made by the glorious sculptures in the Fontana dei Quattro Fiumi, with its accompanying Fontana di Nettuno and Fontana del Moro). Even so, I was still unprepared to be as overwhelmed as I was with the beauty of the Chiesa di Sant’ Agnese in Agone. What a splendid place! And the beauty of the artwork is only enhanced by the subtle trompe l’oeil of the painted niches, which made everything around them appear to be so perfectly framed.

In the Pantheon, despite the wandering in-and-out of many of Rome’s citizens (reminding one of visits to a place like St. Paul’s or Westminster Abbey or any of the other great cathedrals), there was a service in progress. It was very special to stand in this enormous space, surrounded by all that it is – the architecture, the tombs of Vittorio Emanuele II and Umberto I, and, quite frankly, the design – and not be impressed with the not overly pompous organ music and lovely sound of the soprano soloist, singing so sweetly a very pretty piece of music, with the echoes sounding throughout the space adding an unusual flavor to the experience. A very splendid visit indeed.

At the piazza della Minerva, just steps from the Pantheon, stands the mighty Basilica of Santa Maria sopra Minerva. To keep the mood light, the walk from the Pantheon to the Basilica includes – in the center of the piazza – Bernini’s delightful elephant. Charming, handsome, and obviously designed to make anyone passing smile at his happy expression. It worked.

As for the church itself, one is surprised as one enters through an appropriately simple façade to be confronted with an interior is simply overwhelming (a word probably destined for overuse in these dispatches from Rome). Built on the site of an ancient temple to Minerva (hence the “sopra” of the name), the interior is simply ablaze with magnificent things to look at including, for me, a Michelangelo sculpture simply called “The Redeemer.” At the base of the Main Altar is the Sepulcher of Saint Catherine of Siena and, yes, my first question was “Why is the tomb of Saint Catherine of Siena in Rome?”

As it turns out, Saint Catherine (this Saint Catherine) is the patron saint of Italy and of all Europe, so of course it makes sense to have her in Rome, at the seat of the Church. The body in the tomb is not altogether together, since – not to disappoint the citizens of Siena – the head was removed and sent to Siena in 1385. Fast forward to the Holy Year of 2000: on this important occasion, the tomb was restored to its original look, with the colors that had been added later and plaster decoration, added in the mid-19th century, removed.

Even more impressive to me – since I’m not very well versed in the mysteries of the saints – is the splendid Carafa Chapel off to the right of the Main Altar. With its famous frescoes by Filippino Lippi and including an altar piece, The Annunciation with Saint Thomas of Aquinas presenting Cardinal Carafa to the Virgin, this – for me – is a very special work of sacred art. It is one of the most beautiful of the many depictions of the annunciation I’ve ever seen (and I’m somewhat partial, since the annunciation to the virgin is perhaps my favorite of all the Bible stories), stunning in its detail and colors and showing an almost translucent lily in the hand of the angel. What a joy to see this lovely picture!

As for the other churches, there were too many visited during our one afternoon and evening to be described here (and many were quite spectacular in the darkness of a Sunday night). And there was one disappointment: San Andrea della Valle was closed for renovation, and we were mighty let down. We had planned to enter quietly, take our seats, sure if we waited long enough we would hear Floria Tosca come to summon her lover. Ah, to hear the sound of “Mario, Mario,” ringing out in that splendid space. What a joy it would have been! But it was not to be.

Perhaps instead when we visit the Farnese Palace we’ll run into the spirit of Scarpia.

No. Don’t want that. It wouldn’t be quite the same.

Saturday, November 28, 2009

La Fine di Sicilia

Only for Mr. Guy.

Not the end of Sicily but just the end of Mr. Guy's week in this very interesting region of Italy (and if the attempt at an Italian title is not perfect, I beg the reader's indulgence).

And since this visit began with impressions, let's end with some as well.

How about some thoughts about Catania? Syracuse? Taormina? Beautiful cities, each different and each offering the visitor experiences not available elsewhere.

In Catania, the focus is on lava and the baroque. [Yes, you read that right!] 1669 was - some assert - the year of Mount Etna's most violent eruption, and the lava flows reached Catania, causing massive destruction. Then in 1693 - adding insult to injury for any survivors I suppose - the city was leveled by a devastating earthquake. Not to be undone by such awful circumstances, the city fathers decided to rebuild, and the Sicilian Baroque architect Giovanni Battista Vaccarini - having been born in 1702 and grown up amongst the ruins - went to work building one of Europe's most Baroque cities (or at least one of Italy's). If you like Baroque architecture, Catania is the place to come to. From the flowing lines of the Duomo and its lavish Fontana dell'Elefante (the elephant connecting to the city's coat of arms and, like St. Agatha - for which see below) to the highest of Baroque private palazzi, the style is seen all over the city. Lava is used, too, with lava stone incorporated into the Baroque architecture and providing the material for most of the paving blocks of the city. The result is a slightly different "take" on the Baroque, with the two-tone coloring of the buildings pretty much the norm, with one of them matching the pavement of the streets.

Saint Agatha is the patron saint of Catania, and the city honors her in many ways. The story has it that she rebuffed the advances of a Roman senator, with the result that she was tortured for being a Christian by having her breasts sliced off and being rolled over hot coals. While Agatha was in prison awaiting death, Mount Etna rumbled so terribly that Agatha's tormentors were scared out of their wits, and she was set free. Since then, the city is reputed to have been saved many times from further destruction from the volcano (except in 1669) because her relics are carried through the streets whenever Mount Etna rumbles. Her feast is in February, and from what I hear, the city goes slightly crazy in venerating Saint Agatha. And as a special treat, the bakeries all serve up pastries in the shape of a lady's breast (I'm not making this up).

Catania is a very poor city, and it shows. First of all, much of the ornate Baroque city was leveled in the bombings of WWII and while there is not much in the way of bombed-out buildings (as in Palermo), you still get the sense that it is a city that desperately needs some financial restructuring and some sort of plan for serious revenue growth. Syracuse is another story altogether.We don't hear much about the economy in Syracuse, but there seems to be building going on all over the place. It is an ancient city (over 3,000 years old), and at one time was one of the three greatest Greek cities, led only by Athens and Sparta. Despite the fun Shakespeare and Rodgers and Hart had with the story of the twins, there is a serious side to Syracuse's history, best experienced from a visit to the great Syracuse Neapolis Archaeological Park, where visitors can get a vision of what life was like in ancient times, where there is both a Roman amphitheatre nearly 2,000 years old and a Greek theatre dating back to the 5th century BC.

Syracuse is truly a beautiful city, too, with its two harbors and it freshwater spring (right next to the sea) contributing to its being one of the loveliest cities in this part of the world. The harbors bring the Ionian Sea right to the heart of the city, where one of my favorite places is the area around the Duomo. All the buildings around Piazza Duomo  (including one from the Mussolini period which - despite a pretty ugly architectural framework - shows off very handsome sculptures of the "working-man-and-woman" style) are attractively laid out. The Duomo itself, with its subtle little trick (its Baroque porch and facade are merely tacked on to the structure of a massive 2500-year-old Temple of Athena from ancient times, rebuilt to incorporate a church) is one of the most interesting buildings in Sicily. Indeed, for some architecture critics, it is their favorite building, and it is easy to see why. Great fun, and beautiful to behold, both from the outside - where you can see the temple's columns as they have been incorporated into the later structure - and particularly from the inside where the specifics of each architectural period are clearly on display.

And Taormina. It's all about the views. The views. The views. No matter where you go in the city, there is so much to look at, and despite the hoards of tourists in other parts of the year, a visit in November is blessedly quiet. You're looking at the sea, at Mount Etna, at other mountains, and even at the city rising up even higher behind you. There's no question but that looking out to see the views is a primary occupation in Taormina.

The main shopping street is a pedestrian mall and the shops are still full of things to buy, depending of course on the level of taste with respect to what you want to buy. Clothing is very high-end and exceptionally stylish. Collectibles, objets d'art, and the like run the gamut and you have to decide if it is worth the price being asked to take some of this stuff home and put it out for someone else to see. Not surprisingly, the hotels are pretty spectacular, particularly the hotels catering to the wealthy and the celebrities, and you sometimes get the feeling that you're in one of those early 20th-century "grand" hotels designed for simply sitting in the  great lounging rooms and looking beautiful and stylish. And, yes, the Wunderbar - hangout for such as Truman Capote, Tennessee Williams, Elizabeth Taylor and innumerable others - is still in business but pretty slow this time of year (I guess the celebrities have other things to do).

The churches and the cathedral of Taormina are lovely, and one cannot help but be moved by the sincerity of the people you see praying in the churches when you visit (but the number of actual services seems to be pretty limited, judging from the postings on the signboards). The ancient Teatro Greco is fun to visit, and being the venue for continuing programs during the high season, one can get a real feel for how performances took place in the days when the Greeks were in charge. As for the famous (infamous?) association of Teormina with Wilhelm von Gloeden's photographs, there's little about it on offer for the casual visitor, although if one wanted to seek out more information, it is probably available. Postcards of course are on offer in all the card shops, and collections of photographs (at very expensive prices) can be purchased in book or exhibition catalogue format, but it is interesting to note that there is apparently not a large-scale focus on this part of Taormina's history.

Thursday, November 26, 2009

Feeding the Soul in Palermo (2): Lampedusa

For many of us, the emotional connection to Sicily is not necessarily musical. Mine began as a lad, when I for some reason was offered Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa’s totally beautiful Il Gattopardo to read. I wish I could remember who suggested I read it, for I’ve been indebted to that person for many years. Of course I read The Leopard in translation but the impact was nevertheless very powerful and I remember spending much time thinking about this beautiful story and this splendid, haunting place. Then Luchino Visconti’s lavish film appeared and for many years this was unquestionably my favorite film. Even recently – perhaps five years ago – a director’s cut was released, and we were able to see it. What a magnificent, stunning experience!

So naturally I was anxious to learn what I could about Lampedusa and his island when I came to Sicily. I was surprised to discover from Guisi that few people ask about the author of this magnificent book. He is naturally greatly revered by the Sicilians, indeed by all of Italy, but visitors to Sicily don’t seem to care very much about Lampedusa and there is little about him to learn in situ. Lampedusa itself – the island – I was advised is not worth a visit except for the beaches, and this is the wrong season for that. Only 113 km from the African coast, It has become now a destination for thousands of desperate immigrants, often attempting the journey in boats that aren’t designed to handle the crowds of people crammed aboard (with the awful result that according to the U.N.’s refugee agency – UNHCR – more than 2,000 people die each year attempting the crossing).

So there continues to be interest in Lampedusa the author. I was interested to discover, hanging in the office of Filippo Guttuse, Direttore, Biblioteca Comunale Palermo, a poster of a splendid portrait of Lampedusa. Painted by Nicolo D’Alessandro, the portrait is in the collection of the Biblioteca Comunale (sadly, his papers are not, for they continue to be part of Lampedusa’s publisher’s archives) and it is a handsome depiction of what this great writer must have looked like.

An even more delightful surprise (and one taking us back to the musical) came at the Biblioteca del Teatro Massimo, where Signora Modico – showing us some of the scenic designs for previous productions – presented the sketches of the opera “Il Gattopardo,” an opera of which I had no knowledge whatsoever (I had not even heard that it is an opera!). How I would love to have seen it! Perhaps someday a patron will sponsor a production in New York. I imagine it would be well worth the wait (well, for Lampedusa fans like myself).

And still, in Palermo, there is some further interest in Lampedusa. Or at least to the Sicilian connection with the film, for the palazzo where the great ball was filmed can be visited. And, yes, the idea of a visit seemed attractive, with the ballroom’s apparently breath-taking ceiling (a double ceiling designed so those below can look up and see the decorations on the “first” ceiling and through openings see equally executed decorations on the “inside” ceiling) something to see. However, it was not to be, not this trip: the palazzo is private. Like many palazzi in Italy, though, it can be hired out for a visit. Sadly, whether the number of guests would be just the two of us or a party of 90, the fee is the same - €600.00. Perhaps not this time. I’ll stick with my happy memories of what I saw in the film!

Feeding the Soul in Palermo: “Rigoletto”

Tuesday 24 November 2009
[Some postings after the fact due to spotty Internet access.]

Is Mr. Guy ever any happier than when he is at the opera?

Probably not, and opera in Italy seems to push all the right buttons. The enthusiasm of the musicians, and of the audience, the almost embedded respect for the art form, and the attention to detail and care of execution of the designs of the productions – even if one doesn’t necessarily agree with the concept – all combine to make the experience a truly appropriate musical experience.

So perhaps there might be a slight reworking of Goethe’s comment. Perhaps instead of “…if you don’t see Sicily” the thought should be more along the lines of “If you come to Italy and don’t hear opera, you can’t know Italy.” Here in Palermo, a stone’s throw from the Teatro Bellini (and, yes, seeing “pasta alla Norma” on every menu makes me wonder what on earth the menus will say when I get to Catania, where Bellini was born!), I’m impressed with the offerings for Teatro Massimo’s opera season, both what is on for the remainder of this year and what’s on its way for an equally impressive stagione 2010.

The musical experience at Teatro Massimo is very special, even for people like us who hear so much opera. The performance we saw of “Rigoletto” was very well handled, and the new production – co-produced with Teatro Regio di Parma – was beautiful to look at, very traditional with lovely costumes and very handsome sets, full of rich golds and reds, especially in the scenes where there were many people on stage. Quite spectacular, indeed.

We had already been given a sense of the strength of the commitment when we visited the library of the Teatro Massimo. There we met with Biblioteca Giovanna Modico who had – when in another position with the Fondazione Teatro Massimo (the company’s proper name, using the “foundation” concept differently than we do, not to describe a philanthropic organization but to designate an organization structured for a particular purpose) –led the move to establish a research library to support the production and performance of opera. Coming into proper existence some 20 years ago, the library now not only serves those purposes (and includes company archives) but is open to scholars and – particularly – to students of design, theatre, musicology, and related subjects and has become a primary resource for scholars in these fields. Truly a specialized library in every imaginable concept of the term and truly a situation in which strategic knowledge is developed, captured, and shared for the benefit of the organization’s purpose, to bring music to the people of Sicily for their own pleasure and enjoyment.

Over in the opera house, the main attraction of the performance for me – aside from Mr. Verdi’s magnificent contribution which is always, with any of his operas, a listening experience to be savored – was the presence of the beloved Leo Nucci in the title role. Always a great fan, I was delighted to learn that he is still singing. He is getting on now (well, for an opera singer – in fact he’s only about 67 years old), and we don’t have him in America any more, but years ago – 20? 25? – I became a fan and so enjoyed his Figaro, a couple of other roles, and especially his Rigoletto (which I surely heard several times). And I was doubly blessed, for circumstances for one performance of Rigoletto found me with an invitation to visit him backstage after a performance at the Metropolitan Opera. I found him to be charming, interesting, and totally committed to his art and, not surprisingly, the performance in Palermo did not disappoint. He sang so beautifully throughout the entire opera, and in the second act, “Pieta, signori, pieta” was so moving and so touchingly performed, he had the audience cheering with enthusiasm for this obviously well loved singer. The applause went on and on, and he had to step out of character to move to the front of the stage to acknowledge the continuing ovation.

Our Gilda, Duke, and Sparafucile were unknown to me (Norah Amsellem, Francesco Meli, and Arutjun Kotchinian respectively), and our conductor was Keri-Lynn Wilson, also new to me. They were all so very good, with Amsellem in particular displaying a beautiful, wonderfully controlled instrument. She had the ability to do the old start-strong-stretch-out-with-a-delicate-diminuendo-then-bring-it-back-up-again technique that brought back memories of Montearrat Caballe in her glory days.

And when volume was called for, Amsellem had it. Indeed, she truly held her own in the duet with Nucci at the end of Act II. It was so well done, with her final notes sailing out over the orchestra and the full house – and Nucci right there with her all the way! The reaction was so great that – even though the scrim was brought down – the two of them stepped to the apron of the stage, and did it all over again! Of course it is all pre-arranged, but how does the conductor know the audience will like it this much? What a joy to hear and watch singers who so obviously love what they are doing! And who take so much pleasure in sharing their art with their public. Nucci and Amsellem were obviously loving every minute of their music-making. And what pleasure for the rest of us! Magnificent!

As for the building itself, the spectacular Teatro Massimo, begun by Giovanni Battista Basile in 1875 and completed by his son Ernesto in 1897 is well worth the visit, even if there isn’t a performance on. Much is said about the splendid l’art nouveau interior and I had been anticipating the visit, mainly (aside from the music) to satisfy my longing to learn more about the Sicilian version of my adored l’art nouveau. Here is referred to as stile-Liberty (yes, as in “Liberty of London”), and once again, I learned new things about l’art nouveau. There is no question but that the interior of the Teatro Massimo is as wonderful as its exterior, and the décor is beautiful to behold.

Yet I was surprised to see subtle (and sometimes not-so-subtle) differences, and just as Charles Rennie Macintosh with his straight lines and Louis Comfort Tiffany with his shimmering colors had created their own versions of l’art nouveau, so too does stile-Liberty have its own arrangement of detail. There is not, it would seem, that great devotion to the sinuous botanicals so often found in other versions of l’art nouveau (especially in Brussels, Antwerp, and Paris) and that disappoints a little, since that particular element of the design is so pleasing to me. Nor, in the Teatro Massimo, are there the molded curves in wood, so much a part of the rooms in the Musee d’Orsay or the recently installed room at the Metropolitan Museum. In Ernesto Basile’s version, there is a much closer connection with the neo-classical and while some of the iron balustrades and lamp supports display the graceful curves associated with l’art nouveau there isn’t much in the way of botanical references.

But such observations come dangerously close to the pedantic. Ernesto Basile has created a beautiful interior in the Teatro Massimo and it makes for much pleasure for the eye when one visits this splendid space.