30 December 2012

Film review: Water (2006), by Deepa Mehta, *****

Synopsis

Set against the epic backdrop of the River Ganges in 1938 during Mahatma Gandhi's rise to power, this is the inspiring tale of an eight year old Hindu girl named Chuyia. Chuyia's life is suddenly changed when she is widowed and sent to a home where Hindu widows must live in penitence. She refuses to accept her fate and her feisty presence begins to affect the lives of other residents, including a beautiful young widow, Kalyani (Lisa Ray of Bollywood/Hollywood) who has fallen in love with Ghandian idealist, Narayan (Bollywood star John Abraham).

Extremist groups waged a campaign of death threats, arson and riots to stop the production of this controversial film, but director Deepa Mehta would not be silenced. Set against Gandhi's rise to power, Water tells the profoundly moving story of Chuyia, an Indian girl married and widowed at eight years old, who is sent away to a home where Hindu widows must live in penitence. Chuyia's feisty presence deeply affects the other residents, forcing each to confront their faith and society's prejudices.


29 December 2012

Film review: Winds of Sand, Women of Rock (2010), by Nathalie Borgers, *****

Synopsis

Amina is preparing to leave with the date caravan. Every year, she and many other Toubou women make this 1500 km journey from Agadez to Bilma, across Niger's Sahara, despite the danger, the heat (50°C) and the sandstorms.

For these nomadic women, the journey is the key to their economic independence: they sell their goats and bring back dates, and with the income from the sale of the dates, a family can live for a year. But Amina, a rebellious 26-year old, has had enough of this long trip. En route, she finds a friend in Mariama and, far from the men, the two young girls share their dreams of a modern, independent life. When they reach their destination, they try to put their plans into action. But Domagali is weary of joining them, and longs to go back to the Sahara, where the grass is free.


28 December 2012

Film review: Friends with benefits (2011) by Will Gluck, ****

Description

Dylan (Justin Timberlake) is done with relationships. Jamie (Mila Kunis) decides to stop buying into the Hollywood clichés of true love. When the two become friends they decide to try something new and take advantage of their mutual attraction – but without any emotional attachment. Physical pleasure without the entanglements. Sounds easy enough for two logical adults, right? Not so much. They soon realize romantic comedy stereotypes might exist for a reason.



Review

This is not as good as "No Strings Attached" but "Friends with Benefits" is nonetheless fun and worth the affordable price of this DVD on Amazon. The film has its well designed twists and turns and it is never completely predictable. One just wonders how many real "friends with benefits" are there in the world, but certainly this choice of partnership is becoming more acceptable and common in the early XXI century. There are even websites devoted to it. It sounds perfect does it not? Free fun without the burden of either commitment or involvement. Not so fast...





27 December 2012

Film review: While you were sleeping (1995) by John Turteltaub, ****

Lucy gets a gift from her new family
Synopsis

Lucy (Bullock) dreams of a man, and when she happens to be engaged to him through the most unusual chain of coincidences she realizes he is actually not for her. Someone else is. Despite the social pressure that builds up through the film, she eventually does what is necessary!


Review

This is certainly among the best rom/com I have ever seen, and I am looking forward to letting a few months go by and then I will watch the DVD again. Bullock is great is her natural simplicity. But it is Pullman who is perhaps the real star with his understated but deep personality. Most supporting actors are great as well, which is a real plus.

I also find a message in this film, not sure whether it was intended by either its author or the director but here it is: be ready to change your life, because what you really wanted for a long time, and thought was impossible, might actually happen. When it does, it might not be what you expected, so again: be ready to change your target, fast.

It seems to be a recurring theme is Bullock's movies. I got a very similar message out of "The Proposal" (which I also review in this blog). I treasure it in my own life.




24 December 2012

Immondizia a Roma, 1753-2012

Targa murale del 1753, Roma
Si trova in Via dei Cappellari
ed ecco il 2012, in alto a sinistra la targa del 1753

Passeggiata a Roma, nei pressi di Campo dei Fiori. Mi colpisce una targa posta sul muro oltre due secoli fa, per far divieto di buttare immondizia per strada. Si promette di mantenere il segreto per i delatori. E si minacciano multe e punizioni corporali per gli sporcaccioni che venissero condannati. I padroni sono responsabili per i loro servitori ed i padri per i figli.

Ecco qui nella foto, oggi 24 dicembre 2012, quello che si vede proprio sotto la vecchia targa.

Forse sarebbe il caso di rimettere in pratica questo editto del Monsignore presidente delle strade. O forse chissà, non è mai stata abolita, bisognerebbe solo applicarla.

23 December 2012

Mithraeum of Santa Prisca in Rome

Today I have visited a small secret of ancient Rome. I strongly recommend it to anyone interested in exploring off the beaten track ancient Rome.


Una descrizione in italiano e istruzioni per la visita sono presenti su questo sito. Consiglio anche un sito completo su Roma antica sotterranea.


Description

In 1934 the Augustinian Fathers accidentally discovered a Mithreum, a place of cult consecrated to the God Mithra, under the Church of Santa Prisca. The Mithreum was built using the walls of a house dating back to the first century A.D. and of a building of the second century with two naves on which the church was built later.

There is a niche in the rear wall bearing an inscription in the vault that proves the Mithreum was already in use in the year 202 A.D.. The statue of the cult representing Mithra killing a bull and a Saturn lying down built with fragments of amphorae covered with stucco are placed in the niche. The Mithreum was destroyed violently around 400 A.D., probably by the Christians before the Church of Santa Prisca was built. (From Romacapitale)

The Mithraeum later became a Christian church


My visit

Very appropriately I visited on 23rd December, which is when the Romans celebrated the cult of the sun god venerated in Mithraism. We were a small group of six and were led into the chamber by our tour guide and a custodian.

Statue of Coates symbolizing the dawn of the sun
It is possible to take photographs in the Mithaeum but without a flash.

19 December 2012

Film review: An Autumn Tale (1998), by Eric Rohmer, ****

Synopsis

Eric Rohmer's light-hearted romantic comedy, set amongst the vineyards of the Rhône Valley, concludes his film cycle THE TALES OF THE FOUR SEASONS. Best friends Magali, a widow, and Isabelle, a happily married bookshop owner, have known each other since childhood. Although Magali enjoys her life as a wine grower, she admits that she would relish some male companion- ship; a confession that prompts Isabelle to secretly find her friend a man. After placing a lonely hearts ad, Isabelle chooses a suitor, but finds that things don't quite go according to plan...


15 December 2012

Film review: You will be my son (2010), by Gilles Legrand, ****

Synopsis

Paul Marseul (Niels Arestrup), owner of a prestigious vineyard in Saint Emilion has a son, Martin (Loran Deutsch), who works with him on the family estate named Clos de l'Abbé. Paul is a demanding and passionate winemaker but is a domineering father. He is not happy that his son may one day succeed him. He dreams of a son who is more talented, more charismatic . . . and more in line with his own aspirations. Things deteriorate as Paul's trusted manager (Patrick Chesnais) is dying of cancer. Philip (Nicolas Bridet), his brilliant son, who is also in the busines, returns from California to see his dying father. Paul sees Philip as his ideal son and turns away from his own flesh and blood.


04 December 2012

Film review: Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000) by Ang Lee, ****

Synopsis

From Sony Pictures' web site: Named "Best Picture of the Year" by over 100 critics nationwide! Two master warriors (Chow Yun Fat and Michelle Yeoh) are faced with their greatest challenge when the treasured Green Destiny sword is stolen. A young aristocrat (Zhang Ziyi) prepares for an arranged marriage, but soon reveals her superior fighting talents and her deeply romantic past. As each warrior battles for justice, they come face to face with their worst enemy - and the inescapable, enduring power of love. Set against 19th-century China's breathtaking landscape, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon is the action-packed, box office smash from acclaimed director Ang Lee (Sense and Sensibility, The Ice Storm) featuring stunning martial arts choreography by Yuen Wo Ping (The Matrix).


Review

A mesmerizing film. I am not a fan of wuxia films, and I believe this film could have done with much less rooftop flying and bullet deflecting. It is an excellent story in itself and it also shows a lot about a dramatic historical period in China (late XIX century). In fact, in my view one missed opportunity of this film is that it could have told us a lot more about the historical context. Also, I think the plot is overly complicated, after a while I gave up trying to follow all its nouances. Yet, it is hard to fault the director for his imprint. It does make a coherent whole and it is impressive. It is also a movie about the endless dilemmas of love and loyalty.

The sound track is beautiful as well and comes out well in the BD. Too bad there are no extras, at this price one would have expected some.

You can see a list of movies on China I have reviewed on this blog.



30 November 2012

Libro: Viaggio alle Maldive (2a edizione, 2015) di Marco Carnovale


Sinossi

Racconto dei molti viaggi alle Maldive dell'autore, che ha navigato in lungo e i in largo per gli atolli, incontrando la gente e cercando di capirne storia e cultura. Gironzolando sempre in barca, Marco ci porta a spasso per villaggi tranquilli, dove la tradizione cerca un difficile equilibrio con l'innovazione e la tecnologia. Ci guida per le strade della brulicante capitale Male', nei suoi angoli nascosti spesso trascurati dal turismo frettoloso. Durante decine di immersioni subacquee, egli è testimone della ricchezza faunistica e dei colori sfavillantii di questi mari. Ma le isole stanno affrontando gravi problemi e rapidi cambiamenti, e non sono sempre il paradiso che sembrano. Le Maldive sono ad una svolta, con cambiamenti politici, economici ed ambientali che pongono difficili sfide al governo ed alla nazione.

Ho anche fatto molte fotografie alle Maldive, sopra e sotto la superficie dell'acqua. Ne ho pubblicato una selezione nella mia pagina Flickr.

Puoi ascoltare un'intervista sul libro che è andata in onda il 17 Gennaio 2013 a Radio Alma, una radio italiofona di Bruxelles.

Puoi comprare il libro su Amazon.it cliccando qui. Disponibile in formato ebook kindle oppure copia cartacea:





Per chi vive fuori dall'Italia il libro è disponibile sui vari siti di Amazon:

Amazon.com, Amazon.fr, Amazon.co.uk, Amazon.de, Amazon.es




°°°°°°°°°°°°°

PREFAZIONE DEL LIBRO "Viaggio alle Maldive" di Marco Carnovale

ALCUNI ANNI FA, in preparazione del mio primo viaggio alle Maldive, feci il giro delle mie solite librerie, e passai al setaccio anche i principali siti di vendita di libri sul web, per approfondire la conoscenza di questa destinazione. Trovai guide turistiche, in gran parte focalizzate sulla descrizione dei servizi offerti nei villaggi vacanza multistellati, e qualche carta geografica. Con non poca sorpresa dovetti però constatare che non esisteva alcun volume, in italiano, dedicato a storia, politica, economia, arte, ambiente, usi, costumi, società delle Maldive, e neanche un racconto di viaggio. Allargando la ricerca a librerie e siti web internazionali venne fuori che qualcosa di più era stato scritto in altre lingue, frutto del lavoro di politologi indiani, di un esploratore arabo del milletrecento, di uno francese del seicento, di un viaggiatore inglese degli anni trenta e di un archeologo norvegese degli anni ottanta del secolo scorso, e poco altro. Anche se si tratta di una piccola nazione, e non mi aspettavo certo scaffali pieni, la scena letteraria era veramente desolante.

28 November 2012

Recensione: Un alfabeto di lettere (2002) di Debora Gatelli, *****

Sinossi

Questo libro non è un romanzo, non è una raccolta di poesie né un'autobiografia. Nemmeno un diario e neanche un saggio. Sono lettere. Lettere che ho scritto e spedito davvero e lettere inventate (le date non sono casuali, alcune corrono parecchio indietro nel tempo mentre altre spiccano il volo nel futuro). Lettere con ciò che avevo da dire e ho detto, lettere con ciò che ho da dire e non dico. Lettere immaginarie, lettere immaginate, lettere reali, lettere imbucate, lettere strappate, lettere dell'alfabeto. Ad ogni lettera ho dato un titolo; sono titoli di canzoni che mi piacciono (per completezza ho indicato tra parentesi anche il gruppo musicale), colonne sonore di vari momenti importanti e non che in qualche modo si ricollegano al contenuto della lettera alla quale sono associate. Perché la musica accompagna le parole e le parole contornano la musica. In un certo senso con le note si può scrivere e con le lettere si può suonare. Basta volerlo. Io volevo anche delle note per le mie lettere.


27 November 2012

Film review: The Red Violin (1998) by François Girard, ****

Synopsis

An epic adventure of mystery and obsession unfolds when Charles Morritz (Samuel L. Jackson), an appraiser of rare musical instruments discovers a one of a kind red violin at a prestigious Montreal auction house. Convinced he's found an authentic long-lost masterpiece, Morritz uncovers the spectacular journey of the priceless violin, how it changed hands and lives of all who touched it. When the violin's shocking secret is finally revealed, Morritz must wrestle with his own demons and choose between burying the truth and risking everything.




13 November 2012

Film review: Bananas (1971) by Woody Allen, ****

Synopsis

Woody Allen's second film as a director was a wild, unpredictable and unlikely comedy about a product-tester named Fielding Mellish (Allen), who can't quite connect with the woman of his dreams (Louise Lasser, Allen's ex-wife). He accidentally winds up in South America as a freedom fighter for a guerrilla leader who looks like Castro. Once he assumes power, the new dictator quickly goes insane--which leaves Fielding in charge to negotiate with the US. The film is chockfull of wonderfully bizarre gags, such as the dreams Fielding recounts to his shrink about dueling crucified messiahs, vying for a parking place near Wall Street. Look for an unknown Sylvester Stallone in a tiny role--but watch this film for Allen's surprisingly physical (and always verbally dexterous) humour. --Marshall Fine for Amazon


06 November 2012

Recensione: Viaggio in Antartide (2012) di Robert B. Yonaitis, ***

Map of Antarctic explorations
Sinossi

Viaggio in Antartide racconta la storia di un esperto viaggiatore in procinto di partire per un viaggio unico nella vita di un uomo. Narrato dalla prospettiva di un esploratore del mondo, Viaggio in Antartide è una miscela piacevolissima: da un lato, fornisce consigli pratici e suggerimenti di viaggio, dall'altro troviamo aneddoti, storie e vivaci descrizioni che rendono questo diario davvero memorabile. La narrazione del viaggio segue la nave mentre passa il Canale di Drake, il gruppo di turisti della spedizione mentre si avventurano a piedi sulla terraferma, attraverso lande selvagge, dove si mostra in tutto il suo splendore la natura del deserto più a Sud del mondo. Gli esploratori faranno delle esperienze sorprendenti lungo il viaggio, perfino un campeggio in Antartide. È una storia che dovrebbe essere letta da chiunque stia pensando ad un viaggio nel deserto di cristallo, ma che verrà apprezzata anche dagli amanti della natura e da tutti coloro i quali sono affascinati da questa terra lontana e ghiacciata.


05 November 2012

Photo slideshow: "Minds in Path" di Shades of Women

L'associazione Shades of Women propone per il secondo anno una interessante serie di proiezioni di reportage di fotografe in giro per il mondo, a documentare il dramma di molti popoli in guerra. Oggi la seconda serata alla quale ho assistito. Puoi leggere qui un'intervista con Ilaria Prili, fotografa ed organizzatrice di questa serie di eventi. Ecco il programma:

At all latitudes the mind of men and, in particular, of young people is on the move, it designs, dreams, builds, faces obstacles, sometimes succumbs, but does not give up. A big river tells both these stories and those in which men themselves create obstacles, attack nature, pollute it, deform it. To win over all this is people’s creative sensitivity, their individual and social initiative, their ability to invent something in which new and old come together and complement each other.

Sotto tutte le latitudini la mente degli uomini e dei giovani in particolare è in cammino, progetta, sogna, realizza, affronta gli ostacoli, qualche volta soccombe, ma non rinuncia. Un grande fiume racconta queste storie anche quelle in cui gli uomini stessi creano gli ostacoli, aggrediscono la natura, la inquinano, la deformano. Vince la sensibilità creativa delle persone, l’iniziativa individuale e sociale, la capacità di inventare nella quale nuovo e antico si incontrano e si completano.

04 November 2012

The Island President (2011) by Jon Shenk, ****

Synopsis
Jon Shenk's The Island President tells the story of President Mohamed Nasheed of the Maldives, a man confronting a problem greater than any other world leader has ever faced the literal survival of his country and everyone in it. After bringing democracy to the Maldives after thirty years of despotic rule, Nasheed is now faced with an even greater challenge: as one of the most low-lying countries in the world, a rise of three feet in sea level would submerge the 1200 islands of the Maldives enough to make them uninhabitable.

31 October 2012

Film review: Another Woman (1988) by Woody Allen, ***

Synopsis

Woody Allen's 17th film. Gena Rowland plays Marion, an academic who rents a flat in which to write a book on philosophy and becomes intrigued by conversations she overhears from a psychologist's office next door. One patient, Hope (Mia Farrow), has a particular effect on Marion forcing her to re-think many of her assumptions about her own life: her unhappy marriage; her feelings for another man (Gene Hackman); and her relationships with her best friend (Sandy Dennis) and brother (Harris Yulin).


Review

It's convoluted film. Allen tries to put too much meat on his plate. Several stories are intertwined and it was easy to get lost trying to make sense out of them. One does get some stimulating psychological thrusts here and there. The problematic protagonist is a warning against spending a life concentrating too much on oneself. But then again she is also a victim of men spending too much time on themselves. The viewer is left with no way out. Maybe there is no way out.

Buy your European DVD here


In the US you can order it here




27 October 2012

Film review: Sideways (2004) by Alexander Payne, ****

Synopsis

Comedy drama which follows Miles (Paul Giamatti), an unsuccessful novelist, and Jack (Thomas Haden Church), an equally unsuccessful actor who is about to get married. They decide to take a trip to California in an attempt to sow their wild oats. There they explore the nature of their failures and question their relationships. Jack has an affair with Stephanie (Sandra Oh)  and wonders whether he should call off the marriage. Miles, recently divorced himself, questions whether or not he made the right decision while Maya (Virginia Madsen) plays a few games with him.


Review

An excellent movie that is only marginally about wine. Yes we go through California's wine country and learn a lot about many different kinds of wine, and especially Pinot Noir.

But the movie by Alexander Payne is more about what we can do with ourselves and our lives with the hand we are dealt at birth and by chance. I identify very much with Miles, a not-so-good-looking but deep thinking fellow who is deeply passionate about what he loves, be it his lost ex-wife or Pinot Noir. But it is the Jacks of the world who have more fun: not so deep, not so careful, just happy go lucky types. The last scene of the movie leaves a door open to hope however: while Jack sinks unenthusiastically into his marriage, Miles finds the true love of his life.

You can buy the DVD here


In the US you can buy it here:


22 October 2012

Proiezione fotogafica: BLEEDING BLOSSOMS di Shades of Women

L'associazione Shades of Women propone per il secondo anno una interessante serie di proiezioni di reportage di fotografe in giro per il mondo, a documentare il dramma di molti popoli in guerra. Puoi leggere qui un'intervista con Ilaria Prili, fotografa ed organizzatrice di questa serie di eventi.

Nadia Shira Cohen - Arab spring
Her personal website is www.nadiashiracohen.com

Rena Effendi - Georgia conflict
Her personal website is www.refendi.com

Simona Ghizzoni - Just to let you know that I’m alive
She works for Contrasto.

Sofie Amalie Klougart - Going to war.
Her personal website is www.sofieamalieklougart.dk

Benedicte Kurzen - Nigeria, a nation lost to the gods.
Her personal website is http://benedictekurzen.com

Ilvy Njiokiktjien and Elles van Gelder - Afrikaner blood.
Her personal website is http://www.imagesbyilvy.com

Lana Slezic - Forsaken
Her personal website is http://www.lanaslezic.com

Here is a link to the next event of this series that I attended.

Interessantissima proiezione di drammatici documentari di guerra e rivoluzione al Teatro Due di Roma, in Vicolo due Macelli. Sala piena, fotografia di alto livello. Da consigliare la prossima proiezione del 5 novembre.

Teatro Due Roma

teatro stabile d’essai

Vicolo due Macelli, 37 (M Piazza di Spagna)
Tel. 06/6788.259 – fax 06/6793.349




09 October 2012

Film review: Lust, Caution (2007) by Ang Lee, ****

Synopsis

After Brokeback Mountain andThe Hulk, multitalented director Ang Lee returns to Asia with this Mandarin-language erotic drama. Lust, Caution pairs celebrated actor Tony Leung (2046) with gifted newcomer Tang Wei. In 1938, China is occupied by the Japanese, but it's not only the country's neighbours who are hated by the loyal Chinese. The nation's resistance also centres on those who willingly collaborate with Japan. Wong Chia Chi (Tang Wei) is part of an acting group, but their sights are set beyond the stage: they want to use their abilities to attack Mr. Yee (Leung), a known traitor. Wong poses as a businessman's wife, and she begins to lure Mr. Yee in, but they're separated before she has her chance. Three years later, they meet again in Shanghai, and a heated affair begins. As Wong grows closer to Mr. Yee, there is doubt that she can aid in her lover's downfall.

At times, Lust, Caution evokes memories of Wong Kar-Wai's In the Mood for Love. Both are heat-filled period films that feature Leung, but while the earlier picture focused on a love that was never consummated, Lust, Caution allows its lovers to realise their passion as often as one could imagine. Despite this, it never allows the sex to get in the way of the plot or the images. Director of photography Rodrigo Prieto has worked with directors as diverse and impressive as Oliver Stone, Julie Taymor, Spike Lee, and Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu, and he continues this fine tradition with his second pairing with Lee after Brokeback Mountain. Here Prieto has a head start thanks to beautiful costumes and beautiful people, but this is another film that is simply gorgeous to look at.


04 October 2012

Book review/Recensione: Non dire nulla (2012), di Paola Viola, *****

Review

Paola Viola spent a few months in Kenya for an NGO (Una Mano per un Sorriso - For Children). Paola started taking pictures not so long ago, but in this first collection of B&W images she displays rare talent and high sensitivity. Paola tells us about the daily life of a part of Kenya that tourists never see, and that we should all know. From her trip, she takes back strong emotions, which she relays to us through her pictures and her short text in English and Italian.


Recensione

Paola Viola ha passato alcuni mesi in Kenya per conto di una ONLUS (Una Mano per un Sorriso - For Children). Paola non fotografa da molto tempo, ma questa prima collezione di immagini (tutte in bianco e nero) dimostra un talento innato ed una spiccata sensibilità. Paola racconta la vita di tutti i giorni di una parte del Kenya che i turisti non vedono mai, ma che dovremmo tutti conoscere. Ciò che ci riporta dal suo soggiorno, con le immagini forti ma anche con brevi e puntuali testi di accompagnamento, sono emozioni preziose.

Compra il libro su Amazon.it


15 September 2012

Book review: Andrew Zimmern visits Taiwan (2009) by Andrew Zimmern, *

making dim sum in a Taipei restaurant

Synopsis

One chapter of a book about the author traveling around the world to try different foods. This chapter is about Taiwan, or so I thought when I bought it. In reality only half of it is about Taiwan and then only about dim sum.


Review


Disappointing. I bought it to learn about food in Taiwan, and all you get is one restaurant in Taipei he visited. One that is in all the guidebooks and that just about any foreign tourist will probably end up trying. I did too. It was very good, but did not need this audio-book. Anyway, the first half of the piece is about the author's food experiences trying Chinese food in New York!

Look elsewhere if you are interested in finding out more about Taiwanese food. Which, by the way, is absolutely excellent, possibly the best Chinese food in the world. Perhaps because in mainland China the rich traditions of Chinese food were repressed for decades during Maoism, though they are obviously nurtured again to their full, amazing variety.

You can buy this chapter about Taiwan as an audio-book or the whole book by clicking below.


making dim sum in a Taipei restaurant



09 September 2012

Book review: The Dark Tourist (2010), by Dom Joly, ***

Sinister looking WW I artillery on Monte Grappa
Synopsis

'Dark tourism is the act of travel and visitation to sites, attractions and exhibitions which have real or recreated death, suffering or the seemingly macabre as a main theme'

Ever since he can remember, Dom Joly has been fascinated by travel to odd places. In part this stems from a childhood spent in war-torn Lebanon, where instead of swapping marbles in the schoolyard, he had a shrapnel collection -- the schoolboy currency of Beirut. Dom's upbringing was interspersed with terrifying days and nights spent hunkered in the family basement under Syrian rocket attack or coming across a pile of severed heads from a sectarian execution in the pine forests near his home.

These early experiences left Dom with a profound loathing for the sanitized experiences of the modern day travel industry and a taste for the darkest of places. The more insalubrious the place, the more interesting is the journey and so we follow Dom as he skis in Iran on segregated slopes, picnics in the Syrian Desert with a trigger-happy government minder and fires rocket propelled grenades at live cows in Cambodia (he missed on purpose, he just couldn't do it).


08 September 2012

Book review: Zen and the Art of Motorcycle maintenance (1974), by Robert Pirsig *****

She does not look zen (Sorong, Indonesia)
Synopsis

A narration of a summer motorcycle trip undertaken by a father and his son, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance becomes a personal and philosophical odyssey into fundamental questions on how to live. The narrator's relationship with his son leads to a powerful self-reckoning; the craft of motorcycle maintenance leads to an austerely beautiful process for reconciling science, religion, and humanism. Resonant with the confusions of existence, this classic is a touching and transcendent book of life.

You can find a lot about the author here.


Review

This book tells the story of a few people riding their bikes across the West of the United States, but it is not really a book about travel. But then again it is. Travel toward the center of our own self. It is a complex book. To be read in sequence with Zen and the Art of Archery by Eugen Herrigel.The main point of the book is that happiness (or "quality") can be achieved by focussing on and finding beauty in whatever one is doing at any one moment while keeping a cool head on the way forward. Even listening to the unusual noise of a defective motorbike and looking for a fix can yield unexpected satisfaction. At the same time, fixing the broken bike requires scientific, rational knowledge, thinking.

The challenge is to focus on the moment (zen) through a sort of meditative practice of detachment and at the same time never lose sight of where one is going, with (rational) planning for the future.

"Quality" and "truth" were the same thing for the ancient Greeks, and perhaps they should be for us too. Here East Zen meets Western rationalism, the two are complementary. A great read, but a difficult one and I admit I was only able to understand more of it by reading secondary literature about this book.






02 September 2012

Singapore: Gardens by the Bay and Japanese food



Started off after breakfast from my hotel and decided to visit the new Gardens by the Bay. Like almost everything in Singapore, it is an artificial wonder.

Entirely built over reclaimed land, it is a technological wonder, allowing Singaporeans to walk into controlled climate greenhouses to see the flora of other latitudes.

Highly educational. Mostly families today, it's a Sunday. I can't help but feel a bit out of place as a single man in my early fifties, but I enjoy it all nonetheless.







Fish and special raw beef
Early evening dinner in an unpretentious but excellent Japanese restaurant in the Orchard Road MRT station. Very informal but not at all inexpensive! After waiting in line for some ten minutes (this place is popular even though I can't find it on Tripadvisor!) I am greeted as per Japanese tradition with いらっしゃいませ (irasshaimase) which just means welcome.

I always sit down at the sushi bar and enjoy looking at the chefs preparing the orders which are handed down to them by a team of ladies constantly scudding around with their notepad. I sip some Japanese beer while my food is readied and then handed down directly to me over the counter.

Excellent sushi, great fat tuna "toro" to start with. Then also raw "Kobe beef". Not cheap but highly gratifying especially as you are eating this treat in a subway station, or right next to it anyway! I will leave a good portion of my food budget here in the course of this trip as well as other visits to Singapore.
Toro

01 September 2012

Party at Sentosa, Singapore

Today I am invited to join a party on one of the beaches of Sentosa, an island just off Singapore's south-western coast. Getting to the island is easy with S'pore famous MRT. Once there, I asked the info office how to reach the beach where my friends were waiting for me and was told there is Yellow bus: "go right, then into a cave, then two flights down, turn right. It's free. Get off at the second stop." The bus should take me to Tanjong Beach Club. All stops are indicated on a map, but no Tanjong Club. I ask the driver, he says get off at the third stop, not at the second stop. At the first stop I see almost everyone getting off and ask driver, is this the stop for Tanjong Club? Yes yes. OK, whatever.

At the entrance to the beach there is a long line to leave bags, they are not allowed to the beach area. People are swimming, which is to be expected at a beach party, but only in a small swimming pool. No one is swimming in the sea, because it's rather brownigs and uninviting but also because you can't reach the sea at all. Long blue net screens close off access to the water. some say bc ppl try to get into the party without paying the entry fee (which entry fee?? I will find out later) some say because during these parties people get drunk and drown.

I get to meet an interesting crowd: Singaporeans of course, but also lots of expats. A Philipino lady is here to study architecture. Two Turkish engineers work for ashipping company. An Italian architect in his late twenties is very happy: could not find a good job as an architect in Italy but here he got an exciting position and though he works really long hours he makes good money and his work is appreciated. Soon he will get a permament residence permit, which will allow him to switch jobs more easily and even stay on in Singapore indefinitely, even if he should be without a job for a time.

Most ladies wear stylish black dresses, others just a swim suit. We sit down with my friends and start gulping beer and sandwiches. After a while, two big security guards appear and start pacing up and down the length of the beach At about 11pm, after we've been at the party for almost 7 hours, the two guards come to our table and ask me and Peiwen for our bracelet. What bracelet? Well apparently there is a bracelet you get when you pay your entry fee to the beach. None of us was aware of this. I am actually ready to apologize and pay but my local friends are quite upset and start arguing with the guards until they give up! So we get our bracelets for free...

By 1:00am it's time for me to go even if the party is still in full swing. The organization of the party provides for valet drivers for car owners who drink: you can drive to the beach, drink you brains out and someone will drive you home in your own car! Smart.


31 August 2012

Emily of Emerald Hill and the Peranakan Museum, Singapore

Peranakan Museum in Singapore
Today I visited this unique museum in Singapore, dedicated to the Peranakan, or Chinese from the Malay peninsula. A unique contribution to Singapore's multicultural identity, where each component cultural heritage (Chinese, malay and Tamil) and its language is protected, while English is the cement common to all.










In the museum I could see an exhibition of Emily of Emerald Hill, a short play by Singaporean playright Stella Kon.


As she tells us in her blog, Emily of Emerald Hill is a one-woman play about a Nonya matriarch who dominates her family, yet in the end finds that she loses what she loves most. The play won the First Prize in the National Play-Writing Competition 1983. Since then it has been presented more than a hundred times, by eight different performers, in Singapore, Malaysia, Hawaii and Edinburgh. It has been translated into Chinese and Japanese and broadcast over Radio Iceland. A film version is under negotiation.

Emily is a short and passionate play that takes the reader inside the heart of a Peranakan family of the 1950s. Traditional Chinese values are intertwined with English habits that were common in the richer class of Singapore. The matriarch defers to her husband, but in the end it is she who calls the shots in the house. She is loving but also possessive. Servants are treated with dignity but firmness, children (especially sons) are spoiled and daughters-in-law are expected to be submissive. Wives are expected to tolerate their husbands' cheating. It is a materially comfortable life but also a straightjacket for the younger generation that wants to try it out on its own.




You can buy the book and other works by contacting Stella Kon at stelkon@singnet.com.sg


You can watch a trailer of the play here.

And another here.


30 August 2012

Dim Sum in Singapore

Marina Bay Sands, Din Tai Fung restaurant, probably among the best dim sum in the world.































































27 August 2012

Books and films on Singapore

work in progress



Rickshaw Coolie: A People's History of Singapore (2003), by James Warren, ***** A people's history of Singapore between 1880 and 1940. Highly readable.

Ah ku and Karayuki San: Prostitution in Singapore, 1870-1940 (1993), by James Francis Warren, ***** Fascinating social history through the eyes of Chinese and Japanese prostitutes iwho came to Singapore in search of fortune. Few found it.

25 August 2012

Breakfast and identity in Bali, Indonesia

I am about to have a delightful breakfast in the terrace of my hotel in Bali, which is adjacent to some fastidiously manicured rice terraces. The early morning sun shines on the water that fills the paddies. I have just taken a short walk around the terraces to photograph the reflections of the seedlings on the muddy water, and have returned to the table for a hearty Indonesian breakfast.

A waiter comes to my table, he has obviously been trained to have a personal approach to each guest, as he greets me warmly.

Waiter: Hello Mister Marco, so you are from Belgium?

Me: Hi, good morning, yes, well I live there but I am Italian.

W: Oh I see, so Belgium is near Italy?

M: Well kind of, it's a two-hour flight, Belgium is on the Atlantic coast in the North of Europe.

W: Oh I see, on the Atlantic, so is it near Canada?

M: No no, it's in Europe, between France and Germany.

W: Ah ok. I thought it was landlocked. I once flew over the Atlantic, I remember it's extremely deep. And the waves are huge! But France and Italy are the same right?

M: Not really, different countries, though we are all in Europe now: no borders, same money, most laws are the same.

W: So it is the same.

M: Ah well yes I suppose in a way it is.

W: And Belgium too?

M: Yes of course, Belgium too.

He may not know Belgium's exact position on the map, but he clearly knows about the Atlantic. How could he guess the depth of the ocean and size up the waves from an airliner is anyone's guess. But he understands Europe as well as any of us who live there.

The conversation is very useful for me: it drives the point home that I, really, have no homeland. My roots are weaker than those of the rice seedlings that bend in the light morning wind. Do I have an identity? Do I really need one? Do I care? Not really. I suppose I just have multiple identities, and it's too complicated to explain over breakfast.

Lesson learned: keep it simple when trying to explain where you come from.

23 August 2012

Tour and cooking course in Bali

We start for a walk to the village of Celuk Village for Fine silver making and studio. Obviously a touristy moment but interesting nonetheless.

We then proceed to the Batuan Village temple, beautiful temple with amazing curving detail.

This is followed by a visit to one of many wood carving villages, where I spot a beautiful mask which is now guarding against evil spirits by the door of my bedroom.

Finally, a short walk around the monkey forest of Ubud completes the tour. Actually the best part is yet to come, as in the late afternoon and evening I have booked a cooking class. As I always do when the opportunity presents itself when I travel, here too I take another cooking class of Balinese cuisine. I decide, among many options, for the half-day Lobong cooking course.

There are four ladies (from Australia, India and Lebanon) joining me for this class. We start with some explanations of the traditional Bali house structure and introduction of real Balinese Daily Life. The Lobong are a well to do family and their house compound is impressive.

We then go for a walk in the surrounding forest to study and pick several herbs and spices that will be used in the cooking class. It's a pleasant descent into the valley and then a climb up to the house again. Along the way we stop at an ample courtyard where several ladies are busy preparing food: chopping, slicing, mixing. Very friendly and photogenic!

We then plunge in the the lush forest and meet several farmers who are also there to gather precious ingredients for their kitchens. In about one hour we are back to the Lobong house and it's time to get to work!

We spend the next couple of hours cooking Balinese food under the careful supervision of the chef.

Then it's time to eat the product of our hard labor! Before that however we had to make the traditional offering to the ancestors. So the mother of the chef comes along, takes a sample of the food we had prepared and walks to the family altar to make an offering. Only then we are allowed to the table . It was all quite good.

20 August 2012

The Terunyan (or Trunyan) of Bali, Indonesia



The Terunyan cemetery

A day trip from Ubud to a rather atypical destination: the village of the Terunyan (or Trunyan) a "Balai Aga" (aborigenal people of Bali). Their name comes from Taru (tree) and menyan (fragrance) and I will return to the importance of this fragrance in a moment. These people date way back to before Hindus came to Bali, where they now constitute over 90% of the population, an anomaly in Indonesia which is mostly muslim.

As I read from a local information board (I slightly adapted the English):

The Terunyan village is situated at the foot of Mount Abang, in remote and isolated locations on the eastern coast of the Batur lake. The Terunyan society calls the community of Bali "Aga" (native). In Terunyan there is a temple called Pura Pancering Jagat. In addition, in the village, the houses still reflect a traditional home. Near this villave there ia a cemetery that can only be reached by boat via the lake.

Unlike other Balinese cultures, these people do not cremate their dead. The bodies of the deceased are just laid on the ground within fenced "ancak saji" (woven bamboo). Women are generally not allowed to attend the ceremonial processions that accompany the dead to their final resting place. (Actually it is not quite "final" as I will elaborate below.) This is because of a belief that if women were allowed to partake of funeral processions this would produce a curse for the whole village.

Interestingly, these bodies do not smell after decomposition begins. This is believed to be the consequence of the Menyan Taru trees (taru = trees, menyan = fragrant) that grow just next to the graves.




A unique experience, if a quiet and sober one. Not rally an "attraction of Bali", which is how Tripadvisor classifies it. Some contributors to this most useful website compared how much time was needed to visit Tetunyan and trip prices to rafting or market browsing.




There are actually three cemeteries. The first is for children. It is called the Semà (cemetery) Muda (youth). The second one is the Semà Bantasi and it is for those who die in accidents or because of illness.

The third one, which we visited, is called the Semà Wayah (old people) and it  is for people who were married and die of natural old age. Only eleven people are buried there at any one time. When additional elderly people die, the ones who were placed there first are moved to an adjacent site and their skulls and bones are lined up.

As for the trees, I could indeed small a fragrance, but won't attempt to analyze what effect this can have on the preservation of the cadavers. The legend has it that in the old days the elderly were asked what to do with these trees, whose smell was so strong that it made people sneeze all the time. They advised villagers to plant the trees next to the dead so that the stench from decomposition would be balanced with the fragrance.

Our local guide Agung also relates another legend according to which the stench of the dead is sucked in by a network of natural tunnels under the cemetery.

Great book about Bali:

19 August 2012

Tour of Bali, Indonesia


Fighting cocks in their cages
At 9 am we drove by a school of judo for small children. Along the road I saw people holding roosters in cages. They are fighting roosters, and although the practice is banned it remains very popular.

Lots of young people in the streets were drinking Arak (a liquor based on distilled coconut).



All over Bali, following an ancient tradition, each family house has a small temple to the gods and another to the ancestors. I will be lucky to witness an offering in a real Balinese family on another day of this trip. Each village has three temples: one to Brahma, one to Shiva and one to Vishnu.


Bali is an anomaly in Indonesia as the great majority of its population is Hindu, with only a few Muslims and Christians. This morning we set off to visit Besakih temple complex, perhaps the most important in the island. It is a huge structure on the slopes of the Gunung Agung mountain. It is a grand mixture of 20+ temples, masses of pilgrims, scores of tourists and rows of merchants who peddle anything either group would buy. A few ladies sit on the sidewalks and sell fresh and dried fruits.




As we drive around the island I note that there seems to be a lot of economic activity going on, the vibrant tourist industry of course but also construction and trade. My guide Mully tells me that the average wage for a local worker is about 80.000 Rupies (about 6 Euro at today's rate) but Javanese workers will do the job for 70.000, hence the immigration of low skilled labor from Java. This is useful of course but it also creates problems. For one thing Javanese are Muslim, so there is a huge contrast with the local Hindus. Also, they are disproportionately responsible for crimes such as theft, especially when they lose their jobs. Lots of riots as young Balinese don't want to work in the rice fields or construction but at the same time resent the influx of Javanese workers who take up these jobs. Same story as we are used to experience in Europe...



In the afternoon Luca and I do a couple of hours of white water rafting. Too bad there is no time to do more, it would be definitely worthwhile!

Later in the afternoon we visited the Royal Court house.

In the evening I ate at a local night market in Gianyar. Suckling pig is the paramount specialty of Bali, and it is not be missed for any reason!

Night market satay