Friday, 21 December 2007


“None love, but they who wish to love” – Jean Baptiste Racine

It is Jean Baptiste Racine's (French playwright - 1639) and Giacomo Puccini’s birthdays today (1858). The birthday plant for this day is the houseleek, Sempervivum tectorum. The name is derived from the Latin: semper = ever; vivum = living; tectorum = of roofs. It was often planted on cottage roofs to stops leaks and to protect against lightning. This explains the common name for the plant and also some of its alternative names: Jupiter’s beard, Thor’s beard (both were gods associated with thunder and lightning). Medicinally, the plant was used to treat burns, fevers and headaches. It signifies industry and domestic economy and astrologically it is a plant of Jupiter.

Giacomo Puccini (1858–1924) was an Italian operatic composer. He was the last great exponent of Italian opera. His lyric style, wonderful orchestration, and his sentimental effects, have his operas some of the best loved. Some of the most celebrated are Manon Lescaut (1893), La Bohème (1896), Tosca (1900), Madama Butterfly (1904), and Turandot (produced, 1926).

For our Song Saturday, therefore, what better than some music by Puccini? Here is the famous “Humming Chorus” from his opera “Madama Butterfly”.

Just the sort of thing to listen to and relax after a hectic day out there in the pre-Christmas frenzy!

Enjoy your weekend…

Thursday, 20 December 2007


“Cooking is like love. It should be entered into with abandon or not at all.” - Harriet van Horne

The closer it gets to Christmas, the more hectic it is. Traffic on the way to work this morning was horrendous even though it was only 7:30 a.m. (I am an early bird and usually like to get in early). Yesterday on the way back home from work I stopped at a shopping centre as I needed to get a couple of presents for my colleagues (we have our Unit pre-Christmas party today!) and it was hellishly difficult to get a parking spot. The people appear to be possessed by some curious and malign frenzy as they invade the shopping complexes and their eyes seem to be crazed, gleaming with impassioned consumerism.

At the shopping centre I saw some Italian Christmas cakes, the Panettone or ‘big bread’ as it called. I love this light, sweet, fragrant and fruity cake and I was reminded that I was given a recipe for it by an Italian friend some time ago. Here it is if you are in a baking mood and you are not tempted to buy it ready-made from your local Italian patisserie:

1 pound (≈ 450 g) white bread flour
1 teaspoon salt
3 ounces (≈ 90 g) sugar
1 ounce (≈ 30 g) fresh yeast
3-4 fluid ounces (≈ 90-125 mL) warm water
4 ounces (≈ 115 g) sultanas
2 ounces (≈ 55 g) mixed candied peel
1 lemon, peel and juice
3 eggs
4 ounces (≈ 115 g) softened butter
2 ounces (≈ 55 g) flaked almonds
1 pinch nutmeg
4 drops vanilla essence

Sift the flour, salt and sugar together into a large bowl. Dissolve the yeast in the warm water. Soak the sultanas and the peel in the juice of the lemon. Beat the eggs well and add them together with the yeast, vanilla essence and softened butter to the flour. Knead well. Put dough on a floured board and knead in the drained sultanas, peel, almonds, nutmeg and lemon zest. Add more lemon juice if the dough needs more liquid. Continue to knead until dough is smooth and elastic. Let the dough rise in a covered bowl for two hours or until double in bulk. Divide into two portions and put each in a lined and greased 15 cm cake tin to which you have tied a collar of greased foil to come 6-8 cm above the top of the tin. Cover the tins with greased film and allow the panettoni to rise well up into the tins. Brush the tops with molten butter and bake in a moderate oven (350˚F or 180˚C) for 40-50 minutes. Allow to cool in tins until the sides shrink slightly and then gently remove and cool on wire racks.

Christmas in Italy is delightful, especially so in the smaller towns and villages. As well as the religious side of the holiday, which is still staunchly observed, there are numerous customs and folk traditions (varying from village to village and region to region), which make the celebration of this holiday particularly charming. Needless to say that special dishes and sweets are prepared and the panettone is only one of these.

Although panettone is quintessentially Milanese, it is more popular today in central and southern Italy, which accounts for 55% of sales, than in the Milan region in the north, with 45% of sales. It is served in slices, vertically cut, accompanied with sweet hot beverages or a sweet wine, such as Asti. In some regions of Italy, it is served with Crema di Mascarpone, a cream made from mascarpone cheese, eggs, and typically a sweet liqueur such as Amaretto; if mascarpone cheese is unavailable, zabaglione is sometimes used as a substitute to Crema di Mascarpone.

Enjoy your Christmas!

Wednesday, 19 December 2007


“In gardens, beauty is a by-product. The main business is sex and death.” - Sam Llewelyn

The masdevallia orchid, Masdevallia coccinea, is the flower that is associated with birthdays falling on this day. The magenta blooms have three petals and the meaning associated with the plant is: “I must have you at any cost”. This orchid genus is named for Jose Masdeval, a physician and botanist in the court of Charles III of Spain. These plants are found from Mexico to southern Brazil, but mostly in the higher regions (2,500 - 4,000 m) of the Andes of Ecuador and Colombia, Peru and Bolivia. They may be epiphytes, terrestrials or growing as lithophytes on damp rocks. All these orchids look alike and ordinary when they are not in the flowering season. But then the surprise is the greater when their wonderful flowers open up.

Tonight is St Thomas’s Eve. In the past, girls used to perform the following old love charm. They got a large red onion, peeled it and stuck nine pins into it, one in the centre, the others arranged radially around it. The girl would then say:

Good St Thomas, do me right,
Send me my true love tonight,
In his clothes and his array
Which he weareth every day,
That I may see him in the face
And in my arms may him embrace.

The onion would then be placed under the pillow (sic!) and the woman would dream of her future husband. If the smell of onions was rather offensive, an alternative charm was to scratch the initials of potential husbands on several onions (unpeeled!) and then place them in a dark place. Whichever sprouted first disclosed the future husband.

Tradition has it that ghosts are allowed to walk the Earth from this night until Christmas Eve. Extra precautions were taken and prayers invoked whenever one ventured out at night.

orchid |ˈôrkid| noun
A plant with complex flowers that are typically showy or bizarrely shaped, having a large specialized lip (labellum) and frequently a spur. Orchids occur worldwide, esp. as epiphytes in tropical forests, and are valuable hothouse plants. • Family Orchidaceae: numerous genera and species.
• the flowering stem of a cultivated orchid.
orchidist |-ist| |ˈɔrkədəst| noun
ORIGIN mid 19th cent.: from modern Latin Orchid(ac)eae, formed irregularly from Latin orchis based on Greek orkhis, literally ‘testicle’ (with reference to the shape of its tuber).

orchiectomy |ˌôrkēˈektəmē| (also orchidectomy |ˌôrkiˈdektəmē|) noun
surgical removal of one or both testicles.
ORIGIN late 19th cent.: from modern Latin orchido- (from a Latinized stem of Greek orkhis ‘testicle’ ) + -ectomy.


"Love is a fire. But whether it is going to warm your heart or burn down your house, you can never tell." - Joan Crawford

To love is to be fortunate; to be beloved is a rare treat. To love and to be loved in return is a blessing. But to love an unrequited love is bitter tyranny; to love someone unworthy of one’s love, truly a misery. Only when one experiences this gamut of loves can one appreciate the spectrum of emotions that run from profound ecstasy to the blackest of melancholies… Here is a poem I wrote many years ago when experiencing one of love’s direst forms.

Les Adieux

“Drink!” You bade me and I drank down in a single draught
The glass you gave me, not thinking once
That the bitter tang of the wine was due to poison in it.

“Look!” You commanded, and I stared wide-eyed
Unheedingly at whatever I might see,
And even if the light burnt my eyes to cinders.

“Speak!” You asked of me and I told you all
The secrets that my heart dictated,
Not seeing how you had stopped up your ears.

“Hear!” You said, and I listened and felt your pain,
My heart writhing in pangs of sympathy,
Even if all you said was lies, and you were playing games.

“Goodbye…” You whispered as you slipped out secretly at night,
And in the darkness failed to see how I had been left behind,
Blinded, deafened, poisoned, betrayed…

Poetry Wednesday is graciously hosted by Sans Souci. Please visit her blog and take the tour.

Tuesday, 18 December 2007


“Age does not protect you from love, but love to some extent protects you from age.” – Jeanne Moreau

Very close to where we live there is an Old People’s Home. It is a fairly modern establishment, only a few years old, well-equipped and staffed. The majority of the inmates are of Greek origin as the home has been built with donations from the Greek community, Greek welfare groups and, of course, contributions from the state and federal governments. The increasing number of elderly people in our communities (and in a multicultural country like Australia, where there are many elderly people who do not speak English well), places quite a strain on social services. Hence, there is quite a great deal of support for the establishment of new facilities that look after the elderly, especially those old people that belong to minority groups.

The odd thing that struck me the first few times I drove past this establishment was that although the car parking lot is quite large, there never seem to be any cars parked in it. Sure enough, there are always cars in the “staff only” area, but the visitors’ car park is empty. Was it this that first made me stop and park there? Or maybe it was the sign that encouraged people to enter and have an inspection tour. In any case, I parked there and went in.

Helpful staff attended to me immediately, and after I had introduced myself I explained that although I had no relatives there, I would like to have a look around. I was given the tour of the place by an efficient, good-humoured employee and also met some of the inmates, to whom I was introduced. The building sure enough was new, clean, well-designed. There were adequate facilities, roomy common areas and the bedrooms were comfortable and well-appointed. Staff were pleasant and competent, there were large windows, plenty of light, a garden. However, there was a coldness in the place too (even though the day was hot) and a sense of institutionalised, clinical, crispness. This was definitely a “Home” not a home.

My eyes met the eyes of the elderly people living there and a quiet melancholy gripped me. Their gazes were kindly, their lips turned up in a smile, their words sweet enough. As I stopped and chatted with a few people, their smiles broadened as they heard me uttering their mother tongue. Their questions inundated me, their curiosity was inexhaustible, their eagerness to engage in conversation amazing. We laughed, I shared a few jokes with them, some snippets of news from “the outside”.

Suddenly I was not the stranger that had walked in earlier. For each of the old men, each old woman in the Home, I was a son, a grandson, a nephew, a grand nephew, a son-in-law, a dear relative. Their bony hands clutched mine and blessings were heaped upon me as tears trickled slowly down their wrinkled cheeks. The forgotten people found it hard to believe that a stranger had remembered them on an ordinary day like this, when their kin had perhaps hardly even thought of them. My heart felt crushed in my chest and I too felt a curious sense of kinship with these old people - grandfather, grandmother, great-aunt, great-uncle…

I spoke to the employee who had given me the tour. Most of these people were lucky to have a visit once every six months, once a year, he said… An elderly woman (certainly the exception, he assured me as he pointed her out) had not been visited for two and a half years. “Did she not have any relatives?”, I enquired. “Indeed, she did!” He assured me. “They pay the bills, that is enough to keep the voice of their conscience quiet…”

I looked at the woman with no visitors. She had clasped my hand tightly just before. Her eyes had been lucid and she was smiling – no tears from her! “Come back, visit us again, when you can!” She had said to me and gently patted my hand. She was now in her wheelchair looking out of the window towards the visitors’ car park. Hoping perhaps to catch glimpse of a familiar car, the face of one of her relatives?

I’ll visit again soon, before Christmas. I’ll have small gifts for them. Some sweets, a few books, some music. But more importantly, some of my time shared with them. A friendly smile, a gentle touch, some time spent listening to them, reassurance that they have not been forgotten…

Monday, 17 December 2007


“Whenever monarchs err, the people are punished.” – Horace

We watched the Stephen Frears 2006 film “The Queen” with Helen Mirren, yesterday. I had a very mixed reaction to this movie, I must admit. Firstly, I had heard so many rave reviews about it that my expectations were extremely high. Once we began to watch the film, I was awaiting eagerly for the development, the drama, the revelations, but unfortunately none of that was there. There is no doubt that Helen Mirren’s performance is faultless and that it is she who makes this ordinary film watchable.

However, at one point early in the film, its purpose became immediately apparent. “The Queen” is nothing more than propaganda for the House of Windsor. The Royal Family has its staunch supporters and its limitless influence (economical as well as political) is enough to be able to produce such a film. Sure enough, the portrayal of the Queen Mother as an irrelevant gin-swilling has-been of the ancien régime, of Prince Phillip as a bumbling fuddy-duddy immersed in his own little universe of hunting and gathering wool and of Prince Charles as a weak and powerless pawn in the Queen’s gambit may be uncomplimentary of Royalty, but the film is after all called “The Queen” and it is to the Queen’s glory that it is dedicated.

The Queen is portrayed in the film as a sophisticated, serene and worldly woman, a consummate statesperson, a glorious, dignified and wise monarch intent on maintaining a tradition that has a history of several centuries. She is cast in this film in the mould of Elizabeth I, although unlike her, Elizabeth II is not such an extraordinary personage nor is she such a powerful political and social force. The news media of today have exposed the extraordinary ordinariness of Queen Elizabeth II and this film would have been much more believable if it did show the monarch in this true, albeit less flattering light.

What I found also very disturbing was the seamless incorporation of actual documentary footage into the film, which superficially gave the events depicted authority and veracity. However, this is the stuff of propaganda. A great Greek song by Theodorakis says:
“They told you many lies,
They tell you lies again today;
And tomorrow they’ll tell you lies once more.
Your enemies tell you lies,
But even your friends hide the truth from you…”

This is the sort of film that will in the future remain a powerful corrupter of the future generations’ sense of history. It does this through its clever use of documentary evidence, tacit approval by the personage it portrays, and through its “heroic” treatment of ordinary events (that have been rendered even more sordid in reality by the high media exposure of the people they concern). Tony Blair’s character is portrayed with some authenticity, perhaps. He is shown as a typical Labour leader whose ideals soon fall to the wayside as his own propaganda machine (the advisers and hangers-on successfully telling him how to handle the Dianagate affair) finally not managing to prevent him from succumbing to the Queen’s fascination.

Blair’s epiphany is laughable, but quite believable. He did end up to be one of the most un-Labour-like leaders see in British politics in the last few decades. What caused this is not perhaps the Queen, but rather political expediency and buckling under the pressure of capitalistic globalisation concerns.

Curiously the film reminded me of British films of the 40s and 50s where there was an almost martyr-like portrayal of tragic Britishers intent on maintaining a stiff upper lip in the face of adversity. A paean to all things British and oh, so gung-ho and full of insular, snobbish rubbish about the superiority of the English. The whole scene with the stag and the heavy-handed pointed identification of Elizabeth with the regal stag is quite sickening in its sentimental kitchness.

Watch this film if you are a monarchist and rejoice – optional waving of the Union Jack at appropriate points and munching of cucumber sandwiches (delicately) is advised. If you are after a film with intense scrutiny of recent social and political events, airing of controversial theories and a ruthless investigation of the truth, then this film is not for you. If you wish to enjoy Helen Mirren and Martin Sheen playing their roles with gusto and convincing theatricality as the Queen and Mr Blair respectively, then the film is also worth watching. However, if you wish to watch a film that is an intense exploration into the obviously complex relationship between Elizabeth and Diana, this film is not for you. The film would have been much more interesting had it shown with far greater detail the whole story of Diana, instead of just the week surrounding her death. Without the story, this film suffered from a lack of complexity and drama.

Is it art? Definitely not. Is it cinerealism? You’ve got to be kidding! Is it a glossy monarchist filmic production akin to royal-watchers’ saccharine publications for home consumption? You bet it is!

Sunday, 16 December 2007


“England is the paradise of individuality, eccentricity, heresy, anomalies, hobbies and humours.” George Santayana

Today is a noteworthy day as it is the birthday of a whole variety of interesting persons:
  • Catherine of Aragon, 1st wife of Henry VIII (1485);
  • Ludwig van Beethoven, German composer (1770);
  • Jane Austen, English novelist (1775);
  • George Santayana, writer (1863);
  • Zoltán Kodály, composer (1882);
  • Noël Coward, playwright/musician (1899);
  • V. S. Pritchett, writer (1900);
  • Margaret Mead, anthropologist (1901);
  • Arthur C. Clark, writer (1917);
  • James McCracken, tenor (1926);
  • Liv Ullmann, actress (1939);
  • Elayne Boosler, comedienne (1952).
Ludwig van Beethoven (1770–1827) is the German composer who is widely recognised as one of the greatest composers who ever lived. Mozart and Haydn acknowledged Beethoven’s talent while he was still young. His remarkable piano virtuosity and astounding compositions won him the generous support of the Viennese aristocracy despite his boorish manners. In 1801 he started to realise that he was becoming deaf, a condition which worsened progressively and was total by 1817. His creative work was never restricted and some of his greatest compositions he never heard while they were being played.

Beethoven's early works, influenced by the tradition of Mozart and Haydn, include the First and Second Symphonies, the first three Piano Concertos, and a many piano sonatas, including the Pathétique. From 1802, his work broke new ground, leaving behind the formal conventions of classical music. This most productive middle period included the Third Symphony (Eroica); the Fourth, Fifth (Fate), Sixth (Pastoral) Seventh (Dance) and Eighth Symphonies; his one Violin Concerto; and his only opera, Fidelio.

Beethoven's final and most mature period, dates from about 1816. It was productive of works of greater depth, including the Hammerklavier Sonata; the lofty Ninth Symphony (Choral), with its innovative choral finale (based on Schiller’s Ode to Joy); the Missa Solemnis; and the last five String Quartets. Beethoven also produced many smaller works for a variety of instruments and groups. His work terminated and epitomised the classical period and initiated the romantic era in music.

Here is Freddy Kempf playing the second movement of the Pathétique piano sonata (Piano Sonata No. 8 in C minor, op. 13).

The 1820 portrait of Beethoven above is by Joseph Karl Stieler.

Preparations for Christmas are well under way and we decorated the house all day today. The holiday mood is already infecting people. I guess this is the time to finish writing the last of the Christmas cards. Such a tradition that it has become. The Victorians are responsible for most of our Christmas traditions. They seem to have elevated Christmas from a religious/family holiday to one of general celebration and communal merry-making. The crass commercialism of Christmas today is thinly veiled in sentimental Victorian traditionalism. Rather difficult nowadays to find a place in the world where Christmas still means something spiritual. But I guess anything is what each of us makes of it, Christmas included. If one wants to make Christmas something else than what the big shopping centres tell one, something else than what is blasted out of the TV screen, then it is in one’s heart that one should search.