My Favorite Walks Around the World

I found this post mostly completed in my drafts folder, and thought I’d share, since it’s been awhile since I did a nostalgia post. One of the beautiful things about moving often is that you experience the “little things” of life in so many different ways. Like the smell of the plants outside your window. Or the way different fruits taste when they’re in season. Or the cadence of stray overheard phrases in different languages.

Among the constant yet changeable things in my life is the evening walk that Tony and I have taken ever since we got married. Besides being a great time to reconnect as a couple, talk about what’s on our minds, and get some fresh air, our walk also helps to explore whatever neighborhood is ours at the moment. Since we so often view the outside world through a car window, walking lets us take a slower, more intimate look at the scenery and notice things we wouldn’t otherwise see.

We have lived in so many places and become acquainted with so many evening walks that I can’t list them all. These are just a few of my favorites, in no particular order.

Our walk in Tunisia began like this:

And ended like this:

Or on very special nights, like this:

Another favorite walk was in Ireland. We’d walk out to (I kid you not) the most idyllic cow pasture in the world. It’s funny to me how fondly we still speak of “our” cow pasture.

1992

Our route left town just a block or two from our apartment in Mullingar, where we took a path that paralleled the Royal Canal.

1989

At the time, we were reading Edith Nesbit’s The Railway Children, and I thought about it every time the train went by. This walk and the picnic we usually had at the end of it always made me feel like we were re-living some lost Victorian country childhood. This photo makes me remember so many things about Ireland: the authentic Irish brown bread that I always made, the wellies my kids lived in, and how very little they were back then.

1977

And then there was our beautiful little Italian village. Here’s how our walk started out there:

1195

And then, you know those stock photos of the road between trees that converges on the horizon with a perfection that looks like it can’t possibly really exist? Ours did in fact exist, although this photo is less about the perfection of the road than the exuberance of a very pleased little Axa.

1266

After the tree-lined walk, it opened out into beautiful Alpine fields backed by mountains.

2002

We had similar beautiful walks in Vancouver, Washington, where the spring was a delicious parade of different flowers that seemed to go on for months, and in Carmel Valley (San Diego, California), where we lived in a neighborhood where all the houses followed a strict Spanish-style architectural code, the sidewalks were always perfectly swept, and there was nary a blade of lush green perfect lawn out of place.

In La Jolla, we walked by the Mormon temple every night, enjoying its dramatic beauty and our memories of getting married there. Even here in Florida our walks through our little suburban neighborhood are nice, although it’s sometimes so hot and muggy we only make it once around the block. We’re looking forward to beautiful walks on Kea, where the walking paths date back to the ancient Greeks, and the Mediterranean is visible from all over.

Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, The Host, Prague Winter, Shakespeare in Italy, and Seven Daughters of Eve

Let’s talk books! The good, the pedantic, and Stephenie Meyer’s already-made-into-a-movie foray into science fiction.

Animal, Vegetable, MiracleAnimal, Vegetable, Miracle by Barbara Kingsolver

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Three stars, because this book can only be described as uneven. On the one hand, I was absolutely fascinated by the Kingsolver family’s adventures in producing most of their own food for an entire year. Probably because I already had my own fantasies about moving to a farm and subsisting on my own heirloom vegetables and heritage farm animals. I loved the recipes and seasonal menus, as well as the practical information on homesteading, including hilarious accounts of things like mushroom hunting, using a year’s bounty of zucchini, and breeding turkeys. And of course I related to the trip to Italy.

On the other hand, judgmental much? Really, who is she to talk if my daily vice happens to be bananas rather than coffee? The constant preaching (even if with me it was largely preaching to the choir) kind of ruined what could have been a really good book. The Kingsolver family (the book is co-authored by her husband and daughter) come across as supercilious, fanatical, and completely out of touch with the reality of most people’s lives. And sorry, but they are way too eccentric and uneven in their application of moral principles to really be taking the kind of moral high ground that they do. The effect was probably heightened by the fact that I listened to the audiobook of this one, so I heard the litany falling from the very lips of the authors.

In sum, there’s lots of wonderful information here, much of it very engagingly presented, but only if you can get past the egregious tone.

The Host (The Host, #1)The Host by Stephenie Meyer

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Invasion of the Body Snatchers from the point of view of the body snatchers. You’ve got to admit it’s a novel plotline. Like something you’d come up with to entertain yourself on a mind-numbingly boring drive through the wastelands of Arizona. Which, yes, is exactly how Stephenie Meyer says she originated this story.

And it really isn’t all that bad. It’s true that there is still some of the unbelievably sappy romantic dialogue you have a right to expect from the author of Twilight. But the novel does explore some interesting themes related to the relationship between the body and the soul, individual identity, and the problematic aspects of absolute morality.

Even more than with Twilight, I recognized some fundamentally Mormon ideas and attitudes, like the transcendent importance of experiencing life in a physical body, or the excessive self-abnegation exhibited by the main character (related in some ways to Bella Swan’s chronic lack of self-esteem and passivity in all matters other than dramatic self-sacrifice). Again, we see the cult of the all-sacrificing mother in Meyer’s work.

However, as before, what Meyer lacks in depth and finesse she makes up for in sheer originality and teenage romantic appeal. As an easy, fairly entertaining escapist novel that’s slightly sci-fi without any technological blather, The Host was a perfect distraction on a long plane flight.

Prague Winter: A Personal Story of Remembrance and War, 1937-1948Prague Winter: A Personal Story of Remembrance and War, 1937-1948 by Madeleine Albright

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This book is a perfect mix of the personal and the historical. Albright’s father was a key figure in the Czechoslovakian government-in-exile during World War II. She revisits the period through a combination of his personal papers, auxiliary historical research, and her own childhood memories. The Czechoslovakian experience of WWII is an aspect of which I knew relatively little before reading the book, and it was interesting but heartbreaking to read the story of a small, proud country that played a pivotal but relatively helpless role in the continent-wide, and then worldwide conflict.

Albright is a perfect narrator of these events, not only because as a little girl she was surrounded by them, but also because like her father she grew up to be a keen analyst of international relations and events and an important actor in those events. When she writes about difficult decisions undertaken by world leaders in the midst of harrowing circumstances, she is speaking from a position of experience and understanding, and it shows.

This is a thoroughly worthwhile and pleasurable read; well-written, passionate, and insightful.

The Shakespeare Guide to Italy: Retracing the Bard's Unknown TravelsThe Shakespeare Guide to Italy: Retracing the Bard’s Unknown Travels by Richard Paul Roe

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Oh my goodness, I loved this book so much. In what is the culmination of a lifelong study and love affair, Richard Paul Roe posits that because of the intimate knowledge of Italian culture, geography, and history demonstrated in Shakespeare’s plays, he must have been a cultured, erudite upper-class Englishman who spent significant time traveling in Italy, and not the traditional, untraveled Bard of Avon. As a caveat, I am a scholar neither of Shakespeare nor of 16th century Italy (I just happen to adore both), so I can’t really speak to the real plausibility of Roe’s thesis. But I finished this book utterly convinced.

Roe explains why Shakespeare give harbors to inland Italian cities (they were on well-traveled rivers connected by intricate systems of canals). He finds actual inns, houses, and churches referenced in the plays and long languishing in obscurity (and yes, this goes well beyond Juliet’s celebrated and embellished balcony in Verona–did you know that there in actually no mention of a balcony in the stage directions or text of the “balcony scene” from Romeo and Juliet?) Perhaps most intriguingly, Roe locates A Midsummer Night’s Dream in an Italian city–Sabbioneta, Lombardy, the so-called “Piccola Atena.”

For lovers of Shakespeare and lovers of Italy alike, this is a captivating and compelling book that will make you want to take a trip to Italy and re-read the plays where Richard Paul Roe says they were conceived, and even possibly written.

The Seven Daughters of Eve: The Science That Reveals Our Genetic AncestryThe Seven Daughters of Eve: The Science That Reveals Our Genetic Ancestry by Bryan Sykes

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I really enjoyed reading Sykes’ account of how he used the mitochondrial DNA that is passed down unchanged from mother to daughter to trace our evolutionary roots as humans. After using the minute mutations that occasionally occur in mitochondrial DNA to track the route of colonization of the original inhabitants of the Polynesian islands, Sykes manages to extract DNA from Ice Man, an early man who perished in Italy’s alpine snow 5000 years ago. Even more remarkably, he went on to identify an ordinary British woman as the genetic descendant of Ice Man. After that, he expands the project into an exploration of the genetic heritage of Europe, tracing modern Europeans back to seven individual women.

The science in this book is very engaging by itself, and Sykes really should have left it at that. Instead, he concludes with several schmaltzy chapters in which he imagines a completely fictitious history for each of these “seven daughters of Eve,” and then launches into an incurably sentimental attempt to emotionally connect his readers with their distant ancestors.

Read the first half, and if you can’t skip the last chapters, skim like I did.

View all my reviews

How I Made Friends With Facebook

I have not always been a friend to Facebook. I am way too old to have grown up using it in high school. Actually, I’ll admit it, I’m even too old to have used it in college. I found out about Facebook from my kid brother long after all the cool people were already on it. I finally broke down and joined on 12 November 2008. According to Facebook, that important date (which appears prominently in my snazzy new Timeline) ranks right up there with being born and graduating from college.

Like most users, I experienced the initial infatuation with Facebook, as it put me back in touch with various long lost friends. And although I never took photos of myself kissing Zuckerberg’s photo, I do have warm fuzzies over Facebook’s important role in the Arab Spring. Since then, however, my feelings about Facebook have deteriorated from sarcastic ambivalence to downright hostility.

However, Facebook has recently undergone a rehabilitation in my affections. Here’s why:

I never experienced small town life until we moved to Italy, and lived in a beautiful little village on a mountainside, with a river running through it. If that sounds just unbelievably romantic, it was.

There was a church bell tower that chimed the hour, a tiny, cobblestone village square, and a picturesque castle up on the hill, within whose ruined walls we once held a very memorable family home evening.

But what was really a change for us Southern Californians was the fact that everybody seemed to know each other. And not only did they know each other, but they seemed to actually have time to talk. They would have lengthy conversations with anyone they met while out and about in the narrow, cobblestone streets. Which generally happened several times a day.

The result of all this, as anyone who has ever lived in a small town knows, was that everyone also knew everything about everyone else. Especially about the bizarre Americans who had dropped in from nowhere claiming that their great-great grandfather was Italian. We even got written up with embarrassingly complimentary exaggeration by the local newspaper.

At first, it was startling to realize that my everyday doings were common knowledge, and I should consider pretty much the whole town friends (or at least acquaintances). But after a while, I got to kind of like it. It was something feeling like you belonged somewhere and would leave a real hole if you went away. And sure enough, eventually, we did go away. In fact, we’ve moved several times since then.

From my peripatetic perspective, it’s near impossible to picture living my whole life in the village where I was born. But I have to admit that the idea fascinates me. What if all my favorite people did live in the same little village? What if I had the chance of bumping into them every day on my way to buy bread before dinner? What if I casually knew what was going on in their lives, whether I’d talked to them lately or not, because word just gets around in our little town? What if?

Here’s the problem: my favorite people are scattered all over the world. Everywhere we go, I meet new people  that I’d love to have as friends forever. By now it’s far too late for all, a majority, or even a reasonable plurality of my friends to live in the same geographical area.

And here’s where Facebook comes in. In a kind of a virtual sense, Facebook allows me to have that sense of community I crave with people who, in Goethe’s words, “though distant, are close to [me] in spirit.” Because I want to know more than just the “important” things that turn up in a yearly Christmas letter. I want to hear the little, mundane things that make up the majority of our lives. I want to know the funny thing your kid said, what your new hairdo looks like, and that mortifying mix-up that happened at work today. You know, the instagrams of life.

Really, what I’ve noticed lately is that a few minutes spent on Facebook is a bit like that walk to the bread shop in Italy. I can climb a volcano in the Philippines with Jerry. I can peek in on Erin’s lovely picnic in England. I know what Shelly got in her CSA basket in Washington this week and what Kelly in Utah thought about Spiderman. Jo Ann keeps me posted on how much garbage has been thrown lately on our beloved Tunisian beach. If I’m lucky, sometimes Carla even gives me a glimpse into the life of that lovely little Italian village.

So while I may never transplant my life permanently to a tiny village where everyone knows my name, maybe I don’t need to. Facebook is my global village.

Globetrotting, Mormon-style

One of the things almost sure to be heard in a Mormon testimony meeting after someone has traveled (whether it’s across the ocean or just to the next town over) is an expression of gratitude that “the Church is the same no matter where you go.” To a certain extent, it’s true. We all sing the same hymns, although every ward congregation seems to have its particular favorites. We all read the same scriptures. Sunday meetings follow the same general format, even if the meetings are in a different order.  Sunday School and other lesson manuals are standardized and translated into over a hundred languages, and on any given Sunday the whole worldwide Church is studying the same lesson (give or take a week or two depending on how organized the local Sunday School teacher happens to be).

We’ve traveled and moved around the world quite a bit, and I’ll admit that I do appreciate the general “sameness” of Church meetings. It’s nice for my children (and for me!) to know that no matter how different the country where we live may be, when we go to Church it will feel familiar. But I also deeply relish the little differences. For example, in Italy when I arrived at Church I was greeted not with a handshake, but with kisses on both cheeks (and sometimes the top of my head too). There is nothing like being kissed thirty times in a row as you walk in the door to really make you feel welcome.

Among my favorite things about attending church in a foreign place is meeting new and different people with whom I nevertheless share many things in common. Church members are always some of my first friends in a new place. And you don’t always meet the people you would expect. Our branch in northern Italy naturally had some Italians in it. But many of the members there were from Argentina, so while Italian was the official language spoken from the pulpit, there was a lot of Spanish floating around in the halls. We also had some members from Nigeria, with whom I conversed in mutually broken Italian for several weeks. Finally one day we laughed in embarrassment and relief when we all experienced the sudden simultaneous epiphany that we were attempting to speak a foreign language with a native English speaker.

Testimony meeting in our Irish branch was a luscious bouquet of accents. There were Irish members from various cities, someone from Latvia, South Africans in both vanilla and chocolate skin tones, a cute little family from France, a missionary from the English Midlands, and then us. The missionaries had a hard time convincing one young black South African man to come back to church, because he was afraid the white members would shun him. When he finally came one Sunday, my heart was touched to see our white South African family be the first to go up and introduce themselves to him, and then invite him to sit with them. From then on, he was taken in as one of them, and sat with them every week, enveloped in the love of their family.

Our branch in Florence may have been even more eclectic, although it varied a lot from week to week, since many worshippers were tourists just passing through. One sweet woman in the branch really took us under her wing, although we were only there for a couple of months. She was from Peru, and had lovely thick black hair and a dark complexion. Her husband could not have looked more different. He was from somewhere in Eastern Europe, and his ruddy face was crowned with a profusion of curly blond hair. I loved the fact that they had both come so far from their native lands only to meet each other in this Italian melting pot and fall in love.

Aside from the obvious surface differences, another fun aspect of Church in different places is the subject matter of Sunday School discussions. General topics like faith, following Jesus, and loving our neighbor, come up everywhere, of course. Lessons on the Word of Wisdom typically revolve around alcohol, smoking, or coffee. In our Filipino Sunday School class, however, we skipped discussing forbidden stimulants in favor of a heated debate on whether we should ever be eating meat at all, since in the Philippines it is never cold, and winter is just a distant fantasy that nobody has ever experienced.

In fact, Filipino Sunday School was always interesting, because they have a lovely cultural tradition of respect towards the elderly. Invariably, at some point in the lesson there would be a venerable old man (a little hard of hearing) with bizarre ideas on every subject, who would lecture until it was time for the closing prayer while the rest of the room sat in reverent silence. The ward we attended in Manila was a downtown one with many English speaking foreigners, and meetings were generally conducted in English. Somehow, though, whenever the speakers in Sacrament meeting told a joke, they thought the punch-line would be funnier in Tagalog. So I’d laugh along with the rest just to be sociable, and then lean over to ask my husband what I was laughing about.

Some of my most spiritual church meetings have been the simplest ones. There’s something about missing all the usual trappings of church that shows you the importance of what’s left without them. One of my favorite Sacrament Meetings ever happened when I was on a semester abroad in Syria. There were of course no local congregations, and our group of BYU students was on a long bus trip that Sunday, so we had Sacrament Meeting right there in the bus. I watched my friend Kyler walk down the aisle, swaying a little with the movement of the vehicle on the bumpy road. His hands were carefully cupped together around a little pile of broken bread, which he offered reverently to each of us in turn. Something about the expectant silence of the usually rowdy bus and the intimacy and humility of the bread coming straight from his hands to ours, touched me with strange profundity. It was as if we had turned the mundane world inside out for a moment and made it suddenly holy. The very incongruity of participating in the familiar ritual in such an unexpected place shocked me into really seeing it, as if for the very first time. I pictured the last supper, and Christ’s hands holding out the bread to each of his disciples in turn. It was a visual reminder of how personal his act of offering the Atonement is to each of us, and I’ve never forgotten it.

We spent most of last year in another country without the benefit of organized church presence: Tunisia. Just like in most Muslim countries, we were cautioned not to be too open about our church membership or meetings. We felt wonderfully blessed to find that there were a couple of other Mormon families in the country too. Every Sunday we took a taxi, then an hour-long bumpy, smelly, death-defying public minivan, and then another taxi to meet in the home of a member for a very simple church service. We would sing a hymn, watch a Conference talk, partake of the Sacrament from the smallest cups in our host’s cupboard, and then sit around in a circle for a Sunday school discussion while one adult rotated out to teach our tiny, five-child Primary.

Our meetings were held in Carthage, a well-heeled Tunis suburb built right on top of the ancient Carthaginian capital and its Roman successor. When we visited the nearby mosaic museum, we found this beautiful tiled baptismal font designed for immersion baptisms. St. Augustine lived and taught in Carthage, and many early Christians met martyr ends in the ruined Roman amphitheater just down the street from where we met for church. My favorite weeks there were our testimony meetings, where it was not a question of if you would bear your testimony, but when. Gathered together as a tiny band of believers in a country full of chaos and unrest, we poured out our hearts to one another and were spiritually strengthened. In those moments, I felt a powerful kinship with the ragged, persecuted members of the early Church, who must have also met secretly in private houses on those same Carthage streets, shared the Lord’s supper, and borne testimony to one another.

We’re back in a “normal” American ward now. We meet in a nice chapel with over a hundred other saints in a well-functioning ward with all the requisite auxiliaries and activities. It’s something I missed when we were away, and I love being back in the comfortable familiarity of American Mormondom. But sometimes, sitting in my cheerio-laced, padded pew, I close my eyes for a moment and imagine myself in one of those more far-flung places. Immersing myself in those distant scenes of worship, I touch a little more deeply the core of what it really means to be a Saint, and thank God for the experience of difference that illuminates the familiar with a rich new light.

photo credit: Baptismal font

Benvenuto

I absolutely cannot stop listening to this song, so I thought I’d share it with you. It is the official version, so you have to actually go to YouTube to watch it. But it’s worth it.

httpv://youtu.be/zNtDe7hfETQ

Fashionable Italian hippies recreating Woodstock in Amsterdam, and Laura Pausini by firelight. What’s not to love?

Italian Grandmothers, Plants of the Bible, Rock the Casbah, and Prisoner of the Vatican

I’ve been reading a lot of books about Italy and the Middle East lately, and this week I have some really wonderful ones for you.

Figs, Dates, Laurel, and Myrrh: Plants of the Bible and the QuranFigs, Dates, Laurel, and Myrrh: Plants of the Bible and the Quran by Lytton John Musselman
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

What did Eve really eat in the Garden of Eden? Which plant produced Christ’s crown of thorns? Are the “lilies of the field” actually poppies? Not your ordinary Biblical commentary, Musselman’s book concentrates exclusively on the flora of the Bible and the Qur’an. The author is a respected botanist who has lived in and conducted research throughout the Middle East for many years. His exhaustive but manageable book presents every single plant mentioned in the holy books of the three major faiths of the Holy Land. I love that he presented the plants of the Qur’an side by side with those of the Bible. It was interesting to see which plants overlapped. Having lived in the region, Musselman can present not only botanical and historical facts about the plants, but also explain how they are eaten, worn, and used by people today. The many lovely photographs in the book are mostly his own, and portray both the plants themselves and their appearances in everyday modern life in Bible lands, whether at the apothecary’s store, the vegetable market, or just in the landscape.

Cooking with Italian Grandmothers: Recipes and Stories from Tuscany to SicilyCooking with Italian Grandmothers: Recipes and Stories from Tuscany to Sicily by Jessica Theroux

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This book is a treasure. As a young chef, Jessica spent a year in Italy, learning from Italian grandmothers about food and about life. She spent several weeks with each of the twelve women, and dedicated a chapter to each one and her recipes. The women’s life stories and wisdom are interwoven with a wonderful collection of truly mouth-watering recipes.

Here is one of my favorite quotes:

“Carluccia taught me to pay attention to each little thing in my cooking. Where is this fruit or vegetable in its life cycle? Is the meat from a young animal or an older one? And what part of the animal is it from? Where are we in the season? Has the weather been damp or dry, sunny or cold lately? How fresh is the flour? Is the water hard or soft? What can I infer about my ingredient’s flavor and texture? And who am I feeding? Are they happy, or in need of comfort? Are they cold to the bone from being out in the rain, or hot and sweaty? Ultimately, what is the most appropriate way for me to cook this food, to bring out the best it has to offer for my friends and family?”

I found Italian Grandmothers at the library, but I’m now dying to have my own copy. Learning how to cook a time-honored Italian dish from an Italian nonna is one of the most delightful experiences in the world. This book is the next best thing.

Prisoner of the Vatican: The Popes, the Kings, and Garibaldi's Rebels in the Struggle to Rule Modern ItalyPrisoner of the Vatican: The Popes, the Kings, and Garibaldi’s Rebels in the Struggle to Rule Modern Italy by David I. Kertzer

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

When Garibaldi, Victor Emmanuele, and the rest fashioned the state of Italy out of an assortment of kingdoms and duchies on the peninsula, the Papal States (ruled by the Catholic Church) were among the annexed territories. For the next several decades, the Pope schemed and intrigued against the newly united Kingdom of Italy to regain his lost “temporal” power. His most potent weapon was his oft-repeated threat to exile himself from Rome, with the intent of soon returning at the head of a victorious foreign army. This book tells the story of the Pope’s efforts, in often excruciating detail. Kertzer sticks to his copious historical documents, rarely intruding on the story with much analysis or context, both of which I would have appreciated a bit more of. His final thesis is presented only in a few short pages of Epilogue. Perhaps if the Pope had actually managed to carry off one of these dastardly plots (rather than just endlessly vacillating about them), Kertzer’s story would have been improved. This book seemed a lot longer than 300 pages, but if you have an absolute fascination with the Papacy, Italian unification, or Rome, you might find it worth the slog.

Rock the Casbah: Rage and Rebellion Across the Islamic WorldRock the Casbah: Rage and Rebellion Across the Islamic World by Robin Wright

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

If you read only one book about Arabs or Muslims this year, make it this one. A journalist with decades of experience in the Middle East, Robin Wright has given us an intimate look into the Islamic world today, and how ordinary Muslims are vocally rejecting the extremism that led to 9/11, and working to build themselves a peaceful and democratic future. Through dozens of interviews ranging from an Iranian stand-up comedian to an Egyptian human rights activist, Wright illustrates what she describes as the “counter-jihad” — how Muslims today are redefining themselves and their faith, and reaching out to both their fellow believers and to the world at large with the message that Islam is a faith of peace, tolerance, and love. Especially poignant is her account of how Muslim youth are embracing freedom and democracy without leaving behind the moral values of their faith. The revolutions of last year happened as she was finishing the book, so Wright has also included a few chapters of excellent summary on the events in Tunisia, Egypt, and other countries affected by the Arab Spring, at least up until July of 2011, when the book was published.

And in case you’re wondering about the title, here is the truly awesome 80’s music video whence it comes:

httpv://youtu.be/f2aItuM1-J4

photo credit: Vatican Museum

Running Away to Home, La Bella Lingua, Dune, and the Woman Who Laughed at God

I keep starting more books, and can’t seem to finish many of them. But here are a few reviews to start off the year:

Running Away to HomeRunning Away to Home by Jennifer Wilson

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Having done a very similar thing myself, I enjoyed reading Jennifer Wilson’s account of how she took her family to the Czech Republic in search of her ancestors. I loved all the little details of their acceptance into her ancestral village, and how she and her suburban American family learned a different way of living and seeing the world. However, the book lacked a certain internal consistency and completeness. At times, Wilson simply rambled. And she kept bringing up interesting themes and then dropping them without warning, never to be revisited. The concluding chapters read a little insincerely, almost as if she’d written them before she ever went, and been planning to write the book all along.



La Bella Lingua: My Love Affair with Italian, the World's Most Enchanting LanguageLa Bella Lingua: My Love Affair with Italian, the World’s Most Enchanting Language by Dianne Hales

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I certainly enjoyed reading this book, since I’m as weak in the knees over the Italian language as Hales. However, this is more of a light cultural history of Italy than the “love affair with Italian” of the subtitle. She does attempt to tie the narrative together with little incidents in her quest to speak Italian, but much of it just comes off as bragging about how much time she’s spent on her many Italian vacations. Hales’ prose is also sometimes a trifle too sexual for good taste (although one could argue the same about the Italian language), and it’s all a bit too self-conscious. And she will keep making sweeping generalizations about all the languages in the world, even though it’s fairly obvious that Italian is the only one she’s ever tried to learn. Still, I learned a lot of new phrases and interesting etymologies, and my Italian “cultural literacy” was certainly enhanced. This book is definitely worth a read if you have anything more than a passing interest in Italy and Italian.



Dune (Dune Chronicles, #1)Dune by Frank Herbert

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Stunning. Really stunning. I don’t know what’s kept me from reading Dune all these years. I’ve always wondered how George Lucas pulled the genius of Star Wars out of thin air, and now I know he didn’t. The entire feel of the Star Wars movies is there, and several characters and scenes were lifted almost directly out of this book. (I’m a bit annoyed at Lucas now for turning the powerful all-female Bene Gesserit into the male-dominated Jedi. But whatever.) However, Dune stands on its own (as does Star Wars) as a masterpiece. The thematic breadth is epic, the symbolism apt and profound, and the depth and scope of literary allusions quite impressive. It’s a ripping page-turner too. And Frank Herbert knows his Arabic. This book totally made me want to go back to Tunisia and spend some time in the desert looking for sandworms.



Dune MessiahDune Messiah by Frank Herbert

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

So, I was warned that there’s a sharp drop-off in the sequels to Dune, but I thought I’d give this one at least a try. It was O.K., but resembled a little too closely the pulp science fiction that kept me from reading Dune for so long in the first place. The main thing I enjoyed, again, was tracing the origins of Star Wars. I can’t say I really liked the plot. Unfortunately, Jessica, my favorite character (and Duke Leto, my second favorite) are both virtually absent from this book. Duncan is just creepy, Alia is . . . strange. Paul is more tragic and haunted than ever, but less likable. And there are no really grand epic vistas here. Herbert puts in some interesting philosophy, but nowhere near the depth of the original Dune. I will probably not be continuing on with the rest of the several books in the series.



The Woman Who Laughed at God: The Untold History of the Jewish PeopleThe Woman Who Laughed at God: The Untold History of the Jewish People by Jonathan Kirsch

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

I eventually got bored with this one and dropped it somewhere between “In the Ruined Citadel” and “Abominable Heresies.” Kirsch revels in the sensational. His narrative is liberally peppered with his own scantily supported suppositions, even as he tries to observe the forms of a well-researched, fairly scholarly work. Still, I enjoyed reading some of his clever theses, especially in the chapter “A Goddess of Israel,” in which he advances the idea that women may have written some of the oldest parts of the Bible.



View all my reviews

What are you reading (or planning to read) this year?

Italian Christmas Memories

Well, we’re going on three months now, and cultural acclimation is progressing. I still can’t figure out why I keep seeing people walking around in shirt-sleeves when it’s almost December. My mother-in-law says it’s because all they have to do is walk from warm cars to warm buildings. I (and my children, according to me) can’t survive outside without sweaters, coats, scarves, and hats. I guess this is how the Florentines felt seeing my bare, scarf-less neck in springtime.

The one thing I can’t get used to about Christmas in the United States is the maniacal shopping. Tony convinced me to go to Black Friday once, but I’ll never go again. Even without pepper spray and stampedes, whatever moral quibbles I might entertain about out-of-control consumerism pale in comparison to my utterly visceral aversion to shopping.

I just wasn’t cut out for the whole shopping thing, especially on a huge American scale. The tiny shops in Tunisia that barely had room to turn around in were the perfect size for me. The truth is, there are a lot of things I would rather just go without than shop for. I haven’t even shopped for clothes for myself in years. I would probably be dressed in rags were I not spoiled by a husband and mother-in-law who are kind enough to do it for me.

Yesterday after significant urging by Tony (and with great apprehension and trepidation), I walked into Burlington Coat Factory to get some gloves, and almost had a panic attack on the spot. The Christmas pop music was blaring from above, the checkout line was a dozen shoppers deep, and the place was packed to bursting with what must have been the entire contents of several gigantic Chinese factories. I felt like a mouse in a never-ending maze.

Christmastime may be when I miss Italy the most. It just won’t really be the same without Beatrice helping us roast chestnuts in a long-handled pan over a fire outside,

watching our first snowfall (and getting our car pulled out of it by a tractor),

and visiting a mountain village 100 years ago on Christmas Eve.

And although I don’t miss the stress of a very demanding set of Church callings, I think I might be able to handle the heartwarming insanity of The Best Christmas Pageant Ever.

I miss Christmas in Italy!

Italians and their food

As far as I know, all Italians love good food. However, what seems to set Sicilians apart is the sheer quantity of food they love. In Sicily last week, we went to a restaurant in Agrigento, ordered what we thought was a normal meal, and received four plates, each one containing enough pasta to feed our entire family. Tony’s is pictured above. It was tasty, although I just couldn’t shake the feeling that there was a gigantic insect sitting next to his tagliatelle. We also ate gelato four times in the six days we spent there, as well as sundry other sweets. Needless to say, after a week in Sicily, I feel like I should go on a diet, and stop eating pasta, pizza, and gelato. Fortunately for me, while all of those can technically be found in Tunisia, none are close enough to the genuine Italian article to really tempt. In fact, during one of our first weeks here in Tunisia, we were eating at a well-recommended restaurant in Hammamet. An Italian family walked in. They were seated, and one asked for a recommendation from their waiter. The waiter suggested a dish containing mozzarella cheese. The Italian was instantly suspicious, and asked to see the mozzarella. When taken back to the kitchen and presented with the cheese, he shook his head: “That’s not mozzarella.”

The funny thing is, I think this story could have happened in just about any country (other than Italy, of course). No matter where they go in the world, I am afraid that Italians must encounter many of these disappointing food moments. However, the divide between American and Italian perceptions of food is exceptionally wide. For the average American (and even for quirky foodie Americans like us), it is hard to truly fathom the deep and mystic attachment Italians have to food. Italian food is not complex. In fact, it’s deceptively simple. Many dishes contain no more than three or four ingredients. But those ingredients are so incredibly fresh, carefully paired, and exactingly prepared, that the result is invariably a work of classic genius. My favorite Italian appetizer is prosciutto and cantaloupe. That’s it. Just paper-thin slices of D.O.P. prosciutto draped over mouth-watering summer melon. And the best pizza I ever had was one with olive oil drizzled over the super-thin naked crust, a little cheese, and thinly-sliced apple, baked to a crisp golden perfection in a traditional brick oven.

Consequently, some of the funniest conversations we’ve had in Italy have happened when we’ve tried to describe the way Americans eat to our bemused Italian friends. Explain the process of making Kraft macaroni and cheese to an Italian, and you’ll be met first with incredulity (“powdered cheese? Really?”), then dismay (“milk protein concentrate, sodium tripolyphosphate, yellow 5, yellow 6 . . . what are those things?”), then mirth (you eat that?). Yes, we eat that.

When I told this to our friend Stathis, he tried to one-up me by describing an even more incredibly awful thing he’d once seen an Austrian eat on a camping trip: pasta in a can. Unfortunately, I had to confess that not only do we eat that in America too, but it is called “Spaghetti-O’s,” and tastes even worse than it looks.

Invariably, the final question Italians ask is, “but, why?” Good question. Why? Why do we eat like that? I guess it boils down to convenience. I mean, when you’re as busy as we are, you need at least your food to be quick and convenient. Which in the end, boils down to the fact that we feel like we don’t have enough time to prepare good food. So then the Italians want to know what  we do with our time instead. Well, let’s see. I guess we spend a lot of it working. Working so we can afford to buy expensive processed foods like Kraft macaroni and cheese and Spaghetti-O’s. And driving to the grocery store, finding a parking spot, going up and down the aisles to find our processed foods, and standing in line so we can then drive our food home and pop it in the microwave. Because no, we don’t have a little store around the corner where we can walk to buy fresh food.

In the end, I never can seem to explain it so it makes sense to an Italian.

photo credits: mozzerellaprosciutto/melon, mac & cheese, spaghetti-O’s,

In the Valley of the Temples

I have now visited ancient Greece, although we have not left the Italian island of Sicily. I can happily report that “one of the most important archaeological sites in Europe” lives up to its reputation. Magnificently. Even glimpsed from a distance, as we have seen it every day on our walks through the eucalyptus grove near Stathis and Elettra’s house, the “Valley of Temples” looked like something so lovely and classical as to seem almost unreal. And actually standing in the shadow of those temples was even more awesome than I had imagined it would be. Ancient Roman ruins impress me, but ancient Greek ruins move me.

I’m not sure whence it derived its name, but strictly (or even loosely) speaking, the Valley of Temples is not really a valley, but more like a ridge. The Greeks, like many other people, including Mormons, typically built their holy places on hills. Hills are, well, holier. Closer to heaven. More awe-inspiring. And easier to defend too, when it comes to that. As apparently it did for Agrigento on multiple occasions. The Temple of Hera, for example (below), still bears fiery traces of the Carthaginian invasion of 406 B.C. Later invasions by the Romans and Saracens also took their toll on the temples. While what still stands is overwhelming, one can only imagine its original glory based on the quantity of huge fallen stones strewn all over the several square kilometers of the “valley.” It looks as if giants had been building there.

Axa was most impressed by the colossal temple of Zeus, which was never finished, and has now mostly fallen down, but retains a majestic, ruined grandeur. It once bore a large and detailed wall relief of the battle of Troy (always a winner for Axa), and was held up by a massive statue of Atlas. From outside, the temple now resembles a mountain of massive stones. But a pathway winds in through to its heart, where crumbling steps and rooms suggest half-guessed purposes, and poppies gently toss their heads in an eternal stillness of memory and antiquity.

For Dominique, the main attraction was climbing stairs, hills, and stones, and finding sticks to serve as swords. Miraculously, he only fell down and drew blood twice.

We were fortunate to have with us the best possible person with whom to visit a ruin such as this: a Greek architect (our friend Stathis). He explained the features of the Doric temples, and how the ancient Greeks built every temple with slightly different proportions, in their eternal quest for the most perfect and beautiful shape. In the Temple of Concordia (above), which is the dramatic centerpiece of the site, the space between each of the supporting pillars is slightly different, decreasing as they move toward the corners, to fool perspective and entice the eye into perceiving them as equal in size. The Temple is preserved so well because in the sixth century A.D., in response to a papal edict, it was converted into a Byzantine basilica. The Christians pulled down all the pagan statues, closed up the entrances other than the Western one, and built an inner wall on each side, with twelve arches for the twelve apostles. It looks like the ancient Greeks have the last laugh here, since nobody comes to see it now except to celebrate its rich and glorious pagan-ness.

Last and highest stands the Temple of Hera (above), or what is left of it after the Carthaginians had their way with it, and the Romans remodeled it. Since Hera is the goddess of marriage, it was originally the place where nuptials were celebrated. When I consider the importance placed on marriage and family in my own faith, I can’t help but wonder if the elevated placement of the shrine honoring the goddess of marriage had special significance. As we approached the Temple of Hera, we saw a modern bride and groom having photos taken in front of it. It was one of those many moments in Italy when time seems to have stopped aeons ago, and past, present, and future merge into one beautiful, fully-lived now.

Our day was not devoted only to the monumental. We also took some time to enjoy a Mediterranean culinary masterpiece originating in Spain, but perfectly suited to the marine bounty of Sicily. Stathis and Elettra, besides their architectural and artistic talents, are also excellent cooks. They treated us to a lovely and delicious paella, created by themselves (in what they told me was their first attempt, which I had no choice but to believe. I was impressed not only with their culinary prowess, but also with their brilliant audacity in making an untried recipe for guests). Elettra also graciously provided all the photos for this post after Tony’s photos were eaten by our camera.

We leave for Tunisia (or home. We’ll call it home) tomorrow. Sicily has been enchanting. If we didn’t already have a Mediterranean paradise, we would certainly consider moving to this one. Thank you, Stathis and Elettra, for making our stay enjoyable in every way. And our door is always open for you, wherever in the world that door should happen to be located.