La climatisation

Finally, I broke down and installed central air conditioning in my rental apartment. It has become indispensable. The landlord didn’t contribute one lousy centime, but after the torturous summer of 2022 I could not face 2023 without help to get me through it. This one is predicted to be worse, and longer, because of La Niña and general weather trends. So I have done what I can to be somewhat ready. The air con is in just one room and that’s where I will be confined when I am not escaping heat and humidity in cooler geographies.

The only way to countenance the cost is to think of it amortizing over five years. That means I won’t be moving from this apartment come hell or high water (we have a long-running drought so hell will arrive first). In a way, that takes the pressure off the decision “to stay, or not to stay.”

Speaking of hell, the water shortage in southwest France is so bad that firefighters had to use sea water to put out the first “incendies” of the fire season, which like everywhere else has been arriving earlier and earlier. (There are fires in the Urals and Siberia already, by the way.) The Sahara will, sometime after I am gone, reach here. We already have the climate hospitable to dengue and chikungunya.

The good news is that I will spend almost half of this summer elsewhere, in the mountains of Italy, in a small town in Ireland and on a lighting visit to Poland and Latvia. That’s not something I will be able to do with each passing year. As I said, good investment.

Prayer for Water, drypoint by Emanuel Ranny
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One year later

David’s tennis shoes

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Les Rituels Paeïns

Scotland, Rome, Basilicata, Slovenia, Torino. That’s been the last few months. Travel is a wonderful distraction, especially when you finally make it to places that have been on your wishlist for years.

For me, those would be the carnival events of Basilicata, an isolated and mostly neglected province at the bottom of Italy, and Slovenia, a small country at the edge of Eastern Europe. Although I am not certain of the precise origins of either carnival, they are both definitely pagan. These are the events onto which Christian meaning and rites were imposed, giving us Mardi Gras. In mostly rural areas over the centuries, locals have kept the original versions somewhat alive and they can still be found from the Baltic to Portugal during the months of January and February.

Kurents in Ptuj, Slovenia

The basic formula is this: a midnight bonfire is set to initiate the festivities. Local men dress in animal skins, paint their faces black or cover them with a headdress, wrapping big cowbells around their waists. Thus transformed into beings somewhere between animal, human and spirit, they go door to door around the village in small groups jumping up and down to make a clattering din with the bells, ‘frightening” the children, until they are sent off with sausage or some other token, taking the evil winter spirits of the house with them and thus allowing the spirits of spring to safely arrive.

It may sound cute, but in fact, the stakes were quite high in the original versions. The barren winter was bleak and difficult to endure. Spring allowed planting and the hope of a good harvest crucial to avoid famine. New lambs, calfs and piglets added to the larder. At this point, fertility could extend to people, with marriages and births. Fires brought heat, energy, life.

Carnival goers in Basilicata set a fire

The gods needed to be appeased. I imagine sacrifices at times went beyond giving up candy for Lent and girls had to be locked up.

The Sardinian and Bulgarian pagan-origin carnivals are perhaps the most widely known and visited. My objective was to find smaller, more intimate, events. I did, and they were thrilling. One of the benefits of modern times is that these festivities are now family affairs open to men and women, adults and children, with a parade, fried foods, free-flowing wine and cotton candy and no threat whatsoever. As always, they serve the purpose of tying communities together, if not physically then culturally. My goal for early 2024 is to be right back there for a faded glimpse of an ancestral world.

Carnival family in Basilicata, Italy

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January post-holidays is the perfect month to visit Italy. This means after Epifania, or January 6th. It’s not just that the big retail sales launch after this date, which in this era of global chain store hegemony does not interest me, or that you can get a four-star hotel for the price of a three-star, but super importantly that the selfie-obsessed mobs are absent. There are tourists year-round in Italy, but in January the phenomenon is at a tolerable level. Especially if, like me, you enjoy your museum or monument visit early in the day.

Rome, the Eternal City, did not disappoint. Yes, it is dirty, and thick with pickpockets, but the glorious monuments never cease to inspire awe. There are so many, everywhere you look. I hastened to one of my favorite spots, the Capitoline, from which you gaze over a vast tract of ancient columns comprising the Roman Forum, stony roads marked by triumphal arches and the path to the massive Colosseum. You can’t get much more ancient history than that.

Roman Forum from the Capitoline

I love how you could be on a dark, narrow street, where the sun is perpetually blocked by the angle, to suddenly emerge onto a sunny piazza dominated by the Pantheon, or a minor temple, or a Baroque fountain. The vistas are splendid at 360 degrees. Looking out from a park or terrace, the domes and spires of churches spanning a few centuries dot the skyline, and invite reveries of the distant past.

All that classical splendor happens before you enter the museums, or the churches harboring masterpieces by Bernini, Caravaggio and Raphael. You can never get to it all, and there’s always something newly excavated that becomes a must-see for a subsequent visit.

Bernini, The Abduction of Persephone,
at the Galleria Borghese

And there will be one. What I have described I had seen many times, and I thought I would never see Rome again. But a first cousin and I re-connected after many years, and I made a trip to see him and meet his family. I lingered, and visited the neighborhood I had lived in as a child, found the park with the view where my siblings and I would be taken for constitutional outings, walked through the Borghese gardens the family would visit on a Sunday afternoon.

The Borghese Gardens

Rome is drenched in history. In my case, a personal and ancestral one as well. But its eternality, the desire to return, is for everyone.

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This summer I went swimming. I went swimming in the Mediterranean and the Adriatic Seas, and in the Rivière d’Auray in Brittany.

For the first time in more than two decades, I also did a week of yoga. There were meridians shiatsu sessions involved too, as part of the retreat package. The latter was a little woo-woo but I just went with it. You know what? There’s something to it.

The best thing about the retreat was that it took place in a quiet spot on an island in Croatia, on the Dalmatian Coast. For nine days, from our lodging in a stone house at the end of a tiny peninsula, our group participated in a morning yoga session and an afternoon shiatsu session, and in-between we all swam in refreshingly cold, cristalline water or lounged in a comfy chair under the shady pines with a good book (bouquiner).

Prizba bay from our lodging

The wifi network was super spotty, there were no shops other than a teeny grocerette with mostly junk food, and only one decent restaurant so we had zero distractions in the environment. I would just sit and stare at the gorgeous scene for ages. As it turns out, it was the best thing ever. Remember daydreaming?

I experienced it as a pleasant and unexpected stopover in my journey through mourning. The old life will always co-exist with the new. But I will pick up my camera again. There will be happy times again.

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