Thursday, September 24, 2009


Currently at an internet café in Roma. The keyboards are much better here.

I drive out of Ponte dell'Olio this morning at 6:30, driving across a misty landscape with a red sun rising in the east. I arrive, via Trenitalia, at the Embassy of Mali at 13:30 in Roma and apply for my visa, which went swimmingly. They even smiled and gave change. And, instead of the 3 days which they had said over the phone, they said I could come back tomorrow to pick it up.

Which is great except that I hadn't planned on staying in this city - I thought I would need to return on Tuesday (3 working days from now). Hm!

I am travelling particularly light today, and flip through my mental files as to where my favourite place to stay here is located. I was last here in 2004, and I wander in the general area until a golden door magically appears in a white marble wall. Tah-dah!

Lo and behold, I receive keys to the same apartment as last time. My Casa Roma.

So I am really roaming around in Rome, which can't be that bad at all.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Where the streets have no lanes

At an internet cafe in Affori, a suburb of Milan. My ears perk at the word "mumkin" ... Arabic for please (I think). Eva and I are on our way out of the city. Home for the past two days has been a hostel ... and functioning psychiatric hospital. It was an acoustically bright place where you could hear the clock ticking very clearly.

"Opportunity is the sweet flower of time"

"No pursuit of man has been done in vain"

Phrases from yesterday's opera L'Orfeo, a beautiful production, and like nothing I have seen before. The theatre has a very deep stage - made even deeper by the illusion of the horizon and water in the scenography (by Robert Wilson), which in general was very well done. "Unreal" would be my best description of it. Subtitles on the backs of seats, like on airplanes - as if you were going someplace else by seeing a production in the theatre.

Marina and I had tickets in the highest seats, closest to the stage - ie not exactly great. Furthermore, to drive the fact in that we were to go to the peanut gallery, we were to go through another entrance. However, because I love Italy, it loves me back. For whatever reason, all tickets for seats up there were to be exchanged. In the end, we are in the 3rd Balcony, Box 16. So mid-height, just left of centre. I could not have wished better seats.

Also I am pleased to report that I have successfully driven into the heart of Milan, within 2 blocks of Teatro alla Scala, and come out again. It was sort of a 3-D pop quiz. Chaos, combined with intimacy, has developed its own rules of the road. Like a fast-pace secret handshake between the Milanese. Today it will just be the autostrada to Noceto, close to Parma.

If the keyboard was more functional I would write more.

(With normal pressure, the last sentence would be, "If he keyboad was mo unctional I would wite mo" )

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Ponte dell'Olio

Unbelievable but I made it! I am here in Ponte dell'Olio, car and all, by the good graces above. Now off to Agroturismo la Favorita for dinner ...

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

7 Minutes

... is all I have for this post. Currently at the Norfolk Library in Wells-next-the-Sea. It takes 5 minutes for the internet to start up here, so it is a good thing that there are a lot of books about whilst one is waiting.

And why have I come all this way to Wells you/they ask? Well there is this woman named Jane Digby who was part of the family at Holkham, the estate near here. Among the things she did in her life, she went to Syria. None of the stewards at Holkham seemed to know about her, though I have intrigued them as to who she is. Apparently 'The Duchess' was partly filmed there, though I bet the next big film to be (partly) shot there will be about Jane.

Also visited Walsingham yesterday. Judging from all the religious activity there it would make one think that it was Nazareth itself. Enjoyed evening vespers at the humble St. Seraphin Russian Orthodox Church.

Now off to take the Coasthopper to Kings Lynn, then the train to Cambridge for a night. Then Italy for a couple of weeks.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Madness and Modernity

I have arrived in Brussels fair and well.

My flight was uneventful, which is the best one can wish for. The night was clear and the moon out there was just waning. Beside me was a young woman with bright eyes, off to begin her studies in law in the UK. She really seemed to make herself at home on the flight, transforming her small seat into a cosy nest, far better than the overhaul Air Canada did to stretch out its foremost passenger seats. She brought with her a full-length, furry fleece blanket, and crumpled more completely into her limited space than I've seen anyone else.

I had just purchased over the weekend a media item, and with the casual insertion of my personal headphones into the seat jack, there was a connection made with this technological world as a conversation started as to when and if personal audio devices were allowed on the flight. We eventually isolate ourselves from each other, and hike up the volume to completely soundproof ourselves from the unending cries of a boy across the aisle. He sounded like he was possessed by spirits whenever he was as awake. They found in him a depth of pain, fabulous lungs and a great capacity for air vibration. If children were allowed to be principal singers in opera, he would certainly be classified as one who could cut through a 100-piece orchestra.

The main errand of my stay in Brussels is to obtain a visa to Mali and Burkina Faso. The details help explain. I arrive in Mali in early December. A Malian visa is valid for 3 months from date of issue, which means I can only start applying for it now, as I will be there in less than 3 months. The timing was too risky to get it in Ottawa, as I would have needed it issued last Thursday and my flight was on Sunday - and so the Embassy there said that I can get it in Brussels.

I arrive at the Embassy in Brussels. At the door, there is a note about special Ramadan hours, which seem to coincide with the hours for dropping passports off but not picking them up. I press a button for "service", and all this implies in terms of desire, hope, and expectation. After the lobby I enter a room where there is no one waiting. A woman is typing and looks busy. I am told that they do not issue any visas to Canadians. I am to get one from the Embassy in Canada. A couple enter and one asks her questions. The servicewoman snarls again and says she is too busy to do that which is being asked.

No matter the quantity and quality of good will and advance organization, I will never be completely prepared for the irrationality of modern bureaucracy and what feels to be the flick of the whip at the end of a chain of frustration and power struggles. The options now are to courier my passport from Damascus to Ottawa (sure!), or obtain one at the airport in Bamako, Mali, something not encouraged in guidebooks but which is being looked into nonetheless.

I pass by the Burkina Faso Embassy, whose warm, smiling visa servicewoman says that yes, Canadians can certainly apply for a visa, so I initiate the request without delay. I have fond memories of applying for visas for Russia in Rome, and for Mongolia in Beijing. The Embassy of Mali in Brussels is outstanding in its truncated provision of visa services, in a city not faint in international character with its EU parliament.

It's late at night but I have jetlag. I'm staying with friends who initiated the trip to Mali and Burkina. They have a shop and this will be a trip to stock up on items and make new contacts.

Around me are books related to madness, marriage and/in Africa, themes revealed in a Senegalese writer, whose novels are the subject of a doctoral thesis. On the wall is a "cheat sheet" (if you can possibly cheat at this) of Amharic and Arabic characters. Unlike many who go to a coffee shop to get coffee beans, my friends go to Ethiopia, indigenous land of coffee arabica and its associated culture of hospitality. They buy what look like 50kg/100lb bags of these beans and, prior to orders, lug them to a roaster here in town so they are delivered as freshly roasted as possible. They are off to Addis Adaba to bean up, among other things, later this month.

Although I knew that one would be in the library yesterday, by chance we met in the vending machine / lunch area. I am quite grateful for the university libraries I have been through in Vancouver. It is a different story altogether this side of the pond. There is a 2.50€ day entry fee, for starters, which is why I hung out by the vending machines. And according to my friend, the largest library in Belgium has no books related to his thesis, and it is impossible to obtain interlibrary loan (he needs to go to London or Paris for this). So due to limited services of obtaining useful books, he is required to bring in his own books into the library and, every single day, as if the library staff don't know him, he undergoes a modern ritual ("policy") with them, who sign in each of his personal books and check the system to make sure the library does not carry them.

There are a lot of chocolate shops and comic book stores here in Brussels. It is what the city is famous for. Grist to the mill itself, their high consumption and demand is perhaps a tranquilizer against and escape from the madness that derives from the legacy of colonial bureaucracy.

Thursday, September 3, 2009

Temple Tips

"Dan, put that titanium weld we did last year under the microscope to see if there are any cracks in it. She's going really far away."

She looks at me and explains, "The chances of you finding someone that can weld titanium where you're going is slim to none. I mean, we couldn't do it until 5 years ago."

She hands me back my glasses, with the new temple tips, and Dan confirms that there are no microscopic hairline cracks that would compromise my personal window onto the world. No need to inquire after Souq Al-Titanium, though I imagine people would say yes yes, of course, come with me and let me help you find it...

I mosey into a bookshop. Do you have books on Eastern Christianity? I have recently been reminded that Christianity is an Eastern religion ...

Blog: Whitterings
Book: From the Holy Mountain

... but I am directed to opposite ends of this active, mountainous landscape of processed pulp covered in dust. I have only a few minutes before my lungs give out.

"Theology" (Christianity) on the far east wall, "Middle East" on the far north-west wall, close to "Islam" and "Judaism". I find one book that looks at Christian and Muslim sights / sites in Egypt and Syria, based on research done in the early 1800s. My lungs say it is too dusty.

I buy instead a recent edition of "The No-nonsense guide to Islam".


So I am starting this new blog, the main purpose of which to tell you that I am safe and to share my travel experiences with friends and family. Note that there is no Facebook access in Syria.

I will be in Western Europe in September, and Damascus, Syria from October to March, with December in Mali ("that's nowhere near Syria!" my friend remarks, rather perceptively). After March, the plan is to visit family in Australia.