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A Writer's Life in Rome & Tuscia

No Heat in Rome Tonight

There's no heat in my apartment in Rome tonight. All afternoon, as the temperature dropped in the room where I sat working at my computer, I kept getting up to touch the radiators to see if it had come on yet. But those labyrinthine coils were stone cold. It's not that boiler has broken down. It is working fine! It's not that we haven't paid our heating bills. I just paid over 700 $ advance for this winter's heating bill. The problem is that a large number of families in this apartment complex haven't paid their bills for a long, long time, and we were recently informed that unless their debts were paid back, only minimum services would be guaranteed to the whole complex. Even though we have paid our full bill this year as every year. Minimum services does not include heat every day in the winter, heat that I have paid for in advance for my apartment.

It sounds like a story of the recent crisis that has dragged our neighbors in Greece to despair. But the origins of this story go way back in time, seven or eight years, when the previous administrator of this condominio organized some maintenance work that not everyone in the complex apparently agreed to. The expenses were divided up among the five hundred families residing in the complex, but a great number refused to pay. So the administrator took the funds we had all paid in advance for the heating and used those to pay the maintenance work, leaving an unpaid bill of over 100,000$ owed to the gas company.

Since then, we have been living with this debt over our heads. Money for this year's heating gets scraped together from the few who do pay to try to pay back the prexisting debt. Sometimes the gas company comes and puts a lock on the gas meter, so nothing comes out, and no heat gets turned on, like tonight. It is ten degrees centigrade on my balcony tonight and will keep dropping till dawn.

Stringent laws protect the privacy of those who don't pay. Their names can't be revealed, so they are spared dirty looks in the elevator. In theory the administrator is required to prosecute them to recover the outstanding payments, but the previous one never did, and the current one doesn't seem inclined to do so, either.


Then there is the question of "the law of solidarity," -- whether binding law of the land or only general policy, I have yet to discover -- according to which, those who can pay are required or encouraged to cover the debts of those who can't or won't in hopes that the sums will be paid back once the law courts and collection agencies have snapped into action.

But court cases here drag on for decades, and it is unlikely that the sums will ever be paid back. There are also rumors that one of the biggest "retardees' in paying the outstanding gas bills is actually the owner of a dozens of apartments in the complex, which he rents out, and can well afford to pay the bills. For some reason he has never bothered to collect heating bills, or the condominio bills -- covering things like cleaning, lights on the stairs, regular building maintenance. Up till a few years ago, the administrators were able to juggle things so that life went on as usual, but the crisis has made things worse. Ten years ago it was probably 25% who neglected to pay. Now it's more like 50%, perhaps more. and it will probably keep increasing.

So what can you do? It sounds outrageous. But that's real life in Rome.
Thank goodness I bought an electric heating pad when I was in Finland last year.
Maybe if I am lucky there will be heating tomorrow.

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ALONE WITH THE ROAST


I was thirty, single, and had never cooked a roast. For many years I had been vegetarian and had lived in rented rooms in Rome without a kitchen. Those weren’t the only reasons. I didn’t believe I was capable. After moving into an apartment all my own, I wake up longing for roast beef.
I loved meat as a child: pineapple-glazed hams, pork loin with apricots, lamb with mint sauce -- I have yet to see their equals. Those perfect roasts were the product of science. It was my father, a chemist, who supervised the Sunday roast. A lover of good food, he mingled his gusto for all things natural with stern precision when it came to cooking times and temperatures and the strict observance of proper procedure. A candid snapshot of Sunday noon in our kitchen would show my father and mother leaning over the roasting pan, piercing the flesh with a skewer, scrutinizing the color of the liquid oozing from the tiny aperture. Is the meat done? Is it underdone? Will it be too dry? They never agreed. Oven thermometers, timers , glass measuring cups still stir in me a certain anxiety.
I get out an old cookbook and study oven roasting. Here too, science is required. How much liquid, if any? At what temperature? I shut the book and go off to my neighborhood butcher where I examine the cuts of beef displayed amid labyrinthine coils of brains , lungs like fuchsia sponges. The baleful, bloody eyes of a severed lamb’s head reproach me for my apostasy from vegetarianism.
I ask the butcher for a suitable cut to make rosbif al forno. A philosophical disquisition follows – would I prefer a girello, a lombata, a filetto, or a controfiletto? I have no idea, but tell him I have guests for dinner, my closest friend and my new boyfriend, and I want to impress them both.
Later, alone, with the roast, I try to remember my father’s gestures as he ministered the meat. I rub it with garlic, herbs, butter; pat it with flour, plop it in a pan, pouring in a generous cup of wine. I throw in some quartered potatoes – that was never done in my house – and dribble them with olive oil. My oven is a battered monstrosity from the fifties salvaged from a friend’s basement. It looks as though it has been fashioned with parts recycled from an allied tank. There’s only one setting: high – any lower and the flame goes out. This is folly, I think. I put the roast in and stand guard with a basting brush.
Soon a delicious smell spirals through the flat, delighting my friends when they arrive. When I pull the roast from the oven and pierce it with a fork, the color of the juice is just right. I carve the meat and serve the potatoes. I watch my friends set to with obvious pleasure. Their enjoyment for me is in itself a sort of nourishment. Perfect --- they say --- it’s perfect.  Read More 
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The Art of Marta Torres

On these gray days in Paris, one of the coldest and wettest periods in the last 100 years, a flicker of purple and a flash of white in a window caught my eye as I trod through the rain to the bus. It was a bougainvillea vine with a gnarled trunk and a froth of pink, purple and magenta on top, set against a wall of white washed brick in some sunny Mediterranean place, reminiscent, I thought, of the Cyclades, where I longed to be at that moment absorbing some sun. I looked again, it was not a photograph or painting, that trunk was real, and so were the bricks. If anything what I was looking at resembled a piece of a stage set, though not quite to scale. Intrigued I stepped in through the door, and found myself wandering the alleys of Ibiza recreated by the enchanted eye of Ibiza artist Marta Torres.
The extraordinary works on show at the Galerie Charlotte Norberg at 74 Rue Charlot, in the Marais recreate walls, doorways, windows, beaches and olive groves of Ibiza and surroundings in a mixed media of collage, sculpture, and painting. Natural objects like tree trunks, sea shells, stones, earth, pebbles, sand, sticks, pieces of wood, and even eggs are glued on supports to recreate seascapes, landscapes, and street scenes. The island life in the old town is recreated in dozens of domestic details. In white brick walls (made of some plastic like substance) real doors, windows, shutters, and gates are inserted, made of peeling wood, with rusted hinges, padlocks, and chicken wire, opening to reveal a sea view or a distant island. Frayed old electric wiring is strung over doorways outside of which are placed baskets of firewood or a dish of eggs. Beneath windows flap dingy pieces of laundry, fixed with wooden clothespins, moved by a slight breeze, caught in the folds as they ripple.
That house, said the person at the gallery who showed us around, really exists! I have seen it, he insisted. All these places really exist in Ibiza.
Stage sets, magic boxes, dollhouses, Advent calendars, Mexican crèche scenes enclosed in covered niches opening to reveal figures or surprises are all akin to these works carefully constructed to create a true to life tactile impression in crumbs of red earth , hard, knotty tree trunks, wooden window and door fixtures that splinter at your touch, shedding scraps of colored paint, old iron hinges, nails, and locks covered with the fine dusting of rust. She also gives us the visual impact of strong sunlight glancing off white walls and petals, leaves, seashells, and of course, the blue and turquoise surface of the sea. She gives her viewers the illusion of being elsewhere.  Read More 
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Mansfield and Gurdjieff : The Maiden and the Magus

Reposting this older post about a trip to Katherine Mansfield's grave outside Paris

Whenever I am in Paris, I make a private pilgrimage to Katherine Mansfield’s grave in the cemetery of Avon, near Fontainebleau. Recently in town for a reading at Shakespeare & Company, I take a day out of a hectic schedule to pay homage to a writer who deeply influenced my life.

A row of driverless taxis waits outside the Fontainebleau-Avon station. It’s lunchtime and the drivers are probably all at table. Each taxi displays a sign with a mobile number to call should the driver be absent, but I am informed by an
American couple ahead of me in line that only one has answered their calls, promising to come “toute de suite,” nearly an hour ago. Chatting with them I learn that they are from California and that they too are on a pilgrimage to the cemetery
of Avon, to visit Gurdjieff’s grave there. We decide to share a taxi, should one arrive, and within moments, voilà, an unlicensed taxi pulls into the stand and we strike a deal with the driver for a tour.

The cemetery of Avon, located at the end of “Rue de Souvenir” is beautifully kept.
The black marble tombs are polished to a mirror’s perfection and decorated with bright bursts of yellow and rust-orange chrysanthemums and flares of purple heather. Wandering back to an older part of the cemetery, I find Katherine’s grave –
simple, stern, unadorned except for a small vase of ivy set at the head. The name “Katherine Mansfield” is etched in large letters. This is the name by which the world knew her, but not the one printed on her passport, “Kathleen Mansfield
Murry.” Beneath appears the title by which she longed to be known, “wife of John Middleton Murry.” Barely legible today is the epitaph: “Out of this nettle danger, we pluck the flower, safety,” summing up the contradictions and tug of opposites
within Mansfield’s life, character, and writing. Not far off, just “next door,” as it were, is the Gurdjieff family plot, a large rectangle of green turf edged in yellow pansies, surmounted by two rough hewn menhirs, and shaded by a gnarled
cedar.

The graves are unmarked but the tourist board has added an unobtrusive sign briefly explaining who Gurdjieff was and his connection to Avon. My fellow pilgrims film the grave from every angle. We stand a while in silent reflection and then return to our taxi. Although our driver has lived in Fontainebleau for all his forty-some years and is fiercely proud of this fact, he is perplexed as to our request to visit the Prieuré des Basses Loges. He is unsure where it is exactly. The Californians have a map, which indicates a building at the end of Rue de Katherine Mansfield, but it turns out to be a
modern nursing home. I have been to the Prieuré once before, while doing research which would later develop into my novel, Katherine’s Wish, based on the last five years of Mansfield’s life, and I know that it is not easy to find the Prieuré.

The modernization of this area of the town, the division of the old estate, taller walls, and a certain reticence concerning Gurdjieff and his school make the place hard to spot, but at last we find it, secluded behind a tall stone wall. We follow
the wall to a front gate and peer in. Since my last visit, the place has been transformed into an elegant residential complex. No plaque on the gate denotes the presence of Gurdjieff’s school in the 1920s, or Katherine’s death here in
1923, or even the name by which the building was known. Continuing along the wall, we come to a side entrance leading to a parking area. The gate is locked, but a young woman in a track suit, noticing us on her way to her car, comes to enquire if we are looking for someone. Quite simply we tell her we are looking for the place where Katherine Mansfield once lived, and where Gurdjieff had his school.

She seems puzzled and tells us that she thinks Mansfield lived elsewhere, down the street perhaps, and has never heard of Gurdjieff. However, she lets us in, shows us how to open the gate to let ourselves out again and apologizes for not
being able to help us on our search. “I have only been living here for a couple of months,” she says, before driving out the gate. We go in and walk around the grounds, to what is now the rear of the building on the southern side, where the
great lawns and flower beds once extended, now parceled off today with fences. There are few trees save a large plane tree shedding its yellow leaves on the shaggy lawn. It must be nearly a century old and was surely standing here in
Katherine’s time. I picture her in the elegant room she occupied on the upper floor of the Chateau, known as The Ritz to pupils who stayed in more Spartan quarters.
I imagine her standing at the window, looking out at the lawns, at this tree, feeling the autumn sun on her chest and eyelids, desiring to become “A Child of the Sun.” A large dog comes bounding out of the bushes toward us. Luckily he is
friendly, but we take this as a sign that we should not prolong our visit. Slowly we circle the house, pause to examine the fountain with blue tiles out front, now drained, then discreetly slip back out to the street. There are many accounts of the
intense, whirling life that went on within these walls –from C.S: Knott’s Journal of a Pupil, Fritz Peters’ delightful memoir, Boyhood with Gurdjieff – but none are more moving than Katherine’s own letters written in the last weeks from the her little
writing table upstairs. It seems strange to me that the drama of this writer’s last days, which has touched so many readers for four generations, should remain completely unknown to the people who now eat, sleep, and carry on their daily lives in the
place where Mansfield died. But that is Paris and its environs – rife with ghosts, layer upon layer, who unseen breathe upon us.

Linda Lappin is the author of Katherine's Wish a novel about the last five years of Katherine Mansfield's life and her stay at Gurdjieff's institute in Fontainebleau, which won the IPPY gold medal in historical fiction and was short listed for the ForeWord Book of the Year award in fiction, among other prizes. She is also the author of the prize winning essay: Katherine Mansfield and DH Lawrence, a Parallel Quest discussing the spiritual journeys undertaken by these two great modernists in the last phase of their lives. The essay shared first place in the international essay contest sponsored by the Katherine Mansfield Society. She is also the author of an essay on Mansfield and Gurdjieff, The Ghosts of Fontainebleau published in the Southwest Review. Katherine's Wish is available on Kindle at a discount throughout August 2013 @ amazon


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Book of the Beast: Ugo Bardi's Il Libro della Chimera

"We are all Chimeras" -- Ugo Bardi

Not too long ago, I made a trip to Florence to visit an old friend who has dwelled in my unconscious for a very long time, ever since I first laid eyes on her at the Archaeological Museum: the Chimera. This bronze statue, cast in one piece, depicting a three-headed beast composed of a lion, a goat, and a snake is considered by many art historians to be among the major masterpieces not only of Etruscan sculpture, but of all ancient religious art that has come down to us from anywhere the world over. After years of absence, she does not disappoint, radiating electrifying power and intensity.

The sculpture, eighty centimeters tall, shows a regal beast on the defense, with a jagged mane of spikes, its sinuous body tensed to pounce, ribs protruding from its sleek, gaunt sides, suggesting hunger. Its open jaws roar in pain and fury. The extremely realistic, flat-eared goat head sprouting from its spine leans downwards, shedding drops of blood on the base of its neck. Soulful eyes gaze out helplessly as a vicious serpent, which is the Chimera’s own tail, stretches out to strike, seizing the goat’s horn in its jaws.
The Chimera, as notes Ugo Bardi distinguished chemistry professor at the University of Florence, environmental blogger, and author of a study on the beast, Il Libro Della Chimera, (edizioni Polistampa, Florence, 2008,) is portrayed in a moment of suffering. She is a fighter, but she is losing.
Bardi goes on to say that the Etruscan artist who made this Chimera, roughly in about 400 B.C. may have wanted to express the fate of his people who at that time were gradually being overcome by the Romans. Or perhaps he wished to express his own destiny, that of all human beings, who will eventually be overcome in a final, individual battle. “We are all chimeras,” Bardi suggests.

Once face to face alone with this astonishing creature your first desire is to reach out and caress its smooth sides and haunches, then to run your hand across the cold bronze spikes of its mane and hackles and test the sharpness of the claws. But your next immediate response will be a question: But what does it mean? for this curious three-headed combo must mean something. What Ugo Bardi sets out to do in his thought-provoking study is to illuminate that meaning on many levels.

First, he provides us with a historical account of its discovery unearthed by workers digging outside the Arezzo city walls in 1553, her transferal to Florence where she captivated Cosimo I De Medici, and soon became a symbol of Tuscan cultural and political identity. He describes the vogue for Etruscan culture to which she contributed, as scholars tried to link the undeciphered Etruscan language to Hebrew and sought traces of the mysterious race who were the forefathers of the Renaissance Tuscans, rivals to the Renaissance Romans. He explains why indeed she is not a fake, as some have claimed. He investigates her mythic background as a fire-breathing female creature who laid waste the land of Lycia until she was slain by the hero Bellerophon, riding on Pegasus. To kill the Chimera, Bellerophon shot a wedge of lead to the animal’s throat, where it melted on contact with her fiery breath, causing her to die of suffocation. Bardi reminds us that the Chimera was no monster but a goddess. Later accounts attempted to rationalize the myth, by claiming that she represented a volcano.

Readers will find all this and more in Bardi’s exhaustive study which includes a fascinating essay on the origins of the myth of the Chimera and the female archetype it represents, akin to both the Sphinx and the Great Mother. Citing both Freud and Joseph Campbell, he traces the recurrence of this archetype in religion and art from Mesopotamia to the present day, offering a psychoanalytical interpretation for the myth as an Oedipal rite of passage.

Thus far, we might say that in the Libro Della Chimera Bardi has assembled all the known facts and lore about this mystifying beast, along with a beautiful selection of photographs and drawings, but he goes even further, to make a momentous discovery of his own which may indeed lead us to solve the enigma of her essential meaning.

When the Chimera was pulled out of the earth, she was found to have a word engraved on her right foreleg TINSEVIL, which over the centuries has been interpreted in dozens of ways, related to the Etruscan god of thunder, Tin. Bardi conducts his own linguistic research on this term and finds connection with one of Europe’s most ancient and mysterious languages: Basque. From this he derives an extraordinary theory as to the Chimera’s true meaning and identity.

In many cultures letters and words are sacred, not mere abstract symbols of sounds, but seeds from which may germinate emotions, visions, entire universes. When spoken aloud or merely formulated in the mind, words can conjure gods and demons, materialize blessings or curses, shatter a brick wall into fragments or even make the limbs of a statue shudder to life. Such power may lie dormant in the word TINSEVIL, for it has also inspired Bardi’s newest literary project, a novel, about which soon I hope the world will have news.

Il Libro della Chimera is at present only available in Italian but much of the material can be found in English on his wonderful website Ugo Bardi Chimera Site
The book in Italian may be purchased here
www.polistampa.com/asp/sl.asp?id=4441
Ugo Bardi, one of the most followed environmental bloggers in Italy, writes beautifully in English on some very scary topics about which he is expert: collapsing systems and planet plundering. Follow him here
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The Mermaid with Two Tails

My work in progress MELUSINE draws inspiration from another legendary figure in Tuscia, the twin-tailed mermaid.

Twin-tailed snakes and their cousins, twin-tailed mermaids, often decorate Etruscan tombs where, indeed, they may be placed as guardians near the entrance, as in the Siren tomb of Sovana, near Pitigliano, in the Tuscan Maremma area. These snake-ladies or mermaids are believed to be a guides for the souls of the dead. Their double tail suggests their mastery of two realms, earth and the underworld, or earth and the sea, as well as the giving and taking of life. In the Ancient Greek tradition, Persephone, the goddess of Spring, had sirens or mermaids as attendants who accompanied her to the underworld when she was kidnapped by Hades, the king of the dead.
The twin- tailed mermaid resurfaced as a popular icon in the religious art of the twelfth century, when sculptors began carving her on doorways, columns, and pulpits in churches and cloisters, throughout Europe, especially in France, Spain, and Italy. These artists favored a particularly provocative rendering of this mysterious figure, portraying her as long-haired and topless, holding the ends of her tails high in her raised hands. Different authors have suggested very different explanations for the mermaid’s appearing in holy places, such as on church altars, and for the accentuated display of her female attributes. In one interpretation, the mermaid is a symbol of perdition, the illustration of a moral lesson for church-goers or monks to contemplate while listening to sermons or studying scripture: the capture of a human soul through sin. Other authors claim that the mermaid, which may have been originally a pagan symbol of fertility, is an emblem of female ambivalence and lust, a counter figure to Mary, whose grotesque shape was intended to evoke physical disgust and fear in the viewer. A third subtler, interpretation suggests that the twin-tailed mermaid is a Christian symbol of human generation, and that is why she so often shows up as a decorative detail in sacred architecture. In order to follow Christ, one must be born human, passing through the narrow gates of a woman’s womb. We all come into the world from the great ocean of unbeing in which the mermaid swims, passing through the birth canal which she lifts her tails to let us see.
Modern interpretations suggest that the double tail and double nature of the half -snake or half- fish lady represents feminine duality viewed through the medieval mind, for which women were both mothers and temptresses. Nowhere is this clearer than in the medieval legend of Melusine, a beautiful maiden who agreed to marry the Duke of Aquitaine on condition that he never enter her chamber on Saturdays when she took her weekly bath. Tormented by jealousy and curiosity, he broke his vow, played peeping tom in his own house and spied on his wife in the tub, discovering that when she bathed, her upper half was human, but the lower belonged to a twin-tailed serpent. Furious at his betrayal of her trust, she terrified him by turning into a dragon and vanishing instantaneously.
The twin- tailed mermaid is also a heraldic emblem and alchemical symbol, where it represents the union of earth and water and may be a symbol of the unification of opposites, enlightenment, and of the world soul: that is the anima mundi, the totality of the energies of nature. Her human half dwells on dry land in earth time, the fishy half partakes of the eternal realm of the sea or ocean, while the coiling serpent’s tail may be a reference to cyclic time. She may be a symbol of dreaming, a mediator between dreams and waking, between the visible and the invisible. The people of antiquity and of the middle ages had a very different concept of dreams than our own. They believed their dreams did not originate from within themselves, but were truly a form of communication between their souls and a higher power or in some cases demonic one. The mermaid suggests that contact with another realm of being.
Half hidden and half revealed, suggesting sensuality, enlightenment, imagination, dreams, the twin-tailed mermaid is the perfect symbol of the artist or writer’s creative spirit, and of the interior life.  Read More 
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The Last Room at the Hotel

The Last Room at the Hotel

For years, my favorite hotel in Paris was the Hotel Les Degrés de Notre Dame just steps away from Place Maubert, a squat, sturdy building located on a place shaded by spindly trees and scattered with tin café tables beneath an awning.
Inside, its three dark floors were connected by a spiraling staircase of creaking boards. On each narrow landing three doors led to small rooms, crammed with scarred furniture, fussily decorated with gilt mirrors, rich, old velvets, ancient carpeting. Every free inch of wall space was occupied by a mirror or a painting rescued from someone’s attic. The ceiling beams and wood floors were thickly coated with strong smelling varnish, perhaps to discourage woodworms. The walls were thin and the door hinges unoiled. All night you would be awakened by the traffic on the stairs, as revelers straggled in, kicked off their shoes, and threw themselves into bed. No air conditioning, fridge, serviceable wifi, or elevator. Beneath the telephone was discreetly tucked a detailed list of things you were not allowed to do in the hotel. But I have never stayed in a cozier place. Its funkiness was its appeal.
On the ground floor, a glass door led to the restaurant with tiny tables pushed against the walls. You could hardly fit inside when wearing a winter coat. And yet what atmosphere! Lamps with orange and red shades cast a warm glow over well-worn red upholstery where you could sit and sip drinks with a lover or husband for hours. Behind the bar of burnished wood gleamed row upon row of Pernod and Campari bottles arranged before a spotless mirror . Attached to one side was a covered patio with more tables, always packed at mealtimes. From afternoon till evening, in a corner near the back, or sometimes out along the street at the only smokers’ table, the Algerian owner of this establishment, Monsieur Kamel, would sit, alone or in company, surveying with keen eye his clientele.
Kamel was a handsome man with olive complexion, graying hair, and as years progressed, a bit of a paunch contained by a snug fitting pinstripe gilet. His mask-like countenance combined shrewdness and benevolence, radiating a philosophical calm. He seemed to observe you without observing you, like a Buddha, sizing you up with thickly lidded eyes. When you saw him sitting there, drinking tea, or perusing accounts with his full, pursed lips, you felt that all was right in the world.
The restaurant was justly famous for its Moroccan dishes, prepared express by the handsome, swarthy staff darting about in white jackets while well-nourished cats prowled underfoot. The tajine arrived steaming on a huge terracotta platter, hidden beneath a tall brown clay cone, like a magician’s hat. As the cone was lifted to reveal sizzling braised lamb , the heady scent of spices --ginger, pepper, cinnamon, cloves, and cumin, mellowed by apricots and pears--was unleashed into the air. But my favorite were the plainer French dishes. On cold winter days ,onion soup or a blanquette de veau . In summer, a filet à point with mushroom sauce, accompanied by their Moroccan salad: finely chopped onion, romaine, tomatoes, cucumbers with a dusting of cumin. And their desserts! Their crème caramel was so light you were afraid it might float away before you could sink your spoon into it.
They catered to regulars. You’d see the same people eating there, week to week, year to year. An elderly man, reputedly a count, who munched sugar cubes as he drank his coffee by spoonsful. A set of elderly identical twins who were there every day at lunchtime and ordered identical meals. Babies in cumbersome prams, big shaggy dogs, shoppers with huge bags in tow were welcome, no matter how much space was needed to accommodate them.
The only thing amiss with the place was the lock on the bathroom door, at the bottom of the narrow stairs in an odorous cellar. That lock was so efficient you sometimes couldn’t open it again, and would have to bang, rattle, and shout till someone heard you and let you out, much to your embarrassment, after you returned up the stairs to the restaurant, having disturbed everyone’s meal. It happened to me twice, and once to a friend, who had to be rescued by monsieur himself.
Last autumn while briefly in Paris, I dined there often but noted something strange. Some days the restaurant was deserted, but on others, it was a frenzy of people coming and going, hugging and cheek-kissing, laughing and toasting from one table to another. People driving by would honk their horns and wave. Monsieur Kamel, rather than sitting like a pasha, was seen driving about in a van, looking rather harried.
A short time ago, I returned to Paris for a conference and found a room at the Degrés.
“It’s our very last room” the clerk told me on the phone when I called to book. Those words, “last room” held a meaning I had yet to discern.
I arrived after midnight and the attendant whom I had always remembered being there, carried my bag up to my room. I arranged for an early wake up call, and reserved a table for the next night for eight people, as I was inviting some friends for dinner. Next morning I dashed out without stopping for breakfast, and returned at two for lunch. Stepping into the restaurant, expecting a homey, filling meal, I found the place empty, the lights all off and the kitchen closed. A tall elderly Japanese man appeared from the shadows, puzzled to see me there. He didn’t speak French or much English, but managed to tell me that service for lunch had ended, if indeed it had ever begun. As we talked, a young Japanese man entered and watered a bonsai at the sink.
I went to have lunch across the square, and when I came out again, I saw sitting outside, at the table where Monsieur Kamel used to sit watching the street with a bemused half smile, four young Japanese men clad in white chef coats. With their long, thin, elegant legs drawn up under the tiny table where a bonsai had replaced Monsieur Kamel’s ashtray, they gazed up and down the street, distractedly. One wore a white surgical mask.
The place had obviously changed hands. But what had happened to Monsieur Kamel? I anxiously enquired with the staff of the neighboring restaurant. Last night was their last night, someone explained. While I had slept a revolution had taken place. All the old people had cleared out. Kamel had sold the place and retired to Morocco. A young chef specializing in Japanese/ French fusion had taken now over the restaurant. I was assured that the new food was “fashionable and exciting”. That night was opening night.
I had to rush back to the conference but returning before dinner, I was approached by one of the genteel Japanese boys who bowed to me and asked apologetically, “Are you certain you wish to reserve a table for tonight, for eight?” as though he couldn’t believe such a thing. It was too late to change now, I had no idea where to go, and besides, it seemed rude to say no.
That night our little party of eight were the only people dining there, served by a staff of six. There was nothing French on the menu, but lots of sushi, which alas, I am not fond of, but we all found something to order. I had exquisite shrimp tempura and fried cochon. We had to acquaint the new proprietor with the local tradition of cheaper house wine served in a pitcher, but eventually we managed. The dinner was delicious, if nearly twice what we would have paid under the previous regime, but each dish was artfully prepared. One of my friends remarked that the Japanese beef he had ordered was the best he had ever tasted.
I was sad, though, in all these years, I had never had a chance to tell the old proprietor what a wonderful place he ran. Monsieur Kamel who is probably sitting in a sundrenched Moroccan square drinking mint tea, has certainly earned his rest. But I feel homeless in Paris, another piece of an old world is gone.
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The Monsters of Bomarzo and Signatures in Stone

Just twenty-minutes from my house in a medieval village in Central Italy stands a 16th century sculpture garden which still today represents an enigma to art history scholars: The Monster Park of Bomarzo, also known as the Sacred Wood. Peopled by monstrous creatures sculpted directly from outcroppings of volcanic rock, half-hidden by a thick fringe of ferns, this park is unique in the history of Italian garden design. The brainchild of Duke Vicino Orsini, the Sacred Wood has been interpreted variously as a pagan itinerary of initiation, a sculptural representation of Orsini’s weirdest dreams and nightmares, an allegory illustrating his political career, or a series of emblems concealing an alchemical formula for making gold. Some of the structures in the garden have been ascribed to the architect Vignola; others are believed to have been sculpted by inexpert pupils of a local atelier or perhaps by Turkish slaves. Scholars are undecided if the layout of the park is a random arrangement or whether it conceals a design intended to create a certain effect on the visitor’s mind. For the great gardens of the Italian Renaissance and Baroque era were more than just collections of plants. They were models of the universe and even instruments for changing the awareness or destiny of those who held the key to these gardens’ secret meanings. Today the park of Bomarzo stands off the beaten track, occasionally visited by busloads of tourists, when the tiny ribbon of a road through this hilly country allows. In recent years, the road has often been washed out for months. The Sacred Wood unfailingly excites the imagination of all those who wander in among its terrifying figures caught in moments of extreme violence or emotion, who seem to come at you as in a dream, popping up from behind masses of vegetation or crumbling walls. In centuries past, the local people believed that the stone figures moved about at night.

The Monster Park/Sacred Wood of Bomarzo inspired the story and setting of my new novel, Signatures in Stone. This mystery novel recounts the misadventures of Daphne Dubois, an aristocratic detective writer with a hashish habit, who stumbles into a private hell and then finds redemption after being accused of murder when her rival is found strangled in the park. Daphne’s solution of the case depends upon her intuitive gift for reading “signatures,” signs and omens of future and past events scattered on the scene or embodied in the sculptures themselves. While solving her own mystery, she also solves the mystery of the park’s origins and meaning.

In writing this novel, I was deeply influenced by the local soul or spirit of place. Still today, the general area, called Tuscia, an hour’s drive north of Rome, remains the heartland of Etruscan culture. The landscape here is riddled with Etruscan tombs, gashed by dramatic canyons, strewn with moldering ruins: Etruscan, Roman, and medieval walls & towers; ancient altars like step pyramids furred with moss; abandoned convents overgrown by vines all set in amid hazelnut and oak groves. In Tuscia, Etruscan lore has blended with the medieval belief in witches, devotional cults of angels, folk customs of dowsing and healing, and with the intellectual neo-paganism of the Renaissance to create a rich and fertile terrain of imagination, very much alive in popular superstitions and local customs. I have roamed and researched this territory for over twenty years, finding in the soul of Tuscia an inexhaustible treasure. My first mystery novel The Etruscan ( Wynkin deWorde 2004), set in the same time period as Signatures in Stone
( the 1920s), celebrated the peculiar effect that these Etruscan vestiges had on an American photographer who had come to Italy to research Etruscan sites for the Theosophical Society. In Signatures in Stone, I once again take up the question of psychic influence transmitted through art and through locale across centuries to show how the primordial spirit of place sometimes moves our actions, colors our dreams, and fires our hearts. The novel also ekes out the fine line between illusions and reality, and illustrates how waking life, intuition, and dream are much more interfused than we normally admit. Read More 
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An interview with Thomas E Kennedy

I recently had the pleasure of interviewing a writer who has been a mentor to me since we met at the Ploughshares Writing Workshop in the Netherlands nearly two decades ago, Thomas E. Kennedy, for Gently Read Literature, the online magazine. That interview will be coming out in the May issue. In the meantime, however, somewhat unexpectedly, our conversation continued concerning a workshop he will be giving this summer in Andros Greece at the Aegean Arts Circle , and for those of you interested in finding out more about his approach to workshops, you may find some information in the interview below.
LL : “Do you take a particular approach when conducting fiction workshops? Are there some aspects you emphasize especially?”
Thomas E Kennedy When I was a student in an M.F.A. program, I particularly wanted to hear what the workshop leader had to say. After all s/he was a published writer and presumably had much more to say than me, so I tried mostly to listen. Not that I didn’t ask questions also. With that in mind, I try to impart what I have learned to participants in my workshops. I want to talk about specific topics – verisimilitude and sensory evocation, narrative flow, the need for revision and how to revise, the use of intuition, point of view, structure, and so forth. And I find that participants – as I did when I was a student – want to hear about the nuts and bolts of being a writer, how to submit a manuscript, what the writing life is like, etc. I also do a lot of one-on-one with student manuscripts – a student of writing can learn as much from hearing a professional critique of another writer’s manuscript as of his or her own. But I need to have the manuscripts in advance – I need to contemplate a piece of prose before I know what I think about it.
But there is room for spontaneity also; the generative approach is something I find very useful – with writing prompts. It is amazing what a participant in a workshop can produce on the spot by being prompted by the leader with a little presentation – e.g. on sensory evocation, on cut-ups and rotations, or simply by setting a scene – and then the leader calling on the participants to write. The results are usually quite exciting. The very first writing exercise I took – about thirty years ago – led to one of my first published stories.
LL : What is the most important thing (or things) that workshops can give developing writers?
Thomas E. Kennedy: Well, I think one of the important things to remember is that in the workshop setting the participant is among equals – more or less equals of professional accomplishment – but is being guided by an experienced professional. So the participants can open themselves and trust – can read her or his work out or show it without fear because we are all in this together. We are all trying to help the participant to solve his or her writing problems and uncertainties, to try to help them go forward with a little more certainty than s/he had before. Immersing myself in the workshop at Vermont College was the best thing I ever did for myself as a writer. Hanging around with other writers, discussing formally and informally in workshop, talking shop and being unashamed of it – these all give potential for growth within the writer, for understanding of what s/he is trying to discover in taking on the vocation of writing.
I remember feeling when I went to my first extended workshop residency that suddenly I was among people who spoke my language – I understood everything that was said to me and everyone understood what I was saying. It was a great relief, suddenly to have people interested in matters I had been holding to myself for years.
And I see that in the participants where I teach, at Fairleigh Dickinson University, too, and the participants in the residency seminars and workshops I lead – they all profit from this same thing. The generosity of some of my mentors was incredible. Most writers like to talk about what they’ve discovered in pursuing their craft and their art. And as a participant in a workshop, I quickly became aware of that and opened my ears as well as trying to formulate questions.
In one of the first tutorials I ever experienced – in my early twenties – I had become obsessed with the fact that I did not know what a story was. And I sort of blurted out to the mentor – “I don’t even know what a story is!” It seemed like a stupid question and I felt extremely stupid and worthless for asking that, but he took it seriously – and I will never forget his answer: “Well a story is just something that happened. And you try to give it some kind of artistic shape, even if that artistic shape intimates the shapelessness of life.” A pretty good definition which satisfied my uncertainty. There are no stupid questions in workshops.
LL: . In your past as a student of writing, what were some of the memorable workshops you attended?
Thomas E. Kennedy Well, that one – with Edward Hoagland at the City College of New York – was important to me. Not only did he build up my confidence by answering my “stupid” questions, but he also let me look over his shoulder as he ran through my manuscripts and edited them – extremely instructive! And those tutorials were only 20 minutes long, but what a valuable 20 minutes! With my teachers at Vermont College, I think I learned as much in workshop as at dinner or at night when many of us sat around and talked. As I think the students and teachers learn at Fairleigh Dickinson University by exchanges with mentors and among themselves.
Visit the Aegean Arts Circle for more information on their upcoming workshops

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Linda Lappin reviews Pamela Sheldon Johns CUCINA POVERA

Review by Linda Lappin
Title: Cucina Povera: Tuscan Peasant Cooking
Author: Pamela Sheldon Johns
Publisher: Andrew McMeel Publishing, LLC
185 pages (in English)
Hardback. 185 pages Price $21.99
ISBN-13: 978-1-4494-0238-9

During my thirty year romance with Italy, I have caught a few glimpses of the rustic life as it must have been lived once, not so long ago, before the sharecropping system was disbanded in the Italian countryside and the massive migrations to the cities began in the nineteen sixties. Decades later in most rural areas, old traditions lingered, and still linger today: old ways of doing things, old remedies and recipes, handmade tools passed down from generation to generation, along with an even older wisdom of survival that comes from living off the land. Stepping into an old house in Tuscany, Umbria, or Tuscia today is still like stepping into a story book. You are likely to find a sink hewn from stone, a pan of castagnaccio –pudding cake made from chestnut flour -- steaming on the hearth, tarnished copper pots hanging on the wall by a wood stove, or fragrant bunches of dried fennel or lavender suspended from the ceiling beams. In any Tuscan village, you’ll still find someone who can tell you what herbs will soothe a burn or a fever, what phase of moon you need to plant, prune, bottle wine or cut your hair. You’ll be offered the best red wine, olive oil, cheese, bread, bean soups, pasta, and prosciutto you’ll ever taste, and maybe some porcini mushrooms and truffles as well, prepared according to some grandma’s recipe which she in turn got from her granny’s granny, dating way before the Napoleonic wars, and maybe as far back as the Etruscans. And of course every recipe has its own story, history, and secrets. ,  Read More 
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