Tuesday, 26 April 2016

Culture and conquest: selective memory of the past

me at the British Museum on a sunny Sunday afternoon

I really wanted to see the new exhibition at the British Museum on Sicily, having just returned from Palermo and having not had the chance to visit the Museo Archeologico Regionale while I was there. I went to the British Museum on a Sunday which is a big mistake as it was absolutely packed, so I returned yesterday afternoon. I am a member of the British Museum (until next Saturday and I will not be renewing the membership, it is too pricey) so I can go whenever I wish without booking or paying extra. It was a lot less crowded on a Monday  though the exhibition was very well attended, this is indeed an exhibition that has a certain appeal.
 On my second visit I was on my own - I find that if I go to exhibitions with others, no matter how well informed they are, I tend to concentrate on socialising and I do not notice things as much as I do when I am alone.
 The exhibition, which focuses almost exclusively on two periods of Sicilian history, the Greek period and the Norman conquest, is one of the last overseen by Neil MacGregor prior to his move to Berlin. It is very interesting in terms of its political significance - a glorification of multiculturalism,  MacGregor's  hobbyhorse, as this TED talk reveals -  but it remains a  little disappointing, at least  in terms of its size and also, as will be clear from this post, in terms of the narrative it weaves around the Norman conquest. Some of the objects on display, borrowed from Sicilian museums and sites, are quite outstanding, though, and worth paying the £10 required to see them.

The exhibition also comprised  objects from the permanent display in Room 73 (Greeks in Italy), which I checked out separately to see how many artefacts  had been moved from there. As you know, entry to the Museum is free, but exhibitions have to be  paid for.  One would feel a little shortchanged if a ticketed exhibition only contained objects moved from a permanent display to the exhibition area - which was pretty much the case with the one about the Greeks, last year, also sponsored by Julius Bär. Incidentally on the way to room 73 one has to pass through a display sponsored by CitiBank, about money in the ancient world. Mercifully, that small exhibition is free...
The Sicily exhibition is accompanied by a catalogue edited by Dirk Booms and Peter Higgs, a volume with essays and photographs of the objects, providing information that is missing from the exhibition itself eg  the great Archimedes of Syracuse is only mentioned in passing, the catalogue has however a write up about him and his famous Eureka moment. If you had no catalogue you would learn nothing about Archimedes - here I am thinking of the many children who visit and who are being catered for by special labels which ask very basic questions, some even mention selfies  (I assume they are aimed at children). Also without catalogue and background essays you would come out of the exhibition with a rather lopsided view of Sicily. The exhibition is  big on photographs, I would say, but a bit lacking in content and some of the statements made are rather contentious. The catalogue too is not immune to partial views (and some mispellings too eg 'meanad' for 'maenad') but it does the job of providing more detailed historical information and it does describe the objects.

Palermo's Cathedral
 The exhibition's rationale was immediately evident. An anonymous reviewer for The Economist writes "As the Mediterranean struggles to decide how to share its future, understanding its shared history is more important than ever". Nothing wrong with that.
My problem is the fact that Norman presence in Sicily is so overpraised to the point of stating that Sicily began its decline soon after Norman rule collapsed. Well, surely that is a tad one sided? Ending the exhibition by saying that after the Normans Sicily just became a province of mainland Italy and everything artistic thereby produced was derivative is pretty disturbing - I am speaking here as a southern Italian of distant Spanish and French descent thrown into the mix. Moreover, I was in Sicily less than a fortnight ago, as a visitor. What about Palermo's beautiful post-Norman churches and that amazing Cathedral that blends Norman period architecture with later one, with grand baroque additions and which is so breathtaking that one is genuinely moved by its awesomeness?  The view that the French Anjous, and later the Spaniards, were evil, and brought in destruction, is a bit overrated,  as the edited volume The Spanish presence in 16th century Italy (2015) clarifies.
Labels in the exhibition seem to have been written rather hurriedly. Thus it is stated that the wife of Roger, the first Norman ruler, the noblewoman Adelasia, a fifteen year old from Liguria when Roger married her (he was about sixty), later in charge as regent when he died (love her name, would gladly change mine for it) wrote a famous bilingual decree, one of the very first issued on paper in the whole of Europe. With due respect, she did not write anything at all, she probably could not write, more likely she was advised to issue the order that the message of the decree should be written in Greek and Arabic, which she would not have spoken, so that all the people on the island would  understand.

Palermo. San Cataldo. 
Then there is the label that says (I am quoting more or less verbatim) "a large number of English scholars and clerics made the trip South to Italy to be at the Norman court, resulting in the exchange of artistic and political ideas. William II married Joan Plantagenet, Frederick II married Isabella, daughter of John. The weddings made the bonds between the two islands even stronger".
Norman England and Norman Sicily, together they stood. When the Normans had to give way to the Anjous (those upstarts!) it spelled the end of Sicily.
I am not persuaded by this 'Rule Britannia' rhetoric that underpins it all. MacGregor has stated in an interview that the Germans confront their past, the English are selective in the way they remember it. In this rather potted history of Sicily,  the Greeks are held in the highest esteem, the Romans are more or less vilified, presented as plunderers, the Byzantines hurriedly mentioned almost in one breath with the Arabs, the conquering Normans (still arriving uninvited, being conquerors) depicted as harbinger of a splendid  multicultural civilization (seriously, multiculturalism? a modern, liberal concept now used with reference to the 11th-12th century, when society was quintessentially feudal, yes, even under the Normans!) and in close dialogue with Norman England, please note this fact.  Whatever happened after Norman demise is depicted as just a sorry tale of woe. This is very selective memory indeed.  Enough to make Etna grumble rather loudly.
History, one would say, is definitely a matter of opinion. Especially when recounted through blockbuster exhibitions sponsored by Julius Bär.

Mount Etna grumbling. Photo by anonymous

(in an earlier version of this post there was a factual error re the decree of Adelasia, which I have now amended)

Saturday, 16 April 2016

Sister bonding

With my sister at the Teatro Massimo, Palermo
Sisters. Not all of us have one and those of us who do often think, while growing up, that our sisters are a real nuisance. I certainly did. You know what I mean. Parents go on about 'having to share' and such like. God,  there were times I could have killed her! but I also saved her from drowning, when she was a little girl...Luisa Dillner wrote a few years ago  The Complete Book of Sisters, which is a most entertaining read, sisters on sisters.  I highly recommend it.
I have lots of sisters but the one I grew up with is my little sister - not so little now, but I am older by more or less three years, so she still is my little sister to me. We live in different countries and do not see each other very often. We used to fight like crazy (and still do) but when we are together we also find that we laugh at the same things and can communicate most easily without even speaking.
Anyway, we had to go for a family matter to meet up with my older brother. My little sister and I decided to spend a few days together, just us two,  prior to meeting him, so we flew to Palermo, which we had never been to and then slowly made our way by bus and train to where my brother lives, in Calabria.

We loved Palermo and spent the whole of last Sunday exploring it on foot. She was worried because her luggage had not come with her, the usual airline mishap - she was most anxious, in fact. But still, between one call to the airport and the other, we found time to be wowed by the beauty of our surroundings.
Sicily is splendid and Palermo is amazing. We walked everywhere, explored every corner of the 'Centro Storico', and throughout, from a stilted, somewhat formal beginning, we reverted back to being the silly girls that we used to be, laughing at things no one else would understand, saying the same thing at exactly the same time, gently poking fun at each other.
There were great moments, such as when a local approached us thinking that as tourists we might want to avail of his services as guide, only to be stunned by me saying curtly  'Oh do shut up,  I am busy taking pictures of my sister'. She began to laugh so much, she almost choked. The poor guy left us at once. He was only trying to make a living, she said. He was being a nuisance, I replied. It was so hot, we went to get a gelato.

The weather was fantastic throughout the visit and we even managed to go to the beach and swim - the water was icy, I must admit, but it was wonderful and we felt so good.
She and I look very much like each other, more or less the same height, and the same features. We look more and more like each other as we grow older - we were quite different in appearance when we were younger.  She is only a bit curvier and has brown hair - she would not embrace her grey. Fair enough, it is a choice.
But we were not just 'doing the sights'. We also spent quite some time window shopping and deliberating on wearing heels and wondered which colour would suit us best while admiring the latest fashion on display. Like we used to do as girls.

We even went to a music concert on the spur of the moment and it was a lovely experience.
The bottom line is: visit Sicily if you can, and spend some quality time with your sister, if you have one. You will be pleasantly surprised on both counts. And if you go to Sicily, be prepared to put on a little weight: the food is simply delicious.

Thursday, 7 April 2016

More on weight loss, weight gain

I posted on this topic earlier and got some very interesting responses. I am writing again about it because of a post by Katy, another blogger, where comparisons were drawn between Linda Evangelista and Victoria Beckham, more precisely about Evangelista's weight gain and Beckham's alleged eating disorder.
The gist of the post is that basically everyone should be free to put on weight if they so choose which is apparently what Evangelista has done -  perhaps temporarily? I could not agree more!
However, my point is that everyone should be also free to lose weight if they so choose, without any comments. Yes, I know, we are constantly bombarded by images of slim women and the idea that slim is beautiful is inculcated in us at a very young age and that may have negative consequences.
But we are also bombarded with lots of other messages whose impact is equally negative - smoking for a long time was depicted as glamorous, for example,  and drinking continues to be glorified. Here I would simply say that what we need to do is learn from a very young age to recognise that ads are manipulative. Once we realise that, we can be in control, we need to listen to our body and make our own choices in relation to what makes us feel happy. We need visual literacy and we need to be able to separate the wheat from the chaff. As Linda Evangelista said herself "It’s nonsense to say that perfect images of models in magazines are bad for women, because we know they’re not real – we look at them because we love to dream".

As for the statements made by Kate, whose posts I otherwise always enjoy reading, ie that to keep yourself in good shape you need a lot of money or the will of a gladiator, I would say you need neither. Some people like stuffing their faces with cakes, I for example dislike sugary things and you will not catch me eating candies. I exercise daily because I like the feel good factor, the buzz it gives me and I do not fill my stomach to bursting because I like being able to experience a tiny bit of hunger, it makes me clear headed and  makes my next meal much more satisfying.
I am not a super fan of Victoria Beckham but as she has been very slim for most of her adult life perhaps it is unfair to keep on comparing photos of her with those taken  when she was much younger and she was carrying puppy fat. She is quite petite (she used to wear only heels to make herself taller) so extra weight would show quite quickly on her frame and would make her look shorter than she is, whereas Linda Evangelista is 5'9 with very long legs, so she can carry any extra weight much more easily.
Why can we not accept that Victoria Beckham feels more comfortable with herself as a very slim woman? She may be following a diet but obviously it's not so  damaging or she would have died by now. I believe she also exercises regularly - she has had four children and her abs are toned! How can one say that the quality of her life must be pretty low because she does not eat cream cakes? I doubt it she is unhappy on account of not eating sugar.

It's ironic to contrast Victoria Beckham with Linda Evangelista. In an interview given some years ago  when she finally graced Vogue cover Victoria Beckham said she would have loved to look like Linda but no matter what, she couldn't, because you cannot lengthen your legs or add height  so she accepted herself as she was and decided to work on herself to feel comfortable with her own shape. She also claimed to have been blessed with good genes and that keeping slim was not an effort.
Damn, your shape is, when all is said and done, a lot to do with choice and also  accepting what your genes have handed you.  I  respect  personal choices concerning appearance, just as I respect the choice of someone deciding to go vegan - I am not,  but it does not mean I criticise vegans.
We are all different and we all like different things. We should be allowed to put on or lose weight without this becoming an issue. It is just a personal choice.

(All photos from a recent shoot for Karina Martemyanova and for Florentia Martines Cruces)

Wednesday, 6 April 2016

Stonehenge and women

Last night, God knows why,  I felt the urge to go and see  Stonehenge after years and years - the first time I went it was still possible to  climb up the stones! (Can't hide my age here! It was Mrs T. who decided the Henge would be out of  bounds because of the 'excesses' of the visitors. There was the danger of people inscribing hearts into the stones, but would they really do so?).
I would have loved to go with a friend but let's face it, even my wonderful friends would be most likely to say no. Imagine calling up and saying 'Let's go to Stonehenge tomorrow morning'. Hmm. It's a weekday and we all lead very busy lives. Not to worry , when I get these urges I just go on my own, I know better (and I know I just cannot plan and postpone, it's  not the same). I booked a tour, a last minute booking - how I relished doing that. It is complicated to go to Stonehenge these days because tickets to visit the site have to be booked from English Heritage 24 hours earlier and then you are given a slot. From London you have to make your way to Salisbury and then to Stonehenge. I reckoned the quickest way was to book a tour, as tour operators have priority and can be given tickets on the day.
I woke up at 6 am as the coach was leaving from Victoria at 8 am. Got ready, got my camera and off I went.

My travel companions, mostly American and German tourists, were very nice. It was raining, no sign of the sun. And it was cold. On the way to Salisbury we were entertained by a DVD called The Mystery of Stonehenge. I enjoyed it , it was well made and very informative. Then we arrived and it was windy and wet. We had two hours to walk around the Henge, visit the exhibition, go to the cafeteria (optional but in that weather a hot drink was very welcome,) go to the souvenir shop (also optional but then...), then back to London. I had not brought protection for my camera but had an umbrella. I had to negotiate my way around the prescribed route - we were given audioguides, which I positively hate - in order to get a good view of the stones. But alas, it was not possible to go near them.
At some point I stepped back and sat on a bench - there's a few provided for the comfort of the visitors. And I began to reflect, randomly. Last year at about this time I was in Malta, visiting the Goddess' shrines. They began earlier than Stonehenge but at some point, time wise, they overlap.
How come that when we hear about Stonehenge women are hardly mentioned? Meanwhile in Malta...

Malta. Goddess temple
I visited the exhibition. A Stonehenge man had been digitally reconstructed, out of one of the skeletons that had been found. He was 172  cm tall (a bit short, really, but in those days they were on the short side). The reconstructed face was weird, too modern, I thought. He could have been just any fair skinned, twenty something from Salisbury! Maybe that was the point. I looked around for women. None. no girlfriends, no mothers, none whatsoever.
Why are women so conspicuously absent at Stonehenge? You have to go to Malta to see them in their  neolithic glory.
Yet a recent article by Jennifer Viegas claims that powerful women had been found buried at Stonehenge. How do we know they were powerful? Well, anyone buried at Stonehenge had to be a leader, so any woman found there, buried in pomp, would have been one.
It's time to change this construct we have of Stonehenge as being all male. It obviously was not.
It troubles me, this tendency to write women off history (or prehistory). Has there not been something called feminism? Where has it got to? Do we need to reinvent the female wheel every time?

(All photos in this post are my own)

Monday, 4 April 2016

Taking control of your body: weight loss and weight gain

Photographer: Lucy Feng. Model: me
This is  another post about dieting and changing body shape. I find it fascinating, as a topic. I love it when women decide that they should take control of their bodies. It's not the mindless dieting one is indoctrinated to do, because 'you should'. It is the dieting that accompanies life changes and signals to the dieter that the body, and  therefore one's life, can be controlled and steered in the right direction, whatever that may be.
I recently went for yet another hammam experience. I am definitely sold on the thing, I need it and crave it and am looking for the perfect hammam outside Morocco. As I was relaxing in the very hot steam, mud all over my body, another woman walked in and began comparing herself to me.  I never like such comparisons, they are meaningless. She concluded she needed  to lose at least five to six kilos. Fair enough, it was her decision, I was not there to judge anyone. She also said she needed to exercise more and asked which gym I went to. 'I don't go to a gym anymore' I told her, I exercise at home, doing the barre. She complained about this, about that, I lost interest and just lay very still, enjoying the heat.  She sounded like someone that was afraid to take a decision and stick to it and desperately wanted me to tell her what she should do. I cannot decide for others!

Casa Spa, Arabian Hammam
Whether you want to lose weight or put it on, it   is entirely your decision. Some people really make an effort, others do not, they believe it just happens.
Two friends of mine recently decided to lose a lot of weight. I asked them to tell me why and what their experience was like. Did they do it because they were trying to conform? No, both of them said they did it for themselves, and one of them especially relished exercising control over her body.
This is S. 's testimonial:
"My recent weight loss is a bit of an oddity to me. Having steadily gained a lot of weight over the past 13 years something shifted for me last summer. I began to look at my life and stopped doing the things that were shrivelling my soul; I stopped spending my evenings on the sofa watching awful television while stuffing my face with endless food and started to play music and dance in my house instead. This coincided with stopping the antidepressants that I'd been taking for decades and with the end of a long relationship that was not making me happy. I took a look at my body and realised how much weight I had gained and how I had drifted into an unhappy middle age where comfort eating had been my only real friend. It was my change in attitude that really altered. I have not been on a diet nor consciously tried to lose weight but back in September I wrote in my journal that I thanked my body for the weight gain and the protection I felt it gave me at the time but that I no longer needed it, it was time to let it go and live again. Since then I have lost over 50 pounds with none of the usual calorie counting or restrictions I used to employ to try to slim. I just found that as I moved and danced instead of vegetating in front of the television my appetites shifted hugely. From continually eating junk food I swapped to healthy meals without effort and stopped feeling the desire to fill my body to bursting with junk food. I eat much less than I used to, but I don't even think about food much now, I eat whatever I want to eat whenever I want to. It turns out that I'm in effect doing intermittent fasting, though it was not by design. I go for long periods when I have no desire to eat, then when I feel hunger I eat I feel at home in my body again after many years when it felt like the enemy".
Photographer: Lucy Feng
Thanks S. you have articulated it so well. Moving away from food as comfort is a big decision. Far too often we are caught  into  this 'eat to feel better' trap. I have done it too, I occasionally still do it but I monitor myself and when I hit a certain weight I know it's time to do something.
C. on the other hand emailed me the following comments and I really find them food for thought:
"Dieting is an intervention on the body. It can stem from a positive attitude and a balanced idea of 'getting rid of fat and toxins' and 'letting in only good nutrients' or it can feel like pushing the body and the self to behave differently than before, to break habits and patterns.  In this case a level of self criticism is required. If emotionally balanced that criticism is accompanied by self empowerment. But at times of emotional strain my attitude is to push myself to look and feel stronger/leaner/ better/younger. More more more. A race. 
I usually stop eating for two days. I only take water and nuts or one banana for the third day and thus close up my stomach and start appreciating flavours that come from non fatty foods. I usually do that for a month or 40 days and can lose up to 5-7 kilos. I am quite disciplined once I really decide to diet and I only do it for aesthetic purposes, fit into tight dresses and not to feel sluggish. People always comment on my slim figure and I find this quite motivational. I feel more assertive, in control and powerful, when I am slim. I like my body fuller but I feel that I need to work harder in choosing flattering tailored clothes. When slim I can wear inexpensive clothes and look younger. 
I don't like it when I succumb to stereotypes of female slimness imposed by the media. I try to focus on my own image of what a healthy toned body is and  I'm in control of what my figure and  myself could look like rather than compare myself to  models. But these images are everywhere and are hard to ignore. I have internalised a look of an elegant white dancer type like Audrey Hepburn that I try to achieve. As an almost 40 year old mother of two this image becomes trickier to achieve and I don't want to push myself in a punishing way . 
The quality of my skin has changed and I found that when I lose weight rapidly the skin gets shaggy which is an added concern. I tend to have to  add an exercise regime for my abs and buy creams to improve elasticity or collagen tablets to help my skin cope. 

Photographer: Lucy Feng
At the moment I feel good doing this. I feel I am active in coping with me turning 40 rather than let the "mother " lifestyle take the best of me. Slimness is associated with youth and this is a visual culture of slim idols so the real effort for me is to balance my psychology, accept my age and the demands of being a parent of young kids and my desire to look my best. Of course my "best" is an illusion created by culture and photoshopped images. So I guess I diet and try to detox of self hate and sexist anti feminist discourse at the same time. It is a balancing act on a tightrope. Most women dance it. Some fall and there is no safety net. Some choose not to climb the rope. Damned if you diet and damned if you don't. Even those who are naturally given a slim physique have to make some diet changes as they get older and the metabolism changes. We now know more scientific truths about weight loss but our psychology can still be fragile and the culture market around us as forceful as ever. Slimness is a cultural capital.  And this is capitalism at the end of the day. Beautiful me can be a rounder me and the moon is equally beautiful when slim as when full. Mental diet from junk inflexible notions of beauty is part of a healthy regime but I don't always achieve that".
Thanks C. for saying  it so eloquently. We all know what you mean.