shedding tears for Italy

Less than one year ago I went travelling around Italy. It should be known that Italy is my favorite country, Italian my favorite language, and its cuisine, coffee and design style my favorites too. In fact, I often wonder why I live in France when it is Italy I love.

The photo above, taken by me in the Puglian town of Lecce, says Chiuso, which means Closed. Italy right now is closed.

In June 2019, I spent three days in Rome before slow-travelling down to the Puglia region by train. Five days later, I travelled northwards, by train again, up to Bologna and then to Milan.

Had someone told me back then that in exactly seven months the country would be BROUGHT TO ITS KNEES by a horrendous viral epidemic killing thousands and thousands, for the most part senior citizens, I swear I would have choked on my cannoli.

As we now know, the main factor affecting the country’s death rate is the age of its population — Italy has the oldest population in Europe. Many of those who have died were in their 80s and 90s, a segment of the population that is more susceptible to the ravages of COVID-19.

But surely that in itself – that there are, or sadly, were so many elderly – is testament to the longevity of Italians and proof of something positive in their lifestyle. Genetics play a large role, of course, but there are other reasons:

Italians use extra-virgin olive oil – a lot.

Rich in antioxidants and fatty acids, Italians use the oil for salads, pasta, dressings, baking, and cooked vegetables. The high nutrient content found in olive oil has been linked to decreasing the risk for Alzheimer’s, depression, heart diseases, diabetes and even osteoporosis.

Italians drink a glass or two a day

In Italian cuisine, red wine is regularly used in recipes due to its ability to enhance flavor and taste. A glass or two of red wine accompanies most meals.

Italians have strong family and social bonds

A study revealed that strong family relationships can decrease the mortality rate and improve emotional and mental health. My brother-in-law is Canadian-Italian. He visits his parents almost daily who are in their mid to late nineties and live in their Toronto home nearby. Funnily enough though, when it came to his parents-in-law and sister-in-law, there was no evidence whatsoever of any family bond, only treachery and betrayal.

The Mediterranean diet

The common Italian diet is rich in whole, unrefined grains, fruits, vegetables, nuts, fish and small amounts of red meat – all of which is usually prepared fresh, and very little is prepackaged or processed. When eating these foods, Italians get a healthy dose of vitamins, protein, antioxidants and omega fatty acids

As I sit in confinement in my flat in Paris, I re-read my blog posts from that wonderful June trip (and previous trips) and look fondly at my photographs. I’m so glad I went when I did, and I look forward to going again.

Here are my blog posts and photos:


And here’s a wonderful video to watch:

Saturday night, extended lockdown, red pepper dip

So the national lockdown has been prolonged to April 15, and will no doubt be extended again after that. We’re in this for the long haul, folks. Things are getting worse, not better. And know this: what you read about in Europe is coming your way in North America. We’re your future.

The good news is (a) I made a delicious Middle Eastern walnut and roasted red pepper dip this evening, and (b) we turn the clocks forward tonight which means we lose one hour in this never-ending hellscape.

dip use this

The recipe is below. I suggest adding lots of garlic because raw garlic boosts your immune system. I ate it with my own pita bread, because I make my own flatbread, naan and pizza now.

Since Wednesday, the lockdown rules have tightened in France. Now, we can only go outside once a day and for one hour only if it’s for physical exercise. So what the heck are Parisians doing while confined to their small apartments? Don’t forget, we don’t have houses, backyards and gardens here. Well, personally, I’m never bored. As long as I have my creature comforts at hand – books, DVDs, coffee, radio, telephone, the internet of course, booze, the right foods, cooking utensils and my mohair throw from Zara Home – I’m happy. The best part is the uninterrupted time I can now spend on my book project. My memoir will be done and dusted soon, folks.

I guess it’s all about scaling down now, and doing without certain things that maybe weren’t necessary in the first place.

For those of you who like reading, writers and books, here’s one of my favorite websites that I read daily. It’s truly excellent, and chock-a-block full of literary news:

Literary Hub Home

Muhammara (Roasted Red Pepper Dip)

comfort food, we need comfort food

It’s as if the weather is mocking us. It’s gorgeous here. Cold, sunny and a luminous blue sky. And here we are, confined in our homes. Yesterday, I decided that I needed comfort food, so I whipped up a batch of peanut butter-oatmeal-chocolate chip cookies. Normally I would share with neighbors and colleagues, but considering the current situation I’ll have to eat the whole batch myself. This confinement thing is not helping anyone’s diet and fitness program.

I had not been to the grocery store since last Wednesday when everything was more or less normal. Today, however, was quite different. There were no more spirits (hard liquor.) Luckily, there was wine and beer, so I stocked up on that. Somehow I can’t imagine France ever running out of wine. Then I wheeled my cart to the bread section: nothing but empty shelves. No problem. I bought flour and yeast. I will make naan (recipe below.) Super easy to make, it’s similar to making pizza dough. Other than that, there were lots of fresh eggs and dairy products, fruit and veg, bacon and meat. How depressing, though, to see my fellow shoppers wearing facemasks and no one looking or speaking to one another! One man coughed at the fish counter and everyone sprang away.

When will this end?

I applaud all the grocery store employees working on the front lines: the cashiers, especially. We said “bon courage!” to the young woman cashier in whose line I stood; all shoppers were spaced obediently several meters apart. I hope their employer, MONOPRIX, gives them all a generous bonus for working throughout these difficult times.

Tonight I’m going to make a gratin dauphinois (scalloped potatoes.) Super easy to make, and so good with a glass of red wine and any kind of grilled meat or sausage (or on its own or with a simple green salad.) The recipe below doesn’t call for cheese, but it sure looks good. For decades I’ve been making gratin with grated gruyere or emmental cheese.

Following that is the naan recipe, and following that is a link to comfort food cookies I made yesterday. So good! We need this, folks.


Oatmeal raisin cookies and oatmeal, peanut butter and chocolate cookies (the trick is to not overcook them) –

birdsong! clean air!

You wouldn’t believe the clean air I’m breathing and the loud and lengthy birdsong I’m hearing (while stuck at home.) It’s like being deep in the countryside. Since the Tuesday lockdown, clean air and quietude is the new normal here. This is how it must have been a century ago. Mornings, I lie in bed and listen to the birds chirp, and I try to imagine urban sounds from days gone by: the clip-clop of horses’ hooves, the tolling of church bells, the rumbling of carriages and wagons, factory whistles, street cries.

When I first moved to this apartment building, I was awakened very early in the morning by a gentle gurgling and swishing sound. The gurgling was a stream of water running down the gutter of the road, and the swishing was the movement of a broom, an actual twig broom (hand-made by who?) held by a municipal worker as he walked down the sidewalk sweeping debris from the street and sidewalk into the flow of water. Honestly, I couldn’t think of a pleasanter sound to wake up to. All this was as late as the early 2000’s.

broom branches

And then it stopped. No longer do I hear the gurgling of water nor the gentle swish-swish of twig brooms. These days, at least in my ‘hood, a small truck passes by with a high-powered hose to clean the streets, gutters and sidewalks.

Anyway, flash-forwarding to March 2020, we couldn’t be more in the thick of this pandemic as we are right now. There’s only one bit of good news: the spread of the virus has significantly slowed in China. That will be us one day. BUT WHEN? Three weeks? A month? Two to three months? Four to six months?

And here’s another thing: what will we learn from this ordeal?  Or, more importantly, what will our governments learn? Will it be ‘business as usual’ and all forgotten? Or will they turn to experts, invest heavily in R&D, develop vaccines, and put in place a serious response system for the next epidemic?

This morning on the radio I heard three significant things: (i) The Minister of Economy and Finance has invited companies to pay a tax-free bonus of 1,000 euros to employees for whom telework is impossible and who have no other choice than to continue to go to their workplace to allow their business to continue its activity, (ii) the 15-day period of confinement is not long enough and will be prolonged, and (iii) many people are still not taking this epidemic seriously. They’re still going out, still socializing in groups, still shaking hands and touching things.

Towards the end of this short video, you’ll see an outdoor market where people gathered on Wednesday – a day after the lockdown was put in effect –  to touch fruits and vegetables, chat with others and exchange money with the vendors. As if they were living in normal times.


some light-hearted humor now that the whole world is quarantined

During my self-isolating weekend, I’m watching lots of funny videos. What’s funny is that the French cannot pronounce “th”. All day long, I hear them on the phone at the office saying to clients, “Sank you” at the end of a conversation, or “I sink zat’s a good idea.” Or “tree” instead of “three”. Once, I asked my 7-year old godson if he wanted me to make him a smoothie. He replied (in French) that it’s pronounced ‘smoozie.’ “Actually, it’s not,” I said, and explained to him why. I also showed him how to make the ‘th’ sound by sticking out his tongue a little.

The letter H is always silent in French, so ‘hair’ becomes ‘air’ and ‘hungry’ can sometimes sound like ‘angry’.

When I first moved to Paris and lived in the 9th arrondissement, I couldn’t pronounce a neighboring street called rue de Rochechouart. Or the metro station, Reuilly-Diderot. Here are two funny videos: Parisians trying to pronounce some English words and Americans trying to pronounce some French words.


Paris dispatch. A New York Times article about Moroccan shopkeepers in Paris.

This lovely but sad human story ran two weeks ago. I’m posting it below because it’s a story I can relate to.

It’s only in the Arab shops that you find yourself lingering and having friendly chats with the owner/manager. The North African Arabs do what the French merchants no longer do: make house deliveries, give you the lowdown on the local gossip; offer a bowl of water for a thirsty dog, a bonbon to a child. My Moroccan shopkeeper two streets over gave me a remedy for a knee flare-up once, and a bouquet of fresh mint leaves with which to make tea. The Algerian shopkeeper at the foot of my street opened a jar for me once (for me, it was impossible to open). He also held my apartment keys to give to a visiting friend while I was at work.

The keys, I normally would have given to my Moroccan concierge, Jemma, who lived and reigned over my apartment building for nearly 40 years. But she’s gone now, she retired last year, and I miss her. She always had a smile for me and we’d have long, long chats, something I don’t have with the other tenants (except for one, my neighbor next door.) And she knew the building inside out. If the furnace broke down in winter or the electricity turned off, she was on it. A few months ago the furnace conked out and no one knew what to do (it was a freezing cold Sunday.) As we sat shivering in our respective apartments, I feel certain we were all thinking the same thing: if only Jemma were here.

Whenever she came back from a visit to Marrakech, she’d bring me a small box of the most divine Moroccan pastries. My favorite was corne de gazelle, a crescent-shaped cookie made from almond paste, perfumed with orange flower water and dusted with icing sugar. Every year during Ramadan I’d take food gifts to her and her two sons and daughter: a box of plump Iranian dates. An almond cake. Lebanese pastries.

Jemma dished all the gossip, and not just the gossip in our building, but the whole street. Now that she’s no longer here, we all feel a little bereft (not to mention out of the loop), as if we were a building of orphaned tenants. These days, once the concierge retires he or she is rarely replaced. As an aside, concierges (also called le gardien) in Paris were traditionally Portuguese.

The Algerian shop at the end of my street is open until midnight. I can tell you that sometimes when I come home late at night, walking from the metro station to my apartment building in the dark, it’s reassuring to know that it is open – the lights in his shop are like a beacon.

Here’s the article. Read it and weep. Because when that Moroccan convenience store shuts down to be replaced by one of those shiny gentrified cold corporate chain stores, what will become of the small and touching human stories? What will become of us?