Sicily is a land of contrasts: Catholic churches and the Mafia, delicious smelling food and piles of garbage, peaceful natural beauty and honking, swirling cars and motorcycles, dilapidated neighborhoods and luxury villas.  An ancient island with history dating back to prehistoric times, Sicily has been ruled over by the Greeks, Phoenicians, Romans, Vandals, Arabs, and Normans, to name but a few.  Because of the richness of cultures which have passed through it, the island is also filled with beautiful art and architecture.  Although we only had a brief stay in the northwestern part of the island, we were able to enjoy some of the best the region has to offer.

On our first full day in the capital city of Palermo we decided to visit the Palazzo dei Normanni, the Norman Palace.  Wouldn’t you know it, we arrived at the ticket booth at the same time as a class of high school students, making the wait in the hot sun to buy tickets long and rather uncomfortable.  Only the Cappella Palantina was available for viewing that day.  Even waiting outside the chapel, there were mosaics depicting saints and Biblical scenes decorating the walls.  Little did we know that inside we were to discover a real gem.  Luckily for us, the young people in line were not too interested in the chapel and cleared out within minutes, leaving us practically alone to examine its extraordinary beauty.  Many of the mosaics, especially on the right side as you face the altar, have been around since the chapel was created in 1132. Multicolored and shining with gold, mosaics cover the entire surface of the chapel walls.  Old and New Testament stories are represented: the creation of Adam and Eve and Noah loading his ark with animals, as well as the four Evangelists, prophets, and Jesus surrounded by angels blessing the people.  An Australian couple pointed out that even the decoration under each arch was unique.  A carved twelfth-century marble column stands near the pulpit.  The sculpted wooden ceiling dates from the Arab occupation of the city.  Seeing the Cappella Palantina was definitely worth a long wait in the sun.

The following day we rented a car—quite an anxiety-producing venture for both of us, given the state of traffic in the city.  A half-hour after leaving the hotel though, with GPS on board, we were safely out of Palermo, off to explore other parts.  Another highlight of our trip to Sicily was a visit to Segesta.   Located southwest of the capital near the port town of Trapani, this mountaintop spot was settled by the Trojans five centuries before the Common Era.  Somehow the ancient theater and even older temple have survived through the ages.  The well-preserved temple has thirty-six Doric columns and is really reminiscent of the Acropolis in Athens; it is believed that this temple was never completed due to wars of the period.  Its setting allows for beautiful views of it from nearby areas.  We missed the sign that mentions the possibility of buying a ticket for the bus ride from the parking lot to the theater and ended up trudging uphill for the better part of an hour in the sun.  The backdrop for the theater is the sight of the Mediterranean in the distance.  Really lovely as well, though I think riding the bus would have made it nicer!

More next time on Sicilian cuisine.

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Language Immersion: Italy

As a French teacher, I’m fascinated by all kinds of language acquisition--from babies learning to speak to foreign languages.  Since we were in Sicily the better part of last week, I was able to observe us firsthand as we tried to make ourselves understood in a tongue we are unfamiliar with.  Because we both speak French, it’s not too difficult to comprehend Italian, since both are Romance languages derived from Latin.  But when we have to produce the words ourselves, it’s quite a different story.  You can probably imagine that many results were quite comical. 
One thing is for sure: gestures are always our friend in these kinds of situations.  When the ice cream server at the Gelateria Spinnato in Palermo asked if we wanted to eat our cones on the terrazza we understood that meant at the outdoor café.  Unable to say we wanted them “to go,” we used that universal symbol of fingers making a walking motion!  Got the point across!  Later in the week we traveled to the tiny town of Contessa Entellina (pop. 2,000) to try to find traces of my great-grandfather.  Although we struck out in that effort, it did offer us an interesting conversation in Italian.  The office at the municipio (or “town hall”) was staffed by three women, doing absolutely nothing but smoking when we arrived.  I began by asking in my halting Italian if they spoke inglese o francese.  When the answer was no, I pulled out the list of phrases that I had fortunately prepared in advance.  The problem is that you can’t control where the conversation will go.  I tried to tell the women that our family had found a birth certificate of a woman from their town in my grandfather’s Bible.  Not knowing the word for Bible in Italian, I tried Italianizing the French word into la Biblé.  When that didn’t work, my husband made a praying gesture which did the trick.  Turns out the real word is Bibbia, if you ever need it!

Something I read ages ago is that, when you’re attempting to speak a new language, you tend to use words from the foreign language you’ve studied least.  That was certainly true for us, especially just after landing in Palermo last Monday.  At lunch that day we were both pulling out our German!  Thanking people by saying danke and using the numbers eins, zwei, drei for one, two, and three.  We were looking at each other and saying out loud “Why are we speaking German?”   I’m sure the wait staff at the restaurant was wondering the same thing.  Actually, we had many multilingual conversations—with a Mexican couple and their baby, a young Spanish man we asked directions of in the street, at the front desk at the hotel, even at the tourist bureau.  It was a lot of fun.

There’s so much more to say about Sicily.  I’ll be posting about it for the next week or so.

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French Game Shows

People who know me will say that I’m all about words—English and French.  I love learning them, looking them up in the dictionary, and playing games with them.  Scrabble has been a longtime favorite and the Bananagrams game (basically Scrabble without a board) I got for my birthday was a real hit.  The new Scrabble-like Words with Friends app on my cell phone has been a near obsession for the past month or so.  No surprise then that I like televised game shows like Jeopardy and their French counterparts.  The latest generation of TV games in France seems destined to attract a younger demographic: the hosts are young; the repartee is lively and full of slang.  For one and all, new words are there for the learning, plus quite a bit more.   

The game show with the unlikely name Harry is based on computers.  Harry himself is a smiley face on a big screen and the four contestants log their answers via PCs on standing desks in front of them.  The corny gimmick aside, it’s a good game.  At first, the host, Sebastien Folin (who used to do the weather, by the way), gives a clue and the contestants must rearrange rings containing one or more letters into a word as quickly as possible.  After several rounds, the slowest participant is eliminated and phase 2 begins.  Depending on the day, remaining players may be required to remove one ring of letters in order to form the desired word, or they may have to add letters, or interpret a rebus as part of the word.  For instance, there may be a picture of a doghouse, niche, whose sound combined with the letters in other rings indicates the word cornichon (“pickle”).  Whew! Not easy at all!  Then comes the semifinal where two contestants face off.  The rings come in slowly one at a time and the fastest to interpret the clue and get the word right goes on to the final.  Longer and longer rings of letters appear on the screen which the finalist has to solve; the number of correct answers determines the winnings for the day.  Interesting for me is not only the use of synonyms and antonyms, but allusions to history, literature, and culture that the host patiently explains after each word.


Another thing I love is doing and creating crossword puzzles, so the game show  Slam is right up my alley.  Cyril Feraud, the host, asks three contestants to compare two words.  He may ask what vowel or consonant is the same in two different terms, or what letter follows its neighbor in the alphabet in a certain word.  Trickier than it sounds!  Then the letter goes onto a projected grid; the contestant is given a clue and tries to guess the entry.  Like good crosswords at home, the clues are often misleading, playing on words.  Again, the host explains the meaning of the terms, often concerned with topics as varied as geography, cinema, animals, etc.  The same procedure continues with just two participants and the final with the last remaining person.  The show is called Slam because at any time contestants can slammer, that is, they can buzzer and try to complete all remaining entries to gain points and win.
Both are fast-moving games, but the friendly hosts also take time to ask the contestants to recount personal stories… how they got engaged, met their spouse, or what they do for a living.  The shows are good ways to learn about French language and culture as well as universal trivia.

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Other Research

Besides investigating pastry and candy shops, we have other interests which occupy our time in Paris.  My husband is juggling three different subjects right now concerning Dewey, Camus, and food.  Part of what I’m working on has to do with famous Americans who have lived in Paris in the past.  Sure, I’ve looked at those big names featured in Woody Allen’s movie from a few years ago, Midnight in Paris: the Fitzgeralds, Hemingway, Stein, and company.  Today I thought I’d discuss a couple of personalities worthy of note who are new to me anyway.

One person, whose club was actually mentioned by the Zelda Fitzgerald character in Allen’s film, is Ada “Bricktop” Smith.  Acquiring her nickname because of the red hair inherited from her Irish father’s side, Bricktop was a popular African-American entertainer in Chicago and Harlem before being recruited in 1924 by a tiny Parisian club with a big name, Le Grand Duc.  The busboy, who happened to be the future poet Langston Hughes, consoled her for having given up big clubs in the U. S. for such a small venue.  Branching out on her own a few years later, she opened a nightspot called Bricktop’s on Montmartre which became renowned throughout the capital.  Band members performing there sometimes included Duke Ellington and Sidney Bechet.  The cigar-smoking Smith taught many club patrons, including the Duke of Windsor, to do trendy dances like the Black Bottom.  Another visitor to her club, fellow expatriate Cole Porter, invited her to perform at lavish parties in his ten-room mansion.  Porter even composed a tune for Bricktop, Miss Otis Regrets (notably performed by Ella Fitzgerald), which would become Smith's theme song.

Prior to Bricktop, there was Loie Fuller, a Chicago-born dancer, who came to perform with the Folies-Bergère in Paris in 1892.  Having already achieved fame in New York with her Serpentine Dance, La Loïe became the hit of the French capital as well.  The acts she choreographed consisted of swirling long drapes of material around her while being illuminated in various ways that she would design herself.  Author Jean Cocteau praised Fuller’s dancing and she posed for famous artists such as sculptor Auguste Rodin and painter Toulouse-Lautrec.  Her face is even engraved in the façade of a building in the 3rd arrondissement.  Fuller had her own dance school in Paris and a troop of dancers, including Isadora Duncan, who toured Europe.

Research of this kind is both fun and frustrating.  In what seems like a never-ending number of people, I’ve discovered authors, politicians, artists, entertainers, and others who have spent time in Paris.  Starting with Benjamin Franklin in the eighteenth century and stretching to Susan Sontag who died in 2004, the list is long and varied, at least seventy-five at last count.  So, that should keep me out of trouble for a while. 

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Blogging about pastry will probably initiate vicious rumors that all we do over here is eat sweets!  Not true at all.  We have actually been quite well-behaved in terms of the consumption of desserts and candies.  Sure, we have had a few caramels from Jacques Genin and have tried out a few Parisian desserts…all in the name of research, mind you.  What we have discovered so far is that just down the next street, rue Brézin, we can get some lovely confections to fill the occasional need for something sweet after dinner.  Here are some of our favorites so far from the Pâtisserie Guerin.

One tasty treat which I first remember trying in Montreal is the religieuse. Invented by the Frascati pastry shop on Montmartre in the mid-nineteenth century, they are supposed to look like miniature nuns, hence the name.  Like éclairs, they are made from pâte à choux dough, filled with a type of custard, and then drizzled with chocolate or coffee icing.  But religieuses are finished off by placing one small round puff of pastry on top of a larger one with a white piping around “the neck” to imitate a nun’s habit.  Apparently neither éclairs nor religieuses would have been possible to make before the invention of pastry bag.  Anyway, they are delightfully sinful little nuns!

Another favorite which our family first tried in Paris on our younger son’s ninth birthday is the Paris-Brest.  A baker, not a pastry chef, named Durand is said to have invented the dessert in 1891 after he saw the bicycle race of the same name going past.  The contest later inspired the creation of the Tour de France, but the pastry’s name remained the same.  The ring-shaped dessert is supposed to resemble a bike tire, though thankfully that's where the resemblance ends.  We had searched many pâtisserie windows before finally purchasing a Paris-Brest at our neighborhood store.  And it was a good one: flaky dough, praline filling, with crunchy sliced almonds on top.  Delicious!

A new dessert for us is the royal au chocolat, sometimes called a trianon.  An essential ingredient in this pastry is a crispy cookie called a gavotte which was accidentally created in 1893 when someone overcooked a crêpe.  I’m sure there are several recipes, but the one I found calls for layering gavottes over a chocolate cake base twice, topping it with some chocolate mousse, and covering the entire thing with a chocolate glaze.  Should be good for a chocolate fix, right?

Just doing our research.  At your service!

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