Wednesday, 27 December 2017

Feud: Bette and Joan Feud Bette and Joan Ealing Studios old films
I loved old films, some of my favourites are the ones made
by Ealing Studios.
Binge-watched Feud: Bette and Joan on BBC iplayer over the Christmas holidays, about the feud between Bette Davis and Joan Crawford whilst making the picture What ever happened to Baby Jane? The opening credits alone is fantastic, there's something Hitchcockian and at the same time, light, about it. This series is star-studded, I was so impressed they were able to bring together these actors in one series; the supporting cast is superb. I so wanted to see this since I heard of the filming, having heard of these two stars' rivalry for most of their careers. I saw Baby Jane many, many years ago but I remember most of the scenes - clearly a sign of a memorable film. Davis and Crawford have quite a reputation and if Susan Sarandon and Jessica Lange's portrayals of them were accurate, you could see what sort of characters the former were, but they were largely sympathetic characters; if anything, I didn't find Crawford the epitome of evil, I thought she was just quirky. 

Davis got an Academy award nomination for her role in Baby Jane, and Crawford, angry that she was snubbed, contacted the other nominees to tell them that she could accept their Oscar if they wouldn't be able to attend. I thought this was comical, could anyone be this mad?! Could this be real life?! No wonder somebody thought this could make for a very interesting series. The film industry could be very superficial that even good people would go to great lengths to keep up with the younger stars, stay in the limelight and keep afloat in the dusk of their careers. 

I could go on and on about old films, and of course, the fashion from that era (1920s - 50s were great) and how elegant people looked even when they were just going to the shops. In the UK, I specifically love the old films made by Ealing Studios (a few of them in the photo above), mostly top billed by the late great Alec Guinness. They don't make them the way they used to anymore.

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Saturday, 23 December 2017

Crossing the Arctic Circle in Summer Arctic Circle Santa Claus Village Rovaniemi Finnish Lapland reindeerIt's Christmas Eve tomorrow so I'm sharing this old Christmas article accompanied by these even older pictures about my summer visit to the Arctic Circle and Santa Claus Village in Rovaniemi (Finnish Lapland). "Before we entered Santa Claus’s office, we passed pictures of him in the hallway. Xiao, after looking at the pictures, said, “There are two Santas, one with big eyes and one with small eyes.” She said one looked more real and she hoped he was the one we met that day. I don’t remember if she thought the one with the big eyes or the other one looked more real – right at that moment, I wanted to cry. I was going through the feeling of being seven or eight, defending Santa’s existence to my playmates, and then one early Christmas morning catching my aunt putting presents in our shoes, which we used instead of stockings." Continue reading here for the full article, a Christmassy read, and a few more pictures, including the warmest shoes in the world made from reindeer's ears.

Eyeshot has been publishing online pieces since 1995. It went on hiatus shortly after my Lapland article was published and it has been publishing on and off since. It was known for the rejections sent by editor Lee Klein to unaccepted submissions. I just checked and there's actually a compilation of these rejections available on Amazon, Thanks and Sorry and Good Luck: Rejections from the Eyeshot Outbox (paperback published 2014). As much as I would have loved to receive one of his rejections which I heard were mostly educational and hilarious, I'm glad he approved of my article (I'd submitted only once). Arctic Circle Santa Claus Village Rovaniemi Finnish Lapland reindeer Arctic Circle Santa Claus Village Rovaniemi Finnish Lapland reindeer

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Friday, 15 December 2017

My Son’s Baptism in Tuscany, Italy (7th August 2017)

I wanted to write about this for very long but now even after doing so, I realised that no words or emotions could make me relive that week of magical experience. Chianti Tuscany Florence Italy baptism Badia di Passignano
At Cappella di Sant' Andrea (the medieval chapel), it seemed 
I was the only one looking at our camera; the others at the 
Italian paparazzi.  
Whether it’s preference for intimacy or sheer reclusiveness, I went full blast (with my husband’s support) and finally had our son baptised in a private Catholic ceremony at a medieval chapel in the middle of nowhere in Tuscany, Italy. I say in the middle of nowhere but when I think about it, he was baptised in Chianti, you know, of the famous wine, some 40-minute drive from the beautiful city of Florence. It was just Mike, me, the two children and a set of godparents, Inga and Martin, who took time off work for a week and shared with us this wonderful occasion. This chapel was fully restored only last June and H’s baptism there was the first in less than a hundred years. It took a year of searching and another seven months of planning how we’d get to Italy and for how long, and in the end we decided to drive from England, revisit places in Europe and visit new ones, and slowly get to Italy and back, totalling the holiday to a good 24 days. We visited some places in France, Switzerland and Luxembourg, and also drove through Germany and Belgium as we went along. Chianti Tuscany Florence Italy baptism Badia di Passignano
Looking at the full moon; photo by Martin,
a day before the baptism.
The 82-year-old Italian priest forgot the date so he was a little late, and some other comical things happened (only in my storybook!), but in the end, waiting just made the atmosphere more relaxed. Believe me, it was a scene out of Cinema Paradiso, an Italian film I adore very much. Everyone we didn’t even know were so supportive; was it really true that lovely Italian ladies lent us baby items that belonged to their now grown children? As someone who never really appreciated big weddings or birthday parties (my poor children!) or big anything, to me, this small, simple event was such a beautiful and most memorable thing. Chianti Tuscany Florence Italy baptism Badia di Passignano
The arched entrance to the medieval chapel and
castle where we had stayed for a week.
It was not dissimilar to Rapunzel’s dream of seeing the lanterns in the film Tangled. When you have a dream, just start working and you’ll be surprised how it could come into fruition, even if at first, people and events in your life seemed to be working against it. In recent years, we haven’t gone to church as much as we’d like to but I thought it was my duty to have my son have a Catholic baptism like his older sister. It might sound a bit off when I tell you my reasons: first I was just following tradition (how I’ve been brought up); second, it’s somehow to please my mother who raised us Catholics. I remember when I was a kid and would meet someone who hadn’t been baptised and we’d think it was not common, almost strange, though that was just how it was among people I know. Though fortunately, my family in the Philippines had stopped asking when H was going to be baptised. I however didn’t want to go through the ordeal of a big celebration and have always preferred intimate, simple get-togethers to commemorate special occasions.

I came of age and met so many people with different backgrounds. I decided it does a lot of good to believe in a power greater than us, but sometimes I thought it didn’t matter which Church we’d go to. From experience, going to church and observing some of these traditions are great things to do together and bind us as a family (it also gets you up early on a Sunday morning, and not surprisingly, you get more things done). I do find myself sometimes disagreeing with the practices in the Catholic church but I’m not going into that, as I know that like anything, no religion is perfect and when I have doubts, it all boils down to making sure that as long as what I am doing doesn’t harm me or others, then, it is not a problem.

Around seven months after H was born, I began searching for locations in Continental Europe for his baptism, at the same time contacting friends and other people I don’t even know, to help us. In January this year, I finally found Arianna, a young lovely Italian woman, who does tours and whose own family was renting a property in Tuscany. She replied to me immediately but said that their family home was not available to let any more. But she excitedly told me that she knew of a villa with a chapel that was just perfect, the Italian name of the villa, Poggio al Ventoliterally translates to “Resting in the Wind.”

Arianna and I communicated in the succeeding months and thanks to her we survived the bureaucracy of going through an occasion like this in a foreign country. In late July, we set off to Italy, stopping in lovely South of France for nearly a week. One of the challenges was H developed car sickness after we’d booked this holiday (typical) and for some reason, after we’d moved him to the forward-facing car seat. I consulted the GP if he could prescribe medication but as H is very young, there was nothing we could do, really. In the end, H had only about three minor incidents during the trip. We drove so much, sometimes up to 4-5 hours a day, for at least two hours at a time. I guess it helped that he wore motion sickness wrist bands, and that he loved car rides and slept a lot in the car. I also gave him ginger biscuits and we stopped somewhere whenever I saw that his lips were turning pale. Chianti Tuscany Florence Italy baptism Badia di Passignano
It was like a dream. We're never ones to stay only in one 
place for longer periods when we travel but this I won't 
mind doing, even in the same place, every year! A lovely 
medieval home, a pool and local trips to learn about the 
region's rich history and culture. And did I forget the 
food??! Had to take a photo of the obligatory Chianti 
wine as it is produced right where we were.

We arrived in the villa, or as they call them in Italy, “castle,” on Saturday the 5th of August. "Castle" is a common term for some homes in Italy but this particular villa we rented is a castle in the truest sense of the word - it is beautiful, historical, and huge, dating back to the medieval times. Arianna and her partner Alessio took us to see the priest on Sunday morning. Everyone involved seemed really excited, like what Arianna said, weddings and christenings with foreigners are very common in cities like Florence, but not over that part of Chianti. Chianti Tuscany Florence Italy baptism Badia di Passignano
WAITING FOR THE PRIEST In this photo, my son sums up 
how boys and men prepare for big days. I grew up with men 
playing basketball an hour before their wedding, sweaty 
and everything, whereas we women need a beauty rest. 
(photo by Martin)
On H's baptism day, we rushed to get ready before 10am, the time when the ceremony was due to start. Our shoes were in the car and when I asked Mike to bring them up, there was only one shoe in the bag! I panicked as the night before, I kept thinking, what if we couldn’t find the key to the car and I wouldn’t have any formal shoes for the baptism? Anyway, the other shoe must have fallen in the boot so Mike went out to get it. Everybody was there except for the priests, the one we had met the day before (the Parish priest) and the other who’d conduct the ceremony in English. Ten-thirty and still no priest. Pauline, the owner of the property, said it’s because he’s very old (82) that he drives really carefully. But all phone calls were unanswered, even the one at the parish office, so Arianna and Alessio decided to drive there to see what was going on. Mike was joking, maybe he was on his way and was caught in something, and being Italian, forgot. I did keep asking, what if he forgot? So when Arianna came, she said good news, he’s on his way, he just forgot! It was all very funny and comical actually, that I relaxed some more and even Martin (my friend Inga’s partner and now H’s godfather) thought he was also getting used to the heat. So when the priest and translator came, he was so apologetic, but again, as they were preparing, the priest realised he didn’t have the English translation of the ceremony! So he had to take off his gown again to go back to the abbey (this time, Alessio drove him, I was worried maybe he’d reach the abbey and forgot what he came there for and forget coming back!) The amazing thing was I wasn’t that stressed (Pauline’s sister Kathryn was surprised); I was confident the baptism would happen, if not that day, any time during our stay. So anyway, the ceremony finally started at 11am. The other priest is from India - I just had to mention this as in the Philippines, we joke about Indians always being late. 

Another problem was H himself, he’d been good waiting with his occasional snarls and scratching the face of the one holding him every time somebody laughed. Born a smiler, I don’t know what has turned H into a grumpy boy. He smacks the one closest to him when somebody laughs and if he can’t do this, he’ll throw something to the ground, He is a thumb sucker like his sister and he finds comfort doing this whilst clutching an old, worn-out booty (we lost the set of mittens and the other booty). So there were a couple of giggles during the ceremony and H didn't like people being happy (bless) so he threw his booty and the Indian priest, seeing it on the floor and not noticing that it is H’s, proceeded to put the booty outside the door on the side of the chapel. This was met by H screaming when he saw what the priest had done (it’s one of those things that children do, throwing things and then realising they like that thing). I loved how my daughter tells this part of the story, “and the priest didn’t know it was my brother’s mitten (booty) and he threw it out the door!” I would understand how someone would think the booty is rubbish, but to H and us, it is treasure. Surprisingly, H was all right during the rest of the ceremony, some snarls or whines when somebody else touched him (like the priest crossing his forehead) but the little dude seemed really aware that something special was going on in the end that he actually looked at the cameras and for once didn’t cry or snarl. I thought the whole ceremony was beautiful and the others did so, too.

I was red in the face because we didn’t prepare any food right after the ceremony as we thought we’d have a meal somewhere. But our lovely hosts Pauline and Kathryn had some prosecco and cakes ready for us, it was really kind of them and we were grateful.

Arianna mentioned that Pauline is training those wanting to be tour guides and is very knowledgeable Chianti Tuscany Florence Italy baptism Badia di Passignano
The abbey in the distance, Badia di Passignano, has my son
H’s name in its Baptism book. H was baptised on August 7
2017 in a little medieval chapel which closest parish
would be this abbey (sort of acting like the Head Office).
about art. The villa itself has lots of furnishings that were obviously not randomly placed there; they are there because they mean something. I found out on Google later that Pauline co-wrote a Chianti tour guide. She offered to give us a tour of Badia di Passignano or the Abbey of Passignano (seen in photo on the right). This photo of the abbey probably has a Disney castle-feel to it from where I took it from a distance, but it really was one of the most solemn places I’ve ever been to. This abbey being the closest to the chapel where H was baptised, it is a kind of a “Head Office” and so H’s name was entered in their Baptism book. Pauline knows the history behind each and every painting in this abbey; I recommend a visit and I assure you they could rival all the breathtaking paintings of the more famous churches in Italy. I guess the abbey being in the middle of nowhere makes it more of a challenge to preserve; it doesn’t get as much help financially as its more famous counterparts.

We had dinner in Siena on the evening of the baptism – recently, we watched Letters to Juliet again and I didn’t realise that Siena was also featured in the film. We unknowingly did a “Letters to Juliet” tour during the trip, adding beautiful Verona (Romeo and Juliet) to the list. Chianti Tuscany Florence Italy baptism Badia di Passignano

Short trip to Pisa to show M the Leaning Tower, 
the other one doesn’t look impressed. Mike and I 
climbed this tower in our late 20s but didn’t bother 
to find out how we’d handle vertigo at this later age.
Throughout our time in the villa, we experienced a full moon over Tuscany, a partial eclipse and Martin mentioned hearing something outside their window very late in the night and looking out and catching a glimpse of a wild boar. We also went on a goat cheese tour with Arianna and Alessio’s tour company. My daughter, who back then was 2.5 months short of her seventh birthday, now properly remembers events and she often mentions how she loved that goat cheese tour, not only because of the goats but also the cheeses we had tasted (she even vividly remembers which amongst the four types of cheeses she liked the most). Mike also had a terrible toothache towards the end of our week-long stay in the villa and was out one morning to look for medication when it rained heavily in that part of Tuscany for the first time in a few months! I worried that he would have trouble driving on the slippy unpaved roads to the villa. But the roads were not muddy at all so he was all right. At the goat cheese tour, the lady said they had only two days of water supply left so the rain was definitely a blessing. We spent only a week in the area but it was like we’d seen what could happen to Tuscany within a year. The rain came with strong winds and in a few seconds, there was a puddle in our bedroom, my clothes all wet as we couldn’t close the shutters (the bolts were stuck). There was a power cut. Good thing Inga and Martin sorted things out because the kids were panicky I had to stay with them. It was all good fun, though.

So many highs and lows looking for ways for H to get baptised in Italy and I really thought it was impossible/would just be a dream. But it happened, and this wonderful place in Tuscany will now be forever part of our lives. Mike laughs at me now when I say things like, imagine H coming back to the villa someday to have his wedding there (I am really getting ahead of myself)! I just found this area by chance and we didn’t know what to expect as it was a part of Italy we hadn’t been to before. What luck that it turned out to be such a beautiful place.

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Friday, 8 December 2017

In search of an "heirloom" advent calendar Kaemingk gingerbread house advent calendar Mould & Paint Glitter Princess
I think it was at the Roald Dahl Museum Shop last year that I saw a Gisela Graham gingerbread house ornament. I loved it but sometimes you just wish for ornaments to be useful as well. I thought it'd be great to have a gingerbread house advent calendar, one that we could reuse every year. I thought it would also save us time making gingerbread houses, because, well, it's already there. On the other hand, with kids, you never make it an intent to save time - you SPEND time with them. To make a gingerbread house is not about the end result itself, rather the fun of making it with them. Still, I wanted a wooden gingerbread house advent calendar, and that's that!

I searched far and wide, i.e., online, bookmarked a lot of advent calendar trains (very predictable) but couldn't find anything with boxes big enough to fit two bits of sweets/chocolates for two children. Images on Google led me to ones sold by Fortnum & Mason, and I thought, now that's more like it, if I'd like an heirloom advent calendar, F&M must be a good place to look. I know the challenge here would be the price but in the end, this wasn't even what had put me off. The F&M advent calendars looked too... grown-up, formal, stiff.. even a bit dark, I thought. I also thought that getting an advent calendar with the intention of reusing it, you'd want to at least save some money instead of buying the disposable ones every year. So I was back to where I started, a gingerbread house advent calendar and I found this one (in photo above) from Kaemingk. That it made it through the post in one, perfect piece was amazing to me that I didn't mind that the boxes were a bit smaller than I would have liked.

*** Kaemingk gingerbread house advent calendar Mould & Paint Glitter Princess
M's Christmas jar that won the best decorated jar in Key
Stage 1 (Reception, Years 1 and 2) at their school
Just a note about the other objects in the photo above. There are the mini Christmas tree and gingerbread hearts for the kids to decorate (both from our lovely neighbour). My daughter brought home that Mould & Paint Glitter Princess prize last week, proudly announcing that she won the best decorated jam jar in Key Stage 1 (Reception, Years 1 and 2). I was so happy for her as she did the jam jar mostly on her own. I volunteered to print stencils to help her with the design but she insisted she would paint her own.

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Saturday, 2 December 2017

Parallel: "Another Earth" (2011) Another Earth 2011 Patek Philippe London fairy tale
Patek Philippe store window display in London, 19th November 2017
Mike and I just saw "Another Earth" (2011) on the telly. I've never felt so much sympathy for a fictional character (played by Brit Marling who also co-wrote the screenplay) who was so naive and reckless at the start. I could feel her pain and remorse. The scene about the Russian Cosmonaut is probably one of the most beautiful scenes I've seen on film. "You know that story of the Russian cosmonaut? So, the cosmonaut, He's the first man ever to go into space. Right? The Russians beat the Americans. So he goes up in this big spaceship, but the only habitable part of it's very small. So the cosmonaut's in there, and he's got this portal window, and he's looking out of it, and he sees the curvature of the Earth for the first time. I mean, the first man to ever look at the planet he's from. And he's lost in that moment. And all of a sudden this strange ticking... Begins coming out of the dashboard. Rips out the control panel, right? Takes out his tools. Trying to find the sound, trying to stop the sound. But he can't find it. He can't stop it. It keeps going. Few hours into this, begins to feel like torture. A few days go by with this sound, and he knows that this small sound... will break him. He'll lose his mind. What's he gonna do? He's up in space, alone, in a space closet. He's got 25 days left to go... with this sound. So the cosmonaut decides... the only way to save his sanity... is to fall in love with this sound. So he closes his eyes... and he goes into his imagination, and then he opens them. He doesn't hear ticking anymore. He hears music. And he spends the sailing through space in total bliss... and peace."

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Wednesday, 29 November 2017

A Visit to the British Library’s “Harry Potter: A History of Magic British Library Harry Potter A History of Magic
Many thanks again to my editor, Rebecca Rego Barry, for posting my article 'A Visit to the British Library’s “Harry Potter: A History of Magic.”' Nearly a month since its opening, we finally got to see Harry Potter: A History of Magic at the British Library in London. I’ve seen some of the items on the internet before (e.g., J.K. Rowling’s original sketches on Pottermore) and heard the quotes from past interviews with the author, but it was of course extraordinary to see the objects from her collection in person. This is the first major exhibition that explores the rich and diverse qualities of her stories, in relation to traditions of folklore and magic. There was a video of Rowling shown in which she said that that she invented 90-95% of the magic in the Potter books; the exhibit gives us an idea of the kind of research she would have done in creating Harry’s world. Continue reading the article over at Fine Books & Collections

Photos: (above left) Outside St. Pancras Renaissance London Hotel just across the road from the British Library, the impressive building seen in the film Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets when Harry and Ron missed their train to Hogwarts and took the flying Ford Anglia. (Below) J.K. Rowling’s drawing of the “opening to Diagon Alley in six stages," photograph taken from my copy of British Library's Harry Potter A History of Magic book. J.K. Rowling Diagon Alley opening in six stages

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Saturday, 25 November 2017

A Gaslight Story: London's Last Gas Lamps

video from youtube uploaded by Londonist Ltd.

I've always been fascinated with gas lamps, or even the earlier lamps that used candles. It is romantic just to think of the way they did things back in the olden days, I imagine a man in old-fashioned clothing going about his task of manually lighting the lamps every evening, using a wick on a long pole, and returning to put them out at dawn. Eras like this I often associate with a lot of things being accomplished, when life was simpler, slower, and less stressful. Catherine Batac Walder London's last gas lamps history
London gas lamps, photo taken 19th November 2017

There are still 1500 functioning gas lamps left in London, the oldest being in Westminster Abbey. Above is a very interesting youtube video uploaded by Londonist Ltd. about these lamps being looked after by British Gas engineers, our modern day lamplighters/keepers of the light. A lot of these lamps still have mechanical clocks that need rewinding every 14 days. I haven't researched how much it is to maintain these lamps, but I'm guessing that we are simply lucky to still have them in a world of budget cuts and not have them replaced by electric lamps instead. We tend to take things for granted till we know the history behind them.

The photo on the right is one I took in London last Sunday, I don't know if they're old lamps (indeed the local authority in London is also installing new "old" lamps) and I'm guessing that as they are at someone's house, they're not one of those "historical lamps" that British Gas looks after. Says one of the keepers, “It’s amazing that they still exist, really. They all systematically started being ripped out a few decades ago, but thankfully at some point, someone said: ‘Hold on! We need to keep a bit of our history here.' And here we are.” 

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Friday, 17 November 2017

Happy Birthday, Alan Moore! (November 18th)

We've been attending the Oxford Literary Festival every year since 2009 and in the spring of 2012, I Alan Moore Oxford Literary Festival V for Vendetta Watchmen

attended a discussion called "What's the Point of the Arts and Humanities?" with Simon K√∂vesi, Josie Long, Philip Pullman and Alan Moore.

I was aware that Alan Moore very rarely made public appearances and at one point I thought there was no better way of meeting him than a book-signing or talk at his hometown in Northampton. So I was very pleased when I heard that he was coming to Oxford. To be honest, I felt that the event was a little hush-hush. Sure it was included in the festival guide but I thought they'd make a bit more buzz about it because you know, it's Alan Moore.

As the discussion focused on the arts and humanities, I was also curious what Mr Moore would say about the films that were based on his works. I heard in the past that he didn't approve of his work being translated into the big screen. He did say during the discussion, "I heard that the Watchmen film apparently cost $300M. Now I don't believe that it's actually as good as the comics" (the crowd applauded - he added he hasn't seen the film). From his biography "Alan Moore Storyteller": "Rumor had it that with some of the profits from his work on Swamp Thing and Watchmen, Moore had bought his dad a house. The truth was a little less extravagant – it was a greenhouse for his back garden." So as not to be repetitive, I'm directing you to my full article about the event here.

The book-signing that followed the discussion wasn't announced so it was no surprise that there were only around 20 people waiting in the queue. I brought some books from home and had them all signed. We bought Alan Moore's biography from the festival bookshop, the aforementioned "Alan Moore Storyteller," hurried back to the queue and requested for him to address the book to M who was then only 17 months (she kept turning her back, probably got scared of the author's beard hehe. Seriously, though, Alan Moore is a lovely man!). Later, I saw that the pages on "The Lost Girls" are very explicit. But then, brilliant Mr. Moore got it that my then toddler wouldn't read this book anytime soon anyway and wrote her this amazing "time capsule" message (see photo below). Alan Moore Storyteller Oxford Literary Festival V for Vendetta biography
Loved what he wrote for our little girl.

My other books that he had signed were Watchmen, Batman the Killing Joke, one comics issue of The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen and V for Vendetta. I suddenly remember that Alan Moore began writing V for Vendetta on the Isle of Wight whilst on working holiday (I found this information interesting as I recently posted photos on Instagram of our memorable boating trip to the Isle of Wight during a bonfire night weekend many years ago). His introduction to the book sounded so heartbreaking, sad, and just worried about the future of England under Thatcher. I'm glad he didn't leave Northampton, decades after he wrote that.

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