Monthly Archives: July 2017

Commonplace Thoughts of a Residual Welshman: Until I Had a Balcony

Never until I had a balcony in Viterbo did I understand why there is an eye on a dollar bill. Now I know this connection is preposterous. I know that the reason there is an eye on a dollar bill is, conspiracy theorists attest, because the Masonic League or the Knights Templar held the image of the all-knowing eye of God to be among their most prominent symbols. I’m not so sure. However that may be, certainly the symbol intrigued Benson Lossing who crafted the seal on the dollar in the years leading up to 1856 when it was first published in Harper’s New Monthly Magazine.[1] But that’s not what I mean. Rather I mean this: when you have a balcony in an inexpensive but lovely hotel in Viterbo, like the Hotel Tuscia, you see things you would never otherwise see, as if you were the eye of God.

Or, in fact, maybe you just hear them. For as I am writing this I am obviously looking at a computer screen, but I am taking in sounds, sounds coming from the nearest piazza, Piazza San Faustino, where a far from flawless cantor, if perhaps he is not so bad—he is, after all, a young man—is singing popular (I assume) Italian songs. I know enough Italian to know that most of them are about love (predictably). And I felt like, for a moment, Superman hovering over the earth and taking it all in, listening to a lone singer of love amidst a world in need of such singers, a world in need of love songs; for it is a world, indeed, in need of love.

Piazza San Faustino

I say this because, just after getting off the train from Rome, where I passed a lovely and culturally rich day touring the Chamber of Deputies (Camera dei Deputati) and meeting a few powerful folks, a senator and a congressman—please don’t ask me how this happened; but if you want to know how things like this happen to me, read the final chapter of the Curious Autobiography, the bit on Vegas, for that should do it—I passed by the bus stop near Porta Fiorentina where a number of Africans were waiting for the bus. “Why were they waiting?” a friend of mine asked later. I tried to explain that they were likely “indentured,” a polite word for humans, in sinister wise, being trafficked. The sadness of these folks’ plight choked the culture, the richness, and the hope out of me in less than ten seconds. I wanted to stand at the bus stop with them. I wanted to play soccer in the park with them the next day. I wanted to participate in their sufferings as a little Christ, for the larger, more perfect version has more than participated in all of ours.

But that’s theology, and I don’t want to move in that direction. Rather I want to return to the singer in the piazza at the top of the block; for after a short break his song began to fill the square again. Ah, love again, and again, and again, for that is his solitary theme. Yet I couldn’t help think of the men gathering by Porta Fiorentina to ride the bus day upon day. How can I, or anyone, let them know that that same theme, if to a slightly different strain, is God’s very song, too? I don’t know. But I do know that, though I know not how, I want to participate in their sufferings that I might fill up what is lacking in the suffering of Christ.[2] Can there really be anything lacking in that? I doubt as much—but perhaps just the message, the message of the singer, not always in tune, but beautiful, as I listen to it now from a balcony of a hotel in Tuscia, fittingly named, Hotel Tuscia. In closing, let me send you some blessings from Italy, from Tuscia, a place that is not quite Tuscany, not quite Rome, but rich in lovers’ songs and offering hope, I hope, to those without any, all under the Tuscan sun, under the all seeing eye of the One who truly sees and suffers with all humankind, and all this, just under my balcony.

[1] Cf. for a description and history of the seal.

[2] Col. 1:24.


Commonplace Thoughts of a Residual Welshman: The Miners of Shaft 17

French, Welsh, Cornish, English … Here’s a little of each from The Curious Autobiography:

The evidence that James was as good a lunchtime cook as he claimed was noticeable in the miners themselves, for within two years’ time, not a single miner at Shaft 17 packed his lunch, all preferring to buy it from James Jakes’s vending cart. . . .

Further evidence that James was a good cook could be found not only in the fact that the miners stopped bringing their lunches—which engendered not a little friction between those husbands and their wives, particularly among the younger couples—but also in the miners themselves, whose appearance was surprisingly different than the other miners fed at the mouths of the other mine shafts, who brought with them their typical lunch of a pasty (pronounced with a short –ă-, as in “has” not “paste”), the origin of which lunch item is of course not really Welsh but Cornish. The Cornish called these pasties “hoggan.” When the Welsh miners (or, more specifically, when their wives) got hold of that particular food, however, to make it their own, they seemed to have employed the now widely disseminated word “pasta,” which by that time, even in Italy, had begun to serve as an all-purpose word for various different kinds of food. Suddenly, the Cornish “hoggan” was the Welsh “pasty,” with no credit whatsoever given to the Cornish at the time; the pages of history were corrected only later in cookbooks published by honorable Welsh chefs, who felt guilty about the theft of one of the most common lunches prepared by the hands of honest, hardworking Welsh wives. But it was most certainly not pasties that James Jakes made as his specialty, for while a pasty will put meat on the miner’s bones, it won’t thicken him up the way James’s cooking clearly did. James’s specialty was ragoût de veau, a delicious veal stew, the recipe for which had been handed down to him by his father, Charles, who did some of the cooking—especially on special occasions—in the Jacques household, over the not-occasional objections (but to the epicurean delight) of Charles’s wife, Ruth (née Priestman), James’s mother. She was a woman of great faith but of ordinary culinary skill; her specialty was “Missouri” (also known as “Missouri Casserole”), a dish that became my personal specialty dinner, as I had about as much a knack for cooking as my great-grandmother Ruth—edible, quite; delectable, not quite, but rugged, rustic, and good. Missouri consists of ground beef (at bottom), precisely cut slices of peeled potatoes, equally precisely cut onions, and diced tomatoes. James Jakes, however, inherited his father’s unique culinary knack. Accordingly, James expanded his repertoire to include noix de veau Brillat-Savarin, which involved much more than warming some flavorful veal joints. Rather, add to that ample foie gras (which, beyond its use in Strasbourg pie, can be an excellent flavor enhancer for a number of dishes), bacon strips, morel mushrooms, and other various vegetables (chief among them carrots), all in savory béchamel sauce, with a few shallots added at the last minute, to taste—one should always be careful with onion products; perhaps, he added them a bit earlier than the last minute. Of course, the vital ingredient that he added—the key ingredient of any true French chef—was butter. All this on three substantial saucepans cooking on three portable Soyer (which he pronounced in the French fashion, “soy-yeah”) stoves, all at once, with sizable chunks of real French bread—surprisingly, the Welsh miners loved the French bread, for the supply of which my grandfather found a young baker who had a small bakery in Kingston at 334 Pierce Street—put on the side of each plateful served. And these were only two of his numerous French feasts. Among others, one could also find poularde Talleyrand Escoffier (a French dish paradoxically coming from London, a new dish at the time of my grandfather’s culinary apex). On top of all this, even during the dark years of prohibition he discreetly provided for his best customers a small glass of red wine, gratis—small because they had to go back to work, of course. The miners’ wives had no way to compete with these hot dishes, the French bread, or the occasional glass of vin rouge. Although Grandfather James Jakes’s business admittedly never made a great deal of profit—for the overhead for such a miner’s lunch was, one can imagine, high—he did feed the miners well, so well, as I was saying above, that the miners of Shaft 17 had a different appearance from the other miners. That difference could be measured in terms of their size, for they were slowly but surely becoming more and more corpulent. Indeed, it is a well-known fact that the miners of Shaft 17 gained, on average, a solid three inches around their waist per year, stuffed as they were with my grandfather’s scrumptious French cuisine. This led to upheaval because Shaft 17 was the only functioning mine shaft in the history of the Wyoming Valley that had to be recut to accommodate its workers. Furthermore, a greater number of the miners of that shaft had to see their church rectors for marriage counseling than any other shaft. Such was the depth to which my grandfather’s cooking led the miners to descend. Fortunately, I learned from that side of the family not the way of cooking à la française but only the Missouri recipe of James’s good wife, Ann, who was also not Welsh.


Commonplace Thoughts of a Residual Welshman: Taking Chances

I had a longish, sc. longer than short but shorter than long, talk with a friend this week about taking chances. He was on the verge of taking a chance—doing something entirely out of the ordinary for him here in Italy—meeting up with a relatively famous person and having an extended conversation with the person, a well-known doctor, about the practice of medicine in Italy. He wanted to do so because he will be practicing medicine very soon in the U.S. So it was a chance for him to compare notes, as it were, with this doctor, a neurologist, about neurology back home in America and neurology here in Italy. But he was, naturally enough, a bit concerned. For one, he didn’t speak Italian. Second, he wasn’t yet familiar with the Italian train system, particularly the not-always-easy-to-use local trains that too often run “in ritardo.”

But he took the chance anyway. Not that he needed my encouragement, for we talked about this only as we were both, coincidentally, already walking to the train station at 4:30 a.m. Little did he know that he would meet up with a doctor who, though quite famous, couldn’t have been any kinder and that that same doctor would have called upon his niece, a college student majoring in English, to serve as an interpreter. On the train, as I dozed in and out of conscientiousness, I thought about how often I have taken similar chances, and how often they have worked out. I will here relay one anecdote as a kind of synecdochic exemplum.

Well over a quarter of a century now, I decided to study archaeology in Rome. I was in college, green, excited about liberal studies—for I had chosen them over the practical arts—and pretty certain that I was pretty good at these liberal studies. I could read ancient Greek, at any rate, which to me was the litmus test of anyone’s dedication to the liberal arts. (I have since then broadened my view, though Greek remains, as Winston Churchill once said, “a treat,” and Latin, “an honour.”)

There I was in Italy with only high-school French, some ancient Greek and Latin but no Italian, no iPhone (of course), no way of getting around the town save an incredibly-difficult-to-read bus map; and no knowledge of the Italian bus system. But, as I said, I took a chance, and within 12 hours of arriving, I had found my way to the center of study where I would be based for the fall semester and—and this is the amazing part—I had met the woman whom I would some day marry, though then I knew it not. All because I took chances.

You won’t be surprised to read that getting to know her required more chance taking. She had no romantic interest in me and, in fact, thought of me as rather uncouth. Some days I think I even seemed to her a ne’re-do-well scallywag in comparison to the other students; (she has since confirmed that this was her initial assessment of me). Such an impression may have arisen because of the overly casual way I dressed or my cavalier (at least when it came to grades) attitude; or maybe it was just because I tended to sit in the position furthest from the professor in class—always against the back wall; never was I the smiling student on the front row. Of all this, I am not sure. In any case, I recognized that the chances of us ever dating were not good, and to change that I had to take even more chances.

After slightly improving my attire—tasteful shoes and a new shirt can do a lot for a 20 year old—evening by evening I walked her home, as her residence was off campus. We chatted about topics from God to the stars in the sky to poetry, art and even joy of family life. Did these things win her over? Well, not any one by itself, I’m sure, but after many a walk home I think they collectively had some effect. Within two years, we did, after all, get married and wound up having that family we (at least I, at the time) had dreamt about so many years before. All because of a willingness to take chances.

And that one story, I think, can stand in for many others. I won’t tell how eventually I asked her out for dinner, or how I once brought her a rose, even though we were just friends, as we stood next to Bramante’s Tempietto on the Gianicolo, or how those “friends” finally kissed, right there by that selfsame Tempietto, just a few days before the program ended. She would stay on in Rome for another seven months until, after what seemed to me an eternity, even though I wrote her a letter every day, I would see her again. No, those things I leave aside in the name of good taste. But, although I won’t mention them, I will say this: none of them would have happened unless I, and she too, had been willing to take some chances.









Commonplace Thoughts of a Residual Welshman: A Piazza in Rome

While I am now travelling in Italy—currently visiting Siena—I decided to share an excerpt from The Curious Autobiography of Elaine Jakes, an excerpt that is oddly connected to a piazza in Rome.

She was a new veterinarian for me, and I liked her, for she reminded me of the vet who had tended my animals when I was a card-carrying member of the New Hope intelligentsia. I and several other people in the New Hope area had changed from our regular veterinarians to this particular new vet, Dr. Bianca Waddabunga, even though most of us feared this was not her real name. She was the only veterinarian to whom I had ever gone who physically looked like a fashion model. In the office, however, she sported a turban fastened with a great emerald stone, which clashed oddly with her large ruby earrings. These earrings were especially visible owing to the distinct size—I should actually say length—of Dr. Waddabunga’s earlobes, which the weight of the rubies seemed to have increased by stretching them downward. She had in her nose a striking gold ring protruding, as nose rings do, from both nostrils at once. Her facial features were not especially noticeable, except for the pronounced line between her cheeks and her mouth and the fact that she had one of those sets of lips that, adorned with lipstick put on somewhat sloppily, bore a permanent, and rather odd, smile. Her body, however, as I mentioned, was that of a fashion model, and it appeared that she wore absolutely nothing—certainly, she did not wear a bra—under her doctor’s coat.

Dr. Waddabunga claimed to have been trained in holistic healing, which was then the latest thing in veterinary medicine. There was some kind of diploma hanging on her wall to that effect from a training center in Switzerland. Though I was unsure what it said (since it was in German), it certainly looked official enough, with its shiny gold seal and all the German words leading up to Dr. Waddabunga’s name. Perhaps this was her real name, after all.

When she examined an animal, she rarely touched it with her hands; she would use her wand, which she always kept in her left hand, to stroke the animal’s back as her right hand circled over the animal’s head, while she closed her eyes and sighed deeply as if connecting spiritually with the animal. I insisted that my son, who was then studying literature at the University of Pennsylvania (where he went for his doctorate after his MA at Vermont), bring his cat, Piazza, who seemed to be psychologically tormented in some way, to Dr. Waddabunga (a name that my son believed to be a pseudonym despite the Swiss “diploma”) for healing, but he said he would do so only if I paid. From the first, he was skeptical about the holistic approach, especially when I told him that she used a wand. Still, as usual, he complied.

On that occasion, Dr. Waddabunga put the wand down and used both hands, waving them over the animal in the same circular motion that she usually did with one hand. She looked at the ceiling—almost as a possessed, it seemed—and shrieked. “What is it?” she exclaimed. “Tell me kitty, baby kitten, sweet baby, what is bothering you? Does it hurt? Tell me, sweet baby, tell me.”

She then paused, incongruously coming out of her trance as rapidly as she had gone into it, to ask the cat’s name.

“Piazza,” my son said with an incredulous look on his face.

“What?” she asked equally incredulously. “That’s an unusual name.”

At this point I knew what he was thinking—namely, “You’re a fine one to talk.” Thankfully, instead he said, “It means ‘square’ in Italian.”

“Square?” she asked. “Why would you name your cat Square?”

Using self-control, he did not respond, “Why would you wave your hands over my cat? What is that magic wand for? Why do you have a nose ring? Why are you wearing a turban, and long flowing robes?” Instead, he simply said, “She is named after a particular square, the Piazza della Minerva.”

Yet Dr. Waddabunga, who spoke no Italian, still did not understand that the type of square about which my son was speaking was not a geometric shape but a gathering place within a city, a gathering place where the culture of the city could thrive. How much greater a country America would be, if we had piazzas.

Sadly, a good thirty-five dollars later, the cat’s discomfort was not alleviated by the magic treatment of Dr. Waddabunga, but it had been quite a show and had brought joy into my life at a time when I needed joy.


Commonplace Thoughts of a Residual Welshman: Rod Dreher, in Norcia

The chances of being in Norcia, Italy are relatively low. The chances of running into fellow blogger Rod Dreher in Norcia are lower yet. Norcia is a small town that probably you wouldn’t even recognize the name of unless you were to recall its name being associated with Amatrice, which last year suffered two devastating earthquakes. I did not make it to Amatrice on this trip—indeed, I’ve never been, though as an adult I have eaten pasta Amatricana with great delight a number of times. And when I eat it now, I think of how hard things have been for the people of Amatrice, and I think of one person in particular, not from Amatrice but from nearby Norcia, who suffered through those quakes. His name is Carlo.


What am I doing here so close to Amatrice in Norcia, you might well wonder? Well, as it happened, I ran into my friend, that one who is a philologist, who travels in Europe quite often to study very old books written by people who lived a long time ago, most of them Greeks or Italians, most of them males, all of them now dead. Despite the specificity (and concomitant ennui) of his studies, as I often do, I decided to tag along with him for a few days. And, as I alluded to just above, we chose to meet in Norcia because he was already in Italy in his Renaissance-like pursuit of manuscripts.

Norcia is the home of a monastery where one might expect to find manuscripts. But paradoxically there are none there. Rather, one finds there a beautiful chapel, one that the monastic community has just built—it is still under construction, actually—out of fine local timbers, wood that hopefully will flex and bend when the next earthquake might come. It should do better, in any case, than the brick and mortar church did when the earthquake rocked and destroyed too much of the hitherto quaint, hitherto removed, and even untouched, Norcia. When you walk down that town’s streets, though you will see great beauty you will also feel pain, pain that you feel for Alessandro the local merchant, whose shop survived but whose town largely did not, or for Orieta, who skillfully mans the desk, along with Marco, at the Hotel Seneca, where my friend was staying with his friend, Tom Hibbs and his son, Daniel, of Baylor University. But I am speaking about pain, real pain. Yet in the midst of that very pain there are some signs of resurgence, even of joy. Life coming back like grass springing between cracks of a sidewalk.

Life and resurgence, like that of Carlo, whose thankfulness and cheerfulness was palpable as he drove us up to the monastery. He and his wife and two children miraculously survived their entire house falling in on them, as they managed to huddle beneath their kitchen table when the stronger of the two quakes struck Norcia. It was frightening, he told me, like bombs going off in wartime. He was grateful to God, he said, to have survived. He hurt his shoulder, he said, trying to protect his babies. And the rescue team had to dig them out, which they had just in time, just before, he thought, they were about to suffocate. “Un miracolo,” he said, “veramente un miracolo!”

But back to Rod Dreher, whose son, Lucas, it was a pleasure to meet, as well. This was the first time for me to meet Luca, but it was actually the second time I had met Rod Dreher, for Rod had given a keynote speech a few weeks ago at a fundraiser for the Benedictine monastic community of Norcia, to help them replace their former, now destroyed, monastery with a new facility, one in which they might slightly expand or at least update some of their brewing equipment.

Birra Nursia is perhaps the finest craft beer I’ve ever had. Not too hoppy, yeasty, not too grainy, it finds the perfect balance between all the shoals of poor coloring and Syrtes of harsh taste, for craft beers often are, as you may know, either too sweet or too biting. But the monks of Norcia, especially Brother Augustinus, know how to brew. Yet Birra Nursia is not the reason I wanted to participate in the expensive fundraising dinner when it was held last month in Texas. Nor was my desire to hear what was in fact a wonderfully thoughtful, even provocative speech by Rod Dreher. Rather, it was to help the brothers there recreate their Christian community, in and through which they seek to honor God and do good in their community. The beer is just a bonus.

And Rod Dreher’s new book, The Benedict Option, is based on the way that that community functions. Of course, it owes its harmony, its rhythms to the fine medieval work entitled The Rule of St. Benedict. But Dreher’s argument goes deeper than just following a recipe for living, just as Brother Augustinus’ brewing goes deeper than following a recipe for beer. Dreher’s main point is that we all have choices about how to live in this dark world and wide, and the option he advocates for Christians is that of the Benedictine community, tangibly mapped on to the lives of those of us who do not happen to be monks, who do not happen to be single or celibate. But mapped on, in spirit (or rather in Spirit), nonetheless. The choice to separate ourselves from the ways of the world, to raise our families apart from rampant secularism, he argues, belongs to every Christian.

And thus happening to meet up with Rod Dreher in Norcia, something not unlike running into Paul McCartney strolling down the streets of Liverpool, was more than just a bonus. It was special to be there with him at the epicenter of his thoughts about the Benedictine order, about St. Benedict himself. And, there, even there, I gave him a copy of The Curious Autobiography of Elaine Jakes, which I happened to have in my shoulder bag. What a crazy confluence of Welsh heritage, a Benedictine monastery, a world-famous blogger, earth-rambling (for globetrotting won’t do here) philologist, and an academic dean with his son in tow—all of these in one remote place at one unlikely moment. Which begs the question: coincidence or providence? But I leave that aside, as that could be the subject of another blog.

For the time being, I urge you to keep the community of Norcia monastic or otherwise, in your prayers, as the recovery will be a long time. The grass springs between cracks of the sidewalk, but it will be a long time until we see a plant grow. Yet the One whom those monks and the entire Christian community in Norcia honors is mighty to save and will make everything blossom in season. As a (prayer?) bench in the Hotel had inscribed above its wooden canopy, Ora et labora, “Pray and work.” Not bad advice, for that’s how miracles happen. Certainly Carlo and his whole family know that.