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Trying the Very Trying Trail Vallee de Joux

This Saturday I was in Le Sentier to pick up my bib for my first ultramarathon, the Trail Vallee de Joux (85km). As John and I sat in a café flicking through a newspaper, I saw the news from Vienna: that very morning, Eliud Kipchoge had run the fastest marathon in history: one hour, fifty-nine minutes and forty seconds. This meant that this human comet had managed to run every single one of the 26.2 miles faster than 4 minutes and thirty-four seconds, a speed not so very far away from the world record for one mile (Hicham El Guerrouj’s 3:43:13). I think I might have run that fast for five meters once when trying to catch a receding school bus.

 

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Sipping my coffee, I reflected on the fact that not only had Eliud Kipchoge managed to accomplish this incredible feat of physical endurance, but he’d finished with a smile. If he could do that, how much easier would it be for me to run 50-something miles at a mule’s pace without keeling over? Much easier!

Aside from dying, there was only one thing worrying me: the race started at 2.30 am and our hotel was 3 kilometers from the pick-up point with no taxis willing to come to our village (“Désolé ca sera pas possible”). I didn’t want to run an extra three kilometers without getting credit for them. So, when we went to pick up my bib at the Centre Sportif, John, a polyglot, asked the official if he knew of anyway I could cadge a ride. The man looked thoughtful for a moment then said that we should come back in 20 minutes. We took a seat and watched the pleasant scene of families milling around between sessions of ice-hockey or swimming. Gazing wistfully at the beautiful outdoor jacuzzi surrounded by lounge chairs, John murmured wistfully, “That’s what you get when you have a public sector.”

 

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The official returned with a guy who said I should be waiting outside my hotel at one-thirty sharp that morning. The guy seemed very stern and not altogether happy at his new midnight mission, so I promised solemnly that I would be there. I suspected he thought that, as a foreigner, I probably lacked the true Swiss respect for temporal precision.

It was hard to sleep beforehand. For nine hours I lay awake staring at the ceiling and wondering if the bloody cows would ever stand still. Cow bells are the soundtrack of the Jura mountains. The first couple of days I found their gamelan clanging quaint and even soothing, but in my pre-race state of heightened nervousness, the distant, constant racket started to annoy. I wondered why it was necessary, in this day and age, for an animal to wear a great honking bell around its neck. If farmers were worried about losing their giant animals, why didn’t they just stick some kind of tracking mechanism under the skin, as pet owners do? As the watchful hours wore on, I realized that Swiss emigration to America could explained by a persecuted people’s desire for a little peace and quiet.

 

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Public Enemy No. 1

 

There were other bells too. When we booked the hotel, we’d asked for a quiet room. Technically, most of the time, it was a quiet room. But it was directly, as if scientifically measured, opposite the bell-tower of a church. This being Switzerland, the church had an excellent timepiece and wanted everyone to know it. The bell rang loud and clear every quarter hour. On the hour it burst into a long-winded and obnoxiously emphatic explanation of exactly what time it was.

Meanwhile, it being a Saturday night, there was some kind of lively musical event happening nearby. It was loud but I didn’t mind it too much because the singer was doing a pretty good attempt of Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah. I took this as a good omen, which shows how foolish superstition is.

To make a long story short, one-thirty arrived and I was standing outside the hotel. Just as I suspected, the guy showed up exactly on the half-hour, right in the middle of the ‘dong dong’. I jumped into the car and we set off for Le Sentier. I remarked on the warmth of the evening and he said that it was warmer than he could remember it being at this time of year. I tried a conversational gambit on the topic of Climate Change but there was a language-barrier issue that caused the small talk to sputter out. Thankfully, we reached the sporting center before the social awkwardness could bloom to suicide-inducing levels. I offered him payment for the ride, but he adamantly refused to accept any money, which was awfully decent of him. I can not imagine sacrificing any sleep for a total stranger.

I jumped on the bus saying ‘Bon jour’ to the driver. He laughed and said ‘Bon soir’. I sat down on the bus and watched with growing dismay the other people getting on the bus. They were all half cheetah. Rangy, weathered, sleek and well equipped. And so polite, at two o’clock in the morning. It was inhuman. I closed my eyes and pretended to sleep, not being able to face small talk.

At 2.15 precisely the bus set off for the town of L’Abbaye, where the race was to begin. The bus disgorged us outside a hotel and so I followed the crowd down the hill, where there was the familiar row of porta-potties, fences arranged in a starting corridor and van for the collection of ‘drop bags’. Soon, though, people started walking back up the driveway. Confused, I followed them. They walked to a hall where runners were gathering to drink tea, eat bread and jam and put on all their gear. I noticed that some people were collecting bibs for other races and suddenly doubted I was in the right place after all. I went out back across the road and down the driveway, but there was no one there yet. Finally, I was convinced that most people were in the tea building and so I stayed there, keeping an eye on them.

 

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Finally, there was a herd movement downwards. For some reason, three men were gathered around a flaming tree stump in the driveway. As we were all gathered at the starting block, someone made a speech in French and then a man with a pistol started counting down. Behind me I heard an American woman confide to her friend, “The only thing I’m worried about is getting lost.”

“Oh, don’t worry about that,” her friend replied chirpily. “You did study the course beforehand right? So you’ll be fine!”

 

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This conversation unsettled me. The possibility of getting lost had not occurred to me. Aside from a few glances, I had not studied the course beforehand in any detail. I hoped that this interplay was merely a kind of subtle ‘psyching out’ game between rivals and that there really was no need to worry.

The pistol went off.

The first few moments were great. Everyone moved and I felt like a wildebeest setting off with her brothers and sisters on a long journey to a new home. It was something the first, non-gloomy, stanza of that poem by Siegfried Sassoon “Everyone Sang”:

 

Everyone suddenly burst out singing;

And I was filled with such delight

As prisoned birds must find in freedom

Winging wildly across the white

Orchards and dark green fields; on; on; and out of sight.

 

There we all were, moving at a nice pace, not too fast because we had a whole day of running ahead of us, but not slow either. Our headlights created a road of light in a world that, except for the bright full moon above, was utterly black. The path was narrow but no one was pushing. I focused on the reflective stripes on the pants of the runner in front of me and settled into a meditative rhythm.

This went on for about half an hour, until we came to Le Pont, a town on the northern tip of Lac de Joux. Here, I felt so confident and pleased that I decided to stop to take a few pictures. When I resumed running, the group I’d been in was nearly out of sight but I saw their headlights cross a railway track and turn right on a path that ran parallel to it. I put on a spurt of speed so that I wouldn’t lose the way, but relaxed somewhat when I realized the path was lit by little reflective flags  The night was so warm and the path was so pleasant—it ran around the forested moonlit shore of yet another lake—that I didn’t mind when the headlight in front of me disappeared around a corner and I was completely alone.

The path became less forested and more rural. When I heard the familiar maddening cow-bell clang and saw three cows near a water trough, I considered asking them acidly if they ever got any sleep. Suddenly, beyond the cows,  three headlights in the distance went up a hill to my right. Relieved that I wasn’t as behind as I’d thought, I trotted on and turned up the same road. But when I got to the top, there were no signs or course markers. I thought maybe the other runners had made a mistake, so I ran downhill toward a church. No arrows there either. I retraced my steps and went right back down the hill to where I’d seen those phantom headlights earlier.

 

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Sure enough, there were pink chalk arrows pointing up the hill. But then I noticed that there was a reflector-flag in the other direction, straight ahead, so I followed it. Fifty meters on, I saw a pink arrow indicating that I should turn around and go back the way I’d come. So I did. I went back up the same hill the other runners had climbed. This time, when I got to the top, I carefully inspected the road for any marker or arrow. Nothing. I’d already turned left last time; this time I went right and, sure enough, a few hundred metres along the way I saw another of those pink chalk arrows pointing up a little track between two fields.

I bounded up that little track, which was quite a climb, until I got to an asphalt road. Here, there were three possible directions. Left was to ‘Mouthe’ in France; straight ahead was up a farm road; right was downhill. Squinting at the  asphalt, I saw a faint white arrow pointing right. It really looked quite old and didn’t conform to the other signage, but it was all I could see, so I went right. This took me past more fields and I looked vainly for more reflector flags to reassure me. At last I thought I saw one that had fallen down into a field. On closer inspection, , I realized that it was just a cat staring up at me.

 

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Finally, I got to the bottom of the farm track I’d already climbed; I’d come full circle. Another unnecessary kilometer. Okay, I gritted my teeth, don’t give up! Let’s try it again…This time, at the top of the track I crossed the asphalt road and went straight up the farm road. At the top was a dairy barn with lights on. There was a road that turned to the left but it looked so dark and someone’s house was there so I concluded it was a private driveway and retraced my steps back to the crossroad.  

 

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Third time lucky! I thought. So, when I got to the bottom (again ascertaining that there were no reflective course markers), I decided to try the road to Mouthe. My reasoning (flawed, but I hadn’t had any sleep) was that even if it wasn’t the right way, it might be nice to go to France and have a pain au chocolat for breakfast before getting a train back to Switzerland. I hared on up the hill for about a kilometer when I realized that this might not be the best plan after all because (a) I didn’t know how far it was to Mouthe and (b) I didn’t speak French and (c) I was running low on water. I really needed to get to the 16-kilometer point, where I could get a refill. Besides, there wasn’t much of a verge on this road. I was also pretty sure by now that this was not the right way.

When I got back to the intersection, there were now suddenly heaps of little reflective markers! They led a little way up the farm road and then to the right, along a trail I hadn’t seen before. Not pausing to wonder how this miracle could have happened, I felt a leap of joy and got going. The markers were very clear now and I pranced across several kilometres of gravel, muddy fields and forest paths. All the way the markers were glinting at me encouragingly. Occasionally there was even a flashing light embedded in the ground. It was a little strange to be all alone, but in an enchanting way, as if some elves had arranged a VIP forest tour for me personally. The air smelled good, like all-spice and pine. Sometimes I heard the hoot of an owl.

 

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On and on I went, wondering where on earth the aid station was. I’d now been running five hours, which meant I’d definitely gone more than 16 kilometres and should have reached it. Something was wrong. Why hadn’t I seen anyone else? Had I missed a loop? How come no one else had gotten lost? Did they have information that I didn’t? Or were they simply so mentally and physically superior that they could tell what to do? A thought struck me. Maybe they had apps. Maybe they had technology that told them where to go so that they didn’t need physical signs! At once, I realized this was the real answer. My stubborn analog tendencies had rendered me obsolete. I was like the elderly couple who’d almost perished in their own car because they were so confused about the keyless entry system. This was it. This was the moment when the modern world passed me by in its fancy jetcar, throwing space-litter at my head.

Yet, I kept going. As long as those reflective flags were there, I would put one foot in front of another. I was thirsty but that was OK. People had survived worse. Helen and Bill Thayer stumbling through the Gobi desert after one of their camels rolls over the water supply, Salvador Alvarenga surviving 438 days at sea, Mongols riding 10 days eating and drinking nothing but horse’s blood…we humans can take a lot of punishment!

But when I got to yet another intersection and there was no marker, I decided to quit. I had no more drink and didn’t know where I was. I guessed the trail probably went uphill, to Mount Orb, but I didn’t know for sure. Besides, I could see the lights of a town down the hill—Vallorbe judging from the road sign. In a town, I thought dreamily, I could catch a bus and make my way home. I carefully unpinned my bib and put it in my backpack.

 

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Will o’ the Wisp

 

After deciding to quit, I felt better. The landscape became more interesting at walking pace. There were mossy trees and limestone chunks, fallen logs and luminous mushrooms. At first I thought they were phosphorescent but close-up I realized this was an optical illusion caused by my headlights on dewdrops. I noticed that there was a large amount of daddy long-legses. The smell of the forest was intoxicating—Christmassy and fermented. It occurred to me that more people should get up in the middle of the night and walk around the forest. It was a experience I, for one, won’t soon forget. 

 

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Fun with fungus

 

As I descended, the sun started coming up and I could see a lake blanketed with mist. People were waking up and starting their daily routine—I met a couple jogging gamely up the hill who cheerfully called “Bon jour!” Down at the bottom of the hill, I blessed the orderliness of the Swiss because there was a large sign to the ‘GARE’, which I promptly followed.

 

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Dawn in Vallorbe

 

The trains were not working but there was a bus waiting outside. The driver looked at me and I looked at her.

Bonjour. Le Pont?” I said in my exquisite French.

Oui,” she said.

I showed her my bus voucher but she said something to the effect that it didn’t apply to her bus line. I took out some cash but she shook her head and indicated that I should sit down anyway, for free. At Le Pont, I transferred to another bus that took me back to Le Brassus and to John, who was just getting ready to have breakfast.

The winner of the 85 km was Sange Sherpa, who has run more than hundred of these things  and now that I’ve done a bit of one I can understand exactly how impressive that is.

 

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Wandering in the Garden of Time

Yesterday, early in the morning, we headed to Porta Susa station to catch a train to Switzerland. 

 

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John & Kindle at Porta Susa

 

As we headed for the border, the landscape became ever more beautiful and alpy, with peaks jutting up, some snowy, some in the far distance topped with lenticular clouds. The hills near the towns were all attractively covered with deciduous trees going through The Change.

 

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In the towns around Lake Geneva, vineyards started popping up, which surprised me. I’d never thought of Switzerland as a wine-growing region. In fact, even when we were technically in Geneva it all looked pretty rural.

 

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Looking up from his Kindle, John asked, “Where are all the big buildings where rich people make the decisions?” It was a fair question. The first big building we saw was actually train station. We disembarked and John went to get our onward tickets, which he did so successfully that we were soon running to the platform. The trains were punctual, clean and comfortable. They also had electronic signs announcing the next station. This was reassuring because we had two transfers to do.

 

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It seemed that every stop was a little smaller and prettier and every train we got on was more like Thomas the Tank Engine. On the last stretch, we passed through small villages (all with the same kind of witch-hat church), a colorful forest, several lakes and a couple of bigger towns. The train stopped to think things over for about twenty minutes but eventually got going again. Our destination, Le Brassus, was the very last stop.

As soon as we got to the hotel, much sleeping ensued but this morning we were in the mood to investigate the place. The first thing we noticed as we stepped outside was that it was cold. We immediately returned to the room and emerged a few minutes later in coats and hats.

 

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Across the street, we paused by the bridge to admire the fast-moving stream for which the town Le Brassus is named. Sun was starting to warm the nearby meadows, creating a white mist and frost clung to the roof tiles of some of the funny old houses. In the hills around the town, trees were splashy with color, reminding me that ‘Jura’ derives from the Celtic root ‘jor-’, or forest.

As we wandered down the hill, I suddenly caught sight of a little building with windows—it looked like a zoo exhibit.

“That’s odd,” I muttered, and ambled over to investigate.

 

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Lo and behold, there was a mammoth skeleton! Well, the mold of a skeleton. Around 16,000 years ago a young male was caught in an avalanche of mud. Scientists nicknamed him Sapy and his bones now rest in the Vaud Geology Museum in Lausanne.

Next to Sapy’s house was a little area called, somewhat romantically, the Garden of Time. There was some system of organization related to geological eras. Next to each sign was a garden plot in which there grew vegetation associated with that period. After all, it makes patriotic sense that the locals are aware of geological eras, since the Jura Mountains give their name to one: the Jurassic Period (201.3 million years ago to 145 million years ago). This is because the Jura Mountains were the first place that limestone strata from the period were identified.

 

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Pretty soon it became clear that the town’s main claim to fame was all the fancy watchmakers with offices in the area. Clues were big posters advertising watches, huge buildings with ‘horloger’ in big letters on the side, and other subtle hints. I don’t know why exactly they all chose this tiny spot to do business, but at least seven companies have warehouse-sized watch offices here. 

The afternoon at 14.30 p.m. I went for a walk to Le Sentier to do some grocery shopping. I got there at 15.00 and did the shopping in an aimless, dawdling manner, inspecting all the foreign stuff. At about 15.45 I emerged from the supermarket and saw across the street a store specializing in Spanish food. A little bell went off in my head. Huh, I thought. At 16.00, I strolled past a building that said ‘Spanish Language Center.’ Another bell went off. Hmmm, I thought. What is all this Spanish stuff? Then it came to me! I had carefully, painstakingly told my Spanish teacher that we should have our lesson at exactly 16.00 today. And here I was, 3.5 kilometres from Skype, with a watch factory every 500 metres between me and the computer. Strange. A good example of the sinister, illusory nature of time.

 

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Pillar decoration at the school in Le Sentier, down the road.

Sekhmet in Piedmont

Ancient Egypt is hard. There are too many dynasties. The Book of the Dead has a promising title but there is no clear plot. The cosmology, in which gods have animal heads and night-time is a naked lady and people walk on their hands in the underneath-world, seems a bit surreal.

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I’m sorry…what?

It’s not just because I’m slow, either. Herodotus had similar trouble penetrating the Egyptian mindset and used up plenty of papyrus ranting about their whacky customs.

The Egyptians in agreement with their climate, which is unlike any other, and with the river, which shows a nature different from all other rivers, established for themselves manners and customs in a way opposite to other men in almost all matters: for among them the women frequent the market and carry on trade, while the men remain at home and weave; and whereas others weave pushing the woof upwards, the Egyptians push it downwards: the men carry their burdens upon their heads and the women upon their shoulders: the women make water standing up and the men crouching down: they ease themselves in their houses and they eat without in the streets, alleging as reason for this that it is right to do secretly the things that are unseemly though necessary, but those which are not unseemly, in public: no woman is a minister either of male or female divinity, but men of all, both male and female: to support their parents the sons are in no way compelled, if they do not desire to do so, but the daughters are forced to do so, be they never so unwilling. (Histories, Book II, 35)

And yet the whole thing is also irresistible. The animal worship, the picture-language, the animal statues, the mummies, the COSTUMES…Wonderful! Everything about Ancient Egypt attracts me as bathers in the Nile attract crocodiles.

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The collar of Neferuptah (12th Dynasty) at the Egyptian Museum in Cairo

Lucky for me, then, that Turin has one of the world’s oldest and best Egyptian museums. I’ve visited the Museo Egizio on Via Accademia delle Scienze three times, and every time I notice something different, intriguing and bizarre. And every time I get exhausted before I’ve even gone halfway through, which makes me think that next time I should start from the end.

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In a lot of ways, the museum’s history matches the history of modern Egyptology, which began with the French campaign in Egypt 1798-1799. Although that little adventure didn’t turn out so great for Napoleon, it did lead to the discovery of the Rosetta Stone. No sooner had the French soldier Pierre-Francois Bouchard stubbed his toe on that big chunk of granodiorite, than scholars all over Europe were salivating at the chance to finally unlock the mysteries of the Pharoahs. When France lost control of Egypt with the Capitulation of Alexandria in 1801, then, the British were careful to take the Rosetta Stone back home with them. From that time on, it has consistently been the most-requested exhibit at the British Museum.

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B. “Don’t touch my obelisk.” Dovretti

But how did Turin end up with its great Egyptian museum? That story begins with a ragazzo named Bernadino Drovetti (1776-1852), who was born in Barbania, 16 miles north of the city. In 1796, when Dovretti was a student at the University of Turin, Napoleon conquered the kingdom of Piedmont-Sardinia. Now a French citizen, Dovretti joined the Grand Armee and by 1801 he was War Minister in Piedmont. In 1803, Napoleon sent him to Egypt as a Commissioner for Foreign Relations and he spent the best part of the next three decades working as a diplomat there. At the same time, he was bitten by the Egyptology Bug and started fossicking around for any artefact he could get his hands on with a view to amassing a valuable collection. He was reportedly rather territorial about his looting rights and had some disputes with rival collectors, who accused him of questionable behavior, including drawing a gun on them (you can read about one of his interactions with his 6’7” rival ‘The Great Belzoni’ here). Eventually, Drovetti amassed three of the world’s greatest collections of Egyptian artefacts. Sadly, he seems to have died in a lunatic asylum in Turin (a mummy’s curse?).

In 1824, the King of Sardinia acquired Dovretti’s first collection for 400,000 lire—a massive sum. It included 5,268 pieces, including 100 statues, 170 papyri, stelae, mummies, and other items. This collection is still the basis of museum’s collection today.

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The collection includes I Monumenti dell’Egitto e della Nubia by the great Egyptologist Ippolito Rosellini

The story doesn’t end there, though.

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The next great character to contribute to the museum’s development was Ernesto Schiaparelli (1856-1928). The son of a respected historian (and cousin of Elsa Schiaparelli the fashion designer), Ernesto became director of the Egyptian museum in Florence in 1880, then of Turin’s Museo Egizio in 1894. From 1903 to 1920 he undertook twelve archeological expeditions in Egypt and greatly extended the museum’s collection. His most amazing discoveries were the tombs of Queen Nefertari (d. ca 1255 BC) and of the royal architect Kha.

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Kha’s gilded inner coffin

After World War II, the political and economic situations of both Egypt and Italy meant that there were fewer digs and fewer acquisitions. In the sixties, however, Italy participated in a UNESCO campaign to salvage Nubian monuments before the construction of the Aswan dam and in recognition of this the Egyptian government gifted the Museo Egizio a whole big rock temple from Ellysia built by Pharoah Thutmosis III in the 18th Dynasty. Other gifts have included the libraries of the Egyptologists Giuseppe Botti, Celeste Rinaldi and Vito Maragioglio.

To me, one of the most memorable exhibits is “Turin S. 293, RCGE 16550”, a dessicated man from about 3,700 to 3,500 BC—long before the first Pharoah. Huddled up next to a basket, you can see his leathery skin and long teeth. For a long time it was believed that he was an example of ‘natural’ mummification. However, a study published just last year details evidence of his body being artificially treated with resin and other ingredients that correspond with artificial mummification.

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Not going to show a mummy so here’s a costume by Elsa Sciaparelli

So it seems that the objects in the Museo Egizio have only just begun to yield their secrets. As technology becomes more sophisticated, we may still make discoveries as astonishing as those of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. 

Meanwhile, I got a book from the museum bookshop that is written like a Lonely Planet guide book for time travelers: Ancient Egypt on Five Deben a Day, written by Donald P. Ryan, who is an archeologist and Faculty Fellow in Humanities at Pacific Lutheran University in Tacoma, Washington. The reader prepares for a trip back to the Egypt of 1250 BC, under the reign of Ramesses II. Admittedly it is something of an ‘Ancient Egypt for Dummies’ but sometimes that is what is needed.  

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Read before you go!

Well, as this post draws to a close you may have noticed that I have not gone into any detail about the actual exhibits. This is because there are too many and organizing them into any kind of story would make my head hurt. Also, I wouldn’t want to preempt your visit! As a foretaste of the kind of otherworldly experience in store for you, here is a beautiful statue of Sekhmet, goddess of healing and protector of pharaohs. 

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Lady of Light, Eater of Blood

Cat on a Cold Tin Roof by Talia Marshall

One night, after our kids are in bed I make Kerry, my oldest friend, watch Butch Cassidy and The Sundance Kid with me. I insist Butch is the sunny one and I’m jealous that Etta Place, played by Katharine Ross with her blank dollface, has two boyfriends. Kerry decides Robert Redford is hotter, it’s true that his silhouette is lithe as a cat when he draws a gun. But I’m stubborn about Butch being the better catch, because he’s played by Paul Newman with such twinkle and easy largesse before it ends badly in a blaze of non-glory in Bolivia.

 

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Except I’m barely watching the movie, I’ve already seen it multiple times. I’m making Kerry watch it because Paul Newman reminds me of Luke, the car and drum n’ bass enthusiast I keep listening and looking for out the window. In case he drives by my house with the telltale pa-choo pa-choo of his car with its massive spoiler. I’ve become an engine connoisseur, I can tell the difference between a Subaru and Mitsubishi just by the rumble of the motor.

A few days before we watch the movie Luke lies in my bed after some unsatisfactory sex and chuckles when I tell him, with sudden amazement, that even though I’ve known him for over a year I still don’t know where he lives. He replies that he’s too ‘subtle’ for me to know where he lives. I’m frozen because he’s also told me I’m a pretty girl but he can’t see it working out for us. He says I’m too intelligent for him. Luke runs a finger through my hair when he says this but it’s a ginger gesture and proves far harder to forget than the sex. Back then I’m as proud of my brain as I am of my looks so it’s brutal news he views being smart as a social impediment. I’m not a prize to him, I’m a small town secret, that impossible, oxymoronic thing.

Instead of writing him off as a creep I obsess about Luke for the next two years. I tell myself I’m in love with him. I devote entire days to watching traffic and counting the colours of cars with my son, turning it into a game he doesn’t know the rules of in case Luke drives past. I jump on the trampoline I assembled by myself to show the small town where I live that solo mothers can do anything. But I jump on the trampoline so I can check if Luke’s coming down the road thanks to the view I gain from my son’s double bounce. Luke can’t help but drive past my house because I live on a main road but I refuse to let logistics get in the way of my love story. I tell myself he must love me because when I’m driving the ordinary blue of the sky and the wheaty hills out the windscreen match his colouring. Like nature was involved. You see, I had the vaguest material to go on in Luke which was probably fatal as I prefer a blank canvas, a mirage rather than actual men with their upsetting personal habits.

 

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René Magritte, La Décalcomanie, 1966© Adagp, Paris 2016 © Photothèque R. Magritte / Banque d’Images, Adagp, Paris, 2016

 

I write him a poem that begins ‘Where I live there’s a piece of rock sticking out of the sea like a sphinx/ I wonder what he thinks of it/ I wonder what he thinks’. Except when I confess I’ve been writing poems about him he tells me he doesn’t know what a Sphinx is. Luke is a bit too blank. No matter, a year after the ginger gesture I figure out where he lives and confront him on his driveway. See, I tell him, I do know where you live but he responds by telling me he’s moving in with his girlfriend. A subtle guy, funny even, slightly anxious as he smokes rollies with no filter in a way which reminds me of my mother but is maybe not worth two years of watching cars. I start lying on the trampoline when my son’s at school staring at the blue nothing inside my head.

I’m not sure where my tendency to obsess comes from, whether it’s culturally produced, or inherited, or both, and I tend to associate it with being creative which means it’s a state I tend to romanticise too. I’m also not sure that knowing where it comes from, that locating the headwaters, would make it go away or help me change it. I emerged out of eight years of therapy with the same bad, self-punishing set of ruminations. Therapy only helped me to run slightly better angles on my obsessions, it magnified my ability to crack myself up.

Despite successive and confusing waves of feminism, romance still means a lot to so many women I know. I talk about all kinds of things with my girlfriends but our relationships and the hook ups that don’t turn into relationships is the topic we reserve the most energy for. Even so, it’s mortifying being the person that can’t stop talking about something no one else is invested in, my friends care about me, they don’t care about my love life, not really, it’s a crucial distinction. If I had been honest with myself, or rather if I had listened to my therapist, I would have realised if the person you want doesn’t really want you then you have to find other sources of fuel to feed the fire.

Some friends tolerate my self-obsessed unanswerable queries because I accommodate theirs. ‘What do you think he meant when he didn’t text me back, does it mean he wants to marry me?’ I ask while they ask me if I’ve had a look at her profile, is she better looking, and so on. But it’s like burning paper instead of wood and leaves me feeling empty at the piles of ash in the grate.

I don’t know how people do Tinder, or any form of online dating, I find them very brave as I would surely die when ambivalence is my asbestos. And appearing not to care seems to be the modern condition of finding love and frankly, I do give a damn so I find this ridiculous. The oddest statement people make about love to me is that it was just sex. The other terrible thing about this statement is that it’s usually true.

 

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Vivien Leigh and Kieron Moore in Anna Karenina (1948)

 

Luckily literature is riddled with much more compelling and tragic figures to feast on. Madam Bovary eats arsenic like its icing sugar because she is ghosted. Anna Karenina throws herself in front of a train after Vronsky comes on strong but proves to be a cad and a dilettante. Anna is turned into an outcast for making an open mockery of her marriage while others around her get off much more lightly. The downfall of these fictional married women is substantial, it wears corsets and has an ermine trim. They are victims not just of themselves but of the age; their psychic wounds are obscured by layers and layers of petticoats and bizarre social etiquette. They go from being coveted to discarded, for a woman whose power resides in her looks it’s the worst kind of fate. In White Oleander the narrator, Astrid, has a gorgeous sociopathic artist mother, Ingrid, who poisons her lover with the flowering tree of the title for the crime of getting sick of her. It is frightening how much I admire Ingrid for this because she goes to prison and Astrid is made a semi-orphan.

 

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But it is Hagar from Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon who reminds me most of what a waste my late twenties were, mooning over Luke. Milkman, Hagar’s cousin uses her as the ‘third beer’, the one you can take or leave if drinking isn’t your problem. Driven insane by his ambivalence she keeps attempting to kill him, but fails. Milkman is not interested in commitment, but Hagar can’t commit to the act of utu that will release her from him, she imagines she loves his sorry self too much. It’s not low self-esteem that drives her to violent fantasies and holding a knife over Milkman while he pretends to sleep. Rather, as Morrison tells it, this spoiled, used woman, can’t understand a world where she doesn’t get what she wants.

Jane Austen is different, her heroines tend to get what they didn’t know they wanted but fulfils them nonetheless, at least this is where Austen often left the story. Darcy watches Lizzie Bennett and Knightley watches Emma with the benevolent eye of the author. Despite Morrison’s occasional heavy-handed allegories—Hagar is named after one of Abraham’s discarded pregnant handmaidens—and her turgid soap opera plots, it’s Austen that’s much closer to Mills & Boon. Don’t get me wrong, the heavy hand was part of Morrison’s genius, a word that is rarely applied to Black women, even to Beyoncé.

When I was little, my two favourite story books had nothing to do with men. They were both a bit twee but offered another kind of feminist vision. In Tilly’s House a wooden kitchenmaid is kept as a drudge in the attic of a Victorian doll’s house. She longs for another kind of life, and uses an umbrella to slide down the table to escape from the miniature bourgeois prison. At the end of the garden she fashions a room of her own, she’s resourceful, anything ugly is covered with a pleasing scrap of cloth. A teddy bear tells her it’s the prettiest room he’s ever seen and despite being made of wood she swells with pride.

 

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The Maggie B by Irene Hass was the other story, a slightly more surreal tale which involved a little girl looking after her baby brother on a boat after wishing for an adventure on the North Star. There is a pet toucan too, an apple tree and a goat on the crammed, fertile deck. Maggie covers peaches with cinnamon and bakes them for her brother, she learns to survive a storm. Essentially, they are books about keeping ship and keeping house, but they make the place nice for themselves, not for any man.

 

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Joan Didion

 

I can’t stomach romantic comedies and was late to Fleabag but I eagerly watched the Netflix documentary about Joan Didion. And the terrifying moment in it when she’s asked how it felt to walk into a hippy house and discover a child on acid, a scene she described in the essay, “Slouching Towards Bethlehem”. She is honest and replies that the moment was gold. This cold, snake-worshipping old woman waving her arms at nothing tells the truth, and her eyes glint. The first time I watched it she horrified me, the second time I respected her honesty, to write about what’s in front of you it’s sometimes necessary to stay detached. If she had picked up the child and rescued her there would be no record of the shadow of the flower generation with its children as the compost, or at least not one that wasn’t compromised by sentiment. But that level of detachment can rarely be applied to the self, it’s the shadow of all that nothing Didion alludes to with her ancient arms.

In the essay she published in Vogue in 1961 titled, “On Self Respect” Didion uses the example of Jordan Baker from F. Scott Fritzgerald’s The Great Gatsby as a woman who knows her own measure, who watches the collapse of everyone around her without being particularly touched by it. But Daisy is the one people remember because for the doomed dreamer and fake, she’s the light at the end of the pier and the reason he floats face down in his beautiful pool.

I also watched a Breakfast panel segment with John Campbell in which Ella Henry rightly thundered about the uplifting of our babies by Oranga Tamariki [Ministry of Children]. She was so disgusted she refused to call the agency by its name. But she lost me when she said that our wahine, our girls, need to have their self-esteem raised up if they want to find good men who won’t hurt their children. She said they need to see themselves as princesses

No we do not, that kind of fairy tale ends in horror stories. In the media I regularly see men standing in the dock who fill me with disgust because they killed another man’s child. Odd then that it’s the evil stepmother who represents malice and danger.

A woman doesn’t need better self-esteem it’s a neoliberal conceit, she needs to know her limits and have some self-respect. It is normal to want to meet someone and fall in love, but society is too full of these broken pathological men. Money matters too, plain economics. It’s hardest for the solo mothers at home with small children and it’s not exactly naive to think having a man around might help. Until he starts stealing or coercing the benefit from her that’s meant for her tamariki to subsist on rather than thrive.

And I’m no better, no less subject, that’s really the source of my loathing. The last man I dared to dream in told me so many lies about his heroin habit it’s left me homeless. I knew he was an addict and lying is their means of survival yet I was still vain enough to believe in his version of my specialness despite the sirens.

But I think of Tilly and her resourcefulness and I know if I adhere to what I’m trying to assert about self-respect I’ll have a room of my own again. I’ll be able to watch as many Paul Newman movies as I like enjoying the luxury of my solitude and stop testing the patience of friends with my monologues as my Jack Russell stinks up their couch.

Katharine Ross, with her big Keane-like eyes was also the actress on the back of a bus with Dustin Hoffman in The Graduate, suddenly foolish at running away from her wedding with someone she barely knows and has been fucking her mother. I’ve always disliked that ending because it’s so true to life and music videos have destroyed my taste levels.

 

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Etta Place and her men

 

But what of the real Etta Place, the woman lucky enough to have two charismatic but doomed boyfriends, one her husband and the other her former lover, maybe? Her death is unrecorded and she disappears in South America. No one is sure if she was a prostitute or a music teacher when she meets Butch and Sundance, perhaps she was both. She seems to have been attracted to dangerous men anyway. I’ve only just been able to admit I’m the same. I was not interested in the man I was with for years until he told me he’d been to prison for shooting near, or at, caravans of sleeping children. Before that calculated confession, he’d been a balding square in a business shirt with excellent weed that lived around the corner from the person I was really in love with.

I published a poem about Luke just after I met the others and we started sending each other messages on Facebook because I made the mistake of sending him the link. My messages were poetic and wispy and his were fairly direct. He came to the house where I’d spent three years pining for him but once I got over the novelty I realised I didn’t like talking to him. I preferred the long involved conversations I was having with the balding man, who pretended he knew how to listen, who pretended that none of the other men were a problem and the benign attentiveness won me over.

Even though Luke was the most beautiful man I had ever seen there was nothing in it, he was not the same actor in my dream. Before he left he told me he really respected me for not sleeping with him, which was disingenuous because he wasn’t there for my personality, just more bad sex. How stupid the straight game of chase really is especially when someone who doesn’t even know what the Sphinx is still gets to set the rules.

Women talk about being ghosted and how maddening that can be but men are usually the ones who kill an ex for rejecting or leaving them. Murders which are propelled by the insane sense of entitlement Hagar fails to embody; she’s just a silly, spoiled woman that is unable to dig herself out of her own hole. Hagar dies broken instead. At her grand but empty funeral Pilate, her grandmother, laments that her baby girl was loved.

What would have helped her? But maybe this is the wrong question, I mean what is that would have soothed her, what would have let her out of the cage of being herself?

 

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I find reading Alice Munro always helps because I don’t know how to help myself either. She is the high priestess of thwarted heroines but often resorts to O Henry-like coincidences when the pressure of identification with the women becomes too much. Nor is she afraid of making her women slightly ridiculous and grasping, because so often, they catch themselves in the act.

 

And this was a situation she had created, she had done it all herself, it seemed she never learned any lessons at all.  She had turned Simon into the peg on which her hopes were hung and she could never manage now to turn him back into himself.

 

This is Rose from The Beggar Maid and Munro’s story “Simon’s Luck.” Rose drives for miles across Canada to escape her fresh infatuation with Simon, a man she meets at a party. Even though he seemed so keen on her he doesn’t show to help her in the garden like they planned. After driving for hours, she sits in a diner with her coffee, resolute in the hard light of morning. She’s an actress and decides to move out west, to act the part of her own escape. The twist comes when Rose learns years later that Simon died of cancer, that his presence at the party was luck. Alice Munro gets away with these corkscrew endings because who wouldn’t wish for their obsession to be resolved by means outside of their control and independent of their failure? Narratives move toward closure in a way that is nothing like life and are so satisfying because of it.

Even my whakapapa is full of stories of aggrieved women, those headwaters I was so keen to avoid. Hinepoupou of Ngāti Kuia was the first woman to swim Cook Strait. She departed from Kāpiti having been abandoned there by two husbands. It’s the Māori version of Butch and Sundance but the plot is driven by her lust for vengeance. She is accompanied on her epic swim by our dolphin taniwha, Kaikaiawaro but her kurī start hanging off her and she turns them to stone. An aquatic Māori medusa, I wish that was my big bitch energy. I wrote a poem about her and in it she cries, “I’m Grace Jones motherfuckers, I’ll hunt you down. I’ll eat you like you’re the oyster, I won’t give in…”

 

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Grace Jones

 

Silence though, what if it’s better to stay quieter than a shark? I mean imagine watching Jaws with the sound off, maybe it would be even more frightening without the warning?

I don’t want or particularly need a man to make me feel like a woman, I will keep telling myself this until intentionality becomes the reality. I will tell myself this not just because that antique version of gender is being replaced by people who don’t fit the definitions of either and the natural inflatable woman keeps leaking air. By inflatable I mean she has existed as the floating projection of men’s desire for too long; instead of being defined by her own fantasies.

And I’ll tell myself this not just because these literary women are such cautionary examples. It’s embarrassing to care about romantic love so much when the world is cooked but what if the aftermath of all the useless yearning I’ve indulged in makes for a plainly honest kind of cave?

My collection of man trophies on the wall and their cured leathery skins stretched out by the hearth is, maybe, the right kind of mood for the apocalypse I hear such gleeful reports of. A woman needs a man like a fish needs a bicycle, Australian journalist Irina Dunn said this, making a mockery of a male philosophical equation, but now it just sounds like a daft, improbable meme.

A woman needs what she needs and has to survive not always getting what she wants. I don’t want to be Anna or Daisy or Hagar I want to be Etta —holding my cards close and flush with mystery—no one knows what happened to her, no one knows who she really is.

 

Liz and Paul

 

About the Author

 

Talia

 

Talia Marshall is a New Zealand poet and essayist. Her work explores, with lyricism and courageous honesty, aspects of her life as a woman, a Maori, a lover, a daughter, a mother, a friend and a writer. Toni Morrison, in her 1993 Nobel Lecture on Literature, advised authors to “tell us what the world has been to you in the dark places and the light” and Marshall’s mastery of this revelatory principle lends her writing unusual lucidity and power. 

Other similarly shimmering works by Talia Marshall include the following: 

 

Glossary of Maori and New Zealand words

kurī: dog

rollies:  hand-rolled cigarettes

taniwha:  a mythical sea monster

utu:  the concept of reciprocation, which includes revenge

wahine: woman or girl

whakapapa: genealogy

Jolly Shoes and Tiramisu

The other day I had to make a trip to Jolly Sports Shop. I have a scary race coming up and needed new running shoes–my old ones no longer had the old spring in them and still bore the traces of the peat bogs of Patagonia and the maple-scented dust of Vermont.

A journey into downtown Torino involves waiting around for a bus, catching it and then looking at all the interesting people: tall African boys, young mothers in hijabs, old Italian ladies in elegant dress, men in djeballas, the odd rambunctious drunk banging on the window. On this occasion there were even dogs—a little auburn mutt growling at a goofy rottweiler puppy. A phlegmatic Italian man was imparting some wisdom to the owner of the auburn mutt, a rangy woman with long hair, also auburn, who was listening to him with scepticism. I couldn’t be 100% sure but I believe the tenor of his speech was that dogs should be left at home.

 

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The world outside the bus was just as interesting as the people inside it: cobbled streets, fountains and statues, fancy architecture and vendors packing up after the morning market on Via Madama Christina. We got off the bus near Lo Scoglio (‘The Rock’) fish shop and spent a few moments peering in the window at the weird creatures: ricci di mare (sea urchins), acciuge (filleted anchovies) and trota iridea (rainbow trout) before turning the corner for Via Nizza.

When we got to the shop it was 2.30 and a big rolling metal door was pulled over the entrance. A lot of Italian shops close in the early afternoon from about 12-3 and sure enough a sign on the wall said it would open again at 3. This gave us half an hour to loiter in the vicinity.

Hungry as usual, I persuaded John to stop at a nearby bar (what we would call a café or cafeteria except that it also sells alcohol). I ordered a square of flat pie that the waitress called a torta salata and was very good. As I munched and John sipped his drink I gazed at the posters on the wall for Spaghetti Westerns, old Vermouth ads and signed photographs of Juventus squads from the 1970s and 1980s. A couple of women sat at another table, chatting over sandwiches. At the bar men came and went like stubbly reef fish in beige jackets.

 

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“You know what I’m telling you, you’re a big son of a…”

 

When the clock struck three, we went back along to the shop. From the beginning, there were troubles. We stood outside the entrance wondering what the big arrow pointing to the right signified. After a consultation, we concluded that the arrow was on the left half of the door, we should try pushing the right half and proceeded to do just that. It didn’t work. A lady inside the shop came to let us in and then pointed a couple of metres along the wall to where there was another door—the entrance.

The shop was vast.

“Where do we go?” John asked.

“I don’t know, let’s just have a look around,” I said and turned left, little knowing that I was entering a three-dimensional Escher sketch. First there was a room of skis, then another one of ski suits, a hall devoted to skateboards. A woman asked me if I needed help, to which I replied, “Sì, dove sono scarpe da running?” She proceeded to give me instructions which amounted to ‘Turn right, then go straight ahead, then go down some stairs, then turn right again.”

 

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shoe department upper right

 

We wandered along through rows of sports bags, tennis clothes, football jerseys, swimsuits and down stairs to the golfing section. I made a u-turn and ended up near a desk monitored by a very elegant woman. She pointed me straight ahead and said that I had to go through there and up another set of stairs.

Off we went and eventually ended up in sport-shoe central, where a couple of humanoid mountain goats were trotting around assisting customers. When I asked one of them for trail-running shoes, he looked surprised and pointed to the specialized trail-running-shoe display area in front of which we were already standing. 

These shoes, I gathered from the labels, were examples of apex sporting technology. The soles had thick treads and were made of some chemically engineered for ‘maximum stickiness.’ The uppers were structured to give maximum support and the soles contained space-aged shock-absorbing gel. The whole was water-resistant.

 

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Trail-running-shoe factory

 

I was standing there dithering when the other goatman approached, jittering like an adrenaline junkie stuck in a sports store. I gave him my shoe size and he vanished into the store room at the back. The shoes he brought back were very comfortable and what’s more they were ‘wild-orchid-and-Neptune’ colored, so I decided to get them.

He took the shoes over to a bench and wrote down the price on a little yellow piece of paper. He handed me the paper and the shoe box then pointed to the floor with an expression of quiet horror.

Signora, sock.” Indeed, a sock had fallen out of my backpack. I laughed lightly and picked it up. The final straw.

“OK, let’s go,” I murmured to John.

“But don’t you need other stuff?”

“Yes, but there was a sock incident.”

“You don’t want to come all the way back here, do you? I’ll ask.”

“No, I’ll ask,” I sighed and went over to the other goat man.

Mi scusa,” I opened. “Ho bisogno di un emergency blanket,” I attempted to mime it.

He nodded enthusiastically and pointed down the stairs.

“OK, grazie!” I said. He gave me the thumbs up.

I got an emergency blanket and water bottle. A different man wrote down the prices on a little yellow piece of paper.

Finally, I realized I had to go to yet another desk to look for running tights. I was beginning to feel as Odysseus must have felt sailing all around the Mediterranean and encountering various monsters. Next up was the elegant woman who’d previously given me directions to the shoes. She could be Circe.

 

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Store directory

 

Buona sera,” I said.

She nodded.

Vorrei comprare i pantaloni da running.”

Spessi o medii?”

I seemed to remember that spesso means ‘thick’ so I said medium.

There commenced a lot of trying-on and finally I got two pairs of tights along with a pair of hiking socks, which the lady was determined to sell me. She enclosed all this in a plastic bag and wrote the price on a little yellow square of paper. Now I had a mountain of stuff and three squares of paper to take to the cashier upstairs.

After this excursion, we decided to stop by a place called Tiramisu around the corner. It was not the traditional Italian café/bar, more like a Japanese toy version of an English tea shop, with elaborate pink cakes, pastel teapots and chalkboards scrawled with quotes like ‘The diet starts tomorrow.’ The waitress was a smiling, friendly girl who looked like a high school student. She was something of a relief after the scornful ultra goats.

 

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I *also* love sweet

 

When I took off my jumper, John exclaimed, “My God, you’re covered in sweat!”

“Yes, well it was very intense,” I replied defensively. “There were a lot of interactions. Also language. It was difficult.”

“But when you ran the marathon you didn’t even get that sweaty.”

“There were very few interactions in the marathon and it was well sign-posted, unlike that accursed Minotaur maze.”

He shook his head, baffled.

The sweet girl came over to take our order and I ordered tiramisu. She brought back a deconstructed tiramisu: six ladyfingers, a cup of cold espresso, a bowl of sweetened mascarpone and a cocoa-shaker. Then she explained that I should moisten the sponge with the coffee until they were ‘bagnato’ (bathed), then pile on the mascarpone, then shake the cocoa over the lot. 

 

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Elementary Tiramisu Particles

 

After the magic of tiramisu I began to feel a little more philosophical about Italian life. On the one hand they have extremely stressful departmentalized sports stores but on the other hand they have delicious coffee-flavored desserts. La vita è bella

 

 

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Anche le scarpe sono belle!