The mornings and evenings are becoming increasingly colder, measured by the increasing number of layers I use for walking the dogs at weekends. I can be relaxed about the oncoming winter as I am going to tropical Abidjan in mid-November to begin my contract there for the Banque Africaine de Developpement, or BAD – as the acronym has it. I shall be returning for a fortnight to Basel for Christmas, but this is a big new departure and no mistake. Breakfast means breakfast, and for much of this month I have been breakfasting from the numerous local clubs, societies, and associations with which I have become entangled. I think I have also had more vaccinations in the past month than in the past thirty years put together. Alli and I will be no better informed about the longer term implications of all this until I have spent a few weeks or months working and living in Abidjan, but we have had our house in Leymen valued.
We had a few of our friends round for a cheese and wine party, and we tried to make sure that the name of each cheese was clearly identified with its name on a cocktail stick flag. This went well for a while but only until the cheeses started to be consumed, handed around and generally muddled up. We also went on a Marche Populaire with the Barneses, Richardses and Jarvises in and around Folgensbourg, and we were, unusually, buffeted by squals of rain from a dark grey sky almost as soon as we set out, but a couple of hours later the day had become blue and breezy with powdered clouds scudding across the sky. Afterwards, we sat at long benches in the village hall and ate Montbéliard sausages and choucroute. On the following weekend, I went to a concert at the Chapelle de Heligenbrunn. One of the songs, Vavilov’s Ave Maria, sung beautifully by Elisabeth Nass, stood out from the others in this tiny, mysterious and mystical building next to a holy spring, discovered and established by the English-born wandering nun Saint Walburga in the eighth century AD. Its minuscule nave is supported by solid but ugly scaffolding as it is slowly restored. I walked back home on the route de Heiligenbrunn, a numinous path starting at the spring and descending to a clear view of the village at the foot of the hill and with the history-soaked Landskron castle directly above. The evening was fresh and clear, with that special scent created by evening sunlight, windswept rain on the grass and all the vibrant colours and tones of the Leimental valley in the fall. Later, Alli and I went to an evening drinks reception in the stylish Moulin Bas in Ligsdorf following the wedding of our neighbours Paul and Constanze. We joined a table in the corner with other neighbours and had a great evening there.
I have had my first ever pedicure (after a body massage at the same place last month), and enjoyed it, although I suffered a vague sense of unease about sitting with one foot in a bowl of soapy water and the other lovingly kneaded and scraped in the lap of a Thai masseuse. The pedicurist offered to paint my toe nails near the end but she didn’t have my colour so I demurred. The next day I was on my way to Sicily via an overnight stopover in Rome to stay in a villa near Palermo, rented by the indomitable Pickup Tennysons. I missed the morning plane from Rome after a predictable late night catching up with Fionnuala’s action-packed news but was rebooked gratis onto the next plane which left an hour later. I nearly missed that as well after chaos ensued from the insistence of a well-meaning Alitalia lady to read out the next flight destination every ten minutes and allow those booked on that flight to go to the front of the long check-in queue. This led to grinding gridlock and grumbling. Eventually and with shorter fingernails I was flying to an island of deep blues and soaring dark grey volcanic mountains where I met up with Andrew, then again with Fionnuala and Evelyne. We were quickly into the different rhythm and had an excellent lunch in the harbour of Mondello where fishermen sat by the ropes and played cards in the sunshine. We returned there in the evening for a rain-interrupted dinner. On the morrow we drove into the city of Palermo but our journey was difficult and long, fraying our nerves and reintroducing me to the horrors of driving, queuing and parking in Italian cities (and I wasn’t even the driver).
Capello di Palatino, Palazzo Reale, Palermo
We were able to walk around the car-cluttered centre for a while and breathe in the calm and peace of Palermo’s cathedral as well as the extraordinary and very popular Palazzo Reale, built by the Normans in the eleventh century AD and whose Capello di Palatino, with its golden nave and detailed mosaics of various scenes from the Bible, provided a genuinely memorable experience. Shopping was at a minimum, but I did take the opportunity to buy some leather shoes from Scarpe & Scarpe opposite our house, located handily opposite a shopping mall across a dual carriageway. We visited the valley of temples in Agrigento, founded in 581 BC as Akragas by Greek colonists from Crete and Rhodes, where, propelled by motorised scooters, we saw several monumental temples, mostly in ruins, but also some that were stable and upstanding.
Andrew, Fionnuala and Evelyne, Agrigento, October 2016
The sandstone of the gigantic pillars, capitals and slabs was fascinating to study at close quarters. Scattered in their disarray, the weathered outer surfaces of the stones on the ground seemed to have hardened over the years to look like granite, but some also appeared to have an increasingly soft and crumbly underbelly, making them look like the sides of an old sofa where the stuffing had split, and within its concave hollows something had to started to eat them through from within (notably, time and tourists). These apparently timeless sandstones, many with engrained and fossilized sea shells, are not so timeless. They are slowly but inexorably returning to their original constituent material – sand, because even the huge quarried stones of the monuments from over 2,500 years ago have their own life cycle. The decomposing stones of Akragas are more like old fashioned hay-bales, strewn and rotting in the fields, at once mysterious, startling and entrancing in their silent journey towards again becoming rocks and rubble, then sand and finally soft dust. We also visited Monreale, a placid gem of a town with a beautiful cathedral whose internal walls were covered in mosaics, gold and silver tiles, frescos, paintings and statues. On our last night we walked along the beach in Mondello to eat in the main square again before going our separate ways the following morning. In my case this was a 5am taxi back to the airport and more nail-biting drama in Fiumicino, truly Rome’s eternal airport, where the connecting plane to Zurich almost took off with my bags but without me because Alitalia doesn’t use computers, phones, faxes or emails.
Gwen came to stay with us from Brighton for a few days, as did Ella and Sam from London at about the same time. This was the signal for the kitchen to start filling up with cakes, sponges, biscuits and other confections. Whenever our daughters are present Alli is emboldened to bake, especially when proficient bakers Gwen and Jessie are visiting, and we slide easily into a kind of familial expatriate collective bake-off. Ella is less of a baker but nevertheless a gourmet like her sisters. We also managed to play some board games together, had a curry night and went out to dinner at the Couronne d’Or in the village while Gwen held a Halloween Party in our house for her friends, telling us not to return before 10pm. Just like old times and just a small hint of Christmas!
Here’s to those shifting sands,