Easter in Positano…

Easter is at the doors and Positano is filled with frantic activity, painters rushing around with overflowing buckets of color touching up weather beaten façades, workmen being unceremoniously ushered out of hotels,  while patient cleaning women are left to deal with the dust.  All of this, as the first guest arrive searching for some reprieve from a dull gray winter…

Each year the same pattern repeats itself: the season ends, long discussion begin, architects are summoned, workmen consulted and large bowls of pasta consumed, while days follow one and other.

Finally Christmas arrives and with it a new festive season spent joyfully embracing family and mouth watering recipes such as “Scorfano all’acqua pazza”, “Spagetti alle vongole veraci” and others cooked to perfection.  All while the sea infuriates, the steps of the village turn into streams of endless water and sad fish scramble to make themselves scarce, knowing their end should they fall into one of the fishing nets waiting to usher them to eternity.

Oh bliss, oh joy, a holiday will soon follow in  far away destinations, where the inhabitants of Positano can at last sit in cafés enjoying a simple espresso, without the worries of home.  Only then will the remodeling work finally start and with it a frantic rush against time, the season is at hand and each and every Positanese swears that the following year the work will start the day the season ends.

LINGUINE ALLE VONGOLE VERACI

Ingredients:

  • 1,2kg/2 1/2lb fresh clams in their shells
  • 600g/22oz spaghetti
  • 125ml/1/2 cup extra virgin olive oil
  • 2 cloves of garlic, peeled
  • a pinch of ground chili pepper
  • 4 tbsp finely chopped fresh parsley
  • salt and freshly ground black pepper

Preparation

Scrub the clams well under cold running water. Place them in a large bowl of salted water for two hours. Rinse well, discarding any that are broken or dead.

Bring a large pan of water to the boil for the pasta.

Heat the oil in a large frying pan. Add the garlic and chili pepper and cook until the garlic is golden then discard.

Add the clams to the pan. Cover for 2-3 minutes. As soon as the clams open, lift them out using a slotted spoon. When all the clams have opened (discard any that do not), strain the liquid in the pan through a layer of cheese cloth or paper towels and reserve.

Return the clams and the strained liquid to the frying pan. Add the parsley and cook for 2-3 minutes.

Meanwhile add salt and the pasta to the boiling water and cook until al dente.

Drain the spaghetti. Tip in into the frying pan with the sauce and stir well over moderate heat for 2-3 minutes more. Taste for seasoning. Serve at once without cheese.


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Pheasants on the Amalfi Coast…

I am walking up my beloved stairway to Nocelle as sweat slowly crawls down my back and unimportant thoughts chase each other through my head.  Suddenly I look up and notice standing just in front of me, dressed in an array of beautiful colors a pheasant.  He seems rather bemused at the encounter, and we both stop to stare at each other.

Not knowing what to do I slowly take a few shy steps towards him and as I do he quickly scrambles away.  A pheasant on the Amalfi Coast I ask myself, having lived here for 15 years and never seen one before.

Upon returning to Positano I enquire with a good friend who has a passion for hunting, and to my dismay he nonchalantly tells me The Amalfi Coast if full of them.  I have always associated pheasants with the verdant fields of England, and not these barren hills and dramatic coast, inhabited only by a breed of voracious seagulls.

To make matters worse my friend tells me that the pheasants in this area are part of a repopulation program of the government, and as soon as they are released they all fly towards the sea thinking it is an endless field, only to discover to their dismay that although flat and very large a field it is not, rather a body of cold unwelcoming water. Thus dejected sad and lonely they end up perched on hills probably dreaming of the green fields they were made to live in.

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A Simple Task

Lighting the 450 candles in the dining room of Le Sirenuse every night might seem a rather simple and menial task. Yet it is one that entails patience, a firm hand and equilibrium.

This delicate task has been assigned to Raffaele, a charming waiter from the nearby village of Praiano who has been with Le Sirenuse for over 40 years.  Raffaele was the favorite waiter of my late uncle Aldo Sersale who started the hotel 1951.

Raffaele arrives at the Hotel around 5 in the afternoon and starts by  lighting the candles on the chandeliers which have a longer burning time (approximately 6 hours)..  Now to light these candles Raffaele has to climb on a tall ladder and reach each individual candle from above, as they are in a transparent hand made glass container to protect them from sudden  gust of wind…

Once this is completed the next task is lighting the candles on the tables which have a shorter burning life of (approximately 4 hours).  At this point most people would abandon their task and happily walk away,  and yet it is now that the most delicate moment approaches.  Raffaele inspects each individual candle to ensure it is burning correctly.  Should this not be the case a candle could overheat the glass container making it crack and break up. Once again the ladder is called for and the undisciplined candles quickly extinguished and changed.

Thus a magical atmosphere is created, an atmosphere in which each and every sign of age vanishes leaving us enveloped in a soft, kind and ever changing light.

After dinner as our guests happily wonder towards their respective rooms Raffaele appears once again and takes each and every glass container gently extracting from it the remain of the candles so that they can be washed in a special washing machine and a new candle inserted ready for lighting the next day…

And so an other day passes in the life of Raffaele, showing us that no task is to small or menial if carried out with passion and love, as I am sure Raffaele does when he lights each and every candle in our dining room.

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A brief encounter

Dogs were always a part of my youth having a mother that was only at ease when a dog was faithfully by her side, Names such as Pacho, Gigi and Boris come to mind as do joyful moments shared with my mother as she caressed a succession of wire haired Dachshunds one more neurotic than the next.

And so yesterday as I walked up my favorite stairway built at the turn of the century joining the Village of Nocelle to Positano, I noticed a golden haired puppy walking by my side.  As each of the 1860 steps followed each other and my breathing became more and more strained I felt my young companion was enjoying his stroll just as much as I was.  He seemed engrossed in the vegetation on either side of the stairway, bushes of rosemary that filled the air with an aroma of summer, geraniums so strong and colorful all framed in an endless sea of wild flowers timidly appearing after a long winter spent in hiding.

At times my young friend would wonder far and wide letting his curiosity get the best of him only to return eagerly to share his discoveries with me.  I could feel we were enjoying each other’s company just as I would enjoy that of a friend.

Half way up the mountain the stairway finally ends in Nocelle’s little square shaded by a giant tree, and offering a mesmerizing view of the sky cascading into the sea gently embraced on one side by a long windy coastline.  I always stop to drink at a little fountain while admiring the view, and as I did so yesterday I realized my young friend was looking at me and beckoning as he could not reach the water… without a thought I cupped my hands and started to give him some.   At That moment it was not the view, nor my pounding heart that held my attention but my young friend drinking out of my hands… I felt a bond, a closeness and understood why my mother always had a dog by her side.

I slowly walked down the steps with the hope of being followed once again by my friend however he decided more important matters were at hand to be dealt with in Nocelle. How could I blame him, after all the view is the most beautiful one in the world!.

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A coffee at Bar “Cova” in via Monte Napoleone

I have always had a fascination for Italian Bars so a few days ago while I was in Milan, I decided to go for a cappuccino to a famous Bar called “Cova“, in Via Monte Napoleone.

By the time I got there it was 11.30 on December 23rd, the busiest day of the year for shoppers, and to prove me right the street was rife with them.  Each one seemed to have a shopping bag bigger than the next, some were so large they made me think of shields…shields from poverty, shields from an ordinary life, shields from a life with no purpose; I instead was walking empty handed, and as result feeling slightly self-conscious and exposed.

Thus rather dejected I walked in to “Cova” and suddenly I knew I had found my corner of paradise.  The atmosphere was frantic, the noise level high, and the bar counter crowded, however none of these aspects bothered me, I instead was enveloped by a feeling of warmth, joy and expectant desire.  As I huddled next to the other people waiting for my “cappuccino” I started watching the hands of the three waiters behind the bar, busy preparing endless cups of coffee. I felt I was looking at a form of art, their movements were graceful and filled with an elegance that reminded me of the hands of an orchestra director, where no movement is without purpose and beauty envelopes the whole.

As I stood waiting I noticed a group of Red Cross volunteers huddled around a few espressos, they seemed happy and content, and I was happy to be standing next to them, I wanted to thank them for their dedication but refrained, thinking they would rather be left alone to their espressos.

As I was sipping my hot, fragrant and wonderfully foamy cappuccino I was happy to be surrounded by people of all walks of life, people whom I might never meet again in my life, yet people with whom for one moment I shared a passion and that passion was enjoying a cup of coffee made to perfection…

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A Journey to “Lo Mantang”

It has been five days since we started walking towards the capital of Mustang “Lo Mantang.  As I look at my travel companions I realize our clothes are covered in dust and I remember how some of us suffered from sunburns; how others were forced to turn back overcome by vertigo.  Yet even in the most difficult moments we never lost our spirit, we never hesitated, and most of all we conquered passes that only a few days ago would have seemed unreachable. I wonder why we are all so committed to reach Lo Mantang. I feel that for each and every one of us reaching Lo Mantang is not just a walk, it is a journey within ourselves.

It all started one morning as I was having breakfast with Harriett Crawley, a good friend of my father. We were on the terrace of Le Sirenuse enjoying the view and talking about my father’s energy, his curiosity and most of all his never ending desire to explore distant places.  Suddenly Harriet mentioned that towards the end of the summer she was going on a trip to Mustang.  “Mustang” I said, remembering a conversation where my father had described it as one of the most remote and unspoilt corners of the world.  “Tell me more about your trip,” I enquired…yet in that split second I knew I had to join the trip. I knew I had to follow my father’s footsteps.  Suddenly I remembered crossing the deserts of Iran, the taste of dust in my mouth, the silence broken from time to time by a gust of wind, a lonely flower braving the elements, so alive so vibrant.  I remembered the love and admiration I had for my father. A father who brought joy into my life, a father who showed me a path I learned to follow.  I knew I would join the trip, I knew I would walk to Lo Mantang.

I picked up my phone and called my wife “Carla do you want to hear the good news” I said.  “Yes” she answered rather worried “ We are going to Mustang in October” “Mustang, in October, are you out of your mind, where is Mustang… ”

Two months later we finally arrive at the base of the Himalaya range. As I look out of the aeroplane window the mountains seem white, tall and beautiful.  The sun mesmerizes me, as it reflects a multitude of oranges on those peaks that look like knives pointing towards the sky, a sky that is blue.  When I witness such beauty, I am overcome by faith; I imagine there must be a God who orchestrates it all.  Suddenly I wish I were standing on the tallest peak, I would be looking out towards the horizon, only the sun, the wind the silence…

We land in Kathmandu, which is nestled in the centre of a lush green valley, the houses cling to the mountains and near each house a terrace where farmers grow their livelihood.  These terraces are similar to the ones in the south of Italy, yet these are real, they are still in use, they are still alive, and they have a reason to exist.

The hotel we are taken to, “The Dwarika”, is a beautiful Imperial palace decorated with taste, simple, spartan and in no way homogenized like so many 5 star Hotels found around the world today. I am told it belongs to a Nepalese family with a passion for art. Over time they have amassed an astounding collection of antique windows and doors that can be seen through the Hotel.  As I walk into our room I notice the door opens with a real key and padlock, a beautiful old-fashioned padlock.  Suddenly I am overcome by a sense of tiredness, a sense of loss. I am so far from the world I know, the Hotel, my children, Internet, my cell phone, I fear being 3 weeks with no communication.  

Dinner keeps me from further thoughts; I meet the other components of our trek while eating delicious Nepalese curries.  The group is comprised of a good friend of my father (who introduced me to the trip), a charming English Lady who is sweet, highly cultivated and towards whom I feel a tremendous affection. I suddenly realize how happy I am to be travelling with her. There is also a sweet Spanish woman who throughout the trip never lost her composure and always maintained a fantastic sense of humour.  She was always at the front, smiling and filling us with joy. Our fearless leader is a Swiss lady in her 50s who after 14 years of life in Kathmandu decided it was time to return to England. Her return to Nepal is filled with sentimental memories and an endless knowledge of the history and Geography of the country.  Finally there is a Scottish Austrian family with a young daughter who is 21 both sweet and shy, she has just finished Oxford University and seems to be searching for a direction in her life.

The next day is spent in Kathmandu looking at temples and shrines in two of the 3 Imperial cities that make up Kathmandu.  The first thing I noticed is the lack of tourists, I can finally visit these historical sites without being swamped by hordes of cameras desperate to fill their memory cards.  The local people seem eager to get on with their hectic life, motorcycles zoom by, cars blow their horn for no apparent reason, avoiding me by inches, dogs scuttle around looking for scraps of food, children walk by, chatting in their incomprehensible language, while the city ignores me. I realize that we are few and therefore left alone, I am able to enjoy the peaceful atmosphere and absorb the religious rites taking place out around me.

Finally lunch at the house of a German friend who moved to Nepal 20 years ago and

Married a Mongol with beautiful dark eyes.  I remember seeing her at my father’s 80th birthday.  She sang a melancholic Mongol song, transporting us to distant lands, desolate plains and cold winters. 

Their daughter immediately greets us and in the sweetest voice tells us the sad story of her little skirt being stolen by a monkey… “Yes” we agree, what a terrible story, as laughter overcomes us.  I am moved by the passion and love our friends have for this country and its people. He has set up a factory that produces some of the most beautiful shawls in Asia. Each peace is hand woven and individually finished.  After lunch we visit his factory, which is clean, spacious and very tidy.  His greatest achievement is breaking down the “caste” system that is prevalent through the country. He has managed with great effort to create an atmosphere were both men and women are equal, with no prejudices based on social and racial background.

His older boys aged 10 and 12 have already walked to the Everest base camp a few years ago.  This summer they will be attempting to return there on bicycles, a difficult task, I am told, since for the last 3 days of the trip the bicycles will have to be carried on their backs. How I wish I had done a similar trip with my boys, I fear now it is too late, as discos, friends and I-pods have taken over their life.

In the afternoon the briefing takes place and great attention is given to the dangers of Acute Mountain Sickness.  Three litres of water a day plus a diuretic are essential antidotes.  We are also told that our group will be followed by 4 cooks, 4 porters, 6 Sherpa, and last but not least 18 donkeys that will carry our baggage and tents.  I am astounded by the logistics of it all.

That evening a dinner party is given in our honour.  Our hostess is tall beautiful and married to a Tibetan prince.  She has become an expert on Eco Tourism and spends most of her time flying around Asia advising emerging countries how to develop their tourist industry in sustainable ways.  Their house sits on a hill and is surrounded by verandas looking out towards lush green gardens cascading towards the city below.   As I walk into the living room I recognize our German friend who is dressed all in black, he looks so elegant next to his wife, there is also the British Ambassador, a charming Nepalese princess closely related to the royal family, and a selection of interesting expatriates living in Kathmandu. I spend most of the evening speaking of my passion for this country, a country I would like to visit more often, yet all the Nepalese seem worried of their future, so sad so incredibly sad to live in such beauty and not be able to see a future in it.

I now understand why Mustang is difficult to reach.  To start, there are only four months of the year when the weather is good enough to trek; these are March April, October and November.  We chose October as it falls at the end of the monsoon rains.  The next challenge was reaching Johnson by plane from Pokara. This can only be done before 11am in the morning, as the winds in Johnson are too strong to allow planes to land in the afternoon.  To make matters worse the planes that fly this route can only fly on sight and it takes just a few clouds to cancel all flights.  The flight from Pokara to Johmson took place through a narrow gorge, not a joyful task when the plane is rocked from side to side by violent gusts of wind. The pilot’s continuous laughter heard over the rumble of the engines reassured me.

Finally we start walking and I am overcome by a sense of joy.  I am happy, to be on this trek, to have found the courage to travel, to explore, to leave behind the world I know.  I think back at my youth, always wondering where my friends were, wondering if they were having more fun elsewhere.  I realize that the centre of my world can only be found within myself.  Only by doing so will I build an interior life filled with all the interest I admire in my father.

I look at the mountains surrounding me, they seem barren and empty, not even a tree can be seen.  I am surrounded by silence, yet I do not feel alone, I feel alive, so incredibly alive.  I think back at a time in Mexico when I used to go riding with my mother, we would ride for hours through a similar countryside.  We would talk, she would smile at me, and I always remember the joy of being alone with her.  How I wish my mother was near me in this moment, I would tell how I have grown, how I have overcome the difficult moments in my life, how I never lost the sense of humour nor the joy of life she gave me.

Suddenly a gust of wind plunges me back to reality, I am surrounded by a cloud of dust, my mouth is filled with sand I can hear crackling between my teeth, all seems to stop, the sherpas, the donkeys, my travelling companions.  I realize the elements at this height can be extremely violent.  Finally the gust decides to move on and I follow its dusty path over the riverbed wondering where it will travel.  Normality returns, conversation resumes and we continue our slow progress.  I follow our lead Sherpa; he seems at ease, always maintaining a constant pace, regardless of the slope, or difficulty of the terrain.  At times it seems slow, yet as soon as we start climbing I feel like asking him to slow down.  A constant pace allows us to walk for 8 hours a day without being to tired. 

Soon a village can be seen in the distance and we are told that our campsite will be there.   Lo and behold never has a village seemed more beautiful, inviting or idyllic. The village is located at the top of a small hill, surrounded by a multitude of green terraces that gently cascade towards the riverbed.  I notice how each terrace is surrounded by a number of trees that seem to dance as the wind sways them from side to side.  Suddenly I feel tired, after all we have been walking for an eternity, yet my watch tells me it is only 4 hours.  I know the time has come to replace my watch; it is no longer willing to lie to me.

As we get closer numerous children run towards us, they look at us with curiosity and seem happy to play with their simple toys.  I am reminded of my youth in Mexico when running around with a wheelbarrow was the highlight of my day. Harriet has brought some inflatable balloons and soon the whole village is surrounding us, they are furiously blowing, laughing, shouting and plunging us into a multitude of psychedelic colours that contrast so beautifully with the mountains all around us.

As I settle into our cosy tent, I wonder if this trek will be an experience so profound and enriching that my outlook on life will change. I think of those majestic views, those solitary monasteries, those barren mountains, and a sense of peace overcomes me.  I feel one with the sun, the wind, and the sand.  Tonight I will dream I am a gust of wind following the riverbed towards Lo Mantang.

I wake up thinking of my father, knowing how happy he would be to wash his face in a simple bowl of hot water. Never has water seemed so precious, warm and refreshing as this morning.  I know that from this moment on I will cherish ever drop.

Slowly we resume our trek towards Lo Mantang.  Each step takes us further and further from civilization.  The villages we cross have no electricity, no telephones, just a multitude of women and men working in the fields.  Yet we never cross an unhappy face, the inhabitants seem content and I am happy to be amongst them. Soon a caravan of donkeys crosses our path and I am overcome by their pungent smell, they seem resigned and sad, I wonder how many times they have followed this path.  I want to stop and caress their beautiful brown hair, alas before I know it they are lost in the distance and we have to press on.

Four days follow each other and before we know it we are within a few hours walk of  “Lo Mantang”.  I feel the excitement grow; is it possible that we made it so far.   I notice each step leaves a thin footprint in the sand, yet I know the wind will cover all traces of our passage, nothing will remain, all will be forgotten. The journey was within, I had to know what was important in my life, I had to discover that I could leave it all behind, that I could obtain joy from a simple flower growing in a landscape of barren mountains, that having Carla by my side would give me the security and tranquillity I have always looked for.  As I write these words I feel tears build inside my eyes, yet these are tears of joy, as I realize that both Carla and I never hesitated, we never looked back and finally we made it to “Lo Mantang”.

I now think of my father and suddenly I feel close to him, I understand why travelling was so important in his life. I realize the joy of arriving step after step in a medieval city surrounded by a desert and barren mountains, a city that can only be reached by foot and has remained unchanged for 1000 years.  A city with an aging King, who welcomes travellers thanking each and every one for having journeyed so far to visit his Kingdom.

During the night, monks blow monotonous notes into horns that slowly fade in the wind.  I lie awake in our tent and think of our two boys, they seem so far away in their English boarding school, a school and a way of life they have learned to love.  I wonder if one day they will follow our footsteps, I wonder if one day, just as I did they will discover how to love their parents for what they really are, and for all the love we gave them.

* * *

Mustang is an independent kingdom within Nepal that was annexed from Tibet towards the end of the 18th Century.  It is only since the 1990s, that foreigners are allowed to travel to this region.  However to do so a special Trekking Visa is required.  Our trip was organized by “Mountain travel”, a local operator based in Kathmandu.  Our lead Sherpa was Penba, a charming Nepalese that I highly recommend.

***

Photographs by Carla Sersale

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Sports day at the Dragon

I have spent the last two days with the intense desire to write on my day spent in Oxford…It all started rather well as we were able to find the right parking place… sounds funny yet life is made up of little insignificant details… Next the weather was on our side, neither cold nor hot a rare event in England…

So starts a day a day dedicated to watching the prodigies of our children…what is so impressive is the total commitment seen on the faces of those children… it is as if the whole world depended on the outcome of their competition. Such seriousness such dedication I can only say it is totally charming and inspiring.

The tow rope was a wonder of red faces, screaming, pulling, tugging, and at the end incredible cheering.. The world seems for a moment to have found a perfect equilibrium where teachers students and parents are joined together forgetting the crazy event taking place around them… Just two days  before bombs, horror, suffering and incredible pain. Yet there is redemption and children are our redemption making life worth living giving a meaning to all the hardships one has to overcome.

Back to the track to the hope and the glory… Hurdles was amusing although very fast and short… Not enough time to enjoy the effort…

Finally we arrive at the High Jump which changed everything… It took place in a secluded part of the grounds allowing for greater concentration both for the participants and for the spectators. 

So the jumps begin with a succession of children showing that it really does matter, that it is important to compete regardless of ability, race or sex, this in itself is an inspiration.  As I watch those faces approach the jump I get a little insight into their world.  Brave yet shy, courageous, determined, it is almost frightening to have such an insight into somebody else through a jump.

The first rounds come and go… one jump succeeds the next and the next until you start realizing that some of the faces you liked so much are no longer jumping… the names run away faster that light yet a few remain… one for example “Fish” a young boy with a determination and a desire to succeed that was an inspiration.

We are now down to the last three competitors and the students, parents and teachers begin to feel that something in the air is different.. Silence descends and slowly creeps into the crowd making them realize the importance of the moment…

The first boy reaches the bar with hope yet deep down he knows that he has reached his limit, that overcoming this one more obstacle is no longer an option…

The second boy has the bearing of a champion, he is a strong jumper and each pore in his body exudes confidence.  The third boy is the underdog… he has confidence strength and a lightness of bearing that is inspiring. 

As they approach the jump the boys seem to be looking for some sort of divine inspiration that will help them help them overcome this one more obstacle… By some miracle inspiration is found and the bar keeps on going up and up.  The crowd is in awe and the boys feel the tension.  After each jump the walk back to the starting position is slow, calm and collected.  Before the next jump a few seconds are taken to stretch.  Is it theatre or is real… we will never know, what is obvious is that this is a great competition and the boys are living up to our expectations.

The run up to the final jump is carried out with a hopeful and joyous face waiting to soar towards glory towards victory towards redemption for us all.

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