Serendipity: Roman Street Scenes

Scene from Ancient Roman Drama

Scene from Ancient Roman Drama

I was surprised as I read Juvenal’s Third Satire how vivid the ancient Roman street became. When we think of the ancients, we don’t usually see them in any way as if they could be our contemporaries. Here the satirist says goodbye to a Rome which he feels is going to the dogs as a result of corruption:

So farewell Rome. I leave you
To sanitary engineers and municipal architects, men
Who by swearing black is white land all the juicy contracts
Just like that—a new temple, swamp-drainage, harbour-works,
River-clearance, undertaking, the lot—then pocket the cash
And fraudulently file their petition in bankruptcy.

What is worse, those wily Greek immigrants are taking over everywhere:

One small dose of venom
(Half Greek, half personal) dropped in that ready ear
And I’m out, shown the back-door, my years of obsequious
Service all gone for nothing. Where can a hanger-on
Be ditched with less fuss than in Rome?

During the ten hours after sunrise, carts were forbidden to drive through the streets of the city. During the night, however, it is a different matter: The streets are also crawling with lowlifes:

But for me, a lonely pedestrian, trudging home by moonlight
Or with hand cupped round the wick of one poor guttering candle,
He has no respect whatever. This is the way the wretched
Brawl comes about (if you can term it a brawl
When you do the fighting and I’m just cast as punchbag).
He blocks my way. “Stop,” he says. I have no option
But to obey—what else can one do when attacked
By a huge tough, twice one’s size and fighting mad as well?
“Where have you sprung from?” he shouts. “Ugh, what a stench
Of beans and sour wine! I know your sort, you’ve been round
With some cobbler-crony, scoffing a boiled sheep’s head
And a dish of spring leeks. What? Nothing to say for yourself?
Speak up, or I’ll kick your teeth in! Tell me, where’s your pitch?
What synagogue do you doss is?” It makes not a jot of difference
Whether you try to answer, or back away from him
Without saying a word, you get beaten up just the same—
And then your irate “victim” takes you to court on a charge
Of assault and battery. Such is the poor man’s “freedom”:
After being slugged to a pulp, he may beg, as a special
Favour, to be left with his last few remaining teeth.

Juvenal shows us it’s not all togas and decorum. His Rome reeks of boiled sheep heads and spring leeks.




Tarnmoor’s ABCs: Olives

I Cannot Live Without This Oleaginous Fruit

I Cannot Live Without This Oleaginous Fruit

I was so very impressed by Czeslaw Milosz’s book Milosz’s ABC’s. There, in the form of a brief and alphabetically-ordered personal encyclopedia, was the story of the life of a Nobel Prize winning poet, of the people, places, and things that meant the most to him. Because his origins were so far away (Lithuania and Poland) and so long ago (1920s and 1930s), there were relatively few entries that resonated personally with me. Except it was sad to see so many fascinating people who, unknown today, died during the war under unknown circumstances.

My own ABCs consist of places I have loved (Iceland), things I feared (Earthquakes), writers I have admired (Chesterton, Balzac, Proust, and Borges); things associated with my past life (Cleveland and Dartmouth College), people who have influenced me (John F. Kennedy), and things I love to do (Automobiles and Books). This blog entry is my own humble attempt to imitate a writer whom I have read on and off for thirty years without having sated my curiosity. Consequently, over the months to come, you will see a number of postings under the heading “Tarnmoor’s ABCs” that will attempt to do for my life what Milosz accomplished for his. To see my other entries under this category, hit the tag below marked “ABCs”. I don’t guarantee that I will use up all 26 letters of the alphabet, but I’ll do my best. Today the letter is “O” for Olives.

In his Meditations the Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius wrote, “Always observe how ephemeral and worthless human things are. Pass then through this little space of time conformably to nature, and end thy journey in content, just as an olive falls off when it is ripe, blessing nature who produced it, and thanking the tree on which it grew.”

There is something ancient about the olive. It comes to us from the Biblical lands of the Eastern Mediterranean, from ancient Greece and Rome. If it were not for the fact that I live in California, which is known for its olives, I would probably have left it out of my diet altogether. Especially during the Dog Days of Summer, I find olives refreshing, such that I can make a meal out of olives and iced tea, and nothing else. It’s one of the few filling foods that are not contraindicated by my diabetes.

My favorite olives come from Cisneros Brothers in Hanford, California, particularly their Sicilian garlic-stuffed olives: big green fruits with a spicy garlic charge. When the days start getting warmer, I will either drive to Hanford or order a crate of them to see me through.

There are numerous health claims made for olives, about their anti-inflammatory and antioxidant qualities, and they may be true. Perhaps they cure cancer and powerfully increase male libido, but, truth to tell, I’d like them anyhow. I like them so much I even take an olive leaf nutritional supplement called oleuropein for good measure.


“This Moldy and Piety-Mouthing Hypocrite”

King Leopold II of Belgium (1839-1909)

King Leopold II of Belgium (1839-1909)

The writer of these lines was none other than Mark Twain, whose dander was up when he learned of the mutilations and massacres in the Congo attributable to Leopold II, the King of Belgium:

In fourteen years Leopold has deliberately destroyed more lives than have suffered death on all the battlefields of this planet for the past thousand years. In this vast statement I am well within the mark, several millions of lives within the mark. It is curious that the most advanced and most enlightened century of all the centuries the sun has looked upon should have the ghastly distinction of having produced this moldy and piety-mouthing hypocrite, this bloody monster whose mate is not findable in human history anywhere, and whose personality will surely shame hell itself when he arrives there—which will be soon, let us hope and trust. [from King Leopold’s Soliloquy (1905)]

Of course, Twain had not yet seen the likes of Adolph Hitler, Josef Stalin, or Pol Pot because that was to come later.

I have just finished reading Adam Hochschild’s King Leopold’s Ghost: A Story of Greed, Terror, and Heroism in Colonial Africa. The Belgian monarch brought something new to colonialism: He designated the Congo as his personal property, making sure that all the wealth that came in went into his personal coffers. No, the Belgians did not enjoy any of that wealth directly. It went into ostentatious palaces, young concubines, and villas on the Mediterranean—all of which were his personal property. He did not even have the saving grace of being a patron of the arts. He was a patron of whatever enriched him. He even made his people “lend” him millions to develop the slave economy of the Congo.

Congolese with Their Hands Cut Off

Congolese with Their Hands Cut Off

At first, the wealth of the Congo came from ivory. It was not long, however, that Leopold realized he could have a corner in rubber. Trees had been planted throughout Asia and Latin America, but would not come to maturity for a number of years. Therefore, Leopold ruthlessly turned the Congolese to harvesting rubber from the rubber trees that grew wild throughout the region. Women and children were held as hostages while their men were sent out to bring in their quota of rubber.

Woe betide any Congolese who didn’t fulfill his quota. They were killed; they hand their hands cut off; or both—and the hostages being held were likewise brutalized.

Eventually, the world caught on to what Leopold was doing—and many other European colonial powers such as France and Germany were also guilty, but not on the same grandiose scale.


Emily and Eternity

Emily Dickinson

Emily Dickinson

Every so often, I feel like sharing an Emily Dickinson poem with you. Her stark simplicity opens blocked passages in my lungs and brains, allowing my breaths and thoughts to flow more freely.

The World’s Poorest Head of State

José Mujica, President of Uruguay

José Mujica, President of Uruguay

When he leaves office as President of Uruguay next month, “El Pepe” Mujica will continue to live humbly on his little flower farm and continue to drive a 1987 VW Bug. For years, he has refused to take more than the average Uruguayan’s salary of $775 a month, depositing the rest of his $12,000 a month salary to charities benefiting single mothers and others.

Once a leftist Tupamaro guerrilla, Mujica spent 14 years in prison. Upon his release, he went into politics with the Broad Front Party and saw his country through a spurt of growth and prosperity.

We don’t think much about Uruguay, but one time it was a very rich country, along with Argentina. The Societe de Fray Bentos Giebert & Cie. along the Rio Uruguay was one of the main sources of canned meat that sustained troops of both sides in the trenches of World War I.

There’s something going on in South America that I like. First there was Pope Francis, who continues to astonish me, and now there is José Mujica, about whom you should read this excellent article by Natasha Hakimi on Truthdig.Com.

You Won’t Roue the Day …

The Base for All Great Hungarian Soups

The Base for All Great Hungarian Soups

In response to a request from my friend Lynette, I’m going to tell you all about what makes for a great Hungarian soup—and probably most great vegetable and meat soups as well. The secret is rántás, the Magyar equivalent of roue. Let’s begin with the ingredients, with the amounts for a week’s worth of soup for two (Martine and I like home-made soups):

  • 1 oz unsalted butter
  • 1 oz olive oil (need not be virgin: I prefer olive oil that’s been around, if you know what I mean)
  • 3 tbsps white flour
  • 1/2 minced onion (minced means chopped up real tiny)
  • 1/2 bunch minced parsley (again: go to town with your knife here)
  • 2 tbsps real Hungarian Szegedi paprika (not Spanish paprika!)

Heat the butter and oil in a saucepan until it melts, stirring well. Give it a minute or two before adding the white flour. Stir until the flour turns brown. Add the onion and parsley and finally the paprika. When your rántás is done, scoop it into your soup toureen and start adding the other good stuff.

Note that the photo above is your rántás after the first three ingredients only. In time, you will adjust the ingredients to more accurately accord with your taste buds.

You can sometimes find good Hungarian paprika in supermarkets, but I wouldn’t bet on it. I get mine from Otto’s Hungarian Import Store in Burbank, and I prefer this variety, the Imported Szegedi Hungarian Paprika. When you get your paprika, keep it in the refrigerator: bugs love it too much.


Sick as a Dog

The Only Thing That Refreshes

The Only Thing That Refreshes

Last Thursday I came down with a bad cold, and I am still trying to shake the effects of it. You know I’m ill when I can’t read. Instead, I sat propped up in front of the television while a series of medical hucksters such as Dr. Daniel Amen of brain health fame and Dr. William Davis of “Wheat Belly” fame tried to poison me with bad medical advice. Rather than continue listening, I stumbled into the library and napped while sitting in my uncomfy chair.

As the afternoon wore on, I decided to make a mushroom barley soup, which is now merrily bubbling in the kitchen, and I’ve had several cups of hot Darjeeling tea with a Greek honey I bought at Papa Cristo’s a few weeks ago. Drinking really good hot tea when I’m sick always seems to help. (I can always add a bit of dark rum and fresh lemon juice to make it even better.)

With luck, this sick as a dog feeling will soon pass.