Monday, February 8, 2016

Closing Night at the Toledo International Film Festival: Amazing films and some questions

Koichi and Ryo in I Wish, played wonderfully by two real-life brothers.

What I love about International Film Festivals is the opportunity to see movies from around the world made by directors from different countries exploring life events, new viewpoints, or social and geopolitical issues in different cultural contexts. Such films offer both a sense of place and universal themes.  Sense of place is critical. They might be Indies (independent films), documentaries, dramas, fact or fiction or a mix of both, and also a mix of genres, like the fabulous four films that opened the 2016 Toledo International Film Festival (TIFF): Timbukto, Dancing in Jaffa, Gabrielle, Instructions not Included.  

These four films, so different from one another but each beautifully crafted, gave us a glimpse into the human dilemmas, profound challenges, daily struggles, and the loves, hopes and fears of people living in the African Sahara near Mali and Mauritania, in Israel, partly in Mexico, and in Quebec, Canada.  They were rooted in a strong sense of place and at the same time showed us the connective power of universal human emotions that transcends differences. These films took us on cultural journeys, helped us explore new worlds, opened doors into the human condition of our global family.

The third and final night of the film festival featured I Wish (2011), directed by Japanese filmmaker Hirokazu Kore-eda, a lovely film about the bewildering complexities of family life in modern Japan, and White God (2015), by Hungarian filmmaker Kornel Mandruczo, a noir film about extreme cruelty to animals and the  revenge of a pack of dogs that takes place mostly on the streets of Budapest.  I Wish hit the mark of  the Toledo International Film Festival's purpose, but I'm not sure about White God.

I Wish is about loss and hope, the loss of family unity when parents separate and the hope young children have for reuniting. Koichi, a sweet and energetic 12 year old, and his younger brother Ryu, enchanting and irrepressible, are now living apart, Koichi with his mother and grandparents in Kagoshimi, near the Sakurjima volcano, and Ryu with his father in far away Oksaka.

For Koichi, the active volcano is ever-present and, in his eyes, ever-ominous.  He can't understand why the townspeople are so nonchalant about it, as if it wasn't really there. The volcano could, afterall, erupt at any moment, covering the town in lava and ash and causing everyone to run.  "I don't get it," he says.

Actually, there are lots of things about grown-ups' behavior that Koichi doesn't
get. Understandably. Yes, we can see it. The movie follows Koichi, Ryu and their friends as they try to figure it out.  It's the time of the new "bullet" trains in Japan that can connect far away cities faster than ever, and connect families, too. When Koichi hears that two trains passing each other at high speeds create a magical energy field that makes wishes come true, he hatches a scheme for his brother and their friends to meet at that very place.

We share Koichi's high hopes, as well as his subsequent doubts. Will the wishes he, Ryu and their friends shout at the passing trains, explosive and powerful, come true?  It's like the volcano down the street that no one talks about, and the one he draws--red, black and dramatic--and posts on the wall of his room. A volcano of emotions. Will it explode, blow its top?

We sense after the scene with the passing trains that reality has started to set in and mute Koichi's wish. He's not sure.  He wonders. He might chose "the world" over family.  Life's like the volcano. You never know what will happen, when it might erupt. Maybe Koichi's wish will continue to simmer below the surface, but thankfully it seems that nothing will diminish his energetic spirit and his positive attitude toward life. It's the same with Ryu, who watches with delight as his vegetable garden sprouts from seeds he planted.

The last film of the festival, White God, filled me with mixed emotions. It's an amazing movie, but is it right for the TIFF? In this horror movie, Lili, a talented young trumpet player whose parents are divorced, looks desperately for her lost dog Hagen after her unfeeling father, a slaughterhouse inspector of all things, forces the dog out of  their car and then speeds off.  Like the opening scene showing in every gory detail the evisceration of a dead cow, guts are spilled and blood is running down the streets of Budapest.  The music of Wagner's Tannhauser, which Lili's high school orchestra is practicing under the direction of a dictatorial conductor, adds to the gloomy images and sense of impending doom.

Against this bleak backdrop, noir to the bone, Hagen tries to find Lili while she is also searching for him. They both fail. Lili slides into despair and worse, and the dog Hagen falls victim to such unspeakable extreme cruelty that he comes to lead a pack of dogs in a canine revolt againt their human abusers. The dogs, threatened by overly-enthusiastic dog catchers who take pleasure in capturing them and delivering them to their deaths, will have their revenge.

The subtext of this film is obviously the Nazi and Soviet terrorism that once ruled over Hungary.  The dog catchers are like Gestapo terrorists. The holding places where these mixed-breed dogs end up are like concentration camps. We feel like we're in Auschwitz. Old ladies act like the purported babushkas of Soviet times who spied on their neighbors and reported to the KGB.  Adults are not to be trusted, acting like "white gods" who rule and abuse without conscience. In this film, a "White God" is further embodied in a vicious dogfighting trainer who violently conditions dogs to become mad beasts in a subculture of survival of the meanest and most vicious. It happens to Hagen.  I can see why one reviewer called the film "a Hungarian revenge fantasy."

But for me the revenge fantasy focuses too long and in too much excruciating gory detail on the most vicious behavior toward animals that I have ever witnessed, to the point I couldn't take it and needed to come up for air.  A graphic step-by-step guide on how to torture a dog and turn him into a raving maniac fighting machine, or for that matter how to torture a human being and turn him into a monster, is more than I can bear.

Mandruczo's film takes place in Budapest, one of my favorite cities, but it really doesn't matter so much. The Budapest we see from these harmed and hunted dogs' point of view, through their eyes, is a nightmare landscape of subhuman terrorism, torture and cruelty. The Parliament, St. Stephens Basilica, the grand Opera house and other familiar sights, the Danube River and the beautiful bridges, are merely dark shadowy illusions in the dogs' struggle for survival and revenge.

This nightmare of unmitigated cruelty, filmed with extreme realism at the eye-level of the dogs, every bloody detail, an amazing work of art, actually could have taken place anywhere, in any country, in any city, in Toledo, Ohio, itself. The sense of place, glimpses into Hungarian culture and traditions, the experiences and views of ordinary people in a distinctive cultural context, are absent, not relevant to the greater moral purpose of this movie. This is why I wish another film had ended the 2016 festival, a film that continued our journey into diverse cultures and helped us understand them.  Should I stand at a place where two trains speed past each other and shout my wish? I think Koichi would ask me to think about it!

Of course I want to emphasize that my view in no way detracts from the outstanding work of the TIFF, its organizers, workers and volunteers, its generous sponsors and community partners.  I am a huge fan.  This was a fantastic event in a wonderful venue. I look forward to next year's International Film Festival, and I welcome other points of view.

Promoting International Understanding and the 2016 Toledo International Film Festival


Brothers Koichi and Ryu in I Wish

What I love about International Film Festivals is the opportunity to see movies from around the world made by directors from different countries exploring life events, new viewpoints, or social and geopolitical issues in different cultural contexts. Such films offer both a sense of place and universal themes.  Sense of place is critical. They might be Indies (independent films), documentaries, dramas, fact or fiction or a mix of both, and also a mix of genres, like the fabulous four films that opened the 2016 Toledo International Film Festival (TIFF): Timbukto, Dancing in Jaffa, Gabrielle, Instructions not Included.  

These four films, so different from one another but each beautifully crafted, gave us a glimpse into the human dilemmas, profound challenges, daily struggles, and the loves, hopes and fears of people living in the African Sahara near Mali and Mauritania, in Israel, partly in Mexico, and in Quebec, Canada.  They were rooted in a strong sense of place and at the same time showed us the connective power of universal human emotions that transcends differences. These films took us on cultural journeys, helped us explore new worlds, opened doors into the human condition of our global family.

The third and final night of the film festival featured I Wish (2011), directed by Japanese filmmaker Hirokazu Kore-eda, a lovely film about the bewildering complexities of family life in modern Japan, and White God (2015), by Hungarian filmmaker Kornel Mandruczo, a noir film about extreme cruelty to animals and the  revenge of a pack of dogs that takes place mostly on the streets of Budapest.  I Wish hit the mark of  the Toledo International Film Festival's purpose, but I'm not sure about White God.
 
I Wish is about loss and hope, the loss of family unity when parents separate and the hope young children have for reuniting. Koichi, a sweet and energetic 12 year old, and his younger brother Ryu, enchanting and irrepressible, are now living apart, Koichi with his mother and grandparents in Kagoshimi, near the Sakurjima volcano, and Ryu with his father in far away Oksaka.

For Koichi, the active volcano is ever-present and, in his eyes, ever-ominous.  He can't understand why the townspeople are so nonchalant about it, as if it wasn't really there. The volcano could, afterall, erupt at any moment, covering the town in lava and ash and causing everyone to run.  "I don't get it," he says.

Actually, there are lots of things about grown-ups' behavior that Koichi doesn't
get. Understandably. Yes, we can see it. The movie follows Koichi, Ryu and their friends as they try to figure it out.  It's the time of the new "bullet" trains in Japan that can connect far away cities faster than ever, and connect families, too. When Koichi hears that two trains passing each other at high speeds create a magical energy field that makes wishes come true, he hatches a scheme for his brother and their friends to meet at that very place.

We share Koichi's high hopes, as well as his subsequent doubts. Will the wishes he, Ryu and their friends shout at the passing trains, explosive and powerful, come true?  It's like the volcano down the street that no one talks about, and the one he draws--red, black and dramatic--and posts on the wall of his room. A volcano of emotions. Will it explode, blow its top?

We sense after the scene with the passing trains that reality has started to set in and mute Koichi's wish. He's not sure.  He wonders. He might chose "the world" over family.  Life's like the volcano. You never know what will happen, when it might erupt. Maybe Koichi's wish will continue to simmer below the surface, like a volcano, but thankfully it seems that nothing will diminish his energetic spirit and his positive attitude toward life. It's the same with Ryu, who watches with delight as his vegetable garden sprouts from seeds he planted.

The last film of the festival, White God, filled me with mixed emotions. It's an amazing movie, but is it right for the TIFF? In this horror movie, Lili, a talented young trumpet player whose parents are divorced, looks desperately for her lost dog Hagen after her unfeeling father, a slaughterhouse inspector of all things, forces the dog out of  their car and then speeds off.  Like the opening scene showing in every gory detail the evisceration of a dead cow, guts are spilled and blood is running down the streets of Budapest.  The music of Wagner's Tannhauser, which Lili's high school orchestra is practicing under the direction of a dictatorial conductor, adds to the gloomy images and sense of impending doom.

Against this bleak backdrop, noir to the bone, Hagen tries to find Lili while she is also searching for him. They both fail. Lili slides into despair and worse, and the dog Hagen falls victim to such unspeakable extreme cruelty that he comes to lead a pack of dogs in a canine revolt againt their human abusers. The dogs, threatened by overly-enthusiastic dog catchers who take pleasure in capturing them and delivering them to their deaths, will have their revenge.

The subtext of this film is obviously the Nazi and Soviet terrorism that once ruled over Hungary.  The dog catchers are like Gestapo terrorists. The holding places where these mixed-breed dogs end up are like concentration camps. We feel like we're in Auschwitz. Old ladies act like the purported babushkas of Soviet times who spied on their neighbors and reported to the KGB.  Adults are not to be trusted, acting like "white gods" who rule and abuse without conscience. In this film, a "White God" is further embodied in a vicious dogfighting trainer who violently conditions dogs to become mad beasts in a subculture of survival of the meanest and most vicious. It happens to Hagen.  I can see why one reviewer called the film "a Hungarian revenge fantasy."

But for me the revenge fantasy focuses too long and in too much excruciating gory detail on the most vicious behavior toward animals that I have ever witnessed, to the point I couldn't take it and needed to come up for air.  A graphic step-by-step guide on how to torture a dog and turn him into a raving maniac fighting machine, or for that matter how to torture a human being and turn him into a monster, is more than I can bear.

Mandruczo's film takes place in Budapest, one of my favorite cities, but it really doesn't matter so much. The Budapest we see from these harmed and hunted dogs' point of view, through their eyes, is a nightmare landscape of subhuman terrorism, torture and cruelty. The Parliament, St. Stephens Basilica, the grand Opera house and other familiar sights, the Danube River and the beautiful bridges, are merely dark shadowy illusions in the dogs' struggle for survival and revenge.

This nightmare of unmitigated cruelty, filmed with extreme realism at the eye-level of the dogs, every bloody detail, actually could have taken place anywhere, in any country, in any city, in Toledo, Ohio, itself. The sense of place, glimpses into Hungarian culture and traditions, the experiences and views of ordinary people in a distinctive cultural context, are absent, not relevant to the greater moral purpose of this movie. This is why I wish another film had ended the 2016 festival, a film that continued our journey into diverse cultures and helped us understand them.  Should I stand at a place where two trains speed past each other and shout my wish? I think Koichi would ask me to think about it!

Of course I want to emphasize that my view in no way detracts from the outstanding work of the TIFF, its organizers, workers and volunteers, its generous sponsors and community partners.  I am a huge fan.  This was a fantastic event in a wonderful venue. I look forward to next year's International Film Festival, and I welcome other points of view.





Monday, February 1, 2016

Love Stories at the Toledo International Film Festival

Love stories on film come in many different styles, genres and contexts, and that certainly is the case with the two films, one from Mexico, the other from Canada, featured on the second night of the Toledo International Film Festival (TIFF) at the historic Ohio Theatre. These enjoyable films took an enthusiastic audience from "magic realism" to a sensuous authenticity rare in contemporary movies and Hollywood blockbusters.

Instructions Not Included (2013), co-written, directed by, and starring Mexican actor Eugenio Derbez, is the love story of Valentin Bravo, a Don Juan from Acapulco turned unlikely father, and the lovely baby girl thrust into his arms by a former lover, Julie, who claimed the child was his.  Accidental events and serendipitous encounters, with an overlay of magic realism and pathos, continue throughout the movie to the surprising and heavenly end. Life does not come with instructions.

When I think of magic realism I think of Latin American writers and artists.  I think of Gabriel Garcia Marquez and his richly woven "One Hundred Years of Solitude," and Laura Esquivel's "Like Water for Chocolate," one of my favorite movies of all time.  My friend Teddy thinks the tradition goes back to Cervantes' "Don Quixote," which makes sense and also brings to mind all kinds of fabulous images.

In Instructions not Included, the magic realism arises from the character of Valentin, who creates a fantastical world for his daughter. Instead of a normal residence, their home is a colorful, over-the-top playground, with a tall red door for Valentin and a shorter red door for Maggie. Enter the Magic Kingdom, Maggie's world.

Colorful riffs splice through Maggie's daily life like oversized Diego Rivera murals or outlandish but loveable cartoons. Father and daughter romp in identical flannel pjs, climb mountains, slide down chutes, race in toy cars, play all kinds of fun games. Valentin's fathering style seems extravagant, over indulgent. The staid principal of Maggie's school, concerned about her attendance and unusual interests, voices the sentiment.

It helps that Valentin is not only an accidental father, but also an accidental stuntman. He is discovered by casting director Frank, who pushes him to become one of Hollywood's top stuntmen. This turn of the screw makes it possible for Valentin to support his daughter in LA style. It also creates opportunities for Maggie to develop her own fantasies and her own world of supermen heroes. Her father's stunts are terrifying, death-defying, like those his father forced on him in his brutal efforts to rid his son of fear and instill courage. Frank the casting director is Valentin's father, the famed Johnny Bravo, writ large!

Valentin not only creates a playworld for Maggie, he also creates a mother in the absence of the real thing. Intended to mute his daughter's fears of abandonment, he keeps the wolves of fear at bay, an image from his own childhood, by creating a magical mom: Julie the world traveler, adventurer, hero of the downtrodden, working with famous people, engaged in such noble work it's hard for her to visit Maggie even though she wants to, and will one day.

After six years, the poignantly anticipated encounter between mother and daughter happens, but without any magic. It bogs down instead in ugly realism: a nasty divorce trial, a DNA test, hurt feelings, white lies exposed, and Valentin's loss of custody. The reality runs counter to everything Valentin has created for his daughter's world.

So Valentin decides to sneak away with Maggie. They hitchhike back to Acapulco in the same way they had come to Los Angeles six years before.  A similar huge truck, smuggling immigrants from the border, picks them up. But Valentin returns to his hometown as a loving father with a new perspective on life, and a secret we learn only at the end of the story in a lovely Acapulco beach scene at golden sunset.

It's a secret that led us to believe Valentin was dying of an illness for which there was no cure. "The treatments are not working," we hear a doctor tell him. "There's not much time left."  We don't learn until the very end--because Valentin cannot bear to speak of it, because it is his greatest fear of all--that it is Maggie, not Valentin, who is dying of a genetic heart condition.  No instructions came with this tragic twist of fate, but we are glad for Maggie, who dies peacefully in her father's arms, her mother present, that this was so.

Where the love story in Instructions Not Included romps in magic realism, in Gabrielle (2013), written and directed by French-Canadian filmmaker Louise Archambault, it is steeped in the complex lives of adults with developmental disabilities and ends with a love scene pure and erotic. Authenticity without artifice, without elaborate glamour, costumes and sets, without the overhyped drama and computer-generated graphics of Hollywood movies.

Gabrielle explores the sexual awakening of a young women with Williams Syndrome, played by a women (Gabrielle Martin-Rivard) who actually has the genetic developmental disorder. The movie is sensuous, from the opening image of Gabrielle floating in blue undulating water, slowly, peacefully, to her longing to be with Martin, to the tender closing love scene.

Gaby, as she is called, lives in a group home with other developmentally disabled adults and is a member of a choir, the Muse, to which they all belong and where she meets and falls in love with Martin.  Martin is played convincingly by award-winning professional actor Alexandre Landry. The choir is preparing for a concert singing back-up vocals for the widely popular French-Canadian singer Robert Charlebois, a huge name in the Quebec music scene since the 1960s. Charlebois plays himself in a low-key charming way that highlights his talent and compassion.

Archambault's use of  nonprofessional and professional actors must have been challenging, but it created a unique chemistry between and among the characters that lends authenticity and depth to the story. The members of the choir are real and wonderful.  All the professional supporting actors are brilliant: Remi, the patient choir director; the gentle and empathetic manager of the home where Gaby lives; Gaby's loving sister Sophie and their mom; Sophie's boyfriend in India who works with poor children; Martin's overprotective mother.

Gabrielle is a love story beautifully told. Archambault perfectly captures the heart of the story in the image of a glowing Gabrielle and a joyful Martin at the movie's end.  Love conquers all.  The authenticity warms your heart.    

NOTE:
I had to look up Williams Syndrome.  I thought it was like Asperger's Syndrome, and there is some overlap that reminds me of my beloved brother Loren. Williams Syndrome is a little different but it too is a genetic or chromosomal disorder. It's characterized by mild to moderate learning disabilities and difficulty with abstract reasoning, spacial relations, and processing social cues, along with strong verbal abilities, "overly-friendly," even theatrical, personalities without boundaries and, interestingly, an afffinity for music. People with Williams Syndrome also share similar facial features,as well as a host of physical problems such as cardiovascular disease.  In retrospect I think this is what Gabrielle suffered when she got lost looking for Martin. Williams Syndrome seems to be rarer than Asperger's, which is on the autism spectrum, or perhaps it is under-diagnosed.  Living independent lives, as Gaby and Martin longed to do, is difficult, a constant struggle between wanting to be self-sufficient and a self-awareness of  your own limitations. It's frustrating, and can be depressing. With sensitive and loving intervention, however, there is help and hope. Archambault captures the struggle and the intervention in a beautiful way. See https://williams-syndrome.org/what-is-williams-syndrome  and 
http://ghr.nlm.nih.gov/condition/williams-syndrome

Take a listen to Robert Charlebois' Ordinaire with the Muse Choir in Gabrielle.
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZNWFOA2w6N4www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZNWFOA2w6N4

Thanks to all partners, on this night ABLE, Toledo Public Library and Adelante, with great entertainment at intermission and great food from Mi Hacienda.

Final night of TIFF: Saturday, February 6
4:30  I Wish (Japan)
7:00 White God (Hungarian)

Monday, January 25, 2016

2nd Toledo International Film Festival: Promoting Global Awareness and Understanding


The second Toledo International Film Festival opened this weekend at the historic Ohio Theatre with two thought-provoking movies: the 2014 award-winning Timbuktu, by incredible French-Mauritanian filmmaker Abderrahmase Sissako, and Dancing in Jaffa, a documentary by Hilla Medalia. 
A cattle herder, Kihane, his wife and daughter,
were played so beautifully I didn't think they
were actors. A palpable anxiety rises up from
the moment we meet them. 

Timbuktu is visually breathtaking and emotionally devastating.  The opening scene sets the stage: A group of men riding in a fast-moving truck, bearing jihadist black flags and automatic weapons, are chasing a gazelle over the sweeping sand dunes of the Sahara desert, to tire out the animal we hear them say. The beauty and the terror of this scene, the ominous undertones, the dread and anxiety, remain throughout the film to the end, when the terrified runner is not a gazelle but an orphaned child whose loving parents were killed by the same group of men.  

I learned after the movie, doing a bit of research, that Timbuktu was briefly occupied in September 2012 by an Al-Quaeda group known as Ansar Dine, and that the public stoning of an unmarried couple influenced the film.  Sissako incorporates this stoning in a horrifying and unforgettable scene in the movie. The death of the human spirit.

Sissako's film juxtaposes the lanquid pace of the desert with the blasphemous violence and unfathomable behavior of the Jihadists occupiers, who boom Sharia Law pronouncements from loudspeakers or at the barrel of a gun, with a rising sense of surrealism and terror.  

"Roll up your pants, it's the new law," an armed occupier yells at a man.  The man shrugs and walks away.  "Wear gloves," another orders a woman selling fish.  She replies with disdain that it's absurd to wear gloves and handle fish, and she later pays for her honesty. A cleric objects to a group of men entering a mosque with weapons.  He cites the Koran.  They defy him. The local Iman tries calmly to curb the excesses of the fanatical Jihadists, to no avail.  Learning, scholarship, reason do not make a dent in the rigid ideology of the murderous ISIS-like men yelling orders, monitoring daily life, demeaning women, banning music, sports, and ordinary social interactions, violating all standards of human decency.  

Soccer banned? The passion of millions, against Sharia Law? Sissako captures the absurdity in a moving scene where a group of young men play soccer with an imaginary ball.  The young men look like dancers, ethereal, floating across the undulating dunes of the desert like the gazelle chased in the opening scene. Such grace in the face of such violence.  

The people of Timbuktu view the Jihadists as absurd, as fools and ignoramuses. The banality of evil comes to mind, embodied as well in the lone Jihadist, an ordinary man, who administers Sharia Law, the sole judge and jury, without substance or moral authority. He takes meaningless notes, then pronounces his judgment stemming from some invisible source, not the rule of law. He is a pretender.  All he knows is a list of activities he claims are banned by Sharia Law. Punishment by lashing, stoning or firing squad is inevitable.  

How ridiculous, how totally insane.  It's the same with the lengths to which the Islamists go to find and punish the sources of music they hear from time to time. The juxtaposition of a few peaceful people playing guitars, singing and enjoying music with the stealth assault of the Jihadist creeping up on them from rooftops in the dark of night with automatic weapons, as if approaching an enemy army, is absurd in the extreme.  The musicians are rounded up like criminals and the woman who was singing a lovely lilting love song was sentenced to 40 lashes, painful to watch.   
After this masterful film, so timely and so disturbing, it was a relief to see Dancing in Jaffa.  Not that the subject isn't as serious. This delightful documentary by Hilla Medalia features the efforts of renowned ballroom dancer Pierre Dulaine to use dance as a way to promote mutual respect between Israeli Arab and Jewish children living in the political cauldron and turmoil of today's Israel.  

With ballroom dancer Pierre Dulaine
 in the background, a Palestinian boy &
 an Israeli girl learn how to dance together,
and in the process become friends.
Jaffa is the city of Dulaine's birth. The classrooms at the five schools where he teaches become a microcosm of the Middle East's violent divisions and endless tension.  Dulaine is committed, energetic, and a gentleman to the core, and the children, at first apprehensive, respond, eventually, with enthusiasm.  One young Muslim girl, Noor, who mourns for her dead father, evolves from "a closed flower" (in a teacher's words) to a confident girl. That flowering is Dulaine's purpose, the essence of his mission, and it shines throughout the film.  I think it's also noteworthy that the parents come around, too. The documentary shows how art can transform lives, how enemies can become friends, how hope springs eternal.  For an hour or so, we could forget the poverty and oppression of the Palestinian people and the relentless war zone that is Israel.  

Dancing in Jaffa perfectly embodies the purpose of Toledo's International Film Festival (TIFF).  A report by Welcome TLC shows that while Toledo's population decreased by 12% between 2000 and 2014, its foreign-born population increased by 14.6%.  Toledo has gone to great lengths to welcome these newcomers, and they are contributing to our economy and social life.  The International Film Festival is part of the dedicated efforts that flow from the top down and the bottom up, an extraordinary synergy for social change and the celebration of our cultural diversity.  

Next Saturday's films, January 30, 4:30: Instructions Not Included (Mexico) and Gabrielle (Canada).



Film Festival Sponsors:  The Ohio Theatre and United North and its partners, Lucas County Commissioners and Welcome TLC, LISCToledo, the Arts Commission, BCI, PNC Bank, and neighborhood, multicultural and interfaith nonprofit organizations working to assist newcomers and promote cultural diversity and acceptance. Thanks also to Peter Ujvagi, former Toledo Council member and Lucas County Administrator, who has been in the forefront of supporting Toledo's international cultural traditions and preserving its history. 

Note:  Timbuktu was once a prosperous center of trade and Islamic learning in western Africa, a legendary center of scholarship and culture, but today it is a poor desert town struggling to survive, most of its population gone. Its occupation by Ansar Dine spread disaster across an already doomed landscape. 

Wednesday, January 13, 2016

Ukrainian Identity and the Discordant Chords of Putin's War


The pastel country appendages of
Putin's vision of "Greater Russia" 
I met two women from Ukraine this weekend living here in the Toledo area.  One grew up in Kyiv and the other near Donetsk in eastern Ukraine, where her parents still live under Russian-proxie rule in a continuing warzone.

Interestingly, both of the women I met seemed more Russian-identified than Ukrainian-identified. When I asked the woman from Kyiv about that, she thought a bit then said, "Actually, I consider myself multicultural and bilinqual," meaning she speaks both Russian and Ukrainian, very common in Ukraine. She also studied and speaks Spanish, and it's the language she teaches. Now that's multicultural! She's lived in the US a long time, including in California and Texas.She and her son are happy here.

I also met a teacher of English (or maybe it's ESL) from Donetsk. I was looking forward to meeting her because I feel such a special bond with the people of eastern Ukraine. She wore a black tee-shirt emblazoned with Россия (Russia) on it. While waiting for a lecture to start I walked over to a table displaying Russian matryoska dolls, painted art and embroidery, so familiar and nostalgic.The young woman came over and I commented on the beautiful work. I told her I had lived in eastern Ukraine, close to Lugansk, for two years, and had many friends there.

"It is horrible to see what has happened there," she said.
"Yes," I nodded in sympathy.
"The Ukrainians have slaughtered their own people, destroyed their homes, destroyed neighborhoods...My parents see it everyday. They tell me...My mother saw neighbors' houses blown up by Ukrainians....From Kyiv they are starving the people, preventing supplies, no electricity, no water, harming their own people."

The words went on, not verbatim perhaps but to this effect. Caught off guard by the nature and vehemence of her reply, I stood mute for a minute, looking directly at her, seeing her and hearing these words bashing the Ukrainian devils.

Not what I expected I guess. I mustered a weak voice. "No, I don't believe that's the way it is. Russsians should not be in Ukraine at all. My friends tell me..."

She interrupted. "There are no Russians in eastern Ukraine. Russia has nothing to do with it." Now I'm hearing the gist of what she is saying but losing the words.

"I see.  Well, we certainly do not agree about that."  She gave me a rather hard look. "We will not agree. I know the truth."

And so the brief exchange with the Ukrainian woman from the east, who seemed to think of eastern Ukraine as the Russian Donbas, started and stopped. It raised lots of questions, that's for sure.

I sit through the lecture, but my mind wanders. I hear my friend Olga from Starobelsk: "This is what we face daily, dear Fran....This is how we are mocked and taunted....This is how Russian propaganda has made it impossible to defend our country."

I hear Natalia and Tonya. "It is as if Ukraine does not exist," Tonya, born in the village of Medwin near Kyiv and living in rural Kuryacheka, says.

Me with master embroiderer
Marta in Starobelsk
Elena's art
"Ukrainian folk traditions, our cultural heritage, have been submerged," Natalia, a teacher of English, agrees. She talks about Taras Shevchenko and Ivano Franko, lists Ukrainian novelists, artists, poets, regales me with songs that all Ukrainian women know by heart and sing at the drop of a hat.

The art work of Elena pops up, an artist who studied and painted in the indigenous decorative arts tradition of Lugansk called "Arts Slobodskoy." So does the poetry of dearest Anton, who taught me about Ivan Savich and the tradition of local poets who loved and wrote in the Ukrainian language. Many ended up in Russian gulags because of it.

The enforced Russification of Ukrainian culture is a story few people know about (see blog links below).

Thinking of Ukrainian beauty and culture almost makes me sad nowadays. The deeply discordant chords of an ancient conflict, the ongoing denial of a unique Ukrainian identity, Putin's revival of imperial visions and the good old days of Stalin, envelop my spirit.

For people who believe Ukraine is not a real country with legitimate borders and a distinct heritage, the conflict in eastern Ukraine is a Civil War.  "The Ukraine," as it used to be called (still is sometimes, in error) is considered an appendage of Russia, the Slavic breadbasket that belongs to Russia, like Crimea. The "rebels" are fighting the "fascists" in Kyiv who support the Maidan revolt and self-determination. The Ukrainians have brought the disaster on themselves.

left and right images,
S, Plokhy's histories. 
For those who believe, as I do, that Ukraine is a country with legitimate internationally recognized borders, the Russians are aggressors. They have violated the territorial integrity of a sovereign nation. It is NOT a civil war. It is a war that Putin planned. It is Russian policy, directed from Moscow. Putin's war is accompanied by a virulent propaganda campaign, exemplified in the orchestrated build-up and takeover of Crimea by those "little green men" without insignia who were Russian special ops, mercenaries and thugs. Ukraine is fighting for its life against the rapacious force of Russia.

This new investigative report documents extensive
human rights violations in Eastern Ukraine.
"There are no Russians in Ukraine." Really? I wanted to retort: "It is well documented that Russia has sent arms and men to eastern Ukraine; it provided the BUK that took down MH-17; its soldiers and proxies, trained by Russia, have destroyed great swaths of Lugansk and Donetsk (my old stomping grounds), decimating its airports, train stations,infrastructure; it has violated international humanitarian laws. Through subterfuge and weapons of war that are no match for a weak Ukrainian army, Russia has invaded Ukraine and continues deliberately to destablize it. Russian soldiers and mercenaries are there, boots on the ground, in the Donbas. And they are seeking ever more territory, looking to Mariupol, Odessa, the Black Sea."

I was still mulling all this stuff over when I woke up the next morning.  As I browsed the news online, a headline caught my eye: "Are Russians and Ukrainians the Same People?"  It stood out like a neon light in a dark night. Did someone overhear our conversations? The same issue I encountered on Saturday was a banner headline on Yahoo news on Sunday morning.

The headline turned out to be an article written by award-winning Harvard historian and Ukraine expert Sergii Plokhy, who recently published "The Gates of Europe," a history of Ukraine, and a year before that "The Last Empire,"  about the fall of the Soviet Union and its aftermath.
    
I poured myself a cup of coffee and read the article. It was fascinating. Yes, Plokhy explains, Putin has once again stirred up an hysterical nationalist fervor over "Greater Russia."  Yes, that's his justification for taking over Crimea and going into eastern Ukraine. It's a  revivial of imperial nationalism that threatens not only the East Slavic states of Ukraine and Belarus but also other post-Soviet republics with Russian-speaking populations, Estonia, Latvia and Kazahkstan.

There are, of course, problems with Putin's vision and the equation of the Russian language with Russian nationality, Plokhy argues:
    "While ethnic Russians are a majority of the population in Crimea and make up large minorities in parts of the Donbas, most of the population of the projected New Russia consists of ethnic Ukrainians. While separatist propaganda appeals to some, most have refused to identify themselves with Russia or exclusive Russian ethnicity even as they continue to use the Russian language.That was one of the main reasons for the failure to create a buffer state by extending rebel holdings from Donbas to Odesa and Khargiv." [Note: Russia's still trying. Putin wants Odessa as much as he wanted Crimea.] 

Indeed, the majority of ethnic Russians, who comprise only 17% of  Ukraine's total population, do not support the invasion of the Donbas and generally oppose Russian interference in Ukraine affairs, according to a poll Plokhy cites. They give their identity as both Russian and Ukrainian, like the woman I just met who grew up in Kyiv. At least the woman from Donetsk is in the minority, I thought.

The Russian-Ukrainian conflict, Plokhy concludes, brings to the fore a critical contemporary issue with deep roots: "The unfinished process of building not only a Ukrainian but also a Russian modern nation."

I turn to my dearest friend Natalia in Starobelsk. I tell her my little story and send her the link to Plokhy's article.  She immediately emailed me back. She had read the article right away.
Fran, we are not Russians, but we belong to the family of Slavic people. We are closely tied geographically and historically. But the question is not who is or who isn't Russian, or which nation is better. The fact is that Ukraine started its painful way towards democratic development while Russia has not yet. I fully agree with the author that "The solution to the Russian Question lies not in territorial expansion but in the formation of a law-based democratic society capable of living in harmony with its neighbors and playing a positive role in the modern world.
Natalia got to the heart of the matter. As Plokhy concluded, the solution lies in building strong, modern 21st-century states--self-determined, meeting the needs of their people, playing positive roles in our shared world. Not war, not archaic imperial visions, not old ways of thinking.  But the impetus for modern nation building must come from within, and it doesn't look very hopeful at the moment. The discordant chords of Putin's war, jarring, incessant, casts a pall over hope. There is such a long, painful road ahead into the future.

Blogs on Ukrainian Culture:
http://fran-ukrainian-adventure.blogspot.com/2010/11/ivan-savich-and-ukrainian-poets.html

http://fran-ukrainian-adventure.blogspot.com/2009/10/anton-poet.html

http://fran-ukrainian-adventure.blogspot.com/2010/12/preserving-ancient-decorative-painting.html

http://fran-ukrainian-adventure.blogspot.com/2010/03/kooryachevka-village-school.html

http://fran-ukrainian-adventure.blogspot.com/2010/02/freedom-fighters.html

Some books:
1) Tim Judah, "In Wartime: Stories from Ukraine."  www.nybooks.com/articles/2014/01/09/fighting-soul-ukraine

2) Serhii Plokhy, The Gates of Europe  and The Last Empire.


3) Timothy Snyder, Bloodlands, about eastern Europe
between Hitler and Stalin during WWII, its devastating impact, and the ongoing consequences to this day.


4) Serhy Yekelchyk, "The Conflict in Ukraine: What Everyone Needs to Know."


http://fran-ukrainian-adventure.blogspot.com/2010/11/ivan-savich-and-ukrainian-poets.html



Monday, December 21, 2015

A Holiday Message from my dear brother Loren

This is the Age of Muscular Macho Militarism.  The Age of Steel.  The full force of sheer madness is upon us. When has it ever accomplished anything, anywhere? Is this how we want to live? Is this the future we want for our children?

I was musing about this when I got a message from my brother Loren, from somewhere in the great beyond. Frankly, I was caught off guard and surprised.

"Fran, this violent age is a prelude to something better."

“Loren, is it you? You think this violent age will lead to something better?”  I have learned to become silent, to be calm and open, to hear his words.

“I think muscular macho militarism, as you call it, will have its day, and will in time usher in a period of peace and poetry, to continue with some alliteration.”

“The Age of Peace and Poetry?  That's hard to believe, Loren. Have you heard about Paris, San Bernadino? Do you know what's happening in Syria, in the Middle East, in Eastern Europe, in Africa, and right here in the USA? ”

“Yes, from this vantage point it looks pitiful, senseless.  I also remember what history teaches.  That violence begets more violence, that the world grows weary of it, and that in tiring of war, humankind turns to peace; one age follows another.  Like the Renaissance followed the Middle Ages."

"And like Ecclesiastics," I whisper. "To everything there is a season.

"Yes, that's it. To everything there is a season.  That's why I see peace hovering in the wings of the disasters now dominating our planet.  I see Mother Earth imploring her children to reach for something better, to lift themselves up from despair.  I see softer virtues ready to rise up as people around the globe reject patriarchal values and the tragedies of violence in all its forms." 

"I'm not sure about 'softer virtues,' Loren.  The world's a mess.  We are as far from 'Peace on earth and goodwill to man' as we can be.  How long have I been sending out holiday cards with peace messages?  Decades.  Since Vietnam.  This year, when I sent out cards with "PEACE" emblazoned in white against a flaming red background with the symbol of a dove and a peace branch, I hesitated.  It seems so futile."
Jud's Chrismas tree

“The world's stuck in war mode now, but it's temporary."

"It's temporary?"  I'm incredulous but I stay calm. I want to hear my brother.

"The planet is mucking around in the wrong values, but this has to change.  The vast majority of people on planet Earth do not want this way of life. They are grieving, so many in poverty, in war zones, in desperate straits,  homeless, so many longing for peace.  Yet, the world’s leaders, Jihadists and Crusaders, macho thinkers of one sort or another, do not see this reality.  They only see the planet, our Common Home as Pope Francis calls it, as a terrain of brutal competition and war games. They do not see or seek the truth.”

“And you think this is temporary?  You think peace and good will are in the wings? That people everywhere will grow tired of war, and embrace peace, the humaniites, the arts, like a new Renaissance, a rebirth?" 

“I do.  I think the goddess will have her day.  The God of all religions will embrace her and deliver the message to earth, which is now hanging in the balance.  And the world will be ready to hear it.  Every religion will welcome the mother alongside the father.  Balance and harmony will fill the earth with the peace and joy foretold by the thoughtful prophets.  I think of Rumi, one of your favorite Mystic poets. Of Pope Francis and his message of "One human family." And the words to the song, "It came upon a Midnight Clear:"
It came upon the midnight clear,
That glorious song of old,
From angels bending near the earth,
To touch their harps of gold!
'Peace on the earth, good will to men,'
From heaven's all gracious King!
The world in silent stillness lay
To hear the angels sing....

For lo! the days are hastening on,
By prophet bards foretold,
When, with the ever-circling years,
Shall come the Age of Gold;
When peace shall over all the earth
Its ancient splendors fling.
And all the world give back the song,
Which now the angels sing.
“What powerful words! It's as if I am seeing them for the first time, a whole new meaning!  So you see an "Age of Gold" coming? When peace will "fling its ancient splendors" over all the world?  Incredible. You have become an irrepressible optimist!”

“It won't be tomorrow, dear sister.  It may take a while.  But the goddess is patient and kind.  She understands that the current age has to expose itself, in all its brutal force, for the world to see, to bear witness.  Only then will people grasp its meaninglessness, its worthlessness, and become willing to unite in peace and fellowship.  The Age of Steel will turn into the Age of Gold.  Leaders will follow the will and dreams of the people on Earth.  When the battles end, when the storms of man subside, an era of peace and poetry will rise up from the ashes to bless the earth.”  

“What a great Christmas message you bring, Loren.”

Loren? There was a long silence.  Loren had drifted away.  I tried to keep the conversation going, and realized I was just talking to myself.  

As some sadness crept over me, I looked out the windows onto Main Street Sylvania and watched the holiday lights fill the growing darkness.  "Silent night, holy night," I heard the angels sing. 





Monday, December 14, 2015

More Sicily

From Antiquity: The Landscape of Ancient Greece in Modern Taormina


     To Modernity: Modern Times Sicilia 

Tile and Mosaics,
Monreale Cathedral
Above are some headlines from La Sicilia, the newspaper I can't read. My parents were bilinqual but thought we should only speak English. Some guy left it on an empty seat at the Catania airport. I picked it up and browsed through it out of curiosity. At least I recognized the format, which is like the format of most newspapers everywhere: front page banner headlines, a large political section, sports, culture and shows, the economy, and ads.  Lots of ads. "That's a good thing," I said to my sister Andy.  

"Geez you like the ads?" my sister Andy asked, incredulous. 
"Yeah, I know, unusual, but it shows all kinds of businesses in Sicily. This is modern Sicily."  The above collage includes an ad for IKEA, promoting a new collection (nuovo collezione).  Yep, there's an IKEA in Sicily, in Catania. The ad is colorful and upbeat. Ads for cars, retail stores, industrial companies and tech companies also fill the pages. Just like in our newspapers, and online. Sicily is no backwater.

Some Sicily souvenirs,
ceramics and glass.
I definitely caught our Gate 1 tour guide Flavia's enthusiasm, and that of our local city guides for all things Sicilian. That includes exploring and celebrating its ancient past, its history and culture, and its present and future. From BC to AD.  From antiquity to modernity.

It all started in Palermo, with panoramic views of the hills and the sea, historic cathedrals, fountains and plazas surrounded by multicultural architecture and art, and some of the best cuisine, wine and restaurants in Italy. Like the sweep of its landscape, Palermo is breathtaking in the sweep of  its history, which encompasses successive conquests by the Romans, Normans, Byzantines, Arabs and others over the centuries.  A side-trip to Monreale, just outside of Palermo, was our spectacular opening to Sicily. Together, these cities are the heartbeat of its historic and modern culture.
Palermo's famed Cathdral and old city city center, showing eons of architecture and art, incredible overlapping cultures.The domes on top of the Norman Church of San Giovanni (lower right), for example, were added by Islamic craftsmen. These addiions and changes are so typical of Sicily.

 
Monreale, the hilltop town outside of Palermo, with its lavish Cathedral, a masterpiece of Norman architecture(built 1174) embellished with Arab, Byzantine,Romanic and Sicilian baroque art, all coming together to create an incredible melting pot of cultures. The interior tiles and mosaics embedded in classic columns, walls, floors, everywhere, are amazing.  

Maybe the only thing that is not as central to Palermo as to other parts of the island is the Greek influence.  For the rest of our tour, however, with Flavia leading, we were steeped in Greek Sicily, the ancient heritage that remains a vibrant core of Sicilian identity to this day.  
I think of beautiful Taormina, nestled in the hillsides winding up to towering Mt. Etna and down to the blue Mediterranean. From the Teatro Greco to the lovely alleyways, winding streets, and artfully decorated stairways, to the shops and cafes, spectacular views (and photo opportunities) greet you at every turn.

How lovely to walk, talk and linger over wine or beer in Taormina, as we did with our new friends. We were lucky to have a friendly, well-travelled group, as enthusiastic and enthralled as we were. Several fellow travellers were exploring their Sicilian roots, like Andy and me. Some of us wished we had had a more in-depth guided tour of Taormina's hidden byways and treasures.  Taormina is more than just shopping, Andy and I thought.

Same with Siricusa, a once-flourishing Greek city state that still glistens and beckons. Amazingly, some of the most illustrious names of the ancient world--Livius, Plutarch, Pindar, Cicero, Virgil and Thucydides--described it with enthusiam in their writings. I probably read about Siricusa in my 4th year Latin class at Harley School in Rochester, New York, when I read Cicero and Virgil with Mrs. Bulloch, although the implications didn't register.

Today, Siricusa is an elegant archeological gem, glistening with white limestone buildings from different ages.  It's described in Sicily: Art History and Nature (2010), each chapter written by different scholars, as "a harmonious and interesting mixture of remains from the ancient past, medieval essentiality, and baroque exuberance." For a while it looked like petrochemical plants and power stations would take over the beauty of its coastline. Today, thank goodness, efforts are being made to preserve the historic sites and the coastline.

Sicily is trying. It's had to deal with its economy, with social setbacks, with those damned stereotypes. But today's Sicily is full of hope and energy.  It is one of the most ancient and most beautiful places on earth. The tourism potential of Sicily is not yet fully realized, even though this land has been visited for centuries by famous travellers, all of whom have extolled it's beauty.  I'm discovering them online-- artists, writers, playwrights, scholars, all enthralled by Sicily.

"The Sicilians have inherited from the Greeks a sacred sense of hospitality," my guidebook put it. It was evident everywhere we went. The people, the built environment, the breathtaking natural beauty combine to make Sicily one of the best places to experience.

SICILY TODAY: Here are some recipes, links, and a neat article about what makes Sicily so special today.  First food!
Pasta alla Norma (recipe in Sicily Times, July 2015)
Andy and I had this in Palermo, with linquini, or maybe it was a version of it, because it had some fish in the sauce. It was delicious.
Ingredients
500 gr. Peeled tomatoes or 4 cups of tomato sauce
400 gr pasta of your choice (spaghetti, pennette, rigatoni, etc.)
2 medium-sized aubergines (eggplants)
2 cloves garlic
Basil leaves
Salted ricotta cheese (not sure what to do with this?)
Olive oil and salt
Slice the aubergines, lightly salt them then place in a strainer for at least 30 minutes. In the meantime, prepare the sauce, sauteeing the peeled garlic cloves in 4 Tbs olive oil. When the garlic becomes golden, add the peeled tomatoes or sauce. Add half a teaspoon of salt and cook at a low temperature. Fry the aubergine slices in olive oil. Cook the pasta al dente, strain and mix with the tomato sauce. Add grated cheese, basil leaves, the aubergines and serve.
The question now may be what wine to match with such a delicious plate, with aroma, flavor and sweet tendencies? Sicily offers a great variety of wines but it is best to choose within the territory of the dish. Why not an Etna Doc, either Red or Rosè, a blend of Nerello Mascalese and Nerello Cappuccio grape varieties? What’s important is the serving temperature of the wine, let’s say 16 – 18° C.Buon Appetito!
Recipes: from www.AmericaninSicily.com  THIS IS A GREAT BLOG FOR RECIPIES and all things Sicilian. I copied and pasted these recipes, so the format came through in various styles and fonts, but the recipes sound delicious! 

GRILLED EGGPLANT SALAD
Ingredients:
– 1 large or 2 small eggplants, sliced, grilled and cut in small pieces (…I used my famous ol’ trusty stove top grill pan…love the thing!) Just brush the pan with a bit of olive oil before you lay down the slices on the pan and turn them over for a few minutes on each side. 
 2 large garlic pieces, grated (…I use a hand held small cheese grater)
– 5 to 6 cherry tomatoes, quartered
– 3 large basil leaves, chopped
– 5 to 6 mint leaves, chopped
– 1 Tsp dry oregano
– 2 Tbsp red wine vinegar
– Olive oil
-Salt, to taste
In a salad bowl, place the eggplant, tomatoes, and herbs. Add the vinegar, olive oil and salt. Toss well and let sit for at least 1\2 hour for the flavors to infuse. That’s it! Serve alongside fresh baked Italian bread.


CRUSTED BREAD (the kind my grandma Curro made!)
-500 grams of flour (In Italy, I use an organic type of “semola rimacinata” flour)
– 1 tablespoon of olive oil
– 1 pkg of instant yeast
– 1\2 cup of yogurt (I use low fat)
– Salt, to taste
breadIn a bowl, place your flour, and salt, Mix. Add olive oil, yeast, yogurt and 1 cup of warm water. Mix. Add more water until everything is well incorporated and STICKY. Yes, you want it sticky. Let rise for 1 hour. Then, using a wooden spoon, dump the entire mix onto the baking tray (forming a log with your hands or the spoon). Sprinkle some flour on top and bake at 200°C \ 400°F until nice and golden. 


AUTHENTIC SICILIAN PIZZA MAGHERITA
For the dough:
-500 grams (1 pound) of organic whole wheat flour….read your flour label carefully for mixed flours or fillers!
-1 pkg of instant yeast
-WARM water
-2 tbsps of olive oil
-Salt, to taste
Mix by hand until you get an almost liquidy consistency. Cover and let rise for about 2 hours.
For the pizza:
-1 medium jar of tomato sauce (or you can make your own here) If you want plain tomato sauce, just omit all the additional ingredients I listed in that recipe.
– 8 to 10 fresh basil leaves
– 4 pieces of garlic, sliced.
– Fresh mozzarella cheese  (quartered, sliced, or however you like)
– Olive oil
– Salt, to taste
pizza margheritaNow here is how we do it…..
Using a spoon, place huge dollops  of the dough all over a baking tray covered with oven paper. Spread the dough using the back end of the spoon so that it evenly covers the tray (not too thick, though). Mix a bit of olive oil in the tomato sauce and spread it oven the dough. Add the cheese and fresh basil. Drizzle some more olive oil all over the pizza and bake in a preheated oven at 200°C \ 400°F for 15-25 minutes (depending on your oven). 

Some interesting articles I found while browsing the internet looking for Sicily news today: 
http://www.timesofsicily.com/days-of-awe-in-siracusa/ About revitalizing the once-substantial Jewish community in Sicily, and in particular Siricusa. Fascinating.
www.Sicilyonline.com, a very nice article, which really resonates after my visit.



            "God would not have chosen Palestine if he had seen my kingdom of Sicily."
Frederick II of Hohenstaufen
Perhaps every country has a dark horse - a region whose praises are sung by few, so that almost all who go there come away pleasantly surprised. To our minds, Italy's dark horse is unquestionably Sicily, cursed by an unfair stereotype that vanishes almost the minute your plane sets down or your boat touches the shore. It's the kind of place where, when you ask for driving directions in a crowded, frenetic city, the person you stopped on the street will walk alongside your car until he thinks you're past any intersections that might confuse you. Speak to anyone about anything and you will be met with a smile that manages to be shy and dazzling at the same time.
Then take a look around you, at some of the most spectacular nature Italy has to offer: miles and miles of vineyards rivaling any in Tuscany or Piedmont, endless olive groves sprouting from emerald-green carpets of grass, veritable forests of shiny citrus and fruit trees, rugged silver mountains, all against a backdrop of the deep blue sea. Sicily has a massive amount of world-class art, ranging from Greek to Roman, Byzantine, Arab, Norman, French, and Spanish, and some of it enjoys the most astonishing setting, abandoned on a hillside or nestled into a deserted cove where you can come upon it so naturally that you almost think you've stepped into a time machine.
    Y
es, there is something very ancient about Sicily, more than in Rome or Ravenna or Pompeii, and the thing we like the most about it is its unpretentiousness, the matter of fact, day-to-day atmosphere that turns all this history into a landscape as natural as a prickly pear blooming alongside a country road. If you had discarded the idea of visiting this fascinating region up to now, we hope our stories and unique lodgings will provide some very good reasons to change your mind. The only warning we have for you is please don't plan to whip over there for a two-day stop. You'll need at least a week to make the trip worthwhile, and even then you'll wish you'd been able to stay longer!