Monthly Archives: October 2013

No Christians Fed to Lions and Other Things You Might Not Know About the Colosseum

dave inside the colosseum

Christians never battled lions in the Colosseum.

It is thanks to the notorious Italian villain Mussolini that the Colosseum became one of the most visible landmarks in the world.

Paul McCartney has given a concert in the Colosseum.

We took a tour of the Colosseum in Rome and I learned those three interesting things along with lots of other fascinating information from our guide Elizabeth, a knowledgeable young woman with a PhD in archaeology.

Elizabeth cleared up some misconceptions I had about the Colosseum. One of these was that Christians battled lions there.

The Colosseum, which was built largely with the labour of thousands of Jewish slaves brought to Rome by the emperor Titus after he destroyed the temple in Jerusalem, was certainly an arena for death. 

marylou inside the colosseum

The wildlife of northern Africa was significantly depleted by the three hundred years of savage sport staged in the Colosseum, featuring animals and gladiators fighting to satisfy the blood lust of up to 80,000 fans in the audience.

However, our guide Elizabeth made it clear there is no historical proof for the exciting tales of early Christians being thrown to the lions in the Colosseum. Historians now believe those stories were invented to glamorize the suffering of early Christians at the hands of the Romans.

Despite the fact there are no written records of Christians being martyred in the Colosseum it remains a holy site for the Catholic church and every Good Friday the Pope leads the stations of the cross procession at the Colosseum, commemorating the fourteen stages of Christ’s passion.

marylou outside the colosseum 

Elizabeth also told us the fascist dictator Mussolini despite his villainous reputation was responsible for the restoration and protection of many of Rome’s archaeological sites including the Colosseum. 

Mussolini wanted to return Italy to its former greatness at the height of the Roman Empire so he designated substantial government funds for the excavation and preservation of the Colosseum, the Forum, the Pantheon and other important ancient landmarks. 

dave outside the collosseum

He staged quite a number of rallies in the Colosseum to stir up nationalistic pride and Italian patriotism among his people.  Mussolini was eventually murdered by Italian partisans and hung upside down for public viewing since he was considered such a disgrace to his own nation. 

He’s not a celebrated hero in Italian history but if he had not led the country from 1922-1943 I might not have toured the Colosseum.

the colosseum

 Thousands of people visit the Colosseum every year but care must be taken to balance the need for income from tourists with the need to preserve and maintain what is left of the structure.

Consequently, the Colosseum is no longer the site of huge public events but occasionally special concerts are still held there.

interior colosseum

Our guide Elizabeth said a few years ago four hundred people paid close to $2000 each to attend a charity concert Paul McCartney gave inside the Colosseum.   Later he staged a free show just outside the Colosseum for 300,000 fans.

The money generated from ticket sales and television rights was donated to various charities including one for landmines removal in Iraq and another to rescue artefacts ransacked from museums there.

the colloseum in rome

I learned the Colosseum has been the site of many historic spectacles in the last 2000 years including rock concerts, papal processions, fascist rallies and gory battles. It’s intriguing to think about what else archaeologists might discover happened there and what future events might take place in this famous building.

Other posts about Rome…….

The Catacombs- Myth and Reality

Questions at the Vatican

Visiting Pompeii


Filed under History, Italy, Travel

Is Asia Still Authentic?

Here’s a piece I wrote after a visit to Chaing Mai Thailand a number of years ago.

Woman making umbrellas for tourists in chiang mai

 A woman making paper umbrellas for tourists in Chiang Mai

“Asia is no longer authentic. Modern barbarians and mass tourism are destroying it. “  Denis Gray, Associate Press Bureau Chief in Bangkok made that comment during an interview with a reporter from the Bangkok Post. I read the article about Gray during my visit to Chiang Mai, Thailand. Mr. Gray has had a vacation home in Chiang Mai for twenty years and bemoans the fact that Western business interests have completely taken over the area with their “ relentless greed and materialism.” 

     I can understand what Mr. Gray is talking about. I went to Chiang Mai on a golfing holiday and noted the ‘westernization’ and altered landscape of the area. Acres of jungle have been hacked down to create space for fairways, clubhouses and high- end spas and golf resorts.  

      Friends who traveled to northern Thailand decades ago say it was a jungle paradise. You could hike just outside Chiang Mai and find hill tribes villages where people lived much as they had for hundreds of years. Each tribe had its own unique dress, customs and was self-sustaining. In the last ten years, literally millions of tourists interested in seeing the traditional way of life in these hill tribes’ settlements have altered that way of life forever.

Performers at the Loy Krathong show

Performers at the Loy Krathong show

Chiang Mai now has a Starbucks, a McDonalds and a Holiday Inn. It also has a great deal of street garbage and its river is black with pollutants. Many of the rituals and ceremonies of the local people have become commercialized performances which tourists are charged money to attend. The tribal women come into Chiang Mai to sell their hand made products to visitors from around the world. Crafts are now produced in ‘factories’ especially set up so tourists can watch as they are created step by step. We were on a ‘packaged’ golf tour in Chiang Mai. Consequently we were ferried to several of these ‘factories’ before each round of golf to watch the staged production of jewelry, silk, ceramics and paper umbrellas. I felt uncomfortable viewing these talented people give a ‘fake performance’ of their skilled labor, staged primarily to convince potential customers to buy their wares.

Female golf caddies in Chiang Mai

Female golf caddies in Chiang Mai

     The golf courses in Chiang Mai were lovely. Each golfer was provided with a caddy, a local Chiang Mai woman, who had been taught enough English to tell you your yardage after each shot, and whether your ball would break to the left or right when you putted. The women were dressed in immaculate mauve and white uniforms. They smiled politely and helped you select which golf club to use for each shot, and carefully cleaned your club after every use. I wondered if before becoming golf caddies these women had lived an agrarian existence in a village attending to the needs of their families and participating in the traditions of their tribe. Were they happier then or do they prefer their present life with more modern conveniences and a steady source of income to support their families? people say tourism has been a boon to Thailand, improving the economy and the transportation system. Tourism however has also brought a thriving sex trade, AIDS, pollution, a depletion of natural resources, a changed landscape and has permanently altered the traditional way of life of the hill tribes people of Thailand. 

        I wonder if I a few years from now Chiang Mai will be distinguishable from any  typical American tourist spot. Will there be a theme park or museum you will need to visit if you want to see how traditional Thai people lived? 

Other posts about Chiang Mai……

Monk Chat

Loy Krathong


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Filed under Culture, Thailand

Biking in Florence

The highlight of our trip to Florence Italy was the guided bicycle tour we took with Leonardo, a middle-aged athlete and history buff with a generous beard and black frame glasses. He was a veritable walking encyclopedia about the city of his birth. My husband Dave was keen on gathering information for the advanced placement course in high school history he was teaching at the time. He could ask Leonardo about anything that happened in Florence from the time it was founded by Julius Caesar in 59 BC to the present and Leonardo knew the answer.

We met Leonardo to begin our tour near one of the more than 40 large historic churches in Florence. Leonardo said people rarely attend them. “Most of Florence’s churches are visited only by tourists.” He told us church attendance by the 400,000 residents of the city is normally reserved for weddings, funerals and baptisms. Leonardo pointed out the huge rings on the sides of most churches in Florence. They were used for tying up horses many years ago when people still came to church in carriages. My husband Dave tested the strength of these rings and verified they were firmly implanted in the walls. Leonardo took us to a square near one church called Piazza del Limbo, or the Limbo Plaza. It was once a cemetery for babies that had died before they had a chance to be baptized and thus were ‘in limbo’ and unable to enter heaven.

Leonardo led us expertly through the city on our bikes, giving us a running commentary about what we were seeing on his microphone. His interesting narration was fed into the earpieces we wore while we cycled. He took us to the square where the Medici family, Florence’s leading citizens from 1350-1750, used to host jousting matches, chariot races and the first soccer games played in Italy. He showed us the tall towers built by rival feuding families as safe fortresses during medieval times. He took us to the Ponte Vecchio, Florence’s oldest bridge, built in 1345. It is the only bridge the Nazis did not blow up before retreating from the city. He pointed out the art students everywhere sketching and touring with teachers. He told us every year 60,000 American students from forty different United States universities participate in study abroad programs in Florence to learn the Italian language and study history, art and literature. Leonardo showed us the apartment where poets Elizabeth Barrett and Robert Browning lived for 14 years. He told us the famous nurse Florence Nightingale had been named after the city of her birth.

There was only one other woman on our bike tour and she was Japanese.  I thought she was a tourist but she told us although she had grown up in Japan she now lived in Florence and worked as a wedding planner for Japanese couples who wanted to get married in Italy. We passed a young Japanese woman in a wedding gown and a Japanese man in a tuxedo shivering in the freezing January air as they had their pictures taken on the steps of the Santa Maria Del Fiore Cathedral in the heart of Florence. Leonardo our guide told us Florence is hugely popular as a destination -wedding site for Japanese couples.

If it hadn’t been for the chilly temperatures I could have spent days on end touring Florence on my bicycle with the knowledgeable and interesting Leonardo. However, after several hours our fingers were frozen and we were chilled to the bone. It was time to say good-bye to Leonardo and head for a coffee shop where we could warm up with some thick, rich and very sweet Italian hot chocolate and talk over all the new, intriguing things we’d learned about Florence.

Other posts about biking…….

Biking in Bali

Toronto Bike Ride

Biking in Yangshou

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Filed under History, Italy, Travel

Help Me Decide

I want to enlarge one of the photos I took in Hong Kong to put on the wall in our livingroom. I took lots of photos in Hong Kong and just can’t decide which one would be the best to use. I want it to be a photo that says “Yes! This is the landscape of Hong Kong.” Can you help me? Check out these photos and then let me know which one you like best.

Photo 1
hong kong landscape

Photo 2mahjong game high island

Photo 3
star ferry

Photo 4

bamboo scaffolding

Photo 5

chi lin nunnery hong kong

Photo 6
funeral pots 023

Photo 7
tao fong shan 008

Photo 8
shatin village housejpg

Photo 9victoria peak tramPhoto 10sai kung hike 009

Other posts…….

A Blank Wall

Tetraphobia- What is It?

Meeting a Holocaust Survivor in Hong Kong


Filed under Hong Kong

A Prayer For a Golf Tournament

What kind of prayer is appropriate after a game of golf ?  I once was asked to say grace at the meal following a women’s golf tournament.  I wasn’t sure what to pray about so I explored some literature about golf and the spiritual side of life. I checked out titles like   Fairway to HeavenIn His Grip, and of course Chicken Soup for the Golfer’s Soul.  The books were inspirational but didn’t help me figure out what to say in my prayer.

 An Internet search unearthed some humorous religious golf jokes. Have you heard the one about Jesus, God and Tiger Woods playing eighteen holes together? It’s pretty funny, but I wasn’t sure I wanted to preface my prayer with a joke. People might not be able to stop laughing during grace. 

I considered relating a religious story about a famous golfer. I found out  when Vijay Singh won the Masters, his sister claimed it was because their entire family prayed for victory for a whole day and a whole night. Had none of the other golfer’s relatives prayed for a win? Why did God choose to listen to the Singh’s petitions?  I was confused. If I told Vijay’s story at the luncheon the other women might be puzzled too.

 I thought maybe I could share ideas about how the game of golf can positively impact a person’s life. Golf gets us out into the great outdoors where we can appreciate the beauty of God’s creation.

Golfing with students in Hong Kong

Golf is a way to get exercise and nurture relationships with family and friends. The game of golf can be therapeutic.  A widow once told me in the months after her husband’s death playing golf had been a healthy diversion at times when she was feeling lonely.                       

my golf caddy in bali

Making friends with my golf caddy in Bali

Golf is an avenue for meeting new people. I’ve talked with many interesting strangers I’ve been partnered with on the links. I’ve golfed at courses all over the world and have learned so much by making friends and chatting with my caddies. Golf provides an opportunity to affirm and encourage others. I used to play in a weekly ladies league and my companions were always so positive. The other women made me believe my golf game wasn’t hopeless. They looked for something good in every shot I made and applauded the slightest improvement in my score.  I learned some valuable lessons about the power of affirmation from my female golfing companions.

Golf can be a way to support a worthy endeavor. Many organizations sponsor golf events to raise funds. I’ve played in tournaments where the profits were earmarked for charitable causes.

You’re probably wondering by now what I finally ended up praying at the golf luncheon. I decided not to preface my table grace with any comments. I simply asked the women to bow their heads and then I said…..

Dear God,

We are grateful for the chance we had today to play the game of golf.  We are thankful for the exercise it provided for our bodies, for the sense of companionship we experienced with other golfers, and for the opportunity we had to enjoy the beauty of creation. Open our minds and hearts to the lessons this game can teach us about life….. that we shouldn’t give up after a few bad holes, because things will probably get better if we just keep trying….  that we need to be flexible, if the nine iron won’t do the trick, maybe the pitching wedge will…..  that the lowest handicaps aren’t necessarily earned by the women with the latest fashions in golfing attire or the most expensive set of clubs, but by those who work hard at their game with patience and persistence. 

 Bless each person here whether she ended up a winner or loser when the scorecards were handed in today, for if we enjoyed the game we played together we really were all winners. We ask now for your blessing on this food.


Other posts about golf…….

Arizona Golf Reunion

Golfing in Phoenix

The Animals of Australia




Filed under Religion, Sports

Visualizing God’s Creation Gifts in Sculpture

What creation symbols remind us of God’s generosity and care? I found out in the Creation Garden of the Solanus Casey Center in Detroit.  We stopped there on a bike tour of the city and I followed along in a prayer-book as I observed seven gifts from the Creator each represented in a unique way. This sun-dial represents the gift of the sun. We feel its warmth and it invigorates us. Light brings each day, an opportunity to work, create, relate and contribute. 

The wind chimes remind us of the gift of the wind.  Its gusts blow away the old and lifeless and sweep us in new directions. 

Metal is twisted to create a flame that makes us grateful for the gift of fire. Heat melts our rigidity and makes us open. Its energy ignites new perspectives and kindles compassion.

The moon reflects light and prompts us to rest each night. The moon is constantly changing. It shifts through phases reminding us that our lives go through phases too and our lives are continually changing as well. This Asian sculpture with words from the Koran is the symbol for water. Water refreshes our bodies and spirits. Sister Earth prompts us to be thankful for the rich black soil beneath our feet and all the resources we have been given.

Sister Death may seem a strange gift but it is our final threshold and represents a new beginning.  It reminds us of the people who have already passed through the gateway of death, people whose lives were true gifts to us.

I’d like to go back to the Creation Garden sometime on my own, when I have lots of time to walk slowly and take plenty of time to pause in front of each sculpture, think about the gift it represents and how that gift connects to my personal experiences. I’d also like to spend time reading and reflecting on St. Francis of Assisi’s Canticle of Creation  from which the seven gifts are drawn.      

Other posts about gardens……….

Leo Mol Sculpture Garden          

Art in the Garden            

Chi Lin Nunnery        

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Filed under Art, Nature, Religion

The Handmaid’s Tale- Royal Winnipeg Ballet

Scary and thought-provoking! I saw The Handmaid’s Tale this week.  Based on the book of the same name by Margaret Atwood the story is being re-told in dance form by the Royal Winnipeg Ballet. 

I reflect on the show on my Destination Winnipeg site. 

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Filed under Culture, Family, Politics, Religion, Winnipeg

Tetraphobia- What Is it?

I never knew about tetraphobia till I moved to Hong Kong.  Tetraphobia is the fear of the number four.  It comes from the Greek words tetras (four) and phobos (fear).  

The reason Chinese people are afraid of the number 4 is because the Chinese word for four sounds very similar to the word for death. 

Because of tetraphobia most apartment buildings in Hong Kong do not have a fourth floor. In one building where we lived we were on the 15th floor but really it was only the 12th floor, since there was no fourth floor or fourteenth floor. Because many Western people  lived in our building the managers in deference to them, had also omitted  floor 13  since in western cultures the number 13  is considered unlucky. 

So our apartment was on the 15th floor but it was only 12 levels up from the lobby. Confusing? It really wasn’t. 

Christmas in Hong Kong

Frogs That Bellow Like Cows in Hong Kong

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Filed under China, Culture, Hong Kong

A Lovely Day in Steinbach

My friend Esther and I are both turning sixty this fall and so our two younger friends Debbie and Glenys planned an absolutely lovely autumn adventure for us in Steinbach, the town where we all got to know each other when we were teaching colleagues. The day was full of interesting experiences but there was plenty of time to visit and relax.  
Debbie had even made a hand drawn map that showed all the possible places we might make stops. 

The morning started at Rhyme and Reason a Steinbach heritage home that’s been turned into a homey, comfortable place to eat.
We were given the upstairs room to ourselves for our breakfast. A tiny electric fireplace soon had the space as cozy as could be and we awaited our meals which were presented beautifully and tasted just as good. 

After many cups of coffee we wandered over to the Cultural Arts Centre to check out a piece of public art by J.D. Lees, which I had never noticed before. It’s called A Love for Learning. Located near two of the first school houses in Steinbach it pays tribute to the educators of the community.

You can see a school bell in the design and the bright rainbow of colors represent hope and new beginnings. The six sections of the sculpture symbolize the major areas of study the schools in Steinbach offer-science, vocations, social studies, the arts and physical education.

The Scrapbook Cottage was our next stop. Debbie works here and happened to know it was International Card Day and they were offering free workshops led by Scrapbook Cottage owner Sharon Reimer. Visitors could come in and make a card with the staff providing materials and instructions. We had lots of fun visiting, making our cards and just browsing around the well stocked store that offers all kinds of interesting thing to look at and buy even if you’re not a devoted scrapbooker. 

Ten Thousand Villages was nearby, a store operated by Mennonite Central Committee that has items made by artisans all over the world.

Since the store is run by volunteers almost every penny of profit goes right back to the creators of the goods. We browsed to our hearts’ content and I treated myself to a new necklace.

Back in the car with Debbie as our trusty chauffer we were off to Penner Pumpkins a place for family fall fun.  You can play with the kittens, enter the corn maze or take a walk through the scarecrow forest. I bought some gourds and pumpkins for my Thanksgiving dinner decorations. 

By now it was time for lunch and we headed off to Quarry Oaks Golf Course where the fall colors were spectacular. We sat by an open window for our meal and enjoyed the good food, the great view and more conversation. No, we hadn’t run out of things to talk about yet. We never do!

Although it wasn’t on Debbie’s map, we decided on a spontaneous side trip when we saw a sign advertising Ev’s Open House.  Ev Wiebe is a talented designer of beautiful things and she had her home filled with Thanksgiving and fall pieces that were unusual and so reasonably priced. I bought a centerpiece for my Thanksgiving table and we enjoyed visiting with Ev while sipping some of her spicy apple cider.

Dessert was saved for last at Oakridge Nursery where Debbie and Glenys treated us to mini cheesecakes and lattes. They had even brought candles and Esther and I had to try and blow them out in one breath.

It was after 5 o’clock before Esther and I headed back to Winnipeg. We’d had a lovely day in Steinbach. 

Other posts……..

The Wave-Art In the Interlake

Finding My Inner Artist

Devour the District

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Filed under Art, Food, New Experiences, People, Retirement, T-4s

Ai Wei Wei- Giving the Finger To His Home and Native Land Through His Art

I pose with a statue of Ai Wei Wei at the Art Gallery of Ontario

On our recent visit to the Art Gallery of Ontario, I was intrigued by the work of Chinese artist Ai Wei Wei.

These huge cabinets are called Moon Chests. It’s a set of three-meter high wood cases with two large holes on each side. They are made from huali wood, often used in Chinese furniture, and were built with an ancient technique that uses no additional joining materials. If you look through the holes you can see eighty phases of a lunar eclipse. This was my favourite piece even though it seemed to be the only one in the exhibit that didn’t scream an overt political message. 

In this famous photo, the artist gives the finger to Beijing’s iconic Forbidden City. Work like this is probably why Ai Wei Wei’s passport has been seized and he is not allowed to leave China. 

img_6744He’s making another rather obvious political statement by covering these Han Dynasty Pots that are more than 2000 years old with bright industrial paint. They remind viewers of the wholesale destruction of artefacts from China’s past during the Cultural Revolution. 

That same message is echoed in this series of photos where he drops and smashes an ancient piece of pottery and in this one…….

where he decorates a pot with the Coca Cola logo to show how globalization is changing China, making its history of less value and perhaps hinting at some of the health concerns created in China because of globalization.

Here’s a marble replica of the surveillance camera the Chinese authorities placed outside Ai Wei Wei’s studio after he launched a protest because the government wasn’t releasing the names of the children who died in poorly constructed schools during the Sichuan earthquake. It’s a commentary on the state’s paranoia and its need to control its public image.

And these 3,200 porcelain river crabs? They were created to protest the destruction of Ai Wei Wei’s Shanghai studio in 2010.  He held a feast where people ate 10,000 of the crabs. Apparently the Chinese word for “river crab,” is a homophone for “harmonious” in Chinese, and has become an internet term for online censorship.

I hadn’t known Ai Wei Wei was the artistic consultant for the building of the Birds Nest Stadium for the Beijing Olympics. Later he denounced the project as a tool in China’s propoganda campaign and boycotted the Games. This series of photos chronicles the building of the Birds Nest. 

Called Brain Inflation this piece shows the x-ray of Ai Wei Wei’s head that was taken to determine the physical damage he suffered when he was beaten by Chinese authorities prior to his arrest and imprisonment in 2009 after launching his campaign for more information about the Sichuan earthquake victims.

Forever Bicycles made from discarded bicycle parts is said to be a commentary on the degree to which people in China have discarded their bikes in favor of cars.

In Grapes he’s taken stools from the Qing Dynasty and reassembled them to look like a bunch of grapes thus turning functional furniture into a non-functional art piece. 

We were attracted to the Ai Wei Wei exhibit by these zodiac animals he created that were on display in Nathan Phillips Square in downtown Toronto. We were curious as to why they would be featured so many months before the celebration of the Chinese New Year so we asked our tour guide. He told us about the Ai Wei Wei exhibit at the AGO. 

Not everyone likes Ai Wei Wei’s work. Some critics think it has little artistic value. For that view read Jed Perl’s piece in the New Republic Ai Wei Wei as Wonderful Dissident, Terrible Artist

Other posts about China you may enjoy………..

Remembering Tiananmen Square

Remembering the Children of Sichaun

Bamboo Gorge Boat Trekers

Faithless? Definitely Not

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Filed under Art, China, Culture, History, Politics, Toronto