Friday, 23 June 2006

Arabs in Pisa?

Pisa baptistery floor

Originally uploaded by andreakkk.

This work makes me think of the Maghreb. It makes me think of the Alhambra, the Generalife, the life and work of the Moors in Spain. The geometry is quintessentially Moorish, using overlapping squares and eight pointed stars to create a lattice of interlaced strips.

But it's actually the baptistery floor in Pisa. It's not the only bit of 'Arab' work I've seen in Pisa, either. There's an eight pointed star over one of the baptistery doors, a griffin that might be Hispano-Moorish, north African or even Persian standing guard over the cathedral apse, and 'Saracenic' pointed arches in the cathedral. And Pisa did trade with Moorish Spain and with the African coast - having taken over Cagliari as a useful staging post.

Everyone knows about Venice and its Byzantine past. And Sicily, a strange half-Norman, half-Arab kingdom which developed its own mix of styles.

But there seems to be an Arab story in Pisa.... which hasn't often been told.

Waking up in a new country

Waking up in a new country can be interesting.

Not always. Waking up in a Holiday Inn anywhere is pretty much the same. Breakfast is the same, CNN is the same, even the furniture is the same.

But sometimes waking up is different. I remember the first time I stayed in Oman, and the muezzin woke me just before dawn. The day is still - the sun is not up, nothing is moving - and into this stillness breaks the call to prayer. The day doesn't start the same way there that it does here. It starts with a mindfulness and attention that we might well emulate, Muslim or not.

That's a deep difference. There are smaller differences too. In Austria and Slovenia I remember the coffee - thick with robusta beans, more bitter and electric than the more usual arabica. And sometimes with evaporated milk, sugary and thick. Not the sophisticated cafe au lait I'm used to.

Or in France, drinking my coffee out of a bowl, not a cup. It's amazing how different that seems to make breakfast even if the bread and jam is the same I'd have in England. Though I do notice France is less dominated by strawberry jam. And of course marmalade is unknown here.

But I suppose my favourite way of waking up in a new country is the sleeper train. I used to take the late train from Gare de l'Est to Munich, sleeping my way through Eastern France and southern Germany, and up in time for a fresh roll with honey, and a big mug of coffee, before arriving at Munich about nine o'clock in the morning. That's a civilised way to travel. And through the night, rocked by the motion of the train, dimly aware of the rural stations we're rolling past...

Waking up in a new country is always good.

Sunday, 11 June 2006

Different countries, different thinking

One of the things you find when you travel is that different nationalities have different ways of thinking. Slight changes of emphasis that make you shake your head in puzzlement - or burst out laughing.

For instance I went hiking in the Tuscan hills one day. I was chatting in a restaurant about the way I'd come, down the lanes and through a couple of hidden valleys. The response: "Why didn't you just come along the main road? It's shorter."

The Italians just don't get hiking. (Germans do. So do the French.) Look at a Roman road, dead straight and firmly paved, and you'll understand why.

Media Guardian has this fascinating piece on German television. Amazing. The Germans really do have a sense of humour. But it's a rather different type of humour from British fun. I think...

Medieval New York

I've always been fascinated by 'mixed up' culture. For instance there's a bit of Budapest that remains resolutely Turkish - mainly the hot baths, little else got left behind. Then there are the multiple layers of Rome, like at San Clemente where there's a Mithraeum under a church under a later church.

And now, there's Medieval New York. Which sounds a dumb title, but the architects of nineteenth century New York were so eclectic that they built what amounts to a Legoland exhibition of European style.

What the site doesn't mention is that there's some REAL medieval architecture in NY as well - the Cloisters museum incorporates pieces of the cloister of Saint Guilhem du Desert, as well as other pieces bought up and shipped over wholesale.