Archive for December, 2010

Life in the Limbic Cave

What you must know, my dar­ling girl

Is that trap­pists are chattier

Part of the knack is to make your talk small enough

You must also learn to dodge the ele­phant when serv­ing dinner

Even so, there will be the hall of cloudy mirrors

Dimin­ish­ing dark reflections

Of a crea­ture so alone, that, were she not you

You would put your arms about her and give her cake.

What you must know, my dar­ling girl

Is that to be with the silent one

Is to be spin­ning in a black vortex

Is to lose the sense of who you are

Is to pad­dle in madness.

You must be armed with Stentor’s shout

For when the words that cost so much to say

Dis­solve into the air leav­ing you

An invis­i­ble, inaudi­ble unbeing

You must be pre­pared to devolt, unwatt

Col­lude with the jerk­ing strings

Fake igno­rance of the trip­wire, and the joke

Whose punch­line leaves you winded.

And for all this, what will be the gift, the treasure?

One night, when you are a soli­tary speck

Float­ing in the space between the planets

When your voice is thready with silent screams

The beast will open his shaggy coat

Hand you his heart with cal­loused paw

And let you in

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Waiting to be Born

In a time before time, before sun, before night and day

Mind­less drift­ing flot­sam in a nar­row amni­otic sea

With only the steady metro­nomic thud for company

A depth-sounding echo calls from an unimag­ined world.

Just being. This slow med­i­ta­tive dance has left in me

Ter­ror of small places, cramped spaces, the thought of mines.

I can­not imag­ine what pre­his­toric urge dri­ves men

To put on rub­ber suits and inves­ti­gate tight potholes.


There was noth­ing to see, but what was inside my head

And inside my head there was nothing.

Wait­ing in a dark som­nam­bu­list trance of evolution

A dot divid­ing, trans­mut­ing, gilled, rep­tile, finally

Mam­mal. Mamma mean­ing — inti­mate beyond comfort -

Breasts. I was a stranger to my mother and she to me

The thought of start­ing life as an alien invasion

Lay­ing siege to her belly, still makes me squirm.

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From Creaky to Bendy double-quick

Bend, breathe and smile if you want to stay young

I sin­cerely believe that yoga is the secret of eter­nal youth, or maybe of pro­long­ing a frisky, jaunty, devil-may-care mid­dle age.

Look up any ail­ment — from the myr­iad stress-related stuff to arthri­tis and osteo­poro­sis — on the inter­net and you’ll find yoga men­tioned some­where as being a use­ful anti­dote or pre­ven­tive.
On which topic, check with your doc­tor if you have spe­cific aches or pains, high blood pres­sure, injuries, back, arm, neck or knee trou­ble, con­trary ham­strings, osteo­poro­sis, heart prob­lems, her­nia, swollen joints or eye prob­lems such as detached retina or glau­coma.
Doing the poses, you should never feel sharp pain — but a kind of dull ache, mean­ing that you are work­ing your body, awak­en­ing unused mus­cles and joints, is a good thing. Yoga teach­ers always say ‘lis­ten to your body’, and while I’m not sure what that means, I think it is pos­si­ble to be a sym­pa­thetic friend to your body, firm but fair, treat­ing it kindly and sen­si­bly, much as you might your grand­chil­dren. Expect great things, applaud gen­er­ously, don’t push or bully. And — where appro­pri­ate — boost your immune sys­tem by giv­ing your­self a hug, or stroking recal­ci­trant bits fondly, as you might a way­ward puppy.

Doing the Tree at Riad Maizie

Yoga is absolutely a non-competitive pas­time. You will be able to do what is now impos­si­ble very quickly, with gen­tle and reg­u­lar practice.

War­rior Women

It is bril­liant to be rac­ing up the down escalator.

Reg­u­lar. You have to keep at it. It will soon stop being a chore, and become the best bit of the day – grad­u­ally you’ll notice that your hips don’t jud­der like they used to, that you can reach your feet, that your shoul­ders don’t ache, that you are con­scious of your pos­ture. With a bit of luck you’ll find calm­ing, even sooth­ing per­spec­tive in the practice.

My Anchor Posture

Annie's Anchor Posture

Every sin­gle body is built dif­fer­ently, and while your part­ner may do a superla­tive dog, your taste may be more in the­gen­eral area of spit­ting cobra. Some peo­ple have nat­ural bal­ance, some have unex­pected strength. Lit­tle skinny peo­ple tend to be good at tying their feet behind their heads. The thing is, it is only your, one and only, fab­u­lous body that mat­ters. And accord­ing to sur­geons – who com­ment favourably on the tidy inte­rior of a yoga practitioner’s body – reg­u­lar yoga takes care of it.


Four rounds of Sun Salu­ta­tion every day. Four left and four right. Morn­ing, or mid-afternoon if morn­ings are impos­si­bly creaky.
This ver­sion is aimed at Chakra One, Mulad­hara, which looks after fun­da­men­tal secu­rity, sta­bil­ity, ground­ing, and is sit­u­ated as you would expect in the per­ineum. It con­cerns your right to be here and to have what you need, and is the vital foun­da­tion upon which every­thing else rests.
Don’t give your­self grief if you can’t face doing it every day.
Sun Salu­ta­tion stretches and strength­ens every major mus­cle group and exer­cises the res­pi­ra­tory sys­tem. It is a reminder to be grate­ful for the exter­nal source of light and life, and stokes the cre­ative fire that radi­ates from within each of us. Start by doing it slowly and con­sciously. If you like to buzz, get faster, warm up, get your heart trot­ting (leave rac­ing for boys).

Sheila’s Per­fect Crow

Sun Salu­ta­tion 1

Start with hands to heart

1. Reach hands to the sky, arms par­al­lel, palms fac­ing

2. Jack-knife from your hips with heavy head, hands some­where near your feet, bend­ing your knees if nec­es­sary, in for­ward bend

3. Hands to floor, right leg back and straight, left bent at right angle in a lunge. Look up

4. Left foot joins right foot in plank posi­tion — FANTASTIC for your stom­ach mus­cles

5. Bot­tom up in the air in inverted V in down­ward fac­ing dog

6. Bot­tom back to rest on feet, arms extended for­ward in extended child’s pose

7. Tuck toes, raise bot­tom in another down­ward dog

8. Right leg for­ward and knee at a right angle, left leg back and straight in lunge. Look up

9. Bring both feet to front of mat, head down, heavy, hands near feet in for­ward bend. Bend your knees if it hurts

10. Slowly raise arms to sky as before

11. Hands to heart. Catch breath. Repeat on the other side.

Well done. Just three more rounds to go…….


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Under the Tuscan Sun. The Doppelganger

Villa Laura

Under a Tus­can sun­set, as four-square as a child’s drawing

Girlie films – you either love ‘em or hate ‘em. For the tear-streaked ranks of the for­mer, ‘Under the Tus­can Sun’ has all the essen­tials – plucky Frances Mayes (played by Diane Lane) strug­gling out of post-marital despair, clam­ber­ing up the slip­pery and pitfall-strewn path to hap­pi­ness and ful­fill­ment, bat­tling to turn a dream into real­ity – her progress mir­rored in the tri­umphant restora­tion of a neglected but beau­ti­ful Tus­can house. Find­ing the per­fect loca­tion was one of the tough­est things the direc­tor had to do: ‘Most houses of that era have small rooms and low ceil­ings. We needed a believ­able house of mod­est scale but with high ceil­ings to accom­mo­date light­ing and give us room for maneu­ver.’
The 300-year-old villa padronale sat­is­fied all require­ments: a con­ve­niently domes­tic size, half that of most houses of its type, with large rooms, high ceil­ings, fine details. In addi­tion it is a handy three-minute slalom from Cor­tona: a model of the Ital­ian genius for archi­tec­tural restora­tion that does not reduce a liv­ing city to a museum. Among the awestruck tourists check­ing their pix­els and the native camari­eri snatch­ing a smoke out­side their café doors, the city bus­tles with ter­ri­ble art, the most expen­sive antique shop known to man, fre­quent bouts of fancy dress, an excep­tional hat shop and great restau­rants. The trek up to town from Villa Laura earns you four courses, but the gen­tle mean­der back after lunch through the olive trees, with a glit­ter of Lake Trasi­meno and the misty expanse of the Val de Chi­ano in the dis­tance, is the per­fect pre­am­ble to a sybaritic after­noon of som­no­lent nod­ding over ‘Bella Tus­cany’ in the patchy shade beneath the stone pines.

A reg­u­lar, hand­some villa padronale

The present 300-year-old house is full of mys­ter­ies and mar­vels. It stands on the site of a traveler’s inn, built a mil­len­nium ago well out of the city so as to bal­ance hos­pi­tal­ity with a desire to pro­tect the inhab­i­tants of Cor­tona from plagues and dis­eases. A carved stone coat of arms hangs above the road entrance, and the bones of one, Heironymo Vagnucci, rest beneath a mar­ble slab in the tiny chapel.

A wartime sol­diers’ billet

To reach the house you turn off the nar­row road after the dahlia farm and before the cavolo nero, wres­tle with the pad­lock to open the impos­ing gates and saunter along a dap­pled avenue of tall pines and oaks, find­ing your­self finally in a sun­lit open­ing with the almost per­fectly sym­met­ri­cal dou­ble fronted facade of the green-shuttered villa to your right, and the farmer manager’s hand­some house to the left ahead. Below in a shel­tered arc of tall trees are the tea­room with its neo clas­si­cal ped­i­ment, and the ele­gant limon­aia – at present the crum­bling depos­i­tory of a reg­i­ment of empty wine bot­tles.
Walk through the dou­ble front doors of the house beneath the sun­burst fan­light and you would be wise to turn right into the dis­creetly dec­o­rated recep­tion room where God gave Diane Lane his bless­ing in the form of a splot of bird shit to the fore­head – yoghurt and poppy seeds flicked by a sharp-shooting mem­ber of the crew.
This early scene was filmed in muted half-light: the protagonist’s emo­tional progress dur­ing the film was marked by ever increas­ing illu­mi­na­tion. In fact, all the upstairs rooms are bril­liant with light, most hav­ing sun­shine hurl­ing itself through win­dows on two sides.

Sun does fur­nish a room

Down­stairs is another mat­ter, a cat­a­comb of cav­erns where the super­sti­tious vis­i­tor can all too eas­ily envis­age ghostly ser­vants pol­ish­ing pans with salt and sand in the mar­ble sink, heat­ing His Master’s bath­wa­ter in a tow­er­ing cop­per, warm­ing chapped hands at the vast Athena cen­tral heat­ing boiler, and hav­ing bus­ied with lamp black to give a proper sheen to the cast iron, brais­ing wild boar in the mag­nif­i­cent blue and white tiled Fumisti range engi­neered by Busca­gioni & Co.

A grand Ital­ian cooker

This is where vats of toma­toes were once pre­served annu­ally – the giant pan is still there — and the old wood oven is a reminder of the weekly batch of loaves. In those days fields were ploughed using the big white Chi­an­ina cows, which ulti­mately pro­vided Fiorentina steak of leg­endary flavour, and the wine had the addi­tional nuances of assorted feet in the press­ing.
A gen­er­a­tion later, there are uniden­ti­fi­able loom­ing things down here that might make the unwary shriek a lit­tle and pro­vide any small child with a lifetime’s night­mares – a puz­zle of rooms with blocked off entrances and cob­web cur­tained win­dows guar­an­teed to appeal to the latent archi­tect and to get every handyman’s juices flow­ing. Blun­der­ing about in the Sty­gian war­ren below stairs, you are aware that it has poten­tial, and not just as a Ham­mer films loca­tion. It con­nects to the south fac­ing gar­den and the teahouse.

Nowa­days the work­ing kitchen is to the left as you enter the house, in curi­ous prox­im­ity with a min­i­mal bath­room. They strike a some­what banal note, though the unusual absence of cob­webs may com­fort the faint hearted. The three spa­cious main ground floor rooms – once sep­a­rated by doors and walls – now lead through open arches from one to another. Recall the trio of Pol­ish builders burst­ing out through the front door fol­lowed by an explo­sion of plas­ter dust – that was the wall between the din­ing room and the third recep­tion room. By way of a soli­tary con­ces­sion to the paint effects mob, a skil­fully antiqued fake fresco now adorns the remain­ing wall. The direc­tor states firmly that ‘it was impor­tant to me that we not make a home dec­o­rat­ing movie, there was too much story to tell.’

This is the defin­ing char­ac­ter­is­tic of this part of Tus­cany – every peb­ble has a his­tory, exca­va­tions reveal layer after layer of Roman and Etr­uscan lives, there is always too much story to tell. The noble own­ers of Villa Laura are descended from crea­tures of leg­end, both polit­i­cal and cul­tural – Andrea Doria, scourge of French, Span­ish and Bar­bary pirates, Admi­ral of the Genoese fleet and known as ‘father of his coun­try’ was a mater­nal ances­tor, and the 19th cen­tury Teatro del Verme, Milan, com­mem­o­rates another from the father’s side.
The present owner spent child­hood hol­i­days explor­ing the mag­i­cal gar­den – climb­ing the giant stone pines that stand sen­tinel to the front door, wan­der­ing the tun­neled gloom of myr­tle and bay lead­ing from the civil­ity of the tea­room to the roman­tic wilder­ness of the tree-shrouded lake whose sur­round­ing rocks are emer­ald with moss, dip­ping a cau­tious toe in the unique cir­cu­lar water tank whose per­gola walk once dripped wis­taria blos­som, stum­bling upon indig­nant scor­pi­ons among the valer­ian grow­ing in the ruins of some past pig man­sion, dis­cov­er­ing a hel­met and a tobacco tin in a sunny patch of grass – poignant sou­venirs of the British sol­diers who were bil­leted in the chapel dur­ing WW2.
Villa Laura is an enchant­ing place, with spec­tac­u­lar views in all directions.

Ital­ians tend their land with love

The adja­cent farm manager’s house would respond bril­liantly to a bit of cre­ative thought, and the pic­turesquely over­grown gar­den has the price­less attribute of fine mature trees. After fairly exten­sive ren­o­va­tion, the com­plex of build­ings would make a small but gor­geous hotel or a fab­u­lous fam­ily home. In the words of the direc­tor, Audrey Wells, ‘What are four walls any­way? They are what they con­tain. The house pro­tects the dreamer. Unthink­ably good things can hap­pen.’ Villa Laura awaits.

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And a wonderful 2011

Happy Christ­mas

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Six Slinky Sirens do the Downward Dog

Riad Maizie — see


From 2nd to 9th Novem­ber 2010
Reprise from 14th to 21st Feb­ru­ary 2011

Maizie the Yoga Dude

Morn­ings began with a cup of tea and an hour of yoga on the roof in the sun with the glit­ter­ing snows­pan­gled peaks of the Atlas, clear and sharp in the win­ter light on one side, the Ben Saleh mosque on the other, and a loud alter­ca­tion of bird­song burst­ing from the bougainvil­lea on all sides.

Happy Yogini

We worked our way through the seven chakras one day at a time, start­ing with the Mulad­hara and ascend­ing to the Sahas­rara chakra. I was amazed by how good we all were, espe­cially Beth and Anthea who had maybe been to one yoga class twenty years before. Sheila did a per­fectly bal­anced crow, and they all man­aged the beau­ti­ful King Dancer, no prob­lem.

Sheila’s a Dancer

There was a bit of groan­ing par­tic­u­larly with the locust and the eagle, but sun­warmed savasana with cute laven­der eye bags and a spot of hyp­notic guided relax­ation soothed indig­nant and unac­cus­tomed joints and mus­cles.
This healthy exer­tion was fol­lowed by break­fast — local vanilla yoghurt, lit­tle pas­try things made by Amal, scram­bled eggs, Berber bread, fig and apri­cot pre­serve, cof­fee, tea, avo­cado and pome­gran­ate milk­shakes. It just about replaced the calo­ries lost by two rounds of surya namaskar.
Then there was usu­ally a dis­cus­sion — which sounded a lit­tle as though a fox had got into the hen­house — about how to spend the day.

Annie, shop­ping for STUFF incognito

The favourites were:
1) shop­ping for devore vel­vet caf­tans near the Badi Palace
2) dri­ving to the moun­tains, lunch by a river in a fairy­tale deserted adobe vil­lage
3) shop­ping for candy-coloured car­pets in the magic souk
4) brav­ing the mys­ter­ies of a typ­i­cal Moroc­can ham­mam
5) shop­ping for love potions and amber­gris in the spice mar­ket
6) tak­ing a horse­drawn caleche to visit Yves St. Laurent’s Jardin Majorelle
7) shop­ping for embroi­dered boots in Gueliz, the French quar­ter
8) destroy­ing the diet with ice cream and cakes in Le Prince
9) shop­ping for scarves and rain­bow bright leather bags in Souk Sema­rine
10) tak­ing a guided tour of his­toric sites with nice, clever Youssef cul­mi­nat­ing with a visit to the Berber phar­macy (Her­boriste du Par­adis), a flurry of spice buy­ing, and a shoul­der mas­sage with argan oil and arnica that trans­ported us to pink fluffy­dom.
We did it all. We also dined under the stars at La Ter­rasse des Epices, less glam­orously at Aisha’s Num­ber 1 stall in Dje­maa el Fna, and at the Marakchi over­look­ing the square where a cou­ple of trainee belly dancers made us quite dis­grun­tled by demon­strat­ing what seri­ously bendy, youth­ful peo­ple can do with­out the ben­e­fit of yoga. We ate cheap and cheer­ful up on the rooftop at Chegrouni, and had a cou­ple of feasts made by Amal and Nezza in the can­dlelit din­ing room at Riad Maizie.
The ham­mam Mille et une Nuits was a rev­e­la­tion. We went for the full €40 job with vig­or­ous clay cleans­ing, abun­dant black soap and slosh­ing, and a full hour of heav­enly argan oil and neroli mas­sage. I’m very shy of remov­ing my over­coat let alone every­thing down to my knick­ers, and had never pre­vi­ously had the courage to ven­ture into the steamy dark inte­rior of a ham­mam (men am, women pm). I was so grate­ful there­fore for my brazen mates, with whom being pum­melled and soaped, sand­pa­pered and sluiced by female Sumo wrestlers was not only bear­able, but hilar­i­ously fab­u­lous. An absolute Marakchi essen­tial, best with a cou­ple of friends. We fol­lowed it with watch­ing the bus­tle of magic and mun­dane below us in Radha Lakdima, while we downed cornes de gazelles and cof­fee on the roof of the café des epices under a Pucci sun­set.

Me doing the Beam­ing Tree

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