I had never given bathplaces much consideration until my first visit to Rome, when I discovered historical bathplaces on a grand scale.  Since then, I have learned a lot about bathplaces and visited all manner of bath places.  Public, sacred, mythical, extant and archaeological remains of bathplaces have been viewed and studied, but generally not bathed in.

One thing is constant.  The mythical bathplaces are in drop dead beautiful surroundings.  Does this raise a tiny suspicion that tourists will be more attracted to a historical bathplace if it is in beautiful surroundings.  Alternatively, maybe historical and mythical figures only inhabited beautiful locations.

Rome gives us numerous bathplaces.  The baths of Caracella were apparently the second largest bathing complex.  There were cold, warm and hot baths, steam rooms and a large outdoor pool.  These are clearly bathplaces for the masses, and accommodated about 1600 bathers at a time. Mosaics, marble and sculptures decorated the baths.

Cyprus claims fame to two bathplaces, of the mythical type.  Aphrodite’s bathplace is near Polis.  The views on the way to the bathplace were far more enticing than the actual bathplace, which looked like a stagnant pond.  A great deal of imagination was required to envisage anyone bathing in the pond in the hope of attracting Adonis.  The trees around the the pond included a very nice eucaplyptus and I could imagine Adonis lurking among the trees.

Adonis’s bathplace is near Paphos, close to Kili village.  His bathplace also includes waterfalls, and swimming is possible.   Adonis died in Aphrodite’s arms in the pool – a better place to die than Aphrodite’s stagnant pond.  Well that is one version of his death.  I prefer the death by wild boar attack version.  Aphrodite, when running to help him, was pricked on the foot by a thorn.  Her divine blood dyed all the white roses red.  Imagine life without red roses.

Cleopatra had a bathplace at Siwa, in Egypt.  From my sumptuous couch, sipping my tea and eating dates I thought that Cleopatra probably lounged in the same place and enjoyed the same view.  She probably had wine, not tea and would not have heard, as I did, the sounds of a hard fought game of table tennis.  The pool was a murky shade of green, and not at all enticing.  I was disappointed to discover that there is no evidence of Cleopatra visiting Siwa, let alone bathing in the pool.

Lawrence of Arabia’s bathplace in the Wadi Rum, Jordan is approached through a cleft in towering cliffs, not far from the seven pillars of wisdom.  As the opening in the rocks narrrows, ancient petroglyphs can be seen, etched into the cliff walls.  Petroglyphs in the Wadi Rum evidence 12,000 years of human occupation, dating back to Thamudic times.  Lawrences bathplace pales into insignificance.  I didn’t quite reach the bathplace.  I slipped into a deep mud puddle from the rocky ledge I was navigating.  I could see several larger mud puddles beyond, which were too wide for me to jump over, so I opted for further petroglyph viewings.  I wonder if Lawrence appreciated the ancient rock art on the cliffs approaching his bath place.

The Queen of Sheba’s bath place in Ethiopia is possibly in the same realm as her palace near Lalibela – a myth.  The bathplace looked more like a lake, held back by a dam.  The archaeological site which was her palace has been found to contain building material dating from a few hundred years after she was around.

Possibly the most confronting sacred bath place is the Ganges, at Varanasi.  Setting out just before dawn in a very decrepit rowboat to view the sunrise and observe the faithful bathing in the Ganges was an experience I shall never forget.  Not because I found it sacred, but because the whole scene resembled a version of Dante’s Inferno.  The burning ghats looked liked the seventh level of hell.  The ghats were crowded.  The Ganges looked threateneing (to me).  The sun rising over the Ganges changed my perspecive.  The people bathing looked joyful and happy.  Is this what faith does for you?  Joy and happiness in a most polluted environment.

Hinemoa’s bathplace is a natural hot spring at Hinemoa Point, on Mokoia Island in lake Rotorua, New Zealand.  Hinemoa swam out to Mokia Island at night to meet her forbidden lover, Tutanekai, and recovered from the swim by soaking in a hot pool on Mokoai Island.

Contemplating these various bathplaces brings me consider G’mas place in history.  Where is her bathplace?  Okoririe hot pools in New Zealand is that place.  Not that these hotpools have been designated as such, but Gma is working on it.


Myths and Legends – in search of St George and the Dragon

Myths and Legends – in search of St George and the Dragon

I had always assumed that St George was English. After all, he is the patron Saint of England and the English flag is the St George Cross. He apparently rode at the head of a group of Crusaders on their way to wreak havoc somewhere.

It was not until I started travelling that I began to notice images of St George in numerous countries other than England. St George also patronises lots of other places and organisations. He is the patron saint of Russia, Georgia (Caucasus), Ethiopia, Greece, Lithuania, Portugal and Venice, and other countries. The list varies.

St George is apparently one of the most venerated saints in many religions, including Catholicism, Anglican, Orthodox, East Syrian and Miaphysite Churches. He may, or may not have been born in Cappadocia, and was possibly a member of the Praetorian Guard for the Roman Emperor Diocletian.

Diocletian had St George executed in AD303 for refusing to recant the Christian faith.

Although St George is mythologised in the story of him slaying the dragon, the dragon was only recorded in the 11th century. He was quite obviously much more than a dragon slayer.

I do enjoy looking at the dragons, and the variation of dragons is vast. In fact it really was the dragons which initially caught my interest. Were the artists influenced by their culture and the period during which they lived? Or were they having a Hieronymus Bosch moment? Were there dragons about, on which the artists based their images? I have yet to come to any conclusion.

My hunting ground for St George is generally in churches and galleries, although not exclusively. A recent stroll around Stockholm produced a most interesting sculpture, with a very fearsome dragon.

A visit to the Italian Chapel in Lamb Holm, Orkney Islands, constructed by Italian POW’s during WWII, yielded a war memorial sculpture of St George slaying a less than fearsome looking dragon.

The Cathedral of the Assumption (Dormiton Cathedral) in the Kremlin in Moscow has one of the oldest icons, the 12th century red clothed St George, which came from Novgorod

The Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow contains numerous images and icons of St George, including what is believed to be the oldest known icon, from around 1030AD. A stone relief carving of St George slaying the dragon, adorns the entry to the Tretyakov Gallery.

The Church of the Savior on Spilled Blood in St Petersburg is a glorious confection. On a dull day it resembles an extremely decorative gingerbread castle. When the sun is shining, it resembles a brightly coloured marzipan creation. Mosaic portraits of saints, including St George adorn parts of the exterior.

St George could not be ignored in Georgia. He was everywhere. Murals, icons and glittering in gold atop a pole. There were several murals depicting St George slaying Diocletian, who looked like a very colourful dragon. Artists revenge.

Ethiopia is pretty big on St George. He is the patron saint of the country and the Ethiopian Orthodox Church and appears frequently in religious art and iconography. I found images in Addis Ababa, Lake Tana, Aksum and Lalibela. One of the 11 rock hewn monolithic churches in Lalibela, Bet Giyorgis is dedicated to St George.

Religious art and iconography in Ethiopia is joyful and a riot of colour. The dragon generally has a black devil sitting on it somewhere. A dragon, in the Middle Ages was often used to represent the devil, so adding a devil to the image is perhaps visually reinforcing the battle of good against evil.

Stone carved St George slaying the dragon are fairly common above church entrances in Sicily.

The St George legend came to Australia with the British in 1788. After colonization, the British in Australia used St George’s name for churches, suburbs, streets, rivers and regions in the Colony. It may be time to change the names of rivers and regions back to the names used by the First People. Clearly St George was not part of their story.

St George’s Cathedral in Perth, WA has a most interesting modern sculpture, titled Ascalon. “Ascalon was the name of St George’s lance in mediaeval romances, and is derived from the city of Ashkelon in Israel.”

Ascalon – “an abstract interpretation of the of the story of St George and the dragon.” Perth WA.

In case it is not immediately apparent that this sculpture depicts St George slaying the dragon, the description plaque on the sculpture reads “The angled pole, white billow and black base are reminiscent of the lance of St George, the cloak and steed of St George and the defeated body of the dragon.”

St George has, in today’s terms “huge market penetration and brand recognition” in numerous parts of the world. I do not recall any other Saint having such recognition. I like to think the dragon assisted. Without the dragon, St George may have remained a local saint, confined to the areas he inhabited.

Sweers Island – Gulf of Carpentaria

Sweers Island – Gulf of Carpentaria

Getting to Sweers Island is an adventure in itself. I flew on a commercial flight from Sydney to Brisbane, and then a small four seater charter flight to Sweers Island.

The adventure included refuelling stops at Chinchilla, Charleville, Longreach, Cloncurry and Burketown, all Australian outback towns, none of which I had visited. The Australian outback has to be seen from above, preferably in a small plane to attain any comprehension of its vastness. We only flew a distance of approximately 1738km, leaving Brisbane at around 7.30am, and arriving in Burketown at around 5.30pm. That very small part of the outback can only provide a fleeting taste of the emptiness of Australia.

Burketown was our final stop for the day. After bedding down the plane for the night, we went to Savannah Lodge in Burketown. What a lovely oasis it turned out to be. Relaxing on the verandah, surrounded by tropical vegetation, sipping a cold G & T, contemplating whether a dip in the pool would be pain or pleasure, I felt as if I had reached my Nirvana.

It is only a short flight from Burketown to Sweers Island. The salt mudflats, seen from above look like exquisite works of art.

Sweers Island, from above, looks like a little jewel.

Sweers Island Resort is a fishing lodge. For anyone who loves fishing, it is a little paradise. Maybe at this point I should wash my mouth out, but Sweers Island has so much more to offer than fantastic fishing.

Sweers Island is traditionally owned by the Kaiadilt people. One of the middens on Sweers Island contains shells dating back 5000 years. There are also aboriginal fish traps, although more fish traps are visible on nearby Bentinck Island, dating back 2000 years.

The birdlife around the island is rich and varied. A bird list, compiled by Lyn Battle, one of the owners of the resort, lists 114 species which have been seen on the island. I loved watching the Brolgas, daintily stepping out on the beach, running through the bush and flying. The Bustards were very entertaining, strutting around the resort as if they owned the place. Flocks of black cockatoos showed off the bright red splash under their wings. The wagtails flitted about. This one was right outside the window.

Willy Wagtail

The sunsets were spectacular. What better way to feel at peace with the world than to watch the sun go down in paradise, accompanied by a NZ Sauvignon Blanc.

A toast to the end of a splendid day.

We set off late one afternoon to walk along the beach to the red cliffs, to watch them turn red as the sinking sun hit them. In order to totally appreciate the spectacle, we had gin and tonic to toast the going down of the sun. Glasses. Who needs them – especially when you have forgotten them. A bit of deft juggling with water and tonic bottles provided an alternative to a glass.

I learned a lot about the aboriginal and European history of Sweers Island from Tex Battle, who owns and operates the Resort with Lyn. Middens and fish traps well predate European “discovery”. Early explorers visited, the name of Flinders ship, the Investigator was carved into a tree, known as the Investigator tree (what was left of the tree was sent to Brisbane), initials of William Landsborough, who was searching for Burke and Wills, and date of 1866 are carved on the walls of a cave, there are wells, an old lime kiln and old graves.

Sweers Island is a little bit of paradise in the gulf of Carpentaria. For those who love to fish, it is a perfect place to be. The Resort provides boats, and much more for fisher persons. For a non fisher person, there are beaches to explore, an enchanted forest to picnic in, birdwatching and lots of historical sites to visit.

To see what Sweers Island Resort has to offer, visit their website

Travels with Lolly Girl.

Travels with Lolly Girl.

Lolly girl and gma go back a long way. Further than I care to think about. From child brides in a small parochial country at the end of the earth, to mature travellers. Having dispensed with the child grooms, and seen our children grow up and move on, we had no ties. The world was our oyster.

Lake Taupo, Mt Tongariro and Mt Ruapehi

Gma dispensed with the husband, and escaped the small parochial country fairly early in the piece. Lolly girl still lives in the small parochial country, but that country has matured, and is currently a far kinder place than the place to which gma escaped.

Lolly girl and I are not alike, but the differences make for a harmonious relationship. I am a relaxed traveller. Lolly girl, on the other hand, is a very anxious traveller. Her anxieties have occasionally saved us from disaster when my relaxed mode of operation would have had us stranded.

On a recent visit to Oslo, my city mapper took us to a wharf from which we were to depart on a trip around the fjords. Gma is happily sitting in the sun, relaxed and not bothering about the fact that there was no boat in sight, and no people. Lolly girl, getting anxious about no boat and no people indicates that she is going to “make enquiries”. Gma rolls her eyes, and continues to lounge in the sun. Turns out that we are on the wrong wharf, and only just had time to get to the correct wharf, where a queue of thousands were waiting for the boat. Last on, meant worst seats.

Early on we had travelled together to London, and around places nearby. Lolly girl was born in a south coast seaside town in Sussex, and had migrated with her family to the parochial country at the end of the world as a child. She was moderately comfortable travelling in the country of her birth, where the language was similar to that of the parochial country. She was less comfortable with the journey.

On one occasion the landing at Heathrow was aborted and our plane roared up into the fog covering London – an obstacle on the runway we were told. As we circled past Windsor Castle for the third time, Lolly Girl was extremely anxious. “What if we run out of fuel”. We won’t, we will go elsewhere to land”. “Nooo, we can’t X is waiting at Heathrow to meet us.”

Lolly Girl’s biggest challenge was joining Gma in Istanbul. Gma had been travelling in Eastern Turkey, and was returning to the antipodes from Istanbul. Lolly Girl was in London, and had to travel on her own, and get herself from the airport to the hotel in Istanbul. Neither Lolly Girl or Gma could believe it when she booked on line, and actually hit the “buy” button on the airline site.

There followed a few weeks of “oh my god, what have I done” from Lolly Girl, which ramped up when demonstrations began in Taksim Square. Our hotel was in Sultanahmet on Kennedy Cardesi, just down the hill from the Blue Mosque. Geographically we were a reasonable distance from Taksim Square, so after consulting the map, Lolly Girl relaxed – kind of.

Lolly Girl emerged, triumphant from the taxi at the hotel in Istanbul, ready to explore. She took everything in her stride. The incredible beauty of the mosques overcame any residual anxiety Lolly Girl had for her first encounter with Islam.

We were sitting on the terrace of our hotel, overlooking the Sea of Marmara one evening, when the relaxed mode moved abruptly to not relaxed. Plumes of smoke could be seen from Taksim Square, and what appeared to be a naval boat came chugging into view.

A glass of wine restored equilubrium, even though the smoke from Taksim Square was still billowing. The boat had disappeared from view.

After an epic fail of our GPS in Scotland – which instead of taking us north toward Ballater, took us up a road which became narrower and narrower and then turned into a track, ending at the grand gates of a mansion beyond, Lolly Girl decided we needed paper maps as a back up. Gma does further eye rolls, but Lolly girl was not daunted.

As it happened, it was as well that Lolly Girl had paper maps when we got to Ireland. The GPS was unable to cope with numerous places, and on several occasions took us up a roads which led nowhere near our destination. It was beyond the ability of the GPS to take us to a village in Kilkenny, where a part of my family had originated. Actually, it was also beyond the ability of Lolly Girl and her paper maps to get us there. We retired, hurt, to a pub for lunch. Lolly girl accosted a staff member for directions, and we finally made it to Galmoy.

Gma considers it a huge fail if directions have to be sought, and refuses to ever ask for assistance. It is very fortuitous for our travels that Lolly Girl is happy to ask for directions. If she wasn’t, we would be driving around in ever diminishing circles forever, never getting to our destination.

The distrust of the GPS can have some issues. On a trip to the Lake District, the GPS was working well. Lolly Girl nevertheless had the paper maps to hand. Approaching huge roundabouts, just as the GPS lady started instructing which exit to take, Lolly Girl would instruct me which exit she thought we should take, drowning out the GPS lady, and occasionally had the GPS lady hysterically yelling at us take a U turn. Finally we had to decide which of the GPS or Lolly Girl was excess to requirements.

Gma generally drives. One year Lolly Girl borrowed a car in London, which she had to drive. The car was a Porsche Boxter S.

Lolly Girl was anxious about the drive out of London, and most anxious about driving a Porsche. Our first journey was to York. We did all right under the circumstances. Going through a red light on a roundabout 5 minutes from home set the pace.

Driving up the M1 was memorable. Here we were in the Porsche crawling in the far left lane, with every other vehicle overtaking us, including big trucks and buses, the latter towering over us like a huge block of flats on wheels. Our windows seemed to be level with the top of their tyres.

We then journeyed south to visit the seaside town which Lolly Girl had come from, in Sussex. Lolly Girl was far more relaxed – the A roads suited her better than the M1. It had been snowing heavily, but the roads were cleared. Lolly Girl’s friends were not relaxed about a Porsche being parked in the street, so their car was unceremoniously moved onto the street to allow the Porsche to be locked into the garage.

It was rather fun emerging from the Porsche at country petrol stations. We whooshed into the forecourt – the young male attendants came rushing out. The looks on their faces when Lolly Girl and Gma unfolded themselves out of the car was priceless.

Gma is generally the travel agent and tour group leader. A more agreeable travelling companion than Lolly Girl would be hard to find. No matter how hideous the accommodation or travel turns out, she does not complain. Gma had booked a serviced apartment in Reykjavic. It looked very pleasant on its website, and was very close to everything. Emerging from the airport bus, Gma was quite suprised at the direction the city tripper was taking us. It certainly wasn’t the direction Gma thought it would be.

It turned out that the serviced apartment owners had several buildings, and put us in a different building than Gma had booked. The apartment was a hovel, for which we had paid non hovel prices. Lolly Girl was extremely kind about the hovel, and its smell, although she did produce a bottle of french perfume which was liberally sprayed around the hovel.

The act of travelling makes Lolly Girl anxious. We were catching a train from Copenhagen to Oslo, with a change at Gothenburg. On reaching the Copenhagen railway station, Lolly Girl zips off to ascertain which platform we were departing from. “Its not on the list of departures.” We were early, so sat down to wait, with Lolly Girl darting off to check departures. Anxiety sets in when trains later than ours are on the board.

Gma goes off to check the departures board, found the train and platform. Seems Lolly Girl was looking at the arrivals screen. When we arrived in Gothenburg, our train for Oslo was there, but locked. We did have about 45 minutes, but because it was not possible to reserve seats, people started standing in front of locked doors to make sure they got their seat of choice, and somewhere to stow their bags. Gma was consuming coffee and not inclined to move from her sunny spot to stand in a wind tunnel for 20 minutes. Lolly Girl put up with Gma’s indolence for fully 5 minutes, then moved off to stand behind the first person in the line at the locked door of choice.

Gma idly wondered if Lolly Girl had any idea of the scrum which eventuates when the doors open, and thought about warning her that coming in from the side was more effective if you were not the first person in the queue, and that using your suitcase as a weapon was required.

The doors open. Gma loses sight of Lolly Girl as the crowd surges forward, the side flanks moving in with precision. By the time Gma gets on the train, Lolly Girl has secured the 2 best seats in the carriage, and has obtained spots for the bags. Gma is duly grateful, and graciously declines the offer to sit at the window. Lolly girl is quite shaken by the experience of kill or be killed, although she most admirably was not killed, and reigned triumphant.

Some of Gmas happiest travel experiences have been with Lolly Girl. Getting drunk and disorderly with Lolly Girl around the world for the rest of Gma’s travelling life would be a joy.

Caucasus Part 3 – Armenia

Caucasus Part 3 – Armenia
Haghpat Monastery

Armenia has a lot of monasteries. Within 18 km of the Georgian border, we visited the monasteries of Haghpat and Sanahin founded between the 10th and 13th centuries. They are set on a mountain surrounded by rolling hills, very green grass, numerous varieties of colourful wildflowers, with views into the Debed gorge.

The serenity and beauty could only have encouraged the monks to eat, pray and love (the beauty of the landscape) and create a library.

The stone bas reliefs in the Armenian churches and monasteries seduced me from the moment I set eyes on the first ones at Haghpat. I have always regretted not buying a book I found in Yerevan, which contained a huge collection of images of bas reliefs in Armenia.

Bas relief of Kings Smbat and Gourgen holding a model of the church at Haghpat Monastery.
Sanahin monastery.

Even the services of Mrs Sour, a sullen, angry, anti Turkish and pro-Soviet Armenian guide, did not spoil Yerevan – although it certainly meant that her choice of restaurant and entertainment provided me with a prejudiced view of both. One meal, which was particularly disgusting, consisted of a lump of white stuff, optimistically called meat, and a mess of stuff called wheat. The entertainment that evening was dreadful. Singing so bad that it could not distract me from the food.

Hilary Clinton made my brandy tasting experience less than optimum. I had been looking forward to my late afternoon visit to the Yerevan Brandy company which produces Ararat, a cognac style brandy. A tasting had been arranged before dinner. Brandy tasting in the morning it not quite the same, but that is what we did.

Clinton was in Yerevan expressing concern over border clashes between Armenia and Azerbaijan – and to taste brandy apparently. Hers was the morning slot we ended up with, and she got our spot. Perhaps her concerns would have been less concerned after brandy. I hope she enjoyed her pre dinner brandy.

Mrs Sour donned her anti Turkish hat for a visit to Sardarapat, a war memorial commemorating the place where the Armenians turned back the invading Turkish troops. Mrs Sour also provided commentary on the “genocide” of Armenians in Eastern Turkey. In fairness to Mrs Sour, on a later visit to Eastern Turkey the Turkish guide, though not sour, completely denied that a genocide had occurred. She said the Armenians had all started moving back to Armenia, and had died of illness on the way.

Sardarapat Memorial.

Mrs Sour had a bit to say about Mt Ararat. She stated that Ararat has always been considered by Armenians as their spiritual home, and that it should not be in Turkey. Mt Ararat loomed large on the horizon, and I had a perfect view of it from my hotel room.

Enjoying a glass of wine on my balcony that night looking out to Mt Ararat, I did a quick search and discovered that over the centuries Mt Ararat had been contained within many countries borders. It seemed that during the Bagratuni Dynasty around 9th century CE, Ararat was in Armenia, but was annexed by the Byzantines, and various others in the late 12th century for a century or so. The Ottoman Empire claimed it in the 1400’s. It wasn’t part of Armenia again until 1918 until 1923. The area had become part of the Soviet Union, and following the Treaty of Kars in 1923 which carved up the area, Ararat was placed in Turkey.

There is obviously something I have missed, because Ararat has only been part of Armenia for a very small period in the scheme of things. The passion seemed misplaced. On a later vist to eastern Turkey, I visited Dogubayazit, which is close to Mt Ararat. I discerned no passion about the mountain at all from the Turkish guide. Maybe the mountain should go to the passionate.

Geghard Monastery

This medieval monastery is sited in a canyon, and was carved out of rock from the top down. There are a number of churches, bas reliefs and tombs in the complex. The monastery no doubt attracted a lot of pilgrims as it was said to contain the spear used by a Roman soldier to stab Jesus and a part of Noah’s Ark. Lucrative indeed to have 2 relics. The hole in the centre of a dome allows a ray of light to shine into a church, which at certain times of the day would no doubt shine onto something significent would also have encouraged pilgrims.

Lunching in a garden near Lake Sevan, shaded by huge mulberry, apricot and fully laden cherry trees, I watched 2 women making bread in a floor oven heated by a fire. One woman rolled out the dough, threw it to the other woman who tossed it around until it was very thin. The dough was then slapped onto what looked like a large pillow, which was then placed against the side of the oven, leaving the dough to cook. The bread was delicious.

Lake Sevan is spectacular, perched 1900m above sea level and surrounded by stark volcanic highlands and plains. On its only island – now a peninsula – sits the medieval Sevanavank monastery, which is reached by climbing a long flight of steps, with wonderful views of the lake and snow topped mountains in the distance.

Sevanavank Monastery.

Yerevan boasts a singing and dancing fountain. I ventured out into Republic square in front of our hotel to view this one evening. I kid you not, the fountains really do dance. The music that night was from Aida, and the fountains did justice to the music.

Temple of Garni

This hellenic temple, dedicated to Helios was once a pagan temple. It was built in the 1st century CE, and collapsed in an earthquake the 17th century CE. It rose from the dead, being reconstructed in the mid 20th century.

St Gregory the Illuminator Cathedral Yerevan.

St Gregory, also called Yerevan Cathedral is modern cathedral, which was completed in 2001. It celebrates the 1700th anniversary of christianity in Armenia, and has beautifully decorated ceilings. This was the only church we visited which was a functioning place of worship.

Traditional Armenian hand made dolls.

Miss Sour became a little less sour, and ever so slightly animated when we visited the creator of these beautiful traditional dolls, in her home. Her home was in one of the Soviet style apartment blocks, one less than pleasant legacy the Soviets seem to have left everywhere they occupied.

The doll creator is a nuclear physicist, but now creates and exports dolls. She has won many prizes for her creations, and the dolls range in size from these small examples to almost baby sized.

The reason for Miss Sour’s slight animation became apparent while we were being shown the dolls. She had a platform and an example for her pro-Soviet views. She treated us to a tirade about how much better off Armenians were under Soviet rule. They had homes provided, education was free, as was medicine. There was full employment. The doll creator was an example. Educated and then employed as a nuclear physicist. No such roles were available without the Soviets, so in order to support herself the nuclear physicist created and exported dolls.

The Ruins of Zvartnots Temple

This temple, was constructed in the 7th century CE, destroyed by an earthquake in the 10th century CE, and partially reconstructed in the mid 20th century. While exploring these ruins we were captivated by the voices of opera singers from the Yerevan opera. They were singing among the ruins without accompaniment, other than birdsong from the numerous birds darting and soaring above us. A joyful encounter, listening to beautiful voices and looking across to Mt Ararat.

It would have been most interesting to talk to a larger cross section of the populations of each of the countries visited. Conclusions based on such very limited encounters are impossible to come to. Azerbaijan, a muslim country, felt quite different to Georgia, which is chistian. Georgia and Armenia are both christian countries, but Georgia seemed a great deal more joyful than Armenia. If Miss Sour is indicative, perhaps the Armenians mourn the break up of the Soviet Union and the Georgians do not.

Noah’s Arc

There are so many examples of Mt Ararat and Noah’s Arc in Armenia from ornaments such as these to the coat of arms which incorporates a silhouette of Mt Ararat. I saw few such symbols in Eastern Turkey. Maybe the mountain should go to Armenia. The people may then compete with Georgia for joyfulness.

From Catholic to Atheist

This journey took a few years to complete, although even as a child, doubts were creeping in from a very early part of the journey.

My ancestry on the maternal side, is Irish Catholic. My grandparents and their siblings were very devout. The church was a huge part of their lives, and I acknowledge that towards the end of their lives, they derived great comfort from their church.

My early brushes with the church were not encouraging. The mass was celebrated in Latin, which was extremely boring to a non latin speaker, although looking back “this is the blood our our Lord Jesus Christ” sounds a great deal better in its latin version. The sermon was the only understandable part, and it was never cheerful.

I grew up in a small village. There was a catholic church, where the priest from the nearest town celebrated mass on every second Saturday and third Sunday of the month. Since it was a sin to miss mass on Sunday, and because very few people had cars to enable them to drive to the nearest town, I did wonder why it was a sin, if it wasn’t possible to attend mass every Sunday. For my part, I was very happy to only have to sit through a mass twice a month.

The time came for my first communion. It was decided that I should do this in the town where my mother grew up, and where her parents lived. The reason for this, as I discovered later, was that my grandfather, who had not attended mass for many years for a reason I will get to, was looking for an excuse to return to the fold. I was the oldest grandchild, and the first to take holy communion, and he wanted to use that as his reason for rejoining the faith.

My instruction was conducted privately by the parish priest in this town. I still have the vision of this man, holding a large piece of cardboard, theatrically tearing a piece off and throwing it over his shoulder to illustrate what happened to my soul every time I committed a sin. A venal sin attracted a small piece of cardboard, but a mortal sin saw a huge lump of cardboard consigned to the heap behind him.

The only way for one’s soul to become whole was to be truly penitant and confess to these transgressions. Absolution from the priest hearing your confession only worked if you were truly penitant.

The big day arrives. My first confession. My grandfather accompanied me, as he, for the first time in 15 years, is also going to confession. Let me digress a little. My grandfather was very well known in this town, and he and my grandmother entertained priests and nuns (nuns for lunch, priests for dinner, with whisky). The priests were very happy to welcome my grandfather back into the fold.

I had a lot of trouble with sins. I couldn’t think of anything sinful I had done. As a precaution, I ate some meat on the prior Friday, and muttered something rude to my mother, under my breath. These became my stock sins over the few years I was involved.

Some years later, for some reason, eating meat on Friday was no longer a sin. I found it confusing. How could it be a sin yesterday and not today. Even more confusing was the fact that the Auckland diocese adopted this before the diocese I lived in. If I lived in Auckland it wasn’t a sin, but living where I did, it was. I lost a stock sin.

“Forgive me father for I have sinned. This is my first confession.” At the prompt, “eating meat on Friday, missing mass on Sunday and being rude to my mother”. My penance, 5 our Fathers and 5 hail Marys’.

Grandfather must have had, at the very least “missing mass on Sunday for 15 years”. I assume he may well have taken the “Lord thy God’s” name in vain, although maybe “Mary Joseph and Jesus” preceding a complaint didn’t count. His penance. One our Father. The inequity of this did not strike me for several years.

I have no recollection of actually taking my first communion. I do recall being particularly happy with the gift of a prayer book, with prayers in Latin on one page, and opposite, an English version.

I was devout for a short period. An Aunt went to Lourdes and Rome. She bought all her nieces back a bottle of holy water from Lourdes, and some rosary beads from Rome. I acquired a white plastic holy water font and placed it outside my bedroom door. The Lourdes water went into this. All those who entered were expected to bless themselves. I wore a devotional scapular for a short period.

Fortunately there was no convent school in the village where I grew up, so I was mostly spared the horror of being educated by the nuns. I say mostly. I was enrolled for a few months at the catholic primary school in the town where my mother grew up. Sister Kevin was my class teacher. She had taught my grandfather, my mother and her 2 sisters. I cannot believe that Sister Kevin could ever have entered the kingdom of heaven. She was the most sadistic unkind human I have ever come across.

I was compared, to my detriment, to my mother and grandfather. My mother says she was likewise compared to her detriment to her father. I was shocked to be hit with a lead lined ruler for being unable to spell “crucifix”. My state school education to that point had not included that word in my spelling lists.

Sister Kevin took great pleasure in humiliating the children in her class. I forgot to bring a hat on a day the school was attending mass. Sister Kevin made me wear my red raincoat, which had a hood. One of the boys in the class drew on his leg. Sister Kevin made him stand on her desk, and she sandpapered the drawing off his leg.

The time came for my confirmation. I did not wish to be confirmed. My earlier spurt of devoutness has long since disappeared. Being a “bride of Christ” was not something I aspired to. My wishes were irrelevant. Decked out in a white frock and veil, I did indeed become a bride of Christ.

A very unhappy candidate to be a bride of Christ.

I have been an atheist for my entire adult life.

As a postscript. Why did my grandfather cease attending mass? He had 3 daughters, the 2 eldest of whom wished to attend university. The catholic girls high school in their town did not take girls to matriculation level. My grandparents enrolled those daughters in the state school, which would give them the opportunity to matriculate. Matriculate they did, and both of them went to university and obtained a BA.

The nuns attended upon my very devout grandmother to advise her that it was a sin to allow her daughters to attend the state school, and that she would be unable to take the sacrament if she allowed this to happen.

My grandfather, who ate and drank with, and played sport with the local priests, and who was a “mate” in todays terms, went off to talk to the priests. Their response “if god intended your daughters to attend university, he would have ensured their school would take them to matriculation.” My grandfather was so shocked that they would not relent and allow my grandmother to take communion, that he ceased attending mass.

Visiting J

Last Tuesday I visited J at a retirement village. J is a friend of 45 years standing and has recently moved from his own spaious apartment into a residentail care facility. I was looking forward to seeing him in his new surroundings, although I was concerned for him that he was now living in one room.

J had led an adventurious and busy life. He joined the Australian Navy in 1943 and spent the finalyears of World War 2 on a minesweeper around the Pacific region. He lived and worked in various Pacific Islands after his discharge from the navy, built his own boat, and spent a lot of leisure time fishing. He was extremely active in retirement. He travelled extensively. He spent a lot of time on his boat, and was a member of the local coastal patrol.

I was relieved to find that J was not unhappy in his new home. Now that he no longer has to worry about the daily responsibilities of life, he is relaxed. He has his music. There is room for a small assortment of fine wine and whisky. He is busy writing his memoirs. His room opens onto a colorful, well maintained garden, which he has no responsibility to maintain. Family and friends visit and he is active on social media.

My concern was misplaced. Over the past decade, J was less able to participate in the physical activities he enjoyed. He can no longer travel. Looking after a home was becoming a burden.

I understood that there is a time for everything, and now is the right time for J to live in one room in retirement village.