November 2012

Posted by Ellen

More than four millennia ago, people who called themselves Sicels built a town atop this hill, 300 meters above small streams in the steep-sided limestone valleys of southern Sicily.

Then came the Greeks and briefly the Carthaginians, then the Romans, the Byzantines, the Arabs, and finally, in the eleventh century, the Normans. The town had its name by then, Ragusa. As part of the Kingdom of Sicily, it slipped out from under control of the Norman duke Geoffrey and became a fief of the Chiaramontes, the most powerful family in Sicily.

At first glance, Ragusa's many centuries, particularly its medieval times, appear plain in the architecture and plan of the town clinging to the hill. But that's an illusion; almost everything here postdates a severe earthquake in 1692, which killed thousands of people and destroyed almost all the buildings, including a very large Gothic cathedral.

What we see today is Ragusa rebuilt, in the early eighteenth century, in the style known as Sicilian baroque. We also see Ragusa stratified; the rich people moved over to the next hill to rebuild their homes and churches–Ragusa Superiore–while the poor stayed where they were, rebuilding in the rubble– Ragusa Inferiore, known today as Ragusa Ibra.

Of the two Ragusas–essentially identical in age and architectural style–the poor folks' town, featured in this photo, attracts more attention from twenty-first-century tourists and is generally considered the more picturesque. The replacement for the ruined cathedral, however, is in Ragusa Superiore.

As an American, I have my doubts about places that look like this; I sniff Walt Disney and/or Hollywood and/or Colonial Williamsburg in the so-called Sicilian air. I fear this is a town populated by characters in costume whose main role in life is to get me to part with my money. But you know what? I'll take the risk. And if I ever get to Sicily . . . I can't promise I'll come back.

Posted by Ellen

New York and New Jersey are mostly back on the grid, we hear, though there are stories, still, of people stranded in the cold and dark ever since that storm called Sandy. But last weekend, these electric Stein women–Amelia, Maggie, and their mother Sue–lit up Manhattan as they swept into town with glowing high spirits. 

On the lightship Nantucket, we're told, docked at Pier 24 in TriBeCa, something was going on that involved wineglasses. Maggie, the daughter described by her mother as a "crafty sailor," apparently did a creditable turn at the ship's wheel without even setting down her glass. "Bet they don't teach that at Annapolis," observed Sue. 

Posted by Ellen

The window of the golden key, in Bogotá, Colombia.

Posted by Ellen

When you get a day in November that's t-shirt warm, it just seems right to get up on the roof. There were drainspouts to clear and trees to trim, debris to sweep up and . . . pictures to take.

Today's rooftop picture features our neighbors Carolyn and Frank; Carolyn works the pole trimmer while Frank hooks a finger in her beltloop to keep her safe.

Looking into the treetops, it became obvious that this year's fall weather has mostly been so mild that the leaves are only just now beginning to behave fallishly. But we trimmed the trees back so far that almost all the remaining leaves will eventually drop on the street or the sidewalk, not on top of the houses.

Posted by Ellen

They're asking 7000 Euros in Amsterdam for this trompe l'oeil coat made of wood.

Posted by Ellen

The new library building of the Ahmed Baba Institute in Timbuktu, designed by South African architect Andre Spies, sits at the edge of the Sahara Desert– for all intents and purposes at the edge of the world.

Timbuktu has always been miles from nowhere, and the sands of the Saharan nowhere are now blowing through its streets. Years of desertification have spread the Sahara southward, through Timbuktu and beyond across much of Mali and surrounding parts of West Africa.

The Institute was built in part as an archive to preserve ancient documents and religious texts, many of which had survived to the present day by being buried out in the desert. Its architecture was intended to echo the vernacular style, in which most buildings are constructed of mud, with thick, fortress-like walls. Needless to say, many Malians criticize the design as far too modern.

Posted by Ellen

Looked out of my upstairs window a month or so ago, and there at the edge of the roof across the street was Samantha, a gargoyling sort of cat who'd followed her mistress up a ladder onto the roof and then, of course, refused to climb back down. Cats apparently missed the memo about going down ladders tail-first.

My neighbor eventually tossed Samantha down onto a second-story deck; she landed feet first and none the worse for wear–and by all accounts eager to get back up on the roof again.

Posted by Ellen

After the wedding venue kicked everybody out around midnight, the party moved to a bar across the street.

Posted by Ellen

Hank Stein was recently sworn in as a senator in the University of Montana student government. Here, he and his roommate show off their matching shoes.

Posted by Ellen

In the late 1930s and early 1940s, a few photographers from the U.S. government's New Deal documentation projects shot a handful of pictures using a newfangled technology: color film. This is one of the surviving prints, probably taken in 1939 by an unknown photographer believed to have been working with the Farm Security Administration.

The girls, who are described in the photo caption as "playing in a park near Union Station in Washington, D.C.,"  are holding osage oranges in their hands. Based on other images in the set, they may have been on the grounds of the United States Capitol building.