An Invitation to my Followers

You may have noticed that I have been quiet lately. There were two main causes for this. First, I had to deal with some personal issues (yes, again) which are still ongoing – actually, a person I love is having health problems, which is of course affecting me and my time since taking care of him is a priority.

Secondly, I have recently decided to create another blog apart from this one – which is totally dedicated to Travelling. Do not misunderstand me, I love this blog. It has been a place to vent and share experiences for over eight years BUT to be fair, it has also become a many-tentacled monster, tackling so many different categories and subjects that things were becoming too chaotic. This is why I decided to de-clutter a bit. I will continue to use this space to write personal stuff, such as opinion and lifestyle pieces, book and movie reviews, and articles about my own country – Malta, while having another blog to deal with my travel experiences and tips (of which I have many).

I hope there is no confusion, even though I admit that at the moment some things seem to be all over the place. The ‘Travel’ section of this blog is still there, yet slowly, I will start shifting articles about travelling from this blog to the new one, and then deleting the ‘Travel’ section from this site altogether. The Travel blog – Meandering Moonsong – is still in its infancy, but I am very very proud of it and happy to be starting on this new venture.

I would be happy if you could join me for this journey and follow my new blog too. Please take a look at it by clicking the link above. I hope you like it as much as I love to travel! Let’s go adventuring!

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Maltese Seasonal Spring Food!

Finally, spring is here! Looking at the calendar, the start of spring is widely acknowledged to be on the 20th/21st of March, that is, that time when light and darkness, the length of the day and night, are of equal measure. After that day, we start to realize that sunset is taking place earlier, and sunrise starts to be further off as well. During this time, the weather slowly starts to get warmer, the grass looks a little bit greener, and a large number of fruits and vegetables come in season.

Unfortunately, it is also a time when allergies seem to get stronger. Our bodies contain toxins, regardless of how healthy we are. This is why spring is also the time to flush out these toxins and one natural way to do this is by eating a lot of those greens which are in season, in order to cleanse our digestive system.

Broad beans, also known as fava beans, butter beans, or ‘ful’ in Maltese, contain an amazing amount of nutrients. In addition to a lot of fibre, they also contain Vitamin K, zinc, copper, iron, magnesium and the energy-providing Vitamin B. Ful also contain folate, which participates in building cells and metabolising amino acids. It is essential for growth (therefore needful for children and young people, not to mention pregnant women), cell regeneration, and the production of healthy red blood cells. Added either as a side-dish or mixed into an entrée, they definitely add a boost, not only to your energy levels, but also to your taste. 

Broad beans are the main ingredient in a popular Maltese spring dish – this is Pea and Broad bean soup, that is, ‘soppa tal-ful’ in Maltese, which is generally prepared with oats, vegetable stock, onions, peas, broad beans, milk, mint, parsley, and other herbs.

Artichokes (qaqoċċ in Maltese) are another spring vegetable. These are very beneficial as they can help in lowering blood sugar and blood pressure levels, and prevent inflammation. In particular, artichokes are enemies to ‘bad’ cholesterol and heart diseases, in that they not only reduce lipoproteins (which carry cholesterol in the blood stream), but also increase bile production in the liver, which in turn gets rid of cholesterol in the body. Artichokes also bolster the immune system, as well as being a rich source of fibre, Vitamin C, Vitamin K, calcium, potassium, zinc, magnesium, and other beneficial minerals. Since they have the highest antioxidant levels out of all vegetables, they are also a primary means of defence against the effects of free radicals that can lead to a number of dangerous conditions, such as the creation of cancerous masses.

Filled artichokes, or ‘qaqoċċ mimli’ in Maltese, is a tasty Maltese recipe popular in spring, which consists of filling the leafy artichokes with a mix of tasty ingredients. The ones most commonly used include Maltese crumbled loaf, anchovies, tuna, garlic, capers, olives, and parsley.

For those who are not much into vegetables, strawberries might prove a tastier alternative. In addition to antioxidants, strawberries are rich in Vitamin C, folate, potassium, manganese, dietary fibre, and a number of other important nutrients. This heart-shaped fruit is also good for the skin, since its acidic nature causes it to remove excess sebum, that is, excess oil on the skin. Strawberry juice is also very effective in lightening skin blemishes and acne scars, and it can also be used in face masks to nourish and revitalize the skin. There are only 49 calories in one cup of strawberries, making strawberries a tasty and healthy way to lose weight, The health benefits of the strawberry also include improved eye care, proper brain function, relief from high blood pressure, arthritis, gout, and various cardiovascular diseases.

Generally, I prefer to eat fresh strawberries with milk or cream, however there are also those who eat them dipped in wine, not to mention children, who seem to prefer the old-fashioned strawberry and almond tart. In the end, of course, it is only a matter of personal taste. Strawberries, for me, carry the taste of spring. Chilled and with no extra ingredients or embellishments, they are the perfect snack.

Tale of Tales – Movie Review

Genre – Adult Fantasy/Horror
Length – 2hr 14mins
Released in – 2015
My Overall Grading – 4 Stars

Tale of Tales (2015) is that blend of gothic fantasy weirdness which usually immediately catches my attention. As soon as I watched its suggestive atmospheric trailer, I craved to behold the whole movie, and I must say, I wasn’t disappointed.

Let me say this first and foremost – if you’re expecting yet another re-imagining of some popular children’s fairytale like Cinderella or Snow White, you’ll be disappointed. Actually, not even those narratives commonly known as fairy tales are meant for children at all, and only started to be projected that way for the multitudes, after severe editing and further changes by various 19th century writers, such as Charles Perrault and the Grimm Brothers .

Tale of Tales, an Italian-Franco-British production derived from the 17th century collection of tales known as Il Pentamerone and written by Neapolitan poet Giambattista Basile, can be described as an adult fantasy horror, or at best, a metaphorical cautionary tale.

Sinister, yet strangely sensual. Strange but graceful. Haunting yet moving. This movie is a strange experience and definitely not for children. Tale of Tales has three different and yet finally entwined story lines. On the one hand, we encounter the King and Queen of Selvaoscura, who, true to fairy tale canon, are having difficulty producing an heir. A wandering wizard tells them that to do this, they must find and kill a sea monster, and the Queen (Salma Hayek) must eat its heart. It’s portrayed as a horrifyingly huge bloody mass where she eagerly devours the organ on a silver platter.

The second tale takes us to Roccaforte, where a sexually voracious and dissolute king – played by Vincent Cassel – spies on a woman shrouded in a mantle, whom he believes to be a pretty young beauty, but who in reality is a hideous old crone. The crone’s only treasure is her loving relationship with her sister, who is also an old woman. The king hounds what he believes to be a new conquest, bullying and pressing the two sisters, who don’t know which way to turn without revealing their true identity and being punished for it.

The third story arch follows the King of Altomonte and his daughter Violet. The King (Toby Jones) is a shallow and comic creature, prioritizing the care of an unusual flea over that of his own daughter.

Throughout the three story-arches, the one constant emotion is that of obsession, which, we are shown, is the heart of all evil. Obsession vies with what is supposed to be the love of someone’s family. The Queen of Selvaoscura is obsessed with her son, which is why she seeks to destroy any ties he could have with other people. The King of Roccaforte is obsessed with claiming every young woman he sets eyes on, which results in betrayal, suffering and death. The King of Altomonte and his ridiculous obsession with the flea to the exclusion of all else brings about terrifying consequences.

Flea-petting, heart-eating, rape, flaying, betrayal, morbid jealousy… All this and more makes the movie a very strange and curious beast; a truly horrific Renaissance fairy tale. No wonder that, unlike other tales penned by Basile, these three weren’t even adapted to be read by children. Other tales of his, however, have inspired more well-known fairy tale writers such as Hans Christian Anderson and the Brothers Grimm. In this case, the three tales explored and adapted for the screen – The Enchanted Doe, The Flea and The Flayed Old Lady – serve as a dark metaphor to show that real love of one’s family members doesn’t mean warping them into suiting our own wishes and desires, but accepting them for who they are, even if this means letting them go.

The movie also sports beautiful visuals, as filming locations include stunning palaces, haunting forests and beautiful gardens in NaplesTuscanyAbruzzo and Lazio, amongst others.

I truly recommend this movie to all those who are lovers of the unusual and the artistic – those who appreciate dark humor and black comedy, and who enjoy finding revelations of the truth couched in veiled metaphors and tragic-comic allegory, rather than stark black and white fables.

A version of this article written by me was originally published on Eve magazine.

When does Dating become a Relationship?

There’s a thin line between what we call dating someone and actually being in a relationship with them.

The word ‘dating’ denotes that the link between two people is still tenuous, that their acquaintance is just starting, and that there are still no strings attached, no expectations, and no deep emotions at play. On the other hand, a relationship between a couple is the complete opposite, since it usually means that said couple are emotionally attached to each other, to the exclusion of all other possible partners.

Therefore, while people who are still dating are still sounding each other out and keeping their options open, those in a relationship have already settled to try to make things work with that special person they’ve fallen in love with, and with whom they want to share their experiences and everyday joys and sorrows.

The tricky part, however, is to actually understand where the dating phase ends, and where the relationship begins. Some never get to the relationship nor even want to, preferring instead to casually date different people in a relaxed manner without any ties. However, for most of us, dating does eventually evolve into a relationship.

relationship

When I was younger, one of my biggest problems was in actually understanding when someone stopped being my date and actually became my boyfriend. I’m sure many of my boyfriends at the time had the exact same difficulty. So, the question arises: how do we finally become certain that the other person considers us their partner, and not just their date?

When the other person refers to you as their girlfriend/boyfriend – This is the easy way out. Simply wait for the other person you’re going out with to introduce you as such, and that’s it. Thing is, what if the other person in the couple is also waiting for you to clinch the deal? Would that mean that both of you would wait forever? Better not risk it!

girlfriend

When someone else refers to you as the other person’s partner, and you see their reaction – This one is pretty clear. There you are at a bottle party, and someone asks your date his girlfriend’s name. What does he do? Does he just reply calmly and in so doing affirm your role as his girlfriend? Does he hesitate? Or does he staunchly reply that you’re not his girlfriend but just a friend, and that your name is Tiffany? Hmm…

keep-calm

Meeting the parents – Some people believe that when a partner invites you to meet their family, that means that they’re offering you a way into it. Personally, I disagree with this theory. How do you know whether he’s so laid back as to take all his friends, colleagues and acquaintances to the family BBQ? Maybe all the family members do this. Again, if at said BBQ opportunities number 1 and number 2 mentioned above crop up, you will then be clearer as to where you stand.

mistake

Asking you whether you’re dating other people – Here, the other person will be making it clear that they actually care if you do, that is unless they’re asking you to assuage their conscience because they’re actually dating someone else as well. In this case, better come clear and demand an exclusive relationship if you want one, or an open relationship if you prefer that.

niky

Telling you they’re in love with you – And there you have it! If you say it back, you’re in a relationship! If not, things might get a little bit confused or complicated, but this still wouldn’t mean that they wouldn’t be progressing towards one, if you want it, that is.

love

N.B This article was written by moi and was originally published in the online magazine EVE to be found here.

Where are the best areas for expats to live in Malta?

I am always glad to hear other people’s opinions about something which is close to me, or part of my everyday life. When we see and experience something every day for years, it becomes common place. For us, that is. It is always kind of refreshing to realize that what is normal for you, may be strange, new and/or seem different to other people.

When it comes to Malta, the island in the Mediterranean where I was born and bred, this is especially true. I have never lived anywhere else, the traditions, mentality, heritage, and geography of this tiny island are in my blood, and it always tickles me to no end when I see people from other countries or backgrounds land on these shores, look around them in wonder (or depreciation, depends who you ask), and start clicking madly on their cameras, or writing about it on their blogs. I am always curious to see and ponder these reactions, and maybe this is why some time ago I opted to become a member of a number of Facebook groups consisting mostly of expats living here, or people who are thinking about relocating to Malta.

The candid ideas, thoughts, issues and questions of someone who has never lived here before, or who has lived here for some time while having a different natal country, are very interesting and at times, quite educational. One also realizes that most queries, concerns and problems are shared and natural to ask before relocating to another country.

One of the most common issues tackled on these forums regards the best and/or worse areas to live in.

Although the Maltese archipelago is relatively a small one, it still offers a huge number of choices when it comes to residential opportunities. First and foremost, when choosing a place to live on the island, one must consider one’s wants and needs. If, for example, one wants to live near his or her place of work, that is quite understandable, and here the size of our island comes into play, since as Malta is not so large, almost everywhere can be said to be located within a stone’s throw of every other location. Traffic, of course, must always be taken into account, especially if one works in a central location such as Sliema or Valletta.

Working requirements aside, one must also consider whether s/he considers being close to the beach a priority, or whether s/he would prefer to be located in the city center. For people who wish to be near the sea, I would personally recommend finding a home either in the South, that is within such towns as Marsascala or Marsaxlokk, or else in the far North, that is in such towns as Mellieha, Qawra, or Bugibba. While accommodation can be cheaper in the South, one must also keep in mind that living in for example Mellieha has its advantages if one is interested in frequent trips to Malta’s sister island, Gozo, since this town is closer to the ferry than, say, Marsaxlokk. Again, the atmosphere of the North and South is quite different, in that the North offers opportunities to enjoy not only a multitude of beaches, but also a number of unspoilt countryside walks, however on the downside, since tourists tend to gravitate towards places such as Bugibba or Qawra, which offer a number of cheap hotels and services, relocating to the South would bring one closer to the original Maltese traditional way of life.

Those who prefer life in the city, such as students, business men or plain city gals and guys, tend to look for accommodation in places such as Sliema, Saint Julians or Valletta. Take it from me, this is a no-no. First of all, because flats and homes in general in these two cities are quite expensive, despite being mostly on the small-ish size, and secondly because, due to the onset of so many tourists and expats, daily amenities and convenience stores tend to be much more expensive than those one finds in other parts of the island. My suggestion would be to find more reasonably priced accommodation in towns such as Msida, Mosta, or Naxxar, which though not at the exact hub of Maltese high-life, are definitely more affordable. They are also quite close to the center.

One must also not forget the many ex-pats who relocate to our islands in order to enjoy a quite retirement. The tiny island of Gozo is perfect for those searching for peace and quiet. Its unspoilt panoramas, clear sandy beaches, and picturesque countryside offer a view into an older and more traditional way of life. Unfortunately however, Gozo is not such an attractive place for those looking for work, entertainment or new opportunities, as even the locals themselves struggle to find these, and often have to commute to Malta for work on a daily basis.

Should one wish to combine the bustle and hustle of a lively city, togather with historical heritage and Maltese tradition, I would suggest going to live in the Harbour area, most particularly in one of the ‘three cities’, that is, Bormla (Cospicua), Birgu (Vittoriosa) or Isla (Senglea). Apart from offering unparalleled seaviews, the Harbour area is also the showcase for some magnificent architecture. It is also a center of industry, and is quite close to the capital city of Valletta. 

Note: Part of this article, written by yours truly, was also published on the Expat online magazine LivingInMalta. The direct link can be found here.

Black Water – Music EP Review

Giving voice to what most of us think and feel, singer and artist Chellcy Reitsma, at 42, is surely wiser than most. Born in California and now living in Malta, Chellcy’s easy smile and vibrant persona belie a passionate spirit which needs to be heard.

This need for communication is perfectly expressed through her strong deep voice, which, backed by the haunting sound of the harmonica keening a sad lullaby, forms the backbone of her latest EP Black Water, released by Railway Studios last October.

Chellcy Reitsma. Photo: Federico Peltretti

Chellcy Reitsma. Photo: Federico Peltretti

Containing four tracks, including the song which lends the EP its name, as well as an original poem the artist wrote herself, this EP is one of an escalating set of steps in the singer’s career, which began when she was very young.

Ascribing her love to music and dance to her family’s influence, Chellcy first stared out as a visual artist and a dancer, and only later evolved as a singer, releasing Blue her first single, in 2016. A mixture of jazz and blues, Blue, gave way to her second single The Three of Us released by Beehive Studios a year later.

Chellcy is currently producing and managing artistic, cultural and educational events and projects. Black Water was released as a single last June and, as the singer herself describes, its main themes of personal empowerment, strength and determination pervade throughout all the tracks which make up the EP itself.

Can you describe your past career as an artist? 

In the past I devoted my entire life to visual ars and dancing. When it comes to visual arts, I took large mural commissions both in California and in Chicago, sold my paintings and drawings to collectors and held large exhibitions at fine galleries in northern and central California and Chicago.

I am still active in my artistic career, even more so now that I had to retire from dancing due to health reasons. I started focusing on dancing as a career in 2004 in Chicago and opened a dance company called Fringe Benefits directly after graduating.

This focused on contemporary dance fused with Egyptian dance styles, folkloric styles, Spanish and flamenco fusions of all three genres, and Samba. I toured around Europe and North America teaching dance and choreography, and performing dances both solo and with bands at dance conferences, festivals, cultural events, and educational events.

I opened a second branch of my dance company in Malta in 2008. In 2012, I closed my company in Chicago when I relocated full-time to Malta as it became too cumbersome to manage both, and in 2016, my assistant took over the dance company in Malta since I had to retire from dancing due to physical injuries.

Why did you relocate to Malta? 

I first started coming here intermittently as of December 2005 as a dance instructor and performer. Then I decided to move here because I fell in love with Malta, and started the long migration process in 2009. In 2011 I met the man who is now my husband, who is Maltese, and whom I married in 2013. 

What are you working on at the moment?

I am working on a music project with composer Tom Borg from the band Hunting Cain, as well as developing a large visual art exhibition with Finnish artist Merja Brinon, which will be showing at Spazu Kreattiv in 2019 in Malta and in 2020 in Spain and Finland.

I will be travelling to Finland later in the year to work with Brinon in developing our artistic collaborations, concepts, and location scouting.

The track Black Water seems to paint the image of someone looking at the past. Is there a hidden message?

The EP and the song itself were inspired by my move from Chicago to Malta – letting go of the past and moving on from relationships that ended. There is a lot of sadness in these songs, but also hope and resolution. The whole EP is about moving forward, taking control of your life and overcoming your fears.

Note: This interview was done by me and officially published on The Sunday Times of Malta on the 6th of January 2019

Wake up and smell the Coffee!!

Man is a strange mammal. He thrives on competition, glorifies in destruction, and flourishes through selective memory. Because yes – we love lying to ourselves don’t we? Or let us rather say that the individual has an intrinsic predominant love for himself, which leads him to remember (consciously or subconsciously) whatever suits him most.

Simply put – we love to love ourselves, which is why in most cases we end up remembering experiences and events which happened to us in a way which shows us in the best possible light… to ourselves that is. We are never wrong, or if we are, we were justified. We never make mistakes, but if we do, they are understandable in that particular situation/s, and anyone who doesn’t understand is at fault himself. Etc. Etc.

The same goes when it comes to the way we perceive the world around us. Because obviously, man does’nt lie to himself about his own person ONLY. We see our own image by reflecting on who we want to be, or who we think we are, not on whom we seem to be, whom others think we are, or who our behavior makes us out to be.

Similarly, we view the world (and other people) either the way we want to see it/them (for one reason or another), or the way we are AFRAID to see it/them. For example, a man may think his wife loves him because she had said ‘I do’ five years before, not wanting to admit how their relationship has changed, that she now prefers to spend her time with other people rather than with him, that there have been changes in their intimacy, etc. The sole fact that she rarely smiles at him any more, a simply factor which other members of the family may have noticed, could escape him completely. Not because he is blind or stupid, but because he simply REFUSES to see it.

Another example could be the way we perceive political parties. Or football teams for that matter. ‘Our own’ political party (or team) can do no wrong. If they make a mistake… well, everyone is human right? On the other hand, the opposite political party (or team, group, whatever) is evil through and through. They use up tax money paid by honest hard working people to line their own pockets, to the exclusion of anything else. This can be seen by the fact that there is traffic, the roads are bad, there is rubbish in the streets, etc. That is all. Obviously, the man who only sees what he wants to see, or what he fears to see, fails to see the whole picture. He fails to see the evolution in the educational system, the improvement of the health sector, the cleaning of historical sites, the development of new laws and regulations which give new rights to minorities, etc. He only sees what is wrong, because that is what he expects to see. That is how the human mind works.

One of my favorite 90s movies is Kevin Bacon’s ‘He Said, She said’, which portrays this mental self-conditioning perfectly. If you haven’t watched the movie, believe me, you should.

Basically the premise of the film shows us the relationship between two people from both their different perspectives. The first half of the film reveals to us how the two met and started dating, from the guy’s point of view. The second half of the film shows us the exact same story-line BUT this time from the woman’s perspective. You’d think the second half would be boring, since we see exactly what we had already seen before. Wrong. There are details of the love-story which are the same but the backstory, most of the events, etc, are almost totally different. How is this possible?

It is, because people never tell themselves the whole truth. They never even SEE the whole truth. Maybe they are afraid too. When one of two friends fights and comes to you for guidance, what do you do? In Malta in this case the adage tells you to: ‘isma l-qanpiena l-ohra‘, which roughly translates to ‘listen to the other bell’, meaning that you need to ask the other person his own side of the story.

This is because most of the time, the truth is somewhere in the middle.

What brought this on, you might ask? Nothing in particular. It’s just that sometimes, the sheer lengths people go to, to deny a particular fact or an obvious conclusion, is simply astounding.

… andddd I just realized that I’ve written a ton… hehe and I’m still sipping my first cup of coffee. This is what happens when you wake up early with your head churning with too many thoughts. Off to start my day now. Hopefully with a lighter mind.

Ta

Where does Father Christmas come from?

He is round. He is jolly. He is dressed in red and has a long, white beard.

Christmas is a time of joy and celebration and one of its most famous icons is the toy-making, present-giver Father Christmas, or Santa Claus. Ho-ho-ing away cheerily, he drives his sleigh through the skies to bring toys to good children, all over the world. He clambers down their chimneys and eats offerings of cookies and milk, before leaving the presents in the prepared socks.

Or so the story goes.

santa-clause

But where did Santa Claus really come from?

This mythical figure exists in several other countries and is called by many different names. Papa Noel in Spain, Saxta Baba in Azerbaijan, Dyado Koleda in Bulgaria, Babbo Natale in Italy, and Daidí na Nollagin Ireland, to name but a few.

In England, the earliest personification of Father Christmas does not present him as a giver of toys or as a lover of children. An old Carol addresses him as ‘Nowell’ and ‘Sir Christmas’, the personification of the season who encourages people to eat, drink and make merry and who has nothing at all to do with toys and presents.

The specific depiction of Father Christmas as a merry old man emerged in the early 17th century, when the rise of Puritanism led to an increase in the condemnation of all excess – including eating, drinking and feasting. In 1866, Thomas Nast, a cartoon artist, made a montage entitled ‘Santa Clause his Works’, and for the first time, established ‘Santa’ as a maker of toys. At the time, Father Christmas, began to emerge as a kind, jolly old gentleman, giving to the poor and the needy.

Eventually, he was associated with Saint Nicholas, the Bishop of Myra. The legend surrounding Saint Nicholas, or in Dutch, Sinter Klaas (who became Santa Claus to the Americans) states that he was a shy man who wanted to give money to the poor without being seen. Once, he tried throwing money from a roof, and the money accidentally landed in a sock which a girl had left to dry by the fireplace. This is where the tradition of leaving a sock for Father Xmas to fill came from and why he is said to come down from the chimney.

However, we need to go further back in time than that. Father Xmas was originally part of an old English midwinter festival and he was usually dressed in green, a sign of the returning spring. He was, literally, the personification of the season and he was known as ‘Old Man Winter’.

santa-claus

The Ghost of Christmas Present in Charles Dicken’s ‘A Christmas Carol’ (1843) is based on Old Man Winter. He is described as a large man with a red beard and a fur-lined green cloak. Images of Santa Claus dressed in red only started to appear on Christmas greeting cards late in Victorian times.

The Oxford Dictionary of English Folklore entry on Father Christmas considers him to be a pre-Reformation and medieval Yule-tide visitor, who is entirely separate from St Nicholas and Sinter Klaas, only being combined with his legend (and thus becoming associated with giving presents to children) in the 1870s.

In truth, the origins of Santa Claus can be traced back to the 600s, when the Saxons who invaded and settled in Britain had the custom of giving human characteristics to the weather elements, welcoming the characters of King or Lord Frost, Lord Snow, etc. to their homes in the hope that the elements would look kindly on them. Actors dressed in cloaks and ivy would represent the season and feast amidst the revellers.

santa-claus-1600

The Vikings also brought with them legends of their god Odin, who was the father of all the other Norse gods. He is said to have worn a disguise during the feast of Yule (that is, the Winter solstice which takes place on 21st December, the longest night of the year). He mingled with his subjects dressed in a hooded cloak, giving him the chance to listen to his people and see if they were happy or not. He was portrayed as a sage with a long white beard.

Even further back than the occupation of Britain by the Saxons, there was the pagan Celtic worship of the Winter Holly King, who prevailed during the winter months and who provided for and protected his people during the coldest months of the year.

Be he Father Christmas, Sinter Klaast, Saint Nicholas, Odin, or the Holly King, what’s for sure is that the legend of Old Man Winter has prevailed throughout the ages, not only as the personification of Winter, but as a way of bringing families and friends closer together in a time when, although the weather is harsh and life is tough, everyone still goes on feasting and making merry with loved ones.

santa-claus

N.B This article was written by me and originally published on Eve magazine.

The Poison Garden at Alnwick Gardens

Have you ever fantasised about poisoning someone? Be honest. Well, if you have, you will, perhaps, feel a little less ashamed in knowing that you are not the only one. Testament to this is the notorious ‘Poison Garden’ sprawling, beautiful and deadly, right in the middle of the gardens at Alnwick Castle in northeast England.

I must admit that when I first visited Alnwick Castle, my main motivation for going was the fact that it was one of the main castles used to portray Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry in the Harry Potter movies. Fandom apart, I love exploring castles whenever I’m abroad and while reading about the various historical attractions one can find in Northumberland, of which there are many, Alnwick caught my attention for many reasons.

Originally built during the 11th century, Alnwick Castle is the second largest inhabited castle in England being the seat of the Duke of Northumberland, who with his family, actively occupies part of the castle to this day.

While trying not to buy too many souvenirs at the gift shop, right after we had purchased our tickets, I was amazed as I looked through the free visitor’s map and pamphlet they had given us, realising how much we had to explore.

Although the castle itself was enormous (all the different parts were labelled in a diagram), the gardens seemed almost to dwarf it, featuring several differently themed sections formally landscaped around a central water cascade. The pamphlet promised a bamboo maze, a large wooden tree house, a number of water fountains and features, a cherry-tree orchard complete with tree-swings, a deer park and many other attractions which I couldn’t wait to see, however what really piqued my interest as soon as I read the sinister-sounding title on the tiny map, was ‘The Poison Garden’.

After asking about it at the gift shop, I was told that this garden was always kept under lock and key, due to the dangerous plants and flowers growing inside and that one could only enter with an official guide at various prescribed times.

Fortunately, the next guided tour was scheduled to start within 15 minutes, so off we went to find the entrance. The cloudy sky and intermittent rain seemed to be the perfect foil for such a grisly tour and as we waited in front of the iron-wrought gate with a number of other visitors huddling underneath rain-jackets and umbrellas, I couldn’t help but wonder at the giant lock and painted skulls warning us off.

Finally, a lady with a jolly smile greeted us, cautioning us against touching anything within  the garden once we were inside. This, she said, was because every tree, plant, leaf and flower inside was highly poisonous, not only through ingestion but even through touch. The gate was opened and we filed in slowly, only to have it clang shut behind us and padlocked once more. Every tree, plant, leaf and flower inside the garden is highly poisonous.

Every tree, plant, leaf and flower inside the garden is highly poisonous.

The first thing we saw as we shivered in the rain and waited for the guide to start explaining the different plants to us, was a large black coffin. Smiling, our guide told us that even though it was not Halloween, that coffin was always there as a warning and to further set the stage for a number of macabre stories relating to the venom-filled bulbs, roots and plants found inside.

The use of poison dates back as far as spiritual and mythical beliefs have been recorded. Our ancestors knew much about the power of plants. They knew not only which parts of the plants were poisonous, but also what quantities to use to kill, cure, drug, or relieve pain.

The multicoloured trees, shrubs and flowers within the Poison Garden glittered sensuously with rain-drops as we made our way around them while hearing stories about their various uses and the gruesome incidents and murders caused by the plants, which had been historically documented.

The pretty blue flowers of Monkshood, also known as Wolf’s Bane, had been used to poison enemy water supplies during times of war in ancient Europe and Asia, which caused numbness of the throat, intense vomiting, diarrhoea, muscular weakness, spasms, paralysis of the respiratory system, and convulsions which could be fatal.

Yet another innocuous-looking shrub was revealed by our guide to be ‘wormwood’, which is one of the ingredients used to make Absinthe. Sporting tiny yellow flowers, wormwood is both a hallucinogenic and an emetic, it is in fact banned in most countries.

Although the ancients knew how to use herbs and plants to heal, it was very easy to misconstrue their dosage or use, thus resulting in a number of ailments and deaths.

Belladonna, also known as deadly nightshade, is well-known today to be made of foliage and berries which are highly toxic, however Venetian ladies used the juice from this plant as a cosmetic. It was, in fact, distilled as eye drops with the aim of enlarging and darkening the pupils, making the eyes look larger and more mysterious, hence the name ‘bella donna’ which means ‘beautiful woman’ in Italian.

The guide told us that the poison in this pant is so effusive, that just three of its tiny sweet-tasting shining black berries are enough to kill an infant.

Our guide also explained that many of the poisonous plants found within the garden at Alnwick grow avidly in the wild and can be erroneously ingested by a pet or child left unsupervised.  Even the common daffodil, that is the narcissus, can be poisonous, since the bulbs contain toxic alkaloids.

As we walked even deeper into the garden, I noticed that one small section in particular was dramatically cordoned off with chains. Seeing me looking at it in undisguised curiosity, the guide smiled and showed us the small sign at its edge. This in fact, was the ‘illegal drug’ section.

 The Poison Garden at Alnwick was often a site for teachers and parents to bring students and children, in order to educate and caution them on drug abuse and the misuse of illegal substances.

She assiduously pointed out that all the illegal plants found in this part of the garden, such as marijuana (cannabis) which is a hallucinogen and cocaine, which causes nose ulcers, convulsions and depression, among other effects, were grown with express permission from the government under a Home Office licence.

Other commonly-found poisonous plants we saw and discussed during our visit included bluebells and snowdrops, whose bulbs are very poisonous when ingested and which can cause nausea, diarrhoea and vomiting.

There was also common Juniper, whose berries can be fatal in small amounts; prickly lettuce, which is a sedative and can be addictive; oleander, which is highly toxic and may cause skin irritation if touched, and death if eaten; the opium poppy, which is a source of morphine, laudanum and heroin; and the tobacco plant, whose nicotine effects are well known.

In other words, if you find yourself walking along a wild garden or forest, be very careful what you smell, touch, or put in your mouth, because even though something may seem pretty and innocuous, appearances can be deceiving!

The exterior of Alnwick Castle.

By the way, this article was originally published by the Maltese newspaper The Sunday Times, however due to a bug embedded in the webpage concerned, I am told that I am unable to share it in any browser for now, which is why I am resorting to my blog.

The url itself, strangely enough, is still working, so if you want to take a look at the original, go here

Update: the bug has been cleared and any shares have been restored… ugh what a mess! Not gonna delete this entry from my blog now anyways. So there!