Category: food


It’s Friday again, and 100 word fiction time!  All sorts of things have been happening.  Madison has changed her site address but that doesn’t change anything about our Friday meeting of the flash-fiction “club”.  The link to Madison’s story and the links to all of the other 100 word stories can be found on this page:

http://madison-woods.com/flash-fiction/damsel-fly

Here is Madison’s photo prompt and my 100 word story:

I’ve always known that there are fairies.  If they don’t exist, why are there so many of them in our myths and legends?  Why are there stories called fairy tales if there aren’t any fairies?  These days, we tend to swat things and ask questions later.  What if we’re killing fairies?

Here, behind the supermarket, there’s often perfectly edible fruit.  It’s thrown out when it gets a little spot on it.  Such waste!

I see the fairy in her pointy hat standing on a pebble in the puddle, her wings glistening.  I fumble for my reading-glasses.  I must see this up close!



“What animal does this come from?”

Teacher says that meat comes from animals and I’m testing the story.  Daddy’s mouth is full, so Mummy answers.

“Bull.”

Daddy swallows so fast he almost chokes.

“Bullock.  Not bull.  Bullock.”

There’s silence, while I finish my mouthful.  I’m not allowed to talk until my mouth’s empty.

“What’s a bullock?”

Mummy makes a weird little bow over the table, with a big smile on her face.  She wants Daddy to answer.

Mummy had set my hair with butterfly clips. I hated it, and Daddy insisted on taking my photo.

Daddy goes into one of his long speeches, while Mummy and I continue dinner.  Mummy’s having trouble with hers.  I think she’s trying not to laugh.  Why?

Daddy’s talking about bees and flowers and seeds.  Then he switches to birds and eggs.  It’s all very interesting of course, but so far, there’s nothing about bullocks.  I’ve eaten all my vegetables and have almost finished my meat.  Are we going to have ice-cream?

I must have missed a bit of Daddy’s speech because now he’s talking about puppies and kittens.  Mummy’s shoulders are shaking.  She takes a handkerchief out of her pocket and wipes her eyes.  She’s crying?  Have I done something wrong?

Daddy’s onto lambs and calves.  Mummy goes to the ice-chest and takes out the ice-cream.  Goody!  Ice-cream!

Daddy’s stopped talking and is trying to eat his now cold dinner.  He doesn’t like it.

It’s true that I didn’t hear absolutely every word he said, but I’m pretty sure he didn’t mention bullocks.  I wait until he pushes away his plate.  He seems to have finished with the animals.  Has he forgotten the question?  I decide to remind him.

“Yes, but what’s a bullock?”

Mummy dumps the ice-cream and rushes out of the room.  Is she sick?  She’s making funny noises down the hall.

I don’t remember what happened after that.

***

Some years later, when I am in my early teens, Mummy and I go to Sydney’s Royal Easter Show.  Farmers have come to the big city to show their animals and compete for prizes, and we are having trouble moving through the throng.  The crowd parts slightly and an enormous creature comes into view.

“Mummy, look at the size of that bull!”

A farmer in front of us turns his head.  Mummy, bright pink, mutters,

“It’s a bullock.”

I look from her to the grinning farmer and back again.

“Oh…  What’s a bullock?”

The farmer’s grin broadens.  Mummy, now deep purple, snarls in a low voice,

“I’ll tell you when we get home!”

I don’t think she did.

***

The Count of Saint-Germain.

During a visit that the Baron de Gleichen makes to the Count of Saint-Germain, the Count reveals to him his treasure collections.

“There were, among other things, an opal of monstrous size, a white sapphire the size of an egg and a quantity of diamonds and stones of a colour and size that were even more surprising in that they weren’t at all in settings.”

In his famous Memoires, the Baron makes a big thing of this visit.  Because it is a totally exceptional favour accorded to him by Saint-Germain.  Rare are those who are able to enter the doors of his Marais hotel, filled, the Baron notes, with paintings by masters, among which he recognizes some Murillos and some Raphaels…

The extreme reticence with which he receives does not prevent the Count from being one of the most acclaimed men in Paris.  Precisely because of the mystery with which he surrounds himself, and of certain habits which appear frankly unheard-of to the marquises…

Everyone remembers the menus of the Grand Century.  However, while his guests stuff themselves with meats, fish, poultry, and attack after that pieces of venaison, whose strong odour fills the nostrils, the Count eats sparingly or, most often, doesn’t even unfold his serviette.  And what does he do while the others over-eat?  The Count of Saint-Germain talks, but there again, in a very different manner to that of the brilliant masters of calembours or the witty people of the epoch, reporting the day’s anecdote.  He goes back in time and describes the slightest circumstances of History, with so many details and such extraordinary clarity, that they believe that they are listening to a witness of that time.  When they press him to deliver his sources, he says that everything is in his prodigious memory, and when it is pointed out to him that it is not possible to make certain scenes so life-like, with such precision, without making it up – unless he has himself lived them – he agrees that he is perhaps older than he looks…

Added to his abstinence, the delicacy of his speech, which can be heard by the most chaste ears, creates an image of him which excites the beautiful marquises even more.  For, if they swallow laxative pills, if they even consent to become vegetarians for a short time, they would also love to keep him with them for a while, after supper.

But neither beauty, nor opulence, nor the rank of the mistress of the house succeed:  never does Saint-Germain pass a night outside his own residence, and very rare are those who have seen him up beyond midnight.  He is not known to have any lover or mistress, and this is perhaps what most troubles those who know him.  For, if he impresses by his lifestyle and his behaviour, he also seduces – infinitely – by his presentation…  Countess d’Adhemar writes in her souvenirs on Marie-Antoinette:

“His haughty, spiritual, sagacious  physionomy was the first thing to strike the eye.  He had a slim, graceful figure, delicate hands, lovely feet, elegant legs accentuated by tautly-pulled silk stockings.  His very tight breeches also displayed the rare perfection of his shape;  his smile showed the most beautiful teeth in the world, a pretty dimple decorated his chin, his hair was black, his eyes gentle and penetrating.  Oh!  What eyes!  I have never seen anywhere such eyes…”

For a man who came from nowhere and was always wanting to disappear, that is a portrait which gives him reality and presence!  Without in any way removing the mystery of his origins…  To the question which only a Highness dares to ask (Princess Amelie, sister to Frederic II of Prussia), he answers:

“I am, Madame, from a country which has never had a man of foreign origin for sovereign!”

The answer is sibylline to say the least…  When they insist, like the Baron de Gleichen, it is learnt that in his childhood he had been surrounded by a numerous suite, that he strolled on magnificent terraces, in a delicious climate, “as if he had been the Prince and Heir to a King of Grenada in the time of the Moors”

This symbolic figure, taken from an alchemical work, is supposed to represent, according to some authors, “the birth, by the union of cosmic forces”, of exceptional beings such as the Count of Saint-Germain.

Such a mysterious extraction permits, of course, to play around a bit with official identity.  In 1743, when he appears for the first time in Paris, with his air of grand young man in fashion and well-dressed, no-one at first bothers to enquire about his age.  The first to ask the question, to himself at first, will be Jean-Philippe Rameau, the genial composer, a serious mind if ever there was one.  All on his own, he personifies all of the music of the Grand Century, and he devoted himself so completely to his Art and to the responsibilities entrusted to him by kings, that strictly nothing is known about his private life.  Yet, one evening, when he is playing the clavecin in the rich home of the financier La Popeliere, he notices an elegant gentleman in the centre of a cluster of grand ladies dressed in green peking and canary tail.  He appears to be forty-five and is wearing a jacket of cinnamon cloth shot with green, the buttons of which are throwing out a thousand fires in the light of the candelabra.

The elderly master has himself served with a little sorbet, and then almost dies from shock.  The man comes, without any ceremony, to relay him at the clavecin and, in full light, there can be no more doubt:  he is certain of having seen this gentleman when he, himself, was just a simple organist for the Jesuits of the Rue Saint-Jacques.  The motive for his surprise is simple:  since this epoch, the man’s face has absolutely not changed.  Rameau, on the other hand, has become dry and wrinkled, already bent over with age.  A rapid calculation reveals to him that this meeting took place thirty-five years before and that, at the epoch, the person appeared to be forty!  He is told that it is a certain Count of Saint-Germain, and the incident marks the composer so strongly, that he talks about it all over Paris.  Some, who know him to be a bit wheezy, say that he is becoming senile as well, and joke about it at the dinner parties.  Others, knowing his good sense, begin to reflect.  Then to talk, when a certain Morin, Secretary of the Danish Legation, assures in turn that he had well known this gentleman too, that it was in Holland, many years ago, and that since all this time the Count, who was already a mature man then, had not taken on one wrinkle…

To be continued.

Last photo of the Empress (left) at Territet, the day before her assassination.

The imperial odyssey continues:  Seville, Majorca, the Italian Riviera.  In her absence, Empress Elisabeth (Sissi) asks Ida Ferenczy to take care of the Emperor.  The lady companion organizes little luncheons where steaming sausages and hot, Hungarian bread delight the Emperor, doubly sad because his actress friend Frau Schratt is also absent.  Franz-Josef finally joins his invisible spouse in Switzerland, at Territet.  In passing, he stops at their daughter Maria-Valeria’s home, where she has just given birth to a son.

“I can’t help thinking about Rudolf,”

says the sixty-three-year-old grandfather.

Fleeting instants of happiness dare to slip inside the couple’s bitterness;  the Emperor and Empress are happy to be together, in Geneva, in perfect harmony.  A lady-in-waiting notes:

“With her charm, the Empress puts her spouse completely in her pocket!”

But an ill is eating away at Elisabeth.  Still the same one:  she is destined to roam, wandering throughout the world.

The Empress leaves again.  Milan, Genoa, Naples, then returns to Austria in May for the engagement of her granddaughter Augusta, Gisela’s daughter.

After a stay in Ofen, she leaves again, terrified by the latest news about Othon, the late Louis II of Bavaria’s demented brother:  now he thinks that he is a dog…  New stop in Algiers, then Sissi arrives in Madera.  She hasn’t been here for thirty-three years.  What memories, what emotions, what dramas…  Another Christmas where Franz-Josef is deprived of Elisabeth’s presence.  Luckily Katharina Schratt, the friend, is there.  The Emperor writes very moving letters to his wife:

“The word happiness is hardly suited to us, we need only a bit of calm, good understanding and a life less heavy with unhappiness.”

At the end of February, she disembarks at Menton and goes to the Cap-Martin Hotel where Franz-Josef will soon join her.  A compact crowd presses around the hotel’s gardens where “Security agents disguised as peasants or farmers, surge at the right moment to shoo you on your way”, writes the local Press.  Frau Schratt, whose presence had initially been planned, is not there.  The spouses consider that incognito is impossible and that the criticism would be malevolent.  The Emperor writes to the lady friend, asking her not to join them.

“This place is unfortunately not at all tranquil and very visited.”

On 15 March, he embraces the Empress twice, begs her not to nourish herself with only oranges and violet ice-cream – a dessert in fashion – and boards his special train.  Sissi will remain another month.  Good news draws her from the Cote d’Azur:  Maria-Valeria has a second son.

***

1895.  The Empress returns to Cap-Martin.  Her alimentation is making Franz-Josef furious:

“You treat hunger by fasting instead of satisfying it, like reasonable people do, and this worries me.  But these are useless words, and it is better not to begin this chapter.”

The Empress absorbs only milk, and even then it is only milk from certain cows which she buys then sends to Austria, where Ida Ferenczy receives the unexpected mission to create a model dairy.

***

Protected by her fan or her sunshade, the solitary Empress goes from Corfu to Venice, where she occupies the same apartments as when Venitia was Austrian.  Noticing that her weight exceeds fifty kilos by three hundred grammes, she considers herself to be obese and recommends to Frau Schratt, who is a bit rounder, to watch herself.

Her diet seems to be organized, systematic autodestruction.  As soon as she eats almost normally, her body comes to life, and she worries about spoiling her silhouette.  Then, she makes sure that the scales go down to fifty kilos.

The "Bazar de la Charite" fire inspired ballads by street-singers.

Paris, Tuesday 4 May 1897.  At 17 rue Jean-Goujon, in a long wooden construction, feverish animation reigns around the counters held by women who bear the greatest names.  The place is called the Bazar de la Charite.  At ten-past-four in the afternoon, a flame erupts from a cinematographic apparatus which functions with ether…  Drama.  The doors of the projection room, which open from the inside, are blocked.  With admirable abnegation, Sissi’s sister, Sophia, Duchess of Alencon, cries out to the young girls around her:

“Everyone pass before me!  I shall leave last…”

She will be one of the one hundred-and-fifty victims.  She sacrificed herself.  She was a great lady.

The news arrives the following day at Biarritz, where Elisabeth is.  Her youngest sister burnt alive, her hands joined, praying…  The Empress, broken, murmurs:

“The malediction is growing…”

She says to her daughter Maria-Valeria:

“This will all end one day…  Eternal rest will be so much better.”

***

Bad Ischl, 16 July 1898.  For the last two months, the Empress, who is tired, is resting in the Imperial Villa.

Sissi is anaemic.  Eating only eight oranges a day is insufficient, despite the vitamins.  She is also suffering from nevritis, insomnia and a slight cardiac dilation.  She is going to leave this same day on a cure.  She gives a last rapid look at the screen decorated with photos of Maria-Valeria.

The Emperor, upset to see the one he has loved for exactly forty-five years in this state, embraces her.  The carriage is already descending the driveway which leads to the iron bridge over the river.

They will never see each other again.

Sissi boards her train which leaves for Munich.

After travelling through Germany, the Empress arrives in Switzerland on 30 August, in Caux, above Montreux.  Franz-Josef writes to her the day after her departure:

“I miss you infinitely…”

The Emperor’s sadness is aggravated by the fact that Katherina Schratt is also ill…  and just as impatient as Sissi.

“She’s a second Empress”,

complains the Emperor, saddened by this imitation.

Sissi, enchanted by the beauty of the Caux site, chooses excursions which are a bit tiring for her heart.  On 9 September, the weather is splendid.  The Empress, reinvigorated, boards the steamer which will take her from Territet, South of Montreux, to Geneva.  Elisabeth, in an excellent mood, having spent the four-hour trip on deck, has finally accepted Baroness de Rothschild’s invitation to luncheon.  It takes place in Pregny, a magnificent villa on the outskirts of Geneva.

Baroness Julie de Rothschild receives the Empress sumptuously.  Orchids flower the table which has been laid for three, for Elisabeth is accompanied by a lady-in-waiting, Countess Irma Sztaray.  Sissi honours the menu.  She savours some “petites timbales a l’imperiale”, a “truite du lac du Bourget”, a “mousse de volaille Perigueux”, a “chaud-froid de perdreaux en Bellevue”, a “creme glacee a la hongroise” and a “marquise au chocolat”.  It’s an event.  In celebration, she drinks a flute of Champagne frappe.  She asks her lady-in-waiting to send the menu to the Emperor, and to insist on the fact that the Empress had greatly enjoyed it.

To be continued.

The imperial family on holiday at Godollo.

The year 1873 is rich in festivities:  Austria celebrates, on 2 December, the Emperor’s Silver Jubilee.  This Jubilee, which consecrates twenty-five years of fidelity to Franz-Josef, throughout wars and dramas, is also the festival of the imperial couple.  And never has Elisabeth (Sissi) appeared to be so involved with her task and respectful of tradition.  Has she calmed down?

By leaving Vienna on 3 December 1873, the Empress proves the contrary and the Viennese are furious.  The Viennese all agree that the Empress is an “extraordinary woman”.  But that she prefers Hungary to them is unjust and unacceptable.  The criticism, which had dissipated during this exceptional year, reappears.  Elisabeth is not looking to hurt people, she is only seeking to protect herself.  So, she flees.

One of the ways in which she flees has just arrived from Bohemia.  It is a new carriage which is reserved for her in her special train.  This carriage is dark green on the outside, with olive-green hangings on the inside.  It has a bedroom compartment with a bed – a single one – parallel to the train’s direction, an armchair, a table on which the Empress places a register with her coat-of-arms, a pen surmounted by an eagle, a gilded calendar with ivory boxes recalling the day’s date, a clock and two thermometres.  The neighbouring compartment offers a dressing-table with silver-plating.  Four alveoles allow brushes and combs to be placed in them without risk during the rolling of the train.  The carriage, equipped with electric lights, is cosy, comfortable but discrete.  It is nothing like Louis II of Bavaria’s extravagant salon-carriage, which is light blue, surmounted by a gilded crown.  Its interior verges on nightmare with its neo-rococo furniture and its multicoloured allegories.  Elisabeth likes to disappear from the world without being noticed.  Inside her new special carriage, she will roll for thousands of kilometres, protected, insulated, with, for unique melody, the rhythm of the six wheels hammering the rails.

Refusing to be permanently submitted to Court immobility, desperately seeking to reach the horizons of her dreams, she sets off on a perpetual voyage.  Archduchess Sophia of Austria had left her a totally empty place.  Sissi had occupied it for a year.  While Elisabeth had fought for years to be the only First Lady of Austria, she now refuses the job, tired out by the struggle.  Her victory has come too late.  Vienna, from now on, will be only a stop, a station, a more or less long halt.  Sissi is beginning the chaotic migration of a bird who doesn’t know where to land and falls, exhausted, into a temporary haven.  Europe, fascinated, is going to discover the travelling Empress who crosses countries for a hunt.  Elisabeth is becoming the amazon queen.

***

1874 begins in family joy.  On 8 January, Gisela gives birth to a daughter.  Sissi is a grandmother at thirty-six-years-old.  She leaves immediately for Munich.  But her letter to Rudolf is not really worthy of a grandmother.  Describing the baby, she says:

“The child is extraordinarily ugly but very lively;  in fact, exactly like Gisela.”

Twenty-four hours after the baptism, Sissi absolutely wants to visit a hospital where cholera sufferers are treated.  Her lady-in-waiting does her best to remind her of her duty toward her husband and her people, and that it is not a good idea to voluntarily expose herself to the risks of this very contagious disease, Elisabeth doesn’t listen.  When she appears at the patients’ bedsides, they are grateful to this gentle face with the hazel eyes that see their Calvary.

A young man who holds out his hand says weakly:

“I am going to die…”

“Oh no!  God will help you.”

“May God bless Your Majesty.”

A few hours later, he dies.  Elisabeth then remarks to her lady-in-waiting:

“He dies and he will greet me one day, up there, with joy.”

They insist that Sissi change completely because of the immense risks that she has taken.  And she must be very careful with Gisela’s little daughter, who is even more vulnerable than the adults.  When, forty-eight hours later, the Empress feels faint upon rising, her entourage panics.  Without reason, luckily.

On 17 January, she visits Queen Maria of Bavaria, Louis II’s mother.  In the evening, Louis II absolutely insists on visiting his cousin.  Elisabeth is very struck with the sovereign’s physical degradation.  His features are puffy, he is overweight, having lost the magical beauty of the first years of his reign.  His blue eyes – as blue as the Bavarian lakes – are nearly always directed upward, in quest of the unseizable.

Where does madness begin?  Where does it end?  In 1874, Louis II’s drama is also that of a still approximative science;  the intermediary degrees, such as originality or excentricity, are too badly known to diagnose a neurosis.

The following day, the King’s mother asks the Empress to accompany her on a visit to a mental asylum.  The visit is appalling, because Queen Maria seems to consider the deranged people as being more or less normal, trying to hold a reasonable conversation with some, while a young girl persists in playing just one piano note, always the same one, or a painter exhibits the drawing of a deer whose antlers are replaced by a church.

Elisabeth leaves the asylum, horrified.  And her nervous system is even more tested as her diet consists almost exclusively of orange juice and milk.  To justify herself, she says:

“Look at the King.  He is really too fat.”

Four days later, she leaves Munich for Ofen, where Emperor Franz-Josef joins her the day after her arrival.  They meet with joy, although Franz-Josef has to leave on 11 February for Saint Petersburg, for a visit of courtesy to the Tsar.  The Emperor asks Sissi to remain in Vienna during his absence.  She promises.  She keeps her word.  The Emperor can go to hunt bears and contribute to cordial relations with the Tsar, his mind in peace.

To be continued.

Empress Elisabeth of Austria.

On 20 November 1856, the Emperor and Empress of Austria and their suite arrive in Trieste.  The Empress (Sissi), speechless with admiration, discovers the calm blue of the Adriatic.  The city is decorated and the population’s welcome seems amiable.  But a suspicious fire erupts in front of the Town Hall.  The official explanation is the accidental inflamation of the fireworks planned for the evening.  Sissi and her husband content themselves with this version.  When a heavy crystal crown, hung between the two masts of the boat on which they are going to sail on the bay, crashes onto the deck a few minutes before their arrival, emotion is high.  Is this a second regrettable coincidence or a first assassination attempt?

On 25th, Venice receives the imperial couple.  The word “receives” is in fact badly chosen;  Venice ignores their visit.  The crowd assembled on the Saint Mark square is silent.  The Venitians manifest their hostility by a total absence of acclamations.  Only the police and public servants attempt to create an illusion with a few loud cries.  The crossing of the square is uncomfortable.  A delirious crowd impresses, a silent crowd unsettles.  In the Basilica, Franz-Josef, contraried by this welcome, hides his pain, and Sissi squeezes the hand of her daughter Sophia, dressed in a blue velvet coat trimmed with zibeline.  Mother and daughter wear matching outfits.

On 29 November, the couple holds a reception at the Palace of the Doges.  Barely one quarter of the great families attend.  The ladies are insulted as they leave their gondolas.  The atmosphere is stormy.  At the Fenice Theatre, an opera temple, the acclamations are as rare as full boxes.

Back at the Palace, Sissi gives her impressions to the Emperor.  In her opinion, too much rigour, too many vexatious measures with regard to the Venitians explains the open hostility since their arrival.  For the first time, the Empress holds a political discourse.  Her message is one of tolerance and liberalism.  A little surprised, the Emperor listens to her, and agrees.  Again…

Emperor Franz-Josef of Austria.

On 3 December, Franz-Josef signs decrees proclaiming amnesty for the events from 1848-1849.  Further, several cities are dispensed from paying the forced taxes.  The effect is immediate.  Venice defrosts, and in the evening of the following day, another gala at the Fenice shows the degree of metamorphosis.  The couple is applauded and the Empress receives increased personal success.

In Venice, the atmosphere now being relaxed, the sovereigns decide to spend Christmas there.  Venice in Winter, the damp fog that effaces the old palaces and muffles the cries of the gondoliers, everything is so different from the Alpine Christmasses…  Borrowed from a botanical garden, the traditional fir tree is decorated for the nineteenth birthday of the happy Empress.  She savours the extraordinary liberty of visiting churches and palaces whenever she likes.

On 5 January 1857, the cortege reaches Vicence.  The city has always been proud.  It proves it by a very cold reception:  only two ladies of quality come to present themselves to the couple.

Four days later, at Verona, the ambience is improved by a big, popular, regional festival which has not taken place for the last ten years, the incredible Gnocchi Bacchanalia.  The idea is to stuff with food the most important public servant, in this case, the Governor of the city.  The unfortunate man is constrained to eat in front of the amused gazes of Sissi and Franz-Josef, amid total hilarity.  But the demonstrations take on a doubtful tone when the inhabitants insist that the imperial couple ingurgitate a lot of gnocchi too.  Is this just a simple participation in municipal joy or, on the contrary, a way of ridiculing the Emperor and the Empress?  In reply, the stay is shortened.  At Brescia, the crowd’s silence is insupportable.  It is explained by the city’s ferocious resistance to Vienna, in 1849.

Finally, on 15 January, Franz-Josef and Elisabeth arrive in Milan.  They are expecting the worst.  They are right, the worst will happen, and it will have for framework the splendid La Scala Theatre.  The police has a lot of trouble trying to fill its two thousand eight hundred seats.  The patrician families have made it known that their boxes will be occupied.  Alas, when the evening comes, and the imperial couple makes its entrance into La Scala, all of the places are taken with lackeys in black livery.  In the orchestra, on the four balconies and in the two galleries, Milanese aristocracy has had itself represented by its domestics wearing mourning.  The affront is total.  On this same day, Count Cavour, the Minister for Foreign Affairs of the Kingdom of Piemont-Sardaigna, declares to the Turino Parliament that “Italy is perfectly capable of governing herself”.

Although Sissi’s charm does not work in Milan, the Empress nevertheless insists that measures of clemency be taken, as in Venice.  An amnisty, the restitution of confiscated properties, and fiscal measures are immediately decided.

On 29 February, another gala at La Scala effaces the previous appalling impression.  The applause is double, for Sissi’s role has finally been recognized.  Countess Esterhazy is consternated, the Empress is taking the side of the revolutionaries…  The Press resumes the evolution in these lines:

“One is not yet for Austria but one is already for the Emperor.  Each senses the soothing hand of the noble young woman who has transformed the sovereign’s dispositions.”

Two conclusions can be drawn from this Italian trip.  The first is the influence that Sissi can have politically.  In time, no-one resists her charm.  The second is a certain suppleness in Franz-Josef when he is “on the ground”.  He knows how to adapt, react quickly, he attempts to fix his mistakes and even his faults.  For the Empire, as well as for themselves, the experience is positive.

Sissi has improved her health.  She needs it, for the return to Vienna makes the leaden weight of obedience fall back onto her shoulders.  From Italy, she has brought back a beginning of maturity and authority.  Unfortunately, the Hofburg remains a prison.  And Sissi is again oppressed…

To be continued.

The most generally accepted theory at the time was that the epidemic came from a poisoning of the air.  This is why the most favourised classes were taken with a real frenzy for “purification” of the atmosphere, as Boccace recounts:

“Without locking themselves up, they came and went, some carrying flowers in their hands, others fragrant herbs, others again, different sorts of aromatic plants which they often placed under their noses, thinking that comforting the brain with such perfumes was the best prevention, as the air seemed to be poisoned and thick with the stink of dead bodies, sick people and medicines.”

This last word suggests fairly well in what little estime enlightened minds held the doctors.  Their remedies were fairly generally considered the surest ally of the disease.  In the aristocratic and middle-class houses of France and Italy, great consumption of aromatic plants, in the form of intensive fumigations, was made, to the point of making the atmosphere really unbreathable, killing the local birds by asphyxia…  And all for nothing.

It is true that medical prescriptions were combined with some recommendations full of good sense, but there were others which, in the light of today’s knowledge, appear absurd.  For example, in October 1348, the Faculte de medecine de Paris advised

“not consuming fowls, water-birds or piglets, no “ripened” beef nor fatty meat.  Broth is recommended with ground pepper, cinnamon and spices, particularly for people who do not eat much, but only choice food.  It is bad to sleep during the daytime.  Sleep must not be prolonged, or only very little, after dawn.”

They should drink very little at breakfast, according to the Faculty, but wine was authorised at lunch – which must be taken at 11 o’clock – diluted with one-sixth water.  Fresh or dried fruit were inoffensive accompanied with wine, for

“without wine, they may present a danger for the heart”.

Aromatic plants, such as sage and rosemary, were considered salutary and it was recommended to absorb a bit of theriac (electuary composed of different substances, including opium) during meals.  On the other hand, cold, spongy or watery foods and fish must be prohibited, as generally bad;  olive oil with the food was mortal.  It was dangerous to stay out at night until 3 a.m., because of the dew.  It was better to avoid any great physical activity, and protect oneself from the cold, humidity and rain by warm clothes.  Corpulent people needed to expose themselves to the sun.  These prescriptions, as well as being completely aberrant to some, are a strange mixture of strictly medical recommendations and purely moral counsels.  All excess of abstention, excitation, anger or inebriety was dangerous, diarrhoea serious and baths risky.  Intestinal functions had to be facilitated by a clyster.  Intimate relations with women were mortal and copulation must be avoided, as well as even sleeping in a woman’s bed.  This last recommendation finds it origin perhaps in the constatation that women, for reasons difficult to establish, appear to have been more greatly infected than men.

More serious, and obviously more efficient, were the prophylactic dispositions of an administrative character.  Unfortunately, they were hardly generalised in Europe before the XVIth Century, or even the XVIIth Century for Germany, when there were diverse recrudescences of the epidemic.  It was the Venitian Republic which led the way.  It established, on 29 March 1348, a Sanitary Council, which immediately decided to put into quarantine, on an island in the lagoon, any traveller and all merchandise coming from the Orient.  The choice of forty days of isolation bore a religious connotaion:  it was the time that Christ spent in the desert.  Comparable measures, although more sporadic, were taken in a few other European cities.  In England, the town of Bristol was authoritatively isolated from the rest of the country:  90% of its inhabitants were dead.  In England, the plague had made 1.5 million victims.

Preventive measures were never strictly medical.  Philosophical or moral considerations were added to them, like the idea that the plague punished excess, appetites, extreme pleasures.  Some Italian doctors of humanist temperament voluntarily mixed “scientific” notion and Platonician metaphysics:

“In the first place, no man must think of death;  neither should he conceive any passion for another human being, whatever.  Nothing must afflict him, but all of his thoughts should, on the contrary, be turned toward pleasant, agreeable and delicious things.  It is best to avoid mixing with other people.  You should visit admirable sites and beautiful gardens, particularly when odorous plants, but above all climbing or rampant ones, are in flower.  However, you must avoid remaining too long in the gardens, for the air there is a lot more dangerous at night.”

Marsile Fisin affirms that during a plague, it is better to totally avoid women of loose morals, and drunks.  Another inscription is rather astonishing:

“The contemplation of gold, silver and other precious stones is comforting for the heart.”

These recommendations, of course, could only comfort those who had gold and precious stones…

Medicine was sometimes more pragmatic.  Guy de Chauliac, notably, practised efficient surgery:  the intervention consisted in opening the boils and cauterising them with a red-hot iron.  Some patients were able to escape death when the boils, by drying out, opened on their own.

Uneducated populations treated themselves almost exclusively with familiar remedies or amulets sold by charlatans, begging monks, and sometimes even doctors.  This credulous public was ready to do anything to escape the disease.  Although endowed with a rational mind, Guy de Chauliac, himself, accepted certain superstitions of the time:  he believed in the influence of the stars and referred to hermetic doctrine.  He practised purges and blood-lettings in function of the planets’ positions.  For him, chronic illnesses came from a solar influence, while the others were attached to the moon.  So, he recommended, when the Sun was in the sign of Leo and the Moon was not turned toward Saturn, the wearing of a belt made from lion skin decorated with the representation of this animal sculpted in pure gold, which was obviously not available to any serfs…

To be continued.

The case of Florence has remained famous because of the scrupulous and moving evocation made by Boccace in the opening of his Decameron:

“Poverty, or some vague waiting for something, caused most of these people to remain at home.  They hardly left their neighbourhoods, and they fell ill by thousands every day.  Receiving no help, they died, it might as well be said, without remission.  Some expired by day or by night in public streets;  and a lot of others, dead at home, first transmitted the news of their death to their neighbours by the disgusting smell of their rotting flesh.  Everything overflowed with these bodies, and the bodies of other men who were dying everywhere.”

Boccace saw his father succumb to the epidemic in 1348, as well as his mistress, Fiammetta.  His eyewitness account is particularly valuable because of the precious indications that he furnishes on the contradictory reactions that the plague provoked among the populations.  While

“some thought that a sober life with abstention of anything superfluous was needed to combat an attack”,

“lived separated from others”

and fled

“any occasion for debauchery”,

others, on the contrary, gave themselves up

“frankly to drink and pleasure”,

accorded

“as much satisfaction as possible to their passions”

and laughed

“at the saddest events”

for

“such was, according to their words, the surest remedy against such an atrocious evil”.

And Boccace concluded that

“in the excess of affliction and misery into which our city is sinking, the prestige and authority of divine and human laws were disintegrating and completely crumbling”.

Florence lost four-fifths of its citizens, Venice two-thirds, as did Hamburg and Breme.  The cities the most visited and the most populated were, of course, the first to be hit.  Paris lost, in the year 1349, 800 inhabitants per day, that is, in total, 50,000 people, half of its population.  But, even in the villages, mortality was just as abundant:  Givry, a town of 1200-1500 inhabitants, counted 615 deaths in fourteen weeks against 30 per year for the ten preceding years.  When the living became too few, the villages were deserted and Nature took over.  Even more terrible were the cases where the illness broke out in closed places, like a prison or a monastery:  only 7 brothers escaped it out of the 140 Dominicans installed at Montpellier.  Friar de Petrarque was the only survivor, with his dog, of the confederation of Chartreux where he lived.

The epidemic hit rich and poor alike:  In Venice, in 1348, fifty noble families disappeared and numerous urban and rural properties were left abandoned.  Important social and economic transformations resulted from this, such as the ascension of the Medicis in Toscany, from the XIVth Century, ascension partly due to the disappearance of the elite who had preceded them.  On a more important scale, the commercial decline of the Mediterranean in favour of the northern ports of Europe, must be imputed to the black death.  Elsewhere, all sorts of acts of brigandage multiplied throughout Europe, with their cortege of atrocities.  The most redoubtable and the most redoubted were those perpetrated by the gravediggers.  These were recruted in the lowest classes of society, sometimes even among the criminals liberated from the gaols transformed into hospitals.  They gave themselves up to pillage, and didn’t hesitate to bury patients who were still alive, or declare sick people healthy, in order to take their goods.

Crops being often left abandoned and herds disappearing through lack of care, famines accompanied the epidemic, leading to social insurrections of unspeakable violence, as well as multiple cases of cannibalism, both in the South and the North of the Continent.  During these sombre years, wild animals invaded immense rural spaces, as reported by an Italian eyewitness:

“Wild wolves wandered at night in packs and came to hurl under the walls of the cities.  In the villages, they didn’t just slink into certain places, like they usually do, to satisfy their thirst for blood;  they entered boldly into open houses and dragged the smallest children from their mothers’ sides;  and they didn’t only attack children, but even armed men, which they overcame.  For the people of that time, they weren’t wild animals, but demons.  Other quadrupeds abandoned their forests and approached houses in hords, as if they were conscious of extraordinary circumstances.  Crows flew over the city in innumerable flocks with loud croaking.  Kites and vultures were heard in the air and other inhabitual migrating birds were seen to appear.  Cuckoos and owls landed on rooves, filling the night with their lugubrious calls.  Field-mice had lost all timidity and had established themselves amongst the humans.”

A Neuberg chronicler added:

“Men and women […] roamed everywhere, as if demented.”

***

In the face of this illness, medicine was mostly helpless.  The mystery of the contagion was

“the most terrible of all of the terrors”,

as a Flemish man caught up in ravaged Avignon put it.  Most doctors counselled flight from the epidemic, often leading by example:  sometimes they had to be taken manu militari to the patients packed into hospitals, as happened in several Italian cities…  However, certain disciples of Aesculape showed both intelligence and courage.  In Avignon and the county of Venaissin – where the plague provoked the decease of 120,000 people, the great French doctor, Guy de Chauliac, deployed remarkable activity.  He immediately recognized the contagious character of the illness and prescribed prophylactic measures to Pope Clement VI who was living there at the time:  during the whole of the epidemic, the Pope remained locked up in his apartments, surrounded by fires and protected from any exterior contact.  This measure doubtless saved his life, the Yersin bacillus (responsible for the illness) badly resisting extreme heat.  Guy de Chauliac, who recognized, however, that the best way of escaping contamination was flight, refused to do it himself, unlike the majority of his colleagues.  He even succeeded in curing himself when he was personally infected by the disease (he did, however, die from it when the epidemic came back, in 1363).  The example of another great doctor, Gentilis de Foligno, must also be mentioned.  He made important progress in his art by proceeding to audacious dissections of plague victim cadavers.  He died in 1348, in Perouse, a victim of his devotion to medicine.

To be continued.

Giacomo Casanova

It is curious to note that, in spite of excesses of all kinds, Giacomo Casanova always attaches great importance to his health.  We know that he is a Colossus with uncommon strength and physical health.  But as soon as he feels tired, he rests for a long time, fasts and then follows a diet.  It is his commonsense recipes that cure the Duchess of Chartres, who is just as much a victim of the burlesque treatments of the medicine of the time, than of the food commonly eaten in good society, which was particularly rich in sugar, meat, and various excitants such as teas, chocolates, coffees and spices.

However, he is careful not to say that it is the diet that triumphs over the dreadful pimples of the duchess.  He says that it is the Kabbala which supplied the secrets of healing.  In this way, his prestige as an occasional doctor is reinforced by that of magician.

***

Casanova uses the name of the Kabbala to trick people.  Numbers are asked to reveal the future, but only by the following trick:  his dupes ask him a question which he then addresses to the “spirit” who inspires him.  He starts by translating the letters of the question into numbers:  A = 1; C = 3; M = 13, etc.  Then he arranges these numbers in the form of a pyramid.  It is at this moment of the operation that the ruse becomes particularly transparent.  He asks the person to choose a certain number in the third line of the pyramid and to multiply it or to add it to another in the sixth.

As he knows the letter which corresponds to a given number, he is able to ask the question and provoke the suitable reply.  This process is rather stupidly transparent but it succeeds, because the victim is absorbed in his calculations, which Casanova complicates as much as he wants by introducing extra “keys” like zeros or double columns.  So, from start to finish of the “magical” operation, the dupe is guided by Casanova, who is, however, endowed with a marvellous agility of mind, of serious mathematical knowledge, and a lot of cheek.

But, as always with Casanova, truth and lies are tightly intertwined, and it is not certain that he didn’t believe in the supernatural virtues of his Kabbala.  We see this when, not long before his death, disabused with everything and having no further motive for cheating, he continues to affirm in a letter to Madame Eva Frank that his method is both rational and supernatural and that it gives him the gift of prophecy.

***

One constant thing about Casanova is that he never acts badly with his women, and he is never brutal.  He obtains pleasure and profit from them, but, in the end, he does them more good than bad.

A young English girl emphatically refuses his advances.  Her name is Justinienne Wyne.  She tells him that she is pregnant, and she wants him to magically abort the pregnancy.  He makes her believe that he possesses a Paracelsus powder, but that this powder must be placed in the maternity passage, in the way that can be imagined.  He prescribes three doses per day for five days, of a medication which can also be imagined.  These pleasures distract the young lady from the abortion, and she will give birth secretly in a convent, will later make a rich marriage, and at the end of her life, will write treatises on morality.

***

Casanova’s predictions greatly contribute to his celebrity.  He has a lot of intuition and psychology, which allows him to take calculated risks.  For example, when he makes that extraordinary prediction to Mademoiselle Roman, he uses a process which has already brought him success.

Louis le Bien-Aime makes a fairly big consumption of pretty young women.  And not only marquises.  A few years before, Casanova had already succeeded in throwing into the royal bed “a little kitchen maid”, lovely, aged fifteen, named Louison O’Morphi.  He had the nymphette painted naked, in a pornographic posture, and had the little painting introduced into the royal entourage, thanks to one of his friends who was a lawyer.  It is on a “catalogue” of this kind that Louis XV makes his choices.

The enterprise perfectly succeeded because O’Morphi reigned for three years over the Parc aux Cerfs.  The poor thing fell into disgrace after a disloyal manoeuvre on the part of a courtisan, who told her to ask the king how he treated his old wife.  Thinking she was invincible, she asked the king the question.  He glared at her, and never saw her again.

The brilliant prophecy about the destiny of Mademoiselle Roman can therefore be explained by rational deduction.  What is more difficult is to announce that she would have a son who would bear the Bourbon name.  This is where our gambler gambles.  He has the gift of a sort of sixth sense which he seems to possess in the highest degree, founded in part on his experience, his intelligence and the unlimited confidence that he places in himself.

***

 

This morning, I watched the French news on SBS and discovered two fascinating things that have not yet appeared on Australian news.  It is true that, with the elections tomorrow, our news programmes are mostly involved in Australian nombril-gazing.  And, because I’ve had a serious overdose of elections, I turned for a little light relief to France.  Unfortunately, France, too, is in election mode, but it still has time to look at things happening elsewhere.

***

I discovered that at least three Chinese baby girls, each only a few months old, had started growing breasts, as if they were at puberty.  Naturally, their mothers rushed them straight off to the doctor.  The three girls live in the same town, but I don’t know whether or not they have the same doctor.

The first baby had tests performed on her, and it was discovered that the level of hormones in her body was over three times higher than normal.  Her doctor advised the mother to change the brand of powdered milk that she was feeding her.

Since the change, her breasts have stopped developing, and have almost returned to normal for a young baby, although one of them is still a bit hard.  The two other mothers also changed their babies’ powdered milk, and their babies’ breasts have now returned to normal.

The milk is a Chinese brand, but the company claims that the problem did not come from their milk

However, one mother was very indignant about having been contacted by the company and offered the equivalent of 200 euros.  She answered that her baby’s health was worth much more than that.  It was worth much more than 20,000 euros.  The company contacted her again to ask if she would be happy with 20,000 euros, and if she was ready to negotiate.  The lady is now even more indignant.  I should think so.  Why is the company offering money, anyway, if the problem didn’t come from their milk?

It is true that no-one seems to have tested the milk, and the babies all live in the same town, so there could be another reason for the anomaly, but it does seem strange that the problem went away when the babies changed milk brands.  Coincidence?  They do happen.

The Chinese government is prudently staying out of the conversation.  The accused milk brand is sold throughout China and, over the next few months, if the hormones are in the milk, other babies could be affected.

***

The second thing that I learned from the French news is that our moon is shrinking.  American scientists have been measuring it and, by making different comparisons (for details, contact NASA) have come to the conclusion that, while the Earth is heating up, our moon is getting colder, which is making it contract.  It has apparently lost 100 metres fairly recently.

The French waxed poetic about it, comparing our moon to a drying apple, or an old lady whose skin is wrinkling, and asked, rhetorically, what she must have looked like when she was young.  I doubt that Australian newsreaders will indulge in such speculation, even if they bother to report it at all.

I definitely should have remained in France.  Particularly as I am now in my twilight years.  Although, I’m certainly not nearly as old as the moon.

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