Parchment and penalties

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[Still on the train to Aswan.]

Wednesday morning Laura and I again tried the room-service breakfast. Her bagels seemed fine, but I knew ordering my "American pancakes with syrup" would be something of a gamble. What I found when I lifted the lid from my tray were French crepes with a tub of honey. This was fine. At least the crepes were browned all the way through.

As an added bonus, every room-service cart (as opposed to the trays) comes decorated with a Gerbera daisy in a white stem vase. We now had three sitting around the room, including the one that came with our dessert of tirimisu and creme brulee on Sunday night: one red, one pink, and one orange. It made the cheerful room even more so.

Laura needed to be at the conference all day, so after doing some work in the morning, I set off on the nearly two-hour bus journey to the south shore of Malta and the ancient temple sites of Ħaġar Qim and Mnajdra. Malta is not that large, but to get most places you must transfer in Valletta and then wend your way slowly through every hamlet and burg along the way. This made for much rapturous gazing out the bus window at narrow streets, yellow-washed walls, startling churches in hidden plazas, and hills divided by low walls of rough fieldstone—when my nose wasn't stuck in my copy of Culture Shock! Egypt, that is, as I crammed for the upcoming phase of our trip.

The temple ruins at Ħaġar Qim and Mnajdra are far more modest that I think I was expecting, for structures that are, in part, as much as five thousand years old. The scale is very human, though many of the standing stones that form the walls are monoliths a good deal taller than a man. The roofs have long since fallen in, leaving open the central corridors with semi-circular apses to either side—something like two capital B's back to back. The apses were used for burial, with older bones pushed aside and sorted by type as a new body was moved in. Both sites overlook dramatic vistas of the rocky southern Maltese shore and the Mediterranean.

The scale of these ruins was too small to generate much awe in me, but as I hiked away I was trailed by a disturbing sense of how close in nature and time we are to those ancient stonemasons, how closely together lie our parchment sheets in the book of the earth's history, and how nearly into illegibility such a recent paragraph has been pressed.

Laura and I that evening, together with Cyndee, investigated and discarded several suggestions from the guidebook before defaulting to a fancy Italian place on another terrace over another bay. The wine and food were lovely, though every few minutes, it seemed, another drape was drawn across another of the dwindling number of open spaces around the terrace. By the time we left, we were enclosed in a plastic cave.

After dinner we set off into the night on Gelato Quest 2. [I have now caught up with transcription of the handwritten journal, though the nearby intermittent wi-fi signal is not sufficient to let me post these entries. I am sitting in the coffee shop of the Sara Hotel in Aswan, with Saturday evening approaching. I just had some coffee and a bit of chicken shawarma to keep me going. It's very hot outside, but nothing like what it would be like in full summer. Strangely, the European Champions League game is being replayed on the television here in the coffee , with Arabic commentary. John Terry just slipped again on his penalty kick.] Laura wanted gelato again, and I wanted fig gelato. We made our way through the crowds spilling out of bars that were showing the European football championship between Manchester United and Chelsea, live from Moscow. Almost half the tourists to Malta, I've read, are British, and most of the rest come from countries that care about such things. We even found a public plaza showing the game on a giant screen, and stopped to watch for a while. It was hard not to get caught up in the excitement.

We had to visit two separate gelaterias to find the fig stuff. Actually, we found a shop that had it first, but we wanted to visit a second, larger shop we knew of to see if they had it too. The second shop did not, but that didn't mean we didn't stop there and gorge ourselves. I showed restraint in having only one scoop at the second shop—pannacotta—then a second scoop of fig at the first shop on the way back to the hotel. It was as good as I had hoped, by which I mean it tasted like figs and felt like gelato. Yum.

Back in our room, Laura and I watched the rest of the football match, biting our nails though we had no stake in the outcome. What a game! It was well after midnight when we got to sleep.

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William Shunn

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This page contains a single entry by William Shunn published on May 26, 2008 5:24 PM.

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