Saturday, April 30, 2011

Mykonos Was Different Then.

Mykonos wasn’t always like this.  There were hard times, make that very hard times.  The island once was among Greece’s most impoverished places.  Mykonians literally starved to death during World War II.  Then came the Greek Civil War.

In two weeks I’ll be back on Mykonos and promise to share with you as much as good taste will allow of present day life on that international jet set summer destination.  But how did it came to pass that a community still guided by centuries-old church traditions and deeply held family values so effortlessly coexists amid the unstructured, freewheeling lifestyle of visiting summer hedonists?

I think the simplest way of telling the story of that transition is out of the archives of Dimitris Koutsoukos.  As I described an earlier piece, Dimitri is a native Mykonian who has amassed a fascinating collection of photographs capturing the essence of the island, many of which are posted to music on YouTube videos available through this link.
Dimitris Koutsoukos amid the old and the new.

Dimitri, the photographs please…

These were the days that set the island’s modern day roots, when all Mykonians had was each other.  It was the turn of the 20th Century.

Naturally, many lived off the sea and learned their skills from childhood.

Others survived as farmers.

Some depended on both.

Then came regular boat service linking the island to the mainland.

And with that tourists looking to experience traditional island life.

But one day a very famous visitor stepped ashore and forever changed the image of Mykonos.

International celebrity Petros the Pelican arrives with friend.

And glitz began to flock there.

Turning fishermen into guides.

Bringing energy to quiet beaches.

And, of course, making nice with the locals.

In the process each learned much from other.

Tourists how to dance...

...locals how to dress.

And they became friends.

It is a life to which I long to return.
Mykonians tolerating tourists
And for a musical understanding of the draw of Greece, check out this YouTube Video.


Friday, April 29, 2011

Two People Got Married Today

Princess Kate: What do I have to do to make this marriage work, your Highness?

Queen Elizabeth: Always wear your seatbelt and never piss me off.

The gag above has made me chuckle since I read it last night on Twitter. As always with good jokes, it carries more than a grain of truth. Because if there's one institution the British royal family resembles more than any other, it's the Mafia. They both talk funny, are bound by weird customs, die in suspicious circumstances, fall out of favour, and make lots of money by doing very little other than simply being there.

Today's wedding brought the UK to a stop. I went out earlier, while the ceremony was taking place, and there were very few people around, even less than on Christmas day. It was great. I exchanged a few knowing, smug Republican nods with the other souls taking advantage of the quiet streets, drank in a coffee and the silence. I don't like the royal family, I don't believe in it, and I think it would best for all concerned, not least its members, living in the goldfish bowl, bound by tradition, duty and public prurience, if it was quietly abolished. A fair few people I know share that view, but its unlikely to ever happen, at least in the foreseeable future. The millions who watched the wedding on TV attest to the fact that many more feel there's a place for a royal family, and enjoy their presence. Plus you'll always be told by someone, usually not attached to the tourist industry, that they're good for the tourist industry and bring in millions of pounds. Even if it's true, and it's debatable at best, I reckon they're still in debit. Prince Charles has a full-time flower arranger and member of staff whose job it is to squeeze out his toothpaste. That requires at least 50 buses full of Japanese Tourist each year right there to sub it. And only if they buy a souvenir hat.

For what it's worth, I feel the royal family's existence entrenches the principle that the class into which you were born, and the school you went to, defines who you are and the chances you have in life. The UK is far less socially mobile place than it was even 20 years ago. You only have to look at our woeful, rather dim Prime Minister, raised in wealth, schooled at Eton, to see that embodied. The rest of the cabinet is of a similar hue: male, public school, arrogant, completely detached from the life of real people. I read this week that the story of Princess Kate, as she will now be known, was some sort of rags-to-riches fairytale. She went to Marlborough, one of the most expensive public schools in the land! More well to do upper middle class-to-super riches than anything else. And some fairytale. There to be gawped at, criticised, snapped from every angle, every hour of the day, her every movement and choice scrutinised and analysed. Maybe there will be a happily ever after, but I wouldn't bet on it. A certain ex-Princess might well counsel otherwise.

That said, the wedding, at least from where I've been standing, hasn't been the pain in the backside some thought it might be. Of course the media have been obsessed, but they can be kept at bay by the flick of a switch or the refusal to pick up a paper. Most normal people I've met haven't been talking about it.  They just seem happy for the day off work. There will be a few barbecues and street parties this afternoon, but only because, for most of us, we like any excuse to crack open a bottle and have a bit of a knees up.

So here's to William and Kate. May your future be free of paparazzi and tragedy, and, if you're truly lucky, eventually a quiet life free of any kind of monarchial duty.


Dan - Friday

Thursday, April 28, 2011

The Road to Goma - Guest Blog by Caroline Todd

Caroline Todd and Charles Todd are one of the few mystery writing duos - a mother and son team.  No doubt they have their disagreements - as Stan and I do. They are quoted as saying that, in revenge, Charles crashes Caroline’s computer, and Caroline crashes his parties! But there's no question about the success of their partnership.Their excellent historical mysteries set at the time of the first world war are meticulously researched and the characters as well as the era come alive. Inspector Ian Rutledge and nurse Beth Crawford have a large enthusiastic following with the latest Rutledge mystery- A Lonely Death - rocketing to the New York Times best seller list almost as soon as it was released.
But Thursday is Africa day, and Caroline Todd has traveled here too.  She captures a dramatic event from the past, but far from merely of historical interest in modern-day Africa.  We welcome guest blogger Caroline Todd.

My husband and I have visited a good bit of Africa.   Some of what we’ve seen winds up in the books in one fashion or another.   Years ago we were in Rwanda on our way to Goma in what was then the Congo. We’d got permission to visit the Frankfurt Institute’s mountain gorilla camp to spend two days with them in the Virungas.  But typical of flights out of Nairobi, ours was delayed, and we got to Kigali late in the afternoon.  Too late, really, to cross borders. But we didn’t have much choice if we were to keep our time slot.  Rwanda Tours had everything ready, and our van with seven passengers and a local driver headed for the crossing.  And that, in late afternoon, turned out to be one of the most beautiful drives we’ve ever taken in Africa. 

We got through the Rwanda frontier with no difficulty, and arrived in the Congo.  But the people there kept us waiting.  It was a motley crew in the real sense, and the mosquitoes were fierce as the sun set.  The man in charge, a Major, was shut in his office.  We debated turning back, because the Rwanda border closed at 6 PM.  Just as we decided to try, he came out. His eyes as he surveyed us were calculating, and he ordered us to come in one at a time for an interview. That was mostly spent asking questions and scanning our passports, ten to fifteen minutes each.   He was as aware as we were that very shortly Rwanda would be closed.  What’s more, darkness was falling.  When my turn came to be interviewed, I realized that he was after something, and I wasn’t sure what.  I didn’t think it was a simple bribe. And I wasn’t the only one.  One of our group was a lawyer from California, and he was worried enough as he was questioned to mention some important contacts he had in NY.  The single man from Colorado talked about his Peace Corps  background in West Africa. My husband thought that might encourage ideas of ransom, and kept a low profile.  Meanwhile the Major’s  men were going over the van, and I began to wonder if he was weighing his chances of getting rid of us and keeping the van. This outpost was hardly modern, a shack on stilts, and jungle came right up to the back. You could hide a few bodies there with ease.  Writer’s imagination?  I think the Rwanda Tours logo on the side was what made up their minds.  It wasn’t just a rental.  The owner in Kigali was well known. Still, we waited a while longer, and we were all distinctly uneasy by this time.  Finally we were asked for twenty dollars apiece, handed our passports, and then told to get into the van.  We did, and hot as it was, we kept the windows rolled up.  Two of his soldiers took up positions in front of the vehicle so that we couldn’t move on.  That was ominous, and they were well armed. Our driver told us in a low voice not to look any of the men in the eye.  The wait lasted about five minutes, and seemed like an hour.  I was sitting in the rear seat next to my husband.  And suddenly there was a loud noise and something hit the window just by my head.  I turned, and it was the Major.  He was in a crouch, making gorilla noises, leaping at my window and flicking his hands, held gorilla fashion, at the glass. In the silence of the van, it was startling.  He leapt back and forth several times, and I had a split second to decide how to respond.  I didn’t think ignoring him would satisfy him, and he could very easily order us out of the van again.  Laughing wouldn’t satisfy him either, as he was making ferocious faces as part of his act.  It might even make him angry. What would a man like that most want as a reaction?  Probably fear, the sense of being in control.   So I cried out, clapped my hands over my face and threw myself toward my husband.  I heard laughter, but didn’t look up.  And then the van was moving, the soldiers stepping aside, and we rolled out of this ludicrous passport control post onto the Goma road. That uproarious laughter followed  us.    I don’t think we relaxed until we were well into Goma with lights and people around us.   Have I used the Major yet in a book?  No.   Will I?  I’m still not sure.

Caroline Todd

Wednesday, April 27, 2011


I like fish. Everyone in Iceland likes fish. Well, everyone past the age of about twelve. This approximate age is when the tongue, the roof of the mouth and the insides of the cheeks have developed enough not to spasm from panic at the slightest prick of a tiny bone and the imagination has dulled to the point that such occurrences do not bring about envisions of a choking death. This does not mean that these thoughts leave you completely; I can easily recall this feeling and sometimes lose my appetite when I feel a bone in my mouth, always if it happens twice from the same plate.
Today bones are rarely found in the fish filets sold in the stores as the processing of fish has advanced greatly from when I was a kid. Also fish is cooked as filet in most cases today whereas it used to be thrown into a pot with everything but the head and the guts. This left a lot of bones that needed to be removed before eating, not all successfully. I recall my grandmother and grandfather always asking the same question when placing a fish on the table: “How many oars in a boat?” The answer lay in the ribs, i.e. the fish was opened and the ribs were counted. This game drew attention to just what one wanted to forget, namely the ominous presence of bones in the dinner.

According to the Icelandic Institute of Natural History there are five fresh water fish species in Iceland (salmon, trout, bleach, stickleback and eel) and over 340 species have been encountered within our fishing grounds. Not all are eaten, for example although “stickleback” is a big name, the fish carrying it is very small and one would need to eat about fifty to feel halfway full. Removing its bones would require a microscope and needle thick tweezers. Historically many of the fish we prize today and greatly enjoy eating were thrown back into the sea, catfish and lobster for example. This was not because these were too small but because they were too ugly. Ugly had to originate from evil of some form and better not to digest evil if you could avoid it.

This is actually reasonable. One should not eat or drink evil.

For the millionth time in my life I am what in Icelandic is called “afterwards smart” meaning you realize something too late, once the consequences have set in. This particular case relates to a dinner party me and my husband attended on Friday evening that lasted way too long. At the end of the party I drank Cointreau, lots of it actually, and now realize that this particular drink is pure evil despite its sweet taste. I ended up throwing up in our new sink after waking up during the night feeling absolutely horrid. The sink got plugged and as all stores were closed over the Easter holiday we were unable to buy drain de-clogger. I was cursed by all family members every time someone needed to wash their hands or brush their teeth for three whole days – not very Easter-ish at all.

I would drink a lot more if it were not for hangovers. I hate them. One of the things that I can't stop thinking about when in such a state is how happy I am that humans don’t have antlers or a rhinoceros horn sticking out of our forehead.  A hangover headache is bad enough with just hair attached to one’s head.

Yrsa - Wednesday

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

not the rouge

I never thought I'd write in defence of French riot police. However, something truly awful has happened to the CRS (Compagnies Républicaines de Sécurité). Indeed, the ones we love to hate have just been denied by official decree that most cherished and antic pleasure, a single glass of wine (or cider or beer) with their meals. When you think about it, there are few delights in life more simple than a glass of wine with your meal. And the fact that the CRS used to enjoy theirs while on duty doesn't change the argument much.

This latest ban (after the burqa, the rouge!) is yet another sign of a rampant righteousness taking hold in French society. It's commonly said that a moderate amount of wine, beer or cider digested with a meal, especially by people who have a physical job doesn't affect their ability to perform. Riot police are no surgeons; they are muscles in boots and helmets. Their job is to look scary and to use urban guerrilla tactics in order to protect peaceful demonstrators from the occasional troublemakers. You come across them all the time in the streets of Paris on demonstration days: these are relatively young men, fit and fast. A glass of wine gulped down with a hachis Parmentier is not going to cloud their judgment (they obey orders anyway) or make their legs wobble. It won't make them more aggressive; if anything, it might actually make them a little more humane.

The CRS are futuristically clad manga-like characters, and coming into contact with them is a rite of passage for first time demonstrators in France. One of the first slogans you learn as a French adolescent is "CRS – SS", courtesy of the May '68 events. However, this ferocious association couldn't be further from the truth. Created in 1944 by Gaullist France, the French riot police mainly consisted of former resistance members, many of them communists. During a demonstration in Marseille in 1947 organised by the Communist party, the CRS refused to intervene. They were swiftly reorganised. Since then, their zeal at neutralising agitateurs has depended in large part on the personality of the prefects, interior minister, and the political character of the government. In 1968, apart from one unrelated accident, there were no casualties among students: a real achievement considering the level of tension that reigned in the capital and the whole country at the time.

What's certain is that the CRS do not do an easy job. They are the buffers of our democracy, and we need them during every spat and argument we have with the government so that things don't degenerate into chaos. And for this, I believe they deserve their daily glass of wine.

This ban sounds like another Sarkozy intitiative, the kind a teetotaller who loves nothing more than the chocolate mousse and raspberry yogurts he might serve up after an excitable meeting with anti-alcohol lobbyists.

Let's leave the last word to Charles Baudelaire who, in The Soul of Wine, wrote:

"For I feel a boundless joy when I flow
Down the throat of a man worn out by his labour
His warm breast is a pleasant tomb
Where I'm much happier than in my cold cellar …

I shall light up the eyes of your enraptured wife
And give back to your son his strength and his colour
I shall be for that frail athlete of life
The oil that hardens a wrestler's muscles."

And before I'm accused of inciting debauchery, let me say that, like all pleasures in life, this one should be enjoyed in moderation. Cheers.
Cara - Tuesday

Monday, April 25, 2011

The New Jerusalem

Pictured above, is one of the seven gates to New Jerusalem.

All of them constructed out of stone.
As are the walls that connect them.
Looks like a city in the Holy Land, doesn’t it?
In fact, Nova Jerusalem (as it's rendered in Portuguese), is the world’s largest open-air theater.

It consists of an area of over 100,000 square meters, surrounded by 3,500 meters of walls and 70 towers, all constructed to duplicate the walls and towers of Jerusalem at the time Christ was crucified. 
It’s a bit smaller in scale, only about one-third of the size of the original, but it’s still pretty impressive.

The theatre stands  some 180 km due west of Recife, the capital of the Brazilian State of Pernambuco.
And Recife, my friends, is about 1,900 km to the North of Rio de Janeiro, which really puts this New Jerusalem off the beaten track.

But each year, during Holy Week, thousands of people gather there to witness Brazil’s most famous Passion play.

And each night, beginning at six pm, about 8,000 spectators spend two hours walking a four kilometer path within the walls.

The path takes them past nine permanent stages.

 At each stage, they witness 60 key actors, and as many as 500 extras, act out the key incidents in the last week of the life of Jesus.

Including his crucifixion...

...and resurrection.

It's all presented with digital sound and spectacular lighting effects.
And some of Brazil's most famous actors have roles

If you’ve been to Greece for Easter, and also visited Seville during the Semana Santa, you might consider making this the next one on your list.

Leighton - Monday