Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Legally Blond

I really don‘t know what to tell you today, as most of what has grabbed my attention lately is a bit odd and feels ridiculous when typed out. But seeing as ridiculous can sometimes be fun, as long as one is not an active participant, I will give you a few examples.

A man from China wants to buy up 0,3% of Iceland. He is an investor intending to build a luxury hotel and a golf course in the middle of nowhere, far up in the north of the country. The land in question is 300 km2 and is called Grímsstaðir á Fjöllum – which loosely translates to English as Grims place in the Mountains. A hot debate ensued, Side A saying that we should not sell such big chunks land to foreigners and Side B welcoming the investment. It should be noted that Iceland actively seeks investors from abroad but the chinch is that we don’t really want them to invest in anything worth investing in. Bluntly put we want their money for nothing. This has not really panned out understandably.

Funny thing about investing here, namely that the investors that show interest are never from the European Union. We have had Norwegians, Canadians, Americans, Japanese and now the Chinese – but no representatives from EU countries. I do not have any idea why this is the case, maybe the investors from there have the nerve to want to something in return for their Euros. Or they are broke like us.

Another thing noteworthy is a trial over members of a motorcycle gang called the Black Pistons. The name of this group is a mystery, they are certainly not black. But however they came to this name is beside the point, they probably thought it was cool and scary. However their cool and scary reputation has taken a beating lately and I am certain they will be looking for a new name in the near future. Possibly the Green Spark Plugs. But back to the trial which involves two members hijacking and beating up a third that had done something offensive to them. I am at loss to think what they consider offensive so I will not ponder much on that point. Whatever it was it apparently warranted them keeping the guy imprisoned for two days or so under continuous pummeling.

It is very problematic to have a hostage. It is worse than having a dog when it comes to finding people to babysit. Because of this when the leader of the Black Pistons and his lackey needed to go to the hairdressers for a haircut – I must intervene with a mention that it is not my English at fault here, they went to a hairdressers, not a barber – they had to take the hostage with them. Forget about dissing the appointment, dragging a severely beaten man along appeared more logical to them. But they were not 100% stupid and got a lady friend of theirs to come and put makeup over the bruises and scratches on the hostage. She then also went with them to the hairdressers.

It is the lady friend’s testimony that has everyone here smiling. She arrived late to court, told the judge to speak up, said that her visit had been personal and that she would therefore not discuss it, when made aware that her testimony was not in accordance to a taped interview by the police she said that she had "misunderstood herself", told the judge when he kept repeating the questions she did not answer that she was not retarded and she also said that the hostage had been the one to request make-up. And on and on and on. The whole debacle goes under the name “Legally blond” here.

Finally this past weekend (Thursday to Sunday) was the busiest in Iceland’s tourism since forever. Every single hotel room was booked and then some. To help make the matters worse, along came Irene the hurricane and grounded planes full of tourists on their way from Europe to New York. People were put up in homes and in the vacated army base in Keflavík so as not to have to stay on the street. I guess these poor people would have welcomed the opportunity to stay at Grims place in the Mountains and play golf.

Yrsa - Wednesday

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

hidden museum

In Paris where can you lay on a patch of grass beneath centuries old trees surrounded by superb 17th century architecture – and yet be almost alone? The answer is at the Hopital St Louis, a structure that was built just outside the ancient city walls to keep plague victims away from other inhabitants of Paris. Now the area is part of the 10th arrondissement and not far from where the stolen Mona Lisa was hidden under a bed a hundred years ago. It was constructed in a similar style and at a similar time to the far more well-known Place des Vosges, but in my opinion, this quadrangle is in many ways a more interesting place to visit.
It was Henri IV who ordered the construction of the hospital, but he was assasinated by Ravaillac before the edifice was finished. It was finally opened in 1618 during another outbreak of the plague, with up to six patients per bed! Over 68,000 thousand people died from the plague, a third of the population of Paris at that time. Since 1773 the hospital has been in permanent use and is today one of the 22 public hospitals within the Paris borders. Some 2500 people work here.

Since new buildings were added 1984-89, the old ones are basically only administrative. It was the first hospital in the world to teach dermatology, still one of its specialties.For the next two centuries it dealt with many outbreaks of infectious diseases, slowly building up world-renown in the field of Dermatology. This has led to another curiousity in the hospital, perhaps the most unusual and secretive museum in Paris, the Musee des Moulages (Museum of wax moldings).

Throughout the 19th century, moulds were made of all known diseases that affected the skin. The story goes that one of the dermatology doctors walked through a passage near Place de la Republique passing a fruit and vegetable stall. The stall's owner fashioned his wares in wax to appeal to more clients and that gave the doctor an idea. Why not do wax molds of skin diseases to help in research and diagnosis - remember photography was just beginning with Dauguerre in his studio (also in the 10th arrondissement). Now over 4,000 of these have been put on display in one of the hospital’s 17th century buildings. It is a creepy, fascinating place, but unfortunately rarely open to visitors, and only when pre-arranged.

Note: the garden is not always open at weekends, but should be from May to September.

Cara - Tuesday

Monday, August 29, 2011

Images in Sand

In northeastern Brazil, in the State of Rio Grande do Norte, the dunes overlooking the sea are permeated with salts and minerals.

And the same is true here, in the sandstone cliffs of the Morro Branco, in the State of Ceará. 

In both places, the presence of such salts tints the sand into an astonishing variety of very distinct colors.

And the availability of that colorful sand has given rise to a uniquely Brazilian art form.

It would be wrong to call it bottle painting, because what you see here hasn’t been painted, or even sketched in advance.

It’s formed by adding layer after layer of sand, and by the shaping of each layer with a wand inserted into the mouth of the bottle.

The artists pass on their techniques from generation to generation.

And, with few exceptions, the designs follow traditional patterns.

You’d think they’d be costly, wouldn’t you?

But no. It’s one of the poorer regions of the country and labor, even skilled artisanal labor, is cheap.

The smaller examples of this work can be had for as little as two American dollars.

Here’s a video that shows you how the artists go about making them:

Leighton - Monday

Saturday, August 27, 2011

Morals Clause

In the most inspiring news story I've seen in months, residents of the devastated Northeastern coastal areas of Japan have given authorities somewhere between US $65 million and $78 million found on beaches and in the ruins of their towns and cities.  They turned the money in so it could be given to the families of the fallen.  Many of those who did so have lost everything and everyone that they cherished, but they knew what to do with that money.

I really hate to write this sentence, but if millions of dollars washed up on American beaches, the moral bottom feeders of our society would be out there with bulldozers, trying to scoop it up ahead of everybody else.  There would probably be riots.

It's also sobering for me to remember that there was not one recorded instance of looting in the long, disoriented weeks after the water surged ashore.  People went into abandoned stores and left money on the counter for the goods they took.  Sometimes they swept up before they left.

All this comes to mind again because of Hiroki Kuroda, my new hero.  Kuroda played baseball in Japan and, like many Japanese ball players, dreamed of the American big leagues.  His wish came true four years ago when he joined the LA Dodgers.

Kuroda is a wonderful pitcher with a terrible record.  He allows fewer runs per game and strikes out more batters than all but a handful of National League pitchers.  But he's something like 8 wins and 12 losses these days, which puts him into duffer territory.  He is, in fact, the first Dodger pitcher to lose more than 13 games in two consecutive years since 1993.

And why?  Because when he's on the mound, the Dodgers don't score runs.  They almost never, and I mean never, cross the plate more than twice.  It's hard to win a game if your team never scores.

Here's the thing: the Dodgers' failure to score for Kuroda robs him of the recognition he deserves and keeps him from earning anything like the amount of money he "should" earn by contemporary American sports standards.  He should resent it.  He should be trying to get traded to a winning club where he can be the major (and very, very rich) star he deserves to be.

So, during the trading period this season, a much better club made an offer for him.  He would have had a good shot at pitching in the Series.  He'd finally get the kind of money his agent would love to demand.  But when the Dodgers went to ask him how he felt about it, he said no.  The Dodgers were the team who brought him to America, Kuroda said, and they were the team that had his loyalty.

He put the team first.  Hear much of that any more?

We Americans have always prided ourselves on our individualism.  We like to regard America (at least until the last decade or so) as a place where rugged individuals could carve out a corner of the world and claim it.  Claim it for themselves.  There was a certain amount of American scorn for people in other cultures who dressed alike, behaved alike, and--for all we knew--thought exactly alike.  "Sheep" was a word that got some use.  "Conformists" was another.

But you know what?  I'd like to feel for most American behavior the admiration I feel for many Japanese these days.  I'd like to see more American examples of selflessness, of instinctively moral behavior, of putting the well-being of society ahead of our personal wants and needs. Of acting for the larger good.  I'd like to read in the paper next week that a store in, say, St. Louis was left open unattended a day or two and people went in and took what they needed and left the money behind.  And maybe swept up on their way out.

But, as much as I hate to say it, I doubt that I will.  And that makes me sad for my country.

Tim -- Sundays

Fire, Earthquake, Pestilence.

Louiza Gouliamaki/AFP/Getty Images
The big story this week on Mykonos—even bigger than Steven Spielberg and Michelle Pfeiffer shopping in my friend’s store (btw, she’s a ‘goddess’ says the shopkeeper)­—was a brush fire sweeping across the hillsides surrounding the island’s most popular beach.  The likely cause was a tossed cigarette.  Further proof that smoking by a litterer is particularly dangerous for the environment.  Luckily sand doesn’t burn, no one was injured, and the fire did little more damage than singe a few hotel properties. 
Elia Beach

It did though cause a general evacuation of the hotels, and sun worshipers who preferred to roast themselves on a beach in a more natural manner raced off elsewhere.  The good news was that it gave Mykonians a chance to see one of their national government’s firefighting helicopters in action.  They’re usually off fighting the mainland fires that plague Greece each summer, disasters often of more serious consequences and suspicious origins. (The photo headlining this piece was from one of those other fires.)

But as far as our teeny-tiny Mykonos natural disaster was concerned, I’m pleased to say all is back to normal (to the extent anything is ever “normal” here during tourist season) and the ravaged land will begin to renew itself. 

As for the natural disaster that shook the East Coast of the United States this week (no, not DS-K—that was decidedly unnatural), how could that be?  I thought the deal was for the West Coast to endure the country’s major earthquakes in exchange for Easterners putting up with DC, epicenter for the nation’s most jarring shocks.

What has happened to order in the universe?

I checked, and that’s when I got the bad news.  Life on earth as we know it is about to end.  No, not in 2012—bank on that—but much sooner than the predicted 7.6 billion years from now when our planet falls into the sun (a day less if you calculate from when I wrote this). 

Yes, life has existed here for 3.7 billion years (originally as pond scum, which persists to this day in many forms), and we only have another billion left before the sun boils off the oceans and reduces our planet to cinder.  All of that information comes from astronomer Robert Smith of England’s University of Sussex.

I guess that puts the recent fire on Elia Beach into perspective and relieves me of obsessing over a question I’m sure will be asked up until the very last word vanishes from this earth:  At what price should I price my book on Kindle?

I’d rather talk politics or even DS-K than be drawn into that black hole topic.  Better yet, I think I’ll go to the beach and dream of St. Louis, Missouri on Thursday, September 15th  at 1 PM, when I’ll be participating with my Murder is Everywhere blogmates on a Bouchercon panel titled, “I Wish I Was the Moon—Landmark 4.”  And, I have no idea why it’s called that, unless perhaps it’s meant to be the earth calling out for help some 7.6 billion years from now.


Friday, August 26, 2011

Hell on Wheels

An image of Istanbul I never saw

Apologies for not blogging last week. I was working in Istanbul most of the week, which sounds more interesting than it actually was. The scheduling was insane, involving a few internal flights, lots of car travel, and no time at all for any sightseeing, which is a shame because I’d love to see more of the city. It’s a fascinating place, a confluence of east and west. It was Ramadan when I visited and some of the mostly Muslim population were fasting from sunrise to to sunset, which at this time of year is a mighty long time. No food or drink, including water, which in 35 degree heat is some sacrifice. On the only free evening I had, I sat outside the hotel at dusk. On the wind came the melodious calls to prayer from the many mosques, mingling and accidentally harmonising, signalling that it was time to break the fast. The effect was magical. 

Which is more that can be said for the defining memory of my visit to Istanbul: the taxi drivers. I am by no means the world’s most experienced traveller, but neither am I a novice, and I can hand on heart say that the cab drivers of istanbul are the most insane and dangerous I’ve even encountered. And I’ve been to south east Asia.

A view of Istanbul I saw only too often
The taxi ride from the airport is one of the most commonly unsettling experiences in travel. In London the peril lies in the cost. Likewise, eastern Europe where you are besieged by all manner of blokes who aren’t licensed but want the money. In Vietnam the issue was safety, though not mine; the roads aren’t in great condition and are teeming with bikes and tuk-tuks and helmetless teenage motorcylists, for whom I genuinely feared as they wove maniacally across the bumpy roads.

In Istanbul it was purely personal. On all three cab rides I took, death seemed a distinct possibility. At the airport our first cab had no seatbelts. The driver then almost knocked down two young women at a crossing. Then it got really scary. On the motorway that passes traffic around the city, like one of the circles of Hell, it is a free for all. Cars weaving in and out at ludicrous speeds. Our driver enthusiastically entered into the spirit of things, driving at over 100 mph, jumping from lane to lane without indicating, driving up everyones backside, slamming the brakes on when he came so close he had to stop, all while speaking on his mobile phone. At one point he started clipping his fingernails. It was then, white as a sheet, sick from the heat (there was no air con) and the constant stop-start, that I asked him to slow down. He just smiled and sped up. His English was miraculously better when we finally reached the hotel, and after I got down and kissed the lobby floor, asked him ‘How much?’ Then I went straight to the bar seeking a balm for shattered nerves.

Round two came near midnight on the way back from a different airport, on a day that began at 4am. The roads were emptier, and this time there were seatbelts in the back (the driver refused to wear his) but little good they would have done us had we crashed at the speeds that our driver was taking us. I had harboured foolish dreams of sleep, but was unable to close my eyes from sheer terror. After one swerve to avoid the car in front, certain death I again asked the driver to slow down. My Turkish is basic, amounting to no more than ‘Hello’, ‘Cheers’ and ‘Thanks’. But now I also now realise that ‘Slow down!’ said in an excited, somewhat agitated voice while weeping means ‘Can you drive like a bloody maniac for the remainder of the journey?’ to which they are only happy to oblige.

I asked our guide, an urbane young Turk who spoke excellent English, about the taxi drivers and he laughed. ‘They are good drivers,’ he said without a hint of irony. He explained that Istanbul’s roads are bedevilled by car accidents (’No sh*t,’ I thought) but that rarely do you see any taxis involved. ‘No,’ I thought, ‘because the weaving, speeding taxis are fleeing the scene, leaving a pile of molten smashed metal in their wake.’ I also asked about the seatbelts. Apparently it’s the law to wear one in Turkey but it’s never enforced. Wearing one is seen as some kind of wimpish obeisance to nanny state nagging rather than a lifesaving necessity. He pointed out the traffic police we passed, few of whom were wearing a seatbelt either. 

The final trip in a coffin on wheels came when we returned to the airport. I was almost blase at this point, laughing like a madman as we left the hotel. No seatbelts. Check. Driver on his phone pulling out into a seething mass of traffic. Check. I’m a not a gambling man, but if they were taking odds at that point on him driving at insane speeds and weaving all over the road for the rest of the way I would have been all in. My money would have been safe.

We made it, once again gasping for alcoholic medication. But while I can say that I was disappointed not to see more of Istanbul, and would like to go back and see more of the city itself, I’d be lying if it meant getting in an Istanbul cab. On the way back from Heathrow, my Turkish-born, seatbelt-wearing, speed-limit obeying, lane-sticking, non-phone talking driver, when he wasn’t fending off my grateful kisses, explained that he had driven to his ancestral home in Turkey from London last year. On the way he had passed through Istanbul. After only a few minutes on the city motorway he had vowed never, ever to drive in the city again. This from a man with 20 years driving experience in London.

I’m sure Istanbul taxis aren’t the worst in the world. But they can’t be far off. If you have worse stories, and people always do, feel free to let me know. Only then might the nightmares stop.


Dan - Friday

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Umhlanga – the reed dance

Swaziland is a small kingdom enclosed between South Africa and Mozambique. That’s correct: a kingdom.  And we’re not talking about a constitutional monarchy here but a king who actually rules.  The odd part is that on the whole the local people seem pretty happy with the arrangement.  Unlike the middle-east, there has been no Swaziland “spring”.  Not that King Mswati III is exactly a paragon of virtue.  He enjoys luxury, owns some automobiles that he won’t let press reporters photograph because of their opulence, and has a small harem of wives.  But he has to share power with the Queen Mother, and can’t choose his heir.  The heir and the first two wives are chosen by a committee of councellors. Surprisingly, in the twenty-first century, it’s a system that seems to more or less work.

King Mswati III
Which brings us to this week’s big event – the Umhlanga. An impressive traditional rite of spring. (Swaziland does have a “spring” after all!) It’s a week-long affair and it has become a big tourist attraction. Perhaps Swaziland’s major tourist attraction. It involves all the unmarried girls in the kingdom who have not had children and this year the estimate is that sixty thousand will choose to take part.

The schedule is something like this:

The royal family appoints a commoner maiden to be "induna" (captain) of the girls and she announces over the radio the dates of the ceremony, which are determined by the phase of the moon. She will be an expert dancer and knowledgeable on royal protocol. One of the King's daughters will be her counterpart.

On the first day the girls gather at the Queen Mothers royal village in groups from the 200 or so chiefdoms.  The next day the girls divide into two groups, the older (about 14 to 22 years) and the younger (about 8 to 13). In the afternoon, they march in their local groups to the reed-beds. The girls reach the vicinity of the reeds in darkness, and sleep in government-provided tents. Formerly the local people would have accommodated them in their villages. On the third day the girls cut their reeds, usually about ten to twenty, using long knives. Each girl ties her reeds into one bundle. Nowadays they use strips of plastic bags for the tying, although in the old days they would plait grass into rope.  The following day the girls return to the Queen Mothers village, carrying their bundles of reeds. They arrive at night to indicate the long distance they have travelled to obtain the best reeds.

After a day to make their costumes and prepare their hair, the girls dance and sing all afternoon for the Queen Mother.  And on the next day they sing and dance again, this time with the King in attendance.  If the mood takes him, he may take the opportunity to choose a new wife.

It’s a formal affair.  Visitors are welcome, but must be appropriately attired.  Women are expected to wear dresses and – unlike the dancers – modest tops.  If you decide to attend, no photographs, please. The King has not been impressed with some of the internet displays around the event.

Michael - Thursday

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Turning 11000

Our number system is believed based on us having ten fingers. If instead, humans had 12 fingers, today I would have turned 40. To have turned 30, humans would need to have 16 fingers and 24 fingers if I were to have turned 20. The latter number is in the realm of unrealism as there is no way to fit an extra seven fingers on each hand. Unless the palms had fingers, which is stretching it. But I am fine with ten fingers and am simply relieved we don‘t have 2 fingers as I would be celebrating my 11000 birthday today, an age that even vampires and Old Testament characters would find extremely advanced. And come to think of it I am also happy that we don‘t have just two fingers as typing novels would five times as difficult as at present. One would be good at pointing but pretty bad at about everything else. And numbers would be really long.

Although the Mayans did not have 20 fingers they had a 20 based numerical system that used dots and dashes. Maybe they wnet barefoot a lot and engaged their toes in the counting proces. In this system a dot counts for one and a dash for five. They also had a zero, which was a shell symbol. The system is really simple until you reach the number twenty. At this point the signage becomes a bit hard to grasp, especially considering the relevancy of the knowledge acquired weighed with the effort required.

Iceland’s ancestors the Vikings apparently had no numerals. This goes hand in hand with their image, when raping and pillaging phrases do just fine. You can’t really expect them to have been counting or conducting bookkeeping while so engaged. As an example, when running back to their longboats after a good day’s pillage, they must have asked each other: So how much havoc did you manage to reap? This can only be answered with words like: “a lot” or “hardly anything, my sword broke”. Not “three pieces of pillage and one rape.” This lack of at least writing down numbers implies that the early Vikings just went with general references, no specifics.

Because of my birthday I googled the Birthday song. In my defense for doing something so banal, I should note that I was delirious with birthday glee. This delirium did not last long as my research into its origins mostly provided me with articles regarding the copyright of the song, which is apparently still in force. Not exactly festive material. But interesting. The rights to this song seem to be a valuable commodity, have been the property of companies such as Time-Warner Corporation. They now belong to a group of investors fronted by Edgar Bronfman Jr. The copyright infringements mean that if singing "Happy Birthday to You" to a group consisting of others than family and friends one must pay royalties. I did not manage to figure out who pays them, the birthday boy/girl or whoever instigates the signing. Royalties supposedly amount to about $2 million per year. Somewhere it was mentioned that one run though of the song amounts to $700.

In Europe copyrights lasts for 70 years after the author/writer dies. Patty Hill who is accredited as the songwriter died in 1946 so these expire on December 31, 2016. Only then will one be able to go celebrate one’s birthday at a restaurant and have the table sing.
This does show the two finger scenario in another light. Signing the birthday song for a two fingered species in the presence of strangers would cost $1,010,111,100. Approximately the same as it would have cost in Turkish lira before they removed all the zeros in 2005. Before that they even had a 250,000 coin.

But I have to go, my family is gathering in a deep closet to sign “Happy Birthday” for me.

Yrsa - Wednesday

Monday, August 22, 2011

The lady disappeared

One hundred years and two days ago to be exact the Mona Lisa was stolen from the Louvre in what became at the time the crime of the century. Years later it was discovered that between 1911 and 1913, the most famous painting in the world, the legendary work of Leonardo da Vinci, spent 28 months under a bed in a small room off the rue de l'Hôpital- St. Louis in Cité le Heron, a small cul de sac, in Paris near the Canal Saint-Martin

On the morning of August 22, 1911, the day of the Louvre's usual closing the painting was discovered missing. Only the nails that held the frame were on the wall. No alarm was raised since several of the Louvre's workers assumed the painting was being photographed in the basement, after all it was summer and not many Parisians were in Paris. But several hours later after the supervisor heard and a search was conducted the only clues were the Mona Lisa's gold frame found in the staircase leading to the courtyard of the Sphinx. Since it was in the middle of summer, the Under Secretary of State for Fine Arts was absent as well as the Director of National Museums. Only at 5:30 p.m. were the police, judges and prosecutor summoned.

Then began the interrogation of all staff, photographers, artists and workers present that day. A plumber said at 7:20 am he found that the lock on the door to the courtyard of the Sphinx had been unscrewed and a button was missing. A man in overalls sitting on the stairs had been asked to open this door. But this worker couldn't clearly remember who asked him or if he'd been carrying something. Had the thief acted alone? Another witness supplemented this testimony by saying he'd seen a man throw something into the courtyard which turned out to be the doorknob.
The Louvre closed for a week for investigations involving 60 police. The following Tuesday, August 29 the Louvre reopened. Crowds gathered to see the empty space with four nails.

Meanwhile heads rolled. The Director of National Museums, Théophile Homole, was laid off and the chief custodian of the museum dismissed. The press took hold of the event. Headlines appeared everyday. All leads were followed, rumors spread and the investigation stalled. Comedians, cartoonists and singers made the theft part of their act. Rewards were offered and the theft of the Mona Lisa which had plunged the country into 'national mourning' commanded 10 000 or 40 000 francs depending on the importance of intelligence. Friends of the Louvre offered 25 000 francs, an anonymous person offered 50 000 francs for the return in the Paris-Journal, But art specialists scoffed since it was clear that it was stolen for ransom because it was unsaleable. A politician of the day lamented that 'love was stolen.'

Then a serious lead appeared from a man who turned out to be a pathological liar and kleptomaniac. He boasted of stealing Phoenician statuettes from the Louvre and had sold them to artists. Some to Guillaume Apollinaire, the poet and others to Pablo Picasso. Picasso, who had bought two of these statues - without knowing the source, he said. Apollinaire was questioned and Picasso denied even knowing the poet. Apollinaire was crucified in the newspaper headlines and accused of also stealing the Mona Lisa. Picasso was let off the hook, later so was Apollinaire but it seems Picasso regretted this cowardice all his life. The trail that led up to Apollinaire and Picasso was a dead end.

In late 1913 a Florentine antique dealer named Alfredo Geri received a letter dated November 29, written in Italian by a Leonardo V. from General Delivery, in Paris. The mysterious correspondent wanted to sell the Mona Lisa adding it would be "recognizing that this treasure of art should be returned to her homeland." Intrigued, Geri contacted the director of the Uffizi Gallery, who advised him to follow up. Correspondence lead to a meeting in his gallery on December 10. The man came empty handed and asked for 500,000 francs in exchange. Geri complied and the next day Leonard V lead him to a modest hotel. In a wooden box, hidden under a false bottom for easy customs clearance, lay the famous picture. The two men carried the Mona Lisa to the Uffizi Gallery where she was authenticated on the basis of inscriptions on the back of the canvas and comparing those with cracks visible on the pictures in the Louvre. The next day, Leonardo V. who was actually a Vincenzo Perugia was arrested at his hotel as he prepared to return to France. When asked why, he readily told his story. But who was Vincenzo Perugia and how and why did he steal the legendary Mona Lisa?

He was born in Italy in the province of Como in 1881 of a mason. At twelve years old in Milan he learned the painting trade. He settled in Paris in 1908 and joined Gobi, a painting and glazing contractor on Rue Saint Honore. The firm worked at the Louvre and Perugia had participated in the crafting of the protective frame for the Mona Lisa. His fingerprints appeared on the glass removed from the Mona Lisa's frame. The police, however, hadn't followed the trail of workers employed by the Louvre or to a form with the name of Perugia and his fingerprints on file. He had been questioned even once by the police.
During the interrogation in Italy Perugia said he hated France. But loved Italy, it's art and he wanted to restore the Mona Lisa to his home country, believing it was stolen by Napoleon. In fact Leonardo da Vinci had brought the painting from Italy with him and it passed into the collection of Francis I (Leonardo's benefactor) upon Leonardo's death.
Perrugia described how he hid the Mona Lisa for 28 months where he lived in the working class passage near the Canal Saint Martin. He'd moved into the Italian community living there and rented a room on the first floor. Some of his cousins ​​lived there too. But it was two brothers, friends of his, that he confided in. He needed their help in building a protective box that he put under his bed to guard the painting from humidity. Later they were imprisoned.
But finally the big day arrived and the Mona Lisa returned to Paris on December 31, 1914. She was installed briefly at the Ecole des Beaux Art for experts to authenticate her. After she was authenticated the Ecole placed her under a red canopy in a room lined by Gobelins tapestries, and the public was invited for two days and to pay one franc. Thousands came and the money was sent to a charity in Italy. That Sunday the Mona Lisa was reinstated in the Louvre on January 4, 1914 where for the first afternoon 15,000 visitors were allowed to welcome her home.
A cartoonist proud to welcome home the Mona Lisa
As for Perugia, he spent seven months and eight days in jail. Given his patriotism and his psychiatric report the Italian courts were lenient and he served little more than a year in prison. He also received gifts and became a sort of national hero. High expectations greeted his prison release but the day before the Archduke Franz Ferdinand was shot in Sarajevo and all attention and a world war ensued. Perugia was lost in history.
Cara - Tuesday

Sugar and Spice?

Sugar and spice
And everything nice,
That’s what little girls are made of.
19th century English nursery rhyme.

Not in São Paulo, folks.
Our little girls are made of sterner stuff.

Since last October a gang of them has been terrorizing the Vila Mariana neighborhood.

Almost all of them are thought to be under twelve.
And some are as young as nine.

The girls have taken to sweeping through supermarkets where some of them distract the staff while others grab merchandise and run.

And holding scissors, or knives, to the throats of individual shopkeepers, while their little colleagues help themselves to the stock.

And hanging around schools, where they steal backpacks and cell phones from students.

And assaulting people on the street, relieving them of their purses and wallets by threatening them with weapons they purport to have hidden under their clothing.

So why don’t the cops arrest them?
Well, the fact of the matter is they have – dozens of times.

But Brazilian law prohibits charging children under the age of twelve with criminal acts, not one of them will admit to being any older, and they make it a point not to carry identity documents.

The girls claim to be abandoned, living on the streets, and when reporters show up, they hide under the hoodies they wear, so their images can’t be circulated.

And the cops are left with no other choice but to send them to a shelter.

From which they promptly escape – and, as one cop put it, “are back on the job within an hour.”

“We’ve tried, time after time, to get their true names and ages,” one social worker said, “but they either lie or refuse to talk.”

But she doesn’t buy their story that they’ve living on the streets.

Street kids in São Paulo, of which there are many, show different characteristics.
They’re denied an opportunity to bathe, so they’re dirtier – and often addicted to drugs.
These girls are clean, well-nourished, reasonably well-dressed and seldom addicted.
All sure signs they’ve got a home somewhere.
But finding it?
That’s the problem.

Every now and then the authorities get lucky.
And manage to track down a parent.

For all the good it does.

Witness this quote from one such parent, recorded by a reporter who stuck her microphone through the window of a toilet, where the mother thought she was having a confidential conversation with her daughter.

The girl, at the time, had just been busted for robbing the same boutique two times in succession.

“How dumb can you be, huh?” the mother said, “You should know you never go back to the same place twice?”

Leighton - Monday

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Petty Larceny

Why is it so much fun to write about bad guys?

Many of my writer friends tell me that they have a problem with their villains: the villains want to walk away with the entire book. Evil and its cousins, malice and dissimulation, have an undeniable energy. It's a lot of work to be bad, and energy can be magnetic in a book.

For one thing, energy draws the writer.  If we have one character who's always ready to jump off the blocks -- as our villains so often are -- and others who need to be coaxed and pampered and fed the occasional carrot, guess who we're going to want to write about?  And guess who the reader will want to spend time with?

It takes a really strong Othello to keep Iago from stealing the show.

Which brings me to LITTLE ELVISES, my second Junior Bender novel, which was just released as an ebook on Amazon and B&N.  One of the great treats of writing the Junior books is that everybody's bad. Even the hero is a burglar, and the rest of the cast, with a few exceptions, goes downhill from there.  And have they got energy.

Writing them is like being in the middle of a sack of cats.  They all want so desperately, and since most of them aren't bound by niceties like the laws of property, they see no reason not to take. Put them in a room together and turn off the lights, and fifteen minutes later you'll have two picked pockets, a seduction, a mugging, and (if Mercury is in retrograde) a murder.  I mean, there's a book every fifteen minutes.

And LITTLE ELVISES also let me indulge myself in some of the worst rock and roll ever recorded.  The Little Elvises of the title are Philadelphia teenagers plucked off the city's stoops by a record producer and turned into pallid imitations of the boy from Tupelo until their 14-year-old fans got tired of them and moved on to the next one.  And there always was a next one waiting.

In the book, the producer, Vinnie DeGaudio, justifies the assembly line like this:

"These were crushes, not love affairs.  The girls weren't gonna marry my guys, they were gonna buy magazines with their pictures on the front and write their names all over everything, and fifteen minutes later, they were gonna get a crush on the next one.  Like junior high school, but with better-looking boys.  Girl like that, she's a crush machine, or at least that's what they were back then.  These days, who knows?  Not much innocence around now, but that's what my kids were. They were innocence.  They were dreams.  They were never gonna marry them or knock the girls up or drink too much and kick them around, or turn out to be as gay as a lamb chop, or anything like what guys do in real life.  They were dreams, you know?  They came out, they looked great, they sang for two and a half minutes, and then they went away."

But Vinnie -- a gangster whose product was innocence -- has made a central mistake.  Some things never go away.  And that's what drives the plot of LITTLE ELVISES.

Of all the books I've ever written, this was the most fun.  If you've got an e-reader and $2.99 burning a hole in your pocket, I hope you'll give it a try.  Maybe you'll have fun with it, too.

Tim -- Sundays

Saturday, August 20, 2011

Tales of the Piano Bar, Part 8: Guitar Blues, A Detective Story

Telly Savalas as Kojak

Yes, it’s time for another story from Mykonos’ Montparnasse Piano Bar, the Greek Aegean’s own La Cage au Folles.  For this one you need not lock up the children.  It’s more on the order of a police procedural than bodice-ripper (so to speak). So, here’s a tale about how rowdy tourists can get to meet Mykonos’ finest, courtesy (in every way) of the Piano Bar’s creators, Nikos Hristodulakis and Jody Duncan.  Go Jody.

Last month I wrote about the Piano Bar serving as the gathering place for many of the Shirley Valentine cast and crew during their 1988 filming on Mykonos.  I also mentioned how when a less than organized props department forgot to bring along a guitar for Tom Conti’s seminal seduction scene with Pauline Collins we stepped into the breach and supplied what was necessary to get the job done. 

The Famous Guitar
After the film was released, we proudly hung that guitar in the bar and told anyone who asked about it of its part in movie history.

One night a couple of young guys came into the bar with two attractive young women, grabbed the guitar off the wall, and started to play it.  Nikos told them to put it back.  He said the guitar was only for display, not use—especially when the pianist and singer were performing.  The two were not happy, but they put it down, and the night went on as if everything were fine.

The next morning Nikos and I went to open the bar to prepare it for the evening and found the lock smashed and the door wide open.  We went inside expecting to find the place looted and trashed.  Oddly, everything seemed in place.  Then I noticed the guitar was gone from the wall.  We knew instantly what was up. 

Nikos called the police and after telling them what had happened the night before they agreed the two guys must have broken in and taken the guitar.  They told Nikos to keep an eye out for the suspects and to call the police station if he spotted them.
Not a suspect

That evening, after a long day with a carpenter and a locksmith, the bar was up and running again, sans one guitar.  It was late into the night when the two girls from the night before came through the door acting just as bold as brass.  They sat at the bar and before even ordering a drink said, “Where’s the guitar.” 

Nikos told them, “Out for repair.” 

The girls smiled and ordered two glasses of wine.

Nikos went into another room and called the police.  They said to do nothing to raise the girls’ suspicions.  Minutes later two cops in plainclothes came in and Nikos discreetly pointed out the girls.  The cops sat at the bar nursing their beers until the women left.  They followed them back to their pension, but decided to do nothing that night and to return in the morning.

The next day the police asked the owner of the pension if she’d seen a guitar in any of the rooms.  She said that she hadn't.  The police described the two girls and the landlady recognized them, but when she showed the police their room there was no guitar to be found.

Then the landlady mentioned that the two girls had been in the company of two guys in another room who’d checked out that morning.  When the police went to that room, bingo, there was the guitar.  They’d left it behind, as if breaking and entering were just a prank one was free to do on holiday in a foreign country.

Checking Casablanca departures
The police returned the guitar to our bar and asked Nikos to come with them.  They hoped he might be able to identify the two guys if they were trying to get off the island.  First, Nikos and the cops went to the airport to check out passengers waiting for the morning’s only departing flight.  No luck.  From there it was off to the harbor and arranging for all passengers boarding a ferry bound to Pireaus to pass by Nikos one at a time.  Still, no luck.  The cops were discouraged but had one last suggestion:  a drive along the harbor front cafés to see if Nikos might spot them there. 

Sure enough, the two were sitting at a café calmly eating breakfast.  The police stopped an inconspicuous distance away and returned to the café on foot.  They stepped up to the guys’ table and told them to stay seated and make no sudden moves.  The cops motioned for Nikos to come over, and as soon as he identified them they were arrested.

Nikos asked them what they thought they were doing breaking down a door, and they said they “only wanted to play the guitar.”

Midnight Express
One cop called it “A rather expensive gig, since now you have to pay for a new door and lock.  That is, if you want to leave Greece instead of going to jail.”  The two accepted the leave at once alternative, and after parting with virtually all their remaining drachmas, their passports were stamped persona non grata in Greece and they were turned over to the boat captain with instructions to release them only into the custody of the police who would be meeting the boat in Pireaus.  No one seems to know what happened to the thieves after they got on that boat.  Most likely they were met, taken to the airport, and put on a plane back to London.  I wonder if Midnight Express was playing on their flight?

I still admire those Mykonos police of 1989 for their professional, quick, non-violent solution of a crime.  I wonder what would happen today?  Time for a drink.

For this month’s cocktail, let's try our ever-popular Neon Twister.  It’s perfect for a hot summer night.  In a blender, add two scoops of ice.  Add ¾ ounce each of Midori melon liqueur, peach schnapps, and white rum.  Pour in two ounces each of orange Juice and pineapple juice. Pulse in a blender two or three times, just enough to mix and somewhat crack the ice cubes.  Pour into a large glass and garnish with a pineapple wedge.

Thank you, Jody.  I can’t wait for the movie.


Thursday, August 18, 2011

From the Desert

Stan is in Botswana enjoying a relaxing house boat ride on the Chobe River after a trip through Namibia and a pilgrimage to Tsodilo.  He was planning to post a blog on the trip from Maun last night, but the internet found the capitol of the Okavango Delta a bridge too far. No doubt we will hear about his experiences once he returns to digital civilisation. In the meanwhile I have been working on slide shows for our book tour and for the additional website that we are setting up for Death of the Mantis.  We would like readers of the book to have the opportunity to see some of the locations of the book for themselves, and to learn more about the environment and its people should they wish to do so.  Of course, the story stands on its own, but some readers might enjoy going a bit further into the Kalahari…

Aron Frankental is a great friend who is a superb photographer .  Until his recent retirement he practised as a doctor, but photography has always been a great passion for him.  He is responsible for the author photos on our books.  He has a wonderful eye for the natural world and has kindly allowed us to use some of his pictures on our new webpage.  I thought that in lieu of Stan’s travels, I would offer a preview today of the way Aron sees the Namaqualand and Kalahari deserts.

Crab spider
Incidentally, Aron has a bit part in A Carrion Death as a German geologist at Maboane Diamond mine.  I’m glad to say that, unlike his namesake in that book, Aron is in excellent health!
Chanting Goshawk and young

On the move
Flowering succulents
Spreading pollen
Ground squirrel
Gemsbok on a calcrete ridge
A rare storm gathers over the Kalahari
Michael - Thursday

PS I almost forgot the winner of Best Aphorism: And the winner is our own Dan Waddell for:

Football is a game between two sides that lasts ninety minutes and at the end Germans win.

We'll be bringing you a copy of our book, Dan.  You can read it while the rest of us are having fun at Bouchercon!