Friday, August 31, 2018

The Crinan Canal For Me

The Crinan Canal

For nine green and flowered miles the Crinan Canal runs between Crinan and Ardrishaig (Ard Drish Aig) in Argyll and Bute in the West of Scotland. It opened in 1801 takes its name from the village of Crinan at its western end. Crinan is a tiny place. Turn left off a main road and its single track, up down, left, right, back the way you came and bump into a Highland cow. The kind of place that makes you wonder how they deliver a fridge freezer.

But I was informed there was a good coffee shop there. That does good cakes.

It connects Loch Gilp with the Sound of Jura and that will mean nothing to you, but if you were a Johnny sailor type of chappie out on the ocean wave heading west, you might be a bit irritated if Scotland was in the way of where you wanted to get to.

The Mull of Kintyre (  yes, of THAT song), sticks out down the way and the seas round that peninsula can be a bit on the rough side due to currents, foul language, Paul McCartney, lochs, High winds, monsters, torrential rain, haggis etc. The Crinan canal cuts that out. Once on the other side you can turn south ( whatever nautical term that is) and sail into the Clyde estuary  and then hook up with another canal – the Forth and Clyde Union Canal and that  connects – yes you’ve guessed it – the Forth River  ( Edinburgh  on the east) and the Clyde (here in the glorious west). So by negotiating  a few locks and  coffee shops, and loads of tourists  saying ‘left a bit, left a bit’ as  any second boat tries  to park behind a wide tug already in the lock, then you can cut right across Scotland to the  glories of Europe on the other side.

The negotiating of the canals is easier than negotiating Brexit.

The Crinan Canal was designed by civil engineer John Rennie and work started in 1794, as is usual with such projects, the construction was beset by issues with finance and poor weather.

 The canal bank near Lochgilphead failed in 1805 and the canal's course had to be diverted when the ground got too marshy. Now this provides very easy and unobtrusive access to marsh dwelling wildlife.

The Duke of Argyll who was chair of the project asked no lesser person than Thomas Telford to help them iron out some of the issues. The great engineer   (who also did the bridge in Bristol) suggested improvements to locks and a redesign of the canal to include swing bridges.

Queen Victoria had a wee jaunt through the Crinan canal in 1847, four horses pulling her along. I presume somebody had given her a boat of some kind.

After  that the canal turned into a tourist attraction.

It was then referred to as the “Royal route" and by the late 1850s, nearly 50 000 people had gone from Ardrishaig to Crinan or vice versa.

Now, with the addition of new sea locks at either end of the canal, the canal is accessible in any 
height of tide. About 2,000 boats annually make their way from one end to the other.

Here’s a wee song about it.
The Crinan Canal for me;

I don't like the wild raging sea
Them big foamin' breakers
Wad gie ye the shakers
The Crinan Canal for me.

And two rather interesting facts of a slightly baser nature.  Dukes is Scottish rhyming slang Haemorrhoids; Duke of Argylls- Piles- Haemorrhoids.  And (this is true) in UK there are strict rules about male nudity on the TV. Some male appendages are allowed to be seen naked only after a certain time usually 9pm, and even then, only in a relaxed state. Anything ‘not relaxed’ is deemed as porn and not allowed at any time! So how do they judge that? They judge it against the angle of the Mull Of Kintyre… which might suggest that McCartney was having a little giggle all along.
Here’s some pics!


Caro Ramsay

31st August 2018

Thursday, August 30, 2018

Emotions revisited

Stanley - Thursday

As a South African by birth, I joined millions of others in celebrating the 100thanniversary of Nelson Mandela’s birth. He was my hero, and I cried when he was released from years and years of incarceration, and I cried when he died.

And tears came to my eyes last week in a most unexpected way.

When I arrived in Minneapolis in late spring, I learned that the Minneapolis Orchestra, under the baton of Osmo Vänskä, was going to visit South Africa this August in celebration of Mandela’s birth. They were going to give five concerts in different parts of the country, stopping on the way in London for an appearance at the Proms in the Royal Albert Hall.

Fortunately for me, the orchestra was going to play most of the works planned for South Africa during its annual Sommerfest before they left. And what a Sommerfest it was! Not only traditional masterpieces, such as Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony with its wonderful Ode to Joy in the final movement sung by South African soloists, but also a tribute to Mandela by South African composer Bongani Ndodana-Breen titled Harmonia Ubuntu, specially commissioned for the tour. There were groups from South Africa, with African jazz, vocals, and the famous a capella group, Ladysmith Mambazo.

But there was more – talks by Mandela’s daughter and other prominent South Africans - and a series of video tributes, projected above the orchestra, from notables such as Walter Mondale, Madeleine Albright, and Yoyo Ma. The Yoyo Ma tribute was particularly special – after his verbal tribute, Ma started playing the famous melody from the largo movement of Dvorak’s New World symphony. As he played, the orchestra joined in, initially so softly that it was difficult to notice, then as Ma’s cello faded out, it took over. You can listen to the melody here– it starts 50 seconds from the beginning.

All the concerts were wonderful, but I’ll take two memories with me. Throughout Sommerfest, both classical and African music was played. When the orchestra was doing what they did best, the audience was quiet and rapt. When the African groups played, the audience was animated, some singing, some dancing. There was even some ululating. I loved the contrast. And I loved the fact that the series brought so many new people to Orchestra Hall.

The second memory is of a concert of protest music, titled Speaking Truth to PowerEach piece was prefaced by a brief talk on what the protest was about. The audience was really drawn into the music because of the explanations. Works on the program include John Corigliano’s Apologue: Of Rage and Remembrance, written in response to the AIDS crisis; Krzysztof Penderecki’s Threnody for the Victims of Hiroshima; and William Grant Still’s In Memoriam: The Colored Soldiers Who Died for Democracy, among others. The whole evening was incredibly moving.

As Sommerfest progressed, it became increasingly obvious to me the huge amount of work that had gone into making both Sommerfest and the South African tour possible. And the huge amount of money – taking a full symphony orchestra with their instruments, plus chorus, and hangers-on – not only to South Africa, but also between the various cities with only days between concerts. The program indicated that a substantial contribution had been made by an anonymous couple. Must have been millions of dollars.

Here is a short clip of the orchestra's joyous welcome to Cape Town, and members of the orchestra commenting on the effect on them of audience enthusiasm.

Different friends of mine in South Africa sent me reports on the various concerts, which all started with the national anthems of South Africa and the USA. What a way to engage the audience right away, young and old!

All included the commissioned work and encores including well known South Africa pieces, including a specially arranged version of the unofficial national anthem, Shosholoza, an old song about the train that brought workers to the mines. And here's the original with English translation. All were marked by joyous receptions, active audiences, and singing and dancing long after the concert ended.

The orchestra in Johannesburg
Minnesota Public Radio broadcast the concerts, and the one that caused me to cry again was held in the sprawling predominantly Black suburb of Johannesburg, called Soweto, where Mandela spent a lot of his time, and which was the centre of the anti-apartheid movement. The venue was the Regina Mundi church which was a venue often used by anti-apartheid protesters.

 You can listen to the whole concert here. It is difficult to explain the emotions I and many of my friends feel when something like this happens in a country that only thirty years ago was still under the apartheid government. The country faces huge challenges and will do so for years to come, but the transformation is astonishing and despite the problems, there is optimism. And music brings people together.

Two other things made the tour special – the first tour of South Africa by a professional orchestra. Throughout the tour, members of the orchestra spent a great deal of time working with local musicians and visiting local schools. From what I have read, memories of these interactions will be the lasting ones for many of the orchestra’s musicians.

Here is a short clip of the Minnesota Chorale working with the Gauteng Choristers – they formed a huge chorus for many works including Beethoven’s Ninth. It must have been a challenge – the Minnesotans learning how to pronounce African words, clicks included, and the South Africans learning how to pronounce the German words of Schiller’s Ode to Joy.

The second special aspect was particularly important for me. The whole Music for Mandela effort, including Sommerfest and the tour, was done in collaboration with Books for Africa – my favourite charity. Not only did it collect books at orchestra hall during Sommerfest, but it delivered 42,000 books to the local Soweto community, including 12,000 to a Soweto school, Missourilaan Secondary School. Too bad it wasn’t called Minnesotalaan Secondary School! (Hint, hint: my effort to help send 42,000 books to South Africa is halfway funded. Your donation will help get the container on the high seas. You can donate here.)

South Africa is a country of music – people are always singing. It is part of the country’s DNA. Unfortunately that part of the DNA passed me by. Here is a one hour medley of amazing South African performers, including Pumeza Matshikiza, Hugh Masakela, Abdullah Ibrahim, Ladysmith Black Mambazo, and the Soweto String Quartet.

Wednesday, August 29, 2018

Summer on the Table

Sujata Massey

Summer is supposed to be done. I know this because I see big yellow school-buses on the freeway, and the Staples office supply store is full of families loading up on binders, notebooks, and pencils. But may I make a public service announcement that it's still summer out there? I only have to go to the farmer's market in Baltimore to know this. August and September are the peak months for tomatoes, peppers, peaches and plums. Just about everything is at its best, with the exception of delicate lettuces.

Baltimore and nearby suburbs are awash in farmers' markets, large and small. I usually shop at the big one that runs year-round in the neighborhood of Waverly on Saturdays, but I also adore the Kenilworth Farmers' Market in Towson on Tuesday afternoons, which is smaller but has a more "artisan" feeling.

I find it exciting that Maryland farmers are now growing specialty tomatoes like the ones famous from San Marzano, Italy. Though I'm sure Italians would not be happy to see the name of that terroir applying to bullet-shaped, meaty tomatoes grown outside of Italy. But wow! The transformation of these Roma tomato varieties into sauce and chutney is magically easy.

 Excellent cherry tomatoes went into this salad that is jazzed up with avocado, scallions and basil.

I rarely travel in the summer, because I dig very deeply into writing and revising. Fall is the time writers must travel for book festivals. I would ideally like to write-garden-cook all summer, but the heat drives me inside so I'm mostly writing and cooking.

My eyes are bigger than my stomach--how many things can you do with a gorgeous bunch of scallions before it wilts?

The smaller the zucchini, the more I want to eat them. But there are only so many ways to shred, slice, sauté and bake "courgettes", another name for them that is not used here.

I tried to tempt my husband toward kale by asking him to grill it. Result: interesting, but still pretty sharp. With summer's ease, these are experiments worth taking. If it doesn't thrill the palate, try something else.

This is a delicious variant on potato salad; grilled potatoes and fennel, pickled fennel fronts and a yogurt mint dressing. And look below to see a snack of grilled corn tossed with fresh herbs and topped with cornflakes! All of these recipes are weekend experiments taken from an excellent recipe collection of Kerala-inspired grilled dishes published in an early summer edition of Food and Wine.

An improvised apricot-blueberry-buttermilk cake that I concocted looked rather like a Matisse. Fabulous warm from the oven.

Cooking summer produce is a way for me to vacation into different countries without leaving my house. Still, all the fancying and fixing can't replace the perfect purity of what we can only eat in the summer, sometimes with a fork and often, just with the hands.

Tuesday, August 28, 2018

it's time for la rentrée...back to school and work

It's said the French have become Julietists or Aoûtiens which means they join the ranks and take vacation in either Juillet - July or Août - August evidenced by the exodus to the seaside and the country.

However in August, despite the Julietists, there is a sense of a collective vacation. A proper two week (or more) holiday in the first few weeks of August is completely normal and for the majority, it will be a genuine break. No scrolling through emails or joining conference calls from a beach café, trying to pretend you’re not on holiday. It’s ok to switch off. It’s expected. Just look at the restaurants and bakeries that are closed in Paris in August, a city populated mostly that month by tourists.

So you start to understand that if your summer was a real break, it’s not so hard to come back. You’ve re-charged your batteries and you’re refreshed.

In September there's a social buzz of the Rentrée - it's back to school and work, all tanned and relaxed or supposedly. La Rentrée is a social occasion. Parents hover much longer at the school gate, catching up with friends. Drinks are arranged. There is a sense that the kids are back at school, we are back to our normal routines and this means we also get our social life back too.

There's a celebratory approach as well.  Much is made of children's progression into the next school year.  Adults talk to them about the return to school as though it is fun, and a mark of their growing up that bit more. 

I've written about la Rentée before because I love the energy. It's like opening a book to a new page. I love people-watching in the few days leading up to the Rentrée. You can notice three types of people. The first is the harried, normal maman, frantically ransacking the stationary aisle of Monoprix to get that last cardboard folder with the elastic bit, as specified in the very precise school supplies list.
The second is the very cool and serene Parisian maman who of course handed her supplies list in at the local stationary store ages ago and has naturally had the man at the store go around and collect it all into a bag for her and all she needs to do is pop in and collect it.
And then the third type, the highly stressed expat mother who quite honestly does not have a clue what in the world a ‘porte-vues’ is. It’s one of those books with about 80 plastic display wallets to display the child’s worksheets in.
The children have a new backpack filled with sharp new pencils and fresh exercise books, ready for going back to school after 9 long weeks!
Cara - Tuesday