Saturday, July 11, 2020

Let's Go to a Greek Island Wedding


I'm not in a particularly good mood today.  A condition I'm certain I share with many these days.  But I don't want to write about something that might leave a bad taste in anyone's mouth--especially with Stan having expounded so eloquently upon the wonders of Marmite in his Thursday post.

So, I decided to write about one of the happiest days in most folk's life.  Their wedding day.  But not just any wedding day, a Greek wedding among Mykonians on their home island of Mykonos.  Traditions there are somewhat different than in big city Athens, but no matter where a Greek wedding is held, I can assure you the party is always a blast.

Traditionally when two Mykonians marry, several hours before the service the bride and groom go to their respective parents’ homes to gather with family and friends who’ve come to help prepare them for the big day.  Amid a lot of singing, drinking, and nuts (meant to be the edible kind, symbolizing fertility) the party begins.

The groom, accompanied by an entourage including musicians, arrives at the church first, to cool his heels waiting for his bride to show.  Tradition always has her arriving late—possibly to give her groom a chance to sober up.

The bride and her family also arrive with musicians, generally playing a santouri dulcimer and an accordion or two. They stop in front of the groom as the bride’s parents turn their daughter over to her soon-to-be husband.  Then it’s on to the ceremony.   

All organized faiths offer more than simply words when asking souls to exchange lifetime vows; centuries-old symbols and rituals are employed to impress upon the couple the seriousness of their commitment.

Symbolic of all Greek Orthodox weddings are a bible, almonds, wine cup and decanter, and two stefana—bridal crowns of starched white leather, orange blossoms and ivy joined together by a single silver ribbon (or a variation thereof)—all on a small table.  

And everyone attending a Greek wedding has some traditional part to play. 

The priest reads from the wedding service as he performs the expected traditional rites, such as touching the wedding bands, and later the stefana, three times to the foreheads of the bride and groom.

The koumbarous and koumbara, honors akin to, but far more significant than, best man and bridesmaid, are charged with switching wedding bands three times from the couple’s left ring fingers—where worn when engaged—to their right where worn when married, and with holding the stefana above the couple’s heads waiting for the moment to switch them three times between bride and groom.

The bride has the most whimsical, and some say “instructive,” tradition.  Near the end of the service the priest reads, “The wife shall fear her husband,” at which point the bride brings to life the expression, “It’s time to put your foot down,” by stepping on her man’s foot to the great joy and cheers of all, especially chiropodists.  

The guests play their parts after the couple drinks three times from the common cup and begin their ceremonial first steps together as husband and wife.  The bride, groom, koumbaroi, and priest circle the small table three times amid a barrage of rice and, in Mykonos tradition, powerful whacks to the groom’s back by his buddies.

Then its time for greetings of  “kalo riziko,” “na zesete,” and “vion anthosparton” wishing the couple a marriage of “good roots,” “long life,” and “full of flowers,” and off to the party venue.  The only ones who don’t head straight to the party are the bride and groom.  They stop at their new home to change clothes. 

By the way, don’t worry if your name isn’t on the guest list, because as long as you’re with an invited guest you’re in.  That sort of thing is expected at a Greek wedding where there’s always more than enough food, drink, and room for one more. 

There’s also music playing while the guests wait for the bride and groom to arrive, and as soon as they do, the tune switches to one that lets everyone know the couple is here.  Amid a roar of applause and shouts of good wishes, they make their way through a phalanx of hugs and kisses to the dance floor.
With a nod of the bride’s head, the band begins playing the ballos, the traditional six-step dance of the Cycladic islands, one of the most beautiful to watch, and the first done at any true Mykonian wedding.  Once they are dancing the party is officially underway, and the couple is joined in sequence by their parents, koumbaroi, immediate family, and guests until a full line of partiers is dancing in the syrto style that symbolizes the essence of Greek life to so much of the world.  Later will come the kalamatiano, arguably Greece’s most popular dance and one played at every Greek wedding.

I will not mention the food. Just think enormous…and triple your thought.

Tonight is a time to let loose and worry about nothing more than passing out before the last guest departs, which will be long after the cake cutting and fireworks display.  And don’t worry about having to find your way home in the dark. The sun will be up by then.

Vion anthosparton, y'all!


Friday, July 10, 2020

Don't mention it!

At 11.59 on Tuesday night I will press send on the troublesome book. 


Like many authors, I have an ongoing internal debate about the COVID thing. Do we include it in the book? Do we ignore it completely? 

My good friend and I have delivery dates within the same week and we are both struggling  to bring the novel under control, so we decided to swap first raw drafts.

We were both in need of a good laugh.

He was concerned that his narrative had a time slip in it with alternating chapters that was only revealed at the end of the book. And that the entire thing was rubbish.

I was  worried that mine was not only complete rubbish, but also all about nothing. In a weird way nothing happens. It's more about the consequences of people thinking that something has happened and how social media can whip up a storm without any foundation at all.

His wasn't rubbish, I suspect another McIlvanney long list, or even the short list will be coming his way in 2021.  He was longlisted last year. Me the year before that. I am longlisted this year, He was longlisted two years ago.  We are taking it turn.


I like to think that the avalanche in The Red, Red Snow, a real Desmond Bagley type of ending, swung it for me!  The new book is set in the height of summer and even I will struggle to get an avalanche in this. 

One of my pet hates  is books written in a  time vacuum. Those books where the detective has been around for 27 years but is never any older,  although his children have grown up and left home. The dog  ends up being 32 but the detective hero has no grey hair and could challenge Usain Bolt in the 100m.

 My books tend to be set in a very particular time  frame. It's the one thing that pins the novel down is the day by day structure. So little did I know when I started writing that an incident on the 21st June 1978, to be reflected on the 21st June 2020, that the planet would be in one terrible mess by then.

I laid the first words for this book down in October 2019 when the pangolins and the bats were happily keeping their COVID to themselves. So it was written BV ( before virus ) but set at the time when lockdown is easing for its Scottish location.

One of the crimes involves the death of a medical  student of  Asian ethnicity at Glasgow University and it was that way before the BLM movement hit its stride, so to be authentic you have to reference it. 

A British celebrity committed suicide after, it is muted, unwelcome attention from social media about an up and coming court case.  And that is exactly what happens in the book, written weeks before it happened. 

Covid was useful in some ways as forensically what a gift it is for it to be 'normal' to wear a mask and gloves. 


An old man strikes up a very recent friendship with a young man, so how handy was it that the younger man offered to do the shopping for the older shielding man during lockdown and after twelve weeks of daily visits, of course some sort of friendship, however unlikely they were as a pairing, would strike up. 

Obviously as the (numerous ) rewrites have gone on – and there have been many things are tweaked to try and hit the right degree of lockdown for June 2020. I sent it off to my friend who pointed out that the detective gets rid of the two teenagers in his house by signing them up for a charity event in Malawi – they are now going to a log cabin in Tyndrum.  After being locked in the house for 12 weeks with three hormonal teenagers, I reckon my detective needs a break from  them.

My friend though had been talking to another author who was saying that it is not good to fix the book in such a precise time and although I accept their point of view, I’m not sure that I agree.

If it's set in 2020 and it says that in the narrative then I think  it has to be there, in the background. 

2020 which will go down in history as the year of the pandemic. 

For now, I have decided to leave it to my editor. It's not an integral part of the story just a nod here and there, but it will be interesting to see what my editor says.

And, I don't have time to rewrite it!

Caro Ramsay

Thursday, July 9, 2020

Love it or hate it

One of my favourite snacks is Marmite on matzo bread smeared with butter. I love the tangy, zesty taste. Yet many of my friends can’t stand it. There isn’t any middle ground. You love it or hate it – which is why, in 1996, Marmite introduced its new slogan “Love it or Hate it”. Whether you like the slogan or not, you have to admit it’s better than its predecessor “the growing up spread you never grow out of”.

Anyway, I decided to find out more about Marmite and its popular contender Bovril, which I used to enjoy in hot water as a kid – as a winter soup. Both are a nearly-black paste.

The Marmite Food Extraction Company was founded in 1902 in Staffordshire in England. It manufactured the dark paste based on a discovery by a German chemist, Justus von Liebig, who found that brewer’s yeast could be broken down with salt and then concentrated into an edible paste.

Its popularity soared a few years later when it was discovered that it was rich in vitamin B. It was then used to treat beri-beri patients in World War I, mill workers suffering from anaemia in Bombay, and malaria patients suffering from malnutrition in Sri Lanka.

The name comes from a French stockpot, called a marmite (pronounced ‘marmeet`). The marmite bottle copies the shape of the marmite.

I thought that was it for my research on Marmite. Then I dug deeper and found more. For example, the Marmite factory is close to the Bass Beer brewery and originally used the yeast byproduct to make the delicious paste.

And at the time of the General Election in Britain in 2010, Marmite ran its own political campaign by creating the Love Party and the Hate Party which made political pledges via social media. The winner was to be decided by members of the public voting for the party they preferred.

The Hate Party pledged, if it won, to create Marmite zones throughout Britain – the only places one could consume the vile paste. They also pledged to deport Marmite eaters to Guernsey. On the other hand, the Love Party pledged to set up anger management courses for Marmite haters and to criminalise all acts of face-pulling at Marmite lovers.

The Love Party eventually won, and the Marmite Company brought the campaigns to a close by erecting a monument to its product in the centre of Burton-on-Trent near the library. The sculpture - of a Marmite bottle, of course - is carved from Portland stone and is affectionately known as the Monumite.

Over the years, Marmite has produced special editions.

2007: a Guinness edition, using Guinness yeast;
2008: Champaign Marmite containing a touch of champagne for Valentine’s Day;
2009: Marston’s Pedigree to celebrate the Ashes cricket series;
2010: Marmite XO, s a super-strong blend, matured four times longer than regular Marmite; (What have I been missing?)
2012: a special edition celebrating the Diamond Jubilee of Queen Elizabeth II, called Ma’amite.
2015: a Summer of Love special featuring a flower power label; and
2019: a re-release of Marmite XO.

Bovril is another British icon and is older than Marmite by several decades.

 They say that an army marches on its stomach, and the army of Napoleon III was no exception during the Franco-Prussian war of 1870. It needed a million cans of beef to feed its army. Not surprisingly a Scot came to the rescue! (I can hear Caro saying “Of course!”).

John Johnston, a Scottish butcher living in Canada, solved the problem by creating a boiled-down beef extract called “Johnson’s Fluid Beef” to sell to the French. He did have a way with words.

It was very popular and he established a factory in 1888. He called the product Bovril. To quote Andrew Unsworth of the Sunday Times:

“Bo came from bovinus, Latin for ox, and Vril came from a popular science fiction novel of the time. Called The Coming Race, it was written by Bulwer Lytton and featured a race of people, the Vril-ya, who got their superpowers from an electromagnetic substance called vril. So Bovril gave the consumer strength from an ox.
Interestingly, the abbreviated or “boiled down language”, as we commonly use in texting today, was once known as Bovrilese."
Bovril is popular in the way I was introduced to it – as a hot winter drink. It’s also used to enrich stews and soups. War was certainly good for business as it was included in the rations of British soldiers in both world wars.

On Frasier in Season 6, Episode 7, Daphne is upset when Niles throws away a jar of Bovril because it smelled rancid. Daphne exclaims: "That's how it's supposed to smell; it's English!"
Douglas Adams, author of The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, stated that he relied on frequent baths, Bovril sandwiches and very loud guitar playing as excuses to avoid writing.
Bovril has had some interesting advertising campaigns. One paired it with a pope!

And, of course, the burning question is “Which do you prefer?”

Wednesday, July 8, 2020


I can't believe how this [disastrous] year of 2020 is flying by. I believe we are all living through a significant turn in modern history in which one child of a man has almost brought the USA's democracy to its knees, a clueless toad who has murdered thousands through deliberate, malicious negligence over Covid-19. He is, from my mystery writer point of view, a criminal, and his crime could be criminal negligence.

On a lighter note, as 2020 Zooms past (get it?), January 12, 2021 is the release date, Inshallah, of the second novel in the Emma Djan Investigations series, SLEEP WELL, MY LADY (SWML). I was going to do a grand reveal of the cover but Amazon and an Instagram follower both beat me to it. So, I might as well show it here, since the secret is out:

Your tea, My Lady? I trust you slept well?

Fashion icon Lady Araba is found dead in a staged posture in her bedroom in beautiful Trosacco Valley, the Beverly Hills of Accra. The Ghana Police, adhering to their usual scapegoating MO, have arrested Araba's chauffeur on the flimsiest of evidence, but Araba's Aunt Dele believes Augustus Seeza, the rich talk show host who was having an affair with Araba, is the true culprit.

Almost a year after the case has long stalled, Dele approaches Emma Djan, who has finally started to settle in as the only female PI at her detective agency. To solve Lady Araba's murder, Emma must not only go on an undercover mission that dredges up trauma from her past, but navigate a long list of suspects with solid alibis. Emma quickly discovers that they are willing to lie for each other. (Author note: These people are some serious liars.).

In SWML (that's pronounced SWIM-muhl) we see Emma take on a number of undercover jobs to get to the truth. We also see the use of a most unusual weapon not-supposed-to-be-a-weapon for maybe the first time in mystery literature, I like to fantasize so, but I could well be wrong.

SWML will likely be my last pre-Covid story, unles, of course, I write a historical novel. Otherwise, I suspect all my books henceforth will make at least some reference to the Great Pandemic of 2020, as it shall come to be known.

SWML is based very loosely on a true story out of Kenya, which I've written about on this blog before. Although the premise is similar, the end result is quite unlike the real-life case, the most obvious difference being that SWML isn't set in Kenya--I transplanted it to Ghana.

Some residential areas of Accra, the capital of Ghana, are havens of luxury, among them Airport Hills and Trasacco Valley. Funny how rich places are always some kind of "Hills." This kind of decadence is no more any true representation of Ghana's wealth than it is anywhere else.

Trasacco Valley (Video Kwei Quartey)

That clip is from a video recording I did surreptitiously after the real estate agent specifically told me not to, for privacy reasons. I confess I was pretending to be interested in buying one of the houses. If she's reading this, I'm in deep doo-doo.  

By the way, most of the homes in Trasacco Valley are valued a million USD and up, but the next-door development going up now in Trasacco Hills (what did I say about "Hills?")  features houses a little less pricey in the 500 to 800,000 USD range.

They're always looking for buyers, so if you have an inkling to snap up one or two mansions, I'm sure they'd love to hear from you. Tell them I sent you.

Monday, July 6, 2020

Delights of the Hudson Valley

Annamaria on Break

I usually spend a goodly part of Sunday working on my Monday blog.  NOT TODAY.  I am getting in my adorable little buggy and heading north out of NYC to see friends in the Hudson Valley.  By rights, tonight, we would be holding the gala for the Hudson Valley Shakespeare Festival.  By rights, my beloved friend Nicoletta would be visiting from Italy just now, and we would be attending that gala  together and staying on to see plays under the festival's gorgeous performance tent.

But the world is not in shape for "by rights."  Still, I can spend Sunday night in a sweet little inn.  On Sunday evening I can take a nice long walk along a country road with lovely friends (with masks and social distancing, of course).  And on Monday morning, similarly clad,  I can take a hike with dear ones.  Country walks with some of the most wonderful people I know.  My choice.  I know you will forgive me for taking a break, before I break!!

See below for a peek at the territory that feeds my soul.  The last words of this past post are a prayer that I have been praying every day.

I live in the Hudson Valley in the greatest city on earth.  But there is a place, along that same majestic river, just fifty miles north of Times Square that I also know and love well.  This past week, I spent a few days there, in Garrison and Cold Spring, New York with two of my dearest friends, tasting its delights: Familiar and new.

Most delightful of all, we saw, on three consecutive nights, the three MainStage plays at my beloved Hudson Valley Shakespeare Festival, preceded by picnicking while gazing at this view.  Good food, great friends, and then Taming of the Shrew as an appetizer, Richard II as the main course, and The Heart of Robin Hood, a swashbuckling, hilarious and romantic romp as desert.  What a feast!

The first of our hikes was on the grounds of Manitoga, which was the estate of the modernist industrial designer Russel Wright and is now a museum and nature reserve.

Susan Spann: Take note.  I am doing a little training in
preparation for our climbs.  Fair warning, I go slower going
down than going up!

There is a brand new museum in the area:  Magazzino, which means "warehouse" in Italian.

The art of I Poveri (the poor ones) is made from castoff or found materials.

Many of the works were really fun to play with, especially the ones with mirrors:

Selfie with Molly McClure: Snooping

Selfie by Dick Bradford, entitled Two Bearded Men Perusing a Text!

This work is made entirely from natural materials, including
volcanic ash taken from the slopes of Mt. Etna, in my
ancestral stomping grounds.
Our second hike was to to Arden Point on the banks of the Hudson.

I was doing fine until I crossed this bridge.

Where I developed a problem with my soul--opps
I mean my sole, which Dick tried to fix with a
tourniquet made from his handkerchief.
In the end, the only solution was to separate me from my soul,
oops--from my sole.
I made it to the river without my sole.

My sole awaiting reattachment.

`anc'ora - One of the works in the Magazzino exhibition.

"Ancora" (AHN-cora) is Italian for "anchor."  "Anc'ora" (ahnk-ORA) is Italian for "again."
The work in neon seems profound to me.  In this context, with such dear and long-term friends, it meant that I have friends who are anchors for my soul.  I pray we will be able to be together in this glorious place again soon. 

Sunday, July 5, 2020

Rebuilding History at Kumamoto Castle

-- Susan, every other Sunday

Japan has many castles, treasured relics from a long and historically fascinating feudal age. While most of these castles are reproductions, several have been preserved almost intact since their construction during the 16th and 17th centuries (and in a few cases, even earlier).

The main keep at Kumamoto Castle

One of the most beautiful and (largely) well-preserved castles in Japan is Kumamoto-jō (Kumamoto Castle), located in the city of Kumamoto, on Kyushu (the southernmost of Japan's four major islands.

First completed in 1607 (toward the end of the Sengoku Jidai, or Warring States period), Kumamoto-jō was originally the stronghold of Daimyō Kato Kiyomasa, who ruled the Kumamoto area.

The castle featured high stone foundations that curved to repel intruders, and to give the castle extra protection against Japan's many earthquakes. These walls, known as musha-gaeshi, are seen in many Japanese castles, but many people believe Kumamoto Castle represents the apex of this architectural feature.

The curving walls beneath the keep were designed to repel invaders and provide support against earthquakes.

Kumamoto-jō also had a unique double tenshu (keep). The tenshu was the central command area of the castle, and although most Japanese castles had only a single multi-story tenshu, Kumamoto Castle's was twice as large, and featured a second tower adjacent and joined to the first.

The unique double tenshu of Kumamoto-jō

Like most Japanese castles, Kumamoto-jō had a series of outer fortifications, consisting of tall stone walls surmounted by yagura (turrets) that served double duty as watchtowers and platforms for defense.

The Hitsujisaru Yagura, in the outer fortifications.

Today, as throughout its history, visitors to Kumamoto Castle must walk along curving paths through several rings of walls and gates to reach the inner ring where the keep still stands.

If you've been paying close attention to the images in this post, you probably noticed that many of the walls appear to be in tumble-down disarray--a sharp contrast to my earlier description of Kumamoto-jō as a well-preserved historical site.

Note the crumbling wall beneath the turret.

On April 16, 2016, a magnitude 7.0 earthquake struck Kumamoto, damaging the castle and collapsing not only a number of exterior walls:

Another casualty of the 2016 quake.

but also a large portion of the foundation beneath the smaller side of the castle keep, called the Sho-tenshu. Many of the Sho-tenshu's interior walls also collapsed when the foundation fell away.

The inner portion of the foundation beneath the left side tower fell away in the earthquake. Scaffolds support it now.

Remarkably, the Dai-tenshu--the larger side of the keep--suffered almost no exterior damage from the quake (although a number of its interior walls collapsed).

The entirety of the massive castle grounds--which had been a public park since the castle was first restored to its original glory after the end of World War II--were closed to the public for safety reasons. Fortunately, because the castle has been an important part of Kumamoto's history for centuries, a massive restoration effort began almost immediately, and has been in progress since the summer of 2016.

A photograph of the Tenshu, taken shortly after the quake in 2016.

The first phase of the castle reopening took place in October 2019, and I was lucky enough to visit, and tour the grounds, in January of 2020. While enormous cranes still tower over the Tenshu and the castle buildings remain off limits to visitors (and likely will remain that way for at least another year), it is once again possible to walk the entire grounds, and to marvel at the size and beauty of this massive monument to the storied history of Japan.

While not all monuments are necessarily worth preserving, Kumamoto-jō is not only a lovely example of traditional castle architecture from a period most of us can experience only in history books, but also a symbol of the enduring love and respect the people of Kumamoto have for their place in Japanese history.

Kato Kiyomasa, original lord of Kumamoto Castle.

Walking the gravel paths and staring up at the massive towers engenders deep feelings of awe and respect for the people who designed and built these massive structures many centuries ago, without the benefits of cranes and other modern engineering devices. It's impossible to appreciate them fully from photographs and history books--for example: consider the fact that despite the massive damage it sustained, most of the castle survived a 7.0 earthquake--400 years after it was originally constructed.

That kind of effort and craftsmanship deserves to be preserved and restored for future generations to enjoy.