Tuesday, March 31, 2020

A scare in Paris

Naftali Skrobek, my dear 90 years young, former Résistant, who grew up in the Marais when it was a shtetl hadn't answered my emails. He and Lidia, above, help me explore Paris, the hidden corners, the places from their childhoods.
 Several years ago Naftali drove me here on the quai at midnight so I could murder a character properly on the embankment. Get the sounds, the smells, and the textures correct on the page. He's taken me to a hiding place around the corner from Shakespeare & Co. bookstore where he hid during Libération. Someday that place will go in a book.
Here is the photo of his father, a dissident journalist who'd escaped Poland to work and write against fascism in Paris. He was denounced and beheaded in the Natzwiler-Struthof camp in 1943 which Naftali had gone to commemerate every year until his health wouldn't permit.
I tried WhatsApp and everything to reach him worried...that something had happened to him, that he'd gotten ill. Finally my friend reached him. He and Lidia are safe but not getting enough to eat. Naftali gets meals on wheels but Lidia is from outside Paris and not registered....I want to tear my hair out....why can't someone work around the restrictions and get a 90 year old woman meals.
 But they're SAFE!
Cara - Tuesday - next week it will be bsp on pub day for my new book THREE HOURS IN PARIS

Monday, March 30, 2020

Stayin’ Alive: You Should be Dancing

Annamaria on Monday

Worldwide, many many of us are stuck in the house.  In some places, we are not even allowed to go outside to jog or to take a walk.  But sitting around is not good for your body OR your spirit.  I know something that is really good for both: DANCING!  This should get you interested:

You should be Dancin’

Whether you think you are good at it or not, I urge you to join me and spend forty-five minutes each day on your feet, moving to the music.  Don't worry what it looks like as long as it feels good.  (You are not among a hundred wedding guests watching you and making you feel self-conscious.)  

Dancing around the house is something I do all the time. Stan Trollip can vouch for this.  He once walked into my kitchen and caught Mette and me - who were supposed to be cooking dinner - doing the lindy hop.

I am lucky enough to have a sound system that plays all over my apartment.  I have had, since I acquired the thing, a playlist called "Dancing."  It has all kinds of music on it, but every song has a beat that makes me want to move.  Until the current lock down, I played those songs when I needed to keep moving despite lagging energy.  Now I put them on shuffle in mid-morning, set a timer for forty-five minutes, press play, off I go.  Here's a screen shot of the playlist I had on when I thought of writing this blog urging you to join me.

These are songs that make it impossible for me to sit still.  You should choose your own, but here are some suggestions:

Start by stretching a bit and warming up with Ella Fitzgerald's gentle pean to dancing.  Note: the lyrics here are particularly appropriate to these times.  eg: "...my bonds and shares may fall down stairs..."

The rest of the choices here (all from my own Dancing playlist) frequently have a dance theme to the lyrics, as in:

So many styles of music offer a great dancing rhythm.  Let's try some Zaideco. Allons Dancer:

And Calypso:

Some songs on my playlist, send my energy level back to age 17.  Like this one:

A couple of the songs that have been on my Dancing list for years - when they came on randomly in the past couple of days - struck me as black humor.  Like this one: 

 Take the warning in this song seriously, but smile.  If you're home and dancing, you are safe:

This one speaks for itself: 

 Did you hear it?  It did say, "We don't have to do it."  No night or day fevers for us, PLEASE!

At the end of your dance break, you need to keep moving gently and  cool down.  I recommend Randy Newman's lyrical theme to the movie "Ragtime."

For your body and your spirit, dance every day.

One more recommendation for how to stay healthy: Stop spending your couch time incessantly watching the news.  In fact, I don't watch the news on TV at all.  I do keep abreast, but I read it, but not for long periods.  And listen to NPR for a limited amount of time each morning and evening.

Instead of concentrating on things that only make you angry or scared, feed your sprit with movies.  Why not start with the aforementioned "Ragtime."  It's a great flick with wonderful performances and music.  In fact wonderful everything.

Stay home.  Stay safe.  Stay well.  And DANCE daily!

Important Addendum.  Let's not forget the people who are not at home and too tired to dance.  Keep them in your thoughts:

 Thank you, Nurses
Thank you, Doctors
Thank you, Technicians
Thank you, Orderlies.
We pray you will be safe!

Sunday, March 29, 2020

How Paying my Taxes Saved My Ass

-- Susan, every other Sunday

In late February of 2020, coronavirus panic struck Japan. A rumor spread through Tokyo that Japan would suffer a shortage of toilet paper because TP was made from the same raw materials as surgical masks. Although entirely false, the rumor caused a toilet paper panic of epic proportions, with shelves stripped bare--not only of toilet tissue, but anything and everything else one might use to replace it, too.

Who knew this would become the definition of "luxury"?

Almost simultaneously, the newspapers in Japan issued reassuring statements:

Japan's toilet paper is not made from the same materials as masks.

Japan's toilet paper is domestically made.

There are no shortages. There is plenty of toilet paper.

I believed them, and didn't join the buying panic. I had four rolls at home, and I didn't worry.

Five days later, there was still no toilet tissue on market shelves.

I was down to three rolls.

I grew slightly concerned.

Three more days passed, and although the news outlets had escalated their cries from "There's plenty of paper" to "Stop being selfish," and then "For the love of all that's holy, QUIT HOARDING TOILET PAPER!" there was still no toilet tissue on the shelves.

At this point, I had placed my penultimate roll on the hook, and I admit true trepidation had taken hold. My apartment has a fancy Japanese toilet (with both "back" and "front" bidets) but I didn't relish the idea of ending up in a "drip dry" situation.

Me, contemplating a world with no toilet paper.

I considered asking my mother to mail me toilet paper from the States (in a stroke of irony, she's now in need of some herself) but a flash of inspiration presented a more creative option.

Furusato nozei.

Since the system isn't well known outside Japan, please allow me a brief aside to explain the program.

Every person in Japan pays annual "residence taxes" (equal to approximately 10% of take-home pay, with no significant deductions allowed) to the city where they reside.

Almost 80% of Japan's population lives in urban areas, which results in dramatic inequities where taxes are concerned. Wealthy cities like Tokyo take in oodles of money, while many rural towns receive next to nothing.

In 2008, Japan introduced the "furusato nozei" program, which allows residents of Japan to pre-pay up to 40% of next year's residence taxes to any qualifying city, town, or municipality of their choice, in return for a dollar for dollar reduction in the taxes the donor has to pay next year (less a one-time annual administrative fee equal to roughly $18 USD).

Why would anyone choose to prepay taxes "just" to help a less wealthy part of the country?

The Japanese government thought of that part, too.

Everyone likes a gift!

Every city, town, or other municipality that participates in furusato nozei is allowed to offer a "thank you gift" (or gifts) to donors, valued at up to 40% of the tax donation the municipality receives. (And they can use wholesale/production values rather than retail, making the value actually higher.)

A thank-you box from a town in Hokkaido famous for growing soybeans

Donors can visit furusato nozei websites (my favorite, and the most popular, is furusato choice) to see the various thank-you gifts on offer (more than 250,000 different choices, as of March 2020), and select the gifts they want. The payments can be made online or by credit card, bank transfer, or at thousands of convenience stores across the country.

We can even choose the purpose for which the tax donation will be used. (Thus far, I have donated to enrichment activities for elderly people, jobs for people with disabilities, environmental protection, and educational programs for children.)

I started making furusato nozei donations late last year, to support some of the towns I visited during my 100 Summits climbs. In return, I received generous gifts of tofu (which I love), smoked sausages, and giant dekopon--known as "sumo oranges" in the States.

Orange you glad you know about furusato nozei?

So when the Great Toilet Paper Panic of 2020 hit, I fired up Furusato Choice and typed "トイレットペーパー" in the search bar, hoping that at least one of the cities that make Japanese toilet paper would have a thank-you gift that could save my ... sanity.

Hello, Wakkanai.

The small port town in Japan's far north was offering 98 rolls of top quality, two-ply Nepia "Anemone" brand toilet paper . . . in return for a measly 10,000 yen donation (about $95 US).

And remember ... I get all 10,000 yen deducted from the amount of residence tax I have to pay next year, making that toilet paper free.

Me, after solving the problem.

I made the payment instantly, and five days later Yamato Transport (Japan's parcel delivery service) knocked on my front door with a waist high parcel wrapped in plain brown paper. Inside, I found the promised 98 rolls of toilet paper.

In my house, right now. This is enough toilet paper for two years.

Best of all . . . it's pink.

We have toilet paper back on the shelves in Japan now (and I hope the US and other places won't be far behind), but when the $#!& was threatening to hit the fan in a major way, Japan's residence tax donation system came through . . . and saved my ass.

And though this post has rolled on longer than my usual offerings, I hope it's provided a distraction and a smile in a difficult time. Stay safe, stay inside, and stay positive.

And please . . . don't hoard the toilet paper.

Saturday, March 28, 2020

To Live in a Time of Fairy Tales


In these days of worldwide Covid-19 depression, as Spring struggles to bring us on to hoped for relief in Summer heat and humidity (at least for the northern hemisphere), I thought it might be a good idea to come up with something light and cheery for today’s post.  Something to get Barbara’s mind off thoughts of a potential season or more of shared bucolic isolation with her beloved (see photo above), ever mindful as I am, that one man’s Walden Pond, may prove to be one woman’s Chaillot.

I skimmed the Internet in search of inspiration for an upbeat topic, but quickly realized there’s little of that sort of thing out there these days. So, I searched further, and lo and behold found the perfect inspiration: A History of Greece and the Fairy Tale. 

I expect that most who read Murder is Everywhere have at least a passing familiarity with ancient Greek myths.  Greeks think most of the world does because a few years back they tied their national tourist campaign to the slogan, “Live your Myth in Greece.”  And it is hard to imagine an educated soul in the western world who hasn’t at least heard of Greece’s legends, if not the Iliad, certainly the Odyssey. 

So, what is a fairy tale anyway?  Their written origins go back thousands of years, and their oral roots thousands more.  Yet, it’s still hard to say what is precisely a fairy tale for, as with so many other things in life, there is serious academic debate over that seemingly simple question. To make things more complicated the actual name “fairy tale” didn’t exist until the late 17th Century and at one time much of Tolkien’s work and even Baum’s The Wonderful Wizard of Oz would have been considered fairy tales but today are called fantasy.  God bless progress.

As I see it, the stories we grew up with, the ones we always thought of as fairy tales, brought out gnomes, trolls, elves, dwarfs, giants, and that sort of creature, featured magic and sometimes—but far from always—an actual fairy.  Yes, fairies are no more required for fairy tales than reality is for certain economic tales.  But I digress. Back now to Greece’s seminal role in the fairy tale.    

Although the Egyptians generally are credited with reducing the first fairy tale to writing in 1300 B.C.E., it was Greece’s own Aesop who brought fame to the genre with his collection of fables in the 6th Century B.C.E.  And the oral tradition of such tales in Greece goes back thousands of years before then.  That’s not to say other cultures didn’t have similar rich oral traditions.  Indeed it’s striking how so many different societies shared similar stories passing the same bit of wisdom or moral guidance across Europe, China, India, Egypt and elsewhere in Asia and Africa.  

Some say the similarities sprung from shared values.  Others claim they spread through tellers and listeners traveling and battling their way to far off places, but if so, for those tales to survive must they still not have rung true to each culture that absorbed them as its own?

So, what are examples of these similar tales?  I don’t want to sound Grimm (pained looks noted) but there are many.  For example, if you’re looking for something in the “Let’s rescue the maiden in the tower” vein, you can have the Greek champion shouting “Anthousa, Xanthousa, Chrisomalousa let down your hair,”—yes, that one young maiden had all those names—or go with the snappier “Rapunzel” of the Brothers Grimm version. 

Then there’s the one about how sometimes success in life is nothing more than a matter of “being in the right place at the right time.”  The Greeks call their version “Almondseed and Almondella,” but the Grimm Brothers’ went for “Doctor Know-all.”  Just in case neither title seems particularly fetching, doesn’t the Grimm Brother’s moniker at least make you wonder if their version didn’t tickle a homonymic chord in Ian Fleming’s search for a title for perhaps his 007’s most celebrated escapade?

And then there is the most famous fairy tale of all, or at least one of the top five.  Its recorded history goes back to the 1st Century B.C.E. as the story of the Greco-Egyptian girl, Rhodopolis.  Over ensuing centuries she moved around quite a bit until finally finding a home in Charles Perrault’s Mother Goose tales as Cinderella.

Which reminds me.  I’ve got to start rounding up the mice and get my pumpkin moving, to take my beloved Princess off to town for supplies.

Stay safe, everyone.

Jeff — Saturday

Friday, March 27, 2020

The Virgin Queen

There’s been times of plague in the past, genuine plague and the word used in a wider sense for a  
nasty disease that creeps its way round the planet.

Here, we have seen many people upsticks and take to the highlands in their caravans and motorhomes to get away from the virus…. Though leaving a city well served by the NHS and critical care units to a remote location with bad weather, bad roads and no hospital beds nearby does need a certain  internal logic,  or lack of.  It has been banned now of course and the travel of a positive testing Prince Charles to Scotland, has become a  … yes you’ve guessed it, a  nationalist issue.

It’s human nature I suppose, to get away from the epicentre of any disease and the city centres where population is dense.

In the past, children were often first shipped out,

So think of a  pleasant walled  garden at the hunting lodge of a small sleeping village called Bisley. England, in the summer,  children playing outside.  There’s two of them, a boy and a girl,  both aged ten. The kids get on very well, in fact they do look quite similar, slightly long faced, a titian hint to the hair.   They are distantly related  on the father’s side, the blue eyes and red hair genes are easy to see.

The girl  had been sent out from London city to escape the bubonic  plague, to stay at her father’s hunting lodge in the village of Bisley.

The boy was local, from Bisley itself.

One day, as they play in the garden, the girl begins to feel unwell and collapses.  The servants in the house come out and take her up to her bed room, lying her on her bed, where later, she passes away.

She was  only ten years old. The year was 1543.

The servants in the house are horrified, the nurse in particular. They are more than a  little scared that they are going to be accused of neglect in the care of the wee girl.

Then, in the worst timing possible, it was  announced that the girl’s dad was going to be visiting his  hunting lodge, and by extension, his daughter. The nurse panicked,  and  looking out the window she and the rest of the servants, developed a plan. The boy is very similar, could they… swap?

The boy  was to be known from that day onward at The Bisley Boy

The girl was, or became to be, Elizabeth I, the Renaissance queen of England.

The obvious question is, did nobody notice. Well, if you were close to the princess, the chances are you’d get your head chopped off if you admitted what was going on.   If you were not close to the princess ( and that includes her father Henry 8th . )The girl rarely saw the courtiers,  rarely saw her father and how much can a   child change in 6 months at the age of ten. 

She was the child of King Henry VIII and his second wife, Anne Boleyn and was really  only ever third  in line to the throne. The other two died leaving her a free rein.. free reign??   Nobody had any idea that this  ten year old child would ever become reigning monarch,  never mind become one of England’s greatest ever monarchs.

So, let’s accept for a moment that the  king didn’t  notice and the Bisley boy  grew up to rule the kingdom. As queen.

                                To this day the crowned Queen Of the Bisley Fete will be a  boy.

It's easy to see how this theory has  some traction. There is much about the gender presentation of the Queen that is interesting.  She never  married, despite legitimate offers and many times when it would have been politically prudent to do so, she still never tied the knot. Most monarchs desire,  more than anything,  an heir ( and heir and a spare as the saying goes). Elizabeth? Nope. She told one of her nobleman, that she had her reasons and that she would never bear a child.

There is, it is rumoured, a  perceivable difference in the letters the princess wrote before and after her stay at the hunting lodge in Bisley.

Her physical appearance as an adult was ‘manly’. She could outride most of her male companions on a horse, she was robust, had great endurance, hunting and horseriding were her passion.   When out in public she wore a wig, she set the fashion of  high ruffs – to hide an Adam’s apple?  She wore blanket cover white make up, as many did because of plague scars, but in her case  was it to hide a five o’clock shadow?

It’s stated that she had very long fingers for a woman, rather strong hands for the delicate sex. It’s seen in her portraits.

Although she suffered illness frequently, she only saw her physicians as a last resort and even then,  it was a  very few trusted doctors that she allowed anywhere near her.   She also stated, very clearly that she was not to have a post mortem carried out after death,

There exists  a document written  in the 1800’s by a church cleric in the village of Bisley. He states that he found a coffin  and that coffin held the skeleton of a young girl wearing  the fashion of the  Renaissance aristocracy.

Bram Stoker believed it. Well he didn’t but he liked the idea of it enough to include it in  his non- fiction book “Famous Imposters.”

I’ve read somewhere that the book supports the theory while privately  Stoker didn’t believe  a word of it but I can see why he might find the story attractive.

There are many who dispute this and it’s probably totally untrue  and much of what is put forward as supporting evidence  for this theory  be explained by the queen  being  some kind of mixed gender physically due to  birth malformation or DNA mutation.

But it is a good story to ponder why staring out the window waving at the neighbours.

 Caro Ramsay

Thursday, March 26, 2020


Michael - Thursday

Tomorrow South Africa goes into a nationwide lockdown for 21 days. The conditions are stricter than most countries (outside Spain and Italy), but given where things seem to be going, no one’s complaining much. We were at under 100 cases ten days ago (two just down the road from me in out-of-the-way Knysna) and now it’s over 700. Also testing is quite sparse here, so inevitably that number is an underestimate. Basically, everyone has to stay at home – no walking dogs or jogging – except to go for essentials like food, medicine, and fuel. And no sales of alcohol. Thank heavens I have a six month supply of wine on hand!

Botswana has so far experienced no cases and has closed its borders to everyone. I hope they can hold that line.

So it’s time to think about occupying oneself for the period. Writers have a big advantage, of course, because they’re used to shutting out the world and working at home. Stan and I are about half way through the new young Kubu book, and it’s going pretty well. For now. But people who are used to being in a work environment or actively participating in, or watching, sport, may find themselves at a loose end. There’s been a run on jigsaw puzzles. (Although I haven’t seen any viral videos of people fighting over them in toy stores as yet.)

So here’s one you may like to try. It’s been on full display for thirty years outside the CIA in Langley, Virginia. That alone is enough to set spy-thriller fans’ pulses racing. It’s called Kryptos and it’s not easy. It’s developed quite a cult following over the years. It has four passages and three of them have been solved. (Apparently the NSA solved the first one but kept it to themselves. Why are we not surprised.) But the last section remains obscure.

Jim Sanborn, Sculptor
Jim Sanborn, the sculptor, developed the puzzle with the help of a retired head of the CIA’s cryptographic section, and he receives dozens of attempted solutions and questions. When things grind to a halt, he may, if he’s in a good mood, provide a clue. The first was in 2010 and then another in 2014. Then in January of this year, he provided a third clue and warned that it would be the last. At 74, Jim is no longer a spring chicken, so this is coming down to the wire. He's thinking of putting the solution up for auction - with the proceeds going to climate science - and leaving it up to the buyer to decide whether to make the solution public or keep the game going. He spends more time than he wants to looking at false solutions and hearing way out stories from people who seem to have let the puzzle take over their lives.

Here are the letters on the panels. But don't let it put you off. Remember most of this has already been decoded:


And here are the bits we know. (The misspellings are deliberate, and we know that the odd letter was left out to keep balance to the sculpture. I said it wasn’t easy.) Apparently the first three passages themselves hold a clue to the fourth, which is why I've included them:

Passage one – method used to solve was Vigenère with key words Kryptos and Palimpsest. (You’ll need Wikipedia for those if you care.) And the solution is


Passage two - method used to solve was Vigenère with key words Kryptos and Abscissa. And the solution is:


(Here X represents a space. It would spoil the sculpture to have gaps breaking up the stream of letters. The location given is only a short distance away from the sculpture itself.)

Passage three: method used to solve was Transposition. And the solution is:


(This is a paraphrasing of the discovery of Tutankhamen's tomb.)

Passage four: 

So now we come to the remaining puzzle. It doesn't look too bad - only 97 letters are left out of the nearly 900! But that may make it harder rather than easier because in long passages one can count occurrences of letters and the most frequent should be the letter E (in English).

And then when we've solved the four passages, they constitute a riddle that also has to be solved...

So if you’re tempted to have a go while you languish at home, here’s the puzzle:

But wait. There's more. Here are the three clues from Sanborn:
2010: the letters "NYPVTT", the 64th–69th letters, become "BERLIN" after decryption

(Note that T represents two different letters in the solution.)

2014: the letters "MZFPK", the 70th–74th letters, become "CLOCK" after decryption

(Note that M and P both represent C in the solution. There is such a thing as the Berlin Clock and that may or may not be relevant.)

2020: the letters "QQPRNGKSS", the 26th -34th letters, become "NORTHEAST" after decryption

Let us know if you solve it. Fame lies ahead if you do. I’ll have a go just as soon as we finish this book…