Tuesday, May 31, 2022

Dark Deeds, Down Under

 

Craig every second Tuesday

Kia ora and gidday everyone,

So it's the half-term break here in the UK, and I was meant to be going camping with Miss Seven the past three days - her first 'sleepaway' camp with the local Woodcraft group she's been going to (Woodcraft Folk is a Scouts-like group that I hadn't heard of myself until recently, but has been going for almost 100 years and is pretty big here in the UK - I guess like some of those other outdoorsy groups in the US like Camp Fire etc). 

Unfortunately a wee gastro bug on Friday put paid to our plans for the weekend - and my thoughts of writing today about getting out into nature, or revisiting the childhood Scouts/camping/summer camp kinds of thing with my own daughter now rather than being a kid or a leader for others' kids, as I've done in the past. Another time. 

But while I was feeling a bit sorry for myself and like the world's worst Dad (I was the one who came down sick just before we were meant to go to camp), something good happened to lift my spirits. Well, Miss Seven was being an absolute trooper and keeping a smile on my face, even though she was pretty disappointed herself - but this was another outside-the-household thing that made me grin when I woke up on Saturday morning: the cover was finalised and the official announcement made about the first anthology I've edited: DARK DEEDS DOWN UNDER

DARK DEEDS DOWN UNDER is a first-of-its-kind anthology
of Australian & New Zealand crime and thriller short fiction

So if you'll indulge me, I thought I'd share a bit more about this cool project I've been involved in for the past few months. I'd say 'I'll write about nature next time', but in fact there's a fair bit of nature in this book, threaded through some criminally good stories. After all, the presence and impact of rugged elements (and weather) is one of a few things that can make antipodean crime writing a little distinct and different from its British counterparts.

While you could say that next month's publication of DARK DEEDS DOWN UNDER will be the culmination of a project kickstarted last European summer/autumn, you could also say that the seeds of it all go back far, far further. In a way, it's another culmination of several of the crime writing related things I've been doing the past fourteen years - and that Lindy Cameron, the long-time President of Sisters in Crime Australia as well as the publisher at Clan Destine Press and an acclaimed crime writer in her own right, has been doing for twice as long. 

It's been fabulous to collaborate with Lindy and all the authors on DARK DEEDS DOWN UNDER. We have 20 outstanding storytellers in the first volume, a diverse constellation of Aussie & Kiwi storytelling talent. And yes, I said first volume, because due to the enthusiastic response from many, many authors I reached out to as Commissioning Editor we've already decided to make it something of a series. The second volume (many of the stories already gathered for that one) will be out late this year, just before Christmas. And the third, next year. 

The 'Quiet King of Aussie Crime', Garry Disher, is among the authors providing brand-new stories with the series characters for DARK DEEDS DOWN UNDER

While some things dragged out a little - as many creative projects can do at the best of times, and our pandemic-bruised lives are hardly the best of times - I'm so stoked with how it has all come together. The lineup of 20 authors includes three Ned Kelly Lifetime Achievement Award recipients, multiple Ngaio Marsh Awards, Ned Kelly Awards, and Davitt Awards winners (the three main crime prizes Down Under), and some fresh newer voices too. It's a great mix, with authors ranging from 30s to 90s, across most states and territories, and several writers of colour. 

I couldn't be happier with how it has come together, and I'm looking forward to keen crime readers out there getting a chance to try the stories. Several include characters familiar to keen crime readers from books series, eg Constable Paul 'Hirsch' Hirschhausen from Garry Disher's award-winning books, Vanda Symon's Detective Sam Shephard, Sulari Gentill's gentleman sleuth Rowly Sinclair, Kerry Greenwoods baker and amateur sleuth Corinna Chapman, and more. From the raucous antics of the Nancys in small-town Otago to a prequel tale starring Dinuka McKenzie's Kate Miles, to the futuristic noir escapades of Matiu and Penny Yee in a supernatural-tinged Auckland, DARK DEEDS DOWN UNDER has got quite the mix of characters whose adventures you can follow elsewhere too. 

It also includes some brilliant standalone crime tales. 

And the long-awaited return of Murray Whelan, the political functionary who found himself investigating crimes linked to his job in an outstanding series of novels by Shane Maloney that were first published in Australia and internationally between 1994-2007, and made Maloney Australia's most popular crime writer of the time. 

David Wenham starred as Murray Whelan in a TV adaptation in 2004.
Our anthology includes the first new Murray Whelan tale in 15 years

I feel very honoured and privileged to get to be the Commissioning editor of this book (series) that showcases some of the amazing modern-day crime writers we have in Australia and New Zealand. While I know short stories and anthologies aren't for everyone, I hope the keen crime readers out there will give it a go. 

Here's a sneak peek at the line-up in Volume One: 

  • Alan Carter
  • Nikki Crutchley
  • Aoife Clifford
  • Garry Disher
  • Helen Vivienne Fletcher
  • Lisa Fuller
  • Sulari Gentill
  • Kerry Greenwood
  • Narelle Harris 
  • Katherine Kovacic
  • Shane Maloney
  • RWR McDonald
  • Dinuka McKenzie
  • Lee Murray & Dan Rabarts
  • Renee
  • Fiona Sussman
  • Stephen Ross
  • Vanda Symon
  • David Whish-Wilson

Sulari Gentill, who was born in Sri Lanka and now lives in the Snowy Mountains,
offers readers a prequel to her award-winning Rowly Sinclair historical mysteries

There's lots more I could say about DARK DEEDS DOWN UNDER, but perhaps another time. For now, I'm just swimming in gratitude for the Aussie & Kiwi crime writing community. It's been a pleasure. 

Stay safe, and happy reading. 

Until next time, ka kita ano. 

Whakataukī of the fortnight: 

Inspired by Zoe and her 'word of the week', I've been ending my fortnightly posts by sharing a whakataukī (Māori proverb), a pithy and poetic thought to mull on as we go through life. I'd usually never use the same whakatauki in repeated posts, but given this one's celebrating storytelling on s small scale, it seemed particularly apt. 

Ahakoa he iti he pounamu

(Although it is small, it is greenstone)

Pounamu are treasured items carved in a variety of traditional designs. While they are relatively small - often worn as necklaces - they are powerful and full of meaning.



Monday, May 30, 2022

Voting and Other Criminal Acts

 Annamaria on Monday



What could be more topical in the USA right now than mystery stories about dirty tricks and voting!  Regular visitors to MIE have already met my friend James McCrone, who writes the Imogen Trager series of political thrillers. Today, he is joining in to tell us about a new anthology where all the stories involve party-politic shenanigans.  And about his entry into the mix.  Take it away, Jamie!

Nostalgia

Elections matter. Certainly, they count. It seems almost quaint to suppose that the job of a political party is to make its case to the electorate and win the most votes. Particularly if you could somehow shrink the pool of voters, skew them in a way that might ensure a particular outcome, you could at least hold out the “election” result as a fig leaf of legitimacy. The anthology, Low Down Dirty Vote, vol. 3, “The color of my vote,” explores the terrifying reality of life at a global turning point: 22 tales of oppression and voter suppression—about the many ways anti-democratic forces try to shrink and skew the voter pool. It launched on May 15, and it will donate $10,000 to Democracy Docket, which is “dedicated to providing information, opinion and analysis about voting rights and more.” 

And it couldn’t be more timely. Links to where you can buy the book are below. 

My contribution to LDDV-3 was the story, “Nostalgia,” which shines a light on our national dysfunction—well, one of them—the strange, lingering belief that things were somehow better, fairer, more just in some bygone era. I began by wanting to write about the pervasive, creeping dissatisfaction I saw around me, borne of a societal amnesia, abetted by false narratives. A malaise that far too often erupts into anger and violence. I turned to a story about the mob that was giving me trouble.

In the story that became “Nostalgia,” a young, petty criminal can’t believe his good luck when he falls in with a paramilitary group he mistakes at first for the (re)nascent mob. In this world, each character lies to himself about the way things once were: “like they were all living together in some movie where the world still made sense,” the narrator says of the wannabes and dirty cops. And the narrator lies to himself. Until he doesn’t.

As I worked on rewrites of the story, I found that false nostalgia was the catalyst. It was interesting to consider that something more or less benign could be sinister, addictive, could distort and corrupt those who trafficked in it. I found myself pulling Docherty, by William McIlvanney, down from my shelf, chasing a quote I dimly remembered. Early in the book, the character Miss Gilfillan, unable to sleep, takes “a dose of nostalgia like a drug…” Nostalgia as drug was more apt than I knew as the story began to coalesce. 

Because they’re not the mob, they’re a reactionary group that’s taking over the drug trade to finance its attack on the government, an American Taliban. 

Low Down Dirty Vote, vol. 3 drew award-winning writers, and writers who are being published for the first time, from a variety of backgrounds and life experiences from around the globe. It features: Anshritha, Eric Beetner, Stephen Buehler, Patricia E Canterbury, Sarah M Chen; David Corbett, Jackie Ross Flaum, Katharina Gerlach, Barb Goffman, David Hagerty; myself, Camille Minichino, Ann Parker, Thomas Pluck, Miguel Alfonso Ramos; Ember Randall, Travis Richardson, Faye Snowden, Misty Sol; DJ Tyrer, Gabriel Valjan, and Bev Vincent.

 

Links

LDDV-3: [https://www.amazon.com/Low-Down-Dirty-Vote-Color/dp/1732225869/]

Democracy Docket: [https://www.democracydocket.com/about-us/]

 

 


 

James McCrone is the author of the Faithless Elector series novels—Faithless ElectorDark Network, and Emergency Powers—“taut” and “gripping” political thrillers about a stolen presidency. His work has appeared in Rock and a Hard Place; Retreats from Oblivion: The Journal of NoirCon. His next novel, currently under review, is Bastard Verdict, a political thriller set in Scotland. He’s currently at work on a thriller set in Oregon’s wine country, a (pinot) Noir tale of corruption and murder, w/t Witness Tree.

  

He’s a member of MWA, Int’l Assoc. of Crime Writers, ITW, Philadelphia Dramatists’ Center and he’s the vice-president of the Delaware Valley Sisters in Crime chapter. James has an MFA from the University of Washington in Seattle. A Pacific Northwest native (mostly), he lives in South Philadelphia with his wife and three children.

 

You can learn more at http://jamesmccrone.com  


Sunday, May 29, 2022

No Quitting Until the Work is Done!

Japan’s Manuscript Writing Café


Zoë Sharp

 

When it comes to themed cafés and restaurants, there’s no doubt that Tokyo, Japan leads the world.

 

Want to go somewhere you can cuddle a hedgehog while you sip your cappuccino? You need to go to the Harry establishment in the Roppongi district. Feel the urge to pick up a penguin while you, er, pick up a Penguin**? Then the Penguin Bar at Ikebukuro is the place for you.

 

And if it’s the world of Lewis Carroll you crave, take a trip down the rabbit hole at the Alice in Fantasy Book restaurant in Kubukicho, Shinjuku.

 

But in April this year, a new themed café opened in the Koenji neighbourhood. The Manuscript Writing Café is run by Tykuya Kawai, who is also a technical writer. It is intended not only to give writers, artists, editors and proofreaders somewhere to work, but as much encouragement as they feel they need to get on with it. 

The small café is open afternoon through evening from 1pm to 7pm. It is situated inside a recording and broadcasting studio—Koenji Sankakuchitai—so is open only when the studio itself isn’t in use.

 

Patrons may book one of the ten seats available if they are actively working on a writing project, but this can be anything from a novel to a manga storyboard. The only other requirement is that you must state what you aim to achieve while you’re there, and how long you think it will take you.

 

Kawai charges by time—150 Japanese yen for the first thirty minutes ($1.18/£0.93) and 300 yen per hour after that. For that, you get an unlimited supply of tea or filter coffee, and chairs that do not encourage a relaxed slouch. On the technical side, the café provides high-speed wi-fi, a range of docks and chargers, and even cooling stands so your laptop won’t overheat, even if your brain begins to fry.

 

Customers are, apparently, not allowed to leave before the project is completed, and can request various levels of ‘encouragement’ from Kawai. This varies from just enquiring into progress at the end of the allotted session, to hovering behind the writer’s chair and, presumably, giving the occasional quiet tut. There is no music unless the writer puts on headphones, and the ambient noise from outside is enough, it seems, to provide a subtle stimulus.

 

I know many writers who do their best work in local cafés. There’s something about the background buzz that allows them to concentrate far better than being at their desk. Plus, being away from home means not being distracted by any one of a dozen different domestic tasks that are clearing their throats on the sidelines.

 

Personally, I like any working environment. If I’m at home, I’ll work at my desk, outside in the garden, with my feet up on the sofa (if I don’t get pinned down by a cat) or in bed. Last week, I had two appointments in a town about ten miles away that were just far enough apart to leave me at a bit of a loose end between them, but not quite far enough to make it worthwhile making two trips.

 

I sat in the sunshine with a notebook, and made a decent amount of plotting progress.

 

What about you? Do you like the sound of the Manuscript Writing Café, or would it be your worst nightmare? The only drawback, as far as I can see, is the fact that it doesn’t actually serve food. 

 

This week’s Word of the Week is cunctator, from the Latin meaning delayer or procrastinator. It was applied as an agnomen (honorary) surname to Quintus Fabius Maximus Verrucosus, a third-century Roman statesman and general. Fabius was a magistrate (censor), consul, and dictator of Rome, who faced Hannibal’s forces during the Second Punic War. His initial tactics of avoiding direct confrontation against a larger and more formidable foe gained him the title Cunctator, initially intended as an insult. However, his strategy of wearing down the enemy by attacking supply lines and by smaller skirmishes proved successful in the long run. Fabian tactics were later regarded with due respect.

 

**This phrase will not mean much to anyone who does not remember the UK TV advertising campaign for the chocolate-covered Penguin biscuit bar, which ran for years with the slogan, “P-p-p-pick up a Penguin!”

Saturday, May 28, 2022

Does Size Really Matter?

 

 

Jeff–Saturday

 

Or, considering today’s topic, perhaps I should say Satyrday.

 


Virtually all the news these days is saddening. At least that’s how I see it. Name any subject of existential concern and I sense us closer to its nadir than at any other time in our lives. No need to list examples, we all know them far too well.
 

But this coming Tuesday, after far too long away, I return to Greece and its promise of the sort of fresh perspective it always brings to me. Yes, Greece shares many of the same threats as the rest of our world, but it also offers upbeat distractions and a sense of peace I cannot find elsewhere.

 


Among those distractions are moments of serendipitous instruction by the ancients on how to navigate decidedly modern challenges. My most recent experience in that regard suggested a different way to take on the online cyberbullying scourge often aimed at the size or shape of another’s body. 

 


The targets are most often teenage girls, and for many the experience is deeply troubling, inflicting long lasting traumatic effects on their lives. Social media, the commercial media, and entertainment in general are often pointed to as fueling the crisis, what with their penchant for glorifying some body types, while ridiculing others.
 

Well, I just read an article offering comforting insight to all genders that how the world now happens to view our respective physical attributes is a historically nuanced matter of fashion, not substance.  Each of us can now point with pride to eras glorifying our natural physicality over what might now be considered the “in” shape or size.

 

The subject of the writing that brought on my epiphany is the modern male’s most scorned/adorned/forlorn body part and how it may be gaining a new measure of celebrity–both literally and figuratively. 

 

The following story appeared under the byline of Tasos Kokkinidis in The Greek Reporter, a Greek news organization for Greeks around the world. The article’s title should be enough to grab most folk’s attention: “Why Greek Statues Have Small Penises: Woman’s Lecture Goes Viral,” but for those looking for a bit more enticement, there are its subtitles, e.g., “Small penises in Greek statues ‘a sign of virtue, of civility,’” and The small penis was consonant with Greek ideals of male beauty.

 

[Ed note: In the course of my research, I came across an earlier article appearing in Artsy by Alexxa Gotthardt titled, “Why Ancient Greek Sculptures Have Small Penises,” covering (or uncovering) much of the same material. I guess one could say there’s a groundswell of activity out there on the subject.]

 

And with that introduction folks, here’s the article:

 


A woman’s explanation of why ancient Greek statues have small penises has gone viral on TikTok.

Even a casual glance at classical sculptures in a museum will reveal that the penis on marble depictions of nude gods and heroes is often quite small.


Ruby Reign took it upon herself to look into the matter. “Have you ever wondered why so many of the ancient Greek statues have colossal muscular physiques and yet a tiny package?” she asked in a video shared on her TikTok.

“What I wasn’t aware of was that the Greeks often presented their enemies, the Egyptians, the satire creatures, and even fools in comedies as having large appendages – so it was quite a negative thing to have, which is quite different today.


“So actually, what I discovered was that big D’s bad and small D’s good in ancient Greece. But why was this? This is obviously different to today.”

Ruby claimed it is all to do with how perceptions have changed. She explained: “Turns out that in ancient Greece, having a smaller package was considered a sign of virtue, of civility, or self-control or discipline.


“Meanwhile, having a bigger one was a sign of lustfulness, of gluttonous appetites and barbarism, which is quite interesting because it’s different to today.”


Together, Ruby’s clips have racked up more than four million views, Lad Bible says with many people in the small willy community delighted by the lecture.

One person commented: “Remember lads we were on top, now the Barbarians have taken over.”

Another said: “We definitely gotta return to our roots.” A third added: “I was really born in the wrong generation.”

Ruby concluded that our changing perception of size illuminates the fact there is no such thing as objective beauty.

She said: “I just think it’s interesting to compare the perspective back then that smaller is better with the view today that, sometimes people think bigger is better.

“And it just goes to show that our beauty standards, our ideals, are all a social construct and we shouldn’t get bogged down feeling bad about ourselves.”


In the ancient Greek world of around 400 BC erect penises were not considered desirable, nor were they a sign of power or strength.

In his play The Clouds (c. 419–423 BC), ancient Greek playwright Aristophanes summed up the ideal traits of his male peers as “a gleaming chest, bright skin, broad shoulders, tiny tongue, strong buttocks, and a little prick.”

Historian Paul Chrystal has also conducted research into this ancient ideal. “The small penis was consonant with Greek ideals of male beauty,” he writes in his book In Bed with the Ancient Greeks (2016). “It was a badge of the highest culture and a paragon of civilization.”


Lustful, depraved satyrs, in particular, were rendered with very large, erect genitals, sometimes almost as tall as their torsos. According to mythology, these creatures were part-man, part-animal, and totally lacked restraint—a quality reviled by Greek high society.


“Big penises were vulgar and outside the cultural norm, something sported by the barbarians of the world,” writes Chrystal. Indeed, across many an amphora pot and frieze, well-endowed satyrs can be seen drinking and pleasuring themselves with abandon.


Mykonos here I come….


 
–Jeff

Friday, May 27, 2022

The Roman Baths

The Roman Baths in the city of Bath, Somerset, England. Somewhere we had wanted to visit for a long time. I had been before as a very small person, all I can remember is the dreadful stink.

There has been a spa on these premises since Celtic times, obviously because that happens to be where the water pops up after its long meandering journey underground, getting warmer over the millenia. 

For our purposes, the original construction of the spa was around 65 AD. It was a case of 'This is what the Romans did for us!' Non Monty Python fans can ignore that bit.

The thermal waters led to a temple being built, which then led to the small Roman urban settlement, Aquae Sulis around the site. The public could use the baths for bathing, and they were in use right up to the  end of the Roman  occupation of ….well most sites state 'Britain', but there were a lot of bits of Britain that Romans couldn’t be bothered with. The  natives were smelly, the weather was awful or there was just nothing to be gained by invading the lands to the north of Englandshire.

On and off through the history, the spring waters have attracted people, including the 1.4 million visitors a year. You can walk round the museum. It’s a very good experience, the tickets are timed and restricted so that there's not too many people in the small underground chambers at once. There's a lot to see and read. The beautifully constructed displays were  marred slightly by the  screaming 2 year old that decided to accompany our visit. They were timed differently to us but had been late. It’s educationally immersive but not literally so, except for that wee kid who came close a few times. I felt a novel coming on more than once.

There’s the usual audio narration, plus another narration of various bits by Bill Bryson; he’s fascinated by the fact that the water emerging from the spring  fell as rain in the Mendip Hills about 10 000 years ago. Also, that the Roman soldiers here had a type of funeral fund between them so they got a decent funeral away from home. There was a trade union amongst them.

On its journey through the hills,  geothermal energy raises the water temperature to as high as 96 C (or 204 in real money).  On my previous visit, as an extreme youth (  I didn’t scream the place down, or I’d been put in a cupboard ), I  could smell the waters – and I can still recall the stink. I knew  my dad told somebody that it wasn’t the baths that were stinking, ( rotten eggs was the aroma that came to mind)  it was because there was a drought and most of the south of England was smelling oddly. 

In 2022, my other half, having little sense of taste, had a sip of the water at the drinking well- he pronounced it warm and  slightly musty, ‘not nice’. The water contains lots of sodium, calcium, chloride and sulphate.

 As a slight sub story, a girl died in October 1978 after swimming in the water,  having contracted meningitis, tests showed Naegleria fowleri, a deadly bacteria in the water.  Now customers can experience the waters via a modern spa nearby where the water comes from recently drilled boreholes.

The whole site is really a place of worship for a Celtic goddess Sulis who became Minerva when the Ropmans arrived.  There’s a story I liked of  some ancient King and his herd of pigs being cured of leprosy after bathing in the water.

The baths at the height of their popularity with the Romans  included a caldarium ( where one would be scalded?), a tepidarium ( lukewarm?), and frigidarium ( freezing ??).  These have been long lost to silting up, flooding, leaking and generasl disrepair.

Here are a few pictures;
The main bath. 
                                           
                    The rather regal sites overlooking the baths. As a city, it's all a bit crammed together.


The models were fabulous, even wee dogs running around, children playing.

The kids on the model were seen and not heard.
The entrance to the Temple of Aqua Sulis, or the remanants thereof.
A projected image fills out the  missings bits. Every item on that image dispicts something of importance. Dolphins and owls for water and wisdom.
The underground water emerges. Would you like a glass?
The thermal underground system of the Romans.

Underfloor heating in those days.
Filmed depictitions of what it would have been like then.
As they are now. Busy, full of tourists.

I wonder if the guests are more relaxed then? Or now?

Thursday, May 26, 2022

A month of adventure!




Stanley - Thursday

First, apologies for being AWOL last Thursday. I was floating down the Danube after Crimefest with spotty to no internet connection. Having a lot of fun may also played a part.

I am now in Bucharest in Romania with decent connectivity and will give you a glimpse into my fortnight of adventures.

First, Crimefest!

And what an adventure it was. Getting to hang out with people I haven't seen for a long while was so energising and entertaining. Zoē and Caro were there, as was Yrsa Sigurdardottir, who was a Murder is Everywhere blower for a long time. Our UK publisher, Karen Sullivan, was there with a number of her authors.


Caro was there.

Adding to the entertainment was Eurovision, which a large crowd watched after the gala dinner. Yrsa and I have a long history of watching it, always in different locations, texting each other with our take on each performance. For the first time, we were in the same room. Yrsa always dresses up for Eurovision evening, and this year was no different, although she was very subdued by her standards.

Yrsa in her glamorous silver Eurovision dress

I moderated one panel, titled Divided Society: Hate Crimes and Social Factors with panelists Kia Abdullah (Next of Kin), Antony Dunford (Hunted), Sarah Sultoon (The Shot), and Holly Watt (The Hunt and the Kill). The discussion ranged from the ethics of news gathering to rhino poaching; from access to medicines to the stresses between women with and without children. I recommend all of the books mentioned above, not only because they are good reads, but also because they raise very uncomfortable issues. 

I also had the good fortune to be on two other panels: one about writing two series and the other, moderate by Zoē, on the world of thrillers. 

A highlight of the conference was the gala dinner - for two reasons. First, Zoē was Toastrix and did a superb job of managing the evening with class, panache, and a few groaner jokes (“Never date an apostrophe. They’re so possessive.”). Well done, Zoē. You were great. Second, Caro was my date. 'Nuff said! 


Toastric Zoë

I am a great fan of Crimefest. It is small relative to Bouchercon and has a wonderful sense of community. Even if it is your first time, you will be warmly welcomed.

One side note: one of the organisers of Crimefest, Adrian Muller, had warned the manager of the conference hotel that crime writers enjoy a tipple or ten. Unfortunately, when that manager left his position, he neglected to pass that information on to the new manager. Guess what? The hotel ran out of booze! The situation was so dire that the new manager had to go foraging at local supermarkets to find more wine. The situation was saved, but I would hate to have been around the following night (Sunday), when a large group of people was going to check in for an event.

Second, the Danube!

Throughout Crimefest I was exceedingly careful due to COVID. I haven't had it, as far as I know, and the river boat trip promised testing every day. I definitely did not want to be isolated in the engine room or thrown overboard if I tested positive. 

I had a scare just as we started down the Danube from Budapest - about four days after the gala dinner in Bristol.  I started to get a sore throat, runny nose, sneezes, etc. I spent much of the day worrying that I was going to test positive. Fortunately I didn't, and my malaise turned out to be nothing more than a nasty cold.

So what are my big take-aways from my river trip that started in Budapest and ended in Bucharest? 

First, the Danube is bigger and longer than I realised. It is 2850 kms (1777 miles) long in total, second only to the Volga in Europe. It is wide, sometimes reaching 5 or 6 kms across; and it is narrow, slimming to less than 200m in the Great Kazan Gorge in the Iron Gates region. I was also surprised that most of it is tree-lined.

Great Kazan gorge - narrow and fast-flowing

Rock sculpture of Decebalus - 55 metres high (18-0 feet). Romania's Mount Rushmore

Second, I was astonished at how many places on the southern bank were hilly, while on the northern side there were vast flat plains. These reminded me a lot of the area of East Central Illinois where I lived for many years - miles and miles of flatness with rich, black soil.

Flat, flat, flat

Third, the trip highlighted my ignorance about most of the countries that Danube flows through. I know a little about Germany and Austria, but virtually nothing about Slovakia, Hungary, Croatia, Serbia, Romania, Bulgaria, Moldova and Ukraine, I didn't know much about their immediate histories, let alone their long-term past. Nor did I know much, if anything, about their populations, major crops, industries, and so on. It was a real eye-opener.

Fourth, I started understanding why there have been so many conflicts in the countries around the Danube. For thousands of years, the Danube has provided access to what is now Europe, to its riches and to its soil. Everyone who was anyone thought they should have a share and so invaded. East met west along the Danube, both culturally and with respect to religion. Christian versus Muslim; the Austro-Hungarian empire versus the Ottoman Empire; Western influence versus Eastern influence.

Fifth, I learnt more about the role the Soviets played after World War II and how despised they generally were. It is astonishing in so many of these countries how many grey apartment buildings there are - ugly and very poorly built. Many times I heard people remark that during Soviet rule, all people were equal, but some more equal than others. The more-equals lived in beautiful homes expropriated from the haves. Yet there are people who still hanker after the old times, when they were looked after. A poorly constructed flat is better than no flat at all. Like South Africa, these countries will be better off when people my age die off. We need youth running countries, not old, usually-white, male fuddy-duddies.

Sixth, I was very impressed by Budapest, Belgrade and Bucharest. I had expected to like Budapest, which I did, but not these other two cities. 

St Stephen's Basilica, Budapest

Buda Castle complex on the Buda side off the river

Palace of the Parliament in Bucharest built by dictator Nicolae Ceausescu

I am running out of time again - have to catch a plane back to Copenhagen. Here are a few more photos. If you haven't spent time on the Danube, I highly recommend that you do. It is a wonderful. eye-opening part of the world.

Dohány Street Synagogue, Budapest


I struggled to keep my yarmulke on

Church of St Sava in Belgrade, Serbia

Gigantic interior of Church of St Sava

I made it to the airport in Bucharest and am awaiting my flight to Copehhagen.

I also learnt about the various Christian Orthodox churches and the differences they have with Roman Catholic Churches: for example, people stand, not sit; singing is always a cappella; there is no person with equivalent powers to the Pope; and all the various Orthodox Churches are basically the same. So the Greek Orthodox Church is the same as the Serbian Orthodox Church. And so on.

And there were lots of castles and forts and palaces everywhere, some in use, some repurposed, and some derelict. Maybe pictures another time. Maybe not.

Whoops, our flight has been called. Cheers.