Saturday, November 30, 2013

Truth, Chicago's National Hellenic Museum, and Me.

I hope you all had a wonderful Thanksgiving filled with love and prayers for world peace.  Perhaps you even tried some of the recipes I suggested in my post last week.


I’m not sure how much longer I can go on with my avowed “say only positive things” Saturday posts. The restraint it calls for is taxing my soul—perhaps the only thing left for the Greek government to tax of its people.


Okay, well, I’m not completely shut down. This coming Thursday at 6:30PM I’ve been invited to speak at the Hellenic National Museum in Chicago, in Greektown to be specific (it's centered in the photo headlining this post).  It’s quite an honor, and I hope to do it justice by speaking the truth.

But I won’t be speaking it in Greek. No, not because Greek isn’t suitable for such tasks, but because I’m most comfortable expressing the nuances of truth in English. Yes, you read me right and you shouldn’t be surprised; that’s the way the world’s always run.  In fact, these days 24/7 Cable TV has virtually institutionalized the concept of nuanced truth.

Okay, so I’m teasing, I always tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. BUT, I’ll never forget being once told by a wizened lawyer, “Always tell the truth, but there are many ways to tell it so choose wisely.”

It’s not always as bad a concept as it sounds. Think about the many ways to truthfully answer your spouse’s question, “Am I fat?”  Or even the more direct, “Have I gained weight?”

If you can’t think of the multiple ways to answer that, I suggest you check out “Dale Carnegie” in Wikipedia (my source of choice for this article) for info on his most famous work.

But I digress. I’m here to talk about the National Hellenic Museum, Hellenic of course meaning Greek.

The museum is the second oldest American institution dedicated to displaying and celebrating the cultural contributions of Greeks and Greek Americans.  The oldest, by two weeks, is the Hellenic Cultural Museum in Salt Lake City…yes, SLC.
Antiquities in the Museum's collection

There is a Kismet aspect to the invitation.  I read that part of the Museum’s stated purpose is “to promote understanding of the rich cultural traditions of ancient and contemporary Greece,” an objective I share in my writing.  But, wait, there’s more. 

Founded in 1983, the Museum rebranded itself in 2009, changing its name from Hellenic Museum and Cultural Center to its current one.  In 1983, I first set foot in Greece, and in 2009 rebranded myself from NYC lawyer to Mykonos writer when my first Greece-based novel came out in the US!

Sort of spooky when you think about it.

The Museum has another purpose:  to preserve the Greek-American immigrant experience.  Approximately 450,000 Greeks came to America between 1890 and 1920, and the Museum’s “Homer Oral History Project” seeks to save those memories as part of its goal of “connecting generations through Greek history, art and culture.”
An Exhibition

Two years ago the Museum moved into a spanking new 40,000-square-foot facility for housing its collection of items from 1200 BCE through today; maintaining its library and archive of books, manuscripts, letters, and periodicals; hosting exhibitions of Greek art, history, culture, and thought; and holding classes and events.

Bottom line: I’m really looking forward to next Wednesday, especially the major Christmas party scheduled to follow my event.  That’s the sort of Greek tradition I personally try to follow every chance I get—party hearty and have a good time. :)


And Happy Hanukah.


Friday, November 29, 2013

Modern Slavery

I remember listening to a trivia quiz on TV and the question was ‘In which country is it
legal to have a slave?’ The answer was the UK, simply because there is no law against it. No doubt we have always considered ourselves far too sophisticated to indulge in such an evil practice.

I’m not sure that history supports that but the recent discovery of three woman kept as slaves in London has resulted in the home secretary  introducing  the Modern Slavery Bill which will increase the sentence for human traffickers to life imprisonment. The problem is so bad there is now going to be an Anti-Slavery Commissioner.
Anti-slavery legislation needed in this country in 2013?
Tragically, it is so.

The three woman, a Malaysian aged 69, an Irish woman aged 57 and a 30 year old British woman are believed to have suffered "emotional and physical abuse" at the hands of their 'captors'. The 30 year old is believed to have been in servitude all her life. As I write this they are being formally interviewed by police for the first time – one month after they gained their freedom. One of them, thought to be the 57 year old, rang the ‘Freedom’ charity to say they were being held against their will in a house in Brixton. The neighbours now say that in the past they had seen signs held up at the window but the writing was too faint to read. They were asking for help. Like many victims of slavery nowadays, they were being hidden in plain sight.

A man of Indian origin, Mr Balakrishnan 73, and woman of Thai origin, 67 have been released on bail. Seemingly they were leaders of a political collective which the older two women may have joined voluntarily many years ago.  They have never been reported missing. Mr Balakrishnan founded his group The Workers’ Institute of Marxism-Leninism-Mao Zedong Thought in 1974 after he was expelled from the national committee of another Communist group.
So he thought he was running some kind of left wing commune, but without the ‘All men –and women- are equal' bit.
Mr Balakrishnan has been in the news before. In 1997  a coroner criticised the collective over the death of Sian Davies, 44,   who had apparently opened a window on a cold Christmas Eve night and fallen to the street below. She died from her injuries seven months later.
The dead woman had been a member of the collective for 24 years.
The 30 year old woman in the current incident has been named as Rosie Davies, and there is speculation that she might be Sian’s daughter.

That is just one case of course but slaves do walk among us. They supply labour for  shops and supermarkets, they work in fields, factories or nail bars, they are  locked up in brothels and peep out from behind curtains, looking onto an ordinary street, to a life they will never know.

                                                             From The Guardian
The figures show there has been a significant and disturbing increase in cases of slavery, captivity and human trafficking in Britain in recent years. The UK Human Trafficking Centre, part of the National Crime Agency, has produced figures showing that in 2012 it had identified 2,255 potential victims of human trafficking - an increase 9% on the previous year.
778 of them were found to be have been trafficked or were awaiting a conclusive decision on their status. That’s over 400 people.  24% of them were children, and if my maths is right that’s about 100 kids.  Victims are most likely to be Romanian, Polish, Nigerian, Vietnamese and Hungarian. Some 71% of the potential victims were adults, while 24% were children.  The most prevalent types of exploitation is of course sexual - 35% with labour exploitation a close second at 23%.
Of the child victims, 28% reported being sexually exploited, and 24% reported criminal exploitation. There are no figures for 2013 as they are not yet available, but the National Referral Mechanism (NRM) statistics (a process used to identify trafficked individuals) show that from April to June this year, 383 potential victims of trafficking from 52 countries had been referred to the NRM.
As of 1st October another 114 potential victims were added to the list.
And I bet that is a very small tip of a very big iceberg.

If the figures aren’t bad enough, the details are horrendous. A man was jailed for 12 years for assaulting and raping a woman prisoner after she was snatched from Slovakia and trafficked to Lancashire. Another couple brought a deaf girl from Pakistan and kept her in their cellar. Another trafficked a 10-year-old girl to the UK, then repeatedly raped and kept her as a servant for nearly a decade. A professional woman (believed to be the first person convicted of trafficking) bought a Tanzanian woman into the country to work as her domestic slave; 18-hour days. She was convicted under the Coroners and Justice Act 2009, which had just come into force and this act created a new offence of holding another person in slavery or servitude or requiring them to perform forced or compulsory labour. The new Anti-Slavery law goes much further.
                                          The caravan site, courtesy of The Times
In September 2011, Operation Netwing raided a caravan site in Bedfordshire, and freed 24 people who were being held against their will in filthy and cramped conditions. Some of the men (Poland, Latvians, British, Lithuanians) had been held there for 15 years. The one thing they had in common was that they were all vulnerable. The traveller family who ‘owned’ the caravan site had prayed on those queuing for food at soup kitchens, approaching the homeless sleeping in doorways.
Five members of the traveller family were jailed in December last year.

Caro Ramsay  29/11/2013

Thursday, November 28, 2013

The Big Five - part 3

The first of Africa’s Big Five that I wrote about was my favourite animal, the elephant – full of character, family oriented, with a great sense of humour.  The second was my favourite cat, the leopard – beautiful, cunning, difficult to see, and a great tree-climber.  

This week I am going to tell you about my least favourite of the Big Five – the African or Cape buffalo – a surly beast if there ever was one.

The Cape buffalo is a large animal, but not as large as its Asian counterpart.  It can weigh up to 900 kgs (2000 lbs), stand 5’ 6” (1.6 metres) at the shoulder, and be 11 ft (3.2 metres) long (excluding the tail). 

African or Cape buffalo with Oxpeckers (the birds)

Its most impressive physical feature are its horns.  A large male buffalo’s horns have a very distinctive shape and can be over a metre wide (40 inches).  The horns are unusual in that they are fused in the middle.  I am told that where they join, called the boss, they are so hard that they will stop a bullet – not that I’ve ever tested this theory.

Buffalo stand with their heads very low (maybe this is because of the heavy horns?) and are definitely very menacing when looking straight at you. 

"I'm watching you!"

Buffalo normally live in herds of varying sizes, from a mere handful to thousands.  Michael and I were once on the river road in Chobe National Park in Botswana and had to stop the vehicle because a herd of buffalo decided to cross just in front of us.  Forty-five minutes later the last one passed, the first being long out of sight.  We estimated that there must have been around a thousand in that herd.

Large herd

Herd with young

Buffalo like to keep cosy

Buffalo are also regarded as one of the most dangerous animals in Africa, particularly when solitary or injured, killing around 200 people annually.  When wounded by a hunter, they are reputed to lie in ambush, waiting for the hunter to follow them, or circle around behind and charge from the rear.

Hemingway must have felt like a real man after this.

But I have to admit that buffalo have some appealing features too.  For example, when one of a herd is attacked by a predator, say a lion, the others will come to its assistance and are quite capable of killing the lion and driving away the pride.  If you click here, you can watch one of the most amazing amateur videos I’ve ever seen (over 73 million views on YouTube as of today).  A poor baby buffalo is first attacked by a crocodile, then by a lion.  The buffalo herd intervenes with amazing results.  It is worth every second of the eight minutes it will take to view the video.

A lion is no match for a herd of buffalo.

There is also a soft side to buffalo – maybe.  When a group of friends and I were in Hwange in Zimbabwe, a herd of about 40 buffalo were sauntering towards a waterhole.  Suddenly they were attacked by a Blacksmith Lapwing – a smallish bird - that repeatedly flew at the leading animal.  The Lapwing was trying to protect its nest, which was on the ground in the herd’s path.  After a few minutes, the herd decided to deviate and moved around the nest.  It was probably not worth the aggravation to continue to be harassed rather than showing empathy for the bird.

Blacksmith Lapwing - very protective of its nest

Although the buffalo will never win a beauty contest, there is something very special about large herds of them.  My friend Mette and I were at Ingwelala next to the Kruger National Park recently and were surrounded by a herd of about 300 buffalo, munching the grass and slowly walking along.  There was never any threat to us, and being in the midst of so many huge animals was magic.

I have also seen several hundred buffalo all dive into a waterhole at the same time – buffalo love to be in water and mud.  It was delightful seeing them frolic, rolling onto their backs or submerging completely.  Two-thousand pound little kids.  

Buffalo love mud baths.

Actually, there is more to their like of mud than just pleasure.  Coating themselves with mud, letting it dry, then have it fall off, takes the ticks off their hide.  Buffalo are also often hosts to birds called Oxpeckers that accomplish the same thing.  The Oxpeckers ride the buffalo and eat the ticks.  Finally, another bird, the Cattle Egret, often follows herds of buffalo, eating the insects that are disturbed as the buffalo walk by.

Red-billed Oxpeckers eat ticks off buffalo. 

Next time, I’ll write about the most endangered of the Big Five – the rhino – which is in danger of extinction because people in countries like Vietnam and China think that its horn has medicinal and/or aphrodisiacal properties.  Bah humbug.

Stan - Thursday

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

The upside of scaremongering

I am in Caen Normandy to attend a festival called Boréalis. Unfortunately I have the flu and am not exactly chipper, having managed to thread a roll of toilet paper onto my arm for nose blowing convenience. But all is not lost. I have Tamiflu.

Does anyone remember the scare some years ago when a bird flu pandemic was going to take down civilisation? I do not know how this played out in other countries but in Iceland we were all certain we would die. It occurred during the bank crash, with the combined foreign currency available to the country amounting to about four and a half Happy Meals. So when news came of a medicine called Tamiflu that could save the day there was much ado about how much we should get. I recall that we were finally able to buy about 200 000 units by some miracle – or possibly by maxing out all government credit cards. And everyone became depressed that we were not able to buy the 310 000 units needed for everyone to get a box. It was probably at that point that the crisis really hit in.

The Tamiflu boxes were sold in pharmacies but soon after they went up for sale the bird flu scare died down. So the Icelandic authorities had over half of their stock unsold and all of the angry voices raised in protest of there not being a box for one and all became quiet.

The unsold Tamiflu stock was a problem and officials entered an undercover media campaign to get people to buy some, the surgeon general being interviewed on the news saying that you could never be sure with these things and that the bird flu could at any time come back, swords blazing. I seem to recall there being talk of it being good to have at home, bird flu or no bird flu, and that no home should be without it. Having been at the pharmacy the day they started selling it I did not need to feel bad, we had a box for everyone in my family. We also stocked up on food. And on cigarettes. Our home had a bunker feel to it. But nothing happened. Thankfully I guess, although we were a bit annoyed at all the fuss for nothing.

Actually, a few months after the bird flu scare, I would never leave the country without a Tamiflu box, having been totally brainwashed that hygiene in the food industry abroad was highly suspect and it was only a matter of time until I would catch bird flu and die an antagonising death on foreign soil. Leaving Iceland was a suicide mission of sorts. I would have been more likely to eat my passport than chicken when traveling.

Years have now passed and my Tamiflu boxes have simply gathered dust in our drug cabinet. Until last year, around this time. My family was going to the USA for Christmas shopping and I got ill. Remembering the Tamiflu I phoned my father who is a doctor and asked him if I should take it to get better. He said absolutely not so I took it anyway. And guess what – I got better. Not a 100% but able to travel and shop.

So this time around I saved myself the phone call and just took it. I was fuelled on by horror stories of this particular flu that is now going around, a co-worker mentioned being deaf for two days and another having his nose begin to disintegrate via peeling. Not exactly good for promotional appearances.

So like last year – I am not feeling great but OK. Thanks to Tamiflu. Thanks to scaremongering. Thanks to the birdflu.

But we only have three boxes left now. Do they still make this stuff?

Yrsa - Wednesday

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

The Catherinettes, Lorettes and redlights in Pigalle

Yesterday was St. Catherine's Day - a day once widely celebrated by young women ' the Catherinettes'.  These were single ladies over 25 afraid of becoming 'old maids' who would attend church and pray to St. Catherine for husbands.  And they wore amazing hats. They had a lot of fun doing this, rumor goes.  Few ladies celebrate this anymore but there's always a wink and nod from the old timers. Karl Lagerfeld, supposedly gives his 'midinettes' seamstresses little Chanel gifts and probably a lot of companies celebrate with joke gifts and the ladies use it as an excuse for drinks after work.
In Pigalle just up from the Square Montholon with the Catherinettes you'll find the area of former 'Lorettes'. The 'Loretttes' were the kept ladies installed by their patrons in the area surrounding the church Notre Dame de Lorette. The 'Lorettes,' with their apartments, were a step up from the ladies who walked the streets a few blocks up on boulevard de Clichy the hub of red-light Pigalle.

Pigalle is back in the news after a op-ed piece in the NYtimes titled 'How Hipsters Ruined Paris'. This caused a big houha and raised controversy in the blog world - there were some great counter argument blogs - but this op-ed hit me differently than others. For one, the author titled the piece 'How Hipsters Ruined Paris' when he wrote specifically of Pigalle in the 9th arrondissement - the setting of my next book - not 'Paris'. He mentions running out for a bottle of Pouilly something - and he's not a hipster?  He can't figure out the Asian massage parlor across the street from him is a brothel. He likens Pigalle to being Brooklynized - with kale chips.  No local life or colorful red-light ambiance to speak of  since it's being ruined by hipster expats who've taken over the food scene and brought about upmarket clothing shops.

Puhleeezee. S'il vous plaît.
Some say seedy Pigalle area has been transformed into one of the hippest spots in the city. Located on the border of the 9th and 18th arrondissements, the capital’s red light district is dotted with sex shops, topless cabarets - including the famous Moulin Rouge - and euphemistically named “hostess” bars. But recently, its southern area, which some are dubbing SoPi - South Pigalle - has seen an influx of trendy cocktail bars that are making this neighbourhood a hot nightlife destination in Paris. 
Le Carmen started this trend. Opened a few years ago in the decadent Baroque setting of composer Bizet’s former residence - and from whose famous opera it gets its name - the bar comes complete with Neoclassical columns and sparkling chandeliers – but with a rock and roll vibe. Its eclectic programme features music ranging from 1960s to electro, and events such as fashion week parties and live tattooing draw in a boho clientele.
But Paris travels on it's stomach, as Napoleon said of armies. The Mairie of the 9th arrondisement spearheaded a campaign this year to bring a fishmonger back to rue des Martyrs - a shopping street -- after the former retired and closed down. The residents wanted fresh fish. It's all about food in the quartiers and below Pigalle, long in a downturn until the 90's when French Bobo's - bourgeous boheme's moved in because it was central and then cheap with big apartments - formerly the abode of the 'Lorettes'.

This was years before some foodie expats moved in. To me the 9th not only has a history of painters - Toulouse Lautrec, Degas, Vuillard - who all lived on rue de Douai 
but the classical music composers Berlioz, Chopin, Lizst who lived there as well. 
While it rubs me the wrong way that this writer has only lived in Pigalle since 2011 and sprouts off in a NYT op-ed - that's his opinion. My friends Annie-Laure and Claude her partner would roll up their eyes and ask 'has he been on our street, rue Chaptal, hasn't he seen the other side of Pigalle - the daytime family scene until the night world of Pigalle descends at dark?' Or visited the guitar stores on the infamous rue Victor Masse, a musician's valhalla, or attended one of the 13 thriving theatres ( from tiny, to small to mega seating like Casino de Paris) playing stage pieces every night? No kale chips here.
Cara - Tuesday

Monday, November 25, 2013

Food of the Gods

My subject today is inspired by a comment on last Monday’s post by our reader—Kathy D.  She and I share a love for “the sacred food.”  For many years now, I have called chocolate my drug of choice.  When asked to take sides in discussions of religion, I claim to worship IxCacao, the Mayan goddess of chocolate.  With the holidays coming and the opportunities for chocolate consumption—not to say worship—increasing, it seems the right time to take up this subject.

The beginnings of the human race’s relationship with chocolate are shrouded in prerecorded history.  There is evidence that our love affair with it began in Mesoamerica as early as 1900 B.C.  Mayan legend offers a prayer to the goddess: “O IxCacao, see my tears and come to my aid.”  Now that I know it, I am going to repeat it in times of need.  And then eat some of her favorite food as part of my rite.  Why not?  As we say in New York, it couldn’t hurt.

The ancients in Central America believed that chocolate has mystical and healing powers.  They drank it.  An Aztec myth says Questzalcoatl, their god of agriculture, brought them the cocoa tree from Paradise to give them wisdom and power.  They called it “bitter water” and evidently were also the first to combine it with honey and vanilla.  Both the Maya and the Aztecs used the drink as part of religious ceremonies.  The Maya prescribed chocolate for fevers, coughs, and discomfort during pregnancy.

The cacao bean grows on a tree that started out, in prehistoric times, growing wild in the forests, not only of Central America but also in South America, Africa, and parts of Asia.  Its botanical name, Theobroma cacao means “food of the gods.”

Chocolate is big business now, but so it also was in Mayan times.  Their cosmology included a god—Ychaua—who was the patron of the cocoa merchants.   The Aztecs used two precious forms of currency:  gold and cocoa beans.  Columbus brought the first beans to Europe, but he experienced them only as a medium of exchange.  Funny money!  No Europeans knew what to do with them until Moctezuma gave the sacred drink to Cortes.  The explorer brought back to Spain everything needed to prepare the drink, but the monks there thought the substance too powerful for the common person.  They kept it a secret in their monasteries and served it only to the nobility.

It took an Italian, Antonio Carletti, in the early 1600’s, to bring the drink to the common folk.  A century later, chocolate houses were the rage all over Europe, but then in 17th century England and 18th Century France, the places were condemned as hotbeds of sedition and the drink called a dangerous drug.

We owe its ubiquitous availability today to a Dutch chemist named Johannes Van Houten, who figured out how to use a hydraulic press to make cocoa powder, and to a Brit named John Cadbury who emulsified the powder into the first chocolate bars.  I love those guys!

Chocolate is now world wide.  These days, it is also grown outside Central America.  In fact, almost half of the current supply comes from Africa, from the Cote D’Ivoire.

I commune with the goddess by taking my chocolate in almost any form available, but I prefer creamy bittersweet bars.  I try to never run out, because I never know when the need for a “fix” might hit me.  Chocolate satisfaction can come in many forms.  For a short time, I found on sale a Haagen Dazs flavor called Mayan Chocolate, bitter-sweet with cinnamon.  I loved it.  But I never find it anymore.  I guess there were not enough of my coreligionists in the neighborhood to make it worth the while of nearby stores to stock it.  The chocolate truffles from our local Lilac Chocolates are a huge favorite.  On a recent trip to Philadelphia, my daughter and her husband brought me a box of chocolate figs—sweet dried figs stuffed with truffle cream and coated with dark, dark chocolate.  Taken in very small doses, they lifted my sprits for weeks!  I wonder if they are sold by mail order.  Having described them, I want some NOW!
Let’s end with a clip of a chocolate lover’s film—Chocolat.  I hope you have some of the sacred substance handy so you can enjoy it while watching this!


Annamaria - Monday

Sunday, November 24, 2013

Quirky keyboard

Quirky. That’s the first word that springs to mind when I think of Iceland. Raw and beautiful, sure, but quirky most of all.

I love the sly sense of humour that comes across so well from the people, the friendliness, and the laid back attitude.

For someone who’s used to travelling to the States and being grilled by Immigration on the way in, the bare glance given to my passport at Keflavik was a surprise, the way the bus driver forgot to apply the handbrake when he stopped to let someone out on a hill on the way to our hotel, the way we were told to leave coats hanging on an open rack because “there is no crime in Iceland” was all a delight.

Of course, considering I am in Rekjavík for Iceland Noir, Iceland’s first festival of crime fiction, that’s a bit of a drawback. Still, better for all the crime to be committed on the page than on the streets—especially considering the long dark winter nights that are the current norm.

Getting to see fellow Murder Is Everywhere blogger Yrsa Sigurðardóttir is one of the highlights, but everything about this small country (and I’m talking population here—only around 325,000 people in total, most of whom live in or around the capital city) is a joyful experience.

I particularly liked the way they offered to sell you Icelandic Fresh Air at one of the gift shops, that the taxi drivers take a casual short cut through a supermarket car park to avoid waiting at traffic lights, and that there’s a sign in my hotel room saying that although the name Rekjavík translates to Smoky Bay because of the steam from the hot springs, smoking in my room was not allowed.

Maybe it’s the fact that at 10am you have to resist the urge to whisper in the streets because it feels like nobody is up yet, but at 3am the following morning they’re all still partying in the bars and restaurants.

Quirkiness presents itself in the way a bit of string is all that separates you from the 100degree water at the Geysir, and a smilingly delivered warning not to get wet. Or not to stand too near the edge of the drop-off into the freezing glacier-fed Gullfoss waterfall.

As I write this I have moderated one panel, for which I had to demonstrate a certain amount of moderation, and am waiting to appear on another panel, for which I am allowed to show no moderation at all. Later we have a trip laid on to try to capture the elusive Northern Lights.

Tomorrow, all too soon, I fly home to what will probably be a colder climate, with less humour and more rain. But a little bit of me will always remain in Iceland. I expected to be interested. Instead I find myself enthralled.

This week's Word of the Week is blamestorming, which is to sit around in a group discussing why a deadline was missed or a project failed, and who was responsible.